Page 14 of The Last Juror

On Monday, June 22, all but eight of the hundred jurors arrived for the trial of Danny Padgitt. As we soon found out, four were dead and four had simply vanished. For the most part, the rest looked very anxious. Baggy said that usually jurors have no idea what kind of case they might be selected to decide when they arrive. Not so with the Padgitt trial. Every breathing soul in Ford County knew that the big day had finally come.

Few things draw a crowd in a small town like a good murder trial, and the courtroom was full long before 9 A.M. The prospective jurors filled one side, spectators the other. The old balcony practically sagged above us. The walls were lined with people. As a show of strength, Sheriff Coley had every available uniformed body milling around, looking important, doing nothing productive. What a perfect time to pull a bank heist, I thought.

Baggy and I were in the front row. He had convinced the Circuit Court clerk that we were entitled to press credentials, thus special seating. Next to me was a reporter from the newspaper in Tupelo, a pleasant gentleman who reeked of cheap pipe tobacco. I filled him in on the details of the murder, off the record. He seemed impressed with my knowledge.

The Padgitts were there in full force. They sat in chairs pulled close to the defense table and huddled around Danny and Lucien Wilbanks like the den of thieves they really were. They were arrogant and sinister and I couldn't help but hate every one of them. I didn't know them by name; few people did. But as I watched them I wondered which one had been the incompetent arsonist who'd sneaked into our printing room with gallons of gasoline. I had my pistol in my briefcase. I'm sure they had theirs close by. A false move here or there and an old-fashioned gunfight would erupt. Throw in Sheriff Coley and his poorly trained but trigger-happy boys, and half the town would get wiped out.

I caught a few stares from the Padgitts, but they were much more worried about the jurors than me. They watched them closely as they filed into the courtroom and took their instructions from the clerk. The Padgitts and their lawyers looked at lists that they had found somewhere. They compared notes.

Danny was nicely but casually dressed in a white long-sleeved shirt and a pair of starched khakis. As instructed by Wilbanks, he was smiling a lot, as if he were really a nice kid whose innocence was about to be revealed.

Across the aisle, Ernie Gaddis and his smaller crew were likewise observing the prospective jurors. Gaddis had two assistants, one a paralegal and one a part-time prosecutor named Hank Hooten. The paralegal carried the files and briefcases. Hooten seemed to do little but just be there so Ernie would have someone to confer with.

Baggy leaned over as if it was time to whisper. "That guy there, brown suit," he said, nodding at Hooten. "He was screwin' Rhoda Kassellaw."

I was shocked and my face showed it. I jerked to the right and looked at Baggy. He nodded smugly and said what he always said when he had the scoop on something really nasty. "That's what I'm tellin' you," he whispered. This meant that he had no doubts. Baggy was often wrong but never in doubt.

Hooten appeared to be about forty with prematurely gray hair, nicely dressed, somewhat handsome. "Where's he from?" I whispered. The courtroom was noisy as we waited for Judge Loopus.

"Here. He does some real estate law, low-pressure stuff. A real jerk. Been divorced a couple of times, always on the prowl."

"Does Gaddis know his assistant was seeing the victim?"

"Hell no. Ernie would pull him from the case."

"You think Wilbanks knows?"

"Nobody knows," Baggy said with even greater smugness. It was as if he had personally caught them in bed, then kept it to himself until that very moment in the courtroom. I wasn't sure I believed him.

Miss Callie arrived a few minutes before nine. Esau escorted her into the courtroom, then had to leave when he couldn't find a seat. She checked in with the clerk and was placed in the third row; she was given a questionnaire to fill out. She looked around for me but there were too many people between us. I counted four other blacks in the pool.

A bailiff bellowed for us to rise, and it sounded like a stampede. Judge Loopus told us to sit, and the floor shook. He went straight to work and appeared to be in good spirits. He had a courtroom full of voters and he was up for reelection in two years, though he had never had an opponent. Six jurors were excused because they were over the age of sixty-five. Five were excused for medical reasons. The morning began to drag. I couldn't take my eyes off Hank Hooten. He certainly had the look of a ladies' man.

When the preliminary questions were over, the panel was down to seventy-nine duly qualified jurors. Miss Callie was now in the second row, not a good sign if she wanted to avoid jury service. Judge Loopus yielded the floor to Ernie Gaddis, who introduced himself to the panel again and explained in great length that he was there on behalf of the State of Mississippi, the taxpayers, the citizens who had elected him to prosecute those who commit crimes. He was the people's lawyer.

He was there to prosecute Mr. Danny Padgitt, who had been indicted by a grand jury, made up of their fellow citizens, for the rape and murder of Rhoda Kassellaw. He asked if it was possible that anyone had not heard something about the murder. Not a single hand went up.

Ernie had been talking to juries for thirty years. He was friendly and smooth and gave the impression that you could discuss almost anything with him, even in open court. He moved slowly into the area of intimidation. Has anyone outside your family contacted you about this case? A stranger? Has a friend tried to influence your opinion? Your summons was mailed to you; the jury list is locked under seal. No one is supposed to know that you're a potential juror. Has anyone mentioned it to you? Anyone threatened you? Anyone offered you anything? The courtroom was very quiet as Ernie led them through these questions.

No one raised a hand; none was expected. But Ernie was successful in conveying the message that these people, the Padgitts, had been moving through the shadows of Ford County. He hung an even darker cloud above them, and he left the impression that he, as the District Attorney and the people's lawyer, knew the truth.

He began his finish with a question that cut through the air like a rifle shot. "Do all of you folks understand that jury tampering is a crime?"

They seemed to understand.

"And that I, as the prosecutor, will pursue, indict, bring to trial, and do my utmost to convict any person involved with jury tampering. Do you understand this?"

When Ernie finished we all felt as though we'd been tampered with. Anyone who'd talked about the case, which of course was every person in the county, seemed in danger of being indicted by Ernie and hounded to the grave.

"He's effective," whispered the reporter from Tupelo.

Lucien Wilbanks began with a lengthy and quite dull lecture about the presumption of innocence and how it is the foundation of American jurisprudence. Regardless of what they'd read in the local newspaper, and here he managed a scornful glance in my general direction, his client, sitting right there at the moment, was an innocent man. And if anyone felt otherwise, then he or she was duty bound to raise a hand and say so.

No hands. "Good. Then by your silence you're telling the Court that you, all of you, can look at Danny Padgitt right now and say he is innocent. Can you do that?" He hammered them on this for far too long, then shifted to the burden of proof with another lecture on the State's monumental challenge to prove his client guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

These two sacred protections - the presumption of innocence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt - were granted to all of us, including the jurors, by the very wise men who wrote our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

We were approaching noon and everybody was anxious for a break. Wilbanks seemed to miss this and he kept rattling on. When he sat down at twelve-fifteen, Judge Loopus announced that he was starving. We would recess until two o'clock.

Baggy and I had a sandwich upstairs in the Bar Room with several of his cronies, three aging washed-up lawyers who hadn't missed a trial in years. Baggy really wanted a glass of whiskey, but for some odd reason felt the call of duty. His pals did not. The clerk had given us a list of jurors as they were currently seated. Miss Callie was number twenty-two, the first black and the third female.

It was the general feeling that the defense would not challenge her because she was black, and blacks, according to the prevailing theory, were sympathetic to those accused of crimes. I wasn't sure how a black person could be sympathetic to a white thug like Danny Padgitt, but the lawyers were unshakable in their belief that Lucien Wilbanks would gladly take her.

Under the same theory, the prosecution would exercise one of its arbitrary, peremptory challenges and strike her from the panel. Not so, said Chick Elliot, the oldest and drunkest of the gang. "I'd take her if I were prosecuting," he argued, then knocked back a potent shot of bourbon.

"Why?" Baggy asked.

"Because we know her so well, now, thanks to the Times. She came across as a sensible, God-fearing, Bible-quoting patriot, who raised all those kids with a heavy hand and a swift kick in the ass if they screwed up."

"I agree," said Tackett, the youngest of the three. Tackett, though, had a tendency to agree with whatever the prevailing theory happened to be. "She'd make an ideal juror for the prosecution. Plus, she's a woman. It's a rape case. I'd take all the women I could get."

They argued for an hour. It was my first session with them, and I suddenly understood how Baggy collected so many differing opinions about so many issues. Though I tried not to show it, I was deeply concerned that my long and generous stories about Miss Callie would somehow come back to haunt her.

* * *

After lunch, Judge Loopus moved into the most serious phase of questioning - the death penalty. He explained the nature of a capital offense and the procedures that would be followed, then he yielded again to Ernie Gaddis.

Juror number eleven was a member of some obscure church and he made it very clear that he could never vote to send a person to the gas chamber. Juror number thirty-four was a veteran of two wars and he felt rather strongly that the death penalty wasn't used often enough. This, of course, delighted Ernie, who singled out individual jurors and politely asked them questions about judging others and imposing the death sentence. He eventually made it to Miss Callie. "Now, Mrs. Ruffin, I've read about you, and you seem to be a very religious woman. Is this correct?"

"I do love the Lord, yes sir," she answered, as clear as always.

"Are you hesitant to sit in judgment of another human?"

"I am, yes sir."

"Do you want to be excused?"

"No sir. It's my duty as a citizen to be here, same as all these other folks."

"And if you're on the jury, and the jury finds Mr. Padgitt guilty of these crimes, can you vote to put him to death?"

"I certainly wouldn't want to."

"My question was, 'Can you?' "

"I can follow the law, same as these other folks. If the law says that we should consider the death penalty, then I can follow the law."

* * *

Four hours later, Calia H. Ruffin became the last juror chosen - the first black to serve on a trial jury in Ford County. The drunks up in the Bar Room had been right. The defense wanted her because she was black. The State wanted her because they knew her so well. Plus, Ernie Gaddis had to save his jury strikes for less-appealing characters.

Late that night I sat alone in my office working on a story about the opening day and jury selection. I heard a familiar noise downstairs. Harry Rex had a way of shoving open the front door and stomping on the wooden floors so that everybody at the Times, regardless of the time of day, knew he had arrived. "Willie boy!" he yelled from below.

"Up here," I yelled back.

He rumbled up the stairs and fell into his favorite chair. "Whatta you think of the jury?" he said. He appeared to be completely sober.

"I only know one of them," I said. "How many do you know?"

"Seven."

"You think they picked Miss Callie because of my stories?"

"Yep," he said, brutally honest as always. "Everybody's been talkin' about her. Both sides felt like they knew her. It's 1970 and we've never had a black juror. She looked as good as any. Does that worry you?"

"I guess it does."

"Why? What's wrong with servin' on a jury? It's about time we had blacks doin' it. She and her husband have always been anxious to break down barriers. Ain't like it's dangerous. Well, normally it ain't dangerous."

I hadn't talked to Miss Callie and I would not be able to do so until after the trial. Judge Loopus had ordered the jurors sequestered for the week. By then they were hiding in a motel in another town.

"Any suspicious characters on the jury?" I asked.

"Maybe. Everybody's worried about that crippled boy from out near Dumas. Fargarson. Hurt his back in a sawmill owned by his uncle. The uncle sold timber to the Padgitts many years ago. The boy has some attitude. Gaddis wanted to bump him but he ran out of challenges."

The crippled boy walked with a cane and was at least twenty-five years old. Harry Rex referred to anyone younger than himself, and especially me, as "boy."

"But with the Padgitts you never know," he continued. "Hell, they could own half the jury by now."

"You don't really believe that, do you?"

"Naw, but a hung jury wouldn't surprise me either. It might take two or three shots at this boy before Ernie gets him."

"But he will go to prison, won't he?" The thought of Danny Padgitt escaping punishment frightened me. I had invested myself in the town of Clanton, and if its justice was so corruptible then I didn't want to stay.

"They'll hang his ass."

"Good. The death penalty?"

"I'd bet on it, eventually. This is the buckle of the Bible Belt, Willie. An eye for an eye, all that crap. Loopus'll do everything he can to help Ernie get a death verdict."

I then made the mistake of asking him why he was working so late. A divorce client had left town on business, then sneaked back to catch his wife with her boyfriend. The client and Harry Rex had spent the last two hours in a borrowed pickup behind a hot-sheets motel north of town. As it turned out, the wife had two boyfriends. The story took half an hour to tell.


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