Page 16 of The Last Juror

Three of the Hocutts - Max, Wilma, and Gilma - were loitering around the garage under my apartment when Ginger and I made our exit a few hours later. I guess they wanted to meet her. They looked at her scornfully as I made cheerful introductions. I half-expected Max to say something ridiculous like, "We did not contemplate illicit sex when we leased this place to you." But nothing offensive was said, and we quickly drove to the office. She jumped in her car and disappeared.

The latest edition was stacked floor to ceiling in the front room. I grabbed a copy for a quick perusal. The headline was fairly restrained - DANNY PADGITT TRIAL BEGINS: JURY SEQUESTERED. There were no photos of the defendant. We had used enough of those already, and I wanted to save a big one for the following week when, hopefully, we could nail the little thug leaving the courthouse after receiving his death sentence. Baggy and I had filled the columns with the things we'd seen and heard during the first two days, and I was quite proud of our reporting. It was straightforward, factual, detailed, well written, and not the least bit lurid. The trial itself was big enough to carry the moment. And, truthfully, I had already learned my lesson about trying to sensationalize things. By 8 A.M. the courthouse and the square were blanketed with complimentary copies of the Times.

* * *

There were no preliminary skirmishes on Wednesday morning. At precisely 9 A.M. the jurors were led in and Ernie Gaddis called his next witness. His name was Chub Brooner, the longtime investigator for the Sheriff's department. According to both Baggy and Harry Rex, Brooner was famous for his incompetence.

To wake up the jury and captivate the rest of us, Gaddis produced the bloody white shirt Danny Padgitt was wearing the night he was arrested. It had not been washed; the splotches of blood were dark brown. Ernie gently waved it around the courtroom for all to see as he chatted with Brooner. It had been removed from the body of Danny Padgitt by a deputy named Grice, in the presence of Brooner and Sheriff Coley. Tests had revealed two types of blood - O Positive and B Positive. Further tests by the state crime lab matched the B Positive with the blood of Rhoda Kassellaw.

I watched Ginger as she looked at the shirt. After a few minutes she looked away and began writing something. Not surprisingly, she looked even better her second day in the courtroom. I was very concerned about her moods.

The shirt was ripped across the front. Danny had cut himself when he crawled out of his wrecked truck and had received twelve stitches. Brooner did a passable job of explaining this to the jury. Ernie then pulled out an easel and placed on it two enlarged photographs of the footprints found on the patio of Rhoda's home. On the exhibit table he picked up the shoes Padgitt was wearing when he arrived at the jail. Brooner stumbled through testimony that should have been much easier, but the point was made that everything matched.

Brooner was terrified of Lucien Wilbanks and began stuttering at the first question. Lucien wisely ignored the fact that Rhoda's blood was found on Danny's shirt, and chose instead to hammer Brooner on the art and science of matching up footprints. The investigator's training had not been comprehensive, he finally admitted. Lucien zeroed in on a series of ridges on the heel of the right shoe, and Brooner couldn't locate them in the print. Because of weight and motion, a heel usually leaves a better print than the rest of the sole, according to Brooner's testimony on direct. Lucien harangued him to the point of confusing everyone, and I had to admit that I was skeptical of the footprints. Not that it mattered. There was plenty of other evidence.

"Was Mr. Padgitt wearing gloves when he was arrested?" Lucien asked.

"I don't know. I didn't arrest him."

"Well, you boys took his shirt and his shoes. Did you take any gloves?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"You've reviewed the entire evidence file, right, Mr. Brooner?"

"I have."

"In fact, as chief investigator, you're very familiar with every aspect of this case, aren't you?"

"Yes sir."

"Have you seen any reference to any gloves worn by or taken from Mr. Padgitt?"

"No."

"Good. Did you dust the crime scene for fingerprints?"

"Yes."

"Routine, isn't it?"

"Yes, always."

"And of course you fingerprinted Mr. Padgitt when he was arrested, right?"

"Yes."

"Good. How many of Mr. Padgitt's fingerprints did you find at the crime scene?"

"None."

"Not a single one, did you?"

"None."

With that, Lucien picked a good moment to sit down. It was difficult to believe that the murderer could enter the house, hide there for a while, rape and murder his victim, then escape without leaving behind fingerprints. But Chub Brooner did not inspire a lot of confidence. With him in charge of the investigation, there seemed an excellent chance that dozens of fingerprints could have been missed.

Judge Loopus called for the morning recess, and as the jurors stood to leave I made eye contact with Miss Callie. Her face exploded into one huge grin. She nodded, as if to say, "Don't worry about me."

We stretched our legs and whispered about what we had just heard. I was delighted to see so many people in the courtroom reading the Times. I walked to the bar and leaned down to speak to Ginger. "You doin' okay?" I asked.

"I just want to go home," she said softly.

"How about lunch?"

"You got it."

* * *

The State's last witness was Mr. Aaron Deece. He walked to the stand shortly before 11 A.M., and we braced for his recollection of that night. Ernie Gaddis led him through a series of questions designed to personalize Rhoda and her two children. They had lived next door for seven years, perfect neighbors, wonderful people. He missed them greatly, couldn't believe they were gone. At one point Mr. Deece wiped a tear from his eye.

This was completely irrelevant to the issues at hand, and Lucien gamely allowed it for a few minutes. Then he stood and politely said, "Your Honor, this is very touching, but it's really not admissible."

"Move along, Mr. Gaddis," Judge Loopus said.

Mr. Deece described the night, the time, the temperature, the weather. He heard the panicked voice of little Michael, age five, calling his name, crying for help. He found the children outside, in their pajamas, wet with dew, in shock from fear. He took them inside where his wife put blankets on them. He got his shoes and his guns and was flying out of the house when he saw Rhoda, stumbling toward him. She was naked and, except for her face, she was completely covered in blood. He picked her up, carried her to the porch, placed her on a swing.

Lucien was on his feet, waiting.

"Did she say anything?" Ernie asked.

"Your Honor, I object to this witness testifying to anything the victim said. It's clearly heresay."

"Your motion is on file, Mr. Wilbanks. We've had our debate in chambers, and it is on the record. You may answer the question, Mr. Deece."

Mr. Deece swallowed hard, inhaled and exhaled, and looked at the jurors. "Two or three times, she said, 'It was Danny Padgitt. It was Danny Padgitt.' "

For dramatic effect, Ernie let those bullets crack through the air, then ricochet around the courtroom while he pretended to look at some notes. "You ever met Danny Padgitt, Mr. Deece?"

"No sir."

"Had you ever heard his name before that night?"

"No sir."

"Did she say anything else?"

"The last thing she said was, 'Take care of my babies.' "

Ginger was touching her eyes with a tissue. Miss Callie was praying. Several of the jurors were looking at their feet.

He finished his story - he called the Sheriff's department; his wife had the children in a bedroom behind a locked door; he took a shower because he was covered with blood; the deputies showed up, did their investigating; the ambulance came and took away the body; he and his wife stayed with the children until around two in the morning, then rode with them to the hospital in Clanton. They stayed with them there until a relative arrived from Missouri.

There was nothing in his testimony that could be challenged or impeached, so Lucien Wilbanks declined a cross-examination. The State rested, and we broke for lunch. I drove Ginger to Karaway, to the only Mexican place I knew, and we ate enchiladas under an oak tree and talked about everything but the trial. She was subdued and wanted to leave Ford County forever.

I really wanted her to stay.

* * *

Lucien Wilbanks began his defense with a little pep talk about what a nice young man Danny Padgitt really was. He had finished high school with good grades, he worked long hours in the family's timber business, he dreamed of one day running his own company. He had no police record whatsoever. His only brush with the law had been one, just one, speeding ticket when he was sixteen years old.

Lucien's persuasive skills were reasonably well honed, but he was collapsing under the weight of the effort. It was impossible to make a Padgitt appear warm and cuddly. There was quite a bit of squirming in the courtroom, some smirks here and there. But we weren't the ones deciding the case. Lucien was talking to the jurors, looking them in the eyes, and no one knew if he and his client had already locked up a vote or two.

However, Danny was not a saint. Like most handsome young men he had discovered he enjoyed the company of ladies. He had met the wrong one, though, a woman who happened to be married to someone else. Danny was with her the night Rhoda Kassellaw was murdered.

"Listen to me!" he bellowed at the jurors. "My client did not kill Miss Kassellaw! At the time of this horrible murder, he was with another woman, in her home not far from the Kassellaw place. He has an airtight alibi."

This announcement sucked the air out of the courtroom, and for a long minute we waited for the next surprise. Lucien played the drama perfectly. "This woman, his lover, will be our first witness," he said.

They brought her in moments after Lucien finished his opening remarks. Her name was Lydia Vince. I whispered to Baggy and he said he'd never heard of her; didn't know any Vinces from out in Beech Hill. There were a lot of whispers in the courtroom as folks tried to place her, and gauging from the frowns and puzzled looks and head shakes it appeared as though the woman was a complete unknown. Lucien's preliminary questions revealed that she was living in a rented house on Hurt Road back in March but was now living in Tupelo, that she and her husband were going through a divorce, that she had one child, that she grew up in Tyler County, and that she was currently unemployed. She was about thirty years old, somewhat attractive in a cheap way - short skirt, tight blouse over a big chest, bottle-blond hair - and she was utterly terrified of the proceedings.

She and Danny had been having an adulterous affair for about a year. I glanced at Miss Callie and was not surprised to see this was not sitting well.

On the night Rhoda was murdered, Danny was at her house. Malcolm Vince, her husband, was supposedly in Memphis, doing something with the boys, she really didn't know what. He was gone a lot in those days. She and Danny had sex twice and sometime around midnight he was preparing to leave when her husband's truck turned into the driveway. Danny sneaked out the rear door and disappeared.

The shock of a married woman admitting in open court that she had committed adultery was designed to convince the jury that she had to be telling the truth. No one, respectable or otherwise, would admit this. It would damage her reputation, if she cared about such things. It would certainly impact her divorce, perhaps jeopardize custody of her child. It might even allow her husband to sue Danny Padgitt for alienation of affection, though it was doubtful the jurors were thinking that far ahead.

Her answers to Lucien's questions were brief and very well rehearsed. She refused to look at the jurors or at her alleged former lover. Instead, she kept her eyes down and appeared to be looking at Lucien's shoes. Both the lawyer and the witness were careful not to venture outside the script. "She's lyin'," Baggy whispered loudly, and I agreed.

When the direct examination was over, Ernie Gaddis stood and walked deliberately to the podium, staring with great suspicion at this self-confessed adulteress. He kept his reading glasses on the tip of his nose, and looked above them with wrinkled brow and narrow eyes. Very much the professor who'd just caught a bad student cheating.

"Miss Vince, this house on Hurt Road. Who owned it?"

"Jack Hagel."

"How long did you live there?"

"About a year."

"Did you sign a lease?"

She hesitated for a split second too long, then said, "Maybe my husband did. I really don't remember."

"How much was the rent each month?"

"Three hundred dollars."

Ernie wrote down each answer with great effort, as though each detail was about to be diligently investigated and lies would be revealed.

"When did you leave this house?"

"I don't know, about two months ago."

"So how long did you live in Ford County?"

"I don't know, a couple of years."

"Did you ever register to vote in Ford County?"

"No."

"Did your husband?"

"No."

"What's his name again?"

"Malcolm Vince."

"Where does he live now?"

"I'm not sure. He moves around a lot. Last I heard he was somewhere around Tupelo."

"And y'all are getting a divorce now, right?"

"Yes."

"When did you file for divorce?"

Her eyes lifted quickly and she glanced at Lucien, who was listening hard but refusing to watch her. "We haven't actually filed papers yet," she said.

"I'm sorry, I thought you said you were going through a divorce."

"We've split, and we've both hired lawyers."

"And who is your attorney?"

"Mr. Wilbanks."

Lucien flinched, as if this was news to him. Ernie let it settle in, then continued, "Who is your husband's lawyer?"

"I can't remember his name."

"Is he suing you for divorce, or is it the other way around?"

"It's a mutual thing."

"How many other men were you sleeping with?"

'Just Danny."

"I see. And you live in Tupelo, right?"

"Right."

"You say you're unemployed, right?"

"For now."

"And you've separated from your husband?"

"I just said we've split."

"Where do you live over in Tupelo?"

"An apartment."

"How much is the rent?"

"Two hundred a month."

"And you live there with your child?"

"Yes."

"Does the child work?"

"The child is five years old."

"So how do you pay the rent and utilities?"

"I get by." No one could have possibly believed her answer.

"What kind of car do you drive?"

She hesitated again. It was the kind of question that required an answer that could be verified with a few phone calls. "A '68 Mustang."

"That's a nice car. When did you get it?"

Again, there was a paper trail here, and even Lydia, who wasn't bright, could see the trap. "Coupla months ago," she said, defiantly.

"Is the car tided in your name?"

"It is."

"Is the apartment lease in your name?"

"It is."

Paperwork, paperwork. She couldn't lie about it, and she certainly couldn't afford it. Ernie took some notes from Hank Hooten and studied them suspiciously.

"How long did you sleep with Danny Padgitt?"

"Fifteen minutes, usually."

In a tense courtroom, the answer provided scattered laughter. Ernie removed his glasses, rubbed them with the end of his tie, gave her a nasty grin, and rephrased the question. "Your affair with Danny Padgitt, how long did it last?"

"Almost a year."

"Where did you first meet him?"

"At the clubs, up at the state line."

"Did someone introduce the two of you?"

"I really don't remember. He was there, I was there, we had a dance. One thing led to another."

There was no doubt that Lydia Vince had spent many nights in many honky-tonks, and she'd never run from a new dance partner. Ernie needed just a few more lies that he could nail down.

He asked a series of questions about her background and her husband's - birth, education, marriage, employment, family. Names and dates and events that could be verified as true or false. She was for sale. The Padgitts had found a witness they could buy.

As we left the courtroom late that afternoon, I was confused and uneasy. I had been convinced for many months that Danny Padgitt killed Rhoda Kassellaw, and I still had no doubts. But the jury suddenly had something to hang itself with. A sworn witness had committed a dreadful act of perjury, but it was possible that a juror could have a reasonable doubt.

* * *

Ginger was more depressed than me, so we decided to get drunk. We bought burgers and fries and a case of beer and went to her small motel room where we ate and then drowned our fears and hatred of a corrupt judicial system. She said more than once that her family, fractured as it was, could not hold up if Danny Padgitt were let go. Her mother was not stable anyway, and a not-guilty verdict would push her over the cliff. What would they tell Rhoda's children one day?

We tried watching television, but nothing held our interest. We grew weary of worrying about the trial. As I was about to fall asleep, Ginger walked out of the bathroom naked, and the night took a turn for the better. We made love off and on until the alcohol prevailed and we fell asleep.



Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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