Unknown to me - and there was no reason it should have been known to me because I was such a newcomer to the community and certainly not involved in judicial affairs, and besides I literally had my hands full of Ginger and for a few wonderful hours we lost interest in the trial - a secret meeting took place shortly after adjournment on Wednesday. Ernie Gaddis went to Harry Rex's office for a post-trial drink and both admitted they were sick over Lydia's testimony. They began making phone calls, and within an hour they had rounded up a group of lawyers they could trust, and a couple of politicians as well.
The opinion was unanimous that the Padgitts were in the process of wiggling out of what appeared to be a solid case against them. They had managed to find a witness they could bribe. Lydia had obviously been paid to concoct her story, and she was either too broke or too stupid to understand the risks of perjury. Regardless, she had given the jury a reason, albeit a weak one, to second-guess the prosecution.
An acquittal in such an open-and-shut case would infuriate the town and mock the court system. A hung jury would send a similar message - justice could be bought in Ford County. Ernie, Harry Rex, and the other lawyers worked hard every day manipulating the system on behalf of their clients, but the rules were applied fairly. The system worked because the judges and jurors were impartial and unbiased. To allow Lucien Wilbanks and the Padgitts to corrupt the process would cause irreparable damage.
There was a consensus that a hung jury was entirely possible. As a believable witness, Lydia Vince left much to be desired, but the jurors were not as savvy about fabricated testimony and crooked clients. The lawyers agreed that Fargarson, "the crippled boy," appeared hostile to the prosecution. After two full days and almost fifteen hours of watching the jurors, the lawyers felt they could read them.
Mr. John Deere also had them worried. His real name was Mo Teale and he'd been a mechanic down at the tractor place for over twenty years. He was a simple man with a limited wardrobe. Late Monday afternoon when the jury was finally selected and Judge Loopus sent them home to hurriedly pack for the bus, Mo had simply loaded up his week's supply of work uniforms. Each morning he marched into the jury box wearing a bright yellow shirt with green trim and green pants with yellow trim, as if he was ready for another vigorous day of pulling wrenches.
Mo sat with his arms crossed and frowned whenever Ernie Gaddis was on his feet. His body language terrified the prosecution.
Harry Rex thought it was important to find Lydia's estranged husband. If they were in fact going through a divorce, it was more than likely not an amicable one. It was difficult to believe she was having an affair with Danny Padgitt, but at the same time it seemed likely that the woman was no stranger to extramarital activity. The husband might have testimony that could severely discredit Lydia's.
Ernie wanted to dig into her private life. He wanted to create doubt about her finances so he could yell at the jury, "How can she live so comfortably when she's unemployed and going through a divorce?"
"Because she got twenty-five thousand dollars from the Padgitts," one of the lawyers said. Speculation about the amount of the bribe became a running debate as the night wore on.
The search for Malcolm Vince began with Harry Rex and two others calling every lawyer within five counties. Around 10 P.M. they found a lawyer in Corinth, two hours away, who said he had met with a Malcolm Vince once about a divorce, but had not been retained. Mr. Vince was living in a trailer somewhere out in the boondocks near the Tishomingo County line. He could not remember where he worked, but he was sure he had written it down in his file at the office. The District Attorney himself got on the phone and coaxed the lawyer back to the office.
At eight o'clock the next morning, about the time I was leaving Ginger at the motel, Judge Loopus readily agreed to order a subpoena for Malcolm Vince. Twenty minutes later, a Corinth city policeman stopped a forklift in a warehouse and informed its operator that a subpoena had just been issued for his appearance in a murder trial over in Ford County.
"What the hell for?" Mr. Vince demanded.
"I'm just following orders," the policeman said.
"What am I supposed to do?"
"You got two choices, pal," explained the cop. "Stay here with me till they come get you, or we can leave now and get it over with." Malcolm's boss told him to leave and hurry back.
After a ninety-minute delay, the jury was brought in. Mr. John Deere was as spiffy as ever, but the rest were beginning to look tired. It seemed like the trial had been going on for a month.
Miss Callie searched me out and gave me a restrained grin, not one of her spectacular day-brighteners. She was still clutching a small New Testament.
Ernie rose and informed the court that he had no further questions for Lydia Vince. Lucien said he was through with her too. Ernie said he had a rebuttal witness he would like to call out of order. Lucien Wilbanks objected and they haggled over it at the bench. When Lucien learned who the witness was, he became visibly upset. A good sign.
Evidently Judge Loopus was concerned about a bad verdict as well. He ruled against the defense, and a thoroughly bewildered Malcolm Vince was called into the packed courtroom to testify. Ernie had spent less than ten minutes with him in a back room, so he was as unprepared as he was confused.
Ernie started slow, with the basics-name, address, employment, recent family history. Malcolm somewhat reluctantly admitted being married to Lydia and shared her desire to escape from the union. He said he had seen neither his wife nor his child in about a month. His recent employment history was spotty at best, but he tried to send her $50 a week to support the child.
He knew she was unemployed but living in a nice apartment. "You're not paying for her apartment?" Ernie asked with great suspicion, glancing warily at the jury.
"No sir, I am not."
"Is her family paying for her apartment?"
"Her family couldn't pay for one night in a motel," Malcolm said with no small amount of satisfaction.
Once excused, Lydia had left the courtroom and was probably in the process of fleeing the country. Her act was complete, her performance over, her fee collected. She would never again set foot in Ford County. It's doubtful her presence would have inhibited Malcolm's testimony, but her absence gave him free rein to take all the cheap shots he wanted.
"You're not close to her family?" Ernie asked, a throwaway question.
"Most of them are in jail."
"I see. She testified yesterday that a couple of months ago she bought a 1968 Ford Mustang. Did you help her with this purchase?"
"I did not."
"Any idea how this unemployed woman could make this purchase?" Ernie asked, glancing at Danny Padgitt.
"Do you know if she's made any other unusual purchases lately?"
Malcolm looked at the jury, saw some friendly faces, and said, "Yeah, she bought a new color television for herself and a new motorcycle for her brother."
It appeared as if everyone at the defense table had stopped breathing. The strategy over there had been to sneak Lydia in quietly, let her tell her lies, verify the alibi, get her off the stand, then push the case to a verdict before she could be discredited. She had known very few people in the county and now lived an hour away.
The strategy was unraveling with disastrous results, and the entire courtroom could see and feel the tension between Lucien and his client.
"Do you know a man by the name of Danny Padgitt?" Ernie asked.
"Never heard of him," Malcolm said.
"Your wife testified yesterday that she had been having an affair with him for almost a year."
It's rare to see an unsuspecting husband confronted with such news in such a public manner, but Malcolm seemed to handle it well. "That so?" he said.
"Yes sir. She testified the affair ended about two months ago."
"Well, sir, I'll tell you - that's kinda hard to believe."
"And why is that?"
Malcolm was squirming, suddenly interested in his feet. "Well, it's really kinda personal, you know," he said.
"Yes, Mr. Vince, I'm sure it is. But sometimes personal matters have to be discussed in open court. A man is on trial here, charged with murder. This is serious business, and we need to know the truth."
Malcolm swung his left leg over his right knee and scratched his chin for a few seconds. "Well, sir, it's like this. We stopped havin' sex about two years ago. That's why we're gettin' a divorce, you know."
"Any particular reason you stopped having sex?" Ernie asked as he held his breath.
"Yes sir. She told me she hated sex with me, said it made her sick to her stomach. Said she preferred sex with, you know, other ladies."
Though he knew what answer was coming, Ernie managed to appear sufficiently shocked. Along with everyone else. He backed away from the podium and huddled with Hank Hooten, just a brief break to allow the jurors to fully absorb the blow. Finally, he said, "No further questions, Your Honor."
* * *
Lucien approached Malcolm Vince as if he were staring at a loaded gun. He picked around the edges for a few minutes. According to Baggy, a good trial lawyer never asks a question unless he knows the answer, especially with a witness as dangerous as Malcolm Vince. Lucien was a good lawyer, and he had no idea what Malcolm might blurt out.
He admitted he had no affection for Lydia, that he couldn't wait to get through with the divorce, that the last few years with her had not been pleasant, and so on. Typical divorce chatter. He remembered hearing of the Kassellaw murder the next morning. He'd been out the night before and returned home very late. Lucien scored a very weak point by proving that Lydia was indeed alone that night, as she had testified.
But it mattered little. The jurors and the rest of us were still struggling with the enormity of Lydia's sins.
* * *
After a long recess, Lucien rose slowly and addressed the Court. "Your Honor, the defense has no other witnesses. However, my client wishes to testify. I want it stated clearly in the record that he will testify against my advice."
"Duly noted," Loopus said.
"A very stupid mistake. Unbelievable," Baggy whispered loud enough for half the courtroom to hear.
Danny Padgitt jumped up and strutted to the witness stand. His attempt at smiling came across as nothing but a smirk. His attempt at confidence came across as cockiness. He was sworn to tell the truth, but no one expected to hear it.
"Why do you insist on testifying?" was Lucien's first question, and the courtroom was still and silent.
"Because I want these good people to hear what really happened," he answered, looking at the jurors.
"Then tell them," Lucien said, waving his hand at the jury.
His version of events was wonderfully creative because there was no one to rebut him. Lydia was gone, Rhoda was dead. He began by saying that he had spent a few hours with his girlfriend, Lydia Vince, who lived less than half a mile from Rhoda Kassellaw. He knew exactly where Rhoda lived because he had visited her on several occasions. She wanted a serious romance but he'd been too occupied with Lydia. Yes, he and Rhoda had had intimate relations on two occasions. They'd met at the clubs at the state line and spent many hours drinking and dancing. She was hot and loose and known to sleep around.
As insult was added to injury, Ginger lowered her head and covered her ears. It was not missed by the jury.
He didn't believe Lydia's husband's garbage about her homosexual tendencies; the woman enjoyed the intimacy of men. Malcolm was lying so he could win custody of their child.
Padgitt was not a bad witness, but then he was testifying for his life. Every answer was quick, there were too many fake smiles toward the jury box, his narrative was clean and neat and fit too nicely together. I listened to him and watched the jurors and I didn't see much sympathy. Fargarson, the crippled boy, appeared just as skeptical as he had with every other witness. Mr. John Deere still sat with his arms wrapped across his chest, frowning. Miss Callie had no use for Padgitt, but then she would probably send him to prison for the adultery as quickly as for the murder.
Lucien kept it brief. His client had plenty of rope with which to hang himself, no sense making it easier for the State. When Lucien sat down he glared at the elder Padgitts as if he truly hated them. Then he braced himself for what was about to come.
Cross-examining such a guilty criminal is a prosecutor's dream. Ernie deliberately walked to the exhibit table and lifted Danny's bloody shirt. "Exhibit number eight," he said to the court reporter, holding it up for the jury to see again.
"Where'd you buy this shirt, Mr. Padgitt?"
Danny froze, uncertain as to whether he should deny it was his, or admit ownership, or try and recall where he bought the damned thing.
"You didn't steal it, did you?" Ernie roared at him.
"I did not."
"Then answer my question, and please try to remember you're under oath. Where did you buy this shirt?" As Ernie talked he held the shirt in front of him with his fingertips, as if the blood was still wet and might spot his suit.
"Over in Tupelo, I think. I really don't remember. It's just a shirt."
"How long have you owned it?"
Another pause. How many men can remember when they bought a particular shirt?
"A year or so, maybe. I don't keep notes on clothes."
"Neither do I," Ernie said. "When you were in bed with Lydia that night, had you removed this shirt?"
A very cautious, "Yes."
"Where was it while the two of you were, uh, having relations?"
"On the floor, I guess."
Now that it was firmly established that the shirt was his, Ernie was free to slaughter the witness. He pulled out the report from the state crime lab, read it to Danny, and asked him how his own blood came to be stained on the shirt. This led to a discussion about his driving abilities, his tendency to speed, the type of vehicle, and the fact that he was legally drunk when he flipped his truck. With Ernie pounding away, I doubt if a case of driving under the influence had ever sounded so deadly. Not surprisingly, Danny had a thin skin and began to bristle at Ernie's pointed and sardonic questioning.
On to Rhoda's bloodstains. If he was in bed with Lydia, with the shirt on the floor, how in the world did Rhoda's blood find its way from her bedroom to Lydia's, a half mile away?
It was a conspiracy, Danny said, advancing a new theory and digging a hole he would never get out of. Too much time alone in a jail cell can be dangerous for a guilty criminal. Well, he tried to explain, someone either stained his shirt with Rhoda's blood, a theory that lightened up the crowd considerably, or, it was more likely that some mysterious person who examined the shirt was simply lying, all in an effort to convict him. Ernie had a field day with both scenarios, but he landed his heaviest blows with a series of brutal questions about why Danny, who certainly had the money to hire the best lawyers around, didn't hire his own expert to come to court and explain the tainted blood exams to the jury.
Perhaps no expert was found because no expert could reach the ridiculous conclusions Padgitt wanted.
Same for the semen. If Danny had been producing it over at Lydia's, how could it arrive at Rhoda's? No problem - it was part of a broad conspiracy to nail him for the crime. The lab reports were fabricated; the police work was faulty. Ernie hammered him until we were all exhausted.
At twelve-thirty, Lucien stood and suggested a break for lunch. "I'm not done!" Ernie yelled across the courtroom. He wanted to finish the annihilation before Lucien could get his hands on his client and try to rehabilitate him, a task that seemed impossible. Padgitt was on the ropes, battered and gasping for air, and Ernie was not going to a neutral corner.
"Continue," Judge Loopus said, and Ernie suddenly shouted at Padgitt, "What did you do with the knife?"
The question startled everyone, especially the witness, who jerked backward and quickly said, "I, uh, - " then went silent.
"You what! Come on, Mr. Padgitt; tell us what you did with the knife, the murder weapon."
Danny shook his head fiercely and looked too scared to speak. "What knife?" he managed to say. He could not have looked guiltier if the knife had dropped out of his pocket onto the floor.
"The knife you used on Rhoda Kassellaw."
"It wasn't me."
Like a slow and cruel executioner, Ernie took a long pause and huddled with Hank Hooten again. He then picked up the autopsy report and asked Danny if he remembered the testimony of the first pathologist. Was his report also a part of this conspiracy? Danny wasn't sure how to answer. All of the evidence was being used against him, so, yes, he figured it must be bogus as well.
And the piece of his skin found under her fingernail, that was part of the conspiracy? And his own semen? And on and on; Ernie hammered away. Occasionally, Lucien would glance over his shoulder at Danny's father with a look that said, "I told you so."
Danny's presence on the stand allowed Ernie to once more trot out all the evidence, and the impact was devastating. His weak protests that everything was tainted by a conspiracy sounded ridiculous, even laughable. Watching him get thoroughly decimated before the jury was quite gratifying. The good guys were winning. The jury seemed primed to pull out rifles and form a firing squad.
Ernie tossed his legal pad on his table and appeared ready for lunch, finally. He jammed both hands into his front pockets, glared at the witness, and said, "Under oath, you're telling this jury you didn't rape and murder Rhoda Kassellaw?"
"I didn't do it."
"You didn't follow her home from the state line that Saturday night?"
"You didn't sneak in her patio door?"
"And hide in her closet until she put her children to bed?"
"And you didn't attack her when she came in to put on her night clothes?"
Lucien stood and said angrily, "Objection, Your Honor, Mr. Gaddis is testifying here."
"Overruled!" Loopus snapped at the defense table. The Judge wanted a fair trial. To counteract all the lying done by the defense, the prosecution was being allowed considerable freedom in describing the murder scene.
"You didn't blindfold her with a scarf?"
Padgitt was continually shaking his head as the narrative approached its climax.
"And cut off her panties with your knife?"
"And you didn't rape her in her own bed, with her two little children asleep not far away?" "I did not."
"And you didn't wake them with your noise?"
Ernie walked as close to the witness chair as the Judge would allow, and he looked sadly at his jury. Then he turned to Danny and said, "Michael and Teresa ran to check on their mother, didn't they, Mr. Padgitt?"
"I don't know."
"And they found you on top of her, didn't they?"
"I wasn't there."
"Rhoda heard their voices, didn't she? Did they yell at you, beg you to get off?"
"I wasn't there."
"And Rhoda did what any mother would do - she yelled for them to run, didn't she, Mr. Padgitt?"
"I wasn't there."
"You weren't there!" Ernie bellowed, and the walls seemed to shake. "Your shirt was there, your footprints were there, you left your semen there! You think this jury is stupid, Mr. Padgitt?"
The witness kept shaking his head. Ernie walked slowly to his chair and pulled it from under the table. As he was about to sit, he said, "You're a rapist. You're a murderer. And you're a liar, aren't you, Mr. Padgitt?"
Lucien was up and yelling. "Objection, Your Honor. This is enough."
"Sustained. Any further questions, Mr. Gaddis?"
"No, Your Honor, the State is finished with this witness."
"Any redirect, Mr. Wilbanks?"
"No, Your Honor."
"The witness may step down." Danny slowly got to his feet. Long gone was the smirk, the swagger. His face was red with anger and wet with sweat.
As he was about to step out of the witness box and return to the defense table, he suddenly turned to the jury and said something that stunned the courtroom. His face wrinkled into pure hatred, and he jabbed his right index finger into the air. "You convict me," he said, "and I'll get every damned one of you."
"Bailiff!" Judge Loopus said as he grabbed for his gavel. "That's enough, Mr. Padgitt."
"Every damned one of you!" Danny repeated, louder. Ernie jumped to his feet, but could think of nothing to say. And why should he? The defendant was strangling himself. Lucien was on his feet, equally uncertain about what to do. Two deputies raced forward and shoved Padgitt toward the defense table. As he walked away he glared at the jurors as if he might just throw a grenade right then.
When things settled, I realized my heart was pounding with excitement. Even Baggy was too stunned to speak.
"Let's break for lunch," His Honor said, and we fled the courtroom. I was no longer hungry. I felt like racing to my apartment and taking a shower.