Page 19 of The Last Juror

Friday morning, in the hallway outside the courtroom, Esau Ruffin found me and had a pleasant surprise. Three of his sons, Al, Max, and Bobby (Alberto, Massimo, and Roberto), were with him, anxious to say hello to me. I had spoken to all three a month earlier when I was doing the feature on Miss Callie and her children. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. They politely thanked me for my friendship with their mother, and for the kind words I'd written about their family. They were as soft-spoken, pleasant, and as articulate as Miss Callie.

They had arrived late the night before to give her moral support. Esau had talked to her once all week - each juror had been given one phone call - and she was holding up well but worried about her blood pressure.

We chatted for a moment as the crowd pushed toward the courtroom and walked in together. They sat directly behind me. A few moments later when Miss Callie took her seat, she looked at me and saw her three sons. The smile was like a bolt of lightning. The fatigue around her eyes vanished immediately.

During the trial, I had seen in her face a certain amount of pride. She was sitting where no black person had ever sat, shoulder to shoulder with fellow citizens, judging a white person for the first time in Ford County. I'd also had hints of the anxiety that comes with venturing into untested waters.

Now that her sons were there to watch, pride filled her face, and there was no evidence of fear. She sat a bit straighter, and though she'd missed nothing in the courtroom so far, her eyes darted everywhere, anxious to capture what was coming and finish her task.

Judge Loopus explained to the jurors that in the penalty phase the State would offer evidence of aggravating circumstances in support of its request for the death penalty. The defense would offer mitigating proof. He did not expect it to take long. It was Friday; the trial had already lasted forever; the jurors and everybody else in Clanton wanted Padgitt shipped off so life could return to normal.

Ernie Gaddis correctly gauged the mood in the courtroom. He thanked the jurors for their proper verdict of guilty and confessed that he felt no further testimony was necessary. The crime was so heinous that nothing more aggravating could be added to it. He asked the jurors to remember the graphic photos of Rhoda in the swing on Mr. Deece's front porch, and the pathologist's testimony about her vicious wounds and how she died. And her children, please don't forget her children.

As if anybody could.

He delivered an impassioned plea for the death penalty. He gave a brief history of why we, as good solid Americans, believed so strongly in it. He explained why it was a deterrent and a punishment. He quoted Scripture.

In almost thirty years of prosecuting crimes in six counties, he had never seen a case that so mightily begged for the death penalty. Watching the faces of the jurors, I was convinced he was about to get what he asked for.

He wrapped it up by reminding the jurors that each had been selected on Monday after promising that they could follow the law. He read them the law enacting the death penalty. "The State of Mississippi has proven its case," he said, closing the thick green law book. "You have found Danny Padgitt guilty of rape and murder. The law now calls for the death penalty. You are duty bound to deliver it."

Ernie's spellbinding performance lasted for fifty-one minutes - I was trying to record everything - and when he finished I knew the jury would hang Padgitt not once but twice.

According to Baggy, in a capital case the defendant, after protesting his innocence throughout the trial and being nailed by the jury, usually took the stand and said he was very sorry for whatever crime he'd been denying all week. "They beg and cry," Baggy had said. "It's quite a show."

But Padgitt's disaster the day before precluded him from getting near the jury. Lucien called to the witness stand his mother, Lettie Padgitt. She was a fiftyish woman with pleasant features and short graying hair, and she wore a black dress as if she was already mourning the death of her son. Led by Lucien, she unsteadily began testimony that seemed scripted down to every pause in her cadence. There was Danny the little boy, fishing every day after school, breaking his leg falling from a tree house, and winning the spelling bee in the fourth grade. He was never any trouble in those days, none at all. In fact, Danny had caused no trouble at all growing up, a real joy. His two older brothers were always into something, but not Danny.

The testimony was so silly and self serving that it bordered on ridiculous. But there were three mothers on the jury - Miss Callie, Mrs. Barbara Baldwin, and Maxine Root - and Lucien was aiming for one of them. He needed just one.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Padgitt was soon in tears. She would never believe that her son had committed such a terrible crime, but if the jury felt so, then she would try and accept it. But why take him away? Why kill her little boy? What would the world gain if he were put to death?

Her pain was real. Her emotions were raw and difficult to watch, to sit through. Any human being would feel sympathy for a mother about to lose a child. She finally collapsed and Lucien left her sobbing on the witness stand. What began as a stilted performance ended in a gut-wrenching plea that forced most of the jurors to lower their eyes and study the floor.

Lucien said he had no other witnesses. He and Ernie made brief final summations, and by 11 A.M. the jury once again had the case.

* * *

Ginger disappeared into the crowd. I went to the office and waited, and when she didn't show I walked across the square to Harry Rex's office. He sent his secretary out for sandwiches and we ate in his cluttered conference room. Like most lawyers in Clanton, he'd spent the entire week in the courtroom watching a case that meant nothing to him financially.

"Is your gal gonna stick?" he asked with a mouth full of turkey and Swiss.

"Miss Callie?" I asked.

"Yeah. She okay with the gas chamber?"

"I have no idea. We haven't discussed it."

"She's got us worried, along with that damned crippled boy."

Harry Rex had quietly involved himself in the case in such a way that one would think he was working for Ernie Gaddis and the State. But he wasn't the only lawyer in town secretly abetting the prosecution.

"It took them less than sixty minutes to find him guilty," I said. "Isn't that a good sign?"

"Maybe, but jurors do strange things when it's time to sign a death warrant."

"So? Then he'll get life. From what I hear about Parchman, life there would be worse than the gas chamber."

"Life ain't life, Willie," he said, wiping his face with a paper towel.

I put my sandwich down while he took another bite.

"What is life?" I asked.

"Ten years, maybe less."

I tried to understand this. "You mean a life sentence in Mississippi is ten years?"

"You got it. After ten years, less with good time, a murderer sent to prison for life is eligible for parole. Insane, don't you think?"

"But why - "

"Don't try and understand it, Willie, it's just the law. Been on the books for fifty years. And what's worse is the jury doesn't know it. Can't tell 'em. Want some coleslaw?"

I shook my head.

"Our distinguished Supreme Court has said that the jury, if it knows how light a life sentence really is, might be more inclined to give the death penalty. Thus, it's unfair to the defendant."

"Life is ten years," I mumbled to myself. In Mississippi, the liquor stores are locked up on Election Day, as if the voters would otherwise get drunk and elect the wrong people. Another unbelievable law.

"You got it," Harry Rex said, then finished his sandwich with one huge bite. He pulled an envelope off a shelf, opened it, then slid a large black-and-white photo across to me. "Busted, buddy," he said with a laugh.

It was a photo of me, making my quick exit from Ginger's room at the motel on Thursday morning. I looked tired, hungover, guilty of something, but also oddly satisfied.

"Who took this?" I asked.

"One of my boys. He was working on a divorce case, saw your little Communist car pull in that night, decided to have some fun."

"He wasn't the only one."

"She's a hot one. He tried to shoot through the curtains, but couldn't get an angle."

"Shall I autograph it for you?"

"Just keep it."

* * *

After three hours of deliberation, the jury slipped a note to Judge Loopus. They were deadlocked and making little progress. He called things to order, and we raced across the street.

If the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict for the death penalty, then, by law, the judge imposed a life sentence.

Fear pervaded the crowd as we waited for the jurors. Something was going wrong back there. Had the Padgitts finally found their mark?

Miss Callie was stonefaced, a look I'd never seen. Mrs. Barbara Baldwin had obviously been crying. Several of the men gave the impression that their fistfight had just been broken up, and that they were anxious to resume the brawl.

The foreman stood and very nervously explained to His Honor that the jury was divided and had made absolutely no progress in the last hour. He was not optimistic about a unanimous verdict, and all were ready to go home.

Judge Loopus then asked each juror if he or she thought a unanimous verdict could be reached. They unanimously said no.

I could feel the anger rise among the crowd. People were fidgeting and whispering, and this certainly didn't help the jurors.

Judge Loopus then delivered what Baggy later described as the "dynamite charge," an off-the-cuff lecture about following the law and keeping promises made during jury selection. It was a stern and lengthy admonishment, loaded with no small measure of desperation.

It didn't work. Two hours later, a stunned courtroom listened as Judge Loopus quizzed the jurors again, with the same result. He grudgingly thanked them and sent them home.

When they were gone, he called Danny Padgitt forward, and on the record, gave him a tongue lashing that made my skin crawl. He called him a rapist, murderer, coward, liar, and worst of all a thief for having taken from two small children the only parent they had. It was a scalding, withering assault. I tried to write it word for word, but it was so compelling I had to stop and listen. A rabid street preacher could not have heaped such abuse upon sin.

If he had the power, he would sentence him to death, and a rapid and painful one at that.

But the law was the law, and he had to follow it. He sentenced him to life and ordered Sheriff Coley to immediately transport him to the state penitentiary at Parchman. Coley slapped handcuffs on him and he was gone.

Loopus banged his gavel and bolted from the courtroom. A fight erupted in the back of the courtroom when one of Danny's uncles bumped into Doc Crull, a local barber and noted hothead. It quickly drew a crowd and several others cursed the Padgitts and told them to get back to their island. "Go back to your swamp!" someone kept yelling. Deputies broke it up, and the Padgitts left the courtroom.

The crowd lingered for a while, as if the trial weren't finished, as if justice had not been completely served. There was anger and cursing, and I got a whiff of how lynch mobs got organized.

* * *

Ginger didn't show. She said she would stop by the office after she checked out and say good-bye, but she obviously changed her mind. I could see her speeding through the night, crying and cursing and counting the miles until she was out of Mississippi. Who could blame her?

Our three-day fling came to an abrupt end the way both of us expected but neither had admitted. I could not imagine our paths ever crossing again, and if they did it would be another round or two in the sack before we got distracted with life and moved on. She would go through many men before she found one who would last. I sat on the porch outside my office and waited for her to park below, knowing she was probably in Arkansas by then. We'd started the day in bed together, anxious to return to court to watch her sister's murderer get his death sentence.

In the heat of the moment, I began writing an editorial about the verdict. It would be a scathing attack on the criminal laws of the State. It would be honest and heartfelt, and it would also play well with the audience.

Esau called and interrupted me. He was at the hospital with Miss Callie and asked me to hurry down.

She had fainted as she was getting into the car outside the courthouse. Esau and the three sons had rushed her in, and wisely so. Her blood pressure was dangerously high, and the doctor was worried about a stroke. After a couple of hours, though, she had stabilized and her outlook was better. I held her hand briefly, told her I was very proud of her, and so on. What I really wanted was the inside story on what happened back in the jury room.

It was a story I would never get.

I drank coffee with Al, Max, Bobby, and Esau until midnight in the hospital canteen. She had not said a word about the jury's deliberations.

We talked about them and their brothers and sisters, and their children and careers and life growing up in Clanton. The stories poured forth, and I almost pulled out a pen and notepad.


Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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