Page 33 of The Last Juror

Many of those who worshiped diligently on Sunday mornings became less faithful on Sunday nights. During my tour of churches, I heard many preachers chide their followers to return in a few hours to properly complete the observance of the Sabbath. I never counted heads, but as a general rule about half of them did so. I tried a few Sunday night services, usually in an effort to catch some colorful ritual such as snake handling or disease healing or, on one occasion, a "church conclave" in which a wayward brother was to be put on trial and certainly convicted for fancying another brother's wife. My presence rattled them that night and the wayward brother got a reprieve.

For the most part, I limited my study of comparative religions to the daylight hours.

Others had different Sunday-night rituals. Harry Rex helped a Mexican named Pepe lease a building and open a restaurant one block off the square. Pepe's became moderately successful during the 1970s with decent food that was always on the spicy side. Pepe couldn't resist the peppers, regardless of how they scalded the throats of his gringo customers.

On Sundays all alcohol was banned in Ford County. It could not be sold at retail or in restaurants. Pepe had a back room with a long table and a door that would lock. He allowed Harry Rex and his guests to use the room and eat and drink all we wanted. His margaritas were especially tasty. We enjoyed many colorful meals with spicy dishes, all washed down with strong margaritas. There were usually a dozen of us, all male, all young, about half currently married. Harry Rex threatened our lives if we told anyone about Pepe's back room.

The Clanton city police raided us once, but Pepe suddenly couldn't speak a word of English. The door to the back room was locked, and partially hidden too. Pepe turned off the lights, and for twenty minutes we waited in the dark, still drinking, and listened to the cops try to communicate with Pepe. I don't know why we were worried. The city Judge was a lawyer named Harold Finkley, who was at the end of the table slogging down his fourth or fifth margarita.

Those Sunday nights at Pepe's were often long and rowdy, and afterward we were in no condition to drive. I would walk to my office and sleep on the sofa. I was there snoring off the tequila when the phone rang after midnight. It was a reporter I knew from the big daily in Memphis.

"Are you covering the parole hearing tomorrow?" he asked. Tomorrow? In my toxic fog I had no idea what day it was.

"Tomorrow?" I mumbled.

"Monday, September the eighteenth," he said slowly.

I was reasonably certain the year was 1978.

"What parole hearing?" I asked, trying desperately to wake myself up and put two thoughts together.

"Danny Padgitt's. You don't know about it?"

"Hell no!"

"It's scheduled for ten A.M. at Parchman."

"You gotta be kidding!"

"Nope. I just found out. Evidently, they don't advertise these."

I sat in the darkness for a long time, cursing once again the backwardness of a state that conducted such important matters in such ridiculous ways. How could parole even be considered for Danny Padgitt? Eight years had passed since the murder and his conviction. He had received two life sentences of at least ten years each. We assumed that meant a minimum of twenty years.

I drove home around 3 A.M., slept fitfully for two hours, then woke up Harry Rex, who was in no condition to be dealt with. I picked up sausage biscuits and strong coffee and we met at his office around seven. We were both ill-tempered, and as we plowed through his law books there were sharp words and foul language, not aimed at each other, but at the blurry and toothless parole system passed by the legislature thirty years earlier. Guidelines were only vaguely defined, leaving ample wiggle room for the politicians and their appointees to do as they wished.

Since most law-abiding citizens had no contact with the parole system, it was not a priority with the state legislature. And since most of the state's prisoners were either poor or black, and unable to use the system to their advantage, it was easy to hit them with harsh sentences and keep them locked up. But for an inmate with a few connections and some cash, the parole system was a marvelous labyrinth of contradictory laws that allowed the Parole Board to pass out favors.

Somewhere between the judicial system, the penal system, and the parole system, Danny Padgitt's two "consecutive" life terms had been changed to two "concurrent" sentences. They ran side by side, Harry Rex tried to explain.

"What good is that?" I asked.

"It's used in cases where a defendant has multiple charges. Consecutive might give him eighty years in jail, but a fair sentence is ten. So they run 'em side by side."

I shook my head in disapproval again, and this irritated him.

I finally got Sheriff Tryce McNatt to answer the phone. He sounded as hung over as we were, though he was a strict teetotaler. McNatt knew nothing about the parole hearing. I asked him if he planned to attend, but his day was already filled with important meetings.

I would have called Judge Loopus, but he'd been dead for six years. Ernie Gaddis had retired and was fishing in the Smoky Mountains. His successor, Rufus Buckley, lived in Tyler County and his phone number was unlisted.

At eight o'clock, I jumped in my car with a biscuit and a cup of cold coffee.

* * *

An hour west of Ford County the land flattened dramatically and the Delta began. It was a region rich in farming and poor in living conditions, but I was in no mood to take in the sights and offer social commentary. I was too nervous about crashing a clandestine parole hearing.

I was also nervous about setting foot inside Parchman, a legendary hellhole.

After two hours, I saw fences next to fields, then razor wire. Soon there was a sign, and I turned into the main gate. I informed a guard in the booth that I was a reporter, there for a parole hearing. "Straight ahead, left at the second building," he said helpfully as he wrote down my name.

There was a cluster of buildings close to the highway, and a row of white-frame houses that would fit on any Maple Street in Mississippi. I chose the Admin A building and sprinted inside, looking for the first secretary. I found her, and she sent me to the next building, second floor. It was just about ten.

There were people at the end of the hallway, loitering outside a room. One was a prison guard, one was a state trooper, one wore a wrinkled suit.

"I'm here for a parole hearing," I announced.

"In there," the guard said, pointing. Without knocking, I yanked open the door, as any intrepid reporter would, and stepped inside. Things had just been called to order, and my presence there was certainly not anticipated.

There were five members of the Parole Board, and they were seated behind a slightly elevated table with their name plates in front of them. Along one wall another table held the Padgitt crowd - Danny, his father, his mother, an uncle, and Lucien Wilbanks. Opposite them, behind another table, were various clerks and functionaries of the Board and the prison.

Everyone stared at me as I stormed in. My eyes locked onto Danny Padgitt's, and for a second both of us managed to convey the contempt we felt for the other.

"Can I help you?" a large, badly dressed ole boy growled from the center of the Board. His name was Barrett Ray Jeter, the chairman. Like the other four, he'd been appointed by the Governor as a reward for vote-gathering.

"I'm here for the Padgitt hearing," I said.

"He's a reporter!" Lucien practically yelled as he was standing. For a second I thought I might get arrested on the spot and be carried deeper into the prison for a life sentence.

"For who?" Jeter demanded.

"The Ford County Times," I said.

"Your name?"

"Willie Traynor." I was glaring at Lucien and he was scowling at me.

"This is a closed hearing, Mr. Traynor," Jeter said. The statute wasn't clear as to whether it was open or closed, so it had traditionally been kept quiet.

"Who has the right to attend?" I asked.

"The Parole Board, the parolee, his family, his witnesses, his lawyer, and any witnesses for the other side." The "other side" meant the victim's family, which in this setting sounded like the bad guys.

"What about the Sheriff from our county?" I asked.

"He's invited too," Jeter said.

"Our Sheriff wasn't notified. I talked to him three hours ago. In fact, nobody in Ford County knew of this hearing until after twelve last night." This caused considerable head-scratching up and down the Parole Board. The Padgitts huddled with Lucien.

By process of elimination, I quickly deduced that I had to become a witness if I wanted to watch the show. I said, as loudly and clearly as possible, "Well, since there's no one else here from Ford County in opposition, I'm a witness."

"You can't be a reporter and a witness," Jeter said.

"Where is that written in the Mississippi Code?" I asked, waving my copies from Harry Rex's law books.

Jeter nodded at a young man in a dark suit. "I'm the attorney for the Parole Board," he said politely. "You can testify in this hearing, Mr. Traynor, but you cannot report it."

I planned to fully report every detail of the hearing, then hide behind the First Amendment. "So be it," I said. "You guys make the rules." In less than one minute the lines had been drawn; I was on one side, everybody else was on the other.

"Let's proceed," Jeter said, and I took a seat with a handful of other spectators.

The attorney for the Parole Board passed out a report. He recited the basics of the Padgitt sentence, and was careful not to use the words "consecutive" or "concurrent." Based on the inmate's "exemplary" record during his incarceration, he had qualified for "good time," a vague concept created by the parole system and not by the state legislature. Subtracting the time the inmate spent in the county jail awaiting trial, he was now eligible for parole.

Danny's caseworker plowed through a lengthy narrative of her relationship with the inmate. She concluded with the gratuitous opinion that he was "fully remorseful," "fully rehabilitated," "no threat whatsoever to society," even ready to become a "most productive citizen."

How much did all this cost? I couldn't help but ponder that question. How much? And how long had it taken for the Padgitts to find the right pockets?

Lucien went next. With no one - Gaddis, Sheriff McNatt - not even poor Hank Hooten - to contradict or possibly throttle him, he launched into a fictional recounting of the facts of the crimes, and in particular the testimony of an "airtight" alibi witness, Lydia Vince. His reconstructed version of the trial had the jury wavering on a verdict of not guilty. I was tempted to throw something at him and start screaming. Maybe that would at least keep him somewhat honest.

I wanted to shout, "How can he be remorseful if he's so innocent?"

Lucien carped on about the trial and how unfair it had been. He nobly took the blame for not pushing hard for a change of venue, to another part of the state where folks were unbiased and more enlightened. When he finally shut up two of the board members appeared to be asleep.

Mrs. Padgitt testified next and talked about the letters she and her son had exchanged these past eight, very long years. Through his letters, she had seen him mature, seen his faith strengthen, seen him long for his freedom so he could serve his fellow man.

Serve them a stronger blend of pot? Or perhaps a cleaner corn whiskey?

Since tears were expected she gave us some tears. It was part of the show and appeared to have little sway over the Board. In fact, as I watched their faces I got the impression that their decision had been made a long time ago.

Danny went last and did a good job of walking the fine line between denying his crimes and showing remorse for them. "I have learned from my mistakes," he said, as if rape and murder were simple indiscretions where no one really got hurt. "I have grown from them."

In prison he had been a veritable whirlwind of positive energy - volunteering in the library, singing in the choral group, helping with the Parchman rodeo, organizing teams to go into schools and scare kids away from crime.

Two Board members were listening. One was still asleep. The other two sat in trancelike meditation, apparently brain dead.

Danny shed no tears, but closed with an impassioned plea for his release.

"How many witnesses in opposition?" Jeter announced. I stood, looked around me, saw no one else from Ford County, then said, "I guess it's just me."

"Proceed, Mr. Traynor."

I had no idea what to say, nor did I know what was permissible or objectionable in such a forum. But based on what I had just sat through, I figured I could say anything I damned well pleased. Fat Jeter would no doubt call me down if I ventured into forbidden territory.

I looked up at the Board members, tried my best to ignore the daggers from the Padgitts, and jumped into an extremely graphic description of the rape and the murder. I unloaded everything I could possibly remember, and I put special emphasis on the fact that the two children witnessed some or all of the attack.

I kept waiting for Lucien to object, but there was nothing but silence in their camp. The formerly comatose Board members were suddenly alive, all watching me closely, absorbing the gruesome details of the murder. I described the wounds. I painted the heartbreaking scene of Rhoda dying in the arms of Mr. Deece, and saying, "It was Danny Padgitt. It was Danny Padgitt."

I called Lucien a liar and mocked his memory of the trial. It took the jury less than an hour to find the defendant guilty, I explained.

And with a recollection that surprised even me, I recounted Danny's pathetic performance on the witness stand: his lying to cover up his lies; his total lack of truthfulness. "He should've been indicted for perjury," I told the Board.

"And when he had finished testifying, instead of returning to his seat, he walked to the jury box, shook his finger in the faces of the jurors, and said, 'You convict me, and I'll get every damned one of you.' "

A Board member named Mr. Horace Adler jerked upright in his seat and blurted toward the Padgitts, "Is that true?"

"It's in the record," I said quickly before Lucien had the chance to lie again. He was slowly getting to his feet.

"Is that true, Mr. Wilbanks?" Adler insisted.

"He threatened the jury?" asked another board member.

"I have the transcript," I said. "I'll be happy to send it to you."

"Is that true?" Adler asked for the third time.

"There were three hundred people in the courtroom," I said, staring at Lucien and saying with my eyes, Don't do it. Don't lie about it.

"Shut up, Mr. Traynor," a Board member said.

"It's in the record," I said again.

"That's enough!" Jeter shouted.

Lucien was standing and trying to think of a response. Everyone was waiting. Finally, "I don't remember everything that was said," he began, and I snorted as loudly as possible. "Perhaps my client did say something to that effect, but it was an emotional moment, and in the heat of the battle, something like that might have been said. But taken in context - "

"Context my ass!" I yelled at Lucien and took a step toward him as if I might throw a punch. A guard stepped toward me and I stopped. "It's in black-and-white in the trial transcript!" I said angrily. Then I turned to the Board and said, "How can you folks sit there and let them lie like this? Don't you want to hear the truth?"

"Anything else, Mr. Traynor?" Jeter asked.

"Yes! I hope this Board will not make a mockery out of our system and let this man go free after eight years. He's lucky to be sitting here instead of on death row, where he belongs. And I hope that the next time you have a hearing on his parole, if there is a next time, you will invite some of the good folks from Ford County. Perhaps the Sheriff, perhaps the prosecutor. And could you notify members of the victim's family? They have the right to be here so you can see their faces when you turn this murderer loose."

I sat down and fumed. I glared at Lucien Wilbanks and decided that I would work diligently to hate him for the rest of either his life or mine, whichever ended first. Jeter announced a brief recess, and I assumed they needed time to regroup in a back room and count their money. Perhaps Mr. Padgitt could be summoned to provide some extra cash for a Board member or two. To irritate the Board attorney, I scribbled pages of notes for the report he'd prohibited me from writing.

We waited thirty minutes before they filed back in, everyone looking guilty of something. Jeter called for a vote. Two voted in favor of parole, two against, one abstained. "Parole is denied at this time," Jeter announced, and Mrs. Padgitt burst into tears. She hugged Danny before they took him away.

Lucien and the Padgitts walked by, very close to me as they left the room. I ignored them and just stared at the floor, exhausted, hungover, shocked at the denial.

"Next we have Charles D. Bowie," Jeter announced, and there was movement around the tables as the next hopeful was brought in. I caught something about a sex offender, but I was too drained to care. I eventually left the room and walked down the hallway, half-expecting to be confronted by the Padgitts, and that was fine too because I preferred to get it over with.

But they had scattered; there was no sign of them as I left the building and drove through the main gate and back to Clanton.


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