Page 43 of The Last Juror

Unknown to anyone, Lucien Wilbanks and Judge Noose struck a deal in the hectic hours before the arrest. The Judge was worried about what might happen if Danny Padgitt chose to retreat into the safety of the island, or, worse, resist the arrest with force. The county was a powder keg waiting for a match. The cops were ready for blood because of Teddy Ray and Travis, whose gunslinging stupidity was being temporarily ignored while they recovered from their wounds. And Maxine Root came from a notoriously rough family of loggers, a large fierce clan known to hunt year round, live off their land, and leave no grudge unchallenged.

Lucien appreciated the situation. He agreed to deliver his client on one condition - he wanted an immediate bail hearing. He had at least a dozen witnesses who were willing to provide "airtight" alibis for Danny, and Lucien wanted the folks in Clanton to hear their testimony. He truly believed that someone else was behind the killings, and it was important to convince the town.

Lucien was also one month away from being disbarred in an unrelated mess. He knew the end was coming, and the bail hearing would be his last performance.

Noose agreed to a hearing and set it for 10 a.m. the next day, July 3. In a scene eerily reminiscent of one nine years earlier, Danny Padgitt once again packed the Ford County Courthouse. It was a hostile crowd, anxious to get a look at him, hopeful that he might be strung up on the spot. Maxine Root's family arrived early and sat near the front. They were angry, thick-chested, bearded men in overalls. They frightened me, and we were ostensibly on the same side. Maxine was reported to be resting well and expected home in a few days.

The Ruffins had little to do that morning, so the excitement at the courthouse could not be missed. Miss Callie herself insisted on arriving early and getting a good seat. She was happy to be downtown again. She wore a Sunday dress and delighted in sitting in such a public gathering surrounded by her family.

The reports from the hospital in Memphis were mixed. Teddy Ray had been sewn together and was recuperating. Travis had had a rough night, and there was much concern about saving his arm. Their comrades were in the courtroom in full force, waiting for another chance to scowl at the bomb maker.

I saw Mr. and Mrs. Fargarson sitting in the rear, two rows from the back, and I couldn't begin to comprehend what they were thinking.

There were no Padgitts present; they had enough sense to stay clear of the courtroom. The sight of one of them would've touched off a riot. Harry Rex whispered that they were huddled together upstairs in the jury room, with the door locked. We never saw them.

Rufus Buckley arrived with his entourage to represent the State of Mississippi. One advantage in selling the Times was that I would never be forced to spend time with him. He was arrogant and pompous, and everything he did was designed to get him to the Governor's office.

As I waited and watched the courtroom fill up, I realized it was the last time I would cover such a proceeding for the Times. I found no sadness in that. I had mentally checked out, mentally spent some of the money. And now that Danny was in custody, I was even more anxious to escape Clanton and go see the world.

There would be a trial in a few months. Another Danny Padgitt circus, but I doubted seriously if it would be held in Ford County. I didn't care. It would be a story for someone else.

At 10 A.M., all seats were filled and a thick row of spectators lined the walls. Fifteen minutes later, there was a shuffle behind the bench, a door opened, and Lucien Wilbanks emerged. It had the feel of a sporting event; he was a player; we all wanted to boo. Two bailiffs quickly followed him, and one announced, "All rise for the Court!"

Judge Noose ambled forth in his black robe and sat on his throne. "Please be seated," he said into the microphone. He surveyed the crowd and seemed astonished at the number of us out there.

He nodded, a side door opened, and Danny Padgitt, handcuffed, shackled at the ankles, and sporting the orange jail jumpsuit he'd worn before, was led in by three deputies. It took a few minutes to unlock him from his various restraints, and when he was finally free he leaned over and whispered something to Lucien.

"This is a bail hearing," Noose announced, and the courtroom was still and quiet. "There's no reason why it cannot be handled judiciously and briefly."

It would be much briefer than anyone anticipated.

* * *

A cannon exploded somewhere above us, and for a split second I thought we'd all been shot. Something cracked sharply through the heavy air of the courtroom, and for a town so jittery to begin with we all froze in one horrible snapshot of disbelief. Then Danny Padgitt grunted in a delayed reaction, and all hell broke loose. Women screamed. Men screamed. Someone yelled, "Get down!" as half the spectators ducked low, some hitting the floor. Someone shouted, "He's been shot!"

I lowered my head a few inches, but I didn't want to miss anything. Every deputy yanked out a service revolver and looked in a different direction for someone to shoot. They pointed up and down, front and back, here and there.

Though we argued about it for years, the second shot was no more than three seconds behind the first. It hit Danny in the ribs, but it had not been necessary. The first had gone through his head. The second shot drew the attention of a deputy in the front of the courtroom. I was ducking even lower, but I saw him pointing to the balcony.

The double doors to the courtroom flew open, and the stampede was on. In the hysteria that followed, I stayed in my seat and tried to take in everything. I remember seeing Lucien Wilbanks hovering over his client. And Rufus Buckley on his hands and knees, scurrying in front of the jury box in an effort to escape. And I'll never forget Judge Noose, sitting calmly at the bench, reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose, watching the chaos as if he saw it every week.

Each second seemed to last a minute.

The shots that hit Danny were fired from the ceiling above the balcony. And, though the balcony was filled with people, no one saw the rifle drop down a few inches ten feet above their heads. Like the rest of us, they were preoccupied with getting a first glance at Danny Padgitt.

The county had patched and renovated the courtroom at various times over the decades, whenever a few spare bucks could be squeezed from the coffers. Back in the late sixties, in an effort to improve the lighting, a dropped ceiling had been installed. The sniper found the perfect spot on a heating duct just above a panel in the ceiling. There, in the dark crawl space, he waited patiently, watching the courtroom below through a five-inch slit he'd created by lifting one of the water-stained panels.

When I thought the shooting was over, I crept closer to the bar. The cops were yelling for everybody to get out of the courtroom. They were shoving people and barking all sorts of contradictory instructions. Danny was under the table, attended to by Lucien and several deputies. I could see his feet, and they were not moving. A minute or two passed, and the confusion was subsiding. Suddenly, there was more gunfire; thankfully, now it was outside. I looked out a courtroom window and saw people scampering into the stores around the square. I saw an old man point upward, sort of above my head, to something on the top of the courthouse.

Sheriff McNatt had just found the crawl space when he heard shots above him. He and two deputies climbed the stairs to the third floor, then slowly took the cramped circular stairway through the dome. The door to the cupola was jammed shut, but just above it they could hear the anxious footsteps of the sniper. And they could hear shell casings hit the floor.

His only target was the law offices of Lucien Wilbanks, specifically the upstairs windows. With great deliberation he was blowing them out, one by one. Downstairs, Ethel Twitty was under her desk, bawling and screaming at the same time.

I finally left the courtroom and hustled downstairs to the main floor, where the crowd was waiting, uncertain what to do. The police chief was telling everyone to stay inside. Between bursts of gunfire, the chatter was fast and nervous. When the shooting started, we gawked at one another. Each one of us was thinking, "How long will this go on?"

I huddled with the Ruffin family. Miss Callie had fainted when the first shot jolted the courtroom. Max and Bobby were clutching her, anxious to get her home.

* * *

After holding the town hostage for an hour, the sniper ran out of ammunition. He saved the last bullet for himself, and when he pulled the trigger he fell hard on the small passage door in the floor of the cupola. Sheriff McNatt waited a few minutes, then managed to shove the door up and open. The body of Hank Hooten was naked again. And as dead as fresh roadkill.

A deputy ran down the stairs and yelled, "It's over! He's dead! It's Hank Hooten!"

The bewildered expressions were almost amusing. Hank Hooten? Everyone said the name but no words came out. Hank Hooten?

"That lawyer who went crazy."

"I thought he got sent away."

"Isn't he in Whitfield?"

"Thought he was dead."

"Who's Hank Hooten?" Carlota asked me, but I was too confused to give an answer. We spilled outside under the shade trees and lingered for a while, not certain whether we should stay in case there was another incredible event, or go home and try to comprehend the one we'd just lived through. The Ruffin clan left quickly; Miss Callie was not feeling well.

Eventually, an ambulance carrying Danny Padgitt pulled away from the courthouse and left in no hurry whatsoever. The removal of Hank Hooten was a bit more demanding, but with time they wrestled down his corpse, then rolled it out of the courthouse on a gurney, covered from head to toe with a white sheet.

I walked to my office, where Margaret and Wiley were sipping fresh coffee and waiting for me. We were too stunned to engage in intelligent conversation. The entire town was muted.

I eventually made some phone calls, found who I wanted, and around noon left the office. As I drove around the square, I saw Mr. Dex Pratt, who owned the local glass company and ran an ad in the Times every week, on the balcony at Lucien's, already removing the French doors and replacing panes. I was sure Lucien was home by then, already hitting the sauce on his porch, from where he could see the dome and the cupola of the courthouse.

Whitfield was three hours to the south. I wasn't sure if I would make it that far, because at any moment I was likely to turn right, head west, cross the river at Greenville or Vicksburg, and be somewhere deep in Texas by dusk. Or take a left, head east, and find a very late dinner somewhere close to Atlanta.

What madness. How did such a pleasant little town end up in such a nightmare? I just wanted out.

I was near Jackson before I came out of my trance.

* * *

The state mental hospital was twenty miles east of Jackson on an interstate highway. I bluffed my way through the guardhouse, using the name of a doctor I'd located fishing around with the phone.

Dr. Vero was very busy, and I read magazines for an hour outside his office. When I informed the girl at the desk that I was not leaving, and that I would follow him home if necessary, he somehow found the time to squeeze me in.

Vero had long hair and a grayish beard. His accent was clearly upper midwest. Two diplomas on his wall tracked him through Northwestern and Johns Hopkins, though in the dingy light of his debris-strewn office I couldn't read the details.

I told him what had happened that morning in Clanton. After my narrative he said, "I can't talk about Mr. Hooten. As I explained on the phone, we have a doctor-patient privilege."

"Had. Not have."

"It survives, Mr. Traynor. It's still alive, and I'm afraid I can't discuss this patient."

I'd been around Harry Rex long enough to know that you never took no for an answer. I launched into a long and detailed account of the Padgitt case, from the trial to the parole to the last month and the tension in Clanton. I told the story of seeing Hank Hooten late one Sunday night in the Calico Ridge Independent Church, and how no one seemed to know anything about him during the last years of his life.

My angle was that the town needed to know what made him snap. How sick was he? Why was he released? There were many questions, and before "we" could put the tragic episode behind "us," then "we" needed the truth. I caught myself pleading for information.

"How much will you print?" he asked, breaking the ice.

"I'll print what you tell me to print. And if something's off-limits, just say so."

"Let's take a walk."

On a concrete bench, in a small shaded courtyard, we sipped coffee from paper cups. "This is what you can print," Vero began. "Mr. Hooten was admitted here in January 1971. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, confined here, treated here, and released in October 1976."

"Who diagnosed him?" I asked.

"We now go off the record. Agreed?"

"Agreed."

"This must be confidential, Mr. Traynor. I must have your word on this."

I put away my pen and notepad and said, "I swear on the Bible that this will not be printed."

He hesitated for a long time, took several sips of his coffee, and for a moment I thought he might clam up and ask me to leave. Then he relaxed a little, and said, "I treated Mr. Hooten initially. His family had a history of schizophrenia. His mother and possibly his grandmother suffered from it. Quite often genetics play a role in the disease. He was institutionalized while he was in college, and remarkably, managed to finish law school. After his second divorce, he moved to Clanton in the mid-sixties, looking for a place to start over. Another divorce followed. He adored women, but could not survive in a relationship. He was quite enamored with Rhoda Kassellaw and claimed he asked her to marry him repeatedly. I'm sure the young lady was somewhat wary of him. Her murder was very traumatic. And when the jury refused to send her killer to death, he, shall I say, slipped over the edge."

"Thank you for using layman's terms," I said. I remembered the diagnosis around town - "slap-ass crazy."

"He heard voices, the principal one being that of Miss Kassellaw. Her two small children also talked to him. They begged him to protect her, to save her. They described the horror of watching their mother get raped and murdered in her own bed, and they blamed Mr. Hooten for not saving her. Her killer, Mr. Padgitt, also tormented him with taunts from prison. On many occasions I watched by closed circuit as Mr. Hooten screamed at Danny Padgitt from his room here."

"Did he mention the jurors?"

"Oh yes, all the time. He knew that three of them - Mr. Fargarson, Mr. Teale, and Mrs. Root - had refused to bring back a death penalty. He would scream their names in the middle of the night."

"That's amazing. The jurors vowed to never discuss their deliberations. We didn't know how they voted until a month ago."

"Well, he was the assistant prosecutor."

"Yes, he was." I vividly remembered Hank Hooten sitting beside Ernie Gaddis at the trial, never saying a word, looking bored and detached from the proceedings. "Did he express a desire to seek revenge?"

A sip of coffee, another pause as he debated whether to answer. "Yes. He hated them. He wanted them dead, along with Mr. Padgitt."

"Then why was he released?"

"I can't talk about his release, Mr. Traynor. I wasn't here at the time, and there might be some liability on the part of this institution."

"You weren't here?"

"I left for two years to teach in Chicago. When I returned eighteen months ago, Mr. Hooten was gone."

"But you've reviewed his file."

"Yes, and his condition improved dramatically while I was away. The doctors found the right mix of antipsychotic drugs and his symptoms diminished substantially. He was released to a community treatment program in Tupelo, and from there he sort of fell off our radar. Needless to say, Mr. Traynor, the treatment of the mentally ill is not a priority in this state, nor in many others. We are grossly understaffed and underfunded."

"Would you have released him?"

"I cannot answer that. At this point, Mr. Traynor, I think I've said enough."

I thanked him for his time, for his candor, and once again promised to protect his confidence. He asked for a copy of whatever I printed.

I stopped at a fast-food place in Jackson for a cheeseburger. At a pay phone I called the office, half-wondering if I'd missed more shootings. Margaret was relieved to hear my voice.

"You must come home, Willie, and quickly," she said.

"Why?"

"Callie Ruffin has had a stroke. She's in the hospital."

"Is it serious?"

"I'm afraid so."


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