Page 5 of The Last Juror

We did, however, print a lot. The headline proclaimed that Rhoda Kassellaw had been raped and murdered, and that Danny Padgitt had been arrested for it. The headline could've been read from twenty yards down any sidewalk around the courthouse square.

Under it were two photos; one of Rhoda as a senior in high school, and one of Padgitt as he was led into the jail in handcuffs. Wiley had ambushed him all right. It was a perfect shot, with Padgitt sneering at the camera. There was blood on his forehead from the wreck, and blood on his shirt from the attack. He looked nasty, mean, insolent, drunk, and guilty as hell, and I knew the photo would cause a sensation. Wiley thought we'd better avoid it, but I was twenty-three years old and too young to be restrained. I wanted my readers to see and know the ugly truth. I wanted to sell newspapers.

The photo of Rhoda had been obtained from a sister in Missouri. The first time I talked to her, by phone, she had had almost nothing to say and quickly hung up. The second time she thawed just a little, said the children were being seen by a doctor, that the funeral would take place Tuesday afternoon in a small town near Springfield, and, as far as the family was concerned, the entire state of Mississippi could burn in hell.

I told her that I understood completely, that I was from Syracuse, that I was one of the good guys. She finally agreed to send me a photo.

Using a host of unnamed sources, I described in detail what happened the previous Saturday night on Benning Road. When I was sure of a fact, I drove it home. When I wasn't so sure, I nibbled around the edges with enough innuendo to convey what I thought happened. Baggy Suggs sobered up long enough to reread and edit the stories. He probably kept us from getting sued or shot.

On page two there was a map of the crime scene and a large photo of Rhoda's home, one taken the morning after the crime, complete with cop cars and yellow police ribbon everywhere. The photo also included the bikes and toys of Michael and Teresa scattered around the front yard. In many ways, the photo was more ominous than one of the corpse itself, which I didn't have but tried to get. The photo stated plainly that children lived there, and that children were involved in a crime so brutal that most Ford Countians were still trying to believe it really happened.

How much did the children see? That was the burning question.

I didn't answer it in the Times, but I got as close as possible. I described the house and its interior layout. Using an unnamed source, I estimated that the children's beds were about thirty feet from their mother's. The children fled the house before Rhoda, they were in shock by the time they got next door, they were seen by a doctor in Clanton and were undergoing therapy of some nature back home in Missouri. They saw a lot.

Would they testify at a trial? Baggy said there was no way; they were simply too young. But I pulled the question out of the air and posed it anyway, to give the readers something else to argue and fret over. After exploring the possibility of parading the children into a courtroom, I concluded that "experts" agreed that such a scenario was unlikely. Baggy enjoyed being considered an expert.

Rhoda's obituary was as long as I could possibly make it, which, given the tradition of the Times, was not unusual.

We went to press about 10 P.M. on Tuesday night; the paper was in the racks around the Clanton square by 7 A.M. on Wednesday. The circulation had dropped to fewer than twelve hundred at the time of the bankruptcy, but after a month of my fearless leadership we had close to twenty-five hundred subscribers - five thousand was a realistic goal.

For the Rhoda Kassellaw murder we printed eight thousand copies and put them everywhere - by the doors of the cafes around the square, in the halls of the courthouse, on the desks of every county employee, in the lobbies of the banks. We mailed three thousand free copies to potential subscribers, as part of a sudden, one-time special promotion effort.

According to Wiley, it was the first murder in eight years. It was a Padgitt! It was a wonderfully sensational story and I saw it as my golden moment. Sure I went for the shock, for the sensational, for the bloodstains. Sure it was yellow journalism, but what did I care?

I had no idea the response would be so quick and unpleasant.

* * *

At 9 A.M., Thursday morning, the main courtroom on the second floor of the Ford County Courthouse was full. It was the domain of the Honorable Reed Loopus, an aging Circuit Court Judge from Tyler County, who passed through Clanton eight times a year to dispense justice. He was a legendary old warrior who ruled with an iron fist and, according to Baggy - who spent most of his working life hanging around the courthouse either picking up gossip or creating it - was a thoroughly honest Judge who had somehow managed to avoid the tentacles of the Padgitt money. Perhaps because he was from another county, Judge Loopus believed criminals should serve long sentences, preferably at hard labor, though he could no longer order such.

The Monday after the murder, the Padgitt lawyers had scrambled around trying to get Danny out of jail. Judge Loopus was preoccupied with a trial in another county - his district covered six of them - and he refused to be pushed into a quick bail hearing. Instead, he set the matter for 9 A.M. Thursday, thus allowing the town several days to ponder and speculate.

Because I was a member of the press, indeed the owner of the local paper, I felt it was my duty to arrive early and get a good seat. Yes, I was a bit smug. The other spectators were there out of curiosity. I, however, had very important work to do. Baggy and I were sitting in the second row when the crowd began to assemble.

Danny Padgitt's principal lawyer was a character named Lucien Wilbanks, a man I would quickly learn to hate. He was what was left of a once prominent clan of lawyers and bankers and such. The Wilbanks family had worked long and hard to build Clanton, then Lucien came along and had pretty much ruined a fine family name. He fancied himself as a radical lawyer, which, for that part of the world in 1970, was quite rare. He wore a beard, swore like a sailor, drank heavily, and preferred clients who were rapists and murderers and child molesters. He was the only white member of the NAACP in Ford County, which alone was enough to get you shot there. He didn't care.

Lucien Wilbanks was abrasive and fearless and downright mean, and he waited until everyone was settled in the courtroom - just before Judge Loopus entered - to walk slowly over to me. He was holding a copy of the latest Times, which he began waving as he started swearing. "You little son of a bitch!" he said, quite loudly, and the courtroom became perfectly still. "Who in hell do you think you are?"

I was too mortified to attempt an answer. I felt Baggy inch away. Every single person in the courtroom was staring at me, and I knew I had to say something. "Just telling the truth," I managed to say with as much conviction as I could muster.

"It's yellow journalism!" he roared. "Sensational tabloid garbage!" The paper was just a few inches from my nose.

"Thank you," I said, like a real wise guy. There were at least five deputies in the courtroom, none of whom were showing any interest in breaking this up.

"We'll file suit tomorrow!" he said, his eyes glowing. "A million dollars in damages!"

"I got lawyers," I said, suddenly terrified that I was about to be as bankrupt as the Caudle family. Lucien tossed the paper into my lap, then turned and went back to his table. I was finally able to exhale; my heart was pounding. I could feel my cheeks burning from embarrassment and fear.

But I managed to keep a stupid grin on my face. I couldn't show the locals that I, the editor/publisher of their paper, was afraid of anything. But a million dollars in damages! I immediately thought of my grandmother in Memphis. That would be a difficult conversation.

There was a commotion up behind the bench and a bailiff opened a door. "Everyone rise," he announced. Judge Loopus crept through it and shuffled to his seat, his faded black robe trailing behind him. Once situated, he surveyed the crowd, and said, "Good morning. A rather nice turnout for a bail hearing." Such routine matters generally attracted no one, except for the accused, his lawyer, and perhaps his mother. There were three hundred people watching this one.

It wasn't just a bail hearing. It was round one of a rape/murder trial, and few people in Clanton wanted to miss it. As I was keenly aware, most folks would not be able to attend the proceedings. They would rely on the Times, and I was determined to give them the details.

Every time I looked at Lucien Wilbanks, I thought about the lawsuit for a million dollars. Surely he wasn't going to sue my paper, was he? For what? There had been no libel, no defamation.

Judge Loopus nodded at another bailiff and a side door opened. Danny Padgitt was escorted in, his hands cuffed at his waist. He was wearing a neatly pressed white shirt, khaki pants, and loafers. His face was clean shaven and free of any apparent injuries. He was twenty-four, a year older than me, but he looked much younger. He was clean cut, handsome, and I couldn't help but think he ought to be in college somewhere. He managed a slow strut, then the sneer as the bailiff removed the handcuffs. He looked around at the crowd, and for a moment seemed to enjoy the attention. He showed all the confidence of someone whose family had unlimited cash, which it would use to get him out of his little jam.

Seated directly in back of him, behind the bar in the first row, were his parents and various other Padgitts. His father Gill, grandson of the infamous Clovis Padgitt, had a college degree and was rumored to be the chief money launderer in the gang. His mother was well dressed and somewhat attractive, which I found unusual for someone dimwitted enough to marry into the Padgitt clan and spend the rest of her life secluded on the island.

"I've never seen her before," Baggy whispered to me.

"How often have you seen Gill?" I asked.

"Maybe twice, in the last twenty years."

The State was represented by the county prosecutor, a part-timer named Rocky Childers. Judge Loopus addressed him: "Mr. Childers, I assume the State is opposed to bail."

Childers stood and said, "Yes sir."

"On what grounds?"

"The horrific nature of the crimes, Your Honor. A vicious rape, in the victim's own bed, in front of her small children. A simultaneous murder caused by at least two knife wounds. The attempted flight of the accused, Mr. Padgitt." Childers's words cut through the hushed courtroom. "The great likelihood that if Mr. Padgitt leaves jail we will never see him again."

Lucien Wilbanks couldn't wait to stand up and start bickering. He was on his feet immediately. "We object to that, Your Honor. My client has no criminal record whatsoever, never been arrested before."

Judge Loopus looked calmly over his reading glasses and said, "Mr. Wilbanks, I do hope that is the first and last time you interrupt anyone in this proceeding. I suggest you sit down, and when the Court is ready to hear from you, then you will be so advised." His words were icy, almost bitter, and I wondered how many times these two had tangled in this very courtroom.

Nothing bothered Lucien Wilbanks; his skin was as thick as rawhide.

Childers then gave us a bit of history. Eleven years earlier, in 1959, a certain Gerald Padgitt had been indicted for stealing cars over in Tupelo. It took a year to find a couple of deputies willing to enter Padgitt Island to serve a warrant, and though they survived, they were unsuccessful. Gerald Padgitt either fled the country or secluded himself somewhere on the island. "Wherever he is," Childers said, "he's never been arrested, never been found."

"You ever hear of Gerald Padgitt?" I whispered to Baggy.

"Nope."

"If this defendant is released on bail, Your Honor, we'll never see him again. It's that simple." Childers sat down.

"Mr. Wilbanks," His Honor said.

Lucien stood slowly and waved a hand at Childers. "As usual, the prosecutor is confused," he began pleasantly. "Gerald Padgitt is not charged with these crimes. I don't represent him and really don't give a damn what happened to him."

"Watch your language," Loopus said.

"He's not on trial here. This is about Danny Padgitt, a young man with no criminal record whatsoever."

"Does your client own real estate in this county?" Loopus asked.

"No, he does not. He's only twenty-four."

"Let's get to the bottom line, Mr. Wilbanks. I know his family owns considerable acreage. The only way I'll grant bail is if it's all pledged to secure his appearance for trial."

"That's outrageous," Lucien growled.

"So are his alleged crimes."

Lucien flung his legal pad onto the table. "Give me a minute to consult with the family."

This caused quite a stir among the Padgitts. They huddled behind the defense table with Wilbanks and there was disagreement from the very start. It was almost funny watching these very wealthy crooks shake their heads and get mad at each other. Family fights are quick and bitter, especially when money is at stake, and every Padgitt present seemed to have a different opinion about which course to take. One could only imagine what it was like when they were dividing their loot.

Lucien sensed that an agreement was unlikely, and to avoid embarrassment he turned and addressed the Court. "That's impossible, Your Honor," he announced. "The Padgitt land is owned by at least forty people, most of them absent from this courtroom. What the Court is requiring is arbitrary and overly burdensome."

"I'll give you a few days to put it together," Loopus said, obviously enjoying the discomfort he was causing.

"No sir. It's just not fair. My client is entitled to a reasonable bail, same as any other defendant."

"Then bail is denied until the preliminary hearing."

"We waive the preliminary."

"As you wish," Loopus said, taking notes.

"And we request that the case be presented to the grand jury as soon as possible."

"In due course, Mr. Wilbanks, same as all other cases."

"Because we will move for a change of venue as soon as possible." Lucien said this boldly, as if an important proclamation was needed.

"It's a bit early for that, don't you think?" Loopus said.

"It will be impossible for my client to get a fair trial in this county." Wilbanks was gazing around the courtroom as he continued, almost ignoring the Judge, who, for the moment, seemed curious.

"An effort is already under way to indict, try, and convict my client before he has the chance to defend himself, and I think the Court should intervene immediately with a gag order."

Lucien Wilbanks was the only one who needed gagging.

"Where are you going with this, Mr. Wilbanks?" Loopus asked.

"Have you seen the local paper, Your Honor?"

"Not lately."

All eyes seemed to settle upon me, and once again my heart stopped dead still.

Wilbanks glared at me as he continued. "Front page stories, bloody photographs, unnamed sources, enough half-truths and innuendos to convict any innocent man!"

Baggy was inching away again, and I was very much alone.

Lucien stomped across the courtroom and tossed a copy up to the bench. "Take a look at this," he growled. Loopus adjusted his reading glasses, pulled the Times up high, and sank back into his fine leather chair. He began reading, apparently in no particular hurry.

He was a slow reader. At some point my heart began functioning again, returning with the fury of a jackhammer. And I noticed my collar was wet where it rested on the back of my neck. Loopus finished the front page and slowly opened it up. The courtroom was silent. Would he toss me into jail right there? Nod to a bailiff to slap handcuffs on me and drag me away? I wasn't a lawyer. I'd just been threatened with a million-dollar lawsuit, by a man who'd certainly filed many, and now the Judge was reading my rather lurid accounts while the entire town waited for his verdict.

A lot of hard glances were coming my way, so I found it easier to scribble on my reporter's pad, though I couldn't read anything I was writing. I worked hard at keeping a straight face. What I really wanted to do was bolt from the courtroom and race back to Memphis.

Pages rattled, and His Honor was finally finished. He leaned slightly forward to the microphone and uttered words that would instantly make my career. He said, "It's very well written. Engaging, perhaps a bit macabre, but certainly nothing out of line."

I kept scribbling, as if I hadn't heard this. In a sudden, unforeseen, and rather harrowing skirmish, I had just prevailed over the Padgitts and Lucien Wilbanks. "Congratulations," Baggy whispered.

Loopus refolded the newspaper and laid it down. He allowed Wilbanks to rant and rave for a few minutes about leaks from the cops, leaks from the prosecutor's office, potential leaks from the grand jury room, all of them somehow coordinated by a conspiracy of unnamed people determined to treat his client unfairly. What he was really doing was performing for the Padgitts. He had lost his attempt to get bail, so he had to impress them with his zealousness.

Loopus bought none of it.

As we would soon learn, Lucien's act had been nothing but a smokescreen. He had no intention of moving the case from Ford County.

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