Page 6 of The Last Juror

When I bought the Times, its prehistoric building came with the deal. It had very little value. It was on the south side of the Clanton square, one of four decaying structures built wall to wall by someone in a hurry; long and narrow, three levels, with a basement that all employees feared and shied away from. There were several offices in the front, all with stained and threadbare carpet, peeling walls, the smell of last century's pipe smoke forever fused to the ceilings.

In the rear, as far away as possible, was the printing press. Every Tuesday night, Hardy, our pressman, somehow coaxed the old letterpress to life and managed to produce yet another edition of our paper. His space was rank with the sharp odor of printer's ink.

The room on the first floor was lined with bookshelves sagging under the weight of dusty tomes that had not been opened in decades; collections of history and Shakespeare and Irish poetry and rows of badly outdated British encyclopedias. Spot thought such books would impress anyone who ventured in.

Standing in the front window, and looking through dingy panes of glass, across which someone had long ago painted the word "TIMES," one could see the Ford County Courthouse and the bronze Confederate sentry guarding it. A plaque below his feet listed the names of the sixty-one county boys who died in the Great War, most at Shiloh.

The sentry could also be seen from my office, which was on the second floor. It, too, was lined with bookshelves holding Spot's personal library, an eclectic collection that appeared to have been as neglected as the one downstairs. It would be years before I moved any of his books.

The office was spacious, cluttered, filled with useless artifacts and worthless files and adorned with fake portraits of Confederate generals. I loved the place. When Spot left he took nothing, and after a few months no one seemed to want any of his junk. So it remained where it was, neglected as always, virtually untouched by me, and slowly becoming my property. I boxed up his personal things - letters, bank statements, notes, postcards - and stored them in one of the many unused rooms down the hall where they continued to gather dust and slowly rot.

My office had two sets of French doors that opened to a small porch with a wrought-iron railing, and there was enough room out there for four people to sit in wicker chairs and watch the square. Not that there was much to see, but it was a pleasant way to pass the time, especially with a drink.

Baggy was always ready for a drink. He brought a bottle of bourbon after dinner, and we assumed our positions in the rockers. The town was still buzzing over the bail hearing. It had been widely assumed that Danny Padgitt would be sprung as soon as Lucien Wilbanks and Mackey Don Coley could get matters arranged. Promises would be made, money would change hands, Sheriff Coley would somehow personally guarantee the boy's appearance at trial. But Judge Loopus had other plans.

Baggy's wife was a nurse. She worked the night shift in the emergency room at the hospital. He worked days, if his rather languid observations of the town could be considered labor. They rarely saw each other, which was evidently a good thing because they fought constantly. Their adult children had fled, leaving the two of them to wage their own little war. After a couple of drinks, Baggy always began the cutting remarks about his wife. He was fifty-two, looked at least seventy, and I suspected that the booze was the principal reason he was aging badly and lighting at home.

"We kicked their butts," he said proudly. "Never before has a newspaper story been so clearly exonerated. Right there in open court."

"What's a gag order?" I asked. I was an ill-informed rookie, and everybody knew it. No sense in pretending I knew something when I didn't.

"I've never seen one. I've heard of them, and I think they're used by judges to shut up the lawyers and the litigants."

"So they don't apply to newspapers?"

"Never. Wilbanks was grandstanding, that's all. The guy is a member of the ACLU, only one in Ford County. He understands the First Amendment. There's no way a court can tell a newspaper not to print something. He was having a bad day, it was apparent his client was staying in jail, so he had to showboat. Typical maneuver by lawyers. They teach it in law school."

"So you don't think we'll get sued?"

"Hell no. Look, first of all, there's no lawsuit. We didn't libel or defame anyone. Sure we got kinda loose with some of the facts, but it was all small stuff, and it was probably true anyway. Second, if Wilbanks had a lawsuit he would have to file it here, in Ford County. Same courthouse, same courtroom, same Judge. The Honorable Reed Loopus, who, this morning, read our stories and declared them to be just fine. The lawsuit was shot down before Wilbanks typed the first word. Brilliant."

I certainly didn't feel brilliant. I'd been worrying about the million dollars in damages and wondering where I might find such a sum. The bourbon was finally settling in and I relaxed. It was Thursday night in Clanton and few people were out. Every shop and store and office around the square was locked tight.

Baggy, as usual, had been relaxed for a long time. Margaret had whispered to me that he often had bourbon for breakfast. He and a one-legged lawyer called Major liked to have a nip with their coffee. They would meet on the balcony outside Major's office across the square and smoke and drink and argue law and politics while the courthouse came to life. Major lost a leg at Guadalcanal, according to his version of the Second War. His law practice was specialized to the point that he did nothing but type wills for the elderly. He typed them himself - had no need for a secretary. He worked about as hard as Baggy, and the two were often seen in the courtroom, half-soused, watching yet another trial.

"I guess Mackey Don's got the boy in the suite," Baggy said, his words starting to slur.

"The suite?" I asked.

"Yeah - have you seen the jail?"

"No."

"It's not fit for animals. No heat, no air, plumbing works about half the time. Filthy conditions. Rotten food. And that's for the whites. The blacks are at the other end, all in one long cell. Their only toilet is a hole in the floor."

"I think I'll pass."

"It's an embarrassment to the county, but, sadly, it's the same in most places around here. Anyway, there's one little cell with air conditioning and carpet on the floor, one clean bed, color television, good food. It's called the suite and Mackey Don puts his favorites there."

I was mentally taking notes. To Baggy, it was business as usual. To me, a recent college attendee and sometime journalism student, a real muckraking story was in the works. "You think Padgitt's in the suite?"

"Probably. He came to court in his own clothes."

"As opposed to?"

"Those orange jail coveralls everybody else wears. You haven't seen them?"

Yes, I had seen them. I had been in court one time, a month or so earlier, and I suddenly recalled seeing two or three defendants sitting in the courtroom, waiting for a judge, all wearing different shades of faded orange coveralls. "Ford County Jail" was printed across the front and back of the shirts.

Baggy took a sip and expounded. "You see, for the preliminary hearings and such, the defendants, if they're still in jail, always come to court dressed like prisoners. In the old days, Mackey Don would make them wear the coveralls even during their trials. Lucien Wilbanks got a guilty verdict reversed on the grounds that the jury was predisposed to convict since his client certainly looked guilty as hell in his orange jail suit. And he was right. Kinda hard to convince a jury you're not guilty when you're dressed like an inmate and wearing rubber shower shoes."

I marveled once again at the backwardness of Mississippi. I could see a criminal defendant, especially a black one, facing a jury and expecting a fair trial, wearing jail garb designed to be spotted from half a mile away. "Still fightin' the War," was a slogan I'd heard several times in Ford County. There was a frustrating resistance to change, especially where crime and punishment were concerned.

* * *

Around noon the following day I walked to the jail looking for Sheriff Coley. Under the pretext of asking him questions about the Kassellaw investigation, I planned to see as many of the inmates as possible. His secretary informed me, rather rudely, that he was in a meeting, and that was fine with me.

Two prisoners were cleaning the front offices. Outside, two more were pulling weeds from a flower bed. I walked around the block and behind the jail I saw a small open area with a basketball goal. Six prisoners were loitering under the shade of a small oak tree. On the east side of the jail I saw three prisoners standing in a window, behind bars, gazing down at me.

Thirteen inmates in all. Thirteen orange suits.

Wiley's nephew was consulted about things around the jail. At first he was reluctant to talk, but he had a deep hatred of Sheriff Coley, and he thought he could trust me. He confirmed what Baggy had suspected - Danny Padgitt was living the good life in an air-conditioned cell and eating whatever he wanted. He dressed as he wished, played checkers with the Sheriff himself, and made phone calls all day long.

* * *

The next edition of the Times did much to solidify my reputation as a hard-charging, fearless, twenty-three-year-old fool. On the front page was a huge photo of Danny Padgitt being led into the courthouse for his bail hearing. He was handcuffed and wore street clothes. He was also giving the camera one of his patented go-to-hell looks. Just above it was the massive headline: Bail Denied for Danny Padgitt. The story was lengthy and detailed.

Alongside was another story, almost as long and much more scandalous. Quoting unnamed sources, I described at length the conditions of Mr. Padgitt's incarceration. I mentioned every possible perk he was getting, including personal time with Sheriff Coley over the checkerboard. I talked about his food and diet, color television, unlimited phone use. Everything I could possibly verify. Then I compared this with how the other twenty-one inmates were living.

On page two, I ran an old black-and-white file photo of four defendants being led into the courthouse. Each, of course, was wearing the coveralls. Each had handcuffs and unruly hair. I blacked out their faces so, whoever they were, they would not suffer any more embarrassment. Their cases had long since been closed.

I'd placed another picture of Danny Padgitt as he was led into the courthouse next to the file photo. Except for the handcuffs, he could've been on his way to a party. The contrast was startling. The boy was being pampered by Sheriff Coley, who, so far, had refused to discuss the matter with me. Big mistake.

In the story, I detailed my efforts to chat with the Sheriff. My phone calls had not been returned. I'd gone to the jail twice and he wouldn't meet with me. I'd left a list of questions for him, which he chose to ignore. I painted the picture of an aggressive young reporter desperately searching for the truth and being stiff-armed by an elected official.

Since Lucien Wilbanks was one of the least popular men in Clanton, I included him in the fray. Using the phone, which I was quickly learning was a great equalizer, I called his office four times before he called me back. At first he had no comment about his client or the charges, but when I persisted with questions about his treatment at the jail he erupted. "I don't run the damned jail, son!" he growled, and I could almost see his red eyes glowing at me. I quoted him on that.

"Have you interviewed your client at the jail?" I asked.

"Of course."

"What was he wearing?"

"Don't you have better things to report?"

"No sir. What was he wearing?"

"Well he wasn't naked."

That was too good a quote to pass up, so I put it in bold print in a sidebar.

With a rapist/murderer, a corrupt Sheriff, and a radical lawyer on one side, and me standing alone on the other, I knew I couldn't lose the fight. The response to the story was astounding. Baggy and Wiley reported that the cafes were buzzing with admiration for the fearless young editor of the paper. The Padgitts and Lucien had been despised for a long time. Now it was time to get rid of Coley.

Margaret said we were swamped with phone calls from readers incensed with the soft treatment Danny was receiving. Wiley's nephew reported that the jail was in chaos and Mackey Don was at war with his deputies. He was coddling a murderer - 1971 was an election year. Folks were angry out there and they might all lose their jobs.

* * *

Those two weeks at the Times were crucial to its survival. The readers were hungry for details, and, through timing, dumb luck, and some guts, I gave them just what they wanted. The paper was suddenly alive; it was a force. It was trusted. The people wanted it to report with detail and without fear.

Baggy and Margaret told me that Spot would have never used the bloody pictures and challenged the Sheriff. But they were still quite timid. I can't say that my brashness had in any way emboldened my stall". The Times was, and would be, a one-man show with a rather weak supporting staff.

Little did I care. I was telling the truth and damning the consequences. I was a local hero. Subscriptions jumped to almost three thousand. Ad revenue doubled. Not only was I shining a new light into the county, I was making money at the same time.

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