We, the jury, find the defendant not guilty.
The foreman said it like he was apologizing. He avoided eye contact with everyone. The judge, us, me. Especially me. ‘Cause if he had been looking at me he would have seen immediately what I thought of him.
No one said anything for a second. Maybe two seconds. Then Elaine groaned, sort of. That set off the gasps. Which set off various voices going NO. I don’t know what was tighter. My stomach or my fists.
Are you stupid? yelled Mike Tate. Or maybe he said it. I can’t remember. All I know is my head felt light.
The judge demanded quiet in the courtroom. Fat bastard. I know guys in high school who were smarter than him. Of course, at the defense table, the lawyer was patting Neil on the back. Neil was staring at the floor. I remember watching his eyes blink, blink, blink, blink.
He’s a killer. Mike stood up to say that.
The people on the jury, both the men and women, but especially the women, looked embarrassed. I live in a small town. I know a lot of people. But I only knew one of them on the jury. Yvonne Casey. She teaches Sunday school at The First Presbyterian. She is a dimwit. She is always saying God loves you just because. Does God love murderers? Tell me that. Ok, she’s stupid, but the others on the jury—they were idiots, too? Every damn one of them? My God, the evidence was overwhelming.
Did they have shit for brains?
Elaine started bawling. That started other people crying. Mike’s wife hugged him. She knew what he must be feeling. To lose a daughter like that.
The judge thanked the jury for their service and told them they were dismissed.
I wanted to stand up and give them the finger as high as I could reach.
The sheriff’s deputies (where did they come from?) started telling people to leave. Leave now. You must leave. I raised my head and looked at them. One was pointing with his arm to the open doors. Another had his hands on his belt. Like he was proud of something. People did not want to leave, I’ll tell you that. Any bastard that kills his pregnant wife….
I still could not believe it. They actually believed he was innocent. Fingerprints, blood splatter, DNA—none of that mattered. The complaint she made to the police a month earlier. Her diary. Saying how scared she was. And how tired she was of no one listening to her.
I would have listened. I would have listened all day and all night to her. Gladly.
Everyone leave. Leave now.
I watched Neil breathe out his relief when he looked at the jury. He gave them a small nod. Yes. Thank you. Thank you, jury. Now I can get out of jail and be with my girlfriend. I can’t wait to take her to a motel room. Get her clothes off.
That’s when it occurred to me to do it. Follow Creepo. And when he gets to where he is going, knock on the door. When he comes to the door, hit him with a right cross. Knock him out. And while he is on the floor, kick his nuts. Hard. Maybe a dozen times. While his new girlfriend screams. Cause she ain’t getting any. For a long time.
Thinking like this made me wonder: Where was she, anyway? I hadn’t seen her in the courtroom. Did she go back to Alabama? Thinking it was a sure bet he was going to be put away for life. She was way too cute for him. That long black hair. That trusting smile.
A hard finger tapped my shoulder. A deputy.
What do you want?
I want you to leave.
This is a public space. I have a right to be here.
And I’m telling you to leave. Now.
I looked at him. My eyes were saying: And what if I don’t?
Then Elaine started sobbing. My sister. You killed my sister. YOU KILLED HER.
I stood up right then. My intention was to run at Neil ninety miles an hour, get behind him, apply a rear naked choke hold, and apply pressure until he dies. But I saw him glance at Elaine. For a half second. It wasn’t an apology. It was: It’s over, woman. Leave me alone.
This was the same guy I used to run around with in grade school. We were in the same class in the third grade. Unbelievable. What had happened to him? What had caused him to change? Was he going to be a selfish murderer from day one, no matter what?
Move along now, said the deputy.
I set my ass down. He tapped my shoulder. He did it again. When he did it the third time I slapped his hand away. Then everything went to hell.
We started shoving each other, shouting, spitting out curses, the works. I was winning until I heard a crack. And saw stars. It is true. You see stars. Explosions of light. You hear a dull roaring. Time doesn’t slow down. It stops.
* * *
That was yesterday. Today, I woke up in a cell. There is a bandage on my head. I don’t know how it got here.
Jail stinks. It smells of concrete and piss, and it is noisy. Stupid jerks yelling all the time. Wanting this. Wanting that. What the hell. This ain’t a five-star hotel. Nobody is going to listen to them.
I wait like forever. It seems like forever. But it’s six hours. Six hours of staring at the floor, the mattress, the wall, the floor, the mattress, the wall, the floor, the mattress, the wall. I don’t get no meal. Don’t particularly want one.
One o’clock. I’m in the courtroom with six other prisoners. It is a different courtroom. Five of us are waiting our turn. The guy standing in front of the judge, a different judge from yesterday, is trying to explain just why he shoplifted two cans of soup. He is telling the judge that his wife lost her feet due to diabetes and that they have no food in the house and she is hungry. The judge looks skeptical. The guy says please don’t put me in jail. My wife can’t walk. She depends on me.
The judge thinks on it a long time. Then he says I sentence you to sixty days probation. I don’t ever want to see you in my courtroom again. Do you hear me? Do you understand?
He mumbles Thank you, judge.
The bailiff taps the man’s elbow and walks him out of the courtroom.
It is my turn before the judge. He reads some sentences on a piece of paper. I read the nameplate on his desk. THE HONORABLE STEPHAN TATE. Same last name as Mike’s. I remember him. He was in the back row of the courtroom yesterday. Wearing a business suit. Is he a relative? Is that why he was there? Did he want to see justice done, too?
The judge speaks. Battery on an officer of the law. How do you plead?
How do I plead? I don’t know. Do I say guilty? Do I say the deputy started it?
I think about Neil and what I saw yesterday. The entire courtroom was upset over that verdict. Just because his daddy hired this expensive, out-of-town lawyer, he got off. His rich daddy. Neil was always spoiled. One time in the twelfth grade he held a freshman’s head in the toilet bowl. Nearly drowned him. Thought it was funny as hell. The football coach caught him. We all thought he would be in a world of trouble. Nothing happened. No punishment whatsoever. The freshman later dropped out of school. Neil went on to college. That’s justice for you. He did get kicked out of Oklahoma State his final year. Rumor was that he supposedly tried to rape a girl. We don’t know what really happened. It was all hush-hush.
How do you plead? The judge wants to know.
Claire—I’d been in love with her for the longest time. Since the eleventh grade. Did she know it? I think she did.
That’s why I took a vacation from work. To watch the trial and to see him get his time. Only he didn’t. Not one day.
Young man, do you want to answer? How do you plead?
Claire was a beauty. She sure was. Homecoming queen, of course. A stunning beauty. But more than that she had a gentle soul. She was kind to everyone. As good-looking as she was, she could have been snooty. But she wasn’t. She would talk to anyone. Even me. I think we had maybe four conversations. What am I saying? It was four. I know. I remember each one like it was yesterday. After every conversation I felt like I was in heaven.
And he had to go ahead and kill her. Kill her. Take her life away because he lost his temper. Claire now gone from this earth, just a memory.
If you choose not to answer I will enter a plea of not guilty.
I look at the judge.
I loved her, I tell him. They say your first love is the strongest. The one you never forget. It’s true. Claire probably forgot all about me after high school. I mean, why should she remember me? I ain’t nobody. But when I saw her picture in the paper telling where she was going to act in a play, well that brought all kinds of memories back. You know, I went to her funeral just to look at her one more time in the casket. I wanted to hold her hand but I didn’t dare with everybody watching. I know she is in heaven right now, looking down at us. And I’m sure she is the nicest girl in heaven.
I apologize for yesterday. I was awfully upset about the trial. I just couldn’t believe the way it turned out. Tell me, Your Honor. Why are juries so stupid?
It is real quiet in the courtroom. The judge just looks at me like he wasn’t at all surprised to hear me babbling. I think he understood me. He was there, too, when the verdict was read, but being a judge he wasn’t going to yell or moan or carry on. He would just accept the way things turn out. That’s his training.
He considers my question. Why are juries so stupid?
Sometimes they just are, he says.
Paul Bowman, a retired maintenance man, writes plays and fictions. He has had the following one-acts produced: Why We Went to War, The Perfect Lover, My Son, Johnny & Linda, Traffic Stop, and Graduation Party. His stories have been published in The Storyteller, The Chiron Review, CC&D, Literary Justice, Conceit, Trajectory, and Downstate. He has also written novels and screenplays. The publishing industry wisely ignores the former; Hollywood, the latter.
(Photo Credit: “Themis” by Rae Allen can be found on https://bit.ly/2GNo0Vj.)