Jake arrived at the courthouse just in time as usual. Since his office was right across the street and he could see the courthouse from the balcony outside his office, he could stage his entrance for maximum effect. He felt good. The preparation had been thorough and the jury research had been exhaustive. His trial team had some information about all the jurors, and in-depth information about some of the jurors. He knew all the names, having practiced all weekend with index cards. It was almost like elementary school, using flash cards to memorize his multiplication tables.
Janie was already there, having made arrangements for the kids to be at her Dad’s overnight. He would oversee the morning battle to get them ready for school, and then the homework battle after school. She had the full juror profiles at her fingertips and was busy reviewing notes. Finch McDonald would not be at the defense table, but would be in the gallery seated at an angle that would allow Jake to glance over at him during jury selection.
Paxton Jonas was already unloading his suitcases of files on his table, with Arnie Adams chatting with the bailiff. Jake glanced over and smiled as Arnie deliberately avoided helping create the pile of documents that was reaching ridiculous heights. Jake greeted Janie and then wandered over to Paxton to poke a little fun. “Think you have all the files you need, Paxton? Or are there any left in your office?” He held out his hand.
Paxton took it with a big smile on his face. “I just like to have everything I need in case you try to pull a fast one, Jake.”
“I don’t need to pull a fast one when my client is innocent.”
“Which is exactly why I’m prepared for this one.”
Jake let a grudging look of admiration escape his face. “Touché, Jonas, touché.”
“Good luck, Jake,” Paxton said with a victorious look.
“You too,” replied Jake as he turned and laid a hand on Arnie’s shoulder in greeting, obviously not wanting to intrude. Arnie smiled genuinely at Jake and nodded without breaking the conversation. Jake returned to the table and began pulling his files and his legal pad out of his case.
“You know, Janie, as much as I don’t want to like Paxton, something about him just rubs me the right way. He can take it as well as give it. I just really hate to admit that about the opposition.”
“Well, hold it until the trial is over. Then tell me how you feel.”
The courtroom soon became noisy as the prospective jurors filed in and were directed to the side of the courtroom nearest the jury box leaving the first four rows free. Spectators, mostly other lawyers who were interested in getting a look at Ray as the defendant, were filling in the opposite section. Finch McDonald came in and spoke briefly to Jake before taking a seat a couple of rows back. Soon Ray came through the side door by the bench, escorted by a deputy to the defense table where he was greeted by Jake and Janie, taking a seat between them.
A bailiff came to his feet and announced that court was now in session, calling everyone to their feet. Judge Stroker entered and took his seat, bidding the others to do the same. He gave a short speech to the crowd, explaining that they would be selecting the jury today. Names would be chosen randomly and when fifty prospective jurors were seated, the rest would be excused for the day and only recalled if needed.
Judge Stroker called off the names and people began filling the empty rows. Jake felt encouraged as the names quickly came to mind along with the rating assigned to each. Occasionally he whispered to Janie around Ray about a particular aspect of a juror as they were called. He saw the jury he wanted in the group, but educated, financially sound, middle aged people were the exception rather than the norm, so getting the right ones on the jury would be the challenge. After those chosen were seated and the rest were excused, the Judge called for a fifteen-minute recess and headed out the door. Harry Rex appeared out of nowhere with a sarcastic look on his face.
“Perfect, just perfect. You couldn’t have drawn this one up better, Jake. You’ll get twelve middle aged women who think you’re cute.”
“Funny. What do you think, Finch?” asked Jake as Finch appeared over Harry Rex’s shoulder.
“I think it’s got possibilities. It’ll be interesting to see what Jonas’ ideal juror looks like.” Jake looked over to see Paxton grinning at him.
“Apparently, he likes this group,” Jake said. The three lawyers continued to discuss the potential jurors as Janie turned to Ray.
“So far so good. By my count we only have 16 that are absolute no’s.”
“Does that mean that some are possible no’s?”
Janie frowned. “We missed out on quite of few people that we had graded higher but I guess we’ll find out for sure when the questioning starts.”
“Hmmm,” said Ray.
“What?” inquired Janie.
Ray shook his head, “I just sometimes forget that it’s my future on the line and just watch the action. You know, I love studying and teaching the law, but it’s another thing altogether to be right on the front lines. At times, I’ve just felt like part of the team. And then at some point I remember I’m the defendant and it hits me all over again.”
“Are you worried?”
“Heck, yes, I’m worried. I’ve studied enough of these cases to know that right now it could go either way.”
“Ray,” said Janie as she laid a hand on his arm, “Don’t worry. Jake’s never had a client sent to the gas chamber.”
Across the aisle, Arnie was discussing names with the prosecution’s jury consultant. Paxton was sitting at the table, drawing patterns on his legal pad and thinking of the surprise witness he was going to spring on Jake. The weekend had been very kind to him, as Orville Thompson had arranged a meeting with the anonymous caller. The caller’s name was Will Summers, and he had cut the grass at Maple Run for years.
Will’s story was simple and convincing. He was cleaning up some branches from one of the dying maples on the edge of the property when a van pulled up in the driveway. Two men had gotten out and placed four boxes on the porch. They knocked on the door, but there was no answer because the Judge wasn’t home. They knocked again, discussed it for a few minutes, then moved the boxes over behind a pillar where they weren’t visible from the street. They got back in the van and drove away, never glancing in Will’s direction.
Will was curious because the Judge never got packages. Maybe he would get a large envelope that wouldn’t fit in the mailbox occasionally, but never something as big as this. He finished picking up the branches, then went up on the porch. He saw that the top box had a small, plain envelope taped to the top flap but no writing on it. The envelope was taped in such a way that you could open the box without cutting it, and the flap was simply tucked in, not glued in any way. As if the sender knew that this was being delivered by people he trusted. Will pulled it open and took out a simple white card business card that had writing on the back, “Reuben, may this gift be a blessing to you. Thanks for being a family friend. Patton.”
Will did not know who Patton was, but the front of the card had ‘Patton French’ printed on it with ‘Attorney’ beneath the name along with a Biloxi address. When he went to test the weight of the box, he found it to be solid but not overly heavy. Whatever was in there was packed tight within other boxes. He shook it and heard nothing. Maybe books, he thought. He put the card back in the envelope and tucked the flap back in. He went back to his work, thinking that he would help take the boxes into the house when the Judge got home. The Judge’s health had gotten worse lately and it would be difficult for Reuben Atlee to move them in his weakened condition.
Paxton Jonas’ dreaming was jolted back to reality when Judge Stroker resumed the bench and began addressing the prospective jurors. As he began to summarize the case, Arnie pushed a freshly printed list of the 50 remaining jurors in front of Paxton. Arnie showed him another copy and whispered, “I’ll put our rankings on this one.” Their rankings were one to five, one being a certain loser and five being a sure winner. He began to write their scores next to each name, and the fours and fives began to accumulate. After the judge finished his summary and began questioning the jurors, Paxton soon lost interest and his mind began to wander. He looked over at Raymond Atlee and noticed the family resemblance to Judge Atlee. It was a little unnerving if you thought about it. Kind of like putting a part of the Judge on trial. Which was hard to imagine, that Judge Atlee could ever be on trial for a double homicide. He belonged behind the bench, not standing in front of it.
Once again, Paxton was jolted back to reality when some jurors began leaving the courtroom. Judge Stroker had begun the phase where he asked if anyone had any extenuating circumstances that would prevent someone from serving. Health concerns and age received the greatest consideration and when he saw that Arnie was marking names off with purpose, Paxton decided he should appear just as engaged and began scribbling and marking furiously.
After a long time the judge finished his questioning and announced a recess for lunch. When they got back, the attorneys from both side would be free to do their questioning and take advantage of their pre-emptory challenges. Paxton started thinking about a turkey sub and missed the rest of the judge’s remarks. Before the judge dismissed everyone, he asked to counsel to join him in his chambers.
“Gentlemen, I just want to see if there is anything we need to discuss before we go any further.”
Paxton and Arnie had discussed how to best add Will Summers to the witness list with the least amount of fuss. They finally decided to play it straight and not try to spring a surprise. That would come later.
Paxton began, “Your Honor, I have a new witness to add to our list. This just came to us over the weekend.”
“Oh, come on,” Jake said.
“Look, I’m being serious, this came out of the blue.”
“Mr. Jonas, I’m not in a mood to grant you grace. What is the relevance?” asked the judge.
“Your Honor, the witness came to us, and he has first-hand knowledge of the money that Ray and Forrest were fighting over. He saw the cash himself.”
Judge Stroker paused, caught Jake out of the corner of his eye, then said, “Explain.”
“We received a call from him on Friday, and were able to validate his story over the weekend.”
Jake, feeling railroaded, was appalled. “Judge Stroker, this is completely underhanded and unfair.”
Judge Stroker, feeling a little evil satisfaction at this opportunity to stick it to Jake, said, “As much as I don’t like last minute witnesses, I’m inclined to allow him to testify. But the defense must have sufficient time to review his testimony and depose him if necessary.” Covering his appeal tracks, he thought.
“Absolutely, Judge, we can make that happen. I have a summary of his testimony right here.”
Jake objected strenuously, “Judge, how do you expect me to fully question this witness and validate his testimony?”
“Well, Mr. Brigance, do the best you can, and we’ll revisit it tomorrow morning before we start calling witnesses. In the meantime, I’m sure you have resources that can corroborate what he has to say. Mr. Jonas, please deliver a copy of that summary of the witness’ testimony by the end of today. Let’s get back to work.” And with that, Judge Atlee’s money was to be revealed to all.
The guest who had checked in as Lincoln Allen walked by the deserted outdoor pool of the Super Inn motel. He had left his room to get some fresh air to fight off the hangover and nausea that was plaguing him. He decided that the walk outside wasn’t working and that he should retreat to his room and consider his next move. He had arrived in Nashville days before and had drunk an enormous amount of alcohol so that he didn’t have to think. As usual, his crash was sudden yet expected. The stress of his flight from Little Rock and the beginning of the trial in Clanton had pushed him predictably over the edge. He looked down into the empty pool and wanted to vomit as his stomach began to object to its recent treatment. He took a quick breath and suppressed the urge to puke until he made it to his room and emptied his insides into the toilet.
Crawling out of the bathroom and onto the bed, he heard his phone ring but lacked the strength to even look at the number. He let it go to voicemail, knowing that when he checked it, he would find a five second message of silence. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, and he certainly did not want to talk about what was going on three hours to the south in Clanton. His last thought before passing out was of he and Ray as little boys. Sneaking into a courtroom, taking turns sitting up at the judge’s desk, taking delight in pronouncing people guilty. He did not know that as kids they had been exploring the very same courtroom where Ray was fighting for his freedom, and possibly his life.
The voice waited impatiently for a return call from Forrest. There was significant concern that Forrest would never pay up. The word was that the investigation into Forrest’s death had stalled. The investigators couldn’t definitively identify the body, and they were reluctant to declare Forrest dead and close the investigation. The body was a close enough match that a quick resolution should have been fairly cut and dried. The voice had come up with the plan and the body. The body would not be missed but it was possible that dental records could turn up that could be identified as Forrest’s, proving that the body did not belong to him. Forrest had guaranteed that there weren’t any records, that as an adult he had only had dental work twice, and the kind of dentist he went to in Memphis didn’t keep files.
The voice figured that it was the lack of a DNA match that was holding it up, but that it shouldn’t matter, since so far DNA analysis’ reliability was questionable and that the body size, the decomposition and the proximity to the crash should have led to a quick closure of the investigation. But the longer this dragged on, the greater the possibility that something could go wrong. Maybe lying to Forrest that the investigation was closed would trick him into making the next payment. Who would Forrest call to check whether the story was true? No one. That might work. They would meet for the payment, and then the next bombshell could be dropped in person.
Court resumed after lunch and the afternoon dragged on as the jurors were questioned as a group and then individually. By five o’clock a panel was seated, lectured and sent home with instructions to return by 8:45 the next morning. Janie headed off to get the kids and Ray was ushered back to jail. The rest of the Atlee defense team retreated to Jake’s office to review this day and plan the next. Jake went through messages while waiting for Harry Rex to arrive, which he soon did with a grocery bag under his arm. A six pack of beer made its appearance on the table.
“I’m worried,” said Harry Rex.
“You’re always worried.” said Jake.
“I’m with Harry Rex,” Finch said.
“About what?” asked Jake.
“The jury. Not exactly what we wanted.”
“I think they’re okay. Reminds me of the Hailey jury. Why are you worried?” asked Jake.
Harry Rex popped a top and spoke first. “Because the prosecution is happy with this jury. Paxton likes it, you can tell Arnie loves it, and if they like it, I don’t. We missed something.”
“That’s not why I don’t like it,” said Finch.
Jake looked at Finch. “I’m used to this grouch never liking a jury, but what don’t you like?”
“I wanted one of them to have leadership qualities, be a real independent thinker. A dominant personality that we could exploit.”
“Exploit how?” asked Jake.
“We got a jury filled with people who are eager to please. I saw a lot of supportive personalities. They just want to help. Which, don’t get me wrong, we want them to look at our fine, upstanding, unfortunate Raymond Atlee and be willing to help him out of this jam. The problem is that they will want to help Paxton, too.”
“Paxton is a likable guy.”
“Exactly. And he appears to be a competent attorney with the public’s best interest at heart. They don’t know him like you do. You could tell today that everyone thinks of him the same way that they think of you and will try to do everything they can to help. They are a smart bunch, which is good, but they are very pliable.”
“And you wanted one of them to be not pliable?”
“Exactly. If we’d had more time, we’d have tried to find out which one was the biggest jerk in the jury room and get him or her on the jury. I was looking for one early, and usually you can spot a leader whenever you get a group like that together. I just didn’t see one.”
“If you had, how does that help us?”
“You key in on that person and your job is to persuade him that your client is not guilty. Once you have him convinced, he will naturally lead the others and get them going his direction. It doesn’t matter if he is or isn’t the jury foreman.”
“So you’re saying I have to convince them all now, rather than just one.”
“Yes, your job is harder.”
Harry Rex said, “I suggest you key in on Miss Emily Kopf. Juror Number Four. That’s who I would go for.”
Jake said wearily, “Harry Rex, can we concentrate on the case, rather than who the next Mrs. Vonner might be when the current one doesn’t work out?”
“Jake, that is exactly what I am doing. And the current one is working out fine, thank you. A nice big fee I recently got is keeping her very busy spending my money.”
“Good for her.”
“Miss Emily Kopf will be your leader.”
“Because, Miss Emily looks just like her mother. Sweet, intelligent, amiable. A real honey.”
“Her mother?” asked Finch.
“Well, her too,” Harry Rex allowed.
“Harry Rex. Your point?” asked Jake with exasperation.
“My point, Jake my boy, is that I did a divorce for her mother a few years ago, and I was sucked in by her pleasant demeanor. And then we got into negotiations and a backbone of steel emerged. I soon learned to keep my hands and feet away from her mouth. She’s a real shark. Had everyone tap dancing to her tune.”
“That doesn’t mean Miss Emily is.”
“And then the next year, I did a divorce for Miss Emily, and found out she is her mother’s daughter. She’s your leader.”
They look at each other for several moments, the Finch said, “Okay, we have our leader. Now let’s figure out how to convince Juror Number Four that Raymond Atlee is an innocent man.”
The court had been called into session, the jury had been sworn in and the opposing parties were ready to begin. Judge Stroker studied his notes, then removed his reading glasses and smiled at the jury. After this moment, he would no longer be their friend, making them feel welcome. It was now time to put them to work. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I want to thank you again for your service and do appreciate the hard work that you will do in this case. We will start the trial today with opening statements by the attorneys, followed by testimony given by the witnesses. We anticipate the trial will last two days, ending with closing arguments. At that time, you will be given the case to decide. You will receive specific instructions and be given the opportunity to ask questions and to review evidence. Until that time, you may not interrupt the proceedings. You will be given frequent breaks and sufficient time for lunch. If you have any issues that need to be addressed, please discuss it with the bailiff. If necessary, I will be informed. Please do not discuss the case with anyone, including the other jurors, until you are in deliberations. If any of you are approached by anyone wanting to discuss the case or are intimidated by anyone in any way, I need to know immediately. Is that understood?”
All heads nodded.
“Have any of you been approached?”
All heads shook no.
“Good. Let’s proceed. Mr. Jonas, an opening statement?”
Paxton Jonas stood. “Thank you, your Honor.” He stepped out from behind the table and walked smilingly in front of the jury. He began to lay out his case, setting the scene, talking about the garage, the shots, the bodies. Then he paused, and said, “There is a man in this room who was also in that garage when Delroy Harper and Nicolas Parnell were killed. This is a man you may know, or at least you may know of his family. He is sitting at the defense table. His name is Raymond Atlee. He grew up in Clanton. He went to Clanton High. His father was a beloved Judge who at times practiced in this very courtroom.” Here he paused again, as if a revelation were forthcoming.
“His father, Judge Reuben Atlee, practiced the law for many years, and some of you may also know that he died last year. Until the end he defended the law and saw to it that others did as well. Unfortunately, he could not extend that love of the law to his own sons. You see, the Judge had two sons, Raymond and Forrest. Some of you watched Forrest play football for Clanton High where he was the starting quarterback, and some of you were in the stands the night Clanton lost a playoff game because they had to start their backup quarterback. Where was the starting quarterback, you ask? Why, the starting quarterback, Forrest Atlee, was at the city jail, being charged with drug possession. A high school junior, who would be arrested again two years later for dealing drugs.”
By now Jake was getting to his feet to object, which was rarely done during an opening statement, where attorneys had a tremendous amount of leeway. But this was going way off the reservation. “Your honor, I object. The history of my client’s brother is irrelevant to this case. There was nothing in pre-trial discovery that indicated that Forrest Atlee’s younger days would be entered into evidence. Counsel is testifying.”
“Your Honor, this goes to family character, directly impacts the crime and is common knowledge.” Arnie Adams could be seen imperceptibly shaking his head. While he was familiar with the tactic, he would have done it properly, making it known that Forrest’s past would be a topic to be explored, so as not to have his rhythm interrupted during his opening argument.
Judge Stroker asked, “Mr. Jonas, do you have a witness who will testify as to the veracity of the things you just said about Forrest Atlee?”
“Not in so many words, your Honor.”
“Then the objection is sustained. Mr. Jonas, please move along from this subject, and limit your remarks to what you are going to prove.”
“Yes, your honor.” He paused and studied his notes, thrown off his stride by the interruption, but not entirely surprised by Jake’s objection. He decided to forge on with this theme. “Judge Atlee had another son. His name is Raymond Atlee. He is sitting over at the defense table. He went to law school at Suwanee, and then went on to teach law at the University of Virginia. But as much as he studied and knew the law, when it came to family and money, he forgot all about it. We will show how Forrest Atlee’s troubled life enticed Raymond Atlee to ambush two men that day in the garage.” Jake objected again, and Judge Stroker sustained it with a warning to Paxton.
“No more references to Forrest Atlee, Mr. Jonas. Is that clear?”
“Yes, your Honor.” Paxton continued, “We will show that officers arrived on scene to find one man alive, Raymond Atlee, along with a gun with Raymond Atlee’s fingerprints on it. The gun with his fingerprints on it fired the bullets that killed the two men. You will hear the defense claim that the evidence is circumstantial, that no one saw him fire the gun. That is true. No one alive saw Raymond Atlee fire the gun. We will demonstrate that he had the motive, the opportunity and the means to carry out this heinous crime. If we can prove those three things, the law says that you may find him guilty of committing these crimes.”
Ray watched the jurors as Paxton spoke and felt them turning against him as they were told how horrible he and his family were. Paxton’s voice was smooth and easy to listen to. His condemnation of Ray was like a credible news report that they were eating up. When Paxton described the two thugs as family men whom Ray had taken away from their loving wives and children, the curious glances were slowly turning into hostile stares.
Janie could see that Ray was starting to sag, so she leaned over and whispered to him. “Don’t listen. Think of something else. You know how this works, remember? We talked about how he will try to make you out to be the devil.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t tell me that he would succeed,” Ray whispered back. Janie wrote on her legal pad, “Don’t worry, Satan, Jake will get them back,” followed by a smiley face, moving the pad in front of Ray. She saw his frown morph into a tight smile as he read her joke.
He began doing as Janie had suggested, which was thinking of something else. He began looking around the courtroom. Although he had not been in this courtroom for years, it was very familiar. The walls had not changed in years, except that they seemed more yellow than he remembered. The pictures and the furnishings had never changed. The room was old, and smelled that way.
He shifted his chair slightly so that he could see some of the people in the gallery. Although he recognized a couple of people, most of the faces were unfamiliar. He had not kept in touch with any people in Clanton over the years except Harry Rex. As his eyes swept over the room, he was surprised to see Claudia Gates sitting in the back row. Claudia had been the Judge’s court reporter and girl Friday for thirty years. Rumors of romance between the Judge and Claudia had begun before Ray’s mother died and had continued until the Judge fired Claudia the year before he got voted out of office. She supposedly had given the Judge an ultimatum of marriage, which had failed. She married a younger man soon after and was given her walking papers.
Ray had never liked Claudia and had viewed her as a rival for the Judge’s attention when he was younger. He was glad when she got fired and had only made peace with her after the Judge’s death. Even then, it had been a surface peace and did not explain why she would be in the gallery for his trial. She only did what was a benefit to herself, he thought, so what was her angle at being here now? As if reading his thoughts, Claudia caught his look and smiled briefly. Ray looked away quickly, forgot Janie’s advice and tried to get his mind off Claudia by listening to Paxton’s opening. Yet there was something in Claudia’s look that Ray couldn’t place and it prevented him from paying full attention to what Paxton was saying.
Paxton’s statement became less dramatic as he began talking about the responsibilities of being a juror in a Mississippi capital case, but just as he was about to lose the jury through boredom he rallied by coming back to the poor victims. He urged the jurors to be prepared to find Raymond Atlee guilty and to avenge the death of the men for their families. He thanked the jury and sat down, trying not to grin stupidly, but not quite succeeding. Judge Stroker looked at Jake.
“Mr. Brigance, would you like to make a statement?”
Jake stood. “Yes, your Honor.”
“Do we need a short break?” Which was his polite way of asking how long Jake was going to ramble on.
“I’ll be brief, your Honor.”
“Nevertheless, we’ll take a fifteen-minute recess. I want to see counsel in chambers.” Jake looked after the retreating judge, then back at Harry Rex. Harry Rex shrugged, and Janie approached Jake.
“What happened there? He was going to let you go ahead and then suddenly changed his mind.”
“Well, I’ll go find out.” He followed the prosecution into the back hallway and then into the office that Judge Stroker had appropriated for the week. The Judge’s robe was already coming off as he turned and faced Paxton Jonas.
“Mr. Jonas,” Judge Stroker began, “you’ve taken a leap here. There was nothing in the pre-trial discovery that indicated you would be bringing Forrest Atlee into the mix. As a matter of fact, I would say that you went out of your way to exclude him.”
“Your honor, we have a new witness who will testify to the character of Forrest Atlee, which reflects directly on the family which includes Ray Atlee.”
“Another new witness?”
“Yes,” said Paxton.
“No,” said Judge Stroker.
“No?” Paxton eyebrows went up in surprise. He had planned this little drama to throw Jake off his stride.
“No, you don’t have a new witness. I’m tired of your tricks. And in the courtroom, you told me that you didn’t have a witness who would testify to the statements you were saying about Forrest Atlee. Did you lie to me?”
Paxton felt a little caught. “No, your Honor, what I said was that I didn’t have a witness who testify about the football thing, you know, in so many words. But he’ll talk about Forrest’s drug use.”
“No. There will be no surprise witness in this courtroom. Save your tricks.”
“Don’t you even want to know who it is?” Paxton almost pleaded. His face said, please let me tell you!
“No, I don’t. Forrest is not on trial here, and neither is his character. Your ‘surprise witness’ will not testify about that. If you think that your witness can add something else that is pertinent to this case, then Mr. Brigance will be allowed to depose the witness prior to his testimony.”
Paxton interrupted, “But he’s already talked to him!” Jake now knew who he was talking about.
“That has no bearing on whether he will be allowed to testify. Jake probably talked to the waitress at the Coffee Shop this morning, but if you wanted her to testify, I would also say no. Now, do you have something of relevance to your case? Shall Mr. Brigance depose this witness?”
Arnie pulled Paxton aside and whispered to him. Paxton listened, and turned back. “Yes, your Honor, he can give us relevant testimony.”
“Alright, Mr. Jonas. Mr. Brigance? Thoughts?”
Jake took his shot. “Your Honor, I object to this trick. Mr. Jonas has had plenty of time to list this witness. He’s had his statement for a month. This is a blatant attempt to cheat.”
Paxton lashed out. “You don’t even know who it is!”
Jake glared back, “Who else could it be? It’s Tyler Price. Bring him on.”
Jake approached the podium in front of the jury and pretended to study his notes. He couldn’t stop smiling at the ham-handed attempt to spring a witness on him. His surprisingly pleasant lunch with Tyler Price had led to a follow up phone conversation where Tyler had let it be known that he had agreed to testify for the prosecution without being subpoenaed. He was still very honest in his belief that Ray had done it, and was eager to see justice done to avenge his men’s deaths. Tyler said that he was going to testify to the same things that he had told Jake during their lunch. He still thought that Forrest had lured Harper and Parnell to the garage for Ray to kill. Jake appreciated his forthrightness, and asked that he not let the prosecution know that they had talked.
Jake began. “Hello, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Jake Brigance, and my client is Ray Atlee.” If Paxton was going to call him Raymond, then to Jake he would be Ray. Jake and Ray, just two regular guys. He turned and very deliberately looked at Ray, who at this point was supposed to appear like anything but a murderous maniac. He mostly succeeded.
“You’ve already heard this morning that Ray was born here in Clanton, grew up here in Clanton, went to school here and went on to become a lawyer. He got his undergraduate degree from Suwanee and went to law school at Tulane. His father, Judge Reuben Atlee, was one of my favorite people, whom I got to know after Ray had already left home. Ray’s mother died of cancer when Ray was a boy.
“You have also heard about the other member of the Atlee family, whom I wasn’t going to bring up, but since Mr. Jonas has presented him to you, let me just tell you a bit more about him. Forrest Atlee is Ray’s younger brother. Ray and Forrest had a typical small-town childhood, living in a big, stately house, riding their bikes around the neighborhood and going to church at First Presbyterian, until their world was changed by their mother’s death.” Out of the corner of his eye, Jake could see Paxton beginning to squirm from the opening he had given Jake. He went on.
“From then on, the brothers helped take care of one another, until Ray left for college at Suwanee. That year was Forrest’s junior year in high school, and that fall was when he ran into the trouble that you heard about. That was the year that Ray was not there to guide his brother.”
“Objection!” Paxton couldn’t contain himself any longer.
Judge Stroker feigned surprise. “On what grounds, Mr. Jonas?”
Now it was Paxton’s turn to look surprised. “You told me I couldn’t talk about Forrest!” he sputtered.
“The court believes that since you opened the door, Mr. Brigance will be allowed a little leeway to walk through it. Objection overruled. Go on, Mr. Brigance.”
“But your Honor!”
“Overruled.” Judge Stroker gestured at Jake. Jake didn’t hesitate.
“Forrest’s junior year was primed to be great. He was playing quarterback and safety, and was the star of the team. But he was also without the rock of his life, his brother Ray. Forrest did indeed get arrested for drug possession that year and spent two years in a juvenile facility. Then back to jail at nineteen. When he went into his first rehab at age twenty-one, it was Ray who took him. When Forrest went into another rehabilitation facility two years later, again it was Ray who took him.
“And less than a year ago, after their father’s death, Forrest again entered into a rehabilitation program. And it was Ray who took him. I point this out only to say that the prosecution has tried to paint Forrest as a bad actor, and therefore by association so is Ray. But the truth is that Forrest was an unfortunate soul who was haunted by demons that most of us will never know or understand, and it was his brother, Ray, who stuck by him to the end. It was Ray who made a trip to Clanton to Miller’s Garage at the request of his brother, only to find two dead men.
“We will prove that he did not have the gun that killed the men. We will prove that there was no motive to kill those men. And, most importantly, we will prove that Ray Atlee did not have the opportunity to kill those men.” Jake looked directly at Emily Kopf. “Once we prove that Ray Atlee could not have killed Delroy Harper and Nicolas Parnell, you will have the pleasure of pronouncing him not guilty of these charges. Thank you.”
Jake returned to the defense table, looking neither left nor right. He sat and pretended to make notes on his legal pad as his words lingered in the air. Ray had avoided making eye contact with anyone on the jury after Paxton’s indictment of him, but he now stole a look at the jurors. Some seemed sufficiently impressed by Jake’s oration, but more than a few still gave Ray looks normally reserved for ax murderers.
Judge Stroker, who had also appeared to be making notes, looked up and said, “Call your first witness, Mr. Jonas.”
“The prosecution calls Sheriff Ben Sawyer.”
Forrest’s return to life was achingly slow and painful. It was at this point when the hair of the dog normally made its appearance, but it was important to Forrest to make sure his mind was clear. He wanted to call back, and he wanted to be coherent when he did it. There was a small coffee maker in the room, and he thought a cup might help. He put the pouch in the filter holder, added water and turned it on. As soon as the smell began to fill the room, the nausea came back, prompting a return visit to the commode.
After dry heaving for a few minutes, he returned to the bed until the feeling passed. He wanted to sleep, but he also wanted to call his accomplice to find out the latest. His inability to move on, to just get on a plane for the Caribbean, to leave this behind for the beach, was paralyzing. He could only think of the trial that he knew was starting today.
Paxton led Ben through a series of questions about the crime. “Was there a photographer present at the scene?” he asked.
He handed Ben photographs that Ben had shown Ray the night of the murders. “Can you identify these pictures? Were these taken at the crime scene?”
“Can you tell the jury what is in this picture?”
“Yes.” Ben wasn’t giving any extra information unless Paxton worked for it.
“Will you please tell the jury what is in this picture?”
“The photo is of a dead body.”
“And who was dead body?”
“What happened to Nicolas Parnell?”
“He died on the way to the hospital.” The enmity between Paxton and Ben was obvious as the painfully awkward testimony continued. Ben offered nothing other than the absolute minimum words. Paxton entered four pictures into evidence and those were passed around the jury. There was some reaction to the photos but nothing major. The pictures of the scene were not particularly gruesome as the gunshot wounds in the upper chest appeared to be only small holes in their shirts. There was not an enormous amount of blood, and if the men hadn’t been clothed and laying on a garage floor in awkward positions, they might have been sleeping. There was a photo of each man that the pathologist who had done the autopsy had provided showing the chest and head. Even those photos were not gory as the bullets had just made small entrance wounds in the chest with very little blood visible. Paxton had been very disappointed in the effect the photos would have, as often you could implant a vision into the jury’s memory of how sick the defendant must be to have committed this gruesome crime. Jake didn’t object to them being put into evidence, which normally the defense would fight. Paxton would soon find out the reason why.
Paxton continued his questioning keying in on the gun found at the scene and the fingerprints found on the gun. “Were the fingerprints found on the gun identified?”
“Can you tell me whose fingerprints were found on the gun?”
“Can you point to the man whose fingerprints were found on the gun?”
Paxton was frustrated. “Will you point to the man whose fingerprints were found on the gun?” Ben made about as small a gesture in the direction of Ray as humanly possible. Paxton finally had what he wanted. He said dramatically, “Let the record show that Sheriff Sawyer positively identified Raymond Atlee as the man whose fingerprints were found on the gun! Nothing further, your Honor!”
The effect was less than Paxton had hoped for. Chuckles could be heard when one of the courtroom regulars could be heard saying, “I wonder how long he practiced that one?” Judge Stroker let the laughter die out before he addressed Jake, who was watching the amused looks on several of the jurors’ faces.
“Mr. Brigance, cross examine?”
Jake stood, “Yes, your Honor.” He approached the witness stand with the photographs. “Good morning, Sheriff. You have identified that the men in these pictures were those who were shot at the scene, is that correct?”
“That is correct.”
“Can you tell us where the shots were located on the body?”
“Yes, they were located in the left chest area.”
Paxton stood up, “Objection, your honor, the Sheriff is not a medical expert.”
“Overruled. I think Sheriff Sawyer can tell without a medical degree where bullets entered a body. Continue Mr. Brigance.”
“Sheriff, were all the shots in the left chest area?”
“Yes, they were.”
“Sheriff, when you train an officer to fire a weapon, where do you instruct them to hit the body?”
“We train them to hit the center mass of the body.”
“Would that include the left chest area?”
“Yes, and because heart is there, it’s actually the most effective spot.”
“How difficult is that?”
“On a paper target, difficult. With two moving humans, one after the other? Extremely difficult.”
Jake turned toward the jury and made eye contact with Emily Kopf. “So, if an experienced officer were doing this shooting, where would he have shot these men?”
“Right where they were shot.”
“Sheriff, do you ever review the training of your deputies?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Can any of your deputies make those shots on the range?”
Ben, thought a moment. “A couple.”
“Thank you. No further questions. Your Honor, I would like the right to recall this witness at another time.”
“Granted. Mr. Jonas, redirect?”
“No, your Honor.”
“Sheriff, you may step down.” Jake returned to his seat, pleased at having planted the seed.
“The prosecution calls Deputy Elmer Conway.” Conway took the oath and seated himself in the witness chair. Arnie began the questioning, leading Elmer through the scene, the bodies, the smell of gunpowder. He asked him about the gun and where it was found. Elmer told about finding Ray and taking him back to the station. He touched again on the fingerprints, although Elmer didn’t have a lot to contribute. He tendered the witness to the defense, having solidly implanted the sights and sounds of the garage in the minds of the jury.
Jake approached Elmer, smiling slightly. “Deputy Conway, you just testified about finding a gun in the garage. What happened to the other two?”
“The other two what?”
“The guns belonging to the two men who were killed.”
“There weren’t any.”
“They didn’t have guns?”
“We didn’t find any.”
“In your statement, you said that they both had shoulder holsters. Yet you are also saying that they didn’t have guns?”
“That’s what I’m saying, they didn’t have guns. Not that we found, and we went over that place with a fine-toothed comb.”
“I see.” Jake paused and looked at his notes to change directions. “How did you first know that Ray was in the garage?”
“I heard him.”
“And what did you hear?”
“He was calling out, saying ‘over here, I’m over here.’
“Ray wasn’t hiding from you?”
“No. I mean, he was hiding, but it wasn’t from us.”
“Then why was he hiding?”
Paxton rose. “Objection. Calls for speculation.”
“Sorry, your Honor. Let me rephrase. Deputy, did Ray try to get away from you?”
“Why do you say that?”
“He called out to us first and told us where he was. He didn’t evade us.”
“So, would it be fair to say that he got your attention?”
“Then what happened?”
“We told him to get on the floor, hands behind his head. He did, and then told us where the bodies were.”
“He told you?”
“He said, ‘there are bodies over there’ and he thought one of them might be his brother.”
“How do you know that he thought that?”
“He said, ‘I think one of them might be my brother.’”
“But neither of them was in fact his brother. Could he see them?”
“He could see the one that was dead. We let him look at the other when the paramedics got there.”
“When he saw the other, how did he seem?”
“Maybe. Mostly just relieved.”
Jake let that sink in while he looked at his notes. It was important that the jury catch that. “Deputy, this was not the first time you arrested Ray Atlee, was it?”
“No, it was not.” Jake was half turned toward the prosecution and could see Paxton sit up and grab a file.
“When was the first time you arrested him?”
“I arrested him in May of last year.”
“For what?” Jake asked while looking at the jury.
“For speeding and possession of a gun without a permit.”
“He had an unregistered gun? What kind of gun?”
“A Smith and Wesson .38.”
“And what happened to that gun?”
“It got put in the evidence locker at the station.”
“Was it ever identified? As far as a serial number, I mean?”
“The gun had a serial number for sure. I put it in the log. But Ray kept saying it was the Judge’s gun, that’s why he didn’t have a permit.”
“Your Honor, I would like to put the evidence locker log at the Sheriff’s Office into evidence as Exhibit E.” Jake approached Elmer and handed him a piece of paper. “This is a copy of the evidence locker log for the week of June 1, 2000. Do you see an entry for the gun in question on that sheet?”
Elmer scanned down the sheet. “Yes, I do. This is where I wrote down the gun information.”
Jake looked at the jury box, again making eye contact with Emily Kopf. “Does it include a serial number?”
“Yes, I wrote that down too.”
“Thank you, Deputy. No further questions, your Honor, but I would like the right to recall this witness at a later time.”
“Granted. Mr. Jonas, redirect?”
Paxton looked confused, but standing said, “Yes, your Honor. Deputy Conway, you said this was not the first time you arrested Raymond Atlee, is that correct?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Yet I don’t see an arrest on his record. Why is that?”
“He was never booked. We got the call that the house was on fire so we headed over there to watch it burn.”
“You watched it burn? With Raymond Atlee?”
“Yes. The fire department was trying to put it out but that house was a stack of kindling just waiting for a match.”
“Just to be clear, Deputy, the Atlee house had caught fire at the same time Raymond Atlee was speeding outside of town?”
“Where did you catch Raymond Atlee speeding?”
“In the Bottoms.”
“Going toward or going away from Clanton.”
“He was going away.”
Paxton paused. “So, let me make sure I have this straight. You catch Raymond Atlee speeding away from Clanton, confiscate a gun from him, take him back to the station, learn that the house that he was living in was burning, took him there, watched it burn with him and then released him?”
“On who’s authority?”
“The Sheriff. Harry Rex promised to keep an eye on him.”
“Harry Rex Vonner?”
“No further questions, your honor.”
As Judge Stroker declared a break for lunch, Ray dared a look at the jury. Most looked at him as they were leaving. It wasn’t pretty.
Harry Rex looked admiringly at Jake. “Wow, I have a whole new respect for you. You just might make it as a lawyer after all!”
The Atlee defense team had decided to have lunch in Jake’s conference room rather than risk a public place. They figured the jury would end up at the Coffee Shop and didn’t want to have to guard their words. Sandwiches were brought in to be gulped down while discussing the morning. Janie nervously picked around the edges of a salad while trying to digest what she had witnessed in the trial. She asked, “Do you think the morning went well?”
Harry Rex answered, “I think it went ok. I thought you did very well. The only hitch was Paxton following up about the night of the fire.”
“Yeah, I hoped that would sneak by him. It doesn’t hurt our case but it looks incriminating when you put it the way Paxton did,” said Jake.
“Other than that, the rest was good. The prosecution put two of our witnesses on the stand right off the bat. Ben was great on purpose, and Elmer was great without knowing it.”
Janie was about to ask why when Jake directed a question at Finch. “What do you think the jurors thought?”
“I think they’re confused. The first witnesses were law enforcement officers, so they fully expected to be told of Ray’s guilt, but that really didn’t happen. Other than the fingerprints on the gun, they got nothing besides his presence that indicates Ray did it.”
“We’ll take care of the fingerprints soon enough,” Jake laughed.
Janie’s second question was deflected when Finch asked Jake, “How do you think Ray is holding up?”
“He’s fine. Despite being an attorney, he is letting us do the work, which I’m grateful for.”
Harry Rex scoffed. “He’s not a real attorney. I love the boy, but he’s an ivory tower professor.”
“I think you are selling him short, Harry Rex. I think he could be a very good attorney. But I think he’s being a good client.”
Finch chimed in. “Yes, he is. And, so far, the judge seems to favor the defense. He’s not suffering Paxton Jonas much.”
“He told me he would make Paxton work for it. So far he is.”
“Who’s on tap for the afternoon?”
“Both wives, then back to the pathologist, the forensic investigator, and fingerprint expert.” Jake imitated Paxton with heightened astonishment, “Do you mean to say, the fingerprints on the murder weapon belonged to Raymond Atlee?? Amazing!!!”
Ray finished his meal in his cell, chewing absently while thinking about his day. Now that the trial was in motion, his movements were on public display and the flexibility he had enjoyed prior had been restricted. Before the trial, he would have been allowed to join the defense team for lunch. Now he had to be seen being escorted out the side door of the courtroom, else the prosecution would have reason to suspect leniency on the part of the judge.
Even thought he had not been a trial attorney, he was not a stranger to the courtroom. Especially this particular courtroom. He had been in it many times while growing up. Even though they were not allowed to visit their father “at work”, there were times in his memory when his mother was alive that the boys would accompany her to see the Judge for one reason or another.
At times during the day it had been easy to forget that he was the one on trial, as he concentrated on the testimony being given. He watched Jake questioning Ben and Elmer, knowing where Jake was going with his questioning. He was glad for the distraction that trial was providing, as well as being glad that it had started, which meant that he was that much closer to freedom. Knowing that he was innocent, he really couldn’t believe that he would be found guilty. He knew the investigation was continuing on Ben’s end to find the killer, but with a suspect in custody, other agencies had lost the urgency to help. He had to remain confident that the system would work to confirm his innocence.
Getting lost in the midst of all this was the fact that he had lost his brother. While Ray was relieved to be free from the drama that was Forrest, he somehow had thought that his little brother would always be around, always needing taken care of. That Forrest had not been declared dead, and for now was just missing, did not deter Ray from believing that Forrest had finally run out of luck. The defense team had spent considerable time in speculation. Why was Forrest driving away in the first place? Was it because he had committed the murders and was running? Was Forrest’s car forced off the bridge? Who forced it off the bridge? Who was he running from?
They had also discussed the implications of a not yet declared dead Forrest. A dead Forrest did nothing to advance their defense, only called for speculation that could never be confirmed, and testimony that could never be given. A missing Forrest, however, muddied the waters considerably, meaning that the search for Forrest might intensify, and could possibly be grounds for a continuance. A continuance could not be counted on, however, and they had to proceed with a rigorous defense regardless.
The phone rang on the cheap, nicked dresser. Forrest woke out of a deep sleep which had provided precious relief. It took a moment to register, after which he closed his eyes again. He knew that it would stop, and he would hear the beep indicating a voicemail. Forrest wondered what the call would bring, but it was time to find out. He closed his eyes again, knowing that the beep would prevent him from falling back asleep, which it did immediately. He sat up, ran his fingers through his hair, stopping to rub his temples in an effort to reduce the building headache. He glanced at the bottle of whiskey on the dresser and briefly considered a drink. Just one.
“No,” he said out loud. “Just make the call.” He stood up, rolled his head to ease his stiff neck, reached across to the dresser and picked up the phone. He looked at the last number, recognized it and pushed ‘Call’.
After one ring, the voice answered. “Forrest.”
“Time to get paid.”
“I said, time to get paid. I have good news.”
Forrest perked up. “Really?”
“The investigation is closed. You are dead, my friend.” Forrest closed his eyes. Dead. Forrest Atlee is no more. Suddenly the curtain lifted from his paralyzed mind and he found freedom behind it. Dead. Finally. Free to go.
“Yep, they finally did it. It won’t be public for a few days while everything gets processed, but it’s finally over.”
“It’s over,” Forrest repeated.
“It’s over. So, now, time to get paid.”
“Okay. When can you meet me?”
Forrest’s head was still pounding. “Let’s make it tomorrow.”
“Not trying to stiff me, are you, Forrest?”
“No, no, I just need a little time. I’m a few hours away.”
“Today, Forrest. Let’s get this done.”
Yes, Forrest thought, let’s get this done. He had enough with him to make the final payoff. “Ok, I’ll meet you.”
“How about four o’clock.”
“At the truck stop, Senatobia exit on 55. East side of the parking lot behind the big rigs.”
“I’ll be there,” the voice said, and hung up.
“The prosecution calls Denise Harper to the stand.” A small, extremely nervous woman emerged from the gallery and came to the witness stand. She took the oath and sat with her hands in her lap. Paxton approached her quietly and led her through a series of questions that were designed specifically to humanize her husband, who from all accounts was truly a thug and had few redeeming qualities. The defense team had already decided that the cross examination would be minimal, and would only be used to remind the jury that these men were themselves on the edge of the law, if not actually killers themselves. Jake wanted to go hard on the wives, but was persuaded by Finch to use kid gloves.
After Paxton was done sanctifying Delroy Harper, Jake approached the witness. “Mrs. Harper, I am sorry for your loss.” His condolences were met by well performed pre-arranged tears. “I’m sure your husband was a good man and you are really feeling his loss to your family.” Mrs. Harper nodded yes, while dabbing her eyes with a white handkerchief that had been theatrically produced by Paxton when the tears began to flow during his questioning.
“I’m sure as well that you are being taken care of by his former employer, correct?” With this, the tears took a momentary break as she looked dumbly at Jake. He continued, “I mean, I’m sure his employer had good employee benefits that included a generous life insurance package, correct?”
“Objection, your Honor, relevance,” said Paxton.
“Mr. Jonas on direct examination asked questions about the loss that the family had endured. The defense has a right to pursued that line of questioning,” Jake replied.
“Objection is overruled. Please continue, Mr. Brigance,” said Judge Stroker.
“Thank you, your honor. Now, Mrs. Harper, what was your husband’s position with his company?”
Denise Harper looked at Jake, then looked at Paxton, as if for help. “I don’t know.”
“Objection!” Paxton rose to his feet.
Judge Stroker asked, “On what grounds?”
“This has nothing to do with life insurance!”
Judge Stroker took a moment as if looking for the connection. He glanced at Jake, who nodded as if say, go ahead, I’m ready with that answer. Judge Stroker didn’t want to give Jake any advantage but couldn’t deny him the access to relevant testimony. “Mr. Brigance?”
“Your Honor, many companies base the amount of life insurance given in a benefits package on the job level of the employee. Since we are concerned about the monetary loss to the family, I have a right to find out what that is.”
“Mr. Jonas, again, the objection is overruled, and you will not object again to this line of questioning.”
“Thank you, your Honor. Now, Mrs. Harper, what was your husband’s position with his company?” asked Jake.
Again, Denise Harper looked lost. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what his position was?” Jake knew the question was asked and answered so he moved quickly on. “What exactly did your husband do for, I’m sorry, where did he work?”
Mrs. Harper looked lost, and Jake didn’t himself like what he was putting her through. Still, “Who did he work for, Mrs. Harper?”
“He worked for Tyler Price.”
“And what did he do for Mr. Tyler Price?”
A pause. “I don’t know, exactly.” Jake repeated the pause, then resumed carefully.
“Do you know what your husband was doing in Clanton the night he was killed?”
“Did he not tell you?”
“Did he ever tell you what he did for a living, Mrs. Harper?”
She cracked. “No, he didn’t.”
“Why do you think that was?” asked Jake gently.
Paxton stood, “Objection, speculation,” he said, equally as quietly.
“Withdrawn.” Jake looked at his notes, passing the time.
“Mr. Brigance? Anything further for this witness?” Judge Stroker asked.
Jake strolled near the jury box, briefly making eye contact with Emily Kopf. “Mrs. Harper, how many times has your husband been to prison?”
Paxton quickly stood, objecting at the same time. “Relevance!”
Jake turned away. “No more questions your Honor.”
Judge Stroker looked at Paxton. “Redirect?” Paxton, still standing, shook his head and sat down. Stroker ignored the breach of courtroom etiquette and said, “Let the record reflect that the prosecution does not wish to redirect. You may step down,” he said to Denise Harper. As she left, he watched Paxton and Arnie whispering furtively, then asked, “Any more witnesses, Mr. Jonas?”
Paxton looked up as Arnie continued to harangue him, saying, “Yes, your Honor we do.” He practically had to fight Arnie off. “A minute, your Honor?”
Judge Stroker had to smother a smile. “Take your time, counselor.” Jake turned slowly so that he could catch Ray’s eye and winked. In the meantime, Arnie was persuading Paxton to skip the more unfortunate Mrs. Parnell, whom he was sure Jake would also subtlety and slowly belittle on cross. Paxton reluctantly agreed to move along, calling to the stand the pathologist who performed the autopsy, a Dr. Huppington. The testimony of the pathologist was dry and unexciting, proving only that the men were, indeed, dead. Some in the jury wondered why this was necessary, as the fact that they were dead was not in dispute. Nothing in the testimony tied the death of the men to Raymond Atlee. He tendered the witness, glad to have things go as expected.
“Mr. Brigance, would you care to cross examine?”
“Yes, your Honor. Dr. Huppington, I have just a few questions. Were you able to locate the bullets in the bodies?”
“Yes, I was.”
“And those bullets were where?”
“Let’s start with Mr. Harper. How many bullets were found?”
“There were two.”
“And where were they found? Specifically. Here is the photograph you provided of Mr. Harper.”
“You can see from the photo that they are in the chest.”
“Can you be more specific?”
Dr. Huppington sighed. “They were found in the heart.”
“Both bullets were found in the heart?”
“Yes, one in the right ventricle and one in the left ventricle.”
Jake let it sink in, then continued his questioning. “Is it common for a shooting victim to have two bullets close together?” Paxton began to stand to object that the witness was being asked to speculate, but Jake didn’t want to lose momentum and put his hand up saying, “I’ll rephrase, Dr. Huppington, in your experience, have you ever seen a shooting victim with two bullets that close together?”
Reluctantly, Dr. Huppington said, “No, I have not.”
“No more questions, your Honor.” As Jake walked back to the defense table, Ray could see that one more seed had been planted.