Read Pride v. prejudice Online

Authors: Joan Hess

Pride v. prejudice

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To Michael Morton,

who survived twenty-five years in prison

for a crime he did not commit.

In 2013, the prosecutor was found guilty of failing to provide exculpatory

evidence and survived five days in a county jail.

 

1

“You have a better chance of getting on the space shuttle than you have of getting on a jury.” Luanne's pronouncement was accompanied by a noticeably snooty smile. She was looking sleek and tan after her annual safari to the beach, but that did not excuse her attitude. Had she not been my best friend, I might have been a wee bit annoyed.

I opted to remain on a more cerebral plane. “Do you suspect I'm non compos mentis? I can assure you that I have all of my marbles in a box somewhere in the attic,” I said. We were seated at a scarred picnic table in the beer garden across the street from my cherished Book Depot, working our way through a pitcher of beer on a lovely, lazy afternoon. The sky was blue, the breeze adequate to battle the last gasp of August heat. Students from Farber College were beginning to wander in, but most of the tables were unoccupied. “I've never been convicted of a felony. I don't drool or fall asleep at inopportune moments. Perry Mason would embrace me as a juror.”

“Aren't you overlooking the inescapable fact that you're married to the deputy chief of the Farberville Police Department?”

“There is that,” I admitted.

“And that you have a reputation for meddling in official investigations?”

“Rumors of my interference have been greatly exaggerated. I was merely assisting the police on those rare occasions when they seemed to be straying in the wrong direction.” I may have blushed slightly, as befitted my modest nature.

Luanne laughed until beer dribbled out of her mouth and her eyes watered. She finally gained control of herself and took the napkin I offered her. “Oh, yes, you tiptoe among the suspects, dropping only the slyest comments, hovering unseen in the corner at the fateful moment when the perpetrator falls to his or her knees and bleats, ‘I did it!' The detectives scratch their heads and wonder about the identity of that Sherlockian wisp of haze.”

*   *   *

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I want to take a moment to thank you again for your willingness to make whatever sacrifices are necessary in order to serve on our jury. It is vital to our system in this great country that citizens such as yourselves participate in the dispensation of justice.” Prosecuting attorney Edwin Wessell, as he'd introduced himself to us, leaned forward to emphasize his sincerity. He was short and lean, with petrified dark hair, an expensive suit, and large, somewhat yellowed teeth. Unfortunately, they matched his complexion, which resembled a cheese pizza flanked by two tomato slices for ears. After sucking in a breath, he resumed telling us how we represented all things true and good in the past and present, and would have the honor of doing so in the future.

I suppose I should have been flattered to be epitomized as a flag-waving patriot, but I was mostly hungry. The day had begun well before the unreasonable hour of nine o'clock, when we'd been told to arrive at the courthouse. I'd wasted too much time trying to decide what a dedicated member of a jury would wear to do more than slurp a cup of coffee in the car. The next seven hours had been a series of forays in and out of the courtroom. We'd met Judge Lucille Priestly, a busty middle-aged woman with an emphatic chin and hooded eyes. The assistant prosecutor, a twitchy young woman, had given us a startled look before burying her nose in stacks of folders. The defendant's attorney, a pudgy man with bristly blond hair and rosy cheeks, who might have gone to law school with the assistant prosecutor, seemed even less enthusiastic to acknowledge us, although he had admitted his name was Evan Toffle. The defendant had managed a weak smile. Her name, we'd been told, was Sarah Swift, and she was charged with first degree homicide. She wore a white blouse, and her long gray hair was loosely pinned in a bun. Her expression was more suicidal than homicidal.

Prosecutor Wessell finally ran out of platitudes and consulted briefly with his assistant. “As I'm sure you all know from watching television, the next process is what is called voir dire. I am going to ask you a few questions, after which my colleague will do the same. Juror number seven, I believe you noted on the questionnaire that you were detained for shoplifting.”

This perked me up. Number seven was the only one among us who had dressed for tea with the queen. Her very high heels had clattered like a jackhammer on her frequent trips to the ladies' room, and she'd pitched a less than genteel fit when confronted with a stale sandwich for lunch. “It was a mistake,” she said coldly. “As I made clear to the police officer, my husband is a doctor and I am on the board of several charities. I merely draped the scarf around my neck to see if I liked it, and then forgot about it. The charges were dropped.”

Wessell gazed at her for a moment, his thin lips pursed. “I'm sure it was an oversight. Now, juror number three, may I ask you about encounters with the defendant at the local farmers' market?”

My attention did not wander, but it did meander a bit. Sarah Swift's eyes were closed, and her hands were tightly clenched on the arms of her chair. Her breathing seemed measured. Although I read the newspaper assiduously, I'd missed any articles about her purported crime. We'd been told only the essential nature of her offense: first degree homicide. I wondered whom she was accused of killing—and why.

“Juror number ten, I believe you put down your name as Claire Malloy. I found this curiously misleading. Would you care to tell the court your real name?”

“Claire Malloy,” I said in what may have sounded like a gurgle.

“‘Malloy' is the name of your first husband, now deceased. I understand he died under mysterious circumstances.”

“He died when his car was hit by a chicken truck on a mountain road, in a heavy snowstorm.”

“Where were you at the time?”

I was baffled. “At home, with my child.”

“Was this confirmed by the investigating officers?”

Increasingly baffled, not to mention displeased. “Yes, it was. Are you accusing me of something?”

Wessell rubbed his hands together, suggesting this was merely a warm-up volley. “Why would I accuse you of a crime, Mrs. Malloy? Is there something you haven't told us?”

I looked at the judge, who was watching me with a puzzled frown. I had an urge to slam back the ball with a wicked slice of iciness, but I reminded myself of my mild nature and inherent civility. “It was an unfortunate accident. I'm sure there's a report somewhere, Mr. Wessell.” I did not say his name with discernible warmth. I had no idea why he was attacking me as if I'd been implicated in Carlton's death. I hadn't. The state police had concluded that it was the result of poor weather conditions. The driver of the chicken truck had been exonerated. I'd been informed, not questioned. “I wasn't driving the truck. I was at home, as I said a minute ago.”

“But you have been involved in other homicides, have you not? I believe the police considered you a suspect in the brutal killing of a local writer.”

“For approximately thirty seconds. I knew the woman, but I had no reason to harm her. Her husband was found guilty and sent to prison.”

“So you say,” Wessell said with a minute sneer. “What about the other homicides, Mrs. Malloy? There have been a lot of them in your vicinity. I'd list them, but I hate to waste the court's time. No matter where you go or what you do, someone always ends up dead.”

The jurors on either side of me shifted nervously in their chairs. I regret to say that my eyes were so rounded with astonishment that I could feel them. “There have been occasions when I assisted the police in their investigations and subsequently testified in court. But I was never, ever responsible for any homicide.”

“Yet innocent parties died. Just how many bodies have you stepped over in your so-called attempts to assist the police?”

“I have no idea,” I said flatly. “Why don't you tell me?”

Wessell rubbed his hands again. “I don't want to upset your fellow jurors. Let's return to the issue of your real name, shall we?”

“My name is Claire Malloy, although that's not what's on my birth certificate. It is on my passport, driver's license, credit cards, Social Security card, utility accounts, voter registration, and library card.” I glowered at him. He was lucky that the first row of jury members and a waist-high railing were between us. I am not inclined to violence, but I was ready to wipe the smirk off his face.

He turned back to his assistant for a whispered consultation. I forced myself to breathe deeply and uncurl my fists before my fingernails drew blood. I noticed the defendant was regarding me with a peculiar expression, although I couldn't interpret it. I was fairly certain I'd never met her. Her eyes were a vivid blue, her cheekbones high and predominant, her face lined with threadlike wrinkles. If she'd wandered into the Book Depot, my bookstore on Thurber Street, she'd done so without catching my attention. I occasionally went to the farmers' market at the town square, but I couldn't recall having any conversations with her. When I frowned, she looked away.

“Now then, Mrs. Malloy,” Wessell said, “is it true that you remarried several months ago?”

“Yes, but I kept my last name.”

“Whom did you marry?”

“Peter Rosen.”

“Would that be Deputy Chief Peter Rosen of the Farberville Police Department?”

I clamped down on my lower lip before I blurted out a rude remark about his perspicacity. When I could trust myself, I said, “Yes, but I kept my last name. If this disqualifies me from serving on the jury, okay. Why don't you stop badgering me and send me on my way?”

“I am not badgering you, Mrs. Malloy—or should that be Malloy-Rosen? I am simply trying to determine why you've attempted to hide your identity from the court. Please remember that perjury is a felony.”

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