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Authors: Michael Malone

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BOOK: Time's Witness
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Late on the ninth day, I slipped into Superior Court through the big glossy doors at the back, with a surprise present for Isaac Rosethorn that HPD had just received anonymously in the mail. When I arrived there, the first thing I saw was George Hall's back, straight and still, in the ill-fitting suit he’d worn to Cooper's funeral. The Haver County sheriff, accompanied by two armed deputies, was personally escorting George into the courtroom from Haver County Jail, where he’d been delivered last week by Dollard Prison guards and where he was (again) being kept for the duration of the trial. The first day, Sheriff Louge had led George into court with a chain running from his handcuffs to a leg shackle. People were shocked.

Sheriff Louge had spluttered, But, but, but George Hall was now, after all, a convicted murderer under sentence of death. The sheriff's splutter was in response to Judge Hilliardson's calling a conference in his chambers (Isaac told me about it), and demanding that “all that medieval paraphernalia be removed from the defendant at once.”

Homer Louge had whined, “Okay, Your Honor, and what are we supposed to do if he tries to make a break for it?”

The judge had replied, “You are supposed to stop him. I assume that is why you have added to my congestion by posting four fully armed men in my courtroom?”

Isaac hadn’t protested the chains himself, because they were sympathy-getters, and for the same reason Mitch Bazemore didn’t protest their removal. So after the first day, George was uncuffed as he sat down beside Isaac, and recuffed as he was taken away.

At the other end of the defense table sat Nora Howard, her black curls up in a sedate twist, her dress a muted gray. In the first row behind the bar, next to Jordan West, sat George's mother, Nomi Hall, in a black dress and hat; she kept her hands folded over her purse in her lap, and kept her shoulders as straight and motionless as her son's.

When I walked in, Isaac Rosethorn was standing (deliberately, no doubt) between the prosecutor's table and the jury. He had another prospective juror squirming on the stand. I’d heard he’d already gone through one entire panel, and forced Miss Bee Turner, as clerk, to summons a new set of veniremen. By the end Isaac was to use up all fourteen peremptory challenges, the ones where you don’t have to give a reason for bumping jurors, and where he sometimes didn’t appear to have one. “A hunch,” he’d say. Or “Phrenology.” He’d take a woman because she had “a generous face,” or he’d strike folks because they were ectomorphs, or their feet twitched, or their hair was too tightly pinned, or their eyes kept wandering toward the court clock. He said research had been done analyzing psychological profiles of people strongly in favor of capital punishment, demonstrating that they are more likely to be authoritarian, intolerant, and violent themselves, than people who strongly oppose it. It was these types that Isaac claimed he went after. He struck down an innocuous-looking housewife (“Hard mouth”). He struck down the plastic surgeon whose earlier request to be excused had been denied by Judge Hilliardson (“Prig, and already hostile”). The surgeon had looked insulted when Isaac gave him his wish.

Not to be outdone, Prosecuting Attorney Mitchell Bazemore
(muscles bulging through his three-piece pinstripe) was also striking jurors right and left, playing his peremptory challenges defensively, getting rid of as many blacks as he could, as well as people with advanced degrees, and anybody who struck him as a “bleeding heart.” Miss Bee (a plump gray dove of a woman who’d run the court for so many years, she acted as if she owned it) was by this point giving both lawyers ostentatiously nasty sighs; our court clerk might have looked like a dove, but it was camouflage for a much meaner bird. As soon as one juror was dismissed, she’d rummage her hand down in the panel box for a new name as if she were furiously groping for a key horribly dropped into an outdoor toilet.

As I sat down to listen that afternoon, Mitch had a black engineer “struck,” leaving five women (two black), five men (three black). I watched as Isaac then had a bookkeeper excused as “unqualified” after the woman eagerly claimed (probably because she thought total ignorance was the “right” answer) that not only had she no fixed opinion as to Hall's guilt or innocence, but also that (although living in Hillston, possessing a TV, a radio, and a subscription to the
Hillston Star
) she’d heard, seen, and read “absolutely nothing at all” for the past seven years about anything to do with the George Hall case. “Madam,” said Isaac with a bow, “you appear to be astonishingly, though perhaps blessedly, free of the remotest interest in your fellow man.”

She risked a dubious smile, and said, “Thank you.”

Isaac said, “Thank
Challenged for cause.”

“Excused,” said Judge Hilliardson with a withering look.

Then Mitch challenged a young Catholic mechanic who admitted he had such religious scruples against the death penalty, that he would never convict in a case where death could conceivably be the sentence. “Look, I’m sorry,” he said, with a glance at Isaac Rosethorn after he was excused, “but I felt like I had to tell the truth.”

Judge Hilliardson scowled at him. “Surely, young man, you don’t suspect the defense counsel would prefer your

Isaac, the old hypocrite, shook his head, sad solemnity in his eyes.

Then Miss Bee called one Curtis McHugh, a middle-aged,
middle-management man at C&W Textiles. He took the oath with loud earnestness and settled himself quickly in the stand, like he was eager to try on some new shoes. The State (via Mitch Bazemore) quickly found McHugh quite acceptable, and retired to its table for a sip of water.

Seated next to Nora Howard behind the book-cluttered defense table, Isaac nodded as she handed him a small slip of paper. Then he limped over to the stand (a very slight limp, just enough to make the Korean War veteran already seated in the jury box subliminally wonder, “War injury?”).

The old lawyer was wearing his shoes polished, his shirt snowy white as his hair, his old tweed suit freshly cleaned and patched (“suggests I’m a neat person but not a wealthy one”), a wedding ring (in the totally preposterous and conceited fear that otherwise jurors might think he was up to some “hanky-panky with Nora”), a borrowed Civitans’ pin in his lapel (one of the selected jurors was in that organization), and a new tie with tiny blue French fleur-de-lis all over it (one of the jurors had spent years trying to trace his ancestry back to the Bourbon monarchs).

Curtis McHugh watched Rosethorn's approach with studied nonchalance.

“Mr. McHugh,” the deep voice purred, “you’ve just told Mr. Bazemore that you feel ‘fully and completely confident’ you can give a disinterested, fair-minded hearing of this case. No question in your mind?”

“No, sir,” said McHugh, straightening his rather loud tie.

“What do you know about the defendant here, George Hall?” Isaac pointed at the defense table.

“Just what I heard on the news. He murdered a policeman a few years back, got convicted, but now they’re giving him a new trial because sombody messed up the first one.”

“Messed up?”

McHugh shrugged. “You know, threw it out on technicality-type stuff.”

“Ah.…Anything else you’ve heard about Mr. Hall?”

“No. Well, he's the brother of the one the police think maybe got shot.”

“The ‘one’? The one what?” “The protester. Cooper Hall.”

“Do you have any views about Cooper Hall's past ‘protesting’ that might prejudice you against his brother, the defendant?”

“None a’tall.” McHugh folded his arms firmly over his chest. “Why should I?”

“You shouldn’t.” Isaac took a stroll as he talked. “Do you think killing is ever justified, Mr. McHugh?”

“Sure, in wars and things like that. Or to protect your home and family. Things like that.”

“In self-defense?”

“Sure. But if it's a matter of just plain shooting somebody down or something, then I think you’ve got to pay your debt to society. If a human being takes a life, then he owes a life.” McHugh nodded up at Judge Hilliardson as if he expected to be commended; Hilliardson stared straight through him. “Like the Bible says.”

Isaac nodded. “In Leviticus, where the Bible also says it's fine to own slaves, and not fine to eat pork chops…Now, Mr. McHugh, you told Mr. Bazemore a minute ago, you are ‘totally sure’ there's not a ‘single shred’ of prejudice against black people in your ‘heart or mind.’” Isaac smiled sweetly as he quoted these phrases.

“That's right.” Serious nods.

“Well, that's a wonderful thing to be totally sure of. Let me ask you something.” Isaac leaned against the stand, scratching an eyebrow. “You have any friends who’re black?”

Confusion. “What do you mean?”

A dismissive wave of the hand. “No? Well, how about casual acquaintances? Ever had a black person to your house for dinner?”

McHugh's face twitched. “No. But there’re a couple of black people at C&W in my division, and I don’t have any problem with them a’tall.”

“Ever go to a show with one? Or maybe out for a cup of coffee, ever socialize with one?”

Suspicion tightened the man's face. “No. But just because we don’t have anything in common doesn’t make me prejudiced if that's what you’re getting at.” McHugh pulled at his ear, then grinned. “I’ve never had any Brazilians over to dinner either, so does
that mean I’m prejudiced against South America?”

Mitchell Bazemore did his obligatory laugh, and a few of his jury-picks smiled. Hilliardson glared at McHugh, whether disgusted by his taste in jokes, or ties, I couldn’t tell. But Isaac smiled too, then he said, “Well, sir, it might mean you were prejudiced if you lived in Brazil.” Another stroll, ending up near the two black men already seated in the jury box. “Mr. McHugh, what do you think of Martin Luther King's birthday becoming a national holiday?”

Mr. McHugh looked at the judge. “Do I have to answer this kind of question, Judge?”

I think McHugh knew what was coming, because he’d turned sulky. I’m sure Mitchell Bazemore had figured out where Isaac was headed, too, because he stood up and said, “Your Honor! I fail to see where this entire line of questioning is headed.”

Hilliardson (deadpan) to Rosethorn: “Counselor, unless you plan to arrive at a relevant destination soon, I suggest you take a faster train.”

Rosethorn: “Your Honor, the train I’m taking is the one they used to call Jim Crow. But I’ll speed it along.”

Hilliardson looked up from the notes he was taking, or maybe the crossword puzzle, and said, “Please do. I will allow the question.”

Isaac: “Mr. McHugh?”

“I don’t think much about Martin Luther King one way or the other, except you could say, there's lots of good Americans I could name maybe deserve a holiday more.” Someone in the back of the courtroom clapped, and Hilliardson slammed down his silver-handled gavel.

Isaac: “On January twenty-fourth of this year, Mr. McHugh, did you happen to attend, along with
members of the Ku Klux Klan, a rally in downtown Raleigh staged
Martin Luther King Day?”

McHugh: “Maybe I was there, lot of people were there. Doesn’t mean we’re in the Klan, you know.”

Isaac kept going. “And at this rally was not a racial slogan chanted at a group of young black protesters carrying posters with Cooper Hall's picture on them? And was this slogan not as follows?” He took out the slip of paper Nora had given him, and slowly
pulling on his bifocals, read, “‘King's down, and Cooper Hall. What happened to them could happen to y’all’?”

McHugh: “Maybe. I don’t really remember.”

Bazemore jumped up, then decided against protecting Mr. McHugh, and sat down; for all he knew, if Rosethorn had dug up this much background, he might be getting ready to produce a photo of McHugh wearing a white robe and carrying a jug of kerosene.

Isaac returned to the defense table, sinking into his chair with a sigh. “Challenged for cause, Your Honor. Bias.”

Hilliardson looked at Bazemore, who looked at the neat stack of papers on his table. Then he looked at McHugh (or his tie). “You are excused. Thank you.”

McHugh's face crumpled. “You mean I’m not a juror?” “Yes. You’re excused.”

“But I’ve got a
to be a juror. I took off from work and everything. Your Honor!”

It took several more minutes, and another rap of the gavel, to get Curtis McHugh off the stand. After that, Bazemore and Rosethorn (warned by the judge that he’d “very much like to see a jury selected before his retirement from the bench”) zipped through their questions to a sixty-three-year-old farmer's widow, whom they both found acceptable. Then Isaac struck an East Hillston grocer (who’d been robbed by black assailants). Miss Bee fished angrily around in the panel box for another number twelve. “Mrs. Albert Boren!” she bellowed. I saw Isaac and Nora Howard flip through their legal pads, then start whispering energetically at each other as if they were arguing.

Mrs. Boren, a little overweight, a little dowdy, looked to be in her late forties, and as if she’d once been a pretty blonde woman, but that it had gotten harder and harder for her to remember when. She also looked very unhappy that her name had popped out of that box.

“Mrs. Boren,” smiled Mitch, after the preliminaries established that she was a housewife and her husband owned an electrical supplies store, “tell me now. Do you have a fixed opinion about the rightness or wrongness of the original verdict that found George
Hall guilty of first-degree homicide?”

A deep breath, a headshake, and a faint voice, as she nervously fiddled with the collar of her sweater. “No, sir, I have no opinion.” Hilliardson peered down in her direction. “Please speak up, Mrs. Boren!”

She repeated her answer, clearly scared to death.

“And,” Mitch smiled, so that his chin dimple winked, “do you feel fully confident you can listen to the evidence in this new trial without being biased by that original verdict?”

“I think so.”

He beamed more of the long steady smile at her before he spoke. “Your Honor, the State accepts Mrs. Boren.” Another long silent smile, and he came close to patting her arm, as he backed away.

BOOK: Time's Witness
3.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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