Ten Years Later
Thursday, July 23
Jan's case was exploding in front of her eyes.
She took a step back and gave herself a moment to think as she muttered, "The court's indulgence," a standard phrase used when a lawyer needs to catch his or her breath in the middle of questioning. She scanned through her papers, stalling for time as she thought about her next question. Her witness, in fact, was also the victim -- the woman whose rights Jan was trying to protect. Unfortunately, it was this frail woman, not more than a girl actually, who was responsible for the problem.
Jan's client was shaking not because she was frightened, but because she was a drug-addicted prostitute who was experiencing a withdrawal so intense, her ability to testify was in question. Jan held herself responsible for the girl's pain. After all, Jan had told her that she would not prosecute the case unless she agreed to be stone-cold sober for the court date. Jan knew her case was in trouble. If the jurors felt that her client's testimony was unreliable, they might just side with the defendant, who had pled not guilty. He was claiming that he had promised her drugs for sex and when he refused to give her the entire bag of crack as promised, she, in a drug-induced haze, had gone crazy and called the police.
But, as usual, Jan knew things she couldn't tell the jury. Like the fact that the defendant, Walter Harbert, had a long and nasty record. He was suspected of brutally murdering at least two other prostitutes in Anne Arundel county alone.
Jan glanced at the jury. Her client had just finished telling them the story of how Harbert had abducted her and taken her to a desolate part of a Maryland state forest where he had brutally raped her. The jury looked bored, and more than one of them could be seen glancing at the clock as if worried their lunch hour might be infringed upon.
"Okay," Jan said softly. "After he was finished did he let you go?"
"He told me he was going to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey, only with a bullet -- and I was the donkey. He said he'd give me a head start to run away, but told me he'd kill me for sure if I ran back toward the car. He said if I ran in the other direction, he might just let me go. So he shot his gun in the air and told me to run."
"And what did you do?"
"I grabbed my clothes and ran into the woods. I didn't even bother to get dressed until I was far away. Then I put them back on and started to head back toward the road."
Now for the climax. Jan paused as she leaned forward. "Do you see the man in the courtroom today that did this to you?"
"Will you point to him?"
The girl raised a short, slender finger and pointed to the tall, bearded man sitting next to his attorney. "That's him," she said. And then she proceeded to throw up.
"And then what happened?"
Jan glanced at Nick Fitzgerald as she put down her sandwich. Nick had interrupted her lunch, barging into the conference room just as she and Dave Newcombe, a fellow assistant state's attorney, pulled their deli sandwiches out of their white paper bags. It might have been bad timing, or a lack of consideration, but Nick was the state's attorney and that made him boss. He could ask questions wherever and whenever he wanted. She said, "The judge called a recess and everyone cleared out while it was being cleaned up."
Nick shook his head. "What a mess."
Just then Hank Nagimy entered, a homicide detective who was killing time before they were needed at the courthouse for testimony. Jan had known Hank for years and she liked him. He looked and sounded like a character from a gritty cop TV show: mid-fifties, short and balding with a big, friendly mouth and a thick Baltimore accent. "Hey," Hank said, holding back a chuckle. "Heard about what happened."
Jan rolled her eyes. She pulled a dry, shriveled pickle out of her bag. "Anyone want this?" she asked, waving it around.
"Who was the judge?" asked Hank.
Hank grinned. Peters was known as one of the toughest and fastest moving judges in the courts. He didn't like delays and once a case began, he often rushed through it for the sake of efficiency and out of respect for the jurors. Peters, more than any other judge, would be annoyed by an incident like that.
"What was the jury's reaction?" Nick asked.
"The old lady seemed sad for her. The rest were grossed out." She bit into her sandwich, still holding their attention. "Maybe even horrified."
"Poor GI," Hank said, referring to her by her nickname. He had christened Jan "GI" after an incident in which Jan had fought off a would-be purse snatcher in downtown Baltimore. Jan had been walking down the street with the deputy state's attorney when a burly seventeen-year-old boy had attempted to snatch her purse. She had fought him off with a swift kick to the side, knocked him down and held him there until the police arrived. Once the story started circulating around the office it became so twisted that one version even had Jan repeating lines from Dirty Harry as she wrestled the kid to the ground.
The truth of the matter was that Jan had studied karate in college, and although she was no blackbelt, she know some basic moves. That, coupled with her aggressive nature in court, had earned her the nickname. Hank continued, "Did they think she was throwing up because of her dismay at having to face the rapist or because she was going through withdrawal?"
"I don't know," Jan quipped. "I thought the judge might frown on me taking a poll."
"Where's the girl now?" Nick asked.
"Angie took her back to the hospital," she said, referring to Angie Pantky, the victim advocate.
"Who're you calling next?" Dave asked, then swallowed nearly half of his tuna fish sandwich in one bite.
"Hank," she said, motioning toward her friend. "I'll ask him about Harbert's flight from the police and grill him on all the ties Harbert told when he was picked up."
She pushed her chair back and stood up. "I'm going to run. I'll see you over there, Hank. By the way," she said, hesitating, "I heard you were finally assigned a new partner."
"I heard they had to get one from Baltimore. No one here wanted the job," Dave teased.
"That's about it," Hank said. "All too smart."
"How's he working out?" Jan asked.
Hank shrugged. "Fine enough. I think you'll be happy."
"What?" Jan asked, confused.
"As my wife said, 'he's not bad on the eyes.'"
Jan blushed. "Why would I care -- "
"Nice legs?" Dave asked, playing along.
"Better than my wife's," Hank said.
"Jan," Nick said impatiently. "Come into my office, would you? I want to go over some things."
So eager was she to escape the conversation, she practically jumped up. It seemed like nowadays everyone was trying to fix her up. It was as if they felt sorry for her -- single, lonely Jan.
But she wasn't lonely, she thought defensively. She had her friends, her career, and besides, she wasn't going to date just anybody. Dating for the sake of dating was a waste of time. She hated it. Awkward chit-chat, the uncomfortable moment of staring at the bill as it lay open on the table, waiting to see if he called her afterwards. No, she thought, following Nick down the hall. Dating was for the birds. She wasn't going to go on another date unless she was already madly in love with the guy.
Nick led her into his office and shut the door. Jan smiled as she glanced at his outfit. He was decked out in white: white shirt, white tie, white linen pants. Nick liked his clothes. He reminded Jan of a movie star from the thirties, the type of guy who seduced women while wearing a smoking jacket and drinking a martini. He went through periods where he wore monochromatic outfits, and though he had begun to experiment with new combinations, he still liked to return to the blue suit with the blue shirt and the blue tie, or the creme colored suit with the creme shirt and the creme tie. On those days, he would make color - oriented puns and though the jokes would become tired, he would always enjoy them. Some days he would bring flowers, in that same color, and drop one on the desks of all the women in his office. Today every woman had arrived at work to find a white tulip on her desk.
Nick had been the state's attorney for eight years and had just announced this was to be his last term. Everyone knew why he was leaving. He was a rising star in the Democratic party and Senator Thurman's handpicked golden boy for his replacement. When the senator retired, he planned to transfer his powerful political base over to Nick.
Jan had met Nick ten years ago, when he was an assistant state's attorney responsible for prosecuting her sister's rapist, Curtis Custin. After her sister's death, Nick had rallied to her side, taking her under his wing and encouraging her to continue with her plans to attend law school. When she had needed a job, he had been there to offer her one.
Throughout the years they maintained an entirely platonic friendship, though Nick had made some discreet advances. Jan hadn't taken offense, in fact she had been flattered. She wished she returned his affection. But despite the fact that he was a wealthy, good-looking, forty-two-year-old bachelor, never married -- she couldn't imagine dating him. She cared about him like a brother and the thought of kissing him was more ridiculous than anything else. He just seemed too, well, fussy for her, with his outfits and eccentricities. But still, women adored him. His easy charm and warm smile inspired women to slip him their business cards with their home phone numbers handwritten on top.
Nick said, "That was good thinking, bringing up her drug use before the defense. I'd also point out in your closing arguments that Harbert picked her for a reason. He picked her because she was a prostitute. That's why he didn't get rid of his weapon. He didn't think he had to. He never thought a drug-addicted prostitute would have the balls to go to the police."
Jan put her hand on the door as she glanced away from his deep green eyes. "Thanks, Nick," she said, anxious to get out of there. "But I already mentioned that."
He smiled. "I figured. How are you going to handle the jury?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean regarding the way your client -- what's her name?"
"Terry. Terry Turnbull."
"Regarding the dramatic way Ms. Turnbull left the courtroom."
Jan gave a little shrug and said, "What do you think?"
"I think you should apologize to the court and mention that she's been admitted to the hospital again. Try and work in some sympathy by letting the jurors know how physically difficult this was for her."
"Got it," Jan said. She liked the way Nick thought. "Anything else?" she asked politely.
"Yeah," he said, his voice softening. "How are you? Everything okay?" Nick had a way of connecting with a person that made them feel as if they were the only one in the world that mattered. She knew this was a habit of many successful politicians, yet she still felt embarrassed by the attention.
Blushing, she said, "Fine, Nick. Thanks. just fine."
"I'm sorry we haven't had time to go to lunch lately."
She forced a smile. "Don't worry about it. I know you're busy."
He strummed his fingers on the desk. "Okay. Go get 'em. Bring me back Harbert's head."
She gave him a quick salute before marching out.
Jan sat in the courtroom watching the jury file in. Hank had been on the stand most of the afternoon, first as a witness for the prosecution, then as a witness for the defense. Harbert's attorney had presented a weak defense, basically trying to prove that when Harbert had initially denied ever having met Jan's client, much less had sex with her, he had done so simply because he had been frightened by the interrogation tactics of a mean and nasty police force.
Jan finished her closing statement a little after four. She strolled the short distance back to her office, taking her time as she imagined the jury settling in to weigh all the evidence in the lengthy police report. But at five o'clock she received a call from the courthouse that the verdict was in. She grabbed her suit jacket and scurried back.
The remarkably brief deliberation could mean one of two things: either she had done a better job than she thought, or she had done even worse than her opponent.
As she stood in front of the judge, she wondered if she too would lose her quickly eaten lunch all over judge Peters' Lysol-disinfected room. She always fought nausea in the moments before a verdict was read. Nick had advised her to depersonalize herself from her cases, but she didn't seem able. In the seven years she had worked for the state, she had put her heart and soul into convicting these criminals and protecting their victims -- past, present, and future. Each case was a quiet homage to her older sister, who had been a victim of a violent rape when she was only twenty-six years old. Frannie never recovered from the brutality of the attack, and on the day after her rapist's conviction, her naked body was found floating in the Chesapeake Bay. The coroner had ruled her death a suicide, but Jan always had a tough time believing that her sister had intentionally taken her own life.
As the judge sat down behind his desk, Jan pushed these thoughts out of her mind so she could focus on the proceedings. She always thought of Frannie when the verdict came in.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?"
A small, elderly lady stood up and politely said, "Yes, Your Honor."
The bailiff took the paper out of her hand and handed it to the judge. The judge read the verdict and handed it back to the bailiff. "You may read the verdict," he said to the forewoman.
Jan paused, holding her breath.
"We find the defendant, Walter Harbert, on the charge of rape, not guilty."
Not guilty. After seven years of victories, she had finally lost a case. It felt even worse than she had imagined.
Almost instinctively she glanced toward the criminal -- the rapist who had just been set free.
He caught her eyes. The corners of his mouth curled up into a smug grin. Still holding her captive in his gaze, he winked.
Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Klam