Witness to a trial, p.2
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       Witness to a Trial, p.2
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           John Grisham
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  Wag, though, like most prosecutors, couldn’t resist the temptation to pile on. Why settle for less when there’s more to offer?

  7

  The seventh witness was Todd Short, the first of two jailhouse snitches. At the young age of twenty-four, he had already put together an impressive rap sheet, mostly for drug offenses. Following Wag’s firm instructions, he wore a shirt with long sleeves and a high collar to cover up as many tattoos as possible. He also had a fresh haircut and wore glasses he didn’t need because, in Wag’s opinion, they made him appear slightly more intelligent. With Short, intelligence was a relative matter.

  As if on a mission to find the truth, he and Wag plunged head-on into Short’s criminal past and the boy freely admitted to three earlier arrests and two felony convictions. He had served five years in jail before straightening out his life. Now sober and God-fearing, he wanted to do what was right.

  His story was that he had been in the Brunswick County jail awaiting trial when Junior arrived. They were cellmates for only a few days before being separated. He had liked Junior and, having nothing else to do, they’d talked a lot. Junior was devastated by his wife’s betrayal and that of his close friend, but he had no remorse for what he did. Didn’t he do what any man would have done? Junior said he had been suspicious and stopped by the house mid-afternoon as he was making deliveries. When he saw Son’s truck in his driveway, he knew it was trouble. Junior eased through the back door and walked into the den and heard noises from the bedroom. They had the place to themselves and were making no effort to be quiet. He grabbed a pistol from a drawer and kicked open the bedroom door. The sight of them all wrapped together made him crazy. Son yelled something stupid like “Wait, you don’t understand,” and was scrambling off the bed when Junior shot him twice. Eileen was screaming like an idiot and wouldn’t shut up, so he shot her too. He stood there for a long time, staring at their naked bodies as they bled and died and he didn’t care. He finally left and just drove around, trying to settle his nerves and not knowing what to do. The kids would be coming home from school. He should probably call the sheriff and get an ambulance out there. Somebody else would clean up the mess. He stopped at a bar for a couple of drinks to clear his head, and he just kept drinking.

  Junior listened stoically, shaking his head slightly at Short and his lies. At one point he leaned over to Swoboda and whispered, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before.”

  Short stayed on script and was convincing. He had spent hours rehearsing his testimony with Wag and his assistants, had even sat in this very chair over the weekend with the courtroom doors locked and lawyers yelling questions at him. When Wag finally sat down and Swoboda rose for his cross-examination, Short took a deep breath and reminded himself to stay cool. He knew every question that was coming.

  Swoboda hammered away at his criminal record, his time behind bars, his addictions. The pending charges against him had dragged on for almost fifteen months now. Was that because the prosecutor was waiting to see how he performed at trial?

  No, of course not. Short wasn’t sure what was causing the delay. Sometimes the system just gets clogged up. Plus, Short was in the process of drying out and that took time. A successful recovery might positively impact his sentence.

  Had Short been promised anything in return for his testimony? Leniency? Money?

  Of course not. Short was telling the truth, so help him God. He was eager to serve his time and get on with his life, a changed man.

  Had Short testified before and ratted on a cellmate?

  No, never.

  Actually, it was Short’s third trip to the witness stand, but his career as a serial snitch had not been discovered by Swoboda. The case had consumed the lawyer’s life for the past fifteen months and he was tired of it. The paltry fees paid by the State would cover only a fraction of his time.

  —

  The Brother. Wilton Mace sat in the front row, as close to his brother as possible. Behind him were a few members of their tribe, almost all related to the Mace family. Across the aisle, and across the deep divide that had splintered the Tappacola, sat the friends and relatives of Son Razko. There were other divisions and factions and most of the tribe stayed away.

  Their tensions were of little concern to Wilton. As the brother of an innocent man, his role was simply one of support. There was nothing else he could do, nothing but sit there day after day bewildered at the travesty and the lies. He knew the truth: that his brother and Eileen were as happily married as any couple could be under their circumstances; that she was not one to fool around; that Son Razko was a good man who was devoted to Louise and their children; that Junior would go to his grave grieving the loss of his wife and friend; that the murders were carefully staged by criminals hell-bent on building a casino on Tappacola land. Standing in their way, though, were Son Razko and Junior Mace.

  But Son and Eileen had not been murdered by one of their own. The Tappacola were perfectly willing to hold grudges, but they did not kill each other. No, the killers were from the outside, and they had pulled off what was becoming, day by day, the perfect crime.

  The white man’s notions of justice were baffling. How can they allow a self-confessed and self-serving criminal like Todd Short to put his hand on their Bible, swear to God to tell the truth, and then spin such fantastic lies? What system of justice allows a seasoned convict to repeat statements he swears he heard in a jail cell the year before?

  Wilton watched the faces of the jurors. Not only did they believe Short, they wanted to believe.

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  The eighth witness called by the State was Digger Robles, another jailhouse snitch. His criminal record was not quite as impressive as Todd Short’s, nor was his body art. He, too, wore a white shirt with a high collar and long sleeves; indeed, it was identical to the one worn by Short. Swoboda gave a passing thought to asking Digger if Wag Dunlap had found the shirts on sale. Almost all his tattoos were hidden, though one managed to crawl up his neck and evade the collar. Nonetheless, Digger cleaned up nicely and managed to seem relaxed as he prepared to unload an hour’s worth of fiction to the jury.

  The only truth he told was his recollection of his two criminal convictions, three years in prison, and struggles with meth. Wag breezed him through these trifling preliminaries as if they were of absolutely no consequence. Then on to the story—and the truth! In testimony that was remarkably, and at times astonishingly, similar to Short’s, he told in great detail of his brief incarceration with Junior. The man was proud of what he had done. He had caught them in his own bed, popped them twice, stood his ground, and what the hell was the State of Florida doing dragging him to jail and to trial? If it had happened on Indian land, Junior would be hailed as a hero. He had shown not the slightest hint of remorse.

  Swoboda leaned over to his client and asked, “Remember him?”

  Junior whispered, “Maybe.”

  On cross-examination, Swoboda managed to land a few punches when he haggled with Digger over his motives. If he had not been promised something, why was he testifying? Digger said he really didn’t want to testify, didn’t want to get involved, but he was an important witness because he had heard damaging comments. Swoboda reminded him that he’d spent considerable time behind bars and asked if he had ever heard anyone else admit to wrongdoing. When Digger said no, several of the jurors shook their heads in disbelief.

  But, on the whole, it was a fine performance. When Digger left the witness stand, Wag Dunlap announced, “The State rests.”

  —

  The Spectator. He came and went throughout the trial, always choosing a different seat and always with a different look. He changed caps, eyeglasses, clothing, even shaved a full beard after the first two days of testimony. He skipped a few hours here and there, then half a day, then showed up dressed in leather. Not a single person in the courtroom knew his name and no one noticed him.

  His name was Delgado, and he worked for a tight and well-organized gang of career cr
iminals determined to build a casino on the Tappacola reservation. His duties varied, but his value to the gang centered on his talents with firearms and his ability to eliminate people without leaving a trace of evidence.

  As the trial unfolded, Delgado marveled at the State’s case and its incompetence. Unger’s autopsy had been hurried and sloppy. And why not? The causes of death were so obvious, why dig deeper? An analysis of Son’s blood would have revealed the presence of phenobarbital, a strong barbiturate Delgado had injected. Had it been discovered, Delgado had no doubt that the State’s theory would have been slightly altered to include the fact that Son was popping pills before his rendezvous with Eileen. A thorough analysis would have revealed that Son had been unconscious at the time of his death.

  In their excitement, the cops had not bothered to dust Junior’s hands for residue. Such a simple and routine test would have told them that he had not fired the .38. His prints were not on the gun, but then Montgomery, the ballistics expert, had speculated that Junior had simply wiped the gun clean.

  Nor had the State tested Junior’s blood while he was hospitalized. A test would have revealed some alcohol, as expected, but also chloral hydrate. In the bar Delgado had enticed Junior into a game of darts and had managed to swap bottles of beer.

  And the snitches! Delgado listened to their fabrications and worked hard to conceal a smile. Junior’s alleged confessions were a joke. They got it all wrong. Eileen went first. Delgado talked his way into the house, pulled the gun, made her undress in the bedroom, then shot her twice. He carried Son into the bedroom, undressed him, shot him.

  The problem with snitches was that they often recanted and changed their stories. Delgado knew this well, as did the men he worked for. As he watched Todd Short and Digger Robles on the stand, and almost chuckled at their fiction, he knew that he would soon get the orders to take them out. Wait for the trial to end, for Junior to be led away, for the endless appeals to begin, and start the process of planning, stalking, waiting. Their testimony was now permanently recorded and could be read into the record in the event of a retrial, though such a scenario did not bother his bosses. Son was dead. Junior would be sidelined long enough. The opposition was crippled. The casino would be built.

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  The first witness called by the defense was a teenager named Heath. His family owned a country store near the small town of Larkin, about thirty miles from the crime scene. The store sold propane for heating and cooking and had a contract with Junior’s employer to collect the empty cylinders and resupply the inventory once a week. Around 2:00 p.m. on that January 17, Junior delivered ten twenty-pound cylinders and picked up ten empty ones. Heath signed the delivery ticket but no specific time was noted.

  He testified that it was “around 2:00 p.m., give or take,” but could not be more specific. He said he saw Junior almost every week and that they usually “shot the bull” for a few minutes during each delivery. He estimated that Junior was at his store for less than fifteen minutes.

  Swoboda produced a large map of three counties—Walton, Brunswick, and Okaloosa—and marked the locations of Heath’s family’s store and the Mace home.

  The second witness called by the defense was Len McGuire, owner of a nursery and garden shop in the town of DeFuniak Springs. Mr. McGuire sold a lot of propane and had done business with Junior’s company for years. On the day of the murders, he remembered Junior arriving on his weekly round at “approximately 3:00 p.m.” He dropped off a dozen cylinders of propane and picked up the empties. He produced a delivery ticket detailing the transaction but it did not note a specific time. It never did, he told the jury.

  Since the time of the two deaths was estimated to be between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., Mr. McGuire would have seen Junior after he had just killed his wife and Son Razko. Swoboda asked him a lot of questions about Junior’s demeanor. Nothing seemed out of order. Same old Junior.

  The third witness called by the defense was a retired state trooper named Taggart. With the tiny budget Judge McDover had reluctantly authorized Swoboda to spend on experts, he had hired Taggart for $1,000. Standing in front of the jury box and holding a pointer, Taggart indicated locations on the enlarged map. Number one was the country store where Heath worked. Number two was Mr. McGuire’s garden shop. Number three was the Mace home. Number four was Junior’s employer’s warehouse over in Moreville. Assuming Junior made his delivery at 2:00 p.m. and it consumed about fifteen minutes, as per Heath, then Junior left around 2:15 and drove to Mr. McGuire’s for his next delivery. Taggart had made that drive on three occasions and it took, on average, twenty-three minutes. So, around 2:35, Junior arrived at Mr. McGuire’s, spent fifteen minutes doing what he was supposed to do, and left around 2:50. At that point, he was twenty minutes from his home. If he had hurried there, he could have arrived around 3:10.

  According to the pathologist, the deaths occurred between 2:00 and 3:00. However, the pathologist had been quick to explain that this time frame was not exact and could vary half an hour either way.

  Even on direct examination, the defense theory was not convincing. A few minutes here and a few minutes there and nothing seemed concrete. Precise times were not logged in. Memories were not that clear. Did Junior make his delivery at 2:00 p.m., or was it more like 1:45? Were they shot at 3:00 p.m., or was it more like 3:30?

  On cross-examination, the theory was destroyed. Wag Dunlap walked Taggart along the roads and highways until it was abundantly clear that, in fact, Junior Mace could have completed the delivery to Heath’s family’s store at 2:00 p.m., then raced home because he suspected something, found his wife in bed with his friend, taken care of that business, and hurried away to Mr. McGuire’s place and arrived there shortly after 3:00 p.m., acting as though all was well.

  Did Junior have time to race to his employer’s warehouse, jump into his own pickup truck, then hustle home for the killings? Perhaps, Wag implied, though it wasn’t clear.

  For two hours Wag harangued Taggart over the times and distances. Swoboda objected. McDover overruled. The lawyers bickered as tempers rose. Taggart eventually lashed out. Swoboda moved for a mistrial again. The judge asked him to sit down. The jurors were frustrated. The spectators were at first amused, then bored.

  Through it all, Junior Mace sat stoically amid the chaos, occasionally shaking his head at the fiction.

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  With the alibis out the window, the defense had nothing left but the defendant himself. Swoboda followed the conventional wisdom of advising Junior against taking the stand, but Junior would have none of it. If he was to be given the chance to tell the truth, then he would not be denied.

  In a deep, slow voice he measured his words and looked unflinchingly at the jurors. Swoboda lobbed up the easy ones as they covered Junior’s background: education, employment, family, lack of criminal record, no divorces, three children. He loved Eileen, and Son was his closest friend. No, they were not having an affair, and, no, he did not catch them in bed.

  He denied owning a handgun and testified that he did not know a single Tappacola who owned one. It was not part of their culture. A few of the men hunted deer for food, but no one in his family did so. He enjoyed a few beers occasionally but did not consider himself a heavy drinker. He and Eileen had never kept alcohol in their home.

  He told the story of his people and their deep division over the proposal to build a casino on their land. He and Son had led the opposition to it, and they had won the first election by a narrow margin. The vote split their tribe into bitter camps.

  Whoever killed Son and Eileen was now doing a fine job of framing him. Remove Son and remove Junior and the casino would be built.

  Wag stood and pleaded, “Objection. Please, Your Honor. Do we have any proof of this? This is a pretty wild theory with nothing to back it up.”

  “Agreed. Sustained. Mr. Swoboda, please limit the testimony to something that resembles the facts.”

  January 17 had been a typical day for Junior. He made his round
s that morning and had lunch in a country store where he also made a delivery. Around 2:00 p.m., he stopped by Heath’s family’s store, dropped off and picked up ten cylinders of propane, and drove “about a half an hour” to Mr. McGuire’s. He was in no hurry, as always, and drove under the speed limit. He did not detour, did not go home, because there was no reason to do so, and finished his business at Mr. McGuire’s around 3:00 p.m. Afterward, he stopped at two more stores before punching the clock at 4:41. On the drive home, he stopped at one of his favorite bars, said hello to Spike, had a couple of beers, and all was well. After that, he remembered little. He passed out, not from two beers, but from something else, and remembered nothing until he awoke in the hospital.

  His voice cracked slightly when he tried to explain what it was like hearing that his wife had been murdered and being told, about an hour later, that he was charged with the murder. Handcuffed, dragged away, driven to jail, thrown in a cell, denied the dignity of attending his wife’s funeral and burial, denied the opportunity to grieve with his children. He had been so traumatized he had trouble talking, eating, and sleeping.

  It was a nightmare that would never end.

  —

  The Son. Patrick Mace, age fourteen, the oldest of Junior’s three children. Because of the gruesomeness of much of the testimony, young Patrick had been kept out of the courtroom until today. His younger siblings would see none of the trial.

  Patrick had been the first one home from school, the first one in the house, the unlucky soul who stumbled upon the bodies and the unspeakable crime scene. He did not remember making the 911 call; he remembered nothing. The first deputy found him lying on the front porch, curled in the fetal position, shaking and unable to speak or walk. Patrick had spent two nights in a hospital and was still seeing a counselor.

  Not surprisingly, Wag Dunlap wanted to call the kid as one of the State’s opening witnesses. Slay the jury right off the bat with the kid weeping and bawling and unable to continue. Swoboda objected but McDover said yes. Fortunately, the Mace family resisted so fiercely that Wag backed off.

  As Patrick watched his father fight for his life, he battled his own emotions. Tears flooded his eyes and ran down his cheeks. He wiped them with his sleeves and tried not to look at Uncle
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