Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday Musings, 30 July 2011

Good morning,

A spray of rain greeted me at the back door today, and I made it welcome. It brought a rush of warm air into the kitchen, against which I finally had to closed the door and retreat into my dining room with a cup of cooling coffee beside the sprawl of perused paper. Congress wrangles still; the President stands helpless; the partisan snarling resonates through the marble halls of our capitol. The world spins; the sun rises with its usual disdain for our shenanigans. As thunder ripples through the air, I note the ragged growth of vegetation in our side yard, raising unchecked fronds to the spray of water feeding its thirsty roots.

My week felt like a lumpy mattress. I negotiated a last-minute settlement in a troubling case, in which my client gave more than he needed to sacrifice -- once again, and for the good of his children. He did so with clear-headed reasoning, driven by his hope, as always, that his children would have a better life because he put their needs before his own. His hope echoes my prayer.

I sat beside my husband's mother at dinner this week, listening to her sweetly narrated story of her and her twin sister playing their respective pianos from distant rooms in their childhood home. Her eighty-year-old frailty touched my heart, and put me in mind of another twin, just as old, just as frail, whom I met a couple of light years ago.

Her name was Evalyn, and her twin had died long before I met her back in my prosecutor days. Because justice is never swiftly dealt, we had decided to record her testimony to insure that we would be able to use her words and have the jury see the shuddering, sweet vulnerability of her somewhat vacant smile.

A video camera turned its objective eye in her direction from the far corner of the room. The defendant whom we had accused of stealing Evalyn's money did not attend; she huddled, instead, in a jail cell, her bond deliberately set at a level that we hoped would prevent her from finding another elderly victim while we awaited the trial date. The public defender sat at one end of the table. Evalyn had eased her frail form onto the hard, unglamorous chair of a county conference room opposite him. My boss and I flanked her, I to the left, my boss to the right.

Evalyn had perceived the importance of the occasion, and dressed as she might have to attend a church service. A stiffly ironed lace collar spanned the short space of her small neckline. The soft wool of a sweater surrounded her narrow shoulders, fastened in the center by a single pearl button. She folded her hands in her lap, holding a white handkerchief. When she had gotten settled, she turned toward the public defender, and graciously signalled him to proceed.

My boss stirred. Since this was a deposition to preserve testimony, scheduled at our behest, she went first. She asked the series of questions that would establish identity and ownership of the account on which we believed the defendant had cashed a series of unauthorized checks. The camera did not pause once during the proceedings; its minder stood impassively behind the tri-pod as Evalyn acknowledged, with a barely perceptible tinge of confusion, that she was indeed the only authorized signatory on the account. My sister Edith used to share this account, she told us. But she's gone now.

She stayed on task through the predicate facts of the case. No, the defendant did not have her permission to write checks on the account. No, she had no knowledge of the checks in question, at which she gazed for a few troubled moments before casting them with discernible disgust upon the table. We held our breaths, my boss and I, as she chuckled over a few random anecdotes about the defendant, who had somehow come to live in her guestroom, by some trickery the details of which I have never understood.

Finally, the basic facts established and the vulnerability of the victim recorded for future jurors to compare with mental images of their own grandmothers, my boss ended her questioning. The three of us turned toward the public defender, a young man who has since risen to higher offices, one of which he still holds. In those days, though, he was a slender, dark-headed earnest but inexperienced attorney, whom everyone nonetheless expected to treat our witness with tenderness and care.

He did not disappoint. In fact, his voice held so little force as to be almost inaudible, and I smothered a smile. He tried, without success, to establish senility on Evalyn's part, to suggest to future triers-of-fact that permission had been given and then forgotten. I did not blame him. I would have done the same in his place, though I could never have defended his client myself.

The woman in question had left other depleted bank accounts. One belonged to a man whom she relocated from St. Joseph to Kansas City in an effort to avoid an imminent prosecution. Her victim had died before his statement could be taken. I met with the police detective who had investigated, and he had no doubt that our defendant should have been made to pay for what she had done to the poor decedent. On the strength of some circumstantial evidence, including the defendant's description to paramedics of how the St. Joseph man had collapsed just before dying in his Plaza apartment, we had exhumed his body and had an autopsy done. But too much time had past, and the likely agent of his death, arsenic, could not have survived the formaldehyde with which his body had been filled.

Still, I did not doubt that she had hastened his death. I stood in the cold, clean room in which the coroner performed the examination of his pristine, preserved body, my gaze fixed on a spattering of mold on the prayerbook in his hands, and the Rosary entwined around them. I watched without flinching, without gagging, so intent was I on prosecuting this woman for his death. The police officers assigned to record the event snapped photo after photo, until red spots drifted before my eyes, but still I stood, a willing witness to desecration in the name of justice.

Afterwards, I burned the dress I had worn, the same dress I had worn the prior year to my mother's funeral. I could not get the smell of decay out of its fabric.

But Evalyn had not been killed, and she sat between the two of us, her protectors, waiting for the next question. The defendant's counsel seemed to hesitate, and, finally, he violated the cardinal rule of questioning: He asked something to which he did not already know the answer. How could my client have gotten your signature so perfect, he inquired.

Evalyn's eyes sparkled. No one in the room doubted the intelligence with which she had navigated the world, as she lifted her slender, quivering hand to raise the proferred exhibit, a copy of one of the forged checks. She held it out, a few inches higher than her face, and turned her mischievous eyes toward the public defender. The same way me and Edith made our mother's signature, on our report cards, she told him. We snuck into her desk and got a letter that she had written. We put the report card from our teacher against a window, the letter behind it. And we traced our mother's signature onto it! As she spoke, she moved a bony finger and traced her own signature, loop after loop, line after shaky line. And everyone in the room could see her long-dead twin beside her: two gleeful, clever girls in pigtails and pinafores, forging their mother's name to a card full of bad marks.

The camera recorded the whole thing.

As I sat beside my mother-in-law this week, watching her sweet smile, listening as she remembered the way she and her twin did everything together, through childhood, through college, and in the early years of their married lives, I thought about Evalyn. She has surely died by now. She must be somewhere pleasant, sitting beside her sister, cackling about the pranks they pulled, and the chagrin on their mother's face when they were found out. As for the woman who probably killed that poor old man, and certainly stole thousands of dollars from the old people on whom she preyed, I can only hope that she served out her time and found no further victims.

The brief thunderstorm has spent itself. My old Mac has just two minutes left on its battery, and duty calls. The other sentient beings in my household are either still sleeping, or have fallen back into a lazy dream, the Saturday sudoku lying on the floor, forgotten. Nearby, the dog snores in her bed, while the old girl cat watches from her chosen perch on the little bench in the hallway.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.