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Circumstantial, Part II

January 10, 2009 by · 1 comment

Robert Foshee

Photo: kirtaph

Read Part I

Ted took the jury notice out of his pocket and read the room number. He waited his turn and then nervously stepped through the metal detector. Radiation probed him head to toe. A cop asked him to remove his belt. When he got upstairs, he found the black woman from the bus in the blue hat standing before a table, speaking quietly to a clerk, who studied her paper, handed it back with a flourish of disdain and waved her toward a row of seats against the wall.

Ted approached apprehensively, his document shaking in two hands. He answered a few questions, showed his ID to her, and signed in. In the photo, Ted was smiling. It did not look much like him anymore, but the clerk only squinted and frowned, then motioned him toward the chairs with the same sweep of the hand. He left an empty seat between himself and the black woman, who looked up at him and smiled.

“Hello again,” she said. Her skin looked soft and her eyes were deep and liquid.
“You must be here for the same reason I am,” Ted offered. “Whatever that is.” He felt awkward. He had not spoken to a stranger in months, but for some reason he felt ready. “Have you ever been called before?”

“No, I haven’t.” She leaned toward him. “But I’m dying to serve. Don’t tell anybody, but I secretly really want to get picked.”
“Well, I don’t,” Ted whispered. “That’s the last thing I want. In fact, I just want to get home, and get back…to my routine.”

“What do you do?” the woman asked with honest curiosity. Ted did not say anything at first. He wasn’t one to lie. “Well, not jury duty, I can assure you of that.”

“Oh, I think it will be exciting,” the woman gushed. “To hear all about real murder and mayhem. Not like on the TV. I want to see real criminals up close. But keep the police honest, you know. I’ve dreamed of being on a jury ever since I was a child.”

Ted was silent and attentive. He envied her enthusiasm, and vaguely remembered sharing it at some point in the past. Their dialogue seemed so natural.

“You must have seen all those old Perry Mason episodes,” she continued, slipping over into the seat beside Ted. “Not those later ones – the ones in color once Raymond Burr got fat – but when Perry was so handsome and slim. He was a fine man, then, you know, when everything was in black and white.” She laughed at herself.

Ted’s mouth spread in a smile, too. She continued in a sotto voice of intimacy, “But that Paul Drake, his blond haired private investigator? You remember him? He was a little light in the loafers, don’t you think?” And she suppressed a great giggle that caught Ted up and held him like a friend’s hug.

He felt light-headed. He wondered if this jury business, his encounter with the woman, and the unfamiliar sound of his own laughter might be some wicked hallucination. Perry Mason’s loyal and beautiful secretary Della Street had not only shared his wife’s name but also been her spitting image, before the cancer wasted her away to nothing.

Moreover, in a twisted irony, Ted knew that Raymond Burr was the one who had been in the closet his whole career. He had learned that fact watching Entertainment Tonight. He bit his tongue to calm himself. Then the woman said, “We better hush, honey. Here comes the man.” She grinned and nodded toward the front of the room.

A humorless, uniformed officer with an improbably large, bulging sidearm in the holster on his hip could be heard coming down the hallway. He carried a manila envelope stuffed with files. Ted sat back in his chair as the woman leaned forward in hers. He folded his arms, trying to guess what would happen next…which curtain would open, revealing what surprise…what secret might be hidden in Monty’s pocket.

“Alright ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time.” the clerk behind the table sighed, making no effort to conceal her boredom. She spoke the same words every Monday morning exactly at nine o’clock. “Thank you for being willing to serve Tarrant County’s justice system. You were chosen randomly from our voter registration lists.” Ted had not voted in the last two elections. He figured this was his punishment.

Then the officer with the paperwork spoke the words Ted had been waiting to hear. “Do any of you have a legitimate reason why you cannot serve? Anyone under indictment? Any victims of violent crime? Have a close relative who is an officer of the court? Or any mitigating medical condition?” The last option was music to Ted’s ears. But before he could raise his hand, another potential juror spoke up.

“Yeah, me, man. I got me an excuse.” The twenty something fellow was dressed in jeans and sneakers. He rose and slouched toward the desk. Ted cocked his head slightly so he could hear better. He wished he could turn up the volume with the touch of a button. His index finger twitched, to no avail. Soon, something seemed to work, because both men’s voice rose from a whispered conversation into a loud dispute.

“Being too lazy to get here on time is no excuse, Mr. Rubio,” the deputy intoned. “And whether or not your wife gets pregnant is irrelevant…to the court, at least. Take a seat, please. Anyone else?”

The man turned away, his ears stinging with the cop’s curt response. Because he was watching the man’s lips move, Ted understood perfectly what he uttered under his breath, “This is totally messed up, man. Messed up to the max.”

His words reminded Ted of the jerk on Judge Judy. He, too, had slunk off defeated, his self esteem between his legs. Ted doubted it could be the same guy. On TV, the man had seemed younger, but it had probably been a rerun, so he wasn’t sure. Regardless, Ted did not want to risk a similar rebuke.

He sat still while the officer finished his remarks and then asked the potential jurors to wait for the lawyers to come and ask a few more qualifying questions. This was called the voir dire process, he explained, and it was necessary to make sure nobody was asked to serve on a jury who had any possible bias or conflict of interest.

Ted felt entirely biased and completely conflicted but he kept his mouth shut. He looked to his left, and the black woman’s eyes twinkled as she put her fingers to her lips and made like she was locking them with a key.

The group of twenty walked into an empty courtroom. It was not a large, rectangular wood paneled room like the one Ted expected. It was not like Perry Mason’s or Judge Judy’s court. It was more like the company break room where he used to eat lunch every day. Low ceiling, florescent lights, two tables for the lawyers and two rows of padded armchairs for the jurors, who walked in slowly and took their seats.

A miniature camera hung from the ceiling, above the attorneys’ tables, while another panned back and forth slowly across the empty jury box. A third pointed straight down on the Judge. As he listened to the prosecuting and defense attorneys each explain the case, Ted eyes jumped from one camera to the next. He wondered who was watching, if his son might ever see him on TV, way out in California. That thought made Ted’s stomach roll and he felt dizzy.

“The State has already determined the guilt of the accused,” the public defender began, looking down at his patent leather shoes. “He has been convicted of voluntary manslaughter by a jury of his peers. Now he must be held accountable, and it’s your job to determine an appropriate punishment for his crime.”

Pausing, he pulled his hands from his pockets and spread them wide like a priest. “The victim — we know not exactly how, because the facts are in dispute — fell to his death. My client, Mr. Tippett, has maintained his innocence, but, it is true that he testified he was angry about being laid off, and that he confronted his former employer.

Despite these facts, he is adamant that he did not lay a hand on the poor fellow, who fell, or stumbled, or leaned against a floor-to-ceiling window, causing it to give way. We maintain that the fall that unfortunately killed him was an unavoidable, unforeseeable accident, and we urge you to assign the most lenient sentence permitted under Texas law in this case, seven years in the penitentiary.” He sat down beside the defendant, whose eyes were red and swollen with worry.

The District Attorney rose, puffed out his chest and spoke deliberately, directly facing the ceiling mounted camera, raising his chin toward a suspended microphone. To Ted, he looked like a professional announcer.

“The State, as you know, your Honor, believes a more severe penalty is called for here, and reminds the Jury of its sacred, civic duty to consider both the defendant’s actions as well as the fatal consequences of those actions. We feel that, together, they merit a full thirty year sentence, without the possibility of parole.” He sat down and his chair made a sound like a squeaky toy does when a dog bites it just right.

The Judge now had her say. “Ladies and gentlemen, I need to ask each of you to remain open-minded if you are selected to consider this case, not as to guilt or innocence, but as to reasonable punishment. It is essential that you resist drawing any conclusions until you hear review all the evidence. Only then can you render an impartial judgment.” Her eyes scanned the sitting group. “Anyone not able to do that?”

Ted’s heart pounded. He, too, had dreamed of murdering his bosses, and later even the cancer doctors and the nurses who cared so kindly, so fruitlessly, for Della. He had worked out how he might do vent his rage at least a thousand times, but, of course, he had never been bold or brave enough to follow his heart.

Especially after Della died, he fantasized how he might…if he dared…shoot his former employer straight through the head, then drive his car straight into the clinic’s waiting room, putting dozens of terminally ill patients out of their misery. Every lurid scenario ended with Ted taking his own life. A coward without sufficient purpose.

These intense, inescapable urges came to Ted most evenings before he dozed off to sleep in his chair, as a bearded man wearing a military jacket and camouflage trousers gave his pitch over and over again on the Shopping Channel. This particular infomercial featured a red countdown clock ticking in the lower corner of the screen.

It kept track of the seconds left to buy army surplus and survival equipment. The salesman insisted, “It’s what every patriot deserves! Good, decent folks like you and me need to be prepared, even prepared to die, to show how much we value our precious American way of life.”

None of the potential jurors uttered a word, and the Judge repeated her question. Then Ted heard her pronouncement, “Good. Let’s get started.” In the back of his mind, Ted imagined hearing those three sharp, familiar tones. His lips moved with the sensation — Duhn – duhn – DUHN. He was not sure if he had voiced the sounds aloud or not, but he might have, because the nice black woman looked at him quizzically.

“Alright. If there are no other questions, we can begin,” the Judge continued. Twelve of you will be randomly selected for duty, plus two alternates. All of you will be paid at the going rate of $7.50 per day. It’s not much, but at least you can squeeze a free lunch out of it.”

The group crowded back into the hallway and waited for the selections to be made. Ted and the woman looked at each other. Her face was bright with anticipation. He felt only dread. He knew he had not been completely forthcoming with the Judge. Ted understood perfectly how an angry, desperate man could murder someone.

He admired such a man, in fact. How could he possibly send him away for a crime of conviction, when his own was one of cowardice? He put his head in his hands, trying to hide from the world.

Ten minutes passed before the deputy came back and began to call names. When he finished, he shut the folder, and, in imitation of the emcee’s lush voice on The Price is Right, announced, “OK, fourteen lucky winners can ‘Come on down!’”

The sixth name called was “Theodore Stevenson”, and at first Ted did not move, but looked around just as everyone else did to see who the unlucky fellow was. Then slowly he rose and joined the growing group. The friendly black woman and disgruntled young man were also chosen. Eleven others completed the jury. Ted felt sick to his stomach. He sat and waited until another officer came to lead them back into the courtroom.

The Judge seemed less formal when the group took its seats in the jury box. She bantered with the lawyers, and even greeted the defendant like a friend.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Tippett?”

“Pretty good, your Honor. A little nervous,” replied the middle-aged man. From where Ted sat, he could see gray hair just coming in at his temples. He looked nice, dressed up in a suit and tie. Not like a killer. Just a man caught in the middle of something he could not control. Ted knew the feeling well.

“Alright, let’s make it quick. Full docket, as usual,” the judge chuckled, and the D.A. stood up first. Ted instinctively cocked his head and smiled slightly. Something unexpected pleased him: in this courtroom drama, there would be no commercials.


Photo: hamedmasoumi

After hearing the evidence and listening to both closing arguments, the jury was led down a corridor to a smaller room with a long narrow table, surrounded by big green pleather chairs. Several jurors grabbed water bottles from an icy tub on a table in the corner before they sat down. Ted found a seat near far end of the room. Nobody spoke a word.

The deputy was distracted with his paperwork, two stacks of photos, sworn statements, and legal documents. In the disconcerting quiet, Ted’s blood boiled in his veins. His sweaty forehead froze at the same time. He should have been honest with the Judge, but it was too late. The lady from the bus suddenly gripped his arm.

“You alright, Honey?” she whispered. Before Ted could answer, the deputy was behind, between them, standing with one hand on each shoulder.

“Fine!” he stated with authority. “Now we have a foreman, or, more correctly, a forewoman, of this jury. Number nine, you’re the boss.” He was not asking. His was the unconcerned voice of destiny. It was a done deal: the first juror to speak always won the door prize, and the title of speaker for the group.

The woman clasped her breast. “You mean it?” she squealed. Beaming with pride and suddenly looking more youthful, she squeezed Ted’s hand tightly, declaring, “I can do it. Yes, indeedy, I can. We will get you some justice here, lickedy-split. C’mon, you’all, let’s get down to business. I want to be home in time for my program.” She laughed aloud, winked at Ted and squeezed his hand even tighter.

Her natural enthusiasm made everybody else relax. Even Ted chuckled with an uneasy relief. He felt like a man who had dodged a bullet, but, just like a character in any one of the hundreds of late night movies he had watched, he knew he was still at risk.

At least he wouldn’t have to say anything if he didn’t want to. Instead, he pulled his hands into his lap, his fingers stitching back and forth, thumbs clenching and unclenching over and under one another with every other beat of his heart.

“I’m going to leave you now to decide upon an appropriate sentence,” the deputy stated casually, heading for the door. “Let me know when you finish. Take your time. An hour, a day, whatever.” Then he was gone, and the room was silent only a moment before the impatient, chastened Mr. Rubio spoke up.

“C’mon then, man. Let’s do it. The guy is guilty. He should fry.”
“Hold on,” the forewoman interrupted. “Fryin’ ain’t on our list. We have to decide how long the guilty man goes to jail for. Seven to thirty years is it. Let’s stick to that.”

The young man slumped back in his chair and crossed his arms like a sulking child. His mouth moved in a silent curse that caused Ted to purse his own lips. A thirtyish woman in a green dress with a white collar seemed eager to offer her opinion. She leaned forward, pronouncing, “Seven years doesn’t seem very long.” That comment seemed to get the discussion going.

“Hey, the poor guy has already spent nearly a year in jail, just waiting for trail,” a balding man offered, his palms flat on the table. When he lifted them again and sat back, a moist impression of them remained. “Eight or ten years is more than plenty.”

“That’s not nearly enough time,” a third juror stated with a cold matter-of-factness. This judgment came from a thin young woman who sat opposite Ted. She looked directly at him and added, “Don’t you agree with me?”

“Well,” Ted hesitated. “Maybe.” He tried hard to say nothing more. He hoped someone else would chime in, taking the debate to the other end of the long, dark table. But nobody else spoke up. Ted saw they were all looking toward him, waiting for more.

“Go on, please,” she urged. “Don’t you think he deserves a long punishment?”
Ted cleared his throat. He glanced toward the ceiling, but saw no cameras, no microphones. “Well,” he started again, “I think he already has been punished, in a way.”

The other jurors looked stunned. They waited and listened for an explanation — all but Rubio, who shook his head in lazy dismissal. “Give him life and let’s get out of here. He’s guilty, already.”

“Hush!” said the forewoman, glowering at the young man. Then turning back to Ted, she said, “You mean you’d let him out of jail sooner rather than later? Why’s that?”

Ted squirmed in his seat. He felt accused, but could not name the crime. “What I mean is, this man was fired from his job. We don’t know why. He might have been a good employee…he might only have been so-so. We don’t know.”

Ted’s eyes searched in vain for understanding in the faces of his peers. “He might have rubbed somebody the wrong way. He might have parked in his boss’ space, for God’s sake. People lose their jobs for all kinds of reasons…nowadays.” He trailed off, desperate for someone else to speak.

Like a firecracker dud that unexpectedly goes off, Rubio did. “Hell yes. I got fired twice last year. Total bullshit both times. They weren’t paying me shit, anyway, so fuck those assholes running. Unemployment’s a better deal, anyway.”

Ted felt afire, invigorated, filled with energy he barely remembered possessing. He spoke freely, without self-consciousness. “We have no way of really knowing him, understanding his intent, except that he was a man who had a job, got fired, and his boss died. That is all we know for sure. Who can say what really happened in the office that day?

Maybe his boss did stumble the way he said. Nobody really knows, nobody can really control what’s going happen next.” He looked from face to face in hope of making some sort of connection. His words had not hit the mark, though, had not revealed any universal truth. So he tried again. “It was just awful luck, or maybe an accident or just… I don’t know what. I can’t explain it, but sometimes, you can’t help — can’t stop — what happens.”

The large man with sweaty palms re-entered the argument. “The poor bastard whose job it was to fire him didn’t just up and jump. We can’t ignore the facts.” Heads nodded in agreement, and the jurors all looked back to Ted, whose heart pounded in his chest. He was desperate for them to understand the incomprehensible, inexpressible knowledge of tragedy unavoided.

“But what if the man who fired him did so out of spite or something,” Ted pleaded, “or for some completely unjustified reason? Wouldn’t that make him partly responsible for Tippett’s anger?” The jurors swiveled their heads like spectators at a tennis match. A woman in a tight pink sweater said she was confused, uncertain what she believed anymore. A preliminary vote for a 15-year sentence was evenly split. They kept at it.

It seemed simple at first,” a quiet young woman with short hair said, “But now I’m not so sure. I guess it could have been the dead man’s own fault, in a way.”
“No way!” protested an older gentleman, who wore a stripped club tie loose around his neck. “That would be like saying it was self-defense.”

“Justifiable homicide is more like it,” complained the heavy man. “Look, we can’t just give him a slap on the wrist, even if he deserves one. There’s a dead man’s family to consider.”

Ted could not hold back. He erupted in a passionate flow of bitter knowledge. “Exactly! There is a living man to remember. He was not a killer when he worked there, and he is not a killer today, not anymore.” His temples pulsed with blood and his back stiffened.

“A working man must have his dignity. It’s all he really has, in the end. You can’t just sweep it away with a signature on a piece of paper. It is not fair to destroy a man’s future, his legacy, like that. Not fair to him, and certainly to his family, his loved ones, who count on him….” Then Ted broke down in sobs.

The forewoman put her hand around his shoulders and comforted him. The room was silent as he took several long breaths. “It kills them both, boss and worker — everybody just dies.” Ted whispered, before putting his hands in front of his eyes as if he was saying a prayer.

“Maybe if Mr. Tippett had been a better worker, this tragedy would not have occurred in the first place,” an Asian gentleman, wearing glasses and a pastel pen-striped shirt with white lapels, said quietly, with an air of logic and compassion.

“Or someone had been a better boss,” another juror muttered. The voices became indistinct as Ted’s faith flagged. One comment fused into another as each member of the jury spoke his or her mind. To Ted, it was an audio track gone haywire, with no control, remote or otherwise:

“You can’t ever take justice into your own hands.”

“The dead guy had a family, too, you know.”
“We’ve got to send a message so this never happens again.”
“Hey, listen. Only God can grant true mercy.”
“He’s an out of control lunatic.”
“The poor man said it happened too fast to prevent.”

On and on they chattered. All but Ted, who sat ashen faced, staring out the window at a piercing, cloudless sky. His former place of business was out there somewhere. So was his darkened home. He wondered where Della’s things were. Somewhere somebody else was probably wearing them by now.

“Let’s vote one more time.” The even tone of female encouragement brought Ted’s mind back to the jury room. There was no longer any pleasure in the voice, however, no satisfaction, only fatigue. Eleven jurors favored the maximum sentence. Two abstained. It was decided.


Photo: clearlyambiguous

An hour later, after the Judge had thanked them for their service and dismissed the jury, Ted waited for the bus to carry him home. He rode with his eyes closed the entire way. The fragrance of the woman he had met told him she sat near, but they barely spoke.

He was still thinking about what Tippett had said in his own defense after the jury announced its verdict: “It was just so random. I had no idea it would end the way it did. I’m so sorry. So terribly sorry.”

When he got off the bus, the woman in the blue hat did, too. Their eyes met, and, before they started walking home in opposite directions, she spoke to Ted like an old friend.

“I’m so sorry it turned out bad,” she offered. “Next time, we’ll get ’em.” A wide beautiful sad smile spread across her face, and Ted recognized it instantly. Della had said goodbye to him in much the same way, mustering a final, fragile sweetness and purity, a type of courage without a hint of apology for the transparent innocence of her expression.


When Ted got home, Della’s clothes were still stacked up on the porch. He was just in time to catch Ellen. Her new life mate, the radiant Portia de Rossi, was her extra special guest. It was Monday afternoon, so when one lucky audience member looked under her chair, she found an envelope with $15,000 cash inside.

As she jogged gracefully to the stage, Ted noticed how healthy, well-groomed and impeccably dressed she was. He saw everything had been rehearsed. On TV, things were only about perfect. Ellen gave her a big phony Hollywood hug and kiss, danced to the canned studio music – her DJ Tony having been replaced by a machine – and hugged the lucky young winner some more.

“Everyone else in the studio today,” Ellen proclaimed, “Gets the brand new I-Pod Chrome Camera Phone!” Pandemonium ripped through the audience, and the camera flashed from one giddy, grinning face to the next. Confetti fell like paper snow.

Ted abruptly rose from his chair with surprising ease and glared at the TV set. He gripped the remote control tight in his fist, pointing it at the screen and pumping his finger on the power button over and over again. The television turned on and off frantically. The little room burned bright like the Sun, then fell dark as a cave.

Ted’s curses rose from a hoarse rush of air into a primal roar. Spent but exalted, he tossed the clicker aside and walked behind the TV set to the covered window. He pulled down the heavy navy blanket and natural light shattered the room. It did not glow cold blue like a TV screen. Instead, it was bright, clear, steady and warm.

Ted walked with purpose to his front door and opened it wide. He looked out past the mailbox, past the pawnshop and the bus stop, toward the city. Stepping outside, he swept up Della’s clothes in one gigantic scoop, and took them back inside, dumping the whole lot down on the double bed he once shared with his wife, but had abandoned in his misery and shame. He fell spreadeagled upon them, shaking until his bones ached.

Ted waited impatiently four days for his jury duty pay to arrive. It would only be $7.50, but he already had a plan for the money. He was going to be on TV, if it was the last thing he ever did. And his show would be real, not fake. Honest, not scripted. To hell with the sweeps, the ads, the residuals, the ratings. Ted’s show would be absolutely… unforgettable. On Friday, the check came, sandwiched between a come-on for perpetual termite prevention and a letter from his son.

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