Chapter 15

Tuesday morning, almost two hours were wasted as the lawyers wrangled over some hotly contested motions back in the Judge's chambers. "Probably the photographs," Baggy kept saying. "They always fight over the photographs." Since we were not privy to their little war, we waited impatiently in the courtroom, holding our seats. I wrote pages of useless notes in a chicken-scratch handwriting that any veteran reporter would admire. The scribbling kept me busy and it kept my eyes away from the ever-present stares of the Padgitts. With the jury out of the room they turned their attention to the spectators, especially me.

The jurors were locked away in the deliberation room, with deputies at the door as if someone might gain something by attacking them. The room was on the second floor, with large windows that looked upon the east side of the courthouse lawn. At the bottom of one window was a noisy air-conditioning unit that could be heard from any point on the square when it was at full throttle. I thought of Miss Callie and her blood pressure. I knew she was reading the Bible and maybe this was calming her. I had called Esau early that morning. He was very upset that she had been sequestered and hauled away.

Esau was in the back row, waiting with the rest of us.

When Judge Loopus and the lawyers finally appeared they looked as though they had all been fistfighting. The Judge nodded at the bailiff and the jurors were led in. He welcomed them, thanked them, asked about their accommodations, apologized for the inconvenience, apologized for the delay that morning, then promised that things would move forward.

Ernie Gaddis assumed a position behind the podium and began his opening statement to the jury. He had a yellow legal pad, but he didn't look at it. With great efficiency, he rattled off the necessary elements the State would prove against Danny Padgitt. When all the exhibits were in, and all the witnesses were finished, and the lawyers were quiet, and the Judge had spoken, it would be left to the jury to serve justice. There was no doubt in his mind that they would find Danny Padgitt guilty of rape and murder. He didn't waste a word, and every word found its mark. He was mercifully brief. His confident tone and concise remarks conveyed the clear message that he had the facts, the case, and he would get his verdict. He did not need long, emotional arguments to convince the jury.

Baggy loved to say, "When lawyers have a weak case they do a lot more talking."

Oddly, Lucien Wilbanks deferred his opening remarks until the defense put on its case, an option rarely exercised. "He's up to something," Baggy mumbled as if he and Lucien were thinking together. "No surprise there."

The first witness for the State was Sheriff Coley himself. Part of his job was testifying in criminal cases, but it was doubtful he'd ever dreamed of doing so against a Padgitt. In a few months he would be up for reelection. It was important for him to look good before the voters.

With Ernie's meticulous planning and prodding, they walked through the crime. There were large diagrams of the Kassellaw home, the Deece home, the roads around Beech Hill, the exact spot where Danny Padgitt was arrested. There were photographs of the area. Then, there were photographs of Rhoda's corpse, a series of eight by ten's that were handed to the jurors and passed around. Their reactions were amazing. Every face was shocked. Some winced. A few mouths flew open. Miss Callie closed her eyes and appeared to pray. Another lady on the jury, Mrs. Barbara Baldwin, gasped at first sight and turned away. Then she looked at Danny Padgitt as if she could shoot him at point-blank range. "Oh my God," one of the men mumbled. Another covered his mouth as if he might throw up.

The jurors sat in padded swivel chairs that rocked slightly. As the gruesome photos were passed around, not a single chair was still. The pictures were inflammatory, highly prejudicial, yet always admissible, and as they caused a commotion in the jury box I thought Danny Padgitt was as good as dead. Judge Loopus allowed only six as exhibits. One would have sufficed.

It was just after 1 P.M., and everyone needed a break. I doubted that the jurors had much of an appetite.

* * *

The State's second witness was one of Rhoda's sisters from Missouri. Her name was Ginger McClure, and I had talked to her several times after the murder. When she realized I had gone to school at Syracuse and was not a native of Ford County, she had thawed somewhat. She had reluctantly sent me a photo for the obituary. Later, she had called and asked if I could send her copies of the Times when it mentioned Rhoda's case. She expressed frustration in getting details from the District Attorney's office.

Ginger was a slim redhead, very attractive and well dressed, and when she settled into the witness chair she had everyone's attention.

According to Baggy, someone from the victim's family always testified. Death became real when the loved ones took the stand and looked at the jurors.

Ernie wanted Ginger to be viewed by the jury and arouse their sympathy. He also wanted to remind the jury that the mother of two small children had been taken from them in a premeditated murder. Her testimony was brief. Wisely, Lucien Wilbanks had no questions on cross-examination. When she was excused, she walked to a reserved chair behind the bar, near the seat of Ernie Gaddis, and assumed the position as representative of the family. Her every move was watched until the next witness was called.

Then it was back to the gore. A forensic pathologist from the state crime lab was called to discuss the autopsy. Though he had plenty of photos, none were used. None were needed. In layman's terms, her cause of death was obvious - a loss of blood. There was a four-inch gash beginning just below her left ear and running almost straight down. It was almost two inches deep, and, in his opinion, and he'd seen many knife wounds, it was caused by a rapid and powerful thrust from a blade that was approximately six inches long and an inch wide. The person using the knife was, more than likely, right-handed. The gash cut completely through the left jugular vein, and at that point the victim had only a few minutes to live. A second gash was six-and-a-half inches long, one inch deep, and ran from the tip of the chin and to the right ear, which it almost sliced in two. This wound by itself probably would not have resulted in death.

The pathologist described these wounds as if he were talking about a tick bite. No big deal. Nothing unusual. In his business he saw this carnage every day and talked about it with juries. But for everyone else in the courtroom, the details were unsettling. At some point during his testimony, every single juror looked at Danny Padgitt and silently voted "Guilty."

Lucien Wilbanks began his cross pleasantly enough. The two had hooked up before in trials. He made the pathologist admit that some of his opinions might possibly be wrong, such as the size of the murder weapon and whether the assailant was right-handed. "I stated that these were probabilities," the doctor said patiently. I got the impression that he'd been grilled so many times nothing rattled him. Wilbanks poked and probed a bit, but he was careful not to revisit the damning evidence. The jury had heard enough of the cuts and gashes; it would be foolish to cover this ground again.

A second pathologist followed. Concurrent with the autopsy, he had made a thorough examination of the body and found several clues as to the identity of the killer. In the vaginal area, he found semen that matched perfectly with Danny Padgitt's blood. Under the nail of Rhoda's right index finger he had found a tiny piece of human skin. It too matched the defendant's blood type.

On cross-examination, Lucien Wilbanks asked him if he had personally examined Mr. Padgitt. No, he had not. Where on his body was Mr. Padgitt scraped or scratched or clawed in such a way?

"I did not examine him," the pathologist said.

"Did you examine photographs of him?"

"I did not."

"So if he lost some skin, you can't tell the jury where it came from can you?"

"I'm afraid not."

After four hours of graphic testimony, everybody in the courtroom was exhausted. Judge Loopus sent the jury away with stern warnings about avoiding outside contact. It seemed overkill in light of the fact that they were being hidden in another town and guarded by police.

Baggy and I raced back to the office and typed frantically until almost ten. It was Tuesday, and Hardy liked to have the presses running no later than 11 P.M. On those rare weeks when there were no mechanical problems, he could run five thousand copies in less than three hours.

Hardy set the type as quickly as possible. There was no time for editing and proofreading, but I wasn't too concerned about that edition because Miss Callie was on the jury and wouldn't be able to catch our mistakes. Baggy was hitting the sauce as we finished up and couldn't wait to leave. I was about to head for my apartment when Ginger McClure strolled in the front door and said hello as if we were old friends. She was wearing tight jeans and a red blouse. She asked if I had anything to drink. Not at the office, but that wouldn't stop us.

We left the square in my Spitfire and drove to Quincy's, where I bought a six-pack of Schlitz. She wanted to see Rhoda's house one last time, from the road, not too close. As we headed that way I cautiously inquired about the two children. The report was mixed. Both were living with another sister - Ginger was quick to tell me she was recently divorced - and both were undergoing intense counseling. The little boy appeared to be almost normal, though he sometimes drifted off into prolonged periods of silence. The little girl was much worse. She had constant nightmares about her mother and had lost the ability to control her bladder. She was often found curled in a fetal position, sucking her fingers and groaning pitifully. The doctors were experimenting with various drugs.

Neither child would tell the family or the doctors how much they saw that night. "They saw their mother get raped and stabbed," she said, killing off the first beer. Mine was still half full.

The Deece home looked as if Mr. and Mrs. Deece had been asleep for days. We turned into the gravel driveway of what was once the happy little Kassellaw home. It was empty, dark, and had an abandoned look to it. There was a FOR SALE sign in the yard. The house was the only significant asset in Rhoda's small estate. The proceeds would all go to the children.

At Ginger's request, I cut the lights and turned off the engine. It was not a good idea because the neighbors were understandably jumpy. Plus, my Triumph Spitfire was the only one of its kind in Ford County and as such was naturally a suspicious vehicle.

She gently placed her hand on mine and said, "How did he get in the house?"

"They found some footprints at the patio door. It was probably unlocked." And during a long silence both of us replayed the attack, the rape, the knife, the children fleeing through the darkness, yelling for Mr. Deece to come save their mother.

"Were you close to her?" I asked, then I heard the distant approach of a vehicle.

"When we were kids, but not recently. She left home ten years ago."

"How often did you visit here?"

"Twice. I moved away too, to California. We sort of lost touch. After her husband died, we begged her to come back to Springfield, but she said she liked it here. Truth was, she and my mother never got along."

A pickup truck slowed on the road just behind us. I tried to act unconcerned, but I knew how dangerous things could be in such a dark part of the county. Ginger was staring at the house, lost in some horrible image, and seemed not to hear. Thankfully, the truck did not stop.

"Let's go," she said, squeezing my hand. "I'm scared."

When we drove away, I saw Mr. Deece crouching in the shadows of his garage, holding a shotgun. He was scheduled to be the last witness called by the State.

Ginger was staying at a local motel, but she did not want to go there. It was after midnight, our options were thin, so we drove to the Hocutt place, where I led her up the stairs, over the cats, and into my apartment.

"Don't get any ideas," she said as she kicked off her shoes and sat on the sofa. "I'm not in the mood."

"Neither am I," I lied.

Her tone was almost flippant, as though her mood might change real soon and when it did then we could have a go at it. I was perfectly happy to wait.

I found colder beer in the kitchen and we settled into our places as if we might talk until sunrise. "Tell me about your family," she said.

It was not my best subject, but, for this lady, I could talk. "I'm an only child. My mother died when I was thirteen. My father lives in Memphis, in an old family house that he never leaves because both he and the house have a few loose boards. He has an office in the attic, and he stays there all day and night trading stocks and bonds. I don't know how well he trades, but I have a hunch he loses more than he gains. We speak by phone once a month."

"Are you wealthy?"

"No, my grandmother is wealthy. My mother's mother, BeeBee. She loaned me the money to buy the paper."

She thought about this as she sipped her beer. "There were three of us girls, two now. We were pretty wild growing up. My father went out for milk and eggs one night and never came home. My mother has tried twice more since then, can't seem to get it right. I'm divorced. My older sister is divorced. Rhoda is dead." She reached across with the bottle and tapped mine. "Here's to a couple of screwed-up families."

We drank to that.

Divorced, childless, wild, and very cute. I could spend time with Ginger.

She wanted to know about Ford County and its characters - Lucien Wilbanks, the Padgitts, Sheriff Coley, and so on. I talked and talked and kept waiting for her mood to change.

It did not. Sometime after 2 A.M. she stretched out on the sofa, and I went to bed alone.