July 2023: On Trial

It’s July, time for short stories by Janet and D. Z. There’s a jury duty summons tacked up next to Janet’s calendar. A perfect theme, with two very different takes on justice—and injustice. In Janet’s story, a protagonist sits in a civilian courtroom, eyes on the defendant as she waits for the jury selection process to play out. D. Z. takes us to a Military Review Board, where Navy officers convene to rule on the fate of a service member.

Will there be order in the court? Read the stories and find out.

Janet Dawson

In the Jury Box

jury boxI know this guy is guilty. I can tell from looking at him.

He sits there with his attorney, posture straight, hands folded on the table, gray hair, gray suit. There’s an earnest expression on his face as he stares at the judge. Then he takes a sidelong glance at the people in the jury box, eyes flicking over us in turn.

I reported for jury duty this morning, waiting in the first-floor assembly room, filling out the questionnaire. Groups of us were directed to the courtroom, where we sat in the gallery at the back. More waiting. Some were excused. Smaller groups sat in the jury box, with attorneys asking questions and dismissing a few people on peremptory challenge. That means a person can be excluded from the jury without the need for any reason or explanation.

The district attorney is a man in his forties, tall and lean, with a jutting nose. He looks like a predator. The judge is a woman, with short silver hair and a no-nonsense look on her face.

The defense attorney is a woman. I wonder if that’s a strategic choice by the defendant. After all, he’s charged with killing his wife.

When I was in the gallery, I could only see the back of his head. From the jury box, I see his profile. He’s turning again, eyes flicking over the prospective jurors, wondering which jurors are most likely to acquit.

But I know he’s guilty. Don’t ask me how I can tell. There’s something about him.

Affect. It’s a psychological term I’ve heard. Not sure exactly what it means, but his demeanor, his expressions, they’re off. As the attorneys tell us the bare bones of the case, he doesn’t look like a man who is concerned about being charged with murder. He looks like he figures he’s going to get away with it.

He’s pleading not guilty. To hear the defense lawyer tell it, this guy’s wife just accidentally fell down those stairs. He had nothing to do with it, just found her dead at the bottom. He doesn’t know anything about those bruises on her arms. Must have happened when she fell. But there was a delay in calling the police. And the record shows the dead woman had called the cops on her husband, twice. Then she didn’t press charges. I guess that happens a lot.

Now it’s my turn in the jury box. I sit with eleven other potential jurors. One juror in my group, an older woman, says she was a victim of domestic violence in the past and she would be unable to be an impartial juror. The defense attorney dismisses her, fast. The next peremptory challenge comes from the DA, directed at a man who, under questioning, reveals that he figures any woman who gets slapped around by her husband probably deserves it. Another potential juror says he thinks anyone who has been charged with murder is guilty, so he’s out.

The questioning finally gets to me. When I filled out the questionnaire, I noted that while I’ve never been a victim of domestic violence, I know people who have.

“Can you be impartial?” the defense attorney asks.

I consider it for a moment. Then I shake my head. “No.”

“Why?” the lawyer asks.

I look at the defendant, sitting there beside the attorney. Then I say what’s been running through my mind since I sat down in this chair.

“I think he’s guilty. He just looks guilty.”

Peremptory challenge. The defense attorney can’t get me out of the courtroom fast enough. And I am glad to go. I always wanted to serve on a jury, but not this one.

I go back to work and a few weeks later, I wonder what had happened with that trial. I hadn’t seen anything in the local newspaper. Too many other murders, I suppose.

I barely remember the defendant’s name but finally, it comes to me. I do an Internet search.

Sure enough, in the middle of the trial, he changed his plea. He now faces serious prison time.

Yeah, I knew all along that guy was guilty.

D. Z. Church

Away Without Leave

man looking out over the waterRobin entered the Commanding Officer’s Conference Room or War Room or whatever the fad name of the week was. The assembled Military Review Board members were reviewing their packets. CDR Scarsdale shuffled his papers then whacked the edges on the surface to line them up. It was all Robin could do to wrench her eyes from the straightened stack wondering why the narrowest minds required the straightest lines.

“Captain Austino selected each member of the Board personally.” A slight frown bent the corners of Scarsdale’s mouth. “Lieutenant Commander Richard Wilder, Lieutenant Commander Sanchez Riley, and Lieutenant Commander Gene Bonhomme are impaneled. Each has had the opportunity to review the results of the investigation and subsequent interviews.”

Robin surveyed the group. LCDR Wilder was so ordinary it hurt. Brown hair, brown eyes, brown freckles, five-foot-ten, it annoyed Robin to look at him. He avoided being swallowed by his plain by bartering information and gossip. LCDR Riley played tennis, played women, and played at being an officer. Some would say he had retired in grade. She couldn’t fathom why Gene Bonhomme was impaneled given that other officers of less sterling quality were available to round out the farce. Maybe that was the point? Bonhomme brought legitimacy.

Scarsdale checked his watch and said, “Good, we have a few minutes before Rivitz arrives. Lieutenant Haas, since Leading Chief Rivitz and AG3 Smith are both in your division, can you comment on the rumor that Rivitz made advances toward Smith.”

At Wilder’s snicker, Scarsdale narrowed his eyes, thinning his lips until they disappeared. Wilder ducked his head and stared at his cuticles, running a thumb over one. Scarsdale’s deep-set brown eyes locked on Robin.

“I spoke to Smith this morning, sir. Her claims were a misguided attempt to protect Rivitz. He has defended her in the past; she was returning the favor,” Robin responded.

“This case is of some delicacy, wouldn’t you agree? The newspaper article was unfortunate given that the charges against Chief Rivitz aren’t of concern to the public.”

Robin interpreted Scardale’s words as an accusation. “The article was at the urging of Rivitz’s lawyer. Rivitz retained the lawyer because of threatening telephone calls he had been receiving. It was Rivitz’s understanding, based on information from a friend in San Francisco, that by outing himself the calls would stop.”

“That doesn’t seem pertinent to the Board,” Scarsdale noted.

“It is relevant to Rivitz’s mindset. He is trying his best to protect his family, as his Navy family should be trying to protect him.”

“Thank you for your opinion, Lieutenant,” Scarsdale finished, whacking his straight edges straighter.

Captain Austino entered at 1400 hours to the tick. Robin stood at attention before the seated panel. “As of 1400 hours, Rivitz has not reported in, sirs.”

Scarsdale’s mean eyes ate into her. He smacked his papers on the desk. Austino snorted, stood, and wheeled out of the room.

Scarsdale cleared his throat. “When were you first aware that Rivitz was Absent Without Leave, Lieutenant?”

“I believed he was at a doctor’s appointment, sir.” She answered, trying to avoid eye contact, afraid Scarsdale would read the lie in them.

“Did you check with his whatever at, let’s say, 1300 when he hadn’t appeared?” Scarsdale snapped.

“No, sir, out of concern for his partner, Mr. McFadden struggles with Post Traumatic Stress. I didn’t want to add to it unnecessarily, believing, until Captain Austino entered, that Rivitz would attend his Review Board.”

Scarsdale smacked the papers on the long edge. “As his Division Officer, it was your duty to ensure he appeared before this Board. His failure to appear will be noted in your Fitness Report. From the moment you leave this room, you have thirty minutes to report him AWOL. I want the documents on my desk, ready for my signature by 1437.” Scarsdale slammed his fist on the table. “Rivitz will do brig time for this. Any consideration regarding an honorable discharge is waived. Brig, then out. Am I clear?”

Scarsdale’s chair screeched across the linoleum. He stood in his rumpled service dress blues and exited. Wilder exhaled. Riley stared at the ceiling tiles. Gene Bonhomme ticked his head for Robin to meet him in his office.

* * *

This vignette is excerpted from Don’t Tell, the final book in the Cooper Family Saga. The saga charts one farm family’s voyage through the turmoil and treachery of the Vietnam War.