Calvin Whitehead stepped into the witness box and raised his right hand. The bailiff swore him in. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the slick lawyer ooze toward him from the defendant’s table.
Melvin smiled cordially. “Would you please state your name and occupation?”
“My name is Calvin Whitehead,” he answered in a voice louder than he had intended. “I’m the chief toxicologist for the state of Alabama.”
“And would you state your credentials, please?”
“Well, I’ve been the state’s toxicologist for twelve years. Before that I was an assistant for five.”
“And what education and training did you receive prior to that?”
“Well, most of my training occurred on the job. Before that I studied zoology in college.”
“Zoology?” Melvin asked. “Like zoos and stuff?” His nose wrinkled like he could smell the monkey cage from where he was standing in open court.
“That’s right,” Calvin said. “I studied animals.”
“Okay, Mr. Whitehead. Let’s get down to the point. Last year, you performed an autopsy on Taylor Smith, is that correct?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“And what did he die of?”
“What did you determine was Mr. Smith’s cause of death?”
The toxicologist looked at the DA for help, but Henry Russell was busy rifling through papers spread out over the prosecutor’s table.
Transcript of Interview with Melvin Little conducted by Louella Harper 3/27/1980
Melvin: (laughing) That’s what was so funny about that case. I remember asking the state’s witness, the toxicologist, “What did the guy die of?”
He said, “Well, I’m not sure.” (More laughter)
I said, “What do you mean you’re not sure? You have the report don’t you? You have all the resources of the state of Alabama at your disposal. You even have a new lab up there in Auburn with all that fancy new equipment. And you mean to tell me you can’t tell me what killed this man?”
He said, “No, I can’t.”
I looked at the judge and the judge looked at me and the judge said to him, “Cal, you’ve been determining cause of death for fifteen years. Just tell us what killed this poor man.”
He said, “Judge, all I can tell you…” He reached into his pocket. “I can tell you what the black folks are saying.”
I moved to strike that. The judge granted my motion.
The judge said, “Just tell us—as an officer of the court—what he died of?”
The toxicologist said, “Judge, I don’t know.” He pulled out a vial of black powder. “But I found this at the scene. It was in the car sprinkled all around the body. We’ve studied this at the lab. The FBI has analyzed it. We don’t know what it is or if it had anything to do with Mr. Smith’s death. It’s just the strangest thing...”
* * *
Louella went to the sheriff’s office and found Sheriff Ford standing at the coffee machine gabbing with a secretary. When Louella interrupted, he greeted her with a smile full of big, square teeth. Louella politely refused a cup of coffee.
“Do you remember the powder found at the scene around Taylor Smith’s body?” Louella asked.
“Powder? You mean like cocaine?”
“No,” Louella said. “I mean like some kind of voodoo powder. Did you ever find anything in the car or on the victim’s person?”
“Voodoo powder?” Ford laughed and looked around for someone with whom to share a humorous comment. The secretary had left the breakroom and no one else was there, so he turned back to Louella. “No ma’am, I never found any powder, but I heard rumors and such.”
Interview Transcript 3/27/80
Melvin: I asked some of my black friends about it. I said, “What do you think killed Taylor?”
They all said, “Oh, it was voodoo. Voodoo powder killed him.”
“Well, where’d he get it?”
They said, “He got it down in New Orleans.”
Louella: (While taking notes) Would you mind telling me the names of the people you asked.
Melvin: Why do you need that?
Louella: I just need to verify the information.
Melvin: Why? Don’t you trust me?
Louella: Of course, I do Melvin. It’s nothing personal. I’m writing a journalistic account though, and facts have to be verified.
Melvin: Oh, well, you know, let’s see. That was several years ago. I believe… I believe I talked to my old buddy Hector Caldwell about it. If I’m not mistaken. It’s been several years as I said. Hector works as an automobile mechanic here in town.
Louella: Thank you. Please continue. Mr. Caldwell told you the powder came from New Orleans.
Melvin: Yeah, I’m pretty sure Hector was one of the people I talked to about that. Anyway, the toxicologist had testified late on a Friday afternoon. The judge said we could pick it up on Monday. Since I had the weekend off anyway, I decided to make a trip to New Orleans to investigate.
* * *
Louella found Hector Caldwell at a downtown body shop underneath a wood-paneled station wagon. He rolled out from under the car on a mechanics dolly and sat up, and started blinking at the woman standing above him holding a notepad. He wore a blue jumpsuit smeared with axle grease and held a large wrench in his hand. The whole place smelled of grease and motor oil.
“Are you friends with Melvin Little?” Louella asked.
Hector winced at the mention of Melvin’s name. He looked over both shoulders as he climbed to his feet and then moved in close to Louella.
“I know Melvin,” he said in a quiet voice. “He represented me once a long time ago. I’m not the same person I was back then.”
“I’m not interested in your felonious past,” Louella said. She fished a pencil from behind her ear and started writing. “Did you know Taylor Smith?”
“Yeah, I knew Taylor. Why are you asking me about him? You think I had something to do with his death?”
“No one suspects you of any involvement, Mr. Caldwell. I’m attempting to verify someone else’s story.”
Hector sighed. “Yeah, I knew Taylor a little bit. He was a year behind me in school.”
“How do you think he died?”
Hector blinked and stared at Louella like she was crazy. “What do you mean? Reverend Baxter killed him.”
“Mm hm,” Louella nodded. “And how do you think he did it?”
“I don’t know. I heard he got drugged and then suffocated with a pillow.”
“What about voodoo?”
“What about it?” Hector asked.
“Do you suspect voodoo was used in the murder.”
“I wouldn’t know about that. I mean, I heard rumors.”
“Thank you for your time, Mr. Caldwell.”
Interview Transcript 3/27/80
Melvin: I went down to the French Quarter and I paid a visit to the Voodoo Shop. There was a lady dressed in African garb standing at the counter. I showed her the vial of powder.
I said, “Do you sell this stuff?”
Louella: How’d you come to have the powder? Wasn’t that evidence?
Melvin: Oh, I told the judge the defense needed to have the stuff analyzed independently.
Louella: I didn’t think they would just hand evidence over to the defense lawyer to take home with him.
Melvin: Well, you see the powder was never formerly entered into evidence.
Louella: I see.
Melvin: Anyway, I showed the stuff to the woman at the Voodoo Shop. I said, “Do you sell this stuff?”
She said, “Oh yeah, that’s voodoo powder. It’s made in Africa.”
I said, “What’s in it?”
She said it included parts of sixteen different animals: zebra hooves, elephant tusks… crocodile shit. They crushed it all up into a powder and blessed it with some mumbo jumbo at a special ceremony. She told me it was powerful stuff. Black magic.
I said, “Did you ever sell this powder to a preacher from Alabama?”
She goes, “Oh yeah. Do you mean Reverend Baxter? He used to come in here all the time. How’s he doing?”
* * *
Louella met the District Attorney at a diner called the City Café. It was in walking distance of the courthouse and Louella judged from the appearance of the clientele that it was popular with lawyers and government employees.
Henry Russell was a bulldog of a man, bald on top and powerfully built. He wore a rumpled navy blue suit and hunched over his tray as if his food might try and escape if he didn’t create a pen with his forearms.
Of the food, he said. “It’s not good, but at least you get a lot of it.” He added, “If you can eat a second plate, they’ll give it to you for free.”
“How delightful,” Louella said before ordering a grilled chicken salad. She made small talk until the food case, and then she got down to business. “Do you remember the Taylor Smith case?” she asked.
“Dismissed for lack of evidence,” Russell said while shoveling a forkful of turnip greens into his mouth. He wiped his face with a large paper napkin and then let it fall to the table. He scowled as he scanned the tray of condiments in the center of the table. “Hey,” he barked to no one in particular. “Need some pepper sauce over here!”
“I was told that the toxicologist found voodoo powder around Mr. Smith’s body, and that it was an issue at trial.”
“Smells like a load of crap to me,” Russell said.
A female server whisked in a clear bottle filled with yellow-colored peppers and vinegar. The prosecutor took it without offering thanks or comment and proceeded to douse his plate. His turnips, fried okra, and country fried steak all received a heavy soaking. He left his mash potatoes alone; they were already swimming in gravy.
“All that voodoo stuff,” the prosecutor said. “It’s all a load of crap.”
“Are you saying Baxter wasn’t a voodoo man?”
“I’m pretty sure he was Baptist.” A glob of congealed gravy hung at the corner of his mouth.
“What about all the rumors?”
“What about ‘em?” He looked at his rapidly disappearing food. “I think I might go for the second plate today.”
“Why would someone start rumors about voodoo if he wasn’t involved?”
“Why do any rumors start?” The DA answered between bites. “They make for a juicier story.”
Louella puffed out her lips and frowned. She had yet to take a bite of salad.
“Who told you it came up at trial?” The DA asked as a speck of food flew out of his mouth and hit the back of a nearby patron.
Louella noticed the speck on the back of the woman’s beige pantsuit, but let it pass without comment. “Hm?” she said dreamily.
“Who told you voodoo came up during the Taylor Smith trial?”
“Oh,” Louella said. “An unreliable source apparently.” She balled up her napkin and tossed it into her salad bowl.
Interview Transcript 3/27/80
Melvin: Monday morning I was back in court.
Louella: Did you tell the judge what you’d learned in New Orleans?
Melvin: Naw. I let them stew in their own juices. It’s not my job to give evidence against my own client. I’d never get another one. I might even get disbarred.
Louella: So what happened?
Melvin: The judge said to the DA, “Mr. Russell, let’s proceed with the case,” and Mr. Russell said, “Judge, we can’t do it. We can’t figure out what killed him.”
You have to have proof of death. You have to prove the guy died of something. So, they were stuck, and I got the case dismissed.
I remember the insurance company didn’t want to pay that one. They never did. But I started taking depositions, and the insurance lawyer said, “Just stop. Please stop.”
I said, “What if I don’t wanna stop?”
He said, “If you stop now, will give you fifty cents on the dollar.”
So that’s what we did. It came out to around $150,000.
Go to Chapter 19