Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Blood Cries Chapter 31

On September 22, 1977, in a sweltering courtroom jammed with mostly African American spectators, the State of Alabama vs. Lester Woods began.

Makeshift fans fluttered in front of faces, while those without cooling instruments contented themselves to sit and sweat. A constant murmur took up residence in the courtroom, and it would continue throughout the trial. People who arrived late stood against the walls. Others couldn’t find a place in the courtroom and had to wait outside, hoping to hear some snippet that would tip them in the direction the jury might be leaning.

Television cameras had been barred from the courtroom, but members of the press were given their own pew near the front of the courtroom. The judge hoped their presence would make the lawyers behave.

One discerning journalist jotted down conversations eavesdropped from spectators and reported them later, including some addressing recent sightings of Reverend Baxter.

“My cousin saw him down by the lake. He was driving a white Cadillac.”

“He was not.”

“He was. My cousin saw him.”

“Black pepper. That’s what you have to use to ward off evil spirits.”

“Pepper makes me sneeze.”

Lester Woods sat quietly at his lawyer’s table. He had shed his suit jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. He wore a button-down shirt, open at the neck, and a pair of blue jeans. His wife sat on the front pew, just behind him, while his young son took the opportunity to wander the front of the courtroom.

Judge Spencer sat up high, looking rather small behind an enormous wooden bench, and calmly puffing a cigar while he studied the day’s itinerary.

The local newspaper described the varying styles of Melvin Little and Henry Russell as “the Peacock vs. the Bulldog.” Melvin was described as strutting around the courtroom, taking every opportunity display his feathers while Russell was brusque and sarcastic and attacked with the tenacity of his namesake.

The vitriol between the two lawyers began even before opening arguments, beginning with jury selection.

The first objection from Melvin arrived the moment Russell opened his mouth to speak.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Henry Russell began. “You’re going to listen to certain so-called expert witnesses…”

“I object your honor,” Melvin said.

“Sustain the objection. Just ask the questions.”

“These quote unquote experts will try and dubious legal maneuver…”

“Objection, Your Honor. He’s making a speech again.”

“Sustain the objection.”

“I must ask these questions,” Russell said.

“Objection, He doesn’t ‘must have to’ ask anything.”

“Sustain the objection. He doesn’t have to ask any.”

“Now just because a person claims to be an expert, or has a fancy degree, that don’t mean…”

“Objection, Your Honor. He’s not asking questions. He’s trying to poison the jury against the insanity defense.”

“Careful, Henry. If I have to delay the trial to round up a new jury, it won’t reflect well on you.”

“Sorry Your Honor. Let me just ask this one question of every juror here. Can you stand up and make up your own mind about whether something is right or wrong even if it goes against what some expert says?”

The hands of every prospective juror went into the air.

“Now, it’s my turn,” Melvin announced as he strode in front of the pool of jurors crowded into a section of courtroom seating. “Does anyone here reject outright the insanity defense?”

No hands raised.

“Does anyone here who will refuse to give credence to expert testimony?”

Again, no hands raised.

At the end of question, the lawyer’s huddled over legal pads at their respective tables. After a few minutes, the judge called for them to issue their strikes—those who would automatically be struck from the jury. Within a half hour, the jury was set.

“That went well,” Melvin said as he sat down beside his client.

Lester leaned over and whispered in his ear.

“What’s that?” Melvin asked.

“Don’t you notice anything particular about the jury?”

Melvin looked up and examined the faces of those he selected, most of whom he knew. There was Tim Jacobs who sometimes worked on his car, and Earl Tidwell who was a teller over at the bank, and Bill Caldwell, who ran the car wash. He scanned each row of faces. As far as he could tell, they were all good and fair-minded people. “What am I supposed to be looking at?” He asked.

“There ain’t nothing but white men on the jury.”                      

Melvin looked over at the jury as if for the first time. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

“No,” Lester said. “I am.” 

Go to Chapter 32

Note: Many details of this chapter were inspired by the State of Alabama vs. Robert Burns 9/26/77 and newspaper reporting, including "Burns trial begins with 'rights' debate by Phyllis Wesley, Montgomery Advertiser 9/27/77; "Alex City Murder Trial Jury Picked" by Lou Elliott, Alabama Journal 9/26/77; "Radney vs. Young" by Al Benn, Alexander City Outlook 9/28/77; "All-male jury picked to hear Burns case" by Jim Earnhardt, Alexander City Outlook.  

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