by Renee Henning
“I did it, Your Honor,” Jed Harris said. “I killed that blankety-blank!” Despite his rough exterior, Jed was a man of quiet dignity who never swore in the presence of females.
Judge Laura Sanchez looked surprised. She had not expected him to admit in court to the slaying. The victim was “Mac” McCoy, the richest man in town.
Jed’s young lawyer looked alarmed. It was his first murder case. Now he spoke quickly. “My client isn’t confessing to MURDER, Your Honor. He is NOT pleading guilty. We’re still looking into the facts and deciding whether to argue at trial not guilty by reason of insanity, self-defense, or - or some alibi.”
Jed was amused. “I am sane,” he said, “or at least as sane as you can be after spending thirty-five years in a Texas prison for a crime you didn’t commit.”
The crowd in the courtroom chuckled. The whole town knew the saga of Jed and Mac. They were enemies from childhood. Their feud, which Mac kept escalating, included nasty pranks and fist fights. When the men were in their twenties, Mac went too far. He splashed pink paint over Jed’s most prized possession, a black pickup truck, and slashed the tires. At the sight of the damage Jed, in a phone call in the presence of witnesses, threatened his nemesis with death. After Mac disappeared, Jed was arrested. A jury concluded he had hidden the corpse and found him guilty of murder. He spent the next thirty-five years locked up. Several years later, just days after Mac’s father died, Mac turned up alive to collect his inheritance. Two years after that Jed did kill him. Yet instead of concealing the crime, he reported it to the sheriff and confessed. He was arrested a second time, again for Mac’s murder.
Now Jed was standing before the judge in the second murder case. Ignoring his attorney’s attempt to silence him, he added, “Ma’am, I can’t be put on trial for Mac’s death because of double jeopardy.”
Sam Kessler, the best lawyer in the county, was the only spectator who immediately grasped what Jed meant. It had not occurred to Sam that there might be a double jeopardy angle to the homicide. However, under certain circumstances the law does indeed protect a person from being tried twice for the same crime. In Sam’s opinion, Jed, after being tried, convicted, and punished for the presumed murder of Mac, could not be prosecuted for the actual murder of Mac decades later.
In an unusual move, Sam stood up and asked to be heard. “Your Honor,” he said, “this is a novel and complex case that deserves the top legal mind around these parts. I offer to represent Jed in the matter. I realize he has an attorney, but the case requires a highly experienced lawyer such as myself.” Sam was not known for modesty or for taking on indigent clients like Jed.
Judge Sanchez replied, “Sam, I already appointed an attorney for him because he couldn’t afford one. Are you saying you’re willing to represent him for free?”
“Not exactly,” Sam answered. “However, I would like to speak privately with Jed for three minutes to make sure he prefers me as his lawyer and to discuss a possible payment.” Despite the irregular circumstances, the judge granted the recess. She wanted the defendant to have the best advocate available.
When the two men were together, Jed confirmed his inability to pay. “I have only $17 and change to my name,” he said.
Sam replied, “You’re going to be a lot richer than that soon, due to a windfall. I’ll explain about its source later, but for now I propose a deal. If I get you off on the murder charge and collect the windfall for you, I want 10% of that money as my fee.” They shook hands on the deal.
After their return to the courtroom, the judge set a date for a hearing on the double jeopardy question. If, as she appeared to think, double jeopardy applied in the case, there would be no trial for the “second” murder of Mac. The accused man would get off scot-free.
Sam then asked the judge to release Jed on bail. To counter the claim that the defendant might flee, he said, “If my client wanted to escape, he wouldn’t have gone to the sheriff to report Mac’s death. He has lived in this town his entire life. Well, except for his time at the penitentiary. Jed is sixty-five years old, owns no vehicle, and couldn’t get far on foot. He’s not going anywhere.”
The prosecutor replied, “Your Honor, the defendant has basically admitted guilt in our case. This murder is not his first offense. Jed already has a criminal record for violence, and he is a danger to the community! He should sit in jail while we work out what happens next. That way he can’t commit yet another murder.”
Pressed by the judge for details about the criminal record, the prosecutor admitted he meant Jed’s erroneous conviction for slaying Mac forty years before. Judge Sanchez said, “You portray the defendant as a violent, out-of-control individual. However, I think Mac was the only person who needed to fear him. According to you, Jed has already murdered Mac twice. I doubt that the defendant, if freed, will kill him a third time.” The viewers laughed.
The judge decided to authorize bail. The amount she set was extremely low for a murder case but too high for Jed. He rented his home, a rickety trailer, and he had no assets of value to a bail bondsman.
In another surprise move, a man in the audience offered to pay. If he had been on the jury in Jed’s original murder trial, he, like many males in town, would have found the defendant not guilty due to extenuating circumstances. (In the fellow’s view but not the law’s, a man who trashes another man’s truck deserves to die.) “Don’t mess with Texas” is a state slogan. Faced with Mac’s vandalism, many residents would add “or a Texan’s truck!”
Subsequently, Sam and Jed met to discuss the mysterious windfall. The attorney explained, “The fortune stems from your wrongful conviction for the murder of Mac decades ago. To prove your innocence in the original case, I’ll have the coroner confirm that Mac didn’t die until this week. Next I’ll get you a pardon. Then I’ll apply under state law for compensation for your wrongful imprisonment. Texas pays handsomely for each year an innocent person was incarcerated. The 10% I’m charging you for my work will come from that payoff.”
Sam grinned. “In short, the money you’ll get for not killing Mac will, by funding my services, keep you from going to prison for killing him. After deducting my fee, you’ll still be a multimillionaire. So prepare to be rich!”
Decades behind bars had taught Jed to hide his emotions and to expect bad luck. He nodded, quietly pleased. Money could not bring back the lost years in prison, but it would greatly improve his future. In some respects he still had the aspirations of the young man he once was. Jed told himself, “If I get the fortune, the first thing I’ll buy is a black pickup truck.”
The men proceeded to talk about the litigation. The lawyer said, “Forget about the murder charge. One way or another, I’ll get you off. They don’t call me ‘Ol’ Silver Tongue’ for nothing.
“However, I don’t understand certain points in your story. Why tell the sheriff you shot Mac? You could have just buried the jerk and kept your mouth shut. There was a guilty verdict at your original trial despite no corpse. Given Mac’s deliberate disappearance the first time, no jury would convict you a second time without a body. Also, as you’re aware, Texas sentences some felons to death. Didn’t you think about concealing the body and reducing the risk of execution?”
“I thought about everything,” Jed said simply.
“Well, why did you wait two whole years after your enemy came home to go after him? I assume you shot him for revenge for destroying your life.”
“Sure, revenge was one of the reasons I killed Mac. He stole my life, and I stole his. But I wouldn’t have finished him off just to get even.”
“What other reasons were there?” the attorney asked.
“When Mac showed up alive two years ago, everyone knew he had pretended to be dead to ruin my life. The very week he returned, I was walking along the highway with a sack of potatoes over my shoulder. I saw his face as he drove by in one of his fancy vehicles. He was gloating. Overnight I changed in people’s minds from Mac’s killer to Mac’s patsy. I went from decades of scorn to two years of pity. I’m tough. I can handle scorn, but I’m nobody’s patsy and I can’t stand pity.”
Jed looked the lawyer in the eye. “All that explains why I killed Mac and did nothing to hide it,” he said. “Because of the murder and the publicity, I got my manhood back.”
Renee Henning is an attorney and an international author. Her written work has appeared in her book Mystery and the Adopted Child and in other publications in North America (e.g., Spadina Literary Review), Europe (e.g., Oslo Times), Asia (e.g., ActiveMuse), Africa (e.g., Modern Ghana), and Oceania (e.g., Freelance).