James Harris has been accused of the murder of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Burley in his New York home; the evidence is there, the lawyers are ready, but there is only one problem: James has been framed.
The Supreme Court house on 130 Centre Street, New York City, reminded me of Mansfield Reformatory in a way: the grey, crumbling columns supporting the roof and the people – dressed in grey suits, holding stacks of scribbled paper and hissing under their breaths to each other as they huddle in tight groups – reminded me of the prison wardens. The big Greek columns clashed with the modern 21stCentury designs and exotic bubbles, making the court, a place that I had come to know so well, look like a mental asylum. Peeking over the building was a grand clock tower, connecting to the building adjacent but looking like one of its own. The watchful eye of time loomed over the court like a shadow.
To reach the court room, the jury stepped through the glass double doors and into a large lobby, the size of which I thought was more than Yankee Stadium. It had sheen marble flooring and mirrored walls. It had the distinctive smell of polish – sweet and floral – and had the noise of a purring cat. No one dared speak out of line or over the volume. Chairs, grey and metallic, lined the perimeter of the lobby and seated rarely anyone – only those who prayed for luck to be on their side. From the lobby, a long corridor, dimly lit with florescent lighting, led the jury to a row of offices; the assessor had the first office on the right and the County clerk had the first on the left. The corridor led for several dozen meters, the forked off to the main chamber. If the jury had taken the other route, they would have come to a flight of stairs that led up to a balcony that ran around the court-room like a veranda. From there, the audience could see everything.
Upon entering the lower floor of the court house, the benches, fit only for the jury, sat across from the witness box, like an orchestra’s plinth. Usually, the Judge sat at a raised bench that looked at the accused like a hungry lion. Beneath him, his cubs rattled away at their type-writers, recording what was being said.
I had never walked the Court lobby, or taken that flight of stairs up to the balcony to survey the crime like God. I was always the one in handcuffs. I was the lions meat, waiting, my breath cut into shards, for the alpha male to rip into me.
The ruffling of pages and voices stopped. I did not have any time to look behind me when I was escorted into the court, so the number of people there today was unknown to me.
The Judge entered looking like a sleeping owl. He looked like what I expected: amiable, white haired, wrinkled, elderly face and a smokers cough. Without talking, he sat at his bench and took out a golden pen. The scripts and lawyers followed from a separate door. They looked formal in their suits and holding piles of papers. The bailiff, dressed in a black robe and holding a Bible in his hands, made towards the plinth which stood next to the Judge. The Judge did not look up from his writing. My breath was caught in my nervous heart when the bailiff started to speak.
“The Honorable Supreme Court with the Honorable Judge Bates is now in session.” The Judge looked up and nodded to the jury and the lawyers who were seated like monkeys on a branch. There was a mass scribble of noise and the jury sat, with the chairs squeaking and scratching. “Calling the matter of the murder and rape of Elizabeth Burley.”
There was a long pause, in which the jury watched the Judge. So did I; more than ever did I want to the Judge to decline the accusing and set me free. I knew this could never happen.
The Judge sighed, shifted in his seat and looked up at me. His eyes were as grey as his hair. “Very well. List the support in the trial.”
The first lawyer stood. It was a man who looked in his late forties; he wore round spectacles and had brown hair which was cut off at the fringe. His black suit looked tailored and his green tie clashed. It looked, to me, as if he was going to a dinner party. “Your Honor,” he started in a thick Alabama-raised voice, “my name is Peter Judd and I will be representing the accused today.”
The Judge nodded in approval and my heart leapt. I had only met the man once, and that was whilst I was still in prison. Now I was leaving my life to him.
The lady sitting next to Peter on the right stood. Her face was glowing with make-up and looked plastic. Her eyes were piercing and her mouth was knotted in a thin thread. “Your Honor,” she said, her hair, like an up-turned bowl, resting finally from the vibrations of movement. “My name is Jean Collins and I will be representing the deceased, Miss Burley.” She made a sharp bow with her head, and then sat back on her seat without approval from the Judge.
The next monkey on the branch stood and bowed before speaking. He was a stocky man, old in age with semi-circular spectacles on the end of his crooked nose. His hand, when I saw him itch his nose before the court was called to order, was plagued with arthritis. He wore a maroon coloured jacket with a cream cravat. He was dressed for the occasion. “Your honor,” he said, bowing again. His tongue curled around the words like a viper. It was faintly Scottish, but sounded more English. “My name is Arthur Dalton. I am the Councils’ asset.”
At this, the Judge looked from his papers. “Council?”
“Birdsall Council, Your Honor.”
I cringed. That name haunted me like a plague.
The Judge coughed into a clenched fist. “Very well. I see witnesses in the box today. Can you prescribe to their doings here?”
Each lawyer nodded. The witnesses were seated behind the lawyers and I only knew one, a large girl whose name had left me. She was plump and had straw blonde hair. She wore a floral blouse and a garden green skirt. She was sitting so I could not judge her on her height, but judging from her face, I could only guess that she was a couple of feet tall. She was crying into her hands.
The Judge looked over at me. “The Court is now in order for the conviction of you, Mr. James Harris for the assault and rape of Elizabeth Burley, your former girlfriend. Firstly, I will ask: how do you plead?”
My eyes flickered shut. I knew in my heart of hearts that if I pleaded guilty, I would have an easy run in prison and probably be out within a year, but my tongue pleaded me to plead not guilty because that was the truth – the whole truth – and nothing but that truth. My heart pulsated inside of me. I closed my eyes and pictured the jury in my mind. They were staring at me, all eyes glued on the lids that covered mine. I could see the Judge scribbling his notes and the scripts waiting feverishly for the one answer they were hoping. For a long time, I was silent. Silent as a mouse. Then my mouth opened and I said those two foolish words. “Not guilty.”
There was a rustle throughout the court and the lawyers looked at each other. Arthur coughed into a linen handkerchief and Jean pushed her hair over her ears, looking to me like a careworn lioness.
“I would like to call to the stand: Mr. Peter Judd for further questioning,” the Judge said, looking back down at his scribbles, his wrinkled face placid.
Peter – my life-line – stood and walked to the stand next to the jury bench. He walked with a limp, and grabbed his hip in subtle agony.
Judd looked up from his notes he had placed on the plinth. “Your Honor, may I address my client?”
“We are thin on time, Mr. Judd.” His voice had become croaky and brittle. He shook his head to a thought, and then coughed again. The Judge picked up the gavel and hit it against a thin pane of wood. “Begin the conviction as follows. Mr. Judd, your client pleads not guilty to accusations he raped and murdered Elizabeth Burley. Do you agree with this call on his part?”
Judd looked at me. “Yes I do.”
“Do you have any evidence to prove this?”
Judd nodded and took the evidence to the Judges bench. Bates stared at the writing and looked back up at Judd. “Is this sufficient?”
“I think so…” Judd stole a glance at me and regained his stature by trading his weight onto his right side. “May I address the jury, Your Honor?”
The Judge nodded, and then leaned over to talk to his scripts. This I did not hear, as my attention was fully on Peter, who had now turned to the jury. My heart beat faster and faster.
“Members of the jury,” he started. “Here, in my hands –” Peter filed through the remaining evidence on his stand “– I hold a sworn affidavit by Mr. Harris’s mother swearing his innocence by evidence that he was at her house the night of Elizabeth’s murder. It says in the affidavit that Mr. Harris visited her after a disagreement with his flat mate, Mr. Diablo Montez, who is unfortunately not here today.”
“Why is he not here?” the Judge asked. “Having been asked by a court of law to stand as a defendant and declining is a result; I find that highly unacceptable –”
“Mr. Montez was found last night in his Boston apartment dead, having been severely mutilated by the attacker. I have the evidence here –” Judd filed through his papers and handed the autopsy report of Diablo Montez. I cringed. I could see words printed on the white paper – words too small for me to see. I saw a picture too, but it was a blur before I could make anything else out of it.
“Mrs. Baker said that her son was with her residence on the night of the murder he was convicted of. There is no crucial evidence that he was anywhere near Miss. Burley on the night of her murder –”
“But we have evidence of the DNA taken from the crime scene and they match perfectly to Mr. Harris’.”
“Perfectly does not mean it is correct, Your Honor –” Judd interrupted. The Judge sat back at his seat and smiled at the lawyer who was trying to verbally dual with him. “I feel I should repeat that I have received aswornaffidavit by Mrs. Baker that Mr. Harris was with her that night. The only chance he had to go and visit Miss. Burley was when he fetched a pint of milk from the corner shop.”
“Do we have the receipt as evidence?”
Judd’s face mangled with distraught. “Unfortunately the receipt was thrown out by the accused.”
Judge Bates smiled and sat forward, his eyes blaring at Judd like a prudent narcissist. He began drumming his fingers impatiently. “So, you do not have the receipt that was bought by Mr. Harris?” Judd shook his head. “And Mrs. Baker swore to a Court of Law that he went to the corner store to fetch her milk?” Judd nodded his head. “So you have no evidence of what Mr. Harris was doing when he left Mrs. Baker?”
Judd shook his head a final time, and then looked at me for guidance. His eyes were sorry, I could see that.
“I call any witnesses involved with Mr. Judd,” Judge Bates said. From the door to the right of my plinth, hidden tightly behind a cascade of raised pillars, a young woman stepped. Her ginger hair lay like tailored cones at the side of her head and her floral dress curled around her body like a bouquet. She had freckles littering her face and, under her beach-blue eyes, long eye-lashes waved when she blinked. She walked with a husky lunge and, when she stepped up to the witness stool, I smiled. A family reunion.
“We call to the attention of this court, Ms. Louise Harris: sister of James Harris, the accused in this court today.”
“Ms. Harris,” Judge Bates said, peering down his crooked nose. “I understand, from the affidavit that you gave the court, you saw Mr. Harris on the night of Miss. Burley’s death, am I right in saying so?”
Louise nodded; her eyes were a deep green, instead of a happy colour. “That is correct. That was before he went out to get the milk.”
“Or kill Elizabeth Burley?”
“I am quite comfortable in saying that my brother is not a murderer.”
Judge Bates nodded into his chest, jotting things on the pad in front of him. All I wanted to do was look over his shoulder.
“Ms. Harris, do you know Mr. Harris to being a heavy drinker?”
Louise frowned; she looked at me, then back at Bates. Her eyes were lost. “Naturally, I can’t answer that question.”
Bates grinned, “was there any signs of intoxication when you saw him that morning?”
I cringed; I knew deep in my gullet that there was. I had been drinking heavily the night before and, when Louise arrived for a visit, I was complaining heavily about a headache.
Louise frowned; I could see her thinking of an excuse. But her face fell, and her eyes went black. “He was complaining of a hangover –”
“So he had been consuming alcohol?”
My sister nodded slowly.
“Did you ever get a chance to meet Miss. Burley?”
She looked over at me; all I could see in her face was sadness. “No.”
The Judge looked up from his pad of paper. “Did you want to?”
Louise spoke into her chest and grumbled twice; she had always done that when she was nervous. “I would’ve liked to. But I knew that would never happen.”
The Judges’ thin, wire-like lips curled into a sick smile. His eye-brow rose, as if he had just been told a secret. “Never happen? What do you mean by this? Surely it would be protocol for families to meet families.”
She stared at the Judge. “That’s a personal matter I don’t wish to discuss.”
Bates smiled down at the lawyers which were seated to the right of him. “I’ve been digging, Ms. Harris.” His eyes were like needles. He picked a piece of a paper and showed it to the court. “This is a document stating a mutual loan given by Miss. Burley to your good self. So, you borrowed over three thousand dollars from a person you’ve never met who is sharing a bed with your eldest brother?” His needle-like eyes looked down at the paper. He read slowly, as if his words were poison drops. “‘I, Louise Harris, agree to repay Miss. Elizabeth Burley a total sum of three-thousand two hundred and eighty seven dollars in full before the fifth of September, 2010.’ It is signed in your fair hand as well.” The Judge held the signature up for the court to see. Even I, who stood farthest away, could read the scribbled name of my sister. “A very exact amount too, Ms. Harris. Can you tell us what the money was borrowed for?”
“A mortgage on my house.” Her reply was quick and sudden. Her eyes dropped and her lips tingled.
“You do know that lying in a Court of Law is treason, and you can do time, just as your brother may be doing.” Judge Bates coughed and fished out another piece of paper. “You work at a bar in Queens?”
I was angry. That infernal bastard kept twisting her words and homing in on petty details. She refused to see the larger picture. And his own childish escapade…How the Hell didhe know that personal information?My knuckles were turning whiter, and whiter.
Judd looked up from his information. “May I say, Your Honor, this is side-tracking from the task at hand –”
“I will allow myself,” Bates hissed. “Ms. Harris; you worked in Queens for several years and were in serious debt with your rents. You even resorted to self-harm and drug addictions. My people have talked to the people allowing you to live in their house, and they said they needed one thousand six hundred and forty three dollars from you. Half of what you asked Miss. Burley for. Can you now tell the court what the other half of the money was used for?”
It took a while of Louise to answer; then, from the pit of her heart, she mumbled: “help.”
“Help? You fraud a woman of her money for getting help regarding your drug use?”
Judd stood, his cheeks were red and his lips were pouted; “Your Honor, I think my client is unable to answer any more of your questions. Please resort to your next client on respect of this trial.”
Judge Bates stared down at Judd, and then accepted. “Let us take a short break and we will resume within the hour.”
I was taken out of the court room, and the last thing I saw was my younger sister sobbing in the witness box.