By Julien Gregg
Trial By Jury
© Copyright 2005 - 2007 Julien Gregg
All rights reserved.
No part of this story may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author. This story is almost all fiction. Almost all of the characters depicted in this story exist exclusively in the imagination of the author. Any resemblance to an actual person, living or dead, is, sometimes purely coincidental.
The trial began eight days before Christmas, and the bitter cold December days seemed like they'd never end. Steve and I both got our hair cut and purchased smart looking suits for our court appearances. Without knowing how long the trial would last, I paid for six suits a piece. We hadn't been in the courtroom for jury selection. That had taken place two weeks before the start of the trial. Tension in our house had been high while we waited. The restraining order had quieted the reverend considerably. He still gave interviews, but he no longer said our names. It was clear who he was talking about to anyone that knew what had been going on, but there wasn't anything we could do about that.
We rode along to the courthouse with Shirley and Tom. Ben and Andy were in the van with us. Both of them telling us everything would be fine. I appreciated their support, but I wasn't so sure that everything would be fine. Up until school had started that year we'd thought everything was going fine, but then the taunting messages started. When the lockers blew up we knew that nothing was really fine at all. As things escalated we were faced with more hate than we'd ever seen before. What if the jury was comprised of homophobic people who believed we had deserved everything the reverend had dished out to us?
There were reporters and news cameras in front of the courthouse when we arrived, and I felt my stomach flip as we parked in the lot across the street from the four story white stone building. I held Steve's hand as we made our way across the street. Questions were fired at us as we mounted the steps to the courthouse, but none of us said a word. I felt Steve's hand tighten in mine, but nothing was said.
Once inside the building, Gloria King, the Assistant District Attorney, shook hands with Shirley, Meg and Tom before smiling and shaking hands with Steve and I. We'd met with her three times since we'd come home from the hospital. She'd told us exactly which questions she would ask and tried to give us an idea of the defense's cross examination questions. She'd told us that she believed that we were both ready. I wasn't so sure about that, but it was too late for more preparation.
Gloria was a rather tall woman at close to six feet with long amber colored hair and bright green eyes. She seemed pleasant most of the time, but I'd heard that she could be a very hard woman to lie to on the stand. Mike had plenty of experience with her in the courtroom, and he said that she was a formidable adversary. I just hoped that she was formidable enough to keep the reverend's lawyer from keeping him out of jail for what he'd done. She led us into a small conference room and waited until we'd each taken our seats before she began to tell us what was happening.
"Several of the men and women who followed Reverend Hartman's order to stone you have taken pleas and are already serving their sentences," she said. "Two are planning to use the insanity defense, but I don't think that will work. Today we're here for Reverend Hartman's trial. None of the others are even allowed into the courtroom. The press isn't allowed inside, so they won't be a problem."
"I thought that two reporters would be allowed inside the courtroom," said Tom when Gloria paused.
"The two men who will be in the courtroom are the same two that are almost always allowed inside the courtroom," she replied. "They've become almost standard, and I forget to mention them a lot. Stanley Suresha is a fine man who will report only the truth about the trial. Adam Banister is also a good man, but he'll focus more on the testimony itself. I don't want any of you to worry about Adam or Stanley."
She was interrupted by the bailiff, a stout caramel skinned woman. She informed Gloria that we should all head into the courtroom. My stomach flipped again, and for a moment I was worried that I'd start throwing up. The fear left by that event in my life caused my knees to become weak, but I held my head up and followed Tom out of the conference room.
The courtroom was already near full of people when we took our seats behind the prosecution table. Mark and Rick were both there with Rick's parents and Mark's father. Maria and Vince were seated with them. They nodded to us as we sat down. Several teachers were in the courtroom, and I was happy to see Mr. Branch smiling at me as I scanned the room just before we were told to rise as Judge Alan Messing came into the courtroom. I blanched slightly when it was announced that the case of "The People Versus Reverend Donald Hartman" was commencing. Gloria stood and introduced herself as the prosecutor, and Harold Dandridge stood and introduced himself as council for the defense.
I looked over at the jury for a brief moment and found that they looked like decent people. None had any malicious or contemptuous looks on their faces. Maybe I'd been too quick to worry about them. After all, they were supposed to be impartial, right? I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that I was confused when Gloria stood up and made her way to stand in front of the jury. I knew what was happening, though.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, today you will hear testimony about a prominent man in our community who committed a brutal crime. That is a fact, ladies and gentlemen. It isn't an accusation. Reverend Donald Hartman gathered his congregation and rallied an attack on four teen-aged boys in our community. That is a fact. We are not here today to decide if we believe that the event on December tenth actually took place. We know it did. What we are here for today is to decide what drove Reverend Hartman to carry out this crime.
"The state says that he acted out of hatred and that he intended to kill two of the boys that he led the attack against. What you have to decide today is if the reverend actually decided to kill the two young men. He ranted about them in each of his sermons for at least two months of Sundays. He asked members of his congregation to distribute fliers calling for their public stoning. He enlisted the help of other young men and women who attend the same high school as the victims to deface their lockers, taunt them and generally make them feel unsafe and unwelcome. Then on December tenth Reverend Hartman organized a protest on the grounds of Storyville High School. Members of his congregation followed him to the school and vandalized two cars on the lot belonging to two of the four young men he'd come to protest against.
"After the planned protest began to go sour, Reverend Hartman instructed his congregation to follow him as he walked to the home of two of the young men. Members of the congregation have told us that they each carried large rocks to the school that day. You will hear testimony in this trial that Reverend Hartman stopped at Miller's Meats, a butcher shop located between the residence of the two young victims and the school. There he purchased a large bucket of blood. He later threw that bucket of blood at one of the victims before telling him to 'Burn in Hell'. Then he and his congregation began to throw the rocks they carried.
"He called them fornicators, ladies and gentlemen. He called them fornicators and told them to burn in Hell. Now, Reverend Hartman will testify that all of this was only his way of following his Bible and working for his God. The prosecution will show you that this was no act of following anything but hatred. Reverend Hartman and his congregation perpetrated a hate crime with the intention of killing the victims. Reverend Hartman is guilty, ladies and gentlemen. He is guilty of attempted murder. He is guilty of committing a hate crime."
I watched the jury as Gloria made her opening statement. I could see outrage and shock on their faces. I'd thought that they surely had been told the details of the case, but from the looks on their faces as Gloria talked they either didn't know it all or they just hadn't heard it quite that way before. Either way I was satisfied that they were outraged. I didn't even pay that close attention to what the defense attorney said in his own opening statement. I did notice that the jury didn't seem to respond to him the way they had to Gloria. I was happy for that. After all the fate of this case was in their hands. It would take a lot of testimony and questioning to get them to the point that we wanted, but from the looks of the way they glared at the defense attorney I didn't think it would take too much from Gloria to win the case.
The judge recessed the trial just after opening statements. He said that the trial would resume the following morning, and we'd hear testimony from the prosecution witnesses. I noticed that a bailiff escorted Reverend Hartman away from the courtroom, and I looked at Gloria. She informed me that he was being held without bail for the duration of the trial along with the two members of his congregation that hadn't gone to trial already. The bad thing was that the two members of the congregation were also having separate trials. That meant that Steve and I would have to testify at three trials. The second trial was also beginning that morning. As soon as we left the courtroom we were in, Gloria escorted us downstairs to another courtroom where we sat through opening statements all over again. Gloria's was different this time, but she said basically the same thing with different words. Michael Sanchez's attorney told the jury that he had been led astray by an angry minister who had prejudice and hate in his heart.
Gloria told us over lunch that she was very confident that she would win the case against Michael Sanchez. She said that his lawyer was famous for trying to place the blame for his clients' crimes on others and juries rarely bought the defense. She was confident that we would win he case against Reverend Hartman, but Michael Sanchez's case she called a "slam dunk". I just wished that I was as confident about the two trials as she was.
"Isn't it strange to have two trials at the same time?" Meg asked while we were sitting in the deli across the street from the courthouse. "I mean it just seems like overkill to me."
"Well ordinarily the defendants would have a joint defense, but it was Reverend Hartman who decided to hire his own lawyer and branch off into his own defense first. Alice Mercer decided second. That left Sanchez to go it alone as well," explained Gloria. "I believe that Mercer's lawyer is ready to deal, though. The trial is set to begin next week, so I'll know soon. I think her lawyer is just waiting to hear what's happening with Hartman's and Sanchez's trials before he broaches the subject of a deal with the D.A."
"Three trials?" Shirley gasped, holding her fork full of salad only an inch from her mouth. "The boys are being put under a lot of stress with two trials. If Mercer's lawyer doesn't get her to deal, then they'll spend their entire Winter Break testifying in courtrooms."
"I'll try to see that it doesn't come to that Mrs. Meyers," said Gloria. "But the reality is that these three cases are major cases for Storyville. Nothing like this has ever happened here, and the public is agitated. The D.A. is being pressured to pull out all stops on these three perpetrators. The people want convictions across the board. This could turn out to be a lot more than it is already."
"That's what I'm afraid of," said Meg. "Tommy and Steve have been through so much in their lives, Gloria. All of this is only weighing down on them. There has to be something we can do about that."
"The only thing I can suggest at this point is that they have someone to talk to that will listen," replied Gloria. "I'll try my best to keep them out of the spotlight as much as possible, but it isn't going to be easy."
"I want this to just go away," sighed Steve, putting down his sandwich and cradling his head in his hands. I reached over and patted him leg to reassure him, but in truth he'd expressed the very sentiment that I was feeling at that moment.
"I promise you that we'll try very hard to make this as painless as possible for both of you," said Gloria, reaching for Steve's hand. "It is going to be hard. I won't lie to you about that. You're both going to have to face the men and women who hurt you and there isn't a thing we can do about that. Some of those that have already taken the plea agreements will be testifying for the prosecution. That's part of their plea agreements. You'll have to see them all again. I know that this is hard. If there was another way, believe me, I'd find it."
That night, Steve and I sat and watched the coverage of the start of both trials on the evening news. We were both very happy that neither of us appeared on camera. Rick called as we were clearing the supper dishes from the table to tell me that both he and Mark had each received a subpoena to testify for the prosecution. I'd know that would happen, but I really hadn't had much time to talk to either of them about it. He said that he and Mark were both eager to get on the stand. I didn't understand how anyone could be eager about it, but I told him he should probably call Gloria, and then I gave him her private number.
Through the days up to Christmas we sat in the courtroom for most of the day; sometimes all day long. We listened to the other members of the congregation who had taken plea agreements talk about the conspiracy to hurt us. It scared me to think that any group of people had actually plotted to hurt me. They said that none of them intended to kill us, but that didn't matter. I watched the jury each day and I saw that they were horrified by what they were hearing. Gloria said that was a good thing for us.
Four days into Reverend Hartman's trial both Alice Mercer and Michael Sanchez took plea agreements. That made us happy. They would be punished, but we wouldn't have to testify against them. Now we only had the reverend to match wits with in court. That was going to be hard enough to deal with. Meg took us to dinner when Gloria announced that both of them had taken the pleas she'd presented their lawyers.
We had a great time at dinner, but Phillip wanted to know all about the trial. He asked questions about the defense attorney and the jury. Meg finally shushed him when she saw that Steve and I were not happy with the topic of discussion at the table. We were both trying very hard to not think about the trial when we weren't in court. We'd been doing a fair job until the day the protests began outside the courthouse.
It was Monday morning, and we were heading to court. We still didn't think we'd testify that day, but Gloria wanted the jury to see us both the entire time. She wanted them to watch us heal, she said. I still had a small bandage on my head, and Steve had to wear a hat usually to cover his shaved head. In court he wasn't allowed to wear the hat, so the jury could see his stitches. Gloria said that was winning points for the prosecution.
What first alerted us to the fact that a protest was going on in front of the courthouse was not the amount of people on the sidewalk. It was the chants that we heard from down the block. There were always people in front of the courthouse, but this was different. We saw as we approached the parking lot that police were everywhere. People were carrying huge signs condemning homosexuality and fornication. From across the street I didn't recognize any of the picketers and as we made our way across the street with the three policemen who'd come to escort us I still didn't recognize any of them. They wore white robes like a choir and there were crucifixes around their necks. The chanting grew louder as first me and Steve were escorted through the throng and into the courthouse and then again as Mark and Rick were escorted inside. I cringed when I saw the news vans outside. It wasn't the local news that made me feel sick. There were trucks from NBC and CBS out there along with a white van that said "Newsweek" on the side. The story had gone national.
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