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Home > The Last Juror(8)

The Last Juror(8)
Author: John Grisham

Chapter 5

We did, however, print a lot. The headline proclaimed that Rhoda Kassellaw had been raped and murdered, and that Danny Padgitt had been arrested for it. The headline could've been read from twenty yards down any sidewalk around the courthouse square.

Under it were two photos; one of Rhoda as a senior in high school, and one of Padgitt as he was led into the jail in handcuffs. Wiley had ambushed him all right. It was a perfect shot, with Padgitt sneering at the camera. There was blood on his forehead from the wreck, and blood on his shirt from the attack. He looked nasty, mean, insolent, drunk, and guilty as hell, and I knew the photo would cause a sensation. Wiley thought we'd better avoid it, but I was twenty-three years old and too young to be restrained. I wanted my readers to see and know the ugly truth. I wanted to sell newspapers.

The photo of Rhoda had been obtained from a sister in Missouri. The first time I talked to her, by phone, she had had almost nothing to say and quickly hung up. The second time she thawed just a little, said the children were being seen by a doctor, that the funeral would take place Tuesday afternoon in a small town near Springfield, and, as far as the family was concerned, the entire state of Mississippi could burn in hell.

I told her that I understood completely, that I was from Syracuse, that I was one of the good guys. She finally agreed to send me a photo.

Using a host of unnamed sources, I described in detail what happened the previous Saturday night on Benning Road. When I was sure of a fact, I drove it home. When I wasn't so sure, I nibbled around the edges with enough innuendo to convey what I thought happened. Baggy Suggs sobered up long enough to reread and edit the stories. He probably kept us from getting sued or shot.

On page two there was a map of the crime scene and a large photo of Rhoda's home, one taken the morning after the crime, complete with cop cars and yellow police ribbon everywhere. The photo also included the bikes and toys of Michael and Teresa scattered around the front yard. In many ways, the photo was more ominous than one of the corpse itself, which I didn't have but tried to get. The photo stated plainly that children lived there, and that children were involved in a crime so brutal that most Ford Countians were still trying to believe it really happened.

How much did the children see? That was the burning question.

I didn't answer it in the Times, but I got as close as possible. I described the house and its interior layout. Using an unnamed source, I estimated that the children's beds were about thirty feet from their mother's. The children fled the house before Rhoda, they were in shock by the time they got next door, they were seen by a doctor in Clanton and were undergoing therapy of some nature back home in Missouri. They saw a lot.

Would they testify at a trial? Baggy said there was no way; they were simply too young. But I pulled the question out of the air and posed it anyway, to give the readers something else to argue and fret over. After exploring the possibility of parading the children into a courtroom, I concluded that "experts" agreed that such a scenario was unlikely. Baggy enjoyed being considered an expert.

Rhoda's obituary was as long as I could possibly make it, which, given the tradition of the Times, was not unusual.

We went to press about 10 P.M. on Tuesday night; the paper was in the racks around the Clanton square by 7 A.M. on Wednesday. The circulation had dropped to fewer than twelve hundred at the time of the bankruptcy, but after a month of my fearless leadership we had close to twenty-five hundred subscribers - five thousand was a realistic goal.

For the Rhoda Kassellaw murder we printed eight thousand copies and put them everywhere - by the doors of the cafes around the square, in the halls of the courthouse, on the desks of every county employee, in the lobbies of the banks. We mailed three thousand free copies to potential subscribers, as part of a sudden, one-time special promotion effort.

According to Wiley, it was the first murder in eight years. It was a Padgitt! It was a wonderfully sensational story and I saw it as my golden moment. Sure I went for the shock, for the sensational, for the bloodstains. Sure it was yellow journalism, but what did I care?

I had no idea the response would be so quick and unpleasant.

* * *

At 9 A.M., Thursday morning, the main courtroom on the second floor of the Ford County Courthouse was full. It was the domain of the Honorable Reed Loopus, an aging Circuit Court Judge from Tyler County, who passed through Clanton eight times a year to dispense justice. He was a legendary old warrior who ruled with an iron fist and, according to Baggy - who spent most of his working life hanging around the courthouse either picking up gossip or creating it - was a thoroughly honest Judge who had somehow managed to avoid the tentacles of the Padgitt money. Perhaps because he was from another county, Judge Loopus believed criminals should serve long sentences, preferably at hard labor, though he could no longer order such.

The Monday after the murder, the Padgitt lawyers had scrambled around trying to get Danny out of jail. Judge Loopus was preoccupied with a trial in another county - his district covered six of them - and he refused to be pushed into a quick bail hearing. Instead, he set the matter for 9 A.M. Thursday, thus allowing the town several days to ponder and speculate.

Because I was a member of the press, indeed the owner of the local paper, I felt it was my duty to arrive early and get a good seat. Yes, I was a bit smug. The other spectators were there out of curiosity. I, however, had very important work to do. Baggy and I were sitting in the second row when the crowd began to assemble.

Danny Padgitt's principal lawyer was a character named Lucien Wilbanks, a man I would quickly learn to hate. He was what was left of a once prominent clan of lawyers and bankers and such. The Wilbanks family had worked long and hard to build Clanton, then Lucien came along and had pretty much ruined a fine family name. He fancied himself as a radical lawyer, which, for that part of the world in 1970, was quite rare. He wore a beard, swore like a sailor, drank heavily, and preferred clients who were rapists and murderers and child molesters. He was the only white member of the NAACP in Ford County, which alone was enough to get you shot there. He didn't care.

Lucien Wilbanks was abrasive and fearless and downright mean, and he waited until everyone was settled in the courtroom - just before Judge Loopus entered - to walk slowly over to me. He was holding a copy of the latest Times, which he began waving as he started swearing. "You little son of a bitch!" he said, quite loudly, and the courtroom became perfectly still. "Who in hell do you think you are?"

I was too mortified to attempt an answer. I felt Baggy inch away. Every single person in the courtroom was staring at me, and I knew I had to say something. "Just telling the truth," I managed to say with as much conviction as I could muster.

"It's yellow journalism!" he roared. "Sensational tabloid garbage!" The paper was just a few inches from my nose.

"Thank you," I said, like a real wise guy. There were at least five deputies in the courtroom, none of whom were showing any interest in breaking this up.

"We'll file suit tomorrow!" he said, his eyes glowing. "A million dollars in damages!"

"I got lawyers," I said, suddenly terrified that I was about to be as bankrupt as the Caudle family. Lucien tossed the paper into my lap, then turned and went back to his table. I was finally able to exhale; my heart was pounding. I could feel my cheeks burning from embarrassment and fear.

But I managed to keep a stupid grin on my face. I couldn't show the locals that I, the editor/publisher of their paper, was afraid of anything. But a million dollars in damages! I immediately thought of my grandmother in Memphis. That would be a difficult conversation.

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