Authors: John Grisham
Burch snorted and seemed amused. “No thanks. Mr. Malco is not willing to plead guilty to anything.”
Jesse said, “Okay, but he’s facing thirteen other charges of promoting prostitution and ten of his girls will testify against him. Each charge carries a maximum of ten years and five thousand dollars. Same for Lopez. They could spend the rest of their lives in prison.”
Burch replied coolly, “Oh, I know the law, Mr. Rudy. No need for a tutorial. The answer is no.”
Judge Oliphant said, “And you don’t think you should inform Mr. Malco of this offer?”
“Please, Judge. I know what I’m doing.”
“Very well.” Judge Oliphant shuffled some more papers and said, “Here are the lists of prospective jurors. The clerk over in Bay St. Louis is confident that this pool is qualified and above reproach.”
Burch was startled and blurted, “Bay St. Louis?”
“Yes, Mr. Burch. I’m changing venue. This case will be tried next door in Hancock County, not here in Harrison. I’m convinced the jury in the Ginger Redfield trial was tampered with and we’re not running that risk this time around.”
“But no one requested a change of venue.”
“You should know the law, Mr. Burch. Read the statute, I have the discretion to change venue to any district in the State of Mississippi.”
Burch was stunned and couldn’t respond. Jesse was surprised and elated, but suppressed a smile. Judge Oliphant handed each a list of the names and said, “There will be no contact with anyone in our pool. None whatsoever.” He glared at Burch and continued, “When we convene on May twelve, I will quiz the panel about
improper contact. Any hint of it and I’ll throw the book at the guilty party. Once we select the twelve, and two alternates, I will lecture them on the criminality of improper contact. Each morning and each afternoon I will repeat my lecture. Am I clear?”
“Crystal clear, Your Honor,” Jesse said as he smirked at Burch.
The courtroom was empty; the lights were off. Big Red, the one-legged courthouse janitor, was fiddling with some wires on the bench. Jesse entered, nodded at him from a distance, walked down the aisle, through the bar, placed his briefcase on his table, and said hello. Big Red mumbled something in return, a man of few words. When Joshua Burch entered through the main door, Jesse asked the janitor for a moment of privacy. Big Red frowned as if irritated at having his important work interrupted, but left anyway.
They sat across the table from one another and skipped the pleasantries. Jesse began with “You’re not going to win this trial, Joshua. I have too many witnesses and everybody knows the truth anyway. Malco has been running girls around here for decades and his party is over. When he’s convicted, Oliphant will throw the book at him and he’ll die an old man at Parchman prison.”
Burch absorbed it and chose not to argue. The bluster was gone. The facts were not in his favor and he’d lost his chance for a hung jury when the trial was moved to Hancock County, away from Fats Bowman and the tentacles of his influence.
Burch said, “You asked for this meeting. What’s on your mind?”
“A plea deal. Lance is a smart man and he knows his luck has run out. A trial will expose many of his nasty secrets. It’ll be embarrassing.”
“His health is not good.”
“Come on, Joshua. No one believes that, and even if it were
true, what’s the big deal? Parchman is full of sick people. They have doctors up there. An alleged bad heart is no defense.”
“I’ve discussed a plea with him, more than once. He tried to fire me again, but he’s settled down. I think he’s discussed it with Hugh, not sure about the rest of the family.”
“I have an incentive, something you and he should know.”
Burch shrugged and said, “I’m all ears.”
Jesse told the story of young Hugh’s brief career as an armed robber. The jewelry store heists, the shootout, the deaths of Jimmie Crane and Karol Horton. Hugh’s lucky getaway and his even luckier avoidance of being identified. Five years ago, a lot of time had passed, but the FBI is back.
Burch claimed he knew nothing of the robberies and Jesse believed him. He had never caught a whiff of the story.
He described his recent meeting with the FBI. He handed over a copy of the police sketch and said, “Looks like Hugh to me. If the FBI knew it was him, they would take his photograph to the victims. He’d serve at least twenty years, maybe more.”
Burch studied the sketch, shook his head, mumbled the word “Moron.”
Jesse moved in for the kill. “I haven’t said a word to the FBI, yet. I can keep my mouth shut if I get the deal.”
Burch laid the sketch on the desk and kept shaking his head. “This is ruthless.”
“Ruthless? Malco’s been knee-deep in organized crime for the past thirty years. Illegal liquor, gambling, prostitution, drugs, not to mention beatings, burnings, and who knows how many dead bodies. And you call me ruthless. Hell, Joshua, this is child’s play compared to Malco’s activities.”
Burch slumped a few inches in his chair, then picked up the sketch again. He studied it for a long time and put it down. “It’s blackmail.”
“Call it blackmail, ruthless, anything you want. I don’t care. I want Lance Malco in prison.”
“So, let’s be real clear, Jesse. You’re offering ten years, and if he says no, then you’ll go to the FBI with the name of Hugh Malco.”
“Not quite. If he says no, then I’ll put his ass on trial in Hancock County six days from now and the jury will find him guilty on all counts because he’s dead guilty. Then I’ll go to the FBI with his son’s name. Both will go to prison for a long time.”
“Got it. And if he takes the deal, then you say nothing to the FBI.”
“You have my word. I can’t promise the Feds won’t find Hugh some other way, but they won’t get his name from me. I swear.”
Burch got to his feet, walked to a window, looked out, saw nothing, walked back and leaned on the bar. “What about Bobby Lopez?”
“Who cares? He gets the same deal as Haberstroh and Coot Reed. He pleads guilty, gets probation, a slap on the wrist. Get lost.”
“Not another day behind bars.”
Burch walked to the table and picked up the sketch. “Mind if I take this?”
“It’s your copy. Go show it to your client.”
“ ‘Ruthless’ sounds better, but I don’t care. You have twenty-four hours.”
Lance Malco stood behind his desk and stared at a wall. Nevin Noll sat in a chair to the side, puffing a cigarette. Hugh stood by the door and looked as if he wanted to cry. Burch sat in the middle of the room under a cloud of smoke. The sketch was in the center of the desk.
Lance asked, “How long would I serve?”
“Roughly two-thirds of the sentence. With good behavior.”
“That son of a bitch,” Hugh mumbled for the tenth time.
“Any chance of getting moved back here to the county jail?”
“Maybe, after a couple of years. Fats could probably pull some strings.”
“That son of a bitch.”
Lance moved slowly to his swivel chair and sat down. He smiled at Burch and said, “I can take anything they throw at me, Burch. I’m not afraid of prison.”
Burch called Jesse and tried to chat like they were old friends. The favor he wanted was a quiet and quick hearing to get it over with, but Jesse would have none of it. In his finest hour, he wanted a spectacle.
On May 12, a crowd gathered in the courtroom to witness history. The front row was filled with reporters, and behind them several dozen spectators waited anxiously to see if the rumors were true. Every courthouse had a collection of bored or semi-retired lawyers who missed nothing and were adept at spreading gossip, and all were present. Being officers of the court, they were allowed to enter through the bar, mill about with the clerks, even sit in the jury box when it wasn’t being used. Keith was not one of them but he found a chair near the prosecution’s table. During a casual glance at the crowd he made eye contact with Hugh. It was not a pleasant exchange. If looks could kill.
Carmen Malco was not present, nor were her other two adult children. Lance didn’t want them near the courthouse. The headlines would be brutal enough.
A bailiff called court to order and everyone stood. Judge Oliphant appeared and took his seat at the bench. He motioned for the crowd to sit and called Mr. Rudy to the podium. Jesse announced that a plea bargain had been agreed upon between the State and the defendant Bobby Lopez.
Joshua Burch bounced to his feet and strutted to the bench where he motioned for his client to join him. Jesse stood on the other side. The courtroom listened as the judge read the charges. Lopez pled guilty on all counts and was ordered to return in a month for sentencing. As he returned to his seat, His Honor called, “State of Mississippi versus Lance Malco.” The defendant rose from his seat at the defense table and walked forward as if he had nothing to fear. Dressed in a dark suit, starched white shirt, and paisley tie, he could have passed for one of the lawyers. He brushed by Jesse without making contact. He stood between Burch and the DA and looked arrogantly up at the judge.
After he pled guilty to one count of “having control over the use of a place and knowingly allowing another person to use said place for prostitution” he was asked if he was ready to be sentenced. Burch answered that he was. Judge Oliphant sentenced him to ten years in the state penitentiary at Parchman and fined him $5,000. Malco accepted the sentence without flinching and never blinked.
The Judge said, “I hereby remand you to the custody of the county sheriff to be transported to Parchman.”
Malco nodded, said nothing, and walked proudly back to his seat. When the hearing was adjourned, he was led by two bailiffs through a side door and taken to jail.
The bold headline in the
Gulf Coast Register
the following morning said it all:
malco pleads guilty—ordered to prison.
A large photo captured Malco in handcuffs as he was led to a patrol car, with Hugh one step behind him.
Jesse bought extra copies and planned to have one framed for the Ego Wall in his office.
Two days later, a long, brown Ford left the jail at dawn with Chief Deputy Rudd Kilgore behind the wheel, Fats riding shotgun, and the prisoner in the rear seat, without handcuffs. Hugh insisted on making the five-hour trip and sat beside his father. For the first hour, as they drank stale coffee from tall paper cups, little was said. The subject of Jesse Rudy came up soon enough, and there was a general thrashing of the DA.
Fats had ruled Harrison County like a dictator for sixteen years and refused to worry about much, though there was some concern now that Rudy was in bed with the FBI. Lance warned Fats that Rudy was out of control and would only become bolder. If he managed to stop the prostitution and gambling, most of the nightclubs would close and Fats’s cash flow would be seriously curtailed. Bars and strip clubs were still legal and there would be no need for protection from the sheriff. Fats assured him he was aware of that.
They stopped in Hattiesburg for a nice breakfast, then set off for Jackson and beyond. As they approached Yazoo City, the hills flattened and the Delta began; mile after mile of some of the richest soil on earth, all seemingly covered with perfect rows of green cotton stalks, knee-high.
Hugh had never seen the Delta before and quickly found it depressing. The deeper they drove into it, the more he hated Jesse Rudy.
Lance was already homesick for the Coast.