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Authors: Michael Nava

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BOOK: The Death of Friends
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After lunch, Karen Holman waylaid me outside the courtroom and said, “Henry, Teddy has something to tell you.” The boy sat on a bench, gravely investigating the gang signs that had been carved on it. “Teddy, come over here and tell Mr. Rios what you told me at lunch.”

He hopped off the bench, hiked up jeans that were at least three sizes too big for him and came over.

“Make it quick,” I told him. “We have to be back in court.”

Then he told me, and I understood McBeth’s brief hesitation when I’d asked her about when she’d first gone to the apartment building.

Back in court, I put on my witnesses as planned, save McBeth. Lang finished her cross-examination of Karen Holman, and Torres-Jones asked, wearily, “Any more witnesses, Mr. Rios?”

It was sometimes easier to read the future from the entrails of a cat than get a fix on what a judge was thinking, and Torres-Jones was particularly hard to get a handle on. Unlike many judges who felt their dignity required taciturn, stony neutrality, Torres-Jones was chatty and sardonic. She’d clearly liked Darlene Sawyer, who was as breezy in the witness box as she’d been in her friend’s plant-filled living room, and she’d just as plainly disliked Ben Harper, whose sullen “huh-uhs” and “uh-uhs” had evoked from her schoolmarmish admonitions to answer yes or no for the court reporter’s benefit. But except for the occasional questioning glance she cast in McBeth’s direction, I couldn’t tell whether she was following the thread of the testimony or, if so, whether it was convincing her. The only thing that was clear as the big court clock approached five was that she was tired.

“Just one more,” I said.

“I’d like to finish this today and move on the prelim,” she said.

“I don’t think we can, Your Honor,” I said. “I have this one witness, and then I’ll probably be calling Detective McBeth back to the stand.”

Almost inaudibly, the judge sighed. “All right, proceed.”

“The defense calls Teddy Holman,” I said.

She watched him approach the witness stand with baffled amusement and looked at me as if to say, What is this all about? I smiled and began. “Teddy, how old are you?”

“Ten and a half,” he said, in a petrified voice.

“You nervous?”

I could see the “duh” in his eyes, but he managed a grown-up “Yes, sir.”

“Just relax and tell the truth, okay.”

“Your Honor,” Lang said, “I object to this coaching.”

Torres-Jones said, “Instructing a witness to be truthful is hardly coaching, counsel. Overruled.”

“Teddy, do you know the difference between a lie and the truth?” I asked. It was a standard question for child witnesses.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

I plucked at my red tie and said, “If I were to tell you that my tie is green, would I be telling the truth?”

He shook his head.

“You have to answer yes or no, Teddy,” the judge said, with considerably more patience than she’d shown Ben Harper.

“No, your tie is red.”

“Okay, do you remember the earthquake a few weeks back?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And do you know the date of the earthquake?”

He started to shake his head, caught himself and said, “No.”

“Your Honor,” I said, “will the court take judicial notice that the earthquake occurred in the early morning hours of October eighth?”

“Judicial notice is taken,” she said.

Teddy had listened uncomprehendingly to this exchange.

“I want you to assume the earthquake took place on October eighth, okay, Teddy.”

“All right,” he said, a little skeptically.

“Now, did you and your mother have to leave your apartment after the earthquake?”

Lang got to her feet. “Objection, leading the witness.”

“It’s permitted with a child witness,” I said.

“Overruled,” Torres-Jones said, “but don’t put words in his mouth, Mr. Rios.”

“Can you answer my question, Teddy? Did you and your mother leave your apartment?”

“Yeah, we had to stay in the park.”

“And how far was the park from the apartment building?”

“It was two blocks,” he said. “We stayed in a tent.”

“And do you remember how many days you stayed in the tent?”

He counted on his fingers. “Two days,” he said.

“Two days total, right?”

He nodded.

“So you moved back to your apartment on October tenth, is that right?”

He looked at me, his lips moving as he did the addition. “Yeah.”

“Okay, Teddy, now between the time you moved out of your apartment on the eighth and the time you moved back to your apartment on the tenth, did you ever go back to the building?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay, now what day was that? Can you figure that out?”

“It was the day after the earthquake,” he said.

“That would have been October ninth,” I said. “Do you remember what day it was?”

“It was Sunday,” he said. “I remember ’cause I didn’t have to go to school.”

“Was your mother with you?”

He looked for her before answering. She must have nodded encouragement, because he answered loudly, “No.”

“Did you tell her you were going to the building?”

“No, sir.”

“And why didn’t you tell her?”

“I didn’t want to get in trouble.”

“Why did you think you’d get in trouble?”

“She said the building wasn’t safe and I should stay away from it until it was safe again.”

“So why did you go back, Teddy?”

The question flustered him into silence.

“Teddy,” I said, “she already knows, so you’re not going to get into any more trouble if you tell the judge.”

Torres-Jones added, “That’s right, Teddy. Discipline is up to your mom, not me.”

“I left my Gameboy,” he said.

“Your Honor, for the record a Gameboy is—”

The judge cut me off, saying dryly, “I know what a Gameboy is, Mr. Rios. My husband’s addicted to his.”

“Pardon me,” I said. “I didn’t know what it was.”

“You’d do well to keep it that way,” she replied.

“I went just before my mom got home from work,” Teddy told the judge.

“Objection,” Lang said, “no question pending.”

“Overruled,” Torres-Jones said, beaming at the boy. “I think we can consider it an admission against Teddy’s judicial interests.”

I continued. “So what time would that have been?”

“Hmm, on Sundays she gets home at around five.”

“Was it dark when you got to the building?”

“It was getting there,” he said.

“At this point, Your Honor,” I said, “I’d ask the court to take judicial notice that the day after October eighth, when Teddy said he left his apartment, would’ve been October ninth, the day before Detective McBeth testified she searched my client’s apartment.”

Lang got up. “Object to this testimony by counsel.”

“No,” Torres-Jones said, looking at me curiously, then at Teddy. “He’s only relaying what’s already in evidence. I will take judicial notice that the date in question was October ninth.”

I turned my attention back to Teddy. “Okay,” I said, “what did you do when you got to your apartment?”

“I went inside and got my Gameboy.”

“And then what did you do?”

“I tried to watch TV, but the power wasn’t on,” he said. “Then I started cleaning stuff up.”

“While you were in your apartment, did you hear anything?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What did you hear?”

“I heard someone outside.”

“What exactly did you hear?”

“Um, someone walking around? Going up the stairs?”

“And what did you do when you heard the footsteps?”

“I got scared,” he said.

“Why were you scared?”

“I thought it was looters.”

“So what did you do then?” I asked him.

“I went to see who it was,” he said.

“Why did you do that?”

“’Cause, my mom’s the manager and if there was looters, she might lose her job and I wanted to see who it was so I could tell her and she could tell the police.”

“That was a brave thing to do,” the judge commented.

The compliment puffed him up, and whatever remaining nervousness he felt about being on the stand seemed to leave him.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I went up the stairs and I looked to see who it was.”

“And when you did that, were you standing in the hallway?”

He shook his head. “I was, like, behind the wall.”

“But you could see down the hallway, right?”

“Uh-huh. I mean, yes.”

I referred him to the photograph of the second floor I’d introduced during McBeth’s testimony.

“Okay, Teddy,” I said, “I want you to go to the picture and point out where you were standing.”

He left the stand, approached the picture and pointed to the wall that framed the doorway at the top of the stairs on the east end of the second floor.

“So you were more or less peeking out from behind that wall, right?”

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“You can sit down again.” After he returned to the witness stand, I asked, “Now, Teddy, did you see anyone in the hall?”

“Not right away,” he said.

“Did you see anyone at any time while you were standing there?”

“Yes, sir,” he said, the nervousness returning.

“Is that person in court today?”

He looked around, panic in his eyes.

“Teddy?” I said gently.

“I saw her,” he blurted, pointing at McBeth.

“For the record,” I said, “the witness has identified Detective McBeth.”

“Noted,” the judge said, wonder in her tone.

“Where did you see Detective McBeth?” I asked.

Lang got to her feet. “Your Honor, I’d like to approach the bench.”

Torres-Jones glared at her. “Denied. Where did you see her, Teddy?”

“Um, she was coming out of Zack’s apartment,” he said, looking away from her and back to me, his eyes appealing for approval.

I nodded. “You mean Zack Bowen, the man sitting behind me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And how did you know it was Zack’s apartment?”

“I go there after school sometimes, when my mom’s not home, and we watch TV until she comes to get me.”

“And you’re sure Detective McBeth was coming out of his apartment?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you’re sure it was Detective McBeth?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Had you ever seen her before?”

“No, sir.”

“And have you seen her since that day?”

“Right now,” he said.

“You mean in the courtroom today?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And when she came out of Zack’s apartment, was she carrying anything with her?”

“No, sir,” he said.

“And what did you do when you saw her?”

“I ran downstairs back to my apartment.”

“And how long did you stay there?”

“Until I heard her go.”

“Okay,” I said, “just to make sure. This happened the day after the earthquake, right?”

He paused, thought it over, and said, “Yes, sir.”

“Just a couple more questions, Teddy. Are you friends with Zack?” I asked him.

Teddy reddened a bit. “He’s okay,” he said, tepidly.

I knew from talking to Karen Holman that Teddy liked Zack but was embarrassed because he knew Zack was gay. Even at his age, he had that pegged as a shameful thing. I thought about bringing this out to support his credibility, but decided it would only embarrass the boy further and hurt Zack’s feelings.

“You understand that the police say Zack killed someone?”

“Yeah,” he mumbled, looking down.

“Would you lie for Zack to help him out?”

He sank into the chair and said, “No, sir.”

“And is everything you’ve told the judge the truth?”

He managed a final, “Yes, sir.”

“No further questions,” I said.

The courtroom was absolutely still.

“Ms. Lang,” the judge said. “Do you have any questions for this witness?”

“We didn’t expect this, Your Honor,” she said without affect. “I’d prefer to reserve my cross-examination until tomorrow morning.”

Torres-Jones said, “Yes. The witness is ordered back at nine o’clock.” She scanned the audience. “If there are any problems with his school, Ms. Holman, my clerk will call. Court stands in recess.”

After she left the bench, I went to the witness box and walked Teddy to his mother. Lang and McBeth were in furious, whispered conversation. As I explained to Teddy that he would have to return the next morning, Bay Chandler brushed by me. When I returned to counsel table to say good-night to Zack before he was returned to the jail, I saw her standing behind the DA. She saw me, smiled faintly and looked away.

When I left the court, she was deep in conversation with Lang in a corner of the courtroom, while McBeth remained at counsel table, shuffling the same papers over and over.

23

A
T EIGHT-THIRTY THE
next morning, Lang stopped me in the hall outside the courtroom with a brusque, “We need to talk.”

I saw the fatigue etched into her pale face and decided not to take it personally. “Sure. Here?”

“The jury room,” she replied.

The jury room was a monastic box dominated by a big table, plain, uncomfortable chairs and a No Smoking sign. We sat across from each other. I offered her the paper cup of coffee I’d brought from the cafeteria.

“No, thanks,” she said. “Mind if I smoke?”

“Your lungs,” I said.

She lit up with a grimace, tossing the spent match on the floor and said, “I’ve been authorized by the D.A. to offer you a deal.”

“I’m not interested in a plea bargain.”

She batted smoke from her face and replied irritably, “Not that kind of deal. Hear me out.”

“Go ahead.”

She dragged on the cigarette and spoke through a mouthful of smoke. “If you withdraw your suppression motion, I’ll dismiss the charges for insufficient evidence and we’ll both walk away from this disaster.”

In twenty years of practice, I had never heard anything like this. I wasn’t even sure it could be done, and said as much.

“Of course it can be done,” she said. “You get up and withdraw your motion and then I get up and say the People have decided to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that there’s not enough evidence against your guy to go to trial. What’s hard about that?”

BOOK: The Death of Friends
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