Authors: Andrew Neiderman
Tags: #Fiction, #General
The man acknowledged Kevin with a slight nod.
The silence in the courtroom was punctured by sharp coughs scattered here and there. Lois Wilson, a twenty-five-year-old fifth-grade teacher, was on trial for sexually abusing children in the small Nassau County community of Blithedale.
It was a bedroom community; almost all the residents were New York City commuters. Quite rural in appearance, Blithe-dale was an oasis of sorts with upper-middle-class homes and landscaped grounds, clean, wide streets lined with red maples and oak, and a relatively quiet business area. There were no large malls, no overly developed strips of stores, gas stations, restaurants, and motels.
Signs had to meet strict codes. Gaudiness, bright colors, obese posters were prohibited.
The inhabitants liked the feeling of being in a cocoon. They could go into and out of New York as they wished, but when they returned, they returned to their well-guarded, "Alice in Wonderland" existence. Nothing overt happened. It was the way they wanted it.
Then, Lois Wilson, one of the new teachers in the elementary school, was accused of sexually abusing a ten-year-old girl. A school investigation uncovered three more similar occurrences. Background information and the local rumor mill established Lois Wilson as a confirmed lesbian. She was renting a house on the outskirts of Blithedale with her girlfriend, a foreign-language teacher in a nearby high school, and neither went out with men or had any male relationships.
No one in the firm of Boyle, Carlton, and Sessler was happy that Kevin had taken this case. He had actually sought it out, offering his services to Lois Wilson once he heard about her problem; and once he had the case, he had threatened to leave the firm if any of the senior partners actually forbid him from taking it. He had been growing more and more impatient with the firm, impatient with its conservative approach to law and with the direction he knew his life would take if he remained there much longer. This was the first dramatic case he had had, the first case with meat in it, the first case in which he could show his skill and acumen. He felt like an athlete who had finally entered a significant event. Maybe it wasn't the Olympics, but it was more than the local high school tournament. This case had already made the metropolitan newspapers.
The district attorney, Martin Balm, offered Kevin a deal immediately, hoping to keep the story out of the media and avoid any sensationalism. The most important consideration of all, he stressed, expecting Kevin's sympathy, was keeping the children out of the courtroom and having them go through the horror once again. If Lois plead guilty, she would get five years probation and psychological counseling. Of course, her teaching career would be over.
But Kevin advised her not to take the deal and she agreed with him. Now she sat demurely, staring down at her hands in her lap. Kevin had told her not to look arrogant, but to appear wounded, suffering. From time to time, she took out her handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.
He had actually had her rehearse this posture in his office, showing her how to look intently at witnesses, how to look hopefully at the jury. He recorded her on video and played it back, giving her pointers about how to use her eyes, how to wear her hair, how to hold her shoulders and use her hands. It was the visual age, he told her. Icons, symbols, posturing were all important.
Kevin turned to look quickly at his wife Miriam four rows back. She looked nervous, tense, worried for him. Like Sanford Boyle, she had advised him not to take the case, but Kevin was committed to it more than he had been committed to anything else during his three years of practicing law. He wouldn't talk about anything else; he spent hours and hours doing research, investigating, working on weekends, doing far more than the retainer and fee justified.
He flashed Miriam a confident smile, and then he spun around abruptly, almost as if a spring had snapped.
"Mr. Cornbleau, you interviewed the three girls by yourself on Tuesday, November 3rd?"
"The alleged initial victim, Barbara Stanley, told you about them?" Kevin nodded to confirm the answer before he received it.
"That's correct. So I invited them into my office."
"Can you tell us how you began once they arrived?"
"Pardon?" Cornbleau frowned as if the question were ridiculous.
"What was the first question you asked the girls?" Kevin stepped toward the jury. "Did you ask if Miss Wilson had touched them on their buttocks? Did you ask if she had put her hands under their skirts?"
"Of course not." .
"Well, what did you ask?"
"I asked them if it were true they were having the same sort of trouble Barbara Stanley had had with Miss Wilson."
"The same sort of trouble?" He grimaced at the word
"So Barbara Stanley told her girlfriends what allegedly happened to her and the three young girls related similar experiences to her, but none of the three had ever told anyone else before. Is that what you're saying?"
"Yes. That was my understanding."
"Quite a charismatic ten-year-old girl," Kevin quipped, acting as if he had merely spoken a private thought aloud. Some members of the jury raised their eyebrows. A bald-headed man in the front right corner tilted his head thoughtfully and stared intently at the principal.
When Kevin turned and looked at the audience, he saw that the dignified-looking man in the rear had widened his smile and was nodding encouragingly. Kevin half wondered if he might not be a relative of Lois Wilson, maybe an older brother.
"Now, Mr. Cornbleau, can you tell the court what
kind of grades Barbara Stanley was getting in Lois
"She was doing low C."
"Low C. And had she had any problems with Miss Wilson previously?"
"Yes," the principal muttered.
"Yes. On two occasions, she had been sent to my office for refusing to do her work and using bad language in class, but..."
"So you can safely say Barbara was not fond of Miss Wilson?"
"Objection, your honor." The district attorney stood up. "Counsel is asking the witness to make a conclusion."
"Sorry, your honor." Kevin turned back to Cornbleau. "Let's get back to the three girls, Mr. Cornbleau. Did you ask each of them to relate her experiences to you in your office that day?"
"I thought it was best to get right to it, yes."
"You're not telling us that while one told her story, the other two listened?" he asked, twisting his face to indicate his shock and incredulity.
"Wasn't that inappropriate? I mean, exposing the girls to these stories ... alleged experiences ..."
"Well, it was an investigation."
"Oh, I see. You've had experience with this sort of thing before?"
"No, never. That's why it was so shocking."
"Did you advise the girls that if they were making things up, they could be in serious trouble?"
"But you tended to believe them, correct?"
"Because they were all saying the same thing and describing it the same way."
Cornbleau looked satisfied with himself and his answer, but Kevin stepped closer, his questions coming in a staccato manner.
"Then couldn't they have rehearsed it?"
"Couldn't they have gotten together and memorized their stories?"
"I don't see . . ."
"Isn't it possible?"
"Haven't you ever experienced children this age lying?"
"And more than one lying at the same time?"
"Yes, but. . ."
"Then isn't it possible?"
"Well. . ."
"Did you call Miss Wilson in and confront her with these stories immediately after speaking with the girls?"
"Yes, of course."
"And what was her reaction?"
"She wouldn't deny it."
"You mean she refused to be interrogated about such matters without benefit of counsel, don't you?" Cornbleau shifted his seat. "Isn't that so?" Kevin demanded.
"That's what she said."
"So you went ahead and informed the superintendent and then called the district attorney?"
"Yes. We followed school board policy for such matters."
"You didn't investigate further, call in other students?"
"And before Miss Wilson was indicted on this matter, you and the superintendent suspended her, correct?"
"As I said . .."
"Please, just answer the question."
"Yes," Kevin repeated, as if that were an admission of guilt. He paused, a slight smile on his face as he turned from Cornbleau to the jury and then back to Cornbleau.
"Mr. Cornbleau, did you on more than one previous occasion have words with Miss Wilson about her bulletin boards?"
"They were too small and not up to standards."
"So you were critical of her as a teacher?"
"Room decor is an integral part of a teacher's effectiveness," Cornbleau said pedantically.
"Uh-huh, but Miss Wilson didn't have ... let us say ... the same sense of high regard for bulletin boards."
"She was, in fact, according to what you wrote on her chart, 'disdainful.'"
"Unfortunately, most of the newer teachers are not given the same good background in college." Cornbleau smirked.
Kevin nodded. "Yes, why can't everyone be like us?" he asked rhetorically, and some people in the audience snickered. The judge rapped his gavel.
"You also have been critical of Miss Wilson's clothing, have you not?" Kevin continued more directly.
"I think she should dress more conservatively, yes."
"Yet Miss Wilson's department head has continually given her high marks for her teaching abilities," Kevin interrupted, raising his voice. "On her last report she said"—Kevin looked at his document— " 'Lois Wilson has an intrinsic understanding of children. No matter what the obstacle, she seems to be able to reach them and get them stimulated.'" He put the document down. "That's quite a nice review, isn't it?"
"Yes, but as I said . . ."
"No further questions, your honor."
Kevin went back to his desk, his face red with fury, something he had the ability to do at a moment's notice. All eyes were on him. When he looked back at the elegant man in the audience, he saw that the smile had left his face, but it had been replaced with a genuine look of awe. Kevin felt buoyed.
Miriam, on the other hand, looked sad, sad enough to burst into tears. She looked down quickly when he gazed at her.
She's ashamed of me,
God, she's still ashamed of me. She won't be much longer,
he concluded confidently.
"Mr. Balm? Any further questions for Mr. Cornbleau?"
"No, your honor. We would like to call Barbara Stanley to the stand, your honor,"
the district attorney said, a tone of desperation in his voice.
Kevin patted Lois Wilson's hand reassuringly. He had driven the prosecution to the heart of their case
A chubby girl with curly light brown hair trimmed' just below her earlobes came down the aisle. The ten-year-old wore a light blue dress with a frilly white collar and frilly white sleeves. The baggy garment seemed to add to her girth.
She anxiously took her seat and raised her hand to be sworn in. Kevin nodded to himself and shot a knowing look at Martin Balm. She had been well schooled in what to expect. Balm had done his homework, too; but Kevin felt he had done more, and that would make all the difference.
"Barbara," Martin Balm began, approaching her. I
"One moment, Mr. Balm," the judge said. He leaned toward Barbara Stanley.
"Barbara, do you understand what you have just sworn to do ... to tell the truth?"
Barbara glanced quickly at the audience and then turned back to the judge and nodded. "And do you understand how important what you say here can be?" She nodded again, this time more softly. The judge leaned back. "Carry on, Mr. Balm."
"Thank you, your honor." Balm moved up to the witness chair. He was a tall, lean man, on his way to a promising political career. He was uncomfortable with this case and had hoped Kevin and Lois Wilson would take his offer, but they hadn't, and here he was, relying on the testimony of ten-year-old children. "I'd like you to tell the court just what you told Mr. Cornbleau that day in his office. Go slowly."
The chubby girl looked quickly at Lois. Kevin had told her to stare at all the children intently, especially the three who were confirming Barbara Stanley's accusations.
"Well . . . sometimes, when we had special arts..."
"Special arts. What's that, Barbara?"
"Special arts is art or reading or music. The class goes to the art teacher or the music teacher," the little girl recited, her eyes almost closed. Kevin could see she was trying hard to do it all correctly. When he looked around, he saw how members of the audience half smiled, silently rooting for the child. The gentleman in the back, however, looked intense, almost angry.
"I see," Balm said, nodding. "They go to another room, right?"
"Please say yes or no, Barbara, okay?"
"Uh ... I mean yes."
"Okay, sometimes when you had special arts . . ." Balm prompted.
"Miss Wilson would ask one of us to stay behind," Barbara replied on cue.
"Stay behind? Remain in class alone with her?"
"Uh ... yes."
"One time, she asked me to."
"And what did you tell Mr. Cornbleau about this time?"
Barbara turned herself a bit in the seat so she could avoid Lois's gaze. Then she took a deep breath and began.