Last Witness, p.18Jilliane Hoffman
‘I’m filing an answer. Chaskel’s got it set down for Friday for a Huff hearing.’
‘It’s basically a hearing to determine if the motion is legally sufficient, enough to warrant a real hearing. An evidentiary hearing.’
‘Uh-oh. What’s this mean?’
‘Yeah. Uh-oh is right. Witnesses. Testimony. Bantling will have to prove what he said in his motion – that there really is newly discovered evidence and that new evidence would probably produce an acquittal on retrial.’
‘Retrial?’ Manny sat up, a look of disbelief taking over his face.
‘That’s what he’s hoping for. That’s the remedy under the law.’
‘You can say that again.’
‘We don’t want an evidentiary hearing, Manny. They’d have to bring him back down from Raiford. It will be another circus. And if he wins and gets a retrial…’ Her voice faded off. Even she didn’t want to face the answer to that question just yet.
‘He’d come back?’ Manny shook his head. ‘You couldn’t do this evidentiary hearing with just the lawyers?’
She shook her head.
‘And you’d have to handle this shit? After all the things he said about you in court? About, well, you know,’ the Bear squirmed in his seat, trying to find the right word, ‘about, uh, attacking you and all. That don’t seem right.’
‘The burden is on him. I have to wait to see what Chaskel’s going to make him do.’
‘Fuck. This guy is like a freakin’ bad penny. He just keeps popping back up.’
They both sat silent for a minute, contemplating what had just been said. Finally she asked the question that had been on her mind since her plane landed. Since she’d heard the knock on her door and hoped it was Dominick’s voice on the other side. ‘How’s he doing, Manny? He must be upset about all this.’
‘Have you seen him?’
‘No. I…’ she stammered, ‘I screwed things up when I left, Manny.’ She paused for a moment. ‘He moved out, and I… I haven’t even called him. Now, well, now he doesn’t call me.’
‘Whoa, whoa, wait a sec,’ the Bear said, sitting up in his chair. He leaned forward. ‘You and he haven’t even talked? Since when?’
Now she was embarrassed. She thought that as friends, Dominick would have mentioned their break-up to Manny. ‘Forget it,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to involve you.’
‘So you don’t know?’
Now her heart began to race just a bit. ‘Don’t know what?’
‘Damn, Counselor. I thought you knew. I thought he would’ve called you.’ He rubbed his bald head as he struggled to find the right words. ‘Dom ain’t working this case no more, C.J. He ain’t working no cases, thanks to your bad penny. Dom’s been arrested by the feds on civil rights violations. FDLE suspended him last week.’
She pulled into the Miami Beach complex, a former assisted living facility turned chic art deco condo. She found a rare spot in guest parking, unsure what to do next. His state car, the Grand Prix, was not in his assigned parking spot, replaced instead with his personal car, a Toyota 4Runner, which normally sat unused on the street. He must be home. The first thing to go, after his firearm, would have been his car.
Even with all the trouble renters bring, Dominick had thought it a wise investment in the hot South Florida real estate market to keep his condo and let it appreciate. The plan was that maybe after the wedding, they would cash in on both condos and then look for a house that could fit a pool and a barbecue in the back. Maybe even adopt a couple of kids to fill up the rest. Now it turned out that his shrewd thinking had another pragmatic benefit. C.J. looked up at his apartment on the fourth floor, the one she had spent more than a few nights at in the beginning of their relationship, and blinked back tears.
It was 4:00 on a Wednesday afternoon. A time she would never normally expect to find him at home, but then again, things were no longer normal anymore. She tried to think of what to say and how to say it, but nothing came. Although she knew this was a conversation that needed to be had in person, she wished he had picked up the phone when she called to tell him she was coming over.
She walked across the parking lot, through the glass doors, and took the elevator up to four. She had walked the same path a hundred times before, but now it felt strange. The hall smelled different, the air was cold and she felt unwelcome at that moment, like an intruder. She knocked on his door and waited, but there was no sound inside. She tried his phone on her cell, and heard it ring until the answering machine inside picked up. She hung up.
Going back home at that moment was not really an option. Her neighbor, Mrs Crombsy, who had been watching Lucy and Tibby, had warned her that a few reporters had taken her parking spot to set up camp. So she sat down in her pantsuit and settled up against the wall in his cold hall. With her head in her hands and her purse in her lap, she decided to wait.
Wait until he finally came home or came out – or until she finally gave up. Whichever one came first.
The soft sound of footsteps on carpet rounded the corner. C.J. had heard the ding of the elevator a hundred times in the three hours she had been there, and didn’t bother looking up anymore from her spot on the floor. Then the footsteps slowed to a stop some ten feet away, and she knew it was him.
She looked up and saw his face. ‘Hey,’ she said with a smile, rising gingerly, stretching her stiff back. He did not move to help her, jut stood, glued fast to his spot. ‘I was wondering when you’d finally come back.’
He wore running shorts and a tee shirt that looked damp. His dark hair was tousled on his head, his face unshaven for at least a few days. The salt-and-pepper goatee was turning into a full salt-and-pepper beard. He said nothing, just watched her, as if she were a ghost. Then he looked away and around the hall uncomfortably, as if looking for an escape route, jingling the keys he held in his hand.
‘I saw Manny,’ she said when he didn’t respond. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
He looked at her in disbelief. ‘You didn’t even call,’ he said finally, after allowing a few more awkward seconds to pass. ‘Nothing. Not a word. You disappear on a sunny afternoon and I don’t hear from you again. What the fuck is that, C.J.?’
‘Dominick, please,’ she said, her eyes starting to get wet with tears she swore she wouldn’t shed tonight. ‘You know why I left.’
‘Bullshit. Trying to figure out the reason you left has cost me my job and gotten me indicted.’
‘I didn’t ask you to be my hero,’ she said, immediately regretting she had.
‘Oh, that’s nice. That’s perfect.’
‘Can we go inside to discuss this?’ she said, her voice lowering as she looked around.
He said nothing.
After a moment she continued, ‘Why the hell did you go up there, Dominick? Why? What purpose did it serve?’
‘I wanted to know why,’ he said, his voice low and controlled, as if he was trying very hard to hold back his emotions. ‘Why, no matter what I do, he’s there, he’s always there, C.J., inside your head. And I’ve tried, ever since I met you, to help you, to be with you, to love you like no other woman, to get him the fuck out of your head…’
Her face grew dark. ‘Don’t play psychologist with me, Dominick – thank you very much. You can’t fix me,’ she said. ‘It’s not that simple and it never will be. I’m sorry if I come with a lot of baggage, but then again, I thought you knew that.’
He shook his head and looked down around his sneakers. The moment took forever to pass before he spoke again. ‘I love you, C.J. And I can’t seem to fix that either.’ He looked up at her now. The emotions had won the battle, and she could see the pain in his eyes and not just the anger, the swell of tears he struggled to hold back. His fist clenched the keys tight in his hand.
She closed her eyes, but her cheeks were already wet. How she wished sh
‘No, no, no… Don’t give me any credit. You’re back because of him, C.J. Not me. Let’s make that clear. You came back because of him.’
‘Don’t do this, Dominick. Don’t.’
‘And that’s what I can’t figure out. That’s what I just don’t get. What is it with you and him?’
‘I won’t explain myself,’ she said, shaking her head, clenching her jaw tight.
‘Why, C.J.? Why did you come back to face the guy you hate, but not the one you said you loved? The one you were supposed to marry?’
‘Listen,’ she said, cutting his question off. ‘I’m here to finish what needs to be finished. That’s all I’ll say. What you tried to do to him with a fist, I need to legally do in a courtroom. Permanently. And only I can do it. Got that? Only me. You think I want to be in a room with him? You think I want him in my head?’
‘I don’t know what to think anymore,’ he said flatly. He had checked his emotions again.
She waited for what seemed like an eternity for him to say more, but nothing happened. ‘I love you, Dominick. God, that’s true. Whether you choose to believe it or not, that’s up to you. But I know it’s true. And I’ll be there for you through all this in any way that I can. If you want me to.’
He wouldn’t look at her, so she finally walked past him toward the elevator bay, her fingers lightly touching his motionless hand as she passed. Halfway down the hall she stopped and turned back to face him. ‘I left because I was trying to save you. That’s what you don’t see. I can’t drag you into this pit, because it’s black and it’s bottomless and there is no escape. And if I have to live in a nightmare alone for the rest of my life, then so be it. It’s worth my sanity. I won’t let him take that again, I’d rather die.’
Then she rounded the hall corner and hit the button down. Her arms were crossed against her chest. She felt so cold, so incredibly cold. When the bell rang and she still had not heard his footsteps come up on her, she knew it was over.
On legs that shook like jelly, she walked into the empty elevator and hit the lobby button. As the doors were closing, she collapsed in the corner, crying uncontrollably when the doors finally shut.
C.J. camped out at the NSU law library in Davie the entire weekend. She wore sweats, a Phillies baseball hat, a ponytail, and glasses, hoping her anxious face blended with every other stressed-out law student’s. She pulled any and every case she could find that dealt with Rule Threes, Brady violations and newly discovered evidence. Then she spent two days holed up at the kitchen table in her apartment, pushing troubling thoughts of Dominick from her head, and carefully crafting her answer – the legal response to Bantling’s motion.
In Florida, once you were convicted of a felony, a good appellate attorney and a Rule Three was pretty much your last chance to buy yourself a Get Out of Jail card. But the law was nothing if not particular, and the judges far too busy to hear every motion that came down the pike from a desperate defendant with a pen and paper and too much time on his hands. The cogs of justice would quickly become jammed with paper and backlogged calendars if there were no limits, so you had to play by the rules of the statute, or else you didn’t play at all. If you wanted to see the inside of a courtroom, the motion had to be filed within a certain time period – one year after the judgment and sentence were final in a death penalty case. And to avoid an endless amount of do-overs, the motto was ‘speak now or forever hold your peace.’ One year and one shot was all you got.
Unless the claim was based on newly discovered evidence. An incarcerated defendant’s last hope at sunshine and a retrial, a new evidence claim was the only way for a Rule Three that’s out of the time line to survive an outright dismissal as a matter of law. But claims of newly discovered evidence were not just buzzwords that automatically turned a lock. It was much more serious than that. “I didn’t know about the evidence the first time because I didn’t think to look” was not a good enough answer. “I didn’t know because it was hidden from me” just might be a better one.
C.J. had racked her brain for four days, because she knew she would have just one shot herself. If she could stop Bantling at the Huff hearing, on his first assault, then he would never get his tank up the hill where it could do some real damage. He would not be present at the hearing, only his attorney. If she could shut down his motion on procedural or legal insufficiency grounds, then Corrections would never even have to bus him down from Raiford for a free vacation on the taxpayer’s dime and a full-blown evidentiary hearing.
If she could do it by the book.
If she could get it dismissed without ever having to confront or address his ‘new’ evidence in court.
If she never had to craft another lie.
Or remember an old one.
If she could out-lawyer Neil Mann.
If, if, if… it all came down to if and she pushed herself now to find the cure – the legal miracle that would keep him out of the courtroom. She’d die trying, because she didn’t think she could face him again, see him with that knowing grin, like an old lover that had stolen an intimate moment with her. She knew it was not so much getting out, but getting even that he wanted, and she knew it would be fun for him to watch her drown in the backwash of her own lies.
And, of course, there was one more reason to stop this now. If it should go to an evidentiary hearing – if detectives and crime scene techs and medical examiners became witnesses once again – she’d have to relive it all again, the tale of a murder that had almost been hers. The carefully planned abductions. The drugs. The rapes. The torture. The pictures. The death chamber. The smell of old champagne in her hair, the bitterness of the Haldol on the back of her tongue when the shot kicked in, the ice-coldness of the black room.
A few news trucks, their satellite antennas towering above 11th Street, sat in front of the courthouse Thursday morning when she had arrived for work. There were a few other big cases going on that morning, C.J. told herself. The mom who had shot her twin baby sons in the tub. The former city commissioner on trial for improper influence and taking a bribe. The sentencing of a former UM football star for DUI. It did not necessarily mean they were there for her. Yet. If it went to an evidentiary hearing, the press would heat up.
She piled three of the seven boxes which made up the State of Florida vs. William Rupert Bantling on her metal cart, and then topped it with the box full of case law that she had copied that weekend. She said a silent prayer to St Christopher, her mother’s favorite saint, asking him to help her get through this day.
For the past few weeks, she had been dodging the phone calls and questions of her parents while she struggled to sort her life out. They had never even known she was in California, just a quick plane ride down the coast. C.J. knew they were probably worried about her. Her mom always was, claiming it was a mother’s duty. She didn’t dare think of her father learning that his daughter had worked to put the wrong person on death row. A man who preached forgiveness, she knew he would not forgive that.
It was time to leave now, and no time to think of what would happen if she didn’t win today. She put on her sunglasses and left her office via the building’s side door, then she headed quickly across the street to the maintenance elevator in the courthouse, hoping to avoid the madness that she feared might be waiting just for her.
Courtroom 6-8 was not the most majestic of courtrooms. It was relatively new, but small, having replaced the old offices of the State Attorney, that had operated out of the sixth and ninth floors of the courthouse under Janet Reno, before the Graham Building was built. For years the space had then sat empty, finally put to good use in the late Nineties as desperately needed courtrooms.
In just a few s
Her prayers to St Christopher had worked. It turned out that only some of the attention downstairs was hers. Only a few reporters – nothing like the crowd drawn at Bantling’s trial – waited outside the courtroom doors for her.
‘Ms Townsend! Did you know about the tape? Have you seen it?’
‘Did you know that Victor Chavez lied on stand? Did you ask him to do it? Do you think he was targeted by Black Jacket? Do you think these cases may be related?’
‘Was this a conspiracy?’
‘Is an innocent man on death row?’
The questions were the same as the ones scattered about her office unanswered on pink message notes. Her answer was also the same. Silence.
‘Aah, Ms Townsend,’ Judge Leopold Chaskel III said, from atop his small throne in the packed courtroom, before it could close on the shouts outside in the hallway. ‘I think we knew you were coming down the hall before you did. A few groupies outside, have we?’
‘Good morning, Judge. I’m sorry to interrupt your calendar,’ she said, looking around the room. Unfortunately for the press, Thursday mornings were Chaskel’s plea days, so even if they wanted one, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. ‘I’m on at—’ she continued.
Last Witness by Jilliane Hoffman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes