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Plea of insanity, p.2
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       Plea of Insanity, p.2

           Jilliane Hoffman

  Sergeant Ralph Demos sat in the majestic living room on the floral-print couch, the stone staircase with its ornate railing looming high above him. He wiped his head with a paper towel, but the perspiration just would not stop. He wished at that moment that he hadn’t quit smoking ten years back. Or drinking. Cops, it seemed, were everywhere and still coming. Upstairs, half a dozen uniforms stood guard outside the bedroom doors while Crime Scene techs with Miami-Dade PD snapped their photos. Bright flashes of light exploded in the hallway above him.

  ‘Looks like they’re bringing the County in,’ said Carlos Sanchez, a road sergeant with Coral Gables, as he watched another crime-scene tech in a MDPD windbreaker walk past and head upstairs. ‘I saw Steve Brill head into the kitchen before. He’s with Persons,’ Sanchez said, looking past the hallway that led to the kitchen where detectives were now interviewing Pete Colonna. ‘But I bet Miami-Dade’s gonna send Homicide.’ The Persons Crime Squad was the Coral Gables detective unit that handled crimes against persons, like robbery or sexual assault. The Gables didn’t have a Homicide Squad. ‘I heard Brill can be a prick, but only if you’re sleeping with him,’ the sergeant said lightly.

  ‘Don’t know him,’ murmured Demos, unable to take his eyes off the stairs. Every time the flashbulb would flash, the camera would make a loud, high-pitched hum that softly faded off. Fingerprint techs had begun their handiwork in the front hall, and fine black soot covered everything. To Ralph Demos, the air tasted heavy and bitter on his tongue; a taste he feared might never go away. In the kitchen he could hear the detectives talking with Pete Colonna, who was still crying.

  ‘You okay there, Ralph?’ Sanchez asked with a frown. ‘You want me to get one of them EMTs down here to take a look at you?’

  ‘Poor kid,’ said Ralph, running a trembling hand over his sweaty head and looking back toward the kitchen. ‘He saw it first. I mean, I knew it was gonna be bad when I saw all that blood, but he’s only been on the force, what? A year?’

  ‘His wife’s due with their first,’ said Sanchez, shaking his head. ‘I think that’s why it hit him hard.’

  ‘Twins. I know. I just heard.’

  ‘Pete’ll be okay. Psych will take care of him if he needs it.’

  ‘He will. Christ, he will. He wanted to take the door when he first got on scene. I told him to stand down and wait. Maybe it would’ve made a difference …’ Demos’s voice tapered off and Sanchez said nothing.

  Two men wearing blue windbreakers that read MIAMI-DADE COUNTY MEDICAL EXAMINER’S OFFICE in bright white letters walked through the front door. With a somber nod they headed backup the stairs. The ME himself was already on scene. Ralph watched them go up.

  ‘Who found the father?’ asked Sanchez, forcing his friend back to the living room.

  ‘Me,’ Ralph said softly. ‘Is he gonna make it?’

  ‘Don’t know. He looked pretty fucked up. They’re taking him to Ryder.’ Ryder Trauma Center was a part of the University of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital in downtown Miami.

  ‘Goddamn,’ Ralph mumbled and shook his head. ‘Anybody else?’

  Sanchez said nothing again, just looked at the floor.

  Ralph fought back the tears. ‘A whole family,’ he said. ‘What kind of animal would do this shit? What kind of world are we living in?’

  Sanchez waited a moment, watching big Ralph Demos wipe buckets of sweat off his pale head. He looked like he was gonna drop. ‘You gonna be okay, Ralph?’

  ‘Me? I’m outta here in a few weeks. Hell, maybe now I’ll go tomorrow. But Colonna, see, he’s just started, Carlos. He’s got to deal with this shit for another twenty-four if he wants to go out on eighty percent.’ Ralph paused and wiped his head again. A white flash exploded from the hall upstairs and the familiar hum softly faded off. The shuffle of footsteps sounded again on the stone steps above him.

  ‘God, this job sucks,’ was all Carlos Sanchez could think of to say as big Ralph began to cry. Then he watched in silence as the two men in the ME windbreakers carried the first of the small blackbody bags downstairs and out the front door.

  ‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.

  ‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat. ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

  ‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

  ‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

  Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


  Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Julia Valenciano stood at the State’s podium in courtroom 4–10 – a 74-page trial calendar before her and four boxes of felony cases stacked at her feet – and she panicked. She nibbled at the inside of her cheek and stared in disbelief at the yellow Witness Availability Sheet in her hand that Mario, her Victim/Witness Coordinator, had prepared for her late last Friday.

  ‘State?’ grumbled the judge from the bench, obviously waiting for an answer. It was one Julia really didn’t want to give him. The Honorable Leonard Farley was already in a mood more foul than usual. She closed her eyes for a second and wished she were somewhere else. Like Hawaii.

  It was Monday morning and the packed courtroom bustled around her. Even though printed signs everywhere warned ‘No talking, no children, no cellphones!’ the air buzzed with the hushed whispers of the victims, witnesses, family members, and out-of-custody defendants that filled the rows of benches behind her. To her right, a long line of irritated, toe-tapping defense attorneys snaked its way behind the defense podium and through the small wooden pass-through gate that led into the gallery. Most had several clients on calendars throughout the courthouse, which meant they were going to be late for somebody’s courtroom this morning, but no one wanted to be late for Judge Farley, so everyone came to 4–10 first. Behind her, a similar line had formed for prosecutors at the State’s podium. She could almost hear both sides’ collective sigh of impatience as she fumbled through the file marked State vs. Powers.

  Corrections opened the door to the jury room at that moment, and a line of disheveled-looking defendants – fresh from the Dade County Jail across the street – made their way into the jury box, their wrists all chained together, like a surreal string of paper-doll cutouts.

  ‘Am I speaking?’ the judge asked, exasperated, looking around as Corrections settled the defendants into seats in the box. He still had not gotten his answer. His eyes fell on Jefferson, the bailiff. ‘Can you hear me?’ he asked. A nervous Jefferson nodded.

  ‘Judge,’ Julia began slowly, ‘we seem to have a problem.’ Scrawled across the computer-generated Witness Availability Sheet, in Mario’s barely legible handwriting, were the words, ‘Victim uncooperative. Refuses to come in now – MG.’ Julia could’ve sworn those words were not there on Friday when she’d prepped the Monday-morning calendar until eight o’clock at night.

  ‘I don’t have any problems, State,’ said Judge Farley, leaning back in his chair, his darkblue eyes crinkling to slits. He smelled blood and it made him happy.

  Each of the twenty felony division judges that worked in Miami’s downtown Richard Gerstein Criminal Justice Building had three Assistant State Attorneys (ASAs), three Public Defenders (PDs), and two Division Chiefs (DCs) – one for each side – assigned to their courtroom. ‘A’ prosecutors and ‘A’ PDs handled first-degree felonies; ‘B’s handled second-degrees; and ‘C’s worked the bottom-feeder third-degrees, like simple burglaries and grand thefts. Division Chiefs supervised the letters and handled ‘no-name’ homicides – those murders that didn’t grab headlines or get snatched up by prosecutors in specialized divisions like Major Crimes, Domestics, Organized Crime, Career Criminal, or Narcotics. It was just the luck of the felony-assignment draw for Julia Valenciano that she’d been picked to be the B in Judge Leonard Farley’s division, better known around the courthouse as Siberia.

  Julia had been a prosecutor going on three years now, and for a good part of those three years, she’d have to say that
she’d been blessed with some pretty good divisions and nice judges. Even in County Court – where she’d first started out in misdemeanor crimes and criminal traffic before moving offices across the street to felonies and Circuit – the judges had at least been respectful. Maybe they weren’t all learned scholars, but straight out of law school herself then, she’d had a lot to learn about the Rules of Evidence, too. Then the honeymoon had ended, reality had set in, and for the past long, four months, she’d been stuck here in Siberia with no end in sight.

  It wasn’t just that her judge was difficult; he was impossible. On good days they still did not like each other – a fact which was not all that surprising, because Farley didn’t like anyone, and he particularly didn’t like women – but it was definitely stressful. She supposed life could be easier for her if she did what most prosecutors in his division did: nothing. Simply let the judge have his tantrums, and object just loud enough for the court reporter to hear when he made a ruling that was outrageous or just completely wrong. Let the State Attorney’s Legal Division decide what messes they wanted to clean up on appeal. But, unfortunately, Julia wasn’t the type who could just do nothing. So every day became a battle. And Farley wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. As a sitting retired judge, he couldn’t even be booted off the bench by a zealous opponent or an outraged public at the polls. Only the Chief Judge – his brother-in-law – could move him. And until he died, the best Julia could hope for would be to move her way up and out of Siberia to an A-spot in someone else’s division, or pray for an assignment to a specialized unit. Neither of which was going to happen right at this particular moment.

  Farley tapped his pen loudly on the bench. The packed courtroom now sensed trouble, and the light chaotic buzz peppered to a stop. Suddenly everyone was very interested in what the judge had to say. Probably because he wasn’t going to be saying it to them.

  ‘I seem to have the problem, then, Your Honor,’ Julia said, clearing her throat. She finally looked up. ‘Apparently, my victim on Powers is now unavailable.’

  ‘But you announced ready for trial on this on Thursday.’ A deep frown sliced across the judge’s already wrinkle-crowded face, forcing his white, wiry Albert Einstein eyebrows together.

  ‘I did, Your Honor. You see, my availability sheet at that time said the victim was ready, but since then she’s apparently indicated a reluctance to go forward. I’m going to need to have her personally subpoenaed—’

  ‘That should have been done already.’

  ‘Judge, we set Powers as number twelve for trial today. If you could just reset this till later in the week, we can go forward on Ivaroni or Singer this morning. I’m definitely ready to go on those. I can then have—’

  ‘You announced ready, State. That meant you were ready for trial. I’m not resetting this. You’re either ready or you’re not. If you’re not, I’m dismissing.’

  The Public Defender, Scott Andrews, smiled at the defense podium. One less case on his docket, and the chances of the State re-filing an Aggravated Battery without a victim were pretty much non-existent.

  Julia felt everyone watching her. From the corner of her eye she spotted the defendant, Letray Powers, in the box, a big gold grin on his pockmarked face. He raised a chained hand and high-fived the inmate seated next to him. Sporting at least 250 pounds on his six-foot frame, his muscles showed even through the baggy orange jail jumpsuit that he wore. Julia looked down at the pink arrest form, and remembered how Letray had taken a razor blade to his pregnant girlfriend’s face. Her jaw clenched. Here we go again, she thought, and looked back up at Farley. ‘Then the State is ready for trial, Your Honor,’ she announced, almost defiantly.

  ‘Did I just hear you right?’ asked the judge, sitting up straight in his throne. ‘No victim and you’re telling me you’re still going forward?’

  ‘Judge, Mr Powers has a lengthy history of violence, including priors for Resisting, Aggravated Battery and Aggravated Assault with a Firearm, not to mention three arrests in the past for domestic battery. He viciously attacked his girlfriend with a razor blade because she looked in the direction of another man in Winn-Dixie. His five-months-pregnant girlfriend, I might add. It took sixty-two stitches to sew her face back together.’

  ‘And now she doesn’t think it’s important enough to come in.’

  ‘She’s a domestic violence victim, Judge.’

  ‘She’s an absentee victim, Ms Valenciano. And I don’t have the time to coddle her. I’ve got a very busy docket.’ That had to be the understatement of the year.

  ‘If Your Honor refuses to grant the State a continuance so that I can personally subpoena Ms Johnson, rather than see this case dismissed, I have no choice but to go forward without her testimony.’

  ‘And just how are you going to do that, State?’ The judge was more than mad now. He was furious. Domestic violence was a prickly topic. It was not good press in a crowded courtroom for him to look this insensitive.

  She swallowed. ‘I don’t need the victim, Your Honor.’

  ‘That’s a first for me, Ms Valenciano. Didn’t they teach you corpus delicti in law school? The body of your crime doesn’t want to come in.’

  ‘Witnesses can testify about her injuries.’

  ‘Who’s gonna tell me how she got them? Did anyone see her getting attacked?’

  ‘Her statements to the police—’

  ‘Are hearsay,’ cut in the PD. The judge glared at him, too.

  ‘Are admissible for the truth of their content as an excited utterance,’ finished Julia.

  In the law, people were thought to be more honest than usual when acting under the stress of certain situations, and so any statements they made during or immediately after the stressful event to other people were thus admissible in trial. Excited utterance, as it was known, was a recognized exception to the hearsay rule, which generally prohibited the in-court use of any statement made outside of court when that statement was being used to prove ‘the truth of the matter asserted’. Being sliced to ribbons by a maniac with a razor blade qualified as a stressful event, Julia thought. Maybe it was a stretch to try a case without a victim who wanted to prosecute on just an excited utterance, but the hell she was gonna let the bastard high-five it right out of here with a smile while the judge yelled his goodbyes to him in her face.

  ‘Don’t play coy with me, Ms Valenciano. I won’t indulge moot-court trial antics in my courtroom,’ Farley bellowed.

  ‘I have no intention of doing that, Judge.’

  ‘Then you damn well better be ready to picka jury.’

  ‘I am, Your Honor.’

  The judge glared at her for a long moment and the courtroom stayed disturbingly quiet. ‘You want a trial? Nine o’clock tomorrow, then. I’ll see you back here.’ The PD opened his mouth, but the judge cut him off with a wave of his hand. ‘Don’t bother, Mr Andrews. Ms Valenciano says we’re ready even without her victim, so we’re ready. Be here tomorrow and let’s see what she does. Ivonne,’ he said to the court clerk who sat at a desk below the bench, ‘set over the rest of Ms Valenciano’s trials to print on Wednesday’s calendar. Powers won’t take us long.’ He shook his pen at Julia. ‘If you waste my time with this, State,’ he cautioned loudly, ‘you’ll have more to worry about than double jeopardy, so I strongly suggest you use the next twenty-three hours to find your victim.’

  Julia stepped back away from the podium and gathered her boxes as the ASA behind her from Economic Crimes called up his case. Her blood was racing, so hard that she could hear it pound in her ears, and her hands shook. A light buzz started up again in the crowd, and she felt the eyes of her colleagues upon her. All she wanted was to get out of the courtroom and scream.

  ‘Don’t let him push your buttons,’ her Division Chief, Karyn Seminara, said cautiously under her breath as she helped Julia load her file boxes onto a collapsible metal cart.

  Julia looked up and took a deep breath before she said something she knew she would later regret. Her DC never p
ushed anyone’s buttons. Laid-back and completely non-confrontational, Farley probably thought pretty Karyn Seminara the ideal woman, but for the fact that she occasionally opened her mouth and actually said something. She’d been his DC for over a year now, either because someone upstairs thought mild-mannered, compliant Karyn could best handle the judge and his crazy temper-tantrums, or, as was more likely the case the way Julia figured it, she’d really pissed someone upstairs off. While she and Karyn had become what some would call friends over the past four months, it was definitely a cautious friendship, forged over semi-mandatory Friday-night happy hours and après court cups of café con leche. Cautious, because her DC wanted to be friends with everyone – particularly anyone in her division – and as Julia’s Uncle Jimmy had warned her the day she’d landed her first job stuffing Boston Kremes down at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, she knew that ‘Friends don’t make for good bosses and bosses don’t make for good friends.’

  Julia exhaled the breath and stared at her DC. It wasn’t hard to see the disappointment in Karyn’s half-smile, nor was it hard to figure out why it was there. ‘If I say what I’m thinking right now, Karyn,’ she replied in a low voice, ‘Farley will sit me in the box next to my defendant, so I’d better just shut up.’

  ‘He’s not going to change, Julia. And you’re not going to change him. But from the shade of red you made his head turn, he just might leave the bench on a stretcher one of these days,’ Karyn replied with a sardonic smile and a shake of her head. ‘You’re a good lawyer, honey, but are you really going to try this case without a victim?’

  ‘I have no choice.’

  ‘She does. She’s not here.’

  ‘If I have to try it without her, I will.’

  ‘And the point of that is?’

  Julia looked over at the box where Letray Powers sat with a smile, like the cat who ate the canary. ‘He’s gonna do it again to her if he gets out. Only next time maybe he’ll go for the throat.’

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