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All the little pieces, p.30
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       All the Little Pieces, p.30

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Then he stood up, laid the rose on the bedside table next to her, and walked out the door.

  PART THREE

  It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation,

  and only one bad one to lose it.

  Benjamin Franklin

  67

  Elisabetta shifted uncomfortably in her seat at the state’s table as Richard Hartwick stood across the well at the defense table. To say she was anxious would be a serious understatement. On the witness stand was cute-as-a-button Maggie Saunders, dressed in a cobalt blue dress and shiny patent Mary Janes, clutching a stuffed Eeyore to her chest as if it were a crucifix and the approaching Hartwick was the devil himself.

  Elisabetta hated kid witnesses. She wasn’t fond of kids in general – she didn’t have any herself and, much to the disbelief of society and most men she dated, she was happy with that decision – but from a lawyer’s standpoint, they made crappy witnesses. Terrible memories, fidgety, easily distracted – a smart defense attorney could steer their testimony in any direction he wanted to with the right questions, asked in the right tone. Richard Hartwick was many disingenuous adjectives, but he wasn’t stupid.

  There was a reason children under the age of fourteen were presumed incompetent to testify under common law. Although the presumption was legally gone now, the problems with child witnesses were not. Elisabetta had always expected Hartwick to make a motion to disqualify Maggie Saunders from testifying. The kid was five years old; she believed in the Tooth Fairy and Santa. But just because she’d been expecting the motion didn’t mean she was prepared for today’s hearing. And that was the crux of the problem with child witnesses: you could prep them till the cows came home and you still had no idea what was gonna come out of their tiny little mouths when they opened them up on a witness stand. Now that Hartwick had called Maggie Saunders’ competency into question, the court had to determine, 1) if she was intelligent enough to perceive, remember, and relate the events she would be called to testify about in Poole’s upcoming trial, and, 2) if she could appreciate the obligation to tell the truth. If she failed either prong, she would not be permitted to testify, and if that happened, Elisabetta was screwed. The only other witness that could definitively place Angelina Santri in the company of Derrick Poole before she was murdered, and the only witness who could identify the still-at-large Eduardo Carbone, was the kid’s mom – fresh out of rehab and currently on probation for DUI. Faith Saunders presented with her own set of ugly problems; Elisabetta couldn’t afford to lose Maggie. Besides, the kid was the darling of the media. If she could charm her way into the hearts of millions of TV viewers with her powerful, compelling story, she could work wonders on a jury. If only she got the chance to tell it …

  ‘Did you say you were four years old?’ Hartwick began in as gentle a manner as his overbearing largeness could muster.

  ‘Five,’ Maggie answered, her eyes downcast. ‘I’m five.’ Elisabetta watched as Maggie looked over at where her very handsome father sat in the front row of the half-empty courtroom.

  That was another concern: in the almost four months since Poole had been indicted, the case had fallen off the general public’s radar somewhat, as more immediate tragedies and news stories took its place in the headlines. The circus-like atmosphere that had surrounded Poole’s arrest and Arthur hearing, though not entirely gone, was certainly not as intense as it had been. The gallery was half-filled with spectators, and only two camera crews, both from local stations, sat in the front row. While it was a relief to not be under the intense scrutiny that existed at the Arthur – particularly for today’s hearing – it was an additional worry for Elisabetta that the cameras might not come back. With help from an itchy Hartwick – who wanted this case over with before detectives found Carbone – she had pushed things as fast as she could push a capital murder, and she’d be beside herself if no one showed up to watch. According to Arnie, executives with CNN were holding off on a decision to see what happened with Poole. That translated to; Let’s see the Court TV ratings and then take the temperature of the public to test their opinion of the latest pretty prosecutor to come out of Florida. If Elisabetta didn’t measure up to C.J. Townsend’s reputation – or worse, no one could remember her name – she was off the list and the next legal analyst headlining her own cable TV show was Rachel Cilla, LA sex-trafficking prosecutor extraordinaire.

  ‘When’s your birthday?’ Hartwick continued, intentionally planting his body in Maggie’s direct line of sight of her dad. ‘When did you turn five?’

  ‘January.’

  ‘January. That was a long time ago, right?’

  Maggie shrugged.

  ‘What month are we in right now?’

  She shrugged again.

  ‘Let the record reflect the witness has shrugged. Do you know what month this is that we’re in now?’

  ‘No,’ Maggie answered nervously. ‘Can I get down now?’

  ‘Not yet, honey,’ Hartwick answered firmly. ‘May the record reflect that today’s date is March thirtieth. Do you know how long it will be before you turn six? How many months that will be? How many seasons will pass, you know, like summer, winter, fall?’

  ‘Objection,’ Elisabetta tried. ‘This is not relevant.’

  ‘Goes to the witness’s ability to perceive events,’ replied Hartwick.

  ‘I’ll allow it. Don’t go too crazy,’ cautioned Judge Guckert, the trial judge.

  ‘I can have Elsa and Anna at my birthday party if I say everything right today,’ Maggie spontaneously blurted out. ‘I didn’t have princesses at my other birthday party because Mommy was away and it wouldn’t be nice to have the princesses without her because she was sick. But we can have a second party now because she’s home.’

  Elisabetta winced. Hartwick smiled. Judge Guckert looked confused. ‘Who are Elsa and Anna?’ he asked.

  ‘From Frozen,’ replied Maggie.

  ‘They’re frozen?’

  ‘No, Your Honor,’ said the clerk with a smile. ‘They’re Disney characters – princesses. I have an eight-year-old.’ The courtroom tittered.

  ‘Ah,’ said the judge. ‘I get it now.’

  But Hartwick smelled opportunity. ‘So, Maggie, if you say everything right today, you are going to have a big party with princesses?’

  ‘Yes,’ Maggie answered, grinning herself.

  Elisabetta’s face turned red. ‘Objection! He’s misconstruing what the witness said.’

  ‘I don’t think he is,’ said the judge.

  Maggie was clearly confused now. ‘No,’ she said. Her smile disappeared.

  Hartwick nodded. ‘What day is your birthday, Maggie? January what?’

  Maggie tried to look past the defense attorney at Jarrod again.

  ‘Don’t look at your daddy, honey,’ said Hartwick sternly. ‘If you don’t know the answer, say, “I’m not sure.” You won’t get in trouble.’

  Maggie’s lip began to quiver. ‘I don’t know.’ She put her face down in Eeyore’s head.

  ‘That’s OK. Let’s try this: What day of the week was your birthday? Was it on a Monday? A Tuesday?’

  ‘I don’t know!’ she shouted defiantly.

  Elisabetta stood. ‘Objection! I can’t remember what day of the week my birthday was on last year, Judge, and I’m not five.’

  ‘That’s why we’re here, Judge, because the witness is five,’ said Hartwick. ‘As much as I’d like to, I can’t cut her slack because she’s so young.’

  ‘Can we move off the birthday, then?’ asked Elisabetta, exasperatedly. ‘It’s irrelevant. The witness has had a long day, she’s already testified for the court, she’s tired and counsel is exploiting that.’

  ‘Give me a break, Ms Romolo,’ shot back Hartwick. ‘This little girl is the state’s star witness in a capital murder case and you’re seeking the death penalty. The state has skewered my client in the press, Judge, condemned him in the court of public opinion, called him a serial killer and a sadist in front of any camer
a she can get her pretty face in front of, paraded this kid in frou-frou dresses and pigtails in front of those same cameras to keep the public interested, and now she wants me to hurry along and wrap it up because the star witness needs a nap? This kid’s concept of time and space is critical. Her ability to perceive facts and relate them back to this court is critical. What she testifies to may very well mean the difference between a man living and a man dying. If she can’t recall when her birthday is, or how far off January is or what month we are in now, how can we allow her to testify about events that occurred months ago? I mean, I’m not asking her about the state of affairs in Ukraine, Judge, but I do want to make sure her answers are her own and not facts drilled into her head by an ambitious prosecutor.’

  ‘Now counsel wants to disparage me?’ shouted Elisabetta. ‘I’ve supplied the case law; there have been witnesses as young as three who’ve been permitted to testify in criminal cases.’

  ‘And as the state knows, those instances are so rare I could count them on my hand,’ snapped Hartwick. ‘Those witnesses were also victims of child abuse or sexual abuse where the identity of the perpetrator was known to the child and not at issue, unlike the situation we have here. The state’s case hinges on Maggie Saunders’ identification of my client and her perception of what she thinks she saw that night.’

  ‘We also have Faith Saunders’ testimony,’ added Elisabetta.

  ‘You’re going to use this little girl to try and bolster her testimony and vice versa? Nope,’ replied Hartwick, with a shake of his head. ‘Each witness has to be competent to testify; they can’t bootstrap.’

  ‘All right, enough. You made your point with the birthday. Move on, Mr Hartwick,’ said the judge. ‘I think you’re both overwhelming our little witness.’

  Maggie was hunched over Eeyore, a dark, scared, confused look on her face.

  ‘What town do you live in, Maggie?’ Hartwick asked.

  Maggie shrugged.

  ‘You don’t know where you live?’

  ‘With my daddy.’

  ‘What state do you live in?’

  ‘I saw the bad man,’ Maggie exclaimed eagerly, looking over at Elisabetta for approval.

  Elisabetta turned red. She hated kid witnesses.

  ‘The bad man?’ asked Hartwick.

  ‘At Mommy’s window. But he’s not here now so I won’t be scared.’

  Hartwick turned to look at a sheepish Elisabetta. ‘The prosecutor told you the bad man won’t be in court today? That’s interesting. We’ll talk about what you saw when you saw “the bad man” later. I have some other questions right now: Are you in school?’

  ‘Yes. Can I get down now?’ Maggie asked.

  ‘Not yet. What grade are you in?’

  ‘I don’t go to school. I used to go, but not any more.’

  ‘Who was your teacher?’

  ‘Mrs Wackett, but not any more.’

  ‘Why don’t you go to school?’

  ‘Because I was bad. Mommy didn’t come to pick me up and I cried and threw the pony.’

  Elisabetta shook her head.

  ‘Did you ever get in trouble at school?’ asked Hartwick. ‘You know, for doing something wrong?’

  Maggie’s bottom lip puffed out. ‘Can I get down?’

  ‘Not yet, honey.’

  ‘I want to get down, Daddy!’ she screamed. Her head turned in a dozen directions, like she was looking for an escape route.

  ‘Maggie, is it ever OK to tell a lie?’

  ‘No,’ she said, shaking her head vehemently.

  ‘How about when, say, someone is wearing something you think is ugly. Like a real ugly sweater. Would you tell that person it’s ugly?’

  ‘No. They might cry.’

  ‘Would you tell them it’s pretty to make them feel good?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Even though you knew it wasn’t true. You might tell someone what they wanted to hear because you were being nice?’

  ‘Yes.’ She rubbed her ear again. Her legs were swinging in the chair. Her eyes were darting all around, like a trapped animal.

  Jarrod leaned over the railing. ‘She’s getting tired,’ he said to Elisabetta impatiently. ‘She can’t do this.’

  But Hartwick wasn’t going to let up. He was on a roll. ‘So sometimes it is OK to lie?’

  ‘Yes,’ replied Maggie.

  ‘What happens if you lie? Does something bad happen to you?’

  ‘Mrs Wackett tells Mommy.’

  ‘Does something bad happen? Do you get in trouble?’

  Maggie shrugged. ‘I can’t have dessert.’

  ‘Do you feel bad if you lie?’

  ‘If you lie you can’t go to the treasure chest and take a toy. You’re not allowed. If Mrs Wackett takes the toy back, then I feel bad and say sorry, and I get mad, because it’s not fair.’

  ‘So if you still got to keep the toy, then you wouldn’t feel bad about lying?’

  ‘No.’ She shrugged. ‘I want to get down.’

  ‘Maggie, if you lied to make someone happy, would you feel bad?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Like telling Ms Romolo over there that you saw the bad man? You want to make her happy, right?’

  ‘Objection!’ Elisabetta stood up.

  ‘Yes. She’s got pretty hair,’ Maggie answered anyway.

  ‘Overruled.’

  ‘Let’s talk about the night you saw this “bad man”. You didn’t tell anyone about what you saw the night you came back from your Aunt Charity’s for a long time, did you?’

  Maggie tried to look around Hartwick for her daddy.

  ‘Look at me, honey. Look at me,’ said Hartwick harshly.

  ‘Mommy was gonna be mad.’

  ‘You have to say yes or no,’ said Hartwick. ‘Did you tell anyone when you first got home that something bad had happened to that lady you thought you saw outside Mommy’s window?’

  ‘Objection. The witness needs a break. She’s five, for Christ sake’s, Richard!’

  ‘Overruled. Let her answer, then we’ll take a break.’

  Maggie put her hands over both ears. ‘No!’ she yelled.

  ‘You didn’t tell Daddy or your teacher?’

  ‘No! I get down now!’

  Jesus Christ – the kid was having a tantrum right here in court. Elisabetta tried one more time. ‘Can we take that break now, Judge?’

  ‘No, Ms Romolo. Have a seat,’ warned the judge.

  ‘But you said that you knew the lady was crying and in trouble, is that right?’ demanded Hartwick.

  ‘I get down now! Down! Down!’ Maggie screamed, pulling at her ears.

  ‘But you didn’t tell your daddy that when you got back home, did you? How long did you wait to tell your daddy?’

  Jarrod leaned back over to Elisabetta. ‘You need to stop this!’ he said angrily. ‘She’s breaking down.’

  Maggie shook her head and stood up. The door in the back opened with a creak as someone slipped into the gallery.

  ‘You need to sit down, young lady,’ said Judge Guckert sternly. ‘I’ll tell you when you can stand up. Finish up, Mr Hartwick.’

  ‘When you told Daddy the ride home from your aunt’s house was good, you lied, didn’t you?’

  Maggie slammed her face hard into the witness stand ledge. The courtroom gasped. Then she did it again and again and again.

  ‘Maggie!’ Jarrod yelled.

  She looked up to find her father. Blood and tears streamed down her face.

  ‘Oh my God!’ Elisabetta screamed.

  Jarrod hopped the gallery railing and raced to the witness stand, but it was too late.

  Maggie had already bolted off the stand and was running as fast as her little legs would take her down the center aisle and past the horrified spectators, heading for the door that was slowly closing in the back of the courtroom.

  68

  ‘This way, please,’ said the secretary to Faith and Jarrod as the two of them walked hand-in-hand into the c
onference room at the State Attorney’s Office. Jarrod rubbed her sweaty palm with his thumb as he led her in.

  There were already seven bodies seated around the conference table. Faith recognized the prosecutor, Elisabetta Romolo, and Detectives Nill and Maldonado. She didn’t recognize the other four men, one of whom – presumably a lawyer – was dressed in a suit. The three were obviously detectives, in khakis and dress shirts with gold badges and gun belts attached to their hips.

  ‘Jarrod, Faith,’ said Elisabetta as she began the introductions and the room rose to greet them. ‘This is Gareth Williams, he’s an assistant state attorney with our Homicide Unit; Gareth will be second-seating Poole’s trial with me. I don’t know if you’ve met all of the Cane Killers task force members. This is Detective Austin Velasquez with the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office, and Detective Dave Minkhaus with Glades County. And you, of course, already know Detectives Nill and Maldonado, and Lieutenant Amandola.’

  As she and Jarrod exchanged handshakes with everyone, a substantially lighter Detective Nill came around the table. His warm paw swallowed Faith’s tiny hand. ‘How’re you doing, Faith? You doing OK?’ he asked quietly, his voice rife with genuine concern.

  That was the million-dollar question – the question everyone wanted an answer to: Jarrod, Charity, her mom, Vivian, Jarrod’s family. Those were the people who’d actually asked it. Then there were the people who looked at her and pity-smiled, like they understood what she was going through and wished her the best of luck with it. She felt like everyone knew her problem, from the mailman to the teller at the bank, to complete strangers who looked over at her in traffic. Returning home was like going to a high school reunion wearing a nametag that read Faith Saunders, Alcoholic – everyone could read it and right away thought they knew who she was. The label defined her.

 
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