“…This is Case Number Zero-One-Cee-R-One-Four-Four, the People Versus Henry Winsome. Morning, Mister Winsome.”
Henry Winsome stood erect before the defendants’ table, his groin at table height and his lawyer at his side. “Good morning, Your Honor.”
“Let’s get right to it.” Heidi Martin looked down with a frown upon the file she had only just opened. She looked up, and at the People. “Is this some kind of joke?”
The People looked back with a straight face. “He passed the polygraph, Your Honor.”
Her Honor continued to stare at the People. “Why don’t you drop the case?”
“It’s not like he wasn’t there, Your Honor,” the People replied.
“Polygraphs are inadmissible anyways,” Martin told herself. Then she looked up at the Defense. “Mister Winsome will need to apply for probation; I’m not going to just grant it to him.”
“Your Honor, as the People just pointed out–”
“If Mister Winsome’s innocent, he can prove his innocence before a jury of his peers. If he wishes to plead guilty, he can explain to the Probation Department why he’s guilty and how he’s going to change his guilty ways.”
“You’re the one who passed this on from preliminary hearing, Your Honor.”
“And you’re the one who’s pleading guilty, Mister Winsome. Shall we proceed?”
“That’s quite a sigh, Mom.”
“It’s been quite a day.” Heidi Martin sat herself down on her son’s bed, uninvited. “How was school today?”
“You know I’m prepping for the GED,” Henry Martin replied, before pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and refocusing on the book before him on his desk.
“You can never start too early. Just ask my sister.” Henry turned a page.
“Your sister was in Philadelphia last I heard. She’s lucky I don’t issue a warrant for her arrest.”
“Because that wouldn’t look good: a female judge who can’t control her own daughter.” Henry hadn’t looked up from his newest page.
“You know I’ve given boys not much older than you extra time in jail for sarcasm.”
“Would you really throw me in jail?”
Judge Martin hesitated. “Only if you deserved it.”
“What if I didn’t?”
“What do you mean?”
“What about Henry Winsome? Do you think he deserves to go to jail?”
“He posted an entry on his blog.”
Henry now looked up at the computer screen hovering above his set of papers. “Says here that he passed the lie detector test.”
“A more accurate term is ‘polygraph.’” Judge Martin’s hands remained firm on the patchwork quilt beneath her. “And polygraphs are inadmissible in court.”
“Ninety-five percent accurate–”
“He pled guilty, Henry. The underlying charge is extremely serious. He needs to be punished in every which way.”
“That’s not what the People say.”
“The People don’t know what’s good for them.”
“That’s quite an elitist attitude, don’t you think?”
“I’m a judge, Henry.” Judge Martin rose from her son’s bed. “I make judgments on other people.” She looked up and down the rows of books on her son’s bookshelves consuming one wall. “Did you or did you not go to school today?”
“I cannot tell a lie; therefore I won’t say anything.”
Judge Martin’s index finger came to a rest upon one of the dustier tomes. “Remember this book, American Fables, I bought you when you were six?”
“Pulling out the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree?”
The tome came to a rest in the judge’s right hand. “And did not young George answer his father Augustine when asked about the Cherry Tree?”
“Augustine.” Young Henry Martin tapped the pages of his book with a pen that seemed to have come out of nowhere. “Saint Augustine wrote the Confessions, did he not? Augustine had his confessions. Do you, Mom?”
“Not to an eleven-year-old boy, I don’t.”
Henry looked back at the computer screen. “What of Henry Winsome, Mom? You sent his case on from preliminary hearing, and not on its merits–”
“As I said then, and as I’ll say now, I have to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the People–”
“You define ‘evidence’ as the contradictory testimony of a single witness?”
“It was a preliminary hearing–”
“And yet at the plea hearing you didn’t view things in quite the same light–”
Judge Martin sighed again, this time with the same force that put the dusty Fables back in its place. “I’m done arguing with an eleven-year-old.”
“How many more Henry Winsomes are there in this world, Mom, human beings shown not a ray of light in their favor? How many more cherry trees did you have to chop down to make that district judge gavel of yours?”
“Goodbye, Henry.” Judge Martin left her son’s room in a flash, leaving a smirking boy alone with his books and his computer.
“Now would be a good time to get some rest, Your Honor.”
Judge Martin looked up from the paperwork on the bungalow desk illuminated by a solitary lamp in the darkness. “Something tells me ‘rest’ is not what you have in mind.”
Michael Martin spit his toothpaste foam into the bathroom sink. “What makes you think that?” He rinsed.
“You’re standing in the nude.”
Her Honor’s husband dried his hands and crossed into the bungalow’s main room. “We are on vacation. Sans kids.”
“Speaking of ‘kids,’ have you heard from our daughter?” Her Honor’s eyes were back upon the homework before her.
“Not since the postcard from Shiloh, Tennessee.” Mr. Martin sat himself at the foot of the bed. “She said she’d be back in September.”
“Well, it’s September.” A shiver ran through Judge Martin’s body when she turned a page. “Warm up the bed. I’ll join you in a minute.”
Mr. Martin proceeded to do as he was told, like the good boy that he was. “Not going to tell me what you’re working on?”
Her Honor’s frown was even deeper than that she had worn on Henry Winsome’s plea date of July Second. “The only thing I’ll say is that this is the strangest statement of offense I have ever read.”
On the page of the probation application before Judge Martin entitled “Defendant’s Statement of Offense,” the defendant had begun a story running to several type-written pages sandwiched with a staple into the middle of the application, a story which began with its own title of “The Cherry Tree.”
“So you finally made it home.” Heidi Martin was reclined in a recliner in the middle of the living room in the middle of the night, a pair of glasses on the bridge of her nose.
“I most certainly did,” sixteen-year-old Melissa Martin replied as she kicked off her shoes and strode from the marbled foyer to plop herself down on the living room sofa.
“How was the summer trip?” Judge Martin had removed her glasses, and was now staring at the eggshell ceiling.
“The trip was great.” Melissa’s freshly-painted toes now rested over one end of the sofa, while her dark curls covered the other. “Boston to here in less than a season. I assume you got my postcards.”
“We did. I assume Steve is doing well?”
“Steven is. I left him at State before I met up with Nell in Roswell.”
Her Honor’s eyes remained on the ceiling. “And how is your friend Nell?”
“Well.” The judge’s daughter pulled a pillow across her bosom. “She talked me into driving to Odessa, Texas.”
“Oh.” Judge Martin tried to sound interested, and removed her eyes from the ceiling. “What’s in Odessa, Texas?”
“The Amon Ammons Museum.”
“Oh.” Pause. “And what’s in the Amon Ammons Museum?”
Now it was Melissa’s turn to stare at the ceiling. “Well, outside the museum, at the entrance, there was a giant statue of a man with a ram’s head. Strange.” She intertwined her fingers over the pillow on her bosom. “But inside, in the middle, there was a painting by Grant Wood.”
“The guy who painted American Gothic,” Judge Martin observed, smiling slightly at the small chance to connect with her seemingly wayward daughter.
“Except the painting they had on display wasn’t American Gothic. It was Parson Weems’ Fable.”
“Not familiar with that one.”
“Not many Americans are these days. It was painted in Nineteen Thirty-Nine, after the Germans and the Soviets had overrun Poland, when Western democracy was threatened with extinction, or soon would be, and America needed to be reminded why it was America. American Gothic had already told us that we could stand against totalitarianism, but Parson Weems’ Fable reminded us why we would want to.”
“And why is America America?”
“America is America because America believes in the truth. Even if the truth isn’t always told, we believe in its existence. Even if dictators will try to impose their own reality on us, there are certain truths we hold to be self-evident, truths safe from what any human being might do or say. Grant Wood’s Parson doesn’t point to young George Washington, George’s father Augustine, or even George’s little hatchet. The Parson points to the chop in the Cherry Tree, the self-evident truth brilliantly illuminated by an unseen Sun.”
Judge Martin couldn’t suppress a condescending smile. “I deal with at least a dozen different truths every day.”
“Including Henry Winsome’s?” Melissa couldn’t suppress her smile either.
“I know all about that particular reality. It seems that Mister Winsome passed the lie detector test and you still want to punish him.”
“It’s a polygraph. Have you been reading his blog?”
“No, I’ve been on the road. It seems that you were presented with a pitifully weak case, and yet you still sent the case forward.”
“Listen, little lady.” Judge Martin slapped her homework onto the lamp table at her side. “I didn’t know about the polygraph at the prelim, and it’s inadmissible in court anyways. Furthermore, Mister Winsome pled guilty, and if you plead guilty you need to be punished.”
Melissa sighed, the pillow still on her bosom. “A single witness whose story doesn’t make any sense, and no hard evidence to back it up. That’s what you were presented with at the prelim. A defendant threatened with life in prison, pleading guilty to a laughably innocuous misdemeanor. That’s what you were presented with on July Second.”
Judge Martin’s arms rested firmly, too firmly, on the arms of her chair. “How in the hell do you know all this?”
“I read the plaque beside the painting,” Melissa replied with the returned voice of her age.
The judge sighed a defeated sigh. “No, about Winsome.”
There was a silence in the room which ran deeper than the level of sound. The judge looked at her homework. “New Mexico Nell is Nell McGann?”
Melissa pulled the pillow from her bosom and pushed herself up. “The one and only. But please don’t say anything tomorrow; I can’t tell. She knows that perjury is the most insidious crime.” The judge’s daughter turned for the foot of the stairs. “Night, Mom.”
“Good. Night.” Heidi Martin stared off into the darkness beyond the lamp, at the implications of the truth she had just been told.
“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been ten weeks since my last confession.”
“Good morning, Your Honor.”
Judge Martin made a sharp intake of breath, and looked up from her kneeling position to attempt to look through the curtain. “I–”
“I recognize the voice, Your Honor. It’s always best we let everyone else know where we’re coming from, is it not?”
Judge Martin smiled both a sly and sheepish smile, unseen through the curtain. “Yes, Father Sanchez.”
“Glad we have an understanding. Continue.”
“Right.” Judge Martin looked down at the patch of confessional wall beneath the curtain. “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. Here are my sins.” Pause. Pause. “I tried to put an innocent man on trial for a crime he did not commit.”
Now there was, perhaps, a sharp intake of air on the other side. “Explain.”
“He has a sentencing hearing this morning. I looked his case over last night, after–”
“Explain from the beginning.”
Judge Martin trembled as she fought the tremor in her voice. “I signed the arrest warrant. They said they had the wrong address for the summons. I didn’t ask why the case was going from a misdemeanor to a life-in-prison felony.” Now the judge was fighting back unseen tears. “Then at the prelim–” The judge choked.
“Take your time, Your Honor. God is infinitely patient.”
“At the preliminary hearing– this person just started spouting nonsense. Her story didn’t ring true, didn’t add up. I knew she was lying. And–”
“And?” Even the Father could not hide his anticipation.
“I looked him in the eye. I looked him in the eye, Father, and he wasn’t reacting. I’ve seen so, so many guilty men pass through my court, and this man wasn’t reacting, like he and I were listening to a philosophy lecture together.”
“So you think this man is innocent.”
“I don’t know.” The last word was in the voice of a little girl. “At the disposition hearing–” Her Honor grew a bit calmer, even as she sniffled, “his lawyer said the People hadn’t made an offer.” The voice still rose on the last word. “The defendant is willing to bargain, and the prosecutor won’t even make an offer. Wouldn’t you think he was guilty?”
“Or the prosecutor incompetent,” the Father intoned.
“I assumed he was guilty. And then– And then at the prelim I found myself digging for a reason to send the case forward.”
“What was the reason?” the Father asked with bated breath.
“A legalism. What does it matter? I tried to put an innocent man on trial to further my own career.”
The Father exhaled that breath. “Now, Your Honor, get ahold of yourself. The defendant was there on the Night in Question, was he not?”
“Beyond a reasonable doubt.” Her Honor smiled weakly to herself.
“So it’s not like he wasn’t there.”
“No more ‘But’’s, Your Honor. I hear a commotion outside, and I think we had better conclude here. Justice worked: the man pled guilty, did he not?”
“To misdemeanor trespass.” Sniffle.
Pause. “That indeed only says he was there. And he’s to be sentenced this morning?”
“Yes.” No sniffle.
“Good, you have a small chance to right a major wrong. Say one Hail Mary before you leave for court, then show mercy to the full extent allowed you by law.”
“That would be one year unsupervised probation.”
“So be it.” The judge was startled by a wail which could be heard from inside the confessional, and the Father’s absolution was rushed. “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit amongst us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace.”
In peace Heidi Martin exited the confessional, and looked about the Sacred Heart of Mary for the source of the wail, but she saw nothing, and heard only a dying patter of feet at the rear. Judge Martin rushed to a pew to kneel and say a Hail Mary. “Hail Mary,” she whispered, “full of grace, Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Hail Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Heidi Martin hurried out of the church as the church’s bell above struck seven times; she was late, and she always wanted to set a good example.
“A second plane struck.”
Judge Martin reached for the black robe hung on the same rack where she had just deposited her jacket. “Pardon?” she whispered.
“A second plane struck the other tower.” Martin’s clerk hung up her phone, and glanced at the unseen television set in the judge’s chambers.
The South Tower impact was being replayed when Judge Martin turned on the set in her chambers, and she covered a sob with her hands as she stared at the fresh fireball and at the plume of smoke already pouring from the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“There are thousands of people in there,” the clerk observed from the near side of the unclosed door.
“Tens of thousands,” Heidi added as she sank into a chair reserved for lawyers. “Tens of thousands of innocent people who did nothing more than be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“But they were there,” the clerk intoned, speaking of all in the Towers as already doomed and dead, when in fact most would live to never look at a clear blue sky quite the same way again. “Such is the harsh reality of life: sometimes tragedy is unavoidable. It’s not the tragedies that define us; it’s our reaction to those tragedies that define us.”
Heidi Martin looked up at the doorway which she hadn’t actually seen occupied; the figure was gone. Heidi wiped her eyes and stood up from the chair; Winsome’s sentencing was in less than an hour, and she had another opportunity to show future courts of public opinion that she knew how to punish men who pled guilty.