A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 38

ELSIE FORCED A smile as she walked through the door into Judge Callaway’s chambers. Billy Yocum had already arrived, and reclined in one of the leather club chairs facing the judge’s desk, his walnut brown wingtip oxford shoes stretched out before him. The shoes looked freshly spit-­shined.

“You’re running a little late this morning, Miss Elsie,” Yocum drawled.

The judge checked the carriage clock on his desk. “Nope. She’s right on time.”

Affecting a breezy manner, Elsie dropped into the seat beside Yocum. “Wouldn’t dare to be late. Don’t want to give you a chance to woodshed the judge this morning, Billy,” she said.

Billy’s eyes flamed; he sat erect in his chair.

“Are you insinuating that the judge and I are colluding, engaging in unethical behavior?” he demanded, with his chin jutting out.

The judge sighed. “She’s just joking around, Billy. Ms. Arnold didn’t mean any such thing. Did you, Elsie?”

Elsie gave Yocum a cheeky wink. “Just teasing you, Billy.”

The judge flipped his paper file open. “Ms. Arnold, where’s Mr. Harris?”

“Judge, I can’t understand these young lawyers; attorneys of my generation would never keep the judge waiting.”

“He called me this morning,” Elsie began, but Yocum interrupted, speaking over her.

“I have been late to court exactly one time in forty-­two years, and it was because my car broke down between here and Mount Vernon, when I was headed over to court in Lawrence County. I hitched a ride from a farmer, and still made it to court before the docket call was over.”

Ignoring him, Elsie said, “Chuck is sick.”

The judge did a double-­take, while Yocum barked a scornful laugh.

“Sick?” Yocum repeated. “Well, I’ll be dog.”

“Is he in the hospital?” the judge asked.

“No,” Elsie said, her cheeks aflame. It was bad enough to be abandoned by Chuck; now she would have to defend his absence. “Sounds like maybe he’s picked up a bug. Stomach stuff.”

This time, the judge joined Yocum in his merriment. The men guffawed, exchanging a meaning look.

“Don’t make them like they used to,” Yocum opined.

“Billy, that’s so,” the judge agreed.

“How many lawyers have you ever had, Judge, who called in sick on the day of a jury trial?”

The judge thought for a moment. “Can’t think of a one. There was the time Leon Farthing needed chemo. But he came to court in a wheelchair and asked for a continuance.”

“How many prospective jurors do we hope to have today?” Elsie asked, hoping to move on. “I’m afraid we’ll lose some on the age issue.”

“We may. I told the clerk to round up one hundred and fifty, but we’ll see who shows. Lots of folks on summer vacation.”

The vision of vacations past loomed before Elsie. She thought longingly of lounging poolside with an icy drink, reading the supermarket tabloids. Pushing the vision forcibly from her head, she said, “What questions will the court ask before the prosecution begins with voir dire?”

The judge scratched notes on a piece of paper. “What do you say, Billy? I’ll get their employment history. Do you want me to ask about family and marital status, kids?”

“Oh yes,” Billy said.

“Ages of children?”

“Yes, sir.”

Elsie nodded in agreement. Both sides needed to know which jurors had teenage children. A parent with a fifteen-­year-­old son would certainly be sympathetic to defendant, hesitant to convict a juvenile of murder.

“Anything else, before you two take over? Want me to talk about the mental disease or defect defense?”

Elsie looked at Yocum; the insanity issue was the defendant’s problem. She believed that jurors were still suspicious of the insanity defense, so she planned to stay away from it. The fewer prejudices uncovered in jury selection, the better for the prosecution.

Billy made a face, wrinkling his nose as if he smelled something rotten. “Nothing jurors hate more than an insanity defense. They all think you’re trying to get that Hinckley boy acquitted for shooting President Reagan. I haven’t had an easy time with the insanity defense since 1981.”

Elsie leaned on the arm of her chair. “Too bad you’re hanging your hat on mental disease. You ought to get that boy on the stand. He could sway the jury with his natural charm.”

For once, Yocum did not bristle. He locked eyes with Elsie, and gave her a conspiratorial nod. “Some kids don’t appreciate good advice, you know that?”

“I’ll bet your client falls in that category.”

“But what am I to do? Miss Elsie, the prosecution’s own expert, the good Dr. Salinas, determined that my client suffers from a mental disease. Both the doctors for the prosecution and defense agree that young Mr. Monroe is just not right.”

“Antisocial personality disorder. That doesn’t excuse him from criminal responsibility,” Elsie insisted. She and Billy had gone around and around on this point since Dr. Salinas submitted his report.

“Well, I expect that will be for the jury to decide.”

“It certainly will,” said Elsie.

“Although it seems to me, Miss Arnold, that the responsible position for the prosecution to take would be to accept the insanity plea. Bearing in mind the tender age of the defendant.”

“Billy, I can’t. You know that.”

Yocum sighed, and leaned over to pick his satchel. “Judge, do I need to file a motion in limine? May I remind the prosecutor that she is not to mention the suppressed statement of my client?”

The judge gave Elsie a warning look. “Ms. Arnold, don’t say anything about the defendant’s statement. I don’t want any trouble on that score.”

As Yocum stood, he added, “And I don’t want to hear anything about the suicide of that unfortunate boy in Juvenile Hall.”

Callaway nodded his assent. “That’s right. Ms. Arnold, be sure you remain within the confines of admissible evidence. Don’t stray into questionable areas.”

Elsie pinched her lips together. We’ll just see about that, she thought. I’ll be keeping my options open.

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