16 – mens rea

They say country music is made up of “three chords and the truth.” The story of Bill is made up of three bullets and a lie. Of course I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent – or not-so-innocent.

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Bill and Peg had been married for seven years. He was often away, as many soldiers are, but she was faithful and patient and graciously said her reluctant goodbyes and enthusiastic welcome backs. For the first six years, anyway. When he returned from a tour of duty in 1996, he found no-one at the airport to greet him. He called her number from a payphone and received no answer. He called a friend to get a ride from the airport and when the friend arrived, he learned about Roger. Roger had been seen frequently with Peg, but the friend wasn’t sure what was happening between them, if anything. When Bill made it to the house, no one was home and his key wouldn’t fit in the lock. Bill found a room at a low-end hotel near the beach that night, and secured a rental car the next morning. Suspicion aroused, Bill did a little reconnaissance work to discover that Roger’s car had spent the night at Peg and his home. That was all he needed to see.

It doesn’t take much to look like a telephone repairman. A hard-hat, a tool belt with a few tools, and a clip board and you’re good. Bill located the necessaries easily.

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The next morning, after Peg was gone to the casino where she worked, a “telephone repairman” showed up at the house where Roger was sleeping in. Repairman Bill knocked on the door in the carport, and after a second knock and a short wait, Roger appeared inside at the door and cracked it open.

“Can I help you?” – Roger

“Yessir, I’m here to fix the phone line…”

Roger – “We didn’t call for a repair.”

Bill – “oh, well that’s weird. . do you mind if I come in and use your phone to call my supervisor?”

“um, I guess not. Come on in.”  After Roger opens the door and begins to escort Bill to the phone, Bill shuts the door and makes an apology about the inconvenience. Roger pauses and turns around to respond, and Bill shoots him one time in the gut with a 9 mm handgun. This doubles Roger over and he folds to the tile floor of the kitchen, his blood running along the grout between the tiles. Bill then puts a single bullet in Roger’s right index finger, intending to make use of a weapon or phone more difficult, and with Roger face down on the floor, bleeding and whimpering, Bill places the still warm barrel of the gun at the back of Roger’s neck to sever the brain stem. Just as he squeezes the trigger, though, Roger turns his head and the third round does no damage aside from some shattered tile.

Bill, a trained marksman, is caught off guard by his his own failure, and pauses in disbelief just long enough for Roger to make it up and lunge for the door to the back patio. Bill knows better than to fire again at this point, and as Roger stumbles through the back gate while clutching his abdomen wound, Bill runs back out to his rental car, throws his hat and belt in the trunk and hits Highway 90 East towards Alabama.

Before Bill made it to a ramp onto I-10, where he could pick up speed, Roger had called 911 and police were on the lookout for the blue car with a telephone repairman driving. State Troopers on I-10 spotted him and made the stop. Upon a search of the car they found a tool belt and hard hat and made their arrest.

Bill was booked into jail and given a couple hundred thousand dollar bond. He managed a collect call to the firm where I worked, and I was sent to the jail to meet him. After some time and experience in criminal defense practice, an attorney becomes as comfortable in jails and prisons as he is in the courtroom. I wasn’t there yet. The inmates still seemed like dangerous monsters growling and jeering at me, and the jailers could obviously sense my nervousness, as they got their laughs out of making me wait between heavy, locked jail doors just a little longer than was funny to me. I did meet Bill, though, had a good conversation, quoted the fee I was instructed to quote, and he said he could get the money if he could get out first. (looking back, this is a common routine) I returned to my office and talked with the owner of the firm. He coached me on the point of charging a small fee to negotiate and argue the bond reduction, and to do that without committing to the real case without a sufficient retainer. I returned to the jail again the next day, dealt with the jailers having their fun, and made the deal. The initial retainer was delivered to our front desk that afternoon by a stranger, and I was impressed that I was bringing some money into the firm and securing my first attempted murder case.

The owner of the firm used his political ties to secure a hefty reduction of the bail, Bill apparently found a benefactor, and I personally picked him up when he was booked out. I transported my new friend Bill from the jail to our office, and we had a long conversation about what had happened, his military history, his marriage, and possible defenses. He was charged with premeditated attempted murder. I explained that we would have to see the state’s evidence before we could accurately determine trial strategy, and he understood. But he was convinced that Peg still loved him and would testify in his favor, at least for his good character. After some effort to convince him against it, I agreed to contact Peg for an interview in my office to discover whether she would be a witness for the state or defense, should we actually make it to trial.

Surprisingly, she agreed to meet me at my office but she wanted to use the back door so people wouldn’t know she was visiting the office. No problem. I interviewed Peg as Bill sat in the front lobby eagerly awaiting news from me like a dad in the maternity ward of a hospital.  After about thirty minutes, Peg exited through same door she came in, and I went up front to advise Bill she would be a state witness and wasn’t interested in reconciliation with the man who almost killed her boyfriend. He was heartbroken that his wife would turn on him like that, and left the office dejected.

I didn’t see Bill for a couple of weeks, and that was ok considering I didn’t have anything from the prosecutor yet anyway, and had plenty of other work to do.

About three weeks after that meeting, M and I were sitting on our sofa watching the 6:00 news one evening, when a story came on about a local woman missing from a beachfront casino. It was Peg. Another couple of days went by with no contact from Bill, and the news updated the story with a report that Peg’s body had been found in a swamp north of town. Bill failed to appear at his next court date, a warrant was issued for his absence, and I never saw him again.

Between Bill and our repeat drug offender that showed up for a negotiated guilty plea, high as a kite with a crack rock in his right sock, I was beginning to think criminal defense wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Maybe this wasn’t my final destination after all. I was visiting a doctor for ulcers by then and I was working more hours than I expected, and then coming home to find our cases on the news. I couldn’t get away from it and I had no other options. With me feeling like this, and Bill wandering freely somewhere, things seemed to be awfully backwards.

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