Leland and Tracy Williams came out of the Gold Cup Restaurant about the middle of the three-hundred block of Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida. The weather was still pleasant enough, even this late in October, for the matching cut-off shorts and Miami Dolphins T-shirts they wore. Tracy pushed the stroller with their five-month-old son, and she and her husband were laughing at how the old waitress had adored the baby, in spite of the fact that Lee was white and Tracy black. They walked to Third Avenue and crossed over, thinking to relax a little in Williams Park, where the city’s bus system operated its main transportation hub.
Tracy thought it was hilarious that there was such a congruence of names. Even after knowing this man since the first year of high school, marrying him last year when she was nineteen and he was twenty, then having his baby, it still made her chuckle inwardly. Some folks said she was easily amused, but she didn’t care what others thought; otherwise she would never have married Lee.
She was smiling still as they stepped up onto the sidewalk, peripherally aware of the car coming toward the same corner, slowing to make the turn.
Suddenly there was a loud banging noise, and she felt a sharp pain in her side. She turned to look in the direction of the sound as she fell. A vaguely familiar-looking young white guy was hanging out a car window pointing a rifle. Time seemed suddenly to drag, as if she was watching a slow-motion film sequence. She saw him clearly as he squeezed the trigger again. She heard another bang, heard him yell out, “Nigger-lover!” She looked around. Lee was falling too, as if he had been pushed hard from behind. As her body hit the sidewalk, she saw the blood spurting out of him. She heard a third and fourth bang, turned to see the stroller jump as if slapped twice, and heard her baby’s scream. As she struggled to reach the stroller, her vision blurring, the car with her family’s attackers screeched away up Central.
As she lost consciousness, she didn’t know if she would live or not. She was reasonably certain that Lee and little Danny were both dead, or soon would be. She couldn’t know that one bullet had grazed Danny’s head and the other had destroyed the tiny outer, pinky, finger on his right hand. She didn’t know then that her baby boy would survive.
Tracy sat in the front row of the courtroom, waiting for the jury to re-enter the room. Things didn’t look good from her perspective; the punk who pulled the trigger just might get off. The main witness was a convicted drug dealer who had made a deal in exchange for his testimony. To the lawyer, it didn’t matter if truth was there, only that a deal had been made.
It had come out during the police investigation that Tracy, her husband Leland, and the defendant, Thomas Babbitt, had known each other in high school. But there were a couple things that the police investigation hadn’t picked up on.
What hadn’t come out was that Tommy Babbitt had tried to rape her back then, under the bleachers at the school football stadium. And if Lee hadn’t rounded the corner when he did, Babbitt might have succeeded.
She tried, and failed, to block the memory...
She hurried toward the stadium gates, wanting to watch the football team practice for Friday’s game against Clearwater High. Boca Ciega High, also known affectionately as “Bogie” to many of its students and faculty, had for several years been at the bottom of the team standings in Pinellas County, and Clearwater was on top. In fact, they had a three-year winning streak in the regular season; no team in the county had been able to beat them in all that time. But they hadn’t yet made it through the State play-offs.
But this year’s team looked pretty good; they’d won every game so far this season, surprising many with their skill. Many, pundits and parents alike, wondered if it was because of the new black players who, like her, had been transferred from Gibbs, which had been the only black high school in the county until the this school year. The change came about because the courts forced all the school boards in the state to bus students to schools outside their normal boundaries for the express purpose of desegregation.
She walked through the gate and started toward the bleachers. But as she got close, someone grabbed her from behind, put one hand over her mouth and pulled her under the bleachers. After the initial shock, she struggled as she was forced to the ground, face down. Then her attacker reached under her skirt, grabbed her panties and pulled them down, tearing them in the process. But with his attention on that, the hand over her mouth loosened a bit, and she took advantage in that moment. She bit down hard, drawing blood.
The hand withdrew immediately, and she rolled over to face her attacker, kicking, punching and screaming at the same time. She got a good look at his face then; it was Tommy Babbitt, the fool cracker who was always in the thick of the riots at the school. The look on his face was one of pure animal hatred as he snarled, “You fuckin’ nigger bitch, I’ll kill you!” She was glad that her father, a retired army karate instructor, had taught her some self-defense moves; they were coming in handy. But she wished now that she’d kept up those private lessons; she wanted so badly to kick this cracker’s ass.
Just as he pulled his arm back to punch her, a hand grabbed his arm from behind and pulled back more, making him yell out in pain. Over his shoulder, Tracy saw Leland Williams, one of the white guys on the football team. They had heard her scream, and come to see what was going on. When Lee saw Tracy’s panties pulled down, he pulled back some more on Tommy’s arm, threatening to break it. But another team member, the burly black center, Terry Morris, stopped him, telling him he’d get kicked off the team if he continued.
Tracy and Lee began dating not long after that. And anyone who had a problem with that had to deal not only with Lee, but also with Terry Morris, who had been impressed with seeing a white boy defend a black girl like that.
She remembered being surprised that the team had come to her aid, all things considered. But then, almost a third of the team had been bussed in from Gibbs High School just as she had.
She’d heard that Bogie’d had the worst riots in the state that year. She’d never found out if that was true, but that really didn’t matter to her now. All that mattered was that one of those troublemakers, the one who had tried to rape her, was now on trial for the murder of her husband and the attempted murder of her and her child.
It had been precisely two years since the shooting. “The wheels of justice and all that,” Tracy thought. “Yeah, they grind too damn slow.” She recalled the testimony that was most likely going to be the deciding factor, and briefly shuddered like she was chilled to the bone...
“Now, Mr. Morris,” the defense attorney began, “you testified that you heard my client bragging about killing a man. How did you come to be a witness today?”
“Objection, Your Honor,” came the immediate cry from the prosecution’s table. “Immaterial and prejudicial.”
Judge Davis looked over the top of his half-frame glasses at the defense attorney. “Counselor?”
“Your Honor, he’s a convicted criminal,” the defense lawyer said. “The prosecution put him on the stand. That he can realize benefit by providing testimony that just happens to support the prosecution’s case against my client is suspect in and of itself. How do we know his testimony is true?”
The judge looked at the prosecuting attorney. “You opened yourself up for this by putting this witness on the stand, Mr. Brandt. I’ll allow this line of cross-examination.” He then addressed Morris. “The witness will answer the question.”
“They offered me a deal.”
“What was the deal, Mr. Morris?”
Morris smiled. “A recommendation to the parole board for leniency.”
“And you accepted their deal, of course.”
“No, I didn’t accept their offer. I made a counter-offer. You know, like them executives do in those big corporations. Or like you lawyers when you get people like me in your courts and holding cells.”
The attorney smiled coldly as he asked, “And what, Mr. Morris, was your counter-offer?”
“That my family be moved out of here.”
“And why did you make that counter-offer?”
“Because that asshole over there has friends who would fuck up my family because of me testifying.”
The judge banged his gavel, looking sternly at Morris. “I’ll have none of that language in my courtroom, young man. Is that clear?”
Morris looked up at the judge defiantly, but still answered, “Yes, your honor.”
The judge looked back at the lawyer. “You may continue, Mr. Steiner.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.” Steiner turned back to Morris and asked, “Why would his friends do such a thing, Mr. Morris?”
“He doesn’t like us black folks. And neither do his friends.”
“He doesn’t like black folks.” Steiner looked over at his client at the defense table. Do you know my client, Mr. Morris?”
Morris looked up at the lawyer. “Yeah, I know him.”
“And how do you know him?”
“From high school.”
“Well, Mr. Morris, that answers where you know him from, but not how. What circumstances led you to know my client?”
“He kept starting sh...” Morris broke off, looked up at the judge’s still stern expression. “Sorry, Your Honor.” Then he continued with his answer. “He kept starting stuff with me and my friends.”
Steiner looked over at the jury for a moment as he responded. “He kept starting stuff with you and your friends.” He returned his gaze to Morris. “So you don’t like my client. Is that right?”
“Objection!” Brandt called from the prosecution’s table. “Leading the witness!”
“Sustained,” intoned the judge, and Brandt sat back down.
“I’ll withdraw the question,” Steiner responded.
The lawyer then asked, “Mr. Morris, do you know why my client allegedly, as you say, “started stuff” with you?”
“Objection!” came the cry from the prosecutor’s table once more. “Calls for speculation from the witness!”
But before the judge could rule, Morris answered loudly, “Yeah, I know why he did it! Because he’s a racist motherfucker that tried to rape my baby sister back in high school, then two years ago killed her husband and tried to kill her and my nephew, and I hope he gets the God damn electric chair!”
The judge banged his gavel loudly as yells arose from the spectators calling for Morris to be tarred and feathered, lynched, and set on fire. Judge Foley called to the bailiff, a tall, heavily muscled black man, and ordered him to remove Morris to the holding area off the side of the chaotic courtroom, then to clear the courtroom. City of St. Petersburg police rushed in to help restore order as the bailiff guided Morris out the side door and away from the rabble.
Tracy’s mental replay of this scene came to an abrupt end as people started returning to their seats from the outer hall. She had not left her seat behind the prosecution’s table except to get a snack out of the vending machine and to use the lady’s restroom. She had no desire to talk with anyone or to even see those who had erupted in anger at Morris’ statement. Nobody, not even the lawyers, had known that he was her brother, and she was angry herself because he had blurted it out like that. It was nobody’s business that their mother had been married twice, so they had different last names. That this had come out this way didn’t help the case.
Police were guarding the main entry to the room, keeping out those who had disrupted the court earlier. They were easy to track, since they insisted on shouting racist epithets. The loudest of them were being taken outside the courthouse and kept there.
After a few minutes, the heavy doors were closed, and quiet descended on the courtroom. The bailiff entered through a side door. “All rise.”
As the people stood up, the door to the judge’s chamber opened, and the black-robed man stepped out and walked up the two stairs to his station. Then a second door, this one to the right, opened, and the jurors came back into the room and took their seats behind the wood rail of the jury box.
When they were seated, the judge asked in that phrase known to all, “Have you reached a verdict?”
The jury foreman, a middle-aged, stoop-shouldered white man going bald on top, stood. “We have, Your Honor.” He handed a sheet of paper to the bailiff, who walked the few steps to the judge’s dais and handed it over. The judge glanced at it, then handed it back to the bailiff.
“What is your verdict?”
The foreman looked first around the courtroom, then at the defendant, and finally at Tracy, but looked away quickly, as if ashamed. Tracy felt cold suddenly, just before the man spoke. “We find the defendant, Thomas James Babbitt, not guilty.”
The spectators began their excited babble, congratulations from most of the white folks and condemnation by some others and from all of the black, Tracy quietly rose from her seat, shot a hateful glare at the racist punk who had murdered her husband, and quickly walked up the aisle, through the doors, and out of the courthouse.
Her side twinged where the scar from the bullet was as she hurried down the walkway to the street to her car, which was parked in a diagonal slot in front of the building. She unlocked the vehicle, got in, opened the glove box, and removed a large pistol, a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum. She placed it under a newspaper next to her, making sure it was completely hidden. Then she lit a cigarette and waited.
She watched as several police officers came out to check for potential problems, remembering the many times in school that Tommy Babbit had been in trouble for starting fights with black classmates. She recalled how he’d bragged about how his family had a long and glorious history of membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Most of all she thought about her son.
Danny was up for adoption after her parental rights had been terminated on a bogus neglect and abuse charge. After her husband’s death, she’d moved to a cheaper apartment, one that she could afford, barely, on her pay alone. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the best area; such places rarely were.
Her neighbor hadn’t liked the fact that she’d been married to a white man and had a mixed baby. In a drunken rage, she’d come banging on Tracy’s door, accusing her of being the “white devil’s sex slave”. Tracy threatened to call the police, which had really pissed the old bat off; but it had also gotten her to go back to her own apartment. Then later, when Danny had fallen on the sidewalk and skinned his hands, that old battle-ax had called Childrens’ Services on her. The case worker took one look at Danny’s hands, and then called the police to help take the child into county custody.
As the murder case dragged on, the county filed neglect and abuse charges and put Danny in a foster home. Now she was only allowed to see him for an hour at a time, once a week. The two cases had been eating at her, to such a point that she’d almost lost her job. She had been exhausted, and that crazy neighbor had come at her again, hollering at her to get the fuck out of her black neighborhood and go live with her cracker slave masters.
Tracy had lost it. She’d punched the older woman in the face, shoved her away, and slammed her door hard enough to shatter the window next to it. The neighbor had stood outside screaming about being attacked. The police had arrested Tracy for assault and battery. The charges were dropped later on, but that didn’t matter to the protection agency. The county petitioned the court to terminate her parental rights; they couldn’t even think about giving a child back to a violent parent, now, could they?
She didn’t even know if she’d ever see her son again after today. But she had thought long and hard about the only way she could see to get any justice at all.
She recognized one of the cops; it was her old neighbor, Jeff Kingman. He was listening to his radio, then keyed the mic to acknowledge. Moments later Babbitt came out with a group of friends, laughing as they lit their cigarettes. She got out of her car just as he reached the sidewalk. She dropped her half-smoked cig on the sidewalk and stepped on it, twisting her foot back and forth to make sure it was out.
Then she yelled out, “Hey, Tommy, you murdering fucking asshole!”
Babbitt turned to see who was cussing at him. Everyone seemed frozen in place as she raised the gun and rapidly fired three shots, all hitting close to the middle of his chest. Then she shot two of his buddies, both of whom she knew had been in the car that fatal morning. As the three punks fell to the sidewalk and released their last breaths, she carefully placed the gun on the hood of her car, raised her hands and calmly waited for Officer Kingman and the other cops to come over to arrest her.