Not Guilty

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Summary

The hour is late, a tired man steps out of his office on a cold, rainy night...it will be his final night on this earth. Silenced forever by the assassin’s bullet. By the time dawn breaks the morning next, Brenda Schroeder’s world has turned completely upside down. Her husband has been murdered, and her lover, the charming Jesse Barnes, is the killer. Now Brenda faces a choice: turn herself and Barnes in, or stand by him and try to evade justice once and for all. Yet her decision is not so simple as it may seem, for while she fears the prospect of life imprisonment, the weight of her conscience will not allow her to be truly free. Furthermore, Barnes hides a dark past of his own, and getting out will not be as easy as was getting in. Ultimately, the path she chooses will determine whether justice is done. But as detective Louis Roland gets closer to uncovering the killer’s true identity, and Barnes’ paranoia increases, her time to make that decision may be running out…

Genre:
Mystery / Thriller
Author:
Tommy Gunner
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
16+

One (Brenda)

If the weather had reflected the sentiment of the people of the town of Medford on this morning, perhaps for some it would have been dreary and overcast, to represent the heaviness of their hearts over the tragic loss of one life, and the impending condemnation of another. For others, it would have been sunny, to represent the light of justice shining her light through the darkness which seemed to have shadowed them for an etnerity. For others still, it might have been a mighty thunderstorm, complete with dramatic bolts of lightning, representing the excitement, intrigue, and mystery hanging over the events which were about to culminate in the old district courthouse. In the end, it was a gusty, frigid winter's day, with dark clouds threatening to bring snow flurries later in the evening while the sun just barely crept over the top of the seemingly impenetrable wall.

In other words, it was a day which pleased no one.

And thus was the stage set for the terrible saga to begin. While the trial was taking place in a neighboring county, it seemed everybody from Medford had flocked over to behold the spectacle. Whether they were lifelong observers of the legal process, or newcomers who couldn't tell a defendant from a plaintiff, everybody waited anxiously to see which way the jury would go.

Officially, the case number was 56-44583. It was only one case amongst many, yet in this moment, it was the center of the universe. And the woman who stood at the center of the center was now being led into that venerable courthouse by an entourage of officers, news reporters, and curious onlookers, all desperate to catch a glimpse of this seemingly ordinary looking young woman who had quite suddenly become a minor celebrity of the infamous type. Murder, was the charge, they whispered, the murder of her husband. How could that be? What could drive a suburban housewife living a well-to-do life to commit such a heinous act?

Some of the braver ones tried to touch her, as if by laying their hands on her, they might discover that she was not truly human, but some sort of monster, a wolf in sheep's clothing. They shout at her, was she a devil in disguise? A gold-digger? Had she plotted the death of her old man from the day they took their vows? The officers occasionally shoved back these zealous onlookers back, threatened violence and arrests if they did not relent. That was cold comfort to the beleaguered woman who was the subject of the crowd's scrutiny. For her, the shouting had long since dulled in the corners of her mind. Those frayed edges had long since become numb to the gossip and the rumours, to the speculation and sensationalization in the press. Some said she was the second coming of Lizzie Borden. There had been a time when these words struck such a deep blow to her heart that she might have broken down in writhing sobs. Now...now the words all blurred together. A cacophony of voices clamoring over her as though she were a character from an Agatha Christie novel, and not a real person, facing life behind bars.

Today was the day, at long last. It was a day she'd once dreaded, yet now found strangely welcoming. For one way or the other, for better or worse, it would all be over soon. For so long, she'd fled from justice, fearing for the years she'd lose. Yet those years had been lost to her anyhow. They had been lost the moment the terrible deed was done. Now all she could do was face the consequences of her past with what dignity she had left. And so she marched silently up the steps of the courthouse, ignoring the chaos all around her, a picture of broken grace.

"I'll take her from here," the police entourage abruptly stopped at the doorstep of the courthouse as they were met by a older man with weathered features and a whisp of a mustache, wearing a sharp suit, spectacles, and a fedora which hid a receding hairline. The man might have been anybody you passed on the street, the woman reckoned to herself with a cynical inner chuckle. But this was not just any man, it was the man on whom her life now depended.

Marshall Ferguson was the only attorney who had been willing to take her case, while his resume was impressive; at one time he had been a highly sought defense lawyer, he had prematurely retired some years ago, only to reemerge as a public defender. While he had once been noted for his ability to sway juries by appealing to the humanity of his clients, it was the consensus by now that such methods no longer carried the weight they once did in the modern era.

"Where the gentlemanly juries of halcyon days saw an eloquent and persuasive orator, the juries of today see a bloviating curmudgeon who cannot help but stubbornly preach his lofty ideals to the disinterested courtroom..."

These were the sorts of editorials which had filled the pages of all the papers when Ferguson agreed to take her case. It had been enough to make her fear that there was a reason he was free to take this case. Even so, Ferguson, affectionately (and at times, less so) known as Old Man Fergie, had taken to her case with such a vigor and passion that she could not help but agree to let him defend her. She was the untouchable client, he was the unhireable attorney. They were a perfect match.

"Good luck today, Ferguson, you're gonna need it."

Reporters pushed their way to the front of the entourage, snapping photos and jotting down everything on their notepads.

"Mr. Ferguson, what would you rate your odds of an acquittal?"

"Will your client enter a guilty plea?"

"The prosecutor says the evidence is overwhelming in favor of a circumstantial conviction, in light of this, why go ahead with the trial at all?"

Ferguson made a grand sweeping gesture with his hand, as if he were about to make a closing argument. "I have always believed that in a courtroom, it is within our power to create our own luck," he quipped, though he could not bring himself to smile as he led the woman through the doors of the courtroom towards her destiny.

Judge Charles Atkinson presided over his courtroom as though each case he heard was the same as the last. His level headed nature made him an ideal choice for a sensational case such as this, for the somber glares of the gallery indicated to the woman that most of them had all but made up their minds about her in advance. There, on the prosecutor's side of the aisle, sat a plethora of townsfolk who had made the journey from Medford, many no doubt acquaintances or clients of the victim, a noted civil attorney. Some she knew, some she didn't. And there, seated at the very front row, eying her with everything from pity to hatred were the people she had once regarded as her own family. She was on a first name basis with them. They'd spent holidays together, laughing and talking of everything under the sun. How simple and joyful those halcyon days seemed. How far she had fallen since then. Now she had no home with them, for now they were determined to see her behind bars for her crimes.

On her side, it was a baleful contrast. A few of her old friends from high school and the local book club. Folks who knew the real her, who knew she couldn't have done this terrible thing. And that was about it. Except...at first she wasn't sure if she'd seen right. Her eyes must have been playing some sort of optical illusion on her, but there she was, seated in the front row, directly behind the defendant's table, where the most intimate family members would normally have taken their places...there alone sat the last woman she would have expected to stand by her. But it was her, it was Kay Roland. Mrs. Roland seemed lost in thought, but she almost seemed to sense the woman approach from behind her, for she suddenly looked back and for a long moment, their eyes met, and neither made a move nor a sound. She wished she could have crawled into a dark corner and hidden her face from the world just then. Crawled so deep that she'd never have to look into those eyes again, never have to feel the guilt which wracked her heart and brought her to the verge of tears. But it was no use now. She had come too far to run. She had made her decision to face justice and tell her story. Mrs. Roland said nothing further, and at last, with the assistance of her attorney, the woman found the strength to drag herself to the defendant's table.

At the opposite table, prosecutor Douglas Van Faren and his team prepared their arsenal for the opening broadside. Van Faren was a tough opponent, a prosecutor known for his ability to completely obliterate the defendant's case. As such, he was considered a risk in certain cases, but not here. It was unlikely jurors would have objections to his excoriations of Brenda Schroeder, one of the most infamous murfer suspects in state history.

Judge Atkinson had waited until the precise time at which the trial was scheduled to begin, at which time he lifted his gavel with a strong hand and lowered it with a quick, but firm, rap. The gallery quieted considerably save for some muted whispering. Then the venerable old judge began to recite from the same book as he had all his professional life, replacing only the name of the defendant and the crimes which she was charged with.

"Brenda Ann Schroeder, you stand before this court accused of the following crimes: one count of premeditated murder, one count of conspiracy to commit murder, one count of accessory after the fact to murder, one count of obstruction of justice. How do you intend to plead to these charges, Mrs. Schroeder?"

In these past few months, Brenda Schroeder had suffered the worst idignities that life could throw at her. She had sat in a cold, dark prison and followed along while the media machine turned its wheels, and turned her into a monster. Now was her chance to fight back.

"Not guilty, your honor."

Some gasps from the crowd. This should not have been a surprise, Brenda thought. Or did people really expect her to give in so easily? To accept a life behind bars for crimes which she did not commit? Was that the impression she had given them? And the worst part was, perhaps they were right. Because when it had mattered most, she had given in, time and time again. That was the reason for her being in this mess in the first place. Still, there was no sense in attempting to litigate the past now. Not when she was about to go on trial for her life.

"Very well," Judge Atkinson noted. "The defendant's plea of not guilty is entered into the record. At this time, I will call upon the prosecution and defense to make their opening statements. We shall begin with you, Mr. Van Faren."

The prosecutor arose from his table and strode to take center stage. Douglas Van Faren was by all accounts a nondescript, ordinary looking man, yet he was possessed of a fiery temperament and a biting tone. It was not difficult to see why the DA had appointed him to this case. As far as the state were concerned, Brenda Schroeder's transgressions needed to be exposed to the fullest extent. All she could do now was brace herself for the onslaught.

"Members of the jury, we are convened here today because of the actions of two people of a selfish, corrupted mind, with hearts blackened by sin so vile that it sickens us to even contemplate it. Yet contemplate it we must, if justice is to be done. One of those culprits is she who stands here before you today at the table of the defense. Yes, I know what you may be thinking, but let not your eyes and minds be deceived. This woman may appear innocent, yet the evidence will show another side of the defendant, a woman so hell-bent on getting what she wanted that she was willing to go to any means necessary to do so. A woman with a heart corrupted by greed and lust. That is the true nature of the defendant, that is what the prosecution intends to reveal."

At this, Van Faren made a show of pointing directly to Brenda. The simple gesture struck her as a stake through the heart. It took all her strength to keep her composure as the prosecutor continued.

"What you will hear over the course of this trial is a sordid tale of deceit, lust, adultery, and ultimately, murder. Acting as a chess master, with her paramour, Jesse Barnes, as her brutish pawn, Brenda Ann Schroeder planned out to the last detail the murder of her late husband, Edward James Schroeder, and promptly assisted Mr. Barnes in his efforts to evade law enforcement. Honorable members of the jury, you will hear witness testimony pertaining to the connection between Brenda Schroeder and Jesse Barnes. You will hear witness testimony describing how Mrs. Schroeder both directly and indirectly provided to Mr. Barnes the location of her husband's place of employment, the time that he would be clocking out, his physical appearance, and the firearm used to commit the deed. You will hear from the detectives who spoke with Mrs. Schroeder after her apprehension, how she confessed to having aided and abetted Mr. Barnes in his endeavour to evade justice.

"And finally, members of the jury, if our case achieves its aim, you will come to realize that if Jesse Barnes is guilty of the murder of Edward Schroeder, then there can be no further doubt about the involvement of Mrs. Schroeder. For what motive would Mr. Barnes have on his own to take the life of a man he had never met until mere hours before his death? The answer to that question is none whatsoever. However, when one takes into consideration Mr. Barnes' involvement with Mrs. Schroeder and the insurance policy on Mr. Schroeder's life, therein lies the motive. When one considers the steps, which will be outlined by the prosecution witnesses, that Mrs. Schroeder took to aid Mr. Barnes in his scheme, and then in covering it up, the conclusion becomes inescapable. That is why, at the conclusion of this trial, you will have but one reasonable course of action to take, and that is to find Brenda Ann Schroeder guilty on all charges. Thank you for your time, I look forward to presenting our case in greater detail. At this tine, I would like to cede the floor back to the honorable Judge Atkinson."

It was not until the prosecutor finished speaking that Brenda realized she was shivering, and not simply due to the bitter cold outside. As her attorney, Mr. Ferguson, had warned her, prosecutor Van Faren had not held back. His attacks seemed like daggers digging into old wounds and twisting, reopening the wave of torment and anguish which she had attempted to hide away from herself and the world. Suddenly, although he was not present in the courtroom, she could feel his glare. The look in his eyes when she had angered him, when she had put his chances of escape at risk. Not his, our, that part of her brain that still instinctively leapt to his defense would not go quietly. Of course they were in it together, that part of her would, and this was the proof. Jesse had been right all along. She hadn't been believed, instead, she'd been locked up and tried as a common criminal. If only she had just gone along with him...

No

No, she told herself again, harsher still. This didn't prove anything, and she most certainly would not have been better off anywhere near Jesse. That ship had sailed, and the better for it. In any event all was not lost. She hadn't been convicted, not yet. And Mr. Ferguson seemed rather confident about their chances during their private conversations. Even so...private conversations were not the same as the real thing, and now that she was sitting in front of those who would ultimately judge her, she felt about as small as she ever had. She could only hope that her attorney had stronger nerves. Her livelihood might depend on it.

"The prosecution's opening statement having concluded," the judge was now saying, "I shall now call upon the defense to make its counter statement. Mr. Ferguson?"

Mr. Ferguson gave Brenda a quick supportive squeeze of the hand, then she watched as her defender rose to his full height and strode out to where the prosecutor had just been standing. She had to admit, he still cut an impressive figure in spite of his worn, slightly rotund stature. And it was clear that he continued to command attention in the courtroom. Right this moment was one of the few times Brenda could be assured that nobody was looking at her. The older attorney seemed to take a moment to gather himself before speaking.

"Honorable members of the jury, there is a saying where I come from, that two wrongs do not make a right, that one tragedy will not atone for another. That is the true story of this case. It is, as my counterpart has stated previously, a case of the most heinous crime known to man: murder. However, let not your minds be deceived by that old adage of guilt by association. The prosecution would have you believe, on no evidence, that my client was an active participant in this case, even the mastermind. As we all know, the burden is on the prosecution to prove this, and yet, what they intend to show you falls far short of the standard to which they ought to be held.

"Furthermore, the only testimony you will hear from the prosecution concerning the involvement of Mrs. Schroeder in the scheme is secondhand at best. The truth, jurors, is that only three people on this earth know for certain what occurred, and only one of those people is here in this courtroom, the defendant herself. If you cannot prove intent, and you cannot prove willing participation, then you cannot convict. But there are further reasons to doubt the prosecution's case. With prosecutor Van Faren's agreement, the defense intends to present the results of two polygraph examinations administered to Mrs. Schroeder, one by Detective Roland at the station during the investigation, and the other by Detective Fremont after her arrest."

Brenda shifted anxiously in the cold wooden chair. The polygraph tests, she knew, were not exactly a silver bullet for them. There was a reason Van Faren had been willing to allow their admission. She hoped Mr. Ferguson wasn't going to build up the expectations of these examinations, only for the jury to come away disappointed. She knew as well as anyone that she had made her share of mistakes, terrible mistakes. Mistakes which needed to be confronted at some point. And as if he had detected the subtle discomfort in her body language, his tone suddenly became softer, more intimate.

"Now, I implore you, members of the jury, to look at all the facts of this case, but also to account for the humanity, that variable which is innate, which cannot be duplicated. Look at my client, jurors, she is a woman broken by loss and fatigue. The magnitude of the loss she has suffered, the fatigue of the ordeal to which Mr. Barnes subjected her, and fatigue of her ill-deserved mistreatment in the court of public opinion. Yet in the court of law, we must not make such lazy conclusions. The world is not black and white, my friends, it is shaded in gray. My client has done things that cause her to hide her face in shame, she carries a great burden in her heart for what has befallen her late husband. This does not, I repeat, does not make her a murderer. Again I ask you, look at my client. Brenda Schroeder is not a saint. I do not ask that you find her as such. What I do ask is that after you have seen the evidence, or lack thereof, after you've heard testimony from every witness, after you've had time to collect your thoughts and separate fact from fiction and truth from speculation, is that you will do the right thing. And that is to find Brenda Schroeder not guilty on all counts. Thank you."

"Thank you, Mr. Ferguson. This concludes the opening statements from both parties," Judge Atkinson stated as Ferguson once again took his place by Brenda's side. The older man gave a soft laugh and shook his head.

"What is it?"

"Oh, I'd nearly forgotten how it felt to be passionate about a client's case."

Brenda looked up at him now and caught his gentle gaze. Somehow, the old man looked both world weary and steeled for his next great challenge. He looked as though he needed to lean on someone for strength, yet how difficult that must have been to admit when others had always leaned on him? Brenda leaned on him too, although she had tried not to allow herself to break down. More than anything, she did not want Jesse Barnes to have won the war against her psyche. She needed to prove that she could stand on her own. She sighed internally, perhaps the old man was not the only one who had trouble accepting help. Almost as if something inside her had broken, the tear escaped her eye before she could repress it. She quickly wiped it away, but Ferguson had noticed. He looked to her sympathetically.

"Do not despair now, Mrs. Schroeder. The day is not lost to us yet. You...you know you needn't testify if it will cause too great a strain to you. Mr. Van Faren will not hold back. He excels as breaking down defendants who take the stand. We can get an acquittal by other means-"

"That's quite alright, Mr. Ferguson," Brenda said quietly so as not to be overheard. Yet her words nearly seemed to be drowned out by the pounding of her heart. "Just the same, I think it's what I need...I need to let the truth out. I cannot run from it anymore, I don't want to run, the torment in my heart is too great. I feel as though I will collapse at any moment."

The memories were pulsating through her mind again, the pain, the fear, the anguish. Those memories would always linger, would never allow her to rest peacefully, unless she confronted them head on. She had to tell her story, and this might be her last chance to do so. That was why she had decided that she needed to testify, in spite of Mr. Ferguson's reservations.

The list of prosecution witnesses was long and comprehensive, Everyone from neighbors, to a pawn shop owner, to Miss Fields her husband's secretary, to the detectives who had taken into custody and interrogated her. As if she would have been in a sound state of mind after what had just occurred. By contrast, the defense had chosen only one witness, Brenda herself. It was a daunting task, and that only became more apparent as the parade of accusers came and went from the witness stand. Brenda tried her best to tune them out, to not hear the words of condemnation from those who had once called her a friend. Yet their biting words would not cease, and for all of Mr. Ferguson's efforts to contain the damage, it appeared to her that the deck had been too steeply stacked. That brief hope, what remained of it, was dying...

And what can I do? What can I say?

The questions remained unanswered, swirling in her mind, but suddenly her thoughts were overpowered by the voice of Judge Atkinson.

"Does the defense wish to call any witnesses?"

Mr. Ferguson quickly glanced at her. It was the look that said: Are you sure you want to go through with this?

Brenda simply nodded, and with great trepadituon, he at last arose.

"But one, your honor, the woman who stands here at the center of the storm. The woman roped in by a fiendish man, who risked her life to be here today and tell you the truth of the matter. The defense calls Brenda Schroeder to the stand."

Soft gasps echoed throughout the courtroom, quickly followed not-so-quiet whispers.

She's doing what-?

Old Man Fergie's finally lost it, sending that poor girl up there...

...My daughter is a girl, that woman is a monster...

Van Faren will tear her to shreds...

"We shall have order in this courtroom," the judge said with a stern tone as he softly rapped the gavel to quiet the gallery. "Now, Mrs. Schroeder, you are saying that you wish to testify?"

And so she stood, knees trembling, and faced the judge with a gaze they she hoped was not too easy to read, that conveyed more strength than she truly felt.

"Yes, your honor."

The judge nodded gruffly. "Very well. Step forth to the witness stand and I shall administer the oath."

Brenda did as Judge Atkinson said, and once she had done so, she turned to face the stone-faced magistrate to her right to find his eyes already affixed on her. Without delay, he had her place her hand upon the Bible and solemnly prepared to administer the oath to her, the oath her husband must have heard a thousand times in court, which Judge Atkinson must have issues countless times without blinking an eye. They would never know the fear and trepidation which rended her heart in these few moments, yet also the anxiety, the strangest sense of relief. For this was no mere oath to her, it was an affirmation, that at last, she would have her chance to reveal the truth. There would be no more running.

“Brenda Ann Schroeder, on pain of perjury, do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

“I do.”

The judge nodded. Mr. Ferguson strode over from the comfort of the defendant’s table to the center to the courtroom to address her. They had spoken of this extensively beforehand, planned out every question he would ask her, discussed how she would present the true story of what happened to her husband, how she would show the jury the true Brenda Schroeder. Yet now, all that planning seemed to have been for naught. Her mouth felt dry, her throat constricted, her chest tightened in a vise-like grip, as though the words would refuse to come out no matter what. All those terrible memories were flooding back to her, the burdens she had carried deep in her heart, the scars left by a man she thought she knew.

She wanted to tell Mr. Ferguson that she was changing her mind, that it was all too much, that she couldn’t do it, but before she could do or say anything, he was asking her the first of their pre.planned questions.

“Mrs. Schroeder, we have seen witness after witness sit where you are right now and heap the weight of their loss, regret, and pain upon you. We have heard their accusarions and they do not bear repeating. Is it your position, therefore, that all of these witnesses are in some way mistaken?”

There was no going back. If it killed her, she would relive every second of that nightmare. She looked out into the gallery, at the grief-stricken faces of her husband’s family, at the sullen Kay Roland, who seemed to have been crying the entire time, and decided that these people, whether or not they would accept her afterwards, deserved the truth. And so she would give it to them.

“Yes...that is my contention.”

Ferguson gave her an empathic gaze before continuing his questioning.

“Why don’t you start from the beginning, Mrs. Schroeder?”





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