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Depraved Heart: a crime novel

Chapter Fourteen — Machismo

Tuesday began with the judge telling the jury to forget all about the mysterious letter that had been waved in front of their noses yesterday. But forgetting isn’t so easily achieved. Maybe like a lot of other things in life; the more you want it, the less you can have it.

Craig’s fresh request for a mistrial was again denied – I could tell he was happy enough keeping the letter out, and the medical examiner took the stand. She turned out to be a tall, gawky, geeky broad named Rakyel Zackary.

Dr. Zackary looked like the kind of girl whose parents sent her to a single sex school so she wouldn’t be distracted from her studies, and when she finally lifts her nose from the grindstone she discovers the party has moved on. She’s forty-five and tired, divorced from a deadbeat and in thrall to a daughter who thinks she’s a dork. Let’s hope a job for cutting up dead people for the state with a pension and benefits makes it all worthwhile.

She had dangly earrings and one of those “au naturel”, pyramid-shaped, semi-cool, frizzy hairdos that goes in an out of style. Right now it’s out.

“Did you have occasion to read a letter from a woman named Shea Shortall in July of this year?”
The speaker was Buford, neck spilling out aggressively over his shirt collar, his jowls threatening to take over the Court. It was a battle of the jowls, between him and Craig, quivering and wattling at each other like a pair of turkey cocks. There was Buford’s Mama, beaming from the front row. According to Court TV she brings his lunch every day, favoring childhood delights like catfish, fried pie, home-made tortellini and hush puppies. Making sure Junior gets enough fuel, like some monstrous kiln. Craig probably never had a Mama. Much more likely to have been a science experiment with a Petrie dish and a dash of Clarence Darrow’s “eau de vie”.

This was a different letter they were talking about now; I’d been warned. The letter that started the whole thing. We glared at Aunt Shea to let her know what we thought of her busybodying. Suspecting sin is sin itself! So there!

“It was brought to my attention by you, Mr. Buford.”

“Do you recall the gist of the letter?”

“It said that Mr. White-Hawke’s wife – excuse me, friend – had died fifteen years previously in the exact same way as his recent wife.”

“At that time did you comment on this information?”

“I did. I said I thought we ought to see if the family would allow an exhumation.”

“And what subsequently happened?”

“The exhumation was set up and I flew out to Petaluma, California to meet with one of their medical examiners, and with his assistance, to perform a forensic autopsy on the body of Mary Elizabeth Shortall Barringer.”

“Was it your understanding that this was the first time the body had been autopsied?”
“It was. I had the verbal assurance of Dr. Namnoun Bouzidi, who operates as state coroner in Bouclem, Tunisia. He wasn’t coroner at the time of her death, but he sent me what records they had. Because the death was ruled accidental and occurring to a foreign national on the grounds of a foreign corporation there was no autopsy. It was clear we needed to take a look for ourselves.”

“At autopsy, what did you find?”

“The body was very well-preserved. It was the body of a slightly built but well-nourished woman in her forties who had borne children. Her internal organs were in excellent shape with no anomalies. I found no evidence of disease whatever.”

“So you could see a cause of death?”

“I could not. The body had sustained a great deal of bruising, but that would be consistent with a fall from a height. There were no broken bones. The eyes seemed normal, without petecchiae. Hyoid was intact.”

“I thought she’d had kids,” hissed Jake.

“The hyoid is a bone in the throat,” whispered Trevor. “Shut up.”

The medical examiner told the courtroom, “Cause of death was supposedly a brain aneurysm, so I thought I’d better take a look at the brain.”

“Have you ever heard of a brain aneurysm being diagnosed without opening up the brain?”

“Not unless there was a medically diagnosed pre-existing condition, as there was not in this case. It would be simply guess work.”

“So what did you find?”

“I shaved the skull. At that point I found seven cuts – representing distinct blows – to the back and top of the head.”

“You honor, request entering State’s exhibit 14 into evidence.”

“So ordered,” sighed the judge.

“I would like the jury to take a look.”


Craig said nothing. At least they didn’t flash it up on the big screen. Trevor squeezed my hand. This was just a drawing. Some artist’s rendering. That’s how Mme. Tussaud got started — they gave her the fresh-cut heads to model. One at a time, jury members studied the picture of my mother’s head.
“What struck you about this discovery?”

“That it was exactly the same number of cuts – sustained in the same area – which I had found on the skull of Colleen White-Hawke.”

“Would it be possible to sustain blows like these falling into a disused swimming pool?”

“I don’t see how. You might get one or two bangs, but how could you get so many actual cuts? That presupposes a sharp object. And even if there was one—a sharp edged metal ladder, say, how could you keep falling on it in the exact same way? All the wounds clustered in one spot seemed very suspicious to me.”

“So what did you do after you had photographed and measured these wounds?”

“I opened up the skull and took a look at the brain.”

“Did you locate cause of death?” Buford waggled his eyebrows at the jury.

“I did. Massive internal bleeding caused by blunt force trauma.”

“Did you locate any aneurysm?”

“I did not. The brain was in good condition before the blows.”

“Would you have seen an aneurysm had one been there?”

“One couldn’t miss a ballooning or ruptured artery.”

“Can you speculate about what weapon was used?”

Would Craig object? He only crossed his legs and hummed.

“Something long and thin and cylindrical, with distinctive structural integrity. Such as a fireplace poker or a gutta percha walking stick.”

Trevor and I looked at each other. The Scary General had just such a walking stick in his later years; you can see it in the photographs. He died long before Oz went to Tunisia. So perhaps Oz had inherited it.

“Why gutta percha?” The prosecutor inquired.

“It’s the hardest wood I the world, that’s what makes it popular for walking sticks. It doesn’t break.”
I thought the prosecution was trying to imply that the death might have been caused by an object that wouldn’t alarm the victim, one that could be naturally carried along for an evening stroll.
“Thank you. One further question. Would you compare for us the autopsies of Ms. Barringer and Ms. White-Hawke?”

At this Craig objected but the judge shot him down. Zackary never looked at either of them. She was looking at us. I found her gaze uncomfortable.

“The wounds to the bodies were astonishingly similar. In my expert opinion, the similarities were beyond the bounds of coincidence. It was like viewing two works by the same artist.”

The frenzy in the court resulted in two members of the press being ejected by the bailiffs. Trevor stood up in front of me, trying to say something about “kangaroo courts”. I pulled ineffectually on his coat, fearful that he would be removed; finally Spike got him down by sheer brute force. The judge pointed his little hammer in our direction as if it was a ray gun.

“One more…” he threatened, “One more disruption and my patience will be gone. I have been very tolerant under the circumstances, but I warn you, tolerance cannot last forever.”

Was he addressing Spike? Spike gave him a chop to the head; a half-salute.

Craig phrased his usual objection — a demand for a mistrial, the judge parsed the usual denial and we were back with Buford, who had been standing beside the witness box, blinking at the fray like a groundhog flushed from its burrow by a false spring. He swiveled back towards Zackary.

“Were there, however, wounds that you found on the body of Colleen White-Hawke that were not present on the body of Ms. Barringer?”

“That is a leading question!” shouted Craig. He seemed to know something was coming. Mina shuffled papers frantically, while Craig twitched like an ant before a thunderstorm.

“It’s a perfectly fine question,” snapped Buford. “When I ask a leading question, you’ll know.”

The judge banged away angrily. I wondered if he might have a seizure, and if he did, would they let Oz go under some kind of double jeopardy loophole?

“I’m ruling here,” the judge snapped. “The question is legitimate. Please proceed.”
“Ms. White-Hawke’s body bore long, narrow healing cuts on her back and buttocks. I counted thirteen. They resembled whip marks to me.”

The audience made a useless attempt to control its frenzy but the press surged like unruly children hearing a distant bell. Oz bowed his head as if in prayer. But who would he pray to? The jury looked as if they might be the ones with whiplash, their necks jerking back and forth between witness and defense table. I heard a whoosh and a slam, and I saw Skylar’s back disappearing through the double doors.

“Prejudicial, your Honor. Pointlessly inflammatory,” suggested Craig with an air of desperation.
“I need this evidence to make my case, your Honor,” said Buford. “I have drawings of photographs.”

“I also object that this testimony is out of order,” said Craig after a hurried conference with Mina.
The judge considered. “I think the subject at hand was the differences and similarities between autopsies,” he ruled. “That will be allowed, but make it brief. No drawings or photographs until you get to your case-in-chief.”

Shelley and I looked at each other in absolute horror. Photographs? Again? I yearned to follow Skylar. Maybe this was the prosecution’s strategy, emptying the room of possible Oz supporters. I wished we were anywhere but here.

Craig almost leaped over his table.

“Your honor, I had a ruling against photographs.”

“Not in the White-Hawke autopsy,” said Buford.

“Well you can’t present anything twice,” said the judge testily. “That would be inflammatory.” He seemed to grit his hen’s teeth. “ Keep going.”

“Jeez,” hissed Jake, “This judge is the prosecutor’s bitch.”

I could easily imagine this judge in drag. Maybe it’s the long black dress they have to wear. On the other hand, he didn’t seem Buford’s type, judging from the fan club of well-upholstered older women hanging dreamily on the prosecutor’s every word.

Buford gave them their money’s worth as he returned serenely to his task. “Could you judge the age of those marks?”

“Some were old, old enough to scar. Others were more recent.” She shrugged. “That’s all I can say.”

“Then I have no more questions of this witness.” Buford sat down.

Craig made the fastest recovery of any human being I’ve ever seen. When he rambled over to the witness box with his hands in his pockets, I wondered if anyone else figured he must be trying to conceal his clenching, jerking fingers. The jury looked at him curiously, even impassively. Impossible to read those French-fry-fed faces.

The first question was mild. Even friendly.

“How long have you been employed by the state as a medical examiner?”

“Since I graduated from Virginia State Medical School in 1990.”

“That’s not quite true, is it? Didn’t you take a leave of absence in 1995?”

“I took maternity leave when my daughter was born.”

Craig consulted a paper in his hand.

“I believe your allowed maternity leave was three weeks long? Yet you took a year?”
“I felt my daughter needed it,” said Zackary.

“Didn’t you lose your seniority? Effectively, when you re-upped, you were starting over?”
“I didn’t look at it that way.”

“But that is the truth, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so.” Zackary looked at him as if he were some kind of poisonous spider.
“And now, you’re considered part-time?”

“That just means I can’t take over-time.”

“You are listed as a part-time employee?”

She sighed. “That’s correct.”

Craig flipped a few sheets.

“You began as a forensic pathologist and became medical examiner in the year 2000?”
“That’s correct.”

“So you’ve never been employed as a doctor by any body other than the State of Virginia…how about teaching? Done any?”

“Your Honor,” barked Buford, “What’s going on here? This is pointless harassment. This witness has been qualified as an expert already.”

“Not by the defense, she hasn’t,” snapped Craig.

The judge’s color deepened. He seemed mightily offended on behalf of the state of Virginia.
“Mr. Axelrod, are you challenging this witness’ credentials?”

Craig shook his paper in the air.

“Looks like I’m going to have to. This witness has taught nowhere and published nowhere. She is a part-time employee of the State of Virginia—“

“She has taught! She has published!” insisted Buford.

Now Fryssen joined the fray, rising threateningly as if she’d like to clean Craig’s clock.

The judge summoned them all to the bench. I could see Oz rocking with glee but I thought the jurors looked even more stony-faced.

“Why’s he doing this?” I whispered to Trevor.

“Sloppy experts. Inadequate experts. Exclusionary and self-dealing qualifications. Grounds for appeal.”

But for an appeal to occur, Oz had to be convicted. It was like they had given up on getting him off.

Mina passed Trevor a copy of the resume currently under fire and I peeked over his shoulder while he read it. Dr. Zackary had taught classes…for Virginia law enforcement officials and she had published in State of Virginia publications. None of that would count with Craig, of course, but wasn’t he just pissing off this homegrown jury? Don’t surround yourself with yourself.

The attorneys were leaving the bench. Craig was so calm and smiley you would think he’d won, but the judge announced,

“The previous line of questioning has been stricken because this witness has been qualified as an expert by the Court. Get something going, Mr. Axelrod.”

Craig looked like he thought he had plenty going. Probably he was thinking two can play at the game of leaking things into the jury’s minds and then telling them to forget about it.

He asked the doctor, “Are you familiar with the fact that falls are a leading cause of death in this country?”

“Among senior citizens,” said the doctor, lifting her chin. “Of course, falling into empty swimming pools is extremely rare.”

Craig smiled his alligator grin. “Have you any literature on the subject?”

“All I can say is that these are the only two cases I found searching the Internet.”

She puffed like a runner when she spoke. I began to think maybe Craig had challenged her credentials just to upset her, throw her off her game.

“You wouldn’t call it impossible. How many other falls have you autopsied?”

“Two. Maybe three. And they didn’t present anything like this.”

“So what you’re telling the court is you’ve seen two – maybe three — victims of falls in your entire practice, but you want to tell this jury that even though falls are accepted as a leading cause of death you and you alone understand the “right” way for a fall victim to “present”.”

“I wouldn’t expect them to have several blows to the top of the head,” said the doctor austerely.
“Oh? Were all the others killed immediately?”

“Perhaps not immediately. But they were rendered unconscious and died subsequently of severe hematoma.”

“So you want this jury to believe that it is impossible for a woman who has struck her head on cement after falling nine to twelve feet to stand up, then fall down and strike her head again?”

“Nothing’s impossible,” said the doctor. “But I wouldn’t expect it to look like this. I wouldn’t expect the blows to be equal in force, for instance.”

She was a fighter. You kind of had to admire that about her.

“I believe you mentioned the cuts you describe could have been caused by a sharp object? Have you seen a photograph of the swimming pool where Ms. Barringer died?”

“No. No one has. Such a photo does not exist,” retorted the doctor.

“That’s right,” says Craig, looking around him meaningfully. “No one in this courtroom today knows what was in that swimming pool…it could have been full of razor wire for all we know. Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Victor Pring?”

“Everyone is familiar with the work of Dr. Pring.”

“Do you respect his work?”


“Are you aware that he is going to testify for the defense that certain unlucky candidates could die in exactly this manner by slipping repeatedly on their own blood, attempting to climb out and striking and re-striking their heads? Provided, of course, there was a sharp object present?”

“I don’t know what Dr. Pring is going to say. I am testifying that in a case of such an accident as you describe I would expect at least some of the blows to strike somewhere other than on a restricted surface at the back of the head.”

“I don’t think this man’s life ought to be subject to your expectations, Dr. Zackary,” sneered Craig, emphasizing the title as if she wasn’t really entitled to it. “Apparently one of your expectations is to put in a thirty hour week and retire at sixty with a taxpayer-funded pension.”

“This is outrageous,” sputtered Buford, rocketing out of his seat like a pheasant. You could almost see the feathers flying.

“Was that an objection, Mr. Buford?” asked the judge, glacially.

“Withdrawn. I have no more questions for this witness,” spat Craig.

“State reserves the right to recall Dr. Zackary for its case-in-chief,” chanted Buford.

“Granted,” said the judge, shooting his sleeves, “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Dr. Zackary gave Craig a very dirty look as she left the stand.

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