Copyright (c) 2009 David Kessler
09:30 Pacific Daylight Time (August 14, 2007)
It’s hard to sit still when your client is scheduled to die in fifteen hours.
Alex Sedaka felt gripped by that all-too-familiar urge to stand and pace up and down like a caged lion. But he knew he couldn’t do so. It would be undignified – and hardly befitting the governor’s office. So instead, he sat there tensely in the brown leather upholstered mahogany armchair, as his client’s life hung in the balance.
“I know he had a fair trial, sir. That’s why I can’t get the courts to reconsider the case. But justice isn’t a game. It’s a search for the truth – at least it should be.”
Alex felt the gaze of suspicious eyes upon him, his shoulders hunched against the strain of the task that awaited him. Since hitting fifty, he had become somewhat self-conscious about his appearance, despite the fact that tennis and rock climbing had kept him lean and fit, as well as tanned.
But it was not the ravages of time that had aged him: it was his work. Three decades of professional cynicism, defending scum and lowlifes, had worn away the youthful charm from the face that Melody had fallen in love with – or given it character, as she liked to say. Only this very morning, he had stared at his wedding picture with a mixture of joy and pain and had been surprised at how much he had changed.
But right now he was self-conscious, not about his looks, but rather about what he was going to say next. He had held the freedom of other men in his hands on numerous occasions. But this was the first time he had been entrusted with another man’s life.
As if on cue, the governor’s voice came back at him with quiet cynicism.
“It’s not my duty to second-guess the courts now, is it?”
At the back of Alex’s mind, a question was nagging away at him. Do I plead for justice or mercy? Do I place the emphasis on the lingering doubts or argue about the ethics of “a life for a life?” And he had to think on his feet.
“No, sir, of course it’s not your duty to second-guess the courts. But sometimes an unusual case can slip through the system. And you have the power to make a difference.”
He monitored the governor’s face for a reaction to the obsequious flattery. The face remained neutral. Alex took it as the green light to continue.
“The courts are bound by a rigid code of rules. But sometimes the rulebook goes out the window. Every case is different and this case is a classic example. The whole trial took place in atmosphere of anger and vengeance. All those comparisons with Carrie—”
“The book by Stephen King … about the girl with psychic powers who was bullied in high school.”
“Oh, right,” the governor replied suppressing a smile. “I saw the movie.”
“Well anyway … The press kept making comparisons. They just didn’t let up.”
The governor scratched his head, looking puzzled. He had rejected Alex’s written request for clemency a few days ago, but agreed to this eleventh-hour, face-to-face meeting at his San Francisco office, the location chosen by mutual agreement over LA, San Diego, Fresno and Riverside because of its proximity to San Quentin.
“I don’t mean to sound like I’m making fun of you – ’cause I ain’t – but you’re contradicting yourself now. You said before that Burrow got a fair trial.”
“Yes, sir, in the courtroom. But what about the media circus beforehand? It poisoned the atmosphere. By the time the trial opened, people had already made up their minds. Folks were baying for blood. But vengeance isn’t the same as justice.”
He had used the term “folks” deliberately, hoping that it would click with the governor’s populist vocabulary. But the governor was one step ahead of him.
“Are we talking justice for the murderer here or justice for the victim?”
Over the past few days, back at the office, Alex had practised pitching various arguments, with Juanita and Nat at the plate, striking the kind of counter-arguments that he would inevitably face. But the more he had practised, the more banal it had all sounded. There was nothing more to add to the fossilized debate. All he could offer was a mind-numbing replay.
However, he had a few things going for him. Perhaps the strongest of these was that the incumbent governor – Charles Dusenbury – was himself an opponent of the death penalty. Not many politicians would stick their necks out by going on record with such a politically unpopular sentiment. “Chuck” Dusenbury was one of the few. Even with public opinion divided on capital punishment, supporters of the death penalty were more likely to be one-issue voters on the subject.
But this didn’t matter to Dusenbury. He was a lame duck, serving out his final term of office. His public position was that he had no plans to extend his political career at either the state or federal level and wanted to retire to a lakeside log cabin and spend his golden years playing golf and catching fish. This might have been good ol’ hometown politicking. Some people – “the media cynics,” Dusenbury called them – suspected that he still harbored aspirations to catch bigger fish than you can find in a lake. You could never tell with Dusenbury.
Alex took a deep breath and tried a different line of attack.
“Okay, there’s something else that I’d urge you to consider: there’s still reasonable doubt.”
“You mean the fact that they never found the body?”
“So why didn’t you argue lack of corpus delicti before the courts?”
The governor was teasing him – his smile said it all.
“Corpus delicti means the ‘body of the crime’, sir, not the ‘body of the victim.’ You know that.”
“Of course I know it,” the governor snapped. “So why are you feeding me this line of bullshit?”
Alex recoiled from the anger. But he gathered his wits and recovered his nerve quickly.
“Because even if there’s corpus delecti in the formal sense, it’s still possible that the alleged victim is alive. Can you send a man to the death chamber with these lingering doubts still hovering over the case?”
“Well let’s see now. They found breast tissue from the victim in a plastic bag at the back of the freezer at Clayton Burrow’s home. They found the victim’s blood-stained, semen-stained panties, hidden beneath the floorboards in Clayton Burrow’s bedroom. They also found a blood-stained knife with a perfect set of Clayton Burrow’s fingerprints in the same place. They used DNA to establish that the blood belonged to Dorothy Olsen and the semen came from Clayton Burrow. I don’t know what you call that, but I call it corpus delecti!”
“Don’t you think it was just a little bit too convenient? The cops finding all that under his bed after an anonymous tip-off?”
“You think they planted it? How would they get such evidence in the first place?”
“I don’t know. From the body?”
“Which they never found!”
“But why would he keep all that stuff?”
“’Cause he’s a sex killer and he wanted to keep a trophy – that’s why! Like countless sex killers before and since!”
“But would he be stupid enough to keep it under the floorboards of his own room?”
“Sure he would! He’s a peanut-brained redneck!”
Alex shifted uncomfortably. He was flogging a dead horse. Time for another shift in his arguments.
“Well what about her trust fund? Eighty-six thousand dollars that she just liquidated a few days before she vanished?”
“The defense already tried that smokescreen at the trial. It was her money. She’d just turned eighteen and she wanted to get her hands on it.”
“And what about all that jewelry she bought with it?”
“What of it?”
“Well why would she suddenly do something crazy like that?”
“How the heck would I know? Maybe she wanted to make an impression at the prom!”
“Then how come they never found the jewelry afterward?”
“Maybe Burrow stole it! After he killed her!”
“Then why didn’t they find any of it on him? Or in his house?”
“Maybe he sold it. He had seventeen months between when she disappeared and when they arrested him.”
“So where’s the money? He didn’t exactly lead a lavish lifestyle.”
“How the heck should I know? Maybe he lost the jewels! The point is, they found incriminating evidence on him and he had no explanation for it. It was an open and shut case.”
Alex Sedaka let the air out of his lungs. This was going nowhere.
He had only recently learned these details. He had not in fact had anything to do with the original trial. Burrow had been represented by an overworked Public Defender. After the guilty verdict, Burrow’s cause had been taken up by a liberal-leaning law firm, which had tried to base its appeal mainly on allegations of incompetent representation by the defense counsel. When these efforts failed – and with the execution date looming ever nearer – they hinted to Burrow, in no uncertain terms, that he might like to consider hiring new counsel. They had no desire to be associated with a failed attempt to save a murderer from execution, hence their eleventh-hour retreat from the battlefield.
The upshot of all this was that Alex had been called in six weeks ago to try and save Clayton Burrow from death by lethal injection.
“He’ll see you now.” A hard-edged female voice cut through Alex’s imaginings.
Alex had been so wrapped up in his mental dress rehearsal of his pleadings, that he hadn’t even heard her enter the room. He looked up to see the same lean, prim and spinsterly woman who had politely told him to wait here a few minutes ago. He hoped to God that he hadn’t been talking out loud while alone in the room.
She led him down the corridor, turning back to give him a disapproving stare through her horn-rimmed spectacles when he stopped for a moment before a perspex-fronted painting to pat down into place his gray-tinged, black hair. Alex sensed that she was the kind of woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly.
When they arrived at the meeting room, the woman opened the door, holding it for him to enter. He looked at her expectantly, but she made it clear with her body language that she had no intention of entering the room herself. As he stepped into the plush, mahogany-panelled room, the governor – a smiling, hulking figure in a check shirt and extra large jeans, part fat, part muscle – rose from the conference table, to greet him.
It was at that moment that Alex was struck by an unexpected sight. On another chair on the far side of the conference table, sat a lean, short, frail, middle-aged woman with gray hair.
“Alex Sedaka,” Chuck Dusenbury’s voice boomed out. It was a politician’s tone – that sort of “I’m a man of the people” twang that Alex associated more with the Mid-west or Rocky Mountains. Dusenbury followed through with a firm handshake. Alex was grateful that it wasn’t a bear-like hug.
But instead of meeting the governor’s eyes as their hands gripped, Alex looked past the big man at the frail, familiar-looking woman beyond. She looked about sixty, but Alex sensed that she was somewhat younger, as if tragedy or illness had added years to her appearance.
Alex was mystified by her presence here right now. It wasn’t merely the fact that this was supposed to be a private meeting between himself and the governor that left him so surprised to see her. It was the fact that he knew only too well who she was.
This sad-eyed lady was the mother of the very girl that his client had been found guilty of murdering.
Buy Mercy now to read the rest of this exciting thriller…