Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  Peter bowed his head, his face contorting. Yes, just like that, Jordan thought, and then he realized that Peter had started to cry.

  Jordan walked toward the front of the cell. This, too, was a familiar moment for him as a defense attorney. Jordan usually allowed his client to have this final breakdown in private before they went into the courtroom. It was none of his business, and to be honest, Jordan was all about business. But he could hear Peter sobbing behind him; and in that sad song was one note that reached right down into Jordan. Before he could think better of it, he had turned around and was sitting on the bench again. He wrapped an arm around Peter, felt the boy relax against him. "It's going to be okay," he said, and he hoped he was not lying.

  *

  Diana Leven surveyed the packed gallery, then asked a bailiff to turn off the lights. She pushed the button on her laptop, beginning her PowerPoint presentation.

  The screen beside Judge Wagner filled with an image of Sterling High School. There was a blue sky in the background and some cotton-candy clouds. A flag snapped in the wind. Three school buses were lined up like a caravan in the front circle. Diana let this picture stand alone, in silence, for fifteen seconds.

  The courtroom grew so quiet you could hear the hum of the transcriptionist's laptop.

  Oh, God, Jordan thought. I have to sit through this for the next three weeks.

  "This is what Sterling High School looked like on March 6, 2007. It was 7:50 a.m., and school had just started. Courtney Ignatio was in chemistry class, taking a quiz. Whit Obermeyer was in the main office getting a late pass, because he'd had car trouble that morning. Grace Murtaugh was leaving the nurse's office, where she'd taken some Tylenol for a headache. Matt Royston was in history class with his best friend, Drew Girard. Ed McCabe was writing homework on the blackboard for the math classes he taught. There was nothing to suggest to any of these people or any other members of the Sterling High School community at 7:50 a.m. on March sixth that this was anything other than a typical school day."

  Diana clicked a button, and a new photo appeared: Ed McCabe, lying on the floor with his intestines spilling out of his stomach as a sobbing student pressed both hands against the gaping wound. "This is what Sterling High School looked like at 10:19 a.m. on March 6, 2007. Ed McCabe never got to give his homework assignment to his math class, because nineteen minutes earlier, Peter Houghton, a seventeen-year-old junior at Sterling High School, burst through the doors with a knapsack that contained four guns--two sawed-off shotguns, as well as two fully loaded, semiautomatic 9-millimeter pistols."

  Jordan felt a tug on his arm. "Jordan," Peter whispered.

  "Not now."

  "But I'm going to be sick . . ."

  "Swallow it," Jordan ordered.

  Diana flicked back to the previous slide, the picture-perfect image of Sterling High. "I told you, ladies and gentlemen, that none of the people in Sterling High School had any inclination this would be something other than a typical school day. But one person did know that it was going to be different." She walked toward the defense table and pointed directly at Peter, who stared steadfastly down at his lap. "On the morning of March 6, 2007, Peter Houghton started his day by loading a blue knapsack with four guns and the makings of a bomb, plus enough ammunition to potentially kill one hundred and ninety-eight people. The evidence will show that when he arrived at the school, he set up this bomb in Matt Royston's car to divert attention away from himself. While it exploded, he walked up the front steps of the school and shot Zoe Patterson. Then, in the hallway, he shot Alyssa Carr. He made his way to the cafeteria and shot Angela Phlug and Maddie Shaw--his first casualty--and Courtney Ignatio. As students started running away, he shot Haley Weaver and Brady Pryce, Natalie Zlenko, Emma Alexis, Jada Knight, and Richard Hicks. Then, as the wounded were sobbing and dying all around him, do you know what Peter Houghton did? He sat down in the cafeteria and he had a bowl of Rice Krispies."

  Diana let this information sink in. "When he finished, he picked up his gun and left the cafeteria, shooting Jared Weiner, Whit Obermeyer, and Grace Murtaugh in the hall, and Lucia Ritolli--a French teacher trying to shepherd her students to safety. He stopped off in the boys' bathroom and shot Steven Babourias, Min Horuka, and Topher McPhee; and then went into the girls' bathroom and shot Kaitlyn Harvey. He continued upstairs and shot Ed McCabe, the math teacher, John Eberhard, and Trey MacKenzie before reaching the gym and firing at Austin Prokiov, Coach Dusty Spears, Noah James, Justin Friedman, and Drew Girard. Finally, in the locker room, the defendant shot Matthew Royston twice--once in the stomach, and again in the head. You might remember that name--it's the owner of the car that Peter Houghton bombed at the very beginning of his rampage."

  Diana faced the jury. "This entire spree lasted nineteen minutes in the life of Peter Houghton, but the evidence will show that its effects will last forever. And there's a lot of evidence, ladies and gentlemen. There are a lot of witnesses, and there's a lot of testimony to come . . . but by the end of this trial, you will be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Peter Houghton purposefully and knowingly, with premeditation, caused the deaths of ten people and attempted to cause the deaths of nineteen others at Sterling High School."

  She walked toward Peter. "In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. You can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist. You can fold laundry for a family of five. Or, as Peter Houghton knows . . . in nineteen minutes, you can bring the world to a screeching halt."

  *

  Jordan walked toward the jury, his hands in his pockets. "Ms. Leven told you that on the morning of March 6, 2007, Peter Houghton walked into Sterling High School with a knapsack full of loaded weapons, and he shot a lot of people. Well, she's right. The evidence is going to show that, and we don't dispute it. We know that it's a tragedy for both the people who died and those who will live with the aftermath. But here's what Ms. Leven didn't tell you: when Peter walked into Sterling High School that morning, he had no intention of becoming a mass murderer. He walked in intending to defend himself from the abuse he'd suffered for twelve straight years.

  "On Peter's first day of school," Jordan continued, "his mother put him on the kindergarten bus with a brand-new Superman lunch box. By the end of the ride to the school, that lunch box had been thrown out the window. Now, all of us have childhood memories of other kids teasing us or being cruel, and most of us are able to shake that off, but Peter Houghton's life wasn't one where these things happened occasionally. From that very first day in kindergarten, Peter experienced a daily barrage of taunting, tormenting, threatening, and bullying. This child has been stuffed into lockers, had his head shoved into toilets, been tripped and punched and kicked. He has had a private email spammed out to an entire school. He's had his pants pulled down in the middle of the cafeteria. Peter's reality was a world where, no matter what he did--no matter how small and insignificant he made himself--he was still always the victim. And as a result, he started to turn to an alternate world: one created by himself in the safety of HTML code. Peter set up his own website, created video games, and filled them with the kind of people he wished were surrounding him."

  Jordan ran his hand along the railing of the jury box. "One of the witnesses you're going to hear from is Dr. King Wah. He's a forensic psychiatrist who's examined Peter and has spoken with him. He's going to explain to you that Peter was suffering from an illness called post-traumatic stress disorder. It's a complicated medical diagnosis, but it's a real one--and children who have it can't distinguish between an immediate threat and a distant threat. Even though you and I might be able to walk down the hall and spy a bully who's paying no attention to us, Peter would see that same person and his heart rate would speed up . . . his body would sidle a little closer to the wall . . . because Peter was sure he'd be noticed, threatened, beaten, and hurt. Dr. Wah will not only tell you about studies that have been done on children like Peter, he'll tell you how Peter was directly aff
ected by the years and years of torment at the hands of the Sterling High School community."

  Jordan faced the jurors again. "Do you remember earlier this week, when we were talking to you about whether you'd be an appropriate juror to sit on this case? One of the things I asked each and every one of you during that process was whether you understood that you needed to listen to the evidence in the courtroom and apply the law as the judge instructs you. As much as we learned from civics class in eighth grade or Law & Order on Wednesday-night TV . . . until you're here listening to the evidence and hearing the instructions of the court, you don't know what the rules really are."

  He held the gaze of each juror in turn. "For example, when most people hear the term self-defense, they assume it means that someone is holding up a gun, or a knife to the throat--that there's an immediate physical threat. But in this case, self-defense may not mean what you think. And what the evidence will show, ladies and gentlemen, is that the person who walked into Sterling High and fired all those shots was not a premeditated, cold-blooded killer, as the prosecution wants you to believe." Jordan walked behind the defense table and put his hands on Peter's shoulders. "He was a very scared boy who had asked for protection . . . and had never received it."

  *

  Zoe Patterson kept biting her nails, even though her mother had told her not to do that; even though a zillion pairs of eyes and (holy cow) television cameras were focused on her as she sat on the witness stand. "What did you have after French class?" the prosecutor asked. She'd already gone through her name, address, and the beginning of that horrible day.

  "Math, with Mr. McCabe."

  "Did you go to class?"

  "Yes."

  "And what time did that class start?"

  "Nine-forty," Zoe said.

  "Did you see Peter Houghton at all before math class?"

  She couldn't help it, she let her glance slide toward Peter sitting at the defense table. Here was the weird thing--she had been a freshman last year and didn't know him at all. And even now, even after he'd shot her, if she'd walked down a street and passed him, she didn't think she would have recognized him.

  "No," Zoe said.

  "Anything unusual happen at math class?"

  "No."

  "Did you stay for the entire period?"

  "No," Zoe said. "I had an orthodontist appointment at ten-fifteen, so I left a little before ten to sign out in the office and wait for my mom."

  "Where was she going to meet you?"

  "On the front steps. She was just going to drive up."

  "Did you sign out of school?"

  "Yes."

  "Did you go to the front steps?"

  "Yes."

  "Was anyone else out there?"

  "No. Class was in session."

  She watched the prosecutor pull out a big overhead photograph of the school and the parking lot, the way it used to be. Zoe had driven by the construction, and now there was a big fence around the entire area. "Can you show me where you were standing?" Zoe pointed. "Let the record show that the witness pointed to the front steps of Sterling High," Ms. Leven said. "Now, what happened while you were standing and waiting for your mother?"

  "There was an explosion."

  "Did you know where it came from?"

  "Somewhere behind the school," Zoe said, and she glanced at that big poster again, as if it might even now just detonate.

  "What happened next?"

  Zoe rubbed her hand over her leg. "He . . . he came around the side of the school and started to come up the steps . . ."

  "By 'he,' do you mean the defendant, Peter Houghton?"

  Zoe nodded, swallowing. "He came up the steps and I looked at him and he . . . he pointed a gun and shot me." She was blinking too fast now, trying not to cry.

  "Where did he shoot you, Zoe?" the prosecutor asked gently.

  "In the leg."

  "Did Peter say anything to you before he shot you?"

  "No."

  "Did you know who he was at that point in time?"

  Zoe shook her head. "No."

  "Did you recognize his face?"

  "Yes, from around school and all . . ."

  Ms. Leven turned her back to the jury and gave Zoe a little wink, which made her feel better. "What kind of gun was he using, Zoe? Was it a small gun he held in one hand, or a big gun that he carried with two hands?"

  "A small gun."

  "How many times did he shoot?"

  "One."

  "Did he say anything after he shot you?"

  "I don't remember," Zoe said.

  "What did you do?"

  "I wanted to get away from him, but my leg felt like it was on fire. I tried to run but I couldn't do it--I just sort of crumpled and fell down the stairs, and then I couldn't move my arm either."

  "What did the defendant do?"

  "He went into the school."

  "Did you see which way he went?"

  "No."

  "How's your leg now?" the prosecutor asked.

  "I still need a cane," Zoe said. "I got an infection because the bullet blew fabric from my jeans into my leg. The tendon's attached to the scar tissue, and that's still really sensitive. The doctors don't know if they want to do another surgery, because it might do more damage."

  "Zoe, were you on a sports team last year?"

  "Soccer," she said, and she looked down at her leg. "Today they start practice for the season."

  Ms. Leven turned to the judge. "Nothing further," she said. "Zoe, Mr. McAfee might have a few questions for you."

  The other lawyer stood up. Zoe was nervous about this part, because even though she'd gotten to rehearse with the prosecutor, she had no idea what Peter's attorney would ask her. It was like any other exam; she wanted to have the right answers. "When Peter was holding the gun, he was about three feet away from you?" the lawyer asked.

  "Yes."

  "He didn't look like he was running right toward you, did he?"

  "I guess not."

  "He looked like he was just trying to run up the stairs, right?"

  "Yeah."

  "And you were just waiting on the stairs, correct?"

  "Yes."

  "So it's fair to say that you were in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

  "Objection," Ms. Leven said.

  The judge--a big man with a mane of white hair who sort of scared Zoe--shook his head. "Overruled."

  "No further questions," the lawyer said, and then Ms. Leven rose again. "After Peter went inside," she asked, "what did you do?"

  "I started screaming for help." Zoe looked into the gallery, trying to find her mother. If she looked at her mother, then she could say what she had to say next, because it was already over and that was what you had to keep remembering, no matter how much it felt like it wasn't. "At first nobody came," Zoe murmured. "And then . . . then everybody did."

  *

  Michael Beach had seen Zoe Patterson leaving the room where the witnesses were sequestered. It was a weird collection of kids--everyone from losers like himself to popular kids like Brady Pryce. Even stranger, no one seemed to be inclined to break into their usual pods--the geeks in one corner, the jocks in another, and so on. Instead, they'd all just sat down next to each other at the one long conference table. Emma Alexis--who was one of the cool, beautiful girls--was now paralyzed from the waist down, and she rolled her wheelchair up right beside Justin. She'd asked him if she could have half of his glazed donut.

  "When Peter first came into the gym," the prosecutor asked, "what did he do?"

  "Wave a gun around," Michael said.

  "Could you see what kind of gun it was?"

  "Well, like a smallish one."

  "A handgun?"

  "Yes."

  "Did he say anything?"

  Michael glanced at the defense table. "He said 'All you jocks, front and center.'"

  "What happened?"

  "A kid started to run toward him, like he was going to take him down."

  "W
ho was that?"

  "Noah James. He's--he was--a senior. Peter shot him, and he just collapsed."

  "Then what happened?" the prosecutor asked.

  Michael took a deep breath. "Peter said, 'Who's next?' and my friend Justin grabbed me and started dragging me to the door."

  "How long had you and Justin been friends?"

  "Since third grade," Michael said.

  "And then?"

  "Peter must have seen something moving, so he turned around and he just started to shoot."

  "Did he hit you?"

  Michael shook his head and pressed his lips together.

  "Michael," the prosecutor said gently, "who did he hit?"

  "Justin got in front of me when the shooting started. And then he . . . he fell down. There was blood everywhere and I was trying to stop it, like they do on TV, by pushing on his stomach. I wasn't paying any attention to anything anymore, except Justin, and then all of a sudden I felt a gun press up against my head."

  "What happened?"

  "I closed my eyes," Michael said. "I thought he was going to kill me."

  "And then?"

  "I heard this noise, and when I opened my eyes, he was pulling out the thing that had all the bullets in it and jamming in another one."

  The prosecutor walked up to a table and held up a gun clip. Just seeing it in her hand made Michael shudder. "Is this what went into the gun?" she asked.

  "Yes."

  "What happened after that?"

  "He didn't shoot me," Michael said. "Three people ran across the gym, and he followed them into the locker room."

  "And Justin?"

  "I watched it," Michael whispered. "I watched his face while he died."

  It was the first thing he saw in the morning when he awakened, and the last thing he saw before he went to bed: that moment where the shine in Justin's eyes just dulled. When the life left a person, it wasn't by degrees. It was instant, like someone pulling down a shade on a window.

  The prosecutor came closer. "Michael," she said, "you all right?"

  He nodded.

  "Were you and Justin jocks?"

  "Not even close," he admitted.

  "Were you part of the popular crowd?"

  "No."

  "Had you and Justin ever been bullied by anyone in school?"

  Michael glanced, for the first time, at Peter Houghton. "Who hasn't?" he said.

  *

  As Lacy waited for her turn to speak on Peter's behalf, she thought back to the first time she realized she could hate her own child.

 
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