Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  "No."

  "How many weapons were eventually found in the locker room?"

  "Four," Patrick said. "One handgun with the defendant, one on the floor, and two sawed-off shotguns in a knapsack."

  "In addition to processing the weapons found in the locker room for fingerprints, did the lab do any other forensic testing on them?"

  "Yes, a ballistics test."

  "Can you explain that?"

  "Well," Patrick said, "you shoot the gun into water, basically. Every bullet that comes out of a gun has markings on it that are put in place when a bullet twists its way through the barrel of the gun. That means you can type each bullet to a gun that has been fired by test-firing a gun to see what a bullet would look like once fired from it, and then matching up bullets that have been retrieved. You can also tell whether a gun has ever been fired at all by examining residue within the barrel."

  "Did you test all four weapons?"

  "Yes."

  "And what were the results of your tests?"

  "Only two of the four guns were actually fired," Patrick said. "The handguns, A and B. Of the bullets that we found, all were determined to have come from Gun A. Gun B, when we retrieved it, had been jammed with a double feed. That means two bullets had entered the chamber at the same time, which keeps the gun from properly functioning. When the trigger was pulled, it locked up."

  "But you said Gun B was fired."

  "At least once." Patrick looked up at Diana. "The bullet has not been recovered to date."

  *

  Diana Leven led Patrick meticulously through the discovery of ten dead students and nineteen wounded ones. He started with the moment that he walked out of Sterling High with Josie Cormier in his arms and placed her in an ambulance, and ended with the last body being moved to the medical examiner's morgue; then the judge adjourned court for the day.

  After he got off the stand, Patrick talked with Diana for a moment about what would happen tomorrow. The double doors of the courtroom were open, and through them, Patrick could see reporters sucking the stories out of any angry parent who was willing to give an interview. He recognized the mother of a girl--Jada Knight--who'd been shot in the back while she was running from the cafeteria. "My daughter won't go to school this year until eleven o'clock, because she can't handle being there when third period starts," the woman said. "Everything scares her. This has ruined her whole life; why should Peter Houghton's punishment be any less?"

  He had no desire to run the media gauntlet, and as the only witness for the day, he was bound to be mobbed. So instead, Patrick sat down on the wooden railing that separated the court professionals from the gallery.

  "Hey."

  He turned at the sound of Alex's voice. "What are you still doing here?" He would have assumed she was upstairs, springing Josie out of the sequestered witness room, as she had done yesterday.

  "I could ask you the same thing."

  Patrick nodded toward the doorway. "I wasn't in the mood to do battle."

  Alex came closer, until she was standing between his legs, and wrapped her arms around him. She buried her face against his neck, and when she took a deep, rattling breath, Patrick felt it in his own chest. "You could have fooled me," she said.

  *

  Jordan McAfee was not having a good day. The baby had spit up on him on his way out the door. He had been ten minutes late for court because the goddamn media were multiplying like jackrabbits and there were no parking spots, and Judge Wagner had reprimanded him for his tardiness. Add to this the fact that for whatever reason, Peter had stopped communicating with Jordan except for the odd grunt, and that his first order of the morning would be to cross-examine the knight in shining armor who'd rushed into the school to confront the evil shooter--well, being a defense attorney didn't get much more fabulous than this.

  "Detective," he said, approaching Patrick Ducharme on the witness stand, "after you finished with the medical examiner, you went back to the police department?"

  "Yes."

  "You were holding Peter there, weren't you?"

  "Yes."

  "In a jail cell . . . with bars and a lock on it?"

  "It's a holding cell," Ducharme corrected.

  "Had Peter been charged with any crime yet?"

  "No."

  "He wasn't actually charged with anything until the following morning, is that right?"

  "That's correct."

  "Where did he stay that night?"

  "At the Grafton County Jail."

  "Detective, did you speak to my client at all?" Jordan asked.

  "Yes, I did."

  "What did you ask him?"

  The detective folded his arms. "If he wanted some coffee."

  "Did he take you up on the offer?"

  "Yes."

  "Did you ask him at all about the incident at the school?"

  "I asked him what had happened," Ducharme said.

  "How did Peter respond?"

  The detective frowned. "He said he wanted his mother."

  "Did he start crying?"

  "Yes."

  "In fact, he didn't stop crying, not the whole time you tried to question him, isn't that true?"

  "Yes, it is."

  "Did you ask him any other questions, Detective?"

  "No."

  Jordan stepped forward. "You didn't bother to, because my client was in no shape to be going through an interview."

  "I didn't ask him any more questions," Ducharme said evenly. "I have no idea what kind of shape he was in."

  "So you took a kid--a seventeen-year-old kid, who was crying for his mother--back to your holding cell?"

  "Yes. But I told him I wanted to help him."

  Jordan glanced at the jury and let that statement sink in for a moment. "What was Peter's response?"

  "He looked at me," the detective answered, "and he said, 'They started it.'"

  *

  Curtis Uppergate had been a forensic psychiatrist for twenty-five years. He held degrees from three Ivy League medical schools and had a CV thick enough to serve as a doorstop. He was lily-white, but wore his shoulder-length gray hair cornrowed, and had come to court in a dashiki. Diana nearly expected him to call her Sista when she questioned him.

  "What's your field of expertise, Doctor?"

  "I work with violent teenagers. I assess them on behalf of the court to determine the nature of their mental illnesses, if any, and figure out an appropriate treatment plan. I also advise the court as to what their state of mind may have been at the time a crime has been committed. I worked with the FBI to create their profiles of school shooters, and to examine parallels between cases at Thurston High, Paducah, Rocori, and Columbine."

  "When did you first become involved in this case?"

  "Last April."

  "Did you review Peter Houghton's records?"

  "Yes," Uppergate said. "I reviewed all the records I received from you, Ms. Leven--extensive school and medical records, police reports, interviews done by Detective Ducharme."

  "What, in particular, were you looking for?"

  "Evidence of mental illness," he said. "Physical explanations for the behavior. A psychosocial construct that might resemble those of other perpetrators of school violence."

  Diana glanced at the jury; their eyes were glazing over. "As a result of your work, did you reach any conclusion with a reasonable degree of medical certainty as to Peter Houghton's mental state on March 6, 2007?"

  "Yes," Uppergate said, and he faced the jury, speaking slowly and clearly. "Peter Houghton was not suffering from any mental illness at the time he started shooting at Sterling High School."

  "Can you tell us how you reached that conclusion?"

  "The definition of sanity implies being in touch with the reality of what you are doing at the time you do it. There's evidence that Peter had been planning this attack for a while--from stockpiling ammunition and guns, to making lists of targeted victims, to rehearsing his Armageddon through a self-designed video game
. The shooting was not a departure for Peter--it was something he had been considering all along, with great premeditation."

  "Are there other examples of Peter's premeditation?"

  "When he first reached the school and saw a friend in the parking lot, he tried to warn him off, for safety. He lit a pipe bomb in a car before going into the school, to serve as a diversion so that he could enter unimpeded with his guns. He concealed weapons that were preloaded. He targeted areas in the school where he himself had been victimized. These are not the acts of someone who doesn't know what he's doing--they're the hallmarks of a rational, angry--perhaps suffering, but certainly not delusional--young man."

  Diana paced in front of the witness stand. "Doctor, were you able to compare information from past school shootings to this one, in order to support your conclusion that the defendant was sane and responsible for his actions?"

  Uppergate flipped his braids over his shoulder. "None of the shooters from Columbine, Paducah, Thurston, or Rocori had status. It's not that they're loners, but in their minds, they perceive that they are not members of the group to the same degree as anyone else in that group. Peter was on the soccer team, for example, but was one of two students never put in to play. He was bright, but his grades didn't reflect that. He had a romantic interest, but that interest went unreturned. The only venue where he did feel comfortable was in a world of his own creation--computer games where Peter was not only comfortable . . . he was God."

  "Does that mean he was living in a fantasy world on March sixth?"

  "Absolutely not. If he had been, he wouldn't have been planning his attack as rationally and methodically."

  Diana turned. "There's been some evidence, Doctor, that Peter was the subject of bullying in school. Have you reviewed that information?"

  "Yes, I have."

  "Has your research told you anything about the effect of bullying on kids like Peter?"

  "In every single school shooting case," Uppergate said, "the bullying card gets played. It's the bullying, allegedly, that makes the school shooter snap one day and fight back with violence. However, in every other case--and this one, in my opinion--the bullying seems exaggerated by the shooter. The teasing isn't significantly worse for the shooter than it is for anyone else at the school."

  "Then why shoot?"

  "It becomes a public way to take control of a situation in which they usually feel powerless," Curtis Uppergate said. "Which, again, means it's something they've been planning for a while."

  "Your witness," Diana said.

  Jordan stood up and approached Dr. Uppergate. "When did you first meet Peter?"

  "Well. We haven't officially been introduced."

  "But you're a psychiatrist?"

  "Last time I checked," Uppergate said.

  "I thought the field of psychiatry was based on gaining a rapport with your client and getting to know what he thinks about the world and how he processes it."

  "That's part of it."

  "That's an incredibly important part of it, isn't it?" Jordan asked.

  "Yes."

  "Would you write a prescription for Peter today?"

  "No."

  "Because you'd have to physically meet with him before you decided whether he was an appropriate candidate for that medicine, correct?"

  "Yes."

  "Doctor, did you get a chance to talk to the school shooter from Thurston High?"

  "Yes, I did," Uppergate said.

  "What about the boy from Paducah?"

  "Yes."

  "Rocori?"

  "Yes."

  "Not Columbine . . ."

  "I'm a psychiatrist, Mr. McAfee," Uppergate said. "Not a medium. However, I did speak at length to the families of the two boys. I read their diaries and examined their videos."

  "Doctor," Jordan asked, "did you ever once speak directly to Peter Houghton?"

  Curtis Uppergate hesitated. "No," he said. "I did not."

  Jordan sat down, and Diana faced the judge. "Your Honor," she said. "The prosecution rests."

  *

  "Here," Jordan said, tossing Peter half a sandwich as he entered the holding cell. "Or are you on a hunger strike, too?"

  Peter glared at him, but unwrapped the sandwich and took a bite. "I don't like turkey."

  "I don't really care." He leaned against the cement wall of the holding cell. "You want to tell me who peed in your Cheerios today?"

  "Do you have any idea what it's like to sit in that room and listen to all these people talk about me like I'm not there? Like I can't even hear what they're saying about me?"

  "That's the way the game's played," Jordan said. "Now, it's our turn."

  Peter stood up and walked to the front of the cell. "Is that what this is to you? Some game?"

  Jordan closed his eyes, counting to ten for patience. "Of course not."

  "How much money do you get paid?" Peter asked.

  "That's not your--"

  "How much?"

  "Ask your parents," Jordan said flatly.

  "You get paid whether I win or lose, right?"

  Jordan hesitated, and then nodded.

  "So you don't really give a shit what the outcome is, do you?"

  It struck Jordan, with some wonder, that Peter had the chops to be an excellent defense attorney. That sort of circular reasoning--the kind that left the person being grilled hung out to dry--was exactly what you aimed for in a courtroom.

  "What?" Peter accused. "Now you're laughing at me, too?"

  "No. I was just thinking you'd be a good lawyer."

  Peter sank down again. "Great. Maybe the state prison offers that degree along with a GED."

  Jordan reached for the sandwich in Peter's hand and took a bite. "Let's just wait and see how it goes," he said.

  *

  A jury was always impressed by King Wah's record, and Jordan knew it. He'd interviewed over five hundred subjects. He'd been an expert witness at 248 trials, not including this one. He had written more papers than any other forensic psychiatrist with a specialty in post-traumatic stress disorder. And--here was the beautiful part--he'd taught three seminars that had been attended by the prosecution's witness, Dr. Curtis Uppergate.

  "Dr. Wah," Jordan began, "when did you first begin to work on this case?"

  "I was contacted by you, Mr. McAfee, in June. I agreed to meet with Peter at that time."

  "Did you?"

  "Yes, for over ten hours of interviews. I also sat down and read the police reports, the medical and school records of both Peter and his older brother. I met with his parents. I then sent him to be examined by my colleague, Dr. Lawrence Ghertz, who is a pediatric neuropsychiatrist."

  "What does a pediatric neuropsychiatrist do?"

  "Studies organic causes for mental symptomology and disorder in children."

  "What did Dr. Ghertz do?"

  "He took several MRI scans of Peter's brain," King said. "Dr. Ghertz uses brain scans to show that there are structural changes in the adolescent brain that not only explain the timing of some major mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but also give biological reasons for some of the wild conduct that parents usually attribute to raging hormones. That's not to say that there aren't raging hormones in adolescents, but there's also a paucity of the cognitive controls that are necessary for mature behavior."

  Jordan turned to the jury. "Did you get that? Because I'm lost . . ."

  King grinned. "Layman's terms? You can tell a lot about a kid by looking at his brain. There might actually be a physiological reason why, when you tell your seventeen-year-old to put the milk back in the fridge, he nods and then completely ignores you."

  "Did you send Peter to Dr. Ghertz because you thought he was bipolar or schizophrenic?"

  "No. But part of my responsibility involves ruling those causes out before I begin to look at other reasons for his behavior."

  "Did Dr. Ghertz send you a report detailing his findings?"

  "Yes."

  "Can y
ou show us?" Jordan lifted up a diagram of a brain that he'd already entered as evidence, and handed it to King.

  "Dr. Ghertz said that Peter's brain looked very similar to a typical adolescent brain in that the prefrontal cortex was not as developed as you'd find in a mature adult brain."

  "Whoa," Jordan said. "You're losing me again."

  "The prefrontal cortex is right here, behind the forehead. It's sort of like the president of the brain, in charge of calculated, rational thought. It's also the last part of the brain to mature, which is why teenagers often get into so much trouble." Then he pointed to a tiny spot on the diagram, centrally located. "This is called the amygdala. Since a teenager's decision-making center isn't completely turned on yet, they rely on this little piece of the brain instead. This is the impulsive epicenter of the brain--the one that houses feelings like fear and anger and gut instinct. Or in other words--the part of the brain that corresponds to 'Because my friends thought it was a good idea, too.'"

  Most of the jury chuckled, and Jordan caught Peter's eye. He wasn't slumped in the chair anymore; he was sitting up, listening carefully. "It's fascinating, really," King said, "because a twenty-year-old might be physiologically capable of making an informed decision . . . but a seventeen-year-old won't be."

  "Did Dr. Ghertz perform any other psychological tests?"

  "Yes. He did a second MRI, one that was performed while Peter was working on a simple task. Peter was given photographs of faces and asked to identify the emotions reflected on them. Unlike a test group of adults who got most of those assessments correct, Peter tended to make errors. In particular, he identified fearful expressions as angry, confused, or sad. The MRI scan showed that while he was focused on this task, it was the amygdala that was doing the work . . . not the prefrontal cortex."

  "What can you infer from that, Dr. Wah?"

  "Well, Peter's capacity for rational, planned, premeditated thought is still in its developmental stages. Physiologically, he just can't do it yet."

  Jordan watched the jurors' response to this statement. "Dr. Wah, you said you met with Peter as well?"

  "Yes, at the correctional facility, for ten one-hour sessions."

  "Where did you meet with him?"

  "In a conference room. I explained who I was, and that I was working with his attorney," King said.

  "Was Peter reluctant to speak to you?"

  "No." The psychiatrist paused. "He seemed to enjoy the company."

  "Did anything strike you about him, at first?"

  "He seemed unemotional. Not crying, or smiling, or laughing, or showing hostility. In the business, we call it flat affect."

 
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