Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  "Are you kidding?" Diana said. "Who did the jury think was in the gallery? Vagrants? Of course it's full of people who were affected by the shootings. That's why they're here."

  Judge Wagner glanced up. "Mr. McAfee, I'm not declaring a mistrial. I understand your concern, but I think I can address it with an instruction to the jurors to disregard any sort of emotional outburst from the gallery. Everyone involved in this case understands that emotions are running high, and that people may not always be able to control themselves. However, I'll also issue a cautionary instruction to the gallery to restrain themselves, or I will close the courtroom to observers."

  Jordan sucked in his breath. "Please do note my exception, Your Honor."

  "Of course, Mr. McAfee," he said. "See you in fifteen minutes."

  As the judge exited for chambers, Jordan headed back to the defense table, trying to divine some sort of magic that would save Peter. The truth was, no matter what King Wah had said, no matter how clear the explanation of PTSD, no matter if the jury completely empathized with Peter--Jordan had forgotten one salient point: they would always feel sorrier for the victims.

  Diana smiled at him on her way out of the courtroom. "Nice try," she said.

  *

  Selena's favorite room in the courthouse was tucked near the janitor's closet and filled with old maps. She had no idea what they were doing in a courthouse instead of a library, but she liked to hide up there sometimes when she got tired of watching Jordan strut around in front of the bench. She'd come here a few times during the trial to nurse Sam on the days they didn't have a sitter to watch him.

  Now she led Lacy into her haven and sat her down in front of a world map that had the southern hemisphere as its center. Australia was purple, New Zealand green. It was Selena's favorite. She liked the red dragons painted into the seas, and the fierce storm clouds in the corners. She liked the calligraphed compass, drawn for direction. She liked thinking that the world might look completely different from another angle.

  Lacy Houghton had not stopped crying, and Selena knew she had to--or the cross-examination was going to be a disaster. She sat down beside Lacy. "Can I get you something? Soup? Coffee?"

  Lacy shook her head and wiped her nose with a tissue. "I can't do anything to save him."

  "That's Jordan's job," Selena said, although to be frank, she couldn't imagine a scenario for Peter that did not involve serious jail time. She racked her brain, trying to think of what else she could say or do to calm Lacy down, just as Sam reached up and yanked on one of her braids.

  Bingo.

  "Lacy," Selena said. "Do you mind holding him while I look for something in my bag?"

  Lacy lifted her gaze. "You . . . you don't mind?"

  Selena shook her head and transferred the baby to her lap. Sam stared up at Lacy, diligently trying to fit his fist in his mouth. "Gah," he said.

  A smile ghosted across Lacy's face. "Little man," she whispered, and she shifted the baby so that she could hold him more firmly.

  "Excuse me?"

  Selena turned to see the door crack open and Alex Cormier's face peek inside. She immediately stood up. "Your Honor, you can't come in--"

  "Let her," Lacy said.

  Selena stepped back as the judge walked into the room and sat down beside Lacy. She put a Styrofoam cup on the table and reached out, smiling a little as Sam grabbed onto her pinky finger and tugged on it. "The coffee here is awful, but I brought you some anyway."

  "Thanks."

  Selena moved gingerly behind the stacks of maps until she was standing behind the two women, watching them with the same stunned curiosity she'd have shown if a lioness cozied up to an impala instead of eating it.

  "You did well in there," the judge said.

  Lacy shook her head. "I didn't do well enough."

  "She won't ask you much on cross, if anything."

  Lacy lifted the baby to her chest and stroked his back. "I don't think I can go back in there," she said, her voice hitching.

  "You can, and you will," the judge said. "Because Peter needs you to."

  "They hate him. They hate me."

  Judge Cormier put her hand on Lacy's shoulder. "Not everyone," she said. "When we go back, I'm going to be sitting in the front row. You don't have to look at the prosecutor. You just look at me."

  Selena's jaw dropped. Often, with fragile witnesses or young children, they'd plant a person as a focal point to make testifying less scary. To make them feel that out of that whole crowd of people, they had at least one friend.

  Sam found his thumb and started to suck on it, falling asleep against Lacy's chest. Selena watched Alex reach out, stroke the dark marabou tufts of her son's hair. "Everyone thinks you make mistakes when you're young," the judge said to Lacy. "But I don't think we make any fewer when we're grown up."

  *

  As Jordan walked into the holding cell where Peter was being kept, he was already doing damage control. "It's not going to hurt us," he announced. "The judge is going to give the jury instructions to disregard that whole outburst."

  Peter sat on the metal bench, his head in his hands.

  "Peter," Jordan said. "Did you hear me? I know it looked bad, and I know it was upsetting, but legally, it isn't going to affect your--"

  "I need to tell her why I did it," Peter interrupted.

  "Your mother?" Jordan said. "You can't. She's still sequestered." He hesitated. "Look, as soon as I can get you to talk to her, I--"

  "No. I mean, I have to tell everyone."

  Jordan looked at his client. Peter was dry-eyed; his fists rested on the bench. When he lifted his gaze, it wasn't the terrified face of the child he'd sat beside in court on the first day of the trial. It was someone who had grown up, overnight.

  "We're getting out your side of the story," Jordan said. "You just have to be patient. I know this is hard to believe, but it's going to come together. We're doing the best we can."

  "We're not," Peter said. "You are." He stood up, walking closer to Jordan. "You promised. You said it was our turn. But when you said that, you meant your turn, didn't you? You never intended for me to get up there and tell everyone what really happened."

  "Did you see what they did to your mother?" Jordan argued. "Do you have any idea what's going to happen to you if you get up there and sit in that witness box?"

  In that instant, something in Peter broke: not his anger, and not his hidden fear, but that last spider-thread of hope. Jordan thought of the testimony Michael Beach had given, about how it looked when the life left a person's face. You did not have to witness someone dying to see that.

  "Jordan," Peter said. "If I'm going to spend the rest of my life in jail, I want them to hear my side of the story."

  Jordan opened his mouth, intending to tell his client absolutely fucking not, he would not be taking the stand and ruining the tower of cards Jordan had created in the hope of an acquittal. But who was he kidding? Certainly not Peter.

  He took a deep breath. "All right," he said. "Tell me what you're going to say."

  *

  Diana Leven didn't have any questions for Lacy Houghton, which--Jordan knew--was most likely a blessing. In addition to the fact that there wasn't anything the prosecutor could ask her that hadn't been covered better by Maddie Shaw's father, he hadn't known how much more stress Lacy could take without being rendered incomprehensible on the stand. As she was escorted from the courtroom, the judge looked up from his file. "Your next witness, Mr. McAfee?"

  Jordan inhaled deeply. "The defense calls Peter Houghton."

  Behind him, there was a flurry of activity. Rustling, as reporters dug fresh pens out of their pockets and turned to a fresh page on their pads. Murmurs, as the families of the victims traced Peter's steps to the witness stand. He could see Selena off to one side, her eyes wide at this unplanned development.

  Peter sat down and stared only at Jordan, just as he'd told him to. Good boy, he thought. "Are you Peter Houghton?"

  "Yes," Peter sai
d, but he wasn't close enough to the microphone for it to carry. He leaned forward and repeated the word. "Yes," he said, and this time, an unholy screech from the PA system rang through the courtroom speakers.

  "What grade are you in, Peter?"

  "I was a junior when I got arrested."

  "How old are you now?"

  "Eighteen."

  Jordan walked toward the jury box. "Peter, are you the person who went to Sterling High School the morning of March 6, 2007, and shot and killed ten people?"

  "Yes."

  "And wounded nineteen others?"

  "Yes."

  "And caused damage to countless other people, and to a great deal of property?"

  "I know," Peter said.

  "You're not denying that today, are you?"

  "No."

  "Can you tell the jury," Jordan asked, "why you did it?"

  Peter looked into his eyes. "They started it."

  "Who?"

  "The bullies. The jocks. The ones who called me a freak my whole life."

  "Do you remember their names?"

  "There are so many of them," Peter said.

  "Can you tell us why you felt you had to resort to violence?"

  Jordan had told Peter that whatever he did, he could not get angry. That he had to stay calm and collected while he spoke, or his testimony would backfire on him--even more than Jordan already expected. "I tried to do what my mom wanted me to do," Peter explained. "I tried to be like them, but that didn't work out."

  "What do you mean by that?"

  "I tried out for soccer, but never got any time on the field. Once, I helped some kids play a practical joke on a teacher by moving his car from the parking lot into the gym. . . . I got detention, but the other kids didn't, because they were on the basketball team and had a game on Saturday."

  "But, Peter," Jordan said, "why this?"

  Peter wet his lips. "It wasn't supposed to end this way."

  "Did you plan to kill all those people?"

  They had rehearsed this in the holding cell. All Peter had to say was what he'd said before, when Jordan had coached him. No. No I didn't.

  Peter looked down at his hands. "When I did it in the game," he said quietly, "I won."

  Jordan froze. Peter had broken from the script, and now Jordan couldn't find his line. He only knew that the curtain was going to close before he finished. Scrambling, he replayed Peter's response in his mind: it wasn't all bad. It made him sound depressed, like a loner.

  You can salvage this, Jordan thought to himself.

  He walked up to Peter, trying desperately to communicate that he needed focus here; he needed Peter to play along with him. He needed to show the jury that this boy had chosen to stand before them in order to show remorse. "Do you understand now that there weren't any winners that day, Peter?"

  Jordan saw something shine in Peter's eyes. A tiny flame, one that had been rekindled--optimism. Jordan had done his job too well: after five months of telling Peter that he could get him acquitted, that he had a strategy, that he knew what he was doing . . . Peter, goddammit, had picked this moment to finally believe him.

  "The game's not over yet, right?" Peter said, and he smiled hopefully at Jordan.

  As two of the jurors turned away, Jordan fought for composure. He walked back to the defense table, cursing under his breath. This had always been Peter's downfall, hadn't it? He had no idea what he looked like or sounded like to the ordinary observer, the person who didn't know that Peter wasn't actively trying to sound like a homicidal killer, but instead trying to share a private joke with one of his only friends.

  "Mr. McAfee," the judge said. "Do you have any further questions?"

  He had a thousand: How could you do this to me? How could you do this to yourself? How can I make this jury understand that you didn't mean that the way it sounded? He shook his head, puzzling through his course of action, and the judge took that for an answer.

  "Ms. Leven?" he said.

  Jordan's head snapped up. Wait, he wanted to say. Wait, I was still thinking. He held his breath. If Diana asked Peter anything--even what his middle name was--then he'd have a chance to redirect. And surely, then, he could leave the jury with a different impression of Peter.

  Diana riffled through the notes she'd been taking, and then she turned them facedown on the table. "The state has no questions, Your Honor," she said.

  Judge Wagner summoned a bailiff. "Take Mr. Houghton back to his seat. We'll adjourn court for the weekend."

  As soon as the jury was dismissed, the courtroom erupted in a roar of questions. Reporters swam up the stream of onlookers toward the bar, hoping to corral Jordan for a quote. He grabbed his briefcase and hurried out the back door, the one through which the bailiffs were taking Peter.

  "Hold it," he called out. He jogged closer to the men, who stood with Peter between them, his hands cuffed. "I have to talk to my client about Monday."

  The bailiffs looked at each other, and then at Jordan. "Two minutes," they said, but they didn't step away. If Jordan wanted to talk to Peter, this was the only circumstance in which he was going to do it.

  Peter's face was flushed, beaming. "Did I do a good job?"

  Jordan hesitated, fishing for a string of words. "Did you say what you wanted to say?"

  "Yeah."

  "Then you did a really good job," Jordan said.

  He stood in the hallway and watched the bailiffs lead Peter away. Just before he turned the corner, Peter lifted his conjoined hands, a wave. Jordan nodded, his hands in his pockets.

  He slipped out of the jail through a rear door and walked past three media vans with satellite dishes perched on the top like enormous white birds. Through the back window of each van, Jordan could see the producers editing video for the evening news. His face was on every television monitor.

  He passed the last van and heard, through the open window, Peter's voice. The game's not over yet.

  Jordan hiked his briefcase over his shoulder and walked a little faster. "Oh, yes it is," he said.

  *

  Selena had made her husband what he referred to as the Executioner's Meal, the same thing she served him each night before a closing argument: roast goose, as in, Your goose is cooked. With Sam already in bed, she slipped a plate in front of Jordan and then sat down across from him. "I don't even really know what to say," she admitted.

  Jordan pushed the food away. "I'm not ready for this yet."

  "What are you talking about?"

  "I can't end the case with that."

  "Baby," Selena pointed out, "after today, you couldn't save this case with an entire squad of firefighters."

  "I can't just give up. I told Peter he had a chance." He turned his anguished face up to Selena's. "I was the one who let him get up on the stand, even though I knew better. There's got to be something I can do . . . something I can say so that Peter's testimony isn't the last one the jury's left with."

  Selena sighed and reached for the dinner plate. She took Jordan's knife and fork and cut herself a piece, dipped it in cherry sauce. "This is some damn fine goose, Jordan," she said. "You don't know what you're missing."

  "The witness list," Jordan said, standing up and rummaging through a stack of papers on the other end of the dining room table. "There's got to be someone we haven't called who can help us." He scanned the names. "Who's Louise Herrman?"

  "Peter's third-grade teacher," Selena said, her mouth full.

  "Why the hell is she on the witness list?"

  "She called us," Selena said. "She told us that if we needed her, she'd be willing to testify that he was a good boy in third grade."

  "Well, that's not going to work. I need someone recent." He sighed. "There's nobody else here . . ." Flipping to the second page, he saw a single, final name typed. "Except Josie Cormier," Jordan said slowly.

  Selena put down her fork. "You're calling Alex's daughter?"

  "Since when do you call Judge Cormier Alex?"

  "The girl doesn't re
member anything."

  "Well, I'm completely screwed. Maybe she remembers something now. Let's bring her in and see if she'll talk."

  Selena sifted through the piles of papers that covered the serving table, the fireplace mantel, the top of Sam's walker. "Here's her statement," she said, handing it to Jordan.

  The first page was the affidavit that Judge Cormier had brought him--the one that said Jordan wouldn't put Josie on the stand because she didn't know anything. The second was the most recent interview the girl had given to Patrick Ducharme. "They've been friends since kindergarten."

  "Were friends."

  "I don't care. Diana's already laid the groundwork here--Peter had a crush on Josie; he killed her boyfriend. If we can get her to say something nice about him--maybe even to show that she forgives him--it will carry weight with the jury." He stood up. "I'm going back to the courthouse," he said. "I need a subpoena."

  *

  When the doorbell rang on Saturday morning, Josie was still in her pajamas. She'd slept like the dead, which wasn't surprising, because she hadn't managed to sleep well all week. Her dreams were full of highways that carried only wheelchairs; of combination locks with no numbers; of beauty queens without faces.

  She was the only person left sitting in the sequestered witness room, which meant that this was nearly over; that soon, she'd be able to breathe again.

  Josie opened the door to find the tall, stunning African-American woman who was married to Jordan McAfee smiling at her, holding out a piece of paper. "I need to give you this, Josie," she said. "Is your mom home?"

  Josie took the folded blue note. Maybe it was like a cast party for the end of the trial. That would be kind of cool. She called for her mother over her shoulder. Alex appeared with Patrick trailing behind.

  "Oh," Selena said, blinking.

  Unflappable, her mother folded her arms. "What's going on?"

  "Judge, I'm sorry to bother you on a Saturday, but my husband was wondering if Josie might be free to speak to him today."

  "Why?"

  "Because he's subpoenaed Josie to testify on Monday."

  The room started to spin. "Testify?" Josie repeated.

  Her mother stepped forward, and from the look on her face, she probably would have done serious damage if Patrick hadn't wrapped an arm around her waist to hold her back. He plucked the blue paper out of Josie's hand and scanned it.

 
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