The First Degree (Short Story)

He’s the same age. Same hair color and build. Same scared eyes.

“How do you plead Mr. Turner?”

There was no pause. “Not guilty, your honor.”

Only 20 years old and his life is in the hands of a conservative old man, a random group of people, and of course, me.

“Mr. Helzman, is there a remand?” Judge Philips’ booming voice finally cracked into my thoughts.

“Uh…Yes, You’re Honor. Double homicide and arson makes the defendant an obvious flight risk. Bail set at 500,000.”

“Agreed. Bail stands at 500,000. Officer?”

There was no argument from the other side since the defendant never planned on leaving. In fact, there was nowhere to return to. He had burned it all to free himself from captivity—only to be introduced to a new cell. A much more peaceful one.

The burly guard to the side of the courtroom slowly made his way to Joseph Turner with a disgusted scowl on his face. The price of murder is judgment from everyone—especially outside the court house. Marked forever a killer, Joseph Turner had changed his life in just one hour. His safety and reputation all hinged on the trial of his life, but the judgment will always be there. Even if you win, you still lose.

Back at the office I stared at the file on my desk, then at my family photo, then back at the file. Joseph Turner was a victim turned villain. Abused and beaten by an alcoholic father and a drug addicted mother. He was raised in fear along with his little sister who was possibly raped as well as abused pending a medical exam. It sounds ridiculous and would seem uncommon, but it’s not. In truth, this is my 14th domestic abuse case this year alone—3rd involving a murder. So many sick people out there. I get cops at SVU asking me all the time if what we do is worth it. If what we do makes a dent in any part of this disease. I tell them yes, and still hit the bottle at the end of each case. And cases like this one, with a kid…well that makes me want to hit it a little every day.

“Hey John, you get everything you need on the Turner case?”

“Yeah, Mick. Thanks.”

Mick Salenger was another Assistant District Attorney like me once, but got out of it to be just another paper pusher in the office. Told me once that he just didn’t believe in the justice system’s ways enough to be the one pointing the finger.

“You alright? Case hasn’t even started yet and you already look like shit.” He patted me on the shoulder with his fat hairy hands. His wedding ring hurt a little.

“Oh thanks for that, but yeah I’m doing fine. Just not used to prosecuting kids.” I placed the case files on the desk and ran my fingers through my hair. The chair leaned back and I could see Mick’s face now with just a solid glare on his horn-rimmed glasses.

“Welcome to A.D.A. Hell, my friend—why do you think Cabbot gives you the worst cases?”

“I know. I just wish she’d get HER hands dirty for a change and let me sit in a cozy office thinking about my evening plans.” Just hearing her name made me mad. Liz Cabbot was the District Attorney with enough female empowerment to crush the balls of every man within a two mile radius.

Mick laughed, “Good luck with that dream. Let me know if you need anything, I’m getting out of here while I can.”

“See ya, Mick.” I glanced over at the picture of my family on the desk as Mick started to clear the doorway.

“Oh and John—get some sleep.”

I nodded, but I don’t remember the last full night of sleep I ever got. It’s been years since I even thought about it at all. Law school didn’t help with deadlines and writing every day. But eight or more hours? Not since we were about nine years old.

“The People Versus Joseph Turner on the charges of double homicide and one count arson in the first degree. Mr. Helzman, you may begin.”

I heard Judge Philips say those words while I stared into the unmoved face of the accused. Even his plea at arraignment showed no remorse. Just a cold vindication that comes from freedom after years of oppression.

“Mr. Helzman? Mr. Helzman your witness please.” His deep booming voice echoed throughout the room.

“Oh, sorry you’re Honor. The people call the Turner’s neighbor, Jack Lowry, to the stand.”

A man in his sixties with a dark comb-over stood up and limped to the stand. He took the oath with his saggy cheeks bouncing every time his mouth opened. He was hunched over with a big round nose and small black eyes.

“Mr. Lowry, can you tell the Jury exactly what you know about Mr. Turner?”

“Joes been a good kid his whole life. Never hurt a fly. Took good care of Emily. Even helped me with some yard work last summer.” There was empathy in his voice as if he truly cared about the boy.

“Did you know Joseph’s parents?” He slumped down a bit in his seat and looked at the floor.

“Yeah…we knew ‘em. Wish we didn’t. Ralph was a loud drunk with attitude and his wife…well she was a junkie on meth or crack or somethin’. Anyways, s’damn shame with those kids bein’ in the house with all that.” His eyes were now wide with conviction.

“Did you ever see or hear the children being abused?”

He looked down again. “eh…Not really. There was one night though, real bad. The cops were out at about midnight ‘cause a bottle had flown outta the window and inta Josie Filmore’s next door. ‘Said there was a lot of yelling goin’ on. Cops got out there with Ralph shouting at the boy—said he done it. Whole neighborhood musta seen it.”

“Did he do it?”

“Ya kiddin’ me? Like I said, the kid wouldn’t hurt a fly. Doesn’t have a violent bone in his scrawny little body.”

“So who did it?”

“Look, I don’t really know. But in my personal opinion…I think Ralph was the one. I think he did it and scared the boy inta takin’ the blame.”

“Thank you, Mr. Lowry.”

The judge ordered a short break to check on his daughter. His wife had taken her in to have a minor surgery last minute and he couldn’t get out of work. None of us complained.

“HELZMAN! What the hell is wrong with you?!” A sharp voice tugged at my eardrums from the other end of the hall outside of the courtroom. The loud hammering of heels charged my way.

“Excuse me ma’am?”

“Are you going to lose this case on purpose?!” She said with her nostrils flaring. Her hair was perfectly flattened and pulled back into a tight ponytail.

“No ma’am.” I said, leaning down to get water from the fountain. I kept my eyes away from hers.

“Well it sure looks like that’s your intent! You practically gave the jury a sympathy card for the defendant!”

“Don’t worry Miss Cabbot; I know what I’m doing.”

“You had better! We cannot let this guy walk or the state will have our hides. Now you get it together quick or you’ll be looking for another job.” She stormed away; thundering with each stab of her heals upon the hard floor.

“Yes ma’am.” I bent over and took another sip.

Joseph Turner sat as relaxed as he was when he first walked in. The world was brighter and the suffering was over. What others would see as nonchalance, I knew it to be true release.

“The People call Officer David Gibbons to the stand.”

A middle-aged man with brown hair walked up to the stand and sat down with perfect posture. “Mr. Gibbons, please describe to the court exactly what you recall the night of the incident.”

He cleared his throat and took a quick glance at the defendant. “I was the first to respond to the call. One of the neighbors, Mrs. Filmore had called about possible gunshots coming from the Turner home. “

I could see what looked like fear in his eyes every time he turned his head toward Joseph.

“When I arrived, well there was smoke starting to pour out of one of the windows. I called the local Fire Department and rushed in to scout for anyone inside.” He stopped and swallowed hard. His gaze fell upon Joseph once more and his uneasiness became apparent to the rest of the Jury.

“What did you find when you entered?”

“I found…a man in his late forties on the floor of the living room dead. One shot to the back of the scull and one shot in…in the groin.”

“What else did you find?”

“I found a woman about the same age in the back bedroom. She had been shot at point-blank range in the face.”

“How could you tell that, officer?”

“Well, her face was…caved in and the splatter on the wall and bed behind her was enough to tell it.”

“And where was Joseph Turner?”

Officer Gibbons put his hand up to his mouth to wipe away a bead of sweat. He didn’t look at Joseph this time.

“I found Joseph and Emily Turner out the back door sitting under a tree.”

“What were they doing there?”

He started to shake a bit with sweat rolling down his neck. “He had the gun and gasoline next to him while he was hugging his sister. They were watching the place burn, sir.”

The courtroom shifted in silence for a moment. “Anything else?”

The officer leaned forward a bit without a flinch this time. “He was smiling.”

Back in the office e I reviewed the case file once more before the final day in court. The defense had built the case up around Joseph Turner’s parents. Good for them. It didn’t take rocket science to figure out that this home was damaged beyond repair. The things those kids were put through…

“You’re going to close this tomorrow, right?” said a stern female voice. Cabbot was leaning in the door to my office with the same tight hair and constipated face as always.

“Yeah. Don’t worry. I got this.”

She walked in a few steps and pointed a long skinny finger at me. “You had better. Both our jobs are on the line.” She turned back around to exit, “And John, don’t think I don’t know how you feel about this case. If I had anyone else to take it I would have never let you have it. Don’t let it get in the way.”

“Noted. Goodnight Liz.” The door slammed.

As the defendant’s lawyer made the final statement to the jury about how Joseph Turner was no killer and he was just a product of abusive parents, I paid close attention to Joseph’s eyes again. The strange sense of relief and freedom that poured from them was the only thing keeping the jury from claiming him completely innocent. That happy expression was construed as a psychotic break—one that would keep him a threat to the world around him. But I knew it differently.

I’d seen that same face before. When I was on the stand just seven years ago as a witness in a similar murder trial. I told them what I knew about the situation. What I knew about the one that killed them. I told them everything they needed to find him not guilty and yet that same look of relief was enough to destroy a life forever.

While I was away at law school my brother Zack shot and killed our parents.

Our whole lives were a painful montage of abuse and neglect. When I was there I protected him. We cared for each other in a way that only the beaten can understand. Like scared mice we ran and hid from our father whose lust for alcohol made our mother seek comfort somewhere else. Her bruises became needle marks and her needle marks became withered bones. By the time I graduated high school I had made up my mind to seek true justice beyond all the lies our parents told the police. Both of them covered for each other and both of them lied against us. Three different times we had attempted to contact the police and all three times we were turned into liars. My father would say we were just beating on each other and my mother would back him up.

Graduation meant release.

I decided to go to law school on scholarship in order to become something strong enough to change the system that had failed us growing up. But just a year into it I received the call. Zach couldn’t take it without me and the abuse had gotten worse. A few weeks before he had called to tell me mom was on meth and dad was tired of hitting her. Said she went unconscious too fast for him. I wasn’t there to protect him.

My seventeen year -old brother became a murderer.

On top of that, my testimony and my brother’s wasn’t enough to convince the jury that he didn’t do it in cold blood. They thought I was just covering for him. We didn’t have neighbors as witnesses or a history of problems with the people around our home. All we had was that same look of freedom.

I stood up and made my way to the jury box with thoughts of the past still clouding my mind. As I stared into the eyes of each of the jurors, I started to realize that maybe these thoughts could be more clarity than clouds. I thought of my job and the justice I strived for all this time. About Cabbot’s words and the State’s stance on our case. And at the end of all of these thoughts I saw my brother. Sitting in a jail cell serving a life sentence for double homicide with a smile on his face, because even though he was in chains he was finally free.

I thought of the statement I had prepared to lock Joseph Turner away and the strategies to sway the jurors my way, but the longer Zack’s image remained in my view the easier it was to see what had to be done. At the moment before my lips opened, I stood before the entire courtroom with one last thought.

Fuck it.

“This boy is not guilty. Plea him on manslaughter and let him and his sister have a real life.”

Cabbot’s heels stormed out the back door as the entire room lit up with gasps and chatter. I turned, walked over to Joseph Turner and smiled before sitting back down in my own seat.

“So, that’s what happened. I thought you might get a kick out of it.”

“You did good bro, I’m proud of you. Really.” My brother sat with a clear wall of glass between us holding the phone on the other end.

“Thanks Zack. I just…you know I just wish I could have been there for you…when it happened.”

“You made up for it today Johnny. You made up for it by being there for that kid. And you’re gonna make up for it by being there for the next kid and then the next one.”

“I don’t know man. This, well, let’s just say that this might have kept me from ever entering any courtroom in any state.” I sat back and gazed into his bright blue eyes.

He leaned forward with that same smile, “Nah. You’ll see. We can’t be the only ones who believe in true justice. We can’t be the only ones that believe that abuse is wrong. What we went through—nobody should go through that. And if they do and they end up like us, well then somebody has to protect them when they can’t take it anymore.”

“I wish I could be that person.”

“You are to me. And you will be for others too, you’ll see.”

I left the prison with a smile on my face for doing the right thing and yet inside I knew that it had cost me almost everything I’d worked for. All of my past was now back in the forefront and the future I had busted my ass to make was just a crumbled mess now.

“Excuse me? Are you Assistant District Attorney John Helzman?” A brunette in dark glasses with a firm figure stood beside my car with a briefcase and several sheets of paper.

“Used to be. Can I help you?”

She put her hand out to greet mine, “My name is Diana Prince. I’m starting a law firm for abused children and spouses. Your little stunt last week was the kind of stand I’m looking for. Are you in?”

I looked back at the prison for a few seconds before I shook her hand with a smile.

“Protecting the weak and innocent? I can’t think of any nobler cause.”


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