This particular morning, I was reporting to the county courts for jury selection. This duty is one of the fringe benefits of being a registered voter, so I show up at the civic center theater at pretty regular six-month intervals.
I've never actually had to sit on a jury, though. There are a number of reasons for this; for one thing, I generally tell the judge in a marijuana possession case that I have problems with the law which could interfere with my rendering an impartial verdict. Besides, Lord knows, that could be any number of my friends up there in the dock...
More often, I suspect, it's because I was a television reporter for five years at El Paso's CBS affiliate -- KDBC, Channel 4, the Big Four News Team. There's just something about a journalist which seems to make lawyers leery of us during jury selection. In addition, I had the courthouse beat for a few years, which means I probably was chummy with the prosecutor or his adversary, or both.
I landed a job with the Big Four fresh out of college, and my facility with the equipment amazed my colleagues. Or, as they remarked, "Most of the graduates who come in here, they can't write, they can't shoot, they can't edit. But, Richard, they can drive."
My courthouse days began the night we had a tip phoned in that a former county judge was being booked downtown for DWI. I rushed my gear down to the courthouse, ran down to the booking desk in the basement, and got plenty of shots of His Honor, grinning and winking at the camera and generally having a whale of a time.
Several years later, when the judge passed on, our staff was frantically searching through our archives looking for file footage, and this ended up being the only tape they could find on him. Be that as it may, I found myself soon after pounding the judicial beat.
The Federal and County Courthouses are across the street from one another in El Paso; despite this wealth of jurisdictions, there's not always anything newsworthy happening. Newsworthy, according to Channel Four, being anything involving a murder or public officials. Both, if we could swing it.
Sometimes our own colleagues were tossed into the brew. The El Paso Times had to fend off a couple of libel suits, and we got a lot of mileage out of each one. One was brought by John Kerr, a U.S. Attorney who had survived an assassination attempt in San Antonio, shortly after a federal judge was gunned down in the same town. Kerr, who was in hiding under the Federal Witness Protection Program (yet still managing somehow to work as a prosecutor) contended that he and the judge were shot at because they had a reputation for being tough on drug dealers. And how did drug dealers know this? Well, they must have read about it in the paper, of course...
A jury actually decided in Kerr's favor on this one (another reason I'd hate to ever go in front of a jury), but a higher court reversed the verdict. Another libel suit was brought by a former mayor and his old buddy, a real estate developer. It seems our City Hall, which was planned to be situated next door to the federal and county buildings, somehow wound up instead on the outskirts of downtown, on land owned by the mayor's developer friend. The Times got to thinking out loud whether any "hanky-panky" was involved, and the resulting lawsuit dragged on for months. The reporter who had covered the story was called in to testify; he had since resigned and joined a monastery in New Mexico.
Channel Four narrowly avoided lawsuits from time to time. I was covering a child custody case, distinguished by the father's awaiting trial for murdering the mother. His in-laws were suing for custody, but it was widely recognized that the defense was indulging in a little fishing expedition to find out what the prosecution had in store. Unfortunately, I was off when the verdict was handed down, and one of our, uh, less acute reporters called the judge to find out what went down.
"Well," said the judge, "based on the preponderance of the evidence, I'm awarding custody to the in-laws."
So, on that night's newscast, our reporter stood on camera and said, "The judge said the preponderance of the evidence showed [the defendant] murdered his wife."
She lost her job over that one. She's now working in a bigger market, but that's another story.
In one murder trial, the defense tried the time-honored ploy of shifting suspicion onto a friend of the accused. For this purpose, they enlisted the services of Jay J. Armes, renowned double-amputee private eye. Jay wired another friend of the accused's for sound, sent him to the door of their pigeon, and listened in while one tried to elicit a confession from the other. Over the objections of the prosecution, the tape recording was played in the courtroom, and turned out to be totally innocuous.
Jay sneaked us an old photo of the deceased, so I should be kind to him, but truth is, he's a major flake. He lost both hands in a childhood accident, and the resulting settlement allowed him to set himself up as a self-styled James Bond. His office is set off the street by a barricade of pointed rocks -- to discourage truck-bomb drivers -- and the first thing one sees when the elevator doors open is a mannequin of Jay sitting on a couch, to throw off would-be assassins. His home, featuring a bronze statue of Jay on the porch, is set amidst a private menagerie, a helicopter landing pad, and an artificial lake. After years of running unsuccessfully for public office, Jay managed to get himself elected to city council, so the whole city can realize just what a flake he really is.
Murder cases were often the most interesting, of course. Our district attorney, Steve Simmons, wanted to bring a case against Henry Lee Lucas, the one-eyed drifter who confessed to hundreds of killings across the nation and later recanted. Lucas had come to El Paso to confess to the rape-murder of an elderly woman in the Lower Valley. Steve felt he could get an ironclad conviction -- which wouldn't hurt his political aspirations -- and subsequently the county spent a small fortune preparing the case. Unfortunately, little discrepancies began to plague the case, such as eyewitnesses who placed Lucas on the other side of Texas on the night of the crime. Blood and semen samples recovered from the victim failed to match Lucas's type. It also developed that the investigating officer was a nephew of the deceased, a clear violation of police department policy, especially since several other relatives were suspects. The Juarez police said the family gardener had admitted to the crime; the officer in charge on our side of the bridge discounted the confession, saying he saw it extracted with a cattle prod. A disgusted county judge finally threw out the case.
Simmons put on quite a show in another case, where he was questioning the father of a murder victim. He wanted the father to re-enact the discovery of the son's body, so he took on the part of the corpse.
"Now, how was he lying when you found him?"
"Uh, face down."
"Okay. Now, when you came upon his body, what did you do?"
"I ran my hands through his scalp, looking for wounds."
"Well, go on, then."
Mostly, our job consisted of running down the corridors, chasing camera-shy suspects in order to get some video for the evening newscast. At the trial I just mentioned, I asked my cameraman if he got any shots of the father entering or leaving the courtroom.
"No," he said, "but it's okay -- I shot some pictures of him through the window in the door."
Naturally, I was aghast, as shooting in this particular courtroom was verboten. I thought we'd get away with it, though, until we got onto the same elevator with the judge hearing the case. Looking at no one in particular, he opined that anyone caught taking pictures of his courtroom would see his ass in stir.
As a rule, federal court didn't lend itself to theatrics; most of the cases involved drug runners apprehended at the border. U.S. Attorney Michael McDonald distinguished himself in one case, however, beginning his summation by casting a baleful eye over the defendant and declaring, "There is evil in this courtroom today."
I ran into Mike one night at my favorite watering hole, where he and his staff were entertaining some colleagues from Midland who were in town on a change of venue. They were also entertaining my friend Jean-Marie, who was perched atop Mike's lap.
"Richard," she inquired, "do you know who these guys are?"
"These gentlemen are prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's office," I answered.
She threw me an exasperated look. "They told me they were gynecologists in town for a convention!"
Later, Steve Fisher, a defense attorney we know, stopped by our table. Steve was all irate that his client, an Army nurse, had just been convicted on a drug charge, while he was convinced of her innocence.
"She didn't do anything, and she's getting five years! I've defended burglars and rapists and murderers and gotten them off -- and they were guilty!"
Jean-Marie turned to me and confided, "Only Steve's innocent clients go to jail."
My favorite courtroom performance came in a manslaughter case involving a drunken driver who ran into a girl on a bicycle. The prosecutor, Bill Moody, contended the defendant was driving 80 miles an hour in a residential zone. The defense's expert witness, called upon to determine the defendant's speed by examining the crime scene, was with Sandia National Laboratories. His experience consisted of crashing trucks and freight cars into cement walls, to see what impacts could be withstood by vehicles carrying radioactive materials.
At one point, the defense attorney asked his expert what could be concluded about the speed of the car judging by the distance the victim's body was thrown. Moody promptly objected, on the grounds the witness lacked sufficient expertise.
"Your Honor," the defense countered, "this witness has over fifteen years' experience judging the impact of vehicles into objects."
Moody stared at him in disbelief.
"Into human bodies!?"
The judge allowed as, yeah, he'd have to sustain that one.
Bill Moody is a judge himself now. As for me, I got transferred off of the courthouse beat onto a desk job, when our weekend assignments editor developed ulcers. The weekend desk is a prime location for burnout, which is precisely what happened to me after a couple of years at it. As glamorous as the news business must seem to you, I found the allure didn't necessarily compensate for the pressures, and after working my way up to weekend producer, I quit for greener pastures. (Didn't join any monasteries, though.)
Not that I don't keep up with the courts still. You never know what's going to come up -- such as the case of actress Tracy Scoggins, in town to host the Miss U.S.A. Pageant, who was assailed by a would-be rapist at her hotel. The culprit was taken to night court, where he gave the magistrate a fake name, address, and place of employment. After this was discovered, it also came out that the public defender was an old buddy of his -- and the magistrate on duty was the defender's law partner.
After this display of our legal system in action, an embittered Tracy Scoggins held a press conference to explain that she wasn't going to bother coming to El Paso to testify -- which forced the prosecutor to drop charges. She was, however, suing the city and the Pageant for $14 million, claiming her assailant singled her out because the Pageant had given her a car with the Miss U.S.A. logo on the side.
As long as he isn't being prosecuted, her alleged attacker is countersuing her for defaming his good name.
Like I said, I still enjoy following the courts; I'm just glad it's not my job to make sense of them anymore.
- - - - - - - - - -Mimosa 9, when it appeared in December 1990, was proof that we survived our European Worldcon adventure. The lead article was our seven-page trip report titled "Across Europe on Rail and Plastic," a reference to the number of train rides we had during the trip (as you can tell from the illustration to the right) and how we paid most of our expenses. Our week after the convention took us from The Hague first to Brussels, then briefly to Vienna, then to Prague (just nine months after the Velvet Revolution of 1989), and then to Berlin before returning to Amsterdam for the flight home. Many other fans who went over to The Hague and Confiction did the same sort of thing -- visiting places like Germany, Denmark, Spain, France, and Italy -- and it was fascinating in the months following the convention to hear about their adventures. At any rate, Mimosa 9 also featured a new 'Serious Scientific Speech' by Bob Shaw (one that he gave at Confiction, in fact), and another worldcon-related article by Dave Kyle, this time about the 1956 New York Worldcon and an incident at its banquet that was the origin of the familiar fannish catchphrase, "Dave Kyle says you can't sit here."
The only non-worldcon related article in the issue perhaps wasn't even an article at all -- it was a collection of different forms of verse by Australian fan Dave Luckett about the antics of his (then) young son, Evan. And now, nearly twelve years later, Dave provides us this update: "It might be of interest to relate that Evan at 15 years of age is now 6' 2", built along the lines of a brick shipyard, and has just spent a week on the State Training Vessel ‘Leuwin', a 600 tonne barquentine -- square rig on the fore, main gaff, lovely thing -- and is a suitable person for playing lock forward for the State Rugby under-17s. That would be something like the same as being selected as nose tackle for the All-state High School Football Team for a pretty decent U.S. state. Suffice it to say that I do not argue with him unless the matter is serious." Such is the passage of time.
Bottom illustration by Alan Hutchinson
All other illustrations by Teddy Harvia