The courtroom felt stuffy like an airplane cabin on a transatlantic flight. The defense attorney continued to bark questions at me. Jurors shifted in their seats. At times, a prosecutor objected and the judge would intervene — the referee in a game of words. Counsel spent time asking about each scratch and bump on the decedent, trying to attribute any one of them to a more benign event than the murder. As the medical examiner that had performed her autopsy, I knew the intimate details of the injuries that had claimed her life. She had been savagely attacked, sexually assaulted, and then run over in the road.
This lawyer had a hard case to defend. The victim’s blood, and brain matter were all over the console, fabric seats, tires, bumper, and undercarriage of the defendant’s car. He continued with Isn’t it true she could have bumped her head getting into the car? Isn’t it possible she scraped her face on the seatbelt buckle? The hypothetical scenarios grew in their absurdity with each event posited by the attorney. My negative answers were causing him to sweat.
“Isn’t is possible, Mrs. Jumbelic, that this woman, drunk and stumbling, sat down hard,” emphasizing this word as if he himself had just made the same blunder, “and the rock, next to the car, caused the injuries on the anus that you saw?”
This explanation was so outlandish that I focused my eyes on the photograph that had been offered as evidence. Keeping my face neutral, I said, “No.”
“But look at these rocks,” he now jabbed a finger at the largest rock in the photograph, a jagged limestone about six inches at its widest point.
I sat calmly, waiting for an actual query, continuing to look at the picture as instructed.
“Well?” he said, growing impatient, “Can’t you answer this simple question?”
“I will when you ask one,” I said.
The judge banged his gavel, startling the courtroom. “Counselors, approach the bench.”
All of the lawyers gathered around the high desk as if summoned to the principal’s office. The defendant was left alone, looking down at his hands in his lap. He appeared vulnerable; in this sanitized setting, there was no hint of the brutal rage from the night of the murder.
When the defense attorney returned to his position, his face flushed and he flipped the pages of his yellow notepad noisily.
“No further questions,” he finally said.
The judge nodded to me and said, “You may step down.”
Heading out through the observer section, I motioned to my students, signaling them that it was time to go. We convened in the main hall and headed toward the elevator. I was about to ask them what they thought of their first trial but before I spoke, one blurted, “Can you believe that?”
“Believe what?” I countered and stopped walking. The college freshman who had just spoken was staring at me wide-eyed, his face quite pink.
“Well,” he said. He glanced at his colleague, a petite girl, for reassurance. “Well,” he repeated, doubtful that he should continue. I waited for him to go on, anticipating some legal conundrum that needed solving.
“Did you hear what that defense attorney said?” he finally asked.
“Which part are you talking about?” I said, thinking of the technical issues. “You mean, what prompted the sidebar?”
“No, no, after that, when you were walking out of the courtroom,” he said, blushing redder.
“No,” I said drawing the word out, “what did he say?” My curiosity was piqued.
The student looked at his co-intern for support and she quietly said, “Just tell her.”
I was intrigued at this conversational puzzle and smiled encouragingly at the boy, “Go on,” I said, “tell me.”
“That attorney turned his back on the court, the judge and jury couldn’t see him, and right to the whole audience,” his words came out in a rush, “called you a bitch.” They nervously awaited my reaction.
I paused. Frustrated coroners, police detectives, and prison guards had called me much worse, even to my face. My reputation was as a tenacious, aggressive female. Still, this statement in so august a setting was a surprising revelation.
“Did he now?” I said, unable to contain a rueful smile, and then a full throated chuckle.
The interns looked at me in bewilderment. Finally, the girl said, “Dr. J? Is it all right?”
“It’s great,” I said. “Let me explain, I’ve worked long and hard for that title. It’s a compliment, really.”
“A compliment?” the girl said with a hint of anger in her voice.
“You saw how the defense attorney treated me in there. Calling me Mrs. and not Dr., trying to diminish my testimony,” I said. They looked at each other warily and then nodded. “Don’t expect civility in this arena. You have to be tough. Do you know what bitch stands for?”
“No,” they chorused, shaking their heads.
“The letters stand for – Boys, I’m taking charge here,” I explained, “and I’m proud of that.”