Tick, tick, tick, tick.
The circular clock’s second hand made its way to the hour of 3:00. I had been waiting 45 minutes in this windowless room, seated on an inflexible metal folding chair. The overhead panel lighting cast a yellowish glow over the papers on the table in front of me. I looked over the ten pages, five times, memorizing them. This was a habit when testifying as an expert witness, this compulsive reading. The top sheet listed — ‘Cause of Death = Multiple Blunt Force Injuries. Manner of Death = Homicide.’, along with a brief summary of the autopsy report. These generic words did not adequately describe the beating and sexual assault the young woman suffered before she died.
I smoothed out my gray, knee-length skirt and adjusted my matching suit jacket. This outfit was not as comfortable as the green surgical scrubs I wore just an hour earlier. The pantyhose felt unnaturally tight and my feet pinched by seldom-worn dress shoes. Pushing bangs out of my eyes, I looked up as the door to the small witness room opened. Ron, the bailiff, put his head in saying, “Doctor, they’re ready for you.” Maybe.
He opened the tall, heavy wooden door leading into the courtroom and motioned me ahead of him. I walked down the aisle leading to the witness stand, past four rows of mahogany pews on either side. The gate in the middle of the balustrade separated the public from the official areas, and grated loudly in the hushed atmosphere. Some of the observers used this opportunity to cough and rustle jackets. Two pre-law interns, working at my office, were in the front row to attend their first murder trial. Newspaper reporters and friends of the accused filled out the remaining seats. No family was here for the dead woman.
A black robed, white haired judge sat in a high leather chair behind a raised desk. He was a caricature of the role, serious and aging. There were two long tables just past the gate. At one were seated identical thirty-somethings in blue pinstripe suits representing the State. Two men sat at the other comprising the defense team. One was paunchy and mustachioed, and in his mid thirties. His pale yellow shirt had creases from recent packaging as if the price tag had just been removed. The other man, in his fifties, with salt and pepper hair, was in tailored tan slacks and a navy blue jacket. Thirteen individuals representing a jury of the defendant’s peers were seated in two rows of swivel chairs off to one side of the room. The air was stale, like at the half-time for a high school basketball game.
I climbed the two steps up to the witness box, but was still below the level of the judge who looked toward me and smiled.
“Do you read Patricia Cornwell?” he whispered conspiratorially.
“Yes,” I answered truthfully though I was not under oath yet.
“Do you like her?”
“She’s awesome,” I replied. We were conversing in a low tone meant only for the two of us.
“Is it realistic?” he continued.
I paused to consider the implications of the question. At a cocktail party, I might expound on the topic but here there was only a moment to get it right.
“She takes liberties for the sake of the plot but she’s done a fantastic job with her protagonist, Dr. Scarpetta,” I said.
He nodded, then banged the gavel to begin the proceedings.
The first part of my testimony was monotonous but I had it down to a patter, describing the credentials that qualified me to be an expert witness in forensic pathology. Looking at each juror in turn to connect with them and humanize myself, I named all the schools and hospitals in which I’d trained. The next part, the essential part, was anything but routine.
Using a professorial tone, I detailed the wounds on the victim’s head, face, chest, and extremities giving descriptions and measurements of the horrific bruises, large lacerations, and broken bones. She had struggled with her attacker, and then was raped and sodomized. To obscure the evidence, he ran over her with his car.
Then it was the defense attorney’s turn to question me.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Jumbelic,” he said, smiling broadly at me, invoking the world to trust him.
I counted to five in my mind to avoid showing annoyance at the lack of respect. Not being addressed as ‘Doctor’ here in this setting was an insult, a deliberate tactic on his part.
“Now, you describe all these wounds as if they were from an assault, but they could just as easily be from a car collision, isn’t that correct?” he asked as he raised his eyebrows.
“No, they couldn’t,” I said.
“Wait, these wounds you describe could be from a car running her over, correct?” He had a bright gleam in his eye as if he was standing under sparkling Christmas lights. He turned to face the jury, and gave a confident nod before he looked back to me.
And we were off and running. TO BE CONTINUED