Yesterday, in my free lance job as a reporter for our local weekly paper, I found myself sitting in courtroom 13 at Kern County Superior Court in downtown Bakersfield, Ca.
I was covering the preliminary trial of a first-degree murder case that took place just a few weeks ago in an Alta Sierra resort a few miles from where I live. The supervisor of a crew of 5 had shot his employee in the head. One shot. Boom. A life lost- several changed forever. Two other employees were also being tried as his accessories, as if they were scarves or belts-items that were expendable. As I listened to the prosecutor for almost two hours, I grew to question their involvement.
I sat in the front row so I could take photos, and so my small recorder could pick up what was being said. The bailiff told me I wasn’t allowed to move around, that I had to take them from my seat.
I didn’t know what any of the defendants looked like, nor had I read anything about them, until the hearing began. When I walked into the room there were 14 prisoners sitting to the front and right of me, separated by a 4’ high wooden barrier with a swinging gate. 11 men and 3 women were wearing shackles that fastened around their waists, between their thighs and down to their ankles.. All but two of the men were dark skinned. Ages ranged from the early 20s to middle age. They were all dressed in brown jumpers and white shirts, except for a burly brown man with a bald head, more square than round, a close cropped beard, mustache and longish sideburns. He was wearing a bright turquoise jumpsuit. As it turns out, he was the man I was there to cover.
I looked at the women. One of them appeared to be about 15 or 16. She could have been the girl next door in a middle class white neighborhood. Brown braids hung down on her shoulders framing a heart shaped face with a flawless complexion and a cute turned up nose. The other two, a thin, pensive blonde, and an agitated, or animated, it was difficult to tell, woman of about 30.
I pondered what felony they had committed to end up here in superior court. As it turned out, the blonde was one of the alleged accomplices in my case. She was 35.While I was waiting for the trial to begin, I watched two other brief ones. The first was represented by a 20 something Asian female lawyer who wrote copious notes while she listened to the prosecutor examine her client’s witness. Rarely looking up, she would object to something the prosecutor said. It was sustained. Every time. The broad smile her client wore out of the room, was proof that she had done her job well.
When the next case was called, the bailiff fetched him from the waiting area and led him to the table where his lawyer was sitting. He sat down, and burst into tears. The bailiff unlocked his right hand and gave him a tissue. He picked up a pen, ready to write down discrepancies in the prosecutors questions. .
Shortly afterwards, the bailiff informed me that man I was there to cover had been moved next door to room 14. I gathered my stuff, and left the room. Approximately 20 other folks preceded me into the hall. As it turns out, they were the friends and family of the defendants and the victim. Entering the court room, I saw the man in the turquoise jumpsuit. He was seated in a chair at the table. The man I had stood next to in the hallway joined him. His alleged accomplices were sitting on a bench behind their lawyers, to my left facing the man who had gotten them into the mess they were in.
The prosecutor’s questions included generalities and understatements. The young man is said to have seen the murderer shoot the victim. The woman heard the shot from inside the building. Sometime later she admitted to lifting his pant legs, to help the murderer drag the victim to the shallow grave he had dug with a front hoe.
Apparently, the three of them barbecued steaks that evening and agreed to keep the murder quiet. I can’t imagine the accessories enjoyed the meal, their last for awhile. Another person was apparently involved peripherally, but he didn’t stay for dinner. He called the police the following day. I’m guessing he spent most of the night wrestling with his conscience.
Yes, the accessories were adults, and technically had free will. But, the murderer was a formidable presence. He was also their boss. They were used to doing his bidding. In the court room they sat about 5 feet apart on the beach, facing the man who had ruined their lives. Although they didn’t have an opportunity to talk, they listened to every word the prosecutor said. They did not agree with everything. At one point, they both looked at each other; she shook her head. Whatever had been said was wrong.
The woman had said she had assisted the murderer by moving the victim- because she was scared. This word ‘scared’ was passed over as if it was a benign, minor state of being; like she was tired, or confused.
I submit that she and her boyfriend, who was the witness to the shooting, were terrified. Neither of them had prior records. They were not criminals. They had just seen their boss shoot a man in cold blood, unprovoked. One shot to the head, then he dug a hole and buried him-as if it was all in a days work. They were not scared, they were in shock. How could they not have been afraid for their own lives? I would have been. If he did this to one man, why not two, or three. It happens all the time. A guy feels like killing someone, he has a gun, the limits are set by the amount of ammo he has, or until his passion is spent.
To be in shock is to disturb ones sense of propriety. We do things when we are in shock that we would never do when we are thinking logically. While we’re in state of shock, we don’t make sound decisions. We don’t think. We revert to our animistic self-preservation mode. We say, “Whatever you say sir. Whatever you say.” We want to stay alive.
And finally, I ask myself how many people in this world wake up to a normal day, go to work or school, shopping or a movie… only to find themselves doing something they had no intention of doing, or being somewhere they had no intention of being. Life is fragile.