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By D. A. Ratliff
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The staccato click of four-inch high heels striking marble trailed behind her as she negotiated her way through the crowded courthouse hall. She chuckled as she ducked under a man’s arm, his palm pressed against the wood-paneled wall, oblivious to her presence. Even with four-inch heels which barely made her five-four, she was often overlooked.
A bailiff opened the heavy wood door for her, and Stella Sinclair, assistant district attorney for the New York County District of State Court stepped into the courtroom.
Visitors, mostly gawkers, drawn by the salacious nature of the case were crammed into the gallery. A glance at the tables on the other side of the polished mahogany bar revealed the defense team was present. Ronald Walker and Rosario Mendez. As they sat on either side of their client, heads tilted in conversation, she recalled the horror stories she heard from prosecutors who had gone up against the formidable pair. One seasoned ADA’s hands shook as he recalled a case he tried against them.
Stella took a deep breath. The dynamic duo didn’t scare her as much as the ADA she was trying the case with, Jamison O’Donald, Executive Assistant District Attorney and Chief of the Trial Division. A legend in his own mind and he didn’t mind telling anyone he met what he thought about himself.
At the desk, he spoke without looking up. “You’re late.”
Heart pounding, she was determined not to allow him to rattle her. “It’s one minute before nine and I was ordered by you to pick up this file at eight fifty-three. I believe I made great time.”
O’Donald opened his mouth to respond but the bailiff called the court to order, saving her. After the judge declared the court in session, O’Donald continued his cross-examination of a forensic expert hired by the defense. The questioning was tedious as O’Donald chipped away at the expert’s disputes with the police forensic unit and what little evidence had been discovered. She had to admit her partner was good. The expert was squirming.
Listening to the testimony, she took official notes, also jotting down a few of O’Donald’s better lines. Never knew when his tactics could come in handy despite the fact that she resented him. She had tried to talk to him many times about the direction of the case but he had brushed her opinions away.
As she wrote, she felt exposed as if someone was watching her every move. She didn’t have to look to know who — the defendant, Lennar Cole. She shifted in her seat and glanced toward the defense table. As he had done each day of the trial, he was staring at her. His eyes brimming with lust. Always a crooked grin as if he knew something no one else knew.
What she knew was that the self-purported innocence he liked to portray to the public was a lie. Just like Momma told her, a man always gives his intentions away if you just look in his eyes. Cole gave himself away. He was a killer and she knew it.
The morning droned on with O’Donald being clever and Cole being sleazy, and all she tried to do was take notes of the examination and avoid thinking about the ice-cold blue eyes staring at her. When the judge called a recess for lunch, she grabbed her billfold and, with a quick back-in-thirty to O’Donald, fled outside.
It was early May and the day was warm and sunny. She headed for the street vendor to get a hot dog. Erica Peyton, another lowly ADA was in line and she slid in behind her.
“Stella, hi. How’s the trial coming?”
“O’Donald has the defense’s expert witness on cross, making mincemeat of him.”
“That boy can talk. I wouldn’t want him to prosecute me.”
“Neither would I. I don’t know. The evidence against Cole is circumstantial and the jury is enamored with him. He flashes that toothy grin at them and looks so innocent.”
“My money is on O’Donald. He doesn’t try the worst violent crimes for nothing.”
Stella felt a chill spread through her bones. She had her doubts.
The afternoon droned on as the forensic expert remained on the stand. O’Donald was methodically destroying the expert and, with each question, he was becoming more pompous.
At three in the afternoon, when the cross-exam and redirect were complete, the judge called a recess for the day. She and O’Donald shared a cab back to the DA’s office and once there she headed for her cubicle.
She slipped off the red patent leather heels and flexed her toes. Her suit might be black but she never failed to make a statement with her shoes. She was about to start typing her notes from today’s session into a daily recap she was keeping on the trial when her phone buzzed. The DA was summoning her and O’Donald to his office. She wiggled back into the heels and headed to the executive staff suite.
Roger Pettigrew had been elected to three terms as the District Attorney for New York County and no one expected him to lose the upcoming election. His assistant motioned her to go in, and she proceeded down the private hall toward the office. Stella stopped at the slightly ajar office door as she heard her name mentioned.
“Jamie, how’s Stella doing? She’s been with us for nearly a year now.”
“Smart enough, doesn’t say much. Hard to say if she’s timid or smart enough to keep her mouth shut and learn. She does pay attention and she is always prepared. Just have some reservations.”
Pettigrew responded. “I went to Harvard Law with her dad. As you know, she went to Columbia and wanted to stay here, not return to New Orleans. I promised him I would keep an eye on her from afar but not try to interfere.”
O’Donald laughed. “Since when did you stop interfering?”
They laughed and she took the opportunity to knock, and Pettigrew yelled out, “Come in.”
Smiling, DA Pettigrew motioned for her to sit. “Before we review the case, how’s your dad?”
“He’s well. Enjoying being on the bench.”
“No better man than him to wear the robes.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Pettigrew removed a bottle of scotch from his bottom drawer. “Anyone like a drink?”
She said no and O’Donald shook his head. “No, stomach’s acting up.”
As Pettigrew poured a drink for himself, he looked at O’Donald. “Where do we stand on this case?”
“I ripped their so-called expert apart today. They have no defense. Walker is going to have to put Cole on the stand and when they do, he’s mine. I will get him to admit he killed her for her money. He was in debt.”
Stella gripped the arm of the chair, uncertain whether to say what she thought. Her dad’s words kept echoing in her head. You remember that you have a head on your shoulders and the good sense of what is right and wrong. Don’t ever be afraid to speak up when you know you are right.
It was time that she did.
“I beg to differ.”
O’Donald’s head snapped around and his mouth opened. She knew he was about to blow but Pettigrew stepped in. “Hold on, Jamie. Let’s see what Stella has to say.”
“The evidence we went to trial with is circumstantial. We should have…”
“Circumstantial? You should have said so in our pre-trial prep.”
“I did, Jamie, you didn’t listen.”
Pettigrew threw up his hand as O’Donald rose, his face red. “Sit down.” The DA looked at her. “Tell me what you told Jamie.”
A wave of adrenaline swept through her. If she couldn’t explain herself, she was going to lose credibility. She had to be correct.
“Amy Cole was brutally raped and murdered in her art studio on the estate. The crime scene photos show blood splattered over everything. Only rage could have driven someone to stab a victim so many times.”
O’Donald spoke, his anger evident in his controlled voice. “We have an eyewitness, the gardener, who saw him outside the studio about the time of the murder. Cole killed her.”
“I am convinced he did. But on cross-examination, Rosario Mendez got the gardener to admit he didn’t see the man’s face clearly and that he was going by the man’s body. We went to trial based on that witness and she threw reasonable doubt into the mix. The palette knife she had been stabbed with had been wiped clean, only traces of her blood on it. No fingerprints.”
“It was him.”
“I believe that too, but we have no evidence to back that up. Forensics turned up no trace of blood in the drains, the washer-dryer, the carpet, the bed linen, Cole’s clothes or shoes, or the cars. Nothing on the knife. His fingerprints were in the studio, but she had painted a portrait of him. He was her husband, he would be in the studio.”
Pettigrew rested his elbows on his desk. “You think it was wrong for us to prosecute him?”
“I think the way we have is reckless.”
The DA flashed a weak smile. “What would you have done?”
“I would have played to his weaknesses. Jamie has done a great job of establishing that Cole is an adulterer but we haven’t been able to prove Amy was upset by it. As good as his examination of her friends were, he couldn’t establish that she cared he was sleeping around. His wife was not a glamorous woman. Certainly not the type of woman that he had affairs with, but we know she knew about his escapades yet stayed married to him. But remember she had an appointment the next day with an attorney. She may have finally had enough.”
O’Donald blurted out loudly, “Not a divorce attorney.”
It was Stella’s turn to laugh. “Neither was the attorney you used in your divorce, I understand.”
The ADA’s face turned red, but once again Pettigrew stopped him. “Let her finish.”
“Our biggest problem is that the jury loves him. He makes eye contact with them, charms them into believing he is innocent. It’s the vibe he is sending to them. We needed to show him as the narcissistic bastard he is and that he had a motive to kill her. We haven’t done that.”
She paused. Maybe she had gone too far, but too late now.
In a measured voice, Pettigrew spoke. “We based this prosecution on the fact that Cole had major gambling and business debts. With her dead, he stood to gain a huge inheritance. Enough to pay his debts off. You don’t think that is why he may have killed her.”
“No, I don’t. She hadn’t left him before so I believe, and I realize it is speculation, he had used his charm on her to keep her satisfied. I think he could calm her down and likely she would forgive him. Her friends testified to that fact. I think she finally got tired of his philandering and told him she was seeing an attorney because she was sick of him. I think he became livid about her setting an appointment with an attorney. Then they fought and he brutally raped and killed her. We needed to show the jury that this murder was about his ego, not his debt.”
O’Donald had all he could take. “You think you can sit here and second guess me? If you felt so strongly about this, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I did. Several times — you didn’t listen.”
“Enough.” Pettigrew looked at O’Donald. “What’s up next?”
“The defense has indicated that Cole wants to testify. Not sure he will.”
Stella couldn’t resist. “Not sure he has to testify.”
Looking at O’Donald, Pettigrew remarked, “We better hope he does. If he does, go after the angle Stella just gave you. The subject has been opened. See if it works.”
As it did every morning, the building roar of traffic in Manhattan woke her up. She hadn’t slept well. The scene in Pettigrew’s office kept replaying in her mind. She might have been out of line but she wanted Cole prosecuted for killing his wife.
She clawed her way out of bed, showered, dressed and grabbed coffee, then a cab. The wakening city spun around her, new skyscrapers and buildings from the city’s past towered above the concrete sidewalks where people scurried to start their day. The thrill of living in the most important city on the planet paled to the reality that a killer might go free. Not the outcome she wanted.
At the office, she was stowing her purse in her desk drawer when Pettigrew appeared. Her pulse quickened as she had no doubt she was off the case.
“Stella, you better be right about Cole because you’re it today. Jamie’s in the hospital with acute appendicitis. I could have asked for a continuance under the circumstances but I am not. You have a theory about how to convict this guy. Prove it.”
Before she could respond, the DA left. Taking a deep breath, she tried to get the involuntary trembling under control. Doing a few deep breaths, she steeled herself to her fate. Time to show what she could do.
Stella opened by stating to the judge that she was prepared to continue for the prosecution. Rosario Mendez then called Lennar Cole to the stand. Stella watched the jury stare in rapture as the handsome Cole took the oath. Turning them around wouldn’t be easy.
Mendez first established that Cole chose to testify in his defense, then led her client through a series of questions denying any involvement in his wife’s murder. Stella had to marvel at Cole’s skill. He was making eye contact with the jury, his voice soft, deep, almost sultry, and they were buying every lie. But she wasn’t.
The defense did not take long, and the smugness on Mendez’s face as she said, “Your turn, Ms. Sinclair,” made her blood boil. Mendez questioned him so that he could show his respect for women. Stella knew better. No man who beds so many women has respect for anything, including himself.
She stood, smoothing down her dark blue skirt, catching a glimpse of her purple high heels. She had one shot at this and she had to go for it.
She led him through a few general questions about where he said he was the night of his wife’s murder. This time his eyes were on her, not the jury. Yes, just where she wanted them.
“Mr. Cole, you didn’t love your wife, did you?”
“Of course I did. We were married eight years.”
“You were unfaithful from the beginning. We all know why you married her — she was rich.”
Walker objected but she countered. “Your honor, the defense’s own witnesses admitted that his wife knew he only married her for her money.”
The judge overruled Walker and she continued. “How many women have you slept with since your wedding day? Ten, twenty, a hundred?” She waited. “More?”
“This has nothing to do with my wife.” His voice a tad sharper, higher in pitch.
“Really. She never cared about the money you were draining from her. Money was unimportant to her. But she did love you. And time after time you rejected her.”
“I did not.” His voice was even sharper.
“But you did. Every beautiful woman you slept with was a direct insult to your wife.”
She paused and bent over to adjust the ankle strap on her right shoe. When she straightened up, she found him looking at her with the look of lust he had given her the entire trial. He was a lech and a killer.
“Remember, her best friend testified that your dead wife knew she was not as glamorous as the women you slept with. She never wore makeup, never dressed provocatively. The fact is Amy was a lovely woman but not your type. She was content to work on her art.”
“I told you. I loved my wife.”
“No, you didn’t, and she finally came to terms with it. Decided that while she might not care about the money, she did care about her own self-respect. She was done with you sleeping with other women, and what was it her friend said — you might sleep with your wife once every few months. Not how to keep a woman happy.”
“Look, I didn’t kill her. It was probably that damn gardener. It wasn’t me.”
His voice shook. He was rattled.
“I think it was. I think you found out about her appointment with her attorney and confronted her. Her calendar was open on her office desk, the appointment clearly marked. You rushed to the studio and she told you it was over. She was done with your philandering and was going to divorce you.” She walked up to the stand. “She was tired of your lies. You finally got what you deserved and you lost it. You raped and then killed her with the only weapon you could find. A pallet knife — and in your rage, you stabbed her multiple times.”
Beads of sweat appeared on his brow and he was trembling. “I did not kill her.”
“Yes, you did and you enjoyed it.” She turned and walked toward her desk slowly, aware that his eyes were on her. At the desk, she turned and leaned against it, crossing her legs at the ankle. “You killed her because she wasn’t glamorous and she had rejected you.”
His face red, Cole gripped the wooden bar on the witness stand. “You’re damn right I killed the bitch. Buried my bloody clothes, and hosed off the bitch’s blood before I even went back in the house. No trace. I’d put up with her looks and her doling out money to me like it was an allowance. I was the best thing that ever happened to her and she’s going to divorce me. I gave her one last thrill, then killed her and she deserved it.” He rushed off the witness stand, heading for Stella. A bailiff tackled him before he reached her.
The courtroom erupted into chaos, the judge pounding his gavel. “Bailiff, take this man into custody. This court is in recess for thirty minutes. I want the defense counsel and Ms. Sinclair in my chambers in five minutes.”
She spun around to find DA Pettigrew standing next to her. “Thank you.”
He walked her to the corridor. “You handled that very well. Jamie isn’t going to like being wrong but I think he’ll get over it. When you’re done here, come see me in my office. I think a drink is in order.”
She turned in the direction of the judge’s chambers, smiling as her shoes clicked on the floor. Her high heels got her what she wanted — justice.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Please visit D. A. Ratliff’s blog at https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/