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"Murder. You should have charged the defendant with murder."
"He didn't kill anyone, Your Honor." Not yet. Not that I could prove.
"Juries like murder, Ms. Cooper. You should know that better than I do." Harlan Moffett read the indictment a second time as court officers herded sixty prospective jurors into the small courtroom. "Give these amateurs a dead body, a medical examiner who can tell them the knife wound in the back wasn't self-inflicted, a perp who was somewhere near the island of Manhattan when the crime occurred, and I guarantee you a conviction. This stuff you keep bringing me?"
Moffett underscored each of the charges with his red fountain pen. Next to the block letters of the defendant's name in the document's heading, People of the State of New York Against Andrew Tripping, he sketched the stick figure of a man hanging from the crosspiece of a gallows.
My adversary had been pleased when the case was sent out to Moffett for trial earlier in the afternoon. As tough as the old-timer was on homicide cases, he had been appointed to the bench thirty years ago, when the laws made it virtually impossible to take rape cases before a jury. No witness to the attack, no corroborating evidence, then there could be no prosecution. He clearly liked it better that way.
We both stood on the raised platform directly in front of Moffett, answering his questions about the matter for which we were about to select a panel. I was trying to divine my prospects as I watched the notations he was making on the face of the indictment I had handed up to him.
"You're right, Judge." Peter Robelon smiled as Moffett scribbled out the image of the doomed man on the gallows. "Alex has the classic 'he said-she said' situation here. She's got no physical evidence, no forensics."
"Would you mind keeping your voice down, Peter?" I couldn't direct the judge to lower his volume, but maybe he'd get my point. Robelon knew the acoustics in the room as well as I did, and was keenly aware that the twelve people being seated in the box could overhear him as the three of us talked about the facts and issues in the case.
"Speak up, Alexandra." Moffett cupped his hand to his ear.
"Would you mind if we had this conversation in your robing room?" My subtlety had escaped the judge.
"Alex is afraid the jurors are going to hear what she's about to tell them anyway as soon as she makes her opening statement. Smoke and mirrors, Your Honor. That's all she's got."
Moffett stood up and walked down the three steps, motioning both of us to follow him out the door, held open by the chief clerk, into the small office adjacent to the courtroom.
The room was bare, except for an old wooden desk and four chairs. The only decoration, next to the telephone mounted on the wall, were the names and numbers of every pizza, sandwich, and fast food joint in a five-block radius, scrawled on the peeling gray paint over the years by court officers who had ordered meals for deliberating jurors.
Moffett closed the window that looked down from the fifteenth floor above Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. Police sirens, from patrol cars streaking north out of headquarters, competed with our conversation.
"You know why juries like homicides so much? It's easy for them." The wide sleeves of his black robes flapped about as the judge waved his arms in the air. "A corpse, a weapon, an unnatural death. They know that a terrible crime occurred. You've just got to put the perp in the ballpark and they send him up the river for you."
I opened my mouth to address him. He pointed a finger in my direction and kept going. "You spend most of every damn rape trial just trying to prove there was even a crime committed."
Moffett wasn't wrong. The hardest thing about these cases was convincing a jury that a felony had actually taken place. People usually kill one another for reasons. Not good reasons, but things that twelve of their peers can grab on to and accept as the precipitating cause. Greed. Rage. Jealousy. Infidelity. All the deadly sins and then some. Prosecutors don't have to supply a motive, but most of the time one makes itself visible and we offer it up for their consideration.
Sex crimes are different. Nobody can fathom why someone forces an act of intercourse on an unwilling partner. Psychologists ruminate about power and control and anger, but they haven't stood in front of a jury box dozens of times, as I have, trying to make ordinary citizens understand crimes that seem to have no motives at all.
Explain why the clean-cut nineteen-year-old sitting opposite them in the well of the courtroom broke into a stranger's apartment to steal property but became aroused at the sight of a fifty-eight-year-old housewife watching television, so he held a knife to her throat and committed a sexual act. Explain why the supervising janitor of a Midtown office building would corner a cleaning woman in a broom closet on the night shift, when the hallway was dark and deserted, pushing her to her knees and demanding oral sex.
"May I tell you what I've got, Judge?"
"In a minute." Moffett waved me off with the back of his hand, rays of the late-afternoon sunlight glancing off the garnet-colored stone in his pinky ring. "Peter, let me hear about your client."
"Andrew Tripping. Forty-two years old. No record -- "
"Well, that's not exactly true, Peter."
"Nothing you can use at trial, is there, Alex? Now how about letting me finish without interrupting?"
I placed my legal pad on the desk and started to list all the facts I knew that would flush out the picture Tripping's lawyer was about to paint.
"Graduated from Yale. Went into the Marine Corps. Did some work for the CIA for about ten years. Now he's a consultant."
"Your guy and everyone else who's not employed. Everybody who hasn't got a job's a consultant. What field?"
"Security. Governmental affairs. Terrorism. Spent a lot of time in the Middle East, Asia before that. Can't give you too many details."
"Can't or won't? You'll tell me, but then you'll have to kill me?" Moffett was the only one to laugh at his own jokes. He slid the yellow-backed felony complaint out of the court file and flipped it over. "Made two hundred fifty thousand bail? Must know something -- or somebody."
Peter smiled at me as he answered. "Our friend, Ms. Cooper, was a bit excessive in her request at the arraignment. I got it cut in half in criminal court. He spent a week on Rikers before I got him out."
"Sure doesn't look like a rapist."
"What is it, Judge? The blazer, rep tie, and wire-rimmed glasses? Or just that he's the first white guy you've had in the dock all year?" There was no point in losing my temper yet. The jury would be looking at Tripping the same way the judge was. People heard the word "rape" and expected to see a Neanderthal, club in hand, peering out from behind a tree in Central Park.
I had Moffett's attention now. "Who's the girl?"
"Thirty-six-year-old woman. Paige Vallis. She works at an investment banking firm."
"She knows the guy? This one of those date things?"
"Ms. Vallis had met Tripping twice before. Yes, he had invited her out to dinner the evening this happened."
Moffett looked at the complaint again, comparing the place of occurrence with the defendant's home address. Now his primitive doodles were a wine bottle and a couple of glasses. "Then she went back to his place, I guess."
It wouldn't have surprised me if he had said what he was undoubtedly thinking at that moment: What did she expect to happen if she went home with him at midnight, after a candlelit dinner and a bottle of wine? I had countered that logic in court more times than I could remember. Moffett didn't speak the words. He just scowled and shook his head back and forth slowly.
"She got injuries?"
"No, sir." The overwhelming percentage of sexual assault victims presented themselves to emergency rooms with no external signs of physical injury. Any rookie prosecutor could get a conviction when the victim was battered and bruised.
Peter Robelon spoke over me as I nodded my head. "So what, Judge? My client admits that he and Ms. Vallis made love. Alex doesn't even need to waste the court's time with her serology expert. I'll stipulate to the findings."
Nothing new about Tripping's defense. Consent. The two spent a rapturous night together, he would argue, and for some reason that Peter would raise at trial, Paige Vallis ran to the nearest cop on the beat the next morning to charge her lover with rape. Surely it couldn't be for the pleasure of the experience she was about to undergo in a public forum, when I called her to the witness stand.
"Did Judge Hayes talk plea with you two?"
The case had been pending since the indictment was filed back in March. "I haven't made any offer to the defense."
"You got rocks in your head, Alexandra? Nothing better to do with your time?" Moffett cocked one eye and stared over his reading glasses at me.
"I'd like to explain the circumstances, Your Honor. There's a child involved."
"She's got a kid? What does that have to do with anything?"
"He's the one with a kid. A son. That's what the endangering count refers to."
"The father did something sexual to his own kid? Now that's -- "
"No, no, Judge. There's been some physical abuse and strange behavior -- "
"Stop characterizing this to prejudice the court, Alex. She's on thin ice, Your Honor."
"The boy was a witness to much of what happened leading up to the crime itself. In a sense, he was the weapon the defendant used to compel Ms. Vallis to submit to him. If Peter will stop interrupting me, I can lay it out for you."
Moffett scanned the indictment again, reading the language about endangering the welfare of a child. He looked up at Robelon. "How about it, Peter? Your guy willing to take the misdemeanor and save us all a lot of aggravation?"
"No way. The prosecution doesn't have the kid. She's never even talked to him. He's not going to testify against his father."
"Is that true, Alexandra?" Moffett was up and pacing now, anxious to get back in the courtroom before the prospective jurors got too restless.
"Can we just slow this down a bit, Peter?" I asked. "That's one of the things I'd like to discuss with you before we charge ahead, Judge."
"What's to discuss?"
"I'd like you to sign an order directing production of the child, so that I can interview him before I open to the jury."
"Why? Where is he?"
"I don't know, Your Honor. ACW took him away from Mr. Tripping at the time of the arrest. They've never allowed me to meet with him." The Agency for Child Welfare had relocated Tripping's ten-year-old son to a foster home outside the city when I filed the indictment.
"Judge," Peter said, picking up on Moffett's obvious annoyance with my case, "see what I mean? She hasn't even laid eyes on the boy."
"Why isn't the kid with his mother?"
Peter and I spoke at the same time. "She's dead."
Peter jumped in defensively. "Killed herself a few months after he was born. Typical postpartum depression, taken to the worst extreme."
"Tripping was in the military at the time, Judge. She was killed with one of his guns. I've spoken to investigators who think he's the one who pulled the trigger."
Moffet aimed his pinky ring in my direction, jabbing it in the air while he grinned and looked over at Peter Robelon. "She should have charged him with murder, just like I said. Pretty good self-restraint for Alexandra Cooper. So why'd Judge Hayes leave me with all these loose ends to tie up when he sent this over to me? What else are you asking for?"
Peter answered before I could open my mouth. "Alex, you know I'm going to oppose any request you make for an adjournment. You answered ready for trial, Hayes sent us out, and my client is ready to get this over with."
"It sounds like we got some housekeeping matters to clear up here before we start picking," Moffett said. "I'll tell you what I'm going to do. Let's go back inside, so I can greet the jurors and give them a timetable. I'll introduce each of you and the defendant, tell them we need the morning to complete some business that doesn't involve them, and have them back here at two P.M. Either of you have a list of witnesses you want to give me?"
I handed both men a very short list of names. This case rested squarely on Paige Vallis's shoulders. "I may have one more to add to this tomorrow."
Peter Robelon smiled again. "I don't want to lose sleep worrying about who that might be, Alex. Want to give me a hint?"
"I assume you'd be able to do your usual devastating cross-examination, even if I conjured up Mother Teresa as an eyewitness. Let me keep you guessing."
Mercer Wallace, the case detective from the Special Victims Unit, had been contacted by one of the guys in Homicide at the end of last week. He had a confidential informant -- a reliable CI, he claimed -- who had been Tripping's cellmate at Rikers and had some incriminating information that he'd overheard in the pens in the hours after the two were first incarcerated together. They were producing this informant -- Kevin Bessemer -- in my office tonight, for me to evaluate the statements he was trying to trade for some years shaved off the time he was looking at in his own pending case.
Moffett waved his hand toward the door and the court officer opened it for us. He took my arm and steered me toward the hallway. "Nice of you to bring me a case that doesn't have the first three rows of my courtroom filled with reporters for a change."
"Believe me, Judge, it's the way I prefer to work, too."
"Do yourself a favor, Alex." Moffett turned back to look at Robelon, no doubt winking to assure him the whispering was to benefit his client. "Think about whether we can make this case go away by this time tomorrow. I'm amazed it survived the motion to inspect and dismiss the grand jury minutes. I'm not sure you're going to see a lot of rulings going your way under my watch, from this point on."
"It's actually a very compelling story -- and a frightening one. I think you'll see that more clearly when I make my application in the morning."
He let go and stepped out ahead of me, into the courtroom, taking his place back up on the bench as Robelon and I walked to our respective tables.
Mercer Wallace was standing at the rail, as though he had been waiting for me to emerge from the robing room. Moffett recognized him from a previous trial. "Miss Cooper, you want a minute to speak with Detective Wallace before I get started with our introductions here?"
"I'd appreciate that, Your Honor."
Mercer reached for my shoulder and turned me away from the jurors in the box, toward him. "Keep your game face on, Alex. Just got news that you should know before you spill anything to the judge about how strong your case is. Hope I'm not too late to be useful."
He leaned over and spoke as softly as he could. "Heads are gonna roll as soon as the commissioner gets word about this one. Two guys were bringing Kevin Bessemer over from Rikers for your interview. The car got jammed up behind an accident on the FDR Drive, and the prisoner bolted from the backseat, right down the footpath on One Hundred Nineteenth Street and into the projects. They lost him."
"Poker face, girl. You promised."
"But wasn't he cuffed?"
"Rear-cuffed and locked in tight, the guys say. Stay cool, Alex, the judge is checking to see what the fidgeting is and why your blood pressure's going up. Your cheeks are on fire."
"I can't start picking this jury tomorrow. How the hell am I going to buy myself some time?"
"Tell the man what happened, kid. Tell him your snitch is gone."
Copyright © 2004 by Linda Fairstein