Helen

by Catfish Russ

part 1 of 2


The DeKalb County Courthouse sat inside acres of tall Georgia pines, and under the shade of an ancient Dutch elm that had recently dropped its last carpet of iridescent yellow leaves on the lawn. That was the last of the beauty of the courthouse, ironically so close to the grounds of the Yerkes Regional Primate Institute at Emory University. Because beyond the yard, just at the edge of the handicapped parking slots began a video village that quite literally stretched for a mile and a half.

Neither O.J. Simpson, nor Gary Condit, nor Laci Peterson, not even Michael Jackson had a caravan this long. The area police departments were so bogged down by traffic and incoming traveling journalists that they had to recruit Cobb County Sheriff Department personnel to cover the trial, as well as bring in translators from the University’s foreign language departments. Every sort of satellite antenna on every sort of step van lined the narrow winding streets. Well-dressed reporters and correspondents talked on satellite phones in a cacophony of languages. The entire courthouse area hummed with the vibrations of three dozen or more power generators.

Well out onto Old Briarcliff Road, the Southern Baptists held up protest signs: THE WORLD IS 6,000 YEARS OLD... EVOLUTION IS JUNK SCIENCE... AND GOD CREATED MAN AND GAVE HIM DOMINION OVER THE ANIMALS. One protester had to return to his GOD HATES FAGS sign trunk to retrieve the correct sign, GOD HATES DARWIN.

Opposite them were a few lefty protesters with signs that with the FREE HELEN motif, and some that said DARWIN WAS RIGHT. Also, CHRISTIANS NEED TO EVOLVE.

* * *

Rachel Finkelstein pulled her black robe off and laid it across the chaise lounge, opened a window, and lit a cigarette. She took a long toke and blew it out the courtyard window, the only window in the building that could not be accessed by the press army outside. A helicopter whirred by overhead. She glanced up: Atlanta Police Department.

She had a raging headache and had to work the courage up to face the courtroom today. She had become the most scrutinized judge in the world. Something she always claimed she would welcome. And now that there was video village the size of the campus, she wasn’t sure. Sure she’d become famous, even celebrity status, but of what? This could be the most looked at case, or the most laughed at case, depending on how the cable “news” networks and primetime magazine’s framed things.

Worse, this case was not about a crime committed per se with any malice. This crime was unintentional, and had little forethought except actual caring delivered by top scientists. This case would challenge every single notion about the place of humanity among the rest of the life in the world. The religious right would oppose any outcome in favor of the plaintiff; the left would embrace it, Middle America would be ambivalent, but ultimately Rachel guessed that the case would be an anomaly, one whose parameters were so big that it would be debated and placed on a shelf.

Despite that fact, all amicus briefs had been filed. All the higher courts had remanded the trial back to Rachel. Nope, not us. Not another Scopes Trial.

Rachel’s mother had been at Dachau for eight months. She knew her mother’s fear of dogs and fear of police and she knew her mother’s inability to even watch a TV show about incarceration. So this case meant something to her. It was a referendum on whether or not anyone has the right to incarcerate “someone” else even if it were for his or her own protection. The case and what it meant struck at the very heart of her own upbringing and her respect not just for life, but for a life of freedom.

The case had dragged on for nine months now, and finally the plaintiff would appear on the stand. The first state’s attorney had been fired, the second resigned, and now this one, Ms. Johnson, was a good attorney but something of a bitter pill. She was called “The Finisher” for a reason. Often she was called in after State attorneys had screwed up, and she closed the cases and shut down the endless money- and resource-draining process.

Rachel took a last toke, crushed the butt and pulled a bottle of aspirin out of the desk drawer. She took four, washed them down with breath mint, and pulled her robe back on. She pushed her intercom button.

“Roger.”

The call came back, “Yes Judge.”

“More air conditioning please.”

“Yes, the... uh... research assistant assigned to the case asked that we leave it about 80 degrees Farenheit... for Helen.”

“Oh yeah,” Rachel said. “OK then. Show time in ten minutes.”

“Well said,” Roger replied.

* * *

The packed courtroom buzzed with excitement. The bailiff walked in, and began his “hear ye hear ye hear ye...” routine and brought the court to order in old English. “All rise for her honor Judge Finkelstein.”

She came in and loudly reported: “Everyone stay seated.” She sat and addressed the court. “Sorry about the heat, guys, but our Plaintiff has to be protected from too much cold, I guess... Is our lab assistant from Yerkes here?”

An African woman in a tribal sarong stood up.

Rachel glanced at her notes and asked, “And you are Dr. Ajekoume, I presume?”

“Yes Ma’am. That’s me,” she said in her thick Ghanaian accent.

“And you found Helen?”

“No, I helped raise Helens’ parents in the Ivory Coast Preserve in north Ghana.”

“I see. Welcome, and feel free to let me know if Helen needs anything.”

“If she needs something, she will ask, herself,” Dr. Ajekoume responded. A light laugh, the day’s first, rang out.

“OK,” Rachel said, “And we should have Dr. Comes from the State of Georgia Center For Sign Language.” She looked around. Dr. Robert Comes stood up. He was clean-cut, short and well dressed. “Here I am, Judge,” he said.

“Thank you for being here, Dr. Comes. Remember to work with the stenographer.”

“Foreman, bring in the jury,” Rachel said. The foreman opened a door and ten jurors and two alternates walked into the jury box. Each sat down.

“Thank you, members of the jury. Hopefully, after hearing from the plaintiff, we will be able to bring this to conclusion. You can go home. I can go home. And, well... the plaintiff can go... uh... somewhere.

* * *

Helen pointed to herself, then she held her right up as if swearing an oath, and finally she held her palms together and made the “a” symbol, an extended thumb-hitch hiker style, and moved her hands to the right.

Dr. Comes translated: “ I want to go outside.”

State Attorney Johnson looked at Dr. Comes and then at Helen. “You are outside. You go outside everyday.” She waited for Dr. Comes to sign her comment.

Helen made the “Y” symbol with one hand and held it in her other hand., Then she made the “T” symbol, as it you were pointing in the air to say “wait a minute” and pushed it forward. Then she put her palms together fingers pointing towards the floor and pulled her palms away from each other. Finally she held her fingers to her mouth and then to her cheek.

Dr. Comes said “ This... is... not... my... home.”

The jurors were amazed. Unruffled, Ms Johnson asked, “Where is your home?” and gave a second to lay it out.

Helen watched, then signed.

Dr. Comes said, “Outside.”

“Don’t you go outside every day?” Johnson asked.

Helen signed back. Dr. Comes said, “Yes... No.”

“Which is it, Helen? Yes or No?” Johnson waited.

Helen simply signed ‘outside’ again.

“You see jurors? Helen is not sure. She does not know the difference between outside at the Primate Center and the jungle.”

Johnson tuned her back on Helen and walked towards the jury. Dressed in a black suit, she was strutting, talking loudly, and sounded convincing while making the point that this might be a ruse. “ Well folks, looks like this is going to be quick. Helen is only an animal. She is being cared for here. She should stay here, no matter how many tricks she performs, or her attorney.” The jurors broke out in laughter. Johnson smiled.

Then raucous hooting and howling erupted. Johnson turned and realized that Helen was shaking her head in disagreement. Johnson looked back. “Circus tricks. folks. This monkey doesn’t know her cage from a hole in the ground. She has the brain of a walnut.”

This time the court erupted again. Johnson turned, Helen had flipped a bird at Johnson.

Rachel Finklestein pounded the gavel. “Dr. Ajekoume, Mr. Taylor, please.”

Helen’s attorney, Manny Taylor had learned sign language as a child growing up in Cloverdale, California when he lived with twin sisters, one of whom was deaf. By 14 he was earning money on the side signing for local cable access channels in Long Island. At the age of 17, precocious Manny attended law school at NYU and graduated as the very first animal rights attorney to get a job with a firm other than PETA.

For ten years he was retained by PETA and after a windfall judgment, he retired at the age of 34. Manny took a phone call a year earlier from a staff assistant at Yerkes who called him at 10 pm and told him about Helen, a chimpanzee that had been asking for her freedom. AM radio talk show hosts were calling it “the desperate creation of liberal animal activists who were ascribing a civil rights plea with wanting to go outside as no different than a dog or a kitty...”

Manny remembered the call. He remembered where he was when he answered the call, what was on TV and he remembered being absolutely shocked at the notion that he had never ever thought of this. He had thought of animals pretty much for sixteen years straight. He thought of food processing and he thought of Kosher slaughtering. Manny had thought of animals performing in zoos and carnivals animals and animals in police custody. This notion, however, had never occurred to him. It astounded him. At the core of it, he loved animals, thought they were better than people, and wanted to see the message get out.

“Yes,” he answered. “I think we should at least meet. Anything I can do to help, let me know.”

Back in the courtroom, Manny had just signed to Helen, and Dr. Comes translated: “No bad words.” Then to the court Manny stood and announced “Helen knows this is a bad thing. She knows it gets laughs, and like you and me she enjoys attention. Then again what can you expect from a monkey with a walnut-sized brain?”

More laughter. Rachel hung her head, rubbed her neck, and that quieted everyone down.

Barbara Ford, the Bailiff took the hint and stood before the court. “We all appreciate everyone having a little fun. Lord knows we see so much sorrow here it isn’t funny. But this is court, and this is a case before the court, so please folks, calm down.”

“Thank you Bailiff,” Rachel pounded the gavel again. “Let’s continue.”

Helen stood and started clapping. Everyone, Rachel Finklestein included had to stifle a laugh. Manny signed Helen. Dr. Comes said: “Helen stop. Helen behave.”

State’s attorney Cindy Johnson picked up a map, unfolded it, and placed it on an easel set up for her, She looked at Helen, and then at Dr. Comes. Johnson pulled an old fashioned pointer out and gave it to Helen. Helen took it, looked at it closely, and sniffed it.

“Dr. Comes, ask Helen to come to the map and show us where her home is.’

Dr. Come signed. Helen jumped over the stand railing, which brought more laughter. She lumbered over to the map, looked at it for a second, she lifted the pointer and pointed out of a courtroom window in the direction of the Center. A sort of “ooooh” and then a cackle from the audience.

“Members of the jury, Helen remembers what direction she came from, which why she is pointing towards Yerkes. Does she know where the jungle is? Does she know how far she is from Africa? She knows the difference between outdoor and indoor and granted she knows a little sign language. That does not entitle her to her freedom, since she was captured and cared for by the State of Georgia.

“This is not a civil rights issue, it’s a restless monkey. All these bright scientists and trainers and even Dr. Ajekoume are all paid out of your tax dollars. In fact, this document says that the State of Georgia has paid upwards or three and a half million dollars to find her, raise her, and transport her here to learn tricks and do whatever they do over there...”

“Objection your honor,” Manny stood up. “Your honor this isn’t Fox News. Smearing opposition with these condescending...”

“Your honor I did not condescend.”

The gavel struck loudly and Rachel spoke: “I beg to differ. Ms. Johnson, but when you say ‘and whatever else they do there’ and shrug it all off, then you are condescending. Your tone is condescending. Now you have a right to believe that she is an object to be owned. You do not have the right to turn this trial into a cable news shoutfest. You also better show respect for everyone in this courtroom. And I mean everyone.” Rachel pointedly glanced at Helen.

Helen stuck her tongue out at Johnson, which brought more stifled giggling.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Catfish Russ

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