by John Kuhn
part 1 of 2
In the minds of many, the phrase “all-white jury” is a close linguistic cousin to “lynch mob.” Perhaps the only difference between these genera of assemblies is the absence of rope burns on the collective hands of the former after their deed is done.
A jury of this exact strain — virtually the only kind to ever inhabit a jury box in the Jackson County courthouse — heard the criminal case brought against José Lopez in late July. A legal U.S. citizen born to illegal immigrants, the terror-stricken 19-year-old listened meekly as the prosecuting good old boy accused him of murder. He spat the word “murder” from his lips with a grimace, glaring from the jury to the trembling teenager, and back to the jury again.
José had never felt so brown.
The lawyer paced in front of the jury, pausing by the accused and sneering, then pacing more and relishing the creak his ostrich-skin boots made on the old courthouse floorboards. Ceiling fans squealed and air conditioning units groaned, but neither relieved the oppressive heat in the room. The men and women in the jury box sweated and silently cursed the spectators who had brought their body heat in with them.
Aside from the people they expected — José’s parents and a few friends, the sobbing family of the victim, a newspaper reporter who clearly wasn’t interested in the trial, and a couple of old farts who had nothing better to do — aside from all of those people whose presence the jury could understand and at least partially tolerate, a horde of curious locals squeezed into the courtroom, filling all available seating and standing three-deep in the back. José Lopez was accused of Jackson County’s first murder in two decades.
The trial was a farce. The outcome could have been guessed before the trial started. Between José’s limited English proficiency and his state-appointed attorney’s limited legal proficiency, he had no chance. They went through the motions nonetheless: objections were presented, motions to dismiss were made.
The paper defense put on by his attorney basically amounted to, “Punish my client if you must, but please don’t kill him.” Meanwhile, José swore in the best English he could muster that he was innocent. He was a regular kid, 19 years old, working on the ranch with his dad and hoping to go to community college someday.
He listened as the county’s lawyer accused him of the most heinous crime in recent memory. The lawyer described the crime scene in terms that were beyond offensive to the sensibilities of the rural county’s citizenry.
With full-color pictures of death and mayhem blown-up on easels behind him, he stared into the eyes of the jurors as if they were all his lovers and, with a packed courtroom as a backdrop, he whispered to them over the sobs of Cindy’s parents.
“A young coed comes home to visit her family, to catch up with her old high school buddies, the ones who never made it out of Perrine. Cindy Leggett. That’s her right there. A beautiful blonde girl with the kind of future that most of us would love for our kids to have. She wanted to be a teacher. A teacher. Who knows, if she had lived, she might have come back home and taught your children.”
He paused and let it sink in.
“She was found with her throat cut on the ranch where José Lopez and his family lived and worked.”
The lawyer spun on his heel and looked hard at the young man. The jurors followed his gaze and leveled their own hard stares on José.
“Back in high school, Cindy was the head cheerleader just up the road in Perrine. She graduated second in her class of 18. Back then, she had dated one of the all-American boys from right here in Jackson, Danny Simms, who played football with my boy. She spent her Friday nights in high school cheering on the sidelines of those ballgames in Perrine, then coming up here to Jackson on Saturday nights to spend time with friends. Active in the youth group, she was in the Baptist church every morning. She even started teaching Sunday school to 5-year olds before she went off to college.”
The prosecution portrayed the lily white victim to the lily white jury expertly. A kind and gentle virgin, just like their own daughters and their sons’ girlfriends, she had never hurt anyone, and had helped countless of the less fortunate, what with the Student Council’s annual canned food drive and her church’s Thanksgiving basket ministry.
The prettiest photo the family had of her stood prominently among the crime scene photos, the one where the sun hit her eyes just right. No studio shot, it was a felicitous snapshot taken on a fun summer day, almost certainly Daddy’s favorite picture.
The defense lawyer spent little time digging into the victim’s college life. If he had, he would’ve found some evidence that showed her to be somewhat less pure than the driven snow. In fact, José’s legal representative basically conceded the point that, yes, she was an awfully good girl, and whoever killed her, well, yeah, that guy ought to pay. But that ranch was surrounded by two isolated farm roads and anyone could have dumped her body there.
“Besides,” José’s lawyer contended, “the prosecution hasn’t presented a single bit of evidence that ties my client to the crime scene. Not a fingerprint, not a hair, not a footprint. Nothing.”
The prosecution countered by presenting José’s documented history of petty crimes. He had been arrested as a juvenile for shoplifting on two occasions and had once been picked up while riding in a car that a friend had stolen.
“This kid’s a gangster, pure and simple.”
The jury was asked to study his “shifty eyes.”
His lawyer made no mention of the hard work José had done in trying to grow up in a culture new to his family, nor of the hard work he put in for the ranch owner day in and day out, of the hard work he had put in to get his high school diploma. No one brought up his regular attendance at mass. No one described him as an immigrant’s son who contributed to his community and his family’s adopted nation.
“They’re takers,” the prosecutor argued, pointing at José but looking at his parents. “His parents are here illegally, working illegally, taking jobs away from Americans. Have you seen our county’s unemployment rate?”
No objection was made, and José sat helplessly beside his lawyer, his parents weeping constantly behind him.
The jury deliberated for an hour, half of which was spent talking about the Dallas Cowboys, and José was found guilty of murder. In the punishment phase of the trial, he received the death penalty, which came as no surprise to anyone, including his parents and his mildly apologetic lawyer.
But all was not lost.
José’s saving grace came in the form of a fading starlet. It just so happened that the ranch his parents worked was owned by a wealthy California heart surgeon named Max Squires. Max had a penchant for hunting and fishing on his 400-acre playground, the Bar S Ranch just east of Perrine. He lived and operated in California, but he flew to his ranch as often as he could.
A few years back, the good doctor had met and married an aging actress who kept herself busy with supporting roles and a hand-picked litany of “causes.” All of them would be overshadowed when she discovered the fate of her husband’s hired Mexican boy.
While neither was present at José’s original trial (they were actually unaware of its occurrence), they both became keenly interested in his predicament after two different tabloids called to ask how they felt about their employee’s impending execution.
Beverly Langham-Squires sprung into action. She arranged press conferences and spoke in somber tones on an announcement broadcast on all of Hollywood’s local radio and TV stations. There would be fund raisers, she vowed, and bumper stickers, and a website.
“Of course there will be an appeal,” she told a reporter from News Nine, “and the best lawyers money can buy will represent Joselito this time around.” She had never called him Joselito in real life.
The actress put all her other commitments on hold. A great deal of press was given to the fact that she left the set of a drama to assist in José’s legal defense. Soon, José Lopez was a household name, and his picture was the embodiment of injustice. José the Ranch Hand had become José the Symbol.
As his second trial neared, the nation became more and more enthralled. The network news featured updates nightly. José’s picture found its way onto the covers of entertainment and public affairs magazines. A movie would be in the works soon, it was rumored.
José’s parents, after some cajoling by Squires and his people, gave painfully soft-spoken interviews on several talk shows, accompanied by a dashing interpreter. The actress and her doctor made the rounds, as well, and a few other minor celebrities lent themselves to the movement as it grew in notoriety.
Copyright © 2008 by John Kuhn