On Frailty’s Honor
by Gary Clifton
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
McCoy and Garcia met Russo at Denny’s. Big, loud, outwardly tough, Peter Russo angrily denounced McCoy’s entry into Megan’s life and residence. “Any dumb cop oughta know people have rights, flatfoot,” He set the tone. “Like the Fifth Amendment.”
“If you’re talkin’ about our entry into her apartment, Russo, you have the wrong amendment,” Garcia said dryly.
After a ten-minute diatribe, with Russo freely handing out invectives, McCoy concluded he was more concerned with further mucking up his daughter’s life with protective foolishness than with the death of his grandson. He and Garcia got up, walked out and drove to Sterrett to have a face-to-face with the two guys they’d just arrested in Megan’s apartment.
Dominoes began to fall. Both maggots admitted Megan had been abusive to Joshua, had frequently stated that she wanted to put the kid in foster care, but her father would not allow it. They didn’t know anything about an Ecuadorian baby-sitter.
Dallas Police dispatch records showed six disturbance calls to Megan’s apartment, where twice Joshua had been found alone without food. Megan had told officers several times that she “wished to hell she was rid of Joshua.”
Records further showed Joshua had been missing for three days before Peter Russo — not Megan — had notified police.
Garcia was livid. “Three days for God’s sake. If she didn’t kill him, McCoy, she still needs to be in jail.”
Child Protective Services had visited the apartment three times and filed a petition with the court to have Joshua removed. The action was pending when he had disappeared. The CPS file showed the child had numerous bruises and signs of abuse.
Sergeant Harper joined Garcia’s bandwagon and urged McCoy to present the case to a grand jury and ask for an indictment of Megan for murder. Then the Homicide captain and the Police Department brass up the chain joined in. Then the media pitched in, daily banishing Megan to Hell.
McCoy, aware Megan was neglectful and a lousy parent, had learned to listen to his “gut.” Neglect and sloth did not necessarily equate to murder. Her venomous, nasty disposition and the constant interference from her father didn’t help her cause. Megan Russo was a person hard not to dislike, but behind McCoy’s hard eyes, he had doubts she had murdered her child.
For days, McCoy ignored the media and his superiors. The Homicide Captain and Harper called him and Garcia in for a “Come to Jesus” session. The Captain ordered McCoy to write up a prosecution report and send it through channels to the District Attorney. Megan was indicted for Capital Murder immediately: death by lethal injection.
* * *
Ann O’Hara testified Joshua’s body bore strong evidence of having been murdered, probably via a penetration wound in the head. Photos of the remains impacted the jury visibly. The two dirtbags from her apartment, a CPS investigator, and two uniformed officers who had responded to calls at her apartment, described her harsh treatment of the boy and her comments that she’d like to be rid of him.
Peter Russo testified for his daughter. His arrogant bluster was far greater harm than benefit to Megan. His repeated reference to “dumb redneck cops” was a serious error.
The tin can collector who’d found the body, Max Biggerstaff, described to a horrified jury of stumbling across the little skull while digging in bushes for cans.
Max, a big, slow, amiable man with childlike demeanor, was a character often seen on the streets of east Dallas with a sack and broomstick handle with a nail taped to the end, picking up tin cans. His tearful testimony was so disjointed and emotional that he was impossible not to believe.
McCoy, with Garcia, Harper, and an assistant district attorney, had interviewed Max, as they did all other witnesses. All agreed he was an oddball but was telling the truth in his description of finding Joshua’s body. That he had two arrests for Peeping Tom offenses seemed harmless enough.
“Guy picking up tin cans for a living is seldom a Rhodes Scholar,” the Assistant D.A. noted.
The jury returned a guilty verdict in less than an hour and sentenced Megan to death. McCoy, still vaguely uncomfortable, thought the evidence was the thinnest he’d ever seen to send a defendant to meet the three-needle cocktail.
But Megan did not go immediately to death row at Huntsville. She was held in the Sterrett Center pending the usual appeals, languishing in a sea of hateful self-pity. Despite his lack of love for Megan or her father, McCoy’s “gut” continued to nag at a corner of his mind.
Reluctantly, he went back through the file at length and, among other things, re-examined Max Biggerstaff’s two arrests. Age 31, semi-literate and classified by his probation officer as borderline retarded, Max lived with his prostitute mother in an apartment complex two blocks east of Megan’s, two blocks closer to White Rock Lake.
McCoy and Garcia re-interviewed Max, using the old standby Denny’s as an impromptu interview room. At six-four and upwards to three hundred pounds, his blue eyes tended to drift out of focus when harried. Max was definitely a troubled specimen. “I was hustlin’ cans and, like I tol’ y’all, I found the skull.”
“You walked all the way up Gaston to White Rock, Max?” McCoy said. “That’s gotta be four miles.”
“Gotta go where the gold is,” he sniggered inanely. “Walkin’ all over hell is part of it. I already tol’ y’all that.”
It seemed to McCoy plenty of cans were tossed about much closer to Max’s apartment complex. “You always walk, Max?”
“Mama’s gotta car, a Buick. I ain’t got no license, but sometimes I drive it anyway.”
McCoy studied the large man. “You were driving it when you found Joshua?”
“Uh... no.” He batted the mismanaged eyes.
McCoy’s, like lightning in a clear summer sky, practiced perception caught it. He glanced at Garcia. She’d seen the evasion, a slight change in expression. What were they seeing? Max had no history of violence, but he definitely needed more attention.
McCoy, typically close-mouthed, said nothing to Garcia or Harper, but opted for two vacation days and inwardly vowed to spend the time watching this strange can-bagger. At dusk on the first day, Max waded into the blistering August evening heat, a large garbage bag over one shoulder, his nail-equipped pick-up stick over the other. By 10:30 pm, it was apparent that Max was more prone to wander and peek in windows than he was to seek discarded cans.
Although McCoy was back on surveillance at six the following morning, Max didn’t venture out of his mama’s abode until nearly ten. He walked to a curbside taco-peddling cart, loaded up a large version, and moved directly to a nearby elementary school where he sat on a bench, munching and watching children at recess.
Then McCoy’s unflappable heart struck an icy beat. Several children no older than ten had come to the fence and talked animatedly with Max. They knew him well. He called several by name through the fence.
McCoy called Garcia and asked her to meet him at Max’s apartment ASAP. He followed as Max walked slowly home, listlessly spearing a can or ten on the way.
McCoy had banged on the door long enough he was ready to move to credit card stage, when the shabby door opened.
“McCoy, you sorry bastard,” Max’s mother spat.
McCoy recognized an old acquaintance. “Hello, Gloria. Long time no see.”
He turned to a surprised Garcia. “Busted Gloria for solicitation when I was in Vice.” He had not made the connection that Max’s mother was an old arrestee. Fifty, fat, she held a filter-tip in one hand and a tall boy in the other. Her leathery face showed more lines than a road map of Arkansas.
“Just ’cuz I slapped his dumb ass, he got me to do a year in the joint,” Gloria leaned sideways to tell Garcia.
“Don’t forget the part where you cut me on the arm with a switchblade, Glo. Eighty stitches.” He held up his left arm, the scar covered by his shirtsleeve.
“Shoulda let me be, copper.”
“I shoulda let the air outta you at the time. We come to talk to Max, Glo. Stand aside or you’ll need a better weapon to defend yourself than that damned knife.”
“I tol’ his stupid butt not to get involved. He aint’ did squat, McCoy. Y’all cain’t talk to him.”
McCoy pushed past her in the door and found Max sitting on the commode, door open.
“Pants up, then you, Max,” McCoy said coldly. His gnawing apprehension that he had not picked up on Max’s erratic behavior made his stomach queasy. The stench in the apartment didn’t help.
Max moved into the front room of the small unit and slumped on a torn sofa.
McCoy said to Garcia, “Don’t let Gloria wander off. We may have business with her, too.”
“Ain’t did nothin’, McCoy,” Gloria shrieked from near the door, two full octaves louder than seemed necessary. She had intended to run. Garcia barred her way.
“Max, you didn’t find that body. You put it there, then the guilty monster got in your head and you went back.”
“Mama,” Max wailed. He blurted, “I tol’ ya’ they’d figure it out.”
“Great God, boy, hold your stupid tongue!” The near-hysteria in her voice and demeanor hinted at a very sad conclusion to this bizarre venture.
“Mama, Mama, do somethin’.”
Gloria grabbed Max’s pick-up stick from a littered table and came at McCoy. He backhanded her into a corner. Garcia wrested the weapon from her hands, rolled her onto her stomach, and cuffed her hands behind her. Max sat crying on the sofa.
McCoy stood over the quivering mass of sub-human. “Well, Max, how did you managed to murder Joshua Russo?”
“Uh... didn’t.” He shot a fearful glance at his mother on the floor.
“Max, we see the truth here,” he lied. He wasn’t sure what it was he was seeing.
In a voice barely audible, he said, “He was so cute. I jes’ wanted to hug him, maybe feel him some. Then Mama come home and raised hell.”
“You brought him here.” McCoy calculated the distance from Megan’s to Max’s at about a five-minute walk. “You carried him?”
“He was jes’ a sweet little baby. It was dark and I didn’t want him to be alone. Then Mama... and my stick. His little head. Oh, my God.”
“Shut up, damn you.” Gloria struggled on the floor. “He’s lyin’, the damned retard.”
McCoy saw what he didn’t want to believe. “Your Mama stabbed him in the head with your pick-up stick.” He looked at Garcia. They both recalled O’Hara’s gloved hand pointing out the small wound on the skull and her subsequent courtroom testimony.
“She was meanin’ to stab me, officer. I was holding the baby. Oh, my God.” He dissolved in tears. “Used mama’s Buick to take him to White Rock. She... she made me. Matter of fact, she drove.” He lost it in tears again.
“You lyin’, boy. You was never no damned good no way,” she managed through clenched teeth from the floor.
McCoy’s first move would be to go before a judge, eat a huge ration of crow, and instigate proceedings to release Megan. She would need to be moved to a single cell at the Sterrett Center immediately.
McCoy struggled not to vomit in the knowledge that he’d committed the policeman’s greatest sin of convicting an innocent person. It was a mistake other cops made; it could never happen to him he’d always thought.
He dialed Red Harper’s cellular. The hard guy, the consummate veteran, he gathered his emotions and spoke calmly.
“McCoy, stop callin’ me ‘Sarge’.”
“Harper, can you call down to Sterrett and arrange for Megan Russo to be brought down to an interview room then meet me and Garcia there? It’s urgent.
“That’s not gonna be easy,” Harper chuckled. “Bitch committed suicide in her cell a while ago. Hanged herself with strips from her mattress. Left this whiney note, sayin’ she didn’t kill the kid. Leastways, taxpayers won’t have to pay for another execution.”
McCoy switched off the cellular and stood in the stinking squalor of Glo’s living room, his gaze riveted on Garcia.
Garcia held his stare. Having heard part of Harper’s words, she instantly comprehended the horror of what just happened.
“I shoulda had her on suicide watch,” he said at last.
“It wasn’t your fault, McCoy,” she snapped. “She looked guilty as hell. And she was belligerent, not depressed. I’ve heard you say a hundred times there are seven thousand prisoners in the Dallas County Jail System and never many more than a hundred or so guards on duty at once.”
“Coulda, shoulda? Crap. Suicide watch? If they had even listened to you, she woulda been crammed in a row of single cells with all four sides open, just in case somebody might — impossibly — see her before she pulled the string. Ask for more guards and the public goes bananas. She, like others do all the damned time, destroyed herself, McCoy. You didn’t do it.”
“Think so, huh?” The man who could not be surprised fought down the urge to vomit. “Not my fault? You really believe that?”
Copyright © 2015 by Gary Clifton