Pure in Their Own Eyes
by James Krehbiel
Table of Contents|
Chapters: 1, 2, 3
Sarah stares vacantly at herself in the full-length mirror. She should be pleased that, after all those years, the dress still fits, but seeing the burgundy taffeta dress now is a painful reminder of the present and of a time treasured.
Within moments of Mitchell Borowski’s opening statement, Sarah remembered him. Years ago, when he was running for District Attorney, she had stared at his picture on the front page of the newspaper. “An eye for an eye” — “Borowski’s platform touts death penalty.”
The headline and article painted a picture of a man, driven. “The only way to lower the murder rate is to enforce the death penalty,” he had been quoted as saying. “A life taken deserves the same consequence — no exceptions.”
He had laid his case out with brutal conviction. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he had said, “we have a classic example of a deeply scarred relationship. Actually two scarred relationships.” He glanced at Sarah. “We have a relationship between a father and son that was toxic. And that toxicity grew into hatred. It’s that simple.
“Also, we have an inappropriate and sinful relationship between two siblings. Anyone, especially the fine people of the Mennonite community would have sought to end such a relationship. And I, for one, cannot blame them.” The members of the jury leaned forward as he spoke, riveted to his every word.
The court-appointed defense attorney looked to be only slightly older than Sarah. Jeff Stoddard sat there looking confused, as though he’d never been in a courtroom in his entire life. He’d object on occasion, but few were sustained. Sarah wondered why he was even present.
The first trial as well as the appeal had ended in a guilty verdict — premeditated murder. The truth had been contorted, the witnesses’ testimony twisted. Sam Reimer testified — said he noticed an “unnatural” way about them.
And David Burke corroborated, citing the moment he found them together on the loading dock, holding hands. He told of his conversation with Joseph concerning Daniel’s family tree. “He never even told his son about his real mother,” he testified. “And when I mentioned how pleased he should be with his son, he had nothing to say.”
And both Sam Reimer and David Burke testified about Daniel’s black eye. “It must have come from Joseph,” they said. “There was always some kind of bad blood between them.”
By the time Sarah and Anna took the stand, the damage had been done.
“But, Mrs. Neufeld, didn’t you see your children going off to the pond together?”
“And didn’t you realize at the time they were swimming naked with each other?”
“But they’d always done so,” Anna had said.
“And as teenagers, not young children, but teenagers, you and your husband didn’t find that inappropriate?” He didn’t wait for her answer.
“Didn’t Samuel Reimer mention that he thought if one didn’t know they were brother and sister, one might have thought something, shall we say, more serious, was going on between them?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Thank you. That’s all, Mrs. Neufeld.” Anna stepped down from the witness stand, her head lowered and her face pale.
Sarah fared no better. As she sat on the stand, she waited for the questions about her and Danny. What can I say? How can I explain we were in love? We weren’t hurting anyone.
But those questions never came. Sam Reimer’s and David Burkes’ testimony had been enough, their innuendo and assumptions seemingly rooted the sin of incest firmly in the jurors’ minds.
“Ms. Neufeld. Did you honestly believe you could hide your relationship with your brother from your parents?” Borowski continued before Sarah had a chance to answer. “And did you think your parents wouldn’t care?”
“But... we didn’t really think...” Sarah hesitated, trying to find the right explanation, an excuse doomed even before it had solidified in her mind.
Borowski cut her off. “Yes, precisely, Ms. Neufeld. You didn’t think!”
Sarah tried to explain, but Borowski jumped in again. “And, Ms. Neufeld, do you believe your brother and father had a lethal distrust of one another, a distrust that turned the corner and became hatred?”
Sarah tried to gather her thoughts. She’d seen Danny’s relationship with their father deteriorate. She had watched their animosity mushroom. Before she could answer, Borowski turned his back to Sarah and rummaged through his briefcase. He turned back to face her and, in his hand, he held Sarah’s cloth-bound diary. “Do you recognize this Ms. Neufeld?”
Sarah’s chest constricted.
“Is this your diary?”
Borowski entered the diary in as evidence. He flipped through a few pages coming to one with its corner folded down. “There’s one specific entry I’d like you to read for the court, if you would, please.” He walked over to Sarah and handed her diary to her. He turned to the jury. “This particular entry is dated four days before the incident.” He turned back to Sarah. “Whenever you’re ready, Ms. Neufeld.”
Sarah knew which entry Borowski had marked. She took a deep breath while clutching her diary. She cleared her throat and started to read.
I’m scared. Scared for Danny, for Daddy... for the whole family. Danny and I found his mother’s things in the attic this morning. I couldn’t believe it. Neither could Danny. We were stunned that she was still alive, and Daddy let Danny think she was dead, and that Danny’s birth was the reason.
There’s a part of me that hates Daddy for lying all these years. And there’s a big part of Danny that hates Daddy, period. I’ve never seen him so mad. He said it’s just a matter of time before something serious happens. When I asked him what he was talking about, he just looked at me and said it wouldn’t surprise him if one them ended up killing the other. I knew he was only kidding, but there was something in his eyes I hadn’t seen before. It was awful.
And then he asked me what I thought Daddy would do if he found out about us. I knew what Daddy was capable of. God, that sounds awful but it’s the truth. I just hope... and pray.
Sarah finished reading; she looked up with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Thank you, Ms. Neufeld,” Borowski said. “No further questions. You may step down.”
It felt like she had a scarlet “S” — for “sinner” — inked into her forehead. As Sarah stepped down, she heard the gallery murmuring, every eye on her. She felt like Rebecca Nurse must have as they slipped the noose around her neck and hanged her for witchcraft.
Mitchell Borowski tied it up succinctly in his closing. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s really quite clear. We have a motive, the knowledge of a sinful relationship and a relationship marred beyond repair. And how much easier life would have been with one of them out of the picture,” he said. He paused and looked directly at the jury. “And, we have Ms. Neufeld’s diary. This is an extremely simple case,” he said. “I have faith you will come to a just verdict.”
Both Sarah and her mother eventually moved away from Pretty Prairie. They were no longer brethren. They’d been cast aside, shunned by those they had at one time broken bread with and who had prayed alongside them.
Sarah has prepared herself for this day. She won’t cry. She won’t call the governor’s office in hopes of another delay. And she won’t scream of injustice when they start the drip.
* * *
Spring flowers line both sides of the walkway. Tulips, daffodils and crocus. Anna’s arm is draped over her daughter’s as they walk by budding pastels on their way to the death house. Neither of them speak. Everything has been said.
Sarah and Anna are the first to arrive. The liaison asks if they’d like something to drink. They sit side by side in what looks like a small classroom.
Plastic chairs line bare walls, florescent lights hum overhead. Other people start to arrive. A reporter from the Pretty Prairie Gazette arrives. He hardly acknowledges Sarah and her mother. Sarah has seen him at Bert’s five-and-dime, but they have never talked. He half-nods in their direction and then sits down at the other side of the room.
And after him, a clergyman — from which denomination, Sarah is not sure — arrives and walks over to Anna and Sarah. He introduces himself but Sarah isn’t listening. He offers his support, guidance if needed.
Ten minutes before the scheduled time, the county sheriff, the county’s district attorney and a physician arrive.
A few minutes before the excecution, everyone is ushered into the witness room.
It feels like a little theater, a place where you might watch an intimate little comedy or hear a string quartet play some Mozart. The only real difference is the seating: wooden benches, hard, cold. The benches are on risers and sloped from lowest to highest. Sarah and her mother sit halfway up, in the middle of the row. In front of them, along the expanse of the front wall is a navy-blue curtain.
After they have been sitting for a few minutes, the curtain opens revealing a glass window and behind it, Daniel, strapped to a gurney. His chest, upper arms, wrists, thighs and ankles are secured down by wide leather straps with polished buckles. Light floods through the glass wall into the witness room.
The prison Chaplain stands at the foot of the gurney with his hand resting on Daniel’s knee, and two other men in white coats stand behind Daniel’s head. A physician sits against the back wall with a stethoscope in his lap.
The Warden stands to the side of the Chaplain and looks out through the glass.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am Thomas Wilmet, the Director of Corrections,” he says. He looks down at Daniel. “Do you have any last words?”
Mr. Wilmet looks over and nods to the men in the coats. An intravenous line begins to drip sodium pentothal. A tiny light illuminates at the moment the drip starts.
Sarah watches as Danny’s eyes grow heavy but, before they close, he turns his head slightly. His eyes come to rest on his sister and mother. Sarah leans forward. She wants him to see the burgundy taffeta dress with the lace trim. Daniel tries to smile but he is groggy now, his eyes heavy. He focuses on Sarah and slowly lifts his hand; it hovers for a moment and then settles gently back to the gurney. Sarah gently waves back, her hand before her chest.
Another nod and a tiny light flips on to signal the second intravenous line of potassium chloride has begun.
Sarah looks at her reflection in the glass wall. It’s as if she’s sitting next to Danny. She is there with him, by his side, so close she could reach over and take hold of his hand as she had all those years ago when they were together, sitting by the pond and sharing their dreams for the future.
Danny’s eyes close and his chest expands — then contracts.
After a few moments, the physician stands up, walks over to Daniel and places a stethoscope on his chest. He glances to Wilmet with confirmation.
Sarah closes her eyes; she releases a long sigh. She feels hollow, as if a piece of her soul has been torn from her. That piece of her is with Danny. That link can never be stolen.
Mr. Wilmet looks down at his watch, then up to the witnesses. “The execution is complete at 7:38 p.m.” And the navy-blue curtain slowly closes.
Copyright © 2017 by James Krehbiel