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The Guilty Party

(Taken from "Murder and Obsession", edited by Otto Penzler. copyright 1999 Shel Silverstein.)

Judge Vernon Hobbs had been known for some unusual and unorthodox rulings.

There was the occasion when Leon Poole and Maurice Stebner came before him for a judgement on a 1938 DeSoto.

It seems they had bought the vehicle together from Orville Clayton's lot with Leon's three hundred dollars, eighty-seven of which was owed byOrville to Maurice to settle a wager on the World Series. Maurice then did what was disputed to be six hundred and forty-two dollars worth of repair and restoration, for which he demanded full payment or the De Soto.

Judge Hobbs suggested joint ownership or selling the damn thing and splitting the profits--but by then there was so much bad blood between the boys, as to who said what, and who promised which, and who indeed was the De Soto's rightful owner.

"Well then," said Judge Hobbs, "I am gonna render a decision based upon the wisdom of Solomon. Is either one of you boys versed in or acquainted with the Biblical tale of Solomon and the two mothers?"

The boys had to admit that Scripture was not their long suit.

"Good," said Judge Hobbs, "I wouldn't want either of you anticipating my ruling which is--that the aforementioned De Soto be cut in half, and one half awarded to each of the claimants. Leon, is that all right with you?"

"Fine with me," said Leon.

"And Maurice, do you find this acceptable?"

"I'll go for that," said Maurice, "but who gets the front half and who gets the back half?"

"I'll take the front half," said Leon.

"The hell you will," shouted Maurice, "the front half's got the engine, the radio, the hood ornament, and the--"

"Order," called Judge Hobbs, banging down the claw hammer he used as a gavel. "I'm amending my decision--the De Soto will be split
lengthwise--thereby giving each of you an equal--"

"Well, who gets the driver's side?" demanded Leon. "That's got the mahogany whell, the transmission, gearshift, the--"

"And who's supposed to saw that damn engine in half?" Leon whined. "You try cuttin' through a windshield and an engine, with a chain saw, and you're sure as hell gonna mess up a--"
Judge Hobbs banged his hammer.

"Well," sighed Judge Hobbs, "I can see from the incredible willingness of both claimants to gladly destroy this unique and classic example of automotive art that neither one of them is the rightful owner. And the court hereby impounds said vehicle as property of the court to be used at the court's discretion on various court business on weekends and holidays, and if there is any question as to the right of the court to impound said De Soto, I'm sure that
something can and will be found in the trunk of glove compartment to justify my decision. These proceedings are concluded--everybody go home.

"And that," said Judge Hobbs later, as he and Clarence Sawyer, his bailiff, sat sipping some good apricot brandy, "is the last time I try to render a verdict based upon anybody's wisdom but my own."


***************

It was too damn hot.

Judge Hobbs leaned back in his swivel chair and turned up the fan as high as it would go. He didn't want to lean too far back. They might see that he was wearing short pants underneat his robe. That might be interpreted as being unjudicialor, at best, undignified.

Carefully, Judge Hobbs rolled up the brief that lay upon his desk. The fly was on the rim of the coffee cup. One swat--justice--swift and sure. But was it just? What was the fly doing but exercising its nature? What was young Billy Ray doing but exercising his? But if that were the case, who deserved to be punished for anything?

Judge Hobbs closed his eyes and tapped the rolled papers againts his palm. He hoped that this would look contemplative. The fly was moving down the inside of the cup now. As long as it stayed there it was safe. Did the sonofabitch know that?

"All right," said Judge Hobbs, unrolling the brief and flattening it out, "all right, let's proceed with these--Clarence, will you turn that damn thing off."

"I got the sound down, Judge," said the bailiff.

"Well, I can still hear it," said Judge Hobbs. "What's the score, anyway?"

"Eight to two, Bluebirds, top of the fifth--they just brought in that Binky Lewis. He's as wild as a--"

"Well, I think that Lewis boy ought to be able to hold a six-run lead," said Judge Hobbs, wiping his neck with his hankerchief.

"Judge, they got two men on and--"

"Damn it, Clarence, at least turn the sound off--and announce these proceedings--in a proper and official manner."

Clarence snapped off the sound and stood up, pouting.

"Hear ye, hear ye, first district court, Menasha County, now in session, Honorable Vernon Hobbs presiding--all rise."

He had hit the Honorable a little too hard.

"Too hot to rise," said Judge Hobbs, throwing Clarence hist stern look. "Stay sittin'."

"The state versus William Raymond Brockley," continued Clarence. "The charge, sexual battery, assault with a deadly weapon, kidnapping, resisting arrest--"

"All right," said Judge Hobbs, "I'm tired of list'nin'."

The fly had taken off.

Judge Hobbs turned towards Billy Ray. Damn, the book was too good looking to have to force anyone into anything.

"Billy Ray, you've decided to forgo and dispense with a trial by a jury of your peers."

"Yes, sir," said Billy Ray.

"Well," said Judge Hobbs, "that may be a wise decision, since most of your peers around here would like to see your strung up slow and sliced down a piece at a time. A few of 'em might even be blood-related to Eunice Tillman."

"The young lady is in critical condition at Baptist Hospital," said Lew Porter, district attorney and proprietor of Porter Brothers General Contracting, Roofing, and Aluminum Siding, "and is at this time physically and emotionally unfit to attend this hearing. Therefore, Your Honor, the state requests a one-week postponement until the young lady--"

"The young lady's condition has been upgraded to stable," interjected Buddy Linz, defense attorney and co-owner of Buddy's Four Alarm Chili And Pit Bar-B-Cue.
"Well, I think we can proceed ahead," said Judge Hobbs, "I want to get this over and done with as soon as possible."

Lew Porter stood up. How did he manage to look so dry and unwrinkled in a three-piece suit on a day like this?

"Your Honor," said Lew Porter, "the state will prove that on the night of--"

"Attempt to prove," snapped Judge Hobbs. Lew Porter sighed.

"Attempt to prove that on the night of April seventeenth, the accused, Billy Ray Brockley, did willfully and forcibly--"

"Come to think of it, Lew, you don't even have to attempt to prove anything," said Judge Hobbs. "Sit back down--I have all the pertinent facts right here." He tapped the rumpled brief. "This don't look like that big of a deal."

"We know you'll render a fair and impartial judgement, Your Honor," said Buddy Linz.
Lew Porter groaned and sat back down.

Judge Hobbs had the reputation of being one of the goodest and oldest of the county's good old boys, two of his favorite expressions being "Boys will be boys" and "Let he who has never been young cast the first stone." Also Judge Hobbs had been heard to remark on more than one occasion that it didn'tserve much purpose slappin' young people in jail.

"In the spring the sap will rise," he would sigh, his eyese looking back a long time ago. "The fruit turns ripe and the pickers come. That's nature--you can't stop it or slow it down."

"All right," says Judge Hobbs, tossing the brief aside and turning to Billy Ray Brockley, "Billy Ray, you've been advised by counsle that my decision will be binding?"

"Yes, sir," said Billy Ray.

" 'Cause I sure as hell don't want to hear no bitchin' or moanin' later than I been too severe--or too lenient--and I sure as hell don't want to hear the word appeal interjected anywhere into these proceedings. I mean I don't want to even sniff the word appeal, and anybody--defense attorney or prosecutor--who even breathes or whispers that word is gonna find me somwhat prejudicial in my rulings on his future cases--is that understood? All right, you wanted my decision on this case andyou'll get it--and abide by it. Billy Ray-how do you plead to these charges?"

"I didn't do it."

"You didn't meet Eunice Tillman at the VFW Blue Moon Dance on the night of. . .April seventeenth?"

"I met her."

"You didn't dance with her?"

"You didn't get her drunk?"

"You don't have to get Eunice drunk," said Billy Ray. "She's always--"

"You didn't drive her to the Larkspure Underpass?"

"Yes sir--but I didn't do it."

"Didn't do. . . what?"

"The rest of it. I'm not guilty."

"You sayin' she led you on? 'Cause if she led you on--"

"I'm sayin' I didn't do it."

"You didn't do it."

"Not. . . really."

"Not really?"

"I. . . witnessed it."

"You witnessed it."

"Bein' done--yes, sir."

"Bein' done--by who?"

"Bein' done by who, damn it?"

Billy Ray closed his eyes.

"By. . . Sam."

"Sam?"

"Sam Johnson, Your Honor."

"Sam Johnson?" Judge Hobbs picked up the brief. "I don't see any Sam Johnson listed in this--"

"Sam Johnson," said Billy Ray. "My. . . thing."

"Your. . . thing?"

Buddy Linz stood up.

"My client is referring to his. . . member, Your Honor, his. . . sexual member, his--"

"I can see what he's referring to," said Judge Hobbs, "He's clutchin' the damn thing."

Judge Hobbs leaned forward.

"Billy Ray--you're sayin' that that is Sam Johnson?"

"Yes, sir."

"You've givin' him a. . . name?"

"That's his name, Judge. Sam."

"A first name too."

"Well, sir, there's a lot of Johnsons out there."

"Hopefully not related to this case," said Judge Hobbs, picking up his pen and beginning to write. "Mister Johnson? J-O-H-N-S-O-N? He's the guilty party?"

"I call him Sam," said Billy Ray. "It's not so formal."

"Well, I want to keep things as formal as possible," said Judge Hobbs. "Samuel Johnson. No middle initial?"

"No, sir."

"Just first and last name--you didn't make a little checkered coat for the sonofabitch, did you? With a little straw hat and a cane?"

"No, sir."

"And you say that this 'Samuel Johnson' on the night of April seventeenth, and against the person of Eunice Tillman, did willfully and forcibly, without your aid, cooperation, or collaboration--"
"He's got a mind of his own, Judge," said Billy Ray. "There's no reasoning with him--he just gets a notion and does. . . anything that comes into his head."

"I know, son," sighed Judge Hobbs, "but as an innocent observer and witness to the alleged attack, did you do anyting to restrain the aforementioned Samuel Johnson from--"

"There's no holding him, Your Honor," said Billy Ray. "He's. . . unrestrainable--I tried--he just. . . shook me off."

Lew Porter was on his feet.

"And what the hell were you doing, while Sam Johnson was forcing Eunice Tillman into the backseat? What were you doing when your buddy Sam was forcing Eunice Tilman to perform a--"

"I couldn't have gone against him," Billy Ray pleaded. "I was afraid."

"Afraid?" asked Judge Hobbs. "Afraid of what?"

"Of what he might. . . do. . .to me."

"To you?" Judge Hobbs was wide awake now. "What could he have done to you?"

"You don't know him, Your Honor. The bastard's got no conscience--he might do. . . anything. He's got a. . . power, Judge. He just. . . takes over. You don't know Sam Johnson."

Lew Porter was up and screaming now--the veins in his neck about to bust. His face was right in Billy Ray's.

"And I imagine it was the same Sam Johnson who drove your Thunderbird to the Larkspur Underpass. I wanna seeit, Your Honor, I want a demonstration of Sam Johnson drivin' a stick shift, I wanna see Sam Johnson holdin' a knife to somebody's throat--this knife, Your Honor--I'm introducin' this barlow as Exhibit A. And I wanna see--"

"You don't have to introduce that knife to me," said Judge Hobbs, picking up the barlow and turning it over slowly. "This was your daddy's fishin' knife, wasn't it, Billy? I believe if he knew you were leavin' it layin' around within easy reach of such unsavory characters as this Sam Johnson, he'd be spinnin' in his grave." He turned to Buddy Linz.

"Buddy, this defense that you've cooked up is highly unique and creative, I must say. You realize if I allow it and it becomes a precedent, any forger can claim that it was his hands that did it, and not him. Anybody can kick somebody to death and claim it was his feet."

"Next thing you know," chimed in Lew Porter, picking up the line of reasoning," next thing you know the arsonist is blaming the match, the sniper is blamin' the bullet, the ax murderer--"

"That's our defense," said Buddy Linz, "and I've got a trunkload of psychiatric books and psychological studies and psychiatrists' opinions that'll back me up."
"Sam Johnson did it," said Billy Ray. "I'll swear to it."

Lew Porter was sweating now. That three-piece suit was beginning to look like wet cardboard.

"Your Honor," he said. "this. . . increadible 'my-pee-pee-did-it-not-me-plea' is so outrageous--so desperate--so without any legal foundation, that no one can possibly--"

"I'm going to allow it," said Judge Hobbs, "and if it brings down upon my head a torrent of legal criticism and controversy, well, then, they'll just have to put me on the same bench with boys like John Marshall, Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes--in presenting a ruling that will forever influence future jurisprudence.

"Because, gentlemen, I find this theory of a. . . member. . . having a will of its own to be reasonable and within the scope of human experience.

"Have we all not at some time or other been led down pathways dark and devious? By something stronger than our hearts or heads? And is justice not to be tempered with mercy? And who indeed can stop the sap from rising in the young sapling?"

Lew Porter groaned and held his head in his hands.

"Billy Ray, I find you innocent of all charges specified here. I do find you guilty of witnessing a felony and not immediately reporting it, but in light of your coming forth now and identifying the guilty party, I'm suspending sentence. I don't suppose Sam Johnson has any money."
"Not a cent, Your Honor," said a cheerful Billy Ray.

"Well, then, seein' as how he's a friend of yours--"

"Former friend," said Billy Ray.

"Whatever--I'm ordering you to pay whatever medical costs Eunice Tillman may run up do to the actions of your former friend Sam Johnson. And I hope this serves as a lesson to you to refrain from any associations with violent, abusive members."

"Thank you, Judge," said Billy Ray, getting up with a grin. "And I'm sure gonna be more selective in the future about hangin' out wiht bad company."

Judge Hobbs sat there. Billy Ray was hugging Buddy Linz. Lew Porter was putting his papers together. Clarence was fiddling with the horizontal. Billy Ray started toward the door. Judge Hobbs picked up his gavel.

"Where you goin', son?" asked Judge Hobbs.

"Home. . . to dinner. . . like you said. I think my momma is makin' a good meat loaf."

"Well, good," said Judge Hobbs, "but who you takin' with you?"

"Buddy. . . if he wants to come--hell, all of you, if you like meat loaf. There'll be plenty."

"Well, you ain't takin' no convicted felon home to your momma's table, are you?" asked Judge Hobbs.

Billy Ray looked confused.

"I mean, son, you're innocent and free to go--free as a bird."

Billy Ray sighed.

"But that heartless cold-blooded sex fiend, Sam Johnson, I'm findin' him guilty"--Judge Hobbs banged his gavel--"of aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping, I'm sentencing the ruthless sonofabitch to twelve years' confinement in the state correctional facility at Joliet."

"Judge--" said Billy Ray.

"Son," said Judge Hobbs, raising a restraining finger, "I know how hard it is to take leave of a loved one for an extended period of time, so as a special consideration, I'm gonna give you the opportunity to accompany your friend, your former friend, to Joliet, or you can stay behind and let him go on alone. . . you look pale, son. . . . Mr. Linz, why don't you escort your client to the men's room. I think he needs a glass of water. . . Oh, and Clarence--give Billy Ray his daddy's barlow--he's innocent and it's his property. Take all the time you need, son," he said softly to Billy Ray, "but when you come out of there, Sam Johnson is goin' to prision. . . . Next case--"

"There ain't no next case, Judge," said Clarence.

"Well then, turn up the sound," said Judge Hobbs, "and let's find out whether or not that Lewis kid can hold a six-run lead for five damn innings."

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