April 16, 2012
U.S. District Court
Bexar County courthouse
This can’t be happening. The sickening refrain accompanied Hunter morning, noon, and night. He gripped his shaking hands in his lap behind the table. His public defender, a guy named Juan Perez who looked barely old enough to be out of law school, glanced Hunter’s way. He scribbled on a yellow legal pad and pushed it toward Hunter. His scent of mint toothpaste and Polo cologne wafted over Hunter. Some might think it too much, but after two years of jail smells of urine, sweat, musty sheets, and fear it seemed almost comforting.
Relax. Remember what I told you.
His advice had been to look suitably somber, but not grime. Basically, don’t look guilty. What did guilty look like? Don’t let them see you sweat. Hunter forced himself to sit still. Every muscle in his body wanted to turn around to see if Delaney was sitting somewhere behind him. Once she finished testifying, they’d allowed her to be in the courtroom. Her testimony had been damning. Ellie’s couldn’t be any worse.
The prosecutor, an assistant district attorney, strutted across the no-man’s-land between his table and the witness box. Everything about him set Hunter’s teeth on edge. His perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth, his gold pen that he clicked and tossed on the table before approaching the witnesses, the way he smiled to himself before he made a point, his holier-than-thou tone when he spoke of the heinous crime committed by the defendant.
“Ms. Cruz, what was your relationship to the victim in this case?”
“Corey was my boyfriend.” Ellie’s voice cracked. A solicitous look on his face, the prosecutor trotted a box of tissues over to her. She thanked him and snatched one. “We’d been together for three years. We were talking about getting married.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am.” The prosecutor glanced sideways at the jury. See what the monster did to this poor woman, his expression said. “How do you know the defendant Hunter Nash?”
“He was Corey’s best friend. He was dating my best friend Delaney Broward.”
No mention of being her friend. Hunter studied her tear-stained face. She’d been through hell in the last two years. Her peasant blouse and ankle length skirt hung loose on her. Dark circles ringed her brown eyes. Her brown skin had a yellow tinge. Two years and she hadn’t began to recover physically. Emotionally, she wore her heart on her sleeve. In mourning, it said. His sister Mel tried to call her. Ellie hung up. She thought he was guilty. That was why she was testifying for the prosecution. Hunter willed himself to look away. She didn’t think of him as a friend. She thought of him as a killer.
“How would you characterize the relationship between Corey and the defendant?”
“They were like brothers sometimes. Other times, they hated each other’s guts. We never knew which it would be so we ended up walking on eggshells around one or both of them. They’re both high strung, typical artist-types.”
Everyone walked on eggshells around Corey, not Hunter. He never hated Corey. He worried about him. He tried to save Corey from himself. Gritting his teeth, he wrote a note to his attorney on the yellow pad and shoved it back to him.
She’s got it wrong. Ask her about Corey’s plan to save the coop. Ask her about how he financed his drug use.
Frowning, Perez adjusted his frameless glasses. He gave a slight shake of his head. Not a brown hair on his head moved. Too much product.
Hunter had done nothing but sit tight for the past two years. Two years in jail. Two years of sweaty, nauseating fear that kept him from sleeping at night. The snoring and BO of his cellmate his constant companion along with the occasional screams or strange howls of other prisoners.
Two years of talking to his mother through a plexiglass shield. She wanted to take out a second mortgage on the house. Even that wouldn’t be enough to cover his bail. He couldn’t let her borrow against her pension.
She sat behind him. She had everyday of the trial, dressed in her best teacher A-line skirt, white blouse, flats, and the string of pearls he and his siblings had given her for her fiftieth birthday. She’d taken a leave of absence from her teaching job.
“Ms. Hill, without saying what the two men said, did you ever witness them arguing?”
“All the time.”
“Did you ever witness them coming to blows, a physical altercation, during an argument?”
When? When? Hunter searched his memory. A vague memory surfaced. The Fourth of July barbecue at Jess’s parents’ house. Too much beer had been consumed during the daylong ritual of smoking the brisket. The scent of pot mingled with the mouthwatering aroma of meat slowly cooking. A fog covered the events of the day. All Hunter could remember was the hangover and the painful bruises that appeared the following day.
What had they fought about? He had no clue.
“Hunter threw a beer bottle at Corey. It hit him in the chest and splattered beer all over his shirt. Corey went berserk. A second later they were shoving each other, throwing punches, and screaming cusswords. They fell to the ground and rolled around like rutting pigs.”
“What was the fight about?”
“Objection, Your Honor!” Flores was on his feet. “Calls for hearsay.”
Judge Ramirez was a by-the-book judge according to Flores. He also liked to throw that book at people who broke the law. “Rephrase the question, Counselor.”
“Without saying who said what, tell us what you observed regarding the subject of this physical altercation.”
“The topic was the coop. It was always the coop. We all knew it was in trouble. We all knew Corey was planning to open it up to other non-artist renters. Businesses that needed storage space for their products and could pay for it. Corey told me—”
“Objection, hearsay.” Flores sprung up like a jack-in-the-box “And relevance, Judge. This argument has nothing to do with what happened on April 22, 2010. Did this witness personally observe an altercation on that day?”
“Judge, I’m establishing a pattern of behavior. And, if Mr. Perez, will stop objecting, I’ll get to what she knows about the events of April 22, 2010.”
“A reminder, Ms. Hill, do not repeat what others said in your testimony. That isn’t allowed in most instances, except for the occasional excited utterances. Counselor, I’ll allow this line of questioning only so far, let’s move on quickly.”
“Absolutely, Your Honor. Ms. Hill, you did the books for the coop, didn’t you?”
“What was the coop’s financial status at the time of this Fourth of July altercation?”
“If we made the monthly lease payment, we wouldn’t be able to pay the water and electric bills. We also had to pay for trash pickup, the landline phone in the kitchen—we felt it was important to have at least one phone for safety purposes since not all the artists had cellular phones—and custodial services. We tried a rotation where everyone pitched in to clean up the bathrooms and the kitchen, the communal areas, but it was a disaster. Custodians aren’t cheap.”
“You did the books so you personally know which artists were paid up on their rent and which weren’t?”
“Was the defendant Hunter Nash current on his rent at the time of Corey Broward’s death?”
“No. He was three months behind. That was nothing new. That was what the fight on July 4th 2009 was about. He showed up at the barbecue with a twelve pack of imported beer, a bunch of fajita meat, and a bag of pot.”
Hunter shook his head. Flores touched his arm.
“Did this bother you?”
“Yes. I knew Hunter sold two paintings at a downtown art fair the previous weekend. He didn’t bring in the big bucks for his paintings like Corey did, but it wasn’t chump change either. He should’ve used that money toward his rent. He liked to play the big spender for Delaney. He couldn’t show up empty handed at a barbecue. He was more concerned about how it would look to her than about his responsibilities. It made me mad. Then he threw a bottle at Corey. What if he’d hit him in the head? It’s not like Corey could afford health insurance—”
“Okay, that’s good, Ms. Hill. How did this altercation on July 4th, 2009, end?”
“Hunter was bigger and heavier than Corey. He smashed his fist into Corey’s face and broken his nose. There was blood everywhere. Jess and Billy, who’s a bouncer at a nightclub, tore them apart. Hunter was cussing and yelling, calling Corey names. Jess made him leave.”
“So would you say, in your opinion, that Hunter had an anger management issue—”
“Objection, Your Honor, the witness isn’t a mental health expert—”
“The ADA has asked Ms. Cruz for her opinion. He didn’t suggest she was an expert. You many answer, Ms. Cruz.”
“Yes, he had anger management issues, only when he drank and got high, but he did that all the time. We never knew when he would explode. I was afraid he might get mad one day, explode, and hit Delaney—”
Anger hit Hunter like a tsunami. Delaney was the love of his life. “I would never hurt Delaney.” Hunter shot to his feet. “I never touched her in anger ever. I love—”
“Sit down, sit down now.” Flores grabbed Hunter’s arm and tugged at him. “Calm down. Now.”
“Mr. Flores, get your client under control immediately, or I will have him removed from the courtroom.” Judge Ramirez rapped with his gavel. “Outbursts like this will not be tolerated.”
Hunter sank into his chair. He jerked his arm from Flores’ grasp. “You have to let me testify.”
Flores leaned closer and whispered, “Shut up. Now. Get yourself under control. You just made their point.”
“I have to testify.”
“And let him push your buttons?” Flores straightened his skinny black tie. His face was red, his neck blotchy above his dress shirt’s white collar. “No way.”
Hunter concentrated on breathing. To suggest he would hurt Delaney was not only ridiculous, it was painful. Ellie never said a word about those concerns—not to him. Had she said something to Delaney? If she did, Delaney never mentioned it. She never acted afraid of him. Or tried to break up with him. They’d been good. Hadn’t they? Did drugs and alcohol make him blind to what how they affected those around him?
Two years of enforced sobriety had given Hunter a new sense of reality. At times he hated it. He’d give his left foot for a joint or a double shot of whiskey. It would make sleeping so much easier. Other times, he saw clearly how the twin vices had negatively impacted on his life. He missed work, reducing his paycheck. He painted less and when he did paint, the results were subpar. His creativity waned. His strokes with the paintbrush were shaky. He didn’t pay his bills on time because of what he blamed on “cash flow” problems.
The problem had been the failure to grow up. He’d still been acting like an adolescent juvenile delinquent.
Two years in jail had fixed that. He didn’t need any more lessons in how to go straight. He wrote a note on the legal pad and pushed it toward Flores. The public defender ignored it.
Even his attorney wouldn’t talk to him.
“Ms. Hill, what if anything happened on April 22, 2010, that caused you concern?”
“Corey was late picking me up. He was supposed to be at his house, but he wasn’t. We had planned to hang out with Delaney and Corey at NIOSA.”
“So what did you do when he didn’t arrive to pick you up?”
“I called Delaney. She was running errands. When she got to the house, he wasn’t there, so she was headed to the coop to roust him from his studio. When Corey painted, he lost all sense of time. He didn’t eat, he didn’t sleep, he didn’t know what day it was.”
“After you talked to Delaney, what did you do, if anything?”
“I called Corey’s cellphone. He’ll pick up for me because he knows . . . he knew . . . how angry it made me when ignored me.”
“Did he, in fact, answer?”
“Without telling the Court what he said, did something occur that concerned you?”
“He didn’t say hello. I could hear him yelling. There was noise, like stuff was getting thrown around.”
“Was Corey’s voice the only one you heard?”
“You could hear another voice. Whose was it?”
“It was Hunter’s. I could hear him yelling at Corey. He was screaming something about drugs—”
The ADA swiveled and glanced at Hunter. The gaze of every juror seemed to follow. “You’re sure it was the defendant’s voice?”
“Absolutely. He has a distinctive, gravelly voice, probably from smoking too much weed. Plus he was yelling. I could hear every word—”
“That’s good. What happened then, if anything?”
“Corey yelled back. There was a loud noise like something fell or got knocked over. Then everything stopped. The call ended or dropped. I tried calling him again, but this time he didn’t pick up.”
Ellie started to sob. This time she didn’t stop. Her shoulders shook. Snot ran from her nose. She grabbed a tissue and hid her face in it.
“Do you need a minute, Ms. Cruz.”
“I’m sorry.” Her muffled voice quavered. “It’s hard, reliving all this. I thought I was through crying over it, but this is like reliving it. The tears just keep coming.”
“No need to apologize.” The ADA shook his head and tut-tut-tutted. “I can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through because of this horrific act of violence.”
“I’ll be fine.” She dropped the tissue in her lap. “You can ask me another question.”
At least two of the jurors had tears in their eyes. Another one blew his nose with a loud honk. The sound of sniffling in the gallery behind Hunter joined in.
“You don’t know for a fact that the two men were in Corey’s studio, do you?”
“No, but that’s where Delaney found Corey a half hour later.”
“So Hunter was in Corey’s studio when you heard them arguing and the sound of a physical altercation.”
“Objection, calls for speculation.”
“Overruled, I’ll allow it.”
“Yes. The studio was a mess—”
“Hearsay.” Flores sprung to his feet. “The witness wasn’t in the studio—”
“Overruled. Mr. Flores, I suggest you give it a rest so we can get through this. I’m going to allow a certain amount of latitude, given the fact that Ms. Cruz is the closest person to an eye witness we have.”
Perez opened his mouth, then closed it. He sat.
“Ms. Broward reached the studio about thirty minutes after your phone call. Mr. Broward was dead and the studio was destroyed.”
“Yes. Thirty minutes after I heard Corey arguing with Hunter.” Ellie looked directly at Hunter for the first time. He forced himself to hold her gaze. She shook her head. “Less than thirty minutes later, Delaney found the man I love stabbed to death.”
She’d stopped crying. Her gaze held anger, disappointment, hurt, and certainty, all rolled into one. “Hunter was gone, but he was there at the time of my boyfriend’s death.”
“Objection! Judge, she wasn’t there, she can’t know that for certain.”
“Sustained. The witness’s last statement will be stricken from the record. The jury will disregard.”
No they wouldn’t. Hunter was on his feet before he realized he planned to stand. “I didn’t kill him, Ellie. You know me. I didn’t do it. I didn’t kill him.” He whirled, seeking Delaney. There, she was, on the second row. Tears ran down her face. “You have to believe me, Laney, I didn’t do it. I love you. I loved him like a brother, more than a brother.”
Delaney rose from her seat and ran from the courtroom. Ran from him.
Two bailiffs descended on him. Flores grabbed his arm and yanked him back to his seat. “Sit!”
“One more outburst like that, Mr. Nash, and you will watch the rest of this trial from a remote location.” Judge Ramirez’s face had turned bright red. His deep voice thundered with anger. “Do you understand?”
Hunter wiped his face with his sleeve. When had he started crying? “Yes, sir.” His voice broke. “They know me. They know I didn’t do—”
“Close your mouth, Mr. Nash, or you’re gone.”
“Your Honor, that completes my examination of this witness.” The ADA looked cool as a watermelon on ice. He straightened a sheaf of papers on the table. “I reserve the right to recall her later, however.”
“In that case, given the hour, we’ll adjourn for lunch.” Judge Ramirez glanced at his watch. “Mr. Flores, be prepared for cross-examination after lunch. You might want to use that time to school your client on appropriate courtroom conduct. Court will resume at 1:15 p.m. on the dot. Do not be late. There will be dire consequences for anyone involved in this trial who darkens the doors of my court at 1:16 p.m.”
“Yes, Your Honor,” the attorneys chorused.
Everyone stood while the judge and jury exited. One of the perks of being in trial meant the bailiffs would escort Hunter to a nearby conference room where Flores would get him a fast food meal. A cheeseburger and fries had been at the top of Hunter’s list when the trial began. Most days, he struggled to swallow the meal. At the moment, the thought of food made him gag.
A smirk on his face, the ADA strolled past their table. “You know that plea bargain I offered you a few days ago?”
Flores glanced at Hunter and sighed. “I told you, my client refuses to consider a plea bargain.”
“That’s just as well.” The ADA’s grin stretched across his too handsome face. “It’s withdrawn. We’ve got him. He’s going down.”
“We haven’t even begun to present our defense.” Flores’ protest was weak. “Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself.”
“I’ve seen your discovery.” The ADA rapped once on the table and headed through the double swinging gates that lead to the courtroom doors. “You should be on your knees begging pretty please for a plea bargain.”
“I’m innocent.” The desire to crawl across the table and throttle the man surged through Hunter. But he didn’t. So much for anger management issues. “The jury will see that.”
The ADA kept walking. “Prove it.”
That was the problem. No one seemed interested in helping Hunter do that.