Lady Justice is portrayed blindfolded as she holds the scales to weigh guilt and innocence. Sometimes, she gets confused. I am reminded of a case that my former classmate and law partner, Henry Blizzard and I tried back in 1970 in Huntsville. It was one of our first trials. At the time, neither of us had much courtroom experience. We closed home loans, wrote wills and deeds, collected small accounts, handled misdemeanors, and waited for the big case that would make us rich and famous. Several of my clients got to eat jailhouse cornbread and boiled cabbage as a result of my trial inexperience. I do apologize to them. However, they can take solace in knowing they contributed to my on-the-job training. Earning a living was tough for a young, upstart lawyer.
Henry worked two days a week assisting District Attorney, Dan Nelson. The dab of money he earned helped pay our overhead. In addition, he went to court with the D.A. and watched him prosecute criminal cases. Jasper Powell, a Decatur lawyer with a voice like Moses reading the Ten Commandments, handled a lot of criminal cases and won more than his share. According to Henry, he would get the witnesses so confused about the facts, the jury wouldn’t convict. On cross examination, he asked witnesses detailed questions about lighting, distance, time, and where other witnesses were located. Pretty soon everyone was confused about who saw what and when. He was good at his craft.
Meanwhile Delbert (not his real name), a young man from a northern state, had recently moved to Huntsville and was understandably unfamiliar with the delicate sensibilities of Southern girls. While attending a party one night, he “allegedly” groped a young lady’s privates before she was ready to be groped. His timing was way off. Instead of doing the Christian thing and “turning the other cheek” she took offense, and had Delbert arrested on a felony charge that could get him 1 to 10 in the slammer. Delbert needed a lawyer.
Being a stranger in our land, Delbert didn’t know any lawyers, but he did know a woman who knew my sister-in-law who knew that Henry and I needed clients and fees. Delbert hired us to save him. Neither of us had ever handled a case of this magnitude before. Delbert was nervous as a squirrel, and called our office regularly. “What’s going on?” He was eventually indicted by the Madison County Grand Jury. Soon trial date would be set.
I was as nervous as Delbert. I checked our post office box sometimes twice a day, even on Sundays, dreading the day when we received a notice of trial. One Sunday following worship, I stopped at the post office, opened the box, and there was an order setting Delbert’s case for trial. I almost upchucked. How would we keep Delbert out of prison? We didn’t have a defense. He admitted touching the young lady – but not much. Henry rubbed his bald head, as he was often apt to do when thinking hard, and puffed his pipe.
“We’ll do what Jasper Powell does in Decatur,” he finally said. “We’ll get everyone so confused they won’t know what’s happening.” Yay! Not only would we keep Delbert out of prison and on the street so that he could grope more young women, but we’d become locally famous. I began to have doubts as the trial approached. Would our strategy work? Or would Delbert be eating jailhouse cornbread and boiled cabbage?
The trial got underway and opening statements were made. The party had taken place at a private home at night where young people were packed inside, drinking, laughing, and talking. The D.A. called the victim, a young lady, who with great drama told what Delbert had done to her. “He touched my privates,” she barely whispered and dropped her head. Delbert squirmed in his chair, already smelling cornbread and boiled cabbage. We gently cross examined her and established that dozens of people were drinking, talking, laughing, and milling about. In other words, your typical bunch of young drunks trying to hook up.
Prosecution called other witnesses to corroborate the victim’s story. On cross examination, we asked detailed questions: “Where were you standing? How far away? Where were the other witnesses? Where were the lights? Were you drinking?” Each witness had a somewhat different answer. Alcohol had clouded their minds and memories. Henry and I could smell victory. The jury would put Delbert back on the streets, and we would have our fifteen minutes of fame. After lunch we returned to the courtroom and the D.A. walked over. “Would you fellows object if I dismiss this case?” he asked. “I’m so confused I don’t know what happened.”
“Dismiss!” Henry and I were nearly outraged. Delbert was happy, but Henry and I felt cheated. Our fifteen minutes of fame had been stolen from us.
Henry went on to serve many years as Circuit Judge of Limestone County. I just went on losing my hair. As for Delbert, the experience was so traumatic, I suspect he swore an oath of celibacy and entered a monastery. You may think that justice was denied. No, the Government has the duty of proving its case against a citizen beyond a reasonable doubt. We cast doubt on their case. Justice thwarted isn’t the moral of this story. It’s a warning to young men with hormone overdrive. Be careful of who you grope and when. Proper timing is everything in life. If your timing is off, you could end up eating jailhouse cornbread and boiled cabbage. Or, on the other hand you could catch a wife; perhaps the wrong one.
By: Jerry Barksdale