The Power of Truth

With the witness now departed, the two lawyers and court reporter acknowledged their conversation to be the strangest one they had ever had in their professional lives.

They were faced with a situation that had to be erased. Every professional instinct in them screamed to go no further.

Despite that, the notes of the two lawyers, Kim and Casey, were ready for the shredder, and the court reporter’s computer files were electronically queued up for deletion. Once that was accomplished, it would be as though the proceedings never took place.

The reporter depressed the Enter key.

Ninety minutes earlier, the dawn of the morning legal sun had lit up just another routine deposition as part of the legal proceedings in a lawsuit resulting from a motor vehicle incident.

A man named Joshua Blunt had witnessed a two-car auto accident. One of the drivers had been taken to the hospital and eventually hired Casey to sue the other driver. Kim represented the insurance company with the policy covering that other driver.

Both lawyers wanted to hear what Mr. Blunt had to say about the accident, and Kim issued a subpoena for the man to come to a deposition and be questioned. The court reporting agency Kim hired to take the record of the deposition sent a seasoned reporter, Hayden, to report it.

All part of the routine. Kim, Casey, and Hayden had been through this process multiple times in their respective careers and expected to continue to do so multiple more.

Joshua Blunt arrived at the appointed time and was shown to the nondescript, sterile conference room where the two lawyers and court reporter waited, set up and ready. Introductions were offered all around. Hayden, the reporter, administered the oath to Blunt, and Kim began questioning.

Depositions generally take a pattern of establishing the name, address, and life status of the witness, along with standard warnings about the structure of the interrogation. Lawyers sometimes will explore the background of the witness to shed light on any issues that might affect their testimony.

Kim went through the questioning by rote, asking if Mr. Blunt had been in a deposition before, had been in a lawsuit before, had declared bankruptcy before, nothing out of the ordinary, until the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

Blunt, blank-faced, said, “Yes.”

Kim and Casey looked up from their notes. This was suddenly of some interest. Prior felony convictions could be brought up at trial to shed doubt on the credibility of a witness.

Kim asked, “What was the charge?”

“Receiving stolen property.”

“Did you have a plea agreement or go to trial?”

“I pled out.”

“So you were convicted and sentenced?”

“Yes.”

Blunt’s voice was even, steady, devoid of embarrassment or contrition. He could have been talking about buying a muffin from the corner store. Kim and Casey exchanged glances. They were adversaries in this case, representing opposite interests, but they had seen each other on cases before and would do so again. Their mutual look contained the same subtext: This is strange.

Kim flipped a page over on a yellow notepad and wrote rapidly before continuing. “Do you mind telling me more of the details of the conviction?”

“That’s fine. What do you want to know?”

Kim shrugged. “Why don’t you just start talking about it, and I’ll ask questions to fill in what I need to know.”

Joshua Blunt sat back and began his explanation.

Seven years before, he was in routinely successful employment with a building contractor. He and his wife, Sheila, had a successful marriage. Blunt was deeply in love with her. And then came the day the police had come to the door with a search warrant.

Sheila had what she called her “craft room” which contained a floor safe. She described the safe as her jewelry case. Joshua Blunt took it on faith. He had no interest in looking through her jewelry, heirlooms, old love letters, whatever it might contain, and he himself owned nothing safe-worthy. Sheila could protect her things however she saw fit, as far as he was concerned.

But once the police had the safe opened, it had jewelry, all right. Loose diamonds and other stones, brooches, necklaces, bracelets, rings, none of which Blunt had seen before. And money. Stacks of bills, numbering many thousands of dollars.

Now speaking at the deposition, Blunt smiled grimly. “I don’t know what she was planning on spending it on. We met the expenses of the house, sometimes ran a little short like normal people do, but I don’t ever remembering having money just show up for special projects or to bail us out of anything.”

Kim frowned. “Did you know about any of this beforehand?”

“Nope. Came as a surprise to me.”

“Were you charged as an accomplice, then? Or how did you come to get convicted?” Kim stopped to self-correct. “I’m sorry. I should ask one question at a time. How did you come to get convicted?”

Blunt continued his story. Sheila was arrested, bonded out, and came home near hysterical, pleading to the still-stunned Joshua Blunt that she could not bear to go through the criminal process, could not imagine going back to jail, and needed his support more than ever. Blunt, still wading through an emotional swamp of shock and confusion, with his abiding love for her not yet whittled back an ounce, had ultimately agreed to take the charges upon himself and plead to the crimes she had committed. He considered it a sacrifice of love.

Now Kim leaned forward, brows trying to meet in the middle. “So you pled for something your wife did. And the prosecutor and judge both accepted that, and the judge sentenced you?”

A short, harsh rasp of laughter. “Oh, it gets even better. The DA told the judge that I’d deceived everyone about being a fence for all this stolen stuff, even using the safe in Sheila’s room, my trusting, loving wife, even watching her get arrested before I confessed. The judge said some nasty things about that and sent me to the penitentiary.” Blunt sat back. “I can’t blame the judge or the prosecutor, really, or the police. They did their thing based on what Sheila had me say. They’re out of it, as far as I’m concerned. The only one I’ve got to blame is myself.” A grim smile found its way to his face. “And Sheila.”

Blunt straightened up in his chair. “But here’s something that came out of all this that might be interesting to you. You see, lying for my wife was what got me in prison, with everything,” and he paused, his eyes clouding momentarily, “that happened there. I lied in my confession to the police, lied to my lawyer, lied to the judge, and I lied to everyone about it when I got to the pen. All to protect Sheila.

“But you know what? It’s like something snapped. Since then, I haven’t been able to lie. Not even a little. I either have to say what I think is true, or else I have to shut up. I can’t compliment someone if I don’t feel it. I can’t say I’m sorry for them if I’m not.” He looked around the faces at the table. “I can’t even hide my past if people ask me about it.”

The other three were all staring at him, Kim and Casey fascinated, and Hayden studying him in the court reporter’s impassive way.

The conference room was still and quiet, save for the faint hiss of forced air entering the room.

Kim moved ahead in the questioning. “Are you and Sheila still married?”

“No.”

“When did you get divorced?”

“We didn’t.” Blunt smiled briefly at the confused looks from the lawyers, but dropped it and continued. “She died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Kim said softly. “When did she die?”

“Shortly after I got released and came home.”

Blunt expanded on his answer. While he was in prison, he and Sheila corresponded frequently, and her letters were one of the few bright spots in the perpetual drab gray half-dusk atmosphere of the penitentiary. She gushed out her gratitude, her love for him, always with care not to be specific because letters to prison could be read by authorities. She had made the trip twice to visit him, although the drive was long, and it was hard for her.

Despite some setbacks in prison for Blunt that usually involved brutality from other inmates, he was approved for early release. In letters, Sheila had expressed joy at this news, but in a phone call, Blunt thought he detected some reservation in her tone.

After Blunt returned and had been at home for a few days, he began to suspect the reason for her degree of apparent aloofness. She had been over-the-top affectionate on his return, but in re-acquainting himself with the house, he made discoveries pregnant with revelation:

A pair of men’s socks that he had never owned, jammed in the back corner of a drawer.

A lighter underneath the couch, although neither he nor Sheila smoked.

A jar of capers in the food cabinet. Sheila hated capers.

A blue pill half-buried in the pile of the narrow strip of carpet between the nightstand and bed. It could have been anything, but Blunt made some assumptions.

Kim clucked sympathetically. “I’m sorry to hear all that. Did you stay together?”

“Yes, until she died.”

“How did she die?”

“She was murdered.”

Audible gasps from the two lawyers came in response. Sitting at the steno machine and laptop, Hayden blinked twice.

Kim finally found a voice. “That is… horrible. I’m so sorry, Mr. Blunt. If you don’t mind me asking, how did it happen?”

Blunt launched into his story again. Sheila had gone out for a run. She had a regular route that took her through a nearby city park. As she ran through an unlighted loop of the road, she was accosted by an assailant who strangled her, put her in the trunk of a car, and drove off.

Kim was wide-eyed again. “Horrible, just horrible. I am so sorry. Did the police ever catch who did it?”

“Nope, never did.”

“That must have been sad for you.”

“Yes, it was.” Blunt seem to struggle with his words for a moment, but said easily, “But with all those things I found around the house, it wasn’t as sad as it should have been.” He sighed. “But even if all my suspicions were true, she didn’t deserve to die like that.”

Kim clucked sympathetically but showed wariness in the eyes. “I Just can’t imagine having that many terrible things going on in your life. I’m sorry for you, Mr. Blunt. Let’s move on to talk about the accident that brings us all here today.”

“Sure.”

The deposition moved on, with Kim asking questions about what Blunt had witnessed in the accident, the actions he had taken in response, his observations of the drivers, the conversations he had with people at the scene. The question-and-answer session was punctuated with an occasional objection by Casey and soft clicking of the steno keyboard under Hayden’s touch.

Kim finished up questioning, feeling satisfied if not entirely happy. Blunt had provided clear, declarative testimony about the accident. It was more helpful to Casey’s client than Kim’s, but there were some nuggets of doubt that Kim might tease out of the testimony.

Casey took over the questioning and did a customary good job of helping to firm up points of doubt that slanted more favorably to Casey’s client, the injured one in the accident who had filed the lawsuit. The back-and-forth, the manipulative questioning by the lawyers to shade testimony one way, then the other, were routine to everyone at the table but Blunt.

Casey finished questioning about the accident and flipped through notes one more time, verifying that all points had been covered, before looking up and asking the questions that changed everything.

“I’m sorry, but I want to get back to what happened with your wife, with Sheila. Do you know if the police have any leads on what happened, or who did this?”

Blunt shook his head. “I have no idea. Soon after it happened, I moved out of town and came here. I haven’t been in contact with the police since it happened.”

Casey looked up. “Not in contact? Well, except for when they questioned you about it, right?”

“No, they didn’t question me.”

“Well, when they came to tell you about it.”

“They didn’t do that.”

Casey was incredulous. “I’m sorry, Mr. Blunt, what? Are you saying your wife was murdered, and the police never contacted you about it?”

“No, they never did.”

Casey, flustered, looked around the table again. Kim’s brows were once again furrowed, and Hayden was focused intently on Blunt. “Do you know why, for goodness’ sake?”

“I do.”

“Mr. Blunt, sir, why in the world would they not contact you, then?”

Blunt’s mouth was set in a tight-lipped, flat line. “Are you sure you want me to answer that?”

Casey was taken aback for a moment. “You’re damn right –“

“Casey,” Kim cut in, voice betraying mounting concern. All too often, lawyers involved in questioning would listen to statements for their superficial, literal meaning without the perception to view the layers of connotations and import running beneath the surface of the testimony.

But Casey shook it off, intent on the answer. “Yes, sir. I’ve never been more sure of anything. I’m frankly outraged. Why in the world would the police not contact you, the husband of a murdered woman?”

Blunt looked at Casey with a clear, unwavering gaze. “Because they don’t know about it.”

Casey and Kim stared at him as comprehension dawned. At the end of the table, the clicking of Hayden’s steno keys slowed and stopped. Hayden’s eyes had dropped their detached-reporter look and had taken on wide-eyed fascination and shock.

Competing thoughts trundled and thundered through Casey’s mind. Testimony at a deposition was sworn and, as witnesses were often warned, carried the same effect as testimony in a courtroom. Was this something that should be developed now?

Blunt placed his hands, clasped together, on the conference table. He continued. “I told you. I can’t lie.”

Casey nodded, thoughts still a-roil. Any confession that a witness would make in a deposition would be considered a “judicial admission” and could be acted on by authorities as they considered appropriate. Joshua Blunt was, in essence, making a confession to the world.

“You can keep asking me questions, and I’ll keep telling you the truth, but you might not like what you hear.”

Casey considered this. Should Blunt be pushed while on the record? Should they all go off the record to talk about it? What would, or could either of the lawyers do with this? And did this matter to the actual reason that Blunt was here, to talk about the accident?

Casey pushed forward, moving forward with the inertia of the interrogation, but now stumbling over unexpected rocks. “Does – does anyone else – anyone else know about this?”

Blunt took his own glance around the table before coming back to return Casey’s stare. “Just four people in the whole world.”

In the ensuing atmosphere of silent shock, Blunt continued. The experience in prison for a crime he had not committed, the expectation of Sheila for him to do it for her, the effect it would have on the rest of his life, the relief upon coming home only to be crushed under the weight of evidence of Sheila’s infidelity, were all too much.

“Love is a strong emotion,” he said in the flat tone of an uninspired poet. “When it’s rejected or betrayed, it easily flips to anger or hatred. Or both.:”

The murder had taken several nights to accomplish. He had to wait for Sheila to leave on her run, drive ahead to the park, stop the car out of sight of the trail, wait along trailside brush in an unlighted area, and watch for any witnesses. On two occasions, he had not timed it well, and she had already passed the ambush point by the time he got there. Two other times, someone else had been out walking or driving by.

Finally, he was ready, anxious, and saw no one. He heard the slaps of her shoes, the quick panting that carried with them the breath-tones of her voice that he knew so well. As she passed, he sprang up behind her and finished her off quickly, choking her out with a length of heater hose that he had cut for the occasion. It had taken her no more than ten seconds to lose consciousness, and he continued to keep the pressure tight as he pulled her body away from the path, through the bush-filled darkened expanse, and back to his car where a cleaned-out trunk lined with plastic awaited her.

Blunt looked away from Casey, passing his gaze over Kim and Hayden before coming back to his questioner. “I was going to let her see me so she’d know who did this and that I finally got back at her. But finally, I didn’t. I just stayed behind her until she was gone, like I wanted.” Blunt let out a sigh. “I really wanted her to know it was me. But I followed my better nature, and now I think I did the right thing.”

Casey glanced at Hayden. Normally when reporting, Hayden’s eyes would be jumping between the speaker and the computer screen that displayed the reporter’s transcript in real time. Not now, though. Hayden’s eyes were wide, intense, and fixed on Blunt.

Casey regained some composure. “Where did you take the body?”

Blunt’s mouth now broke out in a grin, an open, honest one, showing teeth, eyes crinkling, radiating mirth. “I said I’d tell the truth if I said anything. This time, I’m not saying anything.”

“All right,” Casey responded. “I think I’m done with my questions, but I’d like to take a break for a few minutes, use the bathroom, and go over my notes.”

“Me too,” Kim added.

“Wait,” Blunt interjected. They looked at him. He continued, his tone even and affable.

“Just something to think about for you three. Like I said, I have to tell the truth.

“You are the only ones I’ve ever told about this. Ever. I know that. Now, if you tell anyone else, if you step outside the room right now and call the cops, if I sense that I’m being tracked after this, I’ll come back and kill you, each of you. It’s that simple.”

Blunt brandished his subpoena papers in front of him and looked at Kim. “You sent this to me. I’ve got your name on this.”

He turned his glance to Casey. “Your name and address is on the paper where they copied it over to you.”

Next, Hayden, the reporter. “You. It doesn’t have your name, but it has your company, and I will track you down through that.”

Blunt put the subpoena papers down and continued in his calm voice. “I’ve got all the time in the world. I can go off the grid. The police don’t know where to find me. But even if you do get me pulled in, it turned out that Sheila still had quite a bit of money stashed. The house was in my name, and I sold it. So I have money. I can bond out of anything I need to, and when I get out, I’ll find you all and kill you. If I can’t find you, I’ll start in on your families until you show up or I run out of people.”

Blunt grinned again, but this time his expression was predatory, devoid of humor, the display of teeth signaling a ready willingness of him to pounce, to rip, to tear.  It was the smile of a wolf sizing up prey. “And if you say nothing, then I’ll do nothing with you. You’ll never see me again. That’s the truth too. It’s up to you.”

He focused on Casey. “Now, do you think you have any more questions?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Casey replied in a quavering voice.

Blunt looked at Kim.

“Not me,” Kim said, in trembling tones.

“Good enough,” Blunt said and rose from the table. He went to the door in a casual, leisurely, but turned around suddenly. The others around the table flinched as though he had pulled a gun. “I don’t know what you want to do with that,” and he pointed at Hayden’s steno machine and computer, “but I mean it. Anything gets out, anything bounces back to me, anyone shows up to talk to me about this, and I’ll know where it came from. And then you’re all dead. Count on it. The truth is all I know now. And that’s the truth.”

Blunt opened the conference room door and eased himself out, shutting the door behind him.

Hayden looked at Kim, who had called for and started the deposition. “Off the record?”

“God, yes, off the record.”

Hayden pushed keys rapidly on the steno machine, tapped a few more keystrokes on the laptop, and sat back into the chair, descending into the same deadly quiet reverie that gripped the other two.

Casey broke the silence. “I’ve never been so scared.”

“Me neither,” Kim replied. “Hayden, you’re at more depositions than we are. Ever seen anything like it?”

“No,” was the short answer before Hayden followed up in a continued tense voice. “I’ve never heard anything like this from any other reporter. Sometimes a fight between lawyers or yelling from a really unruly witness. Nothing like this. Ever. Nothing.”

They lapsed into silence again, at a loss for words amid the shock and fright that still gripped them.

Hayden broke the silence. “What do you want me to do with the transcript? Once it’s out, anyone could get it eventually. I’m fine with not producing a record out of all this, but,” looking at Casey, “won’t it mess with your client’s case?”

“Screw the client,” Casey replied, with cold affirmation that broke through the underlying fear. “We can settle this case, and my life is worth a lot more than ever winning some case.” Then, looking at Kim, “Can we settle this?”

“Without a doubt,” Kim replied. “We have to get rid of this. Let’s talk a figure, and we’ll get our clients to bite. Whatever we need to tell them.”

“Agreed.” Casey looked at Hayden. “But that’s not helping you out much on what you’re supposed to do with the record.”

Hayden stood up from the steno machine, hands on the table on each side of the laptop. “Here’s my suggestion, but you lawyers are the smart ones who make the call. You’re going to settle, so Blunt’s testimony won’t matter.

“So let’s say he was a no-show. We all waited, and he never got here. When he didn’t show, you two got to negotiating. An hour and a half later, still no witness, and you’ve got it settled. We can make a record of that and never speak of this again. No-shows and settlements have happened plenty times before on other cases, and it’ll happen again. It’s nothing out of the ordinary.”

The other two stared thoughtfully at Hayden, who shrugged and sat back down. “It goes against every ethical consideration I have, every instinct and training. But forget ethics. Exposing my family to a murderer goes against my basic morality. Not to mention my own self-preservation.”

Awareness dawned over the two lawyers, bathing their dilemma in new light. Casey looked at Kim. “I’m good with it.”

Kim nodded.

Hayden said, “I have to delete files off my steno machine and the computer. At least we’re paperless now so I don’t have to worry about that.”

Casey added, looking to Kim, “We have to shred our notes from today.”

Kim nodded again, and in a voice just above a whisper and clearly distressed, said, “This has to be the strangest conversation I’ve ever had as a lawyer.”

The other two agreed.

Kim ripped three pages of notes from a yellow legal pad and murmured, “These are going to the shredder.”

Casey carefully undid note pages in a white notepad from their serrations and slid them across the table. “Add these to the pile.” With a glance to Kim, Casey added, “I think this is the first time I’ve ever just given my notes to my opponent.”

Kim turned to Hayden. “You’re deleting everything?”

Hayden nodded. “I took the files off my steno machine, and I’ve got it all in the case folder, transcript files and sound files, bunched here and ready for deletion. I just have to hit OK. Once I do, that’s it. No more record. Are we sure we’re okay with this?”

Searching glances darted around the table in silent acknowledgment that Hayden was offering to bring the executioner’s axe down on their ethics. But now it seemed a small sacrifice, the cutting off a gangrenous toe to keep the rest of the body alive.

Kim sighed heavily and nodded.

Casey said, “Do it.”

Hayden’s finger depressed the Enter key. “Gone. Give me a moment to start up a new file.” Quick key movements, fingers darting back and forth from laptop to steno machine, followed by, “Go ahead.”

Kim intoned, “This matter came on for the deposition of Joshua Blunt. The date, time, and place are as noted on the reporter’s transcript.

“It is now 90 minutes past the scheduled time of the deposition, and Mr. Blunt is not here. In the intervening time, opposing counsel and I have negotiated and arrived at a settlement agreeable to all parties. I will draft up a settlement agreement, extend it to counsel in a timely manner, and that will resolve the matter.

“The court reporter’s bill for time spent here will be split between the parties, if that is acceptable.”

“Of course,” Casey replied.

“Off the record,” Kim declared, finishing it.

Kim and Casey watched as Hayden finished and began packing the court reporting equipment.

“We’re letting a murderer go free,” Kim remarked in a tone laden with regret.

“Maybe not,” Casey replied. “I’m thinking about this. What if we did turn him in? There’s not a body anywhere that we can point to. For all we know, he’s got a great cover story and plausible deniability that it ever took place. We turn him in, saying what we know, and he laughs and says, yeah, prove it, and they can’t, and we spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders, waiting for our families or us to get attacked. That is not where I want to go.”

Kim nodded. “Not to mention that we’ll have to own up to conspiring to destroy the record of his testimony. Destruction of records. Putting our interests ahead of our clients’. Are you ready to lose your license?”

“Not today,” Casey murmured in response, before looking at Hayden who was packed and ready to leave. “Are you good with all this?”

Hayden shrugged and headed to the door. “Maybe he’s not a murderer. For all we know, he was some kind of weird, sadistic storyteller who enjoyed putting all of our tails in a knot and is off to go home to his wife and kids, or to the guys at the bar, laughing about how he got one over on a couple lawyers.”

Kim sighed and followed them out. “If only that could be the truth.”

Kim turned off the light and shut the door on the dark, muted room.

— Grandpa

Speak Your Mind

*