© 2013 Mick Circeo
THE LAST WITNESS
(May 1865, District of Columbia, Washington Arsenal Penitentiary)
“Your honor, we call,” Rubinstein rose from his leather chair, low and slow, “we call our final witness: Major Daniel Ruggles.” He stood, palms flat on the wood-grain prosecution table. Smoke and pretense flowed out the back of the chattering courtroom packed with journalists and curious politicians.
“Very well. Bailiff,” Judge Mayhew bent her pince-nez and looked over the lawyers and others, to the back of the courtroom, now hushed in anticipation of the doors swinging open. “Please fetch Major Ruggles. Is he there? Where is he?”
Defense counsel wrote and scratched deliberately at his table, disinterested, posturing not only for opposing counsel and the Judge, but also for the benefit of the throng behind them. Wilkes followed suit per his counsel’s guidance.
Mayhew was motionless, aside from a glance at the prosecution. “Mr. Rubinstein, care to disclose what is going on, or is this going to be yet another government mystery?”
“Well, Judge, we obviously expected him to be here.” He looked for an answer from Mayhew and got none.
“Ruggles was your last witness. Since he is unavailable, is that your case?”
“May we have a moment?”
“No sir you may not.”
“If you would just allow us a brief recess, Your Honor, just a reasonable amount of time to locate the witness.”
“No sir. Request denied. Is that your case then?”
Rubinstein staggered, almost imperceptibly. “Judge, Major Ruggles is pivotal to the government’s case.”
“Then you should have him here. Is he here?”
“He does not appear to be here.”
“Fine. That’s your case then?” She rustled her papers and never looked up.
“That must be our case, Judge.”
“All right,” Mayhew shifted toward the defense, “Mr. Sorrick, have you anything to say?”
John Wilkes Booth’s counsel looked up with no visible change in countenance. “We do, Judge. We do.”
“Would you like a few minutes to prepare?”
“No, Judge. We are ready to go, quite actually.” Sorrick and Rubinstein both knew they were about finished.
Mayhew motioned to Sorrick. “Go on then, sir.”
“Objection, Your Honor.”
“Sit down, Jack.” Mayhew did not blink. “Please continue, Mr. Sorrick.”
“Is that a ruling? I made an objection.”
“On what grounds? Sit down and let Mr. Sorrick finish his own motion. You have no grounds for an objection, unless you already know what he’s going to say, and I don’t think you do.”
“I think I do, Judge.”
“Amongst our myriad talents, we can now see into the future, Jack?”
“Well, no Judge. Not exactly.”
“Then sit, Jack, and listen. You might learn something.” Rubinstein remained standing. “Jack, if you fail to sit – now – you will be held in Contempt. Understood?”
“You’re going to put me in jail for objecting?”
“You bet I am. Sit. Now.” She pointed at defense counsel. “Mr. Sorrick, continue sir.”
“Yes ma’am. As I was saying, there is nothing to indicate that all of the elements in the government’s Bill of Particulars have been established – ”
“I tend to agree.”
“Jack, If I have to forcibly gag you, I will. Now settle down.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
Sorrick, still painfully on his feet, cleared his throat. “Judge, Mr. Rubinstein did not produce half of the witnesses on his witness list – and aside from that, not a single credible eyewitness against Mr. Booth was produced. Moreover, no other direct evidence has been proved against my client that would indicate his guilt as a matter of law.”
“You will allow me to decide that, yes?”
“Obviously, Judge, indeed that is your province. I will say that, in conclusion –”
“There is no need. I am ready to rule. But first,” she darted he eyes and pointed her gavel at Prosecutor Rubinstein, “Jack – you will spend the next ten days in jail, and if I hear another peep, I will add a day for each syllable. And I pride myself on being an exceptional count. Understood?”
Rubinstein folded his ruddy hands on the table and nodded.
“I will assess your Contempt fine upon your release.”
Rubinstein opened his mouth as if to answer, but thought better of it and silently nodded his head again in agreement.
“Now then. Mr. Booth, please stand.” Sorrick motioned to Booth, who rose – hopeful and doubtful – with the aid of his prison crutch, shackles clanking, jet-black mane mussed and curly.
Mayhew evaluated the audience and the jury for threats. “Everyone in attendance in this court, hear me now. We will have order in my courtroom, is that understood, people? No talking, no outbursts. I want silence, regardless of what I am about to say.”
Journalists remained seated, squinting away the street-stench, red cedar pencils in hand. Politicians studied each other with suspicion. “Mr. Sorrick. Mr. Booth.” The judge looked each man in the eye. “Here is my ruling: The government’s case against Mr. Booth is hereby dismissed with prejudice. The Court apologizes to you personally, Mr. Booth, for this profound waste of your time and ours. The Court further issues a heart-felt apology to the Citizens of this Country. Bailiff, do your duty and remove Mr. Booth’s chains, and place them on Mr. Rubinstein. Mr. Booth, would you like to address the Court before you go?”