Just once I’d like to hear a criminal invoke something besides the “withem” defense, an accused’s way of explaining that he didn’t actually commit a crime but was in the vicinity of those who did and was technically “with ‘em.” I also wish it was illegal for a client to lie to his attorney. I’m a public defender in a cracker ass town in west Tennessee a few miles from the Mississippi state line. Formerly I was a narcotics agent with the DEA before deciding to attend Nashville’s YMCA Law School at night. Though not as prestigious as the law schools at Vanderbilt or the University of Tennessee, they gave me all the legal training I needed to defend the people I once put behind bars.
As a young man, I never planned to be a lawyer. I didn’t have any special attitude or desire to be a narc, either. Criminals will tell you. People usually stumble into occupations involving crime. When, as a boy, Johnny is asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Johnny rarely says “a career criminal serving a life sentence for murder and possession of a schedule one controlled substance.” Those words almost never pass a child’s lips.
For my part, I wanted to be a baseball player. I was one for a while, playing for the minor league Nashville Sounds during the two years I postponed college. In one game in my final season, I hit three home runs, a league record that year. During my next at-bat, I hit a line drive – the ball bouncing off the left field fence. Trying to stretch the hit into a double, I slid into second base at an impossibly odd angle. A pop, like a distant rifle shot, followed by groans from the bleachers, signaled the end of my career. Knee surgery then wasn’t as advanced as it is now. Still, I mounted the bat on the wall above my law school diploma. It made a good conversation piece, an icebreaker, when speaking with new clients. Benny Wayne Stanley stared with fascination at the bat on the wall behind me. On his website, Benny listed his occupation as entrepreneur. I doubted if Benny Wayne could spell the word. The girlfriend who’d just accused him of assaulting her had probably designed his website, pointing out that entrepreneur would draw less attention than “drug dealer” or “hit man.” I’d defended Benny before – once for a serious crime, of which he was undoubtedly guilty, but mostly for drug related offenses and assault charges. I had a good track record of getting Benny pleaded down so he’d requested me for his latest brush with authorities. I wondered how he’d respond when I delivered the bad news.
“Let’s see,” I said, reading the charges. “The warrant says you beat up your girlfriend. You’re being charged with felony assault.”
I knew that Benny Wayne hadn’t taken time to read the warrant, making this breaking news.
“Whoa, hoss!” Benny leaped from his seat, snatching the warrant from my hands.
“This ain’t right,” Benny said after a cursory examination of the warrant. “You got to do something.”
I sat in awe of his stupidity, reminding myself not to expect a meteoric intellect from a fifty-year-old man wearing a baseball cap backwards while sporting three first names.
“I’m afraid it’s not going to be that easy,” I said. “The warrant says you beat your girlfriend severely. There are pictures.”
“The bitch bruises easy. She had it coming.”
Benny could be a cavalier when denying his culpability. I’d discovered that ten years earlier when he’d been charged with homicide after killing a man in a bar fight. I put Benny on the stand as my chief witness.
“Why did you kill Mr. Walker?” I asked.
“Because his ass needed killing,” Benny said.
It had not been an easy case after that, but I’d gotten the charge reduced to manslaughter, arguing that Benny hadn’t intended to kill the man, even though witnesses described how Benny repeatedly stomped the man’s face with the heel of a cowboy boot. Nevertheless, intent was hard to prove when one stranger killed another. Benny had served a total of five years. I’d even gotten him a job in the prison cafeteria.
“They ain’t never done this before,” Benny said. “Why now?”
Benny’s indelicate question derailed my train of thought, forcing me to explain what should have been obvious.
“State lawmakers have passed new legislation making it a felony if you put your hands around the victim’s throat during an altercation.”
Benny blinked, the closest to appearing stunned I’d ever seen him.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “If Ida just kept hitting her with the baseball bat, Ida been okay?”
At that instant I experienced an existential crisis resulting in an epiphany and a question. The epiphany was that everything in my life had led me to this point in time. If that were so, I asked, why did I spend all those hours in my youth conjugating Latin verbs?
Here’s what most people don’t know. The idea that somewhere out there exists a brilliant and fiendishly diabolical mind engineering schemes for the world’s destruction is a mythology of epic dimensions. In all my years as an attorney, I’ve never encountered a felon remotely resembling a Moriarty or a Hannibal Lecter. I have met my fair share of Neanderthals like Benny.
He was still staring at the wall. I didn’t dare twist my head to see what he was looking at.
“You got a baseball bat, too,” he said, his gaze riveted on my homerun trophy.
“Yes, but I actually hit baseballs with mine.”
The insult didn’t faze him.
“Did you play on a team?” he asked.
It was the sort of question you’d expect from Benny. I wanted to reply, “No, dumbass. I just hit fly balls with a bat in one hand and caught them with a glove with the other.”
What did he think I’d done? He failed to notice that I’d refused to answer his question. He stared longingly at my talisman, what, to Benny, must have seemed like the Holy Grail of baseball bats.
“Can I touch it?” he asked in a hushed, reverent tone.
“Sure,” I replied, surprised at my response.
Rising, I took the bat off the wall and gripped the handle with both hands as if about to take a swing. Then something came over me. I couldn’t explain it. Maybe it was the recollection of the man Benny stomped to death, or the pictures of his bruised, battered, albeit, bitchy-ass girlfriend, or the thousand and one other violent incidents for which Benny had never served a day of prison time. Maybe in that instant, the injustice of the justice system was too much for me. Whatever it was, I pointed the bat in pantomime, as if announcing my intent to hit a homerun over the left field fence. I swung. The concussive force of the bat striking Benny’s temple lifted him off his feet. I followed through. At the end of the swing, Benny’s head exploded. It was easily a four-bagger, and I envisioned myself circling the bases. My trophy bat dripped with blood and brain matter.
I needed to clean up but, on second thought, chose to leave the scene exactly as it was. People craved evidence of justice served. Besides, I’d already begun thinking of my defense. In the cracker ass South, sudden, inexplicable behavior can be explained by saying that someone just snapped. For whatever reason, people here agree that snapping is a justifiable excuse for all manner of aberrant doings. I could say I snapped, I supposed.
But I didn’t want to. Why? I wanted to tell the truth. What was the truth in this case? If someone wondered why I murdered Benny Wayne Stanley in such grisly fashion, I could answer as God’s honest truth that his ass needed killing.
**Featured image by Lenora Cagle on Pixabay
Nice piece of Southern noir—especially the clever ending! Is this an example of what reviewing the works of Chris Offutt does to one’s mind? Please note, as a 2% (or so) Neanderthal, I was deeply offended that you linked Benny to my relatives.
My apologies to your kinfolks, Jimmy. I always enjoy your