Authors: Steve Martini
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Damaging evidence of this has been withheld from us until the last possible moment under the rubric of confidential personnel matters. It was the excuse Max Rufus used the day I spoke to him in his office.
Templeton looks to our table and smiles as he realizes the impact that all of this is having on the jury.
It is deadly. I can read it in their eyes, and Templeton hasn’t even arrived at the meat of his case: the weapon and the wounds.
“Finally you will see documents and hear evidence from medical and ballistics experts and qualified crime-scene technicians that the two shots that killed Madelyn Chapman, the bullets that fractured her skull and destroyed her brain”—Templeton motions toward the smiling photograph on the screen behind him—“were fired from a pistol that had once been in the possession of the defendant, issued to Emiliano Ruiz while he was in the military and which the defendant failed to surrender to military officials as was the proper procedure when he left the Army. We will prove not only that this handgun was used to murder Madelyn Chapman but that the two shots that killed her required expert marksmanship, and that the defendant Emiliano Ruiz was once considered one of the top pistol marksmen in the United States Army.”
The links may all be circumstantial, but as Templeton lays them out for the jury, each one snaps in place with the sound of case-hardened steel. I can feel Emiliano flinch in the chair next to mine, overwhelmed by the desire to stand and tell the court everything, to vomit what he knows over the courtroom floor, to burst the bubble of inferences linking him to the murder, to place it all in the light of truth: that the gun was there because she had asked him to bring it, that she had fired it herself, that the only reason he was following her was because Chapman had asked him to, because she was scared, frightened of someone else. I can see his fists as they clench on the counsel table, and I place a hand on his forearm. He looks at me with a stark expression.
“Relax. It’s their opening shot.”
Templeton is now on a roll, hitting his pitch. While I try to quell the rising panic in Ruiz, in my own mind I can feel and fully understand the reason for it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the state will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Emiliano Ruiz murdered Madelyn Chapman: that he did so in cold blood with malice aforethought and clear premeditation. We will prove that Emiliano Ruiz lay in wait for Madelyn Chapman inside her home, and that when she arrived he executed her with two closely grouped shots to the head fired from a distance of nearly thirty feet. We will prove that the shots that killed Madelyn Chapman required expertise in marksmanship of a kind possessed by very few people, a small and select number of shooters, and that Emiliano Ruiz was one of them. We will show by proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the application of the two closely grouped shots that killed Madelyn Chapman was a well-practiced routine in select circles of military marksmanship—a practiced routine that had only one purpose: to terminate a target with lethal and certain force; to put an enemy down and to make sure that they were dead. We will prove that Emiliano Ruiz was one of the foremost experts in the world in the use of this technique: a targeting routine known as the double tap.”
here are ways in which Emiliano and Evo demonstrate stark differences that could not mark them more distinctly. From all appearances Ruiz was able to deal and cope in a world of violence that destroyed my uncle. Whether they experienced the same things in combat, I will never know.
But it is the similarities between the two men that drew me to the case initially and that keep me burning the oil late into the night, searching for ways to keep Ruiz out of prison and away from the clutches of the executioner.
For such a large and seemingly fearsome specimen of the species, my uncle suffered a near-total inability to defend himself verbally or to explain at times what was happening in the dark convolutions of his brain. In this regard, Ruiz is his brother.
Emiliano may be able to face down live fire from incoming incendiary rounds and shrug off lacerating shards from an exploding grenade, but the verbal arrows flung by Templeton in his opening statement have wounded him deeply. The unanswered charges have left him confounded, in a state of mental stammering, suffering from a seemingly fatal bout of frustration that I have in all my life only witnessed in Evo.
Standing hip deep in a marsh of unrequited accusations, Emiliano is all but immobilized—and the knowledge that he has finally confronted a field of conflict in which he is powerless to defend himself is eating at his insides like acid etching steel. Each day on this battlefield he seems more the mirror image of the scarred soul that was my uncle.
To my knowledge, even in his darkest days of depression, Evo never became violent. Though there were times when he was so troubled that, because of his size and brooding appearance, he could seem menacing, in those years when I was old enough to realize what was happening, I have no recollection of him ever laying a hand on another living soul.
Repeatedly he would fall into the pit of silent despair. When this happened, my grandmother was unable to bring herself to make the tough decisions that at the time seemed right. Inevitably my father would have to swallow the pain of consigning his younger brother to the VA hospital, to the untold horrors of what in those days passed for treatment of mental disorders associated with “battle fatigue.” Strapped to a metal table, Evo would be subjected to repeated sessions of massive electroshock therapy and given doses of early psychotropic drugs that, at best, as even the doctors admitted, were experimental.
When Evo was discharged from the VA, the only thing he could remember was the pain, the repeated sessions of agony that he lacked the words to describe. To the fertile imagination of a child, even these limited accounts conjured hair-raising visions on the order of the Inquisition. He pleaded with my father never to be sent back. I remember the expression of horror that welled up in his eyes as he begged that he never again have to go back for treatment. I was seven years old. The expression of fright on Evo’s face and the cloying pleas, the tears running down the cheeks of a man the size of a mountain, scared the bejesus out of me.
Within months, sometimes weeks, my uncle would slide once more beyond the horizon of human contact to that cosmos in the mind where he could not be reached. My father would be compelled to return him to the VA. It was a cycle that would repeat itself over the years and from which we all sought refuge in our own way, to put it from our minds, to escape its painful reality: that Evo had become a dead man in the shell of living body.
Decades later I came to realize that these acts of mental commitment took years from my father’s life. There were times when I looked into his eyes that I knew he would rather have committed himself to this agony than to have sent his younger brother.
Even with all of this, in moments of despair when Evo lingered at the edge at oblivion, often it was my father who was the only one who could perform the magic of communication. A man who dropped out of high school to go to work during the Depression could do what doctors and psychiatrists could not. For some reason, in the depths of his psychosis, Evo’s brain seemed to cycle back to the days of his childhood, when the protective hand of his older brother held sway. Over all the anger and angst, the raging storms of paranoia and fear, he could still hear the soothing tones of my father’s voice.
My uncle spent much of his adult life in and out of mental institutions, on and off Thorazine and its progeny of mind-numbing drugs.
During this period there is one event that stands out in my mind. I will remember it until the day I die. It was late, a winter afternoon. My mother was making dinner and my father had just gotten home from work. It was nearing dusk when we heard a noise downstairs in the basement, a voice, then what sounded like pounding on the wall. We heard the screen door’s squeaky hinge down below, and the slam as the coil spring pulled it closed. Someone had just left the basement. We looked out the window. I saw the unmistakable silhouette of Evo standing there in the middle of our yard. He had been rooting around in our basement, looking for something. My father went down to see what he wanted.
We listened at the window, my mother, my sister, and I. When we heard the word
come out of Evo’s mouth, it put a shudder through us all. Evo wanted his firearms, a hunting rifle and shotgun that my father had taken from his mother’s house and locked away in a cabinet in our basement for safekeeping. Everybody had forgotten about them. Everyone but Evo.
I remember the two of them, my father and my uncle, standing in the yard talking for a long time as my mother paced the floor nervously, picking up the receiver on the phone and putting it down again, wondering aloud whether she should call the cops. Her brother was on the force.
I heard my uncle talk about hunting. My father told him the gaming seasons were closed, pheasant was over and deer wouldn’t start until summer. There was plenty of time. They could talk about it then. And the silent hope that I knew was in my father’s mind: that by then Evo might forget.
Even in the gathering darkness you could almost see the furrowing eyebrows as my uncle struggled to do a mental check on the calendar, but he couldn’t figure out what month it was. He gave up on hunting. Maybe he could just go shooting like they used to when he was a kid, some clay pigeons or tin cans.
“Where you gonna go?” asked my father.
Evo thought about this for a moment, his last memory. “How about up at the ranch. Remember? We used to go shooting up there all the time.”
My father smiled and shook his head. “No. They don’t allow it anymore.”
The “they” my father spoke of was himself, and Evo knew it. My father ran the ranch. Still, Evo never questioned him. Instead they both stood there, their bodies motionless, shaking their heads as if this, the banning of shooting on the ranch, was one more of the great tragedies of the changing times.
Then, watching from the window, I saw my father reach up and put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. I remember how Evo, that hulking and scary guy, an immense shadow six inches taller than my father, suddenly sagged, his shoulders slumping. Whatever enthusiasm he had left for life at that moment seemed to escape from his body like a vapor into the fading light.
I listened as my father turned the conversation to happier thoughts, recollections of their youth. Maybe they could go fishing again, he said, though even I knew it would never happen. I watched as the two of them walked toward the old stone fishpond in the center of our yard, and I listened to the bass hum of their voices as darkness devoured their shapes. A few minutes later I heard them both laughing. It was the first time I recall hearing my uncle laugh out loud. It was musical. It tore my heart out.
They talked for a long time out in the yard that night. It seemed like hours, though I’m sure it was not. At some point Evo, no longer remembering why he had come, happy for the conversation and the memories, walked toward our car parked at the side of the house, and my father drove him home.
This scene of my father and uncle through the dim light of dusk in the old backyard of our family home is engraved in my memory, and will remain so.
r. Robert Rubin is a board-certified forensic pathologist employed by the medical examiner, the coroner of San Diego County. Rubin is tall, blond, and thirty-one years old. He has been with the coroner’s office just under two years, a whiz kid with a medical degree from George Washington University. This morning Templeton has him up on the stand going over the grisly details of Madelyn Chapman’s murder.
“Can you tell the jury a little about your experience as a forensic pathologist? How many gunshot wounds have you had occasion to examine or to treat during your medical career, approximately?” asks Templeton.
“Somewhere between four and five hundred.”
“You don’t look old enough to have that much experience,” says Templeton.
“I was a physician and surgeon in the Navy assigned to duty with the Marine Corps prior to my residency in forensic pathology. So I had occasion to see a good number of gunshot wounds.”
“I see. How many years with the military?”
Templeton stands at the podium in the center aisle just below the bench as he examines the witness. He is held aloft on a step stool that slides under the podium, out of the way, when he is not using it.
“Four years with the Marines?”
“And what was your assignment?”
“I was a field trauma surgeon. In theater.”
“In combat? A combat field hospital?” Templeton looks toward the jury for emphasis as he asks the question.
“And where did you serve? What geographic locations?”
“The Middle East, Central America; toward the end of my tour I was assigned for a short period to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.”
“So before you went on for your training in forensic pathology, you had an opportunity to observe, as you say, hundreds of gunshot wounds in this capacity with the military?”
“And since that time, since you became board certified in forensic pathology, how many gunshot wounds have you had an opportunity to observe as a qualified medical examiner?”
“I would say maybe sixty or seventy.”
“Isn’t it a fact, Doctor, that among the qualified pathologists on the medical examiner’s staff, you are considered to be one of the more qualified experts—if not the most qualified—on gunshot wounds in that office?”
“Perhaps. I’ve seen a lot of gunshot wounds.”
“Don’t be modest, Doctor. The jury has a right to know your credentials.”
“It’s fair to say there are two or three of us who have extensive experience in this area.”
“Isn’t it a fact that your services have been loaned out to other counties and other states in connection with cases involving gunshot wounds?”
“Fine, then let’s turn our attention to the gunshot wounds suffered by Madelyn Chapman, the victim in this case. She was shot, was she not?”
“And did you have occasion to examine the body of Ms. Chapman at the scene where it was discovered as well as to perform the autopsy on the victim?”
Under questioning by Templeton, Rubin provides the date of the autopsy and the fact that he was assigned to attend the body at the scene, at Chapman’s home that night, and that he was the one who signed the death certificate following the autopsy. This is all carefully rehearsed, done well, in the way of all good rehearsals, so that to the untrained eye it does not appear to be practiced.
“Let’s start with the evening in question, at the victim’s home,” says Templeton. “Did you have occasion to have photographs of the victim taken at that time, before the body was removed to the coroner’s office for more detailed examination?”
Templeton stays on his stool as the homicide detective Argust paws through the box of evidence until he finds the photographs, one set for the judge, one for the witness, and one for us. From the stand, Rubin identifies the photos one at a time as pictures taken by police photographers at Rubin’s direction on the night of the murder. As the witness does this, Templeton has them marked for identification, and when he is finished he moves the entire series into evidence.
“No objection.” I don’t even look up as the photographs begin to flash on the screen for the jury, which now sees them for the first time. Some of the reporters in the front row try to lean forward to gain a glimpse of the screen, which is set at a slight angle toward the judge so members of the audience can’t see it.
The series contains seven photographs that have been culled from among more than thirty taken by police at the scene that night. These come into evidence by stipulation, the judge having leaned on Templeton to drop some of the more hideous close-ups of what was left of Chapman’s head. Most of the shots that survive are sufficiently distant from the body to provide at least some insulation from the grotesque details, blood and brain matter that sprayed the wall behind Chapman as the two bullets slammed into her skull. Strange as it seems, the worst of the lot is a full-body photo showing the high heel that twisted from Chapman’s foot and remained standing upright on the floor as the impact of the rounds spun her in place as she went down. Like a freeze-action shot, it gives the jury dimension, some scale against which to measure the violence inflicted on the victim in the instant just before her death. As this picture goes up on the screen I hear some quiet sighs from the jury box. Even though I am not looking, I can feel twelve sets of eyes as they suddenly take a sharper look at my client.
“Let me ask you, Doctor. You said earlier that you were able to examine the body at the scene, at the victim’s house that night, is that correct?”
“And can you tell the jury approximately what time that was when you first examined the body?”.
“If I could refer to my notes . . .”
“Just a rough approximation,” says Templeton.
“As I recall, I believe it was a little before one a.m. I arrived at the scene about twelve thirty-five a.m. and some of the forensic technicians were still working around the body. So I had to wait just a few minutes before they cleared the area.”
Templeton slows the pace here, thinks for a moment, and allows the photographs of the murder scene now fixed on the screen to do some of his work for him.
“Let me ask you, Doctor, was it obvious to you when you arrived that the victim was already dead?”
“Oh, yes. The initial responding officers didn’t even call the paramedics. As soon as they were able to open the front door, which they had to force, it was apparent to the two officers that Ms. Chapman was dead.”
“And from your own observations before you had an opportunity to examine the body closely, were there any telltale signs that made it obvious that the victim was dead?”
“Yes. There was severe loss of blood and massive head trauma that was plainly obvious from some distance.”
“Are those indications displayed in any of the photographs posted on the visualizer screen for the jury?”
“Yes. You can see them pretty well in shots three, five, and seven.” The witness points to the screen with a small handheld laser displaying a bright green arrow aimed at the tangle of blood-matted hair and the dark pool of blood fanning out from under Chapman’s head as she lies prostrate on the floor of the entryway to her home.
“Also the fact that the blood had a watery quality to it. You can see that here.” Rubin points again with the laser to one of the photographs. “This is indicative of the loss of the cerebrospinal fluid that cushions the brain against impact within the skull. It would indicate that the cerebral cavity of the skull has been compromised in a manner that would result in rapid and catastrophic loss of blood pressure to the brain. Even if the brain itself had not been damaged by gunshot wounds, this loss of blood and cerebral fluid would certainly lead to death within a very short period of time. Three, perhaps four minutes at most.”
“As a result of your initial examination of the body or your subsequent and more complete autopsy, were you able to determine the cause of death?”
“After I conducted a thorough postmortem examination, yes.”
“And what was that cause?”
“Madelyn Chapman died of gunshot wounds resulting in massive trauma to the brain involving both the frontal and parietal lobes. The wounds inflicted resulted in irreversible destruction to major portions of the brain necessary to support life-sustaining functions.”
“You say wounds: how many gunshot wounds are we talking about?”
“Two. You’re certain of that?” says Templeton.
“And can you give us some idea how long would it have taken for the victim to die as a result of these wounds, in your opinion?” asks Templeton.
“Oh. That depends how you define
. If you’re talking brain-wave activity—what you might measure on an EEG, an electroencephalogram—I would say that death was virtually instantaneous. If you’re talking heart function, it could have taken anywhere from say two to four minutes. It’s hard to tell. As regards heart function, it would depend on how rapidly blood drained from the body and how long it took for the trauma to the brain to interrupt or curtail the electromuscular impulses, the autonomic nervous system that regulates the heart. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.”
“Whoa!” Templeton has his hands up. “Let’s not get too technical, Doctor. Let’s keep it in the realm of the reasonable for those of us who flunked out of medical school and had to become lawyers.”
Jurors and members of the audience laugh—even Ruiz, until I step on his foot. It wouldn’t do for jurors who are laughing to see the defendant joining in, especially in light of the ghastly photos still up on the screen. As the chuckles subside I can hear Harry growling under his breath at the other end of our counsel table.
“Doctor, can you tell the jury what evidence you found during the course of your examination of the victim, both at the scene as well as during your postmortem autopsy, to substantiate your findings as to the cause of death?”
“Upon examination of the victim’s cranial cavity I discovered both a bullet and bullet fragments, all contained within the soft tissue of the victim’s brain.”
Any residual smiles quickly dissipate inside the jury box.
“As a result of your examination of the victim, were you able to determine whether there were wounds other than the two bullet wounds that you have already identified found on the victim’s body following death?”
“I was, and there were no wounds other than the two bullet wounds previously stated.”
“Other than the two bullet wounds to the victim’s head?”
According to the witness, there were no gunpowder burns or stippling around the two wounds in question, eliminating the possibility of close-contact wounds with the muzzle of the pistol placed close to Chapman’s head. According to the witness, given the size of the firearm in question, the shots would have had to have been fired from at least eight to ten feet to avoid the discharge of hot powder and gases onto the victim’s hair and scalp. Also, the trajectory of the wounds would have been awkward for a close-in shot, as the weapon would have had to have been held above Chapman’s head.
Rubin makes these points as they bring in more pictures, this time from the autopsy. Again these have been carefully vetted by the courts to exclude shots that are likely to cause jurors to lose their breakfast. Included among the photographs are two macro shots, one of a clearly recognizable lead bullet and the other of shards and fragments, flattened pieces of a dark substance with irregular shapes and edges, all laid out on white cloth with a ruler across the bottom for scale.
“One of the bullets was largely intact,” says Rubin. “It was sheared on one side, probably when it struck bone, and was somewhat deformed. It would be my opinion that it mushroomed under impact with the victim’s head, both the bone of the skull and the soft tissue inside, as it radically reduced speed and lodged in the brain matter. The transfer of kinetic energy, the pressure caused by the entry of this bullet to the inner skull, caused a sizable portion of the skull at the posterior base of the victim’s head to be blown out.”
The graphic description by the witness, along with autopsy pictures offered up on the screen by Templeton’s master of the computer, has the desired effect. Templeton looks toward the jury box to make sure that they have absorbed all of the grisly detail.
“I found this bullet lodged just inside the cerebellum of the victim’s brain at the base of the neck.” The witness reaches around with his hand to the back of his neck as if to indicate location for the jury, and the judge describes this for the record.
“The other bullet was somewhat different, probably the second round that was fired. This bullet was of a different composition and it fragmented into multiple pieces inside the victim’s skull. This was found during my postmortem examination lodged in several places, all of them contained within the skull, and had to be debrided from the brain tissue.”
“In layman’s terms, Doctor?” Templeton wants him to define
“The bullet fragments had to be removed by scalpel and forceps from the brain tissue in which they had become lodged,” says the witness.
When I glance over at the jury, two of the women have their hands to their mouths, their gazes recoiling from the autopsy shots as Templeton’s tech causes the pictures to linger on the screen.
“Doctor, from your treatment of bullet wounds as well as from your experience as a medical examiner, are you familiar with what are called jacketed bullets?”
“Can you describe for the jury what a jacketed bullet is?”
refers to a metal lining that coats the outside of a bullet. A jacketed round is usually either a total metal jacket—what is known as a TMJ—or a partial jacket of some kind. That is, the softer lead component of the bullet is either completely covered by a harder metal material or partially covered. Copper is a common material for bullet jackets.”