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Peterson on Trial

The color of death

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The purported weapon is a tapered, hollow shaft about 42 inches long, cast in brass, blackened at one end and slightly tarnished. At one end, an inch or so in diameter, there is a cast, swaged-on fitting with a disk forming a mouthpiece. At the other end there is a cast gaff cold-riveted to the shaft and through-drilled with a small orifice to allow passage of air.

There is not much to it; the wall thickness is perhaps 60 thousandths of an inch. Surprisingly light, no more than two pounds. To handle it reminds me of a piece of an electrical conduit or a trombone slide. It certainly wouldn't be my first choice for a weapon.

I give it a couple of flicks. "I don't know," I say. "This thing would fold right up."

"No, no," Robert says, taking it from me. "It's plenty strong enough." He swats the upholstered back of one of the courtroom chairs.

I take it back and hold it in both hands, about 18 inches apart. Using my thumbs for leverage, I apply flexion. At 20 or so pounds the shaft actually displaces. "He might get three whacks, but then it's gonna be junk." The Web site specifically warns against using it to pry with. (shop.store.yahoo.com/vabrass/flamthrowwit.html or www.hurlbuttdesigns.com/antiques/blowpoke_bp_0201_sm.jpg)

Absorbed in our tests, the courtroom melts away until a voice interrupts our efforts, "You boys gonna put that thing back when you're done, right?" It's Hardin. Smiling at us. Then we notice Rudolf, Maher and Peterson staring at our experiments, slack-jawed.

Thursday is it. The apex of the prosecution's case: the opinion of Dr. Deborah Radisch. The meat of the circumstantial evidence.

An ability to see--things--runs in my family. I certainly didn't ask for this, um, gift, I guess you could call it. Sometimes it's good. Today it's bad. The color. It hangs over Courtroom 1, a poisonous miasma like chlorine gas. It is this yellow-green, verdigris, specifically--the color of bile, or the tarnish on the blowpoke propped up against the bar. Death lies scattered at my feet--a thick file of autopsies and medical reports.

"Ms. Radisch," Rudolf said.

"Doctor Radisch," she responded, as if to a petulant child.

It is her day, her court, and she is coolly describing the photo evidence and the descriptions. Radisch takes our little, pink hands and walks us through some dark, spooky stuff like she's describing a valve job. Fine. I've been witness to some bad shit. I'm not particularly moved by death and I certainly don't find it compelling, like some Faces of Death freak. I'm no ghoul.

The worst thing about photos is that you can't unsee them. I look at particular pieces of evidence from time to time, but for the most part I've made a point to distance myself from the worst of it. I don't need it in my head. I've a luxury of choice.

The jurors don't. Part of their burden is to carefully examine the pictures.

The courtroom is utterly silent except for the faint rattle of paper, a cough, the cool rush of air, not refreshing, more like the cold breath of the tomb. Hardin quietly intones the evidence numbers, Radisch describes the images with precision and clinical thoroughness. I catch glimpses of the ghastly lacerations on Kathleen's head, some five inches long; the explosive, stellate wounds from an (apparent) assault of breathtaking savagery.

The defendant stops his furious scribbling and rubs the back of his head.

The assailant was an artist. He knew, it seems, how to select a tool just robust enough to split the scalp without breaking the skull, then, after the tube crimped and probably snapped off to a jagged broken tip, finished the job with stair 17. Death by woodwork.

They've cracked the "silver metal" box, and the jurors are staring upon a silent witness upon whose face the sun has not shone in 17 years, coldly pulled from under six feet of Texas soil, her eternal, lonesome slumber interrupted by an argument between the living. There are more pictures: personal effects, flowers, and a child's book, The Little Rabbit, photos of the little girls, Margaret and Martha, folded inside. Teal-colored mold.

They are not in the courtroom.

My pen and pad rest in my hands, forgotten, unused. I can't read these people. They are as inscrutable and blank as statues. Sometimes they blink or look up. A black man with yellowish eyes who looks as though he seen his share of hard times gazes at Liz's face, darkened by embalming, skin like leather stretched over the desiccated bones. This is like the Massachusetts Puritans who would terrorize small children by dangling them over open graves at dusk--an admonition of what awaits. The two nurses on the pool appraise the pictures with a weary, professional detachment.

The clock runs out. Judge Hudson intones the welcome mantra, "We'll send the jury home now for their afternoon recess ..." The courtroom lets out a collective, sorrowful sigh. The spell is broken.

We silently file out of Courtroom 1. We are at the end of 41 increasingly disturbing days and I've had enough. I've rerun this thing through dozens of sets of eyes and my heart is sick and sad. Episodic trauma is one thing; this just goes on and on and on.

Outside the Durham County Judicial Building, angry, heavy bruise-colored clouds are building to the west, stray gusts ahead of the storm tug at the fluttering media tents.

We ride in silence. Robert tries to make a joke, like people who look at bad things do, gallows humor and all. I'm not in the mood.

"Look, man, it's just a Southern, summer, celebrity murder trial," he says, laughing. "Don't take it so seriously."

"It's not funny any more, Robert." I don't like what is in my head.

In Raleigh, he lets me out of his car. I need medicine--what amounts to sawing the tap off a pipe full of Guinness, to numb it, to make it stop. Blood leaping from behind the cat poster all over Candace's arm. Mold, the little rabbit. Whooo-hooo--there are dwarves with candelabras screwed to their heads hopping around inside my skull.

The rain is top of us now, lashing the roof of my grimy, corner of the world. The furious staccato gradually slackens and slows. I feel I am suffocating, the closeness. I have to get outside, just to breathe the air, to be alive in the world, glorious in its beauty and horror.

The sky has gone mad. Two fronts are colliding, one high and cold, one low and hot. Pillows of ice clouds, swirl and roll like an oil slide. Great swaths of colors, pinks, yellow. Tiny little clouds way up in the clear blue. Great gouts of blue-white fire leap from cloud to cloud miles in the sky. Huge thunderheads, black and teal pile up to the south. Heavy concussions boom like artillery fire.

Then it starts. Slowly at first. Mary is suddenly next to me, like a mariner surveying the distant sky, drawn outside by instincts honed growing up on the endless plains of Nebraska--it's head-for-the-basement weather.

"Oh shit," I say. "See it?"

"Oh yeah," she breathes. "It's bad, scary."

Boy oh boy, the hamsters are really spinning now.

That Color.

Everything is suddenly shot through with that shocking, nauseating color. Everything. The sky, the buses, the street--everything has turned that awful color I will forever associate with this horrible trial.

"Bile green."

"That's it," Mary whispers. "Exactly."

Death has followed me from the courtroom like a happy little puppy. There is not a coherent thought in my head. I stand bereft, tears running down my face, conscious only that the world is now suffused with this terrifying green and that I really, really need another beer. EndBlock

E-mail Peter Eichenberger at petrblt@hotmail.com

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