Sunday, September 2, 2012

A West Texas injustice

It had been a lovely, cold, wintry trip across the American Southwest. We rang in the new year in Moab before swinging down to the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff. Our last leg of the return home to Austin involved a slow, two-lane undivided crawl toward I-10 west at Fort Stockton. From there, we'd have six hours of fast open highway snaking over the Edwards Plateau and into the oak scrub and juniper-covered hill country. We awoke that last day in Carlsbad, tired and ready to be back in our own beds. As I packed the final bags and waited, impatiently as usual, for my partner to finish his shower and get his own things together, I watched the Weather Channel. A spray of white mist obscured our route on the weather map. "Looks like we'll be driving in some fog," I commented, to no one in particular.

Meeting us from their own hotel room, looking a bit groggy and dragging rollerboards behind them, my sister and her partner loaded their bags into the trunk of our four-door Honda Civic and tucked into the back seat of the car. I strapped into the passenger seat, and my partner took the wheel. We were off, only about 20 minutes later than I'd hoped.

Heading southeast on 285, we found ourselves in a line of cars, traveling a little slowly because of the light fog. In front of us was a white minivan, going just a couple of miles an hour under the speed limit, leading the line. As usual, I wanted to go faster, to go the speed limit, at least, preferably with no one in front of us. Visibility was sufficient for me to see that no one was approaching us coming the other direction on the narrow, two-lane highway. Silently, I willed my partner to pass the van, envisioning a fast open road ahead of us and even a fairly early return home. 

And that's when it happened. We were just approaching an intersection where a small feeder road joined the highway. Vehicles on the feeder had a stop sign, where they'd have to wait while what was clearly a line of a dozen cars on the main highway passed by. Those of us on the highway all had our headlights on. Like I said, visibility was sufficient for me to see that no westbound cars were coming our way. Anyone approaching the intersection would have seen the line of cars, headlights glowing in the morning fog.

Yet the 18 wheeler didn't stop. Instead, it ran straight through that stop sign, clipped the minivan in front of us, the one we'd been driving behind since New Mexico, and sent it spinning in a 720 until it came to rest, strangely still and upright, perpendicular to the highway it had just been traveling on. The truck, white and ghostly and completely in the wrong place, ended up on its side, skidding along the feeder road across the highway from where it had started, taking out a telephone pole before coming to a stop about a 100 feet past the van.

We had been literally a second behind.

Of course, we stopped. I said something like, "Don't touch anything or move anyone out of place." My sister and I and our respective partners got out of the car and ran toward the van. Its side door exploded open and two little boys emerged, screaming, "Mom! Mom! Somebody help our mom!"

As I caught one of the boys and my sister caught the other, as we each held them to us, I looked at their mother. She'd been driving. She still sat in the driver's seat, upright. Incongruously and impossibly, the Beach Boys still sang from the radio, "Wouldn't It Be Nice." And her blood flowed like I'd never seen blood flow before, pouring from her nose and mouth from a catastrophic rupture of the vessels in her brain, having nowhere else to go as her heart kept pumping.

Her husband was there, a passenger in the front seat. He seemed OK. Her oldest son, a teenager, was there, at her window, trying to talk to her, to say it would be OK, it would be all right. It wouldn't be. One look at her made that clear. Star Wars figures and Hot Wheels cars and carefully packed baggies of toiletries and other accouterments of a family vacation littered the ground around the van. Miraculously, every occupant of that van except the driver, the mother, seemed OK. She'd taken the full force of the hit from that 18 wheeler. The phantom white truck that now laid on its side, silenced and motionless.

My partner, his wits about him and with no one else to assist, ran to check on the driver of that truck. He was an older man, maybe in his sixties. The truck was a water delivery truck, and he no doubt was on his usual route of delivering the only source of water in a parched, dry landscape where water ran rarely, from earth or sky. He emerged from the overturned vehicle, apparently completely intact, and said to my partner, "Everybody OK?" 

"I don't think so," my partner replied. We later both heard him on the phone, talking with someone at his company about the wreck. "Yeah, people are injured and everything," he said, casually.

The mother died as my sister and I held her two younger sons, as the flow of blood slowed and then stopped. The emergency first-responders arrived. Each cast a glance at the mother, saw the hopelessness of her situation, and tended to the children and father, stabilizing necks, taking information. Eventually, someone covered the mother with a blanket. We gave our names and our statements to the DPS officers who'd shown up, and then, with nothing left for us to do, we left, just as they were getting out the jaws of life--in this case, death--to remove the dead woman from her car. The fog had lifted, the sun was burning with a cold winter glare, and for miles and miles and miles, we none of us spoke a word.

A year or so later, we heard from the law enforcement authorities. They wanted us to testify in the trial against the truck driver. My partner and I made our way to Pecos, where the trial was being held, very near where the wreck happened. We arrived on the heels of a trial for one of the most horrific murders West Texas had ever seen, in which a man had allegedly killed his girlfriend, burned her body in a barrel, and deposited the remains in the Pecos River. A main witness in that case was a slight, teenaged girl, and we arrived just as the trial was wrapping up, just as she was leaving the courthouse, surrounded by people. 

The district attorney had clearly had his hands full and not a lot of time to prep for the case involving the fatal wreck. He had pictures of the accident scence, and we looked at them. It all looked strangely exactly as we'd remembered but also like something from someone else's experience, not our own. We met the mother's sister and her husband and their attorney. The boys weren't doing so well, they told us in answer to our queries. And then we waited.

When I was called in to testify, I found myself in a courtroom straight out of a western, complete with a rooster-like defense attorney strutting around in suspenders and a lot of people in cowboy hats. I testified what I'd witnessed that day, making it clear that the truck driver had run that stop sign without a pause and that the fog would not have concealed our line of headlights and cars from him any more than he'd been concealed from us. I recounted watching the mother die and holding one of her children while it happened. I looked at the jury as much as possible while I testified, particularly looking at the women who were watching me as I talked about the mother. I wanted this man to be convicted for what he had done.

And then we learned from the dead woman's brother-in-law, who was an attorney, and from her sister that a conviction was extremely unlikely. In economically depressed areas like this unforgiving West Texas town, they explained, people were pretty unlikely to convict a neighbor or acquaintance who had killed someone accidentally--no matter how culpable they were for causing the accident--especially if it had happened while the accused was working. I doubted. I hoped.

And then we sat in on the closing arguments. The defense attorney made jokes. A female juror, zaftig and blonde, kept making eyes at one of the DPS officers in the court benches and smiling and laughing. The DA did his best but was rushed and emphatic in the wrong places, and the widower at one point sobbed loudly, tragically, and openly and collapsed among his in-laws. But my partner and I couldn't get over the winking and the smiles between the jury and some of the people sitting in the courtroom and the--to us--inappropriate laughter and casual jokes from that rooster of a defense attorney. We could tell--it was clear--that this man, the accused, who also sat there joining in the smiles and laughter, grinning like a Cheshire cat--we could tell an acquittal was in his future.

The jury didn't decide while we were there, and we, already having spent two nights in Pecos--not a fate I'd wish on anyone--had to get back home, to work and school. But I called the next day, from my lab, a glove on one hand, an experiment in progress, but only one thing on my mind. It was the strangest conversation. The woman who answered must have mistaken my role in the trial or my reason for calling. "Oh," she said, cheerfully, in response to my questions, "no, he wasn't acquitted. But it was a hung jury, 10-2 for acquittal. So that's good." I couldn't reconcile "good" with the image of that mother of three sons bleeding out before us--before them--and that grinning man whose hideous judgment had killed her that day. But I managed to ask. "Will they retry him?" She paused. "I doubt it," she drawled. "They probably don't think it's worth it to spend the money and time on trying him again." So I hung up, peeled off my remaining glove, and cried.

In the end, that's what it had been about from the beginning. The impatience to move on and the lack of patience to wait, to do the right thing. And so, a woman died at the wrong time and place for the wrong reasons, and impatient and hasty West Texas justice made sure that no one paid for causing her death.

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