Sneak Peek at UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY

UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY

Chapter 1 – Anywhere But Here

Tawny Lindholm Rosenbaum longed to be anywhere else except sitting at the defense table in a courtroom beside an accused rapist.

At the opposite end of the table sat her husband Tillman Rosenbaum, whom some people called the most famous attorney in Montana. Others called him the most notorious.

His client, Claude Ledbetter, slouched in a chair between them. He wore an orange jail jumpsuit and rolled a ball of lint between his fingers.

This preliminary hearing would determine whether or not he went on trial.

At times like this, Tawny regretted that she worked as Tillman’s assistant. She caught herself twisting the tail of her auburn French braid and quickly dropped her hand to her lap. Nervous gestures in court were as damaging as tells in a poker game.

The victim, Amelia Craft, sat in the witness box like a Marine at inspection. The thirty-eight-year-old mother of two worked at a convenience store. She fixed her stare on the county attorney, not daring a side-glance at the man accused of raping her.

Amelia’s words carried strong in the courtroom: “I was by myself on the late shift. The guy who was supposed to be working with me didn’t show up. I’d done the closing procedures, turned out the lights, and set the alarm. I was walking to my car at the far end of the parking lot. It was real dark. There’s a security light back there but somebody had shot the bulb out and it hasn’t been replaced.”

Tawny glanced at Ledbetter. He appeared bored, still rolling the ball of lint.

She looked past him to Tillman. Half-glasses down his nose, he made notes on a legal pad while he simultaneously studied his tablet, his dark gaze flicking back and forth between it and the woman on the stand. His agile mind multi-tasked while Tawny’s dyslexia forced her to focus on only one task at a time.

Amelia Craft continued: “I got to my car and saw it had a flat. I opened the trunk for the spare and was trying to call my husband on my cell. Then somebody jumped me from behind. He threw a jacket over my head. I was struggling but he yanked something real tight around my neck. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream. He dragged me into the vacant lot behind the store.”

Tawny side-eyed Ledbetter. Now he plucked a loose thread from the seam of his jumpsuit and added it to the lint ball.

“He threw me down on the ground on my stomach.” Amelia’s tone turned tight. “Slammed his knee into my back. Hurt real bad like my ribs were broke. All his weight was crushing me. I was close to passing out. He yanked down my jeans and…”

For the first time during her testimony, Amelia faltered.

County Attorney Mavis Dockerty said, “Take your time.” She picked up a box of tissues from the prosecution table and handed it to Amelia.

The woman dabbed her eyes, blew her nose, then straightened in the witness chair, her shoulders again squared. In a clear, resolute voice, she said, “He raped me. It went on for a couple of minutes. I’d start to pass out but I forced myself to stay awake. Then, all of a sudden, he got off me and I heard his footsteps running away.”

Ledbetter crossed his legs, shifting closer to Tawny. His proximity tightened her muscles. She wanted to move her chair but knew she shouldn’t.

Amelia went on: “I sat up and tried to pull the jacket off my head but it was really hard because he’d knotted the sleeves around my neck. Finally, I got them loose and could breathe again. Then I saw headlights. My boss, the store manager, jumped out of his car and ran over to me. He grabbed my arms and asked if I was all right. I was still gasping for air. Then he took off running across the vacant lot. When he came back, he said the guy got away. He called nine-one-one. While we waited for the paramedics, he kept saying, ‘You shouldn’t have been by yourself, Amelia. Damn that Ricky.’ Ricky’s the guy who was supposed to work with me that night. Then the rescue truck took me to the hospital.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Craft,” said the county attorney. “Do you need a few minutes before cross-examination?”

Amelia took a sip of water. “I’m all right.”

Tillman rose from the defense table, six-foot-seven-inches of intimidating lawyer. Even though the judge sat atop an elevated platform, Tillman could almost look him in the eye. He approached the witness box. His James Earl Jones baritone didn’t boom as it normally did. He spoke quietly.

“Mrs. Craft, you have been through a traumatic experience. I’ll make my questions as brief as possible.”

She looked up at him and nodded.

“Did you ever see the face of the man who attacked you?”

“No.”

“Did he have any recognizable physical characteristics that you could identify? By that I mean his height, weight, skin color, facial hair, or anything else unusual you saw.”

“No. Except he was heavy. When he shoved his knee in my back, it broke a rib.”

“So, you cannot identify the man who attacked you because you did not see him. Is that correct?”

“He was behind me the whole time and he had my head covered with the jacket. I couldn’t see anything.”

Tillman reiterated, “You never saw the man. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Craft. I’m sorry you went through this. No further questions.” Tillman returned to his chair.

Tillman always played close to the vest. Even though Tawny performed investigative tasks, she often didn’t know his strategy for a case until his closing statement. This time, he hadn’t clued her about the ace he planned to play.

Mavis Dockerty excused Amelia.

Moments later, Dockerty launched into her summation. An awl had been found in Ledbetter’s SUV that was likely used to puncture Amelia’s tire. The jacket was identified as his. At 9 p.m. that evening, he had been captured on the store’s security video. Semen collected for the rape kit was his. He was arrested a block from the attack, urinating on the street beside his SUV.

When it was Tillman’s turn, he rose and faced the judge. “Your Honor, the evidence is only circumstantial. Mr. Ledbetter previously stated earlier that day his jacket was stolen from his unlocked SUV. The awl is a tool Mr. Ledbetter regularly uses for leatherworking and there is no proof it was used to puncture the tire. There is nothing out of the ordinary about him appearing on video because he is a regular patron of that store. The victim, Mrs. Craft, is unable to positively identify her attacker. Most important…” He paused for effect. “The DNA sample was contaminated with another sample at the crime lab, making it unusable and inadmissible as evidence. There is insufficient evidence to bind Mr. Ledbetter over for trial. I respectfully request that Your Honor dismiss the charges and release the defendant from jail.”

Tawny caught abrupt movement out of the corner of her eye. In the gallery, Amelia Craft had grabbed her husband’s arm, her face pale.

The husband blurted, “That’s bullshit!”

The judge sent the man a warning look and held up one hand. “Sir, no outbursts.” He flipped through the evidence list, a grim set to his mouth. Then he faced the spectators. “I find this decision abhorrent to make but I have no choice. The law is clear. The DNA evidence is flawed and must therefore be suppressed.” He glowered at the county attorney. “Without the DNA, Ms. Dockerty, you have no case. Charges are dismissed. The defendant is released from custody.”

A plaintive animal cry rang out from Amelia. “Please, God, no.” Her husband held her, glaring at Ledbetter.

The defendant smirked and flicked the ball of lint across the table.

Tillman shot to his feet, blocking Ledbetter’s view of the victim. Tillman bent to whisper in his client’s ear, one hand on his shoulder. Tawny caught the vise-grip pinch of his fingers digging in. Ledbetter’s face lost its smug expression and his eyes lowered.

The judge left the bench and disappeared through the side door.

The bailiff took charge and led Tillman’s client to be processed out of jail.

Tawny remained seated, arms crossed over her stomach that had begun to churn. Tillman gathered his papers and tablet into his briefcase then faced her.

She knew her expression gave away her disgust and shame. She couldn’t help it.

He waited a few seconds.

She didn’t move.

Without a word, he turned and left the courtroom to face the reporters on the sidewalk outside the Flathead County Justice Center.

Although Tawny dearly loved her new husband, sometimes she didn’t like him very much.

~~~

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