The box arrived at our house three days before Christmas. Measuring about two feet by two feet, it was wrapped in brightly colored seasonal paper, topped with a big red self-adhesive bow, and delivered to the front door by the father of my recent double-murder client-- a client who had received his own Christmas present less than a week before when he was found not guilty and set free.
As I carried the bulky box inside and set it on the coffee table, my 15-year old daughter, Bess, walked in from the kitchen.
"Who's that for?" she asked, a sucker for big boxes and always hoping for one more present than her sister.
"Me." I told her.
"Who's it from?" she demanded, not thrilled with the thought of putting the biggest box in my pile.
"The murder one?" she asked incredulously. "What's in it?"
"I don't know. His dad just said he thought I'd understand."
"I'm not sure."
"I don't think you should open it."
Bess had followed the trial fairly closely, having watched me prepare each night during the weeks of trial and having gotten updates each day after school. She knew of my client's previous convictions and she knew that no bodies had ever been found.
There had been a lot of speculation about the lack of bodies at the trial--most of which involved dismemberment and disposal. The State had offered theories and evidence of bodies being thrown in a lake, fed to hogs, and burned in a trash barrel. A lake had been drained, yards had been dug up, and ash had been tested. But no bodies or body parts had ever been found.
The lack of bodies had given me something to work with at trial. Now it was giving me a little pause.
Trials can be tricky. In most cases, clients insist they're not gulty, and you try the case as if they aren't. You do your job. But you never actually know. You can never be certain. Because you never ever ask.
People don't always understand about the not asking. But if you ask, and a client admits that they're guilty, your hands are tied. You can't put your client on the stand to testify that they didn't do it and you can't put on direct evidence of innocence, because you know it's not true. If you don't ask, you have more options--like arguing that they didn't do it and putting on evidence that they didn't do it.
Which is not to say that all trials are about guilt. Because they're not. Some trials are about the question, "guilty of what?" Because maybe your client is guilty of something, but not what they're charged with. And some trials are simply about proof and the prosecution's lack of it. Because our system requires proof of guilt--which is not some weaselly lawyer thing, but rather a protection for us all.
By the end of most trials, I'm usually so involved in the case that I've managed to convince myself of my clients non-guilt, even though a part of me knows that it can't always (and probably even usually) be true. I had done it in this case too. The lack of bodies helped. The fact that there was an eyewitness made it a little bit harder.
Unbiased clarity often doesn't come until a case is over and I can view all of the information with a little more objectivity.
That box had some heft.
"Could it be.... " I found myself thinking.
"No." I argued with myself.
"Yet it makes some sense. The size. The weight. Arriving from the dad who has had some brushes with the law of his own. Brought to me, who still has an obligation to my client..."
As I looked up, Bess was backing out of the room. She had already judged the box. "Don't open it Mom. Take it outside. Right now!"
I stared at the box, not sure what to do. The only thing I knew for certain was that I didn't want to open that box on Christmas morning.