As many readers know, I spent much of last week in the courtroom where James P. Reardon was on trial for the murder of a local woman nearly three years ago.
Let me tell you, I’ve read probably hundreds of true crime books, spent hours perusing the Crime Library Web site and watched countless episodes not just of fictional police procedural TV shows, but documentary-style programs as well … and not one of them was anything much like actually being in the courtroom in person.
I mean, the basics were all there. The defendant and his team were on the left side of the courtroom as one looked from the gallery; the prosecution team was on the right. The judge, of course, was in the middle, witness stand on the right.
I sat in on jury selection on Monday, and then caught the majority of the lineup of more than 30 witnesses as the week progressed. There were the obligatory law enforcement personnel, talking about the crime scene, the investigation, the autopsy and all the things on their side of it. There were witnesses from the street where Carol A. Thomas was kidnapped on the evening of Nov. 4, 2009, and witnesses who attested to the events of the following morning, when the body and the car used in the crime were recovered. There was even a lineup of witnesses with various levels of shady backgrounds—for the most part, friends of the victim or suspects, who were apparently heavily involved in the drug scene.
So to all appearances, it seemed a lot like a scene from Court TV or a John Grisham thriller. But when you get past appearances, there’s a lot more there.
For example, it’s one thing to see graphic crime scene and autopsy photos on a TV screen or in the photos section of a book. It’s quite another to see them projected onto a wall with the victim’s family members sitting nearby sobbing.
And I don’t care how accustomed you are to seeing a grinning Jack Nicholson shouting, “You can’t handle the truth!” In reality, most courtrooms are orderly and fairly subdued. One attorney or another might stand during an examination of a witness and say “objection,” but the resolution of these incidents usually is much less dramatic than one might see in a movie or TV show.
Oh, and while we’re at it—the last-minute evidence or witness that seals the case? I’m sure it has happened a time or two, but for the most part the evidence is well documented ahead of time and the witnesses have all been vetted beforehand.
But still, it was interesting to actually see the witnesses on the stand, telling their stories, answering questions on direct examination, cross-examination, redirect, re-cross, etc. It was even kind of intriguing to see that just like with sporting events, there are lulls in the action that one never sees on TV, in the movies or in a book.
I wasn’t able to sit in on every second of the trial—after all, I still had some things I had to take care of back here in Excelsior Springs and at the office itself. In fact, I missed some things I really would have liked to see, such as the cross-examination of the defendant on Thursday afternoon. But I was able to get the gist of what most of the witnesses, as well as the defendant, had to say.
As I sat in the gallery, scribbling notes on my yellow pad, it was difficult not to conjecture about what kind of questions I would ask of the people who took the stand during the trial. As an observer, though, I limited my activities to simply recording what was being said and shown to the jury and the small crowd sitting in the courtroom on the third floor of the Ray County Courthouse.
And when I received the news on Friday afternoon that the jury had taken just an hour and 10 minutes to reach a verdict of guilty on all three counts that Reardon faced, I felt some satisfaction—not because he had been convicted, because personally I’m not sure I would have wanted to be on the jury and make that kind of determination, but because I had watched the case unfold from the very first time the pool of potential jurors walked into the courtroom until the prosecution and defense finally wrapped up their final arguments.
If you ever have time to sit in on a trial like that, I highly recommend it.
By Eric Copeland • firstname.lastname@example.org