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The Edge of Justiceby Clinton McKinzie
A dry wind blows hard out of the Medicine Bow Mountains onto the high plateau of the Laramie River, just as it does every fall in the southeast part of the state. It's a steady pressure, as unrelenting as gravity, but also a force that seems to have a mischievous intent. The wind is regularly fed by the curses of the fifty thousand enduring souls who inhabit the high plains and mountains here. On this day its fuel is further charged by the oaths of people who have never before had the opportunity to feel its power. The multitudes of television reporters gathered outside on the courthouse lawn offer up foul maledictions. The wind is blowing their carefully brushed and stiffened hair out of place. Propelled by it, the occasional tumbleweed playfully interrupts their broadcasts as it bounces between the commentators and cameras. The few forlorn Klansmen isolated even amid the crowd across the street curse the wind too. It threatens to blow their pointed hoods right off their heads and reveal their true identities. Worse than that, it raises their robes like women's skirts, causing them to drop their placards and hold their arms straight down at their sides.
On the drive in this morning I'd been struck by just how much the prairie fauna surrounding Laramie is like my maternal grandfather's ranch in Argentina. There's the same sagebrush and chaparral bent by the wind toward the east, as if yearning for the sun to rise each dawn and exposing their backsides' naked roots to the fading night. There are the same surrounding high peaks capped with ice. But the town itself is nothing like my grandfather's nearest village, where idle gauchos squat on crooked, unpaved streets, and children play half-dressed in rags. This Wyoming town is even more exotic. Today Laramie probably appears strange to its longest-surviving residents. Over the past week strangers from across the nation have descended on the town with their cameras and microphones like a buzzing hoard of bright-colored locusts.
Upon entering Laramie, I drive along past the courthouse with the other rubbernecking traffic and feel something on my face that has become unfamiliar--a smile lifting the corners of my lips. It isn't really a happy smile. It's more of a head-shaking what the hell? smirk. The thick torso of my mastiff-mix leans far out the backseat passenger-side window of the ancient Land Cruiser, and he seems to be grinning too. The crowd that's gathered on the sidewalk leans away from the approaching dog's head with his great yellow teeth and ropes of saliva that hang from black lips.
I'm lucky to find a parking spot five blocks from the courthouse despite the extraordinary traffic. There I roll up the windows just enough so the beast can't reach out and cause heart attacks by licking passersby. I dust the animal's dark hair from the white shirt and khaki pants that I wear for this occasion instead of my usual tired jeans, sandals, and untucked flannel shirts. Before walking away from the truck, I pull on a navy sport coat to hide the gun that's clipped to the belt at the back of my pants. I speak softly to the dog as I cinch the tie close around my throat.
"Stay, Oso. Watch the car."
I have never seen anything like the crowd that's swarming on the well-watered lawn outside Albany County's four-story sandstone courthouse. As I wind my way through the masses toward the low steps, I can't stop looking about and feeling that same sardonic turn of my lips. It seems that all the world is here in this small, usually quiet Wyoming city of only twenty-six thousand full-time residents. I have spent time in Laramie twice before: first as a child, more than two decades ago, when my father was assigned to the nearby Air Force base, and again as a cop, just two years ago, when I performed a brief investigation here. In both my recent and distant memories the town was as colorful as any university town but generally peaceful, nothing at all like the scene that affronts me today.
From around the country there are civil rights demonstrators, victims' groups representatives, the NAACP, print reporters, television journalists, ACLU protesters, church groups, titillated tourists, and members of the Ku Klux Klan and various other absurd militias. All are talking or shouting excitedly. I can see that someone has somehow partitioned them, as uniformed deputies allow some on the court side of the street and keep others across from it. Grand Avenue, which lies in between, is lined with double-parked media vans with dish-shaped antennas that extend from their roofs. They have all come for the excitement that can only be born of a true media sensation--the trial of Kimberly Lee's killers.
Two years ago the murderers of Matthew Shepard were spared the death penalty here in a trial that was broadcast around the globe. Just a year after the pair was sentenced to life in prison for the beating death of the gay university student, while the nation was still focused on the town and the horrors its youth could commit, a new bias-inspired murder swept the headlines like a whirlwind. Another minority student, this one Asian, was raped and strangled, and then further denigrated by racist words written in her own blood. The Shepard killing had seemed an anomaly, but the Lee murder had the national press wondering if something more sinister lurked behind the facade of the state's only liberal college town. The focus on Laramie couldn't be more intense if it were viewed from one of the University of Wyoming's high-powered microscopes.
Everyone is here, I guess, but the citizens of Laramie. I imagine them at home, hiding with their curtains drawn and their shotguns loaded, praying for the wind to blow this circus away across the plains.
A disorderly mob of spectators is queued from the courthouse doors at the top of the steps down onto the sidewalk and around the corner. Each one holds a slip of paper that I assume gives him or her a seating pass for the big event. More people gather around those lucky enough to have a place in the line, arguing and pleading for a spot. Amid the crowd at the top of the steps stands one of the largest men I've ever seen, even in a state like Wyoming that breeds big men.
His shaved ebony head rises well above the throng. Those near give him space in deference to both his size and the brown county sheriff's uniform he wears. With his face tilted slightly to one side as he speaks into the radio mounted on his broad shoulder, he watches my approach.
I jostle my way up the steps toward the deputy, pardoning and excusing myself among the turmoil, with one arm extended to guide my way through. The bodies before me give way grudgingly, moving aside only after giving my face a second look. With my courtroom clothes, all-American features, and longish hair, I could be just another pushy reporter cutting in line, or a young attorney or staff member of one the parties. But my skin is a little too prematurely weathered, and there's the jagged white scar that runs from left eye to upper lip on my otherwise tan skin. They turn aside while speculating as to just what role I perform in this extravaganza.
"Special Agent Antonio Burns," the big man says when I'm near, enunciating each syllable of my title and name, "or should I call you QuickDraw? What are you doing here, man? You're just in time. Closing arguments start in fifteen minutes."
"I really hate being called that, Jones. If I see the columnist who made that up, I'm going to punch him in the nose."
He chuckles, not realizing I'm serious, and I pump the sweaty hand that swallows my own.
"Can you get me inside? I'm supposed to meet my boss, Ross McGee, in there."
The giant nods and then uses his bulk to part the crowd toward the courthouse doors. I'm pulled along in his wake. He beats his fist on the glass to draw the attention of the security officers within. When the door is cracked open by one, Jones barks, "Let him in. He's DCI." Then he grabs my arm and pushes me through.
I slip inside the building, away from the impassioned crowd and into the quiet of the cleared hallway, where there are only a few overwhelmed security guards standing anxiously by the metal detectors. I realize that these rent-a-cops probably don't know what DCI means.
"Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation," I explain to the nearest one and flash my gold shield as the detector registers my gun and shrieks in alarm.
"The courtroom's that way, sir," the guard says, pointing down the hall. I thank him and follow the point.
Inside the courtroom the bench and jury box are empty. But the front of the courtroom is bustling with activity. Where the single defense table should be there are two, one for each of the Knapp brothers' legal teams. The prosecution has only one table, which is next to the jury box. Because the County Attorney represents all the people of the state and the jurors too, he is allowed to sit closest to their box. And you don't want the defendants sitting anywhere near the men and women who will be judging them.
The courtroom itself is a surprisingly small venue for a case that has people across the nation eagerly scanning headlines and watching evening newscasts. There are only about twelve rows of churchlike hard wooden pews for the gallery. Simple white paint adorns the walls, and the only decorations are an American flag and a Wyoming flag, one on each side of the judge's bench, and the gold state seal mounted before it. A short oak wall divides the gallery from the participants.
Secretaries and paralegals gather around the lawyers in the well like cheerleaders. It's easy for me to distinguish the county's attorney from the defendants', even without the location of the tables. The prosecutor is dressed in an expensive dark suit, while the defense attorneys, in the forlorn hope of connecting with the working people on the jury, wear khaki pants, ill-matched ties, and western-cut sport coats.
My boss at DCI, Ross McGee, stands near the prosecution's table. He is also a lawyer but he's not one of the combatants in this trial. I've been told he's here simply to advise the County Attorney on the more complex legal issues that will doubtlessly be brought up on appeal, and at which time they will become McGee's and the state's responsibility. The local police and prosecutor did not seek our assistance on this case; they wanted to keep the media attention for themselves.
Ross McGee is a striking man. He's short and thick with a powerful belly that swells out of his jacket and lifts his tie into the air. The bristling white hair above his bulldog face is close-cropped, but his beard runs long past his collar. With a red Christmas hat, he would look a bit like an evil Santa Claus. Or with a horned helmet, a degenerate Viking warlord. A former Marine colonel who served five tours in Vietnam, there still emanates from him an aura of authority and potency despite his age, obesity, and poor health. His voice booms out above the murmurs from the front of the courtroom as he strikes a leg of the prosecution's table with his cane.
"Now don't you step in any shit, Karge," he tells the prosecutor. "I'm getting tired of cleaning your shoes."
The man he addresses smiles politely. I recognize him too. His austere image appears nightly on national newscasts as Nathan Karge, the current Albany County Attorney and likely the next governor of Wyoming. He has already won the primary in a decidedly one-party state. A former civil attorney who is known and respected throughout the state, he's finishing the term of the prior County Attorney, who had decided to take a breather after the Shepard trial.
Not wanting to interrupt, I lean against the wall in the back of the courtroom and watch the two men talk. From what I can hear, they are discussing the legal limitations of a closing argument.
McGee is the Deputy Attorney General of the Criminal Division, which is primarily responsible for handling the inevitable appeals to the state supreme court following criminal convictions. I work in an offshoot of that office that assists local police agencies in complex cases, investigates statewide drug distribution, spearheads multi-jurisdictional task forces, and sticks its nose into local corruption and conflicts of interest. McGee just yesterday ordered me down to this part of the state a week before I'm due at a civil hearing nearby in Cheyenne's federal courthouse. Along with the AG's office as a whole, I'm a defendant, accused of inflicting wrongful death upon three gang members there.
The order to come south a week early was delivered in the form of a phone message with McGee's usual labored breathing and terse, profane language. "Get your ass down to Laramie tomorrow! . . . Some girl, a cretin rock climber like yourself . . . she fell on her head and croaked. . . . The fucking governor wants us to look into it." Vintage McGee.
Two days earlier I'd read about the accident in the newspaper. The girl's name was Kate Danning and she fell off a cliff at a place called Vedauwoo during a late-night climbers' party.
After a few minutes I see the cane pointed my way. "Get your hands out of your pockets," McGee barks across the courtroom. "You look like a goddamn pervert!"
I withdraw one hand to scratch my cheek with my middle finger extending toward him just as the courtroom's doors burst open. Spectators and reporters scramble for prime seats among the rows of wooden pews. I quickly drop into one near where I'd been standing at the rear of the chamber.
The journalists balance legal pads on their knees while clutching pens in their hands. Many are already taking notes, despite the fact that absolutely nothing is happening other than their own entrance. They gaze around them as they scribble, trying to catch and describe the atmosphere, I guess. I don't see Don Bradshaw, the Cheyenne Observer columnist who gave me my unfortunate nickname after the shoot-out with the gangbangers in Cheyenne, so I'm saved from giving the reporters an assault on one of their own to write about. The room had seemed cavernous to me just moments before, but now it feels like a pressure cooker. The faces around me are excited. They've come for a spectacle. People jostle one another for more room on the benches.
The pressure increases when the two defendants are led in by a handful of jailhouse deputies. The Knapp brothers look small and mean next to their Wyoming-sized guards. They are clearly related, with the same slicked-back greasy blond hair, low foreheads, carefully tended wisps of facial hair, thin lips, and recessed chins. Their features and postures make them look like some less-evolved breed of humanity. Or maybe more evolved, the way things are going these days. Both wear cheap polyester suits, courtesy of the Public Defenders' Office. They walk stiffly in a sort of awkward shuffle, their knees slightly bent, and with exaggerated caution although neither wears shackles around his ankles. The law dictates that they cannot appear before the jury in any sort of restraints until a verdict is reached. But I can see through their pants the sharp outlines of the bracelike device on each of their legs. Called a Stilt, it consists of stiff Velcro cuffs above and below each knee connected with a hinged metal rod. The rods will snap straight if the wearer fully extend his legs by running, slowing him considerably and causing him to look ridiculous, like a man trying to trot while wearing stilts.
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