Nick Petrov, in the witness box, waited for the next question. The lawyer for
the accused looked up from his yellow pad and fastened his skeptical gaze --
familiar to millions of cable talk show viewers -- on Petrov's face. The lawyer
had eyebrows like Einstein's, resembled him in general, Petrov thought, but with
a better haircut. Perfume from the previous witness still hung in the air.
"Been quite the career," said the lawyer, "hasn't it, Mr. Petrov? So far."
A better haircut and a meaner disposition. "That's not for me to say," Petrov said. He'd been on the stand for twenty-eight minutes, long enough to have formed the opinion that there was only one juror to worry about -- the middle-aged woman in the back row, a lapis butterfly brooch on her lapel. The eleven other faces said guilty in the first degree, at least to him; but her face, soft, pretty, unadorned, had mercy written all over it. The defendant, Ty Canning, polishing his glasses on the end of his tie, had shown none.
"But it's what you think," said the lawyer. "That you're the sharpest tool in the shed."
"Is that a question?" Petrov said.
"Most definitely," said the lawyer.
"Do I have to answer it, Your Honor?"
"The witness will answer the question," said the judge.
"I'm more like a leaf blower," Petrov said.
Some people laughed; but not the butterfly woman.
"You think this is funny?" said the lawyer. Petrov remained silent, and the lawyer, perhaps slightly off-stride, didn't demand an answer. He flipped through the yellow pad in an irritated way. Petrov, habitual noticer of little things, saw that his eyes weren't moving, meaning he wasn't actually reading. Was this a dramatic pause or had he lost the thread? "Your Honor," the lawyer said, "I'd like the jury to hear that last question and answer again." He'd lost the thread; the self-confident but inferior younger brother who'd never arrived to disturb the Einstein family dynamic.
Petrov waited for an opening.
"Question," said the court reporter. "What did the defendant say on the ride back from Mexico? Answer: He said, 'You got me.' "
" 'You got me,' " said the lawyer, facing the jury. "Sounds definitive. Practically an admission of guilt." He spun around to Petrov. "But in your deposition of June eleven, you stated the defendant's words were 'What makes you think it was me?' Not an admission of guilt, more like the aggrieved response of an innocent man." He paused. "Now, remembering that you are under oath, which one of your answers should the jury believe?" Petrov felt the butterfly woman's gaze on his face, knew that phrase -- the aggrieved response of an innocent man -- touched something deep inside her. The jurors, wide awake now, leaned forward in anticipation. "Both," Petrov said.
"Both?" Those eyebrows, lively and articulate, rose in disbelief. "Are you aware of what would happen to your license if you put yourself in the position of giving false testimony?"
"I am aware," Petrov said. He met the lawyer's gaze. "In the deposition, I was asked only what the defendant's first words were -- 'What makes you think it was me?' It was after I explained the leads I'd followed that he made the second remark -- 'You got me.' There was also a third remark, just before I turned him over."
Silence. The lawyer understood, the judge understood, everyone with the slightest knowledge of cross-examination tactics understood that you never asked a question without knowing the answer. But a trial had dramatic form, and that form now demanded the question be asked.
The foregoing is excerpted from Oblivion by Peter Abrahams. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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