On the screen, in ghostly greenish monochrome, a witch climbed stairs one at a time, resting in between. She didn't seem small, somehow; rather the steps, the door, her pointed hat all seemed too big. She knocked; the door opened a fraction, the child-witch nodded, turned, and descended the stairs, one hand on the banister and the other clutching a bag.
The camera followed her down the street. There was something mechanical about the tracking that made me think of a gunsight video.
A witch hunt.
My two Russian great-grandfathers both spent time in the Gulag: one as a Killer Doctor, one as a Homeless Cosmopolitan. Grandma Rose told me all about it.
The witch walked past two more houses to a corner where a trio of adults waited. One induced her to part with the bag, with some apparent coaxing; another took the bag to a waiting van.
I’d seen the video before, so mostly I watched Murphy. For the entire three hours he looked straight at the screen. I watched his fingers steeple and re-steeple, his face go through a kaleidoscope of faint smiles.
I never told Murphy about my great-grandfathers. I tried to tell him about my dad, on the stand, facing the prosecutor.
Yes, sir, I did.
Yes, sir, I was.
No, sir, I did not.
Murph looked me straight in the eye through the entire story. His smiles changed, his fingers steepled and re-steepled, his head tilted this way and that, but soon I knew he was not listening to me.
The jury hadn't listened to Dad, either. He looked too much the part he had been cast in.
In class, when subjects came up in which he had no interest, Murphy’s eyes would lose their focus, and his face would go through a sequence of silly grins. I asked him once where his mind went at times like these, and where the grins came from. He said he’d start remembering all the people who’d told him he was awesome, replaying them in his head. Smiles and all.
Was I in one of those smiles?
The video ended in a flurry of motion: a SWAT team broke down the door; the camera followed, reaching the kitchen just in time to catch a helmeted, armored officer Mirandize the supine, handcuffed suspect. The suspect’s beard moved up and down when the officer asked him if he understood his rights. I took that as a ‘Yes.’
Murphy sat up sharply and leaned toward the screen. So did Judge Williams.
“A clean arrest, Your Honor,” I said. “I think Mr. Murphy will agree.”
“I will agree to no such thing,” said Murphy. “I will have experts analyze every frame of this video in the unlikely event it is found admissible.” His smile shone full force now that the spotlight was on him; his hands moved freely in counterpoint to his words, a dismissive sweep on ‘no such thing,’ a thumbs-and-forefingers square on ‘every frame.’
“Why wouldn’t it be admissible, Mr. Murphy?” Judge Williams asked. She cocked her head, much like a hawk considering a mouse.
Murphy’s grin froze momentarily, then relaxed. He still thought he had a slam-dunk case. Or so he’d been told by his senior partner.
“I’ve seen nothing resembling probable cause,” he said, waving his hands again. “I saw no confirmation of the anonymous tip, and no substantiation. I saw no warrant for the outside surveillance and no warrant for forced entry. I see no reason the police should have gone in there. Your honor.” He turned to Judge Williams. “Can I move for dismissal so we can all go home?” He threw up his hands and grinned, tilting his head. “It's All Saints Day!”
I wish I’d never told him that I loved him. To look at him and wonder if it’s me he’s playing back...
Judge Williams opened her mouth to answer, then thought better of it. She looked at Murphy, then at the blank TV. She turned toward me next, put her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on her folded hands.
“Your Honor, may I remind this Court that the President signed the repeal of the Patriot Act last week?” he said. “I read the new statute, and it very clearly bars hearsay as the basis for probable cause, and it bars the use of surveillance of public venues as evidence in trials on weapons and terrorism charges. So my learned colleague—” he nodded at me “—can use neither this video, nor the items—” he nodded at photographs of guns and ammo and homemade explosives on Judge's desk “—obtained as a result of this illegal search and seizure. Which leaves Prosecution with—”
“If it please the court,” I interrupted, “People’s Exhibit 8.”
Murphy shuffled through the papers on his desk. “I have it, and it’s—Halloween candy? People’s Exhibit 8 is Halloween candy?”
“It is,” I nodded. “Surrendered voluntarily by the children who trick-or-treated at the house of alleged perpetrators. They are all seen on the surveillance tape, with written consent of their parents, and the candy is clearly identified as originating from said house. And, People’s 9 is the result of field testing, mass spectrometry of candy and its wrappers. You will note that all test positive for ammonia, nitrates, hydrocarbons, mercury—”
“I don’t see that it makes any difference,” Murphy said. “Your honor, may I point out that the evidence is still tainted by lack of probable...”
“Goodbye, Murphy,” I had said. “‘Bye, kiddo,” he had answered, with the same glassy look, and then he froze, and the grin evaporated and the jaw went tight and the eyes went sharp and hard and—frightened.
Murphy could pay attention when he needed to. When frightened, and alone.
“Mr. Murphy, you would indeed be correct were we contemplating prosecution under domestic terrorism statutes,” I said. “But the People move for dismissal on these charges. Hearsay, however, is sufficient probable cause to open a child endangerment investigation.”
“Child endangerment?” he said, his voice breaking into a squeak.
“The Prosecution's theory is that each child who walked past the house was endangered by the proximity of homemade explosives,” I said. “The anonymous tip justified surveillance of the children walking in the street. Identification of bomb chemicals in trick-or-treat candy produced reasonable suspicion—”
“I get the picture,” Murphy interrupted. He was sweating now, on a cool autumn day with the heat off. “I will need more time to prepare, perhaps engage a co-counsel.”
“No less would be expected from an attorney of your stature,” I said. “The charges, as it stands now, are fourteen counts of child endangerment, four of discharge of hazardous materials, and one of failure to file an environmental impact statement.”
“We'll plead not guilty, of course,” Murphy said.
“Of course,” I nodded.
“Very good,” Judge Williams said. She struck her gavel. “Adjourned until ten tomorrow morning. Bail denied.”
Murphy and I walked to the courtroom door. Murphy neither smiled nor spoke until he turned to shake my hand in the corridor.
“And level one registration. And deportation. We'll take what we can get. Remember Al—”
“Capone, yes. Walked on murder charges, went to prison for tax evasion.” Murphy sighed. “Remember what someone said? I could indict a ham sandwich?”
I nodded. I even knew who said it. Sol Wachtler.
“I used to think I could get that ham sandwich acquitted,” said Murphy. “I thought I could get it an innocent verdict on the charge of impersonating a kosher meal. From of an all-rabbi jury.” He shook his head. “That isn’t the intent of child protection laws, you know,” he said. “Not as a back door to domestic terrorism prosecution. The statute wasn’t supposed to go there.”
“That's the thing about laws," I said. “They go where you take them.”
“Ain't that the sorry truth,” he said. “You know, after I watched the President’s speech and after I read the Repeal Act—call me naive, but I really thought we were done with witch hunts.”
“There will always be witch-hunts,” I said. “You just have to know which witches are in season.”
Every so often I dream about Dad. Sometimes I am his daughter and see his face. Sometimes I am the jury. I only see the crosshairs centered on him.
I turned to leave. “Goodbye, Murphy.” I said, not looking at him.
It came out the same as before. Same as... back then. Back when I left him.
Dammit. I stopped and slowly turned to face him.
Murphy stared at me. No question—that hard, sharp, wide-eyed look. I waited. I’d waited for that look from our first day together till our last, and now that I had it, I waited some more. I waited for what had to come next.
He pulled down his jacket by the lapels, fiddled with his tie knot. I waited. Think, Murphy...
“Can I see you sometime?” he said.
“It’s gonna be a long trial,” I said. “We’ll see each other lots.”
“No,” he said. “I mean...”
“That’s been over a long time,” I said.
“We had a great relationship once,” he said. “Everybody said so. How did it ever end up like this?”
Damn it, Murphy, I thought. Can’t you, for once, think for yourself?
“See you in court, Murph,” I said, and walked away.
This story originally appeared in Forging Freedom.