Chills raced down Asher’s spine when he stepped into the courtroom. The dark earth tones painted on the walls did nothing to warm the large, intimidating room. The place was foreboding and uninviting. Another chill shot through Asher, raising goosebumps that quickly peppered his flesh. No matter how much he rubbed his hands over the thick, wool jacket covering his arms, he couldn’t warm up.
The security guard, escorting Asher to his seat, stopped and glanced over his shoulder. “Are you okay, Mr. Burkhart?” he asked, when Asher stopped following him.
Forcing a smile to his face, Asher tried to be convincing, yet he didn’t feel cheerful at all. Asher nodded his head at the man. “Yeah, I’m fine,” Asher said, even though he was sure all of the color had drained from his cheeks the moment he stepped inside the courtroom.
The natural light filtering through the large windows did little to illuminate the dim room. The sky outside had been drizzly and overcast for the last week. Dark wooden panels formed a low partition that separated the jury box and kept the spectators in the gallery, keeping them away from the prosecution and defense attorneys.
The guard led Asher to an empty bench marked as reserved behind the prosecuting attorney’s desk. “You can have a seat here,” the guy said and pointed to where Asher should sit.
Asher hesitated in the aisle and glanced around the court.
Mitchell Petersen sat alone at the massive desk on the defendant’s side of the room. Asher glared at the man, who kept scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad while the courtroom slowly filled with people. Several of Petersen’s associates occupied the row directly behind him. They were cookie-cutter-carbon-copies of the slimeball defense attorney. They had the exact same haircut and identical navy-blue suits as Petersen. They were his obedient little soldiers.
Trying to block out the commotion around him, Asher continued to stare at the lawyer and didn’t notice his parents approaching behind him. He let out a sharp yelp when his mother squeezed his hand. “Jesus, Mom, are you trying to give me a heart attack?” Asher demanded, clutching the front of his shirt.
“I’m sorry we’re late, dear,” Lilly said, giving her son a quick kiss on his cheek. “Your father forgot to leave his cell phone in the car, and we got stopped at the security checkpoint. I had to wait downstairs while he ran back to the parking garage.”
As people continued to file inside, Asher heard several more familiar voices. Philip, Ziggy, Paul, Ian, and Milo were mixed in with the crowd. Asher was glad to have the support of his friends and family.
“Come on,” Asher said, pointing to the bench, “They reserved the front row for me.” It was far enough away from the reporters and journalists setting up their cameras and running sound checks at the back of the courtroom that they could talk without having to whisper.
“Did Everett go over the last minute changes?” Philip asked. “I don’t want you to be blindsided by any tricks Petersen tries to pull.”
The District Attorney, Warren Everett, had met with Asher several times over the last week to review the case and to explain what to expect during each step of the trial. He informed Asher that Petersen had gotten Allen’s confession thrown out on a technicality. Since it was inadmissible, any reference to Allen’s wife was also prohibited. Asher nodded his head and assured Philip that he was ready for anything. “I just want to get this over with.”
While everyone was starting to squeeze into the front row, Michael walked through the double doors in the back of the courtroom. His normally tanned face was now pale with purple circles casting shadows under his dark eyes. Asher watched him scan the packed room before quickly taking a seat in the very back row of the gallery, away from everyone else. He looked sad as he sat alone.
“What’s he doing here?” Ian growled, jumping up from his seat.
Milo wrapped his long fingers around his boyfriend’s arm, pulling him back. “Babe, don’t make a scene.”
“Is that him?” Paul asked.
“Everyone just stop. It’s okay for Michael to be here,” Asher whispered. He stared at Michael, and for a brief moment, he ached to reach out and touch him, but he couldn’t. Instead, Asher straightened his shoulders and turned to face his family and friends. “This is going to be hard enough without stirring up more trouble. Court’s going to be starting any minute, so can you all please sit down?”
The crowd had started to quiet down when the side doors suddenly swung open. The courtroom exploded in a buzz of activity as Douglas Allen and his wife, Stephanie, were ushered into court through a private entrance. Photographers started snapping pictures and journalists yelled questions at Allen and his wife, while the people in the gallery pointed at them and gossiped to their neighbors. Asher cringed when he heard several whispers in the crowd, “He looks too handsome to be guilty.”
The tall attractive woman looked tired. Her blond hair was pulled back in a tight bun, accentuating her sharp features. Walking a step behind her husband, the woman kept her eyes downcast towards the ground, never making eye contact with anyone.
“Everyone settle down or the courtroom will be cleared,” the bailiff shouted overtop of the crowd as he escorted Douglas Allen to the defense table. The large guy pointed at the empty chair beside Mitchell Petersen and told Stephanie Allen she could sit with Petersen’s lawyer clones in the gallery.
The bailiff waited for the accused to sit before taking his designated position at the front of the courtroom. He crossed his arms over his chest and loudly cleared his throat. “All rise,” his voice boomed. “Court is now in session. The honorable Judge Harold D. McAvoy is now presiding.”
Judge McAvoy walked in and took his place at the bench. He dismissively waved his bony hand in the air and said, “You may be seated.” Scowling as he eyed Everett and Petersen, the Judge addressed the attorneys. “Counselors,” he said, motioning for both of the attorneys to step forward and stand in front of him, “I assume that you’re ready to proceed with your opening statements?” The Judge raised an overgrown, bushy gray eyebrow as he glanced back and forth from the prosecution to the defense.
“Yes, Your Honor,” Everett and Petersen answered together.
The court proceedings quickly got underway. The Judge and jury listened intently while each attorney took his turn presenting his version of the truth in their opening statements before the prosecution called its first witness to the stand.
Ballistics expert, Susan Choy was sworn in before Warren Everett began to present his case for the prosecution.
“Ms. Choy, did you examine the bullet removed from Mr. Burkhart the afternoon of July 17th?” Everett asked, placing two large photos onto an easel at the front of the courtroom. The magnified images showed the mangled bullet fragments removed from Asher’s chest during emergency surgery on the day he was shot.
Asher looked away. It was the first time he’d seen the bullet that nearly ended his life. He took a shaky breath as he listened to the woman’s testimony, but he didn’t want the image burned in his mind forever.
“Yes,” Ms. Choy said, identifying the photographs. “The remains were sent to my office by the investigating officer, Detective Duvall.”
“Was there anything special about this bullet?”
“The bullet was badly damaged, but there was enough to make a clear identification. It came from a Colt M1911 .45 caliber handgun with seven lands and grooves with a left-hand twist,” she continued her expert testimony.
“Is that very distinct?”
“Yes, the lands and grooves of each gun are as unique as individual fingerprints.”
“Is the Colt M1911 a rare weapon?” Everett questioned.
Everett stopped and turned on his heels. “So, you can you find this gun in every seedy back alley in the city?”
Ms. Choy chuckled and shook her head. “It’s not the most common gun around, yet there are still 3,473 Colt M1911’s registered within the city limits.”
“Have you reviewed the list of registered gun owners with the police?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“Does Douglas Allen own a gun?” Everett asked the ballistics expert while he faced the jury, gauging their reactions.
Ms. Choy nodded her head and answered, “Yes, Mr. Allen owns a Colt M1911.”
There was a gasp among the crowd.
Mitchell Petersen casually strolled across the courtroom taking center stage. This was his theater, his audience, and all eyes were focused on him. He looked impressive in his custom tailored suit. “Mr. Burkhart, I want to thank you for being here, today. I’m very sorry to hear about the terrible injuries you sustained on the afternoon of July 17th of this year. How are you doing?” Petersen asked Asher, sitting on the stand.
Asher locked eyes with the man. Philip had warned him about the defense asking loaded questions, and told him to take a second and repeat each question in his head before answering anything. “I’m still recovering from being shot.”
Petersen pivoted on his heels. A slight grin appeared on his face for a brief second then quickly vanished. “You’re still recovering?” he asked. “But Dr. Edwards testified this morning that your injuries have all healed remarkably well, and you’ve also been medically cleared to return to work, is that correct?” Petersen was a good actor. Asher knew it, but unfortunately, Petersen knew it too.
“Not all of my injuries are physical.” Asher’s answer was short. He didn’t elaborate. The last thing he wanted was for Allen to know about the psychological damage he caused, that he was the reason why Asher woke up screaming in a cold sweat several nights a week.
“Ah, yes,” Petersen nodded his head, yet he didn’t open up a line of humiliating questions about Asher’s mental state. Instead, he jumped right into the heart of the matter. “Mr. Burkhart, if you would, please take us back to the day you were injured.”
“I was shot--” Asher growled.
“Nobody’s disputing that,” Petersen quickly cut Asher off. “Did July 17th start out like an ordinary day?”
“What did you do that morning?”
“I woke up, got ready, and took the subway to work like I always do.”
“Alone?” Petersen questioned.
“You woke up alone?” Petersen’s tone was sharp.
“Yes! I woke up in my apartment…alone!”
Petersen never missed a beat. As soon as the words had passed Asher’s lips, the man asked another question. “Were you hung over that morning, Mr. Burkhart?”
“No.” Asher shook his head.
“So you didn’t have anything to drink in the hours before the shooting?”
Asher bit the inside of his lip to keep from yelling at this man. “I had two glasses of wine with dinner the night before, but I wasn’t drunk, nor was I hung over in the morning.”
“Were you drinking at home alone?”
“No, I was out on a date.”
Michael winced when Asher quietly admitted he was with someone else. Watching Michael’s cheeks flush red with pain was agonizing. Asher wanted to retract his statement and tell the Judge that it was a mistake, that he wasn’t with another man the night before he was shot, but he couldn’t. He sat there helplessly watching the man he loved, listening to details of the hours before both their lives changed forever.
“You’re currently in a relationship.” It was a statement and not a question. Petersen’s eyes gleamed as he pulled back layers of Asher’s personal life for the jurors to see.
“No,” Asher’s voice cracked. He tried not to reveal his pain; it was the last thing he wanted this jackass to see, but it was hard to hide.
Petersen glanced towards the back of the courtroom where Michael was sitting. “You’re testifying that you’re not in a relationship?” The lawyer was confident in his approach.
Asher took a long steady breath before he answered. “I’m not dating anyone right now.”
“Remember you’re still under oath, Mr. Burkhart.”
“I’m very aware of that, but it doesn’t change anything. The answer is still no, Mr. Petersen, I am not currently in a relationship.”
Anger washed over Petersen’s face as he shouted, “Your Honor, permission to treat this witness as hostile.”
Everett jumped out of his chair. “I object!”
“Clearly, Mr. Burkhart is lying under oath. He is making a mockery out the court by trying to conceal the truth,” Petersen barked, pointing at Asher on the stand.
“Mr. Burkhart isn’t on trial here, Douglas Allen is,” Everett talked overtop of Petersen. “Your Honor, I have receipts proving Asher Burkhart only consumed two glasses of wine the night before the shooting, and I have a sworn affidavit from the waitress who served them, verifying Mr. Burkhart was not intoxicated.” Everett waved several documents in the air.
Petersen wasn’t about to let it go. He was cocky and dug in. “Mr. Burkhart could have drunk an entire case of wine after leaving the restaurant--”
“Mr. Petersen’s clearly badgering the witness, Your Honor!” Everett implored Judge McAvoy.
“If you have nothing to hide, then you won’t mind us corroborating your statements with your date about how many drinks you consumed that night?” Petersen continued questioning Asher, who sat silently on the stand. “Is your date here today, Mr. Burkhart?”
Bang! Bang! Bang! Judge McAvoy finally slammed his gavel against the desk. “Order,” he yelled. “I will have order in my court!” Asher flinched as the sound echoed off the walls, bringing the courtroom to silence.
“Mr. Burkhart is lying and I can prove it,” Petersen shouted.
The Judge intensely glared back and forth between the attorneys before staring down Petersen. “Counselor, I suggest you limit your questions to the scope of the crimes your client’s been charged with. Either ask Mr. Burkhart about the actual shooting or call your next witness.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.” Everett smoothed down the front of his jacket and gave Asher a curt nod before slowly returning to his seat behind the prosecution’s desk.
Asher could tell that Petersen was not happy about the Judge intervening. His attempt to expose Asher’s sexuality went out the window when Judge McAvoy sustained Everett’s objection. It showed on Petersen’s conceited face. The cocky man didn’t like to lose. His arrogant look was now gone. Now, the lawyer looked pissed and out for revenge.
“Mr. Burkhart, did you get a clear view of the person who shot you?” Petersen asked. He grinned, his lips curled into an evil sneer.
Asher’s heart pounded in his chest. It was deafening. Sweat beaded his forehead as he stared across the courtroom at Douglas Allen sitting at the defense table. He was smug. The jackass was confident Petersen would get him acquitted of the charges.
“It was him,” Asher said. His clammy hands trembled as he pointed at Allen.
Judge McAvoy addressed the court stenographer, “Please let the record reflect that Mr. Burkhart has identified Douglas Allen as his shooter.”
“Are you positive it was Mr. Allen?” Petersen questioned Asher’s identification.
“Yes!” Asher knew Petersen was up to something, but he didn’t know what the sleazy lawyer was planning, just yet.
“What if you’re wrong?”
“I’m not!” Asher growled.
“Have you ever seen Douglas Allen at Chapel Chase?”
“No,” Asher said, shaking his head. “I’ve never saw him before that day.”
Petersen grabbed a stack of papers off his desk. “I have a dozen credit card receipts from Chapel Chase. Do you think it’s possible that Mr. Allen looks familiar since he’s a regular customer where you work?”
“No,” Asher repeated again, clutching his sweaty palms into tight fists.
“A man’s life hangs in the balance, Mr. Burkhart--”
“Then why don’t you ask Stephanie Allen about those charges,” Asher blurted out over Petersen’s line of questions. “Douglass Allen’s wife was having an affair with my co-worker. The credit card receipts were hers! That jackass even admitted to the police he was at Chapel Chase the day he fucking shot me!”
The courtroom exploded with commotion.
A devious smile curled Petersen’s lips when he faked outrage at the bombshell Asher just let slip. “Your Honor,” Petersen bellowed, “The confession was excluded. I demand an immediate mistrial!”
Judge McAvoy repeatedly hit his gavel on the block. “Order!” he shouted over the crowd. “I will have order in my courtroom.”
The banging of the Judge’s gavel was drowned out by the wild thumping of Asher’s heart inside his chest. It felt like his ribs were going to burst. The pounding grew louder and louder until it also drowned out Petersen’s ranting objection. White hot lights flashed in front of Asher’s eyes.
“Mom…” Asher’s speech was garbled. He blinked, trying to force his eyes to focus, needing to find his mom sitting in the front row of the packed courtroom. Asher spotted Lilly, yet she appeared to be a million miles away. Blackness ebbed in, distorting his vision. The roar of blood rushing through his head blocked everything else out.
“Mr. Burkhart?” Warren Everett’s voice echoed in Asher’s ears. “Mr. Burkhart, can you hear me?”
“Is it hot in here?” Asher mumbled, pulling at the tie around his neck. He had to get it off. He couldn’t breathe. It was suffocating him. His chest constricted and his lungs felt like they were on fire.
“Asher?” Michael shouted his name over the crowd as the courtroom continued to buzz over the surprise revelation.
“Is he okay?” Someone in the crowd asked.
“He doesn’t look well!” Another person said from the gallery.
Lights and shadows swirled in front of Asher’s eyes. The last thing he saw before the world went black was Michael Waters running towards the witness stand in the crowded courtroom.
This is probably the hardest chapter I've ever written! A huge thank you to Andrew Q. Gordon for his legal advice, but any mistakes in this courtroom fiasco are all mine. I tried to keep it exciting (...as much as a court scene can be.) Hope nobody fell asleep, LOL Thanks for reading!!!