Book One / 2
The moment we re-entered the courtroom from my office we could smell the odor. The defendant sat nearly motionless at the table, completely quiet, with his head down, staring at the papers in front him. He was drawing circles on the pages with his feces the way a child smears fingerpaint in broad scrawls, entranced by the texture or the images taking shape.
The judge was back on the bench, instructing the jurors in a tranquil tone to leave their notebooks on their chairs and return to the jury room where the bailiff would have further instructions for them soon.
I stood at the jury room door and observed the expressions of the jurors as they filed past me for some sense of how much they may have witnessed. Several twisted their faces from the smell or the sight. I closed the door behind them, then draped and fastened a metal chain. The chain held a sign that hung crookedly from a bent link. The sign declared: JURORS ONLY.
I then turned my attention back to the defendant. Additional uniformed officers had already appeared. They surrounded the defendant and took tactical positions. One officer shouted repeatedly at the defendant to get down on the floor and put his hands behind his back. The defendant continued to stare at his fingers. He was now increasing the circumference of his circles, pushing his feces further out onto the surface of the table. He did not get up.
Brief moments passed before one of the officers understood that the defendant was not going to lie down on the floor, nor do anything more than make a bigger mess. Rather than escalate the situation further, the officer moved behind the defendant, pulled his arms back, pushed his upper body and face down onto the table top in front of him, and wrestled him without further incident out of the chair and into handcuffs.
The defendant was escorted rapidly out of the courtroom and down the hall to the elevators, surrounded by a circle of uniformed men who appeared at once both capable of assisting the custodial officer and content with letting him handle the man. Despite the odor that lingered in the courtroom, we began to breathe more freely. The incident was over. It was time to find out what it meant.
Michael Wade, the defendant, was a 32 year-old white male of average height and a lean, muscular build. He wore his blond hair shaved close to his scalp. Multiple tattoos remained concealed beneath the street clothes he wore for trial.
In April of that year, approximately five months earlier, Wade had been arrested for several criminal offenses, including robbery in the first degree and unlawful imprisonment. The jury would eventually find him guilty of all but one, including one count each of robbery, kidnapping, and burglary. All in the first degree, and all while armed with a firearm.
The jury would also return with a special verdict on each count. The special verdict affirmed their finding that at the time the crimes were committed the defendant knew that the victim had been ‘particularly vulnerable,’ and that this vulnerability had been a substantial factor in the defendant’s commission of the crimes. A jury’s finding of a victim’s particular vulnerability was necessary for the State to seek an enhanced sentence.
According to a detective who investigated the incident, Wade, along with another man and woman, had entered the home of a 74-year-old man in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, April Fool’s Day. They represented themselves as interior house painters. The two men scavenged the house, selecting items to steal, while the woman distracted the victim in his kitchen, drinking coffee — she later told an officer — and discussing chemistry and physics.
Eventually the older man went to check on the younger men’s progress. He found them not taking measurements for a paint job as they had said, but rifling through his bedroom chest of drawers. The two men grabbed the victim, duct-taped him to a chair in his bedroom while threatening him with a handgun, and fled the house with the property they’d stolen, leaving the man tied up and alone.
After eleven hours of slowly sawing through the duct tape with some keys he’d managed to retrieve from a pocket, the man was able to free himself. At 1:30 in the morning he telephoned the police to report that he had just been robbed.
Hours later a state trooper pulled Wade over for a carpool lane violation. Wade would be charged with the crimes in this case within two weeks and convicted by a jury on all counts before the end of summer, despite his attempts to force a mistrial. In November he would be sentenced and transported to prison, capping a lifetime of adult criminal activity that had begun with a burglary when he was 18.
In that first burglary, however, unlike the offenses in our court for trial, the homeowner-victim had been better capable of defending himself. He’d pulled a gun and fired repeatedly at the intruders. As Wade, his cousin, and a friend fled from the armed man, bullets flew behind them. Wade was shot in his buttocks. His cousin was killed.
In the fourteen years between that burglary and this one, Wade had been convicted of nine felonies and twenty-three misdemeanors. Upon his arrest for this, his latest offense, he had six additional felonies pending against him in three different counties.
Why Wade wanted to create delay in this trial was never clear, though he may have been motivated by the antics of his fellow inmates. Only a few weeks earlier a defendant in another court had pulled out his penis in the middle of trial and urinated in front of the jury in a nearby garbage can. The judge in that court had granted his attorney’s request for a mistrial.
Inmates’ stories spread quickly in jail; when one defendant appears to triumph in court, others celebrate and seek to benefit. Whether our defendant’s actions were influenced by the other defendant’s can’t be known, but in a recorded phone call to a friend that Wade placed from the jail he admitted trying to throw the trial.
Instead of a mistrial in our court, however, the judge ordered a mental health evaluation, and kept going. As he remarked in chambers at the end of the day, quoting a former, respected mentor, “Just ‘cause they throw it at ya don’t mean ya gotta catch it.”
Wade missed half a day of his trial — the afternoon session following his morning exploits — but he returned to court on the next trial day and the case against him continued to verdict.