He would adjudicate the trial of the decade: A true cowboy murder. Blood Land. Chapter 4
April 18, 2013
A VG Serial: Blood Land
THE HONORABLE Bridger C. Butler descended from western royalty and he intended that the network news crews know it. There were at least a half dozen national news organizations sent to Wind River, Wyoming, to cover the “Land Murder” case. Butler called a public briefing only an hour after learning of his selection; judges from Rock Springs served on a monthly judicial rotation to travel north one hundred miles to Wind River and it was Butler’s turn—through the randomness of arbitrary schedule pooling, Bridger Butler would adjudicate the trial of the decade; a true, Western, cowboy murder.
“My great grandmother was defeated only twice in a sharpshooting match, both times—narrowly, I will add—by none other than Annie Oakley,” Butler told the press. “A good-hearted, philanthropic woman by all accounts, my granny. She started a family that has now lived in this great state for three generations. That I have been given the opportunity to preside over a case that touches so close to the historical nerve of Wyoming is a privilege to me, an honor to my family, and will become a testament to my adoration for this great state.”
J.W. Hanson shrugged at the judge’s prepared remarks. No doubt Butler did love Wyoming. But murder cases like this one sprung up very rarely in such small western communities. And such trials made careers.
The national attention would make Hanson’s job both easier and much more difficult. He knew how to play big trials. It was a problem of media management—give them too little information and you lost a chance to play on public sentiment; give them too much and you might as well hang the client yourself. He’d also done his research on Butler: the man appeared to be a fair magistrate, concerned most with the meticulous application of law. Butler supported the death penalty but tended toward a more liberal view of the rights of the accused. Hanson also knew peripherally of his tendency to ride prosecuting attorneys. Butler made no secret that he saw the prosecution—with its myriad resources—as a bully in the making.
All other things being equal, Judge Butler tended to subscribe to the idea of “innocent until proven guilty”. That would help the defense, but the McIntyre case promised to be an uphill struggle. Ty had motive to want to kill his father and brother. Not much financial gain in the killing, but revenge? Yes. And Ty was violent. His arrest record alone supported that. Never mind that every member of the jury would know it.
If he were to accept this case (as if he had not already agreed the first night he made love to Wendy Steele), Hanson needed a strategy. How to lay out his case for this defendant. Hanson smiled inwardly.
There was always a strategy.
* * *
Hanson needed to be alone. He drove westward out of Wind River, toward Jackson Hole, cruising along highway 191 until he reached Hoback Junction, where instead of going on to Jackson he veered left on highway 89 toward Star Valley. He’d taken the route before once with his family, traveling to Idaho Falls for some school shopping decades past. He remembered the road shadowed the great Snake River as it twisted and turned through a vast canyon leading eventually to the Wyoming-Idaho border.
The views did not disappoint him. Steep granite walls rose up on one side of the road, signs every few miles warning of falling rock—indeed Hanson saw chunks of the mountain resting scant few feet from the narrow shoulder of the road that would have crushed a car such as his. Twice he had to swerve to avoid smaller pieces of rock—smaller, but still a foot or two in circumference; enough to tear off a wheel or snap his axle and send him caroming into the raging Snake River to his left.
Such moments aside, the picturesque drive was exactly what the lawyer needed. He’d fallen so fast and so hard for Wendy that he was simply incapable of cogent thought in her presence. It bothered him. He did not like the lack of control he felt when with her, particularly since he was certain he already wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
He knew such feelings were likely akin to infatuation and perhaps not strong bedrock on which to build the foundation for the rest of his days, but he didn’t care. His life was over half past him and he’d spent too much of it conforming to standards, laws, ethics, methodologies, ideologies, and lesson plans. It was time to accept a bite from the apple, as egregious an act as it might represent. He longed for the lure of a life lived past the boundaries of conformity.
In Wendy he had certainly found that. But the case—the forthcoming trial—that was no playground for him to rediscover opportunities lost along the way. Ty McIntyre’s life hung in the balance, not to mention justice for Wendy and Sheriff Pruett.
Hell, he thought. The entire town deserves some kind of resolution.
But those truths were part of what gave him trepidation. Yes, there was indeed the conflict of Wendy’s relation to the defendant—Hanson was still weighing the implications and possibilities inherent therein—but decades spent thundering in courtrooms taught him that rarely did such cases deliver a balancing of Lady Justice’s scales.
Too often families and communities walked from the hallowed courtroom jaws agape at the travesty of the legal system, stunned to be leaving with far more questions than answers.
Hanson wasn’t sure he could bear returning to the brutal fight, at least not then, when it would mean—win or lose—the inevitable tearing of family bonds and the excruciating, palpable rile as the true law—the law Hanson and every other seasoned attorney knew intimately, with its weaknesses and insufficiencies and outright unfairness—spun through the courtroom like a twister, napalming innocent, law-abiding people with the ferocity of its inadequacy, crushing optimism wherever it was found, and, worst of all, jading the hearts of those who believed in it the most.
But who else, then? This was the itch he could not scratch. The trial was going forward whether Hanson stayed and fought on behalf of Wendy’s uncle or he tucked his tail and retreated in cowardice to the comfort of his benign faculty existence. Wendy, Sheriff Pruett, Ty, and the rest of the community were going to be dragged through the glory of the legal process he so many years ago denounced, whether he stood with them or not.
So he would stand. Of course he would.
And as he had so many times before, even after countless months on end roiling in the belly of the broken system, he would believe once more.
Believe that he could make a difference.
Chapters of the serial are published Monday through Saturday.
You can learn more about R. S. Guthrie’s novels on his Amazon Author’s Page.