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Alex Cross’s Trial

A Preface to Trial

By Alex Cross

A few months after I hunted a vicious killer named the Tiger
halfway around the world, I began to think seriously about a book I
had been wanting to write for years. I even had the title for it:
Trial. The previous book I'd written was about the role of forensic
psychology in the capture of the serial killer gary Soneji. Trial
would be very different, and in some ways even more terrifying.

Oral history is very much alive in the Cross family, and this is
because of my grandmother, regina Cross, who is known in our
household and our neighborhood as Nana Mama. Nana's famous stories
cover the five decades when she was a teacher in
Washington—the difficulties she faced during those years of
civil rights turmoil, but also countless tales passed on from times
before she was alive.

One of these stories—and it is the one that stayed with me
the most—involved an uncle of hers who was born and lived
most of his life in the small town of eudora, Mississippi. This
man, Abraham Cross, was one of the finest baseball players of that
era and once played for the Philadelphia Pythians. Abraham was
grandfather to my cousin Moody, who was one of the most
unforgettable and best-loved characters in our family history.

What I now feel compelled to write about took place in
Mississippi during the time that Theodore roosevelt was president,
the early part of the twentieth century. I believe it is a story
that helps illuminate why so many black people are angry, hurt, and
lost in this country, even today. I also think it is important to
keep this story alive for my family, and hopefully for yours.

The main character is a man my grandmother knew here in
Washington, a smart and courageous lawyer named Ben Corbett. it is
our good fortune that Corbett kept first-person journals of his
incredible experiences, including a trial that took place in
eudora. A few years before he died, Mr. Corbett gave those journals
to Moody. eventually they wound up in my grandmother's hands. My
suspicion is that what happened in Mississippi was too personal and
painful for Corbett to turn into a book. But I have come to believe
that there has never been a better time for this story to be


Chapter 1

"LET HER HANG until she's dead!"

"Take her out and hang her now! I 'll do it myself!"

Bam! Bam! Bam!

Judge Otis L. Warren wielded his gavel with such fury I thought
he might smash a hole in the top of his bench.

"Quiet in the court!" the judge shouted. "Settle down, or by god
I will hold every last one of you sons of bitches in contempt."

Bam! Bam! Bam!

It was no use. Warren's courtroom was overflowing with
disgruntled white citizens who wanted nothing more than to see my
client hang. Two of them on the left side began a chant that was
soon taken up by others:

We don't care where. We don't care how.

We just wanna hang Gracie Johnson now!

The shouts from some among the white majority sent such a shiver
of fear through the colored balcony that one woman fainted and had
to be carried out.

Another bang of the gavel. Judge Warren stood and shouted, "Mr.
loomis, escort all those in the colored section out of my courtroom
and out of the building."

I couldn't hold my tongue another second.

"Your Honor, I object! I don't see any of the colored folks
being rowdy or disrespectful. The ones making the fuss are the
white men in front."

Judge Warren glared over his glasses at me. His expression
intimidated the room into silence.

"Mr. Corbett, it is my job to decide how to keep order in my
court. it is your job to counsel your client—and let me tell
you, from where I sit, she needs all the help she can get."

I couldn't disagree.

What I once thought would be an easy victory in the case of
District of Columbia v. Johnson was swiftly turning into a disaster
for Gracie and her increasingly helpless attorney, Benjamine.
Corbett: that being myself.

Gracie Johnson was on trial for the murder of Lydia Davenport, a
wealthy white woman who was active in Washington society at a level
high enough to cause a nosebleed. Worse, Gracie was a black woman
accused of killing her wealthy white employer.

The year was 1906. Before it was all over, I was afraid they
were going to hang Gracie.

I had to be careful they didn't hang me while they were at


Chapter 2

"I WILL NOT TOLERATE another outburst," Judge Warren said to the
spectators. He turned to look me in the eye. "And I suggest that
you, Mr. Corbett, select your objections with greater care."

"Yes, Your Honor," I said, then immediately held my tongue in
check with my teeth.

"Mr. Ames, you may resume questioning the defendant."

Carter Ames, the city attorney, was a little old man about five
feet tall. He strode to the witness stand as if he were every inch
of six-two.

"Now, grace, let's go back to the afternoon in question, May
twenty-third. in your testimony—before the unfortunate
disruption occurred—isn't it true that you essentially
admitted to murdering Mrs. Davenport?"

"Excuse me, sir, I said no such thing," Gracie shot back.

"The court stenographer will please read the testimony given by
Miss Johnson a few moments before the courtroom interruption."

"Got it right here, Carter," the stenographer said.

Wonderful. Ames and the court stenographer were on a first-name
basis. No telling which parts of Gracie's testimony had been left
out or "improved."

The stenographer flipped back the pages in his tablet and began
to read in a droning voice.

"Miz Davenport was always a mean old lady. Never had a nice word
for anybody. Ask me, she had it coming to her. The day before she
got killed, she told me she was fixing to fire me because I was too
stupid to know which side of the plate do the fish fork go on. She
was a mean old witch, she was. I'm telling you, she had it

I jumped up from my chair.

"Your Honor, obviously my client did not mean—"

"Sit down, Mr. Corbett."

I had one more thing to say—I just had to get it out.

"Your Honor, the prosecutor is deliberately twisting my client's

Carter Ames turned to me with a smile. "Why, Mr. Corbett, I'm
not twisting a thing. Your client has spoken for herself very
clearly. I have no further questions, Your Honor."

"In that case, court will adjourn for a two-hour recess, so we
can get ourselves a cold glass of tea and some dinner," the judge
said. "I believe that Mrs. Warren said my personal favorite,
chicken pot pie, is on the menu today."

Bam! Bam! Bam!


Chapter 3

THE TWO-HOUR DINEER BREAK before Carter Ames and I gave our
closing arguments seemed to last at least twice that long. I never
had much appetite during a case, so I spent the interval pacing the
block around the courthouse square, mopping my face and neck with a

Washington was in the grip of a torturous heat wave, and it was
only June. The air was as thick and swampy as any summer afternoon
back home in Mississippi. Carriage horses were collapsing. Society
ladies called off their afternoon teas and spent their leisure time
soaking in cool tubs.

Back home in eudora I rarely had to wear the full lawyer suit
with high stiff-starched collar and all the snaps and suspenders.
Down south, folks knew how to survive the heat: move slowly, and
wear light clothing.

It must have been ninety-five degrees when we finally returned
to the courtroom. The newfangled electric fans barely stirred a
breeze. Gracie's face streamed with perspiration.

The judge entered. "Are you ready, gentlemen?"

Carter Ames sauntered toward the jury box. He put on a big
friendly smile and leaned in close to the jury foreman.

Ames was justly famous for the high drama and fancy oratory of
his closing arguments in murder cases.

"Gentlemen, I want you to join me on an important journey," he
said, in his orotund voice. "I'll let you in on our destination
before we commence—the Kingdom of Truth. Few who set out on
the journey toward the Kingdom of Truth ever reach their
destination. But today, gentlemen, I can promise you, that is where
we shall arrive."

The smoke from Judge Warren's after-dinner cigar wafted blue
through the air around the dandyish little city attorney. He slowly
paced the length of the jury box, turned, and paced the other

"We are not going to make this journey by ourselves, gentlemen.
our companions on this journey are not of the fancy kind. They
don't wear fine clothes and they don't ride first class. our
companions, gentlemen, are the facts of this case."

As metaphors go, it seemed fairly simpleminded to me, but the
jurors were apparently lapping it up. I made a mental note to lay
on an even thicker layer of corn pone than I had originally
intended. it was the least I could do for grace and her

"What do the facts of this murder case tell us?" Ames asked. His
voice dropped a few notes on the scale. "The first fact is this:
grace Johnson has all but confessed to the crime of murder, right
here in front of you today. You heard her admit to a most powerful
motive, the hateful emotions and vitriolic resentments she bore
toward her employer."

It was all I could do to keep from jumping up and shouting
"objection!" Judge Warren's earlier warning served to keep me in my

"The second fact speaks even more loudly. grace claims that
lydia Davenport shouted at her. let me repeat that shocking claim,
gentlemen. lydia Davenport dared to shout at the woman who was a
willing employee in her household. in other words, Mrs. Davenport
deserved to die because she shouted at a maid!"

Ames was not just a skillful actor; when it came to the facts,
he was also quite the juggler.

"Now let another fact speak to you, friends. The fact is, the
court has appointed one of the capital's finest young attorneys to
represent grace Johnson. Now mind you, this is as it should be. let
the least among us have the best defense money can buy—your
tax money, that is. But don't let the young gentleman fool you.
Don't let his pretty words bamboozle you. let me tell you what he's
going to try to do."

He waved his hand indifferently in my direction, as if I were a
fly buzzing around his head.

"Mr. Corbett will try to cast doubt upon these obvious facts. He
will tell you that the Davenport house was bursting with employees
who might have murdered lydia Davenport."

Ames spun on his tiny heel and pointed a crooked finger at my

"But the fact is this: only one person in that house admits out
loud, in a clear voice, to having a motive for the murder. And that
person is seated right there! grace Johnson!"

He strode to the prosecution table and lifted a worn brown
Bible. He opened it to a page he seemed to know by heart and began
to read aloud.

"If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you
will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

He snapped the Bible closed with a flourish and held it high in
the air.

"Gentlemen, we have arrived. our journey is done. Welcome to the
Kingdom of Truth. The only possible verdict is guilty."

Son of a bitch! Carter Ames had just destroyed my closing


Chapter 4

THE DIMINUTIVE PROSECUTOR THREW a thin smile my way as he
returned to his chair, his eyes dancing with the light of triumph.
I felt a twinge in my stomach.

But now it was my turn to speak, and hopefully to save a woman's

I began with a simple declaration of the fact that no one had
witnessed the murder, and then I discussed the other suspects: the
irish gardener, Mrs. Davenport's secretary, and her
houseman—all of whom despised their employer and could have
easily committed the murder. of course, they were all white.

Then, since Carter Ames had stolen my thunder, I decided to
finish up in another direction, a bold and risky one that brought
tremors to my hands.

"Now, before you all go off to your jury room, I'm going to do
something that's not often done. Mr. Ames claimed to have taken you
to the Kingdom of Truth, but the fact is, he never even got close
to his stated destination. He omitted the most important truth of
all. He never mentioned the real reason Gracie Johnson is facing
the possibility of losing her life.

"You know the reason. I don't even have to say it. But I'm going
to say it anyway.

"Gracie Johnson is colored. That's why she's here. That's the
only reason she's here. She was the only colored employee in
attendance at the Davenport house that day.

"So there it is. She's a Negro. You gentlemen are white.
everyone expects that a white jury will always convict a black
defendant. But I know that not to be true. I think—matter of
fact, I truly believe—that you have more honor than that. You
have the integrity to see through what the prosecutor is trying to
do here, which is to railroad an innocent woman whose only crime
was telling you honestly that her boss was a mean old woman.

"Do you see what we've found? We've turned up the most important
fact of all. And that fact, the fact that Gracie's skin is black,
should have no influence whatsoever on what you decide.

"That's what the law says, in every state in this union. if
there is a reasonable doubt in your mind as to whether or not
Gracie Johnson is a murderer,"

I started to go back to my chair, but then I turned and walked
right up to Carter Ames's table.

"May I , Carter?"

I picked up his Bible, flipping through the pages until I
appeared to find the verse I was seeking in the book of Proverbs.
No one needed to know I was quoting from memory:

"When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous."

I closed the good Book.


Chapter 5

CARTER AMES PUSHED his silver flask of bourbon toward my face.
"Have a swig, Ben. You deserve it, son. Well done."

What a sight for the funny pages we must have made—Ames
barely five feet tall, me at six-four—standing side by side
in the marble hallway outside the courtroom.

"No, thanks, Carter. I'd rather be sober when the verdict comes

"I wouldn't, if I was you." His voice was a curdled mixture of
phlegm and whiskey. As he lifted the flask to his mouth, I was
surprised to see half-moons of sweat under his arms. in the
courtroom he'd looked cool as a block of pond ice.

"Your summation was damn good," he observed. "I think you had
'em going for a while there. But then you went and threw in that
colored stuff. Why'd you have to remind them? You think they didn't
notice she's black as the ace of spades?"

"I thought I saw one or two who weren't buying your motive," I
said. "only takes one to hang 'em up."

"And twelve to hang her, don't I know it."

He took another swig from his flask and eased himself down to a
bench. "Sit down, Ben. I want to talk to you, not

Your rear end."

I sat.

"Son, you're a fine young lawyer, Harvard trained and all, gonna
make a finer lawyer one of these days," he said. "But you still
need to learn that Washington is a southern town. We're every bit
as southern as wherever you're from down in Podunk,

I grimaced and shook my head. "I just do what I think is right,

"I know you do. And that's what makes everybody think you're
nothing but a goddamned bleeding-heart fool and nigger-lover."

Before I could defend—well, just about everything I
believe in—a police officer poked his head out of the
courtroom. "Jury's coming back."

Excerpted from ALEX CROSS’S TRIAL © Copyright 2010 by
James Patterson and Richard DiLallo. Reprinted with permission by
Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Alex Cross’s Trial
by by James Patterson

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446561800
  • ISBN-13: 9780446561808