Rhoda Kassellaw lived in the Beech Hill community, twelve miles
north of Clanton, in a modest gray brick house on a narrow, paved
country road. The flower beds along the front of the house were
weedless and received daily care, and between them and the road the
long wide lawn was thick and well cut. The driveway was crushed
white rock. Scattered down both sides of it was a collection of
scooters and balls and bikes. Her two small children were always
outdoors, playing hard, sometimes stopping to watch a passing
It was a pleasant little country house, a stone's throw from Mr.
And Mrs. Deece next door. The young man who bought it was killed in
a trucking accident somewhere in Texas, and, at the age of
twenty-eight, Rhoda became a widow. The insurance on his life paid
off the house and the car. The balance was invested to provide a
modest monthly income that allowed her to remain home and dote on
the children. She spent hours outside, tending her vegetable
garden, potting flowers, pulling weeds, mulching the beds along the
front of the house.
She kept to herself. The old ladies in Beech Hill considered her a
model widow, staying home, looking sad, limiting her social
appearances to an occasional visit to church. She should attend
more regularly, they whispered.
Shortly after the death of her husband, Rhoda planned to return to
her family in Missouri. She was not from Ford County, nor was her
husband. A job took them there. But the house was paid for, the
kids were happy, the neighbors were nice, and her family was much
too concerned about how much life insurance she'd collected. So she
stayed, always thinking of leaving but never doing so.
Rhoda Kassellaw was a beautiful woman when she wanted to be, which
was not very often. Her shapely, thin figure was usually
camouflaged under a loose cotton drip-dry dress, or a bulky
chambray workshirt, which she preferred when gardening. She wore
little makeup and kept her long flaxen-colored hair pulled back and
stuck together on top of her head. Most of what she ate came from
her organic garden, and her skin had a soft healthy glow to it.
Such an attractive young widow would normally have been a hot
property in the county, but she kept to herself.
After three years of mourning, however, Rhoda became restless. She
was not getting younger; the years were slipping by. She was too
young and too pretty to sit at home every Saturday and read bedtime
stories. There had to be some action out there, though there was
certainly none in Beech Hill.
She hired a young black girl from down the road to baby-sit, and
Rhoda drove north for an hour to the Tennessee line, where she'd
heard there were some respectable lounges and dance clubs. Maybe no
one would know her there. She enjoyed the dancing and the flirting,
but she never drank and always came home early. It became a
routine, two or three times a month.
Then the jeans got tighter, the dancing faster, the hours longer
and longer. She was getting noticed and talked about in the bars
and clubs along the state line.
He followed her home twice before he killed her. It was March, and
a warm front had brought a premature hope of spring. It was a dark
night, with no moon. Bear, the family mutt, sniffed him first as he
crept behind a tree in the backyard. Bear was primed to growl and
bark when he was forever silenced.
Rhoda's son Michael was five and her daughter Teresa was three.
They wore matching Disney cartoon pajamas, neatly pressed, and
watched their mother's glowing eyes as she read them the story of
Jonah and the whale. She tucked them in and kissed them good night,
and when Rhoda turned off the light to their bedroom, he was
already in the house.
An hour later she turned off the television, locked the doors, and
waited for Bear, who did not appear. That was no surprise because
he often chased rabbits and squirrels into the woods and came home
late. Bear would sleep on the back porch and wake her howling at
dawn. In her bedroom, she slipped out of her light cotton dress and
opened the closet door. He was waiting in there, in the dark.
He snatched her from behind, covered her mouth with a thick and
sweaty hand, and said, "I have a knife. I'll cut you and your
kids." With the other hand he held up a shiny blade and waved it
before her eyes.
"Understand?" he hissed into her ear.
She trembled and managed to shake her head. She couldn't see what
he looked like. He threw her to the floor of the cluttered closet,
face down, and yanked her hands behind her. He took a brown wool
scarf an old aunt had given her and wrapped it roughly around her
face. "Not one sound," he kept growling at her. "Or I'll cut your
kids." When the blindfold was finished he grabbed her hair,
snatched her to her feet, and dragged her to her bed. He poked the
tip of the blade into her chin and said, "Don't fight me. The
knife's right here." He cut off her panties and the rape
He wanted to see her eyes, those beautiful eyes he'd seen in the
clubs. And the long hair. He'd bought her drinks and danced with
her twice, and when he'd finally made a move she had stiff-armed
him. Try these moves, baby, he mumbled just loud enough for her to
He and the Jack Daniel's had been building courage for three hours,
and now the whiskey numbed him. He moved slowly above her, not
rushing things, enjoying every second of it. He mumbled in the
self-satisfying grunts of a real man taking and getting what he
The smell of the whiskey and his sweat nauseated her, but she was
too frightened to throw up. It might anger him, cause him to use
the knife. As she started to accept the horror of the moment, she
began to think. Keep it quiet. Don't wake up the kids. And what
will he do with the knife when he's finished?
His movements were faster, he was mumbling louder. "Quiet, baby,"
he hissed again and again. "I'll use the knife." The wrought-iron
bed was squeaking; didn't get used enough, he told himself. Too
much noise, but he didn't care.
The rattling of the bed woke Michael, who then got Teresa up. They
eased from their room and crept down the dark hall to see what was
happening. Michael opened the door to his mother's bedroom, saw the
strange man on top of her, and said, "Mommy!" For a second the man
stopped and jerked his head toward the children.
The sound of the boy's voice horrified Rhoda, who bolted upward and
thrust both hands at her assailant, grabbing whatever she could.
One small fist caught him in the left eye, a solid shot that
stunned him. Then she yanked off her blindfold while kicking with
both legs. He slapped her and tried to pin her down again. "Danny
Padgitt!" she shouted, still clawing. He hit her once more.
"Mommy!" Michael cried.
"Run, kids!" Rhoda tried to scream, but she was struck dumb by her
"Shut up!" Padgitt yelled.
"Run!" Rhoda shouted again, and the children backed away, then
darted down the hallway, into the kitchen, and outside to
In the split second after she shouted his name, Padgitt realized he
had no choice but to silence her. He took the knife and hacked
twice, then scrambled from the bed and grabbed his clothing.
Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Deece were watching late television from Memphis
when they heard Michael's voice calling and getting closer. Mr.
Deece met the boy at the front door. His pajamas were soaked with
sweat and dew and his teeth were chattering so violently he had
"He hurt my mommy!" he kept saying. "He hurt my mommy!"
Through the darkness between the two houses, Mr. Deece saw Teresa
running after her brother. She was almost running in place, as if
she wanted to get to one place without leaving the other. When Mrs.
Deece finally got to her by the Deece garage, she was sucking her
and unable to speak.
Mr. Deece raced into his den and grabbed two shotguns, one for him,
one for his wife. The children were in the kitchen, shocked to the
point of being paralyzed. "He hurt Mommy," Michael kept saying.
Mrs. Deece cuddled them, told them everything would be fine. She
looked at her shotgun when her husband laid it on the table. "Stay
here," he said as he rushed out of the house.
He did not go far. Rhoda almost made it to the Deece home before
she collapsed in the wet grass. She was completely naked, and from
the neck down covered in blood. He picked her up and carried her to
the front porch, then shouted at his wife to move the children
toward the back
of the house and lock them in a bedroom. He could not allow them to
see their mother in her last moments.
As he placed her in the swing, Rhoda whispered, "Danny Padgitt. It
was Danny Padgitt."
He covered her with a quilt, then called an ambulance.
Danny Padgitt kept his pickup in the center of the road and drove
ninety miles an hour. He was half-drunk and scared as hell but
unwilling to admit it. He'd be home in ten minutes, secure in the
family's little kingdom known as Padgitt Island.
Those little faces had ruined everything. He'd think about it
tomorrow. He took a long pull on the fifth of Jack Daniel's and
It was a rabbit or a small dog or some varmint, and when it darted
from the shoulder he caught a glimpse of it and reacted badly. He
instinctively hit the brake pedal, just for a split second because
he really didn't care what he hit and rather enjoyed the sport of
roadkilling, but he'd punched too hard. The rear tires locked and
the pickup fishtailed. Before he realized it Danny was in serious
trouble. He jerked the wheel one way, the wrong way, and the truck
hit the gravel shoulder where it began to spin like a stock car on
the backstretch. It slid into the ditch, flipped twice, then
crashed into a row of pine trees. If he'd been sober he would've
been killed, but drunks walk away.
He crawled out through a shattered window, and for a long while
leaned on the truck, counting his cuts and scratches and
considering his options. A leg was suddenly stiff, and as he
climbed up the bank to the road he realized he could not walk far.
Not that he would need to.
The blue lights were on him before he realized it. The deputy was
out of the car, surveying the scene with a long black flashlight.
More flashing lights appeared down the road.
The deputy saw the blood, smelled the whiskey, and reached for the
Excerpted from THE LAST JUROR © Copyright 2004 by John
Grisham. Reprinted with permission by Dell, a division Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved.