Shevonda Jackson stood along one side of the courtroom, arms crossed, eyes alert.
Intensely she studied the crowd assembled … the random assortment of diverse individuals with whom she was about to share this historic moment. There were the attorneys—celebrities now—immaculate in their designer suits and crisply ironed blouses and shirts. There were the family members—tense and quiet—sneaking brief, silent glances at one another. There were the onlookers—craning their necks like giraffes in a savanna. And there was, of course, the phalanx of reporters—entwined in wires and cords—bobbing and weaving for the perfect angle from which to capture the reactions to the upcoming verdicts.
She absorbed every detail around her without anyone taking notice—their attention, as always, was riveted up front. That's what she enjoyed most about working security at the courthouse … it allowed her (even as hefty as she was) to fade into the wallpaper and become the invisible observer when she wanted to, yet spring into action should the need arise.
"You're like a big ol' rattlesnake coiled against a rock," her cousin, Dante, had once suggested. She agreed with that assessment, took more than a little pride in it, in fact. She scanned the room again, slowly moving her gaze first right, then left. On the back row, a middle-aged woman pulled at a muffin she held in a napkin in her lap. In front of her, an elderly gentleman wearing a bolo tie leaned in to a college-aged girl who was whispering into his ear.
Shevonda's eyes traveled up to the defendant near the front of the room where she began to perform a detailed inventory of him. Perfectly coiffed, raven-black hair with a handsome hint of salt at the temples. Eyebrows that were impeccably tweezed, a nose that suggested a pedigree of privilege. A deep, smooth, unblemished tan. What do you want to bet he uses moisturizer every night? she thought.
She noted that like most defendants about to meet their destiny, he was trying a little too hard to appear blasé about it all. He shifted his glance around the room too much. Held his head a little too high. Moved the papers in front of him too often, shuffling them like a news anchor moving on to the next story. But then putting them right back to where they had been. Every so often he would blink rapidly, squint, then gingerly lick his lips—another sign of nervousness she recognized all too well.
You don't often see a man like that get nervous, she thought to herself. He's the type who's usually throwing his earphones to the ground when someone blows a big play or jumping for joy when someone runs into the end zone.
Intense? Yes. Nervous, though … ?
She studied him more closely. His jaw was rugged and his eyelashes were lush. He was quite a looker … that she had to admit. "But those are the ones you really have to watch out for," her mother had always warned her. "The pretty boys who gaze more into the mirror than into your eyes … avoid them like cockroaches, Shevonda," her mother had said. "Cuz they'll drop you like a pot of boiling water the minute someone younger and prettier walks by."
She sighed from fatigue and thought about everything she had heard over the past several weeks. She had no idea if he was guilty or not. The evidence and testimony hadn't swayed her one way or the other. Plus, she had worked in law enforcement long enough to know that often, verdicts had nothing to do with the testimony and evidence presented. Sometimes it just came down to how the defendant sat in a chair. Or whether his eyes evaded the most powerful jurors on the panel, or returned their looks with belligerence … or maybe even fear.
She also didn't know if she agreed with the Cuban women in her apartment building who said he was being railroaded because of his race. Because he was a Hispanic male who had succeeded in a white man's world and married a gorgeous young blonde to boot. Because he had a multimillion-dollar contract with a big university and even more lucrative endorsement deals from a host of sportswear companies.
All she knew for sure was that he was there because his wife had been stabbed multiple times inside the cabana next to their pool, and because a young man the police presumed to be her lover was found dying from stab wounds just a few feet away. And because the police had been called to the house four times during the previous eighteen months to restrain the defendant, whom they had always found to be in a violent rage. And because he had been arrested at Miami International Airport as he was boarding a plane for some country in South America she couldn't find on a map if her life depended on it.
She didn't really know if he was guilty or not. But she did know that from what the media was saying, the situation wasn't looking very good for him.
Suddenly, a rustle swept through the crowd as a door near the front of the courtroom swung open and the judge strode resolutely toward the bench. Everyone rose—then quickly sat back down again as the judge slid swiftly into her chair. She rifled through a few files in front of her, bent over to whisper to a bailiff at her side, then sat quickly upright and launched into the proceedings.
"All right, we are back on the record in regards to the Valenzuela matter," she said. "I see that Mr. Valenzuela is present before the court along with his counselors, Mr. Weiner and Mr. Consuelas. The jury is not present. Good morning everyone."
A low, "Good morning, your honor," rumbled in return.
"Let the record reflect that the jurors have indicated through the questionnaire distributed to them yesterday evening that they want their personal information to remain confidential. They also indicated they do not wish to speak either to the attorneys in this case or to the media. Does everyone here understand that and vow to respect that?"
Once again, a dutiful "Yes, your honor," was the reply.
"All right, summon the jurors please."
A deputy left for a couple of moments but soon returned with the jurors in tow. Shevonda scanned their faces as they entered the courtroom but did so with little enthusiasm, for she knew that contrary to popular thought, jurors rarely betrayed a verdict simply by their expressions … and sometimes their demeanor actually could mislead as to the verdict to come.
Once seated, everyone on the panel turned almost in unison and faced the judge at the front of the room.
"All right, jurors, I do want to thank you sincerely for the service you have provided over the past several weeks. I know it has been incredibly difficult at times for you and for your families but please do know your participation in these proceedings has been incredibly valuable." The judge then turned to a clerk on her right and asked, "Mr. Grantham, do you have the envelope with the sealed verdict forms, and if so, would you please hand them to Deputy Bryant?"
The clerk strode over to the deputy, clutching the envelope close to his abdomen. Once he had accepted it from the clerk, the deputy held it loose and fluttered it like a small fan.
"And Deputy Bryant, would you now hand the envelope to the foreperson of the jury, juror number one?" As the deputy came forward, the judge continued, "Madam Foreperson, would you review the verdict forms and check them to ensure they are the verdict forms you signed in the jury room?"
The foreperson took several moments reviewing each form. To Shevonda, this was always the most excruciating moment in a trial, made almost unbearable here by the many weeks of moment-by-moment media coverage that had turned the spectacle into a national obsession.
An eternity seemed to pass. Then the foreperson closed the flap on the envelope and said, "Your Honor, I attest that these forms are valid and contain the verdicts of the cases before us."
"Thank you," the judge replied. "All right, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I'm going to ask that you carefully listen to the verdicts as they are being read by the clerk, for after Mr. Grantham has finished, I will ask you if these are, indeed, your verdicts. And I want to strongly warn the audience to remain calm during the reading of these verdicts. This has been a very emotional trial for many of you, I know. However, I have to emphasize that if anyone causes a disruption to these proceedings, I will instruct the bailiffs to have you removed immediately."
Shevonda tensed her muscles at this sentence—the rattlesnake coiled.
"All right, then, Mr. Grantham …" The judge nodded at the clerk to open the envelope, then turned forward. "Mr. Valenzuela would you please stand and face the jury?"
The clerk barreled into the reading of the verdicts more quickly than Shevonda had ever seen before—another example, she decided, of everyone's edginess and their desire to put a very quick end to a very silly circus.
"Superior Court of Florida, County of Miami-Dade. In the matter of People of the State of Florida versus Victor Xerxes Valenzuela, case number JH06655. We, the jury, in the above-entitled action, find the Defendant, Victor Xerxes Valenzuela of Coral Gables, NOT GUILTY…"
"Glory be!" exulted one of Valenzuela's attorneys. Quickly, however, the attorney reined himself in.
"…of the crime of murder, in violation of penal code section 172(A), a felony, upon Erika Lindstrom Valenzuela, a human being, as charged in Count I of the information."
A soft gasp went up in the courtroom, followed by someone bursting into sobs. Shevonda scanned the room like a laser, but she focused not on people's faces but on their hands. Their hands … and nothing else.
The defendant slumped slightly, smiled, placed one hand on the shoulder of one of his attorneys and presented the palm of his other hand to the jury as a sign of appreciation for the verdict. Another defense attorney removed his glasses and slowly swept tears from the corners of his eyes.
The district attorneys sat stoic in their chairs, paralyzed and pale.
The clerk continued. "Superior Court of the State of Florida, County of Dade, in the matter of People of the State of Florida versus Victor Xerxes Valenzuela. We, the jury, in the above-entitled action, find the Defendant, Victor Xerxes Valenzuela, NOT GUILTY of the crime of murder in violation of penal code section 172(A), a felony, upon Javier Alejandro Duran, a human being, as charged in Count II of the information."
The sobbing grew louder and the murmuring became more animated and widespread. The judge dropped her gavel quietly. "I will ask again for quiet in the courtroom, please."
"Signed this twenty-fourth day of May. Juror 115," the clerk concluded.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, so say you all that this is your verdict?" the judge asked.
"We do," the jury replied in unison.
With that, one entire row occupied by members of the slain lover's family charged out of the courtroom, banging the door against the wall as they exited. Muffled sobbing continued from one of the back rows, but otherwise the room was silent.
Against the far wall, the serpent remained vigilant.
Once all the jurors had been polled as to the correctness of the verdict, the judge said, "All right. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I now excuse you from further service on this case. Thank you again for your contributions to this county's judicial process. I will be chatting with you shortly. These proceedings are officially adjourned."
As the crowd milled around slowly, as the reporters flashed pictures with their cell phones and surged toward the attorneys for interviews, as the defense attorneys clasped hands in the center of the table, Shevonda Jackson remained taut along the wall of the room, absorbing it all with dispassionate detachment.
However, after a few moments of watching the hubbub around her, after the many weeks of arguments, objections, recesses, and postponements, she could no longer remain completely silent on the matter.
As quietly as possible, in a soft, restrained fury, she muttered, "I can't believe that asshole got away with it."