Penalty Phase by Charisse Coleman

Finalist, 2015 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction

close up of justice statue and scales

 

In the first moments of Saturday, Aug. 12, 1995, in Shreveport, Louisiana, my older brother, Russell, age 42, was finishing up his shift as a minimum-wage, 54-hour-a-week stock clerk at Thrifty Liquor. Russ had recently moved out of the Salvation Army Shelter to a mobile home court (where, he wrote, the aluminum trailers all resembled loaves of Holsum bread), gotten the job at Thrifty, reinstated his driver’s license and purchased, for $150, a 1973 Plymouth station wagon with plywood in place of two rear windows. According to Mike, the store manager, Russ had quickly become a favorite of customers and co-workers, alike.

“He changed the mood practically from the minute he walked in,” Mike would later say. “I’m not even sure how he did it, but he always got everybody to laugh. He sure had a smile on him, I’ll tell you that. And he certainly never lacked for a smart remark.” So when Mike realized he had scheduled too many people for the Friday, Aug. 11, night shift, he was inclined to just give Russ a well-deserved bonus night off. But, fair is fair, and rather than play favorites Mike flipped a coin. The other guy won the toss, and Russell came in to work as planned.

Shortly before closing time that night, Russ perched himself on the metal railing just inside the store’s entrance, ready to lock the door at 1 a.m sharp. Another clerk began sweeping up and bagging trash. The cashier prepared to close out the registers. Three last-minute customers walked in. The tall, thin one asked the price of beer on special. One looked too young even to be in a liquor store. The short, stocky one brought his Sprite and chips to the counter to be rung up. Saying he’d left his wallet in the car, he turned towards the door. Then there were three gunshots, and when the cashier and trash-bagging clerk looked around, Russell wasn’t sitting on the railing anymore.

The three “customers” went on to rob the store, threatening to kill the other two clerks if they did not break into the manager’s office for the cash box and empty the cash registers into paper bags. They left without harming the cashier or the other clerk. Russell, his heart, lung, spleen, and liver pierced by the three .38-calibre bullets fired into his back, bled to death on the rug near the glass entry door.

* * *

In the months after Russell died, I discovered an insanely nuanced spectrum of all the ways there are for a person to fold.

In on oneself. Into bed. Into a mental fog. Into complicated knots of feeling. Into lethargy, indifference, inertia. Into a variety of lumbering, earth-bound shapes. A lot of people assumed that I would be enraged by what had happened; some were rather insistent that I should demonstrate this allegedly inevitable state. But I didn’t feel angry. I couldn’t, no matter how often people suggested that, actually, I really did, or would, if only I would let myself. (Apparently, one can lack the proper attitude with which to confront the stultifyingly incomprehensible. Maybe people were eager to believe I was angry because rage seemed more dignified to them than wounded collapse.) What I did feel was utterly, inextinguishably bereft. I didn’t want to kick ass; I just wanted my brother back. The murderer was a stranger and a total abstraction, his act completely senseless. I could no more attach feeling to him than I could be incensed that gravity pulls things down, or that bears for inexplicable ursine reasons of their own sometimes kill and eat hikers, or that the sun itself will someday snuff out thereby ensuring the death of the entire human race.

* * *

Meanwhile, down in Shreveport, the criminal justice system got to work. Within days of the murder all three suspects in the Thrifty Liquor robbery and homicide were in custody. For nearly two years after those arrests, though, my family and I had to hang fire while the murder trial was repeatedly scheduled, canceled, and rescheduled. My perpetual struggle to realize—as in “to comprehend fully” and also “to bring into reality”—that a person, an actual person with a name, had, for no discernible reason, fired a gun into my brother’s back and killed him, was not helped by these months of legal limbo.

Then, in May of 1997, the prosecutor’s secretary phoned to say we’d best catch a flight to Shreveport the very next day: the State of Louisiana had begun its case against Bobby Lee Hampton, who was indicted on a charge of first degree murder, and faced the possibility of execution should twelve jurors unanimously find him guilty. Of course, we went: me, my surviving brother, and my mom. I think we hoped going through a trial might make the truth of Russell’s death less like standing hip-deep in a river trying to catch hold of a fish with our bare hands, only to have the bright flash slip out of reach again and again. I think I wanted to lay eyes on Bobby Lee Hampton, that I was afraid to see him, afraid of what might happen inside me if this man, who’d so far been only the sum of his name and his murderous act, took on actual physical presence with me in the same room. I’m not sure which I feared more: Hampton as The Killer in the abstract, or Hampton as an actual person.

The Caddo Parish courthouse, built in 1926 and set on a two-and-a-half acre square amid live oaks that had been planted in the late 1800s, could have been the set for a movie about a Southern murder trial. So many things throughout the trial fed this sense of simultaneous familiarity and unreality. The rituals of the courtroom, strangely familiar from TV and movies, could also be like watching a foreign film with no subtitles. The frequent tedium of an actual murder trial weirdly fostered a trance-like experience, broken by the shock of seeing photos of Russell’s blood-soaked clothes on a screen, or hearing a witness’s emotional testimony. Abstract and concrete. Immediate and unimaginable. Suspended indefinitely and carried forward at each step of the trial.

So for days, I sat in court, mere feet away from Russell’s killer, waiting for whatever surge of emotion his presence might elicit. Revulsion. Rage. Horror. Anything but this unmoved state. I believed in Hampton’s guilt; I knew his history of violent crimes. Months of correspondence, phone calls, and a visit with homicide detectives and the prosecutor had left me with no doubts on that score. But the baby-faced, corn-rowed guy at the defense table just wouldn’t fit into the movie of Russell’s murder I’d carried in my head for so long. The jury certainly expressed no doubt. They took less than two hours to reach a unanimous verdict: guilty of murder in the first degree.

And so began the penalty phase of the trial, in which the defense would present mitigating factors to encourage a sentence of life imprisonment; while the state would offer aggravating circumstances meant to move the jury to vote for execution.

In his opening statement for the penalty phase, the prosecutor Hugo Holland, told the jury they’d be hearing from Joyce Gorecki, former manager of a Kroger store where, Holland said, “Bobby and his accomplice walked in, acted like customers, and within moments Bobby Hampton, masked, armed, and after money, all five foot six and almost 200 pounds of him, physically attacked and beat Joyce, all five feet, 105 pounds of her,” just three days before Russell’s murder.

Entering the courtroom, Joyce Gorecki, tiny in her crisp navy blue suit, passed Hampton’s side of the table without glancing his way. Hand raised like a Girl Scout’s, she swore in a clear, steady voice, to tell the truth. Bruce Dorris, assistant district attorney, conducted the direct examination.

Joyce told us she worked the overnight shift at the supermarket. After only four months as a cashier, she said, she’d been promoted to customer service manager. Her fourth night on her new job, at a quarter to one in the morning, a tall, thin man came through her line, wrote a check, but didn’t have ID. Joyce decided to approve Elbert Williams’s check anyway. She sounded satisfied with her judgment to expedite procedure, not to keep other customers waiting.

“I had the authority to approve it,” she said twice, “and I did.” I liked her in that moment. I liked her pride in her quick promotion, her enjoyment of taking on responsibilities that made the store run smoothly. I was touched by her faith in that authority, her pleasure in it even now, even knowing how it failed to protect her that night.

A clerk three registers away had Bobby Hampton in his line. Joyce noticed him, and saw that he and Elbert (who would be Hampton’s accomplice in this robbery and three nights later at Thrifty Liquor) left together. Moving up front to the customer service counter, Joyce began counting out the last of the cash. The store got very quiet. About forty-five minutes after she’d seen Elbert and Bobby leave, they came back. “Elbert just glanced at me real quickly and turned his head, and Bobby stared at me longer. They went in their different directions.” About twenty minutes later, she saw Bobby again, alone and wearing a ski mask.

As Joyce calmly narrated her story, I looked over to where Hampton sat at the defense table. It wasn’t hard to imagine that a ski mask would be insufficient disguise. Throughout the trial, Hampton had been referred to as “the short, fat one,” even by his own lawyers. He wasn’t fat so much as thick and powerful looking. His shoulders, rounded with muscle, almost obliterated his neck. Though I’d been told of his prior convictions for assault and robbery, his long years of incarceration, and his many violent acts, Hampton’s languorous stillness, combined with most of the proceedings’ ploddingly workaday feel, made it impossible for me to connect him with the word “murderer.” I never doubted it, I just couldn’t feel it. Or much of anything else whenever I looked his way.

Assistant district attorney Dorris squared his hands in front of himself as if measuring the length of a small box and said, “Okay, now, the one in the ski mask, tell me how he first came to you.” Joyce had been counting money, she said, when her eye caught a skid mark on the floor “like a tennis shoe would make.” The floor had been polished and waxed just two nights before. “That’s what made me pop my head up—and then he was like two steps from the counter and that’s when he held the gun up and said: ‘Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me!’ And I was stunned; I still had the money in my hand and I was just stunned when I saw him.”

Hampton ordered her to turn around, threatening to kill her if she didn’t. She saw one of his legs swing up and over the counter. He pushed her face into the shelves of cigarette cartons, grabbed her by her hair, and held a gun up to the side of her head. He yanked her back and forth inside the cramped customer service area. Her shoulders slammed against a partition; her feet tripped over his as he slung her around. “I couldn’t keep up with the way he was tussling me, like a rag doll,” she said, as if apologizing for not being able to keep her balance.

I sneaked a look at the jury. They seemed sad and appalled. We’d all been there: the huge, brightly lit supermarket, the familiar acres of canned goods and cake mixes, the extra chill in the frozen food aisles, and up front, the cartons of Pall Mall, Camel, Marlboro hard packs, the pert brunette manager ready to answer your questions about the price of okra, which aisle for corn meal.

No reaction from Bobby, though, as he listened to Joyce, staring at her as he had throughout her testimony—stony, serious. What did his stare look like from where Joyce sat? I could only see from his near-profile that he never smiled. Was that steady gaze hostile? Would it have made you glad to know he’d been made to wear an electric shock belt, out of sight under his shirt, the remote control always in a bailiff’s hands?

When Bobby had finally turned loose of her hair and told her to lie down, Joyce jammed herself against the partition that led to the store’s safe. As she tried to tuck herself into a fetal position, she looked up and saw something: a clump of her hair still threaded through Hampton’s fingers. Telling this, Joyce’s voice quavered for the first time. A man on the jury shook his head, looking down to where his own hands lay in his lap. Joyce’s dark brown hair fell in soft curls to her narrow shoulders. I pictured her unwinding it from hot rollers early that morning, spritzing it good and hard with hair spray so it would hold up through the humid, rainy weather so she’d look nice in court.

Joyce didn’t hesitate in her narration for long. Bobby had demanded the combination to the safe. She didn’t know it. The muzzle of Bobby’s gun bruised the back of her head. In a harsh voice, he again demanded the combination, saying over and over “I’m going to kill you,” Joyce helpless to do anything except repeat: “I don’t know the combination! No one told me what it was!” So Bobby kicked her in the ribs, below the arm she’d raised to shield herself. He hit her with his gun. The first blow knocked her glasses off. Her nose began to swell. One eye puffed shut.

Joyce had lived for weeks with the discolorations he’d battered into her body—put her makeup on over them, felt them under the bristles of her hairbrush. Violence had made them intimates. Twenty months ago, Bobby had literally held her in his hands. The hard steel of his gun had nuzzled her skull and then almost broken her nose. At some point that night, he’d had to pull or shake the silk of her torn hair off his fingers. Nightmares brought him into her bed for months after the robbery. Testifying in court, she seemed both to recreate and to dispel that nightmare.

I let my gaze wander once again to Hampton’s face. You’d never guess he had any stake at all in anything taking place around him. He seemed to be watching from a distance, as if the proceedings were only of intellectual concern. Mostly, he appeared sleepy–even bored–a kid spaced out in math class. He continually stroked his right cheek, face devoid of any tension.

“Who has the combination?” Hampton had shouted at Joyce.

“And I said, ‘The manager, but he won’t be here till tomorrow morning.’” (Had anybody but Joyce herself been telling it, I’d have thought we’d all just heard Joyce Gorecki’s last words on Earth.) Elbert Williams joined Hampton; Hampton told him there’d be no getting into the safe. Then, huddled behind the service counter, Joyce heard a new customer enter the store.

She suddenly felt “Elbert’s thinner body weight feel” leaning on her, keeping her out of sight. “He said, ‘Pretty lady, we don’t want to hurt you; you be quiet. You lay here and you be quiet.’” Joyce wondered whether the customer would come over, looking for someone to answer a question. She heard the customer and Hampton talking, then figured Bobby must have “taken care of” the guy, since for a long time, she heard nothing but Williams and Hampton gathering their take from the registers.

Bruce Dorris moved toward the witness stand. Gently, he said, “All right, Joyce, did you stay there or did you hear anything or try to get up? What did you do?” He was calming her. Why? Weren’t the bad guys about to leave?

“I heard the automatic doors of the store open,” Joyce said, “the swishing, and I lay down, waiting for them to either drive away, or run if they were on foot.” For the first time, Joyce’s voice trembled hard; she shook a little with the effort to keep going. “And a second seemed like minutes, minutes seemed like hours, but I figured I gave them enough time.” She seemed intent on getting us to understand, or to stave off what was about to happen. She had begun to cry, but she never stopped speaking. Thinking Hampton and Williams had surely left, and barely able to see out of one eye, Joyce crawled towards the phone. “All of a sudden I looked up and Bobby Lee just pointed the gun up at my head, and then I started pleading for my life.

“I said, ‘Please don’t kill me; I’ll get back in my corner!’” A couple of the women jurors swiped at their tears. My head pulsed. I could barely swallow. Joyce said she turned her back on Hampton’s gun, “And I thought if he’s going to shoot me in the head, I didn’t want to see it coming. The only thing I focused on was my grandson’s face. I thought if he’s going to take me out, I’m not going to be taken out with a bad note; I’m going to focus on an innocent little face.”

Jurors were not even attempting to hide their weeping, now. A couple of the men had taken to openly glaring at Bobby; one was shaking his head. Somewhat stupidly I kept thinking: Joyce Gorecki doesn’t look old enough to be anybody’s grandmother. Suddenly, I was exhausted.

After standing with her back to Hampton’s gun for a long time, Joyce realized at last that nothing at all was happening. She crept on all fours and peered around the end of the counter. Hampton and Williams were really and truly gone. Joyce dialed 911. The operator stayed on the line while Joyce tried repeatedly to summon other employees over the store intercom. “I was paging for help, and getting no response at all. I said to the operator, ‘I know I’m a new kid on the block, but I can’t believe there’s no staff in the store.’” She laughed weakly and shrugged.

“They had been duct taped, and after hearing me paging, they literally had been able to rip— they ripped part of their skin off. By the time they got up to the counter, I just remember seeing duct tape and blood and their skin. They said they’d heard me page but they were all bound and gagged in the bathrooms.”

Bruce Dorris let the picture of people wandering up from the back of the store with torn, bloodied forearms sit in the silence for a second. The whole courtroom seemed to release a long-held breath. Dorris ended his direct examination with a few simple questions. “Joyce, how tall are you?” Bruce asked.

“Five two.”

“And if you don’t mind telling us how much you weigh?”

“Well, I have lost twenty pounds in twenty months. I was almost 114 pounds.”

“Is it fair to say you’re kind of small?”

“I’m petite, yes.”

I seriously doubt I was the only person to look once again at Bobby Lee Hampton, measuring his muscle against the vision of Joyce Gorecki’s weight dropping to less than 100 pounds in the year and a half after he’d beaten her. After brief questioning from the defense attorney, Joyce left the courtroom, steady on her feet. Spectators shifted on the pew-like wooden benches; the jury relaxed their concentration; the lawyers shuffled papers. And there sat Hampton, composed as ever.

I had spent several hours over several days looking at him, watching him, telling myself again and again, “He is a killer. He is Russell’s killer,” and felt next to nothing. But then Joyce Gorecki, whose fear of Bobby Hampton had nearly kept her from testifying, sat down in a roomful of strangers and gave her vivid, determined, shaken recitation. So real had she made Hampton’s swift, unimpeded viciousness—a savagery he’d employed throughout his life, a violence so chronic and casual it had taken my brother’s life without a thought—that for awhile I could look at Hampton slouched in his chair, his weight-lifter’s body seemingly at ease while a dozen people decided whether he would live or die, I could rest my eyes upon him and see “murderer,” believe “murderer,” feel “murderer.”

Her story brought a relief bound in pain and gratitude for my being able to know, at last, a fury so wild and true.

 

charisse-colemanCharisse Coleman’s essays have appeared in the journals Witness, Ascent, Hunger Mountain, Water~Stone Review, Sou’wester and other publications. “Riding Shotgun,”an essay originally published in Passages North, won Sequestrum magazine’s Editor’s Reprint Award and was nominated for a Pushcart. Charisse is a two-time recipient of North Carolina Arts Council individual artist grants, and has twice had work listed as Notable in The Best American Essays series. Currently, she is seeking publication of her completed memoir, A Bad Goodbye: Reckoning the Aftermath of Murder. Charisse lives with her husband in Durham, N.C., and three very vocal shelter cats.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Ze Valdi

  1 comment for “Penalty Phase by Charisse Coleman

  1. Charise, what a powerful piece. I wasn’t expecting the focus to be on Joyce, but it was exactly what we, as readers, needed to get through the pain of your brother’s murder–which is exactly what you needed as well. To read the story of Russell and your family filtered through Joyce’s softened it just enough–just–to make the reader able to feel just a modicum of that wild fury you speak of. Just a grain or so. You humanized him through Joyce enough to make us hate him, not just as the murderer of your problem, but as a human as well. No easy feat. Congratulations on your honorable mention here.

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