The man was slim and tall, but he had that slight pooch of a midsection no elderly person seemed immune from developing with age. His double-fisted grip on the .45 caliber revolver was tentatively pointed, but an accurate aim wasn’t necessary. He was close enough that he was more than certain he could pinpoint a shot, or even a few, just as precisely as he could if he were to place the barrel against his intended target’s flesh. That was, of course, if he could keep his damn hands — actually, his entire body — from violently shaking from his out-of-control nerves and the industrial grade adrenaline coursing through his entire body. His heart was hammering inside his chest cavity and skull, both on the verge of exploding, a reaction he hadn’t considered, much less planned for, so it was rather fortuitous that his mark was now splayed on the floor before him, pleading and cowering behind outstretched hands.
• • •
Every day for the last 22 years, Conrad “Cordie” Blackstone emptied trashcans, dusted furniture, vacuumed carpets, swept and mopped floors and, of course, scrubbed urinals and toilets in the county’s criminal courthouse. Not a thankless job entirely because he’d been compensated, a humbling hourly wage though it was and certainly one that kept him well beyond the ability to ascend into that financial stratosphere of the lower-middle class bracket. The manual labor wore on his slim frame and sinewy muscles because he was already 46 by the time he started working as the sole overnight custodian. His job wasn’t necessarily hard, but the constant bending and kneeling and lifting were taking their toll. What’s more, his lucky lottery numbers had never been that lucky after all, so his diligent contribution to his “retirement plan” wasn’t panning out as he’d hoped. At his age, his only option was to continue working.
On any given morning after his overnight shift ended, and before the morning rush descended on the tiny cafe located on the ground floor of the courthouse, Cordie could be found bellied up to the counter sipping on an offering from the day’s first pot of coffee and trading harmless barbs with the cafe’s sardonic server. He never paid for his coffee, but he always left a dollar on the counter for Ms. Sandra.
Ms. Sandra, middle-aged by conventional standards of measurement but so much younger in spirit, was keenly aware that Cordie hadn’t been his usual high-spirited, jovial self lately. Ms. Sandra was more than a sporting match for Cordie’s usual banter and occasional practical jokes, but she knew something had been amiss lately.
She asked, “Cordie, you alright? You’ve seemed kinda down the last couple of weeks.”
“Just got a lot on my mind lately,” he responded.
“I guess so, honey, ’cause you ain’t even touched your coffee or said much.”
“Yeah. Everything’s alright. Everything’ll be okay.”
“Wanna talk about anything?”
“Unhuh. There ain’t much talkin’ can do about it. Besides, everthing’ll be okay.”
As the morning crowd trickled into the cafe for its daily fix of coffee, donuts, biscuits, breath mints and headache powder, Cordie sat staring at the coffee’s reflective surface in his full cup. Usually at this time, Cordie would’ve taken his leave from the cafe to drive the short two-and-a-half mile trip to his two bedroom, one bathroom, home. He had owned his house for nearly 20 years, inheriting it after his mother passed away. Since then, Cordie put about the same amount of money into its upkeep as his mother had when she owned it, which is to say none. As he saw it, the land underneath his house was increasing in value while the house itself — dilapidated beyond reasonably useful repair — was decreasing in value. What, then, was the use of repairing a leaky roof? Replacing cracked windows? Fixing warped and waterlogged wood siding? The gentrification trend that had been creeping into neighborhoods nearing his own ensured that his house would doubtlessly be razed and replaced with a house that — in 100 to 150 years or so — would also be razed in the next inevitable round of gentrification. So he’d been biding his time until willing buyers were ready to justify a fierce bidding war for the right to construct a house that was more befitting of his soon-to-be prime location.
This morning, Cordie hadn’t budged from the counter. He hadn’t taken his leave with a dry joke or a witty insult. He hadn’t left with the tenuous gait of a man who’d worked too hard all his life and still was. He just sat there and was still staring at his coffee by the time the morning rush subsided. The attorneys, court personnel and even a few members of the innocent-until-proven-guilty club, who’d been lucky enough to post bond pending resolution of their criminal cases, had left to find their way to their respective courtrooms.
Most of the courtrooms were filled with defendants who were being formally arraigned or who had various pre-trial hearings scheduled. The few courtrooms that weren’t bulging with people were scheduled for trials or had day-long hearings schedule.
Courtroom 3CD was crowded. Its docket was loaded with various motion hearings, including one in a highly publicized murder case against a teen who, in a deluded attempt to prove his manhood, shot and killed a random stranger. In this case, 12-year-old Lesley Simms. Not more than 10 days earlier, as she walked the seven blocks home from school, a slow-moving car flanked her. Neither a catcall nor a profanity had been uttered at her. In fact, Lesley — with the music from her earphones drowning out the distractions of her walk home — never even knew that a car had slowed to pace her about 10 seconds earlier. She never knew that the car’s tinted passenger window had lowered. She never knew that her tiny figure cut more than a sufficient target at such a short range. So when the bullet tore into her back and through her heart and out through her chest, she didn’t know that she’d been shot or that she was essentially dead on her feet. She didn’t realize that that strange muffled sound was the report of a gunshot. Her entire body simply jerked as though it had been shocked by electric fencing. She took two wobbly steps and crumpled to the sidewalk, all the breath and life and innocence gone from her forever.
In the courtroom, two Assistant District Attorneys General were seated at the prosecution table that faced the judge’s bench. At the defense table, which faced the jury box and completed an “L” configuration with the prosecution table, sat a lone defense attorney. All were reviewing their hearing notes, questions and potential exhibits. The public seating area — the gallery — was full, but the din remained respectful of the setting. In the front row of the gallery directly behind the prosecution table sat Lesley Simms’ grandmother, aunt and uncle, the family who shared in the responsibility of raising her after her mother died from a drug overdose when she was a toddler. Her father was murdered before she had even been born. The two women wept into tissues. Her uncle sat stoic, staring ahead with his arm draped across his wife’s shoulders.
The court clerk was seated at the judge’s bench in a box partitioned from the judge’s seat. Partitioned on the opposite side of the judge’s seat was another box with an empty witness chair. The court reporter was seated at a strategic spot so she could clearly hear the courtroom’s typical participants — i.e., the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney and the witness. The court officers were standing at their posts, and several defense attorneys were scattered about the courtroom seated in the jury box, along the wall behind the defense table and on the long bench behind the prosecution table.
“All rise!” announced the lead court officer as the door to the judge’s chamber opened and the judge entered the courtroom. “This court is now in session, the honorable Judge Harris M. Cornelius presiding.” As Judge Cornelius sat in his high-backed, plush leather chair, the court officer said apathetically, “Be seated.”
“Good morning,” Judge Cornelius said. The curiousness of his traditional daily greeting juxtaposed with the somber nature of nearly all criminal court proceedings always seemed lost on most in attendance. After taking roll call of the names on the day’s docket, Judge Cornelius said as he adjusted himself comfortably in his chair, “Bring him out.”
Within moments, a door beside the jury box opened, and the defendant, handcuffed, was accompanied by two court officers to the defense table. Most in attendance were watching him. Lesley’s family seared holes into his soul. Others didn’t seem to care or notice who’d entered. After sitting, Marty Samuel “Gets” Mays offered his hands to the female court officer to have the cuffs removed. No one knew or remembered how Marty’s street name “Gets” was given, but it was largely speculated that it had everything to do with his hefty misdemeanor and felony theft record, which would seem to suggest that his street name should have been “Tries.”
As Gets and his defense attorney chatted in hushed tones, Judge Cornelius asked if the prosecutors were ready to proceed. They were. He asked whether defense counsel was ready to proceed. She was.
“Call your first witness,” he said.
“The defense calls Ms. Carla Mays,” Gets’ attorney Amy Peters said as she rose from her seat. Amy was a petite, middle-aged lifer in the Office of the Public Defender. She worked there full-time as a paralegal while attending night law school to gain invaluable experience. She also had to bartend part-time as a law student to gain invaluable means to pay her expenses. After graduating and passing the bar exam, she had been offered a position as an Assistant Public Defender in the Misdemeanor Division. She accepted the entry level position because she had no other job offers. Of course she could have gone the way of hanging the proverbial shingle, but she’d heard way too many horror stories about the hardships of building a solo practice: the financial outlay, the stress, the 70-plus hour work weeks, the sleepless and restless nights and, most importantly, the difficulty in securing clients of the paying sort.
Just as Ms. Mays rose to make her way to the witness stand, one of the double doors leading into the courtroom from the hall opened slightly to allow Cordie to slip his thin frame through. The court officer posted at the doors recognized Cordie and nodded a greeting. Cordie returned a half-smile and slowly began walking up the center aisle, seemingly seeking an empty seat.
As Cordie slowly made his way up the aisle, Ms. Mays took her seat in the witness chair beside Judge Cornelius, having been duly sworn to tell the truth. When Cordie reached the front row of the gallery, he paused and took in the scene. The two prosecuting attorneys sat with their backs to him. Amy, too, had her back to him as she stood at the lectern arranging her papers and preparing to question her witness. Gets, seated at the defense table and obviously indifferent to the solemnity of the occasion, was doodling on a legal pad Amy had given him.
Cordie next scanned the jury box and the attorneys who made use of the available seating. Some were looking at their smartphones. Others were reviewing their files. None seemed to be tuned into the proceedings. Cordie’s eyes shifted to the court reporter, her back straight and her fingers poised above her stenotype ready to document every word, “umm” and “uh” going forward. Cordie next focused on the court clerk as she shifted files from one box to another in an endless ritual of musical files. Judge Cornelius, head down, was reading the defense motion. No one acknowledged Cordie or even seemed to think it strange that he was still standing in the center aisle surveying the courtroom.
Without looking up, Judge Cornelius said to Amy, “You may proceed.” Then Cordie gently pushed through the hip-high swinging gate that partitioned the gallery from the battle ground — i.e., the area of the courtroom where lives and careers are changed, where witnesses have their credibility established, destroyed and rehabilitated, where the guilty and innocent are convicted and where the guilty and innocent are acquitted. As Cordie passed through the gate, Lesley’s grandmother reached out to him, a gesture suggesting “Hey, what are you doing? Wait!”
Then Judge Cornelius looked up; his gaze cut straight to Cordie.
“Cordie?” Judge Cornelius said, eschewing courtroom decorum by not referring to Cordie by his surname. “What’s going on?”
At that, all eyes looked to Judge Cornelius and then to whom he was addressing. Cordie proceeded slowly around the side of the prosecution table but said nothing.
Judge Cornelius, now more insistent, said, “Cordie! What are you doing? We’re in the middle of a hearing here.”
Rounding the front corner of the prosecution table, Cordie walked in silence toward Gets who, by now, was no longer doodling but looking at the same man everyone else in the courtroom was watching.
“Jansen, escort him from the courtroom!” Judge Cornelius said to his lead court officer. “You, too, Ripley!”
As Jansen and Ripley closed on Cordie, Cordie reached the defense table and, peculiarly, seemed to bow to Gets. Cordie wasn’t bowing, though. He was reaching under the defense table. As he rose, he extracted his hand from under the table. In it and extended in Gets’ direction was a .45 caliber revolver. Stubbornly clinging to the revolver were several long strips of gray duct tape. Separated only by four feet of laminate tabletop, Cordie — appreciating the odds his proximity to Gets afforded him — confidently but shakily stood over Gets. A single tear trailed down Cordie’s cheek.
“Shit!” Gets muttered, finally comprehending the direness of the situation. He didn’t have anywhere to go because he was seated against the table in a chair with arm rests. He was essentially trapped. Gets scrambled by shoving both palms against the table with as much force as he could, propelling himself backwards away from Cordie. Then he shifted his weight sideways, tipping his chair. As he poured to the floor, a deafening report from the gun concussed the entire courtroom. Cordie didn’t hear the cannon blast. He also didn’t hear the ensuing screams of panic and the rapid disintegration of what had just been an orderly setting.
Cordie quickly surveyed the courtroom for any advancing heroes. As he trained his gun on Gets, he watched as people stampeded and tripped and crawled their way to the nearest exits. Judge Cornelius, the court clerk, the court reporter and Ms. Mays escaped through the door leading to the judge’s chambers. The attorneys seated in the jury box scrambled through the jury door. Like a ripple in a pond, people spread from the epicenter of chaos as fast and as far as they could. Although they had no way of knowing, the only life in danger this morning was Gets’.
The courtroom quickly emptied of everyone save Gets, Cordie and the two court officers who had been ordered by Judge Cornelius to remove Cordie from the courtroom. The court officers — their advancement arrested by the single gunshot — stood helplessly. Retreating didn’t seem to be an option, either, considering their professional responsibilities. Steadfast in their belief that they were duty-bound to go down with the ship, they regarded Cordie with caution and Gets with compassion as he lay wounded. Owing to the inherent risks associated with their frequent close contact with accused murderers and rapists and other violent felons, court officers weren’t armed with guns. They had only been authorized to carry stun guns, pepper spray and collapsible batons, none sufficient to neutralize the current threat. So Jansen and Ripley apprehensively waited, hoping reason and sound judgment would soon prevail.
Jansen pleaded, “Cordie … please … just put the gun down. Please.”
Cordie turned and looked at both, not replying.
Lying on his back with blood surging from the hole in his shoulder, Gets winced and sucked air through his clenched teeth. Cordie’s gaze held the court officers at bay as he stepped around the defense table towards Gets. Pistol still aimed.
“Don’t,” Gets pleaded, looking up to Cordie.
Cordie, supporting his weight with one hand on the tipped chair, knelt on the floor beside Gets. He forcefully jammed the gun barrel against Gets’ temple.
“But …” Gets was saying before Cordie cut him off.
• • •
In an interrogation room not 15 minutes after the shooting, a small, rectangular table sat against one side wall. Two chairs sat on either end of the table, and one chair sat against the wall opposite the door. A closed circuit video camera was mounted to the ceiling in a corner. Other than an empty ashtray on the table, the small room was unadorned. In the chair farthest from the camera sat Cordie. Across from him sat homicide detective Jason Mansford.
Cordie had been advised of his Miranda rights and, after refusing an offer of coffee or soda, Mansford engaged Cordie with standard introductory questions.
Minutes later, Mansford asked, “Why’d you kill him?”
Cordie paused and responded, “Justice.”
“Justice? That’s not justice. That’s vengeance.” Mansford retorted.
“No. It’s justice!” Cordie said.
“Justice is allowing the system to deal with him. His conviction would’ve been justice. His sentence would’ve been justice. What you did out there wasn’t justice at all.”
“Well, our ideas of justice just ain’t the same then. I consider what I done, justice!” Cordie said. “Even if that coward was convicted and had to do life, how would him goin’ on breathin’ the same air as me be justice? Now he’s dead and ain’t wastin’ money needed to feed him and put clothes on him and give him a place to sleep. So, yeah, I delivered justice.”
Mansford, realizing the argument was lost, said, “How’d you get the gun in, Mr. Blackstone?” He knew it couldn’t have been difficult because Cordie was the sole night custodian. He surmised that after he’d entered the courthouse through the metal detector security checkpoint at the beginning of his shift, it probably didn’t take much ingenuity from that point to circumvent security.
After a moment of reflection, Cordie began, “Yesterday, when I come in to work, I come through the metal detector. After a few hours, I told the guard I left my supper in my car. Cuz I always park on the side of the courthouse, I asked him to let me out the side door. That door’s only ’posed to be used for emergencies.” Cordie paused and then said, “I been knowin’ that guard for a couple of years, so I knew he’d let me. I hope he don’t get in any trouble for it. He ain’t got nothin’ to do with any of this. I done it on my own.” Cordie paused again. “He stayed at the door while I walked to my car. He wasn’t really watchin’ me, so I put my gun in my waist under my shirt and grabbed my lunch sack. When I got to the door, I showed him my lunch sack and said ‘Got it.’ I went straight up to the courtroom, took out the tape from my lunch sack and taped my pistol under the table. I knew he’d be in court today cuz I been keepin’ up with the case.”
To that, Mansford said, “Well, Mr. Blackstone, I don’t have any choice but to arrest you for murder. You know that, right?”
“You go right ahead and do what ya gotta do, sir. I did what I had to do. I have peace in my heart. I don’t regret it one single bit … even if I die in jail. That’s all I got to say.” Cordie looked down at his weathered hands as he intertwined his fingers.
Mansford grabbed his notepad, rose from his chair and opened the door. He paused in the doorway, turned and looked at Cordie and said, “Why this case? I mean, why did you decide to make a statement about justice with this girl’s murder?”
Cordie looked up at Mansford then said, “Lesley Simms is my grandniece.” He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms over his stomach and closed his teary eyes.
BRUCE POAG is an attorney with TennCare in the Commissioner’s Designee Unit.
“It’s my ideal legal career,” he says, “because my responsibilities are limited to legal researching and writing.
Poag has been a licensed attorney since graduating from Nashville School of Law in 1998, and has been a State employee for nearly 17 years.?He lives in rural College Grove, outside of Nashville, with his wife Melinda and 9-year-old daughter, Aaree.