THE COURTROOM was still. The opposing lawyer had finished his closing remarks, and now Michael watched him step quietly back to the defendant’s side of the room. Michael pushed out his chair and stood. He lingered there for a moment, unmoving, listening to the sound of his own breathing, looking down a final time at his notes. He heard the faint rustle of some papers from the gallery, heard someone cough a sort of nervous, unnecessary cough. His scalp tingled, blood and adrenaline rushing to his brain. He took slow, deep breaths to contain and to channel the great nervous energy that now boiled inside him. He buttoned one of the buttons on his suit coat, worked his tall, lanky frame to the front of counsel’s table, looked up at the judge and nodded. “Mr. Drummond,” said the judge. Michael turned and faced the jury. He knew they were watching him, reading his every movement.
Over the course of the previous weeks, he had methodically presented to this jury every fact, every piece of evidence, to show what happened on the day that Malcolm Everett died and Kecia Everett lost the use of her legs. He had presented the doctors who operated on Kecia, the coroner who examined Malcolm’s body, the terrible photographs of the accident’s aftermath. He had presented Malcolm’s mother and father, who choked and stuttered their way through an account of Malcolm’s character and the loss to their family. He had presented their pastor, their friends and co-workers, to describe the impact on their community. Now, he needed to ensure the jury understood the import of their task; he needed to ensure they delivered the verdict justice demanded.
He braced himself and prepared to speak.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Thank you once again for your service these two weeks. We have brought you from your homes, from your work, from your families, to sit and listen to the evidence and to decide the terrible dispute that has brought on this trial. The decision you make today will have an enormous impact on the Everett family, on this community, and on the law. Please never doubt the profound importance of your service. It means a great deal to me, it means a great deal to my clients, and I sincerely thank you.
“You have heard the evidence. You have heard how the 18-wheeler—owned and operated by Darby Tobacco—plummeted through the rainy night down the Dixie Beeline, exceeding the speed limit by some twenty miles-per-hour, a ten-thousand gallon tank of sulfuric acid hitched behind it. You have heard the testimony of the driver, who had not slept in nearly twenty-four hours, whose brain was buzzing with Mini-Thins, those cheap gas-station stimulants. You have heard him testify that he knew it was against regulation to drive in such a state, yet he did it anyway, because his dispatcher was screaming at him, demanding he get the chemical to the plant on time. You have learned that the driver dozed off, that he woke suddenly to the sound of a blaring car horn, realized too late that he had veered into the oncoming lane, twisted the wheel, overcorrected. The momentum from the trailer was too great, of course, and the truck twisted into an L.” As he said this, he held his hands forward, his fingers pointed toward the jury, then turned them at his wrists, ninety degrees to the side, to demonstrate the trailer’s movement. “The trailer lunged forward, perpendicular to the road, like a gigantic scythe.” He moved toward the jury box as he spoke, the plane created by his hands a simple model of impending doom.
“You have heard from the dispatcher. You have learned that Leon Darby himself insisted that the driver get the chemical to him right away, desperate to cook another batch of preservative to prevent the harvest-time tobacco leaves from spoiling.
“You have learned of the first collision—with the Rushing family—before the Everetts’ vehicle was hit. You have seen that the Corolla driven by Jacob Rushing was struck with such great force that it ripped through the entire upper half of the vehicle, yet kept moving toward the Everetts.”
At this, Michael detected defense counsel shifting in his seat. It almost caused him to smile. He could feel Darby’s expensive Atlanta lawyer steeling himself, ready to object the moment he discussed any further the details of the Rushings’ death. He glanced over and met the eyes of Tyler King, Darby’s personal lawyer and local counsel, now glaring at him. Judge Roundtree had forbidden Michael to describe the injuries to the Rushings, horrific as they were. “This is not about the Rushings,” the judge had ruled. “Their case has settled and is a separate matter. Describing their injuries may confuse the issue and prejudice the jury.” So, Michael had said all he could say. He had described the physical impact the truck had on the Rushings’ vehicle as evidence of the truck’s speed and momentum.
Even still, as he stood there, relishing the nervous silence from the defense table, he could not prevent himself from recalling the things he knew about the Rushings. He imagined the horrible resignation that must have entered the mind of Jacob Rushing as he watched the trailer lunging toward his car. He wondered if Jacob was conscious in the moments before the trailer smashed through the top of his vehicle, whether he was able to take a final look at his young wife before the trailer decapitated them both. He wondered if Jacob had a moment to be grateful that his two-year-old son was lying down asleep in the back seat, so that the trailer might pass over the little boy’s reclining body. He wondered if the little boy had seen the twisted, headless torsos of his mother and father, slumped onto the dashboard, when he woke from his slumber.
He took a moment to collect himself.
“You have heard, ladies and gentlemen, the testimony of Kecia Everett.” He gestured toward his client, a young black woman, the tone of her skin a shade darker than his own, sitting to the side of counsel’s table in her wheelchair. She had once been carefree and beautiful, you could tell, and the shadow of her former vivaciousness occasionally showed as a vague impression upon her now scarred and solemn face. “Malcolm had been driving the pickup home from Vidalia. They’d just seen a movie, something that she would like, a romantic comedy. Malcolm must have seen the chaos unfolding before him, he must have seen the trailer smashing through the Rushings’ Corolla, because he made the split-second decision to maneuver the pickup right, off the shoulder and into a shallow ditch that ran alongside the road. He knew it was their only chance to escape. And they almost did escape. The back end of the trailer smashed into the rear of the pickup, split it in half. The truck bed separated from the cab. The separated cab rolled forward, jumping end over end through the air, smashing head-first into the ground three full times before it finally came to rest on its roof amidst the tall, dry grass inside the ditch.
“Malcolm’s airbag dispatched. The seatbelts kept him and Kecia from flying through the windshield. But the impact had been so great, so sudden, that the safety devices could not save them. As the noise subsided, Malcolm’s lifeless and broken body hung suspended by the seat belt. The impact of the cab slamming into the dirt forced the steering column forward, crushing Malcolm’s trachea, collapsing his lungs. Kecia hung there also, her pelvis crushed, her face shredded by the glass and debris that flew through the cab in those terrible seconds. When she came to consciousness, she was so badly beaten that she could not muster the strength to unbuckle the belt and free herself. She hung there, trying in vain to awaken Malcolm with her shallow cries. The one thing she recalled was the little digital clock on the dashboard, which had somehow survived the crash, reading 10:10 when she came to. As she slipped in and out of consciousness, she looked at that clock, watched the minutes pass slowly by, each one seeming like an eternity, wondering if anyone would ever come, until finally, at 10:22, she heard the sirens and knew help was on the way.”
Michael looked out at the jurors. Collectively, they were serious, disturbed. He saw a profound sadness on the face of one old man. Two women were crying quietly, dabbing their eyes now and then with Kleenex.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there is no question that Darby Tobacco is liable for Malcolm’s death and for Kecia’s injuries. The only question is: what is the appropriate measure of damages?”
The events that led him to this moment flashed before his eyes. The case could have been settled had Darby offered the Everetts fair compensation, had the company offered them something akin to what it had offered the Rushing estate. The Rushing child’s grandmother had retained a very good personal injury attorney from Macon, and Darby’s insurance carrier had agreed to pay the full five million of coverage offered by its policy into a trust for the child’s benefit. But when it came to the Everetts, the carrier had been far less generous.
After weeks of negotiations, they finally offered $750,000 to settle Malcolm’s wrongful death claim, and $500,000 to settle the claims for Kecia’s injuries. Michael had said no. He had insisted on the full five million. He felt insulted and enraged at the insurance company’s position—that the earning potential of a black farm worker from Goshen County, Georgia, was inherently limited, that Malcolm Everett would probably never have earned the type of money they were offering in settlement even if he worked until he was 80 years old. The carrier argued that $500,000 would be more than sufficient to compensate Kecia. Public assistance would cover most of her medical bills, they said. And Kecia, like Malcolm, lacked great earning potential. Her pain and suffering? Too speculative to determine.
The racial bias angered him, sure; but what enraged him more was the carrier’s belief that it could buy this young lawyer off. The total settlement being offered—$1.25 million—would have been far and away the largest Michael had ever brokered. It would have afforded him a fee of $416,000—his one-third contingency—and changed his life. The insurance carrier knew this, and Michael knew they knew it, and he could not countenance such a result.
When he gave the final no, and returned to his office to prepare for trial, there had been a moment of sickening in his gut. The decision to turn away such a large payday ate at him; it worked against his conservative, risk-averse core. But he had calmed his nerves with the dual knowledge that (a) he owed a sacred duty to his clients to pursue everything to which they were entitled, and (b) the risk he was taking was a reasonable one, a manageable one, and one whose outcome he could control.
As he stood, preparing himself to ask this jury for a great deal of money, he allowed the inequities that had brought him here, the carrier’s underestimation of his own tenacity, to spin in his mind. This was something he had planned on doing. He had become a master of controlling his own emotions, of disconnecting himself from the most gut-wrenching of circumstances, in order to analyze rationally and to plan. Yet, he also knew that some outpouring of emotion was necessary, that it would be needed to persuade the jury to give him what he asked for. So, he had decided early on that before he presented his damages case, he would dwell on the things that moved him, he would let his emotions boil inside him, he would channel them, and he would release them at the right moment. Now, as he looked out over this Goshen County jury, this box full of his countrymen, he took a final silent breath and prepared to let his emotions loose.
“My friends,” he said. “You have heard the arguments of defense counsel. You have heard him say that the Everetts cannot prove their earning potential, the dollar value of their lives. You have heard their entreaty to deny your emotional reaction to these events, to deliver a justice that is cold and impartial.
“And it is true, we will never know what young Malcolm might have accomplished. I look at the photos of this young man”—he gestured toward an array of photographs displayed on an easel in front of counsel’s table—“and I think of my own life. I wonder, if I had died some years ago, would they say the things about me that these lawyers are saying about Malcolm Everett? Would they say, this young black man would never have amounted to anything? Would they say my life is not that valuable?
“Would they say that of my children? I think of my little girl. I look in her eyes and I imagine all she might accomplish, all she might become. I imagine her as a great artist, as an engineer, as a lawyer, as the President of the United States if she wants to be. And as I listen to these lawyers attempt to devalue Malcolm Everett’s life, I wonder, will my child be valued by others as I value her? Will her potential be limited by others’ expectations of her, because of her race?”
His lip trembled. He paused for some time, took careful, measured breaths.
“I pray the answer is no. And I have faith that, in this community, this place where I was born and raised, you all will agree with me. We are not that kind of community. We are a community that believes people have dignity. That life is priceless. That all lives are priceless. That we were all created in the image of God, our maker, and that in his eyes we are equal.”
He knew he was giving some of these jurors more credit than they deserved, that many of them almost certainly held far less egalitarian attitudes when it came to race, at least subconsciously. But he also knew that most racists are anxious for an opportunity to prove they’re not, and this would be a good one. He also knew the reference to God would help. Michael knew that, here in Goshen County, he could get away with invoking the Lord’s name in court, and his skin tingled with excitement as the words came from his mouth.
He turned toward the defense attorneys sitting at the table across the room. “And for these men”—he pointed accusingly—“to suggest that this young man could not possibly amount to much, because of where he was born, because of the circumstances of his birth, because of struggles he had in his younger years, because of the color of his skin. That is something that we will not tolerate!” His voice rose as he spoke. Spittle jumped from his lips. His hand and his body began to shake with apparent rage.
“Objection, your Honor! Objection!” The attorneys from Atlanta were caught off guard by this pouring-out from Michael Drummond, who had been so mild-mannered, so matter of fact, so rational, during the evidence phase of the trial.
Judge Roundtree banged his gavel. Michael forced himself into a calm. “Counsel,” the judge said. “This is getting a little out of control. Let me caution you to stick to the facts.”
Michael stood there for a moment, breathing long, dramatic breaths, his chest heaving in and out, still staring at defense counsel. He created the impression of a man who was unstable, who might explode at any moment, yet who was laboring to control himself, to contain his righteous indignation. He slowly drew his finger back down to his side.
Michael continued, equally passionate, but quietly and calm. “Do not let these men deny you the emotion, the outrage, you feel in your hearts. That feeling you got in your chests when you listened to this young woman describe her life apart from her husband, a life spent confined to a wheelchair, a life in constant pain—those are the pangs of justice, tugging at your heart. That is your conscience, demanding that you right this wrong. Justice is not cold, my friends. Justice is an all-consuming fire.
“These plaintiffs’ lives are not commodities that can be valued, bought, and sold. These are flesh and blood people. The value of their lives is far more than can ever be arrived at in a court of law. Even still, I will ask you to try your best. Accessing everything you know about good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice. I ask you to endeavor to come to an award that is fair and just.
“What we ask, ladies and gentlemen, is one million dollars to represent each horrible minute that Kecia hung there in the truck, next to the lifeless body of her beloved, her entire world disappearing in front of her, as she waited for help to arrive. That is twelve million dollars, a reasonable, indeed conservative, verdict under these circumstances, and one to which my clients are entitled.
With that, he returned to his table, sat down, and waited.