Home > The Last Trial (Kindle County Legal Thriller #11)

The Last Trial (Kindle County Legal Thriller #11)
Author: Scott Turow

Prologue

 

A woman screams. Shrill and desolate, the brief sound rips through the solemn hush in the corridors of the old federal courthouse.

Within the huge courtroom of the chief judge, the spectators are on their feet. The case on trial here, the criminal prosecution of a world-renowned physician, has been national news, and the gallery has been shoulder-to-shoulder every day. Now most of the onlookers are straining to see what has just happened beyond the walnut rail that bounds the area reserved for the trial participants.

The defendant’s lead counsel, a very old man but still quite celebrated, has sagged from sight at the defense table. His client, the accused doctor, who is almost as aged as his attorney, kneels, holding the fallen man’s limp hand by the wrist.

“No pulse,” the doctor shouts. “Help, please!”

With that, the young woman beside him, who first cried out, takes flight. She is the paralegal on the case and also the old lawyer’s granddaughter, and she bulls down the center aisle of the gallery, headed toward the door. Beside the doctor, the attorney’s daughter, his law partner for decades, has been largely paralyzed by distress. All along, she has approached this trial, their last case together, with foreboding. Now she is weeping spontaneously, making no sound despite the tears racing down behind her glasses. The two prosecutors, the United States Attorney and his younger assistant, have sped from their seats across the courtroom. Working together, the pair take hold of the figure heaped on the floor.

In her robe, the chief judge has rushed down from the bench, intent on taking control of the scene, but she stops, suddenly mindful that the jury remains here. Like the other onlookers, the jurors are on their feet in the box in various stricken poses. The judge points to the deputy marshal positioned near them and shouts, “Remove the jury, please,” then continues forward.

The court security officer, in his blazer and flesh-colored earpiece, has run across the courtroom to help, and with his aid, the prosecutors slowly hoist the old lawyer’s body, placing him on his back on the walnut table, as his daughter shoves aside papers and equipment to make room. The old doctor quickly spreads the attorney’s suit jacket and rips open his white shirt to expose his chest. The lawyer and the doctor have been friends for decades, and there is a trace of tenderness as the physician briefly presses his ear over the other man’s heart, then sets the heel of his palm on the sternum of the inert figure, pumping with both hands at regular intervals.

“Someone breathe for him!” the doctor urges. The judge, who has known the lawyers on both sides for years, reacts first, pinching open the attorney’s pale lips and setting her mouth on his as she exhales deeply. The sight seems to bring the daughter back to herself, and after the first dozen or so breaths, she takes over.

The prosecutors and the security officer have stepped back. Perhaps they mean to give the doctor room, or perhaps, like everyone else here, they find the sight of the old lawyer motionless on the table, like a Spartan on his shield, stark and horrifying. A small man, he has nonetheless always been a dominating presence in the courtroom. Now he lies here sadly exposed. Sparse white hairs curl across his breast, and his flesh has the grayish undertone of skim milk. The left side of his chest appears somewhat sunken where the livid mark of a surgical scar follows from just below his nipple all the way to his back. Incongruously, his red, white, and blue necktie, still knotted in his collar, hangs down his naked side.

The young woman who screamed and then fled has returned. She is an odd person. You can see that, not just because of the inch-long nail driven through her nose as decoration, but also from the slightly angry and indifferent way she deals with people. “Move, move,” she shouts, dodging up the aisle. She carries a red plastic case in her right hand, where blood is welling from her knuckles. The latch on the box in the corridor that houses the defibrillator was jammed, and after several desperate tries, the lawyer’s granddaughter simply punched in the thin glass.

As she passes the front spectators’ row, one of the long line of journalists standing there remarks to a colleague beside him, “Talk about going out with your boots on.”

Immediately after delivering the equipment to the doctor, the young woman wheels, pointing her bloody hand at the reporter.

“That’s shit, Stew,” she says. “No way he’s dying.”

 

 

I. OPENING

 

 

November 5, 2019

 

 

1. The End

 

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury,” says Mr. Alejandro Stern. For nearly sixty years, he has offered this greeting to start his defense of the accused, and with the words today, a vapor of melancholy scuttles across his heart. But he is here. We live in the everlasting present. And he knows this much with iron certainty: He has had his turn.

“This is the end,” he says. “For me.” Without lowering his eyes from the jury, he blindly probes his midsection to fasten the center button on his suit coat, as he always has done after his first few words. “No doubt, you have been thinking, ‘The defense lawyer is so very old.’ And you are correct, of course. Standing up to the government when the freedom of a good person, like Dr. Kiril Pafko, hangs in the balance is not a task for someone of my age. This will be my final time.”

Behind him on the bench, Chief Judge Sonya Klonsky utters an unformed sound, as if clearing her throat. Yet having known Sonny well for thirty years, he understands as clearly as if she had spoken. Were he to say more about his personal situation, the judge will politely cut him off.

“Yet I could not refuse this case,” he adds.

“Mr. Stern,” Judge Klonsky says, “perhaps you should turn to the proof.”

Looking up to her on the carved walnut bench, Stern lets his head droop in a small bow. It is a gesture retained from his boyhood in Argentina, which also left the whisper of an accent that embarrasses him, even now, whenever he hears recordings of his voice.

“Just so, Your Honor,” he answers, then turns again to the jury. “Marta and I are proud to stand beside Dr. Pafko at this crucial moment in what has been a long and honored life. Marta, if you would.”

Marta Stern rises slowly at the defense table, greeting the jurors with a pleasant smile. As her father sees her, Marta is that unusual person who looks far better in her middle years than she did as a young woman—fit, well coiffed, and at ease. Stern, by contrast, has been withered by age and disease. But even now, he does not need to say she is his daughter. Both are short and thickly built, both show the same awkward combination of wide features. Nodding, Marta resumes her seat at the defense table beside their paralegal, Pinky, Stern’s granddaughter.

Stern lifts his hand next to his client.

“Kiril, please.” Dr. Pafko, too, comes to his feet, stiffened by age but still tall and attentive to his appearance. A white silk pocket square bubbles above one line of the golden buttons on his double-breasted blazer. His silver hair, streaked by yellow and almost entirely thinned away on top, is swept back debonairly, while his teeth are uneven and small as he attempts a charming smile. “How old a man are you, Kiril?”

“Seventy-eight,” Pafko answers at once. Stern’s question to his client at a time when only the lawyers are supposed to speak is clearly improper, but Stern knows from long experience that the government’s lead counsel, the United States Attorney, Moses Appleton, will bypass minor objections rather than have the jury think he is eager to hide things. Stern wants Kiril’s voice to be among the jurors’ first impressions, so they will be less disappointed if, as Stern hopes, Kiril never takes the stand in his own defense.

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