Read The Last Innocent Man Online

Authors: Phillip Margolin

The Last Innocent Man

BOOK: The Last Innocent Man

For Joseph and Eleonore Margolin,
great parents and good friends,
and Doreen, Daniel, and Amy,
the home team


David Nash could see the storm clouds closing in on…

It was an old wooden door. The type you expected…

Darlene Hersch was out of breath by the time she…

“David, come over here. There’s someone who wants to meet…

Sunlight streamed through the glass wall of David’s bedroom, and…

The first half of July was cool and comfortable. There…

It took David a long time to calm down after…

Judge Rosenthal looked across the courtroom toward the clock that…

“There’s a Mr. Holt to see you, Mr. Nash,” the…

David had not slept well. There had been clear skies…

The main entrance to the county courthouse was on Fourth…

David looked down at the stack of papers scattered across…

“Nice of you to drop by,” Larry said sarcastically as…

A fog bank drifted across the sand, obscuring the terrain…

David let out his belt a notch and groaned with…

“I know everything,” David told Larry Stafford. They were seated…

The visitor’s room at the state penitentiary was a large,…

Ortiz sat in the back row of the courtroom listening…

David drove aimlessly for an hour, then went home. He…

Terry Conklin’s investigation started in the public library. There were…

“Mr. Nash,” David’s secretary said, “it’s Mr. Gault again.”

Monica Powers was getting ready for bed when the doorbell…

David noticed the headlights in his rearview mirror as soon…

David stacked the last of his framed diplomas in the…

avid Nash could see the storm clouds closing in on Portland from his office on the thirty-second floor of the First National Bank Tower. The rain would be a welcome relief from the June heat. The first large drops started falling on the river. David watched for a while, then turned his back to the window. Across the room Thomas Gault shifted his position on the couch.

The newspapers called David “The Ice Man” because of his unruffled appearance in court, but Gault deserved the title. It was almost eight o’clock. The jury had been deliberating for two days. But Gault dozed, oblivious to the fact that twelve people were deciding whether he should be convicted of murder.

The telephone rang and startled David. Gault opened
his eyes. The phone rang again and David answered it. His heart was beating rapidly as he raised the receiver. His hand felt sweaty against the plastic.

“Mr. Nash,” Judge McIntyre’s bailiff said, “we have a verdict.”

David took a breath to calm himself. His mouth was dry. It was always the same, no matter how many times he heard those words. They were so final, and despite his record of victories, they always left him with a feeling of despair.

“I’ll be right over,” David said, replacing the receiver. Gault was sitting up and stretching.

“Moment of truth, old buddy?” he asked as he yawned. He seemed to be experiencing none of the tension that David felt.

“Moment of truth,” David repeated.

“Let’s go get ’em, then. And don’t forget how you’re feeling. I want to interview you as soon as we hear the verdict. I talked to my editor this afternoon, and he’s hot to get the book into print as fast as he can. Capitalize on the publicity.”

David shook his head in amazement.

“How can you even think about that book now, Tom?”

Gault laughed.

“With what you’re charging me, I have to think about it. Besides, I want to make you famous.”

“Doesn’t anything ever get to you?” David asked.

Gault studied David for a second, his grin momentarily gone, his eyes cold.

“Not a thing, old buddy. Not a thing.

“Besides,” he said, the grin back in place, “I’ve been
through a hell of a lot worse than this in Africa. Remember, those twelve peers of mine can’t kill me. Worse comes to worst, I get a few years off to write at state expense. And the worst ain’t gonna come, old buddy, because I have faith in you.”

Gault’s smile was infectious, and despite his misgivings, David found he was smiling.

“Okay, Tom, then let’s go get ’em.”

Outside, the rain and wind were twisting the large American flag that hung from the building across the street, winding it around itself and whipping it to and fro. One of America’s symbols taking a beating, David mused. If he was the lawyer everyone said he was, the blind woman with the scales would also go down for the count when they arrived at the courthouse.


not been famous already, the Gault case would have made him so. Reporters from Paris and Moscow had flown into Portland to cover the trial of the handsome defendant who looked like a movie star and wrote like Joseph Conrad.

At nineteen, Gault, a member of a violent L.A. gang, had been given a choice between jail or the Army. Gault loved the military and was a natural for Special Forces training.

At twenty-six, Gault turned mercenary, putting his skills to work in East and West Africa.

All during his years abroad, Gault had been indulging another passion, writing. Plotted and fleshed out during his African sojourn, and completed during six months of furious activity in a cheap apartment in Manhattan,
Plains of Anguish
made Gault rich and established him as a writer of
note. The novels that followed increased his literary reputation. But they were not the only reason Gault’s name was newsworthy.

Shortly after the movie version of his second novel was released, Gault married his leading lady. The gossip columns were suddenly full of stories about Gault’s latest affair or drunken brawl. When Gault drove his Rolls-Royce through the bedroom wall of his wife’s lover’s beach house, the missus called it quits. Gault, fed up with Hollywood, headed for the quiet of the Pacific Northwest.

A year later Gault emerged from seclusion, carrying the manuscript for A
Ransom for the Dying
, which won the Pulitzer Prize. While working on the book, he had met Julie Webster, whom he was presently accused of beating to death.

Julie Webster Gault, the daughter of a former secretary of commerce, was beautiful, spoiled, and rich. To her parents’ horror, she married Thomas Gault after a brief courtship that consisted of several violent couplings in various odd places and positions. The marriage was doomed from the beginning.

Julie Webster was incapable of loving anyone but herself, and Thomas Gault was similarly afflicted. By the time the novelty of working their way through the
Kama Sutra
wore off, the couple realized that they could not stand each other. Gault’s drinking, which was excessive in the best of times, got worse. Julie started wearing high-neck sweaters and sunglasses to cover her bruises. Then, one evening, someone beat Julie Gault to death in her bedroom on the second floor of their lakeside mansion.

The police arrested Gault. He swore that he was innocent. He told them he had been sleeping off a drunk when
screams from his wife’s bedroom awakened him. He said he found Julie lying in a pool of blood and had knelt to take a pulse. A sudden movement behind him had made him turn, and he had seen an athletically built man of average height with curly blond hair standing above him. The intruder struck him on the head, Gault told the police, and he was unconscious for a few moments. When the police arrived, there was blood on Gault’s hands and bathrobe and a bruise on the left side of his face.

Whether Thomas Gault or a mysterious stranger had taken Julie Webster Gault’s life was the subject of a two-month trial. Famous writers and movie stars took the stand, either recounting the Gaults’ marital battles or coming to the writer’s defense. As the case neared its end, David was worried. Then Gault took the stand.

During the time that David represented him, Gault had not shown a single sign that his wife’s death disturbed him. To the contrary, he seemed happy to be rid of her. But Gault was a great actor, and his performance as a witness had been superb. He emerged from two days of direct and cross-examination as a sympathetic figure. He had even broken into tears once while testifying. The jury had been sent from the room and never saw how quickly Gault recovered his composure.

Gault was like that. He had an innate ability to tune in on, and manipulate, the feelings of other people. David found him a fascinating yet frightening man. An original in whom he sensed a quality of evil. Everything he knew about Gault made him believe that the writer’s detachment was genuine. Nothing appeared to touch him. Still, he wondered how Gault would react if the jury found him guilty.


a thin, attractive woman from NBC just missed David’s lower lip with a hand-held mike. David made a brief comment to the press as he elbowed his way through the crowd toward the courtroom. Gault followed, laughing and chatting with the reporters.

A local photographer asked Gault to pose for a picture, and Gault paused, sweeping his stylishly long brown hair backward to reveal his handsome profile. At a little under six feet, with a figure kept trim by constant exercise, Gault produced a good photograph.

Cameras clicked and the courtroom doors swept open. A stir of almost sexual excitement filled the courtroom when Gault entered. David watched the faces of the women. They wanted Gault. Wanted the thrill of lying next to him and wondering if his gift would be love or death.

Gault headed down the center aisle toward the low gate that separated the spectators from the bar of the court. A man dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt said something to Gault, which David missed. Gault laughed and raised his hand in a clenched fist salute.

David followed Gault to the counsel table. Norman Capers, the district attorney, was already in place. He looked tired. The bailiff was talking to a courtroom guard. David nodded to him as he sat down. The bailiff went into chambers to tell the judge that the parties were ready. A moment later he left to get the jury.

David felt dizzy. He turned toward Gault, curious to see if his client was showing any signs of tension. He was surprised to see the writer’s eyes riveted on the door that
led to the jury room. There was complete silence in the spectator section.

The door to the side corridor opened and David watched the jurors walk in. They moved silently, in single file, into the jury box. There were no smiles, and they scrupulously avoided looking at Gault or the lawyers.

David felt slightly nauseated. These were the worst moments. He scanned the box for the foreman. The folded white paper was in the left hand of juror number six, a middle-aged schoolteacher. He tried to remember back. How had she reacted to the testimony? Was it a good or bad sign that she had been chosen foreman?

The noise in the courtroom stopped. The bailiff pressed a button on the side of the bench that signaled the judge’s chambers. Judge Mclntyre entered from a door behind the dais.

“Be seated,” the judge said. His voice trembled slightly. He, like Capers and Nash, had been worn down by the grueling trial.

“Has the jury reached a verdict?” the judge asked.

“We have,” the foreman replied, handing the verdict form to the bailiff.

Gault leaned forward and followed the paper from the jury box to the judge’s hand. Someone coughed in the back of the courtroom, and a chair moved, scraping along the floor.

Judge McIntyre opened the white paper slowly and read it carefully. Then, without looking at Gault, he read,

“Omitting the caption, the verdict reads as follows: ‘We the jury, being first duly impaneled and sworn, do find the defendant, Thomas Ira Gault, not guilty as charged in the indictment.’…”

There was silence for a moment; then someone in the courtroom began to cry. David expelled a deep sigh and leaned back in his chair. Gault had not moved, as if he had not heard. There was pandemonium in the rear of the court as reporters pushed forward to reach the counsel table.

In the confusion the jurors were forgotten. David watched them file out. Not one of them looked at the man they had just acquitted. Not one of them shared the joy the spectators were expressing. David knew why. In order to acquit, the jury did not have to believe Thomas Gault was innocent. The law required an acquittal if the jurors harbored a single reasonable doubt about a defendant’s guilt. David was a master at creating reasonable doubt, and once again he had prevailed. But David knew what the verdict would have been under a less stringent standard. From the start Gault had proclaimed his innocence. Never once had he deviated from his original story. But David never believed that Gault was innocent. Not for a moment.

David stood up and moved away from the counsel table. Norman Capers had left the courtroom quickly. David wanted to shake his hand. He had tried a good case. Gault was being embraced by well-wishers as flashbulbs exploded around him. The solemnity of the courtroom had given way to a carnival atmosphere. The reporters were swarming around Gault now, but David knew he would be next.

David tried to feel something positive from his victory, but he was empty inside. There was no joy, no exaltation, at winning a case every other criminal lawyer in the country would have given his right arm to try.

He remembered how he had felt after his first murder case. It was funny. There had been no big fee involved.
Hell, the case had been a court appointment. There had been no publicity. With the exception of a few old men who spent their retirement watching trials, no one bothered to come.

The defendant was a petty thief who had made the big time by shooting a shopkeeper during a liquor-store holdup. There had been nothing of worth in David’s client and no question of his being anything but guilty, but that had not mattered to David, who had been overwhelmed by his trust. A man’s life depended on the exercise of David’s skills, and he had pushed himself to the point of exhaustion, knowing, all along, that he would fail. He had tried every legal motion, explored every avenue, but it had not been enough.

The guilty verdict had been returned quickly. Afterward David had talked with his client for an hour in the interview room of the county jail. The man did not seem to care. But David cared. That evening, alone in his office, David cried tears of frustration, then went home and got quietly drunk.

Those had been good days. There were no tears anymore. No emotional investments. All that was left was the winning and the money; recently, he was beginning to wonder if even that was important. David had reached goals that other lawyers only dreamed of achieving. He was a senior partner in a prestigious law firm, he was nationally known, and he was wealthy. All this had been accomplished at a whirlwind pace that left little time for reflection. Now that he had reached the top, he had time to catch his breath and look around. He wasn’t sure he liked what he saw.

“How many does this make?” a reporter from the
Washington Post

“I’m sorry?” David said.

“How many murder cases in a row?”

David shifted away from his black thoughts and became “The Ice Man.” If any of the reporters noticed his initial distraction, no one mentioned it.

“I’ll be truthful with you,” he said with a confidential smile. “I’ve lost track. Six seems right, though.”

“Why do you think the jury acquitted Gault?” a reporter with a foreign accent asked.

“Because he is innocent,” David answered without hesitation. “If Tom hadn’t been a celebrity, they wouldn’t have prosecuted him. But I’m glad they did. Gave you fellows work and kept you off the street.”

“And made you a fat fee,” someone shouted.

The reporters laughed and David joined them, but he didn’t feel like laughing. He was bone tired and he wanted to go home.

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