by Rachelle Allen
In Chapter One of Fixing Vincent, we meet Meg Tartaglia, a mother in her fifties who’s still trying -- five years later -- to sort through her feelings of anger and sorrow after the death of her impetuous, volatile third-born child, Vincent, whom she adored. She receives a Jury Summons that dredges up all the painful, troubled times Vincent brought upon their lives.
In Chapter Two, Meg is chosen to be a juror.
The courtroom is large but windowless, with wide mahogany door frames that complement the polished wood of the jury box, attorneys’ tables, and judge’s bench. Crown moldings accentuate the twelve-foot-high ceilings and herald the pride and craftsmanship of bygone eras. Serious work is carried out here, their silent majesty proclaims. There is no room for mirth.
Meg files into the jury box with the others and tries to quell her racing heart.
The judge is a serious-faced man, whom Meg guesses to be in his middle-sixties. He has ramrod posture and rippled white hair. From behind his round, frameless glasses, he takes a slow, unblinking sweep of the courtroom then bangs his gavel.
"Please be seated," the court deputy announces. "The Honorable Harold J. Alderman presiding. Hear ye, hear ye, Court is now in session this twentieth day of September, in the matter of the State of New York versus Thomas Donnelly. Docket No. NYS10 - 7872. Defendant is charged on the following counts: Burglary, Attempted Robbery, Aggravated Assault, Assault With a Deadly Weapon, and Attempted Carjacking.
Judge Alderman addresses the prosecutor with a nod, "Mr. Deutsch?"
"Ready to proceed, Your Honor," says the man who, except for his impeccable gray suit and no earring, is a flesh-and-blood doppleganger for Mr. Clean.
"And Ms. Rennert?" Judge Alderman turns his head toward the Defense table.
"Ready to proceed, Your Honor," she responds.
Meg looks at the Defendant for the first time: a wiry dishwater blonde of no more than twenty-three, whose pale green eyes move restlessly about the courtroom as his head remains still, his chin tucked back near the base of his throat. Despite a nose with the swollen, distorted quality that boxers and cocaine addicts share, he is undeniably handsome: strong jaw, clear skin, good cheekbones. Peeking out from the side of his dingy shirt collar is a stark, emerald green shamrock.
Its irony causes Meg to sigh softly and close her eyes. When she re-opens them, Thomas is staring at her, piercing through the quiet veneer in which she has ensconced herself. Like a wren caught in the sights of a feral cat, her eyes flit away, first to the floor, then to the back door, then to each wall, until finally they rest on her lap, where her hands are clenched together so tightly that her nail beds and fingertips have turned magenta.
"You may proceed with your opening statement," the Judge says to the Prosecutor.
Hands on the table, he pushes up to an impressive, looming height and lumbers with an ominous gait toward the jury box.
"Good morning," he says, with a voice so deep Meg can actually feel it rumble in her chest cavity, idling like an oversized race car. He makes a point of engaging in direct eye contact with each juror, his blue eyes steady and clear. "My name is Daniel Deutsch, and I am the prosecutor in this case. You have been brought here today on a very serious matter: to weigh the evidence brought forth by me and the defense attorney as to the guilt or innocence of Thomas Donnelly." He motions toward the defendant. "The State will present evidence that will enable you to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Thomas Donnelly did, indeed, commit burglary at the home of Steven and Jennifer Cosgrove. While in the commission of that crime, Thomas Donnelly was confronted by Steven Cosgrove and reacted by savagely attacking him with a leaded glass vase."
The prosecutor uses both hands to make a striking motion.
"This attack by the defendant rendered Mr. Cosgrove unconscious." The lawyer pauses, and images of the scene he’s described fill Meg’s mind. And, looking at the horrored expressions around her, it is obvious she isn’t alone with these feelings.
"The State will prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that after he rendered Steven Cosgrove unconscious, the defendant, Thomas Donnelly, exited the Cosgroves’ home and headed south, to 3123 Ballard Avenue --right next door-- where Allen and Stephanie Wong were returning home with their children from a family reunion".
The prosecutor pauses again, and the severity of the couples’ impending nightmare takes root in the pit of Meg’s stomach and climbs upward toward her heart.
"The State will offer testimony from witnesses that Mr. Wong unlocked the front door of his home for his wife, whose arms were full with the couple’s sleeping four-year-old daughter. When he turned around, with the intention of returning to the car to retrieve their sleeping five-month-old infant from her car seat, he saw Thomas Donnelly attempting to climb into the open driver’s side door."
Meg tries to control a full-body tremble with breathing techniques acquired from her times on the Delivery Room table, but it’s a battle she’s quickly losing.
"The State will prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, with testimony from witnesses, that Mr. Wong ran to the driver’s side door of his vehicle, pulled Thomas Donnelly away from the car, and began preventing him, with physical force, from stealing the Wongs’ vehicle, where his infant daughter, five-month-old Stella, was asleep in her car seat."
Deutsch ratchets up the volume of his voice. "The State will further prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, with witness testimony as well as medical records and the expert testimony of CSI personnel who were called to the scene, that during the course of the altercation between Thomas Donnelly and Allen Wong, the defendant sustained cuts about his hands and face which led to him leaving his partially bloody palm print on the hood of Mr. Wong’s vehicle as he leapt over his victim to flee the scene."
Meg watches the prosecutor give the courtroom a moment to absorb the litany of facts. Then he continues on with yet another increase in volume and shortens the content of each of his sentences as well as the spaces between them, so that each one strikes like a heavy metal mallet.
"The State will offer testimony from police officers who searched the vicinity in and around the Cosgroves’ and Wongs’ homes on the evening in question. They will affirm, under oath, that they saw a man running away. Running from the traumas he had inflicted. A man running away from the scene of the crime. A man matching Thomas Donnelly’s description. These police officers will further testify, as will CSI technicians present at the scene, that the defendant’s shoe imprints were present. Imprints then made into plaster casts. Molded shoe imprints that matched those of the shoes found in Thomas Donnelly’s apartment. Found there just hours after the savage attacks occurred."
The prosecutor steps away from the jury box and looks each juror in the eye. Softly, calmly he says, "You will hear Thomas Donnelly’s attorney tell you that all these facts and sworn statements from witnesses and crime scene experts are incorrect. She will insist there is a logical reason behind everything you’ve seen and heard. But even if you believe those far-reaching explanations, it is the blood evidence in this case that is incontrovertible. The bloody partial palm print on the hood of Mr. Wong’s car contained the DNA of Allen Wong and Thomas Donnelly and only them. It leaves no room for doubt who was and wasn’t present at the scene on that horrible night of June 5."
He lumbers to his chair, his massive frame tweaking, ever so slightly, at the shoulder seams of his suit coat.
Judge Alderman adjusts his glasses. "Ms. Rennert, you may present your Opening Statement."
"Thank you." The defense attorney smiles politely at him then heads toward the jury box. She is an attractive woman, whom Meg guesses to be in her late forties. She is farm-girl-sturdy with hair the color and texture of a dormouse, side parted and cut into an expensive-looking no-nonsense bob. Her eyes are hazel brown and crackle with book smarts as well as street smarts.
"Good morning," she says to the jurors in a tone more crisp than pleasant, yet still somehow not off-putting. "My name is Laurie Rennert, and my client is Thomas Donnelly --Tommy-- who, as you just finished hearing, has been charged here today --wrongly charged, let me add-- for many crimes."
Meg Tartaglia looks at Tommy and the flat expression in his eyes. But it’s the incessant pulsing of his leg nearest the jury box that gives him away. He is just a frightened boy who wants this nightmare to end. A long-suppressed agony washes over Meg.
Judge: And how do you plead?, Young Man?
Defendant: Not Guilty, Your Honor. I didn't realize the cigarettes hadn't been paid for. My friend --
Mr. Tartaglia, all I need from you right now is a simple ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not Guilty.’
In a blink, Vincent’s color changed from golden to ashen. "Not Guilty, Your Honor," he answered with a voice squeezed to a
whisper by terror.
"Tommy was in the Cosgroves’ and the Wongs’ neighborhood on the night of June 5th." Laurie Rennert’s voice cuts through the fog in Meg’s brain. "That part he’s never denied. But he was there with a friend --a lifelong friend-- who, in fact, can be described with all the same physical adjectives as Tommy: wiry build, light brown hair, medium height. This friend told Tommy on the night of June 5th, that they should enter the home at 3121 Ballard Avenue, known to us now as the residence of Steven and Jennifer Cosgrove. He told Tommy, his lifelong friend, that he desperately needed money for a cocaine fix and that there was an open window on the Cosgroves’ first floor by which they could gain entrance to the home." Laurie Rennert sighs slightly, looks at the floor, then returns her gaze to the jurors. "They’d steal an item or two and get right out, then sell it all quickly so that Tommy’s friend -- Corey Alonzo -- could buy cocaine and relieve himself of the pain being brought on by withdrawal."
She gives a rueful look to the jury.
"But Tommy said ‘No’ to Corey. He told his lifelong friend that the plan was too risky. He tried to drag him away from 3121 Ballard Avenue, away from the danger and the bad idea; but Corey was in that state of cocaine withdrawal where all that mattered to him was finding relief from his physical pain. Risk was not a factor. Fear was not a factor. All he cared about was getting money so that he could buy the drugs he needed to relieve his pain."
Laurie Rennert points to her client, whose head remains motionless, his chin still tucked back toward his throat.
"But my client told his lifelong friend ‘No.’ And when he tried to pull Corey away from the Cosgroves’ house --away from the danger of a terrible idea -- Corey made a fist and struck his lifelong friend -- the defendant here today, Tommy Donnelly --in the face. Many times, in fact. And in so doing, he got Tommy’s blood --Tommy’s DNA-- on his own hands." Laurie Rennert turns her back on the jury to walk toward the defense table, then slowly returns. "Later, when Corey tried to steal Allen Wong’s car, he transferred Tommy’s blood --from their fist fight-- onto the hood of Mr. Wong’s car."
"But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here," the attorney says and holds her hand up, palm-side to the jury, giving a small mea culpa-like bob with her head. "After the fist fight with Corey, after trying to persuade him to leave Ballard Avenue, Tommy left Ballard Avenue alone and returned home on foot. It is only Corey Alonzo who remained at the scene. It is Corey alone who continued on with --and carried out-- his original plan."
Laurie Rennert begins to pace, slowly and deliberately, in front of the jury box.
"The State does not want you to know that all the witnesses’ accounts from the night of June 5th described an assailant whose hair was long and who had a scraggly beard. Yet when police knocked on my client’s door at three o’clock the morning of June 6th, he did not fit their descriptions in the least. And when he was put into a line-up, the very people who claimed to have seen him commit the crimes -- the same ones for which he is being accused today -- they could not identify him."
Judge: Mr. Tartaglia, you are a very good-looking boy.
Vincent: Thank you, Your Honor.
Judge: You can make that work in your favor in this world. But it can also work against you because people will remember your face. So if you get mixed up with the wrong people, and do things you shouldn’t do, you are the person in the group people will remember seeing. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?
Vincent: Yes, Sir.
Judge: So keep yourself away from situations that you know -- that anyone with common sense would know -- could be trouble.
Vincent: Okay. I will, Your Honor.
Judge: I am giving you a huge break here, Vincent. Do you understand that?
Vincent nodded and then looked down quickly.
Judge: Understand that you are being granted an OPPORTUNITY here, Mr. Tartaglia --to be a better citizen to our town, a better son to your parents, and a far better person to yourself. I don't ever want to see you back here again.
"No sir, Your Honor. Thank you."
Meg looks again at Tommy, and this time he gives her a shy, endearing smile.