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Today's Story by Bill Backstrom

When I could finally talk I asked, "You mean you don't know?"

The Juror

“I knew he was guilty.  Anyone and everyone knew.  But there had to be a trial.”

I settled back in my chair, looking at the young reporter.  “This may take a little while to tell.”  I leaned my cane against the wall, picked up my coffee cup.  Coffee helped me think.

“That’s why I came to you, Mr. Benson,” said the reporter.  “The newspaper archives for sixty years ago listed this as the biggest news event. The city’s grown and this is perfect for our big 1992 Summer Heritage Edition.  I thought we could call it ‘Looking Back at 1932: The Abrams Murder Trial: An interview with the last living juror.’ I think it’ll be a great story.”

“Not sure I like that.  Makes me sound old, I’m only ninety.”  I rapped my cane on the floor to emphasize the point, then realized the cane reinforced my age.  Damn.

“Just start at the beginning.  How did you get on the jury, how everyone felt about the case, all that you can remember,” he said.

“The notice came in the mail.  ‘Call to Jury duty’.  Not too many cases needed a jury.  Cole O’Leary had been nabbed for drunken driving.  Back then nobody worried about it, except he had driven through Reverend Olson’s hedge.
There were probably a few other petty things, but the big prize was the murder trial.  I held up the Jury Call like a winning bingo card and cheered.  The wife came in to see what I was carrying on about now.  She became excited too.”

“None of us at the paper grew up around here so I wanted a firsthand account.  It’s been so long most people I tried to interview either didn’t know about it or brushed me off.  I imagine it was a bit of a disgrace for a small town in those times.  I was happy to find that you were, ah, still available,” he said.

He had his pencil ready and I continued.  “Not much happens in a small town and a murder was the biggest thing around here in decades.   The chance to be on the jury thrilled those of us who might be selected.  It wasn’t just a front row seat to hear all the gruesome details and legal talk; being a juror meant being part of the trial.  The jury was the sword of the Almighty striking down the guilty.  But I guessed they had to be fair going in at least.  Not like it mattered of course.  Everyone knew Abrams was guilty.

“On the day of jury selection, I closed the shop.  Not much call for shoe repair that time of year anyway.  Hoover was still President and times were hard.  Lots of folks wore their shoes even if they needed some repair.

“There were crowds at the courthouse, prospective jurors and those just curious.  We who had been called had to swear to tell the truth and then answer a few questions from the judge.  Questions about if we were related to anyone in the case or if we might be a witness; those were the type of questions asked.

“Course they wanted us to say we hadn’t decided the case already.  Even the judge smiled when he asked that question.  That relation question got rid of a whole bunch of possible jurors, small towns are like that.”

The reporter asked, “So, you got on the jury, then what happened?”

He was eager for me to continue, but I didn’t get that many visitors.  I enjoyed stretching it out as long as I could.  I took a sip of coffee.

“The judge decided which twelve us of would be jurors.  He told us to come back the next day, a Tuesday as I recall, before nine in the morning and be prepared to spend the whole day and maybe the whole week.  Most of the gallery laughed and the judge had to gavel it back to quiet.

“The next day we were there, twelve of us guys in our Sunday suits; no women on juries in those days.  It was hot for June.  Doors were propped open to get some air moving through the courtroom, but it was still warm.

“The Bailiff stood and told us it was the case of Minnesota vs. Joseph Abrams in the death of Mary Sue Abrams just like we had no idea why we were there.”

The reporter looked up, “So now we are getting to the trial?  Was there much of a defense or was the case against Joe Abrams that strong?”

“Need some more coffee?”  He shook his head no and I got up and refilled my cup.  I needed the cane for balance, but still got around the house okay.  The reporter hadn’t touched his cup; I figured he only took it to be social.  But all this talking made me thirsty.

“The judge talked about how it was a murder case and we all had to listen and not decide until everyone had had their say.  He ended up using his gavel again then as so many people in the court started laughing.

“The prosecutor stood and smiled at the jury.  ‘Gentlemen, we have a dark and vicious murder.  This young girl was only nineteen and married to the defendant for less than one year.  Now she is dead and the defendant is sitting there just as guilty as sin.’  The defense attorney jumped to his feet and starting making a fuss about what the prosecutor was saying.

“There was some back and forth and the judge said the defense was right to object but the prosecutor still smiled because he knew that we knew Abrams was guilty.”

“You sure do have a good memory Mr. Benson,” the reporter said.

“Well remembering what happened back then is easy, it’s harder to remember what happened yesterday.  Sorry, I forgot your name again?”

The kid smiled, “John, just call me John.”

“Ok, I think I was talking about the prosecutor.  His name was Johnson, you know, became a Congressman.  He’s dead now.

“Anyway, that interruption with the judge had interrupted the prosecutor. He looked like he was running his speech, his opening argument, through his head to get to where he had been interrupted.  ‘Sorry, your honor.  Sorry jurors.  Well, the state is going to prove that not only was the defendant the only one who would have killed her, but that he had a reason to do it, more than one reason.  There were five thousand dollars of life insurance and another woman.’

“Then the Defense had their turn.  Not all that much to say, but the Defense attorney approached us anyway.  ‘Beyond a shadow of a doubt.  That is the measure here that the State has to meet.  The defendant sits there charged with killing his wife.  The woman he loved-‘

“At that the judge had to gavel down the laughter again.

“The defense attorney continued, ‘He is charged with killing his wife.  There is no body.  No one can even prove she was murdered.  No body, no blood.  I want you to keep that in mind as this case proceeds.  The State has to prove that not only is she dead, but that this man who sits before you, his trust in God and in you the jury, that this man killed her.  I don’t think they can do that.’

“It was a short trial wasn’t it Mr. Benson?  The old paper clippings made it seem like it was short.  Of course it was only a weekly paper back then.”

“Yes, real short.  Well the Prosecution had the local cops talk about how they had to go to the Abrams house almost every Saturday night and arrest Joe for being drunk and beating up his wife.  They would let him go the next morning after he slept it off.  It wasn’t even a real arrest.  Cops just got the guy out of the house until he sobered up.  Never had to take her to the hospital, he just gave her a fat lip now and then and a few black eyes.  Back in those days nobody thought it a big problem, except maybe the wife.

“The defense questions pushed the cops to admit that Joe was the one who reported his wife missing on Sunday.  Told them he couldn’t find her when he got up; he called her folks and when she wasn’t there he got worried and called the police.  They searched the house and around town.  No sign of her.  Officers said Joe looked pretty hung-over yet when they came to his house.”

“Prohibition was on then, didn’t the police care he had been drinking?” the reporter asked.

“No. People still drank if they wanted to drink.  You just couldn’t go to a bar like today.

“Prosecution questioned the local insurance agent and he testified about the five thousand dollar life insurance policy.  Doesn’t seem like a lot now, but it sure was in those days.  It was real unusual too.  Guys just didn’t buy insurance on their wives.

The agent admitted to the defense that the defendant had a policy on himself payable to his wife.  Agent couldn’t remember how come the policies were sold other than a lot of married couples bought insurance on the husband.”

“So that was the motive then, the money?” asked the reporter.

“Well the Prosecution gave two motives for the crime.  There was the money if the wife died and another girl when the wife was out of the way.

“The Prosecution put Lizzie Swenson on the stand as their star witness.  She told how Joe would visit every Saturday night after he had been doing some drinking.  They would get real friendly and he would promise to think about leaving his wife, but he never did.  Lizzie said he wished his wife would get hit by a bus or something.  Judge had to gavel everyone back to order again.  The whole town knew Lizzie had a bad reputation and this pretty much cemented it.”

“I’m glad I asked,” he said. “The old papers talked about a lot of stuff, but I wasn’t clear on motive.”

“Right, just ask if something sounds wrong, I don’t want to sound like some fool when you print this,” I said.

“Well the Defense tried to get her to say that Joe wasn’t planning anything, but Lizzie just stuck on the idea that Joe would have preferred his wife gone.  The Defense put Joe on the stand to say he hadn’t killed his wife. He admitted the girlfriend and owned up to hitting his wife ‘a time or two’ but he swore he hadn’t killed her.

“Then the Prosecution nailed the case by pressing Joe on just how drunk he had been that night and did he even remember going home.  He didn’t.  So the prosecutor asked him ‘If you don’t remember going home, isn’t it possible you killed her and don’t even remember it?’  Well the lawyers starting arguing.  Nobody noticed Joe stand up until he took a swing at the prosecutor.  Knocked him out cold.

“Well the cops and bailiff had to hold Joe down and the Judge told us to ignore what we saw but even the Judge couldn’t keep a straight face when he said it.  Then he adjourned to the next day.

“Wednesday morning we started up again; both sides said they didn’t have additional witnesses.  Prosecutor gets up, big old black eye having our full attention and he talks about how Joe drank and regularly hit his wife.

“He said ‘Joe Abrams had a girlfriend and he wished his wife was dead.  Now suddenly, she’s gone.  It’s a miracle.  Joe Abrams had a life insurance policy that would pay five thousand dollars if his wife died and now she’s gone.  It’s a miracle.  The defense attorney is going to tell you about Burden of Proof.  He is going to say that if there is no body then there was no murder.  Well, gentlemen of the jury, there was a murder and this cold blooded killer sitting in the defendant’s chair committed that murder.   The only miracle that will happen today is if poor Mary Sue walks through that door right now.’ he stopped and pointed at the door like he expected it to happen and we all looked too.  ‘Except it won’t happen, poor Mary Sue Abrams won’t walk through that door, not today, not ever.’  He stared at us for a little and told us to find Joe guilty.

“There wasn’t much left for the Defense to say.  We knew he had planned to talk about the body not being found because he looked at a loss for words.  But he stood up anyway and gave a half-hearted talk about how Joe never really hurt his wife and how he guessed anyone with a girlfriend would tell her he wanted to leave his wife.  He even said there was no proof that Joe did it, which sort of cut out his argument that Mary Sue wasn’t dead.”

“Well the Judge told us to do our duty and we went into the jury room and took a quick vote and found him guilty.  Took maybe five minutes if that, like I said right away, everyone knew he was guilty.”

I refilled my coffee cup again.  This was more talking that I do most days.

“According to the old paper,” the reporter said, “the Judge sentenced Joe Abrams to life in prison.”

“Yes, it was all anyone talked about for a few weeks, and then we all went on with our lives.”

“But I want to add a follow-up to the story,” he said.  “What happened to all the main people, how did it change their lives, that sort of thing?”

“Well the Judge retired the next year, moved out West to be near his grandkids.  Already told you the prosecutor went into politics.  The defense attorney kept being a lawyer, even became a judge before he retired too.”

“What about Joe Abrams? Did he serve a life sentence?”

“A short life sentence, he got into a fight with some other convict less than a year after he went up to the state prison in Stillwater.  The other guy killed Joe.”

“What about Lizzie the girlfriend?”

“After all this went on, she got religion.  Took vows and became a nun.”

“Thanks,” he said.  “I think this will make a good story.  One more question, did they ever find Mary Sue’s body?”

I swallowed wrong on my coffee and it took a few minutes to get over choking on it.  When I could finally talk I asked, “You mean you don’t know?  About five years later Mary Sue sends her parents a letter apologizing for running off with a traveling salesman.  Told them she just couldn’t take being beaten every week; asked them if they’d forgive her if she got a divorce from Joe.  Funny thing was she didn’t know he had been sent to jail or died there.  Damndest thing you ever heard of, you know?”

The reporter was just staring at me.  He closed his notebook and put it away.  “Thanks for your time Mr. Benson. I didn’t know that.  Now I’m not sure if we want to do this story.”

“That’s disappointing, hope you decide to print it.  At my age I kind of like getting in the paper as long as it’s not the Obituaries.”

He shook my hand and said, “Ever have regrets over the verdict or being on the jury.  Ever wonder what would have happened if the jury wouldn’t have convicted him?”

“Damn fool question,” I said.  “Everyone knew he was guilty.”


Bill Backstrom is a night-time writer residing in a small Minnesota town.  He has been published in Long Story Short, writes short story fiction and is working on a fantasy novel.


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