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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Net - Chapter 23. The Trial And The Verdict
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The Net - Chapter 23. The Trial And The Verdict Post by :rvlawrence Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :1619

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The Net - Chapter 23. The Trial And The Verdict

CHAPTER XXIII. THE TRIAL AND THE VERDICT

Blake did not attend these tiresome preliminaries, although he followed them with intense interest, the while a sardonic irritation arose in him. Chancing to meet Mayor Wright one day, he said:

"I'm beginning to think my original plan was the best after all."

"You mean we should have lynched those fellows as they were taken?" queried the Mayor, with a smile.

"Something like that."

"It won't take long to fix their guilt or innocence, once we get a jury."

"Perhaps--if we ever get one. But the men of New Orleans seem filled with a quality of mercy which isn't tempered with justice. Those who haven't already formed an opinion of the case are incompetent to act as intelligent jurors. Those who could render a fair judgment are afraid."

"You don't think there's any chance of an acquittal!"

"Hardly! And yet I hear the defense has called two hundred witnesses, so there's no telling what they will prove. You see, the prosecution is handicapped by a regard for the truth, something which doesn't trouble the other side in the least."

"Suppose they should be acquitted?"

"It would mean the breakdown of our legal system."

"And what would happen?"

Blake repeated the question, eyeing the Mayor curiously.

"Exactly! What would happen? What ought to happen?"

"Why, nothing," said the other, nervously. "They'd go free, I suppose. But Maruffi can't get off--he resisted an officer."

"Bah! He'd prove that Johnson assaulted him and he acted in self-defense."

"He'd have to answer for his attack upon you."

Norvin gave a peculiarly disagreeable laugh. "Not at all. That's the least of his sins. If the law fails in the Donnelly case I sha'n't ask it to help me."

But his pessimism gave way to a more hopeful frame of mind when the jury was finally impaneled and sworn and the trial began. The whole city likewise heaved a sigh of relief. The people had been puzzled and disgusted by the delay, and now looked forward to the outcome with all the keener eagerness to see justice done. Even before the hour for opening, the streets around the Criminal Court were thronged; the halls and lobbies were packed with a crowd which gave evidence of a breathless interest. No inch of space in the court-room was untenanted; an air of deep importance, a hush of strained expectancy lay over all.

Norvin found himself in a room with the other witnesses for the State, a goodly crowd of men and women, whites and blacks, many of whom he had been instrumental in ferreting out. From beyond came the murmur of a great assemblage, the shuffling of restless feet, the breathing of a densely packed audience. The wait grew tedious as witness after witness was summoned and did not return. At last he heard his own name called, and was escorted down a narrow aisle into an inclosure peopled with lawyers, reporters, and court officials, above which towered the dais of the judge, the throne of justice. He mounted the witness-stand, was sworn, and seated himself, then permitted his eyes to take in the scene. Before him, stretching back to the distant walls, was a sea of faces; to his right was the jury, which he scanned with the quick appraisal of one skilled in human analysis. Between him and his audience were the distinguished counsel, a dozen or more; and back of them eleven swarthy, dark-visaged Sicilian men, seated in a row. At one end sat Caesar Maruffi, massive, calm, powerful; at the other end sat Gino Cressi, huddled beside his father, his pinched face bewildered and terror-stricken.

A buzz of voices arose as the crowd caught its first full glimpse of the man who had so nearly lost his life through his efforts to bring these criminals to justice. Upon Maruffi's face was a look of such malignant hate that the witness stiffened in his chair. For one brief instant the Sicilian laid bare his soul, as their eyes met, then his cunning returned; the fire died from his impenetrable eyes; he was again the handsome, solid merchant who had sat with Donnelly at the Red Wing Club. The man showed no effect of his imprisonment and betrayed no sign of fear.

Norvin told his story simply, clearly, with a positiveness which could not fail to impress the jury; he withstood a grilling cross-examination at the hands of a criminal lawyer whose reputation was more than State-wide; and when he finally descended from the stand, Larubio, the cobbler, the senior Cressi, and Frank Normando stood within the shadow of the gallows. Normando he identified as the man in the rubber coat whose face he had clearly seen as the final shot was fired; he pointed out Gino Cressi as the picket who had given warning of the Chief's approach, then told of his share in the lad's arrest and what Gino had said. Concerning the other three who had helped in the shooting he had no conclusive evidence to offer; nevertheless, it was plain that his testimony had dealt a damaging blow to the defense. Yet Maruffi's glance showed no concern, but rather a veiled and mocking insolence.

As Blake passed out, young Cressi reached forth a timid hand and plucked at him, whispering:

"Signore, you said they would not hurt me."

"Don't be afraid. No one shall harm you," he told the boy, reassuringly.

"You promise?"

"Yes."

Cressi snatched his son to his side and scowled upward, breathing a malediction upon the American.

Inasmuch as the assassination had been carefully planned and executed at a late hour on a deserted street, it was popularly believed that very little direct testimony would be brought out, and that a conviction, therefore, would rest mainly upon circumstantial evidence; but as the trial progressed the case against the prisoners developed unexpected strength. Had Donnelly fallen at the first volley, his assailants would, in all probability, never have been identified, but he had stood and returned their fire for a considerable time, thus allowing opportunity for those living near by to reach their windows or to run into the street in time to catch at least a glimpse of the tragedy. Few saw more than a little, no one could identify all six of the assailants; but so thoroughly had the prosecution worked, so cunningly had it put these pieces together, that the whole scene was reproduced in the court-room. The murderers were singled out one by one and identified beyond a reasonable doubt.

One witness had passed Larubio's shop a few minutes before the shooting and had recognized the cobbler and his brother-in-law, Gaspardo Cressi. He also pointed out Normando and Paul Rafiro, both of whom he knew by sight.

From an upper window of a house near by another man who had been awakened by the noise saw Normando and Celso Fabbri in the act of firing. A woman living opposite the cobbler's house peered out into the smoke and flare in time to see Adriano Dora kneeling in the middle of the street. He was facing her; the light was fairly good; there could be no mistake. Various residents of the neighborhood had similar tales to tell, for, while no one had seen the beginning of the fight, a dozen pairs of eyes had looked out upon the finish, and many of these had recorded a definite picture of one or more of the actors. A gentleman returning from a lodge-meeting had even found himself on the edge of the battle, and had been so frightened that he ran straight home. He had learned, later, the significance of the fray, and had told nobody about his experience until Norvin Blake had traced him out and wrung the story from him. He feared the Mafia with the fear of death; but descending from the stand he pointed out four of the assassins--Normando, Fabbri, Rafiro, and Dora. He had seen them in the very act of firing.

A watchman on duty near by saw the boy Gino running past a moment before the shooting began; then, as he hurried toward the disturbance, he met Normando, Dora, and Rafiro coming toward him. The first of these carried a shotgun, which dropped into the gutter as he slipped and fell. The weapon and the suit of clothes Normando had worn were produced and identified. It transpired that this witness knew Paul Rafiro well, and for that reason had refused to tell what he knew until Norvin Blake had come to him and forced the words from his lips.

So it ran; the chain of evidence grew heavier with every hour. It seemed that some superhuman agency must have set the stage for the tragedy, posting witnesses at advantageous points. People marveled how so many eyes had gazed through the empty, rainy night; it was as if a mysterious hand had reached out of nowhere and brought together the onlookers, one by one, willing and unwilling, friend and enemy alike.

A more conclusive case than the State advanced against the six hired murderers during the first few days would be hard to conceive, and the public began to look for equally conclusive proof against the master ruffian and his lieutenants; but through it all Maruffi sat unperturbed, guiding the counsel with a word or a suggestion, in his bearing a calm self-assurance.

Then came a surprise which roused the whole city. From out of the parish prison appeared another Italian, a counterfeiter, who had recently been arrested, and who proved to be a Pinkerton detective "planted" among the Mafiosi for a purpose. Larubio had been a counterfeiter in Sicily--it was in the government prison that he had learned his cobbler's trade; and out of the fullness of his heart he had talked--so the detective swore--concerning these foolish Americans who sought to stay the hand of La Mafia. Nor had he been the only one to commit himself. Di Marco, Garcia, and the other two lieutenants turned livid as the stool-pigeon confronted them with their own words.

On the heels of this came the crowning dramatic moment of the trial.

Normando broke down and tried to confess in open court. He was a dull, ignorant man, with a bestial face and a coward's eye. This unexpected treachery, his own complete identification, had put an intolerable strain upon him. Without warning, he rose to his feet in the crowded court-room and cried loudly in his own tongue:

"Madonna mia! I do not want to die! I confess! I confess!"

Norvin Blake, who had been watching the proceedings from the audience, leaped from his seat as if electrified; other spectators followed, for even among those who could not understand the fellow's words it was seen that he was breaking. Normando's ghastly pallor, his wet and twitching lips, his shaking hands, all told the story. Confusion followed. Amid the hubbub of startled voices, the stir of feet, the interruption of counsel, the wretch ran on, repeating his fear of death and his desire to confess, meanwhile beating his breast in hysterical frenzy.

Of all the Americans present perhaps Norvin alone understood exactly what the Sicilian was saying and why consternation had fallen upon the other prisoners. Larubio went white; a blind and savage fury leaped into Maruffi's face; the other nine wilted or stiffened according to the effect fear had upon them.

A death-like hush succeeded the first outbreak, and through Normando's gabble came the judge's voice calling for an interpreter. There was no need for the crier to demand silence; every ear was strained for the disclosures that seemed imminent.

Blake was forcing himself forward to offer his services when the wretch's wavering eyes caught something in the audience and rested there. The death sign of the Brotherhood was flashed at him; he halted. His tongue ran thickly for a moment; then he sank into his chair, and, burying his head in his hands, began to rock from side to side, sobbing and muttering. Nor would he say more, even when a recess was declared and he was taken into the judge's chambers. Thereafter he maintained a sullen, hopeless silence which nothing could break, glaring at his captors with the defiance of a beast at bay. But the episode had had its effect; it seemed that no one could now doubt the guilt of the prisoners.

The assurance of conviction grew as it was proven that Maruffi himself had rented Larubio's shop and laid the trap for Donnelly's destruction. Step by step the plot was bared in all its hideous detail. The blood money was traced from the six hirelings up through the four superiors to Caesar himself. Then followed the effort to show a motive for the crime--not a difficult task, since every one knew of Donnelly's work against the Mafia. Maruffi's domination of the Society was harder to bring out; but when the State finally rested its case, even Blake, who had been dubious from the start, confessed that American law and American courts had demonstrated their efficiency.

During all this time his relations with Vittoria remained unchanged. She and Oliveta eagerly welcomed his reports of the trial; but she never permitted him to see her alone, and he felt that she was deliberately withdrawing from him. He met her only for brief interviews. Of Myra Nell, meanwhile, he saw nothing, since, with characteristic abruptness, she had decided to visit some forgotten cousins in Mobile.

Of all those who followed the famous Mafia trial, detail by detail, perhaps no one did so with greater fixity of interest than Bernie Dreux. He reveled in it, he talked of nothing else, his waking hours were spent in the courtroom, his dreams were peopled with Sicilian figures. He hung upon Norvin, his hero, with a tenacity that was trying; he discussed the evidence bit by bit; he ran to him with every rumor, every fresh development. As the prosecution made its case his triumph became fierce and fearful to behold; then when the defense began its crafty efforts he grew furiously indignant, a mighty rage shook him, he swelled and choked with resentment.

"What do you think?" he inquired, one day. "They're proving alibis, one by one! It's infamous!"

"It will take considerable Sicilian testimony to offset the effect of our witnesses," Blake told him.

But Dreux looked upon the efforts of the opposing lawyers as a personal affront, and so declared himself.

"Why, they're trying to make you out a liar! That's what it amounts to. The law never intended that a gentleman's word should be disputed. If I were the judge I'd close the case right now and instruct the sheriff to hang all the prisoners, including their attorneys."

"They'll never be acquitted."

Bernie shook his head morosely.

"There's a rumor of jury-fixing. I hear one of the talesmen was approached with a bribe before the trial."

"I can scarcely believe that."

"I'll bet it's true just the same. If I'd known what they were up to I'd have got on the jury myself. I'd have taken their money, then I'd have fixed 'em!"

"You'd have voted for eleven hemp neckties, eh?"

"I'd have hung each man twice."

Although Blake at first refused to credit the rumors of corruption, the following days served to verify them, for more than one juryman confessed to receiving offers. This caused a sensation which grew as the papers took up the matter and commented editorially. A leading witness for the State finally told of an effort to intimidate him, and men began to ask if this was destined to prove as rotten as other Mafia cases in the past. A feeling of unrest, of impatience, began to manifest itself, vague threats were voiced, but the idea of a bribed or terrorized jury was so preposterous that few gave credence to it. Nevertheless, the closing days of the trial were weighted heavily with suspense. Not only the city, but the country at large, hung upon the outcome. So strongly had racial antipathy figured that Italy took note of the case, and it assumed an international importance. Biased accounts were cabled abroad which led to an uneasy stir in ministerial and consular quarters.

During the exhaustive arguments at the close of the trial Norvin and Bernie sat together. When the opening attorneys for the prosecution had finished, Dreux exclaimed, triumphantly:

"We've got 'em! They can't escape after that."

But when the defense in turn had closed, the little man revealed an indignant face to his companion, saying:

"Lord! They're as good as free! We'll never convict on evidence like that."

Once more he changed, under the spell of the masterly State's attorney, and declared with fierce exultance:

"What did I tell you? They'll hang every mother's son of 'em. The jury won't be out an hour."

The jury was out more than an hour, even though press and public declared the case to be clear. Yet, knowing that the eyes of the world were upon her, New Orleans went to sleep that night serene in the certainty that she had vindicated herself, had upheld her laws, and proved her ability to deal with that organized lawlessness which had so long been a blot upon her fair name.

Soon after court convened on the following morning the jury sent word that they had reached a verdict, and the court-room quickly filled. Rumors of Caesar Maruffi's double identity had gone forth; it was hinted that he was none other than the dreaded Belisario Cardi, that genius of a thousand crimes who had held all Sicily in fear. This report supplied the last touch of dramatic interest.

Blake and Bernie were in their places before the prisoners arrived. Every face in the room was tense and expectant; even the calloused attendants felt the hush and lowered their voices in deference. Every eye was strained toward the door behind which the jury was concealed. There came the rumble of the prison van below, the tramp of feet upon the hollow stairs, and into the dingy, high-ceilinged hall of justice filed the accused, manacled and doubly guarded. Maruffi led, his black head held high; Normando brought up the rear, supported by two officers. He was racked with terror, his body hung like a sack, a moisture of foam and spittle lay upon his lips. When he reached the railing of the prisoners' box he clutched it and resisted loosely, sobbing in his throat; but he was thrust forward into a seat, where he collapsed.

The judge and the attorneys were in their places when a deputy sheriff swung open the door to the jury-room and the "twelve good men and true" appeared. As if through the silence of a tomb they went to their stations while eleven pairs of black Sicilian eyes searched their downcast features for a sign. Larubio, the cobbler, was paper-white above his smoky beard; Di Marco's swarthy face was green, like that of a corpse; his companions were frozen in various attitudes of eager, dreadful waiting. The only sound through the scuff and tramp of the jurors' feet was Normando's lunatic murmuring. As for the leader of the band, he sat as if graven in stone; but, despite his iron control, a pallor had crept up beneath his skin.

Blake heard Bernie whisper:

"Look! They know they're lost."

"Gentlemen of the jury, have you agreed upon a verdict?" came the voice of the judge.

The foreman rose. "We have."

He passed a document up to the bench, and silently the court examined it.

The seconds were now creeping minutes. Normando's ceaseless mumbling was like that of a man distraught by torture. A hand was used to silence him. The spectators were upon their feet and bent forward in attention; the cordon of officers closed in behind the accused as if to throttle any act of desperation.

The judge passed the verdict down to the minute clerk, who read in a clear, distinct, monotonous tone:

"Celso Fabbri, Frank Normando, mistrial. Salvatore di Marco, Frank Garcia, Giordano Bolla"--the list of names seemed interminable-- "Gaspardo Cressi, Lorenzo Cardoni, Caesar Maruffi"--he paused for an instant while time halted--"not guilty."

After the first moment of stunned stupefaction a murmur of angry disapproval ran through the crowd; it was not loud, but hushed, as if men doubted their senses and were seeking corroboration of their ears. From the street below, as the judgment was flashed to the waiting hundreds, came an echo, faint, unformed, like the first vague stir that runs ahead of a tempest.

The shock of Norvin Blake's amazement in part blurred his memory of that dramatic tableau, but certain details stood out clearly afterwards. For one thing he heard Bernie Dreux giggling like an overwrought woman, while through his hysteria ran a stream of shocking curses He saw one of the jurors rise, yawn, and stretch himself, then rub his bullet head, smiling meanwhile at the Cressi boy. He saw Caesar Maruffi turn full to the room behind him and search for his own face. When their eyes met, a light of devilish amusement lit the Sicilian's visage; his lips parted and his white teeth gleamed, but it was no smile, rather the nervous, rippling twitch that bares a wolf's fangs. His color had come flooding back, too; victory suffused him with a ruddy, purple congestion, almost apoplectic. Then heads came between them; friends of the prisoners crowded forward with noisy congratulations and outstretched palms; the rival attorneys were shaking hands.

Blake found himself borne along by the eddying stream which set out of the court-room and down into the sunlit street, where the curbs were lined with uplifted faces. Dreux was close beside him, quite silent now. A similar silence brooded over the whole procession which emerged from the building like a funeral cortege. When the moments brought home the truth to its members they felt, indeed, as if they came from a house of death, for they had seen Justice murdered, and the chill was in their hearts.

But there was something sinister in the hush which gagged that multitude.

Many readers will doubtless recall, even now, the shock that went through this country at the conclusion of the famous New Orleans Mafia trial of twenty years ago. They will, perhaps, remember a general feeling of surprise that an American jury would dare, in the face of such popular feeling and such apparently overwhelming evidence, to render a verdict of "not guilty." In some quarters the farcical outcome of the trial was blamed upon Louisiana's peculiar legal code. But the truth is our Northern cities had not at that time felt the power of organized crime. New York, for instance, had not been shaken by an interminable succession of dynamite outrages nor terrorized by bands of Latin-born Apaches who live by violence and blackmail; therefore, the tremendous difficulty of securing convictions was not appreciated as it is to-day.

There was a universal suspicion that the last word concerning the New Orleans affair had not been written, so what followed was not entirely a surprise.

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