The courtroom was packed. Everyone who was anyone in these parts had turned out to view the sentencing in what was going to be a historic case. Reporters were blocking the entrance to the courthouse, regular people were milling around the entrance, kept back by the police. Then the commotion really started. Cameras flashed and microphones were pointed in the direction of the police van that had just arrived, and the blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman being led out in heavy restraints and police officers on both sides didn't look like she could hurt a fly. But, as we all know, looks can be deceiving.
This lady was called Esme Xavier, and she was being dragged into the courthouse on a charge of murder in the first degree. She lived in a nice house in a good neighbourhood with her lazy, mooching half-sister, Francesca Rivers, who had no job or a desire to get one. Slowly, the years dragged on, and it saw Francesca's health take a nosedive as she became extremely ill and eventually died once her organs couldn't take any more. Which leads nicely into the reason she is now on trial. According to the prosecution, she (Esme) fattened her sister with calorie-laden foods deliberately to make sure that the health complications would kill her quicker than a normal, natural death, even bringing unhealthy foods to her while she was bedridden to ensure that she never got any better. And to top it all off, there was a life insurance on her.
The defence team, however, had a different set of events. According to them, Francesca had never been in the best of health, but never took it upon herself to change her lifestyle to accommodate this. The only reason she was staying with Esme without having to pay a penny of rent was because she blackmailed her successful elder sibling with altered photos to give the impression that she was stealing from the company she worked for. Easily disproved, of course, but Esme didn't know that, and she bent over backwards for her half-sister as a result. And since Esme always thought there was a reel of photos that could be used against her if she angered Francesca, she toed the line and did whatever she was told. Her untimely death was just really unfortunate. Well, that's the story behind it, anyway.
I was there in the audience when Esme Xavier was brought in in handcuffs, flanked by two police officers. She was all tearful as she stood there with her lawyer, a Mr Patrick Samson, who was reading out a personal appeal to the judge for her, as she couldn't stop crying long enough to read off the piece of paper she'd brought with her. I actually dozed off a little bit here, but I was brought back to the world of the living when the judge came in.
"All rise for Judge Dashner," someone bellowed, and everyone stood as a thin middle-aged lady in a black gown strode into the courtroom. Then, after a smack of her judicial hammer, all sat down.
"Bring on the Xavier case, please. This is a very tricky business and must be dealt with immediately," Judge Dashner demanded.
Finally, the trial started, and the prosecution, a woman called Angela Quentin, began to argue her case. "Your honour, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the woman you see before you is a murderer, plain and simple. She set out to kill her sister for the life insurance policy in her name for $1 million dollars, but couldn't find it in herself to do it quickly and painlessly, so she made sure it was a slow, painful death from the side-effects of obesity for Francesca Rivers. For that reason, she deserves nothing more and nothing less than to spend the rest of her natural life in prison for this crime."
"We know that it was obesity that eventually killed the late Miss Rivers, but how do you know that it was something Miss Esme Xavier did or didn't try to prevent?" the judge asked.
"We know that Francesca Rivers, while she was under the same roof as her sister, had no job and didn't want a job, and since she wasn't paying her sister any money, she was racking up really high bills that were burning holes in her sister's pockets," Quentin convinced. "Killing her for her life insurance policy would repay any debts she'd ran up over the course of her life and let her sister have a little more money than she needed to pay it off."
"I find that hard to believe, considering that Esme's bank accounts were checked by law enforcement and she hasn't got any outstanding debts, nor does she have any debts she'd already settled," Samson argued. "Besides, Miss Rivers' existing medical conditions meant that no company would ever allow her to have a policy."
"That doesn't mean she's innocent. That could just mean she's good with finances," Quentin explained. The audience started to talk amongst themselves, and the judge banged her gavel for quiet.
"Order, order! There will be no disturbances in my court!" she bellowed. The audience simmered down, and the defence presented their case.
"Your honour, the lady you see before you accused of murder is an innocent woman," Samson started. "When Francesca Rivers came to live with her, she had no money, and no job. Esme, out of the kindness of her heart, originally tried to help her get a job, but that proved to be useless, for Francesca had no desire to get one. When the defendant tried to enforce the rules her household had, Francesca Rivers used blackmail to get her way, using badly doctored photos so Esme Xavier would look guilty of embezzlement. It worked, and Esme stopped trying to persuade her sister to get a job." Judge Dashner looked unimpressed.
"What does this have to do with the case?" she asked.
"Your honour, providing this information is the only way my case against Miss Xavier's wrongful incarceration will make sense. Francesca Rivers held those photos above the defendant's head for months, and it eventually got to the point that she would threaten to go to the police with her photos for things as petty as luxury meals," Samson informed. "And as far as Esme knew, her job and livelihood were on the line, so she had to do whatever her sister said."
"Continue," the judge ordered.
"Eventually, Francesca Rivers got used to living on her sister's dime, and she got cosy. Apparently, having someone who does what you want is pretty cool. But then, out of the blue, she starts having health issues. She went to the doctor, who told her to start taking care of herself, but Francesca just figured it was too much hard work, and her health wasn't as bad as the doctors said. So she ignored them, and her health got worse as her weight increased," Samson argued. "Francesca didn't have the willpower to change herself for the better, so she used the hold she had over her sister to get more medicine and better care, despite the fact that doctors said it wouldn't help her. And they were right."
"But Esme had the power to stop her sister going down the slippery slope by refusing to give her more medicine and sending her to a hospital," Quentin argued. "She should have been the one to refuse to cave in to Francesca's demands, but she deliberately accepted her sister's terms knowing that it would kill her eventually. This is where I'd like to present my first example of physical evidence, your honour."
"Proceed," Judge Dashner permitted. An analysis of a coroner's report was displayed by a projector.
"Your honour, I have here the coroner's report, written by Mr Jackson Olivier. The post-mortem on Francesca River's body lists the cause of death as being a heart attack caused by a blockage of fat in the carotid artery. This is something that can only happen after years of having someone plan your meals for you. You don't end up with stuff like this in your system in just one day, after all. This can be counted as evidence that not only is this murder, but a cold and calculated murder committed by someone trusted by Miss Rivers. Thank you for your time, your honour."
The courtroom was in uproar. People were screaming, the lawyers were arguing and Miss Xavier looked to be on the verge of tears. "Order! Order! Settle down!" Judge Dashner yells, and they simmer down. She may look like a sweet old lady, but that woman reminds me of a lion tamer.
"Your honour, may I just point out that this does not prove my client forced the victim to eat the food, only that she ate the food," Samson yelled over the chaos.
"Do you have anything else to say in the defence of Esme Xavier before you rest your case?" Judge Dashner asked.
"Yes, I do. I'd like to call Maria Caliendo to the stand, your honour," Samson declared, as a plump, middle-aged woman took the stand. Her shoulder length brown hair had strands of grey in it, and she had creases on her face, the type caused by smiling. She wasn't smiling now. She went behind the dock, and a Bible was handed to her.
"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" a court official asked.
"Yes, sir," Maria replies.
"Proceed," the court official told her.
"Mrs Caliendo, what relationship did you have with the defendant, Miss Xavier, or the victim, Miss Rivers?" Samson inquired.
"I was the dietitian to the victim," Maria told the court. "I've known her since September 20-, when she was first referred to me after being diagnosed with diabetes."
"And what do you know of this case?" Samson asked her.
"Only what I've heard from the media, sir," Maria said.
"Does the possibility of the deceased, Francesca Rivers, having died from a heart attack linked to obesity?"
"No, sir. Francesca Rivers had an addictive personality and enjoyed the feeling of consuming large amounts of food. She also refused to follow my advice for the sake of her health."
Chaos descended on the courtroom. People cried, gasped and screamed and this time, it was the prosecution's turn to look shocked. "Order, order!" Judge Dashner screamed again, and once again they settled down. "What does the prosecution have to argue against the defence?"
"I have one testimony to bring before you before I rest my case," Quentin assured. "Your honour, I'd like to call Traci Baxter to the stand."
A young lady strolled up to the stand. It was like she wasn't in a courtroom, but a catwalk. When she was handed a Bible to swear on, she refused politely.
"No thank you. I happen to be atheist. Can I swear on a law book instead?" Traci asked. One was given to her.
"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" a bailiff asked.
"I do," Traci replied.
"Proceed," the bailiff replied.
"Miss Baxter, what relationship did you have with the defendant, Miss Xavier?" Quentin asked.
"She's a college friend," Traci told the court. "We went our separate ways after college because of our careers, but since we were still living fairly close by, we kept in touch and remained good friends. Went out for drinks when our schedules aligned."
"Can you name a particular incident?"
"Yes. About a year ago, Esme and I made plans to catch up at a local restaurant and talk about how our lives had gone. When I met Esme there, she seemed disoriented and stressed, and I asked her if she was OK. She said she was fine, but she still looked stressed. She said that she was just going through a lot of stress at work and now that she was living under the same roof as her half-sister, they were getting into a lot of fights. I believed her about it, and she relaxed and unwound throughout the night. I don't drink, but she had a few tequilas, and she started a drunken conversation about how fat her sister was getting. I paid it no mind, since they'd never liked each other and Esme was quite the talker when she was drunk. But one thing she said was quite interesting. 'I wouldn't be surprised if one day, she got so fat she couldn't get up out of bed.' And, about five months later, that's what happened."
"You saw Francesca after becoming bed bound?" the judge asked.
"Yes, your honour," Traci replied. "About a month or two before she died, I paid a home visit to Esme after not hearing from her for a few days. I knocked on the door, and Esme answered. She seemed pretty well-kept and business-like, even though she wasn't working. I couldn't see Francesca anywhere, and she was usually in the house and I asked where she was. Esme smiled a sad little smile, and directed me to the room she'd always had as a spare bedroom. But now it was Francesca's room, and that was when and how I found out about Francesca's bedridden condition. She looked horribly fat and pale, like she was a bloated whale about to die. The only thing stopping me from placing a sheet over her face was that I heard her talk. 'I'm a little thirsty. Get me something to drink, Esme,' she said. Esme complies and goes to the store, leaving me alone with Francesca.
"When Esme comes back, she has two bags laded with food. One has groceries in, like milk, bread, cereal, fruit and stuff like that. The other bag is stuffed with fruit and a huge cup. Esme tells me, politely, to leave so Francesca can eat in private. She closes the door behind them, and I go into the other room and watch the TV. But I can still hear them talking. Francesca's protesting that this isn't what she wants, but Esme ignores her. 'Just drink it, it'll make you feel better,' she says. I don't hear anything else after that."
Murmurs and pointed whispers were heard. Glares were shot at Esme's back. If looks could kill, she'd be dead. The judge banged her gavel for silence.
"Any argument in the defence of Miss Esme Xavier?" Judge Dashner asked.
"As far as Miss Baxter knows, that drink could have been perfectly harmless, and there's no way that she could have been able to know if the drink was poisoned just from the conversation she overheard," Samson replied, without missing a beat.
"Has the defence got anything else to say about their defendant?" Judge Dashner asked.
"No, ma'am," Samson reported. Quentin had a small, smug smile on her face after hearing that. As far as she was concerned, she was going to win this in a landslide vote, especially seeing that the defence had nothing to say. Judge Dashner nodded.
"Men and women of the jury, now you have heard both sides of the story, you will have to step out to deliberate on the verdict and sentence of the defendant," Judge Dashner ordered. Her voice echoed off the walls like an angry spirit. Silently, the twelve jurors exited the courtroom, leaving the audience to talk amongst themselves. And boy, did they talk.
When the jury came back, everyone was on the edge of their seats. What were they about to say? The foreman of the jury, a Hispanic woman who was just starting to go grey around the edges, stepped forward.
"Has the jury reached a verdict?" Judge Dashner asked.
"We have, your honour," she replied.
"What is your verdict?"
"In the case of murder in the first degree, we the jury find the defendant not guilty," the woman answered.
The courtroom had officially descended into chaos unlike anything that had happened earlier today. People were screaming white privilege, cheering the judge and booing the judge all at the same time. "Order, order!" Judge Dashner screamed, but this time it didn't work. "Esme Xavier, you have been found not guilty in the eyes of this court, and you are now entitled to go free. Do you have anything to say?"
"I'd just like to say thank you for freeing me," Esme sobbed. "Thank you, thank you, thank you." She continued to cry as she was led out of the courtroom by a very smug Mr Samson. As people screamed and cried and cheered and fought each other over the verdict, I slipped out. I had a news story to write, after all.
Slipping out of the room wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. The courtroom they'd chosen was absolutely huge, and I got lost really quickly. Eventually, I got out of there, but I ran into Esme Xavier and her lawyer, Samson. I figured they'd get mad once they saw me, but then I realized none of them knew I was there. Esme wasn't crying like she was in the courtroom. She was laughing outside with her lawyer.
"The plan went perfectly, Samson," Esme cackled. "I didn't know you were so good at forging handwriting. I gave you a schoolbook she wrote in once when we were in high school and you're able to forge an entire suicide note."
"I never knew you were such a good actress," Samson sniggered. "So, what will you do with your half of the life insurance?"
"I'm going to take myself on a nice, three-month long holiday to the Bahamas," Esme smiled. "I knew the jury would set me free once you had that lady pretend she was a dietitian. How did you get her to do that?"
"Trust me, I know people," Samson purred. "You know the rest of the plan?"
"Take all your money, fake your death, change your name to something nobody would recognize and scarper," Esme grinned. "Got it! And thank you for getting me out of prison." The lawyer and the successful businesswoman shook hands and went their separate ways. Neither one of them noticed me, and I didn't even care. I was still in shock. But I eventually managed to snap out of it and got home just in time for dinner. Those bestselling news articles you hear about were never in the habit of writing themselves for you. More's the pity, I guess.