Short Story: “Chain of Supposition”

What assumptions have you overlooked?

“Chain of Supposition”
by P. Orin Zack

Leo Kinstler, 24 and reluctantly attentive, leaned towards the jury box railing, cheating his outdated prescription a bit, to sharpen his view of the old TV that had been set up for Andrea Morvic, the prosecutor’s slick protégé. Lori Meyers’ video of the robbery had been shown several times already, but this was probably his last chance to see the hooded figure that had been identified as the man they kept calling, ‘the accused’.

“…that night, Ms. Meyers was taking advantage of a relatively rare event,” Morvic said calmly from beside the TV. “There aren’t many blackouts downtown, and she needed pictures of one for her student film.”

As the lights in the crowded courtroom dimmed, Leo struggled to adjust to the dark picture on the big tube. He figured that the big flatscreen he’d just bought would have shown the details better, but them’s the breaks when you’re dealing with the legal system. He grumbled in silence, and squinted at the wide shot of a group of stores, taken from across the street. The pet shop on the right glowed slightly from one of those emergency plug-in flashlights, aimed at the floor behind the counter.

The young attorney stepped forward, carefully dropping her heels in an echoing staccato, and indicated the street scene panning across the screen. “Ms. Meyers was alone on the street that night. She didn’t need actors, crew or special equipment, just her handheld camera, in order to take some establishing shots for the short drama she was working on.”

Leo was familiar with that part of town, and imagined Meyers standing on the opposite sidewalk, training her lens on the façade of a building a few doors down from the antique shop that had been robbed. The courtroom echoed with the recorded street noise, a background hum of traffic with the occasional car horn or shout.

Morvic raised a finger. “Then she heard this.” A sudden crash broke the relative quiet of the recorded scene. The image swayed as the camera turned towards the left. Someone was moving quickly on the sidewalk in front of the antique shop. The image zoomed in, staying on the distant figure, while the camera moved a few dozen feet closer. “As you can see,” she continued, “the man identified by forensics as having been inside the shop broke the front window and climbed in over the display case.”

The video clip ended, the lights came back up, and the assistant prosecutor segued into a combination of hard and circumstantial evidence, all pointing at the frightened man sitting beside the defense attorney.

Leo settled back in his seat. He had spent part of the trial on each side of the fence, sometimes agreeing with the prosecution, sometimes with the defense. It bothered him that both sides had completed their presentations, yet he was still unsure of what he would say afterwards in the jury room. He’d almost succumbed to the mesmerizing tone of Ms. Morvic’s practiced voice, when she abruptly concluded her final pitch to the jury with a clipped phrase punctuated with the perfectly timed clack of a heel.

Judge Ingram gaveled the observers at the rear of the courtroom to silence. “Mr. Kell, you may now make your closing remarks.”

For a lawyer, Horace Kell struck Leo as an especially observant man. Seemingly well-thought-out questions which Ms. Morvic or her boss posed to his client always seemed to spring a few logical leaks here and there. Several times during the case, Leo wondered whether the man visualized legal documents as if they were circuit diagrams or program code.

Kell rose, made eye contact with Leo, and then glanced at one of the other jurors. “The prosecution offers a very compelling case. Unfortunately, they have repeatedly glossed over some critical issues, which I would like to spend a few moments reviewing with the jury.”

He crossed to the TV, and rested his palm on its badly scratched cabinet. “The case that has been presented against my client can be broken into two parts, what happened outside the shop, and what happened inside. If you concern yourself only with the evidence presented about his presence inside, you find that it is largely circumstantial. After all, he had shopped there, and in doing so, had undoubtedly left fingerprints on items that he examined. If you were to consider the case solely on this basis, you would have to find him Not Guilty, as no proof is offered as to his presence there on the night in question.”

Kell turned to look at the screen briefly. “It is the other part of the case which the prosecution relies on to demonstrate my client’s presence there that night. And the evidence which they offer is a video that we are told was recorded that very night on the street near the shop. The video you have just seen shows an unidentified person breaking the store’s plate glass window and climbing inside. This, of course, is the only video record, because the power failure had knocked out security cameras which would otherwise have caught the event. And to confirm the identity of the person in the video, the prosecution has offered in evidence a jacket owned by my client which matches that worn by the individual in the video. What the prosecution has failed to do is prove that my client also possessed a mask matching the one worn by the person in the video.”

Leo nodded slightly in subconscious agreement.

“This, too, of course, is circumstantial, which means that to tie it together, the unidentified person in the video must be established as the same person who subsequently entered the shop, and then as my client. Which, of course, would be possible if the video showed the man touching a spot that later turned out to hold fingerprints of my client in the correct location and orientation. Unfortunately, the prosecution have been unable to do so.”

“We have also provided evidence – bits of glass scattered on the sidewalk – that suggests the window had actually been broken from the inside. The prosecution have countered this with a theory in which some of the glass may have scattered backwards, placing fragments on the same side of the glass from which the impact originated, as suggested by the video we have just seen. This is not the first time that such a theory has been offered. Fortunately for you, it is not conclusive.”

Leo was suddenly shaken by a twinge of cognitive dissonance. Overlaying his recent memory of the senior prosecutor’s expert witness was one of the grainy Zapruder film of John Kennedy’s assassination. The same questionable argument had been used to explain the direction the president’s head jerked when being struck by a bullet. Shaking the irrelevance from his mind, he wondered if the lawyer’s remark had been calculated. There are many ways to manipulate people, and he knew the guy was sharp.

Kell approached the jury. “But there is another problem with the evidence which the prosecution has presented to you, another doubt that must either be eliminated, or used as the basis for your verdict of Not Guilty. This doubt is of the very evidence of your own eyes and ears, evidence that you collected for yourselves right here in this courtroom. For you have been presented with a video record that is claimed to have been captured at that time and place, and to have been preserved without modification so that it could be presented to you here on this screen.”

Leo shifted in his seat.

“Yet no proof of that claim has been made. No evidence has been submitted that confirms the presence of Ms. Morvic that evening on the street in front of the antique shop. And without this proof, without a clear chain of evidence linking the events we are expected to believe happened on the street that night to the video presented in this room, you have no basis on which to conclude that the violence depicted on this screen was anything more than a fiction, the kind of material which might be offered by a film student as a class project, which is exactly what Ms. Morvic was supposedly doing that night.”

A replay of the angry exchange between Kell and the young film student flashed through Leo’s mind. He’d challenged her explanation with the record of film permits issued by the city, a list which did not include her name.

“Do you have any idea how much this miserable city charges for a film permit?” she had shot back. “After 9/11, the city council decided to protect the public from evil film makers by charging outrageous fees, and –.”

After Judge Ingram got her to calm down, she sheepishly admitted to filming without a permit. Guerrilla filmmaking, she’d called it. Kell pressed her on it, until she resignedly admitted to having broken the law. It didn’t do much for her credibility. There was even a motion to toss the video evidence entirely because of how it had been obtained, but the judge let it stand.

Kell placed a hand on the railing in front of Leo and glanced back at his client. “The prosecution has asked you to accept a chain of supposition, to accept as truth the images which you have seen, and to jump to a hasty conclusion about its validity, in order to confirm the rest of their evidence, which is predominantly circumstantial. I am certain that you have all seen video and movies of events that did not really happen, some of them in places that do not even exist. This is no different. And because it is no different, you must find my client Not Guilty.”

Leo’s brow furrowed as he watched the attorney return to his seat. The man’s final words had flushed out some vagrant thoughts from the underbrush of his memory, one of which was about the video he’d seen of the first aircraft to strike the World Trade Center back in 2001. It had always struck him as a troublesome bit of evidence. After all, the people who had shot it were film-makers from overseas, and it wasn’t released until the story of two hijacked aircraft had been drilled into everyone, even though, until the release of this video, there were only pictures of the second one. The video served to confirm this story, but only after it had been established through repetition. He didn’t recall reading anything about the kind of evidence Kell demanded for that video either. Yet it had been accepted as truth.

He felt a jab to his side. The juror beside him had an anxious look on his face, and was starting to stand. The judge had given them directions, and sent them to the jury room.

The issue of the validity of the two videos had gotten hopelessly tangled in his mind. As he reached the door, he felt that the defense’s final doubt was enough to break his stalemate, which eased his worry. But if that were so, what of the 9/11 video?

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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