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The Appeal


The jury was ready.

After forty–two hours of deliberations that followed
seventy–one days of trial that included 530 hours of
testimony from four dozen witnesses, and after a lifetime of
sitting silently as the lawyers haggled and the judge lectured and
the spectators watched like hawks for telltale signs, the jury was
ready. Locked away in the jury room, secluded and secure, ten of
them proudly signed their names to the verdict while the other two
pouted in their corners, detached and miserable in their
dissension. There were hugs and smiles and no small measure of
self-congratulation because they had survived this little war and
could now march proudly back into the arena with a decision they
had rescued through sheer determination and the dogged pursuit of
compromise. Their ordeal was over; their civic duty complete. They
had served above and beyond. They were ready.

The foreman knocked on the door and rustled Uncle Joe from his
slumbers. Uncle Joe, the ancient bailiff, had guarded them while he
also arranged their meals, heard their complaints, and quietly
slipped their messages to the judge. In his younger years, back
when his hearing was better, Uncle Joe was rumored to also
eavesdrop on his juries through a flimsy pine door he and he alone
had selected and installed. But his listening days were over, and,
as he had confided to no one but his wife, after the ordeal of this
particular trial he might just hang up his old pistol once and for
all. The strain of controlling justice was wearing him down.

He smiled and said, “That’s great. I’ll get the
judge,” as if the judge were somewhere in the bowels of the
courthouse just waiting for a call from Uncle Joe. Instead, by
custom, he found a clerk and passed along the wonderful news. It
was truly exciting. The old courthouse had never seen a trial so
large and so long. To end it with no decision at all would have
been a shame.

The clerk tapped lightly on the judge’s door, then took a
step inside and proudly announced, “We have a verdict,”
as if she had personally labored through the negotiations and now
was presenting the result as a gift.

The judge closed his eyes and let loose a deep, satisfying sigh. He
smiled a happy, nervous smile of enormous relief, almost disbelief,
and finally said, “Round up the lawyers.”

After almost five days of deliberations, Judge Harrison had
resigned himself to the likelihood of a hung jury, his worst
nightmare. After four years of bare–knuckle litigation and
four months of a hotly contested trial, the prospect of a draw made
him ill. He couldn’t begin to imagine the prospect of doing
it all again.

He stuck his feet into his old penny loafers, jumped from the chair
grinning like a little boy, and reached for his robe. It was
finally over, the longest trial of his extremely colorful

The clerk’s first call went to the firm of Payton &
Payton, a local husband–and–wife team now operating out
of an abandoned dime store in a lesser part of town. A paralegal
picked up the phone, listened for a few seconds, hung up, then
shouted, “The jury has a verdict!” His voice echoed
through the cavernous maze of small, temporary workrooms and jolted
his colleagues.

He shouted it again as he ran to The Pit, where the rest of the
firm was frantically gathering. Wes Payton was already there, and
when his wife, Mary Grace, rushed in, their eyes met in a split
second of unbridled fear and bewilderment. Two paralegals, two
secretaries, and a bookkeeper gathered at the long, cluttered
worktable, where they suddenly froze and gawked at one another, all
waiting for someone else to speak.

Could it really be over? After they had waited for an eternity,
could it end so suddenly? So abruptly? With just a phone

“How about a moment of silent prayer,” Wes said, and
they held hands in a tight circle and prayed as they had never
prayed before. All manner of petitions were lifted up to God
Almighty, but the common plea was for victory. Please, dear Lord,
after all this time and effort and money and fear and doubt,
please, oh please, grant us a divine victory. And deliver us from
humiliation, ruin, bankruptcy, and a host of other evils that a bad
verdict will bring.

The clerk’s second call was to the cell phone of Jared
Kurtin, the architect of the defense. Mr. Kurtin was lounging
peacefully on a rented leather sofa in his temporary office on
Front Street in downtown Hattiesburg, three blocks from the
courthouse. He was reading a biography and watching the hours pass
at $750 per. He listened calmly, slapped the phone shut, and said,
“Let’s go. The jury is ready.” His
dark–suited soldiers snapped to attention and lined up to
escort him down the street in the direction of another crushing
victory. They marched away without comment, without prayer.

Other calls went to other lawyers, then to the reporters, and
within minutes the word was on the street and spreading

Somewhere near the top of a tall building in lower Manhattan, a
panic-stricken young man barged into a serious meeting and
whispered the urgent news to Mr. Carl Trudeau, who immediately lost
interest in the issues on the table, stood abruptly, and said,
“Looks like the jury has reached a verdict.” He marched
out of the room and down the hall to a vast corner suite, where he
removed his jacket, loosened his tie, walked to a window, and gazed
through the early darkness at the Hudson River in the distance. He
waited, and as usual asked himself how, exactly, so much of his
empire could rest upon the combined wisdom of twelve average people
in backwater Mississippi.

For a man who knew so much, that answer was still elusive.

People were hurrying into the courthouse from all directions when
the Paytons parked on the street behind it. They stayed in the car
for a moment, still holding hands. For four months they had tried
not to touch each other anywhere near the courthouse. Someone was
always watching. Maybe a juror or a reporter. It was important to
be as professional as possible. The novelty of a married legal team
surprised people, and the

Paytons tried to treat each other as attorneys and not as

And, during the trial, there had been precious little touching away
from the courthouse or anywhere else.

“What are you thinking?” Wes asked without looking at
his wife. His heart was racing and his forehead was wet. He still
gripped the wheel with his left hand, and he kept telling himself
to relax.

Relax. What a joke.

“I have never been so afraid,” Mary Grace said.

“Neither have I.”

A long pause as they breathed deeply and watched a television van
almost slaughter a pedestrian.

“Can we survive a loss?” she said. “That’s
the question.”

“We have to survive; we have no choice. But we’re not
going to lose.”

“Attaboy. Let’s go.”

They joined the rest of their little firm and entered the
courthouse together. Waiting in her usual spot on the first floor
by the soft drink machines was their client, the plaintiff,
Jeannette Baker, and when she saw her lawyers, she immediately
began to cry. Wes took one arm, Mary Grace the other, and they
escorted Jeannette up the stairs to the main courtroom on the
second floor. They could’ve carried her. She weighed less
than a hundred pounds and had aged five years during the trial. She
was depressed, at times delusional, and though not anorexic, she
simply didn’t eat. At thirty–four, she had already
buried a child and a husband and was now at the end of a horrible
trial she secretly wished she had never pursued.

The courtroom was in a state of high alert, as if bombs were coming
and the sirens were wailing. Dozens of people milled about, or
looked for seats, or chatted nervously with their eyes darting
around. When Jared Kurtin and the defense army entered from a side
door, everyone gawked as if he might know something they
didn’t. Day after day for the past four months he had proven
that he could see around corners, but at that moment his face
revealed nothing. He huddled gravely with his subordinates.

Across the room, just a few feet away, the Paytons and Jeannette
settled into their chairs at the plaintiff ’s table. Same
chairs, same positions, same deliberate strategy to impress upon
the jurors that this poor widow and her two lonely lawyers were
taking on a giant corporation with unlimited resources. Wes Payton
glanced at Jared Kurtin, their eyes met, and each offered a polite
nod. The miracle of the trial was that the two men were still able
to treat each other with a modest dose of civility, even converse
when absolutely necessary. It had become a matter of pride.
Regardless of how nasty the situation, and there had been so many
nasty ones, each was determined to rise above the gutter and offer
a hand.

Mary Grace did not look over, and if she had, she would not have
nodded or smiled. And it was a good thing that she did not carry a
handgun in her purse, or half of the dark suits on the other side
wouldn’t be there. She arranged a clean legal pad on the
table before her, wrote the date, then her name, then could not
think of anything else to log in. In seventy–one days of
trial she had filled sixty–six legal pads, all the same size
and color and now filed in perfect order in a secondhand metal
cabinet in The Pit. She handed a tissue to Jeannette. Though she
counted virtually everything, Mary Grace had not kept a running
tally on the number of tissue boxes Jeannette had used during the
trial. Several dozen at least.

The woman cried almost nonstop, and while Mary Grace was profoundly
sympathetic, she was also tired of all the damned crying. She was
tired of everything—the exhaustion, the stress, the sleepless
nights, the scrutiny, the time away from her children, their
run–down apartment, the mountain of unpaid bills, the
neglected clients, the cold Chinese food at midnight, the challenge
of doing her face and hair every morning so she could be somewhat
attractive in front of the jury. It was expected of her.

Stepping into a major trial is like plunging with a weighted belt
into a dark and weedy pond. You manage to scramble up for air, but
the rest of the world doesn’t matter. And you always think
you’re drowning.

A few rows behind the Paytons, at the end of a bench that was
quickly becoming crowded, the Paytons’ banker chewed his
nails while trying to appear calm. His name was Tom Huff, or Huffy
to everyone who knew him. Huffy had dropped in from time to time to
watch the trial and offer a silent prayer of his own. The Paytons
owed Huffy’s bank $400,000, and the only collateral was a
tract of farmland in Cary County owned by Mary Grace’s
father. On a good day it might fetch $100,000, leaving, obviously,
a substantial chunk of unsecured debt. If the Paytons lost the
case, then Huffy’s once promising career as a banker would be
over. The bank president had long since stopped yelling at him. Now
all the threats were by e-mail.

What had begun innocently enough with a simple $90,000 second
mortgage loan against their lovely suburban home had progressed
into a gaping hellhole of red ink and foolish spending. Foolish at
least in Huffy’s opinion. But the nice home was gone, as was
the nice downtown office, and the imported cars, and everything
else. The Paytons were risking it all, and Huffy had to admire
them. A big verdict, and he was a genius. The wrong verdict, and
he’d stand in line behind them at the bankruptcy court.

The moneymen on the other side of the courtroom were not chewing
their nails and were not particularly worried about bankruptcy,
though it had been discussed. Krane Chemical had plenty of cash and
profits and assets, but it also had hundreds of potential
plaintiffs waiting like vultures to hear what the world was about
to hear. A crazy verdict, and the lawsuits would fly.

But they were a confident bunch at that moment. Jared Kurtin was
the best defense lawyer money could buy. The company’s stock
had dipped only slightly. Mr. Trudeau, up in New York, seemed to be

They couldn’t wait to get home.

Thank God the markets had closed for the day.

Uncle Joe yelled, “Keep your seats,” and Judge Harrison
entered through the door behind his bench. He had long since cut
out the silly routine of requiring everyone to stand just so he
could assume his throne.

“Good afternoon,” he said quickly. It was almost 5:00
p.m. “I have been informed by the jury that a verdict has
been reached.” He was looking around, making sure the players
were present. “I expect decorum at all times. No outbursts.
No one leaves until I dismiss the jury. Any questions? Any
additional frivolous motions from the defense?”

Jared Kurtin never flinched. He did not acknowledge the judge in
any way, but just kept doodling on his legal pad as if he were
painting a masterpiece. If Krane Chemical lost, it would appeal
with a vengeance, and the cornerstone of its appeal would be the
obvious bias of the Honorable Thomas Alsobrook Harrison IV, a
former trial lawyer with a proven dislike for all big corporations
in general and, now, Krane Chemical

in particular.

“Mr. Bailiff, bring in the jury.”

The door next to the jury box opened, and somewhere a giant unseen
vacuum sucked every ounce of air from the courtroom. Hearts froze.
Bodies stiffened. Eyes found objects to fixate on. The only sound
was that of the jurors’ feet shuffling across well–worn

Jared Kurtin continued his methodical scribbling. His routine was
to never look at the faces of the jurors when they returned with a
verdict. After a hundred trials he knew they were impossible to
read. And why bother? Their decision would be announced in a matter
of seconds anyway. His team had strict instructions to ignore the
jurors and show no reaction whatsoever to the verdict.

Of course Jared Kurtin wasn’t facing financial and
professional ruin. Wes Payton certainly was, and he could not keep
his eyes from the eyes of the jurors as they settled into their
seats. The dairy operator looked away, a bad sign. The
schoolteacher stared right through Wes, another bad sign. As the
foreman handed an envelope to the clerk, the minister’s wife
glanced at Wes with a look of pity, but then she had been offering
the same sad face since the opening statements.

Mary Grace caught the sign, and she wasn’t even looking for
it. As she handed another tissue to Jeannette Baker, who was
practically sobbing now, Mary Grace stole a look at juror number
six, the one closest to her, Dr. Leona Rocha, a retired English
professor at the university. Dr. Rocha, behind red-framed reading
glasses, gave the quickest, prettiest, most sensational wink Mary
Grace would ever receive.

“Have you reached a verdict?” Judge Harrison was

“Yes, Your Honor, we have,” the foreman said.

“Is it unanimous?”

“No, sir, it is not.”

“Do at least nine of you agree on the verdict?”

“Yes, sir. The vote is 10 to 2.”

“That’s all that matters.”

Mary Grace scribbled a note about the wink, but in the fury of the
moment she could not read her own handwriting. Try to appear calm,
she kept telling herself.

Judge Harrison took the envelope from the clerk, removed a sheet of
paper, and began reviewing the verdict—heavy wrinkles
burrowing into his forehead, eyes frowning as he pinched the bridge
of his nose. After an eternity he said, “It appears to be in
order.” Not one single twitch or grin or widening of the
eyes, nothing to indicate what was written on the sheet of

He looked down and nodded at his court reporter and cleared his
throat, thoroughly relishing the moment. Then the wrinkles softened
around his eyes, the jaw muscles loosened, the shoulders sagged a
bit, and, to Wes anyway, there was suddenly hope that the jury had
scorched the defendant.

In a slow, loud voice, Judge Harrison read: “Question number
one: ‘Do you find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that
the groundwater at issue was contaminated by Krane Chemical
Corporation?’ ” After a treacherous pause that lasted
no more than five seconds, he continued, “The answer is
‘Yes.’ ”

One side of the courtroom managed to breathe while the other side
began to turn blue.

“Question number two: ‘Do you find, by a preponderance
of the evidence, that the contamination was the proximate cause of
the death or deaths of (a) Chad Baker and/or (b) Pete Baker?’
Answer: ‘Yes, for both.’ ”

Mary Grace managed to pluck tissues from a box and hand them over
with her left hand while writing furiously with her right. Wes
managed to steal a glance at juror number four, who happened to be
glancing at him with a humorous grin that seemed to say, “Now
for the good part.”

“Question number three: ‘For Chad Baker, what amount of
money do you award to his mother, Jeannette Baker, as damages for
his wrongful death?’ Answer: ‘Five hundred thousand
dollars.’ ”

Dead children aren’t worth much, because they earn nothing,
but Chad’s impressive award rang like an alarm because it
gave a quick preview of what was to come. Wes stared at the clock
above the judge and thanked God that bankruptcy had been

“Question number four: ‘For Pete Baker, what amount of
money do you award to his widow, Jeannette Baker, as damages for
his wrongful death?’ Answer: ‘Two and a half million
dollars.’ ”

There was a rustle from the money boys in the front row behind
Jared Kurtin. Krane could certainly handle a $3 million hit, but it
was the ripple effect that suddenly terrified them. For his part,
Mr. Kurtin had yet to flinch.

Not yet.

Jeannette Baker began to slide out of her chair. She was caught by
both of her lawyers, who pulled her up, wrapped arms around her
frail shoulders, and whispered to her. She was sobbing, out of

There were six questions on the list that the lawyers had hammered
out, and if the jury answered yes to number five, then the whole
world would go crazy. Judge Harrison was at that point, reading it
slowly, clearing his throat, studying the answer. Then he revealed
his mean streak. He did so with a smile. He glanced up a few
inches, just above the sheet of paper he was holding, just over the
cheap reading glasses perched on his nose, and he looked directly
at Wes Payton. The grin was tight, conspiratorial, yet filled with
gleeful satisfaction.

“Question number five: ‘Do you find, by a preponderance
of the evidence, that the actions of Krane Chemical Corporation
were either intentional or so grossly negligent as to justify the
imposition of punitive damages?’ Answer: ‘Yes.’

Mary Grace stopped writing and looked over the bobbing head of her
client to her husband, whose gaze was frozen upon her. They had
won, and that alone was an exhilarating, almost indescribable rush
of euphoria. But how large was their victory? At that crucial split
second, both knew it was indeed a landslide.

“Question number six: ‘What is the amount of punitive
damages?’ Answer: ‘Thirty-eight million dollars.’

There were gasps and coughs and soft whistles as the shock waves
rattled around the courtroom. Jared Kurtin and his gang were busy
writing everything down and trying to appear unfazed by the bomb
blast. The honchos from Krane in the front row were trying to
recover and breathe normally. Most glared at the jurors and thought
vile thoughts that ran along the lines of ignorant people,
backwater stupidity, and so on.

Mr. and Mrs. Payton were again both reaching for their client, who
was overcome by the sheer weight of the verdict and trying
pitifully to sit up. Wes whispered reassurances to Jeannette while
repeating to himself the numbers he had just heard. Somehow, he
managed to keep his face serious and avoid a goofy smile.

Huffy the banker stopped crunching his nails. In less than thirty
seconds he had gone from a disgraced, bankrupt former bank vice
president to a rising star with designs on a bigger salary and
office. He even felt smarter. Oh, what a marvelous entrance into
the bank’s boardroom he would choreograph first thing in the
morning. The judge was going on about formalities and thanking the
jurors, but Huffy didn’t care. He had heard all he needed to

The jurors stood and filed out as Uncle Joe held the door and
nodded with approval. He would later tell his wife that he had
predicted such a verdict, though she had no memory of it. He
claimed he hadn’t missed a verdict in the many decades he had
worked as a bailiff. When the jurors were gone, Jared Kurtin stood
and, with perfect composure, rattled off the usual post-verdict
inquiries, which Judge Harrison took with great compassion now that
the blood was on the floor. Mary Grace had no response. Mary Grace
didn’t care. She had what she wanted.

Wes was thinking about the $41 million and fighting his emotions.
The firm would survive, as would their marriage, their reputations,

When Judge Harrison finally announced, “We are
adjourned,” a mob raced from the courtroom. Everyone grabbed
a cell phone.

The Appeal
by by John Grisham

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385515049
  • ISBN-13: 9780385515047