Lone Star Planet
I looked around.
We were on a high balcony, at the end of a long, narrow room. In front of us, windows rose to the ceiling, and it was evident that the floor of the room was about twenty feet below ground level. Outside, I could see the barbecue still going on, but not a murmur of noise penetrated to us. What seemed to be the judge’s bench was against the outside wall, under the tall windows. To the right of it was a railed stand with a chair in it, and in front, arranged in U-shape, were three tables at which a number of men were hastily conferring. There were nine judges in a row on the bench, all in black gowns. The spectators’ seats below were filled with people, and there were quite a few up here on the balcony.
“What is this? Supreme Court?” I asked as Gail piloted me to a couple of seats where we could be alone.
“No, Court of Political Justice,” she told me. “This is the court that’s going to try those three Bonney brothers, who killed Mr. Cumshaw.”
It suddenly occurred to me that this was the first time I had heard anything specific about the death of my predecessor.
“That isn’t the trial that’s going on now, I hope?”
“Oh, no; that won’t be for a couple of days. Not till after you can arrange to attend. I don’t know what this trial is. I only got home today, myself.”
“What’s the procedure here?” I wanted to know.
“Well, those nine men are judges,” she began. “The one in the middle is President Judge Nelson. You’ve met his son--the Ranger officer who chased you from the spaceport. He’s a regular jurist. The other eight are prominent citizens who are drawn from a panel, like a jury. The men at the table on the left are the prosecution: friends of the politician who was killed. And the ones on the right are the defense: they’ll try to prove that the dead man got what was coming to him. The ones in the middle are friends of the court: they’re just anybody who has any interest in the case--people who want to get some point of law cleared up, or see some precedent established, or something like that.”
“You seem to assume that this is a homicide case,” I mentioned.
“They generally are. Sometimes mayhem, or wounding, or simple assault, but--”
There had been some sort of conference going on in the open space of floor between the judges’ bench and the three tables. It broke up, now, and the judge in the middle rapped with his gavel.
“Are you gentlemen ready?” he asked. “All right, then. Court of Political Justice of the Confederate Continents of New Texas is now in session. Case of the friends of S. Austin Maverick, deceased, late of James Bowie Continent, versus Wilbur Whately.”
“My God, did somebody finally kill Aus Maverick?” Gail whispered.
On the center table, in front of the friends of the court, both sides seemed to have piled their exhibits; among the litter I saw some torn clothing, a big white sombrero covered with blood, and a long machete.
“The general nature of the case,” the judge was saying, “is that the defendant, Wilbur Whately, of Sam Houston Continent, is here charged with divers offenses arising from the death of the Honorable S. Austin Maverick, whom he killed on the front steps of the Legislative Assembly Building, here in New Austin...”
What goes on here? I thought angrily. This is the rankest instance of a pre-judged case I’ve ever seen. I started to say as much to Gail, but she hushed me.
“I want to hear the specifications,” she said.
A man at the prosecution table had risen.
“Please the court,” he began, “the defendant, Wilbur Whately, is here charged with political irresponsibility and excessive atrocity in exercising his constitutional right of criticism of a practicing politician.
“The specifications are, as follows: That, on the afternoon of May Seventh, Anno Domini 2193, the defendant here present did arm himself with a machete, said machete not being one of his normal and accustomed weapons, and did loiter in wait on the front steps of the Legislative Assembly Building in the city of New Austin, Continent of Sam Houston, and did approach the decedent, addressing him in abusive, obscene, and indecent language, and did set upon and attack him with the machete aforesaid, causing the said decedent, S. Austin Maverick, to die.”
The court wanted to know how the defendant would plead. Somebody, without bothering to rise, said, “Not guilty, Your Honor,” from the defense table.
There was a brief scraping of chairs; four of five men from the defense and the prosecution tables got up and advanced to confer in front of the bench, comparing sheets of paper. The man who had read the charges, obviously the chief prosecutor, made himself the spokesman.
“Your Honor, defense and prosecution wish to enter the following stipulations: That the decedent was a practicing politician within the meaning of the Constitution, that he met his death in the manner stated in the coroner’s report, and that he was killed by the defendant, Wilbur Whately.”
“Is that agreeable to you, Mr. Vincent?” the judge wanted to know.
The defense answered affirmatively. I sat back, gaping like a fool. Why, that was practically--no, it was--a confession.
“All right, gentlemen,” the judge said. “Now we have all that out of the way, let’s get on with the case.”
As though there were any case to get on with! I fully expected them to take it on from there in song, words by Gilbert and music by Sullivan.
“Well, Your Honor, we have a number of character witnesses,” the prosecution--prosecution, for God’s sake!--announced.
“Skip them,” the defense said. “We stipulate.”
“But you can’t stipulate character testimony,” the prosecution argued. “You don’t know what our witnesses are going to testify to.”
“Sure we do: they’re going to give us a big long shaggy-dog story about the Life and Miracles of Saint Austin Maverick. We’ll agree in advance to all that; this case is concerned only with his record as a politician. And as he spent the last fifteen years in the Senate, that’s all a matter of public record. I assume that the prosecution is going to introduce all that, too?”
“Well, naturally...” the prosecutor began.
“Including his public acts on the last day of his life?” the counsel for the defense demanded. “His actions on the morning of May seventh as chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee? You going to introduce that as evidence for the prosecution?”
“Well, now...” the prosecutor began.
“Your Honor, we ask to have a certified copy of the proceedings of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee for the morning of May Seventh, 2193, read into the record of this court,” the counsel for the defense said. “And thereafter, we rest our case.”
“Has the prosecution anything to say before we close the court?” Judge Nelson inquired.
“Well, Your Honor, this seems ... that is, we ought to hear both sides of it. My old friend, Aus Maverick, was really a fine man; he did a lot of good for the people of his continent...”
“Yeah, we’d of lynched him, when he got back, if somebody hadn’t chopped him up here in New Austin!” a voice from the rear of the courtroom broke in.
The prosecution hemmed and hawed for a moment, and then announced, in a hasty mumble, that it rested.
“I will now close the court,” Judge Nelson said. “I advise everybody to keep your seats. I don’t think it’s going to be closed very long.”
And then, he actually closed the court; pressing a button on the bench, he raised a high black screen in front of him and his colleagues. It stayed up for some sixty seconds, and then dropped again.
“The Court of Political Justice has reached a verdict,” he announced. “Wilbur Whately, and your attorney, approach and hear the verdict.”
The defense lawyer motioned a young man who had been sitting beside him to rise. In the silence that had fallen, I could hear the defendant’s boots squeaking as he went forward to hear his fate. The judge picked up a belt and a pair of pistols that had been lying in front of him.
“Wilbur Whately,” he began, “this court is proud to announce that you have been unanimously acquitted of the charge of political irresponsibility, and of unjustified and excessive atrocity.
“There was one dissenting vote on acquitting you of the charge of political irresponsibility; one of the associate judges felt that the late unmitigated scoundrel, Austin Maverick, ought to have been skinned alive, an inch at a time. You are, however, acquitted of that charge, too.