‘Do you know how to stop a lawyer from drowning?’
Mabel exploded in her Mabel-laugh and bent double where she was sitting in her office behind the old wooden desk. Her favourite investigating officer, warrant office Jonny Mahlaba, just popped in to deliver a high court subpoena. He’s acquired a sincere distaste for the legal profession and has adopted the hobby of collecting lawyer jokes.
He plopped down in the chair across from her. His short but strong frame fit neatly into the small chair but he moved to the very front of the chair, something he always did. It made him look perpetually in a hurry. But Mabel has learnt that his stratospheric energy levels didn’t allow him an easy sit.
‘Howzit at the new digs, Doc? Things going well here?’
‘Things are going well, thanks Jonny. I still feel like the unwelcome new kid in a posh school but that’ll pass with time. How’re things in Jozi?’
Mahlaba was a seasoned detective from Johannesburg. He used to serve in the old Murder and Robbery Unit before the South African government thought it best to disband the specialist police units at the end of the twentieth century. He had a nose for working in the townships. He was an elegant, highly intelligent and articulate man, but if the occasion called for it, he could fit in with the most gang-liest of gangs, or lowly-est of low-lives. This made him an indispensable cop.
‘I haven’t been shot yet, which is an upside. Though my wife still doesn’t think so.’
Mabel detonated another laughing fit and her big, curly hair whipped to the front and back as she chuckled.
‘Ah Mahlaba, I miss you guys.’
‘Well, here’s a chance to visit. Your subpoena for the Slippers-case. The prosecutor has finally deemed the docket trial-ready. Apparently all she was waiting for is for enough time to go by…’
Mabel stared at the subpoena. The date was in exactly two weeks. Enough time to prepare. Testifying in criminal proceedings was one essential aspect of her job she just couldn’t quite get used to.
‘Will I ever be comfortable with this?’ Mabel asked.
For a moment, silence.
‘No. And that’s a good thing.’
‘How you figure?’
‘It’s hell. Only the devil’s children get used to it.’
Mabel sniggered but she felt the question was forming a lead ball in her stomach. She was staring down at the subpoena but she was long done reading it.
‘Why is it so bad for you?’ Mahlaba then asked.
‘I don’t know, hey. I…well, I guess it confuses me. Every day us folks in law enforcement get up, go to work and try our grooviest to find the truth. To solve problems. To expose what was hidden. Then you get to court. Then the pursuit of truth takes a coffee break and goes out to lunch. And what you’re left with are two sides trying to scratch each other’s eyes out, truth be damned.’
‘We have prosecutors at least. They’re on our side.’
‘Hao! On whose side? They’re the worst of all! The last time I went to testify, the prosecutor didn’t bother consulting with me before I was called, and he kept trying to get me to say stuff I wasn’t prepared to say. I was sure he was going to ask to have me declared hostile. And then I had cross-examination to look forward to.’
‘Oi…cross-examination….’ Mahlaba forced out the words as though he was remembering a war.
‘Right? Gosh, I don’t know. Every time I’m done testifying I feel I need an exorcism…’
‘That’s lawyers for you. What’s the difference between a dead dog lying in the middle of the highway, and a dead lawyer lying in the middle of the highway?’
Mabel smiled. ‘Dunno, Mahlaba. Tell me.’
‘There are break marks in front of the dead dog.’
The Slippers-case was always going to be uncomfortable business. Mabel, still specialising in forensic medicine, was called upon to perform an autopsy on an exhumed body. She managed to fit together pieces of the puzzle of how a young mother was murdered, but also managed to enrage many forensic pathologists. She performed a secondary autopsy on the body long after a senior colleague had completely buggered up the primary post-mortem. There was no doubt in Mabel’s mind that the ‘senior’ member of staff never even opened up the body for a full examination. The workload on South Africa’s forensic pathologists was ridiculous, but so was this primary autopsy.
‘Doctor Ackerman?’ A gorgeous brown-haired woman interrupted Mabel’s daydream where she was sitting outside court A in the Higher Court of Gauteng South. The woman had translucent skin pulled tightly over high cheek bones and a strong jawline. She was wearing a grey fitted pant suit and, for a moment, Mabel listened for the theme song from Law and Order.
‘Yes?’ Mabel stood up and held out a nervous hand.
‘I’m Advocate Sylvia Teel.’ She shook Mabel’s hand quickly. ‘I’m the prosecutor.’
‘Oh, so nice to meet you! You can just call me Mabel.’
Teel looked at Mabel without expression. Mabel’s bouncy bunch of curls crowned her light brown skin covered in freckles and a broad, delightful smile. Please don’t ask me if I’m old enough to be a doctor, Mabel thought. Darn-a-duck, I should have worn more make-up and some grown-up pants.
But Teel remained deadpan. ‘Follow me please.’
Mabel fully expected a wooden stage and a hangman’s noose when she entered the courtroom. But only the normal stuff. The court was almost empty apart for some court officers preparing for battle. They arrived at the prosecutor’s table, where Teel handed Mabel her autopsy report to study.
‘Here you go. Please read this. I have some questions when you are done.’
Mabel read the report carefully.
‘Okay, I’m done.’ She was hoping Teel would ask her to sit down. Her ears were starting to ring. Her blood pressure was as unenthused to be here as she was.
‘Good. Please have a seat.’
Thank you, Jesus.
‘Doctor Ackerman, your report differs materially from the primary autopsy report submitted by Dr Schmidt. That will be one of the most important questions. Can you explain the discrepancy?’
Mabel did her best to explain her findings in an objective, impartial manner. This is where science must stand up for the truth.
Teel proceeded to ask Mabel many more questions. Her expression remained vacant throughout. She listened patiently as Mabel rambled on. For her part, Mabel tried her mightiest to remain professional and to not bounce some jokes off of the prosecutor to break the unbearable pressure to be impressive.
‘Thank you, Doctor. Do you have any questions for me?’
This was a first for Mabel.
‘Uh…no! Thank you. Well maybe you can tell me how you get your skin so smooth?’ Well done, Ackerman, Mabel thought, almost out loud. Attempts at professionalism surrendered at the feet of stupidity and lack of poise. Ladies and gentlemen, I will be relinquishing my qualifications in the morning.
‘No, I have no questions.’ Mabel said, deeply uncomfortable.
‘Good. As you can tell we are currently adjourned, but when we return, you will be called immediately. You will be guided to enter the witness box over there, and the court will ask you to deliver the witness oath. Are you okay with that?’
Another first for Mabel. ‘Yes, yes, that’s fine.’
‘I will then stand up first. Initially I will pose leading questions to get your name and credentials on record. Then I will ask you non-leading questions to guide you in explaining your findings. Do you understand?’
‘When you can’t answer a question, please say so and explain succinctly. When you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. Don’t venture to guess. Give your opinion only when asked for, and don’t provide more information than needed. Do you understand?’
Mabel toyed with the idea of saying ‘no’, but decided against such a risky move. ‘Yes.’
‘When I am done, I will sit down, and my opponent will stand to cross-examine you. Remember that cross-examination is not personal. Defence counsels are paid to put their clients’ versions to you the best they can. Keep your answers short and concise. Do not become emotional and do not succumb to questions meant to trap you in lengthy cycles of explanations.’
‘Okay.’ Mabel was one hundred percent sure this woman would bleed battery acid if you cut her.
At that moment the courtroom doors flung open and Mabel recognised defence counsel immediately.
‘Shoot me in the head.’
‘Excuse me?’ Teel asked.
‘That’s James Neels, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. Advocate for the accused.’
‘Shoot me in the head. With an AK. Now. Then set me on fire.’
(To be continued)