‘Shoot me in the head. With an AK. Now. Then set me on fire.’
State prosecutor Sylvia Teel just stared at Mabel with no expression.
‘Dr Ackerman, I’ll freely admit, I’ve not come across such a response to defence counsel before. Everything alright?’
Mabel Ackerman felt her brown skin go white. And not South African white…Scandinavian white. She looked at Teel, smiling again.
‘Yes yes, everything is just fine!’
‘Great. You can wait outside in the waiting area while we get things going here. The court orderly will call you in as soon as I need you to testify.’
Mabel turned to exit the courtroom and kept her eyes firmly on the door. If there had been fireworks going off in the hands of seven opera singers in the far right corner of that courtroom, Mabel would have kept her gaze on that exit door…
As she exited, her cheeks bulged with exhaling breath. She took a seat where other witnesses were sitting and began her usual hyper-analysis of things to come. Why does this thing unhinge me so badly? Mabel thought. She took another deep breath and decided it best to distract herself. She looked around at the other sheep to be slaughtered. To her left was ostensibly the best candidate for a bit of a pre-war chat. A tall, very athletic older man was reading from what appeared to be a textbook. He was very handsome, with flaming red hair and inquiring eyes.
‘You know, I’m supposed to be an expert witness, but every time I walk into a courtroom I feel stupid and full frontal naked.’ Mabel regretted the expression as soon as the elegant red-haired looked at her with what she thought was repulsion in his stare.
‘I just mean, when I must testify, I feel unprepared and vulnerable despite every attempt…’
The red-haired man’s gaze, though penetrating, softened. Suddenly a wide and disarming smile curled onto his face.
‘I know just what you mean. Forensic pathologist, right? Surely you have some experience testifying?’ The man asked…or said…Mabel felt this was more a statement than a question.
How’d he know I’m a forensic pathologist?
Mabel looked down at the textbook he was reading. Simpson’s Forensic psychology. The man was sitting right next to the court in which she would testify.
Poop-small chance he’s waiting for another court. He’s here for Slippers. Only three experts involved here: me…for the dead body. Ballistics dude…for the shot dead body. Forensic shrink…for the sack-of-nuts-accused. The crimson prince here is obviously not ballistics. He’s the shrink. Has much experience. He would know I’ve testified before because he’d know training paths actually do autopsies while training. Shweet, no preaching expected.
‘Yes, but not much, you know how it goes…’ In South Africa, the average forensic pathologist, and other forensic specialists for that matter, is severely overworked compared to their colleagues in more developed countries. Yet they don’t testify as much. Due to the sausage machine nature of especially lower criminal courts in the country experts are called to testify in only those rare instances where defence counsels object to the unfettered admission of the expert’s report into evidence. Which was clearly the case here. James Neels probably objected to life itself.
‘I understand.’ The man said and looked down for a moment before speaking again. ‘Just stick to logic. It’ll get you through it. It’ll get you out of corners.’
Mabel’s eyes were already at the 12 o’clock position, ready to roll in a clockwise direction, then stopped herself. He was being nice, she didn’t have to be rude.
When Mabel finally ascended the witness box in Courtroom B, her legs were cowardly sea horses and her throat dry. When I survive this I’m drinking everything I see.
As promised, Mabel was guided in delivering the oath, and asked to put her name and qualifications on record. Sylvia Teel then led her in examination-in-chief, careful not to ask any leading questions. Mabel was allowed to tell her story in her own words, and started to feel life return to her constitution. Maybe this wasn’t so bad?
Mabel explained carefully why the body of the victim was exhumed, and why she had to perform another autopsy. She explained what she found and how it differed from the primary pathologist’s report. She provided factual bases for her conclusions and spoke slowly. Perfect. This really isn’t so bad.
But Mabel’s legs lost their courage when the prosecutor sat down and James Neels rose from his seat like a tsunami. He began his onslaught of condescending and sometimes rude questioning tactics, rarely allowing her to finish her sentences.
‘Dr Ackerman, you look 18 years old, you can’t have more than a year or so of experience in performing autopsies.’ James Neels didn’t even look up at her.
‘Uhm, no, I am…I have been performing autopsies for five years. I started during my specialisation. Like I said, more than 400 autopsies so far.’
Shoot, I shouldn’t have answered that! Witness rule number 1: don’t answer a question that was never posed.
The dryness returned to her throat. Now there was also an eel floating around in her stomach.
‘Do you know everything there is to know about forensic pathology?’
‘No!’ Mabel replied with a snort.
Smooth, Ackerman. It’s only sexy in Miss Congeniality.
‘But you’re comfortable here, today, to criticise the work of a senior pathologist who has performed almost 2000 autopsies.’
‘I just report on the autopsy…’
‘In your opinion, Dr Schmidt, who performed the primary post-mortem, is incompetent, yes?’
‘No! No, I didn’t say that at all…’
‘You don’t agree with any of his findings and you expect the court to believe your version over his. What else do you mean to say?’
Mabel’s eye caught movement in the gallery. Dr Schmidt! He was sitting right there! The man whose autopsy report she just pulled apart during examination-in-chief is sitting right across from here with fire balls brewing in his eyes. This must be the work of James Neels.
A hot, stinging lump collected in Mabel’s throat. She suddenly felt like an 18 year old and just wanted to storm out and cry. Then a deep, calm voice whispered from within her skull: ‘Just stick to logic. It’ll get you through it. And it’ll get you out of corners.’
A moment’s dead silence in Courtroom B.
‘You, an inexperienced girl, are saying a seasoned expert is an idiot!’
Mabel’s gaze shot back at James Neels. That’s my first mistake, isn’t it? I shouldn’t be answering this shmuck.
Mabel turned her entire body in the direction of the presiding judge, something she was taught by someone once, and never practiced.
‘My Lord, I am certainly not calling…’
‘Yes you are! You are expecting us to believe you over an actual expert!’
No good in screaming back. Logic would dictate that the accusatorial-ness of this whole thing allow him to cross-examine me however he sees fit. Keep calm.
Mabel kept her sights on the judge. ‘May I respond without interruption, My Lord?’
Talk to the judge. Talk to the court. And may the good Lord help the prosecutor to sit more comfortably.
‘Yes Dr Ackerman, proceed. Counsel, allow the witness to answer.’
‘I am certainly not calling my learned and highly respected colleague anything derogatory.’
‘Ma’am, I put it to you, your findings is in line with what the state wants you to say, only because the state wants you to say it. You cannot factually dispute anything Dr Schmidt reported.’
Still looking at the presiding judge, Mabel responded: ‘And I put it to court, my findings have been supported by factual observations which have been recorded and can be viewed by the court in my report. I am absolutely convinced of the probability of my findings and opinion. I cannot testify to the processes followed or findings made by any other physician, and I have not done so. It remains the court’s duty to assign weight to my testimony.’ Then Mabel turned to James Neels. ‘And I’m “Doctor Ackerman”, not “ma’am”.’
Boom shakalaka, dipshit.