1. Ronald Dwayne Perryman
On a Sunday afternoon in July of 2012, approximately one month after our wedding, my wife and I are reading in the living room of our home when I hear a light knock on the door. When I open it, an African-American man who looks to be about forty years old asks if we need any help with our yard. He wears a tank top and shorts, and he doesn’t have a business card or any lawn equipment that I can see. I laugh because my wife and I have very little “yard” that could potentially receive “help.” The sod I put down two years earlier fried off before the completion of one Florida summer. After that, I surrendered to the land, planted trees for shade, and resigned myself to mowing the remaining weeds when needed. To me, his question reinforces the image of the sorry state of my yard. “No, no, we’re fine,” I say and wish him luck. Without protest, he nods thanks and descends the front porch. When I close the door, my wife looks up from her book and asks who was at the door. “Someone looking for work,” I say. “He asked if we needed help with our yard.” “Oh,” my wife says, and goes back to her reading.
The county in which we live is one of the poorest in Florida. Still, infrequent, door-to-door solicitors on our neighborhood of Pensacola are not unprecedented. When working on my long-suffering lawn, I have twice had individuals attempt to sell me cuts of meat kept in coolers in the beds of pickups. Reps from home security companies are known to stop at the nicer homes in town and try to push their products through scare tactics. The reps seem to be exclusively white, college-age men, and when they see that I am white and living in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, they have tried, with racist insinuations and overtones, to persuade me to purchase a security system. When I told my wife that the man who asked if we needed help with our lawn “seemed nice,” I meant it. He was neither pushy, nor dogmatic. He seemed genuinely interested in finding work.
The next evening, as my wife reads the local news on the computer, she asks me what the man who had knocked on our door looked like. “Why?” I ask. She says that the police have just arrested someone who, after asking a woman if she needed help with her yard, pushed his way into her house and sexually assaulted her. He then forced her to drive to a bank to remove cash from an ATM, at which point she was able to escape. He also allegedly assaulted two other women in other sections of town earlier in the week. My wife turns her laptop toward me. The image on the screen is a mug shot of the same person who knocked on our door the day before. Underneath the picture, the man’s name is listed as Ronald Dwayne Perryman. I look up at my wife and then back at the screen. In the picture, he looks menacing. Everything about his visage seems to pull downward. His eyelids fall halfway over his eyes, his pupils half exposed. His mouth slacks, and his head tilts forward toward the camera. Many psychologists have documented the flaws inherent in criminal lineup identifications and proven that witnesses are frequently inaccurate. Simply put, memory is pliable. What unsettles me in the moment of seeing Perryman’s image, though, feels like something of the opposite. While I recognize him immediately, I am struck by how different he looks. My assessment of him on my porch — how I saw him as someone sincerely looking for work — was pure invention, projection.
Neither my wife nor I know exactly how we are supposed to respond after seeing the photograph. “What if I had been here alone? It was a Sunday afternoon, two o’clock. Why wouldn’t I have opened the door?” my wife says. The third assault took place on Sunday evening. He had left our porch and conceivably gone house-by-house, neighborhood-by-neighborhood until he found a woman home alone. And while I can articulate the range of emotions I feel — relief, fear, anger, vulnerability, sadness for the victims — my visceral response feels more immediate, more complicated, beyond categorization. When I see Perryman’s picture I feel like someone has attached jumper cables to the top and bottom of my spine and then cranked the engine of a car. The jolt is immediate, but the energy doesn’t fully subside. It circles in me, revving and diminishing inconsistently like someone pushing and releasing the accelerator of the idling car.
When my wife and I go to bed, we lie there together in silence, as if in tacit agreement that neither of us will be able to sleep, but we will at least go through the motions. A rectangle of light from the streetlamp projects through a small window to the top of the wall behind our bed, and over the course of the night, as I watch the rectangle crawl down the wall, my wife’s breathing slows beside me. The muscles in her back and shoulders relax, and she sinks deeper into the mattress. At some point, my breathing slows as well, and though I’m not able to fall asleep, the jumper cables on my spine unclamp. Lying there, in between sleep and wakefulness, the sound that keeps returning to me is how lightly, how tentatively, Perryman had knocked on our door and how polite he had been in leaving.
2. Courtroom 401, M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building,
Escambia County Courthouse, Pensacola, Florida
The interior of the courtroom is designed as a sequence of desks, tables and audience seating extending in semicircles from the judge’s bench. The rows ripple out from the judge as if the courtroom were one quarter of a circular lake where someone dropped a pebble into the water at the judge’s feet. A podium with a microphone faces the judge. The audience members sit on the right side of the room and the nonviolent defendants sit on the left side. A small railing separates the audience and nonviolent defendants from the inmates, clerks and lawyers. Six inmates in green jumpsuits sit on the other side of the railing. The bailiff has spaced the inmates with an empty chair between every other person. In a drill-sergeant tone, the bailiff says there will be no talking between the inmates and audience. One of the inmates scratches his nose by lifting his hands in unison, and I see the glint of handcuffs before he lowers his hands to his lap. I don’t see Perryman among the inmates. The bailiff calls the room to order, and we stand for the judge.
The judge and lawyers in the courtroom move comfortably and precisely through familiar routines. (Unfortunately, the routines seem familiar to many of the defendants as well.) The judge explains to everyone that the purpose of felony arraignment is for an accused person to enter a plea of “guilty,” “not guilty,” or “no contest” (nolo contendere). “Please remember that everything you say today is being recorded,” the judge says. “Whatever you say today can be used in court. Our purpose today is not to get into the details of your case. You’ll have plenty of time to do that in the future.” As the judge speaks, one of the inmates rocks back and forth, his head bobbing nervously. Another inmate, peeking over the back of his chair, makes eye contact with a woman sitting two rows in front of me. The inmate mouths something to the woman and raises four fingers toward her as a message she alone might understand.
“No sir!” the bailiff calls out and walks quickly across the courtroom. In one motion, the bailiff grasps the man’s handcuffs and draws him to his feet. “Come with me,” she says. The young man, looking over his shoulder, shuffles his feet quickly as the chains that bind his ankles clink and jangle. (Throughout the morning, the clinking sound of chains forms a persistent ambient noise like the tinkling of wind chimes.) The audience watches as the bailiff, with a flourish, extends a key from a cord on her belt and locks the inmate in a room adjacent to the courtroom. Finished, she steps back through the door and says, “Sorry for the interruption, Your Honor,” while looking directly at the remaining inmates.
To process 102 arraignments as succinctly as possible, the court addresses some defendants collectively before moving to individual cases. The judge reads off a list of several defendants’ names and says that the charges for these cases have been dropped. He then reads another list and says that the charges for these cases have been changed from felonies to misdemeanors. When one of those names is called, a large woman next to me exclaims, “Hallelujah,” stands, and stumbles over people as she exits the row. Other members of the audience also leave the courtroom immediately when the person to whom they are connected completes his or her arraignment.
Like all of the other audience members, I too am connected in some way to one of the defendants. When the clerk pulls Perryman’s file, I straighten in my seat. The clerk says that Mr. Perryman is in custody and that he actually has three cases against him, not one. One of the lawyers, while leaning against a Rubbermaid cart filled with legal files, says that the case “will be a doozy” and sets the dates for the docket and the trial.
3. Continuance Number One
Because I was unable to attend the November Fourteenth docket day, I call the Clerk of the Circuit Court’s office one week before the trial date of November 26. I inquire about the outcome of Perryman’s docket day and the status of the trial. The office administrator explains to me that his docket day is now scheduled for January 9, 2013. Though there are several cases against him, there are currently no trial dates. When I ask her what happened to November 26, she says she doesn’t know, but there are no trial dates in the system for him now. “You should call back a few days after the January 9 docket day to see when or if this specific case against Mr. Perryman is going to trial,” she says.
4. Continuance Number Two
On January 9, 2013 I arrive at the M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building forty-five minutes before the felony dockets are scheduled to begin. Like many of the employees and defendants, I now move purposefully through the building. After checking the courtroom assignments posted on the wall just beyond the metal detectors, I take the stairs two at a time to the second floor, stop for a cup of coffee in the building’s austere café, and then proceed to the courtrooms on the third floor. When the bailiff grants permission, I enter the courtroom with the other audience members and take a seat on a padded bench at the back of the room.
The judge, Gary Bergosh, is bald and leans forward attentively in his robes. He simultaneously has a military and casual bearing, and I half expect him to be wearing jeans under his judicial robes. The lawyers are already moving through cases, and several inmates — hands and feet shackled, all wearing green prison jumpsuits — are already seated. The judge calls the inmates one-by-one and, accompanied by a lawyer, each either accepts a plea deal or a trial date is set. I don’t recognize Perryman among the prisoners. As Judge Bergosh progresses down the docket list, one court security officer dispatches inmates from the room while a second court security officer leads new inmates into the courtroom from a side door.
At about the fifty-minute mark, the second bailiff leads Perryman into the courtroom. At least I think the inmate is Perryman. My initial impulse is to call out, “That’s him!” I recognize his face and the way he doesn’t seem to make eye contact with the lawyers or the judge. He also seems taller and heavier than I remember, at least from where I sit at the back of the room. The longer I stare at him, though, the less certain I become. Was he always this heavy, or has he grown heavier from prison food? Perhaps I am recognizing the image from the arrest photo in the paper and conflating that image with the image in my memory?
When the judge calls out Perryman’s name, the man whom I have been watching nods his head, stands up, and takes his place next to a lawyer at the podium. Perryman does not speak, answer or pose questions. Instead, the lawyer asks the judge for a continuance until March 6. “Continuance granted,” the judge says. “Docket day: March 6. Trial date: March 18.” After the judge raps his gavel, Perryman nods slightly before being escorted from the room by a bailiff.
I leave the courtroom and don’t know how to feel. The jumper-cable shock I felt that first night has not returned. Instead, I just feel slightly unmoored, off-kilter. I already know that my wife will ask me if I saw the man who had knocked on our door, and I know my answer: “Yes,” and then, “I think,” then, “maybe,” then, “definitely.” Perhaps I can explain the feeling a different way. “You know how when you repeat a word over and over so much that it loses its meaning, and then you stop saying the word, and the meaning comes back?” I will ask her. “That’s how it felt seeing him. It was like that.”
5. A Whole Different Page
The March 6 docket is scheduled to begin at eight o’clock, and, again, I arrive thirty minutes early. Waiting to enter the courtroom, I hear the same lawyers give the same responses to the same objections by the same defendants. (Even if the defendants are not literally the same individuals, the tenor of their frustration — the combination of wounded self-righteousness and muted aggression — seems ubiquitous and unrelenting.) I imagine each public defender isolated in a small boat adrift on a swelling ocean, but instead of water, the waves are comprised of the defendants’ bodies, each mouth gasping for air or calling out, each arm reaching for the railing of the boat, before dipping below the undulating surface. I enter the courtroom, and the judge begins the same introduction he gave before. The ocean churns, and the process unfolds predictably until Perryman is escorted into the courtroom.
Perryman carries a purple file folder. He holds it with both hands, chest high, as if it were a steering wheel. My initial guess is that he has decided to represent himself, but when the judge calls Perryman’s name, Perryman takes his place beside his defense attorney. This time, the defense attorney does not ask for a continuance. He informs the judge that the defense is ready for trial on March 18, and when the judge asks the prosecutor if the state is ready, the prosecutor says yes. The judge says, “This is just one of the three cases against Mr. Perryman, right? This is the case for burglary, battery, and kidnapping?” “Correct, Your Honor,” the defense attorney says, and the judge asks, “Mr. Perryman, do you have anything you would like to say?”
The last time I heard Perryman speak was on my front porch. When he speaks in the courtroom, his voice is high-pitched, loud, staccato, and fast. “Me and him, we are on a whole different page,” Perryman says and points to his lawyer. Still clutching the purple folder, Perryman continues: “I asked him to file a motion of discovery, but he wouldn’t do it. I want a different lawyer.”
“Mr. Perryman, when you accept a public defender, it’s like going to an emergency room. You don’t get to pick your doctor. I’ve also heard your position on this already, and decided this already,” Judge Bergosh says. Interrupting the judge, Perryman says, “Whenever I talk to him, he is on a whole other world.” The judge allows Perryman to finish speaking, and then turns to the prosecutor and confirms that the state is not offering a plea deal. “If there is nothing new, we are going to trial,” the judge says. “I’m going to see you on March 18,” he says to Perryman. The judge then looks at both attorneys and says, “Make sure you’re ready.”
When the judge calls the next case, Perryman, instead of joining the court security officers, walks back toward the jury box and the other inmates. The judge pointedly calls out, “Mr. Perryman, you need to exit this courtroom.” Still clutching the folder, Perryman stops and looks out at the audience. His gaze is inscrutable, emotionless. When one of the large officers firmly grasps Perryman’s arm, Perryman lowers his gaze, dissolves back into silence, and, arm-in-arm with the officer like a reluctant bride, shuffles from the room.
6. Innocent, Guilty, or Need More Information
During the jury selection on March 18, Perryman wears a striped dress shirt, a red tie, khaki pants, a braided belt, and loafers. Today is the first day in court when I have seen him wear something besides handcuffs and a prison jumpsuit. The courtroom is crowded, and the judge has moved from the bench to a podium to address the sixty potential jurors:
“My name is Gary Bergosh, and I am a circuit judge here in Escambia County, and I want to thank you all for your potential service as jurors. There are only two times when your country asks for your service, and those times are military service and jury service. It doesn’t matter if you are Bill Gates, the President of the United States, or an average citizen, the one commodity we all have in common is our time, and I want to thank you all for taking the time to come in today. Before I became a judge, I was a Marine stationed in Iraq in 2003. There were people there who spoke five different languages. I’m sure you all have spoken on the phone with people in call centers all over the world. We could probably fill a 747 with potential jurors and fly them here, but if we start outsourcing our juries, we will lose our way of life. So again, I thank you.
He asks, “How many of you are familiar with the phrase, ‘presumption of innocence’? This means someone is innocent until proven guilty. There is a test we sometimes give on this, but I am going to go ahead and tell you the answer up front because this is so important. Mr. Perryman is sitting right here. If you were asked to vote right now on his guilt or innocence, how would you vote? Would you say that he is innocent, guilty, or that you need more information? Sometimes people will say that they need more information before they can decide, but this is wrong. If you didn’t know anything else about the case, you would have to say that he is innocent. This is what we mean by ‘presumption of innocence.’ Don’t worry. You’ll get to hear all of the information in the case. This is a very serious case against Mr. Perryman, but right now, without knowing any additional information, you would have to say that he is innocent.
“It’s also important for you all and for Mr. Perryman to know the extent of the charges that are being brought against him. There are six charges: burglary of a dwelling with sexual assault, two counts of sexual battery, kidnapping, grand theft auto, and robbery without a weapon. Are any of you familiar with this case? I’m going to ask the State Attorney to read the names of the potential witnesses. Are any of you familiar with any of the potential witnesses? Do any of you know the victim in this case? Virtually all of you have seen a law show on television. Will you follow my instructions as judge and not say, ‘Yeah, but this is not how they did it on television’? Television is not real, of course. Everything is wrapped up in thirty minutes. I would also ask that you don’t go do any investigation on your own: no Google, no news about the case, no Facebook or water-cooler conversations. Again, our goal is to have a fair and impartial trial. There is no room for feelings of sympathy or anger. You have to base everything on facts and evidence.
“Now I’m going to turn the podium over to the attorneys so they can ask you all some questions. The purpose of these questions is not to pry into your personal lives, but to get a sense of who you are and what you believe. If they ask a question that you would rather not answer in front of a room full of people, that’s perfectly fine. We can ask you to come up to the bench and speak to us privately. Mr. Gordon, I’m going to turn the podium over to you now.”
The State Attorney, who wears a tie and dark blue suit, appears to be in his early thirties. Soft-spoken and calm, he speaks clearly to the potential jurors:
“My name is Matt Gordon, and I am the State Attorney representing the State of Florida in this case. As Judge Bergosh said, I’m going to ask you some questions to get a better sense of your experiences, thoughts and beliefs. I’m asking for you to be open and honest. Be forthcoming. There are no right or wrong answers.
“Do any of you here today know me? Does anyone know Tom Staples, the attorney for Mr. Perryman? Does anyone know Mr. Perryman? How about each other? Do any of you know each other? Okay, there are quite a few hands. What we’re really asking is if, when you are in the deliberation room, will that other person have influence over you in some way? Okay, no hands.
“Have any of you served on a jury in the past or testified as a witness in a criminal case? Has anyone been the victim of a physical crime or known someone who has been the victim of a physical crime? Do you feel that you could be fair?
“Do any of you have negative feelings towards law enforcement? Has anyone worked in the legal field or as a minister or counselor to those who have been convicted of crimes?
“Is everyone familiar with DNA, how our cells are made up of DNA?
“There are two things that we must decide in trail. The first is whether or not a crime has occurred. The second is whether or not Mr. Perryman is guilty of that crime. The standard that we have to meet is beyond a ‘reasonable doubt.’ Reasonable doubt does not mean total certainty. It means that there should be no reasonable doubt in the mind of a reasonable person. We’re asking you to use your common sense. In this courtroom, there is no room for sympathy, compassion, or emotion. You are sitting in judge of the evidence, not the person.”
Gordon takes his seat. Tom Staples, Perryman’s defense attorney, rises and approaches the podium. In contrast to Matt Gordon’s navy suit, Staples wears a seersucker suit and a bowtie. Staples also appears to be in his early thirties. His boyishness, which initially is belied by his full beard, rises to the surface when he speaks:
“There are a lot of concerns for me about this case — a whole lot. This will potentially be a very emotional case. There might be some disturbing photographs introduced, and I don’t want you to decide this case emotionally and think that someone must pay. I’m going to ask each of you to promise that you won’t rule on emotion.
“A criminal case like this has the highest burden of proof. As Mr. Gordon said, the state has to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s a higher burden of proof than in a civil case where you are trying to separate someone from his money, or a custody case where you are trying to separate someone from his child. In this case, you are deciding whether or not to separate Mr. Perryman from his liberty. Do you know why the burden of proof is higher in a criminal case? I’ll tell you: Money is replaceable, while liberty is not. Once you take someone’s liberty away, you can never give it back. I want you to remember that.
“When I ask you these questions, I want you to think about the times you have been on an airplane. The pilot doesn’t come on and say, ‘I think we’ll get the landing gear down.’ He makes definite choices. I need for you all to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ instead of ‘maybe’ or ‘I think.’
“In this case, you are all the pilots, and Mr. Perryman here is the passenger. When I ask you these questions, I’m going to need definite answers. Both Mr. Gordon and Judge Bergosh discussed the concept of ‘presumed innocence.’ This is harder to do than you might think. I bet when you are driving on the highway, and you see a police officer has pulled someone over, the first question that pops into your mind is not, ‘I wonder what that guy is innocent of?’
“Another right, the right to remain silent, also seems unnatural to us. The natural response is to want to hear both sides of a story. Would any of you feel like you would need to hear Mr. Perryman speak? Would any of you feel like you would need to hear him tell his side of the story to find him innocent? I’m going to go down the rows and ask each and every one of you that question. Can anyone think of a reason why an innocent person might not testify? What if he is afraid of lawyers or is easily intimidated? What if he doesn’t speak well? Can you see how, even if someone is innocent, he might choose not to testify?
“I’d also ask for you to think of DNA evidence in the same way. You may or may not see DNA evidence in this case. How many of you think you can convict someone with DNA evidence alone? What if twins have the same DNA? Can you imagine a situation where DNA evidence might be present and the person is innocent? Remember, you’re a pilot here, and we need definite answers.
“Earlier, I mentioned that there might be some upsetting photographs introduced. I don’t want you to make a decision based on emotion alone. If you see a photograph of someone who is injured, can you be fair and impartial? Lastly, I’d like to conclude with one more line of questioning.
“I know it’s been a long day for everyone, and you all are looking forward to going home, but I’d like to finish up with this: As lawyers, one of the places that we never see is the deliberation room. That’s where you all will weigh the evidence that has been presented in the case. I find that, in life, some people are really good at convincing other people to go along with their points of view, and some tend to be easily persuaded. Some people are more convincing than others, while some give in quickly. We want to make sure that everybody has the chance to talk back there. Are you going to be the kind of person who allows everyone to speak? If someone disagrees with you, can you stick to your guns?”
The lawyers, bailiffs, and Perryman join the judge at the bench when Staples finishes questioning the potential jurors. I have become so accustomed to seeing Perryman in handcuffs and the prison jumpsuit that my stomach tightens as, unencumbered, he leans in close to his lawyers and points at names of potential jurors on the seating chart. After ten minutes of deliberation, the judge asks for everyone to be seated and calls out the names of seven people. As each person’s name is called, he or she stands. There are six women and one man. All appear to be over forty: one African-American; one Asian; five Caucasian. When the judge announces them as the selected jury for Perryman, the seven individuals are escorted past Perryman and into a side chamber.
The trial will begin at exactly 8:30 a.m. in two days. Outside of the courtroom, floor to ceiling windows span one side of the hallway. A haze has settled over the bay with the afternoon humidity. Walking briskly toward the cafeteria, one woman, without breaking stride, turns to another and says, “It looks a little gloomy out there, don’t it?”
7. The Trial Begins
The trial courtroom resembles the familiar rectangular courtroom frequently featured in television and movies: a central, elevated judge’s bench flanked by a witness stand and a court reporter box; a jury box on the side of the courtroom runs perpendicular to the judge’s bench; tables for the defense and prosecution are separated by a center aisle; and the benches for the audience members — who are separated from the trial area by a small railing — extend behind each of the lawyers’ tables. Gordon and Staples are both arranging their materials at their respective desks when I arrive, and the only other initial audience member is a young man who eagerly tells me that he is visiting a trial today as part of a class assignment.
A court security officer leads a handcuffed Perryman to a chair beside Staples. Two additional security officers sit by the entrance to the courtroom, and a bailiff stands by the entrance to the jury room. Perryman wears the same clothes that he wore to jury selection. His too-short tie, which resembles a napkin tucked into his shirt collar, extends only to the top of his stomach. When Perryman takes his seat, the security officer removes the handcuffs, and Perryman sits down, then awkwardly starts to stand again as Judge Bergosh enters at the front of the courtroom.
“Please remain seated,” the judge says as he turns his attention to the lawyers and asks them if the victim has arrived, and if the jury is ready to proceed.
“The victim has arrived, and she’s ready to testify, Your Honor,” Gordon says. “One of the jurors is sick, though. She is the alternate, and all of the other jurors are here, so I would recommend that we proceed.” Judge Bergosh agrees and then turns his attention to Staples and says, “Mr. Staples, you’re not chewing gum, are you?”
“No, sir,” Staples answers, “I had coffee this morning, and this is a mint.”
“You know that some judges will go crazy on things like that?” the judge asks.
Laughing, Staples says, “Don’t worry. It will be gone in a minute.”
As the judge and both lawyers prepare to bring in the jury, a few more audience members enter the courtroom. A heavyset woman who wears no makeup and whose blond hair is pulled back into a fierce ponytail slides into the back row on the other side of the courtroom. Another woman, who appears to be in her early fifties, takes a seat a few feet away from me. She looks from Perryman to the judge and then stares straight ahead, her hands in her lap. The jury has been seated. Judge Bergosh instructs Gordon to begin his opening statement, and Gordon positions the podium in front of the jury so that he can speak to them directly:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’d like to begin this morning by telling you about Morgan, the victim in this case. Morgan is a twenty-six-year-old woman who grew up in Montana and moved to Pensacola to work for AmeriCorps and then the Salvation Army after she graduated from college. On the night of July 10, 2012, she was home alone when Ronald Dwayne Perryman knocked on her door. Morgan looked through the blinds and saw Mr. Perryman on her front porch. Normally, Morgan wouldn’t open the door at that time of night, but she recognized Mr. Perryman from when he had previously knocked on her door and asked her roommate if they needed any help with their lawn. On July 10, Morgan opened the door, and when Mr. Perryman asked again if they needed help with their lawn, Morgan told him that her roommate wasn’t home and that her roommate was the person who usually took care of the lawn, but she would be happy to take Mr. Perryman’s phone number and give it to her roommate when he came home.
“At this point, Morgan retrieved a pen and a piece of paper and handed it to Mr. Perryman. He wrote down his phone number and handed the pen and paper back to Morgan, but when Morgan tried to close the door, he would not let her shut the door. Instead, Mr. Perryman grabbed her by the throat, forced his way into the house, and began beating her. Mr. Perryman, as you all can see, is a very large man. Morgan is 5’1, and she weighs 120 pounds. She tried to fight him off as best she could. In her left hand, she still held the pen, and she tried to strike at him with it, but she could not stop him. Mr. Perryman continued to beat Morgan until she couldn’t fight back. He then removed her clothes and raped her on the couch in the living room. Mr. Perryman’s intentions weren’t just to rape her, though. He then dragged her around the house as he looked for money.
“And even after all of this, Morgan’s nightmare wasn’t over. Mr. Perryman threw Morgan a shirt to put on, and made her get in her own car. Mr. Perryman tilted the passenger seat back so that no one would see her, and he drove her to a Wells Fargo bank to make her remove money from the ATM machine. As they drove, Mr. Perryman continued to rape Morgan with his fingers. When they reached the bank, Mr. Perryman drove through the ATM lane. Mr. Perryman had beaten Morgan so badly that she could not see. When he took her ATM card, she couldn’t tell if the card was from her home bank in Montana or from her bank in Pensacola. She accidentally told Mr. Perryman the incorrect ATM code, and he became irate when the card didn’t work. She then told him the correct ATM code and, as Mr. Perryman removed $300 from Morgan’s account, Morgan attempted to escape the car.
“When Mr. Perryman saw that Morgan was trying to escape, he reached across and grabbed the passenger door. He grabbed at her shirt, but he had his seatbelt on and that restrained him some. Morgan struggled as hard as she could, and the shirt tore free, and she escaped. At this point, two women in an SUV who had pulled into the bank parking lot heard Morgan screaming for help and saw her struggling, naked, across the parking lot as Mr. Perryman fled the scene in Morgan’s car. The two women ran to Morgan and gave her clothes to put on and called the police and stayed with her the entire time.
“Now it is important for all of you to remember that when all of these things happened, Mr. Perryman left evidence of his actions. Your job as a jury is to evaluate that evidence. First, Mr. Perryman gave Morgan his cell phone number, and the police used that number to ping him and find his location. We have the evidence of the surveillance videos from the ATM machine and the bank, and we have the bank receipts that show the $300 withdrawal from Morgan’s account. We have DNA evidence in this case.
“When the investigator first made contact with Mr. Perryman, she noticed that he had a bloody knuckle on one of his hands and that he was very dirty and looked like he hadn’t bathed. With Mr. Perryman’s consent, she collected his fingernail clippings and a DNA sample with a swab inside his cheek. Florida law enforcement was able to match the DNA found under Mr. Perryman’s fingernails to Morgan. They also matched Mr. Perryman’s DNA to the DNA found on the pen Morgan used when attempting to defend herself.
“Mr. Perryman has been charged with crimes appropriate for his actions. He has been charged with burglary for forcing his way into Morgan’s home to steal from Morgan, sexual battery for raping her in her home, grand theft auto for stealing her car, kidnapping for taking her by force from her home, a second count of sexual battery for his actions in the car, and theft for stealing her $300 from the ATM machine.” After detailing the process by which he will call witnesses to the stand, Gordon concludes his opening statement by saying, “I am confident that the overwhelming evidence in this case will prove Mr. Perryman’s guilt on all charges.”
Staples rises and approaches the jury: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I represent Mr. Perryman in this case. As I said to you all during jury selection, this is a very difficult case, a very emotional case. There is no question of whether or not crimes have been committed. This is a terrible experience the victim has gone through, and there is no question about whether or not she is a victim. The question to be answered today is whether or not Mr. Perryman is guilty of these crimes. The defense believes that there is not enough evidence to convict Mr. Perryman of these crimes, and I would ask you to evaluate this evidence fairly. Specifically, I would ask for you to pay careful attention to any DNA evidence that is introduced. I believe that, once all of the evidence has been seen, Mr. Perryman will be found innocent of these crimes. Thank you.”
Gordon calls his first witness, Christine Escher. Escher fidgets slightly in her chair, places her hands in her lap, and leans forward to speak into the microphone placed on the ledge of the witness stand.
“I was on my way to Walmart with my best friend, and we stopped at the bank to get money. We always like to go to Walmart in the evening, and we like to have cash in hand as we’re shopping.”
“Can you tell us where the bank was located?” Gordon asks.
“Yes, it is on Fairfield.”
“And what did you see there?”
“And did something unusual happen?”
“We saw this other car, and I heard what I though was a scream. My girlfriend and I looked at each other and then we saw this young lady fall out of the car to her hands and knees. She couldn’t see, and she had her hands out in front of her like she was feeling her way. She was naked.
“I yelled out, ‘Do you need help?’ and she screamed, ‘Help me! Help me!’ She had her hands out in front of her. She was screaming, and she tried to get in my car. She grabbed hold of me, and we went down to the ground together. I sat there and held her, and she held on to me for dear life. My girlfriend gave her a shirt to put on. We had been at the beach, and my girlfriend still had her swimsuit on, so my girlfriend just removed her shirt and helped the young woman put it on.”
“Did you notice anything unusual about the young woman?”
“Yes, her eyes looked like they were swollen shut, and her hair was matted from blood. You couldn’t tell where her injuries were because she was covered with blood.”
“Did you stay with her at the scene?”
“I was one of the last people to leave. I stayed there the whole time.”
“Did you see the car leave?”
“In my peripheral vision I noticed that the car took off, but I wasn’t focused on the car. I was focused on her.”
When Gordon finishes, Staples rises to cross-examine.
“Ms. Escher, did you include the part about falling on the ground in your sworn statement?”
“No, not to my knowledge.”
“Did the officer rush you in your statement?”
Escher says that the officer did not rush her in her statement. Staples hands her a copy of her statement, and Escher reviews it.
“Everything in my statement is true. I just didn’t include all of the details at the time.”
“Did you get a good look at the person who was driving the car from which the young woman emerged?”
“No, I was focused on her, not the car.”
“No further questions, Your Honor.”
Gordon moves quickly to the podium and asks Escher, “Is everything true to your knowledge in your statement? You just didn’t include all of the details, correct?”
“Yes, everything is true in my statement.”
“No further questions, Your Honor.”
Gordon calls his next witness, Deputy Nicole Haubrich. He asks her if she responded to a 911 call on the evening of July 10, 2012.
“Yes,” Haubrich says.
“And what did you see when you arrived?”
“I noticed an SUV and two women helping a young woman who looked like she had been badly beaten. Her eyes were swollen shut.”
“And what did you do when you saw this?”
“We took statements from everyone, and we secured the scene.”
“What do you mean by, ‘secured the scene’?”
“We put crime tape around the scene. No one enters or leaves until we collect all of the evidence from a scene.”
“And what happened after you secured the scene?”
“I rode with her to the hospital.”
“Can you describe her state?”
“She was extremely upset. Her eyes were swollen, she was shaken, but she was very courageous. She was trying to give us as much information as possible. She was very brave.”
Staples declines to cross examination the witness. Gordon requests that the courtroom be cleared for the victim’s testimony. “Under Florida law, the victim has a right to privacy,” Gordon explains. The judge agrees, and the five or six members of the audience (myself included) are escorted from the courtroom.
8. Outside the Courtroom
A security officer locks the door. I take a seat in one of the chairs as the woman who was sitting next to me in the courtroom approaches Haubrich and the other police officers waiting outside.
She pauses before speaking, and the tenseness she seems to be holding in melts away as her voice cracks, and she says, “I just wanted to tell you all thank you for your help. I’m Ann. I’m Morgan’s mom.” Haubrich stands up and hugs Ann as Ann continues: “We live in Montana, and we’ve just felt so distant from everything being up there, but it is lovely to finally be here and to have the trial.”
“She is one of the best people we have ever worked with. She is truly courageous,” Haubrich says.
“Thank you for being with Morgan,” Ann says. “She is one of the strongest people I know. She is an amazing person, always has been.”
As Ann and Haubrich continue to talk, one of the officers, noticing my notepad, asks me if I am a student, and, as I start to speak, Ann and Haubrich turn their attention to me.
“Well, no, I’m actually a professor at the university,” I say. “I’ve been following this case closely and writing about it. Mr. Perryman actually came to our house on that same Sunday and also asked my wife and me if we needed help with our lawn. I told him we didn’t, and he left, and the next night my wife and I saw the news article online about what had happened. I’ve been writing about the case since then, and I’ve attended all of the court proceedings.” Ann is listening intently. When I finish, she says, “I’d really like to talk to you later if I can. We’ve felt out of the loop a bit being so far away.”
“Of course,” I say, “I’d be glad to. Your daughter is a very courageous young woman.” As I say this, I feel an unexpected welling up inside, and I hear my own voice catch and waver. I’ve been so focused on Perryman that I only now imagine all that Morgan and her family and friends must have been going through over the previous nine months.
“Thank you,” Ann says, touching my arm, as the sound of a lock turns on the other side of the doors, and a young woman whom I assume is Morgan exits the courtroom. Smiling, she sits down next to Ann and takes hold of both of Ann’s hands.
“How did everything go?” Ann asks, and the young woman nods without going into detail. “Did you get to talk to the woman who drove the SUV?” Ann asks. “She seems like she is a great person, Morgan, someone you should have over for dinner sometime.”
“Yes,” Morgan says, “she was very nice. We were able to speak this morning.” Morgan brushes a strand of her mother’s hair behind her mother’s ear, kisses her mother on the forehead, and then stands up to go find a restroom.
“I’m just so glad this is finally going to trial,” Ann says to the officers and me. “It’s been postponed so many times.” As she says this, one of the courtroom security officers steps through the doors and says, “Okay, we’re open for the public, but just so you know, we may have to shut the courtroom down again if necessary.”
9. Two More Witnesses, then Lunch
I take the same seat as before, and when Ann (without Morgan) enters the courtroom a few minutes after I do, she also takes her same place on our shared row. Gordon calls to the stand one of the other police officers from outside the courtroom, Charles Decker.
He asks Decker, “Did you respond to this case on July 10, 2012?”
“Yes, four other officers and I approached the house on July 10 to clear the scene.”
“And what did you see when you arrived?”
“The first thing I saw was blood on the door, a smear of blood. It was a white door and the smear was very visible. When we went inside, we found blood on the couch. There were also drops of blood on the floor that went into the back area of the house.”
“Did you find anything that stood out to you at the house?”
“Yes, we found a piece of paper with a phone number on it beneath one of the couch cushions. The piece of paper also had blood on it. We also found a pen on the couch as well.”
“How long did you remain at the scene?”
“I stayed there until the crime scene officer arrived, and then I went and met with the victim at the hospital in the emergency room, where I took her statement and then forwarded the materials to the detective assigned to the case.”
Once again, Tom Staples declines to cross examination the witness. Gordon calls Jennifer Ross to the stand. Ross tells the court that she is a financial manager at Well Fargo bank and as custodian of the bank’s records, including footage from its video cameras.
“Is there a max on the amount you can withdraw from the ATM machine at one time?” he asks.
“Yes, that cap is $300.”
“Is there a video camera attached to this ATM machine?”
“And is the video from the evening of July 10, 2012 available?”
Gordon says that he would like to submit the video from the ATM machine into evidence and play it for the jury, to which Staples says, “No objections, Your Honor.” As Gordon sets up a projection screen attached to his laptop, I look at Ann. Ann’s formality has returned, and she stares directly at the screen. Gordon plays the video from the ATM machine, which projects onto the screen near the jury box.
The video is in black and white and has a slight fisheye effect from the curvature of the camera lens. There is no sound on the video, and when a car pulls into the ATM lane, Gordon asks Ross if she can read the date and time stamp on the video.
“The date says July 10, 2012 and the time stamp reads 9:48.30,” Ross says.
“Where is the camera angel coming from?”
“It’s from the ATM machine.”
“And can you describe what you see?”
“This is from the ATM machine at the Wells Fargo where I work. I see a black male in the driver’s seat of the car and there appears to be someone in the passenger seat. The passenger seat has been tilted back. He has a hat on, and he seems to be trying to enter the ATM code on the machine. Now he’s opening the car door slightly and trying to get closer to the ATM machine.”
The man in the video resembles Perryman as he appeared on my front porch. He is thinner in the video than he is now in the courtroom, and I recognize his tank top. When he leans in close to the ATM machine, his face is framed clearly in the video. He then reaches to enter the security code, and his hand fills the screen. For a moment, only his moving hand is seen: the lines of his palm, the untrimmed fingernails, and what appears to be a split knuckle. Gordon pauses the tape, approaches the screen, and points to Perryman’s right shoulder in the video.
“And what does this look like here?” he asks Ross.
“A seatbelt,” she says, “it looks like he is wearing a seatbelt.”
As Perryman focuses on the ATM machine in the video, Morgan attempts to escape the car. Perryman tries frantically to restrain Morgan. Because of the camera angle, only Perryman’s back can be seen, and his arm appears to be either grabbing at the interior of the passenger door or striking Morgan. Morgan places one foot outside of the car as Perryman grabs her shirt. The entire frame of the video appears to shake as Morgan struggles to free herself from the shirt, and when she breaks free, Morgan’s back and shoulders disappear into the white space outside the car. Alone in the car, Perryman turns back to the ATM, removes the $300, and then drives away from the machine, at which point Gordon pauses the video.
“Can you read the time stamp on this frame?” Gordon asks Ross.
With Ross still on the stand, Gordon introduces a second video into evidence. This video, in color, shows the car from a frontward angle through the windshield. When Perryman attempts to put the first debit card in the ATM machine, Gordon asks Ross if she can identify the color of the card. “The card looks blue,” she says. When Morgan begins to struggle to free herself from the car, Perryman’s actions are clearer. He reaches across Morgan and grabs the door handle and attempts to close the car door against her. Restrained by the seatbelt, he seems unable to use his full strength, and Morgan again breaks free from the car. “And what time does the time stamp say on this video?” Gordon asks Ross.
“9:52.35,” Ross says.
“One last question. If a withdrawal is made late in the evening, is it possible for the transaction not to post until the next day?”
Gordon then introduces still frame photographs from the videos into evidence (to which Staples does not object) and distributes them to the jury. As the jury passes the six photos back and forth, Gordon says, “No further questions, Your Honor,” and Staples rises for cross-examination.
“Mrs. Ross, when the victim escaped the car, did she appear to be wearing a bra?” Tom Staples asks.
“Yes, she appeared to be,” Ross says.
“No further questions, Your Honor.”
After Ross is excused, Judge Bergosh, after reminding the jury that they are not to talk about the case in any way, excuses them for lunch. When the jury is gone, one of the court security officers handcuffs Perryman and escorts him from the courtroom. With the courtroom relatively empty, the judge, Staples, and Gordon discuss the jury instructions that the judge will read to the jury when the time comes for the jury to deliberate. The judge asks Gordon if Perryman has any prior convictions, and Gordon says that Perryman has four previous felony convictions. Gordon then says that Florida law dictates that the maximum sentence must be applied to a repeat felony offender if an additional felony is committed within three years of release.
Gordon also says that he would prefer to go immediately into sentencing, should Perryman be found guilty, and that all of the necessary individuals such as the fingerprint expert will be attending the sentencing and will be available to testify.
The judge then asks Staples if Perryman will be taking the stand in his own defense. “I’m not sure, Your Honor,” Staples says. “We’re going to talk about that at lunch.”
“Okay, let me know as soon as you can,” Judge Bergosh says. “What time is it now? Let’s go ahead and break for lunch, and we’ll plan on starting up again at 1:00.”
“All rise,” the bailiff says. The judge, the lawyers, and then the audience members all exit the courtroom. Outside again in the hallway, a court security officer locks the courtroom doors and gives them a shake to be certain they won’t open. Morgan sits in the same chair as before, and she smiles brightly at her mom sits down beside her. Two of Morgan’s friends have joined her outside the courtroom. As I start to leave, Ann waves to me and asks if I will be returning after lunch. When I tell her I will, she says, “Good,” and then turns back to speaking with Morgan.
10. The Remaining Witnesses and Closing Arguments
When I return from lunch, the court security officers have unlocked the doors to the courtroom, and I take my place in the same seat. Ann enters a few minutes after I do, and she says, “We have to get right back in our same seats,” and smiles. During lunch, I wrote down all of my contact information on a piece of paper, and I hand it to her and tell her that I would be happy to send her any of the material that I have written about the case that predates the trial if that might be helpful in some way. “That would be wonderful,” she says, and writes her contact information down in my notebook. The jury and Perryman are led back into the courtroom, and Ann and I both turn our attention to the trial. Judge Bergosh asks Gordon to call his next witness, and Gordon calls Officer Shannan Fortenberry, a sex crimes investigator for the Pensacola Police Department.
“And how long have you been in this role?” he asks.
“I’ve been an investigator for twelve years.”
“And what actions did you take when you were presented with the case against Mr. Perryman?”
“My first investigative action was to use the cell phone number that was found at the scene. We pinged the number, and we located the cell phone at 57th Avenue. Another officer and I drove to the area, and we found the victim’s car not far from the location we had identified.”
“And what did you do then?”
“We had the images from the ATM machine, and we drove around the area to see if we saw anyone who matched the images and the description the victim had given us.”
“And did you see anyone who matched those images?”
“We observed a black male walking down the road, and we approached him and asked him to identify himself. The first thing he did was put his hands palms down on the hood of the police vehicle. He said his name was Ron, and he showed us his identification. When I asked him to tell us his cell phone number, he gave us a number that matched the one found on the piece of paper.”
“Did you notice anything strange about him?”
“Yes, when his hands were on the hood of the police car, I noticed a wound on his hand, a split knuckle that looked fresh. He was very unkempt, and his fingernails were dirty. His clothes were dirty, and it looked like he hadn’t showered in a while.”
“And what did you do then?”
“I asked Mr. Perryman if he would allow us to get a DNA sample from him, and he consented. We swabbed the inside of his cheek, and, with his permission, we clipped his fingernails and collected and bagged the trimmings.”
During cross-examination, Staples asks Fortenberry, “When you saw Mr. Perryman, this was the day after the crimes took place, right?”
“Yes, that is correct.”
“And he consented to being searched, having his fingernails clipped, and to the cheek swab?”
“Yes, that is correct.”
“No further questions, Your Honor.”
During redirect, Gordon asks Fortenberry, “Is the person you met on the street present here in the courtroom today?”
“Yes, he is sitting next to the public defender.”
“No further questions, Your Honor.”
Gordon calls his next witness, Investigator Melissa Harris. He introduces several photographs into evidence and asks Harris if she recognizes the documents.
“Yes,” Harris says, “this is the array of photographs I showed the victim.”
“And what instructions did you give her?”
“I explained to her that there are six pictures on this piece of paper, and when I showed it to her, I asked her to identify one of the pictures if the photograph was of the person who committed the crimes against her. I asked her to circle the photograph and sign it. She was also asked to write the person’s actions on the photograph. When I handed her the paper, she immediately went to image three and circled it.”
Gordon introduces copies of the images into evidence, and then distributes the images to the jury. He asks Harris the name of the person in the third image.
“Ronald Dwayne Perryman,” she says.
Once again, Staples declines to cross-examine Harris. Gordon calls to the stand a crime scene investigator, Justin Cooper. He also introduces into evidence photographs Cooper took of Morgan’s house — the front door, the living room, the couch, the piece of paper with Perryman’s phone number, the pen, and Perryman’s cell phone. Each photograph is simultaneously projected onto the screen and distributed in hardcopy to the jury. Gordon then introduces the photographs Justin Cooper took from the scene at Wells Fargo bank and from Escher’s SUV. When Gordon introduces the photographs Cooper took of Morgan’s injuries, Ann removes a tissue from her purse and dabs the tissue for a moment at the corners of her eyes, but she doesn’t look away from the screen.
The final photographs that Gordon introduces are of Morgan’s recovered car. One of the images of the items recovered from the car is of a blue bank card. Gordon asks Cooper to read aloud the name of the bank on the card, and Cooper identifies the card as a credit union in Montana.
Staples declines to cross-examine Cooper, and Gordon calls his final witness: laboratory analyst Leanne Hodge, who explains DNA to the jury, how it represents a “genetic blueprint passed from mother to child.” Each person’s DNA is unique unless he or she has an identical twin.
“And what sort of DNA testing did you perform for this case?” Gordon asks. Hodge explains the tests performed on Perryman and Morgan. “The first piece of evidence I tested was the pen, which showed a mixture of two profiles from the blood,” she tells the jury. The major portion matched Morgan and the minor portion matched Mr. Perryman. The probability of the match to Mr. Perryman occurring randomly is one in thirty quadrillion — a very strong match.” She then described testing Perryman’s fingernail clippings and swabbing both of his hands. “There was blood present on both hands,” she says. “Then I swabbed all of them together. There was a DNA profile foreign to Mr. Perryman on his fingernails. Morgan’s DNA profile was on his fingernails. There was a complete profile of both Mr. Perryman and Morgan on both the pen and the fingernails. The probability of their two complete profiles occurring randomly on both the pen and the fingernails is one in 600 quintillion.”
“How many zeroes is that?”
Staples elects to cross examine. He asks Hodge to describe how DNA transfers.
“It can transfer by touch through skin cells, or there can be a secondary transfer by two people touching the same object — a doorknob for example. A secondary transfer of DNA is usually much weaker than a primary transfer of DNA through direct contact of two individuals.”
“No further questions, Your Honor.”
Gordon asks Hodge to describe the likelihood of secondary transfer.
“It’s usually low level,” she says. “Sometimes it is impossible to detect a secondary DNA transfer.”
“In your opinion, is a secondary DNA transfer very likely in this case?”
“In this case, all of the DNA profiles were complete samples. Complete samples can only be obtained by primary transfer.”
The prosecution rests.
The judge then turns to Staples and asks him to call his first witness.
“The defense rests,” Staples says. “To be frank, Your Honor, I cannot produce any additional information that the state has not covered.”
Judge Bergosh says that he appreciates Staples’s candor, and he asks both of the lawyers if they are prepared to move forward with their closing arguments.
Just as he did during his opening statement, Gordon moves the podium so it faces the jury box. He begins his final argument by summarizing the details of the case and the charges against Perryman. For each of the counts, he details the requirements for conviction and itemizes the evidence that has been introduced to support each charge. During the testimony phase of the trial, I was slightly puzzled by the emphasis placed on whether or not Perryman was wearing a seatbelt in Morgan’s car. But now Gordon recounts part of Morgan’s testimony in which she said she had asked Perryman to put on his seatbelt when the seatbelt alert would not stop beeping — a small detail that later aided her escape.
The “defendant’s presumption of innocence has been stripped away by the evidence in this case,” he concludes, “and I ask you to convict him on all counts.”
Staples rises approaches the jury box. “Presumption of innocence is like a suit of armor,” he begins. “For the state to get a guilty verdict, they must peal the armor away piece by piece with the evidence in the case. I ask you today, has the state done this? During jury selection, we talked about how cases to take away someone’s liberty have the highest burden of proof that must be met in order to deliver a guilty verdict — beyond the exclusion of all reasonable doubt. There are three ways to find reasonable doubt: the first way is through a lack of evidence, the second way is through conflicting evidence, and the third way is through problems in the evidence itself. I am arguing today that there is insufficient evidence to convict Mr. Perryman.
“There has been a lot of discussion about the pen used when (Morgan) attempted to defend herself. Now if the pen had been clicked, shouldn’t there have been some kind of mark on Mr. Perryman? Does that make sense? Make no mistake, I think she is a true victim, but what does the DNA show? There was no DNA evidence on Morgan’s person from Mr. Perryman. That’s reasonable doubt.
“There were lots of photos introduced in the trial, and we talked during jury selection about how disturbing images were going to be introduced at trial. But I ask you again, please do not rule on emotion alone. Where is the DNA evidence in the car? There is none there. Where is the fingerprint evidence from inside the car, the ATM machine?”
Morgan, he continues, “was simply shown the ATM photo and asked if Mr. Perryman was the person who assaulted her. This is a very traumatic case. Remember, she had been beaten so severely that she could barely see. During the trial, you might have been asking yourself why I asked if Morgan was wearing a bra or not when she escaped the car. The fact that she was wearing a bra does not match with the victim’s or the witness’s testimony. It’s not a question of whether or not this happened, but I ask this question to illustrate a point that certainty does not equal accuracy.
“When Mr. Perryman was asked to give a DNA sample, he consented to the police. Why did he do this? Does this sound like something a guilty man would do? Alphabet City, where the car was found, has lots of people coming and going at all times of the day and night. Who gave the phone number to her? Also, there was no blood evidence inside the car and no blood evidence from him inside the house. It’s a question of did he do this?”
Gordon rises at this point and says, “Objection, Your Honor. Those are not facts in evidence.” Judge Bergosh nods, and I cannot tell if he is sustaining or overruling the objection as Staples continues: “During jury selection, we discussed how there might be reasons why an innocent person might not testify in his or her own defense. We said that this case will focus on DNA, and all of you said that just because DNA evidence is present, that evidence isn’t necessarily definitive. You all said that you would consider what the evidence says in addition to DNA evidence, and the evidence shows in this case that Mr. Perryman did not do this.”
Staples finishes speaking and Gordon rises. “The burden of proof in this case is reasonable doubt,” he says. “Remember, Morgan is 5’1 and Mr. Perryman is a very large man. His attack was an unexpected attack. The pen was in her left hand, her non-dominant hand. Is it reasonable that she puncture his skin when she is trying to defend herself? The defense also argues that, because there was no DNA evidence from Mr. Perryman found on Morgan’s person, Mr. Perryman could not have assaulted her. Remember, during Morgan’s testimony, she detailed everything that happened during the assault. The defense also claims that there was no DNA from Mr. Perryman in the drops of blood in Morgan’s house. Is it reasonable to test every drop of blood on the floor? There is no conflict of evidence. All of the evidence adds up.
“The defense also admits that a crime has occurred. Remember, what lawyers say is not evidence. Only the evidence is the evidence. The defense argues that all of the evidence is a sequence of coincidences. I submit to you again that Mr. Perryman provided the exact phone number on the piece of paper to the police when asked.”
Gordon then itemizes the evidence in the case again for the jury, and how that evidence relates to the charges against Perryman. When he reaches the end of his rebuttal, he says, “I ask that you find the defendant guilty.”
Judge Bergosh reads the instructions for deliberation to the jury. Ann leans towards me. “It is time for this to be over,” she whispers as the Judge tells the jury that, during deliberation, they need to follow the law as set out in the instructions and decide the case only on the evidence, not on emotion.
He reads the six counts for which they must provide a guilty or not guilty verdict. On the first count of sexual battery, there is the option of choosing two lesser offences. On all of the other counts, there is only the choice of guilty or not guilty. He also tells the jury that they must choose a foreman, and that the verdict must be in writing. When his instructions are complete, he dismisses the jury.
11. The Long Wait
Outside the courtroom, the court security officers lock the doors, and the long wait begins. Two more of Morgan’s friends have arrived, and Ann joins them as they talk with Morgan. I head to the water fountain, and when I return, Morgan rises from her chair. She extends her hand, introduces herself, and says, “My mom told me that you’ve been following the case. Thank you for your help.”
I tell Morgan that I’d be happy to share with her any of my writing about the pre-trial events, and Morgan tells me she would like that. Her demeanor reminds me of many of the college students whom I teach. Ebullient and pleasant, she exudes hopefulness, even in the context of the trial.
“I’m really glad I was able to meet you,” I say. “I’ve been really inspired by your courage.”
Morgan nods, says, “Thank you,” and then heads back to her friends.
Through the glass windows of the hallway, I see that the sun is starting to set over the bay. I’ve now been at the courthouse today for approximately nine hours, and I walk around the corner of the hall to call my wife. After updating her on the trial, I encourage her to start dinner without me because I have no idea how long the jury will deliberate. “Stay as long as you need to,” she says. “I’ll have a plate for you when you get home.” Gordon is also on his cell phone near me, and when he too hangs up, I introduce myself and tell him I appreciated his thoroughness in the trial.
“Hey, thanks,” he says. “I’m always interested to hear what people in the audience think about a trial. It’s nice to hear how the trial comes off to other people.”
“How long do you think the jury will deliberate?” I ask.
“You never can tell. It’s just a waiting game now. If the deliberation goes longer than an hour, I start to get nervous, but you never know what the jurors are talking about, or how they will read the evidence. They also don’t necessarily know the sentencing implications for some of the charges. For example, if they only convict Mr. Perryman of the lesser battery charge, he walks out of here a free man today because the lesser battery charge is just a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year in jail, so Mr. Perryman would just get timed served. As a prosecutor, I wish that there was an opportunity to explain some of these things to a jury.”
“I was surprised that the defense attempted to argue insufficient evidence,” I say. “I attended the docket days for this case, and it seemed to me that Mr. Perryman was becoming more and more combative with his lawyer as the case continued. I assumed that Mr. Perryman would either eventually try to represent himself or at least insist on testifying.”
“I was surprised that he didn’t testify,” Gordon says. “I thought he probably needed to testify, but as I said, you never know how the jury will respond. I called my boss and told him how everything went, and he sounded pleased. Now we just have to wait — the hardest part.”
“I was surprised to see how infrequently Staples objected during the trial,” I say. “Everything for him seemed to come down to his closing argument.”
“Well, that was his strategy. The burden of proof is very high in these felony cases, and sometimes the defense attorneys will attempt to introduce just enough doubt so that the jury will feel like they cannot reach a conviction.”
His cell phone vibrates, and he takes the call. “Okay,” he says into the phone and then hangs ups. “Looks like we have a verdict.”
12. The Verdict
Ann and I take our same seats, and Morgan sits beside her mother. I count eight security officers in the courtroom, and when a handcuffed Perryman is led back in, several of the security officers position themselves near his chair. The heavyset woman I noticed at the beginning of the trial has returned and she sits on the back row. Perryman looks back at her, and then, unfazed, turns to face the judge as the jury enters the courtroom.
The judge asks the jury if they have reached a verdict, they say they have. They pass him the verdict.
“Now, I don’t want any jumping around after this verdict is read,” he says. “ Mr. Perryman, do you hear me? Do all of you in the audience hear me? This is not Iraq. We’re going to be dignified in this courtroom.”
The clerk then reads the verdict aloud: Perryman has been found guilty on all six counts. On the first sexual battery charge, the jury has selected one of the lesser charge options, yet the possibility Gordon described of Perryman evading incarceration is impossible because of his convictions on the other counts.
The heavyset woman in the back row has her arms crossed, and she is tearing up. As She leaves the courtroom as the judge polls the jurors. Ann dabs at her eyes with a tissue as Morgan holds her hand and says, “It’s okay, Mom. Don’t cry.”
The jury is excused. Gordon rises and makes a motion to move directly to sentencing. Staples does not object, and Gordon calls a fingerprint expert to the stand, and, led by his questioning, the expert clarifies his credentials and then matches Perryman’s fingerprints to the fingerprints on file for his four previous convictions.
“In the case of Mr. Perryman,” says Gordon, “Florida law dictates that he receive life sentences for his actions.”
“Is there anything else?” Judge Bergosh asks.
“Yes,” Gordon says, “the victim would like to make a statement.”
He asks Morgan if she has any recommendations for Perryman’s sentencing, She turns slightly in her chair so that she can speak directly to the judge.
“Your Honor, I just wanted to say that this hasn’t just been a crime against me,” she says. “It’s been a crime against my family and my friends as well. They have all been so helpful to me. They’ve had to drop their work to help me, and they’ve taken time from other things to come here and support me. This whole experience has been so hard on my family.
“One of the hardest things I have had to do was explain everything to my little sister and tell her that everything will be okay. I hate being a burden to all of them. They’ve been there for me the whole time, even when I didn’t feel like talking to everyone. This has also been a crime against the community, and it will continue to happen. He will continue to target mothers, daughters — all for a measly $300. This is why I am asking you to give him the maximum sentence.”
Gordon asks if she has had any residual health problems or medical expenses.
“I’m not a wealthy person, Your Honor,” she says. “I have to pay out of pocket for my medications and my co-pays. I have to see an ophthalmologist and a retina specialist for eye damage. My nose was broken and had to be set. I also see a therapist once a week as well. I received my Victim’s Compensation Fund letter recently, but these funds won’t cover all of my out-of-pocket expenses.”
Gordon reminds the judge that Perryman is charged with two other assaults the same week he attacked Morgan.
“Mr. Perryman, please stand,” says Judge Bergosh. “On count one, burglary, I sentence you to life. On count two, sexual battery, I sentence you to time served. On count three, kidnapping, I sentence you to life. On count four, grand theft auto, I sentence you to five years in state prison. On count five, sexual battery, I sentence you to life. On count six, robbery, I sentence you to life. The four life sentences will be served consecutively. Court is adjourned.”
13. A New Start
Four weeks after the trial, spring is in full bloom. Yellow pollen dusts virtually every car in the faculty parking lot of the university where I teach. Spanish moss, thick as knitted scarves, hangs from the southern live oaks as I walk across campus to meet Morgan at the coffee shop in the university library.
She is interested in several of the graduate programs at the university, and I’ve arranged to show her around campus. Over the last month, I have corresponded with Ann and Morgan through email, sending them my writing and notes about everything that preceded the trial.
In Ann’s messages, I hear the combination of exhaustion, relief, and her sense of future possibility. On the day after the trial, she wrote, “It is a new day for us and, after both of us falling exhausted into our hotel bed by 9:30 p.m., this morning really has felt like a new start!”
After returning to Montana, she wrote, “Morgan and I basically slept for three days after the trial. I think we really needed that.” Later, after processing much of the trial, Ann concluded a message by writing, “I think God puts people in the right places at the right times sometimes, and I know that there were many miracles that saved Morgan that night.”
On campus, students hustle between classes. A skateboarder weaves in and out of the small groups on a sidewalk before popping his skateboard under his arm and entering one of the academic buildings. Through the windows of the coffee shop, I spot Morgan at a table. Reading a paperback and cooling her tea, she is indistinguishable from the students around her. I wave to her as I pass through the doors, and when she sees me she smiles, dog-ears the page, and closes her book.
14. Coda: The Following Year
In July of 2013, four months after Perryman’s trial and sentencing for his attack on Morgan, Ann continues to keep me informed about Morgan’s continued recovery and other Perryman cases as well. She writes that, just as jury selection was finishing for his next trial, Perryman decided to accept a plea bargain. The judge gave him twenty additional years.
“Four life sentences plus twenty additional years ought to do it,” Ann writes, noting the irony that the judge’s sentence came down exactly one year to the day after Perryman’s attack on Morgan. In addition, she says the prosecutor’s office asked Morgan to address a sexual assault response team of law enforcement personnel, victim advocates, nurses, and therapists who assist victims of assault: “She had to think about it for a night, but decided to do it. I couldn’t be more proud of her!”
Just before Thanksgiving, Ann writes again, saying that her town recently participated in a “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” event to raise funds for the city’s domestic abuse and rape crisis shelter: “Over 300 men wore bright red high heels and walked down our main street and raised over $15,000 for our shelter! My church was the registration sight. They asked me to speak and tell Morgan’s story, which I was able to do, with Morgan’s permission, of course.”
After the trial, my wife and I grew restless in the neighborhood. One night, not long after Perryman’s conviction, I was awakened by the sound of fire engines in the street. Looking through the blinds, I saw smoke — grey against the blue of the night sky — rising from a neighbor’s ramshackle house as fire fighters placed blankets over the shoulders of several middle-school-age children who lived in the home with their mother and peripatetic, rumored-to-be-drug-dealing father. Abandoned and un-boarded, the exposed house festered for weeks until the father materialized from out of town, covered the open windows with plywood, and then disappeared again. Around this time, shots were reported at two residences a few blocks from our home. When the police arrived, no witness would talk. That night, as my pregnant wife rubbed her growing belly like a crystal ball, we agreed: Enough was enough, and within a month we had moved into a two-bedroom cottage in a safer neighborhood and put my house on the market.
On the one-year anniversary of the completion of the trial, I write Ann to inquire how the rest of their year has transpired. After taking some time to consider the question, she responds:
A year has passed since the verdict and the sentencing. I am truly grateful that the investigation and prosecution of this case were done so efficiently and that the jury did its job. For twenty years I have worked in our church — a place where the Sunday-morning sermon is frequently on forgiveness — and I will admit that I do not feel ready to forgive yet. I can’t imagine the thousands of women who have gone through a situation like Morgan’s and have not been able to achieve justice. Both Morgan and I have spoken to groups about this experience, and the events have raised my praise of our local women’s abuse shelter. I know that so many women need a place to turn to for protection. God bless the workers in those places. They are heroes in every sense of the word.
Morgan has started a new life with a new passion for school and a new career path. I admire her so much and am thankful that her new surroundings have given her some control over her story, which gives her power back over her own life — something, that has been important for her. Her safety is always on my mind and just when we think she has a good handle on everything, something out of the blue will happen that will shake us to the core. On New Year’s Eve, there was a break-in not far from her new home, and one of the officers who was going house-by-house to alert the neighborhood turned out to be one of the female officers who had taken care of Morgan on the night of her assault. They shared a conversation and a hug, and when Morgan called us later that night, she was still shaken but somehow comforted by the fact that these same officers handled this too and captured the person.
Then, about a month ago, as she was walking from her car to her house a homeless man who resembled her attacker approached her. She panicked and ran to a local bar. She later said that she was embarrassed by her reaction, but her gut instinct told her to run. In typical Morgan fashion, she made new friends that night in the bar and feels like it is a safe place if needed again. Morgan’s nightmares have faded, but I wonder if there will ever really be a feeling of safety again. She is still seeing her therapist on a limited basis and finds that to be such a positive influence.
The other component of the assault that I had never considered is the financial part. Morgan had just over $30,000 worth of medical bills between the emergency room, the treatment that night, and all of the follow-ups with physicians and specialists. She also had surgery a few months afterwards to correct her broken nose. Thank goodness she was insured at the time and that the Florida victim’s compensation package also helped pay for her bills. For months she had to struggle to keep track of bills and make copies for both places to make sure payments were processed. Her father and I paid for twelve trips back and forth to Florida during the year because of the attack, and that’s not counting the visits just to see Morgan. Throw in motels, rental cars, food, and gas, and the expenses add up. We are fortunate that we were able to handle this, but what a nightmare for a family that couldn’t afford these expenses.
Finally, I have only one more thought. Through the prosecutor’s office, we are given the right to know at all times where her attacker is and his status. Morgan does not want the updates, but her dad and I do. (I think she’s glad that WE are getting them.) While I very much appreciate the opportunity, the updates are frequent reminders of what has transpired. Who would have thought that I would ever have an interest in the Florida inmate program? But I do.
I also have thought about Perryman and his family. There is a sense of sadness knowing his life is essentially over. What makes a person react so violently? Did he have that plan when he knocked on Morgan’s door or did something just snap? Is his family in contact with him now? Does he have any remorse? What went wrong in his life? Where did it go so wrong? Those are questions that will always be in my heart and for which I will never have answers.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.