ILLEGAL – Chapter Two – The Trial

Rush stared at his watery reflection, obscured as it was by the white porcelain toilet with which he had recently become well acquainted.  Trial anxiety produced vomit. This morning he had to face the monsters; the killers passing themselves off as patriotic Americans; the animals who kill children because of a foolish belief in white supremacy.  Rush was sickened by the fear clenching his gut.  He had to testify against them, not just for Jorge, Maria, and Elena, but for the hundreds of other undocumented Mexican immigrants who find themselves faced with unspeakable cruelties.

The killings made front page news in Texas, and it provoked everything from political animus by international human rights groups to cheers from Ku Klux Klan members. Hate groups seemed to crawl out of the dirt to defend the actions of the mall cops on trial for the murder of fifteen year old Maria Gonzalez, et al, and Rush was the center of attention.  He was the brown boy who outsmarted two racists and lived to put them away.  His testimony cemented life in prison or maybe even the death penalty for two good-old-boys from South Texas.  Yes, indeed, it was a hot day in Laredo, boy.

“Rush.  Are you alright, my son?”  Papi stood over him as Rush wiped his face with a wet cloth one more time.

“Yeah, sure, Papi.  Just a little scared, you know.”

“Jose, you are an honorable young man.  You are a strong American standing up for the rights of other Americans.  Our freedom is a precious thing, and one day all of this will be history, just like slavery is history.  Only you will have the pride knowing you were one of many who did what was right for our people, and you did it the right way – through the American Justice System.”

“Papi, those men … they will be there.  They will see my face again.  What if they send others after me?”

“They cannot, Rush.  Not without bringing more bad publicity upon their Alliance.  They need to be very careful now.  Besides, Detective Jimenez said he will make sure you are watched and protected; even if he has to do it himself.”

This case, unknown to Alex Jimenez, the Pena family and well, all of Texas, was about to energize every hate group in the United States, specifically, the Blacks for Equal Rights Committee (BFERC).  This group had stayed out of sight, but put its support behind the Federation for Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a group that liked to promote itself as a value-free research commodity whose assistance was hired by government officials.  It was the BFERC that would fade into the background to commit unsolved crimes against people and organizations in Texas.  However, for now, FAIR chose to create an image of itself that merely stood up for conservative citizens.

Rush was just a boy trying to do the right thing.  He experienced and witnessed heinous injustices and wanted to tell his story.  He combed his straight black hair, straightened his tie, and even sacrificed wearing his hot red cross-trainers given to him as a gift by Alex after Rush won an award for an article he wrote about poverty in Texas.  He wanted to give his testimony credibility and unfortunately, those red shoes showed a slightly different side of Rush’s personality.

It was time.  Alex Jimenez, Papi Pena and Rush arrived at the courtroom together. All were nervous.  All felt the pressure of the media, spectators, and the perpetuated infusion of hatred towards Mexicans in the border town of Laredo, Texas.  The courtroom was filled with concerned citizens; some sincere and others menacing.  It was tense.  Something up to this point in his life was unidentifiable, and now it caused Rush great anxiety and that something was called racism.

He sat waiting to be called to testify, filled to the brim with apprehension.  The defendants spotted him in the gallery.  Lawrence “Jinx” Calhoun and Jackson Schuler glared at Rush.  Their intimidating tactics only challenged the young Mexican-American to exert the power he held over them.  He glared back with steely indignation … “the prosecution calls Jose Miguel Pena to the stand.”

Rush, defiant, broke eye contact with the defendants and found his way, shiny black dress shoes and all, to the witness stand.  “Do you solemnly swear in this cause now before the court to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?”

“I do.”

“On the night of September 22, 1995, were you arrested by the defendants Lawrence Calhoun and Jackson Schuler at the Laredo Mall?”

“Yes, sir.”

“For what exactly were you arrested?”

“I hid in the shoe store, The Footlocker, in order to steal some shoes.”

“For the record, have you been granted leniency by the court in exchange for your testimony today?”

“Yes.”

“Could you please tell the Court what happened after you were apprehended at the Footlocker?”

“Mr. Calhoun handcuffed my hands behind my back.  He called Mr. Schuler on the walkie-talkie to join him.  Together they took me to an unmarked car and  threw me into the backseat … violently.”

“Objection, your Honor. I doubt if the defendants violently threw the witness anywhere.”

The judge looked narrowly at Rush.  “Sustained.  The witness will refrain from embellishing his story with unnecessary verbiage.”

“But, your Honor, these are the facts the way the witness experienced them.”  The prosecutor was a young attorney.  It was obvious that this trial weighed heavily on him, yet, if he was frightened, it didn’t show.

“No matter.  Continue, without embellishment.”  The judge was pandering to the press.  He did not want a riot in his courtroom and his only defense was to temper the testimony.

The prosecution resumed.  “Where did they take you?”

“The drive was a long way.  I was in the car for about forty-five minutes and when we got there, they took me into a barn all falling apart.  They unlocked a horse stall that had bars all around it and threw me in with another boy.”

“What did they say to you at this point?”

“Um, something like they were going to send me back where I belong and they accused me of murdering and stealing.”

“Did they ask you if you were an American citizen?”

“No, that never came up.”

“Were there others in the barn with you?”

“Yes, in the stall with me was a boy who told me his name was Jorge. He didn’t give me any other name.  In another stall, at the other end of the barn were two girls.  One’s name was Elena, and the other Maria.”

“How old would you say these children were?”

“Jorge was about my age, but the girls were a little older.”

“Were these children undocumented immigrants that you know of?”

“I don’t think that Jorge and Elena were documented, but Maria was an American citizen.”

“Jose, how could you know this?”

“Well, Jorge spoke only Spanish and so did Elena, but when Maria screamed as they were beating her, she spoke in English.”

“Hmmm, they were beating her, you say?”

“Objection, your honor, just because Maria spoke English does not mean she was an American.”

“Sustained.”

The young prosecutor raised an eyebrow, sighed and turned to Rush.  “Jose, how exactly do you know that Maria was a United States citizen?”

“Yes, sir. I … I know because as they were beating her,” Rush gritted his teeth in anger and tried to hold back tears, “she screamed at them that she was an American.”

“What did the defendants do after hearing that she was an American?”

“Nothing.  They ignored her as if she had said nothing to them.  They just kept beating her, and she screamed and Elena screamed, and we were all so scared.”  Rush’s voice cracked and tears rolled down his face.

“Do you want to take a break, Jose’?”

“No.  Please, let’s get this over with.”  Rush wiped his face with his sleeve.  “The two men left.”

“You mean the defendants.”

“Yes, the defendants left.  Elena told Jorge that Maria was beaten very bad and that she was worried she could die.  Jorge and I started digging the dirt out under the barn walls. He had already started it, so between the two of us we were able to dig a hole deep enough for us to squeeze through.”

“Where were the men while you were digging the hole?”

“They were drinking. I could hear them yelling things, and talking about how drunk they were getting, and how Jorge and I were next.”

“What happened next?”

“We squeezed through the hole and started running.  The defendants, um … chased after us firing their rifles at us.  All of a sudden Jorge fell to the ground.  I couldn’t stop running … I was so scared.  Then I heard two more gunshots.”

“Where did you go?”

“I found a tree to climb.  My brothers and I use to make a contest out of who could climb a tree the fastest and … well, I climbed a tree and hid in the branches.”

“What happened to the defendants?”

“They tried to find me, but couldn’t, so they got back into their car and drove away.  When I knew they were gone for sure, I hiked to the road and bummed a ride into town.”

“No further questions for this witness, your Honor.”

“Very well.  It’s almost lunch time. Let’s recess until 1:00 where cross examination of this witness will commence by the Defense.”

“All rise.”  As the judge and jury left the courtroom, Rush stepped down from the witness box.

Jinx Calhoun walked away, but Jackson Schuler broke away from the Marshals. He grabbed Rush by one arm.  “You little wetback!  You ain’t pumpin’ us full a poison.  Better watch yo’sef, boy!  You ain’t near as protected as ya think.”

The Marshals regained control of the defendant, but the attack on Rush acted as a contagion to send members of several hate groups sitting in the gallery into delirium.  One woman lunged at Alex while he shielded Rush from the descending herd of hate filled factions that would soon become a constant presence in Laredo as well as other Mexican border towns.

After Rush’s testimony, the circus at the courthouse lasted another week.  The trial finally came to a conclusion where the defendants were found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in thirty years.  After four weeks of insane protests in the streets of Laredo from all sorts of human rights groups, immigration reform groups, Mexican-American rights groups, and of course, the Alliance Against Illegal Immigration, a twelve year old boy, by the name of Jose “Rush” Pena remained the center of the controversy. His family received threatening phone calls, hate mail, and their house was spray painted with graffiti renouncing the Pena family as American citizens. All of this, not to mention the endless stream of media coverage which haunted the Pena’s everywhere they went, affected Rush in ways even he did not recognize.  It sealed his future, but not in the way one might think.

On the day of sentencing, Rush wanted to be in the courtroom.  Against the advice of Alex and the prosecuting attorney, he planted himself directly behind the prosecution’s table.  As the sentence was delivered, Calhoun and Schuler looked at Rush, and Schuler said, “No matta’ whea’ ya go … you dead, boy.”

The Marshals pushed the murderers toward the exit, but Rush could feel their burning hatred.  From that point on, Rush’s life took on a new purpose which was searching for and practicing social justice.  Forever branded you dead, boy into his brain, he remained conscious of killers lurking behind him.

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