The Boys from Biloxi: A Legal Thriller (41 page)

BOOK: The Boys from Biloxi: A Legal Thriller
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One down, two to go. Judge Roach immediately set the case of
State v. Nevin Noll
for trial on March 14 in Pike County.

Before he left the Coast to return to his farm, he was invited to lunch at the home of Judge Oliphant, a fellow jurist he had known for many years. Keith was also invited, and as they enjoyed ice tea and shrimp salads on the veranda, the purpose of the lunch became clear.

Judge Roach finally said, “Keith, Harry and I share the opinion that it’s time for you to step aside and allow a special prosecutor to take over.”

Judge Oliphant added, “You’re too close to the case, Keith. You’re a victim. Your work so far has been exemplary, but we think you should not present the case to the jury.”

Keith was not surprised; he was oddly relieved. While alone, on many occasions, he had stood before a phantom jury and delivered his opening statement and final summation. Both had been written months ago and fine-tuned a hundred times. If properly delivered in a hushed courtroom they would move any human to tears, and to action. To justice. But he had never, not even in deep
solitude, been able to finish them. He was not an emotional person and took pride in maintaining control, but when talking to twelve strangers about the death of his father, he broke down. As the trials grew closer, he had become even more convinced that he should only observe them.

He smiled and asked, “Who do you have in mind?”

“Chuck McClure,” Judge Roach said, without hesitation. Judge Oliphant nodded his agreement. There was no doubt they’d had this discussion several times before inviting Keith.

“Will he do it?”

“If I ask him. As you know, he’s never been one to dodge a camera.”

“And he’s very good,” Judge Oliphant added.

McClure had served as district attorney in Meridian for twelve years and had sent more men to death row than any prosecutor in the state’s history. President Johnson had appointed him U.S. attorney for the Southern District, where he had served with distinction for seven years. He was currently working at Justice in Washington but, according to Judge Roach, was eager to return home. The Jesse Rudy murder was the perfect case for him.

With great respect, Keith said, “Gentlemen, I defer to you, as always.”

Chapter 49

With one month to go before the trial of Nevin Noll, his lawyer, Millard Cantrell, opened the mail one dismal morning and was startled to see an order from Judge Roach. He was granting Burch’s motion to force out Keith Rudy, a motion Cantrell did not join, and he was replacing Keith with Chuck McClure, a well-known prosecutor.

Cantrell was furious that Burch had managed to screw up again. As Cantrell was learning, Burch’s greatness was in the courtroom, where he blossomed, but not in the plotting of pre-trial strategies. He wanted to bury his opponent with paperwork and keep him on the defensive. More and more, though, the paperwork was biting Burch in the ass.

Keith was a rookie with no capital murder experience. McClure was deadly.

Cantrell called Burch looking for another fight, but he wouldn’t take the call.

The spectacular collapse of Henry Taylor, and his transformation from a defendant to a State’s witness, had severely weakened the defense of both Nevin Noll and Hugh Malco. The arrival of Chuck McClure was another heavy nail in their coffins. The most daunting challenge before them, though, was the simple fact that both were guilty of murdering Jesse Rudy.

However, in the eyes of the law, Nevin was guiltier than Hugh simply because there was more proof. Henry Taylor never met Hugh and had no idea what was said between him and Noll. No
one else was in the room when Hugh ordered the hit. But Taylor did know for a fact, and could certainly convince a jury, that Noll had paid him $20,000 to kill Jesse Rudy, and that Noll had provided the explosives.

Cantrell had been Noll’s lawyer for a year and had spent dozens of hours with him at the jail. He didn’t bother feigning affection for his client and secretly loathed him. He saw him as a cold-blooded killer incapable of remorse, a proud gangster who had never earned an honest dollar, and a psychopath who would kill again if the money was right. He was mob to his core and would never rat out a fellow thug.

But, as his lawyer, Cantrell had a duty to look out for his best interests. In his experienced opinion, Noll was staring at a hopeless trial, followed by ten to twelve years of misery on death row, all to be ended by ten minutes in the gas chamber sniffing hydrogen cyanide. Cantrell wasn’t sure he could find a better ending, but it was his duty to try.

They met in a small room in the Forrest County jail, the same room as always. A year in jail had done little to improve Noll’s looks. He was only thirty-seven, but there were crow’s feet around his eyes and dark, puffy circles under them. His thick black hair was turning grayer by the month. He chain-smoked as if slowly committing suicide.

Cantrell said, “I’ll see the judge in a few days, another hearing. Sometime soon he’ll ask if there have been efforts to settle the case, any talk about a plea agreement. So you and I should at least discuss this.”

“You want me to plead guilty?”

“I don’t want you to do a damned thing, Nevin. My job is to present options. Option one is to go to trial. Option two is to avoid a trial by entering into a plea agreement. You admit you’re guilty, you agree to help the prosecution, and the judge cuts you some slack.”

Cantrell half-expected to get cursed for even suggesting cooperation with the State. A tough guy like Nevin Noll could take any punishment “them sumbitches” could dish out.

But when Noll asked, “How much slack?” Cantrell thought he had misunderstood his client.

“Don’t know. And we won’t know until we have a chat with the DA.”

Noll lit another cigarette and blew smoke at the ceiling. The facade was gone, the bluster, the tough-guy routine, the perpetual smirk that looked down on everyone around him. In the first sincere question since they met, Noll asked, “What would you do?”

Cantrell arranged his thoughts and cautioned himself. This might be his only chance to save his client’s life. His words must be chosen carefully.

“Well, I would not go to trial.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’ll be found guilty, and given the max, and sent to Parchman to wither away on death row. The jury will eagerly convict you. The judge will throw the book at you. Nothing good will happen in trial.”

“So you won’t be there to protect me?”

“Of course I’ll be there, but there’s only so much I can do, Nevin. You beat one murder rap thirteen years ago with a lot of help from some friends. Won’t happen this time. There’s too much proof against you.”

“Go on.”

“I’d take a deal, cut my losses, try to leave a little room for hope down the road. You’re now thirty-seven years old, maybe you can get out when you’re sixty and still have a few good years left.”

“Sounds awful.”

“Not as awful as the gas chamber. At least you’ll be alive.”

Noll sucked hard on the filter, filled his lungs, then let the smoke drift out his nose. “And you think the State will cut me some slack?”

“I won’t know until I ask. And, Keith has a new member to his team, guy named Chuck McClure, probably the best prosecutor in the state. He’s sent more men to death row than anybody in history. A real badass in the courtroom, a legend actually, and now he’s got you in his sights.”

More smoke leaked from his nose and through his lips. Finally, “Okay, Millard, have the chat.”

Though officially recused, Keith was still the district attorney and as such would be involved in the prosecution. He would assist Chuck McClure in everything but the trial itself, during which he would sit near the State’s table, take notes, and watch the proceedings. He would not be introduced to the jurors and they would not know he was the son of the victim.

The phone call from Millard Cantrell came out of nowhere. They had talked several times on the phone and disliked each other instantly, but when Cantrell said the word “deal” Keith was stunned. He had never, for a moment, considered the possibility that a hardened criminal like Nevin Noll would ever consider a plea agreement. But then, how many of them had ever faced the gas chamber?

The ship was sinking and the rats were jumping overboard.

They met two days later in Keith’s office. Cantrell had suggested they meet in Hattiesburg, halfway between, but Keith was the DA and expected all defense lawyers to meet on his terms and turf.

Before the meeting, Keith and Chuck McClure had talked for an hour and discussed strategy. A deal with Nevin Noll would send Hugh Malco straight to death row, with hardly a pause at the formality of a trial. Keith wanted them both on death row, perhaps even executed at the same time in a twin killing, but McClure reminded him that the grand prize was Hugh Malco.

Keith did not offer coffee and was barely pleasant. He frowned at Cantrell and said, “Full cooperation, testimony against Malco, and he gets thirty years. Nothing less.”

Cantrell was beaten and both knew it. Somewhat subdued, he said, “I was hoping for something that might appeal to my client. A deal he could accept.”

“Sorry.”

“You see, Keith, the way I look at it, you desperately need Noll because no one else can pin all the blame on Malco. No one else was in the room. Assuming Malco ordered the hit, no one else can prove it.”

“The State has plenty of proof and your client goes down first. No way he avoids the gas chamber.”

“I agree with that, Keith, I really do. But I’m not so sure you can nail Malco.”

“Thirty years for a guilty plea. Cooperation. The Tennessee indictment goes away. Not negotiable.”

“All I can do is discuss it with my client.”

“I hope he says no, Millard. I really do. My life will not be complete until I watch them strap Nevin Noll in the gas chamber and flip the switch. I visualize that scene every day and dream of it every night. I pray for it at Mass every morning, without remorse.”

“Got it.”

“You have forty-eight hours until the offer comes off the table.”

Chapter 50

The trial of Hugh Malco began on Monday morning, April 3, in the county courthouse in Hattiesburg. Judge Roach chose the town for several reasons, some legal, others practical. The defense, oddly enough, had wanted to change venue because Joshua Burch was convinced the Malco name was toxic along the Coast. Judge Roach hired an expert who polled the three counties and was stunned to learn that almost everyone believed the Malco gang rubbed out Jesse Rudy for revenge. The State wanted to move the trial to keep it away from Fats Bowman and his mischief. Hattiesburg was seventy-five miles to the north, halfway to Jackson, and it was a college town of 40,000 with nice hotels and restaurants. On one of his drives back to the Delta, Judge Roach and his clerk scoped out the Forrest County Courthouse and were impressed with its spacious and well-maintained courtroom. The circuit court judge there welcomed the trial and made his staff available. The county sheriff and chief of police agreed to provide security.

The day before the trial began, Hugh Malco was moved to the Forrest County jail, the same place where Nevin Noll had spent the past year. But he wasn’t there; he’d been moved to an undisclosed location and would be hauled in under tight security when needed.

By 8:00
a.m.
the news vans were arriving and camera crews were setting up in an area near the front entrance that was cordoned off and watched by plenty of men in uniform. Every door
of the courthouse was guarded and the county employees were admitted only by credentials. A numbered pass issued by the circuit clerk was required for spectators. The courtroom’s capacity was 200, half of which would be the prospective jurors. The legal teams—Burch for the defense and Keith and McClure for the prosecution—entered through a side door and were escorted to the courtroom. The defendant arrived in a motorcade and was whisked through a rear door, away from the cameras.

When Judge Roach settled onto his throne at precisely 9:00
a.m.
, he took in the crowd and thanked everyone for their interest. He explained that they would spend most of the day and perhaps tomorrow selecting a jury. It would be a slow process and he was in no hurry. He introduced the participants. To his left and seated at the table nearest the jury box was Mr. Chuck McClure, the prosecutor representing the State of Mississippi. Next to him was his assistant, Egan Clement.

Keith sat directly behind McClure with his back to the bar and was not introduced.

To the right, and only a few feet away, was the defendant, Mr. Hugh Malco, who was wedged between his lawyers, Joshua Burch and his associate, Vincent Goode.

Keith glanced at the front row and smiled at Agnes, who was seated with her other three children. Behind them were two rows of reporters.

The excitement of the opening bell soon wore off as Judge Roach began pruning his jury pool. Though they had been carefully screened to exclude those over sixty-five and those who were ill, others stood with various excuses—job and family demands, additional medical concerns, and reservations about being called upon to impose the death penalty, should it come into play. About half admitted to hearing the news about the bombing of the Biloxi courthouse and the death of Jesse Rudy.

Keith resisted the urge to glare at Hugh, who scribbled nonstop
on legal pads and looked at no one. A sketch from a courtroom artist would show the two men seated only inches apart and staring at one another, but it would not be accurate.

Judge Roach was methodical, at times painfully slow, and imminently fair with those who spoke up. By noon he had excused 30 of the 102 prospects, and the lawyers had yet to say a word. He recessed for a two-hour lunch and promised more of the same for the afternoon.

For an eighty-four-year-old, His Honor showed remarkable stamina. He picked up the pace when he allowed Chuck McClure and Joshua Burch to address the pool. They were not allowed to argue the facts or begin plotting their strategies. Their job during the selection process was to approve the jurors they liked and strike the ones they didn’t.

At 6:30, court was adjourned with only the first four approved and sitting in the jury box.

The Rudy clan and the prosecution team retired to a hotel, found the bar, and enjoyed a long dinner. The lawyers—Keith, Egan, McClure, and the Pettigrew brothers—all agreed that the first day went well. Agnes had been a nervous wreck in the days leading up to the trial and had balked at attending, but the children insisted, and during the day she became fascinated with the selection process. For years she had worked in the law office and knew the lingo, and she had watched Jesse try cases and was familiar with the procedure. Over dinner, she shared several observations about the remaining jurors. One gentleman in particular had bad body language and a permanent scowl, and this bothered her. McClure promised to strike him.

The last juror was seated at 10:45 Tuesday morning. Seven men, five women, eight whites, three blacks, one Asian. All “death qualified” as the lawyers say, meaning all had promised Chuck McClure they could impose the death penalty if asked to do so.

Death was in the air. It had brought them all together, and it would be discussed, analyzed, and threatened until the trial was over. Justice would not be served until Hugh Malco was convicted and sentenced to die.

Judge Roach nodded at Chuck McClure, but he was already on his feet. He stood before the jury and began with a dramatic “The defendant, Hugh Malco, is a murderer who deserves the death penalty, and not just for one reason, but for three. Number one: In this state it is a capital crime to murder an elected official. Jesse Rudy was elected twice by the people on the Coast as their district attorney. Number two: In this state it is a capital crime to pay someone to kill another. Hugh Malco paid a contract killer twenty thousand dollars to kill Jesse. Number three: In this state it is a capital crime to murder another person by using explosives. The contract killer used stolen military explosives to blow up the Biloxi courthouse with Jesse as the target. The proof is clear. It’s an open-and-shut case.”

McClure turned, pointed an angry finger at Hugh, and said, “This man is a cold-blooded killer who deserves the death penalty.”

All twelve glared at the defendant. The courtroom was still, silent. Though the first witness had yet to be called, the trial was over.

Hugh absorbed the words without flinching. He was determined to look at no one, to react to nothing, to do little else but doodle and scratch on a legal pad and pretend to be hard at work taking notes. He appeared to be in another world, but his thoughts were very much in the courtroom. They were a scrambled mess of questions like:
Where did the plot go wrong? Why did we trust an idiot like Henry Taylor? How could Nevin rat me out? How can I find him and
talk to him? How long will I stay on death row before I make my escape?
He harbored not a single thought of being innocent.

McClure allowed his words to echo around the courtroom, then launched into a windy narrative on the history of organized crime on the Coast, with a heavy emphasis on the Malco family’s central role in it. Gambling, prostitution, drugs, illegal liquor, corruption, all promoted by men like Lance Malco, now sitting in prison for his sins, and then by his son—his successor, his heir, the defendant. After decades of entrenched criminal activity, the first public official with the guts to go after the crime bosses was Jesse Rudy.

McClure spoke without notes but with a full command of his material. He had rehearsed his opening several times with his team and each version only got better. He moved around the courtroom as if he owned it. The jurors watched every move, absorbed every word.

He dwelt on Jesse and his frustrations in his early days as a prosecutor when he was a lonely warrior fighting crime with no help from law enforcement; his futile efforts to shut down the nightclubs; and his worries about the safety of his family. But he was fearless and never gave up. The people noticed, the voters cared, and in 1975 he was reelected without opposition. He fought on, trying one legal maneuver after another until he began to win. He became more than a thorn in the side of the crime bosses; he became a legitimate threat to their empires. When he put away Lance Malco, father of the defendant, it was time for revenge. Jesse Rudy paid the ultimate price for fighting the Dixie Mafia.

Keith had watched his father become a master in the courtroom, but he had to admit at that moment that Chuck McClure was just as brilliant. And he reminded himself of his own wise decision to sit on the sideline. He would not be able to be as effective as McClure, whose words evoked too many emotions.

McClure finished in forty-five minutes and everyone took a deep breath. He had brilliantly won the opening battle without
mentioning the names of Henry Taylor and Nevin Noll. The dramatic testimonies of his star witnesses would seal the fate of Hugh Malco.

Joshua Burch quickly revealed his strategy, though it was no surprise. He had so little to work with. He said his client was an innocent man who was being framed by the real killers, lowlifes from the underworld who had cut deals with the State to save themselves. He warned the jurors not to believe the lies they were about to hear from the men who murdered Jesse Rudy. Hugh Malco was no gangster! He was an entrepreneur who ran several businesses: a chain of convenience stores, a liquor store with a legitimate permit, two restaurants. He built and managed apartment buildings and a shopping center. He had been working since the age of fifteen and would have gone to college but his father needed him as the family enterprises grew.

The murder of Jesse Rudy was the most sensational in the history of the Gulf Coast, and the State was desperate to solve it and punish someone. In its eagerness, though, it had sacrificed the search for the truth by pinning its case on the testimony of men who could not be trusted. There was no other direct link to Hugh Malco, a fine young man who had always respected Jesse Rudy. Indeed, he admired the Rudy family.

Keith watched the faces of the jurors and saw no sympathy, nothing but suspicions.

After Burch sat down, Judge Roach recessed for a long lunch.

In a murder trial, most prosecutors called as their first witness a member of the victim’s family. Though rarely probative, it set the tone and aroused sympathy from the jury. Agnes wanted no part of it and Keith thought it unnecessary.

McClure called an investigator from the state police. His job
was to show the jury the crime scene and describe what happened. Using a series of enlarged photos, he walked the jury through the blast and the resulting damage. When it was time to show photos of the victim, Keith nodded to a bailiff who walked to the front row and escorted Agnes, Tim, Laura, and Beverly out of the courtroom. It was a dramatic exit, one that Keith and McClure had carefully planned, and it irritated Joshua Burch, who stood to object but decided not to. Calling attention to Jesse’s family would only make bad matters worse.

Keith stared at the floor as the jurors cringed at four photos of Jesse’s badly mangled and dismembered body stuck to the wall.

BOOK: The Boys from Biloxi: A Legal Thriller
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