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Thursday, July 3, 2003 02:20 pm

The Highway Side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part seven: Here comes the judge

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What you missed: Private eye Nick Acropolis is sent to McKinley by attorney Shelly Michalowski to investigate the case of a trucker charged with smuggling cocaine. A truck stop waitress hires Nick to look for her missing son. Nick then stumbles upon the trucker's semi trailer. The police have emptied a secret compartment, but Nick finds four small bundles hidden within a pile of grapefruit. When the trucker, Jesse Lopez, finally meets with Shelly and Nick at the Sawyer County Courthouse, he convinces them of his innocence. To read the past chapters, check out the Illinois Times Web site: www.illinoistimes.com.

SEVEN

In the courtroom, Jesse Lopez suddenly lost his voice.

"You are charged with one count of controlled substance trafficking, which is a Class X felony," Judge Watrous intoned from atop the dark wooden bench. "Conviction carries a mandatory sentence of 30 to 120 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections."

"Mother of God," Lopez moaned softly.

"How do you plead?" the judge asked.

Lopez didn't answer. The silence stretched across the nearly empty courtroom.

A court reporter sat on the right side of the bench. The bailiff was leaning against the witness box. Two deputies were loitering along a wall, keeping an eye on Lopez. The only spectators were two old-timers whiling away their retirement years. Both appeared to be napping.

Two assistant state's attorneys sat at the government's table. Dennis Dornbery was about 6'4"; he looked like an NFL linebacker. His dark suit didn't need the shoulder pads.

His partner was Gail Luben. She was a couple of inches taller than Shelly and her hair wasn't quite as blond. Both their suits were the same shade of blue.

The prosecutors had introduced themselves a few minutes before, while dropping off an envelope of police reports. "Hate to say it," Dornbery had said, "but we got your guy cold."

"If you want to plead it out," Leben offered, "we might be able to get you the minimum."

"Thirty years?" Shelly nearly shouted.

Dornbery shrugged. "That's the best offer you're gonna get."

"We must be going to trial," Shelly said.

Now she sat paging through the police reports, as the silence lingered. After a minute, she looked up. "Not guilty, your honor."

"Is that your plea, Mr. Lopez?" the judge asked.

"Yeah, that's it," Lopez said, but I could barely hear him.

"You'll have to speak up," the judge called out.

Shelly whispered to Lopez.

"Not guilty," he said, but without the conviction he'd had in the interview room.

"OK, we'll set May 6, 10 o'clock in the morning. I assume you'll be wanting a jury."

"Your honor, I'm not sure yet," Shelly said.

"Let me know by April 19, if you would."

"Your honor, I'd like to request a bond hearing at this time."

Dornbery stood up. "We're opposed to bond in this case. But that said, we'd like some time to prepare for any hearing."

Shelly stood up. "Your honor, I'd like to point out that Mr. Lopez is the sole support of his family--that's a wife and two children--and it's a hardship for them if he is in jail and cannot provide."

"Maybe your client should have thought about that before he decided to smuggle cocaine," the judge said.

Shelly made a big show of looking around the courtroom. "I'm sorry. Did I get here late? Did I miss the trial?"

The judge leaned over the top of the bench and pointed a stern finger at Shelly. "Young lady, I'm only going to warn you once."

"Your honor, I believe my client is entitled to the presumption of innocence, and I must say I'm tempted to ask you to recuse yourself."

There was a low chuckle from the state's table.

"Counselor, that's your right, of course," the judge said. "And if you were to make that motion, I would very likely grant it. Denny, how much time were you looking for?"

"Two weeks, your honor," Dornbery said.

"Two weeks?" Shelly said. "That's . . . "

"OK, we'll all be back here for a bond hearing at ten o'clock on March . . . " He stopped in mid-sentence and pointed that same long finger at Shelly. "Don't flip your hair at me, young lady."

Shelly started another flip, then caught herself, reaching up to set her hair back in place by hand. She did a little bow before sitting down.

The judge nodded, as though he thought the curtsy was an improvement. "March 9, ten o'clock," he said.

"Screw him," Shelly whispered. "I'm getting another judge."

"You sure there is one?" I asked.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER EIGHT

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