A crusader for truth and justice. Whenever people called me that, I never knew whether they meant it sarcastically, but I always tasted the rusty residue of irony on my own tongue. Truth and justice? If I ever met the one, I would have to run away before it could tell me how often I’ve betrayed the other: how many murderers are free because of me, how many crimes have been committed by repeat offenders who would have been safely off the streets if I hadn’t done my job so well.
What, then, was my crusade for? For the right of every human being, innocent or guilty, to life. My given name is George, and with every convict I saved from the gurney, I saw myself striking a blow against the bloated, bloodthirsty dragon called the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Letting the great state of Texas know that it is not greater than God.
And so, as much as the arraignment of Michelle Rourke shocked the nation, I think I can safely say that no one was more astonished than I was.
* * *
Michelle Rourke walked into a Dallas police station one afternoon and confessed to the murder of her husband, Connor, the genial owner of the popular Shamrock and Bluebonnet pub, and a renowned teacher of Irish dance until a fall from a ladder left him quadriplegic. For the two years since then, she had been an exemplary caregiver— right up until the day she killed him.
According to the police report, she was completely calm, even cheerful, as she recounted serving him a tall glass of orange juice laced with vodka and tranquilizers, and then, once she was sure he was out cold, covering his head with a plastic bag for good measure. She handed them the keys to her house, and they found exactly what she said they would: his body in bed, still warm, and the glass on the kitchen counter, unwashed, with her prints all over it and traces of the fatal cocktail at the bottom.
And when she finished giving her statement, said the officer who took it, she laughed. Long and hard, as if she were watching the funniest movie ever made.
* * *
When I first saw her at the Dallas County Jail, she smiled and greeted me as graciously as if she were welcoming me into her living room for tea. An occasional tremor in her hands was the only sign I saw that she was feeling at all nervous; her face was completely relaxed.
“Mrs. Rourke, I’m George Dismas. The court appointed me as your attorney.”
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Dismas. I told them I didn’t need a lawyer, but I suppose things will go more smoothly if we observe all the formalities. Due process and all that.”
I tried to hide my dismay. She was one of those. An advocate for so-called “death with dignity,” all set to go to prison and tout herself as a martyr for her cause. I put those people in the same category as the abortionists and executionists. As if there were any “dignity” in mortals arrogating to themselves the power that rightfully belonged to God alone. As if there were anything in that but shame.
If it was a prison term she wanted, the judgmental part of me would have been happy to oblige and let them slap her with a nice long one. But in my line of work, “Do not judge and you will not be judged, do not condemn and you will not be condemned,” was not an abstract philosophy; it was a practical necessity.
“Mrs. Rourke, if your husband asked you to help him end his life, we could try to have the charge reduced to aiding suicide. That’s a state jail felony, six months to two years, and maybe a fine of up to…”
She cut me off with a vehement shake of her head. “Mr. Dismas, if you knew the kind of family my husband came from, you wouldn’t suggest such a thing. Every man could be a candidate for Pope, and every woman could probably persuade the College of Cardinals to make an exception and consider her too. If any of them even let the thought of suicide cross their minds, they’d have their confessors on speed-dial within a minute. No, let me be very clear: This was me. All me.”
“Simply because I couldn’t stand the thought of being cooped up in that house changing bedpans for the rest of his natural days. So I took out a life insurance policy for him, and when the paperwork came through, I put him out of my misery. That counts as murder in the hope of remuneration, doesn’t it?”
The phrase stopped me short. It came straight from the Texas Penal Code, and it made the difference between murder and capital murder.
“Well,” I said after a pause, “that usually means murder for hire, or taking out a contract on someone…”
“There was a woman last year, wasn’t there?” she interrupted. “Suzanne something, executed for killing her husband for an insurance payout. There’s your precedent.”
Her words hit me like a bucket of ice. I wondered whether any defense attorney in the history of the profession had ever had to deal with a client like this one. And if not, then why did I, out of all the lawyers in the world, have to be the first?
“Mrs. Rourke, do you…do you want to be executed?”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, please. And I rely on you, as my attorney, to make sure that happens.”
“Why, in Heaven’s name?”
She burst out laughing.
She turned her face away and put up a hand to hide it. It took a full minute for her laughter to subside enough for her to take a few deep breaths, only to launch into another fit. After several attempts, she finally regained enough composure to speak again.
“It’s not your duty to know why, is it, Mr. Dismas? It’s your duty to—how does it go?—zealously represent me. And if I don’t get the death sentence, I might just file a Sixth Amendment appeal for ineffective assistance of counsel.”
* * *
I sat in my office later that evening, trying to divine what was going on inside Michelle Rourke’s mind. My gaze drifted to the wall, where a framed verse from Ezekiel hung: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.
The life-insurance policy smelled like a red herring. A guaranteed-issue policy, the only kind she would likely have been able to get for her quadriplegic husband, would pay only a fraction of its promised benefits if he died within the first few years. If financial gain really was her motive, why not wait until she could claim the full amount? And what use would she have for the money anyway, if she planned to put herself on death row right afterwards?
In any event, the next step was clear: arrange a competency hearing and have her declared legally insane. If she wanted to be executed, then she was obviously irrational, and therefore should not be executed.
Her laughter, I thought, must hold a clue. The officer who took her statement had seemed to regard it as the gloat of a triumphant villain, but to my eyes, she looked more like a schoolgirl trying valiantly but vainly to suppress a fit of the giggles. Surely it was a sign of some kind of psychological disorder.
It took only a few clicks of the mouse to find what I was looking for. Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) refers to sudden, uncontrollable fits of laughing or crying, far out of proportion to the patient’s actual emotional state, and sometimes even contrary to it.
I scrolled down to look for causes. As soon as I read the list, an electric current ran through my scalp.
Michelle Rourke was perfectly sane. It was the world around her that had gone mad.
* * *
When I visited her on the eve of her arraignment, she greeted me as cheerfully as before. “Good afternoon, Mr. Dismas. Have you found a way to expedite my execution?”
I took a seat and faced her squarely. “Mrs. Rourke, how long have you known about your condition?”
Her coy smile slipped, and a guarded edge crept into her voice. “What condition do you mean?”
“You tell me. Is it a brain tumor? Or MS?”
Her shoulders slumped in the defeated manner of a suspect cornered in an interrogation.
“After the accident,” she said, “my husband completely lost the will to live. Dancing was the only thing that ever mattered to him; being trapped in an immobile body was worse than a hundred deaths for him. Never a day went by without him talking about how he just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. I kept hoping that he would eventually come to terms with it, and tried to give him a reason to want to go on living. But after hearing the same thing every day for a year, I finally asked him, ‘Do you really mean that? Because if you do, we could always go to Oregon…’
“That was the first time, since the accident, that I heard anything remotely like a laugh out of him. ‘I can’t even get up to take a shite; how the hell were you planning to get me to Oregon? And besides, can you imagine what it would do to my parents if they heard that their son chose to end his life? That his body couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground, and his soul couldn’t go to heaven? No, there’s nothing for it but to stay the course, damn it all to hell.’
“So I soldiered on, giving him the best care I could. But starting around last month, I began to find myself tripping over carpets, and dropping things when I tried to cook. Connor and I together had won the Irish Dance World Championships the year before his accident, Mr. Dismas; ‘clumsy’ is the last word anyone would use to describe me. But it started happening more and more often, so I finally went and saw a doctor.”
She straightened up and cleared her throat, as though preparing for a dramatic recitation. “Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I can pronounce it perfectly; aren’t you impressed? But of course, that didn’t make it any easier to say to Connor. The closest I came was one day when we saw something on the news about it, and I asked him: ‘What would you do if I came down with a degenerative disease like that?’ He said: ‘Don’t be saying such a thing. Don’t even be thinking it.’ But I kept pressing him until he answered: ‘Then I really and truly would ask you to slip a Mickey Finn into my milkshake. The Church be damned.’”
My heart went out to her, and I struggled to keep it from showing in my face as pity. But whatever appeared there instead must have looked like judgment, for she slammed her hand on the table and demanded:
“What would you rather I’d done, Mr. Dismas? What would the State of Texas rather I’d done? What would the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church rather I’d done? Force him to go on watching from his bed as the body of his wife and caregiver slowly shut down? He was afraid that if he chose to die, his family would think he was in hell. I was more afraid that if he chose to live, I would know he was.”
Once she had caught her breath, I asked the question that had been nagging at me the whole time. “Why did you go to the police?”
“You know something, Mr. Dismas? In Texas, there’s one kind of injection that a doctor can’t prescribe, but a judge can.”
“A lethal one.”
“Exactly. Try to buy or sell it, and you go to jail, but if you’re already in jail, you can get it for free.”
“But if all you wanted was to die, why drag the courts into it? Why gamble on their finding you guilty of capital murder, and then wait, maybe for years, for the sentence to be carried out? Wouldn’t it have been easier just to mix enough of that cocktail for two?” Easier for you and me both, I added silently.
“Oh, yes. Clink our glasses, and slip away peacefully together? Of course, it was tempting—much more attractive than wasting away in prison while the governor and Lou Gehrig ran their slow-motion race for the privilege of killing me. But if Connor and I were found together with the same drugs in our blood, everyone would have thought it was a done deal between us. That would have defeated the whole purpose. There couldn’t be the slightest suspicion that he was in on it.”
“You couldn’t have left a note?”
“Too risky. What if his family somehow didn’t get it, or didn’t believe it? They needed to see solid proof, on TV and in the papers, that our infallible courts had declared me a murderess and Connor an innocent victim. And if they want to console themselves by imagining me sizzling in hell, that’s fine. The important thing is that in their eyes, Connor is now a martyr. He’s assured a place in heaven.”
There is no greater love than this, Our Lord had said, than to lay down your life for those you love. But even then, He must have realized that dying would be the easy part. It was the long walk to Calvary—the condemnation, the beatings and taunts, the fleeing backs of your most trusted friends—that would make the cross at the end come almost as a relief.
“Well, Mr. Dismas,” she concluded, “you’ve heard my confession. Now, here’s my last request.” She leaned in and spoke in a confidential voice. “It goes without saying that everything I’ve just told you is under attorney-client privilege. As far as the world outside this room is concerned, I cold-bloodedly murdered the man who loved and trusted me more than anyone. I have forfeited my right to life. When they stick that needle into my vein, they will be doing the world a big favor. Whatever it takes to convince the judge of that, you say it. Understand?”
“Mr. Dismas, this shouldn’t be hard for you. This is Texas, for God’s sake. More executions every year than the next five bloodiest states combined. If someone actually wants to join the party, surely there must be some way to get her an invitation.”
* * *
I went home by way of church. At that hour, it was open but empty except for a few old ladies in black who seemed to be permanent fixtures. I walked down the aisle, genuflected, and took a place in the front pew. From where I knelt, I had a perfect view of the enormous crucifix hanging behind the altar.
The deeply etched lines in the brow, the mouth open in a grimace of agony, and the eyes turned to Heaven in a final plea made it clear which Gospel had inspired the sculptor. This was none of Luke’s magnanimous Jesus, who scarcely seemed to feel the nails in his palms as he forgave his executioners, comforted the criminals crucified alongside him, and serenely commended his spirit into his Father’s hands. It was not even the simple resignation of John’s “It is finished.” This was the raw, unvarnished, painfully human Jesus of Matthew and Mark, captured at the moment when the last breath left his body in an anguished cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“Why?” I heard my own voice echo that one word of His, loading the monosyllable with a multitude of questions. “Why did it have to come to this? Why did this have to happen to You? And why, in Your name, does this have to be happening to me?”
The motionless lips spoke silently in reply.
What would you have done, George, if you had been there with Me? Handed Me a two-and-a-half-by-three-inch papyrus? “George Dismas, Esq., criminal defense attorney, specialist in crucifixion cases”? Do you suppose you could have persuaded Pontius Pilate to let Me walk away from this cross?
* * *
“State versus Michelle Rourke.”
Michelle’s steps faltered as they led her into the courtroom. The guards had to take a tight grip on her arms to steady her until they handed her off to me, in a mockery of the father giving the bride away: Congratulations, she’s your problem now.
“Mrs. Rourke,” the judge intoned, “the grand jury has returned an indictment stating that, on or about the seventeenth of March, the crime of murder, in violation of section 19.02 of the Penal Code, a felony of the first degree, was committed by Michelle Rourke, who did knowingly, willfully, and unlawfully, with malice aforethought, cause the death of another human being, Connor Rourke. Is Mrs. Rourke prepared to enter a plea at this time?”
Michelle spoke before I could. “Guilty, Your Honor.”
Her voice broke on the last syllable. Her lips trembled, and she blinked as her eyes filled with tears. She sat down, lay her head on the table, and launched into an uncontrollable fit of sobbing.
For a minute that felt like an eternity, her sobs drowned out even the sound of the judge’s gavel as he vainly pounded it and called for order. Even I, who knew they could simply be another manifestation of her nervous disorder, felt them tearing at my heart.
When she finally recovered herself, the judge went on in a subdued voice. “The court accepts Mrs. Rourke’s plea of guilty. We can proceed directly to sentencing. Does the State have any recommendation?”
The assistant district attorney took off his glasses and blinked several times. He had probably never seen anyone plead guilty at an arraignment, much less to a murder charge, and Michelle’s tears had evidently touched a spot in his heart as well.
“Your Honor,” he said, “considering that Mrs. Rourke voluntarily turned herself in and clearly feels remorse for her crime, the State believes that clemency is in order. We would be satisfied with something in the neighborhood of twenty to thirty years.”
I glanced at Michelle. Her eyes met mine, and projected the same desperate plea I had seen from dozens of other clients, all terrified of facing the same fate that she was of being spared.
I took a deep breath, and traced a surreptitious cross on my tie.
“Your Honor,” I said, “my client has confessed to premeditated murder in the hope of remuneration. I recommend that, under section 19.03 of the Penal Code, the charge against her be amended to capital murder.”
Shocked murmurs broke out around the courtroom, and the judge pounded his gavel again, but the sounds touched my ears only faintly, as if from a great distance. All my attention was fixed on Michelle, as she leaned over and whispered:
“Thank you, Mr. Dismas. Thank you.”
* * *
The judge granted the prosecutor’s request for what they both thought was mercy. Michelle Rourke was sentenced to twenty years. She was out on parole in five, possibly because some prison official had read the vitriolic comments roiling about her on the Internet: “I have to spend every cent of my paycheck on medical bills, while my tax dollars go to provide free health care for that psycho bitch? Maybe when I finally go broke, I should kill someone too!”
By the time she was released, her arms and legs were practically useless. They had to push her out the prison gate in a wheelchair. She needed constant care, but unsurprisingly, no one came forward to provide it.
So I did. I spent as much time with her as I could every day and hired caregivers for the rest. After all, it wasn’t as though I lacked for free time. Once I became known nationwide as the defense attorney who tried to send his own client to the gurney, you can imagine what happened to my legal career.
One evening, I sat by her side, spooning clear soup into her mouth. Her sense of taste was unimpaired, and she always seemed to be savoring every mouthful, even of plain chicken broth, as if she were in a Michelin-starred restaurant. She was acutely aware that the day would come soon when she could no longer swallow and would need a tube for nourishment. And not long after that, for oxygen.
“George,” she said, “I have a favor to ask.”
As soon as the word was out of my mouth, I was afraid she would ask me to mix her the same cocktail she had served her husband. But instead she said: “No machines. They wouldn’t use needles and tubes to kill me; don’t let them use them to keep me alive. Let nature take its course. Can you and your God handle that?”
She looked away, to a place beyond my field of vision. “Do you believe God judges us when we die?” I hesitated long enough that she answered herself. “Of course you do. You couldn’t have spent a career defending murderers if you didn’t believe in some level of justice beyond the human kind.” She looked back at me. “Too bad you can’t come with me. If what you believe is true, I’m really going to need a good defense attorney.”
“You’ll have the best,” I said. “He knows very well how trying to save someone you love can land you on the wrong side of the law. And He also happens to be the Son of the Judge.”
“Nepotism? So that’s how it works in heaven, is it?” She still retained enough control over her facial muscles for a wry smile. “I’m not too worried, really. After all, any God who could put me through worse in the next life than I’ve already been through in this one would have to be one sick son of a bitch.”
* * *
One night, some time later, I dreamed of flying over hills and forests so deeply green that I knew I had to be in Ireland. I flew through the gate of a castle and came to a gentle landing in the grand hall, where a couple was dancing to the music of fiddles and pipes as hundreds watched and clapped along. One of the dancers was Michelle. The other I had never met in person, but I knew his face from the numerous photographs around her house.
Here, gravity seemed not to be so much a law as, at most, a judicial precedent. The same lightness that allowed me to fly allowed her to leap so high that her kicks almost touched the rafters. When her partner’s feet beat a rhythm on the floor, they moved so fast that I could scarcely tell how many he had. When the music came to an end, the couple took a bow to thunderous applause and cheers, and Michelle caught my eye and winked.
The next morning, when I went to her house and let myself in, I found what I expected. Her body lay vacant in bed. Her soul had gone dancing.
©2015 by Charles Kowalski. First published in American Fiction #15 (Moorhead, MN: New Rivers Press, 2016). Photo by Brandon Bourdages, courtesy of Shutterstock.