"The defense calls James Lee Mitchell III to the witness stand."
Hearing his name, Jimmy looked up in surprise. For once, it sounded like Daddy was proud of him. Mama leaned close to his ear.
"Go ahead. All you have to do is tell what you heard, just like we practiced this morning at the kitchen table. Your daddy is counting on you."
"Mr. Mitchell, are you intending to call your son as a witness in this case?" the judge asked.
Mr. Laney jumped to his feet. His freckled, round face flushed bright red, and his voice rose in protest.
"Your Honor, I discussed this with Mr. Mitchell as soon as I received his list of potential witnesses. This is highly improper. His son is mentally limited and not able to provide competent testimony. Parading him in front of the jury is inflammatory, prejudicial, and inherently unreliable!"
Tall, with light brown hair and dark, piercing eyes, Daddy responded smoothly.
"Judge Robinson, I believe the district attorney misstates the legal standard for competency to testify in the state of Georgia. It is whether a witness understands the nature of a judicial oath. Age and intelligence are not the final arbiters of the capacity to offer probative testimony. That determination rests with the Court, and I'm prepared to lay the foundation necessary for this witness to testify. The fact that he's my son is irrelevant."
Mr. Robinson removed the pen clenched between his teeth and peered over the edge of the bench at Jimmy. The young boy stared back through thick glasses held in place by large ears. Jimmy shared the same hair color as his father, but his eyes, like those of his birth mother, were pale blue. Average in height for a sixth grader at Piney Grove Elementary School, Jimmy ran his finger inside the collar of his shirt and pulled at the tie around his neck.
"How old is he?" the judge asked.
"Twelve, but he'll be thirteen in a few weeks," Daddy replied.
"His chronological age is not an indicator of his mental capacity," Mr. Laney responded quickly. "We're not dealing with a normal--"
"Gentlemen," the judge interrupted. "We'll take up the competency determination outside the presence of the jury. Bailiff, escort the jurors to the jury room."
Jimmy watched as the people sitting in chairs on the other side of his daddy left the courtroom. One black-haired woman wearing a cobalt-blue dress looked at him and smiled.
Pointing in her direction, he whispered to Mama, "Does that lady in the blue dress know me?"
"That's Mrs. Murdock. She's a teacher at the high school."
"I hope I'm in her class when I go to high school. She looks nice. What does she teach?"
"She teaches English."
"Oh," Jimmy said, disappointed. "I already know English."
As soon as the last person left and the bailiff closed the door, Mr. Robinson spoke.
"Mr. Mitchell, proceed with your evidence as to the competency of this young man to testify."
Jimmy watched Daddy pick up a legal pad and turn to a new page.
"Admittedly, Your Honor, Jimmy is mentally limited. However, that doesn't automatically eliminate his capability to offer testimony with probative value in this case."
"What kind of testimony?" Mr. Laney asked. "The defendant is charged with felony possession and intent to distribute over two pounds of cocaine. To bring in an impressionable child who can be manipulated in an effort to distract the jury--"
"Don't jump ahead, Mr. Laney," the judge interrupted. "That goes to the weight assigned to his testimony, not the competency issue. We're going to take everything in proper order, and you'll have ample opportunity to raise your objections."
Mr. Laney, his face still red, sat. Jimmy poked his mama's arm.
"Is Mr. Laney mad at Daddy?"
"Not really. They'll still play golf on Saturday, but he doesn't want you to tell what you heard."
"He's doing his job."
That didn't make sense, but Jimmy could tell that Mama didn't want to talk. He looked at the man sitting at the table beside Daddy. His name was Jake Garner, and Daddy was his lawyer. Garner had long black hair and a very realistic drawing of a blue-and-red snake on his arm. The tail began at the man's elbow and coiled around his arm before disappearing under his shirt. Jimmy stared at the drawing and wished Jake would roll up his sleeve so he could see the snake's head. Jimmy wasn't afraid of snakes; he'd seen several while walking in the woods with Grandpa. He knew not to pet them or pick them up.
"Mama," he said in a whisper. "Will that drawing of a snake on Jake's arm wash off in the shower?"
"No," she answered. "It's a tattoo. It's permanent."
Jimmy thought a moment. "Could I get a tattoo of Buster on my arm?"
Mama turned toward Daddy. Jimmy scooted back against the wooden bench and sat on his hands. He'd never talked to Jake Garner and didn't know about cocaine. But he knew what he'd heard Sheriff Brinson say to Detective Milligan.
Daddy kept talking. "Before asking Jimmy any questions, I thought it would be beneficial to offer expert-opinion testimony from a psychologist who has evaluated him. I'd prefer that both the jury and the Court hear this testimony."
The judge shook his head. "That's not necessary, Mr. Mitchell. Whether this young man is competent to testify is for me to decide. Proceed."
Daddy stepped back. "Perhaps you'll reconsider after you hear what the psychologist has to say. The defense calls Dr. Susan Paris to the stand."
Jimmy hadn't seen the psychologist with blond hair and bright red fingernails slip into the courtroom. He turned around and saw her sitting beside Sheriff Brinson.
When Jimmy first met Dr. Paris, he was shy around her, but after she fixed vanilla wafers with peanut butter on them, they'd gotten along fine. She gave him a test at the beginning of each school year. Jimmy's friend Max told him that tests should be given at the end of the school year to find out what a student learned, not in September to find out what had been forgotten over the summer. But Jimmy didn't argue with Dr. Paris. Eating perfectly prepared vanilla wafers with peanut butter was a small price to pay for having to fill in little circles with a number-two pencil.
Dr. Paris walked to the witness stand. When she passed Jimmy, he glanced down at her hands. Her fingernails were so red they looked wet. She took the witness stand and raised her hand. She looked calm and pretty.
"I do," she said after the judge asked her a question with God's name at the end of it.
The psychologist reached into her purse, and Jimmy entertained a hopeful thought that she'd brought some vanilla wafers into the courtroom. But all she did was take out a tissue.
"Please state your name," Daddy said.
"Dr. Susan Elaine Paris."
"What is your profession?"
"I work part-time as a school psychologist for the Cattaloochie County Board of Education and maintain a private practice focused on children and adolescents here in Piney Grove."
"Please outline your educational and professional qualifications."
"I received a BS in psychology from the University of Virginia, and I earned a master's and doctorate in clinical psychology from Vanderbilt University."
"Are you licensed to practice child and adolescent psychology in the state of Georgia?"
"How long have you been licensed?"
Daddy paused. "Your Honor, we tender Dr. Paris as an expert in the field of child psychology."
"No objection," Mr. Laney said.
"Proceed," the judge said.
"Dr. Paris, have you had the opportunity to evaluate my son, Jimmy Mitchell?"
"Yes, as part of my regular duties for the school system, I give Jimmy a battery of tests each fall to determine his status and help formulate an educational plan for the teachers working with him. I also have access to the evaluations conducted by Dr. Kittle, my predecessor."
Jimmy had forgotten Dr. Kittle's name. She had white hair and didn't paint her fingernails at all. Jimmy leaned close to Mama.
"What happened to Dr. Kittle?" he whispered.
"She retired and moved to the beach."
Jimmy liked the beach but not the ocean. Even small waves terrified him.
"Can you summarize Jimmy's general mental status?" Daddy asked.
"Yes. He has below-average general intellectual functioning with deficits in adaptive capability. Age-appropriate IQ testing has consistently revealed a verbal, performance, and full-scale IQ in the 68 to 70 range. An IQ score less than 59 indicates a severe deficit. Over 70 is dull-normal. Thus, Jimmy is in between mental retardation and the dull-normal category."
Jimmy squirmed in his seat. He didn't understand everything the psychologist was saying, but he recognized the word retardation. Mean people used that word when they talked about him.
"Where is he placed within the school system?" Daddy asked.
"Jimmy does not have any abnormal behavioral problems and, pursuant to the school board's inclusion policy, is integrated into a regular classroom. His teachers utilize nonstandard testing to monitor his progress, and I review the results on a monthly basis."
"What can you tell the Court about Jimmy's current level of intellectual functioning?"
"Once Jimmy grasps a concept, he is capable of retaining it. However, he faces a formidable challenge in appropriately applying what he's learned. The educational process can be frustrating to him, but he maintains a good attitude and has shown adequate progress."
Mr. Laney stood. "Your Honor, this is a criminal trial, not a parent-teacher conference."
"Move along, Mr. Mitchell," the judge said.
"Why did Daddy say 'yes, sir'?" Jimmy whispered to Mama. "Mr. Robinson doesn't look as old as Grandpa."
"But he's the judge."
Daddy looked down at the legal pad in his right hand. "Dr. Paris, given the results of your testing, and based upon your three years of professional interaction with Jimmy, do you have an opinion whether he has the capacity to know the importance of telling the truth?"
"Yes, I do."
"What is your opinion?"
"I believe it is a concept he understands. One of the primary points I emphasize in testing a student is the need to answer every question truthfully. Some psychological tests incorporate inquiries that reveal whether a child is being consistent in his or her responses. Jimmy is uniformly forthright and honest, even if the truth casts him in a negative light. He does not exhibit an inclination to manipulate his answers and try to fool the test."
"What is she saying about me?" Jimmy asked.
Mama patted him on the leg. "That you're a good boy who tries to do his best and tells the truth."
"Will Jimmy understand the language of a judicial oath?" Daddy asked.
"If it is explained to him in the right way. He believes in God and will tell the truth because he believes it is a sin to lie. In fact, I think he understands what it means to be a false witness. We discussed the concept recently when he told me that his mother was teaching him the Ten Commandments."
"Will I have to say them?" Jimmy asked Mama, touching the ends of his fingers. "I can do it with you in my room, but I'd be afraid in front of all these people."
Daddy stepped closer to Dr. Paris. "What can you tell Judge Robinson about Jimmy's memory?"
Dr. Paris sat up straighter and looked up at the judge. "When he works hard, Jimmy can memorize rote information. The Ten Commandments are an example. However, there is another side to his memory that is, at times, remarkable. He will occasionally remind me of a phrase or sentence I said months or even years ago. I've discussed this unusual ability with members of the school staff, and others have noticed the same capability."
"Objection," Mr. Laney said. "The opinions of other teachers would be hearsay."
Daddy responded, "She's been qualified as an expert and can rely on statistical data to support her opinion."
"I don't hear her claiming to have collected statistical data, but I'll allow her to state her opinion and give it the weight I deem appropriate," the judge said.
Daddy spoke. "If Jimmy told you the substance of a conversation he'd overheard, would you believe him?"
"That's all from Dr. Paris."
"Mr. Laney, you may cross-examine the witness," the judge said.
A few stubborn strands of reddish hair clung to the top of Mr. Laney's head. His face no longer appeared flushed.
"Dr. Paris, are you aware that Jimmy is in the courtroom?"
"Of course. I saw him on the front bench with his mother."
"Does his presence have any effect on your testimony?"
"No. He doesn't understand the terminology I'm using. He knows he's a special boy."
Jimmy sat up so he could pay attention. He'd lived almost thirteen years with the word special hanging around his neck. Teachers told him that being special was good, and even though he knew he could get in trouble for disagreeing with his teachers, Jimmy thought they were wrong. He'd been special all his life, and it had created a lot of problems for him, especially at school. Being special meant being different from other children, and differences brought persecution and loneliness.
However, when Mama told Jimmy he was special, the word took on another meaning. Coming from her mouth, the word wrapped around him like a hug. Mama couldn't have children of her own, so Jimmy was the one and only object of her love. She chose him when she married Daddy, and from that day forward, Jimmy enjoyed unique status in his family as a very special boy.
Mr. Laney spoke. "Dr. Paris, are you claiming that Jimmy Mitchell has a photographic memory for everything spoken in his presence?"
"Photographic memory relates to visual images. Jimmy's ability is auditory."
The side of Mr. Laney's neck flashed red all the way to the top of his left ear.
"Dr. Paris, if you want to engage in a semantic--"
"But I know what you mean," Dr. Paris continued calmly. "Jimmy can't recall everything he hears. In fact, his memory of conversations appears somewhat random. All I can say is that he sometimes has a parrotlike ability to repeat what he's heard, including words he can't define."
"Does he understand the significance of what he's repeating?"
"Only if it falls within his level of current cognitive functioning. His world is expanding, but at a much slower rate than for a typical child."
"Does he remember the information verbatim?"
"I can't answer that because I've never had the opportunity to quantify it in a reliable way, but in my experience the substance of what he remembers is accurate."
Mr. Laney turned toward the judge.
"Your Honor, the defense is trying to tout this boy as a human court reporter. This is exactly the type of prejudicial activity I warned the Court about before the jury left the courtroom. You have a handicapped young man who will play on the jurors' sympathies when they need to be focusing on the hard evidence in the case."
"Are you finished with your questions?" the judge asked.
"Uh, no sir."
"Then save your argument for later."
Mr. Laney refocused his attention on Dr. Paris.
"Am I correct in stating that not all of his teachers have noticed Jimmy's remarkable memory?"
"And there's been no attempt to document this purported ability in a scientific way?"
"No, it's just an observation."
Mr. Laney walked to the table where he'd left his papers.
"Dr. Paris, besides a low IQ and random memory, what other mental or psychological abnormalities have you identified in Jimmy?"
"Objection, Your Honor," Daddy said. "Only matters relevant to Jimmy's ability to tell the truth and accurately relate information are before the Court."
"Mr. Laney has Dr. Paris on cross-examination, and given the unusual nature of the competency issue, I'll give the State wider latitude than normal. Overruled."
"Go ahead and answer," Mr. Laney said.
Dr. Paris put the tissue back in her purse without having used it.
"He has a persistent, irrational fear of water. Jimmy won't swim in a pool or go out in a boat. He will take a shower but won't get into a bathtub full of water."
"How do you know about this fear of water?"
"He's mentioned it generally, and his mother verified it with specific examples."
"Why does he have this fear of water?"
Dr. Paris glanced at Mama. "His mother believes it may be related to an early childhood trauma, but I've never discussed it with Jimmy. It has no impact on his academic program, so I haven't pursued the origin of his phobia."
"What kind of trauma?"
Daddy rose to his feet. "Objection to continuing this line of questioning as irrelevant."
"I agree," the judge replied. "Sustained."
"Any other abnormalities?"
Dr. Paris shifted in her chair and looked at Jimmy before answering. He smiled at her. She was good at talking in front of other people.
"He has infrequent hallucinations and delusions."
Mama reached over and squeezed Jimmy's hand. He looked up at her.
Mr. Laney let Dr. Paris's words linger in the courtroom. After a few moments, he threw his arms wide open and spoke in a loud voice.
"Dr. Paris, let's hear everything you know about Jimmy's hallucinations and delusions."
Dr. Paris pressed her lips together and tapped one of her red fingernails against the wooden railing that surrounded the witness chair.
"Jimmy sees people who aren't there. He calls them Watchers."