By Shelley Bourdon
The trial of Amy Riggsbee was considered to be a big story, most especially because it was occurring during the slow-news season of spring. The fall elections were behind us. Most of our stories, now that it was spring, were about local dog shows, the opening of a new business, how to protect yourself from ticks, and the importance of having your chimney cleaned during the warm months ahead. I felt honored that I, the youngest radio news-reporter at WCHL, had been given the responsibility of covering the trial of a woman who had been charged with the physical assault of a six year-old boy. Up until she was charged with assault, she had provided after-school day-care for a handful of children in her home.
On the first day of her trial, as soon as Amy was led into the courtroom, I recognized her immediately. She was one of the gray-headed “church ladies” who had provided food at a political rally of Pastor Jim White, the lay minister of a conservative Methodist church in Carrboro, NC, who had decided to run for mayor. Not only had I disliked the anti-liberal views of “Pastor Jim,” whose political campaign I had been given the charge of covering, I had not especially liked one of the older women standing behind a table serving food at that rally. She was the one with the pudgy bulldog face, the small dark eyes, and the thin, tight mouth whose corners always seemed to point to the floor. As I had walked away with my paper plate of food, I remember thinking, If she had a cigarette dangling from her mouth, the effect of her face would be complete.
When I saw that it was this very same woman who had been charged with the physical assault of a young boy, I thought, Well, of course. I knew, beyond any shade of a doubt, that she was guilty. And as the trial progressed, the physical evidence against her mounted. The most damning evidence of all was the testimony given by physician after physician—state medical examiners and local coroners—that a spiral-bound fracture, which is what x-rays revealed the break in the boy’s arm to have been—could only have been caused by a strong and repeated shaking of the young boy’s arm.
The trial lasted for four days. At the end of each day’s session, I would go into an office of the Hillsboro county courthouse, and I would phone in my hastily handwritten story to my news director. He would record my voice on to an eight-track tape which would then be played during the evening’s hour of news, sports, and weather. Because my story received top billing, minutes after I had exited the courthouse, I was able to hear my own voice, on the car radio, delivering the story of Amy’s ongoing trial. It was so obvious, from the facts I gave, and even from the tone of my own voice, that Amy Riggsbee was guilty, even if a verdict had not yet been given.
On the last day of the trial, I stood in the back of the courtroom, gazing out upon the crowded collection of court-watchers and reporters who were waiting for that clap of a gavel that meant Amy’s trial had resumed. Suddenly, I became aware of the energy of eager anticipation that filled the entire room. Folks are really enjoying this trial, I realized. And then I was struck by another thought: It’s as if all of us, in this room, are transmitting the silent message, “Burn the witch! Burn the witch!”
And then I realized that all of us in that room had known, right from the very beginning, that Amy was guilty as hell. It was so obvious. We could see it on her angry, defensive face; we could hear it in the testimony that had been given. Even the “positive” character-witness testimony had been weak. It had amounted to nothing more than a few of her gray-headed “church lady” friends testifying, under oath, that “Amy could never have done such a thing. She’s a true Christian lady.” All of us, every single one of us in that courtroom, wanted to see Amy pay for what she had done to an innocent little boy. How dare she? People like that should be locked away. “Burn the witch!” were the silent words that continued to bat around us in the courtroom.
And then I was struck by a deeper thought, one that pierced my heart and left me feeling stunned: Every single one of us in that room, I suddenly realized, was capable of shaking too hard the arm of a little boy who wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do. And since we were all capable of what Amy had done, we were all, therefore, guilty. It just hadn’t yet happened to us, but it could. And then I realized that’s why everyone was enjoying Amy’s trial so much. Better her than us, we were all thinking. If she paid for this crime, then maybe we would never find ourselves in her situation.
And, in that moment, I also realized that Amy was, indeed, exactly as her gray-headed “church lady” friends had testified. She was a “true Christian lady.” She went to church every Sunday. She publicly professed her Christian beliefs each week. She baked pies and served on committees. She cleaned the church kitchen after the weekly spaghetti dinners on Sundays. She was one of those members of a church that folks could depend upon; and yet, she had made a mistake. Suddenly, it was as if a great weight was upon me. None of us, I thought to myself, had any right to judge Amy. She could, very easily, be each and every one of us. But we didn’t want to be reminded of that, so we placed an invisible wall between herself and us. She was “bad.” We were “good.” Burn the witch!
As I stared at the back of Amy Riggsbee’s gray grandmotherly head, I felt like I could have cried. Amy didn’t have children of her own. Her husband was dead. She’d been caring for a group of kids as a way of supplementing her late husband’s Social Security. True, she probably didn’t have the best disposition for a child-care provider, but the money had been good, better than she would have made working as a clerk at the local A&P, and besides that, watching kids in her own home had meant she didn’t have to stand on her feet for long hours at a time. But now it was beginning to look as if she would be spending some, if not all, of her last years in a prison.
I found myself filled with a strong urge to write about Amy from this newfound perspective. I could help others to feel the compassion for her that I was now feeling. And, perhaps, if she really did go to prison, I could visit her, maybe even write a follow-up story about her. At the very least, I could be her friend. Those little old ladies from her church—the ones who had testified that Amy could never have broken the arm of a little boy—I imagined that they probably wouldn’t be traveling to the state prison to visit her. The growing feeling in my heart was that Amy needed a friend. Write this new kind of a story about Amy, the feeling of my heart seemed to be saying. I knew the story would work better in a print format rather than broadcast. And since the local paper had already printed one of my stories, they would probably print this story as well.
It was such a beautiful idea, and it might very well have produced some beautiful results; but, unfortunately, I became afraid. I didn’t want to be the one reporter who became associated with “the witch.” I didn’t want to stand out in this way. It was okay to stand out as a good-sounding “radio voice” on the air, but to come forward, publicly, in writing, as a person who had compassion for a woman who had broken the arm of a little boy… would people think that I supported this kind of violence against children?
I felt like such a shit, but the story I wrote about Amy’s trial that day was like all the other stories of her case I had written, except for the fact that it had a definitive conclusion: on that day in the Hillsboro county courthouse, Amy received a verdict of “guilty.” She would, indeed, be heading to prison. She’s guilty as hell; here are the facts, were the gist of my story that day. The only compassionate concession I made was that I withheld one bit of information. One of the mothers of another boy Amy had cared for had heard Amy yelling at the children through the door one afternoon, “God damn it, I told you to shut up!” I left that fact out of my story.
My news director was livid once he discovered, the next day, that I had left out a key piece of damning evidence against Amy. “What’s wrong with you?” he yelled.
“I felt sorry for her,” I said. “Things were bad enough for her. I didn’t want her situation to be worse.”
“That’s not your job to feel sorry for folks,” he said. “You’re here to report the news. I expect the facts, all the facts. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Stephen, I understand.”
But what neither Stephen nor I understood was that I was, that very day, going to discover that I had lost my ability to write.
Shelley Bourdon is an ESR Access student earning an MDiv/MMin degree. She is spending the 2010-2011 year in residence at ESR to take Ministry of Writing courses. Shelley has attended Maury River Friends Meeting (Baltimore YM) and Clear Creek Friends Meeting (Ohio Valley YM), as well as several contemplative prayer groups. She has lived on this planet for half a century, and been married to a mathematician for 28 years. She has two grown children and has worked as a journalist, a radio broadcaster, and a homeschooling mom.