The first time I ever sat in a courtroom for a Southern Gothic murder trial, I was 17.
Back then, I didn’t know there was a name for it because I had yet to read “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner or “A Good Man Is Hardt o Find” by Flannery O’Connor. My first Southern Gothic experience — where isolation, violence, grotesque creatures or situations, oppression, and small towns come together to create unique stories that often have moments of dark humor — is memorable.
As a high schooler, I was in a gifted program that was extremely challenging and guided by a wonderful teacher named Mrs. Betty Childs. One quarter, she directed us to choose two professions that interested us as a future vocation — and then to fully research each.
I choose law, first choice, and journalism, my second. By the end of the quarter, I had landed my own weekend radio show and was known by every judge, bailiff, the entire district attorney’s office and deputy staff at the court house.
In the safe confines of my small home town, I witnessed my first Southern Gothic murder trial, wide-eyed and speechless, at two lives so different from the life I knew.
A skinny, old man, poor in money and education, was on trial for shooting his complaining wife with one clean pistol shot to the head.
I remember, clearly, when he rose with his public defender to face the judge and utter his plea.
He wore well-used beige work pants and a translucent white shirt under which he wore an old-fashioned T-shirt (later nicknamed, “wife beater”). His shoulders slumped forward — as one who had fought a mule and plow, with straps thrown over his tired back that had drawn him into a permanent hunch. His silver hair was unevenly cut and his blue eyes cast downward, shyly. He was mild-mannered and meek and like he wouldn’t have stepped on a bug.
Yet, at 70 years of age, he was facing trial for murdering his wife of 50 years.
He did not deny it. When he was offered a plea bargain for manslaughter, he questioned it. He didn’t have a lot of schooling.
“It means you didn’t think about it. That it was an impulse.”
The man studied on it. “No,” he replied slowly. “I did a right bit of thinkin’ on it for mighty long. I just never planned on doin’ it. Then it happened.”
That honesty was what got him charged with second-degree murder.
The courtroom was remarkably bare, particularly for a murder trial. In the soft-lighted room, with dark, heavy wood tables and pews, sat all the people commanded by law to be there: the Judge, the attorneys, the bailiff and a jury.
In the gallery, I sat alone, behind the prosecution. Behind the accused, sat two men and one woman, all humble, simply- dressed country people.
The arresting officer testified that the husband had stood over his wife in the kitchen saying, unemotionally, “She talked too much.”
When the crime scene photo — an 8x10, black and white photo — was shown to the jury, the assistant D.A. brought it over to me, asking, “Wanna see?”
I took the photo of a skinny country woman, without her “teeth in,” her silver hair pinned into a ball, wearing a floral cotton dress and apron. The wound was small, not catastrophic. One bullet entered from the left side. A small amount of blood pooled under her head.
The man seemed unimpacted by the guilty verdict. He picked up the black Bible that he had kept close, then shuffled off to spend his life’s last years in jail.
“I ‘spect it’ll be more peaceful there,” he opined.
That was the first Southern Gothic murder trial I witnessed. The most recent was Alex Murdaugh in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where a prestigious lawyer stood trial for the double slayings of his wife and son.
Ronda Rich is a best-selling author who dabbled in crime reporting in her early newspaper days.