Part I, Part II, Part III

The police let Tomas stew in the detention cell for a couple of hours. In the meantime, they called in the only Spanish-speaking member of the police force to interrogate the suspect. The patrolman’s name was Montoya; he worked the night shift on the other side of town. Montoya tried to establish a rapport with Tomas by bringing in a cup of coffee, but the Voice kept telling Tomas to keep his mouth shut.  Montoya told him that the victim was probably going to die and they would charge him with murder.  Tomas responded, “Do whatever you want!” Then, he turned his head to the wall and listened to the Voice until Montoya left him alone in the cell.  The victim never regained consciousness and died within a few hours.  Montoya went through the suspect’s belongings and found a driver’s license.  After a few quick calls to Chicago, he found that he was wanted for questioning in connection with his father’s murder.

There wasn’t much to this case.  It wasn’t even a question of why.  The law states that the court doesn’t have to take motive into account.  The local authorities arranged for Tomas to have psychiatric treatment, not because they wanted him to get better, but because the accused has to understand the charges against him.  The whole legal system is based in the principle that we know our rights. In this case, the issue was proving what Tomas knew and when he knew it.

This is where I came into the story.  I was the one who answered the phone call in the office when the public defender called.  His name was O’Brien; I later called Martini Man after all the booze he drank during the lunch recess. He told me to get my ass down to the courthouse because he needed an interpreter.  I met the defendant in the conference room adjacent to the courtroom.  My first impression was that he was childlike. He was smiling and didn’t seem to be worried about what was going on. Although he was in his early twenties, something told me that he acted more like a 10 year old. O’Brien told me that he was guilty of murder; no question about it. He was also certifiable.  The only thing he had to prove was that Tomas was crazy when he did it. For that, the court appointed a psychiatrist to conduct interviews and make an assessment.  I was the interpreter.  So, over the next couple of weeks, I spent more than 30 hours listening to Tomas tell his whole life story. I interpreted it word-for-word, in the first person. As an interpreter, you get lost. There are someone else’s words in your head; it’s not you, but it’s your voice: “I’m from Valle de Guadalupe, a small town in Northern Mexico.  I like it very much there. I work in Chicago and I have had my job in a factory for five years.  I’m saving up to buy a house, get married and have a family.” I knew everything about him: “I loved my mother very much because she always put my picture on her altar next to Jesus. She was a good mother to my brothers, but I was her favorite. She always made me my favorite foods, and stayed with me when I was sick or I couldn’t work. When the big kids picked on me at school, she would come and walk me home.” Tomas didn’t say much about his father, except that the Voice told him that no one dies from a bullet in the head.

What struck me throughout the entire interview was that it never really bothered him that two people had died; it wasn’t his fault: it just happened.  He never ever said, “I pulled the trigger” or “I shot my father and the black man on the bus.” He always referred to the incident as “what happened to me.” He could’ve said easily, “I did it.” But he never did.  When he referred to the past, he introduced it with the phrase, “when what happened to me, happened to me…” It was a strange way to say it, but it told me he wasn’t holding himself responsible.

The psychiatrist concluded the assessment with a violence test.  There are a series of questions that rate responses on a scale from one to ten. The norm is around four: everyone is capable of some degree of violence. It all depends on the circumstance. However, when someone rates above seven, things get dicey. It doesn’t take much to set off a seven. Bad traffic, a hard day at work, a dirty look, and a seven can fly off the handle. Tomas rated at eight point five. If Tomas had carried more bullets, he would have scored higher.

None of this boded well for him as we headed to trial.  He seemed oblivious, though.  For him, it was very simple: he was schizophrenic,–no doubt about it–, he quit taking his medication, heard the Voice telling him to shoot people, and he did it. It was the Voice’s fault. Now, he’s back on his medication so he’s fine.  He wasn’t an evil person, and he didn’t see prison in his future.  He expected to be sent to a state mental institution where they would treat him pretty well, a place with clean sheets and people dressed in white.  If he behaved well, he’d be out in a few years.

It was a bench trial, which didn’t make the judge very happy. He didn’t want to have to decide this guy’s fate all by himself. The testimony went on for several days.  Several of the passengers from the bus gave confusing testimony about what they saw and heard. The psychiatrist came to certify that Tomas was clinically schizophrenic when he committed the crime, and several members of the family came to serve as character witnesses.  When the prosecution and the defense rested, the judge retired to chambers to ponder his decision.  We waited outside the courtroom until we were called by the bailiff to return.

Within thirty minutes, we were back into the courtroom.  I stood with the defendant as the judge handed down the verdict: guilty and insane, which is different than: “not guilty by reason of insanity” or “guilty but insane.”  These little prepositions make a world of difference. “Not guilty by reason of insanity” implies that the defendant had no idea he was committing a crime.  “Guilty but insane” implies that the defendant knew that it was a crime when he committed it, but right now he is insane. Hence, he can’t be punished. In his summary, the judge explained how he arrived at his verdict.  Specifically, he had to decide the degree in which the psychosis impinged on the murder in Bloomington. The auditory hallucinations were insufficient to make the determination, because his other actions seemed perfectly logical and reasonable. A sane criminal would try to hide his crime. For the judge, the decision came down to the contents of his suitcase. Among the clothes, the judge found a toothbrush.  If Tomas really had been insane, why would he have bothered to pack a toothbrush? Although–the judge reasoned—it was clear that Tomas needed psychiatric care, he was sufficiently sane to know that he had committed a crime, that he was fleeing the scene, and that he would have to brush his teeth. Hence, guilty and insane!

I had the job of telling Tomas that the judge was imposing the maximum punishment allowable by law: a mental institution until, forty years in prison and restitution to the victim’s family. Tomas couldn’t believe his ears. He asked me several times if I had heard the verdict correctly. “What? He’s giving me 40 years? What does heinous mean?” Tomas was going to a mental hospital; however, once it was determined that he was sufficiently cognizant of his crime, he would be transferred to a prison for the rest of his sentence. The irony wasn’t lost on me. He had to be cured before he could be punished. The world, however, is a safer. He had murdered two people in a three hour spree that could have left a bus-load of people dead. The other passengers on the bus have no idea how lucky they are to be alive.

Although the case was over for me, it was just starting for Tomas. He still had to face trial for murder in Chicago. For me, it was back to the books. It is still in my memory, though. Once you hear the Voice, it is hard to get it out of your head.

Gabacho– according to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy– is derived from an old Provençal word “gavach,” meaning a person from the foothills of the Pyrenees who spoke incorrectly. These days, it means “outsider,” somebody who just doesn’t fit in.

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