Community Service


Frank hadn’t wanted to visit Alice, but he’d had little choice since it was his community service requirement. Despite the smell of old people dying, a couple hours in the nursing home seemed better than wearing a Day-Glo vest and scooping trash from the roadside. She asked him why he, a stranger, had come, a question that revealed a clarity he’d not expected. In an instant he realized that he’d no reason to be anything but honest with the old lady. He’d see her maybe a dozen times, and she was probably so forgetful, she’d not even remember his response, so he thought why sugar-coat.


"I got arrested for driving drunk. You’re my punishment."


As soon as the words left his mouth, he was sorry, but Alice’s quick response cut short what would have been a stammering apology. Ninety-two years had ravaged Alice’s body, but a long life had only strengthened and callused her mind.


"Honey, why don’t you go get my worthless daughter drunk? Maybe then sometime she’d stop by and see me." Alice’s wrinkles deepened as she continued. "On second thought, forget it. Marie would pass me by for some other senile old biddy just to spite me."


They both smiled, and so began Frank’s weekly visits. He visited Alice every Thursday, long after he’d fulfilled his community-service requirement. He even visited Alice when his thirtieth birthday fell on a Thursday. Alice had a present for him, a pair of trousers, a gaudy pair of trousers with broad vertical red and white stripes.


When Frank saw them, a single word fell from his lips: "stripes."


"Well, Frankie," Alice explained, "Marie got off her duff and took me shopping, and she hated these pants so much, I just had to buy them. She called them ‘Uncle Sam pants.’ I know they’re a little loud, but you could get some wear out of them. Besides, they’re wear-dated."




"Yeah. See the label in the waistband. It’s got the date of manufacture—just four months ago. Guaranteed to last three years. If they wear out before then, just call the company."


Frank knew the pants would last at least three years. If his place didn’t burn down, they’d hang forever in his closet, worn maybe once or twice a year as a joke.


Alice knew what Frank was thinking. "Listen, Mr. Fancy Pants," she began, her eyes beginning to catch fire. "Let an old woman tell you a few things you ought to know by now. First, back in the thirties.... We’d not dismiss anything serviceable. Second," her features relaxed, a smile curled on her lips, "a gift you buy for someone else is also a gift for yourself. Don’t deny me that. The look on Marie’s face when I bought them.... What do they say in the commercials?"


Alice could barely contain her laugher.




And her laugh exploded and crescendoed in a coughing jag that had Frank wondering if he should press the nurse’s call button. But the coughing receded and diminished into hacking chords.


Frank ventured a response. "Ok, I’m glad you got under Marie’s skin. And I will wear them. Maybe not often." Alice smiled.


"Tell me about the thirties."


"You don’t need to know. It was dust storms and foreclosures and old cars that wouldn’t run. One week we lived on nothing but wild berries and some carrots we took from someone’s field. There was nothing for you, especially if you were someone who’d already lost everything." Then a lightness came over Alice in the telling. "But I was young. I could believe it would get better. It was hard for the old people to believe."


Three days later, just before a nurse arrived with lunch, Alice had her last coughing jag, the muscles in her face relaxed for the last time and forever. The nurse on first seeing Alice thought how surprisingly youthful she looked as she lay still on the bed. Too still, the nurse realized as she checked her chart. She never told anyone about her first impression of Alice in death.


Frank sequestered himself for a month, until a friend persuaded him to get on with living, to join him Halloween night at a costume party. Frank put on the red and white striped pants and went as Uncle Sam.


The following Monday Frank dropped the trousers off at the cleaners. The clerk looked at them closely, and as soon as Frank left, called the police.



Officer Jane Zamora worked all her cases hard, but none harder than the case of Timmy McGuffy. Timmy was four-years-old when he suffered the assault. It came on the Fourth of July. He’d wandered off from the family picnic at Municipal Park. They found him three hours later, hidden in a stand of bushes. Unconscious. Arm broken. Skull cracked. Breathing, but barely. The local media had taken to calling the unknown assailant the Muni Park Beast.


Zamora was at the hospital when Timmy awoke after surgery. He was a four-year-old wonder, a miracle child who’d survived what the doctors thought was beyond surviving. But he remembered little of his attacker. Post-traumatic amnesia the doctors called it. He couldn’t remember his attacker’s face, but he did remember one important item, the outrageous red and white striped pants he’d worn.


Others put little significance on the memory. After all, it had been Independence Day. Images of Uncle Sam abounded. But when Zamora listened to the brave little boy, just out of surgery, arm in traction, his left eye and left side of his head wrapped in gauze, she knew she’d take that single clue and she would run hard with it. She’d get word to the second-hand clothing stores, the laundries, recycling centers. She’d do everything she could to find those trousers and the beast who’d worn them. Adding to her self-imposed pressure, were now regular calls from the Sheriff and the DA whose terms would expire in the coming year. An arrest followed by a conviction might be their ticket to another four years in office.


When the clerk from Frank’s cleaners called, Zamora knew her perseverance had paid off. Finally, she had a lead. She picked up the trousers from the cleaners and took them to the McGuffy residence. There, she sat across the table from Timmy. His left arm hung uselessly from a misshapen shoulder. His left eye drooped and gave his face a look of sorrow and age beyond his years. Only six now, Timmy could never be a carefree child. That had been irrevocably lost just over two years ago.


"Timmy, I’m going to show you something," she said. Timmy’s father leaned over him, squeezing his good shoulder. "It might be scary. But I know you can be brave. You only need to look at it a short time. Tell me if you’ve seen these before." She pulled the pants from a bag. Timmy’s eyes welled. He nodded his head and turned away. That was all Officer Zamora needed.


As she left Timmy’s home, his father followed her out. Away from Timmy, he raised his hand and wagged his finger. Now his eyes reddened and welled. His lips curled in a snarl. "You just nail that son of a bitch."


Zamora had the pants processed as evidence. She spoke to the evidence photographer as he laid them flat. "Imagine the pervert who wore these ugly things."


It was a memorable day for Frank who was arrested, bailed out, and featured on the local news as the Muni Park Beast, the monster who’d destroyed Timmy’s childhood.


Frank hired an attorney, an aging overweight man who wore suspenders and practiced country charm. "It's was a weak case," he said. "All they have are those crazy striped pants. But there’s a little boy out there," he said. "His life is ruined. The jury will want someone to pay. How many people wear pants like that?" The attorney took out a copy of the police photos of the trousers, fly undone in a lascivious pose.


Frank studied the photo. He saw the wear-dated tag in the waistband, and remembered what Alice had told him. "The tag!" He was almost shouting. "Get a blow-up of the tag. Get the cops to look at the tag. It has the date of manufacture. These pants weren’t even made until two years after the attack."


"Then you’ve got nothing to worry about."


Frank went home, a great weight lifted from him.


But Frank’s ordeal wasn’t over. The photo of the tag stayed illegible no matter how much it was enlarged. Worse, the wear-dated tag had disappeared from the pants themselves. Inexplicably, the tag was missing, no longer sewn in the waistband. It wasn’t in the evidence bag. It wasn’t found anywhere in the evidence room. Neither the keeper of the evidence room, nor the photographer, nor Officer Zamora, nor anyone else could say what had happened to it.


What remained was the prosecutor’s zeal to convict the Muni Park Beast.


His lawyer told Frank they’d move to suppress the use of the trousers as evidence at the trial, but cautioned him to be prepared for whatever might follow. Because he was young, Frank believed things would get better. He hadn’t yet heard Larry Youngblood’s story.



"Youngblood’s story is a story about another young victim," the old lawyer began. "The kid’s name was David. Ten years old. The guy who abducted David threatened to kill him if he told anyone. But David told his mom anyway, and she rushed him to the hospital. A rape exam told her what she already…." His voice trailed off.


"David hadn’t worn his glasses that night, he remembered that the man was black. ‘Gray hair, greasy,’ he said. ‘Middle-age. He had hair on his face.’ David didn’t see any scars, but he noticed that the guy had an eye that was white—‘almost all white.’


"A week or so goes by. The police talk to David again. Show him some pictures. David points to an image, ‘That one.’" The attorney stabbed his finger towards Frank. "It was Youngblood. He had a bad left eye. Youngblood’s hair was black and dry, but, you know that stuff can change. And there were some differences between Youngblood’s car the car driven by the guy who’d attacked David, but who can expect a ten-year-old to get all the details right? Both cars were white.


"Worse, Youngblood’s alibi was shaky. He said he was home alone. So, Larry Youngblood was arrested, charged, and tried for sexual assault, child molestation, and kidnapping." The attorney paused. "And convicted based on David’s eyewitness testimony.


"Youngblood appealed. The police hadn’t refrigerated the DNA deposits on David’s clothing or the swabs taken during David’s medical exam. The DNA couldn’t be tested because it was spoiled now, but Youngblood and his attorneys insisted that had it been saved, it would clear him. The Arizona Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. Youngblood was set free, but his case wasn’t over yet. The State appealed the reversal, and in 1988 the Supreme Court of the United States took it up."


Frank listened intently as his attorney revealed the court’s decision, "Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the opinion. It said that the State cannot be held responsible for preserving evidence that could only potentially prove the defendant’s innocence."


Frank’s shoulders sagged as he put Rehnquist’s analysis into his own words: "If something is only maybe exculpatory, the State can ditch it."


Frank’s attorney nodded, "The police may without consequence destroy, lose, damage, or otherwise render it"--he paused for effect--"unusable." Frank’s attorney went on to explain what happened after Rehnquist’s opinion. "Larry Youngblood went back to prison to serve his sentence. But, lucky for Larry, some of that degraded DNA from the case had been retained. Didn’t have to be, but somehow it was. And then the testing got better.


"The year 2000 came and better DNA tests got the secret from the stains. It wasn’t Larry Youngblood’s. It belonged to a guy who was already in prison for something else, a gray-haired black man who was blind in one eye. A fellow named Walter Cruise. They let Larry go. Cruise pled guilty."


The attorney let out his breath and fell silent.


Frank waited a long minute before saying, "There’s more, isn’t there?"


"Yeah, and here’s where it gets bad. After learning it was Walter Cruise, not Larry Youngblood, who’d attacked him, David killed himself. Stepped in front of a freight train. He was only in his twenties." The room darkened, and Frank listened to the attorney's mantle clock tick long seconds. Then the old lawyer finished, "William Rehnquist, the author of the Youngblood opinion, died a while back."




In Frank’s town the DA worked with Timmy, his young star witness. The pain felt by Timmy and his family began to recede, replaced now by heightening anger at the senseless assault. They celebrated what appeared to be a gradual return of Timmy’s memory. Doctors explained that sometimes as the trauma that induces memory loss resolves, the lost memories themselves might be recovered.


Frank wished that Alice were still around. He imagined her in a spirited exchange with William Rehnquist. David looked on.


The End


Frank, Alice, Timmy, Officer Zamora, and Frank's attorney are fictional characters, but the case of Arizona v. Youngblood is factual. Larry Youngblood was exonerated with help of the Innocence Project in 2000. The precedent of Arizona v. Youngblood continues to result in wrongful convictions.