Blood on the Leaves


By Jeff Stetson

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In the 1960s, racism was rampant in Jackson, Mississippi, and it was common for white men caught in the act of killing blacks to be acquitted by all-white juries. But 40 years later, someone is seeking justice; those same men are turning up dead – in the identical manner in which they killed their victims. Now, James Reynolds, who has overcome the odds – and his own personal demons – to become the only black prosecutor in Jackson, will face the toughest case of his life: He’ll have to prosecute prime suspect Martin Matheson, a brilliant professor, the son of a venerated Civil Rights leader, and the newly appointed folk hero for thousands of African Americans hungry for retribution.



THE DEFECTIVELY REPAIRED air conditioner murmured and moaned, harmonizing with Professor Martin Matheson, whose soothing voice hardly needed musical accompaniment. "Andrew Reid was on leave from his second tour in Vietnam when he stopped to have a drink in a local bar with his nineteen-year-old brother."

Dr. Matheson stuck a pushpin through the photo of a black man burned at the stake and attached it to a poster board. Some students let out audible gasps. Others turned away or diverted their eyes to the polished hardwood floor of the former dance hall where Matheson's class had been reassigned to accommodate greater than expected enrollment. Even in this larger space, many undergraduates were forced to stand alongside the mirrored walls. Their reflections made the room appear twice as crowded.

A number of students sat on the floor. Women who'd left their previous classes five minutes early to ensure they'd sit closest to the faculty member nicknamed "Mister Knowledge" and "Doctor Fine" filled front-row seats. They watched Matheson unbutton the top of his Armani linen-and-silk-blend shirt as he gracefully walked past.

"Waitress was white. They smiled at her. She smiled back." He retrieved an eight-by-ten photo of two grinning white men in their mid- to late twenties. He casually pinned it to a second poster board resting against an easel.

"Her husband, Robert Taylor, and her brother, Reginald Hopkins, followed the two young black men out of the bar and at gunpoint drove them to a deserted wooded area." Matheson returned to the first poster board and uncovered a photo of another black man, a thick-knotted noose around his fractured neck. He was hanging from a tree that had once borne less precious fruit.

The professor placed the photo next to the picture of the charred corpse, making it easier for his students to imagine the unimaginable. "They tied Reid to a log and burned him at the stake, but not until they tortured him and forced him to look at the lynched body of his younger brother."

Brandon Hamilton, a second-year graduate student, sat in the back row. He stared at the horrific remains of two black men who, in the words of Matheson, "once shared the same earth as us and perhaps the same dreams." His large right hand gripped the side of the desk, then slowly closed, making a powerful fist. At six feet four, carrying 235 pounds of solid muscle, he'd been the most sought-after athlete in the country. In his freshman year he set collegiate records in three sports and became captain of the football and basketball teams. As a sophomore he was giving serious consideration to turning pro until, by accident or destiny, he signed up for a class taught by Matheson. On the day he handed in his term paper to the professor, he also turned in all his uniforms and forfeited his scholarship. He vowed never again to serve a system content to exploit him as a commodity but never respect him as a man.

"In deliberations that lasted three minutes, a jury of their peers found Taylor and Hopkins not guilty." Matheson was reaching for a stack of photocopies when the oak door creaked open and two white policemen entered. Matheson smiled as he watched Dr. Henry Watkins, assistant vice president of administrative affairs, passively follow the police. The only black man in the university's central administration, Watkins had long ago grown accustomed to following behind quietly.

"It would've taken less time, but the foreman had difficulty filling out the verdict forms. I suppose some people are just naturally inept when it comes to carrying out instructions." Matheson directed this last remark to Watkins, who was meticulously adjusting his glasses.

The first officer waited quietly near the rear entrance, seeming reluctant to interrupt class proceedings any further. The second officer chose to be more conspicuous. He paced the area with his short, stocky arms folded across his police shield. Heavy footsteps beat rhythmically against the shining parquet floor, announcing his impatience.

Matheson, ignoring the officers, picked up the stack of papers, and handed it to Regina Davis, seated in the front, center row. She'd been voted the first black homecoming queen in the university's 168-year history. But to her the only honor that mattered was the privilege of serving as Matheson's teaching assistant. She'd been chosen from among 112 eager applicants.

Matheson sensed her anxiety and touched her hand. She looked briefly at the policemen before dividing the large stack into smaller sections, placing a pile on each front-row desk for the students to distribute.

The impatient police officer stared at Watkins, which seemed to provide the prodding the timid administrator needed. "Professor Matheson, will you be long?"

"Not as long as justice takes in the great state of Mississippi," Matheson responded politely. "But, as they say, good things come to those who wait." The class erupted in laughter.

"Although they also say, 'Justice delayed is justice . . .'"

"'Denied'!" the students shouted out as they'd done many times before.

Matheson felt immensely proud of them. He'd become a teacher to make a difference, to hold up a mirror before the despised and dispossessed so they'd see just how beautiful they really were. If nothing else, he hoped he'd achieved that goal.

The students reviewed the material. Each page contained a recent photo of Taylor and Hopkins along with their home addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information.

"Remember your history. It can be painful, but it's all we have. I'll see you Friday. Until then . . . good hunting." Matheson nodded at the impatient policeman, who'd finally stopped pacing.

The students gathered their books and quickly filed past the uninvited visitors. Regina, the ever-vigilant witness, returned to her seat and opened her notebook. Brandon marched toward Matheson and stood silently by his side.

Matheson focused his attention on the two officers. "Did you come for these?" He removed the photos of the black victims. "Or those?" He pointed at the photo of the smiling white men, then leaned against the podium.

The policeman dropped his arms to his sides and studied Matheson curiously. "I need to read you your rights."

"That presumes they come from you. They don't." Matheson, displaying absolute conviction in his response, still delivered it with surprising congeniality.

The policeman removed a pair of handcuffs from his belt, clanking together the two sides.

Brandon approached him and stared at his name tag. The officer started to issue a command when Brandon turned toward Regina and announced, "Officer Macon, badge number three-seventeen."

Regina recorded the information, and Brandon directed his attention to the handcuffs. "You're not putting those on him," he warned.

Macon slowly placed his hand on his holster and unsnapped the thin restraining strap. Matheson stepped in front of the anxious officer. "It's all right, Brandon," he spoke softly. "Putting two fists together is always preferable to one."

Matheson held out his hands in a manner that suggested a challenge more than an offer to submit to arrest. He smiled disarmingly at Macon, then voluntarily extended his arms while shifting his attention to Watkins. "Don't look so worried, Dr. Watkins; the publicity will probably drive up enrollment." The professor winked, which obliged Watkins to smile in appreciation.

The annoyed officer placed the handcuffs on Matheson, making them fit as tightly as possible.

Matheson felt the cold steel binding his wrists and recalled the first time he'd seen his father arrested. Television cameras were supposed to ensure safety but didn't. A deputy sheriff had unwittingly become part of recorded history by twisting the cuffs until they dug deep into his father's skin; a vein was cut, almost severed. The blood gushed onto a camera lens, which led a moment later to a baton striking glass, then flesh, then bone. He'd been five years old and had never seen violence or felt terror or imagined his father helpless. His first impulse had been to overcome the fear and place his small body in harm's way. Instead, he did as he'd been taught. He sang songs of protest and faith and love and watched his father bleed.

"Are you comfortable, Professor?" Macon's partner asked, genuinely concerned.

"Oh, yes, very. But I'm a teacher, so it's my job to make others uncomfortable. The search for truth is often unsettling. If acquiring knowledge were easy, everyone would have it." Regina and Brandon exchanged a smile while Macon remained stoic.

Matheson moved his fists as far apart as the cuffs allowed and examined his hands in front of Watkins. "The chains are more sophisticated now," he stated reflectively.

"So are the crimes," volunteered the quiet officer.

"Not the crimes—the criminals," Matheson corrected.

"You want to know why we're taking you in?"

Matheson looked kindly at Macon's partner, who had asked the question. "I was expecting you to arrive the first week of classes. Have you ever read Pedagogy of the Oppressed?" He didn't wait for a response. "There's a myth that the truth shall set you free. It won't, but it'll make you angry as hell. Making people angry by telling them the truth has been considered a crime in virtually every jurisdiction in this country." He looked at Watkins. "I believe it's called sedition."

For all the rhetoric, Matheson's tone remained nonconfrontational. He delivered his words dispassionately, with a style that set others at ease.

Regina rose from her seat and joined Brandon. "If he's not released within twenty-four hours, you'd better expect half the university outside his cell."

"I'll keep that in mind, young lady," replied Macon.

"Keep this in mind, too," interjected Brandon. "We won't stop going after the people on Professor Matheson's list, no matter what you do or how many of us you arrest."

"Is that a fact?" Macon said with disdain.

"And here's another," Brandon said, his vehemence escalating. "If he's harmed in any way, the next person we're going to visit is you."

"You threatenin' a police officer, son?" Macon's chest expanded until Matheson's voice relieved the officer's tension.

"My students don't make threats, Officer Macon. As a general rule it's not advantageous to give your adversary any warning."

Macon grabbed Matheson's elbow. "I think it's time for you to go with us."

Regina studied Matheson. "Do you want me to come with you?"

"Just tell my father not to worry," Matheson said calmly. "And let the students know I don't intend on missing any classes, so I expect everyone to complete their assignments on time."

A group of black male students quietly entered the room and stationed themselves on either side of the door.

Macon released Matheson's arm with a trace of apprehension. "There's not gonna be any trouble, is there, Professor Matheson?" He'd been finally forced to use Matheson's name and the entitlement that went with it.

Matheson leaned in close to Macon. "I'd never allow that," he replied gently, carefully emphasizing the word "allow."

Matheson glanced at Regina and signaled his permission for her to leave. She and Brandon walked through the parallel rows of student guards, and Watkins followed seconds later. The loyal entourage remained attentive. The policemen led Matheson out of the room, although from his demeanor the professor appeared to be the person in command.


TODD MILLER MIGHT have been the last native-born white liberal lawyer in Mississippi, perhaps in the whole South. Certainly, he had to be the only good ol' boy over sixty-five who wore a gray braided ponytail, although he preferred to call it silver—and call it was precisely what he did. Like the Lone Ranger summoning his white steed, Miller had been known to command his ponytail with a confident toss of his head, swinging it over his left shoulder and allowing his limp badge of honor to rest inches above his heart.

He once told a jury that his hair was an extension of his mind, and if the mind became "courageous enough to touch the heart, then true justice would be found." By the time the judge admonished the jury to disregard that definition, Miller had already flung the thing over his shoulder and endeared himself to the twelve men and women who would decide his client's fate.

He particularly enjoyed tossing his ponytail during opening argument, when he'd rather the jurors remember his hair than any promises he hadn't kept. He never used the trick during his closing, when he preferred they recall his eloquence, along with the sincerity of his eyes. Those eyes had been credited with winning every close case, changing color with his passion, and intensity with his choice of shirts. Normally bluish gray, his eyes became solid blue with indignation, green with defiance—and, sometimes, humor—and on rare occasions, when he expended every ounce of energy and needed to draw from his legendary well of oratorical magic, they switched to gold. Jurors had sworn to it. A few even claimed that his eyes had actually displayed a hint of red, which Miller later declared was caused by a fire in his belly.

Actually, that fire hadn't blazed for some time. It had gone out shortly after the Movement was extinguished—the same Movement that had been the driving force of his life, and that had almost cost him his life on more evenings than he could possibly remember. Once he'd believed that the struggle for civil rights represented a battle for the soul of humanity. He'd committed himself to the axiom that if strangers were treated with dignity, neighbors would have no reason to fear each other.

But that platitude had shattered long ago. His neighbors had grown accustomed to living in fear, even though they owned twice as many guns as locks. And the Civil Rights Movement that had once moved a nation no longer moved him. Yet there still were moments when he saw nobility in his work. At such times his words rang with a majesty that inspired the blindfolded lady to balance the tears on her scales while clearing the lump in her throat.

Perhaps that explained why Miller was in the courtroom today instead of a retirement home. Why he was in it yesterday and would be here tomorrow, returning every morning until he found one more case, one more cause, that would make Justice weep in hope of forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption.

"Mr. Miller, do you wish to play the violin before sentencing?" asked Judge Louis "Fritz" Tanner. He gestured toward Miller's client, Darnel Williams, who at nineteen appeared angrier than most black convicts twice his age.

Miller lightly stroked the back of his head. He located his ponytail and glanced to the side, hoping to find inspiration. Instead, he discovered the smiling face of Deputy District Attorney James Reynolds.

Reynolds had entered the practice of law sixteen years ago with aspirations of one day being appointed to the Supreme Court. Somewhere along the line he'd settled for becoming the highest-ranking black prosecutor in the district attorney's office in a city that still flew the Confederate flag in its heart and would wave it proudly at the slightest provocation.

Handsome in a way unlikely to turn heads, and charming without being charismatic, Reynolds dedicated himself to being prepared but never overrehearsed. Jurors didn't always like him, although they implicitly trusted him, which contributed to his 95 percent conviction rate. The primary reason for his stellar record, however, was his natural abhorrence of losing on any level.

Miller took a deep breath and looked respectfully at the judge. By the way Tanner rubbed against the bottom of his chair, Miller knew the judge's hemorrhoids had flared up, a bad sign for any defense attorney.

"Your Honor, while I have great fondness and admiration for you, I—"

Tanner interrupted with a low groan and arched eyebrow. "No one can think more highly of me than myself, Mr. Miller, so if flattery's your goal, it's already been achieved if not surpassed." The judge squirmed a moment, endeavoring to find a spot that promised no pain. "If you have similar views on behalf of your client, share them now or return your retainer."

"My client, Darrell Williams—"

"Darnel, asshole." Miller's young client corrected the record and, at the same time, demonstrated his disgust for the proceedings.

Miller beamed with affection and attempted an explanation with as much sincerity as he could fake. "I have a nephew named Darrell, and in his innocence he reminds me of—"

The judge's gavel struck once. "I'm a patient man, but it's past lunchtime. I believe there's a direct correlation between late lunches and long prison terms. Wanna test my theory?"

Miller placed his hand on Darnel's shoulder and paused for greater effect. "Your Honor, I believe my client can more eloquently address the court's concerns." He took a ceremonial step back and gave Darnel an encouraging nod. Reynolds leaned forward to ensure an unobstructed view.

The judge folded his thick arms across his barrel chest and allowed the wide sleeves of his robe to rest gently on a stomach that benefited greatly from being covered. "Is there something you wish to state for the record before I impose sentencing?"

Darnel glared at the judge the way a mugger stares at his intended victim. "Yeah . . . Fuck you." Darnel reclaimed his seat with a renewed sense of power. Reynolds wiped at his mouth in an attempt to conceal a smile.

Judge Tanner confronted a sheepish Miller. "Counselor, did your client seek your advice before addressing the court, or was his eloquence spontaneous?"

"I understood him to say 'Your Honor,' Your Honor."

"I hope your legal acumen hasn't diminished as quickly as your hearing." Tanner lifted his gavel. "Three years for possession, six for distribution. Sentences to run concurrently." The gavel came down hard. "Nice meeting you, Darrell."

"Darnel!" the defiant defendant responded in a last-ditch effort to showcase his manhood.

"You'll be a number by tonight." Tanner rose as gracefully as his "condition" permitted, and was proceeding from the bench toward his chambers when he suddenly stopped. "Oh, Attorney Reynolds?"

Reynolds deferentially came to attention, looking up from his paperwork.

"I saw that smile. It'll cost you fifty dollars. Next time I'm insulted, try to appear offended." Tanner waddled away like a wounded duck, with no further effort to conceal the discomfort of his ailment.

The deputies escorted Darnel past his emotionally devastated mother. Miller thought about turning away from the woman before she shared the one luxury he knew the poor would always be permitted to own: a steady flow of tears. Instead, he extended his hand and felt her trembling fingers.

"There are several solid grounds for appeal." He lied very easily when he genuinely liked someone.

She thanked him, then, overcome with grief, buried her face in her hands. He guided her head to his left shoulder, and she sobbed when he held her. In that intimate exchange he tried to remember what it had felt like back when he truly shared the agony and humiliation of the people who'd mortgaged their homes to invest their future in him. He touched the dampened spot over his heart and then said good-bye to the woman whose tears he now carried.

By the time his jacket dried, he'd already maneuvered his way through the most crowded sections of the parking lot and was intercepted by Reynolds.

"Don't you have any white clients?" Reynolds teased.

"I prefer representing the oppressed. It provides me with unlimited business."

The two men crossed the lot together, heading toward Miller's car. "Twenty-five years ago, I represented Darnel's father," Miller confided. "He wanted a career in law enforcement, but as we know, the sheriff's office didn't hire blacks back then. It only arrested them."

"Did you win the lawsuit?"

Miller nodded yes, with no sense of satisfaction. "A week after the verdict they planted drugs in his patrol car, then fired him."

"You're the one who keeps reminding me that justice is blind."

"Did I remember to add deaf and dumb?" Miller reached his vehicle, an ancient British Triumph sports car with a badly torn convertible top. He pried open the driver's door and crawled through the small rectangular crevice, narrowly missing scraping his forehead on a jagged piece of vent window. Noting a patch of ripped leather that hung loosely from the side of his bucket seat, he reattached it with transparent tape. He reached for the stubborn door and tried unsuccessfully to close it. Undaunted, he raised his head toward the sun and proclaimed, "Three more payments and it's all mine."

Reynolds applied maximum force against the dented metal frame. "Then you can get a new one." In exasperation he slammed it shut.

Miller cranked down his window as far as it would go, an inch or two more than halfway. He used the partial opening to wax philosophical. "New isn't always desirable. Take our great city, for example." He vigorously pumped the gas pedal several times. "We spend a fortune on ballet just to be seen as international." He tested the ignition. "Yet somewhere in Europe they're lusting for our Delta blues." The engine sputtered but clung to life.

"Tradition's a glorious thing," mused Reynolds.

"Only if you claim it as your own." The car backfired before finally kicking into full power. Miller's eyes gleamed with delight. He signaled thumbs-up and raced his sports car through a parking lot full of police heading for traffic court.

Reynolds hadn't yet taken a step when, in the distance, he heard his name called by a voice so unmistakable, his initial impulse was to reach for his wallet and wait for the collection plate to arrive. Legend had it the Reverend Samuel Matheson's whisper could calm children while frightening the wicked. But the Reverend Matheson wasn't whispering today; he was at full throttle. He made it easy to understand why God chose the human voice as His favorite instrument.

Reynolds turned to greet his pastor.

"James . . ." The preacher's voice remained unshakable. "I need you to render a great service."

Reynolds felt his heart race and tried to conceal his alarm. The Reverend Samuel Matheson had become a southern institution. Every civil rights and community leader in the surrounding five states had at one time or another sought his advice or guidance. Reynolds couldn't believe the man who had ordered Martin Luther King Jr. to "keep walking forward and don't show any trace of fear" might actually require a mere mortal's help.

"Of course, Reverend, anything I can do."

Pastor Matheson closed his eyes and then, with the hand that had grown accustomed to carrying the full weight of the Scriptures, touched Reynolds on the shoulder. In a tone barely audible he asked, "Would you please find out what they've done to my son?"


REYNOLDS ABRUPTLY ENTERED Melvin Vanzant's office and discovered a meeting in progress that should have included him. "Why didn't you tell me about Matheson?" he blurted out angrily.

Vanzant received a sympathetic sigh from his chief assistant, Woody Winslow, a lifelong bureaucrat who was eminently capable in matters of the law but perpetually handicapped by a limited vocabulary. Reynolds believed there existed no greater curse than having so many ideas and so few ways to express them; it rendered a man incomprehensible to all but himself.

"I was under the impression you worked for me, not the other way around," said Vanzant without bothering to look at Reynolds.

"What's he charged with?" Reynolds asked.

"Your information's as bad as your attitude. I extended an invitation for a friendly visit, and he graciously accepted."

"That's not what his father said."

"The reverend may represent God, but neither speak for my office." Vanzant passed a file to Lauren Sinclair, who, when she wasn't prosecuting a case and causing hardened felons to tremble, appeared as mild as an elementary school teacher. If there'd been any justice in government, her thirty years of dedicated service would have made her Vanzant's boss just long enough to fire him.

"Is he being charged with anything?" Reynolds looked at Sinclair for a clue.

"If arrogance was a crime he'd be facing twenty-five to life," said Vanzant. He leaned back in his chair and looked accusingly at Reynolds. "But then, he'd have a lot of company in his cell, wouldn't he?"

Reynolds took a breath and silently counted to five. "Why was he taken away in cuffs?"

"I've already asked the chief to write up a letter of reprimand to cover everyone's ass. Last thing we need is a public relations problem with either the college or the community." Vanzant scratched the inside of his left thigh. "If you're so anxious to find out what's going on, just sit down and listen. I realize it'll be a new experience, but who knows? You may learn enough to challenge me for real one day." Vanzant had never forgiven Reynolds for running against him in the last election. That experience intensified his paranoia about losing his job and caused him to deny career advancement opportunities to his most talented staff members.

Reynolds sat at the small round conference table and poured himself a glass of water. He'd barely tasted it when Sinclair began her report.

"Two bodies were discovered in Greenville last night. Coroner identified them this morning as Robert Taylor, tied to a tree trunk and set on fire, and Reginald Hopkins, lynched just a few feet away. Both white, late fifties, give or take."


On Sale
Jul 27, 2004
Page Count
400 pages

Jeff Stetson

About the Author

Jeff Stetson is an American writer best known for such novels and plays as Blood on the Leaves and The Meeting, a 1987 play about an imaginary meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in 1965 in a hotel in Harlem.

Learn more about this author