Habeas Corpus Callosum by Jay WerkHeiser

by


HABEAS CORPUS CALLOSUM

Jay Werkheiser

Jared stared at the paper without comprehension. “Man, I don’t understand any of this legal bullshit.”

“It says that, since your life sentence was handed down before the immortality treatments, it’s tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.” Prescott pulled the paper away from the Plexiglas divider and placed it neatly into his briefcase. Jared still had a hard time thinking of the young face on the other side of the glass as the same old man who had been arguing his case for too many years.

“Nothin’ about raping and killing that girl?”

Prescott shook his head. “This isn’t about your conviction. We’ve exhausted all our appeal avenues on those grounds long ago.”

“So none of that even matters any more. Huh.”

“What matters now is getting the sentence overturned. No one has challenged a life sentence based on the immortality treatments yet. I think we have a good shot.”

The man really believes that, Jared thought. He wished he could, but every night he relived those moments of terror, heard her desperate screams. Oh, it mattered.

“You don’t look very happy for a man given a chance at freedom.”

He laughed without humor. “I just want out of this place. There’s too many ghosts here.”

Prescott nodded, but Jared knew he didn’t understand. “You’ll be transferred to a holding cell at the courthouse until the hearing is over.”

“I’m sure it’s a damn sight better than the pen.”

Prescott packed up his notes and stood. “See you at the hearing, then.”

A couple of guards escorted Jared from the meeting room. Since it was past evening lockdown, they took him straight to his cell. Manuel looked down at him from the top bunk. “How’d it go, bro? You gettin’ sprung?”

Jared collapsed onto his own bunk. “I don’t know, man. Lawyer seems to think so. Moving over to the courthouse tomorrow.”

“That’s great news, bro. You’re gettin’ out of this shithole.”

“It’s just some bullshit hearing. Been there before.”

“Think positive, bro. You’ll be on the outside soon, young and fresh again, while I’m still waitin’ for them to get around to delivering the meds to this dump.”

“If you say so.”

The buzzer sounded and the gate at the end of the block latched with a metallic clank. Lights out. He spent the night staring at the bottom of Manuel’s bunk and listening to him snore. Why should tonight be different from any other?

Maybe the immortality treatments would make things better. The aches and pains of too many years on the inside would go away, for sure. They said the treatments affected the brain too, re-growing lost cells or some mumbo jumbo, so maybe he would go back to who he was before.

A cocky young son of a bitch, the kind of prick who could get strung out and then—

No, he wouldn’t go back there. That he knew without doubt. The man who’d committed that crime was dead and gone. Jared was just the asshole left to serve his time.

He drifted off at last, only to be jarred out of it by the morning wakeup call. The last face he saw before his eyes snapped open was old, with lines carved deep around her eyes and mouth by grief. She’d probably taken the immortality treatment by now, but he knew the sorrow lines would never vanish. And that he was the man who’d put them there.

How do I say I’m sorry for taking away your daughter?

The bunk above him stirred. “Hey, wake up, bro.”

Jared blew out a long breath. “I’m up.”

“Big day for you. You should be all smiles and sunshine.”

“Yeah. Let’s go chow down some slop.”

SciPhiSeperator

It was a sunny morning, so after breakfast the guys were let out into the yard. A couple of guards intercepted Jared on his way out. He put his hand on Manuel’s shoulder. “Looks like this is it.”

Manuel clasped his hand firmly. “Luck, bro.”

The guards escorted him to processing, where he waited while some paper pusher filled out forms. Finally, the paperwork was finished and two new guards took custody of Jared.

“Aw man, you really need the manacles?”

One of the guards, the bigger of the two, laughed. “Strappin’ old man like you, who knows what damage you could do if you was to get loose.” The other guard grinned.

He waited again while they chained him up, suffered the indignity in stoic silence. “All right,” the big guard said. “Let’s move out.”

Jared shambled out into the bright sunlight. He paused to shield his eyes as best he could with his wrists shackled together. The guards prodded him toward an open car door. They flanked him on the back seat and the car took off through the main prison gate.

A dozen or so people moved to block the roadway outside the gate. Jared watched them burst into action when the car approached, shouting and waving signs.

Kill the killer.

No immortality for murderers.

Fry Jared.

“The hell is that?” Jared said.

The big guard chuckled. “That’s nothing. Wait ‘til you see the courthouse.” His little side kick snickered wickedly. Big guy’s all talk, Jared thought, little guy’s there to laugh at his jokes. He dubbed them Penn and Teller.

Prison guards moved to clear the protesters from the road, and the driver accelerated as soon as he had an opening. Jared leaned back in his seat and blew out a shaky breath.

The ride was long and silent, giving him time to think. He didn’t like that very much either. Never happy, are you, old man?

He did his best to put his brain in neutral and enjoy the scenery. It had been quite some time since he’d seen anything beyond the walls of the pen. But the driver stuck mainly to highways, which were perhaps more monotonous than the prison yard. Cars looked sleeker than they had a few years ago.

That all changed when the car moved onto surface streets. “Where’s all the traffic?”

“They cordoned off our route.”

“You gotta be shitting me.” He held up his hands and rattled the chains. “I’m that much of a danger?”

Penn laughed. “You got it ass backwards.”

Shouts from ahead caught Jared’s attention, and he craned his neck to see past the driver. Swarms of protesters lined the street ahead, held barely in check by cops in full riot gear.

“Jesus.”

Penn and Teller laughed again. The driver tapped the brakes and Jared looked back at the road ahead. Some protesters had managed to spill into the street partially blocking the way ahead. Their chant, muffled through the car’s windows, grew louder each time through.

“Take a life, pay the price!”

A loud thump spun Jared’s head to the right. “What was that?”

Something flew out of the crowd and impacted the window with a loud bang. The nearest of the protesters were crowding in, almost close enough to touch the car.

“Man, we gotta get outa here.”

“Relax,” Penn said. “The windows are bulletproof. Nothing’s getting through.”

Jared sat forward in his seat, swiveling his head to track the protesters as the car advanced through them. As they pulled up outside the courthouse, he saw a small group gathered across the street. They were more subdued than the rest and carried signs like, “Eternal life, eternal forgiveness,” and “Infinite terms: cruel and unusual.”

The courthouse stairs had been cordoned off and cops lined the way. Teller opened his door and hopped out. He helped Jared out of the car, then held him in place until Penn was out. A bunch of cops closed in around them and they moved up the stairs, Jared struggling to keep up with his ankles hobbled.

A confusion of shouts and chants pelted him from the other side of the police line. He hurried his pace, and at last the courthouse door closed behind him. He paused to drink in the silence, but Penn prodded him forward. He sighed and waddled ahead.

This time he stood patiently while the guards filled out the paperwork, enjoying the relative sanity of pointless bureaucracy.

SciPhiSeperator

The courthouse had a private interview room where Jared could meet with his lawyer face to face, which was a damn sight better than talking through Plexiglas. “The hell was up with all those protesters yesterday?”

Prescott grinned. “This case could set precedent for years to come. You’re famous.”

“But I don’t want any of that. I just want—I don’t know what I want. Out of the pen, I suppose. A normal life. Nice and quiet.”

“If our petition is successful, that’s exactly what you’ll have.”

“Nah, man, you don’t understand. The jackals’ll always be at my door.”

Prescott pursed his lips. “Maybe for a while. But you’ll have immortality. It may take a year for them to forget you, or ten, or a hundred, but you’ll have the time to wait it out.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Jared mumbled. Everyone else might forget after a while, but he never would. Forever was a long time to carry that load.

“Okay, so when they call us into the hearing, we’re going to sit at the table to the right side of the courtroom. We’ll stand when the referee enters—”

“What’s with this referee bullshit? I ain’t getting no judge?”

“It’s an evidentiary hearing. We’ve been over this. The appellate court appoints a referee to hear the evidence, and she’ll report her findings back to the court.”

“She’s gonna ask me questions?”

“No, she’ll start by asking me to summarize our case, and she’ll challenge just about everything I say. Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean she’s against us. It’s her job to probe the arguments on both sides.”

“So I just get to sit there and look pretty, then.”

Before long, a bailiff knocked on the door. “Okay,” Prescott said. “Show time.” He flashed a plastic grin. “Don’t say a word to the press.”

“The press?”

“Smile pretty for them.”

“Wait—” But Prescott pushed the door open and led the way into chaos. Jared ducked his head and followed with the bailiff taking position on his flank.

Cameras strobed.

“What are your thoughts on the comments made by the victim’s mother this morning?”

“Do you intend to establish a cap on lifetime sentences?”

“How long do you think is fair?”

The voices blurred into a clamor that was almost as disorienting as the intense glare from the video camera lights. He quickened his pace and locked his gaze straight ahead on Prescott’s back. At last the courtroom’s door closed behind him. He paused for a moment of calm before following Prescott down the aisle between packed rows of benches. Murmurs rose as he moved through the crowd.

He looked for the one face he absolutely knew would be there. She had shown up for every single hearing, however small, through all those years, her pained eyes burned forever into his memory. It had been years since he had last seen that face, at least with his eyes open, and by the looks of it those years had been cruel to her. He wondered what it was that she’d said this morning.

He sat stiffly next to Prescott, wringing his hands nervously, then had to do it all over again when the referee entered.

He leaned over to Prescott. “She looks too young to be a judge, or referee, or whatever the hell she is.”

“It’s the immortality treatments. Everyone looks young. Now shush.”

“She sure as hell dresses like a judge.”

Prescott gave him a sharp look.

“This hearing is convened to resolve issues of fact in Mr. Jared MacDonald’s petition for writ of habeas corpus,” the referee said. She turned her attention to Prescott. “Petitioner alleges unlawful restraint in that life imprisonment has changed its meaning with the advent of immortality treatments. Could counsel please summarize the petitioner’s argument?”

Prescott stood. “The state sentenced the petitioner to a life term, but how long is a life? We contend that the state intended a finite time period of incarceration rather than the endless sentence it has become.”

“Some might say that is an argument to deny the immortality drugs to prisoners serving life terms, counselor.”

“That is tantamount to a death sentence.”

“But the jury specifically selected a sentence of life,” the referee said. “They could have selected a specific term of, say, one hundred years, yet they did not.”

“The key is that the sentence was handed down before immortality became possible, so it means something different now than it did then.”

“What’s to stop a person from committing murder, then? He’s immortal, after all, and knows that he can serve a sentence of a hundred years, or five hundred, and still enjoy endless life and freedom afterwards. Yet his victim is still dead.”

“If someone commits murder now, your honor, he knows he’s risking his immortality going in. My client committed his crime when he had only one lifetime to risk. Does that make a difference? I suppose that’s the central question in this case. I would argue that it does…”

Jared’s mind wandered from the legal mumbo jumbo. The referee looked like a kid, maybe twenty something, way too young to be deciding people’s fates. But that’s what the whole world must look like, he supposed. She could have been fifty, or seventy, or a hundred years old. Everyone looked young now. He turned his head and scanned the crowd of spectators.

His eyes locked onto her face once again. The worry lines, the wrinkles driven deep into her flesh by the agony of losing a child, the sorrow in her eyes that made her look worn out. She caught his gaze and glared raw hatred directly into his soul. He quickly diverted his eyes.

He knew he should have been paying attention to Prescott. It was his own damn future on the line. But it really came down to lawyers arguing nitpicky points of law that he had no hope of understanding. He felt strangely disengaged from the whole thing.

He heard the word “disengaged” spoken as he thought it. He perked up and focused on what Prescott was saying.

“…from the other hemisphere, leading to delayed social development and—”

“Mr. Prescott, this is not the venue to rehash medical arguments that didn’t hold up on appeal years ago.”

“That isn’t my intention, your honor. I’m simply establishing that my client is not a violent man and that the immortality treatments, by stimulating nerve cell growth in his corpus callosum, can only improve his mental state. He is no danger to society and he has, or will soon have, served his time as intended by the original sentence.”

Prescott continued with further arguments that Jared didn’t understand, and the hearing dragged on. Jared’s mind wandered again, but he studiously avoided her face.

SciPhiSeperator

Jared was allowed to confer with Prescott after the hearing. “What was up with all that bullshit about my brain?”

“We tried to appeal your conviction on those grounds soon after your initial trial, remember? When they came up with that new MEG technology and started running brain scans on new inmates as part of the admission process.”

“Oh right, that pain in the ass helmet thing they made me wear for hours.”

Prescott nodded. “They found that the region of the brain that connects the two sides was underdeveloped in a large percentage of violent offenders. They already knew that the condition could lead to problems with behavior and socialization, but they were surprised to find how common it was and how well it correlated with incarceration.”

“Well, whatever it is didn’t get me out of the pen, now did it?”

“Because it’s not a mental disorder, just a predisposition. If they started overturning sentence on that basis, half the prison population would walk.”

“So why’d you bring it up?”

“Because the immortality treatments will cause new neurons to grow and improve the pathways connecting the two sides of your brain.”

“See, now that scares the hell out of me. The meds would mess with my brain? Make it go back to when it was young, like the rest of me? What if I go back to being some punk-ass violent kid? I can’t do that, man.”

“No, you misunderstand. Whatever predisposition you had to criminal behavior will be diminished.”

“If you say so. I just wanna get this thing over with. Tomorrow the last day?”

“Tomorrow the state will present its argument,” Prescott said. Jared let him rattle on about legal strategy, barely listening.

That night he lay on his bunk, eyes wide open. He hardly dared to hope that he’d understood Prescott correctly. Could the immortality meds really fix whatever it was about him that had led him to make such bad choices as a young man? Could he be forever young and decent and honorable? And free? He allowed himself a rare smile. He closed his eyes, hoping for the first good night’s sleep he’d had in a long time.

And saw her face.

Her stern eyes, hardened with age and pain, drilled into his soul. You don’t deserve it. The lines in her face deepened and her lips turned down into a scowl, passing her judgment on him.

His eyes snapped open, but the image was seared into his mind. He knew he would never be free of her, that he would see her face every day for as long as he lived. Even if it was forever.

SciPhiSeperator

The herd of reporters hadn’t thinned one bit. Lights glaring in his eyes, Jared ducked his head and followed Prescott into the courtroom. He blocked out their shouted questions. The bailiff closed the door behind him, cutting off the chaos. He cast a quick glance at her before turning his head away. He hurried past and took his seat next to Prescott.

The referee entered and wasted no time. “Today I will hear the state’s arguments opposing Mr. MacDonald’s petition for writ of habeas corpus. Counselor?”

The state’s lawyer stood. He looked like he could have been the star quarterback for some big time college team, and he flashed a smile that might as well have glowed. “The state maintains that writ should be denied on two counts. One, the sentence is legal, justified by Mr. MacDonald’s crimes, and has been upheld on multiple appeals. And two—”

“Let me stop you there,” the referee said. “Since the definition of life has changed, should not the sentence change to preserve its intent?”

“Mr. MacDonald is not required to take the immortality treatments. He can serve his sentence as intended.”

“He was not sentenced to death. He has a Constitutional right to the treatments if he can afford them, and these days even the poorest of us can afford them.”

The lawyer nodded. “It’s his choice.”

Jared found himself nodding with the lawyer. I do have a choice. After years in the pen, it was an odd feeling, giddy and terrifying. He could end this right now, send everyone back to their lives and return to the security of his cell. Live out the rest of his natural days in a place he knew and understood.

But the temptation! If Prescott was right, the meds could give him everything he had ever wanted. Freedom, peace, a normal life.

And her face every time he closed his eyes.

He forced himself to focus on the lawyer, if only to get away from his own thoughts. “That brings me to my second point. Incarceration is not strictly punitive; it is necessary to protect society from violent offenders. The immortality treatments make that protection even more important, since murder robs the victim of so much more than just one lifespan.”

“The state’s records show that the petitioner has been a model prisoner.”

“Need I remind the court of his crime?”

“His counsel has presented evidence that the immortality treatments could remove any propensity to violence that may remain.”

“No!” The shout came from behind Jared. “You can’t fix evil.”

He spun his head to the shout from the spectators’ benches. She stood, leaning forward with hands on the back of the bench in front of her, glaring heat.

“The spectators will refrain from–”

“He took my Sylvia. What about her life? Her immortality?”

“Bailiff, please remove the spectator.”

“He deserves to rot forever. Either in hell or a jail cell, I don’t care which.”

The bailiff wrapped his hands around her stick-thin arms and tugged her stooped frame toward the door.

“No.” Jared found himself standing and realized that he was the one who’d said it. The bailiff stopped and all eyes turned to Jared. He placed his trembling hands on the table in front of him to steady himself. “I’m sorry, your honor, or referee, or whatever they call you. But she’s right.”

Prescott tugged on his sleeve. “Sit down and be quiet,” he whispered.

“I don’t mean to be rude, ma’am,” Jared said, “but that woman has as much right to be here and speak her mind as I do. More right.”

Prescott stood. “Your honor, may I request a brief recess to speak with my client?”

“I think that would be a good idea.”

The bailiff released the old woman and escorted Jared and Prescott out of the courtroom. The crowd murmured loudly, and all heads turned to track Jared as he left. He ran the press gauntlet once more and at last found himself alone with Prescott in the interview room. He collapsed into a chair.

Prescott leaned over him, hands splayed on the table, nose to nose. “What the hell was that?”

“I don’t know, man. It just wasn’t right, kicking her out like that.”

“You should know how to conduct yourself in a courtroom after all these—”

“I wanna stop this.”

Prescott hesitated, mouth open. He stood and backed off a bit. “The state should finish their arguments this afternoon, then—”

“No, I mean I don’t want to do this. Drop the case, or appeal, or habeas whatever the hell it is.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’d never be comfortable out in the world anyway. Just put me back in the pen and let me be.”

“You can’t be serious. We have a good chance of winning this. You could have everything you’ve wanted all these years.”

“I don’t want it any more. I don’t deserve it.”

Prescott pounded the table. “Damn it.”

“Don’t you see? I didn’t take just one life; I took two. The girl I murdered at least died quick, clean. But her, that woman in there, I took her life too. Only I made her suffer first.”

“Look, I know it must have been hard for her—”

Jared pounded his fists on the table and stood, sending his chair skittering backwards. “It’s her face I see when I close my eyes. Not the young girl I killed. Hers. Every damned night. Because I’m still killing her, every day she lives. Every day I live.”

“Time will heal both of you. You have eternity.”

“She didn’t take the immortality treatment.”

“What?”

“Didn’t you notice she’s still old?”

“I guess I didn’t pay attention to her.”

“She knows she’ll suffer as long as she lives, even if it’s forever. She doesn’t want that.” He looked Prescott straight in the eye. “And neither do I.”

“But this case would establish precedent, maybe go as far as the Supreme Court.”

“Man, let someone else do that. I’m not the guy. In fact…”

“What?”

“I don’t think nobody is the right guy. Judge every case on its own. Maybe one guy’s an asshole, so don’t let him out. Another guy’s okay, fine, let him talk to the judge, or ref, or goddamn Supreme Court if he wants.”

Prescott deflated into his chair. “You absolutely positive this is what you want?”

“For now, yeah. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll change my mind. Maybe the guys in robes’ll figure it all out by then. Or maybe I’ll just take my chances with the afterlife.”

SciPhiSeperator

Jared fidgeted in his chair, staring at the door on the other side of the Plexiglas. He tapped his fingers nervously. The door opened and he leapt to his feet. Her stooped form hobbled through the doorway, clinging to Prescott’s arm for support. He escorted her to the chair on her side of the Plexiglas and helped her down into it.

Jared met her gaze. He looked deep into those sorrowful eyes, drinking in the years of misery. “Thank you for coming to see me, ma’am.”

She continued to stare at him, her lip quivering. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, ma’am. But I have some words that I’ve owed you for a long time.”

Food for Thought

What is justice? What happens when fundamental changes in human nature alter the balance of justice, making what was once a just deterrent into a cruel and unusual punishment? When these changes bring justice for the criminal and justice for his victims into conflict, how should society adapt?

About the Author

Jay teaches chemistry and physics to high school students, where he often finds inspiration for stories in classroom discussions. Not surprisingly, his stories often deal with alien biochemistry, weird physics, and their effects on the people who interact with them. Many of his stories have appeared in Analog, with others scattered among several other science fiction magazines and anthologies. You can follow him on twitter @JayWerkheiser or read his (much neglected) blog at http://jaywerkheiser.blogspot.com/.

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1 Comment

  1. There was a short story by Gene Wolfe about life sentence and immortality treatment: “The doctor of dead island”, I think.

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