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CHERCHEZ LA FEMME

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Judge Joe Howe takes the bench. Surprisingly, he thinks it necessary to tell the jurors that the riots taking place in Los Angeles should have nothing to do with their verdict.

Decide on what evidence is presented in this court," Howe says, not on the outrage over there. Don't think you have to convict Dan Willoughby to make up for what that jury did." As Howe talks, I remember what he was like as a defense attorney. Years ago he defended a seemingly exemplary high school coach named Alan Just, who stabbed his wife to death with a butcher knife.

Howe offered the incredible defense that the woman had fallen out of bed while sleeping and impaled herself in the chest with the ten-inch blade.

The trial lasted for weeks. When Just testified, the courtroom was so packed that the center aisles were filled and the rear doors were left open.

In that case, the prosecution wanted the extra spectators removed, saying the added spectators created extra pressure on the jurors.

Howe reportedly argued against their removal, saying it was an open court and that the spectators had a right to remain. He won. They remained.

But in this case, Judge Howe makes no complaint when all spectators without seats are ordered to leave.

The only spectators he makes special provision for are the crew manning the pool television cameras.

Does the fact that their presence will assure that the judge's picture appears on the nightly news have anything to do with the decision?

All eyes turn toward the door at the rear. Yesenia Patino, tiny in a short, flowing skirt, walks slowly down the aisle toward the witness stand.

Yesenia wears a geometrically patterned blouse. Her hair is orange. Her dark skin is covered with a thick layer of pancake makeup.

As she passes by Dan Willoughby, her former lover, Yesenia flinches involuntarily. Willoughby, pale from all the time he has spent in jail, wears a blue business suit. He has lost a lot of weight, and his suit hangs on him.

Willoughby does not betray any emotion. He stares blankly at the woman he sent flowers to every week for a year and whom he once promised to marry.

And you wonder. Is he asking himself why he never realized all that time that she was a transsexual?

Yesenia takes her seat in the witness box. She stares wide-eyed toward Mitchell. It is as though she is holding on to him for support in this room packed with strange faces.

The family of the woman Yesenia helped murder is sitting in the front row, right behind where Mitchell stands.

Are you okay?" Mitchell asks.
Yesenia shakes her head.
Are you a little afraid?" Yes," she says.

How old are you?" Thirty-five." Where were you born?" Sonora, Mexico." Mitchell nods his head. He now must get to all the embarrassing things about Yesenia's life. The things she has been afraid to talk about before others.

Were you once known as Victoria Milke? ...as Victoria Guzman? ...as Victoria Rascon? ...as Victoria McDonald?" ²The answer is yes to all of the above.

Were you called Alfredo before your operation?" Yes." Why did you have the operation?" I needed to have surgery so I could lead a normal life," she says.

Yesenia explains that she met a man named Jack Milke who paid for the operation and then became her husband when it was over.

Later, she married another man named Abel Rascon, and he is now serving time in prison on drug charges.

She tells how she met Dan Willoughby.
Yesenia and a friend were taking the bus on a shopping trip to Fiesta Mall. While they were waiting to make a transfer, Willoughby drove by in his Jaguar. He stopped to give them a ride.

Willoughby handed Yesenia his business card and asked her to call so they could go out to lunch. Before long they were involved in what Willoughby believed was a torrid love affair.

Did you love him?" Mitchell asks.
No, I didn't love him. But he was doing a lot for me. He was paying my rent and my food. If I would have married him, I would have left him and gone back with my husband, Abel, when he got out of jail." As Yesenia speaks these words, she looks at Willoughby for the only time during her testimony. Willoughby does not look back.

She tells how Willoughby brought up the idea of killing his wife, Trish. He boasted to Yesenia that there were millions of dollars in insurance to be had.

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Tom Fitzpatrick