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The burly police officer and his partner do not knock before entering the plain white room. A silver metal table and brown metal chair are the only furniture in the tiny room. The detectives shut the door behind them; the man sitting in the middle of the room hears a click that he idly assumes is the door closing. Lighting from above them cast the officers’ faces into demonic shadow. It causes the already terrified man who occupies the metal chair to sweat.
He sits with his hands between his knees and his back slumped forward over the table. “I told ‘er I was sorry…after you left me, I apologized to ‘er.” His face crumbls. “She was like my grandmamma, man! She wuz so nice t’me,” the man says. His eyes are red and puffy from crying; tears have left wet streaks down his face, collecting in his dark beard. Even with his dark skin, it is still obvious how pale he is. The young man trembles a little and rocks in his seat, the metal cuffs around his wrists rattling. He does not look up from the tabletop, even when the big officer stands directly before him and lays his palms flat on the table. The detective stations himself at the far wall of the room, next to the door frame, and flips open his notebook.
“What would she tell you to say?” the officer asks.
“The truth,” Thomas states. “When ya’ tell deh truth, you feel a lot bette’, and the light’ll start shinin’ on ye’ again. Ye’ can take a black moon…you can take a black cloud off you, it can stop raining, so to speak, and ye'll start to see deh sunlight again.” A tiny smile quivers at the edges of his lips. “I'm feeling a whole lot better with that black cloud off my head.”
“Tell us what happened; what lead up to the woman’s murder.”
Thomas cringes at the word but shakes his head. “I-I don’t know, man. I was feelin’ pretty low that day, and I’d gone to see Ms. Gordon and ask her to pray for me. We prayed, and I felt better than I’d eva’ felt in mah life. I wuz jus’ leavin’ Ms. Gordon’s place when a buddy o’ mine come up the walk way. ‘Dis where she at?’ he asked. I said ‘Dog, she done prayed for me. Let's go.’ But he walked right past me. I stood’ere and di’n’t move from dat spot. I wuz like ‘Damn. What is he fixing to go up there and do? Is he going to do something to her?’. I pray he don't. I'm hoping that he don't. Then I heard screamin’ from upstairs: ‘Somebody help me!’ I run up deh stai’s, and Ms. Lampton’s on deh floor, crying. She had blood coming out the side of her mouth. I said, ‘Dog. Come on, dog. Let's just go.’ She was like, ‘I promise I ain't going to call the police on you. Henry, I love you, and I know you having hard times right now. I know you wouldn't do this to me on purpose.’ My buddy look at me; he went around there to the kitchen and grabbed the tape and threw it to me. He was like, ‘Dog, just tape her up.’”
The detective pauses his scribbling to look over at Thomas. “Did she say anything to you?”
“Yea, she just kept saying, ‘Lord, Heavenly Father, help me.’ And then he was like, ‘Man, put the tape on her mouth. Just in case she start screamin’ later on.’ I taped ‘er ankles, hands and mouth, then I taped ‘er eyes.”
The officer’s hands curl into fists on the table. “And what did she say when her fricken’ eyes were taped shut?” His voice is carefully neutral. The effect is chilling.
Thomas shuffles uncomfortably. Whether it was because of the heavy guilt on his heart or the heat of the officer’s glare, no one could be sure. He tries to swallow the sudden lump in his throat. “She just said, ‘Lord, Heavenly Father, forgive them for what they are doing.’ And I jus’ really…I mean, like I said, then I went home, man. I could just keep hearing her say that…‘Lord, Heavenly Father, forgive them for what they goin’ to do.’”
“You taped her hands folded, as if in prayer.” The detective settles his notebook in the crook of his arm to demonstrate folding his hands, palms together with interlacing thumbs. “Why is that?”
The man shrugs. “I just felt it was appropriate to put her hands in prayer because she was saying a prayer for somebody--,” he explains. His voice catches, and his head falls down so his chin rests on his chest. The officer sees them shake more visibly and then a soft gasping drifts to his ears. He joins the detective at the door, and they shuffles through the folder the detective had brought into the room with him. The deceased’s name is Sheri Lampton, 75 years old, African-American, Milwaukee resident. She worked as a pastor at St. Anne's Cathedral Holy Church of Deliverance. Her body was found on December 13th, in the living room of her home. She had been murdered the previous day.
Henry Thomas, 30 years old. African-American. Milwaukee resident. He was a friend of Ms. Gordon; the motive seemed to be robbery.
Thomas had told police earlier that he and a friend, Don Forrest, plotted to rob someone. Forrest testified Tuesday that he and Thomas never made such plans and that on December 12, the day of the murder, he was out of town most of the day and never saw Thomas. Several witnesses backed up Wood's alibi.
The detectives converse lowly, making sure the murder suspect does not hear them. Large parts of his story made no sense. How did Forrest know where Lampton lived? Why did he not call police for help? The officer flipped the page to the autopsy report. According to medical testimony, Lampton's entire face was tightly wrapped in tape. A plastic bag was placed over the tape and sealed with tape around her neck. It took the woman as long as two minutes or so to suffocate.
“Thomas, let’s go through this again from the beginning. Tell us exactly what--”
Thomas looks up at the officer through wet, black eyelashes, shaking his head. “I just wanna to go upstairs, man. It just hurt, man, knowing I wuz dere when he killed Ms. Lampton. I jus’ wanna to talk to my mama. I need to talk to my mama, man. I wanna to talk to my mama, man.” Fresh tears fall into his beard. The detective and the officer watch Thomas coolly. Both had seen numerous women and children cry; it was not a rare occurrence to witness the emotional breakdown of a full-grown man, either.
Especially when they faced a life sentence in prison.
“Tell my mama I'll be back. I gotta to do all dis time, man, and be by myself. An’ it’s possible she might not be there for me no more. I love my mama, man.”
The recorder snaps off in the adjoining room behind the glassed wall. Henry Thomas’s mother stands from the spectator’s bench, thanks the officer at the recorder, and leaves.