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Peterson on Trial 

Coda

We were all at the '80s-fascist Marriott in Farmington, Conn., set in the edge of United Technologies' sprawling, heavily-wooded hub/campus--all squeaky glass, brick and clean Americans. There were little kids leaping from bed to bed. I had a beer in my hand when my brother told me, he the teller of tall tales. I didn't believe him.

Shocked, really shocked, I'd utterly convinced myself that there would be a hung jury and amazingly hadn't even considered the prospect of a conviction.

Everyone thought you were too smart. You never know about a jury. Turns out I thought you were too smart.

I guess this'll wind through the courts and the appeals process, which is loathe to tamper with a jury conviction, especially one that cost a mill--and it will hold. And finally, the doors are going to clang shut for the last time. And then you are going to have to reckon with this.

Damn, son. Why'd you do it? You who had it all. What bug buried in that big, ole brain went off and made you do what you did? What you gonna do now? Did you really think you could pull it off, or did it just kinda spin out of control? Now you done gone and left a big, ole mess someone else's gonna have to clean up.

Retrospection sucks. Just grab your coat, put your hat on your head, go ahead and walk out that door. People do it all the time.

Our people, the Swedes, had ways to handle this sort of thing in the old days: If you killed someone, you and your family--brothers, sons--made legally proscribed payments to the aggrieved family. Can't bring someone back and it doesn't pay to incite internecine conflicts in a tribe. Practical.

Too late for that. Rudolf got it all, I imagine--the house, the accounts, your money, whatever there was. Kathleen's.

Caitlin. She's a tough cookie, like her mama and her aunts. She got some resolution, but she needs more. She needs to know what happened, how it went down, what made it snap. Her mother's death has to make sense. There's the lawsuit, but it's not about money.

So Caitlin won and you lost--sort of. Now that you've been convicted, I don't know if you have a book left in you. I sure don't know what it would be about. If you'd walked, she might have reaped something from your efforts, but now...

There's the Nortel policy and that will help, but it isn't going to go far, and who knows how that's going to grind out.

A lot of people depended on you and believed in you. Todd and Clayton. They'll be all right. They have, like you, a certain knack for survival, that innate ability to (most of the time) squeak through situations like you do--or did. Practically, their problems are a money thing, unencumbered as they are, as you are, by moral issues.

But what about the girls, man? In your letter to Margaret Blair, you wrote that Martha and Margaret needed stability, that they needed a father. Well, what have they got now? No dad, no mom. No dad, no mom. No home. This is sending peoples' lives through a shredder. No home. Circles and circles.

I just hope it wasn't some kind of big, sick game, some sort of I'm-sorry-I-had-to-do-it, I'll fool those stupid Durham cops, walk away and rub their noses in their incompetence. That is too monstrous for even the dark places I sometimes go.

Those poor girls, young women now, always had you to cling to, something to make things right. Now there is not even that. And even though things might be better, they will never be right. And that saddens me more than anything.

Then there is Durham itself, the city you adopted and that adopted you. The ripples extend far past 1810 Cedar and the courthouse, out into the streets, into the offices and barbershops and beer joints. It was another big, emotional mess for a city to divide itself over, featuring you, who ran for office and struck at the city's leaders, not unfairly, in your columns and with a stridency I admired--strong medicine sometimes being just the thing.

But you betrayed even that laudable goal, that hunt for the dangerous critter known as the ugly truth, whose habitat includes the familiar and accepted. You with all your lives canceled out, all of your often on-the-money observations, leaving a city divided by a stake in its heart, fractured by a sudden, ugly detonation that will linger in the streets like the dust from an imploded hotel, only for years.

You wrote in your papers that you thought you may have lost your capacity to be a moral human. I don't believe it. But your new situation may help you rediscover it. Just because it looks like it's over doesn't mean it's over. The first step is to confront the results of your actions, the results of the explosions, the falling rocks, floods and ripples caused by what you did that night in that stairwell.

After all the stories are written, the true crime books read and discarded to the penny bins, the movie made and forgotten, it will not be over. It will never be over. It will go on and on and on. I guess there is the possibility of an appeal, but even if is overturned, even if you walk away, that will change nothing--no matter how hard you try, you cannot change the truth; it floats in the air, perfect, immutable, eternal. And eventually everyone, on their own "dark nights of the soul," has to come face to face with themselves. It will not be over until you contend with the truth. And the sooner one looks at the truth with clear, open eyes, the better; much less wasted time.

The worst thing you can do now is turn into another old jailbird who says, "I didn't do it." Let it begin sooner than later. Let it begin as a kernel, a small, bright spot, growing and strengthening, the light of truth. It's scary at first, you want to turn away, but once it is ignited, it grows and you have to look. And when it blooms it is like jumping into a super-cold spring of clear, frigid water; it feels great and you can't imagine why it took you so long. Most everyone who lives does so behind a lie. That is nothing new, everyone does to an extent--big or small, that doesn't matter, it's all a matter of degree, of severity of punishment.

But even when one is buried in steel and concrete and razor ribbon, motions and location a matter of great interest to people with clubs and guns, you can be free. They can't take your heart and they can't take your mind--the worst prison of all, the one place where there really is no way out.

My guess is you'll adapt to your new situation well. You don't really have anything to prove, that you could prove--you can't bullshit a bullshitter. Plus, resistance is futile. You've got more class than that. Just learn to guard your tongue, cause cons don't like big mouths. The physical constraints will be a management issue. The quiet times will be the problem. In your private moments, you will start to learn to turn your mind off. It really, really works to just sit there and just--be. Let your consciousness out into the world, beyond the bars. There is no box. Expand past that. Think of nothing.

It may take days. It make take years. But if you can do this, if you can really do this thing--step into the light--you will be relieved and fulfilled, no matter what happens to your body. And when it happens, it is so beautiful, so clear. Things become very bright. You can walk out of the clouds and into the power that moves this realm like the rumble of a distant train, the warm, healing light of love, unalloyed. EndBlock

Peter Eichenberger can be reached at petrblt@hotmail.com

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