“Miss Martin, I know you’re nervous, but please lean toward the microphone and speak as loudly and clearly as you can.” The defense attorney tugs the bottom of his suit coat, seeming nervous himself—of the TV cameras, the prosecutor’s many objections, the climate in this florescent-lit Florida courtroom. “Now, you were born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on September 12, 1980. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” says Caitlin Martin, the defendant, the murderer. Did you kill Brian Davis? her lawyer had asked, moments ago. Yes, she’d whispered. The question and its answer were formalities. This trial isn’t meant to determine Caitlin’s guilt—we all know that she stabbed and then shot her lover, Brian Davis—but to classify her crime and determine a punishment. Those will be the jury’s responsibilities. The rest of us here in the courtroom are under no obligation to be fair or impartial, and no one seems inclined to be. It’s Friday, March 8th: day twenty-four of the Caitlin Martin trial, day one of Caitlin’s own testimony, and day five of five that my sister Jana and I will be here at the Orange County Courthouse, watching in person.
We began watching at home after Jana’s surgery. She was treated for papillary thyroid cancer—a “good cancer,” some dim-witted nurse told us, “especially in young women like you.” “I’ll pray for you,” the same nurse had said, and Jana put her hand straight over my mouth. The cancer was “good” in that the growth would be easily excised, the errant cells scalded away with one dose of radioactive iodine. (“You’ll still have your hair!” everyone congratulated her). But Jana had been practically quarantined in the days after she drank her dose. Because of the radiation, no one was allowed to spend more than fifteen minutes at a time with her. She had to flush the toilet twice every time she used it. (And then what? Was there a separate septic system somewhere in the hospital, filtering her irradiated piss?) The magazines she brought with her, the body pillow, the half-knit scarf, would themselves have to be scanned before they could leave the ward. Relatively speaking, I’m sure all of that is “good.” But it didn’t feel good, to wave at my little sister from the other side of a thick window. She looked small and sickly in her cranked-up hospital bed, her dark hair lank, her eyes squeezed shut. Separated from her, both of us alone, I was more scared than I’d been since her diagnosis. I would’ve liked someone to worry with but that wasn’t how Jana wanted it. She didn’t tell our parents about her illness, just as, three years before, she hadn’t told them about her divorce until it was finalized. Mom and Dad are snowbirds now, wintering in Arizona; when they come home to Michigan this summer, she’ll explain the scar at her throat as she’d explained her husband’s absence: briefly, only after they ask. As then, she will leave out most of the details—to spare them unnecessary pain, she’ll claim. But I know my parents will be hurt, again, that Jana didn’t include them. Hurt that we excluded them from something so huge.
So it was just me with Jana, during and after her surgery—me and Caitlin Martin. “If you could volunteer to be on a jury, I would,” Jana had whispered to me, from the other side of her sectional couch. She’d been released from the hospital just in time for opening arguments. On her big TV the chief prosecutor was waving his arms, and Jana’s own hands hovered near the gauze bandage at her throat. She wanted to scratch her incision—we’d been working on that. Instead, she pressed her palms to the sides of her neck: “I can tell she’s guilty by looking at her.” Pressure made Jana’s voice stronger. We’d thought back then (the doctors had said) that Jana would be speaking normally within a few weeks. Now, twenty-four days into the trial, it’s clear that something happened to her vocal chords. The thyroid cancer message boards are full of dim prognoses about how long this side effect will last. Some of those posting used to be singers; they’ve lost whole octaves. Here’s another bright side: Jana never could carry a tune—but I have the good sense not to point that out.
“What was life like for you,” the defense attorney asks, “growing up in Terre Haute?”
“Good.” Caitlin Martin speaks in a high, halting drawl. “When I was little, things were real good. My grandparents gave me a nice home. We lived way back in this pretty little holler … like something in a fairytale.”
Her story sounds practiced but true, and as she describes her childhood, traces of another Caitlin play across her weary face—that fragile beauty I’ve seen in photos. I know Caitlin’s backstory already from the gossip magazines I bought during Jana’s convalescence and from the tabloid TV shows we watched when the trial was off-air. I wasn’t fascinated by the case the way my sister was—but after spending a full week of family sick-leave in front of Jana’s TV, I was certainly well acquainted with it. Like Jana, I know that Caitlin Martin had lived with her maternal grandparents until she was in eighth grade. That year, in the course of four months, her grandfather died and her grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease. I know that Caitlin’s mother came back into the picture then, claiming to be clean, moving into the house in the holler to take care of Caitlin and the ailing grandmother. But, funded by Grandma’s Social Security, Caitlin’s mother was soon using again. For the next several years, Caitlin “pretty much was a nurse.” She was held back in school; the bank took the house during her second freshman year. That’s when relatives intervened to put Caitlin’s grandmother in a nursing home. At sixteen, Caitlin was more than any of them could handle. She stayed with her mother when her mother had a place and otherwise she fended for herself.
“I was angry,” she testifies. “Acting out. I hardly ever went to school and I had lots of boyfriends.”
“What kind of boyfriends?” asks her lawyer. “Sometimes at that age people have hand-holding-type relationships, or ‘boyfriends’ who take them to dances. What were your relationships like?”
Caitlin glances at the jury, glances away. “Mostly sex.”
“Try to speak clearly,” her lawyer reminds her. “Now, you said they were mostly sexual? And what were the boys themselves like?”
“Older.” Caitlin reddens. “Guys my mama knew.”
“Did they treat you well?”
The prosecution objects to that phrasing; Caitlin’s lawyer tries again: “Did the men you dated as a teenager ever abuse you, physically?”
Caitlin shrugs before remembering to say, “Sometimes.” Beside me, my sister writes quickly in her trial notebook. Jana’s been writing about the trial from the beginning. Then, given the state of her vocal chords, it was easier for her to text me than to speak as we watched TV together. When her voice didn’t come back, Jana extended her sick leave (she’s an online marketing specialist, so she could work part-time from home). While she healed, she commented on the trial. She invented a new Twitter handle, a new blog—an entirely new persona for the occasion. “HatinCaitlinM” holds extreme views, but that’s what it takes to gain entry into the “community” of trial-watchers … and the sentiment of Jana’s handle isn’t exaggerated. Whereas I see Caitlin as her lawyer wishes—as a victim of circumstance, pushed into the string of abusive relationships that she’s now describing from the witness stand—Jana’s seen her from the beginning as the villain painted by cable TV pundits. “An unnatural woman,” proclaims Tamara Gold, host of The Gold Standard. Gold is ringleader of the court TV talking heads; with her Tammy Faye eyelashes, her platinum pompadour, and her stark delineations of good and evil, she’s hardly natural herself. But her show relieves the burden of trial watching for millions of viewers, who skip the protracted expert testimonies in favor of five-minute highlight reels and Gold’s folksy judgments. By the Gold Standard, Caitlin is “guilty as a spark in a brushpile.” Jana’s commentary is often just as facile: “Accountability much? #Rememberthefallen #JusticeforBrian” or “Human tumor. #CaitlinMartin.”
But there’s no sense in my objecting to Jana’s Tweets, not when I’m equally quick to accept Caitlin-as-victim. On the stand, prompted by her ponderous lawyer, Caitlin recounts dropping out of school at eighteen, in the fall of her junior year. She moved in with a forty-three-year-old man. “He was clean,” she testifies. “That’s all I cared about. He got drunk sometimes, but he didn’t use—and he never, ever hit me.” She managed to get her GED in the year she lived with him. And, because everyone had always told her she looked like Cinderella (she still does; though her hair has dulled and her face thinned, she still has the bland features and big eyes of a Disney heroine), she formed an idea. “I always dreamt of being a princess—I mean actually working at Disney World.” Her grandparents had taken her there for her tenth birthday, back when they were healthy and young. At nineteen Caitlin took the bus from Terre Haute to Orlando.
I know the rest, too: Caitlin auditioned but wasn’t cast as a Cinderella; she worked briefly in concessions at Disney but failed to master the park’s extensive code of conduct. She’d been working odd jobs around Orlando for seven years by the time her temp agency sent her to Brian’s realty firm. “He was so clean-cut and handsome,” she says. “I didn’t hardly know how to flirt with him.” That hadn’t mattered: “The first time he asked me to lunch we wound up back at his place.”
Was this why I pitied her? I’d been a temp, fifteen years ago, living in Boston between college and library school. With my BA in English, I was a terrible typist, had no concept of filing, and had to be taught to operate a copier, a fax machine, a switchboard phone. I’d spent a year in a long-term placement, without insurance, vacation days, or respect from the besuited lechers for whom I secretaried. When I was accepted to library school, I wept. It was that shocking to be valued again. This wasn’t Caitlin’s experience. When she left Brian’s realty firm after four months, it was because she’d been fired, by him, for disconnecting too many client phone calls. Based on his feedback, the temp agency reassigned her to custodial work. Her relationship with Brian shifted, too.
“He never took me out anymore, except for fast food. He used to bring me flowers—my desk was up front, you know, so it was like decoration for the office. But he didn’t do nice things after I got fired. And he told me all the time I was too dumb to be a secretary.”
“Were those his words?”
She shakes her head. “He’d say I was too dumb to do anything but f— … the F-word.”
“Miss Martin, will you say the phrase as Brian would, so it’s clear to everyone?”
She fidgets, closing her eyes, then dives close to the microphone. “He’d say I was too dumb to do anything but fuck.” Her consonants crack against the mic. “He’d say that all the time.” She slumps back; her fair hair, now silvered, swings in front of her face. Caitlin is thirty-three, the same as Jana. If he were alive, Brian would be thirty-seven, like me.
The judge calls a twenty-minute recess. I tug my sister’s arm so she’ll stand for the jury’s exit; she’s that caught up in her notes. What details will the press have already shared with the world, live-blogging Caitlin’s testimony from elsewhere in the courtroom? As a civilian, Jana isn’t allowed to broadcast her reactions in-session. Still, she’s gained credibility among the other trial-watchers for being here in person. I was shocked when she decided to make the trip. At first I took her post as a retweet: “Orlando bound! #MartinTrial #happiestplaceonearth.” Maybe I should’ve said “What about your health?” or “Jana, that’s disgusting”—but instead, I got her flight information and booked a ticket, too. I couldn’t make Jana go alone into the company of rabid watchers like InjectCaitlin and Wild4Trialz. Now we’ve met these women, two matronly fifty-somethings; we’ve even eaten lunch with them (twice!)—but Jana doesn’t waste any of today’s short recess socializing. In the courthouse cafeteria she finds a seat and immediately begins typing on her tablet. I imagine remarks like “Another great performance from #CaitlinMartin #playingthevictim” and “Save a few tears for #BrianDavis #pityparty.” My sister isn’t a member of BriaNation, the online army that feverishly rebuts every courtroom questioning of Brian Davis’s character. Though she advocates #JusticeforBrian, she’s much more passionate about punishment for Caitlin.
“Why do you hate her so much?” I’d asked, back in the first days of the trial. We were sipping protein smoothies in front of her TV.
“I hate murderers,” Jana texted. “And her face is annoying.”