The two words sliced through the thick atmosphere in the courtroom, and my heart leapt. The boa constrictor of stress that had been wound around my body for the last year and a half eased a tiny bit. Next to me, my attorney, Robert Fogg, tensed. We weren’t remotely done, his body language warned.
“As to Count Two, wire fraud, the jury finds the defendant—”
A pause. Why was the clerk pausing?
The breath escaped my lungs, but Rob put a cautious hand on my arm, warning me not to get too excited yet. He’d spent much of the last fourteen months explaining the odds, explaining the process that I’d face if I insisted on going to trial, comparing the risk I’d face with the known quantity of the plea offer—a mere four years in prison if I agreed to a plea deal and admitted to defrauding clients of the investment bank where I’d been an analyst, compared to ten years or more I risked if I was convicted at trial. And I’d almost certainly be convicted, Rob had assured me. Even if the witnesses against me were convicted felons, liars, conmen who would say anything to get a break on their own prison sentences. The documents were undeniable, incontrovertible evidence of my guilt.
“As to Count Three, wire fraud, the jury finds the defendant—”
Damn her, why the dramatic pause?
“Not guilty,” she finished.
This time I glanced over at the jury and made eye contact with several of them, my heart still in my throat. Instead of the impassive expressions they’d worn in the last two weeks, they looked relaxed. Friendlier. Less scary. And they were looking at me. That was one of the signs Rob told me might signal a favorable verdict. If the jury walked in and wouldn’t look at me, they probably had convicted me. When they had filed in with their completed verdict forms, I was too nervous to look in their direction.
“As to Count Four, wire fraud, the jury finds the defendant not guilty.”
No waiting this time. The clerk flipped the page to the next form and continued reading, her pace picking up. She must have realized that if she kept pausing before the big reveal on each charge, we’d be here until dark.
“As to Count Five, wire fraud, the jury finds the defendant not guilty.”
I couldn’t relax yet, not quite yet. There were still ten more opportunities to hear I was going to prison.
Fifteen fraud charges. Fifteen chances to hear the clerk announce that the jury had believed my former boss, his former boss, and the government’s accountants and investigators who had testified that I, Miranda Vaughn, participated in a conspiracy to defraud banks and investors. That I, with my business degree from a state school still freshly inked, managed to find a way to outwit regulators for the entire six years I worked at Patterson Tinker Investment Strategies to reap huge profits at the expense of the most established investment advisors in the industry.
Rob’s hand gripped my arm, and I realized that the clerk was done reading the verdicts. The room was blurry, and I felt the wet tears running down my cheeks for the first time. The stress of holding those tears back in the last year had caused me to lose sleep, lose hair, and develop a nasty habit of grinding my teeth when I finally managed to close my eyes at night. But I knew that if I had let loose those emotions, I’d never be able to rein them back in and would have ended up in a stark white room with no interior door knobs where I’d spend my days rocking back and forth and waiting for my next round of pills.
“We did it, Miranda,” Rob whispered, putting an arm around me in an awkward hug.
I looked up to see the judge watching me. Instead of the stern glare I had grown accustomed to, he was almost smiling at me. I blinked. It must have been the tears in the way. But when I wiped my eyes, there it was—Judge Smith’s softening expression, looking like someone’s granddad instead of the dour arbiter of my fate.
The judge addressed the jury, thanked them for their service, directed them to the jury commissioner’s office to turn in their parking passes, and then looked back at me.
“The bond is exonerated. You’re free to go, Ms. Vaughn. Court is recessed.”
He stood, and everyone in the room followed suit. The jurors filed back into their room off the side of the courtroom to collect their belongings. Several of them smiled at me, and I smiled back but could feel my lips start to tremble. I swallowed hard and tried to pull myself together. Rob began gathering the legal pads that littered the defense counsel table.
I stood next to the table, still stunned and unsure what I was supposed to do now. Part of me expected to be found guilty, even knowing that I hadn’t done what the prosecutor accused me of. I had prepared myself for that. Studied the post-conviction proceedings, the deadline for filing a notice of appeal, researched sentencing procedures and even federal prisons. I hadn’t planned what would happen if I were acquitted of all the charges, and I was at a loss as to what to do now.
Turning to the nearly empty courtroom, I saw my lone supporter. The entirety of my cheering section was blowing her nose noisily into a hankie. She came toward me, pulling me into a warm hug over the low railing that separated the gallery from the attorneys and defendants.
“Aunt Marie, when did you get here?”
She gripped me harder. “Somewhere around count seven,” she said. “Rob sent me a text when the jury came back. I hot-footed it right down here.”
I relaxed into her embrace. The familiar scent of Chanel and baked goods that always permeated her clothing soothed me and took me back to the safety of my childhood. She had come straight from work because she was still wearing her apron with the Sugar Plum Bakery logo.
“Miranda, I’ll take care of the bond paperwork,” Rob said, interrupting our family reunion.
I pulled away from Aunt Marie and nodded. Rob’s face was flushed, and he looked two decades younger than his sixty-three years. He seemed incapable of suppressing the huge grin on his face. Suddenly I felt awkward, unsure how to tell him how grateful I was.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said. “Thank you, Rob. Thank you so much.”
The words were inadequate. During the fourteen months since my arrest, I always felt that he believed I was guilty of something, but despite that, he had done an admirable job defending me. He gave me a crooked smile.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “We’ll talk soon. I’m going to see if I can catch a few of the jurors and talk to them. Come by the office later. We’ll celebrate.”
He leaned across the railing to shake Marie’s hand and was pulled into a tight embrace. When she finally released him, he gave her a kiss on the cheek and smiled as he gently wiped a tear from her face. Then he turned back to the counsel table and continued clearing it of folders and notepads and his laptop computer, sliding the whole mess into the large black case that he’d been wheeling into court every day of the trial. He zipped the case, gave me another quick hug, and walked over to the other counsel table.
I turned to see how the prosecutors were handling the news. My tormentors—an older, brittle veteran prosecuting attorney named Donna Grayson and Matthew Reese, her younger co-counsel, a clean-cut young man who looked like he was my age. Neither of them would look at me, and their expressions were grim as they shook Rob’s hand. Finally, Matthew Reese made eye contact with me and gave me a nod.
“Good luck to you, Ms. Vaughn,” he said.
I almost believed his words were sincere, but then I remembered three days earlier when he called me a thief in his closing argument. I returned the nod without a word, not trusting myself to hold back if I spoke to him—something I’d been forbidden to do for well over a year.
I slipped through the low swinging gate and took Aunt Marie’s arm, leading her out of the dark courtroom into the bright, wide and empty hallway. When I had been arraigned on the fraud charges in this courthouse, the hallway had been packed with reporters clamoring for a comment. But since then, they had lost interest. The prosecutor’s office wouldn’t be putting out a press release on the loss, and I wondered if anyone would even care that I had won. That the woman the government had called “a slick con artist and one of the masterminds of the greatest financial fraud ever seen in this state” was walking out of court and not heading to prison.
I was free to go. No longer facing a decade in prison. Not under a cloud of allegations that had cost me my career, my good name, and my peace of mind. That had driven off friends. Led to the break-up of a five-year relationship. Cost me every last dime of savings and most of Aunt Marie’s retirement as well.
I walked up to the wall of windows and looked down on the city, the busy intersection by the federal courthouse, the people jaywalking to get to the Starbucks across the street. A normal day, with everyone bustling about in the bright afternoon sunlight, enjoying a typical California summer day.
I was free to go.
To go where?
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