Sometimes, there is a fine line between brilliant and stupid. This was not one of those times. The plan Trevor’s attorney came up with was stupid, and they both knew it. However, it was the best they could do under the circumstances. There may or not be a Santa Claus, but there is certainly no such thing as the Christmas Defense.
Trevor was in trouble. The kind of trouble that ends with a cell mate and a lot of extra time to read. It had started, as most teenage pranks do, with a germ of a bad idea nourished by boredom and hormones. And, of course, a girl. There is always a girl. As Trevor’s friend Eric explained, it would be both "hilarious" and "epic." But Eric didn’t get caught. Trevor was the one the police found at the scene, desperately trying to put out the fire.
In a way, it was impressive. One late November evening, they decided to steal every Christmas tree they could find. Real, fake, large or small, it didn’t matter. They were going to take it all to Melanie’s house and make a display on her front lawn.
Melanie. She was beautiful. Beautiful like art in a museum. Untouchable. Unfortunately for the boys in town, she was not one of those girls who did not realize how beautiful she was. She knew it and used that to get her way. Often. She didn’t speak much, at least not to Trevor and Eric. She was way out of their league and they knew it.
Their plan, if it could be called that, was to take Trevor’s dad’s pickup truck and drive around town looking for easy pickings. They were spectacularly successful. Working in the early morning hours between midnight and 4 a.m., they assembled a variety of trees. At first, they just sort of threw them on the lawn. Then, as sleep deprivation kicked in, a grander vision took hold. They built a pyramid.
On the bottom was the display Christmas trees they took from the Main Street shopping district. These were old and big and made of steel. They made a good base. In the middle, they placed all the trees they had found stacked behind a Christmas tree lot. Unfortunately, those trees were cut down six weeks ago and trucked in from Canada. They were being thrown out because they were too dry. On the top, they put random trees they had found on people’s lawns.
After the pyramid was assembled, Trevor and Eric sat back to survey their handiwork. While it was an impressive display of field engineering, rising almost two stories next to Melanie’s house, they both agreed that it lacked a certain something. Many of the trees had lights on them, begging to be plugged in.
If they had been questioned as to what they hoped to accomplish with their pyramid of Christmas trees, they would have been stumped. More specifically, if someone had sat them down and asked them, "What are you thinking?," things may have ended differently. However, no one intervened. And, as everyone knows, when you combine infatuation, hormones, boredom, a very late night, and a pickup truck, it usually ends in tears.
The boys strung some lights together and plugged them in. It was windy, but they didn’t think about that. The cords they used were frayed and old, but they didn’t think about that. The trees were dry, but they didn’t think about that. About thirty seconds after they lit up the trees, they saw the fire. Eric ran. Trevor decided to try to put the fire out.
He didn’t yell for help or call 911 on his cell phone. Instead, he grabbed a garden hose and tried to stop the flames. By the time he got the water going, the fire was out of control. The metal base got the fire up off the ground, where more oxygen could feed it. The wind fanned the flames and started to blow embers onto Melanie’s roof.
Eventually, Trevor started yelling. Neighbors poured out of their homes. Fire trucks came, then police cars. The rest of the night was a blur of handcuffs, confessions, tearful calls to parents and the smell of smoke.
Nobody was hurt, but Melanie’s house had been seriously damaged. At the first court hearing, the prosecutor told the Judge that Melanie’s family was going to have to replace their roof at a cost of $40,000. The Judge let Trevor out on bail, but it didn’t look good.
Trevor’s parents hired an attorney for him. Trevor liked him. He was charismatic and funny, but also brutally honest. He explained that the prosecutor wanted a year in jail and full restitution. Trevor felt bad about what he had done, but not so bad that he wanted to spend a year in jail. He wanted to finish his senior year of high school and go to college.
Trevor’s attorney went through the evidence with him. First, there was the neighbors who ran out of their houses to find Trevor with a garden hose in his hands. Although Trevor didn’t remember it, apparently he kept saying things like "it was just a prank" and "I didn’t mean to start a fire" and "what have I done?" Additionally, there was a painful to watch video taken at the police station. In the video, Trevor explained in great detail how he had built the combustible tree pyramid and accidentally set it ablaze. Finally, there was some grainy surveillance camera footage from a Main Street store which showed Trevor laughing as he ripped down a big fake Christmas tree.
Trevor’s attorney called him down to his office one afternoon to talk strategy. He explained that the evidence was not favorable and that there was not much he could do. Trevor could take the offer of one year in jail or plead guilty and try to convince the Judge to give him a lower sentence. Unfortunately, the Judge assigned to the case was a notoriously tough sentencer. The only other option was a trial.
"Trevor," he said, "I have an idea. I am not sure it is a very good idea, but it may be worth a shot. In fact, it may be the only shot you have. It also has a big chance of backfiring. But here it is: You have a right to a speedy trial and Christmas is coming."
He called it the Christmas Defense. He explained that he wanted to go to trial on the very week of Christmas. Christmas was on a Saturday that year and he wanted to time it so the case would get in the jury’s hands on Christmas Eve. His theory was that a jury would not convict an 18 year old kid on Christmas Eve. Trevor decided to give it a try.
On one hand, the plan worked beautifully. The trial started four days before Christmas. On the other hand, it was an endless string of humiliations for Trevor. Witness after witness explained in excruciating detail what Trevor had done. The jury saw pictures of the fire. They saw the confession video. They even heard Melanie describe, perhaps a little too dramatically, the smell of smoke and her desperate race to flee her house before she perished. In any event, the jury seemed to be taking the whole thing very seriously.
Eventually, the prosecution rested its case and Trevor had a chance to talk with his attorney. What had seemed like a bold, audacious plan, now seemed foolish and hopelessly naive. His attorney gave him one last piece of advice. "Trevor", he said, "you should testify." "Your only hope that this will ever work is if the jury likes you. They don’t know you. All they know is what you did that night. I am going to put you on the stand. I don’t want you to lie or minimize what you did. Tell it straight. Speak from the heart. Either that, or sit back and wait for the jury to do what you know they are going to do."
The next day, he told his story to the jury. He explained candidly and directly what he had done and what was going through his mind. He did not minimize his guilt, nor did he ask the jury for mercy. The prosecutor smirked his way through a blistering cross-examination. The Judge, possibly warming to Trevor, intervened a little as the questioning got rough. The jury remained stone-faced.
One final piece of the plan worked. Trevor was on the witness stand all day. By the time 5:00 p.m. rolled around, the evidence had concluded. All that remained was closing arguments, all to be heard on Christmas Eve.
The next day was surreal, to say the least. Melanie sat on the front row, dressed in some kind of sexy elf outfit, as if she was headed to a Christmas party. During one point of the proceedings, Christmas Carolers could be heard singing as they walked down the courthouse hallway. Most of the female jurors wore holiday sweaters. The stern and beefy courtroom bailiff wore a Santa hat. Even the Judge got into the act, wearing a red and white robe.
The prosecutor began his closing arguments, describing all of the evidence in great detail. He explained how lucky Trevor was that no one was killed. He compared the case to a domestic act of terrorism that ruined a family’s holiday.
Trevor’s attorney spoke briefly. He did not appeal to the jurors’ Christmas spirit. He agreed that there was a significant amount of evidence presented and remarked that the person most responsible had explained his actions. He closed by stating, almost as an aside, that the reason we have juries, is that we rely on the community’s collective common sense in deciding what actions should be punished.
The prosecutor, who always gets the last word, finished with a flourish. He argued that Trevor was the Grinch that stole Christmas. As he put it: "The difference is that this Grinch didn’t return the roast beast to Cindy Who. He tried to burn her house down."
The jury showed no emotion as they retired to the deliberation room. It was 3:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Travis sat outside the courthouse, resigned to his fate. He wondered if he would be taken directly into custody, or if he would be allowed to spend Christmas with his family before going to jail.
At 4:30, the jury was ready with their verdict. Court watchers say that time distorts during a jury trial. The time that always stretches out the longest, however, is the time between when the jury hands their verdict form to the clerk and when the clerk reads it out loud. For Trevor, time absolutely stopped. After an eternity, over the rushing blood in his ears, he barely heard the clerk as she said "Not guilty."
The next few minutes were a blur of tears, laughter, hugs and disbelief. As Trevor walked stunned out of the courtroom, the jury foreman, a middle-aged man, pulled him aside. With a twinkle in his eye he said, "Son, go and sin no more. Also, Merry Christmas."