A mysterious visitor, a horrific crime, and a victim who refused to be a victim
Anything can happen when a stranger knocks...
1. Ronald Dwayne Perryman
On a Sunday afternoon in July of 2012, approximately one month after our wedding, my wife and I are reading in the living room of our home when I hear a light knock on the door. When I open it, an African-American man who looks to be about forty years old asks if we need any help with our yard. He wears a tank top and shorts, and he doesn't have a business card or any lawn equipment that I can see. I laugh because my wife and I have very little "yard" that could potentially receive "help." The sod I put down two years earlier fried off before the completion of one Florida summer. After that, I surrendered to the land, planted trees for shade, and resigned myself to mowing the remaining weeds when needed. To me, his question reinforces the image of the sorry state of my yard. "No, no, we're fine," I say and wish him luck. Without protest, he nods thanks and descends the front porch. When I close the door, my wife looks up from her book and asks who was at the door. "Someone looking for work," I say. "He asked if we needed help with our yard." "Oh," my wife says, and goes back to her reading.
The county in which we live is one of the poorest in Florida. Still, infrequent, door-to-door solicitors on our neighborhood of Pensacola are not unprecedented. When working on my long-suffering lawn, I have twice had individuals attempt to sell me cuts of meat kept in coolers in the beds of pickups. Reps from home security companies are known to stop at the nicer homes in town and try to push their products through scare tactics. The reps seem to be exclusively white, college-age men, and when they see that I am white and living in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, they have tried, with racist insinuations and overtones, to persuade me to purchase a security system. When I told my wife that the man who asked if we needed help with our lawn "seemed nice," I meant it. He was neither pushy, nor dogmatic. He seemed genuinely interested in finding work.
The next evening, as my wife reads the local news on the computer, she asks me what the man who had knocked on our door looked like. "Why?" I ask. She says that the police have just arrested someone who, after asking a woman if she needed help with her yard, pushed his way into her house and sexually assaulted her. He then forced her to drive to a bank to remove cash from an ATM, at which point she was able to escape. He also allegedly assaulted two other women in other sections of town earlier in the week. My wife turns her laptop toward me. The image on the screen is a mug shot of the same person who knocked on our door the day before. Underneath the picture, the man's name is listed as Ronald Dwayne Perryman. I look up at my wife and then back at the screen. In the picture, he looks menacing. Everything about his visage seems to pull downward. His eyelids fall halfway over his eyes, his pupils half exposed. His mouth slacks, and his head tilts forward toward the camera. Many psychologists have documented the flaws inherent in criminal lineup identifications and proven that witnesses are frequently inaccurate. Simply put, memory is pliable. What unsettles me in the moment of seeing Perryman's image, though, feels like something of the opposite. While I recognize him immediately, I am struck by how different he looks. My assessment of him on my porch — how I saw him as someone sincerely looking for work — was pure invention, projection.
Neither my wife nor I know exactly how we are supposed to respond after seeing the photograph. "What if I had been here alone? It was a Sunday afternoon, two o'clock. Why wouldn't I have opened the door?" my wife says. The third assault took place on Sunday evening. He had left our porch and conceivably gone house-by-house, neighborhood-by-neighborhood until he found a woman home alone. And while I can articulate the range of emotions I feel — relief, fear, anger, vulnerability, sadness for the victims — my visceral response feels more immediate, more complicated, beyond categorization. When I see Perryman's picture I feel like someone has attached jumper cables to the top and bottom of my spine and then cranked the engine of a car. The jolt is immediate, but the energy doesn't fully subside. It circles in me, revving and diminishing inconsistently like someone pushing and releasing the accelerator of the idling car.
When my wife and I go to bed, we lie there together in silence, as if in tacit agreement that neither of us will be able to sleep, but we will at least go through the motions. A rectangle of light from the streetlamp projects through a small window to the top of the wall behind our bed, and over the course of the night, as I watch the rectangle crawl down the wall, my wife's breathing slows beside me. The muscles in her back and shoulders relax, and she sinks deeper into the mattress. At some point, my breathing slows as well, and though I'm not able to fall asleep, the jumper cables on my spine unclamp. Lying there, in between sleep and wakefulness, the sound that keeps returning to me is how lightly, how tentatively, Perryman had knocked on our door and how polite he had been in leaving.
2. Courtroom 401, M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building, Escambia County Courthouse, Pensacola, Florida
The interior of the courtroom is designed as a sequence of desks, tables and audience seating extending in semicircles from the judge's bench. The rows ripple out from the judge as if the courtroom were one quarter of a circular lake where someone dropped a pebble into the water at the judge's feet. A podium with a microphone faces the judge. The audience members sit on the right side of the room and the nonviolent defendants sit on the left side. A small railing separates the audience and nonviolent defendants from the inmates, clerks and lawyers. Six inmates in green jumpsuits sit on the other side of the railing. The bailiff has spaced the inmates with an empty chair between every other person. In a drill-sergeant tone, the bailiff says there will be no talking between the inmates and audience. One of the inmates scratches his nose by lifting his hands in unison, and I see the glint of handcuffs before he lowers his hands to his lap. I don't see Perryman among the inmates. The bailiff calls the room to order, and we stand for the judge.
The judge and lawyers in the courtroom move comfortably and precisely through familiar routines. (Unfortunately, the routines seem familiar to many of the defendants as well.) The judge explains to everyone that the purpose of felony arraignment is for an accused person to enter a plea of "guilty," "not guilty," or "no contest" (nolo contendere). "Please remember that everything you say today is being recorded," the judge says. "Whatever you say today can be used in court. Our purpose today is not to get into the details of your case. You'll have plenty of time to do that in the future." As the judge speaks, one of the inmates rocks back and forth, his head bobbing nervously. Another inmate, peeking over the back of his chair, makes eye contact with a woman sitting two rows in front of me. The inmate mouths something to the woman and raises four fingers toward her as a message she alone might understand.
"No sir!" the bailiff calls out and walks quickly across the courtroom. In one motion, the bailiff grasps the man's handcuffs and draws him to his feet. "Come with me," she says. The young man, looking over his shoulder, shuffles his feet quickly as the chains that bind his ankles clink and jangle. (Throughout the morning, the clinking sound of chains forms a persistent ambient noise like the tinkling of wind chimes.) The audience watches as the bailiff, with a flourish, extends a key from a cord on her belt and locks the inmate in a room adjacent to the courtroom. Finished, she steps back through the door and says, "Sorry for the interruption, Your Honor," while looking directly at the remaining inmates.
To process 102 arraignments as succinctly as possible, the court addresses some defendants collectively before moving to individual cases. The judge reads off a list of several defendants' names and says that the charges for these cases have been dropped. He then reads another list and says that the charges for these cases have been changed from felonies to misdemeanors. When one of those names is called, a large woman next to me exclaims, "Hallelujah," stands, and stumbles over people as she exits the row. Other members of the audience also leave the courtroom immediately when the person to whom they are connected completes his or her arraignment.
Like all of the other audience members, I too am connected in some way to one of the defendants. When the clerk pulls Perryman's file, I straighten in my seat. The clerk says that Mr. Perryman is in custody and that he actually has three cases against him, not one. One of the lawyers, while leaning against a Rubbermaid cart filled with legal files, says that the case "will be a doozy" and sets the dates for the docket and the trial.
3. Continuance number one
Because I was unable to attend the November Fourteenth docket day, I call the Clerk of the Circuit Court's office one week before the trial date of November 26. I inquire about the outcome of Perryman's docket day and the status of the trial. The office administrator explains to me that his docket day is now scheduled for January 9, 2013. Though there are several cases against him, there are currently no trial dates. When I ask her what happened to November 26, she says she doesn't know, but there are no trial dates in the system for him now. "You should call back a few days after the January 9 docket day to see when or if this specific case against Mr. Perryman is going to trial," she says.
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