Only God knows what went through Jacqueline McLean's mind yesterday, but her body language spoke of a broken woman, and her attorney, Billy Murphy, did everything he could to put words around her suffering.
Fighting for her life, said Murphy. Extremely suicidal, he declared. And with each pronouncement, McLean, the third-highest official in Baltimore, the woman accused of stealing big-time from the city, slowly crumbled in front of everyone gathered in the crowded criminal courtroom and finally collapsed, gasping for air.
She did it at the very moment her psychiatrist, Dr. Dennis Kutzer, was being sworn in to testify about her mental condition; as her husband, James, sat in a front row courtroom seat a few feet from her; and with attorney, Murphy, in mid-harangue with Judge Elsbeth Bothe.
Suddenly, McLean was fighting for air, breathing deeply and anxiously. There were 10 frantic breaths, then 15. She'd been sitting at the witness table for much of the morning staring straight ahead, glassy-eyed, but gradually slumping her body forward through the long, antagonistic verbal sparring between Murphy and Bothe.
Now Murphy turned from Bothe and spotted McLean in trouble. Hyperventilating, he cried. Approach the bench, Bothe ordered him. She needs her psychiatrist, Murphy said. Why are you leaving her by herself, he demanded.
In his front row seat a few feet away, James McLean did not move. Murphy strode to the bench, conferred momentarily with Bothe and Dr. Kutzer, and then moved back to put his arms around McLean.
A moment later, two men gently led her from the room. In the stunned silence, she left everyone to consider what had happened -- not only to be accused of stealing $25,000 from the city, charged with steering a million-dollar city lease to a property she secretly owned, and not only the apparent suicide attempts and the months she'd spent in a mental institution, but the wrenching, sickening events of the morning, as her attorney argued vehemently that she was too delicate to stand any new traumas, and then McLean seemed to dramatize it.
She'd entered the courtroom looking like a shrunken, bent-over old woman. She seemed to have been roused from a deep sleep, not quite able to focus on her surroundings. She wore a white T-shirt with padded shoulders, black slacks and multicolored soft shoes. She sat next to Murphy and spent the next two hours listening to him spar angrily with Judge Bothe, until she crumbled in front of everyone.
"We can't leave this stuck in the lap of the psychiatrists," Judge Bothe said earlier, alluding to the lengthy legal and psychiatric process preceding yesterday's events. "There is a moment in time when the courts have to assume a person is competent and responsible."
Murphy disagreed. He disagreed at length, and at width. He disagreed with great gusts of sentences that drowned out Bothe's own words, and he disagreed at great volume and with great displays of overt contempt for the judge. In fact, he said, he wanted Bothe removed from the case and recited a list of some of her previous cases overturned by higher courts.
And, as he did, Jacqueline McLean sat beside him, with a courtroom full of strangers listening to descriptions of her mental condition, and she slowly began to come apart.
Fragile mental condition, Murphy said. McLean closed her eyes. Her mood changes abruptly, Murphy said. And it could change again, said Bothe. McLean slumped forward slightly, and dabbed at her eyes with a hankie.
Standing trial could be "appallingly dangerous to her health," Murphy said. Bothe responded in an edgy tone of voice. Was the judge now being hostile, Murphy asked. Can you shorten this, Bothe asked, so that "I'm not on trial"? Murphy took umbrage. McLean curled her body forward. She drooped. Head cradled in her hands, she began to weep.
When she finally broke down, panting and weeping and gasping, there were questions that filled the air: Could the breakdown have been prevented? Was it spontaneous, and honest, or a calculated reflection of Murphy's pleas to avoid having her stand trial?
And, if it was honest, how much of this pitiful, wrenching collapse had been brought on by the actions of her own attorney, who declared her condition too delicate for courtroom drama, and then proceeded to exhibit exactly what he meant?