Reasonable Doubt is a mystery story about a man who is on a train when he overhears a conversation about a strange and bizarre murder case. It is based on an old story by Stanley Ellin called “Unreasonable Doubt”.
I was on the train one day, on my way to work, and two men happened to get on. One of the men was very fat and the other was very thin. They sat down in the seat behind me and I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.
“It was probably the most bizarre case I ever worked on,” the fat man was saying. “It was a mystery that would have baffled any lawyer. It was a cold-blooded murder, beautifully planned and flawlessly executed.
“The victim was a rich old man. He must have been 80 years old if he was a day and he was worth more than 20 million dollars. They found him lying dead on the floor of his mansion with six bullet holes right through his head. It was a grisly crime scene. There was blood and pieces of skull and little bits of brain all over the place.
“He didn’t have any children of his own, just two young nephews named Ben and Orville. Upon the old man’s death, they stood to inherit everything. Nobody knew much about the brothers. They were quiet, devious types and kept to themselves mostly.
“Well, the police took Ben and Orville down to the station for questioning and within a few minutes, Ben shocked the officers by confessing to the crime.
“I did it,” he said, but beyond that, he wouldn’t give them any more details. After searching the brothers’ house, the police found what they thought was the murder weapon. A loaded gun with six bullets missing. That’s all they needed to charge him with the crime.
“Ben hired me as his defense lawyer. When I went to see him in jail, he was casually flipping through a newspaper and didn’t seem too keen to discuss his case. He said he wasn’t going to testify in his defense, but he told me to call his brother Orville as a witness. That was all I could get out of him. I got even less from Orville when I went to talk to him about his testimony.
“When the case came to trial, it was the biggest sensation the town had ever seen. The courthouse was packed to the rafters and people were fighting to get a seat. I had no idea what I was going to do. With the murder weapon in evidence and Ben’s confession, it seemed like the prosecution had an airtight case. As far as I could see, Ben was going to get the death penalty.
“Just as Ben instructed, I called Orville as my first witness. In fact, he was my only witness and I had no idea what he was going to say. He took the stand looking calm cool and collected. He swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
“Where were you on the night your uncle was murdered?” I asked.
“I was in my uncle’s house,” Orville replied, “blowing his brains out with a gun.”
“I was stunned. As soon as he said that, the court was in an uproar. I looked over at Ben and he had a big smile on his face, like the cat who caught the canary. When the commotion died down, I continued questioning Orville.
“He described the murder of his uncle so casually, it was as if he was talking about blowing his nose. He said he wanted his uncle’s money and he was tired of waiting for the old man to die by himself, so he decided to give him a helping hand. He described pulling the trigger six times and cold-bloodedly shooting his uncle to death.
“He went into such detail about how he committed the murder that the jury was almost hypnotized. They sat there in a trance, listening to every word. In my closing speech, I reminded the jury that if they had a reasonable doubt about whether or not Ben was the murderer, they had an obligation to find him not guilty.
The jury did just that. They found Ben not guilty of the murder and the police had to let him go. They immediately arrested Orville right there in the courtroom. He hired me as his lawyer. When I went to see him that evening in his jail cell, I already knew what he was going to tell me.
“Call Ben as my witness,” he said.
“I’m your lawyer,” I said. “Don’t you think I have a right to know which one of you did it?”
“No, I don’t,” Orville replied.
Orville’s trial was even more of a sensation. People came from miles around to try and get a seat in the courtroom. The prosecutor looked nervous. A jury couldn’t convict a man if there was a reasonable doubt about his guilt and a man couldn’t be re-tried for murder if a jury had already found him not guilty. It was enough to make any prosecutor chew the carpet in frustration.
Ben got up on the witness stand and told his story to the jury. He told them he and he alone had committed the murder. As the jury listened, they sat there spellbound and the prosecutor chewed his nails. He went into so much grisly detail that it would make your hair stand on end. His description was so vivid that you could almost see him there with the gun, pulling the trigger six times and blasting his uncle’s brains all over the foor.
The jury brought in their verdict even quicker than the jury had in Ben’s case. Not guilty. Ben and Orville walked out of the courtroom that day, free as a bird. They both had smug grins on their faces, but everyone knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that one of them was guilty of murder.”
“Wow!” exclaimed the thin man. “That’s quite a story.”
“And every word of it is true,” the fat man said. “It was the strangest case I ever had. You’d have to go a long way to find a case to match that.”
“So the brothers actually got away with murder?” asked the thin man.
“Of course not,” the fat man chuckled. “That’s where the final, fantastic surprise comes in. You see, in the end, they didn’t get away with it at all!”
“They didn’t?” asked the thin man.
“No,” said the fat man. “The police got them in the end. You see, what happened was that… Oh, wait… I think this is our stop…”
Before I knew what was happening, the two men scrambled out of their seats and jumped off the train. I sat there dazed for a moment, my eyes wide-open and my heart beating fast. Then, I leaped out of my seat and ran after them.
Just as I got to the door, it slid closed in my face. I started banging on it, but it was no use. Then, I ran over to the window and opened it. The two men were walking away from the platform.
“Hey you!” I shouted desperately. “Hey you! The fat guy!”
The fat man stopped and turned around.
“How does it end?” I screamed.
The fat man looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face.
“How does the story end?” I yelled. “How did the police catch the Ben and Orville? Please! I have to know!”
“Oh,” the fat man shouted back. “Well you see…”
But then the train pulled away from the station and his voice was lost in the thundering clatter of the wheels on the tracks.
I turned around and everyone on the train was staring at me intently.
“Well, what did he say?” they asked expectantly. “How does it end?”