Friday, July 6, 2012

Chapters 37, 38, 39, and 40, Manslaughter, Anyone?

(Haven't read the previous chapters?  Start here.)
(Haven't read chapters 6 and 7?  Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapter 8? Find it here.)
(Haven't read chapter 9?  Find it here.)
(Haven't read chapters 10 and 11? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 12 through 14? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 15 through 16? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 17 through 19? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 20 and 21? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 22 and 23? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 24 through 26? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 28 and 29? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 30 and 31? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 32 and 33? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 34 through 36?? Find them here.)


            The next Monday, a blue file appeared on my desk.  Blue files signified “Class A” felonies.  I looked at the file’s label:  “First Degree Manslaughter.” A sticky note from J. Gordon read, “Per your request.”
            I sat down, feeling that same sick stomach feeling that I had with my first trial.  What had my ego gotten me into this time?  The blue file sat closed on my desk, and I sat staring at it.  The file represented a person who had died, and a client of mine charged with the responsibility for that death.
            I did not want to open the file, so I examined its cover.  From the red “JAIL” stamp on the front, I could see that my client was in custody.  The file’s label indicated that the client’s name was Nathaniel Bridges.  The file itself was at least two inches thick.  A thick file meant a thick police report, supposedly containing considerable evidence against my client.
            What exactly did “manslaughter” mean, anyway? I wondered.  Someone was dead, I knew that, but what was the difference between manslaughter and murder?  If I didn’t know this most basic fact, what was I doing with this case?  I stared at the file and willed it to go away.
            When it didn’t, I opened the file with shaky fingers.  On top was the “information,” a court document that tells a defendant what he is charged with.  “That You, Nathaniel Bridges, in the State of Washington,” the information read, “did recklessly cause the death of Terry McKenzie, a human being.”  I tried to remember the exact legal definition of “reckless.”  I would have to look that up.
I saw a small, yellow envelope clipped to the inside of the file.  Pictures.  With my brain telling them to stop, my fingers opened the envelope, and pulled out the photographs.  I almost lost it.  The first picture showed a man’s face, obviously beaten.  His eyes and the area around them were completely black and covered with blood.  Another picture showed the man’s body, lying in a room, a halo of blood on the wall by his head.  I couldn’t believe I was looking at a picture of an actual dead person.
The pictures of the apartment showed blood on the walls, refrigerator, floor, and couch.  When I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I found the autopsy photos.  The autopsy pictures showed the same dead, young man lying on a steel table.  It would have been more polite, I thought, to cover his private parts.  I did not need to see the inside of his brain.
            I felt suddenly light-headed.  My forehead began to sweat.  I was bent over with my head between my knees when José appeared in the doorway.
            “Hey, what’s up?  What you got there?”  He grabbed the pictures.  “Murder photos?  Cool.”  He flipped through a couple.  “Man, this guy got the shit beat out of him.  Is he dead?  These pictures are terrible.  Look at all that blood—on his face, chest, on the walls …  Hey, this looks like a boot mark on his chest.  Cool.”
            I looked up.  “You’re sick, you know that?”
            “You have to be a little sick to do this job.”
            “Not that sick.”
            “This job is a lot easier if you decide that murder photos are cool instead of gross.  You’re going to have to look at them either way.”
            “Just tell me what you see, OK?”
            “I see a guy that got the shit beat out of him.”
            “I’m talking about some kind of a defense.”
            “You’ll have to start by talking to your client.  ‘Self-defense’ is always good.”  He flipped through the rest of the photos.  It doesn’t look like it was an accident.”
            “I never should have asked for this case.  I have no idea what I’m doing.”
            “Relax.  These cases can be fun.”  José stopped looking at the photos, and leaned back in his chair and put his feet on my desk.  I winced as his foot brushed against a precariously perched pile of paperwork.  “After you talk to your client—and you’d better hope he has some sort of self-defense story, otherwise, he’s toast—try to find things at the crime scene that corroborate his version of events.  Talk to the pathologist, too.  She can be surprisingly helpful.  And don’t panic—you don’t have time—you’ve got a lot of work to do.”  He gave me a hearty slap on the back and left my office.
            I looked at the client background sheet.  Nathaniel Bridges was a college student, and apparently had no criminal history.  That was strange.  In all of my low-level felonies, I had never represented a college student, and almost every client had prior felonies and a bazillion prior misdemeanors.
            I noticed the red message light on my phone.  “Hello.  This is Nate Bridges’ father.  I understand you’ve been appointed to be our son’s lawyer.  We’d like to meet with you if possible.”  Beep.  “Hi, this is Paul and Marsha Bridges.  We’d like to meet with you.”  Beep.  “Hello this is ….”
            I called the Bridges and arranged to meet them in my office the following day.  I pretended to be a secretary in the telephone conversation, not yet ready to talk to them.


            After the call with Nathaniel’s parents, I looked at the clock.  Four o’clock—still time to go see him at the jail.  I took a deep breath and forced myself to pick up my briefcase.  I almost always liked talking to my clients, but a first jail interview could be draining, especially if the client had never been in jail before.
            I sat down in the attorney booth and waited for the guards to bring my new client.  When the door finally opened, I almost gasped at the enormous, handsome young man who appeared on the other side of the glass.  He was clean-cut and wholesome, even in an orange jail jumpsuit.  His hair was cut military short, and his muscles were huge.  I made a mental note to refrain from ogling the client.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m Kate Hamilton, from the public defenders’ office.”
“Can you get me out of here?”  He sat very rigidly with his head held perfectly still.  He looked scared to death.  I doubted my presence was reassuring.  I thought he would have wanted to see someone older, someone male, preferably with silver-gray hair.  Not the friendly-faced lawyer girl.
            “I can try,” I said.  “Your bail was set at one million at your preliminary appearance, but we can try to get that reduced.  You don’t have any criminal history, so that’s on your side.”
            “I’m supposed to play in a football game this weekend.”
            I wanted to say, whether you play in a football game or not this weekend should be number 1,000 on the list of things you need to worry about.  Instead, “You play football?”
            “Didn’t you read the papers?  ‘Football player arrested in roommate’s death.’”
            I didn’t usually read the local paper; I had a superstition that reading about a case in the paper would cause it to be assigned to me.  “Who do you play football for?” I asked.
            “The University.”  He looked at me like I should have known this.  “I can’t believe this is happening to me.  I didn’t mean to kill him.  He was my friend.”
            “You’re actually charged with manslaughter.”
            “What’s that?”
            “It’s killing someone recklessly, rather than intentionally.”  I was glad I had looked this up.
            “Look, let’s talk right now about what’s happening on Friday.  Friday is the day of your arraignment.  At the arraignment, the judge will read the charges to you, and then ask you how you plead.  You say “not guilty,” which is how everyone starts out.  More importantly, at the arraignment we can argue that your bail should be reduced.  We try to convince the judge to let you out of jail while you wait for your trial.”
            “Really?  There’s a chance I can get out?”  He looked hopeful for the first time.  “When will my trial be?”
            “On a charge like this, six months to a year.  Although, if you’re still in jail, I would try to make the trial happen sooner.”
            “You mean I could be in jail for six months or even a year waiting for my trial?”  I could hear the panic climbing back into his voice.
            “Let’s not assume the worst, OK?  Let’s go over your background, and you can tell me who you’d like to have speak on your behalf at the arraignment.  I think the odds are good that the judge will set a reasonable bail.”
            “OK,” he said.  “Do you know when my lawyer is going to come see me?”

            It turned out that Nate’s story had been all over the news.  Matthew couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of the case.  Matthew was a big football fan, and had read all of the newspaper stories.
“Nate was someone I was watching before all of this happened,” Matthew explained.  “He was a walk-on from Western State, but the coach was starting to let him play.  His size alone is formidable, but he was also getting faster.  It sounds like he was a nice guy.  All of his teammates are in shock.”
According to the police and news reports, it was the roommate, Terry, who had been belligerent and trying to start fights on the night of his death.  Terry and Nate had been drinking beer and watching football with a handful of friends all day in their apartment.  By the evening, Terry had become belligerent.  Nate had to pull Terry out of a couple of fights.  Terry would get all pissed off at someone, challenge him to a fight, and then Nate would step in the middle.  At first, Terry would be mad at Nate, but Nate could always turn the situation into a joke, and everyone would end up laughing.  It didn’t hurt that Nate was twice as big as Terry.
            Their friends left around eleven, but Nate and Terry continued to drink and play video games.  Nate and Terry ended up in a fight at 3 o’clock in the morning.  There were no witnesses.  The fact that there had been a fight, however, was obvious.  Blood was all over the apartment—on the floor, on the walls, in the bathroom.  Terry was found on the floor of the apartment hallway, dead.

            Nate’s parents arrived early for their appointment with me.  I was clearly not what they wanted to see.  They looked at me like they were ready to sell their house in order to hire a private lawyer.  I would have gladly been their Realtor.
            Mrs. Bridges kept dabbing tears from her eyes.  She looked as if she had been crying for a week.  Mr. Bridges had that strained stoic look that men get because they aren’t allowed to cry.  “When can he get out of that jail?” Mrs. Bridges asked.  “How soon can this all be over?  Don’t they understand it was just an accident?  Nate would never mean to hurt anyone.”
            “He’s not charged with killing Terry intentionally.  He’s charged with killing him recklessly.”
            “It was an accident,” Mrs. Bridges repeated.  “Nate didn’t even start the fight.”
            “Recklessness means that you are acting in a way that is likely to cause death, and are not concerned about the dangerousness of your behavior.  Like if you drive through a red light on purpose, not caring if you are going to cause a wreck.  Or, in a case like this, if you hit someone so many times that it is likely to kill them, but you don’t care whether that happens or not.”
            “Are you saying our son is guilty?”
            “Not at all.  That is what the state is saying.  Recklessness is a difficult concept.”  I tried to sound mature and knowledgeable.  “The question is whether the person used inherently dangerous behavior without a care for the consequences.  In a manslaughter case, though, someone is already dead.  So there is a tendency to presume that the person was behaving in a dangerous manner.”
            “What about self defense?  Nate was defending himself.”
            “It certainly sounds like he was defending himself.  If this is true, then the question becomes whether he went too far.  The law of self defense is good, but it also says the that force used to defend yourself has to be reasonable.  For example, if you come up and hit me, and I want you to stop, I can’t pull out my gun and shoot you.”
            “Nate didn’t have a gun.  He didn’t have any kind of weapon.”
            “I know.  I was just giving you an extreme example.  But the state is going to say that Nate went too far.  That at some point he lost control of himself and went beyond reasonable self defense.”


            The morning of Nate’s arraignment, I saw that Judge Rickert was the judge assigned to bail hearings for the day.  He was definitely a bad draw.  He was known to set $50,000 bail on misdemeanors.  I considered asking for a week’s continuance in the hopes that we would get a better judge next week.  We were ready, though.  Nate’s whole family was there, including his younger sisters, cousins, and grandparents.  His coach, minister, and girlfriend were also there.  The whole family had a look of extreme respectability that is rare in criminal courts.  I decided that I would risk it and go forward with Judge Rickert.
            When I walked in the courtroom, I saw Bradley and Doug waiting for the arraignment docket.  I assumed one of the two was assigned to Nate’s case.  I couldn’t decide which would be worse.  I had been avoiding Doug since the night at the bar in Seattle.  I walked over to him.  “Is this one yours?” I asked, showing him the name on my file.
            He rolled his eyes.  “Don’t tell me you’re assigned to the Bridges case.”
            “Can’t you just agree to release the kid?  He’s got no criminal history, he’s a college football player—look at his parents for god’s sake.”
            “Kate, this isn’t a drug case,” Doug said, condescendingly, I thought.  “Your client killed a man with his bare hands.  He’s lucky I haven’t charged murder.  I’m asking for $500,000.”
            I wanted to start arguing with him, but didn’t think antagonizing Doug would help anything.  I decided to wait to make my argument to the judge.
While I waited for our turn, I watched the other bail hearings.  Judge Rickert set a $10,000 bail on a black kid who was charged with possession of a controlled substance.  The defendant had a couple of prior criminal convictions, but had a job and a house he was buying.  His girlfriend came and vouched for him.  Her cropped athletic shirt left her belly button exposed throughout the hearing.
            The next defendant was charged with stealing a car.  He only had a couple of misdemeanors in his past, but did not have a job or go to school.  Bail was set at $20,000.  I could see the Bridges starting to panic.  If $20,000 was the bail for stealing a car, what could it possibly be for manslaughter?  I was guessing $100,000 dollars.
            The judge’s demeanor changed, however, when Nate’s well-dressed parents addressed the court.  The judge asked about their jobs, their community activities, Nate’s progress in college, etc.  I felt like we were at a cocktail party.  Nate’s father and Judge Rickert were both in the Rotary club, it turned out.
            The judge still had a pleasant smile on his face when he announced, “Bail in the Bridges matter will be set at twenty-five hundred.”
            I almost said, “Don’t you mean “twenty-five thousand?”  But Doug, who looked stunned, wrote $2500 on the paperwork.  I would have been furious if any of the other defendants in the courtroom were my clients, but Nate was mine, and I was happy he would be able to bail out.
            I waited with Mrs. Bridges in the lobby of the jail while Mr. Bridges wrote a $2500 check.  They seemed more comfortable with me now.  I thought about telling them that the low bail had more to do with Mrs. Bridges’ sweater set than my legal skills, but decided to keep that to myself.
            An hour later, Nate walked out of the jail.  His parents and his girlfriend hugged him happily.  I wondered if they knew that this was just the beginning.  Just because Nate was out of jail now, didn’t mean that he wouldn’t go back.  This, too, I decided not to bring up.  Once again, I wondered what had I gotten myself into.


Over the weekend, I read the voluminous police reports in Nate’s case.  I forced myself to examine the photos.  The images were horrific.  The biggest problem?  Nate didn’t have a mark on him.  The police had photographed Nate, both with and without his shirt and pants on.  His muscular body was smooth and unblemished, except for some smeared blood.  The pictures of Terry, on the other hand, were a gruesome display of blood and bruises.  It was hard to believe that Nate and Terry had been in the same fight.
            I asked Nate to come to my office on Tuesday.  I asked him to come by himself, in order to have an initial confidential meeting, but I assured him I would meet with his parents later in the week.  He arrived on time, wearing pressed khakis and a short-sleeved knit golf shirt.  I wondered if he had to order his clothes from a special store for the muscle-bound.  His body dominated my small office.
“You’ve got to understand,” he said.  “Terry was a nutcase.  He was the fighter, not me.”
            “You’re the big one.”
            “Exactly.  Size means you don’t have to fight.  Terry, being a small guy, had something to prove.  Maybe because he didn’t play football.  I don’t know, but he was always picking fights.  I can’t tell you how many fights I pulled him out of.  He liked to show people how hard he could hit by punching things, doors, walls, refrigerators.”
            “He sounds like a jerk.”
            “He was, I suppose.”
            “Then why were you friends with him?”
            “Look, I know you think that I’m just trying to make him look bad, but that’s how he was.  Ask anyone.  He was my roommate, and we hung out.  We played video games, watched movies, got drunk together.”
            “All right, he was a jerk, and he started the fight.  But fights happen every day and no one gets killed.  Why didn’t you stop before it got to that point?”
            “You know what it’s like in a fight,” he said.  I nodded like I did.  “It’s so fast and full of adrenaline.  I barely realized that the fight had started before it was over.”
            My vision blurred as Nate continued to talk.  I didn’t know what it was like to be in a fight.  In fact, I had never struck anyone in anger in my life.  How was I going to talk to a jury about what it was like to be in a fight, when I had no idea myself?
            I knew I had a panic-stricken look on my face, but could do nothing about it.  I concluded my interview with Nate, telling him that we would meet again in a week.  Of course, we would never meet again, because there was no way that I was going to handle his case.

After work, I found José, Matthew, and Janice at Moezy’s.  I took a chair and ordered a beer, trying to think of how to get rid of Nate’s case.  Jose was doing something while Janice and Matthew watched.
“I made a huge mistake,” I said.  “I can’t do that trial.”
“What trial?” Janice asked.
“Nate Bridges.”
            “What?” José looked incredulous.  “You had to practically blackmail J. Gordon to get the case in the first place.”
            “I’ve never been in a fight.”
            “What are you talking about?” José said.  “All you do is fight.  You fight with the prosecutors, you fight with the judges, you fight with J. Gordon.  You even fight with Matthew sometimes.”
“Not that kind of fight.  A fist fight.  I’ve never been in a fist fight.”
            “What’s that got to do with anything?” José asked.
            “I just think that to handle Nate’s case, the lawyer needs to understand what it’s like to be in a fight.  I think if I try to tell the jury, ‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, we all know what it’s like to be in a fight …’ I’d start to giggle.  I have never hit another person in my life.  I don’t even know how to make a fist.”
            “I always figured you for the scrappy girl who could handle herself in a bar fight,” José said.  “It’s not you that needs to understand what it’s like to be in a fight, Kate, it’s the jury.”
            “But I need to describe the fight like I know what I’m talking about.  I’m afraid I’ll say something that isn’t right.  I can’t talk about a fight with any credibility.”
“If I hit you right now, you can hit me back, and then you can stop complaining.”  José’s tone was kinder than his words.  “Look, you’ve never raped anyone, and you’ve defended rapists.”
            “Well, there was this one time in college …”
            “You’ve never embezzled and you’ve defended embezzlers.”
            “That’s different.”
            “Remember that trial where Matthew was defending the guy who hit his girlfriend after she kicked him in the balls?  Matthew was arguing to the jury in his closing, and he said, ‘Well, we all know what it feels like to get kicked in the testicles.’  Of course, he had a hard time saying ‘testicles,’ so it came out ‘Test, test, test, ah heck.  We all know what it feels like to get kicked down there.’  Matthew looked up at the jury, happy that he had finally finished the sentence, and noticed that there were 12 women staring back at him.”
            “What happened with that trial?”
            “He lost.”
            “You’re not helping.”
            “No, but it’s a good story.”
            “I think I need a role model.”
            “A role model?”
            ‘You know, someone I can watch and learn to be like.”
            “There are the standard criminal defense role models, Clarence Darrow, Atticus Finch, Terry McCarthy.
            “It would be hard for me to go and watch any of them in trial.”
            “There are some good ones in town.  You should watch Phil Newman, he’s amazing.
“I’ve seen him.  He’s great—commanding, funny, charming.  But he’s 6 foot 3, has gray hair, and a big, booming voice.  I can’t copy him.  Aren’t there any female lawyers that I can copy?”
            José, Janice, and Matthew thought for a minute.  “There has to be someone …” Janice said, but none of us could think of anyone.  The equal rights movement had been slow in coming to Athens.  Most of the female lawyers in town practiced family or business law, avoiding the grittier criminal law arena.
            “I guess you’re just going to have to be yourself, Kate.”  Matthew said.
            “That’s what I was afraid of.”

Want to read more?  New chapters coming this Friday, July 13, 2012!

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