Friday, July 20, 2012

Chapters 45 - 50, Who I've Been Fired For

(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.)
(Haven't read chapters 37 through 40? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 41 through 44? Find them here.)


I spent the next day in my office in a catatonic state.  I shut my door, and everyone stayed away, knowing that there was nothing anyone could say that would make me feel better.  I tried to read a police report, but wasn’t able to focus.  I tried to call a client, but couldn’t find the motivation to dial the number.  I was about to leave for the day when my phone rang.  Disinterestedly, I picked up the receiver.
“Miss Hamilton?”
“This is Merle Blaney—from the jury.”  
“Yes, Mr. Blaney.”  Why did jurors always call me?
“I was a juror on Nathaniel Bridge’s case.”
            “I know.”
            “Well, I just called, because there was something I didn’t think was right.”
            “Tell me about it.”
            “I don’t think Terry died of the blows to the head.  I think he died of alcohol poisoning.  I have done some research.  His level of intoxication could certainly be fatal.”
            Oh for heaven’s sake, I thought.  Alcohol had not killed the kid, a subdural hematoma had.  We had explored whether alcohol could have made the hematoma more likely, but had gotten nowhere with that idea, even after consulting our own expert.  Jurors were crazy.
            “If you believed Terry died from alcohol poisoning,” I asked calmly, “why did you convict Nate?”
            “Well, you had pointed out that Nate knew that Terry became combative when he drank alcohol.  Nate, as his friend, should have kept him from drinking.  That’s why Nate was responsible for Terry’s death.”
“Let me get this straight, Mr. Blaney.  You’re saying that you don’t think that Nate killed Terry in the fight, but you found Nate guilty because he should have stopped Terry from drinking?”
I have to go, Mr. Blaney.”  I hung up the phone.  If I were a boy, I would have punched the wall.  What a crazy, fucked-up system.  Why hadn’t I gone to bartending school?  Or beauty school.  Anything would have been better than this.


            The standard sentence range for first degree manslaughter was six to nine years.  However, a defendant could receive an “exceptional downward” sentence under certain circumstances.  One of those circumstances was if the defendant had initially acted in self-defense, but had responded with excessive force.  I filed the legal documents necessary to request the exceptional sentence.  I was hoping for a short jail term and probation.  The fact that Doug opposed my motion for an exceptional sentence made me hate him a little.  Judge Stewart acknowledged that my exceptional factors were legitimate.  She sentenced Nate to five years in prison.
After Nate’s sentencing, I asked the judge to allow Nate to turn himself in.  It was a small thing, but at least a little more dignified than being led away from the courtroom in handcuffs.
“I’ll allow Mr. Bridges to self-report, but you need to walk with him, Ms. Hamilton.”
            “Of course.”
            Outside, Nate and his family stood stiffly.  I bummed a cigarette from Nate’s mother, who had started smoking while the trial was pending.  No one said anything.  Nate’s mother and girlfriend were crying quietly.
After a few minutes, we all started walking toward the jail.  I had never felt so defeated and helpless in my life.  I had walked clients to the jail before.  But those walks were when we had agreed to jail time, whether because we agreed to a plea bargain or knew the person had a bench warrant.  This was different.  We didn’t agree to any of this.  We fought the whole way, and we had lost.  Losing meant that Nate had to go to prison.
It seemed like we should continue to fight.  We could run.  He could go to Mexico.  Instead, we walked calmly and slowly to the jail.  Nate said his goodbyes to his family and girlfriend.  I felt like an intruder in their private pain, but stayed anyway.  I gave Nate a book of stamps.  “These are so you can write me with any legal questions you have.  I’ll file your notice of appeal this week.”


            I spent the next couple of weeks in a profound funk.  José, Matthew, and Janice kept asking me to go have drinks at the bar, but I usually went home and went to bed after work.  When I did join them, I sat sullenly.  José suggested a group trip to Vegas, but I couldn’t see a trip doing anything besides draining my meager resources.
A month after the trial, I received a certified letter from Doug.  I wondered if we were back to corresponding by mail.  Sensing something unusual, I ripped the letter open:
            Dear Judge Stewart and Ms. Hamilton:
            I am writing the court due to information I received from Detective Bolsch regarding possible juror misconduct in State v. Bridges.  This weekend, Detective Bolsch was at Ocean View Mall, when a person approached her.  The person identified herself as Margaret Ralph, a juror from Nathaniel Bridge’s trial.  She indicated that she had been disturbed about the trial because one of the jurors had conducted internet research during deliberations.  The juror had researched whether alcohol had caused the death of the victim.  She didn’t think the research had anything to do with the verdict, but felt she should disclose this information, because she knew that the juror’s conduct was improper.  Detective Bolsch has relayed this information to me, and I am now relaying it to the court.
                                                                        Doug Vaughn

            I put the letter down, my heart pounding.  Juror misconduct!  A gift from heaven.
Clutching the letter, I stood on my chair, then my desk, and shouted, “Juror Misconduct!  Juror Misconduct!”  I reverted to my high school days and did a little juror-misconduct chant.  I had more enthusiasm and spunk than any 16-year-old girl ever had for football.
            Janice, Matthew, and José came running, thinking the stress had finally made me insane.  I was so excited I could barely talk.  “Letter ….” I said breathlessly.  “Misconduct … Jury.”
Janice grabbed the letter.  I slipped and fell to the floor getting down from the desk.  I remained sitting on the floor while Janice read the letter.  Janice read a few sentences, and then José snatched it from her.
            “Looks like misconduct, all right,” Janice said.  “I wonder what they did.”
            A thought came to mind.  “Right after the trial, one of the jurors called me.  I had forgotten all about it.  He was complaining that he thought the guy died of alcohol poisoning.  I was barely listening to him at the time, because I was so angry.  He mentioned that he had done some research, but I thought he meant after the trial, not during.  Oh my God, I didn’t even ask him about it.  What if …”
            “Kate, shut up,” José said, giving the letter to Matthew. 
“This is amazing,” Matthew said,
            “You know what is even more amazing?” José asked.  “That they came forward.  Detective Bolsch knew what this meant, and she didn’t have to say anything.  No one had to know that she saw a juror at the movies and the juror told her about misconduct.”
            “And because I didn’t bother to ask the juror about it while I had him on the phone …”
            “Kate, shut up.”
            “Which juror was it that approached Detective Bolsch?” Matthew asked.
            I thought for a second.  The name was very familiar.  Oh my, I thought.  It was the dour lady, the one I had accidentally allowed to remain on the jury.
            “It’s impressive that the detective told the prosecutor, but it’s astounding that the prosecutor told you,” José said.  “Bolsch might have known that misconduct can’t be good for the conviction, but Doug knew exactly what it meant—a new trial probably.”
            “I’m not that surprised that Doug came forward with the information,” I said.  “I’m more surprised about Detective Bolsch.  How can she be so wrong in how she conducted her investigation, but then do the right thing with this information?”
“She didn’t think she was doing anything wrong by coercing that confession out of Nate.  She was doing what she had been taught,” José said.  “She had seen the dead body, and concluded that Nate was guilty.  She just needed to get him to admit his guilt.  It never occurred to her that the methods she had been taught might cause an innocent person to confess.  If she knows what is right and what is wrong, she’ll choose the right thing.”
            “But knowing what’s right,” I said.  “That’s the hard part, isn’t it?”


            I called Doug.  “I got your letter.  What are we going to do now?”
            “Because I finally got you back for the sanitary-napkin bomb, the shredded parking ticket, and the fact that I still can’t type the word “think” in an e-mail.  Not to mention making me repeat ‘Her Immenseness’ in front of Her Immenseness.”
            “What?”  This was too cruel, even for a joke.  I felt my new-found happiness evaporating.  “If that letter was a joke I am going to come over there right now and kill you with my bare hands.”
            “Like Nate did to his friend?”
            “No, I’m going to kill you on purpose.”
            “I really got you going.”
            “The letter’s real, Kate.  But the last few minutes were pretty funny.”
            “Damn you,” I said, and hung up the phone.  I wondered if I was losing my sense of humor.

            Over the next two weeks, I worked on a motion for a new trial.  I hadn’t told Nate or his parents about the juror misconduct yet.  I knew I should have, and I couldn’t wait to tell them, but I wanted to do all the research first, make sure that our chances for a new trial were as good as I initially thought they were.  I also knew that as soon as I told Nate and his family about the misconduct, they would want to be in court immediately.  Thus, if I finished the brief before I called them, they wouldn’t have to call me 50 times a day asking when the brief would be done.
            My research and brief finally finished, I drove to the state prison, which was in a small town an hour away from Athens.  I had never been to the prison before, because my clients were held in the county jail while their cases were pending.  If my client was sentenced to more than a year, however, he was sent to a state institution.
            I had called the prison the day before and cleared my visit.  I pulled up to the uniformed guard that monitored entry to the prison parking lot.
“State the nature of your business,” he said.  He wore aviator sunglasses and had the neat, full mustache that José referred to as a “cop mustache.”
“I’m here to see a client.  Nathanial Bridges.”
“A client?” he said dubiously, eyeing my faded blue jeans and Nirvana T-shirt.
I handed him my bar card and a business card, grateful that I had thought to bring both.
He picked up an old-fashioned black telephone receiver.  After nodding a few times, he hung up the phone.  “You’re cleared to go,” he said, and motioned me forward with a two-fingered wave.  The gate lifted and I drove into an almost-empty parking lot.
After I checked in at a desk marked “visitors,” a guard led me to an attorney booth.  Before the heavy door shut, the guard said, “If anything happens, push the panic button.”
Nate came into the visiting booth, looking solemn and puzzled.  I pushed my motion and brief through the paper slot.
            “What’s this?”  He asked, his eyes catching the title.  “Motion for new trial?”
            “Yes,” I smiled.  “We discovered that some misconduct occurred during jury deliberation.  This is a motion for a new trial based on the misconduct.  I don’t want to get your hopes too high, but we’ve got a decent shot.”
            “What does this mean?”
            “Once we know that juror misconduct happened, the court has to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the misconduct did not affect the verdict.  Usually, most of the litigation is about whether misconduct occurred in the first place.  But in your case, the prosecutor agrees that the misconduct happened, so we’re already half-way there.”
            “What happens if we win the motion?”
            “Your conviction is vacated and a new trial is ordered.”
            “How much time will I have to spend in prison while I wait for my new trial?”
            “I imagine your previous bail would be reinstated.”
            “That means … I get out?”
            “If we win the motion.”
            The tears slid down his face.  The emotion he never showed in trial was all here now.  I could see the vulnerable boy inside this strong young man.  Damn my own tears.

            I called Doug before I filed my motion.  I was hoping he would just give in.  “Why don’t you just agree to a new trial?” I asked.
            “Kate, you know I can’t do that.”
            “Of course you can.  I draw up a court order that says ‘The defendant’s motion for new trial is hereby granted’, and you sign it.”
            “I don’t think the misconduct affected the verdict.”
“But Nate wasn’t guilty.”
“That’s not what the jury said.”
“Juries can be wrong.  I know I can win the next time.”
“You’ll have to win your motion first.”

My motion for Nate’s new trial was scheduled for 3:30 on a Friday afternoon.  José and Matthew had taken the afternoon off to play golf and Janice joined them in order to drive the golf cart.  I wondered if they didn’t want to be around the office in case I lost the motion.
I had arranged for Nate to be transported from the prison to the courtroom in order to attend the hearing.  I nodded at his parents as I passed them in the hallway, trying to appear too preoccupied to speak.  I knew they wanted to ask what Nate’s chances of winning were.  And I knew they knew my answer would be: I didn’t know.  We would all know the answer in about 30 minutes when the judge made her ruling.
My oral argument to the court was brief.  Doug and I had both submitted legal memoranda to the court that set forth the law and our arguments.  Tradition required us to also make oral arguments, although neither of us had anything to say that we hadn’t said in our legal documents.  After 20 minutes of perfunctory arguments, the judge was ready to pronounce her ruling.
Judge Stewart loved to hear herself talk.  She had also mastered the art of withholding her ultimate decision while she talked at length about her interpretation of the law and facts.  I couldn’t decide if she was cruel for making us wait, or if she liked the way we attentively listened to every word as we tried to glean some hint of her decision from her rambling dissertation.
Nate and I sat quietly and listened as the judge spoke.  I couldn’t look at Nate, because I couldn’t believe that whatever words the judge spoke within the next couple of minutes would determine whether Nate would be returned to prison or would be granted a new trial.  I scribbled small doodles on my yellow notepad as the judge droned on, implying with each new sentence that a different side was going to win.  I was still trying to guess which way she was leaning when she said, “Thus, I grant the defendant’s motion for new trial.”
Nate looked at me, his eyes asking if he could believe what he had just heard.  I smiled at him, and then realizing what had just happened, jumped up and gave him a hug.  I was soon joined by his family and friends, and we hugged in a happy, teary mass.


            The next day, I sat in my office and planned how I would win Nate’s new trial.  This time, I decided, I would hire a false-confession expert.  Also, I would ask José to help me with the trial.  As had been my instinct from the beginning, I thought closing argument would be better made by a man, or at least someone who had been in a fist fight before.
            The telephone interrupted my thoughts.  I looked at the caller ID.  It was Janey, the receptionist.  I picked up.
“Who were you holding for?” Janey asked.
“I wasn’t holding for anyone.  You called me, Janey.”
“Do you still want to be on hold?”
“Janey, why did you call?”
“I’ll have to call you back.  By the way, Mr. Poindexter is still waiting to see you.”
“I didn’t know he was here.”
“He seems to be getting impatient.”
            “I’ll be right down.”
            Jonathan Poindexter was a private attorney I had never liked.  He charged $10,000 for every case he accepted, and $50,000 for the serious ones.  Despite his exorbitant retainers, though, he did very little work on his cases.  If Mr. Poindexter and I represented co-defendants, for example, he would wait for me to write the legal memoranda, and then copy my work.  He looked the part, of course: distinguished gray hair, pin-striped suit, expensive tie and shoes.  He loved to be on TV, and almost never went to trial.
            He was standing in a corner of the lobby, trying to stay as far away from the waiting clientele as possible.
            “Kate,” he said as I walked over to him.  “Good to see you.”
            I noticed he was holding a couple of pieces of paper.  “I have a Substitution of Counsel for you.”
            “One of my clients is hiring you?  Great,” I said lightly.  “Less work for me, you know.”
            He handed me the papers.  At the top, I saw Nate’s name.  I willed myself to remain calm.
            “The family wanted a lawyer with more experience,” he said.
            “I already have a plea bargain worked out.”
            “Of course.”
            “Trials are dangerous animals, Kate. You can lose them, even if someone is innocent.  Plea bargains are safe.”
            “Is he still going to prison?”
            “Yes, but for a year less than he got after the first trial.”
            “That’s not my definition of safe.”


Dejected, I walked over to Moezy’s.  Luckily, José, Janice, and Matthew were already there, having left work early to watch a Mariners game.
            “Nate’s family hired Poindexter,” I said as I sat down.  I was despondent.  After everything, the Bridges had hired one of the worst lawyers in town.
            “I can see that it’s time to play a game,” José said, holding a mustard bottle up to his mouth like a microphone.  “A game called: ‘Who I’ve Been Fired For.’  Ladies and Gentleman, as all of you except Kate know, the purpose of this game is to share humiliation with others—and to get drunk.
“The game proceeds in a circle,” José explained.  “The first player has to name a private lawyer that he or she has been fired for.  The former client must have actually paid the new lawyer real money to take the case over.  Then, the next player names a lawyer he has been fired for.  If this private lawyer is worse than the first private lawyer, then everyone has to drink.  Judging criteria for the private lawyers are: ability to speak English, whether the lawyer has ever won a jury trial, whether the lawyer has ever been disbarred, whether the lawyer is a dump truck, et cetera.”
            “Dump truck?”  I had never heard this term before.
            “A dump truck is a lawyer who doesn’t do anything for his clients except plead them guilty.  Or, if a dump truck goes to trial, he just sits there—doesn’t object, doesn’t fight.  A dump truck thinks he’s representing a client just by being present.”
            “All right,” José said.  “I’ll start.  I’ve been fired for Tad Bucholtz.”
            “He has his license again?” Janice asked.
            “Yeah, he had to wait five years after his felony conviction, but that’s past now,” Matthew said.
            “All right then, everyone drink,” José said.
            “But there’s no one to compare him to, since you went first,” I said.
            “Rule of lenity,” José said, taking a large gulp of his beer.  “All ambiguities will be resolved in favor of drinking.”
            “All right,” Janice said.  “I’ve been fired for Darrell Frye.”
            “Oh, that’s a bad one,” Matthew said.
            “What did he do?” I asked.
            “He lost a murder trial because he didn’t understand military time.  He had a rock-solid alibi for his client.  Unfortunately, the alibi didn’t correspond with the time of the murder, rather two hours later.”
            We all obediently took long drinks of our beers.
            “Matthew, your turn,” José said.
“All right.  I’ve been fired for Jack Gecker.”
            “Is he still on crack?” Janice asked.
            “I heard he sleeps at night in the courthouse courtyard after he gets kicked out of the bars,” Matthew said.
            “Everyone drink,” José directed.  “Kate, it’s your turn.”
            “All right.  I’ve been fired for Jonathan Poindexter.”
            “That’s all?” José asked, once again holding the mustard bottle to his mouth.  “He’s not the greatest, but he’s never even been disbarred.  No drinks.  You’re going to have to be fired for far worse if you want to be a contender in this game.”
            “Thanks, José.”
            “Don’t mention it.”

Want to read more?  Find the next chapters here.


Unknown said...

aRGH, I know that feeling so well. Silly Pointdexters of the world!
I am a PD in Atlanta and I love reading your blog :) Keep writing please!

carol d said...

Thanks, Anna--is it not mind-boggling how the same kind of crazy exists all over the country? All of our strengths, all of our weaknesses, over and over, here and everywhere. I am very glad you like the novel--please share it with your friends; I am trying to top last months readership :)