Friday, July 27, 2012

Chapters 51-53, French Foreign Legion

(Haven't read the first 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.)
(Haven't read chapters 45 through 50? Find them here.)


            I went to work early the next day, resolved to get myself organized.  I needed busy work to keep my mind off of Nate, but I also needed to get organized.  Files and paperwork were piling up.  I started by picking up the files on and around my desk and putting them in my file drawer.  The last 10 files wouldn’t fit in the drawer.  How could this be?  My file drawer was deep and would hold about 100 files.  I counted my open files.  One hundred and fifteen.  Too many.  A year ago I had sixty.
            I looked up to find Bill seated in my client chair.  He was wearing a banana-yellow sweat suit, eating a Twinkie, and drinking a full-sugar Dr. Pepper.  “Election year?” he asked.
            “I bet it’s an election year.”
            “I think so.  Why?”
            “Prosecutors win elections by being tough on crime.  Legislators win elections by being tough on crime.  People don’t really know what ‘tough on crime’ means, but they like the sound of it.”
            “What does that have to do with me having 115 clients?”
            “Prosecutors don’t make deals in election years.”
            “Then I’ll have to go to trial on everything.  They’ll eventually back down.”
            “That’s where the federal grants come in.”
            I looked at him impatiently.
            “The war on crime and the war on drugs have provided funding for additional police and prosecutors.  The bills that supply these extra resources for police and prosecutors are easy to pass, but they never have provisions for additional public defenders.  There is a lawyer in the prosecutor’s office whose only job is to apply for federal grants.  When I started at this office 20 years ago, there were an equal number of prosecutors and public defenders.  What’s the ratio now?”
            I looked at the phone list taped to my wall.  “In felonies?  They have 25 lawyers.  Let’s see.  We have 10.”
            “We had 10 felony lawyers 15 years ago.”
            “Why don’t we get more?”
            “Ed occasionally asked the county commissioners for additional staff, but they always turned him down.  Funding the public defenders office is the last thing the commissioners want to spend money on.  J. Gordon won’t even ask.”
            “What can we do?”
            “I don’t know, but it’s just going to get worse.”

            Bill was right.  Over the next year, the pace at work accelerated.  I had always had a lot of cases, but the number was growing.  It seemed that for every file I closed, two new ones appeared on my desk.
            According to José’s theory, the court system relied on plea bargains, because the system didn’t have enough time or courtrooms to provide a jury trial for every case.  According to this theory, if I insisted on a trial on every case, something would eventually break.  Thus, without the motivation of plea bargains to settle cases, I started going to trial on almost everything.  I would try a serious case that lasted a week or two, and then for a break I would try a drug possession case that lasted a couple of days.  Then I would use the rest of the week to get ready for the next serious case.  In the meantime, I tried to juggle the never-ending phone calls, meet with a few clients, and appear in court for arraignments and motions.  I was running a marathon that was interrupted by occasional sprints.  There was no stopping, ever.  Something was eventually going to break, but I was afraid it was going to be me.
            I became unable to listen to casual conversation.  A friend would come up to me and start telling a story.  I could listen to maybe two sentences before starting to think about one of my cases.  I would walk away while the person was still talking.  I hardly went to the bar anymore, but neither did José, Matthew, or Janice.  Instead, after work I would sneak up the back stairs to my apartment and drink a few whiskeys on my balcony.  I had become the Night of the Living Dead lawyer.  I was 29 years old.
            When I was in trial, though, I was on.  After my 50th jury trial, I started to feel comfortable in the courtroom.  By the 75th trial, it was second nature.  Talking to jurors came more naturally than talking to my friends.  I still suffered from pre-trial nausea, but once I was in trial, I was at home.
            I won more cases than I lost, and luckily didn’t have much time for depression over the lost cases.  A series of jury trials passed by in a blur of clients and verdicts.  Kenneth Turner was found not guilty for breaking into a child molester’s house and threatening the child molester to stop molesting.  Bradley was shocked.  David Bonham was found not guilty of possession of stolen property, because the prostitute that he was using drugs with had not told him that the car she let him drive had been stolen.  Penny was furious.  Luke Radford was found guilty of burglary after he drove his car at 70 mph into a brick retaining wall, climbed up a hill, and went into an old ladies house looking for help.  I couldn’t believe it.  Ted Grimes was found not guilty of teaching a teenage boy how to masturbate with a tub of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.  Don’t ask.
            My hundredth jury trial was a domestic violence case with Doug.  My lesbian client was accused of assaulting her girlfriend, after supposedly smelling semen in her girlfriend's underwear.  My client believed that semen-scented underwear was a complete defense to assault.
            During a break, Doug sat down with me on a bench outside the courtroom.  He made a point of looking at my high-heeled black leather boots.  I usually wouldn’t have worn boots in a jury trial, but all of my stockings had runs, and the boots were the only way to camouflage my tattered stockings.
“What?” I said to get him to look up.
“I don’t know, Kate.  Your mouth says ‘No,’ but your boots say ‘Yes.’”
“They’re just boots.”
“Right, with four-inch heels and silver bondage buckles.  I thought that old guy in the front row was going to have a heart attack every time you stood up.”
“I was hoping to distract him from the overwhelming evidence against my client.  I don’t know why you’ve gotta pick on my nice lesbian lady.”
“You know,” he said, “in high school I was really close friends with these two girls—Lisa and Dana.  They were the cutest girls in my class—both preppy, one blonde, one brunette.  Over time, I figured out that they were together, as in together-together, although it wasn't something they talked about.”
“This better not be about a ménage a trio.”
“No—that’s a different story.  Anyway, one Saturday night, we had all had a bunch of beers, and I asked Lisa and Dana how they realized they wanted to be more than friends.  Lisa told me that she knew she was in love with Dana, but didn’t know how to tell her.
“How did she tell her?”
            “One night, they were having a sleepover, and Lisa said to Dana, ‘I'm going to say something to you, and I don't want you to say anything back.  I don't want to talk about it at all.  I just want to say it, and then turn out the lights and go to sleep.’”
            “What did she say?”  I had to know.
            “She said, ‘Dana, I think I'm in love with you.’”
            “Oh, my.  What did Dana do?”
            “She turned out the lights and they went to sleep.  They’ve been together ever since.”
            “Why are you telling me this?”
“It just came to mind.”
            “I see.”


Not surprisingly, I lost the lesbian trial.  Even though the facts had been bad, I had still convinced myself that I could win.  As I walked back to my office, I second-guessed myself about arguments I could have made.  I was wondering if I should have argued that my client was acting in self-defense to a semen attack, when I saw Gordon in the hall.
“Kate, I need to have a word with you.”
I forced myself not to roll my eyes.  “Certainly, Mr. Elliot.”
Still carrying my bulky trial notebook and evidence treatises, I followed him to his office.  He shut his door behind me.  “I have recently received complaints from several prosecutors that they haven’t been able to get in touch with you.”
“I’ve been in trial.”
“That is no excuse.  You need to promptly return their phone calls.”
“I don’t find my conversations with them to be productive.”
“It is a matter of professional courtesy.”
“I have never noticed them being particularly courteous to me,” I said wearily.  “Besides, when I’m not in trial, I’m talking to clients or preparing cases for battle.  If a prosecutor leaves me a message about a good settlement or proposed resolution, I call back immediately.  If they just want to yell at me, or tell me what losers my clients are, I don’t bother.”
“You need to find a more efficient way to resolve your cases.”
“Pleading my clients guilty would certainly be more efficient.”
“Yes, it would.”
“I won’t do it.”
“Kate, I think it’s time for you to consider a move to another unit in the office, to a department that would be a better match for your personality and skill level.”
“And what department would that be?”
“I was considering juvenile delinquencies.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  I didn’t have a huge ego, but I knew that I was having one of the most successful trial runs in the history of our office.  “But I’ve been winning a ton of trials, not to mention the cases I’ve been getting dismissed on legal issues,” I said, trying to downplay the surging anger I was experiencing.  “I know a lot of that is luck, but how can you think I am not suited to felonies?”
“No one gets more complaints from the prosecutors than you.”
“I suppose it would be useless to point out that this is an adversarial system.”  I was unable to squelch the sarcasm in my voice.
“We’ll see how you do over the next six months.  If you continue to receive complaints, I will move you.”
“If you do that, I will quit.”  As soon as I said this, I realized the absurdity of my threat.  Gordon would be ecstatic if I quit.
“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.”  He smiled smarmily and opened the door to dismiss me.

As I walked to the courthouse for a 3 o’clock guilty plea, I tried to decide whether my threat to quit was an empty one.  I had meant that I would quit when I said it, but what other job could I possibly have?  Maybe I could go see the six priests, go behind Sylvia’s back …  I imagined slowly smoking pork ribs, maybe making a pot of beans and buttermilk biscuits and bringing the meal to the priests’ doorstep.  They would not be able to turn me away.
I shook my head to banish the lovely image.  I was in the courthouse elevator.  Frank Pukitis was snapping his fingers in front of my face, trying to get my attention.  He was one of my least favorite people on the planet.  He was in the prosecutors’ “major crimes” section, a unit that attracted the ambitious and mean-spirited.  Frank was known for his complete lack of compassion.  He was not particularly smart or talented; his singular gift lay in his ability to be consistently mean.  His figure was strangely curvaceous, and he wore his pants pulled up too high over his large hips.  His voice had a grating, nasal quality.
“When are we going to do Holland?” he asked.
Mark Holland was a 19 year old charged with vehicular homicide.  The case was about a year and a half old.  Luckily, my client was not in jail; the fact that he was not incarcerated, though, prevented me from giving his case the priority it deserved.  “I don’t know.  I’ve still got to interview the pathologist.  Maybe after I’m done with the trial I have next week.  Why don’t you ask to have it pre-assigned?  You know that’s the only way to get an out-of-custody case priority.”
            “I don’t think I should have to go to that bother, Kate.  Just get ready for the next trial date.”
            “I’ll try, but I still have a few things to do.”  Not to mention about five in-custody trials in the meantime, I thought.

That evening, I sat out on my balcony, legs through the O, but covered in a blanket, and considered Mark Holland’s case.  Mark was my most innocent-looking client ever.  He was 19 years old, but lankiness and a sweet face made him appear much younger; he could pass for a tall 15 year old.  He wore clean painter’s pants and brightly colored polo shirts.  He and his family restored my faith in the basic goodness of humanity.  His father, Dan Holland, had a pony tail and an earring, but still projected a clean-cut image dressed in new jeans and ironed button-down shirts.  Dan taught carpentry to special needs children.  Mark’s mother and three younger sisters were all blonde, sweet, and pretty.  His sisters came to every court hearing in order to support their big brother.
Mark had just started his senior year of high school when the accident happened.  He was driving home from his job at a fast-food restaurant on an arterial street with a 30 mile per hour speed limit.  According to Mark, he was traveling about 42 miles per hour before the accident happened.  According to the state’s calculations based on the skid marks, Mark’s speed was between 62 and 68 miles per hour.  An elderly man was stopped at a stop sign at an intersection with the arterial street.  Mark had the right-of-way.  Mark had a clear view of the street and intersection.  According to the police report, it was a clear, sunny day.
Mark saw the man at the stop sign, and noticed that he was hesitating forward with jerks and stops.  As Mark approached the intersection, he watched the man’s car, but didn’t think the old guy would pull out right in front of him.  When Mark was about a half a block away from the intersection, however, the old man slowly accelerated, never looking in Mark’s direction.  Mark slammed on his brakes, but could not stop in time to avoid clipping the tail-end of the man’s left fender.  In my mind, I saw the two cars slowly spinning in the sunlit intersection.
The accident didn’t appear to be serious.  Police came to the scene and took quick measurements.  As a precaution, an ambulance carried the old man to the hospital.  Within 30 minutes of the collision, police had completely cleared the scene.  Ten days later, still in the hospital, the elderly man died.
Vehicular homicide was Mark’s first criminal charge.  He had been completely sober at the time of the accident.  However, he had been speeding.  A person can be found guilty of vehicular homicide, even if he is sober, if he is driving recklessly.  Usually, merely exceeding the speed limit is not enough to prove recklessness.  If the speed is egregious under the circumstances, however, so fast as to be inherently dangerous, then speed alone can constitute reckless driving.  Even though Mark had the right-of-way, the state believed that if he hadn’t been speeding, he would have been able to stop in time to avoid an accident.  The state alleged that Mark was guilty because he had been driving with a willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others.
As I sat and looked at the stars, I tried to figure out how I could complete my investigation of Mark’s case by the next trial date, about two months away.  Vehicular homicide cases could be complex, usually involving accident reconstruction, complicated legal research, and even medical issues.  Every minute of my work day was filled with constant court appearances, jail visits, and telephone calls.  Every weekend was devoted to trial preparation.  I had also mostly given up sleep, although not by choice.  Mark’s trial needed about 100 hours of preparation.  I had already given up lunch and weekends.  I looked out at the stars.  “Please give me an extra 100 hours,” I said out loud.  The stars twinkled brightly back, little pin-prick reminders of the laws of time and space.  Speed may change time, but my desperate need had no effect on the laws of the universe.


Because it was still early—only 8:30—I decided to see if anyone was downstairs at Moezy’s.  I found José sitting at the bar, not our usual table.  He was alone.  “Hey,” I said, pulling up the bar stool next to him.
“Hey,” he said back, sounding glum.
I ordered a beer and we sat there, not talking.
            “Want to play the warrant channel game?” I asked, hoping a game would break the mood.  The warrant channel was a cable channel that flashed photos of people with arrest warrants.  The game involved a complicated set of rules regulating the amount of beer the participants were required to drink if they knew the person pictured on the television, had gone to trial with the person, or currently represented him.  A full beer was required to be consumed if the person had run from the lawyer’s office when informed of the current warrant.  José called the game “Squash My Warrant,” and was usually an enthusiastic participant.
            “No,” he said.  “Half of my clients have warrants right now.  I’d end up drunk in an hour.”
            I poured a pile of salt on the bar and started making salt designs on the dark wood.  After a few minutes of silence, I looked at José.  “What’s the matter with us?”
            “I gotta tell you, Kate, I don’t know how much longer I can take it.”
            “What—you too?  I thought you could take anything.”
            “Me?  That’s just for show.”  He held out his arm, dramatically.  “If you prick me, do I not bleed?”  José was the only person I knew who could be simultaneously hammy and depressed.  “I was sitting in my office the other day, thinking about all of the trials that I have coming up.  My heart started beating hard and fast, and I got so dizzy, I had to sit down.  I thought I was having a heart attack.”
“Are you OK?  What was it?”
“The doctor said it was probably a panic attack.  He offered to prescribe some anti-anxiety medication.”
“Are you going to take it?”
“I might as well just hand them my huevos on a platter,” he said, shaking his head.  “I’m thinking of joining the French Foreign Legion.”
            “The what?”
            “The French Foreign Legion—it’s my ticket out of here.”
            “Couldn’t you just get a different job?”
            “Can you see me as a corporate lawyer?  Never.  Anyway, I bet those guys are pretty stressed, too.”
            “I’ve been having fantasies about working in a sandwich shop,” I confessed.  “‘Madam,’ I would say.  ‘Would you prefer mustard or mayonnaise?’  ‘Would you care for whole wheat or sourdough, sir?’  And when people chose the white bread instead of whole wheat, I wouldn’t feel compelled to twist their arms to persuade them to elect the healthier choice.”
            “I have to pay a thousand dollars a month on my student loans,” José said.  “I can’t afford to work at a sandwich shop.”
            My parents had paid for my college.  God, I was spoiled.  “Can’t you declare bankruptcy or something?”
            “Can’t do that on student loans.”
            “Isn’t there any way to get out of them?”
            “You mean other than dying?”
            “I know.  You could fake your own death.”
            “I already thought of that.  I was starting to make plans for staging a ‘fatal’ car accident when I ran across the French Foreign Legion thing.  I think it’s worth a shot.”
            “Why would you want to do that?  Do you speak French?”
            “No, but the ability to speak French is not a requirement.  After you serve five years—if you survive—the French government gives you a new name and a French passport.  Hello, new identity.  Good bye, student loans.”
            “What would you do after that?”
            “Jacque would work in a skate board shop or music store—anything that would let him sleep at night.”
            “You can’t sleep either?”
            “Never more than two hours a night.  Sometimes not even that.”
            “Wow.  I thought it was just me.”
            I was surprised to see Matthew and Janice in the doorway.  We hardly ever all got together here anymore.  I was glad to see them, as José and I had worked ourselves into a horrible funk.  “Hey, handsome,” I said, giving Matthew’s leg a squeeze.  I did this because it made him blush.  He smiled, but only faintly.
            “Don’t tell anyone,” Matthew said as he sat down, “but I’m thinking of doing something bad.”
            “No, Matthew, don’t do it—you must resist being bad.”  If Matthew decided to be bad, I feared the world was lost.
            “No, really.  I’m thinking of calling my doctor.”
            “That doesn’t sound so bad …”
            “I’m going to call my doctor and ask him to give me a note saying I can’t come back to work for a couple of months.  I have a ton of sick leave saved up.”
            “What are you going to be sick with?”
            “I’m on the verge of a major asthma attack.”  He stopped and took a deep breath for emphasis.  I could hear the wheeze in his chest, even over the bar noise.  “I stopped taking my asthma medication about a month ago.  I can barely breathe.  In a week or two I should be sick enough that my doctor will order me to take a leave of absence.  I’m going to lose it if I don’t get out of here for a while.”
            “What’s happening?” Janice asked.  “We were all fine for a while.”
            “Bill says the prosecutors have us outnumbered,” I offered.
            “All I know is that I can’t keep up,” Matthew said.  “I had a three strikes case the other day where I told the judge I needed more time to prepare.  I had an expert witness I wanted to hire.  She told me it was too bad, the case was old and had to go forward.”
            “What happened?”
            “We went to trial.  The guy was convicted.  He got a life sentence for stealing beer from a convenience store and then punching the security guard when the security guard tackled him in the parking lot.  After the judge sentenced my client to the mandatory life sentence, my client looked at me and said, ‘Why did you let this happen to me?’  That’s when I stopped taking my medication.”
            “I have a confession,” Janice said.  “I’ve been interviewing at a few of the family-law firms.  Nothing’s come of it yet, but I’m going to keep applying until I get something.”
            “You know if you practice in family law, you have to deal with people who are getting divorced,” I said.
            “Yeah, I know.  They’re way worse than criminals, but at least the pay will be better.”
            “A private law firm might frown on cursing and smoking.”  I didn’t want her to leave.
            “Didn’t you hear what happened?” Janice asked.
            “The other day, I was in an argument with one of the district court prosecutors on the phone.  She had gotten a warrant for one of my clients without telling me.  I was trying to get her to quash the warrant or at least go in front of the judge, when she started lecturing me about what a loser my client was.  ‘He can plead guilty if he wants out,’ she said in this bitchy little voice.
            “I slammed down the phone, and said, ‘Fuck that fucking cunt!’  OK, maybe I yelled it.  Unfortunately, Gordon was walking past my cubicle at that particular moment.  He berated me for unprofessional behavior.  He said that if I ever used that language in the office again, I would be fired.  That’s when I started sending my resume out.”
            “What is the matter with Gordon?  Why is he so bad to us?” I asked.
“Maybe he is just evil,” Janice suggested.
“That’s possible,” I said, “but does anyone ever set out to be evil?  OK, maybe a few of the sociopaths, but for the most part, people seem to think they’re doing the right thing, even if they’re wrong.”
“The problem is,” José said, “he’s not a true believer.  He sees himself as a spoke in the wheel of the system of justice, not as a public defender.  He sees his job as the head of a county agency.  That’s why he thinks it’s his job to keep costs down for the county’s benefit.  He thinks it’s his job to reign in troublesome lawyers who irritate the judges and prosecutors.”
“I think he hates our clients,” Janice said.
“And us,” I added.
“As long as he keeps the county commissioners happy by keeping costs down and placates the judges by punishing anyone they complain about, he’ll keep his job,” José said.
“Could we complain to the state bar association?” Matthew asked.
“I checked that out,” I said.  “He’s on the bar association’s committee for public defense.”
“What about the defender association?” Matthew asked.  “Could we complain to it?”
“As the head of our office, he’s automatically on their board of directors,” I said.
We all sat quietly, looking down into our beers.  It was so damn sad, because we all loved this crazy job, but none of us could stand it any longer.
            “We’re going to have to do something,” I said.  With my finger I made weepy lines in the condensation on my beer glass.
The next morning, I woke up feeling different.  Something had changed when I admitted out loud that I couldn’t keep up at work.  I probably never would have conceded this fact if José and Matthew hadn’t as well.  But now I knew it wasn’t me—it was the job.  I had been given the enormous responsibility of trying to protect people’s liberty, and then not given enough time or resources to do the job right.  I also knew it was never going to get better while Gordon was our boss.  He would never fight for our office to have more lawyers or more money.  He would never back us up.
            I walked from my apartment to my office with my head down.  I sat at my desk and turned on my computer.  I watched my fingers type Gordon’s name on an e-mail message.  “Dear Mr. Elliot,” they typed.  “I request that you transfer me to the juvenile unit of our office.  I believe this unit will be a better match for my skills and personality.  Sincerely, Kate Hamilton.”  I sat and stared at my computer screen for a long while after I clicked “send.”  I felt like I had just let go of the lawyer I had never expected to become.  I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t think of any alternative.
            Later that day, I received a reply message from Gordon.  “Excellent decision, Kate.  I have received many complaints about you from the judges and prosecutors.  It takes a strong person to admit her weaknesses.  You will transfer to the juvenile unit in approximately two months.  Please wrap up or transfer any remaining cases you have in that time period.”
            I couldn’t tell Matthew or José that I had asked to be transferred.  I knew they would understand, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it.  Instead, I looked through my files to figure out what I had to do to wrap up my cases in the next two months.  I had just stacked my files on my desk when I remembered I had to be in trial on a drug possession case at 9 o’clock.

Want to read more?  Find the next chapters here.


Miss Jewell said...

I cannot stand Gordon Elliott. He is the worst.

carol d said...

"In some respects, he's more weenie than wimp--socially inept; at times awkwardly ingratiating, at other times mocking those below him, but almost always getting the situation a little wrong, and never in a sympathetic way."