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I sat in the tiny interview room, the back legs of my metal chair scraping against the brick wall behind me, waiting for my next client to walk in. A filesuch as it was: a manila folder containing a badly typewritten complaint (I suspect that cops are virtually the only people left in the country who still routinely use typewriters, and they are apparently unaware of the existence of Wite-Out)lay open on the metal table in front of me, but I hadn't bothered to do more than glance at it. I needed to have some idea of the police version of what'd happened, but there was no reason for me to have it nailed down in my head, confident from past experience that the words on the police forms would have little relation to the story I would hear when Chris Delaney walked into the room.
I spent my working days in the criminal courthouse on Schermerhorn Street, walking distance from the Brooklyn Defenders' office on Pierrepont. I'd been handling arraignments for about six months, five days a week of working out of the aging courthouse's dark and narrow rooms across from the holding cells, conducting five-minute interviews, then heading down the hall and up to the courtroom, where my clients would enter their initial pleas. Many minor misdemeanor cases ended then and there, a plea of guilty in exchange for time served, plus maybe a small fine or community service, perhaps a treatment program if it was a first-time drug bust. These pleas meant the defendant's main punishment was the twenty-four hours or so he'd just spent locked up waiting to be brought before a judge. Even after half a year this still bothered me: the system took somebody who'd just spent a more or less sleepless night on the floor of a giant holding cell, fifty other guys in the room, the court officers feeding him maybe some bologna with a drooping slice of American cheese pressed between a couple of wilted slices of white bread, and then along came a lawyer like me, telling the exhausted, scared, and hungry defendant that the whole thing could be over by copping a plea, the main punishment the experience just endured. That and a criminal record. What tired soul wouldn't accept that deal in exchange for getting to go home, sleep in his own bed?
There was a knock on the door. "Yeah," I called out after a second, a little thrown by the knock: many of my visitors, old hands at the game and naturally assertive to boot, didn't bother. The door opened and a young white man shuffled in. A user, no doubt about that, skin the color of dirty soap, bruise-colored puffs under both his eyes. His hair was curly and uncombed, spiraling down his face. Guy'd blow me for a fix, I thought, feeling an immediate sharp dislike for my newest client. This happened to me at least once a day, sometimes more. I had never mentioned it to another public defender, never asked if it was just part of the job, because I was afraid that it wasn't. I was afraid it was particular to me, especially with someone like Chris Delaney, a type I recognized in an instant, a type I'd narrowly escaped becoming myself, if I had indeed escaped it. He'd ended up where I'd been heading in the weeks before Beth's death. Of course, the cost had been high for me too, and a year later I was still paying.
"Have a seat," I said, picking up the file and making a show of looking at it. "Chris Delaney," I said. "That your name?"
The kid nodded. I put Chris's age at twenty. "I'm Joel Deveraux," I continued. "I'm with the Brooklyn Defenders'. I'll be representing you at your arraignment. Ever been busted before, Chris?" I asked.
The kid, this Chris, shook his head. "This will be more productive if you use words to communicate with me," I said, letting some irritation show. Despite all the talk in the trade about client empowerment, how you should make your clients feel that they were in the driver's seat, in my opinion that was just issuing an open invitation to a festival of bullshit. I didn't think letting clients try out an increasingly preposterous series of variations on reality was productive for anybody. It saved everybody some time and aggravation if the client understood from the beginning that I was in control.
"No," Chris said.
"But you've been using for a while," I said, not putting much question into it.
Chris looked at me, his eyes begging. He was clearly so spent, so sick, that it was hard not to feel a tug of sympathy. But pitying junkies was like crying over every death that took place on this earth: it would be a bottomless ocean of grief. Chris seemed genuinely humiliated, though, and didn't answer.
"I'm in this room every day, Chris," I said. "I can tell a junkie from a day-tripper a mile away. You may have been a dilettante once, a 'recreational user,' but that time has passed. It's all over your face."
Chris still just looking at me, resentment seeping in and mixing with the pleading in his eyes. "Why does it matter?" he said.
"It matters because I'm going to try and get you help," I said. "Are you ready to be helped?"
Chris appeared to really consider the question. "I don't know," he said softly, looking at the floor. "I hope so."
I glanced down again at the scant file in my hand. "Says here they snagged you up on the street. You know why?" Phrasing the question so that it didn't assume guilt.
Chris shrugged. "I think they must have been watching from a rooftop or something. They picked me up two blocks away, put me in a van with, like, six other people. After they caught a couple more they drove inlike, a whole bunch of them, cops, I meanand rousted the dealers."
I wrote a summary of this down, not for any good reason, just to be doing something, make Chris feel like he was talking to a lawyer. "Cops say anything to you about testifying against the dealers?"
"No one said shit to me," Chris said. "Never even read me my rights. Isn't that illegal?"
"They don't really need to Mirandize you if they don't ask you any questions," I said. "So why don't you tell me what happened? From the start."
"Do you want me to tell the . . . you know, the bad stuff?"
"Anything you tell me is confidential, of course," I replied. "And even at this stage, the more I know about what the other side is going to know, the more effective I can be."
Chris nodded at this. He wanted to tell, I thought: often they wanted to tell. Sometimes to confess, sometimes to brag, sometimes a mixture of the two.
"I was down at the projects at Avenue H and Ocean Avenue, looking to score. There's some guys I'm pretty regular with. Everything seemed, you know, business as usual, until I got back up to Flatbush. Suddenly these two cops are right up behind me, digging in my pockets. They just came out of nowhere, far as I could tell."
"So when you bought, that was right on the street?"
"They deal out of the project, but they realize guys with my skin color don't want to go in there. That place is like a fortress or something. So they work it where you can order right on the street, even though they keep the shit in the Gardens. They take your order; then you go to this pay phone that doesn't work and pretend to make a call. Somebody else comes out with the shit."
I resisted the urge to nod. I knew the playbook, but that had nothing, I told myself, to do with this. "And when the cops grabbed you, you said they reached into your pockets?"\
Chris nodded again, with some force now. "They were both yelling, saying how they knew I had it and where was it; all while they were grabbing at me. They didn't ask for permission to search or show a warrant or anything." The kid again looking to suggest he'd been the victim of some constitutional violation he knew about from TV.
"You in school, Chris?"
Chris nodded. "At Brooklyn College."
"You get federal loans?"
Chris nodded again.
"That can be a problem," I said. "For next year, anyway."
"What's going to happen to me?" Chris asked, his voice cracking slightly.
"You got any kind of criminal record at all?"
"You already asked me that."
"Yeah, well," I said. "Some questions are worth repeating."
Chris shook his head. "I'm not a troublemaker. I'm on a scholarship, taking five classes, working twenty hours a week sometimes to get by. I just need some help winding down sometimes, you know?"
I had never spoken to a client about the events that had led me from graduating from one of the country's top law schools and making over two hundred thousand dollars a year as a corporate litigator at a big firm to making under fifty thousand doing rookie PD work. There was a moment here when I was tempted, thinking that hearing it would benefit Chris, but it passed.
"I guess that help has paid off," I said instead, instantly regretting it, knowing I was overcompensating for my own vulnerability. Chris looked down sharply, like he'd been slapped.
"Okay," I said quickly, not wanting to let the unpleasant moment I'd created linger. "Here's what's going to happen now. We'll go before the arraignment judge, who'll ask you for a plea. From what I have here, their case against you isn't perfect, but it sounds like that's just laziness and that they can easily fill in the gaps if they have to. You plead not guilty, you get a trial, but you also face the risk of actual jail time. You plead this out, no prior record, a college student, jail's off the table. Depending on the judge's mood, we should be able to get you into a treatment program. This would mean you'd have to do NA meetings as an outpatient at a treatment center. There's a catch to this prize, though: assuming you plead to a B misdemeanor, you'll also be on probation for a year. If you don't go to your meetings, or if you get busted within the next year, they can reopen the charges, put you in jail. You follow that?"
Chris answered with his own question: "What about my student loans?"
"You won't be eligible for federal loans based on a drug conviction," I said. "But your priority right now should be staying out of jail."
"I can't afford to go to school without the loans. My dad's on disability; my mom works part-time. This is going to ruin my whole life."
"Your life is going to be a lot more ruined if you actually go to jail," I said. "There're other loan programs out there. You might have to pay more interest, but that really can't be your focus right now. This is an easy case for them to make. It's your call how to plead, but you said you wanted to get help, and getting help is going to basically be your main punishment if you plead out. So that's what I strongly suggest you do."
Ten minutes later the two of us were standing before the judge, the bailiff reading charges. Part of my job working arraignments was to keep the easy cases from going forward. The system relied on disposing of many cases at arraignment; it would break if most arrests in New York City proceeded past that point. In the vast majority of cases, a defense attorney's job was really just to convince his client to take a plea. Actually going to trial was primarily reserved for those rare cases where guilt was really called into question.
I had grabbed the prosecutor in the hallway outside the courtroom, made my thirty-second pitch about how this Delaney kid had no record, was ready and willing for treatment, ripe for time served and some sessions as an outpatient. The ADA, a smug little prick named Diaz whom I had been dealing with at least once a week for the past half year, stared off into space as I spoke, and then said he'd see what seemed reasonable.
Another lawyer from my office, Shelly Kennedy, was doing an arraignmentan indecent exposure on a subway flasherwhen I walked into the courtroom. There was a steady drone of voices from the back of the room, which was nondescript and worn, the only decorations being the words "In God We Trust" behind the judge and a half dozen of the ugliest chandeliers I'd ever seen in my life. The courthouse had been built in the 1930s and was coming apart at the seams.
Tired, I shut down a little during the lull as we waited, feeling a second of disorientation when Delaney's case was called. I picked up the file and walked toward the podium, nodding at Shelly as we passed, the familiar stage fright causing my heart to pound a little and my palms to sweat, as it always did, but it didn't bother me: I knew I'd be fine once I started talking. I looked down at the file as I walked, furrowing my brow as though sifting through conflicting evidence, when really I was just double-checking my client's name. I had a pathological fear of calling a client by the wrong name. I'd never actually done it myself, but I'd seen it happen more than once. To me, this was the bluntest possible reminder of the assembly-line nature of the work we did here, and I didn't think I'd be able to stand it if I ever made that mistake.
Two court officers brought Delaney over to stand beside me. One stood behind him, the other next to him. Delaney held his hands behind his back like he was handcuffed. ADA Diaz stated his name and office for the record, and I did the same. Then Diaz did his spiel, which I barely bothered to listen to, using the time to prepare what I was going to say.
"Your Honor," I began when my turn came, my voice going a half octave deeper, as it always did in court. "My client has never before been charged with any crime. He is willing to concede that he has a problem with substance abuse, and he would very much like to receive help for this. This is not a case where any term of imprisonment is warranted. If the state will agree to a B misdemeanor plea for probation and entry into an outpatient program, not only will justice have been amply done, but my client will have been genuinely helped."
Judge Davis looked over at Diaz, who was reading his own file on the case. "Counsel?" she said, wanting to see if the state would agree.
A long moment passed. At last the ADA looked up at the judge. "This does seem like a case where probation and outpatient could be warranted," he said.
Judge Davis nodded, turning her attention toward Chris. "Mr. Delaney, is it your intention to plead guilty to the charges against you in order to get the sentence just discussed?"
Chris looked at the judge, then back at me. Nobody was ever in a hurry to plead guilty. The defendants were usually a step behind at arraignment, except for the old pros, the lifetime-achievement-award winners who were in and out of the system all the time. I cupped a hand over Chris's ear and whispered: "You have to plead guilty to get the deal. Otherwise you have to plead not guilty, and then we go from there."
Chris considered this, then looked back at the judge and nodded.
"You have to say the words," Judge Davis said. "Is it your intention to plead guilty?"
"Yes," Chris said. "I plead guilty."
"And is that because you are, in fact, guilty?"
Chris nodded again, then caught himself. "Yes," he said, adding tentatively, "Your Honor."
And it was all over but the paperwork. Once the judge had accepted the plea and the bailiff was calling the next case, Chris turned to me. "What happens next?"
"What happens next is you leave this building, get yourself a nice meal, and go sleep in your own bed. You've got to pay a processing fine but it can wait, and they will contact you directly about the outpatient meetings. The most important thing for you to keep in mind is that this whole deal blows up if you get busted againfor anythingin the next year. The state will be able to just tear this up and charge you all over again. You understand?"
"Yeah," Chris said absently, but I couldn't tell if he was really listening. I had no idea how many of these deals did ultimately blow upso far as I knew, nobody bothered to keep track. Everyone too busy just keeping the system running to bother tracking whether it was actually working or not.
I walked Chris out of the courtroom, shook his hand, uttered the usual spiel about staying out of trouble and going to the required meetings. Then we were done and my shift was over and I was free to take my paperwork back to the Brooklyn Defenders and call it a day.