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By Stephen Solomita
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 David Cray
All rights reserved.
THE MINUTE I LAID eyes on the old woman, I knew she was going to lie to me. Posed there in my office, she gave me a long moment to absorb the extent of her misery. To admire the mousey hair dribbling over the back of her collar, the dark pouches beneath her swollen eyes. Her narrow lips were greasy with dark red lipstick, the only sign of color in her white-on-gray face.
"Mr. Kaplan?" She wore a faded cloth coat (threadbare, naturally) buttoned up to her throat and she clutched it with her right hand like it was the only thing between her bony frame and the wicked January wind. "My name is Thelma Barrow."
"Call me Sid. And take a seat, Mrs. Barrow."
"Please, my ..."
First, she was going to tell me how her little buddykins was sitting (right now, even as we speak) in the Tombs, or in Rikers, or the Brooklyn House of Detention, how his miserable mutt existence (not to mention his sexual identity) was being threatened by the element dwelling therein. Then she was going to ask me to please save the darling boy who'd once suckled at her milk-swollen breasts.
"... my little girl has been arrested and I don't know what to do."
For once, I didn't mind getting it wrong. A little girl instead of a little boy. It made the sexual identity part much more interesting.
"Is this the first time?" I looked at her looking at me through small, almost perfectly round eyes. "That your daughter's been arrested I mean."
For a minute I thought she was going to show me how angry the question made her. Then she sighed and clutched her purse to her belly. "No," she admitted, "not the first time. But now it's different. Now it's murder."
"Second degree murder, yes."
Once she'd gotten it out, revealed the family shame, she seemed to relax a little, but her sharp knees were still pressed together, her torso rigid against the back of the chair. Personally, I thought it was a nice touch, the stiff upper lip and the wet swollen eyes. Tough love personified.
"All right, Mrs. Barrow, I'm going to ask you some questions and I want you to give me short, clear answers. Right to the point, okay?"
"I understand," she said, her mouth tightening down.
"Good, what's your daughter's name?"
"Priscilla Sweet. I call her Prissy."
"When was she arrested?"
"Two days ago. She ..."
"Please don't volunteer anything." I slid my chair back a few feet, stood up and began to pace. "Where are they holding her?"
That brought a single tear. It ran along the left side of her nose, then caught a deep groove running from her nostril to the outside of her mouth. "No." She shook her head.
"Her priors, what were they for?"
"Drugs." She glanced to the left and shrugged. "Of course."
"And the sentences?"
"Probation twice, then two years in prison."
"The victim, the person she's alleged to have killed, did she know this individual?"
"Her husband, Byron." She snatched her bag up into her chest and pursed her lips as if about to spit. "The black bastard."
Knowing full well that within a week or two I'd be the Jew lawyer (that is, if I hadn't already earned the appellation), I grunted my appreciation of her comment and hardened my heart.
"How long were they married, Mrs. Barrow? Prissy and Byron?"
"Ten years." Her lips tightened. "He beat her, Mr. Kaplan. He got her into the drugs."
"I believe you, Thelma. Now tell me, were there any witnesses to the alleged homicide?"
"No, they were by themselves in their apartment when it ..." She was back to the suffering senior. "... when it happened."
"The cops arrest her at the scene?"
A nod, then another tear.
"What about children?"
She looked up at me, shook her head. "None. Thank God."
I thought of Caleb, with his ebony skin and goggle eyes, how much he wanted to have children, what a good father he'd make. "The husband, Mrs. Barrow, he ever been arrested?"
That brought a short, bitter laugh.
"And your daughter, she have any bruises? I mean right now."
"Prissy's got an eye like this."
I stopped pacing and sat behind my desk. It was time for the lie. I rubbed the ball of my thumb in a slow circle across the tips of my middle and fore fingers. "Money," I said, "the root of all freedom."
"I'm not a rich woman." The standard opening line. "I've been working all my life. I'm a widow."
"Mrs. Barrow, let me be frank. If you want it pro bono, try Legal Aid. Everything else costs money. Especially me."
"Well," she said, after a moment's reflection, "I have five thousand dollars in the bank."
I stared at her for a moment, until her expression hardened and I was sure five grand was all I was going to get. For now.
"That'll be a start," I said, knowing I couldn't do a decent job for ten times that amount. "If you'll write me a check, I'll be down to see your daughter this afternoon."
"The money's in a certificate of deposit. I'd have to pay a penalty."
"You want me to wait until it matures?" When she didn't respond, I continued. "Today's Friday. Postdate the check and I'll make the deposit on Monday."
She frowned, but her hands went down into her purse. "You're willing to trust me until Monday? I'm surprised." Her small mouth lifted into a coy smile.
"You look like an honest woman." Meanwhile, the law provided for triple damages on a bad check and I was fully prepared to sue for every penny if it bounced. That's how broke I was.
I opened my once-elegant attaché case, tossed in some paperwork, added a tiny 35mm camera loaded with high-speed film. "Wait here, Mrs. Barrow. My secretary will be in to get some basic information. Names, addresses, phone numbers, like that. I'll call you in the morning."
She stared up at me, her expression wary, but didn't say anything as I left the room, closing the door behind me. Julie was sitting on the edge of her desk in my outer office. She looked at me expectantly.
"Get her signature on a retainer agreement," I said, "then have Caleb check her vitals. Mortgages, bank accounts ... You know the drill."
The jail on Rikers Island was the sole reason I owned a car. Stuck out in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, it could only be reached via a bridge at the foot of Hazen Street in Astoria, an impossibly long subway-bus ride from my office in Manhattan. When I first broke into the business, back in the late '60s, Rikers Island housed fewer than five thousand prisoners. Now it held more than twenty thousand and the city fathers, despite a stunning drop in the crime rate, were expecting a twenty percent increase in the coming decade.
Rikers was a place of limitless misery and violence, a hell on earth for everyone, including (and especially) the men and women who worked there. Lawyers often referred to the Rikers complex as the House of Pain; suffering ran through it like flu virus through a fourth grade classroom. Usually, that was good for business, the misery, violence, suffering, and pain, but in this case it was going to present me with a problem. It would be a long time before Priscilla Sweet got her day in court and I needed to know if she could deal with incarceration. There are no activities for detainees; those who can't make bail remain in their cells or in open housing units day after day after day. Many take the first plea bargain offered by the state, preferring a New York prison to a long series of empty days punctuated by the occasional sexual assault. If little white Prissy was among this group, I needed to know it before I spent her mama's five grand.
I caught a break at the reception area of the Rose Singer Center, the women's jail. A black corrections officer named McCoy was working the desk. McCoy was sharp-eyed and polite to a fault, a veteran's veteran who'd been around long enough to know the difference between honest and dishonest graft.
"Officer McCoy," I said, slapping my unzipped case on the desk, "how goes it?"
He glanced at his watch. "Slowly, Kaplan. Very, very slowly." Opening my case for inspection, he deftly palmed the twenty tucked beneath a small strap. "Who's the lucky victim?"
"Woman named Priscilla Sweet."
"No kidding?" McCoy raised an eyebrow. "Looks like you got yourself a celebrity. Made the Post and the News."
I started to ask him what the papers were saying, then changed my mind, figuring I could count on him for anything but an unbiased report. "You know, I'm in a bit of a hurry here, being as it's getting on to five o'clock." That was part of what the twenty was all about.
"No problem. I'll have her down in fifteen minutes." He held up my camera. "What's this?"
"The mother claims the daughter's bruised and I need to take a few pictures." That was the other part of the twenty. Theoretically, I was supposed to get permission to shoot pictures or have a doctor examine my client. Permission that could be easily postponed until all visible trace of Ms. Sweet's injuries disappeared.
McCoy nodded thoughtfully and picked up the phone. "Fifteen minutes," he repeated.
Thirty minutes later he called my name. "Kaplan," he said, his voice indifferent, "room eight."
One look at Priscilla Sweet erased any concern I had for her fragility. Despite a fading bruise that covered half her face and a swollen right brow, eyes as gray and hard as a sheet of stainless steel met and held my own as I came through the door. "You bring any cigarettes?" she asked.
I laid my briefcase on the table, opened the snaps, took out an untouched pack of Winstons, tossed them over. She snapped the cellophane off and popped one into her mouth. "Appreciate it," she said when I offered a light. "I won't get my commissary till tomorrow."
She leaned back in the chair and let her head fall back slightly as she filled her lungs with smoke. I watched her carefully, thinking how little she resembled her mother. Priscilla Sweet's eyes were narrow and set far apart, her mouth was full and generous, her nose was small and sharp at the tip.
"You know who I am?" I asked.
"Sid Kaplan," she responded promptly. "I asked for you."
"You represented a buddy of mine, about seven years ago. Guy named Peter Howard." She raised her eyes to meet mine. "He did okay."
I nodded thoughtfully, just as if I actually remembered Peter Howard. "I spoke to your mother briefly, Priscilla, and I'm going to speak to the A.D.A. as soon as we're finished here."
"She tell you what happened?"
"She told me as much as I need to know, at least for now." I crossed my legs, unbuttoned my jacket. "What I wanna do today is explain self-defense and the law, let you think about it for a while before you tell me exactly what happened. Comprende?"
Her smile was understanding in the extreme, the knowing grimace of a woman who'd been there often enough to have the drill memorized.
"Your mother tells me your old man liked to use his hands. That right?"
"That's right." She folded her arms across her chest.
"Can you prove it? You ever go to the cops, get an order of protection? You got witnesses?"
"All of the above."
"Good, now here's the reality. According to the law, you had an obligation to retreat. If you shot your husband as he was attacking you, and you can prove it ..."
"I thought proving was up to the prosecution."
"That's the theory, Priscilla. But in the absence of independent witnesses, the only way to prove self-defense is to have you testify. And if you testify, the judge will instruct the jury that you have a vested interest in the outcome of the case and therefore your testimony should be carefully scrutinized. You get the picture?"
She let her arms drop into her lap and crossed her legs, apparently unconcerned with the possibility of prison. "Thank God for O.J. Simpson."
I winked at her, flashed a genuine smile. "O.J. made it a lot easier for battered women," I admitted, "but acquittal's still not a given. Let me explain the rest of it. The law expects you to take advantage of any reasonable opportunity to retreat. That means if you shot your husband after an attack, when you could have gotten out, you're technically guilty of a homicide, though not necessarily murder. If that's the case, my defense will be two-fold: battered wife syndrome combined with 'give the woman a medal for ridding the planet of this scumbag.'"
That brought a peal of laughter. "I think we're gonna get along," she said.
"If we do, it'll be a first for me." I paused to retrieve the camera. "Because I'm not here to make friends."
"You're here to take pictures?"
I pointed to her eye. "I want to document the damage before it disappears."
She rose, stepped back away from the window and the guard on the other side, unzipped her city-issued orange jumpsuit, and let it fall to her waist. There were (again, fading) bruises on her ribs, chest, and thighs.
"Something else you might want to think about," I said as I focused the camera, "I don't believe we'll get a doctor to say those bruises are forty-eight hours old." She started to respond, but I waved her off. "Something else to think about," I insisted, "before we get to the nuts and bolts." I stood up, prepared to leave. "At the arraignment, who represented you?"
"A Legal Aid lawyer named Rothstein. Carol Rothstein. You know her?"
I shook my head. "How 'bout the cops? You give them a statement?"
She answered me with a sneer.CHAPTER 2
THE PAY PHONES IN the reception area were taken up by mutt relatives trying to arrange some kind of justice for their loved ones, so I drove to a diner on 21st Street between the Triboro and 59th Street Bridges to make my phone calls. Once upon a time, when I was flying high, I'd gotten the owner's daughter off on a drug possession charge. The search of her vehicle having been blatantly unconstitutional (at least by 1982 standards), the effort on my part had been minimal, but Georgie Petrarkis had been impressed enough to spring for the occasional coffee and danish when I happened by.
"Counselor, how are you doing?" He was standing behind the register, a thick, swarthy man with an enormous fleshy nose.
"In a rush, Georgie." I flipped a sawbuck on the counter and he handed me a roll of quarters. There was a time when I had a calling card. Not to mention a cellular phone. "Anything fresh out of the oven?"
"Anna-Marie," he called to his wife, "for the counselor, coffee and an almond horn."
I walked back to the pay phones, dropped in the obligatory quarters, punched out my office number. "Julie," I said when she answered on the second ring, "it's Sid."
"Get hold of Caleb ..."
"He's sitting right here. You wanna talk to him?"
"No, I don't have the time. Tell him to poke around, see what his cop friends have on our client. Her name's Priscilla Sweet. Also get her yellow sheet, the victim's, too. His name is Byron Sweet."
"That's it?" Somehow, Julia always found my sense of urgency amusing. Probably because I spent most of my waking life in a panic. Meanwhile, I slept like a baby while she spent the wee hours watching C-SPAN rebroadcasts.
"Yeah, I'll be back to the office as soon as I can." I hesitated, not wanting to get anyone's hopes up, then softened. "It could be we have something big here. Assuming we play it right and don't run out of money. You do a credit check on the mother?"
"I'll have it in an hour or so. If I can scrape the two hundred together."
I hung up the phone, shoved another quarter into the slot, dialed Legal Aid in Manhattan. After only two wrong connections, I found Carol Rothstein at her desk. She seemed a little disappointed when I told her I was taking over Ms. Sweet's defense, though she must have been expecting it. "The state's case," she told me, "is being prepared by an A.D.A. named Buscetta."
Though I rang off without comment, the name, Carlo Buscetta, warmed my frozen heart. (Not to the point of melting, mind you, just enough to start a colony of bacteria growing on the surface.) Buscetta had a reputation as the hardest hard-ass in the D.A.'s office. I'd been up against him three times, losing once. On that occasion, when the clerk read the verdict, he'd tossed my client (a run-of-the-mill thief, by the way) a triumphant glare that reeked of pure lust.
Buscetta wasn't in his office, so I introduced myself to one of his sycophants and left the number on the pay phone. Then I called a Newsday reporter named Phoebe Morris on her cellular phone. She answered on the fourth ring, took my number, said she'd call back in ten minutes.
Excerpted from Bad Lawyer by Stephen Solomita. Copyright © 2001 David Cray. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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