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The guiltiest man there ever was
Alonzo Barnett died last week.
There wasn't any obituary announcement that ran in the Times, or even the Daily News or the Post. It seems the Alonzo Barnetts of the world don't rate obituary announcements.
In fact, Jaywalker might never have found out, had he not gotten a phone call from a mutual acquaintance named Kenny Smith. Smith had originally met Barnett through Jaywalker, and had somehow gotten word on the street of Barnett's death.
Not that the death was a particularly tragic one, as deaths go. Barnett was seventy-six, after all, and even though he'd spent a good portion of those years in state prison, seventy-six is still a pretty fair number, by any yardstick.
There was no funeral or memorial service held for Alonzo Barnett. Still, Jaywalker and Smith did get together to pay a brief condolence call. Though for Jaywalker, it felt like something much more than that. Because over the twenty-five years since their first meeting, he'd come to regard Barnett not just as a former client and a good friend but as a defendant sent his way by something very close to Providence. Not that Jaywalker would ever admit believing in that kind of stuff, not even if his life depended on it.
Still, a year before the Barnett case, he'd represented another defendant, also a likable African-American with a long record, who, like Barnett, had been charged with selling drugs. The guy had been considering taking a plea, but Jaywalker had talked him out of it, telling him the offer wasn't good enough and there was an excellent chance they could beat the case at trial. So when the jury inexplicably came back with a conviction, Jaywalker had gone into a deep depression. He'd failed his client, he realized, not only by losing but by pushing him to go to trial in the first place. He'd been a "cowboy," a "gunslinger," an unpardonable sin in Jaywalker's book. The resulting funk left him nearly suicidal. He stopped taking on new cases and could barely show up for his existing ones. He might have walked away from his practice altogether, had he not had a wife and daughter to support and tuition payments to meet.
So when Barnett's case came along, it meant more than just another client, more than just another payday. It represented something of a second chance for Jaywalker, an opportunity to atone for having failed so terribly the last time out. A chance, if you will, for redemption.
That had been then. But there was more to it. Over the twenty-five years that had passed since Alonzo Barnett first came into Jaywalker's life, his name has become the answer to a trivia question of sorts. A question Jaywalker's been asked hundreds of times by now, perhaps even thousands. Though to Jaywalker, there's nothing the least bit trivial about it. It goes like this:
"How can you possibly represent somebody you know is guilty?"
He's heard it so many times, in fact, that he long ago developed a stock response to it, a little civics lecture he trots out and delivers on cue, punctuated with timeworn phrases like passionate belief in the process, foundation of the adversarial system of justice, and love of the underdog.
And his words seem to satisfy most folks, at least up to a point. Others, he's come to learn, are never going to get it. Like the earnest young man who appeared to listen intently before smiling and saying, "That's very nice. I hope you lose all your trials."
Every once in a while, though, the questioner presses Jaywalker further, and sounds as though he or she is really interested in getting beyond the catchphrases and truly understanding why it is that the guiltiest of defendants, particularly those who readily admit their guilt, nevertheless deserve a champion every bit as much as the wrongly accused. And at that point Jaywalker will look around the room, searching for a couple of empty chairs off in a quiet corner. Then he'll suggest that the two of them sit down. And once they've done so, he'll look the person hard in the eye. "Do you really, really want to know the answer to that question?" he'll ask. And if he happens to get a "Yes," he'll lean back and close his eyes for a long moment, the better to take himself back over the twenty-five years that have passed since the event. And then, once he's completed the journey in his mind, he'll open his eyes again. And if the other chair isn't empty by that timeas it actually was onceJaywalker will draw in a deep breath.
"Let me tell you a story," he'll say to his listener. "A story about the guiltiest man there ever was. A guy who was, as the old saying goes, guilty as sin."
Although his client's name may have been Alonzo Bar-nett, for as long as anyone could remember he'd been known simply as AB. Which made the two of them a pretty good match, considering that years earlier, long before he'd become Jaywalker the criminal defense lawyer, he himself had been born into the world as Harrison J. Walker.
Barnett came his way in the mid-1980s, which for many New Yorkers was a time of crime, cocaine and crack in epidemic proportions. For Jaywalker, it was also a time to hustle to pay the mortgage and his daughter's tuition. And one of the ways he hustled was to accept court-appointed cases. The Legal Aid Society, where he himself had been broken in not too long ago, could handle only so many indigent defendants. The rest were doled out to private lawyers. Not the big-firm partners or the hotshots who were even then billing out their services for hundreds of dollars an hour. No, the ones who lined up to take the overflow were the young, the old and the journeymen who hung on but never got rich in the business. The Jaywalkers. Who else, after all, would be willing to work for forty dollars an hour for in-court time and twenty-five for out-of-court?
When a person gets arrested and is lucky enough to have money to hire a lawyeror when his family ishe gets to choose the lawyer. When he doesn't, the constitutions of both the United States and the State of New York guarantee him free representation. But the catch is, he no longer gets to choose the lawyer; the system chooses for him. Not that money necessarily insures quality representation. To this day, it's Jaywalker's firm belief that overall, there's as much talent at Legal Aid and on the assigned counsel rolls as there is in the private bar. But when somebody else is doing the choosing, the defendant finds himself totally at the mercy of the luck of the draw.
According to Alonzo Barnett, the luck of the draw hadn't been particularly good to him, and he'd been through two free lawyers already by the time Jaywalker was asked if he was interested in picking up a defendant charged with sale and possession of drugs.
"What is he, a troublemaker?" was his first question.
"No," said Lorraine Wilson, the clerk who'd phoned him after he'd finally let it be known that he was ready to start accepting court-appointed cases again. "At least it doesn't seem that way. I mean, I don't see any 'DD' notation next to his name." DD's were Difficult Defendants, who earned the designation by punching or spitting at their lawyers, bringing frivolous pro se lawsuits, or lodging spurious complaints to some bar association they picked out of the phone book. Alonzo Barnett had apparently done none of those things, at least so far. The only things that stood out about him, as best as Lorraine could tell, were the multiple previous lawyers and the fact that by now his case was beginning to grow whiskers.
More than a year and a half had passed since his arrest, something of an anomaly in a system that owed its very survival to its unfailing ability to rapidly dispose of huge numbers of cases. "Maybe he just tires lawyers out," she suggested. "Want to give it a try?"
Jaywalker thought about it for a good second or two. Lawyers didn't tend to tire out all that easily, especially when they were working on the clock. If anything, they were far more likely to be the ones that tired other people out. So chances were there had to be something wrong with the guy. But a major tuition payment was coming due the end of the month, with close to nothing in the bank to cover it.
"Sure," he said. "Why not?"
As Lorraine read off the particulars of the case to him, he jotted down the indictment number, the courtroom and the adjourned date. "Let me know how it turns out," she said.
He promised he would.
Most lawyers who take assignments wait until the day the case appears in court to start working on it. Whether consciously or not, they're immediately relegating the court-appointed client to a status inferior to that of the retained one. Jaywalker was different, even back then. Although he was trying hard to develop a private practice and would eventually succeed, he never would differentiate between the defendants who could afford to pay him and the ones who couldn't. Those who noticedand they included not only colleagues but prosecutors and judges, as wellwere by turns impressed with his dedication and astounded by his stupidity. The object of being a lawyer, they all understood, was to make money.
But Jaywalker and money have always had something of an uneasy relationship, and he knew even then, even back in the '80s, that he'd never be a big earner. So already he'd begun to measure success not in terms of dollars and cents, but by other, vaguer yardsticks, such as the appreciation of those he worked for and the respect of those he worked in front of, against or alongside. To his way of thinking, this difference in how he looked at things didn't deserve medals or accolades. The truth was, he'd simply dropped out of the money chase because he was genetically ill-suited to compete in it. Sort of like how a dog might concentrate on fetching a stick instead of trying to drive a car. Focusing on getting the best possible results for his clients, regardless of their means, and along the way treating them more like family than freeloaders, didn't necessarily make Jaywalker a better person than his colleagues.
But it did tend to make him a better lawyer.
Not the lawyer he'd eventually become, winning ninety percent of his cases in a business where he wasn't supposed to win half that many. But already, even back then, he was doing things no other lawyers were doing, and the results had begun to show.
So even though Alonzo Barnett wasn't scheduled to be back in court for another week and a half, on the day following his conversation with Lorraine Wilson, Jaywalker made a trip to Part 91, the courtroom on the fifteenth floor of 100 Centre Street where Barnett's case was pending, right up to and including a trial, if there was to be one. There he found a friendly clerk and traded a notice of appearance for a look at the file.
To Jaywalker's way of thinking, reading through a file before meeting the defendant had to be something like a doctor's studying a patient's workup before the actual exam. You weren't going to learn everything, but you were going to get a pretty good idea of just how good or bad things were going to be. You'd learn the person's name, as well as any other names he might be known by, his sex and his age. There'd be a printout of his past history, always important to factor in. Next there'd be a bunch of numbers, totally indecipherable to a layman but immediately telling to the trained eye. Finally, there'd be a little narrative of sorts, a paragraph or two describing just what it was that had brought the person inwhether the "in" happened to be to the office, the emergency room or, as was the case in Alonzo Barnett's situation, the criminal justice system. But it didn't much matter, the point being that from studying the reading materials, you were generally going to get a pretty good idea of what you were looking at and how bad it was.
For Alonzo Barnett, the news wasn't good.
To begin with, his past history was absolutely terrible. It took Jaywalker a good five minutes just to read and decipher the NYSIS sheet, the computer printout of Barnett's prior arrest record. By the time he'd finished jotting down the relevant highlights, he was able to count no less than five felony convictions amassed over the past thirty years. Almost all of them were for drugs, either sale or possession. In addition to the felonies, there was a scattering of misdemeanor convictions, somewhere between eight and twelve of them. And while incomplete sentencing data made it impossible to determine exactly how much time Barnett had actually served, it was apparent that he'd been behind bars for well over half of his fifty years. Make that fifty-one, since the printout was by this time more than a year old.
There was no dearth of names, either. In addition to Alonzo Barnett, the name the defendant had given at this latest arrest, he'd also been know at various times of his adult life as Alonzo Brown, Alvin Brown, Alonzo Black, Alonzo Bell and AB. Simply from the repeated recurrence of the first name, Jaywalker guessed that at least the Alonzo part was correct. The true last name was anyone's guess. Not that it mattered. With only one name himself, Jaywalker had always made it a habit to address his clients using their first names, and he always would.
Next there were the numbers. The ones that stood out were 2, 4, 220.43 and 220.21. Again, not much to a layperson, except perhaps one interested in playing them in some combination, whether on the street or in some Lotto game. But to Jaywalker, they immediately told a story, and once again, it wasn't a good one. The 2 was for the number of ounces of a narcotic drug that Barnettor whatever his name waswas charged with selling; the 4 was for the ounces he was accused of possessing. And the fancier numbers, the 220.43 and the 220.21, were the particular sections of the New York State Penal Law that he'd allegedly violated in the process of doing so, the first representing Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the First Degree, the second Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the First Degree. Both charges were A-1 felonies, indistinguishable from murder in terms of the sentences they carried. Thanks to a long-ago governor named Rockefeller and a never-ending succession of lawmakers panicked at the notion of being branded soft on crime, each charge carried a maximum sentence of twenty-five years to life, the absolute minimum being fifteen to life.