A New York Times Notable Book
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On the afternoon of the second Thursday in November, US District Court Judge Barrie Foote as she preferred ate her lunch alone, reading her New York Times. She sat at the head of the long polished mahogany table in the library of her chambers in the courthouse on Main Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, luxuriating in her daily forty minutes of silence. When she had finished eating--tuna fish with fat-free mayonnaise, shredded lettuce and tomato chunks in a pita pocket; Diet Coke; large coffee, black--she picked up the telephone handset and said, "Ask Sandy to come in, please."
She gathered up the waxed paper, flimsy paper napkins and unused packets of salt and pepper that had come with the sandwich and stuffed them back into the bag--along with the hollow red plastic straw that Spiro, the counterman at Dino's Deli always included, so that she might stir into her coffee either the two packets of sugar or the two packets of Sweet 'n Low that she also never used--and lobbed the parcel with her left hand in a low arc over the table, applying a little backspin, faultlessly thunking it into the metal wastebasket in the corner. "It's a three, my friends, an' nothin' but net," she said softly. "Crowd in this place's goin' wild."
Two years before, during the interval between her appointment by President Clinton and congressional confirmation and her swearing-in, she had told an interviewer from the Springfield Union News that she thought "nurture outweighs nature in the makeup of the adult animal--it's supposed to, anyway. If you're born lucky, and you pay attention, it does. Overlook either one, odds are you're dead meat.
"Nature first. We're born with what our parents' genes give us. They couldn't do much about what they gave us to inherit. So that made me then a light-skinned African-American female infant. But a lucky one. I came into the kind of upper-middle-class world that your daddy can afford to give you if he could bring the ball up on the right like nobody's business, back when he was in his prime. His best years out on the floor in the NBA were over before the big money really started raining down, but the front office always treated him well, before and after he retired. My father's had a good life. And my mom didn't do too bad either."
The interviewer identified her parents: Reginald Carpenter, point guard for the Fort Wayne Pistons in the late '40s and early '50s, and Evelyn Field, the Northern Thrush, a regular headliner at the Drake, Palmer House, and Ambassador West grills well into the mid-to-late '60s, "her signature song a slow, torchy arrangement of `You Belong to Me' done especially for her by Mel Torme."
"Which in turn made the odds pretty good that if I didn't get sick, or hurt in a car-crash or something, I would grow up, and if I did I'd be a light-skinned black woman, and in fact that's what I did.
"Because my father and my mother were comparatively well-off, in the course of growing up I got a good education, private schools, music lessons and so forth. Which meant that when I met my future first husband, we were both in college. Headed, we expected, for professional careers. When I graduated from Brown back in Nineteen-sixty-five--Ray was two years ahead of me; Providence, Sixty-three--if you had that respectable kind of life in mind you did things by the book. And that was especially true if your skin didn't happen to be white. If you knew what was good for you, anyway--and Ray and I both did. Fourteen years later when we parted company, I'd built my whole legal career and reputation as Barrie Foote, not Carpenter, so when we got divorced I was willing enough to let Raymond loose but not to let go my share of his name. I kept the education that my parents gave to me, and I kept Ray's last name as well, `cause that's how and what I became what I am now.
"Professionally, that is, as a partner at Butler and Corey, first female black lawyer they ever hired. Also the first black to ever make partner. Both of those events in my life without doubt have left deep imprints on me. I'm certainly not the same woman I was when I came east to Brown; not the same as the one who came out of Georgetown Law so long ago, needing a job where her husband was, which happened to be here in Springfield.
"Ray'd gone to work at Valley Bank right out of the Wharton School. And I was able to get a very good job here, not only because Ray'd made his share of contacts around town but also because I had one of my own. I knew Bob Pooler from Georgetown. He laid the groundwork for me at Butler, Corey. The firm didn't hire me because I'd known Bob in law school--he was two years ahead of me--but the fact that I knew Bob had a lot to do with how I got the first interview.
"So that's what I mean about nurture. Everything that's happened to me's made an impact on me, made me a different person from the one I used to be. I think--at least I hope--I've become a better one. One who got that way because she learns from experience. What I've learned and the people I've known are parts of what I am today, because of the way I grew up."
The interview had taken place in the dramatically modern soaring fieldstone-and-redwood home Foote shared with her second husband, the internationally known artist, Eric Hedges. It was set on a ledge off a private road off South Street near Tillotson Hill overlooking the Cobble Hill Reservoir in Blandford. "Eric and I first met at a solo show of his at the Ainsworth Gallery in Boston, seems like it must've been a hundred years ago. Ray'd gotten involved with a group of businessmen and banking people here and down in Boston who were trying to buy a dilapidated old racetrack out in Hancock. There'd been a big scandal. Word went around the New York Mafia was behind the original deal. Some people went to jail, and those who didn't, the people who'd originally built the track, ended up going into bankruptcy. No one could find a buyer, so it ended up the town took the property for unpaid taxes. And there it sat, weeds growing all over, buildings falling apart.
"Ray and the people he was with were convinced it still could be a money-maker. So their idea was to buy it, cheap, rebuild it, and then either sell it to someone else or else reopen it and run it themselves. Warren Corey, one of the senior partners at Butler, Corey, was involved with the group, and that year I was working for him. All of us were in Boston for something connected with it, licensing hearings or something, and after the hearing I went to the gallery. I'd always admired Eric's work, and that's how we met. I'm the only one who gained anything from that racetrack project. The deal itself fell through.
"Now Eric, he looks at things from the artist's perspective, and that's had an influence on me, affected how I see the world. And again, that's what I mean. About how we're the sum of our experience; what we are."
The text of the interview was illustrated by several photographs, one of her in a judicial robe, another of her at her desk in her new chambers, three showing her at home, casually dressed in a tawny cowled sweater and fitted jeans, her black hair in a shiny page-boy framing her slightly feline face. Eric had said she'd done a good job and should be very pleased, and she had said: "The photographer did a good job; I grant you that. But I don't think I did. Do I really talk like that, say fatuous things like that, to people I don't know? Cripes, I sound like such a phony there, like the way Ray used to, accepting one of his semi-annual awards for being such a wonderful house nigger."
"It does the job, though," Eric had said, and he had been correct. The profile made her seem to deserve the distinction she had achieved.
Sandy Robey opened the door and came in, a file folder in his hand, deducing from the thunk, the fact she was still seated at the table and the pleased expression on her face what she'd just done with the lunchbag. "You know, Judge, you really should let us get you one of those wastebasket-backboards," he said.
Robey tried hard to be cheerful; preparing to turn forty was a sour portion for him. He believed that at one-sixty-five he was about twelve or fifteen pounds overweight. His wife disagreed--much too gaily, he thought--saying he ought to lose closer to twenty. The Rogaine with minoxidil that Foote had encouraged him to obtain and apply two weeks before had not visibly arrested, much less reversed, the gradual but alarming recession of his coarse reddish hair. His dentist had admonished him to see a periodontist for attention to what he diagnosed as advancing gum disease that otherwise would leave him toothless before fifty, "unless I have the good sense to die first."
"Backboard, huh," she said, "what do I need with a backboard? Swishers're all I put up. Now what kind of nonsense you bringin' here that's gonna get us all distracted this fine autumn afternoon from already-pressin' business?"
Robey had put the folder on the table, sat down and tapped it once. "Just one small matter, Your Honor," he said. "Shouldn't take much time at all. US Attorney's got a balky witness. This grand-jury, corruption investigation he's only been hinting at discreetly to the papers for about a year or so. Guy's lawyer says if they bring his client in, he's going to tell him to claim he'll incriminate himself if he talks. The US Attorney's granted him Use immunity but he says that isn't good enough. Says if it's not Transactional, the US Attorney'll use the testimony to get leads to other evidence, then turn around and use that to cut his client's head off. So the US Attorney--the assistant's Mister Warmth, Arnie Bissell--wants you to give him and his guy a hearing, tell them the USA doesn't lie to people and so Use is good enough and his guy has gotta talk."
"Bissell wants me to tell this lawyer and his client that the US Attorney's office never fibs?" she said, widening her eyes. "I do that and God'll surely strike me dead."
Robey laughed. "Bissell says it shouldn't take long--ten minutes at the most."
"Ten minutes?" she said. "Why should it take any minutes? Just do it like always. Have him send up a written order and I'll sign the thing on the spot. Then have him threaten the guy. If he stays coy, then we'll have a hearing. What you and I want to do here this afternoon is get back to the late Mister Nick Hardigrew's Really Lousy Last Weekend."
"Mind telling me what you thought of what got put in this morning?" Robey said. "When the girl said he had his hands folded in front of him, and his head down, like he's saying grace? And he stayed that way, all the way down?"
"I don't know," the judge said. "Either he was saying his prayers or else he'd gone into some kind of trance. Blissed-out completely. Or maybe he was paralyzed; panicked and froze when he realized what was happening. He had to've known it when his chute didn't open. And to've known what he had to do next. This wasn't his first jump. Why didn't he pop the back-up? I suppose at that velocity it's pretty hard to hear what somebody else's yelling at you, `Pull the reserve chute, for God's sake.' So maybe he couldn't hear the others. But she said that she could hear them yelling--that's why she didn't yell herself. Makes it seem as though he should've heard them too."
"Unless he didn't want to," Robey said. "Maybe what happened was what he intended to have happen. Nobody we've heard yet seems to really want to come right out and say it, but isn't that where they're leading us? That the reason why the main chute didn't open when it should've, when he was clear of the plane, was that he'd made sure it wouldn't. That there wasn't anything wrong with the job the packers at the jump-center did. The reason it didn't open was that sometime between the time that they packed it and checked it and said it was fine was that he'd done something to it himself. Sabotaged it. So he knew it wasn't going to open. He'd made sure of it. All he had to do was just have the will-power to keep his hands together until the ground came up and hit him. Unless he'd sabotoged the reserve too, of course, but we've got no evidence of that either."
"Suicide," she said, reflectively. "He meant it to happen. Not an accident at all. This whole on-and-off romance he'd been having with sky-diving, for how many years was it now, two or three? My notes're out on the bench."
"I think it was three," Robey said. "Which was another thing that didn't add up. He seems to've been sort of casual about it. The testimony Tuesday, didn't one of the witnesses from the jump-center testify this would've been his eighth or ninth jump? Seven or eight of them uneventful, before the one that killed him. Not that many, really, considering how long he'd been at it. It wasn't an obsession with him, like it usually seems to with people who come back after the first time they try it."
"Yeah," she said, "the fellow did say that. The majority never jump twice. They're thrill-seekers, kind of people who dare each other to do things, usually while they're having several beers. Young, most of them. Try it once and say `Oh-kay, that's it; now I've been there and done that.' And then never do it again. The real sky-divers're the ones that get hooked and stay with it, like skiers. Jump every chance they get, ten or twenty times a year. Our absent party doesn't fit either profile.
"But still, he's qualified; he's allowed to jump without a buddy close enough to try to save him in mid-air. Which he has to be able to do if he's going to be able to kill himself. The day the chute didn't open just happened to be the day that he picked to do what he had in mind all the time.
"All right, find me a motive. Why make it look like an accident? There was no incentive in his insurance. Million-dollar policy for accidental death; isn't small-change, no, but his coverage'd been in effect for over twenty years. Suicide-exemption clause expired eighteen years ago. No motive there to fake an accident.
"Did he have some kind of horrible disease? If he did he was the only one who knew about it. Family didn't; doctor didn't; none of his friends did either.
"A scandal about to break, he chooses death over disgrace? Possible, I suppose, but we've got no evidence of one.
"His business was in good shape. Nurserymen and people in the landscaping business probably felt it just about the same as everybody else does when the economy was flat, few years ago, but his seems to've come through it okay.
"So the only reason he could possibly've had to do it then would've been chronic, severe depression. Unipolar mental illness.
"You could infer that here, I guess. I suppose in any case of suicide, you almost have to think the poor bastard must've been miserably depressed. Literally out of his mind. But if Hardigrew was that far gone, wouldn't he've shown it in some way? Started drinking too much? Become withdrawn? You'd think so, but he didn't. He spent years in a bottomless Hell, getting ready to do this unspeakable thing, and during all that time none of the people who knew him and had known him for years: not a single one of them, had the slightest hint of what he was going through?
"It doesn't make sense. So depressed you want to kill yourself, and finally you do it, but not so depressed that anyone who loves you, or sees you every day, even notices?"
"I don't know," Robey said, "but it does seem like that's what the defense's driving at."
"Well, they've still got a lot of work ahead of them," she said. "Far as I'm concerned anyway. There would've been a clue. Something you could look at now and say: `Hey that was kind of strange. Someone should've noticed that. Taken his car keys away from him. Had him put away, or at least put him to bed. Given him some mood-elevators; jacked him up on feel-good pills.'
"There is no such clue. He got up that morning down in Suffield, self-destruction on his mind, showered and dressed like he always did; had a good breakfast after that. Again: just like he always did. Man's almost fifty, same age I am now. By the time you've reached this stage in life, made something of yourself--this is a successful man here, came from modest circumstances and did pretty well for himself--you've developed a full set of habits. A lot of the things that we do are repetitive, have to be done again every day, over and over again. Habits simplify your life. You know what to do,--it's automatic. Don't have to do so much thinking.
"That's what our Nicholas did that last day; he followed his regular habits. He seemed to be in good spirits. Showers and gets dressed and eats. He goes out of his ten-room house on an acre-plus of prime land, so we're told, got to be worth at least three or four hundred thousand dollars, in the neighborhood it's in. This looks like one happy guy. He gets into his bright-yellow Saab convertible, drives himself up to Barnes Airport in Westfield; he's signed up for a gorgeous summer Sunday of sky-diving. Several times before he's done this without any mishap whatsoever, not even a sprained ankle. But this time it's going to be different. Today he's going to kill himself.
"If you think that, then there wasn't any accident or any negligence involved here. When he stepped out of that airplane, in his mind he was doing a perfectly normal, rational thing.
"I can't believe it. Why go to all this trouble? There're plenty of places you can drive to and walk up to and jump off and kill yourself, if that's what you want to do. Don't need any training to do that. All the lessons; the classroom instruction; the tethered training jumps from that steel tower they've got up there: what is it, three or four hundred feet off the ground, and they take you up there and you jump? Forget it. I'm finished right there. I wouldn't dare to climb that high, never mind jump off. You want me to conclude he did it all in order to kill himself in style? All the supervised practice jumps with the instructors: everything was preliminary to the big day when Nick Hardigrew got himself killed? Nobody was negligent? No one failed to exercise due care? It wasn't anyone's fault?"
"Well, maybe," she said. "I suppose we never know what hell people could be going through behind their eyes where we can't see it. What they might do to stop the pain they're in." She shook her head. "I can tell you one thing though: The more I hear of this one, the gladder I am it didn't go jury-waived. Let those good people figure it out. I don't envy them for a minute." Then she said: "Well, 're we ready to go now? Tell them to bring down the jury."
"I dunno," Robey said. "When do you want the immunity hearing? Four today or first thing in the morning? I need to know now, so I can have someone get word to the witness's lawyer so he'll know when he has to come down here."
"Sandy," she said. "I already told you: we don't need a hearing. May need one, but don't need one yet. Tell whoever it is down there in the US Attorney's office to send up the order they want me to sign. Then if the witness still takes the Fifth, then we'll have him in and I'll put on my usual impressive performance, plant my brogan right on his neck. What's the matter with the government anyway? This isn't the first one of these things we've ever had here. They should know by now how we do them."
"The guy's lawyer's the one that wants it," Robey said. "He's got some argument why he thinks the grant's improper, unenforceable, and therefore his client shouldn't be compelled to take the Fifth and make the grand jury think he's guilty of something, before he gets in to see you."
"That's a new one," the judge said. "Who dreamed up this new way to waste time? Some jackass with his first federal case?"
"Could be, now that you mention it," Robey said, grinning at her. "I know I've never seen him in here. Heard of him though. Geoffrey Cohen's his name. People say he's not bad. Think his office's over South Hadley."
The judge regarded Robey with mixed vexation and amusement. "Shee-it," she said, "you're not telling me that. The jackass lawyer's my lawyer? Was, anyway. Did a good job for me, too. What the heck is he doing down here, federal criminal case? He's not a criminal lawyer; Geoffrey's a divorce lawyer. He's always been that. Bob Pooler's the man for this kind of ugliness. People should stick to what they know."
"In the first place," Robey said, "Cohen appears to be branching out. That drug case that you drew last Thursday there. Sanderson, I think it was? Golf pro; in the winter he tends bar in Vermont--moderate amount of coke; Bissell tells me Cohen represents the broad who turned him in. State plea-bargain of her own. Apparently in this corruption matter that we're talking about now, Bob Pooler already had a client. His client's the one they want Geoff's client to sink. Bob'd have a big conflict of interest."
"Who's Bob's client?" the judge said. "What poor devil're they after now?"
"From what Bissell told me," Robey said, "the lucky nominee's the ever-popular Daniel J. Hilliard. Former state rep from Holyoke? Chairman of House Ways and Means when he stopped running, Eighty-two, Eighty-four, I think it was. His pals on Beacon Hill gave him his very own college. Hampton Pond Community. Since then he's more or less faded out of sight."
Judge Foote looked glum. "Oh I hope that that isn't so," she said, after a while. "I hope that isn't true. And I hope if it is true that they don't decide to indict him. And if they do, then I hope they lose. Now I don't want you telling anybody else what I just said, but goddamn, I wish they wouldn't do that."
"Oh God, I'm sorry," Robey said, looking chagrined. "I didn't realize you knew the guy, were close to him."
"Oh I wasn't," she said quickly, silently chastising herself for having spoken impulsively and hoping not to have to tell more lies than she'd be able to remember. "Not the way you're thinking, at least. Keep in mind, Sandy: I can almost always tell what you're thinking. Shame on you." Robey looked sheepish.
"It was nothing you could really call `personal,'" she said, thinking: It was more what you'd call sexual.
"I got to know him from when I was still married to Ray. Not happily married by then, anymore, but still, you know, under contract." For another eight or nine years or so, as a matter of fact--not that I let that stand in my way. "That racetrack deal I mentioned, 'Seventy-two or so, early in 'Seventy-three. One of the chores the Chief had me doing involved staying in touch making sure the local reps were up to speed on the project. Dan Hilliard naturally was one of them." Getting into bed with Dan Hilliard wasn't on the Chief's specs; that was extracurricular.
"I saw him three or four times. Once I had to drive down to Boston, I recall." And a room in the Lenox Hotel. "And then the other times I went up to Holyoke, the huge second-floor office he used to have there. Unless it was crowded, your voice echoed in it. I thought he was a very nice man, a thoroughly, truly, nice, man. I suppose I have to say he was charming." He's buying it, she thought, with a tincture of relief and shame. What they say is true, I guess: Once you get the hang of it, you never lose the touch. Very nicely done, girl, very nicely done.
"In fact I may've been a little bit too hard on you just then. Now that you've gotten me thinking about it, I remember having it go through my mind at the time that if I hadn't been still married to Ray and so forth, I could see myself getting very interested in this Hilliard guy. Although of course he was still married then, too."
"Talk was he never let that interfere with his personal life," Robey said, smirking. "He is a charmer, no question. I remember when his wife was divorcing him; she alleged adultery. There was a lot of talk. That was a fairly unusual thing to do: meant someone was really pissed off. There was considerable speculation about whose names might get dragged into it, how many other divorces there'd be, if theirs ever came to a trial."
"I recall that," she said, a lot more calmly than she had lived through it.
"And then when it didn't," Robey said, "when it settled--word was she cleaned him out--then the word was that was the reason. That he'd done the right thing and given her everything she asked for, so she wouldn't raise such a stink that he'd have to leave town--maybe along with a lot of other people. Bad enough he was washed-up in politics; if he let that stuff hit the fan he would've had to forget the college job, too. "
He paused. "I think Geoff Cohen might've even had that case."
"He did," the judge said. "Sam Evans from our shop represented Dan. Sam was the divorce specialist. He was extremely good at it. Up until that case, consensus was he was the very best around. He couldn't make divorce fun, but if you had to go through one and you could get Sam Evans, at least you could relax a little, knew you were in good hands. Top-notch negotiator; meticulous about details; scrupulously honest--and a complete gentleman to boot.
"After the Hilliard case was over, Sam was almost inconsolable. He said with all the sexual misconduct Hilliard had against him, there'd been nothing he could do; he'd never had a chance. The only hope that he'd had was that Geoff'd make the kind of dumb mistake young lawyers sometimes make out of inexperience, and give Sam something he could use.
"Didn't happen. Sam said Geoff'd known exactly what he had to work with; played his cards perfectly; made no mistakes at all; and as a result ended up cleaning Sam's clock for him. After that in this part of the world there were two `best divorce lawyers around.' In fact what Sam said about Geoff was what made me hire him. Sam'd gotten close to Ray during that racetrack deal; I thought it'd be too hard for him."
Then she frowned. "Who's the poor guy they're trying to make sink Dancin' Dan? Anyone else I might know?"
"I don't know," Robey said, "you might. His name's Ambrose Merrion. Canterbury District Court clerk. Ever got a speeding ticket on the way north to ski on something steeper than you've got right where you live?"
"I don't ski," she said. "People fall down doing that. Break their legs and stuff."
"Not if they know what they're doing," Robey said. "Anyway, that's how I met him. Trooper wrote me up for eighty on Route Three-ninetyone in Cumberland. The other way to meet him's being active in politics. All the real Democratic insiders around here, all the way up to the state, even national, level: all of them would know him, know him very well. I doubt any one of them's ever paid a ticket in Amby's district."
"Did you pay yours?" the judge said.
"Truthfully? No, I didn't," Robey said. "It went, away. But not because of my secret life as a Democratic honcho. And not because I tried to fix it, either. The time when I got stopped up there for being in a big hurry, Marie and I were on our way to Montreal. Some friends from when she was at McGill; she hadn't seen most of them since she'd graduated, so naturally she was all keyed up. But I was excited too. This was going to be the best vacation we'd ever had. Couldn't wait to get there's why I was driving so fast. I told the cop that in fact I hadn't realized how fast I had been going. Either he didn't believe me or that wasn't a good-enough excuse--he wrote me up.
"I probably put being stopped completely out of my mind before we even crossed the state line into Vermont. And when we got home from those two-glorious-weeks-of-packed-powder, I didn't have the ticket. It was gone. I don't know what I did with it. I may've figured I'd get a summons in the mail; when it came I'd pay the ticket. But the summons never came. And of course I didn't notice because who thinks about a bill that never came? Then about, I dunno, three or four years ago, 'fore I started working for you, I got stopped again. On the Mass Pike on the way to Worcester. Paul McCartney concert at the Centrum: Marie's a big fan of his. We're running late, as usual, so I was speeding, as usual. Got bagged for eighty-five. Suddenly it all comes back to me. Cop's back in the cruiser with my license, registration, punching his computer, and I'm thinking: `Oh my God, I never paid the one I got going up to Montreal. This cop's going to see there's a warrant out on me and he's going to put me in jail.'
"But it didn't happen. Except for the fact I was getting another ticket costing me about a hundred-fifty bucks, and now we're really late for Paul McCartney, everything's perfectly fine.
"I couldn't understand it. The next day I called up the court in Canterbury and asked about it. Not that I like paying speeding tickets so much I go out looking for 'em when they get lost, but I was worried. I didn't want it hanging over me.
"I gave my name, not what I do, and the woman asked me to wait while she got Mister Merrion. He came on and I told him the reason for my call, and he said: `Oh yeah, of course, Judge Folkard's clerk. Forget it. It went away.'
"`Went away?' I said. `What do you mean?'
"`I disappeared it,' he said. He sounded like it was routine.
"`But why?' I said. `You don't know me. Did someone call you or something?' `Cause Judge Folkard'd been known to do that a few times, when his daughter got caught flying low coming home from New York. He was from the Old School, back when people did those things and didn't think a thing about it. I thought I maybe mentioned it and he'd taken care of it for me, and then forgotten to tell me. He's just that kind of guy."
"He'd better not be that kind of guy where people can see what he's doing nowadays," she said. "You can't do that stuff any more. People get angry. First thing you know, you're in disgrace."
"I know," Robey said, "but that wasn't it. `Oh no,' says Merrion, `nothing like that. Professional courtesy's all. I know that stretch of road where Trooper Dacey busted you, and I know Dacey pretty well too. I don't like him. He's tucked it to me more'n once onna road. My tickets I hafta pay or he'll raise some kinda stink. But other people, he can't connect to me, their tickets're different matters. I don't think eighty's too fast where you were, when you were there, and therefore I didn't think Dacey should've grabbed you for doing it. So I dismissed it. "Substantial justice": that's our aim in this court.'