Authors: Richard Dooling
“I’m a good lawyer,” said Watson. “But I’ve never done criminal law. I’ve never been to trial. My firm doesn’t do criminal law. We do business law, mostly for big corporations.”
“So I ain’t lucky enough to get a criminal lawyer,” he said bravely. “But leastwise I got a good one.” He searched Watson’s face for confirmation. Then he made claws of his shackled hands and raked his goatee. The skin of his face and arms was paler than the whites of his eyeballs. “That delousing shit they sprinkled on me itches worse than the crabs,” he said, gouging his chin again and grimacing around a set of gray teeth. He tried a tough guy’s laugh and didn’t make it.
Watson sustained a blast of rancid breath and stared at the gray teeth. Antibiotics, he realized. One of his first assignments as a new lawyer was to go to a building with a team of six other Stern, Pale associates
and sift through boxes of documents produced by the plaintiffs in a massive class action suit brought against PharmChem, Inc., one of the firm’s biggest clients. The plaintiffs had taken tetracycline as children and gotten stained teeth because of it. The stained teeth in turn caused intense emotional distress, loss of income, suicidal depression, astronomical medical and dental bills, failure to thrive, loss of self-esteem, and posttraumatic stress disorder. But above all, for much of his first six months as a lawyer, the stained teeth provided Watson with roughly sixty billable hours a week, which in turn put him three fourths of the way to bonus-track billables in half a year’s time. Then the case had settled, and all that was left of it was Watson’s fat performance profile and his profound, intimate, well-financed knowledge of exactly how and why antibiotics stain teeth, the frequency of discernible stains in random demographic samples, the two thousand or so depositions of emotionally disturbed adolescents whose mental afflictions were caused by stained teeth. Murders; suicides; spontaneous, idiopathic hebephrenias; gout attacks; pancreatic malignancies; and failed marriages—all brought on not by the antibiotics but the resultant stains, which in turn caused such plagues of catastrophes they would have persuaded Pharaoh to let Moses and the Twelve Tribes leave Egypt.
It was all he could do to keep from asking, “Your teeth—tetracycline, right?” But he was fighting a new war now. A murder case, where instead of being a biomedical lottery ticket, stained teeth would be just another flaw in an unlikable defendant, which would make it easier for a jury of sturdy, death-penalty-minded citizens to do their duty.
Perhaps Watson could achieve justice with a blended martini of civil and criminal litigation by having one of his law school buddies sue PharmChem on behalf of Whitlow, thus obtaining an expedited settlement and enough money to hire a criminal defense lawyer?
The prisoner lifted his arms and stuck an unlit cigarette in his lips. Watson was so distracted by the litigable gray teeth that he missed the tattoo again, except for the word
in purple ink and … snakes? They both looked at the matchbox.
“So you got to represent me, even though I can’t pay, is that it?” asked Whitlow.
Watson noticed one huge vein, bulging like a seam in his client’s left bicep, blue as a bruise under the smudged white skin. Does shooting drugs make your veins bigger or smaller? Smaller, he thought—had to
be, because in movies and novels they are always looking for veins. Right? It seemed improbable that an Ignatius High grad would be mainlining, but, then, it seemed just as improbable that one would land in prison. Maybe Whitlow had surrendered to the authorities because he knew what the Jesuits would do to him if they got hold of him first.
“The judge appointed me to be your lawyer,” said Watson, “but you may want to think about whether there is any way you can get yourself a criminal lawyer, a specialist.”
“How do I get me a criminal lawyer?”
“Those you hire,” Watson said, trying to think of a way to convey the looming peril of having a first-year associate and Westlaw geek for a trial lawyer. “You’d need money for that. A retainer of some kind, as I understand it.”
Watson didn’t know the first thing about signing up a client, because he’d never done it before. He worked for WorldAgri and BioKinetix; a retainer was something you put in your kid’s mouth.
“I got no money,” said Whitlow. “What if I ask the judge to appoint me a criminal lawyer?”
“You may ask the court to appoint you a different lawyer,” explained Watson. “But you don’t get to pick your specialty. If the request is granted, you’ll probably get another new lawyer with no trial experience. That’s how it works in this district.”
, he thought,
you’ll probably get one that graduated in the bottom tenth of his class, instead of the top tenth, one that works at the worst firm in town, instead of the best, and you will have pissed off Ivan the Terrible, the meanest judge in the Eastern District.
“Is there anybody you could borrow money from? Any relatives who might lend you a retainer fee?”
“There’s money on my wife’s side,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Watson, “well—”
“Maybe some … other people might help,” said Whitlow guardedly.
“Other people?” asked Watson.
“Friends,” said Whitlow. “I have some friends who might do it. But they wouldn’t want anyone to know they were doing it. And I wouldn’t want anyone to know either. It wouldn’t be good for me if people knew I got money from them.”
“Really?” asked Watson.
“It’s like a club. We all promised each other a long time ago that if anything happened to one of us, the others would … help him out.”
“I see,” said Watson. “Well, if you can get the money from your friends at the club, I would hire a real criminal lawyer.”
“Well,” said Whitlow, “one of my friends in particular—his name is Buck—and Buck could maybe get me lots of money, except I got a problem with my car.”
“It has a lien on it?” asked Watson, groaning inside, wondering how to politely tell his client that borrowing against some decomposing Ford Escort with cloth seats and gunny sacks for floor mats would roust up about a tenth of a criminal lawyer’s retainer. Whitlow had what Sandra’s dad would call a Real Money problem requiring a working fool of a criminal lawyer.
“Yeah,” said Whitlow averting his eyes, “sort of like that. It got towed the same day of the … killing. And so Buck can’t get to it. It’s got a Hide-A-Key under the back bumper. But he don’t wanna go out to the impound lot till he knows why the cops or the MPs towed it. What if they towed it because they was thinking it had something to do with the killing?” Whitlow fixed him with a single, cautious glance. “This shit is all privileged, lawyer talk, ain’t it? Right? I know that. But still, Buck wouldn’t like it if I told you he was gonna try to get at my car.”
Watson couldn’t tell if Whitlow was rambling and confused, or just desperate for any chance to get a real lawyer. “Who’s Buck again?”
“Just a friend,” said Whitlow quickly. “But if he could just get to my car, he could maybe get me money. See, last year my old car got towed from the same spot, because of Lucy Martinez, who don’t like people parking in her spot. And maybe she called it into base security again, just coincident, and that’s why they towed it. But Buck is worried because it got towed the same day the nigger got shot, and he’s afraid if he goes after the car—” Whitlow swallowed and looked away again “—then the cops might start asking him about the nigger getting shot. And Buck don’t want that. Shit, I don’t either. Buck is a buddy, and he don’t like cops any more than I do.”
Whitlow needed another stern lecture on the relationship between the n-word and the death penalty, but if the car somehow led to money, Watson could leave that chore for a lawyer who would be paid by the hour.
“Either way, the cops will know it was your car, right?” asked Watson. “Never mind why it was towed.”
“Well,” Whitlow said, “not really, because it don’t have plates at the moment. I bought it off a guy a few months back, but it still ain’t registered.
Like I said, this happened to me once before with a different car. They ain’t gonna let nobody have that car unless they show up with a title and a photo ID. And if she finds the title, they gonna make her register it and buy plates before they gonna let her take it.”
“My wife,” said Whitlow.
Watson kept waiting for a point to be made and, while waiting, worried about his client’s coherence, his ability to testify on his own behalf in the unlikely event he ever took the stand.
“So, anyway, long story short. Buck could ask Lucy his own self if she called and got the car towed, but Lucy don’t talk to him because she’s afraid of him, and she wouldn’t fess up to it anyway. So, we sorta need somebody else to find out if it is OK for Buck to go and see can he get at the car, or will he get arrested if he goes after it?”
Watson had shifted his attention to the notebook computer, which was making more sense than his client. He barely realized what was being asked of him. “Me?”
“Well,” said Whitlow, holding his cuffed hands out, “you could call the tow lot maybe and pretend you are the owner. Or maybe you could go see Lucy Martinez and maybe say you are a lawyer and ask about the day of the killing and all. Then maybe slip in and ask like no big if she seen my car get towed, or better still was she the one who called it in and got it towed.”
Watson looked askance at his new client.
“I can see you ain’t never had your car towed,” Whitlow said angrily. “If they think the car had something to do with the killing, it is going to be locked up tighter than a fourteen-year-old virgin, and if anybody tries to get at it, they will get arrested. But if it’s just a dead car towaway, it’s gonna be out in the general impound lot, which is a ten-acre spread with nothing but chain-link around it, which means Buck could get at it, if he had to. Does that make sense?”
Watson wanted to say no, but his client’s agitation was mounting. “I’ll see what I can do,” said Watson.
“Hell,” Whitlow urged, “you probably gotta talk to Lucy anyways, right? What if she has evidence about the day of the murder? Maybe she seen something, right? She’s only two units down. She maybe heard the nigger going after Mary? Or maybe she heard Mary yell, ‘Help, James! The nigger is comin’ after me!’ If there’s a God He heard her say it, too. But mainly, I can guarantee you that if it’s just a dead tow, Buck could
maybe get me some money. Enough to maybe get me a real criminal lawyer, and you wouldn’t have to do all this appointed lawyer work. Maybe we could even get some money for you. Who pays you?”
“No one,” said Watson. “Appointed lawyers don’t get paid. I have to do it because I’m a new lawyer. I’m supposed to be willing to devote my time to helping people who can’t afford lawyers.”
“But you ain’t willing, right? You don’t want to do it? Or maybe you would do it, but only if you was getting paid?”
“I didn’t say that,” said Watson quickly. “A federal district judge has ordered me to be willing. But a judge can’t order me to be able.” Played back in the courtroom of his imagination, as per Arthur’s instructions, this seemed a little too stark.
“I’m not saying I’m not able,” added Watson unconvincingly. “A judge has concluded I am able and ordered me to be willing. I’m just advising you of my qualifications.”
Whitlow shuddered and scanned the activity on the other side of the Plexiglas, as if he expected personnel in the next room to let loose a few man-size rats, turn the conference room into a big shock cage, and get on with some behavior modification. “I need a fucking lawyer, man,” he said in an angry rush. A single tear beaded at the rim of one eye and quirked its way down his cheek. He sucked in a few more breaths. Scared past shitless, he was on his way to respiratory arrest. “The government lawyer said you filed some bullshit telling the judge you can’t be my lawyer because we were buddies in high school. What is that? I don’t know you from shit, motherfucker.”
Watson felt sweat burning in his pores—the clammy liar odor wafting off of him. The Apaches were right, you don’t need a polygraph to detect skin galvanic response, just line up the suspects and smell them.
“Your name was so familiar to me,” said Watson, desperately prevaricating while he tried to think of a few lines that would stand up in court three years from now, when another lawyer would transform this wretched, all-but-sentenced criminal into a civil rights and legal malpractice plaintiff, suing Watson for attempted client desertion.
A lawyer owes the client the duty of zealous representation
, or however it goes in the Model Code of Professional Responsibility, another doomed attempt to codify morality with conditional precepts.
“I’m your lawyer,” said Watson, peering into Whitlow’s jumpy eyes. “If you scrape enough money together, I will help you get a criminal lawyer. If you can’t get money, I will do my very best to defend you. I
promise. If I don’t know the law, I will learn it. But I can’t learn trial experience in three weeks.”
Whitlow took fast, shallow breaths, opened his manacled hands, flexed his fingers, and made white-knuckled fists again. “They want me dead,” he said, holding a deep breath. “I need a real lawyer.”
Watson resisted the impulse to console the poor guy with his qualifications. Things could be worse. Although he was a new lawyer, he had graduated ninth in his class, won the Computerized Legal Research & Writing Award, been on the law journal, and now worked at the best firm in town. Stern, Pale didn’t hire just any old law grad. He was capable of researching any area of the law better than most of the other lawyers he knew, and so would at least be able to write a bang-up brief appealing the disaster that would surely occur at trial. He’d hold off talking about the odds of reversals in criminal appeals until his client could stomach fat chances and percentages in the lower single digits.
Watson fingered the little TrackPoint device of his computer and noted how quickly he was able to scroll through the outline of his witness interview. He inwardly congratulated himself on ordering the extra 256 megabytes of RAM and the tertiary cache.
The two men stared at each other across the scarred table.