Authors: Richard Dooling
“Open the floodgates! We need more justice. Look! Here comes Pugnacious Plaintiff and Demonic Defendant—why, I’ve never heard from them before. Is it justice, peace on earth, equal rights, and goodwill toward men they want, or are they looking for money damages? Punch versus Judy for assault and battery! Romeo et al. versus Juliet d/b/a Capulet Consulting for detrimental reliance and promissory estoppel, Bert versus Ernie for homosexual palimony, Tristan versus Iseult for loss of consortium, Hamlet versus Claudius et al. for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
“This Kafka fellow also said, ‘Sometimes I think I understand the Fall of Man better than anyone.’ Hah! What does he know about the Fall of Man? He wasn’t even a judge! How can he know the first thing about fallen human nature until he’s sat through one of these drug conspiracy trials—or how about a sexual harassment case? Let’s go ahead and set one of those four hundred and ninety-two sexual harassment cases we have waiting on the docket for trial. I can’t wait to listen to another two weeks of testimony about who told what dirty jokes in the workplace.”
The clerks bowed their heads and whispered. Some of the attorneys did the same. The brunette rose and tiptoed behind the judge and out of the courtroom.
“I can tell you where she’s going,” he said. “She’s worried about me. She thinks my heart medication is causing some psychological side effects. She’s calling my doctors. But before they get here, let’s grab the bull by the pizzle and get this over with.
“How many of you are here seeking continuances for trials?” he asked.
About half the crowd looked down at their hands and shuffled their feet. Several attorneys closest to the door took a step or two back and looked for an opportunity to bolt.
“How many?” Judge Stang yelled. “I want everybody who is seeking continuance of a trial date for any reason, including, but not limited to, deaths, vacations, missing witnesses, missing lawyers, drunk lawyers,
the press of other business, a conflict in another court—any reason. I want all the lawyers seeking continuances to step over to my right.”
A cluster of six or seven lawyers drifted over. Another cluster of seven or eight conferred in low whispers and then followed. Another ten or twelve lawyers looked down at the motions for continuance of trial setting they had drafted up in their offices and desperately tried to think of something else they could make a motion for on short notice.
“Now!” he hollered at this last group. “Over there!”
They hung their heads and shuffled over to join the others.
“Is that it?” he asked, eyeballing the other half of the lawyers. Two more lawyers skittered under his gaze and joined the others.
“OK,” he said. “Now I want everybody who is seeking leave for additional time to file any motion or memoranda whatsoever to also move to my right and join the learned counsel who are seeking continuances of their trial settings.”
Ten or twelve lawyers walked to the right and joined the others.
“This will include but not be limited to motions for leave to file anything out of time, late responses to motions and memoranda, late answers, late responses to discovery …”
Attorneys moved in clusters of three and four to the right as the judge uttered each new category of requests for additional time or for leave to file something out of time.
“Is that it?” the judge asked Watson and the one other attorney left standing next to him, a stout man in a yellow tie and a gray suit.
“Judge Stang,” the lawyer said, taking one step toward the bench.
“Did I ask you to approach the bench?” Judge Stang demanded.
“Sorry, Judge,” the lawyer took a large step backward. “Judge, I represent the Klaxon Corporation, and we’ve had a default judgment taken against us because—”
“Because you missed a filing deadline,” hissed the judge, his face swelling and purpling with rage, “and now you’re seeking leave to file a late answer. Over there!” he bellowed with the authority of Minos sending a damned soul down to the lowest rung of Hell.
Joseph T. Watson tucked the folder containing his motion to withdraw under his arm and tried to meet the apocalyptic stare of Judge Whittaker J. Stang. Watson’s throat locked up, his palms were slick against the folder, his heart fluttered like a bird with a broken wing.
“What are you here for, Counselor?” asked the judge.
“I’ve … I’ve been appointed by the court in the case of U.S. versus Whitlow,” said Watson.
“U.S. versus whom?” asked the judge.
“U.S. versus Whitlow,” said Watson. “The defendant’s name is Whitlow. James Whitlow, he … or, I mean, the government is saying he committed murder.”
“And you’re seeking leave to withdraw from the case,” said the judge.
“Well, yes, actually, I am,” said Watson. “I don’t know if perhaps Mr. Mahoney phoned ahead from Stern, Pale?” asked Watson. “Never mind. The partners of my firm have decided that I am not going to be doing trial work. Uh, I’ve never been to court. This is my first time. I do computer research mainly. In addition, it seems the defendant, or the alleged defendant, I mean the alleged suspect, the accused was … We went to the same high school. He was a year behind me at my high school, and so he was an acquaintance of mine, which my partners feel creates at least the appearance of impropriety.”
“Approach,” said Judge Stang, with a single flap of his hand.
Watson kept his knees from buckling and approached the bench of the most senior federal judge in the Eastern District of Missouri.
“I have one question I want to ask you in your capacity as an officer of this court,” said the judge. “Was this man a friend of yours?”
Judge Stang stared down with a face beyond human. It belonged to the Overman, an oracle, a force of nature, an ancient Greek god who had heard all the lies of everyone who had ever lived, including lies formulated by the best, most highly compensated liars in the history of Western Civilization.
“Technically,” said Watson, “no, Judge. He was not a friend, per se. But he was my high school classmate, in the sense that we went to the same high school, and therefore I believe use of the term
is warranted in the papers I have to file in this court. I believe my firm is concerned about the appearance of impropriety.”
“The appearance of impropriety?” asked Judge Stang, recoiling slightly, as if he had already eaten one dish of his least favorite vegetable for dessert and was being served another. “Mr. Watson, at my age everything has the appearance of impropriety. I am only surprised when those appearances are deceiving, which happens infrequently these days.”
Judge Stang grabbed the two-by-four from its place on the bench and handed it to Watson.
“Your motion has the appearance of impropriety, as well as the odor of impropriety, about it. I want you to take this piece of lumber back to your office and chew it into sawdust. Very fine sawdust. I don’t want to find any chunks in there when you’re done. And I’m going to weigh the whole mess when you bring it back to me in a few weeks with all of the pretrial materials you’ll be filing in your murder case. Do a good job now, because next week some other lucky lawyer is going to be coming along behind you and rechewing your sawdust, understand?”
The judge faced the mass of lawyers on his right and spread his arms like Charlton Heston doing Moses.
“All the requests for continuances, all the requests for additional time and for leave to file out of time, are hereby denied.
“Lord,” he cried, looking up into the sunlit vault overhead, “send my white head down to the netherworld with grief!”
Then he looked down again at the lawyers.
“If you want a written order,” he said with a grisly smile, “see the docket clerk!”
n the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, Watson held another
in his trembling hands. A typical American adolescence spent imagining fame had done nothing to prepare him for the shock of seeing headlines for the first time from the inside out. It did not say,
FAITHFUL HUSBAND KILLS WIFE
. It said,
HATE CRIME CHARGED IN SLAYING OF DEAF MINORITY
The sensation of being a
lawyer was also new. Judge Stang had spoken, and Watson had a client. Instead of doing legal research and writing for Arthur Mahoney, instead of summarizing deposition transcripts for PizzaFax, managing documents for ChipsMacro, or playing Greek SlaughterHouse for Subliminal Solutions, Inc., he would be defending a human being in mortal peril. The
and most of St. Louis had already tried, convicted, and sentenced his client. And the prosecutors wanted the penalties doubled or tripled under statutes that punished not only the loathsome crimes, but also the alleged bad attitude with which they were committed. Now, this forlorn citizen’s only hope was Joseph T. Watson, Esq.
Photos of the victim, Elvin Brawley, showed him performing his poetry in American Sign Language on a stage for deaf children at a Festival of Language on the Hands. A sidebar featured examples of his
computer-generated artworks. In another frame, captioned “A Tireless Advocate of Using Technology to Overcome Disabilities,” Elvin Brawley held up a pocket-size VTD—Voice Transcription Device—for the hearing-impaired—a handheld computer capable of displaying spoken words on a liquid crystal screen. He was eulogized as a deaf poet, an “enabler and proponent of empowerment … a leader capable of transcending race and disability.”
Next to the deaf poet, the photo of James Whitlow captured the requisite spitefulness of the accused—his eyes glowering in the slits of a major frown. (“I’ll make you a deal,” Watson imagined the photojournalist saying to the officer escorting the defendant. “You tell him to fuck himself and keep the baby, and I’ll take the picture, OK?”) Whitlow looked mean and scrawny, as if instead of working out he burned fat with a daily regimen of energetic hatred.
Great, thought Watson—
the victim was St. Francis, and my client looks like John Dillinger.
Over a million people would see this despised felon’s photo. In the safety of their kitchens and offices, they would sample another lurid newsprint episode of human depravity, savor the usual blend of horror and intrigue with sips of morning coffee. If Watson hadn’t been holed up in the firm conspiring with Arthur to find a way out of the case, he probably could have appeared in the photo with his client, over the caption “The accused, James Whitlow (left), with his lawyer, Joseph Watson.” His daydream vanished at the thought of Arthur opening the front page to find a photograph of his associate in the same frame with an accused murderer. As it was he had to make do with a glancing reference in the last sentence of the second-to-last paragraph: “District Judge Whittaker Stang has appointed Joseph Watson to represent defendant James Whitlow, who is indigent.” The publicity would be a big hit with the firm’s partners. And what about Sandra? The kids? “Sandra,” people would say, “why is Joe defending that hate killer?”
He read his own name again and realized that while everyone else would be reading about gore and musing over photos of the alleged murderer, Watson would be interviewing his client and meeting the creature himself—in the catbird seat, the public would think, able to find out what they really wanted to know:
1. What went through your mind when you aimed your gun at the victim’s chest and pulled the trigger?
2. Have you spoken to your wife since the night of the murder?
3. What does it feel like, knowing you’re going to watch a needle poke a hole in your vein and fill you full of death?
Once in his Honda, Watson grabbed his firm-issued communicator—a combination handheld computer, fax/modem, PIM, and cellular phone—known among the associates as “the tether.” It allowed any lawyer in the firm to contact any other lawyer in any of the firm’s twenty-five offices all over the world just by entering their initials, or a three-digit ID. He rarely got to play with the communicator out in the field, because he was usually logged on to Westlaw doing computerized legal research at his desk. He was spending so much time on the computer that when he found himself behind the wheel of a car, his first instinct was to look for the keyboard and the pointing device.
“How much memory we got in this thing? Where’s the operating system?”
“Arthur?” he said, after being shuttled from voice mail over to the operator, up to Arthur’s secretary, and in through the back door on line three. “I guess you didn’t get ahold of Judge Stang.”
“Tried to, Joe,” said Arthur, “but his clerk said he was on the verge of anaphylactic shock triggered by an allergic reaction to lawyers. After that, one of my old law school classmates who represents the Klaxon Corporation called to tell me you’re becoming a lumberjack.” He chuckled.
“Paul Bunyan, Esquire,” said Watson. “I’m taking a two-by-four to lunch, and then I’m going to the Des Peres County Correctional Center where they’re housing my client.”
“You’ll need to get some kind of story from him before too long,” agreed Arthur, “but I want you back here first. I have an expert witness on her way down who might be able to help us.”
“What kind of an expert?” asked Watson. Perhaps he should risk insolence and just tell Arthur:
“I’ll get my own expert if I need one. Thank you.”
“Have you thought about a medical angle?” Arthur asked. “I mean, what if there’s some mental incapacity? A mental disease or defect? That might give you some leverage in bargaining a plea with the government.”
“I—” began Watson.
“She’s from an old St. Louis family,” continued Arthur. “The firm’s done their trust and estate work for decades. She went to Harvard. She
may be able to help you with the new behavioral testing and some of these scanning technologies. She’s a forensic neuropsychologist, a neurologist. It’s easier to say what she’s not,” he said, “but I’ll let her do that. Stop by when you get back.”
“I was headed over to see my prisoner,” Watson said.
“Well, don’t,” said Arthur. “Come back here first.”