A Short Story
Murderers are my favorite criminals to defend, and the guiltier they are, the better I like it. Unlike armed robbers, heroin dealers and pedophiles, a murderer usually commits one crime, once in his life, and then goes back to being a bus driver or pharmacist or city alderman.
Gunfighter Clay Allison said that some men need killing, and people mostly agree with that. It’s how I win my cases.
In a murder trial, I like a nice, cautious jury. Give me a couple of moms, a sports nut, a college dropout, a car salesman maybe, and a retiree or two. Divorced people are good, too. I’ve learned to step lightly with religious jurors — they might go all Old Testament on you, or they might call up the Beatitudes. You never know.
Anyway, I never have to convince a jury that my client didn’t do it.
I just have to convince them that — given the same circumstances — they’d have done the same damn thing.
Serial killers and mass murderers are a different breed of course, but they’re rare. I’ve never even met one, and I’ve been practicing law a long time, like my daddy before me. No, I’m talking about your plain-old, garden-variety, I’ve-had-enough, homicidal maniac. He’s the perfect client, and I’ll take his case every time.
Which is why I didn’t want anything to do with James “Junior” Somerville, who was standing in my office doorway with puke on his shoes, trying to hold his insides together with his bare hands.
This guy was no killer.
He straightened up when he saw me, his cloudy eyes sweeping over me in swift assessment. Who was I? Authority? Co-conspirator? Potential sex slave? Then his face went blank.
Ex-con for sure.
I reached to close the door and he stepped back, keeping his hands up and out.
“Who was it?” I asked. “Who did you assault?”
He had his voice under control, if not his body. “I’ve been charged with assaulting my ex-wife’s boyfriend.”
“And now you wish you’d actually done it. Assaulted him, I mean.”
One corner of his mouth lifted, just for a second. “I wish I’d killed the son of a bitch.”
I took the case.
I grew up strange, I guess. You can’t swing a dead cat in my family without hitting a lawyer. When I was a kid at the dinner table, I had to defend my opinions at all times. Rationally, clearly, dispassionately, and to the bitter end. If my views were mocked or dismissed … if my brother called me Stupid Face to make me cry … my dad would toss a little Prometheus at me and stand aside.
“Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make angry,” he’d say calmly. “Now. Try again.”
So I’ve always wondered: How do people get to the point of no return? What makes one man put his fist through the wall, and another put his boot through your face? Why can this guy shrug you off and walk away, but that guy waits for you in the shadows with a baseball bat?
Mr. Somerville had a minimum wage job, two kids he was barred from seeing, and a chip on his shoulder the size of my beach house. He was also innocent, which is the worst kind of client to have.
“How is being innocent bad?” he scowled at me. “They can’t lock me up this time.”
Oh you precious, precious fool. “A guilty man knows the facts,” I tried to explain. “He knows he left the knife on the floor, not the table. He knows he broke the lamp, not the mirror.” Junior stared. “He knows if the cops are lying, or if the witness was stoned. He can help me trip up the prosecution.”
Junior and I did most of our talking at the bar where he worked, a rumpled little tavern called Bertha’s. Nobody seemed to know who or where Bertha was, and that bothered me some, but Junior kept a bottle of the Macallan under the bar for me, and I drank that in lieu of cash.
He’d been to prison, and to juvie before that, but he only mentioned it once. “I didn’t have parents,” he told me, one night when the place was empty. “The joint raised me. The joint and the gang.” He swigged his cranberry juice. “Every time I went to jail, I found little pieces of myself, just laying around. I’d pick ’em up, try to fit ‘em back inside me.” He finished wiping down the bar and grabbed the broom. “I don’t think I found ’em all.”
Other nights, I hammered him about his alleged victim, threatened to quit the case, swore I’d take his kids away forever, but he never changed his story.
I wanted to ask him, “How’d you know those pieces were yours, and not somebody else’s?” I wanted to know how he could bet his life on a trickster like me.
A good lawyer — a lawyer who wins — is better than a novelist with words, using them to hijack any story and reframe it. A good lawyer relentlessly asks that uncomfortable, cosmic question— not What is the truth? But— Whose truth is that? Yours or mine?
I won the case. Some men deserve a beat down, that was my position, and the jury agreed.
Mr. Somerville,” the judge said. “You are free to go.”
When we stepped into the hallway, Junior tried to hug me, but his bones wouldn’t hold him upright. He still had family court and psych visits and whatever else, but my job was done. I walked away without saying good-bye.
“Everybody hates lawyers,” says my father. “Until their dumb asses are in trouble.”
One of the young public defenders — balancing a dozen case files on her lap — caught my arm as I passed by. “Who was that?” she asked.
“That,” I said, “was almost Andy Dufresne.”
She squinted at me in confusion. Not much of a movie buff, I guess.
I believe we’re adjourned here, anyway.