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tearing the rag off the bush again
Bob's Big Mistake PDF E-mail

The Judge was late, which was fine except it was hot, and Bob, my client, was shackled at the ankles. A waist chain anchored Bob’s arms to his sides. Bob wore a suit, at my insistence, and he hated it. Sweat ran down his neck and under his blue collar. Perspiration dripped from his nose and ran behind his ears. Because of the shackles, he could not wipe his face. He smelled, too. None of this would help much when the jury came in. The sweat, the cheap suit, the federal defender service lawyer, the very courtroom, the shackles; each little thing would signal to each member of the jury that Bob did it. Today’s process was a formality, a nicety, not quite a sham.

Maybe, at least, I could get the shackles off. But only the Judge could authorize the unchaining of Bob and the Judge, as I said, was late. He was in conference, in chambers, and his courtroom clerk, Jeff, a generally good guy, was with the Judge. So Bob was stuck for now, tied up and over-heating. Oh well.

 We were in the federal courtroom high up and tucked away in the federal building in Brattleboro, Vermont. This courtroom is my own little chapel of peace. The room is confident in itself, its times, its design. It feels no need to try. It signals no qualms about the authority it presents to those assembled. The federal building is an old and cloistered place. It is three winding flights of marble stairs to the quiet of this great room. Guarded outside and in by large, proud, shining men with closely cropped graying hair and bright white shirts; muffled by thick, ornate doors and tons of rebar and concrete; dusty and soft and dark, even during the brightest and hottest of summer days, the courtroom separates the world outside from the process. The sounds from the street flow in just faintly: trucks rumbling by, car horns, jack-hammers, jake brakes.

In that room that day the un-conditioned air sat thick, tasting of old books and of the big, red, unwashed curtains hanging over the closed and locked windows. Wood ceiling fans pushed at the hot air and dust, swirling the mix but not altering its contents or lowering the temperature one bit. I did not mind the heat or the dust or the musky smell. I love that room. If not for the clients, I could sit there, quietly, all day; I could try cases there all day. I love that room.

But it was my job just then to find Jeff to ask the Judge to order the chains removed. I knew what to do. It’s not that I wasn’t worried; I was. I worried about the chains, the heat, the evidence. I worried whether the jury pool was now stuck in that awful room downstairs behind the post office sorting machines.

Bob’s jury: A bunch of strangers sitting in a stifling, dark, worn, sealed room, listening through the wall to postal workers sort mail, vibrating a bit from the motion of the sorting machines, seething a bit. Anger such as that group of citizens must have felt would be transferred. To Bob. Nothing worse for your chances at trial than an angry jury. Nothing, that is, other than a client like Bob. But I was in court. I could push Bob out of my mind.

“I’ve got chest pains,” Bob said through clenched teeth, derailing me. He stared straight ahead, the way he did whenever it was evident that nothing he knew how to do could end his frustration or change his circumstance or help him avoid the results of his own actions. He knew how to do little that was not hurtful and mean, violent and destructive.

“What?” I asked.

I had heard him and I understood him, it’s just I didn’t believe him. I did not believe Bob had chest pains. I did believe he was in the frame of mind I imagine he’d been in on the afternoon he took that little girl. I asked my question just to buy time. I figured Bob’s frame of mind was a very bad thing. He’d thrown me. I needed to think. I didn’t care about Bob but I had to react. I searched for how to reply. I needed time. I asked again, “what?”

“I said I have got fucking chest pains counselor and I would like to know what the fuck you intend to do about it.” His intonation caught me. The rhythm of it soothed me. He was a beat poet. “Are you going just to sit there and let me die,” he asked through his teeth. I said nothing. It was how he had talked when I’d asked about the facts of this case and when I had tried to convince him that maybe his best chances to avoid death might involve claiming to be insane.

On some people he probably could transfer his hate and depression and rage and need and narcissism. And guilt. But, as I said, I never cared about Bob. He was a murderer and rapist, no allegedly about it, and not a particularly sympathetic one at that. When you defend rapists you think in these types of terms, gradations of guilt.

I listened once to another attorney in the service describe a client to a reporter. The client had broken into a home by shooting through the door, hitting his victim’s husband with a stray bullet, leaving him in a pool of blood, paralyzed and on the floor, as he repeatedly raped that young and lovely mother and wife and friend and woman. The attorney described the crime as “not that bad.” It is all relative, we begin to think.

Last summer Bob took a girl across the cold river that forms the border between our state and the next and he raped her in a car on the edge of a field and he beat her until she died. She was all of fifteen. It happened in an old AMC Matador. Bob’s car.

Bob’s car was found not long after the search began for this daughter and friend and smart student and naïve romantic little hippy girl. Someone with Bob’s fingerprints and Bob’s hair used one of Bob’s shirts to try to wipe away the blood from the inside of Bob’s car. Someone with Bob’s palm-prints tried to hide the bloody shirt by stuffing it into the dumpster outside the Suds & Buds Laundro-mat. Bob’s semen and DNA matched the semen and DNA found in and on the little girl. Bob’s bloody finger and palm-prints were found on the back of Bob’s car from where someone remarkably like Bob pushed the car into the field. Bob’s boots were strangely similar to the boots worn by the person who dragged the body into the field and folded the fallow earth over it.

Bob swears, though, through clenched teeth, his car was stolen and his shirt was stolen and he’d been in the barn all day. It just wasn’t him. “And the federal God-damned Government could find all kinds of ways to prove the innocent guilty,” he’d said the first time we’d met. I did not believe any of Bob’s words. My job, though, is not to believe. It is to defend. And that day I was finding it hard to do my complicated job.

The Assistant United States Attorney assigned to prosecute Bob that day was a woman named Rosie Grant. Rosie is smart and wears little round glasses on her green eyes. She has short, black hair. Working a trial against Rosie is a joy and a dance, theater and drama and sport. She is prepared, honest, straightforward, open; ready when the Judge nods his head in her direction. She is beautiful and funny and calm and true. I tend to like it when Rosie is against me.

This is an interesting case for Rosie to try for two reasons. First, rape and murder are usually for the state to prosecute but in this case Bob made the very fatal mistake of driving his car across the river while the girl was still alive, triggering violations of any number of federal criminal statutes and setting in motion a federal government particularly loath to let men like Bob do what they do. Second, these criminal statutes provide that men like Bob can be – upon conviction – sentenced to have their very own lives snuffed out through the injection of a chemical that shuts a body down for good. Crossing the river was, from Bob’s singular point of view, Bob’s big mistake.

I remember thinking: ‘And he is mine. It lands on me to do my best to stop the wheels of government, to set Bob free.’  And that day it dawned on me that I did not like to do what I do. I could not see it. As I’ve said, I do not care. So, for no reason, really, my head began to pound and I began to sweat. It took far more energy to lift my arm to wipe some sweat from my face than was reasonable. And I was sweating in court. What was that all about? I didn’t like that one bit. “Why do I do what I do?” I thought. I love that room, though, I had to consider that. I love the room.

I could at least get Bob’s shackles off. I could get him cleaned up and calmed down before the jury came out. I needed to take his claim of chest pain seriously.

“Rosie?” I said.

She stood by the counsel’s table to my left, a dark wood table with simple, straight legs and a cloth covering pulled taut across the top, reviewing her notes, hands behind her back, leaning over the table, hair flopping forward with her head. She tilted her face toward mine. Her pearls swayed relentlessly toward the table, not unlike a halo hovering about her breasts, being gently pulled by gravity’s weight. “Bob’s complaining of chest pains,” I said. “Would you object to a brief recess to get Judge Dean to order the chains off and for my client to see a doctor?”

Bob chimed in. “I don’t need no fucking doctor. I need these fucking chains off.” Sweat continued to drip from Bob’s nose. I did nothing to wipe his face.

“Mr. Dallas,” Rosie asked of my client directly, her eyes smiling, “are you in distress or simply uncomfortable?” Rosie had a way with my clients, her voice always sweet, her tone rising with her words. Bob could not tell she was laughing at him with every ounce of her voice and with each word of her question. Bob did not respond except to snap his thin teeth together. They clicked an alien code. He jerked his right knee up and down, piston-like. I wondered when Bob might ever have heard a woman like Rosie talking to him. Warm, smart, beautiful, refined, graceful, elegant, thoughtful, kind. Never, I thought, happy.

The room sat silently for a moment, the only sound the clicking of Bob’s teeth, the steady and unnerving jingle of the chains, the turning of the ceiling fans.

“If you can find Jeff go ahead and ask but I don’t assent,” she said, looking through me by way of my eyes, seemingly taking the entire contents of my soul during the short time it took to say those few, firm words. A complete rejection. But it was O.K. I just liked hearing her talk.

I found Jeff and he asked the Judge, who came out to hear my little motion, apologizing for the delay. He conducted a brief session on the record. He ruled Bob was frustrated and hot but not having a heart attack, an odd finding for a judge to make. I objected, of course. He also ruled that Bob was not a risk of flight and ordered him unshackled. He ordered a marshal to sit at table with Bob and me. I told Bob he could lose the suit coat and tie. He was sweating so much the formal look I sought was failing. Bob looked exactly like a mad killer. The Court told Bob it would be back in five minutes and gave him leave to visit the men’s room in the company of a marshal. I considered this all a small victory.

The jury pool was brought up and they spread about the courtroom as would sheep without a bellwether. The Judge came back and started jury selection. Bob was calmer and cooler. Time started to move for me as it does in court. I am the director, the conductor, the focus. I felt coming into stride. We might win, I thought, delusional.

And then the whole thing changed.

What happened in a moment, just as I started to feel very good at what I do and very good about being in court and about asking my questions and the whole nine yards, was that Bob got up and bolted toward the back of the room. Immediately, the Judge was out of there, back through a door behind the bench that I’d not noticed before. The court reporter, whom I’d known for years and had never seen move from behind her machine, was up in a flash, knocking over her equipment and running past me through the gate and after Bob. Two potential jurors joined the chase, the others scattering. Rosie was after him too. She hiked her skirt, leaped over the little bar dividing the court from the gallery and raced up a side aisle, kicking off her heels as she ran. A daring attempt to cut my client off.

Of course the marshals were into it. Bob muscled past one and cold cocked another. The heavy-set one sitting with me at table was of no use at all, like me. Bob was out the door and into the hall before either of the two of moved an inch. I sat frozen; my heart pounding, thumping; my hands shaking.

Once in the hall I guess Bob caused quite a stir. He ran down the marble steps three at a time. He slipped on a landing and smacked his head on the polished brass handrail, spilling quite a bit of blood. He ran through the Post Office and down the long hall into the sorting room toward what he thought was the way out. It was not. I was the way in to that little hot room where the jury’d been. Two prosecution witnesses, a chemist and cop, now occupied that room. The cop, Sergeant Iverson, the largest Vermont State Trooper in the history of the force, had just gotten up to walk out of the room to see what the commotion was. Bob pulled open the door just as Sergeant Iverson reached that same space but from the other side. That was the end of Bob’s escape.

When it was all over and Bob was in the holding cell on the top floor of the federal building and the jury pool was gone with smiles on their faces and stories to tell and the court reporter was a hero talking to a news reporter from the local paper, I stood in chambers before the Judge and argued that my client should not be held accountable for his lapse. I said the blame lay with the heat.

The Judge swiveled his chair to face Rosie.

“I was hot this morning, Judge,” Rosie said. She looked at me and smiled a little. “And I didn’t try to escape.” Rosie looked down at her shoes and shifted her weight to the left. She watched her right foot trace the edge of the marble floor tile beneath it. I watched too.

The Judge rolled his big blue eyes. He shook his huge head from side to side and guffawed. “Can’t say I’ve seen that before,” he noted. “Guess I was wrong about risk of flight. But I was right about the heart attack.” Again he guffawed. He bound the case over and set an arraignment date for new charges of assault, attempted escape, and a handful of other federal and state claims against Bob. Overkill, really.

I walked out of chambers and across the hall to Jeff’s office to make my pitch for a particular hearing date (I had a vacation coming I didn’t want to lose). I walked outside, sat on the steps of the Federal Building and lit a cigarette. I drifted down the hill to Mocha Joe’s, a little throw-back coffee-shop in the basement where the cobbler used to be, bought a coffee, ate some chocolate kisses left on the table in the café. I thought about calling Rosie and then didn’t. I lit another cigarette. I thought about Bob having the balls to run and me, I just sit there. I never run.

I went outside and sat on a hard, green park bench. I drank my coffee. I smoked another cigarette. I watched the river churn by.

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