Friday, September 9, 2011


Some "special features", at the end of a DVD, are more interesting than the feature presentation. And so it is with a trial. Unanticipated emotional and stressful vignettes, never embraced by transcript, remain in the  memory bank. As I relate this specific event, one true name shall be specifically referenced, as an intentional salute.

A murder trial in a mid-western state. Local counsel (Bob) had been retained, and he successfully moved for my appearance, pro-hac-vice (required for out-of-state counsel). The defendant/client's reputation preceded him. A stone killer, with the customarily predictable short life span. One of those guys. He was being held without bail and enjoyed celebrity status in the small town jail. In fact, all the locals were  closely following this case.

My friend, and most highly regarded private investigator, John McNally, was with me. He was a veteran of the NYPD, having retired as a Detective First Grade, and had earned the status of legend. He had captured "Murph the Surf", the notorious jewel thief who had stolen the Star of India, the world's largest sapphire, weighing in at 563 carats. Once, when off duty, John entered a liquor store and into a robbery in progress. He withdrew his weapon, subdued the two perps, and then called for backup. He was a robust, gritty, no-nonsense cop, tough as nails, savvy to the hilt, and with a heart of gold. He either liked you or he didn't, and it was a permanent decision. And he was my friend.

Bob was in personal hell. He tapped his home phone daily, suspecting his wife of having an affair. Unfortunately for him, he hit the jackpot. The third party was his minister. Every morning, we would meet at his office, as a command post, before going to court. The agenda was always the same. He would play the prior day's tapes. That poor bastard. We were hearing x-rated conversations. The minister had a penchant for play-by-play details. The reactions of Bob's wife resembled a simulated orgasm, all over again. John and I would exchange discreet glances and bite our tongues for pain, so as to prevent inappropriate reaction. To believe what we heard, this man of God was heavenly endowed. When the playback ended, Bob would look at us and ask,"Whaddaya think?" I could only put my hand on his shoulder. A sermon on reasonable doubt would not have been in order. A good guy done wrong.

One evening, the motel clerk advised us that he had received a death threat to me. Should he call the police? John squelched that flat-out, assuring that we would handle the matter, in-house.
"You and me are gonna switch rooms. The clerk will know nothing. No problem."
"John, are you nuts? I can't let you do that! Your room is next to mine, anyway. I'll be o.k."
"No discussion. You know I always carry. Let's move our shit, right now."
And, so it was. John probably half-slept with his piece by his side, but he provided no details and never spoke of it again. Nothing happened. You've heard the phrase,"He would take a bullet for me." That shoe fit, literally. That's John. That's my friend.

I was cross-examining the state's percipient witness, and I was on a roll. I "had" the guy. When this happens, the last thing I want is to be interrupted. I've got to stay focused. This is a conversational chess game played on a mine field. Suddenly, I felt a vise on my left arm. Mucho pain. I should tell you that my client was a giant. My eyeballs met his belt buckle. He had grabbed me, wanting to say something, just as I was throwing bombs at the witness. I reacted, instinctively. "Don't bother me, you gorilla!" The question, as to why I chose those words, shall forever remain one of the world's greatest mysteries. The client released me but said nothing. Not even "goodbye" at the end of the day's proceedings.The next morning, the Sheriff had something to tell me.
"We've found something in your client's cell. Some sort of a list. Best we can tell, it's a hit list and your name is on it. Can't figure why, but thought you should know."
Thanks for nuthin'. I knew "why". My boy was pissed at my rebuke. Maybe I should tank the trial, argue for a "guilty" and request the chair. He wouldn't look at me straight, and was pouting. Pout this, Rambo. I need to erase my name and you, at the same time. Frustratingly, no immediate solution came to mind. No turning back now. Plus, John was still with me.

The trial lasted three weeks. When the jury filed in with a verdict, you could cut the tension with a knife. We all stood as the foreman read it off. Not guilty on all counts! The client put his hands on my hips and lifted me one foot off the ground. I stared down into his eyes. "Will you take me off that freakin' list?" He looked up at his lawyer whom he held suspended in air, and laughed. "You're off. You're off. You're o.k. You're the best." As a sign of sincerity, he gently put me down. I looked at John who gave me a not-to-worry look. I was insurable again. And the victory juice was adrenaline in m veins. I hugged my client and then John, much tighter.

These tangential things attend every trial, as part of the big picture. They enhance the indelible and exciting experience of trying a criminal case. What a way to earn a living---if you're made that way.

It's nice to whistle on your way to work.

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