I was happy that I at least left on a high note as I rode the elevator to the 14th floor of the county courthouse.
It didn't last.
Al Castille had two other people in his chambers – Tony Baker and Valerie Dwyer, the elected district attorney for the county. I had met Dwyer only twice – and that was enough. She was nearing the middle of her first four-year term in office. From the outset, she set her sights on bigger things, namely moving across town as a federal prosecutor or taking a seat on the bench in another year, maybe even the one Castille was looking forward to vacating.
Dwyer was living proof that money is not the same thing as class. During her campaign, it became known she finished in the bottom one-third of her class at a less-than-prestigious law school after flunking out of Yale during her first year. Still, her parents were wealthy and dead – which meant she was simply wealthy – so she was able to buy her present position.
I did not follow the criminal proceedings in our fair city. I found it depressing, first of all. Secondly, I found it repetitious. The District Attorney's Office had not fared well in a trio of high-profile criminal cases in the past year. In the first, a philandering wife and her police officer boyfriend got away with killing the woman's dentist husband. It didn't exactly turn out to be happy ever after though. Six weeks after their acquittal, the woman killed her boyfriend.
Thankfully for the scales of justice, it was in another jurisdiction so there is an even chance the woman will be convicted. In our city? Not a prayer. Dwyer insisted on prosecuting all high-profile cases herself and the woman was singularly dislikeable. She had a cold demeanor that didn't play well to a jury and she was not a good enough attorney to overcome that fact.
So she lost a lot.
In fact, outside of the renowned Elizabeth Vargas-Wallace, the prosecution won only about 65 percent of its cases. That number might seem acceptable but it's not.
First off, as I mentioned earlier, the police generally gets the right person (Lauren Wells being the obvious exception, of course). Secondly, the District Attorney's Office gets plea deals on about 80 percent of its cases. Those count as a conviction and, thusly, a win.
That means, realistically, the prosecution lost about 15 out of every 20 remaining cases. That was horrendous. It was worse considering my lovely and talented wife brought a conviction rate of better than 90 percent to the party.
When it came right down to it, Elizabeth won her cases and the others hoped and prayed for plea deals. But when you have only a handful of people worth a damn in a courtroom, the defense generally found a way to take it to trial. It was the hope of many police officers (and probably judges, too) that Elizabeth Vargas-Wallace would throw her hat into the ring in two years.
I didn't know if she planned to run or not. It wasn't something that had come up in conversation other than her mentioning she'd been approached to see if it was even a remote possibility. She knew I would accept and support her decision whichever way it went.
As I entered the judge's chambers, a couple of things made loud clicking sounds in my mind when pieces suddenly fell together.
Castille was his usual pleasant self, welcoming me and thanking me for coming. It wasn't as though I had a choice in the matter but I accepted his thanks with a smile and a nod. Valerie Dwyer was on her feet as soon as I entered. She had a huge fake smile plastered to her face and her hand extended in greeting.
Tony Baker did not rise but simply added his nasty look to the ones I had received from others just a few minutes earlier. I took the indicated seat and Judge Castille began by motioning the stenographer to wait a moment before starting the record.
I was surprised to see this was to be an official meeting.
"OK, I'm glad we all agreed to meet," Castille said. "Ms. Dwyer, I trust you're up to speed on the specifics of this case. You are not a party to the proceeding so I will not stop to fill you in as we go. Is that clear?"
"I'm good, Your Honor," Valerie declared. The glance the court reporter gave me told me that even she knew it to be a patently false statement.
"Very well," Castille said. "I have severe issues with the Wells case. I want everyone to be completely candid with me. I'll not ask about strategy and I'll reference only what is already in evidence. No one will be tipping his hand. First off, I'll be completely candid with everyone here. I have no doubt that Lauren Wells was used as a drug courier for her father and, probably for Tiny Huntley."
I lifted a hand like I was in elementary school. Castille beamed at me like the good pupil I was and nodded for me.
"Not Tiny Huntley," I said. "He and I have spoken about this. I have his word that he does not use children in his operation."
"He is a drug dealer!" Dwyer insists. "Do you really think he is credible? How gullible are you?"
"Yes, he is credible and no, I'm not gullible," I replied. "I think in this case he is telling the truth. Incidentally, my wife concurs. There has never been anyone younger than 17 years old linked to Huntley's operations."
"I stand corrected," Castille said before Dwyer could continue the disagreement. "But Lauren Wells' father, one Leonides 'Biff' Wells, did use Lauren as a courier."
Baker sat up straighter in his seat, looking pleased with himself. Castille sent him slumping in his chair seconds later.
"But I do not know if she was a willing or an unwitting accomplice," the judge continued. "And there is no way on God's green Earth the State can present any evidence that she even touched the bag let alone that she knew what was inside and did so willing."
"We have her statement claiming ownership of the bag," Dwyer said. "We'll shore up our evidence at trial."
"How?" I asked. "By suborning perjury? Because that is about your only hope of shoring up anything."
Castille spoke before Dwyer could formulate a reply.
"He's right," the judge said. "That is why this case is not going to be tried."
"Your Honor, that is my decision to make," Dwyer insisted.
"For now, I suppose it is," Castille replied. "If you are as well informed as you claim to be, then you know your department has already violated the defendant's Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights as well as host of state and federal statutes. Very little of what was presented today will be admissible at any trial."
The judge began counting on his fingers.
"There was no probable cause to suggest a crime was being committed," he said. "And no search warrant was issued for the bag."
"The defendant agreed to let us look," Dwyer said.
"The defendant is 14 years old," I countered. "Therefore she cannot consent to a search. Nor should she be asked to consent to anything without a parent or guardian present."
Dwyer made a face like this was just so much legal wrangling. I noticed that as I spoke, Castille ticked off another of his fingers.
"The police have only the right to ask for identity and date of birth from a minor," the judge agreed. "Once they establish the age of the accused, they can question him if he is older than 18 or wait for an attorney or a parent if he is not. There is no gray area here. The search and the admission of ownership are out – now and always."
"Inevitable discovery," Dwyer said. "We would have found out what was in the bag eventually."
I started to refute Dwyer but Castille turned my way with a question.
"Mr. Wallace, you work in child advocacy," he said. "Walk us through it. A child is arrested for a crime. What happens next?"
"They call my office," I said. "One of us is on call at all times. In fact, it would have been me for the arraignment anyway. It was my weekend but I generally remove myself from drug cases because of my wife's affiliation."
Castille nodded for me to continue.
"Within an hour, we meet with the accused or his parents to arrange bail details and then we sit in on the interrogation, if there is one," I added.
"Do you generally allow the accused to answer questions like, 'Is that bag full of drugs that we never saw you holding really yours?'" Castille asked. In just an hour or two in his presence, I had already picked up on his nuances. He was pissed off at Valerie Dwyer for jumping into the meeting, likely uninvited, and then trying to justify the unjustifiable.
"No, Your Honor," I stated. "We encourage our clients to give only the information required by statute: their correct name, their Social Security number, their date of birth and their fingerprints. It is our standard procedure and one I put in place myself when I was in the criminal defense division of CYS."
Castille turned back to Dwyer and Baker.
"Now, we see there would be no inevitable discovery," Castille stated. "As I said, the admission of ownership and the search are out. What are you left with? A kid playing in the park. Ms. Dwyer, Mr. Baker, we are doing this off the record because I want your assurances no further charges will filed in this matter against Lauren Wells."
"I can't make that assurance," Baker said stiffly.
"The policies and procedures of the District Attorney's Office are solely my purview, Your Honor," Dwyer added with defiance. "You do not get to decide who I prosecute."
Castille's smile held little warmth but he offered it to her anyway.
"As I said earlier, they are your purview – for now," he said. "I believe that situation will change in another 20 months or so – if not sooner. Let's go on the record."
The stenographer's fingers immediately moved to the keyboard as Castille gave the date, time and people present for the official transcript.
"It is clear to everyone involved this case was fraught with errors from the outset," he stated. Any trace of pleasantness was gone. He was the judge and he was kicking some ass. "I insist you tell me why you wasted not only my time but more importantly why you insisted a 14-year-old child was subjected to the criminal justice system when you have absolutely no evidence linking her to a crime."
It is rare for a judge to "insist" upon anything. I could see Dwyer's face was red and I knew she was about to step into the shit pile by trying to defend her office.
Tony Baker took one for the team.
"It was my decision to proceed," he said.
"Which answers exactly none of my questions," Castille pointed out.
"Your Honor, can we go off the record for another moment?" Baker asked. Dwyer shot her subordinate a look but he didn't flinch.
"Yes," the judge said. "Strike everything back to my last statement."
The stenographer nodded and Baker looked sheepish.
"It was my weekend," he admitted. "I got a call that one of Huntley's guys had been spotted dropping off a backpack. I authorized the 'observe and report.' I had plans that evening. As time passed without hearing anything, I made the decision to go ahead and authorize the arrest. The information I received did not mention the age of the accused. It was my impression that she was an adult. Given what she was wearing when she was brought to the lockup, I can see where that impression arose. Suffice it to say, Your Honor, the young girl in court today bore no resemblance to the woman brought into the juvenile detention center."
Castille pursed his lips. I could see he thought Tony was lying. I could have let Baker sink but my wife worked with the guy so I threw him a life preserver.
"That is entirely possible, Your Honor," I said. "The clothing Mr. Wells brought along for his daughter was not appropriate apparel for a child. I have it directly from Tiny Huntley that Mr. Wells offered up his daughter sexually to pay off money he owed to Mr. Huntley."
I saw rage flash in Castille's eyes.
"You gave this man immunity from prosecution?" he roared at Baker and Dwyer. "Mark my words. If it is the last thing I do, I will see you out of office. I will run myself if I have to. And if either of you ever land in my courtroom again, you better make sure you have on three pairs of underwear and a toothbrush in your suit jacket. Because I will find a way to hold you in contempt."
Many long-time criminals facing a fresh jail term often wore three pairs of underwear to court and carried a fresh toothbrush with them on the day they are to be sentenced. There was just something about putting on county-owned underwear that has been worn by a thousand men before you that even the criminal element found extremely creepy.
Baker nodded. I had the impression he knew he fucked up but he was too far along to help himself much. Dwyer was pissed.
I did my best to sit invisibly until Castille's anger cooled.
"Continue, Mr. Baker," Castille ordered. "You still haven't answered my question. You told me why you had her arrested – not that I find it credible. Even if it is the gospel, it is still unreasonable. Once you knew the case was a bust, why did you continue?"
Baker sighed and nodded again.
"Two reasons, Your Honor," Baker said. "Well, probably a lot more but two main reasons. Elizabeth Vargas was out of the office and that left me in charge. The longer I kept her out of the office, the more authority I would have when she returned. It's petty and it's stupid. I realized that my desire for power was clouding my judgment when I found myself paying for Biff Wells' attorney out of my own pocket."
"The second reason?" Castille insisted. He was speaking to Baker but he was staring at Dwyer.
"I was ordered to keep the case on trial track," Baker said sheepishly.
"By whom?" Castille demanded. His gaze had not shifted in the slightest.
"Ms. Dwyer, Your Honor," Baker said. "I was told not to offer any plea bargain unless it netted me Tiny Huntley. I knew the girl had nothing to land me that guy. If I'm honest, I knew she didn't even know for certain what was in the bag. Although I am certain she suspected and I think it is reasonable to suggest she was a knowing if unwilling participant."
I had to agree with Baker – but I sat quietly and didn't even shift in my seat.
"Do you know why this order was handed down?" Castille asked. His voice was returning to the grandfatherly cadence it normally held. It was possible he felt sorry for Tony Baker. I know I did – a little.
"Specifically? No," Baker said. "But I suspect."
"This is stupid and I won't be a party to this, this character assassination any longer!" Dwyer said, standing.
"Sit down or you will sleep in a cell for 30 days," Castille thundered. "If you think I'm kidding, try me."
From kindly grandfather to irate father in one second flat, a new record, I mused.
I saw Dwyer gulp. I could see she was considering it. It wouldn't do her any good unless she dragged Baker out by his ear with her. He was going to give chapter and verse to cover his own ass. That much was evident.
Dwyer fumed but took her seat.
"Continue," Castille said.
Baker offered a lame shrug.
"Elizabeth Vargas is the only person in the office anyone respects," Baker said. "But..."
Baker's voice trailed off and he turned to me. I could have killed him for reminding Castille I was still in the room.
"I'm sorry, Ben, but your wife is a hard ass," Baker said.
Well, he had at least spoken the truth.
"She has no problem standing up to Ms. Dwyer, either," Baker continued. "Ms. Dwyer dislikes Elizabeth Vargas immensely."
"I know we're off the record but I think you should at least use her correct name," Castille said. He gave me a smile that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I was on his good side.