I arrived at the county lockup before breakfast was served. The guard let me bring in an unopened container of yogurt and a bottle of skim milk for my client. Desmond "Tiny" Huntley grinned when he came in and sat down across from me. His grin grew when he saw he had a choice of a healthy breakfast instead of the runny eggs, grits, bacon and coffee that were served every morning at the jail.
"You'll be going home today," I said. He was pulling the top off the yogurt and he stopped. He raised his eyes to mine and just stared.
"That ain't something you screw with a man about," he said.
"No, it isn't," I agreed. "The charges will be dropped by no later than this afternoon. I'll call your sister and your girlfriend to let them know when they can pick you up."
Huntley seemed stunned by the news. Twice he opened his mouth to speak only to close it without a syllable escaping his lips.
"What the hell happened?" he finally asked.
I laid it out for him in minute detail – from the bogus videotape to the corrupt photo ID to the falsified statement from the hotel clerk.
"So that's what was going on yesterday," he said, shaking his head. "About noon, they dragged me out of my rack and sent me down for a photograph. No one would tell me why. Even the guards I've ... come to an arrangement with ... either wouldn't or couldn't tell me. Man, that's messed up."
"More than you know," I said with a sigh. "Look, I'm going to try to get the charges dismissed with prejudice because of vengeful prosecution. That means they can never refile the murder charge against you again. I'm not sure that whoever takes over the office won't come after you on some other bullshit charge but it won't be for the murder of Biff Wells if I can swing it. I can't promise it will go that way but that is what I'll shoot for."
Huntley nodded briefly and then tilted his head.
"What do you mean 'whoever takes over that office?'" he asked. "Has your wife been promoted to judge?"
"She'll likely be forced to resign at the least," I told him. "She might be charged with a crime. We're not sure yet."
"Nah," he said, shaking his head firmly. "No way she had a hand in this. I told you, Bro, she had dozens of chances to cut corners and she never took them. It's like I said, if she filed the paper on me it was because she had evidence that I done it."
"I don't believe she was involved but ultimately it will land at her feet anyway," I told him. "You know how it works. Dwyer still has supporters in town and they will make a fuss. There are more than a few lawyers in town who hate Elizabeth and at least one of them will have the balls to go to the state bar. The state bar will have to suspend her license while they investigate. This is some serious stuff. It isn't like she fixed a parking ticket for a friend. Someone on the Task Force wanted you to be executed for felony murder and they went to great lengths to get it this far. To be honest, if I wasn't such a shitty defense attorney, it might have succeeded."
"You're telling me that I'm going to be set free and then you call yourself a shitty attorney," Huntley said, shaking his head again. "I'd hate to see what a good attorney would have done."
"A good attorney would have waited for a deposition with the witness," I explained. "By that time, the cops would have firmed up the ID. Someone would have read his statement and noticed that you are not overweight. They would have corrected that imperfection and given him a current picture of you to make certain he could ID you on sight. I only caught this because I wanted every piece of evidence the state had and I forced them to give it to me. As soon as I read the statement from the clerk, I made them give me the video from the hotel. One look at that told me that everything was based on a lie."
Huntley was again shaking his head. He hadn't touched his yogurt or his milk.
"Do you know who set me up?" he asked in a quiet voice.
I shook my head.
"I violated a judicial decree and gave the file to Elizabeth last night," I admitted. "She's going through it but she won't have time to make any headway before she's suspended. Right now, every member of the Task Force is under suspicion. It should make your outside job a little easier."
"I made a decision while I was sitting here," Huntley said. "I knew I didn't kill Wells but there are a lot of other things I done that could have landed me in this spot if one or two things be different. I'm out. I promised my lady that if I got out of this one, I was done. We're packing up and moving. She got family in Texas and that's where we're headed. I'm going to start a business with some of the money we got and stay clean."
"I'm glad to hear that," I said. I was sincere in my sentiments. "You and I both know you've beaten the odds to this point. I know you're 38 years old. I know you've been doing what you were doing since you were 12 or 13. That's a hell of a long time in the life."
"Most kids don't see 18," Huntley said. "They get popped by the cops or a rival gang or OD on the shit they're supposed to be slinging."
"Well, I'll tell your lady to start packing when I give her a call," I said, standing up.
"Wait for a minute, Ben," he said. I stopped and looked down, expecting a thank you or some other words of appreciation. I truly hoped this would be the last time I had any sort of conversation with Desmond "Tiny" Huntley.
"Sit down for a minute, could you?" he said. I shrugged and resumed my seat. "Look, another week or two in here ain't going to hurt me none. Hell, six more months in here wouldn't be a start on the time I got coming to me. Hold off on doing whatever you got planned until you can get your lady in the clear. I ain't talking sending me to the needle but I can do a while longer if you need the time to fix things for her."
"You're innocent," I said.
His reply was eerily reminiscent to words I had spoken to Lucinda Barrett the first time I'd met her.
"I didn't do this but I damned sure ain't innocent," he told me. "If you can get me out before Christmas, I can do the time if it helps. I owe you that much."
He stood and knocked on the door to be led back to his cell before I could formulate a reply. His yogurt and milk sat opened but untouched on the table in front of me.
I sat in the jail parking lot, still contemplating Huntley's words. He was willing to stay in jail for another month in order to give Elizabeth a chance to get into the clear. Elizabeth would have sold a lung to put Desmond Huntley in prison and he was willing to give her a hand.
It made no sense to me. The buzzing of my cell phone sent my thoughts scattering.
"Where are you?" Michelle asked urgently.
"At the jail," I answered.
"You need to get your ass back here," my paralegal ordered me. "Judge Castille has been waiting for you since eight o'clock."
"Why?" I wondered. "There was nothing on the schedule."
Michelle was silent. It dawned on me that word of the prosecution's conduct had spread through the courthouse.
"Michelle?" I asked. "Was there something on the schedule I was unaware of?"
"Uh, no," she answered hesitantly. "This is something that came up this morning. I don't know why but he's been calling here since I came in. He wants you there immediately. Judge Valasik is also looking for you. You need to get back here."
"They're just going to have to wait for me," I said. "Whatever they want me for can wait. I have other things scheduled this morning. If they call again, let them know I won't be available until after lunch."
I heard Michelle's breathing through the phone line.
"Are you sure about this?" she asked.
"I'm positive," I replied. "They can't just schedule something and expect me to drop everything to do their bidding. I will be in Judge Castille's chambers at one."
"Not his chambers," Michelle stated. "He wants to see you in his courtroom."
"Shit," I muttered. That meant he planned a full hearing. Jane must have come forward to drop the charges. That would put Elizabeth back on the clock.
I arrived at the county courthouse a few minutes after I hung up from Michelle's call. I didn't head to my office. Instead, I walked into the prosecutor's digs and asked to see my wife. The woman at the front office blinked at me owlishly and I saw a hubbub of activity from the young lawyers who worked in Elizabeth's office. The woman finally picked up a phone and dialed Elizabeth's extension. I didn't hear the conversation but very shortly my wife appeared and I was buzzed through the security door.
Elizabeth looked harried as she motioned me into her office.
"I don't have long," she said as I sat down. I wondered if she expected me to conduct my business from my knees like a supplicant to the queen.
"You might have longer than you thought," I replied.
"Ben, I have everyone available trying to figure out what happened," she informed me. It was news that I already suspected from the assistant prosecutor's racing around like their asses were on fire. "Have the charges been dropped? Jane called to alert me this morning. Is that why you're here?"
Elizabeth's vocal cadence was quicker than I normally heard. She was nervous and hopped up on coffee.
"Sit down for a minute," I instructed. "I need to talk to you and I want your undivided attention for a few moments."
She stared at me but finally took a seat. I stood and closed her office door.
"You might have longer than you think," I said again. "Has Jane introduced a motion to dismiss the charges?"
Elizabeth continued to stare at me for a long moment.
"That's your job," she informed me as though I was an idiot.
"OK," I said. "That's good. I'm not going to make that motion either."
"That's career suicide!" Elizabeth practically shouted. "You will be disbarred the moment Desmond Huntley files a complaint."
"Desmond is not going to file a complaint," I said.
"Of course he will!" Elizabeth countered.
"Desmond is not going to file a complaint," I repeated. "I just came from the jail. We talked and he understands the situation."
"You convinced Huntley to sit in jail to give me time to fix this?" Elizabeth asked incredulously. "Ben, you are going to lose your law license."
"I didn't ask him to do anything," I said. "He offered. I told him about the photo array and the picture on the web site. I explained to him that someone in the prosecutor's office or on the task force had set him up. The first thing he said was that it wasn't you. I told him that it might not have been you but that you were still going to take the fall."
"Might not have been?" Elizabeth asked in a tight voice.
"Like I said last night, ultimately this falls at your feet," I said. "Not only are you the one the sitting at the big desk but you were the one in charge of the task force. Add in your obsession with Huntley and you have this mess. Regardless of how it turns out, this is going to take a huge bite out of your credibility. You might as well accept that there are going to be people – a lot of people, actually – who will always think you had a hand in circumventing justice."
Elizabeth had paled at my clinical description of the facts. I could tell that she didn't like it but I also knew it didn't change the situation in the slightest.
"So, Huntley is willing to lend you a hand," I continued.
The news didn't add to Elizabeth's happiness.
"I do not want to be beholden to a drug dealer," she stated. "I will not cut him a break on his next arrest."
"Former drug dealer," I replied with a sigh. "That's the other thing. He has given me until the week before Christmas to file the paperwork to get him released. Once he is released, his family is moving out of the area. He will no longer be a problem for you."
"Just for someone else," Elizabeth muttered.
"This is what I meant by the word 'obsession, '" I pointed out. "He's throwing you a lifeline. He's willing to sit in jail for another month to give you a shot to pull this department out of the shitter and you're bitching about it."
My wife glared at me across the desk but I didn't blink or look away. It caught her by surprise, I think.
"So, you have until the week before Christmas," I said, as I stood. "December 17th, I'm going to file a motion to suppress the identification and to drop the charges. That gives you three weeks you didn't have this morning."
I stopped when I got to the door and turned to her.
"When this is said and done, you're going to wish you had Desmond Huntley running the drug trade in this city," I said. "He's predictable and he's calculating. He only kills those who need to be killed. There will be a war to claim the turf and the winner is going to be the guy who is most willing to kill indiscriminately. You might want to keep that in mind."
Judge Castille glared at me when I opened the door to his courtroom. Jane Cummings turned in her seat and I noticed Judge Valasik was sitting in the gallery. She shifted around to add her baleful gaze in my direction. I ignored them all as I walked to the defense table, put my briefcase down and took a seat.
"I'm glad you could join us, Mr. Wallace," Judge Castille said.
"Thank you for verifying my availability before scheduling this, Your Honor," I said.
Judge Castille continued to stare at me for a moment before he smiled.
"OK, you're right," he said. "I expected you to be beating on my chambers door when I arrived this morning. When you weren't, I thought it would only be a matter of time."
"I was visiting with my client this morning," I said. "I do that twice a week, Your Honor. I feel it is imperative that Mr. Huntley be kept abreast of the happenings on the case."
"Of course, Mr. Wallace," Judge Castille said. "I apologize for my tone. Now, I understand that you have something for the court's consideration."
I glanced at Jane for a moment before turning back to Judge Castille.
"No, Your Honor," I said. I tried to put as much confusion in my voice as I could. Jane's head jerked so fast in my direction I was surprised that she didn't get whiplash.
The glare that Judge Castille had let fall off his face returned in full force.
"It was my understanding that you would be presenting a motion to withdraw the charges," he said.
"No, Your Honor," I said. "I'm not sure where your information came from but it was incorrect."
"Miss Lipscomb, please stop and take a break," the judge told the court reporter. He waited until she was gone before he motioned for the bailiff to exit and lock the door behind him. Then he turned to me.
"What in the hell is going on here?" he asked.
"I don't know, Your Honor," I answered.
"That is such crap," The Honorable Lisa Valasik muttered from behind me.
"We're off the record here," Judge Castille pointed out. "I have the full story from Ms. Cummings and Judge Valasik. I know that your wife is in a bit of a jam but you need to step up here, Ben. I need to do the right thing and so do you."
"To be blunt, Your Honor, I don't," I said. "The prosecution can drop the charges but I don't foresee that happening, given the circumstances. Short of a motion from me or the prosecution, there is nothing you can do. I spent most of this morning researching this very point. I have not received a copy of a motion of dismissal from the prosecution and I have no intent to introduce one at this point."
The judge kept his gaze on me but spoke to prosecutor.
"Ms. Cummings?" he asked.
"Yes, Your Honor?" she inquired. Like Judge Castille (and, although she was behind me, I assume Judge Valasik), she kept her eyes on me.
"Do you have a motion to dismiss the charges against Mr. Huntley?" Castille pressed.
Jane paused and let out a sigh.
"I would need to confirm with the original prosecutor before I can make the call," she answered.
"No, you don't!" Judge Valasik said.
"Lisa, please," Castille said from the bench. "Ms. Cummings, you have the authority to add or drop charges as you see fit."
"I understand that, Your Honor," Jane said. "But we're talking about the dismissal of the primary charge. We're not talking about adding a jaywalking charge or dropping a gun enhancement. If I drop the charges, the prosecution has the option of refiling them. Mr. Huntley will retain Mr. Wallace and we will begin this dance again. I believe it is incumbent upon me to discuss the situation with the sitting prosecutor and allow her to make the decision for her office."
Judge Castille nodded his understanding and turned back to me.
"Mr. Wallace, I like you," he said. "I thought you did a fine job with the Lauren Wells defense. You took calculated risks – including, from what I understand, meeting with your present client. But right now, you are trying my patience. Mr. Huntley must be advised of what has transpired over the past day."
"He has been, Your Honor," I cut in. "Mr. Huntley is aware of every fact of this case that I am aware of. More than that, he is aware of every piece of supposition that I possess. Not that it is any of the Court's business, but the decision to wait was made by Desmond Huntley."
"Seriously?" Jane asked incredulously.
"Part of it is what Ms. Cummings has already stated," I continued. "My client is only willing to file a motion if it stands a realistic chance of being granted with prejudice or if he stands a shot at a directed acquittal. Right now, neither of those options seems to me to be a realistic possibility. Does the Court disagree?"
Judge Castille continued to look at me but he eventually nodded.
"I agree that those outcomes are unlikely," he said.
"My client has no intention of staying in the region upon his release," I added. "He does not want to have his hanging over his head in perpetuity. There is no statute of limitations on murder and he knows that. Until I believe Mr. Huntley will never again face charges on this crime, he would prefer to stay the course."
"Did you have anything to do with Mr. Huntley's decision?" the judge asked.