Copyright© 2014 by Jay Cantrell
Elizabeth was apoplectic when I arrived home. She seemed poised for physical violence and I could tell her hold on her frayed temper was tenuous.
"Why in the hell did you see Tiny Huntley again today?" she asked through clenched teeth. "Are you intent on getting yourself killed? If you are, just say the word. Because I'm about ready for that."
I looked at her calmly.
"Tiny and I have a business arrangement in this one particular area," I said. "I needed to let him know that I hadn't crossed him on it. I did it for your safety and Lauren's. I can't have him come after you."
Elizabeth stood in front of me with crossed arms.
"You're still in business?" she asked.
"We have agreed that we have reached divergent interests," I said. "We agreed that there will be no hard feelings if we put our own interests first."
"Tony Baker has agreed to let you interview Wells," she said. "Tomorrow morning, 9 a.m., for no longer than 25 minutes."
"No recordings," I said firmly.
"He won't go for that," Elizabeth stated. "Wells has immunity."
"I've got reasonable doubt sewn up," I concluded. "I'll get a jury full of young mothers and fathers; I'll dress Lauren up in pony-tails and pinafores; I'll say over and over again how her father – a man Tony Baker has granted immunity to – set her up as a drug courier. Then I'll testify for Huntley in his trial and say the same fucking thing. Of course by then the press will have excoriated Baker and your office completely so I doubt if Huntley will ever get to trial with Baker's key witness discredited completely. You tell that prick Baker that I said no fucking cameras and no fucking recorders."
Elizabeth stared at me.
"You would set Tiny Huntley free?" she asked.
"If I have a choice of keeping Huntley out of jail or sending Lauren to jail, guess where I'll land," I stated.
"OK," she agreed. "But you don't want to make this personal with Tony Baker."
"I don't give a fuck about Tony Baker," I came back. "I'll never see that prick again. You don't want me to make it personal with Tony Baker. And right now, you're just going to have to be mad at me. I can't allow you or Pam to dictate strategy in this one, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth stared at me harder.
"I guess you're right," she said. "But stay away from Tiny Huntley. You don't have any idea what sort of person you're dealing with."
"I think I do," I told her. "He said a couple of things I agree with: he only kills when he needs to and he does what he does to make sure his kids don't have to do it in a few years. He has a sense of honor that he adheres to. I actually trust him to certain extent. I certainly trust him to handle the Wells situation better than your office can or has."
She shook her head.
"I don't want to be in the middle of this," she said. "I get the impression that things are going to get ugly in a hurry."
Tony Baker insisted in sitting in on the interview with Biff Wells. I demurred and started to leave his office.
"We're not done here," he said.
"I'm done," I replied. "And you're screwed. Listen, little man, you're in over your head. You wanna make your name with this at my client's expense. Well that's not going to happen. I'm going to file a material witness complaint against Wells. I'll interview him at my leisure without your mandates. I'll be back this afternoon with a court order.
"Face it, Baker, you signed a pact with the Devil and I'm here to make sure you pay the price."
It took me less than an hour to secure a warrant for Biff Wells' testimony. Tony Baker tried to block it but he had no standing since he had granted Wells immunity from prosecution.
Biff Wells was not a happy man when he was led into an interrogation room and saw me sitting there. I had beaten him within an inch of his life eight years earlier and he could tell by the look on my face that I would have no qualms about doing it again.
The judge who signed the warrant forbade any member of law enforcement or the prosecution from witnessing the interview – a fact I made evident to Wells by leaving the light on behind the one-way mirror and the door open to the observation area. He knew there would be no one to help him.
I also made sure he was shackled to a bolt on the table. In short, there was no way Biff Wells could think that anyone outside of me was in control.
I started off with an evil grin. It was a good one because I had practiced for hours on it.
"You know you're a dead man," I said. "And believe me when I tell you by the time everything is said and done, death will be a blessing."
Biff tried bravado.
"Hah," he snorted. "Who's gonna do it? Huntley will be behind bars. The DA already assured me that I gave him enough to lock Tiny up for 50 years."
The bravado failed miserably with my reply.
"Oh, Tony Baker is probably living on borrowed time, too," I said. "Desmond has no problem killing prosecutors and Baker was the only one dumb enough to make any promises to you. Besides, I won't be behind bars.
"By the way, Biff, did Baker tell you who his boss is? Well, my wife is the lead prosecutor. She's on leave now helping your daughter. Do you really think I'll have any trouble finding you when this is all over with? Do you really think I'll stop where I did last time? Please, you're a dead man and you don't even know it."
Wells paled visibly.
"I'm done here," he said.
"You're done when I say you're done," I declared menacingly. "Here's your best bet, shithead. You cop a plea to sending Lauren out with the drugs. You confess that she had no idea what was in the bags you made her carry and you never mention Tiny Huntley at all. You recant any other statement you made to Tony Baker and you might live to see another year."
Wells was about to speak when there was a loud knocking on the door. I opened it to find a harried young woman standing there.
"My name is Tara Simpkins," she said. "I've been hired to represent Mr. Wells."
"Tony Baker better be paying you out of his own pocket," I said harshly – and loud enough for him to hear me from where I was sure he was standing in the corridor. "Because if he dipped into county funds to pay your fee, he'll have more questions to answer than just granting immunity to a man who set up his own daughter for his crimes. I'm sure the press is gonna love it when they find out he's paying the legal fees for a low-level drug dealer and a man who offered his daughter sexually to pay a drug debt."
I heard a door slam in the hallway.
"Come on in, Ms. Simpkins," I stated. I recognized the woman as one of a handful of fledgling young attorneys who hung outside the courtroom looking for clients. It was the criminal side's version of ambulance chaser. "We haven't started yet. I was just giving Mr. Wells some background."
Ms. Simpkins looked at me dubiously. I smiled my warmest smile.
"Mr. Wells and I are old acquaintances," I informed her.
"I am aware of your relationship," she said smugly.
"Ah, well, then you know just what a scum-sucking loser you've been retained to represent," I countered. "Anyway, I was just informing Mr. Wells that his life expectancy is rather limited if he continues this course of action."
I slapped a thick binder down on the table. Its resounding thud caused Wells and Tara Simpkins to jump.
"This is a dossier of others who have agreed to testify against Tiny Huntley," I stated. "Well, actually it's copies of their autopsy reports."
Wells, who had regained his color when Tara Simpkins had entered, paled again.
"Do you represent Desmond Huntley, Mr. Wallace?" Simpkins asked hotly.
"Of course not," I replied. "My wife would castrate me. I do, however, represent Mr. Wells' daughter. Your client is of no use to me if he is dead. And he most certainly will wind up that way if he continues his present course of action. I suggested that recanting his previous testimony – because let's face it, he's so low-grade I'm certain he made most of it up – and copping a plea to clear his daughter would be in his long-term best interests."
Simpkins turned to Wells.
"Have you spoken truly to the DA's office?" she asked.
Wells hedged his bets.
"What I said was the truth to the best of my knowledge," he stated.
"You couldn't find your ass with both hands and a road map," I declared. "The defense attorney is going to rip you to shreds on cross-examination and Baker, if he is still alive, will pull his immunity deal when he finds out you lied. Lauren is the one who is gonna suffer for your stupidity."
"Well, you'll suffer, too," I said as I opened up the folder to a particularly gruesome crime scene. The man had been dismembered with a significant portion of his appendages removed while he was still alive. "But your suffering will end quickly enough – a week or two at the outside. Lauren could wind up spending her entire life in prison. Now we really don't want it to end that way, do we?"
"Mr. Wallace, I need to speak to my client alone," Tara Simpkins told me.
"Your nickel," I replied with a shrug. "But he doesn't leave this office until I have a formal statement from him. You even try that, Simpkins, and you'll wind up in front a judge a lot quicker than hanging outside the courtroom will get you there."
Just for spite I dropped the material witness complaint on her lap.
"Be sure to use disinfecting soap when you're done talking to him," I advised. "You can't be too careful with bottom-dwelling shit-suckers like Wells."
I left thinking I would have made one hell of a prosecutor.
Biff Wells stuck to his guns and Tony Baker had his wagon hitched so firmly to Biff's star that he couldn't get away.
The criminal justice system varies from state to state and even county to county within a state. Our county had its own drug courts – because that was the most popular crime and the one most prosecuted. Most of the drug cases were penny ante – a college kid caught with an ounce of weed or some pills; an addict nailed for the 30th time on low-level possession charges.
The cases were plea-bargained out in 10 days or so and the usual sentence was probation or a very short – as in 48 hours – jail term. There was no way to jail every misdemeanor drug violator in the county. It was logistically impossible. They had even stopped arresting them for the most part. Misdemeanor drug violators were given a summons similar to a traffic ticket.
The other side of the spectrum is the felony cases. These are almost always possession with intent to distribute or manufacture with intent to distribute charges. Occasionally they will land hard on some meth-head or crack fiend who has been in and out of rehab 20 times but is still hooked. These people are almost always poor and black, lacking the resources for a decent attorney and the standing for the DA's office to give a crap about them.
Elizabeth handled only the high-level, high-profile cases and rarely offered a plea even if you were rich, white and drove a Mercedes. She was unflinching in her determination and believed everyone deserved the same sentence for the same crime regardless of how good an attorney you could afford. I liked that about her. But I could be biased.
To secure a felony charge, the prosecuting attorney must follow rigid protocol. Even if the perpetrator is caught in the act, the case must appear before a grand jury for indictment or to a third-tier judge for a felony arrest warrant. The county has four tiers for judges. The fourth tier is the presiding judge of the various departments – criminal, civil, family, probate and drug courts.
The third tier consists of jurists who have been on the bench for many years and can usually spot bullshit. They require more than just general suspicion or the word of a cop.
That's why prosecutors tend to use the grand jury more frequently. The grand jury is empanelled for 180 days in our county. It consists of 36 people too stupid to get out of jury duty, about half of which get their kicks by watching "Law & Order" reruns on the tube every day.
The proceedings are secret and the records are sealed. The accused is not permitted to testify – or even offered the choice – and he or she is not represented by counsel. It doesn't meet daily or sometimes even weekly. It meets only when the prosecutor calls for it to meet. It is basically the prosecutor's show. He calls witnesses to say what he wants them to say. He presents the evidence most favorable to his case. He is not required to submit exculpatory evidence on the accused's behalf. The running joke is that the grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if the prosecutor asked them to.
The sad thing is, it's true.
A defendant who finds himself or herself subject to indictment or the rare felony warrant finds limited recourse. They are arrested – depending upon the stature (and usually the color) of the accused, he is arrested immediately or weeks later. The prosecutor might call the person, inform them of what has happened and make arrangements for them to turn themselves in.
Or he might send the SWAT team to knock down the poor bastard's door at 3 a.m. – after making sure the media is alerted – so he can scare the shit out of the guy's family and humiliate him in front of his neighbors.
Once arrested, booked, fingerprinted and jailed, the accused is arraigned, usually in front of a magistrate at first but later in front of a sitting, low-level judge. No evidence is presented at the first arraignment and the accused does not enter a plea of guilt or innocence. Part I is solely for the purpose of setting reasonable bail – a requirement of the U.S. Constitution, much to the disappointment of district attorneys everywhere, I believe. Arraignment, Part I must be held within 24 hours of arrest.
Arraignment, Part II comes three or four days later. It is there where a defendant – because that is how he is now termed – enters his plea of "Guilty" or "Not Guilty." Our state does not offer the plea of "Innocent" for obvious reasons. Innocence ends early in our part of the world. It is always in front of a sitting jurist – or a retired judge if all the local judges are forced to disqualify themselves. The last time that happened was about 10 years earlier when one of their fellow sitting judges went down for accepting sexual favors from women in return for a favorable verdict (either for the women themselves or for their male loved ones).
After the plea is recorded, a preliminary hearing is scheduled.
Depending upon the case, the prelim happens 10 to 30 days later. The courts are so backlogged that it has become the general practice for the defense attorney to convince his client to "waive time" at the preliminary hearing.
"Waiving time" refers to the state statute that requires the case to be tried no longer than 180 days from arrest (an offshoot of the "speedy trial" language in the Constitution). By waiving time, a defendant agrees to give up this right. It serves myriad purposes. It gives the attorneys involved time to compile their case, to interview witnesses, to draft motions. It also gives the defendant – who is almost always released on bail – a few more weeks or months of freedom before landing in jail.
Have I mentioned that I really believe that most people arrested for something are guilty of it? I'd be a shitty juror.
A judge is chosen from a rotating schedule to preside over the preliminary hearing and he or she will also conduct the actual trial, which is scheduled at the prelim. In most cases, the prelim is a mere formality. There is no jury present and the burden of proof is much lower. In a jury trial (or a bench trial, which is a jury trial with the judge acting as the jury), the state must prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that a crime was committed and it was committed by the defendant. At the prelim, the state must simply prove a crime probably happened and it seems reasonable to think the poor bastard who got arrested did it. The judge is the sole arbiter in the preliminary hearing. There is no jury.
The prosecutor generally calls only two or three witnesses and the defense is permitted only to call witnesses who can directly rebut what was said by the prosecution. For that reason, the defense rarely even cross-examines the witnesses. It lets the prosecutor know the defense strategy and it is a monumental waste of time. If the grand jury indicts a ham sandwich, it is a foregone conclusion that it will most likely stand trial.
The judge must only find the state has a reasonable chance to convict the accused and then schedule a trial. For this reason (and a multitude of others, mostly involving the difference between what attorneys bill for in-court and out-of-court appearances), about 60 percent of defendants simply waive the preliminary hearing, admit there is enough evidence for the court to bind them over for trial and move on.
But not this time. This time, I was going make Tony Baker give me a preview of his case-in-chief and I'd do my best to shred his witnesses – even though I knew it would cost my wife dearly when I discredited the people who work directly for her most of the time.
It was 17 days from the time Lauren was arrested until her preliminary hearing date arrived – 16 days of hell living with Elizabeth, Pam and the two Laurens.
That isn't entirely true. The hell was created by Elizabeth and Pam, who seemed at odds over everything. Lauren and Lauren got along extremely well. The elder Lauren, despite her situation, was a good kid. She showed enormous patience with my Lauren (more patience that I probably would have). My Lauren was a constant shadow. She followed the older girl everywhere and insisted she join us for sleep-time storytelling. My little girl often fell asleep holding hands with the teenager.
Pam and Elizabeth couldn't be within 30 feet of one enough without bickering. Snide comments were Pam's specialty. I knew this from our dating days. She would mutter under her breath just loud enough for you to hear in hope of provoking you into a fight. Sadly, it worked on me more often than it should.
It also worked on my wife.
Elizabeth does not mutter under her breath. She does not pout and stomp around. If she has something to say, she says it. If you don't like it or you can't handle the truth, too damned bad.
I like that about her – but, again, I might be biased.
For some reason I will never fathom, Pam seemed to think I would take her side on things. I didn't. I know better. But I didn't take Elizabeth's side either. I did my level best to avoid both women when they were together and Pam when she was alone. I didn't feel the need to revisit that part of my life.
Suffice it to say that none of us were in the best of moods when we appeared in Judge Alberto Castille's courtroom for the preliminary hearing. That morning's fight had been over what Lauren should wear to court.
Lauren had brought only casual wear with her. Pam had not thought to bring anything else – not that I could blame her. So Elizabeth had taken it upon herself to purchase clothing for Lauren to wear to court. She did not take it upon herself to confer with Pam before doing so, however.
"She looks like a prep school snot," Pam muttered when Lauren appeared, wearing a knee-length black skirt and white button-up top. "She doesn't even resemble my daughter."
Pam, as was usual for her, wore skin-tight slacks and a pullover that hugged her curves. I can't remember ever seeing Pam in anything that wasn't painted on. Well, again, that is not exactly true. I remember seeing her wearing nothing at all many times. Pam's two favorite pastimes were fucking and fighting.
"She looks like a girl who would never commit a drug offense," Elizabeth countered. "Remember, that's what we're going for."
Elizabeth could never just let the muttered comments go. She had to say something. It was her way.
"She always looked that way!" Pam said, in a louder voice this time. "Just because we don't live in a million dollar house and spend $20,000 a year on clothes doesn't mean we're criminals."
"No, it doesn't," I intervened, although why I didn't just leave them arguing and slip out the side door with Lauren I'll never know. "But, remember Pam, we know the system down here. We're in front of Judge Castille. Elizabeth has tried probably 50 cases in his court. She knows the man personally. Dressed like this, Lauren will remind him of his granddaughter. If she came to court wearing shorts and a T-shirt, she would remind him of people he sees every day who actually did commit the crimes they're accused of."
"I just don't like how she looks," Pam insisted. "It's not right. I should have been the one to decide what is an appropriate outfit for her. Her hair doesn't look like it normally does and she isn't even wearing any makeup."
"So she can resemble a streetwalker when she goes into court?" Elizabeth's temper asked before she could stop it. "Because that's what the judge will see if she wears the clothes you let her own. She is 14 years old. She can't go into court with a pair of hip-huggers with her underwear hanging out the back, a crop top with no bra and flip-flops. I'm surprised she doesn't have a tattoo above her ass."