Copyright© 2014 by Jay Cantrell
In an amazing bit of irony, several people in the drama came out smelling a lot better than when they went in.
Judge Valasik retired from the local bench to accept a senior position in the Attorney General's Anti-Corruption Unit. Pam became an icon for women who stand up to abusive partners. Lucy managed to leak a little of Pam's life with Biff Wells – not to mention Wells' plan to send his daughter to prison for his crimes – and the media ate it up. That vaulted Lucy up the charts as well. She had vigorously defended not only an innocent man in Dez Huntley but also, in Pam Wells, a woman who stood up for herself.
Judge Castille finally walked away from the courthouse for the last time. His wife invited us to his retirement party.
"I didn't get the chance to do this the other times he left," she said with a wink at the party. "I figured if we throw him a party, he'll finally get the hint."
The judge gave a nice speech, thanking everyone for coming out to celebrate with him. Then he took his cell phone out of his pocket, sat it on the table and smashed it with a hammer. He smiled broadly when he swept it into a trashcan.
"I made the mistake of answering that damned thing twice in the past few months," he said. "The first time landed me in a capital murder trial; the second time sent me to the prosecutor's office. Well, I'm done."
And he meant it. I would see him in the park with his grandchildren when I'd take the Laurens out for a day. He always waved and invited my kids to join his. We'd sit on the bench and talk about football, the stock market, the weather or the political situation in Western Europe. Rarely would a word about work or the legal community pass our lips.
The only real conversation we had on local jurisprudence revolved around the man elected as county prosecutor in a special election.
"He's an idiot," Al told me. "By the time this guy is booted out, we'll long for the days when Valerie Dwyer ran the office. The stupidity of the electorate of this county never ceases to amaze me."
As with most things, the former judge was correct. The new guy had cleaned house of anyone who was around during the Dwyer and Vargas-Wallace administrations and brought in a bunch of kids just out of law school. The results were obvious. The defense community took almost every case to trial and the man was not very good. The youngsters didn't get the guidance they needed so they lost a lot, too. It didn't help that almost the entire police force was tainted by the stain the Task Force had left on the county.
Mark Strickland turned 21 shortly after the trial ended and passed the bar exam on his first try (not an easy feat). He had already decided to put his untold millions into opening a law office. Michelle had used the money Dez's family still didn't want back to leave CYS for law school. Mark hired her as a paralegal and immediately put her on his insurance plan so her son could have the care he needed.
Even Elizabeth came out of things OK. For reasons I will never understand, the Attorney General's office chose to gloss over the fact that she presided over the Task Force for several years and focus instead on the steps she took to end their reign of terror. She was offered several jobs but decided on a route I didn't foresee. Mark's practice focused on patent and copyright law but he knew he needed to expand in order make any money. He decided Elizabeth Vargas-Wallace would be the perfect senior partner for his fledgling firm and she immediately agreed. She would handle criminal cases to pay the bills and he would do his own niche work and hope for a large contingency fee.
By the end of the summer, Elizabeth had retainers for several cases and the firm was going fine.
The ease with which Elizabeth moved across the aisle to the defense table surprised me. I had always known that she was in her element as a prosecutor but I think the revelation that there are an awful lot of shades of gray in our black-and-white world made her reconsider her career choices. I know that she put the same effort into defending her clients as she did into prosecuting criminals. Still, I wondered if she might not decide to run for office again once the stench of scandal wore off – and once the county got a taste of two or three incompetents in the District Attorney's office.
Sadly, I was the one who didn't come out better. (Well, I suppose Dez and Biff got the short end of the stick, too, but at least they didn't have to worry about it every day.)
While the media seemed to leave Elizabeth out of the fray, they took aim directly at me. I was painted by one prominent blogger as (if you can believe it), "the high-priced mouthpiece that got drug lords and their underlings back on the street." He delved into the past to my days in the criminal section of CYS and pointed out that 18 of the last 22 cases I'd tried had involved "drug dealers" and that in 15 of the 18, I'd won outright acquittal, dismissal of all charges or agreed to a "far lesser sentence."
By the letter of libel law, he was absolutely correct. I couldn't seek damages for calling my clients "drug dealers" but they could. The sad part was, with the exception of Lauren Wells, he was right. They were drug dealers – either in the past or in the present.
I tried reason, writing to the guy and telling him that none of the words he used to describe me were accurate and that he was using cases half a dozen years in the past to make his point.
He pointed out that my last two clients had been drug cases and both had been thrown out of court "on technicalities." Again, I sent an e-mail that noted that "innocence" wasn't exactly a technicality and that neither went "back on the street." Dez went to the morgue and Lauren went to high school. But by this time, the other local media outlets had picked up the description. I didn't have the bully pulpit of an established blog and I didn't have a loud enough voice to shout over the others who proclaimed me the defender of anyone with a dime bag in his bedroom.
Even the fact that the blogger who had started the nonsense was indicted along with the rest of the city's major players didn't quell the uproar.
It added to the problems I already faced. My decision to reject a promotion to director of CYS turned out to be a bad one. The county hired a career bureaucrat who had her own ways of doing things. The fact that she couldn't buck the judicial decrees in place irked her to no end and she took it out on the staff she inherited. She lacked the authority to demote me (or really even to fire me) so instead she did what she could: She switched me back from the civil section to the criminal section, which was well within her purview as director.
I fought the switch and lost – which I knew I probably would.
For one four-month stretch, nothing seemed to be going right for me professionally. In the wake of the Dez Huntley shooting, I had been approached by the governor's office to join a select panel that would study how Children and Youth Services were operated throughout the state. The goal was to add some consistency to departments that often were run like small fiefdoms. The impression that I was just a hired mercenary for drug dealers forced the governor to rescind the nomination in May.
The switch back to the criminal section and the abuse my reputation had taken led me to walk away from a job I once loved when my contract expired at the end of August.
Even as I carried boxes down the courthouse steps, I was bombarded with questions by a TV news crew – who I hoped dearly was at the courthouse for some other purpose than me.
"Is it true that the county asked for your resignation?" she tried first.
"That is untrue," I replied as I kept walking. "Not that truth makes any difference to you!"
"Isn't it a fact that you force former clients who cannot pay your fees to work as domestic servants in your house?" she asked. That caused me to stop and look at her.
"What are you talking about?" I asked incredulously.
"Isn't it a fact that you compelled a young female client to become your unpaid nanny because she lacked the funds to pay your fees?" she asked.
"I can't even answer that question," I said. "I don't understand it!"
I was already walking to my car when it hit me that she was talking about Lauren Wells. I spun back to clarify but the reporter had started to charge up the courthouse steps, her cameraman following behind. I didn't think anything about it until the next morning.
"What were you thinking?" Elizabeth asked as I sat down at the table.
"Probably about baseball," I said with a shrug. "It's what I'm usually thinking about when I do something you don't approve of. What did I do now?"
"You've led the world to believe that Lauren is our nanny!" she said with exasperation clear in her voice.
"No," I said. "Wait. I mean, yeah, some bubblehead asked me that yesterday but I didn't say it was true."
"You didn't say it was false!" Elizabeth noted. "They played a section where the reporter asked you the question. You look like a deer caught in the headlights and then you walk away. She said, 'Mr. Wallace did not deny the allegation.'"
"Damn it, Elizabeth, I didn't even understand the allegation!" I shot back. "I got ambushed as I was leaving the courthouse. I was already bummed that I was leaving CYS. I was more bummed that no one even bothered to tell me goodbye. Then that idiot started asking stupid questions and I walked away."
"Well, at least Lauren thought it was funny," Elizabeth said. "So, you're not excited about the next phase of your career?"
As my career and reputation were at its lowest, Mark and Elizabeth presented me with an offer. They wanted someone to handle civil litigation at their new firm. I would be free to focus on child advocacy most of the time so long as I brought in one or two well-paying civil cases each year to justify the expense. It was the only offer on the table so I took it. In the intervening few months, I'd begun to have some doubts.
I couldn't very well tell Elizabeth but I wasn't overly excited about starting at Wallace and Strickland after a week's vacation. I hedged my response.
"I still think I can do more at CYS than I can in private practice," I answered.