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Home > The King of Torts(2)

The King of Torts(2)
Author: John Grisham

"Tequila Watson," a bailiff announced.

He was helped to his feet by another bailiff. He stutter-stepped forward, chains rattling.

"Mr. Watson, you are charged with murder," the Judge announced loudly. "How old are you?"

"Twenty," Tequila said, looking down.

The murder charge had echoed through the courtroom and brought a temporary stillness. The other criminals in orange looked on with admiration. The lawyers and cops were curious.

"Can you afford a lawyer?"

"No."

"Didn't think so," the Judge mumbled and glanced at the defense table. The fertile fields of the D.C. Superior Court Criminal Division, Felony Branch, were worked on a daily basis by the Office of the Public Defender, the safety net for all indigent defendants. Seventy percent of the docket was handled by court-appointed counsel, and at any time there were usually half a dozen PDs milling around in cheap suits and battered loafers with files sticking out of their briefcases. At that precise moment, however, only one PD was present, the Honorable Clay Carter II, who had stopped by to check on two much lesser felonies, and now found himself all alone and wanting to bolt from the courtroom. He glanced to his right and to his left and realized that His Honor was looking at him. Where had all the other PDs gone?

A week earlier, Mr. Carter had finished a murder case, one that had lasted for almost three years and had finally been closed with his client being sent away to a prison from which he would never leave, at least not officially. Clay Carter was quite happy his client was now locked up, and he was relieved that he, at that moment, had no murder files on his desk.

That, evidently, was about to change.

"Mr. Carter?" the Judge said. It was not an order, but an invitation to step forward to do what every PD was expected to do - defend the indigent, regardless of the case. Mr. Carter could not show weakness, especially with the cops and prosecutors watching. He swallowed hard, refused to flinch, and walked to the bench as if he just might demand a jury trial right there and then. He took the file from the Judge, quickly skimmed its rather thin contents while ignoring the pleading look of Tequila Watson, then said, "We'll enter a plea of not guilty, Your Honor."

"Thank you, Mr. Carter. And we'll show you as counsel of record?"

"For now, yes." Mr. Carter was already plotting excuses to unload this case on someone else at OPD.

"Very well. Thank you," the Judge said, already reaching for the next file.

Lawyer and client huddled at the defense table for a few minutes. Carter took as much information as Tequila was willing to give, which was very little. He promised to stop by the jail the next day for a longer interview. As they whispered, the table was suddenly crowded with young lawyers from the PD's office, colleagues of Carter's who seemed to materialize from nowhere.

Was this a setup? Carter asked himself. Had they disappeared knowing a murder defendant was in the room? In the past five years, he'd pulled such stunts himself. Ducking the nasty ones was an art form at OPD.

He grabbed his briefcase and hurried away, down the center aisle, past rows of worried relatives, past Adelfa Pumphrey and her little support group, into the hallway crammed with many more criminals and their mommas and girlfriends and lawyers. There were those in OPD who swore they lived for the chaos of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse - the pressure of trials, the hint of danger from people sharing the same space with so many violent men, the painful conflict between victims and their assailants, the hopelessly overcrowded dockets, the calling to protect the poor and ensure fair treatment by the cops and the system.

If Clay Carter had ever been attracted to a career in OPD, he could not now remember why. In one week the fifth anniversary of his employment there would come and go, without celebration, and, hopefully, without anyone knowing it. Clay was burned out at the age of thirty-one, stuck in an office he was ashamed to show his friends, looking for an exit with no place to go, and now saddled with another senseless murder case that was growing heavier by the minute.

In the elevator he cursed himself for getting nailed with a murder. It was a rookie's mistake; he'd been around much too long to step into the trap, especially one set on such familiar turf. I'm quitting, he promised himself; the same vow he had uttered almost every day for the past year.

There were two others in the elevator. One was a court clerk of some variety, with her arms full of files.

The other was a fortyish gentleman dressed in designer black - jeans, T-shirt, jacket, alligator boots. He held a newspaper and appeared to be reading it through small glasses perched on the tip of his rather long and elegant nose; in fact, he was studying Clay, who was oblivious. Why would someone pay any attention to anyone else on this elevator in this building?

If Clay Carter had been alert instead of brooding, he would have noticed that the gentleman was too well dressed to be a defendant, but too casual to be a lawyer. He carried nothing but a newspaper, which was somewhat odd because the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse was not known as a place for reading. He did not appear to be a judge, a clerk, a victim, or a defendant, but Clay never noticed him.

Chapter Two

In a city of 76,000 lawyers, many of them clustered in megafirms within rifle shot of the U.S. Capitol - rich and powerful firms where the brightest associates were given obscene signing bonuses and the dullest ex-Congressmen were given lucrative lobbying deals and the hottest litigators came with their own agents - the Office of the Public Defender was far down in the minor leagues. Low A.

Some OPD lawyers were zealously committed to defending the poor and oppressed, and for them the job was not a stepping-stone to another career. Regardless of how little they earned or how tight their budgets were, they thrived on the lonely independence of their work and the satisfaction of protecting the underdog.

Other PDs told themselves that the job was transitory, just the nitty-gritty training they needed to get launched into more promising careers. Learn the ropes the hard way, get your hands dirty, see and do things no big-firm associate would ever get near, and someday some firm with real vision will reward the effort. Unlimited trial experience, a vast knowledge of the judges and the clerks and the cops, workload management, skills in handling the most difficult of clients - these were just a few of the advantages PDs had to offer after only a few years on the job.

OPD had eighty lawyers, all working in two cramped and suffocating floors of the District of Columbia Public Services Building, a pale, square, concrete structure known as The Cube, on Mass Avenue near Thomas Circle. There were about forty low paid secretaries and three dozen paralegals scattered through the maze of cubbyhole offices. The Director was a woman named Glenda who spent most of her time locked in her office because she felt safe in there.

The beginning salary for an OPD lawyer was $36,000. Raises were minuscule and slow in coming. The most senior lawyer, a frazzled old man of forty-three, earned $57,600 and had been threatening to quit for nineteen years. The workloads were staggering because the city was losing its own war on crime. The supply of indigent criminals was endless. Every year for the past eight Glenda had submitted a budget requesting ten more lawyers and a dozen more paralegals. In each of the last four budgets she had received less money than the year before. Her quandary at the moment was which paralegals to terminate and which lawyers to force into part-time work.

Like most of the other PDs, Clay Carter had not entered law school with the plan of a career, or even a brief stint, defending indigent criminals. No way. Back when Clay was in college and then law school at Georgetown his father had a firm in D.C. Clay had worked there part-time for years, and had his own office. The dreams had been boundless back then, father and son litigating together as the money poured in.

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