THE JURY CONSULTANT
“Tom, you’ve gone from practicing civil law at a big firm in New York City to representing scumbag criminals.” My old man shook his head and wrinkled his nose in disapproval. The overhead lighting reflected off his bald dome as if to intensify the harshness of his comment.
“Look, Pop, I’m working for myself. No one tells me what cases to take or not take. I’m my own boss and that’s the way I like it. And frankly, civil law is not that civil.”
“Mr. Atkins, your son is a wonderful lawyer. You should see him defending clients in a courtroom.” Lara Lopez, university grad student and my part-time legal assistant, besides being beautiful, was also supportive. I flashed her an appreciative smile.
The old man wasn’t buying it though. “I said it before and I’ll say it again, your office looks like a cheap imitation of Sam Spade’s, and it sucks.”
In all fairness, my office did look a tad stark. Even my mother’s amateur landscape paintings covering cracks in the walls didn’t improve the ambiance much. The blue wallpaper was faded and peeling. Someone, probably a previous tenant, ground chewing gum into the worn gray carpet, making a statement. Two battered wooden desks and shabby chairs were what passed for office furniture. If a person wasn’t careful, he or she would end up with splinters in the nether zones. A single narrow window permitted a view of a brick wall and a dirty alley replete with overflowing garbage cans.
“Nothing short of a bomb blast could help this place,” the old man said shaking his head. “Lawyers are a dime a dozen. You should have gone into construction work fulltime like I did. That’s a useful trade. When a person needs a plumber or electrician, you bet they don’t try to nickel and dime them the way they do a lawyer.”
I did my best to control my temper. My old man had a way of making me lose it. But no point arguing with him. My old man was never going to change.
“I’m perking coffee,” Lara said, “would you like a cup?” I threw her another appreciative look knowing she was doing her best to change the subject.
“No thanks.” The curmudgeon finally left us, slamming the door behind him, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Sorry about that,” I mumbled to Lara.
She smiled. “I believe he loves you.”
I shrugged. “He’s got a funny way of showing it.”
The phone rang and Lara picked it up. She listened to the voice at the other end.
“Robot solicitation?” They accounted for most of my calls.
“No, it’s the public defender’s office. They want you to come in this morning. They have files for you.”
“Thanks, Lara, I’ll go over there in a few minutes.” I had several per diem cases to cover for other attorneys this week, but I was still thin on my own cases. So, I figured taking on some of the overflow from the P.D.’s office would help expand my lean wallet. No shortage of crime, even if representing criminal case clients didn’t pay well. The old saying is there’s nothing certain except death and taxes. They left out crime which in my humble opinion should be included.
My job in New York City had been dead-end. I wasn’t sorry to try and open my own law practice in my home state of New Jersey. The office was in a good location, right near the county courthouse. I only signed a one-year lease on the place. If I couldn’t make a go of it, I’d look for another job when the lease ran out. That would be on my thirtieth birthday.
The head honcho at the P.D.’s office was Connor McNight. He was only a few years older than me. I knew Connor from high school wrestling. He was a senior when I started as a freshman. Like me, he’d been into sports, but unlike me he hadn’t done a stint in the Marines, instead going straight to law school. His old man had political connections that made for opportunities I didn’t have. We shook hands.
“I have several new files for you, but one is urgent. I apologize for calling you in so late on this case, Tom. You’ve done some fine trial work for us. The fact is our guys in this office are so overloaded that no one could handle this one.” He passed me a thick file. “Leroy Johnson has quite a rap sheet.”
“No problem,” I said. “I only refuse to represent pedophiles and rapists. Other than that, I’ll help out.”
“This is a drug case. The client claims he’s innocent. The police have him on video though. The prosecutor offered a plea bargain which we consider generous, but Johnson demands a trial. Personally, we think it’s an open and shut case. The cops even have video tape of how the transaction went down.”
I figured there wouldn’t be much of a trial. But why not? I’m good in a courtroom. I can think on my feet. Most attorneys hate working trials. It eats up billing hours and you can never be certain of the outcome. But I’m not most lawyers. I thrive on courtroom combat. I’m not afraid to take on legal adversaries even when the odds are against my client.
I met with Johnson at the county jail. We looked each other over. He was a big burly guy, tall and heavyset. I was nearly as tall but not as solidly built. We sat down opposite each other, and I asked him to go over his story. He insisted that although he was arrested with another man outside a fast-food restaurant, the surveillance camera could only show that he had a cheeseburger and fries in his paper bag and not drugs. He claimed he had no idea his friend was doing a transaction. The drugs were found in his friend’s bag, not his, and the police arrested them both as they got into their car. Apparently, the police had the place staked out. An informant had tipped them, told them that drug deals were going down at the restaurant. I took notes and promised the client I’d check things out.
When the trial was scheduled to start, I asked Lara if she could be there at the defense table. “I’d like you to help me select the jury,” I told her. Lara had worked as a prison psychologist in her native Chile. She had a good understanding of people.
“Tom, I am so sorry, but I have hourly exams scheduled for this week. I need to study.”
“That’s all right. I’ll manage.” Except I wasn’t sure I really could. It always helped to have someone like Lara there beside me. Bull was not available for this kind of low rent trial. Real trials are a whole lot different than those on TV. Trust me on that!
I was relieved to see the defendant looked presentable in a dark blue suit, white shirt, and striped tie. I could say as much and did so.
“My baby mama got me the nice threads,” he said with a wide grin and teeth so bright the glare was blinding. “I’m ready.” He sounded surprisingly confident.
I wasn’t certain I was ready though. Judge Hernandez gave me a stern look. I swallowed hard. Some attorneys referred to Hernandez as a hanging judge. The prosecutor, Will Proctor, looked like he was out for blood. He was known as a tough adversary. His nickname was the enforcer. At that moment, I wondered why I’d put myself in this position.
“We should be able to zip right through this trial,” Judge Hernandez said. “The other defendant in the case took a guilty plea.” His fierce gaze fixed on both my client and me with stern disapproval.
Judge Hernandez was eager to empanel a jury. But from the first, my client got involved. When I questioned a working-class man who struck me as someone who couldn’t possibly have any empathy for my client, Johnson put his large hand on my arm.
“I’m going to move to strike this juror,” I told my client in a soft voice.
“Hold on,” he said. “I think this dude will be for us. I can tell he sees himself as one of the oppressed. He’s going to empathize with me. Keep him.”
I was amazed. “Are you sure about that?”
Johnson nodded. “I am. In fact, I want to help you pick the entire jury.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But Johnson assured me he knew what he was doing. He was so insistent and forceful about it, I gave in.
“All right,” I said with a shrug, “it’s your funeral.”
“I hope not,” he said with a grim smile.
For the rest of the jury selection, Johnson either whispered to me or wrote on a pad his choices. Jury selection completed on the following day, and Judge Hernandez began the trial that afternoon. He was wasting no time whatsoever. He had no use for criminals or those he considered thugs.
When I got back to the office late in the day, Lara was at her desk studying. She looked up. “How is the trial going?”
I loosened my tie and sat down heavily at my own desk. “Not certain,” I told her. “We completed jury selection. Guess who my jury consultant was.”
She shook her head. When I told her, even she was surprised. “That was not what I expected.”
“I’m afraid it could end in disaster.”
Lara placed a reassuring hand on mine. “Try to think positive.”
“Okay, I’m going to check my mail which kind of looks like a bunch of bills and then let me treat you to pizza.”
She smiled at me. “That sounds good.”
My day ended on a positive note. I tried not to think of what I would be faced with at the trial the following morning.
The police detective who took the stand explained how an informant, a snitch, told them that drug deals were going down at the restaurant.
“How did it work?” the prosecutor asked.
George Manus, a hulking detective with a ruddy complexion, leaned forward and faced the jury. “It’s simple. We set up camera surveillance and were watching. We got the whole thing on video.”
“Tell him to play it for the jury,” my client whispered in my ear.
I gave him a questioning look.
“Just do it,” he persisted.
I thought he was wacko, but I did as he asked. Amazingly, the video showed his friend doing the transaction, whereas my client took his own bag, removed a burger, bit into it, then replaced it in the brown paper bag and carried it out to the car.
This was shown clearly on a big screen to the jurors. In my summation, I argued that the police were in error regarding my client’s guilt. The prosecutor argued that Leroy Johnson was just as guilty as his friend and was knowingly part of the drug transaction even if he didn’t personally receive the heroine confiscated by the police.
It took the jury two hours to find Johnson not guilty. Both the prosecutor and the judge threw hostile looks at my client and myself. Johnson was all smiles. He shook my hand.
“Looks like we picked the right jury,” he said.
“I can’t take the credit,” I said.
“Experience is the key,” Johnson said, flashing a wide grin.
However, Johnson’s high spirits did not last long. Two men who identified themselves as Newark police detectives promptly rearrested Johnson and handcuffed him.
My now ex-client loudly protested. “Man, this is bogus!”
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
“Leroy was caught with a shotgun in a drive-bye shooting involving a rival gang in Newark. Lucky for him, no one was killed, but he’s got charges pending in Newark on his release here.”
“This sucks. But we made a good team,” Leroy said, turning to me as the officers started to drag him away.
“Well, when you’re free again,” I told him, “you’re welcome to come on board as my fulltime jury consultant.”
Leroy gave me a big smile. “Thanks, man. I might take you up on that.”
As I watched the detectives drag Leroy Johnson from the courthouse, I couldn’t but wonder if he would be helping the Essex County public defender select his next jury as well. There was no denying the man certainly had a talent for it. Then again, like he said, he’d had plenty of experience in courtrooms.
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Well written. Held my interest from beginning to clever ending.
I like that the story gets right to the point. It's good quick reading. Will there be more stories?