“Out of the Wreck I Rise”

The way I met Larry* is part of the story itself.

I had just passed the bar and started a practice with my best friend since high school and all-around awesome guy, Nick. As an aside, you wish you had a friend like Nick. He’s always got a harmonica with him and sometimes he just busts it out and plays a bluesy chord. He also knows the best Chinese buffets in Houston and the surrounding areas. The decision to start our practice was easy- I browbeat Nick over a series of increasingly tasteless cocktails and finally he submitted. Figuring out what to do next was pretty hard. Neither of us really knew anyone in criminal defense, and the world of practice is wide and wild for two mewling young lawyers set on fighting injustice and looking cool doing it.

I contacted one of the only professors in law school I liked and trusted, Ray Moses. Let me pause here to say something about Ray Moses: Ray Moses is the kind of law school professor you remember for the rest of your life, whether you loved him or hated him. I loved him. He would roll into class, whistling softly through his teeth, with a utility cart containing a huge bucket marked “OFFICIAL US MAIL “ and a mason jar full of water, and then he would blow my tiny mind.

I contrasted him favorably with Gerald Treece, another professor at that school who frequently made his administrative assistant come to class with him just to carry his soda and call attendance for him, and then held forth on irrelevant personal bests for the better part of a class period while I sat, furiously calculating how many dollars an hour I was paying this laughable toad to extoll his own virtue through his ill-fitting dentures.

I took every class Moses offered and still frequently utilize both his vast website and the invaluable materials he provided us during those classes- including hundreds of template motions that saved my skin when I was practicing in a tiny place very far from home with few resources several years later. Also, if any of my dear readers ever come across one of the rare copies of Moses’ out-of-print criminal law handbook, “Guns and Moses,” please contact me post haste. But I digress.

Nick and I went to see Moses. “I haven’t practiced in a long time,” he said, looking out over the patio where we sat on top of the school. “But I was a prosecutor with a man who is now a judge, Michael McSpadden. He is a good guy. You might want to reach out to him and one of the attorneys who works in his court a lot, Chuck Hinton.”

I had not much idea what to do with this information. I felt too strange just showing up in court and introducing myself, everything still seemed too mysterious for that.  I sat down and, with my lovely penmanship, perfected by hours of tedious practice while pretending to listen to Gerald Treece, I wrote the judge a letter. I told him that I had been Moses’ student, and that my law partner and I were at something of a loss. We would love to come and observe in his court one day, and would love to make his acquaintance. I wrote on girly, floral paper and hoped the note would look enough like personal correspondence that it might get to the judge himself.

Two days later, Judge McSpadden called my cell phone. “Anyone Ray Moses sends my way is alright with me,” he said, and invited Nick and I to meet with him and Chuck Hinton in chambers the next week.

If you’ve never appeared before Judge Michael McSpadden, you are missing out. I like and admire him very much, and feel like he tries his best to mete out true justice, though he and I might disagree about what that means sometimes. His courtroom is one of the more formal ones, and he expects attorneys practicing before him to show an old-fashioned respect for the institution and the serious nature of proceedings. Personally, he is warm and kind, and anyone in his courtroom will notice his affection for Native American artifacts and paintings.

Judge McSpadden welcomed us into his chambers and, after we chatted amicably for a few minutes, he called in Chuck Hinton and asked Chuck to let us sit with him on an upcoming trial. Chuck walks and talks fast, and Nick and I liked him instantly. He told us he had an upcoming  Aggravated Sex Assault of a Child trial, and we were welcome to participate in as much of it as we’d like.

And that, dear readers, is how I got to meet Larry, the defendant in Chuck’s trial. Chuck asked us to meet with him at the courthouse on his next setting. “This case has been pending for over six years,” Chuck confided. “Sometimes that’s the best you can do for your clients. He’s out on bond and living with his family and putting this off was the best thing for him. But now we’re really going to have to go to trial.”

The allegations were horrible. As we paged through discovery prior to meeting with Larry, I started to draw conclusions despite my bleeding-heart sympathies. Larry’s three stepchildren accused him of brutal, violent rapes. Their mother, a struggling alcoholic, had divorced Larry in the years since. We ran through pages of words. “Rectal tear.” “Behavioral difficulty.” “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Larry was charged only with the assault on the oldest child, who was five when the alleged assault took place, and was now fourteen and living in a punitive juvenile facility after he had burglarized several homes. The little boy had the same name as one of my cousins, Caleb*, and I imagined him as the same kid: Caleb in the back yard of my grandparents’ house, teaching the other cousins dirty words;  Caleb with a long, dirty “rat-tail” hairstyle and bare feet in the trailer his parents lived in, with holes in the floor and taxidermied raccoons on the walls; Caleb looking stricken and defiant when his young harpy mom, my aunt, bellowed his name across the grocery store too loud and too many times, out of irritation more than concern. And now, in my mind, little Caleb with snot dripping out of his nose, running away from a monster who I knew would catch him and rape him.

We looked through the papers quietly, and put them away before Larry came in. I was struck by how big he was. His neck was huge and red, like a tree-trunk on an itchy tree.  I shook his hand and felt like I couldn’t grasp all the way around his knuckles, like my hand disappeared into his giant paw. Had I just shaken hands with a child molester? Had these fingers pried into the genitalia of small children? How do I process this? How do we smile and pretend like this is a business meeting, same as if we were meeting to discuss a contract to buy wallpaper or a bank loan.

As we started talking to Larry I started to believe him. He told us the story of the years of hell with his crazy ex-wife. The troubled kids. The ex-husband, the father of the kids, who took them every weekend and hated Larry. Larry’s own adult children, who loved him and showed up to all of his court appearances. Larry’s trim and bright new wife, an adult-education specialist with two kids of her own and a clear love for Larry.

I thought about how rare the inclination to sexually assault very small children really is.  Assaults on adolescent children, or post-adolescent teens, are much more common than the infant/small child full-on assaults. Reread the reports. “Rectal tear consistent with constipation.” Don’t kids with alcoholic moms often have behavioral problems? Wait…biological dad had the kids every weekend? And never noticed a mark or a bruise on them after they’d been violently penetrative-ly raped by a huge man days before? Everything is always so complicated, dear friends.

Things did not add up.

Chuck did all the heavy lifting at trial. Nick and I sat next to Larry, talked to his family, tried to answer their questions, but we were really too green to do much other than watch and learn. Larry’s pretty wife sat in the back of the courtroom, and so did his adult children. They watched urgently, fervently, as if their will alone could push the jury into returning a not-guilty verdict. Finally, the jury went out to deliberate.

“Sometimes, when there’s not much to do at times like this, I just go back and read through the Code of Criminal Procedure,” Chuck said. “Lawyers don’t do that enough, really.”

Hours passed. Finally they called us in. I felt sure that the jury would see through it all- even through the crocodile tears of the prosecutors who wept during their closing arguments in a dramatic display of outrage and call to arms. Judge McSpadden asked Larry to please stand. With all of the noise and testimony and argument over, behind us now, it felt like such a huge thing. Out of the wreck I rise.  Nick and I stood on either side of him, and I remember the feeling of that moment with my hand on his broad back. I could feel his legs shaking, his shirt sticking to his clammy skin. There is not much anyone can do for someone in that situation. The verdict was Larry’s alone. But no one should have to hear news of such gravity, whether bad or good, without another person standing with them.

I stood next to him when he was pronounced guilty, and again two days later, as he was sentenced to life in prison. I remember the long, slow breath that he exhaled in those moments, and the ragged, choked sob that came from his pretty wife in the gallery. I held her later that day on the courthouse steps, as she sobbed to me that she was pregnant.

I still believe that Larry is innocent, and so does Nick. Chuck appealed the conviction and Larry was granted a new trial, on grounds too complex to really get into here, but doubtless stemming from Chuck’s constant perusal of the Code of Criminal Procedure over the last many years. The grounds were righteous, and, from what I understand, Larry, still incarcerated, awaits his second chance.

I think of him often. I wonder how old his baby is now, and how his wife is doing.  Nick and I talk about it from time to time, even several years later. I think of him when I start to develop conclusions about my clients based on offense reports and medical records and things that other people have written. I hope that he is doing as well as could be expected. I hope that his pretty wife stood by him through this horrible season of life. And I hope that the next lawyer who stands next to him on that last day of trial walks out of the courtroom with him and into the sunshine. Out of the wreck.

We don’t win all the battles, friends, but you never get two scars in the same place.

 

 

 

*Of course, names have been changed.

About Allison Jackson

Allison Jackson is an attorney who represents indigent people accused of crimes in Fort Bend County, Texas. She is also a book snob, a wine equal-opportunist, a good cook and a bad singer. She collects teapots, witty intellectuals, and mugshots of famous people. Before she was a lawyer, she was a cake decorator, aspiring literary critic, and superlative diner waitress. She has practiced law in Texas and Micronesia. Her favorite historical figure is Julius Caesar.

Speak Your Mind

*