Their case was a dog. They knew it and the D.A. knew it. The judges knew it, the clerk knew it, even the court reporters knew it. Me, I wasn't so sure.
When I first heard of the bloodbath at the Mart, I gave Jose and Ramon the benefit of the doubt, the same kindness I extended to child molesters, auto burglars, coke peddlers and sundry rapists and malfaisants. In Los Angeles crime is a growth industry, fueled by greed, poverty and illegal migration. As one of its ancillaries, sanctioned, nay, blessed by the judicial system, I couldn't afford to take sides against them. I might be working for the accused at anytime.
See, when guys like that used to ask for me that meant they were completely and inescapably against the wall. They had lost their faith in the entire process, from cops to priests to family, friends and lawyers. Even public defenders had, in some way or other, subtly or grossly, with pointed fingers or whispered counsel, robbed these people of their hope and dignity.
Take this deal, they always urged, the jury is never going to believe you, a convicted felon with arrests and time served, take the deal, the jury always goes for the cop, take the deal, you won't get a better offer than this, take it, take it. What reason does a cop have to lie? So, when these guys were finally up against the wall, when they thought no one would stand up for them, when they were staring at twenty years in the hole and they knew they had to find another way out, they would get in touch with me. I knew I was the caller of last resort, the ugly girl who becomes the belle of the dive at a quarter to two. I was their last card, but I could also be their trump card. Sure, they would have liked to hire their own private attorney, one of those fancy lawyers with Ferragamo shoes, lizard skin attache case, silver hair at the temples and gold in the cufflinks, the guys with all the right schools, titles, degrees, clubs, cars and watches. But just a look at their Filofaxes would have cost these guys three hundred dollars and all too often that was exactly the same kind of money for which they were facing a sentence of four, six or eight years in the joint, not counting enhancements for use of a gun or for parole or probation violations.
Instead someone at Biscayluz, Wayside, HOJJ or County Jail would slip them my name, literally on a piece of paper torn from last week's La Opinion or from last year's Time Man of the Year issue. They would call, I would listen, and if I felt it was worth it, I would show up in court. The judge invariably would question my qualifications and shake his head at my fees. I, also invariably, argued that the defendant had requested my services and that if Your Honor were to look around Your Honor would find that my fees were by no means out of the ordinary even if they were off the schedule approved by Council. I lied, of course, but then I remembered my law school years only too well.
I, in other words, was their court appointed investigator, the sorry substitute for the counsel they couldn't, for some whim or reason, afford to have. I was the guy who would go out and try to interview the witness they always claimed was there and who they were sure would testify if only I could reach him and tell him the kind of trouble his playmate was in. The address? "Down on 44th and Central, home, check out Ruby's Ribs, ask for Raymond. He be always there." Whenever I would try to point out that an address and phone number would be much more useful, the client would always rise up in fury, indignant that I, of all people, would question his honor and integrity and the wisdom of his decision. "Yo, home, understand, you're working for me, check this mother-fucker out or what you be doin' for your money?" Sometimes, faithful to the blood in my veins, I would try to reason with them, knowing all too well that it was a losing proposition. So off I would go, the obedient servant, to look for their wondrous witness. If I located his whereabouts, the witness by then was dead or missing, out of the state or the country or totally indifferent to the fate of his fellow Crip, Blood or compadre. Most times the witness had vanished as completely as the constitutional rights that get left behind on the sidewalk once the suspect enters the squad car.
The moment I would inform my client of this state of affairs, I would wait calmly for the ensuing explosion of surprise, recrimination and slander, claims of misconduct on my part that he wanted a new investigator. That's when I would twist the knife and tell him I'd gone through the hours granted by the court and that if he wanted me to investigate further or get me relieved, he'd have to ask the judge personally and did he remember how I had to plead to be appointed in the first place. That usually would calm them down. From that point on, I would take the lead. If I didn't tell them that the court approved more hours as a matter of course as long as it was not on the record it was only because I needed my clients under my thumb. I told myself I knew what was best for them. Besides, I'm sorry to say, I liked to see them squirm. It was the psychic price I thought they should pay for the help I gave them. After all, they were usually guilty as sin.
Having learned Spanish at an early age, I would often get cases assigned to me by the courts and the Public Defender's office when, for some reason, their clients refused to thankfully accept the prosecution's generous offers. On a winter's morning, weeks after the massacre at the Mart, I trundled down Temple Street to the Criminal Courts Building bearing bad news for one of my clients. The childhood friend he had sworn would substantiate his presence at the Las Cortinas bar at the time a supposed dope transaction went down was long gone from the country. Not only that, the bar had been shut down shortly afterwards by the Alcohol Beverages Control people for being a place known to be used to harbor bookmaking, in the mellifluous words of the complaint filed against the erstwhile owner, one Tiburcio Perez from Los Cochis, near the city of Culeacan, in the province of Sinaloa, in, of course, Mexico.
I felt sorry for my client but took some solace in the wonderful view of the snow capped San Gabriel mountains overlooking downtown Los Angeles. It was a clear morning following two days of rain, which had turned to the white stuff of skier's dreams above the three thousand foot level. I recalled my first visit to Los Angeles before I moved here, when, in the middle of an 85 degree hot spell in February, I glanced east from the glittering intersection of Santa Monica and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and saw the massive snowdraped head and shoulders of Mount Baldy sixty miles away. I swore then that one day I too would live in this magic land where snow and warm sunshine, fire and ice, cohabitate in flagrant embrace. Well, I kept that pledge, although the results weren't quite what I prayed for.
At the corner of Broadway and Temple, the hundreds of supplicants of justice were already hurrying for their appointment with the custodians of legal wisdom. Black people, brown people, yellow, beige, white people, tall, thin, obese, short graceless people, the homely and the proud, the gorgeous and the shy, old men wrapped in Salvation Army casts off and Valley girls in soft Italian leather, Chicano gang members in their chinos, Pendletons and Hush Puppies, their old ladies, their rucas with their manes of hair teased out to the max framing drippingly mascaraed eyes, black South Central preachers clothed in cheap suits and dignity, accompanying their brethen, faith and Bible in hand, shiftless incestuous white parents, chain smoking cigarettes, herding their runny nosed tow headed runts forward, bewildered jurors from the suburbs of Pasadena and Palos Verdes, the alcoholic defense counsel, the corruptible district attorney, the fair, the dark, the keen, the dull witted, the happy, the dumb, the ones in pain, all streamed into the dark mausoleum with marble floors called the Criminal Courts Building. I took a last look at Mt. Baldy, knowing that by noon, when I left the building, the sublime, pristine shoulders and peaks would be a sootish yellow brown from the smoggy filth of life in this basin and that neither I nor anyone on this earth would be able to halt the besmirching tide that floats in the air and falls, with gravity's solemn pull, on us all, the virgin and the soiled, the hopeful and the lost, the searchers and the dead. I took a deep breath and joined the streaming flow.
"Charlie, Charlie Morell!" said a man's voice somewhere in the lobby as I waited for the elevator.
A mass of grey and brown curls bobbed far above the heads of the crowd, broad nose and thin lips flared in a smile that lit up a sallow complexion, from days in court and lockup and nights in libraries and the Second Street Bar. Jim Trachenberg's briefcase flapped away from his body, as it hung from a shoulder strap. He approached quickly, covering the length of the lobby in just a few strides. As always, he seemed slightly befuddled, not quite believing he was six foot seven and by gum and by golly a real bona fide counselor at law. He waved a copy of El Diario in my face.
"How you been, Jim"?
"Seen this?" He thumped the newspaper with his free hand, self esteem exuding vigorously.
"They struck gold in La Mirada?"
"I'm in the paper, man. I'm on the Schnitzer case."
Shining on page one of the Moonie rag stood Jim in all his awkward glory, an angel of righteousness and justice hired at $400 a day, to save and protect the immanent, constitutional rights of two mass murderers. The photo was murky and all I could make out, besides Jim, were two men in county garb, one a tall, light skinned black, the other bigger, broader and black like only the children of pure Africans can be. The caption, written in the florid style of Latin American newspapers, blared, "The accused perpetrators of the heinous homicide at a luxurious downtown jewelry emporium face justice for the first time."
"Still feeding off the public trough, I see."
"Yeah, sure, I was appointed 987 but it's a good case. You want in on it?"
"Good for what, Jimmy? They have no defense. They were there, they robbed the store, they killed the hostages. That's special circs. No matter how you slice it, they're going to get gassed at Quentin. What you gonna do, plea them insane?"
"Charlie, Charlie, you've been around here too long. You sound just like a D.A."
"I sound like a reasonable man."
"There are always mitigating circumstances."
"Yeah, right, let's see, it was a sunny day, right? And one of the guys was out of town and the other one, hell, he just didn't know what he was doing, right? No, wait, better, he was drunk and he doesn't remember."
The thin tinkle of the elevator bell rang and dozens of bodies smelling of fear, alcohol and tobacco, mixed with hairspray and cheap cologne, rushed to the door. Jim, happily unaware of his size and bulk, pressed through the crowd, which parted like ice floes before a breaker. I followed in his wake.
"I don't get it," I said as we pressed in tight, a fat lady in front of him spilling out of her red satin dress, "how come you were appointed? Isn't the PD's office supposed to handle cases like this?"
"Judge Waters disqualified the PD because of the circumstances. I got one, the ADC got the other."
"Why she do that?"
"Hey, Charlie, what's the matter, you don't read the newspapers?" said a voice from in back of the elevator. I turned to see Ron Lucas, the Santa Monica lawyer who'd grown wealthy from his Colombian clientele, shake his perfectly coiffed head.
"The mail from Medellin is slow nowadays, Ron."
"Just read the Times, Charlie. Our boy here did a quick song and dance. He claimed the personal relationship between the PD and the accused constituted a conflict."
"I guess I better start reading the papers after all. What relationship?"
The doors opened on the 9th floor. Lucas stepped out, ostrich skin briefcase in Rolex adorned hand. He shouted, "Those guys killed Dick Forestmann's uncle. You know Dick, don't you?" He headed to Division 55 to defend yet another native of Bolivar's homeland.
"I know one when I see one," I muttered. The other Dick was the Public Defender, a small, unprepossessing man with a thick moustache, which he grew to compensate for the almost totally bald pate that shone under the yellow lights of the courts. A nicer man you could not meet until you crossed him, at which point he'd turn into a banshee from hell. With his temper tantrums, it was no wonder the judge had disqualified the entire office--Dick would have been only too glad to pull the plug on the defendants himself.
Jim got off at the judge's lounge on the 10th floor.
"Meet me for lunch at Untermann's? I really got to talk to you."
My client that day took the news rather well, all things considered.
I commiserated with him when he bewailed his injust fate, how he really wasn't the guy who had dropped the six plastic ziplock baggies containing a white substance that resembled cocaine in a cache behind the elm tree at MacArthur Park and then raced away in a blue Ford Thunderbird model 1979 with California plate 2 Adam Roger Nancy 746 when undercover officers tried to apprehend him. Yes, of course it was a terrible thing that the pinche fucked cops traced the license plate to you and that it was a real fregada a real fuckup that after you sold the car to Manuel (yes I remember that was the name of the buyer and I know too bad he never told you his last name) like you said it was just muy triste very sad that you forgot to reregister the car with the DMV, shit, I mean, I haven't reregistered mine either even though the finance company signed it off almost a year ago. After all, when there's a business deal between men, just a handshake is sufficient, no? What evidence do they have, he wailed, his words all running together in a jumble, they didn't even get a good look at me, they have no fingerprints on the bag and I have my witnesses!
Painfully I reminded him that his witnesses were gone and that he did have a small history of prior sales--an arrest record dating back to 1979, just ten days after he'd crossed the border in the hallowed out wheelwell of a Dodge van driven by a coyote who'd dropped him off at the corner of Broadway and First, right in front of the State Building and the Los Angeles Times.
So he got the Public Defender assigned back to him and the D.A. offered him a four year sentence, high term, for that case and two other probation violations, meaning he would serve two years, minus the five months he'd been in plus two and a half months for good time/work time they'd apply against the sentence which meant in all likelihood he'd be kicked out just after doing around one year in Chino because of the overcrowding. In the end he seemed almost happy and he waved at his four kids and his wife, a short rotund woman with a gold toothed smile who'd brought in the entire clan to watch their papa go off to the white man's jail.
I skipped out on lunch with Jim that day. The thought of facing another greasy lamb sandwich while confronting his latest expression of befuddled eagerness, watching the pieces of dripping food spackle his long suffering tie, was more than I could bear. We all have our limits.
I didn't set foot again in the CCB for another two weeks. I was busy moving to a second story flat in Los Feliz, the old Italian neighborhood by Griffith Park, as well as conducting an extraordinarily complicated investigation of a check kiting scheme run by a family of scar faced Nigerians on an insurance company.
I was at my desk in the den, having finally figured out the complicated paper trail of deposits, withdrawals, letters of credit and warrants when the phone rang.
"Charlie, it's Jim Trachenberg."
"Hey, what's up. Thought you were busy defending those Cubans with your brilliant oratory."
"That's why I called. The son of a bitch kicked me after a Morrisey hearing."
"No shit. What an idiot. Doesn't he know you're the best that money can't buy?
"That's not all."
"He wants you instead."
"He's going pro per. And he wants you as his court appointed investigator.
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