“MAN ADMITS BURGLARY; WALKS.”
That was Guin Rucker’s headline. The story: “Joey Disher pled guilty to burglary last month. Today, he walked out of Judge Richman’s courtroom, a free man. “Although he admitted the crime, at a plea hearing, of entering Alvin Lesser’s residence and stealing food and cash, he was permitted to withdraw his guilty plea on a motion by his attorney, Max Willey.
“At his trial this morning, Prosecutor Lester Timmons asked for a continuance, claiming he had been ill and had failed to subpoena witnesses. Willey did not object. Judge Richman overruled the motion and found Disher not guilty due to a lack of evidence.
“’Continuances are routinely granted,’ claimed the Prosecutor, in a statement given to the Daily Clarion. ‘It didn’t happen today, and that’s a miscarriage of justice. We can only hope that Mr. Disher will not continue to prey upon our community.’”
Guin was justifiably proud of this story. She knew the public would like it. And maybe, when Judge Richman came up for re-election, the people would think twice about voting for him. If they did, it would be because she, Guin, had shined a light on what went on in Mayfair County.
That’s what journalism was for. She remembered her professor at the local college emphasizing this. “The public depends on good journalism,” Mr. Kelso had said; “Without it, they’d never know what their public servants were up to.”
Wasn’t that the truth!
* * *
It was the holiday season, and at this time each year, the Daily Clarion editors threw a New Year’s Eve party for the staff, and announced results of a poll taken among themselves about the best news reporting during the previous year. It was informal, but fun to see who took the prize. This year, Guin won for best crime reporting.
Her editor, Helen Wyman, gave a little speech, “What Guin brings to a story is more than just the facts, although she gets those right, and you have to. She brings a point home, too, and that’s not always easy to do.” She raised her plastic glass of spiked punch. “Here’s to that little extra edge, Guin!”
Guin blushed, but she knew she deserved the praise. She worked hard on her stories. She made phone calls. She looked things up. She asked the tough questions. Lately, she hadn’t been able to get any quotations from Max Willey, the defense attorney, but she had at least tried, leaving messages with his secretary.
When she’d accepted the congratulations of her peers and finished the muted seasonal celebrations afforded the Clarion staff, she set out to walk the six blocks from the downtown building to her apartment. As she stepped outside the Clarion’s doors, she saw Max Willey, the attorney who had gotten Joey Disher off, with help from Judge Richman. He was heading into a local bar. She decided to follow him.
Once inside the bar, she saw Willey ordering a whiskey. She casually sauntered up beside him. He was a thick-waist, balding man whose suits seemed not to fit him well. His bright red tie was loose above his double chin. He didn’t appear to notice her approaching.
Willey glanced up from his whiskey glass. “Yes?”
“I’m Guin Rucker. I’m a reporter for the Clarion.”
“Yes, I know you.”
“I wonder if you’d mind if I asked a question.”
“I’ll let you know once you’ve asked.”
“Well, I’ve covered several of your cases, and I wondered why you’ve stopped returning my phone calls.”
“I’m not sure. Maybe I didn’t have time to get back to you quick enough. You have short deadlines there at the newspaper.”
“Yeah, but I’ve called you for a statement on the last three cases of yours I’ve covered, and you haven’t returned the calls on any of them. I wondered if I’d written something that offended you.”
Something close to a smile flickered over the lawyer’s face as he looked away, then took a sip of his whiskey, “I read that story you wrote about Joey Disher.”
She thought, Here it is. He didn’t like that story. He doesn’t like being depicted as the lawyer who got the guilty man off on a technicality. But if the shoe fits. . .? “Did you find it accurate?”
When he didn’t answer right away, she was offended. How could he criticize the accuracy of that story? It was mostly taken from the court papers filed by the judge. Willey looked her in the eye for one second, then turned his attention to his drink. “The story was a fantasy.”
Guin felt as if she’d been slapped “How so? Didn’t Joey Disher originally plead guilty?”
“So he knew he was guilty of the burglary.”
Willey chuckled, shook his head and swished the whiskey in his glass.
“Well, didn’t he, Mr. Willey? And you never objected when the Prosecutor asked for a continuance at the trial. I got that right, didn’t I? May I ask why you didn’t object?”
She ordered a glass of red wine from the bartender.
Willey leaned back on his stool, a walrus down at the heels, “That was because I knew the judge would either grant or deny the motion whether I objected or not, and because every case I have is against Lester Timmons. If he says he was sick, I don’t object, because I have to deal with Timmons on the next case, and I might get sick sometime. In civil cases, you don’t get the same attorney, but in criminal cases, you always do. You’ve got to have a good working relationship. Since you asked, that’s why I didn’t object.”
“And you admit Disher was guilty.”
“I do not. Not of burglary.”
“Well, you admit he pled guilty to it.”
“Yes, he did.”
“And then you filed a motion to withdraw the plea. Did you change your mind about his guilt, then?”
“What happened,” said Willey, swiveling his bar stool slightly toward the reporter, “Was this. About the time I was assigned to the Disher case, I suffered an attack of sciatica. Do you know what that is, Ms. Rucker?”
“I think so. Isn’t it a backache?”
“The sciatic nerve runs from the spinal column down through the length of the leg. It’s a very large nerve, and when it’s inflamed, it’s one of the most painful and debilitating things you can experience. You can’t even turn over in bed. You can’t get out of bed, because your back and leg are so weak, and throbbing with horrible pain. Well, if I’d had any sense, I would have asked to be taken off my cases for a week or two, but when I’m not working I make no money, and I kept thinking, this will go away in a few days, so I kept coming in to work. And I got the state’s evidence in the Disher case, but rather than study it carefully, the way I’d normally do, I went into a pretrial conference with the judge and prosecutor, and I was so full of pain I effectively turned over my job to my adversary. I said, ‘Have I got any defense on this one?’ And naturally the prosecutor said, ‘No, nothing.’ So I said, ‘Fine, then we’ll plead him.’ And so we did.”
“Ms. Rucker, when I went to this pretrial conference, I couldn’t even stand up. I remember, the prosecutor and I were waiting in the hallway for the judge to send for us, and I had to squat down like a baseball catcher because it was too painful for me to stand. That’s the shape I was in when I went into that little room. Now, about ten days later, I was feeling much better, and I started to look more closely at the evidence in this case. And I noticed that Joey Disher had been getting mail at the address of his girlfriend’s father. And it was his girlfriend’s father—Mr. Lesser—who was claiming Joey had burglarized him. Now, Ms. Rucker, under the law, you can’t have a burglary without a trespass. And if you live in a house, you can’t trespass in it.”
“So you’re saying he shouldn’t have pled guilty in the first place?”
“That’s what I’m saying. I’m saying he probably was not guilty of the burglary, and that he’d only entered the plea because I’d been too sick to do my job, and because Joey himself didn’t know the difference between a burglary and a petty theft. He was just doing what I told him to. And there’s a rule that deals with this situation. The rule says that a judge shall freely allow a defendant to withdraw his guilty plea before sentencing, if there’s a good reason. So I explained my good reason to the judge, and he understood it, and he granted the motion to withdraw the plea. And then we had to go to trial. It was a bench trial.”
“So you thought Joey would be found not guilty at trial.”
“I was going to go for not guilty on the burglary, based on lack of trespass. The petty theft, yeah, probably he’s guilty on that. He was hungry and he stole some meat out of the freezer. He was broke, and he stole some coins.”
“But you never had to defend.”
“No, because the prosecutor forgot to issue his subpoenas. Now, the judge had given us several weeks’ notice of the date of trial. The judge is required by law to be concerned about the cost to the taxpayer of trials and prosecutions generally. The judge wanted to send a message to the prosecutor to pay attention next time. And since the state had no evidence to present, I did what any defense counsel would do, moved for a verdict of not guilty under Rule 29, and the judge granted it, because the state has the burden of proof—as I’m sure you know.”
“Well, don’t you think the judge has a duty to protect the community from burglars?”
“From petty thieves, you mean. Sure, but he’s looking at a case where Joey Disher is accused of stealing some coins from his girlfriend’s father. It’s not a murder case. It’s not an assault, it’s not a rape. I’m sure you know Joey. He comes from a well-known family of petty criminals. He’s not dangerous. He’s a jerk who ripped off his girlfriend’s father. I’m not excusing it. But he couldn’t pay the money back if he were ordered to. He doesn’t have a dime. And that’s what you get in a petty theft case: probation and an order of restitution. The judge knew that this was the perfect case to send a message to the prosecutor, so that he doesn’t screw up next time. And that will protect the public, Ms. Rucker.”
“I take it you don’t think the judge is soft on crime.”
“Judge Richman? Let me tell you something. Judge Richman is one of the best judges I’ve ever worked with. And he’s no softie.” Willey was through. He turned his attention to his whiskey glass.
Guin finished her wine glass and walked back onto the street, where a light snow was falling. It was slowly building up on the street, so the street was turning from black to white. Guin hiked past the offices of the Daily Clarion on her way home, looking the other way as she passed it.
Clarke W. Owens, aka C.W. Owens, lives in rural Ohio. His short fiction has or will appear in the Cimarron Review and Chicago Quarterly Review. His poems have appeared in a number of literary journals. He is the author of 600ppm, A Novel of Climate Change.