My last case of the day was a bench trial, which was fine with me. My suit was wilted worse than the plants outside the courthouse, and I still had a headache from dealing with ADA Needles in a bail hearing half an hour ago. But I had a bad feeling about this case just the same. The guy was gonna get off, and it made me sick to my stomach.
I’d gotten on with the LA Public Defender’s Office right out of law school. It seemed like the perfect gig… the young, bright-eyed lawyer fighting for justice for the downtrodden against the system. And sometimes I got to do that. Sometimes.
Other times it was like this case. I’d defended good ol’ Jervonius twice before. The first time he’d gotten a slap on the wrist. That one wasn’t so bad… He’d been brought in for drunk and disorderly. The second time he’d been charged with assault and sexual assault. He’d slapped his girlfriend-of-the-hour around and torn her clothes before she jumped out of his Monte Carlo. He’d ended up walking because the girl pulled her complaint and people who’d seen the whole thing suddenly decided they’d been on Venice Beach or way off in San Diego that day.
Jervonius was one of the guys who made this job suck. Most of the other PDs ducked his cases, but I’d never been very good at ducking. Especially when other people are throwing the balls. Legal dodgeball we called it over beers. And a couple of the veteran PDs threw those balls extra hard once word got out I’d been offered a spot at one of the major criminal defense firms in town. That I’d turned it down didn’t count with those lifers.
This time he was in for armed robbery. Any other time it would an open and shut deal… me going in and doing my best and the ADA grinning and playing the store video for the jury along with some expert testimony from LAPD’s finest. Except there wasn’t going to be a jury, there was no tape, and LAPD’s finest had managed to let Jervonius “fall down the stairs” a couple of times on the way in. Someone needed to tell those morons it wasn’t 1948 any more… it was 2001. A new century, even.
The thing is… I knew Jervonius had done it. He’d as much as said so when I met with him in County. And I knew he’d do it again. Maybe next time he’d kill someone.
The whole thing was over in under thirty minutes, and there I was outside the courtroom with Jervonius. He had a big grin on his face and a glint in his eyes that made me want to smack that grin into next month.
“That was some damn fine work, Mr. Public Defender. Damn fine. You turnin’ into some kind of good luck charm for me, you know that?”
“You know, Jervonius? Word of advice from your good luck charm, then. You got off because those cops were morons. And I mean first in their class driving the clown car morons. You can’t tune suspects up these days, especially not in front of as many witnesses as they did. A blind iguana could have gotten you off. But he was out sick, so I got the case instead.”
“Maybe so, man. Maybe so. But I’m gonna try to draw you every time I come in here. You good for business.”
Ten minutes later I was at one of the bars near the courthouse, trying to wash the taste of the case from my mouth with a few beers. It wasn’t really working, but then it never did.
I nodded for another when the bartender made her pass through my end of the bar. I’d been here on the good days, days when I managed to save an undocumented immigrant from a predatory boss or managed to prove a homeless guy had been framed for an armed robbery by a local crew. But I was here more often after days like today. And I was getting tired of it.
“I’d offer to buy you a beer, but it looks like you’re a couple ahead of me.”
I turned, not quite looking at the guy who’d settled into an open spot next to me. “Yeah. Well… it’s been one of those days.”
“I know. Heard about your last case.” The voice was low, and somewhere in the back of my mind I recognized it as familiar, and not in a bad way. At least it wasn’t Jervonius. “Those cops took what should have been an easy case and torpedoed the whole thing.”
“Yeah.” I turned and looked, smiling in spite of myself. “Good to see you again, Okoye. It’s been what? Four years?”
“Something like that.” The big cop settled down on the bar stool with a sigh. His hair was more gray than dark now, but if I squinted I still saw him as he’d been on the worst day of my life so far. “All I know is those two meatheads should be thanking their lucky stars they ain’t in my division.”
“I heard you made sergeant a few years back.” I raised my half-empty bottle in a kind of toast. “Surprised you never made the jump to detective.”
“Not my kind of policing. I like working the beat. Always have.” He raised his own bottle. “But look at you. An attorney of all things.”
“Yeah. I was lucky. Lots of kids never made it out of that neighborhood.”
“You were more than lucky, Marty. You were smart. Always knew that about you.”
I shrugged. I’d been smart enough to get the scholarships that got me away from where I grew up, but that was about it. “Obviously I’m not that smart. If I was, I wouldn’t be representing people like old Jervonius.”
“No. You’d be getting paid good money to represent people who are a hell of a lot worse than Jervonius ever could be.” He took a long drink. “Why not a prosecutor?”
“You know, I think about that sometimes, too. The problem with being a prosecutor is you have to represent the state even when they’re wrong. Look, I get you need both sides, and I get to proclaim the innocence of some real dirt bags. But prosecutors, they have to bring charges against anyone… even if they know they’re wrong.” I grinned. “That and I always wanted to be a surfing Perry Mason.”
“Still got that sense of humor I see.”
“Yeah. It’s either that or drink enough to make my liver go on a hunger strike.” I shook my head. “But you didn’t come over here just to catch up, Okoye. What’s on your mind?”
The old sergeant flashed his white teeth. “Like I said, you were always smart. I’ve watched a few of your cases, Marty. Hell, I gotta be honest. I’ve watched ‘em all. Are you happy being a PD? I mean really happy?”
I let the question roll around in my head, even though I’d asked myself the same thing before he came in. “Yeah. On the good days. Problem is I don’t get many good days. I’ve been at it for almost a year, and it feels like ten. I don’t know how some of those guys stick with it.”
“You got the answer in your hand, man.” He nodded toward the bottle. “Or they can’t get hired on by a law firm.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that. Okoye was right. At least about some of them. There were some like me… trying to make a difference. But it was hard when you were already playing catch up when your client came into the room. Or when you met them at booking. “You know, I always feel like I’m too late. By the time I meet some of these people they’re already down that road.”
“Yeah. I hear you.” He paused again, his shoulders hunched like they did when he was working himself up to something. “Marty, you ever think about being a cop?”
“Me? If there’s an undercover surf unit I’m in like yesterday. But trim these golden locks and get in one of those monkey suits? I’ve seen the reruns, man, and I’m no Reed or Malloy, let alone Joe Friday.”
He raised his hand. “Hear me out, Marty. You say you’re always too late? Guess what? We get them right out of the gate. Down in those bad neighborhoods. I know you see the bad ones… like those morons who tuned up ol’ Jervonius. But did you ever stop to think how many you might not see because of something a beat cop did?” He grinned, showing those big white teeth again. I’d always been jealous of his teeth. “I can think of at least one kid who changed direction because of some beat cops.”
He had me there. “Hey, that’s not fair. You know I can’t argue with that.”
“That’s the point. Marty, you went the way you did in part because of us. That’s why I stay out there. Yeah, there’s a bunch I can’t reach. Too many broken homes, AWOL dads, screwed-up lives. But when one works… that’s a feeling that stays with you, man.”
“I don’t know…”
“Then think about bringing down the bad guys. The right way. You get one the right way, the system does its job and you get a seriously bad dude off the streets.” He took a drink of his beer and stared off into some space only he could see. “I ain’t gonna lie. It ain’t easy. There’s days I just want to pack it all in. Guys on the force who ain’t got no business being a crossing guard, let alone LAPD. Others who are a damned disgrace to the uniform. Beating folks up. Skimming off drug dealers. Yeah, we bust ‘em. Mostly. But at the end of the day it all comes down to you. What kinda cop you want to be. And no one can take that away from you unless you let ‘em.”
I nodded. He’d hit a nerve, but I guessed he knew that. Good cops can read people like books, and no one had ever accused Okoye of being anything other than a great cop.
“And in my office we gotta defend anyone who comes in. Good and bad. I get they need lawyers. That’s not something I’d ever disagree with. But I know one day someone like ol’ Jervonius is gonna come through and I’m not gonna do my best.”
I thought back to the one case I’d had involving a man who’d beaten his son half to death because the kid lost a baseball game. How hard it had been to swallow everything and defend the guy instead of sending his teeth on a one-way trip to the bottom of his stomach.
“But how do you feel when someone you bust gets off?”
“Now that’s a tough one. Sometimes. If you bring the perp in right, solid arrest and all, and he gets off, you just gotta accept the system’s doing its thing. Detective’s a different animal, which is why I stay on the streets. Still… you do it right, cross all the t’s and dot the i’s, most of the time the system works and you can sleep at night.”
I nodded. I was starting to hear my old foster parent, Darren Boggs, in my head again, talking about doing the right thing. And that tapped into my biggest fear: that one day I might have to defend one of the men who’d murdered him and his wife Letitia. They’d only caught one of the gang who’d done the home invasion, and he’d never rolled on the others. LAPD had some leads, but they’d faded out and the cops moved on to newer and bigger cases. But if I caught one of them as a client… I knew I’d run head-on into a conflict between Mr. Boggs’ command to do the right thing and to stand by my friends. I knew exactly which way I’d fall… right down to throwing a case to make sure one of the bastards went away for a long time. Even though I knew that wasn’t the right way.
Okoye must have been reading my mind again. “Still nothing on Darren and Letitia. I look in on that case from time to time.”
“They were good people.”
“Two of the best, Marty.” He raised his bottle. “Here’s to them.”
“Mr. Boggs and Letitia.” I raised my bottle, still not able to call Darren Boggs anything other than ‘Mr. Boggs.’ A big ball of pain started spinning up somewhere in my chest, and I blinked a few times to keep the tears from showing too much. And then something in my head clicked over.
We had a few more beers and then went our separate ways. Back at my apartment I sat on the balcony looking out toward the ocean with a six-pack by my feet. It was dark, and I could see the flashing navigation lights of boats out on the water. In closer the sounds from the boardwalk filled my ears, but I wasn’t listening.
Back when I was eleven the Boggses had been there for me. And I’d ended up with them in no small part because Okoye and his partner at the time had spoken up. Two cops who didn’t really know me at all. It was like one of those paint-by-numbers you get for Christmas, start, and then stick in the closet and forget about until you move and find it again. Except now I was filling in the last blank number spaces with the right colors.
I’d thought by being a lawyer I could make a difference in the same way those four people had for me. But it wasn’t to be. I was a good lawyer… the head public defender was always complimenting my work and the offers from outside firms proved that as well. But being a good lawyer was still an empty feeling. Hollow. Draining my last beer, I stood up and looked out toward the water. I was tired of feeling hollow.
. . .
The next day Martin Deeks signed up for the next available entrance examination administered by the Los Angeles Police Department. His scores were in the top five percent, and he graduated from the police academy third in his class (finishing behind a former Army Ranger and a Marine Corps veteran). Sergeant Okoye was present at his graduation.
Mr. Boggs and Letitia were featured in Steve’s story about Question #2: What happened to Deeks after he shot his father?