One Year Ago

That’s the way things go when you elevate mediocre people to positions of authority . . . . . he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.
                                                                                Joseph Heller, Catch-22

It is getting ahead of things, but exactly one year ago I played Yossarian in a pre-trail hearing in Rockville Superior Court and I cannot let the anniversary – the one and only I will acknowledge- pass without comment.

It went like this: when Connecticut violated my plea agreement by filing a detainer when I was in Federal custody, thereby costing my transfer to a camp and release to a halfway house in November 2008, I filed a habeas complaint. It was already scheduled for a pre-trial hearing when I was picked up by Connecticut and tossed into Hartford County Jail. I had that hearing in June 2009 – I was driven in a van at 9:00 am directly to the Courthouse, went straight upstairs to a conference room, sat in a comfortable chair surrounded by representatives from the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Corrections, a clerk, a judge ring-mastering the proceedings.

It was quick and affirming – I had decent points, I was having a parole hearing in July, would undoubtedly get it and be told to report to Federal Probation, so, catch you later, we will reschedule it for August just in case, but ……. and that was it, back to the van, back to Willard C.I., in time for lunch.

Parole, of course, was a nightmare (see the February Letter, below), I stilled my outrage and frustration with thoughts of the August pre-trial, prepared for it with single-minded abandon . . . . . and the first inkling I was not in Kansas anymore came the day of the hearing when I was woken at 3:30 am to go and sit in a holding tank for the next two hours, taken by bus to Walker to sit in another holding cell for two hours, then the ice cream truck, jammed and marinating in the August heat, to Rockville and yet another holding cell. No van this time, just the cold realities of being transported by the DOC and State Marshals, six hours to get where I was in twenty minutes the first time around.

I was fourth on the docket sheet, had an attorney waiting, my wife was to attend as well (to see first hand if anything I have been relaying about the process had a basis in reality) . . . . it is customary to take the cases with attorneys first, a timed honored courtesy . . . . so my inklings become screaming alerts when I sat through lunch and deep into the afternoon dying on a cement bench, listening to jailhouse stories, thirsty, hungry, feeling my concentration ebbing away.

Four in the afternoon, I go upstairs, achy, stomach growling, shuffle into the conference room, see my wife first, pretty, bright eyed, I get to sit next to her – as close as I’ve been since I left the Fed six months earlier, it only briefly crosses my mind this is the first time she has seen me manacled – my lawyer is to her left, we shake hands, the judge says hello, seated he takes my hand, immediately squirts Purell and cleans up while I watch, feeling as significant as any rodent. His clerk is to his sanitized right, next to her a portly woman looking like the guidance counselor in an ’80s John Hughes film (Ferris Bueller meets Ali McBeal?) representing the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office; to her right an angular, pock-mock faced man poorly dressed in a blue blazer well on its way to turning gray, radiating hostility – the representative from Richard Blumenthal’s office.

From there it is fast and furious . . . . the judge asks me to summarize my complaint . . . I begin, get twenty seconds in and am cut off . . . . I am peppered with questions that show only my lawyer and I have read the petition . . . . each of my answers is truncated with a new question or snide comments from the judge – someone, somewhere along the line, told him he was humorous and he took it to heart without getting a second opinion.

Finally, the judge asks me what I want, what I am asking for; I magnanimously state: “any solution which results in my going home and reporting to Federal Probation”, add that I will drop the habeas and Federal Civil Rights action – no one in the room blinks at the mention of the Federal suit despite the fact it has not been served yet.

The judge accepts that with aplomb – or total incomprehension, it was hard to tell by then – and asks the State’s representatives what they think:

Pock-mock: This isn’t my case; I’m just sitting in, not my call.

Guidance Counselor: Well, we’ve talked to his [original] lawyer and she says everything was fine, so, no, we won’t agree to anything.

Judge: Well, there you have it.

Me: [after appropriate pause to wait for him to continue] Have what?

Judge: [with same look one gives a puppy throwing up on one’s shoes] Well, now you drop it.

Me: No, I’m going to trial.

Judge: Well, that’s your right.

Me: Thank you —

Judge: But, I don’t see what good that would do.

Me: I am going to trial.

Judge: Well, you can, of course —-

Me: Thank you.

Judge: But, well, hey [he turns to the CSA woman – I do not remember her name, really- in the manner of a game show host saying “Tell him what he’s won, Johnny] when can we schedule trial for?

CSA: [After mumbling, fake checking of calendar] Mid-February, Judge.

Judge: Mid- February [tone of one appalled by the pace of the judicial system], wow, well, now say Mr. Hicks wins, how long before you get to the Appellate Court – I’m assuming you would appeal –

CSA: Absolutely —

Judge: Then how long before the appeal goes through?

CSA: They’re taking a year to eighteen months.

Judge; [The tsk is inferred], And if you lose that, will you then retry Mr. Hicks on the original charges?

CSA: Of course.

Judge: How long will you need before trial.

CSA: At least eighteen months.

Judge: [Shaking head slowly] And Mr. Hicks will remain in prison throughout, correct?

CSA: Correct.

Judge: So, add ‘em up, what do we have?

Me: [Doing the math in my head] August, 2012.

Judge: August, 2012 [in wonder] . . . . . . . so, Mr. Hicks, when were you granted parole for?

Me: June, 2012.

Judge: Well, there you go . . . . [hands palms up, a ‘what-a-ya-gonna-do- the-system-sucks’ movement].

Me: Yeah, I’m going to trial anyway. [The Judge looks at me with suspicious fascination; the AG’s guy stares, reddening; the Guidance Counselor oozes the utter indifference that is at the core of every lawyer joke ever uttered].

Judge: [exasperation slipping through the ‘bon homme’ veneer] Look, you know that if you lose the retrial none of the time you served counts – you start over again and I’m sure the state will ask for more time – – –

CSA: Oh, we will, your honor.

Me: Doesn’t matter, parole in 2012 is meaningless to me, it —–

AG Guy: Fine, we can take it away . . . .

Me: What? [complete incredulity, it comes out of nowhere and the man is so incongruously angry it is stunning].

AG Guy: We can take it away — you don’t want it, we can cancel it, we —

Me: Fine, take it, it’s meaningless, three years to see my kids is a

death sentence for me and . . . .

With that all hell broke loose . . . . AG Guy began yelling, “We’ll take it, we’ll take it,” the judge leaned into me and stage whispered, “You’re only making it harder on yourself.”

“How?” I, quite reasonably, asked. When he had no answer, I quietly informed him, while AG Guy continued to yell, the Guidance Counselor checked her datebook, my lawyer sat in his self-induced trance, “Parole’s meaningless, and the State won’t be retrying me, I’ll stop it on double jeopardy – I served an extra twenty-four months in Federal prison based on the Connecticut charges and —-“

“Well, you may think so,” he interrupted with a smugness that would have gotten him stabbed to death twenty minutes into a prison term, “But —“

“I know so,” I averred, “I had —-“

Further discourse was interrupted by the escalating furor in the room – the overlapping conversations and yelling usually found only in a Robert Altman film had created a low roar. AG guy was red faced and had turned ‘we’ll take it back” into a mantra that did much to prove my point about the capriciousness of Connecticut.

It was getting ugly when I yelled back, “Take it,” and “Are you threatening me?” With that the judge spoke over everyone, addressing AG man, “I think what Attorney Hicks is saying . . . . .” AG man stopped mid-threat, visibly paled. The judge smiled wanly, a “you-really-ought-to-read-the-files-beforehand” smile, “Ah, you didn’t know Mr. Hicks is an attorney, did you?”

Dead silence in the room as we awaited the stricken Assistant Attorney General’s response. It lasted for a long moment before my vivacious wife, with impeccable timing, pen poised over notebook, said, “I’m sorry I never got your name.”

Stunned, deer in headlights expression replaced righteous indignation in less than a heartbeat.  He mumbled “Richard Bigger,” looked to the judge as if for confirmation.

“And what’s your phone number and email?” My wife persisted with the impish, yet innocent, look that first caused me to fall in love with her.

“I don’t have to tell you that,” Bigger spit out, clearly in self defense.

“Do you work for the State?” She continued, if a nod could be bleak, his was, “then, yeah, you do.”

He gave the phone number as petulantly as any twelve year old forced to write on the chalkboard, then he professed to not know his email address.

“You . . . .  don’t . . . .  . know . . . .  .  your own email address?” My wife’s warily incredulous response,”

“No.”

“Don’t you have a card?’ My wife went on, never one to let up when more squirming can be induced.

He reached into his pocket as if baby rattlers were in residence, handed a stained card to her with a look I would normally empathize with had I not been imagining him on a spit slow roasting over an open fire.

I left the room to exasperated looks, low murmuring . . . . . my wife walked with me through a mostly deserted court room, I was cuffed, shuffling, angry, bewildered, exhausted, mumbled goodbye, was taken back downstairs . . . . . . . seven hours later I was back in Willard, a story in itself but so ripe in conspiracy theories I am loathe to relate it at this point. . . . . . .

Two weeks later, my Federal complaint was served, the next day I received my first feeler about settling and going home. I reserve comment on that for the time being, except to cite Graham Greene’s adage that only someone exposed to the criminal justice system knows “the impossibility of explaining anything to a man with power.”

My wife could write volumes about her attempts to deal with Richard Blumenthal’s office concerning the behavior of his underling, suffice to say, they were not interested.

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