My first contact with a jailhouse lawyer, amazingly, did not occur until a good three months into the netherworld of the DOC. Netherworld being a trip to court. A mainstay of the ‘backstairs justice system’ the court trip is something straight out of hell. My average court trip began at 3 am, lasted through to 8-9 pm – at the earliest. A day of chains, stuffed into vans, buses, the insidious ‘ice-cream truck’, holding cells last cleaned during the Cuban Missle Crisis, and horrible, disgusting things found only in fevered nightmares or David Finch movies.
All this, and more, for what was usually a ten to fifteen second hearing or, even worse, a continuance no one had bothered to tell the DOC about (or had, and … but more on that at a much later date).
I found the wannabe Lionel Hutz in the holding tank back at Bridgeport CC. Yeah, the holding tank at BCC – 25 men crammed into a 15′ by 12.5′ cinder block room with two short wooden benches. At least two – maybe three – guys were lying under the benches in semi-fetal positions, those not sitting with knees drawn up into their chests were pressed against sticky walls, the really unlucky stood, unable to move.
I was lucky to be in a corner – lucky only in the sense that I could have been under the bench or free-standing in the center – spent my time counting the ceiling tiles and cinderblocks, hence my knowledge of the cell’s dimensions. One guy and one guy only was talking – a Hispanic guy on a bench. Late twenties, veteran of the system, holding court on everybody elses’ charges.
He had been through the system enough that at least half the room knew him and his reputation as a jailhouse lawyer. Guys were anxious to tell him their stories, he listened with head cocked, then told them what was going ‘to go down’ when they went to court. He was okay when he was generic – “Yo, yeah, nothing going to go down on that, today” – annoying when he analysed a case.
For most of the morning – we were wedged in there from 6:45 to 8:50 am – he told guys going through the system for the tenth or so time exactly what they wanted (needed?) to hear. I counted tiles, my breathes, zoned out, through it all until a kid – he couldn’t have been older than 18 – asked about his case.
The kid was scared. First arrest, fifth or sixth court trip, probably at least his third public defender. No one had told him a thing about his case, so, very nervously, he tossed it out there. A girlfriend, another guy, an assault, a bad injury, arrest, charges pending while victim was in hospital.
The lawyer listened, nodded, smiled, pronounced his diagnosis: “Yo, yeah, they gotta let you go today, man, ‘Cuz this is what we call double jeopardy – when they charge you with Assault 1st, and Reckless Endangerment, then drop the Reckless – that’s that, man, can’t do nothing now.” Followed closely by, “Even if they find a way to go ahead, ya’ gonna walk ‘cuz that’s what we call ‘hearsay’ – ya’ woman can’t go to court and say ya’ confessed to her, that’s what we call ‘inadmissable’ . . . ya’ gonna walk, dude!”
That was it, I couldn’t take it any longer because the worst – worst – thing a guy can get in that position is hope based on stupidity. The kid had to know. I snapped, broke the bad news about lesser included charges and the really bad news that an admission is a statement against interest and an exception to the hearsay rule.
I said it as nice as possible to the kid, told him to speak to his public defender about it, he was thankful.
The runt wasn’t, he closed his law office for the day with “Yo, who you gonna’ listen to, me or some lawyer?”