Twice already the jury reported they were unable to reach a unanimous decision and both times the Judge sent them back for further deliberations. A hung jury is like a tie. Nobody is ever satisfied with a tie. Especially, a man like Wilbur Goth.
Goth is one of the richest men in the world and is accustomed to getting what he wants. He did not want a hung jury. Laying a heavy hand on my shoulder he told me that a win in a case like this could launch a young lawyer’s career. What he didn’t have to say is a loss would ruin me.
I needed that not guilty verdict as much as Goth did, but after five days of deliberations, the Judge was on the verge of declaring a mistrial, which could lead to a new trial. Goth didn’t want the prosecutor to get a second bite at the apple. He wanted finality.
The Judge had cleared the courtroom while she considered the matter, so I returned to my office to await her decision, but with each passing minute, I grew less confident in the outcome.
Gaia, the firm’s documents clerk, stuck her head in my office door and asked, “Have you heard anything yet, Mr. Li?”
I shook my head.
“Don’t look so glum,” she said with a broad smile. “You’ll spoil that handsome face.”
Her compliment didn’t feel like a come-on. Gaia has a way about her. No matter what dark place my thoughts wander into, she always manages to lead me out. It’s less about what she says and more about a strange light that radiates from her. It’s as if I can see her spirit.
She is tall, maybe 6’2”, dressed in a sky blue button down shirt and a black skirt just shy of indecent. Her long dark hair is woven into an intricate braid that falls straight down the center of her back. She tied the end of the braid with semi precious blue stones that match her blue eyes.
It’s hard to be grumpy when she’s around, so I flashed her my best smile. Funny thing about a smile, it always seems to work a strange alchemy on my mood and on the moods of everyone around me. It’s as if a jolt of happiness runs through anyone who is lucky enough to come into contact with it.
“That’s more like it,” she said.
The smile was interrupted by the theme song from my favorite 1950’s legal drama. I checked my mobile and saw it was a call from the Judge’s secretary. The anxiety returned with a vengeance and I hesitated for just a moment.
“Go ahead, answer it,” said Gaia.
I put on my game face and said, “Hello, this is Grant Li.’’
“Mr. Li, this is Judge Flint’s secretary,” said the young man on the other end of the air wave. “The Judge wants everyone back in court in thirty minutes.”
“Do we have a verdict?” I asked.
I couldn’t help but wince at the desperate tone in my voice.
He paused before answering, “I really can’t say, Mr. Li.”
“Thanks, I’m on my way,” I said.
I dropped the phone in my pants pocket and slung a briefcase over a shoulder. I took a calming breath and reminded myself, good or bad, this was about to come to a head.
“Good luck, Mr. Li,” said Gaia.
“Thank you,” I said.
As she turned to leave, I asked, “Is he in his office?”
She nodded and scurried off to get some work done in the firm’s file room.
John Biggs is a senior partner in the law firm. His legendary skill as a tenacious litigator is the reason I chose this particular firm. I wanted to mentor with one of the best, but lately our relationship had been strained, because John was upset that Wilbur Goth chose me to defend him.
More than once, he shook his head and said, “Why would he want someone barely out of law school to defend him against serious criminal charges? It makes no sense.”
John has the big corner office and makes the big bucks, while my tiny office overlooks the pigeon infested HVAC unit perched on the adjoining rooftop. While Pathogen is based in Louisville, it is an international company with an army of lawyers all over the world representing them.
John is the company’s local counsel and Wilbur Goth is the CEO. I didn’t want to admit it, but John was right. Clients like Pathogen do not want a young associate attorney to defend them against serious felony charges.
John would want to know that the jury was back in the courtroom, so I headed down the hall to deliver the news. His secretary, Helen Gloria, usually guards the door to his office, but she was in the break room arguing with her tearful teenage daughter.
While most of the attorneys in the firm fear Helen, clearly her daughter does not. Helen has been known to send more than one young associate away from John’s doors with his tail tucked between his legs. She is one of those women who look soft on the surface, but when you cross them, they cut you to shreds with a tongue as sharp as a Samurai sword.
Helen’s daughter looked like a younger version of Helen. They were both medium height brunettes with big brown doe eyes. Their body types were soft and curvy. Mom was dressed in a white blouse and blue skirt. Her daughter wore a plain white t-shirt and blue jeans.
“I promise you I will be there, Laurie,” said Helen.
“Mom, you never do what you say you’re going to do,” said Laurie. “Why should I trust you?”
Helen’s shoulders slumped just enough to tell me that Laurie had hit a raw nerve and her half-hearted response confirmed she was losing ground.
“I’m doing the best I can,” said Helen.
“No you’re not, Mom,” said Laurie. “You give everything you have to this job and to that tyrant you work for. There’s nothing left for me.”
“Show some respect, young lady,” said Helen.
“Really, Mom?” said Laurie with a level of sarcasm only a teenage girl can muster. “How about you show me some respect for a change? Isn’t that what we’re really talking about here?”
Helen’s sob was all the response I heard as I moved out of earshot and closer to John’s office. It’s amazing how much of a conversation you can catch just walking by an open door. In this instance, it was enough to make me think twice about ever having a teenage daughter of my own. Not that there is much chance of that since I’m currently separated from my wife, Cynthia.
Still, Laurie had made a valid point and I felt a rush of compassion for her. There are rumors about John and his secretary that are fueled by their behavior toward each other. Rarely does an office romance end well, and in this instance, it was clearly putting a strain on her relationship with her daughter. Besides, John is a known womanizer. They deserve better.
Helen is in her mid-thirties and a few years younger than John’s oldest daughter. Twice married, he has a second family. His son is about the same age as Laurie, and the last I heard, they are both juniors at duPont Manual High School.
I must admit, it was a relief to move out of range of the mother-daughter battle because it sounded to me like it was going to get much uglier before it got any better. However, my relief was short lived, since I found John in his office arguing with a teenager of his own.
John is soft and gray. If I had to guess, he was born conservative. He was dressed in gray slacks and a blue blazer worn over a light blue shirt loaded with enough starch that it could stand on its own.
At first blush, he looks like a pushover, maybe a minor clerk, but certainly not a high-powered lawyer, which is exactly what he wants his enemies to think. John’s son must take after his mother. He is tall, thin and blessed with runway model good looks. However, I could see he was tough like his father.
“Richard, I have a law practice to run and you’re upset because I missed a football game,” said John.
“Yeah right, Dad, it was just a football game,” said Richard. “It doesn’t matter that I scored the game winning touchdown, because it’s all about you and your stupid clients.”
“If it wasn’t for clients like Pathogen, you wouldn’t have the luxury of playing football instead of working after school like I did when I was your age,” said John.
“I play football because you’re never home,” said Richard. “You don’t get it, Dad. What I really need is a father. Do you know where I can find one?”
“That was unnecessary,” said John.
“For once can you put me before Wilbur Goth?” asked Richard.
John cut his eyes toward me and said, “Speaking of Wilbur Goth, do we have good news, Grant?”
“The judge’s office called,” I said. “She wants us back in court.”
“Is this the Goth trial?” asked Richard.
“It figures…the man I hate most in this world will most likely dodge justice and it’s all on you, Grant Li,” said Richard as he stormed past me.
John scowled, but let him leave without another word.
“Did you inform the client?” asked John.
I shook my head.
“Not yet,” I answered.
John raised a bushy eyebrow. His disapproval of me was getting old.
“I just got the message and wanted to make sure you were the first to know,” I said.
John gave me a begrudging nod and said, “I’ll call him myself.”
“Suit yourself,” I said.
“Let me know how it goes,” said John.
I had a feeling he was conflicted about the outcome. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn John wanted a guilty verdict against his biggest client just to see me fail.
“Will do,” I said and turned to leave.
“Grant, you better not lose this,” said John.
I looked him in eye and instead of telling him I could do without the added pressure, I simply said, “Roger that.”
It’s six blocks from our office to Federal Court. I prefer to walk, but usually drive when I’m loaded with files. Not that it’s much help since there is nowhere to park close by thanks to the car bombing of a Federal building in Oklahoma City back in 1995. In this instance, a lightweight brief case hung from a shoulder and my hands were free of files, so I walked. Besides, I needed to clear my head.
Pathogen is the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company. Last year they developed a drug called Gutchriem that is now routinely prescribed by physicians all over the world for acid reflux and other intestinal disorders. It didn’t take long before patients using the drug started getting sick.
In an unusual move, the prosecutor, Zeke Kruthers, brought Federal fraud charges directly against the CEO, Wilber Goth, alleging the public was intentional deceived about the drug’s risks. In typical Goth fashion, he went on the attack, using Pathogen’s public relations machine to portray the case as a witch hunt that was less about the law and more about a young prosecutor’s political ambitions.
It was still early spring, but unseasonably hot and humid in the Ohio Valley. The river is flanked on both sides by knobs that trap pollution, pollen, and heat which hang over the city like an oppressive blanket of smog that is hell bent on suffocating the residents. I thought about the health advisory issued earlier in the day by Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District and second guessed the decision to walk.
Unfortunately, it was too late to turn back, so instead, I picked up the pace and breezed past the wig shops and other merchants struggling to eke out an existence on a dying inner city street. By the time I reached the courthouse steps, my crisp white shirt had melted into my skin.
A blast of cool air greeted me at the metal detectors located just inside the door. I dropped the brief case, car keys, cell phone, and suit jacket onto the conveyor belt and stepped through the detector. It was manned by a United States Marshall, named Mark Fritz, who served with my Uncle Jim in Afghanistan.
“Good luck, Grant,” said Mark.
“Thanks Mark,” I said as I collected my things. “It’s been a tough trial.”
“Aren’t they all?” he said.
“No kidding,” I said. “It’s our way of settling disputes in a civilized society without resorting to bloodshed, but if you ask me, they are no less savage.”
“I don’t know about that, Grant,” said Mark. “I’ve seen savagery and it can scar a man for life.”
Mark was right, comparing our justice system to war is foolish. I nodded and headed down the hall.
While State Court is always filled with a mass of broken humanity, the Federal Court Building feels like a mausoleum. The old marble floors are polished to a sheen, but the brass doors that once led to the post office, social security administration, and other federal offices are closed and locked. Foot traffic is limited to the few individuals on official court business, and at the moment, it was my solitary footsteps echoing along the corridor leading to the elevators.
As I exited the elevator, I checked the time and was pleased to see I had eight minutes to spare. If I was lucky, I would get a chance to sit in an empty courtroom for a few minutes before everyone arrives. It’s a small pleasure that also gives me a chance to focus my thoughts on the task at hand.
This particular courtroom has a special feel to. It is old school, spacious and full of rich woodwork that I find comforting. Maybe it’s because of the natural materials. I love the woods, and while I don’t condone cutting down trees to fulfill man’s vanity, the polished wood makes me feel like I belong there.
The double doors leading into the courtroom are at least ten feet tall and made of polished oak with brass inlays. The brass is etched with the scales of justice on one door and a blindfolded lady liberty on the other. They are perfectly balanced on their hinges and easily swing outward.
As hoped, the room was empty so I made my way to the bar, eased through the swinging gate and took a seat at the defense table. This is the only time I can relax in court and I needed it to mentally prepare myself for what was about to happen.
Taking a lesson from martial arts, I’ve learned that what happens in the mind shapes the events of our lives. I took a deep breath, relaxed and envisioned the foreman reading a not guilty verdict.
It was working pretty good until the curse of modern life disturbed the peaceful moment. Where ever we go, our cell phones follow us like a little puppy demanding our constant attention, but not nearly as cute.
I wanted to ignore it, but you never know when it’s going to be an important call and this wasn’t just any ringtone, it was Mom’s long term care nurse, so I took the call.
“Is everything okay, Roxanne,” I said.
“Hi Grant, it’s Roxanne,” she said.
“How’s Mom?” I asked.
“There’s an emergency, you need to get here right away,” said Roxanne.
“What’s happened?” I asked.
The call dropped. I tried to reconnect with her, but she didn’t pick up.