MY defining moment as an attorney didn’t come in court. It happened outside it in the lobby of the Fulton County Judicial Building. Theodore Jordan could have asked a dozen lawyers to represent him. He didn’t . . . he asked me.
We had grown up together, and as his friend I suppose my first inclination was to believe he was innocent.
What occured at the courthouse changed all that. It brought my religion into sharp focus. Not the kind you practice in church, or in a synagogue, or even in a mosque. The faces in the crowd are what did it for me.
I stood off to one side watching people nod in agreement as the district attorney laid out his case during an “impromptu” press conference. For them the battle was over before it had begun. Ted Jordan was guilty. Simple. The cops had found his fingerprints at the murdered man’s home. And they traced money stolen from his law firm to his bank account. What more did anyone need?
“We hope to dispose of this case quickly,” the DA said, pitching his voice to carry to the farthest corners of the lobby.
More people nodded.
News of Theodore Jordan’s arrest for murder and embezzlement had made the front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It carried a wow factor of ten on the Richter scale. Before you could say due process, the national press picked up the story. The courthouse became a media circus with Ted Jordan and myself at center stage. Like everyone else, I’d read about the grizzly murder of Sanford Hamilton in the papers, but never expected my friend to be arrested in connection with it. His call from the jail came in at 2:00 A.M.
As Thornton Schiff fed more details to the crowd, people in the lobby exchanged knowing glances. Not that you could blame them. It was like watching the Jerry Springer show or a bad accident. The facts were mesmerizing, something a canny politician recognizes out of instinct. I’d met Schiff on a number of occasions and always considered him an insufferable prick. In fact I might have said that to his face at a bar luncheon several years earlier, so there was no love lost between us.
A podium with the State Seal of Georgia had been hurriedly set up under Robert Fulton’s portrait, our county’s namesake. In front of it were a half-dozen microphones. Behind Schiff stood the director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Bennett Lange. To Lange’s right was a woman I knew by sight, but not personally. Her name was Rena Bailey. She was an assistant DA. Judging from past experience, there was a good chance she would handle the majority of the trial with Schiff coming in for the kill once it was a lock. There’s nothing like a high profile case to get a faltering election campaign back on the right track. Mr. Schiff needed a winner and this was it. His recent downslide in the polls made this opportunity doubly attractive. The last man on the podium I also didn’t know, but everything about him said cop.
The dog and pony show continued as paralegals from Schiff’s office moved through the crowd passing out copies of a prepared statement to the press corps and anyone else who was interested. I took one and glanced through it.
A slender woman with the Channel 2 Action News Team held a copy in one hand and a microphone in the other. She reminded me of Joan Rivers. She shouted questions along with a score of other reporters.
“Mr. Schiff, is the state confident of a conviction?”
The DA’s head swiveled in her direction. He paused for effect. “Jean, nothing in the law is certain, but I’ll tell you this, our investigators have done a fine job pulling this case together. At this point we don’t know what evidence will be admitted until Judge McKenzie rules, so I can’t get into much detail at this time, but the answer to your question is ‘yes.’ I’m reasonably certain the people will have a conviction once the dust settles.”
“Are you seeking the death penalty?” a reporter from WKZT called out.
The din of voices immediately dropped to hear Schiff’s answer.
“Good morning, Jack. Normally, we reserve decisions like that until all the facts are in, but I’m going to break precedent and say that we will be asking for the death penalty in this case. Sanford Hamilton was tortured and left to die in a burning inferno. In addition to the other charges, Ms. Bailey will be adding arson to the indictment.”
Big surprise there since my handout contained a section entitled, “Victim Torture and Arson.” There wasn’t time to read all the details, nor was it necessary. Thornton Schiff was doing that for me.
The questions lasted five minutes. Those the DA didn’t want to, or couldn’t answer, he simply sidestepped. More reporters crowded into the lobby along with a number of lawyers who happened to be there by chance. They were curious to see what all the commotion was about.
“Jesus, they’re crucifying the guy,” said a familiar voice next to me.
I glanced to my right and recognized an old friend. Like myself, Jimmy d’Taglia was a transplanted New Yorker and at one time a lawyer in my wife’s firm. He had since moved on and was now an assistant U.S. Attorney.
I nodded slowly. They were crucifying Ted.
“Sightseeing?” he asked.
There was a pause.
“Tell me you’re kidding,” Jimmy said.
“Wish I could.”
“Won’t your school mind? You haven’t been teaching there that long.”
“It sounds like this guy’s in a world of shit. Do you have a defense?”
“I hate seeing people build a gallows before the trial starts. Puts a damper on things.”
“Jesus,” Jimmy said. “You’re walking into a buzz saw.”
And I nodded again. The people around me nodded. But our reasons were different. To this day I don’t know what made me do it. One minute I was standing there with Jimmy and the rest of the crowd listening to Schiff’s spiel and the next I began to applaud. Heads turned in my direction.
I announced, “Well, I think he’s guilty. By a show of hands, who else here thinks Ted Jordan is guilty?”
Incredibly, several people raised their hands.
“C’mon, the rest of you, don’t hold back. He sounds guilty as hell to me. Why don’t we skip the bond hearing and go straight to conviction?”
A moment of shocked silence followed. People weren’t sure what to make of the interruption. I wasn’t sure—it was just coming out.
“Doesn’t he need a trial?” asked a woman at the back of the room.
“What for? I say go for the death penalty right now.”
A number of spectators exchanged confused glances and the cop on the podium started toward me. He stopped at a slight head shake from Schiff. A paternal smile appeared on the DA’s face.
“If the gentleman would please restrain himself,” he said, holding a hand above his eyes and squinting into the lights. “This is an emotional time for all of us. We’re trying to conduct a press conference.” It was obvious he couldn’t see my face yet.
“If I restrain myself, I’ll be the only one doing it.”
“No, I don’t think I will. I was under the impression a lawyer can’t seek publicity to gain an advantage at trial, but I guess that doesn’t apply here.”
Schiff’s smile slowly dissolved. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“I know who I am. The question is, who are you? And what right do you have to bend the law?”
The color in the Schiff’s face rose by at least two shades. Keeping his eyes fixed on me he said to the cop, “I’ve had enough of this idiot, Burt. Get him out of here.”
The investigator nodded to two sheriff’s deputies who were leaning against the far wall observing the proceedings. They began to push their way toward me.
“Unless you want a lawsuit for violating Theodore Jordan’s civil rights, I’d tell your men to back off.”
The cameras immediately swung around focusing their black lenses on me. Through the lights I saw Rena Bailey take a step toward the rear of the podium.
Schiff shielded his eyes and finally recognized my face. “Ah, Mr. Delaney. My job is to see everyone gets a fair trial. You’d do well to remember that. I was elected to protect the people of this county from predators and that’s what I intend to do.”
Spoken like a true politician. “Then do it in court and not out here.”
“Listen you smug, son-of-a—”
“My client wants the same rights as everyone in this lobby—the right to a trial not poisoned by publicity and political grandstanding.”
“That’s right, Mr. Schiff.”
A buzz circulated throughout the crowd as eight or ten microphones were shoved under my nose. Katherine is fond of saying there’s nothing like making an entrance. Reporters started shouting questions from all sides. I held up my hand for silence.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m appalled by what’s happening here. We’re better than this. Ted Jordan has been a respected member of this community for years. His children go to school here. His job is here. So are his friends. He didn’t steal any money from his law firm and he sure as hell didn’t murder anyone. I promise you these charges will be contested with every ounce of our strength.
“Theodore Jordan is an innocent man. In case any of you missed that, I’ll repeat it. The word is innocent and we’re going to prove it. Only we won’t do so here in the lobby. We’ll do it in a courtroom where cases are tried. You can take that to the bank.”
The last part was for effect. It was something Donald Trump might have said and he generally comes off as credible, except maybe for the hair. A number of reporters wrote down my words verbatim. I hoped they wouldn’t come back to haunt me. As Theodore Jordan was led to the gallows this reporter was reminded that his lawyer once said . . .
More questions were shouted, but with a little help from Jimmy we managed to push our way through the crowd and onto the elevator. That’s the way it goes with religion. You might say it was an epiphany of sorts. Friend or not, Ted Jordan wasn’t there to speak for himself. I was.