My shadow stretched diagonally across the federal courthouse steps on Ala Moana Boulevard in downtown Honolulu, just an ordinary man in an ordinary suit with a Panama Jack resting on his head. Just another lawyer on his way to court for just another criminal case. Only that’s not how it felt. Something palpable lingered in the ether, something akin to the tension I experienced sitting next to a client surrounded by off-white cinder blocks in a cramped, stifling interrogation room in the bowels of a police department’s headquarters. I checked my watch to make certain I wasn’t due for another few Percocet to relieve the pain in my abdomen where I’d been stabbed with a stiletto not six months ago. But, no, not yet; it wasn’t time. The day itself, an ugly young Monday, shrieked in my ear, cautioned me to blow off SoSo’s sentencing, to turn around and head the hell home, to turn off the phones, and pretend this morning never existed.
I didn’t listen.
Instead I bounded up the steps, briefcase in hand, passed through the glass doors, through the metal detector after dumping my keys and a few coins into a small gray bucket, and checked my cell phone with a bored court officer, who warned me twice to make sure the ringer was turned off.
“I don’t wanna listen to that goddamn thing playing ‘Funky Cold Medina’ for the next three hours, Counselor. Got it?”
“Got it.” I took the ticket he offered as a receipt then made for the elevator bank at the end of the hall.
When I stepped through the ten-foot-tall, mahogany double doors into Justice Harlan Platz’s empty courtroom, my partner, Jake Harper, already seated at the defense table, turned in his chair and greeted me with a slow nod.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked him, tossing my briefcase onto the table, slightly shuddering at the exaggerated echo of the thud.
“Wouldn’t miss SoSo’s sentencing for anything, son.”
“It’s routine. Both sides are resting on the papers. Platz is going to give him twenty years and we’re done.”
“I’ve yet to see a routine appearance in front of Harlan Platz,” Jake said. “Never mind a routine anything involving SoSo.”
Forty-five minutes later, four priggish US Marshals led our client Solosolo Sinaloa through a side door into the courtroom. SoSo, shackled at the wrists and ankles, towered over each of them, his muscular bulk preventing any of the four from accompanying him side-by-side up the aisle. The single-piece, orange jumpsuit befit the Samoan so well, I couldn’t imagine he ever wore anything else. Then again, I’d never seen him wear anything else. And unless in twenty years SoSo returned to Honolulu to shake my hand or slice my throat, chances were I never would.
“Howya doin’,” SoSo greeted me, as two of the Marshals stepped away from the table. The other two took positions behind the prisoner.
“Comme ci, comme ça,” I said, but SoSo was apparently in no mood for levity. On the upside, my French earned a light chuckle from Jake.
Jake and I represented SoSo pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act, which was to say that the federal government rewarded our firm a paltry seventy-five bucks per hour to play advocate to the most menacing, callous monsters federal law enforcement could capture and charge. Although I’d adamantly opposed joining the CJA panel, Jake insisted on it. With a mere two dozen murders on the island each year, it’s rare to hit on a state case with any teeth. But the feds never fail to scrounge up a few supervillains per annum, providing the dose of excitement Jake seems to need to thrive.
Of course, I lacked standing to argue. I’m the one who got the old man addicted in the first place.
Or was it the other way around?
Another twenty minutes passed before the Honorable Harlan Platz rose to the bench. Platz looked as though he chose his skin off a rack this morning, then dotted it with liver spots before stepping into the long, flowing black robe that made him look like Death itself. Approximately sixteen white hairs loitered on a scalp that would’ve made Mikhail Gorbachev cringe with disgust. When the founding fathers drafted Article Three of the US Constitution, providing that federal judges serve for life, they couldn’t possibly have foreseen the likes of Harlan Platz. Then again, maybe Platz knew one of the founding fathers personally.
“I have reviewed the Government’s sentencing memorandum,” Platz rasped from his perch, “as well as the Defendant’s. I must say, Mr. Corvelli, you receive an A for creativity. I had to reread the Federal Sentencing Guidelines twice because I did not quite believe some of the provisions you cited even existed. Yet, there they were in black and white. Although, I think you will concede, Counselor, that it is somewhat of a stretch to contend that Mr. Sinaloa accepted responsibility for his crime by nodding his head after the jury foreman read off the verdict of guilty.”
I had little to work with. We were appointed SoSo’s counsel only after trial, for the sole purpose of preparing a sentencing memorandum on his behalf. About a year ago, SoSo beat a man to death outside a strip club in Honolulu’s red-light district, following a “Miller Lite: Tastes Great/Less Filling” debate. Or something like that. The victim, Marc Dalton, was a US immigration officer, which landed the case in federal court. At a postverdict visit at the Federal Detention Center, SoSo handed a sample of what he’d given Dalton to his trial attorney, Clyde Harris. Harris begged off the case and the CJA panel appointed yours truly.
“Mr. Boyd,” Platz said to the assistant US attorney, “do you have anything you wish to add to the Government’s sentencing memorandum?”
AUSA William F. Boyd was a typical government lawyer, complete with the personality of a houseplant and all the style of a toaster.
“I have nothing further, Your Honor,” Boyd said in a mechanical voice. “The Government’s memorandum speaks for itself.”
“Mr. Corvelli,” Platz said, “have you anything else to say?”
“No, Your Honor,” I replied.
Then Justice Platz began hacking, a hideous, loose cough that echoed through the gallery like a ricocheting bullet from a .44. Platz’s sagging facial skin flapped violently, his liver spots dancing in unison.
Platz’s clerk, a round kid just out of law school, came to the judge’s rescue with a clean hanky and a gentle, oddly affectionate pat on the back.
“I am sorry,” Platz said once he regained his composure. “Let us move on. Mr. Sinaloa, have you anything to say before I sentence you?”
The correct answer, of course, was No. Or at most, No, Judge, maybe No, Your Honor. I’d gone over the straightforward federal sentencing procedure with SoSo at least a half dozen times. Since it was no longer mandatory for judges to strictly follow the rigid provisions of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, and since Harlan Platz was known to be a fairly liberal judge, both sides anticipated a prison term of twenty years in a maximum-security facility. Not bad for killing a federal agent with your bare hands outside a strip club at four in the morning. Especially considering SoSo was only twenty-six years old.
This hearing was a mere formality. Justice Platz had already read our memorandum; nothing added today could aid us in any imaginable way. Anything said could only do us harm, could only lengthen SoSo’s prison sentence. Thus, I had instructed SoSo—had done everything but hold a gun to his head—to simply reply in the negative when asked whether he had anything to say. “No,” I had told him. “Just say no. No. No. No. No. No.”
“Yes,” SoSo said to Justice Platz.
“Your Honor,” I interrupted, “SoSo—I mean, Mr. Sinaloa—has nothing further to add at this time.”
Platz coughed into the elbow of his robe and looked at my client for the first time. “Is that right, Mr. Sinaloa? Or do you have something you would care to say to this Court before I sentence you?”
“Yes,” SoSo said again.
“See, Mr. Corvelli?” Platz said with what might have passed for a smile in a casket. “Another county heard from.”
“Your Honor—,” I tried again.
“Proceed, Mr. Sinaloa. It is your right. What say you?”
SoSo’s face remained perfectly stoic as he addressed Justice Platz. “I say you the oldest, ugliest motherfucker I ever seen in my life.”
A nauseating silence hung over the courtroom like tear gas. The houseplant standing at the Government table glanced over at me, the slightest attempt at a smirk playing on his lips. But quiet the courtroom remained for at least the next three minutes. Then the Honorable Harlan Platz slapped his gavel with all the savagery a two-hundred-year-old man could muster. If looks could kill, the Marshals would’ve been wheeling SoSo out of the courtroom on a stretcher, a white sheet draped over his face.
“Very well,” Platz finally said with a calmness that betrayed his face. “Mr. Sinaloa, the Court hereby sentences you to imprisonment at a federal penitentiary of maximum security for a period of thirty-five years.”
All four Marshals instantly convened behind my client to recuff him and take him away.
“But, Judge!” SoSo pleaded, the stoicism suddenly melting from his body like crushed ice on hot sand. “Judge, I can’t do that much time.”
Platz waved a skeletal hand in the air, and the Marshals immediately halted their movements.
“Oh, I see,” Platz said. “You cannot do that much time; is that so, Mr. Sinaloa?”
“No, sir, Judge,” SoSo replied, relief already washing over his mammoth frame. “I can’t do no thirty-five years. I can’t do that much time.”
“Very well, then, Mr. Sinaloa.” The corners of Platz’s mouth turned up as though on strings as he glared at my client and stated flatly, “In that case, do as much as you can.”
Copyright © 2012 by Douglas Corleone
DOUGLAS CORLEONE is a former New York City defense attorney and winner of the MB/MWA First Crime Novel Competition. He now lives in the Hawaiian Islands with his wife and two children. This is his third novel.