MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
NO REPORTERS SAT in the courtroom benches behind me. No onlookers in the public gallery. No concerned family members. Just me, my client, the prosecutor, the judge, a stenographer, and a clerk. Oh, and a court security officer sitting in the corner, surreptitiously watching a hockey game on his smartphone.
I was in 100 Centre Street, the Manhattan Criminal Courts building, in a small courtroom on the eighth floor.
Nobody else was there because no one else gave a shit. In fact, the prosecutor didn’t much care for the case, and the judge had lost interest as soon as he read the charge sheet: possession of narcotics and drug paraphernalia. The prosecutor was a lifer in the DA’s office by the name of Norman Folkes. Norm had six months before he collected his pension, and it showed. The top button of his shirt was undone, his suit looked as though he’d bought it during Reagan’s presidency, and the two-day stubble on his cheeks was the only thing that he wore that looked clean.
The Honorable Cleveland Parks, presiding judge, had a face that looked like a deflated balloon. He rested his head on his hand and leaned over the judge’s bench.
“How much longer do we have to wait, Mr. Folkes?” said Judge Parks.
Norm looked at his watch, shrugged, and said, “Apologies, Your Honor, he should be here any second.”
The female clerk rattled papers in front of her. Silence invaded the room again.
“Let me say, for the record, Mr. Folkes, you are a highly experienced prosecutor, and I assume you know that nothing irritates me more than lateness,” said the judge.
Norm nodded, apologized again, and pulled some more on his shirt collar as Judge Parks’s jowls began to change color. The longer Parks had to sit there, the more his face turned red. That was about as animated as Parks got. He never raised his voice or wagged an accusing finger—he just sat there fuming. His hatred of tardiness was well known.
My client, a fifty-five-year-old ex-hooker named Jean Marie, leaned toward me and whispered, “What happens if the cop doesn’t show, Eddie?”
“He’ll show,” I said.
I knew the cop would show. But I also knew he would be late.
I’d made sure of it.
It could only work with Norm as the prosecutor. I’d filed the motion to dismiss the charges two days ago, just before five, when the listing officer had already gone home. Years of practice had given me a good idea of how quickly the office processed paper and set a hearing. With the backlog in court filing at the office, we probably wouldn’t get a hearing before today, and the court office would scramble around to find a free courtroom. Motions are normally in the afternoon, around two o’clock, but neither the prosecution nor the defense would know which courtroom we would appear in until a few hours before. Didn’t matter. Norm would have cases to do in the morning, in arraignment court, and so would I. The custom would be to ask the court clerk in whichever courtroom we were in to check on the computer and tell us in which courtroom our motion would be heard later that day. When we got confirmation of our motion venue from the court clerk any other prosecutor would pick up their cell phone and call their witness, letting them know where they were supposed to be. Not Norm. He didn’t carry a cell. Didn’t believe in them. He thought they gave out all kinds of bad radio waves. I’d made sure to find Norm earlier that morning, in arraignment court, and let him know the venue for this afternoon’s hearing. Norm would rely on his witness doing exactly what he would have to do if I hadn’t already told him the courtroom number. His witness would have to check out the court venue from the board.
The board is located in Room 1000 in the court building—the clerk’s office. Inside that office, along with the lines of people waiting to pay fines, a whiteboard stood up with a list of the trials and motions going for hearing that day. The board is there to tell witnesses, cops, DAs, law students, tourists, and lawyers exactly where the trial action is in the building at any given time. An hour before the motion was due, I went up to Room 1000, made sure my back was to the clerk, found my motion on the board, rubbed out the courtroom number and scrawled in a new one. A small trick. Not like the long, risky operations I’d run when I was a con artist for ten years. Since I’d become a lawyer I allowed myself the occasional lapse back into my old ways.
Given how long you have to wait for an elevator in this place, I figured my diversion was good enough to set Norm’s witness back by ten minutes or so.
Detective Mike Granger walked into the courtroom twenty minutes late. At first, I didn’t turn when I heard the doors opening behind me. I just listened to Granger’s feet on the tiled floor, walking almost as fast as Judge Parks’s fingers rapping on his desk. But then I heard more footsteps. That made me turn.
Behind Granger, a middle-aged man wearing an expensive suit walked into the court and sat at the back. Instantly recognizable, he had a flop of fair hair, a row of TV-white teeth, and a pale, office-bound complexion. Rudy Carp was one of those lawyers who battled out cases for months on the nightly news, appeared on TruTV, got his face on the cover of magazines, and had all the courtroom skills to back it up. An official litigator to the stars.
I’d never met the guy. We didn’t hunt in the same social circle. Rudy had dinner at the White House twice a year. Judge Harry Ford and I drank cheap scotch once a month. At one time I’d let the booze get the better of me. Not now. Once a month. No more than two drinks. I had it under control.
Rudy waved in my direction. I turned and saw the judge staring at Detective Granger. When I swung back Rudy waved again. Only then did I realize he was waving to me. I waved back, turned around, and tried to refocus. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing in my court.
“Good of you to join us, Detective,” said Judge Parks.
Mike Granger looked every inch the veteran New York cop. He walked with a swagger—he took off his sidearm, spat out his gum, and slapped it onto the pancake holster before leaving it under the prosecution table. No guns were to be taken into court. Law enforcement were supposed to check their sidearms at security. The court officers usually let veteran cops slide, but even the vets knew not to wear a gun on the witness stand.
Granger tried to explain why he was late. Judge Parks cut him off with a shake of the head. Save it for the stand.
I heard Jean Marie sigh. Her black roots were showing through her bleached dye job and her fingers trembled as she brought them to her mouth.
“Don’t worry. I told you already, you’re not going back to jail,” I said.
She’d worn a new black pantsuit for court. It looked good on her—gave her a little more confidence.
While I tried to reassure Jean, Norm got the show on the road by calling Granger to the stand. He was sworn in, and Norm took him through the basics of Jean’s arrest.
He was passing Thirty-seventh Street and Lexington that night, saw Jean standing outside a massage parlor with a bag in her hand. Granger knew she had a rap sheet for turning tricks, back in the day. He stopped, approached her. Introduced himself and showed her his badge. At that point he says he saw drug paraphernalia protruding from the top of Jean’s brown paper sack.
“What was this drug paraphernalia?” asked Norm.
“A straw. It’s routinely used by addicts to snort narcotics. I saw it, clear as day, sticking out of the top of her bag,” said Granger.
Judge Parks wasn’t surprised, but he rolled his eyes nonetheless. Believe it or not, in the last six months half a dozen young African American men had been arrested and held by the NYPD for possession of drug paraphernalia because they had soda straws in their possession, usually stuck into the top of a soda cup.
“And what did you do then?” said Norm.
“For me, seeing drug paraphernalia on a person—that’s probable cause. Ms. Marie has a record for drug offenses, so I searched her bag and found the drugs inside. Five small baggies of marijuana in the bottom of the sack. So I arrested her.”
It sounded like Jean was going to jail. Second drug offense in twelve months. No probation this time. She was going down for probably two to three years. In fact, I was reminded that she’d already done a little time for this offense. After her arrest she spent three weeks inside before I could get a bail bondsman to write me a bond for her.
I’d asked Jean about the bust. She told me the truth. Jean always told me the truth. Detective Granger had rolled up on her looking for a little free action in the back of his car. Jean told him she was done turning tricks. So Granger got out of the car and grabbed her bag. When he saw the weed inside, he changed his tune; told her he wanted fifteen percent of her takings from now on or he would bust her right then and there.
Jean told him she already paid two patrol officers in the 17th Precinct 10 percent and from the looks of it they weren’t doing their job. Those cops knew Jean and had an easy time looking the other way. Despite her background, Jean was a patriot. Her product was homegrown US marijuana straight from the state-licensed farms in Washington. Most of Jean’s customers were elderly—smoking away their arthritis pains, or getting relief from glaucoma. They were regular customers and no trouble. Jean told Granger to get lost so he busted her and cooked up a story.
Of course, I couldn’t prove any of that in court. I wasn’t going to even try.
As Norm sat down, I stood up, cleared my throat, and adjusted my tie. I placed my feet shoulder-width apart, took a sip of water, and steadied myself. It looked like I was getting comfortable—ready to go at it with Granger for at least a couple of hours. I picked up a page from the file on my desk, and asked Granger my first question.
“Detective, in your statement you said the defendant was holding the shopping bag in her right hand. We know this is a large brown paper sack. Hard to hold in one hand. I take it she was holding the sack by the handles at the top of the bag?”
Granger looked at me like I was stripping away his precious time on banal, stupid questions. He nodded and a smile appeared at the corner of his mouth.
“Yeah, she was holding the bag by the handles,” he said. He then looked over at the prosecution table confidently, letting them know he had this down: I could tell Norm and Granger had discussed the lawful use of straws at some length in preparation for today. Granger was more than ready for that. He’d expected to have a big argument with me about the straw, and whether it was just being used for a soda—yada, yada, yada.
Without another word, I sat down. My first question was also my last.
I could see Granger eyeing me suspiciously, like he might’ve just had his pocket picked but couldn’t be sure. Norm confirmed he had no desire to reexamine the witness. Detective Granger left the witness stand and I asked Norm to give me three exhibits.
“Your Honor, Exhibit One in this case is the bag. This bag,” I said, holding up a sealed, clear evidence bag that contained a brown paper sack with the McDonald’s logo on the front. I bent down and picked up my own McDonald’s bag. Held it up for comparison.
“These bags are the same size, precisely. This bag is twenty inches deep. I got this one this morning with my breakfast,” I said.
I put both bags down, picked up the next exhibit.
“This is the contents of the defendant’s bag, taken from client the night of her arrest. Exhibit Two.”
Inside this sealed exhibit bag were five small wraps of marijuana. Altogether, they wouldn’t have been enough to fill a cereal bowl.
“Exhibit Three is a standard soda straw from McDonald’s. This straw is eight inches long,” I said, holding it up. “This is an identical straw I picked up this morning.” I held up my straw, then put it on the desk.
I placed the weed inside my McDonald’s bag, held it up for the judge. I then took the straw, held it vertically, and dropped it inside the bag with one hand while I held the handles with the other.
The straw disappeared from view.
I handed the bag to the judge. He looked at it, took the straw out, and dropped it back inside. He repeated this a few times and even stood the straw upright inside the bag on top of the baggies of marijuana. The straw remained a good five inches from the top of the bag. I knew this because I’d practiced the same thing myself.
“Your Honor, I’m subject to the court stenographer, but my note of Detective Granger’s testimony with reference to the straw is, I saw it, clear as day, sticking out of the top of her bag. The defense concedes it’s possible for the straw to be exposed if the top of the bag is curled up and held lower down. However, Detective Granger confirmed in his testimony that my client held the bag by the handles. Your Honor, this is the last straw—so to speak.”
Judge Parks put a hand up. He’d heard enough from me. He turned in his seat and directed his attention to Norm.
“Mr. Folkes, I’ve examined this bag, and the straw with the actual items located in the bottom of the sack. I am not satisfied that Detective Granger could have seen a straw protruding from the top of this bag. On that basis, there is no probable cause for his search, and all evidence gathered as a result is inadmissible. Including the straw. I am concerned, to say the least, at the recent trend among some officers in classifying soda straws and other innocuous items as drug paraphernalia. Be that as it may, you have no evidence to support an arrest, and I am dismissing all charges. I’m sure you had a lot to say to me, Mr. Folkes, but there’s no point—I’m afraid, you’re too damn late.”
Jean hugged my neck, partially strangling me in the process. I patted her arm, gently, and she let go. She may not want to hug me when she gets my bill. The judge and his staff got up and left the courtroom.
Granger stormed out, shooting me with his index finger as he left. It didn’t bother me, I was used to it.
I said to Norm, “So when can I expect you to file an appeal?”
“Not in this life,” he replied, “Granger doesn’t bust low-level operators like your client. There’s probably something else behind this arrest that you and I will never know about.”
Norm packed his gear and followed my client out of the courtroom. Just me and Rudy Carp left in the room now. He was applauding, with what looked like a genuine smile on his face.
Rudy stood up and said, “Congratulations, that was … impressive. I need five minutes of your time.”
“I want to know if you’d like to take second chair in the biggest murder trial this city has ever seen.”
Copyright © 2018 by Steve Cavanagh