Life Case

by jkatejohnston

I’m trying something new. I checked out a writing blog, and the writing prompt for the day was “Nobody Was Happy With the Judge’s Decision.” So, I decided to use the characters from my fish mystery and write a little courtroom scene. It might get me unstuck, who knows. Here’s a link back to the writing blog. I think the idea is that you can check out what other people did with the writing prompt.

I’d always liked Judge Hellman-Zweile, with her big hair and beautiful Southern manners, but I had a bad feeling that she was about to follow the letter of the law, and I needed her to exercise some discretion. Major discretion.

She asked for our appearances, and Cross glanced up from his frantic reading of my motion, “Scott Cross for the People, your honor.”

“Maggie Hodge for the defense,” I said, “My client, Mr. Janus, is present in custody.”

“Good morning, Mr. Janus,” said Hellman-Zweile. John Janus raised his boney hand in an awkward wave and bobbed his head. She went on, “We’re here today for judgment and sentencing. Ms. Hodge has filed a motion—at the last possible moment, I might add—to dismiss Mr. Janus’s two prior strike offenses, commonly known as a motion to strike a strike. Ms. Hodge, would you like to be heard?”

Not really. But I talked for a while: the strike convictions were old and so was Mr. Janus. He’d aged out of violence, as most people do eventually. The present offense—shoplifting whiskey and chap stick from Rite Aid—showed how much he’d toned things down. A life sentence was just too much for so sad a crime.

“Mr. Cross, do the People wish to be heard?”

“Just briefly your honor.” The court reporter and clerk glanced at each other with a kind of resigned amusement. It was always “just briefly” with lawyers.

There was plenty to talk about: not just the two strikes that the DA had alleged, but a whole grim history: robbery, robbery, rape, first-degree burg, arson, mayhem. “This is not a nice man,” said Cross, “The truth is, we should have struck him out years ago.”

“Anything further?” said Hellman-Zweile turning to me. I thought about pointing out that the mayhem wasn’t as bad as it sounded—they sewed the guy’s ear back on, and a mayhem, technically, had to be permanent disfigurement.

“Nothing further,” I said.

“I’m sorry!” said Mr. Janus.

I saw the court reporter take it down. I’m sorry. I believed him: sorry he did it, sorry he got caught, sorry for his whole life.

“The defense motion is granted in part and denied in part. I’m going to dismiss one of the prior strike offenses. I simply don’t see this as a life case. The remaining strike will double his prison term of three years to six. Court is adjourned. Good luck, Mr. Janus.”

Janus leaned over and whispered, “Does that mean I get half time?”

I whispered, “No, you have to do 85% of your sentence.”


Walking down the hallway afterward Scott Cross said, “I can’t believe she did that. If there was ever a righteous three-striker, that guy’s it.”

“Oh come on. He’s seventy-seven years old with Hep-C and diabetes. He’ll won’t even be alive in six years.”

“Then she should have just given him life. What the difference?”