25 November 2015
I want extra credit from the universe because I’m still working on that damn fish book. It’s a pain, but at least I have writing problems to write about. Such as: The World! People! Coming! Going! Shit! I feel like it’s all stage directions. I’m talking about my attempt to write a crowded courtroom scene instead of just writing more and more of my favorite thing: witty text messages between the two heroines. (There’s nothing more depressing than non-stop wit.)
Anyway, here is my attempt at a crowded courtroom chapter:
An Unknown Female
Even with his grey-streaked head bowed and reading, Pete Baranek towered over the crowd of lawyers in Department Nine. He nodded hello and held the paper lower so that I could read it too. It was the list of judges who were available for trial. There were only three: Hellman-Zweile, Bell, and a new judge, Adams, an ex-DA from another county.
I pointed to Adams and looked up at Baranek. He shook his head no. Baranek pointed to Bell. I shook my head no. I pointed to Hellman-Zweile. We both nodded. Then Judge Fester, who was presiding in Nine that day, called a five-defendant gang murder and assigned it to Hellman-Zweile. Baranek and I exchanged a glance, and I silently mouthed, Fuck.
“No talking! Quiet in the courtroom!” Fester was looking at me and Baranek, even though our conversation had been silent. Baranek glanced behind us, as if to see who the judge might be scolding. Then, seeing no one, he turned back to Fester with an air of astonished innocence. The court reporter smiled and shook her head. Her fingers hadn’t moved. It was all off the record.
The lawyers and out-of-custody witnesses on the gang case were slowly filing out. When they were gone, the courtroom felt roomy and exposed. Fester called a few more felonies—all continuances—and then called our case last because it was only a misdemeanor. Thao and Cheng were sitting in the audience. They stood up, hesitantly. Baranek waved them forward and then stood with them at the rail that separated the lawyers from the audience, the official bar. Galina stepped into the cage for in-custody defendants, and I walked over and stood next to her. Just a moment before, that cage had been crowded with the five defendants in the gang murder, all kids, but big kids, nineteen, twenty, shoulder to shoulder. Oblonskaya looked tiny with all that space around her. And the cage. I was used to it now, but when it first went up, it made me think of a slave auction. I wondered what price Oblonskaya would fetch. Not much. She was small, and she didn’t look all that biddable. Or maybe I just thought that because she never did anything I said.
“Pete Baranek on behalf of Mr. Cheng and Mr. Thao, who are present out of custody.”
“Maggie Hodge on behalf of Galina Oblonskaya who is present in custody.”
We all looked around for Cross.
“Who’s the DA on this?” said Judge Fester. We didn’t answer. “You,” said Fester to a young DA was standing nearby. “You’re standing in.”
“I’m sending this case out for trial, and you’re standing in. What’s your name?”
“Very good, Mr. Ortiz. Please let Mr. Cross know that this trial has been assigned to Department 22, Judge Adams.
Baranek said, “May we pass this matter for counsel to confer?”
“No you may not. You’ve been conferring all morning in open court.”
“In that case I will exercise a challenge.” We could each do that once, paper a judge we didn’t like with no questions asked. Pete must have had a trial against Adams out of county and not thought much of him.
“Very well. The matter is assigned to Department 15, Judge Bell.”
Bell. The last time I’d been in his courtroom, he jailed me for contempt, and he wasn’t entirely wrong. The few remaining lawyers in the room looked at me. No one had forgotten. I could paper Bell, but then Fester might assign our case to himself, and I would never let Fester sentence a client of mine again, not even on a misdemeanor.
I glanced at Baranek and then saw Jill sitting in the audience just beyond him. She’d dropped off Josh at school and come straight here. She shrugged and raised her upturned palms as if to say, What can you do? I glanced at Oblonskaya, then picked up my briefcase and headed toward the door.
Before I could get there, Cross came in. You might almost say he burst in, and he wasn’t a bursting kind of guy “I’m sorry, Judge,” he said. The court reporter glanced up at Fester, who looked thoroughly annoyed, but he nodded to her, “Let’s go back on the record in the matter of Oblonskaya, Thao and Cheng. Mr. Cross, thank you for joining us.”
“The People wish to file an additional complaint.” Cross gave some papers to the bailiff who handed them to the judge. Then Cross handed copies to me and Baranek.
“Wait here,” I whispered to Oblonskaya, who was still in the cage. I walked over to Jill and we read together. As usual, Jill read much faster. “Oh shit,” she said, so quietly that I wasn’t sure she’d said it at all. My mind was saying the same thing over and over and over.
Judge Fester said to Cross, “Do you want me to arraign her now?”
“Yes.” I hurried back to the cage and stood by Galina. Fester read over the fresh complaint and then said, “Galina Oblonskaya, is that your true name?”
“Between the approximate dates of May 3, 2015 and May 7, 2015, in the city and county of Sacramento, the crime of MURDER, in violation of PENAL CODE SECTION 187(a), a felony, was committed by Galina Oblonskaya, who did unlawfully, and with malice aforethought murder Lida Smyshkova, a human being.” Fester looked up at Galina and me. “You have a right to an attorney. Ms. Hodge already represents you on the misdemeanor, so I’ll appoint her on the felony matter as well.”
I whispered to Galina. “Don’t worry.” She looked at me incredulously.
“The People have one further matter,” said Cross. He handed more papers around. “Judge, we’re requesting a court-ordered DNA swab from Ms. Oblonskaya. Officers located a tracking device under the car where the victim was found shot. Our lab tested multiple swabs and obtained a partial profile from an unknown female.”
“Ms. Hodge?” said Judge Bell. “What is the defense position?” Clang, clang, clang went my head. If the cops really believed that the DNA on the tracking device was from the killer, then comparing it to Galina’s DNA would exonerate her. Because it had to be Jill’s DNA on that device. I ordered myself not to turn around and look at Jill, but I could feel her eyes on me.
“I have no discovery on this,” I said. “I have no idea why the DA even connects my client with this Lydia Smashnova or with this alleged tracking device.”
“Lida Smyshkova,” said Fester, looking down at the complaint.
I turned to Cross, “Give me some discovery and I’ll give you a position.” Cross handed me a stack of paper a few inches thick. It didn’t look like a murder’s worth of police reports.
Fester said, “I’m going to put this case over to next week, back in home court for settlement conference. You can take up the DNA issue at that time. So, May 19 in Department 63 at 8:30. The misdemeanor will trail.” (A trailing misdemeanor is just want it sounds like—a minor case that’s trailing behind a major case, like a little brother or sister tagging along, unwanted but persistent. Unfortunately it’s spelled a lot like trial, which must be a trial for court reporters everywhere.)
Galina whispered to me, “Trail? What trail? What about my speedy trial?”
“On the caviar case—the misdemeanor?”
“The DA will probably just dismiss that eventually. If this murder case has any legs.”
“Well it doesn’t. And I want my trial.”
“Judge,” I said, “My client has never waived time on the misdemeanor. Today is the forty-fifth day. We want to go to trial now.” I tried to signal with my eyes, Actually, Judge, we don’t.
Pete Baranek said, “On behalf of Mr. Cheng and Mr. Thao, I join in counsel’s request to go forward with the misdemeanor.”
Cross said, “The People will be filing a motion to join the two matters, as they are factually related. And I assume counsel does not want to go to trial on the murder charge today.”
Fester put both cases over. Out in the hallway afterward, Jill whispered to me, “Nice touch pretending to forget Lida’s name.”
“Thanks,” I said, though in my panic I really had forgotten.
So that’s that.
But what about biddable? It’s correct but confusing, since I’ve just called up the image of an auction. “She didn’t look all that obedient” is flat, but I’ll probably settle for it. “She looked like trouble” is a snappy cliché. All unsatisfactory.