The case of the stolen cell phone had fascinated the inmates at Trumble for the past month. Mr. T-Bone, a wiry street kid from Miami serving twenty for drugs, had taken original possession of the phone by means that were still unclear. Cell phones were strictly prohibited at Trumble, and the method by which he got one had created more rumors than T Karl's sex life. The few who'd actually seen it had described it, not in court, but around the camp, as being no larger than a stopwatch. Mr. T-Bone had been seen lurking in the shadows, hunched at the waist, chin to his chest, back to the world, mumbling into the phone. No doubt he was still directing street operations in Miami.
Then it disappeared. Mr. T-Bone let it be known that he might kill whoever took it, and when the threats of violence didn't work he offered a reward of $1,000 cash. Suspicion soon fell upon another young drug dealer, Zorro, from a section of Atlanta just as rough as Mr. T-Bone's. A killing seemed likely, so the guards and the suits up front intervened and convinced the two that they'd be shipped away if things got out of hand. Violence was not tolerated at Trumble. The punishment was a trip to a mediumsecurity pen with inmates who understood violence.
Someone told Mr. T-Bone about the weekly dockets the Brethren held, and in due course he found T Karl and filed suit. He wanted his phone back, plus a million bucks in punitive damages.
When it was first set for trial, an assistant warden appeared in the cafeteria to observe the proceedings, and the matter was quickly postponed by the Brethren. The same thing happened just before the second trial. Allegations of who did or did not have possession of an outlawed cell phone could not be heard by anyone in administration. The guards who watched the weekly shows wouldn't repeat a word.
Justice Spicer finally convinced a prison counselor that the boys had a private matter to reconcile, without interference from the front. "We're trying to settle a little matter;" he whispered. "And we need to do it in private."
The request worked its way upward, and at the third trial date the cafeteria was packed with spectators, most of whom were hoping to see bloodshed. The only prison official in the room was a solitary guard, sitting in the back, half asleep.
Neither of the litigants was a stranger to courtrooms, so it was no surprise that Mr. T-Bone and Zorro acted as their own attorneys. Justice Beech spent most of the first hour trying to keep the language out of the gutter. He finally gave up. Wild accusations spewed forth from the plaintiff, charges that couldn't have been proved with the aid of a thousand FBI agents. The denials were just as loud and preposterous from the defense. Mr. T-Bone scored heavy blows with two affidavits, signed by inmates whose names were revealed only to the Brethren, which contained eyewitness accounts of seeing Zorro trying to hide while talking on a tiny phone.
Zorro's angry response described the affidavits in language the Brethren had never before encountered.
The knockout punch came from nowhere. Mr. T-Bone, in a move that even the slickest lawyer would admire, produced documentation. His phone records had been smuggled in, and he showed the court in black and white that exactly fifty-four calls had been made to numbers in southeast Atlanta. His supporters, by far the majority but whose loyalty could vanish in an instant, whooped and hollered until T Karl slammed his plastic gavel and got them quiet.
Zorro had trouble regrouping; and his hesitation killed him. He was ordered to immediately turn over the phone to the Brethren within twenty-four hours, and to reimburse Mr. T-Bone $450 for long-distance charges. If twenty-four hours passed with no phone, the matter would be referred to the warden, along with a finding of fact from the Brethren that Zorro did indeed possess an illegal cell phone.
The Brethren further ordered the two to maintain a distance of at least fifty feet from one another at all times, even when eating.
T Karl rapped a gavel and the crowd began a noisy exit. He called the next case, another petty gambling dispute, and waited for the spectators to leave.
"Quiet!" he shouted, and the racket only grew louder. The Brethren went back to their newspapers and magazines.
"Quiet!" he barked again, slamming his gavel.
"Shut up," Spicer yelled at T Karl. "You're making more noise than they are."
"It's my job;" T. Karl snapped back, the curls of his wig bouncing in all directions.
When the cafeteria was empty, only one inmate remained. T. Karl looked around and finally asked him, "Are you Mr. Hooten?"
"No sir," the young man said.
"Are you Mr. Jenkins?"
"I didn't think so. The case of Hooten versus Jenkins is hereby dismissed for failure to show," T Karl said, and made a dramatic entry into his docket book.
"Who are you?" Spicer asked the young man, who was sitting alone and glancing around as if he wasn't sure he was welcome. The three men in the pale green robes were now looking at him, as was the clown with the gray wig and the old maroon pajamas and the lavender shower shoes, no socks. Who were these people!
He slowly got to his feet and moved forward with great apprehension until he stood before the three. "I'm looking for some help,"he said, almost afraid to speak.
"Do you have business before the court?" T Karl growled from the side.
"Then you'll have to-"
"Shut up!" Spicer said. "Court's adjourned. Leave."
T Karl slammed his docket book, kicked back his folding chair, and stormed out of the room, his shower shoes sliding on the tile, his wig bouncing behind him.
The young man appeared ready to cry. "What can we do for you?"Yarber asked.
He was holding a small cardboard box, and the Brethren knew from experience that it was filled with the papers that had brought him to Trumble. "I need some help," he said again. "I got here last week, and my roommate said you guys could help with my appeals."
"Don't you have a lawyer?" Beech asked.
"I did. He wasn't very good. He's one reason I'm here."
"Why are you here?" asked Spicer.
"I don't know. I really don't know"
"Did you have a trial?"
"Yes. A long one."
"And you were found guilty by a jury?"
"Yes. Me and a bunch of others. They said we were part of a conspiracy."
"A conspiracy to do what?"
Another druggie. They were suddenly anxious to get back to their letter writing. "How long is your sentence?" asked Yarber.
"Forty-eight years! How old are you?"
The letter writing was momentarily forgotten. They looked at his sad young face and tried to picture it fifty years later. Released at the age of seventy-one; it was impossible to imagine. Each of the Brethren would leave Trumble a younger man than this kid.
"Pull up a chair,"Yarber said, and the kid grabbed the nearest one and placed it in front of their table. Even Spicer felt a little sympathy for him.
"What's your name?"Yarber asked.
"I go by Buster."
"Okay, Buster, what'd you do to get yourself fortyeight years?"
The story came in torrents. Balancing his box on his knees, and staring at the floor, he began by saying he'd never been in trouble with the law, nor had his father. They owned a small boat dock together in Pensacola. They fished and sailed and loved the sea, and running the dock was the perfect life for them.They sold a used fishing boat, a fifty-footer, to a man from Fort Lauderdale, an American who paid them in cash $95,000. The money went in the bank, or at least Buster thought it did. A few months later the man was back for another boat, a thirty-eight-footer for which he paid $80,000. Cash for boats was not unusual in Florida. A third and fourth boat followed.Buster and his dad knew where to find good used fishing boats, which they overhauled and renovated. They enjoyed doing the work themselves. After the fifth boat, the narcs came calling. They asked questions, made vague threats, wanted to see the books and records. Busters dad refused initially, then they hired a lawyer who advised them not to cooperate. Nothing happened for months Buster and his father were arrested at 3 a.m.. on a Sunday morning by a pack of goons wearing vests and enough guns to hold Pensacola hostage. They were dragged half-dressed from their small home near the bay, lights flashing all over the place. The indictment was an inch thick, 160 pages, eighty-one counts of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine. He had a copy of it in his box. Buster and his dad were barely mentioned in the 160 pages, but they were nonetheless named as defendants and lumped together with the man they'd sold the boats to, along with twenty-five other people they'd never heard of. Eleven were Colombians. Three were lawyers. Everybody else was from South Florida.
The U.S. Attorney offered them a deal-two years each in return for guilty pleas and cooperation against the other codefendants. Pleading guilty to what? They'd done nothing wrong. They knew exactly one of their twenty-six coconspirators. They'd never seen cocaine.
Buster's father remortgaged their home to raise $20,000 for a lawyer, and they made a bad selection. At trial, they were alarmed to find themselves sitting at the same table with the Colombians and the real drug traffickers. They were on one side of the courtroom, all the coconspirators, sitting together as if they'd once been a well-oiled drug machine. On the other side, near the jury, were the government lawyers, groups of pompous little bastards in dark suits, taking notes, glaring at them as if they were child molesters. The jury glared at them too.
During seven weeks of trial, Buster and his father were practically ignored. Three times their names werementioned. The government's principal charge against them was that they had conspired to procure and rebuild fishing boats with souped-up engines to transport drugs from Mexico to various drop-offs along the Florida panhandle. Their lawyer, who complained that he wasn't getting paid enough to handle a sevenweek trial, proved inefective at rebutting these loose charges. Still, the government lawyers did little damage and were much more concerned with nailing the Colombians.
But they didn't have to prove much.They had done a superior job of picking the jury. After eight days of deliberation, the jurors, obviously tired and frustrated, found every conspirator guilty of all charges. A month after they were sentenced, Buster's father killed himself.
As the narrative wound down, the kid looked as if he might cry. But he stuck out his jaw, gritted his teeth, and said, "I did nothing wrong."
He certainly wasn't the first inmate at Trumble to declare his innocence. Beech watched and listened and remembered a young man he'd sentenced once to forty years for drug trafficking back in Texas. The defendant had a rotten childhood, no education, a long record as a juvenile offender, not much of a chance in life. Beech had lectured him from the bench, high and lordly from above, and had felt good about himself for handing down such a brutal sentence. Gotta get these damned drug dealers off the streets!
A liberal is a conservative who's been arrested. After three years on the inside of a prison Hadee Beech agonized over many of the people he'd thrown the book at. People far guiltier than Buster here. Kids who just needed a break.
Finn Yarber watched and listened and felt immense pity for the young man. Everybody at Trumble had a sad story, and after a month or so of hearing them he'd learned to believe almost nothing. But Buster was believable. For the next forty-eight years he would wither and decline, all at taxpayer expense. Three meals a day. A warm. bed at night-$3 1,000 a year was the latest guess of what a federal inmate cost the government. Such a waste. Half the inmates at Trumble had no business being there. They were nonviolent men who should've been punished with stiff fines and community service.
Joe Roy Spicer listened to Buster's compelling story, and he sized the boy up for future use. There were two possibilities. First, in Spicer's opinion, the telephones were not being properly utilized in the Angola scam. The Brethren were old men writing letters as if they were young. It would be too risky to call Quince Garbe in Iowa, for example, and pretend to be Ricky, a robust twenty-eight-year-old. But with a kid like Buster working for them, they could convince any potential victim. There were plenty of young guys at Trumble, and Spicer had considered several of them. But they were criminals, and he didn't trust them. Buster was fresh off the streets, seemingly innocent, and he was coming to them for help.The bay could be manipulated.
The second possibility was an offshoot of the first. If Buster joined their conspiracy, he would be in place when Joe Roy was released. The scam was proving too profitable to simply walk away from. Beech andYarber were splendid at writing the letters, but they had no business sense. Perhaps Spicer could train young Buster here to fill his shoes, and to divert his share to the outside.
Just a thought.
"Do you have any money?" Spicer asked.
"No sir. We lost everything."
"No family, no uncles, aunts, cousins, friends who could help you with your legal fees?"
"No sir. What kinds legal fees?"
"We usually charge for reviewing cases and helping with the appeals."
"I'm dead broke, sir."
"I think we can help," Beech said. Spicer didn't work on the appeals anyway. The man never finished high school.
"Sort of a pro bono case, wouldn't you say?"Yarber said to Beech.
"A pro what?" Spicer asked.
"Free legal work," Beech said.
"Free legal work. Done by whom?"
"By lawyers,"Yarber explained. "Every lawyer is expected to donate a few hours of his time to help people who can't afford to hire him."
"It's part of the Old English common law," Beech added, further clouding the issue.
"It never caught on over here, did it?" Spicer said.
"We'll review your case,"Yarber said to Buster. "But please do not be optimistic."
They left the cafeteria in a group, three ex judges in
green choir robes followed by a scared young inmate.
Frightened, but also quite curious.
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