DEPTH OF DECEIT
By Betty Briggs
She perceived her error in judgment too late. Stephanie Saunders screamed as the sorrel gelding she rode stumbled across the solid log jump and fell. Kingston sprawled onto the snow-dusted ground, throwing her off. The parka, breeches, leather boots and gloves failed to keep Stephanie from shaking, though not only from the cold. She struggled to her feet and dragged her aching body toward the gelding. He lay still.
Stupid, stupid, stupid! How could she have endangered Kingston by jumping on ground less than safe? She didn’t even own him, but loved him as if she did. And she called herself a horsewoman. “Kingston,” she cried and reached out to touch his neck.
He raised his head, braced his front feet and pulled himself to a standing position. She was beside him in a moment, rubbing her hands over his legs, checking for injuries. Grasping his reins, she led him forward a step, then another, scrutinizing every move. He seemed fine, and her knees nearly buckled with relief. “Oh, thank you,” she whispered, staring heavenward.
A sharp pain stabbed her hip and she almost fell. She grabbed onto Kingston’s mane to steady herself. She shook her head. Just her luck. Charles, her boss, would be furious if she failed to make it to court today to defend clients who were probably guilty. Charles, who hated indigent defense work, made sure it was her specialty. She frowned. Charles and her other boss, Paul, never assigned her any good cases. She’d struggled through law school for this? It was a whole lot more glamorous on TV.
Her hip ached more by the minute. Somehow she needed to get back in the saddle if she were to make it to the barn. Her teeth chattered. Even though it was about forty degrees this March morning and warmer than usual, she shouldn’t have ridden. She led Kingston to the log jump they’d fallen over.
“It’s okay, boy,” she told the horse. She knew she should take him over something small, or ride him in the arena so the fall wouldn’t be what they’d remember later, but she just couldn’t do it––another demerit on her horsewoman report card.
In addition to her injured hip, she felt sick to her stomach. She had for several weeks. Probably the flu. It had been going around lately.
She attempted to climb up on the jump, but stumbled back, crying out in pain. She tried again, this time using Kingston’s stirrup to pull herself along. Luckily, the gelding seemed to sense her distress and stood still. She swung her sore hip up and over, easing into the saddle. At twenty-five, she’d have thought she’d outgrown horses, but they were still as much a part of her life as breathing. As long as she had them, she could put up with a job she wasn’t crazy about and a boyfriend who sometimes confused her.
On their way to the barn Stephanie held Kingston at a slow walk, riding lop-sided to keep weight off her sore hip. Tears stung her eyes. Some horsewoman she was. She’d thought she possessed a special talent. Her understanding and skill with horses had seemed unrivaled, as a room full of ribbons and trophies attested. But after this morning, it all seemed a lie; she’d been fooling herself and everyone else. She had better shape up and concentrate on being a good attorney. She had no business calling herself a trainer.
At her condo later that morning, she hurriedly showered and dressed for work, but couldn’t shake the sadness that hung over her like a threatening gale. As if to add to her turmoil, her hip hurt like blazes and she couldn’t settle her stomach. Court today was going to be a very long ordeal.
Surprisingly on time, Stephanie leaned back in her chair and surveyed the day’s new crop of lawbreakers. Hollow-eyed, malnourished, pierced and tattooed, they looked as if drugs, alcohol, or whatever other abuses to which they submitted their bodies, had completely polluted their systems. Dressed in bright orange jumpsuits, wrists shackled in handcuffs––they’d failed to appear for previous court dates––any of the five men and three women could have answered a casting call for “criminal” in a Hollywood movie; not exactly entertainment law’s “pretty people” Stephanie had once dreamed of representing.
A scholar of Perry Mason TV reruns, Stephanie, too, had vowed to protect the innocent. The only problem, Perry’s clients were always innocent. Hers were, well like Carlos Ortega, whose wife, the poor woman, now stood at the lectern.
“But you see, Your Honor, I don’t need a restraining order against my husband,” Mrs. Ortega said. Behind her on the right sat the prosecuting attorney, counsel for the State of Utah. To her left sat Stephanie, in her role today as indigent defense attorney, representing those who couldn’t afford a lawyer.
The first thing Stephanie noticed about the young Hispanic woman was her long dark ponytail, so thick and frizzy it covered her entire back, cascading to her waist. It wasn’t until the woman turned her head that Stephanie saw the split lip, bulging black eye, and stitched forehead. No doubt the young woman would tell the judge she’d fallen down the stairs, that or some other dubious explanation. This happened all the time––women protecting husbands who beat them, men Stephanie would be called upon to defend.
“I was depressed . . . um . . . and locked myself in the bathroom, and my husband . . . .” The injured woman glanced over her shoulder at the greasy-haired, bearded man who sat in custody on one of the jury chairs. “He was worried about me.” She stole another look at him, “um . . . and when he broke the door down . . .” she paused, “it hit my face.”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” Judge Anderson appeared very stern in his black robe. From his elevated desk, separated from the rest of the courtroom by an oak barrier, he peered down at the woman.
Zoning out on the rest of their conversation, Stephanie asked herself, for the millionth time, why she had accepted this job at Connelly and Foster. Charles Connelly and Paul Foster were the ones who had bid for the indigent defense contract, not her. Yet here she sat in court every day doing what they had pledged to do. Fresh out of law school with her whole career in front of her, she asked herself once again, why? Why indeed? Money. Pure and simple. She needed the money. She had school loans to pay off, not to mention she needed a place to stay and something to eat once in a while.
Connelly and Foster was not the first law firm to whom she’d presented her resumé. Small though it was, Connelly and Foster was the sole firm to offer her a job. If only her grades in law school had been better. She sighed. They would have been if . . . if. If was such a big word. If only her parents had not taken that fatal plane ride. If only the pilot had been more seasoned. If only it hadn’t stormed that night. And then there was that matter of no life insurance and her father’s debts.
She guessed she should count herself lucky. Yes, lucky. Lucky she’d been able to finish law school at all––lucky Connelly and Foster had offered her a job, any job. She’d hoped to live in California after law school graduation and represent some famous writer or sports figure, even a movie star. She sighed. Her shoulders slumped. She’d learn what she could at Connelly and Foster and then move on. That plan had kept her this side of desperate, at least on some days.
“How do you plead, Mr. Ortega, guilty or not guilty?” Judge Anderson asked.
Mr.? Carlos Ortega was about as far from being a Mr. as Stephanie was from being an Olympic show-jumping rider. She grimaced and shifted in her seat to a more comfortable position, pulling the navy blue skirt of her fitted pin-striped suit to rest at the top of her knees. The pain in her hip from this morning’s fall made her a little dizzy. The over-the-counter medicine she’d taken earlier proved unsuccessful.
“Not guilty, Your Honor.” Ortega stood on one leg, then the other.
“Do you have an attorney?” Judge Anderson asked.
Ortega looked as if he needed a good bath. Stephanie caught his rancid scent and her stomach lurched.
“No, Your Honor,” the man replied. “Can’t afford one.”
“Okay. Trial is set for . . .” The judge glanced at his clerk seated behind her desk just in front of him.
“April 22nd at 9:00 a.m.,” said the middle-aged woman in the lavender skirt and sweater with earrings and lipstick to match.
“April 22nd at 9:00 a.m.,” Judge Anderson repeated. “You’ll be provided with indigent defense counsel.” He glanced up from the papers on his desk. “Miss Saunders?”
“H . . . her?” Mr. Ortega stammered, brow wrinkled.
Judge Anderson frowned. “Yes, her.”
“Can’t I have a real attorney?” He glanced at Stephanie, then back at the judge.
“What do you mean real attorney?” The judge narrowed his eyes. “Miss Saunders is a member of the Bar.”
“I don’t care if she drinks, but––” Mr. Ortega stopped talking when one of the female defendants giggled.
The judge peeked down his nose at her and she immediately sobered. Then he leveled his gaze at Mr. Ortega. “Do you have a legitimate reason for not wanting Miss Saunders?”
“Well she looks like a––”
Stephanie found herself leaning forward in her chair.
“What is it, Mr. Ortega?” Judge Anderson grumbled, clearly out of patience.
“Well, she looks like a––well, I don’t know. A skinny Brittany Spears or somethin’. Can’t I have a smart attorney?”
Stephanie’s mouth fell open. Smart! She was smart. Well, probably smarter than Mr. Ortega. Why was it that people, mostly men, actually, failed to take her seriously? Sure, she was young and inexperienced, but couldn’t they just give her a chance? She thought about Charles and Paul and the clients they represented.
Once they’d asked her to answer phones in the front office because their secretary was ill, and the client who’d called said something about raising the $50,000 they’d needed. Stephanie wanted a client capable of raising that kind of money. It was as if the other attorneys felt that a woman who was halfway decent to look at, and okay, blonde, had no brains. They had even started referring to her as “prom queen.” Stephanie wanted to strangle her boyfriend, Todd, for calling her that in front of them once and setting off the whole thing. And having actually been a “prom queen” twice in high school hadn’t soothed her a bit. One of these first free days, Stephanie swore, she would dye her hair black.
Now it was “Brittany Spears,” a “skinny” Brittany Spears. At least he’d said “skinny.” She was thin, but she’d put on a couple of pounds lately that caused her concern.
Ortega’s comment about a “smart attorney” had drawn chuckles from all the defendants and a male observer with a ponytail and a turquoise necklace laughed loudly from the back row of the courtroom.
The judge pounded his gavel. “Order! I want order.”
Besides the judge and his support people, two uniformed police officers, the prosecutor, Mrs. Ortega, the defendants, Stephanie, and the laughing ponytailed man from the back, the courtroom held only two other people––an observant young man, probably a college student, whose fingers flew across the keyboard of his laptop, and a more casually dressed older man who had been dozing, but now straightened in his seat.
Everyone quieted. The judge surveyed the room, then with measured words stated, “You may obtain counsel at your own expense, Mr. Ortega, represent yourself, or Miss Saunders will be your attorney. Those are your choices.”
Mr. Ortega stared at the steel blue tweed carpet which lent a slight reflection of color to the stark light gray walls. A clock, the sole adornment except for a large white dry erase board, ticked away the minutes. “Well, I guess she’s better than nothing,” he said finally.
Better than nothing? From somewhere deep down Stephanie found the strength to maintain a calm exterior.
Judge Anderson sighed. “We all have our opinions.”
What? Sometimes Stephanie felt as if she were merely a cardboard figure used to meet the requirement of providing legal counsel. But no, darn it. That wasn’t right. She was a defense attorney, an integral part of the legal system. Defense attorneys were important. She was important.
As guilty as these defendants may have appeared right now, the law stated they were innocent until proven guilty. Her job was to ensure that the prosecutor met the burden of proof, beyond any reasonable doubt, of each and every element of the defendant’s crime. If not, there would be no conviction. She would see to that. She believed, as her law professors had said, that it was better to have ten guilty people go free than one innocent person lose his or her liberty.
Stephanie had come to court to represent as many “innocent” people as the judge determined were not only too poor to hire their own attorney, but whose crimes would more than likely send them to jail, which would qualify them to receive indigent defense. The city did have other indigent defense attorneys to whom the judge could assign defendants, but Stephanie’s firm held the main contract.
She could do this, she told herself as the parade of deviants continued. Interestingly enough, regardless of the coarse and uncouth language they spoke on the outside, in the courtroom the defendants always addressed the judge with respect, knowing he had complete control over their lives.
Barely coherent enough to form a sentence, a tall blonde, with hair sprayed blue on top, managed to plead “not guilty” to drug abuse. A mother accused of beating her child voiced concern for her son’s welfare should the judge sentence her to do time. One underweight, leathery man pleaded guilty to public intoxication, promising to pay a little each month toward the fine.
Forming what really was a “jury box,” an oak petition paneled off the jury seats from the rest of the courtroom. There the occupants could be segregated from anyone who might hand them a gun, a note, or approach them inappropriately. Stephanie thought it odd that the defendants now sat in the hallowed chairs of the jurors who might later decide one or more of these defendants’ fates. During a trial, when the jurors entered or left the courtroom, all were required to stand. There would be no such respect shown today for the occupants of the seats.
The final defendant somehow seemed different from the rest. If only he’d shave off that mountain man beard, cut his thick, curly hair and lose the gold loop earring, Stephanie suspected he might look fairly respectable. Of course he did have one of those barbed-wire tattoos around his bicep. Stephanie felt her eyes grow wider. His bicep was really big.
“Number eight, Joshua Durrant––assault, domestic violence, class A misdemeanor.” The judge flipped through the papers on his desk, or “bench” as it was referred to in lawyer land. “How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?” Judge Anderson asked.
Stephanie found herself staring at the defendant, waiting for his answer. His handcuffs clicked as he rubbed his wrist. What a waste. Probably another wife beater––a bully.
How Stephanie hated bullies, so like those who had pushed her around. From the next-door neighbor boy who took her lunch money when she was a kid to a boyfriend in high school who treated her like a prize poodle to be trotted around on a leash.
Again she wondered about her job choice, where she was called upon to defend bullies. Maybe if things didn’t work out for her at Connelly and Foster, she could get her old job back at the stable. She hadn’t mucked out stalls for months. Before this morning she’d thought she was a better horsewoman than she was attorney. She rubbed her hip. Not likely. These days she wondered if she were good at anything.
Okay. This had to stop. She was a defense attorney and she’d defend these criminals to the best of her ability. It was their constitutional right. She believed in the Constitution. She’d show everybody that she could hold her own with the big boys in spite of, as Todd called them, her long Barbie legs. She drummed her peach-colored nails on the oak table.
“Not guilty, Your Honor.” Durrant, held himself much straighter than the other defendants had.
“Can you afford an attorney, Mr. Durrant?”
There it was, the “Mr.” again. Actually, the judge always addressed the defendants Mr., Mrs., Ms. or Miss.
“No, Your Honor.” Durrant’s jaw flinched like he was unaccustomed to taking charity.
“What?” popped out of her mouth. Josh Durrant had drawn too much of her attention. “Uh, I’m sorry. Yes, Your Honor.” Stephanie turned her gaze to the judge and somehow kept it steady. His white hair added to his aura of authority.
“I’m assigning Mr. Durrant to you.” Judge Anderson perched loftily in his big black leather chair, the dark blue Utah State flag stood sedately behind him on one side, the U.S. flag on the other.
Of course he was assigning Josh Durrant to her. She could hardly wait to hear this defendant’s story, emphasis on the “story.”
Behave, she told herself. Remember, “defense attorney,” emphasis on “defense.”
All of a sudden she felt like she’d eaten rotten meat or something. She put a hand to her queasy stomach and choked down a gag. Then, if only to take her mind off her predicament, she glanced at Josh Durrant again. Could he be that truly innocent person that a defense attorney always looks for? He did have beautiful, liquid green eyes staring out from all that hair.
She cocked her head. Wait one cotton-pickin’ minute!
Had he just winked at her?