I’ve been a lawyer for many long years and the things I’ve heard and seen would disturb even the most cynical. They have me. It’s not entirely clear that my mind has been left unaffected by my experiences, and may explain some strange looks and distancing of acquaintances, for friends I have none, never trusting anyone, because no one can be trusted, even myself, or so I have learned. But let me tell you how I got into this unhappy state of mind from which I am only released by the telling of the tale.
Back in ‘91 or so, I think it was, I received a request for a meeting from a prisoner at the Don Jail, that old pile of Victorian bricks where the last hangings in Canada were conducted. He faced a major charge and needed a defence. The same day, that evening, I drove there, parked my car, registered with the guards, and then followed one of them up to an interview room on the 3rd floor of that dark, dingy building. A few minutes later David Smith appeared, a very tall, big boned man, with long greasy blonde hair, a moustache and hands as big as plates. I stood up from my plastic chair as I always do. We shook hands, as we always do. Then got down to it.
“What are you in for?”
“Murder” he said, “of my brother”. He was accused of setting his brother on fire one night as his brother slept in a room in the house he shared with Smith’s old girlfriend who was, the police thought, the motive for the crime.
Lawyers never ask a client whether or not they did something they’re accused of. You might get the wrong answer and then you have to plead them guilty and the clients don’t understand that or like it, so it’s best to just ask them the charge and what they want to do, plead out or fight it. Smith wanted to fight, and I like a fight.
He was convincing. How could a brother murder his brother, in such a cruel manner? It was fantastic, beyond evil, beyond insanity. It was unthinkable. But, “ok,” I replied, “then who did it because the gasoline the police found poured over him didn’t come out of the sky and he didn’t do it himself.” That’s when the prime suspect appeared. The girlfriend. Of course. The woman he described was a treacherous good time girl and was still screwing Smith up to the time of the incident though she had left him for the brother. She soured on her new man right off the bat, but he was one of those possessive types, a member of the Satan’s Choice gang and beating a defiant woman was second nature to his way of seeing things. So she was trapped with only one way out. Since she was also disillusioned with Smith, who could neither satisfy her desires, nor come to her rescue, he could still be the answer to the problem in another way, the patsy to take the blame.
It sounded plausible. In fact, once I began poking around and investigating, it seemed a sure thing. The police themselves had thought of the possibility, and it turned out the brother had been sedated when he was set alight. She was in the house with him. So, over the six months waiting for the trial, that’s the angle I worked, got some witnesses able to talk about the situation between the three of them, the brother’s brutal reputation, the girlfriend’s sense of fear, her reputation for cruelty with children and cats, and the love between the brothers. It was set.
The trial was heard before Mr. Justice Hardnose of the Superior Court, who clearly was suspicious of my client as soon as he saw him, and prosecuted by a determined woman, Alice Neverwrong, who had a grudge against me for standing her up on a date, for good reason, some years before. It was not a pleasant start as the Crown called their first witnesses; the firemen showing how the fire was set and what was used, the doctors and their forensic examinations, the police forensics team that explained the role of the can of accelerant outside the bedroom window where the fire took place, the police investigators, with reports and witnesses attesting to the hatred between the two brothers, the jealousy over the girl, the mindless insanity of both of them, both famous for being low lifes and thugs, the dubious sexuality of my client, playing fast and loose with the truth and the facts as the police often do, even when they’re right. After two days of this it didn’t look good. Even I began to doubt my client’s story and began to look on him with suspicion. But you have to resist such temptations in the defence game; you can’t surrender to pessimism even when that’s the only realistic point of view. The thin red line, the line between justice and the lynch mob, that’s what we’re taught to defend.
So, when the girlfriend got on the stand to claim my client did it, that he had threatened to kill his brother right in front of her and to kill her for good measure if she did not return to him, in such detail that even I was mesmerised, when all seemed lost, a conviction certain, my counterattack began. Slowly and calmly rising from my chair and looking as dramatic as I could I approached the witness box to confront her with a series of soft and gentle questions probing the shock of what she experienced the night of the fire, her ability to remember, to observe, details I knew of her own life of crime, all stock questions until she was gradually led down a cunning path of creeping incrimination, as one after another, she admitted that she still had sex with Smith, that the brother had learned of it, that he had threatened her, that two sleeping pills had been found near his pillow, that she had talked of drugging him to a friend, all the time watching the jury’s reaction to our exchange as they changed from sitting back in their chairs with arms crossed, arms in disgust for my client and me, to suddenly sitting forward, hands on knees, hands clasped, fingers intersecting, faces tense, as they watched the final words between us until, as I turned to sit and rest my questions, when she thought it was all over, I turned and said, ‘In fact, it was you that poured the gasoline, and it was you that killed this man, isn’t that the truth of it?”
She, as I expected she would, sprang forward in her chair like a cat ready to pounce, her long silver nails displayed, raging at me that it was a lie, a goddam lie, a foul lie, and I was going to hell for it.
I merely stood there, while she raged at me, at Smith, at the whole system until she stopped, out of breath, exhausted, teeth bared, glaring at me, the judge, the jury, everyone in the room. When the silence became overwhelming, and the effect on the jury had sunk in, when they had seen what I wanted them to see, I sat down, content. My client testified last. He came across as I advised him, as a sympathetic man, wrongly accused, a sufferer in life, hard luck his only luck, who loved his brother despite their quarrels and who stated firmly, with conviction, looking straight at the jury with his big blue eyes as he responded calmly to the prosecutor’s last question, “I had nothing to do with it. It was that bitch.”
We only waited six hours for the jury to come back with a verdict. Not guilty. The judge was visibly angry, as were the prosecution and the cops. But the judge had the courtesy to thank me for putting up a “skilled defence.” On the way down in the elevator from the 3rd floor courtroom, after changing out of my robes, Smith rode down with me along with one of the jurors. As we got off the elevator, the juror, an elderly dignified man, stopped and said to us, “maybe I shouldn’t say anything but it was a very close call. You should thank your lawyer, Mr. Smith. We were convinced you were guilty at first, but he made us have doubts. You’re a lucky man.” Then he turned and walked away. Smith and I smiled, shook hands, and parted, both of us feeling on top of the world. I didn’t hear from him again for two weeks. He called me one afternoon, while I was looking through the mail to find a legal aid cheque for his trial for which I still hadn’t been paid, and said he wanted to invite me to his apartment for dinner to thank me for my work and success. I was reluctant, but decided he knew a lot of people in the criminal set and I needed to keep the cases coming, so two days later, on a hot Thursday evening at the end of that July I went.
It was a run down high-rise, the place didn’t smell good, his apartment worse, but he seemed the same as ever. We sat down, drank some cheap wine, and then after an hour of talk about the trial he got into his plans. He said he was going to B.C., “for a job”. I said, “what job.” He replied, very casually, “To cap a guy. For 10,000. More than I usually get. ” I put my fork down and drank another big gulp of wine. “Come again?”
“Yeh, that’s what I do, man. No big deal. My brother was easy. I hated him. He deserved it, taking my girl.”
At that, my hair stood on end and I quickly followed suit. “I’m leaving.” “Hey” he replied, “what’s the problem? You were great. Ah, man, you mean you actually believed me? Hey man, that was all bullshit, didn’t you know? Oh come on, buddy, don’t be like that, besides I like you. Stay the night. Thought you knew. We can have some fun.” He approached me suddenly with a look in his eyes and finally realising his true intentions I pushed past him, and raced for the door. He tried to grab me, But I shoved him as he tried to block my way and ran out of that apartment as fast as my legs would move while in the background I heard him shouting after me, “ But, what’s wrong, I don’t get it, what’s the problem, don’t you like me?’
The flash of my heels heading towards the nearest stairway was my answer and moving as fast as I could, escaped into the heat of the Toronto night never to see or hear from him again, having learned my lesson that no one can be trusted in this world, least of all myself, and sometimes, sometimes, it doesn’t pay to be too good at your job.