His grey hair fluffed and swayed across his clenched forehead as he tried to explain. "Sir, I don't know you. But please get me out of this jail. I don't belong here." Step heard this line all the time, but usually it came from a just of out his teens gang banger swearing on his Mama's name that he was "retiring; no more banging for me."
This was different and it took Step back. Here in front of him: a diminutive sixty-three-year-old man, wrinkled road of a face with eyes that clumsily betrayed he was scared shitless. The shit had exited the first night and now he was just a heart attack at the door scared.
As Step started to get the story, one of his old clients, Dewey, walked behind the long benches at the county jail that passed for an attorney confidential meeting room. About as much confidential space as neighborhood coffee klatch. Folks got skanked all the time and lawyers had to yell to the one guard in the big interview room to come stop the stabbing.
"Yo, Step, you got to get Papa out'a here. He's too sweet and scared. The hounds ain't fucked with him yet, but you know time just asks for trouble."
"Damn, Dewey! I'm just getting started," dismissing Dewey with a get out-my-face harrumph.
"Mr. Step. Is that your real name?
"Naw, it's an old football nickname that these fools just won't let up on."
"Well, what would you like me to call you sir?"
This old school brother was as polite as a good mother teaches a child to be and just as vulnerable.
"Call me Step."
And then began the story. Innocent. Or so he claimed. But Step had been doing this for far too long to jump at such claims. Innocence is not like monarchs butterfly that bathe on the floating wind of the Mexican migration to show up the same time, same place every year. No. Innocence is regret. Regret anticipated. Knowing that if it was true that only two things can happen: you prove it; or you fuck it up. You have to mine the facts and the law so there are no regrets.
Innocence is not just proven. Because anyone can make the claim just to get a good plea bargain. I had to remind myself again: "Don't start with that innocent shit Step!" Having rolled the "innocent" bowling ball to a strike a few times, Step knew that more often than not a claim of innocence drew a spare or worse a frame that didn't amount to nothing more than lowering your average. The "innocent" card you get to play only so often and only to eyes and ears that faintly sparkle with the hope that it does exist.
Usually, Step would do a half hour, forty-five-minute interview at the first meeting. Determine eligibility for bail or release on their word. Get names of family to call. A review of prior convictions and potential out-of-county or out-of-state matters. Making sure the Miranda rights are truly understood: "Now, say it. "I want a lawyer! I want a lawyer! I want a lawyer! Say nothing but "I want a lawyer."
“If they promise you the moon say, I want a lawyer! If they give you Miranda rights it means they believe they have facts to convict you. Say nothing. I mean nothing. Fight the urge to trust them. Some of these cops are very smooth. And yes, they can lie to you as they interrogate you. Interrogation. What does "interrogation" mean?”
“Interrogation: a rough (though sometimes you don't even see it coming) physical act that uses manipulation, words, questions, time and stress like a rotor rooter clearing a pipe’s
constipation. So don't say shit!" Step always wondered why Shit and Fuck, Fucking, Damn Fool were not in Black’s Legal Dictionary because these street words helped to convey legal meaning more than any fancy legal brief term.
Then Step saw it. Randall Matthew Carter was on Mars listening to a Martian. Step realized that his normal "been around, know the streets" cred talk was lost on Mr. Carter. Carter had no record. He was retired from the railroad. No family save for the friend that was also now his co-defendant. Lived in a trailer park near Lancaster where he let friends down on their luck stay for months on end. A lapsed Christian whose vices centered on cheap vodka, which he sipped all day in a tin cup with black coffee, the lottery, and a howl at the moon when his soul needed it.
"So what happened," asked Step.
"I don't know Mr. Step. We come to a liquor store and to buy some milk, bread and baloney. We just got off the bus and were hungry. We sat and ate near the wall by the parking lot and next thing I know four police cars show up and put guns to Billy and I's heads and then these store workers started pointing their fingers at us and talking Spanish to one police officer and it all happened so fast."
Step listened to the story as Randall laid the groundwork. Step marveled at the old school way the story was coming out. You could see in Randall's eyes, hear in his diction, the oral history generation's way of telling a story. He spoke of surprise and unexpected horror like it was a character that leaped into his life; wondering whether he deserved this fate, and like all good guilt ridden religiously raised folk, asking that inevitable question of existential inquiry: what did I do to deserve this?
"Next thing I know, they have me and Billy in the police car cage then bringing us out to be identified. First me then Billy. Then it was over."
Randall and Billy Hamer, a fairly harmless convicted petty thief who'd done stints in Chino and Soledad because he stole small stuff and just could not abide by probation, were taken to the downtown jail on Bauchet Street, booked and transferred within a few days to the hell hole that is the downtown jail. Hamer's record had somehow caused Carter to also be considered a higher risk and this association would repeatedly come knocking at Carter's door as the case progressed.
"Randall, do you even know why you are here?"
"Be honest, No."
"Well, they say two weeks before that you and Billy walked into that same liquor store, flashed a black gun and demanded money from the cashier. Says here you and Billy weren't so sweet that night and that you kept calling the cashier and the others 'Spics and wetbacks'."
Randall, eyes cast downward and head shaking, said, "No sir. That was not us. I have never robbed anything or stolen anything in my life."
"You ever call anyone a Spic or wetback?"
"I'll be honest," a phrase he used repeatedly, as if honesty was like a street signal announcing to the world, "right now I'm telling the truth, but most of the rest time you'll have to figure out for yourself.”
"I've called people all kinds of things," continued Randall. "At the railroad you gave as good as you got. I was called Honky, Whitey, Cracker and I just rolled those taunts in a different direction when I hollered back. You get me? But I never called the folks at the liquor any of those things?"
Step looked at Randall, trying to do the divining that all foolish public defenders practice as they are deciding whether the road to innocence is really revealing an off ramp or whether this silver fox was just another dead end.
"So tell me where were you on February 16th?" "If you weren't in San Fernando and didn't commit the robbery of the liquor store, where were you?"
This part of representing someone is the part Step hated the most. Basically, telling your client: convince me. You don't get home until you convenience me. And if you don't convince me, you will be fucked buddy, telling your "I didn't do it" story to the prison set that has heard this complaint before, just one more innocent man in the cell next door is a neighbor crying about how they been wronged, just so much bullshit that other incarcerated treat like white noise elevator music trying to be heard on the noisy hothouse jail tiers.
"To be honest (there it was again; repeats it like some do "uhs" and "likes") I don't remember exactly. I just know we were coming down from San Francisco after Billy got thrown out of his squat by folks saying he stole stuff from them."
"You got anybody I can call in San Francisco to confirm that?"
"I do," Randall said, almost surprised that he remembered someone that he knew in SF that could vouch for him. "But I got to run to my cell to get the stuff that I wrote down. They let me keep some of my phone numbers on a little paper."
And just as Randall was getting his arthritic bones into position so he could start walking to his cell you could hear the jail speakers: "This facility is now on lock down. All visits are canceled. Proceed immediately to the exits. Inmates in line and proceed back to you cell."
Damn! It all stops because some asshole has dope in the cell, or is caught with a shank, or is causing so much gang shit that they just shut the assembly line of justice down. Yep, all in line on both sides of the wooden bench that spread like planting rows across the large interview room, lawyers marching out in unison. Inmates in line answering to their booking number and "Yes, Deputy" back to their cell, with an occasional slow walker daring the deputies to start something. “Get out before you're a witness Step. Step on it!”
Step sometimes wondered how he happened into his life as a public defender. Graduating from a top-flight law school friends wondered why he hadn't accepted the New York offer or even the San Francisco offer and instead chose to trek to Los Angeles to be a public defender. Those that asked such questions never really knew Step.
A person's migration defines them. If you lived life simply traversing a line from point A to B likely you've only seen the same folks on the same path and ignored others. Step's migration started in his El Paso, Texas birthplace, to Los Angeles, to Long Beach, and finally landed him in Martinez, California. Along the way, his Mexican family--five siblings and a mother--went through the death of a father, relying on families and friends for work, and eventually developing a self-sufficiency consistent with the immigrant tale of work ethic and eventual success.
But it was not easy for Step, because even as a small boy he had a temper and an anger that few could appreciate. Kind teachers at the elementary schools he attended saw potential but also saw explosion. He fought weekly if not daily on the playgrounds, usually going after bullies who were trying to work over weaker classmates. While he saw himself as a Robin Hood of sorts, others saw him as just another bully trying to put together his own posse.
The chip on the shoulder from no Dad left Step to be on his own. Sports, girls, social events, school, Step navigated them rudderless, allowing the winds of the situation to dictate his unpredictable tact and response. He read with a vigor that surprised many, and his reading of certain stories surprised and often scared his young classmates like the time he referred to Tom Sawyer as a “pussy”. His teachers soon learned that Step read stories through the lens of trauma and the unintended comments he made came from one who had seen too much, too soon, and too often.
From the stories of child abuse, crazy drinking, and physical punishment, Step had a foundational upbringing that caused him to over-think all situations, to see danger where other saw no harm, and to have a hair trigger recoiling perspective the often lashed before it listened.
Step’s early life followed a muted but inappropriate pattern that repeated itself throughout his life. A life-of-the-party that could lead the party down a road many would later regret. Too much booze and the eventual scene played out often enough that some just stayed clear of him.
So, it was no surprise that somehow, Step would use his deep seeded drive to achieve college success, suspensions, and solitude. Law school accolades and job offers did not interest him, and in the end he only felt at home defending folks that like him could not tame their demons and eventually found themselves residing in jails and half way houses, if not worse.
Randall Matthew Carter, his friends called him "Chew" because of his unfortunate predilection for stealing his father's chewing tobacco and stuffing a knuckle's worth in his cheek. Spitting at young age gave him a name and head full of tarred teeth when others were just discovering their smiles. So early in his representation Step was told to stop with the formal English and Mr. Carter said, "You make me nervous with that Mr. Carter stuff." Chew explained, "Mr. Carter was my father and his father before him. Me, I've always been Chew; so call me that okay?"
Step and Chew. Sounded like an order some military officer would give, "I said, Step and Chew!"
Step learned this bit of Carter family folklore as he continued the interview after the lockdown. Something he learned from lawyers who listened and won instead of pounding the table as they screamed to another loss. Step always went back to the ground ball baseball legal fundamentals the old-time private lawyers taught him. "First, you get to know your client. You must know your client and the path he or she has walked. Otherwise, you are just representing paper. Paper don't matter, people matter."
Step started, "So tell me Chew. Where were you born? And then tell me each year you remember."
"Can't you just get me out? Why you need to know so much? Fellows in here said to learn the first deal, what they are offering, because otherwise some fool lawyer will grind you out for months and probably walk as you get fucked. I'm not saying you going to do that Step, but I just got to know."
"Did you tell me I was lawyer?"
"I mean when they starting smack talking on lawyers and getting you all up in the short hairs, did you tell them who your lawyer was?"
"No, I did not."
"Well, do that okay."
Chew sighed, frustrated at trying to navigate between his real lawyer and the jailhouse lawyers who hold court at mealtime, or as folks are playing cards and bullshitting in the day rooms. It was just starting, and Chew didn't know who to believe.
Step saw the indecision and thought to lessen the load by suggesting to Chew, "Why don't we start the conversation. You tell it, your story. Then you go back. Don't discuss anything. And tell people who your lawyer is: we cool?"
"All right then. I can do that"
"Okay, let's start again, where were you born? Start there and just keep going. Let's see how far we get," said Step. "But I also want you to know that I am going to be writing down everything I think is important and sometimes I will put up my hand, just like a stop sign. That means you said something important, and I must slow the story to get information. Do you understand?"
"I was born outside of Jackson, Mississippi. I was the third child. My mama had me and my two sisters. I don't remember much of my mother. She had me, healed and left. Papa always thought that somehow, I caused his wife to leave. My sisters were my mothers."
Chew looked off into the glass off interview area as if he was hoeing rows of time into neat furrows of memories, smelling his childhood: verbena, magnolias, horse manure, cooking from the stove, water from the pump, and dirt that tasted like earth, earth as meant to be tended.
"I don't remember much of the early years. I just ran ragged in the yard with a saggy diaper. Learning more about being from our four dogs than anyone else. My sister would switch me gentle when I scattered too far or put the wrong thing in mouth. I spit out more ants, couple of spiders too."
"Wasn't much of a student. Missed school more than made it. I picked cottons for gum balls and made it back home in time for dinner. Papa worked at the railroad, handling almost everything that needed fixing. And he come home tired at night, need to get drunk tired. Not a mean man, just a tired man."
"I sort of raised myself. Started fighting early. You a poor white, you fight. I fought 'em all asshole white kids, black kids, brown kids. I just fought and was left alone. But I had friends. Not your typical friends. I used to hang out at the railroad yard and got to talking to everyone. Papa didn't mind, think he saw I was going to make my living with the shoulders and strength he bequeathed me at birth than with the contents of my head."
"He was right. I talked mostly to old men when I was young. Old men who tried to "boy" you every chance they got: 'Now boy don't you be playing with little girls that don't want to be played with.' "Boy, don't like liquor too much. Look at me. I like it too much and you need to be anything but me.'"
"Eventually, I got to sixteen and started working as an errand boy at the railroad. I wasn't working for the railroad. I was working for the men that worked for the railroad. I brought lunches; delivered messages, whistled loud when the boss was around, and learned little-by-little the railroad life."
"You sure you want to know this Step?" Yep, it was happening. As a client told their story it went from "Mister" to "Sir" to finally when the trust was beginning, it became "Step."