Monday, September 8, 2008

My alltime favorite war story

This happened over 10 years ago, when I was a baby lawyer doing misdemeanors at the East Los Angeles courthouse.

I'm in the lockup, which in ELA, being a newer courthouse, was like a meatlocker. The airconditioning worked so well there that it wasn't uncommon to see your clients with their arms tucked into their shirts, looking as if they were prisoners sans arms.

So, I'm in the lockup and I'm reading a police report to this young woman who's sitting on the other side of the glass. She was really petite; about 5' even, couldn't have weighed over 95 pounds. If the Santa Anas were blowing, I could have put a string on her and flown her over Montebello. She was charged with prostitution, and she had a bunch of priors. She was a card carrying pro if ever there was one. I read the report to her and asked her what really happened. She gave me a story about how she is a hooker, but she wasn't working at the time she was arrested. She said that she was walking to the liquor store to get her drink on, when she saw that the LA Sheriff's Dept. was running a hooker sweep. She saw some colleagues getting hooked up, and she kept walking. She told me that one of the cops knew her and arrested her just on general principles. Of course, I wasn't really believing this, since the most common defense in a prostitution case is "I'm a hooker, but I wasn't working that day", but I told her that I'd plead her not guilty and set her case for trial.

About a half hour later, I bring her out for her arraignment. I'm standing to her left, right next to her as I enter her plea and set a pre-trial and trial date. The judge says that, due to her lengthy record, he was going to set bail and not release her on her own recognizance, unless there was a compelling reason to release her. At this point, my client whispers, "I have a compelling reason". I told her to tell the judge.

She says (and after all these years, I remember this as easily as I remember that low term for child molestation is 3 years in prison), "Well, your Honor, I was diagnosed with flesh eating bacteria about 6 months ago, and they had to amputate my arm. I still need to see the doctors for the followup". After she launched that verbal grenade, I turned, and sure enough, there was no left arm. Just a stub off of the shoulder. And I was standing right next to the stump. REPULSIVE.......

I didn't mean to; it was just reflex. But, I slid to my left and got away from the stump. I regret that to this day, but what the hell did I know?

The judge, whom I knew to be a compassionate man, asked her who the treating physician was. She said that she had been treated at County USC Hospital, which was akin to saying that she was being treated by whatever med student drew the short straw that day. The judge asked when was the last time she was treated, and my client admitted that she had missed some appointments. The judge, in a burst of paternalism heretofore unseen from the bench, stated that he was even more inclined to keep her in jail, but he would sign a medical order to make sure that a jail doctor (who possesses even less energy than a med student at the end of a 24 hour shift) would check her out. And so, with little fanfare, my one armed lady of the evening was led back to the fishtank.

I couldn't resist; I went to my DA, who was a spoiled, mixed race young woman who only knew misfortune as something she read about in a Dickens novel, grabbed her arm and said, "I touched her!". You should've heard her yell. My judge thought that was pretty damn funny.

I had to admit, I was pretty offended that the sheriffs had nothing better to do than to arrest a one armed woman for hooking. I had visions of doing the trial; cross-examining the cop, with my client seated at counsel table in a pretty sleeveless sundress, exposing her stump to the jurors. I was going to politely ask the cop, "So, when my client was allegedly selling herself to you and your colleagues, how many arms did she have?". I was really going to sell this case. I had it all worked out; my courtroom was designed so that, in the defense case, when I called my client to the stand, that stump was going to be paraded right past all 12 jurors. I figured the acquittal couldn't come fast enough.

But, we public defenders learn early that it's not good to plan ahead; shit always happens. What happened to my beautiful trial what that my girl was also a meth freak, and she had a warrant for an under the influence case. When she came back for pre-trial, they offered her 90 days for both cases, and she wanted to take it, figuring that if she went to trial on my case, she'd end up doing more time in jail waiting for trial, rather than just taking the deal. I couldn't argue with her logic; her goal was to get out, while my goal was to win a trial and embarrass the LASD. She plead out and walked away.

Every so often, I imagine her blowing some guy in an alley in Montebello, or lying on her back in some fleabag motel, getting pounded by some drunk who's staring at her stump while he's fucking her. What has to be going thru her mind? Even more interesting, what the hell is going thru his?

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