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The $40 Lawyer

In his own defense

After passing the Bar exam on his fourth try, Charley Demosthenous wasn't exactly a hot property. Even his father thought he should go sell screwdrivers. Representing the poor and miserable was his last chance to be somebody.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
Published January 22, 2006


photo
[Times photos: Melissa Lyttle]
The lawyer and his client at a Hillsborough County court appearance. For a $40 processing fee, those who cannot afford a defense attorney will get a public defender like Charley Demosthenous.

 
At the Falkenburg Road jail, assistant public defender Charley Demosthenous finds himself locked up, waiting. Clients soon will be led into the 8- by 10-foot room bringing their tales of hard luck.
“It doesn’t matter what my past was,” Charley Demosthenous says now, “as long as I do well here.”
Charley tries to look the part even as he persuades himself to play the part. He’s a lawyer now.
Charley musters as much intensity in a pickup football game with friends as he does in a courtroom. Here, his adversary is his best friend, the other team’s quarterback.
Charley delights in tormenting prosecutors but also frets about whether they like him.  


THURSDAY: After months in the trenches, Charley yearns for a promotion — and his first jury trial.

NEXT SUNDAY: After trials in the courtroom and in his personal life, Charley begins to understand what kind of lawyer — and man — he can be.

TAMPA - The day of his job interview, he pulls on his one good suit to find it no longer fits. The navy slacks and coat, bought off the rack from JCPenney, are uncomfortably tight. He stands in the mirror, practicing his answers. Around his neck goes the gold tie from Ross Dress for Less. Under his chin, a daub of Versace cologne that may or may not mask his desperation.

At 27, two years out of law school and a year out of steady work, Charley Demosthenous has been living in his father's spare Zephyrhills doublewide, minus heating. His diet is red meat, beer, Seinfeld. He has blanketed the private law firms with resumes, but no one's eager to hire an inexperienced attorney who finished near the bottom of his class and failed the Florida Bar exam three times.

He's $17,000 in debt, surviving on bank loans and credit cards. His dad, fed up, wants him to apply at Lowe's. On the line that says "Education," he'd have the keen humiliation of writing Juris Doctorate, University of Florida, Class of 2002.

He has a standing job offer to inspect pavement for the state, which requires no degree, but he can't say yes. He imagines running into someone from law school, or one of those trust-fund darlings from his undergrad days at the University of Miami. Put a stake in him.

So today, in July 2004, he climbs into his dented, scratched-up Toyota Corolla and heads to downtown Tampa, toward the Twiggs Street office of the Hillsborough County Public Defender. He has rehearsed. He needs this.

They're waiting for him on the eighth floor, a roomful of the office brass. They sit him at the head of a long conference table. He sweats into his suit.

"Why do you want to be a public defender?" he is asked.

"The State Attorney's Office wasn't hiring," he answers.

He wanted to be a prosecutor. Everyone knows they get the respect, the prestige. Even his shrink told him so. Charley's view of public defenders reflects stereotypes of harried idealists and rumpled, inept clock punchers. For years, he wondered why anyone wanted the job.

"How do you feel about defending people you know are guilty?"

"It's not my job to prove they're innocent," he replies. "It's the state's job to prove they're guilty."

A good answer, untouchable, but he's far from a True Believer. He hasn't heard of Gideon vs. Wainwright, the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case that ensured free legal representation to indigent. All he knows about the job he's asking for, really, is what most people know: You represent poor people accused of crimes.

"What you learn in three years here, it's going to take 10 to 15 years somewhere else," he adds. He has heard this, and it sounds good. It also happens to be true.

One of his interviewers scans his resume, where his name is spelled in the original Greek, and wonders how it's pronounced.

"Charalampos Georgious Demosthenous," he says, making every syllable smolder exotically. He can't lose there.

Someone else is reaching for his law school transcripts. It's about to come, The Question.

"I see you've noticed my stellar grades," he says. "I think I've paid my dues for that. You can hold that against me, if you want. You can also look at the fact that I keep slugging through."

Over and over, people wrote him off. A biology teacher once said, You'll never be a scientist. An English teacher said, You're no writer. A law professor said, You don't have what it takes for this. During law school, he slept through class, played rugby, had girlfriend trouble, begged his professors for D's.

Unknowingly, he tells his interviewers, he suffered from attention deficit disorder through law school and his three flubbed Bar exams. His fourth try at the exam, he had medication that allowed him to focus. He was prepared to give up if he failed again. He scanned for his results online. When he saw PASS, his cheek sank into the keyboard. He squeezed his eyes shut.

"It doesn't matter what my past was," he says now, "as long as I do well here."

The bosses at the Public Defender's Office love an underdog. They know the qualities that make a good PD are more elusive than what a test can measure. Besides, the job burns lawyers out so fast - they stay about three years, on average - that they need a constant stream of new ones.

They take a chance on Charley Demosthenous.

* * *

He finds out who Clarence Earl Gideon is.

His new employers plant him and another rookie in front of a VCR to watch Gideon's Trumpet, the 1980 TV movie. Henry Fonda plays the Florida handyman who is busted for breaking into a pool hall and is too poor to afford a lawyer. His crusade to get one, waged from behind bars, leads to the creation of the office of the public defender.

Charley feels like he's supposed to weep patriotic tears. But Gideon doesn't strike Charley as much of a hero, not someone he'd particularly want to represent. He's mulish, cantankerous, wretched.

Charley already understands what a PD is expected to say: that it's not the charmed and well-adjusted who need you. And if you pressed him, he'd say he believes it. More or less.

The son of a Cyprus-born refrigerator mechanic, Charley is the first in his immediate family to attend college. Now he's a working member of an ancient and venerable profession. A lawyer. What people want their kids to be, next to doctor.

As a beginning PD, his salary is $38,000.

He's going to need some suits.

"You have to feel like an attorney for once in your life," his shrink says, and tells him to max out his credit cards if he must.

At Men's Wearhouse, they run the tape over him and send him to the dressing room. He studies himself. He's big-shouldered, built for rough sports. His pudgy cheeks carry a perpetual 5 o'clock shadow. His eyes are hazel, puckish. Something about him gives girlfriends the urge to pull up his socks and fix his collar.

He rotates in the mirrors, thinking, "Lawyer, lawyer, lawyer." He's immature in too many ways to count, but right now he looks like someone to reckon with. He can successfully impersonate an adult. No one has a reason to laugh at him, now, at least until he opens his mouth. He fears he will stammer.

The courtroom, he already knows, will not conceal the flaws of a fledgling adult. Most people get to shed their callowness out of the spotlight. Most people don't do what he's about to do.

He leaves the store with a nice blue suit and a nice gray. A good start, but they're just extra skin, really, holding together a walking welter of anxieties. The clothes don't eliminate his sense of being an impostor. He isn't sure what will make that feeling go away, or if it ever will.

* * *

Before dawn, he pulls into the parking lot outside the Orient Road jail. Inside, he places his picture ID on the counter and waits nervously for the guards to unbolt the first of several heavy metal security doors. He has never been inside a jail.

Suddenly, he's standing among hundreds of men in shackles and orange jail scrubs, struggling to answer their questions. This is First Appearance Court, and these are the just-busted, all lined up and waiting to appear via video link with a judge who will apprise them of their charges.

There are hard-core muggers and sad-eyed vagabonds, barroom brawlers and businessmen who hit their wives. There are crackheads stripped of their pipes, pores oozing poison. They are tired and irritated and foul-breathed and demanding to be let out and are convinced, somehow, that their 27-year-old assistant public defender should be able to do more about it.

Soon, many of them will empty bank accounts or mortgage homes to hire private defense attorneys. Many others, if they're poor enough or lie about being poor enough, will pay a $40 application fee and be assigned a PD.

Rookie PDs pay their dues here. Charley's job is to prevent clients from blurting out confessions, and to persuade the judge to reduce their bail enough so they can go home.

He wears his best I-know-what-I'm-doing face, tries hard not to stutter. When he's nervous, the words get tangled up in his mouth. On days he forgets to take his ADD medication, it feels as if his thoughts are ricocheting off the jailhouse walls.

The judge hands Charley his first small victory, agreeing to reduce a client's bail. Then it happens again, and again. After six weeks, when he begins to feel like he knows what he's doing, his bosses transfer him to his first real courtroom. He's relieved to escape the jailhouse stink and clamor. Everyone is.

* * *

Juvenile Court, Division A, Courtroom 26, mid-September 2004.

A sliver of Tampa skyline shows through the window, but the courtroom feels like a dungeon and reeks of mildew. Lawyers get one or two good uses out of their suits, even dousing them with Febreze. There are TimeMist boxes mounted behind the state and defense tables, which now and then spurt jets of fruity perfume, discoloring the nicked wooden benches below.

Charley inherits 186 cases, a whole stack of green folders filled with legal notations he hasn't yet learned to read.

His supervisor, Anthony Lopez, explains the nature of the game.

"These kids aren't going to prison," he says. "At the very worst, they're put on probation or put in a residential commitment program for delinquent juveniles."

Lopez, a veteran PD in his late 30s, has a neatly trimmed black goatee, a perpetually hurried air, and a reputation as a harsh, hypercritical boss. Charley has been warned about him.

"This is the perfect training ground to try cases," he tells Charley, "because you're not putting your kids at extreme risk."

Still, he explains, there are stakes in keeping felonies off juveniles' records. When they are charged with felonies as adults - and many of them will be - their recent juvenile felonies count and can send them to prison.

On the day of Charley's first trial, Lopez is sitting to one side of him. On his other side, biting a finger, sits the client, a 13-year-old boy with sneakers and dreadlocks. He's charged with felony theft of a motor vehicle.

The prosecutor is Joel Elsea, who is not even a lawyer yet, just an intern waiting to pass the Bar. He has stylishly shaggy hair and an air of suave self-possession that Charley finds disconcerting, considering the jangled state of his own nerves. It would be humiliating to be beaten by an intern.

As the trial begins, a gray-haired man with Coke-bottle glasses testifies he came upon Charley's client, and another boy, using a screwdriver to try to steal his motor scooter.

Next, the investigating detective takes the stand. He mentions an unnamed tipster who told him the accused had reported borrowing a screwdriver.

Charley knows enough to object. Hearsay! He's not so sure how to follow that up, though.

"I move to strike that statement from the record," Charley's boss whispers to him.

"I move to strike that statement from the record," Charley tells the judge.

"Based upon hearsay," the boss says.

"Based upon hearsay," Charley says.

In defending the case, Charley's options are scant. He can't plausibly claim mistaken identity. So for his closing argument, he walks to the lectern with a law book under his arm.

"Under the statutes, a scooter is not a motor vehicle," Charley says. "I would ask the court grant a motion for dismissal."

Elsea, the state intern, notes that the vehicle in question starts with a key and has a gas engine.

"My little brother has a Tonka truck that starts with a key," Charley counters. "I don't think that qualifies as a motor vehicle either."

Charley sits down, trying to keep a poker face. He is wearing an $8 haircut from a Latin barber. Dark stubble rides his chin and cheeks, because Hurricane Jeanne has knocked out his bathroom light.

The judge, Richard A. Nielsen, has a sharp-boned face and a grave, phlegmatic manner. Here in juvenile court, where there are no juries, his word is everything. In his slow, deliberate way, he walks through the evidence and concludes Charley's client is guilty - but only of petty theft, a misdemeanor punishable by probation.

Charley can count it a victory, but he can't really call it his own. Reading the statute was his idea, but Lopez is still coaching him heavily, feeding him lines. "People think I'm Anthony's puppet," Charley says, "and it pisses me off."

* * *

Charley doesn't remember much from law school, but a few things stick:

A tort is a civil action.

Don't sleep with your clients.

Neither is particularly useful in his current work.

There is another:

Lawyers are zealous advocates for their clients.

Which doesn't tell him anything about how to negotiate day-to-day relations with judges and prosecutors he must see regularly.

Prosecutors keep pressuring him to make their lives easier. They want him to stipulate, for instance, that the chalky white powder found on his clients is cocaine. If he stipulates, they won't have to bring in a state chemist to prove the obvious.

Early on, he decides not to cut prosecutors any breaks. Let them prove it's not baking soda.

These first few weeks, he quickly learns to analyze statutes, negotiate pleas, pick apart witness statements. He also learns to turn the system's glut of cases to his advantage.

To stymie the state, Charley deliberately clogs the court docket. When he gets a case he knows he can't win - misdemeanor shoplifting, say - he sets it for trial and demands a speedy one. This forces the state to exhaust resources on petty crimes, reducing its ability to fight more serious ones. This increases the chances, Charley figures, the state will come through with generous plea offers.

In such ways, Charley delights in torturing the young prosecutors. At the same time, he frets constantly about what they think of him.

"They don't like me, do they?" he asks Chris Chapman, a 31-year-old PD in his courtroom who regards the prosecutors as friends.

"No, man, no," Chapman says, trying to spare Charley's feelings, though he knows the state is griping.

Chapman is bald and chatty and an improbable presence, grandson of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse. He wanted to be a fighter pilot or, failing that, a prosecutor. He hates the long hours at the PD's office but wants the job on his resume. His rich-kid hobbies - horseback riding, fencing, piloting prop planes - seem alien to his cash-strapped colleagues.

Chapman thinks Charley's courtroom approach is shortsighted and self-sabotaging. Chapman tries hard not to irritate what he calls "my state attorney people." He thinks being nice gets him better deals.

Plus, he figures he'll be in private practice soon and may be working with some of them. "I'm looking ahead," Chapman says. "If you ask any state attorney over there about their favorite public defender, I bet they'd say me."

Charley knows his life would be easier, and relations with the state less tense, if he were more accommodating. But he cannot abide an image of himself as a pushover, a suck-up. In court, he has the instincts of a back-alley scrapper. If he sees a broken beer bottle, he's picking it up.

It's not that he has become a True Believer overnight, imbued with high mission, a savior of delinquents. He's not like Lily McCarty, the apple-cheeked 24-year-old PD in his division who hugs her clients and cries for their terrible upbringings. This job was her Plan A, a way to practice social work with a law license.

Charley's different. Yes, he fights for his clients' future. But with every trial, every argument, his own future feels at stake. In his mind, the options remain stark: Be somebody, or be nobody.

What's more, he realizes, he just hates losing. He takes it personally. He has had enough for a lifetime.

* * *

After work one Thursday, Charley heads home in his Corolla, the one no lawyer should be driving. The passenger side of the car has been keyed - he suspects an ex-girlfriend - and he can't afford a new paint job, much less a new car.

At home he cracks open a Rolling Rock, trying to unwind. Since August, he has been living in a noisy, bug-ridden, $525-a-month apartment and pinching pennies to afford furniture. There is an empty space in the kitchen alcove where the dining room table will go, when he gets one.

He eats his meals on the living room couch, watching a TV propped on a Wal-Mart entertainment center. His one indulgence is a wood-frame bed set. On his nightstand there's a small statue of an accidentally decapitated Lady Justice, her little head at her feet. He dropped her.

His girlfriend, Kristin, arrives just before 7 p.m. She's blond, pretty, shy, a student in her early 20s. They've been dating about a year. She loved him when he looked like a hopeless case, jobless and living in that Zephyrhills doublewide.

"What do you want to do tonight?" she asks.

"I've got to get up super early tomorrow," he says.

Wrong answer. She gives him a look that makes him feel guilty. He backpedals.

"We can still do stuff," he says.

But it will be an early night. The green folders on his desk keep piling up. There will be no respite, as long as he's in juvie, and no money, until he can make it to the felony division with its $50,000 salary. With luck, it will take two or three years to get out of debt. Then maybe he can start taking Kristin to nice dinners. Right now, that seems a long way away.

* * *

From the defense side, it's easy to despise what seems an air of privilege and hauteur around the opposing table. The young prosecutors believe God is on their side. They relish their power over delinquent kids only slightly their juniors. They possess the sheen of the effortlessly charmed, of straight-A students and future politicians. They aren't driving to work in ratty cars.

Or at least that's how it feels from across the room. It doesn't help that whereas PDs look like ordinary people, by and large, their state attorney counterparts are uncommonly good-looking, the kind that used to make classmates feel weird or fat or gangly. Beating the state becomes sweet on so many levels.

Some months back, in another courtroom, a young female prosecutor struck the PDs as particularly snooty and unreasonable. The PDs decided to teach her a lesson. They swamped her with depositions, besieged her with motions, double-teamed her at trial. They kept up the barrage until, one day in open court, she dissolved in wretched sobs. Point made. And even if it wasn't, it felt good to do it.

In late November, facing another young prosecutor in trial, Charley is swinging his sledgehammer, objecting to everything that is remotely objectionable. His client, another teenage boy, is accused of yelling in the face of a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy. The charge: obstructing a law officer.

Charley believes his aggressiveness is having an effect on the 25-year-old prosecutor, Stefanie Morris. Studying her face and voice, he senses she is becoming flustered, angry. Incredibly, she strikes him as even more frazzled than he is. The worse she looks, the bolder he feels. By the end, the prosecutor's voice sounds small and tentative.

Charley argues that mouthing off to a cop is free speech. Result: Not guilty. Charley makes an exultant fist.

After that, he feels different. He senses he has learned something crucial, though he's not sure exactly what. Maybe that he doesn't need Anthony Lopez whispering in his ear. Maybe that the other side may be as raw and scared as he is.

"I knew before that I could beat private attorneys," he says after trial. "Now I think you can look at me and know I'm a good attorney."

He's beginning to feel more like a lawyer worthy of the name.

* * *

In late December, the court hosts a holiday party for everyone in juvie.

The PDs pool their money for a cake. Charley, in a prankish mood, wants it to read "J.O.D.," for "Judgment of Dismissal." His co-workers vote to skip gratuitous digs at the state. The frosting says "Happy Holidays."

Judge Nielsen wears a nativity tie. Judge Mark Wolfe, who runs the other juvie courtroom, regales the young prosecutors with jokes. They rollick along obligingly.

The PDs and prosecutors sit on opposite sides of the room, munching chicken wings and cookies, like vaguely hostile relatives at a family reunion.

* * *

In the hurly-burly of juvenile court, Charley's triumphs prove transient, his stutter steps toward confidence undercut by the unforgiving workload.

Often, with a young client's fate in his hands, he still feels like he's fumbling blind through a labyrinth. The relentless Anthony Lopez keeps barking in his ear, reminding him of every misstep.

He barely has time to sleep, much less clean his office. Fungus is growing on the bottom of his coffee pot. One of the law books on his shelf sits upside down.

In January, his desk calendar still says December, and a coffee stain covers a whole week. His courage is bleeding away. He dreams he's losing his hair. His girlfriend wants more time. His clients don't say thank you. The green case folders keep piling up. What's it going to be? Somebody, nobody.

ABOUT THIS STORY

This series is based on more than a year of reporting, involving hundreds of hours of interviews and courtroom observation. St. Petersburg Times reporter Christopher Goffard began following Charley Demosthenous in September 2004, with the permission of Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt. The reporter observed him in court and in the office, on jail visits and at home, in his professional and private life.

The office permitted Goffard access to Charley's jailhouse interviews provided the clients agreed, and on the understanding their cases be resolved before publication and their names not used.

The reporter witnessed most scenes firsthand, but some scenes, such as Charley's July 2004 job interview and his experience in First Appearance Court soon after, were reconstructed based on Charley's account and those of other witnesses.

Christopher Goffard can be reached at features@sptimes.com

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this series.

[Last modified January 19, 2006, 10:02:03]


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