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The $40 Lawyer

Penalty phase

His juvenile clients call him names. The domestic violence cases are ugly and depressing. As he does his time, Charley wonders: Will he ever get a jury trial?

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
Published January 26, 2006


photo
[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
Charley Demosthenous, the rookie public defender, considers his options in court. In the domestic violence division, few of his clients’ accusers actually pursue charges to trial.

 
[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
Two months after a promotion from the fourth to the fifth floor in the Public Defender’s Office, Charley’s 50- to 60-hour workweeks have left no time for decorating.
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Fellow PD Chris Chapman, talking with a juvenile client, thinks being nice to prosecutors gets him better deals. That’s not Charley’s style.
SUNDAY:
In his own defense
By Christopher Goffard
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.
TODAY: 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.

On his desk, veteran attorney Anthony Lopez keeps a row of mounted baseballs charting the evolution of their form. Left to right, they run from the lumpy prototype to the aerodynamic modern model. At the Hillsborough County Public Defender's Office, he presides over a similar transformation of formless law school grads into game-ready attorneys.

One of the rookies, Charley Demosthenous, sits across from him now, confessing a litany of self-doubt. As one of the office's last-chancers, Charley came desperate for a job and burning to prove himself. Now, midway through his first year, Charley wonders how much longer he can stick it out.

His workload is crushing. His learning curve has no top in sight. He worries that his clients are ill-served by his fumbling hands. And there seems no escape from juvenile court, where prosecutors dislike him and clients distrust him.

Beneath it all, Lopez hears the young lawyer confiding a familiar fear:

Can I hack it in the world of grown-up lawyering?

The veteran regards him carefully. He has been trying to break Charley of his bad courtroom habits: fidgeting with his pen, speaking in a condescending tone, pumping his fist when he wins. Once, he rebuked Charley for placing one of his Lady Justice statues on the defense table, mocking the state.

Lopez thinks Charley's a little scatterbrained, a little excitable. But he also sees a young lawyer who cares enough about his clients to fight for them. Lopez knows it's easier to rein in an overzealous rookie than to instill fire in a passionless one. He tells Charley that self-doubt plagues every young lawyer. That he's coming along fine, for now.

Charley leaves feeling better. Enough to hang on awhile.

* * *

Early January 2005. Division A. Public defender Lily McCarty is cooing maternally over a shackled teenage client. "He tells me he's doing well," she says. "He's learning to lay tile!"

Today, Charley is representing a less hopeful prospect, a lanky teenage boy with tired, red-rimmed eyes and a long record. The client, already in high-risk lockup, slouches in chains and a red detention jumpsuit. He has new charges of car theft and burglary. He belongs to what the PDs call their All Stars, their handful of incorrigible return clients.

When they first met, Charley tried to reach him. "You don't stop this," he said, "you're gonna go to prison for the rest of your life."

"F--- you, cracker motherf-----," he snapped back.

About three of every four clients Charley handles are African-American. Charley figures he looks like just the latest of a long line of Caucasian authority figures to distrust. The same government that is paying their lawyer, after all, is trying to put them away.

By the end of a long day, All Star agrees to plead out to a lesser charge, get it over with. He's going back to lockup anyway.

"How much do you want in restitution?" Charley asks Ron Campbell, an employee of the plumbing company the client burglarized.

Campbell seems to regard Charley's question as stupid.

"How you going to get any money out of someone who's going to be incarcerated?" Campbell replies sharply. He considers Charley a moment and decides he's happy to be a plumber. "If I had his job," he says to no one in particular, "I'd a done killed myself."

Charley lets it pass, sitting quietly with weary eyes. The loop on the backside of his gray tie has gone missing. The tie flops around.

"How long you been a public pre-," Campbell continues. "How long you been a public defender? I was gonna call you a public pretender."

The client, who has been holding his head tiredly in his hands, livens up enough to chime in: "That's what I call him too."

"About six months," Charley answers stoically.

It feels much longer, like he's aging in dog years.

* * *

Early that month, Chris Chapman, one of the PDs Charley started with in juvie, turns in his resignation. From the start, he didn't feel like he belonged in a place that drew such a motley pack of underdogs.

"Here I was, a white guy with a bald head from an upper-class family," he says. "They might disagree, but that's three strikes against me."

A few months back, he put in an application with the State Attorney's Office. They wouldn't hire him.

Chapman thinks the courtroom has turned Charley into a cutthroat. No wonder he kept prosecutors' teeth on edge. "He made them nervous enough that they'd do their job maybe a little better," Chapman says. "They never knew what he was going to do."

* * *

A burly man with a mullet is standing at the receptionist's window, indignant. "You guys expect us to pay $40 to get you guys' help," he says one April morning. "Meanwhile, you guys ain't helping."

For months, Charley has been taking similar abuse from clients, from strangers, from everyone. He tries to suck it up like a pro. Increasingly, though, his temper has been on a hair trigger. In court, he overhears a private defense attorney bad-mouthing PDs to a prosecutor. At least, it sounds that way to Charley.

He's not about to take it today. Charley jumps in the defense attorney's face and snarls a few words. The guy backs down, a little bewildered, insisting he meant no disrespect.

When Charley became a PD, he was queasy with ambivalence. Now, he calls his juvenile clients "my kids." Some tug at him. Like the Hollow-Eyed Boy, the scrawny kid whose husky stepdad choked him and threatened to feed him glass. The boy was taken to the Crisis Center on suicide watch, where the stepdad slapped him in the parking lot. The boy punched back, and was charged with battery.

Sitting next to Charley in court, his client exuded hopelessness. Charley kept thinking, He's got nothing. Nothing. Charley felt like his job mattered, like it might even be noble. He made a case for self-defense, but the law is the law. Guilty as charged. Charley told the Hollow-Eyed Boy to call him if he needed anything, but he never did.

"You're the only lifeline they have. You're all that's standing between them and spending the rest of their life in prison," Charley says. He's still not Lily McCarty, his True Believing colleague. But he isn't who he was, either.

"I guess," he says, "I believe in what I do now."

Still, his frustrations are crystalizing right along with his convictions. By mid April, after eight months in juvie, Charley has already seen two other rookies promoted ahead of him. "I'm just done! Done!" Charley says. "Someone's gonna be moved up to misdemeanor in the next two weeks. It better be me."

Next week, he gets word: He's going to misdemeanor adult court. No raise, but a step on the way to felony adult court, his ultimate goal. He's ecstatic.

He can't go yet. First, he must defend a boy accused of throwing a pregnant teenager to the sidewalk. "We're going to lose," he tells Lopez, asking half-seriously if he can fob it off on another attorney.

"Oh no, you're keeping this one," Lopez says. "This is your swan song. This is your baby."

The state's star witness is the accuser, a tall, sullen-looking 19-year-old woman. When the case is finally called, Charley learns she has left for a doctor's appointment.

Without her, the state can't proceed. Charley asks the judge to throw out the case, saying that to his knowledge, she won't be back.

The judge informs him the trial has been rescheduled for the afternoon, when she returns.

Alex Lau, the division's supervising prosecutor, glares at Charley. He seems to think Charley knew the witness would be back but was trying to trick the judge into scuttling the case.

Later, Charley recalls Lau's words:

"I can't believe how dirty you are."

The spat continues in the crowded hallway. Charley insists it was an honest mistake. But Lau believes he's getting a taste of what his prosecutors have complained about for months: Charley's wiliness.

A crowd witnesses what happens next. "You're a liar!" Lau shouts at Charley.

Charley shouts back, returning the insult. The hall buzzes about it for an hour. To some, the confrontation appeared on the verge of a fistfight.

Suddenly, to Charley, it feels like there's something very personal at stake. The other side has questioned his honor, in front of his client and co-workers and everyone. To cap that humiliation, he must now walk into court, where Lau and another prosecutor are waiting to thrash him in an ugly case he cannot win.

Charley's client is a bony, dreadlocked 11th-grader with plucked, pencil-thin eyebrows. Waiting in the lobby, he sings in a jazzy falsetto and holds a purse that reads, in faux diamonds, BABY FAT. He tells Charley he confronted the pregnant woman only because her dog, a chow, was mauling a neighborhood child.

"And she slapped you and you put her down?" Charley asks.

"I put her down."

"And you didn't know she was pregnant at all?"

"At all!"

On the witness stand, the accuser testifies she was standing outside her home when the defendant, a stranger, confronted her and slammed her to the ground, apparently for no reason.

"I told him not to hit me or he'd go to jail, 'cause I was six months pregnant," she says.

Charley calls Baby Fat, who repeats the story of the dog, the slap, and his insistence that she didn't appear pregnant. "She smoked a cigarette," he says.

As Charley rises to deliver his closing, Lau watches from the state table.

Charley's voice thunders with outrage.

"This is the woman whose dog was viciously attacking a child! This is the woman who was six months pregnant and smoking a cigarette in front of her house!" Then, in a lower voice calculated to convey suspicion: "She's hiding something."

Judge Hebert Baumannconsiders. The state, he concludes, has not proved the defendant knew she was pregnant. He tosses the felony charge, gives him probation on a misdemeanor.

"I feel like I'm on cloud nine," Charley says. "I feel like I just lost my virginity."

* * *

Judge Nick Nazaretian, who presides over misdemeanor domestic violence cases in Division F, has hung his courtroom with portraits of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, aiming for an old-fashioned feel.

"The fish on the wall that's mounted - that mouth is always open," he likes to lecture people who talk too much. "What does that tell you? Keep your mouth shut."

Charley, fresh from the cage-match battles of juvie, enters his new assignment in early May primed to fight. He's burning for a jury trial. But most of the ostensible victims - women accusing husbands or boyfriends of attacking them - refuse to pursue charges.

One day in late May, prosecutor Nicola Papy is at the back of the courtroom engaged in a wearily familiar ritual.

"If you testify," she tells a tired-looking, red-haired woman, "there's at least a chance -"

"There's no protection for me," the woman replies, sobbing. "None."

* * *

At the jail, Charley always sits near the panic button.

There are just too many stories of clients who attack, the mean ones and the insane ones and the ones who think it will get them a new lawyer. In Charley's old juvie courtroom, a bailiff carries a photo of a PD with a pencil impaled in her cheek.

The little red button on the wall will summon guards. Charley isn't taking chances.

Especially not today, with a client as volatile as the skinny, drug-addled guy with the Grim Reaper tattoo. He is accused of battering his girlfriend, and furious at having been in jail a month and a half.

"Did you hit her?" Charley asks. "If I tell the judge you didn't hit her, I want to be telling the truth."

"This is not even my M.O.," Grim Reaper says in fury. "I sell drugs. It's not me."

Back in court, prosecutors drop Grim Reaper's charges for the usual reason: His girlfriend now denies she was attacked.

Charley tries to tell the judge the accuser has been harassing his client, but the judge cuts him off. When the charges are being dropped, why say anything to risk undoing that?

Charley: "To dispel -"

Judge: "What did I tell you about the fish on the wall? There's a reason it got caught."

* * *

All morning, Charley's clients come into the jailhouse interview room with the same sense of outraged innocence, the same stories of crazed, greedy, vengeful women.

"I feel like the victim here," says a man with pudgy cheeks and a linebacker's build. "I lost my job. She done took the furniture. She done took the vehicle."

The next guy is a pizza deliveryman with rotten teeth and a skull on his forearm.

"She says you pushed her," Charley says.

"This is her way of getting me out of the house," Skull says. "She's ornery. Mean. She beats on walls."

When he started, Charley believed a lot of what his clients told him. By now, he knows a PD hoping only for innocent clients, or even a handful a year, is in the wrong line of work. What he's defending, after all, is the presumption of their innocence. Still, it would be nice if they didn't talk to the one guy on their side as if he were an idiot.

The next guy has a baby face and bright smile and wants to know why he can't go home.

"I been in prison two times already," he says. "I'm not trying to go back on no battery charge."

Well, Charley explains, your girlfriend says you choked her till she passed out.

"I wasn't even there, man!"

* * *

The crawling pace of domestic violence court is making him crazy. All of May passes, and most of June, and still he can't find a jury trial.

The towering test of his chops as a criminal lawyer, of how far he has come from the scared, stumbling neophyte who couldn't even read a case folder, will be how well he performs before that panel of ordinary Hillsborough County citizens.

"That's what I wanted to do since I became an attorney," Charley says, "to see how good I really am."

Not negotiating pleas, not arguing before a judge, not drafting motions - no, in the hierarchies of criminal law, the jury trial is the first and last index of achievement.

A jury trial is an infinitely complicated beast, demanding mysterious and unquantifiable talents never measured in the many law classes Charley botched or the Bar exam he repeatedly flubbed.

In June, 11 months into the job, he takes over a client from another division: an ice deliveryman accused of flashing a woman from his van. He insists he was set up. Charley takes a look at him - a reedy little bald guy with a goatee, jutting ears and sunken eyes - and figures he probably did it.

Trial day arrives, and prosecutors still won't budge with an acceptable deal.

"I gotta know what happened," he tells his client. "Straight up, did you flash this girl?"

"I whipped it out," he finally confesses. His excuse: She flipped him off in traffic.

Members of the jury pool file into the courtroom, filling the first four rows. Charley must pick six to decide his client's fate. He takes a breath. He stands up.

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 25, 2006, 08:53:02]


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