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The $40 Lawyer

Judgment

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

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
Published January 29, 2006


photo
[Times photos: Melissa Lyttle]
Charley Demosthenous with a client in the 8- by 10-foot jailhouse interview room. The panic button is on the wall above his right shoulder, just in case.

 
Some clients tug at Charley’s sympathies. Some are bad people he represents because it’s his job. A PD doesn’t get to pick only the nice ones.
In his small South Tampa apartment, “on the wrong side of Kennedy,” as Charley describes it, he enjoys a game of Frogger with co-worker Maria Perinetti.
At a gun range, Charley considers the moment: “It’s good to know how to defend yourself, but it’s also a good way to let off a little steam.”
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.
THURSDAY:
Penalty phase
By Christopher Goffard
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?

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

Four rows of Hillsborough County citizens stare up at him, looking as nervous as he is. They don't know, he reminds himself. They don't know it's my first time.

"My name is Charalampos Georgious Demosthenous," he says. "That's a fancy Greek way of saying Charley George Demosthenous."

He knows people love to hear his name, in the original. On a date, it's one of his trumps. Right now, he feels like an eager suitor on a date with 16 strangers. He apologizes in advance if he butchers any names - rest assured, he has been there. From the jury pool: some appreciative half-smiles.

For Charley, nearly a year's apprenticeship as a public defender - brutal, arduous and often humiliating - has pointed to this moment, this courtroom, this pack of faces. More than any other challenge, a jury trial is where criminal lawyers make their bones.

He walks over to his client, a seedy-looking ice deliveryman accused of flashing women from his Ford van. The guy has dirty fingernails. Charley introduces him, touching him on the back. He wants to show he's not repelled by his client. People pick up on things.

As he questions potential jurors, Charley tries hard to be personable, quick to smile. He invokes his favorite TV show, Seinfeld - the episode where the supermodel thinks she sees Jerry picking his nose in a car - to demonstrate that people do things in cars they wouldn't ordinarily do.

To select their panel, Charley and his co-counsel, Logan Lane, must rely on gut impressions, guesswork. They want working-class types and they want guys, nobody squeamish or moralistic. Right away, they eliminate three middle-aged women they think will torpedo their client:

A secretary, because she looks like a prim and proper Baptist. A Realtor, because she sells every day and will sway other jurors. A librarian, because the wrinkles around her lips make Charley think she purses them a lot.

Charley would also like to bump a retired schoolteacher who reminds him of someone's cookie-baking grandmother, but their peremptories are exhausted, so she stays.

Otherwise, Charley likes the final panel:

A quiet, docile-looking Wal-Mart stocker. A gray-haired civil attorney. Three other blue-collar guys, including a mechanic and a limo driver. And a former hairstylist, who Charley thinks might be okay because he once dated a salon receptionist and knows they love bawdy gossip.

* * *

The accuser is a 22-year-old woman with long dark hair. In April 2004, after the Flasher's van cut her off in traffic, she flipped him off. By her account, he followed her to her apartment complex, summoned her over and exposed himself.

Because of a flaw in the charging documents, prosecutors can try the Flasher only on this incident. But to prove it was no accident, they want to call other victims - two who were flashed on the Howard Frankland Bridge in June, and a third who was flashed at International Plaza in July.

Four young white women, three exposures, a three-month span.

"There is no common scheme whatever, your honor," Charley argues. "They are totally different fact patterns."

If the other women testify, Charley knows, his first jury trial is sunk.

The judge decides jurors should hear them.

One after another, the women take the stand to implicate the Flasher. Charley has no witnesses. Confronting a factually hopeless case, he opts for smoke and mirrors. For his closing, Charley brings up a big placard with the Florida statute at the top:

798.02: ADULTERY; COHABITATION

The statute makes it a second-degree misdemeanor 1) for unmarried people to have sex, and 2) for people to engage in open and gross lewdness.

Only the second part applies here, but Charley hopes jurors will focus on the antiquated - and irrelevant - first part.

"Adultery," he tells jurors, grasping, "and co-habitation."

He can't really deny his client exposed himself, so he casts the act as one of road rage, done not for sexual kicks but in retaliation for being flipped off. He invites jurors to consider whether dogs mount each other for sex or for dominance. He compares prosecutors, in their presentation of the evidence, to incompetent fast food clerks.

"You have received your Big Mac. You have received your supersize Coke. But where's the supersize fries?"

The jury deliberates just six minutes. It must be some kind of world record. Barely enough time for them to hustle into the little room, sit and vote. The Flasher is guilty as charged, one count of misdemeanor lewd and lascivious behavior.

No one looks surprised, not even the Flasher. He gets 30 days.

Michelle Florio, who has supervised Charley since he left the juvenile division, is impressed with the fight he put up. She knows right away whether a lawyer has the chops for trial work. This one does. She sees presence, fire.

"He has no fear," she says. "I truly believe he's going to be one of the great ones."

* * *

Mid July 2005 marks Charley's one-year anniversary with the Public Defender's Office, and it flashes by without his notice. He's too busy arguing motions, visiting jail, working up cases.

He sounds egotistical in one breath, quiveringly insecure the next. Comparing himself to other attorneys his age, he thinks he's better than most. Then he thinks of all he still doesn't know, the vast forbidding terrain of trial work.

His first crack at a jury, humbling though it was, only intensified his desire. Day after day, he asks co-workers if he can take their trials.

Late July, he gets one. The case involves a Wal-Mart stocker accused of battery. The trouble is, Charley has budgeted poorly this month, so he can't scrape together the $25 to refill his attention deficit disorder medication.

On the day of jury selection, over lunch in downtown Tampa, his goofy, manic side is running amok. He's speaking in foreign accents, calling people "lad" and "chap" with exaggerated cheerfulness, and swigging his coffee like water.

"When you have ADD, drinking coffee calms you down," he tells Lily McCarty, but his thumb keeps twitching. He spills his coffee, yelping. The server brings napkins.

Logan Lane, Charley's co-counsel, looks worried.

Charley inspects his ham and Swiss, announcing: "What is this travesty of food before me?"

Florio, his supervisor, watches him across the table.

"You're not giving me a lot of confidence at this point," she says, "because you're a little high-strung."

Charley promises he'll calm down.

After lunch, Charley grabs his case files from his office and carries them down the back stairway of his building toward the street. As he walks, he listens to his footsteps, trying to will away his twitchiness, master his nerves.

In his head, he goes somewhere he calls the Happy Place. He pictures himself standing by a willow tree, one he remembers from Chicago, where he spent his early childhood. He pictures looking out at a field of tall grass, the one in the 1998 World War II film The Thin Red Line. He hears the wind rising and falling and the grass rustling, silence and then rustling, the rhythm of the wind and the rhythm of his footsteps synching as he goes down the steps of his building, into the sunlight, toward the courthouse.

* * *

"My name is Charalampos Georgious Demosthenous, which is a fancy Greek way of saying Charley George Demosthenous," he tells the jury pool, looking confident, not at all scatterbrained. "So if I mispronounce your name, I empathize, I sympathize and I apologize."

His line clunks. He looks at a sea of unsmiling faces. He digs himself deeper. To make a point about reasonable doubt, he speaks of leaving the house with the fear of leaving the stove on. "I imagine you like to bake?" he asks an overweight woman, but receives only a blank stare.

The jury picked, Charley finds himself uneasy. It looks like a hostile bunch. He lets his nervousness slip in front of his client.

"You have to exude confidence," Florio rebukes him later. "Act like you know what you're doing, even if the world is falling apart."

And don't insult the jury pool.

"You said, "You look like you bake,' " she says. "That is your bias against heavyset people, and if you do it again, I'm really gonna kick your ass."

The woman Charley insulted is on the panel. So is a young woman who, Charley is convinced, is smitten with prosecutor Joel Elsea, he of the sideburns and stylishly shaggy hair.

The next day, trial day, Charley finds a single white pill remaining in his bottle of ADD medication. He rattles it, debating. It will calm him down, keep his thoughts from ricocheting like pingpong balls. But it will also leach away a little bit of his fire, and he thinks he'll need it today of all days. He leaves the pill in the bottle.

If he didn't care much for the Flasher, he sympathizes with the woman he's representing now, a Wal-Mart stocker who is 40 but looks much older. She has an addled, worn-down look, puffy eyes and a tight slash for a mouth. Every time she visits Charley's office, she smells of beer. She mutters to herself. She works nights, helping to support a teenage stepdaughter. The stepdaughter is surprisingly bright, sweet and well-spoken. As far as Charley can tell, she's the most hopeful thing in the Stocker's bleak life.

The accuser is tall, blond and skinny, a 24-year-old Brandon woman with a pouty mouth and a cop for a dad. To Charley, she looks like a conceited party girl, every cold princess he has ever known.

The trouble started last August when the Stocker left her van double-parked outside her apartment complex. The Princess, just home from Tia's Mexican restaurant and about to head to Ybor, left a note: "Learn to park, a--h---."

The Stocker's 15-year-old stepdaughter, who found the note, claims the Princess hurled curses and threatened to fight her. The Princess says she was leaving in her roommate's Toyota when the Stocker kicked the car and reached over the window to punch her.

Charley knows his job. He must destroy the accuser's credibility. Calmly and methodically, he cross-examines her, looking for openings. He forces her to acknowledge that she was frightened of his client. Then he springs the trap, asking: "Even though you were terrified, you decide to open the window to talk to her?"

The Princess looks uneasy, eager to get off the stand. Charley makes her hold out her arms, to show she has a much longer reach than the Stocker's stepdaughter. He reminds her she was cursing.

"What obscenities were you throwing?" Charley asks.

"I called them white trash."

"So you were throwing racial epithets?"

The state objects. Charley withdraws his question. He has made his point.

Charley calls the stepdaughter, who describes the Princess as the aggressor.

"She was just cursing," the stepdaughter says. "She said. "You wanna fight me?' I said, "I'm 15 years old, you'll go to jail.' "

The stepdaughter wears a crucifix around her neck. She's a good witness, soft-spoken and likable. Her testimony helps. So does the fact that the accuser and her roommate waited two days to contact police. And that the roommate, who was in the car, never saw the alleged punch.

The Princess didn't want any trouble, Joel Elsea tells jurors.

"The last thing she wanted that night was a physical fight," Elsea says. He borrows Charley's fast food metaphor to demonstrate the elements of the statute have been satisfied.

"Supersize? We got it. No doubt."

As he listens, Charley makes quick notes, picking his forehead.

In court, psyching himself for battle, Charley often thinks of his favorite Japanese animation series, Dragon Ball Z. One scene in particular. A young man, good-hearted but unimposing, witnesses a friend's murder. He goes berserk. His rage unleashes latent superpowers. Lightning flashes around his head. Muscles explode from his arms. Suddenly he's fearsome, unstoppable. Charley has studied the scene over and over. Just thinking about it is like intravenous caffeine.

Elsea finishes. Finally, Charley rises. His pill is in the bottle, back home. Time to go berserk. He stands at the lectern, looking squarely at six Hillsborough County citizens.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he tells them. "You have the victims saying they were scared. Scared victims don't roll down windows to hurl curse words at someone beating the back of the car.

"Victims don't wait several days to call the police.

"Victims don't write, "Learn to park, a--h---.' "

His words used to get jumbled up so easily, hurrying off his tongue. Right now they launch themselves quickly and smoothly, his voice rising, his argument building toward its conclusion: It doesn't make sense, what the Princess and her roommate say. What makes sense is a fabricated story, born of contempt.

" "Let's get this white trash in trouble,' " he says. "They take a couple days to craft a story, to create one."

He tells jurors that they may have a drink, and they may even have a burger, but they don't have a supersize meal.

"There most certainly is not a fry," he says, "much less a large fry."

The Stocker could receive a 14-month sentence if convicted as charged. He doesn't want her stepdaughter to go home alone.

The jury takes 35 minutes to return.

The verdict: not guilty of battery, but guilty of a lesser charge of criminal mischief for kicking the car. The Stocker gets probation.

As she listens, there isn't much change in her hard expression, barely a flicker in her puffy eyes. This isn't going to save her life. This isn't going to keep her off the bottle. But at least she won't have to sleep in jail.

Charley squeezes his fist. Discreetly.

* * *

Most of Charley's growing up this past year has been painfully public, a messy, stumbling journey through the Hillsborough County courts, under the eyes of judges and mentors and co-workers and clients.

From the start, the forum exposed and amplified his every flaw, every sophomoric tic and twitch. Where he was dumb and green, he had to get smart and savvy. Where he was scared, he had to get brave.

Nothing scared him as much, however, as what he's about to do now in early August, quietly and privately.

He has to find his mom.

At the heart of his family, for as long as he can recall, there has been a void. His parents divorced when he was 7, a kid growing up in Chicago. His dad, a Cyprus-born refrigerator mechanic with little formal education, took him to Pasco County, making a clean break.

He didn't see his mother after that. It was like she vanished.

When he thinks about her, it's tough to conjure specific memories. Mostly, he remembers how he felt when he was with her: safe, cared for, protected.

Tough and hard-driving, with Old World views on the rearing of children, Charley's dad pushed him to make the most of his education. In elementary school, Charley bawled when he got B's, knowing how furious his dad would be.

"Life is not the rose, it is the thorns," was his dad's favorite saying. Part of why Charley slacked off in law school was rebellion against his dad's firm hand. But in the end he knew he was daddy's boy. Stubborn, scrappy.

These days, they live just an hour apart. Charley doesn't visit him much.

Charley's dad always told him his mom was too soft to raise a boy as he ought to be raised, hard enough for the world. But Charley always wondered what his life might have been like, had he stayed in the Midwest, had she raised him.

In recent months, he has been thinking about her a lot. He'd like to have a mom. He wonders what she looks like now, 21 years later.

His shrink has been telling him to find her, but it seems too big a thing to confront. He has been avoiding it, in the same way he avoided studying for the Bar. He doesn't know where she is.

Now, he decides to find out. Maybe it's the self-confidence he has wrested from the courtrooms over the past year. Maybe it's the extra courage he reaped from the Stocker trial. Maybe he just feels that his adult self, so close to assuming shape now, can't begin to walk upright otherwise.

He knows his mother operates a toll booth somewhere in the Midwest, so he scatters messages around the big toll authorities.

That night, he's on the phone with her.

She's in Hammond, Ind., married to a tree surgeon.

He tells her he's a lawyer.

"Ooh," she says, "you wear a suit."

He puts a round-trip plane ticket on his American Express card and flies to Chicago.

As he pulls his rental car into Hammond, the smell strikes him through the open window. The whole area has an oil refinery reek, mingled with other nameless industrial stenches. He's glad he didn't grow up here. It already feels like a place to escape, not come home to.

His mom answers the door of her house. She embraces him.

"My baby," she calls him, over and over. "I knew this day would come."

"You have no idea how much I missed you," he says.

They talk forever, catching up. She shows him a picture of himself as a boy, with pudgy cheeks and curly locks. She's gentle and warm and loving and as nervous as he is. She's so glad he found her. She was frightened to reach out, too.

His mom shows him off to the extended family. He meets an aunt who is surprised how good he looks, since she remembers him as a short, chubby kid. Even then he had an air of small promise.

"I'm shocked you're a lawyer," the aunt says.

He wants to talk about being a PD, everything he has seen and done in the last year, but no one shows much interest in the particular kind he is. They just know he wears a suit.

He meets a cousin, a dockworker in his 30s who still lives with his parents. Charley thinks: That would be me. He sees an entire town with these might-have-been versions of himself.

His mom gets around in an old car with a broken odometer. She hardly has any furniture. No couch, so Charley sleeps on the floor through the weekend.

It's a tough, paycheck-to-paycheck life. Charley senses a pall of resignation, of fatalism, hanging over the family, like hard luck and wretched-smelling air were just burdens to be endured. Like you couldn't ask for better cards.

"See," he tells his mom, "I wouldn't be what I am today if you'd raised me."

"No," she says, "you'd do it anyway."

But he's sure she's wrong. Absolutely sure.

Over the past year, he has made sporadic attempts to get in shape. When he gets home to Tampa, he devotes himself to the South Beach Diet. Something about Hammond convinces him of the necessity.

* * *

In October, the bosses send him to felony.

They give him a raise to $50,000. They move him from a colorless office on the fourth floor to a colorless office on the more prestigious fifth floor, where the brass dwells. He takes his nameplate off the old door and slips it into the slot on the new one. He brings his brass Lady Justice, too, to plant on his new desk.

This was his goal, from the start. Some of the PDs he started with are already gone, long before making it this far.

When he calls his girlfriend to tell her the good news, she sounds inexplicably subdued. She's breaking up with him. He hasn't been the most attentive boyfriend in the last few months. She needs someone who makes her feel wanted.

Charley has no argument to make, no defense to mount.

It cuts him badly. He suffers, and then he's okay.

He's a lawyer, young, single, with a closetful of nice suits that fit him and his own place and even some furniture. Plus that smoldering Mediterranean thing. He'll be all right.

It's a whole different feeling, walking into court now. He doesn't feel like a guest on another team's home turf. Young lawyers look to him for advice. His words don't collide like a train wreck.

Now and then he still feels the twinge, the old ambition to be a prosecutor. That's what he wanted more than anything, during those rock-bottom years after law school. To run with the top dogs. Then he thinks about it and feels sort of disgusted with himself, that he'd even consider changing sides, because he has discovered that so much about being a PD suits him.

He was never part of the in crowd, never preordained by money or pedigree or looks to succeed. He still doesn't get many "thank-yous" from clients. He doesn't get cards and flowers, the way Lily McCarty does. But he likes being a thorn in authority's side. He likes swinging a sledgehammer for the accused. Some of his clients are bad people, plain and simple. But he was never under the illusion that he couldn't be where a lot of them are, save for a fork or two in the road.

* * *

The catcalls erupt as soon as he enters the jail pod.

"You don't want to talk to no pretender! You know what they say, you pay for what you get!"

It's October 2005. Inmates are sitting on bunks and clustering around tables, playing cards, stewing in the dead air. They don't even know him, and they hate him.

Charley's client is a young woman in on drug charges. She needs to get out. She looks at him uncertainly. She has heard the stories about PDs.

"I was going to get a private attorney," she says, "but if you can do it . . ."

Can he? Even now, he hears the question too many times to count. Coming from clients, it makes him defensive, makes him want to scream.

But not today. Today, he replies without hesitation:

"I can do anything a private attorney can do, and I can do it better."

The client could be forgiven for thinking her PD believes it, believes it completely. Methamphetamine is starting to waste the young woman, but there remains a trace of sweetness in her face. At this moment, her lawyer is watching it brighten hopefully.

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.

In early January, Christopher Goffard returned to his native Los Angeles to write for the Los Angeles Times. E-mail sent to features@sptimes.com will be forwarded to him.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this series.

[Last modified January 26, 2006, 13:04:03]


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