The Judgment

D. W. Buffa

The Judgment

The third book in the Joseph Antonelli series, 2001

For My Father

Harold David Buffa

Who always told stories I never wanted to end

Acknowledgments

Wendy Sherman, my agent, gave me all the support and encouragement of a friend. Rob McMahon, my editor, showed me how to write the book I wanted to write. In ways only she can know, my wife, Kathryn Martin, made me believe that it was something worth doing.

One

Ihave spent years defending some of the worst people who ever lived, but the most evil man I ever knew was never once accused of a crime. Nothing, not even curiosity, could have made me attend his funeral had he died in his sleep or been killed in an accident, but Calvin Jeffries had been murdered, and I felt an obligation as someone who practiced in the criminal courts to attend the services of the only trial judge to become the victim of a homicide.

Surrounded by strangers, I sat in the crowded church and listened to the eulogy of someone I had never met. There were words about justice and public service and dedication and honor and goodwill, words about family and friends and how much the honorable Judge Jeffries would be missed, words which made everyone feel better because the lie is so much more comfortable than the truth.

At the end, when there was nothing left to say, the widow of Calvin Jeffries placed a rose on top of his flag-draped coffin, waited until the pallbearers were ready, and then, turning around, walked at the head of the procession as it moved down the aisle. Even the light that streamed through the stained glass windows failed to penetrate the heavy black veil that covered her face, and I wondered as she passed by me what emotions were masked behind it.

Outside, under a harsh blue sky, the mourners watched while the coffin was lifted into the back of a sleek, shiny hearse. The judge’s widow was helped into the first of a half dozen waiting limousines and, moments later, with two police motorcycles leading the way, the cortege began the long slow journey to the cemetery.

The bitter March wind stung the side of my face and watered my eyes. I pulled my topcoat close around my throat and began to jostle my way down the church steps. I was in a hurry to get away. Now that it was over, I wanted to forget all about the late lamented Calvin Jeffries.

As I turned up the sidewalk, I almost ran into Harper Bryce.

“Any comment you’d care to make, Mr. Antonelli?” he asked.

Bryce, who had covered the courthouse as a newspaper reporter longer than I had practiced law, was standing in front of me. His tie flapped outside his buttoned jacket and his eyes squinted into the wind, each gust stronger than the one before. I made no reply other than to shake my head, and we trudged up the street without exchanging a word until he asked me if I wanted to stop somewhere for a drink.

“It’s a little early, isn’t it?”

On the next block, in one of the old buildings with the date of its construction embedded in stone above the entrance, a bar and grill was just opening its doors. We ordered at the empty bar and carried our drinks to a wooden table next to a dusty brick wall covered with the autographed pictures of people once famous or important and now long forgotten.

With a slow, heavy breath, Harper drew the chair as close as his expansive stomach would allow, hunched his sloping shoulders forward, and rested his arms on the edge of the table.

“Here’s to Judge Jeffries,” he said as he lifted his glass. When he finished, he cocked his head, waiting for me to explain why I had not joined him. “Most people liked him,” he reminded me.

I nodded and then took a drink, wincing as it burned its way down my throat.

“Whatever you thought of him, you have to give him credit,”

Harper went on. The words came a few at a time, punctuated by the wheezing sound of his breath as his chest heaved up and down like a bellows. “He wrote most of the law-most of the procedural law-in this state. He had a brilliant legal mind. You have to give him that.”

The liquor had reached my stomach, and I remembered I had not had anything to eat.

“You have to give him that,” Harper was still insisting as I got up from the table. At the bar, I exchanged the drink for a cup of coffee and ordered bacon and eggs.

“I’m having breakfast,” I told him as I sat down. “You want something?”

He started to shake his head, then changed his mind. “I’ll have the same thing,” he yelled across the empty room.

“Don’t you think he had a brilliant legal mind?” Harper asked, curious why I seemed so reluctant to agree.

“You want me to tell you about the first time I ever met him?”

I asked, surprised at how clearly I remembered what until that moment I had not thought about in years. “That isn’t exactly right,” I corrected myself. “I didn’t really meet him. I appeared in front of him, in a trial-not even a real trial-a trial on stipulated facts.”

It had happened years ago, at the beginning of my career, and it was as if I had just walked out of that courtroom. Harper gave me a quizzical look as I laughed at how angry it still made me.

“You know what a stipulated facts trial is? It’s a plea bargain that allows the defendant to appeal a legal issue that is in dispute. That’s what we were doing. I had not been practicing more than six months, and I had this kid charged with stealing a car.

I tried to get his confession thrown out, but I lost on that. The deputy D.A. was one of the good ones. He thought it was a close call, and that an appellate court should decide.”

Harper never forgot he was a reporter. “Was Jeffries the judge who denied your motion?”

“No, another judge had done that. Jeffries wasn’t the one who might get overturned on appeal. He didn’t have any stake in what happened one way or the other. At least not that way,” I added.

I lifted the cup with both hands and sipped the black coffee, remembering the way Jeffries had looked that day, his pug-fingered hands folded in front of him, waiting for me to begin. He was still in his thirties, but his wavy hair, which ran in a straight line from his brow, was already silver smooth.

“McDonald-that was the name of the deputy D.A.-recited the facts of the case. The defendant-I’ve forgotten his name-

was standing right next to me, his hands cuffed in front of him.

He had broken into the home of his former girlfriend, taken her keys, and stolen her car. It was simple, straightforward, nothing to it. McDonald finished, and Jeffries turned to me. ‘Does the defendant agree with this rendition of the facts?’ he asked. The kid nodded and I said yes out loud for the record. It was the first stipulated facts trial I had done, but McDonald had done dozens of them. It was all routine.

“Jeffries drew himself up and looked right at McDonald. ‘Very well. Based on these facts, I find the defendant not guilty.’

“Not guilty! It was impossible. But there it was. Jeffries kept looking at McDonald, daring him to open his mouth.”

I raised my eyes until I met Harper’s gaze. “So far as I know, I’m the only defense lawyer who ever won a stipulated facts trial, and I only won it because Jeffries was so utterly corrupt.”

“Your client bought him off?”

“My client didn’t have anything to do with it. It was worse than bribery. It was power. Earlier that same week, McDonald had been late for a court appearance. Jeffries, who was never on time himself, was in a rage. He told him no one was ever late to his courtroom. And he meant it.”

The bartender brought breakfast, and Harper began to cut the eggs with his knife and fork. “Everyone always said he ran a tight courtroom,” he remarked as he lifted the fork to his mouth.

“And everyone said Captain Bligh ran a tight ship,” I replied as I started to eat. The eggs were runny and the bacon was charred.

After a couple of bites I shoved the plate aside and forgot about food. My mind was filling with images of things that had happened, the oldest of them crowding out the others, as if clarity came only after a memory had been buried for years.

“The next time I saw Jeffries was about a month later. I had a case that had to be set for trial. Jeffries liked to do these things in chambers. When he got to my case, he leaned back in his chair, a big smile on his face, and said, ‘Tell your client if he pleads guilty, he’ll get probation, but if he goes to trial, he goes to prison.’ “

I looked at Harper as I cradled the warm coffee mug in my hands. “I was young, new, more interested in saying something smart than doing something wise. I couldn’t let it go. ‘Even if he’s acquitted?’ God, you should have been there. The room was full of lawyers. Everyone was laughing, everyone but Jeffries. He stared at me with cold-eyed suspicion, and then, without a word, went on to the next case.”

Harper mopped up a liquid yellow yolk with a piece of toast and stuffed it into his mouth. With a paper napkin he wiped his lips, and asked, “What did Jeffries do to get even?”

“Even?” I replied with a rueful laugh. “That was never good enough for Jeffries, not by half.”

The door opened and I shuddered as ...

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