The New Old Ironsides (originally published September 29, 2008)

When I was about twelve I discovered a couple of boxes of water damaged paperbacks mildering in the garage. Among Harlequin romances with lookalike covers and tattered Family Circus compliations, I hit upon a treasure trove: two dozen Perry Masons. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote them first, but it’s Raymond Burr’s television version everyone remembers. Confident, competent, unimpeachable. I even have it on good authority that people of that day considered him handsome (go figure.)

The titles all began: “The Case of the” and ended with clever puns or salacious double entendres. The old black and white episodes have those great titles, too: Perry Mason and the Case of the Eager Accountant. Perry Mason and the Case of the Geriatric Gentleman.

My career in criminal defense could also be summed up in pithy titles: The Case of the Pee Stained Mattress. The Case of the Tossed Cocoa Cup (giving hot cocoa to institutionalized sex offender mental patients just seems like asking for it.) The Case of the Mall Parking Lot Masturbator. The Case of the Steak-in-the-Pants Shoplifter.

And so it goes. Back in the day, Perry’s lawyering uncovered crimes of passion or weak-willed nebbishes whose plans go awry. The secretary embezzles in a moment of weakness, then accidentally hits her boss on the head with a lampshade when she’s discovered. The blackmailer is murdered, but by which of his victims?

The trend today is to portray criminals as twisted Hannibal Lechter-like brainiacs, or George Clooney or Sean Connery style masterminds pulling off jewel heists.

In reality, today’s modern criminal is more like Lenny from “Of Mice and Men,” or, for that matter, like Lenny of Lenny and Squiggy from “Laverne and Shirley.” It’s hard to picture George Clooney, when asked about a dodgy looking bill in the Vons checkout line, running away (but very, very slowly because he’s wearing awkward cowboy boots with lifts) only to be tackled right outside the store by a beer-bellied dad buying hot dogs for his kids’ baseball practice.

Pee Stained Mattress Man (PSMM) was actually very handsome. In public defender parlance, he cleaned up well. Talking to the jury (who quickly acquitted him of all charges), one middle aged man said, “He walked out and I thought he was the lawyer. I was like, ‘Where’s the guy?’” Perfect. His handsomeness became a running joke, and during trial, clerks would pop their heads into the courtroom to check him out. Leesa, the courtroom clerk, asked, “So when he’s out, you gonna take him home?” Har de har har, Leesa; he still has to serve off a parole violation even if he’s acquitted!

While the jury deliberated, he handcrafted a mini bouquet of white tearoses out of tightly rolled jailhouse toilet paper. “Helps with the nerves,” he shrugged. He was clearly a man who had been through this process before.

I generally had luck with oddball cases like PSMM’s. Our cases were assigned by letter of last name (so, for instance, I might have all the clients with last names beginning with DEFGMNTUV, which is bad because everyone knows Ds are crazy, and don’t get me started on Gs.) If a P case was really bad, you could always try to convince the person with Rs, for instance, that Jorge Ramirez Perez really preferred to go by Jorge Ramirez.

Poaching was a neutral subject, since we were paid an annual salary. Generally people tried to do as little work as possible yet still maintain a fiery passion for the cases and clients, and a desire to tie up courtrooms to stick it to the system (roughly speaking.) But if you wanted, for some crazy reason, to take someone else’s case, that was fine. I got PSMM from Joni, whose original trial of the case resulted in a hung jury. We were walking over to the health food store, Clark’s, one afternoon, and she mentioned that the case she’d just hung involved an old pee stained mattress allegedly stolen from the junk store next door. I was fascinated. Who would care that a pee stained mattress was stolen? Was the proprieter, an uptight woman driving a pristine minivan with local megachurch bumper stickers, planning to sell the mattress if it hadn’t been stolen? How do you distinguish one pee stained mattress from another?

The DA was keen on retrying it quickly, so I drove down to Southwest, where the defendant was in custody. He had so many prior offenses that even though you’d think a pee stained mattress theft would be no big deal, he was actually facing something like fifteen years in prison. He looked pretty bad, but word of his handsomeness and clean-up-ability had already spread, so I felt confident he could pull himself together. He seemed impressed that I actually wanted to talk to him before doing our trial. “This is how we do it in Riverside,” I told him. He’d never had a jury trial in Riverside before and he seemed impressed.

Pee Stained Mattress Man shouldn’t be confused with Pee Pee Man, a truly pathetic and legendary local figure who was constantly being rousted by city police for loitering or public drunkeness. He would stagger into court and the deputy would pull out an old wing chair reserved just for him, which he would invariably soil at some point waiting for his case to be heard. It speaks volumes about the level of dysfunctionality that drives people to become public defenders that most of the attorneys related to him as a father figure. “He reminds me so much of my dad,” Barbara sighed (she felt the same way about the drunk whose beating by the cops after stealing car parts – then taking two hours to attempt to install them into his car in the parking lot outside – was audiotaped: “He kept yelling ‘Baby Jesus, help me!’ just like my dad,” Barbara reminisced.)

My colleague Joe used to say that PDs win only about ten percent of the time. That sort of heartened me as I lost horrible, hopeless case after horrible, hopeless case. Finally, my luck (or rather, that of my clients) turned with my eighth case. (I even beat Joe’s odds!) That eighth case was a C, which I’d poached from someone when I was helping out in another courtroom one day. The guy was courtly and sweetly formal in a foreign sort of way (he was filipino but became a U.S. citizen through military service.) He wore a tuxedo, complete with frilly shirt, to trial.

We were all sitting in a mandatory sexual harrassment seminar after Mike, a fellow PD, made a highly inappropriate joke about an icy female DA (I can’t remember the details, but it involved beavers.) We were all ordered into sensitivity training, which Mike missed because by the time they scheduled it, he’d moved on to a more geographically desirable job with another county.

I was sitting in a role-playing session when an excited looking secretary came in and passed me a note: “Come to Dept 8 now — the jury is in!!!” Yes, she wrote three exclamation points.

I just knew I’d lost again. I watched the jury file in, these good, happy, productive citizens of Riverside County, the normal people who shopped at the Galleria at Tyler and ate at TGI Fridays, and just simply hated them. I could hardly believe it when the clerk read the verdict: Not Guilty. The form was supposed to just be signed by the foreperson (my next door neighbor’s ex girlfriend – small town), but they’d all started to sign, then realized their mistake halfway through, and tried to cross out the wrong names. I love that form and still have it framed in the office I never visit since I made the career change to mommy.


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