The four fingers of both my hands crimp the edge of the narrow writing table between me and the prisoner. We tuck our knees in close to avoid touching each other. It’s been five minutes, and already my sweaty legs are cramping up.
I ask Rico to tell me about his mother. He snorts, then clops his chair around sideways, angling himself askew.
Everything is clouded in the dirty light of the jail’s attorney conference room. The sheen playing off the shaven scalp on Rico’s profile—one of the shooters had a big, bald head, according to police reports—seems an impressionistic smudge in the translucence.
“That’s per-sonal, man!” he says, mad-dogging the wall.
It is. I don’t know how to respond. I lean further forward like I’m contemplating this, pulling my fingers back from the desk’s edge. Hunched forward with both arms dangling, I press together the pads of my thumb and forefinger on each hand, secretly rolling two grime-thickened blunts of perspiration under the table. I flick the solids onto the floor. I do the same with every one of my remaining digits.
The furrow between the inmate’s eyes deepens into a black hole. It has the circumference of a bullet. “Why you be asking about my moms, man? What that got anything do with an-ything?”
Everything, probably. My job on Rico’s defense team is to investigate just about all there is to know about his life: his childhood, his relationships, his psychological impairments, his quirks and predilections. He might be guilty of murder. Even if he is, the law compels jurors to hear about Rico, the man, not just Rico, the killer. They need to learn who he is before deciding whether to execute him. I have to know about his mother.
This work is known in the profession as “mitigation,” as if convincing jurors to give anything less than a death sentence were a technical endeavor of reduction. According to legal scholars, it’s more of a psycho-dramatic, humanistic, narratological art. I’m fascinated by the theory. Little of it helps me with Rico. The one thing I know is that it’s my job, not his, to find some point of compassionate connection. If even his own lawyer can’t, a panel of skeptical strangers in a courtroom almost certainly won’t.
“May I be ex-cused please?”
Our past two meetings went just like this. Rico crosses his arms, revealing a sprawl of tattoos like decals slapped on a well-travelled suitcase. The L.A. insignia, the Virgin Mary in prayer, stenciled Roman numerals, XVIII, representing the 18th Street Gang—each one is a story. He has much to tell. But the black hole between his eyes is becoming blacker, I’m aggravated by the residue of sticky dust on my palms, and my legs are shaking trying not to bump the guy’s knees. Plus, Rico just doesn’t want my help.
I summon the officers, instruct them to take him back to his cell. He stares past me as they lead him away.
I wait in front of the conference room for the guards to buzz me out the first of several heavy swinging gates. I peer through the window into the scene I’ve just inhabited. The two empty chairs remain misaligned relative to each other and the table, a contrast to the symmetry of the metal latticework reinforcing the window glass, should it ever break. Each wire is actually composed of two strands entwined in a double helix like DNA. For a moment I think of my parents, both scientists. The world they unraveled before me as a child was a decision tree, fanning out into infinite potential like so many dendritic connections. To them, defending capitally charged murderers puts me on a suboptimal branch.
The glint of a correctional officer’s badge flashes against the glass. “You’re free to go, sir,” the guard says.
I draw up straight and shake loose my pants where salty moisture has pasted the cloth to the back of my thighs. I’ll feel the sweep of wind along the sunlit sidewalk, buy myself an ice-cold bottle of water. I’m already starting to feel better. I turn toward the open gate, toward the doors to the sky outside, but not before glimpsing my own reflection mapped on the grid embedded in the glass. I’m looking at me. Then I’m looking away.
A trick of physics, I know, this human face emerging from a million wavelengths of light, each one glancing off a surface with no pores.
About the author:
Jesse Cheng remains on hiatus from pretending to practice law. His website is jesse-cheng.com.