Assault with a Deadly Weapon
Well, children, that was my very first trial. Assault with a deadly weapon. What a disaster!
* * * * *
“Here are your cases for the week,” the secretary sighed, bored. “You have a trial today. Have fun.” The other prosecutors cheered when I was hired because hundreds of their cases shifted from their desks to mine. I was so new I had to ask directions to the courthouse. I drove my grandma’s 1970 v8 Chevy Nova—it purred in idle and roared on demand.
I first saw that first case on the day of trial. A one-page police report telling of a big burly curly-headed Irishman who pulled a knife on two officers in the mall, and they took him to the ground. The officers met me at the courtroom door, in black uniforms with “Security” patches. Not “Police.”
Judge Casey called the case. I had graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and studied abroad as a Fulbright scholar. And I knew precisely nothing about how to try a criminal case. “Nervous” did not begin to express my trepidation.
My job was to prove the case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” to demonstrate there was no other reasonable explanation for what happened.
My first question of my first security guard witness, after introductions: “Was the defendant wearing a red flannel shirt when he was playing pinball at the arcade in the mall?”
“Objection. Leading!” the public defender jumped to his feet and wailed.
I did not even know what a leading question was. How could I be a lawyer trying a criminal case and not know what a leading question was?
“Sustained,” mumbled the judge. “Next question.”
I pushed on with my direct examination.
“Objection: leading.” “Objection. Leading.” “Objection! Leading!” The public defender’s dismay grew to groans as I slogged on with my questioning. “Leading!” “Leading!”
“Mr. Baker,” Judge Casey interrupted. “You cannot – ask your witness – leading questions.”
“Yes, your Honor,” I squeaked.
“Do you – know what – a leading question – is? A leading question – is one which contains – within itself – the answer. You cannot – do that.”
“Yes, Your Honor. Thank you, Your Honor. I will do my best, Your Honor.” Embarrassment burned on my face.
The story dribbled out between objections. Security had confronted the broad man in the arcade where he stood intent at his pinball game. The handle of a fixed-blade knife stuck out of his back pocket. The officers shouted to him that he couldn’t have a weapon in the mall. He ignored them. They ordered him to leave the arcade. He ignored them again. So, they tackled him to the floor. They confiscated the dangerous weapon. It was cool. And they were happy to tell the judge all about it.
The defendant took the witness stand, hulking and meek, and the public defender questioned him with unusual vocal volume. My case immediately and completely unraveled.
I’m a baker, sir. I work in a hotel restaurant.
I play pinball and other arcade games, at the mall. I like going after work. It relaxes me.
Something seemed peculiar about the defendant’s intonation.
What is your baker’s tool of the trade?
My bread knife, sir.
Bakers are proud of their bread knives, aren’t they?
Bakers wrap their bread knives in cloth and carry their knives with them at all times, don’t they?
You were proud of your bread knife, weren’t you?
Yes, sir. Very much, sir. I loved that knife. I miss it.
The public defender’s questions were leading, too, but I could see where my case was going and my stomach hurt and my mouth had lost all moisture and my legs were too weak to rise up and call out “Objection!”
Did you hear mall security tell you that you couldn’t have your knife in the arcade?
No? Why not?
Well, sir, it was very noisy in the arcade with bells ringing and dinging and music and bumper sounds. And I’m hard of hearing.
You don’t hear well?
In fact, you are deaf, aren’t you?
Yes, sir. Mostly, sir.
Did you hear the security guards order you to leave the arcade?
Like I said, sir, I’m deaf.
You can hear me now, with my voice raised. Why couldn’t you hear them then?
Well, sir, I am wearing my hearing aids now. I can’t wear them in the arcade because they amplify all the ringing and dinging and all the noise hurts my head. Without my hearing aids, all that noise kind of blended into a sort of subdued static, and I couldn’t hear any one thing out of the crowd of noise.
And you don’t need to hear well to play pinball, do you?
No, sir. That’s right.
You’re pretty good at pinball, aren’t you?
Yes, sir. I go to the arcade all the time. I’m pretty damn good (Sorry Judge, Your Honor), even if I say so myself.
Did you ignore the security officers?
What happened to your special bread knife?
They took it out of my pocket while I was playing pinball. Just pulled it out. And I whirled around on whoever it was that had taken my knife. That’s when they tackled me to the flood and handcuffed me.
And what did they do with your special bread knife after they took it?
They snapped the blade. Right there in front of me, with me in handcuffs, watching. They broke my bread knife. Still wrapped in its cloth.
And how did that make you feel?
Well, sir, I’m not ashamed to say I cried.
The poor man almost wept again. And I knew the battle was over. But still, in closing argument, I asked the judge to “find the defendant guilty.” Saying those words felt like saying “pizza is disgusting” or “sunsets are stupid” or “the world can do without roses”—I hated to do it.
I find the defendant not guilty, said the good judge. He intended no disrespect of the law or the security officers. Indeed, he did nothing illegal or even wrong.
I felt glad the deaf curly-haired baker had left the courtroom a free man. I felt angry Security had broken his bread knife. I hoped he would get a new one. I felt remorse for what the system had put him through. And I vowed never to repeat this first trial.
Law should be circumstantial in so many cases.
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