“You don’t fit my expectation of a Roswell public defender,” said my date between mouthfuls of won ton soup at Roswell’s best Chinese restaurant.
“What did you expect a public defender from here to look like?”
“I don’t know—a cowboy riding a flying saucer, holding the scales of justice.”
“Well I’ve only been a Roswell public defender for a month. Give me some time.”
“Amanda” had gone to my high school up in Albuquerque and then attended an elite university. She’d just started her first job as a rookie reporter at the local TV station. Far prettier than Princess Leia, she looked more like Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala from the Star Wars prequels. Like Amidala she wore a touch too much make-up from her hours on camera.
To use the obvious metaphor, we were both aliens in Roswell in more ways than one. At this early stage of our lives here, Roswell felt more like a cross between West Texas and the less fashionable sections of Tattooine, Luke’s home world in Star Wars. We’d just found each other after many years, neighbors at the one apartment complex geared toward young people in town. Our complex felt more like a bunker in a residential part of Mos Eisely without the alien cantina for nightlife. Now at dinner, she seemed even more nervous than me, a war correspondent on her first trip abroad, waiting for the rocket’s red glare to finally start.
She seemed happy to see a familiar face when we had passed by the empty pool earlier in the day, and eagerly agreed to dinner. I wasn’t sure whether we were really on a date, or she was interviewing me for deep background.
“When did you decide to you wanted to do criminal law?” Amanda asked, checking off a question on her mental interview list.
“I didn’t plan for this, that’s for sure.” When I graduated from law school, I didn’t want to be a trial lawyer, I wanted to save the world. I first worked for the Department of Interior in DC, a research drone on natural resources issues. When I finally got to see a case we’d worked on, my supervisor took me to the wrong courthouse. We finally arrived at the right room just in time to watch a US Attorney use my paragraphs to triumph in an oil and gas dispute.
“I wanted to be a lawyer like that,” I said. “A real lawyer.
“My dad was in the Navy,” she said. “But he rode a desk. He always said that the Marines always thanked the Navy for taking them to the fight. He secretly wanted to be a marine.”
“Exactly. I wanted to be in the trenches, the courtroom trenches. I wanted to get dirty.”
“You’re getting dirty all right. And Roswell? How on earth did you end up in Roswell? The Sunday New York Times arrived on Tuesdays here.”
“I keep ending west.” I talked about my misadventures in the East and Central Time Zones. “I’m sure I’ll end up in California someday.”
“Been there, done that.” Apparently her internship in Hollywood didn’t work out and she was heading east. We both had ended up home in New Mexico like two ships colliding in the night. “Couldn’t you get a job at home up in Albuquerque?”
“I’m here by choice. Sort of.” When I wound up back at New Mexico, the only entry level jobs listed in the Bar Bulletin were for Fifth Judicial District which included Roswell. They actually paid better than the Albuquerque jobs, especially when you factored in cost of living.
“But why not a DA job?”I told her about my interviewed at the District Attorney’s office. They had blue blazers with the words “Fighting Fifth” engraved on the lapel for docket call days. Mr. Fighting Fifth actually began our meeting by saying, “I am now going to ask you questions that are off the record and will not be used at all in the interview process.” He proceeded to ask me my age, marital status, political party, alcohol use and what I liked to do on Sundays. Whatever I said was wrong, especially the Sundays part since I didn’t repeatedly use the word “church.” He then got to asking about my grades, but unfortunately that question was on the official part of the interview.
Down the street to interview at the public defender’s office, I must have crossed over Checkpoint Charlie into the free world. This was also about fighting, but more about self-defense, like legal ju-jitsu. Mr. Miyagi, the mentor in the Karate Kid would be proud that we would only use our skills in self-defense. I just felt more comfortable, especially when I met one of my bosses, “Pete.” Pete boasted they did more trials here in the Fifth than anywhere in the state and even received combat pay. I could be a real lawyer at last.
Amanda laughed when I mentioned combat pay. “I deserve combat pay,” she said. Apparently being a rookie journalist in Roswell did not pay network wages which explained why she was in the same apartment complex that I was in. “What did you do on your first day as a public defender?”
“I went to jail.”
“You go to jail? You don’t look like you’ve ever spent any time in jail. Did you go all by yourself?
“Well, not the first time.” I had accompanied a female attorney who was eleven months pregnant. Yes, eleven months pregnant, and her belly nearly took over the cramped interview room of the Chaves County Detention Center. I watched her interact with the client, a man facing the eight year habitual offender enhancement. They both casually referred to the enhancement as the eight year bitch. I was terrified that getting bitched referred to something to defense lawyers if they got locked inside.
(Author’s note: Years later, I would encounter the attorney and her son at an event. I was able to say casually to the young man, “We were in jail together once.”)
“Were you still scared when you had to go by yourself?”
“I forgot to close the door and left the jail door open. I figured it would close automatically. I was wrong. If someone had run out they’d be in Panama by now.”
“Did you like being locked in? I don’t know if I could take it.”
“I was breathing heavy after only five minutes stuck in the room between the hallway and the jail pod. By my fifth minute I understood why the people in jail wanted to get the hell out.”
Our main course came. I wondered if we had ordered Chinese food or Klingon cuisine. This was Roswell after all, so I couldn’t really tell whether the meat was of this world.
Amanda didn’t bother to eat. “How long before they trusted you with a real live hearing?”
“About a week.” I told her about my first solo hearing, a detention hearing for an alleged fifteen year old burglar. Unlike the massive Federal courthouse in DC, we had the hearing in a converted broom closet in the old courthouse. It wasn’t before a judge, but before a “special master,” an elderly woman retired from the schools. The special master did not wear a robe, while I was dressed like the Devil’s Advocate’s junior associate in a black Ralph Lauren suit with a blood red Jerry Garcia tie. My client sported an Oakland Raiders shirt with matching Raiders tattoos on his neck.
I went on for twenty minutes detailing the attributes of my poor client who had stolen a video of the film Scarface from a convenience store. I acted like the lawyer I’d seen in Federal court on the million dollar natural resources case, citing case law and everything. The prosecutor said nine words total. “He was on probation when this happened, your honor.”
Needless to say my client was held in detention.
Amanda smiled; maybe this was a date and not an interview after all. She touched my hand, but before I could relax, she instantly shifted into full Sixty Minutes gotcha mode. “How can you defend someone you know is guilty?”
I thought back to something Pete had said during my interview. He was one of the first people inside the Santa Fe prison after the riots and claimed to have seen the mangled bodies and severed heads. “After you’ve seen what I’ve seen, you know how you don’t want someone going to prison unless their guilt can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”
I got preachy to Amanda and told her how proof beyond a reasonable doubt, BARD became my mantra by my third day. I almost had it tattooed on the space between my thumb and forefinger much like my clients had the three dots signifying mi vida loca. The constitution, specifically the bill of rights, could be tattooed on the palm of my hand as a cheat sheet. It applied to everyone equally. Justice wore a blindfold for a reason.
“Are you saying things aren’t fair down here?”
I kept preaching. During my first month in the Fifth District, I saw our clients routinely overcharged--attempted murder, eighteen years at eighty five percent good time when unnecessary roughness, fifteen yards loss of down--would have been the appropriate sentence.She nodded perhaps sensing a two part expose. “Do you like your clients?”
“Actually I do, especially the juveniles, because I still see hope.” I talked about realizing how lucky I was and how many advantages I had growing up. These kids didn’t have SAT tutors, much less stable home environments. Some of these kids never had a chance. I rattled off some statistics that I had read in a criminal defense magazine.
Perhaps my preachiness bothered her. She frowned, changed the subject. “Have you even won any trials yet?”
I was sheepish. “I’ve only been there a few weeks.” I was only handling juvenile cases and misdemeanors. In my first DWI trials, the defendant might have been intoxicated in court, could sitting while intoxicated be a crime. As a driver he couldn’t maintain his lane, as a defendant he had trouble maintaining his balance. The jury came back in less than two minutes with a guilty verdict.
“That must have hurt.”
He told me, “I want a real lawyer and not a public pretender.”
“Didn’t he know that you are a real lawyer?”
I looked down. I had wanted to tell my client I wasn’t pretending. This was all too real for me. I was doing my best and not always winning. I learned to take pride in providing zealous representation against overwhelming odds. I did more court appearances in that first month than my former boss at Department of Interior had done in his lifetime.
“So you lose all the time?”
“I finally won something last week.” It was only another detention hearing and managed to get a fifteen year old shoplifter out of jail, at least pending his trial. I was so happy that I personally took a certified copy of the release order to the jail window. I felt like Moses, I had let my people go.
Amanda laughed at that silly joke. “You don’t look like Moses,” she said. “And that’s a good thing.”
“Wait till my second month,” I said. “I’m aging rapidly.”
When our waitress came by and took away our still full plates, I told Amanda about how the waitress at one of the local Mexican restaurants was dating one of my clients. I never knew how much to tip the significant others of criminals. Should I tip the girlfriends of aggravated batterers more than murderers?
We stared at the empty table for a few moments. We were both still hungry, and not just for food. Amanda asked me if I had any other interesting stories. I’d only been there a month, and other than the detention hearing, I didn’t really have any good stories about my courtroom victories . . . yet.
“I don’t have much yet, but I have a feeling I can get a book out of this place.”
We walked out into the crisp night. The sky was incredibly clear and with some mysterious objects moving parallel to the spine of the Milky Way. Were they airplanes, meteors or perhaps unidentified moving objects checking out the scene?
I walked her to her door at our complex. “I am interested in learning more about what you do.” She said, shaking my hand, but implying that a kiss might not be out of the question on our next close encounter. “Let’s do this again.”
“If you want to hear the real stories, you should talk to my boss, Pete.”
She shut the door. I was alone under the stars. I took a deep breath of the clean air. Perhaps Roswell would work out after all. I looked up at the Milky Way one more time, and saw another friendly unidentified flying object. The sky was the limit in more ways than one. It was Roswell after all.
There was a second date, but not a third, Amanda and I never quite worked out. She did have dinner with Pete, and breakfast too perhaps, but that’s another story for another time. Speaking of stories, I did get a book out of this place.