Subtitled for prosperity’s sake: sprinkling chunks of an unknown matter … about, about, about … in my head …
Recently, Michael J. Kennedy, a well-known criminal defense lawyer died. Michael represented both the nefarious, unpopular criminally accused, as well those imbued with wealth and fame. When I first met Michael he had offices in both New York and San Francisco and possessed a certain swagger, a swagger which followed him into any a room, meeting or courtroom. His air of confidence was not at all insulting, pompous or overbearing. He controlled any particular setting, with an urbane sophistication I could only dream of possessing. I was a young trial lawyer then, learning the profession and honing my skills at the same time. Michael probably saw my promise, one day contacting me to tell me of a meeting. I appeared.
During the meeting a suitcase full of cash was pushed across the table, “from this point forward you are requested to represent our interest.” The speaker continued, “Your fee will be $75,000.00 a case. You will be allowed two months of vacation. You will be expected to show up in any city in which you are needed, St. Louis, Memphis, Houston, Los Angles, New York, any city.” The voice of the person who pushed the cash across the table remained calm, watching, while others in the room stared. “Your fee will grow with experience and results.” Fee levels were given: “$125,000.00; $150,000.00; $200,000.00; $250,000.00.” The speaker mentioned the names of lawyers, tying their names to the amounts mentioned. I guess this was done to provide an outlook of future wealth. Of course, the then supermen of the profession were the ones occupying the higher pay grades.
I didn’t take the money. The unexpected discussion required an instant decision. If you are now worried, please don’t be, I didn’t insult anyone by my decision. I was Southern gracious, “Thank you for considering me. I will have to decline.” Some of those lawyers present in the room may still question my sanity. I can still hear their shock when I refused the cash (whispering, rustling, commenting), layered with diverting eyes. As the called meeting came to an end, I wondered whether the derision was because of their knowing that I now knew they were on a payroll, or perhaps because of the insanely stupid decision I made.
Michael didn’t attend the meeting, never questioned my decision, remaining forever gracious, while still insanely preparing for the joint defense. One particular Saturday he asked that I cross-examine his client in a practice session, to provide some sense for the client of what he faced if he testified. After the practice session, a decision was made not to testify, “His exposure is too great.”
Michael Kennedy was white boy handsome (meaning every group has individual standards of beauty, sometimes the standards are mutual, crossing other/all groups), culturally imposing, University of California Berkeley articulate – all characteristics seemingly cast from the Hollywood studios of day’s lore (or maybe even today). He was the profession’s prototype of a trial lawyer, easily accepted as one to cherish, comfortably situated at the top of the mountain. In the same breathe – any trial lawyer would readily recognize that if he/she was on the other end of an adverse verdict, such would be understandable – “Up, up in the air. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Michael J. Kennedy.” But I digress – Michael J. Kennedy was not my kryptonite and he is not the reason I muse. He is only an apt-discussion point, a contrast, explaining that sometimes our individual kryptonite is oft-times unexpected, unanticipated, and an unexplainable phenomenon.
* * *
John H. Crooker, III was a short man, let’s say – five feet at most. He was small, say, ninety pounds. His voice was a gravelling yell, he always yelled – maybe because he couldn’t hear a damn thing – at least he pretended not to hear. My research tells me he was the son of one the State Bar’s iconic members, John H. Crooker, Jr.; one could never tell by looking at Crooker, III. I have never met his dad, and unless he was the same size as his son, Crooker III was the runt of the litter. John Henry Crooker, III had no shame; he constantly played with his upper and lower bridge, moving it in and out of his mouth. If he wasn’t prepared he blamed you. If he hadn’t given you discovery, he still blamed you. Out of sheer frustrations, if you finally cornered him, he would throw his small hands up in the air, reach in his bag and pulled out the entire file out, including attorney-client privilege documents, and give it to you! “You copy”, would be his words as he turned and walked out. “I will be back in three days to get my file.”
He invaded my personal space when talking, moving much too close, spitting, actually spitting, looking up and into my mouth. He was prone to strange admissions, once asking me, his opponent, how to do something – a procedure – while pointing to the spot on the document he wanted me to sign, in the same case. My – “I am in a meeting” – also ignored. My – “You can leave the materials with the staff,” was also ignored. Strangely, every interaction nipped at my energy, my resistance.
Mr. Kryptonite moved in an oblivious manner, ignoring others’ astonishment, with crooked smile, raspy laugh, much too loose dentures, while conducting his business. The world was his oyster, a strange world at that. Staff members normally followed him after his unannounced appearances, telling him he needed to obtain an appointment. He met their statements with a request for something to drink, while sitting down to catch his breath, then talking about what he wanted to talk about, as if they were interrupting him, and not vice versa. I can’t tell you how old he was – just accept my adjective, “old.” I remember a smallish, old man, one prone to screaming and removing his hearing aid when he disagreed with you or when he didn’t want to hear what you had to say. While Ichabod Crane is a fictional character in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, first published in 1820, there was nothing fictional about this Ichabod. The character in the short story was tall, exceedingly lank with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs – my breathing and then-living character was short everywhere, while sharing the only one characteristic with the fictional Ichabod, exceedingly lank/thin everywhere. When told his behavior was inappropriate, he couldn’t/wouldn’t/refused to hear you, went back to adjusting his teeth, disgusting everyone within sight. Please don’t let this man take those things out and ask me to hold them.
His behavior transferred to the courtroom, fearlessly leaving his table, walking about the courtroom as if on a stroll, standing over your shoulder, prying, looking, picking up papers he had no business looking at, while the jurors laughed, the judges smiled – hell, even my clients were amused by his behavior (“Is he serious?” “This is an act right?”). His behavior worked to scatter slight bits of kryptonite throughout the courtroom sapping my remaining arrogance, stripping away any remaining belief that I could scale the highest building in a single bound. I can’t hit him, it would kill him. I scream too long, too loud, the jury might turn against me. I like others found myself turning to religion in those times of distress – “Help me Lord; Help me!!!
Let me make some admissions to make clear why I muse. Trial lawyers love predictability, meaning – what are the rules of the fight, what is admissible, how will the judge and jury react to our facts. Trial lawyers are control freaks, meaning – whether they will admit it or not, the fight seen in a courtroom is a fight over the message, control. Trial lawyers have egos, not an astonishing admission, but a necessary admission. The trial lawyer must have a sufficient sense-of-self which will allow him/her to take on matters others would consider suicidal, impossible. And most importantly, in the exercise of his/her craft, the trial lawyer possesses every possible personality disorder known to humankind (see Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Revision (DSM-5) – odd, bizarre, eccentric, paranoid, schizoid, dramatic, erratic, antisocial, histrionic, narcissistic, anxious, fearful, and obsessive compulsive. A bewildering mental dance, bordering on insanity, played out in a controlled environment (the courtroom), while fighting against the confines of a known and unknown world. This latter admission is something trial lawyers will never admit: I ain’t anymore – so I have.
I muse to say, all of us, have weaknesses – our kryptonites – matters which prevent each of us from becoming and/or retaining, inching closer to our optimum level, or even remaining at a superman/superwoman level. The persistent challenge of life is identifying our individual kryptonites. An uncontrolled, little mean man, who screamed much too much, while violating all the social and legal mores, pretending he couldn’t hear a word, while extending his hand, with saliva still in place (from playing with those damn dentures), was mine, my kryptonite. Help me Lord.
No, it wasn’t who he was, what he looked like, or how many times we tried cases against each other. He beat my Samson-sized-ass as if he was creating his own book of faith. Sling shot be damned, he didn’t need it. The griffin, as a mythical creature, king of all creatures – ha! The jurors I worked so hard in selecting, their mouths involuntarily flew open, while he adjusted his teeth. I watched as they spanned a range of emotions – laughter, sadness, pity – while looking, looking, looking, first in his direction, then the Judge’s, then mine, waiting for a reaction. He grabbed their attention by a vulgar display of unconventionality, and there was nothing I could do. Do something you say – oh, no, not me, I was grandparent imbued with respect your elders training – he looked like my elders, and I remained respectful, wedged to my seat as he whipped me as those elementary teachers did when I strayed. I dared not revisit that portion of my life. Paddle in hand, arms fully drawn back, back, way back, putting his entire weight into the swing, he did, yes, he did. He wandered and walked – as if dementia had touched him, audibly gurgling, followed by an uncontrolled “aw” coming from the jurors’ mouths – seeing their parents, grandparents, themselves – fighting against a black man on the other side of the courtroom. He grew bigger and bigger with every action – the pain from the paddle was unbearable, never was I to do wrong again, never to dare challenge his ways. I would have held his dentures in my bare hands, if he had asked, and then licked my hands if I could only escape the punishment being administered. I felt like I was growing blacker by the moment – Willie Horton black, O. J. Simpson black, southern lynch mob black – black, black – with Mr. Kryptonite sprinkled chunks of an unknown substance about the courtroom, … in my head.
* * *
With Michael Kennedy’s recent death, as with the death of people who have crossed our life-paths, visions of the roads previously travelled played out. While walking and reading, I admired Michael’s work, but strangely I didn’t see the face of Michael Kennedy. John Crooker, III, appeared instead, smiling with his wickedly crooked, now toothless smile, couple with an unhealthy laugh, choking, containing a painful wheeze – all done from his grave – asking, inquiring, imploring, poking – “Don’t you think you should have taken the offer to work for the mob years hence?” I guess you’re right, Mr. Crooker, I could have avoided those unpredicted whippings administered. But then again, Mr. Crooker, I guess not, others would have been deprived of the laughter and joy emitted because of the unexpected, unpredicted, inglorious beatings I took while I sat with my mouth agape, wondering, wondering, wondering, why me!
So I muse …