Byron Douglas never forgot his last jury trial in New York City, not because he won, but because it forced him to become dead by proxy.
It started in the grand wood-walled and portrait-adorned federal courtroom, with Byron’s client, Killian Tyrone, on trial for murder and RICO charges. The Feds were sure that Tyrone had violated several sections of the act in conjunction with the murder of one Morgan Allen White in his own home.
Voir dire went well, Byron was always good before a jury, especially when the members of the box had not yet gotten to know his client. That would change. Killian Tyrone was not a likable fellow, and the charming, well versed, and talented Byron could only go so far before the jury could see through to the rat-bastard he was representing and surmise the truth. Guilty of something, if not the crime at hand. And, surely lying.
In defending Tyrone, Byron knew he had to be especially charming and likable, not hard for the six-foot three-inch, lean barrister with sparkling blue eyes, thick dark hair, and engaging smile. He moved gracefully from one candidate to the next during the preliminary examination of the jury.
“Do you believe that you can be a fair, impartial, and objective juror in this case?” The answer was always yes and, as doubtful as it was for every person in the jury pool to be totally objective, Byron looked as if he believed and trusted the word of each one. “Thank you.”
Byron knew that most criminal attorneys assume their clients are not innocent and it’s their job to get them off and obtain a not guilty verdict. Byron didn’t see it exactly that way. He assumed that the client was probably guilty, but he put himself in the shoes of the jury and said to his inner judge, “Prove it.” Byron believed ‘innocent until proven guilty’ was one of the founding tenets of criminal trial law and one that he embraced fully. If he could provide any explanation or alternative for his client to be innocent, he fought like hell for that position.
Byron’s view of being a trial lawyer harkened back to the days and ways of fictional Atticus Finch, real life Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and historical Oliver Wendell Holmes. He had been a disciple of justice ever since his mentor in law school had inspired him with the culture of the judicial system. Byron saw the law as did legal historian, F.W. Maitland. He often quoted him, “The law is a seamless web.” Byron loved the intricacies of the history, tradition, and patriotism attached to the legal process and the way it crisscrossed into every area of the world.
Byron was not jaded or trapped into being an attorney as many he knew were, and he was not in it for the money, although that part was nice. And, he was not naive, as he was aware of severe injustices in the criminal justice system and felt improvement was needed. Byron continued to be on the playing field because he was one of the last true believers. The system was the best available right now, and he actually trusted the outcome, most of the time.
Having deceased parents, one semi-estranged sibling in California, and no current plans to marry, Byron embraced the law as his mistress and his life. He simply loved it all. As most careers went, loving it meant he was devoted to it and good at it. He never glossed over a precedent or twisted a legal argument beyond its parameters. He was thrilled every time he set foot in a courtroom to do battle for his client, guilty or innocent.
Across the aisle, the prosecutor, Sebastian Roberts, relished this chance to incarcerate another criminal. Roberts moved his short spark-plug-of-a-body, decorated with a vest and bright paisley bow tie, around the courtroom as he laid out the federal government’s view of the case. He looked at Byron and his client, then back to the twelve chosen members of the jury.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I promise that I will prove in this trial that Killian Tyrone not only murdered Morgan Allen White, he did so as a part of a RICO conspiracy, involving gangster activity as defined in 18 USC Section 1961. While the Irish mob and crime boss, Tua Dannon, are not on trial here, Killian Tyrone’s connection to them and his work at their behest is an integral part of this case. And, while our case is circumstantial, as we have no witness who actually saw Mr. Tyrone pull the trigger, we will show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there is no other logical conclusion, featuring the facts, other than his guilt. Simply put, we, the prosecution, allege that Tyrone killed Mr. White, that he did so at the behest of Tua Dannon, head of the Irish mob, and we’ll prove it.”
Byron organized his thoughts, felt excitement tingle through his fingers and toes, and stood up at the defense table. In defending Killian Tyrone, Byron’s opening argument went something like this: “Your Honor and members of the jury. Today, I’d like to introduce you to my client, Killian Tyrone, the accused in this case. Now, I know what the prosecutor said about what he did, and that is probably swirling around in your brain right now, but I’d like for you to take a step back and listen to both sides of the story before you make a decision about my client’s behavior, guilt, or innocence. You also heard his inference about defense attorneys, that would be me.” He smiled and the jury laughed. “I’ll leave it to you to decide, but I have no intention of tricking you or trying to hide the ball.”
Byron pointed at his co-counsel, Michael, a shorter, younger version of himself, but with brown eyes. “My colleague, Michael Everett, and I will present Mr. Tyrone’s side of the case and, when we’re finished, I’m certain that you will find him not guilty.”
Byron smiled at the jury and took pride in the fact that when he won, he won fair and square, and he instilled these principles in his protégé, Michael. Byron encouraged Michael not to be blinded by the legal system, nor be immune to the tricks of the trade. Byron used the tools expertly, but he wanted to win with an equal playing field, or not at all, and the law allowed for plenty of ways to win. To Byron, what was the point if cheating was involved? That only proved he was the best cheater, not the best lawyer.
Byron moved past the bench to stand directly in front of the jury box. “Judge Linton has instructed that each of you keep an open mind until all the evidence is presented, and during voir dire I asked you to do the same. I’m asking you again now. Listen fully and then decide.”
The jury seemed to pay close attention to what Byron was saying, but their eyes were on Tyrone who was sweating under his dress shirt.
As Byron returned to the defense table, he winked at Michael, who smiled. The two litigators, who weren’t far apart in age, had clicked when they were introduced on Michael’s first day at the firm and had grown closer as they worked together, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences and often coming up with the same legal strategy independent of each other. The two men had planned their courtroom strategy in defending their client, so both knew what was coming.
Byron stood behind Tyrone and put his hand on the man’s broad shoulder. “My client did not grow up with advantages and may have the demeanor of someone you might not befriend. Hell, he’s not my friend, either, but I have not walked in his shoes and neither have you. Here in New York, he encountered some unsavory characters when he was just a lad. You may have heard or read about the origins of the Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen, and you may think that the same mob is still alive and active today, but all that is the stuff of movies and novels. I won’t deny that there remain criminal networks around the world, but the modern-day mob is nothing like that of the stories you’ve read and heard. The mob today consists of businessmen in suits and ties, going to work in offices, and flying around the world on airplanes. My client is far down the pecking order of this organization in today’s times, and he has no power or control over what they do. Nor is he controlled by their decision making.”
Juror number three fidgeted in his seat. Byron made a mental note to have Michael look at the juror’s history and try to discern why he was so uncomfortable.
Byron took a few steps closer to the jury box. “My client deserves a fair trial with a full understanding by you, the jury, of how things work in his world and what he could and could not do to promote criminal enterprise under RICO. The elements that must be proved by the prosecutor are specific. I think you’ll see at the end of this trial that the burden of proof has not been met, and you’ll find my client, Killian Tyrone, not guilty of any RICO activity. He’s just a muck who happens to know some guys. Whether they’re in the mob or not is none of his business, or ours here today.
“Next, as the prosecutor said, with regard to the second element of the charges, the murder of the deceased, this is a circumstantial case. There is no smoking gun, no witness who saw my client shoot the deceased, no CCTV footage placing him at the deceased’s home.”
A female member in the gallery yelled out, “His name is Morgan Allen White, not the deceased.”
Just as the judge raised his gavel, Byron turned and looked at the grieving widow of Mr. White. Then, he turned back to the jury. “She’s correct. Mr. White deserves our respect, and his family deserves our sympathy, but that cannot affect the verdict in this case. We must give Killian Tyrone the full benefit of the doubt. I plan to show you that he is not a murderer. He is not a mobster. He is an unlikable, and unfortunate, man who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the police grabbed him up on suspicion of association, without searching for the actual killer. Mr. White deserves better than lazy police. He, and his widow, deserve to know the truth.”
During the lunch break, Byron and Michael braved the cold, took a short walk from the courthouse toward the World Trade Center Memorial, and found a seat at the Stage Door Delicatessen, an iconic lunch spot decorated with New York memorabilia and crammed with rows of wooden tables. They ordered up a pastrami on rye for Byron and a corned beef on sourdough for Michael – both with spicy mustard. They read each other’s minds, each expressing the desire for a beer, but refrained because of the trial, and ordered sodas.
While they waited, they took a look at the big-screen TVs hanging on the walls at each end of the room where ESPN was showing the latest March Madness scores.
“Looks like your Longhorns beat Gonzaga.”
“Hey, sure does.” Byron put up his fingers in the form of a horned steer. “Hook ‘Em.”
“You can take the boy out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the boy.”
Byron laughed. “Actually, you can. Since my mother’s gone, I have no reason to go there ever again.”
Michael looked sympathetic.
The men had three things in common besides the law. First, both came from humble beginnings. Byron’s mother worked as a maid in a hotel in Houston and brought home whatever was left in the rooms to stretch the budget and make ends meet. Byron had not seen a full roll of toilet paper in his home until he went to college. He often ate whatever packaged goods were abandoned by hotel guests, although he wasn’t aware of that until he turned about eleven or twelve. For his mother’s sake, as he grew older, he pretended that he didn’t know, even to the day she died. Michael’s mother was a domestic servant in Buffalo, New York, cooking for, cleaning up after, and taking care of other people’s homes and children, until she developed Alzheimer’s and had to have constant care.
Secondly, and maybe most importantly, both had absent fathers. To repay their mothers for their many sacrifices, both Byron and Michael had supported them in their later years, buying homes and providing living allowances until Byron’s mother died in Houston, and Michael’s went into a nursing home in the Bronx, where she still resided. Although Michael visited regularly, most days she didn’t know who he was.
Last of all, they shared the love of pimento cheese, a leftover from the south for Byron and a recent discovery by Michael at the insistence of his mentor. To the disgust of Byron’s girlfriend and Michael’s wife, they lunched frequently on southern pâté, the orange and red mayonnaise concoction, wherever they could find it.
When the food arrived, Byron tucked a napkin into his collar, took a big bite of the fatty pastrami, and talked with his mouth half full. “Did you notice Roberts almost spilled the beans about White’s three-year-old son being in the house?”
“Yep. That would have been a mistrial for sure. Judge Linton was very clear that the information about the son was to be excluded.”
“I don’t think he wants a mistrial any more than we do. Besides, there’s no way to know if the kid saw something or slept through the whole thing. A three-year-old can’t testify.”
“Lucky for Tyrone, is my guess.”
Byron snapped off the end of his pickle between his front teeth and crunched on it. “Right. How do you think the opening went?”
“The jury clearly likes you, hates Tyrone, and is giving the prosecution the benefit of the doubt. Juror number three is just a natural fidgeter, I think. I couldn’t find anything unusual about his history. They understandably feel sorry for Mrs. White.”
Byron chewed thoughtfully.
“Oh, and they love me.”
Both men chuckled.
“Yeah. I agree. I’m going to have to make old Prosecutor Roberts look like he’s being dishonest.”
Michael took a long pull on his soda straw. “Right, or at least manipulative, without looking manipulative yourself.”
Byron grunted and chewed, then put down his sandwich and rubbed his chin. “I need to discredit their first witness right out of the gate.”
“How are you going to do that?”