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The Defense Needs to Rest
December 27, 2013
Fiction by Beth Duke

A phone call at nine o’clock on Monday morning was the first pebble of Reuben Miller’s career avalanche.
 
Reuben, a 59-year-old gentle giant at six-foot three and 290 pounds, had just finished his third glazed doughnut and turned to grab his suit jacket for a hectic day in court.
 
Reuben loved his work. He was dedicated to defending the innocent, and the ones he tried to convince himself were, too. In the corner of his office stood a huge glass jar Carol had purchased early in their marriage. She’d found thousands of colorful glass marbles on clearance at a hobby shop, instructing Reuben to add one to the jar for each acquittal. Thirty years later, he smiled at the glittering greens, blues, reds, golds and oranges. On bad days he imagined convictions as balloons released from his small corner window, helium and regret rising into the sky.
 
He’d represented an array of minor drug mules, addicts, prostitutes, accused murderers, drunk drivers, wife beaters and shoplifters over the years in the Harris County Public Defender’s Office. One of them had escaped jail at dawn; he’d had second thoughts and tried to turn himself back in, only to be refused re-admittance. The staff knew of no escape and thought he was a kook. Now the sheriff’s office was on his phone, asking if he knew Jerry Tutwiler’s whereabouts.
 
“I haven’t heard from him,” he said. “How in the world could they refuse to let him back in?”
 
“I don’t get it either,” Deputy Eames replied. “New guards at the jail. A mix-up. Heads are already rolling toward the fence.”
 
He hung up and searched his memory: Jerry Tutwiler had been convicted of possession of methamphetamine. He was a tall, pimply kid who’d played star forward on the high school basketball team, one in a long line of 20-year-olds he’d seen morph into toothless old people in a year’s time. Jerry had a girlfriend who’d once planned to marry him. Reuben would call the sheriff’s office during a recess and tell them her name if he could conjure it.
 
He sank back into his vinyl desk chair, rubbed his temples and pondered the situation. He was going to be late for court.
 
His first client scheduled for trial was a college student who’d been partying with friends at a local bar. He admitted to Reuben he’d had five or six beers, then began to dance with a disabled young woman in a wheelchair. According to Rory Dean, she’d appeared to enjoy every moment.
 
So Rory had improvised a sort of “lap dance” involving physical contact. “She was really into it,” he’d sworn to Reuben.
 
Rory found himself charged with “indecent assault and battery” a few days later. If convicted, the word “indecent” meant he’d have to register as a sex offender.
 
“She wanted me to go back to her apartment. I got her number and never texted her because I didn’t want to hook up. She’s punishing me,” he said. Today, Reuben would argue for him against the ADA, an old adversary named Sarah Willingham. She made every court appearance look like an audition for a Fox News commentator slot. Sarah was not known for lenience in any matter involving drinking and sex.
 
Reuben knew she relished this case for its publicity and was itching to triumphantly address a bank of microphones.
 
Rory was waiting in the courtroom wearing the sport coat and khakis prescribed for his appearance. He’d shaved his beard — Reuben had advised it looked like pubic hair — and Reuben noted a fresh haircut with satisfaction. Rory’s parents sat behind him in the gallery, his mother dabbing her eyes delicately with a handkerchief. She spotted Reuben and jumped up. He experienced the morning’s doughnuts revisiting and dug his pocket for an antacid.
 
“Will you please put an end to this?” she hissed at him. Reuben felt like reminding her they were on the same side; possibly detailing the last three late nights of pizza and bad Chinese takeout at his desk he’d dedicated to Rory’s fragile case.
 
“My son would never be a part of any kind of sexual assault. Please, Mr. Miller, we’re counting on you to clear Rory’s name. He’s done nothing wrong. His entire future is at stake. The bail money has broken us. We have nowhere to turn ...”
 
Reuben held up a stop hand. “I’ll do my best, Mrs. Dean.” He nodded to Sarah across the room. She ignored him and returned to her paperwork. The young lady sat slumped beside her in the wheelchair, staring at her lap.
 
Sarah summarized the charges against his client, portraying him as a drunken frat boy preying on the innocent disabled Caitlin Andrews. Reuben made his pitch that the dancing was done with the consent of the alleged victim, who’d admitted to having three margaritas before meeting Rory.
 
Caitlin began to sob loudly. Judge Reynolds issued a few taps of his gavel.
 
“Order! Do we need to recess, Miss Willingham?” he asked gently.
 
In the ensuing quiet the courtroom doors burst open and a clearly tweaking, high and terrified Jerry Tutwiler ran to grab Reuben by the shoulders, shaking him and screaming, “You have to explain to them! I tried to go back!”
 
Two bailiffs responded immediately with guns drawn. Jerry positioned himself behind Reuben with a forearm against his trachea.
 
“I’ll kill him. I swear it.”
 
He extracted a toothbrush shiv from his pocket and held it to Reuben’s carotid artery. His eyes darted frantically around the room; a cornered, desperate, wounded animal.
 
Reuben Miller could not breathe. He felt someone park a Buick on his chest. His legs lost feeling altogether, and a surprised Jerry had to support far more weight than he’d planned. Within ten seconds Reuben was crumpled on the floor at eye level with a syringe tucked into Jerry’s dirty white sock.
 
Judge Reynolds had ceased to bang his gavel and taken shelter in his chambers. Assorted lawyers and clients, Rory and his parents, spectators, Sarah and the wheelchair girl gathered around him. He was dimly aware of a bailiff administering CPR, frantically pumping Reuben’s useless heart. He saw Jerry led away in handcuffs, still trying to flail himself free. He heard Caitlin tell Rory she was sorry as she wheeled herself away. “I’m dropping the charges,” she said. “I won’t testify.”
 
He woke in a hospital bed, blinking at Carol’s lined face. Reuben struggled to smile. The woman he’d been married to for thirty-three years said, “You had a double bypass. The doctor says you have to fight to get stronger, Reuben. How do you feel?”
 
“Defenseless,” he whispered with a groan.
 
“You always were witty.” She stroked the hair from his forehead. “A career move to stand-up comedy would be perfect as soon as you can actually get vertical.”
 
Carol stood and opened the heavy curtains, allowing him a view of city lights. “I love you, Reuben. The kids are on the way. You’ll be out of here in a week or so.”
 
“I love you too, honey. Please get my cell and briefcase.”
 
“Your cases have been re-assigned, Reuben. No work for at least two months — doctor’s orders. The truth is,” she said, easing herself onto his bed, “he thinks you should retire.”
 
Reuben blinked. He couldn’t imagine a day without ten cases to juggle; without a drunk accused of riding a lawnmower through a fast-food drive-through, a teenager accidentally carrying a hundred dollars’ worth of hair extensions out of the mall, a man using neighborhood pets as food supply for his boa constrictor, a husband applying gynecological super glue to cure his wife’s infidelity. He allowed his eyes to close.
 
“The defense needs to rest,” he said.
 
Beth Duke is a free lance writer who is a repeat contributor to Longleaf’s fiction section. She is the author of “Delaney’s People”and  “Don’t Shoot Your Mule."
 
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