I was thinking tonight that at some point, I need to preserve in words my recent experience working for an attorney on a death row re-trial, as a coach, a writer, a consultant, and a courtroom analyst. I'll let you know right up front, that although there was a very valiant courtroom battle for this man's life, (this was the second time), we lost the case, and needless to say, when the stakes are that high, the loss was devastating. Not only did we lose the case, but the friend and attorney that I worked for had never lost a case, (all death row stakes cases) in the seventeen cases he had defended in his career. I will keep his name and the defendant's name out of the writing for now, until some time has passed and I can write about it with more objectivity.
I met my friend, (I'll call him William) at the hotel where I was working as a lounge singer, The Embassy Suites, which was where William was living during the trial. The Embassy Suites has rooms that are akin to apartments, and there are many people I have gotten to know over the past eight months working there-staying in an extended capacity. William started coming down at the happy hour each night as I was playing, and I noticed not only was he a great tipper, but he was meeting with various people, interesting people, most often with a guy named Jim, who I later came to know as a retired homicide detective who was working the case. When you are playing the lounge act, you have time to notice your customers, especially if they are there every night.
One night, after William had been sitting there knocking back whiskey and cokes for three nights in a row by himself, he approached me and started asking me questions.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"What do you mean?" I replied.
"I mean, what are you doing here?"
"Well, I'm singing," I said, sort of knowing what he meant.
"I know you're singing here, he said, but that's not all you do..."
"Oh, you mean, don't quit your day job?" I said.
"No, no, you do something else, what is it?"
I told him that I had done some acting, some teaching, and that I had a couple of crates of plays in my closet. After, I finished playing, I went over to his table and explained in a little more detail, what I did. And, just like that he said, "Do you want a job?" As he began to explain to me the nature of what I would be doing, I could feel the hair on my neck silk up, not out of nervousness, but because I knew that I could do this job. In fact, I thought it would be a dream job for me, not only did I understand criminals, but I understood these kind of lawyers. They are much like leading theatre actors, who play high stakes roles in a profession that has the same kind of risk. I mean, hell, I was working as a lounge singer...
William and I also had great chemistry right away, and as strange as it sounds, I think we had been on similar trajectories, both risking everything on a final outcome. So began my education of the case, the team, the scenario, all of it, from the murders and the first trial to the now second trial. He explained to me that he was an associate of Gerry Spence, the famous criminal lawyer, most notably of the Karen Silkwood case. Call it a stroke of luck, but it just so happened that I had read several of Spence's books, most notably, The Gunslinger. As our conversations turned into a couple of weeks, I found myself understanding and knowing just what to do. The first night I worked for money, was as exciting as any time I've had directing a play or singing in a show, and he was definitely up for the challenge.
Before I begin telling you about what we would come to call the, "Get in the truck, whore!" opening statement, let me explain a little more about my situation. Six months before, I had been living in a small travel trailer on a horse ranch, deep in the wilderness country of Southern Utah. I was making a very meager living as a singer in a band, Out on Bail, and I was starving, a little fatigued, and had fallen into some of my old habits of using whiskey and pain killers to aid an ailing metal hip on my right side that had already been recalled. Let's just say they had to put it in there because of a little too much zeal for life on my part, and it always hurt like hell. Honestly, I could smell trouble coming down the road like my Uncle Tom's diesel truck, and when it came, it came in a tsunami wave in a fool's misery. After a three day drinking binge, the trailer I was living in blew up from a propane leak with me deeply on the inside of it. Yep, it was trouble as serious as a Dostoievski novel, the only humor in the whole damn thing was that when it blew, I landed on the dog house of Baby, the little cow dog I picked up from a cowboy I knew the year before. Everything I owned or hoped to own was in that trailer, including a few thousand dollars worth of vintage cowboy clothing I had used in a touring show I had just finished around the Southwest. I was conscious for a little while after the explosion, just enough time to put on a pair of pajama bottoms I found strung out in the yard and turn off the other propane tank, (the one that didn't blow), and then I proceeded to lose my bearings, between the half a gallon of whiskey I still had coming out of my pours, and the smoke I had consumed, I passed out on the cool green grass thinking that I had finally bought that farm I always wanted.
The only thing I'll tell you about the one hundred and fifty mile ride to the hospital is that I don't remember much about it, and they told me that I had stopped breathing at one point, but they said they revived me. The two days in the hospital in Panguitch, Utah, was another blur of getting tests, crying, laughing, telling stories to my Aunt Ann and a cowboy named Matt Thorn, (who had stayed with me and bought me a pair of pants and a t-shirt with a fish on it), and then I remember the good old fashion delerium tremens I was having from coming off the bourbon.
Flash forward six months later, I'm in Phoenix, Arizona, living in a back bedroom of my brother's house in borrowed and thrift store clothing, playing music in a thai food restaurant, and finally in an Embassy Suites Hotel. Now, I've had some really great luck in my life, but the last seven years I was living in, the luck had gone Jesse Stone cold, and I was reading a lot of books about the universe, because I really thought I'd be going there soon. Although I am accustomed to the art of re-invention, and have done it all of my life, I found myself in one hell of a jayhawker's quandary, because mentally, I had to admit I was having a hard time recovering from the series of mishaps that had accompanied this period of raucous living. I was tired, couldn't focus on anything, and if it hadn't been for my friend Chuck, Michael, and a small clandestine group of life guerillas, I may have honestly ended up in the hospital for crazy cowboys gone crazier. I'm very fortunate to be here writing this story, but frankly? I'm fortunate to be anywhere.
See, this is the thing. There's that country song about a guy who finds out he has cancer and so he starts doing all those things he never got to do when he thought he had the rest of his life. When I heard that song, I wasn't exactly confused, but the idea of living everyday like it's your last is a dangerous proposition that most people will never understand. I can't say that I've lived everyday like it was my last, but there have been periods, even years, where this has been my mode of philosophy. But you see, the lines sometimes get blurred between what is living like it's your last day and believing that it really is. The people that say, "I'll sleep when I'm dead." are not the ones that really risk anything. It's the ones that just do it and don't talk about is so much, they are the dangerous ones, the ones without a speedometer in their cars or their brains. And, you get older, the energy it takes to bring the car to the track wanes, and you hopefully, get wiser, so you have to do it with song or a piece of writing. I don't exactly know why I am like this, but I do know that it's a hard thing to cure. And, its more than addiction, as many people have tried to tell me, its like Bob Dylan says, it's a transfiguration, a feeling that can only be understood by those who are also running from city to city with an unquenchable thirst. I don't exactly know why I am like this, but I do know that it's a hard thing to cure. In retrospect though, I have to say it has taken me into interesting places. And now, I was sitting inside a conference room at a hotel, writing a scene about a man who is taking his ex-wife and two kids out into the desert to kill them, and its going to be an opening statement in a murder trial, and somehow, I understand it perfectly. I was getting paid for my sins, no, I was getting paid for understanding sin, the worst kind, the kind that sends men to hell.
Sam pulls Rosie closer to him. He is walking her to the truck, and she is scared. In fact, she is more than scared, her breasts are trembling where he has pinched her, her body is shaking, as if she may have a convulsion, and her hair is coming out of the skin in her skull.
"Where are the kids?" She says, barely able to get out the words.
"The kids are in the truck."
Sam takes a 9 millimeter glock out of the waistband of his black wranglers. He squeezes her arm so hard it feels like his fingers are gouging holes in her arm. She stumbles forward, feeling like she now may pass out, but she thinks again of the kids.
"Now, get your ass in the truck, whore!" he says to her, not screaming, but whispering it, with pure intention, with perfect conviction.
He waits for her to get in, slams the door shut, puts the gun back in his waist band, looks around, and stares her down as he walks around the front of the truck, keeping his hand on the hood as he walks, as if he can reach right through the windshield if he wants too. He climbs in the driver's side.
"Why are you doing this, Sam?" She says, trying to show some courage and some resolve, trying to fool him.
"Today is the day," he says to her, smiling.
"What are you talking about, Sam?"
"I told you I was going to kill you— and today is that day." He says, starting the truck.
"Shut up!" he spits like a cobra.
"Sam, let the kids go, they have no part in this—" she says, bargaining.
"No, I’m not letting those kids out. You know why? I’m going to kill those kids so that you can watch them die." Sam says, and she knows he means it.
"How could you say something like that? Please let them out..." she lies.
"Shut up!! He says again. He turns to her, his face in the shadow of the moving truck.
"Then I’m going to kill you. And nobody will ever find you because I’m going to bury you in the middle of nowhere."
"Please stop, please, Sam," now she is pleading.
"If they do find you, they will never know who you are," he calmly says.
"You know why? he says. "I am going to cover your dead bodies with acid."
She begins to weep, softly, like she is on a cliff at the edge of the ocean, she has cried this way everyday for three years, and now they are going to the ocean, and she doesn't know if this time she will come home.
And this is the scene I write, and this is the scene we begin to rehearse, and this will be the opening sequence of the very first thing he says to the jury. We set up two chairs. The reporters pull out their legal pads. The defense begins. William will try to prove that this is the real killer. The journalists start writing on their legal pads, and elements of this scene will appear in the paper the very next day.
(To be continued.)