The old, two-story Spanish-style house sat back away from the street, nestled behind lush tropical foliage and towering palms. Halloween decorations dotted a manicured lawn, where a six-foot, hooded Grim Reaper waited menacingly to scare trick-or-treaters from a flowerbed filled with impatiens. Homemade ghosts with Magic-Markered black eyes dangled from the branches of an oak, twisting in the gusty breeze that had come in overnight, courtesy of an early-season cold front. In the moonlight they glowed an odd, bright white. Somewhere up the block a dog barked as night yawned toward morning.
The short whoop of a police siren broke the sleepy quiet as the car turned onto Sorolla Avenue from Grenada. Rookie Coral Gables PO Pete Colonna ignored the long cobblestone driveway and pulled the cruiser over at the curb. Stepping out of the car, he surveyed the house for a moment and then made his way up the winding brick walkway to the front door. When he spotted the abandoned tricycle with silver racing stripes, he moved a little faster. He rang the bell and pounded on an impressive mahogany front door. Obviously a bigmoney house, he thought as he knocked. He could hear the loud chimes inside, but no one answered.
“8362, Gables,” Pete said into his shoulder mike.
“Go ahead, 8362.”
“10-97 at 9-8-5 Sorolla. There’s no response.”
“Stand by, 8362.” After a moment the dispatcher with the Coral Gables PD came back on. “BellSouth’s checked the line. It’s open, but there’s no convo. They’re not getting an answer.”
“I don’t hear any ringing inside,” Pete said, putting his head close to the door. “I’m not hearing nothing in there.”
The voice of his sergeant crackled to life on the radio pack. “8362, this is 998. Go to channel 2.”
Channel 2 was the talk-around channel, where you could speak without going through dispatch. Pete switched over. “G’ahead, Sarge.”
“What’ve ya got?” asked his sergeant, Ralph Demos.
“I’m checking the residence,” Pete said as he moved off the porch and about the front yard, parting the elephant ears and traveling palms that hid too many French windows from sight. “There’s no evidence of a break-in that I can see, nothing broken, but...” He hesitated.
“Something don’t feel right, Sarge.”
“What was the call?”
“Burglary in progress.”
There was a pause. “All right. Trust your gut. I’ll come now, then.”
“I’m gonna take the door.”
“The hell you are. Stand down. Wait for me,” his sergeant said sternly.
Pete looked through shrubbery that hid a black iron fence and back gate. Forgotten toys drifted lazily across a still pool. A wooden swing set the size of a small house sat on a patch of perfect grass. “Kids live here,” he said. Pete’s wife was pregnant with twins. In just a few weeks he’d have two little ones of his own.
“Wait for me. Don’t go in there alone, Colonna. You may find a confused homeowner with a shotgun in hand who didn’t hear the doorbell. 10-23 for backup. I’m there in five.”
Pete clicked back over to dispatch. His sergeant’s voice radioed in. “998 is 10-51 to 8362’s location from UM.” UM was the University of Miami. The campus was only a few miles away.
Pete checked the rest of the ground-floor windows and the backyard sliding glass doors before walking back around to the front of the house. Next to the tricycle he spotted a spilled tub of sidewalk chalk. The black night sky had begun to warm to periwinkle, and the birds hidden in the oak tree started to wake up and chirp in the soft darkness. He tried the front door again. Still no answer. A cold, anxious feeling spread through his bones as he waited on the porch.
It seemed like a lifetime, and definitely more than five minutes, before he saw the squad car pull down the street and park at the curb. Sergeant Demos was a large man, and with just weeks to go before his retirement party, things moved at a slower pace for him, both physically and mentally. It was another minute before the car door finally opened.
“Still nothing, Colonna?” Ralph asked with a huff as he lumbered up the walk.
“Nah, Sarge. No sign of life.”
“It was a hang-up, right?”
Pete nodded. “Dispatch said it sounded maybe like a kid.”
“Yeah, yeah. Could be a prank,” Ralph said, scratching his head as he looked up at the dark windows on the second floor. “Great. Everyone’s in bed except for Junior. Kid’s sweating it out right now, watching us from behind Bugs Bunny curtains.”
“Line’s alive, but no ringing. No one’s answering the door. I got a feeling, Sarge.”
“You and your feelings. I got a feeling you’re looking for some OT, pay down the college fund for those new babies you got coming.” The sergeant used his baton to bang on the door. “Police! Anybody home?” After a moment he looked at Pete again. “Any history on the house?”
“Homesteaded to a Dr. and Mrs. David Marquette. Dispatch didn’t say nothing about a history, and I know I ain’t been here before,” Pete said, looking around at the stately homes that lined the block.
“Don’t let the address fool you, Junior. OJ lived in Beverly Hills.”
“Actually, I think it was Brentwood.”
“Same damn difference. The point I was trying to make was domestics happen everywhere. You’d do good to remember that.” Ralph sighed. “A little kid? All right. Minimal damage. Take the pane. The city’s paying for it, so don’t go Rambo.”
Using his flashlight, Pete broke out one pane of the frosted etched glass that framed the front door, reached in, and unlocked the lock. If it was a kid messing around, he was probably shitting his drawers right about now.
“Police! Everyone okay in here?” Pete yelled into the dark house. He pulled his Glock and stepped inside, his sergeant breathing like a porn star behind him. Shards of glass from the windowpane crunched under his feet. He shone his flashlight into the room. Twenty-foot ceilings loomed over an elegant living room. A staircase zigzagged alongside a wall, and an ornate iron railing stretched across an overhead balcony. Past the balcony and down the upstairs hallway Pete could see a light. “Police!” he yelled.
They moved quickly through the first-floor rooms. Laundry sat piled on a washing machine, and toys cluttered the family room. In the kitchen, cleaned baby bottles were lined up neatly next to the sink on paper towels.
Pete stared at the bottles. The house was too quiet. Someone should be up by now. Either they had the wrong house and no one was home, or...
Pete ran for the stairs, taking them two at a time. Behind him he could hear the labored breathing of his sergeant as he tried to keep up, the jingle of the cumbersome equipment belt under the sarge’s belly, the heavy click of his heels on the stone steps.
Dull yellow light spilled softly onto the landing from a back room whose door was partly closed. A nightlight? Family pictures smiled at him from every angle. All the other hall doors were shut tight.
“Anything?” called Ralph, still on the stairs.
Pete moved slowly toward the open door, snaking his way along the wall. Pieces of the room slowly came into view. Butterflies dancing across a purple wall. A Hello Kitty mirror. The edge of a Disney princess comforter. “Kid’s room,” he called out.
“What the fuck did you step in?” Ralph asked suddenly.
Pete turned around. He shone his flashlight where he’d just walked. Dark smears that looked like footprints followed him down the carpeted hall. He slowly spun and looked at the floor in front of him. Small red puddles with the sheen of fresh paint stained the mint-green hall carpet. But Pete knew it wasn’t paint he was staring at. He moved his flashlight about. Tiny red droplets had splattered up onto the white baseboard and crayon-yellow walls.
“Jesus Christ!” Ralph exclaimed. The sergeant stumbled back, his large body hitting the wall with a thump.
Pete wanted to stop. He didn’t want to see any more. A sick feeling churned his stomach and sweat dribbled from his upper lip, for instinctively he knew that what he was about to witness was something he would probably spend the rest of his life trying to forget. He took a deep breath and pressed his head against the wall, his firearm out before him at the ready. His hands shook, and he thought of his wife, Victoria, and the two perfect, innocent babies he had not yet met. From the sonogram he knew they were both girls. “Police!” he shouted again, struggling to hide the tremble in his voice.
Then he entered the room and completely fell apart.
“State v. Guarino. Is the State ready for trial?” Miami Criminal Circuit Court Judge Leonard Farley asked in a disinterested monotone as he stirred cream into his coffee. He surveyed his jam-packed kingdom with a smirk from atop a majestic wooden throne.
The courtroom buzzed with the hushed whispers of prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses, victims, cops, corrections officers, and defendants, all of whom were ignoring the many posted signs that prohibited talking, cell phones, and kids. Sudden bursts of frenetic hall noise would break in as the doors opened and closed and attorneys flitted from courtroom to courtroom to handle their Monday morning cases. Most had several defendants before several judges in several courtrooms, which meant they were going to be late for nine A.M. calendar somewhere, but no one dared be late for Judge Farley, so everyone came first to 4-10 --- otherwise known around the Richard E. Gerstein Criminal Justice Building as Siberia.
Assistant State Attorney Julia Vacanti stood at the State’s podium, an eighty-six-page calendar before her, four boxes of “B” felony cases stacked by her Steve Madden sling-backs, and a long line of irritated, toe-tapping prosecutors behind her, waiting to call up their cases out of turn. An even longer line snaked its way behind the defense podium. It was the B trial week, so most of the cases on calendar were hers, and almost all were set for trial. Sixty-three, to be exact. She tucked a piece of long, dark hair that had strayed from its clip back behind her ear and stared in disbelief at the State v. Guarino Victim/ Witness Availability sheet in her hand. Scribbled across the front in her secretary, Melba’s, barely legible psycho scratch was: Victim Johnson MIA --- WON’T COME IN NOW!! Words that Julia knew had not been there Friday night when she’d prepped the calendar. Right below them Melba had scrawled a big smiley face.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Julia hesitated for a moment, thumbing through the rest of the red case file even though she knew there was nothing in there that was going to save the day. The victim on her domestic aggravated battery had just gone AWOL, and the judge was about to pitch a fit --- the fiery focus of which was sure to be directed at her, as it always was. Damn, she hated Mondays. “No, Your Honor,” she responded slowly, mentally bracing herself for what was coming while trying hard not to actually wince. “I don’t think I’m going to be ready for trial after all.”
Each of the county’s twenty felony division judges had three Assistant State Attorneys and three public defenders assigned permanently to their courtrooms. “A” prosecutors and PDs worked the more serious first-degree felonies; “B”s, second-degrees; and “C”s, third-degrees, like simple burglaries and grand thefts. A Division Chief for each side supervised the letters and worked “no-name” homicides --- murders that didn’t grab headlines or get snatched up by specialized units like Narcotics or Career Criminal. It was the pit prosecutors, as attorneys in division were known, who handled most of Miami’s forty thousand–plus felony arrests each year. In an office of 240 lawyers, it was just the luck of the draw whose pit you were assigned to as you moved your way up the ranks from misdemeanors and traffic in County Court to Juvie to Felony Division and then, hopefully, one day to a cushy spot in a specialized unit. After almost three years climbing the SAO ladder of success, Julia’s luck had finally run out. For the past four months, she’d been assigned to Siberia as the B with no transfer in sight.
The judge sighed loudly into the microphone. A squawk of feedback silenced the courtroom chatter. His wiry, coal-black Einstein eyebrows collapsed into a V, and he leaned his whole body on the bench so that he was practically towering over the podiums below. “But you announced ready on this last week, Ms. Vacanti.”
“And I was ready, Your Honor. Last week.”
Julia cleared her throat. “My victim is apparently no longer available.”
“Aah,” said the judge, flopping back into his chair and tapping a finger to his leathered temple, as if he’d just invented the lightbulb, “you mean she doesn’t want to come in.” He looked over at the jury box, where the defendant, Alonzo Guarino, stood in his orange jail jumpsuit, shackled and cuffed next to the other inmates. Sporting at least 250 pounds on his six-foot-two-inch frame, the man was hard to miss even without the citrus-hued prison garb. Colorful tattoo sleeves covered muscular forearms; a cobra ran up his neck and onto his cheek. “Misses her man, does she?” teased the judge. “Needs a little help with the rent, maybe?”
The courtroom tittered. The defendant smiled, revealing a mouthful of shiny gold teeth.
Julia could feel her blood begin to boil. Judge Leonard Farley was a jerk, but unfortunately he was a jerk with a lot of power. After spending his first five years on the bench terrorizing the dead in Probate, he’d spent the next ten smartly schmoozing the big-money attorneys in Civil --- the boys who, for the right rulings, kept him in the black robes he was accustomed to. He’d stayed relatively harmless messing with people’s money until last year, when the voters of the county had screamed enough and elected his opponent, a young Cuban female half his age. A fitting end to the tyranny of a sexist pig, Julia thought. But like a sick twist in a Stephen King novel, the morning after Election Day the chief judge --- who was also conveniently married to Farley’s sister --- had appointed him back to the bench permanently as a retired sitting circuit court judge and dispatched him to the criminal courthouse. Now the man couldn’t even be voted off the bench. Since he was completely ignorant about criminal law but arrogant enough to think he wasn’t, every day became a battle. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to have her personally subpoenaed, Your Honor,” Julia finished.
“That should’ve been done already,” the judge said, grabbing his stamp and waving it ceremoniously above his head. “I’m dismissing.”
“What?” Julia shouted. “Your Honor, you set Guarino as number twelve for trial today! I’m ready to go on any of the other eleven. If we can just reset---”
“You announced ready. You’re either ready or you’re not, State.”
“I’ve never even asked for a continuance before! She’s a domestic violence victim, Judge!”
“She’s an absentee victim is what she is, sweetheart. And I don’t have time to coddle her. As you correctly pointed out, we’ve got a number of other cases to get to.”
The PD smiled at the defense podium.
All the crowd needed was popcorn. The room turned its attention back to her. She stood there, her face probably glowing, staring at the case file and trying hard to think through the pregnant silence. She could do what every other attorney in the division, including her own Division Chief, always did, which was nothing. Lodge a quiet objection for the record, let the judge dismiss, and dump the whole thing on Legal. Let them appeal the old geezer, which, without a victim, probably wouldn’t happen anyway. Or just send it back to Domestics. The sad truth was, the judge was probably right. With Alonzo in the can for two months, Pamela Johnson was most likely out of money and needed him to hurry back home with some bacon so she could feed either her kids or her habit. But the problem was, Julia wasn’t everybody else. And as her Uncle Jimmy had once told her, the right path wasn’t always the easy one. Her jaw clenched. “Then the State’s ready for trial,” she announced.
“Did I just hear you right?” asked the judge, sitting up straight. “No victim, and you’re telling me you’re going forward?”
“Judge, Mr. Guarino’s a career criminal. He’s got priors for resisting, aggravated battery, and aggravated assault with a firearm, not to mention three arrests in the past for domestic battery. He attacked his girlfriend with a razor blade because she looked at the produce man in Winn-Dixie. His pregnant girlfriend, I might add. It took sixty-two stitches to sew her face back together.”
“And now she doesn’t think it’s important enough to come in.”
“If Your Honor refuses to grant the State a continuance, rather than see this case dismissed, I have no choice but to go forward without her.”
“And just how’re you going to do that, State?” The judge was more than mad. He was furious. Domestic violence was a prickly topic. It was not good press for him to look this insensitive. Or stupid.
She swallowed. “I don’t need the victim, Your Honor.”
“That’s a first for me, Ms. Vacanti. Didn’t they teach you corpus delicti back in law school last year? The body of your crime doesn’t want to come in.”
She ignored the cheap age zing. The first two months in division she’d spent fighting off his thinly veiled advances; she’d take the barbs anytime. “Witnesses can testify about her injuries.”
“Who’s gonna tell me how she got them? Did anyone see her getting attacked?”
“Her statements to the police---”
“Are hearsay,” added the PD.
“Are admissible as an excited utterance,” she finished.
In the law, people were thought to be much more honest than usual when acting under the stress of certain situations. Excited utterance, as it was known, was a recognized exception to the hearsay rule, which generally prohibited the in-court use of any statement made out of court. Being sliced to ribbons by a tattooed maniac with a razor blade qualified as a stressful event, Julia thought. Maybe it was a stretch to try a case with no victim and just a hearsay exception, but the hell she was gonna let the SOB high-five it out of here while the judge yelled good-bye to him in her face.
“Don’t play coy with me, Ms. Vacanti. I won’t indulge moot-court trial antics in this courtroom,” Farley bellowed. “You damn well better be ready to pick a jury.”
“I am, Your Honor.”
The judge glared at her. “You want a trial? Nine tomorrow. I’ll see you back here.” The PD opened his mouth, but the judge waved him off. “Don’t bother, Mr. Venema. Ms. Vacanti says we’re ready even without a victim, so we’re ready. Ivonne,” he turned to the court clerk, “set over the rest of Ms. Vacanti’s trials to print on Wednesday’s calendar. Guarino won’t take us long at all.” He spun his chair back in Julia’s direction. “If you waste my time with this, Ms. Vacanti, you’ll have more to worry about than double jeopardy. I strongly suggest you get on your knees, and when you’re done praying, start scouring every damn inch of every damn women’s shelter or crack house or whorehouse in this town, for all I care, and find out where it is your victim is hiding out and get her the hell in here so she can tell me what happened. Or Mr. Guarino’s going home. And I’m pretty sure that when he does, he’ll be able to find her.”
Julia stepped back from the podium and gathered her boxes as the ASA behind her called up his case. Her blood was racing so hard that she could hear it pound in her ears. She felt the eyes of her colleagues upon her as she packed up her cart. All she wanted was to get out of the courtroom and scream.
“Don’t let him push your buttons,” her Division Chief cautioned in a low voice as she moved to help Julia load her files.
Julia took a deep breath to prevent herself from saying something she knew she’d later regret. Her DC never pushed anyone’s buttons. Farley probably thought Karyn Simms --- pretty, busty, blond, and completely nonconfrontational --- the ideal woman but for the fact that she occasionally opened her mouth and said something.
“He’s not going to change, Julia. And you’re not going to change him. But from the shade of red you made his tan turn, he just might leave the bench on a stretcher one of these days,” Karyn said with a sardonic smile and a shake of her head when Julia didn’t respond. “You really gonna try this case without a victim? What’s the point in that?”
“I have no choice.”
“She does. She’s not here.”
“If I have to try it without her, I will.”
“I repeat, and the point of that is?”
Julia looked over at the jury box. It sucked being an avenger when nobody else saw a problem. “Maybe next time he’ll go for the throat.”
“I think you’re a great lawyer, honey. I do. But even you know the judge is right. Investigations won’t find her because she doesn’t want to be found. All you’re going to accomplish is to piss off the judge. And double jeopardy’s gonna prevent you from retrying if your victim ever does see the light and wants to prosecute. Why not just let the judge dismiss? Then hand this off to Domestics, where it should’ve been all along.”
Of course dismissal was the path of least resistance, which was why Karyn was suggesting it. As she saw it, every case had a problem, every victim an agenda, every defendant an excuse. So for her, everything was negotiable, including battery, rape, and even murder. Sometimes at bargain-basement pleas that fell way below statutory guidelines.
“Domestics will be in the same situation as me, only worse,” Julia whispered, turning her attention back to the file cart. “Just look at that guy, Karyn. If he walks, he’s heading straight back home.”
Karyn rolled her eyes. “Don’t say you weren’t warned. You know, you’ve got a set of balls, girlfriend.”
“Thank you,” Julia replied, snapping the bicycle strap across her file boxes.
“And I’m not the only one who’s noticed.” Karyn’s voice dropped even lower. “Listen, while you were duking it out with the judge, Charley Rifkin was in here.”
Rifkin was the Division Chief of Major Crimes. Julia felt her palms start to sweat and her heart beat fast. Uh-oh. “And?”
“He wants to see you in his office. Now. Oh, and honey,” Karyn called out with a flip of her perfect blond bob as Julia started toward the gallery swing-door, “he didn’t look happy.”
Maybe it was time to start looking into private practice, Julia thought as she dragged the rickety cart stacked with boxes down the courthouse wheelchair ramp and hurried across the street to the State Attorney’s Office. At twenty-eight years old, barely surviving paycheck to government paycheck with a shitload of law school loans to pay back and no time for a social life was a hefty price to have to pay for experience --- but now she was about to have her ass handed to her because she didn’t want to lie down and look the other way. A gusty breeze threatened to Marilyn-Monroe her black crepe skirt, of course right in front of the steel-barred windows of the Dade County Jail and the leering Sabrett sausage vendors on the corner, and she cursed herself for picking the one suit in her closet that didn’t have a tailored hemline.
She knew her Division Chief thought she was being overzealous and combative. And her judge was mad at her --- again. She had a day to prepare for a trial she really wasn’t prepared to have, with a judge, a DC, a defense attorney, and even a victim who didn’t want her to have it. Now, just when she thought the day couldn’t get any shittier, the Chief of Major Crimes was demanding to see her in his office.
In the food chain of the State Attorney’s Office, Major Crimes was right up there with administration. An elite, specialized division that handled explosive media cases, complex homicides, and all death penalty cases, the unit comprised ten of the most experienced and accomplished trial attorneys in the office. Heading it up was Charley Rifkin, a seasoned litigator and the State Attorney’s right-hand man for the past five elections. Being summoned to Rifkin’s office was not a normal happening for any pit prosecutor --- unless, of course, Rifkin had witnessed something he didn’t like in court. Or, Julia thought nervously as she watched her boxes go through the office X-ray conveyor belt, had had a judge or DC call him about a problem.
She hit the elevator button and waded back into the crowd of uniforms, attorneys, and assorted interesting persons who packed the lobby. Even though it probably wouldn’t have deterred her from pressing forward on Guarino if she’d known the Major Crimes Division Chief himself had been standing right behind her, she still wanted to kick herself for not knowing. Not that she would have recognized him anyway --- aside from the occasional elevator sighting, she’d never actually met the man. Major Crimes attorneys tended to hang with their own kind; they even had their own Christmas party that the rest of the office was not invited to.
She got off on 2 with a guy whom she figured for either a drug dealer or a plainclothes narc in need of a shower. She waited in the elevator bay till he disappeared down the hall that led to Career Criminal. Then she wiped her moist palms on her skirt and walked over to the door marked “Major Crimes.” The Hallowed Hall. She’d never actually been down it, and she wondered for a second if her ID badge would allow her access. She was slightly surprised when the door clicked open and she stepped into a low-lit empty hallway painted --- like the rest of the office --- a depressing shade of shipyard gray.
Immediately the air changed. That was the first thing she noticed. The second was the collective blank stares of the secretaries whose lair she landed in when the hallway abruptly ended. A fluorescent-lit maze of Formica and Plexiglas cubbies, and there she was, standing dumb-faced right in the middle of it. Conversation didn’t just softly die down --- it dropped dead in midsentence.
“Hello,” Julia began with a smile. Since no one looked away, she addressed them all. “I’m looking for Mr. Rifkin’s office?”
“Is he expecting you?” asked an older woman with a sour expression, doughy cheeks, and a lot of pink eye shadow. Somebody cracked gum.
Julia glanced down. On the desk in front of pink-eyes was a plaque with a plastic manicured index finger that bobbled back and forth. It read, Don’t Mess with Grandma. “I think so,” she answered slowly. “My DC told me Mr. Rifkin wanted to see me.”
“Oh,” said Grandma. Her mouth slid down until it looked like it would melt into her neck, like a Dr. Seuss character. “You’re the one from Judge Farley’s division.”
That couldn’t be good. “That’s me,” Julia replied. She put away the smile.
Grandma picked up the phone, hit a number, and turned away. “She’s here,” was all she said. Then she looked back at Julia suspiciously and motioned down the hall with a nod. Her throat jiggled like a turkey’s. “207. Take the hallway to the second corridor and make a right. Last office on the left.”
Excerpted from PLEA OF INSANITY © Copyright 2011 by Jilliane Hoffman. Reprinted with permission by Vanguard Press. All rights reserved.
Plea of Insanity