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The King of Torts


THE SHOTS THAT FIRED the bullets that entered Pumpkin's head were
heard by no less than eight people. Three instinctively closed
their windows, checked their door locks, and withdrew to the
safety, or at least the seclusion, of their small apartments. Two
others, each with experience in such matters, ran from the vicinity
as fast if not faster than the gunman himself. Another, the
neighborhood recycling fanatic, was digging through some garbage in
search of aluminum cans when he heard the sharp sounds of the daily
skirmish, very nearby. He jumped behind a pile of cardboard boxes
until the shelling stopped, then eased into the alley where he saw
what was left of Pumpkin.

And two saw almost everything. They were sitting on plastic milk
crates, at the corner of Georgia and Lamont in front of a liquor
store, partially hidden by a parked car so that the gunman, who
glanced around briefly before following Pumpkin into the alley,
didn't see them. Both would tell the police that they saw the boy
with the gun reach into his pocket and pull it out; they saw the
gun for sure, a small black pistol. A second later they heard the
shots, though they did not actually see Pumpkin take them in the
head. Another second, and the boy with the gun darted from the
alley and, for some reason, ran straight in their direction. He ran
bent at the waist, like a scared dog, guilty as hell. He wore
red-and-yellow basketball shoes that seemed five sizes too big and
slapped the pavement as he made his getaway.

When he ran by them he was still holding the gun, probably a .38,
and he flinched just for a instant when he saw them and realized
they had seen too much. For one terrifying second, he seemed to
raise the gun as if to eliminate the witnesses, both of whom
managed to flip backward from their plastic milk crates and
scramble off in a mad flurry of arms and legs. Then he was

One of them opened the door to the liquor store and yelled for
someone to call the police, there had been a shooting.

Thirty minutes later, the police received a call that a young man
matching the description of the one who had wasted Pumpkin had been
seen twice on Ninth Street carrying a gun in open view and acting
stranger than most of the people on Ninth. He had tried to lure at
least one person into an abandoned lot, but the intended victim had
escaped and reported the incident.

The police found their man an hour later. His name was Tequila
Watson, black male, age twenty, with the usual drug-related police
record. No family to speak of. No address. The last place he'd been
sleeping was a rehab unit on W Street. He'd managed to ditch the
gun somewhere, and if he'd robbed Pumpkin then he'd also thrown
away the cash or drugs or whatever the booty was. His pockets were
clean, as were his eyes. The cops were certain Tequila was not
under the influence of anything when he was arrested. A quick and
rough interrogation took place on the street, then he was
handcuffed and shoved into the rear seat of a D.C. police

They drove him back to Lamont Street, where they arranged an
impromptu encounter with the two witnesses. Tequila was led into
the alley where he'd left Pumpkin. "Ever been here before?" a cop

Tequila said nothing, just gawked at the puddle of fresh blood on
the dirty concrete. The two witnesses were eased into the alley,
then led quietly to a spot near Tequila.

"That's him," both said at the same time.

"He's wearing the same clothes, same basketball shoes, everything
but the gun."

"That's him."

"No doubt about it."

Tequila was shoved into the car once again and taken to jail. He
was booked for murder and locked away with no immediate chance of
bail. Whether through experience or just fear, Tequila never said a
word to the cops as they pried and cajoled and even threatened.
Nothing incriminating, nothing helpful. No indication of why he
would murder Pumpkin. No clue as to their history, if one existed
at all. A veteran detective made a brief note in the file that the
killing appeared a bit more random than was customary.

No phone call was requested. No mention of a lawyer or a bail
bondsman. Tequila seemed dazed but content to sit in a crowded cell
and stare at the floor.

PUMPKIN HAD NO TRACEABLE father but his mother worked as a security
guard in the basement of a large office building on New York
Avenue. It took three hours for the police to determine her son's
real name--Ram-n Pumphrey--to locate his address, and to find a
neighbor willing to tell them if he had a mother.

Adelfa Pumphrey was sitting behind a desk just inside the basement
entrance, supposedly watching a bank of monitors. She was a large
thick woman in a tight khaki uniform, a gun on her waist, a look of
complete disinterest on her face. The cops who approached her had
done so a hundred times. They broke the news, then found her

In a city where young people killed each other every day, the
slaughter had thickened skins and hardened hearts, and every mother
knew many others who'd lost their children. Each loss brought death
a step closer, and every mother knew that any day could be the
last. The mothers had watched the others survive the horror. As
Adelfa Pumphrey sat at her desk with her face in her hands, she
thought of her son and his lifeless body lying somewhere in the
city at that moment, being inspected by strangers.

She swore revenge on whoever killed him.

She cursed his father for abandoning the child.

She cried for her baby.

And she knew she would survive. Somehow, she would survive.

ADELFA WENT TO COURT to watch the arraignment. The police told her
the punk who'd killed her son was scheduled to make his first
appearance, a quick and routine matter in which he would plead not
guilty and ask for a lawyer. She was in the back row with her
brother on one side and a neighbor on the other, her eyes leaking
tears into a damp handkerchief. She wanted to see the boy. She also
wanted to ask him why, but she knew she would never get the

They herded the criminals through like cattle at an auction. All
were black, all wore orange coveralls and handcuffs, all were
young. Such waste.

In addition to his handcuffs, Tequila was adorned with wrist and
ankle chains since his crime was especially violent, though he
looked fairly harmless when he was shuffled into the courtroom with
the next wave of offenders. He glanced around quickly at the crowd
to see if he recognized anyone, to see if just maybe someone was
out there for him. He was seated in a row of chairs, and for good
measure one of the armed bailiffs leaned down and said, "That boy
you killed. That's his mother back there in the blue dress."

With his head low, Tequila slowly turned and looked directly into
the wet and puffy eyes of Pumpkin's mother, but only for a second.
Adelfa stared at the skinny boy in the oversized coveralls and
wondered where his mother was and how she'd raised him and if he
had a father, and, most important, how and why his path had crossed
that of her boy's. The two were about the same age as the rest of
them, late teens or early twenties. The cops had told her that it
appeared, at least initially, that drugs were not involved in the
killing. But she knew better. Drugs were involved in every layer of
street life. Adelfa knew it all too well. Pumpkin had used pot and
crack and he'd been arrested once, for simple possession, but he
had never been violent. The cops were saying it looked like a
random killing. All street killings were random, her brother had
said, but they all had a reason.

On one side of the courtroom was a table around which the
authorities gathered. The cops whispered to the prosecutors, who
flipped through files and reports and tried valiantly to keep the
paperwork ahead of the criminals. On the other side was a table
where the defense lawyers came and went as the assembly line
sputtered along. Drug charges were rattled off by the Judge, an
armed robbery, some vague sexual attack, more drugs, lots of parole
violations. When their names were called, the defendants were led
forward to the bench, where they stood in silence. Paperwork was
shuffled, then they were hauled off again, back to jail.

"Tequila Watson," a bailiff announced.

He was helped to his feet by another bailiff. He stutter-stepped
forward, chains rattling.

"Mr. Watson, you are charged with murder," the Judge announced
loudly. "How old are you?"

"Twenty," Tequila said, looking down.

The murder charge had echoed through the courtroom and brought a
temporary stillness. The other criminals in orange looked on with
admiration. The lawyers and cops were curious.

"Can you afford a lawyer?"


"Didn't think so," the Judge mumbled and glanced at the defense
table. The fertile fields of the D.C. Superior Court Criminal
Division, Felony Branch, were worked on a daily basis by the Office
of the Public Defender, the safety net for all indigent defendants.
Seventy percent of the docket was handled by court-appointed
counsel, and at any time there were usually half a dozen PDs
milling around in cheap suits and battered loafers with files
sticking out of their briefcases. At that precise moment, however,
only one PD was present, the Honorable Clay Carter II, who had
stopped by to check on two much lesser felonies, and now found
himself all alone and wanting to bolt from the courtroom. He
glanced to his right and to his left and realized that His Honor
was looking at him. Where had all the other PDs gone?

A week earlier, Mr. Carter had finished a murder case, one that had
lasted for almost three years and had finally been closed with his
client being sent away to a prison from which he would never leave,
at least not officially. Clay Carter was quite happy his client was
now locked up, and he was relieved that he, at that moment, had no
murder files on his desk.

That, evidently, was about to change.

"Mr. Carter?" the Judge said. It was not an order, but an
invitation to step forward to do what every PD was expected to
do--defend the indigent, regardless of the case. Mr. Carter could
not show weakness, especially with the cops and prosecutors
watching. He swallowed hard, refused to flinch, and walked to the
bench as if he just might demand a jury trial right there and then.
He took the file from the Judge, quickly skimmed its rather thin
contents while ignoring the pleading look of Tequila Watson, then
said, "We'll enter a plea of not guilty, Your Honor."

"Thank you, Mr. Carter. And we'll show you as counsel of

"For now, yes." Mr. Carter was already plotting excuses to unload
this case on someone else at OPD.

"Very well. Thank you," the Judge said, already reaching for the
next file.

Lawyer and client huddled at the defense table for a few minutes.
Carter took as much information as Tequila was willing to give,
which was very little. He promised to stop by the jail the next day
for a longer interview. As they whispered, the table was suddenly
crowded with young lawyers from the PD's office, colleagues of
Carter's who seemed to materialize from nowhere.

Was this a setup? Carter asked himself. Had they disappeared
knowing a murder defendant was in the room? In the past five years,
he'd pulled such stunts himself. Ducking the nasty ones was an art
form at OPD.

He grabbed his briefcase and hurried away, down the center aisle,
past rows of worried relatives, past Adelfa Pumphrey and her little
support group, into the hallway crammed with many more criminals
and their mommas and girlfriends and lawyers. There were those in
OPD who swore they lived for the chaos of the H. Carl Moultrie
Courthouse--the pressure of trials, the hint of danger from people
sharing the same space with so many violent men, the painful
conflict between victims and their assailants, the hopelessly
overcrowded dockets, the calling to protect the poor and ensure
fair treatment by the cops and the system.

If Clay Carter had ever been attracted to a career in OPD, he could
not now remember why. In one week the fifth anniversary of his
employment there would come and go, without celebration, and,
hopefully, without anyone knowing it. Clay was burned out at the
age of thirty-one, stuck in an office he was ashamed to show his
friends, looking for an exit with no place to go, and now saddled
with another senseless murder case that was growing heavier by the

In the elevator he cursed himself for getting nailed with a murder.
It was a rookie's mistake; he'd been around much too long to step
into the trap, especially one set on such familiar turf. I'm
quitting, he promised himself; the same vow he had uttered almost
every day for the past year.

There were two others in the elevator. One was a court clerk of
some variety, with her arms full of files. The other was a fortyish
gentleman dressed in designer black--jeans, T-shirt, jacket,
alligator boots. He held a newspaper and appeared to be reading it
through small glasses perched on the tip of his rather long and
elegant nose; in fact, he was studying Clay, who was oblivious. Why
would someone pay any attention to anyone else on this elevator in
this building?

If Clay Carter had been alert instead of brooding, he would have
noticed that the gentleman was too well dressed to be a defendant,
but too casual to be a lawyer. He carried nothing but a newspaper,
which was somewhat odd because the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse was
not known as a place for reading. He did not appear to be a judge,
a clerk, a victim, or a defendant, but Clay never noticed

Excerpted from THE KING OF TORTS © Copyright 2002 by John
Grisham. Reprinted with permission by Dell, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved.

The King of Torts
by by John Grisham

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense
  • Mass Market Paperback: 472 pages
  • Publisher: Dell
  • ISBN-10: 0440241537
  • ISBN-13: 9780440241539