Ross Prize for Legal Short Fiction

ABA Journal/Ross Short Legal Fiction Contest winner: 'Another Shot'


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Illustrations by Sam Ward

Staggering up the hill, my guy carries his weapon close to his chest, his boots crunching the gravel beneath his soles. I direct him to look left, but somehow he ends up looking at his feet. The crunching stops and the air is silent. Suddenly, a flash of light pierces his blind spot on the right. I make him look up and run. His breathing gets heavier, boots pounding the dead earth, shells raining down with bodies sailing through the air. A cello in the background holds the rhythm of his steps, until it crescendos releasing a flurry of violins, each stabbing the dead air, their collective violence grabbing me until my hands morph into furious weapons and my guy starts shooting everything in sight. He runs faster. The hills fall away as a timpani roars slowly through the air, rising up with each flying body, until it reaches my eardrum and explodes. I taste gunpowder. Everything goes black.

My son and I look up in alarm to see my wife standing behind the television, plug in hand: “You leave me no choice, boys.” With that battle cry, my son turns and salutes me, “We had a good run, Sergeant.” “Great work, Private Anthony.” Resignedly, I retreat to my office, my son to school.

I make it to the office that morning as John starts leaving me a message; I pick up. “Johnny, I’m just walking in now.”

“Tommy boy, it’s 9 a.m. and you’re strolling into work now? That’s the life.”

“I had an early meeting and then ran to the office, wise guy.”

“I know I am, but that’s not why I called. I want you to come by court today, around 11 a.m., I have something I want you to see.”

“Today? I’m busy.” I could tell John knew that was a lie.

“Tommy, I’m not asking, I’m telling you. You need to rip off the Band-Aid. This will help.”

“Yeah, OK sure. I’ll be there if you buy me lunch.”

“You know it. Bye.”

I spent that morning answering emails, returning calls and meeting with a new client. So I was busy. But John knew me better than that. As my best friend and as the assistant district attorney who just handed me a recent loss in court, he knew firsthand that I had spent the last few days moping around my office. I didn’t love losing—hated losing to him—but hated it more when the client walked away having lost more than just the case.

I got to court at 11:10 and slid into a pew in the back. Court felt like church to me whenever I sat in the gallery. You stood and sat on cue, the clerk and CSO attending to the judge like altar boys assisting each step of the service. I preferred a seat closer to the action, but Judge Harris was mid-monologue and I didn’t want to be a distraction by taking a seat up front.

“ … when you have the opportunity to correct your actions and you don’t. You understand, sir, that this is your third OUI offense?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And why shouldn’t I say ‘Three strikes; you’re out?’ ”

“I understand if you do, sir.”

“Your honor,” Larry Holmes, defense counsel in this case, chimed in, “Mr. Williams’ prior OUIs did not result in criminal convictions. We ask that the court consider that fact when evaluating Mr. Williams’ conduct.”

“Counselor, I would be inclined to do that, but we are in a lifetime lookback jurisdiction. Mr. Williams is a repeat offender in this state. And even if we were in a different jurisdiction, I would not be persuaded to discount those earlier OUIs just because they involved crashing into shrubbery. Mr. Williams, do you understand that this time you crashed into a building at 2 a.m. that houses a day care facility during the day? Had it been 2 p.m., you would be in here for manslaughter. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mr. Williams, easily 6-foot-3 with a rail-post spine, continued to look straight ahead. Although his perfect posture conveyed confidence, I could see, even from my bleacher seat, that his trembling left hand betrayed his nerves. Judge Harris must have seen it too. His tone softened.

“I’m told by the clerk that your attorney and the assistant district attorney propose a different resolution to this matter.”

Holmes piped up, “Your honor, we discussed the possibility of Mr. Williams being referred to Veterans Treatment Court so that he may receive a more tailored response to his case. Mr. Williams has a clinical diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and suffers from substance abuse issues. Additionally, Mr. Williams has posed a suicide risk in the past. The ADA and I agree that, given these circumstances, the usual consequences imposed by the court on a repeat OUI offender would not address Mr. Williams’ mental health issues. We believe that the PTSD and substance abuse issues, along with the right consequences for the offense, can be effectively addressed in Veterans Treatment Court.”

Judge Harris returned his gaze to Mr. Williams, who maintained his flawless posture. “Mr. Williams, I’m inclined to grant this request, not because I don’t view this conduct as serious, but because I believe that the chances you have been given were perhaps not the right ones. If you are willing to do the work, you can do better and I will never see you again. I want to never see you again. Do you understand that, Mr. Williams?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I will grant the request.”

John turned to the gallery and nodded to me, smiling. I knew why I was here. He motioned me over while Mr. Williams and his lawyer approached the railing.

“Tom, I’d like you to meet Sgt. Peter Williams.”

I saluted Williams and he returned the salute. John went on: “Tom is one of the best lawyers I’ve worked with—no offense, Larry—and a helluva guy. He’s worked lots of cases in combat vet court, all with positive outcomes. He’s also a former Marine like you, so Larry and I thought he would be a good fit to represent you in this next step.”

Mr. Williams looked directly at me: “Call me Pete.”

“Pete, I’d like to buy you a cup of coffee.”

* * *

Pete watched me during that first meeting and barely spoke. He was tall even when sitting back and sipping his coffee. He looked me in the eyes when I spoke, but could he hear me? I remembered what I was like when I got back. We were trained to look people in the eye, so I did. But it felt false. I looked my family and friends in the eye, but I wasn’t connected to them, to what they were saying, to what they were thinking, to who they had been when I was gone.

I explained to Pete that the next session of Veterans Treatment Court for new incomers would be in one month, that the judge would ask him about his story, that he would be assigned a mentor who would operate as a sounding board and would help to keep him accountable, that a VA rep would be there to assist him with getting his benefits and whatever other help he needed, but that before any of this started, I needed to hear his story. My subtle plea for dialogue was met with silence, so I started talking.

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“There is a part of my life that my family was not a part of. During that time, I wasn’t part of their lives either. There is no overlap. I don’t understand what they went through; they don’t understand what I went through. I choose not to talk to them about it. But what I will tell you—and I feel guilty telling them this, which is part of why I don’t—is that combat, the battlefield, guns, tactical plans, bullets, sand, Humvees: They all make sense to me. For a very long time, this life here, my family, didn’t make sense to me in the way war did. To this day, I need a battlefield to feel grounded. I don’t need the guns or the fighting or the adrenaline. I just need to see things in a way that makes them line up, organized. I just need to know that there are certain outcomes to anticipate, there are certain rules to follow. Like it was on the battlefield.”

Pete sat a little more stiffly. I continued.

“Eventually, I found my way back to my family, to a life here. To get there, I swapped one battlefield for another. Walking into court is like walking onto a battlefield. Not because I’m expecting a fight, but because I know what can happen. I know what my position is; I know how to anticipate what the other side will do. The judge talking, the prosecutor yelling, the gallery humming. It’s harmonic. It’s normal to me. Everything locks into gear and I’m in a different place and I think, OK, here, I can do something. I’m OK because I get it.”

Pete broke eye contact for the first time. “I get that,” he said.

We sat quietly for a while. Pete asked me to represent him, and we agreed to meet the following week.

I arrived early for our next meeting. I almost didn’t recognize Pete when he walked in, but his height and posture gave him away. He was sheltered in his hardhat, wearing sunglasses and soundproof headphones. The rest of his attire—yellow vest, thick T-shirt, well-worn jeans and dirty work boots—seemed secondary, only there to indicate he worked construction. He sat down and removed the sunglasses and headphones, leaving the hardhat intact. He dressed like that every time we met for coffee, which quickly became a morning ritual.

One morning, unable to contain my curiosity, I asked him: “What’s up with all the headgear?” and pointed to the cranial ornaments he had partially removed. Pete gave a pained, bashful grin. He pointed to the sunglasses, then the headphones. “I can’t do the sun. Too much time spent in the desert. I can’t do loud noises. Too much time spent near rifle fire. And I feel exposed without my helmet … I mean hardhat.”

“Why not just wear a baseball cap?” I asked.

“Because I would have to take it off to put on the hardhat when I get to work.”

No fighting that logic—he didn’t want his head exposed for even a moment when he was outside. I get that. For me it was warm beverages. I couldn’t drink a hot cup of coffee without feeling like hot sand was burning my throat. I avoided hot beverages for years instead of dealing with it, just remained an ostrich with my head, neck deep, in the proverbial sand. Pete Williams, walking down the street with his hardhat and headphones, was the strangest, saddest ostrich I had seen in a long time.

I learned a lot from Pete over morning coffee. Pete, like me and like most other vets returning home, had trouble connecting back to daily life here, away from the service. We chatted each morning about the banal things that make life profoundly ordinary and wonderful: baseball, beer, summer barbecues. It was like that for a while. Two weeks into our coffee meetings, Pete sat down shaking his head. I was about to launch into a diatribe about the Red Sox pitching roster, figuring that’s what the head shake was about, but he stopped me before I could start.

“When I pictured my return home, I thought the buzzing would stop. I didn’t see parades with floats carrying perky cheerleaders waving signs that read, ‘Welcome home, Pete.’ I figured my mom would cry, my dad would pat me on the back and my brother would pass me a beer and the buzzing would stop.”

I nodded and waited.

“But the buzzing didn’t stop. My ears were buzzing, my hands were buzzing. Everything was shaking all the time, like I was trapped in a giant Etch a Sketch that someone kept shaking in vain because the image wouldn’t clear away. Beer calmed the buzzing and let a different buzz set in. I didn’t really think about it. I figured I was drinking more because it was summer and it was hot outside. And, hell, I deserved an extra beer or two for what I’d been through.”

Another nod.

“My cousin got me this job in construction. I took it because they let me use a jackhammer sometimes. I feel like if I jackhammer enough, maybe the Etch a Sketch will right itself, the buzzing will stop, and I’ll be myself again. It hasn’t happened yet.”

“So every night, after work, I sit at home and drink until the bad buzzing stops and the good buzz starts. Sometimes the bad buzzing doesn’t stop, so I get in the car and roll down the windows hoping the speed will cancel out the buzzing. Like maybe I’ll break the sound barrier or something? I know that’s not how it works, but that’s what I imagine. That’s how I ended up crashing into those bushes and the school.”

“You mean day care center,” I said.

“I mean school. The buzzing started during my second tour. We received intelligence that enemy combatants had taken cover in a local school. The intelligence could not confirm that there were no children in the school so we surveilled the property. After three nights, we didn’t see any kids, so we decided to get a little closer. We’re 20 yards from the school and we get pelted with gunfire. I’m sitting in our jeep next to my best friend when he gets shot in the neck. His leg kicks out, the car is in gear, so our vehicle crashes into the school. I blacked out. I couldn’t save him. All I could hear was the buzzing. And guess what? The school was empty. The intel was wrong. When I fall asleep now, all I see is that school with no kids, and I’m in our jeep alone, and I press down the accelerator and crash into the school with no kids because I’m shot in the neck. But none of that kills me. Two years later I crash into a day care in the middle of the night. I was so drunk I don’t even remember doing it. But I remember that school with no kids and I dream that I crash into it every night.”

* * *

I spent that Saturday at John’s house flipping burgers while he worked the smoker and the crowd. Our sons, dressed as Superman and Batman, took turns jumping off of a low retaining wall in the backyard. John looked up from the smoker, a new face beside him. “Tommy, this is our new neighbor from across the street, Max Savarese. Max, this is my best friend, Tom.”

“Welcome to the neighborhood.”

“Nice to meet you.” Max walked over and shook my hand, “John tells me that you work together.”

“Kind of. John is a prosecutor and I’m in private practice. Criminal defense and family law. John tries to punish the bad guys and I try to help them.”

“The Superman to your Lex Luthor,” Max suggested.

John leaned away from the smoker, steam escaping from under the lid as he began to close it, “More like the Justice League. We’re on the same side. We both help people; we just go about it in different ways.”

“OK, Max, if you haven’t figured it out yet, John here fancies himself a Delphic oracle. Just go with it,” I warned him jokingly.

Max shared a knowing smile and turned to John, “OK, so when Tom defends a drug dealer, he’s helping people because he’s helping the drug dealer, right? And you’re helping the drug dealer how?”

“I’m looking at the long game. Slice and dice it however you want to; in the end, recidivism rates are at an all-time high. I’m hoping that, whatever the outcome, this defendant doesn’t repeat his crime, or any other. If the defendant stays out of trouble, that helps him and it helps the people that I represent. Win-win.”

“I thought somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. Isn’t that the point of going to court?” Max asked.

“The only truth in criminal law is that we are all losers, until we are all winners,” John ruminated.

“Go with it,” I mouthed to Max. He nodded.

John proceeded: “A criminal defendant walks into court and he is faced with three general outcomes: (1) he pleads guilty, receives his punishment and hopefully does harm no more; (2) he pleads not guilty, goes to trial, is found guilty, receives his punishment and hopefully does harm no more; or (3) he pleads not guilty, goes to trial, is found not guilty, receives no punishment, and hopefully does harm no more.”

“Are these scenarios assuming the defendant is guilty?” Max asked.

“No. It’s worse if they are actually not guilty and they face scenarios one or two. No, the point is: Everyone loses as soon as they walk into that courtroom. Whatever conduct brought them there will profoundly change their lives and the lives of those around them. The criminal defendant hopefully doesn’t repeat the crime, but now he has a criminal record—or at a minimum, a criminal history. That follows him. His family is put through the pain that goes along with court: the trial, the local news, the confrontation of the issues, the victims. The victims! What do the victims get? If there are victims, they may get some relief, a feeling of vindication, maybe even revenge. But from my experience, that doesn’t help. Many victims even feel guilt for feeling vengeful. It’s twisted, but that’s what it is.”

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“So, how do you all become winners?” Max asked.

“You change the game,” John said. “It’s not about ‘win or lose’ in the traditional sense; you look for a solution that addresses the underlying conduct and minimizes the pain to the victims. It’s not foolproof, but we do our best to find the least-bad solution for everyone involved. There is no formula to it.”

“Yeah, but you can’t help everyone. Some people don’t straighten out. Some people are just bad. ... ” Max hesitated.

“Some people just can’t find their way out,” I added.

John had an answer to that, “Look, no one comes out of the womb saying they want to be a dealer or a murderer or a criminal. No parent looks at their baby and says, ‘Oh, I think little Joey here is going to grow up to be sociopath.’ Well, maybe they think that after the kid has been crying every night for a month straight—kidding. No really, what I’m saying is that we all get to where we are after a series of choices. No excuses, but getting to where those guys are is not an overnight trip. Helping the ‘bad guy’ means making sure he doesn’t repeat his crime. That helps him and it helps the community around him in the long run. I’m on his side too.”

“So you’re on the nurture side of the debate?” Max asked.

“That’s not my debate. I’m interested in what we do next. What do we need to do for this defendant, for these victims, for this community to make sure that it’s more likely than not that we’re not having the same conversation, facing the same problem down the road. Tom wants that too.”

“I do. But to Max’s point, some people are just lost causes. We can’t win them all,” I pointed out, reminded of my recent loss.

“We are all losers until we are all winners,” John repeated. “The lost causes are there to test us when we meet them again in the criminal justice system. We get another chance to get it right for them.”

John was right. I had a list of frequent fliers—repeat clients that couldn’t seem to get out of their own way. Maybe we’d get it right for them the next time. I let that thought simmer internally.

“John, the poet prosecutor, does your boss know you moonlight as a mouthpiece for the criminal defense bar?” I asked mockingly.

“Funny guy.”

“Wise guy.”

A loud crash broke our silence. Batman had Superman in a headlock.

* * *

The next time I met Pete was two days before his court date. By then, Pete had shared with me the sense of overwhelming guilt he had for not saving his buddy. He believed that his recurring nightmare of crashing into the school was his mind’s way of punishing him for not dying that day. He shared with me the pain he felt every morning when he woke up, the paralysis he prayed for when he drank. He hadn’t stopped drinking, but his license was suspended automatically after the third OUI, so at least he wasn’t driving.

I asked him what he thought a good outcome would look like for him. “To get the buzzing to stop,” he laughed, then stopped and looked straight at me. “To stop hating myself. For not saving Matt, for getting in the car drunk, for ramming my jeep into an imaginary school every night hoping I wake up dead.”

I nodded. “OK. Then that’s the end game. To stop hating yourself.”

Pete was silent.

I broke the silence. “Last month, my client—a single dad—lost custody of his two children to the state. I did everything I could, but I couldn’t help him. The guy couldn’t handle the loss and goes on a bender; became a self-fulfilling prophecy. He lost his kids, his dignity and any hope of a second chance. And it sucked. I felt like that was on me. I know it wasn’t. He’s an adult; his choices led him there. But it was my job to help him, right? I chose to be an attorney. I chose to help people and I failed. I failed him. I failed his kids. I spent my career trying to get it right and sometimes I miss. The misses rattle me.”

Pete broke eye contact for the second time I had known him and stared into his coffee.

“I get that,” he said.

* * *

Pete was sober when we walked into court, but his eyes were bloodshot. He told me that he hadn’t slept since we last spoke, and that he worried he would mess up this next chance. “The end game. That’s all you have to think about,” I whispered to him. The clerk motioned us to take our seats. We were first in the lineup.

As the CSO signaled us to stand, Judge Morrison strode into the room, faced Pete and saluted him. Sgt. Pete Williams returned the salute before relaxing into parade rest. The exchange of respect calmed him. After some preliminary statements from me and the prosecutor, Judge Morrison asked Pete to tell his story. Pete recited the facts, from the day he enlisted to the day he woke up with the buzzing and his dead friend beside him.

Judge Morrison asked Pete a question I never wanted to ask myself: “Why do you think you got to live when your friend died?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Pete answered.

“I want you to find the answer to that question,” Judge Morrison commanded, “and I will ask you that question every time we meet.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll give you a head start, Sergeant,” Judge Morrison added, “Every loss is a chance to get it right the next time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You don’t always win, Sergeant. When you lose, you can’t feel guilty for the loss or for trying to make up for it next time. You get another chance to get it right. Maybe you will and maybe you won’t, but don’t waste it.”

For a split second, I thought Judge Morrison was looking at me. He didn’t know he was speaking to me too.

We spent the rest of the morning ironing out the next steps in Pete’s treatment. After discussion with the prosecutor, myself and the medical expert in the room brought in to explain Pete’s PTSD, it was decided that Pete’s substance abuse issues needed to be addressed in tandem with the PTSD. Judge Morrison ordered that Pete enter a 30-day residential substance abuse rehabilitation facility, which had a program tailored for veterans with PTSD. The Judge further ordered that following the program Pete would be required to wear a SCRAM bracelet and continue his PTSD treatment in an outpatient program through the rehab facility and that he would attend status hearings with the judge every two weeks where Pete would personally report on his progress. The program would last 12 months and Pete was required to meet each milestone in his treatment in order to graduate.

Finally, the judge closed with the following.

“You can’t wipe away your guilt, but you need to face it. When you complete your 30-day treatment program, and upon consent from your medical team, you will personally repair the day care facility you crashed into. Personally. On your own. You need to get it right, and I want you to start there.” I thought that was a gutsy request, but Pete smiled broadly and nodded, “Yes sir.” It was exactly what he needed.

* * *

I agreed to drive Pete to the residential rehab facility where he would begin his 30-day substance abuse treatment program. We got out of the car and I moved to shake Pete’s hand. He stared at my hand and looked at me with an alarming sadness, “What do I do after the buzzing stops?” I looked him in the eyes, “You find another battlefield. You find somewhere, something that makes sense to you. A place where everything lines up, where everything is organized and logical, where you get it. And then you go to that place; you do that thing every day. You find another battlefield.” Pete smiled at me and looked down. He took off his sunglasses and turned his face to the sun.

I drove home grateful that I had been given another shot at getting it right.

Sidebar

THE WINNING ENTRY

Elena Papoulias didn’t rely on her experience to produce “Another Shot,” the winning story in the 2016 ABA Journal/Ross Contest for Short Legal Fiction.

The Boston-based attorney, an in-house counsel with the office of global compliance for Manulife/ John Hancock, is a neophyte when it comes to fiction writing. “Another Shot” is her first published story, and she says she had not contemplated doing any creative writing until reading about previous Ross winners. “With my day job, I don’t get a lot of time to do much writing at all,” says Papoulias, a 2012 graduate of Boston University School of Law and summa cum laude graduate of Simmons College.

Her story looks at the criminal justice system with a utilitarian lens instead of the typical adversarial one: A defense attorney and a prosecutor work together to help a criminal defendant, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse issues, get treatment. The story shines a spotlight on veterans treatment courts. “The role of lawyers is to serve, which led me to think about the communities or individuals that are in need of greater advocacy—and veterans immediately came to mind,” she says.

Papoulias has no background in criminal law and has not handled a case involving a veteran. Her full-time job mostly consists of providing support and advice on anti-money laundering, anti-bribery and anti-corruption compliance. She says she was inspired to write this piece after reading about veterans who had trouble readjusting to civilian life and accessing their benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Veterans are important members of our community who deserve recognition beyond the immediate words of thanks and gratitude they receive in the days and weeks following their return home,” says Papoulias. “As a community, we should be supportive of our veterans on an ongoing basis.”

She received a $3,000 cash prize at a Sept. 22 ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The annual contest, supported by the Erskine M. Ross Trust, recognizes outstanding fiction emphasizing the role of the law and lawyers in society. —Victor Li


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