The Racketeer(15)

by John Grisham

I spend a fourth of my time as a jailhouse lawyer, and today I have a new client. Roman comes to me from a small town in North Carolina where he owned a pawnshop that specialized in fencing stolen goods, guns primarily. His suppliers were a couple of gangs of coke-crazed idiots who robbed fine homes in broad daylight. Possessing not the slightest hint of sophistication, the thieves were caught in the act and within minutes were squealing on each other. Roman was soon dragged in and hit with all manner of federal violations. He pleaded ignorance, but it turns out his court-appointed lawyer was without a doubt the dumbest person in the courtroom.

I do not claim to be an expert on criminal law, but any green first-year law student could catalog the mistakes made by Roman's lawyer during the trial. Roman was convicted and sentenced to seven years, and his case is now on appeal. He hauls in his "legal papers," the same pile every inmate is allowed to keep in his cell, and we go through them in my little office, a cubicle littered with my personal stuff and off-limits to every other inmate. Roman will not shut up ranting about how bad his defense lawyer was, and it doesn't take me long to agree. IAC (ineffective assistance of counsel) is a common complaint for those convicted at trial, but it's rarely grounds for an appellate reversal in non-death-penalty cases.

I'm excited by the possibility of attacking the lousy performance of a lawyer who's still out there, still making a living and pretending to be much better than he is. I spend an hour with Roman and we make an appointment for another meeting.

It was one of my early clients who told me about Judge Fawcett. The man was desperate to get out of prison, and he thought I could work miracles. He knew precisely what was in the safe in the basement of that cabin, and he was obsessed with getting his hands on it before it disappeared.

Chapter 9

I'm back in the warden's office and something is up. He's wearing a dark suit, starched white shirt, paisley tie, and his pointed-toe cowboy boots are fairly gleaming with fresh wax and polish. He's still smug as ever but somewhat twitchy.

"I don't know what you told them, Bannister," he's saying, "but they like your story. I hate to repeat myself, but if this is your idea of a prank, then you'll pay dearly for it."

"It's not a prank, sir." I suspect the warden was eavesdropping next door and knows exactly what I told them.

"They sent four agents here two days ago, snooped all over the place, wanted to know who you hung out with, who you did legal work for, who you played checkers with, where you worked, who you ate with, who you showered with, who you celled with, and on and on."

"I shower alone."

"I guess they're trying to figure out who your buddies are, is that right?"

"I don't know, sir, but I'm not surprised. I figured as much." I knew the FBI was snooping around Frostburg, though I did not see the agents. Secrets are extremely hard to keep in prison, especially when outsiders appear and start asking questions. In my opinion, and based on some experience, it was a clumsy way to dig into my background.

"Well, they're back," he says. "They'll be here at ten and they said it might take some time."

It is five minutes before 10:00 a.m. The same sharp pain hits my gut again, and I try to breathe deeply without appearing obvious. I shrug, as if it's no big deal. "Who's coming?" I ask.

"Hell if I know."

Seconds later, his phone buzzes, and his secretary relays a message.

We're in the same room adjacent to the warden's office. He, of course, is not present. Agents Hanski and Erardi are back, along with a fierce young man named Dunleavy, an assistant U.S. Attorney from the Southern District of Virginia, Roanoke office.

I'm gathering steam, gaining credibility and curiosity. My little group of interrogators is looking more impressive.

Though Dunleavy is the youngest of the three, he is a federal prosecutor, and the other two are simply federal cops. Therefore, Dunleavy has seniority at this moment and seems rather full of himself, not an unusual posture for a man in such a position. He can't be more than five years out of law school, and I assume he'll do most of the talking.

"Obviously, Mr. Bannister," he begins with an obnoxious condescending tone, "we wouldn't be here if we didn't have some interest in your little story."

Little story. What a prick.

"Can I call you Malcolm?" he asks.

"Let's stick with Mr. Bannister and Mr. Dunleavy, for now anyway," I respond. I'm an inmate, and I haven't been called Mr. Bannister in years. I kind of like the sound of it.

"You got it," he snaps, then quickly reaches into a pocket. He pulls out a slender recording device and places it on the table, halfway between me on one side and the three of them on the other. "I'd like to record our conversation, if that's okay."

And with that, my cause takes a giant leap forward. A week ago, Hanski and Erardi were reluctant to remove their pens and take a few notes. Now the government wants to capture every word. I shrug and say, "I don't care."

He flips a switch and says, "Now, you say you know who killed Judge Fawcett, and you want to swap this information for a ticket out of here. And once out, you want our protection. That the basic structure of the arrangement?"

"You got it," I say, mimicking his own words.

"Why should we believe you?"

"Because I know the truth, and because you guys are nowhere near it."

"How do you know this?"

"I just do. If you had a serious suspect, you wouldn't be here talking to me."

"Are you in contact with the killer?"

"I'm not answering that question."

"You gotta give us something, Mr. Bannister, something that will make us feel better about this little deal of yours."

"I wouldn't characterize it as little."

"Then we'll call it whatever you want. Why don't you explain it. How do you see this big deal happening?"

"Okay. It has to be a secret, highly confidential. We have a written agreement, approved by the U.S. Attorney's offices in both the Northern District, where I was prosecuted and sentenced, and the Southern District, where this investigation is taking place. Judge Slater, who sentenced me, will have to sign off on the agreement. Once we've agreed, then I'll give you the name of the killer. You grab him, investigate him, and when the grand jury indicts him for the murder, I will suddenly be transferred to another prison. Except I will not be serving any more time. I leave here as though I'm being transferred, but instead I go into your witness protection program. My sentence will be commuted, my record expunged, my name changed, and I'll probably want some plastic surgery to alter my appearance. I'll get new papers, new looks, a nice federal job somewhere, and, to boot, I get the reward money."