Friday, September 3, 2010

A day in a defense attorney's life

Tom Nadeau

It is 8 a.m. Monday, judgment and sentencing day in Yuba County.

Geoffrey Burton Wander, “first conflict defense attorney” (another way of saying “alternate public defender”) arrives at his office just up C Street from the courthouse. He is wearing a white Panama hat and toting a pet carrier inside of which a rat races around trying to get out.

Let’s see: judgment day; lawyer in suit; rat trying to escape a cage. The sun’s barely over the Sierra and the day’s symbolism is already piling up.

Wander opens the cage and the rat inside, Cutie-Pie, is instantly out. The little gray bugger scurries around receptionist Elizabeth Halverson’s desk and … up my arm!

“She’s friendly,’ Halverson reassures me.

After the rat and the reporter are disengaged, we retire to Wander’s inner office. He fingers through his message slips; returns a few calls.

This is a good time to explain the deal Wander and I had: if he’d let me follow him around on a typical courthouse work day, I’d promise not to reveal any of his clients’ names, or any identifying details of their cases.

Credentials on the wall ...

While waiting, I scan the 14-foot ceilings in the 19th century Marysville mansion housing several barristers’ digs, then at the walls.

Wander’s many credentials displayed on the walls are, well, eclectic.

There’s a BA and an MA in Theater Arts from California State University, Humboldt; a law degree from Cal Northern School of Law, Chico; certificates of admission to plead in US courts, Eastern District, Sacramento as well as in the California Supreme Court.

There are other official-looking documents to prove he holds a doctorate of divinity in the Universal Life Church. That means he can marry people just as legally as any priest or minister and he has done so many times over the years,

To date, the Rev. Geoff, 43, has sanctified more than 40 weddings, only a couple of which couplings have ended in divorce – a record of permanence “better than most ministers can claim.”

On one wall is a painting of a World War II Mustang P-51 fighter plane.

It turns out Wander has been an avid pilot since his youth. These days, he’s gravitating to gliders.

Propped up on a bookcase was an over-sized, light-colored wooden baton or billy club.

“It’s white ash. I made it for a play at Humboldt,” Wander said.

When the last curtain falls on a show, stage actors like to keep some small souvenir of the part they played.

As a newspaper theater critic I have Wander’s acting in Yuba College Theatre’s version of “Translations” and The Acting Company’s production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”

He played Oscar in “The Odd Couple.” I gave him and his co-players the good review they earned.
With the fine performances they delivered in The Acting Company’s current production of “The Odd Couple,” the eight local players in this classic Neil Simon comedy can now count themselves among the stars.

Geoffrey Wander and Joseph P. Stottmann, who play Oscar and Felix, respectively, are now joined forever with the likes of Walter Matthau, Art Carney, Jack Klugman, Tony Randall and Jack Lemmon, all of whom who have headlined Broadway productions of “The Odd Couple” going backs to its premiere in 1965.
And speaking of celebrities

Also gracing one of Wander’s law office walls is a photo of him and Kato Kaelin, of O.J. Simpson trial fame.

“I was outside a restaurant reading a magazine when he came out. I’d listened to the trial on radio. When I heard his voice, I just looked up and said, ‘Kato!’”

Wander shares offices with attorney Donald Wahlberg Jr. Both serve as conflict attorneys. Another attorney, James “Jimmy” Vasquez, frequently drops by.

As the clock creeps up on 8:30 a.m., it is time to walk over to the courthouse, half a block away. Through the x-ray machines we go and up to the second floor and Room 211.

“Two eleven,” I noted. “That’s robbery, isn’t it?” The ironies mount.

The cubbyhole room was seldom used until Wander talked the court managers to let attorneys have it. He furnished it with his extra chairs, desk and bookcase. It now features a computer with online access to legal research sites.

Wander removed his Panama and made straight for Department #3.

Visiting judge in town

Judge Julie Scrogin usually presides there, but she was absent that day. A visiting judge who looks and sounds like actress Frances Sternhagen, now playing Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson’s mother in “The Closer,” but best remembered, perhaps, as Esther Clavin, mother of Cheers mailman Cliff Clavin (played by John Ratzenberger).

Her Visitorship was later identified as retired Butte County Superior Court Judge Ann Rutherford.

Dept. #3 is SRO – standing room only. The bailiff recites his ritual invocation: “Come in. Find a seat. If you can’t find a seat, you’ll have to wait in the hall.”

The no-nonsense Rutherford will have none of that. She wants to make a one-time general announcement to everyone assembled. She instructs the bailiff to tell the standees to take a seat in the empty jury box.

Wander rounds up clients

While this is going on, Wander passes through the bar to pick up his morning caseload. It’s light, just three not particularly fat files. All charges are misdemeanors

He flips quickly through the files and calls out the clients’ names; gestures for them to meet him in the hall. They gather and follow him down to room 211.

The first of the three clients is a young black kid – 18, 19, maybe. He is thin, good-looking, intelligent, somewhat distracted, a bit nervous. He constantly fingers his hair and one of the discreet stud earrings he is wearing.

Wander has scanned his case. He lays out how the kid’s court schedule will likely play out. The boy nods he understands. Dates are predicted. The accused leaves.

In hurries a tall, skinny dude, probably somewhere in his late 30s. He has black hair and mustache. His hands are constantly moving. His long fingers are stiff, unbending. He’s more than nervous. He’s wired.

Instead of talking about the charges against him, he complains to Wander about him and his fiancée-girlfriend-wife-whatever being 86’d from the motel room they were renting while the real culprits, dopers in an adjacent room, were not.

Client #2’s tale was shaping into what San Francisco defense lawyers call a “two-dude defense.”

Basically, the client protests his personal innocence, claiming instead that, “It wasn’t me. It was this other dude.”

Wander brushes off the motel problem and gets back to the charges in hand. They get their court dates arranged.

Client #3 is entirely different. Blondish, a little facial hair, quiet and clear-headed, he and Wander have their act together in a few moments. He leaves.

“I wish they were all like him,” Wander sighs on our way out.

Back in court

Back in court, Wander stands up with his clients as Rutherford calls their cases. When the black kid goes up, it is to join two other defendants against whom separate, but apparently linked, charges are pending. Their alleged offenses are more serious.

Oh-oh! This kid’s case may be more complicated than I thought.

Rutherford calendars other dates for “Two-dude” and “Blondie” to return. Wander is finished for the morning.

“I told you it was light,” he reminded.

Around the courthouse and up and down the street everyone seems to know Wander. On our way to get a cup of coffee, most passersby – other lawyers, a few court clerks – all greet Wander with a smile. He’s got that sort of amiable personality.

Back in his office Wahlberg and Vasquez poke their heads into Wander’s inner sanctum. The visitors exchange tidbits about their calendars and client calls and then go on their ways.

Gun talk

Wander talks about guns. He owns several and knows a lot about them. His current project is to build his own AR-15 from separate parts purchased online.

The complete store-bought version of the AR-15 can cost in the neighborhood of $1,300, Wander explains. Bought online piece-by-piece, he can assemble one at home to his own specifications for hundreds of dollars less.

Wander expands on the benefits of such homemade devices. For instance, they would make the Perfect Murder Weapon. The barrel that leaves the tattletale rifling marks on the killer bullet can be easily replaced by another.

“You can also get rid of the firing pin, which leaves another distinguishing mark,” Wander added.

It turns out that Wander is quite a marksman. He recalls how, while at Humboldt College in Arcata, Calif., he volunteered as a range master at a nearby rifle range.

One day a group of hunter marksmen showed up to calibrate their many rifles and high-powered scopes before setting off on a multi-week hunting trip around Canada and the US.

Wander had with him his own 1918 Spanish Mauser, a plain Jane weapon with no fancy sights.

The friendly guy-talk eventually got around to the hunters pointing out to a target 700 yards out and asking Wander, “D’you think you can hit that?”

The target was about the size of a tin lid on a half gallon jar.

Wander, a natural shooter with a sharp eye five out of five rounds into the target, with the last four closely centered.

The old men left, shaking their heads.

Before we broke for lunch, Wander learned he had to confer with a client in custody at the county jail.

“We’ll go when we get back at 1:30,” he said.

Piece of cake

I was back at 1 o’clock. He came back carrying a large white box. It contained a peach pie he had just baked.

Yes, besides being a lawyer, an actor, a pilot and a marksman and hunter, Wander is also a crackerjack car mechanic, a skilled carpenter-woodworker-set designer and a top-shelf chef.

Did I mention he grew up on a farm in Meridian, Calif. where he drove the trucks and tractors?

Wander called down to the jail to say he’d like to meet with a client incarcerated therein.

On the way to the receiving station, we ran into a jail deputy coming off duty and heading home. Wander tossed off a mild pleasantry about the deputy’s vehicle. Laughs were exchanged.

A few steps later Wander explained: “He loves his cars. He’s very proud of them and keeps them up.”

'In the jailhouse now'

Wander had wanted to meet his client in what’s called a “pass-through” – an open room where lawyers and clients can easily exchange documents. For whatever reason that was not possible that day.

Instead, we entered a small booth separated from another small booth by a plexi-glass barrier. Attorney and client conversed through phone sets. I could hear Wander well enough, but could only watch the client’s lips move.

The client appeared to be in his early 30s. He was garbed in jailhouse orange sweats. He seemed nice enough.

“You got a haircut,” Wander remarked.

The prisoner grinned, nodded. He then looked at me.

“He’s a reporter following me around for the day. No problem,” Wander explained.

The prisoner looked at me again; smiled. His lips moved. I returned the smile and spoke few words he could not possibly hear. Then they got back to business.

Wander asked the prisoner how he was faring. Laid out the next few steps the legal process would require him to take before his trial came up a month or so later.

“I probably won’t be back to see you until just before trial,” Wander told the prisoner. More smiles back and forth.

We left.

How he got his start

My day of following a typical defense attorney on a typical day was coming to a close. One question lingered.

“How did you come to be a defense attorney?” I asked. There was, of course, a story behind it.

Wander had always wanted to be a prosecutor. But something happened. It was like this.

Students from Yuba City High School were at a nearby convenience store. One of the boys thought it would be great prank to sneak three rolls of Rolos into the backpack of the kid destined to become Wander’s mission-changing client.

As the story goes, an untrained store security guard was tipped off that he might find something interesting if he inspected the kid’s backpack. So the guard accosted the kid, demanding he fork over his kit.

The kid objected. He wanted to know what was going on. The Vietnam veteran suddenly guard grabbed the boy by his backpack straps and shook him.

The kid resisted, eventually forcing the guard onto the ground. About that time the East Indian store owner intervened, clobbering the kid with some foreign object, which really pissed the kid off. He punched the East Indian in the face, knocking out a couple of teeth.

There were plenty of witnesses to all this. A couple of girls calmed the kid down. The cops came and, sure enough, by the time they were done writing the incident report, it sounded like the official version of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

The clean-living teenager who didn’t steal the Rolos was now facing several possible felonies convictions and some serious Hard Time.

Wander accepted the case; conducted extensive interviews; took down lengthy statements, all of which seemed to corroborate the kid’s version of the events.

In the end, Wander managed to wangle the whole thing down to something that more accurately reflected what had actually happened when that practical joke went wrong. As a result, the kid got a fair verdict carrying a reasonable penalty.

Wander has been a defense attorney ever since.

Oh, and by the way, the peach pie was terrific; the crust something for Betty Crocker (were she real) to die for.

1 Comments:

Blogger Ethan said...

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November 12, 2010 at 9:47 PM  

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