white man #woke by ed gaffney
Part One: The Investigation
It’s an overcast day in late April as I make my way north on Prospect Street in the Boston suburb of Stonefield, Massachusetts. I’m walking through one of the poorest black neighborhoods in all of New England, known to the locals as Pine Hills. The low gray sky seems to mute all color around me. It may be 2017, but I feel like a character in a black and white movie.
There’s light pedestrian traffic on the broken sidewalk as I pass a string of pawnshops, nail salons, and check cashing places. A young father with dreadlocks walks past me, pushing a toddler in a stroller while talking on a cell phone. A brown-skinned couple in their sixties slowly emerges from a medical clinic across the street. Two women in their thirties with afros stand at the entrance to a beauty salon, talking to each other. It’s clear to anyone who cares to notice that mine is the only white face for blocks.
I’m taking the same route that my client, Letroy Carson, had walked, on an early winter night more than six years ago. North on Prospect, past Stonefield Wine and Spirits at the corner of West Brockton Street, toward Avondale Place. It was near the intersection of Prospect and Avondale where Letroy had attempted to murder Stonefield Police Officer James Slater, resulting in a gunshot wound for Slater, and a thirty-year prison sentence for Letroy.
I’ve been told that it’s a waste of time to do what I do for each of my cases—visit the crime scene, retrace the steps of the defendant—to physically investigate and attempt to recreate the incident underlying my client’s legal jeopardy.
But other peoples’ opinions don’t matter much to me. They haven’t for years now. I do what it takes to represent my clients. Nothing more, nothing less.
My attention is pulled to the right as I pass a small playground on the corner of a side street called Watkins Drive. A low, rusty chain-link fence separates the park from the sidewalk, with the exception of a small pass-through located a few feet down Watkins. Two young boys, maybe seven or eight years old, chase each other through a broken swing set and out onto a grass and dirt area. As they run off, a stray mutt stops to sniff the base of a garbage pail near the entrance, and I see something that looks suspiciously like a handgun tucked inside a dirty gray sweatshirt resting on top of the refuse.
The boys careen around a patch of weeds in the middle of the yard, and scamper back toward the swings, laughing. I walk directly to the garbage pail, and sure enough. Right there, about fifteen feet from where the two kids now stand, catching their breath, watching me, is a nine-millimeter Kel-Tec. I lift it out of the sweatshirt.
One of the boys says, “Uh oh.”
I look over, and they are backing away. I glance down at the weapon in my hand, pointing it down toward the ground. There’s a round in the firing chamber. The hammer is back. There’s no safety. If either of those boys had seen it and picked it up, any pressure at all on the trigger could have sparked a tragedy.
I eject the magazine from the bottom of the grip. The clip is fully loaded. Then I retract the slide, and the chambered round falls to my feet. I pick it up, and head out of the playground, back toward Prospect Street. The magazine and loose bullet in my left hand, the gun in my right.
When I reach the sidewalk, I happily spot a police cruiser about two blocks away, waiting at a red light. I step into the street, and wave my hands above my head, hoping to catch their attention.
Seconds later, the car’s blue lights flash on, I hear the siren, and the car runs the red light, heading in my direction.
But then I hear a siren approaching from behind me, and I turn to see another car speeding toward me on Prospect from the other direction.
I step back onto the curb, and watch the car from my left swoop down on me, squealing to a stop, just as the one from my right takes a sharp left turn, blocking the intersection. And as if that weren’t enough, a third car, unmarked, comes racing up Watkins from behind me.
I stand there with my hands raised above my head, a gun in one hand, ammunition in the other. And as the cops pour out of the cruisers and draw their weapons on me, I hear the voice of one of the little boys behind me in the playground say to his friend, “Don’t look. They’re going to kill him.”
“No, they’re not,” the other one says. “He’s white.”
Twenty-four hours earlier
Some big black guy grabbed a cop’s gun and shot him.
That is the essence of the introduction I am given to Norfolk Superior Court Case Number 11-1419, Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Letroy Carson.
I am to be Letroy’s last lawyer.
I meet Letroy in the small room they use for off-hours attorney-client visits in the admin building at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk. He’s an African American man in his thirties with dark brown skin. He has short black hair, cut like Obama’s, a broad nose, and full lips set in an expressionless line. His dark-eyed, heavily-lidded gaze serves as a carefully constructed barrier between the world and his emotions. He’s a few inches shorter than I am, maybe the same weight. Around five foot ten, one-seventy.
He’s wearing a dark blue T-shirt and black sweat pants as he walks into the small room. Usually when I meet clients for the first time, they me bring folders full of useless court opinions that they earnestly but wrongly believe will help me in my work. But Letroy is empty-handed. He sits down across from me. The cheap ballpoint pen and blank legal pad I’d brought with me are out on the table between us.
“You Sean Macklin?” he asks, with a small, humorless smile. “My very last attorney?”
“You gonna quit on me, too?” Letroy stares across the table at me flatly. He’s almost entirely clean-shaven, except for a small mustache. His chin is raised just enough for me to notice. That, combined with the fact that his eyelids are so low that he appears to be looking up at me, gives him an air of combativeness.
“Probably not,” I say. “Haven’t quit on a case so far.”
“That why they give me to you?”
They gave Letroy to me because they know my story. They know what’s left of me is incapable of being rattled by difficult cases, or difficult clients. Work is what I have left, and work is what I do.
“Hey. Did you hear me? Is that why they gave this case to you? Because you haven’t quit on one yet?”
He nods. “You know what happened to those other lawyers?”
“I know you lost your trial and your appeal, and then you asked legal services if there was anything else they could do to help you. They appointed another attorney, but within a week, he asked to have someone else assigned. And that happened with a second lawyer, and then a third.”
“That’s because none of them would listen to me.” For the first time, I sensed emotion from the man. A bitter mix of anger and desperation. “How long have you been doing this?”
“Been a lawyer about fifteen years,” I say. “Been doing post-conviction work for more than ten.”
“You any good?”
“I lose way more than I win, if that’s what you mean,” I say.
“I didn’t ask that,” he says. “I asked if you were any good.”
His words are confrontational, but reasonable. They’re grounded in the helplessness of someone who’s being asked to place the next thirty years of his life into the hands of someone he’s never met before. I’m familiar with feelings of helplessness, and I’m sympathetic. But there’s no escaping the truth of his situation.
“Good enough to know that you’re in some serious trouble,” I say. “Convicted of assault and battery on a public employee, and attempted murder. Less than ten percent of criminal convictions are reversed on appeal. Your odds are much worse than that, though, because the victim was a cop, and you’ve already lost your trial andyour appeal.”
“That cop wasn’t a victim, and I didn’t do shit,” he says, no longer trying to hide his anger.
“What was the trial like?”
“The cop told his story, then the EMTs talked about what they saw when they showed up, then there was a ballistics expert, and that was their whole case.”
“Did you testify?” I ask.
He sits back in his chair, retreating to a practiced, neutral demeanor. “Didn’t do much good. Soon as that D.A. started talking about my priors, all that jury could see was a violent drug dealer.”
I’d seen Letroy’s sheet. Two years before his trial, he’d pleaded guilty to assault and battery. Three years before that, he’d taken a plea bargain for possession with intent to distribute when he was caught with a couple of joints in his pocket.
He looks away for a second, and then returns his gaze to me. “How many people you get off?”
“I never counted,” I said. “Maybe one or two a year. What’s that? Ten? Twenty? I don’t know.”
“How many of them were black?”
That one surprises me. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
When he hears my question, the neutral expression is instantly replaced by a look of utter disbelief. “What’s that got to do with anything?” He repeats my question with incredulity. Then he grabs the hem of his T-shirt and yanks it up, exposing a well-muscled torso criss-crossed with ugly scars that include at least two from gunshot wounds. “If I was white, and a black cop had done this to me, you think I’dbe in prison for attempting to murder him?” His voice is strained, and he pulls his shirt back down.
Some big black guy grabbed a cop’s gun and shot him.
I don’t respond.
“The answer is no,” he continues. “I’d be on some Caribbean island right now, enjoying my million-dollar settlement from the police brutality case that the whole city got behind, while that black cop got thrown off the job.”
He’s probably right. It’s no secret Massachusetts still has its share of racial problems. But whatever role race played in Letroy’s situation, it’s probably irrelevant now. And I don’t see any reason to get into an argument about it.
“Any time an unarmed black man gets shot by a white cop, you can be damn well sure race had something to do with it,” he says, with unvarnished disgust. “Especially in someplace like Pine Hills.”
“You want to tell me what happened?” I say, sitting back.
He looks at me hard. “You didn’t read the trial transcript?”
When I’d taken the case, Arthur Ling, the head of Massachusetts Post-Conviction Advocates, had given me two large file boxes of material, including the three volume transcript of the trial, which I hadn’t yet read. “I don’t like to work that way,” I say. “Not where the client has already been convicted and lost his appeal. I like to try to put myself into the trial lawyer’s shoes before I read the transcript. Act like I’m preparing for trial, try to compare what that other lawyer did with what I might have done if I’d had the case in the first place.”
Letroy considers my answer before nodding slightly. “Okay,” he says. “We can do it that way.”
“So what happened?”
As I sit back, he gestures down to the pad and pen. “You gonna write this down?”
“Right now, I need to listen.” I lean forward and push the pad toward him. “That’s for you to make me a list of names and places, phone numbers, that kind of thing. We can do it as we talk.”
“Okay,” he says. “Where do you want me to start?”
“What were you doing the morning of the shooting?”
“I was working at Johnson’s Groceries down on West Brockton Ave. in Stonefield,” he says. “I had an early shift that day—they were getting a shipment and I was unloading the truck and doing some stocking.”
“How long were you there?”
“Started at about eight, worked ’til about noon. Then I went home, had some lunch, did some work around the house.”
“Can you write down your home address?”
He picks up the pen and writes on the pad. He’s left-handed. His handwriting is neat.
“How’d you get home?” I ask.
“Walked,” he says.
“You didn’t have a car?”
He makes a small noise, like a mirthless laugh. “Naw. I didn’t have a car.”
“What kind of work did you do when you got there?”
“We live—” He shakes his head, and smiles ruefully. “We livedin an old triple-decker,” he says. “Whenever snow starts to melt, these icicles hang off the porch roof. They’re dangerous, so I was knocking them down, clearing them away. It’s hard enough for my grandmother to get around without worrying about ice falling on her head.”
“Your grandmother lives there?”
“Yeah. She and my sister live on the first floor.”
“What are their names?”
“My grandmother’s name is Clara Carson,” he says. “My sister is Destiny.”
“And they live in Stonefield?”
“Yeah. All this went down in Stonefield. Smack in the middle of Pine Hills. Like, five minutes from the grocery store.”
“Okay,” I said. “What did you do next?”
“Um, I went over to Jackie’s.”
“My girlfriend. My ex-girlfriend. She dumped me the day after I got convicted. She didn’t want any part of this.” He waves vaguely at our prison surroundings.
“Can you write down her full name and address?”
“What time did you get to Jackie’s?”
“Probably around four, four-thirty,” he says. “Her shift ended at three-thirty, but she worked late that day.”
“Where did she work?”
“At Home Depot over in Brockton.”
“And you waited for her at her place, and hung out until she got home?”
“Yeah,” he says. “She got home around five-thirty.”
“Then I cooked us dinner, and we ate.”
“What time did you leave?”
He takes a deep breath. “I don’t remember the exact time. It was after eight.”
“Where’d you go next?”
“Well, I was on my way over to a friend’s place,” he says. “And that’s when everything with the cop went down.”
“Okay,” I say. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
“That’s gonna be a problem,” he answers. “Because I can’t remember what happened.”
white man #woke
by Ed Gaffney
From Suzanne Brockmann Books