Maximum John

The boy is dressed in a suit and is sitting in the passenger seat of Dad’s gray Chevy Citation. They are heading to the north side of San Antonio for the award hearing in a lawsuit against the government. His parents have let the boy out of school for a half day to accompany Dad.

“So this is a trial, Dad?” he says.

Dad shakes his head. “No, it’s the award phase of a settlement. We’ve settled the case, but there are some discretionary damages that the judge can award.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, you’re gonna watch your dad get his ass handed to him today. This lady kept complaining of various ailments, and none of the Air Force doctors she saw diagnosed her correctly. Turns out, she had ovarian cancer. It was treatable, but not by the time they found it. So she died and her family sued the government. And we’ve already conceded most of the points. But the judge gets to lay more on us. That’s what’s happening today.”

“Oh, okay.”

Dad runs his fingers through the boy’s hair.

“And then if there’s time, we’ll pop in on the trial of Elizabeth Chagra.”

“Who?”

“The wife of Jimmy Chagra. He was the biggest drug dealer in Texas, maybe in the whole southwest. He got busted, and he was supposed to appear in federal court before Judge John Wood. ‘Maximum John,’ they called him because he gave max sentences to drug offenders. So Jimmy paid Charlie Harrelson to assassinate Judge Wood, and his wife was implicated in the conspiracy.”

“Wow, they killed a judge?”

“Yep, Charlie Harrelson . . . he’s the father of the actor Woody Harrelson, by the way. Anyway, he stalked Judge Wood for weeks, and one morning, Judge Wood leaned down to get his paper. Charlie shot him in the back. The bullet traveled up his spine and lodged in his chest. His wife found him there.”

“That’s awful. I can’t believe they would do that.”

“Well, Son, it’s not just that Judge Wood gave out huge sentences. He was full-on biased against defendants and defense attorneys.”

“How so?”

“Oh, he was infamous in the legal community for ruling against defense attorneys on everything. I mean, it was so bad that a defense attorney might object to something, and before he could get the argument out of his mouth, Judge Wood would boom, ‘Overruled! And I don’t want to hear from you again, Mr. So-and-So.’ Then he’d turn to the prosecutor as sweet as could be and say, ‘Mr. Jones, please continue where you were before you were rudely interrupted.'”

“Judges can do that?”

“They’re not supposed to, but who’s gonna stop them?” Dad says. He moves off the freeway to an outlet road. “Judge Wood lacked a bit of awareness, though. I know this guy that was a defense attorney. His client was pleading guilty, so Wood makes them both stand and says, ‘You are giving up three rights when you plead guilty. They are as follows.’ He lists each right you give up and as he does he holds up a finger until he’s holding up three fingers. Then Wood says, ‘Do you understand these rights?’ The defendant says, ‘Yes, Your Honor.’ Wood then holds up only his middle finger and says, ‘Good. Let’s review to be sure. What’s the second right?'”

The boy laughs. “Seriously? On purpose?”

“I don’t think he knew what it meant. The defendant leans over to my friend, his attorney, and says, ‘The judge is giving me the bird. What do I do?’ And my friend says, ‘Just answer his question.'”

“That’s amazing,” the boy says.

The day is fascinating for the boy. They arrive early, and the judge over his father’s case invites them into his chambers, shows them the judicial robes, his law books, and various souvenirs. The boy sits in the courtroom through the proceedings, though he understands almost nothing of what is happening. He is impressed by the flags, the bailiff, the rising and sitting with the entrance of the judge, the protocols they all follow.

When they finish, Dad comes back to him and walks with him out to the hallway.

“That was really cool,” the boy says.

“Well, at least one of us thinks so,” says Dad.

“It went bad?”

“Oh, he piled on damage after damage. He couldn’t make his disgust for the government’s screw-up any bigger.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“No big deal. Some cases are indefensible.” Dad motions down the hall. “There’s still time. Let’s step into the Chagra trial.”

Moments later, they step quietly into the courtroom. This courtroom is much larger, reminiscent of what might be shown on TV. Reporters are situated around the room, and the court reporter is typing furiously. The seats are mostly empty, though, and the boy and his father sit in the back. This is, in fact, the second trial of Elizabeth. She was originally convicted, but the federal appeals court has vacated the first ruling and remanded it for retrial.

On the stand is Elizabeth Chagra herself. She is young, fair-skinned, and pretty with shoulder-length hair.

“What was Jimmy’s demeanor?” the prosecutor is saying.

“Objection.”

“Sustained.”

“Sorry, Your Honor. Did Jimmy talk about Judge Wood?”

“Sometimes,” Elizabeth says.

“What did he say?”

“Which time?”

“Let me rephrase. Did Jimmy discuss with you plans to kill the judge?”

“No.”

“Jimmy never said he wanted to kill the judge?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Could you elaborate?”

“Jimmy would say sometimes that he was angry. Or that he wanted to kill the judge or wished the judge would die. But he never discussed plans.”

“So he said he wanted to kill the judge?”

“Yes. But not like you’re saying it. It was the same way you might say it if your neighbor was acting like a jerk. ‘Oh, I want to kill that guy.’ I never took it as him meaning it.”

After half an hour, Dad nudges the boy and says, “We should get on the road to get home. Wanna stop for a burger?”

“Sure,” says the boy.

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