Atlanta, Georgia Tuesday, May 6, the present, 10:35 a.m.
Judge Rachel Cutler glanced over the top of her tortoiseshell glasses. The lawyer had said it again, and this time she wasn’t going to let the comment drop. “Excuse me, counselor.”
“I said the defendant moves for a mistrial.”
“No. Before that. What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ”
“If you haven’t noticed, I’m not a sir.”
“Quite correct, Your Honor. I apologize.”
“You’ve done that four times this morning. I made a note each time.”
The lawyer shrugged. “It seems such a trivial matter. Why would Your Honor take the time to note my simple slip of the tongue?”
The impertinent bastard even smiled. She sat erect in her chair and glared down at him. But she immediately realized what T. Marcus Nettles was doing. So she said nothing.
“My client is on trial for aggravated assault, Judge. Yet the court seems more concerned with how I address you than with the issue of police misconduct.”
She glanced over at the jury, then at the other counsel table. The Fulton County assistant district attorney sat impassive, apparently pleased that her opponent was digging his own grave. Obviously, the young lawyer didn’t grasp what Nettles was attempting. But she did. “You’re absolutely right, counselor. It is a trivial matter. Proceed.”
She sat back in her chair and noticed the momentary look of annoyance on Nettles’s face. An expression that a hunter might givewhen his shot missed the mark.
“What of my motion for mistrial?” Nettles asked.
“Denied. Move on. Continue with your summation.”
Rachel watched the jury foreman as he stood and pronounced a guilty verdict. Deliberations had taken only twenty minutes.
“Your Honor,” Nettles said, coming to his feet. “I move for a presentence investigation prior to sentencing.”
“I move that sentencing be delayed.”
Nettles seemed to sense the mistake he’d made earlier. “I move for the court to recuse itself.”
“On what grounds?”
“To whom or what?”
“To myself and my client.”
“The court has shown prejudice.”
“With that display this morning about my inadvertent use of sir.”
“As I recall, counselor, I admitted it was a trivial matter.”
“Yes, you did. But our conversation occurred with the jury present, and the damage was done.”
“I don’t recall an objection or a motion for mistrial concerning the conversation.”
Nettles said nothing. She looked over at the assistant DA. “What’s the State’s position?”
“The State opposes the motion. The court has been fair.”
She almost smiled. At least the young lawyer knew the right answer.
“Motion to recuse denied.” She stared at the defendant, a young white male with scraggly hair and a pockmarked face. “The defendant shall rise.” He did. “Barry King, you’ve been found guilty of the crime of aggravated assault. This court hereby remands you to the Department of Corrections for a period of twenty years. The bailiff will take the defendant into custody.”
She rose and stepped toward an oak-paneled door that led to her chambers. “Mr. Nettles, could I see you a moment?” The assistant DA headed toward her, too. “Alone.”
Nettles left his client, who was being cuffed, and followed her into the office.
“Close the door, please.” She unzipped her robe but did not remove it. She stepped behind her desk. “Nice try, counselor.”
“Earlier, when you thought that jab about sir and ma’am would set me off. You were getting your butt chapped with that half-cocked defense, so you thought me losing my temper would get you a mistrial.”
He shrugged. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
“What you have to do is show respect for the court and not call a female judge sir. Yet you kept on. Deliberately.”
“You just sentenced my guy to twenty years without the benefit of a presentence hearing. If that isn’t prejudice, what is?”
She sat down and did not offer the lawyer a seat. “I didn’t need a hearing. I sentenced King to aggravated battery two years ago. Six months in, six months’ probation. I remember. This time he took a baseball bat and fractured a man’s skull. He’s used up what little patience I have.”
“You should have recused yourself. All that information clouded your judgment.”
“Really? That presentence investigation you’re screaming for would have revealed all that, anyway. I simply saved you the trouble of waiting for the inevitable.”
“You’re a fucking bitch.”
“That’s going to cost you a hundred dollars. Payable now. Along with another hundred for the stunt in the courtroom.”
“I’m entitled to a hearing before you find me in contempt.”
“True. But you don’t want that. It’ll do nothing for that chauvinistic image you go out of your way to portray.”
He said nothing, and she could feel the fire building. Nettles was a heavyset, jowled man with a reputation for tenacity, surely unaccustomed to taking orders from a woman.
“And every time you show off that big ass of yours in my court, it’s going to cost you a hundred dollars.”
He stepped toward the desk and withdrew a wad of money, peeling off two one-hundred-dollar bills, crisp new ones with the swollen Ben Franklin. He slapped both on the desk, then unfolded three more.
One bill dropped.
The second bill fell.
The third Ben Franklin fluttered down.