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Fine Points of Law


Harry Buschman

Lester Junk was not in a very good mood. The rolls were stale and the coffee was weak - or if not weak, at least not as strong as he thought it ought to be. On top of everything else, the morning sun was in his eyes as he sat alone at a table for four with his back to the outside wall of Max’s Outdoor Coffee Bar.

He chose this particular table because the previous diner had left a newspaper behind, and Lester could never pass up a free newspaper. The news in the paper was all bad. But Lester would have been in a bad mood in any case. The Republican party was back in charge and things had not improved a bit. Gasoline was $2.75 a gallon and illegal aliens were coming across the Mexican border in waves. If anything, things were worse now than they were when the damn Democrats had control of both houses of Congress.

Lester Junk was in a mood to give someone a good piece of his mind, and he wished somebody, anybody, would sit down across the table from him so he could tell them just how bad things really were. But that was unlikely. Lester was well known in Max’s Outdoor Coffee Bar, especially in the morning. He would invariably walk in talking to himself and sit down under the red and white striped awning looking for someone to mouth off to. He’d order two rolls and a pot of coffee and stay there far longer than it took to eat. In fact he would stay until he finished his newspaper; seething as he fought his way through the minefield of the editorial page.

“No one watching the damn border!” he exploded. “Any Tom, Dick or Harry can walk in here and live like a king!” He looked around to see if anyone wanted to argue the point, but everyone turned away. No one was willing to agree or disagree. Still grumbling, he changed his position so the morning sun would warm his back. But now the newspaper was blinding white and difficult to read. “School prayer! He shouted. “Unconstitutional? One nation under God! That’s the way it’s supposed to go! Under God, Goddamn it! What’s wrong with that? It’ll teach these fresh kids what Uncle Sam stands for!” He shouted this to a woman walking her dog past the coffee bar. The dog turned and barked shrilly at Lester and the woman jerked him away and shouted back at Lester.

The morning wasn’t starting out well for Lester Junk. Except for the dog, he hadn’t gotten anyone’s ear, and his views on the condition of the world seethed inside him like a bubbling pot of stew with a tight fitting lid.

He had jury duty this afternoon and it was 11:30 by the bank clock across the street. He was irritated beyond words at the prospect of a long hot session in and out of the jury room.

As a juror, his mind was made up anyway. The Latino boy was guilty. Speeding, resisting arrest and driving with a suspended license. On top of that they found an ounce of marijuana and papers in a business envelope on the dash board of his car. Prosecution rests! No way the defense could explain that away, even though the prosecution was inept. Lester knew the kid was guilty even before the trial began. “Latin-American boy - hair in a pony-tail - imagine, showing up in court like that. What do you expect?” Might just as well forget the defense side of the trial; no way to defend a kid like that.

Lester Junk was in not in favor of appointing a woman to be forelady for the jury either. “Damned shortsighted!” He said to himself. “A woman! Single mother of four, hmmpf. Spanish sounding name too, wouldn’t you know?” He was sure the boy would be convicted in spite of her. “Ten years in the pen will make a better man of him ... turn him into a citizen. But you can never relax where women are concerned,” he reminded himself. “They may look soft on the outside, but they often have a rock hard center - like the pit in a prune.”

At any rate it was time to move on. He glanced at the clock across the street again, it was almost noon. The judge wanted the jury back at twelve thirty. The judge was a sour faced old bastard and wouldn’t hesitate substituting an alternate in his place if he was late.

Lester stood up, brushed himself off and walked up to the counter -- “I suppose you expect me to pay for this poor excuse for a cup of coffee and those stale rolls.”

“Of course,” Max smiled. Mr. Junk, you eat here because it’s the cheapest coffee shop in town. Why don’t you go to Starbuck’s, they have designer coffee there, and I understand their rest rooms are fit for a king.”

“I may just do that, Max.” He folded the newspaper and stuffed it under his arm as though it were an umbrella, tilted his hat a little to the right and headed off in the direction of the courthouse. Eating elsewhere was a boast Lester Junk would never follow through with. Eating, getting a haircut. or doing anything in the cheapest place in town was a matter of great satisfaction to him. He looked in the store windows on his way, not to see what was inside, but to see what he looked like in them. He caught sight of the cigar in his breast pocket and thought how good it would taste right now - but on second thought, he knew he couldn’t finish it before the trial began, and the thought of throwing away a half finished cigar was out of the question.

Almost all the jurors were there, even the alternates, and the place was beginning to smell like a locker room. Lester Junk wondered how bad it would be later in the afternoon -- the courtroom itself was air-conditioned. Maybe that was to keep jury deliberations short, it sounded like a good idea to Lester. This kid was guilty - one, two, three and he’ll be on his way up the river where he belongs.

The jury officer opened the door and poked his head in. “Good news folks, the judge is coming in to have a word with you.”

One of the jurors remarked, “I think we’re through. Usually when the judge walks into the jury room it means the trial is over.”

“Impossible,” Lester answered. “We haven’t heard the defense yet.”

“That’s right ... and we’re not gonna,” the juror replied.

Sure enough, the judge swept into the room in his long black robes like a diva. “The court and I want to thank all of you for being good citizens. You’ve all done your duty, and I’m happy to announce that your term of duty is over. All charges in this trial have been dismissed, there is no need to continue.”

The jurors were overjoyed and the prospect of going home at one o’clock in the afternoon was gratifying to them. Lester Junk however, was bitter - he was sure the defendant was guilty. A good stretch in state prison was just what he needed and to the surprise of everyone in the room, he spoke up indignantly, “What kind of justice is this! The man is accused of resisting an officer! Driving without a license - marijuana on the dashboard! How can you dismiss charges?”

The judge stared at Lester Junk, and a hush came over the room ...

“You mean your mind was made up -- even before you heard the defense?” the judge asked.

“Oh, I’ve seen his type. I know what the defense would be ... crying police brutality ... planting evidence, racial this and that.”

The forelady had been listening while getting into her coat and turned from the judge to Lester. In a burst of indignation she looked at him and said, “What racial? The man was white.”

“Well, Latino then -- what’s the difference? Six of one, half a dozen of the other.”

The judge turned to the rest of the jury and sat down wearily at the head of the table. “The police admitted to council that on second thought the defendant was not driving the car,” he smiled and shook his head sadly ... “The defendant exited the vehicle from the driver’s side because the police car had forced it snug against the guard rail and he couldn’t get out on the passenger side.”

“But it was his car,” Lester Junk insisted.

“No, his father’s car. His father had the same name ... and the ounce of hash? That was in a business envelop with his father’s name on it.” The judge gathered his robes around him and stood up. “It really wasn't much of a case ... er ... you’re Mr. Junk, am I right?”

“Yes. Junk, that’s right. Why can’t those charges be leveled on the father, then?”

“The father wasn’t arrested, Mr. Junk. The son was. You can’t charge the boy’s father for a crime the boy was arrested for.” The judge stood up slowly and smiled sadly at Lester. “It’s the law, Mr. Junk -- don’t confuse it with justice -- don’t try to make sense out of it.”

Lester Junk filed out of the courthouse with the others. He patted his breast pocket to make sure his cigar was still there. “The law and justice, hmmpf -- now there’s something to think about.” He glanced quickly at the clock on the bank across the street - it was 1:15 ... maybe he’d go back to Max’s Coffee Shop, maybe find someone to talk to.

©Harry Buschman 2000

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