From James Patterson, the world’s #1 bestselling author: a young lawyer takes on the judge who is destroying her hometown—and ends up in jail herself.
I couldn’t put down The Jailhouse Lawyer, a page-turning legal thriller that exposes a headline-making crisis in the American courts: the new debtors’ prisons, where an inability to pay court costs sentences poor people to jail, with devastating consequences.―Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Tony Messenger, author of Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice
In picture-perfect Erva, Alabama, the most serious crimes are misdemeanors. Speeding tickets. Shoplifting. Contempt of court.
Then why is the jail so crowded? And why are so few prisoners released? There’s only one place to learn the truth behind these incriminating secrets.
Sometimes the best education a lawyer can get is a short stretch of hard time.
I WASN’T PRESENT at the courthouse in Erva, Alabama, on that morning in June, when events unfolded that would suck me into the undertow of Douglas County. But I’ve talked to the people who were there. I’ve heard the story from all perspectives.
They all recalled that it was a bright day. The morning sun filled the courtroom with light, making the polished walnut benches and vintage millwork gleam.
The county inmates, garbed in orange scrubs, sat together in the front row of the courtroom gallery, bowing their heads to keep the sun out of their eyes. One young man covered his face with his hands.
The district attorney shifted in his chair to peer through the glass panes in the doors leading into the courtroom rotunda. His unlined face wore an anxious expression.
The court reporter’s heels tapped a nervous staccato beat on the tile floor. She turned and whispered to the bailiff, who stood beside the door to the chambers of Judge Wyatt Pickens.
“Well, where is he?” the court reporter said, just as the chamber door opened and Judge Pickens emerged.
The occupants of the courtroom jumped to their feet even before the bailiff’s voice called out, “All rise! The Circuit Court of Douglas County, Alabama, is now in session, Judge Wyatt Pickens presiding.”
The judge settled into his seat. He opened the laptop on the bench before briefly examining a stack of manila file folders. “You may be seated.”
As the courtroom rustled with the sounds of people shuffling back onto the benches, the judge looked out over the courtroom.
His eyes narrowed. “Where is the public defender?”
No one answered. The inmates in orange exchanged glances but maintained perfect silence. The district attorney tugged at his suit jacket and cleared his throat.
The noise caught the judge’s attention. “Mr. Carson? Where is the public defender?”
The young attorney stood and said, “I haven’t seen him this morning, Judge.”
Judge Pickens turned to the bailiff. “Harold?”
“Well, Judge, I’ve been here since about 7:30 this morning. Didn’t see him in the coffee shop or the lobby.”
Judge Pickens sighed. “This is our criminal docket day. We can’t proceed without him.” He turned to his clerk, a pretty woman hovering near the door to chambers.
“Betsy, if you would, please make a call over to the public defender’s office. See if you can raise him.”
“Yes, Your Honor.” She disappeared through the chambers door.
The silence in the courtroom was broken by a female inmate. “Judge? I seen him this week at the jail.” When the judge ignored her contribution, the woman slid back onto her bench.
Betsy reappeared. With an apologetic grimace, she said, “Judge, I just got the answering machine at his office.”
“Call his cell phone.” The judge’s voice was patient, but his face grew ruddy.
“I did, Judge. He didn’t pick up.” After a pause, she said, “I left a message.”
Judge Pickens drummed his fingers on the surface of the bench, the tempo increasing in speed and intensity. Then he stopped and slapped his palm on the wood veneer.
“Harold, you’re going to have to head over there and get him.”
The bailiff bobbed his head. “Yes, sir, Your Honor.”
Outside the courtroom, Harold took the century-old courthouse’s marble stairs cautiously, gripping the brass handrail as he descended. He didn’t care to take a tumble. The bailiff wasn’t a young man, and his prosthetic foot made maneuvering the stairs particularly tricky.
He exited the courthouse and headed across the street to a two-story building that had been converted into the public defender’s office. The paint on the door designating Rob Ford public defender of the district was still shiny, as though it hadn’t yet had time to dry.
Harold turned the door handle, half expecting the entrance to be locked, but the door opened freely. The reception area was empty.
There was no response. When the bailiff stepped inside, the door shut behind him. Harold made a face. It smelled like there was a sewer backup in here, and since the office was county property, Harold made a mental note to tell Judge Pickens so the judge could get the county commission on top of the problem.
As he walked across the reception room, Harold heard the crunch of broken glass under his shoe leather. He looked down and saw a shattered picture frame, facedown on the floor. Bending over with a grunt of effort, he picked up the frame and examined it. It was a family portrait: the public defender, his wife holding an infant, and two young children, a boy and a girl.
The bailiff lifted his head and called out again, “Rob? You in here? The judge is waiting on you.”
He set the frame faceup against the wall, then walked a narrow hallway where a closed door bore a plastic nameplate, designating it as the office of Robert Ford, public defender. Harold rapped on the door with two knuckles.
“Rob? We’ve got a courtroom full of folks waiting across the street.”
The smell of sewage was stronger outside the office door. The bailiff’s head bobbed as he swallowed. His hand shook when he turned the doorknob.
When he pushed the door open, a low moan escaped his throat. Moving involuntarily, he stepped back into the hallway and turned his head away, burying his nose in his sleeve.
The public defender’s body hung by a leather strap tied to an overhead light fixture. On the floor, a wooden office chair lay on its side, near the puddle of excrement under the hanging man’s still body.
The bailiff stole another glance, to determine whether there was any chance the man was still alive. One look confirmed it: the gray face, bulging, sightless eyes, limp hands left no doubt.
He pulled the door shut and made his way out of the building with speed that defied his age. Once safely outside, he leaned against the rough stucco exterior of the building and drew deep breaths before pulling his phone from his pocket to call the judge.
As he scraped his shoes on the sidewalk to remove the glass particles, the bailiff muttered to himself: “Here we go again.”