I always loved this feeling. The nervous energy that starts on the inside. That moment of anticipation, when you know you’re on the verge of completing your mission and execution determines success or failure. There was an adrenaline rush I had become accustomed to playing college football at Eastern State University, but this was one of the few times I experienced that rush as a prosecutor.
I have prosecuted a number of cases. They were cakewalks; usually of the open-and-shut variety. I’d worked on several high-profile cases, but that was primarily doing research or as second chair. This was the first time the reins had been turned over to me completely. At twenty-seven years of age, I was being touted as the sharpest and most aggressive young federal prosecutor the city of Charlotte had ever known. I would not fail. I would not disappoint. It was time to execute!
Judge Henry Walters was presiding. He was nearing the end of his legal career and according to his detractors, losing control of his mental faculties. When I looked at him, that’s not what I saw. I saw a man who had fought for my civil rights, who helped defend the Wilmington Ten. This was the man who would regularly drive to Greensboro in the mid-seventies to have lunch at Woolworth’s lunch counter with his “black” friends. I had an immense amount of respect for the man.
“Your closing argument, Mr. Pruitt,” Judge Walters said.
Judge Walters had clarity in his voice and sharpness in his eyes that I had not seen him display over the last month. I sensed his adrenaline was flowing also.
I nodded my head, took a deep breath and rose to my feet. I looked at the defendant and his table of lawyers to my left. There sat Paul Hughes, a baldheaded and thick-bearded, heavy-set African American in his forties. For all intents and purposes, he looked like he could be a fun-loving, joke-telling uncle. But this man would take a life just as easily as he’d take his next breath. Trust me, he had the rap sheet to prove it. I then looked at his defense attorneys; both wore dark gray Brooks Brothers suits and starched shirts. The only way to tell these guys apart were their different color ties. I thought to myself, Let’s roll up our sleeves and knuckle up, boys. This is the last round and I’m about to unload.
I took my time and walked to the center of the courtroom. The only sound was that of my shoes clicking across the wooden floor. When I reached the center, I turned to face the jury. I made eye contact with as many of the jurors as I could. They were waiting for me to ease their minds and tell them it was okay to send Mr. Paul Hughes to prison for twenty years to life. I would.
“The law for me has always been black and white; no gray area. It is either right or wrong. No in-between. Crack cocaine is illegal. No one has the right to produce and distribute this vile substance that is so vicious that it destroys the very souls of our communities. I wouldn’t do it, you wouldn’t do it, but Paul Hughes would.” That momentary pause gave everyone the opportunity to look at Hughes. “One of my responsibilities is to ensure that if someone does break the law, they pay for their crimes against our society.” I gave my captive audience some time to let this sink in. Slowly, I continued, “You and I are here to ensure that the defendant, Paul ‘Major’ Hughes—a.k.a. Major Player—pays for his crimes. You’ve heard testimony from one of his lieutenants and a number of his minions. We have provided evidence from the records of his felonious organization. These records attest to the gross of four-and-a-half million dollars in the sale of cocaine, here in Charlotte. I’d say that was major for a major player. He played his game and he got caught. Now it’s time for you to play, to get into the game, and shut him down.” With that, I took my seat.
I was in the zone. In my view, the case was a slam-dunk. No amount of double talk or diversionary tactics would be able to sway this jury. It didn’t matter how much money Hughes threw at his lawyer; they couldn’t change what was about to happen. They were here to buy down Hughes’ time and pick up their check. If they had just mailed in their closing argument, it would have had the same effect as what they were going to be laying out for the jury.
I watched Hughes’ lead attorney get up, go to the jury, and make his feeble plea to them. By the time I’d decided to pay attention to his closing, he was done. He was done? Wait a minute. Weren’t they going to roll up their sleeves? Weren’t they going to knuckle up? They had just conceded the victory to me. It was no fun beating someone when they just laid down. This definitely wasn’t the monumental battle that I had hoped for. I was disappointed and almost became angry that they hadn’t offered more of a challenge. That is, until I looked at Paul Hughes.
Hughes sat there as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He was trying to convey to the judge and jury that he was an innocent victim of a conspiracy. He was not. He was a predator. He had wreaked havoc on countless people’s lives. From drug dealers, to drug users, to innocent victims, lives had been lost and forever changed. The lives of sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers had been destroyed. What did Hughes care about any of these lives? Nothing; not one thing. He had afforded himself all the things that go along with this lifestyle. Money, cars, women, clothes. In other words, all the flash. The Panther and Bobcat games, concerts and clubs; if it was happening, Hughes was in the middle of it. To hell with Hughes; if his attorneys were willing to send him to the slaughterhouse, I would oblige them. Now I would get to introduce his slick ass to the flip side of that flash.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this concludes the closing arguments,” Judge Walters said. “Bailiff, please show the jury out. The court is in recess until the jury returns with a verdict.”
It was 3:17 p.m. I knew that if the jury didn’t reach a decision by 4:30, we would be back here again tomorrow. I picked up my three-year-old briefcase and put my file on Hughes inside. I couldn’t stand the look of this briefcase. It was a gift from my parents when I finished law school. It was a great briefcase; it just wasn’t worn enough yet. It didn’t afford me with the look of someone who’d grappled with the law for twenty years. My friend Chuck Mays asked me if I had ever seen Johnnie Cochran’s briefcase. He said it smelled of new leather every time he cracked it open. Now how Chuck had acquired that knowledge, I’d never know. Chuck had a knack for finding out things that others simply could not. His point was well taken, but I still liked the idea of a well-worn briefcase. It’d always been a part of my romanticism with the law.
I left the courtroom and decided to go get some air. It was mid-April. In Charlotte, North Carolina, that meant the temperature was already pushing eighty degrees. Not hot though; the winter cool was still in the air and the humidity was still a month and a half away.
“James!” A voice stopped me as I headed for the elevator. “What’s happening?” I knew it was none other than Jason Baines.
Jason was a fellow prosecutor whose concentration was primarily corporate fraud and embezzlement. But he tried to keep up with all the disciplines, and usually did.
“Jason, what up?”
“Dude, I’m hanging.”
Jason was from San Diego. He was thirty-six and had never totally given up the surfer attitude. A wife and three kids had brought him to Charlotte nine years ago.
“What’s going on with Hughes in there? Got a verdict?”
Jason always wanted first dibs on every case. “Not yet. We just finished our closing statement; we’re in recess.”
“How’d it go?” There was a bit of apprehension in his voice. He knew it was my first time flying solo.
I wouldn’t look him in the eyes. I looked down and shook my head. Jason started to extend his hand to my shoulder as if to say, Tough luck, kid.
I smirked at him. “I was good. I was very good.” We both laughed.
“Dude, I thought you were getting ready to tell me you flaked.”
Usually when other people weren’t around, we would kick slang to one another. He’d throw me a little of his and I would send him some back.
“Nah, cuz, I’m handlin’ mine,” I said as we got on the elevator. “Where are you headed?”
“Across the street to the office; then home. What about you? I know you’re not leaving.
“Catch some fresh air. Kill some time until four-thirty; then I’m out.”
Once we reached the ground floor, we exited the elevator and walked out of the building. We were hit with the smell of dogwood trees and a cool Carolina breeze. You couldn’t replace that smell, but it also meant there was only about a week or two left before the heavy pollination began, and for me that would indicate allergy season.
“You going to the gym tonight?” Jason said.
At thirty-six, Jason was in better shape than most of the twenty-five-year-olds I knew.
“Not tonight. I’ve got to take care of some other business.”
“Denise does the five-thirty and six o’clock news.”
“So?” I said. I knew Jason well enough to know this was a set- up question.
“You’re trying to leave at four-thirty.”
“And?” Typical of a prosecutor, already looking to incriminate me.
“Not meeting Denise; trying to leave early. Catching a little side action?” Jason asked, with a wink and a grin.
“Jason, you know that’s not me. Now maybe you being married as long as you have, with all those kids, maybe you could use a little side action.”
“Side action? Hell, I could just use some action.” We laughed. We’d developed a solid working relationship and a pretty good friendship over the last two-and-a-half years. Denise and I had shared quite a few dinners with Jason, Beverly and the kids.
“If you’re going by your house before you go to the gym, you’d better get moving,” I said.
“Yeah, the kids will have me saddled up with a rope in my mouth riding me around the house like a show pony.”
“Bet you wish it was Beverly.”
“Man, I wish. Dude, I’m gone.”
He was definitely all California. I sat down on a bench and watched Jason cross the street. He often jokingly complained about his wife and kids, but he did enjoy the role of family man. Those kids, Jack, Shane and Rachel, could really wear you down. There was definitely different parenting skills employed in his white household than the one I’d grown up in. Jason’s kids at nine, six and four had opinions of their own and veto power. The only opinions I’d had were the ones my father told me I could have. My mother had given me the power to be told what to do. Jason’s kids had time out. I’d had time to pull myself together before I got knocked out. My parents were great; they still are. I just understood very early on that there were rules in our house, and severe consequences for breaking those rules. But I had no kids. Maybe the rules had changed.
To pass the time, I started to read the Charlotte Observer. There was an article about Warren Johnson that caught my attention. Johnson was a death row inmate on short time. Before I could read it, my cell phone started to vibrate. The text message read “deliberations over.” Three fifty-nine p.m. and it was already time to go back to court. Forty-two minutes into deliberations and the jury was finished. I folded the paper under my arm, secured my briefcase and rushed back into the building and straight to the elevators. I pushed the button for the elevator, but it wouldn’t come fast enough. I was only going to the third floor, so I turned to the stairs and bolted up, taking the steps two and three at a time. That adrenaline rush was back. On the third floor, I stopped to straighten my suit and tie and compose myself. This might have been the first case I was prosecuting on my own, but I had to behave as if I’d been here a hundred times before. I took a deep breath and opened the stairwell door to the third floor.
I headed straight for the courtroom, where the press had already gathered. I was definitely playing with the big boys now.
“Mr. Pruitt, why do you think the jury has reached a decision so quickly?”
“Will they convict?” The barrage of questions had begun.
“No comment,” I quickly answered, without breaking stride. I went into the courtroom and to my table. Some members of the media had already taken their seats. They were waiting to see what would be left of Hughes. The courtroom wasn’t as full as it had been earlier. The short deliberation period was the cause. I picked up a couple of glares from people who were with Hughes. It came with the territory. Didn’t matter which side of the fence you were fighting on.
Mr. Hughes was sitting at his table, sandwiched between his defense attorneys. His once confident demeanor had changed. He no longer had an unconcerned look. His face was now full of grave concern.
I sat in my chair and the court was called to order. The jury filed in. There was no attempt at eye contact between any of them and Mr. Hughes, or myself. I placed my hands on the table with my fingers interlocked, sat erect and looked straight ahead.
“Will the defendant please rise?” Judge Walters said. Hughes and his defense team complied. “Has the jury reached a decision?”
“We have, Your Honor,” the foreman replied.
“How say you?”
“On the charge of possession with intent to manufacture and distribute, we find the defendant guilty. On the charge of embezzlement, we find the defendant guilty, and on the charge of transporting a contained substance across state lines, we find the defendant guilty.”
Each succeeding guilty verdict sounded like a sweet melody to my ears. I gripped my hands tighter to repress my elation, not allowing my posture or expression to give my emotions away.
At the next table, there was no sweet song to sing. Each verdict fell like a bomb. In a matter of seconds, the empire that Hughes had built on ill-gotten gains had been reduced to rubble. He was stripped of everything right before our eyes. You could see the money, clothes, cars and women vanish in the blink of an eye. Paul Hughes was welcomed to the flip side of all that flash.
His Honor informed us that the sentencing hearing would be held tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. With that, court was adjourned for the day. Hughes slumped back in his chair amid tears and “Lord have mercies” from his supporters.
That tripped me out. A woman dressed in her hoochie best, sitting among three other women who were all dealing with the same thug, asked the Lord to have mercy. The Lord might forgive Hughes, but today’s verdict was the legal consequence of his actions. He was getting his just due.
As Hughes was being led away, I glanced around as the courtroom began to empty. The judge’s bench, the jury box, the prosecution and defense tables. The gallery behind me. The U.S. and North Carolina State flags that hung behind the judge’s bench. I’d seen it all before, but today I wanted to take it all in, so that years later, I would still be able to savor every emotion of my first victory as lead prosecutor. I felt real good about myself and what I had done that day. Snatching up my briefcase with pride, I strode out of the courtroom.
“Mr. Pruitt, how do you feel?” asked a reporter.
“Were you surprised with the quick verdict?” shot another.
“Were you nervous prosecuting your first case?” This question and the familiar voice came to me clear as a bell. It was from Bob Campbell of WSTV-Channel 6.
I turned in the direction of the question. “I wasn’t nervous; I was prepared.” It was time for the dog-and-pony show to begin. “I don’t think this case would have been given to me if I wasn’t, but I had plenty of support from my colleagues.”
“Sentencing is tomorrow. Any leniency,” Bob said.
“No,” I replied flatly. “The man broke the law and hurt a lot of people in the process. He didn’t show any leniency to them. If he wanted leniency, he should have pled out before we presented final arguments to the jury. We are seeking the maximum sentence. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.” The elevator doors opened and I slipped into the car.
As I rode the elevator down, I thought, Well, that was the end of my business day. I was on my way to the South Park area to purchase an engagement ring for Denise. She co-anchored the news for WSTV, but was the sole anchor of my heart. I had made the decision to propose weeks ago. I just needed to get this trial behind me. The timing was perfect. We’d celebrate my first victory as a lead prosecutor on a major case, and I would ask her to be my wife. Yes, sir, things were definitely falling into place.
Color of Justice
At the age of one, James was adopted by his grandparents and raised as their own. He never knew the truth about his biological parents or that he had an older half brother who was left to fend for himself on the streets.
Flourishing as a prosecuting attorney twenty-seven years later, James meets Warren on death row, two weeks away from execution for the rape and murder of a white woman. Warren is innocent, but can James do anything to save his brother’s life?