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Plea of insanity, p.4
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       Plea of Insanity, p.4

           Jilliane Hoffman

  ‘Hell yeah. I was at the scene all day yesterday.’

  ‘What department’s handling it?’ she asked.

  ‘John Latarrino’s Metro Homicide. Steve Brill’s working it for the Gables. You know them?’

  The Miami-Dade PD used to be the Metro-Dade PD before they renamed both the county and the police department Miami-Dade more than a few years back. But even though the letterhead was different, for many old-timers in law enforcement the name change simply hadn’t stuck. Even though he was only forty-five, with over twenty years in the office as a prosecutor, Richard Bellido was definitely an old-timer.

  Julia shook her head. ‘No, I don’t think so,’ she answered. Of course she didn’t know them. She suddenly felt very young and very out of her league in the conversation, and not just because of her age. Senior trial attorneys and DCs knew all of the homicide cops in each department by name, because they worked with them all the time. It was a pretty small, macabre sort of clique. And given the hard, emotionally draining nature of the cases they worked, she knew that for many prosecutors and homicide cops working relationships oftentimes developed into tight, personal friendships that existed outside the office and after the clock struck five, at happy hours and family barbecues and kids’ weddings. Julia didn’t have any of those kinds of friendships yet herself. Most of the time she didn’t even recognize the names on the bottom of the arrest form.

  ‘I’ve worked with Lat before,’ Rick said. ‘He’s good. Brill’s a character, though. You know, the Gables doesn’t get many murders.’

  ‘They don’t let them in,’ she mused.

  ‘Very good,’ he said, with another hint of a smile.

  ‘Why would the Gables need the County’s help?’

  ‘As I said, they don’t get many murders. In fact, their department doesn’t even have a Homicide Squad, just a Persons. Metro has the experience and the manpower. They also have the lab.’

  Strike one, not knowing that Coral Gables lacked an actual homicide detective. She cleared her throat. ‘So, do you know what happened?’

  ‘We’re still trying to piece it together,’ he replied, glancing over at the door, obviously waiting for his boss to come back in.

  ‘Are there any suspects?’

  Rifkin returned at that moment with a full, steaming cup of coffee, but no Grandma. ‘I see you tried a DUI Manslaughter last month in front of Farley,’ he said to Julia as he slid back behind his desk. ‘Have you handled any other homicides?’

  ‘No,’ she replied. ‘My A, Ellie Roussos, passed that down to me because I did DUI when I was in County.’

  ‘Misdemeanors?’ Rifkin asked, incredulously.

  Julia shifted uncomfortably in her seat. ‘Yes. That’s what we handled in County Court.’

  ‘Misdemeanors,’ he said again. ‘What’d your jury come back with?’

  ‘Guilty as charged.’

  ‘And what did Farley actually give him?’

  She cleared her throat again. ‘Two years and a lecture.’

  Rifkin shot Rick a look, leaned back in his chair, and began impatiently tapping away on his coffee mug again.

  ‘It was the defendant’s first offense,’ she added defensively, because she thought she had to. She suddenly felt very conspicuous, like a bug trapped under the burning rays of a kid’s magnifying glass. Any direction she ran in offered no cover.

  The tink tink tinking ticked off the seconds like a sledgehammer and no one said anything. Then, finally, just as she had begun to think maybe she should have another lawyer in the room with her, Rick leaned in closer, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands clasped in front of him, like a coach about to call a play. ‘To answer your question from before, Julia,’ he began in a low, excited voice, ‘we do have a suspect in the Gables killings.’

  ‘In fact, I just got the call from Joe Marchionne over at Metro. Our suspect’s out of surgery,’ Rifkin added with a snort. ‘Looks like he’s going to make it after all.’

  Rick shook his head, but his intense, dark eyes remained locked on Julia’s. ‘That’s why you’ve been asked here this morning, Julia,’ he said after a moment had passed. ‘That’s why I wanted to see you. I want you to help me nail the sick bastard who murdered his wife and kids last Saturday night.’


  Julia said nothing. She couldn’t. If her brain was making all the right turns through all the right neurons to jump to all the right conclusions, she was being asked to second-seat a murder prosecution. A Major Crimes murder prosecution.

  ‘Your judge might not be a fan, but your trial stats are definitely impressive, Julia,’ Rick continued. ‘Thirty-six juries picked in the past fourteen months; thirty-four convictions. I’ve heard some really good things about you at the Chiefs’ Meetings from your DC. You’re not afraid to work hard and stay late, and I know that you’re a team player. I like how you have the balls to push difficult cases to trial – even today’s no-victim domestic – and what’s really impressive is that you’ve actually got the skills to back you up once you get before a jury, a talent that most attorneys in this office, frankly, just don’t have. And, perhaps, the most important accomplishment of yours to date,’ he said with a light chuckle, ‘is that you’ve managed to bury yourself so deep under Len Farley’s leathered skin, that there’s a rumor he’s finally thinking of leaving the bench. I believe you’ve had him try more cases in the past four months than he has in the entire two decades he’s sat as a Circuit Court judge.’

  Rick paused for a moment. ‘I’m going to level with you, Julia. I’ve got a really brutal crime scene, four dead bodies, and a young, rising-star surgeon playing the role of father, husband and, right now, prime suspect. I can see that this case will be a time-eater, that it will get complicated, and that it will probably grab and hold headlines. It’s going to take time, and a hell of a lot of commitment to work it up right. So I want whoever gets to sit second chair to be in on it with me from the very beginning, before Crime Scene mops up the last of the bloodstains and the cleaning crew wipes the print dust off the furniture. Charley and I have been tossing around some names this morning,’ he said, casting a cautious glance across the desk before continuing, ‘but everyone has their own caseloads here, with cases just as big, bad and time-consuming. And so,’ he finished, leaning back in his chair, ‘I thought about you. I think you’d be a good choice.’

  She tried her best to hold it back, but the cheesy Miss America, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening to me!’ smile slipped out anyway. ‘Thank you,’ she said softly.

  ‘Charley?’ Rick asked.

  Charley Rifkin sat forward in the high-back, carefully placing the coffee mug back down on his desk. His thin, bony fingers toyed with a wayward paperclip that had escaped its caddy. ‘Rick Bellido apparently has a lot of faith in you, young lady,’ he remarked after a long moment had passed, but the frown, Julia noticed, had still not left his face. ‘It’s your case, so I suppose in the end it will be your call, Rick. But,’ he said, depositing the paperclip back into the caddy and turning both his chair and his full attention to Julia, ‘I’m going to be honest here, Ms Valenciano. It’s not just that I’m concerned about you falling behind in division work if you were to second-seat this case, because that goes without saying. And, of course, if that ever did happen, I’m sure your DC would be up here bitching in my one ear, and your judge would be on the phone chewing the other. As you well know, I supervise this division. The cases up here, they are assigned by me, and I wanted to make it clear, that even though the decision may ultimately be Rick’s to make on what trial partner he wants to pick to try his cases with, in the end, those cases, they are my responsibility. Now while I’m confident that Richard Bellido, with over twenty years’ experience in this office and seventeen death-penalty convictions under his belt, is more than qualified to work a quadruple homicide with the media breathing down his neck and a slew of high-paid defense lawyers up his ass, I’m not so sure that this is the murder case I wa
nt you cutting your baby teeth on.’

  Ouch. Julia felt her stomach suck in, as if she’d been punched, and the smile instantly disappeared. She knew that there was nothing she could say right then and there that would help convince Charley Rifkin she was competent without sounding desperate, so she didn’t even try. She also knew that if she looked directly into the man’s hard blue eyes, she might start to well up – just the reaction she figured he was waiting for – so she looked past him and focused, instead, on the shellacked diploma from Stanford Law mounted behind his head and, for the second time that morning, thought of mai tais in Maui.

  ‘Come on, Charley,’ Rick protested, his voice suddenly rising to just below an angry shout. ‘That’s just bullshit! Other pit prosecutors, including a few As that I can remember, have tried cases with attorneys in this division, and no one has given a damn before, including you. I don’t like my judgment being second-guessed here.’

  ‘The stakes are a lot higher on this one, Rick. At this point, this is a death case. We’re talking three little kiddies bludgeoned and stabbed in their sleep by their daddy. Assuming everything at the end of the day still points to premeditation and no mitigating circumstances, you’re looking at four counts of murder one and a three-ring circus whipping up outside the courthouse. If Dr David Marquette becomes the next Scott Peterson du jour – which he has the face for and the crime to match – the press will be camping out in both your backyards until Corrections finally sticks the needle in.’ He looked back over at Julia, obviously disappointed. ‘She’s never even tried a homicide outside of a DUI manslaughter, but you’re now gonna possibly have her death-qualify a twelve-person jury with you?’

  Rifkin’s stinging words hung heavy in the air. Rick stood up and slapped both hands on the desk. ‘I think it’s shrewd for us to put a woman at the table, Charley,’ he said sharply. ‘If this does go that far, a jury’s going to want to see someone young and pretty and feminine representing a young, pretty, dead mommy and her kids.’

  ‘You want a woman?’ Rifkin asked. ‘Why not bring in Karyn Seminara? She’s a DC who can at least offer you some experience. Lisa Valentine? Priscilla Stroze? I can keep going, if you want.’

  ‘Because I’ve seen Julia in court. Have you? I had a hearing before Farley last month and I actually caught her giving an opening. She can give the victims a voice, Charley, a face – not just a particular number of years on a résumé. She can keep it human, and she can keep a jury in that room. Especially when things get dull and dry and it’s all about forensics, fingerprints and DNA and everyone wants to take a little nap after lunch. Look, in her three years in this office she’s had more than her fair share of trials – even more than the fair share of a few As and DCs combined – and not counting two hung juries, she’s got a perfect conviction rate to date. Not too shabby, I think. Besides,’ he added, his eyes not yet releasing the Division Chief’s as he sat back slowly in his seat, ‘you might be surprised to find, Charley, that Julia’s got some pretty sharp teeth. And like me, she’s not afraid to use them.’

  Charley Rifkin stared back for a long moment, then held his hands up defensively. ‘Like I said, Rick, it’s your case. Pick who you want, but don’t fuck it up on me. I like to think that after twenty-seven years in this office, I can smell the bad ones – the headaches that come back to haunt you. That come back to haunt this office. This one, I gotta tell you, I think it stinks, Rick. Like the perfect storm, it’s got all the ingredients brewing for high profile. A fuck-up on that can follow you around for the rest of your career.’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Remember that, Ricky. Remember that.’

  Rick nodded, as he smoothed a wrinkle from his suit jacket. ‘I appreciate the warning, Charley.’ Then he turned to Julia. ‘Of course, we may be getting way ahead of ourselves. After all this, I don’t even know if Julia’s gonna want to try this case with me.’

  She had yet to take her eyes off the diploma, not wanting to interject herself any further into the scary little King-Kong-Godzilla-go-round that had gone down right in front of her. Even if it was true that opportunities like this knocked only once, Julia now wasn’t so sure she wanted to open the door, for fear it might just slam back in her face and catch a few fingers in the process. Maybe she wasn’t competent enough to try a murder yet. Maybe she still did have her baby teeth, and everyone would see her struggling to learn the ropes on the eleven o’clock news, like Charley Rifkin was predicting.

  Just a few years ago, Julia Anne Valenciano, Esquire, could never have imagined she would be sitting in this seat. She wasn’t someone who’d always had a burning desire to become a prosecutor, or a judge, or even a lawyer, for that matter. There were no attorneys in her family, no pals whose parents were lawyers. In fact, most of her friends from Great Kills, the Staten Island neighborhood in New York where she mostly grew up, never even went on to college. But even though no one in her family had a college degree, her not getting one was never an option. So after toiling and commuting away four years at Rutgers University in neighboring New Jersey for a liberal arts degree – only to find after graduating that there was no such thing as a career in liberal arts – she’d drifted into law school when the grace period on her student loans was up and a friend told her some of the absurd salaries that lawyers in New York City made. The problem was, she unfortunately discovered after Georgetown had cashed her tuition check, the fields of law that actually paid those absurd salaries made her sleepy, and criminal law was the only class that had truly fascinated her in four long years of night school. Then, in her last semester, and literally only days away from officially throwing out her waitressing shoes and selling her soul on the dotted line to one of the boring Washington DC corporate law firms she detested, she took a trial advocacy class and was instantly and completely hooked on the courtroom. From there it wasn’t too hard to make that leap into Law & Order on Wednesday nights and the role of prosecutor.

  She’d picked Miami because they’d offered, and because, besides having plenty of crime, they’d been the only DA’s office able to enclose with their offer letter a colorful city guide filled with pictures of happy, tan, bikini-clad residents apparently all commuting to work on jet skis and yachts. Of course, the two biggest and warmest and most insistent reasons of all to head down south were her Aunt Nora and Uncle Jimmy, who had homesteaded their condo in Fort Lauderdale years ago. A couple of months into her three-year commitment as an ASA, she’d realized that what was supposed to be a short-term stint at the government’s expense to gain courtroom experience, would actually become her career. Her calling, if you wanted to get all mushy about it. The pay was crummy and the hours were long. There were few weekends she wasn’t in front of her computer, and few nights that she left the office before six or seven – later if she was in trial. But no matter the complaints – from ornery judges and unethical defense lawyers to uncooperative, apathetic witnesses and thankless victims – at the end of most days she still felt as though she’d made a difference, however small, in someone else’s life. And sometimes, when she put a really bad guy behind bars, she knew that the difference she made might actually have been one of life or death, even if she never got credit for it. As a prosecutor, she had the power to change the often cruel world around her, and trying supermarket slip and falls just didn’t seem so important anymore, no matter how much money she could potentially make.

  Now she was being given the chance to take her career to another level. It was an opportunity she knew most prosecutors in her office would never be offered, an opportunity that only an hour ago she would never have hesitated to take. Only now she was unsure of herself. Trying her first murder was one thing; trying her first murder in front of a bunch of cameras, skeptical colleagues and an administration that she knew was waiting to watch her fall was another. Then Julia thought of something else just as troubling. Though she didn’t believe their recently escalated friendship was the reason Rick Bellido was asking her to second-seat, maybe that thinking was just plain naïve.
And while she was confident that no one inside or outside the office knew about, or even suspected, their relationship – or whatever it was they were in right now – if it continued, chances were someone would eventually figure it out. Gossip ran recklessly and purposefully through the State Attorney’s Office, like a match on the trail of gasoline. What then? What would people speculate was the real reason she was second-seating a Major Crimes case? Or worse, she thought suddenly, what if it ended? And even worse than that, what if it ended badly? Then what? A million questions screamed for answers in her head; a million doubts demanded instant resolution. And all the while, she felt both men watching her, waiting for a decision, like a bad reality show, as the seconds slowly ticked by. Your fear of failure, Julia, should never be greater than your fear of regret, another wise maxim espoused by her wise Uncle Jimmy. Uncle Jimmy, the garbage man from Great Kills who could have been a philosopher. What would he tell her to do now? God, she didn’t want to fail and she certainly didn’t want to fail so publicly, but she sure as hell didn’t want to look back and see the now very obvious fork in the winding road of her career. The fork, she could hear herself saying over and over again, that she should have taken. She drew a deep mental breath. Screw Rifkin and his opinion. She could do this. Right?

  ‘I understand your concerns, Mr Rifkin,’ she said, finally moving her eyes off the diploma and looking the Major Crimes Division Chief right in the eye. ‘But I would most definitely welcome the opportunity to second-seat this case.’

  Rick smiled. ‘Great,’ he said, rising and walking back toward the door to open it. ‘Drop off your files, then, and meet me down in the lobby in ten minutes. I want to take you over to the crime scene.’ Rifkin notably said nothing.

  She felt the Lucky Charms churn once again, but nodded expectantly, as if she’d already cleared the rest of the day’s calendar. No time like the present to get her feet not just wet, but completely soaked, she supposed. No time to change her mind. She followed Rick over to the door, thanked both men again, and walked out into the hall to get her cart. When she heard the door shut behind her with a click she finally exhaled the real breath she’d been holding, even though she knew that the conversation back inside was probably far from over.

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