Lloyd rocked a pencil back and forth between his fingers while his pro bono attorney flapped his gums behind the courtroom table. Lloyd could see the lips moving, but the words dissipated in the noise from the wheels of justice spinning hard and fast in the wrong direction. By all accounts, a mediocre lawyer in a thousand-dollar suit still amounted to a mediocre lawyer—a gold-plated tool with a highbrow degree who took the case to flaunt his name in the media circus surrounding the murder of a well-respected sheriff.
At the end of the day, Mr. Francis Tabor Esquire would go home to a cold beer, a hot shower, and a soft pillow. His stuffy, uneventful life would continue despite his client’s ordeal. Win or lose, Mr. Tabor would keep his freedom, his waterfront home with a private slip, and the lease on his new Mercedes.
Lloyd broke the pencil across his middle finger when Jamie entered the courtroom and claimed a front row seat. He watched her open a pack of tissues from her purse and mouth the words “I love you.“ He smiled warmly at her, his thoughts projected at the woman who risked her life to love him, if only for a short time. But to see her and not touch her ripped his heart in half. The thought of life without her was unbearable.
Mr. Tabor folded a sheet of paper over the top of his legal pad. “Mr. Sullivan?” he prodded Lloyd a second time.
“I’m with you,” said Lloyd, staring at Jamie from across the courtroom.
“The judge will ask you if you understand the terms of the plea agreement. He will then ask you if you accept the terms outlined in the agreement. You respond in the affirmative. If the judge asks you—”
“What if I don’t accept the terms?”
“We’ve covered this ground already, Mr. Sullivan. Given the circumstances, it’s a fair deal.”
Lloyd broke away from Jamie’s gaze. “For whom? I’m the one facing hard time in federal prison. How fair does that sound to you?”
“It’s a reasonable offer.”
“Have you ever spent time in prison?”
“No, I have not,” Mr. Tabor acknowledged in a patronizing tone.
“Then none of this plea bargain jargon means shit to you, does it?”
“Mr. Sullivan, I’ve been a criminal defense attorney for thirty years. In my experience, deals like this don’t present themselves very often.”
Lloyd dropped his shackled hands on the table. “In your experience… In my experience, the second you leave the county bus, life in the joint starts to eat at you. Slowly, at first, like a tumor in your brain. It doesn’t kill you right away. It only cripples you. No more freedom. No more family. No more privacy. You’re stripped of everything except the emptiness and the grief you carry with you. Your world revolves inside a cell no bigger than your bathroom. You eat, shit, and shower with the wolves. You turn a blind eye to the sheep too weak to defend themselves because you learn you can’t help everybody, and the more you try, the faster you dig your own grave. Your friends are also your enemies. Your enemy’s enemy is your friend, as long as you provide them with something they want. Every day you wonder if your next meal or your next shower or your next breath of fresh air in the yard will be your last. There are no time outs, no referees, no teammates to cheer you on when you’re up—or scrape you off the floor when you take a beat-down. There’s no compassion, no loyalty, no goodwill toward men. The prison experience conditions you to a life without meaning, without purpose, and most certainly without hope.”
Mr. Tabor adjusted his tie. “I empathize with your plight, Mr. Sullivan, but the evidence is overwhelming. You’re fortunate the interim state attorney is willing to deal at all. His predecessor would have nailed you to the cross.”
“And what if I take the deal?”
“You plead guilty to the lesser charges in exchange for a sentence of twenty years, concurrent with your time served.”
“But I’m not guilty.”
Mr. Tabor pulled a file from his briefcase. “Attempted murder, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, resisting arrest, parole violations… Should I go on? The judge could sentence you to life without parole. You’ll leave prison in a box. Is that what you want?”
“What happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?'”
“This is real life, Mr. Sullivan—not Court TV. If we take this to trial, the state will hammer you. Not to mention, you would still face extradition to California and face additional charges for felony kidnapping, attempted murder, and assault with a deadly weapon. You could spend three to five years in a California jail before your case ever went to trial.”
Lloyd reflected on his attorney’s advice. “Then we agree to disagree.”
“You killed a Lakewood, Florida sheriff.”
“Allegedly. Since when is self-defense against the law?”
“There’s no evidence to corroborate your version of events.”
“You have my word.”
“This is a court of law, Mr. Sullivan. Your word means nothing.”
Lloyd turned his attention back to Jamie. He could smell her perfume from across the room. He could picture his arms around her, holding her tightly and kissing her softly on her tender lips. “What about Jamie’s testimony?”
“Mrs. Blanchart? She’s still facing aiding and abetting charges.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it.”
“Perhaps. But either way, the prosecution would destroy her credibility.”
“Does it bother you to ignore the truth?” asked Lloyd.
“The truth is whatever the state wants it to be. You are a convicted felon who engaged in a sexual liaison with a married woman. A sheriff’s wife no less. You kidnapped her, allegedly, across state lines under willful flight from prosecution in Florida. You then conspired to kill her husband.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“Yours, Mr. Sullivan. And as your attorney, I’m advising you to take the plea. Do the time and get on with your life. You’ve been in the system before and survived. You can do it again.”
Lloyd felt the words roll away like oil in a Teflon pan. “Have you ever been so in love with a woman that you would do anything—give anything—to be with her?”
Mr. Tabor touched the gold wedding band around his ring finger. “I’m a married man.”
“I didn’t ask if you were married,” Lloyd corrected him. He watched the bailiff emerge from the judge’s chambers. “Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. Isn’t that what they teach you in law school?”
“I’m your lawyer, not your priest, Mr. Sullivan. If you decline this plea agreement and go to trial, you will lose. And you will likely spend the rest of your life in prison. Is that what you want out of this?”
The bailiff escorted the judge to his bench. “All rise. This court is now in session. The Honorable Jared Dugan presiding.”
Lloyd pushed his chair back and stood up with his shackled hands in front of him.
“You may be seated,” the bailiff instructed the courtroom.
The judge reviewed the docket. His grey eyebrows grew together at the bridge of his nose, forming a single unibrow that moved like a centipede when he squinted at the pages of legal paperwork. A veteran of the Florida Circuit Court, he had granted hundreds of plea agreements during his tenure—but none as disparaging as the written request in front of him. “I have a busy schedule, Mr. Tabor. If you’re ready to proceed…”
“I am, Your Honor.”
The judge scrutinized Lloyd’s criminal record. “Mr. Sullivan, I’m flabbergasted at how you managed to pull this out. It appears you struck quite a deal for yourself. In all my years on this bench, I can’t recall a more propitious agreement. You’ve broken more laws than I care to recite. And while you’re not the most abhorrent repeat offender I’ve ever sentenced, what you lack in integrity, you make up for with a willful disregard for authority, basic morals, and the value of human life. I’m inclined to quash this plea and ask the state to try again.”
“Your Honor—” Mr. Tabor interjected.
“Save it, Counselor. I’m not in the mood.”
The judge signed the paperwork left-handed. “Mr. Sullivan, have you read the plea agreement presented to you?”
Lloyd cleared his throat. “Yes.”
“Do you understand the terms of this agreement?”
“And do you accept the terms of this plea agreement?”
Lloyd drew a deep breath. Nothing he could do would change the outcome. He could go for the bailiff’s gun and try to blast his way out, maybe snag a hostage and buy some time. But in the end, the outcome would be the same.
“Mr. Sullivan?” the judge asked impatiently. “Are you prepared to accept the terms of this plea agreement?”
Mr. Tabor cleared his throat. “Your Honor, I request a moment with my client.”
“Make it quick, Counselor.”
Mr. Tabor lowered his head and whispered in Lloyd’s ear. “What are you doing?”
“Your Honor,” the prosecutor interjected in a deep voice that rivaled his tiny stature, “will the defendant please answer the question?”
The judge leaned forward in his chair. “Mr. Tabor! Is your client ready to proceed?”
“One moment, Your Honor.”
“That moment has come and gone, Counselor.”
“My client would like to—”
“I changed my mind,” Lloyd told the judge. “I plead not guilty.”
“So noted,” the judge replied. “Do you understand that by declining this plea you could face additional charges excluded from this agreement? And that if found guilty by a jury of your peers, you could be sentenced under legal guidelines to life in prison without parole?”
“He’s innocent!” Jamie shouted from the back of the courtroom.
The judge slammed his gavel. “Ma’am, this court does not tolerate outbursts of any kind. Please restrain yourself, or I will have you removed.”
Jamie stood up and shouted, “You’re all a bunch of fucking criminals!”
“Bailiff!” the judge instructed.
The bailiff took Jamie by the arm as a man in uniform entered the courtroom.
“Your Honor?” The man addressed the judge from the back row.
“Sir, this court is in session.”
“My apologies, Your Honor, but I must request a moment of your time.”
“State your name,” the judge ordered the stranger as all eyes turned upon him.
“Sergeant Ronald Varden.”
“Are you an attorney, Mr. Varden?”
“No, Your Honor. I work for the Florida Department of Corrections. I am Mr. Sullivan’s parole officer.” He raised a folded letter. “Your Honor, I have an affidavit signed this morning by the interim state attorney exonerating Mr. Sullivan of all charges and ordering his release.”
“Mr. Varden, you have no standing in this matter.”
“With all due respect, Your Honor, I ask that Mr. Sullivan be released on his own recognizance and ordered to fulfill the terms of his original parole under my supervision.”
“Sit down, Mr. Varden. I can’t allow you to address this court.”
“Your Honor, if I may approach the bench.”
“This is ridiculous,” the prosecution objected. “Your Honor—”
The judge sat forward on the edge of his chair. “Your objection is noted, Counselor.” He frowned at the courtroom crasher. “This is not a White House dinner party, Mr. Varden. I suggest you tread very lightly, or the next words out of your mouth will land you in contempt.”
Varden handed the folded letter to the judge.
“Why was this not brought to my attention earlier?”
“I apologize for the miscommunication.”
The judge reviewed the letter and the signature at the bottom of the page. He cupped his hand on the microphone for a moment of privacy and signaled for the bailiff to return to his post. “These are serious accusations, Mr. Varden. There’s no evidence to suggest anyone murdered the former state attorney or that he had any nefarious connections with the Florida State Police or the late Sheriff Blanchart.”
“On the contrary, Your Honor, the interim state attorney was also presented with eyewitness testimony to substantiate Sheriff Blanchart’s involvement in this matter.”
“That doesn’t address my concerns about the content of this letter.”
“Yes Your Honor,” Varden acknowledged. “But with all due respect, your concerns fall outside the scope of this decree.”
“I decide the scope of things, Mr. Varden. Whatever favors this cost you, I hope they were worth it.” He folded the paper and shook his head. “Step away from the bench.”
Varden looked back at Lloyd.
The judge uncovered the microphone and addressed the prosecutor’s table. “Was the prosecution made aware of this?”
“No, Your Honor. We were not.”
The judge squinted. His unibrow furrowed between his eyes. “Apparently your boss forgot to send a memo.”
“Your Honor,” Mr. Tabor started, “I would like to request—”
“Save it, Counselor. Mr. Sullivan, I don’t know what lucky star you were born under, but you better pray you never set foot in my courtroom again. I hereby order you remanded to the custody of Sergeant Varden. Per the guidelines of your original sentencing, you are ordered to complete the remainder of your parole. I also remind you that you are still subject to the Florida sentencing guidelines, and that any violation of said guidelines will result in the reinstatement of your full sentence, which you would be required to fulfill. Do you understand these terms as I’ve explained them to you, Mr. Sullivan?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Well then, Mr. Sullivan, you are free to go. Bailiff, please uncuff this man.”
Lloyd raised his arms to the bailiff and felt the shackles drop away.
Jamie ran up and embraced her man with open arms. Tears fell like rain.
Varden waited for the marathon hug to finish and gave a nod to Leslie Dancroft seated in the back row. “Mr. Sullivan…”
Lloyd reached an arm around Jamie and shook Varden’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
Jamie turned her head and forced a smile to extend her own gratitude.
Varden smiled inside but kept a stern face. “Do me a favor,” he said to Jamie. “Make sure he stays out of trouble this time.”