Life Sentence (my friend got 105 years)

With one hour left to Richmond, there are still no leaves on the trees but it’s looking more southern out the window of the cafe car. People come here to eat, not talk, which makes a better place to write than the seat I left two cars back. The train passed a farm with a couple of heavily rusted metal house trailers in the yard and an array of junk, mostly tires and other automotive debris, leaning against a barbwire fence which extended off from the train tracks into high dead grass. The thin asphalt roads stretching through passing shallow valleys have no sidewalks and are lined with sand. Glimpses of water occasionally show to the left of the train, although I don’t know if this is a wider part of the Potomac River, or part of Chesapeake Bay.

I assume trains ran on this track during the Civil War, since the description of Northeast Corridor renovations back at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia stated that most of the corridor track had been initially laid in the 1830s. If trains did run on this path, they must have carried a lot of dead and dying soldiers back to Washington, because the Army of the Potomac body count for the Wilderness, Peninsular and other Virginia campaigns was appalling, even by tolerance levels shaped by 20th century warfare. My understanding is that none of the northern generals were very competent, but that Grant made the fewest mistakes. I wonder if they talked their way through each battle, far from danger in the rear, like incompetents charged with responsibilities beyond their capacity today.

I am southbound to participate in another federal action, a criminal case against one of my few friends from high school in New Jersey which is scheduled for sentencing tomorrow morning. The stakes are high — Rory’s lawyer advised me that the Judge shows every sign of imposing a life sentence for a plan by which Rory charged the government top dollar for a large quantity of items passed off as ultralight and superstrong fasteners for aerospace applications, but in reality, they were no different from the nuts and bolts available from a neighborhood TrueValue hardware store. I am told that the federal government cannot tie any equipment failures to Rory’s fasteners, which under different circumstances could be welcome publicity for America’s Favorite Hardware Store (“we keep ‘em flying!”). It seems that any federal oversight involved in these purchases was either too well-entertained or inattentive to notice that the same fasteners could have been obtained over the counter for a few cents each, but I don’t expect to hear any of that perspective at sentencing. The problem for Rory is that he implemented this plan twice, once in the mid-1990s after which he was convicted and received several years in federal custody, and again around 2004, after which he got even more creative. According the archives of “America’s Most Wanted,” Rory converted his Phase II proceeds into gold which he was able to get across the Mexican border through the services of unsuspecting drug mules, and then got himself across the border, after which he faked his own death in the breakers off Cancun, arranged heavy publicity for that event to lull the FBI into complacence, and then went into comfortable hiding for about four years until someone blew his cover. Based on my memory of Rory’s dark hair, rugged features and large blue eyes, his arrest may have resulted from a relationship gone vengefully wrong.

Rory called me unexpectedly in my office about three years ago, at which point he was in a Mexican jail awaiting extradition to the Eastern District of Virginia. Scared of a federally-recorded phone call and not wanting to skew my chances for partner in the upcoming firm election, I merely advised Rory that the federal government normally obtains extradition, particularly of a US Citizen held by Mexico, and that the best use of his money was to retain a highly competent, high stakes criminal defense lawyer after his return to the US. I could not be that person because I am not admitted to practice law in Virginia, but have regretted not giving more help to Rory when he needed it. Many years ago, from 1977-80, Rory had been a good friend, especially in high school when differences in class and affluence were becoming noticable. Unlike some, Rory never hesitated to include me at a lunch room table or invite me to a party because I did not live in Lake Mohawk or come from an affluent family. Rory was also guilty on both counts. He lived north of Sparta on a twisty rural road, and when asked what his Dad did for a living, he would answer “industrial fasteners,” a term which led a good number of students and not a few teachers to chuckle or request clarification. What Rory meant was “screws,” but that term would have resulted in even more laughter. Thirty years later, that’s what Rory is alleged to have done to the federal government.

It’s almost dark now and we have reached the outskirts of Richmond. The train passes groups of well-kept clapboard houses in colonial colors of blue and yellow, with lots of Christmas lights, separated by patches of forest. Then we pull into Staples Mill station, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. According to my Richmond mass transit schedule, the last bus to Center City left at 5 pm, and it is now ten after. The parking lot is empty in the growing darkness, the woman who sat next to me in the train pretends not to see me as she climbs into a waiting vehicle, but suddenly a cab pulls up. Not wanting to pay but realizing there are no other options, I hail the cab, which pops the trunk, closes the door, and then speeds off.
I note the lack of mass transit to City Center, and my driver agrees, “There ain’t none.” According to his card, my driver is Bubba, and within minutes we are engaged in a detailed discussion of Civil War history. I ask if Richmond burned to the ground like Atlanta while assuming it was, since this was the capital of the Confederacy. Bubba clears his throat and answers in a cigarette baritone that no, in fact a volunteer regiment of free blacks who served the Confederacy started a fire by setting off the remains of an ammunition dump, which led Sherman approaching from the west to believe that Grant had taken the city, and led Grant approaching from the south to believe that Sherman had taken the city, with the conclusion that each hostile force deferred to the other and advanced in a different direction. By the resulting miracle, Richmond was spared destruction, and the City is filled with antebellum red brick structures, many more than would have withstood a large hostile force. This summer I visited Czestochowa, home of the shrine of the Black Madonna who had repeatedly saved Poland from complete foreign devastation and was the only explanation for how a small Polish force was able to rout Stalin’s Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in 1920. She is a celebrity and I wonder if that status grew up around the Black Guard who apparently saved Richmond. I will look for a statue on the way to federal court.

Tarrant’s was recommended by the front desk for dinner. I walked a different route then the recommended path to get there, and on the way passed a small backalley establishment with a sign saying “Tarrant’s Take Out.” I went around the corner, to the entrance of the main restaurant, but the prices sent me back to Take Out, where on the table in front of me soon appeared an economical spread, with unlimited space to write in an empty large-sized booth, and no customers to turn on the TV. There’s no need for ceremony when eating alone, and the bright light by the takeout counter made it easier to type. The absence of company made dinner go fast and I was back at the hotel in less than one hour, talking with Rory’s counsel while pacing the hotel courtyard about what I planned to say. We agreed that recollections about school and Rory being a good friend would be helpful. A new point I formed in the train — that the emphasis in the time we entered the work force (late 80s/early 90s) — was money, and that Rory actually responded to these pressures effectively (his conduct briefly made him a millionnaire), is discarded as too nuanced for judicial consumption. After a third glass of Chardonnay I fall soundly asleep, and unusually for me, don’t wake until the alarm rings at 7.

Richmond again made a good impression as I walked to Court, along a shopping street going east-west like Chestnut in Philadelphia. The street was clean, sunlit, lined with historic redbrick buildings but unfortunately empty, and not just because it was 8:30 in the morning. The delicate storefronts seemed to date from the 1920s, with glassbox windows to display wares, decorative floor tiles at the entryways, imaginative floral details in the brick exterior walls. All still waiting for customers. Fashion clothing, art supplies, jewelry, toys, “Richmond’s Television Store,” each had a rent sign plastered where at this time of year, Christmas sale announcements should be. Most stores looked forlorn, as if they have not seen a customer for a very long time. Do they wait out the years conscious of time, or go to sleep until the people come back? The street was likely a victim of white flight to the suburbs followed by twenty years of big-box retail. Big box, which convinced a population that it should purchase large numbers of synthetic items from China and then put them in landfills when they broke, has not been brought to justice.

I got to Court early and was reviewing my notes when Rory suddenly emerged from a door in the wall and was brought to counsel table by two US Marshals. He was handcuffed and manacled in a blue prison suit, with pants leading down to a pair of shockingly red athletic shoes which I suppose he purchased in Mexico. I wave, he waves back and the Marshals allow me to shake his hand. A keen mind and prodigious memory is immediately apparent. Rory asks me about a girl I liked in 9th grade, who I have not thought of in years, then if I kept playing bass guitar. His questions are as if handed out of a time capsule. There was no serious thought of playing bass after I moved to Oklahoma, because cello made me well known, and the better I got the more popular I became. After a few minutes, Rory’s lawyer comes out the same door as Rory, and I turn over the conversation to him. Next to emerge is the Judge, and soon the proceedings are underway.

It becomes rapidly clear that the federal deck is towering over the defense side of this Courtroom, and that I am the only card Rory has. The Judge gives Rory one break, a two-point downward departure because his modus really did not expose anyone to death or serious bodily injury, but gives the government everything else it asks for, stacking up enhancements based on terms including “sophisticated operation” and “criminal mastermind” until the guideline sentence range, if the punishments are all made consecutive, is 105 years in federal prison, until the year 2116. Despite the overwhelming odds of obtaining a life sentence, the government presents the testimony of a sex offender awaiting conviction for failure to register, concerning comments which Rory supposedly made in jail about how to organize a breakout, including a hint that it would be helpful to blow up a police vehicle in the process. This talk between two bored inmates reminds me of two boys comparing notes on an issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine when they should be paying attention in Theology class, a discussion that Rory and I could have easily had in Tenth Grade without intending real consequences. Despite the unlikely scenario described by the witness (which involved him and Rory conversing freely through ventilation ducts under the watchful eye of corrections personnel), and his unsavory past (Roger’s lawyer does a good job getting admissions that the witness is a professional snitch), the Judge accepts that Rory actively planned an escape from federal custody, and adds a further two-point enhancement to the mix.

That left me as the second witness of the morning. After acknowledging that my last contact with Rory was in 1980, I added that in my opinion, the fundamentals of personality are formed by age 16, and that is how old Rory was when we last had contact, in correspondence exchanged shortly after I moved to Oklahoma in April of that year because my Dad found a job there. I remembered Rory for being inclusive, explaining that there was always a place at the lunch table or study hall when he was around. Bringing the testimony to the present, I mentioned how the few minutes of catching up that morning reminded me why Rory had been a friend to begin with — sharp intellect, optimism, and somehow still a sense of humor. To close, I invoked the Quaker teaching that every human being contains some of the light of God, and that while the wattage may vary, this is a difference of degree, not presence. I then asked the Judge to impose a sentence which would not extinguish that light for Rory, a sentence which would allow some hope of eventual release from incarceration. To my surprise, this introduced a theme to which the government and the Judge each responded. The government argued in rebuttal that the reason Rory’s accomplices got involved and were eventually convicted was the same inclusiveness I talked about. The Judge, while stating that he believed people did have an inviolable light of God and that Rory should use his abilities to help others in prison, followed the government’s argument and imposed a sentence of 105 years.

Because my train was scheduled to leave in 35 minutes and I had not yet checked out of the hotel, I was only able to meet Rory in cellblock for about 5 minutes. He said it was actually a relief to get sentencing over with, to now move on to the appeal. I expressed interest in getting involved, wished him well and then got out of the Courthouse as fast as possible. Stuck at a red light while running back to the hotel, I remembered that Bubba had given me his card, and he was at the hotel within ten minutes. The sky above Richmond was deep blue as my Taxi left the curb and I wondered if Rory could see it.

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