Old City Allentown

Part I – December 29, 2020

A mountain range looms to the north, blue in the winter light and dusted with snow. The rising sun changes the color of the rock face to the west, from a dusky copper to gold, as fleeting blackbirds dot the lightening sky. Some soar close to the second floor windows, a balcony of sorts where I bring coffee each morning. It’s not Boulder or Bavaria, but instead the view from West Turner Street in Old Allentown. The rock face is the massive brick façade of a public school, and the black birds are a flock of determined crows whose main base of operations is the adjoining playground. I have spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia and New York City, but in neither part of the Northeast Corridor did I find a rowhouse with an unobstructed view to the north, where clouds gather daily over the Blue Mountain. Nor did I find a garage or a free standing sun room where I can play cello in the morning without riling the neighbors. I found these favorable conditions in Old Allentown, where against the advice of Lehigh County friends, I moved in last month.

True to the realtor’s description, the house was pristine, but with a color scheme dominated by high gloss mustard, burgundy window sills and a shade of clay that surfaced in unexpected places, even the ceilings. I started painting shortly before Thanksgiving and finished four weeks later. Nights were not yet freezing, so I could soak brushes and rollers overnight in preparation for the next day’s work. The stubborn shades and glossy surfaces needed three coats after sanding, and the project became all encompassing, putting legal work into a temporary back seat. Fortunately I discovered the Muhlenberg College radio station, which accelerated the last few days of solitary scraping, edging and rolling with musical oddities such as David Bowie singing operatic jazz. With my immediate surroundings improved just in time for Christmas, I started to run again, finding a course south on Ninth Street past the PPL Building, descending a mountain path known as Junction Street, then finding the entrance to the Lehigh Parkway.

Here, one unexpectedly finds a fine gravel running path on the side of a creek, and as a Philadelphia resident for the past 25 years, the sights of the next five miles were remarkable. No plastic bags blowing in the bare branches, no trash cans overflowing with dog leavings mixed with bottles and fast food containers, no occasional scream to make you wonder if it was serious or just someone’s way of having fun. The quiet, clear creek was enough, but then I ran into the Christmas decorations for the Parkway. They began with a pair of brightly colored tin soldiers from The Nutcracker, each about 25 feet high, and proceeded to a multitude of brightly lit figures in a wide green meadow, including a troop of elves bringing wheelbarrows full of wish lists into Santa’s Mailroom. I turned around at a covered bridge, red, old but still functioning. The signs said the park closed at 4:30 p.m., and the orderliness of it all made me want to obey the rules, to exit promptly.

The steep road back to the City reminded me of Morningside Park in Manhattan, with ancient staircases made from massive blocks of stone, ascending from a valley that true to the Allentown song, was dominated by what looked like an abandoned steel mill. But unlike the view from Amtrak as it passes through North Philadelphia, this industrial relic was not collapsing, covered in graffiti, or partly consumed by fire. It was just there, shining in the sunset, seemingly awaiting a reopening. I thought it could house the biggest distillery in Pennsylvania as my uphill pace slowed to little more than walking speed. As dusk closed in, the east facing side of the PPL Building became a towering Christmas Tree of green and red light. There was much to appreciate here, but the streets were empty.

The Old Allentown I have seen over the past few weeks has solid infrastructure, safe streets, and block after block of attractive new urban construction. Sadly, the pandemic of the past 10 months has deprived these places of their purpose. People don’t go to the office anymore, nor are they allowed, after hours, to check out the array of new bars and restaurants on Hamilton Street. The adjectives I have come up with for the Arts Walk from Fifth to Seventh Street don’t do it justice, so I will describe the area instead. One enters through an alley at the back of the second Lehigh County Courthouse, the one built in 1914 from gigantic blocks of granite. The floor level back windows, easily ten feet high, are protected by wrought iron grilles that are works of art in themselves. The back door of this building was not intended for public display, instead it connected to a service alley, but it is now a monument to industrial hand work that nobody can do anymore. Walk west past a grassy park, to another service entrance, this one to the Miller Symphony Hall. I am certain that few members of the public, aside from musicians and other performers, have spent time around a stage entrance. I remember them from music school days as an attitude adjustment room, a place to quell pre-performance jitters where dancers smoked before the show. People walking by (where are they?) may notice that the stage entrance shows a grittier side of the performing arts than what the audience sees as the lights dim down. The way west towards Seventh Street passes several outdoor seating areas, again situated near the service entries of large buildings that front Hamilton Street. Here, there would be enough privacy to have lunch alone without feeling odd, with enough visibility to feel safe.

The genius of Arts Walk is in making inaccessible places not only visible, but interesting and worth spending some time in. But upon entering the new brick food court last week for some Eggnog Ice Cream ($8 a pint, worth it), I noted with concern that I was the only customer in sight. Assuming pandemic restrictions ever end, I think the City needs a concerted effort to bring in new residents. A 50th anniversary concert by the Doobie Brothers next summer will fill the streets that night, but the City needs more to grow. Manhattan would be the perfect place to advertise. That city is more crime ridden now than it was in the infamous early 1980s, and if the legal profession is any guide, clients no longer expect or even want a sit-down meeting in the corner office of a trophy building in Midtown. There are billboards on the Northeast Extension, depicting the wholesome family fun to be had in the Lehigh Valley for northbound drivers who already know about it. Why not install a few signs in North Jersey, across from a refinery or in the swampy approach to Manhattan by the landfills, telling those suffering commuters that life could be much better (walk to work, own a home!), a mere 90 miles due west.


March 30

The seriousness of the pandemic became more evident yesterday, with hospital ships floating into New York and LA to take on excess patients. Staying inside on another rainy day, there was not much difference between Sunday and Monday, but habits formed by 25 years of lawyering had me typing early.  By the end of the day, I had filed four motions asking federal judges to release defendants from prison as they await trial, based on the fast-growing risk that the pandemic will hit prisons with a vengeance because social distancing is not possible in that setting.  Not one member of judicial staff responded to my correspondence sending the filed motions. There was no response from “chambers” to schedule a hearing or even acknowledge receipt of the written submissions. This tells me that judicial staff are not reporting to work at the federal courthouse, despite its reopening on March 30, because they correctly perceive a massive risk to their health from doing so.

Another odd circumstance was the complete lack of similar motions by other lawyers in the other cases I am involved in. Three of the four cases where my clients are in custody involve multiple defendants. In a newer case, the Superseding Indictment alleges that the defendants took part in various drug and sex trafficking-related criminal activities at a rooming house in the City of Reading, thereby conspiring to participate in a racketeering enterprise in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962 (d). I don’t write this way, but that’s what the Indictment says. There are 14 other defendants in this case, all in custody, all in massive amounts of trouble, but to date nobody else has filed a motion seeking their release from prison. I am not self-promoting here, just wondering what was happening on the same day the President announced the continuation of pandemic-containing guidelines to April 30. Have people given up, are they so distracted by seamless iPhone access to bad news that they cannot focus, has the unlikely prospect of payment anytime soon for lawyer work led them to do nothing. I don’t know which it is, but I suppose the last excuse for inactivity makes sense.

No pay, no work. A basic rule, one would think, from landscapers to lawyers. But not in the strange world of classical music. It may be my background in this pursuit that leads me to work without assurance of compensation. Learning the cello repertoire involved no pay and all work. It did not even come with the promise of pay in the distant future – what a medical resident can hold on to during the brutal years of sleep-deprived training.  After a decade largely spent in a practice room, attending Juilliard and winning a cello competition, I was still broke. Thirty years later, making money and playing cello are those two ships that pass in the night. Proof can be found in the two months spent preparing for a major recital on February 29. When the applause (a standing ovation, actually) subsided, there were three things to show for it: (1) we got our fingers back, which means we were in performance shape again; (2) neighbors were glad to attend a quality public event without the need to go to Center City; and (3) the Church where we played happily collected a larger donation from those who attended than for a typical Sunday service. There was no economic argument to justify this recital, but still I practice, especially now with closure of my office building and no good reason to enter Center City anyway. Thanks to self-quarantine, I have gotten back the entire Haydn C Major concerto, a piece I played frequently in the mid-1980s but have not touched since then. Is this an accomplishment or a bad habit that cannot be broken? Logic, which I am about to talk about, supports the latter conclusion.

Going back to the motions, there’s not much to disagree with in the opening statement of the one that I filed for a young defendant stuck in an Allentown prison for the past two months: “The neighboring states of New Jersey and New York are now an epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, and it is only a matter of time before the numbers of severely ill Coronavirus patients in Philadelphia, Allentown, and the surrounding cities of Southeastern Pennsylvania drastically increase.” However, I doubt the judge will terminate J’s custody, based on a conclusion that if this is a sufficient reason to release someone from prison, then the entire facility will need to be emptied. Affirmative, Captain. That is the basic approach here, that some problems are so severe that novel measures should be applied to them, especially since this culture reputedly values life above all else. I am not arguing for the release of a homicidal maniac, but that does not matter to devotees of the Socratic Method.

I have been amazed since law school days how professors and other authorities could construct a “logic” argument based on something that is not at issue. Stated otherwise – since my argument, if taken to its ultimate conclusion, would empty the jail, then it must be rejected for a non-violent offender who has every reason to stay inside and out of trouble if he is sent home to his mother (praying every day to saints of the Dominican Republic) during the pandemic. The logic that our judge will likely use to deny my motion has nothing to do with exigent circumstances or even reality, but for reasons I don’t understand much of the legal profession and especially judges are committed to the rule of logic. Taking logic to its own ultimate outcome generally results in doing things as they have always been done. This pandemic may ultimately change that stasis.

I advised the families that I had filed motions seeking the release of their sons from prison, and they responded with thanks, prayers for a good outcome, and questions about when the judge would decide. These filings brought hope, an intangible that improves any situation while it prevails. For this alone, they were worth doing.

March 25

Christmas was three months ago. That morning, my youngest daughter led the congregation in song for the two morning masses at St. Bridget’s. Away at Columbia for Fall semester, it had been months since she worked with Bill, our parish musician. But having done so many masses together since high school years, the services came together easily. The live acoustic of this stone floor Catholic Church just up the hill from the Schuylkill River favors high frequencies, making a lower register the best contribution the cello can bring to Mass. So I covered the bass line. It was a cold, clear day, and doing two masses in a row was a welcome form of service. Home by noon, we opened a few modest presents and started to prepare Christmas dinner while tending a fire in the living room hearth.

A few days before, I received notice that a federal judge had approved my compensation request for a Court-appointed case that had dragged on for three years, but in the process had accumulated enough hours of legal work to pay the upcoming semester of college tuition.  Money has always been uncertain since I left White and Williams in Philadelphia nearly ten years ago. In fact, paydays back then as a junior partner were fewer and farther between than they are now.  I am no entrepreneur, and it has been the curse of my careers in law (and previously in music) that I prefer to get the job done than think about how much I can publicize or charge for it. An enduring naivete, that if I won the case both money and firm recognition would follow, led to a sad end at White and Williams, where I did not realize the overriding importance of office politics until too late. But last Christmas, financial concerns took a temporary back seat to the holidays. We went to mass at the Basilica in Center City on New Year’s Day and started in with 2020.  The name of this year is the most futuristic yet. Until writing this, I had forgotten how odd “2000” looked when the 20th Century came to an end. But so much was going on, raising babies, getting them through school, finding a house and trying to make money, that I did not realize how fast time was passing. The teen years of the new century coincided with our daughters’ same phase, and now they are almost adults, living at home only because it is the plague time.

Two months ago, the year had made a promising start. With my office back in Center City I was doing a lot more walking, mainly 22-block round trips to federal court. Out of a car and on the street, I was surprised to see how miserable most people looked up close during the first week of January. I was able to resolve several criminal cases that month, and in February added two new cases for private clients. We ended the second month of 2020 with a Leap Day recital at the Presbyterian Church next door. The program went well, the sanctuary was filled and our decision to donate the freewill offering to the Church gave it a bigger collection than usual. Then came March, with Columbia dorms closing on March 13, my oldest daughter getting one of the last flights out of the UK on March 18, and the Pennsylvania Governor issuing an Order closing most non-essential to life businesses on Friday, March 20. Many people in Philadelphia were slow to take the pandemic seriously, and I joined those ranks by making a last trip to the state liquor store on March 14, before they all closed three days later.

From stop signs merely advisory to the fast food packaging thrown out of cars when they do stop, there is a high rate of background illegality in Philly. In the virus context, this shows in the frequent groups of more than six people I tried to avoid yesterday on the Kelly Drive running trail. It also surfaced at my turnaround point, the crew race reviewing stand half-way to Center City. The adjoining parking lot was filled with cars at 2 pm on a weekday, the occupants engaged in strolling conversation while a strong scent of weed lingered, dense enough to resist the breeze from the river. I wondered as jogging home if smoke would accelerate the virus by drying the throat, or if a belief had formed that weed conferred virus immunity by making one sufficiently “chill” to not worry about it. I have no doubt that at large law firms, people are still trying to outdo each other through face time at the office, in hopes that the compensation committee will remember their bravery when the time comes. Over the last quarter century in this City, I have learned that the Philadelphia status quo is extremely durable. Those who reaped the rewards of being part of the ruling class don’t change their ways. At this point, the virus has still not convinced them that this time, more than 9/11 and the near-death experience of big law in 2009, things are changing at a pace previously unimagined.

After climbing the steep rise of Midvale Avenue at a pace that was probably slower than walking, I arrived home to blossoms opening about two weeks ahead of schedule due to that other multinational problem, global warming. Although it was only 3 pm, I mixed a medicinal shot of rum with cranberry juice to celebrate covering two miles more than on Sunday. The rest of the day passed with normal, some would say compulsive, activities. I practiced cello yet again, then did my normal 30 minutes of German on Duolingo, a language learning app that actually helped me speak it in Leipzig last summer. Duolingo is perfect for those of us with obsessive compulsive disorder, because it keeps track of how many consecutive days you have studied.  This week, I could not resist the lure of 100 consecutive days, and then breaking the 16,000 level for “gems,” which one accumulates as completed lessons stack up. The earliest notice in late February that the virus was actually a huge problem came from German news sites, which I review in the morning as a real-world compliment to grammar drills on Duolingo. With cello and language studies done, I overheard the evening news, and it was bad. The reports of bodies being kept in tractor trailers outside major New York hospitals moved me to thank Columbia University for getting it right and closing the dorms 12 days earlier. It took less than two weeks for the business as usual vibe I noted in Manhattan during the March 13 move-out to vanish completely. When complacency eaves Philadelphia remains to be seen.

Plague Time Journal

The Leap Day cello/piano recital took all of February to prepare. I planned the recital during the Christmas holiday, guessing that two months, starting in earnest on January 1, would be enough time to get ready, and so it was, although the last two weeks were five, six, sometimes even seven hours each day. We played the pieces over and over again, slow practice as taught in music school, first thing in the morning and then late into the night after work. When I could no longer stand the repetition, I added the George Crumb solo sonata to the practice list, a technical workout too modern for our expected audience, but perfect to build hand strength, like gymnastics. An upcoming public performance awakens lingering doubts – what if I forget, my bow shakes, or the last movement of the Brahms e minor sonata falls apart because I can’t keep up with the racing piano. The only remedy for lingering doubts about a performance is excessive practice, and again it worked. The Church was full, tempos faster than planned but still manageable, a standing ovation with plenty to drink at the reception that followed. As with each recital I have done since going to law school after Juilliard, the process confirmed that I would gladly play cello all day, every day. It could be the Blue Danube waltz or a Shostakovich concerto – I started the process early enough, as a child in 1975, that the X-Y axis of the fingerboard and the different challenges of bow control remain unending sources of fascination. If only this pursuit made real money.

While learning to do it in the 1980s, it seemed possible to make a living. But by 1989 the odds of finding a steady pay orchestra job were similar to being struck by lightning, since it was generally necessary for someone in the cello section to die first. Things changed quickly, as the core audience able to follow the development section of a Brahms sonata fell away. Knowing the additional damage that cellphones have done to attention spans, we structured the recital to provide interesting pieces that came in, without intermission, at just over one hour. This did not prevent an audience member from sitting about four feet away from me, in a forward pew I assumed people would stay away from, and knit (clickity-clack, clickity-clack) for the duration of the Boris Chaikovsky solo suite. Maintaining concentration was a battle that worked, and the Knitter made a good war story for the neighbors I could still talk to during the first two weeks of March.

There was none of that this past weekend, and after one last legal filing on Saturday morning, I set up a chair that afternoon and played solo Bach in the front yard. In a scene impossible pre-pandemic, cars stopped, people got out and filmed, a few couples sat far away to listen, people I did not recognize actually thanked me, saying “this is what we need now.” I will do it again next weekend, but now it’s a cold rainy Monday. At this time last month Judy and I were in the final stages of recital preparation, with Coronavirus something safely contained in Europe. Now, there is no legal work to do because Courts are closed and filing deadlines suspended. In a massive irony, there is at the moment no money to be made in law either. Some fast research into plague indicates that it was a frequent visitor to Tudor England, where “outbreaks were particularly bad in London, in 1603, 1625 and 1636, doubtless due to growing congestion.” See Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (17th ed. 2005) at 611. Until now, I had never experienced a plague. The media prefers the more clinical term, pandemic, but plague speaks more strongly to the lives, work and economy that the virus is destroying.

Ten days ago, on March 13 when Columbia University shut down, the situation in New York felt normal. The directive to empty dorms by noontime meant nothing to parking police, who ticketed me and every other vehicle filling up off Broadway with the remnants of a school year that was ending two months early. I argued with the enforcer (as did Columbia security), so he wrote another ticket for the plastic cover on my suspiciously Pennsylvania license plate. The collegiate rowing season had canceled that morning, and my daughter suspected that graduation would be the next victim of overreaction. She did not believe the danger, nor did I while waiting for Sabina to say her goodbyes.

I crossed Amsterdam to get away from the enforcer (arrest seemed the next logical step for him) and found a spot of doubtful legality just up from Mt. Sinai Hospital on W. 114th. It was probably doctors-only parking, but a helpful vandal had removed the sign, and surely the metal post alone was insufficient evidence for another violation. Still, I stayed close to our aging CR-V, pretending to await a patient pickup while doctors, nurses and patients streamed in and out of the hospital doors, none wearing masks, most in close proximity to other people. By 12:30 it was lunchtime, and a sequence of New York types still recognizable from when I lived there 30 years ago streamed by. Construction workers, still smoking, still profane but now wearing Hi-Viz. Orthodox Jews, still in black with yarmulkes, but somehow more fashionable than before. It was Friday in Manhattan, spring was in the air and it seemed pointless to leave. I briefly considered stopping at Bierstrasse, a German-themed beer bar at the foot of the on-ramp to the Henry Hudson parkway, but there was nothing to celebrate. I took the upper level of the George Washington Bridge, so Bina could better see the dark expanse of the Hudson, where her crew team sometimes practiced in the shadow of ocean-going vessels. We got back to Philadelphia in less than two hours, because the NJ Turnpike was empty, the eight lanes in each direction looking like overkill, which is what the media seemed to be doing with the virus that day. In Pennsylvania we still have state liquor stores, and as a precaution I purchased vodka, rum and two boxes of wine that evening. A festival atmosphere prevailed at the checkout counter, with workers predicting imminent closure. It seemed impossible but came to pass five days later.

Sabina held her parents responsible for enabling the exaggerators until it was time to go to Newark International, to meet her older sister’s flight from London Heathrow. Kate started a Ph.D. in Physics at Oxford this past October. Her college hall was founded in 1610, early in the reign of James I, and the great age of Oxford led me to assume it would stand like a fortress, professors and students hunkering down among medieval towers with candles and wine cellars until the crisis passed. I was wrong, and during the weekend of March 14 Kate got increasingly spooked as the town emptied out, and flights back to the United States became harder to find. By the time we bought a ticket, there were only a few remaining exits, to Dulles and Newark. Contrasting with the bedlam scenes from the second week of March, Heathrow was deserted by the time Kate arrived hours early for her flight out on March 18, and there were 17 people on the plane.

After four years as an undergraduate in Scotland, Kate knew to run towards US customs immediately after exiting the plane, and this time it would be a health risk to land at the back of a long slow line of incoming passengers. They took Kate’s temperature, found nothing, and reminded her of the 14-day voluntary quarantine for UK arrivals. Outside Terminal C where we waited, there was plenty of room to park, among signs warning of catastrophic fines and circling tow trucks. Similar to the week before outside Mt. Sinai, I paced around the CR-V to reinforce the impression that our passenger would arrive at any moment. A few Port Authority police vans stopped in front of the terminal as we waited. I expected at least a warning, but instead the officers got out, looked around, piled back in and then sped off without a glance in our direction. The quiet reminded me of the late 1970s, when my father regularly flew in and out of Newark to work at chemical plants out west. The economies of the Carter administration had shuttered one of the terminals, and I am certain we never spent any money on parking as we waited for Dad’s plane to arrive. Kate soon emerged, from a different terminal that was likewise deserted. Traffic on the Turnpike was even lighter than the Friday before, and the entire round trip, waiting included, took less than four hours. I went for a run to shake off the drive, only to see many others still driving. Traffic on Kelly Drive leaving the City was heavy, stretching nearly one mile south to the statue of Ulysses Grant across from the river. It looked like the aftermath of a fatal car accident, the type that texting behind the wheel has made a daily occurrence in the area. But there was no accident, and it was only 3 pm on a Wednesday. People were getting out.

I had a conference with a federal judge that morning, to resolve the extent to which the Government needed to provide me with discovery (witness statements, surveillance, covert audio recordings, etc.) that preceded the arrest in the Philippines of a sex-trafficking defendant I had been asked to represent by his cousin, another lawyer. The defendant had been indicted, but the Government had still refused to provide discovery information on grounds the defendant had not yet been extradited to the United States. My response was that nobody knew when extradition would finally happen given the virus, and that under the circumstances there was every reason for me to at least get started with reviewing what would likely amount to stacks of evidence against my client. I expected the District Judge to make a ruling during the phone call, but he retreated, saying he had received both sides’ written submissions, understood the issues and would issue a written decision “shortly.” That was five days ago, and in the meantime, the entire legal economy of Philadelphia has shut down. Law is a deadline-driven profession, but with Courts closed and filing deadlines indefinitely suspended by judicial fiat, there is nothing left to do now. I suspect that former colleagues at large law firms are still going in to facetime senior partners, perhaps believing that the perceived importance of their work takes precedence over the Governor’s Order of last Friday closing all but “life-essential” businesses. I gathered a few things from my office this past Saturday and have no plans to return anytime soon.

It is now March 23, ten days after a Friday the 13th that delivered with a vengeance, including the Columbia dormitory shutdown, permanent migration of classes online, the looming and now realized cancellation of graduation, and the pair of parking violations that I received as a parting gift from the City. No doubt the narrative and supporting photos I sent in to contest the violations will sit in an electronic queue, awaiting review indefinitely. Two federal hearings scheduled for today were moved to mid-May, and it is by no means clear that the need for self-quarantine and social distancing will be finished by then. It’s cold and raining outside and I’m glad to have run yesterday. I join in the hopeful theory that regular strenuous exercise may help prevent contracting the virus. With this journal finally started, it’s now time to practice. Since I can’t do that all day, stories about things I experienced in school and on stage will hopefully follow.

Acceptance of Responsibility

Every day, in federal district courts around the country, criminal defendants are encouraged to accept responsibility for their acts. If they do so, the presiding judge invariably gives a lighter sentence, and in the process commends the defendant for taking ownership of what they did, while accepting the consequences. The extensive investigatory resources of the federal government are one of the forces behind the prevalence of guilty pleas, another is the typically lengthy sentence that awaits a federal criminal defendant if he takes a case to trial and loses. After a three-month trial, one of my clients received a 25-year sentence, even though he was acquitted of 14 counts of the Indictment, and had no prior criminal record. Federal prosecutors and defense counsel such as myself agree – if federal criminal defendants stopped pleading guilty, the federal judicial system, nationwide, would grind to a halt.

If Brett Kavanaugh is named to the Supreme Court, the majority of cases he helps decide will be criminal appeals, arising from a system which could not function without something that the Nominee is unable to do: Accept responsibility for acts that evidently happened. If the Nominee had simply done what every federal defendant is at some point urged to do, his testimony of September 27, 2018 could have lasted a few minutes, and the nomination would already be secured, without protests, unending expenditures, and another F.B.I. investigation. It could have gone something like this:

“I was a smart, overachieving, but at times thoughtless teenage boy. I attended parties, where like many of my friends, I drank excessively. In that state, I did things that I am ashamed to admit and now, 30 years on, can barely remember. But based on the testimony from Dr. Ford, they evidently happened. I can only be grateful that the outcome was not even worse. I apologize to Professor Ford, and hope she can someday forgive me. Even more, I hope and pray that my own daughters never have to endure what I apparently did to Dr. Ford that day so many years ago.”

That would have been it. A shocked and grateful nation would likely have commended the Nominee for taking it on the chin, accepting responsibility, and for being a Man in the best sense of the word. The debate would be over, the press moving on. Whether we call it irony, hypocrisy, or something worse, Brett Kavanaugh will ultimately decide the fate of defendants who lacked his advantages, but were able to do something that is apparently beyond his capacities: Accept responsibility.

Defense Verdict

I obtained late in the day on April 20, 2017 a defense verdict in a Philadelphia jury trial. During two decades of trying cases, I have had several trials scheduled to start on Easter Monday, but none actually went forward. This time things were different. My client faced three charges based on illegal possession of a handgun, and a mandatory minimum of 10 years incarceration had he been convicted. At trial, we had to deal not only with the loaded 9 mm Taurus that police claimed to have recovered from a residential walkway near where my client was arrested, but with the equally fearsome weapon obtained from a fellow member of my client’s motorcycle club, who was arrested at the same time.

The factual setting of the case was a motorcycle club party gone bad, with two fatalities that the District Attorney mentioned at every opportunity. However, in the absence of evidence that my client used, held or even touched the weapon in question, the Commonwealth relied on a theory of constructive possession, that my client must have possessed the gun since police recovered it from a darkened walkway, about 6 inches behind my client, after police directed him to sit down and await backup.

The Commonwealth’s brash confidence began to waiver after my client testified. He did very well, explaining what he did that night and that he never possessed a handgun, while avoiding the traps that generally snare most defendants who testify on their behalf. He did not argue with the prosecutor and did not insist on a version of events that portrayed him in the best possible light. Sure, it was dark that evening, but he didn’t deny that streetlights were in the area, and he didn’t deny dropping his leather club vest when the police first arrived on the scene. Far from an attempt to “hide the evidence,” my client explained that he had no choice to drop it, when the officer asked him to show his hands.

The jury agreed that given the hundreds of people who walked near the area to exit the party gone bad, the gun could have come from anywhere, and that the generally dark conditions of the area after midnight (despite a few streetlights in the area) could have hidden the weapon from the officer’s sight at the point he told my client to sit down on the walkway. During deliberations, the jury asked if the Commonwealth had traced the weapon or conducted gunshot residue (GSR) testing to support the argument that my client had not only possessed, but actually used the gun minutes before he was arrested.

In the absence of any testing, our judge instructed the jury that they would need to rely on their collective recall of the evidence. Understanding that this actually meant that no such tests existed, the jury returned a defense verdict on all charges about 30 minutes later. Speaking with a juror post-verdict confirmed my initial assessment of the case – that there were too many gaps in the proof to connect the gun to my client. It also confirmed that the jury had a deep collective knowledge of what issues matter in a gun case. Not only were they surprised by the lack of GSR testing, they wanted to know why the Commonwealth had not traced the gun to identify the legitimate owner, and could not rule out that my client’s co-defendant, who sat next to him on the steps, had not been the one who placed the gun on the walkway behind my client.

After collecting my file and reorganizing it, I slung a heavy trial bag over my shoulder and walked north to where I was parked. It was a chilly spring evening, green leaves emerging under a threatening dark sky. My client returned to his job as a chef for a prestigious Center City caterer, and I returned to the paperwork and unread emails waiting in the office. I have heard that despite the difficulty of their work, emergency first responders learn to love it, due to the freedom from routine and unread text messages. Trial work is similar, and after 17 jury trials, I can truly say that I look forward to the next one.

What I did last fall

The attached transcript is a snapshot of the federal trial I defended last fall in Philadelphia, from the start of jury selection on September 7, through the return of verdict on December 8, 2016. The complete transcript, including the testimony of more than 50 witnesses, covers thousands of pages. By the time I brief the appeal, I will likely have read all of it. Complex litigation tends to take over your life for years at a time. My involvement in this case began on February 5, 2015, and will likely last for two more years minimum. My current record is a class action I defended for a large insurance company, which began in April of 2008 (I had just become a partner at White and Williams) and did not end until November of 2014. During those six years, my daughters went from elementary school students to upperclassmen in high school, and I suspect they will long remember “the PMA case” as the litigation I defended for so long.

In the federal trial that ended last December 8, I presented two extremely well-credentialed, articulate, and personable experts who explained to the jury the solid medical reasons why they disagreed that the drug-related death in the case could be classified as an opioid-related death. The interactions between the five controlled substances found in the decedent’s system post-mortem are unpredictable, and one of them, cocaine, can be lethal even in relatively small doses. Given the decedent’s use of crack on the afternoon he passed, and his prior development of serious heart problems caused by years of cocaine abuse, our experts agreed that if one had to assign blame to a single drug for causing this death, cocaine was the leading candidate.

Despite all this, the jury convicted my client of a drug delivery resulting in death, while acquitting my client of a myriad of less serious charges spread throughout the indictment. When I spoke with ten of the 12 jurors after the verdict, they congratulated me on a job well done, but remained mainly silent on their reasons for convicting on the “death count.” Was it a reaction to pervasive media coverage of the “opioid epidemic” throughout the trial, or was it possibly a sympathetic response to the decedent’s spouse, who came before the jury as a person devastated by her own addictions? We will never know, and this is one of the risks and mysteries of trying cases. Juries can be motivated, despite numerous instructions to the contrary, by things that never come into evidence.

US v Bado November 28 16



What Storm?

For the second time this winter, and the fifth time in recent memory, the Philadelphia media greatly overstated the impact of a low-key East Coast snowstorm, with the result that all local government (and most local business) closed for the day. This was the same day when I left home on empty roads at 9 am, the snow had stopped by 11, and the accumulation I left work to shovel had largely disappeared by the time I arrived back home at 3:30. Everyone loves a snow day, and it may be nowhere more deserved than in the Northeast United States, where Americans on average take the least amount of vacation, and there is no shortage of younger, more technologically savvy applicants to take the place of complacent and less competent administrative staff. However, our community willingness to allow a television weather personality to tell us when it is safe to go outside or go to work raises questions about autonomy, self-determination, and the current willingness to deal with the minor inconveniences that have always been part of winter.

People in northern climates have never been able to write-off one-quarter of the year on grounds that the roads may be icy and it might even snow. Hannibal crossed the Alps in winter, and Friedrich Barbarossa chose the same season to camp out on the front door of the Pope’s winter castle for a few weeks, to beg forgiveness for a minor misunderstanding of Christian doctrine. The late middle ages have in retrospect been dubbed a “little ice age,” although the burghers shown skating down canals in the works of Netherlands masters from the same era seem to be enjoying it.

Slightly more recently, in the winter of 1979, my older brother and I thought nothing of driving off in heavy snow, in a vehicle “equipped” with rear wheel drive and balding bias ply tires, to spend the afternoon skiing in the Poconos, and then digging the car out in the darkness and driving home, all the time without cellphones. Sliding off the road surface in darkness with no certainty of rescue was a possibility, but personal responsibility took care of that, and it added up to a risk we were willing to take for the sake of a cheap lift ticket on the best conditions of the year.

Today’s conditions, where schools, churches and local government all canceled operations, were a good deal more benign. But an expectation of the “snowicaine” had been paved by computer-generated models that snowed worst-case scenarios with two feet of snow covering Independence Hall, and best case outcomes still including 12 inches precluding anything but PennDOT snowplows from venturing into Center City. I have no idea how the data could be followed, but it’s not a stretch to believe that more people are watching TV, and responding to commercials by buying things, when the ominous approach of a dangerous winter storm is the lead story of the evening news.

Three things should have told us that media warnings of this storm, and the accompanying exhortations to stay home and “be safe” at all costs, were greatly overblown. The first is today’s date, March 14, 2017, with exactly seven days of winter remaining. When has anyone been stuck in the snow shortly before St. Paddy’s Day, and how often has a major storm struck after Daylight Savings Time (this year on March 12) took effect? Even when the skies cloud up, the sun is high in the sky until 6 pm these days, and that does not bode well for advanced snow accumulation. No doubt the weather-caster whose previous job could have been on the cover of Cosmopolitan had an explanation, but did it outweigh our collective experience with something called spring? I doubt it.

The second reason for doubt was the nature of winter this year. President’s Day weekend on February 18–20 was the warmest on record, to the extent I rode my motorcycle to central Pennsylvania with my wife in passenger position, and it was positively hot by the time we arrived in Annville in Lebanon County, making us shed two layers of bike clothing before having lunch and a (light) beer before riding back to Philadelphia. Weeks of abnormally warm winter weather had warmed the ground to the extent that a long-term freeze was impossible. This fact was also lost on the safety authorities.

The third reason for informed doubt that was the media’s track record in forecasting winter storms this year. When I came home late on the evening of February 8 after an orchestra rehearsal in Manayunk, the streets were deserted, window wipers were up on all the cars, and the state store was full of revelers counting on the next morning off. They were not disappointed, even though not a flake of snow was falling by daybreak, the roads were empty, and I had no difficulty finding parking directly across from federal court in Philadelphia, because the media, similar to the Pope’s visit, had scared everyone off from Center City. Even the court appearance I had driven into town for was canceled. Despite the prime location of the US Attorney’s Office (one block south of the courthouse), no representative of that office could be found to attend my client’s arraignment. They were all at home in the suburbs, despite the SUV in the garage. As for my client, she had no difficulty coming into town, despite recent brain surgery that has affected her sense of balance.

Why do people accept warnings of an impending snow-related disaster when their own experience and recent events all point in the other direction? I suspect that the answer is the power of consensus in the age of Social Media. If everyone takes the storm report seriously, and acts accordingly, then nobody needs to go to work, and nobody needs to feel uncomfortable about staying home, as the media has approved this course of action as decent — consistent with caring about the safety of family and loved ones.

But groupthink has its costs, among them the ability to venture out without certainty we will get to our destination, but with the knowledge we probably will if we look well ahead down the road and don’t panic. This lesson applies to many aspects of life and work, but nobody who stayed at home today learned it. Dealing with risk was always part of winter, and the relief of getting home safely, despite the odds, created a certain confidence in our ability to deal with adversity in general, whatever the season. When the slightest amount of trouble closes schools, when there’s never a slushy walk to the bus stop because someone might fall and get hurt, we lose something greater than winter. We lose the ability to deal with the unexpected, which remains inevitable in this life.

Motorcycle Survival and the Art of Trial Work

People in the office eventually realize that I ride to work. There’s no other explanation for the Hi-Viz jacket with body armor, the black buckled boots that could have been lifted from an infantry museum, the message from my mechanic that the new chain and rear sprocket went on just fine. The jacket yields to a suit, and the boots to more reasonable shoes, but the mind set of motorcycle survival remains with me throughout the working day. For two-wheeled survivors, riding isn’t an escape from speed limits and other restrictions of responsible society. It has nothing in common with the masked man who pops a wheelie the entire length of the Girard Street Bridge in Philadelphia. Instead, it’s total focus: predicting which cars will abruptly turn in front of me, scanning the road constantly for debris and obstacles, and always checking mirrors before I stop, for the texting driver too close who doesn’t notice the red light or me. Three rules of cycle survival have also served me well in the courtroom: (1) look well ahead; (2) look where you want to go (not where you don’t); and (3) develop total situational awareness. Aside from the rules, there is also the realization that something unexpected happens on every ride, from the left lane vanishing without warning in a construction zone, to the cloudburst on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in the mountains near Pittsburgh, surrounded by semi-trailers. Aside from preparation, the ability to improvise under deteriorating conditions is another necessary aspect of trial work.

  1. Look Well Ahead

Since we are not encased in metal and lack seat belts with airbags, it’s essential for the rider to see problems far down the road, before the drivers do. It’s too late to notice a broken muffler in the roadway when you are about to ride over it, too late to realize you are in a blind spot when the car in the neighboring lane drifts towards you like a browsing whale, too late when the deer is literally in your headlights. The same holds true for trial work. For instance, it’s generally too late to compose your closing argument the night before the jury will hear it. I start working on it days before, during the lawyer down-time that accompanies the Court’s opening instructions to the jury. I write down what was so important that everyone heard it at the beginning, even those not finally selected as jurors. There’s the definition of reasonable doubt – a standard that is exceedingly high by design because a false positive (the innocent convicted) is the ultimate system breakdown in criminal justice. It’s not a stretch to tell the jury that beyond a reasonable doubt is the key to justice, the word that’s carved above the southern pedestrian exit from City Hall, looking down the Avenue of the Arts.

There’s also the lack of any obligation on the part of the defendant to testify, although in an age of instant social media commentary about anything, it’s a rare case in 2016 where my client does not tell his side of the story, as messy as the telling may eventually become. When that happens, the instruction that defendant had every right to remain silent earns him a gold star: He took the stand despite no obligation to do so (and it’s no surprise that an A.D.A. with college and law degrees was able to occasionally outsmart him in the process). Finally, there’s the instruction that the comparative number of witnesses called by one side or the other does not matter. Fortunately, the criminal justice system does not teach jurors the approach that General Nathan B. Forrest followed during the Civil War, of “getting there firstest with the mostest.” At trial, the first to go with the most witnesses is inevitably the Commonwealth. At my most recent jury trial this past June, the Commonwealth called the alleged victim, followed by a responding officer, the detective who took my client’s statement in broken English, and the sergeant who retrieved the surveillance video that ultimately acquitted my client of Aggravated Assault. When it was our turn, the sole witness was the defendant, because his English-fluent daughter could not take time from her job as a medical assistant on the Main Line, and his former spouse had left him over the financial pressures that followed criminal charges and temporary incarceration. The Court’s opening instructions to potential jurors provide a good framework for closing argument, and the length of these instructions generally gives defense counsel a good hour or so to work on the closing before testimony even begins.

The importance of looking well ahead surfaces during many other aspects of trial. It’s too late to fret over a bad answer when you still have good issues to cover with the same witness. Getting the negatives out of the way on direct, before the Commonwealth takes them out on cross-examination, is another way of looking well ahead. By the time the Commonwealth asks your client about his theft conviction from five years ago, they will already have heard it from the defendant, with an explanation that when he was guilty he entered a plea, but not in this case. Overall, it’s too late for regrets when there’s still time to salvage the situation down the road. So look well ahead.

  1. Look where you want to go (not where you don’t)

A strange but absolute rule of cycling is that the bike will go where you look, at any speed and under any conditions. It’s a mysterious bond between man and machine, but I am told that horses do the same thing. If I look at the slippery rail tracks that occupy the middle of 12th Street southbound towards Center City on a rainy evening leaving the office, I will inevitably ride on them, with potentially disastrous (or at least embarrassing) consequences. If I had looked this morning at the metal plate that the Streets Department had loosely nailed down to cover an expanding sinkhole under Kelly Drive inbound, there’s an excellent chance I would have hit one of the fastening spikes head on. This tendency is known as object fixation, and the cure is to look well ahead. If you look well ahead to the exit of a curve, moderate your speed going in and gently accelerate coming out, you will arrive safely at that exit point. But if you look at the guardrail at the edge of the same road, there’s an equally strong chance you will run into it and miss dinner with family.

If we look where we want to go during cross-examination, we will focus on the three issues that matter, and end on a high note. If we look where we don’t want to go, we will ask one question too many, argue with the witness in a futile attempt to undue the damage, and then give up on the lowest note of all – an objection sustained on cross. My discipline for cross-examination preparation is to first identify the handful of issues that will actually matter with a given witness, and then write each question out, limited to a single line of word-processed text. This forces me to be brief, and to truly ask one question instead of the compound, endless type that elicits uncomprehending silence from the witness, and confusion from the jury. I began this discipline as an associate at White and Williams, as a way to prepare for depositions of plaintiffs and their experts, people who would readily steamroll an inexperienced and nervous young lawyer. The partners I worked for derided the practice, since they did not see it as billable activity. I cut my own hours doing it, but persisted. What I should have explained to the partners was that I never actually read the questions I write out in advance. Instead, this level of preparation frees me to listen more intently to the witness, follow their lead down unexpected areas of inquiry, and finish one topic area before moving on to the next. This type of preparation also frees me from the need to take detailed notes, which I have frankly never understood in trials or depositions. It’s impossible to think of the next question while writing down the answer to the question that preceded it, and since nobody has a written record of what the witness just said, attempting to generate a verbatim transcription is a waste of time, an activity that would require the jurors to accept your recollection as true, as evidence, when they have just been told that nothing the lawyers say is evidence. Looking well ahead shows in preparation, and in the crispness of the questions we ask. In court as on the road, look where you want to go, and you will tend to end up there.

  1. Develop total situational awareness

Total situational awareness (TSA) is the result of good riding habits, practiced for years, that keep me out of trouble before it happens. Looking back to a different context, TSA also let me realize (as a music student at Juilliard in the late 1980s) when the audience was losing interest, and to accordingly bring the Bach suite I was performing to a more rapid conclusion than usual. TSA supports the now involuntary reflex of checking my mirrors while coming to a stop, for when the car in back of me is not stopping and I need to accelerate from danger. TSA also encourages me to move away from the pit bull straining at the leash, to notice a wooden produce crate about to detach from the truck in front of me, to anticipate the myriad brewing hazards that a car driver has no reason to be concerned about. There is undeniably a sixth sense of trial, where TSA guides you in a course of action that is not taught anywhere but in the school of life. In the aggravated assault case I mentioned previously, I began my closing argument with two words: “I’m disappointed.” Having caught the jury’s attention by starting not with a call to arms, not with the injustice of it all, but with an apology, I explained that I was disappointed with the complaining witness, for dismissing my client’s concerns about the property damage he had caused as “bullshit,” disappointed with my client’s son (for being the one who actually punched the complainant in retaliation) and most of all disappointed with my client, for not simply walking away – going back inside the apartment building where he worked as a superintendent and allowing the complainant to continue his rant over the perceived deficiencies of the building. I then reminded the jury that this trial was not about manners or morality, but instead about deciding if the evidence supported, beyond a reasonable doubt, all elements of the First Degree Felony Known as Aggravated Assault. Ultimately, the jury agreed that it did not.

The theme of disappointment was not something I had worked into my advance outline prior to closing argument. Similar to my preparation for cross-examination, I identify at most five areas for discussion with the jury (mainly because I cannot remember more than that without notes), and then write a series of single sentence observations under each topic. I never use the outline before the jury, but find that I can reliably visualize it, especially if I succeeded in making it sufficiently compact to fit on one sheet of legal-sized paper going sideways in landscape mode. In preparing the outline for this closing, the opener eluded me until minutes before I stood up, and the only way I can explain it now is as an instance of TSA. The jury needed to hear that what they had just seen on video represented failures by all concerned. They needed confirmation that my client should not have deployed a box cutter after enduring five minutes of insults and obscene gestures from the complaining witness, but that still did not result in Aggravated Assault, where as my client explained on the stand, no contact was either intended or accomplished.

The more cases you try, the more that TSA reminds you to apologize and rephrase for the witness who actually did understand your question but pretends not to, and to look interested and perhaps even take notes as the judge gives a closing charge to the jury that you have heard many times before. TSA ensures that you do not bore the jury, infuriate the judge, or alienate your adversary to the extent they will do anything to see you fall.

  1. Closing thoughts – sometimes you must improvise

Rules help, but it is also important to function when the foundation on which the rules operate has been pulled out from under you. On a recent Friday in August without a hint of rain, I could not resist riding from Philadelphia to Newark, NJ for a Rule 16 scheduling conference. The practical benefits included parking for free, sufficiently distant from the Courthouse so I could stow my riding gear and assume a lawyerly appearance in private, although a man watching from a Brazilian café across the street compared my quick-change act favorably to Clark Kent’s. The conference went well, with the reasonably prompt deadlines we want in a plaintiff’s case, but by the time I emerged from the Courthouse around Noon, it was easily 95 degrees. I went through the familiar drill of unlocking the bike, pulling on armored over-pants, jacket, then full-face helmet followed by gloves, get on, power on, pull in the clutch and press the start button, only to get nothing. Not even a click. I could have despaired, panicked and made an embarrassing call home. Instead, I realized that the contact points of the starter motor might be wearing out, and (with a short prayer) rolled the bike forward a few feet. This time I got a small spark, and after a few more feet of rolling, success. I was soon taking the long way home, riding west across New Jersey on Route 78 to Easton, so I could visit a colleague in Allentown before taking the Turnpike extension south, back home to East Falls (where of course, the bike started without incident the following morning).

I experienced the courtroom equivalent of sudden starter failure in an armed robbery trial last Fall, when the co-defendant who had previously been on board to exonerate my client as a friend who just stood there — while co-D did the brandishing, the threatening and the robbing — went suddenly and spectacularly south. He initially refused to testify at all, saying there was no need for it, since the Affidavit he had previously supplied me said it all. The presiding judge leaned towards me upon hearing this, apparently concerned that I had held something back from reciprocal discovery. I had not, and our judge assumed a more relaxed posture as the A.D.A. handing the case held up her copy of the Affidavit. Seeing that I had played fair, our judge reciprocated by dismissing the jury and then admonishing the witness that he had no Fifth Amendment right to refuse to testify since he had pleaded guilty and been sentenced for the same conduct at issue, and that he would be held in contempt and sentenced to five months and 29 days of additional consecutive custody for each question he refused to answer. This solved the reluctance to testify problem, but then the substance went south as well. The co-defendant who previously admitted to having the silver revolver now denied having any gun at all, invoking a silver-colored cell phone, and being pressured to plead guilty by a mean lawyer to something he did not do. Fortunately he was willing to authenticate the transcripts of prison phone calls where he repeatedly stated that my client had done nothing wrong, and this was enough for the jury to acquit my client of 2 of 3 charges, and for him to avoid a mandatory minimum for firearms used in connection with a crime of violence.

Looking back, the rules would not have prevented this temporary blow-up, but they did provide some guidance on how to get out of it. Looking well ahead did not reveal the impending witness meltdown, but looking where I wanted to go reminded me to use the telephone transcripts to bring this recalcitrant witness back to reality. Thanks to playing fair in discovery, the judge stepped in, and despite the witness going south on substance, he admitted to making the prior statements that removed my client from being an accessory to armed robbery. Like riding across town or cross-country, a distinguishing characteristic of trial work is unpredictability. Rules help, but sometimes, through no fault of our own, it comes down to improvising. If we didn’t like the risk, we wouldn’t be doing this.

Richard H. Maurer

JD: Georgetown 1993

Ride: Suzuki V-Strom 650

August 26, 2016

Justice Scalia on Post-Alleyne Sentencing

On October 14, 2014, Justice Scalia dissented with Justices Thomas and Ginsburg from the denial of certiorari in Jones v. United States, No. 13-10026, where the defendants were convicted of individual crack sales, acquitted of conspiracy PWID, but then sentenced to very long terms of incarceration after “the sentencing judge found that petitioners had engaged in the conspiracy of which the jury acquitted them.”

After surveying Alleyne and Apprendi, Justice Scalia says: “It unavoidably follows that any fact necessary to prevent a sentence from being substantively unreasonable — thereby exposing the defendant to the longer sentence — is an element that must be either admitted by the defendant or found by the jury.”  The only exception that Justice Scalia would apparently recognize is the fact of a prior conviction.

It’s a strange statement, but seems to break new ground.  In more basic terms, I am guardedly optimistic that, in Scalia’s view: “A sentence that is lengthened by judicial factfinding (other than the fact of a prior conviction) is substantively unreasonable unless the facts were found by a jury.”

If this view becomes the law, then it’s a significant change, and many lengthy federal sentences would become ripe for review, at least where the defendant raised substantive unreasonableness on direct appeal.  Perhaps my friend won’t be serving 105 years after all.