I Should Be Your Cellmate

In July 2007, I was 30 years old and working as a paralegal to Dave DeToffol, a plaintiff’s personal injury (ambulance chasing) attorney. As paralegal, I drafted various legal documents, interacted with clients in person and over the phone, scheduled Dave’s court appearances, depositions, and client meetings, I pretty much did everything but argue in court. Like many in his profession, Dave was…rather unscrupulous. For example, if his client had minimal injuries, he would hire some medical expert to get on the witness stand and exaggerate the extent of the client’s injuries.

Every once in awhile, Dave took a pro bono case. I suspect he did this partly to assuage his guilt at being so unscrupulous on a regular basis. It didn’t bother me that he operated under the delusion that doing a couple of pro bono cases a year expunged his soul for everything else. His soul wasn’t my problem, and paperwork was paperwork, right? And so from time to time, the bar association would assign him a pro bono case and that would be that.

“They’ve given me a pro bono case,” he mentioned one Monday morning during our meeting, “have to get started right away. Client is Jenny Malone.” He tilted back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk.

I scribbled Jenny Malone on my note pad and said, “Right, what’s the date of accident and what are her injuries?”

“Not a personal injury case,” he said, “this one’s criminal.”

“Oh,” I said. In the time I’d been working for Dave, I’d never known him to take a criminal case. “So, then…”

“Yeah, I tried to get out of it, but it wouldn’t of looked too good if I weaseled out,” Dave said, “so there’s no date of accident. Jenny Malone offed her husband, shot him.”

“Well is she charged with murder or manslaughter?” I asked.

“Good question,” he said, “knew I hired you for a reason, “she is charged with murder one. Husband was a New York City cop. She is being held in the Rose M. Singer center, the women’s wing of Riker’s Island, pending trial.”

“What else do we know?”

“Nothing, yet,” now he took his feet off the desk, sat up straight, and looked at me head on. “I’m supposed to meet with my client and get her story,” he said, “but as the boss I decided that’s not an effective use of my time. So I will delegate this task,” and with that he pulled out a small, laminated card and threw it across the desk at me, “to you.”

I looked at the card. It had my name and photo on it, and said DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, and that I was of the law firm of DeToffol & Associates. “Me,” I blinked, “Dave, this isn’t like dropping off papers at the county clerk for filing, this is an actual person.”

“All you have to do is get the facts,” he said, “a monkey could do it. Lots of actual criminal lawyers send their assistants on runs to Riker’s to meet with clients. And it’s a long subway ride, so you need to get a move on.”

Utterly flabbergasted, I collected my purse and left. Normally, I loved the opportunity to be out of the office and away from the phone that never stopped ringing. But this was an errand that would take me into uncharted and weird territory. Two and a half hours later, I was presenting the card Dave gave me to a corrections officer at Riker’s island correctional facility.

“Oh,” the officer nodded, “you’re here on a counsel visit. Who’s your client?”

“Jenny Malone,” I said.

“Wait here,” he said, “an officer will escort you.”

I waited, and presently a tall, black female officer in a white shirt came to collect me.

“I’m Captain Deveroux,” she said, “I’ll take you to the room we use for counsel visits. As you know, we are not permitted to video or tape record anything that is said in here. You and your client have complete confidemtiality.” The room was a spartan room with a rectangular table, no glass divider and telephones like I’d imagined. “Your client will be brought in shortly.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

A guard brought my client in shortly thereafter. Jenny Malone was white, looked younger than I, and the orange jumpsuit she wore seemed to swallow up her small frame. The guard unshackled her and said “Take all the time you need, Counselor.”

“Who the fuck’re you?” Jenny asked, with wild eyes. “I didn’t ask for any lawyer.”

“I’m Cara Sergio, from the law offices of DeToffol and Associates,” I said, “and technically I’m not a lawyer, I just work for one.”

“Well tell that DeToffol guy I didn’t ask for a lawyer,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said, “I could do that, that would make less paperwork for me. That’s what I usually do, the paperwork. But the fact is you’re entitled to a lawyer, and while I don’t mean to tell you what to do, you look like you’re in a position to need a lawyer.”

“Well your boss is some lawyer,” she snorted, “couldn’t even be bothered to come down here himself. I’ll take my chances.”

“You’re right,” I conceded, “he couldn’t be bothered. He sent me to get your story.”

“Is he even a real criminal lawyer?”

“Nope, he’s an ambulance chaser,” I admitted, “does a couple pro bono cases a year and happened to get assigned yours. Luck of the draw.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Well I rode the subway for two and a half hours to get here,” I said, “whether you want a lawyer or no, I figure I’m going to say something after that long of a subway ride, so I might as well say the truth.”

“Sit down,” she said, “you’re right you know. I need a lawyer.” I sat. “So do you think I killed my husband?”

“I came to get your story,” I said, sitting, “not give it to you.”

“And I’m not an idiot. I know about preconceived notions. This won’t work. This DeToffol guy as my lawyer, me telling you my story, if we start out with me not being able to trust you.”

“Jenny,” I said, “this is the room they use for counsel visits. Everything we say in here is completely confidential.”

“I know that,” she said, “they can’t listen.”

“That and more,” I said, “we don’t even have to tell my boss what we say in here if you don’t want to, OK?” Her eyes got wide. “Now that you understand the risk I’m willing to take, I’ll tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a young woman whose husband died under questionable circumstances. He was a cop, and his brother officers need to avenge him, and for all I know that may be the only reason you’re sitting in a cell, Jenny.”

“What else?”

“You’re tough on the outside but it’s an act. You’re terrified on the inside. And you should be, a life sentence is no joke.”

“It’s not a life sentence I’m afraid of. But you’re not completely wrong. How do you come in here, not knowing me from a hole in the wall, and see me so good?”

“Because, Jenny, I could be your cell mate.” Now her eyes bugged out. “Your husband died under questionable circumstances, my grandfather died under questionable circumstances. Only my grandfather wasn’t a cop, he was an old man in a nursing home, and so nobody fucking asked questions when he died. Old men Are supposed to die.”

“What did you-”

“I suppose you’re more qualified than any priest to take my confession, so here it is. My grandfather was not a good guy. He raped me, starting when I was ten. It went on longer than I care to admit. I was terrified of him. It only stopped after he had a stroke and had to be moved to a nursing home…he couldn’t get at me anymore.” I looked at Jenny, she had this shocked look on her face. “Anyway, my mother used to send me to visit him twice a week at the home.”

“Did he try to rape you when you visited?”

“No. But during one visit, I was nineteen, the head nurse told me to tell my mother they needed her consent so they could tie him to his bed at night. They needed to tie him down because he had a habit of going uninvited to an elderly female patient’s room and raping her. The poor woman had dementia and wasn’t in her right mind to consent to sex, and my grandfather apparently wouldn’t stop.” I paused for breath. “I told my mother no such thing, of course. But I couldn’t let him molest some poor, unsuspecting elderly lady. So on my next visit, when I was alone with him, and I was fluffing his pillow…”

“You suffocated him?”

“He died under questionable circumstances. He appeared to be sleeping when I left, and if anyone had asked questions, I most likely would’ve ended up sitting right where you’re sitting. So like I said, I came here to get your story from you, not give it to you.”

“I shot my husband,” she said.

“That in and of itself doesn’t make you guilty of first degree murder, Jenny,” I told her, “I mean, if you shot him for shits & giggles then yeah, you deserve to be in here. But that’s not what this is, is it?” She shook her head.

“OK then,” I said, so what is it?”

“He wouldn’t stop,” she said.

“Wouldn’t stop what, Jenny? Did he beat you?”

“He didn’t hit me,” she said, “if it was just that, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but…”

“But what?”

“Rob was kinky,” she said, “into some real sick shit.”

“What kinda sick shit?”

“He used to hold his gun to my head while I was, y’know, going down on him,” she said, “he always swore the gun wasn’t loaded, but after he came, he’d pull the trigger anyways.” Now it was my turn to be wide-eyed. “Said holding the gun to my head gave him such a thrill.” I shook my head. I was no stranger to kinky, but holfpding a gun to the other person’s head, that was taking it to a whole new level, even for me.

“Must’ve been nerve wracking,” I said, “always wondering if he remembered to take the clip out of his gun.”

“Exactly. Three nights ago, he makes me go down, and he holds the gun to my head like always. Pulls the trigger after he finishes, like always. After, I go to empty the dishwasher and he gets drunk and falls asleep in his chair, and while he’s sleeping, I go back, load his gun, and empty the clip into his head.”

“Jesus h. Christ,” I muttered. But I knew then what Dave had to do to get Jenny Malone acquitted. He had to convince twelve jury people that, had they been married to rob Malone in her stead, and made to perform oral sex at gunpoint, they’d have snapped and shot him too.

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