2. Beginnings
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12 2 Beginnings From the start of his career, Eric Weinberg had the notion that he would be the kind of lawyer who made a difference. Fresh out of Boston University School of Law in 1980, he vowed that there would be no corporate fat-cat clients for him. He would help regular people with real problems. But several years later, as a small-town lawyer working from a Victorian-era house in a modest section of New Brunswick, New Jersey, he had another thought: be careful what you wish for. For here he was in a Newark courtroom, facing a less-than-sympathetic-looking jury, trying gamely to convince them that Peter, his young Nigerian client, who was in the United States on a student visa, had been set up by older Nigerians involved in a cocaine deal and was completely innocent of any wrongdoing. To make matters worse, this wasn’t just a legal strategy— Weinberg was sure the kid was innocent. Peter’s stricken parents sat quietly behind them in the courtroom every day, wearing colorful Nigerian garb, watching Weinberg’s every move. They had come to the United States thinking they would see their son’s college graduation. They arrived to find him in a dingy cell, awaiting trial, a federal prosecutor demanding a life sentence. The judge in the case had a reputation as a liberal on social issues but tough when sentencing convicted defendants. Now the prosecutor had a complaint, and asked for a sidebar conference. The judge agreed, and the lawyers approached the bench. BEGINNINGS 13 “Your Honor,” the prosecutor said, “I have some concerns about the defendant’s parents.” “What are your concerns, counselor?” asked the judge. “I don’t know if you can hear from the bench, judge, but the defendant ’s mother is constantly murmuring and making sounds.” “I have not heard her, but I’ll take your word for it. Do you have some concern that the jury is being distracted?” “Yes, your honor. But I think it’s more than that. It sounds to us like she’s trying to chant some spells or something, some kind of incantation, to jinx the government’s case.” The judge stared at her for a moment, and then turned to Weinberg. “Mr. Weinberg, is your client’s mother trying to put a hex on the government?” At this point in the trial, Weinberg was pretty sure he was shredding the prosecution’s case. “I wouldn’t know, your Honor. I think I’m doing OK on my own.” “I will address the parents, counsel. Please return to your seats,” the judge said. He leaned forward and spoke in an even voice to the parents. “Sir and madam, do you understand English?” They both nodded yes. “Good. I understand that you are here in support of your son. However, in our system of laws, it is very important that we maintain a quiet courtroom , so that the jury can see and hear all of the evidence. It is important for all of the parties. So please do not speak, or make any sounds, during the trial. You are free to leave the courtroom and talk outside if you must, or wait until the jury is out, and we are in recess. Do you understand?” “Yes, your Honor,” they said. After two weeks of trial, the case went to the jury. They reached a verdict in a few hours: Peter was not guilty. His co-defendant was guilty. Peter and his parents hugged Weinberg who, after congratulating his colleagues , took the elevator to the ground floor, found a pay phone, and called his office. As he spoke to his secretary, several of the women jurors walked past, smiled, and waved. Behind them, the juror Weinberg had been most concerned about during the trial was walking alone. He was a big guy, probably in his forties or fifties. He had sat in the back row of the BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS 14 jury box, in the middle, and Weinberg could never figure out what he was thinking during the trial. He saw Weinberg at the telephone and walked over. The lawyer put the phone down. “You did a great job for your client,” the juror said. “Thanks. I was a little worried when you came back with a question,” Weinberg said. “We decided your guy was innocent in the first five minutes. He was lucky to have you as his lawyer.” The man...


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