The founder was an attorney named Marty Lowenstein, a preeminent DNA expert. To prison inmates he was simply known as the DNA Dude. That’s what they called him. “Get the DNA Dude on it,” was their mantra for every guy who claimed he was actually innocent. “Dial that mofo up. He’ll get your actual ass off.” Fucking idiots. No one believed it.
Marty Lowenstein was a do-gooder. An actual one. The poor, the forgotten, the innocent schmuck on death row, the royally screwed were his meat. The irony was that he owed his reputation to representing a handful of rich pricks in high-profile cases that got big spreads in Vanity Fair. Those people you didn’t always exonerate. You got them off. You created reasonable doubt. But you didn’t get to walk a guy out of prison after twenty-two years for a crime the evidence clearly showed he didn’t commit and maybe even someone else had copped to in the meantime. That was exoneration. Lowenstein got off on it.
Richie Forman looked around. His suit fit right in. There was something a decade or two passé about the décor, a little off, a little tired. The furniture had obviously once served in another office, probably a corporate law firm.
Smack at ten, the receptionist, a young black woman with straightened hair, said the case director was coming out, she’d see him now. That got his heart going. You’re going to crush this, he thought. This one’s yours.
A moment later, a heavyset Hispanic woman with a pleasant face came out and greeted him. Her name was Lourdes Hinojosa, and after she shook his hand, she walked him back to her office. She looked fairly young, early forties, but she had a pair of reading glasses on a chain around her neck that made her look older, especially when she put them on to scan his résumé.
He sat there anxiously watching her. As she read, she nodded a couple of times but made no comment. The silence made him nervous. He crossed, then uncrossed his legs. Finally, she took off her glasses and looked at him with a renewed intensity.
“Rick,” he said. “You can call me Rick.”
“Okay, sorry. Rick. I see you were in marketing at a dot-com.”
“I suppose you’re looking for a more noble calling. You understand, though, that the case assistant position is an entry-level position.”
She obviously had seen his type before—or at least the type she thought he was.
“Yes, I know. But—”
“We get a lot of people applying for this who are right out of college, including schools back East,” she said, referencing his résumé. “You’ll be doing a lot of grunt work. When was the last time you did grunt work?”
He almost said “yesterday,” but he held his tongue. He was prepared for this, the not-so-subtle age discrimination. He looked good for thirty-seven—but not that good.
“You might want to look again, Ms. Hinojosa. I was in marketing—but a long time ago.”
She put her glasses back on and looked at the sheet.
“Oh,” she said, reading the dates more carefully. “Wow. Seven years.”
She looked at him again. “What have you been doing since then?”
“Time,” he said.
Her eyes opened wide.
“Out in gold country,” he added. “Mule Creek.”
“You’ve been in prison?”
He noticed her eyes zeroing in on the long scar on the right upper side of his forehead. He could have hidden the blemish better, but he kept his dark hair slicked back and parted to the other side—the left. The style was a little short to be a true pompadour, but it was longer on top and had some wave to it. She’d noticed the scar when he was in the outer office but probably thought it was some sort of athletic injury.
Now it seemed to take on new meaning for her.
“If you don’t mind my asking, what did you do?”
“Technically speaking, in the eyes of the court, I was responsible for the death of a twenty-four-year-old woman. Felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.”
“But there were extenuating circumstances.”
He reached in his bag and pulled out a small sheaf of papers that he’d stapled together. They were mostly news clips, but he also had a couple reference letters thrown in at the end, both of them from the owners of restaurants where he’d worked recently.
He handed the packet to her. “In the interest of full disclosure, I thought you should have this.”
She leafed through the clips, starting with the San Francisco Chronicle piece that would forever label the post-bachelor party accident the “Bachelor Disaster,” then moved on to the San Jose Mercury News’s similarly provocative headline, TRADING PLACES, with the subhead, “Bachelor Party Boy Says He Wasn’t Behind Wheel, Friend Switched Seats After Accident.” There were pieces from the local papers, too, covering the trial and subsequent civil lawsuit.
“I vaguely remember this,” she murmured, her eyes betraying conflicting emotions: she seemed partly empathetic, partly perturbed.
“As you might imagine,” he said, “I feel uniquely qualified for theposition. How many recent college graduates do you know who can say they have a corporate background and the kind of personal experience I have with this foundation’s potential clients?”
She didn’t seem to know quite how to respond. Perhaps she expected him to smile after he made his declaration, inject it with a little humor, but he didn’t He said it with a straight face, deadly serious.
For good measure, he added: “I also have a keen understanding of what it’s like to be in a place where you don’t think you should be.”
She looked at his scar again. Then, touching the side of her forehead in the same spot, she asked: “Did you get that in prison?”
“Yes.” He pointed to a smaller scar just under his left eyebrow. “This one, too. But on the basketball court.”
Before he was sent away, he’d been in decent shape. He ran twice a week and played some pickup games at the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. In the joint, though, he’d gotten ripped. He was putting up close to three hundred on the bench, which, for a guy his size— five-eleven, one seventy-five—was serious. And since getting out, he’d mostly kept up his workout regimen. The fact that he could wear the Boss suit, a size fifty, was a testament to that. Before he went up, he was two sizes smaller.
“I had six bad months behind bars, Ms. Hinojosa,” he said. “The rest wasn’t cake. But it was manageable. I helped some guys. I wrote some of the letters you probably received at one time or another. I have, as your ad says, an understanding of criminal justice issues.”
“And you also understand that the starting salary for the job is twenty-seven thousand dollars?”
“That’s better than I thought.”
“How much were you making before you went to prison?”
“In a good year, counting stock and bonus, multiply by ten.”
Now he did smile. And she did, too.
“Long gone,” he said. “Whatever wasn’t taken up in legal fees went to the accident victims’ families.”
Seeing her confusion, he quickly added: “A second woman was injured. Her roommate.”
“Not your fault, though. You were innocent?”
“I didn’t say that. There were extenuating circumstances.”
With that, she looked at his résumé again.
“Well, Mr. Forman,” she said. “You certainly meet the qualifications. But ultimately, I have to run this past a few other people. We have two case coordinators, one of whom isn’t here today, and a second case assistant who you’d share an office with.”
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’ll volunteer for a couple of weeks. You keep interviewing all the recent college grads you want. You’re not going to find anybody more grateful to do grunt work. In that folder, I’ve included my parole officer’s info, as well as the manager at a restaurant in Sacramento where I worked. I encourage you to talk to them.”
She considered his request.
“We wouldn’t be able to pay you.”
“That’s okay. I work nights. I have an income.”
“What do you do?”
“I sing. Mostly at parties. Corporate gatherings. Sometimes at the wax museum at Fisherman’s Wharf. Did a Bar Mitzvah last week.”
“What do you sing?”
She raised an eyebrow, not quite believing him.
“I’m a Sinatra impersonator.”
She laughed, and then looked down at his résumé again, stalling.
“Ms. Hinojosa,” he went on, “you know damn well how hard it is for a guy like me to get a corporate job, even a low-paying one. Eventually, I want to start my own company. But today I’m just looking to get back in the game somewhere. If I have to start from the bottom, I at least want to do it at a place like this, where I’m personally invested in the mission.”
She stared at him for a moment before her mouth gradually broke into a smile.
“I suppose you’d be willing to start Monday.”
“Or now,” he said.
He stood up and shook her hand. The interview was over. He’d crushed it.
“Monday it is then,” he said.