Melanie D. Bragg is a lawyer/mediator practicing general civil law, who has devoted her life to the representation of children, the elderly, and mentally disadvantaged people. She has written, produced, and performed on-camera legal education programs for the healthcare industry since 1994 and is the author of HIPAA for the General Practitioner, published by the ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. Her upcoming book Defining Moments: Insights Into the Lawyer's Soul will be published by the American Bar Association Flagship Division. Melanie is the Chair of the Book Publications Board of the American Bar Association Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. The Division publishes five to twelve books a year and Melanie, with her devotion to authors, guides and directs them from proposal to publication. In 1994 she formed Legal Insight, Inc. with a passion to share knowledge and distill complex principles into language the layperson can understand. In 2012, Melanie launched Success for all Seasons, a coaching/speaking business with a focus on helping people set goals, problem solve and plan career beginnings as well as transitions. She is a Fellow of the American Bar Association (ABA), the ABA Young Lawyers Division, the Texas Bar Foundation, the Houston Bar Foundation, the Houston Young Lawyers Association Fellows, and currently serves on the ABA/YLD Fellows Board. She is also active in her local community in a variety of organizations. Bragg earned her J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center and her B.A. cum laude from the University of Texas at Austin. She is admitted to the bar in Texas and Colorado, as well as the Federal Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Only two things scared Alexandra Stockton: turbulence and falling in love. With only minutes to spare, she boarded the plane from New Yorks La Guardia Airport to Houston and took her window seat near the back. As the other passengers settled in, she dashed out several emails on her Blackberry before she hit the off button. She needed the next three hours to think.
An African-American man with grey hair and thick glasses squeezed himself into the middle seat next to her. He leaned down and pulled a book out of his briefcase. It was a Bible.
Alex gave him a polite smile and turned to gaze out the window. Just as the plane pushed back she saw a white bird outside and, as quick as it appeared, it was gone. She closed her eyes and tried to forget reports of thunderstorms and rainfall on the waiting area televisions. The plane climbed through the stormy clouds. Alexs hands tightened on the seat arms and she took a deep breath, fighting the rising panic that always came when she flew. No matter how calm the flight attendants were, Alex felt a terror she could barely contain. The pilots voice was soft on the overhead speakers. He told them it would be a bumpy flight. She listened carefully for any signs of strain in his voice. Hearing none, she told herself that there was nothing to fear and plugged in her earphones. Music would soothe her.
Alexs thoughts turned to the weeklong seminar she attended in New York. A team of Broadway actors taught lawyers trial techniques. She had learned new ways to bond with juries. The coach had them take off their shoes and dance around like crazy people, which had been easy for Alex and much harder for other members of her class. Some of them would still be three sheets to the wind in the bar she left them in last night. She barely got out of there herself at 1:00 a.m. But as much fun as it was, parts of the seminar were unsettling. It was too close for comfort. She had to reveal parts of herself during the exercises. Feeling vulnerable was scary.
Once they were up over the clouds, the flight crew came by with the drink cart and a snack. The man next to her ordered a ginger ale. Alex noted his distinctive Southern drawl. He sounded like a man comfortable in his own skin.
“Ill have one too,” she told the flight attendant.
Just as the drinks were delivered, the plane lurched again. The cart rolled a few inches down the aisle with the servers holding it tight.
Alex gave the man next to her a look of abject fear. “White knuckle flyer,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Now. Now,” he said, patting her hand that gripped the armrest between them. “Its just turbulence. You dont strike me as someone who scares too easily.”
Alex couldnt help but smile. It was true. There were few times she would admit to being afraid. “Alex Stockwell. ‘Houston home?”
He nodded. “You?”
“Yes. Im coming back from a week long trial seminar.”
He gave a wide grin. “You dont look like a lawyer.”
“I hear that a lot.” With her leggings, boots that made her over six feet tall, and an oversized sweater, he was probably right.
“Im Reverend C.O. Morse,” he said. “Im on my way back from a pastors conference.”
Alex thought about plugging her earphones back in, but the conversation distracted her from the bumpy ride. Something about the mans calm demeanor drew Alex to him.
“I havent had call to need a lawyer ‘til just a few days ago,” he continued.
“Why do you need a lawyer?” she asked.
While she inhaled the scent of his Old Spice cologne, Alex listened to Reverend Morses story. She learned that less than a year ago, he and members of his congregation bought up some abandoned crack houses in Houstons crime-ridden and impoverished Fifth Ward, renovated them and opened Shepherds Cottages, a foster home for neglected, abused and abandoned children. With a common interest in helping neglected and abused children, they forged an instant bond.
In her legal practice and pro bono work, Alex represented children. She was captivated by the Reverends insight into problems she grappled with daily at the courthouse.
The Reverend explained how, Jose Gonzales, one of his house parents responsible for caring for the children, was accused of molesting Chris Jackson, a teenage boy at the home.
“Chriss uncle, Voodoo, who has always been like a son to me, got him to tell those lies on Jose about what happened in Crosstown Park,” he said, then grew quiet. “Voodoo is mad that we took his base of operations and slowed down his drug trade. We are slowly turning the community around and he doesnt like it.”
He leaned over and pulled a small photo album out of the computer case at his feet.
Alex looked on while the Reverend turned the pages and showed her photos of Shepherds Cottages. She noted that it had a tall barbed wire fence around it. Inside were small homes, with what looked like fresh paint. The Reverend stood outside one building named “Adminstration Building” with a heavyset woman and several other people. They all looked happy. A young Hispanic man in a t-shirt and jeans stood by the Reverend with a big smile on his face and a group of small children around him. They also grinned from ear to ear.
“Thats Jose,” the Reverend said, pointing to the young man.
Something about the photo made Alex think about long since buried memories. The day she arrived at the first group foster home with the social worker came back to her. Everyone was all smiles. It didnt take long for things to change. Alex took a deep breath and loosened her grip on the armrest. She thought of Tony, one of the security guards. He had been accused of raping Elaine; the bi-polar girl who had a reputation for thinking everyone was after her. Alex had known he did not do it, but no one would have believed her. She had said nothing. Alex felt a dull thump in the base of her stomach.
“Another ginger ale, please,” she asked the attendant. Those thoughts were long since in her past and it was best to keep them there.
“Reverend, how do you know Jose is innocent?”
The Reverend pulled his glasses down on his nose and his deep, dark eyes looked directly into hers. “I just know.”
The rhythm of his voice and his conviction stuck a cord. Alex knew that Tony was innocent then too, but was too young to help him prove it.
“Ok, let me think about this,” Alex said. “For some reason, I have a feeling you are right.”
“Why dont you come over to services tomorrow and I can introduce you around and you can see for yourself?” he asked.
What am I getting myself into?
“Good idea,” she heard herself say. “I would like to see you preach.” Never mind she had never been to a Black church…
“By the way, Joses arraignment is Monday…”
“Dont worry, Reverend Morse,” Alex gave him a pat on his arm. “Youve helped me on this flight. Ill run by and see Jose at the jail tomorrow after church too. And, if I feel the same way you do, well get to the bottom of it.”
Now, two days later, sitting in the crowded criminal courtroom at Joses arraignment, Alex wondered about her impulsive decision to take the case.
“Aggravated assault. The charge is serious.” Judge Dyan Villareals voice boomed. “Bail denied. Trial is set for December 18, 10:00 a.m.”
Alex Stockton didn't flinch.
Marilyn Rivera, the young number two Assistant District Attorney, gave a smug smile.
The arraignment was over. Round one for the prosecution.
Alex stuffed her file into her briefcase and stood to leave. The ruling was a setback, but it bolstered her determination to vindicate her new client, Jose Gonzales. She had six weeks to discover the truth about what happened in Crosstown Park between Jose and his accuser, Chris Jackson.
I need a witness, she thought. And fast.
As the clerk called the next case, the bailiff led Jose, handcuffed and shackled, from the courtroom.
“Ill be over to the jail in a little while,” she called to him.
The forlorn glance he shot Alex tugged at the trial lawyers heart. Today, in the dimly lit courtroom, she questioned her acceptance, no questions asked, of the Reverends compelling story. She realized how little she knew about him and her new client. Swallowing self-doubt like castor oil, Alex passed a group of lawyers on her way out of the courtroom.
“Dang, Alex, you keep gettin prettier while Im losing all my hair,” Mike Turlington called.
“Hey, sweet Alex. What brings you over here to this side of the street?” attorney Bill Haley asked.
“Im defending good against evil, what else?” she looked at them all and said with a grin.
Her colleagues comment reminded Alex of her three-year absence from the criminal courthouse. She missed the camaraderie between the lawyers and court staff. Although close in proximity, the civil and criminal courthouses were light years apart. And, few lawyers successfully worked both sides of the street.
“I hear youre going for a judgeship this term,” Chris Gilman said. “Im all for it. Just dont wait until December 31st to file your petition,” he warned.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she said as she headed for the door. Alex turned back and gave them a friendly smile. “And, Im not on the bench yet either guys so no need to brownnose me yet.”
Their comments made Alex think. After a two-year clerkship with a federal judge, Alex had gone into practice on her own. Her long-term goal was the judiciary, but in the meantime she busied herself with an active case docket, pro bono work, bar association activities, and work for the reigning political party. Now, after ten years, she had her sights set on a newly created juvenile court judgeship. Her goal was to get the Governor to appoint her before the election.
Heading toward the elevator, she caught the scorching stare of a well-dressed, handsome black man standing nearby.
The look in his eyes caught Alex off guard. They were filled with hate.
He was at Joses arraignment. I wonder why…
Alex drove to her office, a small building nearby across from Memorial Park, Houstons favorite jogging trail. She took the elevator to the top floor and stepped in the modern reception area. Alex had spent time and money creating an office she enjoyed because, like most lawyers, she worked long hours. Her office was an extension of her home and was comfortable and organized.
Her long-time assistant, Ruth Stiles, greeted her with a wry smile and a quizzical look.
“Where were you this morning? Your calendar was clear…”
“Arraignment on a new case,” Alex answered without making eye contact and nonchalantly thumbed through a stack of mail. “Picked it up this weekend.”
Alex nodded. “Aggravated sexual abuse,” she said, heading quickly down the hall toward the kitchen.
“Now wait a minute,” Ruth called, following right on her heels. “You need to tell me all about this.”
In the cozy kitchen, decorated in mauve and orange hues, Alex took a Dr. Pepper and some saltines from the fridge. She sat down at the table in the middle of the room and told Ruth about the Joses case.
“The accuser is Chris Jackson, a teenage foster child. He alleges that our client, Jose Gonzales, molested him in the park across the street from his foster home, Shepherds Cottages. But the Reverend doesnt believe Chris.”
Ruth shook her head. “Somethings not right. Why would a kid lie?”
“Im not sure yet,” Alex said with a shrug. “The Reverend thinks Chriss drug dealer uncle, Voodoo, is mad because he lost his crack houses when the Reverend turned them into the foster home. ‘Says Voodoo is so mad he wont give up until Shepherds Cottages is closed.”
“Sounds like a ghetto turf war. But, Alex, youre out of criminal law. Why help this preacher? You haven't been to church in years.”
“I went Sunday,” Alex said with a devilish grin.
Ruth grabbed the cabinet as if to steady herself.
“I know,” Alex sighed, staring at the tall pine trees beyond the window. “Saturdays flight was strange. Just as the plane pulled back from the gate, a white bird fluttered outside my window and something weird came over me. Then I struck up a conversation with the Reverend. Before I knew it, I offered to take Joses case.”
“What did you charge?”
Alex didnt answer.
Ruth's eyes widened. “Not pro bono! We just finished that snarly guardianship for Judge Ross. I want to close out this year with creamy, cash cows, like the Crane case.”
Alex recalled the Reverends startled look when she had told him not to worry about money. “Im not sure why, but my gut tells me to help him,” she stated.
“What about the judicial appointment? Juvenile judges work with CPS to protect kids. Defending a perpetrator might not go over well for you. Have you thought about that?”
“It crossed my mind,” Alex admitted, tucking a strand of long, straight hair behind her ear.
Truth is, at the courthouse after the hearing; the realization that she may be in over her head with Joses case had seized her entire body. Now, her stomach felt like a toxic chemical plant going haywire. She hoped the soda and crackers would help.
The phone rang. Ruth answered in the kitchen and put the caller on hold.
“Mike Delany,” she said.
Alex caught her breath and headed down the hall to her office.
Mike Delany was the Governors Chief of Staff. They were old friends since he was an Austin lobbyist and she served on a young lawyer board. Mike insisted Alex was a natural politician. He spent his life with elected officials and had a trained eye. After he helped the Governor win, he became his Chief of Staff. Now, the Governor made most decisions with Mikes approval and everyone in political circles knew it.
She picked up the phone. “Hi, Mike. Whats up?”
“Congratulations! You made the Governors short list for the appointment to the new juvenile bench.”
Mission accomplished! She was one of two, maybe three candidates in the running. Now she just had to ensure she made it to the top of the list. If the Governor appointed her to the bench in January, shed have nearly a year under her belt before next Novembers election. That would make her an incumbent. Incumbents were hard to beat.
“When will he decide?”
Alex swallowed hard.
Right about the time Joses case goes to trial.
“When can I talk to him?”
“Tonight. There is a fund-raiser at the River Oaks Country Club. Be there at 7.”
Alex was so excited she could barely put the phone back into the cradle. Her years of hard work had finally provided the opportunity of a lifetime. She thought about Joses case. Maybe the D.A. would offer him a good plea bargain, like deferred adjudication. If he successfully lived out probation, hed have no conviction. In aggravated sexual abuse cases, such a generous gesture was wishful thinking. Anyway, if Jose was really innocent, she couldnt play the “Bleed-m-and Plead-m” game for her own selfish reasons. Court-appointed lawyers were notorious about getting a good deal from the DA on the first setting and copping a plea as a way to move the courts docket. And keep the judge happy. For some reason, today, the thought of a young court-appointed criminal lawyer counseling Jose through the bars of the crowded holdover cell didnt sit well with her. She didnt know the defendant enough to care that much yet, but something about the Reverends commitment to Jose had instilled in her a belief that justice was at stake here.
Alex had to wonder if Reverend Morse was just too trusting. Her deeper senses said no. As far as she could tell, there was no graceful way out of Joses case.
Leaning back in her chair, she propped her feet on her desk and visualized how incredible it would feel to be with family, friends, and scores of colleagues as she was being sworn in as presiding judge of the new juvenile court.
Later that afternoon Alex walked into the new state-of-the-art county jail. The sight of criminals eating and sleeping better than millions of needy children struck a deep chord. She told herself that politicians should allocate more tax dollars on education and family planning than they do on jails.
After an extensive security check, she sat in a sparkly chrome attorney-client cubicle, staring through a mesh grill. Like the new jail, memories of her days as a court-appointed criminal lawyer were stark. Massaging a knot in her neck with her hand, she pondered how best to approach her new client.
A guard appeared and shoved Jose inside. “Ten minutes ‘til dinner,” he growled, then slammed the door behind him.
Alex glanced at her watch, leaned forward, and looked intently at Jose. In his orange jumpsuit, he didnt look like a sexual offender. Small, well built, with smooth olive skin, his jet-black hair and faint mustache offset intense dark eyes. She pictured Jose on the stand and wondered whether jurors would like him.
“Sorry we werent able to talk much before the hearing,” she began.
“Its ok. You came to see me yesterday. The Reverend, he trusts you.” He gave a half-hearted smile. “Do I have to stay in here until trial?”
“Im afraid so,” she answered. “But, we have a quick trial setting.”
Alex understood her words didnt console her client. Six weeks was a long time to spend behind bars. “The police report is sketchy. Tell me about Cottage Five.”
Jose swallowed hard. “Its where the older boys live. Chris Jackson rooms with Jaime Soliz. Theys troublemakers.”
“What do you mean?”
“Dont follow rules. They smoke; skip school; ignore curfew… They used to sneak out at night until we put bars on their windows.”
“Tell me what happened that night.”
“Chris came home late from school and wanted to go trick-or-treating with the other kids, but he was grounded. When I told him to do his homework, he ran out of the house. I followed him into the park across the street.”
Jose nodded. “The park is off limits to our kids.”
“Reverends rules. Voodoo operates there now that the home is up and running. Theres crime, drugs, hookers…”
“Where was Chris headed?”
Jose shrugged. “Maybe to the corner where his uncles thugs sell drugs.”
“What happened when you caught up with him?”
“I came up from behind and grabbed his jacket collar. He whipped around and pulled a knife on me.” Jose took a deep breath. “When I saw his face, I knew he was high. I cant forget his eyes.” Jose drew in a deep breath and seemed to recoil in fear. “Snake eyes.”
Alex noticed bright blue veins on Joses tightly clenched hands.
“Drugs are all over the Fifth Ward,” Jose continued.
Questions flooded Alexs mind and there was little time left. “Tell me about Chriss knife wound.”
“He cut himself on the neck, just deep enough to get blood on both of us. I let go. He ran off, cussing and yelling.”
“Did anyone see?”
Jose was silent.
“Its important,” Alex urged. “Were there witnesses?”
“There are eyes all over the park, but no one tells.” Jose wrung his hands. “And CPS, well, they dont want to know the truth.”
Alex knew he was right, but she knew that proving it would be next to impossible. “What happened then?”
“I ran back home. Then, a cop car pulled up. The CPS social worker was right behind it.”
Alex frowned. This morning, on the police report, shed seen the name of one of the most difficult CPS social workers she had ever worked with. She was a woman with an attitude. And an agenda.
“Chris was in the back seat of the police car. He pointed at me,” Jose continued. “Miss Roe put him in her car and they drove off. They handcuffed me and brought me here.”
“Tell me about Chris uncle, Voodoo.”
Jose shook his head and looked up at the ceiling. “The boy worships him. Hell do anything Voodoo asks.”
Alex put the top back on her pen and slid her legal pad into her briefcase. “I believe you, Jose. But, I have to be honest. The maximum sentence is life in prison. Chris says you forced him, at knifepoint, to have oral sex in the park. He says you threatened to kill him. When he tried to escape, you stabbed him.”
“Its not true. I swear it,” Jose said, staring straight at Alex without wavering.
When the guard entered, Jose rose and scuttled toward the door, his shackles clanging against his pants leg.
Alex stood. “One more question, Jose. Have you ever been in trouble with the law?”
When Jose turned back, his eyes met hers. Before the heavy steel door closed behind him, he answered, ‘Statutory rape. Two years ago.”