You’d have thought this was my first time.
Not even close.
I don’t specialize in celebrities, but I’ve had my share. The list includes a member of the Chicago Bulls, two major-league baseball players, and the entire morning drive-time crew for one of the highest-rated FM stations in St. Louis. And that only covers contract negotiations and endorsement deals. I’ve sued Riverport on behalf of an Atlanta rap group in a gate-receipts dispute. When the case ended, the group’s manager offered me a walk-on in their next music video. I told him I’d prefer to have my fees paid in full. I’ve represented a Hollywood star accused of trashing his hotel suite while on location here for a shoot—and we’re not talking just any star. He made Entertainment Weekly’s “20 Sexiest Men” two years running. Alas, he’s also two inches shorter than me and—as I learned while defending him in a four-hour deposition in a small conference room—afflicted with rhino breath.
But the odd thing is that I never felt the tiniest tingle before meeting any of them—not even a hint of that magical frisson that’s supposed to radiate from real celebrities like, well, steam from a baked potato. And lest you get the wrong idea, I’m not one of those snooty types who professes to be above all that fawn- ing. Far from it. I once was rendered dumbstruck on an elevator in the Met Square building when I realized that the tall man standing next to me was none other than number 45 himself— Hall of Famer Bob Gibson. For a diehard Cardinals fan, that’s the equivalent of coming around the bend on Mount Sinai and finding yourself face to face with a Charlton Heston look-alike in flowing robes and sandals carrying two stone tablets. I rode several floors in flustered silence until I worked up the nerve to ask Mr. Gibson for his autograph, which he graciously signed on a sheet from my legal pad that I have since had laminated.
And that gaga response isn’t limited to baseball gods. I would kill to spend an afternoon with Jane Austen. I would swoon like a schoolgirl before Clark Gable—especially the Clark Gable of It Happened One Night. And if Marvin Gaye were alive and well, I might just follow him from concert to concert like a Motown version of a Deadhead. With those folks we’re talking frisson.
But not for my celebrity clients. For whatever reason, with them it always seems to be business as usual. Attorney-client. Strictly professional.
Today I was driving halfway across the state of Missouri to meet my newest client.
More precisely, a former housewife. Probably the most famous former housewife in America, and surely the only one serving thirty-to-forty in Chillicothe Correctional Center.
Today I was definitely in the grip of that old black magic. That’s because today I was going to see Angela Green.
Yes, the Angela Green.
The same one whose murder trial came in at number 3 on People magazine’s “Top Ten Murder Trials of the 1990s,” just behind O.J. Simpson (no. 1) and the Menendez brothers (no. 2), but ahead of Timothy McVeigh (no. 4) and Jeffrey Dahmer (no. 5). The same one whose prime-time jailhouse interview with Oprah Winfrey drew a 41 share and ended with that shot reprinted in newspapers and magazines around the country— the one of Oprah, tears streaming down her cheeks, her head resting on Angela’s shoulder as Angela gently patted her on the back. The same Angela Green who had Anita Hill deliver her acceptance speech in absentia at the Ms. magazine “Women of the Year” banquet, who caused a rift within the NAACP when she was named one of its “Women of Valor,” and who was the subject of Connie Chung’s Emmy-nominated profile, which included those extraordinary testimonials from the prisoners who’d earned their high school equivalencies through the special tutoring program Angela helped establish at Chillicothe Correctional Center.
Yes, that Angela Green.
And this coming year—her seventh since entering prison— promised to be her biggest yet. The publication date for her long-awaited autobiography was just six months off. A major Hollywood studio had already snagged the film rights. According to a blurb in Vanity Fair, Whoopi Goldberg and Angela Bassett were vying for the lead role while Warren Beatty, Tommy Lee Jones, and Michael Douglas were in the running for the role of Michael Green. Vanity Fair picked Bassett and Douglas as the favorites, since “it would be almost too delicious for an Angela and a Michael to play the Angela and the Michael.” Meanwhile, Angela’s criminal defense attorney, Maria Fallaci, had her own book coming out late in October.
All of which translated into megabucks.
And where there are megabucks, there is usually a lawsuit. That’s where I fit in. My name is Rachel Gold—Cardinals fan, daughter of Sarah, big sister of Ann, and, possibly, blushing bride and mother, assuming that a thirty-three-year-old bride isn’t too old to blush or too young to become the instant step- mother of two adorable girls. But for the here and now, the only relevant role was lawyer, which is why I was driving through rural Missouri on this lovely Sunday morning in late June. I was somewhere in the northwest quadrant of the state, heading north on Highway 65 through a portion of Missouri I’d never been in before. According to a highway marker on the right, I’d just passed over the Grand River, although it didn’t look too grand to me. Of course, when you grow up in St. Louis, it takes a whole lot of grand before any river can claim that label.
Chillicothe was the next exit.
Two hours ago I’d dropped Benny Goldberg off at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he was delivering a paper on antitrust law at a law school symposium. After my prison meeting with Angela Green, I was going to swing back down to Columbia to pick him up. On our way back to St. Louis we were planning to stop at a farm near Warrenton where Benny would introduce me to two new clients, Maggie Lane and Sara Freed, who were enmeshed in a dispute so outlandish that it had to be true. No one could make up such a story. Not even someone with a mind as warped as Benny’s—and Benny’s is as warped as it gets.
But Maggie and Sara could wait, I told myself as I pulled off the exit and drove into town. Chillicothe was a typical Midwestern village—chiefly frame houses, most built before World War II, a main street of redbrick buildings, including a bank and a pharmacy and a diner and a dry goods store. I turned down Third Street and slowed halfway down the block, peering out the window. Surprised, I rechecked the address.
I’d been to prisons before—in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana—but never one for women. Men’s prisons are geographically isolated—drab fortresses built on the outskirts of town, far from the women and children, grimly asserting to the world, Here there be pariahs. In this architecture of exile, Alcatraz is the quintessential model: a gray fortress on an island, cut off from civilization by frigid water, killer currents, and hungry sharks. Chillicothe Correctional Center didn’t fit that mold. Built in the 1880s as a home for wayward girls, the facility was located in the middle of a pleasant town in the gentle countryside. Its founders envisioned a pastoral haven where lost girls could find Christian salvation far from the wicked temptations of St. Louis and Kansas City. That vision produced a campus reminiscent of a New England women’s college with several two-story red brick buildings arranged like dormitories around a quadrangle.
Times change, though, and the home for wayward girls was now Missouri’s main prison for women, housing nearly six hundred inmates. The prisoners ranged from minimum secu- rity residents on work-release programs to death row convicts, of which there were presently three. Fortunately, Angela Green wasn’t one of them. Nevertheless, when you enter prison at the age of forty-nine, a forty-year sentence might as well be life.
I pulled my car into the administration center parking lot and got out. Stretching, I turned toward the prison buildings across the street. There were several female inmates outside the buildings—some working on gardens, others strolling around the grounds. The only indication that this wasn’t the Missouri branch of Mount Holyoke College were the gray work shirts and slacks worn by the women and the security fence topped with coiled razor-wire ringing the campus.
I checked my watch. It was almost eleven o’clock. I turned back to the administrative center, shading my eyes in the late morning sun. Time to check in. Time to meet my newest client. I paused a moment, grinning sheepishly. No question about it. I could feel the tingle.
# # #
We were in an attorney-client interview room, facing each other across the table. Unlike the interview rooms in men’s prisons, which have all the charm of a concrete bunker at Normandy Beach, this one was softened by a few feminine touches, such as frilly curtains over the barred windows and a vase of irises on the rickety wooden table in the center of the room.
I was explaining the nature of the Son of Sam claim that had brought us together as attorney and client. Angela listened carefully, her chin resting on steepled fingers. Whatever celebrity excitement I’d felt in anticipation of our meeting had vanished the moment we met. Angela Green was someone you warmed to immediately, especially, I think, if you were a woman. It was a special connection, a sisterhood sort of thing that I could feel our first moments together. My reaction was typical, I suppose.
This was, after all, the same woman who was adored within the prison not only by the inmates but by the guards as well.
The first thing I noticed about Angela Green was how human she looked. Although celebrities tend to seem diminished in person, here it was hardly Angela’s fault. If clothes can make the woman, they can surely unmake her as well. Take the cover girl from a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, swap her thong bikini for a drab work shirt and an ill-fitting pair of Dickey slacks, deep-six the makeup, can the hairdresser, and we’re talking, at best, the Before shot in a back-pages ad in Cosmo. While the media’s two favorite adjectives for Angela Green were saintly and regal, try dressing Joan of Arc in the Missouri Department of Corrections’ version of haute couture and she’d be lucky to pass for a janitor. As for regal, not even the queen of England could pull that off in prison grays.
Such was the case for Angela. Gone was the stunning African princess from her college days, the elegant suburban mother from her soccer mom days, and the coiffed matron from the final years of her marriage. In their place was a middle-aged woman who seemed older than her fifty-six years and heavier than I remembered from the Oprah special.
Nonetheless, Angela Green had presence. There was an aura of dignity about her—a quiet, determined dignity—that was palpable. Although her belle days were long over, she was still a handsome woman. Her skin was a deep mahogany that seemed to glow from within. Her hair—worn in a full Afro during her college days; tamed and straightened during her suburban days—was now braided in dozens of cornrows that reached to her shoulders. It was a striking look, especially for a woman of her age, and it gave her an air of authority. She had strong features—a wide nose; thick, bowed lips; full, high cheeks; broad forehead. But her most remarkable features were her eyes. They were dark and calm and wise. Although she was decades past her African princess days, it was no stretch to imagine Angela Green in the role of the village chief, seated upon her throne and resolving disputes among her subjects.
“I do not understand,” Angela said, leaning back and shaking her head. Her voice was soft and husky, the words carefully articulated. “How can that child presume to make a claim against me? I am no relation to him.”
“It’s not his relation to you,” I explained. “Under the Son of Sam law, the key is his relation to the victim. Members of the victim’s family are the only ones entitled to sue.”
“Family?” Angela frowned. “How is that child family to Michael?”
“He claims—well, actually Trent’s lawyer claims—that he’s the equivalent of Michael’s son.”
“Equivalent?” Angela repeated, puzzled. “What is that sup- posed to mean?”
“It’s a doctrine called ‘equitable adoption.’”
Angela shook her head, angry now. “Michael never adopted that tramp’s child. He died before the marriage.”
“I know.” I gave her a sympathetic smile. “It’s a stretch.”
I explained the doctrine of equitable adoption, which the courts fashioned for that rare case where justice demands that a child be declared the rightful heir of people who never formally adopted her. In the classic “equitable adoption” situation, a married couple raises a foster child. Although they treat her as their own child, they never get around to making it official. If they die without a will or with one that refers generically to “any child of mine,” their unfinished business lands in probate court. That’s because the failure to adopt has significant legal consequences: a foster child is not an heir, while an adopted child has the same legal status as a biological child. Thus the equitable adoption doctrine typically comes into play in an inheritance battle between the unadopted child and the biological children, or—if no biological children—between the unadopted child and the deceased’s blood relatives.
“The law is suspicious of these claims,” I explained to Angela, “because the people who file them have a powerful incentive to lie about the dead person’s intentions. The courts require the claimant to present direct evidence of a clear intent to adopt.
Circumstantial evidence isn’t enough. For example, one court ruled that claiming a child as a dependent on a tax return didn’t constitute direct evidence.”
Angela frowned. “What exactly does that mean here?”
“It means the court will carefully examine Michael’s actions. The key issue is whether he expressed a clear intent to adopt Samantha’s son. If so, did he do anything in furtherance of that intent?”
Angela narrowed her eyes. “And did he?”
“We don’t know. We’re at the beginning of the lawsuit. We haven’t taken any depositions, especially Samantha’s, and we haven’t reviewed the documents. It’s too early to say.”
“How does it look so far?”
“We have some problems,” I conceded, “but nothing fatal. We know that Michael signed a prenuptial agreement with the child’s mother. In paragraph seven of the document he agreed to adopt her son. We know that he had an attorney prepare the necessary adoption papers. He also had an attorney prepare new wills for him and for Samantha. Although the wills were never signed, the plaintiff’s lawyer claims that Michael reviewed and approved his draft two days before his death. The new will adds Trent to the list of beneficiaries and describes him as an adopted son.” I paused. “Will the court find that to be enough evidence?” I shrugged. “It’s too early to tell.”
“He barely knew that child,” Angela said quietly, her voice laced with frustration.
I reached across the table and laid my hand on top of hers. “We’re going to fight it, Angela. We’ll have plenty to say by the time of trial.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. After a moment, she stood up and moved to the window. Pushing the curtain back, she peered out.
She turned to me. “If that tramp wins, I will have Michael Junior and Sonya file their own Son of Sam claims. They are Michael’s children, too. His only real children.” She nodded decisively. “I’ll bet that lawyer never considered that.”
He didn’t need to, I thought to myself. The Missouri legislature already had. The Son of Sam law barred any claim by a family member of the victim who also happened to be a family member of the killer. But I said nothing. No need to further demoralize my client this early in the case.
Instead, I explained our various defenses. She was interested to hear about the constitutional challenge to the statute, which would be led by the New York law firm representing her pub- lisher. If we could convince the court to throw out the statute as an abridgment of the freedom of speech, the case would implode and we’d never have to worry about equitable adoption or our other defenses. She listened attentively, asking questions along the way.
When I finished explaining the legal issues, I went over a few more items regarding pretrial matters, including timing issues and the like. Then I had the deputy warden come in so that we could work out a confidential but efficient way for me to communicate with Angela by mail, phone, and fax—essential procedures given that St. Louis was a four-hour drive from Chillicothe.
I checked my watch after the deputy warden departed. We still had a few minutes before I had to drive back to Columbia for Benny. I had one more topic to broach. I wasn’t quite sure how to begin, or where to go once we started.
Angela must have sensed it. “What is it, Rachel?” I gazed at her for a moment. “I reviewed the file.” “Of what?”
“Your case. Everything. Court transcripts, pretrial motions, homicide investigation. Whatever I could get my hands on.”
She frowned. “Why?”
“Good question.” I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms over my chest. “I’m not sure, Angela. I started with the trial transcript. Initially, I suppose I was looking for any stray evidence on the equitable adoption issue.” I shrugged. “Maybe to see whether Samantha said anything back then about Michael’s relationship with her son—back before her lawyer concocted this adoption theory.”
“And did she?”
I shook my head. “Not really. Oh, she said he loved to play with Trent, took him fishing once, gave him a tricycle for Christ- mas—that sort of thing.”
“And,” Angela said.
“And I saw other things.” “What things?”
“I’m not a criminal lawyer, Angela, but over the years I’ve had to look through a few homicide files. Yours was unusual.”
She leaned forward, curious. “How so?”
I paused, searching for the right words. “There were loose ends.” “Such as?”
“Such as the murder weapon. It’s not the sort of weapon you’d expect a housewife to use.”
“The serial number was filed off. The gun was untraceable. It’s the kind you’d normally expect to find with a professional hit, the kind you’d buy from an illegal gun dealer.”
She rubbed her chin, trying to remember. “I think they asked me where I bought it.”
“They did. It’s in the arrest report. You told them you’d never owned a gun.”
She nodded. “That’s true.”
“So where’d you get it?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I have no idea.”
I studied her for a moment. “Angela, if you wanted to buy that kind of gun, where would you go?”
“I have no idea.”
“Neither did the police.” I leaned forward. “That’s my point. It was a loose end. The police were never asked to come up with an answer because it was never an issue at trial. Maybe there’s a simple explanation for the gun, but it’s certainly nowhere in the file.”
Angela sighed and shook her head. “I supposed I blacked that part out, too.”
After a moment, she asked, “Was that the only loose end?” I shook my head. “How did you get into his house?”
She frowned, trying to remember. “Did I ring the doorbell?” “Not likely. He was shot coming out of the shower. He wouldn’t have let you in with a gun in your hand and then gone back in the bedroom, gotten undressed, and taken a shower.” “Maybe the gun was in my purse? Maybe the door was open? “Maybe. The housekeeper said the door was locked when she arrived. It was the kind that automatically locks when you close it.”
“Maybe I had a key.” “Did you?”
She shook her head in frustration. “I don’t remember.” “Why would you have a key? The two of you had just finished a bitter divorce. There’d be no reason for him to give you a key.” “Maybe he gave the children a key.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I assume you don’t know how to pick a lock.” She smiled. “No.”
“So how did you get in?” “What did the police say?”
“Nothing. It’s another loose end.”
She stared at the table, frowning. After a moment, she looked up at me. “Are there other loose ends?”
I nodded. “Such as?” “Such as John.”
John had been her alibi—her embarrassingly weak alibi. She claimed that on the night of the murder she had gone out for a drink with a nice young man named John, last name unknown, and woke up the next morning in Michael Green’s bedroom with no idea of how she got there. The police found no trace of the mysterious John.
“In your police interview,” I continued, “you said that you’d known John for a couple of weeks, that he used to come visit his mother in the hospital, right?”
“You said that you felt sorry for him. That the two of you became friends. That you used to have lunch together in the hospital cafeteria on the days you volunteered at the gift shop, right?”
“So where is he?” I asked. “And who is he?”
Angela looked down at the table. “They think I made him up.” Her voice was soft, muffled.
She stared down at the table. When she finally looked up, her eyes were moist. “I wish I knew the answer to that, Rachel. Lord, I do. When I look back on those days, everything seems unreal, like I was living inside a dream.” She gave me a sad smile. “More like a nightmare. I can’t tell for sure what part was real and what part was imaginary. I believe John was real. I have a memory of the things we used to talk about at the hospital. I can close my eyes and see that young man.”
She paused, closing her eyes. I waited. She opened them. In a discouraged voice she said, “I believe John was real.”
“The police didn’t.” She said nothing.
“But they didn’t bother tying up the loose end,” I said. She gave me a puzzled look. “How would they do that?”
“By checking the hospital records. It couldn’t have been that difficult to identify every female patient between the ages of, say, forty and seventy who’d been in the hospital for at least the two weeks preceding the killing. Once they had that list, they could quickly check whether any of those women had an adult son named John.” I shook my head. “But they didn’t bother to.”
Because of your lawyer’s theory of the case, I wanted to say. Instead, I said, “Because they thought that they already had enough evidence.”
She sighed. “They were right.”