It’s eight o’clock in the morning and I’m parking my car in front of Celine Bauer’s sad row house. The exterior of the three-story structure is beat-up brick. The house has a wooden porch, its green paint dirty and starting to peel. Flowerpots adorn the porch and the top step, but the plants are dead. Half a dozen newspapers, still in their plastic wrappers, are scattered about. Celine Bauer has clearly stopped caring about her home, something I’ve seen before in the parents and spouses of the imprisoned. As hope drains from their hearts, everything else becomes pointless.
Two years ago I agreed to take on the case of Celine’s son, Justin, charged with second-degree murder in the beating death of a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate. Justin and two of his friends were tried together, and all three were found guilty. Celine sat through the trial convinced that her son’s lawyer was incompetent. Justin had been a straight-A student at West Philly High, had never gotten into trouble before. According to his mother, Justin had not been with his friends when they beat the other boy to death but had joined up with them shortly afterward, not knowing what they’d done.
Celine sent me a heartfelt letter, asking for my help. She knew about me because I had recently won the release of a young man wrongly convicted on evidence manufactured by a rogue police detective. I agreed to review Justin’s trial transcript, and, when I did, I saw immediately that Celine was right: Justin’s trial counsel had completely botched the defense. I took the case pro bono and filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel, which the trial judge promptly rejected. I then appealed to the Superior Court. We lost. Finally, I filed a petition for allowance of appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the criminal law equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. But miracles do happen, and earlier this week I’d received the court’s order granting my appeal.
I’d phoned Justin’s mother three times in as many days but never heard back. I wanted Celine to hear the news, and her failure to return my calls told me she needed to.
Celine opens the door on the fourth knock. Her eyes are flat. I smell alcohol on her breath. We stare at each other until she backs away from the door, leaving it open for me to follow her inside. The living room looks much like the porch. Dead and dying plants. Mail in a pile on the floor. Plates crusted with food on the coffee table. Celine flops down on the sofa, lights a cigarette, waits for me to tell her the bad news.
I lower myself onto a worn chair on the other side of the coffee table. I take a deep breath. “It’s good news, Celine,” I say. She grunts. “No, really. The Supreme Court has granted us an appeal. They wouldn’t do that unless they felt there were real grounds to hear the case. There’s a strong chance we’ll get a new trial. And if we do, I feel that we can win it.”
Celine stares at me for a long time. Then she puts her cigarette out in the chipped glass ashtray on the coffee table. “When will the judges decide? When can I tell Justin he’ll get a second chance? It’s killing him in there. He gets beat up all the time. He’s telling me he’s gonna join a gang, for protection. He needs hope.”
I nod. “It’ll probably take about six months.”
Celine sighs. “A long time.”
“It’s something for Justin to hang on to.” I lean over, pick up the bourbon, and stand. “You don’t need this.” I walk the glass into the kitchen and empty it into the sink. When I come back, Celine is on her feet. “You’re a strong woman, Celine. And you have to be the strongest you’ve ever been. For your son.”