"Something's bound to go wrong"

A boy who played games with the police and the justice system couldn't outrun the cost of defiance.

Published June 2, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Benny Armande was a 15-year-old loner and the child who most intrigued me of all the children on my case load. I was his public defender for a year and a half, replacing the defender who had represented him for three years prior. He brought out all things maternal within me. He tricked me into spending "family time" with him, those selfishly amassed moments of peace, grabbing pizza on Broadway or in the attorney-client visit area during the periods of his incarceration at the juvenile justice center. My own son would be waiting for me at home while Benny and I prepared for trial over pizza and pop.

Benny was brilliant, charming, poor and black. We routinely separate these adjectives in our minds so that the blending of them can sound somewhat unnatural to the ear. He was legendary. A handful of black professionals -- other lawyers, court staff and I -- thought if we could just come up with the right words for his ears, somehow, one day, the bell would chime; he'd understand in a flash of light, see his way through to the other side of adolescence. But what Benny wanted most, I think now, was to be seen as a cowboy, the black-horsed desperado. The cops were foolish enough to play Benny's game, chasing him from suburb to suburb. He'd flee on foot and then disappear in fields, parking lots and housing developments.

His favorite game was petty theft in the plushest department stores of south King County, Wash. The end result of his afternoon sprees was the trials: me and Benny, alone, in the Seattle courthouse. The sterile, air-conditioned courtroom with faux oak paneling was the theater where his plots culminated. It must have felt to him so different from the grassy summer air, the excitement of hot pursuit across tar-covered parking lots and into the surrounding fields. His world was spacious, outside. But the chase always brought him back to the stale, indoor world of the legal system. Benny sat next to me at counsel table in dark blue pajamas. "D.Y.S." in white, gummy letters tagged the back of his shoulders; he was in the custody of the Department of Youth Services -- again. I acknowledged with pen strokes to a yellow legal pad the parade of witnesses required to evidence one child's theft of one clothing item from one store. At his last trial, I'd encouraged him to accept the state's offer of 10 days in jail and a year on probation. He declined despite the fact that he'd already served all of the time they were asking. It looked from the police reports that if the state's witnesses just managed to show up, they'd have this one in the bag: Benny would be convicted. Around the courthouse, this was called an attendance drill.

Like all of the other eight trials that I represented Benny through, he kept wagging his head over his shoulder, distracted, as though he expected someone to walk through the door that divided the public from us.

The last day of trial, a key witness failed to appear. The judge acquitted Benny after my closing argument highlighting the absence. She brought down the gavel on the case and the curtain on this scene. Benny sat slouched back in the institutional chair, grinning at her without an ounce of surprise in his eyes and demanded the guard to remove his cuffs. Benny was smart and lucky. He wasn't convicted of stealing that pair of pants from the Bon Marche, even though the cops had the pants in a sealed evidence bag that they'd hauled back and forth to the courthouse between recesses. Officers Jackson and Laramie left court, infuriated that little Benny could have the nerve to take such a case to trial and then to win or, as they said, "win on a technicality." That's what they call it when all of the resources of the state, the cops, the prosecutors, court staff, when all of these government employees are unable to rally into court one witness. In this case, it was Mrs. Jones, who'd been shopping for her son in the boys department on the Sunday in question.

Jones was the only person who actually saw Benny ball up the jeans and thrust them into his backpack that afternoon. I'd spoken with her, my investigator on hand taking notes. I knew her better than the prosecutors, better than the cops. They had time to chase Benny on their mottled black and white horses around the county but, in the end, all of their efforts couldn't make Jones care about that pair of jeans. I'd seen her home, the cars in the driveway: hers, her husbands, her oldest son's. Her boys were safe, college-bound. She and her husband were salaried and she could have taken the time to appear in court without losing a cent. She'd even gain the $18 that King County would pay her for returning her subpoena to the front desk at the end of her testimony. But she didn't show up. Why would she? That is the part that the good guys just hadn't put together. The look of surprise on their faces as they walked out of the front door, after the botched trial, amazed me. They hadn't given much consideration to the whys of the case: why a kid as smart as Benny spent so much time doing nothing of value; why they invested their own time in the chase; and why Jones would consider taking time off so some boy she didn't know could do time in jail for stealing a pair of pants.

The thing about having the longest juvenile rap sheet in the county is that you can't go through as many legal proceedings as Benny did and not learn something about the process -- not as smart as he was. "Something's bound to go wrong," he would say. That was his favorite refrain. I heard him say it so many times that I came to catch a subtle meaning from him. He had hung around courthouses enough to see the disorder in my world, a world of apparent order and logic. He knew about the likelihood of witnesses falling off, not being able to appear for court; he'd sat in the waiting area watching court personnel frantically calling the precincts in search of police officers or evidence technicians. He'd even come to understand the Miranda case -- the case that established the police's obligation to read suspects their rights -- in a pragmatic way that few adult non-lawyers understand it. Several of his trial victories had been based on his ability to have so many things going on at the time of his arrest (pulling lots of stuff out of his pockets: pen-knives, pocket lint, plastic toys, a handgun -- he always had a handgun) that the officers were distracted from reading his Miranda warnings to him until after he was at the station. Because of this, several of his cases were won because all of the trial testimony and evidence was ultimately suppressed, leaving the state's case a bare-boned disaster. And Benny would never plead guilty.

There was no discouraging Benny from doing what he wanted to do. With other kids on my caseload, if I said something was best for them, they believed me. Why not? I was the adult in charge, oftentimes the only adult they had ever seen take charge. True, some would look down at their hands and ask me if I could explain this stuff to their parents and we would walk into the hall and make decisions by consortium. I was always clear, though, to explain to the child, separately, that the final decision was his alone. But Benny always took the reins of his case from the beginning to the end. His parents never appeared, so there was never anyone else to take the reins. Prosecutors would ask, "Don't you have any client control, counselor?" All I could do was shrug. They didn't know who was in the saddle.

Police reports are laden with the fascinating tales: Benny climbing steel wire fences, eluding them at the last minute; Benny sitting calmly in the security offices of the largest department store in the Northwest, coyly answering a neophyte official's questions and springing away at the last instant. He was Benny, Benny Armande. How dare they leave an amateur in charge?

And always legions of squad cars were called out in pursuit of this bony, high-Afro'd desperado, who was never known to have shot at anything. The gun he always carried was a prop. Without it there would have been no chase. Apparently, the south King County cops never looked at his rap sheet long enough to figure out what they really had on their hands: a small-time petty crook who never stole anything more valuable than school clothes, hardly worth the effort to recover. But he'd tricked them into providing his entertainment in the dangerous game, where he stood larger than life, always armed, the cloud of black and whites chasing him. He was the star of his own western, filmed in the small towns of Kent Valley, beneath snow-capped Mount Rainier.

Mary, another black lawyer and I talked Benny into going to lunch one day, after a pre-trial hearing. We took him to McDonald's. I was almost two years into Benny's representation and tired of trying to change him with words. But Mary, new and fresh, sat across from Benny, smiling easily, trying to catch his hard eyes.

"We will drive you today," she said. "Today is the day to go to the job corps office. Today is the best day to do anything, anything important." Benny sat silently. Lifted the burger to his lips with his bony hands. The right hand had a long, feminine pinky nail, the two gold rings glittering around his finger, promises of what his world could do for him if he shunned us.

"I'll go," he said. "I'll go. Can't go today, though."

When we were done with lunch, we walked back to the car, (Mary thinking maybe we would drive there anyway; I could see it in her eyes). When we looked up from the car handles, me with the key still in my hand, he was gone.

Then one day, a few weeks later, I was walking into the courthouse attorney room when the phone rang. Mark, another lawyer, picked it up and looked at me with the phone still to his ear, hand cupped over the mouthpiece. "It's Benny Armande's mother," he said, and the laughter erupted from my throat before thought kicked in. I took the phone, thinking for sure that it was my office, my own son with a question or a cop returning a call.

"You're such a joker, Mark."

"Who is this, really?" I said into the mouthpiece.

"Benny's been shot in the head," said the throaty voice on the other end, a woman.

I fell into a chair.

"Will you come to ICU, please?"

"Yes. Yes I will."

"Will you help me? There is something I need."

"I am on my way."

When I arrived, there were doctors and nurses covered in white gowns and masks. Rooms were divided by plastic curtains. In the bed, Benny was propped and his eyes were the same, clear and hard. I thought he had made it, unscathed, like usual. But there was a gauze bandage swathing his entire head except for the eyes and jaw line. I was comforted by the clarity in his eyes and came to realize that there were heads floating around the bed, big heads, small heads, heads dark like polished ebony, like Benny's head. This was Benny's clan. My God, these were his people. A woman stroked a bony, dark-brown hand with her own full, caramel-colored fingers. I recognized the one long nail on the skinny hand within hers. I looked up. His face hadn't changed since I'd arrived. His hand was limp.

"He blew his skull off," she said. "There's nothing under there," pointing to the bandages. The people cleared a place for "the lawyer."

I wish that I could tell about some profound experience, some exchange between two women over the near-corpse of a dying boy. Instead, I sat for a few moments with this family, tried to blot out the chatter that filled the room, but I couldn't find a peaceful space to contemplate it all.

When I rose to leave, my eyes were still on Benny's empty pupils. "Can I call you?" she said.

"What?" I turned to the woman whose lips were somehow wrong, not expressing the right feeling.

"Will you be in your office this week?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Thank you," she said.

When I got home, I pulled an unfinished Victorian doll out of the sewing basket next to my fireplace, began knitting furiously. A friend's baby shower was planned for the following day and I still hadn't finished this present. I was proud of the corn rows that I had improvised (not part of the pattern), the perfect rich-brown yarn I'd found for the face. I'd finished the hard parts, the intricate picot trim of the skirt hem, the straw hat made with heavy yarn that had burned my fingers. I'd attached the first arm weeks ago and hadn't been back to the project since. Court life often spills over into life life until there is only work.

My 6-year-old came and sat next to me, dropped his hand into my lap, head bunched up against my shoulder. He'd been fed and was in his sky-blue pajamas. His silence told me that he had sneaked out of bed to meet me on the couch, that my husband, Bob, probably had a hard time getting him down, and that he might get in trouble if he was found down here with me after the struggle.

I joined him in his conspiracy, maintained the silence and tried to attach the doll's limb five or six times, but when I held it up at arm's length, it was always slightly off. I'd take the seam ripper and pop the arm off to start again. At some point, I held the doll in my left hand and the arm in my right and burst out crying, sobbing the way that children sob, gasping for each breath. Julian looked up at me, startled.

"It'll be OK, Mom. It's fine." He grabbed me around the middle, or as far as his arms could go. "Mom, leave the arm off. That way Wanda's baby will know it's OK to be different." I hugged my son, who waited so patiently for me after school, who was often disappointed having to go to sleep before I'd get home. He was an orphan of sorts, waiting day after day for a mother with duties away from home, associations with other children. I thought of Benny, in the middle of trial checking the door for someone, always checking the courtroom door.

Benny died the morning after my visit to the ICU ward without regaining consciousness. For weeks the mother's voice haunted my answering machine at work. "You said that you would help me. You said ..." It seemed that there was something in Benny's property when he was shot -- something that got sucked into the void of the evidence room. She thought that a lawyer could help her negotiate the road to reclaiming it. The calls came regularly, several times a day, then once a day, then they faded off and she was gone from my life. I was Benny's lawyer, not hers, and Benny was dead. If she'd spent more time with him, I thought, he would be alive and evidence rooms wouldn't be in the equation.

"Benny Armande" is a pseudonym used to protect Mrs. Armande's anonymity. This literary slight-of-hand mimics something of Benny's swift petty thefts. By changing her son's name, I have assisted her in doing something she grew adept at: being invisible, to the public, to me ... to her son. The only time I saw the two together was when Benny's eyes were no longer capable of seeing her there next to him.

They said that he shot himself. I don't know. If it is true then I think he shot himself like all of those unfortunate children who stumble upon a toy gun and end up blowing their heads off with it, because it is real, not a TV gun, not plastic. I think that Benny used his gun as a prop for so long that he was careless. Or maybe he was manic on the coke he'd snorted from the pinky nail that night, his motions fast, jagged and lethal. But I feel it is more likely he'd just taken his first steps into a darker world. Those shadow-boys, never apprehended, never named, who were said to be in the room on the night of the shooting, saw something in Benny -- independence -- too much of it for him to be a mule in their organization. Perhaps they wasted him and saved themselves years of trouble. Something's bound to go wrong, Benny would have said. Something's bound to go wrong.

By Nicki Blake

Nicki Blake is a lawyer and poet living in Seattle.

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