The Human Circus (Excerpt)

The second installment in Joe McGinniss’s courtroom drama “15 Gothic Street” presents three cases of hapless criminality in a western Massachusetts county. In this excerpt, a routine drunk driving charge starts to get complicated.

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  1. Sometimes you have to roll the dice.

    At 1:10 a.m. on November 10, 2010, Brian Walsh, a forty-eight-year-old married father of three, was driving home to Belchertown, Massachusetts, in eastern Hampshire County, after attending a shift supervisors’ meeting at the Monsanto plant in Springfield, where he’d worked for more than ten years.

    As Walsh’s battered and rusted red pickup truck passed through the neighboring community of Granby, a local police officer on routine patrol noticed the vehicle drift left across the double yellow line on the two-lane road, then veer so far to the right that its wheels kicked up a cloud of dust from the unpaved shoulder.

    The officer followed Walsh for a quarter-mile, then pulled him over. He asked Walsh for his driver’s license. Walsh handed him an ATM card. He asked Walsh for his registration. Walsh handed him a receipt from NAPA Auto Parts. He asked Walsh if he’d been drinking. Walsh said he’d had two beers. At 1:15 a.m., he asked Walsh to tell him what time it was without looking at the clock on the dashboard of the truck. Walsh said it was 4:30. He asked Walsh to recite the alphabet from A to Z. Walsh got as far as P, then backtracked. “L, K, N, O, P,” Walsh said. Then he stopped and tried reciting it to himself.

    At that point, the officer had Walsh get out of the truck and try to walk a straight line. Walsh could not. The officer placed him under arrest. A second Granby patrol car took him to headquarters, where he called his wife and said, “I got pinched.”

    Charged with operating under the influence, it didn’t take Walsh long to realize how much trouble he was in. He’d already been convicted of OUI four times. In Massachusetts, a fifth offense carries a sentence that can range up to five years in state prison, a fine of between $20,000 and $50,000, plus loss of driver’s license for life.

    The Northwestern district attorney, Dave Sullivan, who’d taken office in January 2011 and whose jurisdiction included both Hampshire and Franklin counties, was not inclined toward leniency for drunk drivers. Very few DAs were. Like rape, dissemination of child pornography, and sexual abuse involving children, operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol was a crime that voters especially abhorred. Unlike sexual deviance, however, it was also a crime that more members of the public than would care to admit could have been convicted of at some point had they been—as Brian Walsh was—unlucky enough to drive past the suspicious eyes of a police officer at just the wrong time.

    Societal condemnation of driving after a few drinks, like societal condemnation of smoking, was slow to arrive in late-twentieth-century America. But the ferocity with which it was denounced during the first decade of this century has more than made up for that.

    Accused of being a five-time offender, Brian Walsh had no illusions about his prospects in Hampshire County Superior Court. A guilty plea might be arranged, with the district attorney’s office willing to recommend a sentence at the low end of the fifth-offense range in return for being spared the cost and uncertainty of a jury trial, but at the very least Walsh would face incarceration, a heavy fine, and permanent loss of his driver’s license, on top of which he was likely to lose his job at Monsanto. His wife and three children would pay a high price for his transgression.

    Walsh decided to roll the dice, plead not guilty, and go to trial. Whatever the cost of a private attorney, it was unlikely to be higher than the fine that a plea bargain would guarantee. Having been released on his own recognizance, Walsh wanted to remain free. He contacted Springfield lawyer John McKenna, a former Hampden County assistant district attorney whose website listed defense against charges of operating a motor vehicle under the influence as one of his specialties.

    In the year since he’d assumed office as Northwestern district attorney, Dave Sullivan had made it a priority to encourage younger assistants by assigning them more and bigger cases to try. For Scott Rathbun, a thirty-four-year-old graduate of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and the New England School of Law, prosecuting Brian Walsh meant a debut in Hampshire County Superior Court, at 15 Gothic Street in the county seat of Northampton.

    The courthouse was built in the 1880s. It’s a massive hunk of granite and brownstone that occupies a full block in the center of town. Superior court, on the third floor, handles the cases of those charged with felonies. District court, one flight down, disposes of misdemeanors. Occasionally, major crimes come to trial in superior court—murder, manslaughter, rape of a child—but more often the transgressions adjudicated there reflect the low-key lifestyle of Hampshire County. They are crimes of venality or stupidity, often involving substance abuse, rarely reflecting evil. Crimes like the one allegedly committed by Brian Walsh.

    ***

    Preview more of Joe McGinniss's The Human Circus.

Originally published in Byliner, November 2012