Sean’s Penance by Uriel E. Gribetz

In the dingy stairwell, Gold passed defendants waiting for their names to be called by the court officer behind the door, so that they could step into the courtroom and stand before the Judge with their lawyer, to either plead guilty or get a new date to return to court.

On the landing at the top of the stairs, Gold showed a correction officer, sitting at a desk, his attorney identification card. He passed through a door, down a walkway, past open holding cells filled with defendants waiting to be called to court. This walkway led to an open receiving area, where waiting prisoners, chained together, had been brought up in an elevator from the garage of the courthouse. Converted school busses with wire-meshed windows brought them there from Rikers Island.


“Who do you need counselor?” Another c.o. asked him.

“Sean Ferris.”

“Sign the book.”

In a ledger book Gold signed his name under the column for attorneys and printed the name of Sean Ferris under the column for defendants.


The c.o. called out in the maze of pens.

“Ferris, Sean.”


“I’ll bring him to you.”

Gold went down another hall into the attorney conference area. The correction officer led Sean through the door on the opposite side.   Gold and Sean were separated by a plexi glass window.

Sean Ferris had black hair cut in a buzz with empty blue, blue eyes. He had a thick neck with an Adam’s apple that stuck out and went up and down when he swallowed. There was a deep scar under his chin and another one that you could see through the hair on his close-cropped head.

“You look good Sean.”

Right after he had been arrested, Sean was thin and unkempt from living in the street and smoking crack.


“Yeah I been eating pretty good and working out everyday.”


“I wanted to let you know that the clerk called to start the trial on Monday.”


“Am I going to see the Judge today?”

“No. I just brought you in for a counsel visit.”

“How does it look?”

Gold took Sean’s file out of his briefcase. “It doesn’t look good. Your fingerprints are all over that apartment.”


“That was ‘cause she used to let me sleep on her couch.”


“They have witnesses who saw you arguing with her before …”


“Sure we argued. Jenny and me knew each other since we were little kids. She’d always argue with me about the crack-to get into a program and stop ruining my life.”


“You had her credit cards on you Sean.”

“She was dead when I got there, an’ I took her wallet because I was going to sell the credit cards to buy crack.”


“I’d like to try and get you a plea.”

“I don’t want a plea.”

“You know the DA could ask the Judge to find special circumstances and you could get the death penalty.”


Sean’s Adam’s apple rose as he swallowed.


“I didn’t kill her. How could I kill Jenny? She fed me after my mother threw me out.”


Gold could see that he wasn’t getting anywhere. He saw the Judge’s order in the file.


“Did they take blood from you?”

“Yeah at Rikers.”

“It was a Court order.”

“Why do they want my blood? I didn’t bleed or anything like that.”


“I don’t know. Maybe they want to do a DNA comparison. They always do it in murder cases.”

“Please Gold, try for me.”

“I’m trying. I’m just not getting anywhere.” Gold rose and prepared to leave. “This weekend, when I’m preparing for trial, I’ll go over your whole file again, and I’ll go back to her apartment, the crime scene and see if there’s anything I missed.”


“Will you let me know if you come up with anything?”

“I’ll see you on Monday.”

Gold left the Courthouse with the crowd of attorneys, clerks, court officers, cops and defendants for the 1:00 o’clock lunch break. Most of the snow had melted. What remained had turned to brown slush and thick puddles around the curb. As he waited with the crowd to cross at the corner of 161st and Grand Concourse, bone chilling wind gusts formed an arctic funnel shaped by the surrounding buildings. Gold hunched his shoulders and stepped back to avoid the wake of spraying slush from the gypsy cabs and buses. The light changed, and as he attempted to hurdle it, Gold misjudged the breadth of the ice puddle, and his left shoe landed in the water. The toes on his left foot became wet and cold. He muttered curses. There were rows of storefront law offices lining both sides of 161st Street.   Clients shopped the block for the lawyer that gave them the best price. Gold rented a desk in a storefront on Sheridan. His landlord was Feldman, an old lawyer from Poland with tattooed blue numbers from Auschwitz, faded with age, inscribed on his arm. Through the courthouse grapevine, Gold learned that Feldman had hooks with hospitals, police stations and clinics throughout the Bronx. Runners on payroll steered big personal injury cases to Feldman who referred them out to the City’s richest plaintiffs’ attorneys for a percentage of the multi-million dollar recoveries. After his divorce, Gold moved into his parents’ apartment on Pelham Parkway. Nathan and Esther had retired to Boynton Beach.   On the weekends, Gold stayed with his girlfriend Celeste Santiago in her tiny one bedroom on the upper east side.


Gold reached the corner of Sheridan and 161st. He made a left on Sheridan and headed towards the office. On the tinted front window the faded gold letters, which spelled ‘Law Office’ were nearly indiscernible. Sheila, the raspy voiced chain-smoking secretary, buzzed him in. She looked up from her newspaper and nodded. On her desk there was a smoke-eating machine next to her computer. The desk behind hers belonged to Gold. In the back was Feldman’s glass partitioned office. For lunch Feldman went to the Greek’s around the corner. In the back there was a large table where some of the Judges and other old timers from the court ate. The potpourri aroma from Feldman’s pipe tobacco lingered. From his desk, Gold looked over Sheila’s shoulder at the paper.


“Do you mind not breathing down my neck?” Sheila turned to him.


“If you want I’ll give you a quarter so you can buy your own Post.”


Reluctantly, Gold took Sean’s file from his briefcase. Again he went through the DD-5s prepared by the Detectives. The medical examiner’s report had the cause of death as manual asphyxiation. In the photos Jenny lay askew on her apartment floor with angry red marks and bruises around her neck. The blood vessels in and around her lifeless eyes had burst. She was a petite, pretty, strawberry blond.


The Super, a large, robust Irishman, let Gold into the lobby of the apartment building where Jenny Coughlin had lived.


“You’re the lawyer for Sean?” He asked Gold in his brogue.


“Yes I am.”

The Super had a beer gut that hung over the front of his workpants, and he towered over Gold. “I recognized you from the last time you came to look at the apartment.   It hasn’t changed.”


“Can I take one more look at it?”

“Why not? I guess you’re just trying to do your job and defend that good for nothing bastard.” The building was a walkup. The lobby, with its black and white tiled floor, had just been mopped and it smelled of ammonia. Gold followed the Super’s broad back up the three flights of spotless marble stairs. “Everybody deserves a defense, isn’t that what they say. Jenny was too nice, that was her problem. She should never have given Sean a thing. The first time she helped him, that was the end for her.   Sean kept coming around.   Sometimes, she wasn’t home, I would have to tell him to get lost.” The Super was winded and flushed when they reached the landing for the third floor.   There were four steel doors painted green leading to four apartments on each floor. The door that led to Jenny Coughlin’s apartment had yellow police tape crisscrossed in an ‘X’ across the front. He fumbled with his key ring, mumbling curses, as he tried a number of keys before one fit and he was able to turn the lock. The door stuck for an instant until he pushed against it, and it gave way. “Just shut the door behind you when you leave.”


“Thank you,” Gold told him.

The coat closet in the foyer was empty. Gold walked into the living room. Where pictures hung from the wall there remained only holes from the nails that held the frames. There were marks on the floor where her body had been found. The door to the bedroom was closed. Despite the frigid winter, the window in the living room, overlooking the alley below, was pulled wide open. The heat, a hiss of steam from the radiator grill below the window’s ledge, filled the apartment, and Gold removed his overcoat and entered the small eat in kitchen. Everything had been taken out. Why had he come here?


Then Gold heard it. It was sobbing coming from the bedroom. At first he thought he was imagining the sounds of the steam.   He was very quiet. Now he was sure it was coming from the bedroom. He walked over to the door that led to the bedroom. It was the muffled sound of a man weeping. Gold pushed open the door. There sitting on the floor of the empty room was Ron Silverman with his legs crossed, his elbows resting on his knees, and the palms of his hands on either side of his face, streaming with tears.


“Hey Dave,” Ron greeted him as if they were neighbors meeting in the hall. Ron Silverman was Gold’s supervisor when Gold worked for Legal Aid.


“How did you get in here?” Gold asked him.

“I have a key.” Silverman rose.

He reached into his pant’s pocket for a tissue to blow his nose.


“I still can’t believe she’s gone. You didn’t know her. She came to Legal Aid after you left. She was someone special.”


“No. I didn’t know her.” He wanted to leave, but Silverman continued.


“I come here every once in a while since it happened. . .” The tears began again. “I have my nice little supervisor job, my lovely wife, two beautiful girls and a little cape in Legrange. I wanted Jenny. Middle age made me think about what else. And there she was-pretty, radiant Jenny-ready to fight for the rights of the indigent and make a difference. It wasn’t hard to get her to fall for me. Her eyes would light up when I would tell her war stories of all the trials that I had done. One lunch followed another and another that led to an afternoon and then a weekend. I would tell my wife that I was going out of town to recruit at law schools. . .”


Why was Silverman telling him all of this?

“… I kept telling her that I was going to leave my wife. She wanted to end it, but I wouldn’t let her. I can’t help feeling that if I wasn’t so selfish this would never have happened.”


“It’s not your fault, Ron.” Gold began putting on his coat. “Are you going to be okay?”


“I’m fine.”

“I’ve got to get going.” Gold made his way to the front door.


“I know you’re defending that animal and I shouldn’t be talking to you, but somebody has to know.” Silverman watched him leave.


Celeste had just come from the shower. She smelled like flowers close and against him on the couch. He rubbed her back between the shoulder blades with the tips of his fingers against her soft skin. Gold loved her like this, when she wasn’t Ms. Assistant United States Attorney; too busy to have lunch because she was meeting with the F.B.I. or D.E.A. or A.T.F.; too busy to talk to him on the phone because she was on trial; too busy to see him because she was in a debriefing. It was his day with Celeste all to himself. Sections of the Sunday paper were spread across the coffee table and the remnants of their breakfast wafted from the small kitchen.


They went to the bedroom. In their time together each knew what the other liked and what they themselves liked the other to do, so that with passionate purpose their actions and movements were in unison, all in effort to achieve the greatest sustained pleasure, and afterwards satiated they held each other while they listened to the wind off the East River rush through the alleys and shake the window panes.

“Don’t you ever think?” Gold asked almost before he knew what he was saying. He wasn’t sure himself he wanted her this way.

Celeste knew from the way the words sounded, but she asked. “Do I ever think what?”


“You know,” he said gently.

It was heartless to continue to play dumb.

“Don’t you like it the way it is now?”

“I do,” he told her. “All week I look forward to it.”

“Me too,” she smiled. “When I’m having a particularly bad day, I think of Sundays with you.”


“What about the rest of the week?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t think about that.”

“Why not?”

“It confuses me.”

“It makes me feel bad that it makes you feel that way. I just wondered if it crossed your mind.”


“I don’t know if I’m cut out for it. Some women just don’t have the maternal instinct.   Maybe because I was brought up surrounded with all these kids, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and me babysitting, mothering because I was the oldest that now I don’t want to. Maybe that’s me? I don’t know David. I know one thing, that you are dear to my heart and that I love you.”


“I don’t ever want to lose it.”


“Well then why can’t we leave it as things are.   You know what they say?”


“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” Gold finished the sentence for her.


They lay quietly in the bed. The late winter sunlight in the west was blocked by all the buildings and it grew dark. Gold listened to her steady, even breathing as she napped against him. He thought about tomorrow and Sean’s trial.


In the morning Celeste hardly spoke as she dressed for work and Gold stood next to her in the bathroom sharing the mirror.   Celeste tried not to show that she was irritated. That was why he didn’t spend the night on Sunday because it interfered with Celeste’s transformation from her weekend romantic self to her weekday business self.


At the station she ran to the arriving subway on the downtown platform.


“I’ll speak to you later,” Gold called after her.

A little girl wedged against her mother in the throng met his gaze. With each stop the crowd in the car swelled. With her big brown eyes nearly covered by a woolen hat, she held her mother’s hand, unfazed; unabashed, as if she could read his thoughts, the little girl continued to catch Gold’s eye on the ride up to Yankee Stadium.


In the hall of the fifth floor of the Bronx Supreme Court building, David Gold watched the wide body of Frank Latella limp towards him. After Latella had played linebacker for Hofstra, he had had a tryout with the Giants, before blowing out his knee.


“I need to talk to you Dave,”

Latella’s arms stretched his suit jacket, and his neck was too thick for the top button of his shirt collar to close.

“Yeah, me too, “ Gold told him.

“You first,” Latella said.

They walked over to the area by the elevators, where there were windows that overlooked the alley below.


“Did you know about Ron Silverman and Jenny? There might be other suspects who had motive …”


“Dave don’t even go there because you’re wasting your time. I know about Ron and Jenny, and about Ron stepping out on his wife. We got the results on the DNA of the skin taken from underneath Jenny’s fingernails, and it matches Sean 100%. He’s going down on this.”


“Nobody mentioned any scratch marks on Sean when he was arrested.”


“Because he was arrested a couple of weeks after the murder, and the marks had healed by then.” Latella paused. “Dave I’m giving you a heads up that the bosses upstairs want to fry this kid. I’m saying they’re talking about this as a death penalty case. Jenny was the best and brightest of the Bronx and this animal snuffed her out for nothing.”


“I’ve tried talking to him about a plea, but it’s like in one ear out the other.”


“Talk to Sean and tell him he’s going to get the needle. Find out if he knows something. If he can give something that I can go back to the bosses with to convince them not to go special circumstances.”


“Like what?”

“Maybe he knows something about a body? You know what I’m saying Dave. You and me we know each other for a long time. Talk to this kid and get back to me. I’ll see you in court.”


Gold sat across from Sean Ferris, on the other side of the plexiglass window.


“What wrong Gold? You don’t look good.”

“I got bad news for you Sean.”

“What is it?”

“They’re going to try to give you the death penalty.”
Sean’s Adam’s apple went up and down.


“Because you killed that girl.”

“I told you I didn’t kill her.”

“Come on Sean, they found your skin underneath her nails. The reason they took blood from you was because they wanted to match your DNA to the DNA of the skin underneath her nails, and it matched 100%.”
“I didn’t have any scratches on my face when they arrested me.”


“Because they didn’t catch you until a couple of weeks after it happened, and the scratches healed.”
“DNA don’t mean shit. Maybe they made a mistake and mixed up my DNA with someone else’s.”


“Come on Sean, you know that didn’t happen.”

“If they give me the needle it’s going to kill my mother.”

“The DA wants to know if you have any other information that can help them in other cases.”


“Like what?”

“Like maybe, you know, about somebody getting murdered or robbed or something that the DA can go back to his boss with to make them not make this a death penalty case.”


“I don’t know anything like that. I’m just a crackhead.”


“Think Sean. Maybe you overheard someone talking about something, or you saw something happen?”


“I use to pitch vials for these Dominicans over on University. Maybe I could give them the spot?”


“Were was this?”

“Over on University and 175th.”


“I don’t know, a couple of months ago, a year ago. I’m really not sure. I only did it a couple of times. I use to come in the morning and get some cracks to sell for them on the street. Once I sold my supply they would give a vial or two for my head. The area was too hot and me being a big white boy I stood out like sore thumb. I got busted by the TNT. I didn’t go back. These people scared me-I heard they killed people and stuff. It was too freaky.”


“Did you ever see them kill anyone?”


“It’s not enough Sean.”

The c.o. came and got them. The Judge wanted to call the case before lunch. In the empty courtroom, Latella and the Judge waited.   Sean sat at the table with the Court Officers sitting behind him while Gold and Latella talked with the Judge at the bench.


“Frank he has nothing to give.”

“If he pleads to the murder right now, I won’t object to the Judge giving him 25 to life. If he doesn’t, we’re going death penalty.”


“Let me talk to him.” Gold walked over to the table. “If you plead guilty right now they won’t go for the needle.”


“What will sentence be?”

“25 to life.”

“What the hell, let’s get it over with.”

“You Honor, my client has authorized me to enter a plea of guilty to Murder in the Second Degree,” Gold told the Judge.


The Judge went through the usual colloquy with Sean about how he didn’t have to plead guilty, and about how Sean didn’t have to prove his innocence, but the DA had to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before a Jury of 12 people or a Judge sitting alone, and was he pleading guilty because he was guilty, and by pleading guilty he was giving up all constitutional rights an accused has and on and on. Words Gold had heard many times. Then the Judge asked Sean to tell him what he did.


“I was very bad up for the crack, Judge, and I knew Jenny. Sometimes she would give me a couple of bucks. That night, I went to her house, and she let me in. I asked her to help me out and she said no, that she wasn’t going to help me support my habit anymore. That it was over, that she didn’t want me coming around anymore. I begged her to please help me out this one time, and she said no, to leave and that I was a crackhead, and to just leave her alone. That’s when I got real mad, and I choked her and took her purse.” Sean told the Judge in a matter of fact tone.


“Did you know what you were doing?” the Judge asked him.



When they brought Sean up to the Pens, Gold turned to Latella as they left the courtroom.


“Was your office going to for the needle?”

“Probably not. Jenny’s mom asked us not to.”

“Why did you tell me that you were?”

“Because it helped save the tax payer’s money by not having to go through a 3 week trial to convict that animal. That’s why.”


They were back in the hall by the elevators and there was nothing Gold could think of to say.

The End