Harold had a very lucrative law practice. He dealt mostly in real estate matters and left the going to court on contested matters to others. He would on occasion appear before a judge to confirm a non-contested default judgment. Eventually he got himself elected to the Parish Council to represent his district on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, where he’d been born and bred. Steeped in the traditions of his cajun-fishermen ancestors, Harold liked to tell stories and eat spicy food. His election to the Parish Council at age sixty-four, after three attempts, insured that his real estate practice would become even more successful.
A good man of cheery disposition, Harold attended mass at Saint Rita’s with his wife and five children every Sunday and on all feast days. In order to distinguish himself from his blue collar clients who were buying modest homes on the West Bank, Harold always wore a three-piece brown suit with starched white shirt and red tie. For Harold it was important to remind his clients and relatives that he had risen above their ranks. After all, he had graduated from night law school at Loyola University up on Saint Charles Avenue in New Orleans. He had done this on a GI bill provided to veterans of World War II, while working full time at his uncle Fred Hebee’s bakery during the daytime.
As is the case with most cajuns, Harold was long-winded–especially in council meetings. “But Gentlemen (there were no women on the governing body in 1968 and there would be none for some spell thereafter), I just need a few more minutes to get my point across,” Harold would plead with his fellow legislators. They knew he could go on about the most irrelevant of matters for hours, so they would turn their chairs to the wall and read newspapers while Harold peppered some obscure point. To deal with the boredom, many in the audience would leave the room to seek food and drink at the snack bar downstairs.
“Henry, do you have a few minutes to talk about our case?” Harold might shout to an opposing counsel in the halls of the Courthouse, only to have his “Brother at the Bar” scoot into the men’s room to seek refuge from Harold’s verbal barrage. Otherwise, Harold could cost his legal brethren the better part of a valuable billable hour.
After his election to the Parish Council, Harold felt it his obligation to protect the rights of his constituents by defending them against criminal charges in a courtroom. Harold knew he had no experience at this task. To fulfill his responsibilities to those who had elected him to office and would insure his re-election, Harold employed the services of acclaimed criminal defense attorney Sam “Monk” Zelden to assist him in criminal cases. I always wondered where Sam acquired the nickname “Monk”. My experiences with him did not suggest that he had any theological training.
Monk’s granite-gray eyes pierced you as he jutted his chin in your face and assaulted you with words machine-gun-style, sometimes unintentionally spraying you with saliva. His voice sounded like it came from a mouth full of gravel and was always at full volume–even in polite conversation. In order to keep in shape, in his spare time Monk boxed at Curley’s Gym on Saint Charles Avenue in New Orleans. In his youth, Monk had earned a living for his family as a stevedore at the Jackson Street wharfs. He’d learned close quarter street fighting at an early age and brought this style with him when he did verbal battle in the courtroom. His aggressive style gave his clients charged with criminal offenses confidence that he could save them from prison. Although this was not always the case, Monk sold that illusion well.
So here I was this Monday afternoon facing the tag team of Harold and Monk. Now in his sixties with a paunch and gray showing in his wavy black hair, Harold stood next to Monk, a stocky man about five foot eight with a squared-off jaw and close-cropped, wiry brown hair. Their two young black clients had been charged with armed robbery of a Seven Eleven store at Barataria Blvd. and the Westbank Expressway. The case would be presided over by Judge John Boutall and decided by a twelve person jury. The morning had been taken up with preliminary matters and arranging the docket for the week to come, which meant we could not start on Harold and Monk’s case until in the afternoon. “Surely”, I thought to myself “This will make for a late night”.
Before the trial started I heard Harold tell Monk, “I know you are the lead counsel here, but I have to get involved and ask some questions so I can look good for my client.”
“I understand that Harold, but don’t do any thing stupid. Don’t say anything unless you clear it with me,” the experienced Monk admonished his co-counsel.
I presented my first witness–the arresting officer. Monk and Harold both took alternating turns at him on cross-examination. This was a most unorthodox courtroom procedure and confusing for everyone involved.
“I object, Your Honor”, I said to the Judge. “It seems to me to be good practice for one or the other of defense counsel to examine a witness–not both of them.”
Judge Boutall agreed, instructing the duo with his inimitable, nasal-toned southern drawl, “Now you guys got to decide which of you is going to take which witnesses. We will be here all night if you guys keep this up.”
Obviously not following Monk’s advice, Harold once blurted out to a question I had asked, “I object, Your Honor.”
“What is the basis of your objection, Mr. Moliason?” Judge Boutall asked.
“Uh, well, it just didn’t seem like a fair question to me, Your Honor.” Harold offered.
“That is not a legal reason for an objection, Counsel. Overruled,” the seasoned jurist intoned.
Monk and Harold seemed to have no concern about time, but Judge Boutall and I would be entertaining another jury tomorrow morning.
At this time, Judge John Boutall was the Senior Judge in the Twenty-Fourth Judicial District. As a judge, he had logged many years trying both criminal and civil cases. Although easygoing and well-respected by members of the bar for his fairness and common sense approach to thorny legal proceedings, Judge Boutall possessed a keen mind. He tolerated no foolishness in his courtroom.
The Judge lived all his life, except for the time he spent as a naval officer on a destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II, in the little fishing community where he was born, known as Bucktown. He adopted the laid-back, humble ways of his hardworking fishermen friends and family in this area located on the South Shore of Lake Ponchartrain where Orleans and Jefferson Parishes meet. It took a lot to rile up Judge Boutall, but ridiculous acting or contentious behavior on the part of an attorney could do the trick, to the detriment of the offending barrister.
That night dragged on and on. Each of the tag team would take a witness either on cross or direct examination and ask the same questions over and over. I would object, “Asked and answered, Your Honor.”
To which Boutall would grunt the words from his nasal passages, “Sustained. Move on Mr. Moliason. The jury has heard that same question and answer for the third time.”
Joe Kass, Judge Boutall’s seventy-two year old court reporter, who recorded in long hand with pen and ink, struggled to keep up with the action. He constantly waived his left hand at us attorneys, admonishing us to slow down. Joe had become even slower in his old age after he broke his writing hand when he slugged another patron in a barroom fight. While the good judge kept Joe on staff because Joe was near retirement and needed the income, Joe’s old-fashioned style and disabilities made the night even longer.
Finally, Judge Boutall took pity on all of us and broke for dinner, allowing the jury and attorneys to go across the street to Whiteside’s Restaurant and Bar for dinner. After dinner, the trial continued on, with Monk and Harold exercising their rhetorical skills with every witness.
As the Seth Thomas clock on the courtroom wall approached 10 P.M., Harold and Monk droned on and on, I began to doze off. I could see the Judge nodding and the jury slunk down in their seats. Monk was questioning one of his own defense witnesses about some irrelevant fact which I’d grown too tired to even object to.
Suddenly, Harold jumped to his feet and shouted to Judge Boutall, “I object, Your Honor.”
He offered no reason for his objection. In fact, the paunchy lawyer seemed a bit stunned himself at what he had just done. His bizarre objection to his co-counsel’s question jarred me out of my stupor, but I could not think of a thing to respond to Harold’s strange action.
Judge Boutall righted himself in his ancient brown leather bench, leaned forward and gazed at Harold in the most quizzical manner for a full two minutes. The judge finally spoke out of the side of his mouth, “But, Mr. Moliason, you can’t object to your co-counsel’s questions.”
Harold just stood there awhile and let that concept seep into his brain. After a long pause he said, “Yeah, Your Honor. I apologize. I know that.”
Then he quietly sat down, obviously realizing how ridiculous his objection had been.
Harold and Monk finally ran out of witnesses and questions. We made final arguments. The Judge gave his instruction on the law to the jury, who returned with a verdict acquitting both defendants about 1 A.M.
Harold and Monk had presented two alibi witnesses who worked with the boys at the caddy shack at the Plantation Golf Course. These witnesses testified that the defendants were at the golf course at the time of the robbery. I guess the jury believed the alibi witnesses. Perhaps the dynamic duo of Monk and Harold so confused the jury with their comic routine, that they came back with “Not Guilty”, despite any effort of mine.
Judge Boutall presided over and I tried another case before a new jury the next morning. As I walked into the courtroom, I thought, “Thank goodness there is just one defendant and one experienced defense lawyer.”
I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that Judge Boutall felt the same way.