Author: Wilusa PM
My take on the fate of Tommy Dolan. Why would California's most notorious defendant choose a trial, and near-certain death sentence, over a plea bargain that would spare his life?Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Chapters: 6 - Words: 17,098 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 2 - Published: 06-24-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5165132
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DISCLAIMER: Carnivale and its canon characters are the property of HBO and the show's producers; no copyright infringement is intended.
The headline screamed Does Dolan Have a Death Wish?
Nathan Stern reread the article, and was just as bemused as when he'd clipped it from the paper six weeks ago.
Tommy Dolan, formerly a star reporter for Los Angeles radio station KZAK, stood accused of having set a late-night arson fire that destroyed a newly opened orphanage in the town of Mintern, claiming the lives of six children and the woman caring for them. It was hard to imagine a more appalling crime.
The alleged motive made it even worse.
The orphanage had been affiliated with the "Dignity Ministry" founded by Rev. Justin Crowe - a preacher whose attempts to aid migrant farm workers had met with opposition from his Methodist congregation, local politicians, and the church hierarchy. Initially, it had been assumed the fire had been set by bigots. The publicity given this "outrage" by the first newsman to take note of it - Tommy Dolan - led to an outpouring of sympathy for "Brother Justin," catapulting him to fame.
Dolan had also received a huge career boost. But now it was claimed he'd set the fire, for the sole purpose of exploiting it to advance his career. At one point, he'd confessed.
Tommy Dolan was the most hated man in California, if not the nation.
Recently, the State had offered a plea deal. They wanted to avoid the cost of a trial and probable appeals, and the additional cost of security to prevent Dolan's being assassinated. Perhaps they feared they wouldn't be able to prevent it, at any cost. It was taken for granted that a trial would result in conviction, and he'd be sentenced to hang. But if he was gunned down in or outside the courthouse, the State would be reviled for incompetence, even accused of having deliberately let it happen.
So they'd offered to spare Dolan's life in exchange for a guilty plea. He would, of course, receive a life sentence, with no possibility of parole. But he'd be alive - and guaranteed, if he wanted it, a degree of isolation that would protect him from murderous fellow prisoners. The public would be furious at his not being executed, but the hubbub would die down and eventually be forgotten.
The shocker? Dolan had refused the deal! Spurning the advice of his public defender, he'd insisted on a trial, and declared that he meant to plead not guilty.
Did he think he could somehow explain away a signed confession? The entire document was said to be in his handwriting...
"Nate?" His secretary opened the door and poked her head in; he'd evidently been so absorbed in thoughts of Dolan that he hadn't heard her knock. "Mr. Ellison is here."
He looked up with a smile. "Thank you, Sally." He knew the pert redhead was bursting with curiosity about why he was seeing Walter Ellison. Slipping the newspaper article into a drawer, he told her, "Send him in."
Ellison was a big man, gray-haired but tough-looking, with an air of authority. After admitting him, Sally "forgot" to close the door; Nate had to call out and remind her. Her devilish grin said Can't blame a girl for trying.
He rose politely, and reached across his desk to shake hands with the older man. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Ellison."
"Likewise, Mr. Stern. Thank you for seeing me."
But was there a hint of reluctance in the handshake?
When they were settled in their chairs, Ellison said abruptly, "I assume you know who I am. So you may be able to guess why I'm here."
"Hmm." Nate pretended to ponder the question. "You want to hire a lawyer because you think Kay-Zack may be libeled in the course of the Dolan trial?" He cocked his head, then said smoothly, "But no, that wouldn't require a criminal defense attorney."
"No, it wouldn't."
"So...do I understand correctly? You're prepared to bankroll Dolan's defense?"
The owner of KZAK nodded. "But I don't want the press to get wind of who's footing the bill. Unless, of course, he's acquitted."
"That's understandable." Then Nate looked Ellison in the eye and said coolly, "I'm not the first lawyer you've approached." That was a guess; but the only alternative was that Ellison had only very recently decided to help his erstwhile employee. And my string of acquittals should have put me at the top of the list.
Ellison flushed. "Right. Some wouldn't even see me. Others wouldn't take the case, either because they've bought into the idea that Tommy's a monster, or because they'd be afraid for their own safety if they got involved.
"I thought of you right away, of course! Great record. But I was, ah, hoping to hire someone older. Longer-established in the community, you know?"
"Sure, I know." Or at least, I suspect...you wanted someone who wasn't a Jew.
Nate knew he, and other Jews, might be overly sensitive these days. But there'd been so much stereotyping, so many veiled "digs," in the press and in public figures' speeches...
Researching the Dolan matter, he'd caught several broadcast sermons delivered by the now-celebrated Justin Crowe. Brother Justin had reviled "bankers" - along with immigrants, intellectuals, filmmakers, and other handy scapegoats. Every time he said "bankers," Nate had heard Jews.
But what I care about now isn't Ellison's opinion of Jews, it's his opinion of Dolan.
He sat back, folded his arms, and said, "I'm curious. I believe every defendant is entitled to counsel, to the best case that can be made for him. But Dolan's notorious. Everyone believes he's guilty.
"And thus far, none of the ill will has rubbed off on Kay-Zack. So why aren't you leaving him to the public defenders? Why pay for a first-class defense?"
Ellison almost erupted out of his seat. "Because 'everyone' doesn't believe he's guilty! I sure as hell don't."
Okay, this is interesting.
"Tell me why you think he's innocent," he urged. "Try to convince me."
Ellison took a moment to compose himself, then said simply, "Look, I've known the guy for years. He's ambitious, yes - to a fault, maybe. He might do something slightly shady to 'advance his career.' But murder children? No way.
"He's assured me he didn't do it, and I believe him.
"As for his career, it was going great guns before the fire. He was an innovator, pioneering a new form with his reports from 'on the road.' All that publicity helped, sure. But he hadn't been on the skids, faced with a need to do something drastic.
"And the only evidence against him is the damned confession. Without that, he never would have been a suspect."
Nate pounced on that issue."Why did he make the confession? Did he give you any reasonable explanation?"
Ellison gave a reluctant shake of the head. "Nope. He hemmed and hawed, didn't seem able to explain it."
Thinking aloud, Nate speculated, "So maybe he was drunk? Drugged? Or even hypnotized? 'Drunk' doesn't really cut it, because the writing's said to be neat..."
His expressing that much interest seemingly encouraged Ellison. Sitting up straighter, the station owner blurted out, "So can I hire you to defend him? I'll...I'll double your usual fee, whatever it is!"
The first thought that passed through Nate's mind was If Dolan can actually be acquitted, and Ellison can then reveal he was in his corner all along, Kay-Zack will be a big winner. If only through attracting more advertising.
The second thought was Why not keep still about what I originally had in mind, and take him up on his offer? Double my usual fee...
But then he thought of the stereotype. Money-grubbing Jews.
He decided, instead, to throw Ellison for a loop. He said quietly, "No, Mr. Ellison. I won't take your money to defend Tommy Dolan."
Ellison's face fell. "Oh." He pushed his chair back, starting to get up.
"Wait a minute." Nate was enjoying this. "The truth is, I only agreed to see you today because I was interested in hearing your opinion of him.
"But I've been intrigued by this case for weeks. And before you called, I'd already made up my mind to offer my services, pro bono.
"So that's what I'm going to do. If, of course, Mr. Dolan will have me!"
A stunned Ellison fell back into his chair. And the next half-hour was spent in friendly argument, as he tried to persuade Nate to accept at least his usual fee. They finally agreed on a compromise: Nate would provide all legal services free of charge, but Ellison would pay for the security he'd need while representing such a hated defendant.
As Ellison was leaving, he turned to say, "One more thing, Nate." They were "Walt" and "Nate" now. With a slightly shamefaced grin, he admitted, "You'll have to take my word for this, but it's the truth. Weeks back, when I told Tommy I'd try to find him a lawyer, yours was the first name he suggested."
Nate had, of course, seen newspaper photos and even newsreel footage of Tommy Dolan. He knew the man was slim, dark-haired, fortyish. But on meeting his jailed client for the first time, he was struck by something the photographs hadn't captured: the keen intelligence in the man's face and eyes.
Not necessarily a good thing. The brighter he looks, the harder it will be to convince a jury he was somehow duped into writing and signing a false confession.
He kept that concern to himself. In an attempt at good cheer, he said, "I've heard you on the radio, Mr. Dolan. I hoped I'd meet you someday. But I wish it had been under different circumstances."
Dolan grimaced. Then he said, "I've heard of you, Mr. Stern. I know you're top-notch. I was bowled over when I learned you were taking my case - and wouldn't even accept Walt's money. However this turns out, thank you."
"You're welcome." Nate's smile was genuine. "But I want to be clear about this. Walt is convinced you're innocent. I'm not - at least at this point.
"But I want you to understand that as far as your defense is concerned, it doesn't matter. Innocent or guilty, you're entitled to the best defense I can provide, within the law. And you'll get it."
Dolan pondered that for a minute. Then he met Nate's eyes, and said quietly, " 'Innocent'? I've never claimed to be 'innocent.' "
"But you told Walt -"
Dolan held up a hand to stop him. "If I was completely 'innocent,' I wouldn't be in this mess. I promise I'll explain what I mean by that when the trial's over - one way or the other. Assuming I haven't been murdered.
"But while I'm not 'innocent,' I didn't set that fire, didn't kill anyone. I swear I'd never heard of Brother Justin and his problems till I met him on the road, after the fire, when I was chatting up hoboes to get stories for my radio show."
Nate said slowly, "I believe you." And meant it.
Then he felt he had to say, "You mentioned the possibility of murder. It's very real - more real, maybe, than you've been thinking. And there's an even greater chance you'll be convicted and hanged.
"Even though you didn't commit the crime you're charged with...are you sure you want to take those risks, rather than accept the plea bargain?"
"Absolutely sure." There was a wicked glint in Dolan's eyes now. "There are facts I want to see brought out during the trial.
"I have a suggestion, an approach you may want to take..."
When Nate left the jail an hour later, he was whistling.