of them opened the door to the liquor store and yelled for someone to
call the police, there had been a shooting.
Thirty minutes later, the police received a call that a young man matching
the description of the one who had wasted Pumpkin had been seen twice
on Ninth Street carrying a gun in open view and acting stranger than most
of the people on Ninth. He had tried to lure at least one person into
an abandoned lot, but the intended victim had escaped and reported the
The police found their man an hour later. His name was Tequila Watson,
black male, age twenty, with the usual drug-related police record. No
family to speak of. No address. The last place he'd been sleeping was
a rehab unit on W Street. He'd managed to ditch the gun somewhere, and
if he'd robbed Pumpkin then he'd also thrown away the cash or drugs or
whatever the booty was. His pockets were clean, as were his eyes. The
cops were certain Tequila was not under the influence of anything when
he was arrested. A quick and rough interrogation took place on the street,
then he was handcuffed and shoved into the rear seat of a D.C. police
They drove him back to Lamont Street, where they arranged an impromptu
encounter with the two witnesses. Tequila was led into the alley where
he'd left Pumpkin. "Ever been here before?" a cop asked.
Tequila said nothing, just gawked at the puddle of fresh blood on the
dirty concrete. The two witnesses were eased into the alley, then led
quietly to a spot near Tequila.
"That's him," both said at the same time.
"He's wearing the same clothes, same basketball shoes, everything but
"No doubt about it."
Tequila was shoved into the car once again and taken to jail. He was booked
for murder and locked away with no immediate chance of bail. Whether through
experience or just fear, Tequila never said a word to the cops as they
pried and cajoled and even threatened. Nothing incriminating, nothing
helpful. No indication of why he would murder Pumpkin. No clue as to their
history, if one existed at all. A veteran detective made a brief note
in the file that the killing appeared a bit more random than was customary.
No phone call was requested. No mention of a lawyer or a bail bondsman.
Tequila seemed dazed but content to sit in a crowded cell and stare at
PUMPKIN HAD NO TRACEABLE father but his mother worked as a security guard
in the basement of a large office building on New York Avenue. It took
three hours for the police to determine her son's real name--Ramòn
Pumphrey--to locate his address, and to find a neighbor willing to tell
them if he had a mother.
Adelfa Pumphrey was sitting behind a desk just inside the basement entrance,
supposedly watching a bank of monitors. She was a large thick woman in
a tight khaki uniform, a gun on her waist, a look of complete disinterest
on her face. The cops who approached her had done so a hundred times.
They broke the news, then found her supervisor.
In a city where young people killed each other every day, the slaughter
had thickened skins and hardened hearts, and every mother knew many others
who'd lost their children. Each loss brought death a step closer, and
every mother knew that any day could be the last. The mothers had watched
the others survive the horror. As Adelfa Pumphrey sat at her desk with
her face in her hands, she thought of her son and his lifeless body lying
somewhere in the city at that moment, being inspected by strangers.
She swore revenge on whoever killed him.
She cursed his father for abandoning the child.
She cried for her baby.
And she knew she would survive. Somehow, she would survive.
ADELFA WENT TO COURT to watch the arraignment. The police told her the
punk who'd killed her son was scheduled to make his first appearance,
a quick and routine matter in which he would plead not guilty and ask
for a lawyer. She was in the back row with her brother on one side and
a neighbor on the other, her eyes leaking tears into a damp handkerchief.
She wanted to see the boy. She also wanted to ask him why, but she knew
she would never get the chance.
They herded the criminals through like cattle at an auction. All were
black, all wore orange coveralls and handcuffs, all were young. Such waste.
In addition to his handcuffs, Tequila was adorned with wrist and ankle
chains since his crime was especially violent, though he looked fairly
harmless when he was shuffled into the courtroom with the next wave of
offenders. He glanced around quickly at the crowd to see if he recognized
anyone, to see if just maybe someone was out there for him. He was seated
in a row of chairs, and for good measure one of the armed bailiffs leaned
down and said, "That boy you killed. That's his mother back there in the
With his head low, Tequila slowly turned and looked directly into the
wet and puffy eyes of Pumpkin's mother, but only for a second. Adelfa
stared at the skinny boy in the oversized coveralls and wondered where
his mother was and how she'd raised him and if he had a father, and, most
important, how and why his path had crossed that of her boy's. The two
were about the same age as the rest of them, late teens or early twenties.
The cops had told her that it appeared, at least initially, that drugs
were not involved in the killing. But she knew better. Drugs were involved
in every layer of street life. Adelfa knew it all too well. Pumpkin had
used pot and crack and he'd been arrested once, for simple possession,
but he had never been violent. The cops were saying it looked like a random
killing. All street killings were random, her brother had said, but they
all had a reason.
On one side of the courtroom was a table around which the authorities
gathered. The cops whispered to the prosecutors, who flipped through files
and reports and tried valiantly to keep the paperwork ahead of the criminals.
On the other side was a table where the defense lawyers came and went
as the assembly line sputtered along. Drug charges were rattled off by
the Judge, an armed robbery, some vague sexual attack, more drugs, lots
of parole violations. When their names were called, the defendants were
led forward to the bench, where they stood in silence. Paperwork was shuffled,
then they were hauled off again, back to jail.
"Tequila Watson," a bailiff announced.
He was helped to his feet by another bailiff. He stutter-stepped forward,
"Mr. Watson, you are charged with murder," the Judge announced loudly.
"How old are you?"
"Twenty," Tequila said, looking down.
The murder charge had echoed through the courtroom and brought a temporary
stillness. The other criminals in orange looked on with admiration. The
lawyers and cops were curious.
"Can you afford a lawyer?"
"Didn't think so," the Judge mumbled and glanced at the defense table.
The fertile fields of the D.C. Superior Court Criminal Division, Felony
Branch, were worked on a daily basis by the Office of the Public Defender,
the safety net for all indigent defendants. Seventy percent of the docket
was handled by court-appointed counsel, and at any time there were usually
half a dozen PDs milling around in cheap suits and battered loafers with
files sticking out of their briefcases. At that precise moment, however,
only one PD was present, the Honorable Clay Carter II, who had stopped
by to check on two much lesser felonies, and now found himself all alone
and wanting to bolt from the courtroom. He glanced to his right and to
his left and realized that His Honor was looking at him. Where had all
the other PDs gone?
A week earlier, Mr. Carter had finished a murder case, one that had lasted
for almost three years and had finally been closed with his client being
sent away to a prison from which he would never leave, at least not officially.
Clay Carter was quite happy his client was now locked up, and he was relieved
that he, at that moment, had no murder files on his desk.
That, evidently, was about to change.
"Mr. Carter?" the Judge said. It was not an order, but an invitation to
step forward to do what every PD was expected to do--defend the indigent,
regardless of the case. Mr. Carter could not show weakness, especially
with the cops and prosecutors watching. He swallowed hard, refused to
flinch, and walked to the bench as if he just might demand a jury trial
right there and then. He took the file from the Judge, quickly skimmed
its rather thin contents while ignoring the pleading look of Tequila Watson,
then said, "We'll enter a plea of not guilty, Your Honor."
"Thank you, Mr. Carter. And we'll show you as counsel of record?"
"For now, yes." Mr. Carter was already plotting excuses to unload this
case on someone else at OPD.
"Very well. Thank you," the Judge said, already reaching for the next
Lawyer and client huddled at the defense table for a few minutes. Carter
took as much information as Tequila was willing to give, which was very
little. He promised to stop by the jail the next day for a longer interview.
As they whispered, the table was suddenly crowded with young lawyers from
the PD's office, colleagues of Carter's who seemed to materialize from
Was this a setup? Carter asked himself. Had they disappeared knowing a
murder defendant was in the room? In the past five years, he'd pulled
such stunts himself. Ducking the nasty ones was an art form at OPD.
He grabbed his briefcase and hurried away, down the center aisle, past
rows of worried relatives, past Adelfa Pumphrey and her little support
group, into the hallway crammed with many more criminals and their mommas
and girlfriends and lawyers. There were those in OPD who swore they lived
for the chaos of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse--the pressure of trials,
the hint of danger from people sharing the same space with so many violent
men, the painful conflict between victims and their assailants, the hopelessly
overcrowded dockets, the calling to protect the poor and ensure fair treatment
by the cops and the system.
If Clay Carter had ever been attracted to a career in OPD, he could not
now remember why. In one week the fifth anniversary of his employment
there would come and go, without celebration, and, hopefully, without
anyone knowing it. Clay was burned out at the age of thirty-one, stuck
in an office he was ashamed to show his friends, looking for an exit with
no place to go, and now saddled with another senseless murder case that
was growing heavier by the minute.
In the elevator he cursed himself for getting nailed with a murder. It
was a rookie's mistake; he'd been around much too long to step into the
trap, especially one set on such familiar turf. I'm quitting, he promised
himself; the same vow he had uttered almost every day for the past year.
There were two others in the elevator. One was a court clerk of some variety,
with her arms full of files. The other was a fortyish gentleman dressed
in designer black--jeans, T-shirt, jacket, alligator boots. He held a
newspaper and appeared to be reading it through small glasses perched
on the tip of his rather long and elegant nose; in fact, he was studying
Clay, who was oblivious. Why would someone pay any attention to anyone
else on this elevator in this building?
If Clay Carter had been alert instead of brooding, he would have noticed
that the gentleman was too well dressed to be a defendant, but too casual
to be a lawyer. He carried nothing but a newspaper, which was somewhat
odd because the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse was not known as a place for
reading. He did not appear to be a judge, a clerk, a victim, or a defendant,
but Clay never noticed him.
Excerpted from The King of Torts by John Grisham
Copyrightę 2003 by John Grisham. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday,
a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this
excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from
of the public defender is not known as a training ground for bright young
litigators. Clay Carter has been there too long and, like most of his
colleagues, dreams of a better job in a real firm. When he reluctantly
takes the case of a young man charged with a random street killing, he
assumes it is just another of the many senseless murders that hit D.C.
As he digs
into the background of his client, Clay stumbles on a conspiracy too horrible
to believe. He suddenly finds himself in the middle of a complex case
against one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, looking
at the kind of enormous settlement that would totally change his lifethat
would make him, almost overnight, the legal professions newest king
born in 1995 in Jonesboro, Arkansas; his father was a construction worker,
his mother a homemaker. He majored in accounting at Mississippi State
University and after graduating from law school in 1981, he went on to
practice law for nearly a decade in Southaven, specializing in criminal
defense and personal injury litigation. In 1983, he was elected to the
state House of Representatives and served until 1990.
at the Dessoto County courthouse, Grisham overheard the harrowing testimony
of a twelve-year-old rape victim and was inspired to start a novel exploring
what would have happened if the girl's father had murdered her assailants.
Getting up at 5 a.m. every day to get in several hours of writing time
before heading off to work, Grisham spent three years on A Time to Kill
and finished it in 1987. Initially rejected by many publishers, it was
eventually bought by Wynwood press, who gave it a modest 5,000 copy printing
and published it in June 1988.
began his second novel, The Firm. He became an overnight success
when he sold the rights to Paramount Pictures for $600,000. The Firm
also became the bestselling novel of 1991. The successes of The Pelican
Brief, which hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list,
and The Client, which debuted at number one, confirmed Grisham's
reputation as the master of the legal thriller.
publishes one novel a year and six of his novels of been turned into films.
He also wrote the original screenplay, The Gingerbread Man.
lives with his wife Renee and their two children Ty and Shea. The family
splits their time between their Victorian home on a farm in Mississippi
and a plantation near Charlottesville, VA.