The Law Is A Ass #460: Those “For Life” Sentences Are Nonsense
I was wrong.
Last column, I wrote about the first five minutes of the “Pilot” episode of For Life in which we learned that Aaron Wallace was framed, unjustly convicted of being a drug kingpin, then, while still serving life sentence, became a licensed attorney in New York who practiced from prison. I explained how that would have worked. It wouldn’t.
I figured the show couldn’t possibly make another mistake until after its first act break. I was wrong. As I continued watching, I learned it had made another mistake in those first five minutes. Then yet another in its sixth.
Aaron had filed a new trial motion on behalf of Jose Rodriguez. Six years earlier, Jose was dating Molly Davison, a 15-year-old girl from a “good family.” In shows like this that’s code for she was white and privileged. Molly’s parents didn’t approve of the relationship. Ultimately, Jose broke up with Molly.
She kept calling him. After Jose turned 18, Molly called and said if he came over one last time, she’d be alright. He went. They had sex. Jose fell asleep. When he woke up he found a suicide note from Molly in the bedroom and found Molly in the living room, overdosed on drugs she had purchased from Freddy Dawkins.
At Jose’s trial, Molly testified she never wrote the suicide note, which had disappeared. Freddy testified Jose, not Molly, bought the drugs. Jose was convicted of attempted murder, for supplying the drugs that almost killed Molly, and statutory rape, because, as the show put it, “in the state of New York, [sex between] an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old is considered statutory rape.”
Except, it isn’t.
New York is one of several states that has what’s commonly called a “Romeo and Juliet” exception to its statutory rape law. That’s not something people who are barred created for people who quote the Bard. It’s an exception that applies to sex acts between teenagers so that consensual sex between people who are between 15 and 21 isn’t a felony. At best it’s a misdemeanor. Sometimes it isn’t even a crime at all.
The statutory rape laws in New York, found in Article 130 of the New York Penal Laws, require a defendant to be older than 21, if his or her partner is between the ages of 15 and 17 for the crime to be statutory rape. As Jose was 18 and Molly was 15, Jose didn’t commit statutory rape.
The crime that comes closest to applying to sex between an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old is NYPL § 130.55, sexual abuse in the third degree. It’s a misdemeanor, not a felony. And it has an affirmative defense built into it that applies if the defendant is less than five years older than his or her partner and said partner is older than 14. Molly was 15. Even under the new math 15 is older than 14. As Jose was only three years older than Molly, the affirmative defense should have kept Jose from being convicted of even this crime.
But he was convicted, because he had to be convicted for the story to work. After all, who ever heard a lawyer arguing that a client who wasn’t convicted of anything should get a new trial?
Jose was also convicted of attempted murder. Let’s go back to the trial to see how Aaron got Jose out from under that conviction.
In the new trial motion, Aaron argued Freddy had changed his account and now said Molly purchased the drugs. At some point, off camera, the court granted the motion. Now we didn’t see either Aaron’s motion or his argument in favor of the motion, still I can state with some degree of confidence that the trial court would not have granted it. See, later in the episode, Aaron talked to Freddy Dawkins in prison about how he was going to testify. Which means Aaron didn’t have Freddy’s testimony locked down and wasn’t sure how he’d testify.
A new trial motion based on changed testimony would have to have some evidentiary supplement attached to it to satisfy the court that the witness was actually going to offer different testimony. Say a sworn affidavit from Freddy detailing what his new testimony would be.
No judge would grant a motion for a new trial, possibly ending the defendant’s conviction and hefty sentence, because defense counsel supposed a witness was going to change his testimony. You can’t end a sentence with a supposition.
After Jose testified in the new trial, Aaron announced he intended to call Freddy Dawkins and the police officer on the scene who saw Molly’s suicide note. (Wait, Jose’s first lawyer knew about this police officer and didn’t call him in Jose’s original trial? First, said attorney didn’t argue the Romeo and Juliet exception, then failed to put on a key exculpatory witness. Just how bad was this attorney on a scale of zero to absolute zero?)
That’s when assistant district attorney Dez O’Reilly went to work. He exerted pressure on Freddy, and Freddy recanted his earlier recantation. Ah the old recant the recantation trick. Both on TV and in real life recantations of recantations have more frequency than a short wave radio. Dez also arranged for the bus transporting Aaron and Jose from the lock-up to the courtroom to reroute and deliver them last instead of first. By the time they got to court, the police officer who was to testify was gone. He was working an undercover case and that two hour morning slot was his only window to testify.
Okay, we didn’t see Dez doing these things, so we don’t know he did them. But from the smirk he had on his face, we know he did them.
The next thing we knew, Aaron and Jose were back in prison. As there was more trial later in the episode, the court must have continued it. I don’t know why didn’t the judge go on with the trial after Aaron learned he had no witnesses? It was only 11:00 a.m., plenty of time for something.
Even if the judge pulled a Perry Mason – noting that it was nearing the noon hour then recessing until 2:00, so Perry could use that recess to set up his last ditch legal trick/miracle – the trial should have resumed later that day. Here, and for no reason, the judge must have continued the case to another day, because Aaron needed more than a two-hour lunch break for his last ditch legal trick/miracle.
After all, it takes time to fabricate evidence.
Aaron called his wife on his hidden cell phone and had her purchase a box of the same note paper Molly used for her suicide note. While Aaron’s wife was traveling to the prison to deliver the paper, Aaron wrote an “anonymous” letter to himself on a prison typewriter. Then Aaron got the note paper his wife brought him and took it, along with a note that Molly sent Jose while he was in prison and Jose himself, to an inmate who was a forger. Jose had memorized Molly’s suicide note. He dictated it to the forger, who forged Molly’s handwriting on a duplicate suicide note. Next Aaron went to someone in the prison kitchen who treated the note with chemicals and heat to age it and remove the fingerprints. (Or something like that, the show wasn’t real clear what was going on here.) Then Aaron went back to his wife in visitation and gave her the fabricated suicide note and the cover letter. She mailed them back to Aaron. That Aaron could organize all this on such short notice was amazing. That the letter actually got back to him in time was incredible. That he got away with this all stretches credulity farther than Plastic Man in a Cat’s Cradle.
The cover letter Aaron wrote purported to be from a anonymous police officer who had responded to Molly’s overdose and said he found the suicide note at the scene and kept it for some reason even though he had been instructed to destroy it, then, years later, sent it to Aaron because of a guilty conscience. At Aaron’s request, the court called Molly for the express purpose of corroborating whether the note included in the latter was the actual suicide note she wrote.
Aaron had Molly read the note in open court. Then he asked her “Are those the words you wrote to Jose the day you overdosed?” Molly confirmed that those were the words she wrote but said the note she was holding was not the note she wrote.
Aaron asked Molly where the original note was. She said her parents destroyed the note than coerced her to lie about Jose so that she wouldn’t be arrested for buying drugs.
And in the very next scene, Jose was released and cleared and everything was good.
Except, of course, for the fact that Molly was prosecuted for perjury and her parents prosecuted for suborning perjury and destroying evidence.
No, that probably didn’t happen. Remember the Davisons were a “good family.” So they probably didn’t suffer any consequences more severe than those that would have been leveled by a young Bob Barker.
But what about Aaron? Didn’t he face disciplinary actions for knowingly presenting falsified evidence to the court? I’d like to say I don’t know. Even though I didn’t watch any more episodes of For Life, because of my research for these columns, I know what happened in them. If you’re good, I’ll tell you about them later.
If you’re really good, I won’t.