This story originally appeared online in Darkest Before the Dawn on Dec. 1, 2010.
On arriving at work Monday morning, Aaron found the mail already stacked neatly on his large, oak desk. In it, Aaron found an assortment of briefings from law firms, a subscription to a trade magazine that he generally found irrelevant, inter-office memos that were nearly always irrelevant but which he kept and filed anyway, and a handwritten envelope stamped “Prison Mail” in red ink.
Such a mark would not ordinarily have caught Aaron’s attention. Legal briefings arrived regularly at the Supreme Court from inmates attempting to represent themselves. However, this one addressed him personally. “Mister Aaron Himert” appeared above the court’s address in heavy pencil, as though someone had retraced it several times for emphasis.
Staff attorneys like Aaron did much of the grunt work for the court justices but were never credited by name. Published opinions always appeared under the names of the justices themselves, though typically Aaron and his colleagues researched and wrote most of the text. How an inmate, no matter how well versed in the legal system, could have discovered Aaron’s name puzzled the attorney.
He walked down the hall to find MacAllister, a law school intern who had drawn the unfortunate assignment of passing out the mail that morning. As part of their initiation into the court’s workings, interns performed delivery duties.
“You’re up early,” Mac said.
“Must have the gallows ready for the prisoners by dawn.”
MacAllister folded his arms on his chest and snorted. The young man’s biceps flexed beneath his shirt, straining the fabric. MacAllister must lift weights, Aaron thought, and considered for a moment his own physique. Years of running kept his muscles lean, especially for a man his age, but they no longer stood up on their own. Many people would have mistaken him for five to ten years younger than his true age of 43, were it not for his baldness, which he emphasized by cutting short the crown of blond hair that wrapped between his ears.
“You left this on my desk?” Aaron held up the prison envelope by the corner as though it were contagious.
MacAllister shrugged. “I’m just the messenger.”
His smile was disarming, but failed to reassure Aaron. “Tell it to the hangman,” Aaron said and walked away.
Back in his office, an orange shaft of light poked through the fog that typically enclosed the city. His modern building contained tall, thin windows barely 12 inches in diameter. The effect from the exterior was impressive, but it gave the chambers inside an aura that the staff liked to call “jail cell chic.” Thus, what could have been a two bridge view—all views in San Francisco being quantifiable by how many of the local bridges they encompassed—instead was reduced to a tall peep hole.
How could an inmate have obtained Aaron’s name? No explanation came to him. It had never appeared on any court documents, news articles, or even trade journals. Even in professional circles he remained anonymous except to his law school classmates. One of them could have betrayed him, though Aaron could think of no reason why one would wish to.
Aaron was equally conscientious about maintaining the confidentiality of his work. He never shared what he was doing with anyone outside his office, not even his family. Nor would they have listened had he tried. Though they lived 300 miles away, Aaron only saw his parents once a year around Christmas, their relationship having formalized to a polite distance. His sister, who also lived a short plane ride away, cared only about her son. For five the boy showed great promise in many fields, according to her, but his exceptionality bored Aaron as a subject of conversation.
Before opening the package, Aaron thought about the risks. The envelope carried almost no weight. What could you hide in a plain manila folder containing no lumps or packaging? Not a bomb of any sort. Some infectious disease or poison could hide there, but would it spread from dry ink? Aaron had read of a case in which inmates hid LSD on a postage stamp, but even there the victim would have to willingly lick the back. Of course, there were the notorious packages of anthrax sent to several prominent government officials years before, but an inmate could not acquire such substances, could they?
Aaron put on a pair of latex gloves, which he normally used when examining photographs of crime scenes. Using his gold-plated letter opener, he slit three sides of the envelope and lifted the top piece. Three folds of yellow legal paper lay inside, so he flipped back the cover and read:
Dear Mister Aaron Himert
First of all let me say that I hope this letter finds you in the best of health. As for me I am doing fine. I am writing to most strenuously request that you consider my documents contained here-in. I believe you will find them to be all in order and of the greatest gravity. I would be most gracious if you would give them your focused consideration.
Lester M. Munson
The rest of the package contained an amateurish legal brief. Munson had scribbled line numbers down the sides of the pages, as was the custom for court papers, and at the top had inscribed Lester M. Munson vs. State of California. Properly, the names should have been reversed, since Mr. Munson was the defendant in the case, but Aaron decided to overlook that.
During his 15 years serving the court, Aaron had gained a begrudging respect for the legal work of prisoners. Though usually lacking in formal education, they often made up for this deficit with an intensity of focus that most lawyers lacked. It seemed nothing would hone an untrained mind quite like a looming date with the executioner.
Mr. Munson’s briefing was no exception. From his filings, Aaron surmised that Munson had been convicted of sodomizing and murdering a young woman. Having lost faith in his attorneys, Munson was filing a writ of Habeas Corpus on his own. All this was common among death row appellants and offered little hope either of Munson’s success on appeal or of his innocence. What stood out, though, was his last line. “What more is, it would be impossible for a person of my predilection to have done this crime seeing as I am homosexual and repellent by women. If need be I could provide proof of said condition from a doctor qualified in such matters.”
Once he had stopped laughing at the thought of a doctor specializing in homosexuality, Aaron began to consider the novelty of such a defense. He could not recall reading any such claims before and wondered if there might be some legal precedent at issue.
Mostly in death penalty cases, the court reviewed the circumstances of the trial to ensure that the defendant had been given a fair chance to prove his innocence, which invariably was the case. The court affirmed well over 90 percent of death sentences, which in Aaron’s mind proved the efficacy of the system in general, and of his court’s role as an avenue of last resort, though among colleagues he referred to his job as “the rubber stamp.”
A claim such as Munson’s, if it had been presented at trial, might have swayed some jurors. Successful rape defenses had been mounted based upon impotence, but never upon indifference. So Aaron wrote a memo to the court’s librarian to pull the file for California vs. Munson, etc.
Like most death penalty cases, by the time they reached the Supreme Court, the file measured six inches in thickness, and it took Aaron most of the week to sift through its contents. He discovered this: upon his arrest, Munson had made a statement to the police that doomed him at trial and landed him on death row. After his conviction, Munson claimed that his confession had been under duress. A succession of legal appeals followed, with denials already by the state and federal appellate courts. Now death was approaching rapidly for Munson, his date only two months away.
His reading convinced Aaron that not only had Munson committed the crimes, but that his trial had been exceptional for its thoroughness. Thus satisfied, Aaron wrote a brief to the justices summarizing his findings and recommending that the writ be denied. He delivered the brief to MacAllister for copying and distribution.
“You know,” he told the intern, “if you really want to learn about this job, you’re not going to do it as a mail clerk.”
Aaron studied MacAllister’s face, noting the pale blue eyes and square cut chin that no doubt endeared him to women and men alike.
“That thought has occurred to me as well,” MacAllister said, sorting the mail into piles, “but it looks good on the resume.”
“If you’d like, we could get together over lunch sometime, and I could fill you in on the more stimulating cases I’ve handled.”
MacAllister looked down at him, pursed his lips, and folded his arms, flexing his biceps. “I don’t think I’m interested in pursuing this kind of work to that degree.”
“Of course,” Aaron said, “it does require a certain predilection for the perverse.”
An awkward pause followed, during which Aaron felt MacAllister sizing him up.
“Well, I’ll let the offer stand,” he said and walked away.
Quickly, Aaron put the Munson case out of his mind and merely skimmed the official court opinion repeating his findings. Thus, he was taken aback when another envelope arrived on his desk, again addressed to him personally. It bore the same heavy script and the same “Prison Mail” stamp, although thicker than the first letter. Aaron paused only to pull on his latex gloves before slitting open the flap. Inside waited a legal brief of twenty pages. The first page read:
Dear Aaron Himert
I hope this letter finds you in the best of health. As for me I am doing fine. Please allow me to extend my thanks for your consideration of my letter which you denied in a conscious opinion. I have to confess I was angry you did not see things my way. But I can see your denial was actually pushing me to a new cause of action and as you can see I have not waited to bring it. I must ask that you give it your most grievous attention. I wait your reply with anxiety.
Lester M. Munson Esquire
The brief, though short by the standards of capital cases, was among the most complicated legal arguments Aaron had read in months. With labyrinthian logic, Munson argued that his lawyers’ failure to present a defense based upon indifference constituted discrimination against him due to his homosexuality. (If the boys in the Castro ever heard about this, they would occupy the court’s steps the next morning, Aaron thought.) Though specious, especially given the strength of the evidence against Munson, Aaron could not in good conscience dismiss this claim without due consideration. His job required thoroughness even in the most trivial affairs, and certainly a death sentence could not be handled with anything less than total gravity.
The briefing occupied him for the remainder of the day. Although he never thought as much consciously, it excited him. Intellectual challenge kept Aaron on the job. He could have earned twice as much money in private practice, but litigating insignificant cases seemed unworthy of his skills. At the court his work set precedent. Only of late he had found his assignments less stimulating. This may have been due to bad luck—some cases were simply less interesting than others—or to his years of service there, which had exposed him to such a range of legal matters that everything proved to be a variation on a theme. Regardless of the reason, nothing had engrossed him for several months. Until now.
Munson used reasoning that only the untrained could have concocted, untainted by the rigors of a formal education, which in Aaron’s view more often than not taught lawyers merely the clichés of the profession. These they faithfully repeated, expecting to be rewarded, like elementary school pupils memorizing the names of the states and their capitol cities.
The case preoccupied Aaron even during his evening run, which usually offered a relief from the intellectual rigor of the job. Navigating the canopy of evergreens on his favorite trails, Aaron churned the legal precedents Munson had referenced. All had been skillfully summarized, not only for their legal analysis but for their bearing on Munson’s case. Together they made a solid argument but not an overwhelming one. Enough for Aaron to recommend a reversal of the lower court’s conviction? He would need time to decide.
After his exercise, Aaron settled into the bath for a soak with Epson salts. He could not spend more time on Munson’s case, since the file was not even officially assigned to him, and other pending matters took precedence. However, living alone meant that he could do as he pleased at home, free of demands from family or lovers.
He had never married, and only once had he dated someone for even a year. Despite growing up in the swinging seventies, when San Francisco earned its nickname Sodom by the Bay, Aaron had largely abstained from libertine excess. He found more satisfaction in indulgences of the mind.
Since reaching maturity, his romances had decreased in frequency and ardency, to the point that he rarely met anyone now who excited him. Unlike most people his age, who mooned after relationships that could only exist within their imaginations, solitude suited Aaron. To his way of thinking, it was less a sacrifice than a savings in time and energy.
Once he had cleaned and fed himself, Aaron took the papers from his briefcase— which he had stashed there so no coworkers would see them on his desk—and began to read. By the time fatigue forced him to bed, several pertinent details had persuaded him of the case’s merit.
At the end of two weeks filled with late nights, Aaron prepared a paper recommending that Munson’s execution be stayed. It contained some of the finest legal writing Aaron had done, featuring not just sound reasoning but an eloquence that he achieved only rarely. The next morning, Aaron delivered the memo to his supervisor, Julius Fitch, the senior staff attorney.
“This should be given priority,” Aaron asked. “It is time sensitive.”
Fitch skimmed the opening page with a typically bug-eyed expression. “I don’t recall assigning this case to you.”
“No, Julius, you didn’t. I took the initiative to work on it myself because I thought it was of the utmost importance.”
Fitch flapped the pages at his subordinate. “While your dedication is welcome, I do wish you’d direct it to the work I have assigned and leave the prioritizing to me.”
“Oh,” Aaron said, smiling, “I just found myself with some extra time.”
They parted with Aaron congratulating himself on the way he had handled Fitch.
A few days later, MacAllister delivered an inter-office memo from Fitch.
“Guess even you’re not safe from the guillotine,” MacAllister said.
Aaron glanced at the contents, “Prohibition on Self-Assignment by Staff Attorneys,” but did not want to appear flustered in front of the intern. Packaged with it was a note by Fitch controverting Aaron’s recommendation of a stay for Munson.
“Don’t worry,” Aaron said, “the condemned always gets a last appeal before he goes to the gallows.”
As he strode across the office, Aaron noticed Fitch leaning over the desk of another staff attorney. The office head seemed engrossed in something he was writing—probably his criticisms and revisions of the other man’s work—and did not look up as Aaron walked past him toward the justices’ chambers. He knocked lightly at the door of Justice Steven Brader, then, hearing no response, again more loudly, and a third time louder still, until he was beckoned in.
“Good morning, Judge. How are you?”
The face that greeted Aaron had the consistency of dried pear, a yellowed outer layer that folded in upon itself and echoed only faintly the shell it had once contained.
“A man my age has no right to be unhappy, Aaron. Every new day is a blessing.”
“Yes sir, I feel that way myself more and more.”
Aaron stared at the jurist in silence, noting his empty desktop and hands. “If you’re not too busy, I wanted to talk to you about a case.”
The old man blinked but otherwise sat motionless so that Aaron could not be sure whether to proceed.
“I received an appeal last month from Lester Munson, who is representing himself from death row, and I believe his argument has some merit.” Aaron paused, but seeing no signs of either encouragement or rejection, continued. “The other members of the court disagreed, but I noticed that you didn’t sign the majority decision, and I was wondering if I should prepare a dissenting opinion?”
Another pause ensued, and this time Aaron determined not to be the one who broke the silence. He waited while the justice stared at him through puffy eyes.
“I’ve always found in these situations that more research is the best course.”
“Yes, I would agree,” Aaron said.
“Good. I’m glad I could be of some help,” the justice said, nodding his head.
Aaron waited for more instructions, but when it became clear that the justice had said his piece, the staff attorney instinctively bowed his head also and left.
That night, sitting behind the great desk in his home office, Aaron composed a letter.
Dear Mr. Munson:
It is with the utmost regret that I must inform you your appeal has been denied by a majority of the justices of the Supreme Court of California. This decision does not preclude you from seeking relief from a federal court. Your appeal also is in no way indicative of your eligibility for a pardon from the governor of the state, though such a motion must be separately filed.
He printed the letter on a piece of official court stationery and sealed it, together with a copy of the court’s rejection, in a manila envelope, which he addressed by hand.
Given the trajectory of most appeals, Aaron assumed the next attorney to hear Munson’s name would sit in the federal courts, so it doubly surprised him when another letter from Munson arrived two weeks later, again with the same erudite but friendly tone. It did not refer to the case directly—Munson apparently realized that Aaron could no longer help him—but merely related the details of his daily life, the high point of which was his twice weekly trips to the prison’s law library. It impressed Aaron that a man could be so composed even in the face of death, and reaffirmed for him that even if capital punishment was the harshest possible penalty, it need not rob a man of his dignity. The letter asked nothing of Aaron other than a reply.
For professional reasons, Aaron did not write back. It would be irresponsible to give legal advice to a condemned man; however, to discuss anything else would put him in the awkward and perhaps even dangerous position of sharing himself with a man who was most likely a murderer. Even putting aside all these factors, what could he say?
But the letters continued, becoming more personal. Munson unburdened himself about the difficulty of maintaining his resolve in the face of repeated rejections from the courts. He blamed his conviction on a failure to acknowledge his sexual preference publicly. “If people were understanding about me, they wouldn’t of thought I would of done this crime for which I’m now locked up,” he wrote. In a few of these missives, Munson seemed tempted to give up; but as he often explained, the legal work sustained him through the solitude and mundanity of prison. This perspective had resonated with Aaron also. While their physical circumstances could not have been more different, intellectually they were brethren. It was perhaps why Aaron read Munson’s letters first, and why he saved them in his top desk drawer.
One day, a pale pink envelope arrived bearing the familiar pencil printing of Munson and the prison stamp to confirm it. Aaron ripped it open without his usual precautions to find a generic greeting card, with a drawing of flowers in a vase. The inside fold contained a saccharine poem about hope. In the margins around it, Munson had written:
I hope this note finds you in the best of health. As for myself I am as well as can be excepted. As you’re already knowing, my date is coming up soon. I still have one more try in court but after that I’m done. I’m writing to ask a favor. The state give me the right to invite anybody I want to come watch me be put down. Seeing as I have nobody else to stand up for me, I told them I wanted you to come. Well that’s all.
Lester M. Munson Expire
A few days later a card arrived from the Department of Corrections signed by its chief officer extending to Aaron an official invitation to the execution. Enclosed was an RSVP card, containing the date set, two weeks away.
In as much as he could put himself in the place of a killer, Aaron understood why a man would reach out at the end of his life. He could almost imagine the terrible solitude of awaiting one’s own death. These men had the unique curse of knowing not only how they would die but precisely when.
Of course, it was out of the question for Aaron to attend. Such would not only be condemned by his superiors but might also cloud his judgment in future cases. Later that day he filled out the response card in the negative.
The date, however, stuck in his mind like an anniversary. As it approached, Aaron experienced difficulty concentrating at work. He even called in sick one day (though he was not, in the physical sense), in hopes of clearing his mind with a long run, yet try as he might, nothing restored his focus.
The justices would soon appoint an attorney to staff the phones on the night of the execution. Though unlikely, it was necessary that someone be present to handle last minute appeals. Among the court assignments, it was considered the least appealing. This time, Aaron volunteered for the duty.
“Your social life a bit slow?” Fitch asked him.
“No, it’s just good timing for me,” Aaron said. “Better to get it out of the way now as be picked some less convenient hour.”
“This doesn’t guarantee you a free pass next time.”
Aaron forced a smile, and as he walked away said to himself, “There are no get out of jail free cards.”
That night, as his coworkers dispersed, Aaron set up his command post. He forwarded all the phones to his line so there would be no mistakes about wrong numbers or calls unanswered. From home he’d brought a portable television so he could watch the evening news for any updates, and food, so it would not be necessary to leave the office for ordering take out. For his survival kit he also packed a murder mystery, a tooth brush, and a pair of slippers. Working overtime should not necessitate discomfort, which would dull him for any pressing legal matters.
By ten minutes past eight Aaron had settled in with his feet up on the desk and the novel in hand, anticipating a quiet evening not so much different from what he would have spent at home. Though he usually guessed the killer’s identity long before the fictional detective, he enjoyed critiquing details of the investigation. Most books he found lacking in authenticity, though this latest proved above average. The story did not hold his attention, though, and within half an hour Aaron flipped through the four TV channels he could receive on rabbit ears. No news updates appeared, so he decided to reread the case files. He also laid out all of Munson’s letters in chronological order. These he saved for last.
In reviewing the transcripts again, Aaron saw the case for what it truly was. Despite a few irregularities during the trial—a prejudicial comment by the prosecutor that the judge asked jurors to disregard, a disputed piece of evidence that was ultimately not presented—Munson’s case proved clear.
Next came the sentencing transcripts, in which Munson’s court-appointed attorney described his life in a manner to make the defendant seem pitiable: a childhood marked by visits from social workers, poor grades in school, and frequent trouble with the law. A familiar profile, especially on death row, where everyone had some excuse for unforgivable crimes. Nothing extraordinary there, either.
Only in the personal letters did Munson’s character emerged. His intelligence and reason were evident, but beneath those lay the dignity that had first impressed Aaron. How could anyone who held up so well under the privations of imprisonment have acted so malevolent as a free man? Aaron could think of no way to reconcile the two images presented by these documents short of a split personality. This mystery had engrossed and tantalized him from the start.
By the time Aaron finished reading, the eleven o’clock news was more than half over, leaving only the weather and sports. Aaron was about to turn off the set when the anchor woman reminded viewers that she would be returning to San Quentin Prison at midnight for a live report.
In the meantime, a late night talk show interrupted. At each commercial break, Aaron checked the other stations, but still they offered no news, only more unfunny comedians. Aaron surveyed his office once more to ensure his preparations, checking the phones and the home telephone numbers to all of the justices.
“Sorry to have bothered you so late,” he told one judge, “but I wanted no margin for error.”
Finally, the anchor woman returned and connected to a reporter who stood before the gates of the prison. Behind him a cadre of people stood in a circle, holding hands and praying audibly. The camera panned left to where another group of pickets marched with signs reading “God said ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’.” The reporter described the scene, as though it was not apparent from the video images, and exchanged banter with the anchor woman, killing time while awaiting some news to report.
Aaron checked his watch: only a minute before midnight, the appointed hour for executions. In absence of any concrete images, he imagined the scene. Munson would be strapped to the gurney for lethal injection, his wrists and ankles shackled, his eyes covered, the doors to the chamber slammed shut, so that all he could see, hear or feel was his own life slipping away. Aaron leaned back in his chair and waited.
Inside his chest, he felt his heart beating, the rise and fall with each breath, just like at the conclusion of one of his runs. His head throbbed with each pulse. When his muscles began to cramp, he tried to extend the arms and legs but found no relief. Slowly fatigue overcame him. His weight seemed to drag him down into his chair until it was more than he could support, as though he had left his body and could look now down upon himself with the clarity of a connection long since severed.