Rob Riley writes

There was a master defense attorney in Milwaukee named James Shellow. He was nationally renowned, and had received a lot of press during the 1960’s civil rights protest era. He was also contacted quite frequently by defendants regarding controlled substance cases. Not for some tool doing a doobie in an alley, but for handling the cases of people involved with selling “large quantities.”

He was also magnificent with all manner of other cases – from homicides on down. And one more quirky thing: Cops liked him. Mmm hmm. I wrote it; you read it. Police officers from a large city department actually liked the best defense attorney in their town. Although he truly was one of the best defense attorneys in the country, he never received the press needed to claim that stature. That kind of thing went to Johnny Cochran (over rated!), F. Lee Bailey, who by all accounts was for real, and others, mostly grandstanding – er – working, on the country’s West Coast.

Hollywood style.

The Kardashian’s late father had also been one of these top attorneys, which he proved by his efforts in the O.J. Simpson trial. (Wish he were still here, getting some of the press that his kids are getting. But once again, I digress.)

The reason James Shellow was liked is simple. He was fair and honest. He also had, in my opinion, a Mensa mind, so he could easily figure out the cases he handled and present reasonable solutions to his opponents. Many times the proper solution was obvious, and could be handled quickly without a bru-ha-ha trial. I had many cases with him, mostly drug deals, and personally know this to be true.

But there was one humdinger of a court trial that went down in everyone’s book – even Mr. Shellow’s, which I know because he told me – which I believe must be shared with the world.

Goes like this:

Middle of winter, late at night, in the large parking lot of a large nightclub on Milwaukee’s far Northwest side, some drunken twenty-somethings are arguing about an incident that had started inside the tavern. Somewhere between indoors and outdoors one of the youngsters produced a knife and stuck another guy with it. The stabber runs. Everyone runs. Except the guy who got stabbed. He’s dead.

It was a literally insane crowd oriented mess of a crime scene. One of the dead man’s buddies tells a story of a crazed butchery by a madman. The suspect is identified, and the knife was recovered. The madman/butcher is arrested for first degree murder. Simple.

Actually, not. Others at the scene said the victim had been the biggest trouble maker there. That his eventual killer had drawn a knife (three and one half inch blade) out of genuine fear for his safety. He stuck the guy, all right, but it was a manslaugher deal, not a life-in-prison thing.

But it had made big noise in the media, and the D.A.’s office apparently felt compelled to charge First Degree Murder.

As you can guess, Attorney James Shellow’s services were high end, dollar wise. But the suspect’s father had high end money, so he could afford to hire the best in the business.

Everyone in the courtroom shuttered the first day, when they saw Attorney Shellow enter. This was gonna be a fist fight, a hacking-slashing thing that was going to rattle the entire courthouse. The D.A., a courageous man and a good prosecutor, was gritting his teeth. I was gritting my teeth, and all I did was sit at the D.A.’s table, as his aide to fetch witnesses and reports.

The trial was about to begin. Mr. Shellow was his usual smiling, exuberant, pleasant, sell-you-your-own-shoes self. He spoke with the courtroom bailiffs and other personnel assigned to work there. They were all buddies from way back. Mr. Shellow had placed a narrow folder containing a few reports on his table. One assistant sat with him. The D.A.’s table was filled with reports, photos, and the you-name-its that prosecutors need.

The trial began. Things quickly began leaning in the defendant’s favor, but the original charge stood: First Degree Murder.
The key witness for the prosecution was finally called to the stand. I had taken his statement and personally had no hope that he’d help the case; he was a party animal in his early twenties who, as one old saying goes, was lucky he’d learned how to tie his own shoes. He shuffled hipster-like as he approached the witness stand, with a bit of sneer on his face.

Spoiler alert: The sneer was soon to be gone.

The D.A. matter-of-factly brought him along in his testimony. It was all about screaming and yelling and hacking and slashing and finally, that climactic moment when he pointed at the defendant and said, “He did it.”

Now it was the defense’s turn. Mr. Shellow approached the witness with a genuinely pleasant smile and accompanying pleasant demeanor. Before he began questioning the witness he asked the judge for the drawing board to be placed in front of the jury. The drawing board was an archaic piece of wooden, elementary school style furniture, with several large pieces of paper hanging down.

He said he liked the jury to see as much as possible, to write down statements made by witnesses if necessary, so that the jurors could better focus on them; perhaps create a vision in their minds. It is a common tactic.

The witness had performed badly under direct examinations. He either misspoke, or could not remember details of what he’d experienced the night of the killing. And that was still during the D.A.’s questioning, before Shellow had even begun his cross examination.

He was a trussed up turkey sitting on the table of one of the best attorneys there ever was. We all knew what was going to happen.

“So,” Shellow said to the witness. “When exactly did you see the activities described in this incident?”

“On the night that it happened,” said the sneering witness, who was already greatly irritated by being questioned, even in an easy going way by the prosecutor.

Shellow paused and smiled. “What night was that?” he asked.

The witness wiggled and stuttered and finally fessed up to not being sure. It was the impression he’d given during the easy going direct questioning. Shellow gave him more than one chance to supply the correct answer – he was actually documenting contradictory statements that he’d use against him when the time was right.

“Don’t remember the day, huh?” Shellow asked, more than once.

The witness was rapidly going from frustrated to angry. His faced had reddened. The time was right.

“On some random day!” the witness finally blurted, during a moment when Shellow wasn’t even questioning him.

The D.A. tried to object, saying that the witness was under extreme duress. The judge interrupted him to tell him he had no standing to interfere.

“Let me write that on the board,” Shellow quickly said about the witnesses unexpected statement, and wrote “On Some Random Day” in thick, black, magic marker ink on the front page. He flipped it over the top.

Mr. Shellow eventually asked – a bit sarcastically – if the witness knew the year in which the crime had occurred.

The witness did not answer. Shellow asked him again. The judge finally ordered the witness to answer Shellow’s question.

The witness threw his hands up. “In some random year!” he shouted, and sat back.

The courtroom grew totally quiet. I, personally, couldn’t believe what the witness was doing to himself.

Shellow dutifully strode to the board and wrote the words, “In Some Random Year” on the blank page, and flipped it over.

After being mercilessly badgered, in the slick way good attorneys manage without being told to stop, the moron – er, witness – on the stand obviously began to detach. Finally, he interrupted Shellow and said, “I lied.”

Everyone in the courtroom froze in place, and grew ultra quiet. Attorney Shellow, gleefully and quickly stepped to the board and wrote, in thick, black magic marker letters, “I lied.” He flipped the page over the top.

After a long, dramatic pause, Shellow looked toward the jury and said, “Let’s examine what I believe is the essence of this witness’s testimony, and the underpinning of the State’s case against my client.”

He went to the board and flipped all of the pages back to the first one.

Mr. Shellow pointed to the page, upon which the first statement was written. He spoke the words out loud: “On Some Random Day.” He used a pointer to point out each word.

The next page came over the top: “In Some Random Year,” Shellow said matter-of-factly while pointing at the words he’d written.

Quickly, the last page: Shellow pointed at the words“ I lied.” He said them while he pointed.

He slowly approached the jury, partially opened his suit coat and placed his hands on his sides. He shook his head while looking down. He then looked up at the jurors, and smiled.

“On some random day, in some random year, I lied,” he said in a clear, measured tone. “That, ladies and gentlemen, sums up this man’s testimony.”

Being the prosecutions number one witness, it also summed up their case against the defendant.

Attorney Shellow walked to the witness, stopped, and stared at him with a blank expression. He looked at the judge. He turned to look at the D.A., where I too was sitting, and then turned back at the jury.

“’On some random day, in some random year, I lied,’” he repeated the witnesses words one more time for effect. “What do you think about that?” he asked, rhetorically.

The D.A. Stood. “Your honor, may I approach the bench?”

“Yes, Mr. D.A.” the judge said. “I think that you should.” The judge stood, “We will take a brief recess while I speak with the assistant district attorney in my chambers.” He looked at Mr. Shellow. “Care to join us, Jim?”

Mr. Shellow nodded and walked toward the judge’s bench.

The witness got off the stand and walked toward the back of the courtroom. He was not sneering.

Oops. I already told you that.


by Rob Riley a Milwaukee Police Officer for 32 years

< Return