Authors: Steven Gore
A Criminal Defense
A Harlan Donnally Novel
For my dear cousins, Julie Quater, Bruce Kaplan, and Bobbie Chinsky:
kind hearts, great minds, and doers of good deeds
ince matter is neither created nor destroyed, in one way or another the world isn't done with Mark Hamlin.
The words had come to Harlan Donnally as he disconnected the call that wrenched him from sleep at four in the morning. And others had followed as he walked from his bungalow near San Francisco's Ocean Beach through whorls of fog and mist toward his street-lit truck.
Under ideal conditions, bodies in motion remain in motion and bodies at rest remain at rest.
But it was only now, gazing at the criminal defense attorney hanging by his neck from the Fort Point lighthouse, that Donnally realized these thoughts were reverberations from the last case he'd cleared as a homicide detective a decade earlier. They'd echoed not only in his unease about the uncertainties and entanglements awaiting him in the shadow of the south anchorage of the Golden Gate Bridge, but in his musings about the mechanics of life and death that had accompanied him on the drive through the wooded Presidio to the redbrick garrison and during his three-story climb to the top.
Except the conditions weren't ideal and Hamlin wasn't at rest.
Although the fifty-five-year-old lawyer hung just fifteen feet away, Donnally had to squint hard into the darkness to make him out, his mind registering the parts, but not the whole, as an onshore gust spun and rocked the body.
Head tilted down.
Slacks and underwear collected around his ankles, shoe tips scraping the concrete.
Footsteps approaching Donnally from behind emerged out of the rush of swirling salt air. He glanced over at Ramon Navarro as he came to a stop. The homicide detective was cinched inside a trench coat, his head covered by a sheepskin crown cap, his brush-cut hair and rough-cut features familiar enough to Donnally that they didn't need to be seen to be perceived.
Navarro turned on a flashlight. Donnally grabbed for it, keeping the beam focused down. “Turn it off.”
Navarro waved his free arm toward the diffused and haloed headlights of a patrol car parked a hundred yards away, sealing off Marine Drive and blocking access into the parking lot. “Why's everybody grinning and telling me to keep theâ”
A foghorn blast obliterated his final words.
“You'll see it in a minute,” Donnally said. “Just wait until your eyes adjust.”
The light died. The wind let up. The duck-squawk of car tires hitting the bridge's ribbed expansion joints grew louder and a distant siren yelped on the Marin County end of the span.
Navarro looked over at Donnally. “What else did his assistant say other than that he was hanging out here?”
“Just that the call she got was anonymous and muffled.”
“And she reached out to you because .Â .Â .”
“Hamlin told her to if something happened to him.”
“Such as .Â .Â .” Navarro lifted his chin toward the dead lawyer.
Donnally shrugged. “He didn't say. She said he was a secretive guy, even with her, so she hadn't pressed him.”
“And maybe because it would've been too long a list since he had so many things to be afraid of.”
“Yeah. Lots and lots of them.”
Navarro glanced over at a fog-shrouded container ship sliding from ocean to bay, then surveyed the thirty-foot lighthouse, from its skeletal legs up to the squat iron tower, then to the dark lantern room, the whole an iron and glass palette of predawn grays.
“Nobody's paid attention to this thing since the bridge was built,” Navarro said, “except to keep it from turning to rust.” His eyes settled again on Hamlin's body. “I don't think this is what they were preserving it for.”
Donnally looked down at the news crews stationed along the rock seawall and then up at a television truck descending Battery East Road, heading toward a spot on the hillside under the anchorage, overlooking the fort.
“What about some crime scene screens to block the view?” Donnally said, and then pointed up at the early morning walkers and joggers gathering along the railing, backlit by the yellow bridge lights and peering down into the shadows. “It'll be bright enough in a half hour for them to get a good look at him.”
Donnally's concern was less that they would recognize Hamlin, for they'd watched him over twenty years of nightly news programs and sidewalk commentaries during media-frenzied trials, and more that they and the press would fixate on just one thing and that thing would live forever in Internet videos and in jokes told over cubicle walls and inside police squad rooms.
The wind rose again and rotated Hamlin's body toward them.
“Son .Â .Â . of .Â .Â . a .Â .Â . bitch.”
Navarro had just spotted it: the dead man's erection.
“I'll get the forensic people here as fast as I can,” Navarro said, reaching for his cell phone, “but they've been tied up on two gang murders. And I can't have anybody walking up close or wrapping up the body until we can record whatever is there.”
Navarro made the call and again turned on his flashlight, pointing it down and away from Hamlin. He directed the beam at the feet of a uniformed officer five yards away and then at the television truck, now coming to a stop.
The officer spoke into his radio, and a minute later a patrol car appeared on Battery East, red and blue flashes reflecting off the low clouds and headlights jittering over dips and potholes. It swung in next to the truck and herded it back out.
“He have a wife?” Donnally asked.
“As far as I know he was never married and didn't have any kids. He had kind of a Boston accent, so his family probably lives back East. I've got somebody trying to track them down to let them know before the media does.”
Donnally ducked and reached upward as a gust tore at his baseball cap. He sensed motion to his left as he shoved it into the pocket of his windbreaker, then turned to face San Francisco District Attorney Hannah Goldhagen as she walked up next to him, her neck turtled inside her overcoat collar against the cold and her hands driven deep inside her pockets.
He wasn't surprised to see her. While some prosecutors wearied and softened by middle age, she'd hardened like hot lava cooling into rock. Donnally knew it would've been easy for her to hand this off to an underling who could later be second-guessed and sold out, but he'd called it right. She'd taken it herself.
Goldhagen's eyes tracked up and down as she scanned the fifteen-foot rope extending from the knot tied at the lighthouse railing to the one at Hamlin's neck. “I take it it's too much to hope it's a suicide.”
The word pushed Donnally's thoughts back again toward his final homicide investigation at SFPD. Everyone in the Stanford physics department had assumed the professor's life would end either in murder at the hand of a colleague or in suicide at his own. And after examining the facts and the probabilities, the chains of causation and the body at rest, Donnally had concluded it was the latter.
Donnally pointed at Hamlin's bound hands as they spun into view. “Not very likely.”
“And a drop that far would've snapped his head off,” Navarro said, then looked over at Donnally for confirmation. Their careers in the homicide unit overlapped for a few years before Donnally was shot at thirty-eight and retired out because of his injuries, but Navarro still deferred to Donnally as his senior even though he now had twice as many years in the job.
Goldhagen directed her long, thin arm at Hamlin's erection. “What do you make of that? Before or after he died?”
Donnally and Navarro shrugged. They'd seen both.
“We'll have to wait to hear what the medical examiner says,” Navarro said, “but unless there's Viagra or something like it in his blood, I'm not sure the ME will know for certain.”
Goldhagen turned toward Donnally.
“I spoke to Hamlin's assistant as I was driving over. She's saying a week ago he told her to call you if anything happened to him. You know why?”
“Why me? Or why did he make the comment then?”
Donnally spread his hands. “I don't know the answer to either.”
And Donnally didn't, at least in any way he could yet articulate. He'd spoken to the man only once since his forced retirement from the department and his moving north to Mount Shasta ten years earlier.
“I heard you helped out a client of his a while back,” Goldhagen said.
“Inadvertently. I needed to find out something that his client knew. Hamlin hired meâ”
Goldhagen's brows furrowed. Hamlin was as warped as Donnally was straight, and he knew she couldn't imagine him making the kind of moral compromise required for him to work for Hamlin.
And he hadn't.
“It was only in order to keep what his client told me privileged. The information got me where I needed to go, and also led me down a trail leading to evidence that cleared his client of participating in a murder conspiracy.”
Goldhagen squinted at Donnally, facing him head to head, matching him at five-eleven. He could see the buoy and beacon lights flash in her dark eyes and tint her graying hair red.
“That mean you're a private investigator now?”
“No. I was just helping out a friend.”
She turned her gaze back toward Hamlin. “You take any money from him?”
“A dollar I later dropped into the employee tip jar at my cafÃ©.”
“And you haven't spoken to him since?”
“No reason to. I'm just a guy who flips burgers these days. I was only in town to do some work on my house. My girlfriend still lives there.”
Goldhagen fell silent, her questions answered, her cross-examination ended.
A maverick wave broke hard on the rocks below. Shrieking gulls rose from the top of the lighthouse, then wheeled and fled inland.
“Damn,” Goldhagen finally said, watching a TV satellite truck joining the others parked along Marine Drive. “This is going to be a mess.”
Donnally understood she was speaking past him and to Navarro. None of them needed to say aloud why Hamlin was so hated by law enforcement and why both the public and the legal community would distrust an investigation into his death by SFPD or the DA's office. Hamlin didn't win cases so much as sabotage them, all the while accusing the district attorney of judicial fascism and the police of blue-on-black terrorism.
A week earlier Donnally had seen on the news that Hamlin had lined a courtroom hallway with gang members, forcing a rape victim to walk a tattooed gauntlet on her way into court to testify against their leader. Despite her having identified the defendant in both photo and standup lineups during the previous weeks, when the moment came to point him out in court, her hands remained clenched in her lap.
“SFPD starts going through his files,” Goldhagen said, “not only the criminal defense bar, but the state bar, will go haywire.” She pointed at Hamlin. “And not because they had any respect for that asshole.”
Navarro took in a long breath and exhaled. “Give me just ten minutes in his office .Â .Â . just ten stinking minutes.”
“You know that's not going to happen,” Goldhagen said, “as much as I'd like to be in there with you.”
gonna happen?” Navarro asked.
“You'll know as soon as I do,” Goldhagen said, then pulled out her cell phone and walked a few yards away.
The forensic team came striding across the rooftop carrying screens to surround Hamlin's body. They photographed the scene, collected cigarette butts and food wrappers damp-stuck on the surface around the base of the lighthouse, and then began fixing the barriers in place.
As they worked, Donnally could feel the weight of the city behind him, not just the bluff onto which the bridge was anchored, but the neighborhoods into which Hamlin's professional roots reached: the politically powerful Castro, the drug and prostitution ground zero of the Tenderloin, the gang-ridden BayviewâHunters Point, and even downtown into the financial district and out to City Hall and deep into the yuppified Noe Valley and high into the mansions of Nob Hill.
As a cop, Donnally had borne that burden, had never struggled against it, had even sought it, but standing there in the muted dawn, he found he didn't miss it. Sure there were things he still needed in life and things he was still puzzling out, but he'd learned in the last decade that he didn't require the gun and the badge to get at them. Even more, the city that had once struck him as a maze or a labyrinth spread over its seven hills now seemed like a web.
Goldhagen returned as Donnally and Navarro were about to step inside the enclosure to examine Hamlin's body.
“I talked to the presiding judge,” Goldhagen said to Donnally. “He's appointing you special master. You'll station yourself in Hamlin's office and figure out how to pursue leads without jeopardizing attorney-client privilege and you'll be the public face of the investigation.”
Donnally shook his head. He was still embarrassed to have taken Hamlin's dollar, viewing it at the time as an evil necessity made for the sake of a greater good. And he wasn't about to have it made public, an inevitable consequence of his accepting the role as special master. The press would demand to know why he'd been chosen, what his relationship with Hamlin had been, and what motivated Hamlin to ask for his help in death.
Even more, Donnally knew he'd be compromised from the start. Reporters would focus not on the facts relating to why Hamlin had been murdered, but on what it was that Donnally knewâor the press suspected he must knowâthat intersected with what Hamlin feared in the days before his murder.
Donnally himself didn't know. And the fact that he didn't worried him.
“The judge and I will both give you cover,” Goldhagen said.
“I don't see how that's possible. You'll be too busy trying to give yourself cover. I'll look tainted from the get-go and it'll slop back on you and the investigation.”