ONE MAN'S JUSTICE

Robert Dellinger's last piece for the magazine was a profile of author Edward Bunker

May 5, 1994, was warm. But it was anxiety that made me sweat as I entered the venerable Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. On this night the Federal Bar, filled predominantly with judges and attorneys, and their friends and spouses, were having a celebratory dinner for the Honorable Manuel L. Real, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The 700 attendees were garbed in conservative gray flannel and navy blue worsted. My off-white suit and black silk shirt, buttoned to the top but without a tie, was a lighthouse beacon on a dark night. It prompted one guest to ask a friend whether I was a criminal attorney.

What really set me apart, though, was my "ex factor." It was not that I am an ex-Boy Scout, having achieved Eagle rank in my small hometown in southern Indiana, nor that I am an ex-All Big Ten distance runner from Indiana University, nor an ex-adman of the year--an award earned when I was in charge of the Lockheed account at the world's largest advertising agency. Nor was it my ex-CIA consultant status. No. The "ex" that trumped all others was "ex-con," a pejorative that not even these criminal justice insiders were able to see beyond, or behind.

The other speakers this evening were well-known lawyers and judges. The program chairman, a partner in one of the city's top white-shoe law firms, cornered me. "We're counting on you not to embarrass anyone," he said. I was already nervous about my ability to carry off what I believed I had to do, and his words stung. It was another reminder that the prison stink an ex-con carries hovers over him like a toxic cloud. The proverbial debt to society everyone talks about is never really paid by the time one serves. Even after a felon reenters society, other forms of debt reduction are always there. I had been humiliated and insulted in so many different ways over the years by "good citizens" that I usually avoided social gatherings where my past might be exposed. I would not have been here if I hadn't believed I had a piece of unfinished business with Judge Real. So I chewed on my own insecurities, until, all too soon, I found myself at the lectern.

"If I seem nervous," I began, "it's because the first time I stood before Judge Real, I was in a good news/bad news situation. The bad news? The jury had found me guilty on all charges. The good news? He could only give me 30 years. And true to his 'Maximum Manny' nickname in the slammer, I got it all."

A few women, eyebrows knitted in quizzical expressions, turned to their husbands and seemed to silently mouth: "Who is this clown?" At the center table, Judge Real, with his four children and their spouses, threw me a smile. My thumping heart retreated, but not enough to stem the flow of fear. I took a deep breath, tried to relax and cut to the chase.

I revealed my crimes: a ludicrous bomb hoax and an escape from the FBI agents who attempted to arrest me. It wasn't until I reached the federal prison on Terminal Island, I explained, that I learned the 30 years were provisional; Judge Real had the option to reduce my sentence. Ninety days later, the prison psych sent him a report stating my crime was a scheme to get the FBI to shoot me, the result of a mental breakdown for which I had refused to seek professional help. The U.S. Attorney filed a motion urging the court to make an example of me, asking Judge Real to set a final sentence in excess of 20 years.

"Anything over five years would require transfer to a maximum-security penitentiary like McNeil Island in Washington state, or Leavenworth in Kansas," I said, "far, far from my young son who had begun stopping strangers in public places and telling them, 'My daddy's in prison.'

"Judge Real ignored the Justice Department's double-digit recommendation and modified my sentence to five years, plus a 3 1/2-year probation. I believed the time fit my crime."

I felt my first connection with the audience. I explained that I was allowed to stay at TI, where I was appointed editor of the newspaper and founded and taught a Bureau of Prisons creative writing workshop, which Time magazine lauded as "the most successful program of its kind in U.S. penology." I also started writing freelance pieces about prison for the Los Angeles Times.

I hoped the statements did not sound like brags. "I made parole the first time I went before the board," I said, "but it was another one of those good news/bad news situations. I had lost everything. I had no money, no job, no car, no place to live and only the clothes on my back. I was terrified. My depression, which still stalked me, deepened when more than 100 companies ignored my responses to their employment ads. A prison return address did not convey the image of success."

I noticed a few thin-lipped smiles. "Even though Judge Real had no legal responsibility for my life, I wrote to him and asked for his help. He intervened with the Bureau of Prisons, and I was allowed to enter a halfway house where I began my reintegration into society, not by cold thrust, but gradually. I could not believe my great good fortune for having drawn a judge who considered me an individual, worthy of a second chance."

Unable to secure steady employment, I explained, I got a job as a janitor and caretaker of an apartment building in Venice. My next break came when I was hired to teach journalism at Cal State Long Beach, an appointment richer in psychic income than in money. Then Joe Wambaugh, the cop-turned-author, opened the door for me to what became a successful career writing and producing TV cop shows. Eventually I bought the building where I once swept the floors.

The disapproving stares and frowns that had chilled the room minutes before were displaced by expressions of surprise and interest. It gave me the courage to say the important thing I had come to say.

"Judge Real's most meaningful gift to me," I said slowly, as a surge of emotion worked its way from some latent niche, "was the effect his decisions had on the most important person in my life, my son, who became confused and troubled by the abrupt rupture in our relationship."

The invisible victims of crime, I offered, are the children of convicts and the children of those who work in the criminal justice system. "Prison destroys the families of those who serve a long term for their transgressions." Then looking into the eyes of those I could see, I added, "And the time and effort it takes to catch, convict and punish us takes its toll on the families of those who toil in this bitter vineyard of anxiety and stress. The demanding hours drain you of your resolve to give your best to those who need you the most, but are least capable of understanding that denial--your children. By giving me a sentence that allowed me to remain at TI, Judge Real made it possible for me to have contact visits with my son. And because my time in prison was a relatively short 20 months, I reentered his daily life at a critical period in his development, when he needed my love, guidance and support."

Just like that the audience's attitude changed. I was no longer a barbarian at the gate. I was a father who had the same basic concerns about my child as they had about theirs. "Rearing a child is never easy," I said, and they nodded. "And parenting is even more extreme for an ex-convict who, by virtue of what he has done and who he is perceived to be, brings a lot of extra baggage to the table.

"But I was lucky," I continued. "My son and I were able to heal the wounds of the past and move forward. He has had a distinguished military career as a Green Beret in the Army's Special Forces, carrying out secret assignments in some of the most dangerous trouble spots in the world, winning a Bronze Star for courage and leadership under fire during Desert Storm."

I began telling the group how, when he returned home from the war in Iraq, I gave him a party at Hal's Bar & Grill, in Venice, where we had lived during his teen years. But, without warning, the sustained emotion of the evening, my fear of failure and memory of some very difficult times in my life welled up. I had to pause.

I could not tell them how, on that Saturday night that was turning into Father's Day, shortly after midnight, my son--in full uniform, his chest covered with colorful ribbons attesting to heroism in places most people have never heard about--climbed up onto the bar. "Attention, everyone!" he commanded. His voice was deep, authoritative, military. "Attention!"

Hal's fell silent. Strangers and guests stared at this handsome young man whom I had once hurt so deeply with my aberrational behavior and bizarre crimes. He lifted his glass.

"I want you to join me in a toast to the world's greatest father. Here's to my dad."

"Hear! Hear!" came the response.

Tears. I could not hold them back. They streamed down my face. My only thought was a question: What had I done to deserve such an extraordinary son?

The memory of my son's gesture, as I stood before the crowd in the Biltmore banquet room four years later, was still too intense to share. So I took a breath, averted my eyes, regained my composure.

"That evening with my son," I said finally, "was the best moment of my life. And it would not have happened had it not been for the man we are honoring tonight." Then looking at Judge Real, I said: "So, on behalf of my son and myself, Judge Real, thank you."

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