This Colorado Criminal Defense Attorney Channeled Her Experiences Into A Novel
Jeanne Winer didn't have to do much research when writing her latest novel that follows a criminal defense attorney tackling a high-profile case. Before turning to writing full-time, Winer spent decades as an attorney. Her successful career was marked by the gay rights case that challenged Amendment Two in Colorado.
But Winer always made time for writing, even taking a month off every year to retreat to New Mexico to write.
In "Her Kind of Case," a top-notch defense attorney takes the case of a 16-year-old boy from Colorado Springs who appears to be a white supremacist and responsible to the murder of a gay man.
Read An Excerpt From Chapter One Of "Her Kind Of Case"
She heard footsteps outside her door again and decided to chance it. If it was the new borderline, she could always pretend she was late, that she was on her way to the airport for a last-minute vacation in Patagonia—sorry for the earlier-than-expected betrayal. As she rose from her chair, Lee could see a white business card slide under the door. A salesperson, she guessed, wanting her to switch malpractice carriers or add some new eye-catching links to her admittedly barebones website.
“Can I help you?” Lee asked, yanking the door open.
“Oh, you’re there.”
An attractive middle-aged woman with auburn hair stood up looking appropriately embarrassed. She was wearing a simple but expensive pantsuit, much like Lee’s in fact, and carried an elegant green leather handbag on her arm. Her smile was warm and open. Not a potential client unless she had a secret addiction to painkillers or was one of those lonely affluent women who couldn’t stop stealing things they didn’t need.
“I know it’s early,” the woman said, still embarrassed, “but I have to be at work at nine and so I thought I’d just pop over and see if perhaps you were an early bird like me.”
Lee nodded in the polite noncommittal way she’d perfected for meetings such as this. Only fools rush in. Lee never rushed, and she rarely misjudged.
“May I come in?” the woman asked, peeking over Lee’s shoulder in case someone else, an even earlier bird, was already there. “You’re Lee Isaacs, aren’t you?”
“That’s me. What can I do for you?”
“You look exactly the way I imagined, except you’re taller. And yoursilver hair is gorgeous. Lucky you. I started dyeing mine a year ago and I’m already sick of it.”
“God, listen to me. I sound like a housewife at the gym. In fact, I have an MBA and I’m the head of human resources at The Boulder Tea Company. People fear me.” She grinned. “That was a joke, the fear part.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m going to start again. Hi, my name is Peggy O’Neill and I think I want to hire you.”
Within the wide acceptable range of normal, Lee decided, and finally smiled.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. O’Neill. Why might you want to hire me?”
“Please call me Peggy. And forgive me. I rarely say the first thing that pops into my head. Well, sometimes I do but only when I’m nervous or upset, which isn’t often. My nephew is in trouble. Big trouble.”
“Sounds serious.” Lee stepped aside and pointed to a large oak chair that faced her desk. “Come on in and let’s see if I can help him.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”
As Lee sat down, she brushed the pile of papers to the side and grabbed a blank legal pad off the small credenza behind her.
“So right now,” Peggy was saying, “he has a public defender, a young man who seems quite competent but very busy. I have only one nephew. I want to help him and I want him to have the best.” She blushed a little, which made her even more likeable. “Anyway, I’ve called around and the lawyers I spoke to thought this was your kind of case.”
Lee knew what they meant: difficult, seemingly hopeless, emotionally draining cases that turn your hair silver. A paranoid schizophrenic stalking the same frightened woman for more than twenty years, a distraught mother suffocating her newborn while her husband was out of town on business, an abused runaway stabbing a social worker who threatened to call her parents—just a few of the many cases where she’d managed to her kind of case
“What’s your nephew charged with?”
“Murder,” Peggy said, as if she still couldn’t quite believe it. “His name’s Jeremiah Matthews, but everyone except his parents call him Jeremy. He’ll be seventeen in a couple of months, on December 25th actually, which never seemed fair to me. When he was younger and my sister Mary still let me see him, I would always buy him two sets of presents, one for his birthday and one for the holiday.” She sat back and glanced around the room. “This is very nice.” She pointed at Lee’s favorite picture, a print of an odd, curiously compelling purple horse, hanging near the door.
“That’s a Fritz Scholder, isn’t it? I love his paintings.”
“I do too,” Lee said. “What did you mean by ‘still let you see him’?”
“Okay, before she met Leonard, my sister Mary was a smart independent woman who made her living as a graphic designer. She was her own person, a feminist like me. I don’t know what happened to her, but I think she was lonelier than she let on. Leonard was this good-looking charismatic man who talked like he had all the answers. He was a serious Christian but not yet a zealot.” She shuddered with distaste. “From the moment I met him, I thought he was a creep. I couldn’t understand why Mary went for him. Married him! But I love my sister, so I tried as hard as I could to get along with him, never argued when he pontificated about religion or politics.” She rolled her eyes, reached into her pocket and pulled out a stick of sugar-free gum. “Would you like one? It’s a pathetic substitute for Marlboros.”
“No, and thanks for not smoking.”
“You’re welcome. Anyway, when Jeremy was eight or nine, they moved to Colorado Springs and joined some kind of fundamentalist Christian group that was against everything. No singing, no dancing, no socializing with anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus as their savior . . .” Her face clouded over. “I can’t believe my sister went along with it. But she did. After that, I was lucky if I got to see them once a year.”
“That must have been tough,” Lee said, scribbling down the information. Over the years, her notes had become illegible to everyone but her. After the first thirty or forty trials, she’d learned never to write anything that some curious bystander could easily decipher.
“Tell me about it. Mary and Jeremy are my only living relatives. I was married once, for just a couple of years in my thirties. And I thought he was a chauvinist pig. Compared to Leonard, he was a doll. Anyway, I never got pregnant. When Jeremy was little, I did a lot of babysitting and we got very close. I always figured I’d be his Auntie Mame, show him the world.” She shook her head and sighed. “Instead, I’m hiring him a lawyer.”
“Well, a trip to Marrakech would be fun, but you’re getting him what he needs.”
“Exactly. Too bad about Marrakech though.”
“So, whom did your nephew allegedly murder?”
Peggy grunted as if she’d been punched in the solar plexus, a pain no martial artist ever got used to.
“Some poor guy named Sam Donnelly. That’s all I know. According to the Daily Camera, he was killed by a group of skinheads and somehow or another Jeremy was with them. He must have met them in Denver after his parents threw him out. I can’t imagine—”
“Whoa, hold on,” Lee interrupted. “When did his parents throw him out?”
“About eight months ago, around the beginning of February. Jeremy came to see me a few days later and he was so cold he was shivering. I begged him to stay, told him he could live with me and go to school in Boulder. He thanked me but said he couldn’t, that he had to make his own way. I gave him a down sleeping bag, all the cash I had, which was about four hundred dollars, and a check for another thousand that he either lost or threw away. I told him he was always welcome. He slept on the couch that night and was gone by the time I woke up.” She shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know what else I could have done. He was sixteen. I didn’t want to call the police. Finally, I phoned my sister but she refused to discuss it. I think Leonard was standing next to her, like he always does. Anyway, all she said was that Jeremy wouldn’t follow their rules anymore.”
“Any ideas what those rules were?”
“Oh God,” Peggy snorted. “Leonard had a million stupid rules. Let’s see, no alcohol of course, no swearing, no card playing, no television except for Christian shows, no dating girls outside the church, that kind of thing. Last time I was there, they were dragging him to services almost every night.”
“So Jeremy finally had enough.”
“I guess so. But I can’t imagine how he ended up associating with skinheads. He wasn’t like that. Leonard was full of hate, but Jeremy wasn’t.”
“That’s easy. He was on the street. Kids on the street need protection. They need a ‘family.’ If they’re desperate, they can’t afford to be choosy.” Suddenly, the clock on Lee’s desk gonged again, reminding her—as if she didn’t know—that time was passing. She closed her notepad, set it down, and then placed her pen beside it. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got a number of appointments this morning, and you’ll be late for work if you don’t leave soon.” She drummed her fingers while she thought. “I have to meet your nephew before deciding whether to take his case. Sometimes there isn’t a fit, and with a murder case, there has to be. Ultimately, Jeremy has to trust me enough to do what I tell him.”
“Makes perfect sense,” Peggy said, handing Lee the white card she’d tried to slide under the door.
“Thanks.” Lee pocketed the card, then pulled a slim black book out of her briefcase and began scanning the day’s appointments. She was booked solid until six that evening, not even an hour for lunch. She’d have to run over to Alfalfas and order a sandwich to go. “I’ll get to the jail this evening and call you afterward. If it’s a fit, we can discuss a retainer. It’ll be expensive.”
“Yes, I know. The other lawyers warned me. Jeremy’s my only heir, so I guess it’ll be an early inheritance.” She picked her handbag off the floor and stood up. “Oh, one more thing. The police wouldn’t tell me much, but one of the detectives I spoke with hinted that it was a pretty gruesome death. I’m not trying to dissuade you. To the contrary, but I think it’s only fair—”
“Thank you,” Lee said, trying to stifle a smile. “I’ve handled dozens of murders and every one of them was gruesome. It doesn’t upset me.”
Except when I lose, she thought.
“Well, I don’t know how you do it.”
Lee didn’t know how she couldn’t do it. After her first homicide case, a routine stabbing outside a bar in Longmont, she was hooked. Handling it took everything she had: her wits, her skills, her experience all coming together in service of her client. As soon as it was over, she couldn’t wait till the next one. In between, she got by through representing clients on the usual thefts, assaults, and burglaries. Nothing wrong with garden-variety felonies; they paid the bills and often challenged her. But not enough. She couldn’t live on them. For as long as she could remember, Lee had always thrived on fierce competition. When she was twelve, she considered becoming a professional downhill ski racer, but then came the sixties, and the idea of her life’s work consisting of getting down a mountain as fast as possible without killing herself seemed a bit shallow. Finally, during her third year of college, after watching a Perry Mason rerun where Perry trounced the DA for the millionth time and saved his client, Lee decided to become a criminal defense attorney.
“In any event,” Peggy was saying, “it was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise.” Lee stood up and reached out a hand.
“You’re not a hugger, are you?”
“A hugger?” Lee took a small step backward.
“No, I didn’t think so. Well then, I’ll take a handshake and wait to hear from you.”