Corrupted by Lisa Scottoline is the 3rd legal thriller in the Rosato & DiNunzio series (available October 27, 2015).
Bennie Rosato the founder of the Rosato & DiNunzio law firm hides her big heart beneath her tough-as-nails exterior and she doesn't like to fail. Now, a case from her past shows her how differently things might have turned out. Thirteen years ago, Bennie Rosato took on Jason Leftavick, a twelve-year-old boy who was sent to a juvenile detention center after fighting a class bully. Bennie couldn't free Jason, and to this day it's the case that haunts her. Jason has grown up in and out of juvenile prison, and his adulthood hasn't been any easier. Bennie no longer represents those accused of murder, but when Jason is indicted for killing the same bully he fought with as a kid, she sees no choice but to represent him. She doesn't know whether or not to believe his claims of innocence, but she knows she owes him for past failures-of the law, of the juvenile justice system, and of herself. Forced to relive the darkest period of her life, Bennie will do everything in her power to get the truth, and justice.
Bennie Rosato hadn’t taken a murder case in years, but she’d have to take this one. She’d been working late when the call came in, from a time she didn’t want to remember and a place she didn’t want to revisit. Still, she’d said yes. She couldn’t assign the case to an associate, either. Nobody paid her debts but her. And she wanted redemption.
She lowered her head, hoisted her bags higher on her shoulder, and powered her way to Philadelphia police headquarters, near the tangled ramps to I-95 and the Schuylkill Expressway. It was almost midnight in the dead of January, with the sky frozen black except for a full moon, round as a bullethole. There was no one else on the street except a homeless man, rattling a can of coins at the cars stopped at a red light.
Bennie beelined for the building, called the Roundhouse owing to its shape, which was two massive circular sections stuck together like an old-school barbell. The design was no longer innovative, nor was the building, and cracks lined its precast-concrete façade. Its three stories of smoked windows were set lengthwise, and fluorescent lighting from within showed that blinds were broken or missing in every pane. PHILADELPHIA POLICE DEPARTMENT, read dark metal letters on the wall next to a mailbox, an overflowing trash can, and a Port-a-John.
Bennie opened the smoked glass door and let herself into an entrance with a wooden shield of the PPD next to a window of bulletproof glass. A young officer came to the window to meet her, wearing a blue shirt and a white UnderArmor turtleneck that revealed the telltale thickness of a Kevlar vest.
“Can I help you, miss?” he asked.
“Yes.” Bennie liked him immediately, as she was in her forties and couldn’t remember the last time anybody called her miss. “I have a client in Homicide. His name is Jason Lefkavick.”
“Hold on a sec.” The officer consulted an old computer for a moment. “Detective Gallagher will meet you upstairs at the Unit. Go to the door on your left. I’ll need to see ID, inside.”
“Sure, thanks.” Bennie entered the massive round lobby, produced her ID, went through the metal detector, then took a grimy elevator to the fourth floor, where the ceiling lights flickered and the floor tile was gray with filth. She passed a bathroom with an open door and a leaking faucet. Running overhead were exposed wires and plumbing wrapped with duct tape.
HOMICIDE, read an old plaque ahead, and the hallway ended in a closed wooden door with a keypad and a dark window of reinforced glass. She knocked, facing her own reflection. Her hair was a tangle of long blond curls twisted into a topknot by a ponytail holder, and she tried to smooth it in place. She wore only light makeup, now worn off, so her wide-set blue eyes were unlined. She was fully six feet tall, which came in handy in a courtroom, if less so on a date. She hadn’t seen anybody since she and Grady broke up. She’d have thought she was dead below the waist, but for the fact that her legs were so dry they itched all winter.
“You must be Bennie Rosato.” The door was opened by a bald detective with brown eyes and a ruddy complexion. He had on a white shirt with a dark green sweater, khaki slacks, and loafers and looked about her age, but was shorter. He flashed a professional smile and extended a large hand. “I’m Mike Gallagher, good to meet you.”
“You too, Detective.” Bennie shook his hand, stepping inside a cramped waiting area with rubbery black benches and two large bulletin boards labeled WANTED FOR MURDER, with thirty-odd photographs of men, and one woman.
“Call me Mike. I’ve heard a lot about you. I know you were a buddy of Azzic’s and he spoke well of you.”
“Thanks.” Bennie managed a smile but felt too antsy for small talk. “So do you think I can see my client?”
“Sure, no problem. Follow me.” Detective Gallagher led her past the memorial wall, then into the squad room, which was mostly empty. The only remotely modern appliance was a medium-sized flat-screen television playing football highlights on mute; the walls were a scuffed light blue and the dropped ceiling a grimy white, with more bundled wiring. The gray tile floor was dirty, and crammed everywhere were mismatched file cabinets covered with taped notices about Courtroom Numbers, Phillies tickets, Computer Training for the Forensics Lab, and a bumper sticker that read, YOU BOOKIN’?
“The squad room’s the same, I see.” Bennie followed him past the cabinets.
“Still a dump, right? They’re talking about moving us uptown, God knows when.” Detective Gallagher stopped in front of the closed door to Interview Room A and slid aside a large barrel lock.
“Did you videotape your interview with him?”
“No, the machine’s broken. You’ll see it dangling in the corner.”
“How about the audio?”
“We gave up on audio recordings. It sounded like everybody was underwater. The D.A. told us he couldn’t use them. Take as long as you like, then come find me. My desk is the first one on the right.” Detective Gallagher gestured to a connecting room behind him. “A word of warning. It’s not pretty in there.”
“The room? Why am I not surprised?”
“No, your client. And don’t blame us, we didn’t do it.”
“What do you mean?” Bennie asked, concerned.
She opened the door, and got her answer.
The last time Bennie had seen Jason Lefkavick, he was only twelve years old, so it made sense that he looked different, but that wasn’t the headline. His forehead looked pink and puffy, and over his left eyebrow, a swollen, reddish lump rose with a cut matted with drying blood. His left eyelid had shut to a slit, and the sclera of his eye was blood-red around a sliver of watery blue iris.
“Jason, yikes, what happened?” Bennie closed the door behind her and dumped her bags on the beat-up black table.
“Did you see a doctor?”
“The nurse, she came in. It doesn’t need stitches.”
“You should see an eye doctor.”
“She said it’s fine. It’s fine.” Jason shrugged it off.
“Okay, well, good to see you, even in the circumstances.” Bennie appraised him, and he was still short, about five-foot-six, but he’d lost weight and acquired a wiry build. His face had become long and lean, with prominent cheekbones, and his hair, which he’d shaved on the sides, had darkened from its previous sandy brown. Sinewy biceps popped through the armholes of his white paper jumpsuit, and tattoos of Chinese calligraphy, praying hands in blue, a sacred heart, and a blurry barcode blanketed both forearms.
“I didn’t know if you’d remember me.”
“Of course I would.” Bennie took off her coat, but static electricity made it cling at the hem, so she unpeeled it from her khaki suit. She set it on the table, which held an open can of Coke and a greasy pile of chicken bones on waxed paper. There was a two-way mirror in the far wall, above two holes that were fist level. You didn’t need to be a detective to figure out how they got there.
“Thanks for comin’.”
“You’re welcome. How have you been?” Bennie gave him a hug, though she didn’t generally hug her clients. Jason hugged her back briefly, and she caught a whiff of chicken, beer, and cigarettes.
“Really?” Bennie said, though she knew that already. She still thought about him.
“You got to be a big deal, huh? Famous lawyer, all that.” Jason smiled, keeping his lips closed, and Bennie remembered that he was self-conscious about his crooked incisors.
“No, not at all.”
“Not gonna lie, I didn’t think you’d come.”
“Of course I’d come. I would never not.” Bennie sat down in the hard plastic chair opposite him, realizing that his demeanor had changed, too. He sat back with a belligerent uptilt to his chin, and his manner was more disaffected than it used to be, like a street thug’s. If she hadn’t known him, she might have been afraid to be alone with him. He wasn’t handcuffed.
“Jason, listen.” Bennie felt pressure in her chest, which she’d been carrying for over a decade. “I know it was a long time ago, but I owe you an explanation—”
“No, you don’t owe me anything.” Jason cut her off with a hand chop.
“But I’m so sorry for—”
“I don’t want to go there. What’s done is done.” Jason pursed his thin lips. “Really.”
Bennie let it go, for now. “How’s your dad?”
“He died. His heart got him, when I was twenty.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Can we move on?”
“Okay, let’s get started.” Bennie bent down and pulled a legal pad from her bag, facing him. They were oddly close because the interview room was so small, its only contents the black table and two chairs, though Jason’s was bolted to the floor.
“Look, Bennie, I’m not gonna lie, I can’t pay you right away.”
“Don’t worry. It’s on the house.” Bennie wouldn’t have dreamed of asking him for a retainer. She stopped short of saying I owe you.
“You don’t gotta do that.” Jason ran a hand over his head. “I’m no charity case, yo.”
“Don’t worry about it, yo.”
Jason didn’t smile. “But you gotta know, I’m not takin’ any deals, I didn’t kill anybody. They say I did it, they gotta prove it. I didn’t do it. I’m not guilty.”
“Good.” Bennie wasn’t going to ask him if he did it anyway, no experienced criminal lawyer would. Still, she’d never been comfortable with the don’t-ask-don’t-tell of the defense bar, which was only one of the reasons she’d gotten out.
“I’m innocent, straight up. I was framed.”
“Okay, I believe you, and I need to get the facts.” Bennie rummaged through her messenger bag and found a pen.
“It was Richie. Richie Grusini. Remember him?”
“What?” Bennie froze. “What are you saying? Richie did it? He committed the murder?”
“No, Richie’s dead. He got killed.”
“Richie was the victim?”
“Yeah, he’s dead. I’m not cryin’, believe me.”
“You didn’t tell me it was Richie, when you called me.” Bennie tried to wrap her mind around it. She had thought Richie was a part of Jason’s past—and hers.
“I know, I worried you wouldn’t come.”
“I would have, anyway.” Bennie let the awkward moment pass. “Did the cops tell you they’re going to charge you?”
“No, but that detective thinks I did it. Gallagher. He tried to get me to make a statement, but I told him I wanted to call you. I wouldn’t sign the papers.”
Bennie knew he meant the papers required by Miranda to determine a waiver of counsel, ironic given Jason’s history. “Let’s get some background, so I’m up to speed. Jason, tell me where you live.”
“403 East Gansett Street. In Fishtown.”
“Okay.” Bennie should’ve known from the chicken wings. The homicide detectives thought the way to a confession was through a defendant’s stomach. If he was from South Philly, they got cheesesteaks from Pat’s or Geno’s, and if he was from Olney, they got crab fries from Chicky & Pete’s. The chicken wings would have come from Byrne’s at Kensington and Lehigh.
“I live in a house with a roommate. It’s a chick. Gail Malloy.”
Bennie made a note. “How long have you lived there?”
“Moved there six months ago, from home.”
“Is she your girlfriend?”
“No, I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“How about a job?”
“I wait tables at Juarez, you know, the chain. It’s in East Fishtown.”
“Good. Got any friends?”
“Just Gail, my roommate. She works at Juarez, too. She manages it. She’s cool.”
“What’s her cell number?”
“I wanted to call her but they only let me make one call.” Jason rattled off a number, and Bennie wrote it down.
“Have you been in any legal trouble, as an adult?”
“Only misdemeanors. I didn’t serve any time.”
“Any weapons involved?’
Bennie made a note. “So tell me what happened tonight.”
“Okay.” Jason sniffed. “Anyway, after work, I wanted to eat, so I go into this bar, Eddie’s, on Pimlico Street. I sit down and who do I see but Richie Grusini, sittin’ at the bar. You know the story with me and Richie.”
“So what happened?”
“I had a few beers and I guess it just got to me, watching him laugh with his buddy, having a good time. He was flashin’ all this cash, and this girl was coming over to them and she was hangin’ all over him.” Jason shook his head, looking down. “Anyways, I thought to myself, where’s the justice? Here he is, he got everythin’, and he never paid for what he done to me, he got away with it, so I decided to do somethin’ about it, not just suck it up.”
Bennie didn’t like the way this was going.
“So I get up and say to him, hey, ’member me? Right away he shoves me, and we’re in a fight and they throw us out.”
“Is that how you got the bump on your forehead?”
“No, that came later.”
“What time did this take place?”
“About 11:00? The game was still on.”
“How many people at the bar?”
“I dunno, about nine?”
Bennie made a note. “Including the bartender?”
Bennie wrote ten witnesses, which was ten too many. “How many beers had you had?”
“Were you drunk?”
“No. So the bartender threw us out, and Richie’s buddy left, and I was going to let it go, like we went opposite directions, I took a lef’ to the bus but Richie and his buddy went to the right, and the bartender, he watched us split up. I waited at the bus stop, and I saw where Richie went, and the bartender went inside. But the bus didn’t come, and I got madder and madder and I was like, why not, so I turned back and I went after Richie, like, down the street. He turned into an alley, and I figured he was gonna take a leak, and I went after him.”
“I wanted to have it out with him, I admit it.” Jason’s pale skin flushed. “I wanted to tell him how he ruined my life. I went up to him in the alley and he was standin’ at the middle, facin’ the wall about to unzip his pants, and then all of a sudden, he hits me, really hard, right above my eye.” Jason gestured at his injury. “I fell back and my head hit the ground, and I def passed out. Then I don’t know what happened, how long I was out. But when I woke up, Richie was lyin’ there in the alley and blood was everywhere, like, coming from his throat, and there was this big, like, cut. That’s prolly how I got the blood on me. He was all still, like, he wasn’t moving.” Jason’s good eye widened slightly. “I couldn’t believe it, and I got up and in my hand was a hunting knife. I don’t know where it came from, it wasn’t mine I swear, but Richie was dead, then there were sirens and people were yelling and the police came and arrested me.”
Bennie couldn’t tell if he was lying, but this wasn’t the time to find out. “So you’re saying somebody killed Richie and put the knife into your hand?”
“Yes, they framed me. Richie was a mean bastard, he musta had tons of enemies. Anybody coulda killed him.”
“But how would they know you and Richie were there? Did they follow you into the alley?”
“Prolly, yes. They set me up!”
Bennie hid her doubt. “Did you notice anyone following you into the alley?”
“No, but anybody coulda seen us. It’s an alley but the front part is wide enough to park in. There was a white pickup there.”
“Whose was it? Was it Richie’s?”
“I don’t know, all I know is, I didn’t kill him.”
“Was anybody else in the alley?”
“No, not that I saw.”
“Did anybody pass by and see you and Richie fight?”
“No one was around, I don’t know.”
“Were any stores open, near the alley?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Was there any noise during your fight? Did Richie yell at you or shout?”
“I’m wondering if we can find a witness, somebody who heard something. Like somebody from one of the surrounding buildings, in an apartment or something.”
“I didn’t see anybody, I don’t know who the hell killed him, but that guy took out the trash. You know the story, you remember.” Jason shook his head in disgust. “I’m not sorry he’s dead, I’m glad he’s dead.”
Bennie let it go, switching gears. “Jason, did the police give you your Miranda warnings when they arrested you?”
“You didn’t say anything to them after that, did you?”
“Yes, I did.” Jason frowned. “I was so freaked, I started talkin’, like I couldn’t shut up.”
“What did you say?” Bennie held her breath.
“I said I didn’t do it, I don’t know how it happened, but I wasn’t sad about it. I told ’em, ‘Good!’ I told ’em, ‘About damn time he paid for what he did to me,’ and I got a lil’ justice for once in my effing life!”
Bennie cringed inwardly. “Did you tell Detective Gallagher that, too?”
“Yeah, I did. He gave me Miranda warnings, and we went over the sheets.” Jason gestured at the papers. “I know, it was stupid to say anything to the cops. I know better, anybody knows better. I do the dumbest things, you don’t even know.” Jason’s shoulders slumped, as if he were deflating.
“When did you call me?”
“After he wanted me to sign the form, I figured I need a lawyer.”
“Did you tell the police you’d been drinking?”
“Yeah, the cops asked in the alley, but I told them I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t. I’m not. The detective asked me that, too.”
“Okay.” Bennie didn’t expect Jason to understand the legal significance of the alcohol. It could have nullified his statements, but his admission that he wasn’t drunk would cut against him. Bennie wasn’t hearing any basis for a motion to suppress. “When they brought you here, did they take your blood? DNA? Skin?”
“Yes. They also took pictures of the blood that was on me. They cleaned me up, after.”
“Was there blood on your clothes?”
“Yes, but I swear, I didn’t do it.”
“Then how do you think blood got on you?” Bennie hid her puzzlement.
“I don’t know, whatever, I didn’t kill him. Somebody else put that knife in my hand, and I’m not goin’ to go down for it, no matter what.”
“Okay, that’ll do for now.” Bennie set her pad on the table. “This is very serious. I have to tell you, they have enough to charge you with first-degree murder.”
“So let ’em charge me, but I’m not pleading guilty to a murder I didn’t do.”
“Jason, the sentence for first-degree murder is life in prison, without possibility of parole. It’s mandatory.”
“I know that.”
“I’m sure I can get you a deal for ten, at most. If you plead guilty to third-degree murder—”
“You have to get me off. I didn’t do it. End of discussion.”
“I’ll be right back.” Bennie rose. “I have to see Detective Gallagher.”
“No deals, Bennie.” Jason scowled. “You know why.”
Copyright © 2015 Lisa Scottoline.
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Lisa Scottoline graduated magna cum laude in three years from the University of Pennsylvania, in 1976. Her B.A. degree was in English with a concentration in the Contemporary American Novel, and she was taught by professors such as National Book Award Winner Philip Roth. Lisa then graduated cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1981, where she served as an Associate Editor, University of Pennsylvania Law Review.