John Ryan

So, in my last few months in Brandeis University, I realized that my major (Child Psychology) and my minors (Spanish and Russian) were not going to take me where I wanted to go in life…  I had been heavily involved in the civil rights movement, in SNCC and CORE in the Boston area,  had been up to the moment as to events in Alabama and Mississippi, and I had come to realize that the lawyers were what moved the needle decisively.  Richard Laden from Philadelphia had lived next door to me for two years in the dorms.  Richard had known since he was two years of age that he would be a lawyer.  I suddenly (and tardily) decided in October in 1961 that I wanted to  go to Law School.  As I remember, I hastily took the LSAT (got a really great score) and only applied to one Law School (more Chutzpah).   I was with two other Brandeis students in Jackson Mississippi in a Boarding House in January 1962 when I got a call one night.  It was Richard in the dorms at Brandeis.  He said, ” you have a letter in your mailbox. It’s from Harvard.  Shall I open it?”  I had been accepted to HLS and as of January 1962 I knew what I would be doing for the next 55 or so years.  Richard and 4 other Brandeis students in my class had been accepted to Harvard (it was a bumper year for Brandeis in that respect).  In just a few days after that, Bill Higgs Esq took the three of us Brandeis visitors to Jackson up to Ole Miss in Oxford Mississippi, his college alma mater.  He took us to dinner at the Oxford home of William Faulkner, an author of whom I thought the world for his dark southern novels.  At dinner were three students from Ole Miss.  One of them was Jimmie Robertson, who was the editor of the Student Newspaper then.  He had just been accepted to HLS.  We sat across the table from each other, found that we were to be classmates, and began a connection that has lasted a long time since, past Jimmie’s returning to a big firm in Jackson, then a professorship at Ole Miss Law School, then the Supreme Court of Mississippi, then back to private practice.

Law School commenced in 1962 September and I had just turned 21 in August.  I was the second youngest in our graduating class at Brandeis and, I believe, the youngest in my class at Law School.  The class was 530 people, mostly several years older than I.  There were only 30 women in the class.  It was only ten years before that women students had been admitted.   One of our professors announced a rule the first day of property class.  He would not call on women except on one day (in February).  On that day the two or three women in the class would sit up front and answer professor-asked questions.  His name was Bart Leach (Casner and Leach on Property was the textbook).  He had been a tennis partner of my father’s 35 years before I met him, something he mentioned only once to me.  Law School was hard and it was boring.  I had a special “disability” which made things harder.  While I had a scholarship and took out a small loan from the Harvard Trust Company Bank, I simply had to work – or I could not afford to attend Law School at all.  Needless to say, essentially no one else worked while going through HLS.  In the first week of classes, a market research interviewer appeared at my door in my 4th floor walkup apartment that I shared with Richard Laden, 1.5 miles from campus at 29 Putnam Avenue, between Harvard Yard and the Charles River.  The interviewer asked me about 10 minutes of questions about some product.  I asked what they paid him to do what he was doing. When he left, I walked to the company’s office, located right in Harvard Square across from the Coop.  I was hired at $6.75 an hour on the strength of my degree and college major.  That was nearly 4 times the minimum wage at the time.  I would go out at night to specific addresses, park, walk to an address in the packet, and ask to interview (per a script) the occupant about Wilkinson Sword (Razor) Blades, or Goodyear Tires, or Chevrolet cars, then write up the interview and turn it in.  I would get home at 8:30pm and have to study extra late to be ready for class.  If you have not read the book “One L”, by Scott Turrow, you should as it is a remarkably accurate depiction of the intellectual boot camp which was Harvard Law School in the mid 60s, though it was written a decade later.  Law School was tough and I had no time for any of the extra curricular lectures or socials.

I received B grades from Harvard during the summer of 1963, lived in a crummy apartment next to MIT with Dimitri Procos (a Greek student from Brandeis whom I knew) and Hal Tzeutzler, a German student. They both attended MIT.  I worked for Hertz Rentacar at the airport with a bunch of grifters, con men, and sneak thieves who were the yard men preparing the Hertz cars to be picked up by businessmen arriving at Logan airport.  Often at night 6 or 7 of us would convoy-drive rentals back down to New York, then head back in a station wagon deadheading up to Boston, having to go to work at Hertz the next day.  It was exhausting and dangerous. Halfwayy through the summer, I got another summer job through a politician-connection, pitching hay for the State Department of Public works out on the State Highways.  I had found Law School so boring that I was thinking of not returning, til I went to dinner at the Dushoffs’ home one night just before Lw School classes were to recommence.  Jerry Friedlander, a guest at dinner and a Harvard 3L told me that there was a group at HLS that had been formed just two years earlier called “the Harvard Voluntary Offenders”.  It had been formed in response to the Gideon decision of the US Supreme Court in 1961 stating that all defendants accused of a serious crime had to have appointed legal counsel.  The Massachusetts Supreme Court had hastily adopted Rule 32 allowing Law School Third Year Students to try criminal cases in the lowest criminal courts in Massachusetts, the District Courts.  The Voluntary Defenders took 25  2L students, had them do interviews of jailed defendants who were awaiting appearance the next day for trial, then passed those interview results to Massusetts Voluntary Defenders ( who were green young lawyers paid $7K per year).  MVDs represented those interviewed defendants the next morning in District Court, relying on the student interview texts.  The 2L students also second-chaired trials that 3L students presented in District Court.  The 2Ls also wrote briefs for appeals of cases in State and Federal Courts.  If I got in (and hundreds applied to it as one of the only two clinical education endeavors in the Law School) it meant that I could no longer work.  I did get accepted and soon found myself the HVD member in charge of operations, scheduling the 25  2L students to attend to Suffolk County and Middlesex County jails for visitation.  Each student interviewed 4 or 5 jailed inmates by around 2pm, dictated that text while on the MTA subway back to the office in Gannett House at the edge of the Law School on Massachusetts Avenue.  A harassed secretary started typing madly about 3pm as the guys returned.  Everything went into a mailbox at 6:15pm right outside the office.  It arrived at the Massachusetts Defenders Offices downtown the next morning.  By 9am the MVDs were in 6 different District Courts presenting defenses for the 25 different guys whom we had interviewed, sometimes with us there in Court helping.  Each 3L was getting a trial a week to do with the help of a 2L.  The scheduling (no cellphones, texting, or email) was a crazy high pressure tornado of activity for me.  I loved the work – and it made sense out of the courses that one took as a 2L student.  I decided to stay in Law School. In the summer, I took an student internship at the Labor Department in Washington D.C.  We rented and I lived in the home of a famous column writer for the Washington Post in Chevy Chase with three other interns, one the guy who had become my second roommate along with Richard at 29 Putnam Avenue.  I worked at the Labor Department on Pennsylvania Avenue on appeals from Field Officers in the Bracero Program.

In my third year at Harvard, I did a hasty interview one Wednesday afternoon in October of 1964 at Suffolk County Jail.  The 18 year old tall blondish Irish kid (we will call him “John Ryan”) was accused of having robbed a cab driver on Beacon Hill the day before, at knifepoint.  Allegedly, John had gotten into the back seat of the cab at about 5:30pm and, when it started off toward the destination he gave, he had held a table knife with razor blades taped on it against the cabbie’s throat and had demanded the cabbie’s money.  The cabbie handed it back – but, when the robber then turned to the door to open it and get out, the robber caught the left sleeve of his black leather jacket on the handle and he struggled to get free.  The cabbie, in traffic, began jerk the cab forward  in fits and starts and the robber fell then got out the jacket and ran down the street, with the cabbie in pursuit, yelling.  As he ran, the robber snatched at women’s purses running along the sidewalk on the crowded darkening street.  The robber escaped but the jacket had John’s name and address in it.  Boston’s finest went to his family’s Dorchester apartment at 9pm, handcuffed him, kicked him down three flights of stairs breaking his nose, and booked him in the Charles Street Jail, a 200 year old nightmare place.   A lineup had been held and several women and the cabbie had allegedly picked out John. I got him the next afternoon. John had no alibi, had a juvenile record – and confessed to me that he had done it.

At 9am the next day, we were in trial.  The District Court Judges just hated it when Harvard 3Ls tried the defense cases as it meant a real (though hastily) contrived case would be presented for hours instead of the pro forma “nothing”  defenses usually put on by hackneyed appointed counsel from the Bar.   I cross-examined the cabbie,  you only got a look in the mirror at the robber?  I cross- examined the women, you only saw the back of the head of the running robber on a darkened street with the street lights shining downward and the face in shadow and facing away as he ran past you before you were alarmed?  Judge Elijah Adlow convicted John and gave him a year in Deer Island House of Correction, an island jail out in Boston Bay which was as old and just as dangerous for a young  tall fair-complected irish kid as the Charles Street Jail… Judge Adlow said as he sentenced John:  “Your best ‘witness’ here today was your lawyer  – who must believe that you are innocent – but I find you guilty and you will do one year at Deer Island”, which was a very light sentence for the armed robbery and several counts as to the purse-theft attempts… I was rueful, but John had got a good deal for what he had said that he had done.    I went on with Law School pell mell after the trial.  I interviewed (on a fluke) for a clerkship at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court – and got selected for a year of draft-deferred service to Justice Paul Cashman Reardon, a liberal Republican who was to be a mentor-teacher for me and to do something for me that was extraordinary (with his reccomendation,  I became head of research in the late summer for the Elliott Richardson for Attorney General Campaign).  As I finished Law School, I was hired as the sole go-to-court guy for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau for the summer.  It was the other “clinical” program at the Law School. For three months I tried 10-12 contested divorces a day in Suffolk and Middlesex County District Courts, regarding clients on which 20 (top) Harvard Law Students working an afternoon a week had done the work-up interviews.  There were 6 grounds for divorce and seven defenses in massachusetts (no fault divorce was 15 years in the future) and I did on your feet make-it-up as it happens trial work on divorces til September 1965.  When I was 2 months into my clerkship at the Supreme Court,  John Ryan reappeared.

The phone rang in my apartment one night in November of 1965.  John Ryan said that he was a few weeks out of Deer Island House of Correction and that he appreciated how hard I had worked on his case.. He said that he would like to do something for me to show his appreciation…  I demurred saying that I had just done my job on his case.  John persisted.  Did I have a car, one that needed some work?  I said yes, that I had bought a 1962 Super Sport Chevie White Convertible in July, and that it now appeared that it needed a valve job.  John said to bring the car to his brother’s house in Everett Massachusetts the next Saturday and that the three of us would do the valve job as shade tree mechanics.  I went..  The house in Everett was a small and a poor place, but situated on the edge of the rocky shore and in the back it looked right out to Logan Airport’s runways across the bay. John’s brother Barry was shorter and dark complected with a scraggy beard – but he seemed to be a good mechanic.  We worked from eleven til 4pm and then, with the convertible ready to go, we sat on the shaded porch on the back of the house watching the planes land and drinking Carlings long-neck Black Label beers.  After a few moments, in a lull in the conversation John, on my left, leaned forward and said to me, “You know, I didn’t do the job on the cabbie…”  I instantly told him, “Aaah, it’s old news John.  You’re done with all that…”   John sat back and turned to his brother on his left, “Tell the man, Barry,” John said.    The dark swarthy short brother leaned forward and said to me, ” I did the job on the cabbie,  I took John’s coat from the kitchen in our home in Dorchester and I went downtown to do the job.  I had a baby on the way and we had no money.  I needed the dough for my wife and me.  John took the rap for me because I had the baby coming.”

I left Everett not long after that. I went home to Cambridge to my 4th floor walkup apartment on Putnam Avenue next to Harvard Yard with the folksingers living right next door and the students noisemaking on every floor.  I thought about why we have an adversary system of criminal defense in our courts in this Country and why lawyers have to give their all every day, defending every defendant to the ultimate, cross- examining the dickens out of every witness, forcing the police to really prove their case against each defendant, even if he seems guilty- if prove it the police can.  I wondered whether John (and his brother) were lying to me on the back porch at the Everett house or whether John had lied to me in Charles Street Jail some 15 months before when he had said to me that he did it…         So I figured it out… You never know as a lawyer what is the real truth nor all the truth about the case on which you are working.  It ain’t necessarily so that your client is telling you the truth or all the truth.  You have to really probe, keep a look over your shoulder at all the other possibilities as to the facts, ask good questions and hard questions, doubt most everything, and go forward looking at other possible explanations and scenarios.  What we do as lawyers is great stuff, advocating and giving counsel, and most of the time while doing this we swim in a sea of ambiguity and “likely so’s”,   not having clear, crisp, hard facts at all.  As lawyers, our work is like what is depicted in John Huston’s famous movie with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, “Chinatown”.  There are always stories beneath stories, obscured motives, hidden agendas, and hidden interests and purposes.  Eyewitnesses are wrong 40% of the time at least.

I never saw nor hear of John Ryan nor his brother ever again.  Deer Island is still there.  I still don’t really know if John took the rap for his brother – or if John did the job on the cabbie in 1964.


One thought on “John Ryan

  1. Andrew Cleasby says:

    Great stuff! Please keep the stories coming. I especially appreciate your observations on the impacts these experiences have had on you and their larger meanings.

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