The following story is inspired by true events. Names, genders and details have been changed.
“I wasn’t angry, but I’m not no punk.”
Those words boom from the mouth of Charles Curtis, an animated 68-year-old who’s testimony resembles a man telling his grandkids exaggerated stories from his youth. He’s even dressed in a classic grandpa outfit, layered up enough to keep warm in LA winters, but his socks and sandals remind us that it’s summer. And if it weren’t for the fact that he was robbed of his bike, attacked by two pitbulls and assaulted with a deadly weapon (his own cane) the scene would be straight-up hilarious.
Charles was searching through a parking lot dumpster for recyclables one afternoon in order to scrape up some extra change. It’s something he does often enough to gain a friendly rapport with the locals and store owners in the plaza. This time, however, he was encountered by Mr. Willy, a homeless white man with hair falling at least three feet down his back. Mr. Willy, it was later discovered, isn’t his real name but an alias. In any event, he was asleep when his two dogs attacked Charles. He awoke and called them back, but according to Charles, the two men began to argue, and Mr. Willy commanded his dogs to attack once more. After Charles leaped into the dumpster for protection, Mr. Willy took his bike and brought it over to where he was sleeping.
“I trained them dogs to snatch your nuts off” is one of the things Charles recalls Mr. Willy yelling at him. Among the other taunts are: “Nigger you can’t do shit.” “Nigger I’m going to sell your bike.” “Nigger this, nigger that.” That’s when Mr. Willy stole Charles’s plastic cane and swung at him several times before “ghost riding” away with two bikes instead of one. Despite how profane these taunts may seem, Charles keeps his macho persona as he speaks of them. He makes sure to mention, about half a dozen times, that he was shot in 1996 and comes straight out of the school of hard knocks. To him, Charles says, Mr. Willy is nothing but a grown boy acting tough. He even states, with conviction, “If he didn’t have those two dogs I would’ve beaten the son of a bitch’s ass.” He begins ranting about days in his youth when he was running wild in gangs and committing petty crimes. This leads him to declare how much he’s changed since then. He would lecture the courtroom on the importance of personal growth if the prosecution didn’t ask him to stick the question. From the snickers that the jury tries to hide to the occasional chuckles from Deputy District Attorney Henry Keegan, it is clear this is quite amusing. However, it doesn’t stay that way for long.
Keegan plays a silent video of the incident caught on a surveillance camera. Charles gives the play by play. When asked simple questions about the footage, he cannot help but add extra commentary. Questions like “Where did the dog bite you?” turns into a quick lesson on the sizing order of dogs as he gives us measurements for a pit bull’s standard size. “Did you jump into the dumpster for safety?” elicits a detailed break-down of his defense strategy, as if he’s a fighter in the octagon. By this point “Charles can you please stick to the question?” isn’t funny anymore. The jury is tired and the judge seems anxious to leave.
This all, of course, seems to play to the benefit of Mr. Willy’s defense. Charles is talking himself into a hole. And when it comes time for the cross-examination, Deputy Public Defender Arnold Simpson makes sure to use Charles’s emotions against him. He doesn’t have a solid case for his client, the video makes that clear. But his angle is to prove that Mr. Willy was under the influence and thought Charles had stolen his bike before both men engaged in a heated exchange. In his eyes, this was a miscommunication that led to a physical fight. All he has to do is show Charles was a hothead too.
Simpson, a black man himself, opens up with a question alluding to Charles’s criminal past. Charles takes offense right away, raising his voice to levels the room had yet to hear. This resets the tone. More questions rain in. “Do you remember the exact words that were said to you?” “Did you not yell anything back?” “Did you actually hear my client command the dogs?” Simpson even shows pictures of the dogs that reveal them to be significantly smaller than advertised. In fact, the dogs weren’t even pitbulls, at least not fully. Charles doesn’t back down, accusing the defense of attacking him and twisting the truth. But even as he does, he never fails to call the lawyer “Brother,” a plea for understanding, which strikes a deeper chord seeing how they’re the only black men on either side of this case. Simpson pays it no mind. Instead, he begins to ask questions noting the defendant’s movement. “Was he swaying back and forth?” “Did he smell of alcohol?” “Did my client appear to be under the influence at any point?” Charles sticks to his guns, stating that Mr. Willy’s taunts and behavior, drunk or not, demonstrates his malice in the situation. Mr. Willy sits there, hands folded, not a single word uttered. For all his eccentricities, it’s striking how intensely Charles remembers his experiences, especially compared to Mr. Willy’s protestations of intoxicated obliviousness.
After a teeth-pulling, three and a half hours of actual testimony, Charles steps off the stand. Ultimately, it seems, not much has been learned that wasn’t apparent in the video of the incident. Before being hurried off the stand, Charles drops one last jewel in true grandpa fashion: “Now time is one hell of a thing to be missing.”