My first client ever!
First client I ever had when I got out of law school in 1994 was a man by the name of Chuck Fulghum. Chuck grew up here in the Raleigh area, in a big family, perennially poor but solid and hard-working through and through. His dad was a carpenter and farmer and his mom a very busy homemaker. He’d lived his adult life as career Army, a career that included tours in Korea, Vietnam, Germany and Alaska, and retired a decorated veteran who doted on his family and was treasured by his many friends.
Chuck came from an old school of folks, salt-of-the-earth folks who, though perhaps lacking what some might call “higher education”, had gifts of courage and gab, cleverness and wit, and smartness and independence that only a hard scrabble life on a farm can give. I always told Chuck that he would have made a hell of a lawyer and judge, and I meant it truly. He was just that way.
I recall his story about a speeding ticket he got years and years before, right here in Knightdale, just outside of Raleigh. There he was just cruising along old Raleigh Road in his ’49 Ford (“minding my own damn business”, as he always said) when this highway patrolman comes along and stops him. Tells him he’s going too fast. I can hear Chuck ask the cop, in that great drawl that was his trademark,
“Well, how do you know how fast I was going?”
Cop goes on to tell him how he’s got special training and all and he can estimate speed and so on. (This is in the day before Radar, FYI.)
So Chuck, not one to instigate an argument, just says “Oh, I see. Well then, let’s take it to court.” and that’s that. The cop gives Chuck his speeding ticket and off they go.
Going it on his own
So, some time goes by and Chuck decides he’s gonna fight the ticket. Now money’s tight, but that’s not the reason he’s not going to get a lawyer. See, Chuck was just one of those guys who, when he sees he’s being done wrong, doesn’t delegate the task of straightening it out; he does it himself (and while he mellowed in his older years, in his youth he was not a guy to talk shit to).
And that’s just what happens here: Day of court, he shows up, no lawyer, not even dressed in a suit as I recall the story, and tells the DA he wants a trial. Now back in those days, there really wasn’t a hell of a lot going on in this neck of the woods, and the courthouse was a source of entertainment for some folks, and many would come down and just sort of hang around the courthouse to see what the doings were.
Such was it on this day: Crowded hot courtroom, ceiling fans turning slowly, smoke from the cigarettes and cigars (oh yes!), ladies in hats and men dabbing at their sweaty brows with handkerchiefs; straight outta some Faulkner book.
So the DA calls the case.
“Mr. Fulghum, how do you plead to speeding?”
“I ain’t guilty!” he answers.
“Very well” the DA says. “The State calls patrolman_______” (I don’t even remember if Chuck could recall his name). He hauls his fat frame up to the stand and is sworn in.
“Now Patrolman _____ , have you seen this man before?” he says, motioning at Chuck.
“Yessir, I have.” he replies. “I stopped him for speeding on Raleigh Road about a month ago.”
“Well sir,” the DA goes on, “Do you recall what the speed limit was where he was driving?”
“Yes” says the patrolman, “I always drive out that way and I can tell you it’s a 50 mph zone.”
“Fine, then,” says the DA. “Can you tell us how fast Mr. Fulghum was going?”
“Yes sir,” says the patrolman, “He was running 70 mph.”
“I see,” says the DA. “70 mph in a 50 zone?”
“Yep. That’s right.”
“And how do you know how fast he was going?” continues the DA.
“Well, you see,” responded the cop, “I went through all this here special training at the academy and they taught us how to estimate speed pretty accurate.”
“I see” said the DA. “And did you make such an estimate of his speed on that occasion?”
“Yes sir, I did. And it was 70 mph just like I said.”
“Fine, thank you!”
“Judge…” the DA said, addressing the bench, “I have no more questions.”
The Judge turns to Chuck and says: “Mr. Fulghum, now is the time you get to ask the patrolman questions if you like. This is what we call ‘cross examination.’ Would you like to ask him some questions?”
Chuck thought a minute. “Yes sir, I think I would like to ask two questions if it’s ok.”
The judge nods to the DA and then back to Chuck. “Yes, well you go right ahead” he says.
A speeding ticket, in a ball, airborne
So Chuck, with his speeding ticket in his hand, stands up and looks around the crowded room. All the fat men sweating. The ladies fanning themselves. The room falls completely silent as he turns to fix his stare on the cop and—pointing to his raised hand—crumples the ticket into a ball.
“Can you see this here?” he says hlding up the balled-up speeding ticket. The cops eyes go wide. What is this guy DOING?
The cop nervously looks over at the judge who nods to him “You have to answer that.”
The cop turns back to Chuck and says, “Yes sir, I see that.”
A pause. Chuck holds up the balled up speeding citation. All eyes on him in the silent court room. Then, at that precise moment, Chuck hurls the balled-up speeding ticket across the room and right in the face of the cop. The room lets out a single gasp. Oooooooooh!!!!
And before anyone can react in any other way at all, Chuck, at the top of his voice says.. “Well now, how fast you estimate THAT was?”
Boom! The room erupts into immediate laughter. The cop is totally freaking out and the judge who now is banging his gavel (yes a gavel) loudly on his bench, tells everyone to be quiet “or I’ll clear the courtroom!”
The laughter continues unabated. Chuck looks around the raucous room. The men smile and nod at him. The ladies stop fanning and bat their eyes. He has won them.
The last words from the Judge: “Not guilty.”