Among the enchantments of criminal law is its specialized vocabulary.
For example, a new potential client often feels the need to approach counsel with something less than a confession. Hence, the following locution: "I caught a case," used in much the same manner as a coughing office mate may report coming down with a cold.
Every so often, I can expect a call from an old client: "Yo, Pattis; I caught a case."
Of course, the presumption of innocence must be honored, so experienced lawyers never ask a potential client what they did to get arrested. The preferred convention is: "What are they saying you did?" It's them, mind you; it is always them.
Sometimes a friend turns state's witness. He becomes, to the defendant, a "rat" or a "snitch." Prosecutors might refer to the same person as a "cooperator."
Or take the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. How did he die? Most likely an overdose of "van therapy," a distant relation to "bullpen therapy," the thinly disguised manner in which officers "tune up" the noncompliant with plausible pushes, pulls, punches and, in the case of Mr. Gray, rapid turns, breaking and swerving of "meat wagons."
The public only sees what takes place on the record in criminal court. That can be interesting enough. But the most interesting comments are usually reserved for behind closed doors. That's where prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers alike sometimes refer to "public service killings," as in the murder of a person, usually a man, almost always a black man, with a long criminal record and pending criminal charges.
A defendant who pleads guilty to killing such a man gets less time "away" than someone who kills a "regular citizen."
People "do" time, unless it's a long sentence, then the time "does" them. It's a species of neo-Kantianism, reflecting the question the great philosopher once observed about the very concept of time: Are we in time, or is time in us? (Transcendental idealism, for those who have not acquired a taste for such things, is bizarre.)
So we're now entering a new era. We're told now, as though it were a revelation, that black lives matter. It is what another philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, might have called a "transvaluation of values," meaning old realities appear as new truths.
I was reminded of all this oddness of language reading a wonderful new book that made me cry: Jill Leovy's "Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America." It's the story of black-on-black murder in Los Angeles, reflected in the murder of a young man who was the son of a homicide detective.
The book won't startle seasoned hands in the criminal courts. It tells a depressing and common-enough tale: when a young black man kills another person of color, the world—the white world most of us live in—hardly takes note. In Los Angeles, young men are gunned down with stunning frequency. Most deaths don't even make the news.
Detectives in Los Angeles have developed a special name for it: ghettocide. (Just how the editors of this splendid book came to spell it with an "s" is bizarre. Where are the language cops when you needed them?)
Why the tears? Leovy gets it right. She knows the streets. She knows gangs. She knows murder, even though she's an outsider looking in. Her account of the suffering and rage of families was moving.
So if you're looking to catch a good read about murder in American, this is it.
'Nuf said. I got to go hustle up a fee listening to folks tell me about what others say they did.