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You've Been Served

by Bruce Cormicle
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philippe1.jpgDouble-dipped Justice at Philippe's

If you are a criminal defense attorney as I am defending cases in downtown Los Angeles, you will eventually find your way to the tangled skein of ceiling fans, neon soft drink signs, and sawdust floors of a restaurant called “Philippe - The Original The Home of the French dip sandwich Since 1918" in nearby Chinatown. This restaurant and the sandwiches contained within played a central role in defending my first felony trial which took place in 1987.

In that case, my client was twenty years old and stood no more than 5' 4" weighing 110 lbs. It wouldn’t have hurt him to eat a sandwich himself. He had just been released from prison after serving time for burglary. He was told by his parole officer to obey all laws, don’t possess a gun, and stay away from gang members. He did very well in following those directions for the next 24 hours.

philippe_night.jpg However, after midnight, a cop said he was driving by in a patrol car when he saw my client holding a 9 mm handgun while talking to a bunch of gang members outside a convenience store in one of the most dangerous sections of the city. My client saw the cop and let the gun drop from his hand. It landed at his feet. The cop put handcuffs on my client and picked up the loaded gun as evidence. My client was taken to jail and charged with the crime of being a felon in possession of a gun.

His jury trial took place on three consecutive nights from 5 pm to 9 pm in the Criminal Courts Building in downtown on Temple Street. (This felony night court was a temporary project that the county had created in 1987 to handle the overflow of criminal cases that swamped the court system.) The district attorney gave me an offer of two years in state prison if my client admitted guilt and saved the state the expense of a jury trial. “I’m innocent!” he said and refused the offer.

The judge for the trial was one of the angriest judges to ever put on a robe - the judge who never smiled. It didn’t help that “Judge Never Smile” had just broken his leg which was in a cast propped up in a chair. The more pain he felt, the angrier he got. It also didn’t help that the DA had never lost a case and my client had never won one.

Each day before trial, I nervously prepared my questions for the witnesses while enthusiastically eating a sandwich at Philippe’s. One day turkey, the next ham, and then lamb. The meat at Philippe’s was generously stuffed into a sliced french roll dipped in meat juice, dripping all over the place. Clothes, briefcase, paperwork. The juice had no favorites. I was glad I was going into a courtroom and not a dog kennel.

But no matter how well I ate, there was still the problem of the evidence. When the police witnesses testified, “Judge Never Smile” looked focused and wrote copious notes, nodding approvingly to the jurors. When I cross-examined the cop, “Judge Never Smile” coughed, hacked, wheezed, turned his back to the jury, and shuffled papers. Just when I thought he was finished he would then whirl his leg-cast onto the floor which was louder than a cymbal crash. I would stop my questioning during each of his interruptions. The jury wasn’t finding the judge’s antics amusing. It was also keeping them from dinner.

After hearing the cop testify convincingly, and believing he didn’t now have a chance at an acquittal, my client begged me to ask the court to give him that same two year deal he had previously refused. No way said “Judge Never Smile” who finally smiled. He wanted to give my client a lot more time in prison after the jury found him guilty. We had no choice but to begin our defense.

My star witness - named either Sketchy or Dodgy - from the group of gang members previously assembled, testified that my client did not at any point hold the gun, Sketchy/Dodgy himself did not at any point hold the gun, and no one since the beginning of time had ever held the gun. The loaded gun just happened to be at the feet of my client. “Judge Never Smile” didn’t smile at my witness’s testimony. He laughed.

The jury deliberated and quickly returned a verdict of Not Guilty which caused the judge to slam his leg-cast down off the chair and bleat in horror; the district attorney’s core to overheat and meltdown; and the knees of my young client to buckle from shock. I was hungry.

philippe2.jpg Three jurors remained behind after the trial in the hallway to talk about the case. They don’t have to but sometimes jurors do. I was under the lash of hunger and asked them join me at Philippe’s for a sandwich and glass of wine to celebrate and talk. The Original Pantry Cafe on Figueroa Street was about the only other late night downtown joint open in 1987 but the Pantry didn’t serve wine. The jurors were big fans of Philippe’s and gladly agreed to meet me there. My client remained behind in jail because of a parole violation. He would serve another month in custody and then be released. Again.

Over glasses of wine the jurors and I talked. Over French dipped-sandwiches spiced by the restaurant’s homemade hot mustard we talked. About the quality of wine there - above average. Plus you could get a cup of coffee for a dime. (Still can.) What about the coleslaw? A seemingly deadly amount of sugar in the coleslaw but who cared - it was great. And what exactly was it that made Philippe's hot mustard so - well - hot? The mustard seeds? The vinegar? The xanthan gum ingredient listed on the bottle? (And what exactly is a xanthan gum and can you possess it if you are a felon?)

What was better we discussed - the sliced french roll meat sandwich single-dipped or double-dipped au jus? I maintained that the nuance of single dip was superior. They were appalled. “Double dip is the whole point of Philippe’s!” The verdict of acquittal was almost taken back and deliberations reopened. These jurors were “foodies” before there were “foodies”.

I asked the jurors why they voted Not Guilty. I had assumed that it was my searing, captious cross-examination of the cop that had nearly caused the officer to take early retirement. Not so much they said. They just hated the judge.

I have a different theory for the acquittal. The accumulated drippings on my suit lapel from the au jus of my Philippe sandwiches must have transmitted an intoxicating, distracting, hypnotic aroma - distorting the evidence as it reached the jury. The scent of an acquittal.

philippe4.jpg Philippe’s is still as good as it ever was. Maybe even better. And my client never returned to jail after experiencing the sweet double-dip taste of Not Guilty. Nowadays, my questions to jurors during jury selection such as : “Have you, your friends, or relatives ever been victims of a crime?” is replaced by “Do you, your friends, or relatives ever watch the Food Network?”. It might seem a little off-base at first but it may mean the difference between whether my client grabs a French dip or goes to state prison. 

Philippe The Original
1001 N. Alameda St. Los Angeles CA. 90012
(213) 628-3781

  

Bruce Cormicle is an attorney, writer, and chef who works in Beverly Hills and recently started his own catering company called "You've Been Served". 

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