One of my classmates in law school was a blond, blue-eyed, handsome Italian named Frankie Vita, whose wide grin disclosed a chipped front tooth, which he declined to have capped because it was "part of his persona". Frankie was a fair student, but expressed himself with the vocabulary of a tank commander trained by General George Patton in World War II. He was brought up in Boston's North End where the "Mafia" had its headquarters, and was generally a rough, tough, but likeable guy. We, his classmates, were somewhat discomfited to learn that Frankie had decided to become a trial lawyer, since we were convinced that his language habits would surely land him in contempt of court, if not in jail. We sort of took turns trying to discipline Frankie into cleaning up his act, although I confess that - due in part to my whirligig schedule - my contribution to this rehabilitative effort was not great.
One rainy afternoon in April, 1960, as law school graduation was approaching, I was trudging along Hanover Street - the main drag in the North End - looking for an elusive witness to an automobile accident. Suddenly I heard a hoarsely whispered "Lee!" in the corner of my ear, and turned to see a smiling Frankie Vita beckoning me into a flower shop, holding open its entrance door. Grateful for an excuse to get out of the drizzle, I went in. Frankie led me directly through the floral displays through a solid looking door into the back room, where a “barbut” game was in progress, with cash in piles all over the game table. He walked me over to two swarthy youths about my own age, each of whom was wearing a gray snap-brim fedora and a navy blue raincoat. Under the left armpit of each was - plainly visible in their shoulder holsters - the butt of a Colt .45 automatic pistol, G.I. standard issue in World War II, and plentiful in the streets in the fifties.
"Hey Lee," said Frankie with a verbal swagger, "you wanna meet Nick and Vito here, they're shooters from Providence, work for Raymond!" The shooters shook hands. The reference was to Raymond Patriarca, then alleged to be the "Don" of the New England Family of La Cosa Nostra. "Lee here is the smart guy in our school," he went on. "Never comes to class, beats everybody in the tests. He's a good guy, trying to help me to talk normal, not like youse people. I gotta do good in court, y 'know, in case one of youse ever gets fingered, so I can get youse off, get me?" The "shooters" nodded somberly, but showed no signs of concern about being caught, or banking on Frankie to extricate them from the jaws of the law if they were.
Frankie graduated, passed the bar, and prepared himself to handle the "big case". He also had a fair grasp on his errant dialect, and was able to speak several sentences in a row without resorting to an expletive. But instead of a big case, his first venture into a courtroom was prompted by a high school friend who had no fee to pay, and who was accused of possessing a marijuana cigarette. The fact was, this culprit was toking up on a short roach on a snowy day in March, 1961, when the cops turned a corner unexpectedly and spotted him. Acting quickly, he threw the roach onto a snow bank, hoping to distance himself from it. Alas, the "gendarmerie" were too quick; one of them retrieved the marijuana stub and secured it as evidence. The smoker was led away to the hoosegow in Charlestown, a close suburb of Boston. Charlestown was then a rather grubby community, a haven to longshoremen, many of whose nightly antics were widely known to be felonious. The culprit called upon his good friend and classmate, Frankie Vita, to represent him. Frankie had only the most gloomy advice to offer: "I'll go to court with you, but be ready to go off to the can. The judges think this weed stuff is serious s--t, and if you ain't a college boy, you don't get no probation. I'll make some kind of pitch, but it ain't going to help."
Never at a loss for imagination, Frankie began to fashion a novel defense. Bear in mind that this pesky arrest occurred before the notion of suppressing evidence which was the product of an illegal search and seizure was imposed upon the states by the United States Supreme Court in the landmark case of Mapp v. Ohio, in 1962. In Massachusetts, the cops could break down the door of your home with no warrant at all, and use whatever they found in it to convict you. Your only remedy was to sue the cops for trespass, usually from behind bars. This was the legal atmosphere in which Frankie dreamed up the notion that the marijuana roach attributed to his client had been snatched from a snowbank which was - for purposes of the case at least - the client's snowbank, and that the act of retrieving from it the contraband which the client had thrown there was an impermissible encroachment on personal privacy. The fact that the snowbank was piled up on the edge of a public sidewalk, and the added fact that the client had almost certainly abandoned his property interest in the roach by discarding it in a public place, did not dissuade our newborn legal hero, questing for his first triumph.
He presented this argument to the Charlestown District Court Judge, and pretty much managed to keep a straight face while doing so. The prosecuting officers were bemused by such an extraordinary approach, and did their best to repress a guffaw as Frankie soared through his legal excursion. What Frankie didn't know was that this particular judge was a kindly man, who felt that novice lawyers should always win their first court case, as a boost to self-confidence. When Frankie had finished, the prosecuting Sergeant did not respond, having caught a wink from the bench. The judge frowned thoughtfully for a few moments, and said: "An interesting theory. I don't think I've ever heard that argument before. It's getting on, and there may be more snow, making the roads bad in this afternoon traffic. Why don't you come back with your client at ten in the morning, Mr. Vita, and I'll have a decision on your motion." The client - who had succeeded in posting bail- was delighted at the prospect of being afforded yet one more night to get stoned and live the good life.
"Don't get your hopes up", growled Frankie. "He's just trying to make me look good. Probably thinks you paid me for this case. I never heard such bullshit in my life as I handed him there, and he knows it. Tomorrow the hammer comes down. See you at ten." At a few minutes past ten the judge took the bench, and called Frankie's case. "After the most careful thought and reflection," he intoned solemnly, unable to repress a broad smile, "and while cautioning the bar not to infer that some precedent has been set which might be useful in future cases, I am impressed by the novelty and resourcefulness of Mr. Vita's presentation; to the point where, as it were, I have some reasonable doubt as to the propriety of this particular search and seizure. As a result, I am going to exclude the evidence and dismiss the charge."
Frankie was, to put it mildly, absolutely stunned. His jaw fell open agape, as if his chin had been welded to his clavicle. He uttered no sound. It was as if his mind had been suddenly frozen in place. After a few seconds of silence, the judge chided Frankie lightly. "Come now, Mr. Vita," he began, "I take it you are in accord with the court's ruling ... "
Frankie snapped back to reality, stripped in the circumstances of all the polished verbal veneer with which his classmates had tried so hard to reform his dialect. "Oh yes, your honor, you f-----n'-A, your honor, you done the right thing here!" No one present got the impression that Frankie had the slightest notion of the length and breadth of his transgression, and I suspect it was only later that it dawned on him that if he hoped for a future as Boston's Clarence Darrow, his speaking skills would require a bit of additional "spiffing up."