Kevin Duffy died this past week, a victim of the Coronavirus.
I met him once, although I don’t think “met” is the correct word, since we weren’t introduced. I do think I identified myself at some point, the point where he expressed great annoyance at the essence of what I was doing.
And when I wrote “I identified myself,” I doubt I gave him my name because my name was utterly insignificant in those circumstances. What was significant was the name of the man I worked for, on behalf of whom I was facing the bad temper of Judge Kevin Duffy.
It is a fact of life that I encountered Kevin Duffy. I am hazier about the precise reason why I encountered him, but I’ll try to remember enough to explain it.
During the 1990s, I worked for lawyers, one of whom was Peter Neufeld.
In 1994, Peter took on the defense of a young Washington Heights man, Pedro Gil, who had, during a troubling police action, pushed a nearly empty bucket of dried spackling compound off the roof of his building toward what he saw was a sidewalk empty of people.
The bucket, however, obeying an implacable law of physics rather than human judgment, sailed out into the street, hitting and killing a young policeman.
The case was notorious to begin with and became even more so later for a number of reasons, one of which was the O.J. Simpson case — which is not relevant here, so forget it. For now.
Peter decided that Pedro, an unusually sympathetic defendant, should testify in the grand jury. It’s always a risky move but Pedro’s unvarying story, his remorse, his character – particularly how obvious it seemed that he had not intended to kill anyone – might convince the jury to charge him not with murder 2 but with second degree manslaughter, the charge Peter thought was just.
Pedro, part of one of New York’s many close-knit immigrant communities, was not comfortable speaking English. He testified before the grand jury in Spanish; an interpreter translated.
Peter knew some Spanish. His co-counsel, Roberto Campos-Marquetti, was bi-lingual. Roberto heard the interpreter translate a Spanish word meaning “push,” among other possibilities, into the English word “aim.” At a break and outside the grand jury room, Roberto told Peter that when Dominicans use that particular word, it means “push.”
You’re saying, “Who cares?” Here’s why you have to care: although the grand jurors, listening to the flow of testimony, were not necessarily picking up the distinction, they certainly were subliminally picking up an image of Pedro standing on that roof and – not pushing or tossing the bucket – “aiming” the bucket. Not only does “aim” convey harmful intent, it suggests that Pedro had a functional understanding of physics that most of us scientific numbskulls don’t have – and don’t even know we don’t have – along with the remarkable arm of, say, Patrick Mahomes, to pitch that bucket exactly where it landed.
The grand jury came in with a murder 2 charge.
Peter fought to get some sort of clarification, some relief from that word. He went as far as he could. I have a dim memory of motions filed, of court hearings, of an appeal, but to no avail.
And those motions, hearings, appeals somehow brought me to Kevin Duffy, because one of them — the last one, I assume — took me across the street to the federal courthouse and up to Duffy’s chambers.
At that time Duffy was presiding over the trial of Ramzi Yusef, one of the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, and had previously tried Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the Blind Sheik.
When I went into his chambers, expecting a simple act of handing the motion to one of the judge’s clerks and getting a “received” signature on my copy, Duffy came out of his office and glared at me. Who was I and what was I doing there?
Duffy was a very large man, maybe 6′ 3″ or 4″, and was broad without being fat. Could have been an offensive lineman. That is, he was an intimidating guy and I sensed he used that against smaller people. Like me. Although I was 5′ 7″, not small for a woman, I was small next to Duffy.
Moreover, he was apparently on his way back downstairs to the courtroom and was — as the obituary mentions — bracketed by a couple of U.S. Marshals. Three large men. And me.
I gave him the basics — what I was filing and for whom — but he growled at me, seemed to want me to explain myself. I wasn’t a lawyer and I’m sure he knew that. His was the act of a bully.
The whole incident was over in a minute or so. I left the chambers and pressed the down button on the elevator. I was joined by Judge Duffy and the brace of U.S. Marshals. All of us got into the same elevator. No one spoke. They got out before I did.
That’s it. And now he’s dead. I have no problem speaking ill of a dead person when he deserves it.