Private investigators Ray Infantino and Tania Kong take on the case of Sam Langford, framed for a murder committed by a crime boss at the height of his powers.
But a decade later, Boston has changed. The old ethnic tribes have weakened. As the PIs range across the city, witnesses remember the past in dangerous ways. The gangsters know that, in the new Boston, vulnerable witnesses they manipulated years ago are shaky. Old bones will not stay buried forever.
As the gang sabotages the investigation, will Ray and Tania solve the case in time to save an innocent man?
A SYSTEM OF JUSTICE
Two burly guards from the sheriff’s department walked Sam Langford to the van. He noticed a newspaper wedged in a railing—his name jumped off the page in bold print: Jury to Decide Langford’s Fate In Waterfront Slaying. The presumption of innocence was a joke. You took the guilt shower no matter what the jury decided. He thought of his mother then, and the old ladies like her, reading the headline as they sipped their morning coffee across the city. He was innocent. But they would hate him forever.
A guard shoved Langford’s head below the roofline. He sat down in the cargo section, the only prisoner today. The guard secured him to a bar that ran the length of the floor, the chain rattling an icy tune. The van squealed off.
Langford’s head felt so light it could drift right off his shoulders. The van lurched, and he slid on the cold metal bench. The driver bumped the van into some potholes. Langford dug his heels into the floor. This was a guard-approved amusement ride, bouncing felon maggots off good ‘ol American steel. Sam had observed this man that morning. Something about his face was troubling. Sheriffs, guards, cops—most of them were okay. They didn’t bother him because he didn’t bother them. But cop work attracted certain men who hid their true selves. Men with a vicious streak that could turn an average day into a private torture chamber. These men were cancers to be avoided. Average days were what he wanted in jail. No violent breaks in the tedium.
The van careened on and stopped at a loading dock of the hulking courthouse, which jutted in the sky like a pale granite finger accusing the heavens. The last day of trial. Outside, Langford saw TV news vans and raised satellite dishes, the reporters being primped and padded for the live shot. The rear doors opened and the guard’s shaved skull appeared in silhouette. He tensed as the guard grabbed his arm and pulled him out. The guard wore a thin smile. “We’ll take the smooth road back. Just for you,” he muttered.
A clutch of photographers hovered behind a wall above the dock. Langford looked up at the blue sky, as he always did, focusing on breathing deeply. He would never assist, not for a minute, in his own degradation. He was innocent. He would not cooperate. Let them run their little circus, the cameras, the shouted questions, boom microphones drooped over his head to pick up a stray utterance. He leveled his jaw and looked past them. He knew he had no chance with them.
The guards walked him inside the courthouse and to an elevator. The chains clanked as they swung with his movement. They took the elevator to the eight floor where a court officer escorted the group into a hallway. Langford pulled his body erect toward the ceiling, as high as he could get. He intended to walk in the courtroom like some ancient Indian chieftain, unbowed. He was innocent and that sheer fact gave him some steel, yes it did.
The door opened and he stepped inside the courtroom. The gallery looked packed full, as usual. Cameras clicked. Low voices in the crowd hissed venom. “Death sentence is too good for you, asshole,” whispered one. He whispered a bit too loudly. A court officer wasted no time, hustling over and guiding the man to the exit.
Langford walked ahead, keeping his dark eyes focused. His family might watch this someday. Some ragged old news clip showing their son’s dark history. He struggled to keep the light burning behind his eyes. Something true, something eternal might show through. At least he hoped so. He had told his lawyer there would be no last-minute plea deal; he was innocent, and that was it.
As he walked, he felt the eyes of the crowd pick over him, watching for some involuntary tic that would betray his thoughts. But fear roiled his belly. He was afraid, no doubt. He knew the old saying that convicted murderers sat at the head table in the twisted hierarchy of a prison. But the fact remained—every prisoner walked next to a specter of sudden violence. He desperately wanted to avoid prison.
Keys rattled in the high-ceilinged courtroom as the officers unchained him. He rubbed his wrists and then sat down at the defense table. His defense lawyer, George Sterling, took the seat next to him. He was dressed in a dark blue suit with a bright orange-yellow tie. The color seemed garish for the occasion.
“How you doing, Sam?”
“Hopeful. But ready for the worst.”
Sterling grabbed his hand and shook it firmly. But his eyes betrayed him. Langford got a sense even his lawyer felt a catastrophe was coming.
The mother of the dead woman sat one row away from his own mother. Even here, mothers bore the greatest pain. Both women stared at him. Langford nodded to his mother as she mouthed the words, “I love you”. He smiled briefly. He glanced at the mother of the dead girl but looked away. Her eyes blazed with hatred and pain. He wanted to say something. But the odds were impossible. The reporters would misconstrue any gesture; the court officers might claim he threatened her. He saw no way out. Even a basic act of human kindness became muddled in a courtroom.
A court officer yelled, “All rise.” The whispers died down, and the gallery rose. The judge came in from chambers in a black-robed flurry. The lawyers went to sidebar, that curious phenomenon where they gather and whisper at the judge’s bench like kids in detention. Then the judge signaled the sidebar was over and told the court officer to bring in the jury. The jurors walked to the jury box, every one of them fixed with a blank look on their faces. None of them met his eyes. One juror eventually looked over at him. He tried to gauge his fate in her flat eyes, the set of her face. But there was nothing to see.
As the judge and lawyers spoke, the lightheadedness left him. Everything came into focus. Langford watched the foreperson hand a slip of paper to a court officer. She took a few steps and handed the paper to the judge. The judge pushed gray hairs off her forehead, examined the paper and placed it on her desk. A silence descended. Shuffles of feet, small muted coughs. People waited for a meteor to hit the earth. The clerk read the docket number into the record and the judge looked over to the foreperson, a woman with long dark hair and glasses. “On indictment 2001183 charging the defendant Samuel Langford with murder, what say you madame foreperson, is the defendant not guilty or guilty of murder in the first degree?”
“We find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree.”
To Langford, the words seemed unreal, from a world away. A mist slid over his eyes. Gasps of joy, cries of surprise. A few spectators began clapping. The judge banged the gavel. Someone sobbed behind him, and this sound he knew; his mother was crying now openly. His body petrified. He couldn’t turn around.
Sterling put one hand on his shoulder, which snapped him back. The gesture irritated him. He didn’t want to be touched. Sterling’s junior assistant cupped his hand over his mouth. Sterling said something about the evidence, they would file an appeal. Langford stared at him. The reality of his new life began to emerge.
The process moved quickly, the ending like all good endings—neat, nothing overdone, but nothing left to wonder about either. Court officers shackled him again and stood clasping his arms. The judge thanked the jury for their service. Langford felt overwhelmed by absurdity—they were being thanked for sending an innocent man to prison. The gulf between the truth and what was happening made him feel sick; they believed he had killed the poor woman. The judge told the lawyers to prepare for sentencing in a week. A guard pushed him through a door to the right and he could hear muffled sounds, people calling his name, as if the voices came through a dense fog over a distance. His head, floating, floating beyond the real.
It was over.
Down the long corridor they moved him, toward the rear lot and the prisoner’s dock. A flock of reporters circled the van. “Any comment, Mr. Langford?” “Mr. Langford, will you appeal this verdict?” “Do you want to say something to the family of the victim?” Then a hand pushed down on the back of his head and he stooped inside the van. The guard chained him to the floor. There was that slight smile on his lips.
The engine shot to life. Langford waited for the door to close. Sludge ran through his veins. He closed his eyes and let despair surge through his heart.
15 years later
In a corner at the Sanchez Boxing Gym in the South End, Ray Infantino braced his lean frame, fired a jab, threw a left hook off the jab and smashed an overhand right. The heavy bag jerked on the chain like a drunken tourist caught out late in the wrong part of town. He moved around the heavy bag, feet sliding, not hopping. He threw another right cross and then switched stances, the right foot in the lead. He hooked a low right followed by an overhead left. His father showed him that move when he was a kid. He stopped once the bell rang for the end of the round. Sweat poured off his toned physique.
He pulled off the gloves to tighten his hand wraps. He wrapped his hands the way his father had taught: loop the thumb and then through the fingers, making the fist a steel ball. It pissed him off when he saw other fighters not wrapping between the fingers, a lack of finesse he found appalling.
There was action all over the gym—sparring in the three rings, prospects putting in their bag work, trainers barking out instructions. Two young men gathered nearby and watched him. They were new. Ray had never seen them before. After he finished his workout, one of them ventured toward him.
“You fight pretty good.”
“Hope I’m good as you when I’m that old.”
Ray whipped a fist toward the guy and stopped an inch from his face. The guy’s mouth gaped. His friend broke out laughing. Ray walked away and pointed at the man. “Show some respect when you come in here,” he said. “Forty ain’t old.”
He laughed and headed to the showers. The last few days were a rare respite from the grind. When his case involving a missing woman in the San Francisco underworld hit the news, his business boomed. He was a name now. That’s how it worked in the legal business. When you were newsworthy, clients deemed it safe to pay large retainers up front, and he could decline work he didn’t want. He still kept his black hair long in back and kept lean and fit, preserving illusions of youth, but he knew his time in this business was closer to the end than the beginning. By the end of the case in San Francisco, he had come to accept what happened. His old life was gone forever. His relationship with Dominique did not seem like it would survive. But the haunted rims below his eyes faded and he felt reinvigorated, ready for new challenges.
He headed out for a coffee at a cafe across the street. Last year, his doctor advised him he should cut down, but he felt it was a minor vice. Not healthy to deny the small things that make life worth living. He took a seat in the window. He appreciated his new place in the South End. Long a home to Latino and black families, the 1990s brought an influx of new residents like him to the old brownstones—downtown office workers, architects, gay couples—looking for the rich canvas of city living. Block by block, cafes and restaurants were renovated, old wood paneling stripped and refurbished, the construction boom rolling out toward Massachusetts Avenue. He enjoyed walking the uneven brick sidewalks and coming upon vestiges of the old neighborhood: a bookstore packed with two floors of hardcovers in an old brownstone, the painted letters on a brick wall of the long closed Sahara restaurant, hollyhocks that bloomed from a tucked away corner.
His cell phone rang and he saw the call forwarded from his office. He remembered that his receptionist Sheri had taken the day off.
“Ray Infantino Agency, how can I help you?”
“Hi, this is Dan Stone. I’m a defense lawyer here in Boston. I got your name from a lawyer I met at a bar event—you came highly recommended. Wondering if you might be able to help me on an old murder case. I’m going to see a new client, Sam Langford. Not sure if you heard about the case, it began over fifteen years ago.”
“I don’t remember it.”
“Langford’s case was high profile at the time. A violent rape-murder on the waterfront. The trial brought out the worst: witnesses with serious drug addictions, rogue cops. People thought Langford looked like the cleanest guy in the courthouse. But the jury still convicted. There was a dead girl. Someone needed to pay. Langford was easy. Not necessarily the right guy, but he was the available target.”
Ray was used to this nonsense from defense lawyers. No one was guilty in their world. Still, he recalled now that he had heard something of Stone: bright guy, a plugger in the courtroom, well prepared rather than depending on flashy trial antics.
“I’m going to see him this week and want to reach out to see if you would come with me. Schedule permitting. We have learned a few things, and he says he wants to talk over the next steps. I believe he is innocent, Ray. He’s been trying for close to fifteen years to prove it. You know the standard in these cases. Very high bar.”
“Cops are allowed a lot of leeway to be wrong.”
“Right. We have to show intent, or at least recklessness, when it comes to police misconduct. If we can uncover new evidence, I would plan on filing a motion for a new trial within a year.”
Stone went blabbing on about the legal issues. “So what do you think?
He had time to take it on. “Is this a private case?”
Stone hesitated. “No. I’m appointed by the public defender’s office.”
“Impossible odds and crappy pay. How can I resist?”
Stone laughed. “Okay then. I know this is real short notice, but any chance you’re free this afternoon?”
Ray checked his schedule. “That’s fine. Where’s he held?”
“Walpole. There was an incident at the max so they moved him there.”
“I’ll meet you in the lobby at 1:00 PM.”
Ray hung up the phone and stood up, gazing out the window at the copper rooftops. The odds were terrible in such cases. He thought back to his father Leo and how they had destroyed him. He decided that the next time there was an uneven fight, he would ensure the little guy had a weapon.
Excerpt from The Burden of Innocence by John Nardizzi. Copyright 2021 by John Nardizzi. Reproduced with permission from John Nardizzi. All rights reserved.
John Nardizzi is writer and investigator. His work on innocence cases led to the exoneration Gary Cifizzari and James Watson, as well as million dollar settlements for clients Dennis Maher and the estate of Kenneth Waters, whose story was featured in the film Conviction.
His crime novels won praise for crackling dialogue and pithy observations of detective work. He speaks and writes about investigations in numerous settings, including World Association of Detectives, Lawyers Weekly, Pursuit Magazine and PI Magazine. Prior to his PI career, he failed to hold any restaurant job for longer than a week. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts.