Something Is Rotten in Fettig
Before completing Something Is Rotten, Jere Krakoff was a civil rights attorney. He practiced with the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, D.C., the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Mississippi, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project headquartered in Philadelphia. The novel was inspired by people, places and events he observed while litigating and a lifetime of witnessing some of the best and worst of the human condition.
In his law practice, he encountered squalid prison conditions like those depicted in the novel’s Purgatory House of Detention, biased judges like Wolfgang Stifel, narcissistic lawyers like Umberto Malatesta, feckless public defenders like Felix I. Bleifus, and pompous expert witnesses like Hippolyte Thwaite.
Something Is Rotten in Fettig is a satirical novel about the criminal justice system of a fictitious Republic. It depicts the prosecution of Leopold Plotkin, a middle-aged kosher butcher with a pathological aversion to conflict. At his domineering father’s behest, Plotkin does something that propels him into conflict with every branch of government. When he refuses (at his father’s insistence) to undo what he did, Prosecutor General Umberto Malatesta (an official who is short on ethics but long on bombast) obtains an indictment from a Secret Blind Jury; Plotkin is arrested by the National Constabulary and imprisoned in the notorious Purgatory House of Detention to await trial; the butcher is tried before an unwavering pro-prosecution judge and a feckless jury of his peers; he is represented by a reclusive attorney who has never been in a courtroom; his only witness is a resident of the Warehouse For the Purportedly Insane; and everybody (including Plotkin) has little doubt that he will be convicted. Among other targets lampooned in the novel are judges, juries, public defenders, prison administrators, and expert witnesses. Through trial-related vignettes, the book comically illuminates factors that sometimes render the justice system less than just
Leopold Plotkin, the infamous kosher butcher charged with “heinous crimes” against the Republic, fidgeted anxiously at the Accused’s Table while waiting for his trial to begin. As he scanned the crowded room where the long-anticipated drama would soon unfold, his body rebelled. Rivulets of sweat cascaded from his chaotic thicket of hair onto his forehead. His right eyelid involuntarily closed and refused to reopen. Both hands shook uncontrollably.
The meat merchant wasn’t alarmed by the aberrations. He had known since early childhood that a pathological aversion to conflict caused his body to react in abnormal ways when facing imminent hostilities. Sometimes the abnormalities took the form of situational blindness or transient hearing loss. Other times they consisted of shallow breathing, pseudo arrhythmia, or infantile drooling. However manifested, the symptoms typically disappeared within a few hours of onset and didn’t return during the same conflict.
Bernard Talisman, a prominent attorney who was representing Leopold Plotkin in the Low Court of Criminal Transgressions pro bono, was troubled by his client’s deterioration. He feared that the Jury would interpret the phenomenon as evidence of a guilty state of mind. In an effort to avoid that possibility, Talisman leaned into Plotkin’s ear and advised the angst-ridden pariah to swab the sweat, shutter the functioning eyelid, and hide his hands under the Table. Grateful that his lawyer was taking an active interest in his case, despite not receiving a fee for his services, the butcher thanked Talisman for the advice and immediately complied.
Even with implementation of the recommended remedial measures, Talisman expected Plotkin to be convicted. Virtually every rational adult in the Republic shared that expectation.
In the days leading to trial, there had been subtle signs of growing pessimism within the butcher’s small circle of supporters. Plotkin’s parents had packed his few personal possessions in anticipation of his consignment to a penitentiary. His uncles had promised to visit him in prison every third weekend if they weren’t experiencing florid hallucinations. The Monthly Contrarian, a rarely read anti-authority journal that considered Plotkin a hero to the cause, had declared in a front page editorial: “Regrettably, there is no realistic possibility of an acquittal for this courageous little man who stood up to the powers that be despite knowing it was a futile gesture that would end badly for him.”
While Plotkin continued his anxious wait for the trial to begin, Prosecutor General Umberto Malatesta calmly conferred at the Prosecution’s Table with a cabal of minions. The career bureaucrat was poised to deliver the government’s Opening Rant, a trenchant itemization of why Plotkin deserved to be convicted and removed from society. Malatesta was a practicing narcissist with limited litigation skills. As a result, he craved the limelight but was wary of making a fool of himself. Balancing the pros and cons, he only tried cases that captured intense public attention, were likely to enhance his reputation, and seemed impossible to lose. Plotkin’s was such a case.
Consistent with standard operating procedure, the minions had prepared the Rant and all questions Malatesta would pose to witnesses. They had also hosted a series of pretrial dress rehearsals to polish his delivery. Although the performances were uniformly uninspiring, the minions felt they were sufficient to secure a conviction. To feed Malatesta’s narcissism, they routinely complimented him for parroting their scripts brilliantly. Lacking objectivity, he accepted the lies as the truth.
A gavel pounded against the Great Bench, a five-tiered oak structure occupied by Justice Wolfgang Stifel and a cadre of low-level functionaries. Because the Bench stood at the center of the Courtroom, all sectors of the tribunal heard the thuds. The sounds prompted a chain reaction. Anticipatory murmurs lapped through the Spectator Pews. Reporters stirred in the Journalist Cubicle. Backs arched in the Jury Stall. Umberto Malatesta cleared his throat at the Prosecution’s Table. Leopold Plotkin sagged at the Accused’s Table. Bernard Talisman pursed his lips at Plotkin’s side.
A Bailiff trundled into the Courtroom Well to announce the start of the trial. As rehearsed, Malatesta sprang from his chair and repositioned his litigation wig to a more belligerent location on his head. Looking appropriately ominous, the beetle-browed prosecutor lifted his trial robe off the floor and crossed the grey marble expanse with long theatrical strides before coming to rest at the base of the Great Bench. He craned his neck toward the gilded ceiling to meet the hooded eyes of Justice Stifel who hovered thirty feet above him on the top tier. “May it please the Court,” Malatesta intoned confidently while stroking his moustache. “The Prosecution is ready to rant.”
The diminutive judge, who was too short to otherwise be seen from most parts of the Courtroom, stood on a stool to increase his height. A vague smile embroidered Stifel’s heavily wrinkled face. The limited sign of pleasure reflected ambivalence over the circumstances he found himself in. On one hand, he was elated that The Republic against Plotkin, one of the most important trials in his lifetime, was being presented in his domain. Having occupied the Bench for nearly four undistinguished decades, Stifel envisioned the spectacle as an opportunity to cement his legacy as a pro-prosecution zealot, with few ethical constraints, who worked hand-in-glove with the Government to elicit guilty verdicts. On the other hand, he was disappointed that Plotkin had insisted on a jury trial, a decision that robbed him of the honor of being known as the jurist who convicted the pariah. With an affection reserved for prosecutors, Stifel told Umberto Malatesta that the Court was “extremely pleased to have the Republic’s esteemed representative in the Courtroom” and authorized him to proceed with zeal in laying-out the government’s case.
Feigning respect for the little respected official, Malatesta genuflected in the Justice’s general direction. After performing the charade, he waited for Stifel to dismount the stool, ease into the Judicial Chair, and disappear from sight. He then bounded to the Jury Stall to romance the seven men who had been selected to determine Plotkin’s fate. Strategically positioned only inches from the septet, Malatesta opened his mouth and, in a counterfeit baritone suggesting gravitas, asked, “Who or, more accurately, what is Leopold Plotkin?”
The question’s pedantic delivery mesmerized the Jurors. Eager to learn more about the despised butcher than had been luridly reported in newspapers, they leaned forward in their chairs, mouths agape, eyes bulging, brows furrowed, ears aimed at the prosecutor.