Life of this small-town lawyer far from dull

Peter Elikann, The Daily Record Newswire

“Jake Dellahunt, Vineyard Lawyer (with an office on the Cape)”
By A.J. Cushner
Martin Sisters Publishing LLC (2012)
226 pages; $15.95

Former Boston attorney Jake Dellahunt has bad knees, tax liens that push him to request all lawyer fees in cash, an old alcohol problem that periodically surfaces, and a history of being a bad husband to his ex-wife and a bad father to the children he hasn’t seen in five years.

Essentially, he washes up on the shore of Martha’s Vineyard and, in an attempt to pick up the broken pieces of his shattered life, hangs a shingle over a rented office above a Vineyard Haven bookstore that, as part of the lease, promises to sell him books at half price.

In an episodic novel that reads almost as a short story collection based on a central figure, retired Massachusetts attorney and legal columnist A.J. Cushner’s “Jake Dellahunt, Vineyard Lawyer (with an office on the Cape)” skillfully portrays the resurrection of a down-on-his-luck attorney.

Yet, this legal procedural resists the easy tag of being a New England version of the legendary British barrister, Rumpole of the Bailey. Rumpole would lose cases from time to time, while protagonist Jake repeatedly scores victories through a series of unexpected plot twists.

Cushner does this against the backdrop of an island so vibrant that the terrain itself practically serves as one of the offbeat characters in the book. More important than his evocative descriptions of racing to the Edgartown courthouse against the milieu of the scrub pines, beach plums and sea grass, he depicts the nuances of what it’s like to conduct a small-town practice.

Here, whether someone is accused of killing an island dog or a fisherman is accused of harming his wife in a possible psychotic episode, Dellahunt has to be sensitive to the reality that the entire village seems, relentlessly, to weigh in and bear pressure on the local lawyer as residents tirelessly accost him in the coffee shop or on the street with their overheated opinions.
The result is that Dellahunt often finds himself torn by competing local forces attempting, in richly comedic overtones, to interject themselves into every court case.

For example, if he represents the local Native Americans from up-island in a land claim and loses, he’ll forever be blamed by them. Yet, if they win, the non-native homeowners who will lose their property without compensation will hate him forever.

Or, if he represents injured parties after a ferry accident, he has to weigh his zealous advocacy of his clients against the knowledge that blaming a popular respected local ferry captain for negligence could backfire against him in a huge way.

In every suit, some island native tips him off to insider information that can either make or break the case. It is helpful when one person informs him that a prosecutor dated a key witness, or when someone else informs him that opposing counsel boozed it up and retained the services of prostitutes along with the involved government law officials.

Conversely, it is, indeed, a negative when a woman becomes personally involved with Dellahunt only for the underhanded purpose of feeding him intentionally false information on one of his cases.

Cushner deftly illustrates the unique pitfalls and rewards of a small-town country practice. What makes it all the more compelling is that, unlike other legal procedurals, this one doesn’t focus just on criminal cases alone. Instead, it serves up a rich diversity from personal injury lawsuits to the land use case in which the white-hot controversy of building an actual bridge to this storybook island is fodder for legal gymnastics.

He fills the landscape with numerous stock characters of fiction, including an angry, resentful adolescent son and a former chief of the Wampanoag Tribal Council who now serves as his handyman, cook and driver, acting as a stereotypical wise and philosophical Tonto to his Kimosabe.

Yet there are a number of strengths to Cushner’s storytelling ability. The courtroom dialogue is crackling sharp. And though an attorney will frequently find the stories rife with legal implausibility, the average lay reader will delight in the plot devices and be oblivious to the inside baseball of practitioners in the fields of the law.

An attorney will wonder, though, about the mechanics, let alone the myriad of questionable ethical considerations, of Dellahunt telling a corrupt assistant DA to pay his own legal fee for his defense work out of cash from a discretionary prosecutor’s account so he won’t have to report his income to the IRS — or else he’ll turn in the prosecutor.

Or a judge who gives 48 hours’ notice for a complex competency hearing and, if the defense expert witness disappears and is unavailable, that’s too bad and the hearing proceeds regardless.

Also, what basis would there be for a prosecutor to request that no bail be granted to an elderly, lifelong resident, without any prior criminal record, who is accused of killing a dog?
Additionally, in almost every case, it is eventually revealed that the prosecutor, opposing counsel, law enforcement official or government functionary is corrupt and has committed some form of criminal activity while opposing the tenacious Jake Dellahunt.

The plethora of bad apples defies the law of averages.

One prosecutor who had a romantic relationship with a defense witness makes that witness unavailable by spiriting him out of state, and another prosecutor is unmasked as the actual criminal while, simultaneously, prosecuting one of Dellahunt’s innocent clients for his very own acts.

Perhaps, the most compelling of the tales is a flashback to the 1940s concerning a little-known period when German U-boats surreptitiously patrolled the New England coast.

Here, a longtime resident of the Vineyard, Henry Miller, who had previously been known as Heinrich Mueller before immigrating from Germany decades earlier, was accused on allegedly trumped-up charges of signaling one of the submarines off the coast of Chilmark and then murdering a police officer who stumbled upon him.

Authorities ran roughshod over his rights, and he was executed within three days of conviction. Dellahunt’s late mentor, old Judge Sam Matthews, who as a young lawyer had represented Mueller, extracted a promise from Dellahunt that he would attempt to clear the name of the ill-fated Vineyarder who had become the reviled scourge of the locals in 1942. The story has analogies to modern-day complaints about the lack of due process afforded alleged enemy combatants.

Cushner shines in the way he meticulously lays out the narrative as he first gives the strong evidence against Mueller. Then he presents the revelations in the tragic aftermath, which appear to prepare the groundwork for the restoration of Mueller’s reputation.

At the same time that the various clever plot devices play themselves out in this delineation of the life of a small-town lawyer, there is something else going on. It is the depiction of a former ne’er-do-well who also slowly, bit by bit, manages to bring about his own personal resurrection.


Peter Elikann is an author, CNN commentator and Boston-based criminal defense attorney.