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The Writer – Dennis Danziger

The Writer, Chapter 4: A Christmas Wish – by Dennis Danziger

December 23rd, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

The non-fiction story below
is part of a series written for WitnessLA by author and Venice High School teacher, Dennis Danziger.

The series is called The Writer.

It explores what happens when a really great, really decent, really talented kid you know is accused of doing something terrible.

Below you’ll find chapter 4: A Chistmas Wish for a Pro Bono Lawyer

(Chapter one and two and three are here.)

Dennis is a former TV writer, a memoirist, and the author of the very funny new novel, A Short History of a Tall Jew.

A Christmas Wish for A Pro Bono Lawyer

I grew up around lawyers, good ones, ethical ones, an uncle and three first cousins, the stars of our family. My father-in-law is a lawyer, a general practitioner, who for half a century has counseled sanity and compromise over all-out combat. My brother-in-law is a litigator turned law professor who can speak passionately about the law, literature and the Cleveland Browns with equal insight, subtlety and passion.

So, despite the frequent portraits drawn in film, television and literature of lawyers as thieves in Armani suits, I know most lawyers are tough, smart, and fight like hell for their clients. This is why I was disheartened when someone close to me needed his lawyer to come out swinging, but instead paid a pile of money to a criminal attorney who took a dive.

In my two decades teaching high school English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I’ve worked with kids of immense talent, but no one more talented as a writer than John Rodriguez, 19. But John will spend this Christmas as he did last year. In fact, he’ll spend the next 20 Christmases in state prison unless he can find a lawyer who will step forward and fight the excessive sentence he received one year ago, after one year of waiting inside a cell to receive it.

Neither John nor his family has money for such a legal battle, though he does spend time in the prison library trying to learn how to challenge his sentence.

As I said, before he was sentenced, John did have a lawyer. I’ll call him Attorney Doolittle. He charged John’s single mother, a waitress at a local diner near LAX, a $25,000 retainer, to defend her son. And he was paid.

The problem is, Mr. Doolittle did little lawyering, especially after the initial plea bargain discussion that started out with an offer of a sentence of 1 to 4 years suddenly ballooned to a life sentence. Instead of fighting for something more proportionate, Attorney Doolittle urged John to take the DA’s final offer, 22 years. Putting up a fight would have required Attorney Doolittle to mount a vigorous defense, and he knew there was no more money to collect. Of course, even if Attorney Doolittle had fought, he might have lost.

And Attorney Doolittle knows something about losing.

Just prior to defending John, due to an ethics violation, Attorney Doolittle lost his California law license for 30 days, his second such suspension. He said nothing to John or John’s mother about these black marks on his resume or about the fact that on the day of John’s arraignment in a Norwalk courthouse, he was barred from practicing law.

Knowing it was illegal for him to act on John’s behalf at the arraignment, Attorney Doolittle did so anyway.

That morning a concerned party, a lawyer who has spent his career defending the poor, attended court, and following the arraignment, met with the judge before whom he had argued many times. In chambers he presented documentation that proved Attorney Doolittle was practicing law on a suspended license; he hoped the judge would boot Doolittle off the case, return his fees, and that John’s mother could hire someone more competent, and more honest.

The judge did nothing. Evidently, like Attorney Doolittle, he didn’t think John mattered.

John was 17 years old at the time of his arrest for attempted murder.

Although John had never previously been charged with or convicted of a felony, he was nevertheless tried as an adult. His crime was a serious one.

According to John, he and his older brother decided to enjoy one last hurrah before his brother, who had enlisted in the army, reported for duty the coming Saturday. So the brothers headed to a bar for a few good-bye beers. Inside the bar, the brothers got into a scrap with two other patrons. Words, shoulder bumping, and drunken macho nonsense led the bouncer to boot all four of the guys into the parking lot. There his adversaries were joined by a group of their friends. John says this pack of guys, about a dozen, chased him and his brother across the parking and surrounded the Rodriguez Brothers’ car, trying to get inside to beat them.

There was a gun inside the car and John decided to grab it.

The bullet he fired—and according to him he fired it into the air—was meant to scare off the would-be attackers. But it instead it struck an innocent bystander in the shoulder, a young man standing by his car in the lot. After spending three nights in the hospital, the victim was released. He has physically recovered though a piece of the bullet could not be removed because it was lodged too close to his heart.

This is the way the episode went down as far as I know it from John’s mother. I have not been able to talk to John directly since his arrest.

It may be, of course, that my gifted writing student has concocted a piece of fiction to ease his conscience; it could even be that he has fired random shots from cars for years, and only this time was he caught. But John says that isn’t so, and that the videotape that shows him firing a shot—the videotape that is the heart of the DA’s evidence–does not capture what happened immediately prior to the shooting, does not reveal the mob of angry guys trying to beat him and his brother senseless. John admits to firing the gun, admits that the bullet he fired struck an innocent man. What frustrates him is that his side of the story, what led up to the shooting, was not caught on video.

I’ll never know the absolute truth.

What I do know is this: Everyone has a right to competent counsel and my gifted student, on the advice of what appears to have been incompetent counsel, took the plea offered. Twenty-two years.

I doubt Attorney Doolittle cares. After I wrote a letter to the court on behalf of John and asked if I could be of any further help, Attorney Doolittle did not return my calls. When I met Attorney Doolittle for the first and only time in a Norwalk Courthouse where John was to be arraigned, (that hearing was postponed), he brushed me off when I asked a few questions, and hurried to his car and to a hearing in Van Nuys.

Months later he called and asked if I would testify at trial on John’s behalf. I agreed to, but never heard from him again. He did not bother to call or have his secretary call and tell me that John took a plea and there would be no trial.

I would guess that the vast majority of people reading this are thinking something along the lines of, “Tough luck. Do something stupid like firing a gun from a car, live with the consequences.”

I understand that.

But what I can’t understand or accept is why the DA asked for a life sentence for a juvenile, with no priors. (At least no felony priors. John had been charged with misdemeanor vandalism at 12, but nothing since), for a crime that was not pre-meditated, for a crime in which no one was killed.

Obviously I don’t fully comprehend the laws of this land.

Still, Attorney Doolittle is paid to know those laws, and so is the Norwalk judge, and in this case they chose to ignore the law. That’s what’s been haunting me. As is the vision of another wasted life.

So for Christmas this year I thought I’d ask for a lawyer to step up, to write to me to offer to ask a few more questions. To look into the file which I have. I’d like someone to offer to read the People’s case against John Paul Rodriguez and to let me know if he or she thinks there’s any possibility for an appeal.

I hope I hear from you.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Those who wish to contract Dennis Danzigner may email WitnessLA and I will forward it on to him.

Posted in American voices, The Writer - Dennis Danziger | 2 Comments »

WitnessLA is Going on Vacation – 7/15 to 8/11

July 15th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Here’s the deal: this past year, I was supposed to be putting the finishing touches
on the first 2/3 of my next book, An American Family.

But what with teaching and blogging and other projects, somehow the book never made it to the front burner.

So from today, July 15, until Wednesday, August 11, I’m going to temporarily recalibrate my priorities.

I’m packing the dog, the cat, my laptop, and a large pile of very good books (some are physical books, many are audible versions loaded on to my iPod) and I am driving to West Glacier, Montana, to sit by the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and write.

I may post things intermittently along the way, —you know, strange interviews with people I encounter, photos of wandering grizzlies, random but impassioned book recommendations. I cannot say with what frequency though.

HOWEVER if something really essential happens in LA that motivates me to comment, I will do so.

So check in.

NOTE: Shortly after I get back, the first LA Justice Report (see below) will appear here.

Also, during those first days back from vacation, writer/teacher Dennis Dansiger will have the next chapter in the story of his talented student John Rodriguez who has been charged with attempted murder.

In the meantime, may your summer days be good ones.

Just for the record (for those who are madly into summer reading themselves), the first books I’ve got queued up on the iPod for the drive are (not necessarily in this order):

1. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Mitchell’s the literary IT guy this summer. And according to Dave Eggers, he really is that good. I feel it behooves me to find out if Eggers is right.

2. James Lee Burke’s The Glass Rainbow.

I’m a complete Burke fangirl. This book came out Tuesday. I downloaded it on Wednesday. (Happy now.)

3. Faithful Place by Tana French

French is something of a rising star in the mystery world. Her first two books were psychologically-nuanced, character-driven and pleasantly quirky, written in a dreamily literary prose style. Yet French is Irish, so all of the above is also torn and dark at the edges. I read her first two, In the Woods and The Likeness, and liked them a lot. I hear her third is the best of the three.

Burke and French seem like the perfect people to hang out with while driving north—with Mitchell up next, once I’m on the river.

Let me know what you’re reading this summer, if you’re in the mood.

Otherwise, I’ll see you in a few weeks. (And maybe a little in between.)

Posted in Life in general, THE LA JUSTICE REPORT, The Writer - Dennis Danziger | 9 Comments »

The Writer, Chapter 3 – by Dennis Danziger

March 8th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


Here’s the newest chapter in the tale
of Venice High School teacher, Dennis Danziger, and his student, John Rodriguez, the high school senior whom Danziger flagged as the best writer he had ever had in any of his LAUSD classes in all his years of teaching.

Danziger ought to know the difference. In addition to being a high school instructor, Dennis is a former TV writer, a memoirist, and the author of the very funny new novel, A Short History of a Tall Jew, Plus his wife, Amy Friedman, is a writer.

But as we learned in the last two chapters, now John Rodriguez, the good writer, seemingly good, sensitive kid, has been arrested for attempted murder.

And so, the story continues:

( Read the first two chapters here.)

The Writer: Chapter 3

I remember reading a line, perhaps the opening line in a novel. It went something like this: one gets justice in the afterlife; in this life you get the law. And sadly, you only get the law you can afford.

One would need a lot of money, six figures, a high six figure sum to effectively fight for two brothers who have both been charged with attempted murder. At least I think that’s what they were both charged with. I’m not really sure.

When I think about it, and much of the time I don’t want to think about it, I imagine that everything in John’s life right now seems to be a shade of bad. And grief. And terror.

Here is what I know of his situation. On April 5, 2009 John started the evening saying good-bye to his mom and he calls her six or seven hours later and tells her he won’t be home. For a long time.

As it happens, I know more about lock-up than you’d think. My wife, Amy, was married to a man in prison. In Canada. She had gone inside to write a series of articles about prison; she was a journalist in Kingston, Ontario at the time. Fell in love with an inmate. Doing 13-to-life. For murder. A drug deal gone bad. She encouraged me to stop fretting and to write John.

Which I did.

I asked him what I could do for him.

Write, correspond, let him know I’m there, and send him books. That’s what he wanted and it seemed easy enough. I figured I’d choose a care package of books from my shelf. Then I learned that California prisons and jails only allow books mailed directly from a book store. I was irritated. What if I wanted to order books that my book store didn’t carry? Village Books in the Palisades assured me they would send John any book I wanted. So that’s where I did my jail book shopping.

John wanted Stephen King and John Grisham. I sent him King’s Cujo and Grisham’s The Bleachers. Thick books, good page turner stuff. After they arrived he wrote, “I received your letter and the books. I’ve just finished reading Charm School, the Nelson DeMille novel. It was great. It had so much action and I was turning pages like a mad man. For awhile while I was reading I actually forgot where I was.”

I began sending him a box of paperback volumesvia Village Books every third Sunday. I wanted him to keep his mind active. Focused on writing, reading, something that was mental, positive. Something that would open up his world even while he sat in his cell.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in criminal justice, juvenile justice, The Writer - Dennis Danziger, writers and writing | No Comments »

The Writer, Chapter 2 – by Dennis Danziger

February 26th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


When we last left off, Venice High School teacher Dennis Danziger,
had just learned the reason his student–a kid named John who had a stupendous talent for writing—had been missing from school.

John had been arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Here’s Chapter Two.

(NOTE: Dennis Danziger’s very funny new novel, A Short History of a Tall Jew, has just been released. Check it out.)

“Attempted murder.”

Those were not the words I expected from Jorge. I had braced myself and imagined I would hear, “John got jumped.”

Or “John’s home got broken into.”

Or “John’s girlfriend broke up with him and he’s too depressed to crawl out of bed.”

I’ve taught for 17 years in the LAUSD system, and I’ve heard a wide variety of excuses, many of them shocked me:

“I was absent because My mom broke up with her boyfriend and he went crazy and broke everything in the house. I’ve been home for three days cleaning up.”

“Umm, I, uh, got picked up for carjacking over Christmas break
and it, uh, got a little rugged for me behind bars.”

“I’ve been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. That’s why I’m always twitching.”

(No, I am not making that last one up.)

Surprising excuses Upsetting excuses. But never attempted murder.

Jorge could provide no other details except that John and his brother were locked up in an LA County jail near Magic Mountain, not in a juvenile detention facility.

I knew John was six weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday at the time of his arrest. He must have been charged as an adult. I thought. Did they house underage boys with men if they had been charged as adults? I didn’t know.

Jorge said he hoped to visit John within the week.

After Jorge left, and I was again alone in my classroom, I thought about what I had learned and concluded that there must be a mistake. Attempted murder? No way.

I knew this kid. At least I thought I did. I’d certainly invested more time in him than any of the other 185 students on my roll sheet. Talent like this didn’t come around very often. Talent like this more than caught my attention, made me want to focus on it, nurture it, use the talent has a bridge to a better education and a better life.

Sure, there were other students whose talents were also off-the-charts. James, a self-described Rastafarian, who I taught at Crenshaw could turn anything into an instant rap.

Once, as an experiment, I asked James’ classmates to shout out words—any words appropriate for class—and I scribbled them quickly on the board. Then Kalfani, who sat next to James, put down the beat and in a flash, James created a rap interweaving every word on the board into an instant poem. It was stunning.

So was John’s writing. I could not bring myself to believe that John’s next piece of writing would be about life behind bars.

My next thought turned to his older brother, Damion. Recently John read a new essay to the class. In the essay he grows bored hanging out at home watching TV and so leaves the house and heads to the nearest Burger King for a cheeseburger. Along the way three African American teens drive by and one taunts him, “What you looking at?”

John senses trouble and ignores the other boy, but the car stops and the one guy jumps out. Fists fly.

“After a minute of this brawling we both jump back and take a breather,” he wrote. “I look towards the other two black teens heading towards me. Their faces say it all. They want to fight me.”

Before it can be three on one. John pulls out his cell phone, hits a number. The blows begin to reign down on him again. As he is being pummeled, he sees his brother “at the bottom of the hill, walking up.” Back up. The other teens glimpse the hard-eyed brother, stand up and sprint to their black Honda Civic and speed off.

As John’s essay ends, he is walking back into his house and feeling, for the first time, he writes, “I never thought I would sense brotherly love. Now I know what it means.”

After he read the essay in class, I asked if anyone cared to comment.

Karla raised her hand. “Johnny’s brother is my baby’s daddy.”


Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in criminal justice, juvenile justice, The Writer - Dennis Danziger, writers and writing | 12 Comments »

The Writer – by Dennis Danziger

February 12th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


As the spring unfolds, I’ll be introducing a number of new voices here at WitnessLA.

The first is writer and Venice High School English teacher, Dennis Danziger who, if you’ll remember, is the person who introduced us to the wonderful Nina Montoya.

Over the next few weeks, he will be telling a true story that began in his classroom.

It’s called The Writer.

It explores what happens when a really great, really decent, really talented kid you know is accused of doing something terrible.

Here is the first chapter.


At first, he was just another guy in my first period, 12th grade English class at Venice High School.

Not one of the guys who hides his face in his hood or sits so far in the back of the classroom, back near the windows, that he seems to be outside looking in . He wasn’t a goofball. Didn’t work the room, going from girl to girl trying to get their numbers so he could hook up with them later on. Wasn’t a stoner or a drinker who sat, then put his forehead on the desk and zoned out because he was on maybe two hours of sleep. Wasn’t a jock yakking about how great Kobe is or showing off the cleat marks from yesterday’s soccer practice. Or one of those perpetually tardy guys who slink in 25 minutes late carrying a Frappaccino as if it’s perfectly normal to come late because the line at Starbucks was long.

He was just another guy in my first period, 12th grade English class, Expository Composition.

What was different about John Rodriguez was that he volunteered to read what he wrote. Every day in class I give writing prompts. Random stuff that has nothing to do with what we’re studying. Most students are shy. They might go four or five weeks at a time without reading a word they’ve written. And I never call on anyone. So if a student reads his work work, it’s because he’s eager to share it.

John didn’t emote like a bad actor when he read. He didn’t look around as if expecting applause when he finished. But he responded to all the prompts seriously. And he read pieces of his work every day. He put himself out there, risking the judgment of his classmates. He seemed to care about school, about his education.

All of which makes any student automatically likable from a teacher’s perspective

The first essay I assigned was a 500-word job entitled, “Home.” Whatever one thought of as home, be it a bedroom, a street, a soccer field, or in a lover’s arms, write about it.

John turned in a story that begins like this:

It’s seven o’clock. I’m at home, bored. My brother Damien is sitting
next to me changing the channel on the television. I’m tired of watching
Family Guy. I feel my stomach growl. I look inside the fridge, there’s
nothing in it. Each row is like an apartment on a three story, abandoned

I thought, Whoa, “…like an apartment on a three story, abandoned building.” What 17 year old writes like this?

Not many that I’ve taught in my 17 years in the LAUSD. And I’ve taught some good ones at Crenshaw HS, Palisades HS, Venice HS, and at a summer UCLA high school extension program that attracted some of the most well-to-do students in the country.

After the home essay I began paying more attention to John and his writing.

After class one day I asked, “Hey John, what do you read?”

“I read the LA Times on Thursdays, the ones you bring in.”

“What do you read outside of school?”

No answer.

“For pleasure.”

He shook his head.

He didn’t read and he could write. Really write. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

For the past three years I’ve received a grant from PEN in the Classroom, an organization that promotes literacy in high schools. They pay a professional writer to come into a high school class, once a week for twelve weeks, to work on some aspect of writing. For my students, it’s personal essay.

The PiTC mentor is Amy Friedman, a syndicated columnist who’s written a children’s column called Tell Me a Story for the past 16 years.

Two weeks into the sessions with Amy, John started cranking out essays
. I read them and passed them along to Amy, who also happens to be my wife.

“I think John’s a savant,” Amy said. “I’ve never known anyone to write like this. Especially a teenager.”

“I’ve taught, what maybe 4,000 high school students?” I said. “And if John’s not the most talented one, then he’s one of the two or three best.”

The culmination of the PiTC program is that the essays are published in an anthology.

Amy and I were proud of this collection titled, “Thinking Out Loud.” That was John’s title. So was the cover art of a solid looking, but lone teen, whose face is obscured by a baseball cap. He sits, staring straight down, his hands folded together locked in prayer position. And attached to this guy’s shoulder, angel wings.

Inside the collection are 30 essays. Twenty-six of our student writers each penned one essay that made it into the book. John wrote five. And his five are the best five.

The book came out in March. All our students received a copy. Most students acted like it was no big deal, to break into print for the first time, to be published writers.

Then the next day a bunch of them would sheepishly approach me after class and ask if they could buy another copy. For their mom or a relative back home.

About that time I told John that since the PiTC project had ended and Amy would not be teaching the class anymore, that I was going to be his personal writing coach. That in addition to the class work I assigned, I was going to give him extra projects. I wanted to make sure he kept honing his craft.

I asked him if he had ever read anything by Gary Soto. He had not. I sent John to the library to check out a collection of Soto’s short stories. I guaranteed that he’d like the stories. Every California writer should be familiar with Soto’s writing. I said.

He didn’t resist the additional work. Instead he seemed to thrive at the challenge.

But a few weeks after we began the coaching arrangement, an odd thing happened. Odd and uncharacteristic. John quit coming to class.

Early April and he was a no-show. For days and days.

Finally after class one day I asked Jorge, who was either John’s friend or cousin or both, if he knew what happened to John.

“Can I close the door?” Jorge asked.


He did so.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“It’s not good,” he said.

“Just say it.

He looked at the floor. Then at me. His chin quivered.

“Just say it.”

“John’s been arrested.”


“Yes sir.”

“For what?” I asked.

Again Jorge looked at his shoes. Stared at them for several moments, then took a deep breath.

“Just say it.”

“Attempted murder.”


Note: Be sure to read Danziger’s recent column “Shut Up and Strike” at the Huffington Post.

Posted in Education, juvenile justice, The Writer - Dennis Danziger | 12 Comments »