Forget Shorty, Get Marvin!

How novelist Elmore Leonard's friendship with Palm Beach County criminal judge Marvin Mounts led to a popular book and a new TV show

When the police found her -- "How they found her, I have no idea," Leonard deadpans -- they brought the body to Palm Beach International Airport, where the county coroner set it on a gurney behind a jet engine. The body stunk so bad, Leonard recounts, that the coroner wanted to make sure the smell would be forced downwind when he examined it for the crime report.

Additionally Mounts told Leonard about a man who had raped a chicken. He had pictures of the chicken. "So I asked him, 'How did you know the guy did it?'" Leonard says with a laugh. And Mounts responded, "'He had chicken feathers in his pubic hair.'"

From this Leonard hatched an idea: "I thought, 'Gee, he's a wonderful source. Why don't I do [write about] a judge -- but not a nice judge. It's got to be a judge with attitude. I want a judge who will take the sentencing guidelines all the way -- someone who refers to the electric chair as Old Sparky but is also a womanizer. So I made up a character."

Several times a week, Mounts heads to a local bar situated on the bottom floor of the Helen Wilkes Hotel in West Palm Beach. In Maximum Bob Leonard describes the bar and hotel this way: "The big kidney-shaped bar at the Helen Wilkes was a hangout for judges and lawyers, both sides, and some of the newspaper people."

The bar is, in fact, kidney-shaped, and most of the people seated there and at the nearby tables are lawyers, judges, and city employees. Mounts has been a regular happy-hour customer there for years, reports the diminutive, gray-haired lady who scurries around busing trays and ringing up lunch customers as they leave the dim lighting of the hotel for the sunshine of Banyan Avenue. Usually, she adds, the judge comes in after work and drinks gallons of iced tea. Then he goes home to his wife.

In Leonard's book Bob Gibbs also hangs out at the Helen Wilkes. But Gibbs doesn't worry about running home to meet his wife, nor does he harbor any guilt about inviting a plucky young probation officer to meet him there for drinks. And this Palm Beach County judge prefers Jim Beam.

"Elmore Leonard takes things from reality and fictionalizes them," explains Gregg Sutter, a former Hollywood, Florida, resident who, as Leonard's research assistant, has logged hundreds of hours in Mounts' courtroom. "The reality becomes a structure for his story."

So if you're Elmore Leonard and you want to write a novel about a judge, you need a model, or at the very least you need someone with a wealth of knowledge on the subject. Mounts certainly can provide a solid stream of stories concerning bizarre cases -- the chicken raper, the car with the buried wife, and on and on -- but he's not exactly, you know, colorful himself.

For starters the fictional judge would need to be a lot tougher and a lot less romantic than Mounts. You'd have to lose, for instance, the real story of how Mounts met his wife Polly of 38 years. That would be in his final year of law school at the University of Florida, when the then-27-year-old Mounts met his bride-to-be at a picnic down upon the Suwannee River. He read her e.e. cummings, and they talked about their favorite classical composers. He proposed later that afternoon.

Maybe that's all right for some E.M. Forster story about life in the English countryside or perhaps a Robert James Waller tale that waxes lyrical about the Iowa corn fields. But this is supposed to be the saga of a gruff judge who faces swarthy characters and oily con artists every working day.

Which means that this judge can't be bothered with something like compassion each time he hands down a sentence. But Mounts, according to local defense and prosecuting attorneys, does just that -- thinking long and hard about the details of a case before announcing a sentence.

"He's got people on death row," notes Debra Price, an assistant public defender in Palm Beach County. "He is not afraid to impose the death penalty, although he puts a lot of thought and consideration into it. He certainly does not do it willy-nilly."

In August 1995 Mounts decided the fate of 22-year-old Kirby Chastine, who came before him for sentencing after he had been convicted in another court of armed robbery and murder. Chastine killed a Canadian tourist by shooting him twice -- in full view of the tourist's father and five-year-old son -- in front of a Lake Worth convenience store in 1992. He also shot the victim's father once in the back. The father survived.

Instead of giving Kirby Chastine the death penalty, however, Mounts sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences for the murder, and tacked on an additional 30 years for the armed robbery conviction. Mounts cited Chastine's intellectual incapacity to make moral decisions as his rationale for foregoing capital punishment. "I gave him as much as I could without killing him," Mounts says now. "That's sort of a crude way to put it."

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