Devils' Advocate

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He starts to cry when he talks about Billy. Oh no, he says, he doesn't want to describe the specifics of Billy's case -- there's a young boy sitting at the next table. Instead, he talks about how he and Billy met, about the irony of not falling in love until Billy was sent away.

"When that judge said, 'I can't abide by this six months. . . . Everybody's given you the benefit of the doubt. Everybody's taken pity on you. I will not take pity on you. You will spend the next eight years of your life'" -- by now Karl is sobbing loudly -- "'in the custody of the Department of Corrections.'

". . . That was when I realized exactly how much he meant to me."

He keeps going. "Everybody says he's so fortunate to have me." But Karl says he's the lucky one.

"I've been with a lot of people in my life, and of the bunch that I've been with, Billy's the best. I'm not saying he's perfect; I'm saying he's the best. He didn't clean the house the way I wanted him to clean the house, but he tried. He didn't cook the way I wanted him to cook, but he tried. He would take a chicken breast, put it on a platter, pour Italian dressing over it and bake it. I won't eat it because of the cholesterol. He'd throw a bitch fit and throw it in the trash. But I could tell him to go to the bank and he'd go to the bank and bring the money back the way he was supposed to."

So Karl decided he should wait out the eight years, take a chance on Billy. His only request: that Billy remain faithful. Billy has agreed that Karl can fool around with one guy who hangs out at the house, only because Billy knows that the guy drives Karl nuts, that Karl would never fall in love with the guy.

"There's people in the prison that write me. There's people who would love to take me away from him," Karl says. One even wrote and called him "Daddy," and said now Karl was his. Karl understands why; he treats Billy well. The others are jealous. Karl visits every chance he gets, and estimates that only about 100 of the 500 inmates in Billy's yard ever get visits from anyone.

People don't understand how hard it is, Karl says through the tears. He thinks it's easier to lose a loved one to death than watch him go to prison.

"I watch people crying and whining because their kid was riding a motorcycle . . . and he [accidentally] killed himself. They're crying and going nutburgers over that and everything, and I can feel their pain, but you know what? I've turned cold-hearted on them. Because these people are crying over something like spilled milk. There's nothing they can do about it. They get their closure. They get to bury that person, they get to have a holiday or two of pain, they get to move on. When you have someone in prison who is your entire world," -- he pauses, sobbing -- "you miss him every day, you wait by the phone every night, every day you run out to the mailbox looking for a letter. You never get that closure. So the pain never goes away."

One way he passes the time is by working on the many lawsuits he's filed on Billy's behalf, and on behalf of other prisoners, as well.

"Billy's attorney has repeatedly told me that I am probably the smartest lawyer in Phoenix," Karl says.

Actually, that's true -- sort of. Billy's attorney, Daniel Inserra, who has his own practice in Scottsdale, says of Karl, "I hope you don't take it out of context, but he's the best lawyer in the world. I mean, his stuff is all wrong, but his ideas are -- he's the type of guy who would have thought up the McDonald's lawsuit. You remember that, when the woman poured the coffee in her lap? He's the type who can think of that kind of stuff."

Not every lawyer agrees. William Wilder, who until recently worked for the Arizona Attorney General and defended the state in the "homosexual hugging" lawsuit Karl filed in federal court, says, "From what I saw, I would not agree with the 'brilliant legal mind' theory." He adds that one of Karl's "legal" ploys was to call upon Judge Roger Strand to hark back to the days when he was young and in love and wanted a hug. Much of it was not so different from what you might see in the average inmate's lawsuit.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.