Monday, August 18, 2014

The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber

Deborah Halber gives us The Skeleton Crew, which is actually a number of nonfiction crime stories in one book. The twist is that the book chronicles anonymous do-gooders who spend virtually every minute of their free time scouring databases for unidentified human remains and trying to match them to a missing person case. As Halber says, "The web sleuths are all around you. Your coworker with the bowl of saltwater taffy on her desk, the guy who swipes your card for a latte, the high school teacher who kept the ball python in the glass tank . . . " In cold cases, we most often read about the hunt for the killer. The Skeleton Crew takes us on the hunt to identify the victim.

Halber shows us the web sleuths are a macabre group, who don't have any issue wading through gory photographs and digging into graphic police reports. They are a mostly volunteer community whose motives begin with altruism. But even the best intentions lead to infighting between various groups and various websites. Do they seek the attention that comes from news stories once they connect the dots or are they doing this truly for altruistic reasons? Maybe it's a combination of both.

Halber's excellent writing style lets her describe the cases in such detail that you feel you are doing a little web sleuthing yourself as you work towards solving the case with her and one of the sleuths she profiles. Halber makes you feel like you solved many of the cases just by reading the book, but gives you a glimpse of the frustration that comes with the tens of thousands of remains looking for a name.

The book mainly follows the exploits of Todd Matthews, who solved one of the coldest and most famous cases in web sleuth history, Tent Girl. Tent Girl was killed in Kentucky in 1968 and left to rot on the side of a highway until a passerby happened upon her remains wrapped in a tent. Her body created a local news story for decades while the case sat without an identity for the victim. That was until 1998, when Todd Matthews used the internet to scour postings about missing persons and matched Barbara Ann Hackman-Taylor who had been missing since 1967 with Tent Girl's remains. He sent the lead to law enforcement and it was confirmed through DNA testing. The national attention of the case helped serve as the catalyst for many different unidentified remains websites that exist today and the beginning of a national database to counter the problem. Many other web sleuths are profiled like Bobby Lingoes, Betty Dalton Brown, Chip Glass, and Ellen Leach.

The Skeleton Crew reminds us too that these sensational stories are more than just a pile of bones along a highway. The deceased was a member of someone's family; a family that is desperately trying to find out the fate of their loved one. When you put the book down, it is likely you will hop online and check out the various sites like NamUs or The Doe Network to see what a web sleuth does. At the very least, you'll be a little more careful when you stop at a roadside rest stop and see something unusual (that's right, someone found a human head in a bucket of concrete at a truck stop).

Click this link to pick up a copy of the book. And no I do not receive anything for this review or the referral, other than spreading the word about a great book.

In all of the cold cases I deal with, the victims are identified. There is no arrest, no prosecution, no suspect, until the victim is known. I never once thought about a case where someone stumbles upon a pile of human bones in their backyard and the victim needs to be identified. The book opened up a new world to me, someone who thought they had seen it all. I look forward to more from Deborah Halber.

And you should look forward to an interview with her later this week!

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Little Help from My Friends

I return to the office this week after a two and a half week leave for the birth of my child. I did my best to leave all of July open from court appearances so that no one would have to cover any cases for me.

Even those with the best intentions and planning fail sometimes though. Inevitably, courts schedule cases when I was not available and new cases come in all the time. What that means for the ADA who wants to take time off from work is that we need to rely on our colleagues.

The people are one the great advantages to working in a District Attorney's Office. Everyone is willing to help each other when the need arises. My colleagues made it easy to take the time off and rarely called or emailed for advice or questions. Whenever anyone asks what I love most about my job, I answer the people I work with.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

You be the Judge

Another installment where you get to decide the sentence of a person who committed a crime.

Ready for the facts?

Three 25 year old defendants get together and form a plan to make some money. They decide to break into stores after they are closed and steal cash and property. They wear hooded sweatshirts, masks, and gloves, then throw a brick through a window. Once the window is down, they pilfer the interior and steal everything that's not bolted down.

The devastation to these stores gets so bad that the police put a detail on this crew and they are finally stopped because they are caught in the act of a burglary. We can tie about twenty store burglaries to this crew, but we are not sure which of the group are responsible for most of them. They use different combinations of persons every time and with the masks, lack of prints, and lack of DNA it is hard to prove. We have solid video evidence of their faces at some of the locations, and have other videos of these gentlemen cashing in winning lottery tickets that they stole (no one ever said criminals were smart).

We know they did more, but feel confident we can prove three burglaries for each defendant. They plead guilty before indictment to two of the burglaries. So the sentence range for all three of them is anywhere from probation to 15 years in jail.

Here's the break down. Defendant 1 has a prior felony conviction for a burglary. Defendant 2 has a pending case for the same type of crime, but it is in a different county. Defendant 3 has no prior record.

What should happen to them? The same sentence? Different sentences? No one is hurt in any of these crimes, but the store owners' business is affected due to the damage and stolen property. Leave comments or send emails with your thoughts and I'll post what the judge does after all three men are sentenced.

More like this:

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Do I Gotta Come?

This is the most frequent question I hear. It comes from victims, witnesses, and yes police officers. It's on my voicemail, it's over the phone, and it's in person.

This question is especially pervasive in the teenage population, which has become my specialty in recent years. Here's how it normally goes after I answer the phone:

Me: District Attorney's Office

Witness: Someone dropped some paper at my house, telling me to call [the name of the big boss because his name appears on the subpoena].

Me: What's your name?

W: I ain't comin' to court.

Me: Okay, but what's your name?

W: I'm not testifyin' against no one.

Me: Okay, but who are you?

W: Why you want to know?

Me: I need to know who I'm speaking with so I can tell you what is going on.

A long pause.

W: John Smith. I ain't comin to no court.

Me: John Smith. What you have in your hands is called a subpoena. It is the court telling you that you must come. If you don't show up when it tells you, the court will issue a warrant for your arrest.


Me: You still there.

W: Why do I gotta come? Don't you have my statement?

Me: Yes.

W: Why can't you use that? Why did I give that statement?

Me: Why don't you want to come?

W: I've got school (or work, or childcare, or they inform me I don't know what it's like on the streets).

Me: Okay. Well, tell you what. Why don't you come down and see me tomorrow. There won't be any testifying. You're just going to meet me in my office and we'll talk about the entire process. You can tell me what I can do to help you then.

W: Tomorrow. What time? I've got school (or work, childcare, etc.)

Me: Whatever time works for you.

W: Okay. I'll be there tomorrow at 2.

I've found that there are two keys to convincing someone to testify: 1) Face to face conversations, and 2) listening to their problems and finding solutions. It is the social work part of the job, and one that becomes more necessary every year. Attorneys must be able to ask questions, but we must be able to listen too.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Number 34's Not Too Bad

Two posts in a week after intermittently updating for the last month or so?

In the busy cycle that is a DA's office and the time I like to spend with my family, I neglected to inform you that Prosecutor's Discretion was selected as one of the Top 50 Criminal Law Blogs of the past year. Here's the link to the rankings.

I didn't ask what they are based on, as I was just glad someone reads this once in awhile. There are some fantastic blogs on this list so check them all out, after you come to see us here first of course.

Monday, June 16, 2014

It's Not About the Elk

Former Police Officer Sam Carter shot an elk to death while on duty in Boulder, Colorado on New Year's Day 2013.

What happened next started a series of events that led to jurors convicting Carter on June 3, 2014, after four hours of deliberations. Carter killed "Big Boy," an apparently beloved bull elk in the town. He claimed his actions were an effort to put an ailing animal out of its misery and to protect the townsfolk. The prosecution presented evidence that he had planned to shoot the animal and then forged documents to cover it up.

There are plenty of cases across this country where police officers are put on trial for using unnecessary force, abusing their position, or violating civil rights. The results from a few bad apples should not taint the overwhelming good officers, but it always does. In my area, there have been a slew of recent cases reported where prosecutors accuse police officers of violating rights or even tampering with evidence.

It creates a tense working environment in my office. We are the prosecuting agency and rely on the police officers to investigate and bring cases to the office. They then worry the office will indict them for "doing their job" or they want to show their disapproval of the charges and refuse to cooperate with cases.

Carter went over the line and used his position to take out an animal for whatever reason. The people of Boulder demanded justice because Big Boy was constantly seen around town and beloved by these outdoors-loving folks. The prosecutor has to investigate cases where police officers violate the law just like any other person. The effect is that it helps to keep other officers in line and lets the public know we will eradicate the few who commit crimes.

Big Boy stands for the proposition that no one is above the law. Carter's crime in shooting Big Boy is not the main problem in my eyes. He forged paperwork to cover up the use of his weapon after. Every case Carter was involved in might have to be investigated. Did he lie in other cases to secure a conviction of an innocent person? Did he shade the truth a bit to make it more favorable to his story?

Carter failed the people of Boulder, thinking he was entitled to do whatever he wanted simply because he was a police officer. Prosecuting police officers is never enjoyable, but it is necessary to show the public that we won't turned a blind eye just because a man in uniform committed the crime.