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.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Death or Jail?

I'm reminded every day of the harsh reality of life on the street. I have daily conversations with witnesses about why they should testify in a case. The inevitable response is some variation of "You don't know what it's like" or "You don't live in my neighborhood."

The first statement is not true. I know exactly what it is like, probably more than the person I'm speaking to due to my long and intensive investigations where I get to know every detail about all my suspects. The second statement is true. I don't live in the neighborhood where all these crimes are committed. Nearby, but not in gang territory. There is not a chance I'll take a stray bullet while walking down the street with my family or that I'll walk into a store and get caught in the crossfire of a gang war.

That is why I'm trying to help though. I want to make life easier for the good people of the inner city, even the people that don't want my help.

But what about this choice a person must make? Defendant Smith is arrested by the police officers for a robbery, together with two other men who were walking with him. The two other men are identified by the victim, but Defendant Smith is not. The police process Defendant Smith anyway for the robbery with slim to no evidence. The investigation determines that Defendant Smith was not involved in the robbery and, therefore, we will dismiss his charges. There are strings, however, because Defendant Smith is now a witness. He was walking with the true culprits moments after the robbery so he probably has relevant information about statements they made or there whereabouts before the three met that night.

Defendant Smith (who is now Witness Smith) is subpoenaed to testify at the grand jury. We debrief him before his testimony and Witness Smith says he won't testify. He would rather get locked back up for the robbery and take his chances at trial before he testifies against his friends. For Witness Smith, he'd rather serve a lengthy prison sentence for a crime he had nothing to do with than risk getting harmed or getting his family harmed by testifying against the defendants. Is there something wrong with the witness? Something wrong with the system?

When I interview potential ADAs, I always ask for examples of how they relate to ethnically and financially diverse populations. I want to know how they can speak to people and relate. Can they convince the hesitant witness to testify? How would they handle Witness Smith's situation? Their answers provide a glimpse into their ability to convince reluctant witnesses to testify.

Ultimately, we would dismiss Witness Smith's charges despite his request and the subpoena would force him to testify or face further criminal charges. But maybe that's what Witness Smith would want anyway? He might want to stay in jail on criminal contempt charges instead of live on the street as a witness.

Life is difficult and another person's reality is always far worse than mine could ever be. I don't pretend I live in the neighborhood. I don't pretend I face the same struggles. I just tell them the truth about their situation and how the case will proceed. For prosecutors, the truth should be the only option.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Difficult Week

Posts have been infrequent these past few weeks as you might have noticed. The reason is simple-work. It has piled up and exploded, particularly this week. One of the rules of this blog is that I cannot discuss pending cases, for both legal and ethical reasons.

I will not divulge facts, but I was assigned the most difficult case of my career this week, emotionally and factually. It's the type of case that makes you wonder why you do this work. Whether it makes any difference. You look around and only see the mangled lives of loved ones in the wake of a violent act from both the victim's and defendant's families. 

I'm not seeking sympathy from anyone. I have a job to do and will do it the best I can. I owe that much to the victim. I've always tried to be honest on this blog and let you all in on a the true life of a prosecutor. It's not always easy. It's not always rewarding. The right thing is not always clear. The system is not perfect and neither are the people in it. But I'm trying to be as good as I can and promise to work as hard as I can for the victim. A victim deserves people who will care. And try.