Monday, January 30, 2012

Night in the Life of an ADA

Disclaimer:  the following is a composite of many different facts and cases.  It is not the story of one case.  It is used for example purposes only.  I have changed any names and places.

At 4:45 p.m., I still hadn't heard back from my witness.  At 9:30 the next morning, we were scheduled to run a felony hearing.  If you recall, that's a hearing to determine whether there is probable cause to hold a defendant for grand jury action.

Without a victim at 9:30 a.m., the defendant who had committed a series of gun point robberies and assaults would be back on the streets.  We had been hunting him for weeks and could not be sure if we would find him again or when he would strike again.  But the judge would have no choice.  Legally, if we are not prepared to run a felony hearing within five days of the defendant's arrest, the court must release the defendant.

Time ticked away and I began to get nervous.  Would this man slip through our fingers again?

The police have a difficult job.  They must respond to an emergency with only sparse information.  They must assess a situation quickly to protect life and property.  In today's society, everyone wants the police to come immediately.  Many of those people think their duty ends with dialing three digits and an arrest.

Unfortunately, there is a long process that follows and it involves many difficult tasks.  The first of which is testifying in a crowded open courtroom at a felony hearing against the person that just threatened to kill you only five days earlier.

At 5:00 p.m., with still no word from the victim, I called for back-up.  I called the police officers who worked the overnight shift from 8:00 p.m. through 6:00 a.m. and would return for the felony hearing just three hours after their shift ended.  I asked them to find our victim and make sure he arrived to court the next morning.

5:00 turned into 10:00 without a word from the officers.  An hour later, I turned in for the night unsure what would happen in the morning.

3:30 a.m. the sound of a ringing phone entered my dreams.  My eyes bolted open and I stared at the illuminated screen on my cell phone bearing a police officer's name.  At that hour, the phone's glow was as bright as the sun.

This can't be good news.  I tried to blink the sleep away.

     "We've got a problem," the officer said.  At 3:30 in the morning you dispense with the formalities and get to the point.
     "What is it?"  I replied.
     "He's not comin'."
     "He's not comin' tomorrow.  He says he won't testify."
     "Why not?"  My brain is beginning to comprehend the situation.
     "They got to him.  He says someone came by the house and threatened to kill him if he showed tomorrow.  They said they were gonna be packin' the courtroom so that all the boys could get a good look at him."
     What would I do if I were him?  I thought.
     "Just get him to my office.  Make sure he shows up there at nine.  I'll talk to him then."
     "Got it."
     The sound disappeared and my wife stirred next to me wondering which of our loved ones had been hurt.  After all, that's the only reason you get a phone call that early in the morning.  I told her everything was fine and scuttled to the couch.  Sleep didn't return.

     I arrived at the office by 7:30 that morning.  There was no word from the police and no word from the victim.  I returned emails and checked voice mails.  The clock on the computer zoomed forward like there was a race to win. 9:00 a.m. arrived.

     The office phone rang.
     "Sean Young is here.  Says he has an appointment," the receptionist said.
     "I'll be right down."  The victim came.  That's step one.  Now, we had to figure out a way to get him inside a courtroom.

     Sean Young waited with his mother.  Both of their eyes' narrowed as I introduce myself.  They were suspicious of what is expected of them.  They had no idea why they were there.  Sean did his duty by calling the cops after the defendant put a gun in his face.  Why is he missing school and his mother missing work?

     "He ain't testifyin'," his mother said before she sat down in my office chair.  The past twenty-four hours were devoid of customary social norms.
     "Let's talk about this," I responded.
     "He gave his statement already.  What more do you need?  He already told the cops what happened."
     "Well, you've seen tv.  Everyone's got a right to see the witnesses against them.  If any of us were arrested, we would have the same right."
     "Well, why he gotta testify in front of everyone?  Can't he just do it with no one there?"
     "Everyone has rights.  He's got the right to a public trial.  We can't close the courtroom."
     "(expletive) everyone's got rights, 'cept us."
     I decided to take a different track.
     "Ma'am.  If Sean doesn't testify today, this guy walks out the door.  This time he didn't use the gun.  Next time he will.  Maybe it will be on a little girl or boy walkin' to school.  Maybe he'll shoot up a club. One thing I can promise, is that he can't hurt you or anyone else if we keep him in jail.  If he gets out, I can't guarantee anythin'."
     Sean and his mom looked at each other.
     "They said they was gonna kill me," Sean said.
     "We've got court officers in the court room and I've got cops who will escort you in and out of the building.  Plus, these cops will beef up patrols by your house.  They don't get your address, just your name."
     They thought about what to do.  It was better than I hoped when I awoke that morning.
     "I can't do anything without witnesses.  You don't testify, he walks and I can't do anythin' about it.  We need people to stand up to these guys.  That's how they stop."

     I didn't speak again.  I walked over to court with the victim and his mother in tow.  We placed them in a secluded office in the building.  I informed the officers to watch out for any suspicious behavior.

     9:30 slipped towards 10:30 and the case has not been called.  The defense attorney approached and asked if I was going to run the hearing.  I informed him that I was.  At that time, I had no idea if my victim will say anything when he took the stand.
     At 11:15, the case is called.
     "Now calling, 11F12345, People vs. Will Rogers, on for a felony hearing," the clerk called into the crowed space.
     "People are you ready for the hearing?"  The judge asked.
     "We are," I responded.  The moment of truth approached.
     The defense attorney consulted with his client.  They had been speaking for the last ten minutes while they waited for the court to call the case.  "Judge, after consulting with my client, we wish to waive the hearing and consent to hold the case for the grand jury."
     "Very well, the case is held on the charges of robbery in the first degree."

     I walked out of the courtroom and didn't look back.  I wanted to be clear of that room and that building if the defendant changed his mind.

     Sean Young stared at me as I opened the door to his room.
     "You don't have to testify.  He waived the hearing."
     Sean and his mother remained silent for a moment.
     "So, we can go now?"  His mother asked.
     "Yes," I said.
     They left.  I never knew if he would have testified when I called him to the stand.  But, I would find out in a few weeks when I bring him to the grand jury.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Mob Mentality



Flash mobs are created when a group of individuals text, Facebook, tweet, or use any other means to gather a group in one place for a specific purpose.  As you see, there are good and bad uses of this.  Criminal flash mobs are difficult to prevent.  They are almost impossible to prosecute unless the police or other citizens can pick a suspect out of a video.  It is very sad to view the aftermath of these groups.

It's the same mentality that draws young men and women into gangs.  It creates a sense of belonging and of being needed.  People in groups feel emboldened to perform violent acts that they otherwise wouldn't do on their own.  The majority of kids I speak with in gangs join because all their friends do and it is the only way they know to make money.  The way to stop it starts at home and in the education system.  By the time these children churn through the criminal justice system it's almost always too late.  

Can you think of ways to prevent criminal flash mobs?  Should their be additional crimes for these cases?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Case Stats

It's that time of year.  My quarterly stats were due for the juvenile crime grant I work under.  You can compare the last stats here.  As part of that grant, I must provide a report every quarter.  These stats deal with the last three months (October-December)

Total cases handled: 71 files

Number of pleas taken: 27

Number of cases closed after arrest but before indictment: 10

Main reason why:  Tie - insufficient evidence / lack of witness cooperation

Number of trials: 0 (slow quarter - five scheduled in February and March to make up for it).

Oddest resolution to a case:  Murder defendant committing suicide

Number of guns found in Burger King bathrooms:  2
Drug most likely to be found with those guns:  cocaine

Youngest defendant: 15 (robberies)

Number of defendants who fired their assigned attorneys:  5

Types of cases handled: gun point robberies, burglaries, car thefts, shootings, stabbings, murders, gun possession, drug possession, gun thefts, guns in schools, gang assaults, stolen car, kidnapping (see below)

Toughest case to resolve appropriately: Defendant on LSD stole a car with two children under four in it because he believed a motorcycle gang was trying to kill him.

Resolution in that case: 5 years of drug rehabilitation

Worst offender of the quarter: A 19 year old was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison for three gun point robberies of corner stores.  In the last robbery, he shot the clerk in the arm when the clerk resisted.  It was the fourth, fifth, and sixth armed violent felony offenses since he was 14 year old.

The number of cases I handled went down this quarter, the pleas taken went down, and the trials went down.  I expect some of it had to do with the end of the calendar year.  We will see how this quarter compares.  I don't feel like I handled ten fewer files.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Appropriate Court Attire

There is something about city court.  The churning through hundreds of cases a day might make it feel impersonal and informal.    It follows that some of the participants in this system will dress informally.  They feel that jeans and tee-shirts are acceptable court attire when facing a judge who determines their liberty. 

Below is a collection of tee-shirts I have seen defendants wearing in court.  They caught my attention when compared to the charges they were answering.  Once I saw the shirt, I found its image online and now the collection is ready for display.  We will do a matching quiz.  Here's a list of the cases these shirts were worn in.  See if you can tell which shirt belongs to which crime:

A.  Gang Assault
B.  Gun Possession
C. Marijuana Possession
E. Domestic Violence

Yes, I know that these shirts have innocuous meanings based in popular culture.  Do the defendants who wear these to court think the judge knows the social connotations of the shirt when they wake in the morning and decide to put this on?  Shouldn't we take court a little more seriously?  Can we all agree that wearing a marijuana leaf shirt to court is never a good idea no matter what you're charged with?

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Week's Wrap-Up

I have met and spoke with some tremendous people across this country even in the few months this blog's been in business.  It wasn't until I spoke with Laura Amico from Homicide Watch that I really contemplated the media's role in my cases.  (You can check out the interviews with Laura here and here).

As you know, my caseload consists mainly of armed violent juveniles and gang prosecution.  Every case is unique and tells its own story.  How many of my cases are reported in the news?  One in one hundred.  How many are followed as intensely as Homicide Watch follows cases?  Zero.  I appreciate the minor media attention.  The more attention, the more scrutiny.

After speaking with Laura, I began observing the cases that are reported by the media.  It is usually a case with some sensational nugget - an elderly woman is assaulted, a man embezzles $100,000 from his church employer, or a drunk lawyer runs down a pedestrian.

I walked into the courtroom last week and passed the beat reporter for the courthouse.  We have a cordial relationship and I asked him what cases he was checking out.  (Secretly hoping it wasn't mine).  He was reporting on a DWI fatality hearing and waiting for a jury to return on a rape trial.

As I went in court and watched two defendants arraigned for murders, another arraigned for an armed robbery of a cab driver where he pulled the trigger at the driver's head but it miraculously didn't fire, and the felony gun and drug offender being sentenced, I thought about their stories.  I thought about the victim's stories.  How the cab driver could ever work again knowing what happened.  How the family of the defendant copes when their loved one is called a murderer in public.  How the victim advocate who hasn't slept since the day before because she was out all night tending to new victims at the hospital manages.  What about the prosecutor that has to call a victim of a brutal rape and tell her she must testify again because an appellate court reversed a conviction on a technical issue that had nothing to do with the trial?

There are stories to be told in every case.  Homicide Watch is telling them.  I am not seeking more attention in my cases, but I appreciate the job they are doing.  They are providing information to the public that is accessible in a way it never was before and at the same time holding those in law enforcement accountable.

What type of information would you like to know about a case as it moves toward trial?  Do you have any frustrations in the way homicides are reported in your city?  What type of cases garner your interest?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Homicide Watch Interview

On Monday, we started our interview with Laura Amico, the founder of Homicide Watch in Washington, D.C.

Laura was gracious enough to answer some questions concerning how her site started and what she sees it becoming.  I have read many of the articles on the site and it is extremely comprehensive. They track each case from beginning to end.

It is not only a useful tool for the public, but detectives and attorneys use it as well. In many cases, detectives and officers do not know what happens to a case once an arrest is made.  They never discover the outcome. The site allows everyone to follow any case they are interested in.  Now officers and the general public have a way to track a case of interest.

Something else I found particularly interesting: D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) closed 94% of homicide cases last year. That figure seems tremendous, but things are not always what they seem. Say there were 100 murders last year and only 75 of those 100 were solved by arrest. If MPD solves 19 more cold case murders from prior years last year they add that into their total. So instead of a 75% closure rate, it becomes a 94% closure rate when you add the 19 closed cases. I was not aware this happened and will now find out the methods used to calculate the closure rate in my jurisdiction.

I'll let Laura tell you in her own words:

Prosecutor's Discretion: How does Homicide Watch get its funding?

Laura Amico: The platform that I work on is custom built by my husband, who is a journalist and web developer. We license the software and provide editorial support to newsrooms across the United States; DC is our flagship site. Our goal is to have a network of Homicide Watch sites across the nation. We're looking forward to announcing our first expansion site very soon.

Pros. Dis.: What has the community response been? Has there been any negative response?

L.A.: The community reaction has been great. It turns out that the need I felt for information about this crimes was truly felt District wide. Just in the past two days, we've had a girlfriend of a victim, the father of a defendant, and a former juror all commenting on the site... sharing their thoughts. It's really gratifying to have created a place where all those parties feel comfortable opening up. I hear frequently from detectives who say they use the site to stay up-to-date on their cases as they move through the legal system. And prosecutors tell me they use the site to stay up to date on their colleagues cases. The only negative response I've heard has been a concern for witness safety, which I take very seriously. The concern is not about the reporting, but the posting of public documents, like charging documents. I redact information from these documents very carefully before making them available on Homicide Watch. But I've also heard from detectives who say that they are now writing their warrants and whatnot more carefully because they know that they will be made public. I think ultimately that this is really positive... it's frightening to me that witness safety could have been jeopardized because detectives assumed that public documents weren't really public because it took effort to get them.

Pros. Dis.: Do you view your site as an aid to law enforcement, a way to keep law enforcement accountable, or a tool for the public to view information?

L.A.: Yes, all of the above. I think they are all interconnected. I've heard that cases have been solved because people have seen information on Homicide Watch, realized that they knew something, and contacted police. I don't publish specifically for people who might know something about a crime, I publish primarily for people like myself who just want to know what's going on, but I realize that potential witnesses are in my readership. It is also a way to hold law enforcement accountable. Recently, MPD Chief Cathy Lanier said at a news conference that DC has a 94 percent homicide case closure this year. That fact was picked up by nearly every news organization, and while it's technically correct, it really should be explained... it's not that 94 percent of homicides that occurred this year were closed. There's some complicated math involved. So I wrote a brief post about that. It's both accountability and explaining, helping to get everyone on the same page so that when we talk about homicide, we're all talking about the same thing.

Pros. Dis.: Where do you get your information for your articles? Do you ever interview witnesses?

L.A.: Most of my information comes from court and law enforcement sources and families and friends of victims and suspects. I rarely interview witnesses and I do not seek witnesses out for interviews. Occasionally I'll get a comment from someone who appears to be a witness. I try to get that person in touch with law enforcement. I'm not particularly interested in investigating cases. I see the site instead as channel between various parties.

Pros. Dis.: Tell us about the most memorable case.

L.A.: Let me send you to this page about Kwan Kearney. This was the first trial I covered with Homicide Watch and the defendant is pending trial in another murder case. Just before standing trial in the first one, his brother was killed. As if that weren't enough, his co-defendant took a plea deal and testified against him. On the witness stand, the co-defendant sang out a rap song that he said the two of them sang after shooting the teenage victim dead. Another story that I think about often is the sentencing of Deon Thornton. He pleaded guilty to killing his brother, and the family supported him. His uncle told the judge at sentencing: “A sentence given to Deon is a sentence given to us all. The crime is very serious and we accept responsibility as a family. How did we permit something like this to happen? Deon, we love you and we love Derrick.” The humanity of that statement, the drama and trauma and love embedded in every word, has stayed with me.

Thank you Laura.  We look forward to hearing much more from Laura and watching Homicide Watch grow.  Perhaps in a city near you?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Homicide Watch

Most of the time, journalists and prosecutors don't mix (notable exception - Mark Pryor).  D.A. offices release snippets to the press and only one or two people in the office are designated to speak to the press about cases.  It's a safeguard against leaking information to the public that may harm a case or witnesses.  Plus, there are ethical principles we are bound by.

I flipped the tables after I stumbled upon the website for Homicide Watch.  Laura Amico and her husband Chris started this site in 2010.  It tracks every homicide in Washington D.C. from the incident through the court proceedings until the case is resolved.  The interactive site allows us to click on either a victim or suspect and follow all the information on the case.  This includes memorial information, court documents, detective information, and procedural information.  Be sure to check out the 2011 year end review.  

Laura graciously agreed to answer some questions about her novel reporting methods.  Now the prosecutor conducts the interview.  The first part of the interview is below.  Check back Wednesday for the remainder.  Also, Laura's blog and Homicide Watch are now part of the scrolling blogs on the bottom right of this site.

Prosecutor's Discretion:  Where did the idea for Homicide Watch come from?

Laura Amico:  The idea for Homicide Watch came from a convergence of factors.  I was a new resident to DC (I moved from California with my now husband when he got a job offer here) and I was looking for a job in journalism, which was my profession in California.  Our new neighborhood was occasionally impacted by homicide and I wanted to know what was happening with those cases. I found it very difficult to find information in the media, but realized that there were many other streams of information that flowed just under the radar. When I perhaps should have been putting out resumes, I instead researched and built a prototype of an online journalism project that would draw from these streams to build the resource I needed.

Pros.Dis.:  You spent some time as a beat reporter.  How did that help you prepare for launching this site? 

L.A.:  My approach to everything I do on Homicide Watch remains rooted in the principals and ethics of news gathering. It's what I know how to do. But it's also where the need was. When I'd look at homicide victims' obituaries, and victims' and suspects' Facebook pages and Twitter streams, I'd see people using those pages to try and update each other about what was happening in the case. So I knew there was a need for fact-based information. My background in beat reporting also helped me visualize the structure for the site. The earliest description of how a case would be covered on Homicide Watch was that a single page would include all the information a reporter would have in his or her notebook, or on their desk. So I had to think about all the tiny pieces and all the big pieces. There's victims' and suspects' names, but there's also detention status, there's documents, there's the detectives names and contact information. There's links to social media, etc.

Pros. Dis.:  We get a lot of questions and comments on our site about victim's rights.  Is  Homicide Watch geared toward anyone in particular like victims or suspects? 

L.A.:  No. I think that there's the assumption that we focus on victims because a lot of news media focuses on victims. It's the easier story to tell and that's partly a function of how the criminal justice system works. In DC, in 16 months of covering every homicide "crime to conviction," I've had only one case go to trial. It's just a really long process and for a lot of news organizations, it's hard to keep focus on a story over, say, two years. That's why the structure of Homicide Watch (organizing the information on victim and suspect pages) is so important. When you do follow a case through the system, and report on the ins and outs, you start to see that the defendants have stories and histories, too. I always want to know, regardless of whether a defendant is guilty or innocent, how did he get here? Knowing those stories, from both victims and suspects, helps us better understand the problem of violent crime, which is ultimately the goal of Homicide Watch.

Pros. Dis.:  How is your relationship with prosecutor's offices?  In D.C. the United States Attorney prosecutes homicides because it is federal land and Maryland and Virginia have state prosecutors.  Is it easier to work with one or the other? 

L.A.:  I have an excellent working relationship with the USAO in DC. US Attorney Ronald Machen recently sat down with me for an interview and I think the resulting story was enlightening for many of our readers. The press office is an excellent resource for reporting needs: documents, background information, and helping to understand points of law. Individual prosecutors have returned emails after midnight, and have helped me follow cases. I haven't worked with any state prosecutors.