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.

1 comment:

  1. I guess it's not the system or the witness, it's the society we live in. These people are caught in a no-win situation for them, and the unfortunate thing is you can't guarantee their safety. I do not envy you.