Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Google Tool for Crime Fighting, Part II.

I'm always a bit embarrassed when someone tells me they've googled me. I used to come across that in the dating world. My husband googled me way back when. And then there were the online dating guys. Yes. I am a veteran of the online dating world. I was unsuccessful, but in hindsight I highly recommend it. Sometimes it works. Anyway, it is always a bit frightening when someone tells me they've googled me. It's not that there are indiscreet Paris Hilton-esque photos of me online. It's just that I feel a tinge . . . exposed.

So there I am in the district attorney's office. Just as I am drinking in my surroundings, the aromatherapy candle, the misplaced bathroom sink (please review Part I), Ms. Assistant District Attorney puts me at ease by telling me that she's already googled me. All she needs is my date of birth. Date of birth? Huh? But let's get back to this google thing. She told me she'd googled me, and obviously I'm a credible witness. Really? The web page my husband built for me is pretty convincing, I guess.

Ms. A.D.A. then asks me to begin my story in narrative. I can recite the story by rote without variation, and I do. I describe how close I was to the police and the person I call the victim (they call him the defendant). She asks me with which hand the officer laid the first punch to his face. I tell her I'm not sure, but it was most likely the right hand. "Why?" she asks. Duh lady. From where I was standing, if he'd used his left hand his back would have been towards me at some point. His back was never turned towards me during the incident. My Jessica Fletcher reasoning was impeccable -- indeed, all those Murder She Wrote episodes paid off big. I think this is when Ms. A.D.A. mentioned to me that the officer broke his hand.

The two officers had actually come to her office days after the arrest to give them their version of the story firsthand. She told me they were completely convincing. Do they give cops acting classes in the academy, or is the ability to lie innate?

Anyway, when I got to the part of the story where they were handcuffing my Lost Boy and the shorter officer had his foot on the guy's neck, Ms. A.D.A. interrupted me. "Let me just say to you that there are some police techniques that you may find strange but are completely consistent with police procedure." Ok. I said, "You asked for my story. I'm just telling you what I saw." She shot back, "I know. But I'm just saying that this may have been police procedure." Ok. I said, "You asked for my story. I'm just telling you what I saw." And let me just say right here that I'm glad I never became a D.A. I thought I wanted to back when I was in law school. I interviewed with the Alameda County D.A.'s office in Oakland. They didn't want me. Praise the lord. Ms. A.D.A. needed to have the last word in this exchange. I let her have it while allowing my mind to drift off to thoughts of the infamous L.A. choke hold. It was police procedure. It cracked the necks of countless suspects before it was outlawed in the 90's.

After I finished my story, she went to get her supervisor. He was a typical career prosecutor. He was tall, thin, handsome. His silver hair contradicted his boyish appearance. His clothes were neat in style, almost collegiate or preppy, although slightly rumpled. He wore a blue striped button down shirt, khaki pants. You get the picture. He slumped into a chair next to me and says, "Hello professor." Let me explain here that I have taught graduate school for the past 10 years. It was all there on google. I happen to teach now at the law school from which this comely fellow graduated 30 years ago. He told me his son just graduated from there this year. Did I know professor so-and-so? Nice ice breaker. I could see right through they guy, but for some reason the charm worked. Like magic.

He tried to trick me into making mistakes. Had I ever witnessed violence before? As if I was a chronic witness or a committed crusader against the police. "I'm a small town girl Mr. Supervisor Man. I have never seen live violence."

What did I tell the 911 operator? I told them two cops were beating up a man on 32nd Street. "But you just told us that only one cop was doing the beating. Which was it?"

I replied, "Ms. A.D.A. told me she ordered my 911 tape, so you'll know soon enough exactly what I said to them. There was just one cop beating my Lost Boy. The other watched."

I left that office feeling a bit shaken. I still knew exactly what happened that day of the beating in excrutiating detail. But I felt like they had come close to besting me. It was sort of like coming out of a job interview and not knowing for sure that you'd won them over, even though you normally interview like a pro. One reassuring thing was that the supervisor concluded the chat by telling me that they had criminally prosecuted cops in the past. If I should run into any of the other witnesses, please give them Ms. A.D.A.'s card and urge them to call her.

The next day at work, Lt. Internal Affairs paid me a visit. This time, it was a scheduled visit. He came with a partner. They were dressed in suits, just as I imagined they would be. I didn't notice the quality of their suits, but if these guys were true to their TV/film stereotypes the quality was bad. I did notice lots of garish, bright gold jewelry. Klunky gold rings with diamonds. Maybe a chain. Yeah -- the good stuff.

We sat in the conference room in my office. The three of us crowded around one end of the over-sized table that had been donated, no doubt, by one of the big law firms that support our work. The poorly lit conference room heightened my anxiety about doing this photo array. The I.A. cops informed me that they had brought 12 photos. The police officers I identified by name may or may not be in those photos. Let's pause here. I identified the officers by name. Why then did I need to do the photo array? Well. What Lt. I.A. and his friend told me was that I had been inconsistent in my story. The I.A. friend (to whom I had never spoken before this very moment) told me that I'd told Lt. I.A. at one point that the short cop did the beating, then I told him another time that the tall one had done the beating. I'll give these I.A. guys the benefit of the doubt. Maybe THEY confused what I said. But I as never confused. I clarified myself. I told them I would do the photo array. But for the record, I have always been clear that the short one was the ass-whooping f***. (Excuse my German.)

I should also mention here that the I.A. men brought a tape recorder. They asked me if they could record the dialogue. I said yes, of course. But every last bit of this protocol was intimidating. And I'm not one to be easily intimidated. I'm the person who a couple of days ago confronted a guy on the subway for taking up too much room. "Did you know it's illegal to take two seats on the subway?" The guy's arm was jammed into my ribs, but I slid myself so snuggly between this french-fry eating loser and the next guy, that the guy on the other side of me got up. I stubbornly refused to budge, even though there was now an empty seat next to me. I let the guy, who was the size of a linebacker, keep his elbow in my side. He gave me a good dose of stinkeye and said with the most venom he could muster without outright smacking me upside the head, "I can't help taking up two seats. Now can you back up off me?"

Normally, I don't pick fights with people in the subway. You just don't know what kind of crazy you're dealing with, and half the people on the subway take up two seats. The subways just aren't built for the girth of the larger New York subway rider. But I was having a bad PMS day, and I didn't feel like standing.

Where was I? Right. Intimidation. Tape recorder, two guys with bad jewelry, poor lighting, 12 photos. They had me read and sign a piece of paper that said that the appearnance of the guys in the photos may have changed. They may or may not now have facial hair. They may have lost or gained weight, meaning that I could not rely on the photos to bear any actual current likeness to the people they depicted. Nice. They pulled out the first set of six photos. They were photocopies of tiny police ID badges. They were grainy, out of focus. I studied the photos nervously. I was supposed to initial below the photo I thought was The One. I easily eliminated four of the six photos, but I wasn't sure about two. I asked to see the second set. Like the first set, the guys all looked more or less the same. White, full faces, jarhead haircuts. In this set, they did throw in a guy who could have been Latino, just to shake things up a bit. I didn't recognize anyone on that sheet. Back to the first sheet. I refused to sign, but I told them aloud for the tape recorder that photos number five and six looked familiar. In fact, I believed that number six was the beater. The room was hushed. They began to pack up the photos, without disturbing the quiet.

The police never tell you if you've successfuly identified anyone in a lineup -- whether it's a live lineup or a photo lineup. They asked me if I'd talked to the D.A. I told them that in fact I'd met with them the day before. "What did they say?" Not much, I told them. They kept their cards pretty close to their vest. I told them they were trying to figure out whether to charge the victim (the defendant) with felony assault on a police officer or a misdemeanor -- disturbing the peace I guess. (I'm not sure how he disturbed the peace, but this may have been something that happened inside the subway, before I ever saw them.)

I left the room briefly to retrieve a copy of the account I had written down right after the events occured. They asked me if I'd written anything down. I told them the truth, that yes I had. I don't know if it is common for eye witnesses to crimes to write down their account while it's fresh in their minds, as I had. Or did the police suspect I'd done this because I'm a lawyer? Who knows. When I came back with the account, they asked me again. "What did the D.A. say?" I told them this time, "They said they'd criminally prosecuted police in the past." Tee hee.

I mischievously punctuated that statement with silence, big silence, before adding, "But they'd like me to find another witness. They gave me their business cards to hand out in case I recognize and run into any of them." The two I.A. guys audibly exhaled. I almost expected them to slap each other on the back in congratulations.

"Oh yeah," one of them said. "They'd want a corroborating witness."

I don't know what they'd want. But I do know that things have been quiet since that day. Later that same day, I spoke to the supervisor who works in the office of the guy that represented the Lost Boy during the arraingement. I called him with the information that Ms. Chocolate (my office neighbor) had found. I spoke with him twice. Finally, the defense knew that there was a witness. No one has contacted me since. The Brady material sits in a pile of papers in my office, unopened. I can only assume the charges against my Lost Boy were dropped, otherwise the defense would have wanted to meet with me.

I feel somewhat irresponsible in that I haven't contacted the D.A. to find out for sure. I'm almost afraid to reopen this chapter in my life. Since the quiet, I've had time to focus fully on my own life, my work, my family. My Lost Boy no longer keeps me awake at night. But this ordeal has given me an understanding of why witnesses don't come forward. It takes alot of time, which could be real problem for people who don't have flexible work lives. For example, it would be a huge sacrifice for an hourly worker to invest the time to be a witness. Also, process is by nature fraught with intimidation and people trying to punch holes in your story. The hole-punching is not necessarily malicious. I understand that it wasn't so much about me as it was about assessing my certainty and credibililty. But it feels like a thankless attack, when you're just trying to do the right thing. Someone who was less confident and perhaps wasn't a lawyer might crack under the pressure.

Each time I use the subway station at 32nd and 6th Avenue, two times most days of the week, I recoil a bit. Every time I see a Port Authority police officer, I keep my head down while trying to steal a studied look at the faces. Yesterday, there were four Port Authority police cars parked at the corner, and about six officers were in close proximity. I ducked hurriedly into the subway.

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