Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Here's a fun thing...

I was once asked by a fellow blogger - "What keyword searches are bringing people to your blog?" I had no idea whatsoever, but I run a program that tells me.


Here are a few of those searches, tucked into a vague attempt to categorize.

1. The sordid, almost sexy searches:
"documentary la da and innocent spousal relief" (I was bored until I got to the last phrase. But can someone please explain?)
"bodily fluid assault on civilians" (Okay, sordid and not at all sexy.)

2. Questions:
"can probation officers spy on you?" (Paranoid questions, although the answer is "yes.")
"has anyone ever been on probation in texas" (Stupid questions. Again: yes.)
"how much does an assistant d.a. make" (Nosy questions. $18,00 a year. Plus tips.)

3. Legal advice wanted:
"lie about your age on college application" (a. Did my blog answer your question? and b. How did that work out?)
"how to get a good prosecutor" (see last answer in section above)

4. About the DA's office:
"describe a good prosecutor" (tall, blue eyes, English accent...)
"gary cobb seattle bad idea" (Gary is, in fact, the definition of a "good prosecutor." So I can only assume this was a search by a defendant in Seattle. Or something.)

5. The nonsense search. Not only do I have NO idea what these people were looking for, I have less idea why these searches brought them here:
"alphasmart neo" (And betablocker biz-natch to you.)
"breakfast in bed da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da" (maybe I'd be that happy if I got breakfast in bed.)
"confidential working draft toilet while" (while what? I don't want to know, do I?)

Friday, March 26, 2010

To wig or not to wig?

It's been too long since I sought your opinion on matters of grave importance, so I have a question for you.

I have a barrister's wig, it belonged to my great- great-grandfather, George Digby Pepys. Right now, it sits in its original tin in my study at home.

<--- Here it is.

Lately, people (defense lawyers and fellow ADAs alike) have been ribbing me about wearing it in trial. I assumed they were all joking until one young lawyer put a case on our jury docket and sincerely urged me to do it.

Now I'm suspicious.

To me it's a symbol of a venerable profession and he (or she) who wears a barrister's wig is accorded a certain degree of respect. But if he's urging me to wear it... does he think I'd look ridiculous? Pretentious? When jurors hear the accent and see the wig will they just laugh and nudge each others? Is that what the wig has become?!?

So I'm asking you. Assume the judge allows it and the defense lawyer and his client do not object. What would you think of a prosecutor who wears a wig in trial?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A new author for you: William Landay

I want to introduce you to a thriller writer recommended to me, as a nice guy and a talented writer, by my agent. And I have to agree with her assessment. I linked to his blog last week and today present an interview with William Landay, author of MISSION FLATS and THE STRANGLER.

In his own words, here he is:

1. Did you always want to be a writer growing up?

Growing up, I didn't imagine anyone could really "be a writer," meaning that you could do it as a full-time job. I was always a writer, though, in the sense that I wrote a lot. I've just always felt it was a natural way to express myself and I've always been a fluent writer, no matter how clumsy and inarticulate I was (and still am) in other ways. I always expected to go into the shoe business, though, which was what my dad did for work.

I wound up as a lawyer, like you an assistant D.A., in the Boston area for most of the 1990's. When I hit my thirtieth birthday, I decided that, if I was ever going to try writing, I ought to do it while I was young and single, with no kids or mortgage to hold me back. Mind you, the goal was not to become a full-time writer; just to write and maybe even publish one novel. One decent novel that I could be proud of.

Unfortunately, I'm a stubborn bastard and I just couldn't give up on that goal, even as I struggled for year to produce a few fragments of awful novels. When I finally did finish a presentable book, I still had not decided to "become a writer." I hoped to, I suppose, but I was not sure I could pay the bills just by writing. So my plan (if you can call it that) was just to submit my one manuscript to publishers and see what happened.

By that time I was married and expecting my first child, my son Ted. While my wife and I were in the obstetrician's office one day, anxious to listen to my baby's heartbeat on one of those amplifiers that attach to pregnant women's bellies, I got a call from my agent that the book had sold and I had been offered a two-book contract. So that was how I "decided" to keep writing: I signed a contract that obliged me two produce a second book.

That's probably how it goes for a lot of artists, I imagine. You go from project to project, hoping to complete each one and sell it. It's only in hindsight, when you string all these projects together, that it looks like a career. Really, it's just a series of haphazard, one-off projects. I'm not sure artists can have a proper career.

2. What is your writing schedule?

I write all day, 9 to 5. Which is to say, I sit there all day, or mope around all day pretending to write, or drink coffee and stare off into space all day pretending to write. But I show up for work every day like a banker and I try to get into that zone of complete focus where real writing happens. That "flow" state only lasts a few hours in any given day, but I never when those hours will be, in the morning or afternoon or what. Someone (can't remember who) once said, "I never know when inspiration will come, but when it does come, it usually finds me at my desk." If you're not working, trying, then you have no chance. Working hard is no guarantee that you'll write anything worth a damn --- but not showing up is a guarantee that you won't.

For the rest, I try to get out of the house, where I have an office. There are just too many distractions at home. I go to libraries and coffee shops. My favorite spot is the main reading room of the Boston Public Library, which is a gorgeous, soaring space. But anyplace will do --- it's best not to be too finicky about the precise conditions under which you can write.

With one qualification: no internet access. I usually don't bring my laptop with me. I just waste too much time on the web. So, when there's serious writing to be done, I usually do it on a gadget called an AlphaSmart Neo, which is just a glorified keyboard with a little LCD screen. There's not a damn thing you can do with it except type. Even dedicated procrastinators --- of whom I am the heavyweight champion --- can get down to work on the AlphaSmart. There is simply nothing to distract you. I highly recommend it.

3. You indicate a preference for anonymity - how do you square that with the marketing authors have to do these days? Do you enjoy the sales and marketing aspect of being a writer?

I can't square the two. Unfortunately. I'd rather remain anonymous. Just write my books in peace, send them out into the world like orphans, and never run around doing readings and all that to support them. Obviously that sort of privileged, private writing life is not realistic anymore, unless you are Thomas Pynchon. (Even Cormac McCarthy went on "Oprah" to support "The Road.")

I did not do much publicity for my first two books. The advice I got from my publisher was that my time was better spent writing (which I did not do very productively, actually). That was before the collapse of publishing last fall and the rise of social media.

Now, it's a new landscape and you have to do all you can do, for the simple reason that your competitors are going to do it and you can't concede any advantage. That's why I launched my blog, a Facebook fan page, and Twitter feed. I don't know how many books these things will actually sell, but I do them anyway, on blind faith. Anyway, you can't leave it up to your publisher to publicize your books for you. They won't, they don't know how, and they don't have the resources to. So it's up to you.

I intend to get out there in person, too, and do a lot more touring and speaking for my next book in summer 2011. Again, that is a very expensive and inefficient way to sell books, since you can only read to a couple dozen people at a time. But publishing is in such dire straits that you have to do everything you possibly can to make your numbers.

4. Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

I never consciously look for story ideas, but they do tend to come out of my reading in newspapers and magazines and so forth. Nothing ever "just comes to me." At least it doesn't feel that way to me. I am actually not all that creative. I am more of a craftsman. A builder and problem solver, not a visionary artist. A bricklayer.

5. Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

I don't really think about writing in a genre at all. I write about crime because it interests me and I find it an incredibly rich source of dramatic material --- of stories. I don't actually read crime novels, either, though I read plenty of novels that happen to be about crime.

6. Who are your favorite authors?

Too many to name. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald. I am on a Charles Dickens kick at the moment. Ian McEwan is brilliant, though I haven't loved all his books. Philip Roth. I am reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" right now and it's incredibly good.

7. If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Oh, I wouldn't dare offer advice. Everybody has to just write and write and find their own way, I think. Just keep writing, ignore everyone who doubts you and everyone who pretends to have the secret to writing. The secret to writing is that there is no secret. "There are no Mozarts in writing." The only way to improve is to keep writing. Wish there were an easier way, but there isn't. Sorry. (Hey, if it was easy, everyone would do it.)

8. Do you outline your novels?

Yes. You have to if you're writing mystery/suspense because the plots are so complex and the pieces have to fit precisely. But I don't outline the whole thing. I try to outline the first act (100 pages or so) in detail, then write it. Then outline the second act, then write that, and so on. I find it is impossible to outline any more than that because the story morphs as you write it, so your outline of act 2 will be moot by the time you finish writing act 1. I always know roughly where I'm headed, though, whether I've actually outlined it or not.

9. How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels?

Every ounce of energy I have. I don't understand writers who say "the language does not matter, only the story." To me, the joy of the language is one of the great pleasures of reading, and writing. I know a lot of readers feel differently, but I can't read a book that is badly or even blandly written, no matter how good the story. Books that endure, I think, are always beautifully written, even if the beauty of the writing is in a stripped, plain style.

10. Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

No, I've never found one that was much help. I have nothing against how-to books. Whatever works. If they help you, why not? The only danger is that if you rely on the formulas in books, your own books will be formulaic. Worse, every aspiring writer is reading those same recipe books, so it will be hard to differentiate yourself from the herd. So read them, if you like, take from them whatever helps you. But then go do your own thing. Break as many rules as you like. You're a writer, not a baker.

One thing that has helped me a lot, actually, is books on screenwriting. Screenplays are so stripped down to plot, and Hollywood is so mercenary about defining story ingredients, that screenwriting guides are generally very explicit and precise about traditional plot formulas. They have helped me think about plotting. (After that, you're on your own, alas.)

11. Is there any part of being a professional, full-time writer that you don't like?


12. Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

Of course! Every unpublished writer gets the raised eyebrow! Because when you think about it, every shiftless fool is an "unpublished writer." How can people be expected to tell the difference?

My wife always supported me, though, even when there was not much reason to. When we started dating, I was living in my mother's basement at age 30-something, calling myself an "unpublished writer" --- every girl's dream. And when we got married I was still unpublished. My wedding turned into a roast. So everybody goes through that.

As for what kept me motivated, I'm not sure. I think I'm just too stubborn to quit. Is that the same as "motivation"? Close enough, I guess.

Thanks, Mark. Regards to everyone in Texas and beyond.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mismatch: when the defendant and the crime don't go together

I have posted before about the way prosecutors handle cases, from the moment we get the file to how we make a recommendation as to sentencing. That blog post is here. But I got a new case yesterday that highlights an old problem, one of the hardest part of the job: making recs.

In many situations, arriving at an appropriate range of punishment is relatively straight forward because in most cases there is a history that fits the present crime. In other words, if someone has two or three misdemeanor drug convictions I'm comfortable recommending felony probation with treatment (as opposed to ten years in prison on the one extreme, or a reduction to another misdemeanor on the other extreme).

The difficulty comes when there is a mismatch between the criminal history and the crime charged, and this presents in two ways:
  • The defendant who has NO criminal history but does something very serious, say killing someone while driving drunk or hurting someone by just being reckless
  • The defendant with a huge criminal history who does something fairly minor. For example, someone with a murder conviction, robbery conviction, drug and assault convictions, who then uses someone's car without permission but returns it undamaged.
These are the hard cases, I'm sure for the defense bar as well as for us. And extra wrinkles appear (in the first example) when there is a victim who seeks the maximum while we are trying to temper justice with mercy. Believe me, when we get those cases there is a lot of discussion at every level, running it by colleagues, talking to the higher-ups, and meeting with the victims.

I'm at the start of that process now with my new case, and if my memory permits, when it's all over I'll post some details and maybe get your feedback. In fact, my wife suggested these cases are best tried to a jury so the community (or a slice of it) can decide the outcome. She may be right, but I hate to abdicate my own responsibilities. I'll noodle on it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Assistant is in trial, lucky duck

My trusty Assistant is in trial today, starting yesterday, so won't be with us until, maybe, later in the week. He tells me it's a DWI trial so maybe we'll get lucky and he'll tell us a story when it's over.

I discovered a new blog this morning, called Affirmative Links. That's a law-related pun and so tells me the blog is run by geeks. In this case, they are defense geeks and one of them is my friend Jamie Spencer who has his own blog here. I'm not a real fan of anonymous blogging because it allows you to take pot shots, cheap shots, and tequila shots and then run and hide, the substance looks pretty good. Apart from taking a quote of mine out of context, but we're all friends and I promise to do the same to them in return. :)

If you're not a regular reader of Grits For Breakfast then you should start tuning in. I've been wanting to say something about the Mexican drug wars myself, but he has some thoughtful and surprising posts on the issue.

Interesting situation yesterday in my court: one of the ADA's negotiated a plea agreement on a case where the defendant assaulted a policeman. The plea deal was struck between her and the defense lawyer, who would go back and forth between the courtroom and the jail to convey the details to his client. (This is the usual way we do it, of course.) Once an agreement was reached, the defendant was brought out: a young white man with swastikas tattooed on his face, one over each eye. And when I say over, I mean the ink started at his hairline, came down over the eye and continued halfway down each cheek. We all just stared and my colleague mused aloud: "I wonder what the jury would have thought of that?" If only I was allowed to take pictures in court....

What else is going on? Well, I have a murder case that will be going to trial in a few weeks, and I'm meeting with the case detective today to tie up any loose ends. Should be an interesting trial, not least because the defense lawyer is something of a character. Not me, I'm as boring as toast...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Jury trials this week

Just a couple this week....











Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Writer's Blog

I don't think I have ever burned an entire blog entry recommending a specific blog. Well, hooray for today, because I'm doing it.

The blogger is William Landay, a former prosecutor and crime writer (sound familiar?!) from Boston. I will be posting an interview with him in due course, but wanted to share his blog because, well, it's just so darned cool. He writes about writing, his books, but also matters that will be of interest to my own readers: crime.

Here is the link. As you will see, it's both website and blog.

As you will also see, Mr. Landay has an obvious interest in the aesthetics of his site. Unlike me, who's blog is off the rack. Anyway, peruse his index, there's a ton of fascinating stuff there and the site itself is like a 1950's actress, easy on the eye without being In Your Face.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

DWI and blood testing

I read a story earlier this week about the Dallas police considering a new policy when it comes to DWI cases: blood tests in every case. Here's the story.

So I guess show it works is: you get pulled over and the cop suspects you have been drinking. He does the usual tests and if you fail, you are arrested. He then asks if you would consent to a blood test, and if you refuse he goes in search of a warrant to draw blood.

I sat and thought for a while before writing this, because I know that the forced taking of people's blood is a little draconian, even dracula-onian, to many. But I think I like the policy, and here's why:

-- it offers certainty. Experienced drunks can get through the SFSTs (Standardized Field Sobriety Tests) just well enough to raise reasonable doubt, and anyway juries often seem hesitant to base a conviction, certainly at the felony level, on these tests alone. But there's no fooling a blood test. And, remember, the man who has a bum leg and insists he's not drunk, that he just has no balance, runs no risk of a DWI conviction if he is, in fact, sober and is given a blood test.

-- it will be a deterrent. I have always thought that DWI is one of those crimes that can be deterred, mostly because it's a compound crime that requires both drinking and driving - and most people are more interested in the first half, so can possibly be persuaded against the second. And if you know that a flashing light in your rear view mirror means a certain conviction, then you will be more careful.

-- if I'm right that it's a deterrent, then it will save lives. Enough said.

Now, there's the case against, which I'll try to address:

-- it's a violation of civil rights. I agree that it seems invasive, at first blush. But we already do it and I don't see any successful legal challenges (and if it were truly a violation of the Constitution, you can bet they'd be flying). And unless someone consents the officer will need probable cause for a warrant; in other words, before he can have blood drawn, he'll need some other evidence that the person is intoxicated. So, it's not like we'll be randomly jabbing innocent people along the road side. Really this is just evidence collection, something we do in every criminal case. We take DNA, fingerprints, blood, hair samples, etc in all different types of cases. Why should DWI be excepted? (I am assuming here that the person drawing the blood is a properly trained individual, of course.)

-- it's expensive. At first, maybe. According to the Dallas Morning News it'll cost at least an additional $360,000 a year. But I think those costs will be offset. First, the story mentions that there will be fewer trials which means less overtime for testifying cops. It also means less time (and therefore money) lost by judges, court admin, prosecutors, jurors etc when one of these cases go to trial. And, in my experience, these cases get tried more than any other (two of my five last trials were DWIs). This would free up the court system to try other cases, speed dockets along, and provide more sure justice to those accused of DWI.

What do you think? Did I miss anything?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

For The Assistant, it's not just criminal cases...

I'm submitting this for posting fairly late on Monday night, knowing that it's supposed to go up Tuesday morning. I've had no chance to work on it today, and it has very little to do with my criminal case load. Why? Because unlike most prosecutors, an Assistant County Attorney also carries a civil case load.

My friend DAC gave his new cases late last week. My new cases came in about the same time, a stack about a foot thick, mostly possession of marijuana, theft, and assault. Pretty standard stuff for me. But in addition to all of that, in the last month I've done three juvenile adjudications, one mental commitment, three or four CPS cases, and filed six protective orders. If only all I had to worry about was my 92 criminal cases currently active on the docket!

Instead, nearly all of today was spent dealing with protective orders. In Texas, a protective order is granted when the judge finds that 1) family violence has occurred in the past and 2) family violence is likely to occur in the future. This is a civil hearing, not a criminal hearing. The person seeking a protective order is called the "petitioner" and the person that it's sought against is the "respondent." The findings are not required "beyond a reasonable doubt", testimony by the parties is usually very brief, and exhibits are rarely presented. However, what they lack in rigor they make up for in animosity between the parties. They're basically like a miniature divorce and/or child custody case, except the parties don't pay me anything. We had for of them scheduled for this afternoon.

Final tally? On two of them the respondent didn't show up after being served the paperwork, and thus a default order was entered against them. One person agreed to the protective order, and so the order was entered against him. One person contested it, had a lawyer appointed, and we get to do this allllll over again next week.

Along with the new protective order that we filed today...

Monday, March 15, 2010

Serial killing

Anyone else have a powerful fascination for serial killers?

I do. One of the best gifts from my wife, a couple Xmases ago, was the Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. There I was on Xmas morning, my beautiful kids scampering around me, tinsel glimmering on the tree, my nose in a book about death, destruction, and dismemberment. Glorious.

This interest (NOT an obsession, I promise) means I know most of the infamous serial killers, their names and the way they killed. But I was shocked to learn over the weekend of one whose name I barely recognized, a modern day killer who is in the news and maybe have killed.... well, they just don't know.

His name is Rodney Alcala. His MO was not unlike that of Ted Bundy, a smooth and charming approach to disarm his potential victims. But perhaps the creepiest thing is that this guy was on the ABC show, The Dating Game. You can see footage of it by clicking here. Notice the body language of the guy next to him, too. And even though Alcala won, I read somewhere that the girl refused to go on a date with him, because he was too creepy. Lucky, lucky, girl.

Now the police need help identifying potential victims from photos Alcala took himself. A truly bizarre tale, and one without a very happy ending for most.

Friday, March 12, 2010

My new cases

I thought it might be time to have a look at the new cases I had come in this week. It's the first batch for about ten days, and after the last lot I thought maybe I should mark those that appear, to me, to be related to some form of substance addiction.

Specifically, I will asterisk (*) those cases where the crime itself looks to be addiction related, or from the parts of the file I can't share with you, an addiction appears likely to have been the underlying cause of the offense.

Addictions I will consider:
  • drugs (including pot)
  • alcohol

Addictions I will not consider:
  • punching wives/girlfriends
  • sex
  1. Possession of controlled substance - cocaine (state jail felony) *
  2. Driving while intoxicated, 3rd or more offense (third degree felony) *
  3. Credit card abuse (state jail felony)
  4. Delivery of controlled substance - cocaine (state jail felony) *
  5. Possession of controlled substance - cocaine (state jail felony) *
  6. Driving while intoxicated, 3rd or more offense (third degree felony) *
  7. Possession of controlled substance - cocaine (state jail felony) *
  8. Possession of controlled substance - marijuana (state jail felony) *
  9. Possession of controlled substance - meth (state jail felony) *
  10. Aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury (no addiction issues, though a wine bottle is the alleged weapon!) (second degree felony)
  11. Burglary of a habitation (second degree felony)
  12. Credit card abuse (state jail felony)
  13. Unauthorized use of a motor vehicle (state jail felony)
So, by my count eight of my thirteen new cases are addiction-related. Sounds about par for the course.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


A couple of weeks ago, I posted an interview that I did with thriller writer David Lindsey. If you missed it, click here to learn about the man and his writing life.

At the time I didn't recommend one of his books, which I normally do on Thriller Thursday. I refrained for two reasons: 1. I hadn't finished the one I was reading, and 2. I wanted a second chance to plug his work (for those who still haven't read the interview, hint hint, he's not only an excellent writer, but a very nice man).

But here we are, two weeks later and I present to you MERCY. I won't say much more, just that I agree with all the accolades heaped upon this book. I will also add that my judge, Mike Lynch, just finished THE RULES OF SILENCE, which I plan to read next (though I found out today that his court coordinator and the bailiff are ahead of me in line to get the book).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Trial this week

















Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wait, what?

My trusty Tuesday guest blogger, known only as The Assistant, has this to say:

One of the common bits of gallows humor among prosecutors is “Thank God for dumb criminals, they’re the ones that keep us employed.” Bank robbers have been known to write stick-up notes on their own deposit slips. DWI defendants commonly tell police officers “I’m too drunk to do those sobriety test thingys.” Still, there are the occasional police reports that stop me dead in my tracks and make me wonder- “Wait. What the hell is going on here?” My very first trial was like that. The defendant was charged with Theft of Property, $50 - $500. Not such an unusual charge, in and of itself. But…

About 1 AM, a DPS Trooper happens to be driving on one of our smaller state highways just outside the city limits, when he sees a van stopped in the bar ditch with someone standing next to it. Thinking someone’s broken down late at night, he pulls over to help. As he stops, someone wearing camouflage runs away from the van, across a pasture, into the brush, and disappears. A woman standing by the van stays put, caught in the act of loading a 40 pound bag of dog food into the van. There’s one bag of dog food already in her van, one at her feet, 8 more by the fence line, and 4 more in the bed of a pickup. A county owned pickup, parked on the wrong side of the fence line. The Trooper detains the woman, and his partner follows the tire tracks from the pickup into the field, through some brush, across a ditch, through a now-broken fence and… into the yard of the county dog pound.

Wait, what?

The tire tracks lead to the back door of the dog pound, which has been forced open. There are a few other pickups matching the county truck that are parked in a row at the end of the yard. A row with an empty parking spot. None of this makes a damn bit of sense to the Trooper, but it’s now obvious that the truck was stolen, loaded up with dog food, driven through a fence, through a pasture, through some brush, along the bar ditch, and to the woman waiting with her van to load up the dog food. But wait! The dog pound just installed security cameras, surely that will explain what’s going on!

Camera 1, outside the building, records nothing but stars after the perp pushes it up to the heavens with a broom handle. Camera 2 records nothing after the perp *breaks* it with a broom handle. Camera 3 is inside the building, and well hidden. It records someone dressed up like a ninja, complete with headscarf, crouching on his heels, and crab walking through the building between the cages. Then he tries to steal a dog. Well, he tries to steal a pit bull while crouched down, holding a handful of dog food. Although he escapes with his hands, he is unsuccessful. Then he crawls away, never to be seen again. To this day I still have NO idea who that guy was.

The woman that gets arrested for theft of dog food sure isn’t telling either. In fact, despite being caught literally holding the bag, she pleads not guilty and goes to a bench trial. After the judge delivers her guilty verdict I find out why, as defense attorney discloses that she’s on felony parole for drug trafficking. So for her role in the great dog-food caper of 2009, the defendant spends 60 days in jail as a guest of our county, and 7 year in jail courtesy of federal parole revocation.

Sleep well, Texans. Your dog food is safe tonight.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Scouring the world for criminal news

We'll start Down Under... not the big Down Under with the shrimp on the barbie, but the small one that comes in two parts and has little kids who get sent to jail cells for pulling girl's hair.

Now back home, where Texas spring breakers will be breaking from tradition, if the cops have anything to do with it: No more Mexico!

Something fishy about this story: a heavy-set woman (presumably not very fast moving then) steals bags of coffee from a donut shop. . . but no cop is on scene to nab her? As if. . . !

I suppose if you have to have a burglar, you want one who breaks in just to eat and take a shower. What you don't want is to show up during the shower part. (Notice how happy he looks to be in clean prison scrubs.)

If you new neighbor claims to be from the planet Zambodia and says is 333 years old, you might even be relieved when the weirdest he gets is to hang women's underwear and pile up sand outside his house. I'm not even sure these things are illegal. Except being here from Zambodia without a proper visa.

I'll just have a cup of coffee, please. No, I mean it: coffee not "coffee."

Ask, and ye shall receive.

Amid the criminal news, and because this is a blog where writing is routinely honored, we find an example of illiteracy-related ironic-ness: a man who writes like an alien holding a dictionary, and apparently reads like an alien holding a dictionary upside-down. Not that I'm Shakespeare, but then I'm also not responsible for edumacating 90,000 children.

I have to believe that the brave men and women of law enforcement, with whom I work every day, are just as brave as the cops in Germany who face all manner of deadly (and heavenly?!) weapons in the course of duty:
"Daringly, and with the occupier's permission, one of the officers opened the drawer of a wardrobe where the noise was coming from. Underneath some clothes he found a very personal, battery-operated object which had obviously switched itself on... The tenant's face abruptly changed color."
My first thought (okay, second): Really? It switched itself on?

And finally, the escaping inmate who says, "Nyah-nyah, you can't catch me. . . . [pause for splashing sound]. . . Help me! Help me! I'm sinking!!"

Happy Monday all!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What do we DO?

Following up from The Assistant's wonderful post yesterday, I want to ask a question and invite the same kind of thoughtful response that my fellow blogger Grits for Breakfast gave in his comments.

Here's the comment that provoked the discussion was this:

"a criminal does not endanger society in the same way if he is isolated from it ... there is no surer way to take a habitual DWI offender off the road than to deprive them of their liberty."

Grits wrote an excellent response, which you can see here in full, but I think can be summarized by this:

"The practice of punishing DWI with no victim harshly (I'm guessing without any treatment while in jail) while the violent offender gets a lighter sentence seems like a perversion of priorities, with all respect."

Which got me thinking. I agree with so many of the positions taken by Grits, I really do, which may be surprising to some but not on this one. I hope others will chime in but my take on this specific issue is that sometimes people will simply refuse to admit they have a problem, refuse to submit to treatment, refuse to abide by the law.

I had a trial last year. DWI. It was the defendant's 5th or 6th conviction, I don't remember exactly. I do remember that he committed the offense while on parole for a 25 year sentence for DWI. He'd gotten out just a few months earlier and was at it again.

Thing is, he'd been on probation, he'd been given treatment, and he was still at it. More shocking to me was his attitude. He testified during trial, admitting that he'd been drinking, had taken vicodin, and was on his way to buy more beer to take back to his friends house (and then later drive home). He also admitted that for other people, mixing alcohol and prescription drugs was a bad idea and made them unsafe. Just not for him. He simply refused to see that he'd done anything wrong. And when he got the minimum, another 25 year sentence, he looked shocked.

So a couple of points, or questions:

1. What is the criminal justice system supposed to do with someone like that? Just slap his wrists and send back out on the road to keep drinking and driving until he kills someone, and then punish him? No thanks. As my trusty Assistant the new father points out, we have a duty to protect those around us. Is it a waste of his life that he goes to prison? Sure, absolutely. Is it anyone's fault but his own? No.

2. More of a point than a question, and I don't mean this to come across as patronizing so forgive me if it does: but I think many people who understand the theories of criminal justice and have absolutely the best intentions, bu who don't work in the system, don't get bitten by the reality sometimes. I have moved to the right since doing this job, a realignment I call it (my wife calls it treacherous, I think!). But take defendant above: what all the pro-treatment, repeat-the-probation folks don't get is that you can be an alcoholic and not be a danger to others, not break the law repeated times while risking others' lives. This guy wasn't being punished for drinking, or even being an alcoholic. He was being punished for driving his vehicle while drinking. An avoidable behavior that he has control over.

Ultimately, Grits is right that our resources are not always spent where they should be. And he's right that locking this dude up for 25 years is out of proportion to the crime itself, when that crime is looked at in isolation.

But the question remains: what do you do with someone like that?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Prison, probation, perspective

It's Tuesday, so another post from our weekly regular, known only as The Assistant:

The first post I read at D.A. Confidential was “What Exactly is Probation?” The questions of what probation is, what it does, what it should do, and who’s eligible are central to understanding what a criminal justice system should be. There are several reasons that people have restrictions placed on their liberty through prosecution- to reform behavior, to make victims whole, to prevent repeat offending, or to keep the rest of the community safe. Sometimes, the only way to keep everyone else safe is to isolate an offender from society.

How our justice system deals with incarceration is a source of great philosophical disagreement that I cannot hope to resolve. It has been debated since before the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham drew his first sketches for the Panopticon. Incarceration has been justified as societal retribution, an opportunity for reform through moral punishment, and a deterrent cost under an economic model of crime. None of these, however, are as important as the fact that a criminal does not endanger society in the same way if he is isolated from it. Prisoners may always escape from the most austere incarceration, but there is no surer way to take a habitual DWI offender off the road than to deprive them of their liberty.

Incarceration should not be taken lightly. It is expensive for the state. It carries drastic consequences for the offender. Victims are not made whole and offenders are deprived of a chance to provide for themselves and their families. And believe it or not, but many of us who prosecute find that there is a psychic cost to sentencing people to jail. I would enjoy nothing more than waking up tomorrow morning and finding that my job was completely unnecessary. But it is necessary, and this past month has only complicated my personal views regarding societal seclusion through incarceration.

Last month, my son was born. My first child. My son. There isn’t a moment that I spend at work that I’m not thinking about him. I am not intimidated or concerned by violent and dangerous defendants. I’m a solidly built guy, participate in combat sports, and drive defensively. I can take care of myself. But my son cannot. My son. He needs me to protect him, and sometimes the only way that I can protect him is to make sure that a drunk driver doesn’t get behind the wheel for 180 days. Or 365 days. Or has the most stringent probation conditions that I can come up with. I have a responsibility to protect him, just as I had a responsibility to the two children who watched their father get beaten by two strangers while he stood beside the family car. Those defendants both received probation instead of jail so that they could pay restitution for medical bills. I wonder every day if that was the right thing. I may never know.

I make no claim of moral clarity or certitude. I’ve second guessed every single exercise of prosecutorial discretion since he was born. I’m not the only one with a son. One father came to me in the hall last week wanting to know about *his* son. I had to tell him that the judge had rejected the plea bargain recommendation and his son was spending three more months in jail. That father just wanted his son to come home. I watched a mother sit with her son in the hallway for five minutes while we waited on the jail transport van to take him back. She had driven four hours for the hearing just to have those five minutes. I’ve had defendants show me photos of their son while sitting in my office not because they were trying to garner sympathy, but because they were *proud*. Every player in this whole system was someone’s child, and we were all once as vulnerable as my son is now.

So where do we go from here? I don’t know. I’ll continue to go to work every day and try to do the best that I can to see that justice is done. Sometimes a defendant goes to jail. Sometimes a defendant receives probation. Sometimes a case is dismissed. The only thing that I do know is that every moment I will be thinking about my son.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Trials this week

Just one, but a big one: