Thursday, September 30, 2010

Story time: a tale of burglary and hubris

This is the second in an occasional series in which I actually break (okay, bend) my rule about not talking about cases. Be sure to read my standard disclaimer so you see why and how I'm doing it:

Disclaimer: In the same way I tell my kids about my cases, I share this story with you. But I will tell it in the same way I tell my kids, thus I'll be leaving out analysis, legal discussion, names, dates, and, well, facts.

Once upon a time, a year ago to be exact, a colleague had a burglary case. The evidence was a little thin, consisting of an eye-witness identification (by a stranger about thirty yards away) and the defendant's car being at the scene (he didn't live there).

The defense lawyer, I'll call him Chip, was emphatic that the defendant (I'll call him Rob), was innocent.

"He'd loaned his car to his cousin, Abe, and look at this picture: Abe and Rob look very much alike."

My colleague looked at the pictures and there was indeed a good resemblance, but the witness was adamant.

"Also," Chip went on, "my client has no criminal history at all, and his cousin is not just a burglar but has just been sentenced to life for sexual assault."

An easy fall guy. Nice touch.

And then my colleague got transferred out of this court into another. Her replacement took on the case and got the same story. At one point, the defendant was offered a misdemeanor with time served, but he turned it down, insisting that he was innocent.

Then, when this prosecutor left the court, I got the case. And the same insistence of innocence.

"In fact," Chip said, "my client is willing to take a polygraph test. That, by itself, should convince you of his innocence."

And it gave me pause. Why would a guilty man volunteer for a lie-detector test? I hummed and hawwed and finally picked up the phone to call the Department of Public Safety polygraph division. I got bounced around a few times but finally talked to a polygrapher. I laid out the facts and asked if he thought he could help.

"Sure," he said. "Be happy to."
"Well, great. But how much will this cost the county?"
"Nothing. Absolutely free," he said.

So I made an appointment on the spot, called Chip and told him where to be and when.

The afternoon of the polygraph I was driving home when I got a text (I checked it at home, not while driving, of course), from Chip:

"Polly wanna cracker?"

What could this mean? Did his man pass or fail? It sounded a little gloating but I wasn't sure so I checked my work email. There sat a message from the polygrapher:

"Rob failed the polygraph."

Wow. But that's not admissible, I thought to myself, let me just read the rest of this email. . .

"Not only did he fail it, but he confessed to being the driver, entering the apartment, and getting money from the proceeds of what was stolen."

Double wow. From a misdemeanor, with time served, to a second degree felony, and all because he thought he could get away with it.

That evening I called the prosecutors who had handled the case before me and both had the same reaction: "No way! I knew there was something about that case!"

I saw Chip the next morning and felt bad for him. He'd believed his client and fought hard for him, did everything in his power to convince us the guy was not guilty.

And so I didn't gloat.

After all, hadn't I just learned a valuable lesson about hubris?

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