Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

In Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon details the time he spent with detectives in the homicide division of the Baltimore police department and takes readers inside numerous murder investigations in one of the most violent cities in the U.S.

Simon does a great job of avoiding the sycophantic and lopsided treatment that many crime reporters give to the police forces that they cover. A desire to maintain access and the inevitable bias that comes from hearing about the scum of the earth that the police have to deal with generally gets most reporters onside.

But in some ways, coverage of a homicide department allows a more nuanced take and the potential for less speechifying and political rants. While the crimes are some of the most brutal, the police officers who become detectives and work in homicide are the best of the best. Sure, there is the opportunity for homicide detectives to stitch up an innocent person. But absent a false confession beaten out of a suspect, the necessary legwork has to be done, a suspect caught, and sufficient evidence collected before a prosecutor will take the case to trial and a jury will convict.

Fans of the TV's Homicide: Life on the Streets, which was based on this book, will recognize many of the detectives Simon writes about. Simon was also the creator of The Wire, and many of the characters from that show draw from the real-life situations and people that he writes about here as well.

As Stupid as They Come

Police deal with the scum of the earth, the most deviant pieces of filth on the face of the earth. And despite the well planned murders that we often see in books and cinema, stupidity from the small-time punks and hoods who slaughter each other is more common in the real world. As well as being sociopathic, nasty individuals, the murderers we read about here are some of the most brain-dead individuals on the planet.

In one passage, Simon details how all suspects being interviewed are clearly advised of their rights. Told in plain English that they have nothing to gain by talking and have the right to a lawyer. And then those same detectives spin a narrative in which they give an out to the simpleton sitting in front of them. The detectives tell the suspect, about whom they have no real evidence but know from experience, body language, and common sense that this is their man—they tell him that they sympathize with him. They know he had no choice because he was disrespected by the fool that he then had to murder.

And more times than you might expect, this appeals to a mulish bravado in the suspect and he agrees with what the detectives are saying. He gladly admits to the murder, confident that he has the respect of the detectives interviewing him. Sure, he's now going down for life, but he was punked! What's a brother to do? In the street narrative voice that Simon uses to great effect throughout the book, he perfectly summarizes the wasted lives and the absurd mentality behind the violence:
Get used to small rooms, bunk, because you are about to be drop-kicked into the lost land of pretrial detention. Because it's one thing to be a murdering little asshole from Southeast Baltimore, and it's another to be stupid about it, and with five little words you have just elevated yourself to the ranks of the truly witless.

Superb Writing

Simon brings detectives, perpetrators, and victims to life with a few deft strokes. And like all the best non-fiction books, the prose often reads better than most crime novels. The nastiness of the crime scenes are sketched out in dispassionate detail, and the dialogue crackles with authenticity. The dreary inner city landscape of Baltimore comes through in gritty passages in which Simon details the final resting place of numerous victims.

Simon also shines the light on the kind of gallows humour that police officers use to deal with the gruesome nature of their job. Marveling at the nasty ways that the human body can decompose, the detectives who come upon recent murders usually offer up a good one-liner or engage in some desultory banter that verges on the absurd.

That's one aspect of the great observations and details that Simon offers up—and just the kind of things that readers of true crime and crime novels will love to learn about. We also learn about the competitive aspect of solving crimes—not just between individual detectives, but between the different squads that work homicide. It's a sad glimpse at the fact that getting at the truth is not always the most important factor that drives an investigation forward.

The Weirdness

Remarkably strange occurrences surround many of the murder investigations. As the detectives track down the person who murdered a young black child, they come across what might be a lead in the case. They find a fingerprint on the library book that was found in the young girl's book bag. And, amazingly, they get a hit on the fingerprint in the database that contains thousands of prints of criminals who have been fingerprinted in the past. They get a hit on someone who had shoplifted the day before the fingerprint from the book was fed into the system. Had it been a day earlier, there would have been no return on the fingerprint.
Eight days after a police computer took his name in vain, Kevin Lawrence is brought down to the homicide unit, where he tells detectives that he knows nothing about any girl named Latonya Wallace. He does, however, remember a book about black American heroes with the title of Pioneers and Patriots. Shown the text itself, he can even recall the school report he prepared long ago using that same book, which he had borrowed from the Eutaw-Marshburn school library. The paper was on great black Americans and, as the young man recalled, it earned him an A. But that he says, was more than ten years ago. Why are they even asking about it?

The investigation that exonerates Kevin Lawrence is still wrapping up when Pellegrini returns to duty. But by luck or mercy or both, the primary investigator is allowed to watch from the periphery as other detectives slam into a wall. He is, in a very real sense, spared the anguish of seeing a precious piece of physical evidence reduced to fantastic coincidence—a fingerprint that sat undisturbed on a book for more than a decade, waiting for a million dollar computer to give it life enough to taunt a few homicide detectives for a week and a half.
In another surreal incident, two detectives seek the exhumation of a body from a paupers cemetery on the outskirts of Baltimore. It's part of an investigation into perhaps the most insidious individual who populates the gallery of freaks and killers in this book: a nasty, aging hag who for years convinced men to sign life insurance policies with herself as the beneficiary, and then later had them killed to collect.

Only after the autopsy on the exhumed body do they realize that it's not the person they were looking for. The feckless individual who operates the cemetery admits that he dug a mass grave and bulldozed in a few dozen bodies. The unreal aspect is that the body that was mistakenly exhumed had the same name as a suspect one of the other homicide detectives had recently arrested for a murder. The exhumed body was the father of the suspect. A bizarre and ghoulish coincidence.

The Frustration of Unsolved Murders

During the time that Simon followed the detectives in the homicide department, he was able to see some major cases develop and go to trial. He was also able to see the frustration mount regarding cases that weren't solved, and subsequently never solved years later. When a case can't be solved, there aren't hints at a criminal mastermind who managed to pull off the perfect crime. It is normally drug murders—the hardest of all murders to solve because they often take place outside, in a neutral location nowhere near the victim's or the perpetrator's homes. And because the body is outside, often at a different location than where the murder took place, there is no physical evidence. Those kinds of cases are a source of frustration for the detectives, simply because they bring down the department stats.

But when the victim is an innocent bystander or a child, a cold wind of frustration and despair blows as it becomes apparent that numerous factors conspired to allowed the perpetrator to get away with murder. The unknown perpetrator becomes a phantom who will often haunt a detective until the end of his days. Such is the case with the tragedy of Lantonya Wallace, whose killer was never found. It is when writing about the sad case of that little girl that Simon's writing is most effective:
It is the illusion of tears and nothing more, the rainwater that collects in small beads and runs to the hollows of her face. The dark brown eyes are fixed wide, staring across wet pavement; jet black braids of hair surround the deep brown skin, high cheekbones and a pert, upturned nose. The lips are parted and curled in a slight, vague frown. She is beautiful, even now.

She is resting on her left hip, her head cocked to one side, her back arched, with one leg bent over the other. Her right arm rests above her head, her left arm is fully extended, with small, thin fingers reaching out across the asphalt for something, or someone, no longer there.
Simon sketches out the characters in the real-life dramas that he witnesses as skillfully as great writers of fiction. And because of that, you empathize and get to know the detectives and feel for them when the pieces don't fall into place.

Within the police and crime reporting category, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is truly one of the great ones.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The False Confession

The false confession is one of the least known and least understood phenomena in the world of crime and justice. The whole concept seems so strange and incomprehensible to most people that any mention of a false confession elicits a mixture of disbelief and rage towards the person who gave the false confession.

A false confession is, just as the name implies, a confession to a crime made by an accused that is not accurate, or in many cases, completely fabricated.

Everyone can get their head around the idea of someone lying to avoid punishment. But wrongly implicating yourself? The very notion is so alien to most people that they have no sympathy for the person in question. No one can envision themselves doing something so "stupid" so they have little time for trying to understand why anyone else would do such a thing.

Beat it Out of Him

Almost without fail, false confessions are elicited by police officers who subject the accused to brutal interrogation over lengthy periods of time—sometimes days on end. The subject is broken down and then the new reality is planted in his mind in which he is the guilty party. The individual truly comes to believe that he was involved in the crime.

interrogate suspectIn the horrific, sleep-deprived nightmare in which he finds himself, his mind is so thoroughly twisted that he recites the narrative that has been presented to him by his tormentors. Or, the accused simply confesses because he knows that will at least momentarily end the abuse. And once the confession is made, the cops have achieved victory and they are heroes within the closed, and self-validating police sub-culture. It is after the accused has recovered from the interrogation that he realizes the mistake he has made. When he retracts his confession it is already too late.

Police decide early on in an investigation who they think the guilty party is, and then search for any evidence that supports their beliefs. When there is a confession, this absolute conviction in their minds becomes invincible.

Mistakes were Made (but not by me)

In the book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) the authors go into detail about how false confessions come about:

The bible of interrogation methods is Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, written by Fred E. Inbau, John E. Reid, Joseph P. Buckley, and Brian C. Jayne. John E. Reid and Associates offers training programs, seminars, and videotapes on the 9-Step Reid Technique, and on their Web site they claim that they have trained more than 300,000 law-enforcement workers in the most effective ways of eliciting confessions. The manual starts right off reassuring readers that "none of the steps is apt to make an innocent person confess," and that "all the steps are legally as well as morally justifiable":

It is our clear position that merely introducing fictitious evidence during an interrogation would not cause an innocent person to confess. It is absurd to believe that a suspect who knows he did not commit a crime would place greater weight and credibility on alleged evidence than his own knowledge of his innocence. Under this circumstance, the natural human reaction would be one of anger and mistrust toward the investigator. The net effect would be the suspect's further resolution to maintain his innocence.

Wrong. The "natural human reaction" is usually not anger and mistrust but confusion and hopelessness—dissonance—because most innocent suspects trust the investigator not to lie to them. The interrogator, however, is biased from the start. Whereas an interview is a conversation designed to get general information from a person, an interrogation is designed to get a suspect to admit guilt. (The suspect is often unaware of the difference.) The manual states this explicitly: "An interrogation is conducted only when the investigator is reasonably certain of the suspect's guilt." The danger of that attitude is that once the investigator is "reasonably certain," the suspect cannot dislodge that certainty. On the contrary, anything the suspect does will be interpreted as evidence of lying, denial, and evading the truth, including repeated claims of innocence. Interrogators are explicitly instructed to think this way. They are taught to adopt the attitude "Don't lie, we know you are guilty," and to reject the suspect's denials. We've seen this self-justifying loop before, in the way some therapists and social workers interview children they believe have been molested. Once an interrogation like this begins, there is no such thing as disconfirming evidence.

That is the most disturbing thing about false confessions. Even when it has been proved that someone did not commit a crime to which they have falsely confessed, the police who were involved in eliciting that confession rarely, if ever, see the light and admit their mistake.

Referring to innocent people freed from prison (and in these cases, not just due to false confessions) the authors of Mistakes were Made write:

Of all the convictions the Innocence Project has succeeded in overturning so far, there is not a single instance the police later tried to find the actual perpetrator of the crime. The police and prosecutors just close the books on the case completely, as if to obliterate its silent accusation of the mistake they made.

In the light of DNA evidence, eyewitnesses admitting they lied, and numerous other indications that they had the wrong person, the police never decide to seek the person who actually did commit the crime. It is quite a sickening realization that police, lawyers, and others within the justice system, are more motivated by justifying their behaviour and saving face than getting at the truth.

The false confession is far more common than most people could imagine. Within police forces, every action and utterance is validated and justified by a subculture that convinces its members that they can do no wrong. As with all instances of self-justification by humans, when all facts point to police officers being wrong about someone from whom they have elicited a false confession, the likelihood of them seeing the light and trying to right the wrong is almost non-existent.

A Different Type of False Confession

Kyle Unger was recently acquitted after serving 14 years in prison for a crime that he didn't commit. He was convicted largely on the basis of a confession he made to undercover police officers posing as gang members. Unger made the confession to impress the "gang members" in the hopes that he would have the chance to work with them. However, the confession contained numerous details that police knew were false. In the light of evidence to the contrary, they latched on to the confession and sent him away for close to 15 years.

The attorney general in Manitoba has stated that there will be no compensation forthcoming.

The false confession should not disqualify Unger for compensation, just as no other single consideration should disqualify a wrongly incarcerated person for compensation. It's as if we are saying that only those who didn't break under interrogation and long years in prison for a crime that they didn't commit should be compensated for those lost years. This is ridiculous. Lost years are lost years regardless of how the person is wrongly convicted and sent to prison. The blame should not be placed on the person who was interrogated, coerced, and yes, in some cases, tortured into making a false confession.

The false confession has become a way for prosecutors and police forces to absolve themselves of any blame when a wrongly incarcerated person is freed. More importantly, it is a way for governments to avoid paying compensation to people who have sacrificed years, and sometimes decades, of their lives. All because of the arrogance and short-sightedness of police forces that leaned on a suspect until he broke and then, with the assistance of a prosecutor, rode the false confession to a conviction despite all evidence to the contrary.

No police officer wants to be told that something he considers to be a valuable tool—interrogation— in his arsenal against criminals is likely to send a good number of innocent people to prison. But we need to pay more attention to the phenomenon of false confessions, or they will continue to send innocent people to prison, and the reputation of police forces will continue to suffer.