One of the many nightmares faced by police is letting the guilty go because of a mistake made. Often times this is because of some mistake made in the processing of crucial evidence. A defense attorney finds it, and the next thing the officer knows, the person they worked so hard to connect to the crime is freed on a technicality.
Now, I’ve made some of those stupid mistakes. Police work is one of those things that if you make a mistake, you learn from it. Such was the case I based a section an incident in Against Flesh and Blood.
In the book, we have a terrifying sexual assault that occurs at gunpoint. In the story, one of the girls knows what kind of weapon it was, and the perp makes the mistake of shooting at officers with it when they come to arrest him.
In reality, they had no clue what kind of weapon it was except it was a pistol which was black in color. They didn’t know the difference between a semi-auto or a revolver, how long the barrel was, or even a guess at the caliber. All they knew was he had a gun and he pointed it at them.
We got our search warrant, and when we arrested the guy, we searched his house. Well, guess what! We found a pistol. Well, considering a fair number of people in America own at least one pistol, that’s not too surprising.
But when we went to the pre-trial conference, the defense attorney hammered the point that we hadn’t demonstrated that this particular pistol had anything to do with the crime the suspect was charged with. The judge agreed, rightfully so.
Now I could have been upset with the judge or the system, but it really wasn’t their fault. It was mine for not establishing more specifics on the weapon. The fact my witnesses were unable to provide anything didn’t help. Looking back, there was a lot I could have done to ID the weapon, but hadn’t. I had a good idea what it was, but because they didn’t, there went the pistol as evidence.
Sometimes the case can be refiled without the piece of evidence, but if it happened to be the lynch pin for the case, well, there goes that.
In our case, the assault had never centered 100% on the pistol. The girls still identified the car and suspect, and we had a match on the semen sample. It did go from first degree sexual assault (done with a weapon involved), to second.
That made a difference when it came to sentencing. We were never allowed to even mention the weapon in court, so what he got was six years in prison instead of the twenty he’d have gotten if the pistol had been allowed as evidence.
Now, I’m not knocking the job of a defense attorney or how cases are tried. The court system is designed to make one hundred percent certain that only a guilty person goes to jail. There have been failures of the system where an innocent man has been incarcerated, but they are fewer than one would expect.
That said, let’s talk about murder.
In The Judas Tree, a young wife is murdered. In this case, shot in the chest with a pistol. The pistol is never actually found, and it’s only through investigation that the suspect in the case is actually identified and a warrant put out for his arrest.
While all crimes are serious, very little is more so than a murder. You can’t afford too many mistakes there.
Andy Deshong, a character I introduced in The Cross and the Badge is back. He’s assisting Will and RJ in processing the crime scene, and he puts it this way:
“RJ,” I said, putting the lens cap back on the camera. “You going to be OK with this?”
“I’ve got it covered.”
Despite sounding like he knew what he was talking about, I could hear a little bit of trepidation in his voice.
Andy had sketched out the crime scene. Later he and RJ would put measurements into it.
“If it’s any consolation,” Andy said, “they never get easier.”
I remembered my first homicide. I threw up at that one. Even after half a dozen cases, I thought the same thing Andy had just said.
Andy had handled dozens of homicides. And here he was saying they never get easier. I always thought that someplace, somewhere, you built up mental armor against such a thing. That you get jaded, and a dead body became just a dead body.
“The victim,” Andy said, without looking up from the sketchpad, “was a person. They were someone’s son or daughter. They were someone’s mother or father. When someone murders them, they aren’t committing a crime against just that person, but the rest of the world.
“Each person is unique. There will never be another person like the victim. And when they’re taken from us, we’re much poorer as a people.”
I recognized what he’d said. It was in one of his books. I’d asked him about that. He explained it to me this way. It was a warning to those of us who worked these crimes. Murder was the worst crime imaginable, and we would do the victim a massive disservice if we brought their murderer to justice, but lost them in the process.
It struck me as a nice way to stop being objective, and I said so.
“I’m sorry, Will. We can’t afford to be so objective that we forget we’re that we’re the ones who speak for the dead.”
A homicide is where a detective has to have his stuff together. In the next book, On a Pale Horse, we have a cold case where the case wasn’t properly investigated.
It will cause a lot of issues for my characters.