Friday, March 18, 2005

We don't usually comment on celebrity cases. Frankly, they function more as public entertainment than a criminal process whose goal is the search for the truth. As Steve Cooley and LA prosecutors are scratching their heads wondering what the hell happened to an otherwise slam dunk case, the LA TIMES this morning pointed to one possible reason for the case going south. The Times calls it the "CSI EFFECT." Thanks to shows like CSI, movies like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and countless police procedural novels, juries have become armchair sleuths. They come into cases thinking that they probably know as much as any detective or prosecutor about evidence, the law, forensics, the motivation of the defendant and, most worrisome, a large doubt about the professionalism of the police and prosecutors.

Actually, this is nothing new. It's been happening far less visibly, to the public at least, for years. One prosecutor who used to work in Compton told me years ago that it was getting harder and harder to get guilty verdicts out of juries. The problem, as he saw it, was that juries were expecting the sort of forensic magic they see on TV -- hair samples, fibers, miniscule blood spatters, anal swabs, a fingerprint lifted from an eyeball and the sort of esoteric evidence that only a fiction writer would concoct.

Reality is as lot more mundane. In most murder cases, the forensic evidence amounts to nothing more than some shell casings and bullet projectiles. Most of the time, the gun or the murder weapon is never recovered. On CSI, for instance, you've got a team of criminalists armed with everything from print kits to gas chromatographs and computer systems that recreate crime scenes in full color and 3D imaging. They have databases that would put the CIA to shame. With a few keystrokes, they can call up everything from a prior arrest to a suspect's fifth grade math test. Evidence is processed at lightning speed and they operate in a world of unlimited manpower and budgets.

The reality is that in LA it can take six months to get a ballistics report from the crime lab. Homicide investigators rarely get a single criminalist assigned to a crime scene. And in busy divisions, IOs are working from three to ten cases simultaneously and loaded down with maybe another ten cold cases. This is not to imply that the IOs in Blake's case did a less than thorough job. They pulled together everything that homicide detectives could realistically gather. It's just that the evidence did not seem to meet the jury's TV-inflated expectations.

The Blake jury's biggest obstacle seems to be that the prosecutor could not place the gun in Blake's hand. They wanted GSR (Gunshot Residue), prints on the gun, a tidy, airtight timeline, some blood spatter on Blake's clothes when he pulled the trigger -- who knows, maybe even a photo from a spy satellite that happened to be passing overhead at the time of the killing. The kind of "he's so screwed" evidence "as seen on TV." Something so compelling and irrefutable that even Courtney Love on Nembutal would have no trouble deciding guilt. Basically, this jury, and juries in other cases, left common sense at the door and were misled by their expectations of modern crime-fighting techniques. What they don't know is that the LAPD and the DA's office is woefully understaffed, under-funded and still living in the steam age in terms of high-tech gear and people required to operate it.

In the courtroom, juries have also come to expect drama and "Aha" moments, a "You can't handle the truth" tipping point where the suspect hangs himself with his own words. In real life, it doesn't happen.

For the most part, murder trials are as stimulating as an afternoon of ice fishing. Maybe less so because you can't drink beer in court.

Dumb juries aside, there's no avoiding the fact that the DA's Major Crime Unit couldn't make the case. There was some talk early on that the case should never have been filed because it was weak to begin with. But to a thoughtful observer, the case looked good enough for a filing. Besides, with the widespread public opinion that Blake did it, not filing would have made Cooley look like the weakest crime-fighter since Barney Fife. Or at least gun shy after the humiliation of the OJ case.

If the jury wasn't dazzled by the sort of evidence they see on TV, it's possible they might have been convinced by a better courtroom performer. If you can't enthrall the jury with techy evidence, maybe they'll be captivated by the person presenting the evidence. If you can't give the jury CSI, maybe you should send forth Tom Cruise.

As in any organization, the DA's office has the usual mix of colorless functionaries, political operators, bench warmers, loose canons and brilliant crime fighters. While the prosecutor in this case did an admirable job, maybe MAJOR CRIMES could have done a better casting job. To paraphrase the old saw of letting the punishment fit the crime, maybe the next time that unit gets a celebrity case, they should let the prosecutor fit the criminal.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

We originally posted the killing of CHP officer STEINER by 16-year-old VALENTINO ARENAS, a POMONA 12th STREET wannabe when it first happened. If you recall, ARENAS was intent on making a name for himself with his neighborhood and decided that the most dramatic and direct way was to kill a cop. It was an assassination pure and simple.

This week, ARENAS was sentenced to LIFE WITHOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF PAROLE (LWOP). I was discussing this case with a reformed gangster and a retired cop, each of us musing about what can a free society do to keep teens like Arenas from getting to that point of insanity where he pulls the trigger on a cop just to impress a bunch of other teens.

We estimated that if Arenas lives to 70, each of his next 54 years in prison will cost California $36,000 for a grand total of $1.94 million to house, feed, clothe and keep healthy. I wondered what if the state had spent ten percent of that money, roughly $190,000, on him in some kind of intervention or diversion program. Could a kid like him, with a father already in prison, a caretaker aunt who had just come out of prison when the killing happened and a non-present mom, possibly be snatched out of that environment and set straight?

Oddly, it was the reformed gangster in our group who was the most pessimistic. Based on his own eperience with a terrible home environment, time in the CYA, County jail and ultimately State prison, his contention is that there's no government program that can give a kid what he needs and craves the most -- loving parents and a stable home. The most we can hope to do, he said, was the yank that kid out of the house when he was still an infant and either put him up for adoption or put him in an orphanage. That's illegal, to say the least. In a free society, I told him, you can't take kids away from parents on the basis of how they "might" be damaged by their own parents in the future. And besides, I said, there are plenty of kids in supposedly stable, well-off homes who go sideways and set off a COLUMBINE or pull off a drive-by. You yank those kids too?

The retired cop then brought up an example of something that happened in England this week.In this case, it was a 12-year-old who assaulted and raped his special ed teacher, stole her car and went on a cime spree. Like Arenas, he was sentenced to LWOP, something unheard of in England but something that they're learning to deal out. Apparently, the kid had been a professional smoker and drinker since the age of four and was encouraged to have sex by the time he was eight. By his alcoholic, drug-addicted parents.

The point that the cop went on to make was that in England, where they've got every social program known to man, where they've banned guns and the death penalty, provide free cradle to grave medical care, ultra-generous welfare allowances, free housing to the poor, and where you can't even give somebody the finger without being accused of a hate crime, even they can't seem to short-circuit the youth crime problem. Apparently, it's almost as bad there as it is in LA.

"It's the home," the ex-gangster said. "Definitely," the ex-cop said. "There's got to be a way," I said. "Yeah," the ex-gangster said. "But it would be illegal."