While preparing the first case I ever presented to a grand jury, I interviewed a young cop before he was to testify to a few simple facts.
It was not a momentous case.
“Malicious destruction of property, kind of. . .well, B & E with intent to have sex. . .” I had tried to describe the case to a colleague before walking to the courthouse that housed the grand jury room.
“You mean B & E with intent to rape?”
“No, no. He and his girlfriend were looking for a place to have sex, so they broke into a neighbor’s house–broke a door, got into the booze, really trashed the place.”
Well, a prosecutor’s got to start somewhere.
I talked to my police witness before going into the grand jury room,
“What did you see when you got to the house?” I asked him, holding a copy of his perfunctory report, which inexplicably contained no mention of extensive damage the homeowner had described and which the officer had failed to photograph.
He hesitated, then leaned in towards me and lowered his voice.
“What do you want me to have seen?”
“What you actually saw,” I replied, incensed. “You don’t remember any of this, do you?”
Most attorneys spend their entire careers without setting foot in a courtroom. Even for litigators, a vast amount of lawyering is in the paperwork: in criminal practice there are motions, responses to motions, affidavits, witness statements, transcripts, notes, police reports, forensic reports, grand jury minutes, indictments, more motions, reported appellate cases.
After trial there are transcripts of every pretrial and trial proceeding, motions to set aside the verdict, motions for new trial, appeals from denials of motions for new trial. Eventually we arrive at the Mother of All Paperwork: the appellate briefs. And then some lucky state or federal prosecutor who wouldn’t know the trial witnesses if they shared an elevator gets our transcripts for the subsequent rounds of appeals based on federal constitutional issues.
We fill notepads and binders and boxes with reams of paper. We argue animatedly with each other about nuances of the jargon that bubbles forth in the trial judge’s complex legal instructions, which we somehow expect ordinary citizens to understand. (And, as one of the old-timers in my office, a frequent dispenser of pearls of wisdom, told me early on, “Always remember, kid: the average juror IQ is 100.”)
All those layers of paperwork can insulate us from the human damage that is at the core of every serious criminal trial. By the time the state supreme court resolves a murder case on appeal, years–sometimes decades–have passed, and horrific crimes have been boiled down to a short recitation of facts, followed by pithy resolution of the legal claims.
Police deal with human beings while investigating and in the immediate aftermath of a crime. As the (clink-clink) introduction to Law & Order always grimly intoned, “the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.”
And they do a lot more than investigate crimes. As my friend Barbara observed, her detective father never drew his gun in twenty-five years on the job in a densely-populated county: “Such is the experience of most suburban officers, who spend much of their time truly keeping the peace.”
Police are community caretakers. Officers certainly write reports, almost always in somewhat endearing trademark style–a passive voice formality festival (“The subject appeared glassy-eyed and was unsteady on his feet, and was unable to proceed beyond the letter ‘M’ when asked by this officer to recite the alphabet….”). But much more of their work involves not crime but diplomacy, dealing with people’s myriad disputes and problems, their accidents and injuries and crises.
As well, although most will never have to draw a weapon during their entire law enforcement careers; there always is an undercurrent of danger in police work, particularly when making a routine traffic stop or responding to a domestic violence call.
I have worked with police officers my entire professional life. As in any profession—most certainly including the legal profession–not all police officers are good people, and not all of them are competent. Some are an abject disgrace to the uniform.
Most fall into what I believe to be an overwhelming majority of principled, skilled men and women dedicated to doing a grueling and potentially deadly job the best they can.
And some are sublime. They are skilled, tenacious to the point of relentlessness, professional, and very, very smart.
One of the best I’ve ever seen is a homicide detective who dedicated many of his law enforcement years to a unit attached to the District Attorney’s Office where I spent my first fifteen years as a lawyer.
This detective worked one seemingly impossible-to-prove homicide case for five years after the young victim’s execution-style murder.
Through all the daily chaos of multiple ongoing investigations and cases—one leading him as far away as Uganda—this detective would go to his windowless office and see a school picture of the victim on the lower right-hand side of a board over his desk.
He thought about someone else’s son every single day, hitting brick walls until finally he made a case with which we lawyers then could do the comparatively easy job of prevailing in court.
He cared so deeply about justice for that victim and his family—and every other human being in every case he handled—that I’m positive he can still see all of their faces today.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon