Sometimes this Boston criminal lawyer has to just chuckle, look down and shake his head. So many things in the criminal justice system are predictable. And yet, we, as a society, seem never to learn.
Or is it simply that we do not care?
Two local criminal justice stories dominated the news today. The Mattapan Massacre trial and the plight of Catherine Greig, Whitey Bulger’s girlfriend.
Let’s check the news on the Mattapan murder matter first.
Today was the day for closing arguments.
As expected, the “front lines” of the war of words was the credibility of the prosecution’s key witness, Kimani Washington (hereinafter, the “Witness”) as all three sides gave their closing arguments in the trial concerning the quadruple slaying in September 2010 that has been called one of the most horrific in Boston’s recent history.
If you read my 4-part blog on this subject from last week, you know the issues fairly well. If not, you may wish to read them. Suffice to say, however, the Witness was indisputably at the scene of the crime…at least for awhile. He claims that he left before the shooting began. Of course, there is evidence, including physical evidence, that would refute this position. However, the Commonwealth, in its infinite wisdom, decided to cast aside doubt (and/or common sense) and rely on the Witness’ word as to how everything “went down”.
Being faced with the difficult choice of either testifying as the state desired or standing trial for a crime that is punished by life in prison without the chance of parole, the Witness chose Option A.
And so it was that all summations concentrated on whether or not the jury should believe the Witness’ story and be convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendants were guilty as charged.
The defense attorneys argued that their clients were innocent and that the Witness should not be believed and, indeed, was probably the real killer in the case. The prosecution argued that just because the Witness was a 36-year-old career criminal with a drinking problem who admittedly originally lied to police repeatedly about the night of the killings, had previously shot people, owned too many guns in his life “to keep track of” and had participated in the robbery that proceeded the shootings did not necessarily mean that he was unreliable.
One of the defense attorneys told the jury that they had the ultimate power to decide the case. “We don’t believe that the police get to decide, as hard as their job is. That’s not how we work,” he said.
Attorney Sam’s Take On Whether Prosecutors And Police Officers “Get To Decide”
As you know, I have been a prosecutor and I have been a criminal defense attorney. I have been an attorney in the trenches of the criminal justice system for over a quarter century. I have seen and experienced a few eye-openers.
Let’s connect a few dots, shall we?
Whitey Bulger’s case was also in the news today. Family members of purported victims of Mr. Bulger are upset that his girlfriend, who became involved with Bulger after the alleged crimes, is being allowed to plead guilty tomorrow in accordance with a plea deal. She will not be forced to testify against Bulger as part of that deal.
There is a limit as to how much the prosecution could control this. However, let’s turn the clock back alittle, shall we? As much as the federal prosecutors may not want to be reminded, Mr. Bulger was more than reputedly a “crime boss”. He was indisputably an informant for the federal authorities.
That was something they absolutely had control over.
This means that people were prosecuted on the word of Mr. Bulger and folks like him. One of the few differences between the role that Bulger played and the one the Witness played is that only two people are looking at life-long prison terms on the Witness’ say-so.
How many people received such treatment on the “reliable” word of Whitey Bulger back in the day?
I also mentioned last week the saga of Detective Johnson, recently retired of the Marlboro Police Department. Somehow, it came to light that Detective Johnson had been stealing monies from the evidence room (over which he had complete and constant access) which were related to several ongoing criminal cases.
The police investigated the case and did something which I find rather fascinating. They told him that, if they would but tell them the extent of his crimes, as well as whether anyone else had been involved, they would not only not prosecute him for his various felonies, but would also not fire him. He would be allowed to simply retire. He was able to collect his pension, which was used, at least partly, to pay back the amount he admitted to stealing.
On a recent television program on which I appeared, the Chief was asked if this was giving Detective Johnson special treatment. He said that it was not, because, after all, they were able to ascertain the truth of the extent of the criminal activity.
How did they ascertain that “truth”?
They relied upon what the admittedly felonious and crooked cop told them. After all, why would the man lie?
Hey, I didn’t make this up! Look it up! Watch the video here!
If you were accused of embezzlement of thousands of dollars, let alone doing it while abusing your position as a trusted societal guardian allowed to carry a gun, do you think law enforcement would be content to get you to “admit” to the extent you wished to admit and then, because you told them what you told them, let you go your merry way?
Let me put it to you this way…in all my years in the system, I have yet to see it happen.
“So, what is the point, Sam? You want Detective Johnson locked up and the defendants in the Mattapan Massacre trial let go?”
No. My point is that to say that law enforcement does not “get to decide” is to engage in fantasy. They may not render the final decision as a jury does, but they do get to decide what happened in a given matter and, sometimes, they do so in a, to be generous, negligent and reckless manner.
The result? People’s lives are ruined. Some people plead guilty because they have little choice. Others are exonerated but their lives are still in ruin because they have exhausted all resources because they had the temerity to insist upon their innocence. This, of course, while those around them have assumed them guilty and fired them from jobs and families.
And then there are those pesky convicted inmates who keep getting access to DNA samples and actually proving they were innocvent all along (after spending lord knows how long in prison)
The fact that they do not languish in prison does not make it “no harm, no foul”. There is plenty of harm and an abundance of foul.
Given this, as well as the fact that we, as a society seem to have no in terest in changing it, could you please give me a clear example of the difference between the two conflicting tables in the criminal justice system?