Monday, Dec. 11, 2023 |
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All reporters have their favorite beats and favorite subjects. Working at
smaller papers for the past 15 years has forced me to become a
Here on Kaua’i, for example, I cover the County Council,
collect and write the police blotter, and attend at least segments of as many
serious felony trials as I have time for.
I also write this weekly column
and help out with a feature now and then.
I don’t mind the variety, but if
I had my druthers, I’d cover nothing but criminal trials, no matter how petty
the offense charged.
I’m fascinated by the legal process, including the way
attorneys justify what they do for a living.
I worked for a short time in
Seattle as a private investigator for a friend who happens to be one of that
city’s best defense practitioners. He primarily defends people charged with
serious felonies. By his own, necessarily conservative estimate, at least three
out of four of his high-profile clients are probably guilty.
big-city detectives will tell you that most metropolitan police departments
don’t bother charging cases where there is a lot of doubt about guilt. Cops,
even here, are always saying they know who did it. They just can’t prove
A 30-year veteran police investigator told me once that 98 percent of
the people charged with felonies in his jurisdiction were guilty.
charge the ones we can’t prove, so, except for a mistake once in a while,
they’re all guilty,” he claimed.
My friend, the attorney, never asked his
clients about their guilt or innocence. He didn’t want to know. He said he was
afraid it might affect the way he presented someone’s defense if he knew,
beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they had assaulted, murdered or raped
I know attorneys are necessary. But I often wonder how criminal
attorneys, from F. Lee Bailey on down, sleep at night, knowing that when they
are successful they’ve (often, not always) put a guilty party back on the
For me, their standard defense of the job – that everyone charged
with a crime deserves representation – rings shallow if they know their client
But I have also seen trials (not here, not yet) where I knew the
police were not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I’ve also
seen some mainland prosecutors try to suppress evidence that would have been
harmful to their case, even though that same evidence would have helped the
jury get closer to the truth.
I liken the battle between prosecutor and
defense attorney to sports, only with much bigger stakes than a mere football
or basketball game.
In addition to enjoying the dueling attorneys, I like
the way a good trial pulls the covers back and allows you to see how some
people really live (and die).
Good reporters are people who want to know
what exactly is going on. They hate hypocrisy more than treason.
If I write
a feature story about an inventor or a politician, I can only approximate his
or her character. They can present themselves any way they want to for an hour
or so. But in a criminal trial, everything about the folks involved eventually
comes out one way or another in open court.
I have a good friend who writes
(and publishes serious literary fiction). He reads the Bible’s Old Testament,
not because he necessarily believes it is the word of God, but because the
stories are “so good.”
I like to cover murder trials for the same reason.
It’s not that I’m bloodthirsty. I wish people didn’t kill each other.
as I grow older, I no longer like going to murder scenes. When I was a younger
reporter, I stood around a lot of bodies that had been violently separated from
life, silently watching detectives and crime-scene people do their work. And if
I missed a crime scene, there always seemed to be a detective willing to help
Cops like throwing murder snapshots of the victims at reporters.
In one way, it’s kind of a macho thing, but I believe it’s also the cop’s way
of saying to the reporter, “This is what we have to deal with. You look at
As I write this, dead faces of the murdered I’ve seen are lining up in
front of my myopic eyes.
But the crimes do happen despite my fondest
wishes that they did not, and the trials follow. And I like the trials. I am
endlessly fascinated by the defendants, who often have done something truly
horrible to another human being. But by the time they get to court, after
they’ve been cleaned up to look like someone’s favorite nephew, it’s usually
hard to believe they’ve killed or raped anyone.
That’s the reason so many
people who are tough on crime in theory always want to make an exception for
criminals they knew before the wheels came off.
“But he’s such a nice guy,”
they’ll say. Someone just said it about the bearded whacko who executed seven
co-workers in Massachusetts last month. (There will be a lawyer for him,
People want their murderers and rapists to look like other people,
not themselves. And that’s also fascinating to me.
reporters I’ve known have preferred politics, or sports, or fashion, or movies.
Me, I like the courthouse, as long as I’m not one of the
TGI staff writer Dennis Wilken can be reached at 245-3681
(ext. 252) and firstname.lastname@example.org
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