Anyone who knows me well has probably heard me say that I missed my calling and that I should have been an FBI agent or a criminal profiler. Ever since I read The Stranger Beside Me, a true crime book about serial killer Ted Bundy when I was just fifteen years old, I have been fascinated with the genre and with the psychology of sociopathic and psychopathic offenders. I wouldn’t give you fifty cents for all of the fictional crime shows like Criminal Minds, CSI (you fill in the city) or NCIS. I devour the real documentary type shows like I Am A Killer, Forensic Files, and Cold Case Files. I’ve read extensively about nearly every serial killer in history, which makes Darryl a little nervous sometimes. I have also read the memoirs of the FBI agents and profilers who caught the killers. It was them that I envied, that I wanted to trade places with.
I’ve always been enamored with cops. It’s not just about how good they look in their uniforms, either. Maybe it started in grade school. I clearly remember a police officer visiting my classroom when I was in maybe fourth or fifth grade. It was probably a career day thing, I don’t remember. I just remember he was good looking, kind, and funny as he talked about his job. I was enthralled. (I also clearly remember being fingerprinted as part of the program, which just seemed fun at the the time. Now, I wonder whatever happened to those prints. I’m guessing that, today, this would cause a general outrage if kids came home to tell mom and dad they were fingerprinted by a cop at their school. Times have certainly changed.) After the presentation in the classroom, we adjourned to the ballfields behind the school and were witness to the landing of Snoopy, the Charlotte Police Department helicopter. We got to check it out, along with the police cruiser in the parking lot. This all happened more than forty years ago, but it was one of the most memorable days of my elementary school education.
I was in junior high when I read that first true crime book. Reading about Ted Bundy’s prolific six year reign of terror over the Pacific Northwest and about the cops who brought him down after his rampage in Florida deepened my respect and admiration for law enforcement. In high school I got to know a couple of our school resource officers who were receptive to my questions about their jobs, kid-friendly, and engendered even more respect in me for the thin blue line.
After high school, I headed off to college to get an English Degree. Though I didn’t have the confidence to voice my dreams to many, I hoped to follow that with a law degree, a step along the way to becoming a prosecutor or, ideally, an FBI agent. Outside of classes for my major, I took some criminal justice classes and even had a professor who had been a former police officer in Tallahassee and had been on the scene after Ted Bundy murdered the girls in the Chi Omega house at Florida State. I was fascinated as he described the evidence and the man.
Life happened and my college days ended with a BS in English and a minor in Sociology. Along the way, I took the fork in the road that led to the family business I am still running thirty-six years later. In my spare time, I still don’t miss an episode of 48 Hours or 20/20. Some of the people in my life who I most respect are current or former police officers and deputies. And yet …
Because of my love for the criminal justice system, I have been enthralled by cases like Susan Smith, The Menendez Brothers, OJ Simpson, Jodi Arias, and Casey Anthony. I clearly remember the Monday morning I came in to work and my secretary, Sandra Burge, told me the story Susan Smith was telling about her missing sons. My first response was, “Those kids are in a lake somewhere.” Sandra was stunned when that turned out to be exactly where they were. I’d profiled Susan Smith in about five minutes.
Reading about the OJ Simpson case was my first introduction to attorney Barry Scheck. Though I thoroughly disagreed with everyone who defended Simpson and still believe him to be guilty as hell, I was impressed with Barry Scheck. And I was, decidedly, unimpressed with many of the police officers and prosecutors involved in the case. I firmly believe that many lines were crossed by the “good guys” in order to insure a conviction. I get it, “OJ” was a beloved star in the eyes of many in the public. His case was not going to be a slam dunk from the beginning because many potential jurors would not be able to see past that. I suppose it is human nature to try to bolster your case when it is really important for you to win. However, I hold law enforcement to a higher standard than that. I also had a higher opinion of the general public than I believe the police did in this case. I believe that, if they had just presented the physical evidence as it lay at the moment of the murders, Simpson would have been convicted. Instead, I believe that some evidence was tampered with and, perhaps, even planted to try to make sure a conviction would be obtained. When that happened, the police officers and prosecutors opened the door that Simpson was able to walk out of. Though I did not agree with the jury verdict, I understood it, because if you questioned the veracity of even one piece of the evidence, how could you trust the rest?
In some of my extensive reading about the Simpson case, I was introduced to The Innocence Project. The group, founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, was formed to exonerate (usually with the help of DNA) people who had been wrongfully convicted. I’d never given much thought to the issue prior to the Simpson case because it had not occurred to me that law enforcement and prosecution teams are made up of human beings, fallible and as prone to ego and unscrupulous behavior as any other group of people. Of course I knew that all prisoners claim to be innocent and I even believed that a very small percentage of them actually were, but I tended to think they were still somehow responsible for where they had ended up. I assumed they were doing something that got them arrested … hanging out with the wrong crowd, participating in high risk behaviors like drugs …. you know, all of those things your mother warned you about.
I was shocked to learn I was wrong, both about the number of innocent people behind bars and about what led them there. I read on and discovered that my theory about their own behavior leading to their circumstances only applied in a percentage of cases. Many of those the Innocence Project had conclusively proven innocent through DNA were 100% innocent. The most some of them had done wrong was resemble a composite, been incorrectly picked out of a lineup, been on the wrong street at the wrong moment or crossed the wrong police officer in the past. I learned many had been the victim of shoddy police work, incompetence, or downright evidence planting and tampering, witness leading and intimidation. I was most appalled to find out that police officers and prosecutors often withheld proof of the accused’s innocence from the defense, knowingly, to assure a conviction. That one turned my stomach. I couldn’t fathom that it was more important to appease the public with an arrest and conviction or to get re-elected as District Attorney than it was to put the right person away, and, more importantly, to not condemn an innocent person to a life behind bars or a death sentence.
The Innocence Files, currently on Netflix, chronicles a small portion of the exoneration attempts of recent years. The show will make you angry, sad, disgusted, and happy all in the span of an hour. Through reading about The Innocence Project and watching this and other documentaries about it, I have changed my hardline opinions on several things: Not all cops or prosecutors are good. Not all defense lawyers are bad. Not all inmates are criminals. Echos of my old mindset made me reluctant to say that out loud. But then I thought more about the good cops and prosecutors out there. No one should be more disgusted and outraged about that percentage of their counterparts who range from less than honorable to downright despicable than them. It’s not my words that threaten their reputation, it is the actions of bad fellow cops, prosecutors and judges.
I used to say I wouldn’t spit on a defense attorney if he/she was on fire. The Innocence Project changed my mind about some of those, too. While I still can’t stomach the thought of defending a client I knew was guilty of the offense they were being prosecuted for, I deeply admire those defense attorneys who are working, most often Pro Bono, to right the wrongs perpetrated by incompetent or dirty cops, ambitious prosecutors who still deny their errors long after they have been brought into the bright light of day, and judges who favor the prosecution to a fault.
Just once I would like to see one of the police officers, prosecutors, or judges say, “You know what? We got this one wrong.”
I would also like to see police officers and prosecutor’s offices police themselves better. Rarely can one man or woman achieve the wrongs that land innocent people behind bars. There are co-conspirators and there are those who just turn a blind eye because they are worried about the backlash of speaking out. I’d love to see the good cops, whom I feel surely outweigh the bad a thousandfold, stand up to the injustices and, frankly, criminal behavior they witness from their colleagues.
Every episode I watch or every case I read about fills me with disgust and anger at the deliberate acts of dirty or misguided cops and prosecutors who condemned that innocent person to a life behind bars either through negligence or deliberate deception or intimidation. That feeling is compounded when, quite often, the police officers and prosecutors say things like, “I still believe we had the right guy.” or “He/she may not have been the perpetrator, but they were absolutely involved.” I’m sad for the families who have lost their father, mother, brother, sister, husband, or wife through no fault of their own. I’m afraid that, in the majority of the cases, the actual guilty party has gone on to perpetrate more and worse crimes, since that is typically what criminals do. It is simply unbelievable to me that getting a conviction is often more the focus than getting the actual criminal off the street.
Another thing that people who know me well know about me is that the traits I find most necessary and appealing in other people are integrity and responsibility. Possession of those two character traits are an absolute necessity for me to like and respect you. Those traits should be paramount in all of our dealings with other human beings, especially when you are in a position of authority over others. We should be able to trust that law enforcement personnel will do what is right and what is just and that they will admit it and own it and make it right if they make a mistake.
I still believe in the thin blue line. I believe that most police officers, detectives, prosecutors and judges want to serve and protect to the best of their abilities, with integrity and responsibility. I wish sometimes that I had taken the other fork in the road. I also wonder sometimes what it must feel like to meet that innocent man or woman you’ve freed at the prison gate and walk them out to freedom, to watch them hug their mothers, to see them hold their children.