Monday, May 18, 2015

Just Reality

I know I haven't written in a while. Life has been challenging for Gummy and writing has fallen to the wayside. I have been demoralized, depressed, and confused. I won't go into all of the nuances of my problems cause this isn't supposed to be an emo blog. However, there are some work related problems that I am going to address.

For those lacking background, I work in King County, Washington. When I started at my job I worked for a non-profit law firm which contracted with the county and city to provide indigent defense services. Sometime during my first month I remember logging on to my brand new email account and seeing people celebrating a court decision. I didn't know what it meant at the time but it started off a chain reaction that still impacts my life, four years down the road.

Our non-profit law firm was eventually absorbed by the county government in July 2013. Union bargaining and contract writing began. About six months into our absorption into the county, our salaries were made public record. This was when I learned that investigators at other "agencies" with my level of experience or less were making more money than me.

I'm not a greedy person. To be honest I would rather have less money because more just conditions you to spend without appreciating value. However, when you realize that someone with your same qualifications makes $5,000 more than you, it tends to kill your morale.

I am active in our union. I got involved naively believing that I could make a difference or that is was my civil obligation. Sadly our union is largely composed of attorneys whose interests are different then their staff counterparts, so my advocacy is largely drowned out by the multitudes. We have been negotiating a contract since July 2013 and we still have not reached an agreement. A fundamental part of our labor contract would be to standardize pay rates. For me and many other investigators this means a very large raise. Unfortunately our union and the county are wrapped up fighting about other proposals so the agreement is at a standstill.

Meanwhile, the cost of living in King County and Seattle is going up due to the influence of tech money and the new minimum wage ($15/an hour). Sadly, it is probably going to get worse. Currently I am about $2,000/year away from being eligible for low income housing. Call me an entitled millennial if you'd like but all I ever wanted to do is make a meager living at a job that helps the disadvantaged. I don't consume a lot. I buy clothes at Goodwill, I eat cheap, I don't have any entertainment expenses. But I see the writing on the wall. If I get forced out of Seattle city limits, I will leave the state and I think the same goes for other talented public sector workers.

There are many, many professional affronts at my division that worsen the above issues. However, in the interest of maintaining my privacy I will bypass the specifics and simply say that investigators in my division are told we are unimportant and should settle for less. As a professional, I find that disgusting. I am very hopeful that the brand new Department of Public Defense will strive to raise up everyone in its employ, but right now I am doubtful. Like any passionate employee, I am wondering if I would be better supported, appreciated, and paid elsewhere.

I think I would be, but I hope King County proves me wrong.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

An Opinion on True Detective from the Inside

...in the Dead Girl Show "the story will be over before it begins"; there can be no redemption for the Dead Girl, but it is available to the person who is solving her murder. Just as for the murderers, for the detectives in True Detective and Twin Peaks, the victim's body is a neutral arena on which to work out male problems. 
This quote from the Los Angeles Review of Books' article The Oldest Story: Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show helps illustrate my aversion to crime shows, especially those playing at intellectualism, all be it with focus on gender that I do not share. What resonates with me is the artifical purification of police officers. True Detective is a good example of the systematic evil this absolution allows. What happens when murderers are allowed to live on - not because of mercy but societies' inability to question those granted the role of "hero"? True Detective gave us the answer but strangely, the writer as well as most of the fans, seems not to have noticed.

When I started watching True Detective I hoped the show would speak to the world of criminal justice seen only by those who operate within it - cold, uncaring, and devastatingly arbitrary. In some ways we were given just that, Cohle and Marty pursue their case doggedly until they come upon Reggie LeDoux alone in a compound with two young children. Marty, the drunk philanderer, proceeds to summarily execute LeDoux. Cohle helps Marty cover it up. The pair are rewarded and life continues on.

The existential, gritty, depressing realism of True Detective lead me to believe the two detectives would eventually see repercussions for their crimes but that never happens. Yes Cohle and Marty's lives descend into failure and chaos, but the viewer isn't provided with evidence that this would not have happened regardless. The flash-forwards tell us the case has been reopened in 2012, a full seventeen years after LeDoux was killed. Later we learn that all this time the serial killer loosely referred to as the "Yellow King" remained free to prey on the young and misguided girls, already abandoned by society. This tragedy is hardly addressed as True Detective progresses, the dead serve as a vehicle to advance Cohle's character arch but nothing more. Echoing the quote from the Los Angeles Review of Books article, these dead bodies are *for Cohle and Marty's redemption*. Forget the terrible pain and suffering they, their families, or friends felt, we have tragic heroes to redeem, dammit.

Many fans were sorely disappointed that neither Marty nor Cohle turned out to be the killer. This is an ironic complaint because we know for a fact that Marty *is* a killer. We accept it because we buy into the logic that Reggie LeDoux was involved in murdering people but in light of the final episode, what do we really know about LeDoux? Unfortunately nothing can be learned because he was murdered by a man who failed to live up to his responsibilities as a detective. I am left to wonder if LeDoux's murder was more the result of Marty projecting his sins onto an easy target rather than any verified transgressions on LeDoux's part. Marty is absolutely a murderer. Similarly Cohle admits to killing many people in his past without further explanation. In contrast, we never see LeDoux commit any violent acts outright. We see Errol mocking his father's corpse and of course engaged in the violence against the protagonists. However, outside of this there is no evidence that Errol is a violent, psychotic killer.

The last episode of True Detective is unfulfilling in a multitude of ways. For many fans it did not hold true to the philosophical, mysterious mood the show originally conveyed. I watched the last few minutes with the annoyance of anyone who knows the reality behind the super sweet, saccharine endings commonly portrayed by procedural dramas. True Detective equivocates by showing the hospital as a brilliant spot of brightness surrounded by dark. Additionally as the blog, A View From Hell notes, Cohle reverses the meaning of dark and light in his speech, leaving open a much more dismal interpretation of the show's final scene.

True Detective built up the expectations of this writer, a criminal defense diehard. I want to accept the clever equivocations so I can continue holding out hope for the next season, but the predominant message of salvation for Marty and Cohle disgusts me. While Nic Pizzolatto was busy waxing philosophical the true psychopaths slipped away. The show is appropriately titled True Detective because it (perhaps unconsciously) reveals the darkest truths of our system of law enforcement. People are installed into positions which are deemed heroic a priori. These people act on their instincts, murder in the name of the citizens, and then avoid culpability. True horror is unleashed when they are wrong. Not only is a presumably innocent person murdered in our name but predators remain free to continue killing. Nothing changes because society is loathe to deviate from a comfortable script.

If you want to experience the real horror of the criminal justice system, watch True Detective until the reveal that the Yellow King still lives. Then turn off the tv and meditate on the standards you hold your public servants to and the terrible consequences when we allow psychopaths to be heroes.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Hi, it's cool that I am writing again!!!!111!!

Newsflash: Gummy hasn't been writing. My work and home life have been volatile, leaving me little time for extracurricular activities. Worse, I have been fighting off some nasty writer's block. Either I sit down to write and all my ideas suddenly seem hollow or I write something only to redo it to death. Case in point: I have written this post four times.

I think part of this is because I have tried to artificially focus my blog. As much as I want to write solely about investigation and public defense, I understand that sometimes there isn't a lot to say. In the interim, I am passing up a lot of unfocused post ideas. And after all, while I don't want to contribute to the worthless deluge of information on the internet, this blog is also for me. I have wanted to get back into the practice of writing and it occurs to me that being rigid about my topics will not forward that aspiration.

So. Blog topics may get weird. Content may be mediocre. Hopefully still connected to my work but there maybe be digressions. NO RAGRATES.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Confidentiality and the Confessing Client

I read an article last night about a pair of investigators in Alaska who have been torn between the obligation of confidentiality and the desire to exonerate a potentially innocent client.

The investigators in question were both employed with the Public Defender Agency of Alaska. According to the filings, the first investigator held strong opinions about the conviction of the so-called "Fairbanks Four" - four young men charged in the beating death of a fellow teen who had long protested their innocence. Prior to his employment with PDAA this individual, Thomas Bole, discussed the case of the Fairbanks Four with a fellow private investigator by the name of Richard Norgard. Both men were later hired by the Public Defender Agency of Alaska.

During his employment with PDAA, Bole was assigned to assist an attorney in Jason Wallace's unrelated case. During the course of PDAA's representation of Wallace, he made admissions to Bole implicating himself and three other men in the murder of John Hartman. Bole discussed these revelations with Richard Norgard, his supervisor at the time. At this point, nothing was amiss. It is common practice for investigators and attorneys in offices to discuss their cases among one another. However there is a clear understanding that the communications are to stay within the office to preserve client confidences.

Many years down the line, it became clear that Richard Norgard did not understand this. Working with his new employer, the Alaska Innocence Project, he assisted attorneys representing three of the Fairbanks Four in their appeals. In this capacity he revealed what he had learned from Bole regarding the statements made by Jason Wallace. He attempted to get Bole involved in this, but the investigator repeatedly refused to discuss the matter with Norgard. Currently the Alaska Innocence Project is attempting to admit Wallace's statements in the post-conviction hearings. Notable is the fact that Wallace's statements back up the confession of William Holmes to the same crime.

The Alaska Innocence Project has taken the offensive by arguing that Wallace waived his privilege by speaking with an investigator for the public defenders' office. This is where I get mad.

Oftentimes when an attorney introduces me to a client they say, "This is Gummy. You can talk to her just like you talk to me. Anything you tell her is confidential so please be honest with her. This way you will get the best investigation possible for your case." I take that obligation seriously. Without clients' trust conducting an investigation can be incredibly difficult. I know that it only takes one failure on my part to damage my reputation for trustworthiness. Not only that, but it can damage clients' trust in my office generally.

My feelings about this situation are pretty solid. Norgard violated confidentiality. Furthermore, the Alaska Innocence Project should have attempted to alert the court or Wallace to a potential conflict as soon as they became aware of the situation. I don't know the nuances of how the situation was handled but it seems to me the appropriate course would have been to reach out to Wallace, explain the circumstances, and request his consent to release the information. It is my understanding that Wallace is currently serving a lengthy sentence outside of Alaska, perhaps ensuring even if charged, he would be unlikely to ever make it to Alaska. Perhaps he would be willing to waive his privilege.

Many of the people I have discussed this situation with have commented on the difficulty created by believing three men are completely innocent and having access to information that could give them a second chance at freedom. While I sympathize with the hard place Norgard was in, I simply cannot agree that the ends justify the means. This is exactly the sort of attitude people in criminal defense fight back against daily. To adopt it ourselves is intolerable. Public defenders and their staff are already looked upon in a very negative light. Making that image worse, not following the rules, and introducing chaos into the system reinforces negative stereotypes. This hurts public defense offices as well as their clients. Even worse, I would worry about endangering my office's representation of the clients. Or jeopardizing their appeals.

I guess what it comes down to for me is that one investigator should never behave as though they know the most ethical/morally correct course of action in a difficult situation like this.

It appears the court will remedy the situation by allowing the statements into the post conviction record but disallowing it should Wallace be charged with the crime. This makes sense unless you are the family of the victim in this case who could eventually be tormented by the statements of your son's murderer while also knowing he is unlikely to ever be formally charged. More than that, Norgard betrayed a former client by revealing confidential information. Regardless of the court ruling, I wish criminal defense investigators had a mechanism to punish Norgard. There ought to be some formal recognition of his misconduct.

Anyways, what do you all think? Was Norgard correct in coming forward with this information? Fellow investigators: what would you do in this situation? What do you feel your obligations would be? Should Norgard and/or Bole face some sort of formal consequence? Very curious about people's take on this so please, if you have thoughts, hit up the comments.

Also, I haven't talked to many attorneys about this situation. Am I totally off base with my understanding of privilege? Does the Alaska Innocence Project bear any responsibility in this? What would you do if an investigator came to you with information like this?

Source article is here.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Problem With Serial's Criticism of Adnan Syed's Defense

I haven't listened to Serial. Frankly I don't care to. At some point in my several years in criminal defense I have come to recognize argument patterns - what the defense and prosecution will say at trial. What I have read about Serial fits this pattern. More than that, I have respect for primary records. My standard approach to speculation on criminal cases is, "have you looked at the primary sources and do you understand how the trial(s) went down?" If no, please stop talking. Rulings, strategy, and nuance play such a large role in the outcome of a trial, it is ludicrous to pass judgment about the outcome sans extensive background knowledge.

Therefore, I will not quibble with the verdict in Mr. Adnan Syed's case. I do, however, take issue with some of the commentary on the popular podcast.

My issue with the coverage of Serial is exemplified in a recent ACLU article entitled "Serial and What It Says About America's Criminal Justice System". Never mind that it double downs on the idea that defeated criminals' war stories are fair game for upper class entertainment and armchair lawyering, but it makes incomplete assertions about the failures of Syed's defense.

Primarily the author discusses insufficient investigation done by defense counsel but strangely they never mention the investigator retained in the case. The prime contention is that defense counsel never obtained potential video surveillance from a library.

Let me be direct: this is not an attorney task. Yes, attorneys may take this on when they have the time or do not have the resources to hire an investigator. It sounds simple - call the library and ask for the video, but the task is usually much more complicated and time consuming. I agree in theory that the defense attorney should have pursued the video surveillance as soon as she got word of it, either to form an alibi defense or to confront the defendant regarding their unreliable alibis. But where the ACLU article attributes this failure to the defense attorney not doing more than showing up in the courtroom, I attribute it to a lack of funds and accessibility to credible, skilled defense investigators who, if retained in time, would have surely prevented this misstep from happening.

It is bizarre to me that an article that highlights a failure to investigate neglects defense investigators. Unfortunately, this shouldn't surprise me. While investigation is a fundamental element of an effective defense (particularly in more serious cases), investigators are rarely recognized in the conversation on funding these necessities.

This clearly needs to change, which the public understands this on a subconscious level. They are now regularly exposed to stories of ineffective assistance of counsel and deficient investigation, but they only see the defense attorneys' needs. Modern media and nonprofit portrayal of criminal defense is responsible for this. That is why I am calling out the ACLU to recognize the importance of funding and supporting defense investigators as well as attorneys.

Once popular media and nonprofits chuck aside the idea that attorneys are the end all be all of criminal defense, we will have a better system. Until then, we are likely to have more attorneys writing more motions, doing more court appearances, relying on their interns or their rare free time to investigate cases.

In that atmosphere we will continue to endure wrongful convictions.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Revisiting My Last Post

Hi!

On further reflection it occurs to me that daily blogs are 1) unrealistic, 2) too specific and potentially revealing of my identity and my clients' cases.

So I think my alternative is going to be (hopefully) weekly updates on what I have spent time on in the past week. Even though this is a less visceral depiction of my job, I think it still achieves the goal of educating people about what public defense investigators really do.

On that note...see you all tomorrow. Or Saturday. Or sometime early next week....

Monday, January 5, 2015

My 2015 Project and a Brief Retrospective

I'm coming up on my first year writing this blog and I have been suffering from some absurd writer's block so now seems like a good time to write a retrospective. 

I started writing here mostly for selfish reasons. I want to have a place to put down my thoughts and maybe even share them with a few people. While I used to be a prolific and skilled writer, getting my career started has taken a lot of time away from my writing and I have become rusty. I want a place to practice. I also saw a void in the blawosphere, there are a good number of public defenders, prosecutors, law students, private attorneys, professors, and private investigators blogging but no public defense investigators. I want us to have a voice so here I am. 

I haven't yet refined my voice or my overall message. I did have some popular posts. Even better, I am beginning to understand what I am passionate about communicating to people. Don't misunderstand me, I like talking about public defense news and I like having a place to put down my social commentary. However, the posts that give me the most pleasure are about public defense investigators; what we do, the incorrect assumptions about us and reporting news specific to public defense investigators. I really don't think the full story of public defense is being told because no one hears about the support roles that are vital to the work of any successful PD office. That's what I want to change. 

Telling the story of public defense investigators is a difficult task though. I am constrained by the same confidentiality concerns that lawyers have, fewer people understand my role on the defense team, and while I have many engaging war stories, those do little to educate people. I have tried to respond to the negative portrayals of PD investigators in the media and educate once I am done venting. My only real goal for this blog is to continue educating and reach as many people as possible. Trying to find a way to do this is a little more difficult, of course. 

Recently a seven and a half hour day filled with reviewing phone records gave me an idea. People out there don't understand what public defense investigators do because there aren't clear examples in the media. This is because the reality is boring and difficult and sometimes depressing. A real world example could help change this narrative if enough people were exposed to it. 

To that end, my goal this year is to start posting brief synopses of my days. I can provide almost no detail since I am bound by confidentiality. But I can talk generally about my work, my feelings, and the very real pressure and stress of my position. My hope is this will give people some alternative to the media narrative about public defense investigators (as in, they don't exist). 

Obviously I will continue to bring positive investigation news to y'all and rail against inaccurate articles and television portrayals. In fact, I am currently working on an article about the ACLU/Serial, Benched, and The Divide. Unfortunately, well, like I said...writer's block has taken hold.

Stay tuned, hopefully my block will subside. Until then, happy new year to my readers (*sound of crickets chirping*), I wish you all the best. :)