Few excuses get me fuming as much as “I didn’t know” or “No one told me how to…” Seriously.
Figure it out.
When I was a brand new military prosecutor in Kaiserslautern, Germany, a Soldier was found dead in his barracks room. Whispers and hushed tones suggested the death was “gang-related.” Almost two years later, I prosecuted the first case. Did I have a clue about what it took to build a case (or dismantle one) that had gang implications? No, I didn’t. But when I sat in the back of that young man’s memorial service, I vowed that I would learn what had happened to him. And I did. No one told me how to. I figured it out.
I got in touch with an Army attorney who had previously prosecuted a member of the same Chicago-based street gang. He put me in touch with the gang expert he used in the case. Then I undertook to learn everything I could about that gang. It made all the difference.
Months after the death, I re-interviewed all the witnesses. I asked if anyone had seen certain symbols. One said that he had. I asked him if he had seen these individuals ever wearing clothing that was similar in appearance. He said that he had. I asked him to describe it. It was a black shirt and above each breast pocket there was lettering with their nicknames. I drilled down, asking numerous questions, probing for details. He answered then and began to become annoyed. “They left like two of them in my room if you want to see them.” Boy did I want to. I called the lead case agent from CID and gave him directions to coordinate to collect the shirts. This was the first physical evidence we had to establish a gang tie.
The expert explained the importance of gang “knowledge.” He described its contents. I interviewed the agents who had worked the death scene. As I explained what gang “knowledge” meant, something seemed to connect for the agent. He told me he would call me back. I would later learn that he went to a stack of papers and manilla envelopes (none of which had been formally collected) and found the gang “Bible.” He called me back. I told him he needed to put on gloves and actually collect it. I explained I would need exclusionary prints from every agent who would have had contact with the papers. We sent everything off to the lab. The lab confirmed fingerprints from 4 of the Soldiers who were denying any knowledge of the gang or gang activity. Their prints said otherwise. This physical evidence linking them to the literal knowledge of the gang was another instrumental lead.
Did we have the training or knowledge to investigate a gang related fatality? Nope. But we figured it out. And we brought those responsible to justice.
Years later, (after three years as an appointed military defense counsel) I was back working as a prosecutor. This time, I was a Special Victim Prosecutor.
One of the cases I was working involved a “How to Catch a Predator” case where a Soldier had been communicating online with someone who presented as an underage female. When the Soldier failed to show for the coordinated meetup, the federal agents on the case punted it to military jurisdiction. The chats themselves constituted a litany of criminal violations.
His uniformed defense counsel explained to me during the course of trying to obtain a pretrial deal that the Soldier had never left his home to even move toward the move. I had wanted to know why he had never shown to the meet up. Specifically, I wondered whether the Soldier saw something of the surveillance and got spooked. In my mind, there was a more serious offense if he showed up and intended to commit the sexual acts with the girl than if he had not. I researched and learned that information from a cell phone can give information about their location – cell tower data. I wanted to obtain the data but didn’t know how to. So, I figured it out.
I wrote up an affidavit to present to a federal judge, set up the meeting, and presented the affidavit to the judge. He granted the warrant. We obtained the cell tower data, and it demonstrated that the Soldier was being honest about his whereabouts – he had never left the base. So, I went to bat for him and negotiated better terms on his deal than if he had driven to the location for the meetup. It made a difference to justice. It made a difference to that Soldier. And it made a difference to me.
In military justice, many of the cases can become routine. People become complacent. A person’s knowledge bank is only as limited as he makes it.
There will be cases that can and should demand that the person seeking justice figure out something more than what the guy or gal sitting on the desk nearest them knows off the top of their head.
It matters. Figure it out
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