Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Smiley Face Killers

If you have seen the Today Show on MSNBC, ABC News, picked up on Albany Times, or read Village Voice, you’ve likely noted irregularities amongst the media.

As is the case with the smiley face killers, police often provide numerous reports, some of which are constructed long after the incident. But when police “want their man” and they have some evidence, it is not impossible to imagine that they might go to great lengths to get that evidence into a trial to convict the person they believe committed the crime. Sometimes the investigator’s narrow focus on the need to make an arrest can lead to sloppy work or worse. When your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. In short, when police believe a particular person is the “do-er”, the killer, then they tend to see every sign that points to that suspect, sometimes missing other better suspects along the way.

Another common phenomena in criminal investigations is one of mistaken cause and effect. For example, our webmaster has a favorite statistical analogy: “If you were to assess the sale of ice cream and the number of arrests, you might mistakenly conclude that ice cream sales cause crime”. Whether all of the smiley face killings are tied, it is apparent that police would like to join all of those killings in which there was a smiley face present at the scene together to find one killer for many crimes. The serial killer theory may or may not be correct, but you can bet that if they find a perpetrator upon which to pin one, they will seek to pin on that person every other crimes with smiley faces left at the scene. This, of course, ignores the common criminal phenomena known as “copy cat” crimes.

Just as a mistake of fact is not an excuse to break the law in the criminal courts, it is also not an excuse that can be permitted to hold sway when advanced by police or investigators. Unfortunately, all too often, those types of mistakes of fact - like the ones that may be present in the smiley face killer crimes - are put together nicely and persuasively by the police for a DA to use to negotiate from what appears to be a stronger bargaining position – while the real facts and better suspects are left behind at the cop shop.

However, the facts of every case are that evidence is not evidence unless it is admitted into a trial, mistakes in fact can be disproved, and even hometown juries acquit people that may have previously been found guilty by public opinion. O. J. Simpson, for instance.

When we take a case at Van Wagner & Wood, we work it as though it will go to trial. We believe in our clients, and we stand ready to go the extra mile to defend them. That was the situation in a couple child sexual assault cases that I tried (and won) last year. The local communities had all but hung the accused, the DA’s claimed to have overwhelming evidence of guilt, but when the case concluded, a jury comprised of people from the same community found each of those two clients NOT guilty of anything.

Helpful links:
Sexual Assault