The Squeaky Wheel

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I thought I’d write about the role of persistence in dealing with law enforcement. I recently got ahold of the main detective working on Patty Vance’s case, Detective Daniel Cunningham. I’d reached out to him a month after we last spoke a little over a year ago now. I never got a response to my email. Perhaps it was too wordy. My advice is to make any communication with law enforcement as brief and concise as possible. 

I sent a second email almost a year later. It was much more brief than the first letter. Still, I didn’t receive a response from him. I checked and double checked to make sure that I had the correct email address, and I did. 

I finally resorted to calling him directly, leaving him an email explaining who I was and why I wanted to speak with him. And because it was voicemail, I naturally had to keep it short. When Detective Cunningham didn’t return my call, I called him a week later and left a second message explain that I’d tried to reach him three other times. 

Detective Cunningham returned my call, as I said, and even apologized for the delay. He claimed he was on vacation for two weeks, and although it was polite of him to explain, it didn’t justify why he could give me a short response via email after I attempting to reach him twice. In fact, I actually asked him on the voicemail message if he could at least take the time to send me a one word message. “Nothing” would be a sufficient answer for me if no movement has happened on the case.

I know I wrote a blog titled “Don’t Quit,” and although it was similar, I feel as if I was more optimistic when I wrote the first one. It was as if I imagined if I just kept pressing the SFPD, I’d get some movement on the case. Now, I realize that my keeping contact with them may remind them that someone cares, but it’ll likely not do a thing to get them to move forward on pressing charges in the case. In one article I read, it said that having a family member pressing law enforcement to bring someone to justice is the worst method to get a case to move forward. 

The Circumstantial Case

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“The evidence is too weak. Their whole thing is that they need something solid.  There’s nothing solid, like a smoking gun that directly connects him to her at the time that she died. That’s the problem,” Detective Daniel Cunningham said during our conversation back in August about the progress of Patricia Vance’s case.

What exactly is meant by circumstantial evidence?  Let’s compare  it with direct evidence. Direct evidence might be, for example, a witness saying she saw a defendant stab a victim. By contrast, a witness who says she saw the defendant enter a house, she heard screaming, and she saw the defendant leave with a bloody knife is circumstantial evidence. In other words, it requires inference to draw the conclusion that this defendant is guilty. I wanted to argue with Detective Cunningham that cases go to court all the time based only on circumstantial evidence.  

 

THE PROBLEMS WITH SOLVING COLD CASES

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The average homicide clearance rate — cases solved by police departments compared with the number of known homicides — which approached 90 percent in 1960 is now a third less, 61 percent.

First and foremost, the reason why cold cases are so difficult to solve is that witnesses and suspects die or become incapacitated due to age and illness. Memories of the events begin to fade. Some witnesses or suspects move away.

And according to some experts, solving cold case homicides relies more on the emergence of new witnesses than on the DNA analyses and other forensic techniques celebrated in crime dramas.

In one study, the factors linked to successful convictions in 189 cold case investigations from the files of the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department were looked at. The homicides dated back to the 1970s, but most had occurred in the past two decades.

Of those reopened cold cases, 24 percent ended in convictions and 24 percent were cleared by “exceptional” means, instances in which the culprit was already dead, in prison, or had gone missing. The rest remained unsolved.

What made for a cold case conviction? New witnesses helped resolve 63 percent of the cleared cases, the survey found. Often an ex-girlfriend or ex-friend of a murderer came forward years after a crime. DNA matches figured in only 3 percent of the cleared cases. “The worst reason to reopen a case was because of family pressure, if you want a conviction,” one cold case detective said.

Although this post was on the difficulties involved in solving cold cases, I can’t help but finish on a positive note. On the bright side, cold cases — if there is a dedicated unit — have a couple advantages. According to Kenneth Mains, President of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases (AISOCC):

The original investigator has the best chance of solving the case because he or she has the best chance to interview people when things are fresh in their minds. The original detective also has the benefit of seeing fresh abrasions, bruises, and scratches on people that a cold case investigator doesn’t see. However, there are two major advantages that a cold case investigator has over the original detective. The cold case detective is not buried by case load and cold cases can be worked at a leisurely pace with no interruptions.

Detectives do not have the luxury of only working a homicide case. When a homicide occurs and is assigned to a detective, his other work doesn’t stop. The new homicide takes priority, but his case load continues to pile up on his desk. The robberies, the burglaries, the frauds continue to come in. The detective works those homicide leads until she reaches a dead end and her supervisors remind her about the other cases that are piling up. That is how a case becomes cold. It gets pushed to the side after leads dry up.

A cold case detective doesn’t have that problem.

“I Am Victim”

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On a recent Saturday night, perched over a glass of ale in a local brewery, I shared with a friend an idea I had for a true crime television show.

“I’d pitch it to Investigation Discovery,” I said.

We’d already established that we were both true crime television junkies, so I knew this would pique her interest.

“It’d be a show that would show case homicides against prostitutes. I’ve already come up with a name and everything.”

I couldn’t remember exactly at the time the name I’d landed on and decided to keep. I’d generated a few ideas until I decided on “I Am Victim.”

She turned her face back towards her water glass as if she was considering my idea.

“It’d never work,” she said. “They’ve polled people and they don’t care about people like that.”

“There’s always some problems with all my great ideas,” I believe is what I said.

We rambled on about what social scientists call the “white woman syndrome,” a term used to explain the short-lived news coverage and lack of public interest when murder victims are members of minority groups.

If you are blonde and blue-eyed, and the victim of a homicide, you’re most likely to get more attention from the news media. But if you’re a prostitute or homeless, you’re also less likely to get attention from the news media and even potentially from the police. These are what are called “devalued” victims.

My friend Patty Vance has her whiteness going for her, but the prostitution works against her. I don’t know if those two aspects of her case simply cancel one another out. There should not be an algebra of eligibility when it comes to getting justice.

I do know that she is lucky that her brother went on to work for the San Francisco Police Department. The investigator currently at work on her case is a friend of her brother in fact. Another lucky stroke.

Back to my idea for an Investigation Discovery series. I get what my friend was saying. I understand that sex workers are not a population that garners much sympathy. But for the most part that’s because sex work is generally misunderstood by the public. There is no better time than now for a show that focuses on victims who’ve been overlooked is what I’d argue. Series like “Breaking Bad” and “Shameless” that depict their main characters in all their flawed glory resonated, for whatever reason, with the main stream and are now household names.

So, I think audiences are ready to support a show like I have in mind. If we can identify with fictional characters who are complicated, and less than perfect, why can’t we identify with real people with those same qualities? Back in 2010 there was a show called “Hookers: Saved on the Strip.” Maybe because there was redemption built into the story line, that made it digestible. Then again, the show didn’t last.

Maybe the name needs work: “I, Victim?” “I Am A Victim?” I’m not giving up hope that this sort of show might one day make it to the airwaves. A show like this could put the “real” back into reality television. But more importantly, it could bring much needed attention to cases that have been neglected for far too long.

STREET SAFE

I started volunteering at an organization called “Street Safe New Mexico” a couple weeks ago. I think that I needed to channel my energy into something. I think because I feel so helpless to do anything to help further the solving of Patty’s cold case, I picked volunteering as some sort of compensation. 

Wednesday night we had a weapon making party. I learned how to make homemade pepper spray. This photo is of Christine Barber explaining to us, a group of volunteers, exactly how to mix the ingredients to make the substance correctly. It was dirt cheap to assemble, the materials consisting of cayenne and alcohol. I have to hand it to Christine, it was also a superior product in a lot of ways compared to its store bought counter part. 

When I left the shop where we’d worked, I felt a sense of well being much like I’ve felt after meditating for long periods. I think it was partly because I finally got a chance to work on something that directly addressed the “safe” part of the organization’s mission. Sure it felt good to oversee some of the other projects like handing out condoms and clothing, but this project felt more like my natural volunteering home. I am always willing to do whatever it is that needs to be done for the organization, but I must admit, it gave me an extra boost knowing I might be contributing to helping a woman get out of harm’s way.

 

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I listened over the course of the night to the volunteers asking how they could help even more. One wanted to come out of pocket to purchase some ever popular condoms, and yet another, a medical student, enquired about the status of a program to check women for STDs that’s been on hold. The help we at Street Safe can provide is never enough seemed to me to be the underlying sentiment of the volunteers. I don’t know exactly what I’ll end up doing for the organization, but I too believe that whatever it is, it isn’t going to be enough. I want to use some corny aphorism here, like Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I’m not sure it’d apply. There is no finishing this sort of job. There is only chipping away at the list of things that need to be done, and calling it good.

 

 

 

 

TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF THE NON-SENSICAL

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When I went back over the transcript of my conversation with Detective Daniel Cunningham, the current detective on Patty Vance’s case, I felt as if I shared too much.

“What’s your interest in this case?” he asked.

What came out was a flood of reasons. 

“Honestly,” I began, a clear indicator that I am going to cross a social boundary since I’ve talked to him for all of two minutes at this point.

“I was asked in a writing class to write about a time that changed my life,” I said. 

This was only loosely true, but has become something I say now and again. I chose to write about this period for a class because it did change my life. Only later when I saw the prompt in a book on writing did I realize my piece answered that exact question. 

After I rambled on for a bit longer, I explained to Cunningham how Patty and I were estranged when she died, how she’d robbed my mother, and with another girl beaten a friend of mine senseless.

Cunningham was not so much trying to gather information that might help the case as summing me up I realized in retrospect.

The truth is (here I go again!) that my reasons often feel almost too complicated to explain. Maybe I haven’t listed them all out yet myself. I wanted to tell him that I wanted to know about the case so I can write about it, so I can use it to get some insight into the way the world works. I wanted to tell him that I’ve come to believe knowledge is not power, but a salve. It isn’t true of course; it does little to nothing to take away the pain. 

As much as I want to focus my writing on Patty Vance, on her case, on what might be of use to other people, my writing is a lot about me. It’s me asking “what the hell happened?” and “is the world really this cruel?” and various other pressing questions. I toy with the idea that maybe the overarching question is about forgiveness, about trying to understand what that means. I tell myself that I want to be forgiven for all the shitty things I’ve done to people over the years, hence I need to forgive others. I’ve even started telling myself that maybe she didn’t hurt my friend at all, but it was the other girl who inflicted all the violence. I have no way of knowing. Patty did nothing to stop it. If she didn’t partake in the violence, she likely operated as a cheerleader for it.

I ask myself about the moral math. How do I reckon the most heinous acts with the act of forgiveness? There is no good formula.  But there is opinion. And I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this, to discover what exactly my opinion is. I am like Einstein trying to do the math behind his theory of relativity. As history relates, he had to turn to mathematicians. I am not saying I’m some genius, only that I wish there were experts to turn this problem over to. Has anyone really solved the problem of evil, or explained why it is that we humans can inflict such harm to one another. There is no satisfying answer that I’ve heard so far.

I wished I’d figured out an elevator pitch to respond with when people like Detective Cunningham ask me things like what my interest in this case is. I need a pat phrase like “it’s the right thing to do, she was my best friend once.” Because this much I know about how the world works, there are rules about what you can and can’t say, and you will be judged on how well to stick to these rules. I can’t imagine I’d be able to ramble on about how I’m trying to figure out how to make sense of this crazy world without people thinking I was a bit crazy myself. “It is all too confusing and painful to figure out,”  I might say tossing the rule book aside.

DNA Samples in California Database Shrink after Prop 47

Only a very small percentage of criminal cases are solved utilizing DNA technology — cold cases often present a unique set of problems that make it exponentially more difficult. Still, even if there are only a few cases that get resolved using DNA, that seems justification enough for maintaining the largest possible pool of DNA in the criminal database. Watch this video that describes the effect of downgrading certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanors on the collection of DNA samples.

In my next blog, I’ll look at a new proposition that’s in the signature stage that will reverse the effects of Prop 47. Okay, my two followers, look for it in two weeks!