Friday, November 15, 2013

THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH BEING A PROSECUTOR, PART 2


Back in the mid 1980’s, I got assigned to a case against a drug smuggling ring headquartered in Chicago. The interesting thing about this ring was that approximately half of the members of the ring were either current or former Chicago police officers. The charges included Racketeering, Conspiracy to Murder, Kidnapping, and Murder. Two of the men we indicted were reputed to be organized crime hit men. You can read a more in-depth account of the case in my blog post titled THE WRONG MAN MURDER.
The nice thing about working on the case was that I wasn’t the lead prosecutor. I had been called in to help out on the case when the defense team filed somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 pretrial motions. Although I didn’t like pretrial motion practice, I was pretty good at it, so I got assigned.

After the dust had settled and the smoke had cleared from hearing all the pretrial motions, I stayed on to assist in the trial of the case. This was probably the most complex case I ever tried, which was probably another reason I was kept on after the motion hearings. I was also pretty good at organizing vast quantities of evidence. The office was just entering the computer age, and our system came with a very primitive database program. I used the database program to work out a system for organizing and keeping track of all our witnesses and evidentiary exhibits. It was fun, and I got totally hooked on computerizing trial preparation.

The trial team was a reunion of the Ted Bundy trial team. Len Register was the lead prosecutor, Jerry Blair assumed the role of “player-coach,” and I was the water boy. We tried the case on change of venue to Tallahassee Florida, and I rented a room in a fleabag motel hoping to economize on travel expenses. When we had tried Ted Bundy a few years before, I had run up a whopping credit card bill which took a good long while to pay off, and I wasn’t planning on doing that again.

Jerry and Len seemed awfully nervous about personal safety. They both carried concealed weapons which they had to turn in to courthouse security every morning and retrieve every afternoon. FDLE had formed a witness protection team which acted as bodyguards for our important witnesses, some of whom actually testified while wearing bullet proof vests.  Initially I thought this was a silly display of paranoia, and I took great pleasure in kidding Jerry and Len about their timidity.

Then some relatives of one of the reputed hit men came to town in a black Cadillac and started attending the trial. The Sheriff’s Office tactical unit kept tabs on them while they were in town. They did some strange things, but nothing you could really call criminal. They got blamed for one thing that happened, but there was really no proof they were responsible. Somebody booby trapped the bomb squad which swept our courtroom for explosive devices every morning.  One morning while they were in the courtroom sweeping for bombs, somebody was taking the lugnuts off of two of the tires to their van. After they got through sweeping the courtroom, they went back to the van, got in, and drove off. They hadn’t gone very far before the wheels fell off. I thought it was funny.

I started losing my sense of humor one night about two in the morning when I got a call on my hotel phone. I answered the phone, but my caller did not speak. I said “Hello” several times but got no response. It wasn’t a hang up call, my caller stayed on the line unspeaking. I hung up the phone and went to the manager’s office. The motel was so primitive that there was a little switchboard in the manager’s office. Callers would call the main number and ask for a room, and the manager would connect the caller to the requested room. I wanted to know who the blazes had called, and the night manager ought to know.

He didn’t. Somebody had just called and asked to be put through to my room, and the manager had obliged. I told the manager I needed to change rooms, and I needed to change rooms immediately. He put me up in a room at the other end of the motel from the room I had rented. I slept there that night, and moved my luggage into the room the next day. I continued to park my car in front of my original room.

Then somebody scrawled a death threat on the window of one of the juror’s hotel room. Then one night somebody got to the judge’s car, lifted the hood, and unhooked one pole of the battery. He was seen and fled on foot before he could do anything else. Of course, the theory law enforcement liked was that he was trying to hook a bomb to the judge’s car. The next weekend I drove back to Lake City and retrieved a handgun.

As I said, the Sheriff’s Office tactical unit was keeping track of the black Cadillac as it tooled about town, but sometimes they lost it. One of those nights when they lost the Cadillac I was suffering from insomnia. I decided what I needed was a nice Diet Coke, so I stepped out of my room to walk to the one drink machine in the motel. It was then that I saw a black Cadillac pulling into the motel parking lot. I faded into the shrubbery and watched. The Cadillac turned to drive in the direction of my car, which was still parked in front of my old motel room. When it turned, I could see the license plate—an Illinois tag. The Cadillac slowed down in front of my car, made a U-turn, and drove back out of the parking lot. I got out of the bushes, went to a phone, and called the tactical unit. They posted a highly visible guard on my room for the rest of the night, and I moved out the next morning.

I moved to the motel that was being used by the witness protection team and got the room next door to theirs. It was much more expensive, but I slept much better in my new room. Finally the trial ended, and I can’t say that I was unhappy to be through with it. I believe that two of the defendants were among the most dangerous men I ever prosecuted, and I have prosecuted many dangerous men.