Once upon a time, I was a journalist, covering war in Indochina, Central America, and the Middle East. I made it my job to write about the victims of war, the “civilian casualties.” To me, they were hardly “collateral damage,” that bloodless term the military persuaded journalists to adopt. To me, they were the center of war. Now I work at home and I’m a private eye—or PI, to you. I work mostly on homicide cases for defense lawyers on the mean streets of Oakland, California, one of America’s murder capitals.
Some days, Oakland feels like Saigon, Tegucigalpa, or Gaza. There’s the deception of daily life and the silent routine of dread punctured by out-of-the blue mayhem. Oakland’s poor neighborhoods are a war zone whose violence can even explode onto streets made rich overnight by the tech boom. Any quiet day, you can drive down San Pablo Avenue past St. Columba Catholic Church, where a thicket of white crosses, one for every Oaklander killed by gun violence, year by year, fills its front yard.
Whenever I tell people I’m a private eye, they ask: Do you get innocent people off death row? Or: Can you follow my ex around? Or: What kind of gun do you carry?
I always disappoint them. Yes, I do defend people against the death penalty, but so far all my defendants have probably been guilty—of something. (Often, I can only guess what.) While keeping them off death row may absolve me of being an accessory after the fact to murder, it also regularly condemns my defendants to life in prison until they die there.
And I find spying on people their ex-spouses fantasize about killing much sleazier than actual murder. Finally, I’m a good shot, but I don’t carry a gun because that’s the best way to get shot.
I work on the low-profile cases: poor people charged with murder, burglary, or robbery, who don’t have the money for a lawyer or their own PI. (I’m paid, if you can call it that, by the state.)
Then people invariably want to know: How can you help defend a murderer? The law-school answer is: The constitution guarantees everyone a fair trial.
For me, however, if it’s a death-penalty case, it’s simple: I’m against the death penalty no matter what the accused did (or didn’t do). But in this age of stop and frisk, racial profiling, mandatory sentencing, the death penalty, and life without parole, not to mention execution-by-cop, the real answer is: I can’t. Defend anybody, that is. Not really.
I’m just a tiny cog in America’s vast Criminal Injustice System. One of the lawyers I work for sometimes calls himself “just a potted plant.” My defendants may be guilty—but seldom of what they are charged with. They are rarely convicted of what they actually did and are never sentenced fairly.