Hitting the Real Life Murder Scene & Trying to Keep the Client From Death Row

My mum had high hopes for me as a lawyer, but it turns out, I only like the dirty gritty edgy stuff that brings me into contact with the worse crimes that you can imagine. The kid found in a suitcase in the canal, the torture of a gang member and anyone who just happened to be a member of their family, the tourist abducted from the beach during a night time stroll and buried alive. Yet I also see those who are accused of the crimes, the lives they have lived, and still live, and I also have at the forefront of my mind the fact that they might, just might, be innocent. I’m a defense lawyer trying to keep those charged with the most heinous crimes from Death Row.

Standing in a street which was the scene of a drive by shooting two days earlier, I count the number of bullet holes in the building opposite, and then notice that the cars in the neighboring yards are also riddled with bullet holes and that the 2 inch thick metal fence posts didn’t fare a lot better. Meanwhile cars with blackened windows cruise past very slowly, and I’m conscious that if the window rolls down and there is an automatic weapon on the other side, those holes aren’t just going to be in a fence post and house brick.

So why am I here? It’s a crime scene and my client is charged with murder, it’s as simple as that. I want to look at the crime scene, get a feel for it myself, speak to the neighbors – if any will speak to me – I’m a middle aged white woman in a predominantly black poor neighborhood. Some call it the ghetto, but its not, there are good, hard working decent people living here, they would like to move but are unable to, they are in hock to the bank for their houses and no one is going to buy a house from them with the added selling pitch of MP5 bullet holes. Instead they have to hope that their son coming home from school at 5pm isn’t the next innocent victim of gang turf wars that have spilled over to these streets in recent years.

I don’t have the back up that the cops have when they visit these areas, I don’t have a firearm, or a radio to call for back up. To advertise the fact that I’m not a cop, I often show a lot more flesh than I usually think appropriate for a defense lawyer at work, tight cropped jeans so that its clear I don’t have a firearm strapped to my legs, bare hips and small of my back, showing there is nothing concealed in my waistband, and a Public Defender tag around my neck. It’s as good as a sign on my head “Yes I know I’m way out of my depth on these streets but I’m not a cop or looking to buy drugs”. In reality my best asset is my English accent, its very rare for a person not to respond to me when I ask to speak to them.. there is always that curiosity, it might come in the form of “I love your accent, where are you from?” or “hey Bitch where you from, that ain’t no Hood accent”. To me it doesn’t matter so long as it gets people talking, as that what I’m there to do. Many of the people in these streets will have refused to speak to the police, or to provide statements, but they may be prepared to talk to me. A street of 20 houses, at least 10 of them hit by stray gunfire, and when the police attended, no one heard a thing, apparently they were all asleep. I can usually find at least one or two who were not quite so asleep after all, and then there is always the local gossip who may actually hold a fair amount of truth.

I take photos of the scene on my iPhone, locations and lighting, where cars would have likely been parked, lines of sight for the neighboring and opposite houses. I’m not a crime scene investigator, but I have a good eye for a crime scene and will pass all my information back to the defense investigators and tell them what I want them to look for, what reconstructions I want. If it was a night time shooting then I’m sorry but I need an investigator to go back at night time. A day time photo or an ariel shot from Google Earth isn’t going to cut it with me.

I will often go back with the investigators to show them what I want. In the past I’ve borrowed cars to carry out reconstructions using the exact same car the police were sitting in to show that they could not have seen what they say they saw from inside the vehicle. I’ve asked cops to interrupt their lunch to get down on their knees in the middle of the diner and pull a weapon to show me whether it can be done the way my client has said it happened, and I’ve visited snitches in jail to tell them that so long as they keep out of my client’s way they should be ok as I’ve told my client that if the snitch dies, they too are going to face the same grim reaper that they have tattooed on their arm!

I am sure many of you are thinking that this is the stuff of Hollywood and doesn’t happen in real life, and that’s right, many lawyers don’t do anything more than meet their client at court and speak to them occasionally on the phone. But that’s not me, I need to get into the mind of my client and their life, and because of this I have ensured that most of my clients don’t go to Death Row and with those who do I can say I have tried.

Next stop is the local liquor store as these are often the focal point for these neighborhoods. As I walk up to the liquor store with its blacked out windows I’m never quite sure what to expect inside, but it is the usual, the clerk and all the alcohol behind bulletproof glass, money passed through a small gap where the glass meets the counter, a big metal pull out tray under the counter where the alcohol is delivered after payment is made. The only stuff on show are a few cans of coke in a side fridge. I grab a coke and join the queue, which parts for me to go to the front. I’m not from round here, they want to know why I’m there and possibly get me out as soon as possible. My problem is that I don’t want to go first, I want to talk to the clerk when he’s on his own. As soon as I walked into this store I realized that my client wouldn’t have walked into this store to jack it, the bullet proof glass, with American Rifle Association stickers all over it, gave it away that it’s not quite an easy target, so the other option is that he or those with him, were in here to buy a firearm. I explain to the clerk who I am and tell him that I am confused as to why my client went into the store that evening as surveillance footage shows that he didn’t exit with any liquor, was it perhaps that they card everyone, and my client didn’t have ID? The clerk completely ignores me.. oh well that’s a bust then. Two guys behind me snigger as though they can’t believe I am naïve enough to think that this liquor store cards all its customers. As I walk past them I mutter “or is it that he wanted something else that went in his waistband?”

By the time I exit the liquor store there are kids circling on bikes “hey lady, you been asking questions in my neighborhood?” It’s amazing how a 12 year old kid can create such an intimidating atmosphere, but my clients over the years have taught me ….don’t back down, don’t show a sign of weakness, you might still get shot or beaten but its less likely ..jeez thanks. So I don’t back down I walk up to the kids, I hand them all one of my cards, and they let me walk off. As I drive out of the parking lot, one of them circles up to my car, and gives me a name…it might come to nothing or it might be the breakthrough in my case. My client’s life might actually be saved by a 12 year old riding a bike!

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About gurdena

Social Justice Lawyer, interested in all things contentious. Specialising in criminal law, and anything criminal justice related, also employment law. Door tenant at 1 Grays Inn Square chambers. Find out more at www.alisongurden.com

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