Friday, July 20, 2012
The Killer You Thought You Knew
There are certain stories you don’t forget, and one of those for me was a long article from the Los Angeles Times in the early 1970s. Having no names or specifics to Google, I’ll have to tell it from memory, where I’ve retained the gist of it.
A woman was driving alone through the Southern California desert, on one of the major roads, when she was pulled over by a law-enforcement officer. He ordered her into his patrol car and drove her up a dirt road to a remote deserted area where he shot her to death with his service pistol.
She was reported missing, and her car was by a major roadway, so a search ensued. Eventually the body was found, somewhat the worse for the wear after days in the wild, but more importantly, the fatal bullet was recovered and could be linked to a gun of the type the officer carried.
The Murder Weapon Disappeared
At some point in the investigation, the officer became a person of interest, and once detectives began to follow that path, a picture of a rogue, killer cop began to emerge. They were able to establish that he had been on duty and in the vicinity the night the woman was last seen; that he had been out of touch with communications for a couple of hours at the right time; and that he had the right gun for the crime.
The problem was that he didn’t have the gun any more. A day or two after the woman went missing, he reported his gun lost or stolen, and all the legwork the detectives could do wasn’t enough to find it. The prosecutor decided to try the case, murder weapon or no, and charged the officer with murder in the first degree.
‘He Couldn’t Possibly Have Done It’
In the community where the trial took place, it was big news. Prosecutors mounted a strong circumstantial case, but were hampered by the lack of a murder weapon. The defense hammered the gaps in the evidence and called a parade of character witnesses on behalf of the defendant.
Among the witnesses were the officer’s pastor, members of his church, longtime friends, and colleagues. All of them said basically the same thing: They had known him for years; he was a good and decent man; and he couldn’t possibly have committed such a horrifying, shocking, random crime.
It was enough to create at least some degree of reasonable doubt with the jury, which acquitted. The officer left court surrounded by cheering family and friends.
The Witness Was Too Late
The acquittal was big news far beyond the officer’s community, and among the people who saw a story, and an image of the freed officer, was a pawnbroker who lived at some distance from where the crime had occurred. He recognized the man who had brought in a gun some time ago, and checked the pawn ticket for the weapon, which was still in the shop. He called the police. Sure enough, it was the murder weapon.
Double jeopardy prevented the officer for being retried for murder, but federal prosecutors came in and charged him with violating the woman’s civil rights. There was no acquittal this time, and he got the maximum sentence — not enough, but the best that could be done under the circumstances.
What the story didn’t say, and what I’ve always wondered, was how the people who testified on the officer’s behalf at the trial felt when the truth came out. We all like to believe that we’re good judges of character and really know our friends, but do we? The terrifying answer is no.