Random Trials

© 1993 Donald E. Watson

"Drop whatever you're doing, and come over to The Bench right now," Janie shouted into the phone.

 I felt privileged to be invited. The Bench, a haven for battle weary lawyers, was sacrosanct. But even more, I felt relieved. Like everyone else in town, I had been worried about the big trial, and eager to learn its outcome. The delight in her voice told me that the prosecution was celebrating a win.

 As I pushed open the tavern door, I heard a clamor in the back. Janie, who was the lead prosecutor, sat at the head of the big table, facing a circle of boisterous police officials and deputy prosecutors. She saw me enter, and beckoned me to join the revelers at the table.

 Janie gaveled the assembly to order with her beer mug. The whole tavern muted as lawyers at other tables dropped their conversations, hoping to hear the details of the great case. Janie began by introducing me.

 "You've heard me speak of my cousin, Wally. He's the law student who is caught up in the ideals of Truth and Justice."

 The others snickered. She grinned at me and shrugged.

 "Now, we can teach him how Justice really works. Inspector, you start. It was your case from the beginning."

 Roland, the reflective, scholarly detective, deferentially dubbed Inspector by his peers, stood up and cleared his throat. Tweedy and rumpled, he appeared ill at ease at first, but after closing his eyes momentarily, he proceeded.

 Fixing his eyes on me, Roland tilted his head slightly to indicate the Captain, sitting at the foot of the table.

 "Well, it started when the Captain called me to his office a few weeks ago. He griped, `What're you doin' about your case? I'm in a foul mood. I can't sleep at all. Neither can the Chief. He phoned me at two o'clock this morning sayin' that the Mayor was buggin' him, and that the press was buggin' the Mayor.'

 Eyes turned to the Captain, who nodded his agreement with Inspector's account.

 "I told him, `It's stumped me, Captain. And the others are stuck on their cases, too.'"

 I knew the problem, of course. It was rare enough for a city as small as ours to have one unsolved murder, but five at one time was unimaginable. Six months ago, the Captain had assigned Roland to investigate the first killing. Three weeks later, he assigned another detective to investigate the second. Eventually, he was forced to dedicate five detectives to work the five cases, and this spread the department perilously thin. Less significant crimes were all but ignored. It wasn't surprising that the Chief couldn't sleep.

 Roland continued. "The Captain reminded me that each case was unique. Neither the victims nor the crimes had anything in common. The secretary had been raped and strangled, the high school kid had been beaten with a blunt object for no apparent reason, the salesman had been shot through the window of his motel room, the elderly lady had been knocked into traffic by a purse-snatcher, and the cab driver had apparently been knifed by a passenger.

 The others murmured.

 "As I was listening to the Captain, it suddenly came to me! `Captain,' I said, `I've got it! We've been thrown off track by looking at these cases one at a time.'"

 Excitedly, Roland enlisted his hands to animate his story, first spreading the fingers of his left hand, then wrapping them in his right.

 "`We thought we had five unconnected cases, but actually, we have only one case.'"

 "The Captain laughed, but I explained: `The cases have one thing in common, Sir. Nothing. No motive, no M.O., no similarity of victims. But we've been misinterpreting this. We thought it meant five killers. But it really means they're connected. A series of random murders. There aren't five killers: There's only one--a serial random killer.'

 "The Captain was still skeptical, but I convinced him to let me develop my idea. I left his office, and within an hour I returned with the suspect. The case was solved."

 Roland smiled at me, bowed theatrically to the audience, and took his seat.

 The gathering cheered, and took the opportunity to swig more beer. Next, nine pairs of eyes turned to me. Evidently, it was my turn to speak.

 "How did you find him?" I asked weakly.

 The eyes tracked back to Roland, who leaned forward in his chair. "I went to the park, looked around a few minutes, and walked over to the suspect. He was sitting on a bench, feeding pigeons. I asked him a few questions to ascertain that he was the killer. Then I arrested him."

 I didn't want to appear stupid, but with eyes shifted to my court again, I asked the obvious: "What kind of questions?"

 "I showed him photos of the victims, one at a time. He didn't recognize any of them. That told me all I needed to know."

 "What was that?"

 "That he didn't know who he was killing, that his victims were random. Just like any random serial killer." At this, Roland shrugged, and the audience applauded.

 The gallery looked at me again. I was humbled, but I persisted. "Did you ask him any other questions?"

 "Oh, sure, the usual ones, mainly concerning his whereabouts at the times of the murders. He couldn't provide any alibis."

 "But, couldn't you have found any number of suspects like that?"

 "Of course, but I only needed one."

 "But what about evidence? Did you have any?"

 Inspector then turned to the Captain, indicating with a modest gesture that he should take over.

 "You're concerned with niceties, lad," the Captain told me. "That's okay for a student, but you need to see the big picture, too. The press was hysterical, demanding a suspect. The public was terrorized, and on the verge of losing respect for the justice system. It is our job to serve justice, and we had to do something. Justice is being served when people can sleep at night. And as soon as we arrested the suspect, people slept again. I know I did."

 "But what about the suspect's rights?" I asked respectfully. "Don't you need to have sufficient evidence to convict him?"

 "Inspector took care of that," the Captain stated proudly. "We started out with a lack of sufficient evidence to convict. But Roland lost it."

 "What? You had a lack of evidence? But you lost it?"

 "Exactly," said the Captain. "No lack of evidence. Your cousin will explain how important that became in court." He turned to Janie, who took up the account.

 "Someday you'll learn that lawyers aren't responsible for facts. It's the jury's job to find facts. When lawyers need evidence, we create it. We start with a premise, and support it with arguments. Our goal is to persuade the jury, and we use logic and strategy to accomplish this. Using the right strategy and the right logic, we can convince any jury of anything."

 "But what the heck is logical about trying a defendant without sufficient evidence?" I felt more relaxed questioning my cousin.

 "You must learn to listen. The Captain didn't say we didn't have evidence. He said we had `no lack of evidence.' In fact, that was my ace in the hole. Since the defendant's lawyer was an overworked public defender, I was certain that he would be as careless as you were. So, I waited until the right time to play my card. But I'll get back to that later.

 "When the trial started, I called Inspector as the first witness. He was marvelous--calm, detached, objective, and logical. His explanation of his deductive process was so clear, he made the case seem trivial to the jury. He pointed out that investigating these crimes was the exact opposite of committing them. From the killer's point of view, his victims were random; he didn't know them. However, he knew his own identity. From our point of view, the victims were not random; we knew who they were. It was the killer we didn't know. In other words, we had the advantage of hindsight in looking for a random suspect. And we found him."

 "I don't follow that."

 "But, are you impressed?"

 "Yes, I suppose I'm impressed. By something."

 "So was the jury. It was obvious in their eyes. They looked at Roland, but they saw Sherlock Holmes."

 For a few seconds, Janie herself gazed at Roland with admiring eyes. Then she returned to her account.

 "Our expert witness was the psychologist, Dr. Cannon. He testified that the typical serial killer is known to his relatives, neighbors, and co-workers as a quiet, unassuming, peaceful person--the last person they would expect to commit any crime, much less murder. Cannon even testified that he would expect the serial killer to feed pigeons in the park."

 "But anyone can do that," I interjected. "That's something the jury must have figured out."

 "Perhaps, but jurors aren't expected to solve their own cases. They're supposed to listen to the lawyers. Why do you think Justice is blindfolded?

 "Anyhow, Cannon painted such a vivid image of the serial killer that it could have been a portrait of the defendant. Quiet, unassuming, peaceful, gentle. Watching the defendant in court, you could picture him feeding pigeons at one moment, and at the next, exploding into violence. Also, the fact that he couldn't identify any of his victims made it obvious that he selected them at random."

 "How did the defense respond?" For some reason, even in this garrison of law and order, I found myself rooting for the defendant.

 "I told you, his lawyer was a public defender. Since he was always fretting over his case load, I had expected him to blunder. And blunder he did. He introduced his client's landlady as a character witness. You can imagine what happened."

 I could see disaster coming, but I needed Janie to elaborate. The landlady not only described the defendant as quiet, unassuming, and peaceful, but she testified that he liked to feed pigeons in the park. Then, on cross-examination, when Janie asked her to identify the person she had described, the landlady pointed at the defendant--steadily, confidently, and accusingly.

 Janie was particularly pleased with the way she suckered the defense with another aspect of the landlady's testimony. The witness testified she was sure that the defendant had not killed anyone, but she reluctantly admitted that, for each of the murders, she had not actually seen the defendant not killing anyone.

 At this, the public defender jumped from his chair, flailing his arms and sputtering objections. Janie mocked him.

 "`Your honor! Please! Not seeing someone not killing someone isn't the same as seeing someone killing someone. This whole trial is a farce. There is no probative evidence, and the prosecution makes no sense, whatever.' He just went on and on."

 Janie grinned for a few seconds, savoring this scene. Then she looked at me solemnly. "Learn this: Always know your judge. The judge you draw is your most important card. I drew a Joker in this case, and I played him like a wild card. The judge was so easily confounded that he couldn't tolerate a flustered lawyer."

 Then, mimicking the judge, Janie looked down her nose at me. "He told the defense, `You're babbling, counsel. If you have a well-reasoned objection to make, then make it. But don't agitate the court with your wild meanderings.'"

 The gathering at the table laughed again in appreciation of Janie's mastery of jurisprudence and her knowledge of the personalities that comprise it. Janie absorbed their admiration, then turned to me again.

 "Here's another lesson: Never draw to an inside straight if you can maneuver the judge into dealing from the bottom of the deck. Invoking judicial notice--the judge's own knowledge, perceptions, and biases--is the best way to do this."

 She demonstrated. "After the defender's tantrum, I suggested that His Honor clarify the muddle with judicial notice."

 "`Your honor,' I said, 'I know that your court isn't a school, but you might instruct counsel on the meaning of the double negative.'

 "The judge didn't need any more prodding. He scowled at defense counsel, and explained that the most rudimentary logic yields a positive from two negatives. But he faltered when he tried to think of an example. So I helped.

 "I said, `For example, no lack of sufficient evidence to convict means . . . '

 "`. . . sufficient evidence to convict.' The judge finished the sentence.

 "I looked at the jury," Janie said. "They were nodding to one another, looking satisfied, content with the judge's logical certainty."

 The Bench erupted into a loud cheer, celebrating the pivotal moment of the trial. Janie smiled in appreciation. After a few festive minutes, she wrapped up the finish for me.

 In her summary to the jury, Janie made her points simply, one by one. First, the defendant's own landlady had pointed him out as a "typical serial killer;" second, the judge had clearly stated that "no lack of sufficient evidence to convict" was the same as "sufficient evidence to convict;" and third, the defendant's only witness had not seen him not commit the crimes. Hence, the jury could have no doubt that the defendant was the random serial killer. And their verdict verified this reasoning: They found the fact at issue, forever transforming Random Suspect into Identified Murderer.

 Janie was truly proud of herself at her sleight of tongue. I was, too. Fact is, I began to doubt whether I could ever become a good lawyer. All I was learning in school was the law; I had never before been exposed to the elements of the real game.

 Still, as a civilian, I harbored lingering doubts about the defendant's guilt.

 I asked Inspector, "What if other bodies turn up while the convicted killer is in jail?"

 He addressed me affectionately, but condescendingly. "Elementary, my dear Wallace. For every random murder, there are a million random suspects. And we need only one."