Every skill I needed to find some dough for a client, I learned while newspapering — with some hard-nosed public defender investigating in the mix.
An editor once threatened to hang a GPS around my neck.
Across 20-odd years as a newspaper reporter, I tended to meander to another planet when I was figuring out a story. I always found my way home, and I stuck pretty closely to a straight line when I wrote. But talking out the story, never mind reporting it, could take awhile.
I changed careers, but I still tend to wander around a story. I’ve found that the meandering pays off.
This is the story of how I meandered my way into finding about $200,000 that one of our clients didn’t know he had coming to him.
The kid who got into my car that day in 2013 had thick glasses and a skinny build. He told me a plausible story that might make for a viable defense against a felony gun-possession charge that threatened to land him in state prison.
But plausible and credible aren’t good enough for the witness stand, not when it’s your witness’s word against the word of four cops. You want solid. Rock-solid, unshakeable. So I verified everything, in the spirit of the old newspaper saying that if your mom tells you that she loves you, check it out. I took a meandering, newspaperish route to do that.
This approach isn’t for everyone. I can see a client who’s working with a limited budget asking a lawyer, indignantly, “Why the hell is this private investigator you hired taking a tour of the county clerk’s office on my dime? And while we’re talking, how do you justify this hump re-acquainting himself with the inner workings of a microfiche machine from the early Cretaceous period to look at records that are 23 years old? If I call this bonehead, is his answering machine gonna make me listen to the entire theme song from ‘The Rockford Files’ before I can leave a message?”
All good questions, especially the last one. I like jazz and I play a little trumpet between cases, so I might make you listen to Terence Blanchard interpreting “I Cover the Waterfront” before you leave me a message. And I would explain my meandering like this: Three years after I busted deadline for the last time at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., I was still thinking story, not case.
A case has boundaries, finite dates for court appearances, characters who appear but have no relevance.
A story doesn’t have boundaries. It exists outside the four corners of a case file. It slops across statutes of limitations, makes puddles across jurisdictional boundaries, introduces characters who you ignore at your peril.
A case has boundaries, finite dates for court appearances, characters who appear but have no relevance. A story doesn’t have boundaries. It exists outside the four corners of a case file.
The main character in this story is someone I’ll call Mickey. He gave me permission to use his name, but he’s already had enough trouble for one lifetime, so here, he’s Mickey. Police charged him with possession of an unlicensed handgun after a car stop. But Mickey said he wasn’t driving that night; he and a friend were on foot, because they were only walking about two blocks to an apartment complex on the north side of the City of Poughkeepsie. He was accompanying a friend who wanted to retrieve his cell phone from the home of a former girlfriend. There had been a quarrel earlier in the evening, they’d been told to leave, and they left. Now, Mickey was walking with his friend to fetch the phone and keep the peace.
Mickey was in his early 20s at the time, but he could’ve easily passed for a teenager. It wasn’t just his thick glasses and his size and his clean history; he had an earnest, guile-free way of talking. When we first met, he told me that when he was a toddler, he lost both parents and a grandparent in a double murder-suicide; his father shot Mickey’s mother and grandmother, and then himself.
The boy had no memory of the shooting, but when he was old enough to hear about it, he decided he was going to stay away from violence. I knew he’d kept that promise because his rap sheet was one of the first things I checked.
The story he told was compelling. But if even the smallest part of it was a fable, and the kid got on the witness stand to defend himself, the greenest, fresh-out-of-law-school prosecutor would shred the story and destroy the kid’s credibility, and Mickey would go to prison.
His story would have to be as solid as Kojak’s skull. And because Dutchess County isn’t the kind of place where murders go unreported in the press, if Mickey was making up something that could be easily checked out, he would be poison on the witness stand. No one, least of all a defense lawyer, is going to put a guy like that on the stand.
Fortunately, I was getting my marching orders in this case from one Nancy Garo, the most experienced, savvy, and ferocious lawyer in my office. Three years earlier, when I was new to the job, I had the great fortune to work with Nancy on my career case to date, involving a woman wrongly accused of beating her father to death. Nancy gave me plenty of room to run, notwithstanding my occasional rookie bumbling, and the client was cleared of a manslaughter charge because of us. We also pointed the police toward the actual killer.
Nancy trusted my instincts. So, following the old newspaper principle of GOYA KOD (Get off your ass and knock on doors), I enlisted a summer investigations intern and started canvassing the neighborhood where Mickey had been arrested. The arrest had taken place on a summer afternoon, in a neighborhood where the only air conditioning that a lot of people had was the natural kind, found on a stoop or a porch. But no one was familiar with what had happened to Mickey. No one we talked to saw the arrest.
We continued to knock and cross-reference phone numbers for about a week, and not one message was returned. A dead end is a very quiet place.
I made a U-turn and went back to the story of what happened to Mickey when he was a kid. I wanted to see how the story he told me compared to what I would find in the office of the surrogate court clerk, where wills and estates are settled. Mickey’s mother and grandmother had estates. One of his relatives was the administrator of both. The details of the shooting were laid out in the settling of the estates.
Everything Mickey told me checked out, down to the last awful detail. The surrogate paperwork also mentioned civil litigation, so I went upstairs to the county clerk’s office. The lawsuits were spread across several musty accordion files. In the third or fourth file, I found what I was looking for: a settlement from the murdered women’s estates. Mickey would start to receive the payout when he turned 25.
I called him up and arranged a meeting. I gave him copies of the settlement, along with the number of the lawyer who had done the negotiating back in the late 1990s. And I explained to him what it meant.
Mickey busted out crying.
This story does not have a happy ending. Mickey ended up with a private lawyer and did time. I suspect the outcome wouldn’t have been any different had we stayed on the case. We never did find a witness who could dispute the police version of the arrest.
Last fall, I walked into our office and noticed a man in the waiting room. I checked his name on the sign-in sheet, but I would have recognized him without checking. Those thick glasses were a loud tell.
We shook hands. Mickey was doing all right. I asked him if he’d been able to collect his money. He smiled and told me it worked out. He had a house.
I still wonder if I’d knocked on enough doors, made enough phone calls, used enough imagination to help him avoid prison.
But I was glad about one thing: My meandering didn’t help Mickey avoid prison, but it did give him something to help him start over when he got out.
On May 17, I will mark my tenth anniversary as an investigator for the Dutchess County Public Defender’s Office. This was one case. But it gave me plenty of reasons to always take those few extra, meandering steps that a reporter takes in pursuit of a story.
About the author:
Oliver Mackson is an investigator for the Dutchess County Public Defender’s Office in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He took the job in 2010, after 20 years as a reporter and columnist at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.