Indefensible - Chapter 1: Introduction

I TOOK MY FIRST HOMICIDE on a Saturday night. It was 1994, at the tail end of a year of almost incomprehensible criminality. In the preceding year, 1,927 people had been gunned down, stabbed up, or beaten to death in the streets, slums, and parks of New York City. More than 430,000 - a number exceeding the population of Atlanta, Georgia - were victims of a serious crime.

Of the five boroughs of the city of New York, Brooklyn contributed nearly 40 percent of the murders: 724 in one year - an average of two every single day. People were being shot at in Brownsville, bludgeoned in Bed-Stuy, flattened in Flatlands. There were certain stoplights in East New York that were reputed to be so likely to produce a gunpoint robbery or carjacking that the common practice was to blow right through them. Crook-fear racked the city, and judges, prosecutors, and the New York Post made careers out of tough-on-crime posturing.

The day I reached for that case, I had been a public defender for fewer than three years. Legal aid lawyers weren't actually supposed to touch homicides; murder cases were generally reserved for fancier appointed lawyers from what was known as the "homicide panel." But with the glut of bodies, no one was paying too much attention. Besides, there were always several murder cases kicking around the office, handled by grizzled veterans, confirmed in their seniority by the fact that they had homicides.

I still remember seeing the thin sheaf of white paper in the wire basket. Gillian Sands. First arrest. Murder in the second degree.

Glancing around, besotted by my own ambition, I picked it up. Typed on the onionskin page in the blotted script of the computer printer was the single sentence that implied a potential life sentence: "The deponent is informed by the defendant's own statements that, at the above time and place, the defendant did stab Rodney Sands repeatedly about the body with a knife, causing Rodney Sands's death."

That was it. One sentence. Knowing then what I know now, I'd never have touched it.

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"Indefensible", my book about the criminal justice system, was published by Little, Brown & Co. in June of 2006.

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