Day 6, US research trip, Believe No One
Believe No One takes Fennimore & Simms to the United States Mid West.
These blogs document the places we visited and people we met during the research trip.
Sunday 6th May 2012
Tulsa District Attorney’s office
The Police Headquarters, Courthouse, District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office are all on the same precinct, all just a couple of minutes walking distance from one to the next.
At the District Attorney’s Offfice, Mike introduced us to, in (order of appearance): Assistant District Attorney Nullonney; her assistant, who has just been given tenure; Judge Tom Gillert; and District Attorney Tim Harris.
Last year, Tulsa DA’s office dealt with 6000 felony cases. There are 50 Assistant District Attorneys to handle this workload, some specializing in sex offences/child cases/robberies. Team captains deal with homicides. The office suite has a long, glass-fronted conference room, stacked with files in bundles around a table that must be 30 feet long. Assistant District Attorneys are coming in and out of the ‘war room’ all day, so they have plenty of opportunities to talk about their cases, and ask for opinions and advice.
A trolley in the hallway is stacked with hundreds of files on upcoming trials, evidence etc. Following a conviction, the ADA or DA prepares a report as to the facts of the case and history of the convicted person for the Department of Corrections. It’s high pressure, and it’s not well paid. ‘We’re not getting rich or popular in this job,’ ADA Nullonney says dryly.
Defence counsel will make stupid arguments just to show they’re working hard for their client, accusing the police, scientists and prosecution attorneys of incompetence, prejudice, corruption etc. There’s a name for it: The Cockroach Defence: If you’ve got the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you’ve got the law on your side, argue the law. If you’ve got neither, crawl all over the evidence.
Five judges handle all the criminal trials in Tulsa. Some will be jury trials, some dispositions. Judge Tom Gillert has been a District Judge for 17 years; before that he worked for 10 years as first assistant to the DA. He says, ‘Your audience is the 3rd row seats of the Bixby Rodeo.’ In other words, don’t use flowery language and legalese.
In Tulsa, like everywhere else in the United States, drugs are a big problem – in fact, 75% of violent crime is down to drugs. The foremost of which is methamphetamine (meth).Where in the past you might get hooch distilleries in poor rural areas, now you get meth factories. Pharmacies now have to log cold medicine sales because it’s too easy to make meth from it.
Judge Gillert hands us a public information brochure on a community sentencing programme for methamphetamine addicts, complete with shocking before and after photos. 87% of offenders given community sentencing stay straight for 3 years. Addicts (‘tweakers’) itch, and twitch; they claw at themselves so compulsively that they can pick their skin to the bone; their teeth fall out, or they grind them – literally – to pulp. They use opiates to straighten themselves out (!) Meth affects dopamine receptors, and these are permanently damaged. As I listen to this, meth is becoming a crucial element in the stories of our fictional characters.
We’ve roughed out an outline for Believe No One, and I ask District Attorney Tim Harris about the young deputy sheriff. She’s trying to get her boss to take seriously her theory that a killer is working across county boundaries. ‘Well how it works is,’ he says, ‘You’ve got to know somebody who knows somebody.’ And you absolutely HAVE to get approval from any jurisdiction you want to work with which is not your own. (See ‘A Sense of Place‘ for notes on complexity of law enforcement.)
The DA’s office in Tulsa has a good working relationship with homicide/police in general. Police sit at counsel table, they have the DA’s cellphone number. Sometimes, he says, verbalizing what they see in the field is important, and it helps to clarify the course of action they should take. By contrast, they have had dealings with some counties where the elected DA didn’t know the name of the sheriff.
NOTE: I’ve cheated a bit here: we actually visited the DA’s office in Tulsa on Friday 4th May, but I ran out of space, and also there was a photo of Judge Gillert’s office I really wanted to use, but needed to check it was okay with him. He gave that permission, for which I’m grateful.