RogerBW's Blog

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon 07 February 2021

1991 non-fiction. Simon spent 1988 looking over the shoulders of the Baltimore Police Department's Homicide Division and writing articles about them for the Baltimore Sun.

This book is probably less startling now than it was in 1991. I think most people now have a decent idea that cases of homicide are often much more tenuous than the way they're portrayed on crime shows, even if the desire of juries to see things laid out without possibility of question has now become so extreme that it's known as the CSI Effect.

And, most certainly, there are no perfectly righteous moments when a detective, a scientific wizard with uncanny powers of observation, leans down to examine a patch of bloody carpet, plucks up a distinctive strand of red-brown caucasoid hair, gathers his suspects in an exquisitely furnished parlor, and then declares his case to be solved. The truth is that there are very few exquisitely furnished parlors left in Baltimore; even if there were, the best homicide detectives will admit that in ninety cases out of a hundred, the investigator's saving grace is the killer's overwhelming predisposition toward incompetence or, at the very least, gross error.

The cases mostly fall into distinct types, such as drug dealer shot by fellow drug dealer or domestic argument that has finally escalated to the point of killing, but it's the exceptions that are more interesting and memorable – like the multiple-mariticide with two husbands living in her house, each of whom thinks the other is just a lodger. There are a few "red ball" cases that attract a lot of publicity and therefore political pressure to get them solved quickly (and sometimes even extra resources); one of them in particular, the rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl, remains unsolved, which seems entirely appropriate.

Simon's viewpoint is very much with the detectives: they're the people he was shadowing for that year, after all. And while he may not see it, they're clearly horrible people to each other never mind to everyone else, even before the hardening that's necessary to do this particular job, even with the occasional positive notes like covering an overdose victim's part-exposed chest before her husband's let in to identify her. To do him credit, he did later try to see the other side of things, with The Corner, but that was later. Here he's entirely in sympathy with the brave noble heroic police.

The argument isn't that the government should win every murder trial; the system isn't built that way. But does anyone really believe that 45 percent of the homicide defendants brought to a court trial—the last stretch of the legal system's long, thinning bottleneck—are in fact innocent?

Perhaps not. But "does anyone really believe" that, given a hypothetical system which would absolutely guarantee them a conviction for any charge they brought, the police would charge any fewer suspects? That they, knowing they were the last chance to get it right, would take any more care than they do now? Or would they, under the constant pressure to find a resolution, any resolution, for as many crimes as possible, lower their standards even further?

It's the small details that linger: the way what were probably six independent murders of women with different profiles and methods became, through geographical coincidence, the North-West Murderer in the eyes of the press; or the experienced detective's trick of writing his court notes on the back of a copy of the accused's previous conviction record so that the defending attorney won't call for said notes to be taken into evidence.

Take with several large pinches of salt, obviously, and remember that in 1988 DNA evidence was only just beginning to be regarded seriously in Baltimore; but it's well worth the read.

(Or for many of the highlights watch the pilot episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets.)

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