The Girl on the Billboard

Here’s the first part of the manuscript I’d adapted from the Standard killing. I haven’t looked at this in about three and a half years, but here goes:

Detective Diana Siddall could see the asynchronous flashers of the crime scene long before she could see anything that looked like a bar. But as they pulled to a stop, she could see a nicely renovated building that had clearly once been a garage and service station; these were surrounded by a patio with a fountain and a stone wall. “Somebody built a hipster microbrew pub here?” she said. “That was brave.” She craned her neck to look further down Memorial, but the strip of bars and restaurants across the street from the Civil War magnificence of Oakland Cemetery, and that represented the nearest tendril of gentrification in this part of intown Atlanta, was another half mile down the street and invisible beyond a hill.

They walked through the ring of emergency vehicles and into the glare of klieg lights belonging to the crime scene truck. A beautiful ebony man in a beautiful olive suit detached himself from the shadows and walked over to them, a big grin on his face. “You guys are my ticket to beauty sleep,” he said.

“And you’re our ticket to a long and ugly night, “ growled Mustapha.

“Hi, Duane,” said Diana. “Why are we taking your case?”

“Because you’re the best, Dee,” said Detective Duane Peterson. “We leave Grumpy the Dwarf here at home, we can work together, just like old times.”

“But your boyfriend will be so jealous.”

“I regard that as a feature, not a bug. The reason you’re here is because Chief Purcell said that you needed to be here. Beyond that, I don’t know: the it could be because a pretty little white girl got herself shot closing down the bar in this neighborhood full of solid citizens.”

“And you think there’s something more than that?” said Mustapha.

Peterson pointed over to where a different set of lights, from a television truck, illuminated the sidewalk on the far side of the restaurant. “Ask him yourself. Word travels fast around here, and half of the yuppie pioneers who bought houses in this neighborhood before the market started to tank are already up here in the middle of the night demanding justice.”

Diana could see a familiar figure, a tall white man with curly hair that was shifting from red to gray, standing on the curb with his back to them, addressing a crowd of about a dozen white people in their 30s and 40s. “No, thanks,” she said. “Let’s go in and take a look at the scene.”

The inside of the Scrapyard was more or less exactly as Diana would have guessed: exposed ductwork, the smell of stale cigarettes and beer, large abstracts in acrylic by local artists. Half a dozen uniformed officers stood at parade rest around the larger section of the L-shaped room. In the smaller section of the L, around the corner from the bar, a further ring of lights indicated the presence of crime scene officers. Diana could see shadows moving around in the kitchen, on the far side of the bar, as well.

As she followed Mustapha around the corner of the bar, she flinched as a shadow darted toward her from above. She looked up to see a big white bird flap its wings to settle among the pipework overhead. “What the?” she began.

“It’s a cockatiel, ma’am,” said one of the uniformed officers. Diana focused in on him; he flinched in embarrassment. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. “My sister has three of them,” he said sheepishly.

“He’s like the mascot here,” said a familiar gravelly voice. Dave Keller, chief of Crime Scene, walked out from behind where a few dozen bar tables were stacked in pairs, one table upside down on top of another. Keller peeled off the hair net he wore and shook his long, grey locks free to dangle below his shoulders. He then indicated a large, baroque iron cage that lay on the floor near the edge of the bar, its doors swung open from one side to lie on the floor. “We came in and he was flying around squawking; he practically herded us over to where the body is.”

Diana looked up at the ceiling above the cage and saw a large iron hook with a broken piece of chain dangling from it. “Who pulled the cage down?”

“Shot it down, we’re pretty sure.”

“Nice shooting.”

“Wait til you see this. “ Keller walked over to Diana, then behind and past her. “Take a couple of steps this way,” he said.

Diana was right in front of the part of the bar nearest its left end. Behind an antique cash register was the passageway into the kitchen. The brightly lit hallway was blocked by a pair of flimsy-looking chest-high swinging doors which looked much worse for wear after having been shot up a few times.

“What’s that, four shots?” She pointed over to her left, into the rafters and ducts over the smaller end of the dining room. “So why is the bird over there?” She followed the line of her case, then looked downward onto the floor. Underneath a warren of stacked tables and chairs was the corpse of a woman or girl with short, dark hair. The body was slumped over, half concealed among the cruciform metal of the tables’ leg assemblies. The wall behind it had a painting leaning up against it: a pooled pattern of yellow and ochre rectangles now had an even bolder splash of red, pink and gray across its lower half.

She dropped her hand, made a gun with her thumb and forefinger, pointed it at a point in space two feet above the girl’s hips, then sighted along it. She whistled. “Now that is some nice shooting. Were the lights on or off when you got here?”

“On. But that’s because the manager came back after the perps left and started looking for her. She says she’s pretty sure she turned them on. But she’s pretty shaken up.”

“Wait,” said Mustapha. “We have a witness?”

Keller nodded. “Curtis is back there sitting with her. I heard it all secondhand, so I won’t bother telling you anything.”

Diana kept her finger gun extended, and visited toward the kitchen doors. “One, two, three, four,” she counted, then pivoted quickly so that she was pointing toward the dead girl. Diana had been firing pistols since she was nine years old. She shook her head. “That’s about a 4 inch square maybe 20 feet away.”

“So, no way?” said Mustapha.

Diana shook her head again. “Not no way. Just awfully good or awfully lucky.”

“And was it before or after the birdcage?”

“I don’t know,” said Keller. “No way to tell.”

“Two guns?” said Diana. She sighed. “Not enough information.”

“Tell us about the victim, Dave,” said Mustapha.

Keller reached into his pocket and handed Mustapha a Georgia driver’s license inside a plastic evidence bag. “Danielle Mason, age 26. Duane was going out to run her name when I guess he ran into you.”

“Just the single gunshot wound?” asked Mustapha.

“Can’t tell. Haven’t moved her yet. Nothing else is obvious.”

“Thanks, Dave,” said Diana. “Come find us once you’ve examined her.” She turned to Mustapha. “I bet the manager is a cute girl, too; I can’t think of any other reason why Captain Jenkins would babysit a witness.”

“He would say it was his civic duty,” said Mustapha.

“He sure would,” said Keller.

But the manager was pushing fifty, and was the sort of square-jawed, no-nonsense lesbian who would bristle if you suggested there was anything cute about her. Her eyes were red rimmed and teary, and her hands shook as she clasped them together on the needs of her faded blue jeans. “I’m very sorry,” she was saying. “I don’t… deal well with being upset.”

Captain Curtis Jenkins took her hands in his enormous ones and looked her in the eye. “Don’t be ashamed,” he said. “Nobody deals well with something like this.” He looked up at Diana. “Where have you been?”

“Sir? We were off duty, and my daughter had the car. Mustapha had to come and get me.”

Jenkins nodded. “Okay, then. Ms. Osborne here has had a heck of a night: maybe you too can give her time and space to tell her story.”

“Uh, sure. Sir.” Diana took her tablet out of her satchel and opened a file.

Mustapha sat down next to the manager. “We’re sorry for what happened to you, ma’am,” he said.

Jenkins nodded at Diana and walked back into the kitchen. Diana looked at the manager for an instant, then turned her head and followed Jenkins inside. “Sir?” she began.

Jenkins just smiled. “Ms. Osborne is Chief Purcell’s sister, Dee.”

“Whew,” Diana said. “I was thinking you had suddenly been replaced with one of those thoughtful, caring policemen.”

Stalkers, Zealots and Sentries (3)

This is the beginning of the story, as it now stands. For the background, look here, then here. It should be noted that the funeral part will come later: this is just the cold open. This will be a novella-length piece, probably around 25k words.

Alvin Smith died as he had lived: surrounded by guns and the other paraphernalia of anxious masculinity. Detective Diana Siddall looked around the living room of the loft Smith had rented in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood, which in the boom times had been filled with condos for the aspirational, but even five years after the crash was half-empty and mostly rentals.

The place was a case study in what a long-divorced fortysomething woman Did Not Want: a weightlifting bench, a tremendous plasma television, and on the walls posters of football players, of the text of the U.S. Constitution, of Barack Obama eating a slice of watermelon, for god’s sake. The workbench and pegboard held many tools and several firearms, including an assault rifle mounted in the place of honor, and, its grip clamped in a vice, the long-barreled Patriot Arms .44 Magnum that Smith had been cleaning when it discharged, putting a neat round hole in the point of his chin and blowing the back half of his head over the back of the enormous, oversized brown leather recliner that was the room’s sole chair.

Diana crouched down, peered up at the vice. “Removed the clip but forgot there was one in the chamber?”

“Something like that,” said Dave Keller, chief of Crime Scene. “Gun fetishists all over the city are already feeling embarrassed on this idiot’s behalf.”

“Suicide, you think?”

“Inconclusive. His hands test for gunshot residue, but they would either way.”

Diana looked up as her partner Inspector Mustapha Alawi cast a shadow across Smith’s body. “Find anything amiss?”

A sardonic grin underneath his pirate’s beard. “Nothing but porn and gun magazines to read, and he’s only got light beer and frozen hamburger to eat.” He crouched down to look at Smith’s face. “No note, if that’s what you mean. Internet history is what you’d expect: porn, guns, the kind of bloggers who think Fox News is a liberal plant. Door was locked. He’s real pissed at someone named Alice, who I’m going to go out on a limb and say is the ex-wife. You want to put fifty bucks on this one, I’m going to take accident.”

“Yeah? I’m thinking this guy had a moment of clarity looking around this place, looked up his life insurance policy, saw the suicide rider and decided to muddle the issue.”

Keller noticed both detectives were staring at him. “Don’t ask me. I had all night here, I might could find something. But it’s Friday, and it’s ninety degrees outside: I’m guessing we got about half an hour before someone shoots somebody else.”

Good Cop!

Actual community policing solves murders:

Residents of some northern Athens-Clarke County neighborhoods were very much on edge a few months ago.

They already were experiencing an increase in residential burglaries in the area when an elderly man was shot and killed the night of Nov. 27 by someone who broke into his home on Jefferson River Road.

More than a week passed and Athens-Clarke police had not identified any suspects in the home-invasion murder of 76-year-old Edward Davidson.

Little did they know, a vital clue had already been collected just one day after the murder: a single fingerprint found by a patrol officer at the scene of a burglary attempt not far from Davidson’s home.

What the patrol officer, Scott Blair, did was remarkable, if only for its rarity: he started asking the people he’d stop for traffic offenses if they’d seen anything strange.

During that Nov. 27 midnight shift, the officer stopped a motorist for a minor violation for which he issued a warning. When Blair talked to the woman about burglaries in the area, she mentioned that her home had recently suffered some minor damage that she never reported to police.

Blair went back to her house with her and took the fingerprint: this led to the arrest of a juvenile, who dimed his two adult accomplices. Which is good: murderers off streets. But think how far above and beyond the usual cop level of people skills this goes. Blair managed to get this woman to reveal something she’d filed as irrelevant AFTER he gave her a ticket for whatever dumb traffic offense. Think about the last time you got nailed for a California stop: would you have wanted to chat with the cop?

So, credit where credit’s due: Officer Blair was given the title Officer of the Year for actually knowing how to do his job. Think about what that says about the rest of the department. Let us all send mental donuts, or rather mental healthy snacks, to someone who’s actually competent.

Now let’s imagine it as a work of fiction. Obviously, Officer Blair is either too good to be true and has framed the juvenile, some kid who threatened to turn Blair in for buying weed from him or whatever, or he’s just who he appears to be and it’s the motorist who is for whatever nefarious reason framing the kid. Maybe she wanted the old guy dead for some completely unrelated reason. The drama in the story then comes from Blair figuring out that he’s been duped and now has to make the hard decision to put his Officer of the Year award into question.

The Right Answer Was “Manslaughter”

John McNeil pleaded to time served, but didn’t get out of jail until a week after his wife had died of cancer:

Last fall, a Bartow County judge ruled that McNeil should be granted a new trial or released, because of problems with his attorney and the jury instructions on sentencing.

Instead, the District Attorney and McNeil worked out a plea agreement.  Voluntary manslaughter.  His sentence:  time served, plus 13 years probation.

I gave the details of the case last week. The only new piece of information here is that the cops called it self-defense from the start:

John McNeil was sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting Brian Epp in the McNeil family’s Kennesaw yard in 2005.  Cobb county police ruled McNeil’s actions self defense.

McNeil believed Epp had threatened one of his sons with a knife.  He fired a warning shot into the ground, asking Epp to leave.  When Epp refused, McNeil fired again, this time hitting him in the head.

Several months after the incident, the District Attorney decided to prosecute McNeil for murder.  The NAACP and McNeil’s family believe the decision was racially motivated.

In Cobb County? You have to be kidding. Nothing would ever, ever be racially motivated in Cobb.

The key and missing detail is why the DA filed charges when the cops had already deemed it self-defense. DAs are extremely risk-averse, to a fault: they only try cases they either have to, like Andrea Sneiderman, or that they’re 100% sure they’re going to win. There are complex reasons for this aversion to risk, but they boil down to a) money, because trials are very expensive, especially if the defense has a halfway decent lawyer, which McNeil evidently did not the first time, and b) the unwillingness of a DA’s office, which after all is run by an elected official, to be perceived as either weak or incompetent. They want a 100% success rate at trials, which is why you see the plea bargain system being abused so consistently, as it was here.

If this were to become a story, and I’m already thinking it will, then the real drama takes place within the DA’s office. What were they thinking? Was it something as simple as “Heck, he’s a black guy; a Cobb County jury will convict him just for that.” Which is reprehensible but not that farfetched. Or, and better from the perspective of fiction, what made them roll the dice? To whom was the victim’s family connected and how did they use that person to pressure the DA? There’s all kinds of possibilities here.

But I still want to hear the 911 tape.

Self-Defense, Manslaughter or Murder?

This is a kind of complicated story. Or rather, the story itself is simple, but the background is complicated:

John McNeil, sent to prison for life for killing his building contractor in 2005, may be freed next week because he is expected to plead to the lesser crime of manslaughter to end a legal fight now before the Georgia Supreme Court over whether he was protecting himself and his son at the time[…]

McNeil is expected plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and to be sentenced to 20 years, to serve seven of them in prison and the rest on probation. He will get credit for the time he has already spent in prison so he could be freed immediately even though the wife of the man he killed, Brian Epp, objects.

So neither the prosecutors nor McNeil are hugely confident about the outcome of the Supreme Court case: this way, McNeil gets to walk out of prison but the state doesn’t have to admit it was wrong. If I know anything about Georgia, McNeil is mostly right but the court is so conservative that they might rule against him. It can’t possibly make any difference that McNeil is black and Epp was white. No way: never in Georgia.

This AJC story is bafflingly organized, but unpacking us gives us this background. McNeil and Epp had an ongoing dispute. Epp showed up and confronted McNeil’s then-19yo son with a box cutter, threatening to cut the kid. The son called his dad:

McNeil left for home, calling 911 as he drove and telling the operator it was most likely Epp. He told the 911 operator to send someone quickly because he intended to confront Epp, according to a recording played in court.

The operator urged him to stay in his car and wait for police.

Instead McNeil got out of his car with a gun and confronted Epp as the contractor walked over from the house next door. Witnesses said Epp didn’t stop even after McNeil fired a shot into the ground. The second time he fired, McNeil shot the contractor in the face, killing him.

McNeil’s lawyers argued then and now that he was justified to shoot because Epp had already threatened his son with a knife and then charged McNeil in his own front yard even after McNeil fired a warning shot.

Some of the jurors have said they saw the shooting as premeditated because of the threat he relayed to the 911 operator.

Judge Hulane George of Baldwin County ruled that McNeil had not been provided with effective assistance by his attorney:

George cited several concerns with the defense’s handling of the case. The incident was a clear-cut application of the state’s “castle doctrine,” which allows a homeowner to use force in defending his/her home or family from a violent intruder, George said. And the jury should have been instructed about that policy.

Epp was killed at McNeil’s home in Cobb County, which is the epicenter of upper middle class conservatism in the Atlanta area. Baldwin County (where McNeil was imprisoned) centers around Milledgeville, about an hour SE of the city.

So the question is whether McNeil was defending his home, which from the information we’re given seems obvious, or did his saying he was going to confront Epp, who really probably should have just listened to that warning shot, constitute premeditation? Remember that the 911 operator has zero authority here. McNeil could have argued that he was protecting his son by confronting Epp. All of this really makes me want to hear the 911 tape.