I was a prosecutor for more than 30 years. For the first six-plus years of my career, I served as a prosecutor with the United States Army’s Judge Advocate General’s (“JAG”) Corps. As an Army JAG I handled court-martial prosecutions and criminal appeals in cases that included murder, espionage, sexual offenses, financial crimes, military offenses and many others. Upon leaving the military, I joined the United States Attorney’s Office (“USAO”) for the District of Columbia (“DC”). As a federal prosecutor for 25 years, I investigated, indicted and tried countess criminal cases. My work included trying multiple, murder-driven gang cases prosecuted pursuant to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (“RICO”) statutes. Additionally, because the District of Columbia USAO is also responsible for all local prosecutions in Washington, I also investigated, indicted, tried and supervised hundreds of murder cases.
The DC USAO has the largest Homicide Section of any federal prosecutor’s office in the country. With approximately 30 homicide prosecutors, it is also larger than most if not all state, county and local homicide offices as well. While at the DC USAO, I served as Deputy Chief of the Homicide Section for four years and served as Chief of the Homicide Section for six years. As Chief, I oversaw the grand jury investigations and prosecutions of all murder cases brought in the District of Columbia. I was also oversaw the review and approval of all arrest warrants in murder cases in the District of Columbia.
During my ten years as a supervisor, I also carried a full homicide caseload, personally prosecuting more than 50 murder trials in the DC courts.
I have seen first-hand the suffering of surviving family members. I have spent countless hours with my “homicide families” — a designation that no family should ever have to be given. I have had the unrivaled honor of working with homicide families from the earliest moments after the murder of their loved one through the investigation, arrest, indictment, trial and sentencing of the killer. I have had the privilege of helping these families through what they tell me is the most difficult ordeal of their lives. I have a deep and abiding passion for helping homicide families. They are both uniquely in need of our help and supremely deserving of our help.
When a homicide family is thrust into the byzantine and often incomprehensible world of the criminal justice system, they have so many questions that demand thoughtful, informed and honest answers:
Who killed my son killed?
Why was my son killed?
How was he killed?
Did he suffer?
Why did it take so long for the police to contact us and inform us that our son had been killed?
What are the police doing to investigate my son’s death?
Why is it taking so long to make an arrest?
Are the police doing everything they can as quickly as they can to find my son’s killer?
Why won’t the police give me any information about what happened to my son?
Why won’t the assigned homicide detective return my calls?
Should I call the detective’s supervisor?
Should I call the Chief of Police?
Should I call the media?
Would it help if I contacted my congressperson or senator to demand information, action and answers?
Why can’t they give us back my son’s property: his wallet, his phone, his car, his clothes, etc.?
If no arrest is made in 2 – 3 years and the case is designated a Cold Case, a whole new set of questions arise:
Why were the police unable to make an arrest?
Did the police do everything they could to investigate my son’s murder?
Did they take advantage of all new and emerging technologies: cell phone searches; cell site searches; social media searches; forensic computer searches; DNA testing including for “touch DNA”; etc.
Did the police obtain all potentially relevant public and private video surveillance footage from in and around the crime scene and the path to and from the crime scene and from around the suspect’s (if any) house; did they investigate and interview the suspect’s friends, family, associates and enemies; etc.
What happens now that my son’s case is a Cold Case?
Is a new detective assigned to investigate?
Does the new detective do anything that the first detective didn’t do? If so, what?
Do they really work on Cold Cases?
What happens if they never find enough evidence to charge anyone?
What happens if they figure out who killed my son, but that person is locked-up in another case or serving a lengthy sentence in another jurisdiction? What happens then?
If an arrest is made, there are even more questions:
What happens now?
Did the defendant confess to killing my son?
Did he say why he did it?
Did he deny killing my son?
What will happen at the first court appearance?
Will the defendant be held or released pending indictment?
If the defendant is released, will my family be in danger?
How long does it take for an indictment?
Will there be enough evidence to indictment?
What will the defendant be charged with?
Will the prosecutor make any plea offers to the killer?
What are my family’s rights vis-à-vis a proposed plea offer?
What if I disagree with the prosecutor’s proposed plea offer?
Why won’t the prosecutor return my calls?
Should I call his/her supervisor?
Does the prosecutor’s office have a victim-advocate or victim services for my family?
What can a victim advocate do for my family?
Why is the defense attorney trying to contact my family?
Why is the defense investigating my son’s background?
Why are they saying bad things about my son when he is the victim?
Why does the judge keep talking about the “right” of the killer – his right to a timely indictment and a speedy trial and to a good/effective attorney and to file motions to suppress the evidence and to a right to get a haircut in the jail whenever he wants one, etc?
Why does no one talk about my son’s rights – he had a right not to be killed but no one cares about that!
Why does the trial keep getting continued every time the defense attorney asks for a continuance?
How many continuances will the defendant get before he is finally required to go to trial?
Doesn’t the case get weaker over time?
Does my son have a right to a speedy trial or does the system just not care about him?
When will the trial be?
Will I be able to sit in during the trial?
Will there be gory or graphic crime scene photos shown? If so, when?
Will there be autopsy photos shown?
Will I have to testify?
Will the defense attorney cross-examine me?
Will he/she be polite or nasty?
Why is the defense saying that my son attacked the defendant when that’s not what happened?
The trial doesn’t seem fair to my son or my family!
What happens if the case results in a hung jury?
What happens if the defendant is found not guilty?
If convicted, what will the sentencing be like?
Will my family get any say in what the sentence should be?
Will we be able to address the court at the sentencing hearing?
What happens if the judge gives a sentence we think is too low or unfair to our son and our family?
Can/should we talk with the media about the case before, during and/or after the trial?
What are the risks if we do? What if we don’t care about those risks, can we talk to the media anyway?
If convicted, will the defendant file an appeal?
What does an appeal involve and how long does it take?
Does the victim’s family have any rights in the appellate process?
What are the possible outcomes of an appeal?
What happens if the appellate court reverses the conviction?
If the conviction is upheld/affirmed, will the defendant be eligible for parole?
What are my family’s rights in the parole process?
Not surprisingly, this represents just a small fraction of the questions posed every day by homicide families in every jurisdiction in the United States.
Answering these questions with honesty, candor and empathy, and supporting these families through the years-long process of seeking justice for the murder of their loved one has been a primary part of my life’s mission for decades.
There remains an enormous (and often unfulfilled) need for long-term, consistent and overarching homicide family support and assistance.
I hasten to add that by posing the above questions and suggesting the need for HFA advocates I do not intend to criticize or diminish the dedicated work of police officers, homicide detectives, prosecutors, victim advocates, defense attorneys or judges. To the contrary, I have been blessed to work with so many of the best professionals that law enforcement and the criminal justice system have to offer. However, the reality is that the governments have finite resources to devote to working with homicide families. Moreover, not all of the people working within the system have the experience, knowledge, information, expertise, or available time and energy to fully and effectively assist homicide families. Finally, there is a small fraction of government employees who may not be up to the task of assisting homicide families due to lack of training and experience, weak interpersonal skills, empathy deficits, or lack of zeal, dedication or energy, to fulfill this critically important support mission.
There were more than 17,000 homicides reported in the US in 2016.
Even more staggeringly, there are an estimated 211,000 unsolved homicides in the US since 1980. Given that each homicide impacts so many family members, the number of people affected by murder in our country is easily in the millions. Moreover, the impact of even a single homicide reaches well beyond the victim’s family: murder can take a coach away from her players, a teacher away from his students, a religious leader or a parishioner away from a congregation, a nurse from his hospital, a firefighter form her engine company, a beloved neighbor, a soup-kitchen volunteer, a classmate, a co-worker, a best friend.