Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Canal Development Fire: A Rush to Judgment?

The Indianapolis Star reports this morning that Brandon L. Burns was arraigned yesterday on charges he set a fire which destroyed a large downtown development on the White River canal. It turned out to be one of the worst fires downtown in decades.

My experience with the Marion County Prosecutor's Office, and that of those who practice criminal law on a regular basis, is that Prosecutor Carl Brizzi's office often will rush forward to file charges without insisting that a quality investigation be conducted first. This is particularly true when crimes are of a high profile and get a lot a media attention. It seems the motivation is to get someone charged ASAP, even if that means not getting the right guy, or curtailing an ongoing investigation.

The result is that the Marion County Prosecutor's Office makes a lot of bad charging decisions, decisions often made in haste. While that alone is a problem, a bigger one is that once the Marion County Prosecutor's Office charges someone they do not like to admit they made a mistake and dismiss. Rather the prosecutor's office will keep charges pending against innocent people up until the day of their trial, trying to cut a deal. It is not fair to those individuals who have had their lives turned upside by criminal charges that shouldn't have been filed in the first place. Leaving those charges in place after prosecutors know they have no chance of conviction, is immoral and a violation of the public trust. If you don't have a case, you dismiss. It's that simple.

Last year, I reported on a mentally disabled client of mine who was charged with the Marion County Prosecutor's office for robbing a video store manager. The charges were based solely on the statement of the manager, who claims my client hid behind a dumpster, and jumped out and demanded that he have the envelope with the bank deposit she had stuffed in her pocket. The story was preposterous from the beginning. The dumpster was around back of the store. The manager was supposed to go straight to her car at the front of the store and drive to the bank. How did my client, again mentally disabled, know that day she would take the trash out to the dumpster before going to the bank? How did he know that she had an envelope with cash hidden in her pocket? The only place on the property were there were no video camera coverage was the behind the store where the dumpster was located. That the manager said that is where the robbery took place wasn't a coincidence.

The story was incredulous. A fourth-grader could have looked at her story and picked it apart, figuring out that quite possibly the manager kept the money herself and fingered a mentally disabled man who walked liked to come into the video store and look at the pretty boxes. Because of the arrest of my client, the normal internal investigation of the theft was never conducted by the company. Even though they found absolutely no evidence on my client, the police and Prosecutor's Office couldn't conceive of the possibility that this woman might have actually taken the money herself. The Marion County Prosecutor's Office filed felony robbery charges on my client and he was hit with an $80,000 bond he couldn't afford. While in jail he didn't get his psych med, began talking to himself, and was beaten up.

Fortunately for my client, we had video of him getting picked up by his brother that day at a drugstore and then eating at a restaurant across town when he was supposedly robbing the manager. You think that would be enough for the Prosecutor's Office to dismiss? Nope. They still left him in jail... for months. They did not want to admit they made a mistake and even, disgustingly, offered him a plea deal. Only when the trial date came close and I wrote to Prosecutor Brizzi directly (with a copy sent to the Indianapolis Star), did the Prosecutor's office finally agree to drop the charges.

As far as the manager goes, during one of the initial hearing, I purposefully had her place her identification claim under oath, so that her false identification of my client would be a matter of perjury. The deputy prosecutor, figuring out what I was doing, tried to intervene - too late - to stop the perjury. I'm not sure why the deputy prosecutor thought it was his job to try to allow a witness to falsely accuse someone without consequence. Nonetheless, the Prosecutor's Office never pursued the perjury case. The manager undoubtedly made off with the money, without consequences, while my client spent months in jail on bogus charges.

When I hear that Burns is mentally disabled, I think of my own client and what he went through. People who are mentally disabled are easily manipulated, and sometimes get confused. Although my client never confessed to the robbery, he was extremely confused about what was going on and why he was in jail. Sometimes it's important for a prosecutor to take a little extra time on an investigation to make sure you get it right before filing charges. There seems to be a lot more to the story than that Burns deliberately set the fire. It would be a good idea for the Prosecutor's office to slow down and get things right, rather than rush to judgment.


Anonymous said...

I posted elsewhere that the Brizzi office has learned from history. This isn't the first time that a fire was blamed on a homeless drifter.

Back in the 1930's a fire blamed on an innocent homeless man was used to justify passing patriotic laws in Germany that eventually turned the nation into a police state.

This is why it pays to know your history, people. It seems like some folks in Indy are gonna benefit financially using the same tactics. You would sacrifice a homeless mans worthless life to do the same thing, given the opportunity. Wouldnt you?

Gary R. Welsh said...

Your account here really brings home the point that our criminal justice system treats people without means far more harshly than people with means. The girlfriend of this guy was interviewed by Channel 59 News last night. She takes responsibility for her ex-boyfriend being charged with the crime. She wasn't hitting on all cylinders herself, but she claims police twisted her comments to implicate her boyfriend, who she says couldn't have carried it out by himself if he was involved at all. You have to consider the possibility that these guys claimed to be behind the fire originally to impress others. Once they implicate themselves, they simply lack the mental capacity to exonerate themselves. It's like taking candy from a baby for the prosecutor's office.