The Outlook

This isn't for the sensitive

How Race Slowed the Investigation of a Double Homicide

I love crime shows, especially crime docs like Forensic Files and Cold Case Files.  Lately I’ve been watching a show on Netflix called Crime 360.  In this reality show, cameras follow the investigation of homicides that are solved in part by using technology that allows crime techs to “freeze” a crime scene just as it is at the time of discovery for use later if detectives need to see the scene for some purpose after clean-up at the actual site has occurred.

Over the course of 2 seasons, the show was filmed in Richmond, VA; Indianapolis, IN; Rochester, NY and Cleveland, OH.  I’ve been watching for several days now, about an episode a day, and I quickly realized that approximately 90-95% of the victims were of color (mostly black) and with the exception of the episode I’m about to discuss, 100% of the perps were of color (mostly black).  All of the victims have been male and young and “in that life” as well as the perps.  To a certain degree I believe I’ve continued to watch this show just to see how many black men are killing other black men and how much of that a television show would air.

You have to wonder how many homicide investigations they filmed and how they chose to air the ones they chose to air.  Two episodes I watched back-to-back were almost completely opposite in every way, except for the city they were filmed in; both were in Indianapolis.

In the first episode we come up on a homicide of a young black male.  It appears that a shootout between two groups of people occurred and the victim was shot during that time.  He managed to run to a back alley where he collapsed and died.  The investigation went just as several others had gone: the lead investigator rounded up any possible witnesses and questioned them, came up with a list of suspects, and continued to use physical and forensic evidence to help him guide where he looked for more information until finally he was able to determine who shot the victim.

In the second episode, we come upon a double homicide of 2 older white males.  Both are retired professionals and we learn (needlessly, I think) that they are gay (homophobia actually runs a bit rampant in this show, but that’s a topic for another post).  Just like the prior episode and most of the others, the lead detective gathers witnesses and uses evidence to figure out where to go next in his search.

Both episodes end with the arrests of the suspect(s) but one takes a bit longer than the other to solve and I believe it has to do with race.

In the first episode a bystander is quickly brought downtown under serious suspicion of involvement.  It is believed that because he was standing close to the victim’s body when investigators and police arrived on the scene that he may have had something to do with the shooting.  The “person of interest,” a black male, gives a very plausible story that he and his friend (the victim) had been at a park earlier in the day.  He says that he and his friend and some of his friend’s friends left the area about the same time, but in different directions.  He says suddenly he hears shots and he takes of running.  He returns when the fire ceases and finds his friend in the middle of a group of people, dead on the ground.  The investigator is very suspicious of this story and reluctant to let the witness go, though he ultimately has to because he has no reason to hold him.

In the second episode, two men enter the victims’ home because one of them, a supposed close friend  of the roommates, realizes he has not seen them in several weeks.  This individual serves as an early witness who is also brought down to the station to give information to police.  He, a white male, is not seen as a person of interest.  He explains that he realized he hadn’t seen his friends in a few weeks and asked another neighbor to accompany him into the house.  They found a back window that was half open and used it to enter the home where the witness discovered the bodies.  He also adds that interestingly, a few days prior to this discovery, he got an anonymous message on his phone (it is never clarified whether this was voice or text) to retrieve one of the victims’ vans from a store parking lot.  He explains further that the men never lent their vehicles to other people and so investigators assume that whoever took the van killed the men.  They thank the witness and he is allowed to go.

I’m not a terribly suspicious person.  In fact, I’m much more liable to believe someone than to not believe them if we don’t have any history or I don’t have any real tangible reason not to.  I typically would just rather believe you than go through the trouble of suspecting you, but that second witness?  Oh he sounded to me like he was lying from the word go.  Everything just seemed so… planned.  This half-open window, and especially this van!  My mind was boggled as to why the investigators didn’t seem the least bit suspicious that this man got some random message on his phone to go retrieve a van that was a crucial piece of evidence!  I mean who in their right mind wants to get away with a crime and directs someone to something that could convict them?  I also wondered why no one asked the witness to produce the message so they could follow up.

Turns out that in the first case, the witness was telling the truth and had nothing at all to do with the shooting.  However in the second case the witness who’s less-than-probably story we believed turned out not only to be involved, but to be the perpetrator.  After a tip from another neighbor, the investigators determine he had a fairly intense rap sheet himself, including aggravated robbery.  Because it took so long to unearth evidence that he had not been completely forthright and also had his own criminal past, he had time to leave the city and make it cross-country before they found him.  I couldn’t help but ponder how differently that might have gone had he been a black man.

I’ve seen enough of these to tell you that police are generally suspicious people and with good reason. Several times I thought a witness was being truthful only to find that with just a few more pointed questions, their stories unraveled.  But almost all of those witnesses have been black and they’ve had information on black suspects involved in black murders.  I think it makes sense to wonder why a witness with questionable information wasn’t made a person of interest much sooner than in this case.

I’m not at all accusing the investigator of this “white” crime of racism.  I surely don’t have enough evidence, having never seen him work a “black” case.  He might just be a little inept in the investigating department, but I do think race is at least one piece of why one witness was questioned more harshly and much longer than another who turned out to be a suspect.

What do you think?  Am I off base?  The interesting thing here is perception.  As a person who is forced to pay attention to and think about how race works in our society, every day these things stand out to me a little more.  I think one could cloak this in class instead of race as many are apt to do, I think others could out and out deny that race plays any part.  Perhaps, some might say, the black witness was treated more harshly because of his own history.  All of these theories, including mine, have an equal chance of being true but I stand behind what I’ve said.  The black witness was treated much more skeptically than the white one and it had everything to do with the race of the two.

December 23, 2011 - Posted by | Race, TV Shows, Uncategorized | , ,

2 Comments »

  1. I think you are spot on. Very good analysis of the witness evaluation in these two cases. I don’t watch this show, but I will look for it now after reading this. I actually work as an investigator (white collar crime) and I know for a fact that personal bias is very difficult to avoid if you don’t actively work against it. People who are not a part of a systematically oppressed group are sometimes not really even conscious of it because it does not affect them personally. Profiling and stereotyping does go on. Believe that. You have to be very mindful of it. The benefit of the doubt is often given with no rhyme or reason. The idea that the “perpetrator” would contact this random friend about the car is ridiculous ! There is no way he should have ever walked out of that police station after giving a statement like that & the cell records should have been subpoenaed immediately.

    Comment by Beautifully Complex | December 23, 2011

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