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|THE WAY I SEE IT
A final newspaper article, buried on page three, was printed
regarding the passenger in the “blue van case.” His meth charges
were dismissed as part of his plea agreement to testify against the
perp. The article went on to describe this and, in doing so, included
two parts of this story not previously revealed to the public.
It described that the perp admitted to the police that he had tried to
abduct the kids but that the testimony was suppressed because he
was purposely not read his Miranda rights beforehand. It also
mentioned that the judge precluded one of the victims from making
an in-court identification of the perp because of problems with the
lineup conducted by the police.
In both instances, the police contaminated the evidence, and the
case, through not following the correct protocol. In deciding to be
both judge and jury by taking matters into their own hands, the
involved officers ruined whatever chance for justice there might
have been for these kids, and two felons were not meted the
punishment they truly deserved.
We can only hope that this failure of the officers to “serve and
protect” honest citizens does not eventually lead to the victimization
of others at the hands of these criminals.
Please feel free to email questions or comments to Holly Whitman at
HollyWhitman (at symbol) housewifemafia.com
|Adventures in the Court System:
When Bad Guys Win
© Copyright Holly Whitman
"If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will
change a past or future event, then you are residing on
another planet with a different reality system."
-- William James
Last August my son James* and two of his friends, Charlie* and
Shasta*, were hanging out together. They decided to go to Shasta’s
house and walked into chaos; a neighbor had a heart attack and Shasta’s
grandmother offered to watch the visiting grandchildren as he was taken to
the hospital by ambulance. The three young teens could not stand the
noise, so Shasta’s grandmother suggested they take a walk in the
They walked toward a nearby church which housed their former school.
Although it was dusk, this was a place they had always felt safe, almost
like home. The kids were in the parking lot, heading for the closest light
pole, when they heard the whine of an engine. Looking up, they saw
headlights racing straight at them in what seemed a collision course.
James sprang to one side as a dark blue or bluish-green colored minivan
veered a little too close and parked. Then the van backed up and cut them
off as they tried to exit the parking lot. The driver, dressed in baggy shorts,
a T-shirt, and a red ball cap, jumped out of the van and screamed at them
to freeze, claiming to be an undercover police officer. He shouted that he
and his partner believed the kids were there to damage the property and
commanded them to get into the van for questioning.
The kids started backing away. The man shouted, “Stop! Don’t
back up!” Charlie, within arm’s reach, froze, but Shasta and James
were leery and continued to back away. The man made a swipe at
Charlie. Shasta whipped out her cell phone, dialed 911, and called
The man commanded them to put away their cell phones, but Shasta ignored him; she
screamed into her phone, “Some men are trying to kidnap us!” and described her
Hearing this, the man said, “Okay, we’re calling our backup now,” got into the van, and
drove off. The kids ran right behind the vehicle and watched as it left the parking lot,
traveled a couple of streets, and turned left.
Meanwhile, I returned a missed call from James. He answered, out of breath, told me
someone had tried to kidnap them, and asked us to go to Shasta’s house to meet with
the police. An officer soon arrived and all of us, parents and kids, sat in Shasta’s living
room as the story unfolded. Unknown to me then, this was not the proper way to
conduct this interview. After the initial contact and general story, the kids should have
been interviewed privately and separately for the details.
After the interview, we went home and stayed up very late talking
about what had happened. James was too wound up to sleep at first.
“The very thing I was most afraid of happened!” he exclaimed. He had
been overly worried about strangers and what they might do to him
for several years. The source of this fear was none other than Granny.
Granny is fearful of anyone or anything that could potentially harm her
beloved grandson. Not trusting that we, his parents, were doing
enough to keep him safe, she decided long ago that it was her duty to
make him aware and afraid of strangers.
She often discussed possible kidnapping scenarios, home intrusions, and other
horrors, warning him to avoid abduction with vivid examples—try to imagine, for
example, stranger danger from an al Qaeda member.
That night James’s Granny-fed fears had materialized. Although there were sturdy,
decorative bars bolted to his bedroom window, for the next several months James
lived in fear someone would break in and get him. He had difficulty sleeping, so some
nights he slept on a mattress on our bedroom floor. Other nights he asked that we all
keep our doors open so that he could call us if needed.
This behavior eventually stopped, but it was a tough time for him.
He would not go anywhere alone, even in the middle of the day,
refused to walk his dog alone, and was constantly fearful someone
might try to kidnap him.
Granny, who had just turned 89, was never told what happened to
James; we all knew that she would not be able to bear it, nor could
we live with her fear and the myriad ways she would continue to
Right after the incident, each kid was shown a photo lineup. I would have had difficulty
with something like that; photos are never like seeing a real person and the photo of
the man who did this was not part of the lineup. James and Charlie each picked one
person who resembled the perp; Shasta declined. The identifications were incorrect.
This would eventually work against the case.
Meanwhile, a rash of “blue van” reports began to surface. Panicked children told their
parents, who then informed the police, of attempts by strange men in blue vans to
kidnap them from bus stops, front yards, and city streets; every incident was reported
in the local newspaper, and every one except for the first one was false. The
newspaper didn’t retract the stories because the police did not let them know. I asked
why and the officer said, “People would get mad if we called those kids liars.” I was
stunned. I felt the public deserved to know that there was no serial child predator loose
A month later a second photo lineup was shown to each of the
three kids. This time James and Shasta declined, but Charlie
chose the correct photo, which was in the same lineup position as
the former incorrect photo. Charlie had been closest to the driver,
so it was easier for him to identify the perp. However, placing the
correct photo in the same position in the lineup as the previously
incorrect photo opened the possibility that Charlie was simply
choosing the first photo in a lineup no matter who it was.
This careless mistake by the police department meant the
identification was inadmissible evidence.
Shortly after this, we learned that the police had discovered that the real perpetrator
was already in jail for an unrelated probation violation. I was amazed. If I had known
then what I know now, I might have been more angry than amazed. I learned that, in
order to establish whether there was a “blue van” predator on the loose, the police had
deliberately bypassed Mirandizing the prisoner in order to find out if he could identify
the guy they were looking for. Although they had no right to do this, they promised him
that nothing he said would be used against him. One officer had a small tape recorder
in his pocket on which he captured the forthcoming confession; this was, of course,
inadmissible evidence in our case, although it confirmed that the incident, indeed, had
The county prosecutor sent the case to a grand jury, which found it worthy of trial.
Months passed and the wheels of justice turned slowly. Pleas were offered and
refused, the stakes higher each time the perp turned it down. I was amazed that his
lawyer advised this action, but I was also unaware of the many hurdles to justice
already put into place. By the time this case finally went to trial, the most damning
evidence had been suppressed.
Before the trial began, each child met with the prosecutor, who prepared them for their
day in court. He questioned them as he might in the courtroom so that they would
understand the proper way to answer. He explained that it was important to use as few
words as possible and as many words as needed. He stressed that it was not the truth
they were seeking but the facts. I found this difference striking.
As I considered it, I realized that truth is notoriously subjective
and focusing on telling the truth might be misleading.
Facts are facts, and it is up to the listener to draw his or her
own conclusion. I liked that difference and I understood the
importance of it. The kids understood, as well, and felt
confident that they could handle being on the witness stand.
The first day in court went well. If you have ever been to court, you have learned a sad
truth: court on TV and court in real life are not even remotely related. While TV court
dramas can be mesmerizing, moving at an incredible pace as a Perry Mason-like
figure forces the truth out of a startled criminal hell-bent on lying and getting away with
it, real-life court rooms are not a performance but a process, full of pauses, long waits,
and many minutes spent looking for missing papers and evidence or waiting on
subpoenaed witnesses determined not to show.
The prosecutor stood and made his opening statement, followed by the defense
attorney, who stressed that the perp was not required to prove his innocence; indeed,
the jury was not to find him guilty if there was reasonable doubt of his guilt. My heart
sank when I heard this. It would be more difficult for the prosecutor to convince the jury
that this case was worthy of conviction than it would be for the defense to convince
them that there was not enough evidence to convict.
Charlie went on the stand first, answering each question with
a yes, no, or whatever response was needed. Although he
was only 13, he handled it with amazing calm. Shasta, 15,
went next, unshaken by the defense as she described why
and how she called 911. Neither could forced to agree that
the perp’s friend was actually the driver of the van. James,
14, also kept his responses short and concise, remaining
steadfast as the defense attempted to poke holes in his
story. The defense attorney did her best to create
“reasonable doubt.” By the end of that day I realized that we
were not likely to be happy with the outcome of the case.
The local newspaper articles about this case were well-written. I found myself shaking
my head, aware of details that the jury and the general public would never learn,
including the fact that the both parties were drug users out looking for heroin that night;
the passenger was a felon facing a charge of possession of methamphetamine with
intent to sell and the driver was a felon, as well. I could not help thinking how horrified
anyone would be at the thought of such scum approaching and terrifying their children.
But most of this information was suppressed and the jury could not know. Oh, they did
get to know that the “star witness” was a felon facing conviction for meth, with a
mandatory sentence of 10 years that would be suspended if he testified and told the
truth. As I listened to him, I had the feeling that whatever he had left for brains was
probably pretty well fried by now. He was almost too addled to be of much use, other
than to place the perp at the place and time of the crime.
We appeared for day two of the trial; two of the witnesses who
had been subpoenaed failed to appear for a second time and
a bench warrant was issued for their arrest, complete with fine
and a ride in a squad car to court. The kids were not further
needed that day and were allowed to leave before those
We were told to come after lunch on the third day, which would conclude the trial. As we
arrived, we noticed jury members streaming out of the courthouse a bit late for a lunch
break. I noticed a reporter talking to a jury member and realized it must be over. I was
told of the verdict: not guilty on all three counts of attempted imprisonment, one count of
aggravated assault on a minor, and one count of impersonating a police officer.
Although the guy was guilty of every one of those charges, the jury was denied access
to the most compelling evidence that would have convinced them that he needed to
pay for what he did to those kids.
On the way home I told James how proud of him I was. He was so cool and calm on
that witness stand, and he had stayed with the facts, as instructed, while facing this
monster who had terrified him and left him fearful day and night for months. We were
deeply disappointed with the outcome, but James and I agreed, we did our best.
James made an astute observation. “Mom,” he said, “I noticed that they said ‘not guilty’
instead of ‘innocent.’ That means they don’t necessarily think he is innocent; they just
don’t have enough information to say for sure that he is guilty.” I agreed. Somehow, this
made it much easier for both of us to bear.
Later on, I called the prosecutor to thank him for going out on
a limb to get some justice for the kids. He believed in the
case and was sorry that it didn’t go the way we would have
liked. As I considered it, I realized it cost me a few hundred
dollars in lost wages, lunches out, and gas money to follow
through on this. But it must have cost the perp thousands of
dollars to engage that lawyer, who traveled over a hundred
miles in order to defend him, not to mention the many
months of not knowing his fate.
We learned a lot in the past year about the legal system, how the court
works, and how to not be attached to an outcome. It does us no good to
mope about the fact that the bad guys won this time around. That
frequently happens. And no matter how bad we feel, we cannot change
what happened. My son and I agreed that we feel good about trying to
stand up for what’s right and following through, even when it is tough. We
made an honest effort to right a wrong. In this case, it was a matter of
police bungling, plain and simple. That we could not control.
As with many other aspects of life, it’s a crap shoot; you win some, you
lose some. Even if that guy did not pay the price for what he did to those
kids, one fact remains unchanged. He violated his probation, and he’s still
going to prison.
My teenage son got to see, in a relatively safe environment, people who
have chosen to live the hard life of a drug addict, how they look and sound
to others, and why it is important to strengthen his own resolve to never be
like those pathetic people. He got a chance to see, first hand, how the
court system works, and he got to participate in the great American
institution of justice, flawed as it might be, that, in principle at least, gives
the benefit of the doubt to all people, regardless of what they deserve.
Best of all, he got to see that even when the bad guys win, they can also
lose. And that made the whole experience worth it.
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