1.9 Two Sides to Every Story

Book One / 9

“All rise . . .” I announced the commencement of the proceedings as I entered the packed courtroom. The judge entered directly behind me, quickly climbed the few steps up to the bench, and took his seat without additional ceremony. We were both a bit nervous, anticipating the possible problems that a sentencing like this one could present.

The court reporter and courtroom clerk were already seated at their stations in the lower bench area, directly below the judge. I took my seat next to the clerk. Directly in front of us, lined up at the bar, stood the prosecutor, one defense attorney, the defendant himself, and then the lead defense attorney.

Prior to the hearing Quinley’s attorneys had indicated to me that Quinley planned to make a statement to the court, an event known as allocution and required by law to be made available to a defendant at his or her sentencing. Implying that Quinley would feel more comfortable speaking at the bar instead of at counsel tables — within reach of the crowds right behind him — his attorney had asked me for authorization from the judge to stand at the bar throughout the hearing. As a result, the four of them now spread out all their paperwork on the wood surface in front of them, inches away from the lower bench, and waited while the judge made his opening remarks.

After the judge’s remarks the prosecutor began the State’s presentation. He provided a brief history of the events that had preceded the plea agreement of the parties, then began to call members of the victim’s family and the police department to approach the bench and give a statement to the court. Among these were the assistant chief of police, who had been working at the precinct on the night of the officer’s death and had later developed a close and lasting friendship with his surviving wife. The officer’s mother, sister, and widow had also prepared statements. They each took a turn before the court, approaching the bar and reading from sheets of paper so that their apprehension and exhaustion wouldn’t render them suddenly voiceless when challenged by their own nerves.

Standing before the judge, tissues in hand and a courtroom filled with supporters behind them, the speakers appeared defiant, still accusatory in their opportunity to confront Quinley in person. At the same time, however, it was clear that after so many years they were well into the inevitable emotional retreat. The officer’s sister, in fact, in the words of many like her who had experienced the trauma of a violent family death, confirmed that on this day, at last, she felt she was no longer a victim, but a survivor.

Despite the prosecuting attorney’s representation that the officer’s family supported the agreed sentencing recommendation, many of the statements still appealed to the judge to increase the sentence above the agreed term. They understood, they said, and they did support the resolution ultimately, but they still hoped for some unexpected grace that might keep Quinley inside, away from their world forever.

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The officer’s mother had been the first family member to address the court. An old woman now, she nonetheless moved with spirit and certainty, assisted by the prosecutor’s hand beneath her elbow as if permitting the State a small, symbolic gesture of public support for what was purely a personal, private grief. Her black skin pinched heavily around her eyes then softened into gentle lines that disappeared beneath a thin layer of wispy, white hair.

She stood at the bar weeping softly at first, trying to read the typed words that became magnified unevenly by each teardrop that landed on them. She then handed her written statement to the prosecutor and began instead to search, one last time, for words that would express to a judge the anguish she felt upon the court’s likely imposition of a prison term less than life for the man who had pled guilty to the murder of her son.

She implored the court to re-impose the exceptional sentence that Quinley had received years ago. It wasn’t fair, she insisted to the judge, that Quinley would be out of prison soon simply because by law he had already been in long enough. “I can’t go to my son’s grave,” she cried, “and tell him he’s been dead long enough now . . . get up, son, it’s time to get up and get back to your life . . . your family needs you.”

Holding her thin hands over her mouth as tears breached the gaps between her fingers, she finally shook her head wordlessly then allowed the prosecutor to accompany her back to her seat.

Somewhere in time between the commencement of proceedings that day and the conclusion of the State’s presentation, Quinley had decided not to speak. Although I was aware that members of his family were in court, seated on the bench behind the table where Quinley and his attorneys had been sitting before the hearing began, the attorneys did not call on any of them to speak either.

The decision of his family members not to address the court had to have been made in advance, but Quinley’s own decision to remain quiet was contrary to his attorneys’ representations to me minutes before the hearing began, when they had sought permission for Quinley to make his presentation at the bar rather than at counsel tables.  Something in the timbre of the earlier voices in the courtroom that day, or in the content of their statements to the judge, had swayed Quinley. Whether he now felt timid or intimidated, or simply didn’t want to prolong the difficulty of the hearing for him, whether for those or other reasons, he had decided midstream to remain silent. The officer’s family would hear no words of remorse, or apology, or recognition of the grief Quinley had caused them.

Quinley’s lead attorney, however, accepted the opportunity the moment it was his with the urgency of one who had been held back too long. Adopting the tone of an anguished minister wanting to impress on a reluctant congregation the significance of making a specific sacrifice, he addressed the court and the assembled crowd with an insistence on his client’s moral and factual innocence.

Despite pleading guilty to first degree murder, he began, Quinley had not been the young man who had shot the officer in those early morning hours fourteen years ago. He’d been merely a skinny young boy of 17, stranded on the side of a road with his friends, hoping that someone would stop to help.

According to Quinley’s defense in the first trial, the man who had pulled over to the side of the road where Quinley and his friends were stranded had stepped out of his car with a gun in his hand. Quinley, immediately fearful for his own safety and believing the man “was about to jack us,” pulled out the .22 caliber Ruger pistol he had purchased for $50 on the streets that very day – in preparation, he claimed, for recrimination from members of a gang he had recently quit.

A confrontation with the armed man quickly ensued based on a tragic misunderstanding of the situation facing them. The man shot at Quinley, striking him in the back as he fled. Quinley and his friend then returned fire in self-defense, Quinley first, his friend second after an injured Quinley passed the gun off to him.

In a summary of the event contained in Quinley’s official statement on a plea of guilty, filed earlier with the court, Quinley’s attorneys had claimed simply that after the officer appeared on the scene and exited his unmarked vehicle, “a confrontation ensued.” As Quinley ran back to the vehicle, he had fired the gun in his hand in the direction of the officer. The officer then fired his own service revolver toward Quinley, striking him in the back. Quinley handed the gun to his friend, who fired it again at the officer.

According to other narratives of the events of that night, after being shot the officer had managed to climb into his car and drive two miles to the nearest precinct where officers administered first aid until paramedics arrived. He died several hours later, after describing the incident to his colleagues but being unable to identify with certainty which of the two individuals’ shots had struck him.

It had not been Quinley’s, his attorney now insisted, his body turned ninety degrees from the bar and with a finger of admonition raised sideways to the crowds in the courtroom. Despite the family’s repeated statements that morning about Quinley’s guilt, the attorney intoned, despite the implications of guilt upon entry of a plea, and despite all the virulent calls in the impact statements for a lifetime sentence and this mob mentality again on display in recent days, Quinley had not killed the officer. The plea was not a confession of actual guilt, but rather the result of negotiations in which they all agreed they would be best off given recent developments both in this case and in law that would render a new trial risky for everyone.

In fact — the attorney insisted defiantly, glancing again out into the courtroom where dozens of uniformed officers stood listening — had the case gone to trial yet again, he’d been prepared this time to call experts to testify on the corruption evident in the police department at the time of the officer’s death.

He dropped the statement quickly, like a flash grenade he hoped would stun the crowd and muddle their anguished focus on his client’s looming liberty. He then returned to the theme of Quinley’s actual innocence and the great strides he had made in prison over the years to educate himself and prepare for a productive life.

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Although I didn’t know what specific allegations of corruption the attorney had meant to reference, I knew the officer had been a narcotics detective in the years when our city had joined the nation’s so-called war on drugs. In many communities since that time evidence had mounted of the disproportionate targeting of African American youth as cities struggled to deal with the mounting crime related to drug use and dealing. Political pressure on large urban police forces increased, nourished by an anxious society willing at times to sacrifice the civil and human rights of some in exchange for a promise of safety for others.

In this volatile environment Officer Anthony had joined the city’s police force and accepted a position as an undercover narcotics detective. Even in the relatively short period of time he served in that capacity, almost certainly he was exposed not only to internal department politics, but also to many of the city’s turf battles and to those who defined and redefined the boundaries. The officer himself had even been connected thinly to the death of Kurt Cobain just two months prior to his own death.

Cobain had been the lead singer of Nirvana – the city’s famous grunge band that had landed the region in the headlines of international media much in the way, and for similar reasons, that Jimi Hendrix had promoted the area by virtue of his residence and creative development here. Like the death of Hendrix more than two decades earlier, Cobain’s death had been surrounded by postmortem rumors of drug overdose, as well as suspicions of foul play.

According to the private detective hired by Cobain’s widow, the musician Courtney Love, Love had allegedly called upon Officer Anthony in the months prior to Cobain’s death to help her locate her husband when he was missing. Love and the officer had reportedly developed a working relationship, and it was suggested by some that she had encouraged the officer, in his capacity as a narcotics detective, to investigate the drug-related activities of persons she knew in the local music scene and with whom, the reports alleged, she had developed an unfriendly competition.

A few of those who wrote publicly of the mystery they claimed surrounded Cobain’s suicide had even speculated openly about a possible connection between Cobain’s death and the death of the officer. No actual evidence supported any connection. Still, in certain communities the possibility had been too tempting to ignore, and it entered the urban lore surrounding both Cobain’s death and the officer’s.

Quinley’s attorney may also have been reminding those in the courtroom of allegations in the first trial that the officer had been the initial aggressor that night on the freeway off-ramp, that the officer may have recognized the young men from the streets as he drove past them and brought his own prejudgments of criminal activity to the scene.

Police affidavits filed immediately after the death of the officer describe how other officers gathered around their wounded colleague in the precinct parking lot following the shooting as they waited for the arrival of aid cars. As he struggled to breath through the pain of his injury, Officer Anthony reported to them that he thought he’d heard one of the four young men yell out to the others: “He’s a cop!”, identifying the officer’s law enforcement status despite the fact that he’d been dressed in plain clothes at that time.

An implication of prior interaction between the young men and the officer, perhaps through the officer’s narcotics investigations, was evident, although how Quinley’s attorney might have used this information before a jury, and what his research on alleged department corruption had revealed, were unknown. A suggestion, however, that the officer did not bring entirely clean hands to the scene that night when he stopped on the freeway offramp had been re-introduced. It now hovered again in the courtroom like a dare to those who would intervene in the agreement presented to the court for its approval. Maybe, read the subtext, Quinley’s attorneys would have just enough new evidence to raise a reasonable doubt in the minds of a jury one-and-a-half decades removed from the collective desperation of those earlier times.

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Following the defense attorney’s presentation the prosecuting attorney made one last statement to the court and to the public, underscoring the State’s commitment to the agreed recommendation. He then closed the file in front of him. In that gesture he closed fourteen years of involvement in the prosecution of a high profile, highly contentious case that had not only marked capstones in his own career but witnessed important developments in the state’s criminal case law as well. He closed the file here, with an agreement that salvaged the most from what still existed after all the years, an agreement he believed best served the interests that remained.

1.10 The Other Cheek