Book One / 7
“ALL RISE . . . ”
As I entered the courtroom I announced loudly the opening of proceedings to a room filled with uniformed police officers. They lined the benches and stood shoulder to shoulder along the back and side walls.
In the first row, directly behind counsel tables, family and friends of the victim and of the defendant sat quietly. The two groups were separated by an invisible line that distinguished both origin and oath of allegiance, like the wedding ceremony of two individuals whose families had historically sworn opposition, yet today were forced to seal at law a collective fate due to circumstances beyond their control.
Ervin Quinley was 31 years old. A handsome, healthy-appearing African American man, he sat cautiously between his public defenders, two expert attorneys experienced in the defense of individuals charged with serious violent offenses.
Nearly fourteen years earlier to that very day, Quinley and three friends had been riding in a car that broke down along the freeway in the early morning hours of a late spring weekend. The driver pulled off onto the nearest exit ramp and the occupants got out to flag down a passing car for assistance.
A city police officer driving an unmarked vehicle stopped to investigate. He had just gotten off work at 1:00 a.m. that morning, having completed a buy-bust operation for the Street Narcotics Unit. Dressed in civilian clothes, he was fewer than fifteen minutes from home where his wife and two young sons waited for him in their sleep.
Moments after stepping out of his car to approach the stalled vehicle, the officer was shot by one of the four young men. Two of the four would be arrested for the officer’s death of a single gunshot to the abdomen. Several trials, countless hearings, and many years later it would remain unclear which of the two men had fired the shot that killed the officer.
Ervin Quinley was one of the two. Seventeen years old that night, he already had a five-year record of criminal activity as a juvenile, including one stabbing at the age of thirteen, another stabbing at the age of fourteen, and numerous physical assaults and property crimes. Today he was appearing before our court for what everyone hoped would be the final chapter of the legal story that began on the night of the shooting. He was appearing for what the prosecutor would call “a sentence imposed for the last time.”
On the day of his death fourteen years earlier Officer Terence Anthony had been only a few years into both a new marriage and a new career. He had a three year-old and a one-year old son, and a wife who considered him the man she had waited years to find, her “big security blanket” as she later referred to him in a letter to the court.
He also had a thirteen year-old daughter he had conceived with another woman. He remained a close father to his daughter and a good friend to her mother, continuing to support them and considering them a steady part of his life. He was the oldest son in a family of four children, a member of a large, extended family that had expected Anthony to become an “elder” one day and lead them all with honor, love, and responsibility for the rest of their lives.
Anthony had joined the narcotics unit believing in its mission of making the streets safer. His supervisor in the unit had recognized in him a man who could “relate to the people and environment of the narcotics world.” Moreover, Anthony fit the needs of the unit well as he was relatively young, new to the business of law enforcement, and had recently moved to the area from California. His undercover work on the streets would be less likely to endanger himself and his colleagues if offenders didn’t recognize him as a police officer. The young dealers he would encounter here had no prior experience with Anthony on the streets of their own communities.
Ervin Quinley lived on those streets. Calling himself “Q-Tip,” he’d already spent nearly a third of his seventeen years standing before judges and moving through the system to account for his criminal behavior. He was the son of a “very young father” who himself had confessed to the first trial court that he was “not a good father figure.” Quinley’s emotional and psychological development had been hijacked before he’d ever had a chance to stake a claim on a meaningful place in this world.
Since the age of ten Quinley had exhibited chronic impulse control problems with a tendency toward high-risk behavior and little recognition of his responsibility for the trouble that resulted. He had been diagnosed with a heart murmur as well as language-based learning disabilities possibly arising from a prior sexual molestation, but he had received no medical or psychological treatment for either condition. Inevitably, Quinley began to self-medicate, consuming alcohol and marijuana regularly from a very young age.
Quinley became a player in the gangs and narcotics world. He learned early to view that world in the oppositional terms that reflected the limits imposed on him by the circumstances of his young life. He had lived experiences that had long ago become merely the tired metaphors of a drug war to those who only heard of them through television newscasts.
Two years after the shooting Quinley’s attorneys had submitted a pre-sentence report to the initial trial judge. To their report they attached a drawing Quinley had made in jail. In the style of a graphic illustration, the drawing placed an outline sketch of the planet Earth as seen from space in the center of the page. Two bright stars glittered around it at roughly four and ten o’clock. In an Old English font across the front of the planet, as though the planet were a watermark on the page, Quinley had inscribed by hand:
QTIP v. THE WORLD
Quinley was exactly the sort of young man whom Officer Anthony had joined the police department to help — or, failing to help, to restrain from harming others more fortunate than Quinley yet no less deserving of a life without violence. And yet, as if playing out the inevitabilities of the roles in which they found themselves that night, they came face to face on the streets, in the dark, equally armed, committed to the confrontation and unable to back away.
One month after the death of Officer Anthony, Ervin Quinley was formally charged with one count of aggravated murder in the first degree. He was also charged, in the alternative, with both attempted murder in the first degree and felony murder in the second degree.
One and a half years later Quinley’s trial began. After the longest deliberations in a criminal trial in the county’s history to that point, the jury returned its verdict. Unable to reach a unanimous decision on the first two counts, the jurors convicted Quinley on the third: felony murder in the second degree. Based on changes in the State’s murder statutes enacted twenty years earlier, the law at that time defined felony murder as a murder predicated upon the commission of any of the specific felony offenses defined in the statute. In Quinley’s case the predicate offense had been a felony assault.
The felony murder count was the only charge on which the jurors could unanimously agree. Within weeks of that first verdict, two years after the death of Officer Anthony, the trial judge imposed her sentence. Despite the defense recommendation of ten years’ confinement — the low end of the standard range for the offense — the judge instead followed the State’s recommendation, handing down an exceptional sentence of twenty-five years as permitted by the State’s sentencing statutes.
The amount of time Quinley would serve had reassured the family in its fear that the system would reward the defendant, as they perceived it, by allowing him to re-enter society after so short a time. At the trial they had witnessed Quinley smile on occasion, and they’d interpreted his smiles as smirks. They also believed that a new tattoo appearing on his hand was a boast in code that he had killed the officer.
Understandably, the officer’s grieving family had perceived Quinley as cold and remorseless rather than a young man frightened behind a bluff of bravado. Now they could return to their lives, comforted in part by the knowledge that the person convicted of the officer’s murder would not haunt them again for a very long time.
Quinley had served six years of his sentence when the State Supreme Court decided a case that resulted ultimately in the reversal of Quinley’s own conviction. In a separate case before it on appeal, the State’s highest court ruled that the legislature did not intend for assault to be included among the eligible felony offenses upon which second degree murder could be predicated.
Based upon the Supreme Court’s decision, Quinley’s attorneys filed a petition on his behalf in the Court of Appeals, seeking reversal of the conviction at trial. The petition was granted. In its review, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Supreme Court’s decision in the prior matter was controlling in Quinley’s case as well. Quinley’s conviction was vacated, and ten years after the death of the officer the case was remanded back to the lower court for a new trial.
In the same year that the case was returned to Superior Court for a new trial, the State filed an Amended Information charging Quinley with aggravated murder in the first degree and attempted murder in the first degree. The case was assigned to our court for re-trial. The same deputy attorney appeared who had prosecuted the case the first time. Quinley’s defense team also included as lead attorney one of the attorneys who had originally defended him.
Defense counsel immediately began an extensive motions practice, seeking rulings that would whittle away admissible evidence and dismiss not only a series of the State’s aggravating circumstances but both counts charged in their entirety. The judge granted some of the defense motions and denied others, slowly bringing into definition the strength of both sides as they proceeded to a second trial with their hindsight still focused sharply on the difficulties they’d encountered in the first.
It soon became clear to both sides that the outcome of a new trial was far from certain for either the State or Quinley given relevant changes in case law over the intervening years. Moreover, a significant issue concerning a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation of witnesses was currently before the Supreme Court of the United States. That court’s decision would likely control the analysis and ruling on a defense motion presently before us in Quinley’s case. If the Supreme Court’s ruling in that case was favorable to Quinley’s position on his own pending motion, then the State’s case against Quinley could be badly damaged.
Late in the day on an afternoon nearly fourteen years after the death of Officer Anthony, the deputy prosecutor walked into my office and asked to strike an upcoming hearing that had been set on this case.
“Please don’t say anything to anyone but the judge yet,” he asked me quietly. “We still need to talk with the victim’s family, but we think we’ll have a plea.”
With the risks calculated and lengthy negotiations concluded, the attorneys had reached an agreement that would avoid a second trial – a trial that would cost the State a great deal of public funds, and be destructive of much of the healing that the officer’s family had salvaged since his death.
Within a month from that afternoon Quinley had entered his plea of guilty to a single count of murder in the first degree – an offense more serious than the offense on which he’d been convicted by a jury in his first trial. The judge had accepted the plea, and the case was set for sentencing one last time.