There is a term used in law enforcement: “career-enders.” What it refers to are cases you worked where the defendant was sentenced to enough jail time that your career would be over and you would be retired before they got out.
I have worked many of these types of cases. Looking back over these investigations, I can say I was proud of the work my team and I did on them. In some of them, I was the lead investigator. In others, I was only a bit player, but all in all, they are a part of my history and career.
When cops get together the conversation will eventually turn to police work. They talk about the good arrests they made, the horrible things they saw; they laugh at the sometimes hysterically ridiculous situations they have seen people in, and they talk about the bigger cases they have worked.
As these stories are told, you can see the faces of the other cops; smiling, frowning or otherwise reflecting the mood of the story and living vicariously through the other officer’s tale.
No matter how many times you are involved in a serious fight or foot chase, and regardless of the reality that almost everyone’s stories are virtually identical, there is still interest in the specifics of the job.
As I was thinking about this story sharing activity that most cops engage in, I was reminded of several big career-enders I worked over the last 25 years. The more I thought about those cases, the more the specifics came to the surface, leading ultimately to the bad guys who ended up in prison.
It was at this point that I began to think about the human side of this drama, the real-life people on the other end of the career-ender stories.
12 years after
Last week I had a need to check something on that site. Before I left it, I checked on a couple of people I knew were in the system; some career-enders. As I searched for them, I was shocked by a reality that presented itself to me.
I popped in a name of young man who had been sentenced to life without parole for his criminal actions. When I last saw him at trial in 1998, he was a healthy 26-year-old man, intelligent and quick-witted.
When he was arrested, I interviewed him several times. His crimes were bad, no doubt, and he was in the position he was in due to his actions and decisions, but he was congenial enough.
Part of the game for both sides involved in a criminal investigation is to win over the other person, to work the situation to your best advantage. For the police, that is to get a truthful and complete confession; for the defendant, that is to gain the sympathy of the officers and mitigate their problems as much as possible.
That being said, he was not the monster in the closet you would imagine. He confessed, went to trial, was found guilty and was sentenced to life without parole. That was the last I had thought about him until last week.
I said a prayer
As the computer screen flickered and the different web pages appeared, suddenly there he was. In my mind, I pictured the 26-year-old man from the interviews. What I saw on the screen was completely different.
He is now 38 years old. The rough edges of the street had been worn away from him. The look of youth was gone. What I saw now was a man who was struggling, a person adrift on the sea of life, going nowhere.
As I looked at this picture, I could feel the smile on my face fade away. His eyes were dull, his body language, even in the photo, revealed he was spiritually beaten up. I could sense the loneliness of his existence and I felt pity for him.
As I hit the exit key and left the web page and that image behind, I thought what a great tragedy it is for those people who commit such acts that require the rest of us to lock them away. What a loss for their families and what a desperate situation it must be for them.
This experience, seeing this face from the past, and the realities of his day-to-day life caught me off-guard. I can’t say it caused me some type of soul-searching grief; it did not. I did what was right, I did what was necessary to protect many other innocent people by taking this guy off the street. His actions and our system of justice did the rest, and I sleep like a baby at night.
Seeing that picture, that moment frozen in time, did give me pause, though. Seeing any person, regardless of how deserving, having to live such a life is a terribly sad situation.
I put the experience in its proper place. I said a prayer for him, his victims and all the cops out in the street doing the hard work that needs to be done.
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