Here’s What It’s Like To Be a Defense Investigator in a Rigged Criminal Justice System – JUDITH COBURN AUG. 20, 2016 6:00 AM

A journalist-turned-private eye unloads.


This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Once upon a time I was a journalist, covering wars in Indochina, Central America, and the Middle East. I made it my job to write about the victims of war, the civilian casualties. To me, they were hardly “collateral damage,” that bloodless term the military persuaded journalists to adopt. To me, they were the center of war. Now I’m a private eye. I work mostly on homicide cases for defense lawyers on the mean streets of Oakland, California, long viewed as one of America’s murder capitals.

Indeed, on some days Oakland feels like Saigon, Tegucigalpa, or Gaza. There’s the deception of daily life and the silent routine of dread punctured by out-of-the blue mayhem. The city’s poorest neighborhoods are sporadic war zones whose violence sometimes explodes onto streets made rich overnight by the tech boom. On any quiet day, you can drive down San Pablo Avenue past St. Columba Catholic Church, where a thicket of white crosses, one for every Oaklander killed by gun violence in a given year, crowds its front yard.


Whenever I tell people I’m a private eye, they ask: “Do you get innocent people off death row?” Or “Can you follow my ex around?” Or “What kind of gun do you carry?”

I always disappoint them. Yes, I do defend people against the death penalty, but so far all my defendants have probably been guilty—of something. (Often, I can only guess what.) While keeping them off death row may absolve me of being an accessory after the fact to murder, it also regularly condemns my defendants to life in prison until they die there.

My defendants may be guilty—but seldom of what they are charged with.

And I find spying on people their ex-spouses fantasize about killing much sleazier than actual murder. Finally, I’m a good shot, but I don’t carry a gun because that’s the best way to get shot. I work on the low-profile cases: poor people charged with murder, burglary, or robbery, who don’t have the money for a lawyer or their own P.I. (I’m paid, if you can call it that, by the state.)

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