Tuesday, August 11, 2015


photo by Mike Roseberry
New York has been portrayed for decades in movies and in television crime shows – from Peter Gunn with its jazzy Greenwich Village 1960s vibe (now in syndication) to Blue Bloods.  I used to see the TV production trucks in Brooklyn quiet a lot, especially Prospect Park.  It’s a lot easier to manage auto and people traffic in Brooklyn than Manhattan.  Crime shows glamorize the criminal justice system – it’s just entertainment with good guys and bad guys, just make believe.  That was my attitude until I started researching for a crime novel. 

My interest in writing a crime novel started when I met retired homicide detective Louis Scarcella at a coffee shop one morning.  He was sitting with some friends and one of them started talking to me.  They found out I was new to New York and asked me to join them again for coffee.  They were all retired from their careers, as I recall, and met there every morning. 

I like to write in coffee shops, and several days later, I met them again.  When Louie told me he had been a homicide detective, I asked if he’d be interested in helping me write a crime novel.  He agreed.  Louie, as it turned out, was one of the most decorated and lauded homicide detectives in New York City and many of his cases had made headlines.  For several months we met once a week.  He talked specifically about his cases and snitches,  and I asked lots of questions about police procedure. 

Louie arranged for me to talk to other (non-retired) homicide detectives and police officers.  Everyone had various stories and were forthcoming when I asked questions.  There was one common issue that they all spoke about – the smell of a dead body.  One retired police captain I met at Lincoln Center told me that whenever he was at the scene of a homicide, he used to take his uniform off and worked in his underwear because even dry cleaning didn’t get the smell off his clothes. 

Louie also arranged for me to visit the morgue so that I could understand for myself what they were all talking about.  Inside the building, I could smell the morgue rooms from 50 feet away, and I simply can’t describe it.  I was inside the rooms for about 5 minutes and the odor lingered on my clothes until I washed them.  I have to wonder now, what people on the subway thought about the scent as I traveled home that day.

The bodies inside the morgue were unclaimed.  These were not murder victims; they were people found in their own homes or on the street that no one had reported missing.  The morgue attendant said they would be held there for a few months, and if they were still unclaimed, they’d get buried in a City graveyard.   

The front room of the morgue held bodies on gurneys – one of them was a woman whose bloated body was a light blue.  The interior room did not have drawers, but rather stacked metal bunks.  All of them full and all the bodies were mine-shaft black.  I had seen dead bodies before in car accidents, but that was in passing, dramatic, momentary.  This was more real.  This would eventually happen to me.

I decided to research the decay of the human body and found out there’s a body farm in Knoxville, affiliated with the University of Tennessee.  People donate their bodies to science and their remains are sent to the farm where scientists put the bodies in the trunks of cars, into water, into closed containers, in plastic bags, or under a pile of leaves and study how these different elements affect the decomposition process.  They pass this information along to forensics and police labs (among others).  This type of information helps a Medical Examiner to determine time and cause of death. 

From my research I learned that as soon as the body dies, the bacteria in the stomach begin to eat away at it.  The gasses these bacteria give off rise to the surface of the skin causing the entire body to bloat and turn a beautiful light blue (whick was the stage of the female body in the morgue).  Then, as the gasses dissipate, the body begins to turn black.  During the final stages of decay the body is black as coal (bodies in the back room of the morgue had decomposed to this level).  It’s a mixture of gasses from the digestive system, various glands, as well as the decaying blood that gives such a strong, distinctive, and unpleasant odor.

About once a year when I was living in New York, a body was found in an apartment because the neighbors reported the smell.  One time the police responded to a call from a Park Avenue building and found that a woman (70s) and her mother (90s) had placed a man in a trunk after he died.  The woman explained that her husband had always wanted to visit Arizona and she and her mother had intended to send the trunk there, but they didn’t know how.  I don’t know where the trunk was sent, but the two women were sent to Bellevue.

But I digress.

After I’d learned as much about body decomposition as I could stand, I asked Louie questions about trials and testimony, he recommended that I sit in on a criminal trial in Brooklyn or Manhattan.  So I did.  The first was not a trial, but a hearing.  A 23-year old man had shot another man at a party over a girl.  The boy’s mother and younger brother (wearing red colors) were the only people in the courtroom gallery besides me.  I wondered, why did he have a gun at a party, where did he get it, when did he get it, did he always carry it.  That’s when I remembered something a cop told me once – you have to make 100 wrong decisions before you get arrested the first time.

I sat in on two criminal trials – one was the trial of a man arrested for possession of crack cocaine, the other was a trial about gang assault on a police officer.  Those trials changed my thinking forever about crime TV and caused me to lose interest in writing a crime novel.  A criminal lawyer I spoke to told me that the criminal justice system isn’t about innocence or guilt, it’s about luck.  Luck about who’s on the jury, who’s the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney and what’s going on in their private lives.  You can be innocent and go to prison.  Guilty and be set free.  Luck.  Sitting in courtrooms of the criminal trials. I came to see the criminal justice system like an amoral perpetual-motion steamroller that squashes everything in its path. 

The man on trial for selling crack cocaine was on disability and testified that he worked for cash wages fixing cars.  He had four children, two of whom lived with him.  He asked someone to babysit for him while he went to visit a girlfriend and her teenage daughter.  The mother went off to buy vodka, the daughter went off to buy a soft drink, and he went off to buy some crack – just for his own personal use, he claimed.  He wanted to smoke a woolie – crack wrapped inside marijuana.  The woman who sold him the crack only had a few rocks, which he purchased and he asked her to go get some more.  She left.  He got arrested by an undercover cop.  I don’t know the verdict, because when the trial broke for lunch, I didn’t return.  The whole story was disheartening to me.    

In the other trial, the defendants were three men (23-24?) who had gone to Catholic school together and happened to run into each other at a bar on New Year’s Eve.  At least two of them were drinking heavily.  They had an altercation with an off-duty policeman who was not in uniform.  Differing versions of how that came about from either side, but all agreeing that the fight lasted about 45 seconds.  The men, who had no criminal record, were charged as a gang because New York law reads:  A person is guilty of gang assault in the second degree when, with intent to cause physical injury to another person and when aided by two or more other persons actually present, he causes serious physical injury to such person or to a third person.

They were all found guilty and two of them sentenced to fifteen years in prison.  The other one was sentenced to one year.

I stopped writing about crime.  

Over the past couple of years, several of Louie’s arrests and subsequent convictions have been overturned  – 8 so far – and those men who were in prison have been freed and given large payments of damages from the City (over $30 million so far).  Louie has been vilified, but I wonder about the prosecutors who worked those cases and ignored the flaws.  What about farther up the chain of command?  Who turned blind eyes in order to feed that perpetual-motion steamroller of the criminal justice system?  One person didn’t create this: