In a crowded H Street bar one evening this fall, US Attorney Ronald Machen answered question after question about public safety and the pursuit of justice in DC.
The community event was one of dozens he attended throughout the year, part of an intensive campaign to make the prosecution of crimes a community effort. The questions asked of Machen aren’t always easy. And from the back of the bar that night came one of the more difficult ones.
“What can we do about the homicide problem?” asked Merrit Drucker, of the NoMa Business Improvement District.
As US Attorney, Machen is the District’s top prosecutor. This year, by his count, his office has prosecuted 63 murder defendants, 20 of whom were convicted at trial.
Justice, Machen says, is about “holding those accountable that committed crimes. It’s giving a sense of closure to the victims who have lost loved ones. And it’s sending a message to the community of what won’t be tolerated and what lines we’ve drawn.”
But how is justice executed at DC Superior Court? And what can be done about homicides? U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen tells us in this interview with Homicide Watch D.C.
Homicide Watch: What were some of the notable prosecutions this year?
Machen: The Pizza Mart Case: The facts of this case are horrendous. This victim was beaten to death in his own store and set on fire by three individuals. Two of the defendants went to trial and were found guilty and are going to spend over 50 years in prison each. Murders are terrible whenever they happen, but when you have this sort of premeditation, it shows a certain degree of callousness and indifference to human life that we believe is rightfully punished to a greater degree than in other cases.
The Trinidad Case: If you were in D.C. in 2008, you remember the roadblocks being set up in response to all the shootings in Trinidad. One of those shootings, involving a defendant named McCorkle and his accomplice, was egregious. Three guys were shot and killed at a gas station. We obtained convictions of two of the perpetrators of that shooting earlier this year.
The South Capitol Street Case: This was the largest mass shooting in D.C. in over twenty years. I actually went out there that night after the shooting and was very disturbed by what I saw. I got a call from the Chief of Police about the shooting, so I went to the scene and then to police headquarters early that morning to try and assist in gathering information and obtaining warrants. It was just such a tragedy. Such a loss of young life. And everyone wanted answers. How could these young men and women who were just standing on the corner – guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time – fall prey to such a horrific shooting spree? When something like that happens, obviously your thoughts turn immediately to finding out who the perpetrators are, how we can get them off the streets as quickly as possible, and how we can start building a strong prosecution against them. This is a pending case that is going to trial early next year.
Homicide Watch:Why do these cases come to mind?
Machen: There are certain cases that capture the public interest and the media’s interest – like South Capitol or the Trinidad case – for whatever reason. Maybe it is just the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but everyone focuses on these sort of matters. A high profile matter is usually a case that demonstrates an extreme degree of lawlessness which upsets the collective conscience of the entire community.
Homicide Watch:Sixty-three murder defendants and 20 convictions at trial, so there were 43 plea deals this year. What makes a good plea deal?
Machen: A good guilty plea holds people accountable for their crimes. It also provides closure for the victims. The plea must take into account the strength of the case, what witnesses are available, and what we think is a just result. There are some cases where the public says, “Wow, the police got this guy and the prosecutors let him plead to involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder as opposed to first-degree murder.” But what the public often does not understand is that there may be serious problems with these cases that would present real risks in going to trial and that without a plea, we might not get a conviction at all.
Homicide Watch:You’ve said 75 young people have been prosecuted as adults under Title 16 in the almost two years you’ve been the U.S. Attorney. Your office says six young people have been prosecuted as adult murder defendants this year. Why prosecute juveniles as adults?
Machen: It is a sad situation. You hate to prosecute young folks as adults and see them go to adult penitentiaries because you know they are still young and are not fully matured. The prospects of 16-to-18-year olds having a successful life after spending time in an adult penitentiary are highly diminished. But at the same time, you must have accountability and there must be consequences for one’s actions. Young folks are committing some egregious crimes, and when that happens, we are committed to prosecuting them as adults. As a U.S. Attorney’s Office, what we try to do is to get out to the schools and community centers to spread the message, “We don’t want you to make that mistake, because if you force our hand by committing one of these serious crimes, the time for talking is over at that point. The time for discussing the issues you are having in your life that make you want to lash out is before you go and pick up that gun.”
Homicide Watch:Witness protection is always a serious concern. How is the US Attorney’s Office coping at this time?
Machen: I think the witness protection situation is getting better. Our office has an initiative here in DC called “Stand Up Today to Save A Life Tomorrow.” We are trying to encourage people to come forward and realize that if they don’t deal with crime issues today, they or their loved ones will be the next victims. We are saying, “We’re right there with you, we’re going to fight hard to keep you safe, to allow you to come in and tell the truth. But that it is a responsibility you have as a citizen to stand up for your community and protect it.”
Homicide Watch:In 15 months of tracking every murder case in District through the courts system, Homicide Watch has seen only one case go to trial. The vast majority of murder cases we have covered are pending Grand Jury or pending trial. Can you explain this process and length of time?
Machen: We have to do a thorough investigation with the Grand Jury and that can take up to nine months. We have an obligation to make sure we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt, so it takes a while to get that degree of proof. And then the court process can also take a long time. The court can be backed up and it can take a while to set these cases for trial and there are often delays, often times at the request of the defense, for a lot of different reasons, and so it can easily take a year or more. What we try to do is move as quickly as we can in the investigative phase but also be as thorough as possible.
Homicide Watch:We’ve recently started seeing judges set trial dates before an indictment is handed up. What do you make of that?
Machen: I guess that judges are setting trial dates early to say, “We don’t want you to drag your feet. We want you to move quickly.” Judges want to move their calendars, so this is probably a method that judges think can help do that by defining expectations so that all the parties realize that they will need a good reason to push the date back. I imagine counsel are still free to go to a judge and say, “We still need more time. We are still investigating. And there are valid reasons why the current trial date will not work for us.”
Homicide Watch:If the US Attorney’s Office were prosecuting the death of someone you love, what would you want to happen?
Machen: I always ask myself how would I feel if the victim was my son or my daughter, and how would I feel with the way our office has handled the case – not only the thoroughness of the investigation, but also how the victim’s family has been treated, the way our office has dealt with them. We are in a service business. We are accountable to the residents of D.C. It is important that people feel that we did everything we could to deliver justice for them.
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