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May-June 2010

From the other side of the criminal justice system

Taly Haffar, Assistant U.S. Attorney in Dallas

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”     —Edmund Burke

A bead of sweat falls down my chest. I am staring out a glass sliding door in a small town in Mexico, when I see Kelly, a man I had met earlier that day, put a gun to his head and pull the trigger. My body is immediately flushed with heat, and I frantically look for my shoes. I have to get help. Just as I open the door and look down at the now pooling blood, I wake up. It was only a dream.

    Three weeks earlier, one of the closest people in my life, my uncle Murphy, was murdered by his older brother, Nabil.

    I’ve been a prosecutor for seven years now. I started my career at the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office and loved every day of it. After spending a year as a felony chief, I joined the United States Attorney’s Office. Like all prosecutors, I have been driven by the good work we do: making the community a little safer, offering victims some closure, and holding people accountable for violent crimes. But as much as we can sympathize and try to understand what victims’ families go through, you never really know what it’s like until you are part of a victim’s family.

Getting the news

I was working at my desk in the 283rd Judicial District Court on June 6, 2006, when my aunt called. She said my uncle Murphy had gone to see his brother the night before and never returned. She asked if I had heard from him. I said no, but I would call around and find him for her. After trying several family members with no luck, my phone rang. An Addison detective was on the line, and she asked me to come to the Addison police station immediately. I heard my mom in the background crying and screaming for answers. I raced to my car and called a Dallas homicide detective, asking him to find out more information for me, though I had a horrible feeling that I already knew what had happened. The detective called me back as I drove and told me two male bodies were found shot to death in my uncle’s apartment.

    When I arrived at the station, my mom and aunt were crumpled on the ground sobbing. They didn’t know the details, but they knew something was seriously wrong. The previous night, my eldest uncle asked his three siblings to come over. He had become a recluse during the past few years, making little effort to see family or find a job. My mom and aunt couldn’t go, but Murphy, who always put others before himself, went.

    It was surreal. My family had never been through anything like this. More family members arrived, and as the detective spoke, everyone was paralyzed. My eyes went from face to face, seeing their eyes glazed over, full of tears and confusion. Strangely, I was experiencing these emotions, but simultaneously, I was thinking about the murder cases I prosecuted. I wondered if every family went through this. Is this how police tell people that a loved one has been killed? I wanted information; I wanted to see pictures of the crime scene; I wanted answers. I was not getting any of it. The shock and sadness turned into anger and frustration, and I was taking it out on the police officers in front of my family. Being a prosecutor, I knew there was more information that they weren’t telling us. The detective then pulled me aside and told me the limited details they knew.

    My mom had gone to Nabil’s apartment to check on him and Murphy. She knocked on the door, but no one answered. She found a maintenance man and explained her concerns. He opened the door and immediately told her to wait outside. He could smell the blood. He walked to a back bedroom and found the two bodies. The door had been locked from the inside; no sign of forced entry. The police determined that Murphy went into the apartment and at some time that night, his brother shot him three times and then turned the gun on himself. I was overwhelmed with emotions and questions. I realized that families who suffer from a random act of violence will forever have unanswered questions about what happened and why.

    Two days after the murder, the apartment complex manager contacted me. He was sending a biohazard company to clean and destroy anything left in the apartment; if we wanted anything from inside, we needed to go there immediately. Although I was hurting, the prosecutor in me needed more information. I was convinced I could understand the reason for the crime. With two of my closest childhood friends, Amier and Luke, and with friend and fellow prosecutor Erin Hendricks, I went to the crime scene.

    My heart was racing as I unlocked the door. The metallic stench of blood immediately hit us. We opened windows and slowly looked around. I went into the room where the shooting occurred. There was blood on the wall and ceiling. Again, I was looking through the eyes of a sad family member and of a prosecutor. We all stood in the room and tried to piece it together. Did Murphy and Nabil talk for a while, or was it quick? How did Nabil get Murphy to the back bedroom? Why did he shoot him three times?

    In the end, we left with more questions than answers: Why did he do it? Would he have killed his other siblings, including my mom, if they had accepted his invitation? These questions haunt me to this day. Murphy was a second father to me, and because of his huge heart, he was the family favorite.

How I’ve changed

Before this crime happened, I would talk to murder victims’ families and tell them my theory of the case. I explained options, such as plea bargains and what could happen if we went to trial. I would tell them how truly sorry I was for their loss and to call me anytime. But then they would leave my office and I would have to get back to work. I would make calls, look at new cases, and prepare for upcoming trials. I didn’t really understand the profound impact violent crime has on those left behind.

    As prosecutors, we learn about our cases in a sterile environment—we don’t see or smell the blood. We don’t hear the firsthand accounts of what may have happened. We don’t really know the people involved. Instead, we walk into work and, all too often, find the next violent case sitting on our desk, arranged in a file of a few pieces of paper. Some say a prosecutor should not get too involved in his cases, that it can cloud your judgment. I disagree.

    After we lost Murphy, my perspective changed. Often, when meeting with families for the first time, I now share my loss with them. I know what they are going through. I don’t simply explain trial and plea bargaining options like it is just another decision that needs to be made. The violence my family has experienced allowed me to realize who I need to be as a prosecutor for the families of murder victims. When meeting with the victim’s family, I now appreciate it is one of the most important days of their lives. They look to us for answers, for closure, and to hold the guilty accountable. I now know the true importance of going to the crime scene, meeting with witnesses and officers at length, and understanding as much of the crime as possible. Prosecutors can offer insights that are so important to a victim’s family. These days, I make it a point to know the case backward and forward before meeting with a victim’s family. I talk to them, see pictures of their loved one, and hear their stories. The next time you meet with a victim’s family, offer to go to their house, turn off your cell phone, spend as much time with them as they need, and answer all their questions. They will always remember how you treated them in their time of need.

    As both a prosecutor and the nephew of a murder victim, I am keenly aware of the important role prosecutors play in the community. Be mindful of the significance of your job the next time you open a new case file. You have the ability to give people some peace and the duty to ensure justice is served.

Karen Anders, Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in ­Denton County

I had just returned from court around 10 a.m. when my husband called to tell me that our house had been burglarized. Actually, ours was one of many homes in our neighborhood that had been broken into. Burglars had kicked in our back door and ransacked the house, taking the TV, gaming systems, cameras, jewelry, guns, and other items including one of my badges. A few weeks later, an informant came forward with information regarding our burglary, and the suspects were arrested. As a prosecutor in Denton County, I knew generally what would happen from that point—or so I thought. What followed was a year and a half of the frustration and waiting that all crime victims feel.

    The detective on my case told me of other burglary cases with the same suspects from other police departments. He notified those departments of jewelry in pawn shops matching their burglaries but got no responses, so only my case and two others were indicted out of a possible 20 cases linked to these suspects. I thought about how many times I have spoken with victims complaining about why we were “doing nothing” when these defendants had committed numerous crimes. In the past, I had told those victims that we couldn’t prosecute cases that weren’t filed and that they were more than welcome to contact the police to see if the other cases will be sent up. Sometimes the victims understood, but they were always angry. I was usually perturbed at these phone calls from victims, always thinking in my head, “What do they want me to do about unfiled cases? Don’t they realize I have thousands of filed cases to deal with and no time to call police departments and track down unfiled cases?” Now I was on the receiving end of that advice, and I realized that the detective in my case had passed the buck on unfiled cases—as I had done in my professional life as an assistant DA. The prosecutor in me understood, but the victim part of me was angry.

    Because I live in the county neighboring the one where I prosecute, my case ended up at that district attorney’s office. Like many victims, I was in unfamiliar territory and at the mercy of judges and prosecutors I did not know. I was frustrated at not being able to control the system that was so familiar to me. Luckily, I at least knew who to call and what questions to ask when I did call, but that made me realize how many victims struggle to communicate with the right people in the criminal justice system.

    The county where my case ended up is a large and heavily populated one, so I knew my case was one of thousands. I also knew my case was a property crime, not a violent one, putting it lower on the scale of importance on a heavily stacked docket. As a prosecutor, I had always categorized property crimes as less urgent, thinking that people have insurance to reimburse them for repairs and that property can always be replaced. They were pretty easy cases to move and not worry about because a person was not physically harmed or injured. As a result, I was guilty of simply moving cases and had forgotten my role as a victim advocate.

    Caught on the flipside of this scale of (un)importance as a victim myself, I thought my case should be ranked up there with any other serious felony and given the same attention. I now understand that not all property can be replaced, and time spent, say, rebuilding your back door isn’t taken into consideration. Neither are the feelings of being violated and the sleepless nights filled with worry or anger.  

    As my case rode the docket for almost a year and half, I tried not to lose patience and kept myself from making numerous phone calls requesting updates on my case. After all, how many times had I told a crime victim that I would let them know if their case was going to plead or go to trial? And that until it was set for one of those two options, nothing was going on and there was no use calling me weekly?

    Because I am a prosecutor, the folks in the other DA’s office who were handling my case gave me insight about the judge, docketing system, and defense attorney that otherwise would not have been afforded a typical victim. However, when it came to the plea bargain, I was helpless as to the negotiations. The offer on my case went from eight years to five to three. As frustrating as it was, I knew that the prosecutor was faced with unfriendly juries and a young defendant with no felonies on his record. It made me wonder how many phone calls I had made to victims explaining that I tried for pen time in a plea but gave in and lowered the number of years because of the factors I faced. At the end of the day I could still say to my victim we had gotten pen time, and the number always sounded large if you didn’t have to explain parole implications.

    One of the co-defendants in my case is now set to plea, and I as a victim will have my day in court with my victim impact statement. As I read my rough draft to my husband, he asked if I was going to tell the defendant that I had been affected to the point that all my future offers would be pen time. I told him no, but then started to realize how this crime affected the way I treat all my cases and how I deal with victims.

    I now take the time to patiently listen to these victims and go the extra mile by calling the agency to check on unfiled cases because I know what a difference it would have made in the plea offer in my burglary. I also have more patience with victims and their families who call for updates on their case and do my best to answer their questions.
    When cases are on my desk to be reviewed for a plea offer, I take into consideration the victim’s feelings and keep in mind the emotional aspects of the crime, not just what I read in a police report. When defense attorneys come to me to negotiate a lesser sentence, I reiterate those unspoken feelings as I defend the offer I made. I try harder to hold the line and not give in to the defense attorney’s incessant pleadings.

    I certainly don’t wish for anyone to be a victim of a crime, but as a prosecutor and now a victim, I have changed for the better. As a result my victims receive greater advocacy from me, from beginning to end.