January-February 2012

Going to CLE halfway around the world

On November 10, 2011, Assistant District Attorney Robert McCabe and I began a leap of faith and started what would ultimately be a 31-hour one-way airline journey to Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia. Our destination was Weno Island, the largest and most populous island in Chuuk (pronounced “chook”). Our mission was to provide training to police and prosecutors there.
    The two questions that I was always asked prior to us leaving were, “Where is Micronesia?” and “How did they find you?” Micronesia is made up of four independent states on more than 600 islands that total less than 250 square miles but spread over a million square miles of Pacific Ocean. The island we were on, Weno, was formerly known as Moen when it was occupied by the Japanese and is known mainly for Truk Lagoon. Truk Lagoon became famous in February 1944 when the U.S. Navy sank an entire Japanese fleet in the lagoon during a two-day battle in World War II known as Operation Hailstorm. Micronesia is still one of the premier diving destinations in the world because of the water clarity and the wreckage that litters the ocean floor from the battle. The water in the lagoon is crystal clear, and wreckage as far down as 60 to 80 feet is visible to the naked eye. Micronesia is a federation of independent states, and almost everyone we encountered spoke English. The U.S. dollar is the only currency used on the island; however, one of the islands, Yap, is famous for having used stone money.

A Micronesian contact
This project began approximately seven months ago when John Bradley, Williamson County District Attorney, called me to his office and asked if I was interested in going to Micronesia to do some training. John had been speaking at a conference in San Francisco and met one of the assistant attorneys general of Chuuk, Micronesia, who was interested in bringing John’s material and other topics to his jurisdiction. I began researching the project by contacting the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), which had previously sent trainers to the island for a similar conference. Shortly after that, I emailed our contact in Chuuk, Aaron Warren, and began one of the toughest logistical battles to do training that I had ever experienced. Aaron is the Legal Trainer for the Chuuk Attorney General’s Office and was really excited about finding someone to come to Chuuk.
    One of the challenges that the police and prosecutors face there is the cost of bringing training to the island, finding the right mix of personalities to adapt to their lifestyle, and any potential challenges during the training. As a trainer for our office, there are a lot of things I have taken for granted, from the ease of providing handouts, to other things such as always having electricity, the prevalence of computers and other technology. These were all things that would ultimately be challenges for us in Chuuk.
    As the planning for the training moved forward, I quickly figured out that the 16-hour time difference, rolling electrical blackouts, lack of computer access for attendees, and the inability to call Aaron on the phone for small issues was going to take some patience. Aaron and I spent a great deal of time emailing pertinent topics for the training, mulling over relevant handouts, and discussing the conference location. One of the specific topics that Aaron wanted to include in the training was a block on how prosecutors and police can use a team approach to prosecution. This would ultimately guide the curriculum that included Criminal Investigations; Evidence Collection and Processing; Arrest, Search, and Seizure; Case Studies; Joint Investigations; Confessions; and Ethics.
    Approximately eight weeks before the conference, John Bradley learned that he was not going to able to attend. Our planning moved forward, but then the issue of who was going to take John’s place began. There was a lot of interest among the prosecutors in the office, and as each one began researching what we were going to encounter, only one remained. Assistant District Attorney Robert McCabe, another member of our training team, was on board, and we got to work. Our original plan had been to provide our material on a CD, but Aaron pointed out to me that not all of the attendees had access to a computer, and paper copies would be needed. The contract provided for the costs of reproduction and shipping, which ended up costing $1,700. (Materials took two weeks to get to Chuuk.) Aside from handout materials, we also had to plan for a projector, screen, refreshments, and how to deal with the fact that the island experiences unpredictable rolling blackouts—we never anticipated that some our presentation would be done in the dark. These were all things that we learned to deal with, and our students were extremely gracious and understanding.

Our journey
We set out November 10, 2011, and  ultimately arrived in Chuuk three days later. Our trip went through Hawaii, two stops in the Marshall Islands (Majuro and Kwajalein), and two additional stops in Micronesia (the states of Kosrae and Pohnpei) before we reached Chuuk. Aaron and some staff from the Attorney General’s Office met us at the airport. It was good to meet him in person after the amount of communication that we had had over seven months. On Sunday, the AG’s office staff picked us up and took us to a private island in the lagoon where we ate lunch and were introduced to ocean kayaking. Most of the lunch supplies were provided by the staff, and a lot of items they had brought for us to enjoy were not readily available or cheap to purchase. Robert and I were extremely grateful for everything that they did for us to make us feel welcome, and they continued to treat us this way the entire time that we were there.
    Fresh reef fish, sashimi tuna, fried pork knuckle, and Spam made up a lot of the foods that are eaten on the island, and rice is served with almost every meal including breakfast. My favorite breakfast on the island was a selection of fresh fruits and a plate of rice, with a soft shell coconut as my drink. Surprisingly, Spam is very popular in Micronesia because it was so prevalent on the island during and after World War II as a staple of the American service member diet. I tended to stick with steak and fish at other meals, but often you would find that the restaurant was out of beef, and fresh vegetables arrive only once a month. 
    The following day, Aaron picked us up again and took us on tours of the Attorney General’s Office, State Supreme Court, and District Court. Interestingly enough, the criminal codes and evidence statues in Micronesia closely mirror ours, although they do not have jury trials. One of the other differences that we found was that their criminal code allows for an oral search warrant, due to the fact that the distance between islands can prove to be a challenge to get a search warrant signed. Unfortunately, this has some severe drawbacks. In some serious cases such as sexual abuse and murder, the police and prosecutors may not know about the case until a boat arrives from an island and the news is brought to the authorities. Obviously, notification that a crime has been committed and chain of custody issues can lead to potentially serious evidence and victim difficulties. Robert and I were diligent to incorporate relevant issues from the Criminal Code of Micronesia into our training, and that extra effort was especially well-received by our audience. We had lunch that day with the director of the Public Defender Office, and that was an enlightening conversation. The defense bar has issues that they feel strongly about, and those were shared with us to provide some contrast to those of the prosecutors.
    Our training began on Tuesday, November 15, and the turnout was more than we had planned for: 40 attendees. Originally we had planned for 30, but there was a great deal of interest in the training as people began finding out that it was available. The Forensic Communication Specialist in our office, Su Knight, designed an incredible binder cover for our materials, and it became highly sought-after by attendees who registered at the last minute. The audience was a mixture of police, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges. Most of the attendees were from Chuuk, but we also had a police officer from Yap who flew in for the training, and some people traveled to Chuuk by boat from outlying islands. It was interesting to see boats gathering as people began their commute every morning. It was intimidating as an instructor to see so many faces waiting anxiously to hear what we had brought more than 7,000 miles to teach them. We were treated to lunch that day by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and he shared with us his thoughts about Micronesia, and I showed him how to use his iPad as a word processor.
    The training continued on Wednesday and Thursday, and each day our audience stayed with us through electrical blackouts, language barriers, and the fact that we were doing the training outside the hotel bar. It was interesting to speak to an audience that was largely unfamiliar with Facebook and technology used in crimes. The police and prosecutors in Chuuk solve and prosecute crimes on a daily basis through hard work and without the benefit of a lot of the technology that has made our jobs in the United States so much easier. The evidence collection block seemed to be the most difficult because the police on the island have very few resources for collecting evidence, and fingerprint evidence is one of the things that the police are trying to incorporate. 
    On Wednesday the director of the Department of Public Safety took us on a tour of the jail. It was quite different than any other jail I had ever been to, and one of the most interesting things was that there was no separation or classification of the inmates. Each cell had a mix of juvenile, felony, and misdemeanor suspects. We were presented with hand-carved wooden turtles and patches from the Department of Public Safety, and again, they were extremely great hosts.
    That evening we went to the Jesuit High School, Xavier High, that sits on top of the island. The interesting point about the structure is that during World War II the buildings served as the communications headquarters for the Japanese Army, and it still bear scars from shelling. The view from atop the school is breathtaking with palm trees, the ocean, and other islands as far as you can see.
    The training ended on Thursday with a reception for us hosted by the attorney general and his staff. It was important to Robert and me that we bring something unique from Texas to give our hosts. Larue Tactical in Leander donated fantastic gifts for us to exchange, and our hosts now all have Texas T-shirts, hats, and armadillo beverage entry tools (bottle openers). The gifts we received included hand-carved turtles, flags, and fertility sticks. (You will have to call or email me if you want to hear the history behind this gift.) In addition, our hosts met us at the airport the next day with leis and crowns made from the most beautiful flowers we had ever seen or smelled.
    Robert and I look forward to the opportunity to return to Micronesia and to see our hosts. The value and experience of planning and executing an international conference has brought a huge benefit to our office. The Chuuk State Attorney General’s Office did a great job in finding the funding for our trip, and they were some of the best vacation days that I have ever taken in the office. Meeting the challenges of breaking through language barriers, electrical blackouts, and an international audience have been instrumental in our development as instructors, and we can’t wait to do it again.