I don’t recall learning about death squads at my fancy prep school; the term probably hadn’t been coined yet. Just as there has always been political assassination, there have always been death squads, though that isn’t what they were called. The term, “death squad” is a product of the sixties. They grew up as a part of, if not the essence of, Kennedy’s counter-insurgency strategy against communism. I didn’t hear about it at the University of Virginia which could have been my fault, but I doubt it. Foreign policy was my major, and though there was surely reading that didn’t get done, I never missed a class. It may have been before the ugly fact had clawed its way into a college text book. I don’t remember the term in law school at the time of the war in Vietnam. That leaves my working life, and there was one particular moment that hasn’t left me.
I don’t think I was brand new as a public defender, as when you have to introduce yourself to the court staff. I had tried some cases, maybe even a murder case, but my memory of the courtroom and the court clerk suggests it was 1976 or so. It was Judge George Carroll’s department of the Municipal Court in Richmond, California. I don’t remember what I was doing there, but it doesn’t matter. A fairly well-known local gangster was being arraigned on an attempted murder of a police officer.
The interesting part was not the charge. Nor was it the local gangster. Nor was it the name of the cop, except as it provoked comments between two bailiffs who were waiting around for a chance to be useful. Before the official proceedings began, the clerk remarked on the fact that the defendant was going to have to be wheeled into the courtroom. He had taken a bullet during the course of his arrest.
“No wonder there is such a serious charge against the guy,” said one bailiff to the other. “That guy is lucky he is still breathing,” said the other. There is no way I could reproduce the entire conversation now thirty years later. The point is that the police officer was a member of the local death squad that had no time for the burdens of due process. Since the circumstances hadn’t been right for execution, the defendant would be charged with anything from resisting arrest to attempted murder depending not on the circumstances of the arrest, but on the seriousness of the injuries inflicted by the police officer.
I remember being affected by this information. I remember the matter-of-fact way in which it was disclosed. I remember the casual nature of the exchange between the two bailiffs. I remember the fact that I was not necessarily an intended recipient of the information. I could have been one of four or five people within earshot. It was simply a discussion of a piece of local knowledge of no particular significance. Whether physically or metaphorically, the two bailiffs rolled their eyes at the situation. It would be hard now to understand how exactly they meant whatever they did with their eyes or their words.
The more I think and write about it, the more likely it is that it was 1975 as opposed to a later year. I had, after all, not been around the year before when the death-squad-victim defense had failed to convince a jury, and the defendant, charged with killing another drug dealer, had already started serving the rest of his life in prison. The public defender who handled the case was, it pains me to say, slightly more proud of the fact that he had handled the case than disturbed by the fact that his defense, in which he expressed total belief, had been unsuccessful.
Maybe it is only the emotionally wound-up who can’t relinquish their obsession with the defects of justice. That public defender’s reaction was, most certainly, the result of an entirely realistic and sober assessment of the game, the rules, the players, and the imbalance of power. How is one supposed to get to the bottom of a moment in crime when all of the participants are criminals, but one group has the peculiar power to manipulate evidence? In the business of justice, it isn’t long before one learns of throw-down guns, erased tapes, and missing fingerprint cards.
No matter what I thought of my colleague’s reaction to his brush with the local death squad, any tendency I might have had to write the idea off as a lot of talk dissipated with the history of that celebrated trial and a conversation I had with a then-inebriated former Richmond police officer at a party many miles and cultures if not so many years removed from death squad gunfire. He was “former,” and he had had a number of glasses of scotch. The combination can provide insight. What is the good of maintaining silence about undercover experiences? Why should one’s recruitment by a death squad be forever hidden when there is the opportunity to impress a youngster in the early morning of his career? It could be drunken talk, but the confession of multiple instances of perjury at moments of evidentiary need rang true as I leaned against the counter listening.
The detective who admitted to all of the disturbing bits of routine police work in the trial of O.J. Simpson acquainted the general public with tactics that public defenders must react to on a weekly, if not a daily basis. From time to time a public defender is able to introduce these tactics, and their sinister nature, to an occasional juror. Our culture, however, has spent a lot of TV hours and vast sums of money creating a layer of impermeability to the average citizen’s mental process. There has been erected a barrier between the fact and its comprehension that makes any effort at introduction awkward at best and embarrassing at worst.
I don’t know that there was a death squad in the town where I learned to practice law, but I believe there was. I never had a case where I had to try to prove it, but none of the years that have passed has given me any reason for doubt. I do know that the idea of death squads was not the product of a time-passing conversation between a couple of deputy marshals. The country they referred to was Brazil. In 1964 President Joao Goulart was replaced in a coup d’etat. There was at least the suggestion of US backing to the coup, and death squads were said to wander the streets hunting communists and other “undesireables.”
There need be no speculation about the existence of death squads in Latin America and the rest of the world in the forty years since. El Salvador became famous on the backs of corpses lying in the street after being listed on television the night before. The movie “Munich” is a savage account of Isreal’s reaction to the terrorist attack at the Olympic Games in 1972. There in color is the policy of assassination painted for society’s review and approval. If the movie provoked the robust debate in the newspaper that it deserved, I missed it. If the lunch rooms and talk shows filled with discussion of the movie’s value or worth, I missed that too. If Isreal’s monthly “insertion” into the West Bank for the head of a “terrorist” has been the cause for anything besides acceptance, if not pride, I guess I missed that as well.
The masters of us all may now solemnly, yet one suspects with a damnably self-satisfied smile, claim victory. The world no longer slows the car down, nor lifts its head from the plate at state-sponsored murder..