Canongate Books (2008), 656 pages
Phibsborough Charity Shop – €1
Homicide, A Year on the Killing Streets is a forensic examination of the work of Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit. David Simon spent a year sitting in the police offices and going out on patrol with the Homicide Unit. Such unrivalled access has resulted in an astonishing book. Simon explores the stresses faced by officers as, despite their best efforts, they become emotionally involved in certain cases. There are also departmental tensions as there is fierce pressure to solve as many cases as possible. A cop could be lucky and get three easy cases (“dunkers”) in a row or get caught with a case where there is poor forensic evidence and no witnesses, or at least no witnesses willing to talk to the police. The most difficult case is the still unsolved sexual assault and murder of a girl called Latonya Wallace. As the year passes and the case remains unsolved the officers involved are haunted by their failure to bring justice to the girl’s family.
Perhaps the mechanics of interrogating suspects and the subsequent trials are the most interesting parts of the book. Simon details the subtle game played by interrogators to make sure that suspects don’t avail of their right to have a lawyer present during interviews. Even though suspects are read their Miranda warnings they are encouraged not to waste time with a lawyer. This section (pp.201-216) is perfect advice that if you ever have the misfortune to be interviewed under arrest then you’d be a fool to start without a solicitor.Simon goes through a trial in detail with all of its tension and, at times, comedy. He tells the bizarre story of an inept graveyard manager who buried bodies in the wrong places. He details the work conducted during an autopsy. The discussion some police have with a juror following a trial make you question the advisability of the jury system (pp.304-305).
Homicide is an astonishing book. Despite its length it’s a page turner which is perfectly balanced between information and analysis. Although Simon was embedded in the Baltimore Police Department he doesn’t lose his critical faculties, he shows the flaws that are always present in a system designed and run by humans. Nonetheless Simon shows the humanity that is present in every layer of his story from the wasted drug addict to the judge who passes sentence on the convicted.