Inside Baseball

I’m still reading Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, with a special eye to how the prosecutors handled the case.  Lead prosecutor Phil Sterling initially came to Leovy’s attention when he advocated for the Tennelle case to be handled by LAPD’s Robbery Homicide Division in a way that some considered to be arrogant.  But by the time he starts his opening, he is “disciplined and exhaustively thorough, as if he were reading the table of contents of an academic treatise.”  She describes his self-effacing humor as stemming from this competence.  Practicing prosecutors, Leovy says, must thoroughly prepare their arguments.

On the other hand, when Stirling gets to gang expert Det. Daniel Leon, he is less impressive.  Lean didn’t know that a down-pointing arrow meant “this is our turf,” something Leovy seemed to know.  Leon also didn’t recognize “S.C.” as meaning “South Central.”  Stirling had to tell him.  On first look, it may seem like Leon is not doing a great job as a gang expert.  But a prosecutor should always know the answers to the questions he asks a witness.  And he should make sure the witness does as well.  Stirling should have made sure that Leon knew what these gang marking meant.  He should certainly have reviewed the detective’s testimony beforehand, even though an opinion witness may not be as important to the case as a percipient witness.

Stirling “pounced” on co-defendant Starks during cross-examination, and had an admirable Perry Mason moment when he obtained a hotel receipt to completely discredit Stark’s alibi.  I smiled when I read that “a bunch of DAs” were in the courtroom to see it.  Such a rare moment given modern discovery rules, and so effective.

Leovy described Stirling’s closing as “a tad bathetic” and said he “indulged in prosecutorial cliches.  For example, he held up a gun and yelled “bam, bam, bam” to act out the killer’s motions.  Leovy may not like it, but I have heard the value of this kind of acting is to take the jury out of the sterile environment of the courtroom and remind them that a murder is a terrifying, loud, and violent act.  A slow-moving prosecutor, droning on from behind a podium, might not be able to do that.

Stirling is apparently a big believer in PowerPoint.  “[T]he jurors had endured two weeks of remorseless PowerPoint torture at the hands of the prosecution.”  Although Leovy may disagree, I believe that the use of PowerPoint, particularly to present photographic evidence, is part of Stirling’s project of bringing the crime back to life.  That’s a skill I’d like to learn, and Stirling, in my opinion, is a skilled prosecutor.


Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside starts out with some pretty grim statistics.  Black men are only six percent of the nation’s population but nearly 40% of those murdered.  They make up 12% of Los Angeles County’s population but account for nearly half its homicide victims.  A total of 186,807 people died from homicides in the United States between 1995 and 2005; of these victims, 89,991 were black, or 48%.  She points out that “[t]he black homicide death rate remained as much as ten times higher than the white rate in 1960 and 1970, and has been five to seven times higher for most of the past thirty years.”

After review these statistics, and many others, she concludes that “for too long black men have lived inadequately protected by the laws of their own country.”  She complains that “the speed and certainty of adequate punishment for the murderers of black men” remains a problem in our criminal justice system.  She decried lawlessness in general in Watts, and other poor black areas of Los Angeles County.  She argues that “gangs are a consequence of this lawlessness, not a cause.”

I picked up Ghettoside and began reading it because of this argument.  I agree that we should reorient the discussion around race towards victims, and talk more about protecting black victims.  Focusing on criminals, rather than victims, may make for better stories, but the big picture can’t be ignored.  And the big picture is the misery created for victims, especially black victims.

I’ve heard mixed things about Ghettoside, but I’m willing to give it a try.  After finishing the first section, I think Jill Leovy does an excellent job marshaling the statistics.  I’m looking forward to the rest.


Spoiler alert: they caught the guy who committed the Ghettoside murder.  I liked his closing argument.