Judgment Calls

by Alafair Burke

Published by Henry Holt and Company

256 pages, 2003

Buy it online


A seemingly simple assault case spirals into a complex web of violence and deception in this bold debut thriller.

Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid walks into her office in Portland's Drug and Vice Division one Monday morning to find the sergeant of the police bureau's vice unit waiting for her. A 13-year-old girl has been brutally attacked and left for dead on the city's outskirts. Given the lack of evidence, most lawyers would settle for an assault charge; Samantha, unnerved by the viciousness of the crime, decides to go for attempted murder. But as she prepares for the trial, she uncovers a dangerous trail leading to a high-profile death penalty case, a prostitution ring of underage girls, and a possible serial killer. And she finds her judgment -- not only in matters of the law but in her personal life -- called into question.

A February morning in Portland, Oregon, and it was still dark outside when I walked into the courthouse, the air thick with the annoying drops of humidity that pass for rain in the Pacific Northwest. No surprises there. What did surprise me was finding a Police Bureau sergeant waiting in my office.

I'm a deputy district attorney for Multnomah County, making me about one percent of the office that prosecutes state crimes committed in the Portland area. Since I took this job three years ago, I've gotten used to having voice mail and e-mail messages waiting for me on Monday mornings. People just don't seem to realize that government law offices aren't open on weekends. It's unusual, though, and rarely a good sign, to find a cop waiting for you first thing in the morning.

At least I knew this one.

"Hey, Garcia, who let you in?" I said. "I thought we had some security around here."

Sergeant Tommy Garcia looked up from the Oregon State Bar magazine he had lifted out of my in-box. He smiled at me with those bright white, perfectly straight teeth that contrasted beautifully with his smooth olive skin. That smile had led me to believe he was a nice guy when I met him for the first time three years ago, and I had been right.

"Hey, Sammie, what can I say? I love reading the part at the back that tells about all the bad lawyers and what they did to get disbarred or suspended. Gives me a sense of justice. You should be careful about giving me such a hard time, though. I might start to think you're like the rest of the DAs around here, with a stick up your ass."

Tommy's in charge of the bureau's vice unit, so I know him well. As a member of the eight-lawyer team known as the Drug and Vice Division, I talk to Tommy almost weekly about pending cases and see him at least once a month at team meetings.

"You must want something from me big and bad, Garcia, to be buttering me up like that. What is it," I asked, "a warrant?" The local judges won't even read an officer's application for a search warrant unless it is reviewed and approved first by a deputy DA. In a close case, the cops tend to "DA shop."

Garcia laughed. "You're too smart, Kincaid. Nope, no warrant. I do need your help on something, but it's a little more complicated." He reached behind him to shut the door, looking at me first to make sure I didn't mind.

"MCT picked a case up over the weekend, thinking it would be an attempt murder. The suspects are bad, bad guys, Sammie. Two of them grabbed a girl out of Old Town. One of them started to rape her, but couldn't get it up, so he beat her instead, and then the second guy finished what the first couldn't. When they were done, they left her for dead out in the Columbia Gorge.

"I don't know all the details, but apparently the initial investigation was a bit of a cluster fuck. It sounds like everything's on track now, but O'Donnell was the riding DA and got pissed off at some of the early mistakes. So he's planning on kicking it into the general felony unit for prosecution. You can pretty much figure out what's gonna happen to it."

The general felony trial unit is a dumping ground for cases that aren't seen as serious. The trial DDAs often have extremely limited time to spend on them, and the overwhelming majority plead out to reduced charges and stipulated sentences during a fast-paced court calendar referred to as "morning call." It's the criminal justice system's ugly side. Tim O'Donnell was a senior DDA in the major crimes unit. If he bumped a Major Crimes Team case down to general, he knew it was gone.

"Sounds bad, but it also sounds like MCT's beef is with O'Donnell."

"Yeah, well, O'Donnell's mind's not an easy one to change, and I think there's another way to go here because of a vice angle. The victim's a thirteen-year-old prostitute named Kendra Martin. Unlike most of 'em, she doesn't try to look any older. Wears schoolgirl outfits like that one girl used to wear on MTV before she got implants and started running around naked. What's her name? My daughter likes her. Anyway, she looks her age, is my point.

"Turns out her injuries weren't as bad as they first looked, so the MCT guys know it'll be hard to get attempted murder to stick. But they kept working the case, even after they realized that they could've handed it off to precinct detectives. This case is under their skin."

Any reluctance on the part of the Major Crimes Team to hand over a case to precinct detectives was understandable. In theory, regular shift detectives are perfectly good investigators, but in reality, disappointed precinct detectives who were passed over for the elite MCT frequently drop the ball, deciding their cases must not be sufficiently "major" to warrant good investigations.

"I don't doubt their earnestness, but I still don't see why they'd come to DVD with this, let alone to me. I've never even handled an MCT case."

"They figured because of the vice connection that someone in DVD might take the case from O'Donnell and run with it on something more serious than a general felony. And I've been watching you since you got here, Kincaid. You're good, and this could be a case for you to show what you can do when given the chance."

"Don't think you can play me like that, Garcia. I know an ego stroke when I see it." Of course, recognizing the stroke for what it was didn't prevent me from succumbing to it. The truth was, he was right. I'd been eager to get my hands on a major trial. It's a no-win situation: DVD cases aren't sexy enough to prove yourself to the guys running this place, yet you're supposed to prove yourself before you can try victim cases. Garcia was dangling a way for me to beat the system.

I wasn't about to sign on for this, though, without knowing the details.

"I don't think there's much I can do about it, but I'm willing to talk. Have someone call me?" I asked.

"I can do better than that," he said. "I got two MCT detectives waiting for you down the street." | July 2003


Copyright © 2003 Alafair Burke


A former deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon, Alafair Burke now teaches criminal law at Hofstra School of Law and lives on Long Island, New York. She is the daughter of acclaimed crime writer James Lee Burke. Henry Holt will publish the second book in the Samantha Kincaid series in spring 2004.