Hamilton Burger can finally rest in peace
I just spent ten days putting together a nonfiction book proposal for 2 Soups & a Fish, my narrative of prison, the criminal justice system and, the ultimate target – sports talk radio and NFL pre-game shows (how I get there is a real hoot).
Those ten days really brought me back as I flipped through my journals, notes scribbled over other notes, letters, court papers, and googled some of the people I ran across through 853 miles of Northeastern US prisons.
Depressing enough. Then, while compiling the marketing section of the proposal, I ran across Why Innocent People Plead Guilty. It’s one of the lead articles in tomorrow’s The New York Review of Books, written by Jed S. Rakoff. Rakoff is a Federal Judge, his premise revolves around the oft commented fact that prosecutors have too much power in our courts.
Actually, he strongly intimates that they have all the power.
Rakoff’s article set off a pinball-like din of connecting synapses that ended only a few hours ago with the not so epiphanous epiphany that the system is seriously titled.
Then I thought of the tools prosecutors have at their disposal, some only hinted at by Judge Rakoff. Then I remembered Herzog.
I called him Herzog – an insult to both the director and Saul Bellow – because he was just too soul wrenchingly depressing to address as Werner. Some people have a prison affirming name, he had two of them. Hence, Herzog.
I met him in a holding tank waiting for transfer from the spirit eroding filth of Bridgeport County Correctional to the spirit eroding cleanliness of MacDougall in Suffield.
He was that most scary of all pre-trial detention inmates, the really, really, really friendly guy. So friendly he tells you his life story through the first hour of the wait …. Then asks his new, bestest friends about their cases.
Herzog was that guy so obviously looking for a edge for his case you knew within minutes of meeting him he would not only do anything to secure it, he was working it out as they closed the cuffs on his wrists.
Consequently, Herzog is everything that is wrong with the system in one 5’7″ 170 pound package.
Artist conception of Herzog moments after I transferred out of our cell before he could finish reading my paperwork.
Herzog spent a chunk of the Nineties in Federal prison camps in California. Ninety-six months for a creative combination of wire, bank, and computer fraud. He’s mentioned more than a few times in the 2011 true crime book Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground.
I met him because he was arrested in Greenwich, CT days after me. He had spent a few afternoons wandering up and down Greenwich Avenue buying watches at every jewelry store with fake credit cards until someone finally caught on. The cops found over a quarter million dollars worth of watches, dozens of fake credit cards, fake driver’s licenses, and a credit card making machine in the trunk of his car.
A search of his home dug up additional jewelry, computers, blank credit cards, everything needed to steal identities and start really, really nice watch collections They also found a pistol. His wife’s, he claimed, but a prior felony and a weapon do not mix.
Oh, and he had skipped out from parole in California.
Herzog was facing state and federal charges. The FBI and Secret Service were ‘continuing’ their investigations. I was his cellmate for a short time – another story – I saw his court documents, knew with absolute, complete, total, can’t miss, lawyer spidey sense, certainty that his very active plea negotiations were starting at 150 months. Minimum.
He was sentenced in July, 2006. To twenty-seven MONTHS. On the sole count of felon in possession of a firearm. Everything else vanished. He was home in sixteen months.
And somewhere along the line, over the next year or so, the local US Attorney’s Office percentage of cases closed via plea crept a little closer to 100%.