The following is an excerpt from A Special Detail: The Untold Story of a Reporter’s Suspicious Death, a work of fiction that the Oshkosh Independent is presenting in serial form. If you can’t wait to get to the end or would like to read the story in book form, it is available on Amazon. Chapter Twenty will appear Jan. 14
The city courthouse is an imposing Depression-era structure, a kind of legal cathedral with pillars out front and a dome on top. But the 20th century had not been kind to it. Soot from passing buses and generalized industrial grime had descended upon it over the years, turning what might have been a gleaming granite edifice into a hulking mass of gray stone.
Gray seemed like an appropriate metaphor for the courthouse, a place where ambiguous facts get disentangled so that a shared version of the truth emerges, or perhaps just lingers in the mist. In some ways the court’s mission was like of the newspaper, but it had more power, as well as the final word.
Beginning the last week of the month, the courthouse became the center ring, the place where it would be determined what had happened that morning when Joseph Patrick Hanrahan shot and killed Tyrone T. Washington. Did Washington come at him with a knife? Did the officer shoot first, planning to ask questions later? Or maybe there was some muddled middle ground: Had Hanrahan fired in self-defense and then, panicking, reached for a knife that he thought would provide him the cover of innocence?
Frank reported on the case pretty much gavel to gavel, starting with the weird ritual of voir-dire. That’s the part where prospective jurors get the once-over from the prosecution and the defense until they can reach a mutual decision on who gets to sit in judgment.
“It was just strange,” Frank told me later. “One by one the jury candidates were called to the front of the courtroom, and the clerk would ask each side what they thought. It was like a call-and-response thing: ‘Acceptable to the defense?’ ‘Acceptable.’ ‘Acceptable to the state?’ ‘Acceptable at this time.’
“It just went back and forth like that, again and again, with both sides pretending that it was no big deal. But it was, of course. They just didn’t want to show how much it mattered.”
With most things in our lives we don’t really know what is true, and we don’t really have to come to a conclusion. Did Frank cheat on me or not? Was Corker settling a grudge? Is it better to be lucky or good? Most of the time we don’t really have to decide, at least not on a permanent basis. We can think one thing in the morning, and something else that night, or the next day.
It’s the same thing with reporting. We may think something is true, and we may get our sources to give us the quotes we need to make things look that way. But we don’t really know, and we don’t have to know for sure before we go to press.
But jurors aren’t that lucky. They have to decide, and they have to live with their decisions. A case like this would be ferociously argued, with both sides pointing out errors and discrepancies in each other’s arguments and evidence until the average person wouldn’t know which way to think about things. But that wouldn’t matter. The jurors are still expected to say guilty or not.
A trial begins with opening statements from the prosecution and the defense, but the jurors are warned not to put too much weight on what they hear. These are arguments, not evidence, and they provide an outline of what each side believes but nothing in the way of proof about what is true. It’s proof that the jury is supposed to rely on.
The DA starts with a rhetorical flourish. “My goal is not to win or lose this case but to expose and present the truth,” Langdon says. “The truth is not going to be kind to Joseph Patrick Hanrahan.” Black seems a little cagier. Perhaps the officer did handle that knife, but maybe he did it as a precaution, to move it away from his “assailant.”
In the next phase of the case the prosecution starts introducing witnesses, trying to lay out a chronology, a step-by-step recitation of what happened. It sounds at first like the witnesses are providing fresh information, but they have already testified to the grand jury and lawyers on both sides have read the transcripts. They know what’s coming, and they’re ready to punch holes in what they hear coming from the witness box.
The defense has a bit of an upper hand here. To prove its case, the state has to go “beyond a reasonable doubt” in telling a story that, like all true stories, will be full of inconsistencies and contradictions. All the defense has to show is that doubt is reasonable, and isn’t that always the case?
No matter how sincere, most witnesses cannot be trusted. Or at least their memories cannot be trusted. One trick that Black used was to focus on the part of a witness’s testimony that included a distance. How close did you get to the scene? How far were you from the body? How far apart were the officer’s vehicle and the motorcycle?
Once the witness gives a distance—10 yards, 15 yards, 10 feet—the attorney asks, “Can you point to something in the courtroom that is the same distance away?”
“All of the witnesses, all of them, go all deer-in-the-headlights on you,” Frank recalled. “They look around the courtroom for something to point to, their eyes wide and their faces blank. And then when they pick something out, and say ‘No, I didn’t mean that table over there. It was more like these windows over here.’ As soon as that happens, their credibility just drains away. That reasonable doubt thing starts rising up in you.”
Several of the witnesses had seen the knife lying on the ground and had given information to the police about what they saw. For some, the knife was 10 or 12 inches long. Some said it had a fixed blade, and others said it looked like it folded up. Another said it was just three inches long.
With the police statements and the grand jury testimony and what the witnesses were saying on the stand, the lawyers now had three sets of testimony to play with. Sometimes there were contradictions between the police statements and the grand jury statements. Sometimes a detail would be cited that would make the witness realize that previous statements could not be correct.
The question would then become: Is your memory better now, or was it better when you appeared before the grand jury or when you spoke to police? That’s a question that has no good answer.
Mostly what the street witnesses were good for was to establish that the killing had taken place. It was the official witnesses, the ones who were wearing uniforms or who had a long list of credentials, who would establish whether the shooting was justified or not, whether Hanrahan had tried to cover up.
The police uniform unites the members of the force, even when they are supposedly on opposite sides of the case. The DA called as a state witness the police department’s weapons training officer. He provided some mildly damaging evidence about Hanrahan’s shooting skills, suggesting that he was not as careful and disciplined as one might expect from a member of law enforcement.
But the training officer also helped the defense by providing a possible rationale for why Hanrahan might have shot with such deadly accuracy. “We don’t teach warning shots,” he said. “Officers are taught to shoot for ‘street survival.’ That means aiming at center-mass of your target. There is no such thing for us as shoot to wound. If you need to discharge your weapon it’s because you need to incapacitate, to keep that individual from being a threat to the police officer.”
Next up was an assistant medical examiner, a veteran of about 3,000 autopsies. He described how he went about his analysis, how he used a blunt metal rod, pushed through the skin, muscle, and tissue of the dead man to determine the path of the bullets that killed him.
“A criminal trial is an object lesson in the impossibility of knowing the truth,” Frank would often say. “Every reporter should have to cover one, just to see how, even in matters of life and death, even when everything is at stake, it’s just so hard to get the point where you believe one thing is true and some other thing is not.
“Sometimes you have to be like the medical examiner, pushing a hard metal rod through your story—skin, muscle, and flesh—until you get it to line up, to see what really happened.”
The final two witnesses were the most important ones: Hanrahan and Greene. Langdon went after Hanrahan, trying to undermine his credibility. But she ended up sounding petty. At one point she tried to get the officer to concede that he had been coached in his grand jury testimony, as she recited some rather descriptive passages.
“That’s pretty good stuff, Officer Hanrahan, almost poetic. But isn’t it true that you aren’t that good with language, that you failed the written portion of the State Police exam, when you tried to get a job with them?”
Over his attorney’s objections, Hanrahan conceded that he failed the State Police exam. A mighty hangover had played a major role that day, but he didn’t volunteer that information. On cross-examination, Black undid most of the damage, getting into the record that Hanrahan had been an honors student in English during his high school days.
Langdon really outdid herself on one of the last points she tried to make. She engaged Hanrahan in a discussion of his role in saving that girl from the shootout early in his career. “Isn’t it true, Officer Hanrahan, that you were so proud of your performance that day that you invited some of your officers out for a drink, with the statement, ‘It’s Miller Time.’”
“Yes, I think I said words to that effect.”
Langdon then seized on something he had old the grand jury in trying to defuse the question of why he had so many beer cans in the back of his car after the Washington shooting.
“Have you forgotten, Officer Hanrahan, that you have made a sworn statement that the only beer you drink is Michelob?” Landgon may have thought this would have scored her some points, but snickers broke out throughout the courtrroom as the police officer, “No, ma’am.”
“I don’t know why Shirley went after those things. It was really Trivial Pursuit,” Frank told me. “I think she was thinking ahead to Greene, and what she would have to do limit his testimony so that he talked only about Hanrahan’s use of the drop knife without getting into whether the shooting was justified.”
By framing her questions just so, and objecting to every question that Black asked on cross-examination, she managed to keep Greene from offering his opinion of what he had seen. Frank said he thought Greene was starting to lose his cool, but every time he seemed to be on the verge of going past the simple answer that Langdon wanted from him, she would interrupt.
“That’s enough, Sgt. Greene. You have already answered my question. There’s nothing more.”
Finally Langdon thought she was done, that she had successfully navigated through the potential minefield of Sgt. Greene’s direct and cross-examination testimony. But the soldier was tired of being told what to do and decided he would have his say.
“You may step down, Sgt. Greene,” the judge said.
“Well before he stepped down, he decided to stand up,” Frank would say in describing the scene, which began with a hush descending over the courtroom and ended with a rush of security officers trying to clear the courtroom.
As Sgt. Greene stood up in the witness box, he cleared his throat. “I just want to say one thing.”
“All eyes were on him and the proverbial pin would have sounded like a pile-driver it was so quiet,” according to Frank.
“The thing is, I woulda shot him, too.”
“Objection, your honor, I object!” Landgon shouted.
At the defendant’s table, Hanrahan sprang to his feet. “Then why the hell did you say that all that shit about the knife, you black bastard? Why can’t you just keep your mouth shut?”
“‘Cause you’re such a fool that everyone knew you were lying.”
Next Hanrahan was up and over the defendant’s table, charging toward the witness box, his arms raised and flailing. “You’da shot him. You’da shot him. Somebody ought to shoot you.”
There was a surge of bodies now as sheriff’s deputies ran from the back of the courtroom and the side entrances trying to get between Hanrahan and Greene. Attorney Black, waddling as fast as he could, took off after his client while almost everyone else in the courtroom stood up to see what was going on.
“Order in the court,” the judge yelled, hammering his gavel on his desk. “Order, I say, order. Order in my goddamn court!”
A Special Detail is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental and completely unintentional.