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Every Murder Tells a Story

THE KILLING SEASON: A Summer Inside an LAPD Homicide Division.\o7 By Miles Corwin\f7 .\o7 Simon & Schuster: 336 pp., $23\f7

May 25, 1997|JEROME H. SKOLNICK | Jerome H. Skolnick teaches at New York University Law School and is co-author (with James J. Fyfe) of "Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force."

Imagine a buddy movie, part Nick and Nora, part "Lethal Weapon." A veteran homicide detective, parents Lithuanian-born, Venezuelan boyhood, perfect Spanish speaker, male, white, teams up with rookie homicide detective, female, black, to investigate killings in her home turf, South-Central Los Angeles. No romance, they're partners.

He favors Western boots, chews and spits tobacco, looks like a grizzled cowhand. Has been working South-Central for 15 years. Hopes to maintain a third marriage despite middle-of-night homicide calls. Huge backlog of cases, always under pressure, always behind, hates paperwork, can't use computer. Is shrewdest, sharpest-eyed crime scene investigator in South-Central. Near burnout, never succumbs. Favors shapeless gray and blue suits, $5 ties. Doesn't wash hands before lunch after handling dead body. (She balks. Won't eat with him until he washes.) Also a hunter. Dreams of, lives for, annual fall trip to Wyoming--at the end of the killing season. During those weeks bathes but once.

"It must be a guy's thing," she says of the joy he takes stalking and shooting deer, camping in the woods, not bathing. She wears silk stockings, designer jackets, skirts, slacks, boots. Fastidious, great at paperwork, computer. But is no polite secretary or sugary pushover. Tall, strong. Won Police Olympics women's power-lifting championship. Decked a wise-guy gangbanger, broke his nose. Fixes a large drawing of black cat on her desk. Underneath, a sign in big block letters: "I HAVE PMS AND A 9-MILLIMETER HANDGUN WITH 16 ROUNDS. ANY QUESTIONS?"

"The Killing Season" is indeed a grab-you-by-the throat page turner, but it's also a serious book for those who want to comprehend the disheartening dilemmas contemporary inner-city crime poses for law enforcement and the rest of us. I took notes on practically every page.

Pete Razanskas and Marcella Winn are the main detectives Miles Corwin shadowed for his reportage on a summer spent with the LAPD's South-Central Homicide Division.

Detectives assigned to that division investigate ever more violent and impersonal inner-city murders. Homicide patterns (according to a 1993 FBI study) have shifted dramatically. In the past, most were committed by a spouse, a family member, a friend, an acquaintance. Domestic cases, "Ma and Pa Kettle" killings, are most easily cleared by the police. By the early 1990s, for the first time, more than half the nation's homicides were committed by strangers or unknown persons.

The South-Central killings investigated by Razanskas and Winn were mostly of that kind: drug-related hits, drive-by shootings, homicides committed during a robbery, bodies dumped away from the place of death. Crimes that used to be simple robberies or car thefts end up as "senseless" killing. The more "senseless" a killing, that is, the less rational the link between motive and the killing of a compliant victim, the harder it is to solve.

Such crimes produce slight physical evidence. Eyewitnesses often fear retaliation against themselves or their relatives by the killer or his gang cohorts. Gangbangers who expect future imprisonment fear a "snitch jacket" and refuse to identify killers. Consequently, South-Central deaths are among the most difficult for detectives to "close," that is, to produce enough acceptable courtroom evidence for the district attorney to prosecute.

Because the detectives Corwin followed are so hard-working and professional, "The Killing Season" is the best advertisement the LAPD has had in a long time. Former LAPD Chief William Parker (Daryl Gates' mentor) told an interviewer in 1962 that the television program "Dragnet" was "one of the great instruments to give the people of the United States a picture of the policeman as he really is." Well, it wasn't. The videotaped beating of Rodney King shattered the "Dragnet" image of the LAPD. Whatever shards of the icon remained were crushed by the perjured testimony of Mark Fuhrman and the mistakes of the LAPD crime lab in the O.J. Simpson case.

Miles Corwin's intelligent, empathetic and in-depth observations, conducted from March to October 1993, offer rare insights into real and dedicated police who undertake a tough, grinding assignment. They are neither unfailingly polite nor mistake-free. Whatever their imperfections and transgressions, they are on the whole admirable. Their work is so demanding and psychologically draining, I found myself wondering how they manage it.

Razanskas, who lives in a zone of interrupted sleep and bodies, does it by maintaining a sense of humor. He is a relentless kidder. When a new coroner's investigator arrives at a killing scene, Razanskas takes him aside and tells him he's not supposed to be there, that there's a new policy. "Didn't anyone tell you?" he asks.

The coroner's man shakes his head.

"You don't have to come to the scenes anymore. We just toss the bodies in our trunk and we bring 'em to you." The investigator finally gets the joke.

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