After a quiet start, the reaction by the Spokane County Sheriff's Department to Mark Fuhrman's Murder in Spokane has been loud and aggressive -- but it has also missed the point. While Sheriff Mark Sterk has been careful to make sure that no one forgets that Fuhrman is partially culpable in the failure to convict O.J. Simpson, he has not yet taken on the central questions raised by the book. And in so doing, he comes closer to confirming Fuhrman's assessment of the Sheriff's Department than he does in refuting the premise of the book.
The Sheriff's Department has a strong story to tell. Let's face it, only the county cared enough to even keep the serial killer investigation going -- the city dropped out over lack of funds. Staying on the case says a lot, and the department deserves credit for its resolve. And in recent years, the county has been putting together some strong police work, from the case they ultimately put together against Robert Yates to the clever use of a GPS device in nabbing Brad Jackson. There are a lot of things for citizens to be proud of here, but it does seem to be a department unwilling to admit its mistakes and, more importantly, promise the community that it will learn from those mistakes.
Fuhrman is hardly the messenger you hope for. His infamous past gives the Sheriff's Department more than enough ammo to impeach his credibility. I am not defending his book here, but I do believe our public institutions need to be able to withstand public scrutiny. This whole dispute looks like a classic case of killing the messenger because you don't like the message. What if another author had written this book and arrived at some of the same conclusions? Fuhrman is hardly the only person to have thought the police may have bungled a chance to catch Yates two years sooner. After the release of the affidavit against Yates, many people were talking about the white Corvette clue and why it seemed to languish for so long.
The police do some of our most solemn and important work -- they protect our families and property as the U.S. military does our borders. And just like the military, to function properly the police need a civilian master. And that is why the ongoing stonewalling of information surrounding this case was never the right way to go. Yes, there were some things that needed to remain sealed, but there were many more things that should have been offered as public information. And to deny requests for interviews or documents on the grounds that the ongoing investigation and prosecution could be harmed smacks of the old "national security" stamp that was used indiscriminately for years to seal federal documents of all kinds. Secrecy is not good public policy -- and it doesn't solve crimes.
When I called Sheriff's Spokesman Dave Reagan to get an interview with Sterk for our story on the book a few weeks ago, I was told he was not doing interviews but that he would have a response soon enough. By now, we've all seen and heard that response, on the TV news and in a big spread in The Spokesman-Review, but perhaps Sterk would have done better to follow the lead of his spokesman. Reagan told me that the serial killer case was a learning experience for the department but that Yates was caught, which is rare in such cases. Reagan's words were infused with a humility that was nowhere to be found in Sterk's statements. In condemning Fuhrman's book as pure fiction, Sterk seems to be saying the department made no mistakes.
This is total nonsense. Mistakes were clearly made, and nobody needs Fuhrman to point them out. To begin with, in missing a dead body that was buried in the yard of Yates' house, which the Sheriff's Department examined for two weeks, they basically gave Yates his life. In a controversial decision, Prosecutor Steve Tucker offered to take the death penalty off the table if Yates would reveal more victims.
Then there's the matter of timing. Although Yates became a suspect in September of 1999 when he refused to give police a blood sample, it was another seven months before he was arrested. No victims are believed to have been killed during that period, however.
And finally, and most important of all, is the white Corvette. If Fuhrman's book boils down to anything, it is the question of why that clue was never followed up on or released to the public. This is a question that has no easy answer, and we probably shouldn't expect one. But again, it's the kind of thing that could be put to rest with a simple statement of how similar clues will be handled in future investigations.
On August 26, 1997, Jennifer Joseph was seen getting into a white, 1970s-era Corvette. It was the last time she was ever seen alive. It appears that the clue was being worked inside the Spokane Police Department -- remember, this was before there was a Serial Killer Task Force and before Sterk was even sheriff. But somewhere along the line, the clue was buried in the growing pile of information about the murders.
The way that clue was handled was wrong. The proper thing to do would have been to release it to the public. There is a growing sentiment in law enforcement and among journalists covering crime that, in most cases, openness is the best policy. This is the basis for the Secret Witness program -- 400,000 sets of eyes are better than however many the police can muster.
And there are successful case studies about the power of releasing clues. In the Ted Bundy case, the chief investigator in Seattle released a description of his car to the media. Not only did that lead to Bundy leaving the Seattle area, but his girlfriend even called the police twice to report him. And locally, we only have to look at the Mukogawa abduction case for proof of the validity of the approach. Shortly after the description of the car used in the abduction was released to the public, the suspects were apprehended.
Nine more women died after that white Corvette clue came in, and it is conceivable that if the description of the car went out, Yates would have been apprehended or just stopped out of fear of capture. At the very least, those unfortunate women could have been on the lookout for so conspicuous a car.
That is the lesson that should be taken from all this, but in the aftermath of the book's release, the Sheriff's Department seems to be saying it wouldn't have done anything differently. We need the police to be good at what they do, and they need our trust. When people are willing to admit their mistakes and say they have learned a lesson -- the very essence of being human -- I trust them. When they seek to deflect all criticism and blame the messenger, I don't.