Week 10: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Criminal Defense in Chile, "Western Style"
By Al Macina
I stood behind the unpolished bar as gray light filtered in and shown upon where the man had been stabbed. The investigator sauntered up, looked through me to the wall of liquor at my back, and then asked for a beer, a Cristal, to be exact. I reached underneath the bar and passed a liter to him. The whole room watched us when he made as if to open the bottle. Our serious eyes met across the bar as cameras flashed, but after a moment of steady gaze we stifled the urge to burst out with laughter.
As we stood where the victim received his fatal knife wounds, surrounded by federal and local police, the prosecutor and the defense attorney, the serious nature of the investigation was belied by its spaghetti western feel. With sacks of meal in the middle of the floor of the 80-year old wood saloon and rusty spurs and whips adorning the "wall of refreshment," we couldn’t help but feel as though we were on a movie set. I should have been wearing the dirty apron of a barkeep to match the investigator’s gleaming silver police badge on his plaid shirt. But overseeing the scene-indeed, acting as the director-was the defendant accused of murder. He had agreed to give his version of the story, to which our actions conformed and were recorded in notes and on film. The investigator chose me for the bartender role when he sought a third person for the reenactment photos and I happened to be the closest at hand.
As the story unfolded, the bartender’s role ended with serving the customer, and I so came out from behind the bar. I then watched as two policemen reenacted a bar fight that ended with one’s death in the village bar. Moments before my still-life theatre debut, I had followed the defense attorney into the federal police van to question the young, scared defendant. Many in town stared at us when we walked together to the bar, the defendant wearing a yellow detention vest, somewhat like a straight jacket, with the word imputado-the imputed; the defendant-splayed across the back.
As the play progressed, I observed one cop raise a knife and heard the snap! of the camera, while the other knocked it away-snap!-and then the two reached toward the floor-snap!-for the fallen knife whose blade had stuck into the old wood floor. As the defendant watched, his emotion impressed me, and my lightheartedness dropped away. But upon seeing the cops posed, reaching for the knife stuck in the floor, even the defense attorney whispered to me that he thought we were in a western flick. As the federal police led the defendant away, I sobered again thinking that his story we had just acted out, if true, negated any intent to kill the victim. If proven in court, he could avoid a murder conviction.
Defense attorneys recently described to me how cases constantly present challenges that require learning about science-physics, chemistry, and more-as well as human nature, and have fun experiences while they’re at it. Case questions require more than simply calling an expert, but learning alongside the expert and internalizing the new subject so as to be able to best present it to judge (and jury). The subject could be as technical as DNA statistical variations, or simply tracking the path of a bucket falling off of a roof, or a bullet over a hill. In my case, my internship in Chile gave me the chance to evaluate firsthand the plausibility of a bar fight story in a Clint Eastwood western setting. I look forward to the career in which I can delve into new subject areas in order to present the best case for my client, and have some fun in the process.