Lesson #1: The coroner takes the heat.
That’s his — or her — job.
They not only have to examine dead bodies all day, a tough enough task, but then must share their findings, even when they contradict what powerful people wish were the truth.
It’s a lesson we’ve been taught before, but the jaw-dropping case of Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz reminds us again, a necessary lesson, because we keep forgetting. Nor is it the only lesson here.
For those just tuning in: law enforcement in Lake County has been dealt a triple black eye.
First, a corrupt cop stole money. If that weren’t bad enough, he stole it from a fund set up to benefit kids, then considered murdering the official questioning his finances.
Second, he killed himself and made it look like he was attacked by three assailants, sparking a manhunt, that briefly rounded up innocent suspects.
Then the third, self-inflicted blow: Dr. Thomas Rudd, the Lake County coroner, examined the body, assessed the evidence, could not rule out suicide and was raked over the coals by Lake County law enforcement, loudly criticizing Rudd for “unprofessionalism.” The commander of the Lake County Major Crime Task force said Rudd’s findings put “the entire case at risk.”
Thank God he did.
Before we in Chicago ride off on that high horse we’ve climbed up on, let’s take a trip down memory lane, to 2009.
This case should seem familiar.
Two words: Michael Scott.
President of the Chicago School Board and pal of Mayor Richard M. Daley. He walked to the edge of the Chicago River, shot himself and tumbled in.
The Cook County medical examiner at the time, Dr. Nancy Jones, examined the body, and said it looked like suicide, which enraged Daley, who denounced her as a publicity hound.
“Her claim to fame, she has claim to fame — you know her name,” squeaked the mayor. “That’s why the Chicago Police Department has to do a thorough investigation, regardless of what the medical examiner says. They have to do a thorough investigation and come to the conclusion. He or she can say anything they want. But they have a responsibility to the family and society.”
A week later, the police department’s thorough investigation said, umm, yeah, suicide.
The mayor never apologized to Jones, and I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the Keystone cops in Lake County to apologize to Dr. Rudd.
Apologies are overrated anyway. What we need are guidelines. We’ve reviewed one. This terrible case underlines two more that might help us grasp the next time this sort of thing happens, which it will:
Lesson #2. Cops always circle the wagons. They support their own, until the last moment it can be plausibly be done and long beyond. Truth is an airy abstract of no interest. Justice is what happens when the case goes their way. Toward that end, they’ll ignore the obvious, plant evidence, lie on the stand, whatever it takes to back each other up (and expend a good deal of bile lashing out at anyone rude enough to mention it; trust me here). The reason police violence is constantly in the news is because the abuses that police once casually committed and routinely covered up now can be posted online for all to see.
Lesson #3. Nobody wants to believe a loved one committed suicide. Ever. Not without a note, and often not even then. After Scott killed himself, Chicago magazine ran an elaborate conspiracy theory explaining why he was done in by shadowy forces. This despite the fact that the Chicago police had video documenting Scott’s last minutes. To the defense of grieving families, suicide seems such an negation of their love, such a rude gesture in their direction, they’ll clutch at anything that suggests otherwise. And suicide can be a very rude gesture, make no mistake. Phil Pagano was the head of Metra. He knew, better than anybody, the trauma that Metra engineers suffer when people jump in front of trains. He knew that, and made eye contact with the engineer driving the train as he stepped onto the track in front of it.
Neither of these three truths are pretty or pleasant, and the one about police is hard to take. Yes, cops can tell the truth, when convenient. But when it comes to other cops, well, let’s put it this way: remember that time a Chicago cop faced the wrath of his fellow officers to expose a dirty cop? Me neither.