After graduating from college in 1991 I worked as a newspaper reporter in Southern California. Often the newspaper's sole reporter, I covered a variety of beats. Looking back on the work, though, the stories I remember the best are the ones I covered as a police reporter. On that beat you see the best and worst of people – well, more often the latter – and are left with memories, some good and some bad.
He was lying. It was obvious to everyone in the courtroom.
His mom, Kathy James of Aguanga, was smiling at him and he would look at her but couldn't look the prosecutor or anyone else in the eyes, even when they would bend down to be at the level of this child, who was seven. Or eight. Or nine.
He wasn't really sure what grade he would be in, or his age, because he couldn’t remember. It'd been a while, though, he said.
The question to him was simple: Where was his mom when the fire began?
The circumstances were less simple. His mom was accused of accidentally setting the fire as she cooked meth in her trailer. His two siblings, his younger brother and sister, died in the fire.
He looked like he wanted to cry but he also wanted so much to be tough and strong. He was, after all, now the man of the family.
The prosecutor, Michael Soccio, had worried this might happen so he had a tape of this boy telling the truth, telling him that his mom was sitting by the oven when a "ball of fire" flew out of it. The court called a recess and Soccio took the boy to Burger King and explained to him that he didn't want to show him to be a liar.
In tears, the boy later told at least snippets of the truth, enough that the jurors knew that he was lying to protect mommy. She looked pissed. If looks could kill… well, scratch that cliche. There’d been enough killing.
There was easily enough evidence to convict her. The courtroom was packed at times because this was the first time a district attorney in California was trying to charge someone with murder for a meth lab gone bad.
As a last ditch effort, her attorney agreed to put her on the stand.
She didn't do it, a defiant James told the court in what became one of the more remarkable things I ever saw on a witness stand.
"I didn't do it," she said.
"You mean you didn't cook drugs?"
"Well, yes, I did that."
"And you cooked drugs around your kids?"
"But you didn't cook the drugs that resulted in a fire killing your kids?"
"And why not?"
"'Cause I'm too good," she said. Her "recipe" was failure-proof, she said.
She then went into a very detailed step-by-step description of exactly how she cooked meth. Jurors, reporters, everyone took detailed notes. Enough notes that I wondered if the notes would be collected and destroyed by the guards. It turned out later that the FBI was taping the trial and used her testimony for classes on the manufacture of meth.
She was one smooth, cocky, feisty meth-making woman.
What she was not was a sympathetic figure. And she forgot to mention that she had any sadness about the loss of her children. Juries notice those little details.
She was convicted and sentenced and her son is now with an aunt.
The whole matter was later voted story of the year by the readers of our newspaper but I just didn't feel like celebrating that news.