The Law’s Delay: Further Episodes in the Tragic-Comic Saga of the Purloined Pillow

Loyal readers of this blog will doubtless remember the over-wrought story of my stolen pillow–even if many of them may wish they could forget it.

Briefly, the story is this: About a year ago, I ordered an expensive orthopedic pillow that was delivered to my front door and stolen from my front porch. The thief was caught by my local police department, and the case was sent to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, which began to send me Witness-Victim Advocacy notices pertinent to the case. The case was then remanded down to my local municipal court, at which point I lost track of it.

Instead, I began to hear from the County Prosecutor’s Office about a case that had nothing to do with me, the case of State vs. Godfrey. I called and wrote them to explain that I wasn’t the victim of this particular defendant, but to no avail: they insisted on sending me updates on a case that didn’t involve me. They also insisted on misspelling my name as “Ifran.” The only change they made was to stop referring to me as “Mrs. Khawaja,” and to refer to me by my new gender-neutral first name, “Ifran Khawaja.” That’s an improvement, I guess, but it somehow seems like too little, too late.

The saga continues. Here is their latest letter to me, dated January 9.

Office of the Prosecutor
County of Essex
Essex County New Courts Bldg
Newark, NJ 07102-000
Ph: 973-621-4700
Fax: 973-621-6150

Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy
January 9, 2017
Prosecutor File #: 16-002030
Indictment #: 16-06-01832-I

State vs. Godfrey
Re: Steve Godfrey

Dear Ifran Khawaja:

Please be advised that on February 06, 2017 at 9:00 am the above named defendant is tentatively scheduled to appear before the Honorable Judge Siobhan A. Teare for a(n) discretion case disp conf.

Although you are not required to appear, it is your right by law to have input and to be informed of pre-trial matters. Since court proceedings are often postponed or rescheduled, please call the number below to verify date and time.

As a result of a(n) discretion case disp conf, the prosecutor’s office may enter into a negotiated plea agreement. If you wish to obtain an explanation of the terms of any such agreement, the reasons for the agreement, or if you have any other questions, please call the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy at 973-621-4687.

Very truly yours,

Carolyn A. Murray, Acting County Prosecutor

Pamela M. McCauley, Victim-Witness Coordinator

At one level, the whole thing is kind of amusing, but another level, it really isn’t. I’d like to think that the bungling here has something to do with the fact that the crime involved (in my victimization, anyway) was relatively trivial. No one has, or needs to have, very much sympathy for a guy who’s lost a pillow to theft.

But it’s not obvious that that is the real explanation, and if it isn’t, we have a real problem. When it comes to real victims and real witnesses of real crimes, Victim-Witness Advocacy is not a joke–and yet the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office seems to treat it that way. After all, if I can’t get through to the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy, whether by phone or by mail, to explain that I have nothing to do with the case of State vs. Godfrey, what are the chances that an actual victim’s questions about the terms of a negotiated plea agreement will get real, timely answers? Or that a real victim will be able to reach someone in the office to discover that a court proceeding has been postponed or rescheduled? Incidentally, would it kill them to spell out “discretion case disp conf” so that the average English speaker can understand what they’re talking about?

This is the sort of thing that provokes the anger that people feel for the American justice system, and for American government as such. Is the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy overworked, understaffed, and underfunded? Or are they incompetent, irresponsible, and indifferent to the welfare of their clientele? Or are they somewhere in-between those extremes? I don’t know. I’m not a reflexively anti-government person: I’m willing to give credit where it’s due. But the fact remains that law enforcement shouldn’t be a comedy routine. When it becomes one, as it has here, we need to figure out why that’s happened, and do what it takes to fix things.

The City of Newark already has a Monitoring Team for its Police Department, under the terms of the consent decree entered into by the city with the Justice Department. I can’t help wondering whether it needs something similar at the level of the county justice system.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Under the Trump Administration, federal consent decrees are threatening to become a thing of the past–even as Trump threatens to use the federal government at whim to invade cities whose policies he doesn’t like. Unsurprisingly, the prospects for justice, and for criminal justice reform, remain uncertain. Stay tuned for further developments.

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