By George Chipev
Writer’s Note: My post this month is particularly personal and does not focus on developments in criminal law or procedure. Rather, I reflect on the one-year anniversary of my uncle’s murder on March 21, 2010. This blog post is cathartic, so please forgive my indulgence. I would like to express my appreciation to my friends for their incredible support over the last year. I know that I sometimes mention what happened too often, and I thank you for being there.
On March 1, Bulgarians celebrate the dawning of spring with the holiday Баба Марта (Baba Marta; Grandmother March) with the tradition of giving friends and family red-and-white interwoven strings to bring health and happiness during the year.[i] It is supposed to be a month of positivity, renewal, and rebirth. Unfortunately for my family, March 21, 2011, marks the one-year anniversary of the murder of my uncle, George Markov, who died while he was sitting in his backyard on Long Island smoking a cigarette on a Sunday night like any other.[ii]
My uncle was an extraordinarily wonderful individual and a doting father to his incredible daughter, Maria. He arrived in the United States during the late 1990s with his wife, Zariana, after earning a green card through one of the international lotteries. Accomplished violists in Bulgaria, upon arriving in New York they sought – like most immigrants, if not all – the American dream. At the time of his death, George worked as an IT programmer at Suffolk County Community College, having excelled as an associate degree candidate and impressing his professors, who ensured he would have a career at Suffolk. My uncle, sadly, never picked up a violin after moving to the United States. I never heard him play.
At noon on March 22, 2010, I excitedly rang my parents to let them know that I just been offered an externship position by the Securities & Exchange Commission. However, when my father answered the phone, his voice made the floor fall out from under me. As I learned what had happened – that my uncle had been shot in the head while he was sitting in his backyard – the structure of 1L, of my daily routine, and of my expectations for the future just crumbled. My aunt and his daughter were fine. My aunt found him. She was finally sleeping when I spoke with my father. There had been no arrest. There was no known motive. Only questions.
There are five stages of grief. “They look different on all of us, but there are always five.” Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. I went through all five that day. I collapsed on the floor. I took something to calm me down. I cried. I ate. I worried. I just wondered. I was helpless. I was told to stay in Washington, DC. To be careful. I felt worthless. At least I had 1L to get me through it? It was a distraction.
The aftermath of death is never pleasant, but murder inserts an unpredictable variable into the equation. Even though my family eventually narrowed who we thought – and still think – perpetrated this horrific act, the million dollar question lingered: why was that person not arrested, walking around with impunity, and probably acting entirely unremorseful?
We learn something during 1L year. With all due respect to my professors, who on the whole were extraordinarily passionate teachers who clearly made an effort to educate us and make 1L as relatively painless and understandable as possible, 1L year is practically useless. Every single question my family asked me – about reasonable doubt, suppression of evidence, police investigatory tactics, criminal process, law in general – I could not answer. I did not know why the evidence we thought the officers had was insufficient to amount to probable cause. I did not know why the police had not yet (publicly) pursued particular courses of conduct. If I was supposed to be the lawyer of the family, the first person from my generation of Bulgarian immigrants on Long Island to go to law school, why was I unable to answer these questions?
I simply had not been taught how to answer them. Democracy & Coercion provided some answers regarding suppression and the circumspection that was guiding the Suffolk County Police (who, I would like to note, apparently conducted themselves remarkably with my family and have our gratitude). But that was it. I think this, perhaps, is one of the greatest failings of the law school model. We are woefully naïve and unprepared to actually practice law if we cannot find extracurricular opportunities to teach us about the nuances of criminal law and procedure. I still cannot tell my family why what happened, happened, and why what has not happened, has not happened.
Last summer, I interned at the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Long Island. When I interviewed with the USAO earlier last year, they asked me why I wanted to work for them. When I turned the question back around and asked them why they work there and why they wanted to be prosecutors, the answer was, “It is about integrity and doing the right thing.” The internship exposed me to day-to-day of the legal practice, and I witnessed several trials and sentencings, the daily and extensive preparation of the attorneys, and the nuances necessary to successfully prosecute or defend a suspect. It was a humbling experience that engendered respect for the challenges facing attorneys tasked with seeking justice. Undoubtedly, it has oriented me toward a career in litigation and criminal law, though whether I end up on the prosecutorial or defense side of the spectrum remains an open question.
The internship, at least, provided me with some comfort. I understand that there is a concern on the part of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office that if they attempted to prosecute the suspected culprit today, reasonable doubt would be difficult to meet. I am not sure what the reasons are; I am completely in the dark regarding the evidence that they have (if any). But having worked with prosecutors, I now know that these decisions are not being made lightly and without consideration of the many interest at stake. The legal profession and the criminal justice system, for all their faults, are admirable and beneficial when practitioners on both sides are committed to the cause of justice in its many forms and act in good faith. I may not know much, but I at least trust in that.
In an ideal world, I would never have had to write this post. But the world is not ideal. As of February 18, 2011, my uncle’s case is one of twenty-nine unsolved murders in Suffolk County.[iii] That is twenty-nine too many. I hope that at least one is solved soon.