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Chip Drago
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Yesterday's criminals colorful,
today's young and deadly dull

(The following article appears here courtesy of the Press-Register where it was first published in a slightly different form. © 2008 Press-Register)

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Yesterday's criminals took more care and had more purpose than today's younger, more violent strain, according to a number of well-seasoned cogs in the Mobile Bay area's criminal justice wheel.

The outlaws of the 1960's and 70's and into the 80's generally were more colorful and varied, had more flash and panache; whereas the modern era's version are deadly dull, bland and, for all their rote tough talk and dance-by-the-numbers swagger, just assembly-line bad guys, one after another. Of course, they compensate for their lack of individuality, wit and charm with a willingness to main and kill.

"No question they (criminals) have changed," said longtime criminal defense attorney Rick Yelverton. "There used to be sexy cases, especially in Mobile. Now, it's just the thug and the drug."

A veteran prosecutor agreed that times have changed and so have the criminals. Today's criminals exhibit an attitude that suggests a personal conflict with authorities and an anger that's either visible or just a breath away, he said. Those less experienced in law enforcement could easily mistake the churlishness for stupidity, and at times they are virtually indistinguishable to all but the experts, he noted. It is as if the goal is not money, sex, weapons or contraband, but confrontation itself.

"Back in the day, criminals tried to stay under the radar," the prosecutor said. "Their personality was: 'I don't want to do anything violent. I don't want anybody to know what I'm doing.' Now you've got punks out there robbing who are a completely different breed of cat than the old con men ripping off banks and insurance companies." 

Our sources for this article included judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, in several cases with experience in two and even all three roles, as well as cops, sheriff's deputies and probation officers. Some requested anonymity in exchange for their forthright views because their honest opinion, expressed publicly could complicate their lives.

One judge said he hated to wax nostalgic about the neat bad ol' guys in the good ol' days, but the logic and civility that once permeated criminal activity are broken parts of the gyroscope in the criminal world now.  

"I used to represent a guy who was a criminal, a pretty good criminal," he said. "Of course, he kept getting caught, so maybe he wasn't all that good. But you could always tell he put a lot of thought in what he was doing. Odd to say, but he had pride and self-respect. He was a criminal but he wanted to be a successful criminal.

"Now you see random shootings, violence. I'm not saying drug dealers today don't know what they're doing or don't bring energy to the undertaking, but there's just so much random, pointless, mostly crazy stuff."

Burglars and con men with a light touch have given way to the heavy hands of armed thugs. The thug and the drug. But nowadays, always, too, the gun.

Another judge with more than 30 years in criminal law here agreed with others that "the culture of crime has completely changed."

"The great majority of it is now drug related in some way or another ... and back then, there were varying underlying causes:  greed, or the lure of easy money, pure meanness, or cunning planning," the judge said. "There used to be a lot more white collar criminal prosecutions, and now they are few and far between. I don't think it's because there is less white collar crime, but the drug/gun/sex crimes overwhelm the ability of investigators and prosecutors to do much of anything else.

"The racial make-up of defendants has gone from more or less reflecting the area's racial population make-up, to being largely African American ... due in large part to the 'gangsta' culture and the almost total breakdown of the traditional family unit among poor blacks. The two areas where the defendants are largely Caucasian are methamphetamine cases, and computer child porn cases.

"I do find the defendants (these days) a lot less colorful characters and way more dangerous to the general public."

Asked about the modern "class" of criminals in comparison to their predecessors, a Baldwin County judge responded, "... our current criminal defendants have grown in number, are angrier, and have scored lower on the IQ exam than previous classes."

Longtime defense lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Billy Kimbrough offered a dissenting view, saying he had not noticed much change in criminals over the years.

Again, against the grain, Kimbrough said white-collar crime seemed to be rising based on his clientele in recent years.

"...  but it may be that those defendants (in the past) were hiring (Tom) Haas, Bubba (Marsal) or Barry (Hess)," Kimbrough allowed.

At 81, Haas takes a backseat to no one in the breadth of his experience with the Mobile area's criminal culture.

"The biggest change is there's a lot more drug cases," said Haas. "And even the cases where the defendant is not charged with a a drug offense, the crime is caused by a person who has an involvement with drugs. Slowly but surely, more and more of the percentage of arrests that are made have to do with drugs."

"If I had to put my finger on other changes, there are a lot more women getting charged than there used to be. I'd also say the average person I represent is a little younger than he used to be. The three things would be younger, more drugs involved and a larger percentage of women."

Even the world's oldest profession has an ugly new wrinkle because of drugs, according to Haas.

"Now most of the prostitutes are prostitutes because they're addicted to drugs and need the money for that," Haas said. "You see the mugshots nowadays and the young ones even look just terrible. Years ago, we had nice-looking call girls and prostitutes. We really did. Some got arrested and some never got caught. Some are housewives and grandmothers. Some of those wild, tempestuous youths settle down as time goes by. Father Time and Mother Nature do most of the changing."

The addictive power of today's leading illegal drugs -- crack cocaine and methamphetamine -- so dominate the user's life that he or she is incapable of even minimal productivity.

"The more dangerous the drug like crack cocaine and crystal meth, if people are doing that, they can't carry on any kind business, even the business of selling it," Haas said. "Very few successful, longtime crack dealers use crack. Some of them smoke pot. They're well aware that they're selling a dangerous drug and they don't want to get hooked on it. If we concentrated on getting rid of them, we could make a big dent in the crack trade. That's probably true everywhere."       

The judge said that was a significant change in the criminal culture from days past -- the criminal's conscious decision to pursue a crime as an easier and more profitable career than selling shoes for Penney's or doing tune-ups at Wally's Garage.

"In the 70's when I was first involved in defense work, first exposed to the criminal justice system, my experience was that many of the defendants were criminals by trade. They did it as a business. They decided to be a criminal. They planned out what they did. They put some thought into it.

"Oftentimes, more frequently than not, that class of criminal was intent on NOT harming another. They knew if they used a weapon the consequences were more dire for them. Also, they accepted the risk of being caught as the price doing business. As long as they were caught fair and square, they didn't have much squabble about it.

"In contrast my exposure from the bench now, there are few of those of that type of criminal element that I see. Now I'm as likely to see meaningless random violent criminal acts."

"And far more than in the 70's by contrast, oh, gosh, I don't know, the medium age has got be far, far lower in a typical profile: 19, 20, 21, 22-year-old dropped out of high school as soon as he could, 16. No employment history. No military history. Very sketchy family history. Acknowledge that they have children. It seems like the population is expanding. It seems like there are just more and more of them. I can't draw any racial lines. It's all races or mostly both primary races."

A veteran police officer said, "the most disturbing change that has occurred is the propensity of an increasingly younger body of offenders to engage in violence. Not just violence to accomplish the goals of a particular criminal act, but violence for the sake of violence.

"Along with the increased willingness to engage in brutal acts is the alarming trend in the possession and use of assault type firearms. Where in times past relatively few rounds were fired during robberies or gun assaults, it is not uncommon for scores of rounds to be fired by a perpetrator during a single incident often resulting in injury to bystanders or damage to property."

From about 1990 until recently violent crime was dropping both locally and nationally, he said. Even with the dip, the age of the violent offenders was dropping while their use of weapons was rising, he added.

"Unfortunately, violent crime is on the upswing again," he said.

He called violence "the Gordian Knot of social issues."

Focusing on guns and criminals in possession of guns remains a solid strategy, he said. Technology and inter-agency cooperation are crucial to law enforcement's ability "to keep Mobile a safe place to live and work," he said.

A veteran judge/prosecutor/occasional defense lawyer said he has observed a "... tremendous rise in drug-related
cases. Additionally and certainly no less noticeable is the violent criminal getting younger and younger. The vast majority of the teen criminals, and maybe those who aren't criminal, are carrying guns, some are high-powered weapons. I frankly could go on and on ..."
 
How we got from there to here is the story of drugs, said another longtime defense lawyer.

His account goes:

"In the eighties the import of powder cocaine shifted from South Florida to the Gulf Coast. There were large amounts
of cash and coke flowing into the area and many high profile conspiracy, trafficking cases tried in federal court. The defendants were backed by the Colombian drug cartels and had the resources to hire high-powered defense lawyers. Then the laws became more strict; the government started seizing bank accounts and lawyer fees; the harsh sentencing
guidelines encouraged defendants to cooperate with the government and testify against their co-defendants.

"Then crack cocaine came to the area. It was cheap, highly addictive and the effects did not last long. Consequently, you had thousands of low level dealers and addicts who would steal and rob anything or anyone to get money to satisfy their addiction.

"Now, crack has been replaced or supplemented by methamphetimine. Anyone who can surf the internet can learn how to build a meth lab. It is highly addictive, very destructive to the body and very dangerous to produce. Meth addicts lose everything that they own or care about in a short period of time -- their jobs, their homes, their families and often their lives.

"It used to take law enforcement officers months and
sometimes years to infiltrate the cocaine pipeline, now all they have to do is take a ride through the trailer parks and low income subdivisions, make cursory observations and they will find meth labs and make as many arrests as they want to make, or simply wait for a call from a WalMart or K-Mart employee to tell them that some bonehead tweaker with no teeth and scabs all over his body tried to buy 50 boxes of Sudafed and 100 batteries.

"That is what I see as the majority criminal class today.

"Of course, we can be thankful for the increase in enforcement of the D.U.I. and domestic violence laws. They bring us the higher class of criminals -- the lawyers, doctors, bankers and soccer moms."

Gordon Armstrong, a 20-year defense attorney, said he saw the criminal scene as variations on a theme, a dance to the music of time.

"Two weeks after passing the bar in 1989, I tried a murder case in which a woman stabbed her abusive husband in the back with a steak knife as he tried to run away from her down a flight of stairs. Shortly thereafter, I tried the case of the "Mardi Gras Brick Thrower," as it became known, which involved teenagers and random violence. The Gucci "dog burning" case also involved juveniles. Also in my early years, I tried the murder trial of the man accused of killing a Mobile abortion doctor as he left a downtown X-rated
movie theater for the purpose of robbery. Add to that mix scores of drug cases and violent crimes criminal defense lawyers called 'dude-icides,' there seemed to be no less reprehensible crimes being committed in those days in the varying classifications of crimes such as domestic violence,
street crimes, juveniles, drugs and drug-related violence.

"I see the same people with the same backgrounds and the same stories today as I saw then. Most crime is committed by young people, and as they age or are sent to prison, there seems no lack of more young people 'coming of age' to take their place.

"However, one noticeable difference -- in my practice -- is more white rural drug offenders involved with manufacture and use of methamphetamine. The meth problem was non-existent when I first started."

One note sounds true over the years with legacy lawyer John Brutkiewicz: his criminal clients are more grateful for his efforts than the civil ones.

"I'm sure that others will tell you of changes, but to me one thing remains a constant: criminal clients as a whole are the most appreciative clients I have," said Brutkiewicz whose father and brother also represent criminal defendants going back to the 1950's.

Upper crust favoritism has also taken a hit, he said.

"Twenty three years ago the upper class minors were less likely to be prosecuted for alcohol related offenses," he said.

A lawyer with more than a quarter of a century in juvenile court said the rising trend there "is the vastly increased number of cases that involve serious mental health issues.  I cannot pinpoint the cause, but this is a consideration in many, if not most, of the juvenile delinquency cases we hear."
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