Friday, June 21, 2019

The Story Behind the Story: “They Tell Me You Are Cunning,” by David Hagerty

(Editor’s note: This is the 84th entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s contribution comes from Northern California author David Hagerty, whose new novel, They Tell Me You Are Cunning, is being released by Evolved Publishing. Inspired by the false convictions of 10 men on Illinois’ death row, Cunning is the subject of the essay below. It’s the fourth entry in Hagertys Duncan Cochrane mystery series, “which chronicles crime and dirty politics in Chicago during his childhood.” The previous installment in that series was 2018’s They Tell Me Your Were Brutal.)

I hung out in jail for seven years.

True, they let me out every night (I was a teacher there, not an inmate), but I still met a lot of convicts.

One in particular struck me, an older guy I’ll call Harry. Harry was probably in his 50s then, though he looked older, with gray hair and a small build. He came off as the most demure, polite person I knew. When he talked to you, he lowered his eyes and dipped his head submissively.

I couldn’t figure what Harry would have done to land in jail, let alone maximum security, where I met him, but I heard that he had an impressive rap sheet going back decades. His cellie once told me that Harry had a Mr. Hyde side that only came out when he drank. Must have, because in the months I worked with him, I only met Dr. Jekyll.

I don’t mean to sound naïve. I also met plenty of guys who needed to be incarcerated, guys whose thinking was so thoroughly criminal that I’d have to tear them down to the foundation and rebuild from there. Guys like Gary Mack, who made his living pimping and boasted about it; or a youngster whose entire family worked in the drug trade. Not everyone could be redeemed.

But I also met a number of guys who didn’t need to be locked up for life, who showed potential beyond hustling and profiling. Some were young and foolish, others had started out on the wrong path and couldn’t find their way back, and a few were possibly innocent.

The cliché about prisoners is that they all claim to be innocent, which I never found to be true. Talk to them long enough and guys will tell you what they did, only they’ll claim it’s not their fault. Their women, their partners, their need to feed the family (my favorite convict trope) pushed them to it.

There was even a vocabulary to their victim complex:

“Catching a case” meant you got arrested on a new charge, but it was phrased in the way most of us refer to catching a cold.

“Getting violated” meant your parole officer arrested you for a violation, but it was usually voiced to imply you’re being railroaded.

Almost daily I heard some version of the following: “My public ‘pretender’ is doing me, trying to get me to plead out to this case. That man wants to give me 10 years. I told him I’m not taking that deal. There’s people up in here killed a body got less time than that.” Yet, this is not what you see on television or in the movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love Orange Is the New Black and Oz. Even Prison Break is a great distraction. But they’re not real. Jail is not that exciting. As I’ve heard said about warfare, it’s 1 percent terror and 99 percent tedium. On television and in most novels, what are emphasized are the fights, the rapes, the schemes, but to me what stuck out was the routine. Your time is divided into tasks: feeding, yard time, linen exchange. Once a week the library shows up to deliver new books, but aside from that, there wasn’t a lot to occupy the mind.

Which is where I came in. I taught inmates to read, write, and calculate better. In most jails and prisons, the majority of inmates couldn’t pass the eighth grade. Not that this alone explains their criminality, but it certainly makes it tough for them to get a job, or even a driver’s license. Truth is, I didn’t care whether or not those prisoners were guilty, only that they preferred my classes to reruns of Jerry Springer.

Which brings me back to Harry. In truth, I don’t know if Harry was innocent in the legal sense. Given his record, I doubt it. But in the biblical sense, Harry was an innocent, a poor, illiterate, homeless soul. So I used him as a model for a character in my latest book, They Tell Me You Are Cunning, the fourth in my Duncan Cochrane mystery series, which is being released this month.

Supporters of the death penalty will tell you that no one has ever been proven innocent after their execution. That may be true, but it’s more true to say that many have been exonerated prior to their executions, especially in my native state of Illinois. There, 13 men were freed from death row after being wrongly convicted. At one point, Illinois had released more men than it executed. That ultimately convinced Governor Pat Quinn to abolish capital punishment in 2011.

(Right) Author David Hagerty

In my books, I also drew inspiration from a couple of true crimes in my hometown. I grew up in Chicago during the 1970s and ’80s, an era of pervasive criminal mischief and political corruption. Those of you who lived through that era will recall John Wayne Gacy, who raped and murdered at least 33 teenaged boys (then buried him under and around his house), and the Tylenol poisonings, which left five people dead in 1982 as a result of cyanide having been injected into their pain medications. You may not recall some of the local criminal dramas, such as when Chicago’s then mayor, Jane Byrne, moved into the city’s most infamous housing project, Cabrini Green, in response to a series of sniper attacks there.

Among these more obscure tales was a police scandal involving Commander Jon Burge, who tortured suspects using electrocution and beatings. His favorite interrogation technique was “bagging,” where he covered the suspect’s head with a typewriter bag until he passed out. Burge lived on a 40-foot boat called The Vigilante and ran a gang of detectives variously known as The A-Team and Midnight Crew. Eventually, he landed in prison too, but not for abusing detainees, since the statute of limitations had run out. Instead, he was found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Following that came the Innocence Project, an investigative journalism program at Northwestern University that freed 10 condemned inmates and contributed to Governor George Ryan’s decision, in 2000, to put a moratorium on the death penalty. Four of the men pardoned by the governor had confessed under questioning by Burge. Now, true to form for Illinois, Ryan also landed in prison for selling commercial driver’s licenses to unqualified truckers, but no one has claimed a connection between his forgiveness for killers and his own misdeeds.

When I decided to adapt those two stories into a single novel, I needed a way to tie in my leading man, Duncan Cochrane, a law-and-order governor who (much like Ryan) left office in disgrace. I wanted to give him a reason to care, a personal connection to the crime.

I found it in my character Harry, a down-and-out alcoholic who’s convicted of killing an elderly couple during a routine robbery. Advocates claim that Harry, who was arrested and sentenced during Duncan’s term of office, is the victim of police abuse.

Reluctantly, Duncan starts to investigate, and he finds a case as shaky as his own reputation. His only option is to re-enter the body politic and urge others to atone for his mistakes. Along the way, he runs afoul of several other Chicago luminaries, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, reporters working for Rupert Murdoch, and a host of politicians and cops who do not want to hear from their deposed boss.

Like all of the books in my series, They Tell Me You Are Cunning mixes true crimes with dirty politics, Chicago style. Even decades removed from Prohibition and Al Capone, the Second City retains its criminal character.

READ MORE:Shout Out: David Hagerty, Novelist from the North Shore,” by Daniel I. Dorfman (Chicago Tribune).

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