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David Simon's The Wire glorified real-life detectives whose cases are falling apart

  • HBO's The Wire and NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, based on Simon's 1991 book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, immortalized Baltimore's "murder police" — an expletive-spewing, gallows-humored brotherhood of homicide detectives. But a number of those homicide detectives have "coerced witnesses (including children), fabricated evidence, ignored alternative suspects, and buried all of that information deep in their files," according to ex-convicts exonerated for their crimes and their attorneys. "Since 1989, 25 men convicted of murder in Baltimore have been exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Official misconduct was present in 22 of the cases," reports Lara Bazelon, in a story written for New York Magazine and the Garrison Project, an independent, nonpartisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing. As Bazelon recounts, "At 7:45 p.m. on December 27, 1986, Faheem Ali was shot dead in the streets of Baltimore. No physical evidence tied anyone to the killing, and no eyewitnesses immediately came forward. But Baltimore homicide detectives Thomas Pellegrini, Richard Fahlteich, and Oscar 'The Bunk' Requer were not going to give up easily. Requer was later immortalized as a central character in David Simon’s iconic HBO series The Wire. As Simon wrote in the afterword for his acclaimed 1991 nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, Requer 'lives on in Wendell Pierce’s portrayal of the legendary Bunk Moreland on The Wire, right down to the ubiquitous cigar.' Pellegrini, meanwhile, was the jumping-off point for Detective Tim Bayliss, a character in the long-running television show Homicide: Life on the Street, which was inspired by Simon’s book. Requer and Pellegrini are among a constellation of Baltimore Police Department officers who have, through Simon’s work, defined what it means to be a homicide detective in the popular imagination — and whose biggest cases are starting to fall apart or have been overturned. Determined to find out who killed Faheem Ali, Pellegrini, Fahlteich, and Requer homed in on 12-year-old Otis Robinson, who was outside when the shooting happened. They allegedly brought Robinson and his mother to the police station and separated them, questioning the seventh-grader alone. Robinson told the detectives that when he left his house to go to the corner store, he saw a few men across the street in conversation, though he didn’t notice much in the dark. As he continued walking toward the store, he heard a gunshot and fled. Even though Robinson insisted he could not identify a shooter, the detectives showed him an array of photos, including one of Gary Washington, a 25-year-old Black man, according to a lawsuit Washington filed against the city and the detectives in 2019. Robinson knew Washington, but he made clear that he did not see who shot Ali. The detectives wrote down this statement. Then, according to the lawsuit, the questioning took a turn. 'Cooperate,' the detectives allegedly told the 12-year-old, 'or you’ll never see your mother again.' Unless Robinson identified the shooter, the officers allegedly continued, he could be charged with homicide. Robinson 'crumbled under the pressure' of threats from the detectives, according to the lawsuit, and signed a second statement falsely identifying Washington as the shooter. His first statement was never turned over to prosecutors or defense attorneys for Washington. (Attorneys for the defendants have denied liability in court pleadings but declined to comment, stating that they were 'constrained to speak only through the judicial process.') Robinson recanted his testimony in 1996 to an investigator for Washington. He did the same in court in 1999 and again in 2017, explaining he had been strong-armed by detectives. In 2018, a judge overturned Washington’s conviction. In 2019, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against him. Lauren Lipscomb, the deputy state’s attorney who oversees both the Conviction Integrity Unit and Police Integrity Unit, stated, 'We respect the finding of the judge who found Robinson’s recantation credible. Evidence insufficiency is not the same as factual innocence and evidence insufficiency is the reason we dismissed. Washington, now 57, walked free. He spent more than three decades in prison. Whether the detectives who put him there will face any repercussions remains to be seen." Asked to respond, Simon points out that his follow-up book to Homicide, The Corner, takes the point of view of those ”being policed and hunted” during the height of the war on drugs. (Simon turned The Corner into an Emmy-winning HBO miniseries in 2000.) He also notes that The Wire provides a kaleidoscope of perspectives from beautifully drawn characters, including cops who are blatantly violent and racist, which is central to why the show was groundbreaking and beloved by so many. “I believe in writing from the point of view of characters as a function of embedded narrative,” Simon said. “This doesn’t mean you don’t include the bad with the good, or change outcomes, but it does demand that you do your job and deliver the worldview of your protagonists for all to see.” Simon said that in both Homicide and The Corner, “the same process of empathetic embedding was employed regardless of where I stood.” Meanwhile, Simon's next HBO series, We Own This City, will tackle Baltimore police corruption.

    TOPICS: The Wire, HBO, Homicide: Life on the Street, David Simon, Wendell Pierce, Retro TV