This is the ninth of ten stories Storyboard will post from a new collection honoring Michael Brick [see our 5 Questions on the project], each featuring an introduction by a writer who loved his work. Today’s entry is introduced by Charles P. Pierce.
Of all the things about reporting and writing that technology has changed, deadline writing is one of the few things that it has intensified rather than destroyed. Writing well and writing fast always has been part of the job. (In fact, it’s one of my favorite parts.) But the acceleration caused by the new technologies has produced a culture within journalism in which you’re never not on deadline. Baseball writers have to do blog posts during the game. Reporters covering political campaigns have to tweet from every gelid cornfield in Iowa. It used to be that you were on deadline, and then you weren’t. There is no such thing as being off deadline anymore.
Look at what Michael Brick does here, in his account of the sentencing of a murder suspect in a courthouse in the Bronx. You can smell the crowded humanity of the gallery and the aroma of decades of old varnish on the wood. You can hear a man’s life being lost, without parole, in the shuffling of papers. And then there’s this, about the convicted man, which is pure Brick.
“With his long legs stretched out to cross at the ankles, his gaze like a vacant lot…”
Writing well and writing fast always has been what newspaper reporters have for poetry. If I had to guess, and if he was anything like me, I’d say Brick didn’t know how good that passage was until he saw it in the newspaper. The deadline is a muse well-camouflaged. You just have to listen very closely for her song because, goddamn, it passes quickly.
—Charles P. Pierce
Life Without Parole for Killer of a Police Officer
The New York Times, November 9, 2007
DATELINE: Brooklyn, New York
With his long legs stretched out to cross at the ankles, his gaze like a vacant lot, Allan Cameron was sentenced yesterday to life in prison with no chance of parole for murdering a police officer during a midnight car chase through the streets of Flatbush.
Mr. Cameron, 29, protested his fate.
”The only thing I’m guilty of today, Your Honor,” he told the judge just before the sentence was handed down, ”is being young, black and poor.”
But a jury had found differently. In the predawn hours of Nov. 28, 2005, prosecutors said, Mr. Cameron ran a stoplight in his red Infiniti. He was on probation for running from the police, wanted on assault charges and carrying a 9-millimeter handgun.
His traffic violation drew the attention of Officer Dillon Stewart, 35, prosecutors said. A high-speed chase described a rough rectangle around the neighborhood. The cars screeched to a sidelong stop. There were six shots. Officer Stewart was struck through the heart as he sat in the driver’s seat; he was dead within hours.
No one save perhaps Officer Stewart saw the gunman’s face. But with a wealth of forensic evidence, Mr. Cameron was convicted of first-degree murder. Uniformed officers filled the courtroom for his trial, stared him down and applauded a ruling that did not go his way.
When his time of reckoning came, the officers returned. This time they filled an outsized ceremonial courtroom in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn past its capacity of 164 and spilled into the hallway.
TV reporters watched from the padded swivel chairs of the jury box. Mr. Cameron’s family watched from the second row of the gallery. His defense lawyers told them to hold out hope for a successful appeal.
Justice Albert Tomei surveyed the courtroom with his customary frown.
”I don’t want any clapping, I don’t want any screaming—anything,” he said. ”I’m going to do this in a dignified manner.”
Mr. Cameron, in a black suit, was led into the courtroom. His handcuffs were left in place.
Officer Stewart’s relatives watched from the center of the gallery. They wore funeral clothes. His sister, Sheryl Campbell-Julien, spoke of the night he was killed.
”I dreamt that the skies opened up and out came a beam of light and through the light the voice of my brother saying, ‘I love you,”’ she told the court. Reading through tears from a composition book, she told of praying for his life, of lost plans to watch their children grow together and of ”a void in my heart.”
Their mother, Winifred Fleming, spoke of ”a thousand things I wish I had said to him when he was here.”
And his widow, Leslyn Stewart, loudly and forcefully asked for the maximum penalty, repeating over and over ”life without parole.”
”It is not how he died but how he lived,” she said, ”that made him a true hero.”
A lawyer for Mr. Cameron, John Burke, offered condolences to the Stewart family. He asked for a lesser term, arguing that the killing had not been premeditated.
He spoke of the nation’s world-beating incarceration rates and the city’s tactics against petty crime, which can lead to confrontations between officers and civilians.
Then Mr. Cameron stood and protested the jury’s verdict. As he spoke, he seemed unable to pronounce the victim’s name.
”I’m very sorry for your losses,” he said, ”but I did not have anything to do with Officer Stew—Officer Stroh’s death, and the truth is going to come out one of these days.” His lawyer suggested at the trial that the fatal shot could have been fired by another officer during the chase.
Saying that the denial had betrayed a lack of remorse, Justice Tomei prescribed the maximum penalty. He spoke of a century’s progress in science, lamenting that ”when it comes to humanity and the way we treat each other, we are still in the dark ages.”
”Hopefully one day we as humanity will emerge from the darkness,” Justice Tomei said, ”and we will not see the likes of Allan Cameron and his ilk praying at the altar of violence and killing machines.”
Outside, there was applause. The uniformed officers descended the escalators, an uninterrupted stream of royal blue, back to the streets of Brooklyn and the coming night.