12 November 2010

"Gone But Not Forgotten"

By Curtis C. Chen

The first time I met Detective Shawna Burgeson, I made the mistake of asking if she'd ever played basketball. I was young and stupid then. I make much more subtle mistakes nowadays.

"Okay, I'm here," I said, walking across the Marina District garage to Burgeson, who was standing next to a black-and-white. "Now what couldn't you tell me over the phone?"

Burgeson pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and unfolded it. "I didn't think you'd believe it unless you saw it for yourself. This is the suspect identified by a witness to a convenience store holdup on Polk early this morning."

She handed me the paper. It was a printout from the department's composite sketch software, showing a crude image of a woman in her thirties. Dark hair fell past her neck in grayscale ribbons. Solid black eyes peered at me over a pointed nose and round chin.

My brain recognized her before I could tell it not to. It was Debra. She'd been dead for over a year. I had watched her bleed out on the ground.

"Okay," I said, "is this the part where I'm supposed to be shocked that this looks like my dead partner?"

"I wanted you to see for yourself," Burgeson said. "Harry did the composite with our witness. He didn't know Sorkowitz. He couldn't have influenced the witness in any way."

"This could be anybody," I said. "That crappy composite program is at least ten years old, and it doesn't have enough different facial features. We know Debra's dead, so it can't be her. Why are you wasting my time?"

Burgeson folded the paper and put it away. "Calm down, Griff."

"I am calm!"

"No, you're not!" She pointed a finger at me. "Just shut up and listen. I didn't want to believe it, either, so I walked the witness through a photo array." A photo array is an identification line-up using mugshots instead of live people. It's a lot faster and easier than doing a live line-up, and because human brains are wired to recognize faces, it's usually just as reliable. "He picked Sorkowitz out of an entire photo book."

"Then you got a false positive," I said. "Is this all you wanted to show me? 'cause I've got roll call in a few minutes."

"We had to put together the photo array pretty quickly," Burgeson said. "The only picture I could find of Sorkowitz was a publicity photo of her in uniform." She paused to let that sink in. "Our witness saw that, and he still picked her. What kind of idiot accuses a cop if he's not absolutely sure?"

"We got a lot of idiots in this city."

"I just wanted you to hear it from me before people started talking."

"Thanks for nothing." I turned and walked away.

"I'll let you know what we find out!" she called after me.

I kept my back to Burgeson all the way to the elevator. I was glad she couldn't see me starting to cry.


Photo: SFPD Crown Vic by Todd Lappin, May, 2006