By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006
The life of June Marie Jeffries bears endless and final witness to nihilism, violence and despair. She prosecutes people who kill children, the darkest form of murder. She has prosecuted them for more than two decades.
She is an assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia, the specialized cases unit. She could do anything she wants. She chooses child slayings, the thing nobody else wants to touch.
Beaten to death before her second birthday.
Aarius Daniel Cassell?
Seventeen broken ribs. Bleeding optic nerves. Punctured lung. Dead at the age of 53 days.
Glenn Kirschner, chief of the homicide division, a man who looks at dead bodies as part of his trade: "I have a hard time looking at autopsy photos and hearing about the injuries inflicted on children. I'm chief of the division, but I wouldn't want to pick up infant homicides. I'm not the best person for that. June is."
How to believe, how to endure, in such a profession for so long?
One way is, you might believe that now we see through a glass darkly, that we will understand it all better by and by. You might believe that you can walk on through, in sunshine or in shadow, but then you get to this corner of homicide where there is no end to the spiral fractures and subdural hematomas and the calls from the coroner's office saying, you coming down for the autopsy or what? Because you can believe in God or you can be an utter apostate, but they are doing the infant's autopsy in about 15 minutes. That's what you can believe in.
Jeffries, 52, a mother herself, goes to such procedures. For the humanity of it, she says; to see the physical remains of how life was lived, to see how death was caused.
"I don't dream of dead children," she writes in one e-mail. She says she doesn't cry about "my victims."
Jeffries says her real fear is aging to the point where the only thing left in her memory banks will be "reliving autopsies that I attended 50 years earlier." It's a joke. Sort of.
The dead, you know, never quite leave you alone.
* * *
A winter morning, early.
Mianni and Aarius are already gone. There will be more.
DeMarcus Simmons, for instance, is 1 month old at the moment and he is still alive. He will join the others by midsummer, another file in Jeffries's office, another little horror story relegated to Page 4 of the local section. People think child homicide is big news, like Adam Walsh or JonBenet Ramsey (or, locally, Brianna Blackmond), but they're wrong. Six or seven infants, toddlers or children under the age of 10 are killed by adults in the District each year, about 1,500 across the country. Most of them, if they make the news at all, are dispatched with paragraphs as short as their lives.
Which is why Jeffries is walking into Superior Court, the bus station of justice in the District, without the bother of any television cameras out front, to handle yet another child murder. She walks past the judges' names lit up on what looks like a scoreboard in the atrium: rapes, robberies, homicides, break-ins.
Courts are life-numbing at this hour. It is gray, rainy, cold. People walk in with dripping umbrellas. Defendants, who would be dressed up in coats and ties if a jury were present, appear in courtrooms in orange jail uniforms, their hair a mess, for two-minute status hearings. Their faces are slack, the expressions stuck between surly and bored.
Jeffries is soon standing at the podium in the courtroom of Judge Erik Christian. She is a brown-skinned woman with a series of light freckles across her nose, under her eyes. Her short hair is straightened, her eyes a deep brown. She is wearing dark green slacks, a pink and yellow and white blouse. Red lipstick. Once, this thug she was prosecuting wrote her 72 love letters so graphic in detail that they cannot be described outside of an abnormal psych class. This guy, who was white, told her she was the most beautiful colored woman he'd ever seen.
"Clearly, he was at least competent ," she says. " We can't say he was wrong about everything ."
She laughs, full-throated. She kept every single letter the guy sent. Reads them aloud to amuse or horrify guests.
She adores "I Love Lucy" reruns. She has stills from the show and a jar full of Tootsie Rolls and Dubble Bubble gum in her office.
Today she's dropping the prosecutorial hammer on Gregory Whitehead, who beat the aforementioned Mianni Goodine to death. He was the boyfriend of Mianni's mother. He told police he got drunk and then angry that the toddler wet her diaper.
"Blunt impact of torso . . . lacerations of liver and right adrenal gland . . . hemorrhages of lung, bowel and pancreas." Jeffries is reading from her proffer to the court, describing Mianni's fatal injuries.
Whitehead, 22, an 11th-grade dropout from Ballou, is listening impassively. He's maybe 6-3, 6-4. Skinny, a foot taller than Jeffries. Soft-spoken, at least in court. Short dreadlocks.
He's pleading guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter and one count of second-degree cruelty to children.
" . . . a cluster of at least seven curved, linear reddish abrasions on the right lateral chest . . . consistent with having been caused by fingernails."
In the spectators' rows, attorneys wait on cases to be called, reading newspapers or leafing through heavy court files. People come in and wander out a few minutes later. Apparently only one relative of Goodine has bothered to come, a grandmother. The child's mother will come, but be so late that she misses the entire hearing.
Jeffries finishes, her narrative at an end.
Christian, to Whitehead: "Are the facts related by Ms. Jeffries true?"
Plea accepted. Business of the court rolls forward. Whitehead eventually gets nine years, three fewer than what Jeffries sought. He will be a free man by the time Mianni would have been in fourth grade. Nothing is as it should be, and everything is just the way it is.
Jeffries walks out of the courthouse, back into the freezing rain. Steam rises from the grates. You dream of summer, of a beach, of anything a million miles away from the short life and miserable death of Mianni Goodine.Straight Talk
Ask Jeffries how she's doing. "Cool and mellow," she'll say.
Sometimes she refers to women in an offhand manner as "that babe" or "homegirl," and this includes her mom, Bettie Lue, who moved in with her a few years back. Jeffries herself was a single mom. Her only child, Rudy, is in college in Colorado.
Men: "My defendant," "homeboy," "homeslice."
She was so protective of Rudy -- a tall, strong young man -- that even when he was a teenager she wouldn't let him play football, not even when he, everyone in the family and the school's football coach begged her to.
She would, however, let him play hockey.
"June is tricky, she's complicated, she's got an edge, but she's marvelous," says Carla Diggs Smith, a lawyer and friend for the past decade. Still, Smith says, June is June: When Jeffries came over to visit her and her newborn baby, the first thing Jeffries noted was that there were no cords around the crib, so he probably couldn't hang himself. "In that sense, she can be, for lack of a better term, a little crude. But you have to understand her baby cases are an integral part of her life."
If you say something Jeffries doesn't like or doesn't quite understand, the conversational temperature cools by several degrees. She'll look at you straight on. She'll blink and give a toneless reply, something like, "I don't recall saying that," or just, "Well." Looking you in the eye some more.
Not calling you a liar, exactly. But not backing up from much, either.'I'm the Only One for Them'
She grew up in Detroit, that bare-knuckled city of the American dream. This was in the days before the riots, before Motown, when there were neighborhoods where no one lived in apartments and no one's parents got divorced.
Her mother made it up from a small town in the empty ocean of rural Mississippi. She worked as a cashier at the A&P. Her father, Malcolm, up from West Virginia, worked the loading dock at the U.S. Postal Service. The Great Migration, hardworking black people moving up north, a new set of possibilities.
One time, she remembers, a white defense attorney did not appreciate a hard bargain she was driving on a defendant who, as it happened, was poor and black. This lawyer told Jeffries: "You need to suspend your middle-class values."
She worked her way into Detroit's premier public high school, Cass Tech, then went to Wesleyan University, then Georgetown University Law Center. She married a doctor; they had a baby. The romance lasted for a time; the marriage lasted 11 years.
She signed on with the U.S. attorney's office, a line prosecutor, starting out with misdemeanors. She raised Rudy alone. That, she says, was and remains her "real job." She left homicide each night, went home and she and Rudy did multiplication tables. Then she put him to bed and studied murder some more.
She took her first child murder case in the mid-1980s. Baby Gregory, killed by his mother, Winda Cannon. Cannon got probation.
Jeffries, who thought people went to prison for killing defenseless people, was stunned. She kept the infant's picture on her windowsill for years.
"I felt very protective of that child." She is musing in her office, lit by the weak sunlight outside. "It's often as if these kids had no one for them in life. Often, I'm the only one for them in death. That's the difference in [prosecuting] these cases and a lot of homicides, you got no family behind you. A lot of times, the mother is the defendant and the father's not there. The people who come to the hearings are either there for the mother or the father. None of them talks about the dead kid. Like this child [Aarius Cassell] with 17 rib fractures in six weeks of life? No one submitted one single letter or said anything on behalf of the child."The Imponderables
American murder works this way: Something like 90 percent of all killings are carried out with a gun or a knife.
About 75 percent of the victims have some sort of criminal record themselves, and thus are likely to have enemies who are not happy people.
Investigations can be very straightforward: Six bullet holes in the head. Empty shells, known associates, find the gun, catch the killer.
Child cases, sometimes you don't even know it's a killing until the autopsy.
And kids -- here we're talking about boys and girls under the age of 10 -- are primarily dispatched with some blunt object that's never found. No fingerprints. No murder weapon.
Try pushing that big bag of nothing "beyond a reasonable doubt," the standard for criminal convictions. One of the worst cases Jeffries had, back in 1989, was a mother and her 8-year-old daughter beaten to death upstairs in their home. Holly and Kristin Kincaide. The killer, Cullen Byrd, rolled up the mom's body in a comforter, shoved her under the bed, dumped the girl's body in a filled bathtub. Turned up the air conditioning, partied downstairs for three days.
And even then, no murder weapon. (When Jeffries got finished with him, Byrd was doing life in a federal pen in South Carolina. Still is. The judge called him "a pig and a crackhead.")
But that kind of thing, the stranger as the killer, is the oddity. About 90 percent of the time, you're dealing with a killer who is a parent or close relative, which goes against what is expected of human nature, turning the search for motive on its head. Also, there are probably only three or four viable suspects, but it can be almost impossible to prove which one of the people did it, because nobody had a motive and everybody had an opportunity.
Forget calling a witness to the stand. There aren't any.
"They don't beat these kids in front of a crowd. It's not like you get Jo-Jo coming down and saying, 'Yeah, she was punching the kid in the head with a hammer.' "
It adds up to make child homicides among the toughest prosecutions in the trade; jurors just don't want to believe that a parent could beat a child to death, torture him, starve him.
Struck by the horror of it, Jeffries began a slow drift toward specializing in this sub-stream of American homicide.
"A lot of people run around, say, 'I couldn't do [this job].' Well, the fact is, somebody has to. The general public has no idea, and I mean no idea , about the messed-up lives these kids lead until they're dead. The public has no idea about the neglect, the foster homes, the violent acting out, the filth, the mother's boyfriend that abuses them -- the public doesn't know. Doesn't want to know."
But then, there's so much that she doesn't know either. In one of her filings, she mused upon the eternal: "Why would a grown man, over six feet tall, have it in him to beat up on a child not yet 2 years old, fully incapable of provoking life-threatening rage, and fully incapable of defending herself from the same? Why would such behavior be in his heart to begin with? The government has no real answer to that question."The Moment of Truth?
"June is deliberate, thoughtful and methodical," says Superior Court Judge Michael L. Rankin, who, while presiding over the court's criminal division, often saw Jeffries at work. "She's the ultimate professional prosecutor. When you get the level of experience she's achieved, she could have a range of things she could choose from to do, and she chooses to do this. Those [child] cases seem to intrigue and motivate her, and she's very, very good at it."
Jeffries went to conferences. She became a member of the city's Child Fatality Review Committee, sipping coffee, looking over photographs, watching children's bodies being pulled apart on the autopsy table.
That's key, because you catch the killers a lot of the time because they're unfamiliar with the dark arts of the coroner's office. The caretakers will tell you the kid fell and broke that leg, yeah, that's it, then hit its head. But the broken bone will be what's known as a spiral fracture, which shows forceful twisting, not blunt impact, and you know they're trying to save their skin.
She's been working that type of angle for four years on just one case, Daniel "Bulldog" Cassell.
A 10th-grade dropout with a prison record, Cassell went to his mother's house and left his infant son, Aarius, there for a few days in May 2002. Aarius was brought back home to the apartment Cassell was sharing with the boy's mother, Laurehn Brunson, and a female cousin. Everybody said the boy looked fine. Everybody went to work. Cassell was left alone at home with his son.
Thirty minutes later, Aarius was dead.
Cassell, facing first-degree murder charges, told police that his mother, who had beaten him as a child, must have beaten the child over the weekend, and little Aarius died only after he came home.
Cassell's mother died soon thereafter, making it impossible for her to refute the claim.
Jeffries, once she got the autopsy report, didn't buy a word of it. The coroner said Aarius had 17 current and former rib fractures, a punctured lung, contusions and abrasions. Kids in that condition would be in such pain they would scarcely able to draw breath. Had the grandmother inflicted such abuse, it would have been immediately obvious.
It finally comes to a head a few weeks ago.
Cassell walks into court, maybe finally ready to plead guilty -- but only, he says, if he can claim he was negligent to leave the child with his mother, "something like a parent who left a child in a car on a hot day," says public defender Renee Raymond.
He still wants to say he didn't do it. There is a legal step that allows the accused, without admitting they actually committed a crime, to acknowledge that the government could convict them of it. This is called an Alford plea, and that's what Cassell wants.
Brunson, the dead child's mother, is here to watch, but not to see justice done for her dead child.
She wants Cassell to be released.
The pair has had another child while he has been awaiting trial for killing their first baby. He can't really care for this infant, though, because he is under court order not to have unsupervised contact with any children under 12.
Brunson, who believes Cassell rather than the coroner, blames Jeffries.
"Please don't take my love away from me," she writes Judge Christian, referring to Cassell. "We are love buds."
Jeffries is something close to livid.
"Government counsel would say this to Ms. Brunson: If Mr. Cassell did not kill your baby, then you should be able to tell this Court and the government who did," she writes in one motion. "The rib fractures this child had would have been extremely painful to him. The mere act of breathing would have been difficult. Thus, the child's mother (of all people) . . . should have noticed something was wrong."
Finally, Cassell stands before Christian. It's showtime. Cassell seems dazed. He asks the judge to repeat something, saying, "I was in a zone."
Christian looks over at the tall, lanky defendant, handcuffed and in an orange jail jumpsuit. He taps his forehead: "Are you with us today?"
"Yes, sir, I am."
Jeffries starts the case. "The United States of America would prove the following if this matter were to go to trial . . ." She reads the narrative of Aarius's injuries. The few spectators, the lawyers waiting for another trial, stop to listen.
Cassell begins weeping. He turns his head straight up, eyes closed. Tears stain his face. Raymond hands him a tissue.
Finally, Jeffries finishes. Four years since the killing. And now the price to be paid.
Christian asks Cassell if he accepts the deal. It could send him to prison for 15 years.
He's still crying.
"I love my mother. I mean. Yes."
Christian: "You have to do this yourself."
"Yeah. Yes."Life Goes On
Jeffries remarried a few years ago, to a D.C. cop named B.J. Parker. They go to movies, on vacations, grocery shopping, regular life. After years of doing homework with Rudy and taking him to hockey practices, she now talks with him on the phone from college.
She has a little dog, Wizard, whom everyone calls Wizzy.
She has been around enough not to loathe her defendants.
"Most of them could have been like my son or me" had not they been raised in violent circumstances themselves, she has come to think. That doesn't mean she offers them anything like prosecutorial mercy.
Two defense attorneys a couple of years ago were passing time in a court hallway, discussing a new criminal case one of them had gotten.
"So, who's the prosecutor?" one asked the other, as a reporter happened to walk past.
"My God."Once Again
About 3:30 in the morning on June 16, Jeffries's cellphone rang in her home. She recalled a few hours later that she had awoken long enough to decide not to answer it. It rang again an instant later. She picked it up this time, and Carlos V. Hilliard, a homicide detective, told her he had a 5-month-old baby boy, beaten to death.
A few hours later, Jeffries walked into the coroner's office. She put on booties, a mask and an apron. She opened the door to see DeMarcus Malik Simmons, his short life over, already open on the table.
Nice head of hair, the mother in her noted.
The child's great aunt was arrested the next day.
The funeral was hot, muggy and a moment of despair.
The boy's father punches a street sign in front of the church. Th wanga thwanga thwanga, it echoes up and down the empty street.
In front of the altar, the casket is the size and shape of a picnic cooler.
The interment is on a hillside, waves of heat rolling across the grass. The grave waits. There is a breeze, a shadow rolls across those assembled.
Every head bowed, every eye closed. There is no whisper of an answer as to why why why why.A Sustaining Drive
June Jeffries is at her desk, selecting the autopsy pictures to use in the upcoming trial of Gregory Donnel Mobley, a former prison inmate accused of killing his 2-month-old son, Tavonte. The names change, the caseloads do not. Soon DeMarcus's case will fill the folders in her office, the names written on the tabs in felt-tip pen, and then there will be another.
At 52, in a hard job, you learn things, and one of them is that love is not what we were told when we were young.
Sometimes life reveals it to be tender and sustaining. Sometimes it is the kind of love that sustains lost causes and broken dreams. Swing sets in the rain and the love of children who are no longer here.
She closes Tavonte's file, the pictures inside, and looks out the window. It is quiet.
Perhaps it is a form of love, this seeking justice, perhaps even solace, in demanding an accounting for these briefest of lives, by recognizing the flicker of the eternal that these children possessed.
Perhaps that is what sustains and abides in places like this; perhaps there is nothing else.