His wrists chained together, the man in the orange jumpsuit struggled to unfold a single, heavily wrinkled piece of paper.
He turned from the defendant’s table back to the gallery of the courtroom so he could look me in the eye.
And then the man who five months earlier busted through my family’s basement door and made his way through almost every room, cabinet and drawer in the house said this:
“I want to extend my apologies to you, sir. I can’t create enough words to describe how ashamed I am.”
Rodney Knight pleaded guilty to burglarizing my house last December, as well as to possessing a loaded 9mm pistol without a license when D.C. police caught up with him a month later. In D.C. Superior Court early this month, with Judge Anthony Epstein about to pass down Knight’s sentence, the burglar asked me to forgive him.
But whether I cared to accept our burglar’s apology hardly mattered. The criminal justice system — from the cops to the prosecutors to the judge — had already given him plenty of breaks.
The police, who responded with startling speed and numbers to our initial 911 call, made it clear from the get-go that although they’d love to catch our crook, burglaries — and property crimes in general — just aren’t taken seriously. The system was too overwhelmed by more serious offenses. Sure, they’d dust for fingerprints, but even as they did so, they told us that no one would ever look at them.
The prosecutor, who worked hard to bring a case against the burglar, nonetheless aggressively angled to cut a deal with him, offering to dismiss half the charges in exchange for a guilty plea. The primary goal was to avoid a trial, even though our case arguably had some remarkably damning evidence: a photo of the criminal, holding (and wearing) the stolen goods, taken just after the burglary and posted on Facebook for all the world to see.
Knight’s defense counsel, Joel Davidson, asked the judge to go easy on his client. “He’s really had a fairly minimal criminal history,” the lawyer said of a 19-year-old who had already been arrested seven times, faced criminal charges in Virginia, New York and the District, and skipped out on court appearances twice — and that’s not even counting his juvenile record.
The prosecutor didn’t disagree. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Lewis offered praise for Knight’s cooperation and thanks to the burglar’s girlfriend and family for their support and presence in court. (“If we’re ever going to make a difference in crime in this city,” Lewis explained later, “we need to win the trust and support of people like this family.”)
Then Epstein, after assuring me that “I take property crimes very seriously,” sentenced Knight — who before the plea bargain faced up to 15 years in prison — to a term of 31 / 2 years: 27 months for the burglary and 17 months for the weapons offense.
That, everyone involved told me, is an unusually stiff sentence “for a burglary.” It is a significant punishment, but listen again to what the police and lawyers were really saying: Even a relatively modest prison term is unusual for a property crime.
House burglaries and thefts from cars are among the nation’s most common crimes — the main window most Americans have on the justice system. When the system treats such cases as nuisances, it breeds the cynicism that too many of us have about justice in this country.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In a study by the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department’s research agency, the collection of DNA evidence at burglary scenes resulted in more than a doubling of arrests and prosecutions. The study concluded that police and prosecutors could make a huge dent in property crimes if they took them more seriously.
But there’s a flip side: Treating burglary as an offense every bit as corrosive of personal security as an assault could overwhelm an already stressed system. The Justice study concluded that it would cost on average about $20,000 per burglary to collect DNA evidence and identify and arrest a suspect. That doesn’t begin to account for the cost of convicting and punishing those burglars.
Still, how do you quantify the benefit if substantially more of the 2 million burglaries reported each year are solved? Taking more burglars off the streets would reduce the incidence of violent crimes — federal research indicates that many burglars progress up the crime ladder — and rebuild public confidence in the justice system.
In our burglary, Knight probably got a longer-than-usual sentence because of the bizarre twist to his crime. At the sentencing, he claimed that the burglary was almost accidental: “I was homeless, hungry and lost. I was wandering around. I knocked on your door. I was attempting to ask for help. And then it just happened.”
Well, sort of. If Knight’s invasion of our house wasn’t planned, it surely was more than a fleeting impulse. We know this because within two hours after he took my son’s computer and cash, as well as my new winter coat, Knight used my son’s laptop to take a photo of himself wearing my coat and holding my son’s money. The burglar also wore a satisfied, gloating grin.
Then he posted that picture on my son’s Facebook account. The gall and stupidity wrapped up in that act made our case something of a sensation. Newspapers, Web sites and TV stations from New Delhi to New England carried the story after I wrote a column about the burglary. Before D.C. police even assigned a detective, more than 150 news outlets had published the burglar’s photo.
But while Knight’s face went viral, the authorities made it clear that they had bigger fish to fry. As one officer put it to me, “We do not have the resources to take this kind of crime seriously.”
He was just being honest. While property crimes are some of the most common felonies, they are also the least seriously pursued — and that goes for affluent suburbs as well as crime-ridden cities across the country. Nationwide, according to FBI data, police solved only 12 percent of burglaries in 2009. In big cities such as Washington, the closure rate is about half that.
The officers’ frank statements did not sit well with their bosses. Even before the police took the first step to find the burglar, I got a call from a lieutenant asking me to identify the officers who were anonymously quoted in my column saying that burglaries were not high-priority cases.
“We need to know who’s saying these things because it’s just not right,” the lieutenant said. I decided to reward the officers’ honesty by not divulging their names. Despite protestations from the brass, what happened next proved the officers’ point.
It took the D.C. police four days to assign a detective to the case — even though Facebook investigators could have given them the burglar’s name and address on Day One. Eventually, a crackerjack detective with a strong interest in social-media-related crime, Kimberly Metivier, took over and gave the case far more attention than most burglaries get. (Yes, the police saw my column, so it’s fair to assume we may have gotten more attention than many other crime victims do.)
Once the case moved to the prosecutors, the push for a plea bargain was routine, regardless of the evidence. In the logic of the courthouse, it would have been nutty to go to trial on the original, more serious charges. Trials take time and money. If a prosecutor can get the bad guy to plead guilty to something, that’s considered a victory.
In his statement at the sentencing, Knight said that “even though property was taken, no one was harmed.”
That was too much for the judge. “This wasn’t just a crime against property,” he told the burglar. “This was a crime against people. Young men in Mr. Knight’s position need to understand that if they make the choices Mr. Knight has made, the consequences will be serious.”
That would be heartening, if true. But before the system can start issuing such consequences, everyone from police to prosecutors to judges would have to equate an invasion of someone’s home with a violent physical assault. Although one crime leaves visible bruises, those heal. Both kinds of invasions, however, create lasting wounds of a deeper kind: They melt away security and erase trust.
Property crimes are often relatively easy to solve, with the right resources. All we lack is the will to take them seriously.
Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post.