The docket at the Criminal Division of the Kings County Supreme Court is actually pair of scrolling blue computer screens, the kind you might see at an Off-Track Betting site. They list all the Court’s ongoing cases–without reference to the alleged crime–in a long slow loop, in a tight little hallway between the elevators and the sunny security checkpoint in the lobby. If you miss your case, you have to wait for it to come around again.
Not having a case to miss, fellow Metrosection courthouse reporter Aidan and I picked the defendant with the most interesting name. “Jacques Dorcinvil.” Barring extraordinary circumstances, all the criminal cases are open–once you’re through the metal detectors you can go to any one you want. We went up to the 15th floor.
I had been expecting a sad little shoplifting or vandalism case: an empty courtroom, a public defender overwhelmed by his caseload, a trial going through the procedural motions. Instead, the first thing we got was a discussion of whether a pool of blood could obscure fingerprints on the handle of a kitchen knife. I passed a note to Aidan: “We picked a real winner here.”
Jacques Dorcinvil, 33, stands accused, in the case we were watching, of murdering his then-girlfriend Claudette Marcellus outside her apartment at 2665 Bedford Avenue. It turns out—though we didn’t know it at the time—that he’s also accused of slashing the throat of Marcellus’ 12-year-old son, and of murdering another girlfriend, in 2003. A Haitian national, he was arrested last year in Miami, at the Haitian consulate, trying to secure passage out of the United States.
He seemed nice enough, though, slouched next to his attorney, his wispy goatee graying before its time. Everyone seemed nice, actually. When the ADA called the only witness we saw testify in full, she treated her like an old friend. When Dorcinvil’s lawyer raised objections, the judge would smile, looking genially stumped: “Hm…yeah…sustained,” or “er…no…I’ll allow it.”
That witness we saw was named Nancy Palermo, a young-looking Hispanic detective, and twelve-year veteran of the force. She was obviously an old hand at trials like this, and had obviously worked with this ADA, a dumpy woman in her fifties, before. She robotically denied that her job had anything in common with the show CSI (“no, absolutely not”), and explained how police investigators look for evidence, emphasizing that it was done without a suspect in mind.
They hit a rhythm with these opening exchanges, so much so that the judge saw fit to place a phone call, talking for a good five minutes under the testimony. No one seemed to mind.
Eventually the questions started to focus on the case at hand. Palermo and her partner had arrived at the scene and found a woman’s body outside the apartment building. Her feet were under a parked car. She was wearing only a nightgown, which had been rolled up above her waist. There was blood everywhere. They spent 14 hours at the scene.
They had recovered the murder weapon, a 10-inch kitchen knife, covered in blood. Then a repeat of the exchange on fingerprints. There weren’t any on the knife. “But it’s possible that all that blood would mean that no fingerprints would be recoverable.” The ADA had her explain the different types of fingerprints: latent prints you can see with the naked eye, painted prints you have to dust to see. It didn’t seem relevant. There weren’t any prints on the knife.
The ADA finished the questioning by having Palermo display and identify the knife. People’s Evidence #15 (The knife must have been displayed before. By the time we got there the people were on their 33rd piece of evidence.) It still didn’t seem relevant, but it was impressive, the sort of thing you think only happens on TV dramas.
The whole thing was dramatic, actually. For all its collegiality, it was still a murder trial. Watching it, it didn’t really matter that the jury seemed bored, or that the case had barely made the papers. This detective on the stand had spent fourteen hours examining blood-soaked lobby and sidewalk, and the ADA was a professional at getting her to describe what she’d found. There was the bloody knife, a trail of bloody fingerprints leading back to the victims apartment, a mass of clothes lying down in the lobby. And coat-hangers. “There was blood on those items?”
The question didn’t feel procedural. “Yes.”
The cross-examination was quick. Dorcinvil’s lawyer got up, leaving his briefcase open. You could see his Burberry umbrella sticking out. He started with soft questions, like he was trying to apologize to the jury for what he was going to try to do to this detective. She was nice; you could tell they liked her. They smiled when she did.
He went after her credibility, focusing on the fact that her partner, not her, had actually led the crime-scene investigation, and that she hadn’t actually signed any of the reports. It was weak, but I don’t think he’d have got much out of her. And it couldn’t have helped to go after her too hard.
As soon as he was done, the judge turned to the jury. That was it. “I told you I’d get you out of here before lunch, didn’t I?”
Dorcinvil got up. It didn’t seem like it’d been a particularly good or bad day. Looking like it was a habit by now, he put his hands behind his back; the bailiff handcuffed him. He turned and mouthed something to a woman leaving the gallery, and wiggled his fingers. The bailiff picked up his papers and a hardcover book and put them in his hands.
After Judge D’Emic adjourned the days proceedings, we left the courtroom to whatever documents and records we could. Every trial, criminal or civil, leaves a paper trail that touches on every aspect of the case. If you know who to ask you can read every court transcript, filing, motion, and complaint.
On the elevator down to public records on the 13th floor, a man poked fun at a security guard carrying an electric fan. “That thing looks fantastic,” he said. “You’re a fanatic.”
The guard smiled. “I’m just a fan fan.”
Public records was small, with a low ceiling and drab walls. The desk was tall enough to obscure the woman behind it but for her for her head. She told us any trial records would only be available after the completion of the trial.
We then tried the 25 floor, the offices of the court reporters, the stenographers who write down every trial word for word, but found Kelly Swasey, the reporter for the Dorcinvil trial, was out.
After a series of phone calls and voicemails, she told us that we could receive copies of the transcripts of the entire trial, but that it would cost upwards of $1000.
We’ve been unable to get in touch with her since.