Growing up, a lot of us are taught never to talk to cops. Even a friendly “what time is it?” could get a “what’s it to you?” on certain blocks. Talking to law enforcement only leads to trouble because they talk to each other. Movies, TV shows and real life taught us that police protect each other, have a fraternal bond that keeps them insular within thin blue lines. On the Starz series Wrong Man, there is a scene where “blue talks to blue,” two ex-cops chatting about an old case in a way that only two cops can do. That bond unearths evidence that ultimately leads to the chance at a re-trial for someone who was wrongfully incarcerated.
Director and executive producer Joe Berlinger’s Wrong Man does its own police work. The true crime series brings together investigators from different backgrounds, federal, local, and even naval, to do the footwork on cases where justice may not have been best served. Charlie Saums, Ira Todd and Joe Kennedy visited Winona, Mississippi, to find why one of the most tried suspects in the state’s homicide history had the one of the least thorough investigations to earn him the title. The team exposed a coerced confession and unearthed the payment of a snitch to lie under oath.
Joe Kennedy spent 28 years in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or the NCIS as it’s better known, most of them as Special Agent in Charge. He served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bahrain. He got his Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, after going to bat and graduating Magna Cum Laude from Pfeiffer College, Misenheimer, N.C. He is skilled in intelligence and was the Staff Counterintelligence Officer for III Marine Expeditionary Forces in Okinawa, Japan.
Kennedy was the Primary Architect and First Program Manager for NCIS Cold Case Homicide Unit, writing methodology and protocol which is now used by police agencies worldwide. Now retired, he is also a member of the International Homicide Investigators Association, and he doesn’t like it when someone goes to jail for a murder they didn’t commit because that means a real killer is free, and the life of an innocent person is destroyed as collateral damage. Kennedy spoke with Den of Geek about fixing that damage.
Den of Geek: You come from navel investigations. How is that different from regular police investigations?
Joe Kennedy: You know Tony, there’s really no difference. If you are familiar with the TV show NCIS, I am a retired NCIS agent. A lot of folks don’t realize just like in a civilian population there is a lot of crime in our forces and military. Now, the vast majority of our military are great folks. It’s just that very small percentage of folks that cause issues. So, there’s essentially no difference at all. It’s very similar to policing. As an NCIS agent, we’re a federal agent just like a FBI or DEA agent, and we have federal power to arrest. So, not a lot of difference at all.
You also train law enforcement. What did you learn from doing the documentaries that might now go into that training?
Well, I’ll tell you, the thing I’m taking away from this is I spent my whole life essentially putting people in jail and what the documentary did for me is it really makes you reflect. As well all try, we never try to do anything malicious or mean to do something untoward or what have you, but it’s really kind of opened my eyes that perhaps we need to be a little more objective as we’re doing an investigation. That a lot of police officers, not that they’re not objective, we are fact finders, but it just really reinforced to me how that objectiveness, that reasonable objectiveness, really has to go with everything we do.
So, is there anything that you may be able to bring to them in training that you didn’t know beforehand? Is there anything they can look out for now that you weren’t aware of or anything like that?
Well, I will say it reinforced some of the principles of failures in criminal investigation. You know there are some failures in criminal investigations. We can tend to get into, we refer to it heuristics or biases and then that may lead to compromising, confirmation bias. Then all of a sudden you’ve group think going on where everybody thinks a certain person did it. So, it just really reinforced to me that we’ve got to be aware of those failures in criminal investigations so that we’re analyzing data as we go through our cases and what have you.
So as a former policeman, how does it feel when you’re uncovering police misconduct? The series mentions talking between the blue.
Well, I wouldn’t say it’s totally police misconduct. What I have, what I saw through the series in the cases is that not necessarily police misconduct, but just in general it’s a lack of the training and experience often, and especially in a lot of our trial police departments. You know, some of the cases that we looked at are very similar what’s going across the U.S. Small departments lack the training, or don’t have the volume of cases, so, as they’re looking at murders and homicides, if you only do one or two every year or so, you don’t have that experience somewhere say like a larger city, so I think that to me is more of what I saw through the cases in terms of just straight out police misconduct.
In the Angie Dodge case, she was almost decapitated. It was a horrific crime. How does a cop deal with that? Does it at all cloud the judgment of how they will go after the case? How do they go to work the next day?
Well, Tony, we learn. It’s just part of the business. Unfortunately, we don’t see the good part of humanity. But I’ve learned to deal with it very early in my career. I was challenged by an investigator. He said, “You know, to understand death and murder cases, you’ve really got to experience it hands on.” So, his challenge was “Hey, you need to go in the autopsy room. Go to it very early in your career.” So, I did that.
The more exposure you get to death, the dead bodies, and I don’t want to say I’m too hardened or anything, like we don’t have feelings in caring for people, but you just learn to cope with it because that’s what we do every day. So, it’s not odd or anything unique. It’s just what we do every day.
Civil rights and criminal defense attorney Ron Kuby had a reputation of having gone after cops of 40 years. Now, working with him, what was your impression and how does that dynamic work?
Well, you know one thing about Kuby is you have to think of it like this: We can always learn from our friends, but what can you really learn from your adversaries? I like to learn from adversaries more than by folks who are going to tell me what I want to hear. I was delighted with the time I spent with Ron. I think he is a professional. He is one hell of an attorney. Very smart. He’s very witty. The perspective he brings to the cases is completely different than my mindset of what I was looking at. So, believe it or not, it was refreshing to me because he would challenge me and I would challenge him, but, again, I got nothing but good things to say about my time with Ron Kuby because I learned so much from him.
So, if you were to go back on the street now after having worked with him, would that bring something different to the way you investigate or go after cases?
Well, you know, Ron certainly has a way of picking apart a case and, again, he has that different optic that he’s looking at as opposed to what us as investigators and police officers look at. He made me a stronger investigator because he said “Hey, look at it through my optic.” So, I’ve actually been doing that on some cases that I’m looking at and consulting on because I look at murder cases all over the world for folks and help brainstorm to bring some solution to some of these cold cases. So, it’s actually Ron Kuby’s optic has helped me to kind of look at things from a different perspective.
In the first episode, an informant was actually paid to lie by the investigating officer. How rare is that?
Well, it is. Tony, it’s very rare. You know. I will say it’s like any business or anything. There’s no difference in any law enforcement profession. We do have our bad apples. But, I can tell you that in all of my years of experience, 28 plus years with federal government, I can tell you that it would be extremely rare to have a police officer paying folks to lie. It just doesn’t happen that often.
On a personal level, when Ira askes the detective his “gotcha” questions, what’s going through your mind watching another cop snag someone like that?
We’re fact finders. If we have someone who’s incarcerated and they shouldn’t be because of something that a police officer has done or an informant has lied about the facts on the case, I was genuinely happy because hey, we want truth to prevail. I mean, that’s the whole premise of why I became a police officer and investigator. I’m a fact finder. I want the truth. Whatever the truth is, that’s the road we have to go down. So, again, much like Ron Kuby, though, I will tell you, Ira I learned so much from him as well. He’s a very skilled interviewer. He’s very good at what he does. I was not surprised at all when he was able to peel back the onion and find out what’s really going on there.
Jumping forward to the Curtis Flowers case, is there a different judicial experience for black and white America?
Oh, you know, I think so. I look at cold cases. That’s my expertise and my background. I can tell you over the years as I’ve looked at cold cases, there is a higher amount of cold cases that involve black victims. In addition to not only black victims, but you’ll see that folks from a lower socio-economic status also as you look as their cases from an unsolved stand point, routinely not as much effort is not put into those cases. Now, I don’t think there’s a concentrated effort to overlook the cases or not put as much effort into them as others. It’s just a fact of life. So, I would say yes, over the years I have seen not only a little bit of disproportionate focus on cases where there are black victims, but folks from a lower socio-economic status.
Curtis Flowers came from a very religious background. What does his religious fervor and knowledge tell you about the person that you’re looking at and don’t most people in jail become religious?
Well, I think most folks that are incarcerated do turn to religion. Now, I have to tell you right out of the gate that I am a believer in Jesus Christ. So, I’ll share with you just one real quick, and I’m not trying to preach to you here at all, but I think that this is important. In the Bible of Isaiah, and this is regarding prisoners, it says: “To open the eyes that are blinded. To bring out the prisoners from the dungeon and from the prison those who sit in darkness.” So, for me, if we’re able to determine that “Hey, he didn’t do this.” I think that would bow very well for my personal beliefs, but I think that a lot of folks … You know, when folks go through adversity, they tend to look for a higher being. So, I think that’s just a small aspect of life is that you lacked trust in God.
I wanted to ask about the laser trajectory detector. I’ve looked at ballistics drawings from the Kennedy assassination and things of that nature. How is that kind of technology changing investigations?
Well, you know, normally what we would use is just simple dow rods to show trajectory analysis. That’s what we used to do years ago. I mean, you can purchase those at a Lowe’s or Home Depot or any home and garden store. But, what a laser does, or what it adds to the equation, is it actually allows not only us as police officers to visualize the trajectory analysis of where the round originated from, but it’s also a very valuable tool for juries to be able to see because it gives you a much broader perspective and when you’re using the laser, it increases the distances and the effects. You can use 3D effects. There’s a lot more you can use with a laser to kind of tell the story of trajectory analysis.
As a former on-the-ground investigator, what scares you most about defense attorneys?
I’m kind of unique. I’ve always tried to create a friendship with defense attorneys. They’re not used to that. They’re not used to that approach because normally it’s us against the boys. You know? So, I have found that by embracing myself those defense attorneys, they don’t go after me with such vigor they might otherwise do. It’s just the tactic that’s worked well for me, and as well, to learn from a defense attorney. They do show you the mistakes you made, and that’s what I’m always after. “Hey, what could you have done better on this case? What could we have sured off?” So, that’s always been my approach with defense attorneys.
You’re doing these cases after people have been already convicted and the trials already ended. When you’re actually working on a case and a defense attorney brings up something. Are you tempted to go back and double think, rethink, your work, and how does it make you look at the work that you put in?
Oh, sure I have. I think you have to. If you can’t admit that you’re wrong or you can’t admit that you did something better, you’re never going to grow as an investigator. You’re never going to learn. So, yeah. I mean, very much so with what you’re saying. Yeah, it bothers ya because you go, “Wow. I should have done that. I could have done that.” You know, I like to use the term woulda, coulda, shoulda, didn’t. But, I have no problems with my own … You know, I like to be a self-critic and get that feedback from those defense attorneys.
What is long-form journalism, shows like this and Making a Murderer, bringing to justice?
Well, you know, I would say I’m not so sure. Ultimately it’s going to bring justice to some folks. If you just look at the Innocent Project all over the country, that 300 people have been found innocent that many of those folks spent years in jail. I think what programs like this does more than anything is it provides those folks who are truly innocent, with hope. Hope, sometimes, is very, very powerful thing. To me, that’s what I think these shows it maybe brings hope to those prisoners, brings hope to those families that truly are innocent, and they’re looking for an avenue to help them prove that innocence.
Wrong Man premieres on June 3 at 9 p.m. on Starz.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.