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By Charles E. Skoller
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Queens is the largest borough in New York City. In 1963, the native born still thought of it as the "country suburbs," not yet infected by the urban problems of the three neighboring boroughs—Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. But Queens was changing. The farms that had once separated its villages were being replaced by apartment buildings, rapid transit lines, and highways. The residents of one-family homes no longer outnumbered apartment dwellers, with newcomers moving from Brooklyn and the Bronx to escape the blight and crime of those more populated boroughs. Queens was losing the battle to retain its character as a safe and comfortable residential community.
Until the early 1960s, it was homicides in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx that monopolized the crime headlines in New York's newspapers and on the broadcast news. Then the tables turned with a string of murders in Queens: Barbara Kralik's in 1963, Kitty Genovese's in 1964, and Annie Mae Johnson's that same year. Almost overnight, it seemed, homicides in Queens had become front-page news not just across New York City but across the nation as well. The lion's share of attention went to the Kitty Genovese case, much to the shame and embarrassment of the citizens of Queens. Ironically, the community of Kew Gardens, where Kitty's neighbors had looked on passively—or with morbid fascination—while she was being hacked to death, housed government offices, including the borough's criminal justice infrastructure. Kew Gardens and, by association, the one-time country suburb of Queens had become synonymous nationwide with impersonal urban crime and shocking moral indifference.
* * *
When I went home that night with the DA and police files it was a baptism by fire. Though I possessed the confidence of youth and had considerable success with the cases I had prosecuted, there was little in my background that guaranteed I would succeed in unraveling the truth behind these crimes or in putting the killers behind bars.
The middle of three sons, I was born in 1932 in Brownsville, a lower-middle-class community of mostly Jewish families in Brooklyn. Our neighborhood was secure and crime free. The only disputes were petty disagreements between friends that broke out during games of punch ball and stickball. I can't recall a single crime committed on my street, Lincoln Place, and nothing about the insular world there could have prepared me for what I would eventually face as a prosecutor.
My father, Murray Skoller, was a shoe store manager who helped unionize retail shoe employees in Brooklyn and Queens and eventually became secretary of the union. He had an exceptional work ethic, lived by a strict moral code, and was as devoted to his children as he was to his work and his union. I had the utmost respect for him. My mother, Jean, was a bookkeeper turned homemaker and the unchallenged guardian of her sons' behavior. An excellent cook, she demanded that we boys finish every last morsel on our plates. "The children of Europe are starving, eat," she used to demand.
Our household included a third adult, David Ayman, my mother's brother. Uncle Dave was blessed with an exceptional mind. As a high school teacher who had completed his master's degree in mathematics at nineteen, he devoted countless hours to helping me in my studies. I basked in his light and excelled in school.
As important as my education was to my parents, so too was work ethic, and at the ripe age of twelve I got a job after school with a dental mechanic, delivering prosthetics to dentists and oral surgeons and dutifully turning over all earnings to my mother. At the age of fourteen, as soon as I was able to obtain working papers from the New York State Labor Department, I became a delivery boy for a florist, working three days after school and full days on Saturdays and Sundays.
Toward the end of middle school I took the entrance examination for Stuyvesant High School and was accepted. It was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an hour-long commute from home, and I had to learn how to juggle schoolwork and my demanding job with the florist. My father was unemployed, the family was struggling and my job, however menial, provided some of the money that put food on our table. At the age of sixteen, I graduated from high school and went on to Brooklyn College. By now, the heavy demands of school and work were taking their toll; I couldn't concentrate on either, and my social life was practically non-existent.
It all came to a head in February 1951. I had to get away, and without telling anyone in my family, I enlisted in the U.S. Army. Six months later, following basic training, I landed in Korea and was detached to provide air-ground communication support for the First British Commonwealth Division. This harrowing tour of combat duty was to have a profound effect on my life. I promised myself that if I survived unscathed, I would complete my college education and prepare for a career in the legal profession.
I was discharged in January 1954, following a one-year tour of duty in the Pentagon, and returned to Brooklyn College. Just prior to graduation from college in 1957, I met my future wife Bernice at a dance. Upon returning home from my tour of duty in the army, I found that most of my friends were now married. Never having had the opportunity to socialize much, I was secure with the knowledge that I now had a steady girlfriend and it seemed only natural that Bernice and I should marry. Just prior to graduation, Bernice and I did get married and after a short honeymoon, I entered Brooklyn Law School. I threw myself into the study of law, attending summer classes while clerking for a small civil practice firm in Jamaica, Queens. After graduation in 1959, I took the July bar examination, passed, and was admitted the following year to the practice of law in New York State. The law firm I'd been clerking for hired me as an associate attorney, and I began investigating various civil matters and analyzing related legal issues.
Meanwhile, I became active in a reform democratic organization that defeated an old-line, boss-dominated democratic organization in a primary election in Flushing. As a result, in January 1962, Frank O'Connor appointed me to his office as an assistant District Attorney. In those days, all appointments to the District Attorneys' offices in New York State were political ones, and mine was no exception. I was first assigned to the Adolescent Court Bureau, where I conducted preliminary hearings of youthful offenders charged with felonies and misdemeanors in addition to trials of some minor violations. It was my first experience with trial work, and I dove into it with abandon, starved for knowledge and experience.
A few hours before our office's annual Christmas dinner that year, Frank O'Connor sent for me. As soon as I closed the door behind me, he said, "Charlie, we're transferring you to the Supreme Court Trial Bureau under Frank Cacciatore." It was the major trial bureau of the DA's office and handled jury and non-jury trials of all major crimes, including murder.
I was flattered and overjoyed, if somewhat skeptical. Only thirty years old, I had never handled a jury trial, criminal or civil. Apparently several lower-court judges had made the recommendation, and O'Connor had reviewed copies of several preliminary hearings and minor trials I'd prosecuted. "You seem to have an affinity for trial work," he reassured me.
The transfer was welcome recognition for the effort that I had put into my assigned cases. The job of prosecutor, I firmly believed, was an important public duty, and privately I vowed to fulfill my obligation to the best of my ability. Little did I know how severely the job would test me.
* * *
The Supreme Court in Queens had four trial parts. Prosecutors remained in the same part, while trial justices regularly moved from one part to another. Each part had two prosecutors, one on trial and the other preparing cases for trial.
After I'd been assigned to a part, my first trial justice, Anthony M. Livoti, summoned me to his office. He wanted to know how I'd evaluated each of my cases and whether I anticipated a trial or a plea bargain. A former trial prosecutor himself, Justice Livoti offered valuable advice that I have tried to follow ever since, in civil as well as criminal trials. He taught me that laying the groundwork—thoroughly preparing in advance of a trial, gaining a solid command of the facts, gathering detailed information about every possible witness, and anticipating evidentiary and other legal issues that might arise—often tipped the scales, bringing about a successful prosecution.
Determined to follow his advice, I devised a methodical approach to trial work. For every case, I would prepare a complete pretrial outline that listed the following: each count of the indictment; the controlling statutes and other rules of law; and the names, addresses, and pedigrees of witnesses, with a synopsis of what I expected their testimony to be. I included every possible evidentiary issue that might arise, including previous court opinions and decisions related to such issues. I also took up the practice—which among assistant DAs was nonexistent in those days—of preparing requests to the judge in charging the jury, that is, in issuing final instructions to jurors before they commenced their deliberations. Whenever a trial justice asked me if the People were ready for trial, my answer was always a confident yes.
My first jury trials took place in January 1963. The experience was electrifying, and I wanted to be in court every day. Thanks to the detective assigned to assist me with trial preparation, I was able to prepare in the evenings and on weekends and actually be in court during the week. Turning over to other attorneys the civil practice I was permitted to handle outside the DA's office, I devoted all my time and energy to prosecuting trials.
In my first month on the new job, whenever I had a spare moment, I visited Frank Cacciatore's courtroom. He was in the midst of prosecuting a woman and her lover for the murder of her husband, a physician. I studied Cacciatore's demeanor and the way he approached the jurors during jury selection and the actual trial. Frank was my standard for a prosecutor, and I learned a lot from him. His forceful and confident style conveyed to a jury his belief in the merit of the case that he was prosecuting. I learned that a jury could not be convinced if they thought you didn't believe in your own case.
In February 1963, Justice J. Irwin Shapiro, who was considered the most brilliant and respected trial judge in the borough, was assigned to my trial part. One of the youngest people ever to be admitted to the New York bar, he was a former chief assistant DA of Queens County and had served as counsel to the governor of New York and as a judge in every trial court—civil, criminal, and domestic relations—in Queens. He possessed broad intellectual interests and was a voracious reader, always seeking knowledge ranging far beyond his legal requirements as a judge. His mind moved at a speed that was difficult to keep up with. Not possessed of an abundance of patience, he gave prosecutors and defense attorneys little time to think or space to maneuver. Woe to the prosecutor trying a case before Judge Shapiro in which the only evidence connecting a defendant to a crime consisted of police testimony or a confession made to a police officer. Shapiro didn't trust police testimony uncorroborated by outside evidence. He considered it unreliable, and in some instances untruthful, which was unusual for a judge with a prosecutor's background.
Judge Shapiro's reputation preceded him, and so when I appeared before him for the first time, I came as prepared as possible, not only for my assigned cases, but also for those assigned to my partner as well. In or out of his judicial robe, Shapiro looked like a judge, with a full head of white hair and a stern, commanding presence. "I may not be right, but I'm never in doubt," he often repeated. Without losing any time, the judge directed me to brief him on the pending cases. I could tell by his questions that he was testing my preparation as well as my thinking.
Presently, he asked for the other assistant DA in the trial part, Edward Herman. I explained that he was ill but should be in the following day. Shapiro, anxious to start a trial that was assigned to Herman—a trial in which a father had been accused of raping his eleven-year-old daughter—refused to wait. He directed me to start selecting a jury, as the defense attorney was present and ready to proceed. Herman, the judge promised, could make his opening statement to the jury the following day. Later that day, I returned to my office to learn that Herman would be out several more days. Knowing Judge Shapiro wouldn't adjourn or recess the trial and being familiar with the case, I spent the entire evening preparing the witnesses and researching the law. In my research, I discovered a written opinion by Judge Shapiro in a similar case.
The following day, in my opening statement to the jury, I incorporated some of the language and expressions from his opinion. In my summation to the jury two days later, I actually plagiarized Judge Shapiro's charge dealing with the legal requirements of the testimony of a child of tender years. The result was almost a forgone conclusion, and the jury reached a guilty verdict without prolonged deliberations.
Frank O'Connor sent for me several days later to tell me Judge Shapiro called him to compliment me on my preparation and on the way I had tried the case. When I returned to the courtroom, the judge invited me to join him in his chambers during a court recess. There he advised me to try as many cases as I could. "Each trial is a valuable learning tool; there's no substitute for experience," he told me. "You'll even learn a lot from your opponents, all of whom will use different techniques and approaches. Amassing trials is the best way for you to acquire the perspective and the quickness of thought and decision that trial work requires." It was excellent advice, and I followed it to the letter, trying every case I could, especially those involving violent crimes. The experience stood me in good stead when I faced the biggest challenge of my career: the murders of Kitty Genovese, Barbara Kralik, and Annie Mae Johnson—the cases Frank O'Connor assigned to me on that warm day in April 1964.
In preparation for the meeting with O'Connor and the others the following morning, I skipped dinner with the family—as I would almost every evening over the next eleven months, putting a strain on everybody—and started looking over the file on the Kralik homicide. The first couple of pages were deeply disturbing, not least because I had two young daughters upstairs. I gritted my teeth and plowed ahead.
Barbara Kralik had been on the verge of entering her junior year of high school in September 1963. Her family lived in the village of Springfield Gardens, in the southern half of Queens, a quiet suburban community of tree-lined streets and one-family homes, largely untouched by the apartment-house invasion that was taking place elsewhere in the borough. A petite, attractive blonde who stood five feet two inches, Barbara was a vivacious girl, popular with her peers in the Girl Scouts, at school, and in her neighborhood. She dated but didn't have a steady boyfriend. Her closest friend was Pat Farfone, who had recently moved from Springfield Gardens to Valley Stream in Nassau County, just over the Queens border. Bosom buddies, the two girls spent as much time as they could together, having frequent sleepovers after Pat moved away.
Barbara was the middle child and only daughter of Joseph and Marie Kralik. They lived with her younger brother, Lawrence, age ten, and her paternal grandmother in a three-bedroom house at the corner of 140th Avenue and 175th Street. Her older brother was emancipated and lived in his own apartment elsewhere in Queens. Barbara's father, a railway express truck driver, was a hardened Marine Corp veteran who had seen combat at Midway and Okinawa in World War II. Tough as he was, Joseph tried not to be too authoritarian with Barbara. This required little effort on his part, for Barbara respected his wishes and observed the rules he set. Nor was she any trouble to her mother, Marie, a housewife who was suffering from a serious heart problem.
Excerpted from TWISTED CONFESSIONS by Charles E. Skoller. Copyright © 2013 Charles E. Skoller. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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