Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Great Bodily Harm"

By David Heinzmann

Remember that video of the big, fat drunk cop pummeling the cute little blond bartender because she wouldn’t serve him another drink?

It was hard to miss back in the spring of 2007 when it was played over and over and over again on cable and Internet news sites. The grainy image from a neighborhood bar security camera of the huge man in the flannel shirt, his long hair spilling out under a ball cap, tossing the woman to the floor like child hurling a toy in a tantrum, and then swinging and kicking at her curled body while the jukebox blared Johnny Cash’s "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and none of the drunks sitting at the bar lifting a finger to stop him.

If you’re in Chicago you may have heard yesterday that the cop, Tony Abbate, won’t be serving any time behind bars in the case even though he was convicted of felony aggravated battery. The judge, John Fleming, gave him probation, causing an uproar from the public about how the fix was in, and cops get away with anything in this town. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-abbate-24-jun24,0,5965992.story

Well, actually, this case might not be a great measure of those claims. While I was reporting and writing the Tribune’s story on the Abbate verdict, most of the lawyers I talked to said they thought it was a mistake that the judge didn’t give Abbate at least a little time behind bars—say 30 days in Cook County Jail—just to make a point. But the fact was that Abbate was never going to get serious penitentiary time for this crime.

Anytime probation is an option for the judge, and the convict doesn’t have any criminal background, it’s likely he won’t be shipped off to the joint. Some made the argument yesterday that because Abbate was a cop he should be held to a higher standard, and the judge should have sent that message in a harsh sentence. The judge chose not to do that.

One of the reasons Fleming gave was that the bartender, Karolina Obrycka, did not suffer serious physical injuries despite the savagery apparent in the video. (The argument has been made that Abbate was so drunk he failed to squarely land a punch or kick.)

I thought about that reasoning as I was typing up my phone interview with Obrycka. She described the nightmares, anxiety attacks and general feelings of paranoia she’s suffered since the beating. Every time she goes out she worries she’ll be pulled over for something and the cops will recognize her, and they’ll be friends of Abbate’s, etc.

She also said she can’t fathom the idea of working anywhere alone, as she was that night in the bar, having nobody there to back her up and protect her.

She was describing psychological injuries that can be as debilitating as physical injuries. But psychological injuries aren’t covered by the aggravated battery statute used to convict Abbate. The crime describes only “great bodily harm.” Even though she didn't sustain serious physical injuries, there’s a quirk in the law that allows the felony aggravated battery charge to be used for lesser injuries if the crime takes place in a public place, like a bar. If the beating had happened at a backyard barbecue, Abbate probably would have been charged with a lesser crime.

As it is, Abbate is an unemployed cop with an infamous name and serious drinking and anger-management issues. He’s been suspended without pay for two years, and the department is going through the process of firing him. His lawyer says that’s punishment aplenty. What do you think?

Switching gears, I wrote a few weeks ago about my anticipation and anxiety over the cover for my book, A WORD TO THE WISE. Not long after that post, I got an early version from my publisher’s designers. I had some ideas, and ran them past a graphic designer friend at the Tribune, who came up with some tweaks. Five Star’s designers were wonderful to work with and in the end, I was pretty happy with the result. Many thanks to Deirdre and Chris Wait, and my colleague Shanna Novak. Here's the cover:


Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a gorgeous cover. A skyline is a staple of crime covers; a distant skyline less so.

Subliminally, or maybe not so subliminally, a reader has to be wondering, "Hmm, what's going on in that space between me and that far skyline?" That's one nicely disquieting cover!
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Dana King said...

That's a great cover. I agree with Peter's skyline comment. I also like the fact that the skyline is across water, which implies difficutly in returning to the security implied by the skyline. Well done.

As for the cop, I think it's easy for laymen to confuse the law with justice. I thought he got off easy until you explained the usual sentencing standards for such a crime. I think he has been held to a somewhat higher standard as a cop, since the city has given him a lenghty suspension and will fire him. Thirty days or so in the cooler might have been a nice symbolic act; we can only hope the probation serves the same practical purpose, and that Abbatte will face serious consequences if he violates it.

It is disquieting that the woman's psychological injurues annot be fully addressed. Is there an option for a civil suit for her? Even if there is, I doubt Abbatte has much that could be taken in damages.

David Heinzmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Heinzmann said...

Peter and Dana,
Thanks much. You both pretty much hit the nail on the head of what I hoped to get across. The tweaking we did pushed the skyline into the background and focused more on the crusty plates of ice in front. Thanks for the reassurance.

Peter said...

can you say "civil suit" I get the feeling the city of Chicago is going to be a few dollars lighter in the budget soon.

or perhaps the city is not liable when one of their employees beats somebody off duty? an attorneys on here? even so any assets the cop has are fair game.

Sara said...

As a consumer of mysteries and not a writer, I have to say that cover is among the most compelling I have seen. The chunks of ice and the blue-black impression left by the photo make me feel cold and nervous - which is perfect.

David Heinzmann said...

There is indeed a pending civil suit, and the issue Peter raises about city liability will be at the center of it. Several lawsuits that have grown out of police misconduct cases in recent years have centered on the claim that the officers targeted in the litigation committed whatever acts they're accused of because the police department's lax oversight makes them feel they're above the law. We'll see.

Marcia said...

I agree with those above....the cover is very compelling. Had never thought of what goes on when creating a cover. However, as a reader I know what does it for me. This will certainly catch my eye when it comes out. Looking forward to reading your book!

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