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An Ordinary Murder

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At 4:30 A.M., Snitch is driven by an undercover to the deserted intersection of Pennsylvania and Livonia Avenues, where the elevated tracks of the L and the 3 trains cross overhead. It’s less than two miles from the spot where Clifford Birkbeck was killed. Members of the cover team take their positions nearby. Snitch places a phone call to the seller. He gets out of the car, wearing a concealed radio transmitter, and walks over to the corner. Five minutes later, the seller shows up. “The scariest moment,” says Senior Special Agent Joe Green, “is when the guns meet the money. Is it a rip-off, or are we going to do a deal?” This time it’s a deal: The seller gives Snitch the revolver, and Snitch gives him the cash.

The seller walks. The JFTF, focused on federal cases, doesn’t have anything on this guy besides the fact that the gun fell into his lap and he was happy to make a quick buck off it. “You want to make sure that you have enough evidence to prosecute somebody,” says Green. “Is the guy a bona fide gun dealer? If it’s an old gun, you know he’s not smuggling guns professionally.” All they’d really have him for would be criminal possession of a weapon, which is a mere misdemeanor in New York State, carrying a maximum sentence of a year and often pleaded down to no time at all. But the revolver is off the street. Back at ATF headquarters, Repasky stores it in the evidence vault. Tomorrow, she will drive it to the crime lab.

February 7, 2006
NYPD Crime Lab, Jamaica

The three bullets from Birkbeck’s body are retrieved from the evidence room and delivered to the white Formica worktable of Detective James Valenti, a baby-faced forensic microscopist in the Ballistics Unit who trained at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Valenti is able to see right away that the bullets are .22s. Lead bullets can end up mangled beyond recognition, but these are whole and not too deformed by their journey through Birkbeck’s body. Valenti takes out his scale. “The weight is where it is supposed to be,” he says. “They aren’t fragmented.”

He is also able to see something else, without having to look through his Leica microscope. All guns have “rifling,” a spiral pattern left on the inside of the barrel when it is drilled out during manufacturing. The spiral puts spin on a bullet for greater accuracy (think of a football leaving a quarterback’s fingers). But the ­rifling doesn’t just steady the bullet’s flight; it also cuts into the surface of the bullet itself. With his naked eye, Valenti can count six grooves with a twist to the right on the sides of each bullet—a distinctive pattern that confirms that the murder weapon is a Smith & Wesson .22 revolver.

The basic technique used to pair a gun with a crime has not changed in nearly a century. Valenti needs bullets test-fired from the suspected murder weapon to compare with the ones from the medical examiner. Detective John Muzek will pull the trigger. Muzek, a genial, beefy guy with huge hands, takes the revolver into a room dominated by a huge stainless-steel tank that looks like a coffin standing on six shock absorbers. He shoots through a porthole in the side of the tank. Now Valenti has something to work with. He turns to his comparison microscope. It’s really two microscopes, with two staging areas and two lenses, joined with a binocular eyepiece that lets him see a split image. He puts a bullet from the morgue on the left and one from the test-fire on the right and adjusts the view to line them up.

“Have you ever seen them do the ballistics tests on CSI?” asks Lieutenant Mark Gallagher, who supervises the Ballistics Unit. “They do it awfully fast. They’re looking at it under the microscope for ten seconds, saying, ‘It’s a match!’ ” The rifling marks on the bullet are obvious, but the microscope reveals more. When the barrel of a gun is drilled out and the rifling characteristics are carved in, the drill bit is worn a little further each time it bores through the steel. Because of this, no two barrels are exactly alike, and each one leaves tiny, unique striations on every bullet it fires. It takes Valenti a couple of hours to painstakingly perform the comparison on all the bullets, but—it’s a match. They have the gun that shot Birkbeck.

The revolver goes back to ATF headquarters to be locked up in the evidence vault, hung on a Peg-Board with dozens of other guns, until the Brooklyn district attorney’s office sends a subpoena for it. Only after the murder trial is over and any appeals exhausted will the revolver meet its own end, melted down in a foundry or chopped up in a machine shop.

July 13, 2006
East New York, Brooklyn

Joseph Truman was indicted for second-degree murder by a grand jury on February 8 and arraigned on March 3. Despite his detailed statement of confession to the homicide detectives, he is pleading not guilty—“He tells me he didn’t do it,” says James Koenig, his court-appointed defense attorney. Now Truman is on Rikers Island, making occasional appearances in handcuffs at New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn for preliminary proceedings. The trial is not expected to start for months. Birkbeck’s family is waiting for it to begin, and the forensic pathologist, the detectives from the Ballistics Unit, and Tameika are waiting to be called to testify.

After she was warned to stay away from home, Tameika asked the Housing Authority to move her to another apartment, but then she decided against it. “I wasn’t ready to leave him yet,” she says softly. “His clothes are folded in the closet like he’s still there. His washrag in the shower, his toothbrush—everything is still the way he left it.” She’s even kept her blood-­soaked jacket and the bloody tissue that she was left holding on that awful day, when two strangers crossed paths on the street and one was left dead. The investigation is over, but the people who loved Clifford Birkbeck still can’t understand how a look could have been worth his life. “It’s senseless,” says Tameika. “If that was the case, no one would be alive.”


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