The Star-News


The world is a stage and criminals its clowns

Sat, Dec 21 2013 12:00 PM Posted By: Tom Basinski

A criminal lineup has all the ingredients of legitimate theater. It has a leading man, or woman (the defendant); a stage with proper lighting, including still and video cameras; a supporting cast in the other participants; an audience (the witnesses), and a director.

Other players include the suspect’s defense attorney  who plays the role of agent since he has his client’s best interest at heart and the producer by way of  deputy district attorney.  The casting director is the jail deputy who selects the other inmates who resemble the accused. When it comes to drama, The Old Globe has nothing on the San Diego County Jail.

Occasionally there is high drama, violence, and low comedy. As a director of about 40 live lineups I experienced everything except violence. But, I have seen footage of violence in other lineups.

On one occasion the star of one particular crime was accused of a crime involving sex or violence in this, or another, case. The jail deputy who picked the “stand-in” participants didn’t know the relationships and history between the leading man and his fellow castmates.

The deputy accidentally picked one of the stand-ins who was either related to, or a close friend of, the victim. On a cue unknown to the director, one or more of the participants would begin to “ad lib.” That is, while on stage, they would jump the accused and begin to beat the crap out of him. All hell would break loose, alarms would sound, and deputies would come from the rest of the jail.

I have personally witnessed lineup comedy several times. During a robbery, the crook said to the victim, “I have a gun. Gimme all your money or I’ll kill you.”

Most people don’t get in jail by being smart. Sometimes those compound sentences were too much to ask to be repeated. Supporting cast members might get one of the sentences out and then forget or muff the rest of their lines.

In my experience as an actor, if we forgot a line we would say, “Line.” The prompter in the wings, following the script, would throw us our line and the show would go on. Not for these clowns. After a botched line, one guy would start laughing. This often made the rest of them, even the accused laugh, and chaos would reign. I couldn’t yell, “Cut. Take it from the top.” The show had to go on.

In my early days I had one stand-in participant who barely spoke English. All were Hispanic, but the accused spoke very well. When the one who spoke broken English said his unrecognizable lines, the rest cracked up, even though they were all the same race. They giggled like grade school girls. Once one started, the laughing took on a life of its own. From that day on, if lines were to be spoken, I would audition participants to make sure nothing like that happened again.

Another time, the crook had said, “Give it up, b!#ch or I’ll kill you.” When the defendant was instructed to say his line he announced to everyone, “I never said that to her.”

I wanted to ask, “Okay, Einstein. What did you say?” but I didn’t. No matter. He was picked out anyway. During those trying times I would love to sneak a look at the defense attorneys who often had his or her head buried in their hands.

Basinski was a police officer for 35 years.


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