Jose Carlos Serrano

Interviewed: Lawrence Goldman

Interviewer: Anya Berg


He lowered himself onto the old leather armchair, the air outside was cold and there was a faint breeze coming in through the slightly open window. I was sitting with my legs folded under me on the couch across from him, and we started our discussion 


My grandfather, Lawrence Goldman, practiced law for about 55 years and when asked about his most intriguing case, he answered “I always find it difficult to answer questions about most interesting, most famous, most this and that.” Mentioning that it is difficult to pinpoint one in particular because something that’s interesting to him might not be for us – since some of the cases he had could have been fascinating legally but “would bore the hell” out of almost everybody who was not particularly interested in legal issues. 


There was one particular case that he still thinks about, not necessarily because it was one of interest but rather because it is one he has often pondered putting in a book of his ownThis occurred about 40 years ago at a time when he was a defence lawyer, in his life my grandfather was both a prosecutor and a defence lawyer. It was a murder case. A man of about 30 years of age had been recently either divorced or separated from his wife. Even though they were separated, they continued to have a sexual relationship, so he had the keys to her apartment, which was something that was known. One day he went over, she was expecting him, and they “made love.” But somehow in the course of it, for reasons that were never really particularly clear, he strangled and killed her. A few hours later he went to the police station and said “I have gone to my wife’s apartment to see her, and I found her dead. I had been there earlier in the day and we had sex. I left, and when I came back four hours later she was dead.”


This whole thing was before the collection of DNA became commonplace used in criminal cases, and it turned out there was no physical evidence that pointed to him. The police questioned him for hours, but he had never gotten the ‘Miranda Warnings,’ which is what we hear every time we watch a law enforcement show and someone is being arrested: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.After about 5 hours, under very harsh questioning, he admitted to killing her. They then called the DA’s (District Attorney’s) office to come in and question him themselves. Two DAs showed up, both of whom were fairly senior prosecutors, and enquired on the incident.. The lead prosecutor, who then became the chief prosecutor of the case, advised him of his rights and asked if he understood, to which the man answered “now I do.” This prosecutor was somewhat taken aback because someone in custody who is a suspect should have been told his rights. He turned and asked the cops, “You didn’t advise him of his rights?!” and they answered “Well, he wasn’t really in custody.” That was when they actually arrested him. This is all known, not because it was on the record, although there was a scenographer supposedly taking everything down, but because the DA told my grandfather – one of the most interesting cases to date. 


He was out on bail and his mother and older sister, with the exception of the father, were  taking care of him. It was clear he was “very mentally disturbed”, as shortly after he had gotten out of jail he had tried to kill himself – unsuccessfully. The man was taken to a psychiatric hospital where he stayed for a few weeks.


 Since there was no physical evidence that tied him to the murder, the procecution’s whole case was entirely based on his confession. The legal question was whether the confession was admissible at trial? Generally speaking, the police are under an obligation to advise him of his Miranda Rights, and if they haven’t and he is under custody, then that confession is unusable because their actions betray the US Constitution. So, there was a hearing on the admissibility of this evidence. The prosecutor – now realizing that his case was on thin ice – offered the defendant a plea of guilty for only 3 years in prison, a very light sentence for a murder case, but nonetheless getting the prosecutor a conviction. 


The woman’s father, the father of the wife, was a detective in the NYC police department, so every time they went to court, a half a dozen police officers went with him and sat in the back row of the small courtroom; glaring at my grandfather’s client, at my grandfather, and at the judge. They just stood there very solemn, very angry. 


At this point the judge still had to decide whether the confession was admissible. Now at the hearing, the district attorney called the arresting officers as witnesses and under oath they said “Oh, we advised him of his rights. We advised him of his Miranda Rights.” That was undoubtedly a lie to preserve the confession and to cover up their mistakes; the DA standing there and letting them blatantly lie. Of course the defense lawyer, my grandfather, was furious and turned to the DA, saying; “You told me, you told me that it was a fact that they said they hadn’t advised him of his rights. That they thought they didn’t have to because he hadn’t been arrested and wasn’t in custody.” and warned he was going to call him as a witness. When this actually happened, the District Attorney told the court that he “seemed to recall ” that he turned to them and asked if they had advised him of his rights, to which they answered no. However, he made it as vague as possible and as if he might have very well been mistaken. which was very dishonest as well because he had been clear when telling my grandfather, somewhat angry, that they hadn’t. 


It should be mentioned that there is an issue in law over when a person finds themselves ‘in custody’ because someone can go to a police station and talk to the officials without being arrested. The question essentially is whether they are permitted to leave. Obviously if a person is in handcuffs, they are in custody. It is when they are just being talked to and are not bound that the strange question of; when they asked to go to the bathroom was the answer “oh, it’s just down the hall to the right” and were they allowed to go by themself or do officers go with them and stand at the door or in the room guarding them, come into account. When you are permitted to go by yourself it means that they believe and trust you will not try to leave/escape, signaling that you were free to go in the first place. However, if you are guarded it indicates that they would forcefully try and stop you from walking out of the station. The “bathroom rule” is what my grandfather would call it. 


Unaware of this, during cross examination, the cops admitted that they didn’t allow the defendant to go to the bathroom by himself. My grandfather said to me that it was pretty clear to him that the proper decision for the judge to make was to say the confession was fully inadmissible.


However, the judge continued to sit on it for a few months. On one hand, everyone knew this man had killed his ex wife and there could be no case without his confession, as well as the fact that the woman who had been murdered was the daughter of a homicide detective and the judge felt the pressure of all the police officers staring at him in court. On the other hand, from a legal perspective, the confession was not admissible to trial because of the cops’ mistakes.  


Meanwhile, it was clear that the defendant had depression and was suicidal. One day he told my grandfather he was going to kill himself, that he couldn’t stand the pressure of waiting. The lawyer, my grandfather, remembers walking with him for an hour in the park trying to convince him that the decision would come through soon and telling his mother and sister that they had to take hospital immediately. 


They called my grandfather because they couldn’t get the accused into the hospital he had been in before, and he very clearly remembers telling them “get him in anywhere, take him immediately, get him into any psychiatric hospital,” and they tried. 


But, once again, after a couple of hours had passed, they called back; 

“We can’t find him.” 


24 hours later, or so, my grandfather got a call;

“He was found on the piers in Brooklyn.” He had hung himself. 


Later, it was the weekend, my grandfather was asked by the sister to go to the morgue with her. “I can’t go alone,” she said to him. And even though it wasn’t part of his job, he obviously went. My grandfather told me “I saw him lying there in the morgue, the medical examiner’s office, dead… He looked terrific. He looked the best I had even seen him. He looked at peace. He didn’t look anguished. He looked calm.” 


On that Monday, my grandfather walked into the judge’s chambers and said; “Judge, you don’t have to worry about that case that you’ve been sitting on for four months, the decision on the (name redacted) confession has been made for you. He killed himself, he hung himself.” There was silence in the room. Then, and this says something about the cynicism of the judge, his first words were “Hmm. Hmm. Did you get paid?” as if the most important thing had been whether my grandfather had lost his fee.