08 February 2008

Crime and Punishment

A Pole named Krystian Bala sits in a crowded prison, awaiting a second trial on a murder charge. Not just any murder, but an abduction/torture/drowning, and one in which the prosecution's theory of his motive sounds Dostoyevskian.

The theory is that Bala was a proud intellectual who killed the old pawnbroker -- no, scratch that, the marketer of billboard advertising space -- because he had decided he could get away with it, thinking himself a Nietzschean overman.

And for a long time he DID get away with it. The body of Dariusz Janiszewski surfaced on the Oder River in December 2000. The initial investigation yielded nothing and the case was written off as about as cold as the corpse by the middle of the following year.

The case warmed up. The story of the revived investigation, Bala's arrest, trial, conviction, and partially successful appeal (only partial because he's still locked up -- successful nonetheless because he has been promised another trial) makes for a fascinating story. One can read it as detailed by David Grann in the Feb. 11th issue of The New Yorker.

Here are some delectable bits and pieces, to tide you over. The case was re-opened in the fall of 2003 by a detective named Jacek Wroblewski, which translates in English into "Jack Sparrow," which is of course also the name of a fictional pirate. (What's the name of the detective who catches Raskolnikov?)

On the day that the victim, Janiszewski, disappeared he had his cell phone on him. That same phone was sold through an internet site, apparently a Polish version of eBay, only four days later. The website's records show that the man who put it up for auction had logged in as ChrisB[7], and Chris[B]7 is not a very well-disguised form of the name of Krystian Bala.

When Sparrow first discovered that in fact it was Bala who had sold Janiszewski's old phone in this way, he (Sparrow) drew no further conclusion from it. His inquiry hadn't centered on Bala at that point. And, after all, it seems a more likely supposition that the murderer would pawn the phone, knowing that pawnshops are more anonymous institutions than websites, and that some innocent party had then bought it at the pawn shop and sought to turn it for a quick profit on line. That the murderer himself would do this, especially a murderer who in other respects had been very good at covering his tracks, seemed to begger credulity.

The working-hypothesis was that the phone had passed through a pawn shop, and this gives the case one of its many Dostoyevskian echoes.

Also in 2003, as Sparrow was taking up the case, Bala was publishing a book. It was a novel -- an account of a philosophical murderer who gets away with the perfect crime. The name? Amok.

Sparrow found out about this novel, and read it. He was struck especially by a passage in which the killer/protagonist, who has used a Japanese knife to commit his murder, says: "I sell the Japanese knife on an Internet auction." [The police had never released to the public the fact of the internet-auctioning of the cell phone.]

Poland has an "Unsolved Mysteries" type television program called 997. The program asks viewers to call in, and its related website also asks for tips. After they aired a program on the Janiszewski case, they got tips via their website from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. This was unusual. Polish murders are rarely of interest to the rest of the globe. When Sparrow eventually looked through Bala's passports, he saw stamps from ... Japan, South Korea, and the United States. The dates matched. He had done a lot of travelling between 2000 and 2003, while working on his book, and when people came to know him, they somehow decided to look up a particular murder on a website associated with a Polish television program and write a comment.

The content of these comments was unhelpful, but Sparrow compared the time when Bala was in each of those countries with the timing of the tips, and they matched.

All quite circumstantial. You can see the appellate court's problems with a prosecution case largely based on such coincidences. But oddly compelling.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.