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The Forgotten Crime

It was midnight and Jim and Carlos were walking on the Mercer Street in Union, New York, looking for their next catch. Wearing a black hoodie, the cowl fully covering their faces, they walked casually like ordinary teenagers returning from a late night party.


Short and menacing with spiky hair, Jim had a pierced ear and a near-permanent cruel sneer. Carlos was in contrast the big goofy, gullible child. The devil-may-care attitude of Jim and conscientiousness of Carlos, complemented each other, a prodigious advantage for their occupation.


Suddenly, as if he had been pushed, Jim landed on a red Ferrari parked on the side. He even looked at Carlos angrily, playing his part. Carlos stared at him, confused. Then he understood.


The auto theft alarm didn’t go off.


Carlos, scanned his surroundings and gave a thumbs up to Jim, who was waiting for his cue. In seconds, Jim took out a master key, inserted it in and opened the car door.


Carlos looked around, making sure no one was watching, and then sprinted toward the vehicle.


‘Stop! You are under arrest!’ growled the public address system, and a team of a dozen police officers descended from nowhere and surrounded the car. ‘Raise your hands where we can see them. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can, and will, be held against you in the court of law.’


Amid the mind-numbing noise, Jim was quick to realise what had happened.


‘A set-up. The Ferrari was a bait,’ he thought, looking at Carlos accusingly for failing to notice over dozen policemen who now surrounded them. Carlos looked back, shrugging his shoulders. There wasn’t much he could do. It was not entirely his fault. How could he know that the six cleaning vans, parked on either side of the street, were Trojan horses holding police officers in their bellies?


The month before, the police had confiscated twelve luxury cars stolen by the increasingly active car theft mafia in the Union area of New York. Stolen cars were a huge market in Africa. After being stolen, these cars were shipped to parts of Africa and sold there for a fraction of the price. The police had knowledge of the mafia. Things came to a boil, however, when an old couple was nearly killed as they witnessed their own car being stolen. Under fire from the community, the police had to increase the level of surveillance drastically to stem the crime. 


That night, several police vans, masquerading as cleaning vans, were keeping a strict vigil on the Mercer Street area. Jim and Carlos were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.


After spending the night in the police station lock-up, they were produced in the court the next morning. Judge Brown was presiding over the case.


While Carlos looked at the judge with some sense of regret, nothing could ruffle Jim. He was incorrigible. Instead, he stared at the pretty court stenographer and smiled.


Noticing his stare, she adjusted her hair and smiled back as her fingers galloped even faster on the typewriter. 


‘Order, order,’ growled the black-robed, white-haired judge, knocking his gavel, looking at Jim with disgust and at his stenographer with sternness. Judge Brown was a stickler for discipline.


‘You two again!’ he exclaimed. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself!’ He removed his glasses, adjusted himself in the chair, and settled down for the hearing. With a wave of his hand, he invited the prosecution lawyer to present his case.


Walt Whitmore was more than happy. He went after the criminals of New York like Robin Hood went after the nobles a few hundred years ago. His zeal to punish could only match Jim and Carlos’s to steal. He was a brilliant attorney with one of the highest conviction rates in New York City. Such was his reputation that not just criminals, even a few judges were scared of him.


‘It is an open and shut case, Your Honour. The fingerprints of the accused are everywhere at the crime scene. There are eyewitnesses, including the New York Police Department, who saw them stealing the car.’


‘Your Honour, Jim and Carlos represent the growing tribe of hardened criminals, who jeopardise the safety of this city and its citizens with their mocking attitude towards the law,’ continued the well prepared lawyer. The phrase ‘mocking attitude towards the law’ was inserted specifically for Judge Brown’s consumption. He viewed with unconcealed contempt people who did not respect the law. He punished those who broke it, but those who mocked it were met with even greater severity. Mocking was inexcusable.


‘Your Honour, I ask for exemplary punishment,’ said Walt, looking at both Jim and Carlos with an arrogant grin.


Jim had been abandoned on the footsteps of an orphanage two days after his birth, by parents too poor to raise him. At the age of 15, he had run away from the orphanage and spent years on the street graduating from pick-pocketing to auto theft. There he had met Carlos, and they had soon become partners-in-crime.


Bright as Jim was, he could have done fairly well for himself could he manage one thing: forgiveness. On many occasions he had been forced to do exactly that. He had had to forgive Carlos for messing up an operation because he had been distracted by a small pup.


Now, both sat silently at the defence table. Jim was still eyeing the pretty stenographer, and Carlos looking here and there. Their body language irritated the judge. Mockery and indifference was written large on their faces. Judge Brown seethed as he asked the defence counsel to proceed. He had already, in his mind, pronounced the sentence. 

The frail looking, half-interested, defence counsel rose. His argument that the crime hadn’t actually occurred didn’t quite hold water. Due to the damning evidence, the judge had no difficulty pronouncing a two-year jail term for each of them.


Walt had wanted a harsher punishment, but decided not to appeal. He had other criminals to go after. So, he made peace with the fact that these two criminals would be away from the city for two years.


Yet, there was one thing that continued to nag Walt, as he walked down the corridors of the district court. He felt he had seen Jim and Carlos somewhere earlier. Their faces seemed familiar. Since he spent most of his time in court, and they had spent most of their time committing crime, he concluded that he must have seen them in court. 


He asked his assistant to look up court cases during the last five years that involved Jim and Carlos.


Meanwhile, the police officer escorted the two men to the city jail from where, within one week, they would be transferred to the state prison. They walked slowly down the familiar path and protocol. There were no regrets. They made some casual remarks to the police officer as he walked with them.


Two days later, the assistant confirmed that Walt’s hunch. Jim and Carlos had had a previous run-in with the law.


Three years ago, there had been a robbery at the First National Bank. A long trial had followed, and while the needle of suspicion pointed towards Jim and Carlos, they were let off without any sentence. There wasn’t enough evidence to implicate them.


Sitting at his large walnut desk, Walt looked at the case file of the bank robbery. The fact that they were able to go scot-free after robbing the bank added fuel to the fire. Aching to make them pay for their sins, he checked the entire case records, the ruling, the witness depositions, and the investigation reports. He couldn’t find a foot in the door, legally. There was no possibility for him to challenge the verdict.


He asked for an appointment with Judge Brown.


‘I just cannot allow this. You want to play a game with them! This is preposterous. Will we have game parlours now instead of courts?’ thundered the judge, for whom the court of justice was the purest, most sacred of institutions, the sanctity of which could not be tarnished under any circumstances. ‘Who, in his right mind, will allow this? Must we not let the sleeping dogs lie?’


It took half an hour of Walt’s lawyer skills to make the judge see the benefit of the scheme.


In the end, Walt, with a tired look in his eyes, mentioned, ‘Judge, did you notice how Jim and Carlos were unfazed while they were presented in court. They want to rob a bank and get away with it! Will we sit and allow this mockery of the law?’


It worked again. After extracting some personal guarantees from the counsel, Judge Brown finally agreed. The image of these two thieves smiling smugly after having beaten the law of the land was too much for him to bear.  


The next day, at the correctional facility, after greeting them with feigned benevolence, Walt asked the superintendent to place Jim and Carlos in two separate interrogation rooms. He wanted to prevent them from communicating with each other. He decided to start with Jim. ‘The tough nut first,’ he thought to himself.


As Walt entered the room, Jim sneered at Walt, measuring him, wondering why he was there. Walt’s polite smile did not fool him. As soon as Walt started to speak, an annoyed Jim pre-empted him. ‘I have nothing to say. I have said whatever I wanted to in court, so you are just wasting your time.’


Walt had expected this. He knew what he had to do. Without expression, he quietly reminded Jim of the old bank robbery. Without much problem, he reconstructed the exact modus operandi. He had read everything about the case. Moreover, his three decades of experience, trying the most cunning of thieves, had afforded him an excellent insight into their criminal minds. He knew how thieves acted. Even when key pieces of the puzzle were missing, he could easily recreate them. 


Jim was stunned. So complete was the picture Walt painted that it was like he had been there watching them while they robbed the bank. Having caught his attention, Walt left the room. Then he repeated the same exercise with Carlos, whom he had rightly predicted to be less troublesome.


He was running out of time. Judge Brown had given him a day. After that, they would be shifted to the state prison, and would be completely out-of-bounds for this scheme. Just to approach an inmate at the state prison required a lot of paper work.  Judge Brown had made it clear that this was as far as he would go.


With much nervousness inside but a cool exterior, Walt re-entered Jim’s room after an hour. The outward sneer and coldness remained, but Jim’s ears were listening.


Walt resorted to some clever lawyer-speak until he made both the men believe that they were still suspects in the bank robbery, and that he would happily appeal against the verdict in a higher court. Sophisticated legal terms were flung at their faces with such alacrity that, in the end, they fell in line. He had their undivided attention now.

It was time for Walt to disclose the most important part of the plan.


‘Jim, I have three options for you.’ In the next half an hour, he explained the various options. The he repeated the process with Carlos.


In a cleverly conceived plan, that reflected, as much, the genius of Walt as his zeal to get criminals to pay for their crimes, Walt gave both Jim and Carlos three options.


Option One: If each of them individually confessed to the bank robbery, each would get a three-year jail sentence.


Option Two: If one person confessed and the other didn’t confess, then the person who confessed would get one year and the other would get ten years in jail.


Option Three: If neither of them confessed, then they would only be convicted of car theft and be sentenced for two years.

 

Jim and Carlos were confused. While they were nearly sure of which option they wanted, the problem was that they did not know what the other wanted. They could not predict how the other would behave and what could be the consequences for them.

While the clock ticked ceaselessly, both Jim and Carlos sat in their rooms trying to grapple with the problem.


Jim got up and tried to sneak a look out the window. A guard smiled back, motioning him to go back to his chair. Casually, not betraying his emotions, he asked the guard to let him out for a moment so that he could go to the toilet.


Jim knew what he needed. If only he could have a word, a sign even, from Carlos, they could be out in just two years.


They both knew what the ideal option for them was: both denying the bank robbery and getting the two-year jail term. Yet, they were not sure of the other. If the other confessed while they denied the charge, they would not only have to bear an unthinkable ten-year term but also the incredible pain of knowing that the other was roaming free.


Walt gave Jim and Carlos half an hour to decide. He gave strict instructions to the officer on duty that they should not be allowed out of the room even for an instant. If they got an opportunity to communicate, even with signals, they could spoil the plan. If there was one condition that would affect the success of this plan, it was that the parties be kept quarantined.


After the time was over, Walt entered Carlos’s room. Shortly after, he came out of the room and entered Jim’s room. As the prosecutor walked out of his room, he couldn’t hide his delight.


Both had chosen to confess.


POSTSCRIPT


Another challenge to value creation is teamwork. In the vast universe of thousands of companies trying to create value for its stakeholders, only some stand out in terms of having nurtured and created effective teams.


In a way, people are the only non-replicable resource that a company has. Effective teams are a resource that can provide a huge sustainable competitive edge to a company. Just as a dysfunctional team can be less than the sum of its parts, a functional team can be more than the sum of its parts. An effective team is vital to value creation.


A group of people doing their jobs with a common purpose can lead to exemplary results.


It is quite clear from the preceding parable that the best option for both of them was forgone in favour of a sub-optimal option mainly for one reason: lack of trust in the other. This lack of trust, one can assume was due to their inability to communicate.


Remember, Jim and Carlos were put in different rooms to prevent them from communicating. 


Much the same way, there could be little or no trust-building communication between team members in an organisation. In the absence of effective communication, a scenario in which each member is trying to maximise individual gains, often at the expense of others, takes precedence over the best possible outcome. A sub-optimal outcome results that could be mean all the difference between victory and defeat in the hyper-competitive marketplace.


In this hyper competitive world, is it really possible to form trustworthy relationships?

The MBA is a good example. Every year thousands are admitted to this course. Across campuses in the world, students stay in the campus residence for a year or two and learn about business management. During the course, they not only compete for grades but, nearer to graduation, for the same jobs too. Yet, every year, almost all students graduate from these campuses with a friend or two. In the highly competitive atmosphere, how was friendship, a highly valued relationship, allowed to form?

The answer, perhaps, lies in communication.


In the first interaction, a person usually forms opinions based on what we appear from the outside, our exterior. It could be different from the reality. The exterior that we project could have more to do with our personality aspirations rather than our real personality. In such a case it is easy to infer, therefore, that our initial perceptions about people, that sometimes restrain us from communicating further, may actually be mistaken. Our perceptions, formed after meeting people for the first time, or the first few times, could be faulty.


When we repeatedly interact with people, our communication becomes richer and richer. Conversations could go from mundane discussing of the weather to meaningful conversations, discussing relevant personal issues. As this happens, we are able to share with them more about ourselves, enabling them to see the person behind the carefully cultivated exterior. Our strengths and weaknesses, our preferences and attitudes: important ingredients for trust.


Even after communication trust may not ensue. While that is true, we must remember that without communication, trust doesn’t even stand a chance. So, communication is essential.


The issue of effective communication and trust leading to effective teams ties very neatly into the value creation framework too. As we saw earlier, when employees work for a common purpose, they become active stakeholders in the company. Effective teams are able to create winning market strategies and service levels that can become a major driver of a firm’s sustainable growth.


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