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Monday, July 24, 2017

Lizzie Borden to O. J. Simpson: The Disappointing History of Forensic Science

     The historical trajectory of forensic science can be illustrated by three celebrated murder trials: The Lizzie Borden case in 1892; the 1932 murder of the Lindbergh baby and trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann; and the O. J. Simpson double murder and marathon trial of the mid-1990s. Starting with the Borden case, the arc rises to the Lindbergh investigation and trial, then falls to the bungled Simpson crime scene investigation and subsequent trial featuring investigative and forensic incompetence, hired-gun testimony, and televised courtroom showboating and baffoonery.

Lizzie Borden

     While Lizzie Borden may have had the opportunity, motive, and means of hacking her stepmother and father to death in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on August 4, 1892, the police, without the benefit of forensic serology and latent fingerprint identification, had no way to physically link her to the bludgeoned victims, or to the never identified hatchet believed to be the instrument of death.

     In England, the year of the Borden murders, a biologist named Francis Galton published the world's first book on fingerprint classification. As early as 1880, another Englishman, Henry Faulds, had been writing about the use of finger marks (latent prints) as a method of placing suspects at the scenes of crimes. When Mr. and Mrs. Borden were brutally beaten to death in Fall River, the so-called "exchange principle"--conceived by the French chemist Edmond Locard--that a criminal leaves part of himself at the scene of a crime and takes part of it with him--had not evolved from theory into practice. In 1901, nine years after Lizzie Borden's arrest, scientists in Germany discovered a way to identify and group human blood, a forensic technique that, had it existed in 1892, may have changed the outcome of the Borden case.

     The all-male jury at Lizzie Borden's spectator-packed trial, without being presented with physical evidence linking the 32-year-old defendant to the bludgeoned and bloodied bodies, and believing that upper-middle-class women were too genteel for such brutality, found her not guilty. Had expert witnesses identified the stain on her dress as human blood, and matched a bloody crime scene latent to one of her fingers, the evidence, albeit circumstantial, may have convinced the jurors of her guilt. Assuming that she did in fact commit the double murder, Lizzie, confronted by investigators in possession of such damning, physical evidence, may have confessed, or in the very least, made an incriminating remark.

Bruno Richard Hauptmann

     In 1935, when Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an illegal alien from Germany living in the Bronx went on trial in Flemington, New Jersey for the March 1, 1932 murder of the 20-month-old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, America had confidence in forensic science, and considered it the wave of the future. Because no one had seen the 35-year-old defendant climb the homemade, wooden extension ladder to the second story nursery window at the Lindbergh estate near Hopewell, New Jersey, prosecutors didn't possess direct evidence of his guilt. Moreover, no one knew exactly how Hauptmann had killed the baby--had he been strangled, suffocated, or bludgeoned to death?--or even exactly where the murder took place. (A truck driver who had pulled over to relieve himself along the road, found the baby's remains in a shallow grave about two miles from the Lindbergh house.) If Hauptmann were to be convicted, it would have to be entirely on physical evidence. In other words, jurors, based on the physical evidence and its expert analysis, would have to infer his guilt.

     Having eluded detection for two and a half years following the hand-off of $50,000 in ransom money to a shadowy figure in a Bronx cemetery, the kidnapper had been passing the ransom bills, identified by their recorded serial numbers, around New York City. In September 1934, a squad made up of FBI agents, troopers from the New Jersey State Police, and officers with the New York City Police Department, pulled Hauptmann out of his car in Manhattan as he drove from his rented house in the Bronx to Wall Street where he had lost $25,000 in the stock market. From his wallet, the arresting officers recovered one of the ransom bills, and back at his house, found bundles of the ransom money--totaling $14,000--hidden in his garage. Confronted with this and other circumstantial evidence of his guilt, Hauptmann, a low-grade sociopath, refused to confess.

     At Hauptmann's January 1935 trial, the most publicized and celebrated event of its kind in America, and perhaps the world, eight of the country's most prominent questioned document examiners testified that Hauptmann had written the note left in the nursery as well as the fourteen ransom negotiation letters sent to the Lindberghs prior to the cemetery payoff. A federal wood expert from Wisconsin took the stand and identified a board from the kidnap ladder as having come from Hauptmann's attic floor. This witness also matched tool marks on the ladder with test marks from the blade of Hauptmann's wood plane. (Although a carpenter by trade, Hauptmann had not used his tools since the ransom payoff in April 1932.)

     On February 14, 1935, the jury, based upon Hauptmann's possession of the ransom money, and the physical evidence linking him to the extortion documents and the kidnap ladder, found him guilty. On April 3, 1936, following a series of appeals, prison personnel at the state penitentiary in Trenton, New Jersey strapped him into the electric chair and threw the switch. The handful of protestors gathered outside the death house, when informed of Hauptmann's execution, went home.

O. J. Simpson

     Sixty years after Hauptmann's execution, detectives in Los Angeles arrested O. J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. The blooding knifings occurred at a time when most big city detectives had at least some college education, and months of police academy training. Human blood could not only be identified as such and grouped, it could be traced, through DNA science, to an individual donor. Unlike the Borden murders, the double homicide in California produced identifiable blood stains, drops and pools at the death site, in Simpson's vehicle, and inside his house. The prolonged, nationally televised trial featured the testimony of DNA analysts, crime scene technicians, blood spatter interpretation witnesses, footwear impression experts, and forensic pathologists. The Simpson trial introduced forensic DNA science to the American public, and could have been a showcase for forensic science in general. Instead, the case featured investigative bungling, batteries of opposing experts, prosecutorial incompetence, and a jury so confounded by the conflicting science, they found Simpson not guilty of a crime most people believe he committed.

     Like Lizzie Borden, O. J. Simpson, while acquitted, was not exonerated. He was destined to live out the rest of his life in that gray area between innocence and guilt. In the Borden case, prosecutors did the best they could with what they had. In the Simpson case, the state squandered cutting edge science and an embarrassment of riches in physical, crime scene evidence. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Simpson case is this: in a time of cutting edge science and relatively high-paid, well-educated police officers, criminal investigation has become a lost art, and forensic science, a failed promise.

Writing The How-To Article

Some kinds of writing are more debilitating than others, and it took me years to learn which, for me, is which. Instructional writing--the pure how-to article--is the worst.

John Jerome, Writing Trade, 1992

Clarence Darrow On The Causes Of Crime

Many writers claim that nearly all crime is caused by economic conditions, or in other words, that poverty is practically the whole cause of crime. Endless statistics have been gathered on this subject which seems to show conclusively that property crimes are largely the result of the unequal distribution of wealth. But crime of any class cannot be ascribed to a single cause. Life is too complex, heredity is too variant and imperfect, too many separate things contribute to human behavior to make it possible to trace all actions to a single cause.

Clarence Darrow

Categories Within The Mystery Genre

The term mystery, as in mystery novel, is an umbrella that shelters a variety of subgenres: the traditional whodunit, the private eye, the classic puzzle, the police procedural, action/adventure, thriller, espionage, the novels of psychological and romantic suspense.

Sue Grafton, Writing Mysteries, 1992 

Criminal Interrogations

     There is a gross misconception, generated and perpetuated by fiction writers, movies, and TV, that if criminal investigators carefully examine a crime scene, they will almost always find a clue that will lead them to the offender, and that, furthermore, once the criminal is located, he will readily confess or otherwise reveal guilt, as by attempting to escape. This however, is pure fiction.

     As a matter of fact, the art and science of criminal investigation have not developed to a point where the search for an the examination of physical evidence will always, or even in most cases, reveal a clue to the identify of the perpetrator or provide the necessary legal proof of guilt. In criminal investigations there are many instances where physical clues are entirely absent, and the only approach to a possible solution of the crime is the interrogation of the criminal suspect. Moreover, in most instances, these interrogations must be conducted under conditions of privacy and for a reasonable period of time. They also frequently require the use of psychological tactics and techniques that could well be classified as "unethical," if we are to evaluate them in terms of ordinary, everyday social behavior. [Examples of "unethical" behavior would include referring to incriminating evidence that doesn't exist. Criminal interrogators don't call this lying, they call it acting.]

Fred E. Inbau, Criminal Interrogations and Confessions, 1986

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Amish Girls Kidnap Case: There's No Place Safe From Predator Perverts

     At seven in the evening of August 13, 2014, 6-year-old Delila Miller and her 12-year-old sister Fannie, members of an old-order Amish clan consisting of Mose and Barb Miller and their thirteen children, were working on the family farm when a car drove up to the Miller roadside vegetable stand. The Miller family resided in Oswegatchie, New York, a farming community of 4,000 near the Canadian border 150 miles north of Albany. Because the land was relatively inexpensive and the soil fertile, the Oswegatchie area had grown into the second largest Amish enclave in the state.

     When Delila and Fannie saw the 4-door white sedan pull up to the vegetable stand they walked the few hundred feet between the barn and the stand to greet the customers. The couple drove off, and when they did, the girls were gone. Someone ran to an English neighbor's house and called 911.

     The authorities issued an Amber Alert while scuba drivers prepared to search nearby rivers and helicopters flew over the area in search of the missing girls. Agents on the US/Canadian border reviewed surveillance camera footage in the event the abductors left the country.

     On Thursday evening at eight o'clock, 24 hours after the abduction, the kidnappers dropped the Amish girls off in Richville, New York, a town thirty miles from the Miller farm. The girls knocked on the first door they came to and asked for help. They were greeted by Jeff and Pam Stinson who recognized the older girl from  having purchased corn from her at the Miller produce stand.

     It had been raining and the girls were cold and wet. They were also hungry so the Stinson fed them grape juice and servings of watermelon. The girls quickly consumed the food and were driven straight home where they were met by the police.

     Police officers, working off clues provided by the kidnapped girls, identified a pair of suspects and took them into custody Friday night, August 15, 2014. Charged with counts of first-degree kidnapping, officers booked 39-year-old Stephen Howells II and Nicole Vaisey, 25, into the St. Lawrence County Jail.

     Stephen Howells lived in nearby Hermon, New York with Vaisey, his girlfriend. According to the St. Lawrence County sheriff, the couple and their victims did not know each other. The district attorney told reporters that Howells and Vaisey sexually abused the girls during their period of captivity. The judge denied the suspects bond.

     Sheriff Kevin Wells, at a press conference Saturday morning, August 16, in speaking about the suspects, said there was "definite potential" of other kidnap victims associated with the couple. As a result, addition charges could be filed against Howells and Vaisey. The sheriff said he believed the Amish kidnappings had been carefully planned.

     Howells, a father of three, worked as a registered nurse at Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center in Ogdenburg, a town adjacent to Oswegatchie.

     Nicole Vaisey graduated with honors in 2011 from Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. During her senior year, as a psychology major, she received a $1,500 grant to do research about the effects of watching pornography on attitudes toward rape. She was president of the Mercyhurst chapter of Psi chi and a member of the Mercyhurst Psychology club and the school's Active Minds club.

     Upon graduation from Mercyhurst, Vaisey worked as a substitute teacher at a day care center then took a job with an agency in St. Lawrence County that serves developmentally disabled people. After moving in with Stephen Howell, she worked twice a week as a dog groomer at Bows & Bandanas Pet Salon and Resort. The couple met eighteen months ago online.

     Vaisey's lawyer, Bradford C. Riendeau, told a reporter with The New York Times that he planned to argue in court that his client was in an abusive and submissive relationship with Howells. She was not, he said, the lead person in the kidnapping. "She appears to have been the slave and he was the master."

     St. Lawrence County district attorney Mary Rain, said, "We are confident that Vaisey was equally involved in the allegations as he was."

    In May 2015, Howells pleaded guilty to the sexual exploitation of six children, including the two Amish victims. He also pleaded guilty to five counts of child pornography.

     Nicole Vaisey, that May, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sexually exploit minors as well as nine counts of sex exploitation of children.

     In January 2016, St. Lawrence County Judge Jerome Richards sentenced each defendant to 25 years in prison. These sentences ran concurrently with the couples' earlier sentencing in federal court. In the federal kidnapping case, Howell received a prison term of 580 years. Vaisey was sentenced to 300 years behind bars. 

Execution by Gas Chamber

     It would be hard to devise a more expensive, dangerous, or cruel method of execution than death by gas chamber, which was designed and invented by Army Medical Corps officer Major Delos Turner and stands as the only execution device that requires the condemned to participate in his or her own execution, by inhaling lethal gas.

     Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton, a toxicologist, first proposed the gassing of inmates to the state of Nevada, whose legislature adopted it as the state's official method of execution in 1921, replacing the electric chair.

     Between 1930 and 1999, 955 men and 7 women died in gas chambers in eleven states: Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, and Wyoming. Nevada came first with the gassing to death of Gee Jong on February 8, 1924, and Arizona last with a German national named Walter LeGrand on March 3, 1999. Four states, including Arizona, have retained the gas chamber as an alternative method of execution, even though it has proved to be anything but humane.

     Death in a gas chamber usually takes six to eighteen minutes. It took eleven minutes before Donald Harding was pronounced dead in the Arizona gas chamber on April 6, 1992. The warden presiding over the execution said he would quit his job before carrying out another gas chamber execution.

     The ritual of this form of execution begins when the condemned inmate is led into the death chamber and strapped into a chair by the arms, waist, ankles, and chest. A mask covers the inmate's face. The chamber is sealed. An executioner pours sulfuric acid down a tube into a metal container on the floor below a metal canister that contains cyanide pellets.

     An open curtain allows witnesses to see the inmate in the chamber. If the inmate has a final statement, it is read. Then the warden signals the executioner, who hits an electric switch that opens the bottom of the metal canister and releases the cyanide pellets into the acid, unleashing a cloud of lethal gas.

Billy Wayne Sinclair and Jodie Sinclair, Capital Punishment, 2009

What is Literary Success?

     It is important to establish your own definition of success. Is it one story? A completed manuscript? One appreciative reader? Publication? A bestseller? A number-one bestseller? Ten number-one bestsellers?…

     [According to writer Irvine Walsh]: "I'll just write until I can't write anymore. If my next book was my last book, I wouldn't care at all. If my next book was my two hundredth from last, it wouldn't bother me. You can only write so long as you've got something to say. I don't think there's any particular virtue in being a writer."

In Ian Jackman, editor, The Writer's Mentor, 2004 

The Pompous Writer

     Sometimes it takes courage to drop our pretensions, to choose use instead of utilize, rain instead of precipitation, arithmetic instead of computational skills. An idea expressed in simple English has to stand on its own, naked and unadorned, while ostentatious words sound impressive even when they mean nothing.

     Not all pompous writers are showing off or covering up their ignorance. Some are just timid, imagining that their ideas are flimsy or flawed or silly, even when they aren't. If you've done your homework, you shouldn't have to disguise your ideas with showy language. Be brave. Write plainly.

     The truth about big, ostentatious words is that they don't work as well as simple ones.

Patricia T. O'Conner, Words Fail Me, 1999

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Too Fat To Execute? America's Biggest and Baddest Losers

     America's weight problem has changed the way we live (and die), and has affected how we punish, or can't punish, some of our worst criminals. The issue of a condemned man's weight arose in 1994 when a death row inmate argued that he was too fat to be humanely executed. In 1981, Mitchell Rupe shot two bank tellers to death in a Olympia, Washington robbery. In 1994, federal judge Thomas S. Zilly ruled that the 425-pound convicted double murderer was too heavy to be hanged.

     Judge Zilly was afraid that when Mr. Rupe ran out of rope, his body would keep going without his head. Although not as clean as having one's head severed by a guillotine, this form of decapitation is no less effective. Since the whole point of executing someone is to kill them quickly, it's not clear to me why Judge Zilly considered hanging Rupe as cruel and unusual punishment. Okay, it would comprise an unusual way of dispatching a condemned prisoner, but how can one method of state-run sudden death be crueler than another equally effective technique? From the perspective of the death row inmate, the cruelty lies in watching the clock tick down to the big moment. In Mitchell Rupe's case, Judge Zilly was apparently more concerned with execution aesthetics than effectiveness.

     As it turned out, Judge Zilly, by saving Mitchell Rupe from a quick and painless end, sentenced him to a slow, painful death caused by liver disease, advanced cirrhosis, and hepatitis C. Rupe died on February 8, 2006 at age 51. At the time of his death his weight had fallen to 260 pounds. As a result of the Rupe case, the Washington legislature, in 1996, changed the state's method of execution from hanging to lethal injection.

     In 1981, the year Mitchell Rupe gunned down the two bank tellers in Olympia, Allen "Tiny" Davis murdered a pregnant woman and her two children during a home invasion robbery in Jacksonville, Florida. A year later, a jury found him guilty of three counts of first degree murder. The judge sentenced Davis to death. In 1998, as Davis' execution date approached, the 54-year-old death row inmate's attorney argued that his 355-pound client was too heavy for the state's 76-year-old electric chair. (In the old days, when the prison diet consisted of bread and water, weight wasn't a problem. Just kidding.)

     Since it was built in 1923, Florida's "Old Sparky," having dispatched 200 occupants, had done it's job quite effectively. However, in 1997, during the execution of a prisoner, the chair sort of malfunctioned. When the executioner applied the juice, flames shot a foot in the air from the top of the condemned man's head. The following year, following this gruesome tableau, the prison, with Allen "Tiny" Davis in mind, oversaw the construction of a new, heavy-duty electric chair that could accommodate a 350-pount guest. On July 8, 1999, the Florida state execution ran 2,300 volts through the metal cap on Davis' head for two minutes. It wasn't pretty, but Old Sparky II did its job.

     Executing overweight prisoners through lethal injection has also presented problems for condemned men and their executioners. On May 24, 2007, an executioner in Ohio ran into difficulty killing 38-year-old Christopher Newton. Six years earlier, while serving time for burglary, Newton had murdered his cellmate. Now it was his time to go. Because of his weight--Newton tipped the scales at 265--it took the executioner two hours and ten attempts to find a proper vein for the inmate's lethal dose of pentobarbital. During the prolonged execution, Newton was actually granted a bathroom break. Once again, the death room aesthetics were not good. While obese people are generally unhealthy, and die relatively young, they are apparently difficult to execute. I guess you'd call that a paradox.

     Nineteen-year-old Richard Cooey, in 1986, threw chunks of concrete off a bridge over Interstate 77 near Akron, Ohio, causing the deaths of two University of Akron students. As his execution date approached, the five-foot-seven, 267-pound inmate claimed that prison food and the lack of exercise had made him too fat to execute. According to Cooey, because of his excess weight, the executioner would have a difficult time locating a vein for the lethal dose. The 41-year-old killer did not prevail in his effort to escape his date with the deadly needle. On October 14, 2008, the Ohio executioner had no difficulty finding a way in for the pentobarbital.

     Ronald Ray Post was on death row at Ohio's Mansfield Correctional Institution for murdering a woman in 1983. According to his attorney, Post was so heavy at 480 pounds the execution gurney may not be strong enough to roll him to his death. Moreover, because of his morbid obesity (pun intended), Post's executioner may have a hard time locating a good vein for the killing agent. In support of his petition to escape his death sentence, Post submitted evidence that medical personnel at the institution had in the past struggled to insert an IV into the 53-year-old's left arm.

     In 2013, not long after Ohio Governor John Kasich commuted Post's death sentence to life, the murderer died of natural causes while being treated at the Franklin Medical Center in Columbus.

     If candidates for the death penalty are becoming too fat to electrocute, hang, or inject, maybe we should consider bringing back the firing-squad. Since there are rifles that can bring down elephants, I see no reason to spare the lives of fat murderers who's crimes were so atrocious they qualified for the death sentence. I don't think it's right to allow prisoners to eat themselves out of death row. Since people who have not murdered anyone pay the consequences for overeating, so should inmates scheduled for execution.