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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: Knockout Game a Non Story for The New York Times

     The New York Times has discovered that the media panic over the "knockout game"--in which primarily black youths engage in random, violent, racist attacks against mostly white victims--is just a product of "fear sown by reports" that "may have racial roots."

     In " 'Knockout Game' a Spreading Menace or a Myth," a...story from Saturday's paper [November 24, 2013], reporter Cara Buckley, with the help of two other credited journalists, reports that "police officials in several cities where such attacks have been reported said that the 'game' amounted to little more than an urban myth, and that the attacks in question might be nothing more than the sort of random assaults that have always occurred"… However, the paper's record on other seeming trends is an unbroken tissue of credulous reporting about alarming phenomena that did not stand up to close scrutiny…[Racially motivated church burnings, crack babies, killer bees, global warming, etc.]

     According to a journalistic rule of thumb, three examples of any phenomenon are enough to constitute a trend. "If there ever was an urban myth, this was it," a Jersey City [New Jersey] police spokesperson told the Times' Buckley when asked about the knockout game.

Tim Cavanaugh, The Daily Caller, November 25, 2013


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Michael Joseph's Deadly Daughter

     In America, teenage girls have become cold-blooded killers. Over the past decade girls between the ages 13 and 17 have murdered or attempted to murder girlfriends, boyfriends, and parents. Pretty in pink has turned into ugly in red.

     In 2012, 51-year-old Michael Joseph resided with his 12-year-old daughter Jasmine in an apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. That year, Jasmine started running away from home and associating with neighborhood street thugs who turned her into a child prostitute.

     Just after midnight on October 28, 2013, as Mr. Joseph slept, Jasmine let two members of the Crips gang into the apartment for the purpose of murdering her father. In the kitchen, she handed Ricardo Leveillez, her on-and-off boyfriend, a knife. She also armed Leveillez's friend, a gangbanger known as "Murder," with a blade from the kitchen drawer.

     Mr. Joseph awoke that night to find two young men stabbing him with his own kitchen knives. One of the attackers yelled, "Kill that motherf---er!" After being stabbed in the face, chest, arms, legs, and back, Mr. Joseph managed to escape by running into another room and locking the door.

     Shortly after the assault, a surveillance camera caught Leveillez and "Murder" walking out of the apartment building. Before leaving, the two gang members stole the victim's wallet. They also drove off in Mr. Joseph's 2012 Hyundai Sonata, a car they later wrecked. Later that day the hoodlums were recorded on another surveillance camera using the victim's debit card.

     When police officers searched the wrecked and abandoned stolen Hyundai they discovered one of the bloody knives.

     On November 11, 2013, New York City detectives arrested Jasmine Josephs on 34 criminal charges that included attempted murder. The 14-year-old claimed that her father had raped her. (Mr. Joseph denied the allegation and detectives believed him.)

     Four days following Jasmine's arrest, a Brooklyn judge released the girl to the custody of her mother, a resident of a Manhattan homeless shelter for people with AIDS. The judge also issued a restraining order prohibiting the accused attempted murderer from any contact with her father.

     Detectives arrested Ricardo Leveillez a few days later on the charge of attempted murder. The Crips gangster told investigators that Jasmine, who had been thinking about having her father killed for some time, had motivated them by alleging that he had raped her.

     Leveillez was booked into Rikers Island on $250,000 bail. His accomplice, the gangster known as "Murder," is still at large. 

Criminal Justice Quote: Mafia Kicked Out of Cuba

[Fidel] Castro is a complete nut! He's not going to be in office or power for long. Either Batista will return or someone else will replace this guy because there's no way the Cuban economy can continue without tourists, and this guy is closing all the hotels and casinos. This is a temporary storm. It will blow over.

Miami Mafia boss Santo Trafficante circa 1962 in Jerry Capeci, Wiseguys Say The Darndest Things, 2004

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Subway Train Station Pushers: Death on the Tracks

     Beneath the streets of New York City where barbaric young men are sucker-punching strangers to the pavement in a game called "knockout," mental cases and drunks are pushing people off subway station platforms onto the tracks below. If these case reflect an emerging trend in random, violent assault and murder, New York residents and visitors to the city are becoming less safe.

     In December 2012, Erika Menendez shoved Sunando Sen into the path of an oncoming subway train. The 31-year-old mental case pushed the Bangladeshi immigrant onto the tracks at the elevated 40th Street-Lowery stop in Queens.

     When taken into custody, Menendez told her interrogators that "I pushed a Muslim…because I hate Hindus and Muslims. Ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers I've been beating them up."

     Menendez, charged with second-degree murder, is being held without bail.

     At a subway station beneath Manhattan, Naeem Davis, a homeless man with a history of mental illness, pushed 58-year-old Ki Suck Han onto the tracks in front of a passing train. This murder also took place in December 2012. Just before his sudden death, the small business owner from Queens and Davis were seen arguing with each other. Davis has been charged with the second-degree murder of a total stranger.

     On Friday afternoon, November 22, 2013, as 72-year-old Sho Kuan Lin and his wife Yumie Li stood on the train platform at the 145th Street station in Harlem, a 57-year-old drunk named Rudralall Baldeo walked up behind Sho Kuan Lin and pushed him onto the tracks.

     Several subway station bystanders lifted the victim to safety before a train rolled into the station. Paramedics rushed the Chinese native to St. Luke's Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery for a fractured skull.

     A New York City prosecutor has charged Baldeo with attempted murder and felony assault. A magistrate has denied him bail. 

Criminal Justice Quote: Annie Dookhan: Rogue Massachusetts Crime Lab Drug Analyst Goes to Prison

     Annie Dookhan, a chemist for the Massachusetts police, was sentenced to three to five years in prison after committing a fraud so extensive that her crimes call into question the validity of over 40,000 convictions.

     Dookhan worked in a laboratory examining evidence in drug cases. She was a go-to analyst for law enforcement and prosecutors, thanks to her rapid turnaround time and penchant for delivering much needed drug evidence to score convictions.

     Her record, however, was based on countless criminal fabrications. She falsified numerous reports, cut corners, forged signatures, inflated her credentials, lied about whether she was actually testing the lab samples she received and even tampered with evidence, according to NPR.

Robby Soave, The Daily Caller, November 25, 2013

Writing Quote: A Writer Buried in Books

     I've decided that books are my enemy, though they used to be my great love. They are taking over. They crowd my dining room, they double up in the bedroom, they make the attic floor sag. We even have a library in the bathroom: shelves and shelves of books where a normal person might have a vanity table or piles of towels….

     I once went through our library and calculated that my husband and I had read about a third of the books that we own, and I think, as we buy more books and read of third of what we buy, that the statistic is more or less holding up. Sometimes we even buy a book and go to put it on one of our few organized shelves only to find that it is already there….

     We have a psychological problem and we recognize it: We never get rid of books….It's a sick relationship we have with these piles of pages between covers. Most people wold be secretly bragging if they said this, but I'm not bragging. I think it's weird and demented. Maybe I'm so involved with my books' fate because I am a writer, and I can all too well imagine a reader taking one of my books and cosigning it to the trash heap.

Amy Wilentz, "…One Book Out," The New York Times Book Review, August 4, 2013

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Iranian Rock Band Murder-Suicide Case

     In 2012, five members of a rock band from Iran called Yellow Dogs were granted asylum in the United States. The group had achieved notoriety in 2009 following the airing of a documentary about the underworld music scene in Tehran called "No One Knows About Persian Cats." The production won an award at the Cannes Film Festival.

     In Iran, the "post punk/dance band" rehearsed in a homemade soundproof studio and performed in underground concert venues. The Yellow Dogs, by performing in Iran, risked arrest and imprisonment. Music in that country is not tolerated by the state.

     In America, the band played at New York venues such as Webster Hall and the Brooklyn Bowl and as far away from the group's East Williamsburg, Brooklyn townhouse as Austin, Texas.

     In 2012, 28-year-old guitarist Ali Akbar Mahammad Rafie left the band following a dispute over a relatively small amount of money. Following his departure, Rafie joined a group called Free Keys.

     Just after midnight on Monday, November 1, 2013, the former Yellow Dogs guitarist, armed with an assault rifle concealed in a guitar case, made his way to the roof of a townhouse adjoining the three-story dwelling occupied at that time by two members of the band and several other tenants. From a third floor terrace, Rafie fired a shot through a window that killed a 35-year-old musician who was not a member of the Yellow Dogs band.

     Once inside the townhouse, Rafie entered a third floor bedroom where he shot and killed Arash Farazmand. Rafie shot the 28-year-old Yellow Dogs guitarist in the head. On the second floor, Rafie murdered the guitarist's brother Soroush. At the time of his death, the 27-year-old drummer was on his bed working on his laptop computer.

     Rafie, before returning to the roof, shot a fourth tenant, a 22-year-old artist names Sasan Sadeghpourosko. This victim, shot in the arm, was treated and released from a local hospital.

     Back on the roof, the mass murderer took his own life by shooting himself in the head. (The third and fourth members of the Yellow Dogs band were not home when Rafie went on his shooting rampage.)

     Residents of the industrial neighborhood consisting of warehouses and a few dwellings mostly inhabited by young musicians and artists were stunned by the murders of the Yellow Dog band members and the other musician. The two murdered Yellow Dog musicians came to America to be free. Instead, thanks to a fellow Iranian, they were dead. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Knockout Game

     There's an emerging urban street crime that is quite alarming. It's called the knockout game. A black youth, in broad daylight, sneaks up behind a random white pedestrian and tries to knock him or her unconscious with a single sucker punch. Some of the victims hit the pavement and die.

     These assaults are not motivated by money, sex, drugs, or revenge. Moreover, the black youths who perpetrate these unprovoked attacks are not crazy. The street gangsters who commit these blindside assaults do it for the thrill and fun of seeing strangers they've rendered unconscious hit the ground with a thud. These are recreational crimes that reflect a breakdown of civilized life.

     In Brooklyn, New York knockout practitioners, in a series of assaults, have targeted Jews. On November 10, 2013, in a "Get the Jew" attack, a knockout artist killed a 78-year-old woman.

     There have been knockout crimes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, St. Louis, Missouri, Hoboken, New Jersey, and Washington, D. C.

     According to Bo Dietl, a former New York City police detective, the news media has ignored the knockout trend because it involves black-on-white crime. Appearing on the Fox TV show "Hannity," Dietl said, "The liberal news media doesn't want to say exactly what [the knockout game] is. It's a group of black youths attacking whites. It's called polar bear hunting….That's racism."

     A white woman recently sucker-punched to the ground in the Columbia Heights section of Washington, D. C. by black teenagers playing the knockout game appeared on the Greta Van Susteren show on Fox TV. Regarding her victimization at the hands of a young gangster, she said: "I've moved past it and I really have no bad feelings about what happened. And I just see it as another reason why we [society] need to better support our youth with activities and youth programs….It's great to see teenagers do incredible things when they're supported and empowered."

     Good heavens. This woman views her vicious attackers, criminals who could have killed her, as victims of a society that has neglected them. In other words, it's our fault. No bad feelings? Really? What world does this woman live in?

      

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: Role of the CIA and the Mob in the JFK Assassination

     Attorney General Robert Kennedy was not a believer in the lone gunman theory. Like many Americans, he could not accept that a man as ordinary as Lee Harvey Oswald could have acted alone in assassinating the president of the United States, his brother John F. Kennedy.

     Who did he suspect was part of the plot? "Apparently Bobby Kennedy's first suspicion was that it was some rogue element of the CIA," said Philip Shenon, author of a new book on the JFK assassination. But after an intimate meeting with CIA Director John McCone, the president's brother was convinced the agency was not involved. He lived the rest of life suspecting that the Mafia or the Cubans were behind his brother's death, according to Shenon's book, A Cruel and Shocking Act.

Evan Burgos, "An Inside Job: CIA a Suspect for Some in JFK's Killing," NBC News 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Writing Quote: The Problem With Young Writers

     Though everybody is talented and original, often it does not break through for a long time. People are too scared, too self-conscious, too proud, too shy. They have been taught too many things about construction, plot, unity, mass and coherence….

     Another trouble with writers in the first twenty years is an anxiety to be effective, to impress people. They write pretentiously. It is so hard not to do this. That was my trouble.

     For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting. It was a regular horror to read them again. Of course they did not sell either, not one of them.

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, originally published in 1938 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: Locked Docks: Courtroom Cages for Criminal Defendants

     Long eschewed as prejudicial by American courts and by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, locked docks, either metal cells or enclosures made of glass or wood, are still common, not only in countries like Russia and Egypt where the judicial systems often face international criticism, but also in Western democracies, including Britain, France, Canada, and Australia….

     Critics often cite security concerns for using docks, either the risk that violent suspects pose to others, or the danger to defendants from potentially hostile spectators. Supporters say that when docks are used routinely, they do not attract notice or prejudice against defendants, but are crucial to safety….

     Although there has been little research on the potential influence of locked docks on the verdicts reached by judges or juries, experts argue that defendants are clearly put at an disadvantage. "All the evidence we can collect suggests that it's prejudicial," said David Tait, a professor at the University of Western Sydney in Australia who has studied the issue….

     In the United States, docks have been virtually eliminated as a result of judicial rulings, including by the Supreme Court. Some states still have courtrooms with docks, but many
are historic relics and are rarely used. Instead, some American courts discreetly chain the ankles of a potentially dangerous defendant to the floor. Others require an electric stun belt, which can deliver an immobilizing shock, to be worn under a defendant's clothes. As a security measure, the International Court in the Hague puts the entire spectator gallery behind a glass partition….

David M. Herszenhorn, "Presumed Innocent, but Caged in Court," The New York Times, November 18, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Andy Kaufman: A Dead Comedian or a Stay-at-Home Dad?

     Andy Kaufman became famous in the 1970s as the comedic character Latka Grauas in the popular sitcom "Taxi." He later appeared regularly on "Saturday Night Live." At the height of his fame, after a performance at New York's Carnegie Hall, Kaufman arranged for 24 buses to take his audience of 2,800 out for milk and cookies after the show. As he career petered out, Kaufman took on the persona of a cheesy and abusive lounge singer from New Jersey he called Tony Clifton. During this period the eccentric (and in my view unfunny) comedian participated in a series of bizarre wrestling matches with women. At times he seemed unhinged which in Hollywood often passes for brilliance.

     In May 1984, suffering from a rare form of lung cancer, Andy Kaufman died in a West Hollywood hospital room. He was 35.

     In 2013, the 9th Annual Andy Kaufman Comedy Awards ceremony was hosted by Andy's brother Michael at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. That Monday night, November 11, 2013, Michael stunned the audience with the announcement that his brother was in fact alive.

     Michael Kaufman informed the awards show audience that when going through Andy's things following his supposed passing, he had found an essay by Andy detailing how he planned to fake his own death. According to the scheme, Andy would reappear at a specific restaurant on Christmas Eve 1999.

     Michael, on Christmas Eve 1999, showed up at the restaurant to meet his presumably dead brother. Instead, he was met by a waiter who handed him a typed letter from Andy in which he had written that he had fallen in love and had gone into hiding. (The typed letter precludes handwriting identification. And where is this letter, anyway.)

     In the letter, Andy supposedly wrote that he and his girlfriend resided with their ten-year-old daughter at an undisclosed place. The letter led Michael to believe that everything was great in Andy's life. He had faked his death simply to get away from being Andy Kaufman. The reclusive ex-comedian asked Michael not to tell their father, Stanley Kaufman, that he was alive. (Does that mean Stanley Kaufman would not have been pleased to learn that his son was alive and that he had a granddaughter?)

     In July 2013 Stanley Kaufmann passed away. Not long after his father's death, Michael received a call from a 24-year-old woman who claimed to be Andy's daughter. The caller had good news. Andy Kaufman was still alive. (Andy would be 65.) The young woman said she went by the last name McCoy, the name Andy had used when checking into hospitals.

     As the awards audience tried to digest Michael Kaufman's shocking revelations, the host called a young woman onto the stage and introduced her as Andy's daughter. Addressing the comedy crowd, this woman said, "Andy just wanted to be a stay-at-home dad. That's why he wanted to leave showbiz. He's pretty much a great dad. My mom has her own business…he helps her with that kind of thing--paperwork and stuff--so he can work from home and he doesn't have to be hiding out or concealing himself. He just makes us food and takes care of the house."

     Andy Kaufman's friend, fellow comedian Al Parinello, in talking about Andy's secret life after death, said this to a reporter with The Comic's Comic: "Only the family actually saw Andy's body [before the closed-casket funeral]. Andy was an aficionado of meditation. One of the things Andy was taught at the highest level was a process where one could slow down his breath to a point where you can literally fool anyone that you may be dead when in fact you are alive."

     Andy must not only have mastered the technique of death impersonation well enough to fool the hospital pathologist, he must have found a way to tolerate having his blood replaced by embalming fluid. Otherwise, he managed to pull off a tricky body switch. It that's what happened, then there's a body in Andy's grave that's not him. That is unless the substitute corpse was cremated.

     In response to the news that the comedy world's strange duck was not a dead duck, Kaufman's last girlfriend, 56-year-old Lynne Margulles, told TMZ that she had watched him die in the West Hollywood hospital room. According to Margulles, Kaufman's only daughter is a 40-year-old named Maria.

     If Andy Kaufman had in fact faked his own death, is he guilty of a crime? In the United States faking one's own death is not against the law per se. It is, however, a criminal offense to use the ploy to defraud an insurance company or to avoid taxes and other debts. It is also not a crime to publicly announce that a dead man had faked his own death. But it is a bad taste joke. But in life that's what Andy Kaufman had become, a bad taste comedian. 

Writing Quote: E-Books Taking Over in Britain

     Ninety-eight British publishers closed their doors in the year ending August 2013. The cause? E-books and online discounts.

     Closures were up 42 percent over the previous year, according to the Guardian. The companies that folded included the 26-year-old healthcare publisher Panos London, and Evans Brothers, which published popular children's book author Enid Blyton for 30 years.

     During 2012, e-book sales in Britain rose by 134 percent to more than $346 million. While print sales still dominated the bottom line in Britain with more than $4.6 billion in sales, that total was a one percent drop from the year before. The trend is toward e-books, and that trend has not been good for publishers….

     "The rise of Amazon and other discount sellers with massive buying power means the pressure on publishers' margins is now immense," Anthony Cork of [publisher] Wilkins Kennedy told the Guardian. "While publishers might be able to sustain relatively small margins on a bestseller, it is much harder for niche publishers."

Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2013

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: Who Killed Kennedy?

Even the basic facts of [John F.] Kennedy's death are still subject to heated argument. The historical consensus seems to have settled on Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin, but conspiracy speculation abounds--involving [Lyndon B.] Johnson, the C.I.A., the mob, Fidel Castro or a baroque combination of all of them. Many of the theories have been circulating for decades and have now found new life on the Internet, in Web sites febrile with unfiltered and at times unhinged musings. [According to Vincent Bugliosi, 82 people have, over the years, been accused of assassinating President Kennedy.]

Jill Abramson, "The Elusive President," The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 2013

Writing Quote: Novelists Criticizing Novelists

     Novelists are not remotely wary of criticizing one another's work in private; they do it all the time. Only when they're asked to commit their shoptalk to print do they grow reticent. A hardy few are prepared to engage tough-mindedly with the works of their peers….

     Most fiction writers end up deciding that discretion is the greater part of critical valor. Some recuse themselves from reviewing any contemporary fiction at all. Others review only those novels they can praise in good faith. Still others adopt a tactful, discursive reviewing style that allows them to write about books they don't rate without actually copping to an opinion.

     Before we rebuke these writers for their intellectual cowardice, we ought to acknowledge the genuine difficulty of the task they shirk. The literary world is tiny. The subgroup represented by novelists is even tinier. If you're an author who regularly reviews other authors, the chances of running into a person whose novel you have criticized are fairly high….It may not be the worst thing in the world to find yourself side by side at a cocktail party with the angry man whose work you described as mediocre in last Sunday's paper, but the threat of such encounter is not a great spur to critical honesty. [If you're interested in literary courage, read B. R. Myers' book Reader's Manifesto where he rips apart several so-called literary giants. A great book and a wonderful read.]

Zoe Heller, The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 2013


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Gonzaga University Students: Don't Bring Your Guns to School

     In the fall of 2013 Gonzaga University students Erik Fagan and Daniel McIntosh resided in a university owned, off-campus apartment complex in Spokane, Washington. The seniors at this Jesuit institution were good students who had never been in trouble with the law or the school. But thanks to an uninvited and unwelcome visit to their apartment by a total stranger, that all changed.

     On the night of October 24, 2013, John M. Taylor, a 29-year-old man with six felony convictions that included drug possession, unlawful imprisonment, and riot with a deadly weapon, knocked on roommates' apartment door. When Erik Fagan answered the knock, he encountered a black man who boldly asked for $15. Not feeling comfortable giving a stranger money simply because he asked for it, Fagan offered Taylor canned food and a blanket.

     Rather than either accept the gifts or walk away, Taylor entered the apartment where he repeated his request--or perhaps a demand--for the money. At this point, with an intruder in the dwelling who wanted money, Erik called out for Daniel McIntosh.

     Fagan's roommate entered the room carrying a loaded 10 mm Glock pistol. The sight of the firearm was enough to prompt the strange man's prompt retreat from the apartment.

     While running a potential robber out of their apartment by exhibiting a gun was the right thing to do,   reporting the incident to the campus police department turned out to be a mistake.

     The roommates were visited that night by officers with the Spokane Police Department accompanied by Gonzaga security personnel. Armed with a description of the intruder, police officers took Taylor in for questioning a short time later. (I do not know if they have charged him with a crime.)

     If Fagan and McIntosh thought they had acted responsibly and could move on, they were wrong. Gonzaga administrators, now aware that two of their off-campus students were living under the same roof with a firearm, were horrified. Possessing that weapon violated the school's zero-tolerent policy of no guns on campus-owned property.

     Rather that at least wait for daybreak, several campus police officers, at two that morning, rousted Fagan and McIntosh out of bed.

     Gonzaga officers not only confiscated McIntosh's pistol, they seized Erik Fagan's shotgun.

     McIntosh's firearm had been given to him by his grandfather. The student, in complying with the law, had acquired a state-issued permit to carry a concealed weapon. Fagan possessed the shotgun because he liked to hunt.

     On November 8, 2013, a panel of university personnel at a disciplinary hearing found Fagan and McIntosh guilty of possessing guns on school property and putting others in danger. (I guess, at Gonzaga University, the last thing school officials want their students to do is to "endanger" ex-felons they don't know who have, without invitation, entered into their dwellings asking for money.)

     The guilty students, due to public outrage over the university's handling of this case, placed them on probation. The boys could have been expelled or suspended. Fagan and McIntosh have asked the university to return their illegally seized guns.

     Note to Gonzaga students: When confronted by an intruder inside your dwelling, pick up a baseball bat or a butcher's knife. That is assuming the school doesn't have a blanket policy that prohibits any form of intruder endangerment. If the school has an intruder protection policy, then help the intruder loot your apartment, or run like hell.  And do not call campus security if you exhibited a bat or knife because the officers might confiscate these instruments of endangerment. You could also get kicked out of school. Oh, if the intruder displays a firearm be sure to tell him he is in big trouble with the school. (Even though the university anti-gun policy doesn't apply to him.)

Writing Quote: Sherlock Holmes: Arthur Conan Doyle's Gold Mine

[In 1891] I made my first effort to live entirely by my pen. It soon became evident that I had been playing the game well within my powers and that I should have no difficulty in providing a sufficient income…The difficulty of the Sherlock Holmes work was that every story really needed as clear-cut and original a plot as a longish book would do. One cannot without effort spin plots at such a rate. They are apt to become too thin or break. I was determined, now that I had no longer the excuse of absolute pecuniary [financial] pressure, never again to write anything which was not as good as I could possibly make it, and therefore I would not write a Holmes story without a worthy plot and without a problem which interested my own mind, for that is the first requisite before you can interest anyone else.

Arthur Conan Doyle in Russell Miller, The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, 2008

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Juan Rivera Case: A False Confession and the Unsolved Murder of Holly Staker

     Years ago I wrote a book about two youngsters who in 1956 and 1958 confessed falsely to Pittsburgh area murders they didn't commit. (Fall Guys: False Confessions and the Politics of Murder, 1996) In those days people believed that short of physical abuse, innocent persons would not confess to crimes they didn't commit. Although we know better now, innocent people continue to confess because the police either don't know how to properly interrogate, or they know how to elicit false confessions.

     Anyone, under the right conditions, can falsely confess, but those most prone to this are young people, the mentally slow, and arrestees terrified of the police. False confessors often think that the investigators will eventually catch the real criminal and everything will be staightened out. These people obviously don't know much about law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

     An interrogator more interested in getting at the truth than acquiring a confesson should suspect that something is wrong when the physical evidence contradicts the confessor's account of the crime. Factual inconsistency within the confession is another sign of trouble. To avoid false confessions, interrogators should  be careful not to feed details of the crime to suspects and to ask open ended questions. Contradictions in confessions should be resolved before the written statements are signed. To reduce the risk of coercion, prolonged questioning should be avoided, and it's best that only one officer conduct the interrogation in a calm and professional manner. Ideally, an interrogator should only question a suspect that he believes, based on solid evidence, is guilty of the crime at hand. Interrogation techniques should not be used on weak suspects.

     All interrogations should be video-taped (In some states this is required by law.) and no conviction should be based solely on the strength of a confession.

The Juan Rivera Case

     On the night of August 17, 1992, someone raped and stabbed to death an 11-year-old girl named Holly Staker who was baby-sitting two young children in Waukegan, Illinois. The Lake County police questioned 200 people, including a 19-year-old with a ninth-grade education named Juan Rivera. Rivera said he had attended a party that night not far from the murder house. At the party he had noticed a man who had behaved strangely. Weeks later, on October 27, 1992, the police brought Rivera back to the station for a second interview. Rivera told the same story, but the interrogators didn't believe him.

     Following a psychologically brutal, nonstop 24-hour interrogation, Rivera broke down and confessed to raping and murdering Holly Staker. When asked why his fingerprints were not at the scene of the crime, Rivera provided a helpful explanation. After stabbing the girl 27 times, then raping her, Rivera said he bashed in a door with a mop to simulate a break and entering. Before leaving the house, he removed his fingerprints by wiping off the mop handle with a towel. He then broke the murder knife and tossed the pieces in the victim's backyard.

     In 1993, a jury found Rivera guilty and sentenced him to life. In two subsequent trials, the last being in 2009, juries found him guilty again even though DNA testing in 2005 ruled him out as the depositor of the semen inside the victim's body. (The prosecutor wished this exonerating evidence away with the preposterous theory that the 11-year-old had had sex with another man just before being murdered by Rivera.) The fact Rivera had been convicted of such a serious crime without the benefit of physical evidence linking him to the crime scene or the murder weapon, reveals the power confessions have over juries.

     On December 10, 2011, an Illinois appellate court reversed Rivera's murder conviction. The judge also barred Lake County prosecutors from going after Rivera for the fourth time. A week later, the 39-year-old, after 19 years served at the Statesville Correctional Center near Joilet, walked out of prison. Because Rivera's interrogators manufactured a false confession, Holly Staker's killer has not been brought to justice.

Criminal Justice Quote: Public Executions

     For almost 5,000 years of human history, public executions have been an excuse to party, from the mass stonings of biblical times to the drunken festivities at Tyburn gallows in England all the way to the wine-and blood-soaked mobs at the guillotine, that "National Razor of France"….

     America was of course not exempt. Back in 1693 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a bargeman convicted of murder was scheduled to be hanged on July 3. The Colonial Records of Pennsylvania matter-of-factly stated, "There were too few people there to make the affair enjoyable."

Richard Zacks, An Underground Education, 1997

     

Writing Quote: A Generation of Semi-Literates

     Can you tell a pronoun from a participle; use commas correctly in long sentences; describe the difference between its and it's?

     If not, you have plenty of company in the world of job seekers. Despite stubbornly high unemployment, many employers complain that they can't find qualified candidates.

     Often, the mismatch results from applicants' inadequate communication skills. In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates' inability to speak and write clearly….

     Experts differ on why job candidates can't communicate effectively. Bram Lowsky, an executive vice president of Right Management, the workforce management arm of Manpower, blames technology. "With Gen X and Gen Y, because everything is shorthand and text, the ability to communicate effectively is challenged," he said. "You see it in the business world, whether with existing employees or job candidates looking for work."

     Others say colleges are not doing a good job. In a survey of 318 employers published earlier this year by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and conducted by Hart Research Associates, 80 percent said colleges should focus more on written and oral communication….

Kelley Holland, "Why Johnny Can't Write, and Why Employers are Mad," CNBC, November 11, 2013

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Romano Dias Poisoning Case: A Strange and Mysterious Death

     According to Katee Dias, in early 2010 while residing in London, England, she received a package in the mail. The parcel bore the correct address but was intended for someone else, a former resident perhaps. Thinking that this person might claim the item, Katee held the package for six months before opening it. When she did, she found a bottle that, according to its label, contained a fruit drink. Katee kept the bottle and threw away the packaging.

     At some point (here the story gets vague) Katee gave her father, a resident of Impington, a Cambridgeshire village in southeast England, the presumed fruit drink. In October 2013, 55-year-old Romano Dias opened the three and a half-year-old bottle and consumed half of its contents. (Based upon news reportage, Katee was present when her father gulped down some of the drink.)

     After a couple of mouthfuls, Mr. Dias reportedly said that the liquid tasted "awful." Shortly thereafter he complained of a burning throat then said, "I am in trouble here. I am dying. I am dead." Mr. Dias collapsed and died, presumably from the contents of the outdated fruit juice bottle.

     A laboratory analysis of the mystery bottle's contents revealed that it contained liquid methamphetamine. (Dealers in meth frequently transport the drug in liquid form.) In speaking to a reporter with the Cambridge News, pathologist Dr. John Grant said that Mr. Dias had consumed well above the lethal dose. He said that while meth use in the United Kingdom has been traditionally light, the American television show "Breaking Bad" has popularized the drug. ("Breaking Bad" was a series about a former high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who becomes an accomplished meth cook.)

     Following a coroner's hearing, Cambridgeshire coroner William Morris ruled the manner of Mr. Dias' death "accidental." The coroner based his ruling on the fact there was no evidence that the sender of the lethal package had intended to harm the victim or anyone else.

     In the United States, the sender of the liquid meth could have been charged with felony-murder. Under the felony-murder doctrine, the perpetrator of a felony that directly results in an unintended death is criminally culpable for the killing of that person. Mailing $34,000 worth of methamphetamine must be a felony in England. Mr. Dias died as a direct result of that crime. The sender, therefore, is guilty of criminal homicide.

     By classifying Mr. Dias' death as accidental, the Cambridgeshire coroner shut the door to a criminal investigation. As a result, the public will never know who sent the bottle of meth to Katee Dias' house in London. (Did the police process the bottle for latent fingerprints?) Other questions that will remain unanswered include: Why did Katee keep the bottle so long? Exactly when did she give it to her father? Why did she give it to him? And did he know he was consuming a three and a half-year-old drink?  

Criminal Justice Quote: Afghanistan Poppy Farming and Opium Production

     Afghanistan produced record levels of opium in 2013--despite nearly $7 billion spent by the U. S. to combat the problem, according to a sobering United Nations report out Wednesday [November 13, 2013]. Propelled by strong demand and an insurgency that has become more hands-on in the trade, cultivation of opium poppies, which are processed into heroin, rose 36 percent, amounting to 209,000 hectares [a hectare of land is about two and a half acres].

     Afghanistan remains the world's largest opium producer--last year accounting for 75 percent of the world's heroin supply. This is despite more than a decade's worth of international efforts to persuade poppy farmers to switch to other crops such as wheat….

     At $160 to $200 for one kilogram of dry opium, compared to 41 cents for one kilogram of wheat, farmers are making a strictly economic decision when they decide to get into the opium trade…

Aarne Heikkila, producer, NBC News

  

Writing Quote: Begging For Cover Blurbs

     Writers published by the biggest New York houses get [blurb] requests all the time. Typically they come from the editors at these publishing houses. It will be an email, or an actual book in the mail with a note attached that says something like this: "Jane Doe's first novel is an exciting new take on an old story and we'd be so pleased if you'd give it a look. And if you deem it worthy, a few words of support on Jane's behalf, sent to us by such and such a date, would give her novel a tremendous lift!"

     The more famous and respected the writer, the more of these blurb requests he or she will get. They might come from friends of the famous writer, too, or from his or her editor or agent and their friends. One imagines that Jonathan Franzen, for example, could spend hours and hours responding to the blurb requests he gets. Some writers are famous in the book trade for blurbing a lot (too much), and others for never blurbing at all.

Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2013

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Writing Quote: Managing Fear of the Blank Page

All working writers devise their own program for keeping fear at bay. Although writing nerves never vanish, they do become more manageable over time. No magic strategy exists that will turn an anxious novice into a self-assured veteran. Since courage points very so much from writer to writer, there is no one-size fits-all program to recommend. Developing writing courage involves learning about one's working style and how it's best manipulated.

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lakisha Gaither's Warning Shot: Reckless Endangerment or Self-Defense?

     On Saturday night, October 19, 2013, when questioned at her apartment complex in Woodbridge, Virginia, Lakisha Gaither told Prince William County police officers that she and her daughter had been set upon that night by a gang of boys. As Gaither and Brianna, her 15-year-old daughter, walked to their apartment, ten boys approached them in the parking lot.

     According to the 35-year-old mother, one of the boys insulted and swore at them. Brianna, who was five-foot-nine and 160 pounds, did not back down. This led to an exchange of face-to-face insults. When the boy grabbed Brianna's shirt and started hitting her, Ms. Gaither unholstered her handgun and fired a shot into the air.

     The warning shot ended the parking lot confrontation.

     Police officers arrested Lakisha Gaither for the reckless use of a weapon, a misdemeanor offense. None of the boys were charged with a crime. The next day, Lakisha took Brianna to Fairfax, Virgina to stay with the girl's grandmother. Lakisha feared that the boys she had run off with the gunshot might retaliate.

     In speaking to a local reporter, a Prince William County spokesperson said, "Ms. Gaither should have called the police instead of taking matters into her own hands. She may have been trying to break up the fight, but that's not the proper course of action to take."

     The gun-owning mother told the same reporter that, "I didn't feel like I was wrong. I wanted to protect my child. I just wanted this group of guys to disperse. I didn't know what they were going to do. I wanted him to stop hitting my child."

     Gaither's public defender attorney, Daniel L. Hawes, conceded that his client, while well-motivated, should not have created a threat herself by shooting into the air.

     A week after the confrontation and warning shot, a Prince William County Police Department spokesperson issued a modified account of the incident. According to investigators, Brianna and the boy in question had been involved in an ongoing dispute over rumors that had been spread about her. That night, Gaither and her daughter had sought out the boy near his home where the fight and warning shot took place. The boy claimed that Brianna had thrown the first punch.

     Most people believe that citizens have the right to defend themselves when threatened with bodily harm. There is something profoundly satisfying about dispersing overwhelming force with a shot into the air. However, if the person claiming self-defense instigated the confrontation, there is a lot less sympathy for the shooter.

     The day after being taken to her grandmother's house in Fairfax, Brianna went missing. Lakisha filed a missing persons report with the police. "I don't know where she is," said the mother. "I don't know if she's okay. I don't know if she's hurt. There's been no action on her Facebook."

    Four days later, on October 24, 2013, Brianna returned home. Her mother, without revealing where her daughter had been, used Facebook to thank the people who had been looking for her.

     

Criminal Justice Quote: Who's Protecting Our Personal Data?

     Corporations have to be urged to better screen job applicants and to restrict access to sensitive information. Anyone working in the  payroll or personnel departments of a company would have continuous access to the private information of all employees, and they ought to be carefully screened. But if a company doesn't lock its file cabinets containing that information or protect computerized files, then anyone in the company has access to them. Anyone involved in processing expense accounts, including the secretary who first collects them, gets to look at personal data.

     Many companies use temporary employees. Do they screen them? Does the agency that sent them screen them? Lots of businesses, especially smaller ones, outsource things like payroll services. What's the security policy of those outside vendors? Do they even have any? You don't know the names of the people working there who are routinely handling your employees' private records.

Frank Abagnale (Of Catch Me if you Can fame), Stealing Your Life, 2007

Writing Quote: Books on John F. Kennedy

     Bad books by celebrity authors shouldn't surprise us [Bill O'Reilly's Killing Kennedy], even when the subject is an American president. The true mystery in Kennedy's case is why, 50 years after his death, highly accomplished writers seen unable to fix him on the page.

     For some, the trouble has been idolatry. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote three magisterial volumes on Franklin Roosevelt and the new deal, attempted a similar history in A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in The White House. Published in 1965, it has the virtues of immediacy, since Schlesinger, Kennedy's Harvard contemporary, had been on the White House staff, brought in as court historian. He witnessed many of the events he describes. But in his admiration for Kennedy, he became the chief architect of the Camelot myth and so failed, in the end, to give a persuasive account of the actual presidency.

     In 1993, the political journalist Richard Reeves did better. President Kennedy: Profile of Power is a minutely detailed chronicle of the Kennedy White House. As a primer on Kennedy's decision-making, like his handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, the book is fascinating. What's missing is a picture of Kennedy's personal life, though Reeves includes a passing mention of Marilyn Monroe being sewn into the $5,000 flesh-colored, skintight dress she wore to celebrate the president's birthday at Madison Square Garden in 1962….

     Balancing out, or warring with, the Kennedy claque are the Kennedy haters, like Seymour M. Hersh and Garry Wills. In The Dark Side of Camelot, Hersh wildly posits connections between the Kennedys and the mob, while Wills, through he offers any number of brilliant insights into Kennedy and his circle of courtiers, fixates on the Kennedy brothers' (and father's) sexual escapades in The Kennedy Imprisonment.

     The sum total of this oddly polarized literature is a kind of void. Other presidents, good and bad, have been served well by biographers and historians. We have first-rate books on Jefferson on Lincoln, on Wilson, on both Roosevelts. Even unloved presidents have received major books: Johnson (Caro) and Richard Nixon (Wills, among others). Kennedy, the odd man out, still seeks his true biographer.

Jill Abramson, "The Elusive President," The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 2013

Monday, November 11, 2013

Writing Quote: Sherlock Holmes in English Literature

Sherlock Holmes remains one of the few household names in English fiction, arguably the most famous character in literature after Hamlet, and one with whom the public has an extraordinarily intimate acquaintance. Everyone knows his catchphrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson!", although few are aware it is nowhere to be found in the stories. His eccentricities--pinning correspondence to the mantelshelf with a jackknife and keeping tobacco in the heel of a Turkish slipper, for example--are common knowledge. He is a valuable asset to the British tourist industry, known to 87 percent of visitors to Britain, and is one of London's major attractions--indeed, Japanese and Russians often cite him as their main reason for visiting the city. Misguided souls still write to him at his Baker Street "consulting rooms," in the hope that his genius may solve their problems, even though--had he ever existed--he would be long since dead.

Russell Miller, The Adventure of Arthur Conan Doyle, 2008

Criminal Justice Quote: Crime Lab Problems

In recent years, the integrity of crime laboratories has been called into question, with some heavily publicized cases highlighting (1) unqualified practitioners, (2) sometimes lax standards that have generated questionable or fraudulent evidence, and (3) the absence of quality control measures to detect questionable evidence. In one notorious case, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed serious inadequacies in the procedures used by the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, including routine failure to run essential scientific controls, to take adequate measures to prevent contamination of samples, to adequately document work performed and results obtained, and to follow correct procedures for computing statistical frequencies. There have been a number of other dismaying reports about crime labs--most recently, the San Francisco drug lab--that suffer from problems like those uncovered in Houston.

Judge Harry T. Edwards in Forensic Testimony (2013) by C. Michael Bowers

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: 19th Century Uses of Electricity

In 1878, electric shock was used as a substitute for floggings in the Ohio State Penitentiary, where prisoners were forced to sit naked in three inches of water while currant ran through it. At the same time that electricity was being used to punish, it was also touted as a cure-all. Galvanic belts, electrical corsets, magnetic healing, and dozens of electro-therapeutic devices, were patented and sold as cures from everything from toothache to cancer.

Th. Metzger, Blood & Volts, 1996

Writing Quote: Before You Write Have Something to Write About

When young people ask me how to get started writing, I tell them the best way would be go somewhere and do something, experience something, and then write about it. That's how Ernest Hemingway got The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.

Richard Rhodes, How to Write, 1995

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: Dealing With Child Abusers

If we really care about the sufferings of innocent children we would not for one moment consider turning loose the swarms of muggers and child molesters who the system has already caught…As the Marquis of Halifax said, "Whenever a knave is not punished, an honest man is laughed at." Our continued refusal to do the right thing can only be the result of cowardice and a callous indifference. By turning over the entire business to social workers and psychologists, we think we have discharged our responsibility, when all we have actually done is wash our hands.

Thomas Fleming, "Successful Crimes," Chronicle of Culture, March 1986

Writing Quote: A Writer's Revenge

[Some writers] insist that you should never write out of vengeance. I tell my students that they should always write out of vengeance, as long as they do so nicely. If someone has crossed them, if someone has treated them too roughly, I urge them to write about it.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 1994

Friday, November 8, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: How Societies Deal with Crime

     For thousands of years, human societies have sought to reduce the frequency and severity of such harms as murder, robbery, and rape. Various techniques for dealing with such crimes have evolved over time. Broadly defined, these techniques have had much in common across societies and over time. They may be outlined in the following familiar terms.

     The first technique is to ensure that the potential criminal understands that he has far more to lose than to gain from committing the crime. This serves to disincentivize the act or deter the actor, by sending a clear and unequivocal message: not only will you not benefit from the act, but if you are caught doing it you will be severely disadvantaged. A useful example of this mechanism is the treble or punitive damage remedy, which disgorges all gains from the person who secured them improperly and imposes a punitive fine.

     The second technique is to incapacitate those who would carry out the actions by imprisoning them, killing them, keeping them away from places they wish to target, or otherwise making it impossible for them to be in a position to undertake the undesirable actions. A useful metaphor for incapacitation is the zoo, where wild animals are kept behind bars. We are not seeking the change the animal's propensities but are simply erecting an impermeable barrier between it and us.

     A third technique is to persuade the actor not to undertake the action, by rehabilitating, reeducating, or shaming him, convincing him that the action is wrong. A good example of this mechanism is requiring drunken drivers to attend classes or enter programs designed to influence behavior.

Alan Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works, 2002

Writing Quote: Are Some Novelists Nuts?

Early in his career, John Cheever put on his business suit, then went from his apartment to a room in the basement where he hung his suit on a hanger and wrote in his underwear. Victor Hugo's servant took away his clothes for the duration of the author's writing day. James Whitcomb Riley had a friend lock him in a hotel room without clothes so that he couldn't go out for a drink until he had finished writing. [How do you lock someone in a hotel room?] Jessamyn West wrote in bed without getting dressed for what she thought were two compelling reasons: "One, you have on your nightgown or pajamas and can't go running to the door at the knock of strangers. Also, once you're up and dressed, you see ten thousand things that need doing."

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: Bank Robbery, An American Crime

Shortly after the Pilgrims planted their feet on Plymouth Rock, there was a problem with thieves. Crime crept like a plague from the boats of the Pilgrims, bringing to the new land all of the old conditions--both good and bad--that had defined Europe throughout the centuries. Robbing banks, however, had never been an established practice in the Old World. Instead, it can be chalked up as one of the great innovations in civilization brought to fruition in the new frontier nation--the United States.

L. R. Kirchner, Robbing Banks, 2003

Writing Quote: Injecting Humor in Your Writing

Writing is such lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up. If something strikes me as funny in the act of writing, I throw it in just to amuse myself. If I think it's funny I assume that a few other people will find it funny, and that seems to me to be a good day's work. It doesn't bother me that a certain number of readers will not be amused; I know that a fair chunk of the population has no sense of humor--no idea that there are people in the world trying to entertain them.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 1976 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: Who Wouldn't Want to be a Wiseguy?

As a wiseguy you can lie, you can cheat, you can steal, you can kill people--legitimately. You can do any goddamned thing you want, and nobody can say anything about it. Who wouldn't want to be a wiseguy?

Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggiero [played by Al Pacino in "Donnie Brasco."] In Jerry Capeci, Wiseguys Say the Darndest Things, 2004

"Forensic Testimony" by C. Michael Bowers

     Dr. C. Michael Bowers, the renowned forensic odontologist (dentist) known for his scientific integrity and independence, has published a new and important text called, Forensic Testimony: Science, Law and Expert Evidence. The book brings together the subjects of forensic science and the art of expert testimony.

     Dr. Bowers, an early skeptic of human bite mark analysis, discusses the problems of judicial acceptance of junk science into the courtroom. The author also addresses the dueling expert and other problems in forensic science.

     Forensic Testimony should be required reading for judges, trial attorneys, forensic scientists, and criminal justice students. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Lindbergh Kidnapping Case Speech

     At one o'clock on Saturday, November 9, Jim Fisher, the author of this blog and two books on the historic Lindbergh case, will speak in Allentown, Pennsylvania at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum on Walnut Street.

     While many crime buffs strongly believe that Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man executed for the 1932 Lindbergh murder was innocent, Fisher will make the case for his guilt. It is Fisher's belief that Hauptmann, acting alone, killed the baby in cold blood for the $50,000 ransom. All of the evidence presented by the prosecution at Hauptmann's 1935 trial in Flemington, New Jersey was physical and therefore circumstantial.

     On Saturday, Fisher will debunk the books that argue for Hauptmann's innocence, including the works that accuse Charles Lindbergh of accidentally killing his 20-month-old son then fabricating the kidnap story to cover up his role in the child's death. The exoneration books also accuse FBI agents, New Jersey State investigators, and New York City detectives of evidence tampering and perjury. Moreover, these authors allege a conspiracy of lies among the prosecution's eight handwriting experts who identified Hauptmann as the writer of the 16 ransom documents. These authors also attack the scientist who connected Hauptmann to the homemade, wooden ladder used to snatch the baby from his second-story nursery. There are also Lindbergh case enthusiasts who claim that the body found in the shallow grave two miles from the Hopewell, New Jersey Lindbergh estate was not Baby Lindbergh.

     After-speech questions and comments will be welcomed. Admission: $6 adults and $3 children. 

Criminal Justice Quote: Scams to Watch Out For

     [Watch out for] reverse mortgage and precious metals scams. Home-equity and reverse-mortage swindles are attractive now because a lot of seniors have paid off their homes, and that's like an untapped bank account. If your home is worth $300,000, and you've paid off your mortgage, you have $300,000 in the bank waiting for  me to steal it. A lot of TV and direct mail advertising tells you how to get money out of your house while you are still living in it. Some of these ads are legitimate, many are not….

     As for gold and silver scams, coins can be sold at a 300 to 500 percent markup. So the victims would pay $25,000 for a bunch of coins, which they would receive, but years later, they would take them to a coin shop and learn they were worth only a few thousand dollars. This is a great hustle, because the coin industry is largely unregulated. Plus, because the victims receive the coins, they don't realize until years later that they have been taken. With the bad economy, these scams are huge now….

     Victims don't look for why the offer is a scam; they look for why the offer will make them money. 

"Confessions of a Con Man," As told to Doug Shadel, Reader's Digest, November 2013 

     

Writing Quote: Responding to Rejection

     I've often suspected that part of the reason why editors take so long to decline on projects, apart from never having enough time to consider them, is linked to how uncomfortable we are rejecting and disappointing people, whether it's the agent who has submitted the work or the unknown soldier who wrote it. Plus, we've all seen enough books that have been notoriously and strenuously rejected throughout the industry that nevertheless go on to bestsellerdom or critical acclaim.

     Just as you shouldn't take a polite letter for an encouraging one, don't let a harsh letter do more damage than necessary….It's hard not to focus too deeply on a rejection letter, or any correspondence from an editor, because it's often the only feedback you have, but I beg you not to spend more time with rejection letters than the time it takes to read and file them away.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees, 2000

Monday, November 4, 2013

Bernard Goetz: The Return of the Subway Vigilante

     In the 1980s muggers, rapists, and panhandling bums ruled the streets, trains, and subway stations of New York City. The Bronx looked like a post World War Two city that had been bombed to rubble. Prostitutes, pimps, x-rated store fronts, strip joints, three-card monte stands, street corner drug dealers, and thieves selling their loot were entrenched in Manhattan's Times Square. (Today, Times Square is as wholesome as Disneyland.) New York had become a seedy, smelly, and dangerous place. Tourism had dropped off and people doing legitimate business throughout the city struggled. Corrupt and incompetent politicians had let the Big Apple rot. Law abiding residents of New York were angry, frightened, and fed-up.

     In 1981, a gang of muggers in a Canal Street subway station beneath Manhattan beat-up and robbed 34-year-old Bernard Goetz. After the attack, Goetz, the owner of a small electronics business in Greenwich Village, started carrying a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver.

     On December 22, 1984, at five-thirty in the evening, while riding the Number 2 train under Manhattan, four black teenagers approached Bernard Goetz and asked him for money. Believing that the youths were about to rob him, Goetz pulled out his S & W 38 and shot each kid once. The boys survived, but one of them, Darrell Cabey, was left brain-damaged and paralyzed.

     The subway shootings grabbed headlines in New York City and baffled the police who had no idea who had shot the teens. Nine days after the incident, Bernard Goetz turned himself into the police and identified himself as the so-called "Subway Vigilante." By now the case had divided New Yorkers by race. Blacks vilified Goetz as a trigger-happy racist. Many whites hailed him as a crime-fighting hero. The subway vigilante case symbolized a citizenry fed-up with out-of-control street crime and a broken criminal justice system.

     Manhattan's district attorney, fearing massive civil disorder, threw the book at Mr. Goetz, charging him with attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and criminal possession of a weapon. In January 1988, the jury in the high-profile trial acquitted the defendant of all charges but the third-degree weapons offense. The judge sentenced Goetz to one year in jail. Nine months later he was free.

     In 1990, Darrell Cabey, the person Goetz paralyzed, sued him for $50 million. Six years later the jury awarded Cabey $43 million in damages. That year Goetz declared bankruptcy.

     On December 22, 2011, twenty-seven years to the day he was shot by Goetz on the train, James Ramseur was found dead of a drug overdose. Asked to comment on Ramseur's death by a reporter with the New York Daily News, Goetz said, "It sounds like he was depressed."

     On Friday, November 1, 2013, a female undercover cop cracking down on Ganja (a highly resinous form of cannabis) peddlers in Union Square Park at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street in Manhattan, was approached by a tall, thin man in his sixties who asked if she wanted to get high. When the cop said yes, Bernard Goetz said he would go to his apartment and return with $30 worth of marijuana. Upon his return from his Greenwich Village dwelling with the weed, the undercover cop placed him under arrest. A Manhattan prosecutor charged Goetz with the misdemeanor offense of criminal sale of marijuana. Suddenly Bernard Goetz, the Subway Vigilante, was back in the news.

     Since shooting the four teenagers in 1984, life has not been particularly kind to Bernard Goetz. Darrell Cabey, who now lives in upstate New York, is still confined to a wheelchair.

Criminal Justice Quote: Opening a Serial Murder Case

A serial murder investigation is generally initiated by an agency or group of agencies following the identification of a series of related homicides….A serial murder investigation may be initiated as an extension of a current homicide investigation when a second unsolved murder or series of unsolved murders are linked to the original case. This linkage may be similarities in victims, crime scenes, attacks, geography, or any number of actions or situations which convince investigators that the homicides have been committed by a common killer.

Steven A. Egger, The Killers Among Us, 1998

Writing Quote: Detective Fiction's Golden Age and "Trent's Last Case" by E. C. Bentley

The well-known description "Golden Age" [of detective fiction] is commonly taken to cover the two decades between the First and Second Wars, but this limitation is unduly restrictive. One of the most famous detective stories regarded as falling within the Golden Age is Trent's Last Case by E. C. Bentley, published in 1913. The name of this novel is familiar to many readers who have never read it, and its importance is partly due to the respect with which it was regarded by practitioners of the time and its influence on the genre. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that it "holds a very special place in the history of detective fiction, a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original." Agatha Christie saw it as "one of the three best detective stories every written." Edgar Wallace described it as "a masterpiece of detective fiction," and G. K. Chesterton saw it as "the finest detective story of modern times." Today some of the tributes of his contemporaries seem excessive but the novel remains highly readable, if hardly as compelling as it was when first published, and its influence on the Golden Age is unquestionable.

P. D. James, Talking About Detective Fiction, 2009

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: Bank Robbery: The Lost Romance

Today's bank robbers, are, for the most part, crude amateurs possessing little of the romantic aura of yesteryear's brigands. Today, the fine art of illegally removing capital from a financial institution has often been reduced to the practice of crude thuggery or impulsive strong-arm holdups. This is not to say that old-style desperados were invariably suave or elegant; they were not. However, there was something about the old-time robber that captured the American public's attention and, frequently, admiration. The perception begs the question: "How were the old-times different from today's petty thugs?" [What difference? Many of the old-time bank robbers were worse. Billy The Kid was a vicious cretin, and John Dillinger, a generation later, was a cold-blooded killer. Nothing romantic about that.]

L. R. Kirchner, Robbing Banks, 2003

Writing Quote: Reading Good Dialogue

Good dialogue is such a pleasure to come across while reading, a complete change of pace from description and exposition and all that writing. Suddenly people are talking, and we find ourselves clipping along. And we have all the pleasures of voyeurism because the characters don't know we are listening. We get to feel privy to their inner workings without having to spend too much time listening to them think. I don't want them to think all the time on paper.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 1994

Mary Agnes Leider: Murder on the Crow Indian Reservation

     The Crow Indian Reservation, 3,500 square miles covering parts of Big Horn, Yellowstone, and Treasure Counties in southern Montana, is home to 8,000 tribe members. Geographically, it is America's fifth largest Indian enclave. In these jurisdictions serious crimes are federal offenses principally investigated by the FBI. Tribal police handle everything else. In many of these nations within a nation, rates of unemployment, alcoholism, and crime are significantly higher than the national average.

     Mary Agnes Leider, the mother of a three-year-old girl named Tannielle, lived with her mother in the Big Horn County town of St. Xavier on the Crow Reservation. On December 3, 2012, at four in the morning, she and her two brothers, after a night of drinking in Hardin, Montana, were on their way home in a Dodge pickup driven by her brother Wally. Lieder and her brothers had consumed a quart of gin and sixty beers. Mary, with her daughter sitting on her lap, sat in the front while her brother Arland rode in the back seat.

     Wally was driving 50 miles-per-hour on Highway 313 south of Hardin when Mary opened the truck door and tossed Tannielle out of the vehicle. Wally jammed on the brakes and ran back to find the child. He found her lying on the highway with blood gushing from of the back of her head. Because the little girl didn't seem to be breathing, Wally assumed she was dead.

     When Wally returned to the vehicle with Tannielle's unresponsive body in his arms, he told his sister and brother to get out of the truck. With his niece lying on the back seat, Wally drove toward St. Xavier with Mary and Orland sitting on the side of the road crying.

     Georgina Denny, the siblings' mother, was driving north on Highway 313 in search of her children and granddaughter when she passed Wally going the other direction. After both vehicles came to a stop, Georgina saw Tannielle and learned from Wally how she had died.

     A deputy with the Big Horn Sheriff's Office found Mary and Arland still sitting along Highway 313 crying uncontrollably. Mary told the officer that she and Wally had been arguing over how fast he was driving. (He was, in fact, driving under the speed limit.) According to Mary, when Wally stopped the vehicle abruptly, she banged her head of the dashboard. When she came to, Tannielle was gone. Mary said that's all she could remember. While the deputy spoke to Mary, police officers were questioning Wally and Georgina.

     Doctors at the Hardin Memorial Hospital pronounced Tannielle dead on arrival. At the same hospital, an FBI agent arranged to have samples taken of Mary's blood. (Her blood-alcohol level measured 0.24, three times the Montana threshold for driving under the influence.)

     While being questioned at the hospital, Mary alternated between her story that Tannielle had died in some kind of traffic accident, and "I killed my baby."

     According to the Montana State Medical Examiner's Office, Tannielle had died from severe head injuries. The medical examiner classified her death as homicide.

     The United States Attorney for the state of Montana charged Mary Agnes Leider with second-degree murder, a crime that carried a maximum sentence of life in prison. The federal magistrate denied Mary bond and appointed a public defender to represent her.

     On July 24, 2013, in a Billings, Montana courtroom, Mary pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder charge.

     On October 21, 3013, United States District Judge Donald Molloy, before imposing his sentence, said that in his eighteen years on the bench he had never encountered such depravity in a criminal case. The judge said the details of the offense made him nauseous. Because the judge wanted to keep the defendant from doing further harm, he sentenced her to twenty-one years in prison. (Leider's attorney had asked for a fifteen-year sentence.) Judge Molloy also said he wanted to send a message about the dangers of alcohol abuse on the Crow Reservation.

     Mary Leider, after receiver her sentence, said, "Words can't explain anything. Nothing can bring her back and I have to live with that."

     

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mass Murders: Twenty-One Killed in Four Massacres in Two Days

Terrell, Texas

    In 2013, Charles Everett Brownlow, Jr. lived with his mother Mary Catherine in Terrell, Texas, an east Texas town of 16,000 thirty miles from Dallas. At sixty-one, Ms. Brownlow worked at the Walmart store in nearby Mesquite. Her 36-year-old son, since his youth, had been in trouble with the law. The drug addict and burglar was sentenced to three years in prison in 2008 for possessing a firearm as a felon. He only served seven months of that sentence.  Brownlow, after being convicted of assaulting a family member in 2011 was back on the street in less than a year.

     At five o'clock on the afternoon of Monday, October 25, 2013, Charles Brownlow shot his mother to death execution style in her home. Thirty minutes later, just down the street, he murdered his aunt and set fire to her house. Firefighters found the victim's remains in the debris.

     That night, at ten-thirty, Brownlow shot a young couple. Police found James Wooden and Kelleye Lynnette Sluder dead in their Terrell home. Their three-year-old son was not harmed. (I don't know how Brownlow was connected to these victims.)

     Shortly after Brownlow's third and fourth murders, an off-duty police officer spotted his car parked outside a Terrell convenience store. As the officer pulled into the lot, Brownlow ran out of the store, jumped in his vehicle and sped off.

     Following a high-speed police chase, Brownlow lost control of his car and crashed. Unhurt, he ran into a heavily wooded area east of Dallas. Around midnight, police officers found the fugitive hiding in a creek bed.

     Back at the convenience store, investigators found employee Luis Leal-Carillo shot to death. The 22-year-old victim had worked at the store for three years. The fifth person Brownlow had killed that day left behind a one-year-old son.

     A local prosecutor charged Charles Brownlow with five counts of murder. The magistrate denied him bail.

Greenwood County, South Carolina

     In October 2013, 27-year-old Bryan E. Sweatt, a resident of rural Greenwood County, South Carolina had lost his girlfriend and custody of their seven-month-old daughter. Facing an upcoming burglary trial in which he faced up to twenty-five years in prison, he was about to lose his freedom.  Bryan E. Sweatt had also lost his mind.

     Sweatt's former girlfriend, Chandra Fields, lived in her parents' house on a rural road a few miles south of Greenwood, a town of 23,000 in the northwest part of the state. Recently, deputies with the Greenwood County Sheriff's Office had been summoned to the Fields' home on domestic violence calls involving Sweatt, Chandra, and her parents.

     Bryan Sweatt was not a stranger to local law enforcement. He had an extensive criminal history of burglary, assault, and forgery. He was also a violent self-pitying loser.

     On October 9, 2013, Sweatt expressed his rage, frustration, and hopelessness in an online message that read: "I'm about to lose it. I just want someone to talk to and be here with me so bad. I'm about to just get in the truck and ram it into the biggest pole I can find. Nobody gives a f…about me cuz of what that stupid b-h done [sic] to me. She played me for so long. I can't take it anymore. I've ask [sic] for someone just to be here for me to take my mind off doing something stupid to hurt myself. " [Punctuation added.]

     Sweatt, on October 20, 2013, posted the following angry, angst-ridden message to Chandra Fields: "U don't care and never wanted her [their daughter] to no [sic] me. But always remember its [sic] gonna come back on U when she grows up and thats [sic] what [sic] gonna make her hate U."

     Just before six o'clock on the evening of Tuesday, October 26, 2013, Bryan Sweatt, from Chandra Fields' house, called 911 and said, "I'm stressed out. I'm about to take my life."

     "Do you have a gun?" asked the dispatcher.

     "A 44," Sweat replied with the sounds of a crying woman in the background. Before the 911 dispatcher could ask another question, the phone line went dead. A few minutes after Sweatt's 911 call, a neighbor called 911 to report gunshots coming from the Fields' residence.

     Sheriff's deputies and a local SWAT team responded to the scene. After failing to get a response from anyone inside the house, officers entered the dwelling to find the bodies of four adults and two children. They had all been shot once in the head.

     After murdering Chandra Fields' parents and two of their grandsons, ages nine and eleven, Sweatt executed Chandra then killed himself. Their bodies were found in her bedroom. The parents and the children had been tied up. They also had their mouths duct-taped. Four other children who had been in the house escaped to a neighbor's house. They were not hurt.

     On October 25, 2013, in South Carolina, six people died in a mass murder-suicide. The next day, in Terrell, Texas, Phoenix, Arizona, and Brooklyn, New York, fifteen people were killed in three homicidal rampages. (For accounts of the Phoenix and Brooklyn cases, see: "Saturday Massacres: Two Men Kill Ten People on the Same Day," October 29, 2013.)

     Twenty-one deaths caused by four mass murderers within two days, while perhaps an anomaly, reflects an alarming trend in the nature of American homicide. Instead of being in prisons or mental institutions, violent losers are on the loose, free to take out their rage on family, friends, and society in general.

   

     

Criminal Justice Quote: Torture As a Substitute for Criminal Investigation

For more than 500 years in Europe, from the 1200s to the 1700s, including the heyday of the Renaissance, torturing accused criminals was standard operating procedure most everywhere except England. This was the primary means of determining guilt in a criminal in a criminal investigation, not eyewitnesses, not physical evidence, but confession. One of the prime reasons that the practice of torture survived and thrived was the stamp of approval given it early on by the enormously influential Catholic Church.

Richard Zacks, An Underground Education, 1997 

Writing Quote: Style Reveals Personality

The writer's personality and his personality on the page are not necessarily identical, but often there is a resemblance, not unlike that between an owner and his dog. A writer's work emanates from his personality, ego, sensitivities, and blind spots, his projections and unconscious wishes. All these contribute to what we eventually call style. Not everyone can arrive at a party and command the room; most writers are more inwardly focused. But even for those whose personal style attracts attention, the proof is always, finally, on the page. [This begs the question: can a reader tell if a novelist is a jerk by reading his fiction?]

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees, 2000

Friday, November 1, 2013

Lynne Spalding: Death BY Hospital Negligence

     On September 19, 2013, Lynne Spalding, suffering from a bladder infection, checked herself into the San Francisco General Hospital. The 57-year-old native of Peterlee, England worked in San Francisco's tourist industry. The thin, frail divorced mother of two seemed confused and disoriented, perhaps from the effects of  her medication. Members of the hospital staff assigned to her care were under orders to look in on Spalding every fifteen minutes.

     When one of Spalding's friends showed up at the hospital on September 21 for a visit, Spalding was not in her room. Hospital employees searched the immediate area and couldn't find her. Maybe she had checked herself out. The friend went to Spalding's apartment and found it vacant. When Spalding didn't return to her dwelling, the friend filed a missing persons report with the police.

     Over the next few days, the missing woman's friends and members of her family looked for her at various places in the city. They posted missing persons flyers around as well. One of her friends created a "Find Lynne" Facebook page. Deputies with the sheriff's office, the agency in charge of hospital security, conducted a search of the giant medical complex. It seemed this woman had vanished into thin air.

     At ten in the morning of October 8, 2013, seventeen days after Lynne Spalding went missing from her hospital room, a hospital employee discovered the body of a middle-aged woman lying dead in a stairwell used as a fire escape. Todd May, the chief hospital medical officer tentatively identified the dead woman as Lynne Spalding. (I presume she was wearing a hospital identification bracelet.)

     The job of determining when, where, and exactly how this woman had died rested in the hands of the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office. The principal determination involved Spalding's manner of death. While it was not unreasonable to presume that this hospital patient's death occurred naturally, the forensic pathologist looked for signs of physical trauma that suggested a struggle. The pathologist who performed the autopsy also looked for physical evidence of a sexual assault.

     Assuming the absence of foul play in this unusual death, the Spalding case presented the obvious question as to how this sick woman had gotten from her room to the stairwell without being observed by hospital staff. Unless the stairwell where Spalding's body was found was located in an extremely remote section of the hospital, someone should have detected the odor of decomposition.

     San Francisco General Hospital spokesperson Todd May, at a press conference held on October 8, 2013, said, "What happened at our hospital is horrible. We are here to take care of patients, to heal them, to keep them safe. This has shaken us to our core. Our staff is devastated."

     David Perry, Lynne Spalding's friend and the family spokesperson told reporters that "We need to know what Lynne's condition was. We need to know what she was being treated for and frankly we need to know what medications she was on and what state of mind she was in. We're not trying to place blame. We're trying to find answers."

     On Thursday, October 10, San Francisco General Hospital Chief Operating Officer Roland Pickens announced that pursuant to the medical examiner's office report, the corpse in the stairwell was Lynne Spalding's body. A second hospital spokesperson revealed that the stairwell in question was located several hundred feet from the unit where Spalding was being treated. According to this spokesperson, Spalding was being treated in a unit where patients are not watched closely. This contradicted previous information regarding the fifteen minute patient check-ups.

     In a private ceremony held on October 21, Spalding's body was cremated. (This meant, of course, that there would be no second autopsy if one became necessary.)

     On October 22, 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that four days before sheriff's deputies responded to the dead woman found in the city-owned hospital's stairwell, an orderly had twice stepped over her body thinking she was a homeless person. To reporters, Haig Harris, the attorney representing Spalding's children, said, "This is a hospital. Why didn't somebody put their hand on the body to see if there was a pulse?"

     David Perry, a Spalding family spokesperson said this to reporters: "The family is angry and frustrated and out of patience. While we understand the need for a thorough investigation, it has now been one month and three days since Lynne Spalding went missing....The time for answers and real solutions that will protect lives of future patients is long past due."

     A woman who had been visiting her son at the hospital in June 2013 said she had been locked in the same stairwell. She had taken the stairs instead of the elevator, entering the fifth-floor stairwell without realizing it was an emergency exit. The woman walked down to the ground level, but the door sounded an alarm when she opened it. She slammed the door shut and went back upstairs where she pounded on the door window to attract attention. A nurse who happened by let her back inside. No one had responded to the exit alarm.

     Investigators and hospital authorities did not reveal if Spalding had changed into her street clothes before leaving her room. (The fact the orderly presumed she was a homeless person suggests that she had.) While the coroner still had not revealed Spalding's cause of death, the family was assured she had not been the victim of foul play.

     Dan Cunningham with the San Francisco Police homicide unit announced on October 28, 2013 that four days before Spalding's body was discovered, an Asian man in his thirties wearing a hospital name tag told a hospital supervisor that he had seen a person lying in the stairwell. The supervisor checked out the stairwell but didn't see anyone there. Homicide investigators were trying to identify this man for questioning. (It's not clear if the Asian man was the orderly who stepped over the body on October 4, 2013.)

     On December 15, 2013, the medical examiner's office released the results of Spalding's autopsy. According to the San Francisco medical examiner, Spalding had died of "probable electrolyte imbalance with delirium clinical sepsis." In other words, she had died from a chemical imbalance related to chronic alcoholism. According to Dr. Thomas Shaughnessey, the electrolyte imbalances, in combination with a liver that is unable to compensate form the imbalance, resulted in a collapse of Spalding's heart or brain resulting in her death. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy was not able to say exactly when she died.

     Members of Spalding's family immediately disputed the allegation that she was an alcoholic. They were therefore outraged by the contents of the medical examiner's report.

     In February 2014, the Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency that decides whether hospitals meet minimum standards to be eligible for Medicare payments, announced the results of its extensive investigation into the Spalding tragedy. According to the report, hospital nurses failed to act on a doctor's order that this patient be watched around the clock. Federal investigators also blamed the sheriff's department for not having an emergency plan worked out with hospital staff. Investigators concluded that the hospital's "chaotic and poorly coordinated response had contributed to patient Spalding's death."

     The sheriff, in the wake of the hospital scandal, fired one member of the agency's hospital staff and suspended two others. Five more deputies were disciplined administratively. No hospital employees were punished for the Spalding fiasco.

     The Spalding family has filed a wrongful death suit against San Francisco General Hospital.

     

Criminal Justice Quote: Guillotine Chic

Almost from its first victim on April 25, 1792, the guillotine became a fetishistic object for the French during their revolution. Men had it tattooed on their bodies; women wore dangling guillotine earrings and brooches; the design was incorporated into plates, cups, snuffboxes; children played with toy versions, decapitating mice; elegant ladies lopped off the heads of dolls and out squirted a red perfume, in which they soaked their handkerchiefs.

Richard Zacks, An Underground Eduction, 1997

Writing Quote: Breeziness

There is a kind of writing that sounds so relaxed that you think you hear the author talking to you. E. B. White was probably its best practitioner, though many other masters of the style--James Thurber, V. S. Pritchett, Lewis Thomas--come to mind. I'm partial to it because it's a style that I've always tried to write myself. The common assumption is that the style is effortless. In fact the opposite is true: the effortless style is achieved by strenuous effort and constant refining. The nails of grammar and syntax [word order] are in place and the English is as good as the writer can make it.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 1976