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Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Richard De Wit Murder Case

     Sarah Groves, a 24-year-old hotel fitness instructor from the English Channel Island of Guernsey, was visiting her boyfriend in India's northwestern region of Kashmir. A former student at the Catholic St. Mary's boarding school in Ascot, she was a friend of Princess Beatrice. The boyfriend, Saeed Shoda, had arranged a room for Groves on his father's houseboat "New Beauty" on Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir's capital.

     At two in the morning of April 6, 2013, 43-year-old Richard DeWit, an unemployed Dutch man with a room on the houseboat, broke into Grove's suite and allegedly stabbed her 45 times. At the time of the murder, Mr. Shoda was spending the weekend with his friends. Miss Groves had remained with Shoda's parents who told reporters she had been like a daughter to them.

     Leaving everything behind on the "New Beauty" except for his passport and $2,500 inside his underwear, the barefoot, 7-foot-tall DeWit fled the houseboat in a stolen rowboat that capsized before he reached the shore. Once on land DeWit boarded a taxi.

     Shortly after members of the houseboat staff found Sarah Groves dead in a pool of blood, Kashmir police arrested DeWit on the National Highway 50 miles away in the town of Qazgund.

     Later that day, the murder suspect confessed to the police. He admitted having "violent tendencies" and said he had been under the influence of drugs during the 15-minute knife attack. DeWit explained that he had been overtaken by the devil. "The Devil took over my body," he allegedly said.

     DeWit's 31-year-old wife, Uma Rupanya, informed the authorities that DeWit had left her and their two daughters in November 2012. She said he had become "increasingly paranoid and irrational." According to the murder suspect's wife, "He believed the government was out to get him, that spies were following him, that his house was bugged."

      A prosecutor in Srinagar has charged DeWit with first-degree murder. (At seven foot tall, people in India must have seen DeWit as some kind of giant. I wouldn't want to be the police official responsible for organizing a line-up in this case.)

     At some point after his arrest, Richard De Wit took back his confession and pleaded not guilty.

     In February 2015, the De Wit murder trial got underway in Srinagar, India. In October 2015, following 29 trial delays, the defendant fired his attorney and the trial came to a halt.

     Sarah Grove's parents, in the spring of 2015, publicly expressed concerns that the authorities, in going after Mr. De Wit, had targeted the wrong man. They characterized the aborted De Wit trial as a farce, and indicated that they suspected the victim's boyfriend, Saeed Shoda. According to the victim's parents, the police had badly mishandled the murder investigation.

     As of August 2017, the De Wit case, after more than four years and 90 hearings, remained on hold. De Wit, from his jail cell, requested to speak to Grove's parents. According to the suspect, he had knowledge about the murder he wanted to pass on to them. The authorities denied that request.

     Apparently in India, the wheels of justice turn very slowly. 

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

Books on John F. Kennedy

     Bad books by celebrity authors shouldn't surprise us, 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

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

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

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Julia Merfeld Murder-For-Hire Case

     Early in 2013, 27-year-old Jacob Merfeld and his wife Julia moved from Keyport, a small Monmouth County town in eastern New Jersey, to Muskegon, Michigan. While they settled into their Muskegon apartment, the couple's two children, a 4-year-old daughter and a boy who was two, were cared for by Jacob's parents in neighboring Wisconsin.

     There was nothing about Jacob Merfeld, a member of the U. S. Coast Guard, or his 21-year-old wife that seemed out of the ordinary. To the outside world they appeared to be a typical middle-class couple doing their best to raise their children and succeed in life.

     In late March 2013, Julia told co-worker Carlos Ramos that she wanted out of her marriage. She said that although her husband was a nice guy who treated her well, she had found someone else, a person she wanted to live with. While Ramos found this revelation mildly provocative, what came out of this woman's mouth next truly shocked him.

     Julia, over a period of several days, talked about how her husband's death would be so much better for her than a divorce and all that went with such a prolonged, complicated process. For one thing, a divorce would be embarrassing, and it would break Jacob's heart. So this was her plan: She would pay Carlos $50,000 out of Jacob's $400,000 life insurance policy if he murdered her husband. The money would be paid to the hit man in $10,000 installments.

     When this ordinary, unexceptional young wife and mother offered Carlos $50,000 to commit cold-blooded murder, he didn't take her seriously enough to notify the authorities. Carlos figured she was either joking or just blowing off steam. The cool, unemotional way Julia discussed having her husband dispatched by a contract killer made the whole proposition seem unreal.

     Carlos Ramos started to change his mind about Julia as she continued to talk about her murder-for-hire fantasy, and his role in it as the hit man. He eventually decided that she meant business, and that his best course of action involved notifying the Muskegon County Sheriff's Office about her deadly plan. He certainly had no intention of becoming a hired killer. The fact she even considered him a candidate for such an assignment boggled his mind, and convinced him there was something profoundly wrong with this woman. She spoke of murdering another human being the way one would speak of squashing a cockroach.

     On April 9 and 10, 2013, an undercover officer with the Muskegon County Sheriff's Office who posed as a hit man, met with Julia Merfeld in the officer's car in a Fruitport Township parking lot. With the hidden camera running, the murder-for-hire mastermind explained her reasons for such a drastic solution to a common problem: "It's not that we weren't getting along," she said. "But as terrible as it sounds, it was easier than divorcing him. You know, I don't have to worry about the judgment of my family. I don't have to worry about breaking his heart." (I'm sure if given the choice, Jacob Merfeld would say, "break my heart, please.")

     Julia instructed the phony hit man that she didn't want him to kill Jacob as part as a staged burglary that turned violent. Her reason for not wanting him to do that was self-serving: she didn't want to scare off the person she hoped would move into the apartment with her after Jacob's death. Besides, an inside killing would be, in her words, "messy."

     Julia said she hoped the hit man would do his job in such a way that wouldn't cause Jacob a lot of pain. She recommended the breaking of his neck. (This woman had obviously seen movies featuring trained killers adept at fatally snapping necks. In real life, breaking a person's neck is not an efficient or easy way to commit murder.) The undercover cop remarked that he usually killed people with guns and knives. Throughout the murder-for-hire conversation, the officer repeatedly told Julia that he was going to put two bullets in Jacob's "noggin." To that she repeatedly responded, "Okay."

     Julia informed the undercover officer that she did not want to know in advance when he planned to commit the murder. "It would be better if you surprised me," she said. "The more shocked I am when it happens, the better. I just want to make it as non-suspicious as possible."

     At one point during her two meetings with the sheriff's deputy, Julia asked, "What happens if you are caught?" The officer assured Julia that as long as he or an associate kept receiving the hit money installments, her name would be kept out of the investigation. (It's hard to image anyone stupid enough to believe that a captured hit man would not immediately roll over on the mastermind.)

     Toward the end of their second meeting on April 10, 2013, Julia handed the undercover officer $100 in upfront money to show that she was serious about having her husband murdered. She also gave the officer a floor-plan to the apartment, a photograph of  her husband, and written directions to the apartment complex where she hoped the hit man would kill Jacob as he walked out of the building. At this point, the man Julia thought was a contract killer, displayed his badge and placed her under arrest.

     A Muskegon County prosecutor charged Julia Charlene Merfeld with solicitation to commit murder. The local magistrate denied her bail.

     On June 27, 2013, faced with the certainty of a conviction based on the videotapes of her conversations with the undercover officer, Merfeld pleaded guilty to the solicitation charge. Three days later, as she stood before the sentencing judge, the defendant said, "I do not believe I'm above punishment. I know what I did was wrong and I take full responsibility. My tears are for remorse, not pity."

     Julia's husband, the man she tried to have murdered, also spoke at the sentencing hearing. Jacob Merfeld told Judge William C. Marietti that he had forgiven his wife because she was a "godly woman who did an ungodly thing." Jacob asked the judge not to send his wife to prison.

     Judge Marietti sentenced the murder-for-hire mastermind to six to twenty years behind bars. This was an extremely light sentence.

     

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

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

The Power of the Eye-Catching True Crime Headline

     There is nothing like a good murder story to sell newspapers. And a good story needs an eye-catching headline. The Victorians mastered this art and nowhere was the genre better demonstrated than during the 1870s in the Illustrated Police News. This was a popular, high-circulation newspaper and a forerunner of the modern tabloids.

     The paper reported various types of criminal happenings and bizarre events with arresting headlines and, in an age before press photographs, used graphic artists' illustrations. Headlines contained two essential elements to connect with readers' interests. First was a reference to the nature of the crime and, all importantly, where it had taken place. This was usually preceded by an adjective to stimulate interest and convey a sense of outrage. Thus, in 1873, a "Dreadful Child Murder at Hull" was reported and, in 1876, a "Frightful Wife Murder in Bristol."

Robin Odell, The Mammoth Book of Bizarre Crimes, 2010

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Matthew Hinson Murder Case

     William C. Pettry lived with his wife and three children 50 miles from Chicago in Lake Villa, Illinois. On Friday, October 7, 2012, the 42-year-old self-employed contractor and his best friend, Nick Viverito, flew to Jacksonville, Florida from Milwaukee to attend a Sunday Bears-Jaguar pro football game.

     On Saturday, the night before the game, Pettry and his 42-year-old friend were eating and having drinks at an upscale Irish restaurant called Fionn MacCools located near their hotel. Around midnight, Pettry and Viverito were sitting at a table on an outside patio visiting with other Chicago Bears fans. Matthew Hinson, his wife, and another woman, people who lived in the area, were nearby waiting for inside seating. The two men from Illinois exchanged smalltalk with the 28-year-old Hinson and the two women with him.

     Shortly after Matthew Hinson, his wife, and the other woman walked inside the restaurant to their table, William Pettry walked into the bar to get more drinks. When he didn't return to the patio after twenty minutes, his friend began to wonder where he was. About this time a waitress approached Viverito and said, "Hey, your friend, he's not breathing at the bar. He's full of blood." Viverito ran into the restaurant where he found Pettry on the floor bleeding profusely from his neck. Nurses who happened to be dining at the restaurant were trying to stop the bleeding and resuscitate the seriously wounded man. William Pettry bled to death on the floor of the bar.

     According to witnesses, Hinson, using a small pocketknife, had slit Pettry's throat, then walked out of the restaurant. The two men had been sitting on a bench when Hinson stood up, pulled out his knife, and ran the blade across Pettry's neck. As he left the place, Hinson made a cutting motion across his throat with his finger. Jacksonville police officers stopped his car as he was pulling out of the parking lot. Following a brief scuffle, they took Hinson into custody.

     Matthew Hinson admitted to the arresting officers that he had killed the man in the bar with his pocketknife. Angry words had not been exchanged between the two men. The attack had been entirely by surprise, and unprovoked. While Hinson didn't tell the police why he had murdered a total stranger, witnesses informed the officers that he had attacked Pettry out of jealously and rage. He didn't like the fact the victim had spoken to his wife. The murder had nothing to do with sports rivalry.

     Matthew Hinson, charged with criminal homicide, was held in the Jacksonville County Jail without bond. In speaking to reporters, county police Lieutenant Rob Schoonover said, "Hinson calmly and in cold blood cut the victim's throat and walked out of the restaurant." In 2006, Hinson had pleaded no contest in Florida's Clay County to driving under the influence. Beyond that, he had no criminal record that anyone could find.

     On Saturday, October 13, 2012, current and former Chicago Bears team members held a fundraiser for the Pettry family. The proceeds came from the auctioning of Bear-related sports memorabilia.

     In crime fiction, because murder is such a deviant and evil act, murderers are either motivated by extreme hatred, greed, or lust. But in real-life, so-called spontaneous murders--killings without corresponding motivations--are common. They are committed by homicidal time-bombs like Matthew Hinson who walk among us unnoticed until they lash out.

     On May 21, 2013, two months before his trial date, Hinson pleaded guilty to second degree-murder. At his sentencing hearing on July 18, 3013, Hinson's attorney, public defender Kate Bedell, told Circuit Judge Suzanne Bass that Henson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse.

     The judge sentenced Hinson to life in prison.
     

Why Do Writers Write?

Interviewers ask famous writers why they write, and it was the poet John Ashbery who answered, "Because I want to." Flannery O'Connor answered, "Because I'm good at it," and when the occasional interviewer asks me, I quote them both. Then I add that other than writing, I am completely unemployable. But really, secretly, when I'm not being smart-alecky, it's because I want to and I'm good at it.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 1994

Most Writing is Rewriting

It took me six years to finish my novel Legs. I wrote it eight times and seven times it was no good. Six times it was especially no good. The seventh time out it was pretty good, though it was way too long. My son was six years old and so was my novel and they were both the same height. [There is rewriting and there is excessive rewriting. Writing a book eight times is ridiculous.]

William Kennedy in The Writer's Mentor, Ian Jackman, editor, 2004 

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

     

The Walmart Toe-Sucker: It's a Strange World

     Police in North Carolina have arrested a man accused of sucking on a woman's toes at a Walmart store after convincing her that he was a podiatry student. Authorities say Michael Anthony Brown was arrested Thursday night, March 20, 2014 at his home in Concord. He was turned over to Lincolnton police. A Lincoln County magistrate has set his bond at $50,000 on a charge of assault on a female….

     According to police, Brown is a registered sex offender….The victim agreed try on several pairs of shoes at the store in Lincolnton. At some point the man stuck her foot in his mouth. Police say the when the woman became upset, the man offered to pay for her groceries.

"Walmart Toe-Sucking Suspect Arrested," Associated Press, March 21, 2014 

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Stephanie Faye Hamman Attempted Murder Case

     Stephanie Faye Hamman lived with her husband Steven in an apartment in Church Hill, Tennessee. At nine-thirty Sunday night, March 16, 2014, as Steven watched a NASCAR race on television, his 23-year-old wife climbed into her Toyota Celica and drove the car through the front doors of the Providence Church across the street from their apartment.

     From inside the church Stephanie called Steven on her cell phone and informed him she had plowed the Toyota into the building. When Steven walked into the church through the demolished front entrance, he found his wife lying at the foot of the altar. As he checked on the condition of his wife, she rose up and stabbed him in the right side of his chest with a large kitchen knife. "The devil is in me!" she yelled.

     The devil may have been in Stephanie, but the big knife was in Steven. He managed to pull it out of his chest and make his way back across the street to his apartment where he called 911.

     After thrusting the kitchen knife into her husband's chest, Stephanie got back into the damaged Toyota and drove off. Later that night a Church Hill police officer found the car parked in an apartment complex parking lot in nearby Allandale. A relative had driven Stephanie to the emergency room at the Holston Valley Medical Center.

     When taken into custody at the hospital, Stephanie explained to the arresting officer that she had stabbed her husband because she was angry over his "worshiping NASCAR."

     At the Church Hill Police Department, after she had been advised of her Miranda rights, Stephanie became quite talkative. "So God told me," she said, "that He wanted me in their [the church] so I drove my car through the front doors. God told me to do it, so I did it."

      "After I drove through the doors, I put all the things I brought to the church to the altar. I called Steven and told him I had wrecked. I laid down in front of the altar until he got there. The devil told me to take the kitchen knife with me. I prayed I would not have to use it on him, but I did."

     Stephanie told detectives she had been baptized earlier in the day at another church. She also admitted that she smoked a lot of marijuana. "I smoke a bunch of weed," she said. "I love to smoke it. Sometimes when I do, I start seeing things that others don't. Isn't God good? He told me this would happen, and just look, I am okay."

     While Steven Hamman wasn't as okay as his wife physically, doctors expected him to survive his puncture wound.

      A Hawkins County prosecutor charged Stephanie Hamman with attempted first-degree murder and felony vandalism. The judge denied her bail.

     On December 8, 2014, a Hawkins County Grand Jury indicted Hamman on the attempted murder and assault charges. But on December 17, 2014, Judge J. Todd Armstrong, acting on the recommendation of Attorney General Dan Armstrong, dismissed the Hamman case. According to the prosecutor, a psychiatric evaluation of the defendant revealed that, at the time of the assault, she was not mentally competent. In justifying his decision, Armstrong used the term "temporary insanity," a legal defense that in reality does not exist.

   

     

Determining Gender From the Skeletons of the Young

     Determining sex in children can be elusive. Most of the skeletal differences, even in the pelvis, that distinguish the sexes don't fully define until early adulthood, and the differences that do exist in children are often not of the magnitude that permit a confident estimate.

     One of the best indicators of sex in a child is the teeth. In determining gender, the indicator is not in how dissimilar they are but in how alike. It is well known that in general males tend to be a year or two slower than females in their overall body development. But although girls' long bones grow earlier and faster than boys' do, for some reason that same advantage is not as extensive in the development of the teeth. Accordingly, it is possible to estimate the sex of a child's skeleton by comparing the extent of skeletal development with the level of dental maturation. The older the child, the more accurate the technique. However, we usually do not attempt to estimate the sex of immature skeletons because the accuracy reaches only about 80 percent even in older children. In a forensic case, 80 percent is not good enough; we can estimate with 50 percent reliability just by guessing.

Dr. Douglas Ubelaker and Henry Scammell, Bones, 1992

The Phantom Education of Illiterate Football Players

     If I had ever turned in a 146-word paper to one of my professors, I can assure you I would not have received an A- even if they were the most brilliant 146 words written in English. But apparently if you're an athlete at the University of North Carolina, those 146 words don't even have to be grammatically correct. Former professor Mary Willingham provided the essay as an example of the sort of "work" that UNC athletes are allowed to get by on at the school, and the image has certainly sparked conversation around the topic.

     It's one thing to know that athletes who attend schools where sports are a priority get special treatment and are often given grades they don't deserve just to keep them on the team. But it's a whole new thing to see a one paragraph essay that makes up a fictional conversation between Rosa Parks and a bus driver and know that the jock who wrote it got a better grade than a lot of students got for their well-reseached 10-page essays. But according to Willingham, who spent 10 years tutoring student athletes before turning whistleblower, this sort of thing happens all the time.

     "I became aware of this 'paper class' system, she told ESPN, "where students would take classes that didn't really exist." Formerly called "Independent studies," these "paper classes" involve no attendance, and in fact only require students to write a paper, at least according to Willingham. And the papers the students produce are far from college quality; in fact, Willingham says, some of the players only have a second grade reading level, which for an adult is functionally illiterate….

     In the ESPN segment, Willingham's allegations are backed up by former UNC athlete Duenta Williams, who added that advisors at the school were mostly interested in ensuring that he remained eligible to play, not in ensuring he got the best education possible. They both also claim that the NCAA turned a blind eye to these practices….[If American high schools didn't graduate illiterates, we'd still have college football, it just wouldn't be as professional. The problem is in our public education system where sports is also more important than academics.]

Emma Cueto, "This 146-Word Essay Earned UNC Athlete An A-, Says Former Professor," Clementinedaily.com, March 28, 2014 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Timothy Tyler's Small Crime, Big Sentence

    In 1991, 22-year-old Timothy Tyler, an avid user of the hallucinogenic drug LSD, was a so-called "Deadhead" who traveled the country attending Grateful Dead concerts. That year, while en route to a rock concert in California, DEA agents arrested Tyler on the charge of conspiracy to possess LSD with the intent to distribute.

     Tyler, from his home in Florida, had mailed an out-of-state friend five grams of the drug. As it turned out, the friend had become a DEA snitch. Tyler had been arrested twice before on LSD charges. On both of these occasions the judge had sentenced him to probation.

     In 1986, five years before Tyler's third LSD arrest, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act that contained a "three strikes and you're out" provision. Under the new federal sentencing guidelines, judges, without regard to a defendant's age, lack of violent crime record, mental state, or drug addiction, were required to impose a sentence of life without parole on a defendant's third drug conviction.

     Under the 1986 Anti-Drug Act, prosecutors were supposed to use the law to bring down major drug traffickers. Instead, as could be predicted, prosecutors went after low-level drug offenders like Timothy Tyler. Federal prosecutors did this because it was easy, and made them look like real crime-fighters. (The three strikes and you're out sentencing provision is no longer in effect.)

     The federal prosecutor in Florida offered Tyler a plea bargain. If he agreed to testify against his co-defendants, Tyler would go to prison for ten years. Since his father was one of the co-defendants in the case, Tyler turned down the deal. Unfortunately for  him, his public defender attorney failed to inform him of the mandatory life without parole sentence for three-time losers. Tyler pleaded guilty, but refused to testify against the others. When he learned of the mandatory life sentence law, he tried to withdraw his guilty plea but it was too late.

     In 1992, a federal district judge imprisoned Tyler to life without parole. His father was handed a lesser sentence and died in prison on April 2001. Tyler is currently serving his time at the federal prison in Waymart, Pennsylvania in the northeastern corner of the state.

     On April 23, 2014, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole announced proposed changes to the presidential clemency criteria. Pursuant to the new policy, clemency could be granted to persons who meet the following conditions: The clemency applicant must be a low-level, nonviolent offender without a significant criminal history. If convicted today for the same offense, the modern sentence would be shorter than the one imposed. To be eligible for clemency under the new policy, the applicant must also have served at least ten years of his sentence, and his prison record must reflect good conduct.

     The clemency policy announcement has given Timothy Tyler some hope that he might not spend the rest of his life behind bars for mailing five grams of LSD in 1991.

   

Being a Screenwriter

     Screenwriting is a brutal, ridiculous calling. Sure, if you want to become a lawyer or a doctor, it's hard. It's a ton of work, but it can be done and once you've graduated from med school or law school and passed all of your exams, there are jobs out there….And there are people who need your services.

     But screenwriting is different. There are hardly any openings for gainful employment, and if there are a few jobs, you must compete for them with established Academy Award-nominated writers….

     "Being a writer is hard, being a professional writer is even harder, and being a working Hollywood screenwriter may be the hardest of all.

Richard Krevolin, Screenwriting in the Land of Oz, 2011

The Challenge of Print Journalism

     As narrative nonfiction writers we care deeply about sustaining quality journalism in an age that is rather inhospitable to it, for both technological and economic reasons. Television came along in the 1960s and 1970s and replaced print journalism as the quickest, most powerful instrument for the news. On the occasion of cataclysmic events--the crashing of the NASA shuttle, John Kennedy's assassination, the September 11 attacks--people turn to television. It is the prime carrier of news. So we, print journalists, have had to go where television cameras could not. We must answer the questions that the television's images pose. We're lucky: Television news raises more questions than it answers.

     Print journalists have to be better than they used to be. With network television, cable television, the internet, and even video games, it's tougher to compete for people's time. There are more and more sources of information out there, and they demand less and less intellectual energy. People work harder; they have less time. When I started as a journalist, fifty-two years ago, I operated in an age with a single-income middle class. Now it's a two-income middle class. The writer must get better and better, become a better storyteller.

David Halberstam, "The Narrative Idea," in Telling True Stories, Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, Editors, 2007

Birthday Cake or Your Teacher's Lap Dance?

     A 42-year-old teacher performed a "full contact" lap dance on a middle school student in front of his Texas classmates….Felicia Smith's performance on the boy celebrating his 15th birthday took place in February 2014.

     The teen told investigators that he sat in the chair next to Smith's desk as she moved back and forth on his crotch and touched him over his body. Near the end of the dance, the student said Smith sank to her knees and put her head between his legs. The incident reportedly happened in front of the other students during class.

     The student admitted that he spanked Smith's buttocks a couple of times….As music played, Smith said, "I love you, baby. Happy Birthday."…

     Police claim that Smith said the students persuaded her to grind on the teen….Smith was removed from teaching in the Aldine Independent School District...

Michael McLaughlin, "Teacher Accused of Giving Student a Birthday Lap Dance," The Huffington Post, April 26, 2014

"The Runaway Trolley" Dilemma

     Suppose you are the driver of a trolley car hurtling down the track at sixty miles an hour. Up ahead you see five workers standing on the track, tools in hand. You try to stop, but you can't. The brakes don't work. You feel desperate, because you know that if you crash into these five workers, they will all die. (Let's assume you know that for sure.)

     Suddenly, you notice a side track, off to the right. There is a worker on that track, too, but only one. You realize that you can turn the trolley car onto the side track, killing the one worker but sparing the five.

     What should you do? Most people would say, "Turn! Tragic though it is to kill one innocent person, it's even worse to kill five." Sacrificing one life in order to save five does seem the right thing to do.

     Now consider another version of the trolley story. This time you are not the driver but an onlooker, standing on a bridge overlooking the track. (This time, there is no side track.) Down the track comes a trolley, and at the end of the track are five workers. Once again, the brakes don't work. The trolley is about to crash into the five workers. You feel helpless to avert this disaster--until you notice, standing next to you on the bridge, a very heavy man. You could push him off the bridge, onto the track, into the path of the oncoming trolley. He would die, but five workers would be saved. (You consider jumping onto the track yourself, but realize you are too small to stop the trolley.)

     Would pushing the heavy man onto the track be the right thing to do? Most people would say, "Of course not. It would be a terrible wrong to push the man onto the track?"

     Pushing someone off a bridge to a certain death does seem an awful thing to do, even when it saves five innocent lives. But this raises a moral puzzle: Why does the principle that seems right in the first case--sacrifice one life to save five--seem so wrong in the second?

Michael J. Sandel, Justice, 2009

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Aramazd Andressian Sr.: An Evil, Cold-Blooded Murderer

     In April 2017, Aramazd Andressian and his estranged wife Ana Estevez were in the midst of a extremely contentious divorce and custody battle over their five-year-old son, Aramazd Andressian Jr., affectionately known as Piqui. (Because the journalists covering this story obviously took pains not to divulge the national origin and background of the five-foot, three inch Andressian other than to occasionally make reference to his ties in Iran and Armenia, he, in this regard, remains a mystery.)

     Estevez and the boy resided in South Pasadena, California. (It is not clear in the reporting of this case if the estranged couple resided in the same house. Moreover, there is no information regarding how they had met, how long they had been married, or how Mr. Andressian made a living.)

     Ana Estevez worked at a south Los Angeles elementary school. She had sought full custody of her son and had requested a restraining order against her husband. A family count judge, notwithstanding the father's gambling problem, his prescription drug addiction, and his threats to take to boy to Iran or Armenia, denied the distraught mother's petitions.

     Andressian, pursuant to the intensely bitter domestic dispute, claimed falsely that he was the boy's stay-at-home dad, the child's primary caregiver. (While Estevez worked, her mother cared for the child.) The father also claimed that Estevez practiced the religion of Santeria, once sacrificing a rooster in the boy's presence. According to Andressian, she also spanked Piqui, used profanity in front of him, and threatened to take him to Cuba.

     On April 17, 2017, Andressian, as part of a scheduled visitation, took the boy to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Three days later, the father was found passed out in his 2004 gray BMW. The vehicle was parked in Arroyo Seco Park in South Pasadena. The boy was not in the car. When detectives questioned Andressian at the hospital regarding the whereabouts of the boy, the father said he didn't know where Piqui was. (The boy had not been returned to his mother.) Andressian said he had attempted suicide by drug overdose.

     On April 22, 2017, with the boy still missing, police officers arrested Andressian for the murder of his son. Three days later, the authorities released the suspect due to lack of evidence.

     Since Andressian had been recently seen in Santa Barbara County's Lake Cachuma Park, police, employing dogs and divers, searched the lake and park for the toddler. They came up empty handed.

     In May and June 2017, as the search continued for Piqui, Andressian spent 47 days entertaining himself in Las Vegas. During that period, he attended Britney Spear and Celine Dion concerts, took in a boxing match, went skydiving, gambled, drank, and abused prescription drugs. On June 23, 2017, when Andressian applied for a new passport, the police, fearing that he might flee to Armenia where he had ties, re-arrested him on the murder charge. Andressian had changed his appearance by dying his hair a lighter color.

     On June 26, 2017, the authorities in Las Vegas, at a news conference, announced that Andressian had confessed to murdering his son in cold blood to get back at his estranged wife. It had been his plan, after the trip to Disneyland, to murder his son, bury his body, then commit suicide. He said he wanted to make it appear as though the boy had been murdered by his mother. (Prior to the killing, Andressian told people that Estevez had been following him and that he feared for his life.)

     According to Andressian's confession, he had smothered his son with the boy's own clothing. After sitting in the car with the corpse for eight hours, he buried the remains in a wooded area about fifty feet from a parking lot at Vista Point near the Lake Cachuma recreation area.

     On June 30, 2017, the day Aramazd Andressian was extradited from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, searchers found Piqui's skeletal remains where his father said he had buried him.

     On July 3, 2017, following his not guilty plea in a Los Angeles Superior Courtroom, the judge set the murder suspect's bail at $10 million. The deputy district attorney handling the case told the media that the prosecution would seek the death penalty.

    To avoid the death sentence, Andressian, on August 1, 2017, pleaded guilty to the murder of his son. At the sentencing hearing, the convicted man's attorney told the judge that the killing had not been planned and that his client regretted the act. Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum argued that Andressian showed "absolutely no remorse" for the murder. (While in the Los Angeles County Jail, Andressian had shaved his head bald.)

    The victim's mother, speaking directly to Andressian at the sentencing hearing, said, "I hope you relive the image of murdering my baby every day of your insignificant life. May your dark soul burn in eternal hell." The distraught mother, carrying her son's ashes in an urn, also called her husband a failure as a father, a man, and a human being. Referring to how the murder had affected her, Estevez said, "There is no real pain, just an incomprehensible deadness. Like my son, I, too, have died."

     Judge Cathryn Brougham sentenced Aramazd Andressian to 25 years to life in prison. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Travis M. Scott: The Swindler Who Faked a Suicide

     In 2006, Travis Magdalena Scott owned a computer company in Crystal, Minnesota that provided software to the U.S. Military and the private sector. That year, the 29-year-old scam artist filed a false insurance claim with Lloyd's of London based on a phony lightening strike he said had wiped out his computers and ruined his business. The insurance company paid him $3 million.

     Two years later, Scott was living in a 15-room, 5,300-square foot $1 million mansion in the Twin Cities area town of Eden Prairie. He owned a new computer company and had filed another false insurance claim. This time, to indemnify him for another computer destroying lightening strike, the insurer paid him $9.5 million.

     The FBI opened an investigation of Scott in 2010, and in early 2011, a federal grand jury sitting in Minneapolis indicted him for wire fraud, money laundering, and insurance fraud. If convicted of all charged, the crooked businessman faced up to thirty years in prison. FBI agents seized three of Scott's airplanes, a boat, three vehicles, and $5 million from various bank accounts in his name. Scott's mansion, taken over by the bank and put on the market, was now worth $600,000.

     In May 2011, pursuant to a plea deal involving a sentence of between five to ten years in prison, Travis Scott pleaded guilty to all charges. His sentencing hearing before a U.S. District Court judge was scheduled for mid-September 2011.

     A week before his sentencing, Scott staged a suicide by leaving his Kayak on the west shore of Lake Mille Lacs. Inside the overturned Kayak, Scott left a suicide note in which he wrote that he had drowned himself by jumping into the middle of the lake wearing heavy weights. (Had this been true, it would have been one odd suicide.)

     Following the staged suicide, Scott flew his Piper airplane from the Flying Cloud Airport near Eden Prairie Scott to the St. Andrew's Airport in Winnipeg, Canada. The aircraft bore fake Canadian registration decals. Three days later, Mille Lacs County Sheriff's deputies found the Kayak and the phony suicide note. The local authorities listed Scott as a missing person, and various law enforcement agencies in the region searched for his body.

     In Winnipeg, under the name Paul Decker, Scott set up residence in a downtown apartment. He purchased a Jeep, and lived with a cat. Things were going smoothly for the missing businessman until December 22, 2011. The Canadian authorities caught up to him 82 days after his staged suicide when, at a Winnipeg pharmacy, he used a forged prescription slip to acquire pills for his anxiety disorder.

     Police officers searching Scott's apartment seized $35,000 in U.S. and Canadian currency. The Winnipeg officers also recovered $85,000 in gold and silver coins. In Scott's Jeep, searchers found a loaded .45-caliber handgun. The officers also took Scott's Jeep and Piper aircraft.

     On February 11, 2013, Scott, now 37, pleaded guilty in a Winnipeg court to possession of a firearm and a customs act charge for failing to report to border officials. Lest Scott stage a second suicide along the shore of a Canadian lake, the judge sentenced him on the spot to three years and three months in a Canadian prison.

     In Minnesota, on November 19, 2013, a federal judge presided over Scott's sentencing hearing pertaining to his May 2011 guilty plea. At that proceeding, Scott argued that if the judge gave him probation he'd be able to work and pay back the money he had stolen. The federal prosecutor countered that argument by labeling Scott a "manipulative person" who showed no remorse for his crime.

     The U.S. District judge sentenced Travis Scott to 12 years 8 months in prison and held him responsible for more than $11 million in restitution. 

Writers as Bit-Part Screen Actors

When directors adopt a recent literary work it has become a tradition to offer the writer of the work a bit part in the movie. This is partly because it's a little joke on the audience, but we suspect it's also because the cameo helps buy off the writer from complaining to the media later about how badly the story was adapted. If you want to see your favorite author on the screen, look quickly, because he or she is more likely to be playing "man in phone booth" than a major character.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type to be a Writer, 2003

Physical Evidence Doesn't Lie

You can lead jurors to the truth but you can't make them believe it. Physical evidence cannot be intimidated. It does not forget. It doesn't get excited at the moment something is happening--like people do. It sits there and waits to be detected, preserved, evaluated, and explained. That is what physical evidence is all about. In the course of a trial, defense and prosecuting attorneys may lie, witnesses my lie, the defendant certainly may lie. Even the judge may lie. Only the evidence never lies.

Herbert Leon MacDonnell, The Evidence Never Lies, 1984

Police Officers Rarely Prosecuted For Shooting People

     Police agencies have developed policies that generally permit officers to use force when they reasonably fear imminent physical harm. The U.S. Supreme Court shaped the federal legal standards that govern the use of force, holding in a 1989 case that the use of force must be evaluated through the "perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."

     Since then, the criminal justice system has more often than not sided with police in shooting investigations, with prosecutors and grand jurors reluctant to second-guess their decisions. Many of the cases that don't result in charges involved armed suspects shot during confrontations with police. But even an officer who repeatedly shoots an unarmed person may avoid prosecution in cases where he reasonably believed himself to be under risk of serious bodily injury or death….

"Police Shootings Don't End With Prosecutions," Associated Press, November 26, 2014  

Memoirist Hatched Jobs

Books like Christina Crawford's Mommy, Dearest and Gary Crosby's Going My Own Way, offered sensational, firsthand accounts into the family lives of Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby, proving that even in the film industry's Golden Age, Hollywood idols did not make top-notch parents. Nor most likely do their own children, comfortable performing literary blindsides on their star parents in the pursuit of their own 15 minutes of fame. It's a vicious cycle.

Andrew Breibart and Mark Ebner, Hollywood, Interrupted, 2004 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Edward and Marilyn Bagley Sex Slave Torture Case

     Let's face it, there are people on this earth who shouldn't have been born. They include serial killers, pedophiles, child pornographers, and a small group of perverts who physically torture unwilling victims for sexual pleasure. Whether or not these sexual deviants are born or made is irrelevant. They are among us, and by the time one of them is caught and brought to justice, the harm has been done. When you read about the crimes of moral degenerates like Edward Bagley and his despicable wife Marilyn, you become a bit of a sadist yourself. It's hard not to imagine these people smoldering on electric chairs, or clawing at their necks as they swing from ropes. (Lethal injection is far less satisfying.) In the end, we are frustrated because our criminal justice system is more civilized than the criminals it punishes. We have to live with the fact that these monsters of cruelty never get what's coming to them. In the world of sadistic sex crimes, there is no such thing as justice.

     Edward and Marilyn Bagley, a pair of practicing sexual sadists, lived in a trailer home surrounded by woods near Lebanon, Missouri in the western part of the state. In December 2002, when Ed was 35 and his wife 37, the Bagleys took in a mentally deficient 16-year-old foster home runaway. (The girl was identified by the FBI as FV or Female Victim.) Proudly calling himself "Master Ed," Bagley and his wife promised the girl a better life that featured a career in modeling and dancing. While FV was still a minor, Ed made her model "slave clothes," provided her with marijuana and ecstasy, and repeatedly raped her. Master Ed informed the girl that she was being trained and groomed to be a sex slave. In that regard, he forced her to sign a life-time sex slave contract that she believed was legally binding.

     Between February 2004 and February 2009, Master Ed and his accomplice spouse used a crank telephone to electrocute the girl's private parts, flogged her, sewed-up and pierced parts of her body, choked her to the point of unconsciousness, made her watch as they shot her beloved pets, and threatened to bury her alive in the woods behind the trailer. The pathologically cruel couple even waterboarded FV, and nailed parts of her body to slabs of wood. To mark her as their property, Ed tattooed a barcode on his captive's neck, and tattooed the Chinese symbol of a slave on one of her ankles.

     The Bagleys published FV's torture sessions on live Internet webcasts for the enjoyment of other sexual monsters willing to pay a fee for the thrill of watching a young woman suffer. A sadist in his later twenties from St. Louis named Bradley Cook watched these pornographic obscenities on his computer, downloaded photographs of FV, and forwarded to the Bagleys images of his own sex slave activity. Sixty-year-old Michael Stokes, a California connoisseur of the sadistic arts, traveled to the Bagley torture chamber where he paid for the opportunity to inflict his own brand of pain on the hapless victim. Stokes, at a cost of $1,000, transported the Bagley sex slave to his home on the west coast where he subjected her to a pornographic photo-shoot, and various deviate sexual assaults. The torture session cost Stokes an extra $300.

     Beginning in June 2007, the Bagleys forced their 21-year-old slave to work as a stripper and exotic dancer in several of the region's adult entertainment clubs. Whenever FV failed to be a club's top monthly earner, the Bagleys punished her with extra beatings and acts of sexual depravity.

     FV's seven-year ordeal came to an end in February 2009 when the young woman required emergency medical treatment and hospitalization after the Bagleys' excessive electrical shocking led to cardiac arrest. Shortly after FV's near-death experience, the FBI entered the case.

     In September 2010, a federal grand jury sitting in Kansas City, Missouri indicted the Bagleys for commercial sex trafficking and forced labor trafficking involving aggravated sexual abuse. The first charge carried a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison without parole. The second, life without the chance of parole. Several months later, the feds indicted Michael Stokes and Bradley Cook for their roles in the Bagley sex slave conspiracy. The grand jury also returned indictments against 52-year-old Dennis Henry, and James Noel, 47. Both of these degenerates had participated in FV torture sessions.

     Early in 2012, Stokes, Cook, Henry, and Noel pleaded guilty to federal sex trafficking charges. On December 6, 2012, Marilyn Bagley, now 47, pleaded guilty in a Kansas City federal court to one count of conspiracy to commit commercial sex trafficking. In return for her plea, the judge sentenced Marilyn Bagley to a probated sentence.

     On January 15, 2013, Edward Bagley, faced with the realization that Michael Stokely and the other perverts had agreed to testify against him, pleaded guilty to one count of using an interstate facility to entice a minor into illegal sexual conduct.

     A federal judge, on September 10, 2013, sentenced Edward Bagley to twenty years in prison with no chance of parole. The next day, Bradley Cook was sentenced to twenty years behind bars. The judge gave Dennis Henry and James Noel fifteen years each. Michael Stokes got five years in prison.

A Novelist's Identification With His Characters

If it is true that no two writers get aesthetic interest from exactly the same materials, yet true that all writers, given adequate technique, can stir interest in their special subject matter--since all human beings have the same root experience (we're born, we suffer, we die, to put it grimly), so that all we need for our sympathy to be roused is that the writer communicate with power and conviction the similarities in his characters' experience and our own--then it must follow that the first business of the writer must be to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel. However odd, however wildly unfamiliar the fictional world--odd as hog-farming to a fourth-generation Parisian designer, or Wall Street to an unemployed tuba player--we must be drawn into the characters' world as if we were born to it.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, originally published in 1983 

Norman Mailer on Novelists

     One of the cruelest remarks in the language is: Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. The parallel must be: Those who meet experience, learn to live; those who don't, write.

     The second remark has as much truth as the first--which is to say, some truth. Of course, many a young man has put himself in danger to pick up material for his writing, but as a matter to make one wistful, not one major American athlete, CEO, politician, engineer, trade-union official, surgeon, airline pilot, chess master, call girl, sea captain, teacher, bureaucrat, Mafioso, pimp, recidivist, physicist, rabbi, movie star, clergyman, or priest or nun has also emerged as a major novelist since the Second World War.

Norman Mailer, The Spooky Art, 2003


Stalkers Out on Bail

Most first-time stalking offenses are charged as misdemeanors, and it is not infrequent that perpetrators are released after the arraignment "on their own recognizance"--also known as "personal bond"--without financial bail, that is, the posting of cash or a secured (monetary) bond. In the cases where financial bond is set, often the amounts seem extraordinarily high, yet perpetrators seem able to come up with the money and obtain release. An option in many jurisdictions is that the arrestee is allowed to post just 10 percent of the bond set by the magistrate.

Melita Schaum and Karen Parrish, Stalked, 1995

A Court Psychiatrist's View of the Insanity Defense

     The disorganized psychotic and the clear-thinking psychopath, though at opposite ends of the diagnostic spectrum, are both psychologically incomplete; and both kill for highly personal, insular reasons to which their victims make little contribution....

     Unlike true criminals, such killers make little effort to control their offenses--invariably committed at a time when their minds are beyond such precautions, and in a fashion ensuring their detection and capture. [Not always.] Subsequently they talk freely to arresting officers and almost always make full confessions. Their only remaining shield--and it is an appropriate one--is a plea of insanity. ["Appropriate" defense? Most juries disagree.]

     By contrast, the true criminal favors stealth, denial, alibis, and his right to remain silent. [Not always, particularly if caught red-handed.] He eschews the insanity defense as no defense at all because it requires as a first prerequisite an admission of guilt. [It also requires insanity.] In short, the insanity defense is neither intended for nor desired by the inveterate offender. It exists so that the law can distinguish those whose criminality warrants its most crushing vengeance from those whose relative psychological innocence mandates that society's interests be best served by their diversion into a mental health system. [What mental health system?]

Martin Blinder, M. D., Lovers, Killers, Husbands and Wives, 1985

     

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Robert Kosilek: Should a Man Who Murdered His Wife Get a Free Sex Change Operation?

     On the afternoon of Sunday, May 20, 1990, Robert Kosilek hailed a cab from a shopping mall parking lot in North Attleborough, Massachusetts. The taxi driver drove him to a store located a half mile from his home in Mansfield where he lived with his wife Cheryl and their 15-year-old son Timothy. Later that evening, Kosilek called the North Attleborough Police Department to inquire if his wife had been in an automobile accident. She hadn't returned home from work that day and he was worried. The officer he spoke to said, yes, they had found his wife's car. Would he please come to the police station so they could discuss the matter.

     A hour or so before the 41-year-old husband's police call, his wife's body had been discovered in the back seat of her car that was parked in the same shopping mall lot. She had been murdered by someone who had used a length of wire to strangle her.

     At the police station, after being informed of his wife's violent death, Robert Kosilek said Cheryl had left the house that morning for work, and before coming home, had planned to shop at the mall. As for his activities that day, he had stayed home working around the house. The next day, when questioned again, this time as a suspect in his wife's murder, detectives informed Kosilek that they had spoken to his son Timothy who told them that when he (Timothy) called the house that day at five in the afternoon, no one answered the phone. This contradicted the suspect's story that he had been in the house all day. Kosilek asked to be excused from the interrogation room so he could go downstairs to buy cigarettes. From the first floor of the police station, Kosilek called the detective squad and informed the officer that he had terminated the interview and would be hiring an attorney.

     Late that night, Kosilek ran his car into a stop sign in Bedford, Massachusetts. The police officer who responded to the minor accident found Kosilek sitting in the car dressed as a woman.

     On May 24, 1990, police in New Rochelle, New York stopped Kosilek for speeding, then arrested him for driving while intoxicated. At the police department, Kosilek said, "You would be drunk too if the police thought you killed your wife. Look, I had a 15-year-old son and a wife....I murdered my wife. Now I need to call a psychiatrist." The police in New Rochelle called the authorities in North Attleborough, Massachusetts.

     In October 1992, Robert Kosilek went on trial for the murder of his wife. The prosecutor played an audio-taped interview the defendant had given to a local TV reporter. According to Kosilek, on the day of the killing, he and his wife had gotten into a violent argument. She threw boiling water into his face which caused him to punch her to the ground. Cheryl got to her feet, grabbed a kitchen knife and chased him into the living room, threatening to kill him. According to this self-serving account of the fight, Kosilek picked up a length of wire from a table. That's the last thing he remembered. To the TV interviewer he said, "Apparently, I did take her life. It was probably self-defense." During the trial the defendant was dressed up like a woman, painted fingernails and all.

     The jury didn't buy the self-defense theory of Cheryl Kosilek's death. They found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder, and in January 1993, the trial judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     Shortly after entering the Massachusetts state prison in Norfolk, Kosilek changed his name to Michelle Kosilek. He was allowed to dress like a female and let his hair grow down to his waist. A prison psychiatrist diagnosed Kosilek with having a gender identification disorder. (He also had a wife killing disorder.) In 2000, Michelle sued the state in federal court for denying him/her a sex change operation, claiming this denial violated his/her Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. Two years later, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf ruled that Kosilek was entitled to be treated for his gender identification disorder, but stopped short of ordering the state to pay for a full sex change operation.

      Although Kosilek didn't get what he wanted from the federal court, the state did provide the prisoner with female hormone therapy, laser hair removal services, and psychotherapy to deal with the disorder.

     In 2005, Kosilek filed a second lawsuit in the same federal court against the Massachusetts Department of Corrections in which he alleged cruel and unusual punishment. In the August 2006 trial, his attorney put several psychiatrists on the stand who testified that for this inmate a sex change was "medically necessary." Kosilek's attorney said, "We ask that gender identification disorder be treated like any other medical condition." (Who said this was a medical condition?) One of the shrinks testified that if the state denied Kosilek this "medical" treatment, the prisoner would kill himself.

     At this absurd trial, Kosilek took the stand and testified that the gender identification condition was equivalent to "biological claustrophobia," and said that the standard treatment for this malady included "surgical correction of the offending genitalia." Holding back tears, the witness said, "The greatest loss is the dying I do inside a little bit every day."(This is a person who can live with killing his wife, but will kill himself if he doesn't get a vagina? Give me a break.)

     The attorney representing the state, in summing up his case before the jury, said, "He's doing life without parole for murder....He was 41 when he killed Cheryl Kosilek. He didn't try to get a sex change operation at that time. Now he's 53 years of age, and he wants the state to pay for that?"

     On September 4, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf, in his 126-page first-of-a-kind decision, held that the state of Massachusetts must pay for Kosilek's $20,000 sex change operation. In justifying his ruling, the judge wrote that the operation was the "only adequate treatment" for the now 57-year-old prisoner, and that "there is no less intrusive means to correct the prolonged violation of Kosilek's Eighth Amendment right to adequate medical care."

     I guess Judge Wolf was not bothered by the fact there are millions of Americans who have not murdered anyone who do not even receive basic medical care, let alone free sex change operations. What need does a man who will spend the rest of his life in prison have for a vagina? If this is the level of health care taxpayers will have to pay for our vast population of men serving life terms behind bars, then it's time to reverse the trend toward fewer executions. Otherwise, if there is cruel and unusual punishment going on, it involves law abiding citizens who pay the bills.

     On September 17, 2012, Judge Wolf ruled that Kosilek was also eligible to have his legal fees--expected to top $500,000-- paid by the government.

     On December 16, 2014, the First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned U.S. District Court Mark Wolf's ruling. The federal appeals justices found that denying the sex change did not violate Kosilek's Eight Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. Six months later, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Kosilek's appeal of the appellate court's denial.

   

     

Vague Mug Shot Identifications

When you have crime victims look through a computerized mug book of suspects, it's rare that someone makes an identification. You need a "That's-the-guy" moment from the victim to move forward on the case, but what you often get instead are the victims squinting at the screen and saying, of multiple photos, "I dunno. That kinda looks like him."

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know, 2014


Legalese

The minute you read something you can't understand, you can almost be sure it was drawn up by a lawyer.

Will Rogers in The Law is An Ass, Ronald Irving, editor, 2011

Horror Fiction Characters Must Seem Real

     In a horror novel or short story, there is one primary rule: Make your characters as realistic as possible.

     Reality is your bridge into the fantastic. If readers empathize with your characters and truly believe in them as projections of real life, then they will follow them into whatever fantastic situations you provide. You will achieve what Coleridge termed "the willing suspension of disbelief." Your reader will want to believe your story, no matter how improbable it may be in objective reality.

William E. Nolan, How to Write Horror Fiction, 1990 

The Difference Between The Science Fiction and Fantasy Genres

     What does it mean to say that science fiction tries to make its speculations plausible while fantasy does not? Basically, fantasy writers don't expect you to believe that the things they're describing could actually happen, but only to pretend that they could for the duration of a story. Fantasy readers understand that and willingly play along. Science fiction writers, on the other hand, try to create worlds and futures (and aliens) that really could exist and do the things they describe. Their readers expect that of them, and write critical letters to editors and authors when they find holes in the logic (or the assumptions) that would make a science fiction story impossible…

     Often the same basic story material can be treated as either science fiction or fantasy, depending on how the writer approaches it. For example, the old fable of "The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs" is fantasy because real geese don't lay golden eggs and the story makes no attempt to convince you they could. It merely asks you to consider what might happen if one did. Isaac Asimov's short story "Pate de Foie Gras" takes this basic idea and turns it into science fiction by postulating a biochemical mechanism so that readers can judge for themselves whether it might actually work…

     Fantasy is fun; but for some readers there's something extra special about a story that not only stretches the imagination, but just might be a real possibility.

Stanley Schmidt, Aliens and Alien Societies, 1995


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Criminal Justice Problems in the United States

1. There are too many pedophiles in our schools, churches, and government.

2. Crime lab understaffing has produced unacceptable backlogs and unreliable results.

3. The country is becoming increasingly drug-addled, drunk, and mentally ill.

4. We have a serious shortage of competent, well-trained criminal investigators.

5. There are too many unnecessary, redundant federal crimes.

6. We are giving guns to school teachers unprepared to make life and death decisions.

7. Teachers are using police officers to criminalize classroom disciplinary problems.

8,  It takes too long to execute death row prisoners.

9. Our courtrooms are contaminated with junk science and phony experts.

10. Light, plea bargained sentences for violent criminals do not fit their crimes.

11. There is a serious shortage of highly trained forensic pathologists.

12. The American media is awash in violence and pornography.

13. Criminals and terrorists are entering the U.S. through Mexico.

14. Criminal hackers pose a threat to our financial systems and national security.

15. Due to the threat of terrorism, citizens have been losing their privacy through massive governmental data collection and spying.

16. Unsupervised pedophiles and rapists on parole are reoffending at alarming rates.

17. There are untreated, violent paranoid schizophrenics on our streets.

18. Police in many cities are overwhelmed by hit-and-run cases.
   
19. Over the past five years, the U.S. has suffered an epidemic of murder-suicide cases.

20. In Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis and many other big cities, black-on-black crime is out of control. 

Establishing Time of Death

     Throughout the long annals of true crime lore, countless murder convictions and acquittals have come down to this: When did the killer strike? When did the victims breathe their last? In the absence of credible witnesses, the lack of an easy answer has bedeviled our criminal justice system since its inception....

     Murder investigators found themselves desperate for clues as to time of death, and not just for evidence of guilt at trial. Knowing when a victim died could speed the earliest stages of an inquest by ruling out suspects with confirmed alibis and focusing scrutiny on those who did not. The postmortem interval, or time since death, proved even more critical in cases where a corpse turned up decomposed beyond recognition. Even an approximate time of death gave investigators a framework in which to connect the remains to a suspicious disappearance.

     Yet for all its importance, determining the time of death has defied the detective's magnifying glass and the pathologist's scalpel for over 2,000 years. Even today, despite crime labs crammed with high-tech equipment for DNA analysis, toxicology, serology, and the detection of rarefied chemical vapors, we remain nearly as blind as the ancient Greeks with their belief in maggots sprouting fully formed and spontaneous from the flesh of the newly dead. [They did not realize that maggots were fly eggs.]

     Nonetheless, it still startles most people to learn that a prudent medical examiner can rarely, if ever, accurately measure the interval between death and a body's discovery....

     The myth of the medical expert's ability to nail down time of death has endured. No doubt this stems in part from the many pathologists who continue to offer more precision in court than their science can rightfully claim. That they do so is understandable enough, given the relentless pressure [put on them by detectives, prosecutors, and the public].

Jessica Snyder Sachs, Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, 2001 

The "Moral Idiot"

Over a century ago, French psychiatrists coined the term "moral idiot" to describe the type of personality who seems to be utterly lacking in conscience and unable to conform his conduct to prevailing cultural norms. Such people were later called psychopaths (a term from the Greek, meaning, literally, disease of the soul). With the rise of behaviorism, social psychology, and the emphasis on environmental influences on the shaping of the individual's personality, the term was dropped in favor of the word "sociopath." For decades, psychologists viewed this morally nonconformist flaw as the result of deficits in a person's socialization experiences, often as a result of poverty, discrimination, or some other environmental deprivation or hardship. The person's lack of social conformity--and human caring--was now laid at the doorstep of society. Sociopaths were thought to be acting out the behaviors they had learned in adapting to harsh realities.

Dr. Barbara R. Kirwin, The Mad, The Bad, and the Innocent, 1997

Before Writing a Memoir, Read a Good One

     It had occurred to a friend of mine to write a memoir, and so she called asking for help. It should be fun, she said. I set to work creating a list of the memoirs my friend might read, for she hadn't read even so much as a single memoir yet, and I thought reading might be helpful. I sent the list and that was that--the end of the memoir, and of the friendship.

     I don't mean to be insulting when I suggest that memoir writers should read memoirs…The good memoirs aren't just good stories…They are--they must be--works of art…You have to know what art is before you set out to write it. You have to have a dictionary of working terms, a means by which you can deliver up a verdict on your own sentences and their arrangements.

Beth Kephart, Handling the Truth, 2013 

Choose Your Words Carefully

In writing, diction relates to the choice of words and phrasing. In nonfiction, precision and clarity are the goals to aim for. In fiction, the writer's capacity to choose words carefully for their effect as well as their accuracy is a measure of the writer's literary ability. The opposite of careful diction is "top-of-the-head" writing , words put down as fast as they come to mind, without revision for accuracy and effect. It is found most often in hurried popular writing in which communication of content or story dominates the precise and fresh use of words and expressions.

Sol Stein, Sol Stein's Reference Book For Writers, 2010

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Plan to Trap an Alleged Middle School Sex Predator

     On January 14, 2010, Jeanne Dunaway and Teresa Terrell, vice principals at Sparkman Middle School near Huntsville, Alabama, received a complaint that a male student had touched a girl inappropriately. The subject of the complaint was no stranger to this kind of allegation. He had been accused of predatory sexual advances fifteen times in the recent past. The latest complaint resulted in the boy being placed on "in-school suspension." (Whatever that is.)

     A couple of days later, teacher's aide June Simpson spoke to principal Ronnie Blair about the boy. According to Simpson, he had "repeatedly tried to convince girls to have sex with him in the boy's bathroom on the special needs students' corridor. The teacher's aide reported that the young predator had actually engaged in sex with one of the girls.

     Because the boy and the female special needs student denied having sex in the boy's restroom, the principal informed the teacher's aide that because the kids had not been caught in the act, his hands were tied. The concerned teacher's aide recommended that school officials keep a close eye on this boy.

     On January 22, 2010, a 14-year-old girl who wasn't physically or mentally handicapped but took special education classes, told teacher's aide Simpson that the alleged schoolboy sex fiend had been pestering her to have restroom sex with him. Simpson asked the girl if she'd be willing to act as bait in a plan to catch the sexual predator. The girl refused to participate in the sting, then changed her mind.

     The teacher's aide, accompanied by the girl, laid out her plan to vice principal Dunaway who didn't endorse or approve of it. The vice principal didn't forbid the execution of the scheme either. The plan was this: the girl would agree to have sex with the boy in the special needs bathroom where teachers would be hiding to confront the kid before things got out of hand.

     Shortly after leaving the vice principal's office, the girl encountered the young predator in the hallway. She agreed to have sex with him. But instead of getting together in the special needs restroom, he told her to meet him in the sixth-grade boy's bathroom in another part of the school. The girl did not  have time to alert the teacher's aide of the change in plans.

     In the sixth-grade boy's restroom, with no teachers hiding nearby to intervene, the girl rejected the boy's advances. Unable to fight him off, he raped her anally.

     After the victim reported the crime to a teacher, police officers were summoned to the school. They took the girl to the National Children's Advocacy Center in Huntsville where medical personnel used a rape kit to gather physical evidence. Hospital personnel also photographed signs of trauma consistent with the girl's rape allegation.

     The young suspect, when confronted with the accusation, claimed he had only kissed the girl.

     After the alleged rape victim refused to cooperate with detectives, the police department turned the case over to the Madison County District Attorney's Office. Without the victim's testimony, an eyewitness, or the boy's confession, prosecutors closed the case for lack of evidence.

     Pursuant to an internal, administrative inquiry into the incident, vice principal Terrell testified that after seeing photographs of the girl's injuries, she didn't know whether or not the sex had been consensual. Vice Principal Dunaway testified that when the girl willingly entered the sixth-grade restroom with the boy, she was on her own.

     In the school's final disciplinary report on the matter, the incident in the school restroom was described as the "inappropriate touching of a female." The principal suspended the boy for five days. Following the suspension, the kid spent fifteen days at an alternative institution before returning to Sparkman Middle School.

     The 14-year-old girl withdrew from the Sparkman school. After extensive counseling, she ended up in North Carolina with her mother. Upon her mother's death shortly thereafter, the girl and her brother were placed in Child Protection Services.

     June Simpson, the Sparkman teacher's aide, resigned not long after the incident. Her attorney described her as a scapegoat in the case.

      In October 2010, the girl's father filed a Title IX lawsuit in federal court against the boy, school administrators, the teacher's aide, and the Madison County School Board. Title IX is a federal law aimed at ending gender discrimination in public education.

     A few months after the filing of the lawsuit, a U.S. District Court Judge tossed out the claim against the boy because he was a minor. The judge also threw out the Title IX portion of the action. He did allow, however, the claim of negligence against the teacher's aide and the school administrators. Attorney Eric Artrip appealed the lower court ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta.

     On September 17, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education filed amicus briefs (friend of the court arguments) in support of attorney Artrip's appeal of the Title IX rejection. The case is pending. 

The Diversity of Fiction

     Fiction explores how interesting people deal with significant problems at important times in their lives. Stories explore human vulnerabilities and strengths and are usually focused on a character's goals and dilemmas. They inquire into why people act, react, struggle and change as they do. Stories are shaped from techniques that make the narrative lifelike, involved, complicated, and tense…

     There are many types of fiction configured into novels, novellas, and short stories. There are comedies, tragedies, happily-ever-after stories, horror stories, historical re-creations, fantasies, young adult stories, and novels that roller coaster along with pathos, black humor, and grim portrayals of humanity. Some novels track the affairs of the heart; others track a murderer to his hideout or a monster to his lair. Fiction can be of a serious or literary bent or can be as fluffy as marshmallows. Short stories come in all sizes, and novels weigh in at 60,000 words or ramble on to 200,000 words.

Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines, 2006 

Writing the Legal Thriller

     Perhaps you have made a decision to write a legal thriller because you have been a participant in a dramatic courtroom battle--as a defense attorney whose skill exonerated an innocent client, as the beneficiary of family heirlooms in a hard-fought will contest, or as a juror who second-guessed the tactics of the litigators throughout a protracted trial. Maybe your fascination with this category of crime novels is that you have practiced law on the civil side but have fantasized about delivering the stirring summation in a high-profile murder trial. Or maybe you simply enjoy the prospect of entering this world because you like lawyers.

     Once you have selected this sub-genre as your setting, I think there are critical issues to face before you start pounding out the pages. Whether you are writing a courtroom drama or using a legal eagle as an amateur sleuth, remember that you have chosen to portray a profession--like medicine--that requires an advanced degree and is governed by a lot of rules and procedures. Even if your characters are going to break those rules, you have to know what they are in order to heighten the tension of any ethical dilemma or criminal verdict…

     I prefer to read books written by experienced lawyers or by authors who have studied the practice seriously. They know the language and attitude of the courtroom, they move their characters about it with ease, they sit them at the proper counsel table, they craft their arguments to the judge with appropriate rhetoric, and they know when to make objections. Many other readers who have no reason to be familiar with legal procedure won't care about getting those details right, so you first need to figure out who your target audience might be.

Linda Fairstein in Writing Mysteries, Sue Grafton, editor, 2002 

Ironic Humor in Fiction

     Fiction without irony is like painting without perspective. Irony exposes the incongruities of everyday life--the half-truths, deceptions and self-deceptions that help us all get through the day. Things are never what they seem, and the essence of ironic humor is the lack of fit between life as it is and life as we imagine it should be. We think the world should make sense: It doesn't. We think life should be dignified: It never is. We think life should have a serious purpose…But of course the purpose always turns out to be very silly in the end. Irony is the writer's richest and most inexhaustible humor resource.

     The genre of the campus novel, from Kingsley Amis to Richard Russo, is a perfect example. Higher education is meant to be serious business; universities are meant to be serious places. So it's funny when, in Russo's Straight Man, the chair of the English department hides in the ceiling space over the faculty offices to eavesdrop on a meeting between colleagues…

     Another reason why irony is such a powerful source of humor is that, as Voltaire observed long ago, life is absurd, but we try to make sense of it. This doomed effort creates some of the best comedy….

David Bouchier in How to Write Funny, John B. Kachuba, editor, 2001 

Woman Eats Police Car

     A northern Idaho woman has been charged with a felony after police say she chewed up the upholstery of a patrol seat…Staci Anne Spence, 42, was changed with felony malicious injury to property and misdemeanors including resisting arrest and battery on an officer…

     Prosecutors say Spence was arrested on Thursday September 18, 2014 after deputies came to her home to investigate a battery report…When they arrived at the Bonner County Jail, they found that Spence had chewed through the patrol vehicle's upholstery and into the foam cushioning. [That's the good part.]

"Woman Charged Over Chewed Seat," Associated Press, September 24, 2014 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Haily Owens Murder Case

     In February 2014, ten-year-old Haily Owens was a fourth grade student at Westport Elementary School in Springfield, Missouri, a town in the southwestern part of the state. At four-thirty on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 18, 2014, Haily, after visiting a school friend, walked along West Lombart Street on her way home. A few blocks from her house on Page Street, a witness saw a man in his forties with long, stringy gray hair, driving a gold 2008 Ford Ranger pickup truck, pull alongside the unaccompanied child.

     When the five-foot tall, ninety-pound grade schooler ignored the man in the truck, he drove away. But minutes later he returned to the girl. This time the man jumped out of the truck, grabbed the child, forced her into the cab through the driver's side door, and sped off. The witness called 911 and provided the dispatcher with the license plate number to the abductor's truck.

     Through the truck's registration information and the witness' description of the driver, investigators identified the kidnapper as 45-year-old Craig Wood. Forty minutes following Haily Owen's abduction, police officers had Wood's house on East Stanford Street under surveillance.

     At seven-thirty that night, the authorities issued an Amber alert for Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

     Forty-five minutes after the Amber alert, three hours into the police surveillance of the suspect's home, Craig Wood pulled up to the house in the gold 2008 Ford Ranger. Haily Owens was not in the truck. Police seized the vehicle and transported Mr. Wood to the Springfield Police Department. When confronted by detectives, the suspect refused to speak other than to demand an attorney.

     What kind of person would abduct a ten-year-old girl in broad daylight in front of at least one witness? Who is this man? In 1990, Craig Michael Wood pleaded guilty in Springfield to possession of a controlled substance. After he completed a court-ordered drug counseling program, the judge suspended his sentence. In 2001, he was convicted of illegal taking of wildlife, a misdemeanor offense. [I presume he was hunting or fishing without a license.]

     In 1998, the amateur bluegrass musician became a teacher's aide and middle school football coach at the Pleasant View School in Springfield. He also worked as a substitute teacher in the school district. In 2013 he earned a salary of $17,000 a year.

     Wood has no children and has never been married. His parents are wealthy and raise show horses.

     Later on the night of the abduction, police officers executed a search warrant at the suspect's house. Officers worked at the dwelling well into the early morning hours of the next day. During the search they found, in Wood's basement, Haily Owen's body. She had been stuffed into a trash bag and placed into a plastic container.

     The school girl had been shot in the back of the head. Crime scene investigators also noted ligature marks on her wrists that suggest she had been tied up. Wood's basement floor was still damp from bleach used to clean up physical evidence from the murder.

     At the Wood residence police officers found a three-ring binder containing pornographic photographs of young children. From the dwelling, searchers seized cameras, thirty video recordings, a handwritten journal, a spent .22-caliber shell casing, and the hat Haily Owens had been wearing when abducted.

     Charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and armed criminal action, officers booked Craig Wood into the Greene County Jail. At the suspect's arraignment, his public defender's office attorney, Chris Hatley, announced that his client intended to plead not guilty to all charges. At the hearing, assistant prosecutor Todd Myers challenged Wood's use of a public defender, noting that police officers  found evidence of a $1 million trust fund in the suspect's name. "I think he can afford his own attorney," Myers said. The judge denied Craig Wood bail.

     In October 2016, Craig Wood, in order to avoid the death penalty, pleaded guilty to murdering Haily Owens. A Greene County judge, in February 2017, sentenced Wood to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Just Hooking Your Reader is Not Enough

     Some first lines are so powerful that you absolutely have to keep on reading. This is known as a "hook." Nearly all the great writers employ hooks in one form or another….

     Despite popular misconception, though, the hook is more than a marketing tool. At its best, it can be not only a propellant but also a statement of what you might expect from the text to come. It can establish a character, narrator, or setting, convey a shocking piece of information. The irony is there is only so much you can do with one line; thus it is a game: the less space you have to work with, the more creative you must become. It is not surprising then that hooks comprise some of the most memorable lines in literature.

     What is rarely discussed is the importance of the hook not only as an opening line but as an opening paragraph, not only an opening paragraph but as an opening page, not only as an opening page but as an opening chapter. In other words, the same intensity of thought applied to the opening line should not be confined to the opening line--a common malady--but rather applied to the text in its entirety. This takes endurance, focus and concentration; with this level of intensity, it might take several days to complete even one paragraph.

     Look at your first or last line and think of the agonizing effort you put into it. You knew you were in the spotlight, that it had to be good. How many times did you rewrite that one line? What would the rest of your manuscript be like if you agonized over each line the same way? It would take forever is probably your first thought….

     I am often amazed by how many manuscripts begin with good first lines--and good openings in general--and then fall apart; it is actually rare to see the intensity found in a first line (or last) maintained throughout a manuscript.

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages, 2000

Writing While Intoxicated

Writers have always used drugs and drink to disinhibit themselves. In the beginning, the intoxicating effects of alcohol and drugs can prove prodigious. But once the tail is wagging the dog, the effects are generally deleterious.

Betsy Lerner in The Writer's Mentor by Ian Jackman, editor, 2004