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Sunday, February 17, 2019

Team Stomping and Kicking

     California University of Pennsylvania, one of 14 schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Learning, sits on 290 acres in California Borough 35 miles south of downtown Pittsburgh. A good number of its 8,600 students come from southwestern Pennsylvania.

     Shortly after midnight on Thursday October 30, 2014, California University student Shareese Asparagus, a 22-year-old from West Chester, Pennsylvania, walked out of a restaurant on Wood Street in the college town. She was with her 30-year-old boyfriend, Lewis Campbell, also from West Chester. He did not attend California U.

     The trouble started outside the restaurant when a California University football player, accompanied by four of his teammates, said something to the young woman that offended her. This led to an exchange of angry words that prompted Lewis Campbell to step in to defend his girlfriend.

     The football players reacted to the situation by punching and kicking Mr. Campbell to the pavement. As he lay injured on the ground, the assailants kicked and stomped him into unconsciousness. As the teammates strolled away from their battered victim, they chanted, "football strong!"

     As paramedics loaded Mr. Campbell into a medical helicopter, they noticed a shoe print on his face. Emergency personnel flew the unconscious man to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh where physicians determined that the lower part of Mr. Campbell's brain had shifted 80 degrees. The beating had caused the victim serious brain damage.

     Later on the day of the gang assault in front of the off-campus restaurant, as Mr. Campbell lay in the intensive care unit, police officers showed up at football practice armed with arrest warrants for five California University players. Taken into custody that afternoon were: James Williamson, 20, from Parkville, Maryland; Corey Ford, 22, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Jonathan Jacoma Barlow, 21, from the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh; Rodney Gillin, 20, from West Lawn, Pennsylvania; and D'Andre Dunkley, 19, from Philadelphia.

     Police officers booked the five college football players into the Washington County Correctional Facility on charges of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, harassment, and conspiracy. The judge set each man's bail at $500,000.

     On Friday October 31, 2014, interim California University President Geraldine M. Jones issued the following statement: "California University does not tolerate violent behavior, and the five student-athletes charged in connection with this incident [incident?] will face university sanctions, along with any penalties imposed by law. The police investigation is continuing and the rights of these accused will be upheld. But in light of these allegations, I asked Coach Keller to cancel Saturday's game [with Gannon University]. Behavior has consequences, and all Cal U students, including student-athletes, must abide by our Student Code of Conduct if they wish to remain a part of our campus community. [Aggravated assault hardly falls into the category of a college code of conduct violation.] At the same time, it must be clearly understood that the actions [crimes] of a small group of individuals are not representative of our entire student body, nor of all Cal U student-athletes. [Then what do these "actions" represent?] I ask our entire campus community to recommit to our university's core values, and to demonstrate through their words and their actions the best that our university can be."

     Good heavens, what a mealy-mouthed public relations department response to a vicious attack worthy of a violent street gang. Where is the outrage in this statement?

     The charges against James Williamson were dropped after surveillance footage revealed that he had not participated in the beating. In response, Williamson filed a lawsuit against the district attorney, the police and the borough.

     Corey Ford, on June 7, 2016, pleaded no contest to assault. He received, in return, a sentence of one to two years in prison. (Ford had earlier pleaded guilty to a hit-and-run that killed a bicyclist in Washington, D.C. In that case the judge had sentenced him to 36 months in federal prison.)

     In July 2016, Rodney Gillin and D'Andre Dunkley, in return for their guilty pleas, received sentences of probation.  

Middle School Cook Threatened Co-Workers With Hit List

     Co-workers say the head cook at a Massachusetts middle school told them she had a hit list and would shoot up the school in an argument over burned cookies. Police say 47-year-old Wendy Ferris got upset Friday afternoon [February 7, 2014] before the end of the school day at King Philip Middle School in Norfolk, Massachusetts….Ferris then told the school nurse she had a hit list, the nurse being at the very top of it…. Ferris wouldn't talk to reporters but her neighbors supported her.

     Ferris' lawyer told reporters she denies the facts of the case….Ferris does have a license to carry a firearm and owns a 9mm handgun, but she was required to surrender it to police as a condition of bail. She's on administrative leave with pay pending the investigation.

Cliff Judy, "Police: Lunch Lady Said She Had Hit List Over Burned Cookies," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 5, 2014

The U. S. Supreme Court and the Death Penalty

     Furman v. Georgia is among the oddest Supreme Court cases in American history. Decided in 1972, it struck down every death penalty statute in the nation as then practiced without outlawing the death penalty itself. The ruling, based on the constitutional protection against "cruel and unusual punishment," stunned even the closest court watchers. The death penalty seemed impregnable. It was part of the bedrock of American's legal system, steeped in the intent of the founders, the will of most state legislatures and the forceful--if occasional--ruling of the courts.

     The 5-4 vote in Furman reflected a striking political split: all five members of the majority were holdovers from the Warren Court, known for its liberal decisions, while all four dissenters were recent appointees of Richard Nixon, who had won the White House with a carefully orchestrated law-and-order campaign. And notably, each justice wrote his own opinion in Furman, meaning there was no common thread to the case, no controlling rationale. The decision ran several hundred pages, the longest handed down by the court at the time....

     About 1,300 people have been executed since [1976] with Texas putting its 503rd prisoner to death just weeks ago. A clear majority continues to support the death penalty, though the fear of wrongful conviction appears to be growing, and evidence suggests that juries welcome the option of life in prison without parole. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has tightened the reins of capital punishment in recent years, ruling that the executions of the mentally retarded, people under 18 and those convicted of rape, even the rape of a child, are unconstitutional. For death penalty abolitionists, however, the promise of Furman must seem a distant, bitter memory.

David Oshinsky in reviewing A Wild Justice by Evan J. Nandery for The New York Times Book Review September 1, 2013

Not All Interrogated Suspects are Guilty

The goal of any interrogation, by definition, is to elicit a confession from a guilty party, not to investigate the truth of a denial. The common tactics used to gain confessions are based on the idea that only guilty people are interrogated in the first place. In theory, when a suspect is brought in for questioning, detectives begin with an "interview," in which information is gathered and the police make an assessment as to the guilt or innocence of the party. In this step, a non-accusatory question-and-answer period is meant to allow the detective an opportunity to gather more information and to make observations about the suspect that might indicate that he is lying. Once they decide that they are speaking with a guilty party, the interrogation begins. Detectives often believe that they are experts at separating truth from lies, but studies have shown that this is a false confidence.

Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five, 2011

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Wayne Mills Murder Case

     Jerald Wayne Mills grew up in the town of Arab, Georgia in the northern part of the state. At the University of Alabama where he played football, he earned a degree in education. But instead of becoming a teacher, Mills formed a band and for fifteen years performed primarily on the college circuit.

     Mills, in 2010, was charged with driving under the influence and reckless endangerment after he bumped a police officer who was standing on the side of the highway. Between tours in 2013, Mills busied himself by working on his seventh album. The 44-year-old was married and had a 6-year-old son.

     A friend of Mills, Chris Ferrell, owned the Pit and Barrel Bar located in downtown Nashville. In July 2013, police arrested Ferrell on charges of domestic violence and vandalism. The complaining witness in the case was a bartender he dated. Notwithstanding that arrest, Ferrell possessed a permit to carry a concealed handgun.

     In mid-November 2013, Ferrell and his bar were featured on a TV series on the Spike Network called "Bar Rescue." In the series, experts helped save struggling bars and nightclub businesses.

     During the early morning hours of Saturday, November 23, 2013, Wayne Mills and a handful of friends and acquaintances were drinking with Chris Ferrell in his bar after it had closed. Just before five that morning an argument broke out between Mills and Ferrell. The trouble started when Mills lit up a cigarette in the non-smoking section of the bar. The two men became so angry, bystanders, fearing violence, left the premises.

     Shortly after 5 that morning, a small group of people outside the Pit and Barrel heard three gunshots. One of the bystanders called 911.

     Police officers arrived at the bar to find Mills dead or dying from three shots to the head. One of the bullets had entered the back of his skull. A short time after being taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center doctors pronounced Mills dead.

     Chris Ferrell told detectives that fearing for his life, he had shot his friend in self defense. As the only witness to the shooting, detectives accepted Ferrell's account pending further investigation and the results of the autopsy. The bar owner was not taken into custody.

     Detectives with the Davidson County Police Department, for ten hours following the fatal shooting, worked under the false belief that the man shot by Ferrell was Clayton Mills, a Nashville songwriter. Given the fact several people who knew Wayne Mills had witnessed his argument with Ferrell, then heard gunshots, it's hard to image how detectives didn't immediately acquire the true identify of the victim. And why had it taken them so long to sort out their mistake?

     On November 26, 3013, a spokesperson for the Nashville Medical Examiner's Office announced that while a forensic pathologist had performed the autopsy on Wayne Mills, results of that post-mortem work would not be released for up to fourteen weeks. The spokesperson also refused to say if Mr. Ferrell had sustained injuries from the fight.

     In the meantime, Wayne Mills' friends, fans, and family, having heard that one of Ferrell's bullets had entered the back of Mills' head, questioned the believability of the self defense claim.  A rumor surfaced that the shooting occurred when the men were standing on opposite sides of a physical barrier.

     On December 6, 2013, a Davidson County grand jury indicted Chris Ferrell on one count of second-degree murder. Following the indictment, the bar owner turned himself over to the police. Officers booked Ferrell into the Davidson County Jail and the judge set his bail at $150,000. At a bond hearing on December 16, the judge lowered Ferrell's bail which led to his release from custody.

     In January 2014, the Nashville Medical Examiner's Office released the Mills autopsy report. The victim had been killed by a single bullet to the back of the head. The absence of gunpowder staining around the entrance wound suggested the shot had been fired from a distance of at least eighteen inches. The shooting victim had also suffered two broken ribs, abrasions on his head and contusions on his chest, arms, forearms, left thigh and right knee. According to the toxicology report, Mills had a blood-alcohol level of .221, three times the legal limit for driving intoxicated. He also had amphetamine in his system.

     The Wayne Mills murder trial got underway in Nashville on March 2, 2015. In his opening remarks to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Wesley King said that the victim had been shot in the back of the head as he was leaving the bar.

     Defense attorney David Raybin told the jury that the defendant wouldn't have murdered his best friend, that the killing had been in self defense. "He [Mills] was my client's best friend. My client loved him and cared for him and wouldn't murder him," Raybin said. "Never in the ten years they had known each other was there ever a harsh, loud episode between them."

     Prosecutor King put songwriter Thomas Howard on the stand who testified that he saw Ferrell smack a cigarette out of Mills' hand that made Mills angry. "At that point Mills got up and turned around and said, "You ever smack my hand like that again, I'll kill you." Howard said he heard gunshots as he left the bar.

     After the prosecution rested its case on March 4, 2015, the defense attorney put 24-year-old Nadia Markum on the stand. She had been in the bar that night and said Mills and Ferrell were yelling at each other. While she didn't recall the specifics of the argument because she was drunk, she remembered Wayne Mills throwing a glass to the floor. Right after she exited the bar she heard three shots.

     On Markum's cross-examination, prosecutor King got the witness to admit that when questioned by the police, she had said, "All that Mills did was smoke a cigarette." She had also told detectives that Mills was trying to leave the bar when he was shot.

     Defense attorney Raybin, as his final defense witness, put Chris Ferrell on the stand. The defendant testified that Mills became agitated when he couldn't get a cab. "I can't get a cab!" he said. "There are no whores, and no f-ing cocaine here. Why am I here?" At the time of the outburst, Ferrell was walking around the bar turning out lights in anticipation of closing up the place. It was then Mills lit a cigarette.

     The defendant testified that he asked Mills to put out the cigarette. Mills refused, saying that he had helped "build this bar." Ferrell said he reached across the bar and grabbed the cigarette out of Mills' mouth, crushed it and threw it on the floor. Mills responded to this by saying, "If you ever take a cigarette from me again, I will kill you!" According to the defendant, he told Mills to leave the bar but not with the drink he held in his hand. To that Mills said, "If you talk to me like that again I'm going to f-ing kill you." Mills then threw his drink to the floor, smashing the glass into pieces, "You know what?" he said, "I'm going to f-ing kill you!"

     The defendant said that in response to that threats to his life "I fired in fear. I panicked. I believed he had a weapon."

     On March 6, 2015, the jury found Chris Ferrell guilty of second-degree murder. On April 28, 2015, at his sentence hearing, Chris Ferrell, in addressing the court, said, "I stand here today with the heaviest heart, conscious and soul. I will carry the memory of that horrible night forever. I am so sorry for my actions that in an instant changed so many lives." The judge sentenced Ferrell to twenty years in prison.

The Meth Lab Contaminated Home

     Methamphetamine is an addictive, synthetic stimulant that causes the brain to release a surge of dopamine that, depending upon how it is ingested, and its potency, creates a high that lasts from a few minutes to 24 hours. Meth comes in two forms, powder and rock. The powder can be snorted, smoked, eaten, or dissolved into a drink. Rock, the crystalized form of the drug, is usually smoked or injected. One hit costs the meth user between $25 and $80. There are 1.4 million users of methamphetamine in the United States, and this number is rising.

     Meth is addictive because it depletes the brain of dopamine. Once this happens, users are unable to experience pleasure without the chemicals. Addicts who try to quit become depressed, and in some cases, psychotic. The prolonged use of meth permanently destroys the brain, and can cause heart attacks and strokes.

     Manufacturing or "cooking" meth is a multi-step operation that takes 48 hours to complete. The process produces toxic fumes, and there is always the potential for an explosion. There are a handful of large, commercial super labs, and thousands of small home laboratories. Super labs, like the one featured on the AMC TV series "Breaking Bad," are staffed by trained chemists who purchase the key ingredients--ephedrine and pseudoephedrine--in bulk from chemical suppliers. A super lab can manufacture more than 100,000 does per cook.

     Amateur meth cooks who operate home labs use chemicals derived from over-the-counter cold, cough, and allergy medicines. These shade-tree chemists acquire ingredients such as ammonia and lye from everyday household items. For example, they can obtain red phosphorus by scraping it off matches. The operator of a home meth lab can only produce about 300 doses a cook, enough product for himself and a few sales.

     The vast majority of meth factories raided by narcotics officers are amateur operations. In 2011, drug enforcement agents in the U.S. seized 10,287 residential meth labs. (One of the largest meth lab raids occurred in San Jose, California where, in March 2012, DEA agents seized 750 pounds of meth with a street value of $34 million.) Because of the highly toxic nature of meth production, these sites have to be professionally scrubbed.

     The government spent about $200 million a year de-contaminating meth labs. But not all of the homes that were once meth labs were sanitized, and some of them went on the real estate market. People who moved into these places become very sick. As a result, about half of the states passed residential meth lab disclosure laws.

The Bates Family

     Unfortunately for John Bates, his wife Jessie, and their 7-year-old son, the state of Washington didn't have a meth disclosure law in 2007 when they purchased a house for $235,000 in Suquamish, a town near Seattle. Shortly after moving into the dwelling, their son Tyler developed breathing problems. Mr. Bates developed a variety of unexplained symptoms, and his wife kept getting horrible skin rashes. The family and their physicians didn't have a clue what was causing these ailments until a neighbor, 18 months after the onset of the illnesses, casually mentioned that the former occupant of the home had made his living cooking meth.

     A state inspection of the Bates home revealed that toxic chemicals had soaked into the carpets, walls, studs, and flooring. Instead of shelling out $90,000 to replace the contaminated areas of the house, the Bates demolished the place and built a new home on the two-acre lot. The project cost them $184,000. Today, the Bates are healthy, and the state of Washington has a residential meth lab disclosure law.  

Murder Among Friends

     Tewana Sullivan, 50, was visiting her godfather in HUD housing in the Detroit suburb of Livonia when something went horribly wrong. It ended with 66-year-old Cheryl Livy dead and Sullivan in custody for her murder. Sullivan's godfather, Marvin Jones, said, "All of us were good friends and for something like this to happen, I just don't see it. It was such a shock that something like that would happen between two good friends…"

     Sullivan stands accused of beating Livy to death with a crock-pot. Police say the women fought, though they don't know why. When asked if he was disappointed in his goddaughter, Mr. Jones replied, "I'm not really disappointed in her because nobody knows what happened. So why would I be disappointed in her?" After being informed of what police were alleging, Jones said, "The police might be saying that, but I don't see it that way. I see them being friends and something happened." [In July 2015, the judge sentenced Sullivan to 23 to 50 years in prison.]

Derek Hunter, "Detroit: Woman Beats Friend to Death With a Crock-Pot," Daily Caller, October 28, 2014 

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Janet and William Strickland Murder-For-Hire Case

     Seventy-two-year-old William Strickland had lived with his 64-year-old wife Janet thirty years in the same house in south Chicago. Their neighbors considered them a happy couple. Mr. Strickland, a dialysis patient, may have been a contented husband, but his wife Janet wanted him dead.

     In February 2013, Janet Strickland informed her 19-year-old grandson--also named William Strickland--that she was "sick" of his grandfather and wanted him "gone." By "gone" she meant murdered. The old guy had money in the bank that couldn't be spent until he was "gone." Janet wanted that money, and she wanted it now.

     In one of their discussions about Mr. Strickland's fate, Janet told her grandson that she had decided against hiring an outside hit-man because she wanted the job done now. Young William, anticipating a share of his grandfather's wealth, said he would assassinate his namesake. Grandma sealed the deal by giving the young man his grandfather's handgun, a weapon he kept around the house for protection.

     At three-thirty on the afternoon of March 2, 2013, Janet said good-bye to her husband as he stepped out of the house to await a ride to his dialysis treatment. The murder target had been standing on the sidewalk a few minutes when he was approached from behind by his grandson. The younger William Strickland, using his grandfather's handgun, shot the elderly man six times in the back. Mr. Strickland fell to the ground and died.

     A few days after what the Chicago Police first considered a random robbery-murder--a common crime in the Windy City--Janet Strickland purchased her grandson a new car. A red one. She also went furniture shopping for herself.

     William rewarded himself with an expensive sound system for his new ride, a pair of high-end sneakers, and a fancy cellphone. He also spent some of his grandfather's money at his favorite tattoo parlor. With old guy dead, life was good.

     Detectives arrested William Strickland on the charge of first-degree murder on March 30, 2013. He confessed to the execution-style homicide, and identified his grandmother as the mastermind behind the deadly get-rich-quick plot.

     On April 6, 2013, officers took Janet Strickland into custody. She confessed as well. The murder-for-hire grandmother and her assassin grandson were held on $50,000 bond in the Cook County Jail.

     On February 19, 2016, a jury in Chicago, after deliberating less than three hours, found William Strickland guilty of his grandfather's murder. Judge James Linn, on March 23, 2016, sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

     Janet Strickland went on trial a month later and was found guilty as charged. The judge sentenced the 67-year-old murder-for-hire mastermind to eighteen years in prison.

The Case Of The Butt-Fired Bottle Rocket

     The fireworks began at one-thirty in the morning of May 1, 2011 at the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity house not far from the campus of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. During the house party, Travis Hughes launched, from the frat house deck, a bottle rocket (a fireworks product on the end of a stick) out of his ass. (If I had to guess, I'd peg this kid as a criminal justice or elementary education major.) The rocket man's startled fraternity brother, Louis Helmburg III, jumped back and fell off the frat house deck. According to Helmburg's account of the incident, he ended up lodged between the deck and an air conditioning unit. Both students had been drinking.

     Not long after the fireworks display, the injured student's attorney filed a personal injury lawsuit against the university, the fraternity, the Marshall University inter-fraternity council, the company that owns the fraternity property, and Travis Hughes, the human rocket launcher. The plaintiff asserts that the ATO fraternity was negligent in failing to install a deck railing. As for defendant Hughes, his consumption of alcohol had led to "stupid and dangerous activities." (Hey, don't blame the booze. How many drunks can fire rockets out of their butts? Someday this skill could become an Olympic sport. It certainly would be more exciting than the shot put and could take place at night.)

     In June 2013, a judge dismissed the suit against Marshall University on grounds the plaintiff failed to follow in-house procedures for bringing such an action. The rest of the case, however, stood.

     Given the humorous facts underlying this suit, it appeared frivolous. The outcome, however, would depend on whether or not the fraternity house deck, because it didn't have a railing, was unsafe. Assuming that it was safe, there was still the question of whether the frat boy's ass-launch made him civilly liable for the student's tumble off the platform.

     On November 4, 2013, the plaintiff, through Huntington attorney Thomas P. Rosinsky, a slip-and-fall lawyer who also handled dog bite, DUI, car repossession and drug cases, settled the case with the company that owned the fraternity house. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed. If Louis Helmberg III paid a price for winning his case, it was that he would become the butt of every butt joke known to man.

     Travis Hughes, the bottle rocket butt-launcher, now works for NASA. (Just kidding.)

     

America's First Bomb Murder Case

The earliest case which I have found of the use of a bomb to commit murder was in 1854, when William Arrison sent one to the head of an asylum where he had been confined.

Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder, 1961