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Saturday, January 25, 2020

Justyn Pennell: The Recreational Killer

     For several months, Justyn Pennell fantasized about how much he wanted to murder, for no reason other than for the pleasure of it, a perfect stranger. At two-thirty in the afternoon of January 9, 2020, the 21-year-old, while driving his Red Chrysler PT Cruiser in Hudson, Florida, a town 40 miles west of Tampa, came upon an opportunity to fulfill his desire to take an innocent person's life.

     The object of Pennell's homicidal obsession, a 75-year-old man carrying a walking stick, was strolling by himself on a road that didn't have a sidewalk. The Vietnam veteran and Pennell were moving in the same direction, with the man on the other side of the road heading toward the oncoming traffic. Pennell made a u-turn, increased his speed, and sped directly at the pedestrian who tried in vain to avoid being run over.

     After plowing into the victim, Pennell lost control of the PT Cruiser and slammed into a utility pole. He climbed out of the damaged car unhurt. Several motorists had witnessed Justyn Pennell run down the elderly man who lay dead on the road.

     At the scene, Justyn Pennell called 911, and to the dispatcher, admitted that he had just intentionally crashed his car into a pedestrian for the purpose of killing him. To the police officers who responded to the call, Pennell once again confessed. In relating what happened, Pennell told the officers that when he saw the terrified look on the man's face just before he killed him, he laughed.

     On January 10, 2020, a Pasco County prosecutor charged Justyn Pennell with first-degree murder. At his arraignment, Pennell, who didn't have a criminal record, requested the services of a public defender. The magistrate denied him bail.

Can O. J. Simpson be Defamed?

     In October 2017, after serving nine years in a Nevada prison for robbery, O. J. Simpson, the famed football player acquitted of double murder in 1995, took up residence in a Las Vegas golfing community. Shortly after his prison release, O. J. Simpson and two of his friends were having drinks at the Cosmopolitan Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas. The men were asked to leave the premises for allegedly being drunk and disruptive. Following the incident, the Cosmopolitan issued the 72-year-old Simpson a trespass notice that prohibited him from returning to the establishment.

     A member of the Cosmopolitan staff publicized the O. J. Simpson banning by alerting the celebrity website TMZ.

     Simpson, who insisted that he had not been drunk and disruptive, and therefore did not deserve to be banned from the Cosmopolitan, filed a civil defamation suit against the hotel-casino in which he claimed that the publication of the incident had caused "tangible damage to his reputation."

     Attorneys for the hotel-casino argued that O. J. Simpson was a public person who had a reputation of being a robber and a man who had murdered two people. In other words, O. J. Simpson didn't have a reputation to defame.

     The case is pending.

The Archivist and the Bookseller: Pittsburgh's Rare Book Heist

     On January 3, 2020, 63-year-old Gregory Priore pleaded guilty to stealing, over a 20-year period, $500,000 worth of rare books, prints, and maps from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. From 1992 to April 2017, the resident of the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh, held the position of archivist and manager of the William R. Oliver Special Collections room of the library.

     John Schulman, the man Gregory Priore sold the stolen library holdings to, pleaded guilty on January 3, 2020 to receiving stolen property. The 56-year-old antiquarian book dealer from Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, owned the Caliban Bookshop in the Oakland section of the city. Mr. Schulman's attorney claimed that his client didn't know the items he purchased from Mr. Priore were stolen, but concedes that he should have known.

     The archivist and the antiquarian bookseller will be sentenced on April 17, 2020. At the maximum, both defendants could be sentenced to 20 years in prison. Neither man, however, will receive a sentence anywhere near that severe. Mr. Schulman may not be given any prison time at all.

     This case exemplifies the reality that when it comes to theft, no one is above suspicion. 

Cellphones Have Made People Less Observant

People are so absorbed in their cellphones, they are less likely to spot crimes in progress. Moreover, people are less apt to notice a person from a wanted poster or a missing persons flyer. Eyewitness testimony, already a weak form of evidence, my someday be nonexistent. 

Third-Person Narration

     Third-person narrators are identified by the degree and manner of access the reader is afforded to the hearts and minds of the characters. You should decide, for example, that your narrator will not get into the consciousness of any of the characters. [In other words, does not know what they are thinking.] That's called third-person objective or dramatic point of view or fly-on-the-wall point of view.

     Or you might decide that your narrator will get into the mind of the central character only. This is called third-person limited. We get the thoughts and feelings of the central character, but no one else's. Or you might shift points of view from character to character in what's called multiple selective omniscience. Or go all the way and use an omniscient narrator who knows all, but can't tell all.

John Dufresne, Is Life Like This? 2010 

Good Talkers Are Not Necessarily Good Writers

     Those who tell stories better than they write them are the bane of editors. Editors dread wasting time on captivating talkers whose words lose their fizz on the page. Obviously, writing skills transcend conversational skills. But the drama and flair we bring to telling stories is too often lost once our words are nailed down on paper.

     Most of us converse better than we write because we feel so much less vulnerable when addressing a limited number of ears. While talking, we can alter material or adjust our delivery in response to cues from others. If things get out of hand, we can change the subject altogether. Even when they bomb, spoken words float off into space. They can always be denied. "That's what I said?" is a great court of last resort. But words we've committed to paper can be held in evidence against us as long as that paper exists. Is it any wonder that we're scared to make this commitment?

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995

Setting Up the Novel's Big Scene

I can always tell when a writer has rushed through a scene or written around it in order to get to the good stuff. The dialogue is hurried, like the wedding vows in a tired old comedy where the bride's in labor. Descriptions are sketchy or nonexistent. Too often, the scene isn't even there; the novelist has lifted it out and thrown it away, or not written it at all. At best, this leaves an annoying gap. At worst, the "good" scene has not been set up and so it falls in like a cake because someone skimped on the eggs. In between is a lost opportunity, because sometimes the scene you dreaded most turns out to be the best in the book.

Loren D. Estleman, Writing the Popular Novel, 2004

The Writer's Journal

I've kept a journal on a capricious basis since I was sixteen. For me, my journal is a supplement to my imagination. I recently heard of a novelist who cuts out magazine photos of people, pastes them on his study wall, and uses them as the basis for his character descriptions. I completely approve. Writing is hard enough, and I welcome anything that helps me along. Besides, I can't help but filter what I see through my imagination, so even my most autobiographical fiction is, in a sense, wholly imagined.

Robin Hemley, Turning Life Into Fiction, 2006

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Carla Hague Poisoning Case

     In 2013, Judge Charles Hague lived with his wife of 45 years outside of Jefferson, Ohio in the northeastern part of the state. Since 1993, he had been an Ashtabula County common pleas juvenile/probate judge. Carla, his 70-year-old wife, had retired years earlier as a nurse. The judge and Carla, parents of grown children, enjoyed a reputation in the community as outstanding citizens.

     As is so often the case, outward signs of domestic tranquility are misleading. This unfortunate reality applied to Mr. and Mrs. Hague. The problem within that marriage exploded to the surface on September 15, 2013 when Carla telephoned one of her sons. She said the judge had become ill after consuming a glass of wine. Upon arrival at the house, the son took one look at his father and dialed 911.

     Paramedics rushed the stricken judge to a local hospital from where medical personnel flew him to the Cleveland Clinic for emergency care. Following several days of treatment in Cleveland, the judge returned home to recuperate.

     Judge Hague's relatives, on September 19, 3013, notified the Ashtabula County Sheriff's Office of foul play suspected in the judge's sudden illness four days earlier. More specifically, the relatives accused Mrs. Hague of spiking her husband's wine with antifreeze. (A toxicological analysis of the judge's blood confirmed the presence of ethylene glycol, a toxic ingredient in antifreeze.)

     Sheriff's deputies arrested Carla Hague on December 2, 2013 on suspicion of attempted murder. Officers booked her into the Ashtabula County Jail. Eighteen days later, an Ashtabula County grand jury indicted the suspect of contaminating a substance for human consumption. She also stood accused of attempted murder.

     Carla Hague did not deny putting the antifreeze into her husband's wine. Her intent, she said, was not to kill the judge but to make him slightly ill. He suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, a serious respiratory condition. In Carla's opinion, her husband had been adding to his health problem by drinking too much. She hoped that if the wine made him ill he would cut back on his use of alcohol.

     At her arraignment, Carla pleaded not guilty to the charge of attempted murder. She posted her $100,000 surety bond on December 24, 2013.

     On June 16, 2014, the local prosecutor, with Judge Hague's consent, allowed the defendant to plead guilty to felonious assault. In speaking to a reporter, judge Hague said, "I have no anger or animosity. I am beyond that. I'm gad to have this huge black spot behind us. I have moved on with my life. Carla can get on with hers." (Presumably they will be getting on with their lives without each other.)

     Following the guilty plea, the judge sentenced Carla Hague to two years in prison with eligibility for release in six months.

The Electric Chair: Now Mostly a Museum Exhibit

     Quite often, the centerpiece of a police or crime museum is an electric chair. To some, "Old Sparky" is a symbol of a bygone era when convicted murderers got what was coming to them swiftly and electronically. Others believe the electric chair represents government brutality and cruel and unusual punishment. Still others are drawn to these old "hot seats" by morbid curiosity. Currently, only four states--Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia--have operational electric chairs. In these states a death row inmate can choose between lethal injection and electrocution. Over the past years, prisoners faced with this dark dilemma, have chosen the needle over the voltage. Since 1890, about 4,000 inmates have been electrocuted in the United States. It would be wishful thinking to believe that all of them were guilty of the crimes charged.

The Agent of Death

     In the 1920s and 30s, Robert G. Elliott, an electrician (of course) from Long Island, the official executioner for six states, electrocuted 387 inmates. For this he charged the state $150 a pop. When he threw the switch (or turned the wheel) on two or more at one setting (so to speak), he discounted his fee. Some of Elliot's most infamous clients included Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1936), the killer of the Lindbergh baby; Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey (1928), the murderers of Ruth's husband Albert; and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1927), the Italian anacrchists convicted of killing a Boston area bank guard. Elliott, somewhat of a celebrity, and obviously proud of his singular contribution to the American system of criminal justice, wrote a memoir called Angel of Death that came out in 1940 less than a year after his own demise. His book, long out of print and written by a co-author, has become a collector's item.

Never Too Big to Fry

     In 1981, Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis murdered a pregnant woman and her two children during a home invasion robbery in Jacksonville, Florida. A year later a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to death. In 1998, as Davis' execution date approached, the 54-year-old death row inmate's attorney argued that his 355 pound client was too heavy for the state's broken-down 76-year-old electric chair. Since it was built in 1923, the Florida State Prison's electric chair had dispatched 200 prisoners, and was worn out. Witnesses to the chair's performance in 1997 saw, when the juice was applied, a flame from the condemned man's head shoot a foot into the air. So, in 1998, following this unpleasant tableau, the prison, with Allen "Tiny" Davis in mind, oversaw the construction of a new, heavy-duty electric chair, one that could accommodate a 355 pound guest. On July 8, 1999, the executioner ran 2,300 volts through the metal cap on Davis's head for two minutes. It wasn't pretty, there was some blood and a lot of groaning, but the new chair did its job.

Museum Pieces

     If you're interested in the electric chair that sent Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey to hell in 1927, you can see a replica of it at the Sing Sing Prison Museum in Ossining, New York. Snyder was the first women executed in the United States since 1899. After her, more would follow. The real chair is in prison storage. The hot seat Robert Elliott activated to electrocute Bruno Richard Hauptmann sits in the New Jersey Police Museum and Learning Center in West Trenton. In that state they call it "Old Smokey."

     At the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Titusville, Florida, visitors can be photographed sitting in a replica electric chair. One tourist, dressed like Santa Claus, sat in the chair with a kid on his knee. (Just kidding.) An Old Sparky is on display in Moundsville, West Virgina as part of a tourist attraction that used to be part of the West Virginia State Penitentiary. The chair had been constructed in 1950 by an inmate who had to be moved to another prison when the other inmates got wind of his project. Before 1950, death sentence inmates in West Virginia were hanged--85 of them since 1866. The state has abolished the death penalty.

     In Springer, New Mexico, at the Sante Fe Trail Museum, a female mannequin sits in the state's first and only electric chair. (I'm not a museum curator, but this seems like an odd choice.) The electric chair at the Texas Prison System in Huntsville, built by an inmate, fried 361 prisoners from 1924 to 1964.

     The centerpiece of an exhibit at the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus, featured an electric chair that put 312 men and one woman to death between 1887 and 1963. The exhibit, in a state that has kept the death penalty, created some controversy.