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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Ronald W. Brown: The Child Porn Puppeteer

     In 1992, puppeteer Ronald Wilson Brown started his entertainment enterprise, Puppets Plus. (It's the "plus" part of his act that turned out to be disturbing.) Brown performed with his hand-puppets for thousands of kids at shopping malls, schools, churches, and birthday parties throughout the Tampa Bay area. (Serial killer John Wayne Gacy entertained children with his clown act.) Beginning in 1997, Brown, through his so-called Kid Zone Ministry, hosted weekly gatherings at the Gulf Coast Church in his hometown of Largo, Florida. Ronald Brown also worked for the Christian Television Network, using his puppets to warn kids against viewing pornography. (Here's a simple rule: When some clown or guy with puppets wants to talk to your kid about pornography, even if it's in a church, get the hell out of there. If it's on TV, turn it off.)

     The outgoing puppeteer, a resident of the Whispering Pines mobile home park in Largo, regularly invited neighborhood boys and girls between the ages 5 and 12 to his trailer for pizza and candy. (Brown lived in an area populated by young families as evidenced by all the playgrounds near his home.)  He was also Facebook friends with several of the local kids who knew him as the "Cotton Candy Man." This neighborhood comprised an excellent hunting ground for a pedophile.

     In 1998, when a police officer pulled Brown over for a traffic violation, the cop noticed several pairs of boys' underwear in the car. When asked why he had children's undergarments in his vehicle, Brown explained that the clothing belonged to his puppets. (Puppets need underwear?) Whether or not the officer bought Brown's story, nothing came of the traffic cop's observation.

     In 2012, agents with the Department of Homeland Security were conducting an international child pornography investigation that led to 40 arrests in six countries. The child pornography ring, headquartered in Massachusetts, centered around an online chat room where sexual degenerates from around the world could communicate with each other. Ronald Brown, the 57-year-old puppeteer from Largo, Florida, was a regular presence on the pedophile site.

     In one conversation with a man from Kansas named Michael Arnett, Brown wrote that he wanted to kidnap a child, tie him up, lock him in a closet, then eat him for Easter dinner. "I imagine him wiggling and then going still," he wrote. Brown also mentioned a female toddler he knew who made his mouth water, describing how human flesh tastes when prepared in various ways. Michael Arnett sent Brown a photograph of a strangled 3-year-old girl. Turned on by the sight of a dead toddler, Brown replied that this was how he'd "do" the young boy he wanted to kill and consume.

     On July 19, 2012, Homeland Security agents, pursuant to a search of the puppeteer's Largo mobile home, seized CDs, DVDs, thumb drives, micro disks, and VHS tapes containing images of nude children in bondage positions. Some of the youngsters had been posed as though they were dead.

     The day following the search, the federal officers took Ronald Brown into custody. When interrogated, he identified the boy he said he wanted to kidnap and eat as a 10-year-old he knew from church. Brown referred to his Internet musings as being "in the realm of fantasy."

     On July 24, 2012, at Ronald Brown's arraignment, the Assistant United States Attorney informed the defendant he had been charged with conspiracy to kidnap a child and possession of child pornography. The judge set a date in August 2012 for Brown's bond hearing. Two days later, federal agents and deputies with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office returned to Brown's mobile home where they removed more evidence from the dwelling. Agents and deputies were seen walking out of the place carrying boxes and bags containing who knows what.

     In July 2013, following his guilty plea in federal court, the judge sentenced the 58-year-old Brown to twenty years behind bars. The sentence also included probation for life if he ever got out of prison alive.

Criminologist Lonnie Athens On Deciding To Be Violent

That violent criminals decide to act violently based on their interpretation of a situation would be a radical discovery when psychiatry, psychology and sociology assign violent acts to unconscious motivations, deep emotional needs, inner psychic conflicts or sudden unconscious emotional outbursts. But [Dr. Lonnie] Athens [an American criminologist] quickly discovered that violent criminals interpreted the world differently than did their law-abiding neighbors, and that it was from those differing interpretations that their violence emerged. Violent acts, he began to see, were not explosions: They were decisions.

Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, 1999

Montaigne on Human Nature

     The evil in the world tends to strike us with more force, and more often, than the good. It is not easy to come up with the opposites of Stalin or Hitler. Evil has repute and power, good is passive, anonymous. But the question remains: Is the good and evil in people indeed distributed by chance and at random?...

     According to [the 16th century French philosopher Montaigne], both instincts and reason impel human nature, but reason is weak. The principal human failing, Montaigne believed, is arrogance, the presumption that through the intellect the truth can be revealed. We are barely superior to the animals, who are stronger, friendlier, and often wiser. Our senses deceive us, and we would do better humbly to acknowledge and accept our limitations. Life can be lived only by following our best instincts. We gain nothing by pondering life, since the future is outside our control. We are what we are; reason can neither change nor tame us; what animates us is unknown. This view of Montaigne is diametrically opposed to the Stoic tradition, which says that by knowing ourselves we can learn self-control and live exemplary lives, like that of the patron saint of all philosophers, Socrates.

A. J. Dunning, Extremes, 1990

The Argument For Citizens Carrying Guns

     People who engage in mass public shootings are deterred by the possibility that law-abiding citizens may be carrying guns. Such people may be deranged, but they still appear to care whether they will themselves be shot as they attempt to kill others…

     One prominent concern about leniency in permitting people to carry concealed handguns is that the number of accidental deaths might arise, but I can find no statistically significant evidence that this occurs. Even the largest estimate of nine more accidental deaths per year is extremely small in comparison to the number of lives saved from fewer murders.

John R. Lott, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime, Second Edition, 2000

"Jargonauts"

Lazy academics and bureaucrats, excessive users of jargon, are the enemies of good writing. Lawrence Langer explained what jargon does to language: "The language of simplicity and spontaneity is forced to retreat behind the barricades of an official prose developed by a few experts who believe that jargon is the most precise means of communication." Jargon is a form of pretentious writing intended to make the writer, at the expense of clarity, seem intelligent, erudite, and profound. In reality, it masks banality and shallow thinking. These "jargonauts" are a blight on the written word.

The Horror Novelist

I have very strong opinions of what the horror genre should be and this has earned me few friends in the franchised horror product schoolyard. All writers of horror, thriller, drama, and adventure stories, because of the material they consider in their work, are serial killers with a physical OFF switch. They have to put themselves into the heads of their maniac creations. It's so easy to put a knife in someone's eye, that's not the point of horror. The point of horror is to make people feel revolted and oppressed and angered in some fundamental way. One has to get under the skin of the reader. You do this by breaking moral boundaries. You do this by breaking narrative structure. You do this by mixing up genres. The horror writer has to expect to be hated, loathed, derided--for only when he can achieve this status of ogre can his art mean anything to a populace sucked dry by the corporate franchising of the horror ethos.

Mike Philbin in The Writer's Guide to Fantasy and Literature, edited by Philip Martin, 2002 

Monday, September 28, 2020

The Modern History of The Death Penalty

     While the death penalty is still lawful in 32 states, only Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas actually execute their death row inmates. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that the death penalty itself amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

     Since the mid-1980s, the states that carry out the death penalty have used lethal injection as the principal method of execution. Considered a more humane way to kill condemned prisoners than its predecessors the electric chair and the gas chamber, the use of drugs instead of electricity and lethal gas is more a matter of appearance--aesthetics if you will--than concern for the condemned.

     From 1976 through 2019, 1,300 state and federal inmates were executed by lethal injection. Four states--Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia--still allow death row prisoners to choose between deadly drugs and the electric chair.

The Electric Chair

     On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler, a convicted murderer serving time at New York's Auburn Prison, earned the distinction of becoming the first person in America to die in the electric chair. The state of Ohio followed New York by replacing hanging with electrocution in 1897. Massachusetts adopted the chair in 1900, New Jersey in 1906, and Virginia in 1908. By the 1930s most of the death penalty states used the electric chair as the primary method of execution. The other states killed their death row inmates by gas, by firing squad, or by rope. The state of Kansas continued to hang its prisoners into the early 1960s.

     The state of Nebraska was one of the last jurisdictions to employ the electric chair as its sole method of killing murderers. In February 2008, the practice ended when the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that electrocution was in itself cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the state's constitution.

The Electric Chair's Golden Era

     In the 1920s and 30s, Robert G. Elliott, an electrician from Long Island, the official executioner for six eastern states, electrocuted 387 inmates. For his work he charged $150 an execution. When he threw the switch (or turned the wheel) on two or more inmates at one prison visit, he discounted his fee. Some of Elliott's most infamous clients included Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1936), the killer of the Lindbergh baby; Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray (1928), the killers of Ruth's husband Albert; and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1927), the Italian anarchists 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 Agent of Death. The book came out in 1940. Long out of print, it is today in the libraries of true crime book collectors.

Electrocuting Fat People

     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's death house attorney argued that the 355-pound inmate was too heavy for the state's 76-year-old electric chair. Since its construction in 1923, the Florida state electric chair had dispatched 200 prisoners. In recent years the chair had been involved in some unsightly executions. For example, death house witnesses in 1997 saw flames shoot from a condemned man's head. So, in 1998, following this unpleasant tableau, the prison, with "Tiny" Davis in mind, oversaw the construction of a new, heavy-duty electric chair. The new device could easily handle a 355-pound guest. On July 8, 1999, the executioner sent 2,300 volts through the metal cap on the fat man's head for two minutes. It wasn't pretty, there was some blood and a little groaning, but the new chair did its job.

The Gas Chamber

     Death in a gas chamber usually took six to eighteen minutes. The execution ritual began with the condemned inmate being led into the death chamber and strapped into a chair by his arms, waist, ankles, and chest. A mask was placed over the prisoner's face, and the chamber sealed. The executioner poured sulfuric acid down a tube into a metal container on the floor, a canister that contained cyanide pellets. The mixture of the chemicals produced a cloud of lethal gas.

     An open curtain allowed witnesses to observe the inmate inside the chamber. At the designated moment, the executioner hit an electric switch that combined the chemicals that produced the killing agent.

     The gas chamber was an expensive form of execution. Moreover, one could argue that because the condemned man contributed to his own death by breathing in the gas, it was the most cruel. Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton, a toxicologist, first proposed the gassing of death row inmates to the state of Nevada in 1921. That year, state legislators abolished the electric chair in favor of the gas chamber. On February 8, 1924, a Chinese immigrant named Gee Jon became the first person in America to be executed by gas. He died in the chamber inside the Nevada State Penitentiary in Carson City.

     Eventually adopted by eleven states as the official method of execution, lethal gas killed 594 prisoners in the U.S. from 1924 to 1999.

The Caryl Chessman Case

     Caryl Chessman was an armed robber and serial rapist who spent most of his adult life behind bars. In 1948, a Los Angeles jury found him guilty of 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape. Among his crimes, he had kidnapped a 17-year-old girl named Mary Alice Meza out of her car and forced her to give him oral sex. He committed a similar offense against another victim, Regina Johnson. Under California law at the time, a kidnapping that involved bodily injury was a capital offense. Under this law, the judge sentenced Chessman to die in the gas chamber.

     Following his highly publicized trial, Chessman continued to argue his innocence through essays and books. His two memoirs, written behind bars, became bestsellers. During his twelve years on San Quentin's death row, Chessman filed dozens of appeals, and managed to avoid eight execution dates. Following his failed last-minute attempt to avoid death with a writ of habeas corpus filed with the California Supreme Court, Chessman died of asphyxiation on May 2, 1960 in San Quentin's gas chamber. He is the only person to die in the gas chamber for a crime other than murder.

Lethal Injection

     By the 21st century, state executioners were injecting death row inmates with a three-drug cocktail that included pentobarbital. When the European manufacturers of this deadly drug stopped exporting it and other killing agents to the United States, executioners found themselves in a fix. Some began using a single drug--usually pentobarbital if they had it--while others concocted new, experimental cocktails made of drugs available in the United States.

     Anti-capital punishment activists have used the lethal drug supply problem to further their push to have the death penalty abolished altogether. But for these crusaders, if it's not the inhumanity of using untested drugs, it's something else. These death house lawyers and political activists object to executing prisoners who, when they murdered, were under eighteen; inmates who are fat with hard-to-find veins; killers with low I.Q.s; and in the case of a Missouri murderer named Russell Bucklew, a death row inmate who wasn't healthy enough to be humanely executed.

The Clayton Lockett Case

     In 1999, an Oklahoma criminal named Clayton Lockett tortured then buried alive an 18-year-old girl who had been unfortunate enough to cross this predator's path. On April 29, 2014, the executioner at the state penitentiary in McAlester administered a three-drug cocktail of Midazalam (to render him unconscious), Vecuronium (to stop his breathing), and potassium chloride (to stop his heart).

     Seven minutes after the drugs went into Lockett's body, he was still conscious. He moved his head and tried to get off the gurney seventeen minutes into the execution. Finally, 43 minutes after being injected, the 38-year-old died of a heart attack. It wasn't a perfect, well-oiled killing, but in the end the drugs worked.

     By describing Lockett's death as torture, a horrible ordeal, and a nightmare, death house lawyers, anti-capital punishment crusaders, and people in the media who support their cause, exploited Lockett's "botched" execution for all its worth. Suddenly, executing a sadistic rapist and cold-blooded murderer by lethal injection became cruel and unusual punishment. For those who were not losing sleep over Clayton Lockett's bumpy ride into eternity, listening to this hand-wringing was cruel and unusual punishment.

Back to Bullets

     In 2014, politicians in Utah, Wyoming, and Missouri proposed bringing back the firing squad. In Utah, legislators abolished death by firing squad in 2004, citing the excessive media attention surrounding this form of execution. Still, murderers sentenced before 2004 had the option to die by shooting. In 2010, Ronnie Lee Gardner, a man who fatally shot a Salt Lake City attorney in 1985 in Gardner's attempt to flee the court house, selected the firing squad over lethal injection. Five police officers used .30-caliber Winchester rifles to carry out Gardner's execution. Unlike Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Mr. Gardner died instantly. Nevertheless, those who opposed capital punishment, fretted that the executioners might miss their target, causing a slow and painful death. There was, however, a simple solution to this problem: give each executioner two bullets.

The Return of the Electric Chair

     On May 22, 2014, Tennessee Governor Bill Hallam signed a bill allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates in the event the state was unable to acquire the proper drugs for the execution. Lawmakers had overwhelmingly passed the bill the previous month. And most people in the state supported the new law. According to a 2014 Vanderbilt University poll, 56 percent of registered voters in the state welcomed the return of the chair.

     Corrections officials in Tennessee were also dealing with the lethal drug shortage. Electricity, on the other hand, didn't come from Europe and was in good supply.

     In Tennessee, Daryl Holton, in 2009, was the last man in the state to die in the electric chair. In 1997, the Gulf War veteran murdered his three sons and a stepdaughter with a high-powered rifle in their Shelbyville, Tennessee  garage. Death by electrocution was his choice of execution.  

There's No Such Thing as an Evil Gun

The rifle itself has no moral stature, since it has no will of its own. Naturally, it may be used by evil men for evil purposes, but there are more good men than evil, and while the latter cannot be persuaded to the path of righteousness by propaganda, they can certainly be corrected by good men with rifles.

Jeff Cooper, The Art of the Rifle, 1997

The Psychological Effects of Having Been Stalked

Even after [stalking] victims feel assured that the stalking has ended, many find themselves having trouble learning to trust again--both others and themselves. A phase of overcompensating can take place, in which survivors of stalking tend to mistrust their own judgment in meeting people, or feel intensely suspicious of others, resulting in potential difficulties forming new relationships, whether personal or professional, intimate or casual. Existing relationships may also be affected; survivors may find themselves reacting with far greater caution and vigilance around others than is normal for them.

Melita Schaum and Karen Parrish, Stalked, 1995

The Gas Chamber: Designed For the Spectacle of Death

     If the hangman's scaffold concentrates the mind, the gas chamber has a way of bewitching it. It's smaller than one would think, roughly four feet square and ten feet high. Almost beautiful, if one is mechanically inclined, it's also extremely alien looking, like an antique, six-sided diving bell someone painted gray...

     Waist-high windows, tinted green and reinforced internally with thin wire, are embedded with large rivets in five of the chamber's six sides. At first sight, these windows make it seem harmless. Windows are hard to associate with death. Then the mind makes the obvious leap: this place is not only for killing but for offering death as a spectacle. Three windows look out from the rear half of the chamber onto the witnesses' room, where media people, state officials, lawyers, and families of the victims sit on long wooden benches that resemble church pews. A fourth window, on the right side of the chamber's front half, is for two doctors who monitor the condemned's heartbeat on an EKG machine and a stethoscope. The fifth, to the left of the chamber's 300-pound door, is for the executioner.

Ivan Solotaroff, The Last Face You'll Ever See, 2001