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Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Michelle Byrom Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1999, 42-year-old Michelle Byrom lived in Luka, Mississippi, a small, rural town in the northeastern part of the state. She resided with her abusive 58-year-old husband, Edward Byrom Sr. and their 25-year-old son, Edward Byrom Jr.

     On June 4, 1999, Edward Byrom Sr. was found dead in the bedroom of his house. He had been shot in the head at close range. Sheriff David Smith of Tishomingo County brought young Edward in for questioning. According to Edward Jr., his friend Joey Gillis had committed the murder on behalf of his mother, Michelle Byrom. The dead man's son said that after the shooting, he went to the hospital where his mother was being treated for double pneumonia. When he informed her that Gillis had shot Edward Sr. as planned, Michelle instructed him to return to the house to make sure his father was dead. If in fact the shot had been fatal, young Edward was to call 911 and report the homicide.

     Edward Byrom Jr. told Sheriff Smith that his mother had promised to pay Gillis $15,000 from her husband's $150,000 life insurance policy.

     Joey Gillis, when questioned by the sheriff, denied any involvement in the murder case. A test to determine if he had recently fired a gun proved negative. (A gunshot residue test on Edward Jr., however, turned out positive. The dead man's son also led deputies to the murder weapon, a World War II 9 mm handgun that had belonged to his grandfather.)

     After interrogating Edward Byrom Jr. for several hours, the sheriff questioned Michelle Byrom at the hospital. The heavily medicated patient, after being told that her son had confessed to the murder-for-hire plot, made statements interpreted by the authorities as incriminating.

     A Tishomingo County prosecutor charged Joey Gillis with capital murder. Edward Jr. and his mother were charged with conspiracy to commit capital murder. If convicted as charged, they all faced the possibility of being sentenced to death.

     In early 2000, Edward Byrom Jr., while incarcerated in the Tishomingo County Jail, wrote his mother four letters in which he exonerated her and confessed fully to his father's murder. According to his revised account of the shooting, on the day of the killing, his father had slapped him in the face and called him a no good bastard. After brooding awhile in his bedroom, Edward Jr. found the 9 mm handgun and used it to shoot his father in the head.

     According to young Byrom, when he was interrogated by the sheriff, "I gave him one BS story after another to save my ass….I was scared, confused, and high. I just started spitting out the first thought that turned out to be this big conspiracy theory. It was all BS, that's why I had so many different stories."

     In October 2000, Michelle Byrom went on trial for conspiracy to kill her husband for his life insurance money. While Joey Gillis, the supposed triggerman, did not testify, Edward Jr., having recanted his jailhouse confessions to his mother, took the stand for the prosecution.

     Michelle Byrom's attorney decided to withhold the introduction of her son's jailhouse letters until Edward, Jr.'s cross-examination. But when it came time to enter the letters into evidence, the judge ruled they could not be introduced mid-trial. While the defense attorney was allowed to grill Edward, Jr. about the contents of his confessions, not having the actual letters as exhibits hurt the defense.

     On November 18, 2000, the jury found Michelle Byrom guilty as charged. On the advice of her attorney, she waived her right to a jury-determined sentence, instead putting her fate into the hands of the trial judge. This turned out to be an unwise decision. The judge handed Michelle Byrom the death sentence.

     In 2011, Joey Gillis, the alleged triggerman, in return for a lighter sentence, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and accessory after the fact. Upon his release from prison in 2009, he denied having any involvement in Mr. Byrom's murder.

     Edward Byrom, Jr. also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. Rewarded for his testimony against his mother, he walked out of prison in August 2013.

     In the meantime, death row attorneys working on Michelle Byrom's behalf had appealed her conviction on the grounds she had not received adequate legal representation. In 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court, in a five to three decision, ruled that Byrom's trial attorney's performance had not prejudiced her case. Bryom's appeal for a new trial was denied.

     In March 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court took up the Byrom appeal again. This time the justices ruled in her favor by reversing the murder-for-hire conviction and remanding the case back to the state circuit court for a new trial. The 57-year-old has been on Mississippi's death row for more than thirteen years.

Criminal Justice Quote: Poverty and Crime: What Comes First?

     Many academic criminologists, most of whom are sociologists, believe that capitalism produces pockets of poverty, inequality, and unemployment, which then foster crime. The solution, they believe, is government intervention to provide jobs, stimulate the economy, and reduce poverty and other social ills. There certainly is a correlation between the geography of crime and the geography of certain socio-economic factors, but to interpret the correlation as evidence that poverty causes crime is to get it just about backwards.

     As James K. Stewart, the Director of the National Institute of Justice, has pointed out, inner city areas where crime is rampant have tremendous potential for economic growth, given their infrastructure of railways, highways, electric power, water systems, and large supply of available labor. There is every reason for these areas to be wealthy and, indeed, many of them have been rich in the past. But crime takes a terrible toll on the physical, fiscal, and human capital, making it difficult to accumulate wealth and break out of the cycle of poverty. Criminals steal and destroy property, drive away customers and investors, reduce property values, and depreciate the quality of life in a neighborhood. Businesses close and working families move away, leaving behind a vacuum of opportunity. As Steward says, crime "is the ultimate tax on enterprise….The natural dynamic of the marketplace cannot assert itself when a local economy is regulated by crime [and corrupt politicians]. What these areas need most from government is not economic intervention but physical protection and security. The struggling inner-city dwellers whom sociologist William Julius Wilson has dubbed "the truly disadvantaged" deserve greater protection from their truly deviant neighbors. [The city of Detroit is a good example of the application of the poverty causes crime theory.]

Charles H. Logan and John J. DiLulio, Jr., "Ten Deadly Myths About Crime and Punishment," in Criminal Justice?, Robert James Bidinotto, ed., 1994 

Criminal Justice Quote: The Boy in the Claw Machine

     A 3-year-old boy who went missing from his home was found inside a toy claw machine in a bowling alley across the street. The boy's mother called the Lincoln, Nebraska Police Department on April 15, 2014 to report her son had gotten out of their apartment while she was in the bathroom….Police canvassed the area and were notified by a man that a boy was inside the claw machine….

     The boy could only have gotten into the machine through the prize hole…."You have to weave your way in and out, so he had to work pretty hard to get in there," said Jim Lakey, the owner of the machine….The boy was not paying any attention to anyone outside of the machine "because he was just picking up stuffed animals and putting them down," Rachell Hildreth, a bartender at Madsen's Bowling Alley and Billiards, said.

     So did they have to use quarters to get him out? No, Lakey came to the rescue with a key to the machine….The boy was uninjured and allowed to keep one of the stuffed toys from the machine….

Jolie Lee, "Missing Nebraska Boy, 3, Found in Toy Claw Machine," USA Today, April 16, 2014 

Whackademia Quote: Squirt Gun Control: School Administrators All Wet

     Zero tolerance strikes again: A Maine high school suspended a 10th-grader for possessing a lookalike firearm after a bright yellow squirt gun fell out of his backpack. Administrators at Lewiston High School determined that the rules mandated a 10-day suspension. District Superintendent Bill Webster...told the Lewiston-Auburn Sun Journal that he could not comment on the details of the case. He did say that all facts were considered.

     "I can say that a student bringing a water pistol to school will, at first, be told that they [sic] are being suspended from school for ten days," he said in a statement. "We then work to get more facts and complete a review that often results in a reduction of the suspension period. Also it is not uncommon for other factors to enter into the suspension decision, including the level of student cooperation." [The fact that Webster is obviously unaware of how stupid this sounds is alarming.]

     Webster implied that the student should consider himself lucky, since many other districts would have expelled him without a second thought. [Thought? There's no thinking here.]

     Indeed, anti-gun hysteria has led to the implementation of draconian bans of harmless toys, and even finger gestures, at U.S. schools….

Robby Soave, "School Suspends 10th-Grader For Having Bright Yellow Squirt Gun," The Daily Caller, April 17, 2014 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Kristine Kirk Murdered Thirteen Minutes Into Her 911 Call

     In 2014, Richard Kirk, 47, resided in Denver's Observatory Park neighborhood not far from the University of Denver. Richard and his wife Kristine purchased the upscale, Tudor style home in 2005. The couple had three soccer-playing grade school boys. Richard's friends described him as a religious, happy-go-lucky man devoted to his family.

     On December 23, 1993, while living in Dallas, Texas, Richard, then single, was charged with felony assault. The prosecutor dropped the charge to a misdemeanor offense then eventually dismissed the case altogether. At the time, Kristine resided five miles away in a Dallas apartment. (The alleged victim associated with this case has not been identified.)

     In 2000, a police officer in Douglas County, Colorado arrested Richard for driving under the influence. (The disposition of this case is unknown.) These two incidents comprise the extent of Kirk's arrest record.

     At 9:32 on the night of Monday, April 14, 2014, 44-year-old Kristine A. Kirk called a 911 dispatcher in Denver to report a domestic disturbance at her residence. She said her husband had been smoking marijuana and was scaring their three young sons. According to Kristine, he had also been hallucinating and talking about the end of the world. Most disturbingly, he said he wanted her to shoot him to death.

     The dispatcher asked Kristine if there was a gun in the dwelling. The caller said yes, but it was locked inside a safe. The 911 call suddenly turned ominous when Kristine informed the dispatcher that her husband had gotten the handgun out of the safe and was holding it in his hand.

     About thirteen minutes into the 911 call, the dispatcher heard a scream and then a gunshot. At that point the line went dead. The dispatcher immediately upgraded the 911 call from a domestic disturbance case to a "code 10"--a possible shooting.

     Two Denver police officers rolled up to the Kirk house on South St. Paul Street at 9:47 PM. Three minutes later, one of the officers called for an ambulance, and advised the 911 dispatcher that they "were going to need homicide."

     An officer put Richard Kirk into handcuffs and escorted him to the patrol car. From the backseat of the police vehicle, without prompting, the suspect admitted shooting his wife to death.

     The next day a local prosecutor charged Richard Kirk with first-degree murder. At his arraignment on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, the judge advised the suspect of the charge against him, assigned him a public defender, and ordered him held without bail. Kirk showed no emotion as he stood before the magistrate.

     The media, as it often does in high-profile crimes, began assessing blame. In this case reporters were quick to note that since 2008, 911 response time at the Denver Police Department had grown longer. According to a police spokesperson, budget cuts and fewer officers on patrol has adversely affected police response time to domestic calls.

     Notwithstanding the 15 minute lapse between the victim's 911 call and the arrival of the officers, there is no way to know for sure if a faster police response would have saved Kristine Kirk's life.

     Because marijuana is now legal in Colorado, the media has also made a big deal over the fact that before allegedly murdering his wife, Richard Kirk had smoked pot. Without toxicological testing and a psychiatric evaluation, there is no way to know if marijuana played a role in the killing. 

Criminal Justice Quote: The Miranda Decision

     On June 13, 1966, by a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court rendered its now-famous Miranda v. Arizona decision. Supposedly based on the Fifth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which states that "No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself," Miranda twisted these simple words beyond recognition.

     The court held that even voluntary, uncoerced confessions by a suspect in police custody would no longer be admissible as evidence, unless the police first warned him that (1) he had the right to remain silent, (2) anything he said might be used against him in court, (3) he had the immediate right to a lawyer, and (4) he could get a free lawyer if he couldn't afford one. The suspect then had to expressly waive those rights before any questioning could proceed. Should police make the slightest omission or error in this ritual, any evidence they get can be thrown out, and the suspect can "walk."

     In this single decision, four veteran criminals, convicted after voluntarily confessing to separate crimes, had their convictions overturned. The first was a three-time convict who admitted to a robbery after being identified by two victims. The second forged stolen checks from a purse-snatching in which the victim was killed. The third, a veteran bank robber, confessed after being told of his rights, but didn't explicitly waive them first. The fourth, arrested for kidnapping and rape, was identified by his victim, and later confessed "with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding that any statement I make may be used against me." He hadn't, however, been formally advised of his right to have a lawyer present.

     Even though these confessions weren't "involuntary in traditional terms," writes Chief Justice Earl Warren for the majority, "in none of these cases did the officers undertake to afford the appropriate safeguards….to insure that the statements were truly the product of a free choice."

     By what convoluted reasoning could such voluntary admissions be construed to be coerced?  According to the Court's majority opinion, "In each of these cases, the defendant was thrust into an unfamiliar atmosphere and run through menacing police interrogation procedures. The potentiality for compulsion is forcefully apparent, for example…where the indigent Mexican defendant  was a seriously disturbed individual with pronounced sexual fantasies [author's note: the man had been judged mentally competent to stand trial], and where the defendant was an indigent Los Angeles Negro who had dropped out of school in the sixth grade." [Emphasis added.]

     This is the deterministic language of the Excuse-Maker, brimming with thinly veiled editorials about poverty and racism, regarding even a confessed criminal as a helpless pawn of social pressures. (By contrast, the rape victim was coldly described as "the complaining witness.")

Robert James Bidinotto, "Subverting Justice," in Criminal Justice?, Robert James Bidinatto, ed., 1994

Criminal Justice Quote: The Portland Pissers

     Portland, Oregon water officials are discarding 38 million gallons of drinking water that a 19-year-old was caught urinating into one of the city's reservoirs. A security camera caught the man urinating at about one in the morning on Wednesday, April 15, 2014 through an iron fence into Mount Tabor Reservoir No. 5 in southeastern Portland….Minutes later, two other men, ages 18 and 19, attempted to scale the fence and one of them entered the reservoir.

     The three men were caught, citied for trespassing and prohibited from returning to Mount Tabor Park. The 19-year-old was cited for public urination…."Our customers have an expectation that their water is not deliberately contaminated," said David Shaff with the Portland Water Bureau. He acknowledged that the health risk is slight. "We have the ability to meet that expectation while minimizing public health concerns."...

     The 38 million gallons--about 760,000 soaks in a bathtub--will be drained into the sewage system, eventually reaching a treatment plant before they are dumped into the Columbia River. [Who knows how many dead bodies lay on the bottom of the river receiving this cleansed water?]

     In 2011, the city dumped 8 million gallons, a mere 160,000 baths, from Mount Tabor Reservoir No 1 after a 22-year-old man from Molalla, Oregon admitted to urinating in it. He eventually pleaded guilty to misuse of a reservoir and was sentenced to community service. [Theres a criminal offense in Oregon called misuse of a reservoir?] In that case, it cost the water bureau $32,700, passed on to customers, to drain the reservoir, and that decision caused a wave of backlash from many who said it was an unnecessary response.

     Some complained that animals sometimes fall into the reservoir and die without any such action taken. "I think part of it is just that general yuck factor of, 'Yes, we have birds on there all the time, but we don't have people peeing in it all the time,'" Shaff said in defending the 2011 decision. If the area were in drought conditions, he said he probably would make a different decision….

Teresa Blackman and Jeff Thompson, "Oregon Official Drain Reservoir After Man Urinates in It," KGW-TV Portland, April 17, 2014 

Criminal Justice Quote: The Fence

     The fence conveys the thief's stolen goods beyond the reach of the long arms of the law and into the hands of the more or less--and usually less--legitimate businessmen. He sells the merchandise to the businessman at a price less than the businessman can obtain elsewhere, and returns to the thief a percentage of the take in a shorter period of time than the thief could unload the goods. The fence's role is to serve two different masters; the key to his success is that he comes out on top of them both.

     The fence is the underworld's indispensable man. The businessman can purchase the hot goods without ever having to confront on a face-to-face basis the thief or hijacker; and the thief never has to expose himself to the businessman, who in the event of a police investigation might be the first to break down.

     The good fence is a man of a thousand connections….

Thomas Plate, Crime Pays! 1975 

Criminal Justice Quote: Child Killer Denied Parole Again

      Eric Smith has been denied parole for the seventh time. The Savona, New York native is serving a life term for killing a 4-year-old boy when Smith was 13. Smith is serving nine years to life in prison for killing Derrick Robie in Savona. He was convicted of murder in 1994 for luring the little boy into the woods where he hit him with a rock, stuffed paper in his mouth and crushed his skull with a 26-pound boulder.

     The 34-year-old prisoner is in maximum security Collins Correctional Facility south of Buffalo, New York. After a hearing on April 11, 2014, the parole board said the "serious and brutal" crime is more compelling than Smith's clean disciplinary record, positive prison programming and release plans. The board noted "significant community opposition" to Smith's release from prison.

"Smith Denied Prole," Associated Press, April 14, 2014 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Rosa Jimenez Case and the Dueling Expert Problem

     In a court of law, a phony, or hired-gun forensic scientist can be more persuasive than his more qualified or ethical counterpart. This is possible because jurors make judgments based on how expert witnesses look, act, and speak. They do not analyze their resumes. A court room charlatan who can act the part, can be more believable than a real expert. Phonies like Dr. Ralph Erdmann, Dr. Louise Robbins, Dr. Pamela Fish, Dr. Michael West, and Fred Zain, to name a few, testified in hundreds of cases before they were exposed and defrocked. There are hundreds of private sector hired-guns whose expert testimony is for sale for any side that will pay them. Crime lab personnel working in the various levels of government are often incompetent, or tailor their findings to the needs of police and prosecutors. In general, the field of forensic science has not lived up to its potential, and to an alarming degree, is either useless or downright corrupt. The dueling expert problem is one of the symptoms of this reality.

     Vanderbilt law professor Rebecca Haw, in a recent article about dueling experts, discusses the "99 to 1 problem." Haw writes: "One out of 100 available experts testifies that the earth is round, and that one out of 100 who disagrees testifies that the earth is flat. To jurors, it appears that scientific consensus on the subject is divided roughly 50-50."

     As the author of two books on the Lindbergh kidnapping case, I've encountered something like the 99 to 1 problem in connection with hack true crime writers who make the case that Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man executed for the 1932 murder of the Lindbergh baby, was innocent. More than a dozen highly qualified questioned document examiners had identified Hauptmann as the writer of all the ransom letters. Since the 1935 trial, several modern handwriting experts have analyzed the evidence and drawn the same conclusion. While only one  recognized forensic document examiner has expressed doubt regarding these findings, those who believe that Hauptmann was innocent, claim that the handwriting evidence in the case is in dispute. In reality, the question of who wrote the Lindbergh case ransom letters has been settled for a long time.

     In researching my 2008 book, Forensics Under Fire, I noticed that forensic pathologists often testify against each other in shaken baby syndrome and sudden infant death cases. Coroners and medical examiners also face off against opposing forensic pathologists in suicide versus homicide cases, and trials featuring the issue of whether a victim was intentionally poisoned, or died of an overdose. Forgery and disputed will cases almost always involve opposing handwriting experts, a forensic science of the verge of being destroyed by phony practitioners. (The JonBenet Ramsey case caused a serious rift among qualified forensic document examiners.) Experts regularly disagree over the crime scene identification of footwear and tire impressions, blood spatter analysis, bite mark identification, and the cause and origin of suspicious structural fires. Even government fingerprint examiners are now being challenged in court. Ten years ago, this was unheard of.

     The fact that two expert witnesses are on opposite sides of a forensic science issue doesn't necessarily mean that one of them is either a phony or in the tank. But it does mean that one of them is wrong. When jurors find the scientist who is wrong more credible than the expert who is right, criminal justice has been subverted. Forensic science is supposed to be the solution, not the problem.

The Rosa Olvera Jimenez Case

     On Jaunuary 30, 2003, 19-year-old Rosa Olvera Jimenez, and the boy she regularly babysat, were alone in the 21-months old's Austin, Texas home. Around noon, Bryan Gutierrez turned blue, and collapsed. Although paramedics pulled a wad of 5 paper towels out of the boy's throat, he had slipped into a vegetative state. Four months later, he died.

      Jimenez, suspected of murdering the child from the onset, said she had inadvertently left a roll of paper towels in the living room while she prepared lunch in the kitchen. Bryan, his face blue, staggered into the kitchen and pointed to his throat. A few minutes later he collapsed.

     Charged with murder, Jimenez went on trial on August 25, 2005 at the Travis County district court in Austin. The prosecutor put two physicians and a medical examiner on the stand. The three experts testified that it would have been physically impossible for Bryan to have accidentally swallowed all of that paper. His gag reflex would have prevented that from happening. The fact the towels were stained with blood, according to these expert witnesses, supported the theory that the obstructive mass had been pushed into his throat by force.

     The Jimenez defense put Dr. Ira Kanfer, a forensic pathologist, on the stand. Dr. Kanfer testified that the victim could have accidentally choked himself with the paper towels. According to this forensic pathologist, the blood on the towels did not come from the inside of the victim's mouth, but from his lungs.

     On August 31, 2005, after eight hours of deliberation, the jury found Rosa Jimenez guilty of murder. The judge sentenced her to 99 years in prison.
     Defense attorneys filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds the state had not given the defense team enough money to hire a battery of experts to counter the prosecution's expert witnesses. Since the trial, two physicians who are pediatric airway specialists, and a forensic pathologist who specializes in the deaths of children, studied the case. All three of these experts believe that despite the gag reflex, Bryan Gutierrez could have accidentally choked on the paper towels.

     To counter the post-conviction findings of these new defense witnesses, the prosecutor presented the analysis of an expert who agreed with the three doctors who had testified for the prosecution at the trial.

     In November 2005, the Travis County district judge who had presided over the case denied the defense motion for a new trial. Jimenez's attorneys appealed this ruling. Several months later, a Texas appeals court reversed the district judge, and ordered a new trial based on the new evidence. The Travis County prosecutor appealed this decision to the state's highest court, and in April 2012, that court, in an 8 to 1 decision, denied Jimenez a new trial. According to the justices, the new scientific evidence was not enough evidence to legally reverse the trial jury's finding of guilt.

     In the Jimenez murder case, forensic science failed to establish how Bryan Gutierrez had died. It didn't matter to him, but it meant everything to his babysitter who will probably die in prison. We will never know for sure if justice was done in this case.