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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Jose Armando Moreno and Mexico's Teen-Age Assassins

     In the United States, boys as young as eleven have been charged and incarcerated for committing murder. Recently, boys ten and eleven were charged with conspiracy to murder one of their classmates. There have been a few American homicide cases involving children under eleven. In common law America, prior to state crime codes, children under the age of seven were presumed incapable of forming criminal intent. This culpability guideline is reflected in the statutory law of several states.

     In Mexico, kids under the age of fourteen who commit crimes, including murder, are considered too young to prosecute and incarcerate. The Mexican constitution prohibits the government from incarcerating citizens who are under fourteen. Mexican youngsters who are 14, 15, and 16 can be jailed, but not for longer than three years.

     In 2011, a 14-year-old boy only identified as "El Ponchis" (The Cloak), confessed to murdering several people for a local drug lord. The kid admitted beheading four of his victims. The judge sentenced "El Ponchis" to three years in a juvenile detention center.

     Mexican Federal Police, on February 7, 2013, detained 13-year-old Jose Armando Moreno in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas. The boy confessed to participating in the murder of ten people. The killings had been ordered by the head of a drug cartel. Moreno said he had shot six of his victims execution-style with an assault rifle.

     According to Moreno's mother, he had dropped out of school and ran away from home when he was eleven. He survived by selling drugs on the street, and committing contract murders.

     Because of the constitutional ban on youthful incarceration, the authorities had no choice but to release this young assassin back into Mexican society.

     On February 28, 2013, three weeks after being questioned by the federal officers, the boy's bullet-ridden body was found alongside a road in the town of Morelos. His killer or killers had dumped him along with the corpses of four women and a man. The victims had all been murdered execution-style. It's possible that the boy and the others were executed by another 13-year-old kid working for a rival drug cartel.  

Monday, August 29, 2016

The James Nichols Murder Case

     On December 26, 1985, James L. Nichols, Jr. reported his wife JoAnn missing from their home in Poughkeepsie, New York. According to Mr. Nichols, his 55-year-old spouse, a first grade teacher at Gayhead Elementary School in upstate New York's Hopewell Junction, had left the house three days earlier. Mr. Nichols told investigators that she had called home on Christmas eve, but had refused to reveal her whereabouts.

     In an attempt to explain his wife's mysterious disappearance, the husband told police officers that JoAnn had been depressed over the May 1982 drowning of their only son, 25-year-old James Nichols III. The young man had died in a lake in Mississippi. On the Nichols' home computer, detectives found comments ostensibly written by the missing wife that hinted of her intent to commit suicide.

     Many of JoAnn's friends and co-workers, from the very beginning, suspected the teacher's husband of wrongdoing in the case. Mr. Nichols, a hoarder who had filled the couple's basement to the ceiling with junk, was by all accounts an obsessive man with strange habits.

     As is often the case when people go missing, a handful of psychic "detectives" provided investigators with false leads as to JoAnn's fate and her whereabouts. Eventually, the missing persons investigation fizzled-out, and the matter was forgotten. Mr. Nichols, who did not remarry, remained in the house in Poughkeepsie, and continued to fill it up with garbage.

     On December 21, 2012, Mr. Nichols died at the age of eighty-two. The dwelling was in such a mess, a contractor had to be called in to haul off the junk and trash before the place could be put on the market. At 5 PM on June 28, 2013, one of the workers stumbled upon a container that had been hidden inside a false wall in the Nichols basement. The box contained a human skeleton.

     A few days after the gruesome discovery, Dr. Kari Reiber, the Duchess County Medical Examiner, announced that through dental records, the remains had been identified as JoAnn Nichols. According to the forensic pathologist, the first grade teacher had been murdered by blunt force trauma to the head.

     It's hard to image that JoAnn Nichols had been murdered by anyone other than her oddball husband James. For twenty-seven years her body remained hidden amid the junk and debris in this hoarder's basement. Apparently there was nothing, not even his wife's corpse, that this man didn't save.

     While the motive behind JoAnn Nichols' murder remained a mystery, I would venture a guess. Fed up with her husband's hoarding, she had expressed her desire to divorce him. That would mean they would have to sell the house, and in so doing, rid the place of all the debris. To keep his stuff, and possibly to benefit from his dead spouse's Social Security benefits, James Nichols murdered his wife and added her remains to his collection of trash and junk. It's just a theory, and will probably remain so. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

John Douglas White: The Pastor Who Murdered Women

     John Douglas White, the 55-year-old pastor of the Christ Community Fellowship Church located just west of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, lived by himself in a mobile home park in Broomfield Township near the town of Remus. This self-appointed man of the cloth possessed a background more in line with a person serving a life sentence in prison than a preacher of a tiny church in rural central Michigan. Pastor White, a perverted lust killer, had no business living outside prison walls where he could take advantage of women while masquerading as a man of God. He was a predatory sex killer in preacher's clothing.

     In 1981, John White, then 24, choked and stabbed a 17-year-old girl in Battle Creek, Michigan. The victim survived and White was allowed to plead no contest to assault with intent to do great bodily harm. (In my view, the no contest plea should be abolished.) The judge sentenced White to five years in prison. Corrections authorities let White out on parole after he had served two years behind bars.

     John White and his wife, in 1994, were living in Comstock Township near Kalamazoo, Michigan. On July 11 of that year, 26-year-old Vicky Sue Wall was seen getting into White's pickup just before she disappeared. Shortly after Wall's relatives reported her missing, the 37-year-old violent sex offender checked himself into the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital. In September 1994, police found Vicky Sue Wall's badly decomposed body in the woods not far from her home. Arrested at the psychiatric facility, White admitted strangling the victim to death. The victim and White had had an affair, and she had threatened to tell his wife. So he killed her. (I doubt the police, once they had the confession, conducted an investigation to determine if this was, in reality, the motive for Wall's murder.)

     In the Vicky Sue Wall murder case, the authorities allowed White to strike a deal with the prosecutor. In return for his guilty plea to the ridiculous charge of involuntary manslaughter, the judge sentenced White to eight to fifteen years. At his May 1995 sentencing hearing, White told the judge that Vicky Sue Wall's death had been a "tragic accident." (How do you accidentally strangle someone to death? This judge must have been an idiot.) John White walked out of prison in 2007 after serving twelve years of his sentence. White's wife had divorced him.

     In 2012, Pastor John White was engaged to a woman in his congregation whose 24-year-old daughter--Rebekah Gay--lived a few doors from him in the mobile home park. Because White was a preacher engaged to her mother, Rebekah allowed him to watch her 3-year-old son. She had no idea this preacher watched necrophilia pornography and fantasized about having gruesome, perverted sex with her.

     On October 31, 2012, at six in the morning, John White entered Rebekah Gay's trailer, struck her in the head with a hard rubber mallet, then strangled her to death with a zip tie. After performing perverted sexual acts on Gay's body, White hauled her 5-foot-3, 118 pound corpse in his pickup to a ditch behind a stand of pine trees about a mile from the trailer park. It was there he dumped her body.

     After hiding his victim's corpse, White returned to his trailer where he cleaned himself and his truck with paper towels. He walked to Gay's dwelling, got into her car, and drove it to a nearby bar and parked it there. He had also tossed Gay's cellphone into a dumpster and threw away the rubber mallet. From the bar, White walked back to Gay's mobile home, dressed her son in his Halloween costume, then drove the boy to Mount Pleasant where, as prearranged, the boy's father picked him up for the day.

     Crime scene investigators processed the victim's trailer for physical clues and searched White's mobile home where they found the bloody towels and other incriminating evidence. When questioned by detectives with the Michigan State Police, John White confessed, then led the officers to Rebekah Gay's body.

     On November 1, 2012, John White was arraigned in an Isabella County District Court on the charge of first-degree murder. The judge denied him bail.

     The church member who had hired John White as pastor, said this to a reporter with The Detroit News: "He [White] was absolutely contrite. All kinds of people turn around and meet the Lord and they are a different person. He [White] was doing a lot of good in the community....He was doing a lot of good and Satan did not want him doing good, and Satan got to him."

     So, according to one of Pastor White's congregants, White's cold-blooded lust murder of Rebekah Gay was the devil's doing.

     In April 2013, White pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for killing Rebekah Gay. The judge sentenced him to 56 years and three months. On August 28, 2013, a prison guard at the Michigan Reformatory Correctional Institution in Ionia, found White dead in his cell. He had hanged himself.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Shawn Parcells: Forensic Imposter

     The history of forensic science is also the history of pseudoscience, phony experts, and bogus courtroom testimony. Fakes and charlatans have flourished in the fields of handwriting identification, DNA analysis, forensic toxicology, firearms identification, latent fingerprint analysis, blood spatter interpretation, and forensic pathology.

     These forensic pretenders work in our crime labs, police departments, coroners' and medical examiners' offices. They also practice as private consultants and independent contractors. Within the private sector, these experts from hell often charge less than their qualified counterparts and tailor their findings to meet the needs of the people paying their fees.

     Most forensic impersonators work in the shadows until they become involved in a celebrated case. Once in the public limelight, they are often exposed for who they are. That doesn't mean, however, that they slink, disgraced, into forensic oblivion. When the smoke clears, most of them return, with revised phony credentials, and continue to screw up the criminal justice system with their bogus work. They get away with this because in the U.S. there is very little oversight in forensic science.

Shawn Parcells

     Shawn Parcells, after graduating in 2003 with a degree in life science from Kansas State University, was accepted into a medical school in the Caribbean. He did not attend the school because he and his wife were expecting a baby. So, instead of becoming a physician and acquiring extra training in forensic pathology, Parcells started a company in Overland Park, Kansas called Regional Forensic Services.

     Mr. Parcells, calling himself a forensic pathologist's assistant, offered his services to police departments, coroners' offices and medical examiners' officers. He was not certified as a forensic pathology assistant because no such field is recognized within the forensic science profession.

     In Kansas and Missouri, Parcells testified in homicide trials as an expert witness on issues dealing with forensic cause of death. Even more disturbing, he performed autopsies without the presence or supervision of a real forensic pathologist.

     On his Linkedln page, Parcells claimed to be an adjunct professor at Washburn State University in Topeka, Kansas. He also claimed to have earned a master's degree from New York Chiropractic College. (Like that would qualify him to perform autopsies.)

     A deputy sheriff in Missouri claimed that Parcells held himself out to be a doctor. If true, this could comprise a criminal offense. Otherwise, the laws in Missouri and Kansas are not clear on whether it's legal for a person without a medical degree to perform an autopsy.

     In August 2014, in the wake of the Michael Brown police-involved shooting case in Ferguson, Missouri, Shawn Parcells came out of the shadows when he assisted Dr. Michael Baden perform an autopsy on Mr. Brown at the request of his family. (Dr. Baden is a world renowned forensic pathologist and Fox News contributor.)

     Following the Brown autopsy, Parcells made himself a TV authority on the 18-year-old's death by appearing on CNN, Fox News, and several other television networks. In watching those interviews, very few people would be under the impression that Dr. Baden's assistant was not a forensic pathologist. He came off as being quite authoritative on the subject of Michael Brown's shooting death.

     Parcells' media exposure ultimately led to an investigation by CNN regarding his credentials as a cause of death expert. On November 24, 2014, Parcells sat for a television interview conducted by a CNN correspondent. He admitted having performed autopsies on his own, and when asked how he had acquired his expertise, he said, "by watching pathologists and assisting them at various morgues." Some times he was paid, other times not, he said.

     Parcells, when asked about his master's degree from the chiropractic school, said he couldn't produce the diploma because it had not arrived in the mail. According to the CNN interviewer, when an inquiry was made at Washburn State University regarding his adjunct professorship, a spokesperson for the school said he "is not now and has never been a member of the Washburn University faculty." According to the school official, Parcells had once spoken to two groups of nursing students about the role of a forensic pathologist's assistant. He was not paid for his presentation.

     Had the 32-year-old forensic practitioner remained on the fringes of forensic pathology in Missouri and Kansas, he would not have become the subject of a minor forensic and media scandal. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Rebecca Bryan Murder Case

     In 2011, Rebecca "Becky" Bryan, a 51-year-old real estate agent, lived in the Oklahoma City suburb of Mustang with her 53-year-old husband Keith. Keith Bryan, a firefighter since 1981, was chief of the fire department in Nichols Hill, an affluent town north of Oklahoma City. The couple had two grown sons.

     In January 2010, Becky filed for a divorce but didn't follow through with the process. Unhappy in her marriage, she was having an affair with a married man she had met in 2009 at a real estate conference. The two had talked about having a new life together. In early September 2011, Becky texted a message to a friend about inheriting, at some point in the near future, a large amount of money that would allow her to move to another part of the state.

     On Tuesday night, September 20, 2011, Becky Bryan called 911 to report the shooting of her husband by an intruder. To officers with the Mustang Police Department, Becky described her horrific experience. She and Keith had been sitting on their living room couch watching television when a hooded man in his 20s or 30s entered the house through the garage door and shot her husband, from point-blank range, in the back of the head. The victim never knew what hit him.

     According to Becky, after the intruder shot Keith, he told her that Kieth should have hired him at the fire department. The blond-haired man left the dwelling the way he had entered. He drove from the house in a pickup truck Becky described in detail.

     Keith Bryan died a few hours later at a nearby hospital. On her way to that hospital with a friend, Becky showed the acquaintance a cellphone photograph she had taken that day of her lover's genitals. The friend, stunned by Becky's demeanor, chalked it up to stress. The authorities feared that a madman was on the loose with a grudge against the Nichols Hill Fire Department.

     Detectives, pursuant to routine homicide investigation protocol, swabbed Becky's hands for traces of gun powder. According to the gunshot residue analysis, she had recently fired a gun with her left hand.

     Just hours after the murder, detectives searched the Bryan house. In the clothes dryer, officers found, wrapped in a lap blanket, a .380-caliber Ruger LCP handgun, a spent shell casing, and a left hand rubber glove. (The glove would test positive for gunshot residue.) The blanket contained four bullet holes. Investigators theorized that the killer had used the folded blanket to shield himself or herself from the victim's blood. It tested positive for gunshot residue as well. Detectives noted that the utility room that housed the clothes dryer was not along the path the intruder would have taken out of the dwelling.

     Between the mattress and the box springs in the master bedroom, detectives found the box the Ruger  pistol had come in as well as a box of .380-caliber rounds. A state firearms identification expert identified the Ruger found in the dryer as the gun that had fired the fatal bullet.

     On September 23, 2011, just three days after Becky Bryan informed the police that an intruder had shot her husband, a county prosecutor charged her with first-degree murder. Detectives arrested Becky early that afternoon at the hotel where she was staying. Booked into the county jail in El Reno, and denied bond, the suspect continued to claim that her husband Keith had been murdered by a hooded man.

     The Bryan murder trial began on May 16, 2013 before Judge Gary E. Miller. Assistant District Attorney Paul Hesse believed he could prove, circumstantially with the physical evidence--the blanket, the rubber glove, the .380-caliber handgun identified as the murder weapon, and the gunshot residue on the defendant's left hand--her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor also had a motive: life insurance and a new start with a lover. Blessed with motive and physical evidence linking Becky to the murder, the prosecutor didn't need an eyewitness or a confession. The evidence was circumstantial, but solid.

     After two days of scientific testimony from the medical examiner--a firearms identification expert, an analyst who connected the defendant to the rubber glove through DNA, and a blood spatter specialist who explained the purpose of the blanket found in the dryer--prosecutor Hesse had proven the state's case. For final measure he put on several witnesses on the stand who provided details regarding the defendant's extramarital sexual activities.

     Defense attorney Gary James, without much to work with, tried to keep the intruder theory alive in the minds of the jurors. He presented several character witness from the ranks of the defendant's social circle and family. Her brother testified that "Becky has always been a person who helped people. She was the person who would pick up a wounded puppy." On cross-examination these defense witnesses had difficulty explaining and justifying the defendants inappropriate behavior just after the murder.

     The defense rested without putting Becky Bryan on the stand. Attorney James, in his closing remarks to the jury, tried to paint the detectives on the case as tunnel-visioned and sloppy. The attorney wondered why the crime scene investigator didn't process the clothes dryer for latent fingerprints to rule out an intruder. Moreover, he didn't understand why the police didn't review surveillance camera footage for images of a pickup truck that matched the description provided by his client.

     On May 21, 2013, less than a week after the Bryan trial began, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. The jurors needed only four hours to come to that conclusion. After the verdict was read, attorney James hugged his client and said he was sorry. (The defense attorney was not responsible for the guilty verdict.) On July 9, 2013, Judge Miller, following Oklahoma law, sentenced Becky Bryan to life without parole.

   In March 2014, Rebecca Bryan filed an appeal citing the unconstitutional admission of certain evidence as well as ineffective counsel. She claimed she had been denied a fair trial. On December 12, 2014, justices with the Oklahoma Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.

     

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Historic Cordelia Botkin Poison Murder Case

     In 1895, 30-year-old John P. Dunning and his wife Elizabeth Mary, the daughter of ex-congressman John Pennington of Dover, Delaware, were living in San Francisco. In September of that year, John, while riding his bicycle, spotted an attractive woman sitting on a park bench not far from his home. A few days later, he and his new acquaintance, Cordelia Botkin, a married woman estranged from her husband in Stockton, California, started an affair. During the next two years, John Dunning was a frequent visitor to Botkin's house on Geary Street.

     While cheating on his wife, John Dunning began to drink and lose money at the racetrack. In early 1898, his employer, suspecting that Dunning had been embezzling company money, fired him. Because John could no long support his family, Elizabeth Dunning and her daughter returned to Dover to live with her parents. With his wife and daughter back in Delaware, John was free to move in with Cordelia Botkin who now resided at the Victoria Hotel on Hyde Street.

     Two months after he moved in with his mistress, Dunning landed a newspaper job covering the Spanish-American war. As a result, he would be traveling to Cuba and Puerto Rico. Before leaving San Francisco, Dunning broke the news to Cordelia that he missed his wife and daughter. The affair, he said, was over. Cordelia did not take this news very well. As far as she was concerned, the affair was not over, not by a long shot.

     Back in Dover, Delaware, in the summer of 1898, Mrs. Dunning began receiving anonymous letters mailed from San Francisco that referred to her husband's affair with an "interesting and pretty woman." The letters were signed, "A Friend." That August, someone in San Francisco sent Mrs. Dunning a Cambric handkerchief and a box of chocolates. The note accompanying the gift was signed, "With love to yourself and baby, Mrs. C."

     On August 9, 1898, after dinner at the Pennington home, Elizabeth passed the mystery box of bonbons to family and friends gathered that evening on the front porch. The group of four adults and three children included Mrs. Dunning's sister, Leila Deane and Mrs. Dunning's daughter Mary. Mrs. Dunning and her sister helped themselves to the chocolates, and later in the evening became violently ill.

     Eleven days after the candy arrived in the mail from San Francisco, Leila Deane died. The next day, Mrs. Dunning passed away. The presumed causes of their deaths: cholera morbus, a common ailment in the era before refrigeration. John Dunning, still overseas when he received the news, arrived back in Dover ten days later. When his father-in-law showed him the anonymous letters, including the note that had accompanied the candy, Dunning simply said, "Cordelia."

     Mr. Pennington, the father of the dead women, had the uneaten chocolates analyzed by a chemist who worked for the state. The chemist reported that some of the remaining bonbons had been spiked with arsenic. Mrs. Dunning and her sister had not been autopsied because the treating physician believed that the victims' prolonged vomiting had cleansed their bodies of the poison. Had the science of toxicology existed in 1898, a forensic pathologist would have known that although arsenic, a heavy metal poison, is excreted from the damaged cells, traces are sequestered in the victim's bones, fingernails, and hair follicles.

     The discovery of the poison in the candy prompted a coroner's inquest. When presented with the facts of the case, the coroner's jury ruled that the two women had been poisoned to death by arsenic-laced chocolate mailed from San Francisco.

     Although the deaths had occurred in Dover, the authorities in Delaware requested that the case be investigated by the San Francisco Police Department. The man who would conduct the investigation, I. W. Lees, had been appointed chief of police the previous year. Convinced that she would confess under pressure, Lees arrested Cordelia Botkin for the murders of the two Delaware women. When she vehemently maintained her innocence, Chief Lees was forced to make the case the hard way. He traced the arsenic to the Owl Drug Store on Market Street where a clerk said he had sold the poison to a woman meeting the suspect's description. Lees also questioned a Botkin acquaintance who told him that the suspect had expressed concern about having to sign her name when purchasing arsenic. The acquaintance had assured Botkin that she would not be required to sign for the purchase. Chief Lees also spoke to a physician who had been asked by Cordelia Botkin to describe the effects of various poisons on the human body.

     A search of Cordelia Botkin's room at the Victoria Hotel produced wrapping paper that matched the paper that had enclosed the box of poisoned chocolates. To identify the handwriting associated with the case, Chief Lees engaged the services of San Francisco's Daniel T. Ames, one of the most respected questioned document examiners in the country. When Ames analyzed and compared samples of Mrs. Botkin's handwriting with the questioned writings, he reported that Cordelia Botkin had written the letters, and had addressed the deadly package. Two other document examiners, Carl Eisenschimel and Theodore Kytka, after examining the evidence, agreed with Ames' conclusion.

     Amid intense media coverage, the Cordelia Botkin murder trial got underway in early December 1898. After the prosecution put on its case which featured the three questioned document examiners, the defense had no choice but to put the defendant on the stand. Botkin did not deny buying arsenic in June of that year, explaining that she had used the poison to clean a straw hat. Moreover, the arsenic she had purchased was powdered while the arsenic in the candy was crystalline. Following Botkin's direct testimony and cross-examination, the defense rested.

     After four hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Because the case against her was circumstantial, and juries didn't like to send women to the gallows, the jurors recommended a sentence of life in prison. Instead of serving her time in San Quentin, the judge sent her to the county jail in San Francisco where, in exchange for sexual favors, Cordelia would come and go as she pleased. A few months after sentencing her, the judge saw Cordelia shopping in downtown San Francisco.

     While Cordelia Botkin shopped in San Francisco, her attorney appealed her conviction on a procedural issue. An appellate court overturned the conviction which led to a second trial in 1904. Once again, on the strength of the handwriting evidence, a jury found her guilty. After the earthquake of 1906 destroyed the county jail, Botkin was sent to San Quentin. On March 7, at the age of 56, she died in prison of "softening of the brain due to melancholy."        

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Match.Com and the Online Hook-Up From Hell

     In September 2010, Mary Kay Beckman, a 46-year-old mother of two from Las Vegas, met 50-year-old Wade Mitchell Ridley via the online dating service, Match.com. The couple had eight dates before Beckman realized there was something wrong with him and ended the relationship.

     On January 21, 2011, four months after his last date with Beckman, Ridley, armed with a butcher's knife, broke into her garage and waited for her to return home. When Beckman pulled into the garage and got out of her car, Ridley stabbed her ten times. In his attempt to murder his victim, Ridley also stomped her head and neck. Ridley left the garage that night thinking that he had killed Mary Kay Beckman.

     Mary Kay survived the brutal attack, but had to undergo surgeries to repair her jaw, preserve her eyesight, and to have a section of her skull replaced by a synthetic material.

     Shortly after the burglary and attempted murder, Las Vegas police arrested Wade Ridley. While in police custody, he confessed to the Beckman assault. Ridley also informed his interrogators that a few weeks before stabbing and stomping Mary Kay Beckman, he murdered a woman in Phoenix. The suspect said he had used a butcher's knife to stab 62-year-old Anne Simenson to death in her home. Just before murdering Simenson, a woman he had met on Match.Com, Ridley had stolen painkilling drugs from a pharmacist he had robbed at knife-point.

     On February 15, 2011, a prosecutor in Clark County, Nevada charged Wade Mitchell Ridley with the attempted murder of Mary Kay Beckman. In Arizona, a prosecutor charged Ridley with the murder of Anne Simenson.

     In September 2011, Ridley entered an Alford pleas to attempted murder with the use of a deadly weapon and armed robbery. (In so pleading, Ridley didn't admit guilt but acknowledged the state had enough evidence to convict him.) The judge sentenced Ridley to 28 to 70 years in prison.

     On May 17, 2012, a prison guard found Ridley hanging in his cell. The medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.

     Mary Kay Beckman, on January 25, 2013, filed suit against Match.Com in a Las Vegas federal court. Her attorney, Marc Saggese, told reporters that the basis of the $10 million civil action "...is the advertising that is utilized by Match.Com, lulling women and men into a false sense of security." It is the plaintiff's contention that the dating service has a legal duty to warn its online customers that there might be people in the dating pool who are dangerous.

     The lawyer representing Match.Com responded to this assertion by saying the notion his client was liable for the behavior of a Match.Com member was absurd. The attorney for the defendant said the plaintiff was the victim of a "sick, twisted" man.

     If Match.Com lost this lawsuit, owners of bars where men and women meet could be held liable for hook-ups that led to one of the parties being criminally victimized. It would make fixing-up friends a risky proposition for match-makers. Who doesn't know that going out with a stranger met online, in a bar, or at a college fraternity party, isn't risky business? While Mary Kay Beckman was the victim of a terrible crime, she was not a victim of Match.Com.

     On May 29, 2013, a federal judge in Nevada threw out Beckman's case against the online dating service. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Casmine Aska Attempted Murder Case

     At 8:30 Friday night, February 1, 2013, residents of the Morris Heights section of The Bronx discovered a 9-year-old boy named Freddy Martin lying on the sidewalk in front of a 5-story apartment building. En route to the New York Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital, Freddy told paramedics that "Cas dragged me to the roof and threw me off. I don't know why."

     Suffering broken bones, head trauma, and internal bleeding, doctors put the boy into an induced coma, and placed him on life support.

     New York City detectives, later that Friday night, questioned 17-year-old Casmine Aska at the local precinct station. Casmine, a resident of the apartment building, initially denied being on the roof with Freddy. After further interrogation, the suspect admitted being on the roof when the boy fell off the building. "I grabbed Freddy around the legs," Aska said. "His feet were off the ground. I turned around. I slipped and Freddy fell."

     On Sunday, February 3, Casmine Aska was arraigned in a Bronx court on charges of attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and endangering the welfare of a child. Assistant District Attorney Dahlia Olsher Tannen informed Judge Gerald Lebovits that Aska, as a juvenile, had been in trouble with the law. The prosecutor, who didn't elaborate, asked the judge not to grant the suspect bail.

     Kathryn Dyer, Aska's attorney, in making an argument for bail in this case, said, "This is not about attempted murder." Acknowledging that her client possessed a juvenile record, Dyer assured Judge Lebovits that Aska had "taken responsibility for his life." Defense attorney Dyer pointed out that Aska's favorite subject at Harry S. Truman High School was chemistry, that he attended weekly religious classes, and served food to the homeless.

     Judge Lebovits, apparently unimpressed by Aska's academic interests, religious activity, and community service, denied him bail. The judge's rationale: "Extraordinary risk of flight."

     A few weeks later, when questioned by detectives at the Riker's Island Jail, Aska, in explaining why after the boy's fall he went home and took a nap instead of calling 911, said, "I didn't call the NYPD because my brain froze. I was shivering, I was crying, I went to my aunt's..my whole world stopped."

     On February 15, 2013, when doctors took Freddy Martin off life support, the boy began breathing on his own. Questioned by detectives, he accused Aska, a kid who had been bullying him, of intentionally throwing him off the building.

     A month before Aska's September 2014 trial, the defendant agreed to plead guilty in return for a 40 year prison sentence. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Julie Schenecker Murder Case

     Parker Schenecker, an Army intelligence officer, met Julie Powers, an Army linguist (Russian) in 1987 when they were deployed in Germany. Shortly after they were married in Louisiana in 1991, a psychologist began treating her for depression. Three years later, she gave birth to Calyx, and in 1997, their son Beau.

     Not long after having Beau, Julie began taking anti-depression medication on a daily basis. In 2001, psychiatrists diagnosed her as suffering from bipolar disorder, schizo-affective disorder, and severe depression. According to these physicians, she had a personality disorder as well. (There is no effective way to treat the latter.) During her nine months of treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C., she labored under the false belief that a brain tumor was causing her mental illness. Julie held this belief after brain scans proved negative. During this time, Parker Schenecker hired a nanny to take care of the children.

     In 2009, while being treated in south Florida for mental illness, Julie expressed a desire to take her psychiatrist's comb and use his DNA to impregnate herself.

     On November 6, 2010, while residing in an upscale neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, 15-year-old Calyx told a school counselor that her mother had slapped her in the face when they returned from her cross-country practice. The counselor reported the matter to the authorities, and that day, a Tampa police officer, accompanied by a child protection social worker, paid Julie a home visit. Julie admitted hitting Calyx with her open hand during an argument four days earlier. The police officer decided not to make an arrest in the case.

     On January 15, 2011, Colonel Schenecker, while assigned as an intelligence officer with U.S. Central Command in Qatar, wrote a long email to the psychiatrist in Florida treating Julie. The colonel expressed concern about Julie's bellicose relationship with Calyx. It seemed the two of them never stopped fighting.

     Colonel Schenecker wrote: "Julie can no longer control Calyx and Calyx has been disrespectful and verbally abusive toward Julie." Colonel Schenecker also noted that his wife had taken to the bottle. "Drinking starts to affect the kids--they start mentioning it to me." Julie had also, according to the colonel, been driving erratically which had resulted in a traffic accident.

     Julie Schenecker wrote an email addressed to her family on January 27, 2011. The message read: "It's really difficult and I'm so sick mentally. I minimally take care of the kids, sad to say. Beau has also developed Calyx's attitude--makes me cry every evening. Seeing what they've become, I will end this soon. I am at my wits end."

     The day following Julie's email to her family, her mother Nancy called the police to report that she had not been able to reach her daughter. Due to Julie's mental state, Nancy was concerned that something was wrong. In response to the mother's request for a welfare visit, officers were dispatched to the Schenecker house. There, in the garage, they found Beau in Julie's SUV. The boy had been shot twice in the head.

     In Calyx's room, officers discovered the 16-year-old lying on her bed with a fatal bullet wound to the back of her head. Both children had been shot by the .38-caliber revolver found at the scene. The bodies had been covered with blankets. The officers also recovered a journal at the scene in which Julie described her plan to kill her children and herself.

     Police officers found, on the back porch, Julie Schenecker. Wearing a blood-soaked bathrobe, she was asleep and under the influence of prescription pills. She awoke and told the officers why she had shot her children to death. She said she had done this because they had "talked back and were mouthy."

     Officers took Julie into custody at the death scene. At the police station, they continued to question her. Julie said she had shot Beau in the car after they had returned home from his soccer practice. She said she killed Calyx in her room as she did homework on her computer. Julie showed no emotion or remorse as she described killing her children.

     Julie Schenecker informed her interrogators that five days before shooting her children to death, she had driven 27 miles to a small Florida town where she purchased the revolver at a store called Lock N Load. (When buying the weapon, she told the counterman that there had been a rash of burglaries in her neighborhood.)

     After questioning her at the police station, detectives took Julie to a nearby hospital for observation. She told a doctor that she had a "pre-existing" medical condition. Following her discharge from the medical center on January 29, 2011, officers booked the murder suspect into Hillsborough County's Falkenburg Road Jail on two counts of first-degree murder. The judge denied her bond.

     The homicide suspect's attorneys, at her February 16, 2011 arraignment, pleaded her not guilty. The lawyers announced they planned to launch an insanity defense on her behalf. Under Florida law, legal insanity is statutorily defined as a mental disease or defect present at the time of the crime that rendered the defendant incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the criminal act. In other words, the mental illness had destroyed the defendant's ability to distinguish between right and wrong. In Florida, as well as most other states, the so-called "M'Naughten right-wrong test," due to the fact that even seriously mentally ill people are aware of what they are doing when they kill someone, is a difficult defense to prove. Proving that the defendant's actions were driven by the mental illness and nothing else is usually an uphill task. (A defendant must prove legal insanity by a preponderance of the evidence. That means the prosecution does not have the burden of proving the defendant was sane, that is presumed, along with innocence.)

     Colonel Schenecker divorced Julie in May 2011. Following a dispute over the distribution of family assets, he sued her in civil court for the wrongful death of their children. Julie's civil attorneys in the case, countered that the plaintiff was equally responsible for the children's deaths. In support of this argument, they cited the emails the colonel had sent to her psychiatrist less than two weeks before the killings. In these emails he expressed his concern for the well-being of the children.

     The Julie Schenecker double murder trial got underway on April 28, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. Following jury selection and the opening statements from each side, the prosecutor put police officers, detectives, crime scene people, and a forensic pathologist on the stand. On May 5, 2014, crime scene specialist Matthew Evans testified that he had recovered numerous bottles of prescription pills at the murder house that included Lithium and Oxycodone.

     The prosecutor asked crime scene specialist Matthew Evans to read from portions of the journal taken from the house. From this document, Evans read the following to the jury: "The best job I ever had was having/bringing up my babies. This is why I had to bring them with me. It's possible they've inherited my DNA and would live their lives depressed or bipolar! I believe I saved them from the pain. I wouldn't wish this on nobody--ever."

     According to the defendant's journal, she had worried that if she committed suicide, her children would have to live with the stigma associated with their mother's act of self-destruction. "If you're wondering why I decided to take out the kids it was to protect them from embarrassment the rest of their lives."

     The crime scene investigator was followed to the stand by a detective who played an audiotape of the defendant's police station interview. Slurring her words, Schnecker explained in detail how she had shot her children to death and why. She also listed all of the prescription medicine she had been taking.

     The following day, now retired Army Colonel Parker Schenecker, took the stand for the prosecution. The 53-year-old described to the jury the domestic turmoil of living with a mentally disturbed wife. During his testimony, he never referred to her by name, referring to Julie as the "defendant."

     On May 9, 2014, after the prosecution rested its case, The Schenecker defense took center stage. Michelle Frisco, a 43-year-old house cleaner who worked for the defendant, said that Julie had been upset because Beau had become as disrespectful as his older sister. The defendant also told the witness that she drank heavily when her husband was deployed out of the country.

     Dr. Demian Obregon, a University of Southern Florida psychologist, testified that he had treated the defendant for various mental disorders. The medicine she took produced side effects such as "lip-smacking," and "leg-jerking." According to this witness, Julie, in August 2010, had starting expressing suicidal thoughts. In December of that year, she had revealed deep feelings of being both helpless and hopeless.

     Throughout the trial, Julie Schenecker sat passively with her attorneys at the defense table. But that changed suddenly in the middle of Dr. Obergron's testimony. When the psychologist told the jury he had warned her against mixing alcohol with her bipolar medicine, she yelled "Liar! You told me two drinks a day, two Oxys a day!"

     The trial judge responded to the outburst by ordering the jurors out of the courtroom. The judge then issued a strong warning to the defendant. If she engaged in this type of behavior again, there would be serious consequences. Such outbursts would not be tolerated.

     On Monday, May 12, 2014, Dr. Eldra Solomon, another psychologist, took the stand for the defense. Hired by Julie's attorneys to examine and evaluate their client's mental state on the days leading up to the killings, Dr. Solomon testified that Julie, on the day she decided to buy the gun, "had her first clear thought in weeks." And that thought involved killing her children so they could all go to heaven together. "People who are not in a psychotic state," Dr. Solomon said, "do not kill their children."

     Dr. Michael Malher, a medical doctor and psychiatrist, had also been hired by the defense as an expert insanity defense witness. In his expert opinion, Julie Schenecker, at the time of the killings, was insane pursuant to the criteria of the M'Naughten right-wrong test.

     In cross-examining the defense insanity witnesses, the prosecutor, in an effort to undermine their credibility, implied that they were nothing more than insanity defense hired-guns.

     On May 13, 2014, the defense wound-up its case with another expert who found that the defendant, at the time of the killings, was in a psychotic state. The defense also called Colonel Schenecker to the stand. The witness described his ex-wife as a 50-year-old with the judgment of a 10-year-old, and painted a picture of what it was like for him and his family to live with a person who was seriously mentally ill. Following the colonel's testimony, the defense rested its case.

     The prosecutor, on May 14, 2014, in the rebuttal phase of the trial, pressed the argument that the double murder had been motivated by anger. The three rebuttal witnesses on this day were psychiatrists who testified that the defendant had operated under a clear, calculated plan to kill her children. These prosecution experts explained to the jury why the defendant, under Florida's right-wrong test, had not been legally insane. When shooting her children, she had known exactly what she was doing. The defendant was not acting pursuant to any delusions, or instructions from voices in her head. She had been driven by anger, not mental illness.

     On Thursday morning, May 15, 2014, following the closing arguments and the judge's instructions to the jury, the jurors walked out of the courtroom to deliberate the defendant's fate. Just two hours later, at three o'clock, the jury returned to the courtroom with its verdict: guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. This jury had obviously rejected the Schenecker insanity defense.

     In addressing the judge in advance of the sentence, Julie Schnecker tearfully apologized for killing her children. She said, "They are alive and enjoying everything and anything heaven has to offer. Jesus is protecting them and keeping them safe until we get there." Immediately after this irony-laced statement, the judge handed Schenecker the mandated sentence of two life terms without the possibility of parole.

     

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Murdering Jocelyn Earnest: A Circumstantial Case

     On December 19, 2007, a friend discovered the body of 38-year-old Jocelyn Earnest just inside the front door of her house in Pine Bluff, Virginia. The victim had been shot in the back of the head. Next to her body lay a .357 magnum revolver and a typewriten suicide note that in part read:

     To Mom
          I'm sorry for what I've done. Please forgive me. Wes [the victim's estranged husband] has put us in such a financial bind--can't recover. My new love will not leave the family.
     Love,
     Jocelyn

     The heat inside Earnest's house had been jacked up to 90 degrees and there were no signs of forced entry. The dead woman's dog, a black Labador, was locked in a crate without food or water in a back bedroom.

     Investigators immediately suspected that Jocelyn Earnest had been murdered, and the scene staged to look like a suicide. Detectives knew that people who kill themselves and leave notes rarely type them. In searching Jocelyn's two home computers, investigators did not find drafts of this document. And the word choice and syntax of the note was inconsistent with the writing style found in the victim's handwritten journals. The police suspected that the furnace had been turned up to alter the body's decomposition rate to throw off the biological time of death determination. Apparently the killer had wanted the police to believe Jocelyn had been killed earlier in the day, perhaps to support an alibi.

     Suspicion immediately fell on the victim's estranged husband, Wesley Earnest who had moved out of the house a year earlier. As an assistant high school principal, he lived and worked 200 miles away in Chesapeake, Virginia. Jocelyn had been employed as a financial services manager in Lynchburgh, Virginia. Although together they had been earning $200,000 a year, they were deeply in debt. Wesley, over Jocelyn's objection, had built a three million dollar, seven thousand square foot mansion on nearby lake property. The $6,000 a month mortgage on this second home they couldn't sell because it was financially under water, had put them $1 million in debt. On top of this, Wesley found himself faced with the disasterous financial consequences of divorce.

     Wesley Earnest claimed he hadn't been to the Pine Bluff house for at least a year. After he had moved out, Jocelyn had changed the locks. Investigators, however, could connect him to the crime scene in two ways: he had purchased the .357 magnum, and two of his latent fingerprints were on the typewritten note next to the body. Two days before his estranged wife's death, the suspect had borrowed a pickup truck from a friend. When he returned the vehicle two weeks later, it had new tires. Detectives believed Wesley had changed out the tires to avoid a crime scene tire track match-up.

     Investigators also read the victim's journal, handwritten in seventeen notebooks. Several of the entries, however, written from Jocelyn's point of view, were in Wesley Earnest's hand. These forged additions portrayed the suspect in a favorable light. However, in one of the notebooks the victim had written: "If I die, Wesley killed me and he probably shot me."

     Wesley admitted to detectives that he had girlfriends, but claimed that  his wife had known about these affairs and approved of them. At his place of employment in Chesapeake, however, he told co-workers he was single.

     In May 2009, the $3 million house on the lake burned to the ground. Cause and origin fire investigators ruled the cause "undetermined." Because the place was heavily insured, the fire accrued to Wesley's financial benefit.

     Wesley Earnest went on trial in March 2010 for the murder of his wife. His attorney, in an effort to uncouple the defendant from the typewritten crime scene note, contested the forensic reliability of latent fingerprint identification. (Perhaps the defendant would have better served by offering an innocent explanation for the presence of his prints.) The defense attorney also put his client on the stand to testify on his own behalf. The defendant told the jurors that he had purchased the .357 revolver as a gift for his wife so she could protect herself. He portrayed Jocelyn as having been distraught over their financial problems. He also said she was having trouble with the woman who was her new lover.

     The jury, a few days after listening to the defendant, after deliberating less than four hours, found him guilty of murdering his wife.

     A month following the conviction, before Earnest was sentenced, a posting on a newspaper web site revealed that the jurors had read Jocelyn's journal. The trial judge had not wanted the jury to see this evidence. The notebooks had been inadvertantly put into a box that found its way into the jury room. In July 2010, the judge declared a mistrial.

     In November 2010, in Amherst, Virginia, Earnest went on trial again for the murder of his wife. His attorney, once again, put him on the stand to claim his innocence. On cross-examination, the prosecutor got Earnest to admit that in 2006 he had forged entries into his wife's journal. When asked how he had gotten into the Pine Bluff house he had been locked out of, Earnest said he had climbed through an unlocked window. In so doing, the defendant revealed to the jury how he may have entered the house to murder his wife. The second jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison.

     In December 2012, a three-judge panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the murder conviction and life sentence for Wesley Earnest.

     No one saw Wesley Earnest enter the Pine Bluff house and shoot his wife. No one claimed he had confided to them he had commited the crime. And he never confessed to the police. All the prosecutor had was what looked like a staged suicide, a motive, and a pair of latent prints on a suspect suicide note. But, with these two juries, the prosecution had enough evidence to convict. By comparison, the circumstantial cases against Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson were much stronger than the case against Wesley Earnest. But Anthony and Simpson got off, and Earnest didn't. While I believe the two juries in the Earnest case returned the correct verdicts, uniformity of results is not a characteristic of the American system of justice.