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Friday, April 24, 2015

The Shelia Von Wiese-Mack Murder Case

     In 2006, 76-year-old James L. Mack, a well-known composer of jazz and classical music died at his home in Chicago. The black musician left behind his white, 53-year-old wife Shelia Von Wiese-Mack and their 10-year-old daughter Heather Mack. Mr. Mack also left, for his daughter, a $1.5 million trust fund managed by her mother.

     A few years before his death, James Mack, while on a Royal Caribbean cruise with his wife, cut his foot in the swimming pool area of the ship. He sued the cruise line for negligence in not keeping the ship safe and for improper onboard medical care. In 2011, his widow received a $800,000 settlement from the company.

     On August 4, 2014, Shelia, now 62, and her 19-year-old daughter, checked into the 5-star St. Regis Bali Resort in Bali, Indonesia. Heather Mack and her mother hadn't been getting along for years. More recently, they had fought over Heather's relationship with her boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer. Shelia, while having been married to a black man, didn't approve of her daughter's relationship with the black 21-year-old. (This was according to Schaefer. It's possible the mother's objections had nothing to do with race.)

     On August 12, 2014, eight days after Heather and her mother arrived in Bali, Tommy Schaefer checked into the same hotel. Later that afternoon, he and Heather were outside the hotel with a large suitcase a cab driver helped them place into the trunk of his taxi. As the couple headed back into the hotel lobby, they told the cab driver to wait while they checked out. They did not return.

     A few hours after the big suitcase had been abandoned by Heather and her boyfriend, police officers opened it up to find the body of Shelia Von Wiese-Mack. She had been bludgeoned to death by a hard object.

     Detectives, after viewing hotel surveillance camera footage, saw that in the hours surrounding the victim's murder, Heather and her boyfriend were the only people who had entered and left the victim's room, the scene of the murder.

     Homicide investigators determined that the victim had been struck several times in the head with the iron grip to a hotel fruit bowl from Schaefer's room. Surveillance footage showed Schaefer leaving his room just before the bludgeoning carrying the murder weapon partially hidden inside his shirt. Moreover, a jacket that he owned bore traces of Von Wiese-Mack's blood.

     Detectives arrested the couple the following day. Schaefer admitted killing the victim but claimed self defense. According to the suspect, when he informed Shelia that Heather was two-months pregnant with his child, she flew into a rage and tried to strangle him. Detectives didn't buy his story. A local prosecutor charged Schaefer with premeditated murder.

     Heather Mack told investigators that beyond helping her boyfriend get her mother's body out of the hotel, she had nothing to do with the murder. Detectives didn't buy that story either. The prosecutor charged her as a accomplice to criminal homicide.

     On January 14, 2015, the murder defendants went on trial in the Denpasar District courthouse in Bali. Heather Mack's defense was paid for out of her father's trust fund. A judge had denied Schaefer access to this money. If convicted as charged, both defendants faced the maximum sentence of death by firing squad.

     Following the prosecution's case, Schaefer's attorney put him on the stand to testify on his own behalf. The defendant presented his story of self defense to a jury that was obviously skeptical.

     On April 21, 2015, the jury found Schaefer and Heather Mack guilty as charged. Judge Made Suweda sentenced Tommy Schaefer to just 18 years in prison. In justifying this lenient sentence for premeditated murder, the judge noted that the defendant had expressed remorse for the killing. (Remorse? He tried to sell the jury a bogus self defense story.)

     Judge Suweda, ignoring the prosecutor's request that Heather Mack be sentenced to 15 years, sentenced her to 10. The judge said he wanted to go easy on her because she had recently given birth to her baby. "In my decision," the judge said, "I have made a special judgment because Heather has a baby who needs a mother." (I'm not sure any baby needs a mother who helped her boyfriend murder her mother for the money.)

     After the verdicts and sentencing, Tommy Schaefer, in talking to reporters said, "Although I do take full responsibility for my actions, I am not a murderer." 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

FBI Acknowledges Massive Crime Lab Scandal

     As reported in The New York Times, a FBI spokesperson on April 20, 2015 publicly acknowledged that for decades bureau crime lab hair identification experts gave bogus scientific testimony that adversely affected more than 250 state and federal criminal cases. In my 2008 book Forensics Under Fire I wrote about several cases involving FBI crime lab pseudo-science. Below are two blogs published on this site about the problem. It's amazing how long it took the FBI to publicly admit to flaws in its operation that have for years been known to forensic scientists, attorneys, judges, and criminal justice scholars. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Jerame Reid Police Shooting Case

     Two-thirds of the residents of Bridgeton, New Jersey, a Cumberland County town of 25,000 south of Philadelphia, are either Hispanic or black. On the night of December 30, 2014, Bridgeton police officers Roger Worley and Braheme Days pulled over a Jaguar for running a stop sign. Officer Worley, the white officer, was behind the wheel of the patrol car.

     Officer Days, the black officer, approached the passenger side of the Jaguar and asked the two men in the car how they were doing. The passenger, 30-year-old Jerame Reid, said, "Good, how you doing, officer?"

     A few months earlier, officer Days had arrested Jerame Reid for possession of drugs. As a teenager, Reid had been convicted of shooting at police officers. The judge sent him to prison for twelve years.

     A few seconds after approaching the Jaguar, officer Days spotted a handgun in the glove compartment. He said, "Don't move! Show me your hands!"

     On the other side of the vehicle, officer Worley pointed his gun at the driver, Leroy Tutt. Mr. Tutt sat in the driver's seat with his hands sticking out of the car door window where they could be seen. Officer Worley called for backup.

     Officer Days reached into the Jaguar and removed a silver handgun from the glove box. To the vehicle's occupants he said, "You reach for something you're going to be (expletive) dead!"

     One of the men in the stopped car said, "I got no reason to reach for nothing." Again officer Days warned, "Hey Jerame, you reach for something you're going to be (expletive) dead!"

     As Jerame Reid opened the front passenger door, he said, "I'm getting out of the car." By now officer Worley had joined officer Days on that side of the vehicle. Both officers had their guns drawn. Reid climbed out of the vehicle, and when he stood up, his hands were raised to the level of his chest in the officers' plain view.

     A few seconds after Jerame Reid exited the Jaguar, officer Days shot him. Officer Worley also fired his gun. The shot man collapsed to the ground and died on the spot. He did not possess a firearm.

     The entire police-involved shooting incident was caught on the officers' dashboard camera. The chief of police placed both officers on administrative leave and turned the case over to the Cumberland County prosecutor's office.

     Shortly after receiving the case, Cumberland County prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae recused herself from the inquiry because she had personal ties to officer Days. First Assistant prosecutor Harold Shapiro took over the investigation.

     Critics of the way the authorities handled the case called for either a special prosecutor or an intervention by the state attorney general's office. Protestors, notwithstanding the fact that Jerame Reid and the officer who shot him were black, claimed racism.

    In February 2015, three months after Reid's death, a local newspaper reported that in 2011, Jerame Reid had filed a $100,000 lawsuit against the Cumberland County Department of Corrections, Warden Robert Balicki, and three corrections officers. Reid claimed the jail guards assaulted him in October 2009. According to Reid, the officers, without provocation or justification, repeatedly punched, kicked and pepper sprayed his face then threw a bucket of water on him as he lay on the cell floor.

     As a result of the beating, Reid said he suffered broken ribs and a fractured left orbital bone that left him without sensation and nerve damage to his lips and cheek area. According to court documents, the encounter began after Reid confronted another inmate over stolen belongings. The accused inmate told correction officers that Reid possessed a sharp object.

     Responding jail guards handcuffed Reid and placed him into another cell. According to the plaintiff, after he made a comment to one of the officers, they gave him the beating. (The officers alleged that Reid threw the first punch.)

     Reid's lawyer, in court documents, said the corrections officers, after an internal investigation, were disciplined for not filing a use of force report. The matter was not referred to the local prosecutor's office for investigation. (Why hadn't Reid's attorney, shortly after the incident, filed a federal civil rights action?)

     As a result of the plaintiff's death, the lawsuit against the county and the others has been dismissed. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Nyia Parker: The Mother From Hell

     Nyia Parker resided on the west side of Philadelphia with her 21-year-old son Daequan Norman. Daequan, a quadriplegic, suffered from cerebral palsy. The unemployed 41-year-old mother received Social Security benefits for Daequan and relied upon a network of relatives and friends to help care for her completely dependent son.

     At ten o'clock on Monday morning April 6, 2015, Parker pushed her son in his wheelchair into a wooded area off a walking trail along Cobbs Creek about a quarter mile from their home. She lifted him out of the chair, laid him on his back, placed a Bible on his chest, and covered him with a blanket.

     After depositing her helpless son amid the leaves, empty beer cans and other litter, Nyia Parker boarded a bus to Silver Spring, Maryland to spend a week with her boyfriend, a former Philadelphia resident. She didn't tell anyone that she had left her son lying alone and helpless in the woods.

     Twenty-four hours after leaving her son in the woods exposed to the weather, wild animals, and people who might harm him, Nyia Parker, under a Facebook photograph depicting her and the boyfriend having a good time, wrote: "I am so happy."

     At nine o'clock Friday night April 10, a man walking through the Cobbs Creek woods came upon Daequan Norman lying in the leaves near his wheelchair. He had been there for five days and four nights.

     An ambulance crew rushed the abandoned son to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. As a result of his ordeal, Daequan suffered from dehydration, was malnourished, and had an eye infection. There was no telling what kind of permanent mental and emotional damage he had suffered.

     A few hours following the abandoned man's removal from the west Philadelphia woods, police in Silver Spring, Maryland took Nyia Parker into custody at her boyfriend's house. Due to some undisclosed ailment, the arresting officers took her to a nearby hospital for some kind of treatment.

     Back in Philadelphia, a local prosecutor charged Parker with half of the offenses in the Pennsylvania Crimes Code. Upon her extradition back to Philadelphia, she faced charges of aggravated assault, simple assault, reckless endangerment of a person, neglect of care of a dependent person, unlawful restraint, kidnapping, and false imprisonment. (Why wasn't she charged with attempted murder?)

     People under the influence of mental illness, alcohol, and drugs commit all kinds of strange, and inexplicable crimes. But how can one even begin to understand why this mother left her quadriplegic son in the woods for five days while she visited her boyfriend. And why the Facebook posting?

     Did she expect her disabled son to die alone in the woods? If Daequan had died, what would have been her story? Would she have blamed his death on kidnappers? If so, how would she have explained the fact she had left him alone in the first place? And why would anyone abduct her son?

     Was it possible that Nyia Parker actually expected to get away with this atrocious act of cruelty? If this case ever goes to trial, this woman is looking at 20 years in prison.

     

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Teacher Joyce Quiller: Hero or Victim?

     In January 2014, students and parents filed complaints against a veteran math teacher at Ribault High School in Jacksonville, Florida. The teacher, 51-year-old Joyce Quiller, taught tenth and eleventh graders enrolled in Bridge to Success, a program created to help students two or more years older than normal for their class levels. In other words, most of Quiller's students were not the best nor the brightest. The 21-year classroom veteran had the difficult and unrewarding job of trying to teach math to mostly unmotivated and undisciplined teenagers.

     In the context of today's lax public school education standards, Joyce Quiller had the reputation of being a strict, demanding teacher who didn't dumb-down and didn't suffer fools. She expected her students to show up for class with pen, paper, and completed homework assignments. When students didn't live up to her academic expectations, they failed the course. In fact, she gave 77 percent of her students Fs with all but a few of the rest receiving Ds. It seemed this teacher had imposed a toll on the so-called Bridge to Success, and most of her students didn't want to pay it. It's easy to see why this woman was not a popular teacher among students, their parents, and school administrators.

     The six or so complainants accused Quiller of being foul-mouthed and insulting in the classroom. In speaking to a student who showed up for class without pen or paper, she allegedly said, "What's the point of coming to this motherf--ing class if you don't bring materials?" Moreover, according to her accusers, she told another kid to "shut the f---up."

     Joyce Qullier also faced the allegation that she called her students "stupid" and "ignorant," and once used the n-word. (The complainants in this case are black and so is the accused.)

     This was not the first time Joyce Quiller had been called on the carpet for using inappropriate classroom language. In 2001 and again in 2013 the school superintendent reprimanded her for telling a student to "get out of my f--ing class." She also supposedly instructed a kid to pull up his pants. (Wow, the kid must have been devastated.)

     In response to the accusations of unprofessional (but hardly abusive) classroom demeanor, Quiller submitted a written statement that she was "appalled and disturbed" at the allegations against her. She denied using profanity in class and accused the complainants of having a vendetta against her.

     In March 2014, following an internal inquiry and a hearing, the superintendent of the Duval County School District sent Joyce Quiller a letter of termination. She appealed her firing to an administrative law judge.

     Administrative law judge Bruce McKibben, in August 2014, ruled that the school district had violated the terms of Quiller's employment contract by skipping step three of a three-step system of punishment. According to the judge's interpretation of the case, the school superintendent should have suspended Quiller without pay. The judge ordered the school system to reinstate Joyce Quiller.

     In his 21-page decision, Judge McKibben found that a preponderance of the evidence (a standard of proof less demanding than proof beyond a reasonable doubt) supported the claims she used profanity in class. He did note, however, that one of Quiller's B students testified that she had never heard the teacher swear.

      Regarding Quller's work environment at Ribault High School, Judge McKibben wrote: "Quiller was placed in an almost untenable situation. She did not have all the tools needed to work with students, and her classes were too large. Nevertheless, she was expected to maintain her composure and professionalism."

     The judge, perhaps out of political correctness, did not point out the obvious fact that many of Quiller's students were probably idiots. More school supplies would not have solved that problem.

     On September 8, 2014, after Joyce Quiller answered questions and pleaded her case before the Duval County School Board, board members ignored the administrative judge's reinstatement ruling by voting again to fire the former math teacher. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Note: A couple of Easter morning crime stories from the JFTC archives:


Easter Day Mayhem at the Egg Hunt


      Last year the Easter Sunday egg hunt at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington turned ugly when the mother of a 5-year-old pushed someone else's kid going after the same brightly colored egg. This led to a un-Easter-like physical confrontation. The fists and cuss words flew amid frightened and crying 4-to 6-year olds looking on with Easter baskets in hand. The brawling moms had to be separated four times before things settled down. One of the combatants came away from the encounter with a bloody nose. When the police rolled up to the scene, neither of the egg-hunt warriors wanted to press charges. Maybe because it was Easter.

     Can you imagine what it would be like watching your mother rolling around on the egg-covered ground screaming at and punching some woman? Try getting that image out of your head. "Hey Johnny, how was your Easter?"
   
     "My mom beat-up another kid's mother at the egg hunt."

     What would Mr. Rogers say to this poor kid?  How do you say, in Mr. Rogers-speak, your mother is a jerk.