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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. 

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.