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Monday, April 24, 2017

The Crime of Assisted Suicide: The Willard Skellie Case

     In America, suicide is not a crime, but in all states but one, helping someone take their life is a form of criminal  homicide. In New York state, the act of assisted suicide is prosecuted as second-degree manslaughter which carries a sentence of five to fifteen years.

     Willard F. Skellie and his wife Kathy lived in a two-story house in Glens Falls, New York 45 miles north of Albany. Several years ago the couple adopted a child with HIV. In 2012, Kathy, suffering from mental illness, battled clinical depression. The 59-year-old woman also struggled with the side-effects of her anti-psychotic medication, and experienced panic attacks whenever she left the house. As a result, Kathy spent days at a time locked into her bedroom. Early in 2012, she tried to kill herself with a knife.

     At the end of her rope, Kathy asked her 69-year-old husband to buy a gun and teach her how to use it. Knowing that she intended to use the weapon to commit suicide, Willard purchased a 12-gauge shotgun and showed his wife how to operate it. As he demonstrated how the shotgun worked, Kathy made notes on a sheet of paper. When Willard loaded the gun, he altered the first two rounds so they wouldn't fire, hoping that two misfires would discourage Kathy from killing herself. Kathy took the loaded weapon to her room.

     On Friday, December 14, 2012, Willard went deer hunting in the morning and didn't return until evening. He went to bed that night without checking on Kathy. Early the next morning, Willard went out hunting again, and when he returned to the house a few hours later, forced his way into Kathy's bedroom. He found that his wife had used the shotgun to shoot herself in the head. He called 911.

     Officers with the Glens Falls Police Department asked Willard Skellie if he had helped his wife take her own life. After Mr. Skellie denied helping her in any way, a detective asked if he'd be willing to take a polygraph test at the state police headquarters in Greenwich, New York. Mr. Skellie agreed to take the lie detection exam.

     On Sunday, December 16, 2012, when detectives informed Mr. Skellie that the polygraph examiner believed he had lied when he denied helping his wife kill herself, he confessed to his role in her death. Mr. Skellie also admitted destroying the notes Kathy had taken regarding how to operate the shotgun. In his confession, Mr. Skellie said, "She was in mental pain from everything. She just couldn't take it anymore."

     On the day of Mr. Skellie's confession, Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan charged him with tampering with physical evidence and second-degree manslaughter. Unable to post his $100,000 cash bail, Mr. Skellies remained incarcerated in the Warren County Jail.

     In May 2013, Willard Skellie pleaded guilty to helping his wife kill herself. Judge John Hall sentenced Mr. Skellie to five years probation and 1,000 hours of community service. 

Married to a Mobster

I look back and I realize that in the end I got everything I dreamed about having when I was still living with my parents in Bensonhurst [New York City] and longing for escape. I married a handsome man, we became wealthy [on other people's blood and money], we had children, they went to private schools, we lived in a nice big house. So I got everything I always wanted. Some people might say I got everything I deserved. What do they know?

Lynda Milito, widow of slain Gambino soldier Liborio "Louie" Milito in Jerry Capeci, Wiseguys Say the Darndest Things, 20004


Romance Novel Sex Scenes

Years ago we followed the loving couple to the bedroom door, only to have it closed in our face. Now, not only do we go all the way with them in the bedroom, we often find that they don't wait to get there. Sex can take place almost anywhere--in a parked car, in the middle of a field, on the side of a mountain [not a good idea]--just like in real life. Nor does the heroine always have a wedding ring on her finger.

Donna Baker, Writing a Romantic Novel, 1997 

Fatal Falls: Accident or Murder?

High on the list of scenarios for the perfect murder is death by falling from a high place. "Did he fall or was he pushed?" is no joke. Some of the most difficult crime investigations have centered on incidents on mountaintops. When two people are in a high, dangerous place, there are no witnesses on a bleak windswept mountain and not a CCTV camera for miles around. If someone falls to his or  her death, who is to know if it was a slip made by perhaps an inexperienced mountaineer or the fatal plunge after a gentile nudge by an enemy?

Les Brown and Robert Jeffery, Real Hard Cases, 2006

Truman Capote on True Crime Writing

     In a somewhat critical New Yorker article on the true crime genre (August 19, 1996), Alex Ross, regarding the history of nonfiction crime writing wrote: " 'True crime' is the name that has attached itself to journalistic and literary accounts of exceptional human ghastliness. The term became a standard publishing category in the 1980s, distinct from long-standing genres of mystery and crime literature....The name is new, the genre is not....Readers have been devouring hastily printed accounts of mayhem and disaster since the invention of the popular press."

     Writing about murder and mayhem--interviewing victims' loved ones and the people who commit these brutal crimes--is not for everyone. Living day to day with violent death and human suffering can take its toll on a writer. Truman Capote, while writing his true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood, the story of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, said that the subject matter "leaves me increasingly limp and numb and, well, horrified--I have such awful dreams every night. I don't know how I could ever have felt so callous and objective as I did in the beginning." (In Capote: A Biography (1988) by Gerald Clarke)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Andrew Clarence Bullock Rape Case

     On Friday, December 13, 2013 at eleven-thirty in the morning, a nun in the Order of St. Joseph named Sister Mary Pellegrino encountered a young man in the parking lot behind St. Titus Church in Aliquippa, a western Pennsylvania town 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. The six-foot teenager, wearing a black-hooded sweatshirt, dark pants, and work boots, came up behind the retired 85-year-old nun, tapped her on the shoulder and asked if he could be of help. When Sister Pellegrino declined the smiling youth's offer, he exposed himself, choked her, punched her in the jaw, and raped her as she lay injured in the snow.

     Rushed to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Sister Pellegrino underwent surgery to repair her dislocated lower jaw. Although the nun was unable speak to detectives, she described the attack and her attacker in writing.

     At the scene of the crime, investigators photographed a series of boot impressions in the snow. Detectives also questioned people who had seen a 18-year-old named Andrew Clarence Bullock near the church just before the assault. Bullock had been wearing clothing that matched the victim's description of  her attacker's sweatshirt, pants, and shoes.

     A few hours after the assault behind St. Titus Church, Aliquippa police officers questioned Andrew Bullock. The suspect, after initially denying the assault, confessed. Officers noticed that Bullock wore work boots that matched, in size and tread pattern, the shoe impressions in the snow behind the church.

     Police officers booked Bullock into the Beaver County Jail on charges of rape, aggravated assault, and several lesser offenses. The District Judge set his bail at $50,000.

     On Sunday, December 15, 2013, doctors released Sister Mary from the hospital in Pittsburgh. It was hard to believe she survived such a vicious attack. Had she not, Mr. Bullock would have faced charges of first-degree murder.

     In November 2014, following his guilty plea, Beaver County Judge Harry Knafelc sentenced Andrew Bullock to 19 to 37 years in prison. The judge also designated Bullock a sexually violent predator. That meant that once out of prison he will have to register his address with the Megan's Law website.
     

John Cheever on Academic Literary Criticism

The vast academic world exists like everything else, on what it can produce that will secure income. So we have papers on fiction, but they come out of what is largely an industry. In no way does it help those who write fiction or those who love to read fiction.

John Cheever in Writers at Work, Fifth Series, edited by George Plimpton, 1981 

What's Wrong With Judge Baugh?

The Montana judge who said a teen rape victim appeared "older than her chronological age" has sentenced a man convicted of punching her girlfriend to write "Boys do not hit girls," 5,000 times. District Judge G. T odd Baugh also sentenced Pacer Anthony Ferguson, 27, to six months in jail and to pay $3,800 in restitution for fracturing the woman's face in three places during an August 2012 argument. The judge ordered Ferguson to number his list, sign it, and mail it to him by May 23, 2014. [A 27-year-old is not a "boy." What is this, 4th grade?]

Associated Press, December 24, 2013 

Rapists Who Murder Their Victims

     Although the murder of a rape victim certainly may indicate hostile motivation, at least some such murders may be due to the simple fact that killing the victim greatly increases the rapist's chances of escaping punishment by removing the only witness to the rape….Rape-murders, however, are a very small percentage of all murders.

     Young women, highly overrepresented as rape victims, are also at the greatest risk of being killed by their assailants….Young women appear to resist rape more than females in other age groups. The strong sexual motivation of the rapist to rape a young victim, in combination with her greater resistance, may account for young women's overrepresentation in homicides with sexual assault.

Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, Rape, 2000

Autobiographies of Famous People Are Unreliable

For though fame is a help in selling books, it is of small use in writing them. [That's why they have ghost writers.] And though a reader may be pleased to eavesdrop on the reminiscences of famous people, he will rarely come away from such volumes with more than a nodding acquaintance. The reason for this is that famous people are usually too sensitive of their image to write anything of themselves that may jeopardize it, such as they are bored, frightened, bewildered or hollow as the drums that acclaimed them. Famous people, when they take to autobiography, are chiefly full of tidings about their pedestals and how they got on them, and how modestly they occupy them, and how many other people on pedestals they know.

Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century, 1985 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Murder-For-Hire: The Crime and Its Cast of Characters

     Murder-for-hire cases fall generally into one of two categories: homicides in which the contract for the killing is carried out, and crimes in which, due to law enforcement intervention in the form of an undercover operative playing the role of the assassin, no one is killed. While still serious felony, the latter offense is one of criminal solicitation.

     The cast of a murder-for-hire plot features three principal characters: the instigator/mastermind who solicits/contracts the homicide, the hit man (or undercover agent playing the triggerman role), and the victim, the person targeted for death. Supporting players might include a cast of go-betweens and accomplices such as people who put the mastermind in touch with the hit man or undercover cop, and helpers brought into the scheme by the triggerman. Murder-for-hire cases frequently include potential assassins the mastermind initially reached out to who reject the assignment. These would-be hit men, often the mastermind's friends, casual acquaintances, relatives, or co-workers, after declining to participate in the plot, either remain silent or go to the police. Many of the ones who remain silent do so because they didn't take the mastermind seriously.

     While murder-for-hire stories, in terms of the characters involved, have a somewhat common anatomy, they differ widely according to the socio-enconomic status of the participants, the nature of their relationships to each other, and the specific motive behind the murder.

     Unlike rapists, sex murderers, pathological fire setters, and pedophiles, murder-for-hire masterminds do not conform to a general psychological profile. They are men and women of various ages and backgrounds who solicit their murders pursuant to a diverse range of motives. Murder plotters, compared to murder doers, tend to be older, more commonly female, and less likely to have histories of crime or violence. Given the pre-meditated nature of a murder-for-hire plot, masterminds, while sociopathic, desperate, depressed, drug-addled, or simply not very bright, are not psychotic and therefore not mentally ill enough to be found legally insane. Without the benefit of the insanity defense, masterminds, when their backs are against the criminal justice wall, tend to throw themselves on the mercy of the court. They often cite, as justification for their murderous acts or homicidal intentions, abuse, depression, and addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Generally, these pleas for mercy and understanding fall on deaf judicial ears, particularly when the mastermind was obviously motivated by greed such as avoiding the cost of divorce, benefiting from a life insurance policy, or inheriting the victim's estate.

     Masterminds labor under the rather stupid belief that the best way to get away with murder is to pay someone else to do it. They think that having an alibi is their ticket to avoiding arrest and prosecution. These homicide plotters underestimate the reach of federal conspiracy laws as well as the incriminating power of motive. Moreover, while masterminds do not pull the trigger, wield the bat, or sink the knife, they do participate in the crime beyond simply asking someone to commit murder on their behalf. Although detectives won't find their bloody latents at the scene of the crime, masterminds can't help leaving their figurative fingerprints all over the conspiracy. Masterminds also leave behind witnesses in the form of hit men, go-betweens, confidants, and accomplices.

     Most murder-for-hire masterminds, before the homicide, make no secret of the fact they want to eliminate the object of their greed, or the source of their frustration and anger. To facilitate the murder, they pay the the hit men cash upfront, and promise the balance of the blood money following the target's death. The mastermind commonly provides the assassin with a hand-drawn map pinpointing the proposed murder site, a photograph of the victim, the license plate number to the target's vehicle, and an outline that details the future victim's daily routine. Masterminds also leave behind records of cellphone calls that can be quite incriminating.

     Some masterminds leave the murder methodology, the modus operandi, to the hit man, while other plotters actively participate in the planning stage. Masterminds who are engaged in the killing process usually want the homicide to look like an accident, a carjacking, rape, mugging, or deadly home invasion. What they don't realize is that making a murder look like something else is easier said than done. Besides, the people masterminds hire to do the job are commonly incompetent, indifferent, drug-addled, or just plain stupid.

     Paid assassins are almost always men who are younger than their masterminds. They are also more likely to have criminal backgrounds. Because of who they are, hit men do not plan the hit carefully or take steps not to leave behind physical evidence. After the murder, they seldom keep their mouths shut about what they have done, and who they have done it for. If paid a lot of money, hit men usually spend it on drugs or lose it gambling. While hit men are cold-blooded killers, they are nothing like the cool-headed professional assassins we see on television and in the movies. The are disorganized amateurs and bunglers who are easy to catch. Once they are caught, they are quick to spill their guts.

     Murder-for-hire targets are not random victims of crime. They are people with whom the mastermind has had some kind of relationship. People targeted for death can be current and former spouses, estranged lovers, or the mastermind's  parents, children, or business associates. Targets can include people the mastermind has previously victimized who are marked for elimination as crime accusers and potential trial witnesses. In cases of revenge involving masterminds who have scores to settle, victims can be judges, prosecutors, and police informants. Men who batter woman also become murder-for-hire victims at the hands of the women they have beaten.

     The crime solution rate for murder-for-hire offenses is relatively high, particularly when the defendant ends up negotiating with an undercover cop brought into the case by the person the mastermind either recruited for the job, or asked to find a hit man. Undercover operatives and masterminds meet, often in Walmart and shopping mall parking lots, where the conversations are audio and video-taped. Once the mastermind makes clear his or her homicidal intention, perhaps by supplying the upfront money, a weapon, or a photograph of the target, the unsuspecting plotter is arrested on the spot. These arrestees are charged with crimes that include solicitation of murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder.

     Occasionally, masterminds caught red-handed in undercover sting operations plead not gulty by reason of insanity, claim they have been entrapped by the police, or raise defenses based on the battered spouse syndrome. But most of the time they confess and hope for leniency.

     Solicitation cases, while incomplete in nature, are fascinating because the police-recorded conversations between the undercover cops and the masterminds provides a window into the minds of people with sociopathic personalities intent on having assorted targets murdered. these cases reveal, in the extreme, how badly a marriage or romantic relationship can deteriorate. One gets the sense, after reviewing hundreds of murder-for-hire cases, that America has become a society of depressed, drug-addled sociopaths who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

     Murder-for-hire crimes that result in actual killings are more challenging for investigators than murder solicitation cases. This is because these offenses include crime scenes, physical evidence, autopsies, witnesses, and suspected masterminds with alibis they can establish. However, compared to drive-by shootings, drug and gang-related murders, and criminal homicides without obvious suspects, murder-for-hire crimes are relatively easy to solve.

     Masterminds generally make it easy for homicide detectives by hiring hit men who are incompetent fools. Murder-for-hire plotters also create future witnesses by casting a wide net in their search for a contract killer. Because hit men are usually careless and have big mouths, these amateur assassins are almost always caught. And when they are arrested, hit men regularly inform on the mastermind in return for a lighter sentence. Murder-for-hire dramas are less about police work, forensic science, and criminal justice than they are about sociology, criminal psychology, and American culture.

     Murder-for-hire cases, from a criminal justice point of view, raise interesting questions associated with the comparative sentencing of masterminds and their hit men. Because both the mastermind and the hired killer can be found guilty of first degree murder, they are eligible, in 32 states, for the death penalty. In most cases, however, the triggerman receives a much lighter sentence that the person who hired him. This is because hit men usually confess first and agree to testify against the mastermind.

     In the recent history of murder-for-hire crime, there have been cold-blooded killers who, in return for their cooperation with law enforcement, have been awarded sentences as light as seventeen years in prison while the mastermind was sentenced to death. Although these sentencing disparities have a lot to do with the practicalities of plea bargaining, there may be more to it than that.

     Masterminding a contract murder is generally perceived as more evil than actually pulling the trigger. The particular loathing of murder-for-hire masterminds is reflected in the fact that homicide investigators and prosecutors target the instigator more than the hit man. Amateurs who kill for money, usually petty criminals who do it for peanuts, don't shock us because they are young, male criminals doing what society expects them to do. When middle and upper-middle class people exploit these desperate and pathetic losers by hiring them to do their dirty work, we hold them more responsible for the murder. For masterminds, it's who they are that makes their behavior so repugnant and evil. This is interesting because a nation full of masterminds would be a lot safer than a country full of hit men.

     

The Journal as the Foundation of a Book

No matter how messy or incomplete, journals are the missing links in creative life. For centuries, they've helped beginning and seasoned writers alike trigger new work and sustain inspiration. Anne Frank used hers for the basis of a book she wanted to write after the war. She mined it for details and later rewrote entries and composed scenes. Novelist Virginia Wolf invented herself as a writer in her journal. From age 17 until four days before her death [suicide] at 60, she used journals to move from family sketches to memoir to novels.

Alexandra Johnson, The Hidden Writer, 1998 

The Guillotine

If the laws are such that a person must die for the crimes he or she has committed, surely the most instantaneous and therefore the most merciful method is death by means of the guillotine. Execution by hanging is always open to doubt, the timespan between initial strangulation and final oblivion is not known. The sword and the axe allow too much leeway for the victim to flinch or the executioner to mis-aim. And even the multi-executioners of a firing squad cannot guarantee that at least one bullet will penetrate the heart. Most other methods are similarly flawed, whether they be by gas poisoning, electric chair or whatever. [Lethal drugs don't always get the job done properly either.] In other words, there is nothing so instantly final as a head severed by a machine.

Geoffrey Abbott, Lords of the Scaffold, 2001 

Shoplifting

What's new about shoplifting today is that it has become a cultural phenomenon--a silent epidemic, driven by pretty much everything in our era. Some scholars connect it to traditional families' disintegration, the American love of shopping, the downshifting of the middle class, global capitalism, immigration, the replacement of independent stores with big chains, and the lessening of faith's hold on conduct. Shoplifting gets tangled up in American cycles of spending and saving, and boom and bust, and enacts the tension between the rage to consume conspicuously and the intention to live thriftily. The most recent suspects include the Great Recession, the increasing economic divide between rich and poor, and ineffectual response to the shamelessness of white-collar fraudsters; the shoplifter as the poor man's Bernard Madoff.

Rachel Shteir, The Steal, 2011

Novels Require A Lot of Facts

Novelists are and always have been split between, on the one hand, a desire to claim an imaginative and representative truth for their stories, and on the other hand, a conviction that the best way to secure and guarantee that truthfulness is by a scrupulous respect for empirical fact…Novels burn facts as engines burn fuel, and the facts can come only from the novelist's own experience or acquired knowledge.

David Lodge, The Practice of Writing, 1996 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Greyhound Bus Therapy: Losing Your Mind in Las Vegas

     According to mental health experts, the city of Las Vegas not only drives people crazy, it attracts unbalanced folks from around the country. The place is a mental illness magnet. In Washington, D.C. you have idiots and fools; in Detroit, empty buildings and bullet-ridden corpses; in Los Angeles, narcissistic celebrities; and in Las Vegas, a lot of people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. If I had to live in one of these places, I'd pick Detroit.

     Dr. Lorin Scher, an emergency room psychiatrist with the University of California at Davis Medical Center explains why so many mentally ill people end up in Las Vegas: "As the whole country knows, Las Vegas is a pretty unique place. [Thank God.] Many bipolar patients impulsively fly across the country to Vegas during their manic phases and go on gambling binges. Vegas probably attracts more wandering schizophrenics, people who are drawn to the warm weather, lights, and action."

     Other psychiatrists have pointed out that Las Vegas is home to a disproportionate number of residents displaced by the housing and mortgage collapse of 2007. People lost their jobs, their homes, and apparently their minds.

     Nevada, in 2009, began cutting its mental health service budget. By 2012, the funds for this form of health care had been cut by 28 percent. The reduced spending occurred during the period Las Vegas experienced the surge in psychiatric admissions. Something had to be done to hold down the state's health care costs.

     In March 2013, James Flavy, a 48-year-old schizophrenic living in a complex in Sacramento, California for the homeless, told the authorities a rather disturbing story. A month earlier, when discharged from the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas, a mental health worker drove him to the Main Street bus station and put him on a Greyhound bus destined for Sacramento. Following a 15-hour bus ride, Mr. Flavy rolled into Sacramento with a two-day supply of medication and instructions to follow-up his care with a doctor in California. Someone suggested that upon his arrival in the Golden State he call 911. Flavy got off the bus without any identification or access to his Social Security benefits. He wound up in a University of California at Davis Medical Center emergency room where he lived for three days before someone arranged temporary housing.

     Mr. Flavy's story led to the remarkable revelation that over the past five years, more than 1,500 Las Vegas mental patients have been shipped via Greyhound bus to more than 200 cities in every state in the continental United States.

     The Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, between July 2008 and December 2014, spent $205,000 on mental patient bus tickets. (The agency had a special arrangement with Greyhound.) The busing program has saved the state of Nevada millions of health care dollars.

     One-third of the Greyhound therapy recipients were bused to California, 200 of whom to Los Angeles County. In 2012, Greyhound buses rolled out of Las Vegas carrying 400 mental cases destined for 176 cities in 45 states.

     Health care administrators in Nevada defended their mental ward on wheels program as sort of a revolving door operation. If unbalanced folks from all over the nation can roll into Las Vegas, they ought to be able, following emergency mental health treatment, to roll them back out of town.

     This story makes one wonder if homeless people arrested by the Las Vegas police are packed off in Greyhound buses. Such a program would save the city a lot of criminal justice money and help deal with jail overcrowding.

     Can you imagine what it must be like for ordinary tourists riding Greyhound buses out of Las Vegas? Moreover, what would it be like to drive one of these rolling mental institutions? I can envision a reality TV show called "Mental Health Bus Drivers: A Ride on the Wild Side".

Problems in Forensic Science

     Practitioners of forensic science fall generally into three groups: police officers who arrive at the scene of a crime whose job it is to secure the physical evidence; crime-scene technicians responsible for finding, photographing, and packaging that physical evidence for crime lab submission; and forensic scientists working in public and private crime laboratories who analyze the evidence and, if the occasion arises, testify in court as expert witnesses. While uniformed police officers and detectives may be trained in the recognition and handling of physical evidence, they are not scientists, and do not work under laboratory conditions. As a result, a lot can, and does, go wrong between the crime scene investigation and the courtroom.

     Television series like "CSI" have generated public knowledge and interest in forensic science, even ramping up scientific expectations for those involved in real-life criminal investigation and prosecution. Prosecutors call this the "CSI effect," the expectation among jurors that the prosecution will feature physical evidence and expert witnesses. The CSI effect has also caused jurors to expect crime lab results far beyond the capacity of forensic science. Some prosecutors either eliminate potential jurors who are fans of "CSI," or downplay the necessity and importance of physical evidence as a method of proving a defendant's guilt. Prosecutors who have lost cases have been known to blame their defeats on the CSI effect. Criminal justice scholars who have investigated the CSI effect disagree over whether it has had much impact on trial results.

    While public expectations of forensic science are high, persistent problems within the various forensic fields have kept scientific crime detection from living up to its full potential. Because a shortage of qualified personnel has caused DNA testing logjams, rapists, pedophiles, and serial killers have been given extra time to commit more crimes. The shortage of DNA analysts has also placed a heavy burden on crime lab personnel, creating problems of quality control. In the past few years, dozens of crime lab DNA units have been temporarily closed when audits revealed sloppy work, scientific errors, unqualified analysts, weak supervision, poor training, and evidence contamination. Even the highly regarded FBI Laboratory has experienced problems with DNA analysis and other forms of forensic identification. Recently, crime labs in Detroit, Boston, Raleigh, Houston, New Haven, and Los Angeles have had serious problems.

     Ironically, advances in DNA technology have exposed problems in other fields of forensic science. For example, DNA analysis has revealed that over the years, experts have been overstating the identification value of human hair follicles and bite-mark impressions. Hundreds of criminal defendants, if not thousands, have been sent to prison on what many experts now consider unreliable forensic evidence.

     A critical shortage of board-certified forensic pathologists has also adversely affected the overall quality of homicide investigation. Overworked forensic pathologists are prone to take shortcuts and make mistakes. The shortage has meant that in many cases of suspicious death, autopsies are not performed.

     The field of latent fingerprint identification, while still considered the gold standard of forensic science, has recently come under attack as a result of a handful of high-profile misidentifications. These cases have revealed that not all fingerprint examiners have been properly trained, and that many have either failed or never taken proficiency tests. Questions have also been raised regarding the scientific objectivity of many fingerprint experts. This is particularly true of examiners who, as police officers, see themselves as part of a law enforcement team. Forensic scientists have to be loyal to their science, even when it displeases the people who employ them, a stance that takes courage and independence.

     There are fakes, incompetents, and charlatans in every profession, but over the years a series of high-profile cases have featured the so-called experts from hell, forensic scientists whose false testimony has helped convict innocent people. Many of these experts from hell are hired guns willing to testify for whatever side is willing  to pay. The alarming aspect of these expert-from-hell stories is how long these forensic scientists practice before they are exposed and defrocked. Just below the expert from hell on the damage scale are the well-meaning but incompetent forensic scientists as well as the experts who are either blinded by media attention, or bow to prosecutorial pressure. Maintaining a firewall between science and criminal prosecution is a constant challenge, one that is not always met.

     Jurors are often called upon to make judgments in trials in which experts representing each side offer opinions that contradict. When jurors are faced with opposing experts, they tend to disregard the physical evidence entirely. The dueling expert problem is destroying the credibility of forensic science itself. Judges reluctant to exclude the testimony of witnesses who are not real experts, dump the problem on the laps of jurors who are not qualified to distinguish the true scientists from the phonies.

     Most of the problems in forensic science are caused by personnel shortages, poor quality control, the inherent difficulties of crime scene investigation, the pressures imposed by the adversarial nature of our trial process, the lure of pseudoscience, and the evolving character and complexity of science itself. Over the past twenty years, the emphasis in American law enforcement has been the escalating war on drugs, anti-terrorism, and controlling inner city street gangs. Criminal investigation has taken a back seat to these priorities. As long as this is the case, the many problems facing forensic science will not be solved, and will probably get worse.

     The history of forensic science has been one of false hope, missed opportunities, and failed expectations. 

Ralph Ellison: A One-Book Author

     Having just published his first novel, Invisible Man, to critical acclaim (it won the National Book Award), Ralph Ellison, in 1952, struggled with his second novel. In a letter that year to his friend and fellow writer, Albert Murray, the 38-year-old Ellison revealed that having written a successful first novel does not necessarily bring happiness or contentment: "I'm trying to organize my next book. I've been a tired, exhausted son-of-a-bitch since I've finished Invisible Man and I want to feel alive again. It's an awful life. For years now I felt guilty because I was working on a novel for so long a time, and now I feel guilty that I am no longer doing so." (Trading Twelves, 2000, edited by Albert Murray.)

     In 1999, five years after Ellison's death, Random House published Juneteenth, a book-length excerpt from his unfinished second novel.

     

Writing Humor Is So Hard It's Not Funny

     Humor is like pornography in that it's easy to recognize, but hard to define. Robin Hemley distinguishes comedy from tragedy this way: "Simply put, tragedy has serious and logical consequences. Cause and effect. Comedy usually doesn't. You throw a person off a tall building in a comedy, he bounces. You throw someone off a building in a tragedy, don't wait for the bounce."

     While I don't read that many books by humorists, I do appreciate humor in novels and works of nonfiction. Memoirs and biographies devoid of humor tend to be tedious and not worth the effort. All really good writers, I think, can write funny stuff. When bad writers try it, the results are disasterous. In the crime fiction genre, my favorite authors--Donald Westlake and Ross H. Spencer--are funny. Here's what some professional writers have said about humor:

Comedy writers have a long-running debate....It is known as the Mickey Mouse Question, and it goes like this: Mickey Mouse is not a funny character. He neither tells jokes nor does anything funny, he has no point of view, no real character, and his girlfriend is an uptight bore. Bugs Bunny, on the other hand, is a brilliantly inventive comic genius, sharp-witted, physically agile, a fearless wise guy who thinks nothing of donning a dress, producing an anvil out of the air, kissing his enemy on the lips, and in the face of death and torture calling out a cheery "What's Up Doc?" Bugs is much funnier than Mickey, no contest. Why, then, is Mickey the billionaire movie star?...Creating a television sitcom means choosing between Mickey and Bugs, between a universe of likable, not-terribly funny people and a universe of vaguely disturbing, very funny people. Networks tend on the whole, not to like funny characters very much. If they had their choice, every sitcom would be a family or group of Mickeys, with maybe a Bugs living next door. Writers, unfortunately, on the whole prefer a big group of Bugs with a Mickey around saying things like, "What's going on here?"
Rob Long

What is the secret of writing funny? If I knew, I would write my own ticket. But I venture this thought: The art begins with a sense of sadness. This is the clown's gift.
James J. Kilpatrick

Humor is the hardest to write, easiest to sell, and best rewarded. There are only a few who are able to do it. If you are able, do it by all means.
Jack London

I don't think a man can deliberately sit down to write a funny story unless he has got a sort of slant on life that leads to funny stories.
P. G. Wodehouse

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.
E. B. White

With humor you have to look for traps. You're likely to be very gleeful with what you've first put down, and you think it's fine, very funny. One reason you go over and over it is to make the piece sound less as if you were having a lot of fun with it yourself. You try to play it down.
James Thurber

Writing comedy is quite a joy for me. There's an instant reward. If I've written a really funny line, then, for a moment, I become the audience and I laugh. I enjoy it, I know it works.
William Peter Blatty

If you have doubts about whether something's funny, play it straight. Nothing is worse than a lame joke. And if you're not sure humor is appropriate, it probably isn't.
Patricia O'Conner

Writers often have a predilection for humor based on wordplay. Caution is advised, especially when using puns. They can reek of corniness, and they don't alway work on paper.
Roger Bates

You must never make one character laugh at what another says or does....You must never offer the reader anything simply as funny and nothing more. Make it acceptable as information, comment, narrative, etcetera, so that if the joke flops the reader will get something.
Kingsley Amis

Writing humor is more difficult than delivering a punch line to a joke you tell while standing by the office water cooler. For one thing, our society is much more practiced at telling jokes than at writing them. Also, a joke written on paper has no facial expressions, pauses and emphasis to go with it. It's devoid of the most important elements of comedy--timing.
John McCollister

The Dark Fantasy Horror Genre

In pure horror stories--dark fantasy--anything goes, usually straight for the throat. Monsters attack the house, crawl down the chimney, slither or slouch in Zombie ranks closer and closer with each step to the front porch. These fantastic creatures are evil to the core: from slurping, sucking alien monsters to cursed cars that kill their owners. Early in these stories evil begins to appear, usually after a brief opening of calm and tranquility, in small measures.

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Suspicious Celebrity Death Cases: The Entertainment Value of Murder

     In California, by law, any time a "celebrity" dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the body must undergo an autopsy. This is because of the media, and the disturbing fact that in America, celebrities are more important than the rest of us. (There are thousands of legitimately suspicious deaths in this country every year that do not receive autopsies because of the shortage of forensic pathologists.) In Hollywood, to die suddenly without an autopsy has become a posthumous insult.

     It's easy to understand, for example, why Natalie Wood's sudden and unexpected death in 1981 made headlines. She was a beautiful and famous Hollywood actress, and her husband, a potential suspect in the case, was also a star. This celebrity death had all the makings of an O.J.-like media spectacle. But, when "Coroner to the Stars" Dr. Thomas Noguchi ruled the death an accidental drowning, he killed the story. Now, decades later, the Natalie Wood case regularly raises its head in the tabloids as a potential murder.

     If, in 1981, a housewife from Buffalo, New York had fallen off a boat into Lake Erie after arguing with her accountant husband, only a handful of people would have heard about the death in the local media. At best this death would have engendered a cursory investigation, then slipped into permanent oblivion.

     The regular re-opening of the Natalie Wood case has been more of a media event that a serious cold case homicide investigation. It's more for our entertainment than it is for the administration of justice. It's time we let this poor woman rest in peace.

   

Homeless Crime Victims

     During the early morning hours of July 3, 17, and 19, 2012, someone in downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Hollywood, stabbed two homeless men and a women while they slept outdoors. The attacker fled the scenes leaving the wounded victims, all in their 50s, with large hunting knives stuck in their backs. None of the street people were robbed, and they all survived their wounds. Beyond the similar MOs, the assaults were linked by so-called "death warrant" notices left at each stabbing site. The typewritten documents were signed by a person using the name David Ben Keyes.

     Los Angeles detectives found a Facebook entry under the above name which included a photograph of a black man in his mid-30s. Police officers distributed copies of this photograph around skid row neighborhoods where the homeless lived. Street people were advised to spend their nights in shelters until the stabber himself was identified and taken off the street.

     At 8:40 in the evening of Friday, July 20, 2012, a man who identified himself as Courtney Anthony Robinson, called 911 and claimed responsibility for the three stabbings. The 37-year-old said he would surrender to the police at a Hong Kong Express Eatery located in downtown Hollywood. When officers took Robinson into custody, they noticed that he matched the Facebook photograph of David Ben Keyes. When asked why he had stabbed the sleeping street people, the arrestee assured his captors that this information would "come out in the court proceedings." There was no indication that Robinson knew his victims.

     According to data presented on David Ben Keyes' Facebook page, he was a musician and writer from Santa Barbara, California. In his Facebook profile, laden with schizophrenic sounding nonsense about his intent to restructure the "Holy Roman Catholic Church and Empire," Keyes-Robinson claimed to be the CEO of a $250 billion Beverly Hills entertainment corporation. In reality, Robinson was homeless like the people he had stabbed.

     On the day of his Hollywood arrest, Robinson was charged with three counts of attempted murder. He was held under $500,000 bond at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles.

     In February 2015, a jury found Robinson guilty as charged. In the second phase of the trial to determine if the stabber had been sane at the time of the attacks, the same jury found the defendant legally insane and therefore not criminally culpable for the crimes. The judge ordered that he be sent to the Patton State Hospital where he would stay until the psychiatrists deemed him sane enough to be released back to the streets.

     Most crimes against the homeless are committed by mentally ill street people off their anti-psychotic medication. Long ago, people like this were cared for in institutions. Thanks to do-gooders who fought to set them free, they now live on the streets. Some spend their nights in shelters, but many prefer to remain outdoors around the clock. These are the people most vulnerable to assault and murder committed by offenders like Robinson.   

Mommie Dearest Books: The Art of the Hatchet-Job

     In 1978, Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford's viciously unflattering portrait of her mother, Hollywood star Joan Crawford, broke new ground in using the memoir to get even with a lousy parent. The book, painting Joan Crawfored as a self-centered, compulsively clean neurotic, was made into a movie in 1981. Three years later, Gary Crosby, in his memoir Going My Way, did a hatchet-job on his father, crooner and film star, Bing Crosby. In 1987, the critic Vivian Gornick, the author of a previous book on how to write memoirs, published Fierce Attachments, a memoir describing her troubled relationship with her mother. The book, showing the author's mother in a terrible light, reveals a relationship characterized by hatred and rage. The author blames her later-in-life problems on her awful mother and their turbulant relationship. More recently, the writer Dan Fante, in a memoir about an early life of drugs, booze, mental illness and violence, portrays his father, the southern California screenwriter and novelist, John Fante, as an angry, agressive drunk who regularly offended and bullied his bosses, his friends and his long-suffering wife.

     In 2011, Alexis Stewart contributed to the Mommie Dearest genre with a memoir critical of her famous mother, Martha Stewart. In the book, rather stupidly entitled Whatever Land: Learning to Live Here, the author shocks the reader with revelations such as these: mother made daughter wrap her own Christmas presents, didn't celebrate Halloween, and never closed the door when using the bathroom.

     A steady diet of Mommie Dearest books might cause celebrities to consider the wisdom of having children. 

Celebrity Heroin Deaths

Philip Seymour Hoffman. Cory Monteith. Janis Joplin. River Phoenix. John Belushi. Those are some of the Hollywood names that will forever be attached to heroin, after all five of the performers overdosed and died after taking heroin or a combination of heroin and cocaine….Drug experts say that heroin use among entertainers may be surprising because it is not talked about the same way that cocaine or party drugs are discussed….The addiction experts noted that while cocaine has a reputation for being appealing to business people for its ability to give them energy and focus, heroin's appeal is that it allows users to escape reality, a temptation for some in high-stress or highly visible professions….

Coleen Curry, "Why Hollywood Stars Turn to Heroin," ABC News, February 4, 2014  

The Role of Fame in Modern Book Publishing

     A character in B. Traven's story "The Night Visitor" who has written several books he has chosen not to publish, contemplates fame: "What is fame, after all? It stinks to hell and heaven. Today I am famous. Today my name is printed on the front page of all the papers in the world. Tomorrow perhaps fifty people can still spell my name correctly. Day after tomorrow I may starve to death and nobody cares. That's what you call fame."

     B. Traven, the pen name of the mysterious author of dozens of novels--notably, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre--believed that all books should be published anonymously. He based this belief on the notion that readers, by knowing in advance who the author is, will expect and demand a certain kind of book.

     Modern publishing is all about fame. Gore Vidal once said that an author should never turn down a chance to be on television. ( Vidal, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer were notorious media whores.) Today, book publishers pay publicists to get their authors in the news and on radio and TV talk shows.  (Publicity, by definition, is free advertising.) Publishers also like celebrity authors who are already famous. Fans come to celebrity book signings not to acquire the book for reading but for the writer's autograph and a photo op. As a result, it really doesn't bother anyone that celebrity authors do not write (or, I imagine, read) their own books. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Psychic Detective Sylvia Browne's Last Case

     I don't believe in fortune tellers, soothsayers, spoon benders, people who communicate with the dead, and so-called psychic detectives. I find the mere pairing of the words "psychic" and "detective" offensive. If I were a chief of police, I would fire any detective caught conferring with one of these fakes. It should therefore not be a surprise that I was not a fan of psychic detective Sylvia Browne. (The 77-year-old author and media manipulator died in November 2013.)

     Browne grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1964 she moved to southern California where she set up shop as a psychic. Ten years later, perhaps in an effort to create the indicia of legitimacy, she founded the Nirvana Foundation for Psychic Research.

     During her career, Browne wrote 50 "nonfiction" books of which 22 appeared on The New York Times bestsellers list. While I have not read any of her books, I lament the trees that died for their existence. In my view, books by psychic detectives should placed in a genre called "untrue crime."

     Sylvia Browne achieved fame and fortune through her regular appearances on the TV shows "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Montel." Her television exposure also helped her promote her books.

     While the psychic detective offered her services in dozens of celebrated crimes, her predictions, in my opinion, never resulted directly in the solution of a murder or the location of a missing body. (In a missing persons/murder case a colleague of mine worked on, Browne told Montel Williams that the body was on the bottom of a small lake in Connecticut. The woman's remains were eventually found several hundred miles away.)

     One of Sylvia Browne's high-profile goofs involved the Cleveland kidnapping case featuring Amanda Berry. Browne told the victim's mother that her daughter was dead when in fact she was being held prisoner in Cleveland, Ohio by Ariel Castro.

     Psychic detectives would not exist if producers quit putting them on television. While it is doubtful any person smart enough to be a producer actually believes in psychics, a large segment of the TV-watching public consists of true believers. That's why psychic detectives are on TV. Moreover, if you're on the tube you're perceived as legit. Media exposure can be a phony stamp of approval.

     For millions of Americans living in a land of magical thinking, ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFOs, psychic detectives are perceived as real visionaries who can see and know things that ordinary people cannot. While psychic detectives give false hope, create investigative wild-goose-chases, and make TV hosts look foolish in the eyes of nonbelievers, I guess they are, in the scheme of things, relatively harmless. Nevertheless, I find them more than annoying because I can't stand fakes who sell more books than me.

      

Hemingway's Death Wish

I spent a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I wouldn't kill myself. When a man is in rebellion against death, as I am in rebellion against death, he gets pleasure out of taking to himself one of the god-like attributes; that of giving it.

Ernest Hemingway in Papa Hemingway by A. E. Hotchner, 1966 

Forensic Hypnosis: Investigative Tool or Junk Science?

     Advocates of forensic hypnosis claim that crime victims and witnesses, under an hypnotic state, can remember events they have forgotten, and sharpen memories that are still with them. Forensic hypnotists are often brought into cases to help, for example, a witness or victim recall a license plate number, or an odometer reading. Investigators also use the technique to retrieve more detailed descriptions of suspects.

     Supporters of forensic hypnosis point to cases where its use has solve crimes. Detractors (myself included) can point to instances where hypnotically induced information turned out to be inaccurate, and even harmful.

     In the 1970s I was tangentially involved in an arson-murder case where a forensically hypnotized witness/victim identified an innocent man as the fire setter. In one of my own cold case murder investigations, a witness I had someone forensically hypnotize, produced information that led me on a wild goose chase. In Pennsylvania and several other states, hypnotically induced testimony, because it is unreliable, is not admissible in court.

     A lot can go wrong when a victim or a witness is questioned while in an hypnotic state. The hypnotist can unwittingly suggest information to the subject that taints the results. Under hypnosis, the personal beliefs and prejudices of the interviewee can seep into remembered accounts and descriptions.

     Researchers have found that people under hypnosis are fully capable of lying, and the process can bring to the surface a subject's false beliefs. Because of these and other problems with this investigative technique, I am not a fan of forensic hypnosis, particularly when practiced by psychologists who make their livings putting clients under to help them stop smoking, lose weight, stop taking drugs, or get off booze. In my opinion, composite sketches based on the memories of hypnotized eyewitnesses are, at best, useless. In the practice of criminal investigation, forensic hypnotists should be placed in the same category as fortune tellers, astrologists, and psychic detectives.  

Arson Motives

   The identification of the fire setter's motive can help establish if the fire was a single event of fire setting or a series of fire setting behavior. Repetitive fire setting is broken down into three classifications: serial arson, spree arson and mass arson. Serial arson is as many as three fires set at different locations with a cooling off period in between. Spree arson is as many as three fires at different location with no cooling off period between fire sets. Mass arson is many fires set at the same time at the same location.

     There are six motive classifications for arson:

l. Vandalism [includes many school fires]
2. Excitement [which includes sexual gratification]
3. Revenge [also referred to as anger fires]
4. Crime concealment [murder, embezzlement]
5. Profit [usually insurance fraud]
6. Extremism [environmental  extremists who set fire to saw mills]

Robert Disbrow Jr., Firehouse Magazine, December 13, 2010 

Charles Bukowski On Style

     I've always been a sucker for the simple, bare line because I've always had this feeling that Literature, that of now and the centuries, was largely a put-on, you know, like pro wrestling matches. Even those who have lasted the centuries (with few exceptions) gave me the odd feeling that they were screwing me over. Basically, I feel that with the bare line it could be harder to get the lie across; besides it reads easier, and what's easy is good and what's hard to read is a pain in the ass.

     So John Fante gave me the bare line with feeling; Hemingway the line that did not beg; Thurber the line that laughed at what the mind did and couldn't help doing; Saroyan the line that loved itself; Celine the line that cut the page like a knife; Sherwood Anderson the line that said beyond the line. I think I have borrowed from all of these writers and I am not ashamed to admit it. I only hope that I have added, what? If I knew what I were doing I could no longer do it.

Charles Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Selected Letters 1987-1994, edited by Seamus Cooney, 2004 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility: The Mysterious Phantom Prison

     Mount McGregor is a mountain in Saratoga County in upstate New York. In 1913, in the mountain town of Moreau, the state built a tuberculosis treatment retreat called The Sanatorium On The Mountain. The facility closed in 1945 and remained unused until the New York Department of Corrections, in the 1970s, converted the abandoned complex into a medium security prison for men. The McGregor Correctional Facility, because of a series of prison escapes, became known as "Camp Walkaway." In 2014 the state closed the penitentiary.

     The Grant State Historic Site sits on the grounds of the empty prison. The main tourist attraction on the site is Grant's Cottage where Ulysses S. Grant spent the last weeks of his life finishing his memoir. Grant died of throat cancer in 1885. (To this day, Grant's memoir is considered the gold standard in the genre.)

     On July 23, 2014, a WNYT-TV crew led by reporter Mark Mulholland showed up at Grant's Cottage to film a piece in honor of his death 129 years ago. The next day, the television crew returned to the historic site to finish the project.

     As the TV crew shot footage of Grant's Cottage that just happened to include, in the background, a view of the former prison, a New York state collections officer drove up to inform Mulholland that he was not allowed to film anything on Mount Gregor. The officer, who identified himself as Lieutenant Dom, said, "No filming."

     The stunned reporter replied, "We're doing a story on Grant's Cottage."

     Lieutenant Dom, apparently under the illusion that the television people were on the mountain to clandestinely film and do a story on the closed prison, said, "You're up here for different purposes. You'll have to leave the mountain."

     "Are you telling me we can't visit a historic site?"

     "You can visit but you can't film at Grant's Cottage," the officer replied.

     When reporter Mulholland and his colleagues tried to film the cottage from another spot, other corrections officers came onto the scene and blocked their access to the site.

     As Mulholland and his crew started to drive off McGregor Mountain they were stopped by a state trooper who demanded they turn over the footage they had shot of Grant's Cottage. Mulholland couldn't believe a state police officer wanted to confiscate their footage of a public tourist attraction.

     The reporter, after making calls to his TV station and other officials with the state, left the mountain with his Grant's Cottage footage.

     A few days later, a spokesperson for the New York Department of Corrections told a WNYT-TV correspondent that Mulholland and his people had "blatantly disregarded a state police officer who informed them they were trespassing." Moreover, according to this corrections bureaucrat, "department regulations state that photographs and video taken on prison grounds require prior permission." This policy, according to the spokesperson, was for the "safety of all staff, visitors and prisoners."

     It didn't matter that the prison seen in the background didn't have prisoners or institutional visitors. Perhaps the corrections officials were worried that the TV crew was doing an expose about a vacant prison that still employed 76 corrections officers.

     

Researching the Regency Period

     The Regency period of British history has fascinated me for a long time. I've read Jane Austen's books many times, as well as a lot of other fiction and nonfiction about the period. When I first decided to write a novel set in London in the early 1800s, I reread several of my general sources on what life was like in the period, mostly books on the social history of England. Then I read biographies and autobiographies, starting with several about Jane Austen and then branching out into books on Lord Wellington and the Prince Regent (later George IV). I asked my friends for recommendations.

     Then I hit the library, looking for specific things, like a street map of London in 1817 and books on period slang. The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue turned out be be invaluable for dialogue. Along the way, I kept running across other fascinating things that I hadn't known to look for.

Patricia C. Wrede in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, 2013 

Is The Criminal Justice System Broken Down Or Working Well When Prisons Are Crowded?

     Nebraska's prisons are bursting at the seams, and the state's legislature is struggling to fix the problem. Law makers held hearings on a series of bills on February 13, 2015 to address the overcrowded prison population. One proposed law would limit mandatory minimum sentences for several mid-level felonies such as distribution of cocaine or heroin. Another bill would limit the "three strikes and you're out" rule to violent crimes. [Whenever politicians "fix" prison overcrowding, it never involves building more lockups. It's always letting inmates out or reducing sentences. This may fix the overcrowding problem, but it doesn't fix the crime problem.]

     Nebraska's prisons are at 155 percent capacity with some facilities much higher according to a March 2014 ACLU report. The report points to the Nebraska State Penitentiary at 183 percent capacity and the Omaha Correctional Center at 190 percent capacity, suggesting that Nebraska's correctional system may be operating unconstitutionally…

     The ACLU report points to similar legislation that was successful in California, where prisons were at roughly 200 percent capacity. [Successful in returning rapists, killers and pedophiles to the streets. California is such a dysfunctional state, the rule should be to do just the opposite of what politicians in that state have done.]

Casey Harper, "Nebraska Has More Prisoners Than It Knows What To Do With," The Daily Caller, February 18, 2015


Starting a Mystery Novel Series

An editor rejected my first mystery novel with these words: "I think it would take something really unusual to convince me to take on a new mystery series--an American/Jewish plumber who solves cases by listening at people's drain pipes, or something like that."

William G. Tapply, Elements of Mystery Fiction, 1995 

The Decline of Prison Riots

     Sustained prison uprisings simply do not happen anymore. In 1973, we had 93 riots for every 1 million prisoners; in 2003, we had fewer than three. Prison violence as a whole, in fact, is down dramatically. In 1973, we had 63 homicides per 100,000 prisoners; in 2000, we had fewer than five. Inmate assaults on staff dropped similarly over roughly the same period.

     These are eye-opening statistics--especially given that the incarceration rate in this country has quintupled since 1970, and a remarkable 3 percent of American adults are now under the supervision of the correctional system. Some of the factors that have led to the decline in violence, despite the rising population, are known: Prison demographics have changed, with a higher percentage of nonviolent offenders serving time now than ever before. Many of the most dangerous inmates are now housed in super-maximum-security prisons. New surveillance tactics and restrictions on prisoner movement have been introduced. And prisons are now managed better, thanks in part to federal court interventions. But there is one other factor, almost never discussed, that has contributed greatly to the decline: the development of elite security squads trained to preempt and put down prison disorder of every kind. Often known as Correctional Emergency Response Teams, they have become ubiquitous in correctional facilities over the past 30 years.

Joseph Bernstein, "Why Are Prison Riots Declining While Prison Populations Explode?" The Atlantic, December 2013 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Haamid Zaid: A Not So Quiet Easter Morning at Walmart


     At eleven o'clock on Easter Sunday morning, March 31, 2013, Haamid Ado Zaid drove to the Walmart store on the east side of San Jose, California. After circling the parking lot a couple of times in his red Oldsmobile Cutlass, the 33-year-old sideswiped two parked cars before plowing through the front entrance of the building.

     Twenty feet into the store, Zaid jumped out of his car carrying a blunt object. As seventy customers and employees looked on in horror, Zaid started attacking people with the weapon. He struck one of his victims, a cashier, on the head causing serious injury. The employee had to be hospitalized.

     Officers with the San Jose Police Department, following a struggle, took Zaid into custody. He was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, hit-and-run (the parked cars), driving under the influence of drugs, and resisting arrest.

     The crazed Walmart attacker was held without bond in the Santa Clara County Jail. He was later evaluated by a mental health practitioner who revealed what everybody already knew: The man was a nutcase on drugs.

     In December 2016, Zaid dropped his insanity defense and pleaded guilty to ten counts of felony assault with a deadly weapon, felony vandalism, and reckless driving. Superior Court Judge Daniel Nishigaya, in January 2017, sentenced Haamid Zaid to eight years in prison.

     Haamid Zaid, at the time of his attack on Walmart and the innocent people there, was on parole. Serious crimes by criminals on parole has become a serious problem in California. The criminal justice system in that state has broken down. 

"Master Bob" Convicted in Sex Club Bondage Death

     A Detroit area man was convicted on December 18, 2014 of murder in a plot to kill his wife so he could devote himself to a life of bondage and domination in an upper-class suburb with women who called him "Master Bob." The salacious trial of Bob Bashara revealed his secret life in Grosse Pointe Park: a former Rotary Club president who used cocaine and hosted men and women at a sex dungeon under a bar called the Hard Luck Lounge.

     Jane Bashara was strangled by a handyman in the couple's garage in 2012 before her body was discovered in her Mercedes-Benz in a Detroit alley…She was a marketing executive with a long record of service to her church and her community…

     Handyman Joe Gentz pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2012 and said Bob Bashara had coerced him into committing the crime. In the weeks after his wife's death, Bashara professed his innocence and even attended a candlelight vigil…

     Jurors convicted the 57-year-old of first-degree murder and four lesser charges. He did not take the stand on his own behalf. Joe Gentz, the handyman killer, did not testify at Bashara's trial…

     In Michigan, first-degree murder carries a mandatory penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole….

"Bondage 'Master' Convicted in Plot to Kill His Wife," Associated Press, December 19, 2014


     

The Get-A-Way Kayak

     A fast-paddling Good Samaritan in a kayak helped sheriff's deputies in Washington state nab a suspected Christmas mail thief…Deputies received multiple calls on Wednesday morning December 24, 2014 that a man and a woman were going through mailboxes around the town of Sammamish. While deputies were on their way, residents spotted a car filled with mail and used their cars to block it in.

     The suspected mail thieves ran off, and one was caught immediately. The other fled into a nearby pond with a kayak he stole out of a yard. A resident grabbed his own kayak, caught up with the suspect and convinced him to return to shore where he was arrested.

     The sheriff's office said the suspect didn't get very far because he was using his hands to paddle.

"Good Samaritan in a Kayak Helps Nab Suspected Christmas Mail Thieves in Washington State," Associated Press, December 25, 2014 

Book Reviewing

     With so many books being published, and so little space devoted to reviewing them, even a bad review can be considered a badge of honor. As painful as bad reviews are, it is arguably worse to have written a book that is totally ignored. Is literary criticism becoming a lost art?

     In an interview published in Novel Short Story Writer's Market 2002, editor Ann Close appraised the review picture as follows: "The review situation has gotten a lot worse. When newspapers and magazines hit bad times, a lot of them dropped their book reviews. Time and Newsweek used to review three to five books every week. [Now Newsweek itself is gone.] They don't do that anymore. But in a way, the Internet has taken up the slack. You can get an enormous amount of information about a book on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon sites....Many other websites have started doing book reviews. It's hard to tell how much impact they've had. Nobody has been able to measure it exactly." [I think on-line literary criticism has had an enormous impact on the reading public. Prior to the Internet, a handful of critics ruled the literary world. Thankfully, those days are gone forever.] 

Writing Good Dialogue

     Well-written dialogue does not imitate the way real people speak. Real talk is repetitive, rambling, and redundant. It is boring and often meaningless. Good literary dialogue, therefore has to be carefully crafted. In his book, Stein on Writing, Sol Stein points out that the majority of published writers write dialogue instinctively with little knowledge of the craft. He defines creative dialogue this way:

     "It is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes....Learning the new language of dialogue is as complex as learning any new language....As the writer of fiction masters dialogue, he will be able to deal with characterization and plot simultaneously."

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Hands-On Sex Education at Destrehan High

     Destrehan, Louisiana is located 25 miles east of New Orleans on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Destrehan High School, part of the St. Charles Parish School District, consists of grades 9 through 12.

     Shelly S. Dufresne, a 32-year-old 11th-grade English teacher, graduated from the high school in 2000. In 2005, she graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU) with a BS Degree in secondary education. The daughter of 29th Judicial Judge Emile St. Pierre, she began teaching at Destrehan High in 2006. Dufresne resided in Montz, Louisiana with her husband and three children.

     Destrehan High's 10th-grade English teacher, 23-year-old Rachel Respess, graduated from the high school in 2008. Shortly after earning her education degree from LSU in 2012, she joined the faculty of her Alma Mater. Respess lived in Kenner, Louisiana.

     On September 26, 2014, school officials were informed that a 16-year-old Destrehan male student had bragged to his friends that he and the two English teachers, on two occasions, had engaged in threesome sex. Deputies with the St. Charles Parish Sheriff's Office, after receiving the complaint from the school, questioned the boy.

     According to the student, the first three-way tryst took place in early September in Kenner at Rachel Respess' apartment. The second episode occurred after a Friday night football game on September 12, 2014 at Shelly Dufrense's house in Montz. Deputies reportedly acquired videotapes of the sexual encounters.

     On September 30, 2014, officers booked Dufresne and Respess into the Jefferson Parish Jail on felony charges of carnal knowledge of a juvenile. The teachers posted their bonds, but were under house arrest except for mental health counseling, doctor visits, and church attendance. The school district suspended the suspects without pay.

     In August 2016, the parents of the student sued the two teachers and the St. Charles Parish School District.

     Dufresne, following her confession to the police, pleaded guilty in December 2016 to the minor offense of obscenity. In exchange for the plea, the judge sentenced Dufresne to 90 days at an inpatient mental health facility. The former teacher also received three years probation and was fined $1,000. According to Dufresne, she had instigated the sexual encounters with the student.

     Shelly Repass pleaded guilty to the minor offense of failing to report the commission of a felony. For this she received one year of probation.

     Several questions come to mind in cases like this. How stupid or desperate must a teacher be to place her career, marriage, reputation, and freedom into the hands of a 16-year-old boy who can be counted on to spill the beans to his friends? Why would these teachers consent to being videotaped committing sex offenses? Are these teachers basket cases or simply stupid? If they are not very bright, do they reflect the caliber of people entering the teaching field? These are important questions because cases of female teachers having sex with male students has become quite common. 

Giving School Teachers Guns

     In 2014, legislators in South Dakota passed a law authorizing public school teachers to carry concealed firearms while on the job. This is surprising since South Dakota is not a high-crime place. It's also stupid, and dangerous.

     Trained and experienced police officers struggle with the responsibility of having the power of life and death, and knowing when to use deadly force. But that responsibility comes with being in law enforcement. School teachers, I hope, acquire their positions because they are educated and suited to teach. That is their burden. Asking school teachers to make on the spot life and death decisions is far beyond the scope of their jobs and profession.

     Since the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings, several school guards have accidentally discharged their guns. While schools have never been perfectly safe, they are about to become much more dangerous. A student's chance of being accidentally shot by a armed teacher or security guard will be far greater than being shot by a crazed intruder.

     With politicians you simply can't overestimate their stupidity. If I may quote Napoleon Bonaparte: "In politics, stupidity is not a disadvantage." Indeed, in politics stupidity is often rewarded. The public will eventually pay the price for this political idiocy and demagoguing. 

What is Creative Writing?

     The term "creative writing" offends some people; they think it has something affected or precious about it. Actually it is an innocent phrase developed in American schools and colleges sometime between the two world wars [1920-1940] to designate that kind of writing course which is not Freshman English or Report Writing for Engineers. One suspects that "creative writing" courses grew up partly because ordinary courses in composition had got bogged down in "correctness," gentility, and the handbook-and-exercise method, and some means had to be found to free students for the development of their natural interest and delight in language.

     Creative writing means imaginative writing, writing as an art, what the French call belles lettres. It has nothing to do with information or the more routine forms of communication, though it uses the same skills...

     Like all other forms of creative writing, it is written to produce in its reader the pleasure of aesthetic experience, to offer him an imaginative recreation or reflection or imitation of action, thought, and feeling. It attempts to uncover form and meaning in the welter of love, hate, violence, tedium, habit, and brute fact that we flounder through from day to day.

Wallace Stegner, On Teaching and Writing Fiction, 2002

John Gardner on Learning to Write

Books on writing tend to make much of how difficult it is to become a successful writer, but the truth is that, though the ability to write well is partly a gift--like the ability to play basketball well, or to outguess the stock market--writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing. Though learning to write takes time and a great deal of practice, writing up to the world's ordinary standards is fairly easy. As a matter of fact, most of the books one finds in drugstores, supermarkets, and even small-town libraries are not well written at all; a smart chimp with a good creative-writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant. [This is like saying a human with a love for bananas could leap from tree to tree.] Most grown-up behavior, when you come right down to it, is decidedly second-class. People don't drive their cars as well, or wash their ears as well, or eat as well, or even play the harmonica well....This is not to say people are terrible and should be replaced by machines; people are excellent and admirable creatures; efficiency isn't everything. But for the serious young writer who wants to get published, it is encouraging to know that most of the professional writers out there are push-overs.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, originally published in 1983. [Gardner (1933-1982) was a literary novelist, critic, and English professor. What he wrote about publishing and published writers when The Art of Fiction  came out may have been true. Today, it is a lot less true. Published writers are very good, and it is not easy becoming a successful, published writer. Gardner's book on writing is still a classic, and should be read by anyone who aspires to the literary life.] 

Cheating Teachers and Unruly Students in Inner City Schools

     Philadelphia's school teachers have joined public school teachers in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Columbus, New York, and Washington in changing student scores on academic achievement tests. Teachers have held grade-fixing parties, sometimes wearing rubber gloves to hide fingerprints.

     As a result of investigations, school teachers and administrators have been suspended, fired or indicted by state attorneys general.

     Most of these cheating scandals have occurred in predominantly black schools across the nation. At one level, it's easy to understand--but by no means condone--the motivation teachers have to cheat. Teachers have families to raise, mortgages, car payments and other financial obligations. Their pay, retention and promotions depend on how well their students perform on standardized tests.

     Very often, teachers must deal with an impossible classroom atmosphere in which many, if not most, of the students are disorderly, disobedient and alien and hostile to the education process. Many students pose a significant safety threat….

Walter Williams, "My Desk," Creators.com, February 26, 2014  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

In Greece, You're Not a Criminal, Just Disabled

     In Greece, a welfare state in financial crises, the Labor Ministry issues government disability payments to, among others, pyromaniacs, compulsive gamblers, sadomasochists, and peeping Toms. That's right. Before being too critical of this form of governmental generosity, put yourself in the shoes of a pyromaniac. Who's going to hire a compulsive firesetter? (Surely you don't want fire-bugs lying on their job applications.) While sadomasochists can find satisfying jobs as bureaucrats, what do you do with the peeping Toms? (Those not afraid of heights could work as window washers, but how many jobs is that?) Lest you think the Greek government treats is pathological criminals harshly, the labor minister just expanded the list of state-recognized disability categories to include: pedophiles, exhibitionists, and keptomaniacs.

     At the risk of coming off a bit insensitive to compulsive firesetters, child molesters, and serial killers, why aren't these pathological criminals receiving the full benefits of the state while serving time in prison? How can one declare himself a pedophile and not be questioned, arrested, and put in jail?

      Perhaps you have to be a socialist to understand what's going on here. I'm also not an economist, but I do think I know why the country of Greece is in financial trouble.

    

The Curtis Bonnell Murder Case

     Fourteen-year-old Hilary Bonnell, in 2007, resided with her mother Pam Fillier on the Esgenoopetitj Fist Nation Indian Reservation in northeastern Canada's New Brunswick Province. In 2008, the girl and her mother moved to Miramichi, New Brunswick, the largest town in the province. The teen had behavioral problems that included drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, and running away from home. Her mother, in an effort to help her daughter get control of her drinking and drug use, put Hilary into a group home for two months in the fall of 2008. Because Hilary Bonnell missed her old friends, her mother, in 2009, allowed the strong-willed teen to spend the summer on the reservation with her aunt.

     On September 5, 2009, at 3:11 in the morning, Pam Fillier received a call from her daughter who sounded like she had been drinking. Hilary said she was at a party and having fun. Mother and daughter agreed to go shopping the next day. Later that morning, and throughout the day, Hilary Bonnell did not show up at her aunt's house. Because of her history of running away and staying for days at the homes of friends, Hilary's mother didn't report her missing until September 7.

     The missing persons case came under the jurisdiction of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Tracadie-Shelia, Canada. Sergeant Greg Lupson took charge of the investigation.

     As time passed and the 16-year-old remained missing, the RCMP began considering the possibility of foul play. On September 19, Sergeant Lupson questioned the missing girl's 32-year-old first cousin, Curtis Bonnell as a person of interest. Curtis and Hilary had been captured on a 4D Convenience Store surveillance camera on the morning she disappeared. (They were not together, but in the store between 7 and 8 AM.) Curtis Bonnell denied any knowledge of his first cousin's disappearance.

     On November 13, 2009, officers with the RCMP arrested Curtis Bonnell on the charge he had murdered Hilary Bonnell. When questioned in police custody, the suspect admitted picking Hilary up in his truck as she walked along Micmac Road en route to  her aunt's house. Curtis told the officers that he wanted to have sex with his cousin, but when she demanded $100 for the act, he got angry and sexually assaulted her. According to his account of her death, she died when he covered her mouth to keep her from screaming. He said he didn't intend to kill her.

     After killing Hilary, the suspect, in a state of panic, drove her body to a remote area near the town of Tracadie-Sheila where he buried her corpse in the woods. Bonnell returned to his home (he lived with his father) and burned some of Hilary's personal items in his backyard. Following the confession, Bonnell led officers to his cousin's remains.

     On November 14, 2009, Dr. Ken Obenson performed the autopsy. The forensic pathologist identified her cause of death as asphyxia. In Dr. Obenson's opinion, the victim had either been strangled or smothered. The pathologist didn't find any fractures or injuries other than two cuts--one on Hilary Bonnell's hand and the other on her head near her eyebrow.

     According to a toxicologist who worked on the case, the victim had evidence of cannabis and alcohol in her system.

     The Curtis Bonnell first-degree murder case went to trial on September 17, 2012 in Miramichi, New Brunswick before a jury of six men and six women. The prosecutor for the Crown showed the jury a video tape of the defendant's police station confession. On October 22, Dr. Graham Bishop, a respiratory physician, took the stand and testified that it was plausible that Hilary Bonnell had died from someone sitting on her chest with his hands covering her nose and mouth. The witness said it was his expert opinion the victim had died the way the Crown believed she had been killed.

     On cross-examination by defense attorney Gilles Lemieux, Dr. Bishop said it was also possible that the victim had somehow "self-smothered" under the effects of alcohol and drugs. The witness conceded that without "definitive proof" such as handprints or video surveillance, it was impossible to say for sure exactly how Hilary Bonnell had died.

     The Crown rested its case on October 24, 2012, and five days later, the defense put Curtis Bonnell, its chief witness, on the stand. Dressed in a dark suit and a blue tie, the witness gave the jury a different story than the one he had told the RCMP. Bonnell said that on the morning of September 5, 2009, he woke up in his truck that was parked in his father's garage. Next to him in the front seat was slumped the body of a woman. At first he didn't know who she was, so he climbed out of the vehicle and opened the passenger's side door. The woman, who he recognized as his cousin, started to fall out of the truck. Thinking that she was passed out from a night of drinking, he grabbed her body that was cold and rigid. He panicked when he realized that Hilary Bonnell was dead. "What am I going to do?" he thought. "Nobody is going to believe me. I just got out of jail. Nobody's going to believe an Indian."

     The defendant testified that he put Hilary's body into the bed of his truck, drove to the wooded area near Tracadie-Sheila, and laid her on the ground with her sandals beside her. He drove back to his home to look for physical evidence that might link him to his dead cousin.

     That night, according to Bonnell, he couldn't sleep because he was worried that animals might get to Hilary's body. The next day, he took a shovel from his father's garage and drove to Tracadie-Sheila and the spot where he had dumped her corpse. He put the body back into his truck and drove it to a different place where he dug a shallow grave. He tossed the victim into the hole, shoveled in the dirt, and drove home. (There had been prosecution testimony that the victim may have been buried alive.) Throughout his testimony, the defendant denied having sex with his cousin or doing anything to cause her death.

     On cross-examination, Crown prosecutor Bill Richards challenged the defendant over numerous discrepancies between his police statements and his courtroom testimony. The blistering cross-examination lasted two days and at one point the defendant broke down in tears.

     On re-direct, defense attorney Gilles Lemieux asked Bonnell why he had confessed to a crime he didn't commit. The defendant replied that he felt pressured and just wanted the interrogation to end. He told the RCMP officers what he figured they wanted to hear. The defendant also accused his interrogators of putting ideas into his head, suggesting incriminating details for him to include in his confession. According to Curtis Bonnell, his police station confessions reflected the police theory of the case rather than what really happened that night in his pickup truck.

     On October 31, 2012, the Bonnell defense put a forensic pathologist on the stand named Dr. David Chiasson. Dr. Chiasson, a pathologist with the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, said, "I don't think we have enough information [in this case] to make a homicide determination. You have a young woman buried in clandestine circumstances. I believe that is why a homicide determination was made." Under defense attorney Lemieux's guidance, Dr. Chiasson said that Hilary Bonnell did not have any of the physical injuries he would expect to find had she been smothered by a hand forcible held over her nose and mouth.

     On cross-examination, Dr. Chiasoon agreed with the prosecutor that if someone had sat on the victim's chest while covering her nose and mouth, it would have taken less force to smother her. The prosecutor also got the forensic pathologist to concede that the circumstances of this girl's death were, at the very least, "criminally suspicious."

     On November 3, 2012, the Bonnell case jurors, after deliberating six hours, found the defendant guilty of first degree-murder. The Miramichi courtroom erupted in cheers. Curtis Bonnell's conviction carried with it an automatic sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole.

     Bonnell's attorney appealed his client's conviction to the New Brunswick Court of Appeals. Defense attorney Peter Corey argued that the trial judge should have given the jury the option of finding the defendant guilty of manslaughter. He asked the appellate justices to overturn the conviction.

     Lawyers for the Crown and Curtis Bonnell presented their oral arguments before the appellate judges in April 2014.

     On January 29, 2015, in a written decision, the New Brunswick appellate court declined to reverse the murder conviction. "There was no error," wrote Justice Kathleen Quigg, adding that the trial judge's instructions to the jury "were more than adequate."

      

The Second Novel

There might be some truth in the fact that writers whose first novels are autobiographical find it more difficult than other writers to write a second novel, but writers of any stripe have a difficult time following up a first novel. I've heard that as many as half of all first  novelists never write a second.

Robin Hemley, Turning Life Into Fiction, 1994

Calling the Cops on Disruptive School Kids

     There was a time when disruptive students were sent to see the principal. Today in some school districts, the disruptive student is handcuffed and ushered off to court. The school-to-prison pipeline is overflowing with students.

     Melodee Hanes, of the U. S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, describes the school-to-prison pipeline as "the pervasive use of court referrals as a means of discipling kids at school."

     According to the Washington Post, more than 3 million students each year are suspended or expelled from schools across the United States. Federal data, though limited, show that more than 240,000 students were referred to law enforcement.

     The school-to-prison pipeline is being fueled by "zero-tolerant" policies that accelerate the involvement of the criminal justice system in routine school disciplinary practices….The results, at times, have been ridiculous.

Matthew T. Mangino, GateHouse News Service, December 19, 2013.  

Identifying Criminals Reflected in Their Photographed Victims' Eyes

     "The pupil of the eye is like a black mirror," says a British researcher…For crime in which the victims are photographed by the criminal (e.g. hostage taking, child sex abuse), reflections in the eyes of victims could help identify perpetrators."

     Researchers showed 32 participants high-resolution photo portraits of faces, and the participants were asked to identify people reflected in the subject's pupils--often the photographer or someone standing next to the photographer. When the reflected person was a familiar one, participants could identify him or her 84 percent of the time….When the reflected figures weren't familiar, participants were still able to ID them 71 percent of the time based on comparisons to mugshots.

Matt Cantor, Newser, December 28, 2013

     

Writer Biographies as Author Self-Help Books

When I'm struggling with my own work I'm often drawn to biographies of writers. Not only do learn fun facts about prominent figures--Henry James suffered terribly from constipation, Kafka chewed every bite of food 32 times, Flannery O'Conner cared for a flock of around 40 peacocks, Montaigne never saw his wife with her clothes off, Balzac fortified himself with a paste made of unroasted coffee beans--I'm also reminded that there's no single path for living a successful creative or personal life. It's inspiring to read about a flawed human being who struggled with his or her demons and afflictions, experienced paralyzing episodes of failure or self-doubt, but somehow managed to do the work anyway, and produce something that enriched the world. That's my version of self-help.

Tom Perrota in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 2013 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Crime Scene Investigation Mistakes in the O. J. Simpson Case

     The [Los Angeles] police contaminated the crime scene by covering the bodies with a blanket from Nicole Brown's home, casting doubt on all the hair and fiber evidence they claimed to have recovered later.

     The bodies of the victims [Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman] were dragged around the crime scene before hair and fiber samples were taken from their clothing.

     The police failed to notify the coroner's office in a timely fashion, as required by Los Angeles Police Department procedure.

     The LAPD sent to the crime scene [criminalistics] trainee, Andrea Mazzola, who collected blood samples along with [criminalist] Dennis Fung. Mazzola had never before had primary responsibility for collecting blood evidence from a crime scene. [At the Simpson trial, Dennis Fung turned out to be a huge embarrassment for the prosecution.]

     Detective Vannatter carried around O. J. Simpson's blood in a vial in an unsealed envelope for three hours and went for a cup of coffee before booking it [into evidence]. This would allow the defense to argue that 1.5 cc's of blood could not be accounted for by the prosecution. [A serious chain of custody mistake.]

     The criminologists [actually they're called criminalists] failed to find blood on the back gate and socks (if blood was, in fact, there) during the original investigation and only found it several weeks after Simpson's blood sample had been taken and carried around by Vannatter.

     The criminalists did not count the blood samples when they collected them, did not count them when they were put in tubes for drying, and did not count them when they were taken out of the tubes. No documented booking of samples occurred until June 16. [The murders were committed shortly after midnight on June 13, 1994.]

     [While these are serious and stupid crime scene blunders, I believe the totality of the physical evidence in the Simpson case was sufficient to support a conviction. For all we know, even if these mistakes had not been made, the jury may have acquitted Simpson anyway.]

Alan M. Dershowitz, The Criminal Justice System and the O. J. Simpson Case, 1996