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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Albert Hamilton: Courtroom Charlatan

     In 1908, Albert Hamilton self-published a brochure about himself called, That Man From Auburn.  In this piece of self-advertisement, the druggist from Auburn, New York presented himself as an expert in chemistry, microscopy, handwriting identification, ink analysis, photography, fingerprints, and forensic toxicology. He also claimed expertise in the fields of gunshot wounds, bullet identification, blood stain analysis, cause of death determination, anatomy, embalming, and toxicology. To match his impressive qualifications, he awarded himself a medical degree, and from then on was known as Dr. Hamilton.

     Hamilton came into prominence in 1915 when he testified for the prosecution as a firearms identification expert in a rural New York murder case. The defendant, Charlie Stielow, an illiterate farmhand who stood accused of shooting to death the elderly couple who owned the farm where he worked, was facing the death sentence. The jury found Stielow guilty of first-degree murder on the strength of a coerced confession, and the testimony of Albert Hamilton who identified a defect inside the barrel of the defendant's .22-caliber revolver as having left its individualistic mark on one of the fatal bullets. Having earned $50 a day for his work on the case, Hamilton impressed the jury with his enlarged photographs of the murder bullet. It all looked quite scientific.

     In reality, Hamilton's testimony was pure hokum. The science of firearms identification, as it came to be practiced in the mid-1930s, did not exist in 1915. The comparison microscope, an instrument essential to the comparison and analysis of firearms evidence, was invented in 1926. Nevertheless, Hamilton assured the jurors that the fatal bullet had been fired from the defendant's handgun. His findings went unchallenged by the defense, and no one seemed to notice that he hadn't even test-fired the so-called murder weapon. The judge sentenced Stielow to death.

    Two years later, a pair of felons confessed to the murder, and the governor of New York formed a commission to review the case. The governor appointed Charles Waite, an investigator in the New York State Attorney General's office, to lead the inquiry. Waite took Stielow's revolver to a New York City police detective who knew about guns. An examination of the weapon convinced the officer that the revolver had not been fired in at least four years. Moreover, a naked eye examination of the bullets the New York police officer test-fired from the .22-caliber revolver showed vastly different barrel marks than those on the murder slugs.

     As a result of these and other post-conviction findings, the governor granted Charlie Stielow, and another defendant in the case, full pardons. Charles Waite, having been introduced to the possibilities of forensic firearms identification, went on to become a prominent practitioner in the field. In 1922, he formed the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics in New York City. The bureau, the first of its kind, was taken over in 1926 by Dr. Calvin Goddard, an Army surgeon and ordinance officer from Baltimore who became the most important and qualified firearms identification expert in the world.

     In 1923, two Italian-American anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolemo Vanzetti, were convicted of shooting a factory paymaster and his bodyguard to death in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The defendants' attorneys were seeking grounds for a new trial, and called upon the services of Albert Hamilton. Since the Sacco-Vanzetti case had been grabbing headlines for months, Hamilton eagerly got involved in the case.

     Nicola Sacco's conviction was based chiefly on the testimony of three firearms identification witnesses who said the bullet that killed the guard had been fired from his Colt .32-caliber handgun. The experts also believed that the gun the police found on Vanzetti had belonged to the slain guard.

     After examining the firearms evidence, Hamilton reported that the fatal bullet had not been fired from Sacco's gun, and the weapon that had been in Vanzetti's possession was not the weapon that had once belonged to the bodyguard. Relying on Albert Hamilton's report, the Sacco-Vanzetti defense team filed a motion for a new trial. To counter the motion, the prosecution acquired the services of two experts who had not testified at the trial.

     In November 1933, during the hearing on the motion for the new trial, Hamilton conducted an in-court demonstration involving two new Colt revolvers, and Sacco's handgun. The two Colt .32-caliber demonstration revolvers belonged to Hamilton. In front of the judge, and lawyers for both sides, Hamilton disassembled all three revolvers and placed their parts in three piles on the defense table. He then explained the functions of each part, and demonstrated how they were interchangeable. After reassembling the handguns, Hamilton placed the two new weapons back into his pocket, and handed Sacco's Colt to the court clerk. Before he left the courtroom, the judge asked Hamilton to leave his two guns behind.

     Several months later, when the judge asked one of the prosecution firearms experts to reinspect Sacco's revolver, the expert discovered that the barrel to Sacco's gun was brand new. Following an inquiry, Albert Hamilton admitted that the new barrel on Sacco's Colt had come from one of his revolvers. Although it was obvious to everyone that Hamilton had made the switch, presumably with a mistrial in mind, he denied any wrongdoing. Hamilton continued his association with the Sacco-Vanzetti defense, but he no longer played an important role in the case. He had destroyed his credibility as a firearms expert and witness.

     The Sacco-Vanzetti motion for a new trial was denied, and in 1927, the two men died in the electric chair. Prior to their deaths, Dr. Calvin Goddard, the most qualified firearms identification expert in the world, stated that Sacco's gun had in fact been the murder weapon. (Several modern firearms identification experts have examined the ballistics evidence in the case, and agree with Dr. Goddard's findings.)

     The barrel-switching incident in the Sacco-Vanzetti case apparently had little effect on Hamilton's phony career as a forensic scientist. Eight years after the Sacco-Vanzetti debacle, he testified for the defense in a New York murder case. In 1932, Stephen Witherell murdered his father, Charles. The defendant admitted shooting his father at point blank range with a Remington rifle he had stolen from his cousin. An expert with the New York City Police Department identified this rifle as the murder weapon.

     By the time the trial rolled around, Stephen Witherell had recanted his confession. He took the stand on his behalf and denied shooting anyone. In fact, he denied the body in question was even his father's. (Decomposition and the massive gunshot wound to the victim's head had made the corpse unrecognizable.) Albert Hamilton took the stand, and testified that there were two gunshot wounds on the body: the head wound caused by a rifle, and a wound on the victim's hand, made by a handgun. Actually, there was no hand wound at all. The victim had lost two fingers in an industrial accident. Once again, Hamilton had proven that he was incompetent, and a charlatan.

     In 1934, Hamilton tried to insert himself in the Lindbergh kidnapping case by identifying a man named Manny Strewl as the writer of the ransom letters. Hamilton was not a qualified questioned document expert, and the writer of the extortion notes turned out to be Bruno Richard Hauptmann. The carpenter from the Bronx, an illegal alien from Germany with a criminal history in his home country, was executed in 1936 for the murder of the Lindbergh baby.

     Albert Hamilton continued to disgrace himself as an expert witness in several forensic fields for another ten years, making him one of the most notorious forensic charlatans in American history. If there is anything to learn from this man's career, it is that the woods are full of phony experts, and if judges let down their guards, we will have charlatans in our court rooms, and baloney in our verdicts.   

Revisionist True Crime Books

     There are  a number of reasons why historic, celebrated crimes are vulnerable to revision by true crime writers. For one thing, a new angle on an old case, particularly a famous one, comprises an attractive publishing opportunity. Since Americans tend to be more interested in injustice than justice, it's hard for hack writers to resist turning cold-blooded killers into victims of heavy-handed prosecutors and cops. Since complicated, intrigue-filled mysteries are more fascinating than cases involving more straight-forward, obvious explanations, revisionist true crime writers prefer conspiracies over cases that feature lone-wolf criminals.

     Putting together a phony conspiracy theory requires a certain kind of journalistic tunnel vision. The author must carefully avoid the evidence that does not fit into his narrative, and the more outrageous the theory, the more facts the writer has to sweep under the rug or explain away.

     Sometimes in their eagerness to plug a new conspiracy into a historic case, revisionist writers, by ignoring the truth, deprive themselves of a more fascinating, truthful account. The Lindbergh kidnapping case is a good example of replacing a dramatic story with a lot of conspiracy nonsense.  

True Crime, The Lurid Genre

     Give me a book that begins with a time and a date and an address, something along the lines of: "At 9:36 on March 24, 1982, Deputy Frank McGruff of the Huntington County Sheriff's Department was dispatched to 234 Maple Street in Pleasantville, North Carolina, a quiet suburb 10 miles west of Raleigh, to follow up on reports of gunshots and screams."

     There is nothing more generic that this sort of sentence, and yet  there's nothing more seductive, either. The sentence carries promises: the regular-guy lawman, the horrific crime scene, the enigmatic object found lying  in the foyer, the minute-by-minute timeline of that fatal half-hour, the witness reports that don't add up, and the multiplication of scenarios and theories and complications.

     I've always felt somewhat sheepish about my appetite for true crime narratives, associated as they are with fat, flimsy paperbacks scavenged from the 25-cent box at garage sales, their battered covers branded with screaming two-word titles stamped in silver foil, blood dripping luridly from the last letter.  The most famous practitioners of this genre--Joe McGinniss, Ann Rule, Vincent Bugliosi--come coated with a thin, greasy film of dubious repute and poor taste.

     True crime is also the mother's milk of tabloid journalism, of endless trashy news cycles in which the same photo of a wide-eyed innocent bride (where is she?); a gap-toothed kindergarten student (who killed him?); a bleary-eyed, stubbled suspect (why did he do it?) appear over and over and over again.

Laura Miller, "Sleazy Bloody and Surprisingly Smart: In Defense of True Crime," salon.com, May 29, 2014 

Is Forensic Science Real Science?

     The problem with much of forensic science theory is that it is largely inductive, and has never been subject to rigorous tests that specifically attempt to falsify it. It has been said that forensic scientists in general have failed to consistently appreciate the implications of the scientific method. The progression through the stages of research, formulation of a hypothesis, testing, analyzing results, and then modifying the hypothesis where necessary has the advantage of built-in evaluators, such as the calculation of error rates, as part of the process, in addition to other benefits, including impartiality. Testing allows the generation of error rates and approximations, and good quality research is generally published, thereby being subject to peer review. Standardization of techniques and theories becomes necessary so as to ensure their validity and applicability in the hands of different researchers, scientists, and practitioners. Eventually, when a theory gains overwhelming support, it may even enter the realm of "general acceptance"; however, this by itself is no substitute for these first stages of scientific endeavor.

     While academics note a tension between "science" and "forensic science," there are some who disagree that the traditional "scientific method" is appropriate for forensic science to follow, due to its unique position of straddling the disciplines of both science and law...As one author has written, forensic science operates outside the carefully controlled environment that the traditional sciences endure...Claiming that forensic science does not enjoy the pristine conditions of experimental science, and thus is not directly comparable, avoids a reality that has plagued all scientific research--a reality that has already been managed by experimental scientists through careful and deliberate hypothesis testing, but dismissed by forensic scientists by simply claiming irrelevance to their own practice. [The forensic sciences that have not undergone this rigorous scientific methodology include forensic document examination, blood spatter analysis, fingerprint identification, and human bite mark identification.]

C. Michael Bowers, Forensic Testimony, 2013 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Jack Abbott On His Prison Life

I know how to live through anything they could possibly dish up for me. I've been subjected to strip-cells, blackout cells, been chained to the floor and wall; I've lived through the beatings, of course; every drug science has invented to "modify" my behavior--I have endured. Starvation was once natural to me; I have no qualms about eating insects in my cell or living in my body wastes if it means survival. They've even armed psychopaths and put them in punishment cells with me to kill me, but I can control that. When they say "what doesn't destroy me makes me stronger," that is what they mean. But it's a mistake to equate the results with being strong. I'm extremely flexible, but I'm not strong. I'm weakened, in fact. I'm tenuous, shy, introspective, and suspicious of everyone. A loud noise or a false movement registers like a four-alarm fire in me. But I am not afraid--and that is strange, because I care very much about someday being set free. I want to cry when I think that I'll never be free. I want to cry for my brothers I've spent a lifetime with. Someday I will leave them and never return. [After the publication of his prison memoir, Abbott was paroled. Not long after he got out, this psychopathic time-bomb murdered a waiter in New York City. So Abbott did leave his prison brothers for awhile, but he came back to them after a short period of freedom. Assuming that his prison memoir is true to the facts, Abbott, though his violent behavior, invited the institutional violence directed against him. He couldn't live without violence in prison or out.]

Jack Henry Abbott, In The Belly of the Beast, 1981  

Phone Sex at the University of Colorado

     Resa Cooper-Morning, a cultural diversity coordinator in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado at Denver, had been living a double life. Employed by the university since 1992, Resa, in 2003, began supplementing her $68,000-a-year salary by charging phone sex callers $1.49 a minute for her pornographic talk.

     Cooper-Morning advertised her services through her website, msresa.com. The site also offered soft core videos of the university administrator with titles such as "Stripping Before the Camera," and "Erotica in Pink." The site included a link to her phone sex service that promised to "rock every part of your body." Internet viewers could also purchase memberships to Cooper-Morning's virtual world.

     Internet visitors desiring sexy phone talk were encouraged to call Resa between seven in the morning and "late at night", Monday through Friday. This made her available to sex callers Monday through Friday, 7 AM to 3PM, her university working hours. This meant the 54-year-old was talking dirty for money on university's time. (I guess you could argue that a lot of employees talk dirty on company time. The only difference here is that Cooper-Morning did it for money.)

     Big wigs at the University of Colorado were informed of Cooper-Morning's clandestine business by a producer with the local CBS-TV affiliate working on a segment about Cooper-Morning's erotic website. The show was scheduled to air on December 12, 3003. Shortly after the notification, the diversity coordinator found herself on paid administrative leave.

     Blair Cooper, Resa's daughter-in-law, appeared in the CBS-produced segment that aired as scheduled. According to Cooper, "she [Resa] was taking calls at work. I've been in her office and she's said, 'oh, let me be right back, I have a phone call.' She takes them very discreetly, shuts her door and takes phone calls on Colorado University of Denver's pay."

     In January 2014, the local CBS TV affiliate covering the Cooper-Morning case reported that the university administrator, in addition to her phone sex operation, ran an escort service. The university however, announced that she would not lose her position at the school. A spokesperson for the University of Colorado at Denver said, "We've been unable to establish that Ms. Cooper-Morning engaged in criminal activity nor have we been able to determine she operated her outside businesses while on the job." 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Committing The Perfect Crime

     Investment crook Bernie Madoff probably thought he'd committed the perfect crime. He was rich, well-known, loved by his family, and respected by his colleagues. But Ponzi scemes are not perfect crimes, and Bernie got caught. The financial sociopath lost his fortune, his reputation, his freedom and a son to suicide. His wife, the author of a boo-hoo memoir and his surviving son have disowned him. And like a true sociopath Bernie has insulted his victims by calling them greedy.

     Unlike Bernie Madoff, a lot of people get away with crimes big and small. Shoplifters, employee thieves, and even murderers have avoided conviction. But getting away with a criminal act doesn't necessarily make it a perfect crime. Offenders escape criminal detection and punishiment because their crimes weren't professionally investigated. So-called perfect crimes are made possible by imperfect police work, and good luck.

     To avoid a murder conviction the killer should make sure he doesn't leave part of himself at the scene of the homicide or take part of the death site with him. Ideally, the murder victim should not be a spouse, an ex-lover, a business competitor or someone to whom the killer owes money. Moreover, the homicide should be committed as far from the killer's home as possible. And there should be no eyewitnesses or accomplices. The successful murderer should create a believable alibi, and not tell a soul what he has done, not even a priest or a shrink. And if there is financial gain involved, the killer should avoid spending large sums of money for at least a year.

     If arrested and brought into the interrogation room the suspect should say nothing except that he wants a lawyer. Also, no self-respecting criminal agrees to a polygraph test. If incarcerated the suspect should be aware of the jailhouse informant. Successful criminals trust no one and keep their mouths shut.

     Killers get away with murder all the time because police officers contaminate physical evidence at the crime scene. Too many detectives are overworked, lazy, or incompetent. O. J. Simpson committed an imperfect, messy, clue-laden double murder and walked free. Police mistakes, a whacko jury, and an all-star defense team led to the acquittal of an obviously guilty man.

     The commission of a perfect perfect murder should entail the following:

   1. The coroner or medical examiner rules the death either natural, accidental, or suicidal.

   2. The killer does not come under serious police or media suspicion.

   3. The killer gains something significant from the victim's death.

   4. There is no physical evidence such as DNA that will later come back to haunt the killer.

     Before the emergence of modern toxicology and pharmacology, at a time when unhappy wives slowly poisoned their husbands to death (usually with arsenic found in rat poison), the perfect murder was possible--perhaps even easy. Today committing the perfect murder, at least in theory, is much more difficult and extremely rare. 

The Robin Hood Fantasy

People secretly applaud those who do not play by the rules. It's a vital fantasy among the law-abiding bourgeois. Whenever there is an economic dislocation, theft arises. We often fall in love with the little thief if there is a big one at work. The analogs of the robber barons and their rapacious greed are the small-time thieves in the underworld. [Don't forget about the biggest thief of all--the U.S. government.]

Stephen Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters, 2008

Two of B. R. Myers' Rules for "Serious" Novelists

1. Be Writerly

Read aloud what you have written. If it sounds clear and natural, strike it out.

2. Play the Part

Take yourself seriously. Practice before the mirror until you can say things like this with a straight face:

"It's because I want every little surface to shimmer and gyrate that I haven't patience for those lax transitional devices of plot, setting, character, and so on, that characterize a lot of traditional fiction."
(Mark Leyner)

B. R. Myers, A Reader's Manifesto, 2002

Fairy Tales: True Crime for Kids

     The children are safely tucked in bed; a light breeze blows in through the window; Mom hushes them and begins to tell a sweet tale of children being abandoned in the woods, lured to a witch's cottage, there to be fattened and roasted in an oven. Medium-rare.

     Critics have long complained about the violent content of some of the classic fairy tales we read to our children. However, what few of these critics realize is that we are reading watered down versions of the fairy tales, and that the originals were far more graphic and brutal.

     Sleeping beauty was not first awakened by a kiss; in the 1636 Italian version of the tale--the first known written version--she was raped by a man who rode off the next morning without leaving even a Dear Sleeping Beauty note. Her "morning after" came nine months later when she awoke to find herself the proud mother of twins.

Richard Zacks, An Underground Education, 1997 

The Master Plot

There are stories that we tell over and over in myriad forms and that connect vitally with our deepest values, wishes, and fears. Cinderella is one of them. Its variants can be found frequently in European and American cultures. Its constituent events elaborate a thread of neglect, injustice, rebirth, and reward that responds to deeply held anxieties and desires. As such, the Cinderella masterplot has an enormous emotional capital that can be drawn on in constructing a narrative. But it is only one of many masterplots. We seem to connect our thinking about life, and particularly our own lives, to a number of masterplots that we may or may not be fully aware of. To the extent that our values and identity are linked to a masterplot, that masterplot can have strong rhetorical impact. We tend to give credibility to narratives that are structured by it. [True crime narratives often incorporate masterplots.]

H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2002

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Writing Quote: Who Buys True Crime Books?

The main audience for true crime works is generally the middle class with more women than men buying the books. There is also a fairly strong teen market, and books of regional interest have specialized markets. For example, both Texas and the Pacific Northwest are strong locales for the true crime market.

Vicky Munro, crimeculture.com, 2000

The Difficulty of Writing True Crime

Every genre has its own peculiar demands and drawbacks. True crime has more than most. Successful true crime writers have to be self-starters. Many times a week, fledgling authors ask me how they can be crime writers. I tell them as gently as possible that the very nature of the genre requires writers who will find a way themselves. We must not only be writers--but detectives. In researching a crime, we must figure out how to elicit information that seems impossible to get. We have to ask people about pain and horror they would rather forget. We must ask detectives and prosecutors to share their investigations and their findings with us. And it isn't easy.

Ann Rule in Writing Mysteries, Sue Grafton, editor, 2002 

Blaming Society for Crime

     What causes crime? Why do some individuals possess tendencies which lead them to commit acts of violence and predation: robberies, assaults, rapes, and other felonies? What sets the habitual or occasional criminal apart from the mainstream of society? More important, what can be done to "change" criminals into productive, law-abiding citizens?

     The theory that has partly governed public policy for many years is that crime is caused by an unjust society. A most eloquent spokesperson for this point of view was Ramsey Clark, who served as assistant attorney general in the Kennedy Administration and attorney general in the Johnson Administration. Here's how Clark described the crime problem in his well-known 1970 book, Crime in America:

     "If we are to deal meaningfully with crime, what must be seen is the dehumanizing effect on the individual of slums, racism, ignorance, and violence, of corruption and impotence to fulfill rights, of poverty, unemployment, and idleness, of generations of malnutrition, of congenital brain damage and prenatal neglect, of sickness and disease, of pollution, of decrepit, dirty, ugly, unsafe, overcrowded housing, of alcoholism and narcotics addiction, of avarice, anxiety, fear, hatred, hopelessness, and injustice. [Clark, in that run-on sentence, certainly covered the cause of crime waterfront. A writer he was not.] These are the fountainheads of crime. They can be controlled. As imprecise, distorted and prejudiced as our learning is, these sources of crime and their controllability clearly emerge to any who would see."

     And how would such conditions be changed? In that same book, Clark exclaims that it's a "matter of will." If society becomes willing, the conditions that cause crime can be changed, and then crime will be greatly reduced.

     Clark's theory has a plausible sound and anybody who visits a large state prison will find scores of inmates from deprived backgrounds. Some of them are not really criminals in the true sense of the word; they are simply badly adjusted and disturbed people who need to be institutionalized. There are others with personal problems that got them into trouble.

    But if a visitor searches out the professional criminals--both in prison and out--he may find that the theory doesn't hold up at all. These are men, and some women, who have numerous advantages in their lives and yet they seem to become criminals by deliberate choice.

Melvin D. Barger, "Crime: The Unsolved Problem," in Criminal Justice? Robert James Bidinotto, editor, 1994 

True Crime is Stranger Than Fiction

True crime writing really demands that you be honest and back up everything you write with facts. I always keep all my notes, copies of court documents and police reports so that I can verify what I've put into print. True crime is just that--it's the truth. And time after time I've discovered that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Robert Scott, authorsontheweb.com, 2002

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Jessica Herrera's Vehicular Homicide Trials: When Is An Accident a Crime?

     As drivers, we all occasionally speed, cross the center line, roll through stop signs, and get distracted. There is no such thing as perfection behind the wheel. No one wants to cause an accident, particularly one that results in injury or death. Whenever a driver's carelessness causes or contributes to a traffic accident that results in the death of another driver or  passenger, a prosecutor has to decide if this act of negligence rises to the level of criminal homicide. In my opinion, ordinary negligence that falls short of recklessness--the total disregard for the safety of others--should be treated as a civil wrong rather than a criminal act. Vehicular homicide should only apply to motorists who are driving extremely fast, are drunk, high on drugs, or fleeing from the police. I do not believe in the criminalization of all fatal traffic accidents.

     On June 11, 2011, in Santa Barbara County, California, Christopher Martinez slowed down on Highway 246 east of the town of Lompoc to turn into a driveway that led back to a winery. The 28-year-old was showing up for his first day of work. As he slowed to negotiate the turn, Jessica Herrera, driving the car behind him, rear-ended his vehicle. The collision pushed Martinez's car into the opposite lane where it was struck broadside by a pickup truck carrying two people.

     Paramedics rushed Christopher Martinez to the Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria with severe head trauma and a collapsed lung. He died the next day.

     A Santa Barbara County prosecutor charged the 22-year-old Herrera with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, a crime that carried a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. In May 2012, the Herrera trial jurors voted seven to five for conviction which caused the judge to declare a mistrial.

     Prosecutor Mark Smith decided to retry Herrera for vehicular homicide. On February 8, 2013, the second trial got underway in the Santa Barbara County Court in Lompoc. In his opening remarks to the jury, prosecutor Smith accused the defendant of driving too fast for conditions (65 mph in a 55 mph zone) and being inattentive.

     Herrera's attorney, Dillon Forsyth, argued that the crash that took Christopher Martinez's life was a tragic accident. To the jury he said, "There is no evidence a crime occurred. This is a circumstantial case. There is really no credible evidence that what occurred was anything but an accident. The fact is we simply don't know what happened." The defense attorney also pointed out that there were no signs that a driveway was coming up, and that brake lights and turn signals on Martinez's car might not have been working.

     On February 13, 2013, after more than a day of deliberation, the jury reported to the judge that it was deadlocked eleven to one in favor of conviction. Another hung jury, another mistrial.

     I'm surprised that so many jurors in these two trials had voted for conviction. Even assuming Jessica Herrera had been driving ten miles over the speed limit at the time of the accident, I don't believe she should be held criminally responsible for Christopher Martinez's death.

     On February 28, 2013, at a hearing in the Santa Barbara County in Lompoc, Judge James F. Iwasko dismissed the Herrera case after prosecutor Mark Smith said the district attorney's office would not seek a third trial. To have gone forward with a third trial in this case would have amounted to prosecutorial misconduct.  

The Power of Cross-Examination

     The ability to conduct an effective cross-examination is one of the most important skills in the arsenal of the trial attorney, as well as one of the most difficult to master. If the witness, as is usually the case, is telling the truth as he knows it, but that truth is overly slanted in the favor of say, the prosecution, then the defense attorney must bring that truth back toward or past the middle by careful questioning. However, if he is too assertive with a likable witness who appears to be honestly trying to tell the truth, then he runs the risk of alienating the jury and undoing any good he accomplishes in the examination.

     One question on cross-examination that tends to be productive is, "Have you discussed your testimony with the state's attorney or anyone from his office?" The answer almost has to be "yes," because the prosecutor would be foolish to put anyone on the stand without knowing what he or she is going to say. But many witnesses think that it's wrong to admit to having talked about their testimony. Consequently, they will often hem and haw and deny it, and end up looking furtive when they are forced to admit that, yes, they spoke to the prosecutor twice in his office.

Louis Nizer, My Life in Court, 1961

Charles Bukowski on Trial Attorneys

The language of the lawyer is the language of the trickster. It's an inhuman language, a sub-language. And justice is hardly ever served. Justice is just forgotten. Our courts are swamps of dark and devious jargon. It's just a wash of dull, crippled, masked wordage put before a jury of 12 imbeciles or a bored judge.

Charles Bukowski, novelist and poet, March 1992 

Trial Rhetoric

Criminal prosecutors will call a firearm a "weapon," while defense attorneys will call it a "gun." When prosecutors talk about the defendant "aiming" and "firing" the weapon, defense attorneys respond with phrases like "where the barrel was pointing when the gun went off."...All of these advocates have a vested interest in their choice of words (hence the term "mouthpiece").

D. H. Garrison, Jr. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Navigating Pornography at Pasadena City College: What Higher Education Has Cone To

     In 2013, Dr. Hugo Schwyzer was history and gender studies professor at Pasadena City College (PCC) in Pasadena, California, the nation's third largest community college. The 44-year-old professor had a Ph.D. in church history from UCLA. The so-called "male feminist," offered courses with titles like Men and Masculinity, Navigating Pornography, and Gay and Lesbian American History. (See my blog post: "Ridiculous College Courses: Majoring in Stupid." June 2016.)

     In 2005, the Internet professor review site Rate My Professor named Dr. Schwyzer one of the nation's top 50 "hottest professors." (The sexuality guru has admitted having sexual relations with some of his students. Who says if you can't do, teach.)

     A prolific blogger, Schwyzer in 2006, claiming expertise in "body image, sexuality, and gender justice," wrote that he'd like to open a summer camp for teens and adults where he could teach "fitness, basic life skills, spirituality, the whole thing." (Sign me up for the "whole thing" class.)

     New York Magazine, in 2009, published an article about Professor Schwyzer's decision in 2005, when he was 37, to undergo circumcision. (I wish I had something clever to say here, but got nothing.)

     In a tell-all confessional blog entry published in 2011, Dr. Schwyzer informed his readers (I presume mainly his students) of "a binge episode that ended with my attempt to kill myself and my ex-girlfriend with gas." According to the professor's detailed account of the 1998 incident (which has since been taken off the Internet), his former lover came to him for help after she had been tied and and raped by her drug dealer.

     In Schwyzer's Pasadena apartment, he and the woman took drugs and had "desperately hot, desperately heartbreaking sex." Following the desperate, heartbreaking sex, the professor described what took place when the drunk and drug addled woman passed out: "I looked at her emaciated, broken body that I loved so much. I looked at my own, studying some of my more recent scars. (I'd had a binge of self-mutilation earlier in the week, and had cigarette burns on both arms and my torso.) " [In 1998, Schwyzer was thirty years old. Seven years later, he's talking about teaching summer camp teens life skills? Oh boy.]

     Schwyzer continued: "And then it came to me: I needed to do for her and for myself the one thing I was strong enough still to do. I couldn't save her. I couldn't save me, but I could bring an end to our pain. My poor fragile ex would never have to wake up again, and we could be at peace in the next life. As drunk and high as I was, the thought came with incredible clarity. I remember it perfectly now."

     According to the male feminist's story, he turned on the gas in his oven aimed the toxic flow at his unconscious ex-girlfriend, drank more alcohol, swallowed more pills, then stretched out next to her body expecting to accompany the poor woman into eternity. Because the gas fumes failed to do the job, the ex-girlfriend survived the attempted mercy killing. (I don't know if this really happened, or why the professor was never charged with a crime. I wonder how the ex-girlfriend felt about all of this. One thing was certain, it didn't cost him his teaching position at PCC.)

     One of Dr. Schwyzer's students, in a 2012 Rate My Professor review, wrote: "If you get a chance to take his Navigating Pornography class (he's teaching it in 2013), you must! Hugo doesn't tell you what to think but helps you find yourself. Lectures and discussions handle even touchy subjects like sexuality with comfort and clarity. [Wow, I hope this course is mandatory.] He's a stickler for attendance and grammar, but grades fair. Great guest speakers, too!"

     Another Dr. Schwyzer Rate My Professor reviewer wrote: "....the stories he tell is like incredibly fascinating...." (So much for the grammar requirement.)

     Under the auspices of his spring 2013 class Navigating Pornography, Dr. Schwyzer invited the "award-winning" porn actor, James Deen to speak to PCC students and member of the general public. Deen, a PCC alumnus (who said you couldn't go far with a community college degree) has 1,300 porn flick performances under his belt (sorry) including hits like "Atomic Vixens," and "Batman XXX." Deen's February 26, 2013 appearance at the college would, according to the actor, educate students about human sexuality and portray porn acting as a legitimate profession. (Just because its legal doesn't make it legitimate. Outside of California, very few parents would send out notices to friends and relatives announcing that their daughter had just landed a big role in "Swallow the Leader." Any "profession" you hope your children won't go into is not legitimate.)

     James Deen hoped that his presentation would empower students to make their own decisions. "This is an opportunity for people who want to ask questions and talk openly about sexuality." (Learning sexuality from a person who fornicates publicly for money is like receiving cooking tips from a cannibal.)

     When word got out about Dr. Schwyzer's porn star guest speaker, school administrators (Schwyzer referred to them as "suits"), informed the professor that the presentation would have to be a classroom visit rather than a public speaking event. Schwyzer had failed to obtain a facilities use permit required for on-campus public events.

     In responding to his diminished role as a classroom lecturer, James Deen told reporters that "sex is not a dirty, disgusting thing." [Who said it was?] I feel a little persecuted and singled out." Someone should tell Mr. Deen that thirty years ago, they were throwing people like him into prison. Ask the stars of "Deep Throat."

     On his blog site, the PCC pornography navigator addressed the Deen flap this way: "I am deeply disappointed that all those who were eager to hear James will be unable to do so. I am grateful that my students will still be able to hear him. And I look forward to welcoming other porn performers (and public critics of porn) to my class in the future. I remain proud to teach at Pasadena City College." (I'm sure the feeling was mutual.)

     In September 2013, Dr. Schwyzer's academic career came to an end when he admitted that he had been involved in many sexual affairs with his young female students. Moreover, he had recently been charged with DUI pursuant to a traffic accident that caused the serious injury of his female passenger. At this point, Dr. Schwyzer took the opportunity to reveal that for decades he had suffered from "borderline personality disorder and bipolar depression." He said he had been divorced four times.

   

     

John Gardner on the Novelist and Higher Education

     It is true that some writers have kept themselves more or less innocent of education, that some, like Jack London, were more or less self-made men; that is, people who scratched out an education by reading books between work-shifts on boats, in logging camps or gold camps, on farms or in factories. It is true that university education is in many ways inimical to the work of the artist: Rarely do painters have much good to say of aetheticians or history-of-art professors, and it's equally uncommon for even the most serious, "academic" writers to look with fond admiration at "the profession of English." And it's true, moreover, that life in the university has almost never produced subject matter for really good fiction. The life has too much trivia, too much mediocrity, too much soap opera, but consider:

     No ignoramus--no writer who has kept himself innocent of education--has ever produced great art.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, originally published in 1983. Gardner (1933-1982) was a literary novelist, critic, and English professor. He died young riding his motorcycle. 

College Freshmen Are Depressed

     Every year for half a century UCLA has surveyed freshman classes at schools across the country to get a reading on their mental health. The latest findings aren't encouraging: The emotional health of 2014's crop of college freshmen is at an all-time low. Nearly one in 10 students in UCLA's study said they frequently felt depressed, and their assessment of their overall emotional health is at the lowest level since UCLA started asking the question.

     UCLA surveyed more than 153,000 first-time freshmen who entered 227 four-year private and public colleges and universities of different types and selectivity. When students were asked to rate their mental health compared to their peers, they gave themselves  a score of roughly 50 percent, which is an all-time low. Previous UCLA surveys have highlighted students' declining mental health over time and its connection to lower student success. This phenomenon can certainly explain a growing reliance on campus mental health facilities.

     According to a different study by the American College Health Association, more than half of college students have said they experienced "overwhelming anxiety" in the past year. Depressed students were also more likely to express boredom with their classes and be less likely to study with their classmates.

     While students reported higher rates of depression in the UCLA study, another worrisome sign is the reduced amount of time they're spending with friends, which also hit an all-time low for the annual survey…

     While it's clear that college students still drink significantly, students are arriving on campus with much less experience consuming alcohol than their peers from 20 to 30 years ago. In fact, in the current UCLA study, freshman reported the lowest rate of alcohol and cigarette use in high school than at any point over 30 years.

     Unfortunately, students quickly discover alcohol when they reach college--when 40 percent of them say they've participated in binge drinking within the past month, according to a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism….

"College Freshman's Mental Health Hits New Low," CBS News, February 6, 2015 

The First Creative Nonfiction Writing Course

     When I started teaching in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1970s, the concept of an "artful" or "literary" nonfiction was considered, to say the least, unlikely. My colleagues snickered when I proposed teaching a "creative" nonfiction course, while the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences proclaimed that nonfiction in general--forget the use of the word creative--was at its best a craft, not too different from plumbing. [Actually, it's probably just as difficult to be a good plumber as it is to be a good writer. Moreover, we have enough writers.]

     As the chairman of our department put it one day in a faculty meeting while we were debating the legitimacy of the course: "After all, gentlemen…we're interested in literature here--not writing." That remark and the subsequent debate had been precipitated by a contingent of students from the school newspaper who marched on the chairman's office and politely requested more nonfiction writing courses--"the creative kind."

     One English colleague, aghast at this prospect, carried a dozen of his favorite books to the meeting--poetry, fiction, and nonfiction--gave a belabored mini-review of each, and then, pointing a finger at the editor of the paper and pounding a fist, stated: "After you read all these books and understand what they mean, I will consider voting for a course called Creative Nonfiction. Otherwise, I don't want to be bothered."

     Luckily, most of my colleagues didn't want to be bothered fighting the school newspaper, so the course was approved--and I became one of the first people to teach creative nonfiction on a university level. This was 1973.

Lee Gutkind in Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, editors, 2001 

Campus Political Correctness and Phony Outrage

Students are ill-served by the culture of the modern college campus which stifles free-thinking in order to protect students from damaging each other's feelings in even the most trivial ways. It's not just that students are offended much too easily, it's almost as if they want a chance to grandstand or win an argument even if the justification for their offendedness makes absolutely no sense.

Greg Lukianoff, Unlearning Liberty, 2013 

Monday, April 24, 2017

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

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

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 

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

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

"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.