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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.   

The Dueling Expert Problem

     The increasing presence of dueling expert witnesses, encouraged by the procedural and adversarial nature of the criminal trial process, is a problem without a satisfying remedy. As a trial technique, defense attorneys often put expert witnesses on the stand whose main job is to muddy the waters and confuse the jury. Trial lawyers call this ploy "blowing smoke."

     If there is an answer to this muddying the waters technique, it will have to come from within the legal and forensic science professions in the form of a tighter code of ethics. Regarding battling experts, judges could help by imposing stricter standards in the area of who qualifies as an expert. (Lawyers like expert witnesses because they can render opinions. Regular witnesses cannot.) This would help keep out the phonies and reduce the opportunity for opposing testimony, particularly in the field of forensic questioned document examination where half the "experts" are under-qualified. The problem also exists in the field of forensic pathology in disputes regarding cause and manner of death. It is also not unusual to see blood spatter analysts on both sides of a case.

     Many jurors, when confronted with conflicting forensic science analysis, disregard the evidence completely. Forensic science was supposed to bring certainty and truth to the criminal justice system, not confusion. 

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." 

The Toy Gun, Gun Image, Gun Facsimile and Gun Gesture Hysteria in Our Schools

     Zero tolerance generally equals zero discretion and good sense. However, if there is one zero-tolerance police we should have in our schools it should be a ban on idiot teachers and administrators. That, of course won't happen. If it weren't for public education and the government, where would these fools work?

     It won't be long before some neurotic kid approaches his teacher with a disturbing confession. "Ms. Fox," he says in a trembling voice, "I had a bad thought. Last week, while in your classroom, the image of a gun crept into my head. I am so sorry. It will never happen again. How many days will I be suspended?"

     "It depends," Ms. Fox replies. "Was it an assault weapon?"

December 2012: Tamaqua, Pennsylvania

     A seventh grade student at the Tamaqua Middle School in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania formed his hand in the symbol of a gun and pointed its finger-barrel. He aimed his .25-caliber appendage at a fellow student. The Pennsylvania State Police were called into the case to, among other things, determine if the "shooter" had said "POW!" If he didn't make the muzzle sound it was probably because he was pretending to be firing a handgun with a silencer. (Just kidding.) Police said the boy will be charged with disorderly conduct, and suspended from school. (Not kidding.)

December 2012: Chickasha, Oklahoma

     A five-year-old elementary school student was suspended for a day after he made a gun gesture with his hand. The offender pointed the nonexistent weapon at another student. Had the other kid gestured first, the student in trouble might have acquired a pretend student attorney and claimed self-defense.

January 2013: Trappe, Maryland

     School officials at the Marsh Elementary School in Trappe, Maryland punished two 6-year-old boys with suspension for "shooting" each other with imaginary guns and bullets. In a game of cops and robbers, they were using their fingers to replicate firearms. (If I were running this school I'd only punish the kid pretending to be the robber. What do they have against cops in that school?)

January 2013: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

     A South Philadelphia elementary school student was chastised in front of her class for coming to school armed with a piece of paper crudely shaped in the pattern of a handgun. Students made fun of the girl with the gun-shaped piece of paper, calling her a "murderer." I would advise these kids to be careful; this paper-toting kid might come to class one day with a big sheet of paper in the general shape of an assault rifle, or an Army tank.

January 2013: Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania

     A 5-year-old kindergarten girl in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania was suspended for threatening to shoot one of her playmates with her Hello Kitty gun, a toy in the general shape of a firearm that blows soapy bubbles. School officials characterized this as a "terroristic threat." While unregistered, the semi-automatic bubble-gun had been purchased legally by a kid with no criminal record or a history of schizophrenia. Moreover, the girl had not brought the weapon to school. She was simply talking about something she planned to do at home after school. A real lawyer jumped into the case and got the girl's ten day suspension reduced to two. The lawyer is now fighting to have the girl's "record" expunged. If anything needs expunged, it's the idiots and fools at the Mount Carmel Elementary School.

January 2013: Modesto, California

     A 17-year-old Modesto high school student was suspended three days after making gun gestures with his hand. Witnesses reported that this student was not only pointing his finger, he was moving another finger in a trigger-pulling action. Oh my. To compound this kid's offense, he also raised an umbrella in a aggressive rifle-like gesture. If I had a school-aged kid, I'd tell him to leave his umbrella at home, and keep his hands in his pockets, or holsters.

January 2013: Hyannis West, Massachusetts

     A 5-year-old boy at Hyannis West Elementary School on Cape Cod got into big trouble when he used lego bricks to build a crude toy handgun. Because he was a repeat offender--the kid had been punished for making a gun gesture with his hand--a written warning was placed into his file. School officials told the boy that if he commits the "crime" a third time, he will be suspended for two weeks. Let's hope this little menace doesn't hook-up with the Hello Kitty girl. We don't need another Bonnie and Clyde on our hands.

 January 2013: Sumter, South Carolina

     A kindergartner was expelled from Alice Drive Elementary School in Sumter, South Carolina after she brought her brother's toy Airsoft gun for show and tell. The girl is not allowed to be on school property, even when accompanying her parents picking up her siblings. She has been assigned a home-based instructor from the school district.  While Alice Drive Elementary School is a safer place, school administrators are worried about the safety of the home instructor.

February 2013: Florence, Arizona

     A freshman at Poston Butte High School in Florence, Arizona was suspended because he had a background picture of an AK-47 on his school desktop computer. It's a good thing the kid didn't have a photograph of an atomic mushroom on his school computer. The entire state would have been on lock-down.

February 2013: Loveland, Colorado

     A second grade boy at Loveland, Colorado's Mary Blair Elementary School was suspended for the terroristic act of pretending to throw a nonexistent hand-granade at a nonexistent target. He was pretending to be a super-hero saving the world. Next time, to save himself, the kid should learn to lie. Grenade? What grenade? I was pretending to toss roses at my wonderful teacher.

   

Australian Serial Killing Course for 9th Graders: Exposing Young Minds to Sadistic Murder

     Students in an Australian high school didn't have to wait until college to enroll in stupid, useless courses. A 9th grade teacher in Corio, a suburb of Greelong, Victoria on Australia's southeastern coast, offered a forensic psychology course devoted to the study of serial killers. This begs the question: what educational goal is being met here? Is studying a tiny subculture of deviants with homicidal personality disorders a good way to give 14-years-olds a realistic perception of human behavior? Are these murderous degenerates worthy of this kind of academic attention? Man, where was this teacher when I was in school flunking English, math, and science?

     This 9th grade professor of prolific, pathological homicide gave his (or her) students two weeks to complete a "Serial Killer Investigation Assignment." (I am not kidding, this is not a put on.) The twenty students taking the class were asked to complete ten out of a possible twenty "activities" related to the study of serial killers, their lives, and their victims. This reminds me of Boy Scouts having to do certain things to earn merit badges. Instead of studying the boring stuff, these kids learned all about American serial killers like David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), Ted Bundy, and the man who killed and ate young men, Jeffery Dahmer. (After completing this course, most of these kids would be afraid to visit the U.S.) The Australian students also studied Hannibal Lector, the fictitious, erudite consumer of human flesh. Finally, a course they could sink their teeth into.

     What follows are some of the"Serial Killer Investigation Assignment" activities students could choose from:

     Draw a cartoon panel about how your serial killer murdered someone. This is a good one for a kid with artistic ability who has selected a serial killer like John Wayne Gacy. Gacy, an amateur clown, tricked his young male victims into handcuffing themselves before he slowly strangled them to death. Mr. Gacy buried the dead boys' bodies under his house in Chicago. The visuals here could be great. These students of sadistic, multiple murder could identify with Mr. Gacy who was himself an artist! Maybe they could copy his style and technique. In art, that is. Or maybe they could do a cartoon of him dying in the execution chamber. That would be my choice.

     Choose two serial killers, compare them and decide which of them is worse and why. This is a good exercise for  students who want to be  criminal defense attorneys when they grows up. A student might select Donald Harvey, the Ohio angel of death who murdered hundreds of terminally ill hospital patients by poisoning them to death. Mr. Harvey could be compared to Ted Bundy who raped and murdered dozens of young women. In choosing Harvey over Bundy, the student could argue that all of Bundy's victims were young pretty women, while Donald Harvey just killed old people who were going to die soon anyway. Yes, Donald Harvey was much worse than Ted Bundy. Encouraging a 14-year-old see the good side of a serial killer is, educationally speaking, a splendid idea. Bravo.

     Write a poem about a serial killer. My first question for the teacher would be, does it have to rhyme? Mixing poetry and sudden, violent death will surely get kids interested in writing on a higher level. Let's see, what rhymes with autopsy. That's a tough one.

     Create a serial killer board game with full instructions. Oh my, this one is ambitious. But it's a good exercise because it forces the student to spend hours and hours thinking about sadistic, pathological murder. I would suggest adapting "Chutes and Ladders" to "Tunnels and Dungeons," or "Whips and Chains." Maybe the student could convert a Monopoly board. Instead of real estate, the player lands on potential murder victims. In this game, however, there is no get-out-of jail card.

     Make a children's book which teaches them about serial killers. The goal here, I guess, is to get toddlers interested in multiple homicide. Full color illustrations depicting the various ways serial killers go about their business would be quite instructive. Teaching kids at a young age how to commit serial murder would be, I imagine, an excellent anti-bullying measure.

     Draw a floor plan of a serial killer's "dream house." This is a good assignment for students who want to grow up to be sadistic architects. It goes without saying that the dwelling would feature a torture chamber, a dissecting room, a library of snuff videos, and a large but private back yard. I would also suggest a good ventilation system and a large incinerator.

     Ken Massari, the principal of the Australian high school that employed the 9th grade teacher, didn't know about the serial killer course until he read about it in the local press. Apparently a parent had complained to the media. The principal pulled the plug on the course which including killing the teacher's homework assignments. To a reporter, Massari said that "Upon review, I made the decision to withdraw the assignment immediately and permanently, and our trained staff contacted each family to determine if any support was required." It should be noted that the one family the school didn't contact had disappeared. (Just kidding.) 

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

True Crime Writer Joseph McGinniss

     Joe McGuinniss was born in Manhattan, New York on December 9, 1942. Raised by well-to-do parents in New York City and Los Angeles, he graduated in 1964 from Holly Cross University in Worcester, Massachusetts. After failing to get into Columbia University's graduate school of journalism (They must have suspected he had writing talent.), McGinniss became a staff reporter for the Worcester Telegram. 

     Following stints at The Philadelphia Bulletin and The Philadelphia Inquirer, McGuinniss published his first book in 1968. The Selling of the President, a nonfiction account of the marketing of presidential candidate Richard Nixon, became a bestseller and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for six months. That book established the 26-year-old author's reputation as a serious investigative journalist and landed him a job as writer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Harold Examiner.

The Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case

     On February 17, 1970, Green Beret Captain and Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald reported a deadly invasion of his home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. At the scene Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officers found MacDonald's wife Colette and his two daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, stabbed to death. MacDonald himself had superficial puncture wounds. According to MacDonald, he had struggled with the hippie intruders who had murdered his family.

     Following an internal military review of the case, Captain MacDonald was cleared of wrongdoing. But in January 1975, a federal grand jury indicted him on three counts of first-degree murder. He vigorously maintained his innocence and stuck to his original version of the mass murder.

     At some point after MacDonald's indictment, Joe McGuinniss entered the case as a journalist who intended to write a book exonerating the Green Beret officer. The writer acquired access into the inner circle of the MacDonald defense team by gaining MacDonald's trust as a loyal friend. In reality, the more McGuinniss learned about the case, the more convinced he became of MacDonald's guilt. The true crime writer believed that MacDonald, a sociopath who wanted to be free of  his family, had murdered his wife and daughters in a homicidal frenzy aided by his abuse of diet pills.

     In 1979, when the jury found MacDonald guilty as charged, McGuinniss, to maintain his position within the MacDonald defense team, feigned shock and outrage. But when McGuinniss' book on the case, Fatal Vision, came out in 1983, it was Jeffery MacDonald and his supporters who were shocked and outraged by the author's duplicity.

     Shortly after the publication of Fatal Vision, a book that quickly became a runaway bestseller, Jeffery MacDonald sued the true crime writer for beach of contract.

     When the first of its kind lawsuit went to trial, several well-known true crime authors such as Joseph Wambaugh and Norman Mailer testified on McGuinniss' behalf as expert witnesses. According to Wambaugh and Mailer, McGinniss had done what any serious investigative journalist would do to get to the bottom of a case. In other words, a true crime writer has no duty to be honest with the person he's writing about. At the conclusion of the trial, some jurors bought McGuinniss' defense but others did not. This led to a hung jury.

    The insurance company for the publisher of Fatal Vision, shocked and concerned that some of the jurors had sided with a man who had killed his wife and two children over the guy who had written the book about the mass murder, settled the suit out of court for $325,000. In the court of public opinion, McGuinniss did not come off as a likable person, and ordinary people did not approve of his journalistic trickery.

     In 1989, journalist Janet Malcolm wrote a long piece about the MacDonald-McGuinniss suit in The New Yorker. A year later the article came out as a book called The Journalist and the Murderer. (It's a great read, by the way.) Malcolm's defining of the journalist/subject relationship as inherently exploitive has itself become a source of debate. Regarding the MacDonald/McGuinniss relationship, Malcolm famously wrote: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

     Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bott published a book called Fatal Justice that argues for MacDonald's innocence. According to these authors, McGuinniss's book is full of substantive errors and groundless speculation.

     Regardless of one's take on the MacDonald's guilt or innocence, Fatal Vision is an exceptionally well written account of a fascinating murder case. It also popularized the concept of the sociopathic killer who appears normal on the outside but in reality is a pathologically narcissistic liar without feelings of guilt.

     Joe McGuinniss followed Fatal Vision with two bestselling true crime books. Blind Faith, published in 1989, is about a New Jersey man who hired a hit man to murder his wife. Cruel Doubt, 1991, features teenage murderers inspired by the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

     The method McGuinniss used to research his last book, a biography of Sarah Palin, also stirred controversy. In 2010, he rented a house in Wasilla, Alaska next door to the former vice presidential candidate. Critics called McGuinniss a peeping Tom, and Palin accused him of stalking her and her family. The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin came out in 2011. The book, failing to break new ground about a person the public had lost interest in, did not make the bestseller list.

     On March 10, 2014, Joe McGuinniss died in a Worcester, Massachusetts hospital from prostate cancer. At his death at age 71, he was living in Pelham with his second wife Nancy Doherty. He was survived by three children.

     Fatal Vision is considered by many to be a true crime classic equal to Joseph Wambaugh's Onion Field, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song.

     Jeffery MacDonald remains in prison and continues to maintain his innocence. 

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

Murder Trials Are Imperfect

     In most murder trials the only person who knows the true story of the crime is the defendant, and then only if he or she is guilty. Circumstantial evidence is suspect, eyewitnesses are unreliable, forensic evidence is only as good as the laboratory that developed it. On the other hand, circumstantial evidence, if properly interpreted, can tell the story of the crime; eyewitnesses can be good observers; and a professionally run forensics laboratory can develop evidence that is trustworthy.

     But these conditions may not be assumed. States' attorneys have been known to be overly zealous in pressing their cases; defense attorneys have been know to be less dedicated, or less competent than desired; and many people have spent years, even decades, in prison before a new circumstance showed that they were wrongly convicted. The introduction of DNA analysis has freed hundreds of people who were shown to have been wrongfully convicted--many on eyewitness testimony. [Also on jailhouse informants and junk science.]

     There is another side to this judicial coin: people who have committed murder and have been tried and found not guilty due to inadequate evidence, incompetent prosecution, a brilliant defense, or a jury not disposed to convict. [The above factors explain the O.J. Simpson acquittal.] This is, perhaps, a shame in the individual case, but it does society little harm in the long run, since no one would commit murder simply in the hope that his or her prosecution would be inept. Murder has the lowest recidivist rate of any major crime. It is much more likely that a mugger or a convenience-store robber will kill someone than it is for a murderer found not guilty to kill again. Society would be more seriously harmed if the popular perception were that citizens were regularly convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Michael Kurland, How to Try a Murder, 2002

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

The Crime of Assisted Suicide: The Willard Skellie Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Married to a Mobster

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

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


Romance Novel Sex Scenes

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

Donna Baker, Writing a Romantic Novel, 1997 

Fatal Falls: Accident or Murder?

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

Les Brown and Robert Jeffery, Real Hard Cases, 2006

Truman Capote on True Crime Writing

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

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

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Andrew Clarence Bullock Rape Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Cheever on Academic Literary Criticism

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

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

What's Wrong With Judge Baugh?

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

Associated Press, December 24, 2013 

Rapists Who Murder Their Victims

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

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

Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, Rape, 2000

Autobiographies of Famous People Are Unreliable

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

Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century, 1985 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

The Journal as the Foundation of a Book

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

Alexandra Johnson, The Hidden Writer, 1998 

The Guillotine

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

Geoffrey Abbott, Lords of the Scaffold, 2001 

Shoplifting

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

Rachel Shteir, The Steal, 2011

Novels Require A Lot of Facts

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

David Lodge, The Practice of Writing, 1996 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Greyhound Bus Therapy: Losing Your Mind in Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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