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Monday, July 31, 2017

The Jason Young Murder Case

In November 2006, 29-year-old Jason Young and his 26-year-old wife Michelle lived in a suburban home outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. They had a 2-year-old daughter named Cassidy. Michelle was five months pregnant with their second child. It was not a happy marriage. He had several girlfriends, and as a salesman for a medical software company, he spent a lot of time on the road. Michelle told friends and relatives that she hated her life.

     On the morning of November 3, 2006 Jason was out of town. The previous night he had checked into a Hampton Inn in Huntsville, Virginia 169 miles from Raleigh. At nine that morning, he left a voicemail for Michelle's younger sister, Meredith Fisher. Jason asked Meredith to stop by his house and retrieve some papers for him. (I presume he told Meredith he had called home and didn't get an answer.)

     Later that morning, Meredith Fisher entered the Young house on Jason's behalf. When she climbed the stairs to the second floor, she was shocked by the sight of bloody footprints. In the master bedroom she discovered her sister lying facedown in a pool of blood. The victim, wearing a white sweatshirt and black sweatpants, had been bludgeoned to death beyond recognition. Meredith found Cassidy hiding under the covers of her parents' bed. She had not been harmed, but her socks were saturated in her mother's blood. Meredith Fisher called 911.

     According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, the assailant had struck Michelle Young at least thirty times in the head. The attacker had tried to kill the victim by manual strangulation before beating her to death. The extent of the head wounds suggested an attack by an enraged, out-of-control killer who hated the victim.

     The authorities, from the beginning, suspected that Jason Young had snuck back to North Carolina from Virginia, murdered his wife, then returned to the Hampton Inn. The killer had not forced his way into the house, nothing had been taken, and the little girl's life had been spared. At the time of the murder, Jason was having an affair with one of his wife's friends. The couple had been fighting, and Jason had made no secret of the fact he wanted out of the marriage.

     From a prosecutor's point of view, there were serious holes in the Jason Young case. The suspect had an alibi 169 miles from the murder scene, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the carnage. Moreover, no one had seen him at the house on the night of the murder. Even worse, investigators had not identified the murder weapon. As a result of these prosecutorial weaknesses, the Wake County District Attorney's Office did not charge Jason with the murder of his wife.

     Michelle Young's parents were convinced that Jason had murdered their daughter. When it became apparent that the authorities were not taking action, they filed a wrongful death suit against him. In March 2009, two years and four months after the homicide, the civil court jury, applying a standard of proof that is less demanding than a criminal trial's proof beyond a reasonable doubt, found the defendant responsible for Michelle's brutal killing. The jurors awarded the plaintiffs $15.5 in damages.

     Eight months after the civil court verdict, a Wake County prosecutor, based on a three-year homicide investigation conducted by the City-County Bureau of Investigation, charged Jason Young with first-degree murder. Police officers, on the afternoon of December 15, 2009, arrested Young after pulling over his car in Brevard, a town in southwest North Carolina. The local magistrate denied him bail.

     The Jason Young murder case went to trial in Raleigh in June 2011. The prosecutor, following his opening statement in which he alleged that the defendant had drugged his daughter that night with adult-strength Tylenol and a prescription sedative, put on an entirely circumstantial case that relied heavily on motive.

     The defense attorney hammered home the fact the prosecution could not place the defendant at the scene of the murder. The state did not have a confession, an eyewitness, or even the murder weapon. Jason took the stand on his own behalf and told the jurors that when his wife was murdered, he was sleeping in a hotel 169 miles away. He said he had loved his wife and their unborn child.

     On Monday morning, June 27, 2011, the foreman of the jury of seven men and five women told the judge that the jurors were "immovably hung" on the verdict. "We currently sit," he said, "at a six to six ration and do not appear to be able to make any further movement. Where do we go from here?"

     The trial judge instructed the jurors to return to the jury room and try to reach a verdict. But later in the day, after deliberating a total of twelve hours, the foreman announced that they were deadlocked in an eight to four vote in favor of acquittal. The judge declared a mistrial.

     The Wake County District Attorney, determined to bring Jason Young to justice, announced that he would try him again. Jason, who had been incarcerated in the Wake County Jail since his arrest in December 2009, went on trial for the second time on February 10, 2012.

     The prosecutor, in his opening statement, alleged that the defendant had checked into the Hillsville Hampton Inn just before eleven on the night of November 2, 2006. An hour later he left the building through an emergency exit he had propped open with a rock to avoid using his computer card key to re-enter the hotel. According to the prosecutor, the defendant arrived at his Birchleaf Drive home at around three in the morning. Shortly after his arrival, he drugged his daughter and murdered his wife. After cleaning up and disposing of his bloody shirt, shoes, and trousers, and ditching or cleaning off the murder weapon, he returned to the hotel, arriving there around seven in the morning.

     Following the testimony of the victim's sister, Meredith Fisher, and the testimony of several other prosecution witnesses, a Hampton Inn hotel clerk took the stand. According to this witness, he had found the emergency door on the first-floor stairwell propped open with a rock, He also noticed that in the same stairwell, someone had unplugged the security camera and turned its lens toward the ceiling.

     One of the City-County Bureau of Investigation crime scene officers testified that it appeared that someone had moved the victim's body to get into the defendant's closet. The detective said that despite all of the blood on the upstairs floor, certain items such as the sink drain had been sanitized by the killer. The investigator said he did find traces of blood on the knob to the door leading from the house to the garage. This witness had been present when, on the day after the murder, the suspect's body was checked for signs of trauma related to the killing. No injuries were found.

      A second detective testified that the dark shirt the defendant was seen wearing on hotel surveillance video footage was not in the suitcase he had used on that trip. The implication was that the defendant had disposed of the bloody garment.

     Included among the prosecution witnesses who took the stand over the next two weeks were two daycare employees who said they had seen Cassidy Young acting out her mother's beating. The girl was using a doll to demonstrate the attack. A therapist took the stand and testified that a week before her death, the victim had come to her seeking counseling to cope with her unhappy marriage. In the therapist's opinion, Michelle Young had been verbally abused by her husband.

     Jason Young's mother and father took the stand for the defense. On November 3, 2006 Jason had driven from the Hampton Inn in Virginia to his parents's home in Brevard, North Carolina. His mother testified that when they broke the news to him that Michelle had been murdered, "you saw the color just drain from his face."

     On February 29, 2012 the defense rested its case without calling Jason to the stand. (The defense attorney was probably worried that the prosecutor, having studied Jason's direct testimony from the first trial, would rip him apart on cross-examination.)

     The prosecutor, in his closing argument to the jury, said, "This woman wasn't just murdered, she suffered a beating the likes of which we seldom see. This woman was punished. The assailant struck her over thirty times with a weapon of some sort, and she was undoubtedly unconscious after the second or third blow."

     The defense attorney pointed out the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, talked about reasonable doubt, and reminded the jury that being a bad husband did not make his client a murderer.

     On March 5, 2012, after the jury of eight women and four men had deliberated eight hours, the judge, before a packed courtroom, read the verdict: guilty of first-degree murder. The 38-year-old defendant, after the judge announced the verdict, showed no emotion. Facing a mandatory life sentence without the chance of parole, Jason Young was escorted out of the room in handcuffs.

     Following the trial, several of the jurors spoke to reporters. Two members of the jury said that the lack of physical evidence in the case pointed more to the defendant's guilt than his innocence. For example, what happened to the shirt and shoes he was seen wearing on the hotel surveillance footage? A third juror found it incriminating that Cassidy had not been murdered, and possibly cleaned-up after the attack.

     The prosecutor in the Jason Young murder trial, the second time around, turned a weakness--a lack of physical evidence--into a strength. In the era of the "CSI" television shows, advanced DNA technology, and high forensic expectations on the part of juries, this was an unusual case. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Writing The How-To Article

Some kinds of writing are more debilitating than others, and it took me years to learn which, for me, is which. Instructional writing--the pure how-to article--is the worst.

John Jerome, Writing Trade, 1992

Saturday, July 15, 2017

"Serious" Fiction

The difference between the writer of serious fiction and the writer of escape entertainment is the clear difference between the artist and the craftsman. The one has the privilege and the faculty or original design; the other does not. The man who works from blueprints is a thoroughly respectable character, but he is of another order from the man who makes the blueprints in the first place.

Wallace Stegner, Teaching and Writing Fiction, 2002 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Depressed Writer

Depression can cause block in any field of creativity. But some psychiatrists think that depression is especially intertwined with and harmful to language because of the way depression drains away meaning. The French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva described this process: "For those who are racked by melancholia, writing about it would have meaning only if it sprang out of that very melancholia. I am trying to address an abyss of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief that at times, and often on a long-term basis, lays claim upon us to the extent of losing all interest in words."

Alice W. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease, 2004 

Where to Begin Your Story

Reading about first draft writing tactics has made me realize how many I've unconsciously developed over the years. [Shouldn't that be subconsciously?] One key anxiety reducer I've learned is not to worry about beginnings. It's too easy to panic while waiting for the perfect opening. Fiction writers typically know the conclusion of a story they set out to write, but rarely know how it will begin. Good leads usually show up late. In my own writing and that of my students, I generally find the best opening deep within a narrative. This opening only makes itself known as I read drafts, see what catches my eye, something that sets a tone, that gets the piece up and running. Knowing this, I don't concern myself with beginnings until the end.

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Confusing Short Story

Deliberately puzzling or confusing a short story reader may keep him reading for a while, but at too great an expense. Even just an "aura" of mystery in a short story is usually just a lot of baloney. Who are these people? What are they up to? Provoking such questions from a reader can be a writer's way of deferring exposition until he feels the reader is ready for the explanation of it all. But more likely it's just fogging things up. A lot of beginning writers' fiction is like of beginners' poetry: deliberately unintelligible as to make the shallow seem deep.

Rust Hills, Writing in General and The Short Story in Particular, 1987 

Raymond Carver on the Writer's Voice

The writer's voice is akin to style, but it isn't style alone. It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There's plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to his way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.

Raymond Carver in On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey, 2000

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Who's Protecting Our Personal Data?

     Corporations have to be urged to better screen job applicants and to restrict access to sensitive information. Anyone working in the  payroll or personnel departments of a company would have continuous access to the private information of all employees, and they ought to be carefully screened. But if a company doesn't lock its file cabinets containing that information or protect computerized files, then anyone in the company has access to them. Anyone involved in processing expense accounts, including the secretary who first collects them, gets to look at personal data.

     Many companies use temporary employees. Do they screen them? Does the agency that sent them screen them? Lots of businesses, especially smaller ones, outsource things like payroll services. What's the security policy of those outside vendors? Do they even have any? You don't know the names of the people working there who are routinely handling your employees' private records.

Frank Abagnale (Of Catch Me if you Can fame), Stealing Your Life, 2007

Friday, July 7, 2017

In Writing for Children Don't Put Theme Over Plot

The goal in writing popular books for both adults and children is identical: Fiction is entertainment. Your children's book should not be designed to teach a lesson, send a message, or expound upon a moral theme. A theme, such as honesty is the best policy or perseverance pays, may be implicit in the storyline, but the point should be made subtly by the outcome of the plot.

Sam McCarver in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Alfrieda Abbe, 2004 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Stephen King's First Novel

I wrote my first novel when I was a freshman in college and submitted it to a first-novel competition--I believe it was the Bennett Cerf competition. I thought the book had an outside chance, and I was enormously proud to have fathered such a wonderful creation at the age of nineteen. It was rejected with a short "Dear contributor" note, and I was too crushed to show that book to any publisher in New York.

Stephen King, Secret Windows, 2002 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

What is Literary Talent?

What is literary talent? A nimble fluency. A way with words. An imagination that's easily aroused, quick to see, to hear, and to feel. An ear for the music of the language and a tendency to become absorbed in the mysterious movements of its significance and sound. A sense of audience. Skill at organizing verbal concepts solidly, effectively, and fairly swiftly. An aptitude for catching the elusive forms and figures of a vivid imagination and a knack for pinning them down on a page.

Stephen Koch, Writer's Workshop, 2003

Writer Self Censorship

Renowned editor and author Gordon Lish, in his famous writing class used to shock the assembled company by asking whether we were waiting for our parents to die before writing something worth reading. Some students were offended by this suggestion, but I felt it made a great deal of sense. [Today, the writing teacher's comment might get some students thinking about hiring a hit man. Just kidding, I think.] Writers tend to censor themselves for fear of what other people think, especially those at home.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest For the Trees, 2000

Monday, July 3, 2017

Susan Sontag on the Perversity of the Novel

Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover--moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality--that they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, and infusion of intense feeling…Perversity is the muse of modern literature. Today the house of fiction is full of mad lovers, gleeful rapists, castrated sons--but very few husbands.

Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, 1969 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Writers on Writing

Most writers love to talk, and some of the things they love to talk about most is writing. In interviews and letters, in table talk and memoirs and manifestos, writers have always held forth in surprisingly full detail about how they do what they do. It adds to a vast, untapped literature on technique.

Stephen Koch, Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, 2003

Saturday, July 1, 2017

How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel?

Someone will always ask, "How long does it take you to write a novel?" I hardly ever give them the real answer. "It depends," I will say. "A year. Sometimes three or four." The real answer, of course, is that it takes your entire life. I am forty-four, and it took me forty-four years to get this novel finished. You don't mention this to too many people, because it can fill their hearts with sadness, looking at you and thinking, Jesus, forty-four years to come up with this? But it's always the truest answer. You could not have written it any sooner. You write the book when its time has come, and you bring your lifetime to the task, however few or many years you have behind you.

James D. Houston in The Writer's Life, Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks, editors, 1997