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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. 

Learning to Write From Writers

     The serious student of writing and the teacher of writing should know that the extensive testimony of writers has largely been ignored by composition researchers. What writers know about their craft has been dismissed as the "lore of the practitioner."...

     Researchers usually dismiss what writers say about writing because they believe that writers do not know, intellectually, what they do. But writing is an intellectual act, and writers who are able to repeat acts of effective writing demonstrably know what they are doing. And they are articulate in sharing it.

Donald M. Murray, Shoptalk: Learning to Write With Writers, 1990

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Writing As A Lonely, Insecure Occupation

     The writer's life is inherently an insecure one. Each project is a new start and may be a failure. The fact that a previous item has been successful is no guard against failure this time.

     What's more, as has often been pointed out, writing is a very lonely occupation. You can talk about what you write, and discuss it with family, friends, or editors, but when you sit down at that typewriter, you are alone with it and no one can possibly help. You must extract every word from you own suffering mind.

     It's no wonder writers so often turn misanthropic or are driven to drink to dull the agony. I've heard it said that alcoholism is an occupational disease with writers.

Isaac Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir, 1994

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Writing In The FantasyGenre Is Not Easy

So many writers think fantasy is easy. All you have to do is rip off some elves, goblins, and a few other things from Tolkien and spend about 10 minutes making up imaginary words and another 10 minutes working up a rough idea of the country and a little local history and bingo, you're in business. You're a fantasist. It's not like that. What made Tolkien unique is that he spent 50 years building his world, and he built it from the inside out.

Peter S. Beagle in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Alfrieda Abbe, 2004 

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 22, 2017

When to Blow a Bad Book Out of the Water

Is a reviewer ever justified in attempting to blow a bad book out of the water? I think the answer is yes, but the reviewer must choose his targets with the greatest of care. It's not enough for the book to be bad; other elements must be present: smugness; pretentiousness; and over inflated reputation; clear evidence that a book's badness is not the result of incompetence, but of deliberate design. Such books represent an assault on the republic of letters and should not be ignored.

Peter Prescott, Never in Doubt, 1986

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Raymond Chandler on Dashiell Hammett

In the late 1930s Raymond Chandler extrolled the virtues of Dashiell Hammet (who, he felt, took murder out of the library and put it back on the streets where it belonged) and defined the hard-boiled detective genre in an essay for the Atlantic Monthly entitled, "The Simple Art of Murder." He might have been writing a justification of his own work as well: uncluttered prose, lots of metaphors, a wisecracking detective (Philip Marlowe), and the mean streets of a tough and uncaring city.

Nancy Pearl, Book Lust, 2003 

Seasoning Your Writing With Humor

Most writers aren't relentlessly funny from beginning to end, and they don't have to be. A pinch of humor that works is better than a potful that doesn't. For most of us humor is merely seasoning; it's not the whole dish.

Patricia O'Conner, Words Fail Me, 1999

Does The Death Penalty Deter Murder?

When we look closely into it, there are two categories of people who commit murder: (1) Those who are sane (know the nature and quality or consequences of their act) but hope to escape the penalty; (2) Those who are insane, and these either do not know or do not care what they do. Homicides are either the one or the other, so it is difficult to appreciate the deterring effect of the death penalty upon their minds. I am not a psychologist or metaphysician, or even a theologian, so I cannot resolve this difficult problem except by saying that, if a man knows what will happen as a result of an act of his, and hopes so strongly to escape the consequences that he actually commits the act, a contemplation of the possible penalty does not seem to hinder him.

Charles Duff, A Handbook on Hanging, 2001 reprint of 1961 edition 

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Editor-Writer Relationship

Eliciting revisions requires more than delicacy, it requires a certain understanding about the writer's general temperament and well-being. Some writers are dead serious about their work and defend each word. Some are deeply analytical and need only be presented with reasons to make changes. Others work on instinct and feeling; they traffic in nuance and tone. Some authors are humorless. I usually like to have a trial run of editing around seventy-five pages to see how an author responds before continuing on the entire text. Almost in a reversal of the authorial anxiety that attends handing in pages, I'm always anxious about the author's response. Will he or she take to my editing? When I hear about author-editor relationships that have run aground, it is usually the author who is cited as the malcontent. But it is also true that some editors fail to realize that an author needs more that the benefit of line-by-line editing; he needs someone who has the sensitivity to build confidence in the writer as he revises his text.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees, 2000

Write About What Interests You

Nothing in the world is inherently interesting--that is, immediately interesting, and interesting in the same degree, to all human beings. [What about murder?] And nothing can be made to be of interest to the reader that was not first of vital concern to the writer. Each writer's prejudices, tastes, background, and experience tend to limit the kinds of characters, actions, and settings he can honestly care about, since by the nature of our mortality we care about what we know and might possibly lose (or have already lost), dislike that which threatens what we care about, and feel indifferent toward that which has no visible bearing on our safety or the safety of the people and things we love. Thus no two writers get aesthetic interest from exactly the same materials.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, 1984

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Crime Lab Rogue

     Annie Dookhan, a chemist for the Massachusetts police, was sentenced to three to five years in prison after committing a fraud so extensive that her crimes call into question the validity of over 40,000 convictions.

     Dookhan worked in a laboratory examining evidence in drug cases. She was a go-to analyst for law enforcement and prosecutors, thanks to her rapid turnaround time and penchant for delivering much needed drug evidence to score convictions.

     Her record, however, was based on countless criminal fabrications. She falsified numerous reports, cut corners, forged signatures, inflated her credentials, lied about whether she was actually testing the lab samples she received and even tampered with evidence, according to NPR.

Robby Soave, The Daily Caller, November 25, 2013

Loose Lips Sink Wiseguys

You know, sometimes I lose my temper, and I say, "Gee I wish somebody would bump that guy off," and then one of these young punks who wants to make a name for himself goes ahead and does it. And then I have to pick up the pieces.

Al Capone in Jerry Capeci, Wiseguy's Say the Darndest Things, 2004

Scenes as the Building Blocks of Creative Nonfiction

     Scenes (vignettes, episodes, slices of reality, and so forth) are the building blocks of creative nonfiction--the primary factor that separates and defines literary and/or creative nonfiction from traditional journalism and ordinary lifeless prose.

     The uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject place, or personality but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality in action.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997

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 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Writer Lajos Egri on Originality

     In the arts we cannot discover startling originality--only trends, styles, twists, slants, tricks, exaggeration, minimization, emphasis on parts instead of the whole. Originality, then, is rare in the field of literature and, for that matter, in all fields of art.

     If we consider originality almost non-existent, then what shall a writer strive for? Characterization. Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing. Read, or better, study the immortals and you will be forced to conclude that their unusual penetration into human character is what has kept their work fresh and alive through centuries, and not because they may have a new "slant" which seemed to many to be "original."

Lajos Egri, The Art of Creative Writing, 1990 

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

Science Fiction in the 1940s

     To the American literary community--to the American arts establishment--the science fiction writers of the forties were invisible. There is no more graceful way to put this. There were, for the first half of the decade, almost no books at all: no anthologies, no reprints, no second-serial rights. Novels and stories were written for genre magazines of limited circulation, were published and went out of print, presumably forever....

     It must be understood that in certain respects science fiction was no different for its writers, offered nothing less, than did the other branches of popular literature. It was pulp and appeared in the torrent of pulp magazines which by the hundreds got on in various degrees of health until wartime paper shortages and, finally, the curse of television put almost all of them in the ground by the beginning of the fifties. Western and romance writers, adventure and sports pulpeteers, also worked for a half cent to two cents a word and knew that when the magazines went off sale their work would never be seen by a nonrelative or nonlover again.

Barry N. Malzberg, reprinted in Breakfast in the Ruins, 2007

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