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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Crime Lab Problems

In recent years, the integrity of crime laboratories has been called into question, with some heavily publicized cases highlighting (1) unqualified practitioners, (2) sometimes lax standards that have generated questionable or fraudulent evidence, and (3) the absence of quality control measures to detect questionable evidence. In one notorious case, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed serious inadequacies in the procedures used by the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, including routine failure to run essential scientific controls, to take adequate measures to prevent contamination of samples, to adequately document work performed and results obtained, and to follow correct procedures for computing statistical frequencies. There have been a number of other dismaying reports about crime labs--most recently, the San Francisco drug lab--that suffer from problems like those uncovered in Houston.

Judge Harry T. Edwards in Forensic Testimony (2013) by C. Michael Bowers

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Phantom Education of Illiterate Football Players

     If I had ever turned in a 146-word paper to one of my professors, I can assure you I would not have received an A- even if they were the most brilliant 146 words written in English. But apparently if you're an athlete at the University of North Carolina, those 146 words don't even have to be grammatically correct. Former professor Mary Willingham provided the essay as an example of the sort of "work" that UNC athletes are allowed to get by on at the school, and the image has certainly sparked conversation around the topic.

     It's one thing to know that athletes who attend schools where sports are a priority get special treatment and are often given grades they don't deserve just to keep them on the team. But it's a whole new thing to see a one paragraph essay that makes up a fictional conversation between Rosa Parks and a bus driver and know that the jock who wrote it got a better grade than a lot of students got for their well-reseached 10-page essays. But according to Willingham, who spent 10 years tutoring student athletes before turning whistleblower, this sort of thing happens all the time.

     "I became aware of this 'paper class' system, she told ESPN, "where students would take classes that didn't really exist." Formerly called "Independent studies," these "paper classes" involve no attendance, and in fact only require students to write a paper, at least according to Willingham. And the papers the students produce are far from college quality; in fact, Willingham says, some of the players only have a second grade reading level, which for an adult is functionally illiterate….

     In the ESPN segment, Willingham's allegations are backed up by former UNC athlete Duenta Williams, who added that advisors at the school were mostly interested in ensuring that he remained eligible to play, not in ensuring he got the best education possible. They both also claim that the NCAA turned a blind eye to these practices….[If American high schools didn't graduate illiterates, we'd still have college football, it just wouldn't be as professional. The problem is in our public education system where sports is also more important than academics.]

Emma Cueto, "This 146-Word Essay Earned UNC Athlete An A-, Says Former Professor," Clementinedaily.com, March 28, 2014 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Police Officers Rarely Prosecuted For Shooting People

     Police agencies have developed policies that generally permit officers to use force when they reasonably fear imminent physical harm. The U.S. Supreme Court shaped the federal legal standards that govern the use of force, holding in a 1989 case that the use of force must be evaluated through the "perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."

     Since then, the criminal justice system has more often than not sided with police in shooting investigations, with prosecutors and grand jurors reluctant to second-guess their decisions. Many of the cases that don't result in charges involved armed suspects shot during confrontations with police. But even an officer who repeatedly shoots an unarmed person may avoid prosecution in cases where he reasonably believed himself to be under risk of serious bodily injury or death….

"Police Shootings Don't End With Prosecutions," Associated Press, November 26, 2014  

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Science Fiction as Realistic Fiction

Years ago Sir Arthur C. Clarke commented that he preferred reading science fiction because it's the only realistic fiction--by which he meant that it's the only one that incorporates the concept that the world is changing and being changed by human activities.

James Gunn, LJworld.com, 2006 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Nobody Writes About Good People

Goodness, which we praise so highly in life, is infertile terrain for a writer, whether a novelist or a journalist. [This is particularly true in crime writing. Nobody cares about the victim, all of the interest is directed at the villain.]

Adam Kirsch, 2013 

Jury Duty in the George Zimmerman Murder Trial

I want people to know that we [the six-woman jury] put everything...into this verdict. We thought about it for hours and cried over it afterwards. I don't think any of us could ever do anything like that ever again. I have no doubt that George [Zimmerman] feared for his life in the situation he was in at the time. I think both [he and Trayvon Martin] were responsible for the situation they had gotten themselves into. I think they both could have walked away. [When the jury in the Zimmerman trial began their deliberations, three were for acquittal, one for second degree murder, and two for the manslaughter charge.]

Juror B 37, George Zimmerman murder trial, Sanford, Florida 2013 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Hit and Run Suspect Almost Escaped to Jordan

     A man wanted in a hit and run crash that left a 73-year-old man with severe injuries was minutes away from fleeing the country when U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents intervened and took the suspect into custody….Arlington, Texas police had an arrest warrant for Omar Mohammad, 25, and had contacted U.S. Customs and the Department of State, thinking Mohammad might be a flight risk. And they were right….

     Police informed federal investigators at 5:30 PM Wednesday, February 19, 2014 about Mohammad….That information came just in time. That flight, on its way to Jordan, was already on the tarmac and ready to depart….

"Texas Hit-And-Run Suspect Captured on Tarmac," CBS News, February 24, 2014


Friday, August 11, 2017

Destroying Pornographic Evidence in a Closed Murder Case

Legal experts say the destruction of evidence in a fatal Ohio rape case was likely justified by harm that could occur if the material became public. At issue are photos and audio and video recordings collected in the investigation into the 2012 death of Deanna Ballman and her nearly full-term child at the hands of a doctor convicted of killing her with a heroin overdose. Delaware County Judge Duncan Whitney approved a prosecutor's request late last year to destroy the evidence once the case is wrapped up. Assistant Delaware County prosecutor Kyle Rohrer argued the evidence was obscene because its purpose was to arouse lust….

"Judge Backs Destruction of Evidence in Ohio Rape Case," Fox News, February 9, 2014 

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Mother Who Pimped Out Her Daughters

     In April 2012, a tipster called the Nebraska State Patrol to report a woman he had met on Craigslist. According to the informant, she had sent him sexually graphic photographs of her 14-year-old daughter. For a price, this woman offered to make the girl available for sex.

     On April 26, an undercover state officer, posing as a potential John, arranged to meet the 35-year-old mother of three at a motel in Kearney, Nebraska. Michelle Randall, accompanied by her 14-year-old daughter, offered to sell herself for $150, and/or the girl for $200. The officer flashed his badge and arrested the mother. A child protection agent took custody of the teen.

     The arresting officer took Randall to the Buffalo County Jail where she was held on $250,000 bail under charges of soliciting the sexual assault of a child and possession of child pornography.

     Police and child protection personnel went Randall's home near Minden, Nebraska where they found the suspect's other two daughters, ages 7 and 9, alone in the filthy house. The girls were placed into foster care.

     When questioned by the police Michelle Randall admitted allowing her 41-year-old boyfriend, over a period of 14 months, to have sex with her teenage daughter and her 7 year old. She also named some of the men who had paid to have sex with the girls.

     Over the next few weeks, Nebraska police officers arrested 7 men, including the boyfriend, who had paid to have sex with the 14-year-old one or more times. Three of these men had sexually molested the 7-year-old sister. They were all charged with sexual assault.

     A Columbus, Nebraska man, 37-year-old Donald Grafe, had sex with the 14-year-old at a Lincoln truck stop. The other arrestees included Logan Roepke, a 22-year-old man from McCook, Nebraska; 38-year-old Alexander Rahe from Omaha; 41-year-old Shad Chandler from Lincoln; and Brian McCarthy, 25, also from Lincoln. McCarthy, incarcerated in the Lancaster County Jail, had pornographic images of the 14-year-old on his cellphone.

     In November 2012, Michelle Randall pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit first-degree sexual assault of a child and two counts of possession of child pornography. The judge sentenced the mother pimp to 92 to 120 years in prison.

     In January 2013, Shad Chandler from Lincoln, Nebraska, pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child. Three months later the judge sentenced him to 15 to 45 years behind bars. The other patrons of child prostitution pleaded guilty and received similar sentences. In 2013, police officers arrested three more men accused of having sex with the 14-year-old girl. These men were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison terms.  

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Prolonging the Suspense in Fiction

     Good writers know how to create suspense; better writers know how to prolong it. Creating effective suspense is not that easy, and the best writers know they shouldn't let it go once it exists…

     Nearly all suspenseful elements can be prolonged. You can prolong danger in endless ways, even when you think you can't: a character can survive a dangerous operation only to develop a dangerous infection, or a character can get through one dangerous obstacle only to be faced with another.

Noah Lukeman, The Plot Thickens, 2002  

Creating Ghosts, Vampires and Werewolves

     Suppose you have a strong desire to use a ghost, vampire or werewolf as your central horror novel menace. Is it still possible to utilize such conventional monsters? Will editors buy yet another vampire novel when so many have already been written?

     The answer is yes: Editors are always receptive to novels and stories containing supernatural monsters, but they must be freshly presented; your stories must offer new insights and a fresh approach.

William F. Nolan, How to Write Horror Fiction, 1990

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Isaac Asimov On Writer's Block

     The most serious problem a writer can face is "writer's block." This is a serious disease and when a writer has it he finds himself staring at a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter (or blank screen on the word processor) and can't do anything to unblank it. The words don't come. Or if they do, they are clearly unsuitable and are quickly torn up or erased. What's more, the disease is progressive, for the longer the inability to write continues, the more certain it is that it will continue to continue....

     A writer can't put anything on paper when there's nothing left (at least temporarily) in his mind. It may be, therefore, that writer's block is unavoidable and that at best a writer must pause every once in a while, for a shorter or longer interval, to let his mind fill up again.

Isaac Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir, 1994