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Thursday, December 12, 2019

The White Van Women Snatchers

     Before the Internet, we had the urban legend, scary myths spread by word of mouth. One such legend was called "The Hookman." This myth features a young couple parked in a lover's lane. Over the car radio they hear that a homicidal lunatic with a hook for a hand has escaped from a local mental institution and is roaming the area's back roads. When the couple arrives home that night, they discover, dangling from one of the car door handles, a hook.

     In the Internet era, the urban legend has been replaced by scarelore, a term that refers to vague, terrifying news items published on social media, scary tales that have no basis in fact. Quite often scarelore stories involve shadowy men committing terrible crimes against helpless women and children.

     The scarelore that recently made the rounds, mainly through Facebook, features men in white commercial vans who patrol shopping center parking lots looking for young women to abduct. When the kidnappers see a vulnerable young woman pull into the lot, they wait until she walks away from her car then park next to it. When she returns, they throw her into their van and drive off. The abducted women became sex slaves, and are ultimately killed for their body parts.

     The spread of the white van myth was not good news for drivers of white commercial vans of which there are a couple hundred thousand in circulation at any given time. At the height of the abduction scare, many white van drivers were harassed by citizens or reported to the police. In November 2019, an innocent driver of a white van in a Memphis, Tennessee parking lot was shot to death by the police.

     Jack Young, the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, in a December 2019 television interview, added credibility to the white van abduction hoax when he said this: "We're getting reports of some people in white vans trying to snatch up young girls for human sex trafficking and selling body parts. So, we have to be careful because there is so much evil going on, not just in the city of Baltimore, but around the country. Don't park near a white van and make sure you keep your cellphone in case somebody tries to attack you."

    Even for a politician, this was a stupid thing to say. Shortly after Mayor Young raised the abduction alarm, the chief of police of Baltimore came forward and told reporters that his department had received no reports of white van abductions. Moreover, a spokesperson for the FBI announced that there had been no reports of white van kidnappings nationwide.

     After the mayor helped spread the white van scarelore, Facebook issued the following statement: "Posts with this [white van] claim have been rated as false by third party fact checkers and we are dramatically reducing their distribution. People who see these false posts on Facebook and share them, or have already shared them, will see a warning they're false."

Want a Good Education? Dump the Prestigious University for Community College

     In terms of acquiring the education you--or someone else--paid for, there is nothing more fraudulent than a so-called "prestigious" university. George Orwell, in 1941, said something to the effect that intelligent mechanics would make better leaders than the dimwits with a fancy degrees. Unfortunately, graduates of prestigious universities dominate the higher levels of business and government. The primary mission of the prestigious school is not teaching. These institutions are all about research and faculty publishing. While the ambitious professors are researching and writing books and journal articles, their classes are taught by graduate students and newly hired professors afraid to give any student a grade below B.

     The book Higher Education? (2012) by Andrew Hacker, a retired Queens College professor and Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times journalist, is based on the idea that what goes on in higher education is not education. The authors blame our failed university system on the over importance of research and publishing. They are also critical of tenure.

     In a 2012, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz interviewed Andrew Hacker for The Atlantic Magazine. According to the author of Higher Education?, "There are two ways to pick a college. One is to go to a prestigious college and when you graduate the world will know you went to Princeton or Stanford. It doesn't mater what happened in the classroom as long as you have that brand behind you. The second reason to go to college is to get a good liberal arts education. We argue that you can get a better education at second or third tier colleges."

     According to Professor Emeritus Hacker, the problem with professors being pressured into publishing is "there are just too many academic publications and too many professors publishing. Not only that, most of the books are too long. A book on Virginia Woolf could be a 30-page article. Somebody did a count on how many pieces have been published on Virginia Woolf in the past 15 years. The answer was several thousand. Really? Who needs this?"

     "Academics," said Hacker, "typically don't get tenured until the age of 40. This means that from their years as graduate students and then assistant professors, from ages 25 through 38 or 39, they have to toe the line. So the pursuit of tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom. And even people who get tenure really don't change. What bothers us, too, is that over 300,000 professors have tenure. What that means is these people never leave. There's hardly any turnover in the senior ranks. You go to a campus and over two-thirds of the faculty have been there at least 25 years. They begin to stagnate. They become infantilized, embroiled in ideological issues like faculty parking."

     Another critic of modern academia was Martin Russ who taught creative writing in several college and university English Departments. A published novelist, he wrote, in 1980, Showdown Semester: Advice From a Writing Professor. This is one of the most entertaining, informative and helpful books on the subject of teaching college students how to write.

     In his book, Professor Russ provides a professor's take on college administrators (mostly idiots) and gives the reader a peek inside the ivory tower. Professor Russ says this about tenure: "I have the impression that it is the untenured in most English Departments who are the most effective teachers. This is largely due to the anxiety arising from job insecurity, which forces them to work at full capacity. The tenured professor is never forced to justify his classroom work to his students, and can go on year after year in a take-it-or-leave-it way in which arrogance overrides the kind of teaching that has to do with helping, sharing, giving."

     Professor Russ, back in 1980, realized that too many professors were taking time away from their teaching to write books nobody reads: "English professors are always turning out extraneous textbooks or collecting other people's writing and publishing them as anthologies."

The Violent Child: A Family Nightmare and a Social Problem

     It must be awful to be afraid of your own child. But this is how it is for millions of families where the abusers aren't the parents but their children. In these homes, parents live in fear they will be murdered in their sleep. Many of these adults are foster parents who took in children taken from their biological parents who abused them.

     As infants, many of these children went hungry, didn't have their diapers changed, weren't touched, comforted or talked to. As a result, they never formed a healthy bond with their parents.

     Between the ages nine months to five years, these neglected and abused children exhibit behavior problems associated with a syndrome called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). As early as three and four, these children express rage and frustration by throwing prolonged tantrums over minor provocations. They slap, spit, punch and kick the people taking care of them. They attack other children in the home.

     RAD adolescents pose danger to siblings, parents, and teachers. They get expelled from school and find themselves in and out of the criminal justice system.

     The most dangerous among these adolescents are the youngsters also diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Some later become paranoid schizophrenics with Bipolar Disorder. Many are addicted to drugs.

    Medication and therapy in these cases are not effective. Many of these violent children grow into violent adults who often end up on the streets, in prison, or in the morgue.

Novelists: Show, Don't Tell

Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Anton Chekov

Stephen King On Cutting Fat From Your Writing

When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of fat. This is going to hurt: revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.

Stephen King

Stories Are All Around Us

Everyone walks past story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don't see any.

Orson Scott Card

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Student Drug Informant

      The University of Massachusetts at Amherst had a 61-officer police department that includes a unit that handled drug cases. In the fall of 2012, campus drug cops learned from one of their student snitches that a sophomore named Logan was selling the ecstasy drug Molly as well as LSD to other students. Not long after that, an undercover UMass officer bought drugs from the former high school hockey star and scholarship student.

     In most colleges and universities a student caught selling drugs on or near campus is suspended from school and charged with a crime. These schools also inform the student's parents why their son or daughter was kicked out of the institution. Once alerted, parents of children with drug problems have the option of trying to get them help.

     In Logan's case, the campus police gave him a choice: he could be thrown out of school, pay back the $40,000 in scholarship money, face the wrath of his parents, and risk going to prison for up to five years, or he could avoid all of that by becoming a drug informant for the campus police. Logan decided to snitch on his fellow students.

     In December 2012, the UMass drug officer in charge of Logan's case, gave him back the $700 officers had seized from him at the time of his arrest. His parents, proud of the fact their son was earning good grades in college, had no idea he had a drug problem, had been caught dealing, and was now an informant for the UMass police. In the department he was identified as "CI-8."

     Over the next several months, Logan made drug buys for the campus police, became seriously hooked on heroin, and snitched on his fellow students. He continued, through all of this, to maintain grades good enough to hold on to his scholarship. (Because he was an out-of-state student, Logan's tuition was almost double that of his in-state counterparts.)

     On a Sunday afternoon in October 2013, Logan's parents showed up on campus to pay him a surprise visit. They went to his living quarters and knocked on his door. When he didn't respond they assumed he was working at his campus job. But he wasn't at his job site either. The parents became worried when he didn't answer their text messages. It was then they asked a maintenance employee to let them into his dwelling.

     In the bathroom, the parents found their son lying dead on the floor next to a needle and a spoon. He had been dead for some time because his body had cooled. The medical examiner determined the cause of death to be "acute heroin poisoning."

     Although Logan had been arrested in 2011 for possession of cocaine, his parents thought he had beaten his drug problem. They were shocked that as a UMass student he had been hooked on heroin.

     Since the vast majority of UMass police cases involved underage and excessive drinking, Logan's heroin overdose came as a shock to everyone in the college community. There hadn't been a heroin related death at the school since 2008.

     Until the Boston Globe published an investigative article about Logan's case, no one but the campus police knew about Logan's role as a campus drug snitch. His parents and others were outraged by the revelation.

     In September 2014, in response to the Boston Globe story, the UMass Police Department discontinued flipping drug arrestees into snitches.

     As of 2019, most colleges and universities have no policy regarding the use of students as campus drug informants. Most of the schools that prohibit this practice had student snitches like Logan who overdosed and died. 

The Criminal Defense Attorney's Moral Dilemma

May an ethical lawyer cross-examine an adverse witness who he knows is telling the truth? The classic law school hypothetical involves the nearsighted bank teller who has identified your client as the bank robber. In court, she is wearing thick glasses, but your client, who has confided to you that he was the robber, remembers that the teller was not wearing glasses when she saw him. Can you ask whether she needs glasses? Whether she was wearing them at the time in question? If she answers truthfully, you can argue, in your closing argument to the jury, that the jury should not convict a presumptively innocent defendant on the basis of the eyewitness identification of a nearsighted woman who wasn't wearing her glasses--even though you know her identification was correct? [I consider that line of questioning unethical. The defense attorney, while he represents his client, is also an officer of the court.]

Alan Dershowitz, Letters to a Young Lawyer, 2001

Writers On Nonfiction

A beginning writer has more going for him if he decides to write a nonfiction book....A beginner has just as good a chance to find a salable idea as the professional writer.

Doris Ricker Marston

Ultimately every writer must follow the path that feels most comfortable. For most people learning to write, that path is nonfiction. It enables them to write about what they know or can observe or can find out.

 William Zinsser

Being a writer of nonfiction books doesn't seem perishingly difficult; it just requires a certain amount of energy and an intelligent interest in the world. And a certain accumulated skill at organizing the materials that one's research gathers.

John Jerome

Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is more telling. To know that a thing actually happened gives it a poignancy, touches a chord, which a piece of acknowledged fiction misses.

W. Somerset Maugham

I'll bet you think that if you write a nonfiction book that is interesting, fact filled, and with touches of great writing, a publisher is sure to buy it. Wrong. You have forgotten the first basic rule. Find out who wants it.

Oscar Collier

Fact-based writing can reach creative levels just as fiction writing does, and in the hands of an accomplished nonfiction writer, imaginative use of facts can be transformed and become art.

William Noble 

Past Novelists Started With Short Stories

Samuel Langhorne Clements [Mark Twain], Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and dozens of other novelists whose flames burn only slightly less luminously in the history of literature had one thing in common: They learned their craft by writing short stories. Only when they had mastered that form did they undertake the long trek of the novel. The short story, in its heyday, was the universal school for novelists.

Jon Franklin, Writing For Story, 1994 

Keeping a Personal and a Writer's Journal

If you have not been keeping a journal or diary, it is time to start one--or a couple of them. There is a personal journal where you write your innermost feelings about life, often in a spirited, free-writing, spontaneous fashion. Then there is a writer's journal, where you record your thoughts and ideas about your writing work. In a writer's journal you conduct an ongoing, spontaneous dialogue with yourself about writing, developing the subjects and ideas you intend to or are actually writing about. I compare a writer's journal to an artist's sketchbook. It is where the masterpiece begins.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Father Gerald Robinson: Devil Priest or Innocent Man?

     In 1980, 72-year-old Sister Margaret Ann Pahl worked at Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio as the caretaker of the chapel. A strict taskmaster who didn't suffer fools, Sister Margaret worked closely with 42-year-old Father Gerald Robinson, one of the hospital's chaplains. Father Robinson was a popular priest in the heavily Catholic city of 300,000.

     On April 5, 1980, on Holy Saturday, someone found Sister Margaret's bloody body on the chapel floor. She had been choked to near death, then stabbed 31 times in the chest, neck, and face. Some of the stab wounds in her chest formed the pattern of an upside down cross. The killer had also anointed her forehead with a smudge of her own blood. With her habit pulled up to her chest, and her undergarments pulled down around her ankles, the victim had been posed in a position of humiliation. While not raped, the killer had penetrated her with a cross.

     Although detectives on the case immediately suspected Father Robinson of this ritualistic murder, the priest presided over Sister Margaret's funeral Mass four days after her homicide. The principal piece of crime scene evidence detectives believed pointed to his guilt involved a blood stain on the altar cloth consistent with the form of a sword-shaped letter opener in Father Robinson's apartment. The stain bore the vague print of the letter opener's dime-sized medallion bearing the image of the U.S. capitol. However, because the chief detective on the case was a Catholic, and didn't want to scandalize the church, Father Robinson was not arrested. The investigation floundered, and without a suspect, died on the vine.

     In December 2003, a Lucas County cold-case investigative team re-opened the 1980 murder. Father Robinson, over the past 23 years, had served in three Toledo Diocese parishes. The 65-year-old priest, in 2003, was administering to the sick and dying in several area Catholic homes and hospitals. The case came back to life after a woman wrote a letter to the police claiming that Father Robinson had sexually abused her as a child, molestation that involved Satanic ritualistic behavior that involved human sacrifice. (I don't know if this complainant passed a polygraph test, or made the accusation after some psychologist coaxed the memory out of her. After the Satanic hysteria in the McMartin preschool debacle, and the horrible injustice in the Memphis three case, I'm suspicious of this kind of allegation. Human sacrifice?)

     Following the exhumation of Sister Margaret's body, a forensic pathologist noted that a stab wound in the victim's jaw could have been made by the letter opener found in Father Robinson's apartment. A DNA analysis of the victim's fingernail scrapings, and underwear, excluded the priest. Nevertheless, in April 2006, the police went to Father Robinson's home and arrested him. From the Lucas County Jail where he was held without bail, the priest denied killing Sister Margaret.

     While there was barely enough evidence to legally justify Father Robinson's arrest--no motive, no confession, no eyewitness, and no physical evidence directly linking him to the corpse--the priest went on trial for murder on April 24, 2006. The prosecutor showed the jury a videotape of the defendant's 2004 police interrogation. Father Robinson told his questioners that he had been stunned when one of the other hospital chaplains accused him of murdering Sister Margaret. When left alone for a few minutes in the interrogation room, the priest folded his hands and began to whisper the word "sister," then bowed his head in prayer. At one point he said, "Oh my Jesus." (I don't know exactly how the prosecution interpreted this as incriminating evidence.)

     A prosecution forensic scientist testified that the letter opener "could not be ruled out" as the murder weapon. (The prosecutor, in his closing remarks, told the jury that the letter opener fit one of the victim's stab wounds "like a key in a lock." Instruments used in stabbings cannot be scientifically linked to their wounds this way. In my view, that statement alone should have been adequate grounds for a reversal on appeal.) The forensic scientist also testified that the altar cloth bloodstains were "consistent with" the general shape of the letter opener. On cross-examination, this witness conceded that a pair of missing scissors could have left the blood stain on the altar cloth.

     On May 11, 2006, the jury, after 9 days of testimony, and 6 hours of deliberation, found Father Robinson guilty. The 70-year-old priest became the second priest in U.S. history to be convicted of criminal homicide. (The first was a priest named Hans Schmidt.) The judge sentenced Robinson to 15 years to life. Incarcerated at the Hocking Correctional Facility in southern Ohio, the priest was first eligible for parole in 2016.

     Two months after the murder trial, Ohio's 6th District Court of Appeals upheld the conviction. In December 2008, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the case. About a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to entertain the appeal as well.

     While it seemed that Gerald Robinson had run out of legal remedies, his legal team, in 2010, petitioned the state appeals court for post-conviction relief on the grounds that Sister Margaret may have been murdered by a 27-year-old confessed serial killer named Coral Eugene Watts. Watts, a black man, had stabbed 12 women to death in Texas, and at least one woman in Michigan. Police suspected him of killing another 80 victims. Watts had left many of the women with their blouses pulled up to their necks. He had not sexually molested any of his victims. They had all been posed in humiliating positions.

     On April 11, 2011, the Ohio appeals court denied the Robinson petition. According to the appellate judges, Father Robinson's attorneys, at the time of his 2006 trial, knew of Watts as a possible suspect in Sister Margaret's murder, but chose not to pursue this as a defense strategy. Moreover, there were dissimilarities between the serial killer's modus operandi and Sister Margaret's homicide. For one thing, Coral Eugene Watts had typically stalked young women before he killed them outdoors.

     A year later, the Robinson defense team again petitioned the state court of appeals to toss out the 2006 murder conviction. This time the priest's lawyers accused the prosecution of withholding key documents in the case. Regarding the issue of serial killer Watts, Robinson's trial attorneys didn't pursue that line of defense in 2006 because they mistakingly thought he was serving time when Sister Margaret was murdered. As it turned out, on April 5, 1980, Watts was living in southern Michigan, just 40 miles from Toledo. As for modus operandi, the priest's attorneys found Watts' killings and the death of the nun "eerily similar." (Coral Eugene Watts died in 2007 of prostate cancer. He was 53 and serving time in a Michigan prison.) 

     In June 2014, United States District Court Judge James Guin denied a request for the release of Father Robinson. The priest had been ill and, according to reports, didn't have long to live. The judge said he didn't have the jurisdictional authority to grant the motion.

     Father Robinson had a heart attack on Memorial Day 2014 and died on July 4. He passed away in the prison hospital after being told he had 30 to 60 days to live. He was 76.
     

Albert S. Osborn: The Father of Forensic Document Examination

Courts are more and more distinguishing between mere opinions and clear, demonstrative evidence; between honest and competent witnesses and dishonest and incompetent fakers and pretenders, but the facts alone, even in good cases, do not often prove themselves, especially against bold perjury and resourceful advocacy.

Albert S. Osborn, Questioned Documents, 2010

A Former Police Commissioner On People Who Don't Belong In Prison

I've met good men--yes, good men--in [federal] prison who made mistakes out of stupidity or ignorance, greed, or just bad judgment, but they did not need to be sent to prison to be punished; eighteen months for catching too many fish; two years for inflating income on a mortgage application; three months for selling a whale's tooth on eBay; fifteen years for a first-time nonviolent drug conspiracy in which no drugs were found or seized. There are thousands of people like these in our prisons today, costing American taxpayers billions of dollars when these individuals could be punished in smarter, alternative ways.

Bernard B. Kerik, former NYC police commissioner, who, in 2010 was sentenced to 4 years in prison for tax fraud and false statements

Thornton P. Knowles On Socialist Politicians

Listening to what a socialist has to say about economics and government is like taking a geography course from a teacher who believes the earth is flat.

Thornton P. Knowles

Children's "Chapter Books"

Around the end of the second grade, many children spurn heavily illustrated picture books and look for what they call "chapter books." Finally, children can read on their own, and publishers provide easy-to-read books that invite them to read with a simple vocabulary, short sentences, and a lot of white space. If the book in broken into chapters, children feel that they're reading a "grown-up" book.

Olga Litowinsky, Writing and Publishing Books For Children, 1992 

Literary Critics Are Like Eunuchs

Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They're there every night, they see it done every night, they see how it should be done every night, but they can't do it themselves.

Brendan Behan in Rotten Reviews and Rejections, 1998

The Shared Experiences of Writers

Writers have helped me when members of my own family could not. Some writers have been closer than dear friends, even though I never have seen them in the flesh. For example, when I have read some of Somerset Maugham and his The Summing Up, the lucidity of his view of the writing profession illuminated dusky corners in my mind....I have been helped by other writers.

Margaret Culkin Banning, in Writer's Roundtable, 1959 

Monday, December 9, 2019

Rape in India: A Nightmare For Women and Girls

      Because of India's history of infanticide, child marriage, slavery and rape, it was one of the worst places in the world to be a female. Girls and woman who had been raped were routinely blamed for their victimization, and discouraged from reporting the assaults to the police. If they did, the victims and their families were subjected to public ridicule and humiliation.

     Police officers in this male-dominated society often refused to accept rape complaints. And when they did register rape complaints, the crimes weren't professionally investigated. In those occasional instances where rape cases were taken seriously, crime lab delays slowed down the process of identifying the rapists. In India's Forensic Science Laboratory in Rohini, it took 75 days for a DNA report to come back to the investigating officer. These delays were caused by a work backlog caused by a serious shortage of qualified lab personnel. In the rare instance of an Indian rape prosecution, the case would drag on for years, and almost always end with an acquittal. In India, rape was treated as a victimless crime.

     Among India's major cities, New Delhi, the nation's capital and home to 16 million people, had the country's highest number of reported rapes. Because such a small percentage of these assaults were reported, crime statistics did not come close to reflecting India's extremely high sex crime rate. If just half of India's rapes were reported and investigated, the nation's crime lab system, unable to cope with the workload, would completely break down.

     On the evening of December 16, 2012, in New Delhi, a 28-year-old software engineer and his 23-year-old female companion boarded a city bus after attending a movie. The woman, from an urban, middle-class family, had recently qualified as a trainee physiotherapist in a private New Delhi hospital. The bus driver and five men from the city's slums were the only other people on the bus. The passengers began taunting the woman's friend, then knocked him unconscious with an iron rod. Five of the men then beat and gang-raped the woman. At some point, the bus driver turned the wheel over to one of the rapists, walked to the back of the bus, and had sex with the beaten and bloodied woman. Before the one-hour ordeal came to an end, one of the attackers inserted the iron rod into the female victim's body. The men undressed both victims and threw their nude bodies off the moving bus.

     The unidentified woman was taken to the Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi with serious brain trauma and severe injuries to her intestines and abdomen. The police, with the help of the rape victim's friend, quickly identified the bus driver and the five other rapists. Shortly after the suspects were taken into custody, the men confessed, telling the police they had tortured and raped the woman "to teach her a lesson."

     On December 26, 2012, following three operations and a heart attack, the authorities flew the victim to Mount Elizabeth's Hospital in Singapore.

     This brutal beating and gang rape on a city bus (operated by a private company) sent thousands of protesters into the streets in several Indian cities. The irate protestors demonstrated against the government's lax attitude toward crimes against women. In New Delhi, demonstrators clashed with riot police.

     Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, facing serious civil unrest, promised police and legislative reforms. But the public demonstrations continued throughout the country, growing in strength daily.

     On December 29, 2012, at 4:45 in the morning, the female victim of the brutal bus attack died in the Singapore hospital. Her body was flown back to India for cremation. The rape victim's cause of death was listed as brain injury complicated by a lung infection. The six men responsible for her torture, rape, and death were charged with murder, which in India could lead to the death penalty.

     The fact that Ban Ki-moon, the head of the United Nations voiced "deep sorrow" over this young woman's ordeal and death, revealed how this case focused international attention on India's rape culture.

     On the day following the 23-year-old's passing, a human rights organization called on the Indian government to ban the so-called "finger test," a medical procedure routinely given to rape victims. This unscientific and irrelevant measure involved testing the laxity of a rape victim's vagina to determine if she had been "habitual to sexual intercourse." The obvious purpose of this procedure was to humiliate victims and to discourage victims from reporting their rapes.

     Amid the women's rights protests, a legislator from the state of Rajasthan, in proposing his own rape prevention measure, suggested replacing girls' school uniform skirts with pants. While many ridiculed this politician and his idea, it reflected how most men in India blamed rape on the rape victim . If the five slum degenerates and the bus driver hadn't beaten and murdered this young woman, she would be alive, and they would still be raping women with impunity.

     City politicians in New Delhi, facing a wave of public anger, tendered the rape victim's family monetary compensation. Officials also offered one of the victim's unemployed relatives a government job.

     On January 3, 2013, five of the suspects were charged with, among other crimes, rape, kidnapping, and murder. The defendants were Ram Singh, the 33-year-old bus driver; his brother Mukesh, 26 who cleaned buses for the company; Pavan Gupta, 19, a fruit vendor; Akshay Singh, 24, a bus washer; and Vinay Sharma, 20, a fitness trainer. The sixth suspect was a juvenile.

     The male friend assaulted by the men on the bus, in his first public statement about the case, said that he and his friend were lying nude and bleeding on the street for an hour while pedestrians passed by without stopping to help them.

     On January 6, 2013, a popular Indian spiritual guru who called himself Godman Asharam, in a video circulated in the Internet, said, "This tragedy would not have happened if she [the murder victim] had chanted God's name and fallen at the feet of the attackers. The error (italics mine) was not committed by just one side."

     A defense attorney representing three of the accused rapist/murderers, announced on January 9, 2013 that his clients would plead not guilty. The attorney also claimed that the suspects were beaten by the police.

     On March 11, 2013, one of the men in custody for the New Delhi bus rape was found dead in his cell. Police say Ram Singh hanged himself. The suspect's father claimed that he had been murdered.

     On September 10, 2013, the four adult defendants were found guilty of rape, murder, and kidnapping. The guilty men faced the sentence of death by hanging. In May 2017, following numerous appeals, the Supreme Court of India upheld death sentences for all four men.

     On the night of March 15, 2013, in the wake of the gang rape on the New Delhi bus, another Indian rape case grabbed international attention. On Friday night, March 15, 2013, a Swiss couple on a three-month vacation were camped out in the forest 400 yards off a road near the town of Datia in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The couple had ridden their bicycles to the spot from the temple town of Orchha. In the morning, they planned to bicycle to the city of Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.

     The Swiss woman and her male companion, that Friday night in the Indian woods, were set upon by seven men. The intruders beat them, tied the man to a tree, then gang raped the woman. After committing the assaults, the rapists stole the tourists' cellphone, laptop computer, and their money. The rape victim was treated for her injuries at a hospital in the nearby city of Gwalior.

     Two days after the gang rape of the Swiss woman, the police in Datia arrested six men suspected of the assault. The next day, the suspects were charged with rape, assault, and theft. All of the men were poor farmers from villages near the scene of the attack.

     On January 14, 2014, a 51-year-old Danish woman vacationing in New Delhi's most popular tourist spot in the Paharganj District, was gang raped after asking a group of local men for directions to her hotel. A few days later, New Delhi police officers arrested two suspects.

     On December 5, 2019, a 23-year-old woman who, in March 2019, had filed rape charges against two men, was set on fire as she walked to a hearing on the case. The next day, she died in a New Delhi hospital. The police quickly arrested the two men who had burned 90 percent of her body.

     On the day the New Delhi rape victim died from her burns, police officers in Hyderabad, India shot and killed four suspected rapists in an unrelated case. While civil rights activists protested the killings a police vigilantism, the women, as well as many men in the community, celebrated the rapists' deaths.

     Since the December 2012 gang rape and murder of the young woman on the New Delhi bus, rape has been the most prominent criminal problem in India. Although the 2012 case focused attention on the issue, sexual violence against women in India has not abated.

     In 2012, 25,000 rape cases were reported to the Indian authorities. In 2016, there were 33,658 reported cases of rape, an average of 92 a day. In 2017, the number of reported rapes dropped slightly to 32,559. In 2018, the Indian government announced the addition of 1,000 fast-track courts to deal with the rape backlog. But there are just too many rapists in the country. In 2019, with national court backlog of 127,800  cases, justice still comes slow for Indian rape victims, if it comes at all. The current conviction rate in these cases has remained below 35 percent. India is still not a good place for women and girls.

The Remorseless Serial Killer

I am not the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so it does not worry me. I don't believe in man nor devil. I hate the whole damned human race, including myself.

Carl Panzram, killed at least 22 boys and men. Claimed to have raped more than 1,000 victims. He was hanged in 1930 at Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.

Does the Criminal Justice System Police Itself?

Collegiality and collaboration are considered the keys to success in most communal ventures, but in the practice of criminal justice they are in fact the cause of system failure. When professional alliances trump adversarialism, ordinary injustice predominates. Judges, defense lawyers, and prosecutors, but also local government, police, and even trial clerks who process the paperwork, decide the way a case moves through the system, thereby determining what gets treated like a criminal matter and what does not. Through their subtle personal associations, legal players often recast the law to serve what they perceive to be the interest of their wider community or to perpetrate a "we've-always-done-it-this-way" mind-set. Whether through friendship, mutual interest, indifference, incompetence, or willful neglect the players end up on not checking each other and thus not doing the job the system needs them to do if justice is to be achieved.

Amy Bach, Ordinary Justice, 2009


Charles Bukowski On Love and Murder

People in love often become edgy, dangerous. They lose their sense of perspective. They lose their sense of humor. They become nervous, psychotic bores. They even become killers.

Charles Bukowski, Women, 1978

Writers Need To Create Their Own Style

Bad style often comes when a writer is trying too hard to imitate the style of other writers.

Duane Unkefer, Basic Fiction: The New Writer's Handbook for Creating Fiction That Sells, 1991

The Obsessive Literary Fan

I have had quite a few obsessive fans. They write to me and then they turn up at my book signings and look really sheepish. If I said "boo" to them, they would run away. I think they maybe believe I could take over their lives and sort them out. If they saw the state of my kitchen they wouldn't think that.

Denise Mina, Scottish crime novelist and playwright

Never Trust a Journalist Who Asks For an Interview

Something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist, and what happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but, in fact, childish trust and impetuosity are far more common.

Janet Malcolm, journalist, nonfiction book author 

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Daquantrius Johnson: A Sleeping Judge and the Rights of a Despicable Criminal

     On December 29, 2013, 21-year-old Daquantrius Johnson and two of his friends, Keith Hickles and Quanique Thomas-Hammen, pulled into the drive-through lane at a Taco Bell in Wichita, Kansas. As they waited to put in their orders, they witnessed the pickup truck ahead of them suddenly lurch forward and crash into the fast-food speaker.

     The pickup truck's driver, 43-year-old Danielle Zimmerman, had lost consciousness from a ruptured brain aneurism. Daquantrius Johnson and his passengers approached the unconscious woman's vehicle. They had no intention of rendering aid. Instead, they saw an opportunity for theft. While Hickles and Thomas-Hammen rummaged through Zimmerman's purse and grabbed her wallet, Johnson pulled her wedding ring off her finger.

     The next day, Danielle Zimmerman died at a nearby hospital.

     Daquantrius Johnson and his friends, as they stripped the unconscious woman of her valuables, were recorded on a Taco Bell surveillance camera.

     Not long after these human vultures picked their victim clean, they were taken into custody. About a year later, Hickles and Thomas-Hammen pleaded guilty to theft and were sentenced to nine and nineteen months respectively.

     In March 2015, Daquantrius Johnson went on trial for aggravated robbery. Following a short deliberation, the jury found him guilty as charged. Sedgwick County Judge Christopher Magana sentenced Johnson, who at the time was on probation for burglary, to eleven years in prison.

     In 2016, while serving time for the Taco Bell depravity, Daquantrius Johnson was in a Sedgwick Country courtroom again, this time as a defendant in an unrelated firearms case. On the first day of the proceeding, trial judge Benjamin Burgess fell asleep on the bench.

     While everyone in court witnessed the judge's nap, the trial went forward, and Daquantrius Johnson was found guilty. Judge Burgess sentenced him to eight months in prison, time to be served after he completed his Taco Bell sentence.

     Attorneys representing Daquantrius Johnson in the firearms case appealed his conviction to the Kansas Court of Appeals on grounds that following his nap, Judge Burgess should have declared a mistrial.

     In 2017, the three-judge appellate panel, in a 2-1 decision, denied Johnson a new trial.

     Johnson's lawyers contested the state appeals court ruling before the Kansas Supreme Court. In November 2019, the state's highest court ruled that while Judge Burgess' courtroom snooze constituted "regrettable misconduct," it did not justify grounds for a new trial. Daquantrius Johnson's firearms conviction would therefore stand.

     While legal scholars argued over the supreme court's decision, very few commentators expressed sympathy for the man who had ripped a wedding ring off a dying woman's finger. There are some crimes that cannot be forgiven, and this was one of them.

Detectives and Their Unsolved Murder Cases

Being a homicide detective can be the loneliest job in the world. The friends of the victim are upset and in despair, but sooner or later--after weeks or months--they go back to their everyday lives. For the closest family it takes longer, but for the most part, to some degree, they too get over the grieving and despair. Life has to go on, and it does go on. But the unsolved murders keep gnawing away and in the end there's only one person left who thinks night and day about the victim. It's the homicide [detective] who is left with the case. [This degree of investigative dedication is more true in crime fiction than in reality.]

Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 2011

Cop Burnout

For a detective or street police, the only real satisfaction is the work itself; when a cop spends more and more time getting aggravated with the details, he's finished. The attitude of co-workers, the indifference of supervisors, the poor quality of the equipment--all of it pales if you still love the job; all of it matters if you don't.

David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, 2006

Aileen Wuornos

I want the world to know I killed those [seven] men, as cold as ice. I've hated humans for a long time. I killed them in cold blood, real nasty.

Aileen Wuornos, executed, Florida State Prison in 2002

Water: Death's Great Ally

[Homicide] investigators hate rain. It washes away everything that may help you: blood, semen, hair, fingerprints, gunshot residue. Given enough time, water destroys it all. Death prays for rain. With the water, Death's chances of having a bountiful harvest increase exponentially. Slick roads, drownings, rainy-day blues--water is one of Death's favorite toys.

Joseph Scott Morgan, Blood Beneath My Feet: The Journey of a Southern Death Investigator, 2012

Aspiring Writers Are Not Interested In Becoming Biographers

     Although biography is one of the most popular forms of nonfiction among readers, it attracts relatively few aspiring writers. Young writers say to themselves, "I want to be a poet…a novelist…a playwright," may even say, "I want to write a memoir," but seldom, "I want to be a biographer."

     Maybe aspiring writers find biography a less attractive form of nonfiction because they like to write about themselves, and, unlike memoir, poetry, fiction and drama, biography seems to offer little chance for self-expression.

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

Should You Join a Writer's Group?

People want to know what I think about writing critique groups. I belonged to one briefly, but I didn't use it much. I prefer now to use the services of a cold reader when the book is done. But if you're going to belong to a group, check it out carefully before you commit yourself to joining. It there's someone in there with an ax to grind, don't become a member. If the group isn't solution-oriented, just saying things like, "I have a problem with X" (your character, your plot, your scene, or whatever) without proposing a solution to the problem or a way to approach developing a solution, just pass them by. If you don't feel good about the group dynamic, trust yourself and don't join up. [My advice, for what it's worth: Forget writing groups. Most members are unpublished and can't help you. Moreover, why waste your time helping others improve their writing? Work on your own stuff. Writing groups are a waste of time. If you're lonely, get a dog.]

Elizabeth George, Write Away, 2004, crime novelist 

"Literary" Writers Snub Plots While Readers Snub Their Novels

If you read interviews with many prominent authors...you will notice how many of them seem to turn up their noses at the mention of plot. "I never begin with plot," they say. "Characters (or situations or setting or thought) is where I begin my novels." What's the implication? Only bad authors begin with plot. Some of these writers don't just imply it, they say it: A well-plotted book isn't really "artistic." Books like that are for the great mass of dunderheads who read trash, not for us sophisticates who appreciate literature.

J. Madison Davis, novelist

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Good Writers Make It Look Easy

I'm a very labored writer. I hammer it out sentence by sentence, and it takes a long time. That's what the work is, right? To make the reader think it is not hard to do.

Janet Malcolm, journalist, nonfiction book author

Breaking Into The Wrong House Can Be Fatal

     Eighty-year-old Thomas Greer, in Bixby Knolls, a neighborhood in Long Beach, California, came home and found two burglars in his house. He shot and killed one of them who, prior to being shot, said, "Don't shoot me, I'm pregnant. I'm going to have a baby."The homeowner shot her anyway.

     At a press conference regarding the July 22, 2014 shooting, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said the woman, 28-year-old Andrea Miller, showed no outward signs of being pregnant.

     Officers arrested  Miller's accomplice, 26-year-old Gus Adams, on charges of residential burglary and murder. Because Miller had been killed during the commission of a felony perpetrated by Adams, he was charged with criminal homicide under the felony-murder doctrine. The judge set Adams' bail at $1 million.

     Both Miller and Adams had criminal histories involving burglary. Investigators believed the couple had broken into Mr. Greer's home three times before. When Mr. Greer returned home at nine at night on July 22, he encountered the intruders. Both suspects attacked him, hitting him with their fists and body slamming him to the floor, breaking his collar bone.

     While Adams tried to pry open Mr. Greer's safe, the victim snuck into a room where he grabbed his .22-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver. As Greer opened fire, the burglars fled through the garage and into an alley. Greer chased after them firing his gun. One of his bullets hit Andrea Miller who died in the alley.

     On July 29, 2014, police officers arrested Gus Adam's 49-year-old mother, Ruby Adams. on suspicion she had acted as a lookout in the burglary of the Greer home. The judge set her bail at $175,000.

     The authorities also announced that according to the medical examiner's office Andrea Miller was not pregnant.

     In January 2015, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office decided not to prosecute Thomas Greer for shooting Andrea Miller.

     Ruby Adams, in April 2016, pleaded no contest to residential burglary. The judge sentenced her to three years in prison.

     In August 2016, a jury acquitted Gus Adams of felony-murder but found him guilty of first-degree residential burglary and elder abuse. The judge sentenced him to 12 years behind bars.
     

The Professional Criminal

     Professional crime is primarily a money crime. This is its essential character. For the professional criminal--whether white, black or brown, immigrant or native-born, child of middle-class or of poverty--the motive force is business.

     Professional crime is not radical violence, sex crime, or violence for violence sake. The vicious beating of some old lady for the change in her handbag is not the quintessence of professional crime. Neither is the pointless assassination of random victims by a sniper on top of a university tower. These sorts of crime are the handiwork of amateurs, psychopaths, adventurers--not professional criminals.

     A great deal of crime in America is disorganized crime. It arises out of frustration, spur-of-the moment impulse, recklessness and, above all, thoughtlessness.

     By comparison, professional crime is organized crime; the acts are those of calculation, tradition and, occasionally, seasoned opportunism.

     The professional-criminal tradition in America dates back to Prohibition and extends profitably into the present. Along the road to riches professional criminals acquired a vast arsenal of profit-making techniques. They have improved, expanded and refined these techniques. From their perspective they have constantly sought to advance the state of their art.

Thomas Plate, Crime Pays, 1975

The Poor Man's Punishment

The death penalty has been and remains a poor man's punishment. As an old saying puts it, "only those without capital get capital punishment." There are no rich men or women on death row, and no rich person has ever been executed in America. The reasons are many. The rich can avail themselves of good lawyers who help their privileged clients avoid death sentences by artful plea bargaining or skillful courtroom tactics. [After their attorneys are done with them, these rich defendants are no longer rich.] The poor often get shoddy legal defense.

Robert Johnson, Death Work, Second Edition, 1998 

Sherlock Holmes' Place in English Literature

Sherlock Holmes remains one of the few household names in English fiction, arguably the most famous character in literature after Hamlet, and one with whom the public has an extraordinarily intimate acquaintance. Everyone knows his catchphrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson!", although few are aware it is nowhere to be found in the stories. His eccentricities--pinning correspondence to the mantel shelf with a jackknife and keeping tobacco in the heel of a Turkish slipper, for example--are common knowledge. He is a valuable asset to the British tourist industry, known to 87 percent of visitors to Britain, and is one of London's major attractions--indeed, Japanese and Russians often cite him as their main reason for visiting the city. Misguided souls still write to him at his Baker Street "consulting rooms," in the hope that his genius may solve their problems, even though--had he ever existed--he would be long since dead.

Russell Miller, The Adventure of Arthur Conan Doyle, 2008

If You Don't Love Writing, Don't Do It

Writing a book is a strange job. "Here you go," a publisher says at the onset, handing you a salary of sorts, and a deadline. "We'll see you in two years." And there you go indeed, in a state of high alarm, without any day-to-day ballast--no appointments, no tasks assigned each morning, no office colleagues to act as sounding boards, no clue as to what you are doing: equipped solely with a single idea, which you cling to like driftwood in a great dark, sea. [Really? You got a book contract based on a single idea? If you miss office routine, quit writing and go back to the office.]

Patricia Pearson, When She Was Bad, 1998

Jon Krakauer On Long-Form Journalism

     Writing a book is so hard and painful--it demands such a huge commitment of time and energy--that I won't embark on a book-length project unless the subject matter has me by the throat and won't let go....

     This [book writing] is a cold and capricious business. To make a living at long-form journalism you have to possess at least a modicum of talent, but it's perhaps even more important to be stubborn and determined and, above all, lucky.

Jon Krakauer in The New Journalism (2005) edited by Robert S. Boynton 

Jack London's 18-Year Writing Career

Jack London's writing routine was the single unchanging element of his relatively brief adult life. [1876-1916] From the age of 22 to his death at 40, he wrote a thousand words every day, a quota he filled as a rule between 9 and 11 AM. He slept for five hours a night, which left him with 17 hours of free time. But in his writing hours he was prolific: he produced short stories, poetry, plays, reportage, "hackwork" and novels, many of them bestsellers. In 18 years, he published more than fifty books. "I'd rather win a water fight in the swimming pool," he said, "than write the great American novel."

James Camp, London Review of Books, September 25, 2014


Friday, December 6, 2019

The Dr. Robert Ferrante Poison Murder Case

     In 2013, Dr. Robert Ferrante and his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein, lived with their 6-year-old daughter in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Ferrante held the positions of co-director of the Center of ALS Research, and visiting professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. Dr. Klein, with offices in Magee-Woman's Hospital in the Kaufman Medical Building, was chief of women's neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and an assistant professor of neurology, obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive services at the University of Pittsburgh.

     Dr. Ferrante, twenty-three years older than his wife, met her in 2000 when they lived in Boston where she was a medical student and he worked at a hospital for veterans. They were married a year later. In 2010, Dr. Ferrante left his job at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital to join the University of Pittsburgh's neurological surgery team. Dr. Klein moved to Pittsburgh with him.

     Dr. Klein, who was forty-one, was having difficulty getting pregnant with her second child. Her 64-year-old husband had been encouraging her to take a nutritional supplement to help her conceive. On April 17, 2013, Dr. Ferrante sent Autumn a text message in which he inquired if she had taken the supplement. She wrote back: "Will it stimulate egg production, too?" Nine hours after Dr. Klein sent that message, she collapsed in the kitchen of the couple's Schenley Farms home.

     Emergency personnel rushed Dr. Klein to the University of Pittsburgh Medial Center (UPMC) in Oakland. On the kitchen floor next to her body, paramedics noticed a bag of white powder later identified as creatine, a nutritional supplement. Shortly after the patient was admitted into the hospital, a UPMC doctor ordered tests of her blood. When a preliminary serological analysis revealed a high level of acid, the doctor ordered toxicolgical tests for cyanide poisoning.

     Dr. Klein died on April 20, 2013. Three days later, at Dr. Ferrante's insistence, her body was cremated. As a result, there was no autopsy.

     Dr. Karl Williams, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner, based on the toxicology reports, determined that Dr. Klein had died of cyanide poisoning. The forensic pathologist ruled her death a homicide.

     Cyanide kills by starving the cells of oxygen. A lethal dose for a human can be as small as 200 milligrams--1/25th the size of a nickel. The poison acts fast and metabolizes quickly. The toxic substance can be undetectable from one minute to three hours after ingestion. Had samples of Dr. Klein's blood not been taken upon her admission to UPMC, there would have been no physical evidence of poisoning beyond the contents of the bag of white powder found lying on the victim's kitchen floor.

     Two weeks after Dr. Klein's death, detectives with the Pittsburgh Police Department launched a homicide investigation with Dr. Ferrante as the prime suspect. Officials at UPMC placed the neurologist on leave and denied him access to his laboratory. A police search of the lab resulted in the discovery that 8.3 grams from a bottle of cyanide was missing. Detectives learned that Dr. Ferrante had purchased a half-pound of the poison on April 15, 2013, two days before his wife collapsed in their home. Dr. Ferrante had used a UPMC credit card to buy the cyanide and had asked the vendor to ship it to his lab overnight. Detectives believed the suspect, in his laboratory, mixed the cyanide--a substance not related to his work--into the dietary supplement.

     According to friends of the victim, Dr. Ferrante had been a controlling husband who was jealous of his wife's fast-rising career. Moreover, he suspected that she was having an affair with a man from Boston. Dr. Klein had told friends she was planning to leave the doctor. Another possible motive involved the fact Dr. Ferrante did not want his wife to have another child.

     On April 13, four days before she fell ill, Dr. Klein sent one of her friends a text message regarding a trip she planned to take to Boston by herself. In that message she wrote: "Change of plans. Husband is coming to Boston. Told me 'to keep me out of trouble.'"

     "Oh, dear," replied the friend. "Did you know you were in trouble?"

     "I feel like I have been in trouble for a long time now," Dr. Klein answered.

     On July 24, 2013, an Allegheny County prosecutor charged Dr. Robert Ferrante with first-degree murder. The next day, as Dr. Ferrante drove back to Pittsburgh from St. Augustine, Florida, a West Virginia state patrol officer arrested him on I-77 near Beckley. According to the doctor's attorney, William Difenderfer, his client was on his way to surrender to the Pittsburgh police.

     Dr. Ferrante's arrest for the murder of his wife caused him serious financial problems. Except for $280,000 the suspect was allowed to use for legal expenses and a possible fine, a judge seized his assets. In August 2013, his 6-year-old daughter's maternal grandmother who was caring for the girl in Maryland, petitioned a family court judge for child support.

     The Ferrante murder trial got underway on October 20, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Following jury selection, the attorneys for each side presented their opening statements. Assistant Allegheny County District Attorney Lisa Pelligrini asserted that the defendant had murdered his wife because she wanted to have a second child. The prosecutor also said that Dr. Ferrante thought his wife was having an affair.

     Defense attorney William Difenderfer pointed out the circumstantial nature of the prosecution's case, inconsistent crime toxicology reports regarding cyanide in Dr. Klein's blood, and an absence of an autopsy.

     Dr. Christopher Holstege, a University of Virginia professor and the author of the text, Criminal Poisoning, Clinical and Forensic Perspectives, took the stand as the prosecutor's key expert witness. Dr. Holstege testified that the victim's symptoms ruled out everything but cyanide poisoning.

     Defense attorney William Difenderfer put three forensic experts on the stand. Dr. Robert Middleberg, vice president of a private crime lab in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, said tests at his facility of Dr. Klein's blood were inconclusive.

     Dr. Middleberg's testimony was backed up by Dr. Shaun Carstairs of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego and former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht. Dr. Wecht, a forensic pathologist, had testified in dozens of celebrated murder cases around the world.

     As his last witness, Diffenderfer, in a surprise and risky move, put the defendant on the stand to testify on his own behalf. As could have been anticipated, the prosecutor's blistering cross examination revealed numerous inconsistencies in Dr. Ferrante's statements to the authorities.

     On Friday November 7, 2014, the jury found Dr. Ferrante guilty of first-degree murder, an offense in Pennsylvania that came with a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

     Through his appellate attorney Chris Eyster, Robert Ferrante appealed his conviction on the ground that the prosecution had not had sufficient probable cause for the search warrant that produced evidence that incriminated his client. The lawyer also raised questions regarding the laboratory that concluded that the victim had been killed by poison.

     In September 2016, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning upheld the Ferrante conviction.

     In October 2017, appellate attorney Chris Eyster petitioned a three-judge Superior Court panel to grant Robert Ferrante a new trial. According to Eyster, Dr. Autumn Klein's post-mortem kidney donation could not have taken place had the organ been irreparably damaged by poison. The lawyer also attacked the reliability of the toxicological tests performed by Quest Diagnostics. In his motion, Eyster argued that the Ferrante prosecution failed to reveal before the murder trial that a Quest subsidiary, the Nichols Institute, paid a $40 million fine for a 2009 federal misbranding conviction, and $241 million more to settle the related litigation. Quest/Nichols, according to federal prosecutors in that case, sold misbranded tests to various laboratories that were unreliable.

     When the Superior Court judges denied Ferrante's appeal, his attorneys filed a series of new appeals based upon inadequate counsel. In August 2019, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey manning dismissed most of these appeals but ruled that Ferrante's argument that his trial attorneys had erred when they withdrew his request for a jury drawn from outside Allegheny County had enough merit to justify a hearing.

Forensic Entomology

     Not until the 1980s would an American entomologist add the line "Forensic Consultant" to his curriculum vitae. Yet, whenever modern-day forensic entomologists step before an audience--be it a jury, college class, or a room full of homicide detectives--they invariably introduce their science as "ancient," nearly 800 years old. They trace its first known use to a tale of murder by slashing recorded in Sung Tz'u's thirteenth-century Chinese detective manual, Hi Yuan Chi Lu (The Washing Away of Wrongs).

     On a sweltering afternoon, a group of farmers returning from their fields outside a small Chinese village found the slashed and bloodied body of a neighbor by the roadside. Fearing bandits, they sent for the provincial death investigator, who arrived to convene an official inquest. "Robbers merely want men to die so that they can take their valuables," he informed the gathered crowd. "Now the personal effects are there, while the body bears many wounds. If this is not a case of being killed by a hateful enemy, then what is it?" Nonetheless, questioning the victim's wife revealed no known enemies, at worst some hard feelings with a neighbor to whom her husband owed money. On hearing this, the official asked everyone in the neighborhood to bring their farm sickles for examination, warning that any hidden sickle would be considered a confession to murder. Within an hour, the detective had seventy to eighty blades laid before him on the town square. "The weather was so hot," Sing Tz'u notes. "And the flies flew about and gathered on one sickle," presumably attracted by invisible traces of flesh and blood.

Jessica Snyder, Corpse, 2001 

An Excerpt from Thornton P. Knowles' Short Story, "The Ghost"

                                                               
       I kill people for money. I've been doing it for years and it never gets old. I'm not your ordinary hitman. Those guys are drug-addled dimwits who get caught. I'm imaginative, and approach my work as a professional. I've made an art of sudden, violent death.

     My "clients" are rich guys who ran around on their wives and now find themselves surrounded by voracious divorce attorneys. These men are desperate to protect their wealth.

     The client doesn't find me. I find him. I read the newspapers. Each job is different, so I use various ploys and techniques to enter my future client's life. This is where I have to be careful. I make sure I'm not photographed with the guy, and use a fake name. I have many disguises, a new look for every job. Fingerprints are not a problem because I've never been arrested. I stay away from my target's friends and associates. When I'm with him, usually in private, I never bring up the subject of his wife or the  divorce. At least not directly. I wait for him to suggest what I hope he'll suggest, and act a little shocked when he does."Okay, I'll do it, I say. I'll take the risk, but it won't be cheap."

     My demands are simple and firm: his wife's hit will cost fifty thousand, upfront and in cash. The response is always the same: "That's too much, no way!" I expect this reaction, these men don't get rich by being generous. I don't budge, and remind Mr. Moneybags that if he doesn't cough-up, he'll lose half his estate. Take it or leave it. He takes it. Nothing is on paper. I tell him I don't want hand-drawn maps, phone numbers, descriptions, license plate number, things like that. In this business, contracts are oral, and there can be no physical evidence.

     The cash payoff is the good part. At a remote spot of my choosing we sit in his car. I make sure he wasn't followed. He hands me the bills, usually in a paper bag. Before he asks: "When are you going to do it? Will you make it look like an accident?" I shoot him in the ear. The head is good because there's little bleeding. For the gun, a piece once owned by a deceased mugger--a story for another time--I find a river or a lake. Like I say, no physical evidence.

    I kill the man who hired me because it makes no sense to kill his wife. If I kill her, the police will suspect him, and he could roll over on me. Sometimes, the cops suspect the wife of having my client killed. The investigation, of course, dies on the vine, and the murder disappears into the books as unsolved. By then, I'm working on my next project.

     I limit myself to four jobs a year. I don't need much money. I'm single, lease a cheap car, wear J.C. Penny clothes, and rent small apartments in working class neighborhoods. I don't live in one place too long. I stay out of trouble. I avoid the booze, don't, gamble, use drugs or have romantic relationships. I don't patronize banks or use credit cards. I'm tight-lipped, keep to myself, and spend a lot of time in the public library reading the newspapers. Libraries are good because they're quiet and no one pays attention to you.

    In a way I don't exist. The murder cops don't have a clue because they're chasing a ghost.


Thornton P. Knowles, The Ghost, 1974

The Term Creative Writing

     The term "creative writing" offends some people; they think it has something affected or precious about it. Actually it is an innocent phrase developed in American schools and colleges sometime between the two world wars [1920-1940] to designate that kind of writing course which is not Freshman English or Report Writing for Engineers. One suspects that "creative writing" courses grew up partly because ordinary courses in composition had got bogged down in "correctness," gentility, and the handbook-and-exercise method, and some means had to be found to free students for the development of their natural interest and delight in language.

     Creative writing means imaginative writing, writing as an art, what the French call belles lettres. It has nothing to do with information or the more routine forms of communication, though it uses the same skills...

     Like all other forms of creative writing, it is written to produce in its reader the pleasure of aesthetic experience, to offer him an imaginative recreation or reflection or imitation of action, thought, and feeling. It attempts to uncover form and meaning in the welter of love, hate, violence, tedium, habit, and brute fact that we flounder through from day to day.

Wallace Stegner, On Teaching and Writing Fiction, 2002

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Victor White's Mysterious Police Custody Death

     Victor White III grew up as part of a large family (8 siblings) in Alexandria, Louisiana. He played the drums and sang in the choir of the local Baptist Church where his father served as pastor. In late 2013, White moved two hours south of Alexandria to New Iberia where the 22-year-old had a job at a Waffle House restaurant. According to his girlfriend, he was saving money so he could afford an apartment for himself and her and their one-year-old son.

     On his day off, March 2, 2014, White and his friend Isaiah Lewis walked to the Hop-In gas station and convenience store to buy cigarillos. While they were in the store, a fight broke out in the parking lot. Someone called 911.

     A deputy with the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office, in responding to the 911 public disturbance call, spotted White and Lewis walking along the street about six blocks from the scene of the fight, a melee involving young black men. Since Victor White and his friend were black, the deputy sheriff pulled over and confronted them.

     The officer, pursuant to the street inquiry, patted down White to determine if he was armed. In so doing, the deputy felt a bag in White's pocket that contained marijuana. At this point, the officer placed White under arrest, handcuffed him behind his back, and issued him his Miranda rights. A more thorough body search uncovered a small packet of cocaine. The officer placed the arrested man into the back of the police car and drove to the sheriff's office.

     At the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office, according to the police version of what happened, Victor White refused to exit the vehicle. The deputy summoned help. A short time later, the officers heard a gun go off from inside the patrol car. Deputies found White slumped over in the back seat.

     Shortly after being rushed to a nearby hospital, Victor White died from the single bullet wound. Following the shooting death of a handcuffed man in police custody, the Iberia County sheriff called in the Louisiana State Police to conduct an investigation of the incident.

     According to early news accounts of the case, Victor White had committed suicide by shooting himself in the back with a gun the deputy sheriff had missed in his frisk and full body search.

    In August 2014, Iberia County Coroner Carl Ditch provided the White family with a copy of the autopsy report. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy determined that the fatal bullet had entered the right side of White's chest, perforated his lung and heart, then exited near his left armpit.

     According to the autopsy report, the entrance wound was not surrounded by gunpowder stains usually found in cases of close range shots associated with self-inflicted shootings. The forensic pathologist noted abrasions around White's left eye. According to the toxicology report, the dead man had alcohol and marijuana in his system.

     In a news release, Coroner Carl Ditch announced the manner of Victor White's death as suicide. The coroner said he had reached this conclusion after "every other manner of death in the case was ruled out." Obviously aware that questions would be raised regarding how, under the circumstances of this case, White could have shot himself in the chest, the coroner noted that because of the dead man's physique, he would have been able to manipulate the gun to a position consistent with the entrance wound. The forensic pathology did not explain what it was about Victor White's body that allowed him to pull off that feat.

     In early September 2014, a spokesperson with the Louisiana State Police said the results of that agency's investigation had been turned over to the Iberia Parish District Attorney's Office. When reporters asked District Attorney Phil Haney if he was charging anyone in connection with White's death, the prosecutor said he was not.

     The White family was not satisfied with the coroner's manner of death ruling. Moreover, there was deep distrust of the state police investigation. The family added attorney Benjamin Crump of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown fame to the family's legal team.

     In October 2017, United States Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna ruled out criminal wrongdoing in Victor White's Death. Victor White's family, in March 2018, settled the federal lawsuit against the sheriff's office for an undisclosed amount.

The Bad Check Artist

Former police chief of Houston once said of me: "Frank Abagnale could write a check on toilet paper, drawn on the Confederate States Treasury, sigh it 'U. R. Hooked' and cash it at any bank in town, using a Hong Kong driver's license for identification.

Frank W. Abagnale, Catch Me if You Can, 1980

Less Militarized Policing

      Militarized policing doesn't provide added protection from crime and domestic terrorism. What it does do, however, is alienate innocent people, cost money the country can't afford, turn public servants into combat warriors, and, in a free nation, make police officers an occupying force.

     The first step toward police demilitarization would include a de-escalation of the war on drugs followed by the disbanding of SWAT teams that exist primarily to serve predawn, no-knock search warrants. Demilitarizing law enforcement would also include the termination of the special forces training of ordinary police officers.

     Step two would involve replacing zero-tolerance, no-discretion law enforcement with the less aggressive community model of policing where officers function more as public servants than as occupiers of enemy territory. Less fear mongering from politicians and police administrators would also improve police-community relations.

     And finally, reducing the role of the federal government in dealing with criminal offenses that could be adequately handled on the local level would further enhance police-community relations.

     In the larger jurisdictions where SWAT teams are occasionally needed, training should be standardized and intense. Officer assigned to routine patrol should not receive SWAT training, or be issued paramilitary weapons. SWAT operations should be subjected to enhanced civilian oversight and, if there are too many botched or low-risk raids, disbanded. Legislators, in cases where victims of wrong-house raids sue the government, might consider a kind of tort law reform that would make the recovery of civil damages less difficult.

     The demilitarization of policing should not be confused with lax law enforcement or criminal leniency. It's a matter of how to enforce the law, not if to enforce it.

Politics and Corruption in the Medical Examiner's Office

Becoming the chief medical examiner of New York City [in 1978] was a fulfillment....I envisioned the office as independent, scientific, apolitical. Pure. Robert Morgenthau, the district attorney of Manhattan, saw it as an arm of the DA's office, with a malleable medical examiner doing his bidding. But if the DA needs a rape in order to prosecute, should the ME somehow find evidence consistent with a rape? If the police say their prisoner died of a heart attack and not a choke hold, should the ME oblige with a death certificate that says cardiac arrest? What is really wanted is an elastic man, one who will stretch and bend his findings to suit the DA's needs and the political climate. Truth and excellence play no part in this arrangement. Numbers are what count, getting convictions for the DA, and the ME's office exists for that purpose. Its own purposes are always subordinate to somebody else's agenda. The DA and his numbers look good for a while, but the ME is degraded and his work suffers. The office succumbs to creeping corruption, a little bit here, a little bit there, until it begins to resemble the old coroner system it replaced.

Dr. Michael M. Baden, Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner (with Judith Adler Hennessee), 1989

Writing Humor: A Risky Business

There may be a certain risk with humor. Someone said it's not only ten times harder, it's fifty times harder to bring an audience to laughter than to bring it to tears. With humor, it's easier to bomb…You don't want to be corny. Corny is something that's not funny.

Gail Galloway Adams in How to Write Funny, John B. Kachuba, editor, 2001 

The Novelist's Fear of Failure

American novelists, more than others, are haunted by the fear of failure, because it's such a common pattern in America. The ghost of Fitzgerald, dying in Hollywood, with his comeback book unfinished, and his best book, Tender Is The Night, scorned. His ghost hangs over every American novelist's typewriter.

Irwin Shaw in Writers at Work, Fifth Series, edited by George Plimpton, 1981 

Barry N. Malzberg on Science Fiction

Science Fiction is the only branch of literature whose poorer examples are almost invariably used by critics outside the form to attack all of it. A lousy western is a lousy western, a seriously intentioned novel that falls apart is a disaster...but a science fiction novel that fails illuminates the inadequacy of the genre, the hollowness of the fantastic vision, the banality of the sci-fi writer...this phenomenon is as old as the American genre itself...and as fresh as the latest rotten book.

Barry N. Malzberg, "The Engines of the Night," 1980, reprinted in Breakfast in the Ruins, 2007

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Randi Chaverria: The Rise and Fall of a High School Teacher

     In 2005, Randi Chaverria (her future married name) graduated from Baylor University with a degree in fashion design. Upon graduation, she studied abroad in Florence, Italy. When she returned to the United States, Chaverria acquired a job as an assistant designer at Dillard's corporate office in Little Rock, Arkansas. While working in Little Rock, she met and married Eric Chaverria. After five years in Arkansas, the couple and their two children moved to Paris, Texas where Randi worked as a store manager for a retailer called Maurice's. In 2013, after six years in retail management, Randi Chaverria began teaching fashion design at a Paris, Texas high school.

     In 2016, Randi and her family moved to Round Rock, Texas, a city of 100,000 within the Austin, Texas metropolitan area. At Round Rock High, she taught fashion design as a Family and Consumer Science teacher. Two years later, her husband joined the school's teaching staff.

     In May 2018, Randi Chaverria, at the annual Round Rock School District banquet, was named the 2019 secondary teacher of the year. Upon receiving the honor, the 35-year-old teacher told the audience that "The most important role of a teacher is to help shape future generations to become successful members of the community. More than any curriculum I teach my students," she said, "I hope that they will walk away from my classroom thinking of ways that they can make a difference in their community and impact the lives of others for the better."

     On November 18, 2019, officials with the Round Rock School District were informed that the local police department had received an e-mail from the parents of an 18-year-old male student who claimed to have had a sexual relationship with his teacher, Randi Chaverria. According the teen, the relationship had gone on for several weeks.

     The school was also informed that the fashion design teacher and the student had exchanged text messages that suggested a sexual relationship that included, on two occasions in October 2019, the teacher performing oral sex on the student in her classroom. The student also told detectives that Chaverria had called him several times to arrange sexual encounters. When questioned about this, Chaverria reportedly did not deny the affair.

     On November 19, 2019, the day after the school learned of the police investigation, Randi Chaverria resigned from Round Rock High School.

     A few days after her resignation, a Williamson County prosecutor charged Randi Chaverria with conducting an improper relationship with a student, a felony that carried a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

     The disgraced teacher, on November 26, 2019, turned herself into the police. After being booked into the Williamson County Jail, Chaverria posted her $25,000 bail and was released.

     While female teacher sexual encounters with male students has become fairly common, the Chaverria case is unusual because of the age of the teacher. In most of these cases the women are in their early twenties. Randi Chaverria was 36. 

Understanding and Preventing School Shootings

     Following the Columbine mass murder in 1999 that involved two Colorado high school shooters who killed 13 and injured 20 before committing suicide, the United States Secret Service published its first study of school shooting incidents. According to the report, 71 percent of school shooters had been bullied, and many of them for years. After the Columbine shooting spree, public schools across the nation instituted anti-bullying courses. These programs have not, however, solved the problem. School kids are bullied now more than ever.

     Research has shown that 90 percent of school shooters foreshadowed their intentions with rants and threats published on social media. These indicators of future violence were either ignored or downplayed.

     School shooting studies also reveal there is no proof that active shooter drills are useful. In fact, they may do more harm than good, causing unnecessary student anxiety.

    The most recent Secret Service school shooting study shows that 83 percent of the attacks are over in five minutes or less. According to Lina Alathari, the study's lead researcher, schools need a more comprehensive approach than active shooter drills, metal detectors, lockdown procedures, armed school guards, and teachers with guns. What is lacking is threat assessment procedures, the identification of bullied students who are fascinated with guns, bombs and accounts of previous mass murders. These potential shooters also fantasize about getting revenge by killing their teachers and fellow students.

Thornton P. Knowles On The Violent Criminal

There are people who like to please others, and those who mainly want to please themselves. I believe that the vast majority of serial murderers, pedophiles, rapists, stalkers, child abusers, and men who repeatedly hit women, are sociopaths in the self-pleasing class. These violent criminals are not crazy, they know exactly what they're doing, and they like what they do. It's their personalities that are broken, not their minds. Since broken personalities cannot be repaired, these criminals, once incarcerated, should remain behind bars. Until the people who control our criminal justice system realize this, society will be plagued by the violent serial offender.

Thornton P. Knowles

Some of the Less Familiar Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

A few of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution are quite familiar, while others, equally important, are not. For example, most of us know about the First Amendment right of free speech, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, The Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the Six Amendment right to an attorney, and the 8th Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. Amendments less familiar include the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship to those born in the U.S., the 15th Amendment giving black males the right to vote, and the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. There is also the 18th Amendment that created prohibition, and the 21st Amendment that ended it.

What Are the Elements of a Writer's Style?

Style is an author's choice of words (diction), arrangement of words in each sentence (syntax), and handling of sentences and paragraphs to achieve a specific effect.

David Madden, Revising Fiction: A Handbook For Writers, 1988

Journalists: Save the Schmaltz

I don't go out of my way to be friendly, because it's completely unnecessary. People tell you what they are going to tell you, no matter what.

Janet Malcolm, journalist, nonfiction book author

Good Fiction Is a Combination of Art and Craft

There is a strange fallacy among laymen, as well as among writers who have yet not become commercially successful, to the effect that creative writing is an art, pure and simple, that it is in no way dependent upon or subservient to mechanics. By mechanics I mean specific procedures, methods, and acquired skills. Nothing could be further from the truth. Worthwhile writing is produced by an almost equal blend of mechanics and art.

Elwood Maren, Characters Make Your Story, 1942

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Ralph Wald Murder Case

     In March 2013, Ralph Wald, a 69-year-old retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who fought in Vietnam, lived with his wife Johnna Flores in Brandon, Florida. The couple had been married since October 2012. She was 41.

     On Sunday, March 10, 2013, just before midnight, Wald got out of bed for a drink of water. En route to the kitchen he saw Johnna on the living room floor having sex with a man he didn't recognize. Wald immediately returned to his bedroom where he picked up his .38-caliber revolver. Back in the living room a few moments later, he shot his wife's sex partner in the stomach and head. The man died on the spot.

     After shooting 32-year-old Walter Lee Copley, who turned out to be one of Johnna's old flames from Riverview, Florida, Mr. Wald called the police. To the dispatcher he said that he had just shot a man he caught "fornicating" with his wife in their home. After the call, Mr. Wald laid down his gun and waited for the authorities to arrive at the death scene.

     Deputies with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office took Mr. Wald into custody that night. The next day, Hillsborough County Assistant State Attorney Chris Moody charged Ralph Wald with second-degree murder. A judge denied the murder suspect bail.

      The Wald case went to trial in Tampa, Florida just eleven weeks after Mr. Copley's death. Prosecutor Moody, in his opening remarks, told the jury that the defendant, who suffered from erectile dysfunction, killed the victim in a jealous rage.

     Defense attorney Joe Episcopo argued that his client thought Mr. Copley was an intruder raping his wife. Under Florida's stand your ground self-defense doctrine, the defendant had no duty to retreat from his own home.

     On the second day of the three-day trial, Johnna Flores took the stand for the defense. She testified that when her husband shot Mr. Copley she was "black-out" drunk from too much cognac. As a result, she had virtually no memory of the shooting.

     The defendant followed his wife to the stand. According to Ralph Wald, he and Johnna had planned to see a therapist regarding their sexual problem. "In fact," he said, "she would joke a lot with me that we were a perfect couple. She didn't want to do it, and I couldn't do it." The witness said he hoped to salvage his marriage. "I love my wife," he said.

     Prosecutor Moody, in his closing argument to the jury, said this about Mr. Copley: "It's a personal insult to conduct that kind of activity in a man's home, his castle. It cuts to the quick. It's brazen. That kind of deep and personal insult when you find another man having sex in your living room and you can't have sex yourself. This would make you want to lash out--and the defendant did."

     Defense attorney Episcopo, in addressing the jurors, said, "This was a military man trained to know what to do with the enemy. You take your gun and you kill the enemy."

     On May 30, 2013, the jury, after just two hours of deliberation, found the defendant not guilty. Ralph Wald embraced his two lawyers as his wife Johnna cried tears of joy.

     Members of Walter Copley's family who were in the courtroom when the verdict was read were obviously not happy with the outcome of the case. 

The Individual Rights Revolution And The Abuse of Legal Power

     Every culture, wittingly or unwittingly, has a public philosophy, a frame of reference by which people relate to each other. Many among us probably think that the last half of the twentieth century will go down in history as the Age of Individual Rights, or some such high-minded name. There are certainly heroes who'll get credit for breaking the bondage of racism and gender discrimination. But those triumphs may be tarnished, if in the name of rights, we lose our ability to raise healthy children or run our schools. Just as the defenders of laissez-faire hoped to be remembered as defenders of freedom, but ended up being remembered as apologists for industrial abuse, so too the age of individual rights may be remembered as a period of bullying by using law.

     Our governing philosophy is not, in truth, fairly characterized as one of individual rights, except in a mutant version that removes our freedom to act. Our governing philosophy is to strive for the least common denominator--a belief that society will somehow achieve equilibrium if it placates whoever is complaining. Our monocular focus on the individual, like our obsession to eliminate risk, makes it impossible to achieve any of our stated goals, including fairness.

     The rights revolution was doomed from the start. It didn't account for a truth of human nature--that people are wired to be self-centered. "The power of self-interest," Richard Niebuhr argued, colors all human activity. As Neibuhr put it, "reason is aways the servant of interest." Our founders understood this well. "Since man was an unchangeable creature of self-interest," historian Richard Hofstadter observed, our founders "would not leave anything to his capacity of restraint." That's why they created a government structure that in various ways could be insulated from the passions of what they called faction. Modern rights, by giving legal powers to some groups over others, basically institutionalizes faction. The effect, predictably, is to draw out the worst of human nature. Give me, give me more.

Philip K. Howard, Life Without Lawyers, 2009 

The Joy of Lying

Everyone lies. Murderers lie because they have to; witnesses and other participants lie because they think they have to; everyone else lies for the sheer joy of it, and to uphold a general principle that under no circumstances do you provide accurate information to a cop.

David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, 2006

The Stigmata of Prostitution

Their faces go before their time, their skin coarsens, their speech turns foul until at last it is true to say they are almost completely de-womanized in every gentle aspect of that word. This, like the mark of Cain on the brow of the murderer, is the stigmata of prostitution which none can escape.

John Gosling, head of Scotland Yard's vice squad in the 1950s, in The Book of Criminal Quotations, J.P. Bean, editor, 2003 

Writer: Know Thy Self

Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style.

William Zinsser, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, 1998

Book Reviewers Don't Help

While it would be better not to read reviews, you're always looking for some reviewer who will tell you something about your book that you didn't know yourself and at the same time that you think is true. And that very, very rarely happens.

Mary McCarthy in Conversations With Mary McCarthy, edited by Carol Gelderman, 1991