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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Adam Kaufman "Spray Tan" Murder Case

     Adam Kaufman, on November 7, 2007, called 911 from his home in Aventura, Florida. Sounding hysterical, the 34-year-old south Florida real estate developer informed the dispatcher that he had awaken that morning to find his wife, Eleonora (Lina) slumped unconscious in the bathroom, her neck draped over a bar on a magazine rack. Paramedics rushed the 33-year-old to the hospital where she died later that day.

     One of the responding officers with the Aventura Police Department touched the hood of Adam's car and found it warm. Another officer noticed that only one side of the couple's bed had been slept in. As a result, the police didn't believe Adam Kaufman when he claimed to have slept all night next to  his wife.

     Associate Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Dr. Chester Gwen conducted the autopsy. Although the forensic pathologist found injuries on Lina's upper-back and abrasions on her chin, neck, left shoulder, and chest as well as hemorrhages in her interior neck muscles, declared her cause and manner of death "undetermined."

     Without a finding of death by homicide, the Kaufman case remained in limbo for 18 months. In May 2009, Miami-Dade County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce A. Hyma, ruled that Lina Kaufman had died by mechanical asphyxiation, that she had been strangled. The following month, the prosecutor, even though he didn't have evidence of marital strife, or a motive, charged Adam Kaufman with second-degree murder.

     At Kaufman's bond hearing, his attorneys revealed the defense version of the death: Lina Kaufman, with a history of fainting spells, had applied a spray-on tanning substance that resulted in a violent allergic reaction causing respiratory failure. When she collapsed, she fell with her neck draped over the magazine rack bar.

     Adam Kaufman's trial commenced on May 7, 2012 before Judge Brownyn Miller in Miami, Florida. A week later, following the jury selection process, defense attorney Bill Matthewman, in his opening remarks, unveiled the new defense version of Lina Kaufman's death: while sitting on the toilet she had a heart attack and fell forward with her neck hitting the bar of the magazine rack. In addressing the prosecutor's case, attorney Matthewman said, "The state's evidence cannot even prove that a homicide occurred, let alone that Adam Kaufman did it....The case is a tragedy of errors. An innocent man was charged with a non-existent crime."

     Prosecutor Joe Mansfield, in his opening speech to the jurors, said that Lina Kaufman had been a "healthy, active woman, arguably in the best shape of her life. All of that ended because of the actions of that man, her husband."

      In this case, the outcome would come down to how Lina Kaufman had died, naturally or by the hand of her husband. That meant that the important testimony would be of a medico-legal nature.

     On May 16, 2012, Dr. Bruce Hyma took the stand for the prosecution. The Chief Medical Examiner for Miami-Dade County testified that Lina Kaufman had died from strangulation and not a heart attack. Dr. Tracy Baker, the plastic surgeon who had enhanced Mrs. Kaufman's breasts, told the jury that when he examined her a few months before her death, she was in good health. Defense attorney Albert Milian asked Dr. Baker on cross-examination if Lina could have been lied to him about her medical history. The witness answered yes.

     Dr. Chester Gwen, the former Miami-Dade County forensic pathologist who had performed the autopsy in 2007, testified that the injuries he had found on Kaufman's body had not been caused by emergency personnel who had tried to revive her. On cross-examination, Dr. Gwen admitted that in April 2012, he had said that in his expert opinion, the cause of Lina Kaufman's death was still a mystery to him. The forensic pathologist also said that Dr. Hyma, before he ruled the death a homicide by strangulation, had not consulted with him.

     Larissa Adamyan, a friend of the deceased woman, took the stand on behalf of the prosecution. As it turned out, her testimony helped the defense more than the prosecution. The witness described the relationship between the defendant and his wife as a "loving marriage." Ten hours before Lina's death, in anticipation of Adam's brother Seth's upcoming wedding, she had gotten a spray tan.

     Aventura police officer Robert Meyers took the stand and said that at the hospital the day Lina died, he overheard the defendant tell three different versions of what he had seen that morning in the bathroom. According to this witness, the defendant said he had found Lina's neck resting on the toilet bowl; her body slumped over the toilet; and her head hung over the magazine rack. On cross-examination, defense attorney Milian got the witness to admit that none of this information was included in his police report.

     Dr. Bruce Hyma re-took the stand on May 2, 2012 to explain why it had taken 18 months to declare Lina Kaufman's cause and manner of death as a strangulation homicide. The forensic pathologist attributed this passage of time to a delayed toxicological report and the fact he wanted to be sure he made the right call. On cross-examination, the defense attorney accused the medical examiner of caving in to pressure from the prosecutor to declare Lina Kaufman's death a homicide.

     Prosecutor Mathew Baldwin, during the direct examination of a friend of the deceased woman, asked if the witness had been aware that the defendant, shortly after his wife's death, had been carrying on with another woman. This question brought an objection from the defense. Judge Miller called the attorneys to the bench and excused the jury. In justifying this line of questioning, prosecutor Baldwin said, "He's [the defendant] is asking this girl out with his dead wife's wedding ring on his finger the next month in December 2007. [Lina died in November.] By January and February, they're having regular sex. He was not exactly devastated by his wife's passing. The best analogy I can think of is when Casey Anthony was getting a tattoo [after the death of her child]."

     Judge Miller asked the prosecutor if the state had evidence that the defendant had been unfaithful to his wife. The answer was no. Judge Miller ruled that the prosecution could not present evidence of the defendant's post-death dating. At his point, defense attorney Matthewman asked the judge for a mistrial on the grounds the jury had heard the question which had planted the idea in jurors' minds that the defendant had not been a good husband. Judge Miller denied the motion. She had told the jurors to disregard the question.

     That afternoon, a Miami-Dade crime scene technician testified that Lina Kaufman's fingernails contained traces of her blood and tissue, suggesting she had clawed at something around her neck. The prosecutor also called a physicist to the stand who said it would have been physically impossible for Lina to have fallen off the toilet and land with her head draped over the magazine rack. With that, the prosecution rested its case.

     On Thursday, May 24, 2012l, the defense launched its case by calling Lina's mother Frida Aizman to the stand. This witness told the jury that she and her family loved the defendant, and after Lina's death they had become even closer. The witness also testified that in the weeks leading up to her daughter's death, Lina had complained of headaches and feeling weak. She had tried yoga to relieve her headaches.

     Miami-Dade fire rescue captain, Joseph Carman, the first responder to enter the Kaufman house, testified that he found the defendant giving Lina CPR. According to the witness, Mr. Kaufman was wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts. The defense presented this testimony because it was consistent with Adam Kaufman's story that he awoke after a night of sleep to find his wife collapsed in the bathroom.

     Thomas Hill, a Broward County Sheriff's Office crime scene investigator took the stand for the defense and criticized Kaufman case investigators for not collecting important physical evidence. The witness said they had failed to gather Adam Kaufman's clothing, magazines from the bathroom rack, and bedding from the master bedroom. The crime scene investigator also said he could see no evidence of a struggle in the small bathroom. "My goodness," he said, "she would have been kicking those walls in, and I don't see any of that." The witness said that if Lina had been strangled, the defendant would have had gouge marks on his arms from her trying to claw them from her neck.

     Dr. John Marriccini, the former Palm Beach County Chief Medical Examiner, testified that the forensic pathologists in the Kaufman case had overlooked Lina Kaufman's history of health problems which included heart disease. Celebrity forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden climbed into the witness box and said, "Lina Kaufman did not die of unnatural causes. There was no homicide, there was no murder. She died of natural causes." Dr. Baden testified that in his expert opinion, Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma had based his homicide ruling on the work of two rookie forensic pathologists who had gotten it wrong. Dr. Baden said Lina Kaufman died of a heart attack and that the injuries to her throat from hitting the magazine rack had been exacerbated by bungled resuscitation attempts by the defendant and paramedics. Following Dr. Baden's testimony, the defense rested its case without putting the defendant on the stand.

     On May 31, 2012, because the defense had portrayed the Kaufman marriage as blissful, Judge Miller allowed the prosecution to put Fara Corenblum, a rebuttal witness, on the stand. According to Corenblum, she and the defendant started an affair a month after Lina's death. The witness said she ended the twice-a-week relationship after she realized he was not ready to move on following his wife's death. For the prosecution, Corenblum's testimony, by casting a sympathetic light on the defendant, may have done more harm than good.

     Both sides made their closing arguments on Monday, June 4, 2012. The next day, the case went to the jury. At five o'clock that evening the jury returned with its verdict: not guilty.

How Some Serial Killers Are Caught

     The identification of a serial murderer frequently occurs through happenstance or a fluke in which a seemingly unrelated criminal event. A serial murderer may be apprehended for driving a stolen vehicle, and very quickly the police learn they are dealing with a much more violent crime, as was the case when Ted Bundy was pursued in a stolen car in Pensacola, Florida. Following his arrest, the Pensacola police soon learned that they had more than a car thief in their jail.

     [Another example] of routine police work and an unrelated crime leading to the arrest of a serial murderer and a serial murder investigation occurred on June 28, 1993, in Long Island, New York. In the early morning hours two state troopers spotted a tan 1984 Mazda pickup with no license plates driving on the Southern State Parkway. The driver refused to pull over and the officers pursued the pickup. The chase ended 25 minutes later when the Mazda slammed into a utility pole. The driver was unhurt and was arrested. Following the arrest, the officers noticed a very strong smell coming from the bed of the truck where the officers found the badly decomposed body of Tiffany Bresciani, a 22-year-old woman from Manhattan. The driver, Joel Rifkin, would within hours confess to the killing of 16 other women.

Steven A. Egger, The Killers Among Us, 1998

Charles Manson's I.Q.

Charles Manson scored 109 on one prison I.Q. test, when he was 16, and 121 on another a few years later. The first result is slightly above average; the second is said to be in the "high normal" range. Jeff Guinn [the author of The Life and Times of Charles Manson] doesn't identify which tests were given. Was Manson brilliant, as some have claimed? Probably not. He cobbled together his pseudo-philosophy by studying Dale Carnegie and L. Ron Hubbard. He had no sense of how to adjust his conduct, grooming habits or conversation when dealing with the Hollywood producers who might have helped him realize his absolute goal: to become a rock star more famous than the Beatles. He had no clue how to self-censor, shooting himself in the foot over and over. Even so, he proved to be spellbinding to the vulnerable.

Ann Rule in reviewing Jeff Guinn's 2013 book for The New York Times Book Review

Crime Novelist Helen Eustis

     On January 11, 2015, 98-year-old crime novelist Helen Eustis died at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. The Cincinnati native was best known for her novel The Horizontal Man, a story about a murdered English professor. The book, informed by her experience as a student at Smith College, won the Mystery Writer's of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1947 for best debut novel.

     Eustis wrote The Fool Killer, a mystery adapted into a 1965 film of the same name starring Anthony Perkins. She also wrote award-winning short stories and translated books by mystery writer Georges Simenon as well as other European crime novelists. 

Two Romance Novel Rules

Two rules: All romance novels must have a happy ending that revolves between the hero and the heroine in the form of a lifelong commitment, and the love story revolves around one hero and one heroine--no adultery.

Charis McEachern, Writer's Digest, March 1999 

Do We Need Any More Children's Books?

A child only reads 600 books in the course of his childhood, and all of those 600 have already been written. There are hundreds of contemporary books for children--many of them first class. There are also the classics. So what need is there for you to write another children's book? You should enter this literary field because you have a strong urge to tell the kind of story that you think children will enjoy. And preferably, because there is some particular story that is clamoring to be let out of your mind.

Joan Aiken in Fiction Writer's Market, edited by Laurie Henry, 1987 

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Michelle Gibson Murder-For-Hire Case

     Steven Gibson, the owner of a machine shop, lived in Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. He resided in the Thunderbird Vista neighborhood with his 41-year-old wife Michelle, their 15-year-old son Steven Jr., and their 17-year-old daughter Alyssa. In November 2012, Steven Gibson was charged with assaulting a police officer following a DUI arrest. Local police officers, on several occasions, had been summoned to the Gibson house on accusations of domestic violence. No arrests were made because Michelle Gibson refused to press charges.

     At two in the morning of March 1, 2013, Michelle Gibson called 911 and said: "There's blood everywhere! I'm with my kids and I just got home and my husband's out in the garage dead."

     In the Gibson garage police found that the victim had been bludgeoned in the head and stabbed several times in the chest. Since nothing had been stolen from the house, the police ruled out theft as a motive. Investigators also wondered what Mr. Gibson was doing in his garage so late at night.

     On March 27, 2013, following a month-long homicide investigation, police arrested Steven Gibson Jr. on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The next day, officers arrested his mother Michelle on the same charges.

     Investigators believed that Michelle Dawn Gibson had recruited her son, her daughter, and a friend of her son's to murder her husband. (The friend, 16-year-old Erik McBee, had turned himself into the police shortly after the homicide.)

     According to police reports, Michelle Gibson told her team of young assassins that Mr. Gibson needed to be killed before he murdered a family member. In discussing the fate of her husband, Michelle mentioned that he had a life insurance policy. The accused murder-for-hire mastermind promised to pay Erik McBee $1,000 for his participation in Mr. Gibson's homicide.

     The murder-for-hire plan, as allegedly laid out by Michelle, involved incapacitating her husband with chloroform while he slept in his bed. Using the victim's own truck, they would haul his body to a nearby park where one of the young killers would shoot him in the back of the head. To make the murder look like a drug deal gone bad, the assassins planned to spread pills on and around his body.

     As is often the case in murder-for-hire schemes, things did not go as planned. At ten-thirty on the night of February 28, 2013, Erik McBee used a baseball bat to bludgeon Mr. Gibson in the head as he slept in his bed. Steven Gibson Jr. stabbed his dying father three times in the chest, then slashed his throat. Using a dolly, Eric and Steven rolled Mr. Gibson's corpse into the garage. Because Erik McBee fled the scene at the sound of a distant police siren, the dead man never made it to the park. Later that day, Erik, a Popeye's Chicken employee, turned himself into the police.

     When Michelle Gibson returned home around midnight with her daughter, she allegedly helped her son clean up the bloody murder scene. At two that morning, after disposing of physical evidence, Michelle called 911 to report the discovery of her husband's body in the garage.

     Michelle Gibson and her son Steven pleaded not guilty to all charges. Erik McBee also pleaded not guilty to murder.

     In January 2014, McBee pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against Michelle and Steven Gibson. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

     Steven Gibson Jr. pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in August 2014. The judge sentenced him to 22 years behind bars.

     On November 25, 2014, the jury found Michelle Gibson guilty of first-degree murder. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Alfred Fenzel, in February 2015, sentenced the murder-for-hire mastermind to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Frank Crash Murder Case

     Frank R. Crash was the proverbial big fish in a small pond. Since 1959, he owned and operated an auto wrecking company in his hometown of Greenville, a western Pennsylvania town of 6,000 eighty miles north of Pittsburgh. Located on the Shenago River in Mercer County, Greenville was home to Thiel College.

     In the 1960s and 70s, Frank Crash, a 1956 graduate of the former Penn High School, raced dirt track sprint cars and snowmobiles. His wife Carol Lee passed away in December 2009. Frank's two daughters, Pam Higbee and Susan Brenneman, also lived in Greenville. Frank resided by himself in a house on Mercer Road in Hempfield Township just south of Greenville across the street from a restaurant and golf course.

     At 10:30 PM on Wednesday, July 24, 2013, Mr. Crash left the Hickory Grill in nearby Hermitage. At nine-thirty the next morning, when the 76-year-old didn't show up for work, his daughter Pam went to his house to check on him. She found her father lying dead in a pool of blood in the kitchen. It appeared that Mr. Crash had been stabbed to death.

     Death scene investigators found blood trails and spatter throughout the dwelling. The telephone had been ripped from the wall. Next to the corpse lay a smashed cellphone. The intruder, who had entered the house forcefully through the back sliding glass door, had stolen an undisclosed amount of cash and a 4-carat solitaire diamond ring.

     In nearby Erie, Pennsylvania, forensic pathologist Eric Vey, on Friday July 27, 2013, published the results of his autopsy. Frank Crash had been stabbed 76 times by a knife or pair of scissors. The victim's heart and lungs had been punctured many times in what Dr. Vey labeled a criminal homicide.

     Mercer County District Attorney Robert C. Kochems, on July 31, 2013, issued a press release on the status of the Crash homicide investigation. According to the prosecutor, the authorities did not have a suspect.

     On November 6, 2014, District Attorney Kochems announced that 33-year-old Tracey Lin Hassel from nearby Hermitage, Pennsylvania had been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, robbery, and burglary in the Crash murder case. (Second-degree murder--in Pennsylvania the felony-murder doctrine--carried a sentence of life in prison.) Burglary and robbery were felonies that brought up to 20 years in prison. The penalty for third-degree murder in Pennsylvania was 20 to 40 years behind bars.

     According to the Mercer County prosecutor, Hassel, who knew the victim, had broken into his home to steal money so she could bail her boyfriend out of jail. After stabbing Mr. Crash 76 times, the suspect stole the diamond ring off his finger and cash from his pockets.

     Hassel, with a long criminal record, was serving time at the state prison in Muncy, Pennsylvania. She had been convicted in February 2015 of several counts of burglary and robbery.

     On September 13, 2016, on the day the Crash murder trial was set to begin, Tracey Hassel pleaded guilty to third-degree murder. As part of the plea deal, she would serve her murder sentence along with the 7 to 21 year sentence she was serving for her previous burglaries and robberies. Regarding the Crash murder case, the judge denied her credit for the two years she had served awaiting trial.

The Romance Novel Leading Man

Traditionally, the romance novel hero is the Byronic type--dark and brooding, writhing inside with all the residual anguish of his shadowed past. He's world-weary, cynical, quick-tempered and prone to fits of guilt and depression. He is strong, virile, powerful, and lost. Adept at many things that carry with them the respect and admiration of the world (particularly the world of other males), he is not fully competent in the arena where women excel--the arena of his emotions, which are violently out of control.

Linda Barlow in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women edited by Jayne Ann Krentz, 1992 

"Realistic" Dialogue

Naturalistic or "kitchen sink" dialogue involves people expressing themselves informally. The hell with grammar, if the characters knew it to begin with. Realistic dialogue, while appearing deceptively natural, is more organized. The vast bulk of modern plays and fiction employ this style combined with naturalistic. Pitfalls in realistic lines are the lack of accurate ear and the old bugaboo of educational freeze-up. One can be so organized, correct and formal that the lines go flat and lose the sound of people talking to each other.

Parke Goodwin in The Portable Writers' Conference, edited by Stephen Blake Mettee, 1997 

Novelistic Small Talk

Exciting dialogue is spoken by smart characters saying important things. Beware of small talk, especially greetings, partings, and politesse. Avoid banter unless it has a clear and significant purpose in the story and suits the mood of what is happening between the speaking characters.

Alice Orr, No More Rejections, 2004 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Betty Rice's Suspicious Death

     Betty Rice was 79 when she died on November 9, 2009 in her Sevierville, Tennessee mobile home. Elizabeth A. Ogle, Rice's 48-year-old niece by marriage, had moved from Chatsworth, Georgia to the Great Smoky Mountain region to care for her sick aunt. Ogle, who moved into the double-wide, had been taught by a hospice nurse how to administer the proper dosages of morphine to the dying woman.  Rice had been diagnosed with lung cancer that had spread throughout her body.

     Because of her age and illness, no one questioned the Sevier County coroner's ruling that Betty Rice had died a natural death from cardiac and respiratory arrest. This determination had been made by hospital physicians without an autopsy. A few days after her passing, the body was embalmed and buried.

     Two months after Betty Rice's death, some of her relatives informed the Sevier County Sheriff's Office of their suspicion that she had been murdered by Elizabeth Ogle. Not long before she died, Betty had added the live-in caregiver to her will. The suspicious relatives believed that Ogle had given Rice an overdose of morphine in order to inherit a portion of her estate which included the mobile home and some certificates of deposit.

     In January 2010, Sevier County Sheriff Ron Seals obtained a court order that allowed the exhumation of Betty Rice's remains for autopsy. Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, the Chief Medical Examiner for Knox County, and professor of pathology at the University of Tennessee, performed the autopsy. Dr. Mileusnic-Polchan, a native of Croatia, reported that Betty Rice's body, at the time of her death, contained a "lethal amount of morphine."

     Eight months after the autopsy, Sevier County prosecutor Jeremy Ball charged Elizabeth Ogle with first-degree murder. The entirely circumstantial case was based on the changed will, a signature that looked forged, Ogle's role as the only person in charge of Rice's morphine intake, and the excess amount of the narcotic in the dead woman's system. Elizabeth Ogle, held under $1 million bond, awaited her trial in the Sevier County Jail.

     On October 30, 2012, in his opening remarks to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Ball said that Betty Rice had died from "a liver full of morphine" shortly after the defendant had forged the old woman's signature on the new version of her last will and testament. To establish the forgery, the prosecutor put a FBI handwriting expert on the stand. According to the forensic document examiner, the signature in question was substantially different than signatures on greeting cards known to be Rice's. But on cross-examination by defense attorney Charles Poole, the document witness acknowledged that he couldn't declare that without a doubt the questioned signature was a forgery.

     The prosecution's key witness, medical examiner Mileusnic-Polchan, took the stand and testified that in her expert opinion, Betty Rice had died of a morphine overdose. Conceding on cross-examination that cancer had destroyed one of Rice's lungs, the medical examiner testified that the old woman had not died a natural death. In the forensic pathologist's opinion, Betty Rice had died of morphine poisoning, and by implication, criminal homicide.

     Defense attorney Poole, by asking Dr. Mileusnic-Polchaln how the presence of morphine can be ascertained from remains that had been embalmed, failed to attenuate the certainty of her conclusion.

     On November 3, after the prosecution rested its case, the defense put on the first of its three expert witnesses. Steven Karch, a cardiac toxicologist from San Francisco, testified that there was no scientific basis for determining, in the human liver, what was an abnormal level of morphine. Although this witness was not a forensic pathologist, he testified that Betty Rice's cause of death was probably heart failure.

     Dr. Gregory Davis, a medical examiner with the state of Kentucky, testified that he "respectfully but vehemently disagreed" with Dr. Mileusnic-Polchan's cause of death determination. After reviewing her autopsy report, Dr. Gregory came to the conclusion that Betty Rice had died due to complications from her cancer. The forensic pathologist also said that assuming the morphine had contributed to Rice's death, the patient could have self-administered the pain-killer.

     Dr. Davis was followed to the stand by a pharmacologist who opined that scientists had not established a way to determine abnormal levels of drugs in a person's body through liver analysis. Scientists had not figured out what an abnormal level of morphine was in a person's liver.

     At the close of testimony on the fourth day of the trial, circuit judge Rex Ogle (no relation to the defendant) took the case out of the hands of the jurors by issuing a directed verdict of acquittal. In the judge's opinion, the prosecution had not met its burden of proving a prima facie case.

     Elizabeth Ogle was released from custody and determined eligible to inherit pursuant to Betty Rice's will. 

The Lurid Genre

     Give me a book that begins with a time and a date and an address, something along the lines of: "At 9:36 on March 24, 1982, Deputy Frank McGruff of the Huntington County Sheriff's Department was dispatched to 234 Maple Street in Pleasantville, North Carolina, a quiet suburb 10 miles west of Raleigh, to follow up on reports of gunshots and screams."

     There is nothing more generic that this sort of sentence, and yet  there's nothing more seductive, either. The sentence carries promises: the regular-guy lawman, the horrific crime scene, the enigmatic object found lying  in the foyer, the minute-by-minute timeline of that fatal half-hour, the witness reports that don't add up, and the multiplication of scenarios and theories and complications.

     I've always felt somewhat sheepish about my appetite for true crime narratives, associated as they are with fat, flimsy paperbacks scavenged from the 25-cent box at garage sales, their battered covers branded with screaming two-word titles stamped in silver foil, blood dripping luridly from the last letter.  The most famous practitioners of this genre--Joe McGinniss, Ann Rule, Vincent Bugliosi--come coated with a thin, greasy film of dubious repute and poor taste.

     True crime is also the mother's milk of tabloid journalism, of endless trashy news cycles in which the same photo of a wide-eyed innocent bride (where is she?); a gap-toothed kindergarten student (who killed him?); a bleary-eyed, stubbled suspect (why did he do it?) appear over and over and over again.

Laura Miller, "Sleazy Bloody and Surprisingly Smart: In Defense of True Crime," salon.com, May 29, 2014 

The Abuse of Prescription Drugs

Prescription drugs can be classified into three categories: narcotics (including Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Percocet), depressants (including Xanax, Valium, and Librium), and stimulants (including Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Meridia). Drugs like Ritalin can lead a user to experience feelings of hostility and paranoia. Higher does of a drug like Xanax can cause impairment of judgment and irritability as well as paranoia, suicidal thoughts, agitation, and aggressiveness.

Phil Chalmers, Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer, 2009 

Investigative Journalism as a Team Effort

It has become a cliche of our business/profession/craft that journalists are supposed to build themselves as individual "brands." But journalism--especially the hardest stuff, like investigative journalism--benefits immensely from institutional support, including a technical staff that knows how to make the most of a database, editors and fact-checkers who fortify the stories, graphic designers who help make complicated subjects comprehensible and, not least, lawyers who are steeped in freedom-of-information and First Amendment law.

Bill Kerr, The New York Times, October 27, 2013 

Fictional Characters Should Look Real

In fiction, let your characters look like real people. Let them have bad tastes in their mouths and big moles on their arms and cellulite and dark circles under their eyes and real, beating hearts. Let them be beautiful, if the story calls for it, but let their beauty be unique, not carbon copy beauty. Writing is more vivid when it includes the rough patches of skin, not just satin fantasy flesh.

Gayle Brandeis, Fruitfish, 2002 

The Suspense Novel

Suspense novels are deservedly popular, but very hard to define. They are not murder mysteries. They are not just straight novels, because something nasty and frightening is bound to happen. That is the promise to the reader. They are not spy stories, and they are certainly not police procedurals. In a suspense novel, the element of character matters very much indeed. The hero/heroine is pitted, not against organized crime or international terrorism, but against a personal enemy, a personal problem; the conflict is on an individual, adversarial level.

Joan Aiken in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Sylvia K. Burack, 2004 

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The John F. Russo Case: The Rare Removal of a Judge From the Bench

     John F. Russo, at age 34, was admitted to the New Jersey Bar Association in 1997. In 2009, he became an administrative law judge, a position he held until 2015 when he was sworn in as an Ocean County Superior Court Judge.

     In 2017, after Judge Russo asked a testifying rape victim if she knew how to prevent sexual intercourse by closing her legs, Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch suspended him from the bench. Once re-instated, Judge Russo's professional behavior continued to draw criticism.

     In August 2018, based on several complaints, the Supreme Court of New Jersey Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct charged Judge Russo with four counts of misconduct. He stood accused of asking court staff members to do him personal favors; asking preferential scheduling treatment for his son's child custody case; and refusing to recuse himself from a high school classmate's child support case.

     The most serious misconduct allegation against Judge Russo pertained to his asking an alleged rape victim, during cross-examination, if she had tried to close her legs to prevent the assault. The fact he had asked this question to another rape victim a year earlier made this complaint all the more disturbing.

     At his November 2018 disciplinary hearing in Trenton, New Jersey regarding the question he had asked the rape victim, Judge Russo claimed he was simply trying to help a "demoralized witness get re-engaged in the hearing."

     On May 26, 2020, justices on the New Jersey Supreme Court voted unanimously to permanently remove the 57-year-old judge from the bench. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, in his rationale for the decision, wrote that Russo's rape case question was "neither appropriate nor tasteful. No witness, alleged victim, or litigant should be treated that way in a court of law. The question also shamed the alleged victim by intolerably suggesting she was to blame."

     Chief Justice Rabner, regarding Russo's judicial behavior in general, wrote: "His conduct breached the public trust. His pattern of misconduct and unethical behavior not only undermined several court proceedings but also impaired his integrity and the judiciary's. His overall behavior reflects a lack of probity [trustworthiness] and fitness to serve as a judge."

The Nicholas Bennallack Police Shooting Cases

     Just before eleven o'clock on the night of January 2, 2012 in Anaheim, California, police officers responded to several 911 calls regarding a man with a shotgun at an apartment complex. SWAT officers at the scene ran down a 200-foot alleyway, and as they rounded a corner, saw Bernie Villegas holding a rifle. Anaheim police officer Nicholas Bennallack shot Villegas who was pronounced dead at the scene. The 36-year-old immigrant from the Philippines had been holding his son's BB gun. Villegas, an alleged drug dealer, had a 14-year-old daughter, and a son who was twelve.

     The Orange County District Attorney's office, following an investigation of the shooting, cleared Officer Bennallack of criminal wrongdoing. Villegas' family filed a wrongful death suit against the city.

     On July 21, 2012, about six months after the Villegas shooting, Officer Bennallack and his partner Brett Heitmann were patrolling an Anaheim neighborhood considered a hotbed of gang activity. The officers spotted a car parked in an alley surrounded by several men. Officer Heitmann recognized the man standing on the vehicle's passenger side as 25-year-old Manuel Diaz. Diaz, a known gang member, had prior gun possession convictions.

     When officers Heitmann and Bennallack got out of the unmarked police car, Diaz ran down an alley leading to an apartment complex. As he fled, Diaz used both hands to hold up his trousers. The fleeing suspect ignored the officers' orders to stop. The officers caught up to Diaz at a wrought-iron fence. As they approached the suspect Diaz had his back to them. When he started to turn toward the officers, Bennallack, thinking that Diaz might have a gun, fired twice. One bullet hit Diaz in the buttocks, the other in the head. He died shortly after the shooting. Diaz was not armed.

     A toxicology report revealed that Diaz, at the time of the shooting, had in his system methamphetamine, amphetamine, and a prescription medicine to prevent seizures.

     Following the Diaz shooting, Dana Douglas, the attorney who represented Bernie Villegas' relatives, filed a $50 million suit against the city on behalf of the Diaz family. Following Diaz's death, the Orange County District Attorney's Office opened an investigation of Officer Nicholas Bennallock. The officer had been an Anaheim police officer for five years.

     On March 20, 2013, Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner announced that Officer Bennallack had been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in the Diaz shooting. According to the Orange County prosecutor, at the time of the fatal incident, the officer "believed he was in imminent danger. In such a scenario, one can have only a split-second to decide how to proceed."

     The Diaz family attorney, Dana Douglas, had a different take on the shooting. "This is like a rape case," she said. "Let's blame the victim." (In my view, that was not an appropriate analogy.)

     In May 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision to dismiss the Villegas lawsuit. The suit against the city of Anaheim went forward.

    When a police officer, within a period of five years, shoots and kills two people, both of them unarmed, some might call him trigger-happy. Given the circumstances of these two police-involved shootings, the term does not apply to Officer Bennallack.

     Both lawsuits were settled out of court.

Shivinder Singh Grover's Triple Murder And Suicide

     A Sikh is a follower of Sikism, a religion that originated in the Punjab region of India in the 1500s. There are about 500,000 Sikhs residing in the United States.

     Shivinder Singh Grover and his family were active members of suburban Atlanta's Sikh community of a thousand worshipers. The 52-year-old father of two had graduated from the University of Michigan, and was an executive with one of the technology companies headquartered in the city's northern suburbs. His 47-year-old wife, Damanjit Kaur Grover, worked for Emory Healthcare in Atlanta. The Grover family resided in a gated apartment community in Johns Creek, Georgia, a town 25 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta.

     One of Mrs. Grover's co-workers, at eleven o'clock in the morning of Monday, February 4, 2013, became concerned when Damanjit, a reliable employee, didn't show up at the office. After her phone calls to the Grover home went unanswered, the co-worker called the Johns Creek Police Department and requested a welfare check at the Grover apartment.

     Later that morning, after breaking into the apartment, Johns Creek officers made a gruesome discovery. Officers found Damanjit dead from head wounds caused by a blunt object. The Grover children, Gurtej, aged 5, and Sartaj, 12, had fatal knife wounds in their necks. Shivinder, the presumed murderer of his family, had hanged himself.

     The Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office labeled these deaths a case of murder-suicide. Investigators looked at computer files for a suicide note or something that suggested a reason behind the killings. They found nothing instructive.

     A friend of Mr. Grover's, in speaking to a reporter with a church-related publication, said, "Shivinder was a very respectful person. He talked respectfully to everybody. He was not a person who had any animosity, anxiety, or depression."

     Shivinder Singh Grover's murder of his family and himself shocked his friends, colleagues, and family. No one saw this coming, and no one had a clue as to what drove this man of quiet intelligence and apparent stability to commit such a violent, unspeakable act. (Some of Mr. Grover's friends wondered if the family had been murdered by an outsider. There was, however, no official investigation into that possibility.) 

The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven

     Writing and publishing a memoir that features a child's recollection of events is not only ridiculous, it's an abuse of the youngster, the genre, and the people who pay good money to read what they think is a nonfiction book.

     In 2010, Tyndale House, a leading publisher of so-called Christian books, came out with a memoir called, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels and Life Beyond the World. The subject of the book, Alex Malarkey, is listed as the author of the memoir along with his father, Kevin. (In the memoir genre, the concept of authorship has been rendered almost meaningless.)

     The spiritual, uplifting story begins with a 2004 automobile accident that put Alex Malarkey into a coma that took him to Heaven where he saw angels and spoke to Jesus. The publicity savvy father and son writing team took advantage of the feel-good appeal this journey into the afterlife held for fluff morning television and other media outlets. The book became a bestseller. By 2014, the publisher had sold 120,000 copies of the memoir.

     In 2014, shortly after Tyndale House brought out a new edition of the memoir that featured the cover blurb: "A true story," Alex Malarkey, in an open letter to the reading public, admitted that the book was a lie, a fraud driven by his desire for attention. (The fraudulent memoir has become so common it could be designated a literary sub-genre.)

    According to the boy, "I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. When I made those claims I had never read the Bible. People have profited from my lies and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough."

     The publisher, in early January 2015, pulled the book off the market. The discrediting of this memoir had been foreshadowed by the young author's mother, an early critic of the book. In April 2014 she wrote on her blog that her son had been exploited and that she found the book's success "both puzzling and painful to watch." 

Autobiographies of Writers

More than celebrated figures in other professions, the writers of imaginative literature have proved almost incapable of separating autobiographical fancy from fact. Mark Twain had a genius for embroidering, to say nothing of inventing the events of his life.

Richard D. Aftick, Loves and Letters, 1965 

The Regency Period Romance Heroine

A Regency period (1811-1820 England) heroine may find herself in dire straits and approach crisis in many ways, but never at the expense of dignity and self-respect. Otherwise, she becomes too tawdry to qualify as a heroine for the romance genre.

Alice Orr, No More Rejections, 2004

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Dueling Expert Problem: The Rosa Jimenez Murder Case

     In a court of law, a phony, or hired-gun forensic scientist can be more persuasive than his more qualified or ethical counterpart. This is possible because jurors make judgments based on how expert witnesses look, act, and speak. They do not analyze their resumes. A court room charlatan who can act the part, can be more believable than a real expert. Phonies like Dr. Ralph Erdmann, Dr. Louise Robbins, Dr. Pamela Fish, Dr. Michael West, and Fred Zain, to name a few, testified in hundreds of cases before they were exposed and defrocked. There are hundreds of private sector hired-guns whose expert testimony is for sale for any side that will pay them. Crime lab personnel working in the various levels of government are often incompetent, or tailor their findings to the needs of police and prosecutors. In general, the field of forensic science has not lived up to its potential, and to an alarming degree, is either useless or downright corrupt. The dueling expert problem is one of the symptoms of this reality.

     Vanderbilt law professor Rebecca Haw, in an article about dueling experts, discusses the "99 to 1 problem." Haw writes: "One out of 100 available experts testifies that the earth is round, and that one out of 100 who disagrees testifies that the earth is flat. To jurors, it appears that scientific consensus on the subject is divided roughly 50-50."

     As the author of two books on the Lindbergh kidnapping case, I've encountered something like the 99 to 1 problem in connection with hack true crime writers who make the case that Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man executed for the 1932 murder of the Lindbergh baby, was innocent. More than a dozen highly qualified questioned document examiners had identified Hauptmann as the writer of all the ransom letters. Since the 1935 trial, several modern handwriting experts have analyzed the evidence and drawn the same conclusion. While only one  recognized forensic document examiner has expressed doubt regarding these findings, those who believe that Hauptmann was innocent, claim that the handwriting evidence in the case is in dispute. In reality, the question of who wrote the Lindbergh case ransom letters has been settled for a long time.

     In researching my 2008 book, Forensics Under Fire, I noticed that forensic pathologists often testify against each other in shaken baby syndrome and sudden infant death cases. Coroners and medical examiners also face off against opposing forensic pathologists in suicide versus homicide cases, and trials featuring the issue of whether a victim was intentionally poisoned, or died of an overdose. Forgery and disputed will cases almost always involve opposing handwriting experts, a forensic science on the verge of being destroyed by phony practitioners. (The JonBenet Ramsey case caused a serious rift among qualified forensic document examiners.) Experts regularly disagree over the crime scene identification of footwear and tire impressions, blood spatter analysis, bite mark identification, and the cause and origin of suspicious structural fires. Even government fingerprint examiners are now being challenged in court. Twenty years ago, this was unheard of.

     The fact that two expert witnesses are on opposite sides of a forensic science issue doesn't necessarily mean that one of them is either a phony or in the tank. But it does mean that one of them is wrong. When jurors find the scientist who is wrong more credible than the expert who is right, criminal justice has been subverted. Forensic science is supposed to be the solution, not the problem.

The Rosa Olvera Jimenez Case

     On January 30, 2003, 19-year-old Rosa Olvera Jimenez, and the boy she regularly babysat, were alone in the 21-months old's Austin, Texas home. Around noon, Bryan Gutierrez turned blue and collapsed. Although paramedics pulled a wad of 5 paper towels out of the boy's throat, he had slipped into a vegetative state. Four months later, he died.

      Jimenez, suspected of murdering the child from the onset, said she had inadvertently left a roll of paper towels in the living room while she prepared lunch in the kitchen. Bryan, his face blue, staggered into the kitchen and pointed to his throat. A few minutes later he collapsed.

     Charged with murder, Jimenez went on trial on August 25, 2005 at the Travis County district court in Austin. The prosecutor put two physicians and a medical examiner on the stand. The three experts testified that it would have been physically impossible for Bryan to have accidentally swallowed all of that paper. His gag reflex would have prevented that from happening. The fact the towels were stained with blood, according to these expert witnesses, supported the theory that the obstructive mass had been pushed into his throat by force.

     The Jimenez defense put Dr. Ira Kanfer, a forensic pathologist, on the stand. Dr. Kanfer testified that the victim could have accidentally choked himself with the paper towels. According to this forensic pathologist, the blood on the towels did not come from the inside of the victim's mouth, but from his lungs.

     On August 31, 2005, after eight hours of deliberation, the jury found Rosa Jimenez guilty of murder. The judge sentenced her to 99 years in prison.
   
     Defense attorneys filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds the state had not given the defense team enough money to hire a battery of experts to counter the prosecution's expert witnesses. Following the trial, two physicians who were pediatric airway specialists, and a forensic pathologist who specializes in the deaths of children, studied the case. All three of these experts believed that despite the gag reflex, Bryan Gutierrez could have accidentally choked on the paper towels.

     To counter the post-conviction findings of these new defense witnesses, the prosecutor presented the analysis of an expert who agreed with the three doctors who had testified for the prosecution at the trial.

     In November 2005, the Travis County district judge who had presided over the case denied the defense motion for a new trial. Jimenez's attorneys appealed this ruling. Several months later, a Texas appeals court reversed the district judge, and ordered a new trial based on the new evidence. The Travis County prosecutor appealed this decision to the state's highest court, and in April 2012, that court, in an 8 to 1 decision, denied Jimenez a new trial. According to the justices, the new scientific evidence was not enough evidence to legally reverse the trial jury's finding of guilt.

     In the Jimenez murder case, forensic science failed to establish how Bryan Gutierrez had died. It didn't matter to him, but it meant everything to his babysitter who will probably die in prison. We will never know for sure if justice was done in this case.

     In the 1930's, forensic science advocates such as law school dean John Wigmore and police chief August Vollmer believed that science in the court room would some day eliminate verdicts based upon emotion, guess work, and legal gymnastics. That day may come, but notwithstanding cutting edge science, we are not there yet.

Joseph L. Miller: The Deacon's Secret

     In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on June 12, 1959, 23-year-old Joseph Lewis Miller blasted John and Donna Lumpkins with a 12-gauge shotgun. Mr. Lumpkins died of his injuries on July 4 of that year. Donna Lumpkins, his wife, survived her wounds.

     On January 22, 1960, Joseph Miller pleaded guilty to the John Lumpkins murder and the attempted murder of the victim's wife. The judge sentenced him to life in prison. Throughout the late 1960s, Miller made several requests to have his life sentence commuted. On February 9, 1971, Miller got his wish when Governor Raymond P. Shaffer granted his motion. After serving 11 years and 6 months behind bars, Miller began his life as an ex-con on lifetime parole.

     Governor Shaffer's decision in this case would end up costing another man his life. (Whenever a politician commutes a sentence in a case that did not involve injustice, the politician is saying that he knows better than the judge who issued the original sentence. Politicians are not that smart, or wise.)

     On January 15, 1981, Miller, at age 45, shot Thomas Walker to death in the parking lot outside a Harrisburg bar. After being charged with murder and several firearms violations a month later, Miller was nowhere to be found. He became a fugitive from justice.

     In 2010, in the northeastern Texas town of Mineola, Miller, a deacon in the New Life Family Baptist Church, married a 58-year-old member of the congregation named Gennell. He was 74-years-old and living under the name Eugene Eubanks. Miller, a wanted killer, had established himself as a pillar of the community. But he was a man with a secret.

     In the early morning hours of April 21, 2014, a team of U.S. Marshals showed up in Mineola with a warrant for the longtime fugitive's arrest. The marshals took Joseph Miller, aka Eugene Eubanks, into custody and booked him into the Wood County Jail where he awaited his extradition back to Pennsylvania. According to Miller's wife Gennell Eubanks, Eugene suffered from early stage Alzheimer's Disease and arthritis. He also had been having problems with his heart.

     After the marshals hauled her 78-year-old husband off to jail, Gennell Eubanks told a reporter from Pennsylvania that she had not known her husband's real name. Regarding the shooting death of Thomas Walker in 1981, she said, "Eugene said it was an accident. He was trying to protect his brother, because a man was trying to kill him. I believe my husband. He wasn't trying to kill that man; it just happened. He isn't going to lie to me," she said, "because he is a deacon. He was trying to do what's right." As Miller was being taken out of his house in handcuffs, he said this to his 62-year-old wife: "Take care of yourself, and trust in the Lord. He will see you through."

     Miller had not told Gennell Eubanks about his 1959 murder of John Lumpkins and the shooting of the victim's wife. Gennell had no idea her husband of four years had spent more than eleven years in a Pennsylvania prison.
 
     This deacon knew how to keep a secret. 

The Unknown Novelist

New novels fare poorly for one simple reason. Nobody knows them. With few exceptions, big fiction sales only come about through recognition of an author's previous work. Thus, most authors must crank out several novels before they become trusted by a large enough universe of book buyers to generate respectable word-of-mouth sales.

Marc McCutcheon, Damn! Why Didn't I Write That? 2001 

Spice Up Your Novel With a Murder

Violence serves as an element of suspense. If someone is murdered on the page--in an opening scene or at a plot point--then you have suspense. And please don't think that murders are the province of detective or crime fiction only. Alice Hoffman uses murders effectively in several of her novels. Indeed, William Faulkner uses murder, Charles Dickens uses murder, Wilkie Collins uses murder, Thomas Harding uses murder, and no one would accuse William Shakespeare of shying away from occasional bloodshed in the cause of a gripping tale. [If you do incorporate murder into your fiction, make sure you know something about the subject. Otherwise it will bring ridicule.]

Elizabeth George, Write Away, 2005

The Elements of Style

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

David Madden, Revising Fiction, 1988

Joseph Heller's Work Ethic

I work almost constantly. For a novelist without hobbies, weekends don't make much difference. Most people don't enjoy weekends anyway; they don't know what to do with Sundays.

Joseph Heller in Fiction Writer's Market, edited by Jean M. Fredette, 1985 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Dr. Louise Robbins: The Shoe Print Expert From Hell

     Comparing a crime scene shoe print on a hard surface, or an impression in dirt, mud, or snow, to the bottom of a specific shoe, is not unlike the process of latent fingerprint identification. In many crime laboratories, the latent fingerprint people also handle footwear and tire-track evidence and occasionally deal with the identification of tool marks. Compared to DNA analysis, toxicology, and various aspects of forensic pathology, the identification of shoe marks, latent fingerprints, crime scene bullets, tool marks, and handwriting, involves less science than it does informed observation.

     A crime scene shoe print or impression can be identified as part of a footwear group according to size, brand, and model. In some cases, an impression can be identified as coming from one shoe to the exclusion of all other footwear. Every year 1.5 billion pairs of shoes are sold in the United States. At any given time, there could be as many as 100,000 pairs of size 10 Nike sneakers of a certain model and tread design. There could be, say, 5,000 pairs of these shoes in circulation in the Chicago area alone. The criminalistic or incriminating value of a group identification depends upon the size of the group. These group, or class identifications occur when the crime scene print or impression is not detailed enough for a match to a specific shoe, or when the shoe that made the mark is not available for comparison.

     The most famous group identification of shoe prints came at O. J. Simpson's double murder trial in 1995 when FBI expert William Bodziak identified several crime scene prints in blood as having been made by a pair of size 12 Bruno Magli Lorenzo shoes, luxury footwear made in Italy. Bodziak's testimony tended to incriminate Simpson in two ways: the identification involved a relatively small footwear group, and Simpson, after denying that he owned Bruno Magli shoes, was seen on television wearing a pair. The actual shoes that made the bloody prints were never located.

     An individual shoe, boot, or sandal can be linked to a crime scene print or impression the way a latent fingerprint can be matched to its inked, rolled-on counterpart. Instead of comparing ridge configurations, the footwear examiner looks at a shoe's sole and heel for unique signs of wear that show up in the print or impression. Every shoe that has been worn for awhile is as unique as a fingerprint. The more wear, the more potential for identification.

     Footwear identification, unlike fingerprint matching, does not require a minimum number of similarity points to be admissible in court. The credibility of a shoe identification depends upon the training, experience, and objectivity of the examiner, as well as the quality, clarity, and uniqueness of the characteristics being compared. New methods and techniques are constantly being developed, for example, to lift footwear impressions from dust, and even preserve shoe prints made in snow.

     Shoe prints left in dust, blood, or soot are photographed (next to a reference ruler), then peeled off the surface the way a latent fingerprint is lifted. Footwear impressions are often preserved with plaster-of-paris casts of the depressions. Shoes and their crime scene prints and impressions can be compared side-by-side, or through the use of transparent overlays. To connect a suspect to a crime scene through footwear evidence, detectives need three things: a good print or impression; the shoe that made it; and a way to link the suspect to the footwear. In the O. J. Simpson case, the detectives had shoe prints in blood, but none of the footwear in Simpson's possession matched the murder scene evidence. The prosecution had to settle for a group identification.

Dr. Louise Robbins and her "Cinderella Analysis"

     Fortunately for O. J. Simpson, the world's only footwear identification expert who might have identified the crime scene prints as having been made by shoes worn by him without having access to the actual footwear, had died eight years before his trial. Dr. Louise Robbins, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, wasn't interested in matching the bottoms of shoes to corresponding crime scene latents. She would have claimed she could identify the crime scene prints in the Simpson case by examining other shoes in Simpson's possession. Robbin's method of identification, a process she called "wear pattern analysis," was based on her theory that no two people have the same shaped feet, or walk in exactly the same way. According to her, this unique feature reveals itself inside the shoes people wear, and in the prints or impressions they leave behind.

     Dr. Robbins claimed she could look at a crime scene shoe print and determine that it had been made by the wearer of shoes other than the one shoe that had actually left the crime scene mark. Her critics, and there were many, called this her "Cinderella Analysis." If a defense attorney had a client in a case in which Dr. Robbins was testifying for the prosecution, that defendant's foot always seemed to end up fitting the shoe that had made the crime scene print or impression. The jury, without access to the actual source of the crime scene mark, simply had to take her word for it. It's not surprising that prosecutors with insufficient footwear evidence, and weak cases, loved this woman. Defense attorneys called her the prosecution expert from hell.

     In her work as an anthropologist, Dr. Robbins had frequently exhibited the ability to see things that her colleagues could not. When working in Africa, she garnered worldwide publicity after identifying a 3.5 million-year-old fossilized footprint as made by a woman who was five and a half months pregnant. Dr. Timothy White, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, who had worked with Dr. Robbins in Africa, characterized her conclusions as pure nonsense.

     If Dr. Robbins had confined her ideas to the classroom, she would have been harmless, and no one would have been greatly bothered by her patently ridiculous theories. But in 1976, when she took her nonsense into the courtroom as a forensic footwear identification expert, people not only started to worry, defendants started going to prison. Between 1976 and 1986, Dr. Robbins testified, for fees up to $9,000 a case, in ten states and Canada. During this period at least 12 defendants went to prison on the strength of her expert testimony. Her career as an expert witness came to an end in 1987 when she died of brain cancer at the age of 58.

     In the year of Dr. Robbin's death, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences sponsored a panel of 135 anthropologists, forensic scientists, lawyers, and legal scholars to review her cases and work. The panel concluded that her identification methodology had no basis in science. Marvin Lewis, a law professor at John Marshall University, called her work "complete hogwash." Lewis, who operated an expert witness referral service, was dismayed that so many judges had qualified Robbins as an expert witness. Russell Tuttle, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Chicago, in referring to Dr. Robbins, said, "Why do we allow this kind of rot, this pseudoscience, into our courts?" FBI expert William Bodziak, who had testified against Dr. Robbins in several murder trials, agreed: "Nobody else has ever dreamed of saying the kinds of things she said."

     Dr. Robbins not only wormed her way into courtrooms, and the hearts of desperate prosecutors, she had impressed juries. She had a Ph.D, taught at a major university, and had been written up in Time Magazine. In 1985, she published a book, Footprints: Collection, Analysis, and Interpretation. As a self-validating expert who used scientific terminology to advance an absurd theory, she came off as extremely confident, and sure of her conclusions. Moreover, some prosecutors portrayed her as a pioneer in a new field of scientific identification. One prosecutor, in defending Dr. Robbins against her critics, reminded the jury that it had taken 400 years for Galileo's theories to gain acceptance in the scientific community. 

Rapists Who Murder

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

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

Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, Rape, 2000

America's Invisible Crime

Pedophilia is our nation's most prevalent and ignored crime. It's kept hidden because it's so difficult for an advanced society to accept the fact that so many among us are serial sexual predators who prey on helpless, voiceless children. In denying the scope of this massive and longtime social cancer, detectives and prosecutors allow themselves to believe credibly accused pedophile suspects and disbelieve the victims of this horrific crime. As a result, law abiding citizens who suspect pedophilia within their own families, their churches, their neighborhoods and their places of employment, are afraid to come forward. This is also true of victims who remain silent out of fear of the pedophile, and of not being believed. (Many pedophiles are prominent members of society.) The way it functions, our criminal justice system benefits these insidious serial offenders at the expense of victims who have no voice, victims who suffer in silence the rest of their lives as their abusers continue to offend without consequence. This is beyond outrageous. This is a national disgrace.

A Good Life Is Not Necessarily A Good Story

How to begin? I had always shuddered at biographies that began, "It was a clear, cold morning in mid-December 1830, when the cry of a newborn baby broke the winter stillness." And once you begin, how to tell the story of a life that had no story?

Richard B. Sewall in Extra Ordinary Lives, edited by William Zinsser, 1986

The Stranded on an Alien Planet Theme

Daniel Defoe's immortal Robinson Crusoe is a metaphor for a man stranded on an alien planet. Crusoe is an exile, and exile has proved a perennial theme within the genre of science fiction.

Brian Aldiss, "The Stars of SF Pick the Best Science Fiction," theguardian.com, May 14, 2011 

Sherlock Holmes Has No Real World Counterpart

Sherlock Holmes, in the "Adventure of the Norwood Builder," showed off his powers of deduction with this greeting of a stranger: "You mentioned your name, as if I should recognize it, but I assure you that, beyond the obvious fact that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you." In the real world of investigative deductive powers, there have been murder cases where the detective in charge inferred suicide from an entrance wound to the back of the victim's head fired from beyond two feet. The performance of most criminal investigators falls between the cartoonish Sherlock Holmes character and the sheer incompetence of the amateur.

Reading Crime Fiction

It is never very sensible to act as an evangelist for the detective story: if someone says, "I've never been able to acquire a taste for crime fiction--who do you recommend I try?" The sensible answer probably is: "Don't bother. If you have tried and you haven't responded, then probably the response isn't in you." It is a pity to have become so sophisticated in one's reading as to have lost the elementary response to fiction as a story.

Robert Barnard, A Talent to Deceive, 1990

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Robert H. Richards IV: The Case of the Rich Pedophile

     In 2005, 38-year-old Robert H. Richards IV resided with his wife Tracy and their two children, a 3-year-old girl and a boy aged 19 months. The heir to a pair of family fortunes lived in a 5,800-square-foot mansion in Greenville, Delaware. Richards, a member of the du Pont family, the people who built a worldwide chemical empire, and the son of a prominent Delaware attorney, also owned a luxury home in the exclusive North Shores neighborhood near Rehoboth Beach.

     In October 2007, Richards' daughter, now almost six, told her grandmother, Donna Burg, that her father had sexually assaulted her several times in 2005. According to the girl, her father had penetrated her with his finger at night in her bedroom. He told his daughter to keep what he had done to her a secret. The grandmother passed this information on to the victim's mother, Tracy Richards. The mother took her daughter to a pediatrician who confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted.

     In December 2007, a grand jury sitting in New Castle County indicted Robert Richards on two counts of second-degree rape. If convicted of these felonies, Richards faced a mandatory prison sentence. Following his arrest, Richards retained the services of a high-powered Delaware defense attorney named Eugene J. Maurer, Jr.

     Having denied his daughter's accusations, Richards agreed to take a polygraph test. When advised by the lie detection examiner that he had failed the test, Richards confessed to sexually assaulting his daughter. He said he was mentally ill and in need of psychiatric treatment.

     In June 2008, attorney Maurer and New Castle County prosecutor Renee Hrivnak agreed on a plea arrangement. According to the deal, Richards would plead guilty to one count of fourth-degree rape. This was not an offense that called for an automatic stretch in prison.

     Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden, in January 2009, sentenced Richards to Level 2 probation. Under the terms of his sentence, Richards would visit a case officer once a month. He also paid a $4,395 fine to the Delaware Violent Crimes Compensation Board.

     Judge Jurden, in justifying the probated sentence, wrote that prison life would be especially difficult for Mr. Richards, and that he would not fare well behind bars. In her mind, prison was for drug dealers, robbers, and murderers, not for child molesters in need of psychiatric treatment.

     In March 2014, Robert Richards' ex-wife Tracy filed a lawsuit against him on behalf of their children. The plaintiff was seeking compensatory and punitive damages for assault, negligence, and the intentional infliction of emotional stress on his daughter and her younger brother.

     According to the affidavit in support of the lawsuit, Richards, in anticipation of a second polygraph test in April 2010, expressed concern about something he had done to his son in December 2005. Richards was worried that he had sexually assaulted the then 19-month-old boy. Richards promised that whatever he had done to that child, it would not happen again.

     Richards' incriminating remarks, sparked by the lie detector test in 2010 following his probated sentence for sexually assaulting his daughter, were not make public until Tracy Richards filed her lawsuit. The new information inflamed a public already angry over what seemed to be Richards' preferential treatment by the prosecutor and Judge Jurden.

    On June 28, 2014, Robert Richards' attorney negotiated a settlement agreement with his client's former wife. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed. No charges were filed against Richards in connection with the possible molestation of his son.

     Had Robert Richards not been rich, he would be serving his sentence in prison. 

Courtroom Psychologists

     As trial witnesses, experts are brought into the courtroom to help jurors understand things beyond their knowledge as laypersons. Unlike ordinary witnesses, experts can express their opinions, which because they are experts, carry extra weight. Through exhibits and testimony, these specialists can point out similarities (and dissimilarities) between, say, a defendant's fingerprint, hair follicle, DNA, or handwriting to crime scene latents, hair, blood, or a document. A forensic pathologist in a murder case might be able to tell jurors when, where, and how the victim had been killed. While these courtroom experts work with physical evidence, and apply hard science to their inquiries, even they don't always draw the same conclusions after analyzing the same evidence. For the administration of justice, this is not a good thing.

     In terms of disciplines and fields of study, the more courtroom experts there are, and the less stringent the legal standards are for who qualifies as an expert, the worse it is for the trial process. Today there are too many trials featuring dueling expert testimony. Instead of helping jurors determine the facts of particular case, the competing experts render the process more difficult, and unreliable. This is why, especially in the soft-science disciplines of criminology (sociology) and psychology, trial judges should deny these practitioners expert witness status. In other words, when it comes to courtroom testimony, we'd be better off if they kept their opinions to themselves.

Psychologists in Child Abuse Cases

     Pennsylvania is the only state where prosecutors are not permitted to call psychologists to the stand as expert witnesses in child molestation cases to help jurors evaluate the credibility of young accusers. Specifically, in cases where victims of sexual abuse waited months or even years to come forward, prosecutors want psychologists to explain why this doesn't mean these accusers are not believable. These expert witnesses, according to prosecutors, can help jurors understand the psychology of this form of victimhood.

     Defense attorneys, on the other hand, object to this form of expert testimony on the grounds it usurps the role of the jury, and the power of common sense, in deciding if a particular accuser is a credible witness. In performing this duty, jurors do not need the help of a psychologists whose opinions on such matters are no better than anyone else's. Moreover, history has shown that too many prosecution shrinks have lost their objectivity by thinking of themselves as members of law enforcement teams. (For a good example of this phenomena, look up the historic McMartin preschool case.)

     As much as I loath pedophiles, and like to see them put away for life, I agree with the defense attorneys on this issue. In American jurisprudence, there are now expert witnesses testifying on virtually everything under the sun. It has become a racket, and it's screwing up the system. Expert witnesses cost a lot of money, and are corrupting the trial process. Some experts will testify for whoever will pay them. Others specialize in helping one side or the other. Too many of these witnesses claim expertise in fields that are themselves bogus, and many come into court with phony resumes. In selecting between dueling experts, jurors might side with the hired-gun who looks the best, or is the most persuasive speaker. A complete phony can look and sound more credible than his or her more credentialed counterpart.

     Psychologists and criminologists should not be qualified as expert witnesses. The jury process, and the criminal justice system, would be better off without their conflicting opinions.

Reinventing Al Capone

     Except for books about writers and the writing life, the memoir has become my least favorite literary genre. I'm sick of manufactured sob stories; celebrity drivel you can get from People Magazine; fiction passed off as fact; revisionist, self-serving history; autobiographical narcissism; and memoirists trying to create something out of nothing. While there are very few of us worthy of a memoir, everybody seems to be writing one, including people with relatives who were once famous, or better yet, infamous. A memoir published in 2010 by Deirdre Marie Capone, the grandniece of the prohibition gangster Al Capone, represents this form of literary exploitation.

     When Al Capone died on January 25, 1947, the author of Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story From Inside His Family," was 7-years-old. During the first six years of her life, uncle Al was doing time at Alcatraz for the least of his crimes, tax evasion. When they released him in November 1939, Capone's brain was partially destroyed by untreated syphilis. He spent his last months on earth in a bath robe fishing in his swimming pool on Palm Island in Biscayne Bay, Florida.

     It's safe to say that the author of this memoir had no direct contact with her great uncle. And even if she had, she was 7-years-old. This book was obviously not written from her journal entries. Nevertheless, Deirdre Capone wants us to believe that Al Capone was the victim of heavy-handed law enforcers who exaggerated the extent of his criminality. The author is telling us that Capone was nothing more than a successful businessman giving the American public what it wanted--illegal booze. Moreover, the man loved his family and liked to cook. If half of what has been written and said about Al Capone is false, he is still one of the most violent and evil criminals in American history.

       As a "businessman," Capone killed his competitors, and anyone who refused to buy his alcohol. Sure, people wanted their prohibition era booze, but they didn't bargain for the extortion, arson, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and first-degree murder that went with doing business with a man who employed more than 600 thugs and gangsters. Having paid-off most of the cops and federal prohibition agents in Chicago, Capone had a license to kill, and he used it. Calling Al Capone a "businessman" is like calling Adolph Hitler a statesman who loved his dog

     Like most mob leaders, Capone moved up the gangster career ladder by murdering people who stood in his way. He killed several men over petty arguments and barroom insults. Those he didn't murder ended up with broken arms, legs, and skulls. At an organized crime banquet he once hosted, Capone beat an associate to death with a baseball bat as he sat over his pasta. And on February 14, 1929, he masterminded the execution style mass murder of seven members of a rival gang in the so-called St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Some businessman.

Getting the Most Out of a Boring Interviewee

When confronted with an interview subject who might not have exactly scintillating things to say, a good nonfiction writer, rather than making up better stuff, will work hard to discover other aspects of the subject that are interesting, like by talking to other people about the character in question or simply work on getting the subject to talk more and reveal himself, rather than resorting to fiction.

Lee Gutkind in Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, 2001 

The Amateur Sleuth in Crime Fiction

The most important apparent disadvantage you'll face with an amateur sleuth has to do with the suspension of belief--why is this amateur detective attempting to solve this murder? Why not let the cops do it? Why does this amateur keep tripping over dead bodies? And why doesn't she mind her own business?

Nancy Pickard in Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton, 1992 

Characters Drawn From Real People

I should say that the practice of drawing characters from actual models is not only universal but necessary. I do not see why any novelist should be ashamed to acknowledge it. [Perhaps one who is afraid of being sued.]

W. Somerset Maugham in Writers on Writing, edited by Walter Allen, 1948 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A Short History of American Forensic Science

     By 1935, crime laboratories were up and running in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The FBI Lab had opened its doors in 1933. The bureau's national fingerprint repository had been operating in Washington, D.C. since 1924, the year J. Edgar Hoover, an early advocate of scientific crime detection, became the agency's fourth director. August Vollmer, the progressive police administrator from Berkeley, California, and Dean John Wigmore of Northwestern University Law School, had been tireless crusaders for forensic science and physical evidence as an alternative to coerced confessions, eyewitness testimony, and jailhouse informants. Wigmore and Vollmer were the main forces behind the formation, in Chicago, of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in 1930. In 1938, the private lab became part of the Chicago Police Department.

     In the 1930s, a pair of private practice forensic chemists and crime scene reconstruction analysts in the northwest, Oscar Heinrich and Luke May, were grabbing headlines by solving high-profile murder cases. Stories involving crimes solved through the scientific analysis of physical evidence had become commonplace features in the fact-crime magazines so popular at the time. Numerous textbooks and manuals had been published on the subjects of fingerprint identification, forensic ballistics, questioned documents, trace evidence analysis, forensic serology, forensic medicine, scientific lie detection (polygraph), and forensic anthropology, the identification and analysis of skeletal remains.

     Criminal investigation textbooks of this era contained detailed instructions on how to protect crime scenes, render crime scene sketches, photograph clues, mark and package physical evidence, dust for latent fingerprints, make plaster-of-Paris casts of tire tracks and footwear impressions, and in the case of sudden, unexplained, or violent death, look for signs of criminal homicide. By the mid-thirties, virtually every court in the country accepted the expert opinions of practitioners in the major forensic fields, and jurors recognized the advantages of expert physical evidence interpretation over the more direct testimony of jailhouse snitches and eyewitnesses.

     Today, notwithstanding DNA science and computerized fingerprint identification and retrieval capabilities, crime solution percentages in the United States have not improved since the mid-thirties when the FBI started collecting crime statistics. The emphasis on street policing (order maintenance), the escalating war on drugs, and the threat of domestic terrorism has diminished the role of criminal investigation and forensic science in the administration of justice. At a time when DNA technology has advanced far beyond the imaginations of the pioneers of forensic serology (Dr. Paul Kirk and others), rapists, pedophiles, and serial killers are escaping detection and arrest due to DNA analysis backlogs created by a shortage of funds and experts.

     Ironically, one of the byproducts of DNA science has been the release of hundreds of innocent people who have been convicted on the strength of coerced confessions, unreliable eyewitnesses, and the testimony of jailhouse informants. In the small percentage of trials involving the analysis of physical evidence, jurors are commonly exposed to conflicting scientific testimony. When faced with opposing experts, jurors tend to disregard the science altogether. The forensic pioneers of the twenties and thirties would be appalled by this hired-gun phenomena and the low productivity of today's investigative services.

     During the first decade of the 21st Century, due to forensic misidentifications caused by substandard lab conditions and incompetent personnel, crime laboratories in, among other places, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Boston, had to be temporarily closed. During this period, for the first time in the history of the science, there were numerous high-profile fingerprint misidentifications. Moreover, modern forensic science has seen the infusion of pseudo-science and bogus expertise into the nation's courtrooms.

      In March 2009, the National Academy of Sciences, an organization within the National Institute of Justice, after an eighteen month study, published a report criticizing the state of forensic science in America. The writers of the widely publicized report recommended that Congress create a federal agency to insure a firewall between forensic science and law enforcement; finance more research and personnel training; and promote universal standards of excellence in the troubled fields of DNA profiling, forensic firearms identification, fingerprint analysis, forensic document examination, and forensic pathology. From this, one might reasonably conclude that modern forensic science, weighed against the hopes and dreams of its pioneers, has not lived up to its potential.

Dueling Experts

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

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

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

Driven to Write

What kind of an emotion is the desire to write? It is not a core emotion like joy or fear. Nor is it a biological drive in the sense that hunger or sexual desire is. But there are secondary emotions and secondary drives, made up of a mixture of core emotions or drives, often in combination with certain beliefs. Secondary emotions include complicated states such as guilt, hope, and smugness. Secondary drives might include the urge to buy a house or to gamble. It is in this secondary category that the drive to write best fits.

Alice W. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease, 2004 

Thomas Wolfe On the First Novel

Usually the first novel of a young writer is a book of discovery. From his meager experience, accentuated by his youth, comes a knowledge so new and startling and so wonderful that its pain is almost beyond bearing. Mellow, many-faceted understanding is not for now; understanding is the hard reward of decades of summers. Youth's knowledge, youth's discoveries, are as sure as an April dawn. [Mr. Wolfe (1900-1938) was a bit of a mental case.]

Thomas Wolfe in Wolfe by Richard Walser, 1961 

How the "Great Writers" Wrote

Great Writing was done in a language that had nothing to do with the way one spoke. The words were similar, but arranged more cleverly, less directly. A good literary sentence was like a floor with a hole hidden in it. You got to the end and thought: "Why'd he say it that way? He must really be a great writer." Plain English language was a degraded thing, good only for getting around your dopey miniature world, cashing checks and finding restaurants and talking about television and so on.

George Saunders, amazon.com, 2004 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Marybeth Tinning: America's Worst Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy Case

     In January 1972, Marybeth Tinning's 8-day-old daughter Jennifer died of acute meningitis. The death brought Marybeth a wave of sympathy from her friends and neighbors. The nurse's aide, married to a cold and indifferent man who worked at the Local General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York, welcomed the attention she did not get from her husband. Three weeks after Jennifer's death, Marybeth rushed her 2-year-old son, Joseph, to Schenectady's Ellis Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Without the benefit of an autopsy, doctors diagnosed the boy's cause of death as a viral infection accompanied by a "seizure disorder."

     The tragic loss of two children within a span of three weeks brought Marybeth Tinning an intense amount of sympathy and attention. This once ignored and lonely woman fit the criminal profile of a person with the so-called  Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy personality disorder. Mothers with MSBP hurt or kill their children for the sympathy and attention they receive from friends, family, and hospital personnel. However, it wasn't until 1977 that members of law enforcement and the medical community became aware of this homicidal motive.

     Tragedy hit the Tinning family six weeks after Joseph's death when 4-year-old Barbara Tinning died. Following the third death of a Tinning child, hospital personnel, suspicious of foul play, notified the police. The pathologist, however, by identifying the cause of death as cardiac arrest, killed any chance of a criminal investigation.

     A year and a half after Barbara Tinning's sudden death, 2-week-old Timothy Tinning died at Ellis Hospital while being treated for a mysterious illness. The pathologist, unable to identify the cause of death, recorded it as a Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) case. ( SIDS is not a cause a death but merely a description of the death. However, it sounds more scientific than "unknown death.")

     In September 1975, Nathan Tinning, five months old, died of "pulmonary edema." While hospital personnel were growing increasingly suspicious, the police didn't get involved because all of the deaths except one had been classified as natural, and the one exception had gone into the books as SIDS.

     Three and a half years after Nathan Tinning died, Marybeth lost another child to sudden death. Mary Tinning, age two and a half, had been a healthy child who, for reasons that baffled physicians, simply died. Although she was not by definition an infant, her death was recorded as another SIDS fatality.

     In 1980, after the sixth Tinning child had died of undetermined causes, sympathy for Marybeth was hardening into suspicion of murder. At the Ellis Hospital, among a dwindling group of Marybeth sympathizers, there was speculation that perhaps the Tinning family had been cursed with a "death gene." On August 2, 1981, emergency personnel rushed 3-year-old Michael Tinning, suffering from breathing difficulties, to the hospital where he died shortly thereafter. The official cause of death--bronchial pneumonia--didn't stem the tide of suspicion. The fact that Michael had been adopted laid waste to the death-gene theory.

     In less than ten years, seven children from the same family had died mysteriously, and no one in the health care or law enforcement communities had asked the person most closely associated with each fatality, Marybeth Tinning, if she had anything to do with these deaths. While a few of her friends and neighbors still considered Marybeth a tragic, cursed figure deserving of their sympathy, her husband Joe seemed unfazed by it all.

     On the night of December 19, 1985, four years and three months after Michael Tinning's death, Marybeth telephoned her neighbor, also a nurse's aide, and said, "Get over her now!" The neighbor arrived at the Tinning house and found 3-month-old Tami Lynne, born when Marybeth was forty-two, lying on a changing table. The infant had turned purple and was not breathing. According to Marybeth, the baby had been fusing all evening, and when she (Tinning) couldn't stand it anymore, she got up from watching television to ascertain why the baby was crying. She said she found her child tangled in blankets and not breathing. Unable to revive her, she had gotten Joe out of bed, called her neighbor, and then telephoned for an ambulance. The emergency personnel reached the house shortly after the neighbor arrived. At St. Clare's Hospital, doctors pronounced Tami Lynne dead.

     The forensic pathologist who performed the infant's autopsy knew the Tinning family history of sudden death. Notwithstanding this knowledge, and the purple coloration that suggested death by suffocation, the pathologist classified this fatality as a case of SIDS. Hospital personnel, however, suspected criminal homicide. They believed that Marybeth Tinning was a serial killer.

     The local police had been suspicious of Marybeth for years, but because none of the autopsies had resulted in a finding of homicidal death, they could not justify a criminal investigation. All they had to go on was the statistical unlikelihood of so many mysterious deaths occurring under the same roof, to the same mother. After Tami Lynne's death, a detective from the Schenectady Police Department went to the Tinning residence to ask Marybeth about the circumstances of the infant's passing. When he entered the house, Marybeth was reported to have said, "I know what you're here for. You're going to arrest me and take me to jail." The detective did not take her into custody, but the investigation had begun.

     Detectives from the Schenectady Police Department and investigators with the New York State Police met in Albany to review the eight Tinning autopsy reports, hospital records, and statements that had been made by ambulance and emergency room personnel. After the meeting, the officers agreed that without physical evidence of child abuse, an eyewitness, or a cooperating spouse, they would need a confession. If Marybeth did not confess to killing her children, they had no case. A little help from the forensic medicine community would have gone a long way in aiding the police, but it wasn't there. Marybeth Tinning would have to confess.

     Seven weeks after Tami Lynne's death, a Schenectady detective and a state police investigator came to the Tinning house and asked Marybeth to accompany them to the state police station in Louderville for questioning. Although she knew she was not under arrest, Marybeth agreed to be questioned. In the interrogation room, the suspect said she understood her Miranda rights, and agreed to waive them. Initially, according to the police account of the interrogation (which was not recorded) Marybeth denied doing anything to her children that would have caused their deaths. The detectives made it clear that they did not believe this, and not long into the interrogation, they were joined by another officer, a state trooper who had known Marybeth from childhood. "I didn't do it!" she kept saying. The interrogators, convinced she was lying, pressed on.

     Eventually breaking down under the pressure of the station house interrogation, Marybeth admitted that she had killed three of her children. She said she had used a pillow to smother 3-month-old Tami Lynne, 5-month-old Nathan, and 2-week-old Timothy. She denied foul play in the other five unexplained sudden deaths. Detectives brought her husband Joe into the interrogation room and she repeated her admission to him. Joe Tinning seemed unmoved by the news that his wife had murdered three of their children.

     A stenographer typed up the confession in a question-and-answer format, a transcript that ran to 36 pages. When describing Tami Lynne's death, Marybeth said, "I got up and went to her crib and tried to do something with her to get her to stop crying. I finally used the pillow from my bed and put it over her head. I held it until she stopped crying."

     A team of forensic pathologists examined the exhumed bodies of three infants. Two were too badly decomposed to render any clues, and the third turned out to a body taken from the wrong grave. On December 16, 1986, at the preliminary hearing, Marybeth rescinded her confession, claiming that her interrogators had forced her into confessing falsely. "They were telling me what to say," she said. "The police made a statement and I just repeated it." Marybeth's attorney asked the judge to exclude the 36-page confession on the grounds it had been acquired in violation of his client's Miranda rights. The judge denied the motion.

     A local prosecutor charged Marybeth Tinning with the murder of Tami Lynne, the last child to die. The case went to trial in 1987. The forensic pathologist who had initially ruled the death a SIDS fatality took the stand and testified that the child had been smothered to death. Five other pathologists for the prosecution agreed with this postmortem diagnosis.

     The defense countered with six forensic pathologists of their own who attributed Tami Lynne's death to a variety of natural causes. One of the defense experts testified that the child had died from Wernig-Hoffman disease, a genetic disorder that attacks the spinal column.

     The jury, confused by the conflicting medical testimony, relied on the defendant's confession to find her guilty. The jurors may also have found it hard to believe that eight children from one family, including an adopted child, could have died of natural causes. (Actually nine if you count the first child's death.)

     At the Tinning trial, forensic science, instead of guiding this jury to a rationale verdict, had cancelled itself out. Apparently unsure if Marybeth had intentionally killed the child for the attention she would get, the jurors found her guilty of murder in the second degree, an offense that carried a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.

     At her sentencing hearing, Marybeth, reading from a prepared statement said, "I just want you to know that I played no part in the death of my daughter, Tami Lynne. I did not commit this crime but will serve the time in prison to the best of my ability. However, I will never stop fighting to prove my innocence." The judge imposed the maximum sentence of 25 years to life.

     Although the Tinning case is an extreme manifestation of the Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy personality disorder, it is not the only case in the history of sudden infant death where an alarming number of babies have died before law enforcement authorities launched criminal investigations. (The Marie Noe case in Philadelphia is another example.) Before England's Dr. Roy Meadow introduced this syndrome into the vocabulary of murder, mothers in multiple death cases were less likely to come under suspicion of murder.

     In March 2007, after living twenty years in prison, Marybeth Tinning had her first parole board hearing. To the board members she said, "I have to be honest, and the only thing I can tell you is that I know that my daughter is dead. I live with it every day. I have no recollection and I can't believe that I harmed her." The board denied her request for parole.

   In late January 2009, at her second parole hearing, Tinning said, "I was going through bad times when I killed my daughter." The board, believing that her remorse was "superficial at best," denied her parole. She was denied early release in 2011 and 2012.

     In June 2016, the parole board, for the fourth time, denied Marybeth Tinning's bid for freedom. After being denied two more times, Tinning was granted parole on August 12, 2018. She had been in prison 30 years.