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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.

The Shaken Baby Syndrome: The Shirley Ree Smith Case

     When a presumably healthy baby dies in his or her crib for no apparent reason, and there is no evidence of foul play, rather than classifying the cause of death as "unknown," or "undetermined," a coroner or medical examner will usually call the fatality a "sudden infant death syndrome" (SIDS) case. Although this is the same as ruling the death as "undetermined," it sounds more scientific. At one time, the parents of SIDS babies found themselves under clouds of suspicion. Today, as a result of scientific study of these cases, forensic pathologists are attributing natural death causes in infant deaths that earlier would have been classified as SIDS fatalities.

     The "shaken baby syndrome" (SBS) refers to signs of physical trauma found in children under six who have been violently shaken. When a baby or toddler is shaken too hard, the victim's brain is jarred against the skull, causing it to bleed and swell. Most pediatricians and forensic pathologists believe that to diagnose SBS, they must find, at minimum, evidence of subdural hematoma (brain hemorrhaging), retinal bleeding (broken veins in the eyes), and cerebral edema (liquid on the brain that causes it to swell). The conventional wisdom had been that a child with these injuries who had neither been in a car accident or fallen from a two-story window had been violently shaken. Supportive evidence of SBS might include trauma to the neck and spine, bruises on the arms and torso, and broken ribs.

     In the late 1990s, a handful of pediatric researchers began to question the science behind the standard SBS diagnosis.Could cerebral edema and blood in the eyes and brain have other causes such as vitamin deficiency, disease, or reactions to vaccines and drugs? Diseases thought to cause symptoms of SBS included hypohosphatasia, brittle bone disease; Alagilles's Syndrome, a liver ailment; Bylers Disease (a liver disorder common among the Amish); and glutaric acidura (acid buildup in infants that causes paralysis and retinal bleeding). Some experts believe that a relatively short fall to a hard surface, say from three feet, can cause damage to the brain similar to that found in SBS victims.

     Because there is no agreement among pediatricians and forensic pathologists what physical evidence of SBS consists of, homicide trials involving defendants accused of shaking infants to death often involve dueling expert witnesses testifying against each other.

Shirley Ree Smith Case

     In 1997, a jury in Van Nuys, California convicted Shirley Ree Smith of shaking her seven week old grandson to death. The prosecutor convinced the jury that Smith had shaken the baby to stop him from crying. The medical examiner, in explaining why there wasn't as much cerebral bleeding as one might expect in a SBS case, said the baby had been shaken so violently the blood vessels in the brain stem suffered "shearing," casusing instantaneous death without bleeding due to the fact the baby's heart had stopped beating. The autopsy had failed to produce evidence of brain swelling or retinal bleeding.

     The Smith defense put two forensic pathologists on the stand who classified the death as a SIDS case, noting that the baby had jaundice, a heart murmer, and low birth weight. The jury accepted the prosecution's version of the facts, and found Shirley Ree Smith guilty. She received a sentence of fifteen years to life.

     A state court of appeals upheld the conviction. The Ninth Circuit federal court of appeals, however, in 2006, reversed the conviction and ordered Smith released from prison on the grounds the jury had missclassified the baby's death as a SBS fatality. The state prosecutor appealed the case reversal to the United States Supreme Court.

     On October 31, 2011, the supreme court, in a 6 to 3 decision, reinstated Shirley Ree Smith's homicide conviction. This meant she would have to return to prison. The six justices upheld a longstanding legal principle that an appeals court cannot substitute its judgment for a jury's. The high court, recognizing the jury in the Smith case may have relied on the wrong forensic pathologists, reminded the Ninth Circuit Court that judges in jury trials cannot decide the law and the facts. If Shirley Ree Smith had a remedy in law, it would have to be in the form of executive clemency.

A Surrogate Life of Imagination

We are not geniuses, most of us who write novels, but we are, many of us, people who have chosen to live the surrogate life of the imagination. We have perhaps settled for that state which Wallace Stevens speaks of. "The final belief," he said, "is to believe in a fiction that you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else."

Brian Moore in Agony and the Ego, edited by Clare Boylan, 1994

Journalists and Novelists

The dominant and most deep-dyed trait of the journalist is his timorousness [timidity]. Where the novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe. Not for him the strenuous athleticism--which is the novelist's daily task--of laying out his deepest griefs and shames before the world. The journalist confines himself to the clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others.

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

Autobiographical Reality

Autobiographies are written as their authors remember their lives, which may or may not be the way it really was. Autobiography has a limited market with commercial publishers unless the author is already well-known or has had a most unusual and interesting life.

Doris Ricker Marston, A Guide to Writing History, 1976 

Science Fiction: Creating a New World

A writer of conventional fiction, unless he is extremely inventive, starts with innumerable givens. His plot must wind its way through them like a road through the contours of a mountain pass. But a science fiction writer, if he really uses his medium, need take very little for granted. He is not creating a road but an entire world--mountains, pass and all.

Tom O'Reilly in Critical Encounters, edited by Dick Riley, 1986 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Karl Karlsen Murder Case

     On January 1, 1999, when firefighters in the north central California town of Murphys arrived at Karl Karlsen's one-story house, the dwelling was already engulfed in flames. The fire had gotten so intense it had blown out the windows. While Karlsen's three young children were safe, his 31-year-old wife Christina did not make it out of the inferno.

     Questioned about the fast-developing house fire, Karl Karlsen told fire officials and the police that when it started he had been in the garage. He managed, he said, to pull his children out of the burning structure though their bedroom windows, but he had not been able to save his wife.

     An arson investigator looking into the cause and origin of the blaze, after finding what he interpreted as separate areas of deep charring on the floor ( burn patterns suggesting multiple points of origin), suspected that the Karlsen fire had been set. (I don't know if the cause and origin investigator found traces of accelerants to back up his incendiary fire suspicions, or if Christina Karlsen had been autopsied to determine if she had been alive at the time of the fire.) The fire investigator, based on the fact there was no physical evidence consistent with the children having been exposed to smoke and soot, didn't believe the youngsters had been in the house when the fire started. (I don't know if the fire investigator interviewed the children.)

     The speed and intensity of the fire, the multiple points of origin, the condition of the children, and the fact a vehicle Karl Karlsen owned had gone up in flames a year earlier, pointed to a possible arson-murder case. (Almost all serious car fires are incendiary, burned for the insurance money.) Notwithstanding suspicions of arson, the cause of the fatal house fire went into the books as undetermined. While Christina Karlsen's father, Art Alexander, suspected foul play, no charges were filed in connection with his daughter's death.

     Shortly after the blaze that took his wife's life, Karl and his children moved to Seneca County, New York where he used his $200,000 fire insurance payout to buy a farm near Varick, a small town 55 miles southwest of Syracuse in the Finger Lakes region of the state.

     After moving to New York State, Karl married his second wife Cindy who helped him run the farm. On November 20, 2008, Karl Karlsen's 23-year-old son Levi was in his father's garage working on a pickup truck. A graduate of the Romulus Area High School, Levi, the father of two girls, was employed as a machine operator at a glass manufacturing company in nearby Geneva. At eight o'clock that evening, Cindy Karlsen called 911 to report an accident involving Karl's son Levi. In the Karlsen garage, on the floor near the truck, emergency technicians found Levi. He was dead.

     Karl Karlsen told deputies from the Seneca County Sheriff's Office that when he and Cindy left the farm to attend a family event that afternoon at four, Levi had been working beneath the jacked-up truck. When Karl returned to the garage about four hours later, he found that the vehicle had toppled off the jack. The father lifted the pickup off his son with the jack and pulled his body out from under the truck. Levi Karlsen was pronounced dead on arrival at the Geneva General Hospital.

     The Seneca County Coroner's Office classified the manner of Levi Karlsen's death as accidental. As a result, there was no criminal investigation into his sudden death. (I presume Levi's body was not autopsied, and do not know if officers took photographs of the death scene. Since the body had been moved before the arrival of the deputies, I'm not sure how useful these photographs would have been anyway.)

     In March 2012, more than three years after Levi Karlsen's sudden and violent death, homicide investigators with the Seneca County Sheriff's Office and the New York State Police Violent Crime Investigation Unit, became interested in the case. The piece of information that opened the criminal inquiry involved Karl Karlsen's purchase of a $700,000 life insurance police on his son just days before the young man's demise. According to that policy, Karl Karlsen was the sole beneficiary.

     Three and a half years after Karl Karlsen received the life insurance money from his son's death, he was in financial trouble. Police arrested him in June 2012 on the charge of passing a pair of bad checks in Seneca Falls, New York. The bogus checks totaled $685.30.  

     On November 24, 2012, four years after Levi Karlsen died in his father's garage, Seneca County District Attorney Barry Porch charged Karl Karlsen with second-degree murder. Based on an eight-month homicide investigation conducted by state and county officers, the prosecutor believed the father had intentionally caused the truck to fall on his son. With Livi pinned beneath the vehicle, Karl took Cindy to the family event. Upon his return to the farm four hours later, the suspect "discovered" his son lying under the fallen vehicle. Karl asked his second wife to call 911. Investigators and the district attorney believed that the suspect, when he took out the life insurance on his son, planned to murder him.

     In September 2013, at a pretrial hearing on the second-degree murder charge related to Levi Karlsen's death, the defendant's second wife Cindy (she was in the process of divorcing him) shed new light on the homicide investigation. In early November 2012, after learning that Karl had invested part of his son's $700,000 insurance payout to purchase a $1.2 million policy on her life, she began cooperating with Seneca County investigators.

     Cindy Karlsen agreed to wear a wire and meet her estranged husband in a crowded restaurant in hopes of getting him to admit that he had killed his son. She took the stand at the hearing and testified that "I led him to believe our marriage had a chance if he came clean. I told him he could trust me."

     At the restaurant, Karl told Cindy that he had removed the truck's front tires and raised the vehicle on a single jack before asking his son to repair the brake and transmission lines. "It was so wobbly," he said.

     "Tell the truth," Cindy replied.

     "It was never meant to be. It was never planned from day one to ever go that way," Karl said.

     A week following the audio-recorded conversation, investigators with the Seneca County Sheriff's Office interrogated the suspect for almost ten hours during which time Karlsen denied killing Levi 75 times. Eventually, however, Karlsen signed a statement in which he acknowledged that he had knocked the truck off its jack and walked away. But in the videotaped interrogation, Karlsen insisted that he had not intentionally caused the truck to fall on his son. He told detectives that because he had been taking pain pills for various ailments, his memory of the incident was fuzzy. "In some ways," he said, "it's a blank."

     Immediately following the marathon interrogation, detectives took Karlsen into custody.

     On November 7, 2013, the day before his trial, Karlsen confessed to crushing his son to death for the insurance money. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Six weeks later, Seneca Court Judge Dennis Bender, before sentencing Karlsen to 15 years to life, told him he wasn't "fully human."

The Emily Lambert Murder Case

      In September 2013, Emily Lambert, a third grade teacher at the O Henry Elementary School near Plano, Texas, a suburban community just north of Dallas, divorced her husband Donavan. The couple had daughters aged four and five. Emily and Donavan, following the break up, remained on good terms.

     Shortly after the divorce, the 33-year-old resident of Lewisville began dating a man from Euless, Texas named Robert Early.

     On Saturday, March 1, 2014, Lambert and Early were booked into the Stevens Best Western Inn in Carlsbad, New Mexico. He was on a work assignment and she had accompanied him for the weekend. The next morning, Early called the Carlsbad Police Department and reported Emily missing.

     When questioned by police officers, the 33-year-old Early said he and his missing girlfriend had left the motel bar--the Blue Cactus Lounge--at eleven-thirty the previous night. When they got back to their room they argued. Emily became so angry she stormed out of the motel. When she didn't return in the morning, he called the police.

     Mr. Early described Emily Lambert as five-foot-six, 175 pounds, with long blond hair and a large tattoo of an owl on her back. He said she had left the room without her wallet and her cell phone.

     At four-thirty in the afternoon of Tuesday, March 4, 2014, police officers discovered the body of a female that matched the description of the woman missing from the Best Western Inn. The corpse was found in a field off State Road 31 near Loving, New Mexico, eight miles southeast of Carlsbad. Officers identified the body as Emily Lambert.

     That night detectives questioned Robert Early at the Carlsbad Police Department. In the course of the interrogation session, he confessed to killing his girlfriend.

     After returning to their room after an evening of drinking at the motel bar, the couple got into a physical fight that led to her being knocked unconscious. From the room, Early carried Emily to his silver 2007 Hyundai Elantra.

     With Emily in the Hyundai, Robert drove to a remote area. When he took Emily out of the car, she regained consciousness. They fought again, and this time he knocked her out with an air pump. He tied one end of a rope around her neck and closed the other end in the passenger's side car door. With her tethered to the vehicle, he climbed behind the wheel and dragged her body to where it was found.

     At one o'clock that morning, Carlsbad officers booked Robert Early into the Eddy County Detention Center on the charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and tampering with evidence. The judge set his bail at $1 million.

     In May 2015, a jury sitting in Carlsbad, New Mexico found Robert Early guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Early to the mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
    

Ann Rule's True Crime Selection Process

There are many reasons I can't write about a true crime case. Sometimes, (1) there isn't enough there to fill a full-length book; (2) the characters are just not interesting; (3) the case has been over-publicized; (4) the story is too sad; or (5) the timing of a case may be wrong because I am already attending other trials or writing other books…I have to wait until an arrest has been made and a case is headed for trial. From there on it's a gamble; if the defendant should be acquitted, I probably couldn't write the book.

Ann Rule, annrule.com, October 2003 

Short Story Character Development

The novelist can slowly unfold the changing lives of several characters, but the short story writer has difficulty enough in making credible the change in a single character. Any intelligent reader has a very reasonable skepticism about sudden spiritual or moral change; the author most prove to the reader that this character was well on the way toward the change before it actually takes place. Doing this takes up much of an author's story.

Jarvis A. Thurston, Reading Modern Short Stories, 1955

Perfect Romance Heroines Are Off-Putting

I feel that a character's flaws are what allows the reader to relate to her. I'm well-known for not being a fan of the "perfect" heroine. Our admiration may be aroused by perfection, but that is a distant emotion. Empathy comes from a shared sense of humanity, and that's what interests me. The flaws that I choose are flaws that interest me; flaws that seem to challenge the character is some way.

Laura Kinsale, likesbooks.com, 2003

Science Fiction Readers Expect Something New

     Different people read for different reasons, but to reproduce the mundane circumstances of their everyday lives is generally not one of them. There are literary writers who understand this and those who don't--hence the preponderance of divorce novels, teen angst novels, dealing-with-aging parent novels etc, that do little more than take us to where we've already been and tell us what we already know.

     Those who write science fiction and other forms of speculative fiction generally understand that while what we know and understand has its charms, the reason most of us read is to experience something fundamentally new.

Susan Defreitas, litreactor.com, September 24, 2014 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The David Camm Murder Trials: Is Blood Spatter Analysis a Science?

     On September 28, 2000, at 9:29 in the evening, David Camm called 911 and reported that he had discovered the murdered bodies of his wife, daughter and son in his garage. Upon arrival at Camm's house in New Albany, Indiana, police discovered Camm's wife Kimberly, his 5-year-old daughter Jill, and his 7-year-old son Brad in Kimberly's Ford Bronco. She and her daughter had been shot in the head. The boy had been shot in the chest. There were abrasions and bruises on Kimberly's knees, elbows, and feet.

     At seven in the evening on the day of the murders, Kimberly, with Jill in the car, picked up Brad from his swimming class. As they drove home, David, a former Indiana state trooper and employee of his uncle's construction company, left the house for his weekly basketball game with friends and relatives. According to eleven witnesses, Camm left the church gym for home at 9:17 PM. Twelve minutes later, he called 911.

     Medical examiner Donna Hunsaker found that although no semen had been recovered, the little girl had been sexually molested within hours before her death. From the onset, detectives suspected David Camm of murdering his family. The police and the Floyd County prosecutor, Stan Faith, believed that Camm had arrived home at 9:22, killed his family, disposed of the gun (it had not been recovered), cleaned up the crime scene, then called 911. But the crime scene evidence did not support this theory. The blood on the driveway had coagulated which suggested that the victims had been murdered before 9:22. If this were the case, David Camm had an iron-clad alibi. The prosecutor, to get around the alibi, decided that Camm had murdered his family before he left the house that night to play basketball.

     In the Ford Bronco, crime scene investigators had found a gray sweatshirt under Brad's body. DNA tests on this sweatshirt and the boy's clothing failed to connect the suspect to the scene. Several latent fingerprints lifted from the car did not belong to anyone in the family.

     In March of 2002, a jury found David Camm guilty of murdering his family. While the prosecution didn't have a motive, or a murder weapon, they had Robert Stites, a blood spatter analyst from Portland, Oregon who testified that eight tiny bloodstains on the defendant's t-shirt had come from spray made by the bullet fired into his daughter's head. The defense argued that Camm had stained his shirt when he embraced the victim. The judge imposed a 195-year sentence.

     In 2004, an Indiana appeals court set aside Camm's conviction on grounds of insufficient evidence. The prosecution promised a retrial. A year later, after the arrest of an armed robber and rapist named Charles Boney, investigators submitted his DNA to a data bank which linked him to the site of the Camm family murder. After initially denying that he knew David Camm, Boney told the police Camm had paid him $250 for the gun Camm had used to shoot his family. To explain the presence of his sweatshirt at the crime scene, Boney said the gun had been wrapped in the shirt when he gave it to Camm.

     On the belief that Charles Boney had been Camm's crime scene accomplice, the authorities charged the 36-year-old with three counts of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. In January 2006, the jury found him guilty. A few months later, the judge sentenced Boney to 225 years in prison. After the trial, several jurors told reporters they believed David Camm was the actual shooter. Following Boney's conviction, a man he had served time in prison with, told the police that four months before the murders, Boney had said that when he got out, he planned to kill a police officer's family, and frame the cop.

     David Camm's second trial got underway in January 2006 with a new prosecutor, Keith Henderson, representing the state. On the third day of the trial, the Indiana State Police sergeant in charge of the crime scene investigation testified, under cross-examination, that within days of the murders, the prosecutor (Stan Faith) hired two outside blood spatter analysts to study the serological evidence. The private experts from Portland, Oregon were Rod Englert, and his protege, Robert Stites. (Stites had been the prosecution's key witness in the first trial.) Defense attorney Stacy Vliana asked the witness if he had been aware that Stites wasn't qualified to process crime scenes. Did the sergeant know that Stites hadn't even taken the 40-hour standard bloodstain analysis course? The witness said he had not been informed of Stites' professional background.

   The next day, on cross-examination, Stacy Viliana grilled Robert Stites on his lack of experience as a blood spatter expert. The witness acknowledged that he had not taken the introductory course. He said he had read one book on the subject in 1994. Two days after the Camm murders, he had traveled to New Albany, Indiana because his mentor, Robert Englert, was too busy to handle the case. This was the first murder scene Stites had processed on his own. He had examined the t-shirt David Camm had been wearing on the night of the crime. The shirt contained eight bloodstains, each about a millimeter in diameter, spots he considered consistent with blood sprayed from the impact of a bullet. The defense attorney asked Stites if he had known that the defendant, while wearing that t-shirt, had carried his daughter out of the Bronco. The witness said he had not been aware of that. Stites acknowledged that concerning blood spray staining from the impact of a bullet, one would expect to find hundreds of little spots, not just eight.

     Forensic scientist Lynn Scamahorn took the stand and testified that in Camm's first trial, prosecutor Stan Faith had tried to get her to change her testimony about the DNA evidence on Charles Boney's crime scene sweatshirt. According to Scamahorn, the prosecutor wanted her to say that David Camm's DNA was also on the garment. When she refused, Faith threatened to charge her with obstruction of justice. He had also yelled and swore at her. In recalling her ordeal, the witness broke down. (Faith later denied these allegations.)

     In February, 2006, blood spatter expert Tom Bevel testified for the prosecution. According to his analysis, based on 25 years in the field, the blood on the defendant's t-shirt had been sprayed there by a bullet. Bevel also told the jury that David Camm had to be at the crime scene when his wife was shot because her blood had dropped onto one of his sneakers. The witness said that he believed the defendant was within four feet of his daughter when she was shot.

     The next day, prosecution blood spatter expert Rod Englert (Stites's mentor from Portland, Oregon), testified that the defendant must have been standing next to his wife, and just a few feet away from his daughter, when the two were shot. Englert added that the bloodstain on Camm's shoe appeared to have been diluted with water. Microscopist William Chapin, an employee of McCrone Laboratories, took the stand and confirmed the prosecution theory that the defendant was a few feet from his daughter, and right next to his wife, when they were shot. According to Chapin, he had seen traces of the victim's tissue on the defendant's t-shirt.

     The defense put two of its own blood spatter experts on the stand. Paul Kish and Bart Epstein testified that the blood on Camm's t-shirt had gotten there by transfer when he hugged the victims. Paul Kish said he couldn't render an opinion on how the blood stain had gotten on the defendant's shoe.

     On March 3, 2006, following 45 hours of deliberation, the Camm jury found the defendant guilty of murdering his family. The judge sentenced Camm to life in prison. Following the verdict, F. Thomas Schomhorst, a law professor emeritus at Indiana University, questioned the prosecutor's claim, without supporting evidence, that the defendant had sexually molested his daughter.

     The Indiana Supreme Court, on June 26, 2009, overturned Camm's 2006 conviction. A third trial was scheduled for June 2010. Shortly after the second conviction, prosecutor Keith Henderson signed a publishing deal for a book called, Sacred Trust: Deadly Betrayal. The nonfiction book about the Camm case, would actually be written by Damon DiMarco. The Camm defense, on the grounds the prosecutor's book deal created a conflict of interest, petitioned the court for a special prosecutor. In November 2011, the Indiana Court of Appeals granted the request. This ruling delayed the start of David Camm's third trial.

     In February 2012, the Indiana Supreme Court decided not to hear the state's appeal of the appellate court ruling. Prosecutor Keith Henderson was therefore off the case. Convicting David Camm of murder became the job of special prosecutor Stan Levco.

     On August 22, 2013, the third Camm trial got underway in Lebanon, Indiana. Once again blood spatter analyst Tom Bevel testified that the crime scene bloodstain patterns proved that the defendant was in the garage when his wife and children were shot to death.

     Charles Boney, the man convicted in the case, took the stand and repeated his story that he provided the gun David Camm used to kill his family. Boney said he had no physical contact with any of the victims.

     To counter the prosecution's blood spatter case, defense analyst Barrie Goetz took the stand. Goetz had worked for the Indiana State Police from 1978 to 1981. From 1981 to 2004, he conducted blood spatter examinations for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. According to Goetz, the blood on the defendant's shoe had been caused by a bloody shoelace hitting the side of the shoe when he ran. The pattern was not, in this witness' opinion, a "projected stain." Goetz said that, unlike his prosecution counterparts, he had used real human blood in his recreations.

     On cross-examination, prosecutor Levco asked this forensic witness why he hadn't videotaped his blood pattern experiments.

     On October 3, 2013, two defense witnesses testified that when the Camm murders took place, they were playing basketball with the defendant.

     Dr. Robert Shaler, a forensic anthropologist known for his work identifying bodies after the World Trade Center terrorist attack, testified that blood spatter analysis was not a true science. The interpretation of blood stain patterns had not been subjected to scientific peer review. Moreover, no data had been collected regarding error rates. "Either blood pattern analysis is based on science or it's an art form," Dr. Shaler said. "If it's an art form, then anyone can come up with opinions on it."

     On October 9, Dr. Richard Eikeienboom, a Dutch DNA analyst, took the stand for the defense. According to Dr. Eikeienboom, DNA evidence proved that Charles Boney had physical contact with Kim and Jill Camm. That meant Charles Boney had lied when he testified he had not touched the victims. The defense attorney put Dr. Eikeienboom on the stand to discredit the prosecution's star witness.

     On Eikeienboom's cross-examination, prosecutor Levco brought out the fact the witness' Netherlands based firm, Independent Forensic Services, was not accredited in the United States.

      On Thursday, October 24, 2013, after thirty-one days of testimony, the jury of eight women and four men found David Camm not guilty. The defendant's thirteen-year criminal justice ordeal, involving three murder trials, had finally come to an end. The state of Indiana had spent millions of dollars in a failed attempt to acquire a murder conviction in an obviously flawed case.

     Sometimes prosecutors just don't know when to quit. Moreover, the David Camm case, featuring dueling experts in blood spatter interpretation, was an embarrassment to forensic science. Blood spatter analysis, while perhaps an investigative tool, is not a science and shouldn't be presented as such in a court of law.

The Science Fiction Ghetto

Some writers whose careers have been largely based on science fiction writing have never been categorized that way. Kurt Vonnegut and John Hershey were never within the science fiction ghetto. One surprising result of the ghettoizing of speculative fiction, however, is that writers have enormous freedom within its walls. It's as if, having once been confined within our cage, the keepers of the zoo of literature don't much care what we do as long as we stay behind bars.

Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1990 

Executing Kelly Gissendancer

     Since only a handful of states actually execute death row inmates, death by lethal injection has become a relatively unusual event. Rarer still are the executions of women. Even in the heyday of capital punishment, few women died at the end of a robe or in the electric chair. While women are no less capable of unspeakable evil than men, killing a woman, at least since the dawn of the 20th century, hasn't seemed quite appropriate.

     In Georgia, where executions are still carried out, the authorities hadn't executed a woman in 70 years. That made the September 30, 2015 execution of Kelly Renee Gissendancer so newsworthy, and to many, barbaric.

     The 47-year-old death row inmate of 18 years received her lethal injection shortly after midnight soon after the U. S. Supreme Court declined to intercede on her behalf.

     In 1998, a jury found Gissendancer guilty of arranging to have her boyfriend kidnap and stab to death her husband Douglas. A jury found the hit man, Gregory Owen, guilty of kidnapping and first-degree murder. The judge sentenced Mr. Owen to life in prison. Prosecutors, with the help of Owen as a key witness, secured Gissendancer's first-degree murder conviction.

     Over the years Gissendancer's death house attorneys based their appeals for clemency on the fact she was not present when her boyfriend committed the murder on her behalf. Moreover, the defense lawyers argued that their client had found religion and had been a model prisoner. They said she felt bad about ordering the hit. Apparently the governor of the state and a majority of the Supreme Court justices, officials who could have saved her life, were unmoved by those arguments.

     Gissendancer, at the time of her execution, was the 16th women executed in the United States since the U. S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. She was survived by three adult children.

Crime Scene Impression Identification: The Less The Examiner Knows About The Case The Better

Even the most qualified fingerprint examiners, handwriting experts, and footwear identification specialists make honest mistakes. Particularly in fields of subjective identification, bias has a way of creeping into the analysis. A series of studies and experiments involving fingerprint examiners in England by a pair of cognitive psychologists has shown that "biasing contextual information" can lead to mistaken conclusions. For example, when fingerprint examiners were told a suspect had confessed, these experts made identifications in cases where, without this knowledge, they had previously declared the same set of prints a mismatch. These studies, conducted at the University of Southampton, suggest that latent fingerprint work and, by implication, handwriting identification and footwear impression comparison are more subjective than previously believed. In light of these findings, the less these forensic experts know about the crime in question, the better. Within the fingerprint field, erecting a wall between the examiner and the criminal investigation is much more difficult when the expert is employed directly by the law enforcement agency.

Investigative Journalist Robert I. Friedman

In the ever shrinking community of serious investigative reporters in New York City, Robert I. Friedman [1950-2002] will be remembered as a dedicated pro who followed his reporting wherever it took him, no matter whom it offended or what it meant for his own career. In 1993, for example, Friedman castigated the FBI in The Village Voice for ignoring information it had developed on the Muslim extremists behind the first bombing of the World Trade Center, warning that without stronger action, terrorists would strike at the towers again. Though the story would cost him valuable sources with the FBI, Friedman published it and won a Society of Professional Journalists Award for Best Investigative Reporting in a Weekly.

Dan Bischoff in What Are Journalists For, 1999 

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Charles Smith III and Tonya Bundick Serial Arson Case

     The incendiary fires started on November 12, 2012 in Hopeton, a town 100 miles east of Richmond on Virginia's Eastern Shore, a peninsula along the Chesapeake Bay. Over the next four months, volunteer firefighters in the county responded to 77 intentionally set fires involving abandoned houses, barns, camper trailers, and various out-buildings that included a chicken coop.

     Arson investigators with the Virginia State Police and the Accomack County Sheriff's Office suspected that the serial fire-setter was either a disgruntled firefighter, a teenage boy sexually aroused by flames, or a young man committing arson simply for the thrill and excitement of causing havoc. Given the nature of the places burned, financial gain was not a motive. These were pathologically motivated arsons.

     Since the vast majority of arsonists are men, the fire investigators were not looking for a woman. Female arsonists usually have histories of mental illness, and set fire to their own property. A vast majority of the fires set by women are motivated by the need for sympathy and attention.

     On April 2, 2013, forty-five minutes after midnight, a Virginia State Trooper near the Eastern Shore community of Melfa, pulled over a vehicle with an expired inspection sticker. (This was probably not the real reason for the stop.) The traffic stop occurred shortly after a nearby abandoned house had been torched. Later that morning, a local prosecutor charged the occupants of the car, 38-year-old Charles Smith III and Tonya Bundick, his 40-year-old girlfriend, with setting the Melfa house fire.

     Smith (also known as Charlie Applegate) and Bundick were held without bail at the Accomack County Jail. They were both from Accomac, Virginia. Smith, the owner of a body shop, was once captain of the Tasley Volunteer Fire Company. Smith and Bundick had planned to get married within a month.

     A Virginia State Police spokesperson, at a press conference on April 2, 2013 said, "We are confident that Bundick and Smith are guilty of the majority of fires."According to reports, arson investigators had watched Smith set the Melfa house fire. He started the blaze with a towel soaked in gasoline.

     Tonya Bundick resided in a dwelling that sat next door to a shed that had been set on fire in December 2012.

     The authorities did not identify the motive behind the arson spree. Since the couple received no monetary gain from the fires, their motives were probably pathological. Perhaps they were bored, or simply angry at the world.

     In October 2013, Smith pleaded guilty to 67 counts of arson. He faced life in prison, and $5.6 million in fines. As part of the plea deal, Smith agreed to testify against Tonya Bundick.

     Bundick's arson trial got underway in Virginia Beach in January 2014. Smith took the stand against the defendant as the prosecution's star witness. Following his testimony, Bundick entered an Alford plea to one count of arson. (She faced dozens of other arson charges.) By this plea, Bundick did not admit guilt, but acknowledged that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict.

     On September 15, 2014, the judge sentenced Tonya Bundick to ten years in prison. The judge, on April 23, 2015, sentenced Charles Smith III to fifteen years behind bars. 

The Jerame Reid Police-Involved Shooting Case

      On the night of December 30, 2014, in Brighton, New Jersey, a Cumberland County town of 25,000 south of Philadelphia, Bridgeton police officers Roger Worley and Braheme Days pulled over a Jaguar for running a stop sign. Officer Worley was behind the wheel of the patrol car.

     Officer Days approached the passenger side of the Jaguar and asked the two men in the car how they were doing. The passenger, 30-year-old Jerame Reid, said, "Good, how you doing, officer?"

     A few months earlier, officer Days had arrested Jerame Reid for possession of drugs. As a teenager, Reid had been convicted of shooting at police officers. The judge sent him to prison for twelve years.

     A few seconds after approaching the Jaguar, officer Days spotted a handgun in the glove compartment. He said, "Don't move! Show me your hands!"

     On the other side of the vehicle, officer Worley pointed his gun at the driver, Leroy Tutt. Mr. Tutt sat in the driver's seat with his hands sticking out of the car door window where they could be seen. Officer Worley called for backup.

     Officer Days reached into the Jaguar and removed a silver handgun from the glove box. To the vehicle's occupants he said, "You reach for something you're going to be (expletive) dead!"

     One of the men in the stopped car said, "I got no reason to reach for nothing." Again officer Days warned, "Hey Jerame, you reach for something you're going to be (expletive) dead!"

     As Jerame Reid opened the front passenger door, he said, "I'm getting out of the car." By now officer Worley had joined officer Days on that side of the vehicle. Both officers had their guns drawn. Reid climbed out of the vehicle, and when he stood up, his hands were raised to the level of his chest in the officers' plain view.

     A few seconds after Jerame Reid exited the Jaguar, officer Days shot him. Officer Worley also fired his gun but missed his target.  The shot man collapsed to the ground and died on the spot. He did not possess a firearm.

     The entire police-involved shooting incident was caught on the officers' dashboard camera. The chief of police placed both officers on administrative leave and turned the case over to the Cumberland County prosecutor's office.

     Shortly after receiving the case, Cumberland County prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae recused herself from the inquiry because she had personal ties to officer Days. First Assistant prosecutor Harold Shapiro took over the investigation.

     Critics of the way the authorities handled the case called for either a special prosecutor or an intervention by the state attorney general's office. Protestors, notwithstanding the fact that Jerame Reid and the officer who shot him were black, claimed racism.

    In February 2015, three months after Reid's death, a local newspaper reported that in 2011, Jerame Reid had filed a $100,000 lawsuit against the Cumberland County Department of Corrections, Warden Robert Balicki, and three corrections officers. Reid claimed the jail guards assaulted him in October 2009. According to Reid, the officers, without provocation or justification, repeatedly punched, kicked and pepper sprayed his face then threw a bucket of water on him as he lay on the cell floor.

     As a result of the beating, Reid said he suffered broken ribs and a fractured left orbital bone that left him without sensation and nerve damage to his lips and cheek area. According to court documents, the encounter began after Reid confronted another inmate over stolen belongings. The accused inmate told correction officers that Reid possessed a sharp object.

     Responding jail guards handcuffed Reid and placed him into another cell. According to the plaintiff, after he made a comment to one of the officers, they gave him the beating. (The officers alleged that Reid threw the first punch.)

     Reid's lawyer, in court documents, said the corrections officers, after an internal investigation, were disciplined for not filing a use of force report. The matter was not referred to the local prosecutor's office for investigation.

     As a result of the plaintiff's death, the lawsuit against the county and the others was dismissed.

     After a federal prosecutor decided not to pursue the shooting incident against the officers, the case, in April 2016, went before a local grand jury. The grand jurors declined to indict either officer. In July 2016, members of Reid's family settled a federal lawsuit against the police department for an undisclosed amount. Case closed.

Exaggeration as Humor

Be careful with exaggeration, one of the main tools of humor writing. Exaggeration, generally speaking, should be outside the realm of possibility, but somehow within the realm of visual imagination.

Patrick McManus, The Deer on a Bicycle, 2000

The Catch-22 of Publishing

Because there are almost as many writers in the U.S. as there are readers, publishing houses are overwhelmed with manuscripts. To help screen out the junk, the major publishers only accept manuscripts submitted through a literary agent. For the unpublished writer, it's as hard to secure a literary agent as it once was to find a publisher. The catch-22 is this: To get published one needs a legitimate literary agent. To get a good literary agent, one needs to be published.

Meeting a Published Author


When people meet a published author, many of them respond in one of two ways: "I have a terrific idea for a book, we can split the royalty 50-50." Or: "You ought to write a book about my uncle, he's a card!"

Memorable Dialogue

Dialogue that jumps off the page sounds nothing like the way real people converse. A transcript of an everyday conversation is devoid of coherent, memorable, rhetoric. Ordinary talk, when read aloud, comes off as boring, repetitive, and at times, idiotic. Sparkling, rhythmic dialogue is difficult to write, and requires a great deal of training, experience, and talent. Many novelists just don't have the ear for it.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Boy in the Shed

     A witness--perhaps a neighbor or a relative--called the Dallas Police Department at 11:00 PM on Friday, May 9, 2020 to request a welfare check at a home on Coston Drive occupied by 53-year-old Esmeralda Lira and her live-in boyfriend, Jose Balderas, 66. The caller reported that three youngsters living in the house, believed to be Lira's grandchildren, were starving.

     Just before midnight, police officers arrived at Lira's house, and while checking on two children asleep in a bedroom, heard noises coming from a padlocked shed behind the house.

     Inside the outbuilding, officers discovered a 6-year-old boy locked into the shed with his hands bound with shoelaces.

     According to the child, his grandmother, Esmeralda Lira, over the past two weeks, had locked him inside the shed from ten at night to eight in the morning. She gave him a plastic bag in case he needed to relieve himself. The boy also had to contend with insects and rats. When Lira put him into the shed without food or water, she reminded him of what a bad boy he had been. She also had the habit of kicking him and pulling his ears.

     Child protection officers removed all three children from the dwelling. Officers arrested Esmeralda Lira, and took Jose Balderas into custody the next day. When questioned by detectives, the boyfriend admitted that he had been aware of the abuse but had done nothing to stop it.

     Both suspects were charged with felony abandoning or endangering a child with imminent danger of bodily injury. At their arraignment hearing, the judge set each defendant's bail at $100,000.

Bones in the Furnace: The Historic Webster-Parkman Murder Case

     Over the past 100 years, science has played a vital role in tens of thousands of criminal cases. The publicity associated with some of these investigations and trials has advanced the cause of forensic science. In many of these cases a clever criminal is outfoxed by a well-trained, dedicated investigator relying on physical clues and expert analysis. This is the image that has helped advance forensic science and criminalistics by sparking public interest and court acceptance of physical evidence and expert testimony. (Ironically, it was the O. J. Simpson double murder, a case that involved poor police work, and a criminal who was not clever, that popularized DNA.)

      Celebrated cases remind us that good police work can triumph over bad criminals and that justice can be achieved. Cases that have captured and held the attention of the media and the imagination of the public have tended to involved heinous crimes, cases involving diabolical or unlikely suspects, circumstantial evidence in the form of physical clues, defendants who vigorously maintain their innocence, inspired detective work, and satisfying and/or dramatic verdicts.

     In America, science first played a vital and dramatic role in a celebrated criminal investigation and trial that took place more than 160 years ago.

The Historic Webster-Parkman Case

     On Friday afternoon November 23, 1849, Dr. George Parkman, a 60-year-old physician and former anatomy professor at Harvard's Massachusetts Medical College in Boston, paid a visit to Dr. John Webster, a highly respected professor of chemistry and mineralogy at the institution. Dr. Parkman, having given up the practice of medicine to engage in real estate and other business ventures, came from a prominent New England family and was quite wealthy. The purpose of Dr. Parkman's visit that day to Dr. Webster's college laboratory was to collect on a series of loans he had made to the chemistry professor. It seemed that Dr. Webster enjoyed a rather extravagant life-style that kept him in debt to Dr. Parkman and other creditors.

     Dr. Parkman was seen entering the little building that housed Dr. Webster's laboratory at 1:45 that afternoon, the last time anyone saw Dr. Parkman alive. Dr. Parkman's mysterious disappearance created a lot of attention and concern among his family, friends, and colleagues. The college posted a $3,000 reward for information leading to the identify and apprehension of the doctor's abductor or abductors.

     The following Saturday, Dr. Webster appeared at the home of Dr. Parkman's brother, Reverend Francis Parkman, and informed him that he had last seen his missing brother in his (Webster's) chemistry lab the previous Friday. Dr. Webster even acknowledged that Dr. Parkman had come to see him about a debt.

     On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, 1849, Dr. Webster, who had been acting rather strangely since Dr. Parkman's disappearance, gave the college janitor, a man named Ephraim Littlefield, a turkey. Littlefield had been helping Professor Webster in his laboratory the day Dr. Parkman went missing. Although the janitor was not in the room during Dr. Parkman's visit, he had overheard bits of their heated conversation. When Littlefield learned of Parkman's disappearance he became suspicious.

    After receiving the turkey from Dr. Webster, the janitor felt certain the chemistry professor had something to do with his creditor's disappearance. The next day, Littlefield snuck into Webster's chemistry lab to search for Parkman's body. When he touched the brick wall of the assay oven it was still warm. (The oven was built inside a vault that was locked.) To see what was inside, Littlefield, with his wife standing guard as a lookout, broke through the wall with a chisel and crowbar. Inside, he saw what looked like a human pelvis and two parts of a leg. He notified the authorities.

     When told he was under arrest for the murder of Dr. Parkman, Dr. Webster denied any knowledge of the crime. When one of the arresting constables informed him of the discovery in the assay furnace, Dr. Webster, referring to the janitor, said, "That villain! I am a ruined man!"

     Shortly after being placed into his jail cell Dr. Webster tried to kill himself by taking a strychnine pill.

     On December 13, 1849, the coroner's jury announced its verdict: "All the remains have been demonstrated to be parts of one and the same person; and those parts of the human frame have been identified and proven to be the remains and parts of the body and limbs of Dr. George Parkman...that he was killed...by blows and wounds inflicted upon him by the hands of Dr. John W. Webster."

     A grand jury indicted Dr. Webster for first-degree murder on January 26, 1850. He trial was scheduled for March 19 at the Supreme Judicial Court House in Boston.  Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw would preside. The case would be prosecuted by George Bemis, the assistant attorney general of Massachusetts.

     Dr. Webster tried to retain the legal services of two prominent defense attorneys of the day, Daniel Webster (no relation) and Rufus Choate. Both lawyers declined to take the assignment. As a result, Webster retained the services of a less well-known but competent attorney named Pliny Merrich.

     The Parkman murder case had made headline news in American for nine months. On the opening day of the trial, thousands of people gathered outside the Boston court house. Many had been standing outside the building all night in hopes of getting a courtroom seat. During the twelve-day trial, a couple thousand spectators witnessed the proceeding.

     The heart of the prosecution's case consisted of the medical and dental testimony pertaining to the identity of the remains in Dr. Webster's assay furnace. In order to convict the defendant of murder, the state would have to establish the corpus delecti, which in this case consisted of the victim's skeletal and dental remains.

     The prosecution's first medical witness, Dr. Woodbridge Strong, an expert in anatomy and the burning of human flesh, informed the court how he disposed of cadavers by burning them in fires fueled by wood. "There is always a difficulty in getting rid of human remains by fire," he said, "on account of attracting suspicion by the smell. I have been called upon by neighbors or the police several times on this account." Dr. Strong testified that he had looked at the human parts found in Dr. Webster's furnace and "there was nothing dissimilar from what I should have expected to find in Dr. Parkman's body."

     Dr. Frederick S. Ainsworth, a professor of anatomy at Harvard College, testified that the remains in question had not been dissected in his department. (Dr. Webster claimed the remains in his furnace belonged to a cadaver.) Dr. Ainsworth said, "All subjects in my department are injected with fluid to preserve them from decomposition. In these remains which were produced by Littlefield [the janitor] I saw no appearance of the use of such fluid. My impression was that the person who cut them up had no anatomical knowledge."

     The next medical witness, Dr. Charles T. Jackson, testified that he "knew the late George Parkman very well. He was a tall, slender man of somewhat peculiar figure. I saw nothing in the remains dissimilar from what I should suppose was Dr. Parkman's formation."

     The physicians and police officers who had examined Dr. Webster's laboratory had noticed what looked like bloodstains on the wall near a sink and stains on the laboratory floor. In 1850, the ability to scientifically distinguish human from animal blood didn't exist. As one witness put it: "I can distinguish human blood from that of lower animals but not from that of higher animals such as an ox, for instance."

     On the fourth day of the trial, the prosecution put on its most important witness, Dr. Nathan Keep, a surgeon-dentist who had practiced in Boston for 30 years. Dr. Keep testified that he had made teeth for Dr. Parkman and that "Dr. Parkman's mouth was a very peculiar one, so marked in respect to its shape and the relation of the upper and lower jaws that the impression of it on my mind was very distinct." Dr. Keep said that when he saw the teeth that had been found in Dr. Webster's furnace along with the other remains, he "...recognized them as being the same teeth that I had made for Dr. Parkman three years before....On comparing the largest fragment with the model [a plaster cast of Dr. Parkman's dentition] the resemblance was so striking that I could no longer have any doubt they were his." Every so often, in the midst of his testimony, Dr. Keep would break down and cry.

     Oliver Wendell Homes, the famous writer and physician and professor of anatomy and dean of the medical college had examined the fleshy parts found in the assay furnace--the thorax, pelvis, two thighs, and the disarticulated leg--and found them consistent with Dr. Parkman's anatomy.

     Most of the fifth day of the trial was taken up by the testimony of the janitor and his wife. Three days later, the prosecution rested.

     The Webster defense opened with witnesses who said they had seen the defendant in places other than the college on the day of the murder. Next came the character witnesses, then the testimony most vital to the defense. Dr. William T. G. Morton, a dentist who made false teeth took the stand and said: "I see no particular marks about these teeth [the furnace remains] to identify them. I should think nothing should be judged from this material....My impression is that if [the furnace teeth] were placed among a dozen others which I can produce, I should not be led to pick it out from any peculiarity." (The dueling expert problem is as old as forensic science itself.)

     The defense rested without putting Professor Webster on the stand. In Massachusetts at that time, defendants in capital trials were not permitted to take the stand on their own behalf. Murder defendants, because of their self-interest, were considered too biased to make competent witnesses. They were, however, allowed to address the jury directly prior to its deliberation. These speeches were not given under oath or subjected to cross-examination. Professor Webster, in his fifteen minute address, denied his guilt and criticized his own counsel.

     Three hours following Dr. Webster's speech, the jury found the defendant guilty of murder. The judge sentenced him to death. Six months later, with his execution just a few days off, the condemned man wrote out a full confession. After killing Dr. Parkman with a stick of wood, Webster dragged the body into an adjoining room and stripped off his clothing which he burned. Then came the dissecting part. "My next move was to get the body into the sink which stands in the small private room. By setting the body partially erect against the corner and getting up into the sink myself, I succeeded in drawing it up. There it was entirely dismembered. It was quickly done as a work of terrible and desperate necessity. The only instrument used was the knife found by the officers in the tea chest and which I kept for cutting corks. While dismembering the body a steady stream of water was running through the sink carrying off the blood in a pipe that passed through the lower laboratory. There must have been a leak in the pipe for the ceiling below was stained immediately around it."

     On August 20, 1850, Dr. Webster was hanged.   

Why Do So Many Americans Want to be Famous?

Why do so many Americans want to be famous? Don't they know fame will not necessarily bring wisdom, happiness, love, or even money? Don't they know it often ends up in disgrace, humiliation and misery? Why do they seek fame, and what does it say about our culture?

The Criminal Trial as Entertainment

     A court room isn't quite a theatre, but there's something inherently dramatic about it all the same. Ever since the dark ages of the Salem Witch Trials, court proceedings have been public affairs. Trials represent the goal of governmental transparency. It makes sense that a crime against society should be tried before the eyes of that same society. But somewhere along the line, that public interest became public entertainment. Trials began to be televised, in a slightly edited fashion. Commentary on trials came to resemble the commentary on a major sporting event. For high profile cases, crowds gather outside court rooms in hopes of getting a seat in the gallery. [American's first high-profile trial, the Webster-Parkman case, took place in Boston in 1850. Since then there have been hundreds of such judicial spectacles and dozens of "Crimes of the Century."]

     In 2013, the floodgates opened completely and the line between reality TV and the criminal trial became blurred in the trial of Jodi Arias, then accused of the murder of  her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander. The trial was streamed in its entirety on Youtube. The only censored information was the sidebars. Prosecutor Juan Martinez actually signed autographs outside the court house, and posed for pictures with "fans" who traveled from across the globe to attend the lengthy trial.

"10 of the Most Entertaining Criminal Trials," TheRichList.com, March 13, 2014      

Believing the Unbelievable

Writers of nonfiction, particularly in the true crime genre, have a huge advantage over crime novelists, their fiction writing counterparts. Made up crime stories, to be believable, have to make sense. Otherwise, the fiction reader will lose interest because the story is unrealistic and unbelievable. A true crime story, on the other hand, regardless of how bizarre, pathological and mind-blowing, simply has to be true. The most celebrated crimes in American history--The Webster-Parkman Murder Case, The Lizzie Borden Ax Murder Case, The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case, and the O.J. Simpson Double Murder Case--exemplify the adage that fact is indeed stranger than fiction.

Nightmare Fiction

Horror fiction upsets apple carts, burns old buildings, and stampedes the horses; it questions and yearns for answers, and takes nothing for granted. It's not safe, and it probably rots your teeth, too. Horror fiction can be a guide through a nightmare world, entered freely and by the reader's own will. And since horror can be many, many things and go in many, many directions, that guided nightmare ride can shock, educate, illuminate, threaten, shriek, and whisper before it lets the reader loose.

Robert McCammon, Twilight Zone Magazine, October 1966 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Donald Eugene Borders and the "Three Women" Murder Case

     In 2003, 85-year-old Lottie Ledford lived by herself in a low-income neighborhood in Shelby, North Carolina, a town of 20,000 fifty miles west of Charlotte. As a younger woman, Lottie had worked in the region's textile mills. On August 23, 2003, a relative discovered Lottie lying dead on her bed. Because of her age, the police didn't suspect foul play. The Cleveland County Coroner ruled that Lottie Ledford had died of an heart attack.

     Bobby Fisher, Ledford's nephew, believed that his aunt had been murdered. Based upon his own observations, and what the funeral director had seen and noted, Fisher knew that Ledford's face and arms had been covered in bruises. (In January 2013, Bobby Fisher's widow, Barbara Ann, in speaking to a reporter, said, "It looked as if someone had taken two fingers and pinched her nose and held her across the mouth.") The fact that someone had cut Ledford's telephone line also suggested homicide. Bobby Fisher pleaded with the Shelby police to launch a murder investigation, but they ignored his request.

     On September 20, 2003, six weeks after Lottie Ledford's death, in the same neighborhood, Margaret Tessneer's daughter and son-in-law went by her (Margaret's) house at ten that morning. The couple had brought Tessneer a biscuit from Hardee's. The visitors found Tessneer's front door ajar, and inside the dwelling, the 79-year-old lying face-up on her rumpled bed. The dead woman had bruises on her face, arms, and legs. Someone had pulled the telephone drop-line away from her house.

     The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy noted the bruises, and concluded that Margaret Tessneer had been raped. While he ruled the manner of death in this case homicide, the pathologist classified Tessneer's cause of death, "undetermined."

     On November 10, 2003, in the same part  of town, a neighbor discovered Lillian Mullinax lying dead in her own bed. The 87-year-old's body was covered in bruises, her front door had been left ajar, and someone had cut her phone line. Following the autopsy, Mullinax's cause of death went into the books as "undetermined."

     One didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to conclude that these three elderly women had been raped and murdered in their homes by the same man.

     In early 2004, Shelby detectives investigating Margaret Tessneer's September 20, 2003 death, became interested in a 53-year-old man named Donald Eugene Borders. After graduating from high school in 1977, Borders got married, worked in the region's textile mills, and fathered two children. But in the 1990s he turned to crime and was arrested dozens of times for robbery, burglary, and assault. In 2001, Borders was sent to state prison on a conviction for breaking and entering a home. After his release from custody in January 2003, Borders lived as a homeless man on the streets of Shelby.

     On March 20, 2004, detectives, after publicly asking for help in locating Borders, found him living in a homeless shelter in Charlotte. Armed with an arrest warrant pertaining to a matter unrelated to the so-called "three women" murder case, Shelby officer James Brienza took Donald Borders into custody. Before hauiling him to jail, Brienza let the prisoner have a cigarette. When Borders finished his smoke, Brienza saved the butt for DNA analysis.

     A state forensic scientist, in August 2004, found trace evidence from Margaret Tessneer's underwear that revealed she had been raped. Following the passage of more than five years (I have no idea what caused this delay) a DNA analyst matched the Tessneer murder scene evidence with the saliva on Border's cigarette butt.

     A Cleveland County Grand Jury, on December 28, 2009, more that six years after Margaret Tessneer's rape and killing, indicted Donald Eugene Borders for first-degree murder. He was taken into custody and held in the Cleveland County Jail without bond.

     Border's trial got underway in Cleveland on January 5, 2013. On January 28, the jury, after deliberating three hours, found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Donald Eugene Borders to life in prison without the chance of parole.