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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Loss of Perspective: Political Hysteria

     Recently, in The New York Times Book Review, Mary Morris reviewed a book called A Memoir of Steel and Grit by Eliese Colette Goldbach. The memoir is a tale of woe involving a young woman having to work a dirty, dangerous job in a Cleveland steel mill to pay off the money she borrowed for a useless degree. An excerpt from Morris' review:

     "I [the book reviewer] flinched at her original choice of college: the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Many memoirs have at their heart a trauma that must be approached obliquely and transformed into a turning point. During her first semester away, Goldbach, drunk and possibly drugged at a party, was raped by two upstanding young men, and everything she did in the aftermath--confide in a friend, confess to a priest, report to the institutional authorities--had the worst possible outcome. She tells us at the outset that she has a genetic and biological propensity for the bipolar disorder, and it is in Steubenville that it emerges. Unhinged she returns to Cleveland." [She eventually graduated from another college.]

     "A third sign or portent appeared when the author, exhausted by a stretch of 12-hour days and swing shifts [at the steel mill] and feverish from a cold or flu, takes a blanket to work with her. Clinging to the blanket is a desperate gesture to stay warm and hide, and it's not going to work. The rodents in her apartment get bigger and bolder. Her boyfriend breaks up with her. And Donald Trump, nominated by the Republican National Convention in Cleveland that summer, slouches toward Washington." [Italics Mine.]

     Donald Trump? The success of a presidential candidate Goldbach didn't like, in terms of causing her misery, is placed right up there with working in a factory she hated, rape, bipolar disorder, the breakup with her boyfriend, and rat infestation. After reading this gratuitous knock on Donald Trump who had nothing to do with this woman's miserable life, I completely lost interest in the memoir.

Not All Practitioners of Forensic Science Are Scientists

Practitioners of forensic science fall generally into three groups: police officers who arrive at the scene of a crime and whose job it is to secure the physical evidence; crime scene technicians responsible for finding, photographing, and packaging that physical evidence for crime lab submission; and scientists working in public and private laboratories who analyze the evidence and, if the occasion arises, testify in court as expert witnesses. While uniformed police officers and detectives may be trained in the recognition and handling of physical evidence, they are not scientists and do not work under laboratory conditions. As a result, a lot can--and does--go wrong between the crime scene and the courtroom. 

Cesare Lombroso and the Early History of Criminal Investigation and Criminology

     For the first five thousand years or so, mankind's detective work was incredibly shoddy. A criminal investigation prior to the 1800s generally meant little more than a hasty search for eyewitnesses and motives and, above all, the coercion of the accused into confessing.

     That began to change in the mid-to late 1800s, as schools of forensic medicine opened up, as detectives turned to fingerprints and police departments began to collect mug shots. French chemists refined blood analysis.

     By the 1890s, criminologists appeared to be on the verge of a startling breakthrough: identifying criminal body types or markers.

     Internationally acclaimed Italian scientist, Cesare Lombroso, claimed that by carefully examining the physical characteristics of a suspect, i. e., every nook and cranny of the body, he could help determine guilt or innocence. [Actually, Lombroso claimed the ability to identify criminal types by analyzing their faces and general builds. For example, he believed that short, stocky men with low foreheads were often criminals.]

     Imagine the implications. Say someone was accused of rape, but the eyewitness identification was a bit shaky. What if Lombroso could inspect the man's body or skull and find definitive markers revealing the man to be a rapist? Would it be the suspect's ear? His tongue? His nose hair? No body part was off-limits to these scientific pioneers.

Richard Zacks, An Underground Education, 1997 

What It Takes to Create a Work of Fiction

Fiction, first of all, involves the invention of a world. Here the writer needs, not only the gift of writing, but the ability to create scenes, particulars and persons--to make imaginary lives and objects.

William H. Gass in Afterwords, edited by Thomas McCormack, 1988 

Historical Fiction

History is a comfy subject for fiction. We already know what happened, and we usually know what to think about it: how foolish it was to underestimate Hitler, to board the Titanic. This makes historical fiction a safe, even conservative genre, attractive to writers who aren't looking to go out on a limb.

Kevin Wilson, The New York Book Review, February 2, 2020

Celebrity Chef Memoirs

One side effect of the rise of the celebrity chef is a proliferation, from just about anyone with a professional claim to an apron, of memoirs.

Lisa Abend, The New York Times Book Review, December 8, 2019

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Mark Stobbe Murder Case

     In the spring of 2000, 42-year-old Mark Stobbe, the former senior advisor to Roy Romanon, the premier of Saskatchewan, Canada, moved his family from Regina, Saskatchewan to St. Andrews, Manitoba, a rural community north of Winnipeg. The new senior communications advisor for Manitoba premier Gary Doer, moved his wife Beverly Rowbotham and their two sons into a sprawling old house in the country.

     In his new position as the premier's communications strategist, the tall, 350-pound political operative left his house most days at six in the morning and didn't return until eleven at night. This left his wife Beverly alone all day with their sons in a run-down house in the middle of nowhere. Her husband's new job, and the move, had placed Beverly and the marriage under stress.

     At 2:30 in the morning of October 25, 2000, Mark Stobbe telephoned Betty Rowbotham, his wife's sister, to inform her that Beverly had gone missing. Earlier in the day, Beverly had been to the Safeway grocery store in Selkirk, 12 kilometers from the house. Because the boys had acted up in the store, she had returned home without completing her shopping. That evening, Beverly had driven back to Safeway to finish the job. Mark said he had fallen asleep in bed with one of his sons and woke up to find that Beverly had not returned from the store. Worried that something had happened to her, he called the police, and several hospitals.

     Ten minutes after the call, Betty arrived at her sister's house. The police were still on their way. Shortly after her arrival, Mark went into the backyard where he used a hose to water down something. Ten minutes later, he was back inside where he greeted the first officer to arrive at the scene. While the RCMP officer was questioning Mark, the detective received a call from his office. They had found Beverly, dead in her car, with massive blunt-force wounds to her head. Her Ford Crown Victoria was parked at a gas station in Selkirk. The police recovered Beverly's purse in the vehicle, but her wallet was missing. The killer had also removed the $7,000 ring she had been wearing.

     Based on the RCMP's initial investigation, it appeared that Beverly Rowbotham had been murdered in her backyard where investigators had found fragments of her skull and clumps of her hair. In the garage, where her Ford had been parked, crime scene officers found two large blood stains on the floor, and one on the wall. Also in the garage, police recovered two blood-soaked tissues and a bloody towel, evidence that the killer had tried to clean up. In the car abandoned in Selkirk, the police discovered traces of blood on the victim's purse. They eventually located Beverly's missing wallet on the bank of the Red River, not far from the gas station.

     In the beginning, investigators figured that Beverly had been murdered sometime that night while her husband and children were asleep in the house. But why would the killer put her body in the Ford, and drive it to Selkirk? And how did the killer get to the murder scene in the first place?

     As the investigation moved forward, detectives became more skeptical of Mark Stobbe's account of his whereabouts and activities on the night of the murder. They began to suspect that he had killed his wife. As Stobbe's questionings became more accusatorial, he continued to deny having anything to do with his wife's death. He also insisted that he and Beverly were not having marital problems. Over the next several months, the police chased down 240 tips, and interviewed 400 people. But it wasn't until the DNA reports started coming in did the investigation start getting some traction.

     According to DNA analysis of the crime scene evidence, the bloodstains in the garage and in the backyard had come from the victim. The blood stains on the towel and tissues belonged to Mark Stobbe. And there were stains that comprised a mixture of his and his wife's blood. There were, however, DNA traces at the scene that belonged to an unidentified male. The spots of blood on Beverly's handbag found in her car had also come from an unidentified man.

     By 2001, RCMP investigators had focused their attention on Mark Stobbe as the primary suspect in the murder. According to his story, Beverly had not completed her shopping that day because one of the boys had misbehaved at the grocery store in Selkirk. But a store surveillance tape showed that she had been in the place almost an hour, and her cash register receipt indicated she had spent $108.32, an amount equal to her average purchase. The investigators also considered Stobbe's differing accounts of his activity on the night of the murder incriminating. He told some people that he had fallen asleep in front of the television, and he told others that he had been in bed with one of his sons.

     In January 2001, the RCMP acquired a warrant allowing them to tap Stobbe's home telephone. After listening in to 1,000 hours of his phone conversations, they heard nothing directly incriminating. In a February 28, 2001 conversation between the suspect and Betty Rowbotham, his former sister-in-law, she informed him that the police were gathering physical evidence from his backyard. To that he replied, "Damn it all." Toward the end of the phone call, Stobbe said, "I feel horrible."

     The Rowbotham/Stobbe case eventually hit a wall, and for several years, lay dormant. In 2008, almost eight years after Beverly Rowbotham's murder, the Crown charged Mark Stobbe with second-degree murder. He was arrested, made bail, and pleaded not guilty to the charge.

     On January 16, 2012, Stobbe's trial got underway in the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench in Winnipeg. Representing the Crown, Wendy Dawson, in her opening statement to the jury, laid out the prosecution's theory of the case: On the night of October 24, 2000, the defendant, during a heated argument with his wife in the backyard of their house, hit her in the head 16 times with a hatchet. He dragged her body into the garage, hit her again, stuffed the body into her Ford, then drove to the gas station in Selkirk. Using a bicycle he had put into the trunk, he rode back to St. Andrews. Along the way, Stobbe tossed his dead wife's wallet into the Red River to lead investigators into thinking Beverly's killer had robbed her. Stobbe also removed her ring. Back at his house, he waited a few hours before calling the police and his sister-in-law. Before the RCMP arrived, Stobbe used a garden hose in an attempt to wash away physical evidence in his backyard.

     Stobbe's attorney, Tim Killeen, assured the jury that Beverly Rowbotham had been bludgeoned to death by an unidentified intruder who had been lying in wait outside her house. The defense attorney pointed to the unidentified male DNA found on her purse, and in the garage.  

     During the next several weeks, the Crown put 70 people on the stand, including several witnesses who testified that on the night in question, they had seen an overweight man riding a bicycle between Selkirk and St. Andrews. None of these witnesses, however, specifically identified the defendant as the man on the bike.

     On March 7, 2012, the defense put on its case which depended almost entirely on the defendant's taking the stand on his own behalf. If just one juror believed Mark Stobbe's account, there would be no conviction. If all of the jurors believed that he might be telling the truth, there would be an acquittal. It was all up to the defendant.

     Under direct examination by attorney Tim Killeen, Stobbe denied killing his wife. "I've spent a lot of nights looking out that window, wondering," he said. When Stobbe learned of his wife's death, "It was confirmation of my worst fears. What it meant was that I was 50 to 60 feet away when she was killed....I should have been able to stop it. I was completely useless in helping her." The defendant, at this point, broke down on the stand.

     The following day, Crown prosecutor Wendy Dawson began her cross-examination of the defendant. She asked Stobbe why he hadn't filed an insurance claim for his wife's $7,000 ring. "You didn't make a claim," she said, "because the ring wasn't stolen. You took it off her hand before you brutally killed her." Stobbe said he hadn't bothered filing a claim because he just didn't care about the ring's value.

     The prosecutor tried to get the defendant to admit that his marriage was under considerable stress. Didn't his long hours at work with his wife alone in the house with the children have an adverse effect on their relationship? "I think it would be fair to say," he replied, "that she wanted me around more, but...she understood that the long hours were part and parcel of my job. She never made a suggestion to me that I change my career."

     Wendy Dawson cross-examined the defendant for five days. In keeping him on the hot seat for so long, the prosecutor risked making him an object of sympathy in the eyes of some of the jurors. On March 22, 2012, the attorneys made their closing arguments. The prosecutor said she didn't want Stobbe to get away with the "near perfect murder of his wife." She said the circumstantial evidence against him was "overwhelming," and that the defendant had "demonstrated all the hallmarks of a dishonest, lying witness. He couldn't keep his story straight," she said. "Certainly he should have been able to hear a cry for help from his wife, or a commotion in the garage. This was a crime of rage."

     In his closing argument, defense attorney Tom Killeen admitted there were reasons for the police to suspect his client, but suspicion alone was not enough to convict a man of murder. The Crown, he said, has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. "Mr. Stobbe has to prove nothing," he said.

     On March 27, 2012, after 82 witnesses and 100 hours of testimony, Judge Chris Martin gave his instructions to the jury. Mark Stobbe's fate was now in the hands of twelve jurors.

     After deliberating two days, the jury found Mark Stobbe not guilty. The prosecutor, with no solid evidence of a motive, no murder weapon, weak eyewitness testimony, and the unknown male DNA on the victim's purse, simply didn't carry, in the minds of this jury, its burden of proof. Some of the jurors may have believed that Stobbe had murdered his wife, but belief and proof beyond a reasonable doubt are not always the same.  

The Art and Science of Crime Detection

Crime detection [in 1927] is not a secret art; anybody can do it if he has the wits, and the time, and patience to get all the facts, and if he knows enough of the ways of men and women. [That may have been true then, but not today. The modern detective must possess, among other skills and know-how, knowledge of criminal law, computer navigation, forensic science, criminology, and interview and interrogation techniques.]

Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) mystery novelist 

Victimology

The study of the victim is called victimology because everything sounds better with an ology tacked on the end.

Ben Aaronovitch

Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

We must cut off the modern detective story from the novel proper, put it in quite another category, one with its own traditions, conventions and demands, and thus develop a completely independent critical approach to it. I feel, in fact, that however we react to novels of the American hard-boiled school, nothing but harm can be done by an attempt to see them as "realistic" or closer to the novel proper than other varieties of crime fiction.

Robert Barnard, A Talent to Deceive, 1990 

Famous Musician Memoirs

The music star memoir is a special corner of literature where people who probably hated school get to have their revenge. They get to look back at the English teacher who gave them bad grades--and say--"Look at me now, lots of people want to read what I'm writing!" I can personally attest to the fact that these books are "written" by the stars because I've spent years working on memoirs by the hip-hop legends KRS-One, Nas and Rakim. In most cases, the star isn't actually typing anything--but they are dictating their story while the writer tries to be faithful to their voice so it absolutely is their book [if not their work]. In my experience, these memoirs are hard to write partly because musicians have conquered a field where success is rare, giving them a sense that it was all predestined.

Toure, The New York Times Book Review, December 8, 2019

Good Sports Stories

The best sports books appeal to serious sports fans but also to readers who couldn't care less about statistics or play-by-play and are just looking for a darn good story. [ESPN's sports documentary series "30-30" is a good example of good stories that non-sports fans can enjoy.]

Juliet Macur, The New York Times Book Review, December 8, 2019

Sunday, June 28, 2020

David Viens: The Chef Who Cooked His Wife

     In 2009, 46-year-old chef David Viens and his wife of 14 years, Dawn Viens, owned and operated a restaurant called the Thyme Contemporary Cafe in Lomita, a town in southwestern Los Angeles County. The hard-working couple had previously owned a restaurant in Bradenton Beach called the Beach City Market.

     In late 2009, Dawn Vien's sister filed a missing person's report after no one had seen Dawn for at least a week. When questioned by a Los Angeles County detective, David Viens said his 39-year-old wife had been angry over having to work 70 to 80 hours a week at the restaurant. After an argument on October 27, 2009, she moved out of their Holmes Beach apartment. But according to the couple's neighbors, Dawn had not been seen since the early hours of October 18.

     A few hours before daybreak on October 18, 2009, residents of the Holmes Beach apartment complex heard David and his wife arguing. There were also sounds of objects being thrown about the dwelling. Neighbors also heard Dawn storm out of the apartment, slamming the door. This was the last time any of the neighbors saw her.

     Over the next ten months, David Viens told friends and acquaintances a variety of stories accounting for his wife's disappearance. He told some people that she was in a drug rehabilitation facility, and informed others that she had left him and was living in the mountains. Eventually, after Dawn missed appointments, failed to pick up money she had stashed with a friend, and wasn't seen by anyone, the county missing persons bureau turned the case over to the homicide division. In the meantime, David Viens had acquired a live-in girlfriend named Kathy Galvan.

     Following the disappearance of his wife, David Viens asked Jacqueline Viens, his 21-year-old daughter from his first marriage who was living in South Carolina, to move back to Lomita and help out at the restaurant. On February 21, 2011, when questioned by detectives with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, Jacqueline revealed that her father, one night when they were having drinks after work, said he had killed her stepmother. He said that back in October 2009 they had gotten into a terrible argument. He had been exhausted, and had taken a sleeping pill to get some rest. But she kept pestering him and wouldn't let him sleep. Because she wouldn't leave him alone, he had tried to lock her into the bathroom, even blocking the door with a dresser. When that didn't work, he bound her arms and legs with rope, and covered her mouth with duck tape. The next morning, after a good night's sleep, Viens found his wife dead. She had choked to death on her own vomit. He referred to Dawn's death as an accident, and told his daughter that the method in which he had disposed of her body guaranteed that her remains would never be found.

     In the course of the police interview, Jacqueline Viens admitted helping her father mislead detectives who were looking into her disappearance. Using her stepmother's cellphone, she sent her father a text which read, "I'm OK. I'm in Florida and I have to start over." The detectives conducting the interview pressured Jacqueline to help them prove that her stepmother had been murdered. She did this by calling her father and informing him that she had just spilled the beans. "Dad," she said, "They are going to come after you. I told them everything."

     Earlier on the day Jacqueline Viens broke the news to her father that she had ratted him out to the police, a reporter with The Daily Breeze, a newspaper published in Torrance, California, informed David Viens they were coming out with a story about the police finding, on the walls of the the Holmes Beach apartment, traces of his missing wife's blood. (Viens and his girlfriend had since moved out of that apartment.)

     The next morning, Viens asked his girlfriend, Kathy Galvan, to accompany him on a ride to a quiet place where he could tell her something. While being surveilled by a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy, Viens and Galvan drove off in his 2003 Toyota 4Runner. Viens led the deputy to a spot not far from the Point Vicente Light House where he pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road and stopped. As the deputy approached, Viens, realizing that the was being followed by the police, sped off with the deputy giving chase.

     Views pulled into the parking lot at the Point Vicente Light House and drove up to the fence at the edge of an eighty-foot cliff. He and Galvan got out of the SUV, and after a brief struggle, Viens climbed the fence and jumped off the cliff to the beach below.

     When emergency personnel reached Vien's body, they were surprised to find him still breathing. Rushed to the County Harbor UCLA Medical Center, Viens underwent surgery. As it turned out, he has broken his ankles a femur and both hips. Doctors put him into an induced coma.

     A month following Viens's attempted suicide, while still recovering in the hospital, he admitted to detectives that he had accidentally killed his wife. Viens said he had been drinking that night, and after finding Dawn dead in the bathroom the next morning, had dumped her body behind the restaurant. To the detectives he said, "You will never find her body."

     Following his quasi-confession, police officers searched the restaurant for Dawn's remains. (After her disappearance, Viens had the place completely renovated.) The officers dug up concrete, and used cadaver dogs to sniff the soil underneath. After the two-day operation, a police spokesperson announced they had discovered no evidence of the missing woman's body.

     A year later, in March 2012, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office charged David Viens with the first-degree murder of his wife. Prosecutor Deputy District Attorney Deborah Brazil, who obviously didn't buy the defendant's story of an accidental death, would have to prove her case without the corpse.

     The Viens no-body murder trial got underway on September 14, 2012 in downtown Los Angeles. The prosecution's first witness, the defendant's daughter, Jacqueline, told the story of his confession, and mentioned that her father had once joked about how to get rid of a body by cooking it. "He's a chef," she said.

     Richard Stagnitto followed the defendant's daughter to the stand. On the night of October 18, 2009, Stagnitto was working in the restaurant with David and Dawn Vien. According to this witness, the defendant told him that evening that Dawn, to keep herself in alcohol and drugs, was stealing from the business. "That bitch is stealing from me," Viens allegedly said. "Nobody steals from me. I will kill that bitch." Mr. Stagnitto testified that he told Dawn what David had said about her. According to the witness, "She was very upset. She was crying and at times kind of incoherent and upset that Dave was not happy with her work." After that night, the witness never saw Dawn Viens again. With this witness, Deputy District Attorney Deborah Brazil established the defendant's motive, and his intent to murder his wife.

     In a recorded interview session with the police as he lay in a hospital bed after jumping off the cliff, a recording played for the jurors, the defendant explained to detectives how he had disposed of his wife's body. "I just slowly cooked it and I ended up cooking her for four days." Viens said he had stuffed Dawn's 105-pound corpse face-down in a 55-gallon drum of boiling water, and kept her submerged with weights. After four days of this, the defendant dumped the drum's contents, minus some body parts, into a grease pit at the restaurant. Viens placed what was left of his wife's remains into garbage bags, and tossed them into a dumpster. He said he took her skull to his mother's house in Torrance where he hid it in the attic. (Detectives searched that house without finding the skull.)

     When a detective at the hospital asked Viens what happened on the night of his wife's death, the defendant said they had been using cocaine together, and the she kept pestering him while he tried to sleep. "For some reason," he said, "I just got violent."

     On September 20, 2012, Viens informed the judge that he had lost confidence in his attorney, Fred McCurry, and wanted to defend himself. The judge ruled that McCurry had represented Viens competently, and that it was too late for the defendant to take over the case. A short time later, McCurry informed the judge that the defense had no further evidence to present. When Viens heard that, he jumped out of his wheelchair and yelled, "Your honor, I object!" (After seeing the defendant leap to his feet like that, many people in the court room believed the wheelchair had been more of a prop than a necessity.)

     On September 25, 2012, following the closing arguments, the jury retired to deliberate the defendant's fate. Two days later, the jury returned with its verdict: Guilty as charged.

     On March 22, 2013, the judge sentenced Viens to fifteen years to life.

The Execution Witness

     When Robert Wayne Williams was put to death in Angola [prison's] electric chair in 1983, Louisiana's first execution in nineteen years, wardens were amazed that the chair literally cooked William's scalp and legs, which smoked and sizzled for several minutes. Twenty-four hours later, the corpse reeked so strongly that mourners [there were mourners?] found it difficult to remain in the funeral parlor where Williams was laid out. Angola's warden, Ross Maggio, had to call sources outside the prison simply to learn if this was the way it was supposed to happen.

     The gas chamber was harder still for many to watch in action. The apparent violence of asphyxiation grievously offended [execution] witnesses in state after state, from the 1983 execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi to the gassing of Donald Eugene Harding on April 11, 1992, Arizona's first execution in thirty years. A Tucson television reporter sobbed uncontrollably during Harding's ten-minute execution; two other reporters "were rendered walking vegetables for days"; the attorney general vomited halfway through; a prison staff member who ran the execution likened it to watching a man suffer a series of heart attacks; and the prison's pro-death penalty warden said he'd resign if the state told him to run another asphyxiation. But Harding's death was probably no different from those suffered in Arizona's gas chamber since it was installed as "a humane measure" in 1933, replacing a gallows that had decapitated a condemned woman.

Ivan Solotaroff, The Last Face You'll Ever See, 2001

Political Novels by Anonymous

As marketing strategies go, it's a chancy one: Gin up excitement for a book by declining to name the author. It worked for Primary Colors, a best-selling critically acclaimed novel about Bill Clinton's 1992 run for the White House (later revealed to have been written by the journalist Joe Klein.) Secrecy did not work so well for O: A Presidential Novel, a peek inside Barack Obama's 2012 campaign. The author of O is described on the book flap as "someone who has been in the room with Barack Obama," Michiko Kakutani wrote in her Times review, "but given the novel's many inane implausibilities, the reader can't help but think that the writer was either a lousy observer or that the room was really enormous--a hotel ballroom perhaps, or maybe a convention center."

Tina Jordan, The New York Times Book Review, December 8, 2019

Should A Journalist Take Notes?

During my first twenty years or so of magazine writing I had no working method at all. On most interviews I'd try just to go through the experience, paying as much attention as I could, and then later, write the piece from memory. That worked fairly well, but I didn't realize how insulted the subjects were that I took no notes. When I finally did start taking notes--to ease their fears--I found the process of note-taking got in the way of paying attention. I never did solve that one.

John Jerome, The Writing Trade, 1992

Taking Literature Too Seriously

English professors and literary critics often take literature too seriously. Judging the literary value of a novel, in the scheme of things, is a trivial pursuit. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split."

Maps and Atlases

As the daughter of geography professor, I grew up in a house filled with maps, which papered the walls of our living room and filled my father's cramped study. In a digital age where maps have become all but obsolete, I still love them. I comb flea markets and secondhand bookstores looking at maps of the places I've lived. I always have a road atlas in my car which comes in handy in places with no cell service, like the remote hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And I collect atlases of all kinds and spend far too much money on them.

Tina Jordan, The New York Times Book Review, December 8, 2019

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Tracy Ingle SWAT Raid

     A narcotics officer with the North Little Rock (Arkansas) Police Department received information on December 20, 2007 that a woman known only as Kate was selling methamphetamine out of the house at 400 East 21st Street. The confidential informant who said he'd purchased meth there, didn't know who owned the dwelling, if other people lived there, how much drug activity was going on at that location, or anything about Kate other than she usually carried a gun. A judge, relying entirely on this sketchy report from a confidential informant, issued a nighttime no-knock warrant to search the house.

     At 7:40 PM, 17 days after the judge issued the warrant, Tracy Ingle, a 40-year-old former stonemason with a bad back, was asleep in his first floor bedroom in the back of the house at 400 East 21st Street. Mr. Ingle awoke with a start at the sound of a SWAT battering ram breaking down his front door. He instinctively reached for his pistol, the unloaded and broken handgun he kept at his bedside to scare off intruders. This would not be the first time burglars had broken into his home. Suddenly, a flashbang grenade came though the window near his bed, filling the room with blinding light. The SWAT officer who climbed into the bedroom through the broken window yelled, "He's got a gun!" That's when the shooting started. The first bullet, fired from a .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle, tore into Ingle's left leg just above the knee. As he dropped to the floor, SWAT officers outside the window fired 20 more shots, hitting Ingle in the arm, calf, hip, and chest. Moments later, several officers were in the room. One of the officers kept referring to Ingle as Michael or Mike. Before being rushed to the Baptist Health Hospital, Ingle said, "My name is not Mike."

     The police did not find methamphetamine or any other illegal drug at Tracy Ingle's house. They didn't find Kate, whoever she was, or any incriminating evidence in Ingle's car. They did seize a digital scale and a few baggies, common household items they designated as drug paraphernalia. Ingle's sister, a surgical nurse who made jewelry as a hobby, told the police the scale and baggies belonged to her.

     Because the police had broken into Ingle's house and shot him five times, then failed to find the drugs they had raided the house for, they had to charge him with something. And they did: two counts of aggravated assault for picking up the handgun in self defense, and felony possession of drug paraphernalia. The North Little Rock police, in a botched drug raid, had almost killed a citizen who had never been convicted of a felony. Instead of apologizing for their shoddy, reckless work, and overaggressive tactics, they wanted to send Tracy Ingle to prison.

     Ten days after the shooting, the hospital discharged Ingle from the intensive care unit. Police officers immediately picked him up and drove him to the police station. For the next six hours, detectives grilled Ingle without an attorney present. From the interrogation room, they hauled him to the Pulaski County Jail, where they booked him, still in his hospital-issued clothing. When they released Ingle four days later (he had sold his car to make bail), his wounds had become infected because he had been unable to change his bandages every six hours.

     The internal affairs investigation of the shooting cleared the two SWAT officers who had shot Ingle of wrongdoing. Seeing the gun in Ingle's hand, they had responded appropriately. Responsibility for this drug enforcement fiasco rested on the shoulders of the case detective and the judge who had signed the no-knock search warrant. Ingle, who couldn't afford to hire a lawyer, finally caught a break in May when John Wesley Hall, a well-known Arkansas defense attorney, agreed to represent him.

     In an April 2008 interview conducted by a reporter with the Arkansas Times, North Little Rock Chief of Police Danny Bradley spoke about the department's SWAT team, officer safety, and police militarism. Because North Little Rock was a small city of 50,000, the SWAT team was made up of 12 to 15 regular-duty patrolmen and detectives assigned to the squad part time. These officers trained for the position twice a month. The chief said he deployed the unit only in high-risk situations. "If we have any doubts about detectives and uniformed officers being able to execute the warrant safely we're going to use the SWAT team. I would rather spend the extra money that it takes to get the SWAT team together than risk someone getting injured."

     Chief Bradley, regarding nighttime no-knock home invasions such as the one that got Tracy Ingle shot and almost killed, said, "How do you weigh a situation where executing a warrant safely means exploiting the element of surprise, versus the natural reaction of a person when someone is intruding into his house? It's a dangerous business." The chief allowed that he didn't like the phrase "war on drugs" because he didn't want his officers thinking they were soldiers, and drug suspects their enemy. In that regard, he had worked to eliminate some of the militaristic trappings of the force. For example, he had switched his regular patrol officers out of their "fatigue-looking" uniforms.

     Tracy Ingle's attorney, on September 8, 2008, filed a motion to suppress the evidence against his client. John Wesley Hall argued that owing to the vagueness of the informant's report, the warrant authorizing the raid lacked sufficient probable cause, which rendered the evidence against Ingle inadmissible. Moreover, had there been sufficient probable cause in the first place, it had been severely attenuated by the 17-day delay in the warrant's execution. In other words, the evidence had grown stale. (Under Arkansas law, search warrants must be served within a reasonable time, but not more than 60 days after issue.)

     The judge denied attorney Hall's motion, and in March 2009, a jury found Tracy Ingle guilty of maintaining a drug house, and of felony assault. The judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison, and fined him $18,000. Tracy Ingle took his case to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, which, on May 12, 2010, affirmed his conviction.

Narcissism And The Political Class

Only a highly narcissistic, self confident sociopath could believe that he or she could lead the free world. Any relatively intelligent, psychologically normal person would know better. It would be refreshing for a presidential candidate to step up to the mike and say, "I am a textbook sociopath which means I know I am smarter than the people whose money and votes I solicit. Moreover, because I am never wrong about anything, I will continue asking for money and votes. Please also know that I think I am incapable of lying because I believe that whatever I say, regardless of the 'facts,' is the truth. And finally, don't even try to shame me because as a sociopath I cannot be embarrassed." This of course will never happen because it would require telling the truth to voters who don't really want to hear the truth. Politicians know that the only way to get elected is to lie through their teeth about everything. For that reason, the best and most prolific liars get into office. In our leaders we get exactly what we deserve.

Changing Perceptions of the Black Police Officer

According to a rumor in New Orleans, an old family restaurant used to give a free ham to any police officer who killed a black person in the line of duty. The restaurant stopped doing this only in the 1980s, the story goes, when a black police officer came in to claim his ham. The lesson: In white American, a black man in uniform is still just a black man. [Today, many believe that once a black person becomes a cop, that person is no longer black.]

Lauretta Charlton, The New York Times Book Review, December 22, 2019

An Unusual Journalist

For the past 15 years I've been writing nonfiction books that describe real events and real people, well known or not, close friends or distant acquaintances. Some of them I've hurt, yes, but I maintain that I did not dupe any of them.

Emmanuel Carrere, The New York Times Book Review, December 22, 2019

Writers: Spare Us Your Agony

Some writers complain and wail about how difficult it is to write. Oh the suffering, the pure agony of putting words on paper. Enough already. Try complaining to people who farm, move furniture, paint houses, or serve food in restaurants full of human eating machines and misbehaving kids. No one is forced to write, and no one wants to hear writers crying in their beer. If writing doesn't come easy, either quit doing it or shut up about how hard it is. Please.

The Alcoholic Novelist

William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are probably three of the most notorious fall-down drunks in the literary history of Twentieth Century America. They are followed by Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and John Cheever. Many literary critics believe that all this drinking among male novelists stemmed from the fact that, in American culture, creative writing is not considered masculine. In other words, real men don't write. Perhaps these literary booze-hounds were simply alcoholics who happened to take pen to paper. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Sylvie Cachay Bathtub Murder Case

     Sylvie Cachay grew up as the daughter of a Peruvian-born physician who practiced in Arlington, Virginia. She studied fashion design in New York City, and worked for clothing designers Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfinger, and Victoria's Secret. In 2006, Cachay started her own swimsuit line called Syla. She resided in a So Ho apartment in Manhattan's meatpacking district.

     Early in 2010, the 33-year-old swimwear designer met 24-year-old Nicholas Brooks, a college dropout and unemployed party-boy with a history of patronizing prostitutes, consuming large amounts of alcohol, and smoking marijuana. Nicholas Brooks' father, Joseph Brooks, achieved a bit of fame by writing the 1970s hit song, "You Light Up My Life." The songwriter supported his son's party-boy lifestyle until 2009 when the elder Brooks was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting several women, most of whom were aspiring actresses. (In 2011, Joseph Brooks, facing the chance of a long stretch in prison, committed suicide.)

     Because of Nicholas Brooks' debauched lifestyle, funded by Cachay's credit cards, the couple had a turbulent relationship. They frequently broke up and then got back together again.

     On the morning of December 8, 2010, Cachay sent Brooks an email that read: "Nick, for the past six months I have supported you financially and emotionally. I am speaking with my credit card company and the police and I am going to tell them that I never allowed you to use my card. I don't care. Have fun in jail."

     Later on the day of Cachay's angry email, at her So Ho apartment, the couple made up. That night, just after midnight, the couple walked to the SoHo House, a luxury hotel not far from Cachay's apartment. They checked into their room at 12:30 AM.

     Shortly after Cachay and Brooks checked in to the SoHo House, a hotel employee heard a man and a woman arguing loudly in their room. Thirty minutes later, Brooks left the suite and was seen eating a steak in the hotel's dining room. Upon finishing his meal, Brooks and a man who had come to the lobby to meet him, left the hotel. A short time later they were having drinks at a nightclub called Employees Only.

     At three in the morning of December 9, 2010, about two and a half hours after Cachay and Brooks checked in to the SoHo House, a guest on the floor below complained to the front dest about water leaking through the ceiling. Hotel employees entered Cachay's room and found her dead in the overflowing bathtub. One of the stunned hotel employees called 911.

     New York City homicide detectives, when they arrived at the hotel, found the swimsuit designer in the bathtub wearing a sweater and a pair of underwear. The officers didn't notice any signs of physical trauma on the dead woman's body. At five-thirty that morning, while the death scene investigators were still in the hotel room, Nicholas Brooks returned to the suite. He agreed to be questioned at a nearby NYPD precinct station.

     Brooks admitted to his questioners that he and his dead girlfriend had been arguing in the hotel room before he left to eat his steak. After that, he and a friend went out for drinks at a nearby nightclub. He said that when he left the hotel room Sylvie was alive.

     Following the autopsy, a forensic pathologist with the New York City Medical Examiner's Office ruled that Sylvie Cachay had died of asphyxia due to strangulation and drowning. The manner of death in her case: criminal homicide.

     New York City detectives arrested Nicholas Brooks on January 4, 2011 on the charge of first-degree murder. At his arraignment hearing, the magistrate denied the murder suspect bail. Brooks entered a plea of not guilty.

     The Cachay-Brooks murder trial got underway in New York City on June 7, 2013. In his opening remarks, the assistant district attorney laid out the prosecution's theory of the case: the unemployed, playboy had been using the victim to fund his taste for prostitutes, alcohol, marijuana, and expensive nights out on the town. When she threatened to cut him off and report him to the police, he strangled or drowned her to death in the hotel bathtub.

     The New York City Medical Examiner's Office forensic pathologist took the stand early in the trial. According to the pathologist, "Bruises on the victim's neck, bleeding in her eyes, and abrasions inside her mouth were injuries consistent with [homicidal] asphyxiation."

     Through several prosecution witnesses, the assistant district attorney presented the jury with emails in which Cachay had complained to her friends about Brooks' drinking, drug use, and late-night partying. In these emails, she referred to the defendant as "the kid I'm dating," as her "man-boy," or as a "stoner" who had quit his job at a cupcake shop.

     The Brooks defense, through a forensic pathologist from Syosset, New York, presented evidence that Cachay's death had been accidental. According to Dr. Gerard Catanese, the victim had drowned in the tub because she had sedatives, anti-depressants, and muscle relaxers in her system. "That combination of drugs," Dr. Catanese said, "could account for her falling asleep, losing consciousness and sinking under the water and ultimately dying."

     On July 11, 2013, the jury, relying solely on circumstantial evidence, found Nicholas Brooks guilty of first-degree murder. As the verdict was read, friends of Sylvie Cachay, from their seats in the courtroom, cheered loudly. 

Real Versus Fictitious Horror

Why read horror fiction when there is such an abundance of terror in the real world? It's a question I ask as someone who seeks out the macabre in literature, even as I cringe at the daily news. With temperatures reaching 123 and honey bees going the way of dodo birds, one can't help wondering: What is the point of dark fiction when reality gives us so much to fear. [This was written in relatively good times before the coronavirus epidemic, the economic collapse, the war on police, and the race riots.]

Danielle Trussoni, The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 2019

The Goodreads Reviewer

Authors hold a strange place in our cultural imagination. Even if readers revere them, the scope and economics of publishing mean very few of today's authors become superstars. Most are just ordinary people, many of whom have debts and day jobs and little experience dealing with the public--fans or otherwise. Some also have plenty of time to mess around on the internet, and for those authors Goodreads is kryptonite. For every well-considered review on the book recommendations site, positive or negative, there's a Goodreads user who puts factually inaccurate opinions about books, or who lazily resorts to snark, to one-word reviews that tell readers nothing but "meh."

Maris Kreizman, The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 2019

What's Happening to America's Youth?

Children are struggling. Over the past decade, cases of anxiety increased by 20 percent or more. Rates of suicide and suicidal thinking have risen sharply among young people of all ages--including, horrifyingly, children under 11. Scholars debate why this is happening--plausible culprits include social media, video gaming, helicopter parenting, school shootings and lockdown drills, overweening college pressure, and both the over-and under-prescribing of medication.

Scott Stossell, The New York Times Book Review, October, 6, 2019

Journalists Can be Conned

Perhaps one shouldn't always feel bad about getting someone utterly wrong. Sometimes one is bested by a master. In November 2004, I went to interview Bernard Madoff for the Economist and was won over. I told friends that I trusted this quiet, thoughtful man more than I trusted any of the dozens of Wall Street loudmouths I'd talked to that year. It emerged in 2008 that Madoff had been one of the biggest con men in history.

Anthony Gottlieb, The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 2019

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Dr. Anthony Garcia Murder Case

     In 1999, Dr. Anthony Garcia, after attending the University of California at Davis, graduated from the University of Utah Medical School. Dr. Garcia, shortly after he entered the residency program at St. Elizabeth Family Practice in Albany, New York, yelled at a radiology technician. This, along with other incidents of unprofessionalism, caused Dr. Garcia's supervisors to terminate his residency. According to doctors at St. Elizabeth, Garcia's conduct "left serious doubt as to his future ability to successfully practice medicine."

     Dr. Garcia was given a second chance in June 2000 when he began a residency in the Pathology Department at Creighton University Medical School in Omaha, Nebraska. A year later, he was fired for "unprofessional conduct toward a fellow resident and his (the resident's) wife." Two high-ranking members of the twelve member department, Doctors Roger Brumback and William Hunter, approved Garcia's discharge from the university.

     In 2003, Dr. Garcia managed to acquire a residency in Chicago at the University of Illinois. From Chicago, he bounced around the country working on the fringes of the medical profession. In 2007, he was given a medical school residency in psychiatry at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. In February 2008, the head of the LSU Psychiatric Department fired Dr. Garcia after the state rejected his request to practice medicine. Based on letters received from Doctors Roger Brumback and William Hunter, Garcia was denied a medical license for not mentioning his termination from the Pathology Department at Creighton University. LSU removed Dr. Garcia from its residency program for "falsifying his application to LSU regarding his attendance at Creighton." At this point, Dr. Garcia believed that Doctors Brumback and Hunter were killing any chance he had of pursuing a career in medicine.

     On March 13, 2008, two weeks after LSU dismissed Dr. Garcia, Dr. William Hunter returned home from his day at Creighton University to find the dead bodies of his 11-year-old son Thomas, and Shirlee Sherman, the doctor's 57-year-old housekeeper. Both victims had been stabbed in the neck near the carotid artery.

     Residents of the exclusive Omaha neighborhood reported seeing, around the time of the murders, an "olive-skinned" man in a gray or silver SUV drive slowly past the Hunter house. This man, wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, climbed out of his vehicle after parking it a block from the Hunter house. Carrying a briefcase or satchel, the man knocked on Dr. Hunter's front door and was let inside. Shortly after entering the dwelling, this man returned to his SUV and drove off.

     Homicide detectives were baffled by what appeared to be a double-murder without a motive. In the months following the killings, detectives questioned former Creighton medical students who had played video games with Dr. Hunter's son. They also questioned disgruntled former employees of the university. A FBI criminal profiler classified the slayings as a random attack by a transient serial killer. No one had reason to suspect that the boy and the housekeeper had been murdered by Dr. Anthony Garcia.

     In May 2010, Garcia resided in a middle-class community called Village Quarter on the east side of Terre Haute, Indiana. Having been granted a temporary Indiana medical permit, he worked at a high-security federal penitentiary. In the fall of 2012, the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency denied Dr. Garcia's request for a permanent license to practice medicine in the state. The denial was based upon a letter from Dr. Roger Brumback of Creighton University who informed the Indiana medical authorities that Dr. Garcia had been fired in 2001 for "unprofessional behavior."

     In his November 2012 re-application for an Indiana medical license, Dr. Garcia wrote: "I feel my actions do not rise to the level of denial of my medical licensure application. I have been aggrieved and adversely affected by not being able to work as a physician in the state of Indiana."

     A few months before Dr. Garcia's letter to the Indiana Licensing Agency, the still unsolved 2008 double-murder in Omaha was featured on the television series, "America's Most Wanted." Investigators in Omaha were desperate for a solid suspect in the case.

     On May 14, 2013, a piano mover, upon his arrival at Dr. Roger Brumback's house in Omaha, found the front door ajar. The 65-year-old physician had just retired from Creighton University. He and his wife Mary were in the process of moving to West Virginia to begin their retirement lives. The mover stepped into the house to find Dr. Brumback and his wife dead from stab wounds to their necks. The doctor had also been shot.

     Just inside the front door, a crime scene investigator discovered the clip to a 9 mm pistol. A firearms identification expert reported that the clip had been used in a Smith & Wesson model SD 9 handgun.

     Members of a task force comprised of local, state and federal investigators noticed the similarity between the Brumback murders and the stabbing deaths of Dr. Hunter's 11-year-old boy and the physician's housekeeper. Dr. Anthony Garcia, because he had a history with both physicians, emerged as a suspect in the murder cases.

     Dr. Garcia became the prime suspect when homicide investigators learned that on March 8, 2013, he had purchased a Smith & Wesson SD 9 at a Gander Mountain store in Terre Haute. Moreover, detectives were able to place Garcia in Omaha around the time of both killings.

     Police officers in Terre Haute, in the pre-dawn hours of Monday, July 15, 2013, raided Dr. Garcia's house. At the time of the raid, because Garcia had been under 24-hour surveillance, officers knew that he was not in the dwelling. Later that morning, officers with the Illinois State Police took Anthony Garcia into custody after pulling over his car in the southern part of the state. The arrest took place near the town of Jonesboro.

     On July 18, 2013, Garcia, charged with four counts of first-degree murder, was transported from the Jackson County Jail in Illinois to Omaha, Nebraska.

    Anthony Garcia, in December 2013, filed a wrongful arrest lawsuit from his cell in Douglas County, Nebraska. He asked for $20 million in damages. On February 25, 2014, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf dismissed the federal case on procedural grounds.

     On February 27, 2014, Douglas County District Judge Duane Daugherty, based upon a request by Garcia's attorneys, ordered a psychiatric evaluation of their client. At that hearing, Garcia complained to the judge that he did not trust his lawyers.

     At another pre-trial hearing on May 9, 2014, a state psychiatrist testified that the defendant was mentally competent to stand trial.

     On February 14, 2015, Garcia's attorneys were back in court trying to have evidence against their client excluded. The defense lawyers argued that in July 2013, the police officers in Illinois did not have probable cause to arrest their client. The attorneys also asked that the jury in Garcia's upcoming murder trial be sequestered. If Judge Dougherty granted that request, the jury would be prevented from any contact with all forms of news media. According to the defense motion: "This case has been extensively covered and attended by local media outlets to an extraordinary degree. Even if an untainted jury is able to be selected from Douglas or Lincoln County, it would be highly unlikely and almost impossible that the jury selected could avoid prejudicial contact with news and media outlet coverage if not sequestered. (Garcia's lawyers had earlier filed a motion for a change of venue.)

     Judge Daugherty, in April 2015, denied the change of venue and sequester requests as well as the motion to exclude evidence acquired pursuant to Garcia's July 2013 arrest in Terre Haute, Indiana.

     At yet another Garcia case pre-trial hearing on May 7, 2015, defense attorneys put an expert witness on the stand who testified that the person who murdered Dr. William Hunter's son and housekeeper was not the perpetrator who killed Dr. Roger Brumback and his wife. Douglas County prosecutor Brenda Beadle, during her cross-examination of crime scene investigation expert Brent Turvey, showed him photographs of the knife wounds on the necks of 11-year-old Thomas Hunter and Mary Brumback. (There had been knife wounds to the neck on all four victims.) According to the witness, "a knife wound to the neck is so common it's not even funny. It's definitely not distinct or unique." The witness accused investigators of coming up with a suspect then "cherry-picking" evidence to fit the defendant in the 2008 and 2013 murders.

     At the conclusion of the hearing, prosecutor Don Kleine asked Judge Dougherty to try the 2008 and the 2013 murder cases together. The defense urged the judge to separate the cases. Judge Gary Randall denied the defense motion for separate trials.

     Since his arrest in July 2013, the quadruple murder suspect had five trial dates. The trial was postponed in April 2016 after Judge Randall removed Garcia's lead attorney, Alison Motta because Motta had implicated another person in the 2008 Omaha, Nebraska murder case. Motta claimed that DNA evidence pointed to this suspect's guilt. This defense claim was debunked after the testimony of a DNA expert.

     On June 14, 2016, Judge Randall set the Garcia murder trial for September 26, 2016.

     In October 2016, a jury found Dr. Garcia guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. Following several delays, Dr. Garcia's death penalty hearing was rescheduled for June 2018.

     On September 14, 2018, Anthony Garcia entered the courtroom in a wheelchair and appeared to sleep as a panel of three judges sentenced him to death.

"Feminist" Lawyer Gloria Alred

And then there was Gloria Alred, the crusading feminist lawyer whose law firm, in 2004, negotiated a nondisclosure agreement for one of Harvey Weinstein's victims. [According to Jodi Kantor and Megan Towohey in their book Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement] the firm pocketed 40 percent of the settlement. "While the attorney cultivated a reputation for giving female victims a voice, some of her work and revenue was in negotiating secret settlements that silenced them and buried allegations of sexual harassment and assault." Alred went on to do the same with women who had been abused by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and the Olympics gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. In 2017, after a group of lawyers in California persuaded a state legislator to consider a bill that would ban confidentiality clauses muzzling sexual harassment victims, Alred denounced the move and threatened to go on the attack. The legislator, Connie Leyva, quickly shelved the idea. (A year later, Leyva introduced such a bill and it was signed into law.)

Susan Falludi, The New York Times Book Review, September 27, 2019

Nora Ephron on Jacqueline Susann's "The Love Machine"

We looked backed to the summer of 1969 to see what people were reading 50 years ago. Back then the country's hottest novel was Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine, which Nora Ephron reviewed for The New York Times. In her piece, which was as saucy and savagely funny as you might expect, Ephron wrote: "With the possible exception of Cosmopolitan magazine, no one writes about sadism in modern man and masochism in modern women quite as horribly and accurately as Jacqueline Susann. The Love Machine is not exactly a literary work. But in its own little sub-genre category of popularly written roman a clef, it shines, like a rhinestone in a trash can."

Tina Jordan, The New York Times Book Review, August 18, 2019

The Lone Journalist

I hated traveling in packs as a journalist, not because I'm a lone wolf but because it seemed unlikely to me that I'd get the best story with so many other reporters jostling for access. So I'd take a beat that was considered a bit of a cul-de-sac--poverty, for example, or "social services" as it was called at The Baltimore Sun--and play happily by myself.

Laura Lippman, The New York Times Book Review, August 11, 2019

Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World reflected its author's worries in the 1930s that individual freedom was threatened by both communism and assembly-line capitalism, and it anticipated a technology-driven future in which people would be narcotized and distracted to death by trivia and entertainment.

Michiko Kakutani, The New York Book Review, September 22, 2019

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Alexis Kahn: The Babysitter From Hell

     In 2012, after Benjamin and Hope Jordan moved to Charleston, South Carolina, they hired 21-year-old Alexis Kahn to regularly babysit their 7-month-old son Finn while they were away at work. Kahn had never been arrested, and came with references.

     Five months after bringing Alexis Kahn into their home to care for their most precious possession, the Jordans noticed that their dog, an otherwise friendly black lab, disliked the babysitter. According to Mr. Jordan, "He [the dog] was very aggressive towards her and a few times we actually had to physically restrain him from going towards her."

     Worried that the dog's behavior revealed something sinister about the babysitter, the Jordans hid an iPhone under the couch to record what went on between Kahn, the dog, and the baby in their absence. That evening after work, the couple checked the iPhone and were shocked by what they had recorded. The Jordans heard Kahn tell the baby to "shut up." Next came cussing followed by sounds of the baby being slapped. The baby's cries of distress became cries of pain. "I just wanted to...go back in time and just grab him up," said the father.

     The Jordans fired the babysitter and reported the suspected assault to the Charleston police. Officers arrested Kahn a few weeks later. Confronted with the iPhone evidence, the suspect confessed to assaulting the Jordan baby.

     On September 8, 2013, Alex Kahn pleaded guilty to one count of assault and battery in a Charleston County Circuit Court. The judge handed down a three-year sentence. The ex-babysitter had to spend a year behind bars before being eligible for parole. And her name was added to the state's child abuse register which meant she could never work with children. (Unfortunately, this did not prevent her from having children.)

     According to the baby's parents, Finn had no lingering effects from his abuse at the hands of the abusive babysitter.

     Suggestion: If your dog doesn't like your babysitter, keep the dog and look for a new sitter.  

The Michael Kane Murder Case

     In 2002, Michael Rodney Kane, an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, married Michelle, a paralegal and notary public. That year the couple purchased a house in Canoga Park they couldn't afford. In September 2012, the parents of a one-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl got out from under their staggering debt through chapter 7 bankruptcy. Among other creditors they stiffed, the couple owed $166,000 to credit card companies. At the time, Michael taught at the Nestle Avenue Charter School in Tarzana.

     Michelle, after Michael's behavior became erratic and violent, obtained a restraining order and kicked him out of the house. But in June 2013, he returned to the Canoga Park home and smashed the windows to the front door and garage. Michelle reported the incident to personnel at the Los Angeles Police Department's Topanga Station. She informed the officer that Michael had been acting irrationally and had been taking drugs. She and the children, fearing what he might do, had moved in with a family she knew in West Hills. The couple who resided in this residential community of well-kept 1960s tract homes had two children of their own.

     On Saturday, June 15, 2013, at 7:50 in the morning, Michael Kane, armed with a knife, forced his way into the West Hills residence. As the man of the house fought the intruder, he told Michelle to get out of the dwelling and run for her life. The homeowner's wife, his children, and the Kane siblings, hid in the bathroom during the home invasion assault. The scuffle ended when Michael cut his adversary's hand.

     Following the assault of the West Hills resident, Michael ran out of the house in pursuit of his estranged wife. With neighbors looking on in horror, Michael, with Michelle begging him to stop, repeatedly stabbed her. With his wife lying dead in the street, Michael got into his 1999 Chrysler 300M and drove off.

     After a two-day manhunt, police officers, just after midnight on Monday, June 17, 2013, arrested the school teacher at a motel in the San Bernardino County town of Joshua Tree. Officers had to knock down the metal door to the motel room. Kane was taken to the Desert High Medical Center with several minor injuries where he was treated, and shortly thereafter, released. One of the arresting officers told reporters that the police didn't know if Kane had hurt himself in the fight with the West Hills home owner, or when he stabbed his wife to death. Officers booked him into the jail on suspicion of murder.

     A Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Michael Kane with first-degree murder, burglary with a person present, assault with a deadly weapon, and making criminal threats. On June 20, 2013, the suspect, accompanied by his defense attorney, made his first court appearance. Sitting in a wheelchair, Kane pleaded not guilty to murder and the other charges. He waived his right to a formal arraignment. The judge denied him bail.

     When reporters asked attorney Stewart Farber why his client was in a wheelchair, the lawyer said the reason would be made clear at a later time. In response to a question regarding how his client was holding up, Farber said, "Well obviously he's quite distraught, and that's all I can tell you. The facts as they occurred on that date, unfortunate as they were, when they're presented in court, will be substantially different than some of the things that were mentioned in the newspapers and said on television."

     On March 30, 2015, following a one-month trial, the jury, after deliberating just two hours, found Michael Kane guilty as charged. Before the foreman of the jury read the verdict, Kane disrupted the proceeding with an incoherent rant against his dead wife's family. Bailiffs removed him from the court room.

     The judge, on April 20, 2015, sentenced Kane to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Revenge Porn

In 2017, the Cyber Civil Rights Institute, a nonprofit organization formed in 2013 to fight online abuse, found that more than 10 percent of social media users are victims of revenge porn, with women twice as likely to be targeted as men. These statistics aren't an enormous surprise given that many people these days meet their romantic partners online--39 percent of heterosexual couples and 65 percent of same-sex couples, according to a recent study by sociologists at Stanford University and the University of New Mexico--and go on to conduct a great deal of intimacy by way of smart-phone and computer, whether sexting or video-chatting.

Kate Bolick, The New York Times Book Review, September 22, 2019

Ann Rule's Work Habits

When I'm in a writing mode (eight months of the year), I am at my computer at least six days a week from ten in the morning to about 7:30 in the evening. I require ten pages a day--my personal commitment.

Ann Rule, writersreview.com, 2002. The prolific true crime author died in 2015 at age 74.

Creating Fictitious People

Where do all the characters in a novel come from? They come from inside the novelist's head. The novelist is a role-player, an actor, and he's got all these different characters he wants to invent. It's not about putting on someone else's clothes, it's putting on someone else's skin, their mind and their body.

Ian Rankin, "On Writing: Writers Reveal the Secrets of Their Craft," theguardian.com, March 25, 2011 

It Takes More Than Hard Work to Write a Successful Novel

We grow up being told by teachers and parents that if we work hard and try our best we can attain our goals. That might be good advice in general but does not necessarily apply to careers and professions that also require high talent or extreme intelligence. To strenuously pursue those professions and careers without the requisite intelligence or talent can lead to frustration and despair. This certainly applies to aspiring novelists, artists, and musicians.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Brittany Murphy Cause and Manner of Death Case

     In 2003, 26-year-old film actress Brittany Murphy purchased a house in West Hollywood that had been owned by Britney Spears. Four years later, she married a British writer/director named Simon Monjack who moved into the multi-million dollar mansion.

     At eight o'clock Sunday morning on December 20, 2009, Brittany Murphy's mother Sharon called 911 to report that her daughter had collapsed in the shower. Paramedics found the 32-year-old actress unconscious. Two hours later, at a nearby hospital, Brittany Murphy died. 
     Shortly after her death, Murphy's husband Simon Monjack told a People magazine reporter that Brittany had been suffering from laryngitis and flu-like symptoms. He said she had been taking antibiotics and was on herbal remedies that wouldn't speed up her heart. Monjack insisted there were no substances in the house at the time of her death that could have harmed her. "There was prescription medication in the house for her female time and some cough syrup. That was it," he said.
     In February 2010, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office released Murphy's autopsy report that revealed she had died of "multiple drug intoxication, pneumonia, and iron deficiency anemia." According to a toxicological analysis of her blood, Murphy possessed elevated levels of hydrocodine, acetaminophen, and chloropheniramine, ingredients commonly found in over-the-counter cold medications. 
     As a result of the autopsy and toxicological findings, Murphy's manner of death went into the books as natural, caused by a weakened state of health made worse by an accidental overdose of cold medications. According to the coroner, Brittany Murphy's death could have been prevented by a visit to her doctor. If the Los Angeles Coroner's Office's cause and manner of death determinations were correct, the young actress had contributed to her own demise. 
     In the months following the film star's sudden death, stories appeared in the tabloid press suggesting that she had died from anorexia or from an accidental drug overdose. Rumors were also circulating that she had committed suicide. 
     On May 23, 2010, at nine thirty at night, someone called 911 requesting medical assistance at the West Hollywood home still occupied by Simon Monjack. Emergency responders found the dead body of the 40-year-old once married to Brittany Murphy. He had been scheduled that fall for triple-bypass surgery. 
     According to the forensic pathologist who performed Monjack's autopsy at the Los Angeles Coroner's Office, he had died a natural death caused by pneumonia and anemia. The toxicology report showed he had been taking prescription medication. 
     In response to rumors of foul play in Murphy's and Monjack's deaths, assistant coroner Ed Winter told reporters that "at the time of their deaths both of them were in very poor health. I don't think they ate correctly or took care of themselves. They didn't seek medical attention."
     Brittany Murphy's father, a man named Angelo Bertolotti who had served three stretches in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for various racketeering offenses, had never been a factor in Murphy's life. But after her death, he became involved by filing a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Coroner's Office and the Los Angeles Police Department. 
     Bertolotti brought the legal action in an effort to force the coroner's office to test his daughter's hair for traces of heavy metal poisons. Bertolotti believed that additional toxicological testing would prove that she had not died from pneumonia, anemia, and a lethal mix of cold medications. 
     The Los Angeles Coroner's Office defended its decision not to test Murphy's hair follicles for traces of heavy metal poison on the grounds there was no indication that she had died from arsenic poisoning. (Professional death investigators, rather than basing their conclusions on personal assumptions, apply forensic science to unravel the mystery of sudden, unexplained deaths.) 
     In July 2012, a judge dismissed Angelo Bertolotti's lawsuit. However, as a consolation, Bertolotti acquired, from the coroner's office, samples of his daughter's hair, blood and tissue for independent toxicological testing. He promptly sent the samples to a private lab in Colorado for analysis. 
     The private laboratory, in November 2013, reported high levels of ten heavy metal poisons in the submitted Brittany Murphy samples. According to the toxicological report, Murphy's system contained, among other poisons, aluminum, manganese, and barium, poisons found in rat poison, pesticides, and insecticides.  According to the private crime lab, presence of these poisons strongly suggested the possibility of a homicidal poisoning. 
     Armed with the private toxicological findings, Angelo Bertolotti demanded that the Los Angeles Police Department re-open its investigation into Brittany Murphy's death. He also wanted the Los Angeles Coroner's Office to change its manner and cause of death rulings to homicidal poisoning. 
     Speaking to reporters after the release of the private toxicological report, Bertolotti said, "Vicious rumors, spread by tabloids, unfairly smeared Brittany's reputation. My daughter was neither anorexic or a drug addict." 
     A few days after the new revelations in the case, Bertolotti appeared on the TV show "Good Morning America." Bertolotti said, "I have a feeling that there was a definite murder situation here. It's poison, yes, I know that." Bertolotti pointed out that the Colorado forensic lab was an accredited facility that "cannot be ignored."
     Los Angeles Chief Coroner's investigator Craig R. Harvey, in response to the private laboratory's toxicological findings, said this to reporters: "The Los Angeles Coroner's Office has no plans to reopen our inquiry into the [Murphy] death. We stand by our original reports."

     In speaking to a reporter with Fox News on November 20, 2013, addiction specialist Dr. Damon Raskin said the private toxicology results made him suspicious of foul play. Moreover, "other than lab error, there is no other good medical explanation for these abnormal levels of heavy metals. Therefore, some type of poisoning is clearly a possibility."

     Fox reporter Hollie McKay also questioned Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, a Los Angeles based physician who said it was extremely unlikely that Murphy had elevated levels of the heavy metals in her system without being given supplements or unintentionally ingesting them.

     Dr. Michael Baden, the famed forensic pathologist, had a different interpretation of the new toxicological findings. He said this to a Fox News reporter: "The grouping of heavy metals is more suggestive of hair product use--dyes, soaps, heat, etc. than of rat poison….When hair samples are stored for so long, the increased sensitivity of new chemical tests will pick up whatever was in the hair's container. Was the container tested?"
     Rather than defend a premature conclusion, the Los Angeles Coroner's Office should have acknowledged the new toxicological evidence and opened an investigation.

     On Tuesday, May 26, 2020, the Investigation Discovery channel renewed interest in the case by airing a documentary called, "Brittany Murphy: An ID Mystery."

Alan Randall: Bad People Belong in Prison, Not in Mental Institutions

     During the winter of 1974, 16-year-old Alan A. Randall committed more than a dozen burglaries in and around Summit, Wisconsin, a town of 4,000 in Waukesha County. In January 1975, Randall broke into the Summit Police Department. When officers Wayne Olson and Robert Atkins pulled up to police headquarters in their patrol car, Randall, instead of either giving himself up or making a run for it, opened fire on the officers, killing them both. The burglar-turned cop killer drove from the scene in the dead officers' bullet-ridden police vehicle. That night, he committed another burglary, then went home to bed.

     Tried as an adult two years later, the jury found Alan Randall guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. (He had also been charged with murdering his neighbor, a man named Ronald Hoeft. Due to procedural problems with the prosecution in that case, that charge was dropped.) Because Randall's attorney had raised the defense of legal insanity, the trial went into a second phase centered around the issue of his mental state at the time of the murders. The jury, having heard testimony from psychiatrists who had diagnosed Randall of having a personality disorder, found him not guilty by reason of insanity.

     Today, a defendant with a so-called personality disorder would not be adjudged legally insane because people with this disorder are not psychotic, or in any way delusional. They are fully aware of what they have done, and know that the act of murder is wrong. In other words, these defendants are not insane, they are bad. Ted Bundy had a personality disorder, John Hinckley was mentally ill.

     Having been declared legally insane, Alan Randall, rather than being sent to prison for a specific period of time, was packed off to a mental institution for an indefinite period. He would be eligible for release when psychiatrists said he was cured of his mental illness. Since Randall was not insane, he was, at least in theory, eligible for release the day they admitted him into the Central State Hospital in northeast Wisconsin.

     In 1980, doctors took Randall off his anti-psychotic medication. A model patient--the best mental patients are the ones who aren't insane--Randall was transferred to the Mendota Mental Institution in Madison where he was allowed to work full time at an art gallery.

     In 1989, Randall's attorney began petitioning the court for his release on grounds the patient had been cured of the mental illness that had caused him to commit the murders fourteen years earlier. Randall's psychiatrists had dropped the personality disorder diagnosis and considered him sane and ready to re-enter society.

   In 1990 and 1991, judges denied Randall's quest for freedom. In 1992, psychiatrists, who had plenty of real mental patients to deal with, stopped spending time with him altogether.

     Randall lost another bid for freedom in 1995. Finally, in April 2013, after 36 years in a mental institution, a six-member jury recommended that the 54-year-old cop killer be released back into society. Since Randall had not been sent to the mental institution to be punished, the issue wasn't whether he had been punished enough. Because he wasn't crazy, he didn't belong in a mental institution in the first place.

    While Randall's release order did not create public outrage, some of the murder victims' relatives said they were disappointed. A widow of one of the murdered officers told reporters that in her opinion, Mr. Randall, who had never publicly apologized for the murders, was not contrite. Waukesha District Attorney Brad Schimel said there was no basis upon which the state could appeal the jury's recommendation to free Mr. Randall.

     Alan Randall's attorney, Craig Powell, assured reporters that his client posed no threat to the community. "He's a much different person now than when he was a kid." Had Alan Randall been sentenced to prison in 1977 instead of being committed to a mental institution, he would have been eligible for parole as early as 1992.

     In September 2013, Alan Randall, the cop killer who lived 36 years in an insane asylum, became a free man. 

Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?

In an essay in which he dismissed most detective and mystery fiction as little better than crossword puzzles, the critic Edward Wilson asked a question that still rankles readers who enjoy the genre: "Who Cares Who Murdered Roger Ackroyd?" The answer, over the 75 or so years since, seems to be "millions of people do." [Who Killed Roger Ackroyd was a bestselling mystery novel by Agatha Christie.]

Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 2019

Don't Put Everything You Know in the Book

Ernest Hemingway once said that an author must know the entire iceberg to write about only the tip. This has become a basic tenet among suspense novelists: Learn everything about an important topic but include just the fraction of details relevant to the story,

Lisa Gardner, The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 2019

In Crime Fiction, Revenge Works

I've always felt the job of crime fiction is to hold up a mirror to society and show us not just who we are, but who we want to be. In "The Kept Woman," I write about a sports agent who covers up crimes for his serial rapist client. This isn't a difficult scenario to imagine in the real world, but since art doesn't always have to imitate life, I was able to exact vengeance on everyone involved. I had a character slip antifreeze into the agent's drinks. Ethylene glycol poisoning is extremely slow and lethal--shutting down the victim's organs one by one, keeping him cognizant until the very end so that he knows he's completely helpless. That a woman was the one who poisoned him made the revenge extra sweet.

Karin Slaughter, The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 2019

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Historic Shirley McKie Fingerprint Misidentification Scandal

     For most of the 20th century, the testimony of a prosecution fingerprint expert was never challenged by the defense. Jurors considered fingerprint identification infallible evidence, the gold standard of forensic science. However, due to a series of high-profile fingerprint misidentifications beginning in the late 1990s, this is no longer the case. More and more defense attorneys, in trials in which their clients have been linked to crime scenes through latent fingerprints, now seek second opinions from independent examiners. One of the most publicized latent fingerprint misidentification cases, featuring American and Scottish examiners, centered around a police officer in Scotland named Shirley McKie.

The Shirley McKie Case

     In January 1997, Scottish officers from the Strathclyde Police Department responded to the scene of a murder in nearby Kilmarnock. Marion Ross, a 51-year-old bank clerk had been stabbed to death in her bathroom. Her ribs were crushed and she had been stabbed in the eye and throat with a pair of scissors that had been left stuck in her neck. There was no sign of forced entry. Police officers theorized that Marion Ross had been killed by one of the men who recently performed remodeling work in her home.

     Shortly after the crime, the police arrested 23-year-old David Asbury, a construction worker from Kilbirnie in Ayshire. Although no latent fingerprints belonging to Asbury had been found at the scene, examiners with the Scottish Criminal Records Office (SCRO) identified a print on a container, a biscuit tin, found in the suspect's apartment, as being the murder victim's. The tin contained money the police believed the killer had stolen from the murder site. Asbury claimed that the money and the tin were his.

     The all-important latent on the biscuit tin had been lifted at Asbury's apartment by Shirley McKie, a 34-year-old detective constable with the Strathclyde Police Department. Her feeling of accomplishment in discovering this key piece of evidence ended when she was called on the carpet for leaving her own print at the scene of the murder. SCRO examiners had identified a bloody left thumbprint on the bathroom door frame as hers. According to Officer McKie, she had gone to the murder site three times but had never gotten beyond the front porch. The SCRO examiners, therefore, must have made an identification mistake. Too depressed to work, McKie went on leave for two months.

     In May 1997, just three months after his arrest, David Asbury was brought to trial in Glasgow. He still maintained his innocence. Shirley McKie took the stand at his trial and described lifting the latent off the biscuit tin in his house. On cross-examination, Asbury's attorney asked McKie if she had helped process the Marion Ross murder scene. McKie said she had not been inside the murder apartment. But, said the attorney, didn't SCRO fingerprint examiners identify one of the latents in the murder woman's bathroom as McKie's? Yes, they had, answered McKie. But didn't you just say you weren't in the apartment? Yes. So the SCRO examiners had made an incorrect fingerprint examination? That latent was not mine, replied McKie.

     Following the 13-day trial, the jury chose to believe the SCRO had correctly identified the biscuit tin latent as the defendants, and convicted him of murder. By implication, the Asbury jury believed that Detective McKie had been at the murder scene as well, and had lied under oath.

     In March 1998, police came to Mckie's house and arrested her on the charge of perjury. At her trial in May 1994, two highly respected American fingerprint experts testified that the latent in the murdered woman's bathroom--Print Y7--was not McKie's. The jury, deliberating less than an hour, came back with a verdict in favor of McKie. The acquittal was an embarrassing defeat for the SCRO.

     In December 1999, despite her perjury acquittal, Shirley McKie was dismissed from the Strathclyde Police Department. On suspension since March 1998, the dismissal made McKie ineligible for a pension.

     Shirley McKie, in October 2003, sued the Scottish government for 850,000 pounds. She accepted an out of court settlement for just under that amount in February 2006. David Asbury won his appeal, and on retrial, featuring the two American fingerprint examiners testifying on his behalf, the jury acquitted him of murdering Marion Ross. Notwithstanding a good suspect in the case, no one would be tried for Marion Ross' murder.

     In 2011, the Scottish Special Services Authority (SPSA) held hearings on the SCRO fingerprint misidentifications in the McKie and Asbury cases. The proceedings featured 64 witnesses giving 250 hours of testimony over a period of five days. The authors of the SPSA report, published on December 14, 2011, concluded that human error (rather than a conspiracy) was to blame for the misidentifications. The authors of the report also concluded that fingerprint identification should be treated as opinion-based testimony rather than fact-based. This recommendation angered members of the forensic fingerprint identification community worldwide.

The DeMarquis Elkins Murder Case

     On Thursday morning, March 21, 2013, in the small, southeastern Georgia coastal town of Brunswick, Sherry West pushed her 13-month-old son in a stroller not far from her house in the Old Town historic district. Two young males approached the 41-year-old mother and her child a quarter after nine that morning. The older kid, described by Sherry West as between 13 and 15-years-old and five-foot-seven to five-nine, pulled a gun and demanded money. The robber's companion, as described by the victim, looked to be between 10 and 12-years-old. The older boy, who was wearing a red shirt, when told by the mother that she didn't have any money, said, "Well, I'm going to kill your baby."

     The terrified mother tried to use her body to protect her son. "Please don't kill my baby," she pleaded.

     The robber, after pushing the mother aside, shot the sleeping child in the head. Before fleeing on foot, the young gunman shot Sherry West in the leg. As the boys ran off, the wounded woman called 911, and tried in vain to save her son by administering CPR.

     Officers with the Brunswick-Glynn County Violent Crimes Task Force rushed to the scene. Deputies with the Camden County Sheriff's Office responded with a tracking dog team. As a Department of Natural Resources helicopter flew over the neighborhood, detectives with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation worked the crime scene. (They did not recover the murder weapon.) The authorities posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the identities and arrest of the two suspects.

     The next day, the police arrested 17-year-old DeMarquis Elkins. Under Georgia law, Elkins was considered an adult. He was charged with first-degree murder and was held without bail.

     Sherry West is not a stranger to the tragedy of violent crime. In 2008 in Gloucester County, New Jersey, her 17-year-old son Shaun was stabbed to death in a street fight.

     On March 25, 2013, public defender Kevin Gough told an Associated Press reporter that his client, DeMarquis Elkins, was "absolutely 1,000 percent not guilty."

     On September 2014, following a two-week trial, the jury found Elkins guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Vigilante Judges

At times, judges abandon their neutrality and step into the adversarial void, acting like prosecutors, forcing defendants either to take a deal or wait in jail for a trial date. That, or they deny a defendant his rights altogether. Many defendants plead guilty without a lawyer present. In some cases, they had been in jail for months without counsel. In others, they had no idea what they were pleading guilty to or they accepted sentences higher than the legal maximum.

Amy Bach, Ordinary Justice, 2009 

Novelists as Introverts

The one drawback to writing a novel is the being alone. In people's imagination, that's the difference between a novelist and a journalist. The journalist, the newspaper reporter, is always rushing, hunting, meeting people, digging up facts. Cooking a story. The journalist writes surrounded by people, and always on deadline, crowded and hurried. It's exciting and fun. The journalist researches a story. The novelist imagines it.

Chuck Palahnuik, Stranger Than Fiction, 2004 

The Inspired Novelist

Novelists who insist they can't create without inspiration are pretenders and dilettantes. A plumber doesn't need inspiration to fix a toilet, and a real writer shouldn't need inspiration to tell a story.

Cleaning Homes Contaminated by Meth

     Tens of thousands of houses have been used as meth labs the last decade and a cottage industry is developing around cleaning them up. Many Americans are more aware of the production of the highly addictive drug thanks to AMC's hit show "Breaking Bad" which featured a high school chemistry teacher who turned into a meth cooker and dealer. In real life, cleanup contractors are the ones who deal with a property when a batch explodes or police raid an operation and shut it down.

     However, there is little oversight of the growing industry in most states, opening the door for potential malfeasance.

     To make a meth home safe, a certified contractor must remove and replace all contaminated materials, from walls to carpet to air conditioning vents. Next, a certified "industrial hygienist" tests the home to gauge whether it can be lived in or needs more cleaning.

Adrian Sainz, Associated Press, December 27, 2013 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Susan Cole: Prospective Juror to Perjury Defendant

     More than 90 percent of the criminal cases in American are not tried before a jury. Bargained guilty pleas have essentially replaced the cumbersome and costly trial process. Still, tens of millions of Americans receive jury duty summonses every year. (Our criminal justice system would collapse if just 20 percent of defendants demanded a jury trial. The entire system is set up for guilty pleas based on negotiated sentencing deals. Legislators make maximum sentences for even minor crimes extremely high to give prosecutors more bargaining power.)

     In high-profile criminal trials, the outcome of the case is pretty much determined by which side does the best job of jury selection. O. J. Simpson got off because his attorneys won the jury selection battle. To a certain degree, these trials are over before the first witness takes the stand. Wealthy defendants often hire juror picking consultants who help design a defense-friendly jury. These psychological profilers match jurors to defendants by analyzing such factors as body language, hair styles, clothing, gender, marital status, age, race, education, and occupation. In high-profile cases, the jury selection process, called voir dire, can go on for months.

     Juries, in general, do not represent a cross-section of American society. Entire categories of people never see the jury box. For various reasons, juries rarely include professors, cops, physicians, nurses, small business owners, employees of small companies, college students, young mothers, and lawyers. Most juries are made up of retirees, government workers, employees of large corporations, and people who are unemployed.

     There are all kinds of reasons and ways for a prospective juror to get out of jury duty. People can be excused for poor health, a criminal record, an upcoming wedding, family demands, mental illness, various economic hardships, and the stated inability to render an unbiased decision. In Michigan, lawmakers recently approved a bill that exempted breast-feeding mothers from jury duty. While prospective jurors are not above telling lies to get out of sitting on a jury, prosecutions for this form of lying under oath are extremely rare. That makes the following case so unusual.

Susan Cole

     In June 2011, Susan Cole, a 57-year-old beautician and Mary Kay Cosmetics saleswoman, received a summons for jury duty. She arrived at the court house in Denver with her hair in curlers and dressed according to her idea of how mentally ill people present themselves. She wore too much lipstick, reindeer socks, and mismatched sneakers. She had put on a tee-shirt that read: "Ask Me About My Bestseller." (In 2007 Cole, under the pen name Char Cole, had self-published a relationship, self-help book/memoir  called "Seven Institutions With El-Way Secrets." My advice to this author: next time you publish a book, select a title that makes sense.)

     When Judge Anne Mansfield asked Cole if she had a history of mental illness, the prospective juror said, "Yeah, I have some mental issues. I broke out of domestic violence in the military [after her divorce she joined the Army] and have a lot of repercussions. I get very confused in the morning when I try to get ready." (Like forgetting to take out her curlers.) The prospective juror said that as a result of the domestic violence, she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Cole also told the judge she was homeless and living on the street. Judge Mansfield asked if anyone objected to the dismissal of this woman. No one did, and Cole went home.

     On October 17, 2011, on Denver's "Dave Logan Show," a radio call-in program, callers were telling stories about how they had avoided jury duty. Susan Cole joined in the fun by calling the show and telling how she had recently gotten out of jury duty by impersonating a mentally ill person. Obviously aware that she was admitting to a crime, Cole called in under her pen name, Char.

     In justifying her jury avoiding ploy, Cole told the radio audience that she was simply too busy for jury duty. Rather than being ashamed of having lied under oath to avoid a basic civic responsibility, Cole seemed quite proud of herself: "I put black eyebrows on. I put red lipstick on. I left my hair in my curlers, and I put on a tee-shirt that said, 'Ask Me About My Bestseller.' [When did mentally ill homeless women start putting up their hair?] For about two weeks after, when my roommate and I would think about it, or I would tell my clients about it, we would cry we would laugh so hard."

     One of the "Dave Logan Show" listeners, Anne Mansfield, the judge Susan Cole had lied to, didn't find her story so funny. The judge knew exactly who this caller was and notified the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor initiated a criminal investigation.

     Detectives looking into the case found no mention of spousal abuse or PTSD in Cole's divorce records. Moreover, her military file contained no documentation supporting such a diagnosis. On March 22, 2012, police arrested Cole on charges of first-degree perjury and attempt to influence a public servant (the judge). If convicted, she faced a maximum sentence of 6 years in prison, on each count.

     Before being hauled off to jail, Cole told detectives that the military had lost her medical records. And the only person who had diagnosed her with PTSD, a Jefferson County court counselor, had since died. Cole said that in her book she writes of being imprisoned five days in a military mental institution. She also claimed that on the night before her jury duty appearance, she had been traumatized by news that her cousin had been killed in a motorcycle accident. As it turned out, her cousin hadn't been involved in a crash.

     In November 2012, Cole pleaded guilty to the felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant. According to the plea deal, the judge deferred her punishment. (A deferred judgment is a no-contest type of plea. Once the guilty party meets court-ordered requirements, there is no formal conviction on record.) Cole also pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury. For this misdemeanor the judge sentenced her to two years probation and forty hours of community service.

     Had Cole gone to trial for lying under oath, her fate would have been in the hands of people who had not lied to get off the jury. Now, with a criminal record involving dishonesty, she was no longer fit for jury duty.