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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtroom Psychologists

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

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

Psychologists in Child Abuse Cases

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

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

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

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

Reinventing Al Capone

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the Most Out of a Boring Interviewee

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

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

The Amateur Sleuth in Crime Fiction

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

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

Characters Drawn From Real People

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

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A Short History of American Forensic Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dueling Experts

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

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

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

Driven to Write

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

Alice W. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease, 2004 

Thomas Wolfe On the First Novel

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

Thomas Wolfe in Wolfe by Richard Walser, 1961