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Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Nicolas Holzer Mass Murder Case

     Some of the most disturbing and puzzling murder cases are ones that, even from the killer's point of view, make no sense. The good-boy Eagle scout who murders his parents in their sleep or guns down teachers and students at his school falls into this category. A young mother who drowns her baby in the bathtub or a longtime employee who shows up at work one day with mass murder on his mind, are cases that defy understanding.

     Out-of-the-blue murders committed by noncriminal types who didn't exhibit symptoms of mental illness are frightening because they can't be predicted and therefore prevented. The murderers in these cases simply blindside their victims. Such cases are insidious in their straightforward banality. The feeling they create is this: no place is safe and no one can be trusted. We are all in danger.

     In 2004, after he and his wife Juana were divorced, Nicolas Holzer gained custody of his two sons who were one and three-years-old. Three years later, Holzer and the boys moved into his parents' house in Goleta, California, a town of 30,000 ten miles northwest of Santa Barbara.

     Just after elven o'clock on the night of Monday, August 11, 2014, 45-year-old Nicolas Holzer called 911 and without emotion informed the dispatcher that he had just killed his family.

     When deputies with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office rolled up to the Holzer house on Walnut Park Lane not far from the University of California at Santa Barbara, they were met at the front door by the composed but bloodstained 911 caller.

     Inside the dwelling deputies discovered the blood-covered bodies of William Holzer, 73, Sheila Holzer, 74, and their two grandsons, Vincent, 10 and Sebastian who was thirteen. They had been stabbed to death by a pair of large kitchen knives.

     A calm and collected Nicolas Holzer informed the officers that he first murdered his father in the den. He then stabbed the boys to death as they slept in their beds. He said he killed his mother last. Officers found her body lying in the hallway outside the boys' bedroom.

     When asked why he had wiped-out his family, Holzer simply said, "I had to." He added that in killing them he had fulfilled what he believed was his destiny. This, of course, makes no sense whatsoever.

     Also dead in the house was the family pet, an Australian Shepherd.

     The Holzer residence had not been visited in the past by police officers responding to domestic violence calls. And detectives, at least in the initial stage of the investigation, found no evidence of prior mental illness.

     Charged with four counts of first-degree murder, Nicolas Holzer was held in the Santa Barbara County Jail without bond. Because California had recently abolished the death sentence, Mr. Holzer, if convicted as charged, faced life behind bars. His attorney, a month after the killings, said he planned to plead his client not guilty by reason of insanity.

     Holzer's ex-wife Juana, in August 2016, filed a wrongful death suit against the mass murder suspect.

     In August 2018, a jury in Santa Barbara County, after rejecting the insanity defense, found Nicolas Holzer guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. At his sentencing hearing, Holzer's attorney said, "Nicolas Holzer is not evil or heatless and he loved his family very much, but when his delusional beliefs escalated they overtook his ability to be rational.

     The judge sentenced Holzer to four life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The Uncharted Mind of the Serial Killer

     Over the years several convicted serial killers, before they died, bragged about murdering more victims than they had previously confessed to killing. Ted Bundy said he had killed more than a 100 women. Robert Charles Browne claimed to have killed 48. Glen Rogers raised his death count to 70, and Henry Lee Lucas between 60 and 100. Only a few of these post-confession admissions led to the discovery of more bodies.

     Detectives were left wondering if these dying sociopathic killers were fantasizing, intentionally misleading investigators, or coming clean before dying. One thing is certain, no one has ever been able to unlock the mystery of the serial killer's mind.

Public Executions

     For almost 5,000 years of human history, public executions have been an excuse to party, from the mass stonings of biblical times to the drunken festivities at Tyburn gallows in England all the way to the wine-and blood-soaked mobs at the guillotine, that "National Razor of France"…

     America was of course not exempt. Back in 1693 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a bargeman convicted of murder was scheduled to be hanged on July 3. The Colonial Records of Pennsylvania matter-of-factly stated, "There were too few people there to make the affair enjoyable."

Richard Zacks, An Underground Education, 1997

Truman Capote: The Master of Setting

This is the opening paragraph of Truman Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948 when he was 24-years-old:

     Now a traveler must make his way to Noon City by the best means he can, for there are no buses or trains heading in that direction, though six days a week a truck from the Chuberry Turpentine Company collects mail and supplies in the next-door town of Paradise Chapel: occasionally a person bound for Noon City can catch a ride with the driver of the truck, Sam Radclif. It's a rough trip no matter how you come, for these washboard roads will loosen up even brandnew cars pretty fast; and hitchhikers always find the going bad. Also, this is lonesome country; and here in the swamplike hollows where tiger lilies bloom the size of a man' head, there are luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses; often the only movement on the landscape is winter smoke winding out the chimney of some sorry-looking farmhouse, or a wing-stiffened bird, silent and narrow-eyed, circling over the black deserted pinewoods.

Truman Capote (1924-1884) 

English: The Crazy Language

Sometimes you have to believe that all English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what other language do people drive in a parkway and park in a driveway? In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? In what other language do privates eat in the general mess and generals eat in the private mess? In what other language do people ship by truck and send cargo by ship? In what other language can your nose run and your feet smell?

Richard Lederer, Crazy English, 1989 

Blending Fact and Fiction

Some writers are intentionally ambiguous about the line between fiction and fact. There's a virtue to allowing authors to filter reality through their imaginations, and that tempering ought to be respected and permitted. I would argue that blending fiction and fact is fine so long as everyone involved in the production of the work knows which is which and the reader is made aware that he's not reading straight fact.

Sarah Harrison Smith, The Fact Checker's Bible, 2004

Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Marissa Alexander Stand Your Ground Assault Case

     Marissa Alexander, when she married Rico Gray in June 2010, was six months pregnant with their child. She had two children from a previous marriage and Gray had five with five other women. One of his sons, and two of Marissa's children, lived with them in their rented Jacksonville, Florida home. She was 30 and he was 35.

     Rico Gray had physically abused his former partners and was beating up Marissa. In July 2010, he had thrown his pregnant wife across the room, then given her a black eye with a head butt. Marissa and her children moved out of the house and into her mother's place. She also filed for an order of protection against her husband.

     At the domestic violence injunction hearing, Rico Gray reportedly said this to the judge: "I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know, they never knew what I was thinking...or what I might do...hit them, push them." The judge granted the order of protection.

     Marissa had the baby on July 23, 2010, and on August 1, returned to the rented house to gather up more of her clothes. While there, she showed Gray a cellphone photograph of their baby. After she entered the bathroom, Gray looked through her cellphone and came across text messages she had sent to her former husband that suggested she planned to leave him permanently and get back with her ex-spouse. Enraged, Gray stormed into the bathroom and allegedly said, "If I can't have you, no one can." He put his hands on her throat, threw her against the door, and threatened to kill her.

     Breaking free, Marissa ran into the attached garage and from her car grabbed her handgun. (It was licensed.) She returned to the house (She claimed she couldn't exit the dwelling through the garage because the automatic door opener didn't work) and encountered Gray standing in the kitchen next to his two sons. Fearing for her life, she (according to her account) fired a warning shot into the air. (Ballistics analysis, however, suggested that the bullet hit a wall and ricocheted up into the ceiling.)

     Rico Gray called 911. In reporting the shooting to the dispatcher he sounded more angry than frightened. A short time later, the house was surrounded by a SWAT team. Marissa was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault. (Three counts because she had allegedly endangered three people.) Under Florida's so-called 10-20-life law, any person convicted of aggravated assault involving the discharge of a firearm was subject to a mandatory 20 year sentence.

     A few days after her arrest, Marissa was released on bail under orders from the judge to stay clear of her husband. But four months later, Marissa, in violation of the judge's order, went back to the house and punched Gray in the face. She would later plead no contest to domestic battery.

     With the approach of Marissa's aggravated assault by handgun trial, prosecutor Angela Corey, explained to the defendant that if convicted she could be sentenced to 20 years. The prosecutor offered her a deal: if she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, the judge would sentence her to three years in prison. Marissa rejected the plea bargain offer.

     In defending Marissa Alexander, her attorney planned to rely on Florida's "stand your ground" law that was in the news as a result of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin  murder case. (Angela Corey, the state's attorney in Marissa's case was the leading special prosecutor in the February 2012 Sanford, Florida shooting.) Under the "stand your ground" self-defense doctrine, a person who is threatened with death or serious bodily injury in a place where he has a right to be, has no duty under the law to retreat and can meet force with force.

     In a pre-trial hearing on the stand your ground issue, Judge James Daniel ruled that the law didn't apply to Marissa Alexander because she had no reason to fear for her life in that confrontation with her husband. The defendant could therefore not rely on self-defense and the stand your ground doctrine.

     On March 16, 2012, a jury found Alexander guilty of the three aggravated assault counts. The judge, bound by Florida's 10-20-life law, sentenced her to 20 years in prison.

     Critics of mandatory sentencing laws, along with anti-domestic violence advocates, expressed outrage over the outcome of the Marissa Alexander case. Other than winning an appeal, Marissa Alexander's only other legal remedy involved a grant of clemency by Florida Governor Rick Scott. For that to happen, a member of the state clemency board would have to initiate the action. Marissa could only make application herself after she has served half of her sentence.

     In the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin murder trial, on July 13, 2013, the jury found defendant Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder. He was also acquitted of the lesser homicide offense of manslaughter. In this case, the jury of six women found that because Zimmerman reasonably feared for his life during a fight with Trayvon Martin, the neighborhood watch leader was legally justified in standing his ground and eventually using deadly force against the 17-year-old. The jury had accepted the defense theory that at the time of his death the 17-year-old was on top of the defendant, banging his head against the sidewalk. Following the February 2012 shooting, Zimmerman had told police officers that he had been afraid the attacker would get control of his handgun.

     In 2013, an appeals court overturned Marissa Alexander's conviction on procedural grounds. The prosecutor immediately announced a second trial that was later scheduled for December 1, 2014. Marissa Alexander remained in custody pending the outcome of the second trial.

     On November 24, 2014, after spending 1,030 days behind bars, Marissa Alexander accepted a plea deal that consisted of two years probation during which time she would wear an electronic ankle bracelet. 

Pedophiles and the Catholic Priesthood

A difficult but fair question: Why would a pedophile, a man who craves sex with boys, go into the priesthood? Perhaps such a person truly believes that such behavior is not sinful, or maybe there is hope that once he becomes a priest he will be able to control his perverted sexual urges. The pedophile might become a priest simply because it gives him access to easy prey. While cynical and hard to accept, that may explain it best. How did this all get started, and where will it all end? When will the Catholic Church stop being such a friendly place for sexual abusers? 

Forensic Analysis of Stab Wounds

     Estimating the length of a knife from the depth of the wound it makes can be tricky, because different parts of the body have different degrees of elasticity or give. Abdominal tissue, for instance, is soft, so that a three-inch knife plunged into the gut can be driven all the way back to the spine, producing a six-inch-deep stab wound.

     At most autopsies, a trained forensic eye will take tissue flexibility into consideration and compensate appropriately in estimating puncture depth. On occasion, however, medical examiners forget to take account of this variable and as a result overestimate the length of the killing instrument, sometimes by several inches…

     Stab wounds delivered to the chest do not usually cause such miscalculations. Owing to the hardness of the ribs and the sternum, this area tends not to cave in when struck, even by the point of a dagger. In some cases, it is true, a rib cage will collapse under the pressure of a powerful jabbing thrust. I see this most often on the soft bones of children and the brittle bones of the elderly. But in a robust, healthy adult, the durable plating of the rib cage and sternum acts as a suit of armor, cracking and scarring but usually not breaking against the force of the lance.

Frederick Zugibe, M.D., Ph.D. and David L. Carroll, Dissecting Death, 2006

Film Makers And Our Culture of Violence

A common scene in detective films aired on TV and shown in theaters involves the good guy getting knocked out from a blunt object--often the butt of a handgun--to the back of the head. A few minutes after the assault the detective comes to, puts on his hat, and strides out of the room in pursuit of the bad guy. There is no skull fracture, no blood, no concussion, no lump or double vision. If the hero is left with a headache we don't hear about it because tough guys don't whine about such things. It's inevitable that some viewers, in order to temporarily disable someone, will bludgeon the victim on the back of the head. Quite often the victim of the attack, not being a film actor, will end up seriously injured or even dead. Real life violence has a way of doing that. Who knows how many assault victims are seriously injured and killed because the entertainment industry, for decades, has grossly misrepresents the true effects of violence. A common film scene involves people being punched, and when helpless on the ground, repeatedly kicked and stomped. In real life, if not killed, these battered individuals would be hospitalized and permanently disabled. The film industry has helped create a culture of violence in American society.