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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The McStay Family Murder Case

     Joseph McStay, a 40-year-old owner of a company that installed home water fountains, resided with his wife Summer and their two boys in Fallbrook, a suburban community 55 miles north of San Diego, California. On Monday, February 8, 2010, the McStays were reported missing after a security guard in Ysidro, a town across the border from Tijuana, Mexico, discovered the family's locked and apparently abandoned Isuzu Trooper parked in a mini-mall parking lot two blocks from the border.

     A surveillance camera on a neighbor's house in Fallbrook showed the couple and their boys, ages three and four, pulling out of their driveway in their SUV at 7:45 in the morning of February 4, 2010.

     Poor quality surveillance camera footage on the Ysidro/Tijuana border revealed a family resembling the McStays walking into Mexico four days after they were video-recorded leaving their home in Fallbrook.

     On February 14, 2010, police officers entered the McStay's cul-de-sac home in Fallbrook. The house had not been forcibly entered. Moreover, officers found no evidence of a struggle or the theft of household property. Police officers found bowls of popcorn in the living room and eggs on the kitchen counter. The family's two dogs were in the backyard, an indication the McStays hadn't planned for an extended trip.

     Investigators found no recent activity on the McStay's credit cards or bank account. An examination of their home computer revealed an Internet search that read: "What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico." Friends and relatives, however, had no knowledge that the McStays had planned a short trip into Mexico. After leaving Fallbrook that morning, the family simply disappeared.

     At ten in the morning of November 11, 2013, an off-road motorcyclist near a dirt road in the desert outside the San Bernardino County town of Victorville, came across what appeared to be human bones. At that location, 100 miles north of Fallbrook, detectives discovered two shallow graves each containing two sets of skeletal remains. A few of the bones had been scattered by animals. Items of clothing were also recovered from the scene. The remains were not far from Interstate 15 that connects that part of California to Las Vegas.

     Forensic scientists, through dental records, identified Joseph McStay and his 43-year-old wife Summer as being the two adults found in one of the desert graves. The other two sets of skeletons belonged to their children. According to San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, the McStays and their children had been murdered. The Sheriff, at that time, did not reveal how they had been killed. There were no suspects.

     In speaking to reporters, Joseph McStay's father said he did not believe the people in the Ysidro surveillance footage seen walking into Mexico depicted his son and his family. "My son doesn't walk that way," he said. "They didn't walk into Mexico. They would never do that." The father explained that his son and his wife were aware of the Mexican drug gangs and would not have exposed the children to that risk.

     On November 5, 2014, deputies with the San Bernardino Sheriff's Office arrested Charles "Chase" Merritt at his  home in Chatsworth, California for the murder of the McStay family. The 57-year-old and Joseph McStay had been business partners. The authorities did not reveal a motive for the mass murder.

     Investigators believed the victims had been bludgeoned to death in their Fallbrook home. They had not traveled to Mexico after all. Apparently the murder suspect had disposed of their bodies in the desert outside of Victorville. Deputies booked Merritt into the West Valley Detention Center on four counts of murder. The judge denied the suspect bail.

     In the wake of Chase Merritt's arrest, Patrick McStay, Joseph McStay's father, criticized the San Diego County Sheriff's Office. According to the father, the agency that initially took control of the case didn't actively investigate it. Detectives in San Diego were operating on the theory that the family had traveled to Mexico where they were killed.

     "I know they screwed this thing up," Mr. McStay said. "All the rest was just sugar coating to make it look like they really were interested in solving the case, doing something. They did virtually nothing."

     Regarding the quadruple murder suspect, Mr. McShay said, "Chase was always somebody chasing the dollar. I think that's what it was. It was all about the money."

     On January 30, 2015, Chase Merritt told a judge that he wanted to represent himself at his upcoming murder trial. He said he only had six to eight months to live and wanted to move the process along as quickly as he could. In November 2014, he had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Merritt's attorney, Robert Ponce, despite his client's health problems and lack of legal background, informed the judge that Merritt had the intellect to adequately defend himself. The judge scheduled a hearing on the issue for February 20, 2015.

     The judge denied Merritt's request to represent himself, and scheduled the murder trial for July 2015. In July, the judge moved the trial date to September. On September 4, 2015, the same judge postponed the trial to allow Merritt's attorneys to request funds for an expert witness. The Merritt defense hoped to find a forensic scientist to contest the prosecution's key piece of physical evidence: the defendant's DNA inside the victim family's vehicle.

     Finally, after numerous appeals, motions, and judicial delays, a San Bernardino County judge set Merritt's murder trial date for November 13, 2017, seven years after the McStay family murders. In California, the wheels of justice turned slowly.

     Finally, in June 2019, following a four-month trial, jurors in San Bernardino found Charles "Chase" Merritt guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. The jury recommended the death penalty. The judge set the sentencing hearing for December 13, 2019.

     On November 3, 2019, the judge delayed Merritt's sentence hearing after Merritt's lead attorney claimed that a conflict of interest had come up that prevented him from staying on the case. The judge allowed the attorney to withdraw and set the sentencing for January 17, 2020. 

The Writer in Hollywood

I knew her name--Madam Hollywood. I rose and said good-by to this strumpet in her bespangled red gown; good-by to her lavender-painted cheeks, her coarsened laugh, her straw-dyed hair, her wrinkled fingers bulging with gems. A wench with flaccid tits and sandpaper skin under her silks, shined up and whistling like a whore in a park; covered with stink like a railroad station pissery and swinging a dead ass in the moonlight.

Ben Hecht, (1893-1964) novelist, journalist, screenwriter 

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Tiffany Alberts Child Abuse Case: A Crime in Search of an Explanation

     In 2016, Tiffany Alberts lived with her husband Jason and their two children, a 13-year-old girl and a boy who was 15. The family resided in Wolcott, Indiana, a small town in the northwestern corner of the state. Tiffany worked as a special education teacher in the Tri-County School District.

     In the spring of 2016, Tiffany Alberts' life took a turn for the worse when her husband Jason died. About this time, doctors diagnosed her 13-year-old daughter with follicular adnexal carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer. The local fire department held a benefit for Tiffany to help pay her medical expenses that included her daughter's cancer operation that turned out successful.

     In July 2016, Tiffany Alberts received more bad news when doctors diagnosed her mildly autistic son with leukemia. The 15-year-old was taken to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, Indiana where, in the Intensive Care Unit, he began a round of chemotherapy.

     Tiffany Albert's son responded well to the chemotherapy sessions, and was discharged in September 2016. But after spending a few days at home, the boy was back in the ICU with a fever accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea. A blood test revealed the presence of organisms found in stool. Doctors were at a loss to explain how this substance had found its way into his system.

    After the young patient failed to respond to medication for his infection, members of the Riley Children's Hospital staff suspected that someone was contaminating his IV fluid. To confirm this suspicion, staff members installed hidden video cameras in his hospital room.

    On November 17, 2016, Tiffany Alberts was recorded injecting liquid into her son's IV line. That substance was tested and turned out to be the patient's own fecal matter.

     When questioned by an investigator with a child protection service, the 38-year-old mother said she had injected water into her son's IV line to "flush it as the medicine that was given burned." When pressed regarding the plausibility of this explanation, Tiffany Alberts confessed to intentionally injecting her son's own fecal matter into his IV fluid. She said she had started doing this on November 13, four days earlier.

     When asked the obvious question as to why she had intentionally made her son sick, the mother said she had made him ill in hopes of causing his transfer to another hospital unit where he would receive better care.

      Shortly after hospital authorities denied Tiffany Alberts access to her son, the boy quickly recovered. According to the physician who was treating the boy, he could have died of septic shock.

     On November 26, 2016, a Marion County prosecutor charged Tiffany Alberts with six counts of aggravated battery and one count of neglect of a dependent resulting in serious bodily injury. After officers booked her into the Marion County Jail, Alberts posted the $80,000 surety bond and was released. A few months later, the prosecutor added the charge of attempted murder.

     The Tiffany Alberts case went to trial in September 2019, and resulted in a verdict of guilty on the aggravated battery and neglect of a dependent charges. The jury acquitted the defendant of attempted murder.

     In December 2019, the judge sentenced Tiffany Alberts to seven years in prison followed by five years of probation. Her son survived his ordeal and recovered fully,

     Although the issue was not raised, this case had all the earmarks of a crime motivated by a mother with a condition called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, an emotional disorder in which a caregiver makes the person under her care sick as a way of gaining sympathy and attention for herself. 

When a Haircut is Not Just a Haircut

     At five in the afternoon on Saturday, December 21, 2019, a man brought his 13-year-old son to a barbershop in Katy, Texas called Magic's Kutts and Fades. Following the haircut, the boy and his father left the shop. A short time later, the father and his son returned to the barbershop. Upon his return, the father complained about his son's look. The boy climbed back onto the chair and the barber fixed the problem without charge.

     Following the second cut, the barber and the boy's father got into an argument in the parking lot outside the shop. The fight ended when the father pulled a gun and shot the barber in the leg, arm, and stomach. As the barber lay bleeding outside the shop, the father and his son drove off.

     The wounded barber was rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital where he was expected to survive the shooting. Meanwhile, deputies with the Harris County Sheriff's Officer were searching for the shooter.

     Some people take haircuts very seriously. 

Rape: A Serial Crime

The odds that any given rape was committed by a serial offender are around 90 percent.

Jon krakauer, Missoula Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, 2015

Defending the Police

The only people who distrust the cops are crooks. They're not out there just harassing innocent people. Maybe sometimes they do. But there's no inherent situation where cops are deliberately out there harassing people.

Charles Barkley, former NBA player

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Ethan Couch and the Infamous "Affluenza" Defense

     On the night of June 15, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas, 16-year-old Ethan Couch and seven of  his friends stole two cases of beer from a local Walmart store. A few hours later, Couch, behind the wheel of his wealthy family's F-350 pickup, sped down a poorly lit rural road. With his blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, and seven passengers in the truck--two of whom were riding in the bed of the vehicle--he lost control of the pickup.

     Couch's truck plowed into vehicles parked along the side of the road. The two boys in the bed of the truck were flung out of the pickup and severely injured. Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down was off the road, was killed. Brian Jennings, Shelby Boyles, and Hollie Boyles, people who had pulled off the road to help Breanna, also died in the crash.

     Ethan Couch, on the advise of his attorneys, pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter. This meant the only issue left to be resolved in the case involved his punishment. Was he a troubled kid who needed psychological treatment, or a spoiled brat who required incarceration? If punishment was appropriate in this case, how severe? Did it matter that he was only sixteen? These were questions that would have to be resolved by juvenile court judge Jean Boyd.

     At Ethan Couch's sentence hearing held in Fort Worth on December 10, 2013, Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Richard Alpert proposed that the defendant be incarcerated for twenty years. In addressing Judge Boyd, Alpert said, "If the boy, who is from an affluent family, is cushioned by the family's wealth, there can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the leniency he received here." The prosecutor pointed out that inmates in Texas who needed it received drug and alcohol treatment.

     One of the defendant's attorneys, Scott Brown, argued that his client required rehabilitation more than he needed treatment.

     Couch's attorney recommended a two-year treatment program at a $1,200-a-day rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, California followed by a period of probation. The $450,000-a-year program in southern California featured equine sports, yoga, and messages. (It also probably featured rubbing shoulders with a lot of drug-addled Hollywood celebrities.) According to attorney Brown, the boy's parents were willing to pick up the California rehabilitation tab.

     Dr. Dick Miller, a clinical psychologist from Bedford, Texas testified at the sentencing hearing on the defendant's behalf. According to Dr. Miller, Ethan Couch suffered from what he called "affluenza," a syndrome caused by rich parents who didn't set limits and discipline their children. As a result of being spoiled rotten, Ethan didn't know how to behave appropriately.

     Judge Boyd stunned the prosecutor and friends and families of the four victims when she sentenced the teenager to ten years of probation. The judge said she would find a treatment program for the boy in the state of Texas. If he violated the terms of his probation, he could be sent to a juvenile detention facility.

     Eric Boyles had lost his wife Hollie and his daughter Shelby in Couch's drunken crash. In speaking to a CNN correspondent, he said, "There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day….Money always seems to keep you out of trouble. Ultimately today, I feel that money did prevail."

     In responding to Judge Boyd's decision, prosecutor Alpert told a reporter that "We are disappointed by the punishment assessed but we have no power under the law to change or overturn it."

     In horrific homicides like this, when there is no retribution, the public loses confidence in the criminal justice system. While rich people do not always get their way in criminal court, the public perception is that they do.

     The so-called "affluenza" case jumped back in the news in December 2015 after a video appeared online featuring Ethan Couch and several other youngsters playing beer pong. This was a clear violation of the terms of Couch's probation. When the kid's probation officer lost touch with him, the authorities in Tarrant County issued a warrant for his arrest. Also missing was Tonya Couch, the boy's mother with whom he had been living.

     Because the local authorities believed the boy and his mother might have fled the country to avoid the possibility of Ethan's incarceration, FBI agents and U. S. Marshal's office investigators were involved in the hunt for the mother and her son.

     On December 29, 2015, Ethan Couch and his mother were arrested in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta.

     Upon the teen's return to the U.S., a judge transferred Couch's case from the juvenile system to adult court. In 2016, pursuant to his probation violation, the judge sentenced Couch to two years behind bars.

     Couch's attorneys appealed the adult prison sentence to the Texas Supreme Court on the grounds the judge did not have the legal authority to make the transfer to adult court. The attorneys asked the high court to order Couch's release from prison. The Texas Supreme Court denied that request. Young Mr. Couch would do his time behind bars.

     On April 2, 2018, Ethan Couch was released from prison after serving two years. A year later, the judge allowed Couch to continue his probation without wearing an ankle monitor.
        

The Casey Anthony Murder Verdict

As I listened to the verdict in the Casey Anthony case, acquitting her of the homicide of her baby girl, I relived what I felt back when the clerk read the verdict in the Simpson case. But this case is different. The verdict is far more shocking. Why? Because Casey Anthony was no celebrity.

Marcia Clerk, O.J. Simpson case prosecutor 

Hit-and-Run in the U.S.

Since 2006 in the United States, there have been just under 700,000 hit-and-run cases every year. About 65 percent of the fatal cases involved pedestrians and bicyclists. 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Cities Where Bullets Fly and People Die

In the early morning hours of Sunday, December 22, 2019, in Baltimore, Maryland, two men shot seven people outside a hookah lounge. A few hours earlier, in separate incidents, three people were shot in East Baltimore. On Sunday evening, three more victims were shot. These people were murdered. In 2019, 342 people have been murdered in Baltimore. The city is having its deadliest year ever. On this Sunday, in Chicago, 13 people were shot in a home in south Chicago. In 2019, 508 people were murdered in the Windy City. Other places where murder has become routine are: St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans, Memphis, Newark, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. Inner city homicide has become so common it's now essentially ignored by the national media. By contrast, when a kid shoots up a school, cable news channels cover the story nonstop for three days. 

Finders Keepers

     Four home remodelers no longer face criminal charges for spending $60,000 they had found hidden inside a home in western Pennsylvania…The theft and related charges were dismissed in December 2014 by a Washington County judge in what has become known as the "finders, keepers" case…

     The four men had been working as under-the-table laborers, fixing up an unoccupied house, when they found the money hidden in a second-floor dormer. The newest bills dated to the 1980s. The men didn't report the find and split the cash equally. The man they had been working for learned of the discovery and reported them to the police.

     The judge ruled that because the money's owner couldn't be identified, the four workers didn't have criminal intent to steal the cash.

"Charges Dismissed Against Crew That Found $60,000," Associated Press, January 2, 2015  

How Publishers Screen Manuscripts

Publishers will tell you...that every manuscript which reaches their office is faithfully read, but they are not to be believed. At least fifteen out of twenty manuscripts can be summarily rejected, usually with safety. There may be a masterpiece among them, but it is a thousand to one against.

Michael Joseph in Rotten Reviews & Rejections, 1998

Janet Malcolm's Famous Take on Journalists

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man preying on peoples' vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book appears--his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know", the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

Friday, December 27, 2019

Clayton Lockett: When the Death Penalty is Not Enough

     On June 3, 1999, in Perry, Oklahoma, 23-year-old Clayton Lockett, a violent criminal, accompanied by a pair of crime associates, invaded a home and severely beat the occupant. While Lockett was assaulting 23-year-old Bobby Lee Bornt over a debt, a girl just out of high school knocked on Bornt's front door. Lockett appeared in the doorway and pulled  the girl into the house.

     After hitting the stunned visitor in the face with a shotgun, Lockett put the gun to her head and ordered her to invite her 18-year-old friend, Stephanie Neiman, into the duplex. Neiman had graduated from Perry High School less than a month earlier. She had been a good student, and played in the band.

     The nightmare for these girls began with Lockett and his accomplices raping Nieman's friend and beating her with the shotgun. After the rape and beatings, Lockett bound the girls with duct tape and drove them and Bornt, in Neiman's pickup truck, to a remote area a few miles away. En route, he informed his captives that he planned to kill all three of them and bury their bodies in the woods. The terrified girls begged for their lives.

     At the designated spot, Lockett made the rape victim dig a hole. When it was big enough, Lockett told Neiman to get into the grave. He pointed his shotgun at her and pulled the trigger. The weapon jammed. Lockett walked away, cleared the gun, and returned to the site where he shot and wounded her. He forced the other girl to bury Stephanie Neiman alive. Neiman was murdered because she had refused to promise Lockett that she wouldn't report her friend's rape and the kidnapping to the police.

     Lockett and his degenerate friends drove the rape victim and Bornt back to the duplex. Before he drove off with his accomplices, he threatened to kill the traumatized survivors if they went to the police.

     One of Lockett's accomplices notified the authorities in the hopes of saving his own neck. A local prosecutor charged Clayton Lockett with first-degree murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, assault and battery, and burglary. Upon his arrest, the cold-blooded rapist and sadistic killer confessed to shooting Stephanie Neiman and having her friend, the girl he had raped, bury her alive.

     In 2000, a jury found Lockett guilty as charged, and sentenced him to death. He ended up on death row at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

     After fourteen years of legal appeals, and a last minute stay, Governor Mary Fallin ordered Lockett's execution to take place on April 29, 2014. That evening, an hour before his scheduled death, Lockett fought with prison officers and had to be tasered before being strapped onto the gurney. The executioner, after struggling to find a vein, administered the three-drug cocktail made up of midazalam to render Lockett unconscious, vecuronium to stop his breathing, and potassium chloride--to stop his heart.

     Seven minutes after the drugs were put into Lockett's body, he was still conscious. Ten minutes later, after being declared dead, the condemned man moved his head and tried to climb off the gurney. He was also heard muttering the word, "man." At this point, a corrections official lowered the blind to spare witnesses the sight of a slower than planned execution.

     Forty-three minutes after the executioner injected Lockett with the three drugs, he died of a heart attack. The potassium chloride had done its job, albeit a bit slowly.

     As could be expected, death house lawyers, anti-capital punishment activists, and hand-wringing media types agonized over Lockett's imperfect execution. These death row sob-sisters characterized his death as torture, an ordeal, and a nightmare, and called for the abolishment of the death penalty.

     These outrage mongers were nowhere in sight when Lockett shot Stephanie Neiman and buried her alive? Who in their right mind would shed a tear for this cruel, cold-blooded killer? So what if Mr. Lockett didn't pass gently and quickly into the night? A lot of people die slow, agonizing deaths, citizens who never committed rape or murder. Clayton Lockett was gone, and the world was a better place without him. His memory will be kept alive, however, by those who will use his "botched" execution to advance their cause. For the rest of us, that is cruel and unusual punishment.

     Over the years, state corrections officials have done their best to find more humane ways to put condemned criminals to death. In the 19th and 20th centuries, death row inmates were hanged, electrocuted, suffocated in gas chambers, and shot. Hanging is still an option in New Hampshire and Washington. In Arizona, Missouri, and Wyoming, the gas chamber remains a death penalty choice.

     Many correction experts believe the firing squad is the quickest and least painful way to execute a convict. In 1977, Gary Gilmore, at his request, was executed by firing squad in Utah. 

Elements of a Good Short Story

It is not hard to state what Edgar Allan Poe meant by a good short story; it is a piece of fiction dealing with a single incident that can be read at a setting. It is original, it must sparkle, excite or impress; and it must have unity of effect or impression. It should move in an even line from its exposition to its close.

W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View, 1961

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Robert Girts: The Husband From Hell

     In 1992 Robert Girts and his third wife Diane lived in a house connected to a Parma, Ohio funeral home that employed the 42-year-old mortician as director and embalmer. On the morning of September 2, 1992, Girts and a couple of his friends were driving back to Parma from nearby Cleveland where they had been helping Girts' brother move. That day, Diane Girts didn't show up for her job that started at noon. A fellow employee, worried because she was never late for work, phoned the funeral home. A funeral company employee checking on Diane noticed that her car was still in the driveway. He went to the front entrance of the dwelling and called to her through the screen door. When she didn't answer he entered the house and found Diane's nude body in the bathtub. She had been dead for several hours.

     The death scene investigation revealed no evidence of foul play such as a burglary or signs of physical trauma. Moreover, detectives found no indication of suicide such as pills or a note. A forensic pathologist with the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office performed the autopsy. Because the dead woman's post-mortem lividity featured a cherry color rather than purplish red, the forensic pathologist considered the possibility she had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The pathologist, however, ruled out this cause of death when Diane's blood-carbon monoxide level tested normal. Following standard autopsy protocol, the forensic pathologist secured a sample of the subject's stomach contents--an undigested meal of pasta salad--for toxicological analysis. (The undigested meal suggested Diane had been dead for more than twelve hours.) As a result of the inconclusive nature of the autopsy, the Cuyahoga Coroner ruled Diane Girts' death "undetermined."

     On September 20, 1992, 18 days after the funeral home employee discovered Diane Girts's body in the bathtub, Robert Girts contacted a detective working on the case to inform him that he had discovered a handwritten note that indicated that his wife had killed herself. In that document she had supposedly written: "I hate Cleveland. I hate my job. I hate myself."

     Robert Girts, the grieving husband, in his effort to control the direction of the investigation of his wife's sudden and unexplained death, informed detectives that she had been despondent over their recent move to Parma. Also, she had been having trouble with her weight and suffered depression over a series of miscarriages that suggested she wouldn't be able to give birth.

     The toxicological analysis of the decedent's stomach contents revealed the presence of cyanide at twice the lethal dose. Based on this finding the coroner changed the manner of Diane Girts' death criminal homicide.

     In January 1993, a chemist acquainted with Robert Girts told detectives that at Girt's request in the spring of 1992, she had sent him two grams of potassium cyanide. Girts said he needed the poison to deal with a groundhog problem. Investigators believed the suspect had acquired the cyanide to deal with a wife problem. Detectives also knew that potassium cyanide is not used in the embalming process.

     Investigators learned that the murder suspect, in February 1992, had resumed an affair with an interior designer who had broken off the relationship after learning he was married. To get this woman back, Girts had assured her that he and Diane would be divorced by July 1992. Two months after Diane turned up dead in her bathtub, Girts informed his girlfriend that his wife had died from an aneurysm. Detectives considered Girts' relationship with this woman, along with money, the motive for the murder. Upon Diane's death he had received $50,000 in life insurance proceeds.

     Investigators digging into Girts' personal history in search of clues of past homicidal behavior discovered that in the late 1970s his first wife Terrie (nee Morris) had died at the age of 25. After the couple returned to Girt's hometown of Poland, Ohio after living in Hawaii, Terrie's feet swelled up and she became lethargic. In the hospital following a blood clot she slipped into a coma and died. Members of Terrie's family, who had tried to talk her out of marrying Robert in the first place, wanted her body autopsied out of suspicion she had poisoned. Robert wouldn't allow it.

     On Terrie's death certificate the coroner listed the cause of death as a swollen heart. (This doesn't make sense on its face because a "swollen heart" is not a cause of death.) Investigators learned that Girts' second wife had divorced him. Prior to her death she had accused him of physical abuse.

     In 1993, as part of the investigation of Diane Girts's death by poisoning, Terrie Girts' body was exhumed and autopsied. While the forensic pathologist concluded that she had not died of a swollen heart, he could not find evidence that she had been poisoned. The fact Terrie had spent a month in the hospital before she died accounted for the fact there were no traces of poison in her body. Moreover, she had been dead fifteen years and had been embalmed.

     Charged with the murder of his wife Diane, Robert Girts went on trial in the summer of 1993. Except for a confession the defendant had allegedly made to an inmate in the Cuyahoga County Jail, the prosecution's case was circumstantial.

     After the prosecution rested its case, Girts took the stand and denied murdering his wife. On cross-examination the prosecutor asked the defendant if he had confessed to another inmate. The defense attorney objected to this line of questioning on the ground it was prejudicial. The judge overruled the objection. When the prosecutor asked this question again, Girts denied making the jailhouse confession.  At that point the idea that the defendant had confessed to an inmate had been planted in the minds of the jurors.

     The Cuyahoga County jury found Robert Girts guilty of poisoning his wife Diane to death. The judge sentenced him to life with the possibility of parole after twenty years. (This would have made him eligible for parole in 2013.)

     Girts appealed his murder conviction to the 8th District Court of Appeals in Cuyahoga County on the grounds that the trial judge should not have allowed the prosecutor, on cross-examination, to bring up the alleged jailhouse confession. On July 28, 1994, the state appellate court agreed. Citing prosecutorial misconduct, the justices overturned Girt's murder conviction.

     At his retrial in 1995, Robert Girts did not take the stand on his own behalf. The prosecutor, in his closing argument to the jury, cited the defendant's refusal to testify as evidence of his guilt. The second Cuyahoga County jury found Girts guilty of murder. This time Girts appealed his conviction on grounds that by referring to his decision not to take the stand in his own defense, the prosecutor had violated his constitutional right against self-incrimination. On July 24, 1997, the state appeals court upheld the conviction.

     In 2005, after serving 12 years behind bars at the Oakwood Correctional Facility in Lima, Ohio, Girts appealed his 1995 murder conviction to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Two years later, the federal appeals court, on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, reversed Girts' second murder conviction. The justices did not, however, order his immediate release from prison. But if the authorities didn't try him by October 11, 2008, he would be set free on $100,000 bond. When the prosecutors in Ohio failed to bring Girts to trial for the third time within the 180-day deadline, the twice-convicted killer walked out of prison.

     Robert Girts returned to Poland, a bedroom community south of Youngstown. He moved in with a relative and for a time reported twice a month to a probation officer at the Community Corrections Association. In the meantime, he filed a motion asking the appeals court to bar a third murder trial on grounds of double jeopardy. In March 2010, the federal appeals court denied Girts' motion The decision paved the way for a third murder trial.

     After his release from prison in November 2008, Girts married a woman named Ruth he met through the Internet. They lived in a trailer park in Brookfield, Ohio. On August 5, 2012, Ruth, a nurse who had just landed a job at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in nearby Farrell, Pennsylvania, called her supervisor to say she was quitting because she was being stalked by her husband. Ruth told the supervisor she was afraid for her life and was in hiding.

     The UPMC nursing supervisor passed this information on to the Southwest Regional Police Department in Belle Vernon. An officer with that agency relayed the report to Dan Faustino, the Brookfield Chief of Police.

     Brookfield officers drove out to the Girts' residence to check on Ruth. The suspect met the officers at the dwelling. He said his wife wasn't there and that he had no idea where she was. He consented to a search of the house which confirmed his wife's absence. Later that day, a Brookfield officer contacted Ruth by phone. She told the officer that she had quit her nursing job in Farrell in order to hide from her husband. She said he had threatened to kill her. Ruth was so afraid of Robert she even refused to tell the officer where she was hiding. Ruth did inform the officer about her husband's two murder trials in Cuyahoga County. This led Chief Faustino to call the authorities in Cuyahoga County to inform them of the unfolding developments regarding Girts in Brookfield and Farrell.

     On August 9, 2012, a judge granted a Cuyahoga County prosecutor's motion to convene an emergency bond revocation hearing. In light of Robert Girts' alleged threats against his current wife Ruth, the authorities wanted him back behind bars. After hearing testimony from officials familiar with Robert Girts' murder trials and appeals, and Ruth Girts' recent accusations against him, the judge did not revoke his $100,000 bond. Instead, the magistrate restricted Girts' travel to destinations in Mahoning County where he lived. He could also travel to Cuyahoga County to attend scheduled court appearances. The judge ordered Girts to stay away from his wife.

     As the new phase of the Robert Girts murder saga unfolded, the 59-year-old Ruth remained in hiding.

     In January 2013, Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Jackson remanded Girts' bond and ordered him back to jail. Girts had been visiting  Ruth at her new job. On each occasion he brought her coffee. After drinking the coffee Ruth would feel ill and vomit. Investigators believed Girts was poisoning Ruth with antifreeze. (He had searched the Internet under the word "antifreeze.") Girts told detectives that his dog had stepped in the antifreeze and he was interested in the side effects. He also explained that he had been contemplating using antifreeze to kill himself. Ruth Girts did not seek medical treatment or submit to toxicological tests.

     On January 31, 2014, in an effort to avoid a third trial for murdering his wife Diane in 1992, Girts pleaded guilty to the charge of involuntary manslaughter. In open court he described how he had put cyanide in a saltshaker to poison her. Girts also pleaded guilty to insurance fraud.

     Following his guilty pleas, the authorities returned Girts to prison to serve a sentence of six to thirty years. The Ohio Parole Board, in August 2014, ruled that Girts would not be eligible for parole until 2023.

     Girts' attorney's filed an appeal with the 8th District Ohio Court of Appeals arguing that the six to thirty year sentence was based on the wrong set of sentencing guidelines. Instead of using the sentencing rules applicable for 2014, the judge should have sentenced Girts to the guidelines in place in 1992, the time of the crime. The appellate judges agreed and set aside Girts' guilty plea and his sentence. In November 2015, the state supreme court declined to consider the case which meant that the appellate decision stood.

     On December 18, 2015, in a Cleveland court room, Robert Girts, in connection with the death of Diane Girts, pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter and insurance fraud. The judge sentenced him to 12 years but gave him credit for time already served. That meant that Mr. Girts would remain a free man. Case closed.

The Future of Internet Journalism

The question is not whether Internet journalism will be dominant, but whether it will maintain the quality of the best print journalism. In the end it is not the delivery system that counts. It is what it delivers. There has never been such access to knowledge in all its forms. What we have to find is a way to sustain truth seeking. If we evolve the right financial model, we will enter a golden age of journalism.

Harold Evans, My Paper Chase, 2009

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Nehemiah Griego "Good Boy" Mass Murder Case

     People murdered in their homes are usually killed by a family member. Cases involving husbands who kill their wives, and women who take out their husbands, are fairly common and therefore not particularly shocking. But when a good kid with no history of violence, drug abuse, or mental illness carefully executes his entire family for no apparent reason, the public takes notice. Suddenly parents look at their sulking, surly children in a new light. What in the hell was going on in their callow minds? A parent might wonder if his or her child has watched too much violence on TV. And if there's a gun in the house, it might not be a bad idea to put it under lock and key. But in most cases, when parents think about children who murder, they think about other people's kids. Murder is something that happens to others.

    Pastor Greg Griego, the 51-year-old father of two boys and two girls, probably never considered himself a candidate for murder. Griego, the former pastor of one of Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest Christian churches, lived with his 41-year-old wife Sarah and their four children at the end of a semi-rural road on the southwestern edge of the city. As a young man in California, before finding Jesus and entering the ministry, Greg Griego had been a member of a street gang. As one of Albuquerque's religious leaders, he volunteered as a prison chaplain and had overseen the Straight Street program sponsored by the Bernalillo County Jail.

     On Friday night, January 18, 2013, 15-year-old Nehemiah Griego, after he and his mother had a mild disagreement, waited until he was sure she and his three siblings were sound asleep. Mr. Griego was not home at that time. Just before one in the morning, Nehemiah took possession of a .22-caliber pistol he found in his parents' closet. He stepped lightly into his mother's bedroom where she was sleeping in bed next to his 9-year-old brother Zephania. Nehemiah raised the 10-shot pistol and fired several bullets into his mother's head. When his younger brother refused to accept the fact his mother had just been murdered, Nehemiah forced the boy to look at her bloody face. The 15-year-old then fired several slugs into Zephania's head.

     In his sisters' room, Nehemiah shot and killed Jael, age 5, and 2-year-old Angelina. Nehemiah returned the handgun to the closet and pulled out an AR-15 semi-automoatic rifle. Armed with the assault weapon, he waited in a downstairs bathroom for his father's return. After waiting five hours for his father to come home, Nehemiah opened up on Mr. Griego as he walked by the bathroom doorway, killing him on the spot.

     On his cellphone, Nehemiah sent his 12-year-old girlfriend a photograph of his murdered mother's face. He also called the girl and reported what he had done as well as what he planned to do. Nehemiah informed his friend that he was driving to the local Walmart in the family van where he intended to randomly kill as many people as possible. He said he expected to be killed in an exchange of gunfire with the police.

     Nehemiah's girlfriend talked him into driving to Pastor Griego's church where they could discuss all of this further. Nehemiah spent the rest of the day at his girlfriend's house. Police officers took him into custody later that night.

     A Bernalillo County prosecutor charged Nehemiah Griego with two counts of murder and three counts of child abuse. (I don't know why he wasn't charged with five counts of murder.) Perfectly coherent, Nehemiah provided his interrogators with a detailed account of the mass killing. He said he was annoyed with his mother and had recently entertained thoughts of homicide and suicide. The boy expressed no feelings of guilt or remorse.

    Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston, at a news conference on January 22, 2013, said that Nehemiah had been "involved heavily in violent video games" before he murdered his family. The games included "Modern Warfare," and "Grand Theft Auto." The boy had also talked about killing his young girlfriend's parents.

     According to relatives, Nehemiah was an outgoing boy who loved music and hoped one day to serve in the military.

     The cold-blooded mass murder shocked Nehemiah's relatives, his friends, and his teachers. No one had seen this massacre coming. No one ever does. How can you know if your perfect 15-year-old son is a shell with a monster inside?

     By February 2015, no trial date had been set for the Griego family murders. The case had stalled for several reasons. In 2013, the judge assigned to preside over the trial took an extended leave of absence and was not replaced. The boy's defense attorney delayed progress throughout 2014 by requesting one mental health evaluation after another for his client. (Griego had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.) In the meantime, Nehemiah Griego remained incarcerated at a juvenile detection facility.            

     Finally, after the boy pleaded guilty in March 2016, the judge enraged many in the community by sentencing him as a juvenile. Under New Mexico law, this meant that Griego would walk free as a rehabilitated youth when he turned 21. Six years in custody for the cold-blooded murder of five people.

     In December 2019, nearly seven years after Nehemiah Griego murdered his parents and three siblings, Judicial District Judge Alisa Hart re-sentenced the 22-year-old to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Love-Sick Teen and a Fake Abduction

     At eleven-thirty on Monday night, December 16, 2019, 16-year-old Karol Sanchez and her 32-year-old mother, Carmen Sanchez, were walking on Eagle Avenue near East 156th Street in the Bronx, New York. Mother and daughter, from upstate New York, were in the Bronx visiting relatives. As they walked along the street, a beige colored sedan pulled up beside them, two men jumped out, pushed Carmen Sanchez to the sidewalk, and drove off with her daughter. "Oh my God!" Carmen Sanchez screamed, "my daughter, my daughter!"

     The terrified mother ran into a nearby deli for help. "Oh my God!" she screamed, "Help! Help! They took her!"

     Someone in the deli called 911. After reviewing a surveillance camera video of the abduction, the police issued a statewide Amber Alert for the 16-year-old girl. The two men who grabbed Karol Sanchez were black men in their early twenties. Two men remained in the vehicle. The distraught mother told detectives that she planned to move back to Honduras with her daughter. Her daughter, however, did not want to move because she didn't want to leave her boyfriend.

     The following morning, New York City police officers posted photographs of the missing girl around the city. That Tuesday afternoon, Carmen Sanchez received a mysterious call from a man who said, "We got the wrong girl."

     Shortly after that phone call, Karol Sanchez, not far from where she had been taken from her mother, walked up to a pair of New York City police officers sitting in a squad car. The officers recognized her from her missing persons photograph. The girl was trembling and looked frightened.

     At the 40th Precinct station house, Karol Sanchez informed detectives that the abduction was a hoax, one that she had helped orchestrate in order to see her boyfriend, a Crips gangbanger who had once been arrested for murder.

     According to reports, the authorities had no plans to charge Karol Sanchez with a crime. This was not the case involving the four men in the beige sedan.

     

Marrying Well

An archeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she is the more interested he is in her.

Agatha Christie (1930-1976). Bestselling British mystery novelist who was married to an archeologist. 

Let Your Writing Flow

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

Louis L'Amour (1908-1988), best known for his western novels 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Rabbi Bernard Freundel Criminal Voyeurism Case

     For 25 years, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Bernard "Barry" Freundel was the spiritual leader of the Kesher Israel Synagogue in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Former U.S. Senator from Connecticut Joe Lieberman and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew were members of Rabbi Freundel's congregation.

     A resident of O Street in Washington, the 62-year-old rabbi was known for his success in helping women convert to Orthodox Judaism. An expert on Jewish law, Rabbi Freundel held the position of Vice President of the Vaad (Rabbinical Counsel) of Greater Washington. He also worked as a professor at nearby Townson University where he taught courses on Judaism and ethics. As a widely known expert on these subjects, the rabbi was a visiting scholar at Princeton, Yale, and Cornell and regularly presented guest lectures at Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

     While Rabbi Freundel enjoyed a sterling reputation in academia and among the vast majority of his congregants, concerns were raised in 2012 regarding his treatment of women undergoing conversion under his guidance. Several women going through the process complained that the Rabbi enjoyed wielding power over their lives. For example, they felt coerced into performing clerical duties such as organizing his files, opening his mail, paying his bills, taking dictation, and responding to emails on his behalf. Moreover, these vulnerable women felt pressured to donate money to the rabbi's favorite causes.

     On October 14, 2014, the roof collapsed on Rabbi Freundel's personal and professional life of privilege and respect when officers with the Washington D.C. Police Department placed him under arrest. He was charged with six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism.

     Rabbi Freundel stood accused of installing a clock radio equipped with a hidden video camera in a synagogue shower room. He had allegedly filmed women showering before taking their ritualistic purification baths in a large tub called the mikvah.

     Jewish women and women converting to Judaism are required under Orthodox religious law to immerse themselves in the mikvah every month after menstruating and before having sex with their husbands.

     Shortly after Rabbi Freundel's arrest, Jewish authorities suspended him without pay from his position at the Kesher Israel Synagogue.

     On October 20, 2014, a Townson University spokesperson announced that the school had opened an internal Title IX investigation to determine if the rabbi had practiced gender or sex discrimination at the university. The school banned the former Judaism and ethics professor from its campus which is located in Maryland between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

     The Freundel voyeurism scandal triggered a discussion and inquiry into the possible widespread abuse of female converts by Orthodox rabbis.

     Rabbi Freundel pleaded not guilty to the charges and was set free after posting his bail. If convicted of all six counts, he faced up to six years behind bars.

     On February 11, 2015, several of the rabbi's alleged victims met with federal prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C. The meeting had been called to discuss the benefits of a plea bargained deal in the case. Prosecutors, in discussing the Freundel investigation, said that since 2009 the former rabbi had secretly filmed 152 women. Of these crimes, 88 occurred more than three years ago and therefore couldn't be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations. Prosecutors did not reveal to the media how the victims at the meeting had responded to the idea of a plea bargained deal for the ex-rabbi.

     Freundel, on February 19, 2015, pleaded guilty to having secretly videotaped 52 naked women as they prepared to immerse themselves in the ritual bath.

     On May 16, 2015, after sixteen of his victims--some in tears--addressed the court, Judge Geoffrey Alprin sentenced Bernard Freundel to 45 days on each of 52 counts of criminal voyeurism. That came to just under six and a half years in federal prison. 

"Literary Life: A Second Memoir" by Larry McMurtry

     In Literary Life: A Second Memoir, the second of a three-volume autobiography, Larry McMurtry, the author of 30 novels, and more than 30 screenplays, sums up his life as a man of letters. Volume 1 of his memoir set deals with his life as a bookman and owner of a massive used book store in Archer City, Texas. The third installment focuses on his adventures in Hollywood as a screenwriter. McMurtry won a Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, a novel made into a popular television series. I enjoyed Literary Life: A Second Memoir because it's honest, devoid of false bravado, and provides a look into the literary life of a person who has been able to support himself on his writing. There aren't many of those people around. What follows are some passages from this engaging book:

I hoped to be a writer, but it was not until I had published my fifth book, All My Friends are Going to be Strangers, that I became convinced that I was a writer and would remain one.

Journalists mostly don't expect to be liked--Vanity Fair is not paying its writers big money to write nice things about their subjects.

Probably at least 85 percent of the books I've inscribed both to friends and strangers have found their way into the [book] market, and rather rapidly.

To this day it is not easy to get started in fiction, but the speed with which self-publishing has been established is making getting started a good deal easier....Much trash will get published, but then much trash is published even by the most reputable publishers.

Minor writers provide the stitchery of literature. Besides, major writers often find themselves writing minor books. Major writers aren't major all the time, and minor writers occasionally write better than they normally do, sometimes producing a major book. The commonwealth of literature is complex, but a sense of belonging to it is an important feeling for a writer to have and to keep.

Never discount luck, in the making of a literary career, or any other career, for that matter.

Talent and the Creative Process

     Many writers are reluctant to talk about the creative process--that is, how and where they get their talent, ideas, and inspiration to write. Some authors deny that talent is an inborn gift while others ridicule the notion that writers have to be inspired before they can create. I believe that while there are a few who are simply incapable of writing anything decent, most people can teach themselves the craft well enough to write for publication.

     Many of the highly literate novel writers born with special literary gifts are, is some shape or form, mentally ill. No joke. A good many of them are suicidal alcoholics and drug addicts. Truman Capote comes to mind.

     Perhaps having some natural ability to write and create is more common than not having it at all. The need to create probably resides in most people. When a reader tells a writer that he can't imagine how one can write a book or an article, some writers may wonder how a person couldn't produce a literary work.

     I think a lot of authors like to give the false impression that writing is extremely difficult. Once you get the hang of it, it's fairly easy. That's the dirty little secret. 

Selecting a Story's Point of View

Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing, notes that without a solid understanding of point of view--meaning the character whose eyes are observing the action, the perspective from which a story is told--the writer cannot fully exploit his talent. Stein has this advice for the beginning novelist: "Do not mix points of view within the same scene, chapter, or even the same novel. It is unsettling to the reader. If you mix points of view, the author's authority seems to dissolve. The writing seems arbitrary rather than controlled. Sticking to a point of view intensifies the experience of a story. A wavering or uncertain point of view will diminish the experience of the reader." (Sol Stein, Stein on Writing, 1995) 

Friday, December 20, 2019

Jeffrey Jarrett's Last Night Out: Too Bad He Was Dead

     In the 1989 comedy, "Weekend at Bernie's," a couple of low-level insurance agency employees are invited to spend the weekend at a beach house owned by their boss--Bernie. They show up at the summer house and find Bernie dead, and for the next two days, carry on as though he were alive. In one scene, these guys drive around in Bernie's convertible with the dead man propped up in the back seat. When people wave at Bernie, the guy sitting next to him grabs the dead man's arm and waves back. It's that kind of movie, kind of funny in spots, but really stupid because in real life no one would do something like this. That is until a couple of clowns in Glendale, Colorado bar-hopped one night accompanied by a dead man who picked up the tab.

     Jeffrey Jarrett, a 43-year-old real estate agent, had a problem with drugs and alcohol. In the summer of 2011, he called a friend from his days at Colorado State University. Jarrett asked his old buddy to room with him until he got his life straightened out. Shortly after his cry for help, 43-year-old Robert J. Young moved into his friend's house.

     On August 27, 2011, when Young came home from work, he found Jarrett sprawled on the floor, obviously dead. The look of the death scene suggested a drug overdose. (A toxicology report confirmed this. According to the medical examiner, Jarrett had overdosed on Xanax and Subutex--a drug addicted people take to get off opiates). Robert Young, instead of calling 911 phoned a 25-year-old drinking buddy named Mark Rubinson.

     That evening, a Saturday, Young and Rubinson stuffed Jeffrey Jarrett's lifeless body into the backseat of Rubinson's Lincoln Navigator and took off for a night on the town. They started off with drinks at a joint called Teddy T's Bar and Grill. The corpse remained in the SUV as Young and his friend used Jarrett's credit card to pay for their booze. From Teddy T's, the pair visited Sam's No. 3 where they continued to imbibe on the dead man's dime.

     Perhaps realizing that for Jarrett's credit card to work, his body didn't have to be sitting outside in Rubinson's SUV, they decided to take him home. After lugging the corpse back into the house, Young and Rubinson enjoyed a meal, at Jarrett's expense, at an eatery called Viva Burrito.

     The party animals finished off the night at a strip club called Shotgun Willie's where Robert Young used the dead man's credit card to withdraw $400 from the ATM. After the joint closed at four in the morning, Young contacted the Glendale Police Department to report his housemate's death.

     The local prosecutor charged Young and Rubinson with abuse of corpse, identify theft, and criminal impersonation. After first denying any wrongdoing, both suspects agreed to plead guilty to all charges.

     On March 6, 2012, a judge sentenced Robert J. Young to two years probation and ordered that he undergo "mental health evaluation and treatment; substance abuse assessment and treatment; and cognitive behavioral therapy." ( "Cognitive behavioral therapy"? I guess that meant that some therapist or shrink would explain to Mr. Young that hauling a corpse from bar to bar while using the dead man's credit card constitutes inappropriate behavior.)  Pursuant to his sentence, if Mr. Young behaved himself for two years, his record of shameless behavior would be expunged. (Wow, they are really tough on crime in Colorado.)

     Mr. Rubinson got off with a couple of years of probation as well. For some reason the judge didn't think he needed any cognitive behavioral therapy. He had just helped Young carry the corpse to and from the car, then drove his two companions, one dead and one alive, around town. The man drove a Lincoln Navigator, yet had to mooch drinks off a dead man.

     Only in America.
      

Thursday, December 19, 2019

December Crime Shorts

     State troopers saw a man standing by a car with a flat tire along I-80 in Indiana. The car had been stolen from State College, Pennsylvania. The officers, as trained observers, noticed that the man had used a crayon to draw a license plate on a brown grocery bag. The crafty forger was taken into custody on suspicious of auto theft.

     A 59-year-old Michigan man told the judge at his sentencing hearing that he had robbed the store because he wanted to return to prison. He had been out of prison for seven years but wanted to go back because he couldn't adjust to life in open society. The judge granted his wish by sentencing him to 25 years. 

     On a call about a possible dead woman in a house, the responding Los Angeles police officer allegedly fondled the dead woman's breasts. The incident was recorded on his body-cam. Although the officer had turned off the device, the camera had an off-switch with a two-minute delay. 

     An Alaska man was arrested for shooting his sister to death because she had unfriended him on Facebook.

     Border Patrol officers assigned to the El Paso sector recovered more than a half-pound of methamphetamine from the vagina of a drug smuggler. 

     Immediately after Baltimore Circuit Judge Wanda Keys Heard sentenced 31-year-old Travis Burroughs to life in prison, the serial rapist picked up a metal water pitcher from the defense table and hurled it at the judge, hitting her in the forehead. He probably felt he had nothing to lose.

Writers Taking Themselves Too Seriously

I'm so revolted by writers taking themselves seriously that, as a kind of protest, I've de-prioritized the role of writing in my life. I do it when I've not got anything better to do--and even then I often do nothing instead.

Geoff Dyer, British novelist

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Byron Mitchell: The Roommate From Hell

     In January 2016, 23-year-old Danielle Cabo Jones was in search of a roommate after the person who had been helping her pay the rent for their downtown Miami apartment unexpectedly moved out. If Jones couldn't find a roommate, she would have to move out herself because the rent was more than she could afford. So, out of desperation, she placed an ad on Craigslist for a roommate.

     After responding to Jones' Craigslist solicitation, 35-year-old Byron Mitchell, on February 1, 2016, moved into the apartment with Jones. The Air Force veteran and personal trainer quickly became romantically interested in his new roommate. Jones made it clear to him that she wasn't interested in him in that way. Mitchell refused to take no for an answer. This led to frequent arguments and accusations by Jones that he was harassing and stalking her.

     On February 14, 2016, after they had shared the apartment for just two weeks, Byron Mitchell, in the midst of a heated argument, chased Jones into bathroom where he threw her to the floor and started punching and choking her. As she lay on the floor with broken teeth, a swollen face and a fractured skull, he stabbed her several times.

     With Jones bleeding and unconscious on the bathroom floor, Mitchell took a shower, deleted his text messages from her phone, then dropped her cellphone into a sink full of water. He next called 911 and informed the dispatcher he had stabbed his roommate when she rushed him with a knife.

     Police officers and medics found Danielle Jones lying in a pool of blood next to the knife. She was rushed to a nearby hospital where she remained in a coma for two weeks. She survived the attack, but had incurred permanent damage to her brain.

     From the beginning, detectives did not buy Mitchell's self-defense story. She was five-three, 115 pounds, and he was six-two, 190.  Officers also didn't believe Mitchell when he said he had not sought Jones' affection. Investigators discovered text messages the suspect had sent to his sister asking for advice on how to break the ice with his new roommate. He also Google-searched "Rohypnol," a common date-rape drug.

     On February 15, 2016, Miami-Dade County prosecutor Sara Imm charged Byron Mitchell with aggravated assault and attempted murder. The magistrate denied him bail.

     Byron Mitchell went on trial in June 2019. The lead detective in the case testified that the defendant had a record of serious psychological problems during his time in the Air Force. He also had a long history of stalking his former girlfriends.  When detectives asked Mitchell about his problem with women, he replied that they just didn't understand him.

     Danielle Jones took the stand and described how the defendant had become immediately obsessed with her, and when she informed him she wasn't interested in that kind of relationship, he harassed and stalked her. She also described the vicious attack in her bathroom that had almost cost her her life.

     Mitchell did not take the stand on his own behalf. His attorney, in his closing argument to the jury, tried to make his client more sympathetic by noting that as a child he had been bullied. The defendant, according to his attorney, also had mental problems due to a childhood head injury. The attorney also blamed the Air Force for not providing Mitchell psychiatric help.

     The jury, after a brief deliberation, found Byron Mitchell guilty as charged.

     On December 10, 2019, at Mitchell's sentencing hearing, Danielle Jones discussed how the assault had changed her life: "I wanted to go to school for criminal justice and psychology and now, I have my 11-year-old brother help me with my math, what was my best subject in school."

     Byron Mitchell, in addressing the court, issued a weak, self-centered apology, then in a lecturing tone, infuriated everyone in the courtroom by saying this to the woman he had permanently damaged: "Don't let a single incident hold you back."

     Judge John Schlessinger sentenced Byron Mitchell to life in prison. 

You Can't Edit a Blank Page

You can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page.

Jodi Picoult, novelist

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Fero's Bar & Grill Mass Murder Case

     At one-forty in the morning of Wednesday, October 17, 2012, a Glendale, Colorado police officer on routine patrol spotted flames coming out the back of Fero's Bar & Grill that was situated in a strip mall five miles south of downtown Denver. Firefighters, upon entering the structure to combat the blaze, discovered five corpses.

     One of the four women found dead at the fire scene was 63-year-old Young Fero, the owner of the establishment. The South Korean native assumed sole proprietorship of the 28-year-old business following her divorce from its co-founder, Danny Fero. Fero's Bar & Grill catered to regular patrons and people staying at local hotels. The bar featured a weekly poker game, pool tables, and Japanese food. It had not been a particularly busy place.

     A spokesperson with the Denver Police Department, at a press conference later in the day, announced that on-site evidence indicated that the fire had been intentionally set fifteen to twenty minutes before the bar's regular 2:00 AM closing time. The bodies of the five victims showed signs of physical trauma unrelated to the blaze. As a result, investigators were operating on the theory that the victims had been murdered before someone set the place on fire. Detectives believed the murders had been committed by armed robbers who had set the fire to destroy evidence.

     Besides Young Fero, the bar's owner and operator, the other victims, all patrons, were: Daria M. Pohl, 22; Kellene Fallon, 45; Ross Richter, 29; and Teressa Beesley, 45. There were no other people in the bar during the robbery, murders, and fire.

     On October 18, 2012, the day after the arson-murders, the Denver police arrested three men in connection with the case. Dexter Lewis, 22, Joseph Hill, 27, and his brother Lynell Hill, 24, were each charged with five counts of murder and one count of aggravated robbery and arson.

     Dexter Lewis, engaged to a woman who was seven months pregnant, had been arrested in May 2009 in Jefferson County, Colorado on several counts of assault on a police officer. He pleaded guilty to felony menacing. The other charges were dropped. That year, Lewis also pleaded guilty to felony robbery and was sentenced to three years in prison. When arrested on October 18, 2012 in connection with the Fero's Bar & Grill mass murder case, he was out on parole.

     Police in Arapahoe County had arrested Lynell Hill in August 2011 on charges of misdemeanor assault, reckless endangerment, and harassment. Hill pleaded guilty to harassment involving physical force and in return received a deferred nine-month sentence that allowed him to stay out of jail as long as he stayed out of trouble.

     Joseph Hill, on his Facebook page, called himself a "singer song writer" who is just a ..."great person to know, if you're genuine." Hill, who apparently thought a lot of himself, went on to say, "I'm very hardworking and dedicated and very ambitious as well. I'm chasing my dreams."

     The Denver Medical Examiner's office ruled the manner of the five deaths as criminal homicide. All of the victims had been shot to death before the fire.

     The Hill brothers pleaded guilty to the murders in December 2013. A month later, the judge sentenced Joseph to five life sentences and Lynell to 70 years in prison. As part of the plea agreement, the brothers agreed to testify against Dexter Lewis. In May 2014, the prosecutor in the Lewis case announced his intention to pursue the death penalty.

     In August 2014, lawyers representing Dexter Lewis were in court presenting arguments in support of having the upcoming trial moved out of Denver. The defense attorneys also urged the judge to exclude statements their client had made to the police after his arrest.

     On September 30, 2014, Denver District Court Judge John Madden denied 32 pre-trial motions that had been filed by the Lewis defense including a request to sequester the jury. The judge also denied the defense petition to query members of the jury pool on how they felt about the death penalty. (The last time a Denver jury sentenced a defendant to death was 1986.) Judge Madden set the trial for January 20, 2015.

     In November 2014, Lewis' attorneys were back in court, this time seeking more time to prepare their defense. Public Defender Chris Baumann claimed his legal team needed more time to interview potential trial witnesses. "We have gone to nine cities in seven states so far," he said.

     Judge Madden, in December 2014, granted the defense request to delay the start of the Lewis trial to July 20, 2015. Lewis faced 16 felony counts that included first-degree murder, arson, and robbery in the October 2012 massacre of the bar's owner and his patrons.

     In August, 2015, a jury in Denver found Dexter Lewis guilty as charged. A few months later the judge sentenced him to life in prison.  

Excessive Force: The SWAT Pre-Dawn Drug Raid

     Although the deadly mistakes of police officers are generally not crimes, the injury or killing of SWAT officers by civilians who are reacting to middle-of-the-night home invasions are almost always treated as criminal acts. Even when the police raid the wrong house and an officer, mistaken for a criminal intruder is shot, the shooter, in the vast majority of cases, will be convicted of a crime and sent to prison. Regardless of the circumstances, jurors in trials involving downed police officers are generally not sympathetic to the shooter. They are in no mood for excuses and defenses. Realizing this, many police shooting defendants in cases involving wrong house, no-knock SWAT raids, plead guilty and hope for the best.

     Even when SWAT officers lawfully break into homes for drugs just before dawn, they not only risk their own lives and the lives of everyone in the dwelling, they also create the opportunity, in the event of the officer's injury or death, for a much greater crime than the one that warranted the raid. This is particularly true when the raid is unnecessary and excessive. Suddenly a person guilty of possessing a small amount of marijuana finds himself charged with assaulting a police officer--or worse, criminal homicide. Since these greater crimes would not have been committed had the police found some other way to achieve their mission, they have, in essence, entrapped these defendants. Because the legal doctrine of entrapment (the police are not supposed to go beyond merely giving suspects the opportunity to commit a crime) doesn't apply in these cases as a bar to prosecution, defendants who assault or kill police officers have very little available to them in the way of defense. 

Passing the Trash: Remembering Pedophile Priest William Cloutier

     After a 13-year-old boy reported in 1979 that a priest raped and threatened him at gunpoint to keep quiet, the Archdiocese of Chicago assured the boy's parents that, although the cleric avoided prosecution, he would receive treatment and have no further contact with minors.

     But the Reverend William Cloutier, who already had been accused of molesting other children, was returned to the ministry a year later and went on to abuse again before he resigned in 1993, two years after the boy's parents filed a lawsuit. Officials took no action against Cloutier over his earlier transgressions because he "sounded repentant," according to internal archdiocese documents released January 21, 2014 that showed how the archdiocese tried to contain a mounting scandal over child sexual abuse.

     For decades, those at the highest levels of the nation's third largest archdiocese moved accused priests from parish to parish while hiding the clerics' histories from the public.

The Associated Press, January 21, 2014 

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Donald Greenslit Arson Dismemberment Case

     Prior to his domestic assault conviction in October 2011, Donald Greenslit lived with his common-law wife Stacie Dorego and their two young children in a two-story house in Johnston, Rhode Island. Following Greenslit's conviction, probated sentence, and no-contact court order, he moved out. The couple's relationship had been a tumultuous one, marred by numerous arrests for domestic violence. He beat this woman, and beat her often.

     During the early morning hours of Monday, January 22, 2012, Johnston firefighters and rescue personnel were dispatched to the Pershing Road home after receiving a call regarding smoke coming from the house. Greenslit met the responders at the front door of the smoke-filled dwelling. The 52-year-old, after assuring the firefighters that all was well, ordered them to leave his property. Police officers pushed Greenslit aside so the emergency personnel could extinguish the fire and check on the children.

     Greenslit's children, found in their second-story bedroom, were rushed to the Hasbro Children's Hospital where they were treated for smoke inhalation. Firefighters quickly got control of the fire, but in the process, made a gruesome discovery.

     In the fireplace, the emergency responders found the dismembered and smoldering remains of a woman wrapped in a blanket. At the Johnston Police Department later that morning, Greenslit admitted dismembering his wife with a power saw and setting fire to her mutilated corpse. Yes, he had stabbed Stacie Dorego to death, but in self-defense after she had attacked him with a knife.

     According to Dr. Christina Stanley, the Chief Medical Examiner for Rhode Island, the 39-year-old victim had died from multiple stab wounds. The forensic pathologist ruled the death a criminal homicide.

     On January 23, 2012, a Providence County prosecutor charged Greenslit with domestic murder, two counts of child abuse, the obstruction of fire officers, disorderly conduct, and the violation of a non-contact order. Two months later, a grand jury sitting in Providence indicted Greenslit on all charges. In April, at his preliminary hearing, Greenslit pleaded not guilty to domestic murder and the other offenses. He recanted his statement to the police that he had killed Dorego in self-defense.

     The Donald Greenslit murder trial got underway on March 1, 2013 in a Providence Superior Court. Following the selection of the jury and the opening statements, the prosecution, on March 4, 2012, put two firefighters on the stand who testified that the defendant had tried to deny them entry into the smokey house. A Johnston detective described what he had found in the basement after the fire had been extinguished. The officer recovered a piece of flesh that bore Stacie Dorego's tattoo of a butterfly.

     Special Assistant Attorney General Sara Tindall-Woodman, on March 6, put a jailhouse snitch named Alex Boisclair on the stand. This witness said that he had shared a cell with the defendant, and after being cellmates for one day, Greenslit confided in him that he had stabbed his common-law wife five times. According to the police informant, Greenslit said he had burned Dorego's body parts because he knew she had, upon her death, wished to be cremated. (I doubt she had envisioned her own fireplace as the cremation site.)

     Defense attorney Mark Dana, on cross-examination, accused this witness of incriminating Greenslit in return for prosecutorial leniency on his own behalf. Boisclair, in denying a prosecution deal, said he was simply doing what he thought was the right thing.

     On March 7, 2013, a DNA analyst testified that blood found on a circular saw recovered from the defendant's basement had come from Stacie Dorego. The DNA expert was followed to the stand by the state's chief medical examiner who said that Stacie Dorego's heart had been pierced three times by "something with a single edge." Following Dr. Christina Stanley's testimony, the prosecution rested its case. (I don't believe the prosecution introduced a murder weapon into evidence.)

     On Friday, March 8, 2013, defense attorney Mark Dana rested his case without putting the defendant on the stand. (While jurors are not supposed to take this as evidence of guilt, they usually do.) Dana, in his jury summation, told the jurors that the police didn't test for DNA at the death scene because they didn't want to discover that someone else had committed the murder. He pointed out that without a confession, eyewitness, or physical evidence linking his client to the crime scene, the prosecution's case was weak, and circumstantial. The defense attorney also attacked the credibility of the jailhouse snitch.

     On March 11, 2013, the jury of ten women and two men found Donald Greenslit guilty of murder.

     On May 15, 2013, Judge Susan McGuirl sentenced Greenslit to life in prison without the chance of parole.

The Threat Of School Shootings In the Overall Scheme of Things

How big a threat are school shootings, really? About 143 students, teachers, staff, and family members were killed during assaults of schools between 1998 and early 2018, according to an exhaustive analysis by the Washington Post, and another 254 were injured. (The study only considered incidents at primary and secondary schools). Three incidents--Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland--accounted for 43 percent of those fatalities. Each of those deaths was an unimaginable tragedy for a family and a community--but the raw numbers are quite small.

Rachel Monroe, Savage Appetites: Four Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, 2019

Charles Bukowski On Creativity, Poetry, and Becoming a Writer

That most men don't gamble with their lives or their creativity is not my fault. And it makes for dull writing and dull writers.

Poetry has long been an in-game, a snob game, a game of puzzles and incantations. It still is, and most of its practitioners operate as professors in our safe and stale universities.

I'd never advise anybody to become a writer, only if writing is the only thing which keeps you from going insane. Then, perhaps, it's worth it.

Charles Bukowski

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Cops and Dogs: See Them, Shoot Them Dead

     In June 2013, heavily armed drug cops in Buffalo, New York in search of crack cocaine, raided the wrong apartment. They broke down Iraq war veteran Adam Arroyo's door and shot Cindy, his 50-pound, 2-year-old pit bull. Cindy died on the spot. Local news organizations, aware of the public's outrage over the unnecessary shooting of a man's pet by cops raiding the wrong place, asked the Buffalo Police Department to provide statistics on how many dogs their officers shoot every year. To no one's surprise, the police department refused to cooperate with the news media.

     This typical act of law enforcement secrecy led to the filing of a Freedom of Information Act request for this data by local television station WGRZ. When reporters got their hands on the requested information it became apparent why the police department had been so cozy.

     From January 1, 2011 to September 2014, Buffalo Police Department officers shot 92 dogs, 73 of them fatally. And even more shocking, one officer in the department had been responsible for 30 percent of the dog shootings. In less than three years this officer had shot 26 dogs, killing all but one. He was, in essence, a one-man canine death squad. (The police department refused to release his name.)

     A cursory review of recent dog shootings reported in the media would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a significant percentage of dog shootings by police involve excessive force. The indiscriminate shooting of family pets has become a major point of contention between the police and the citizens they are paid to serve. People love their dogs and treat them like family. Having a beloved pet killed unnecessarily by a police officer immediately creates a law enforcement enemy. And when the authorities lie and cover-up to protect the officer involved, that police hatred becomes intense. When others learn of this form of law enforcement cruelty the anger spreads throughout the community. Police officers need to stop the unjustified killing of pets.

     What follows are a few more examples of police animal abuse:

Newton, Iowa

     At ten in the morning of September 7, 2012, a police officer responded to a complaint regarding a dog running loose in the Emerson Hough section of the town. According to the complaining witness, Jeri Fahrenkrug's pit bull named Griz had snarled and growled at a man walking by her house.

     Neighbors watching from their front porches watched as the police officer shot Griz to death from a range of 30 feet. These witnesses later disagreed with the officer's statement that the pit bull had charged him. The dog, known in the neighborhood to be friendly, died near his owner's yard.

Filer, Idaho

     On February 8, 2014, officer Tarek Hassani with the Filer Police Department, pulled up to Rick Clubb's house in response to a complaint that his two dogs were not leashed. Mr. Clubb, confined to a wheelchair as a result of Parkinson's Disease, used one of the black labradors, 7-year-old Hooch, as a service dog.

     When the friendly labs rushed to greet the police officer, he kicked Hooch in the face, pulled his gun and killed the dog on the spot. Several people witnessed the shooting and were shocked by the unprovoked nature of this deadly force.

     After killing Hooch, officer Hassani berated Mr. Clubb for not keeping his dogs leashed. "You don't have to yell at me," said the distraught dog owner. Officer Hassani responded by demanding identification that if not immediately produced would involved a trip to the local jail.

     In April 2014, local citizens held a protest in front of city hall. A petition to recall the mayor who backed officer Hassani was being circulated in the community. An investigation by a neighboring police agency eventually cleared the officer of wrongdoing. This added to the public anger over the shooting. The mayor was not recalled and the officer remained on the force.

Salt Lake City, Utah

     In June 2014, officer Brett Olsen with the Salt Lake City Police Department, while searching for a missing boy, hopped over a backyard fence where he encountered Geist, the home owner's 110-pound, 2-year-old Weimaramer. The officer shot Geist to death in the dog owner's yard. (The missing boy was found sleeping at home.)

     Angry protestors gathered in front of the Salt Lake City Police Department. Notwithstanding public outrage and the facts of the case, the department cleared this officer of wrongdoing.

Sulphur, Louisiana

     In 2013, when hiring former Louisiana State Police officer Brian Thierbach for the Sulphur Police Department, the chief knew he did not have a clean law enforcement record. In 2006, Thierbach had been suspended without pay following a traffic accident in which he had been at fault. Thierbach, in 2010, while making an arrest in a Walmart parking lot, accidentally fired his service weapon. He resigned from the state police in April 2013 after being cited for conduct unbecoming a police officer.

     Brandon Carpenter, a 28-year-old musician from Portland, Maine, had been traveling the country by freight train and hitch-hiking with a 21-year-old friend. In April 2014, Carpenter, his companion, and Carpenter's 14-month-old labrador-newfoundland-golden retriever mix Arzy, arrived in Sulphur, Louisiana.

     The two men and the dog, on that rainy day, took refuge in a box truck sitting in the parking lot of a newspaper office. A person who saw them climb into the back of the truck called the police.

     Officer Thierbach arrived at the scene to find the men asleep in the vehicle. Arzy was also in the truck attached to a four-foot leash. Officer Thierbach ordered the two men out of the truck. With the suspects lying face-down on the ground, he handcuffed them behind their backs and climbed into the box truck to retrieve their belongings. Seeing Arzy, the officer asked, "Will he attack me?"

     Brandon Carpenter assured the officer that Arzy was gentle, sweet, and harmless. The handcuffed men saw the officer pet Arzy who wagged his tail. Then suddenly, for no reason, officer Thierbach shot the dog to death.

     When the details of Arzy's shooting became public, citizens of this small Calasieu Parish town were outraged. The police chief, under criticism for hiring this officer in the first place, accepted Thierbach's resignation on May 7, 2014. A month later, a local grand jury indicted him on the charge of aggravated animal cruelty. The ex-officer pleaded not guilty to the charge and posted his $20,000 bail.

Baltimore, Maryland

     On July 14, 2014, two officers with the Baltimore Police Department responded to a complaint that a small dog had bitten a woman. The cops became frustrated and agitated when they couldn't catch the 7-year-old Shar-Pei named Nala with a stick and a length of rope. One of the officers was heard saying, "I'm going to get that thing!"

     When the officers did manage to corral Nala, one of the cops held the dog down while his partner slit the dog's throat with an eight-inch knife. Caught on video, the slaughter of this pet caused public outrage so intense a local prosecutor charged both officers with animal cruelty.

Topeka, Kansas

     On May 7, 2014, a police officer in Topeka, in response to a barking dog complaint, knocked on the pet owner's front door. When no one responded, the officer walked across the street and spoke to a neighbor who informed him that the dog in question, a German shepherd and border collie mix named Dallas, was friendly and often played with neighborhood children.

     The officer returned to the dog owner's home, and with the neighbor looking on, shot Dallas dead when the dog galloped playfully to greet him. Dallas' owner came home to find her dead pet and the officer who had killed him arguing with a group of angry neighbors. The officer, who obviously didn't like his authority being challenged, told the angry neighbors to mind their own business. This officer was later cleared by the police department of wrongdoing.

Mason County, West Virginia

     On the afternoon of June 24, 2014, 32-year-old Ginger Sweat, while putting one of her two young children down for a nap in her mobile home in a rural community not far from Charleston, saw a police officer with a dog on a leash walking out of the woods behind her dwelling. The officer, accompanied by seven other cops, was searching for a missing neighborhood boy.

     When Ginger Sweat saw Willy Pete, her 6-year-old beagle-basset hound mix with arthritis approach the group of officers, she ran out of her house to assure the officers that Willy Pete was friendly and harmless. As she pleaded with the officers to allow her to gather up her pet and take him inside, Sergeant S. T. Harper with the West Virginia State Police, an officer with 14 years on the force, fired several shots at Willy Pete, hitting him three times. The dog lay dead in his owner's yard in a pool of blood.

     This senseless shooting of a harmless family pet on the dog owner's property enraged the community. A spokesperson for the state police, in an effort to diffuse public anger, issued a statement apologizing for Willy Pete's shooting. However, in that statement, the state police added fuel to the scandal by offering a phony version of the incident by accusing the dog of growling and baring his teeth at the sergeant who killed him.

If it Barks or Moves, Shoot it

     In April 2013, in Battle Creek, Michigan, SWAT officers conducting a drug raid, broke down the front door of a home occupied by Mark and Cheryl Brown and their two dogs. One of the officers shot the first dog after it had "moved a few inches," behavior the officer interpreted as a "lunge." The wounded pet fled to basement where the officer shot again and killed it. When the same officer came upon the second dog in the basement, he shot it twice. That dog was killed because it barked.

     In 2014, Mr. and Mrs. Brown sued the city of Battle Creek in Federal District Court and lost. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, in 2016, upheld the lower court's verdict. The appeals court justices ruled that a police officer can lawfully shoot a dog that is either "moving" or "barking" as long as the officer believes that the dog poses an imminent threat.

     In 2018, an official with the United States Department of Justice estimated that police officers in the United States shoot and kill 25 to 30 dogs a day, about 10,000 a year. The government spokesperson characterized the police killing of family pets an "epidemic." It's also an outrage, and does serious damage to police-community relations. 

Taking a Middle School Girl's Death Threats Seriously

     On Friday, December 6, 2019, a 12-year-old girl who attended the Falcon Cove Middle School in Weston, Florida posted two threats on the message app Snapchat that led to her arrest that evening.

     The 12-year-old's first message included the names of fellow students she planned to shoot to death. The second posting warned that these students would be killed on December 9, 2019.

     The suspect's parents, when they learned of their daughter's Internet death threats, notified the Broward County Sheriff's Office. A local prosecutor charged the girl with two counts of making a written threat to kill someone.

     Weston is a community located 25 miles south of Parkland, Florida where a former Stoneman Doublas High student, in 2018, entered the school and shot 17 people to death.

     The attorney representing the young death threat suspect characterized her postings as a "bad joke," noting that in the wake of the Parkland mass murder, this was not a matter to joke about. He was right about that. Nobody was laughing.

Cat and Dog Memoirs

Memoirs about cats and dogs are nearly as common as cats and dogs.

John E Williams (1922-1994) writer, editor, and professor

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Frye Case in the History of the Polygraph

     The prototype of the modern polygraph instrument was invented in 1921 by a graduate physiology student at the University of California at Berkeley named John Larson. While attending the university, Larson worked as a "college cop" at the Berkeley Police Department under the progressive police chief, August Vollmer. It was Vollmer who asked Larson to invent a device that could determine if a criminal suspect was telling the truth or lying. In researching the work of others who had tried to find a method of scientific lie detection, Larson read an article by a lawyer named William Marston who believed that when people lie they come under stress, which raises their blood pressure. (Marston, oddly enough, was also the creator of the comic superhero, Wonder Woman.)

     Polygraph test results, because of questions of scientific reliability, have never been admitted in a criminal court as proof of a defendant's guilt. Ironically, the case most frequently cited as precedent for polygraph exclusion, is United States v. Frye, a federal appeals court decision that arose out of a murder case that had involved William Marston's lie detection methodology. At the time, John Larson's polygraph, a significantly more sophisticated instrument, had not been fully developed.

The Frye Case

     On November 25, 1920, almost a year after John Larson had joined the Berkeley Police Department, and a few months before he had read William Marston's article on blood pressure and scientific lie detection, a black man named James Frye shot and killed a wealthy physician, also black, in Washington, D.C. Frye had murdered Dr. Robert W. Brown in his office at 8:45 in the evening. Another physician witnessed the shooting, and ran after Frye as he fled the building. The chase came to an abrupt end when Frye took a shot at his pursuer. The eyewitness did not know Frye, so all the police had to go on was a general description of the killer.

     On August 21, 1921, seven months after the murder, the police arrested Frye on a robbery case, and while being grilled on that matter, he confessed to killing Dr. Brown. Over the years, the facts of this case have become more myth than reality. Dr. James E. Starrs, a forensic science scholar, and professor of law at George Washington University, set the record straight in 1981. In a paper Dr. Starrs presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences that year, Starrs presented the Frye case myth as follows: James Frye admitted to killing Dr. Brown because a friend told him that if he did so, he would receive part of the reward money that had been put up by the victim's family. When Frye realized that as the killer, he was not eligible for the reward, he repudiated his confession. It was at this point Frye's attorney hired William Marston to test his client's honesty.

     According to the Frye case myth, Marston's lie detection test confirmed that the defendant was telling the truth when he denied committing the murder. But because the trial judge refused to allow Marston to take the stand on the defendant's behalf, the jury found Frye guilty. The judge sentenced him to life in prison. According to this version of the case, the friend who had talked Frye into confessing, admitted killing the doctor. As a result, after serving three years in prison, Frye walked free.

     The above version of the Frye case makes a good story, and sheds favorable light on scientific lie detection. If the trial judge had been more open minded, an innocent man would not have been convicted. According to Professor Starrs, however, the above account of the Frye case was grossly inaccurate. In reality, the defendant had withdrawn his confession on the advice of his attorney, Richard V. Mattingly. By the time the case went to trial, Frye had concocted an alibi. He claimed that at the time of the murder, he had been visiting a woman named Essie Watson.

     In his 1938 book, The Lie Detector Test, William Marston wrote that he had been called into the case by Mattingly a few weeks before the trial because the defense attorney couldn't find any witnesses to support his client's alibi. Marston, on June 10, 1922, gave Frye his systolic blood pressure test, a primitive method that involved nothing more than a standard blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope. After each question put to Frye, Marston simply took his blood pressure. Compared to John Larson's polygraph, Marston's technique was crude, and unreliable. Larson was a scientist, Marston was an attorney.

     After Marston administered his lie detection exam, he announced that James Frye had told the truth when he denied committing the murder. In his book, he wrote, "No one could have been more surprised than myself to find that Frye's final story of innocence was entirely truthful! His confession to the Brown murder was a lie from start to finish."

     James Frye went on trial for the murder of Dr. Brown on July 17, 1922 in Washington, D.C. before Judge William McCoy. Defense attorney Mattingly's case was based entirely on William Marston's lie detection results. When he tried to put Marston on the stand as an expert lie detection witness, the prosecutor objected on the grounds that scientific lie detection was not reliable. The judge agreed. Without the lie detection evidence, Mattingly had no choice but to put his client on the stand. This did not turn out well for the defense.

     The jury, after deliberating three hours, found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder, a verdict that spared Frye the death sentence. Having been in court during the argument over the reliability of Marston's lie detection technique, the jurors decided not to send Frye to his death. As Marston put it in his book, "As far as James Frye was concerned, the [lie detection] test undoubtedly saved his life. No jury could help being influenced by the knowledge that Frye's story had been proved truthful by the lie detector."

     Richard Mattingly appealed Fry's conviction on the grounds Judge McCoy had erred in excluding William Marston's lie detection test results. In 1993, the circuit court of appeals in the District of Columbia upheld Judge McCoy's exclusion. Judge Van Orsdel wrote the appellate court's opinion that established the test used today for the admission of expert testimony based upon new scientific principles. Judge Van Orsdel wrote: "Just when a scientific principle or discovery crosses the line between the experimental and demonstrative stages is difficult to define. Somewhere in this twilight zone the evidential force of the principle must be recognized, and while courts will go a long way in admitting expert testimony deduced from a well recognized scientific principle or discovery, the thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs."

     Although Judge Van Orsdel set the general standard for the admission of new scientific evidence, his opinion didn't indicate exactly what he objected to in Marston's lie detection procedure. It was not clear whether the judge questioned the underlying principle that lying causes measurable changes in a person's blood pressure, or if he objected to Marston's systolic blood pressure test as a method of gathering and recording this data for interpretation. The judge may have rejected both the scientific principle behind Marston's test, and the technique itself.

     If the Frye court's rejection primarily involved the lie detection technique rather than the scientific principle behind it, then it was Marston's systolic blood pressure evidence, not John Larson's polygraph, that was being ruled inadmissible in the Frye case. If this was true, then it could be argued that the Frye decision has been inappropriately cited all of these years as precedent for the court exclusion of polygraph evidence.

     As for James Frye, he was paroled from the District of Columbia Prison at Lorton, Virginia on June 17, 1939. He had served 18 years behind bars, and died in 1953 at age 58. If it hadn't been for William Marston's unsophisticated and unreliable lie detection test, he may have died a lot sooner.