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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Loss of Perspective: Political Hysteria

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

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

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

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

Not All Practitioners of Forensic Science Are Scientists

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

Celebrity Chef Memoirs

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

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

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Mark Stobbe Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art and Science of Crime Detection

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

Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) mystery novelist 

Victimology

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

Ben Aaronovitch

Sunday, June 28, 2020

David Viens: The Chef Who Cooked His Wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Tracy Ingle SWAT Raid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narcissism And The Political Class

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

Changing Perceptions of the Black Police Officer

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

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

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Sylvie Cachay Bathtub Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's Happening to America's Youth?

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"Feminist" Lawyer Gloria Alred

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Alexis Kahn: The Babysitter From Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Michael Kane Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Brittany Murphy Cause and Manner of Death Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Historic Shirley McKie Fingerprint Misidentification Scandal

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

The Shirley McKie Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DeMarquis Elkins Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inspired Novelist

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

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Susan Cole: Prospective Juror to Perjury Defendant

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

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

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

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

Susan Cole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rickie Lee Fowler Felony-Murder Arson Case

     Sexually abused as a child, and addicted to methamphetamine, Rickie Lee Fowler lived a life of violence and crime. On October 25, 2003, while riding in a van driven by David Valdez, Jr., Fowler tossed burning road flares out of the moving vehicle. The 22-year-old, angry because he and his family had been evicted from their home, wanted to start fires.

     During the next nine days, the twelve wildfires that swept southern California's San Bernardino foothills scorched 442 square miles of land, and burned 1,000 homes to the ground. Five people died of heart attacks while evacuating their fire-threatened dwellings.

     In 2004, after being interviewed as a possible arson suspect, Fowler was sent to prison on a burglary conviction. Two years later, David Valdez, Jr., the driver of the van, was shot to death.

     Fowler, while serving time on the burglary case, was convicted of repeatedly sodomizing an inmate. The judge in that case sentenced him to three terms of 25 years to life.

     In 2009, after Fowler confessed to starting the October 2003 wildfires, grand jurors in San Bernardino indicted him on one count of aggravated arson and five counts of murder. The homicide indictments were based on the felony-murder doctrine. Fowler, because he had committed a felony that directly led to the killing of five people, was criminally responsible for their deaths. While Fowler had only intended to commit arson, he should have foreseen the deadly consequences of his criminal acts. In most states, convictions based on the felony-murder rule bring sentences of twenty years to life. No one convicted of an unintended homicide had ever been sentenced to death.

     In August 2010, when Fowler learned that the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty in his case, he took back his confession. Two years later, a jury in San Bernardino found Rickie Fowler guilty of  arson and the five counts of murder. The jurors also recommended the death penalty.

     On January 28, 2013, the judge sentenced Fowler to death. This unprecedented death sentence made the Fowler felony-murder case historic in the annals of law. Fowler's attorneys immediately appealed the sentence sentence as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

     As of this writing, Fowler's appeal is pending.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Excited Delirium Syndrome: The Taser-Proof Man

     In the Guinness Book of World Records there seems to be a record for just about everything. But there is no mention of the man police used their Taser guns on 71 times within a span of thirty minutes. This had to be a world record in the category of repeatedly shocking someone who didn't die from it. The tasered man who holds this unofficial record will simply be referred to as Bob.

     Bob, a 25-year-old veteran of the Afghanistan War who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, after being allegedly disowned by his family in Phoenix, moved in with a relative in Flagstaff, Arizona. One evening in July 2010, after taking PCP and bath salts, Bob entered a Cheveron gas station and store on Highway 89 in Doney Park just north of Flagstaff. Barefoot, Bob wandered about the place leaving muddy footprints, then approached the cashier and asked to be reported to the police.

     When Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) Officer Brian Barnes arrived at the Cheveron station, he encountered Bob in the parking lot in front of the store. As the officer approached the suspect, Bob ran toward the entrance of the station with the officer in close pursuit. When Bob slammed into the closed door, he bounced back into the officer, and they both fell to the ground. Bob jumped up, this time opened the door, and ran inside. After shooting Bob with his Taser gun, Officer Barnes and a bystander managed to handcuff the out-of-control man. His hands, however, were not restrained behind his back.

     Bob settled down a bit, but the moment Coronino County Deputy Sheriff Don Bartlett arrived, Bob started acting up. To hold him down, the 260 pound deputy sat on his legs, but when that didn't stop the violent thrashing and kicking, Deputy Barnes gave Bob a taste of his Taser. When that didn't help, he zapped him two more times.

     As the DPS Officer and the deputy struggled with the drug-crazed man in the Cheveron station, EMT and firefighters arrived at the scene, followed by Sheriff's Office Sergeant Gerrit Boeck. During the next thirty minutes, Deputy Bartlett used his Taser twenty more times on Bob with Officer Barnes helping out with his Taser.

     Finally, the three police officers, with the help of several firefighters, strapped the handcuffed man onto a gurney, but as they slid him into the ambulance, Bob managed to grab Deputy Bartlett's belt. Sergeant Boeck, thinking that Bob was trying to get ahold of the deputy's gun, started punching him in the arm. It took several officers to pry Bob's fingers from the Deputy's belt.

     Once they got Bob into the ambulance, a paramedic injected him with a tranquilizer used to control animals. The drugs kicked in and Bob settled down.

     At the Flagstaff Medical Center, a doctor diagnosed Bob as being in a state of excited delirium that gave him superhuman strength and rendered him impervious to pain. After a few days hospital personnel discharged Bob. The authorities decided not to charge him with resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, or disorderly conduct. (The county prosecutor was probably concerned with the Taser overuse, and decided to let a sleeping dog lie.)

     Regarding the issue of excessive force, the DPS referred the case to the county attorney's office for investigation. That Bob survived all that electricity, especially when in a state of excited delirium, was miraculous. Had he died, the medical examiner would probably have listed the cause of his death, excited delirium syndrome.

     These officers were presented with an extremely difficult situation, and when their Taser guns didn't work, ran out of good options. Sometimes the police encounter situations they are not equipped to handle. When it became obvious that their Tasters weren't working, the officers should have stopped using them.

     The officers were cleared by the district attorney's office of any wrongdoing in the case.

The Orville Fleming Murder Case

     In 2012, 53-year-old Orville "Moe" Fleming and his wife Meagan separated after she accused him of cheating on her. That year, the 20-year veteran and battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (known as Cal Fire) began dating 24-year-old Sarah Jane Douglas. Douglas had come to Fleming's attention through an Internet site that advertised her services as a paid escort. Shortly after they met, she moved into his house in south Sacramento County. At this time Fleming worked as an instructor at the fire academy in Ione, California.

     By April 2014, Fleming's divorce from Meagan was about to be finalized but his relationship with Douglas had deteriorated into turmoil. Having grown weary of his obsessive, controlling behavior, Douglas wanted out of his life.

     On April 28, 2014, shortly before the finalization of their divorce, Fleming reached out to his estranged wife with the following text message: "Can we put us and our family back together!?" She replied, "No!!! It's over, sorry. I gave you many chances. Please leave me in peace now. You already hurt me so bad. I'm over it. Never going back to a cheater. Never. But God bless you. Now leave me alone!!!" Fleming responded by texting: "Come and pick me up. We're supposed to grow old together." She did not respond to his plea.

     On Wednesday night, April 30, 2014, Sarah Douglas, her younger sister Stephanie, and their mother, spent time together at a local gambling casino. During the evening, Sarah revealed that she planned to leave Mr. Fleming.

     Just before midnight, after their night out, Stephanie Douglas and her mother dropped Sarah off at the house she had been sharing with Fleming. Not long after that, Stephanie received a phone call from her sister. In the background she could hear an angry man's voice. Sarah screamed and the phone went dead.

     After the disturbing phone call, Stephanie tried but failed to get back in touch with her sister. Sometime after midnight, Stephanie went to the house to check on Sarah. She found her sister lying face down and dead with a blood-soaked bed sheet wrapped around her neck. Orville Fleming and his vehicle were not at the scene. Stephanie called 911.

     At two-thirty that morning, May 1, 2014, Fleming sent the following text message to his soon-to-be ex-wife: "You should have come and picked me up."

     At the murder scene, detectives encountered the stabbed-to-death victim as well as pools of blood and bloodstains scattered throughout the house. A few hours later, a judge issued a warrant for Orville Fleming's arrest on suspicion of murder.

     At seven that evening, police officers in nearby Elk Grove, California, found the fugitive's abandoned white, 2007 Chevrolet pickup truck with Cal Fire written on the doors. The vehicle had been sitting there all day.

     Because the firefighter had outdoor skills and a familiarity with the Yosemite Valley and other regions of the Sierra Nevada and Santa Cruz Mountains, officers figured he might be hard to find. Fleming also possessed keys to dozens of state buildings, lookout towers, and storage sheds stocked with food and water. He was also presumed to be armed with two handguns that were registered in his name.

     Fleming's superiors at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a few days after Sarah Douglas' murder, terminated him from his $100,000-a-year job. (In 2013, in addition to his base salary, Fleming earned $30,000 in overtime pay.)

     On Friday, May 16, 2014, police officers arrested Orville Fleming as he boarded a bus in Elk Grove, California where he had been hiding all along. The following Monday, at his arraignment hearing, Fleming pleaded not guilty to the murder charge. Relatives of the victim were infuriated when the defendant winked at an acquaintance in the courtroom.

     A few weeks after the murder, Meagan Fleming, the murder suspect's ex-wife, told reporters that Orville Fleming and other firefighters had sex with prostitutes on firetrucks at the academy. Moreover, someone had made a sex tape of this activity. She claimed to have seen a tape of her ex-husband and other firefighters having sex with Sarah Douglas. Because of the seriousness of this allegation, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office asked the California Highway Patrol to investigate the claim.

     On Monday December 29, 2014, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesperson announced that sixteen firefighters, most of whom were instructors at the fire academy, had been placed on paid administrative leave. The spokesperson did not say why these firefighters had been given "administrative time off."

      Amid the fire department scandal, Orville Fleming remained incarcerated in the Sacramento County Jail awaiting his trial for the murder of Sarah Douglas.

     On July 15, 2015, after a jury in Sacramento found Orville Fleming guilty of second-degree murder, the Superior Court judge sentenced him to 16 years to life in prison. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Small Town SWAT

     Nationwide, the vast majority of SWAT team duty is performed on a part-time basis. Except in the largest metropolitan areas, there aren't enough hostage situations, armed standoffs, or other high-risk assignments to justify full-time SWAT team positions. Although they are on call around the clock, most paramilitary team members, when they are not on SWAT calls, perform routine police work. The smaller the law enforcement agency, the less need there is for a SWAT unit. Therefore, SWAT officers in the smaller agencies either grow stale from inactivity or are deployed in low-risk cases in order to keep sharp. Being busy also boosts officer morale. This form of SWAT utilization exacerbates the universal problem of small town over enforcement of the law.

     Forming and maintaining a SWAT team is expensive, and most law enforcement agencies are strapped for money. The National Tactical Police Officer Association's (NTOA) minimum personnel standard for the staffing of one SWAT team is 17 officers. The equipment, ongoing training, and overtime necessary to support a single SWAT team can cost $200,000 a year, a figure that doesn't include the purchase and maintenance of a SWAT tank or an armored personnel carrier. Moreover, this sum doesn't take into consideration insurance and legal costs associated with civil liability suits when things go wrong. To save money, some small departments field SWAT teams comprised of ten officers, far below the NTOA recommendation.
     Eastern Kentucky University Professors Peter B. Kraska and Victor Kappeler, in their 1997 landmark study, "Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing," found that by 1996, some 70 percent of police departments in towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had fully equipped SWAT units. Police chiefs and sheriffs in lightly populated, low-crime jurisdictions, in justifying the formation of SWAT teams, almost always cite self-sufficiency. Why would they have to humble themselves by having to request, a few times a year, help from neighboring agencies? The keeping-up-with-the-Jones aspect of small town SWAT proliferation reflects the competitiveness, professional jealousy, and even hostility among law enforcement agencies that traditionally do not cooperate well with one another.
     SWAT policing has become a part of small town law enforcement. There are, for example, SWAT teams in places like Maryville, Tennessee, Medford, Oregon, Mansfield, Texas, Winchester, Virginia, and Harwich, Massachusetts. The campus police at the University of Central Florida employ SWAT officers even though the county has a paramilitary force. Combat style policing is no longer an urban affair.
     The police department in Mountain City, Tennessee, in October 2007, became combat ready. In announcing the formation of a SWAT team, Chief of Police Jerry Proffitt said, "We're not going to stand by and wait for somebody else to take care of our problems." It was not clear what problems the chief was referring to, since only one homicide and two rapes had been reported in the town of 24,000 during the previous five years. Since police departments don't form SWAT teams to let them die on the vine, the citizens of Mountain City were about to experience a more militarized approach to local law enforcement, one that would mostly take the form of pre-dawn, no-knock house raids in search of drugs.

Ali Syed's Killing Spree

     Ali Syed, an unemployed, part time student at Saddleback Community College, lived with his parents in Ladera Ranch, an affluent suburban Orange County community 50 miles south of Los Angeles. The pudgy 20-year-old spent most of his time in his parents' beige and white stucco condo playing video games. He had never been arrested, and had no known history of illicit drug use. Ali did possess a .12-gauge shotgun his father had given to him in 2012.

     At 4:45 in the morning of Tuesday, February 19, 2013, Syed's mother called 911 from the Ladera Ranch condo. "I think somebody was shot," she said. "I heard a gunshot." Deputies with the Orange County Sheriff's Office found, in Syed's room, 20-year-old Courtney Aoki. (There were reports she worked as a stripper.) Aoki had been killed instantly by three shotgun blasts to the head and upper body. Syed had fled the murder scene in his parents' black GMC Yukon before the deputies arrived at the dwelling.

     From Ladera Ranch, Syed headed north on Interstate 5 where, 20 miles from his home, he exited the interstate and drove into the town of Tustin. Driving with a flat tire, Syed pulled into a Denny's parking lot alongside a man sitting in an older model blue Cadillac. Syed pointed his shotgun at the man and yelled, "Get out!" Instead of complying with the order, the driver of the Cadillac drove off. He didn't get far. Syed raised the shotgun and blew out the fleeing driver's rear window, wounding him in the back of the head. The victim, who managed to escape on foot to a nearby hospital, survived the shooting.

     Syed approached a man pumping gas at a Mobile station. "I don't want to hurt you," he said. "I just killed someone. Give me your keys. This is my last day." Syed climbed in behind the wheel of this man's Dodge pickup truck and headed north. On Interstate 5, he drove five miles before merging onto a southbound lane which took him to Freeway 55. He pulled the stolen truck to the shoulder of the highway, stepped out of the vehicle, and began shooting at motorists commuting to work, wounding three of them.

     After firing randomly at passing vehicles, Syed climbed into the Dodge pickup, pulled back onto the highway, proceeded to the Edinger Avenue exit from where he drove into Santa Ana. Shortly after pulling into town, he approached a man sitting in a BMW. Syed ordered 69-year-old Melvin Edwards of Laguna Hills out of his vehicle. As the victim stood at the side of the street, Syed executed him with three shotgun blasts.

     Driving Melvin Edwards' BMW, Syed returned to Tustin. In the parking lot of a computer store, he murdered Jeremy Lewis. Lewis, a plumber from Fullerton, was walking to a construction site at a nearby Fairfield Inn. A construction supervisor saw the shotgun-armed Syed chasing Lewis across the parking lot. The supervisor drove his pickup truck onto the lot in an effort to rescue Lewis, but Syed shot him in the arm, and stole his vehicle. It was 5:45 in the morning.

     Just before six o'clock, at an intersection about 25 miles north of Ladera Ranch, officers with the California Highway Patrol caught up with Syed. This video-game playing college student, after killing three people and wounding three others in the course of his 75-minute suburban shooting spree, jumped out of the stolen pickup truck while it was still moving. Syed pressed the muzzle of his shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. He became his seventh victim.

     For reasons that remained a mystery absent a suicide note or some kind of manifesto, Ali Syed shot six innocent strangers. There was no way to know if he had been inspired by Christopher Dorner's rampage in southern California, or any of the other high-profile mass murder-suicide cases. If suicide was his ultimate goal, why did he murder the young woman in his room and the two men he encountered as they went about their daily routines? This was a question that will never be answered.

     In the wake of homicidal crime sprees, people also ask if there were any indications that this person was capable of such mayhem. These events are almost always impossible to predict because it's impossible to know what is going on inside the mind of a mentally disturbed person. 

Neonaticide

     The day you are born is the day you are most likely to be the victim of homicide. This cheerless statistic holds true whether you live in Stockholm or South Yarra [Australia]. The perpetrator will almost certainly be you mother. She will most likely be under 25, unmarried, still living at home or in poor circumstances, either still at school or unemployed, emotionally immature and astonishingly secretive. She has carried you to term without telling a soul of your existence. And somehow the parents with whom she resides never suspect she is with child.

     Now that you are born, it's not depression or psychosis that moves her to murder you. Mental illness rarely plays a part in this sort of killing. Nor is she overwhelmed by the feeling that life is simply too harsh for such a defenseless little creature for whom she cares a great deal.

     There is rarely great violence in the manner in which she kills you, her newborn child. She may simply abandon you to the elements. The only intense feeling she has is the desire to see you gone. She may even deny that you exist at all.

     This is the profile of a neonaticide, the murder of a newborn in its first 24 hours of life, a form of infanticide peculiar to industrialized countries. Most people probably never heard of neonaticide. There is no separate provision for neonaticide in criminal law. People are either charged with manslaughter or murder, or more rarely, infanticide.

     Mairead Dolan is a professor of forensic psychiatry at Monash University and Assistant Director of research at the Victorian Institute for Forensic Mental Health [in Australia]. She is co-author of a draft paper, "Maternal Infanticide and Neonaticide in Australia: A Forensic Evaluation." Dolan says that few neonaticides are reported because bodies are never found or reported to the authorities, or the cause of a death remains unknown. She also says there is an acceptance that coroners sometimes incorrectly rule a death accidental in actual homicide cases. "It is also accepted they can be reluctant to think the worst without supporting evidence," she says.

     Baby Haven laws have been enacted in most of the U.S.'s 50 states over the past eight years. They provide for a mother to abandon her newborn baby without fear of being charged with criminal abandonment. In the U.S. and European experience, the abandonment usually takes place at a hospital or at a police or fire station, where special hatches have been built into the walls. There are limits to the age of the children that can be abandoned, and there are frequently provisions for the mother to be reunited under certain circumstances.

John Elder, "Sins of the Mother: The Tragedy of Neonaticide," The Sydney Morning Herald, December 19, 2010
     

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Historic Cordelia Botkin Poison Murder Case

     In 1895, 30-year-old John P. Dunning and his wife Elizabeth Mary, the daughter of ex-congressman John Pennington of Dover, Delaware, were living in San Francisco. In September of that year, John, while riding his bicycle, spotted an attractive woman sitting on a park bench not far from his home. A few days later, he and his new acquaintance, Cordelia Botkin, a married woman estranged from her husband in Stockton, California, started an affair. During the next two years, John Dunning was a frequent visitor to Botkin's house on Geary Street.

     While cheating on his wife, John Dunning began to drink and lose money at the racetrack. In early 1898, his employer, suspecting that Dunning had been embezzling company money, fired him. Because John could no long support his family, Elizabeth Dunning and her daughter returned to Dover to live with her parents. With his wife and daughter back in Delaware, John was free to move in with Cordelia Botkin who now resided at the Victoria Hotel on Hyde Street.

     Two months after he moved in with his mistress, Dunning landed a newspaper job covering the Spanish-American war. As a result, he would be traveling to Cuba and Puerto Rico. Before leaving San Francisco, Dunning broke the news to Cordelia that he missed his wife and daughter. The affair, he said, was over. Cordelia did not take this news very well. As far as she was concerned, the affair was not over, not by a long shot.

     Back in Dover, Delaware, in the summer of 1898, Mrs. Dunning began receiving anonymous letters mailed from San Francisco that referred to her husband's affair with an "interesting and pretty woman." The letters were signed, "A Friend." That August, someone in San Francisco sent Mrs. Dunning a Cambric handkerchief and a box of chocolates. The note accompanying the gift was signed, "With love to yourself and baby, Mrs. C."

     On August 9, 1898, after dinner at the Pennington home, Elizabeth passed the mystery box of bonbons to family and friends gathered that evening on the front porch. The group of four adults and three children included Mrs. Dunning's sister, Leila Deane and Mrs. Dunning's daughter Mary. Mrs. Dunning and her sister helped themselves to the chocolates, and later in the evening became violently ill.

     Eleven days after the candy arrived in the mail from San Francisco, Leila Deane died. The next day, Mrs. Dunning passed away. The presumed causes of their deaths: cholera morbus, a common ailment in the era before refrigeration. John Dunning, still overseas when he received the news, arrived back in Dover ten days later. When his father-in-law showed him the anonymous letters, including the note that had accompanied the candy, Dunning simply said, "Cordelia."

     Mr. Pennington, the father of the dead women, had the uneaten chocolates analyzed by a chemist who worked for the state. The chemist reported that some of the remaining bonbons had been spiked with arsenic. Mrs. Dunning and her sister had not been autopsied because the treating physician believed that the victims' prolonged vomiting had cleansed their bodies of the poison. Had the science of toxicology existed in 1898, a forensic pathologist would have known that although arsenic, a heavy metal poison, is excreted from the damaged cells, traces are sequestered in the victim's bones, fingernails, and hair follicles.

     The discovery of the poison in the candy prompted a coroner's inquest. When presented with the facts of the case, the coroner's jury ruled that the two women had been poisoned to death by arsenic-laced chocolate mailed from San Francisco.

     Although the deaths had occurred in Dover, the authorities in Delaware requested that the case be investigated by the San Francisco Police Department. The man who would conduct the investigation, I. W. Lees, had been appointed chief of police the previous year. Convinced that she would confess under pressure, Lees arrested Cordelia Botkin for the murders of the two Delaware women. When the suspect vehemently maintained her innocence, Chief Lees was forced to make the case the hard way. He traced the arsenic to the Owl Drug Store on Market Street where a clerk said he had sold the poison to a woman meeting the suspect's description. Lees also questioned a Botkin acquaintance who told him that the suspect had expressed concern about having to sign her name when purchasing arsenic. The acquaintance had assured Botkin that she would not be required to sign for the purchase. Chief Lees also spoke to a physician who had been asked by Cordelia Botkin to describe the effects of various poisons on the human body.

     A search of Cordelia Botkin's room at the Victoria Hotel produced wrapping paper that matched the paper that had enclosed the box of poisoned chocolates. To identify the handwriting associated with the case, Chief Lees engaged the services of San Francisco's Daniel T. Ames, one of the most respected questioned document examiners in the country. When Ames analyzed and compared samples of Mrs. Botkin's handwriting with the questioned writings, he reported that Cordelia Botkin had written the letters, and had addressed the deadly package. Two other document examiners, Carl Eisenschimel and Theodore Kytka, after examining the evidence, agreed with Ames' conclusion.

     Amid intense media coverage, the Cordelia Botkin murder trial got underway in early December 1898. After the prosecution put on its case which featured the three questioned document examiners, the defense had no choice but to put the defendant on the stand. Botkin did not deny buying arsenic in June of that year, explaining that she had used the poison to clean a straw hat. Moreover, the arsenic she had purchased was powdered while the arsenic in the candy was crystalline. Following Botkin's direct testimony and cross-examination, the defense rested.

     After four hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Because the case against her was circumstantial, and juries didn't like to send women to the gallows, the jurors recommended a sentence of life in prison. Instead of serving her time in San Quentin, the judge sent her to the county jail in San Francisco where, in exchange for sexual favors, Cordelia would come and go as she pleased. A few months after sentencing her, the judge saw Cordelia shopping in downtown San Francisco.

     While Cordelia Botkin shopped in San Francisco, her attorney appealed her conviction on a procedural issue. An appellate court overturned the conviction which led to a second trial in 1904. Once again, on the strength of the handwriting evidence, a jury found her guilty. After the earthquake of 1906 destroyed the county jail, Botkin was sent to San Quentin. On March 7, at the age of 56, she died in prison of "softening of the brain due to melancholy."