More than 5,430,000 pageviews from 160 countries

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Cody Mark Cousins: Murder by Insanity or Hatred and Drugs?

     Cody Mark Cousins, after graduating from high school in Springsboro, Indiana in 2008, enrolled as an engineering major at Purdue University. While attending classes on the West Lafayette, Indiana campus, Cousins struggled with mental illness and drug abuse. During the summer of 2013, during a 72-hour-stint in a mental ward, a psychiatrist opined that Cousins, already suffering from bipolar disorder, was developing schizophrenia.

     The fact that the university student had been acting aggressively and experiencing hallucinations could have been the result of his use of the drug ecstasy. From August to October 2013, Cousins bought a gram of ecstasy every ten days. During this period he also abused amphetamine. Still, he managed to make the dean's list three times.

     At noon on Tuesday January 21, 2014, Cousins attended a class in the electrical engineering building taught by a 21-year-old teaching assistant from West Bend, Wisconsin named Andrew F. Boldt. During this class, in front of classmates, Cousins pulled a handgun and shot Boldt five times. As Cousins replaced the empty revolver with a knife, he told the horrified witnesses to call the police. Cousins next stabbed the teaching assistant 19 times then walked out of the classroom.

     Later on the day of Andrew Boldt's murder, police officers booked Cody Cousins into the Tippecanoe County Jail on the charge of first-degree murder. If convicted as charged, Cousins faced up to 65 years in prison. The judge denied him bond and ordered a psychiatric evaluation.

     In May 2014, Cousin's attorney filed notice that he planned to plead his client guilty but mentally ill.

     The Cousins murder trial got underway in the summer of 2014. In his opening statement to the jury, Tippecanoe County prosecutor Pat Harrington argued that the defendant, frustrated by his own lack of success, killed the victim out of drug-fueled hatred and envy. "Violent thoughts," Harrington said, "led to violent actions. That's not insanity--that's what happened."

     Defense attorney Kirk Freeman, when it came his turn to address the jury, spoke of his clients's history of insanity, and argued that guilty but mentally ill would be an appropriate verdict in this case. The defense attorney pointed out that mental illness ran in the defendant's family.

     According to a prosecution psychiatrist, when the defendant shot and stabbed Andrew Boldt to death, he was not acting pursuant to the symptoms of any form of mental illness. A second medical expert took the stand for the prosecution and said essentially the same thing.

     Following the closing arguments, the jury, in rejecting the insanity defense, found the defendant guilty as charged. The verdict surprised no one.

     Judge Thomas Busch, following testimony from both sides at the convicted man's September 19, 2014 sentencing hearing, sentenced him to 65 years in prison. "This is a crime of hatred," the judge said. "It's also a crime of terror. Cousins chose a place where people were gathered."

     Cousins, given credit for the 242 days he'd already spent in jail, would not be eligible for release until July 22, 2046. That year he would be 54 years old.

     On October 28, 2014, at nine o'clock at night, while being held in a one-man cell in the Orientation Unit of the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Cody Cousins slashed his arms and neck with a sharp instrument. An ambulance crew tried in vain to save the bleeding, unresponsive inmate. Thirty minutes later, medical personnel pronounced the convicted killer dead. 

Are Newspapers Going the Way of Drive-In Theaters?

Declining ad revenues and a generally broken business model have shuttered nearly one-quarter of U.S. newspapers over the past 15 years. "We are truly facing an extinction-level event for local news," Jonathon Schleuss, president of the News Guild-Communications Workers of America, testified at a House hearing in March 2021.

Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News, April 6, 2021

If You're Not Born With a Silver Spoon, Steal One

Twenty thousand silver teaspoons are stolen from the Washington DC, Hilton each year. [This must be where the politicians eat.)

Editors of Portable Press, Strange Crime, 2019

What is the Appeal of Fame?

Why do so many Americans want to be famous? Don't they know fame will not necessarily bring wisdom, happiness, love, or even money? Don't they know it often ends up in disgrace, humiliation and misery? Why do they seek fame, and what does it say about our culture?

The Catch-22 of Publishing

Because there are almost as many writers in the U.S. as there are readers, publishing houses are overwhelmed with manuscripts. To help screen out the junk, the major publishers only accept manuscripts submitted through a literary agent. For the unpublished writer, it's as hard to secure a literary agent as it once was to find a publisher. The catch-22 is this: To get published one needs a legitimate literary agent. To get a good literary agent, one needs to be published.

Memorable Dialogue

Dialogue that jumps off the page sounds nothing like the way real people converse. A transcript of an everyday conversation is devoid of coherent, memorable, rhetoric. Ordinary talk, when read aloud, comes off as repetitive and at times, idiotic. Sparkling, rhythmic dialogue is difficult to write and requires a great deal of training, experience, and talent. Many novelists don't have an ear for it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Violent Death of Judge Sandra Feurstein

      At ten in the morning on Friday, April 9, 2021, in the Atlantic coastal town of Boca Raton, Florida, a young woman in a red two-door sedan was seen speeding around stopped vehicles and veering off the street onto the sidewalk. The car struck 75-year-old Sandra Feurstein, a vacationing federal judge from Long Island, New York. After smashing into Judge Feurstein on the sidewalk, the out of control vehicle swerved back onto the street and hit a six-year-old boy walking in an Ocean Boulevard crosswalk.

     Fifteen minutes after plowing into the two Boca Raton pedestrians, the driver crashed her car in Delray Beach. When police officers approached the red two-door sedan the driver appeared unconscious. When spoken to, she climbed out of her damaged car convulsing and starring into space. 

     Once in the ambulance, 23-year-old Natasia Snape from North Lauderdale started screaming, fighting with the medics, and yelling that she was Harry Potter. (In the Potter novels there's a prominent character named Snape.) A member of the ambulance crew subdued Snape with an injection. Snape was transported to the Delray Beach Medical Center for observation. 

     At the hospital, when questioned by a police officer, Natasia Snape denied running over the judge and the six-year-old boy in Boca Raton. 

     In Snapes' vehicle officers found a container labeled "THC Cannabis" and synthetic drug called T-Salts, a bath salt known to cause psychotic episodes. Officers acquired a search warrant authorizing removal of the suspect's blood for toxicological tests. 

     Later that Friday, officers booked Natasia Snape into the Palm County Jail on charges of vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident resulting in injury. The magistrate set her bail at $60,000.

     Sandra Feurstein, the 75-year-old victim of the Boca Raton hit and run was pronounced dead at the Delray Beach Medical Center. The boy, Anthony Ouchinnikov, was treated for his injuries, and on Sunday, April 8, discharged from the hospital.

     After working a few years as a public school teacher, Sandra Feurstein graduated in 1979 from New York City's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She practiced law for a few years then served 16 years as a New York State judge. President George W. Bush, in 2003, appointed her to the federal bench for the Eastern District of New York, a jurisdiction that included Long Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. Her mother Annette Eistein, who died in 2020, had been a federal judge as well. 

     At the time of Judge Feurstein's death she was presiding over a high-profile murder-for-hire case in which former New York City Police officer Valerie Cincinelli was accused of paying her lover to kill her estranged husband. The defendant was expected to plead guilty upon the judge's return to New York. Due to her unexpected death the case was on hold. 

Insanity: The Unpopular Defense

Insanity isn't an easy thing to prove, and it is often the defense of last resort. The belief that madness can be exculpatory is an ancient one--so ancient that it was carved into the Code of Hammurabi seventeen hundred years before the birth of Christ, alongside the notion of proportional retaliation, lex talionis, an eye for an eye...The insanity defense has been out of favor for a century. Queen Victoria tried to stifle it in the mid-nineteenth century, out of fear that it would encourage would-be assassins; a hundred years later, President Richard Nixon tried to have it [federally] outlawed. Too many defendants had turned out to be insane only until acquittal, and prosecutors and psychiatrists alike had come to worry that the defense was just a way of letting murderers get away with murder; around the country, there were examples of defendants sent to state mental hospitals after a jury decided they were insane, only to have the hospital's superintendent and staff release them after diagnosing them as sane. In response, some states--Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah--banned the insanity plea entirely.  

Casy Cep, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, 2019

Thought Crime

DEFENDANT: If I called you a son of a bitch, what would you do?

JUDGE: I'd hold you in contempt and assess an additional five days in jail.

DEFENDANT; What if I thought you were a son of a bitch?

JUDGE: I can't do anything about that. There's no law against thinking.

DEFENDANT: In that case, I think you are a son of a bitch.

Editors of Portable Press, Strange Crime, 2019


Contradictanyms are words which have opposing meanings depending on the context in which they are used. For example, the word DUST can mean to add fine particles (as in dust the cake with icing sugar) as well as to remove fine particles (as in dust the furniture).

Ben Schott, Schott's Original Miscellany, 2003 

Research Done: Now the Hard Part

Nothing writes itself. Left to its own devices, the world will never transform into words, and no matter how many pages of notes and interviews and documents a reporting trip generates, the one that matters most always starts out blank. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcom called this space between reporting and writing an "abyss." It's an awful place, and an awfully easy place to get stuck. 

Casey Cep, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, 2019 

The Accessible Genre

The fantasy genre is a much more accessible form of literature than science fiction. You don't have to possess any pre-existing knowledge to get into fantasy. In science fiction, however, you do because it has all of that science in there.

Terry Brooks,, 2003 

A Bad Review? Who Cares?

People who aren't novelists might think that authors would be well advised to study their negative reviews with care, rather than letting a protective skin form. After all, isn't there something to be learned from the thoughtful analysis of intelligent and knowledgeable critics? Well, maybe, but most of the writers I know don't take them seriously, and neither do I. It's not that I don't respect reviewers. It's that reviewers don't write their columns for writers. They write them with readers in mind, and that's a different thing.

Aaron Elkins, Mystery Writers Annual, 2004 

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Patrick Dunn Vigilante Murders

     If you check your local sex offender registry, you will probably be shocked by the length of the list. (You may also be shocked to find out who's on it.) The shear number of American men who have been convicted of raping women and children is staggering. When considering these depositories of depravity, all kinds of questions come to mind, including why there are so many sex offenders in America. And has it always been this way?

     Everyone knows that rapists and pedophiles tend to be repeat offenders, and the harm they inflict on their victims is serious and long-lasting. This reality begs the question of why these registered sex offenders are out of prison in the first place. If you follow media crime reporting, you regularly come across cases where men with extensive sex conviction histories, after getting out of prison, are arrested for the same kinds of offenses. Are judges and parole board members idiots? For example, under what rationale would a man who has raped a child ever be let out of prison? Why are American judges so lenient in these cases? Other than first degree-murder and aggravated assault, what is worse than rape? Could these judges be so naive as to believe these pathological offenders can be rehabilitated? Or is it simply that our prisons are so full of drug war arrestees there's no room for sex offenders?

     Patrick Dunn and Gary Blanton rented rooms in the same house near Sequim, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula in the northwestern corner of the state. Dunn, 34, had served time for assault and various drug related offenses. Twenty-eight-year-old Gary Blanton, in 2001, had been convicted of raping a 17-year-old girl when he was in high school. In June 2012, Blanton had been charged with child abuse. As a result of the rape conviction, Blanton was a registered sex offender in a state data bank the public can access.

     In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 2, 2012, Dunn, armed with a 9 mm pistol, shot and killed Gary Blanton. After shooting the victim several times, Dunn drove his rented car a few miles to the home of 56-year-old Jerry Ray, another registered sex offender. In August 2002, Ray had been convicted of raping two children, ages seven and four. After shooting Mr. Ray to death, Patrick Dunn abandoned his car on a remote road on the Olympic Peninsula.

     After receiving 911 calls regarding a suspicious person on foot near Sequim, deputies with the Clallam County Sheriff's Office came upon Dunn's abandoned rental vehicle. Inside, next to a box of 9 mm rounds, officers found a note signed by Dunn in which he took responsibility for killing Blanton and Ray, stating that "it had to be done."

     The following afternoon, after a three-hour manhunt featuring a Customs/Border Patrol helicopter and tracking dogs, police found Dunn hiding in a woodshed deep in the forest. Later that Sunday, Dunn told his interrogators he had murdered Gary Blanton and Jerry Ray because they were sex offenders. The suspect said he had also intended to kill a third sex offender who lived in Jefferson County and had planned to kill more registered sex offenders.

     On Monday, June 4, 2012, a judge informed Patrick Dunn that he had been charged with two counts of first-degree murder. The magistrate appointed Dunn an attorney and denied him bail. If convicted of the two murders Dunn would be eligible for the death penalty.

     In August 2012, Dunn pleaded guilty to both murders to avoid the death penalty. On September 18, 2012, Superior Court Judge S. Brook Taylor sentenced Dunn to two life sentences without the possibility of parole.

     After the sentencing, the Clallam County prosecutor, in referring to a cluster of people associated with the dead sex offender's victims who were in the courtroom to show support for Patrick Dunn, said this to reporters: "It is unfortunate there are people who admire what he [Dunn] did. It is despicable and disgusting." One of Dunn's courtroom supporters, a relative of a sexual victim, called Dunn a "hero." Gary Blanton's widow called the Washington state sex registry a "hit list." (The authorities had classified Blanton and Ray as "level-two" sex offenders which meant they considered the risks of them re-offending as "moderate." One might argue that if there is any risk of re-offending, the state should error in favor of the public.)

     While Patrick Dunn got what he deserved for committing cold-blooded double murder, the fact there are those who consider him a hero reflects the frustration many people have over what they perceive as the criminal justice system's failure to protect women and children from sex offenders.

Avoiding Bias in Crime Scene Impression Identification

Even the most qualified fingerprint examiners, handwriting experts, and footwear identification specialists make honest mistakes. Particularly in fields of subjective identification, bias has a way of creeping into the analysis. A series of studies and experiments involving fingerprint examiners in England by a pair of cognitive psychologists has shown that "biasing contextual information" can lead to mistaken conclusions. For example, when fingerprint examiners were told a suspect had confessed, these experts made identifications in cases where, without this knowledge, they had previously declared the same set of prints a mismatch. These studies, conducted at the University of Southampton, suggest that latent fingerprint work and, by implication, handwriting identification and footwear impression comparison are more subjective than previously believed. In light of these findings, the less these forensic experts know about the crime in question, the better. Within the fingerprint field, erecting a wall between the examiner and the criminal investigation is much more difficult when the expert is employed directly by the law enforcement agency.

Investigative Journalist Robert I. Friedman

In the ever shrinking community of serious investigative reporters in New York City, Robert I. Friedman [1950-2002] will be remembered as a dedicated pro who followed his reporting wherever it took him, no matter whom it offended or what it meant for his own career. In 1993, for example, Friedman castigated the FBI in The Village Voice for ignoring information it had developed on the Muslim extremists behind the first bombing of the World Trade Center, warning that without stronger action, terrorists would strike at the towers again. Though the story would cost him valuable sources with the FBI, Friedman published it and won a Society of Professional Journalists Award for Best Investigative Reporting in a Weekly.

Dan Bischoff in What Are Journalists For, 1999 

In Your Journal Include Yourself

Many diarists, concerned over seeming too self-absorbed, actually avoid recording their own perceptions, reactions, and feelings. They describe other people and events but forget to include themselves as observers with unique perceptions and feelings that are validly explored in a diary.

Tristine Rainer, Your Life Story, 1998 

Norman Mailer On Writing For The Screen

 I'm not interested in getting a job in Hollywood. I have no desire in the world to write a movie script. Why the hell should I write a movie script? Scriptwriting has nothing to do with writing. The best scriptwriter in the world, ideally, would be a film editor with a novelistic gift. And those are qualities that don't usually go together.

Norman Mailer, 1998

Novel Versus Short Story Writing

Short stories are wonderful and extremely challenging, and the joy of them--because it only takes me three or four months to write--is that I can take more risks with them. It's just less of your life invested. That's great. But the challenge of a novel is so rewarding--there's so much more you can cram into them. Maybe the metaphor is: With a short story, you're building a table, you have four legs, you're trying to make it as beautiful and as functional as you can. With a novel, you're building not just a table but a whole house--you're building all the furniture inside it. It's more challenging, and then when you finish, it's more rewarding. I do think it's a richer experience.

Carole Burns, Off The Page, 2008 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

What Happened to Ryan Uhre?

     Ryan Uhre grew up in the suburban town of Weston, Florida, a planned community of 65,000 in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach metropolitan area. After attending Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale where he was on the wrestling team, Ryan enrolled at Florida State University in the state's capital, Tallahassee. After graduating from FSU in December 2013 with a degree in psychology, Ryan signed on as a legislative intern in state representative Richard Stark's Tallahassee office. In the fall of 2014, the 23-year-old planned to start law school.

     On Super Bowl Sunday, February 2, 2014, Ryan and several of his Alpha Delta Phi fraternity brothers watched the game at Andrew's Capital Grill and Bar in downtown Tallahassee. That night, after the game, he left the bar on foot. His friends thought he was walking to his apartment. He wore a Hawaiian-style shirt and what they call surfing Santas. [Red pants worn by Florida surfers who hit the waves wearing Santa Claus suits.]

     On Friday, February 7, 2014, Ryan's fraternity brothers reported him missing to the FSU Police Department. The search that ensued failed to produce a clue as to Ryan's whereabouts. The day before the missing person report, Ryan's cellphone briefly turned on from the Pompano Beach area. Police officers and others searched for him without result in and around Pompano Beach.

     At eight-thirty on the morning of Tuesday, February 18, 2014, 16 days after Ryan was seen leaving Andrew's Capital Grill and Bar in Tallahassee, police officers discovered his body on the second floor of a two-story vacant building not far from the bar. To have gotten into the building, Ryan would have had to have entered through a door on the roof. The structure, owned by the Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare Foundation, has been empty since 2006. In 2012 the place was gutted by a fire. Ryan's body lay near a boarded-up window.

     At the death scene, officers found Ryan's broken cellphone, his wallet, identification cards, watch, and an unspecified amount of cash in his pocket. It appeared he had not been the victim of a street mugging. According to reports, detectives were looking for a man believed to have been with Ryan at the time of his disappearance. (Media sites reported that Ryan Uhre was gay.)

     The fact it took the police 16 days to find the young man's body just yards from where he was last seen suggests one of two things: Police incompetence, or the possibility that Ryan died somewhere else and that his body had been placed in the abandoned building.

    On May 7, 2014, following the February 19 autopsy, the Leon County Medical Examiner's Office announced that Ryan Uhre had accidentally fallen to his death in the abandoned building. According to the toxicology report, he had cocaine, heroin, and alcohol in his blood.

     Why Ryan Uhre was in the building, and exactly what he was doing there, remained a mystery. 

Executing Kelly Gissendancer

     Since only a handful of states actually execute death row inmates, death by lethal injection has become a relatively unusual event. Rarer still are the executions of women. Even in the heyday of capital punishment, few women died at the end of a robe or in the electric chair. While women are no less capable of unspeakable evil than men, executing them, at least since the dawn of the 20th century, has been deemed inappropriate. 

     In Georgia, where executions are still carried out, the authorities hadn't executed a woman in 70 years. That made the September 30, 2015 execution of Kelly Renee Gissendancer so newsworthy, and to many, barbaric.

     The 47-year-old death row inmate of 18 years received her lethal injection a few minutes after midnight following the U. S. Supreme Court's decision not to intercede on her behalf.

     In 1998, a jury found Gissendancer guilty of arranging to have her boyfriend kidnap and stab to death her husband Douglas. A jury found the hit man, Gregory Owen, guilty of kidnapping and first-degree murder. The judge sentenced Mr. Owen to life in prison. Prosecutors, with the help of Owen as a key witness, secured Gissendancer's first-degree murder conviction.

     Over the years Gissendancer's death house attorneys based their appeals for clemency on the fact she was not present when her boyfriend committed the murder on her behalf. Moreover, the defense lawyers argued their client had found religion and had been a model prisoner. They said she felt bad about ordering the hit. Apparently the governor of the state and a majority of the Supreme Court justices, officials who could have saved her life, were unmoved by those arguments.

     Gissendancer, at the time of her execution, was the 16th women executed in the United States since the U. S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. She was survived by three adult children.

Exaggeration as Humor

Be careful with exaggeration, one of the main tools of humor writing. Exaggeration, generally speaking, should be outside the realm of possibility, but somehow within the realm of visual imagination.

Patrick McManus, The Deer on a Bicycle, 2000

The Depressed Novelist

I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as nobody could ever like my kind of writing again [social-comedy novels]. I get depressed about my writing, and feel that however good it was it still wouldn't be acceptable to any publisher.

Barbara Pym in Lot to Ask by Hazel Holt, 1991 

Catherine Drinker Bowen on Biography Writing

In the writing of a biography, it is expedient to approach one's subject from the periphery, from the outside in--to study first the times, then move to the localities and persons of the immediate story.

Catherine Drinker Bowen, Adventures of a Biographer, 1959 

Pretentious Characters Are Humorous

Pretense is a common trait of many humorous characters. An audience will laugh at any character that lacks self-knowledge--one who is a fraud and tries to publicly present himself as an authority figure deserving of respect. When exposed by other characters as a fraud, the audience will laugh. When these pretentious characters try to cover up and continue their pretensions, the reader will laugh again because these characters are not a threat to them.

Richard Michaels Stefanik,, 2000 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Jerome Sidney DeAvila Murder Case

     Jerome Sidney DeAvila, a Stockton, California pedophile with a long history of sex crimes, was sentenced to a prison psychiatric hospital after a child molestation conviction in 2011. The 38-year-old criminally insane sexual predator should have remained in custody for the remainder of his life. Although allowing this man back into society guaranteed more victims, state parole officials released him from the prison mental facility in May 2012. Correction officials did not let DeAvila out because he was no longer dangerous. They freed him because some judge determined that the state psychiatric hospital was too crowded.

     DeAvila was just one of thousands of violent criminals California authorities paroled early because there was no room for them in the state's prisons and jails. Because getting into prison and jail had become so difficult in the state, parole violators like DeAvila had no incentive to comply with the conditions of parole. DeAvila was supposed to wear a GPS tracking device that triggered an alarm if tampered with. Removing the device constituted a parole violation. Because removing tracking devices didn't lead to jail time, many parolees decided not to wear them. As a result, DeAvila's parole officer had no idea where he was or what he was doing.

     The Stockton police, on February 13, 2013, arrested DeAvila for the tenth time since his release from the state psychiatric facility. Every one of his arrests involved violations of the terms of his parole, and included public drunkenness, possession of drugs, and the removal of his GPS tracking device. On each these occasions, officers booked him into the San Joaquin County Jail.

    Before the court ordered the thinning out of the state's prison and jail population, parole violators would be held in county jails until their state parole revocation hearings. If found in violation, they'd be sent back to prison to serve up to another year behind bars.

     In DeAvila's case, he'd only spend a few nights in the San Joaquin lockup before being released back into society. Following his tenth parole violation arrest on February 13, 2013, he remained in the overcrowded San Joaquin Jail one week before walking free.

     On February 26, 2013, just six days after DeAvila's last jail release, neighbors discovered the corpse of Rachael Russell, the parole violator's grandmother. Her body had been placed into a wheelbarrow that sat in her backyard. Later that day, Stockton police officers arrested the high-risk parolee for the rape, robbery and murder of his grandmother. When taken into custody he was wearing her jewelry.

     It had taken a murder to get Jerome DeAvila off the streets of Stockton, California. But DeAvila's arrest for murder meant that some other criminal would be set free to make room for him. 

     In August 2013, Rachael Russell's daughter and son (DeAvila's mother and uncle) sued the state and San Joaquin County. The plaintiffs claimed that after this dangerous man violated his parole for the tenth time, he should not have been released from the county jail. According to the suit, parole agents who supervised DeAvila knew he was a danger to the 76-year-old victim.

     In April 2014, DeAvila pleaded guilty to rape, robbery, and murder. The judge sentenced him to 25 years to life. The civil case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

America's First Airline Bombing Case

In 1955, Jack Gilbert Graham insured his mother's life for $37,000 and then planted a bomb [in her luggage] on United Airlines Flight 629 which she boarded at Denver, Colorado. The device exploded just ten minutes after take-off, killing all 44 passengers and crew. Graham, who had nurtured a hatred of his mother ever since she placed him in an orphanage for the first eight years of his life, readily confessed and was sent to the Colorado Penitentiary gas chamber in January 1957.

Brian Lane, Chronicle of 20th Century Murder, 1993 

The Murder Trial as TV Entertainment

     A court room isn't quite a theatre, but there's something inherently dramatic about it all the same. Ever since the dark ages of the Salem Witch Trials, court proceedings have been public affairs. Trials represent the goal of governmental transparency. It makes sense that a crime against society should be tried before the eyes of that same society. But somewhere along the line, that public interest became public entertainment. Trials began to be televised, in a slightly edited fashion. Commentary on trials came to resemble the commentary on a major sporting event. For high profile cases, crowds gather outside court rooms in hopes of getting a seat in the gallery. [American's first high-profile trial, the Webster-Parkman case, took place in Boston in 1850. Since then there have been hundreds of such judicial spectacles and dozens of "Crimes of the Century."]

     In 2013, the floodgates opened completely and the line between reality TV and the criminal trial became blurred in the trial of Jodi Arias, then accused of the murder of  her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander. The trial was streamed in its entirety on Youtube. The only censored information was the sidebars. Prosecutor Juan Martinez actually signed autographs outside the court house, and posed for pictures with "fans" who traveled from across the globe to attend the lengthy trial.

"10 of the Most Entertaining Criminal Trials,", March 13, 2014      

Fantasy Fiction Celebrates the Unreal

Fantasy celebrates the non-rational. Wrapped in a cloak of magic, it dares a rational reader to object to a frog suddenly being turned into a prince. Where an explanation would be required in science fiction, fantasy says: "Because it did." Though fantasy may offer some cause and effect--the prince probably did something wrong in the first place to cause him to be turned into a warty amphibian--no scientific rationale is required.

Philip Martin in The Writer's Guide to Fantasy and Literature, edited by Philip Martin, 2002 

What Pre-Teens Read

Children of both sexes in the 10 to 12 year age group predominantly read fiction, with the most popular genre amongst both boys and girls being adventure stories. Girls choose more romances, horror/ghost stories and poetry books. Boys choose more science fiction, comedy, sports and war/spy books.

Lyn Pritchard,, 1999

Ghost, Vampire and Werewolf Novels

     Suppose you have a strong desire to use a ghost, vampire or werewolf as your central horror novel menace. Is it still possible to utilize such conventional monsters? Will editors buy yet another vampire novel when so many have already been written?

     The answer is yes: Editors are always receptive to novels and stories containing supernatural monsters, but they must be freshly presented; your stories must offer new insights and a fresh approach.

William F. Nolan, How to Write Horror Fiction, 1990

Friday, April 9, 2021

Breaking Out of Prison Is the Easy Part

     In August 1993, a 19-year-old armed robber and arsonist named Michael David Elliot and a criminal associate entered a house near Midland, Michigan with their guns drawn. They had come to the Bentley Township home 140 miles northwest of Detroit to rob Michael and Bruce Tufnell and their friends Vickie Currie and Kathy Lane. Elliot and his accomplice needed the money for drugs. When the home invaders didn't find any cash in the house, they opened fired on the victims, killing all four of them. Before leaving the murder scene, Elliot set fire to the house.

     Four days after the mass murder, police officers arrested Elliot in Saginaw, Michigan. He still possessed the .38-caliber revolver that had fired ten of the fifteen bullets removed from the bodies of the four murder victims.

     At his August 1994 trial, Elliot claimed that he had purchased the murder weapon the day after the massacre from the real killer. He also asserted that at the time of the murders he was at his aunt's house. The jury found the defendant guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. At his sentencing hearing, Elliot told the judge that despite his conviction, he was innocent. The judge sentenced him to four life terms to be served at the Ionia Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Ionia, Michigan.

     During the first 14 years of his incarceration, Elliot was a problem inmate with 20 acts of misconduct. But after December 2008, he began serving his time as a model prisoner. Perhaps he decided that a low profile would enhance his chances to escape.

     On February 2, 2014--Super Bowl Sunday--while the other inmates were headed for dinner, the five-foot-eight, 165 pound Elliot made his move. Dressed in a white kitchen uniform to blend in with the snow, Elliot pulled back the bottoms of two fences and crawled to freedom. (Is this what passed for maximum security in Michigan?)
     After trudging through fields and woods, the escapee walked into the town of Ionia where he used a box cutter to abduct a woman. Elliot and his hostage, in her 2004 red Jeep Liberty, crossed the Michigan border into Indiana. At 9:15 that night, correction officers performing a routine head-count discovered that inmate Elliot was missing.

     Just before midnight, Elliot and his captive stopped for gas at a Marathon station in the town of Middlebury. While he paid for the gas, she entered the gas station restroom and locked the door. Using the cellphone she had kept hidden, the kidnapped woman called 911. After she calmly reporting the carjacking and describing her captor, Elliot came to the restroom door and told her to hurry-up. "Yeah, in a little bit," she said. "Sorry, it's taking me longer than what I thought." At that point Elliot decided to drive off without her.

     At 5 PM on February 3, 2014, Elliot pulled into Shipshewan, a town twenty miles east of Elkhart, Indiana. There he abandoned the Jeep Liberty and stole a Chevy Monte Carlo.

     Not long after the prison escapee stole the Monte Carlo, a La Porte County sheriff's deputy spotted the stolen vehicle and tried to pull it over. The high-speed chase that followed ended abruptly when Elliot drove over stop sticks that flattened the Chevy's tires. Officers took him into custody. He had been free less than 48 hours.

     In speaking to a reporter with the Detroit Free Press after his capture, Elliott said, "I just seen an opportunity. It was really simple." Of the five main strategies inmates use to escape low-security facilities--the cut-and-run, the ruse, the tunnel, the outside accomplice, and the walk-away--Elliott's methodology combined the ruse and the cut-and-run. None of these escape methods should have worked in a maximum security prison.
     On February 6, 2014, a spokesperson for the prison announced that two corrections employees had been suspended in connection with the escape. One was a corrections officer and the other a shift commander.

     Michael Elliot had found a way to escape from a maximum security penitentiary, but he wasn't equipped to elude capture once he got outside prison fences. While prison escapes are rare, it's even more unusual for escapees to remain at large for more than a few days. 

Painting Stripes on Your Ass

In July 2018, a couple of zoologists accused the director of a zoo in Cairo, Egypt of displaying a pair of donkeys painted up to look like zebras. Nine years earlier, in a zoo in Gaza, another pair of donkeys were painted with zebra stripes. In 2013, a zoo in China was caught displaying a large dog made to look like a lion. What's next? A Volkswagen painted up to look like giant beetle? Or how about a donkey with a snow cone cup glued to its forehead to make it look like a unicorn. 

911 Is For Emergencies

      In March 2013, 27-year-old Melissa Townsend, a resident of Indian Harour Beach, a small community on southern Florida's Atlantic coast, called 911 with a less than urgent problem. Her young children were misbehaving. To the dispatcher, Townsend said, "I need a police officer to scare the shit out of my kids. They need to learn respect, and they need to learn that people in law enforcement have authority. They need to learn that lesson."

     The 911 dispatcher replied, "Okay. But we're not coming out to raise your kids for you."

     Ignoring the dispatcher's response, Townsend said, "They need to learn that. You know what I mean?"

     The dispatcher, who probably wasn't sure what was going on in this caller's mind, sent police officers to her house on the chance there was some kind of emergency. The officers rolled up to the dwelling to find the young mother intoxicated. Because Townsend was on probation, and not allowed to consume alcohol, the officers took her into custody for the probation violation. That's when all hell broke out.

     Ignoring her own advice to her kids about respecting law enforcement authority, Townsend resisted arrest, and in the process, kicked one of the officers in the groin.

     At the police lockup, Townsend, still out of control, repeatedly banged her head against the jail wall, and had to be taken to the hospital. She was charged with child neglect (being drunk) and battery of a police officer.

     What started out as a silly 911 call turned into something more serious. Townsend, for reasons that went beyond her intoxicated emergency call, eventually lost custody of her children. 

Stephen King On Learning To Write From Reading

     If you want to be a writer you must read a lot. There's no way around this that I'm aware of, no shortcut.
     I'm a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don't read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It's what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don't read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

Charles Bukowski's Truman Capote Poem

     Charles Bukowski, in a poem written in the 1970s but not published until after his death in 1994, chronicled novelist Truman Capote's self-destruction. An excerpt from "Nothing But a Scarf":

Then he stopped writing altogether and just went to parties.

He drank or doped himself into oblivion almost every night.

His once slim frame more that doubled in size.

His face grew heavy and he no longer looked like the young boy with the quick and dirty wit but more like a frog.

The scarf was still on display but his hats were too large and come down almost to his eyes; and all you noticed was his twisted lurid grin.

The society ladies still liked to drag him around New York one on each arm and drinking like he did, he didn't live to enjoy old age...

Charles Bukowski, "Nothing But a Scarf," in Come on In: New Poems, Edited by John Martin, 2006

Justice in Romance and Mystery Novels

The romance novel is based on the idea of an innate emotional justice in the universe, that the way the world works is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. The mystery genre is based on the same assumption, only there is a moral justice, a sense of fair play in human and legal interaction: because the good guys take risks and struggle, the murderers get punished and good triumphs in a safe world. So in romance, the lovers who take risks and struggle for each other and their relationships are rewarded with emotional justice, unconditional love in a emotionally safe world.

Jennifer Crusie, Romance Writer's Report, March 2000

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Thomas Gilbert High Society Murder Case

       In 2015, 70-year-old Thomas Gilbert Sr. resided with his wife in an apartment building on the east side of Manhattan just north of the United Nations headquarters. Besides their two sons, the couple had a 24-year-old daughter who aspired to be a writer.
     A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School, Mr. Gilbert, in 2011, started a hedge fund called Wainscott Partners Fund, a firm that specialized in the biotech and healthcare industries. Three years after its inception, the fund handled $200 million in assets. Only people with $500,000 or more to invest were invited to participate in the fund.

     Mr. Gilbert worked hard to get his relatively small investment firm off the ground. A friendly man who enjoyed the upper-crust social life, Mr. Gilbert belonged to exclusive organizations such as the Maidstone Club in East Hampton and the River Club in Manhattan.

     Mr. Gilbert's youngest son, Thomas Jr., grew up benefiting from his father's wealth, hard work, and success. His parents enrolled him in elite boarding schools--the Buckley School ($30,000 a year tuition) and Deerfield Prep ($54,000 annual tuition)--where the six-foot-three student with the thick blond hair excelled at sports. Following boarding school, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert's quiet, reserved and socially awkward youngest son attended Princeton University. In 2009 Thomas Jr. graduated from the Ivy League school with a degree in economics.

     Notwithstanding his prestigious education, high social status, and all the advantages a young man could ask for, Thomas Jr. didn't enter the world of finance or any other business or profession. He wanted to start his own hedge fund but his father didn't think he had the ability or the drive to succeed in the field. As a result, Thomas assumed the role of a playboy reliant on his father's generosity. 

     To maintain his high society lifestyle, Thomas needed more money than his father was willing to shell out. He existed on a $2,400 a month housing stipend and a $600 per week spending allowance. This was not nearly enough to support his expensive apartment in Chelsea, his gym fees, the party-going circuit, and his love of surfing. Deeply in debt, Thomas wanted a much larger allowance to continue living in the style he had become accustomed to.

     But there was a problem. Thomas and his father didn't get along. His father thought he was lazy and stupid and junior considered his father stingy and mean. Moreover, in September 2014, the family's 17th century mansion on eastern Long Island's East Hampton community burned down. Thomas Jr., an obsessive-compulsive who didn't always stay on his medication, surfaced quickly as the prime suspect in the arson. (No charges were filed in the case.) 

     A little after three in the afternoon on Sunday January 5, 2015, Thomas Jr. showed up at his parents' apartment to discuss his allowance with his father. Thomas Sr. had informed his son that he had decided to cut his weekly spending budget from $600 to $400.

     Upon his arrival at the apartment, the younger Mr. Gilbert sent his mother out of the building to buy him a sandwich. Shortly after she left the premises, the son, while confronting his father in the master bedroom, shot him once in the head with a handgun. In an inept attempt to make the shooting look like a suicide, Thomas laid the murder weapon on his father's chest and positioned the dead man's left hand over it.

     After the shooting, Thomas fled the apartment. When his mother returned with the sandwich, she discovered her husband's corpse and called 911.

     At ten-forty-five on the night of Mr. Gilbert's sudden and violent death, New York City detectives showed up at his son's apartment with an arrest and a search warrant. In the Chelsea dwelling, officers found loose bullets and a shell casing that matched the caliber of the murder weapon.

     On Monday January 6, 2015, at his arraignment, the judge informed Thomas Gilbert Jr. that he had been charged with second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon. After the judge denied the suspect bail, officers returned him to Riker's Island, the city's massive jail complex.

    On February 5, 2014, corrections officers escorted the murder suspect to a Lower Manhattan courtroom. At the pre-trial hearing before Judge Melissa Jackson, the suspect pleaded not guilty. The defendant was represented by attorneys from the high-profile defense firm of Brafman & Associates.

     According to his attorneys, Thomas Gilbert Jr. had a long history of violent and erratic behavior. On the grounds that their client was insane, the defense petitioned the court to render Gilbert mentally unfit to stand trial. At the same time, the defense lawyers asserted that their client was innocent of the crime. The judge declared Thomas Gilbert Jr. fit to stand trial.
     In June 2019, the Manhattan jury found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder. Two months later, Judge Melissa Jackson sentenced him to 30 years to life.

The Dental Identification of Cremated Remains

Dental devices can be helpful in identifying a cremated individual. Even though dental crowns seldom end up in the urn, dental posts, made of stainless steel or titanium, which are used to affix artificial crowns onto small tooth stumps, can be extremely important. Not only do they vary considerably in chemical composition, in size and in shape (each brand looks very different), but they are often altered by grinding the ends when the dentist inserts them into the tooth. These altered tips can be compared with dental radiographs or dental x-rays and be identified absolutely individually. They will show up in dental x-rays before death, and again in x-rays taken of the cremated remains. They can be as unique as fingerprints, because the dentist has shaped them to fit a particular tooth.

Dr. William R. Maples, Dead Men Do Tell Tales, 1994

How Reliable is Crime Scene Fingerprint Identification?

One should be skeptical of the reliability of crime scene fingerprint identification. It's true that no two people have the same fingerprints, but no one knows the degree to which the fingerprints from two people can be similar. This could lead to misidentification, particularly when an imperfect crime scene latent is compared to an inked, rolled-on or digitized impression. Most police fingerprint ID officers were trained as cops rather than objective scientists. These practitioners tend to be biased toward law enforcement and prosecution. The widely made claim that no one has ever gone to prison on a false fingerprint identification is false. Proven cases of fingerprint misidentifications represent the tip of the false identification iceberg. Fingerprint identification is, by nature, subjective. The process is not hard science. As a result, no defendant should be sent to prison solely on the identification of a crime scene latent.

The Novelist and Family Secrets

Renowned editor and author Gordon Lish, in his famous writing class used to shock the assembled company by asking whether we were waiting for our parents to die before writing something worth reading. Some students were offended by this suggestion, but I felt it made a great deal of sense. Writers tend to censor themselves for fear of what other people think, especially those at home.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest For the Trees, 2000

Literary Dialogue is Not Real Talk

Well-written dialogue does not imitate the way real people speak. Real talk is repetitive, rambling, and redundant. It is boring and often meaningless. Good literary dialogue, therefore has to be carefully crafted. In his book, Stein on Writing, Sol Stein points out that the majority of published writers write dialogue instinctively with little knowledge of the craft. He defines creative dialogue this way: "It is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes. Learning the new language of dialogue is as complex as learning any new language." 

So Called Literary Fiction

To make up an original story and tell it well requires narrative skill, creativity, and talent. Novels that tell stories, often dismissed as genre fiction, can also have literary merit. Only a tiny assembly of showoff literary critics pay any attention to plotless artsy-fartsy novels marketed as so-called "literary" fiction. In truth, these fraudulent books, forced upon hapless college students, have given literature a bad name and have discouraged the art of reading for pleasure. The promotors of these awful books, mainly literature professors and pompous literary critics, should be ashamed of themselves for making intelligent readers feel inferior for not being able to read and enjoy these dense, humorless, lifeless novels.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Historic Fingerprint: The Jennings Murder Case

     In Chicago, Illinois, on September 19, 1910, a noise at two in the morning coming from her 15-year-old's bedroom awoke Mary Hiller. She slipped into her robe and ventured into the hall where she noticed that the gaslight outside her daughter's room had been turned off. Fearing that an intruder had entered the house, Mrs. Hiller returned to the master bedroom and shook her husband awake.

    Clarence Hiller, on the landing en route to his daughter's room, bumped into Thomas Jennings, a 32-year-old paroled burglar in possession of a .38-caliber revolver. The men struggled, then tumbled down the stairway. At the foot of the stairs, Jennings, the bigger man, got to his feet, pulled his gun, and fired two shots. The first bullet entered Hiller's right arm, traveled up through his shoulder, and exited the left side of his neck. The second slug slammed into his chest, piercing his heart and lung before coming out his back. The gunman left the scene through the front door, leaving behind a screaming Mary Hiller, her dead husband, and a terrified 15-year-old girl who had been sexually molested.

     About a mile from the murder house, Jennings, walking with a limp, and bleeding from cuts on his arm, passed four off-duty police officers waiting for a streetcar. When questioned about his injuries, Jennings said he had fallen off a trolley. One of the officers patted him down and discovered the recently fired handgun. The officers placed Jennings under arrest and escorted the suspect to the police station.

     A few hours later, detectives at the murder scene found the two .38-caliber bullets that had passed through Clarence Hiller's body. Today, a forensic firearms identification expert would be able to match the crime scene slugs with bullets test-fired through the suspect's gun. But in 1910, this type of forensic identification was 15 year in the future. Investigators also determined that the intruder had entered the Hiller house through a kitchen window. A detective who was ahead of his time, found four fingerprint impressions on a freshly painted porch rail outside the point of entry. (Paint, in those days, dried slowly.) A technician with the police department's two-year-old fingerprint bureau photographed the the finger marks that had been left in the dark gray paint. (The science of fingerprint identification first came to American from England in 1906 when the St. Louis Police Department started the country's first fingerprint bureau.) Mary Hiller, traumatized by the murder of her husband, failed to pick Thomas Jennings out of a police lineup. While roughed up, and the recipient of a third-degree interrogation, Jennings did not confess.

     At Jennings' May 1911 murder trial, two Chicago Police Department fingerprint examiners, a fingerprint technician from the police department in Ottawa, Canada, and a private expert who had studied fingerprint science at Scotland Yard, testified that the impressions on the porch rail matched the ridges on four of the defendant's fingers, placing him at the scene of the murder. While the idea that fingerprints were unique had been around for 20 years, this was the first U.S. jury to be presented with this form of impression evidence. The chance of convicting Jennings was not good because the prosecution's case--the defendant's arrest one mile from the house, his injuries, his possession of a recently fired gun, and his murder scene fingerprints--was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. In those days, and to some extent today, jurors prefer direct evidence in the form of confessions and eyewitness identifications.

     Prior to the testimony of the four fingerprint witnesses, Jennings' attorney had objected to the introduction of this evidence on the grounds this form of forensic identification had not been scientifically tested, and was therefore unreliable, and inadmissible. The trial judge, in allowing the fingerprint testimony, relied on a 1908 arson case, Carleton v. People, in which the defendant had been linked to the fire scene by impressions left by his shoes.

     The jury, following a short deliberation, found Thomas Jennings guilty of first-degree murder. To arrive at this verdict, the jurors had placed more weight on the physical evidence than on the defendant's claim of innocence. The judge sentenced Thomas Jennings to death.

     On appeal, Jennings' lawyer argued that there was no scientific proof that fingerprints were unique. By admitting the testimony of so-called fingerprint experts, the trial court had sentenced a man to the gallows on pseudoscience and bogus expertise. The Illinois Supreme Court, on December 21, 1911, ruled that the Jennings trial judge had not made a judicial error by admitting the fingerprint testimony. This was good news for forensic science and bad news for Thomas Jennings who died in 1912 at the end of a rope.

     People v. Jennings laid the groundwork for forensic fingerprint identification in America. By 1925, virtually every court in the United States accepted this form of impression evidence as proof of guilt. In medicine, illness leads to cures, and in law enforcement, murders produce advances in forensic science.  

What is Caliber?

Caliber which is used to describe weapons other than shotguns, has to do with the nominal diameter of the barrel (hence of the ammunition) expressed in hundredths of an inch. Thus a .38 revolver has a barrel .38-inch in diameter. A .30-caliber rifle fires bullets .30-inch in diameter. Magnum used in a description of a firearm refers not to caliber but to the firepower of the propellant used; however, normally a magnum firearm is a slightly different caliber from the closest caliber of a regular firearm--thus, you have .357 magnums which can fire .38 ammunition, but don't try to fire .357 magnum ammunition in a .38 revolver; it will fit the chamber and cylinder, but the firing mechanism and the barrel aren't meant to withstand a magnum load.

Anne Wingate, Ph.D., Science of the Crime, 1992 

The "Repressed Memory" Debate

Something has gone wrong with therapy, and because that something has do do with memory, I find myself at the center of an increasingly bitter and fractious controversy. On the one side are the "True Believers" who insist that the mind is capable of repressing memories and who accept without reservation or question the authenticity of recovered memories. On the other side are the "Skeptics" who argue that the notion of repression is purely hypothetical and essentially untestable, based as it is on unsubstantiated speculation and anecdotes that are impossible to confirm or deny. Some skeptics are less circumspect, referring to repression as "psychomagic," "smoke and mirrors," or just plain "balderdash."

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus (and Katherine Ketcham), The Myth of Repressed Memory, 1994 [I think most social scientists in the field today side with the skeptics. In the criminal justice system, innocent people have gone to prison on the strength of what turned out to be bogus repressed memory testimony.

Story Versus Plot

Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: "The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is a story we say, "and then?" If it is a plot we ask "why?" That is the fundamental difference between these to aspects of the novel.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) Aspects of the Novel, 1927

Aspiring Novelists: Read Novels Good and Bad

     One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose. Reading Valley of the Dolls and Bridges of Madison County is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.

     Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy--"I'll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand"--but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher.

Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

Do Not Read This Book: The Joy of Negative Reviews

     The publishing industry, we hear, is in trouble. So why would a sensible writer tell people not to buy a book? If the novel, as we also hear, is moribund or dead, why drive another nail into its sad little coffin? And lately there seems to be a cultural moratorium on saying something "bad" about anyone or anything, unless you're a politician, in which case that's your job...

     There was a time when I wrote negative reviews…I admit it provided a wicked sort of fun, especially when I was writing for an editor-friend who delighted in sending me books that weren't exactly "serious" but got under my skin. Sadly, it's easier to be witty when one is being unkind. Friends would say, "Oh, I just adored your hilarious essay on that celebrity's memoir about her fabulous face-lift." And what would they say when I praised a book? Nothing.

     Even so, I stopped. I began returning books I didn't like to editors. I thought, life is short, I'd rather spend my time urging people to read things I love. And writing a bad book didn't seem like a crime deserving punitive public humiliation…

     But in the last year or so I've found myself again writing negative reviews--as if quitting for three decades I'd suddenly resumed smoking, or something else I'd forsworn. Once more, it's a question of what gets under my skin, and of trying to understand why. I've begun to think, if something bothers me that much, life is too short not to say so

Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review, February 16, 2014 

Novel Advice

Never ever read a powerful novel when you're trying to write a novel of your own.

Richard Price, The New York Times Book Review, February 22, 2015 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Cop Killers Rafael Jones and Chancier McFarland

     In October 2009, a Philadelphia judge sentenced Rafael Jones, a 21-year-old street thug, to four years in prison for a variety of crimes involving firearms. As a juvenile, Jones had a record of drug dealing, auto theft, and gun possession. He lived in a North Philadelphia neighborhood with his grandmother, Ada Banks. After serving two years behind bars, Jones walked out of prison on parole. He returned to his high-crime neighborhood where, early in 2012, he was shot and wounded by another North Philadelphia criminal.

     Early in July 2012, police arrested Jones on a parole violation related to the illegal possession of a gun. While incarcerated in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Jones' state parole officer asked his grandmother, Ada Banks, if Jones could live with her under house arrest following his release from prison. She said no. Banks didn't want Jones back in his old neighborhood where he had gotten into so much trouble. She suggested that prison authorities send Jones to his aunt's house in a better part of the city. The parole officer, rather than make the arrangements with the aunt, instructed Jones' grandmother to send the parolee to his aunt's house when he got out of jail and showed up at her place.

     On July 25, at Jones' parole hearing, Common Pleas Judge Susan Schuman set August 8, 2012 as Jones' release date. The judge emailed prison officials to instruct Jones to report directly to his grandmother's house where someone from the state board of probation and parole would outfit him with an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet. (The judge wasn't aware that the grandmother was supposed to send Jones on to his aunt's house.) Signals from Jones' electronic device would be monitored in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. If Jones left the dwelling for an unauthorized reason, the parole office in Philadelphia would either receive an email or telephone alert from Harrisburg. Jones, although under house arrest, could leave the premises to look for a job, to complete his GED, or to do community service work.

     On August 8, 2012, the day Jones got out of jail, the state parole officer didn't escort Jones from the prison directly to his grandmother's house where he was supposed to be outfitted with the electronic equipment. Instead, the parolee walked out of prison unsupervised. The fact he didn't report to his grandmother's house, or check in to his aunt's place, should not have shocked anyone. As one would expect, he returned to the streets in North Philadelphia where he wasted no time getting his hands on the tool of his trade, a handgun.

     At six in the morning of August 18, just ten days after leaving prison, Rafael Jones and 19-year-old Chancier McFarland, an associate with a long juvenile record of crime and violence who was currently out on bail in connection with a drug case, were prowling the North Philadelphia neighborhood in search of someone to rob. The two robbers in search of a victim came upon Moses Walker Jr., a 40-year-old Philadelphia police officer. After completing his night shift at the 22nd district police station in North Philadelphia, the 19-year veteran of the force had changed into his street clothes and was walking toward the bus station.

     When confronted by Jones and McFarland who had been stalking him for robbery, Walker reached for his sidearm. Before the off-duty officer could protect himself, the two muggers shot him in the chest, stomach, and arm. Officer Moses Walker died on the street where he was shot.

     Following officer Moses Walker's murder, the city of Philadelphia and the police union posted a reward of $100,000 for information leading to the identification of the cop-killers. Several people came forward with information that led to Jones' arrest on August 24, 2012. Charged with murder and robbery, he was placed in custody without bail. On Sunday August 26, Chancier McFarland was arrested in Alabama.
     In June 2014, Chancier McFarland pleaded guilty to third-degree murder to avoid going to prison for life. He also agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of Rafael Jones. The judge sentenced McFarland to 20 to 40 years.

     On December 13, 2014, after a four-day nonjury trial, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart found Rafael Jones guilty of first-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, and three firearm offenses. The first-degree murder conviction carried a mandatory life sentence.

     Several of Jones' relatives were in the courtroom as the judge announced his verdict. "We love you," they said. "This too shall pass."

Forensic Feather Identification

     Trace evidence analysis is the section of the crime lab where, if they don't know where to send it, they send it to us. We get all kinds of oddball things in here. Feathers. We've had feathers come into the crime lab. Bird feathers.

     One case: A person was shot and killed outdoors near a garage. The bullet went through the victim's down jacket. And then it hit a garage door and deflected off. In that garage door, in the bullet hole, there was a little feather. I think the defense's story was that the shooting was accidental, that the defendant had aimed at the garage, and the bullet deflected off it, and then it went into the victim.  We couldn't say for sure that the bullet hole feather was from the victim's jacket, but finding it on the garage door corresponds more to the person being shot and then the slug entering the door. The victim was hit first.

Trace evidence analyst in Crime Scene by Connie Fletcher, 2006 

The History of Americans On Illicit Drugs

In the late 1950's and early 1960s, drug use in the United States was thought to be largely confined to the urban poor, criminal elements, and such small nonconformist groups such as jazz musicians and "beatnik" artists and intellectuals. The National Survey on Drug Abuse for 1977 summarizes the retrospective data: "Prior to 1962 lifetime experience with any illicit drug was limited to 2 percent or less of the population in most areas of the country and among most large population subgroups. At that time, the prevalence of marijuana use was slightly above average (about 5 percent) among males and racial minorities and people living in the Western region of the country." Even as late as 1968, heroin use was confined to the major port cities of the Northeast corridor, as well as Miami, New Orleans, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

David M. Musto, MD and Pamela Korsmeyer, The Quest for Drug Control, 2002  

Liars Who Live Above and Below the Law

Here's an idea: Instead of making it a crime for a citizen to lie to the government, why not make it a crime for a politician to lie to the public. The prison sentence could equal the remaining time the lying politician has in his or her term. Moreover, a politician so convicted would no longer be eligible to run for office. Although this is an idea most voters would support, such legislation will never happen because these professional liars write our laws. If our founding fathers had anticipated the career politician, term limits may have been built into the Constitution. Moreover, these pioneers of democracy would not have approved of making it a crime for a citizen, outside the witness box, to lie to a government official. Why is it okay for FBI agents to lie to us, but not okay for us to lie to them? While citizen lying is bad, government lying is much worse.

Creating an Interesting Villain

Readers tend to prefer characters who are at least somewhat sympathetic. In the case of villains, sympathetic is perhaps the wrong word: Understandable is better. Interesting is best of all. The bad guy whose sole reason for blowing up the galaxy is because that's what bad guys do won't be around for a sequel. Even Darth Vader needs motivation. It changes him from a cardboard cutout villain to a three-dimensional character, and three dimensions are far more interesting than two.

Ester M. Friesner in How to Write Funny, John B. Kachuba, editor, 2001 

Sherlock Holmes: The Golden Goose

Arthur Conan Doyle was naturally gratified by his success but increasingly concerned that Sherlock Homes was damaging his aspirations to be considered a serious writer. As early as November 1891, only four years after Holmes's first appearance in print, he had written to his mother revealing that he was thinking of "slaying" Holmes in the final story of the first series. "He takes my mind from better things," he explained. Mary Doyle was horrified that he should think of eliminating the source of such a handsome income and urgently advised him to reconsider. [Arthur Conan Doyle did slay his famous protagonist then under enormous public pressure brought him back.]

Russell Miller, The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, 2008 

The Journalist As Con Artist

In speaking to her fellow journalists, Janet Malcolm famously said the ugly truth about the profession: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." This pronouncement is so devastatingly true, I'm sure it's not taught in journalism school. No one wants to get a degree in confidence game artistry. But that's what they get.

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Nadia Malik Suspicious Death Case

     In February 2014, 22-year-old Nadia Malik resided with her one-year-old daughter and her parents in Broomall, Pennsylvania, a Delaware County suburb in the Philadelphia area. The one-year-old's father, Nadia's estranged boyfriend, 25-year-old Bhupinder Singh, lived with their four-year-old daughter at his parents' apartment in Solon, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. In 2012, the couple had an infant that, according to court documents, died suddenly under "suspect circumstances."

     Nadia and Bhupinder reportedly had a relationship described as "strained, on/off, and violent." Nadia had recently been fired from her job as a CVS pharmacy assistant in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania for missing too much work. 
     On February 9 and again on February 10, 2014, Nadia Malik sent text messages to her brother Faud Malik and her friend Thomas Singh (no relation to Bhupinder) informing them that Bhupinder was holding her against her will in a car. On February 9, Thomas Singh reported Nadia missing to the Lansdowne, Pennsylvania Police Department. (Shortly thereafter the case was transferred to the Marple Township police.) 
     On February 12, 2014, investigators traced Bhupinder Singh, through Nadia's cellphone, to his parents' apartment in Solon, Ohio. At the arrival of the police that day, Singh tried to escape out the back door but was taken into custody. Officers took him into the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center on a probation violation warrant issued out of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. 
     Singh, who claimed to have no knowledge regarding Nadia's whereabouts, had scratches on his face and a black eye. He told his interrogators the injuries were sustained in a fight he had with Nadia. The last time he saw her was on February 11, 2014 in Delaware County. He left her in his father's black 2007 Nissan Altima and took a bus to his parents' home in Solon. When arrested, Singh possessed Nadia's cellphone and her driver's license.  
     At ten-thirty on the morning of Thursday, February 20, 2014, an anonymous tipster called the Marple Township Police Department regarding a black 2007 Nissan Altima with heavily tinted windows parked on 30th Street near Market Street in Philadelphia. Police officers found eight parking tickets on the vehicle. 
     In the reclined front passenger seat of the Nissan officers found Nadia Malik positioned on her side as though she had been sleeping. The dead woman was fully clothed with a duffel bag resting on top of her head. The car also contained a pile of clothing, loose change, and prescription bill bottles issued to Bhupinder Singh.
     The first parking ticket on the car had been issued on February 10, a few blocks away at 23rd and Market Streets. The second citation was issued on February 12 when the Nissan was parked in an emergency zone on Market Street. The first ticket placed on the car where it was found on February 20 had been issued two days earlier. 
     Based on the parking ticket history, Nadia Malik either died between February 18 and February 20, several days after Bhupinder Singh's arrest. If she had died before that, someone had moved the Nissan with her dead body in it.
     A Philadelphia forensic pathologist performed the autopsy on Friday, February 21, 2014. A spokesperson for the medical examiner's office announced there were no signs of physical trauma on Malik's body. The spokesperson did not reveal the time of death in the case, a vital piece of information, or the cause and manner of death.

     On October 16, 2014, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office announced that toxicological tests on Malik's body had not solved the mystery of what killed her or how she had died.

     In February 2015, a year after Malik's suspicious death, the authorities released information regarding the February 28, 2012 death of Malik's 3-month-old daughter, Alina Singh. Paramedics had found the child next to her mother in a car parked near a Chinese restaurant in the Delaware County town of Springfield. The unresponsive infant was pronounced dead later that day. The Delaware County Medical Examiner ruled the cause of Alina's death as cachexia--a type of muscle atrophy commonly called "wasting syndrome." The manner of the child's death remained "undetermined."

     Detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department continued to investigate Nadia Malik's death as a possible murder case. When questioned by the police in Ohio, Bhupinder Singh said he had fled to Ohio on a Greyhound bus out of New York City after arguing with Malik on matters "concerning their relationship."

     After being found guilty in April 2014 of violating his probation, Singh spent a month in jail. Upon his release on parole, he took up residence in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. According to a police spokesperson in February 2015, detectives still considered Bhupinder Singh a suspect in what they believed was Malik's homicidal death.

     In July 2015, Nadia's brother, 32-year-old Khaled Malik, offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for his sister's death. As of this writing no arrests have been made in this mysterious case. 

The Nature of Memory

     Think of your mind as a bowl filled with clear water. Now imagine each memory as a teaspoon of milk stirred into the water. Every adult mind holds thousands of these murky memories. Who among us would dare to disentangle the water from the milk? Memories don't sit in one place, waiting patiently to be retrieved; they drift through the brain, more like clouds or vapor than something we can put our hands around.

     This view of memory has been a hard sell. Human beings feel attached to their remembered past, for the people, places and events we enshrine in memory give structure and definition to the person we think of as our "self." If we accept the fact that our memories are milky molecules, spilling into dream and imagination, then how can we pretend to know what is real and what is not? Who among us wants to believe that our grasp on reality is so provisional, that reality in fact is impenetrable and unfathomable because it is only what we remember, and what we remember is rarely the literal truth?

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, The Myth of Repressed Memory, 1994

The Allure of Evil Characters

     It's a daring thing [for a "literary" novelist] to write about an evil person, especially in this day of autobiographical fiction, when readers assume most characters are thinly veiled self-portraits. And yet evil characters are usually dynamic and fascinating, upstaging all the goodie-goodies. [Crime novels are popular because the good guy is after the bad guy. Moreover, the evil character is one of the reasons behind the popularity of the true crime genre. For many, real villains are more fascinating than fictitious ones.]

     Despite the allure of such characters, writers today usually avoid them, maybe because the whole category of Evil seems too theological or because modern psychology assumes that every bad act can be traced to childhood neglect or abuse and thus be explained away. [Novelists should familiarize themselves with the concept of sociopathy. Besides, who cares if a serial killer had a bad childhood?]

Edmund White, "Divine Decadence," The New York Times Book Review, April 30, 2014 (Review of Lovers at the Chameleon by Francine Prose)

Week Story--Bad Movie

Story is the strongest element in writing. Structure seems to be the great weakness in our current movie fare. I found at Universal when I worked there with relatively new or young writers that they were generally good with dialogue, character development, atmospherics, but weak in their storytelling.

William Link in The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, Andrew McLeer, editor, 2008 

A Novelist's Revenge

A lady who was once married to Salman Rushdie had one of her novels published just as the famous fatwa was handed down on him. I gave the book a bad review. I was surprised that her pretty awful novel got a solemn, respectful review in The New York Times and everywhere else I looked. I was probably the only literate person in America who hadn't heard about the fatwa, and when I found out, I was sorry for what I had written. The poor woman had enough to worry about. A few years later, she got hold of one of my novels to review for The Washington Post and she Killed me! She said I wrote "embarrassing surfer prose." Oh, the agony!

Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life, 2002 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Carl Ericsson Murder Case

     Norman Johnson and Carl Ericsson attended the same high school at the same time in Madison, South Dakota, a farm town of 6,500. That's all they had in common. Johnson, a member of the class of 1958, had been a popular football star while Ericsson, in the class ahead of him, was a loner and the team's water boy. As high school students, and as adults, these men lived vastly contrasting lives. Norman Johnson married his high school girlfriend and became a pillar of the local community while Ericsson moved away, married, and lived in comparative obscurity.

     After college, Norman Johnson returned to Madison where, for the next 35-years, he taught high school English and coached the football team. In retirement, he stayed active in the community as a playground supervisor, proofreader for the hometown newspaper, and as a part time employee at the local hardware store. He was still married to his high school girlfriend, had two grown daughters, and lived in a modest two-story house in town. He was surrounded by former students who still called him Mr. Johnson.

     After high school, Carl Ericsson moved to Wyoming where he found a low-level job with the federal government. After retirement, he moved to Watertown, South Dakota 50 miles north of Madison. As an alcoholic who was chronically depressed, Ericsson was a surely, difficult man who loved his dog more than people. He lived in a tiny, one-story house with his long-suffering wife. As is the custom with profoundly unhappy maladjusted people, Ericsson did not get along with his father, a successful attorney in Madison, or his younger brother Dick who had followed their father into the law. He also complained and harassed the children in his neighborhood, gave people who irritated him the finger, and once even threatened to kill his younger brother. He was the type of person that psychologists, psychiatrists, and medication can't fix. People avoided him like the plague.

     On the evening of January 31, 2011, Ericsson was seen in Madison prowling around backyards, knocking on residents' doors, and shinning his flashlight into homes. As further evidence he was up to no good, Ericsson was in possession of a Glock 45-caliber pistol with a 17-round clip, one of many handguns he owned.

     At 7:30 that evening, Ericsson pulled his brown Ford Taurus up to Norman Johnson's house, walked up the sidewalk and knocked on his front door. When Johnson appeared at the entrance, he did not recognize the man standing on his stoop with the shock of white hair and full beard. The men hadn't seen each other since high school. "Are you Norman Johnson?" Ericsson asked. Immediately after Johnson answered yes, the former water boy shot the retired teacher in the face--twice--leaving him to die in the doorway of his home.

     The next day, officers with the Madison Police Department took Carl Ericsson into custody. When a detective asked him why he had murdered a man he hadn't seen for 53 years, Ericsson said he had gotten even for a locker room prank Johnson and other students had played on him back in 1957. According to Ericsson, the football players had forced him to wear a jock-strap on his head, a high school humiliation he had brooded over for decades. He had fantasized about getting revenge, and that's what he did.

     Investigators, of course, had no way of knowing if this prank ever took place, or if it had, if Norman Johnson had anything to do with it. As a matter of law and criminal homicide, all of that was irrelevant anyway. But some in the sob sister media, when covering this murder, focused on the bullying aspect of the story, suggesting that being forced to don a jock-strap can turn a person into a depressed, alcoholic, mad-at-the-world loser who will someday erupt into a cold-blooded killer.

     Carl Ericsson pleaded guilty to a South Dakota homicide offense called second-degree murder under circumstances of mental illness. (In many states this is called guilty but mentally ill.) This meant that Ericsson would receive mental health treatment at a state prison rather than in an institution for the criminally insane. Because he knew exactly what he was doing, this defendant was not criminally insane. He was a guy with a drinking problem and a lousy personality who couldn't cope with life. The woods are full of people like him. Fortunately they are not all murderers.

     On June 16, 2012, a judge sentenced Ericsson to life in prison without parole.              

President Richard Nixon's War on Drugs

     On 14 July 1969, President Richard Nixon announced a national "war on drugs." His "Special Message to the Congress on Control of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs" was a prelude to introducing the new legislation that would be the first battle plan of the war. And so began a sixteen-month process of legislative give-and-take, political maneuvering, and bureaucratic jockeying.

     The president seemed to acknowledge the less-than-complete public agreement with respect to the size and importance of the drug problem in saying, "A national awareness of the gravity of the situation is needed: a new urgency and concerted national policy are needed at the federal level to begin to cope with this growing menace to the general welfare of the United States." He went on to draw the parallel between narcotics use and crime in no uncertain terms, saying, "Narcotics have been cited as a primary cause of the enormous increase in street crimes over the last decade. An addict can be forced to commit two or three burglaries a day to maintain his habit."

David F. Musto, M.D. and Pamela Korsmeyer, The Quest for Drug Control, 2002 

Dr. Joseph Bell and The Power of Observation

One of [anatomy professor Dr. Joseph] Bell's favorite tricks [at Edinburgh Medical School circa 1876] was to invite new students to taste an amber liquid in a glass vial. It was, he explained, an extremely potent drug with a vile and bitter taste which they needed to be able to recognize. Since he would not ask students to do anything he would not be willing to do himself, he said that he would be the first. He removed the stopper, immersed a finger into the liquid [his own urine] and then put his hand to his mouth, shuddering as he sucked his finger. The students dutifully followed suit as the vial was passed around, all of them registering disgust. At the end, Bell invariably expressed his disappointment in their poor powers of observation. It was his index finger, he reminded his groaning class, that he had dipped into the noxious brew, but it was his middle finger that he had put into his mouth.

Russell Miller, The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, 2008 [Arthur Conan Doyle attended Dr. Bell's class and used the professor as the model for his fictional protagonist, Sherlock Holmes.] 

Eliminate Prizes For Journalism

     Should journalism receive prizes? For several reasons, I think not.

     One is that prizes distract from journalism's real mission, which is to write for readers. Prizes lure writers and editors into focusing too often on winning the admiration of colleagues who are their judges. And to do so, since journalism has become an increasingly credentialed and elite profession, they write articles of lugubrious length and academic tortuousness, often of little interest to those who are, ostensibly, their customers.

     And then, there is the corruption of the whole process which has, according to jurors who have participated, less to do with merit or distinction and more to do with honoring writers and articles, who in their persons, subject matter, or conclusions endorse left-liberal intellectual fashions...

     Finally, prizes are admission tickets to an elite membership of which mitigates against what journalists should be. The great English columnist, Bernard Levin, once wrote in The Times (of London) that he disapproved of senior editors and writers on Fleet Street receiving knighthoods in the Queen's birthday honors list, for it made them literally part of the establishment.

     Prizes do the same thing, making journalists participants and members of the body that they are, above all, supposed to scrutinize. Journalists should be observers, not participants--outsiders, not insiders. Prizes get in the way.

Hugo Gurdon, "The Damage Done by Journalism Prizes," Washington Examiner, May 6, 2020

John Steinbeck on Hemingway's Suicide

The first time we heard of Ernest Hemingway's death [1958] was a call from the London Daily Mail. I found it shocking. He had only one theme--only one. A man contends with the forces of the world, called fate, and meets them with courage. Surely a man has a right to remove his own life but you'll find no such possibility in any of Hemingway's heroes. The sad thing is that I think he would have hated accident much more than suicide. He was an incredibly vain man.

John Steinbeck in Writers At Work, Fourth Series, edited by George Plimpton, 1976 

The Scope of Science Fiction

One of the hallmarks of science fiction is its intense originality. Science Fiction has few limits on topics or scope, and has wandered far into speculation about the future, future societies, and technological change. Along the way, science fiction writers have explored fiction's classic themes of life and death, human failure, and challenges intrinsic to any worthwhile story. To catch an editor's eye, you must have something different in your story, something you handle especially well--a vivid character, an intriguing background, a compelling theme.

Paula E. Downing in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Sylvia K. Burack, 1994 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Facebook Blackmail Sex With Students Case

     On January 11, 2013, a married, 33-year-old Bessemer City, North Carolina high school bus driver contacted school authorities with an unusual complaint. Kwanda Carpenter reported that a pair of high school boys who claimed to have had sex with her were trying to blackmail her for $60.

     According to Facebook messages sent to the bus driver by Malik Ty Mel Moore and Donja Phillips, the high school students threatened to "call the police and report that she had raped them" if she didn't cough-up the sixty bucks.

     Moore and Phillips, when questioned by detectives with the Gaston County Sheriff's Office, accused Carpenter of picking them up in her car at ten o'clock on the night of October 3, 2012. According to the boys, Carpenter drove them to a secluded spot on a dead-end street where she had "sexual contact" with them in the vehicle. After that, she drove them home.

     Following Carpenter's complaint to school officials, they suspended her with pay. (She made $12.91 an hour.)

     On January 16,  five days after Carpenter reported the extortion to the school, police arrested her at home on two counts of sexual activity with a student by school personnel other than a teacher. The magistrate set the bus driver's bail at $5,000.

     Malik Ty Mel Moore and Donja Phillips were charged with blackmail, charges that were later dropped.

     Kwanda Carpenter, when questioned by detectives, denied having had sexual contact with the students.

     On March 7, 2013, Carpenter was indicted on two counts of sexual activity with a student. Five months later, she pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of attempted crimes against nature in return for a suspended sentence.

The "Runaway Trolley" Dilemma

     Suppose you are the driver of a trolley car hurtling down the track at sixty miles an hour. Up ahead you see five workers standing on the track, tools in hand. You try to stop, but you can't. The brakes don't work. You feel desperate, because you know that if you crash into these five workers, they will all die. (Let's assume you know that for sure.)

     Suddenly, you notice a side track, off to the right. There is a worker on that track, too, but only one. You realize that you can turn the trolley car onto the side track, killing the one worker but sparing the five.

     What should you do? Most people would say, "Turn! Tragic though it is to kill one innocent person, it's even worse to kill five." Sacrificing one life in order to save five does seem the right thing to do.

     Now consider another version of the trolley story. This time you are not the driver but an onlooker, standing on a bridge overlooking the track. (This time, there is no side track.) Down the track comes a trolley, and at the end of the track are five workers. Once again, the brakes don't work. The trolley is about to crash into the five workers. You feel helpless to avert this disaster--until you notice, standing next to you on the bridge, a very heavy man. You could push him off the bridge, onto the track, into the path of the oncoming trolley. He would die, but five workers would be saved. (You consider jumping onto the track yourself, but realize you are too small to stop the trolley.)

     Would pushing the heavy man onto the track be the right thing to do? Most people would say, "Of course not. It would be a terrible wrong to push the man onto the track?"

     Pushing someone off a bridge to a certain death does seem an awful thing to do, even when it saves five innocent lives. But this raises a moral puzzle: Why does the principle that seems right in the first case--sacrifice one life to save five--seem so wrong in the second?

Michael J. Sandel, Justice, 2009