More than 5,725,000 pageviews from 160 countries


Monday, May 31, 2021

The Right to Give Your Child a Wrong Name

     Generally, because of the First Amendment right of free speech, there is nothing the government can do to stop a parent from giving a kid a weird and arguably stupid name. The only remedy for victims of bad names is to legally correct the problem when they become adults. Recent examples of ridiculous names include Ruger, Irelynd, Blaze, Cinsere, D'Artagnan, Abeus, Troolio, and Dusk. (I once had a student named Misty Dawn. For some reason, movie stars have a tendency to to burden their children with stupid, attention getting names.)

     Several years ago in New Jersey, the parents of a 3-year-old they had named Adolph Hitler Campbell, sued a bakery for refusing to write that name on the boy's birthday cake. While the bakery won the suit, the state of New Jersey did not have the authority to have little Adolph Hitler re-named.

     If you can name an innocent child Adolph Hitler, you can pretty much name a kid anything you want. There are, however, a few limitations to this right. In most states a name cannot be an Arabic number, an obscenity, or a symbol. Names that are extremely long are also forbidden. So, could a mother lawfully name her girl Promiscuous, or her son Fecal? Probably.

     Jaleesa Martin, a resident of Newport, Tennessee, a town of 7,000 in the rural foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, gave birth to a boy in January 2013. The boy's father, a man named McCullough, wanted his son to have his last name. The mother wanted to give the child her last name. The couple did agree, however, on the baby's first name--Messiah.

     To settle this domestic dispute, Jaleesa Martin, in the summer of 2013, asked child support magistrate Lu Anna Ballew to approve the name Messiah DeShawn Martin. Following the hearing in August 2013, Magistrate Ballew ordered the parents to name their child Martin DeShawn McCullough.

     The magistrate said she disapproved of the child's first name because "the word 'messiah' is a title and it's a title that has been earned by one person and that person is Jesus Christ." Moreover, Ballew reasoned, that first name "could put him [the boy] at odds with a lot of people, and at this point he had no choice in what his name was. (What kid does have a choice in this matter?)

     In announcing that she was appealing the magistrate's decision, Jaleesa Martin told reporters that "I was shocked. I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God, and I didn't think a judge could make me change my boy's name because of her religious beliefs." (The mother could have pointed out that in 2012, more babies were named Messiah than Donald, Philip, Bruce, or Gary.)

     On September 18, 2013, Judge Telford Forgety overturned the magistrate's ruling. Pursuant to an agreement reached by the parents, the kid's name was changed to Messiah DeShawn McCullough. (The boy had siblings named Micah and Mason.)

     While Judge Forgety's ruling was a good day for the First Amendment, I'm not sure it was a good day for little Messiah.  

The "Honest" Memoir

     The uncommon memoirist presents actualities honestly and imaginatively. To be honest doesn't require unfailing accuracy, since memory and POV [point of view] intrude upon reminiscing. Honesty avoids deliberate falsehoods. Honest means the writer will not be self-serving, not always at the center, not always the star, though always in the movie. Sometimes she picks herself up off the cutting-room floor.

     Because the imagination is regularly attached to make-believe, these days it is rarely attached to the writing of memoirs, which are expected to be "true," that is, factual. But truth and true are not the same as fact. Historians use facts to support their interpretations of events; they draw conclusions based on evidence that is agreed upon by other historians. A memoir's evidence emerges from memory, the unreliable narrator. [In other words, memoirs are watered down fiction. Why bother?]

Paula Fox, "Speak, Memories", Bookforum, Dec/Jan, 2015 

Writing to Norman Mailer

     An author [who is well-known] will receive as many as several hundred letters a year from strangers. Usually they want something: will you read their works, or listen to a life-story and write it.

     There are happy paradoxes to being successful as a writer. For one thing, you don't have much opportunity to read good books (it's too demoralizing when you're at sea on your own work) and you also come to dread letter writing. Perhaps ten times a year, a couple of days are lost catching up on mail, and there's little pleasure in it. You are spending time that could have been given to more dedicated writing, and there are so many letters to answer! Few writers encourage correspondents. My reply to a good, thoughtful, even generous communication from someone I do not know is often short and apologetic.

Norman Mailer, Introduction to Jack Henry Abbott's In The Belly of the Beast, 1981

Robert A. Caro on Biography

I was never interested in writing biographies merely to tell the lives of famous men. [Caro is the author of a multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.] I never had the slightest interest in doing that. From the first time I thought of becoming a biographer, I conceived of biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times--particularly political power. A biography will only do that, of course, if the biography is about the right man.

Robert A. Caro in Extraordinary Lives, edited by William Zinsser, 1986 

The Legacy Of The Horror Genre

The horror genre has a great literary history. Hawthorne, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, many others found a depth and seriousness in it which made horror more valid, more interesting and more worthy than the general run of mystery fiction. Horror was about the invention of clever puzzles. It dealt with profound emotions and real mysteries, not who had left the footprints under the gorse-bush and how the key to the library had wound up in the colonel's golf bag. Horror could touch people, change them, make them think. While horror fiction was certainly entertaining, there was much more to the genre than mere weightless entertainment.

Peter Straub in How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by J.N. Williamson, 1991 

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Brock Allen Turner Sexual Assault Case

     During the early morning hours of January 18, 2015, in Palo Alto, California, two Stanford University students came across a man lying on top of a woman near a fraternity house dumpster. The man and the woman had passed out from excessive alcohol consumption.

     The Stanford student on top of the partially clad woman was 20-year-old Brock Allen Turner, an all-American high school swimmer from Dayton, Ohio. He had met the woman found beneath him at a fraternity party that night. (Her identify was not made public.)

     Turner had twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system. The 23-year-old woman was three times over the legal limit for intoxication.

     After being examined at a hospital in San Jose, a deputy sheriff told the woman she may have been the victim of a sexual assault.

     Brock Turner, when questioned by the police, admitted that he had sexually fondled the unconscious woman but did not rape her.

     Shortly after being questioned by detectives, a Santa Clara County prosecutor charged Brock Turner with three felonies that included the sexual assault of an unconscious woman and assault with the intent to commit rape. If convicted as charged, Turner faced up to 14 years in prison.

     Following his arrest on the three felony charges, Brock withdrew from the university.

     The Turner sexual assault case went to trial in Palo Alto in March 2016. Prosecutor Alaleh Kianerci, in her opening remarks to the jury, called the defendant the "quintessential face of campus assault." The victim had consumed four shots of whisky before attending the party as well as a quantity of vodka at the fraternity house. As a result of her intoxication, she had been unable to consent to having sex. Lack of consent constituted the legal basis for the prosecution.

     Brock Turner took the stand on his own behalf and testified that the woman had been a willing participant in the sexual activity. Following his testimony, and the closing arguments, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged.

     At the convicted man's sentencing hearing on June 2, 2016, his defense attorney asked Judge Aaron Persky to sentence his client to probation. The defendant's father, Dan Turner, took the stand and said, in reference to his son spending 14 years behind bars: "That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life."

     The female Santa Clara County probation officer who had conducted Brock Turner's pre-sentencing investigation, took the stand and said: "When compared to other crimes of similar nature, this case may be considered less serious due to Mr. Turner's level of intoxication." The probation officer also pointed out that the former Stanford student did not have a criminal record, was young, and unlikely to re-offend. The county agent concluded her testimony by saying that Mr. Turner had "expressed sincere remorse and empathy for the victim." The probation officer recommended a short jail term followed by a period of probation.

     Prosecutor Kianerci, in her pre-sentencing statement to the court, noted that Mr. Turner experienced a run-in with the police in November 2014. He had, according to police reports, run from an officer after the officer spotted him and other young men drinking on campus. Turner also admitted to possessing a fake driver's license. The prosecutor wondered out loud how the defendant could be so remorseful and empathetic when he had pleaded not guilty to the charges. Prosecutor Kianerci asked Judge Persky to sentence the defendant to six years in prison.

     The most dramatic phase of the pre-sentencing hearing occurred with the victim took the stand and read from her lengthy victim impact statement. She read, in part: "You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, and my own voice, until today. The damage is done, no one can undo it. And now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it and head on: I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on."

     Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner to six months in the county jail followed by three years' probation. Turner would also have to register as a sex offender. With good behavior, the convicted man was expected to serve three months behind bars.

     Judge Persky's sentence in the Turner sexual assault case created a firestorm of protest from an angry and vocal segment of society that considered the sentence a mere slap on the wrist. Others more sympathetic to the offender believed that making the young man register as a sex offender was, by itself, severe punishment. This group argued that the sexual assault conviction had essentially ruined his life.

    Judge Persky's sentence immediately prompted a movement to recall him from office. Under California law, the California Assembly could impeach Judge Persky after which he could be removed from office on a two-thirds vote in the state senate. Moreover, the State Commission on Judicial Performance could censure or remove the judge from the bench. This action would be subject to a review by the state supreme court.

     Those outraged by the Persky sentence called for Stanford University to apologize for the sexual assault. The activists also demanded that the school bolster its effort to prevent campus rape and other sexual offenses. In response, the university issued a statement that deflected criticism of its handling of the Turner case.

     Following the national uproar over the judge's sentence, a group of prospective Santa Clara County jurors refused to serve in Judge Persky's courtroom. The judge and members of his family also received death threats.

     The national publicity associated with the Turner case prompted several politicians, including Vice President Joe Biden, to express concern over the sentence and the problem of campus rape and other sexual crimes.  

The Rise of DNA and the Fall of Fingerprint Identification

      In 1993, when the O.J. Simpson trial began to turn "DNA fingerprinting" into a household term, the aura of infallibility surrounding fingerprinting stood in marked contrast to the reputation of DNA typing. Geneticists and lawyers were hotly contesting the reliability of genetic evidence. How had fingerprint identification been transformed from a subject of debate to something that everyone took for granted? How had fingerprint identification become a virtually incontestable form of truth?..

     At the turn of the twenty-first century, the relative positions of fingerprinting and DNA seem to have reversed. DNA typing has become much more widely trusted than it was a few short years ago. Meanwhile, longstanding fissures in the reliability of fingerprint identification had become cracks. The identities bestowed upon us by expert reading of our fingerprint patterns, it turns out, are "suspect" in yet another way. It may well be that we are approaching the end of the century-long period in which our fingerprint patterns told the state who we were and even defined our individuality, our very personhood. And yet, as DNA technology promises to create a whole new set of biologically defined, seemingly unquestionable identities for all of us, we would do well to reflect on the ways in which previous methods of criminal identification have been suspect.

Simon Cole, Suspect Identities, 2001. Simon Cole is a world renown fingerprint expert.

Subjectivity in Creative Nonfiction

     Truth to the traditional reporter encompasses objectivity, meaning that the reporter must not allow personal feelings to enter into the writing of the story. Like Jack Webb in the old and often rerun Dragnet TV series, they are seeking "Just the facts, ma'am." What the reporter/writer feels or thinks personally about the nature or truth of the story is irrelevant. Curiously, most everyone in the newspaper business will admit that objectivity is impossible, but that doesn't seem to diminish the intensity of their belief in the principle.

     More often than not, writers turn to the creative nonfiction genre because they feel passionately about a person, place, subject, or issue and have no interest in or intention of maintaining a balanced or objective tone or viewpoint. Writers turn to creative nonfiction because they have a story to tell, often involving themselves, and they do not want to be reined in or  controlled by Big Brother rules and regulations.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997

The College Fiction Workshop

It's quite true that fiction writing can't be taught; but the teacher can pass along a few shortcuts and get students interested in the craft of it. I don't think any student wastes his time in a good fiction workshop, not even the talentless ones. By the end of the semester they'll have developed their critical skills to some extent, will respond more deeply to literature, will know a bit more about human nature than they did at the start. It may not be much, but how many other English courses achieve more?

Martin Russ, Showdown Semester, 1980 

Writing About Animals

I write about animals because I really like animals. I'm also interested in the animalistic side of human nature, and when and why humans cross over into doing very violent things. Writing about animals is a way of getting at readers' emotions. People sometimes open up their emotions to animals more easily than they do other people. You see that with the way people get so obsessed with their pets. A big thing you see in New York is a person walking their dog with a diamond-stud collar, right past a homeless person. That interests me as well. My stories are about people, but I use animals as vehicles to get at the people.

Carole Burns, Off the Page, 2008

The Writer's Life

Before I entered publishing, I believed, like most people, that the life of a writer was to be envied. As one of my heroes, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) wrote, "When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip." Now I understand that writers are a breed apart, their gifts and their whips inextricably linked. The writer's psychology is by its very nature one of extreme duality. The writer labors in isolation, yet all that intensive, lonely work in the service of communicating, is an attempt to reach another person. It isn't surprising, then, that many writers are ambivalent, if not altogether neurotic, about bringing their work forward. For in so doing, a writer must face down that which he most fears: rejection. There is no stage of the writing process that doesn't challenge every aspect of a writer's personality. How well writers deal with those challenges can be critical to their survival.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees, 2000

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Police Brutality in China: The Xia Junfeng Case

     In China, the Chengguan are municipal law enforcement officers considered a notch below regular cops. As enforcers of city ordinances, these low-level officers have a national reputation for over-enforcement and brutality. This is particularly true in the way these enforcers handle unlicensed street vendors.

     Over the years, members of the Chengguan have been accused of physically abusing hundreds of street vendors. Many have been beaten to death. In July 2013, in Hunan Province, the government paid $150,000 to the family of a watermelon vendor killed by a Chengguan officer. In China, these ordinance enforcers are extremely unpopular, feared, and even hated by millions of Chinese citizens.

     In May 2009, in the city of Shenyang in northeast China, Chengguan officers arrested a 33-year-old street vendor named Xia Junfeng. Xia, a laid-off factory worker who sold sausages and kabobs from an unlicensed street cart, dreamed of sending his son to art school in Beijing. His wife held two jobs as a cleaning lady and baker at a school.

     While being given the third-degree in a police interrogation room, Xia, with a knife he used to slice meat, stabbed two Chengguan cops to death. A local prosecutor charged Xia with two counts of first-degree murder.

     One of the Chengguan officers Xia stabbed had a long history of police brutality. In 2008, the officer broke the arm of a woman he had arrested for selling umbrellas without a license.

     At his murder trial in November 2009, Xia pleaded not guilty on grounds of self-defense. The prosecution asserted that Xia's repeated stabbing of the officers went beyond what was necessary to defend himself. According to the defendant, had he not used deadly force, the officers would have beaten him to death. Xia's attorney put six witnesses on the stand who witnessed Xia's beating at the hands of these officers.

     Testifying on his own behalf, Xia said, "He [one of the arresting officers] began to beat me as soon as I entered the [interrogation] room. His fists pounded my head and ears. As I tried to run outside, I came face-to-face with another officer. Right away he grabbed my collar to stop me. He also struck me with his fist...and kicked at my thighs." When Xia put his hand down to protect his groin area, he felt the knife he kept in his pocket. This was the instrument he used to stab both of the officers to death. (Why wasn't Xia searched pursuant to his arrest? Do these officers receive any training?)

     The trial judge found Xia Junfeng guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. Xia's wife, Zhang Jing, took up her husband's crusade by publishing a blog. As a result, both she and the condemned man became famous as his case worked its way through the appellate process. Because there had been prosecutorial improprieties at the trial, Xia's supporters were confident his conviction would be overturned.

     In 2011, while millions of Chinese citizens were expressing online sympathy for the street vendor convicted of killing two Chengguan officers, justices on the nation's supreme court upheld his conviction and sentence. "The crime he committed was heinous," wrote one of the justices. "The method he used was extremely cruel and the results serious. He should be punished to the full extent of the law."

     On September 25, 3013, millions of Chinese citizens were outraged by Xia Jonfeng's execution by lethal injection. On the popular website Sina.com, 28 million people posted messages of support for the man who had killed two members of the hated Chengguan police. Following Xia's execution, Chinese censors were busy scrubbing commentary on dozens of blogs protesting the death of the man who had come to represent resistance against oppressive Chinese law enforcement.

     In China, public support for capital punishment has diminished over the years. Ten years ago the authorities were executing 12,000 prisoners a year. In 2012, 3000 Chinese prisoners died by firing squad or lethal injection.

The Salem Witch Trials

The famous Salem witchcraft crisis erupted early in 1692 when several young women began exhibiting bizarre behavior: incoherent screaming, convulsions, crawling on the ground, and barking like dogs. Some people believed that the Devil himself was present in the community and blamed this on a slave woman named Tituba. The trial of Tituba and two of the young women only escalated the crisis. Suspects were encouraged to name other witches, and they responded enthusiastically. The search for witches quickly spread throughout Salem and to neighboring towns. The original girls identified more than fifty "witches" in Andover [Massachusetts], even though they did not personally know anyone in the town. By the end of the summer, nineteen accused witches had been executed, and seven more were sentenced to die...The term "witch hunt" eventually entered the American language as a description of persecution for political or religious beliefs.

Samuel Walker, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice, Second Edition, 1998

"Literary Life: A Second Memoir" by Larry McMurtry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven

     Writing and publishing a memoir that features a child's recollection of events is not only ridiculous, it's an abuse of the youngster, the genre, and the people who pay good money to read what they think is a nonfiction book.

     In 2010, Tyndale House, a leading publisher of Christian books, came out with a memoir called, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels and Life Beyond the World. The subject of the book, Alex Malarkey, is listed as the author of the memoir along with his father, Kevin. (In the memoir genre, the concept of authorship has been rendered almost meaningless.)

     The spiritual, uplifting story begins with a 2004 automobile accident that put Alex Malarkey into a coma that took him to Heaven where he saw angels and spoke to Jesus. The publicity savvy father and son writing team took advantage of the feel-good appeal this journey into the afterlife held for fluff morning television and other media outlets. The book became a bestseller. By 2014, the publisher had sold 120,000 copies of the memoir.

     In 2014, shortly after Tyndale House brought out a new edition of the memoir that featured the cover blurb: "A true story," Alex Malarkey, in an open letter to the reading public, admitted that the book was a lie, a fraud driven by his desire for attention. (The fraudulent memoir has become so common it could be designated a literary sub-genre.)

    According to the boy, "I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. When I made those claims I had never read the Bible. People have profited from my lies and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough."

     The publisher, in early January 2015, pulled the book off the market. The discrediting of this memoir had been foreshadowed by the young author's mother, an early critic of the book. In April 2014, she wrote on her blog that her son had been exploited and that she found the book's success "both puzzling and painful to watch." 

What A Memoir Should Not Be

     A memoir is not a chronological, thematically tone-deaf recitation of everything remembered. That's autobiography, which should be left, in this twenty-first century, to politicians and celebrities. Oh, be honest: It should just be left.

     A memoir is not an exhibition for exhibitionism's sake. If nothing's been learned from a life, is it worth sharing? Or, if nothing's been learned yet, shouldn't the story wait?

     A memoir is not a self-administered therapy session. Memoirists speak to others and not just to themselves.

Beth Kephart, Handling the Truth, 2013

Friday, May 28, 2021

The History of American Forensic Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hugo Ramos Murder Case

     At two-thirty in the afternoon of Monday September 15, 2014, Hugo Ramos and his three children--ages one to seven--while traveling on U.S. Route 20 in Lorain County 35 miles west of Cleveland, pulled his 2002 Acura off to the side of the road. The 28-year-old climbed out of the car and walked into the traffic flow on the busy highway. After almost being run over by an 18-wheeler, Ramos returned to his car.

     With his children still in the car, Ramos poured a container of gasoline on himself and lit a match. A passing motorist saw a man on the side of the highway consumed by flames. The motorist grabbed a fire extinguisher and put out the fire.

     Paramedics loaded the badly burned man onto a helicopter and flew him to the MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. Although in critical condition, Ramos told emergency personnel that he had killed his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his three children. He said they would find 25-year-old Glorimar Ramos-Perez in a small apartment at the rear of a house on Newark Avenue in Cleveland.

     At three that afternoon homicide detectives with the Cleveland Police Department arrived at 3638 Newark Avenue where they found Glorimar Ramos-Perez's body. She had been stabbed to death.

     The Cuyahoga County medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. Charged with the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Ramos remained for a period in critical condition at the MetroHealth Medical Center. His children were in the care of the Lorain County Children's Services.

     On August 19, 2015, a jury sitting in Cleveland rejected Hugo Ramos' insanity defense. The jurors found Ramos guilty of aggravated murder, kidnapping, felonious assault, domestic violence and endangering children.

     At the trial, the prosecution and defense put on dueling psychiatrists who gave testimony regarding the defendant's mental state at the time of the crimes. The jurors chose to believe the state's expert who declared Ramos legally sane.
     The judge sentenced Ramos to life in prison.

The Most Popular Genre

     Mention the words "romance novel," and the first thing that comes to mind for many is the cliched book cover image of a bare-chested hero embracing a swooning heroine--what stereotypically might be considered guilty-pleasure reading enjoyed largely by women. But in fact the genre has evolved to encompass a much wider audience and broader range of plot lines than that trope would indicate.

     There are now multiple sub-genres, such as romantic suspense and science fiction romance, and within these sub-genres are an increasing number of titles that reflect the diverse spectrum of relationships across society...As the genre has widened its appeal, romance publishing has become a billion-dollar industry, with romance novels accounting for a third of all mass-market fiction book sales.

Shayla Byrd, Vanderbilt, Summer 2019

So-Called "Literature"

     "Genre fiction" is a nasty phrase--when did genre turn into an adjective? But I object to the term for a different reason. It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature--and therefore important art and somehow better than genre writing.

     The term sneaks back into the past in an anachronistic way, so that, for example, Jane Austen's works are described as literary fiction. This is nonsense. Can anyone think for a moment that were she writing today she'd be published as literary fiction? No, and not because she'd end up under romance, but because she writes comedy, and literary fiction, with rare exception, does not include humor. [Perhaps that's why they call it "serious fiction."]

     Jane Austen never for a moment imagined she was writing literature. Posterity decided that, not her. She wrote fiction to entertain and to make money which is what we novelists have been doing ever since. Perhaps in our serious and solemn way, we ask fiction to bear a burden it was never intended to carry.

Elizabeth Edmondson, The Guardian, April 21, 2014 

The Aging Novelist

Raymond Chandler [a noted and literary twentieth century crime novelist] wrote a sentence true of [Ernest] Hemingway and himself: "I suppose the weakness, even the tragedy of writers like Hemingway is that their sort of stuff demands an immense vitality; and a man outgrows his vitality without unfortunately outgrowing his furious concern with it."

Michael Schmidt, The Novel: A Biography, 2014 

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Eli Weaver/Barbara Raber Murder Case

     In 2009, Eli Weaver, his wife Barbara, and their five children resided in central Ohio's Amish heartland. He owned a gun shop near his Wayne County farm near Apple Creek. Over the past several years, leaders of the Amish community had thrown him out of the church for running around with English women he had met online. Eli would ask for forgiveness, be accepted back into the fold, then get into trouble again with the same un-Amish behavior.

     The 23-year-old Amish man, in 2003, met Barbara Raber, a woman who had grown up Amish but had left the church. The 33-year-old from Millersburg, Ohio made extra money driving Amish people from place to place. The relationship between Eli and his driver eventually became sexual.

     Beginning in the fall of 2008, Weaver and Raber began discussing how to murder his wife. In 2009, they exchanged a series of text messages in which they discussed various plans on how to pull off the crime.

      At seven on the morning of June 2, 2009, one of the Weaver children ran to a neighbor's house with shocking news. Someone, during the night, had shot and killed his mother in her bed. Eli, at that moment, was fishing on Lake Erie. The neighbor and the boy entered the Weaver house where Barbara Weaver lay in her blood-soaked bed with a gaping gunshot wound in her chest.

     At 11:30 that morning, Wayne County Coroner Dr. Amy Joliff pronounced Barbara Weaver dead at the scene. Dr. Lisa Kohler, the Summit County Chief Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy. According to the forensic pathologist, the victim had been killed by a single shotgun blast to the right side of her chest. Several shotgun pellets were removed from the corpse. Dr. Kohler estimated the time of death as sometime between midnight and three o'clock that morning.

     John Gardner, a firearms expert with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation identified the death scene pellets as number six shot. While this ammunition could have been fired from shotguns of four different gauges, the firearms identification expert believed the murder weapon was a .410-gauge shotgun.

     Detectives with the Wayne County Sheriff's Office seized two .410 shotguns from Eli Weaver's gun shop. Officers also recovered a box of .410 shells with one round missing. Investigators in the murder house found an amount of cash sitting on a table suggesting that robbery had not been the motive in this killing.

     Questioned by detectives upon his return from the Lake Erie fishing trip, Eli denied any involvement in his wife's murder.

     On June 10, 2009, detectives arrested Eli Weaver after he confessed to helping Barbara Raber murder his wife. She had pulled the trigger while he was fishing.

     That day, pursuant to a search of Raber's house in Millersburg, officers found a notebook in which she had written out a list of various poisons. At the police station following her arrest, she denied knowledge of the murder. She explained the incriminating text messages to and from Eli as nothing more than joking around.

     The day after Raber's arrest, upon further questioning, the suspected trigger woman admitted going to the Weaver house around four in the morning armed with a .410-gauge shotgun. Eli had left the basement door unlocked for her. She said her intent was merely to frighten Barbara Weaver, but when she entered the bedroom, the gun discharged accidentally. Raber's interrogators didn't buy the accidental shooting story, but asked her to sign a written statement to that effect. She refused and asked to see a lawyer. The interrogation, at that point, came to an end.

     On August 17, 2009, Eli Weaver agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. As part of the plea deal, he promised to testify for the prosecution at Barbara Raber's murder trial.

     The Raber murder trial got underway on September 16, 2009 in Wooster, Ohio with Judge Robert J. Brown presiding. Wayne County prosecutor Edna J. Boyle, following testimony from the county coroner, the medical examiner, and several police officers, put Dena Unangst on the stand. Unangst had been the defendant's cellmate at the Wayne County Jail. According to this witness, Raber admitted to her that she had purchased a .410 shotgun after Eli Weaver, on numerous occasions, begged her to murder his wife. Raber also asked Unangst if she knew how long a fingerprint could last on a gun. (Under ideal conditions, 50 years or more.)

     Gun store owner Larry Miller took the stand and testified that the defendant had purchased a .410 on November 15, 2008.

     On September 30, 2009, prosecutor Boyle put the shunned Amish man on the stand. Elie Weaver, now 29, testified that when he mentioned getting rid of his wife, a woman he didn't love, Raber "ran away with the idea." At one point, during one of their homicide planning conversations, she gave him a bottle of what she called "poison pills." Eli said he rejected poisoning as a way of killing his wife.

     On the day before the murder, Eli informed Raber that at three the next morning he would be leaving the house on a fishing trip. He'd leave the basement door open for her. Shortly after he left the house that morning, Raber sent him a text in which she asked how she was supposed to see in the dark. "It's too scary," she wrote. Eli advised her to take a flashlight.

     At 3:25 AM Raber texted, "I'm scared, where are you?" Texting that he was in Wooster, Eli cautioned Raber not to leave anything behind at the murder scene.

     According to the prosecutor's star witness, on June 9, 2009, the day before he and Raber were arrested, they had a conversation in his barn. She described the night she killed Barbara Weaver and said she was "sorry for everything." Before parting company, Raber asked Eli how to clean a gun so it looked like it hadn't been recently fired.

     Assistant public defender John J. Leonard tried to convince the jury that Eli Weaver, not his client, had murdered the victim. The defense attorney described Raber's incriminating statement to detectives as the product of fear and confusion. Leonard rested his defense without putting his client on the stand.

     On October 1, 2009, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. Judge Brown sentence the 39-year-old woman to 23 years in prison. Eli Weaver had been sentenced by this judge the day before to 15 years to life.

     Weaver's light sentence illustrates, from the point of view of a guilty murder mastermind, the value of pleading guilty and testifying against an accomplice. Raber's sentence, given the cold-bloodedness of the killing and the innocence of the victim, was also lenient.  

Stephen King on Bad Writing

No matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can't lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers. Some are on-staff at your local newspaper, usually reviewing little-theater productions or pontificating about the local sports teams. Some have scribbled their way to homes in the Caribbean, leaving a trail of pulsing adverbs, wooden characters, and vile passive-voice constructions behind them. Others hold forth at open-mike poetry slams, wearing black turtlenecks and wrinkled khaki pants; they spout doggerel about "my angry lesbian breasts" and "the tilted alley where I cried my mother's name." While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great one out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

Writing a Celebrity Profile

     When you're writing about a [famous] person, one of the problems you encounter is that the reason the person is worthy of being profiled is not necessarily because they are good at talking about what they do. That's where the writer comes in. It's not her [the celebrity's] job to make my story good, it's my job to make my story good. So I write a story about what I would have asked her if she'd been awake and what I think she would have said.

     I grew up reading celebrity profiles, and I hated most of them. The ones I didn't hate all have the same quality, which was that the writer was not in bed with the subject. It's very easy to become so dazzled by a celebrity that by the time you write it, it's me and the subject doing something for your benefit, the reader. Like this is what it's like to be friends with this person. But that's not what a profile should be, because I'm not friends with that person. And we didn't have something that emulated friendship. We had a weird, short, intense relationship that we both knew the length of, the extent of, and the stakes of. I am the reader in those situations. I want the reader to know that I know what my job is. My job is to go there and to tell you what it would have been like if you were there. 

Taffy Brodesser-Akner in "How Taffy Brodesser-Akner Writes a Celebrity Profile," by Isaac Butler, slate.com July 13, 2020 

The Power of Dialogue

Dialogue has practically all the properties which a story demands. It can be both a story builder and a character builder.

Joseph T. Shaw (1874-1952) editor of Black Mask Magazine 1926 to 1936

Nature Writing

Nature writing often requires an ability to understand and interpret the findings of science. If you do not have the education or career credentials for writing about these subjects, you can rely on others who are experts, or you can write as a lay naturalist, an astute observer. However, the onus of accuracy is upon you. Although nature writing rests on science, the essay form leaves plenty of room for the writer's interaction with the environment, including one's inner emotional landscape as well as the outer landscape of the setting. One of the best ways to improve your skill in nature and outdoor writing is to read examples of it, as well as books on how to write this specialized kind of writing.

Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction, 2003 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Chad Wolfe's Mysterious Death

     On Thursday night, March 14, 2013, Chad Wolfe and Jessica Price, his girlfriend of ten years, boarded Delta Flight 2233 out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania en route to Atlanta and their final destination, Tampa, Florida. Wolfe resided in West Newton, a Westmoreland County town of 3,000 twenty-five miles southeast of Pittsburgh. The 31-year-old worked in a Sewickley Township body shop with his father. Chad and Jessica planned to meet up with friends in Tampa, rent a car, then drive to Daytona Beach to participate in Bike Week festivities. They also planned to visit a few automobile auctions.

     The couple flew into the Tampa International Airport from their layover in Atlanta just before midnight. They had been arguing. Chad took an elevator from the third floor of the main terminal to the 7th floor parking garage while she picked up their luggage from baggage claim. When Jessica returned to the main concourse with the luggage, Chad wasn't there. When she couldn't find Chad, she alerted an airport security officer who organized a search party.

     At ten o'clock the next morning, airport maintenance workers found Chad Wolfe's body lying on top of an elevator car stopped at the third floor of the main terminal. In his pocket, investigators found an empty Xanax bottle. (He had a prescription for Xanax and Paxil.)

     Investigators found, on the seventh floor not far from the bank of elevators, Chad's cellphone and carry-on case. This discovery raised questions of what Chad was doing in the parking garage, and how did his body end up on top of the third floor elevator car.

     The authorities who looked into this mysterious death, certainly a suspicious one, came to the conclusion that Chad Wolfe had somehow accidentally fallen down the elevator shaft. But the young man's father, Garland Wolfe, didn't believe his 150 pound son had the strength to pry open the elevator doors. Don Cassell, an elevator expert, agreed. According to Mr. Cassell, opening the doors of a working elevator with one's bare hands was next to impossible.

     Jessica Price revealed that Chad had taken a Xanax pill to ease his anxiety about flying, He had also consumed a drink on the plane. Did her confused boyfriend go to the parking garage to smoke a cigarette? Still, how did he get into the elevator shaft?

     In May 2013, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner issued the report on Chad Wolfe's death. The cause of this young man's demise went into the books as "blunt force impact to the head and neck." The manner of death: an accident.

     According to the medical examiner's report, the deceased had Alprozolam and Paxil in his system. In the report, a forensic investigator wrote: "It appears the deceased forced open an elevator door to gain entry into the elevator shaft."

     According to a report submitted months later by the airport, witnesses on Wolfe's flight from Atlanta to Tampa said that Wolfe had been drinking alcohol, popping pills, and acting rudely on the plane. At the airport, a witness saw a belligerent man banging on the seventh floor elevator door. Tampa airport detective Kevin Durkin, the lead investigator in the case, concluded that Wolfe forced open the landing doors on the elevator. He then wrapped his arms and legs aground "the elevator cable inside the shaft with the intention to slide down the cable to the elevator car roof. As he descended down the elevator cable, friction wounds caused him to let go."

     Detective Durkin concluded that Wolfe had fallen and died when he landed on the top of the elevator car.

A Shoplifter in Need of a Getaway Driver

     After reports of ongoing shoplifting on Thanksgiving 2014, police officers in Nampa, Idaho responded to a busy parking lot full of holiday shoppers. When they tried to arrest Camilla Hunt, the Oregon woman fled in a car. Given the potential threat to public safety, the police did not pursue her in the busy parking lot.

     But Hunt didn't make an escape. Instead, she drove around in circles. Police laid down a spike strip and Hunt drove her car over it, deflating two of her tires.

"Police Stop Woman Driving in Circles," Associated Press, November 28, 2014 

Degenerate Child Abusers

     Gregory Bernard Lacy, 60, and LaQuron D. McLean-Lacy, 43, lived with seven adopted children in a two-story house in a Perris, California subdivision of newer homes near the Ramona Expressway in Riverside County. During the early morning hours of July 22, 2012, sheriff's deputies responded to the Lacy dwelling in the Mar Ranch subdivision. Someone had reported shots being fired in front of the house.

     The Riverside County deputies, upon rolling up to the residence, found 46-year-old Calvin Lynch dead in the front yard from a single bullet. While Lynch, from Moreno Valley, California, had presumably been murdered and knew someone at the Lacy house. (If the police ever got to the bottom of the Lynch shooting it never made the Internet.)

     In searching the Lacy/McLean home that night, deputies discovered that the first-floor had been converted into a home strip-club complete with a stage and an erotic dancer's pole. In the kitchen, officers found a quantity of ecstasy pills. The police also learned that the couple's seven adopted children were all under eleven years old.

     Four months after Calvin Lynch was found death in the Lacy/McLean front yard, Gregory Lacy and LaQuron McLean were arrested on charges of child abuse. The children told the police and child protection agents that their adopted parents had beaten them with their fists, clothes hangers, and other objects. The kids were frequently locked into rooms, and often went without food. One of the girls accused Mr. Lacy of sexual assault. The children also reported being in the house during the all-night stripper parties.

     Gregory Lacy, charged with lewd acts on a child under ten, and one count of felony child abuse, was being held at the Robert Presley Detection Center in Riverside under $1 million bond. McLean, charged with two felony child abuse offenses, was incarcerated under $50,000 bail. The children were placed into protective custody. Both of the defendants had convictions for driving under the influence. Lacy was once arrested for driving without a license.

     In March 2016, a jury in Riverside County, California found the couple guilty of child abuse and related crimes. The judge sentenced Gregory Lacy to 26 years to life and his wife 75 years to life.

How Long Should it Take to Write a Book?

 Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion people, perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled races, go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. There is no call to take human extremes as norms. [Mainly, the time it takes to write a book depends on the book. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote six crime novels a year.] 

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, 2013

Paul Theroux's Travel Writing

     Travel writing in our hyperconnected age is in the throes of an existential crisis. Journeys to new lands used to inspire masterly works of literary nonfiction. Now, they inspire Instagram posts by influencers who string together hashtags rather than sentences. So what should you read about travel when you can virtually sample the sights and sounds anywhere in the world from, well, anywhere in the world?

     Start out with an unvarnished depiction of reality from Paul Theroux, who is adept at immersing you fully within setting by the time you've finished the first page.

Monica Drake, The New York Times Book Review, December 8, 2019

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Disneyland Dry Ice Bomb Case

     At four in the afternoon of May 28, 2013, parents who had brought their children to Mickey's Toontown section of Anaheim, California's Disneyland, were startled by a small but loud explosion that tore the lid off a trash can near a kiddy ride called Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin. While no one suffered injuries from the blast, officials of the famous theme park evacuated the Toontown area.

     At the site of the low-order explosion, detectives found fragments of a plastic water bottle which led them to conclude that a so-called dry ice bomb had been the source of the explosion. A maker of such a device adds chunks of dry ice to a quarter-full bottle of water. Once sealed, the water warms the dry ice which produces carbon dioxide that builds inside the container and eventually ruptures the bottle. These simply made little bombs, if moved, can blow off the handler's fingers. As booby traps, dry ice bombs function as little anti-personnel devices.

     Because dry ice is used at Disneyland to keep refreshments like ice cream and sodas cold, detectives figured there was a good chance the bomber worked for the theme park. As it turned out, they were right.

     On Wednesday, May 29, 2013, officers with the Anaheim Police Department arrested a 22-year-old man from Long Beach named Christian Barnes. Barnes, a so-called "outdoor vending cast member," peddled soda drinks and bottled water from a mobile cart. Charged with possession of a destructive device in a public place, the Disneyland employee was booked into the Orange County Jail. A magistrate set his bond at $1 million.

     It was hard to imagine a rational motive for a crime like this. Some kid dropping a piece of garbage into that trash can could have lost his hand. The fact that Barnes worked at the theme park suggested he didn't have a criminal record.

     On Thursday, May 30, 2013, Barnes pleaded not guilty to the felony charge that carried a maximum sentence of six years in prison. The judge reduced his bail to $500,000.

     Big theme parks have been relatively safe places from crime. However, at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, a grandmother, after getting off the Dinosaur ride, found a .380-caliber pistol on her seat. She handed the gun over to a park attendant. A few minutes later, a man returned to the site and claimed the weapon. It had fallen out of his pocket during the bumpy ride. Security personnel escorted him out of the park.

     The Disney Animal Kingdom incident exposed the reality that millions of people walk through hundreds of turnstiles into parks all over the country without being searched or exposed to metal detectors. There was no way to keep guns and dry ice bombs out of these places. If going to a theme park became as inconvenient and intrusive as getting on an airplane, Mickey and his friends would find themselves alone among the Roger Rabbit rides and phony dinosaurs.

     According to prosecutors, Barnes allegedly placed dry ice into two water bottles and locked one inside his vending cart. When a co-worker came to take over the cart, one of the bottles exploded. Barnes then took the second bottle and placed it in the trash can. That device went off a short time later after a park janitor removed the trash bag and put it on the ground. The co-worker and janitor were not injured.

     In November 2013, Barnes pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of possession of a destructive device in return for a sentence of 36 days in jail, 100 hours of community service, and three years probation. The kid got off light.

Right Tattoo, Wrong Man

     On January 24, 2012, a man walking in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island [NYC] before 9 AM was approached by a stranger with a knife. The stranger, the man later told the police, took his bag and the chain around his neck, then ran away. The victim was able to get a pretty good look at the robber, and told detectives that he was young and white. And one more thing: he had a big tattoo of a red lightning bolt running down the side of his face.

     The police searched their database of photos of young white men with big red lightening-bolt tattoos on their faces, and they found a match. The name on the picture was Dylan Vok, 28, a Staten Island resident with a short criminal record…The mug shot was released to the press. Word of the search for Dylan Wok and his big red lightening-bolt tattoo spread online, all the way to Detroit and to one incredulous reader in particular: Dylan Vok.

     "In October 2011, I left New York for Detroit," Mr. Vok said in a recent telephone interview. That was months before the robbery. "I had lots of proof of that. I was using a food-stamp card. I had time stamps." He said he could even produce video footage of himself at his job at a New Age chiropractor's office…

     And the tattoo? Mr. Vok said he was briefly in the Army, but had been discharged. "I had flat feet," he said. "I got depressed after." In 2009, his best friend was on his third tour of Iraq. Mr. Vok decided to have the symbol of the devision he himself had briefly been attached to tattooed on his face…

     Mr. Vok offered all sorts of proof of his whereabouts [on the morning of the robbery]. It seemed to have worked. The police informed Mr. Vok that he was no longer a suspect in the crime.

Michael Wilson, "A Suspect With an Incriminating Tattoo Saves Face," The New York Times, March 7, 2014 

Innocent on Death Row Thirty Years

Glenn Ford, Louisiana's longest-serving death row prisoner, walked free on March 11, 2014 after spending nearly 30 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit…According to the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana, a judge ordered that Ford be freed after prosecutors petitioned the court to release him. New information corroborated what Ford had said all along: that he was not present at nor involved in the November 5, 1983 slaying of Isadore Rozeman…Ford had been on death row since 1984, making him one of the longest-serving death row prisoners in the United States….

Dana Ford, "Louisiana's Longest-Serving Death Row Prisoner Walks Free After 30 Years," CNN, March 11, 2014

The Ethical Dilemma of Journalism

There's an ethical dilemma in almost all journalism. In taking someone else's story and making it your own, in describing them on your terms, in ways they may not agree with.

Ted Conover in The New Journalism (2005) by Robert S. Boynton 

The Journalist Is Not Your Friend

I think readers believe that a writer becomes friends with the people he interviews and writes about--and I think there are some writers who do that--but that hasn't happened to me. I do think it's dangerous because then you write to please them, which is a terrible error. [For example, why would anyone agree to be interviewed by Bob Woodward?]

Nora Ephron (1941-2012) American journalist, essayist, novelist and screenwriter.

Writers, Know Your Genre

     Writers of science fiction are, first and foremost, voracious readers, and they're often very savvy about the genre they work in. Whereas most literary writers have only the barest conception of where their work fits in the current publishing milieu. This is because many of them have been studying classic literature.

     The literary divisions are a little clearer within genre fiction--to an almost laughable degree (hence paranormal young adult romance, alternative historical fantasy, "furry" fiction, and virtually everything ending in the suffix-punk). But despite the fact that the differences between various types of literary fiction are more subtle, it behooves anyone serious about publishing to get savvy about them.

     The more knowledgeable you are about the imaginative space you're working in, the less likely you are to reinvent the wheel, and the more likely you are to get a handle on who your readers are and what they like.

Susan Defreitas, litreactor.com, September 24, 2014 

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Stiletto Heel Murder Case

     Dr. Alf Stefan Anderson, a native of Sweden, joined the staff of the University of Houston in December 2009 as a full-time research professor specializing in women's reproductive health. In 2013, he resided on the 18th floor of a luxury high-rise condo in the city's museum district. The 59-year-old professor had an on-again, off-again relationship with Ana Trujillo, a 44-year-old Mexican native.

     Dr. Anderson and Trujillo got into an argument on the night of June 8, 2013 while having drinks at a nightclub in Houston. In the taxi on the way back to his condo she was still angry and yelling at him. The fight had started when another man at the bar offered to buy her a drink.

     At four o'clock that morning Trujillo called 911 from Dr. Anderson's high-rise dwelling. Responding police officers and paramedic personnel were met at the door by Trujillo whose clothing and hands were covered in blood. The professor was lying on his back in the hallway with twenty to twenty-five puncture wounds in his face, arms and neck. He was unresponsive.

     Next to Dr. Anderson's punctured head lay a bloody blue suede woman's shoe with six-inch stiletto heels. This was the weapon that had caused the wounds and presumably killed the professor.

     Trujillo told the officers she had stabbed her boyfriend with the size-nine pump after he'd grabbed her and wrestled her to the ground. Unable to breathe, she had attacked him with the shoe in self defense.

     Police officers took Trujillo into custody at the scene. Later that day, a Harris County prosecutor charged her with capital murder. Following a short period behind bars, the murder suspect posted her $100,000 bail and was released.

     The Trujillo trial opened in late March 2014. In his opening remarks, the prosecutor told the jury that the defendant, in a fit of rage, had attacked the victim causing him to fall backward and injure himself. As he lay helpless on the condo floor, she sat on him and from that position gave it to him with the stiletto shoe. At one point she tried to stop him from breathing by applying pressure to his neck.

     The prosecutor portrayed the professor as a mild-mannered nice guy and the defendant as a hothead.

     The defense attorney argued that his client had acted in self defense against an alcohol-fueled assault. Dr. Lee Ann Grossberg, a private forensic pathologist, took the stand for the defense. The witness had reviewed death scene photographs, the autopsy report, police documents, and medical records pertaining to the case. According to the expert witness, "I did not see any one injury that would have been fatal to Dr. Anderson. Natural causes may have contributed to his death."

     The defense pathologist testified that if the responding officers and medical crew had performed CPR on Dr. Anderson, or at least used an electronic monitor to measure his heart activity, they may have saved his life.

     Without a confession, surveillance footage of the altercation, or an eyewitness account, the stiletto murder represented the classic circumstantial case. The jurors, based on the interpretation of the death scene--particularly the number and nature of the puncture wounds, the unusual murder weapon as well as other circumstances of the case--would have to infer the defendant's guilt. In other words, if murder in this case seemed more reasonable that self-defense, Trujillo would go to prison.

     On April 8, 2014, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. Ana Trujillo showed little emotion as the verdict was read. She faced up to life behind bars.

     The punishment phase of the Trujillo trial began the day following the guilty verdict. A police officer testified that Trujillo had been arrested twice for drunken driving. A former security guard took the stand and described how Trujillo had once attacked him. Another witness told jurors that Trujillo had broken into his apartment.

     Ana Trujillo took the stand at her sentencing hearing and said, "I never meant to hurt him. It was never my intent. I loved him. I wanted to get away." Following her testimony, the defense attorney asked the judge to send her to prison for two years.

     On April 11, 2014, the trial judge sentenced the 45-year-old Ana Trujillo to life in prison. 

Mom Needs More Than a Parenting Class

     Police say a Massachusetts woman allowed her 2-year-old daughter to sip her margarita at a restaurant and poured some of it into the girl's sippy cup. Forty-one-year-old Sheldy Nelson of Lynn, Massachusetts pleaded not guilty on February 24, 2015 to child endangerment in a Salem district court. She was charged in connection with the August 2014 incident. The judge set her bond at $1,000.

     A witness told police that Nelson ignored two warnings from the restaurant staff to stop giving her daughter sips of the alcohol. Both the mother and her daughter appeared lethargic and were taken to a hospital where medical personnel found alcohol in the toddler's system. Police found the sippy cup in Nelson's bag. It smelled of alcohol. The girl was placed in state custody. [In July 2015, the judge agreed to drop the charges against Nelson if she took a parenting class and agreed to random drug testing for a period of three months.]

"Mom Let 2-Year-Old Sip Margarita," huffingtonpost.com, February 28, 2015 

Clues In The Refrigerator

I love to enter the crime scene from the kitchen. People's minute-to-minute movements are registered here. I routinely open the refrigerator to get people's lifestyles: the type of food they like, where they buy, how much they pay, how they wrap. In one homicide I investigated, the homeowner returned early, surprising the burglar, so the burglary ended in murder. But the burglar was hungry, so he had a bite to eat before leaving. We found distinct teeth marks in the cheese!

Dr. Thomas Noguchi, Coroner at Large, 1985. Dr. Noguchi was the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner of Los Angeles County from 1967 to 1982. 

Learning How to Assemble a Book

There's no formal school, so far as I know, where you can learn how to structure long forms of prose. Writing programs typically work with short forms, for the obvious reason that short forms can be examined productively within the brief compass of a course program. But the difference between long forms and short forms is precisely their structure, which means that you can't learn how to structure the one by studying the other. Fortunately, you can teach yourself long-form structure by reading books and analyzing how their authors assembled them.

Richard Rhodes, How to Write, 1995 

Eliminate the Clutter

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 1976

You Need More Than an Idea

 Most anyone can have a great idea. A smaller group might get it onto paper in some form. A fair number of those will be able to revise parts of it until it is very good. Yet to take all the elements such as character and themes and place, and to think about voice, style and language, just doesn't happen in one fell swoop. Only a few writers can take what first comes out on the page and work it until every bit of it is right, until all of its parts become a beautiful whole. True talent--perhaps even genius--lies not in coming up with the idea but in being able to do the hard, dogged work that brings that idea to fruition.

Carole Burns, Off The Page, 2000

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Chris Kyle Murder Case

     Chris Kyle, during his four tours of duty in Iraq as a Navy SEAL sniper, recorded 160 kills which earned him the unofficial title "America's Deadliest Sniper." (He killed one of his targets from a range of 1.2 miles.) The highly decorated SEAL was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, and one Navy and Marine Corps Commendation.

     After his combat duty, Kyle became the Chief Instructor in the training of Navy Special Warfare Sniper and Counter-Sniper teams. He wrote a Navy SEAL manual called the Naval Special Warfare Sniper Doctrine.

     Kyle, upon leaving the Navy in 2009, founded Craft International which provides firearms training to military, police, and corporate clients. He became a celebrity in 2012 after the publication of his memoir American Sniper which became a New York Times bestseller.

     In American Sniper there is a passage in which the author claims to have punched former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura over a comment Kyle considered unpatriotic. Governor Ventura, who said the punch never happened, sued Kyle in federal court for defamation, invasion of privacy, and unjust enrichment.

     In 2012, Kyle appeared on the NBC reality television show "Stars Earn Stripes." And in the aftermath of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, Kyle publicly recommended arming school teachers. A book he co-authored called American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms, was released in May 2013.

     On Saturday, February 2, 2013, Chris Kyle was in Glen Rose, Texas, a Hill County town 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth. At 3:30 in the afternoon, during a gun range charity event held at Rough Creek Lodge, a resort and conference center, the 38-year-old former SEAL was shot to death. He was shot by 25-year-old Eddie Ray Routh. After killing Kyle and 35-year-old Chad Littlefield, Routh fled the scene in Kyle's Ford pickup truck. Texas Rangers arrested Routh later in the day at his home in Lancaster, a town just south of Dallas about 70 miles from the shooting range. He confessed to the murder.

     Eddie Ray Routh, an ex-Marine who was deployed to Iraq in 2007, reportedly suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was charged by the Erath County prosecutor's office with two counts of capital murder. Routh was held on $3 million bond.

     Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, on February 4, 2013, responded on Twitter to Kyle's habit of taking veterans like Eddie Routh with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to firing ranges. The Libertarian, whose opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were well-documented, in referring to Chris Kyles' murder, wrote that "he who lives by the sword dies by the sword." Mr. Paul also said that in his opinion, taking veterans with PTSD to firing ranges didn't make any sense.

     In the four months prior to the murder, Routh, after he threatened to kill his family and himself, received mental health treatment. After murdering Chris Kyle and Kyle's friend Chad Littlefield, Routh drove to his sister's house in Midlothian, Texas where he informed his sister of what he had done on the shooting range.

     Eddie Ray Routh's murder trial was scheduled to start on February 11, 2015. Prosecutors said they would not seek the death penalty. The defendant's attorney, in speaking to reporters on January 22, 2015, said, "My client will plead not guilty by reason of insanity." The judge had rejected attorney J. Warren St. John's earlier motion to have the trial moved out of Erath County. However, in light of the box-office success of the movie "American Sniper," the attorney said he would refile the change of venue request.

     Following Chris Kyle's murder, Jesse Ventura continued his defamation suit against the Kyle estate. He won the civil action at the expense of Kyle's widow. Many considered Ventura's lawsuit greedy and unpatriotic. For him it turned out to be a public relations nightmare.

     In February 2015, an Erath County jury rejected the insanity defense and found Eddie Ray Routh guilty of Chris Kyle's murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Execution of Paul Goodwin

     A Missouri inmate was put to death early Wednesday December 10, 2014 for fatally beating a 63-year-old woman with a hammer in 1998…Paul Goodwin, 48, sexually assaulted Joan Crotts in St. Louis County, pushed her down a flight of stairs and beat her in the head with a hammer. Goodwin was a former neighbor who felt Crotts played a role in getting him kicked out of a boarding house.

     Goodwin's execution began at 1:17 AM, more than an hour after it was scheduled because Supreme Court Appeals lingered into the early morning. He was pronounced dead at 1:25 AM. He declined to make a final statement.

     Efforts to spare Goodwin's life centered on his low I.Q. and claims that executing him would violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the death penalty for the mentally disabled. Attorney Jennifer Herndon said Goodwin had an I.Q. of 73, and some tests suggested even lower…But Goodwin's fate was sealed when Governor Jay Nixon denied a clemency request and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down legal appeals--one on the mental competency question and one concerning Missouri's use of an execution drug purchased from an unidentified compounding pharmacy.

"Missouri Executes Inmate For 1998 Hammer Death," Associated Press, December 10, 2014

The Mystery Of Normal

Because psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists have spent so much time, effort and money studying the various forms of mental illness and other forms of behavioral deviance, we no longer have any idea of what it means to be sane. We have lost our sense of what it is to be more or less adjusted. Perhaps we should spend more time studying people who are not mentally or emotionally disturbed. Attack the problem of mental illness from that angle. We could justify such an approach by redefining the state of sanity as abnormal. Solve the mystery that way.

Journalists as Privacy Invaders

     Securing a subject's permission and cooperation, if that subject isn't a public figure, is one of the trickiest things I have to do as a nonfiction writer. It is a matter of both law and ethics. I try to make sure that private individuals understand what I'm doing, and I try to give them some sense of what the consequences might be. It's a sort of Miranda warning: Anything you say may be used against you in my book…

     These days, publishers often require authors to get signed releases from their subjects. Lawyers tell me these sorts of releases are of limited use in cases of invasion of privacy, a very vague area of the law, and of even less use in libel cases. The releases generally say something like this: I can write anything I want to about you. I can steal your good name. And I'll give you a free copy of the book in which I do these things. From what I understand, most courts don't think that's a valid contract. For those reasons I've stopped getting releases from the people who appear in my books. Nonetheless, releases can be a tool to help subjects truly consider what they are doing.

Tracy Kidder, "Security Consent," in Telling True Stores, Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, Editors, 2007

Types of Literary Criticism

A "mere book reviewer" writes for newspapers, magazines [and websites and blogs] and is content to treat books as news. He announces their publication, identifies their authors, briefly describes their contents and sometimes renders a verdict. Journalistic critics, who also write for the above media outlets, try whenever possible to climb out of the valley of "mere reviewing" onto the plateau of genuine criticism. The academic critics contribute to popular publications when the chance offers, but most of their work appears in learned journals and in book form. They are usually professors and usually they write for other professors, for serious students and for literary intellectuals. They are enormously influential because they are read in colleges and universities. [Today, because of online reader reviews, and the demise of so many magazines and newspapers, traditional book reviewers and critics have much less influence.]

Orville Prescott in Writer's Roundtable, edited by Helen Hull and Michael Drury, 1959 

Author Self-Promotion

I have a great ambivalence about interviews [of authors]. I believe writers should be read and not heard from. There are certain writers whose personalities are more responsible for their reputations than their writing. [They] use their personalities to make their works popular. I resent that, because they get far more attention than their work merits. And other writers who are really much better, but who are quiet and invisible souls, are not noticed at all. Part of me wants to be totally anonymous. The writer who I really admire most for his image is B. Traven, who wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; he was totally unidentified in his lifetime. I admire that.

Dennis Etchison, novelist, 2014 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Strack Family Murder-Suicide Case

     Benjamin Strack, his wife Kristi, and their children resided in a duplex in Springville, Utah, a town of 30,000 45 miles south of Salt Lake City not far from Provo. Just before eight o'clock on the night of Saturday September 27, 2014, the oldest Strack child, accompanied by his grandparents, approached the Strack half of the duplex to check on the family. Mr. and Mrs. Strack and three of their children had not responded to emails, text messages or phone calls.

     The grandparents and the oldest child entered the house through the front door that stood wide open. (The back door was cracked open.) In the master bedroom they discovered Mr. and Mrs. Strack and the three children. The 36-year-old parents and the children--Benson, 14; Emery, 12; and Zion, 11--were dead. 
     Police officers at the scene noted that none of the bodies showed signs of physical trauma. Moreover, there was no evidence of a struggle and nothing had been taken from the house. 
     Firefighters tested the air inside the dwelling and did not detect traces of carbon monoxide. The fact that pets in the house were alive and the other residents of duplex were unharmed, pointed away from death by carbon monoxide poisoning. 
     Following the five autopsies, the medical examiner announced that none of the Stracks had been subjected to violent assault. The cause and manner of these deaths remained undetermined pending the results of toxicological tests. A police spokesperson told reporters that foul play had not been ruled out in this case. The medical examiner did not reveal when the Stracks had died. 
    On October 28, 2014, reporters learned that investigators believe that the children and their parents had been poisoned to death on September 27, 2014. According to detectives, the children's bodies had been positioned in their parents' bedroom after their deaths. The bodies of Benjamin and Kristi and their children were each lying next to a cup of red liquid. Kristi Stack had red liquid coming out of her mouth.

     From the house, investigators removed 14 drinking cups and bottles, a pitcher of red juice, and a purple bucket containing yellow liquid. Searchers also seized a pair of slippers that contained a drop of blood and a towel stained by a red substance. Detectives, in the family's garbage, found empty methadone bottles, 10 empty boxes of nighttime cold medicine, various pill bottles, several empty boxes of sleeping aids, a bag of marijuana, and Pepsi cups containing traces of a red liquid.

     In January the Utah State Medical Examiner declared that the deaths of the children were caused by toxic amounts of diphenydramine and methadone. Kristi Stack had died from the same drug plus dextrophan and doxylamine. Benjamin Strack had toxic levels of heroin in his system.

     The medical examiner ruled the parent's death as suicide and the two youngest children's death as homicide. The death of the 14-year-old was listed as "undetermined."

     According to the parents' friends and family, the mentally ill couple were worried about "evil in the world" and wanted to avoid a "pending apocalypse".

The Mystery of a Pig Farmer's Cause and Manner of Death

     By all accounts, Terry Vance Garner, a farmer from Riverton, Oregon, a small town 140 miles southwest of Eugene, loved his hogs. While most adult pigs weigh between 250 and 300 pounds when taken to market, the 69-year-old farmer owned several sows as heavy as 700 pounds. One of these huge female pigs once bit him when he accidentally stepped on a piglet.

     At 7:30 in the morning on Wednesday, September 26, 2012, Mr. Garner walked out to the hog pen to feed the animals. At 2:30 that afternoon, a relative who went looking for him, came across his dentures, hat, pocket knife, cigarettes, and chunks of his body. The body parts and personal items were found inside the hog enclosure. It appeared that Mr. Garner had been consumed by the pigs he had gone out to feed.

     Although sudden, unexplained deaths call for autopsies, the forensic pathologist for Coos County didn't have enough of a corpse to open up and examine in an effort to determine the dead man's cause and manner of death. The best the authorities could do was take the farmer's bones to a forensic anthropologist at the University of Oregon.

     The forensic scientist didn't shed much light on how Mr. Garner had lost his life. A local dentist identified Mr. Garner through his false teeth.

     Because forensic pathology didn't determine what had caused this man's death, several scenarios were possible, none of which were proven forensically. If Mr Garner had stumbled, or had been knocked over by a hog, then eaten alive, his manner of his death was accidental. If Mr. Garner had suffered a heart attack and died while attending to his pigs, his death would have been classified as natural. If one assumed that the farmer had intentionally offered himself up as hog feed, then his death would have gone into the books as a suicide. If it had been a suicide, it was probably a first-of-its-kind case.

     There was also the possibility that Mr. Garner had been murdered. If this was how he died, it would not have been the first time a killer relied on pigs to dispose of a corpse. If the farmer had been shot, and the bullet did not exit his body, the slug would be inside one of the hogs. While foul play was a possibility, it seemed an unlikely scenario in this case.

     Without an eyewitness, a suicide note, a bullet, or an autopsy report, the cause and manner of this man's death will remain a mystery.

Thought Crime

An elementary school kid approaches his teacher with a confession: In a trembling voice he says, "I just had a bad thought. The image of a gun crept into my mind. I'm sorry, it will never happen again. Will I be suspended?" The teacher replies: "That depends. Was it an assault weapon?"

Writing Essays

Essays, unlike articles, intentionally include or even feature the writer's subjective viewpoint and experiences. Besides political and social commentary in newspapers, the essay form encompasses personal experiences of all kinds. Essays are further distinguished from articles by a structure suited to argue an opinion or tell a story.

Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction, 2003

The Power of the Adjective

Mrs. Trotter, my fourth-grade teacher in Des Moines, Iowa, once wrote a sentence on the blackboard--"The family sat down to dinner"--and asked us to imagine the scene. Then she added a word--"The Hawaiian family sat down to dinner"--and asked us to picture the scene again. Everything changed: the room the people were in, what they looked like, the clothes they wore, the food they ate…By adding one word, Hawaiian, she transformed the whole sentence. I've never forgotten that lesson in what an adjective is and what it can do.

Patricia T. O'Conner, Words Fail Me, 1999

The Starving Artist Hoax

I remembered my New Orleans days, living on two five-cent candy bars a day for weeks at a time in order to have leisure to write. But starvation, unfortunately, didn't improve art. It only hindered it. A man's soul was rooted in his stomach. A man could write much better after eating a porterhouse steak and drinking a pint of whiskey than he could ever write after eating a nickel candy bar. The myth of the starving artist was a hoax.

Charles Bukowski, Factotum, 1974

Friday, May 21, 2021

The Case Of The Stray Bullet

     On Friday night, December 16, 2011, a 15-year-old Amish girl named Rachel Yoder, while on her way home in a horse-drawn buggy from a Christmas party at an Amish produce farm, fell dead out of the rig with a bullet in her head. She died not far from her central Ohio home in Wayne County. The girl's brother found her when he saw the horse walking around her body. The Summit County medical examiner, without the benefit of an investigation, ruled the death a homicide. This manner of death ruling caused speculation the girl had been murdered at the behest of Bishop Sam Mullet, the cult like leader of the band of renegade Amish outlaws who had been recently charged with a series of Ohio home invasions. (See: "Bishop Sam Mullet: Amish Outlaw," November 25, 2011.)

     A few days after Rachel Yoder's death, the local sheriff announced she had been killed by a stray bullet fired a half mile away by a young Amish man cleaning his muzzle-loading rifle. (A rifle loaded through the muzzle end of the barrel. I don't know if this gun was a modern replica or an antique.) The Amish girl's death, according to the gun cleaning theory, was simply a freak accident. The sheriff said he had not ruled out a negligent homicide charge. 
     One could drive around the most violent neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami, and Detroit twenty-four hours a day for twenty years and never catch a stray bullet. Rachel Yoder had been riding in her buggy in the country, a bullet fired a half mile away not only found her, it killed her. That's hard to believe. After traveling that far, a bullet, particularly one fired from a muzzle-loader, loses its velocity and the force to become deadly. This theory of Rachel Yoder's death was so farfetched, a writer who put such a scene into a mystery novel would be laughed out of the business. 

     One of Rachel Yoder's Amish neighbors was quoted as follows: "We can't understand how it could happen, but I guess it was the Lord, maybe. Her time was up is what we think." 

   On September 11, 2012, 28-year-old Marion Yoder pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. The Holmes County judge sentenced the Amish man to six months in the county jail, but suspended all but 30 days of the term.  Because I can't imagine a jury convicting this man of negligent homicide, I don't see the wisdom in the guilty plea. While the level of negligence in this case might have supported a civil wrongful death action, it did not rise to criminal recklessness. Putting a man in jail for a freak accident is not criminal justice. 

The Politics of Headline Writing

     On May 20, 2021, the following two stories published by Google News appeared under headlines that slanted the news differently. 

Fox News: DHS [Department of Home Security] Closes 2 Detention Centers Run by ICE Amid Allegations of Abuse, Misconduct

CBS News: Biden Administration Ends Use of 2 ICE Jails in Bid to Improve Conditions For Immigrant Detainees

     The Fox version was negative, suggesting a scandal. The CBS version was positive, suggesting well intentioned steps by the government. The news accounts themselves were not that different.

One Less Baby Killer

     On the night of September 29, 1988, in the northern Ohio town of Mansfield, 31-year-old Steve Smith walked into his live-in girlfriend's bedroom carrying her six-month-old daughter. Smith was nude and had been drinking. The lifeless infant in his arms bore bruises and cuts.

      The girlfriend, Kesha Frye, took her daughter to a neighbor's house where she called 911. At the hospital doctors tried for an hour to revive Autumn Frye before pronouncing the baby dead. An autopsy revealed that the infant had been raped.

     A year after his arrest, Steve Smith went on trial for aggravated murder. On the advice of his attorneys, the defendant did not take the stand on his own behalf. The jury found him guilty as charged and the judge sentenced him to death.

     On April 2, 2013, after living twelve years on death row, Smith appeared before the Ohio Parole Board considering his petition to reduce  his sentence to life. Smith admitted raping the infant but said he hadn't intended to kill her. The parole board and Governor John Kasich denied Smith's motion for a life sentence.

     At ten-thirty in the morning of May 1, 2013, the Ohio executioner at the state prison in Lucasville injected a lethal dose of pentobarbital into the body of the 46-year-old prisoner. Steve Smith's 20-year-old daughter and a handful of others watched him go. If the rapist baby-killer made a statement before the pentobarbital got into his system, his last words did not escape the prison. 

Outdated "Inverted Pyramid" Journalism

     Screenwriters know that if a movie doesn't have a good ending, people will leave the theater feeling like they wasted their money. Novelists know that you can't write a good book without a good ending. Speechwriters always try to end on a high note…

     But most newspaper stories dribble pitifully to an end. This is the enduring legacy of the inverted pyramid--a form that makes good endings impossible. The inverted pyramid orders information from most important to least important, robbing stories of their drama and leaving nothing to reward readers who stay with it to the last line.

     It is important to recognize that the inverted pyramid never had anything to do with writing or readers or the news. Those of us who have studied the history of the form trace its emergence to the invention of the telegraph. Reporters covering far-flung news about, say, a sinking ship or a Civil War battle now had a speedy way to transmit their stories to their newspapers, but they found that they could not always rely on it. Sometimes the line would fail; sometimes their messages would be preempted by urgent official business. So they learned to transmit their information in bursts with the most important facts first.

     This proved to be the perfect form to accommodate the manufacturing process in every newspaper's back shop. Stories were written and edited on paper and then sent to typographers, who set them in lead type. This type had to fit into a designated space on a newspaper page, but often it was too long. The only practical way to cut lead type was to trim it from the bottom.

     We don't send our stories by telegraph anymore, and it has been more than forty years since U.S. newspapers used lead type. Today, most are fully digital so stories can be trimmed anywhere with the stroke of a key. Furthermore, stories for online use don't have to be trimmed to fit a preexisting hole at all…

Bruce DeSilva, "Endings," in Telling True Stories, Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, Editors, 2007