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Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Power of Crime Scene Observation

     When you walk into a crime scene, probably seventy or eighty percent of being successful is just observing, identifying the areas that are likely to yield useful evidence and then processing the scene. There's no magic wand you can wave over a crime scene and just have fingerprints jump out at you.

     With crime scene processing, you can have the greatest technology in the world to examine a crime scene, but you still have to apply it intelligently. And if you can't figure out where you're going to look for latent fingerprints, then it doesn't matter how much technology you have.

     Go back to Sherlock Holmes. Author Conan Doyle made Holmes a master of observation. He had him using different scientific techniques, but the bottom line was, he was a master of observation.

Crime Scene Team Leader, Connie Fletcher, Crime Scene, 2006 

Janet Malcolm's Brutal Assessment of Journalists

     Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book appears--his hard lesson.

     Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

     The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist--who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things--never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

The Diversity of Fiction

     Fiction explores how interesting people deal with significant problems at important times in their lives. Stories explore human vulnerabilities and strengths and are usually focused on a character's goals and dilemmas. They inquire into why people act, react, struggle and change as they do. Stories are shaped from techniques that make the narrative lifelike, involved, complicated, and tense.

     There are many types of fiction configured into novels, novellas, and short stories. There are comedies, tragedies, happily-ever-after stories, horror stories, historical re-creations, fantasies, young adult stories, and novels that roller coaster along with pathos, black humor, and grim portrayals of humanity. Some novels track the affairs of the heart; others track a murderer to his hideout or a monster to his lair. Fiction can be of a serious or literary bent or can be as fluffy as marshmallows. Short stories come in all sizes, and novels weigh in at 60,000 words or ramble on to 200,000 words.

Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines, 2006 

Friday, July 30, 2021

The Historic Execution of Gary Gilmore

     The execution of Gary Gilmore, carried out in 1977, marked the resurrection of the modern death penalty. [In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia, invalidated many state capital punishment laws.] The Gilmore execution was big news and was commemorated by a book by Norman Mailer, The Executioner's Song, later made into a movie. The title is deceptive. Like others who have explored the death penalty, Mailer tells much about the condemned man but very little about the executioners. Indeed, if we examine Mailer's account more closely, the executioner's story is not only unsung, it is also distorted.

     Gilmore's execution was quite atypical, even if his crime was not. He was sentenced to death for killing two men in cold blood, for no apparent reason. Viewed from the outside, his own death had a similar ring of nihilism. Gilmore, unrepentant and unafraid, refused to appeal his conviction--under a then untested capital statue. There is no doubt he could have contested his case for years, as many condemned prisoners have done since his death. But Gilmore, who had already served some twenty-two years of his young life behind bars, would have none of that. To him, prison was death; life in prison was a kind of living death in its own right. Death by firing squad gave him a chance to offer blood atonement for his awful crimes (a notion that resonated with his dark Mormon obsessions), as well as a kind of immortality as the man who put the executioner back to work.

Robert Johnson, Death Work, 1998

Style Over Substance: Academic Writing

      Most readers are put off by writers who are more concerned with style than clarity and meaning. It's a lot like a politician who takes on a speaker's voice when talking publicly. In writers and politicians this comes off as phony and pretentious.

     There is a dreadful style of writing, prose intended to sound lofty and important, found in the promotional literature often put out by colleges and universities. The thoughts and messages conveyed in this form are usually quite simple. An example of this style can be found in many college mission statements. In straightforward prose, a university public relations person might write: "The goal of our institution involves providing our students with a quality education at a reasonable price." Because this is so obvious, to say it directly and plainly makes it sound kind of stupid. But when a mission statement is puffed up with carefully selected words and high-minded phrases, the simplicity of the message is replaced by syntax intended to make it sound profound. This style is pompous and false, and represents writing at its worst. Here is an example of highly pretentious writing taken from a pamphlet published by a small liberal arts college:

     "The mission of ________College is to help young men and women develop competencies, commitments and characteristics that have distinguished human beings at their best. All of us who are affiliated with the college are working toward that end each day in as many different ways as there are students on this campus. Our students have unique talents and new insights that are being developed during each interaction with faculty, staff, alumni and other students. For each student, those interactions become building blocks in their foundation for living." 

     Ignore, if you can, the lack of substance and unadulterated puffing and pandering in this mission statement and look at the style. Note the lofty and cheesy alliteration that starts off with the words--"competencies, commitments and characteristics"--and the use of the buzz words distinguished, affiliated, insights, interaction, and foundation, typical university-speak wordage comparable to university-speak favorites such as outcomes, challenges, and impact (instead of affect) not used in this passage.

     A writing teacher could use passages like this to show students how not to write. It's a bit ironic that so much heavy-handed, dead prose is produced by colleges and universities. Professors, notorious for being writers of unreadable fiction and highly pompous and dense nonfiction, contribute to the style over substance problem. Look through any university press book catalogue: the book titles themselves are beyond comprehension and the catalogue descriptions of these works are so badly written the reader has no idea what they are about. Perhaps that's intentional because many of these books are about nothing.

Ralph Ellison

     Having just published his first novel, Invisible Man, to critical acclaim (it won the National Book Award), Ralph Ellison, in 1952, struggled with his second novel. In a letter that year to his friend and fellow writer, Albert Murray, the 38-year-old Ellison revealed that having written a successful first novel did not necessarily bring happiness or contentment: "I'm trying to organize my next book. I've been a tired, exhausted son-of-a-bitch since I've finished Invisible Man and I want to feel alive again. It's an awful life. For years now I felt guilty because I was working on a novel for so long a time, and now I feel guilty that I am no longer doing so." (Trading Twelves, 2000, edited by Albert Murray.)

     In 1999, five years after Ellison's death, Random House published Juneteenth, a book-length excerpt from his unfinished second novel.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Miami Beach Check-Out Line Murder Case

     On Monday December 1, 2014, at the M & L Market in Miami Beach, Florida, 58-year-old Mohammed Hussein found himself standing in the express check-out line behind a man with a basket overloaded with groceries. Mr. Hussein, the father of two, complained to this shopper that he was in the wrong line, that he had far too many items to check out. The express line violator ignored Mr. Hussein and continued to unload his grocery basket.

     When Mr. Hussein again objected to what the shopper in front of him was doing, the man told him to mind his own business. This led to an exchange of angry words. In the midst of the argument, the offending shopper, without warning, delivered a vicious backhand that knocked Mr. Hussein off his feet.

     The unconscious victim fell backward and his head bounced off the grocery store floor. Blood immediately began pooling around his skull. As the man who struck him fled the store an employee called 911.

     Paramedics rushed Mr. Hussein to the Ryder Medical Center where he slipped into a coma with a fractured skull and severe bleeding on the brain. Back at the M & L Market, detectives viewed surveillance camera footage of the assault.

     On Thursday night December 11, 2014, officers with the Miami Beach Police Department arrested 53-year-old Roger Todd Perry at his home in Palm Beach County. A Miami-Dade County prosecutor charged Perry with felony battery of Mr. Hussein. Shown the surveillance camera footage and informed that several witnesses had picked him out of a photo line-up, Mr. Perry confessed to striking Mr. Hussein in the grocery store check out line.

     Two days after officers arrested Roger Perry, Mohammed Hussein passed away. His autopsy revealed that he had died of "complications of blunt force head injury." Roger Perry was booked into the Miami-Dade County Jail.

     On December 15, 2014, the Miami-Dade County prosecutor upgraded Roger Perry's felony battery charge to second-degree murder. At his arraignment on the murder charge, Mr. Perry asked the judge, "Did that man pass away?"

      Mr. Perry's attorney, public defender Elliot Snyder, in arguing for a bail amount the defendant could afford, informed the arraignment judge that his client was mentally unstable. According to the defense attorney, Roger Perry suffered from two disorders: bipolar and post-traumatic stress. Attorney Snyder also cited a 2002 Broward County case involving two elderly men who got into a fight at a movie theater. The victim hit his head and died. The prosecutor charged the 74-year-old suspect with manslaughter. The defendant pleaded guilty to that charge in exchange for a six month jail sentence.
      The judge ordered an evaluation of Perry's mental condition and denied him bond.
     Residents at Roger Perry's apartment complex told reporters that the murder suspect had indicated that he had been a member of the Marine Corps.
     On September 30, 2016, Roger Perry pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to seven years in prison. 

Serial Killer Richard Ramirez

I love to kill people. I love watching them die. I would shoot them in the head and they would wiggle and squirm all over the place, and then just stop. Or I would cut them with a knife and watch their faces turn real white. I love all of that blood. I told one lady to give me all of her money. She said no. So I cut and pulled her eyes out.

Richard Ramirez, the "Night Stalker," died in 2013 from liver cancer while serving a life sentence in California. He was 53.

Choosing a "Good" School Over a Good Education

     In terms of acquiring a college education there is nothing more fraudulent than a so-called "prestigious" university. George Orwell, in 1941, said something to the effect that intelligent mechanics would make better leaders than dimwits with fancy degrees. Unfortunately, graduates of prestigious universities dominate the higher levels of business and government. The primary mission of the prestigious school is not teaching. These institutions are all about research and faculty publishing. While the ambitious professors are researching and writing books and journal articles, their classes are taught by graduate students and newly hired professors afraid to give any student a grade below an A. Moreover, many of the courses taught at the top schools are stupid, silly and useless.

     The book Higher Education? (2012) by Andrew Hacker, a retired Queens College professor and Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times journalist, is based on the idea that what goes on in higher education is not education. The authors blame our failed university system on the over importance of research and publishing. They are also critical of tenure.

     In a 2012, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz interviewed Andrew Hacker for The Atlantic Magazine. According to the author of Higher Education?, "There are two ways to pick a college. One is to go to a prestigious college and when you graduate the world will know you went to Princeton or Stanford. It doesn't mater what happened in the classroom as long as you have that brand behind you. The second reason to go to college is to get a good liberal arts education. We argue that you can get a better education at second or third tier colleges."

     According to Professor Emeritus Hacker, the problem with professors being pressured into publishing is "there are just too many academic publications and too many professors publishing. Not only that, most of the books are too long. A book on Virginia Woolf could be a 30-page article. Somebody did a count on how many pieces have been published on Virginia Woolf in the past 15 years. The answer was several thousand. Really? Who needs this?"

     "Academics," said Hacker, "typically don't get tenured until the age of 40. This means that from their years as graduate students and then assistant professors, from ages 25 through 38 or 39, they have to toe the line. So the pursuit of tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom. And even people who get tenure really don't change. What bothers us, too, is that over 300,000 professors have tenure. What that means is these people never leave. There's hardly any turnover in the senior ranks. You go to a campus and over two-thirds of the faculty have been there at least 25 years. They begin to stagnate. They become infantilized, embroiled in ideological issues like faculty parking."

     Another critic of modern academia was Martin Russ who taught creative writing in several college and university English Departments. A published novelist, he wrote, in 1980, Showdown Semester: Advice From a Writing Professor. This is one of the most entertaining, informative and helpful books on the subject of teaching college students how to write.

     In his book, Professor Russ provides a professor's take on college administrators (mostly idiots) and gives the reader a peek inside the ivory tower. Professor Russ says this about tenure: "I have the impression that it is the untenured in most English Departments who are the most effective teachers. This is largely due to the anxiety arising from job insecurity, which forces them to work at full capacity. The tenured professor is never forced to justify his classroom work to his students, and can go on year after year in a take-it-or-leave-it way in which arrogance overrides the kind of teaching that has to do with helping, sharing, giving."

     Professor Russ, back in 1980, realized that too many professors were taking time away from their teaching to write books nobody reads: "English professors are always turning out extraneous textbooks or collecting other people's writing and publishing them as anthologies."

Slipstream Fiction

The weaving of the real and unreal is part of a fast-growing strain of fiction some call slipstream. The label slipstream encompasses writing that slips in and out of conventional genres, borrowing from science fiction, fantasy and horror. The approach, sometimes also called "fantastika," "interstitial" and "the new weird," often combines the unexpected with the ordinary.

Anna Russell, The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2014 

Book Awards for "Literary Fiction"

In the literary world, there are far more awards for "serious" fiction than championship title belts in the field of professional boxing. While boxing fans and pundits lament the glut of prize fighting titles, the boxers who hold these belts have at least proven themselves to be superior athletes. A book award, except for earmarking the novel as an unreadable piece of show-off fiction, is meaningless.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

SIDS Is Not a Cause or Manner of Death

     Until 1959, whenever a presumably healthy baby died in its bed for no apparent reason, forensic pathologists called it "crib death" or "cot death." These terms described where, not how, the baby died, and didn't sound very scientific. But "sudden infant death syndrome," a purely descriptive term coined by a pediatrician named J. Bruce Beckwith, sounded more technical and more ominous.

     By describing the suddenness of the death instead of the place where it occurred, the term Sudden Infant Death Syndrome carries an implication of violence and foul play. While breaking new ground rhetorically, the introduction of the letters SIDS into the vocabulary of forensic pathology and criminal investigation added nothing but confusion. The time came when SIDS, in essence, was interpreted as suspicious infant death syndrome, a designation that sounded more than vaguely criminal.

Two Approaches to Nonfiction Writing

     There are two ways, I think, to approach nonfiction writing. You can set out on your journey armed with a thesis and collect supporting facts along the way--a perfectly legitimate approach. From this prosecutorial style, we get our best polemics, satires, and exposes. Partisan, one-sided and tending to justify a preconceived viewpoint, this is the art of the legal brief and indictment. This literature more often sounds like a trumpet blast, a call to arms, than an invitation to sober analysis and reflection.

     But there's another type of nonfiction writing in which the writer surrenders all preconceived belief and submits to the material. That's not to say that the latter writers are mental eunuchs without firm opinions or airheads mindlessly soaking up facts. They, too, begin their journey carrying the bulky baggage of prejudice, although they may not know it or admit to it. The difference is that they zealously search for facts that contradict their working hypotheses. They like to stub their toes on hard, uncomfortable facts strewn in their paths. They want information that will explode, like a prankster's cigar, in their faces. [In criminal investigation, the first approach is called deductive, the second, inductive. The second method of getting to the truth is better.]
Ron Chernow in The Writing Life, 1995 

Good Fiction Isn't Too Real

A basic distinction between an episode in real life and a short story is that the story does have an author, who creates his characters, selects his actions, and directs them in the exploration of some meaningful idea. Any episode in life is filled with irrelevancies of many kinds which confuse our understanding; in the story only those elements are included which serve to focus the overall effect, which is the story. The helpful author is present, then, in the creating, selecting, and focusing of the materials of his story.

James A. Thurston, Reading Modern Short Stories, 1955 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Sympathizing With Rapists

My first lesson about sex-crimes prosecution was that perpetrators were not the only enemy. There is a large, more or less hidden population of what I later came to call collaborators within the criminal justice system. Whether if comes from a police officer or a defense attorney, a judge or a court clerk or a prosecutor, there seems to be a residuum of empathy for rapists that crosses all gender, class, and professional barriers. It gets expressed in different ways, from victim-bashing to jokes in poor taste, and too often it results in giving the rapist a break.

Alice Vachss, Sex Crimes, 1993

The Villain in Crime Fiction

Often I start working out a story in terms of its villain. Sometimes he's more interesting than anyone else. I'm curious about what makes a murderer who he is. Was he born missing some human quality? Did his early environment shape him? Or was it a combination of both?

Sandra Scoppettone, 2000, crime novelist 

Jonathan Franzen On Being a "Good" Novelist

When I was younger, the main struggle was to be a "good writer." Now, I more or less take my writing for granted, although that doesn't mean I always write well.

Jonathan Franzen, Paris Review, Winter 2010 

Short Stories Before Novels

Samuel Langhorne Clements [Mark Twain], Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and dozens of other novelists whose flames burn only slightly less luminously in the history of literature had one thing in common: They learned their craft by writing short stories. Only when they had mastered that form did they undertake the long trek of the novel. The short story, in its heyday, was the universal school for novelists.

Jon Franklin, Writing For Story, 1994 

Becoming a Writer Versus Staying a Writer

Anyone can become a writer, the trick is not becoming a writer, it is staying a writer. Day after week after month after year. Staying in there for the long haul.

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018), science fiction writer

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Lenient Judge

     On June 14, 2014, Kevin Jonas Rojano-Nieto was playing a video game in his parents' garage in Santa Ana, California. A three-year-old girl, a relative visiting the home with her mother, wandered into the garage and encountered Rojano-Nieto.

     Sexually aroused by the toddler, the 20-year-old Rojano-Nieto pulled down her pants and began sodomizing her. He stopped and put his hand over the victim's mouth when the girl's mother, calling for her, jiggled the handle to the locked garage door. When the concerned mother left the house to search for her daughter at a neighbor's place, Rojano-Nieto continued the sexual assault.

     When finished with the little girl, Rojano-Nieto unlocked the garage door and let her back into the house. After her daughter complained of pain shortly after the sexual attack, the mother figured out what happened and called the police.

     On December 3, 2014, a jury found the defendant guilty of one count of sodomy of a child under ten and one count of lewd acts upon a child under fourteen. (Rojano-Nieto had forced the little girl to touch his penis.) The conviction meant that the guilty man would receive the mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years to life.

     On April 3, 2015, Orange County Superior Court Judge M. Marc Kelly shocked everyone familiar with this case by ignoring California's statutory minimum punishment for this man's sex offenses by sentencing Rojano-Nieto to just ten years in prison.

     The judge, perhaps aware that his ruling would create an angry backlash, carefully laid out his sentencing rationale in writing. According to this southern California judge, "The facts [of this case] don't support there was any violence or callous disregard for the victim's well-being."

     No violence? Did this girl consent to being sodomized? Did she participate in her own victimization by flaunting herself in the garage? 

     Judge Kelly noted that the defendant had not sought out or stalked his victim. Moreover, he now felt  really bad about what he had done to her. 

     The judge, in defending his sentence, wrote: "He [Rojano-Nieto] reacted to a sexual urge and stopped almost immediately." According to Judge Kelly, while the little girl was sodomized by a 20-year-old man, she had not been seriously injured and was therefore "headed for a normal life."

     Judge Kelly had been on the bench in Orange County for fifteen years.

     Not content to blame the toddler for her victimization, the judge tried to illicit sympathy for this sex offender by revealing that the offender had grown up in a "dysfunctional" family with "disruptional abuse." What did that mean? "Disruptional" isn't even a word. This upbringing, according to the judge, had made Rojano-Nieto "insecure, socially withdrawn, and extremely immature." This background had also turned him into a dangerous sexual pervert who should, for the rest of his life, never be around children.

     Orange County Deputy District Attorney Tony Rackauckas responded to Judge Kelly's disturbing decision by announcing his office would appeal Rojano-Nieto's sentence. Referring to the defendant, the prosecutor said, "He's a grown man. He knowingly [actually intentionally] committed this terrible crime and should pay the price."

     Public outrage over the pedophile's light sentence led to a grass roots effort to recall the judge. On December 31, 2015, the bid to have Judge Kelly removed from the bench failed when the recall supporters were unable to collect the minimum 90,829 signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

    Judges with the 4th District Court of Appeals, in the spring of 2017, reversed Judge Kelly's sentence and ordered that Rojano-Neito be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Journalistic Malpractice in the McMartin Preschool Case

     Starting in 1983, with accusations from a mother whose mental instability later became an issue in the case, the operators of the McMartin Preschool Day Care Center near Los Angeles were charged with raping and sodomizing dozens of small children. The trial dragged on for years, one of the longest and costliest in American history. In the end, no one was convicted of a single act of wrongdoing. Indeed, some of the early allegations were so fantastic as to make many people wonder later how anyone could have believed them in the first place. Really now, teachers chopped up animals, clubbed a horse to death with a baseball bat, sacrificed a baby in a church and made children drink the blood, dressed up as witches and flew in the air--and all this had been going on unnoticed for a good long while until a child's mother spoke up?

     Still, the McMartin case unleashed a nationwide hysteria about child abuse and Satanism in schools. One report after another told of horrific practices, with the Devil often literally in the details.

     Often enough in these cases, news organizations share blame. In the McMartin case, they were far from innocent observers. A pack mentality set in after a local television journalist first reported the allegations. Across California and beyond, normal standards of fairness and reasoned skepticism were routinely thrown to the wind, with news gatherers scrambling to outdo one another in finding purposed examples of monstrous behavior by the principal defendants: Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Raymond Buckey. (Mrs. Buckey, daughter of the school's founder, died at 74 in 2000. Raymond Buckey, now in his mid-50s, said years ago that he wanted simply to be left alone.) It would be comforting to believe that mindlessly frenetic news coverage is a relic of the past. But who could make that claim with a straight face?

     Did the McMartin case have any lasting effect? In some respects, yes. Teachers across America grew afraid to hug or touch their students, out of fear of being misunderstood and possibly being brought up on charges. A widely held notion that young children do not lie about such matters took a huge hit. Some are vulnerable to implanted memories. In the McMartin case, many jurors found that leading questions from therapists steered impressionable children toward some of the most macabre tales.

Clyde Haberman, "The Trial That Unleashed Hysteria Over Child Abuse," The New York Times, March 9, 2014 

Lean Prose

When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of fat. This is going to hurt: revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.

Stephen King, 2010

Nonfiction: Craft and Clarity

Any person who can speak English grammatically can learn to write nonfiction. Nonfiction writing is not difficult, though it is a technical skill. What you need for nonfiction writing is what you need for life in general: an orderly method of thinking. Writing is literally only the skill of putting down on paper a clear thought, in clear terms. Everything else, such as drama and "jazziness," is merely the trimmings. I once said that the three most important elements of fiction are plot, plot, and plot. The equivalent in nonfiction is: clarity, clarity, and clarity.

Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, 2001 

Show, Don't Tell

Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Anton Chekov

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Serial Killer John Wayne Gacy

I should never have been convicted of anything more serious than running a cemetery without a license.

John Wayne Gacy raped and murdered 33 teenage boys and young men from 1972-1978 at his home near Chicago. In May 1994, he was executed by lethal injection. Gacy was 52.

Getting Too Invested in a Criminal Suspect

I've come to realize that getting excited about a criminal suspect is a lot like that first surge of stupid love in a relationship, in which, despite vague alarm bells, you plow forward convinced that he is the One.

Michelle McNamera, I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State killer, 2018

Terse Dialogue

The attempt for realism can be carried too far. Several writers have gained a measure of renown for their reproduction of what purports to be actual speech; but what is good in one medium is not so good in another. Most people say too much anyway, and are often repetitious. If you have to read every word they say, even in short dialogue, it grows monotonous and you easily lose the thread of the discourse. Written dialogue should be edited, like everything else borrowed from another medium. As a rule it should be terse, with only significant expressions remaining.

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

The Process of Writing

I tend to think of writing as much like taking an exam--the experience is deeply absorbing, my concentration is intensely focused, time seems suspended yet suddenly hours have elapsed. At the end of a day of writing, I feel drained. I don't believe you have to innately love the process of writing to be a good writer, and to find it an immensely satisfying pursuit.

James B. Stewart, Follow the Story, 1998

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Cops Don't Always Make Good Detectives

     Successful criminal investigators are intelligent, analytical people who like to solve problems and figure things out. They are also curious, competitive, and well-organized in their work habits. They are unafraid of complexity, pay great attention to detail, are articulate, and can express themselves well on paper.

     Dedicated criminal investigators are life-long students, people who embrace new challenges and tough assignments. They are not only intelligent; they have trained themselves to think clearly, draw relevant conclusions, and keep bias out of their calculations. They are not afraid of difficult, emotionally draining work. Result oriented, they do not spin their their wheels until they are old enough to retire.

     People who make first-class detectives are often not suited for general police work, and a good street cop will not necessarily turn into even a merely competent investigator. The fields of law enforcement (peace keeping and order maintenance) and criminal investigation are vastly different functions that appeal to different kinds of people.

     The uniformed police officer, often having to act quickly and decisively instead of thoughtful discretion, is more likely to act pursuant to a detailed code of rules and regulations which have been committed to memory. Training a police officer is therefore nothing like preparing someone for criminal investigation. For that reason, criminal investigators should be recruited from an entirely different pool of job candidates. For example, there is no reason to require trainee investigators to be as physically fit as uniformed officers, or to learn how to deal with drunks, drug addicts, and domestic disturbances. It would be also a waste of time to school future detectives in traffic or vice enforcement.

     Detective trainees are not only drawn from the wrong well, they are often improperly trained by instructors who emphasize investigative techniques designed to resolve cases quickly rather than correctly. The emphasis is quite often on the acquisition of direct evidence in the form of eyewitness identification and confessions rather than the more time consuming and complex gathering and interpretation of physical evidence, an endeavor that requires special training and more complex thinking. Perhaps this is why so many crime scenes are either ignored or improperly processed. This also explains why there are so many false confessions, and people sent to prison on the strength of questionable line-up and mug shot identifications. Another common method of getting a case off the books involves the use of unreliable jailhouse informants who testify against defendants in return for police or prosecution favors.

     Because most detectives are not accustomed to digging deeply into a case--that is peeling away layers of leads--they are often stumped when merely scratching the surface of a case fails to reveal the perpetrator. There is also the problem of the so-called "veteran rookie", the uniformed cop who after fifteen years on patrol finally makes the detective squad. These officers are not only investigative rookies, they are quite often burned-out bureaucrats waiting until they are old enough to retire. It's not that old dogs can't learn new tricks, it's that they don't want to.

A Short History Of Scientific Criminal Identification

     In 1901, Scotland Yard became the first law enforcement agency in the world to routinely fingerprint its arrestees. Fingerprint identification came to America in 1904 when the St. Louis Police Department established its fingerprint bureau. Before fingerprinting, arrestees were identified by sets of eleven body measurements, a system created in the 1870s by the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon. By 1914, the year of Bertillon's death, fingerprinting had replaced anthropometry or Bertillonage in every country except the United States where, in many jurisdictions, the outdated system was used until the 1920s.

     Because a set of inked, rolled-on fingerprint impressions can be classified or grouped into ridge patterns--loops, whorls, and arches--arrestees who use aliases can be physically identified. Through centralized fingerprint repositories comprised of millions of fingerprint cards, individual arrest histories can be maintained on habitual offenders. These fingerprint collections have been responsible for the apprehension of tens of thousands of fugitives.

     Beyond the use of fingerprinting to maintain crime records and catch repeat offenders and fugitives, crime scene finger marks--so called latent fingerprints--constitute one of the most common methods of linking suspects to the sites of their crimes. While latents can be made visible by various chemicals, iodine fuming, and laser technology, the most popular method of identifying and preserving fingerprints, particularly on hard surfaces, involves the use of fingerprint powder and special lifting tape.

     Crime scene latents can now be scanned into a massive computer--the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)--and matched to single fingerprints in the data base. Identifying unknown crime scene latents involves both the ability to solve a crime and to prove who committed it.

     Perhaps the three most significant developments in the history of law enforcement are fingerprint classification, AFIS, and the cutting edge science of DNA "fingerprinting" that burst upon the scene in the mid-1990s. 

Registering Sex Offenders

In September 2018, an audit in Missouri regarding the state's 16,000 registered sex offenders revealed that the authorities lost track of 1,259 of them. Many of these men had been imprisoned for violent sex crimes. The principal reason the whereabouts of these convicted sex criminals was unknown involved the fact that officials in charge of the program didn't bother to keep track of them. Instead of pretending that sex crime registry is a suitable substitute for prison time, state officials, if they are interested in public safety, should keep these people behind bars for as long as possible. Ideally, since serious sex crime violators are repeat offenders incapable of rehabilitation, they should  be incarcerated for life.

Joining a Writer's Group

People want to know what I think about writing critique groups. I belonged to one briefly, but I didn't use it much. I prefer now to use the services of a cold reader when the book is done. But if you're going to belong to a group, check it out carefully before you commit yourself to joining. It there's someone in there with an ax to grind, don't become a member. If the group isn't solution-oriented, just saying things like, "I have a problem with X" (your character, your plot, your scene, or whatever) without proposing a solution to the problem or a way to approach developing a solution, just pass them by. If you don't feel good about the group dynamic, trust yourself and don't join up. [For what it's worth: Forget writing groups. Most members are unpublished and can't help you. Moreover, why waste your time helping others improve their writing? Work on your own stuff. Writing groups are a waste of time. If you're lonely, get a dog.]

Elizabeth George, Write Away, 2004, crime novelist 

The Novel of Manners

Novels of Manners emphasize social customs, manners, conventions and mores of a definite social class. Such novels are always realistic, and sometimes they are satiric and comic, as in Henry Fielding's or Jane Austen's work.

Sherri Szeman, Mastering Point of View, 2001 

Joke Writing is Not the Same as Humorous Writing

Humor can either be a genre in its own right, or an important ingredient in many other genres. Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies, and romances. Even in the most tragic of his tales, he knew the importance of inserting a humorous scene every so often to bring the audience some comic relief from all the death, deceit, and unrequited love in the rest of the play. While joke writing is a subsection of the genre, and a potentially lucrative one, it would be a mistake to confuse the ability to tell a joke with the ability to write humor.

Gordon Kirkland in Novel & Short Story Writer's Market, edited by Anne Bowling

Friday, July 23, 2021

Media and the Presumption of Guilt: The JonBenet Ramsey Case

     Our lives and our hopes for the future both suffered a near-fatal arrow when our daughter, JonBenet, was murdered in our home during the night of December 25, 1996. The overwhelming grief stressed our basic will to live. The suspicions cast on us by an inexperienced police force and the United States media almost crushed our ability to live.

     What happened to us after JonBenet's death should not happen to anyone, but based on what we have seen and experienced through our ordeal, we are certain that the same thing has happened to other people in our society. Innocent people are unjustly suspected, publicly accused, arrested, prosecuted, jailed, and in some cases, executed. Our criminal justice system now operates on the presumption of guilt, and then challenges the defendant to prove his or her innocence. Some police officers are all too eager to have their work on the evening news. We lost our daughter to the worst imaginable monster in our society and then were persecuted by the police and the media because they knew "the parents are always guilty."

John and Patsy Ramsey, The Death of Innocence, 2000

J. Edgar Hoover on the Role of the FBI

The FBI is a fact-gathering organization only. We don't clear anybody. We don't condemn anybody. [That wasn't true in Hoover's time and it isn't true now.] 

J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI 1924-1972

A Literary Snob Dismissing the Mystery Genre

In an essay in which he dismissed most detective and mystery fiction as little better than crossword puzzles, the critic Edward Wilson asked a question that still rankles readers who enjoy the genre: "Who Cares Who Murdered Roger Ackroyd?" The answer, over the 75 or so years since, seems to be "millions of people do." [Who Killed Roger Ackroyd was a bestselling mystery novel by Agatha Christie.]

Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 2019

Stephen King on the Value of Story

     All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story holds value over every other facet of the writer's craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven...

     I'm not any big-deal fancy writer. If I have any virtue it's that I know that. I don't have the ability to write the dazzling prose line. All I can do is entertain people. I think of myself as an American writer...

     My greatest virtue is that I know better than to evade my responsibilities by the useless exercise of trying to write fancy prose. I entertain people by giving them good stories dealing with the content of ordinary American ives, which is the best, truest tradition of American fiction.

Stephen King, Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, 2000

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Forensic Science Has Not Replaced the Need For Confessions

     There is a gross misconception, generated and perpetuated by fiction writers, movies, and TV, that if criminal investigators carefully examine a crime scene, they will almost always find a clue that will lead them to the offender, and that, furthermore, once the criminal is located, he will readily confess or otherwise reveal guilt, as by attempting to escape. This however, is pure fiction.

     As a matter of fact, the art and science of criminal investigation have not developed to a point where the search for and the examination of physical evidence will always, or even in most cases, reveal a clue to the identify of the perpetrator or provide the necessary legal proof of guilt. In criminal investigations there are many instances where physical clues are entirely absent, and the only approach to a possible solution of the crime is the interrogation of the criminal suspect. Moreover, in most instances, these interrogations must be conducted under conditions of privacy and for a reasonable period of time. They also frequently require the use of psychological tactics and techniques that could well be classified as "unethical," if we are to evaluate them in terms of ordinary, everyday social behavior. [Examples of "unethical" behavior would include referring to incriminating evidence that doesn't exist.]

Fred E. Inbau, Criminal Interrogations and Confessions, 1986

The Term "Creative Writing"

     The term "creative writing" offends some people; they think it has something affected or precious about it. Actually it is an innocent phrase developed in American schools and colleges sometime between the two world wars to designate that kind of writing course which is not Freshman English or Report Writing for Engineers. One suspects that "creative writing" courses grew up partly because ordinary courses in composition had got bogged down in "correctness," gentility, and the handbook-and-exercise method, and some means had to be found to free students for the development of their natural interest and delight in language.

     Creative writing means imaginative writing, writing as an art, what the French call belles lettres. It has nothing to do with information or the more routine forms of communication, though it uses the same skills.

     Like all other forms of creative writing, it is written to produce in its reader the pleasure of aesthetic experience, to offer him an imaginative recreation or reflection or imitation of action, thought, and feeling. It attempts to uncover form and meaning in the welter of love, hate, violence, tedium, habit, and brute fact that we flounder through from day to day.

Wallace Stegner, On Teaching and Writing Fiction, 2002

Finding the Courage to Write

All working writers devise their own program for keeping fear at bay. Although writing nerves never vanish, they do become more manageable over time. No magic strategy exists that will turn an anxious novice into a self-assured veteran. Since courage varies so much from writer to writer, there is no one-size fits-all program to recommend. Developing writing courage involves learning about one's working style and how it's best manipulated.

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995

Go Ahead and Write Your Story

     If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do? You're a human being, with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. 

     Writing is work, hard work, and its rewards are personal more than financial, which means most people have to do it after hours. But if writing is work, learning to write isn't necessarily painful. To the contrary, silence is pain that writing relieves.

Richard Rhodes, How to Write, 1995

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Scotty McMillan Murder Case: An American Horror Story

     Gary Fellenbaum, a 21-year-old Wal-Mart employee, lived with his estranged wife Amber and their 11-month-old daughter in a mobile home in West Cain Township outside Coatesville, Pennsylvania 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia. In mid-October 2014, not long after meeting 31-year-old Jilliam Tait, a fellow Wal-Mart employee, Fellenbaum agreed to let her and her two children--Ryan McMillan, 6 and 3-year-old Scotty McMillan--move in with him and his 21-year-old estranged wife.

     Not long after Jilliam Tait and her sons took up residence in the mobile home, the 270-pound Fellenbaum began to physically abuse her sons. Jilliam Tait immediately became a willing participant in the beatings.

     The physical abuse of 3-year-old Scotty intensified during a three-day period beginning on November 2, 2014. The couple repeatedly beat the boy with their fists, a homemade whip, a curtain rod, and an aluminum strip. They smashed his head through a wall, punched him in the face and stomach, and hanged him upside down by his feet while they hit him. At one point during a torture session, the couple thought it funny when the child tried to free himself.

     On Tuesday morning, November 4, 2014, Fellenbaum taped Scotty to a chair and beat him for refusing to eat his toast. That afternoon, after being beaten throughout the day, Scotty lost consciousness. His torturers, in an effort to wake him up, laid him in a shower stall and ran water on him for thirty minutes. Still unresponsive, they placed his body on an un-inflated air mattress.

     Later that afternoon, Fellenbaum and Tait left the unresponsive child in the mobile home while they went shopping for a car. They returned to the dwelling with pizza, had dinner, engaged in sex, then took a nap. When Tait awoke at seven-thirty that evening, she checked on Scotty. When she couldn't revive the toddler, she asked Amber Fellenbaum to call 911.

     Paramedics couldn't revive the boy either. After doctors at a nearby hospital pronounced him dead, they called the authorities. When hardened emergency room nurses saw the horribly bruised and swollen child, they wept.

     Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan charged Gary Fellenbaum and Jilliam Tait with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a child, and reckless endangerment. The judge denied the couple bail. (Under Pennsylvania law, murder preceded by torture is a death penalty offense.)

     Amber Fellenbaum admitted being aware of the abuse for two weeks prior to Scotty McMillan's death. She said she first knew there was a problem when she saw her estranged husband beat the boy with a frying pan. The district attorney charged her with child endangerment for not reporting the abuse. The judge set her bail at $500,000.

     Six-year-old Ryan McMillan was placed into the care of a relative. County child services personnel took custody of the 11-month-old Fellenbaum baby.

     Detectives questioned Ryan McMillan's teachers at his Coatesville area elementary school to determine if anyone there had noticed his injuries. Records indicated that he had been absent the past two weeks.

     In September 2017, Gary Fellenbaum pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison plus 10-20 years. Three months later, the judge sentenced Jilliam Tait to 42 to 94 years behind bars. 

Interpreting Interrogation Room Body Language

     One of the most important transmitters of nonverbal behavior symptoms is the degree of eye contact maintained by the subject with the interrogator. Deceptive suspects generally do not look directly at the interrogator; they look down at the floor, over to the side, or up at the ceiling as if to beseech some divine guidance. They feel less anxiety if their eyes are focused somewhere other than on the interrogator; it is easier to lie while looking at the ceiling or the floor. Consequently, they either try to avoid eye contact with the interrogator by making compensatory moves or else they overact by staring at the interrogator in a challenging manner.

     Truthful suspects, on the other hand, are not defensive in their looks or actions, and can easily maintain eye contact with the interrogator. Even though they may be apprehensive, they show no concern about the credibility of their answers. Although attentive, their casual manner is unrestrained. They need no preparation because their answers are truthful.

Fred E. Inbau, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 1986

Academia: Where Bad Writing Flourishes

      The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn't a new one...Sometimes referred to as an "opaque writing style"-- it has expanded [from government] to the fields of law and science. In academia, bad writing has become something of a protected tradition.

     [In 2014], Harvard's Steven Pinker...authored an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he used adjectives like "turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand" to describe academic writing.

Victoria Clayton, "The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing," The Atlantic, October 26, 2015

John Gardner on Becoming a Writer

Books on writing tend to make much of how difficult it is to become a successful writer, but the truth is that, though the ability to write well is partly a gift--like the ability to play basketball well, or to outguess the stock market--writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing. Though learning to write takes time and a great deal of practice, writing up to the world's ordinary standards is fairly easy. As a matter of fact, most of the books one finds in drugstores, supermarkets, and even small-town libraries are not well written at all; a smart chimp with a good creative-writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant. [This is like saying a human with a love for bananas could leap from tree to tree.] Most grown-up behavior, when you come right down to it, is decidedly second-class. People don't drive their cars as well, or wash their ears as well, or eat as well, or even play the harmonica well...This is not to say people are terrible and should be replaced by machines; people are excellent and admirable creatures; efficiency isn't everything. But for the serious young writer who wants to get published, it is encouraging to know that most of the professional writers out there are push-overs.

John Gardner's The Art of Fiction was originally published in 1983. Gardner (1933-1982) was a literary novelist, critic, and English professor. What he wrote about publishing and published writers when The Art of Fiction  came out may have been true. Today, it is a lot less true. Most published writers are good, and it is not easy becoming a successful writer. Gardner's book on writing, however, is a classic and should be read by anyone who aspires to the literary life. 

Writing for Young People

Writing for young people is a great responsibility, because their minds are impressionable and what they read can effect not only their current lives but their future ones as well. Writing for them should be approached with a serious regard for the possible influence of your words. Do not plan to write for children because you think it easy, or the writing does not need to be as good as that in books for adults. Requirements for good juvenile writing are far more strict than they are for adult fiction. [Today kids' minds are being poisoned by political crap written by ideological nutcases.]

Lee Wyndham, Writing for Children & Teenagers, 1988

Writing a Bad Novel

When it comes to the novel you have to work long and hard even to produce a bad one. This may help explain why there are so many bad amateur poets around than there are bad amateur novelists. Writing a good poem may be as difficult as writing a good novel. It may even be harder. But any clown with a sharp pencil can write out a dozen lines of verse and call it a poem. Not just any clown can fill 200 pages with prose and call it a novel. Only the more determined clowns can get that job done.

Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel, 1979

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Who Is That Woman In My Wife's Casket?

     Evan Davidson, the moment he looked into his wife's casket at the Simpson Family Mortuary in Inglewood, California, had a serious complaint. The woman on display was not his 82-year-old wife Darlene. When the stunned widower alerted mortuary personnel that they had placed the wrong corpse in his wife's casket, the morticians informed Mr. Davidson that he was mistaken. The confused and upset husband, who had been married to Darlene for 51 years, said he knew what his wife looked like. The morticians didn't budge. They insisted that the grieving husband was wrong. (I guess in the funeral business the customer is not always right.) Mrs. Davidson, the funeral people explained, looked different because she had been ill and was embalmed. End of argument.

     Three days after Darlene Davidson's funeral, the funeral home called to inform the 73-year-old widower that another mortuary customer had flipped out when the body on display wasn't her departed mother. Could Mr. Davidson come to the funeral home and look at this corpse?

     When Mr. Davidson looked into that casket he was shocked to see his dead wife. The grieving daughter's mother had already been buried as Mrs. Davidson. Mr. Davidson's attorney asked the California State Cemetery and Funeral Bureau to investigate the mix-up. (If I were an agent with the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, I'd be curious to know how many people who attended Mrs. Davidson's funeral noticed that the woman in the casket wasn't her.)

Eyewitness Misidentifications

Advances in the social sciences and technology have cast a new light on eyewitness identification. Hundreds of studies on eyewitness identification have been published in professional and academic journals. One study by the University of Virginia Law School Professor Brandon L. Garett found that eyewitness misidentifications contributed to 76 percent of the cases overturned by DNA evidence.

Matthew Mangino, criminal defense attorney and criminal justice blogger at wwwmattmangino.com, August 3, 2013

The Essence of Science Fiction

     Science fiction is that form of literature which deals with the effects of technological change in an imaged future, an alternative present or re-conceived history…

     Science fiction, at the center, holds that the encroachment of technological or social change will make the future different and that it will feel different to those within it. In a technologically altered culture, people will regard themselves and their lives in ways that we cannot apprehend. That is the base of the science fiction vision, but the more important part comes as corollary: the effects of a changed technology upon us will be more profound than change brought about by psychological or social pressure... It will be these changes--those imposed extrinsically by force--which really matter; that is what the science fiction writer is saying, and in their inevitability and power they trivialize the close psychological interactions in which most of us transact our lives.

Barry N. Malzberg, Breakfast in the Ruins, 2007  

Horror Stories For Children

Exposing your children to horror-nuanced children's literature at an early age is a positive thing. And here's why: 1. It gets children interested--exhilarated--about reading. I remember that as a kid, I was fascinated by any book that dealt with monsters or ghosts or anything weird. It was thrilling to open up and experience some of these books. There was a sense that I was pushing the boundaries, exploring new territory, doing something that bordered on naughty. It was a little scary and a lot of fun. 2. By exploring the dark side of humanity and the nature of fear, kids learn more about themselves and hopefully become more empowered because of it. 3. There are life lessons to be learned. Don't take that shortcut through the cemetery. Staying out late and not telling your parents where you are can be dangerous. Walking into a forest late at night looking for a wayward pet is a bad idea. Don't take candy from strangers. 4. These children's horror stories create a broader knowledge of literature and history.

Paul Allen, barnesandnoble.com, April 29, 2013

Pseudo Scholar Literary Critics

[The literary critic's] constant reference to genius is a characteristic of the pseudo-scholar. He loves mentioning genius, because the sound of the word exempts him from trying to discover its meaning. Literature is written by geniuses. Novelists are geniuses...Everything [the critic] says may be accurate but all is useless because he is moving round books instead of through them. He either has not read them or cannot read them properly. Books have to be read...it is the only way of discovering what they contain...The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events in the life of its author, or to the events it describes.

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 1927 

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Michael Boysen Double Murder Case

     Michael "Chadd" Boysen, on Friday, March 8, 2013, walked out of the state prison in Monroe, Washington after serving six years for armed robbery. His grandparents, an 82-year-old man and his 80-year-old wife, picked up their grandson at the prison, and drove him to their house in Renton, Washington. It was there the grandparents hosted a "welcome home party" for the 26-year-old ex-con.  The grandparents had also prepared a room for Boysen to spend the night.

     Sometime during the early morning hours of Saturday, March 9, Boysen murdered his grandparents in their home by strangling them with a shoelace. After the murders, Boysen stole their car.

     On Tuesday evening, March 12, 2013, following a day-long stand-off at a motel in Portland, Oregon, police stormed Boysen's room. They found the fugitive lying on the floor with several self-inflicted stab wounds. He was treated at a Portland hospital.

     In October 2013 a jury found Boysen guilty of two counts of aggravated murder. At his sentencing hearing, Boysen's attorney, citing his client's mental illness, asked for a sentence of forty years. Boysen's mother took the stand and said her son was a "manipulating, drugging, lying young man who had caused untold suffering." Boysen responded with a profane outburst against the judge and his family. The judge responded by sentencing Boysen to life in prison without the possibility of parole. When hauled out of the courtroom, the prisoner screamed that he would appeal the sentence.

     In March 2015, a guard at the Washington State Prison at Walla Walla found Michael Boysen dead in his cell. According to the Walla Walla County coroner, Boysen died from a blot clot that traveled to his lungs. He was 28.

Credibility and Competence in Forensic Pathology

     A forensic pathologist is most critical in cases of sudden, unexplained, or violent death where a layperson, or even a physician without specialized training in forensic pathology would be able to determine, with a high degree of certainty, if the manner of death was natural, accidental, suicidal, or homicidal. The police might suspect homicide and even have a suspect, but if the forensic pathologist finds that the death was, say, accidental, there will be no criminal investigation. If the forensic pathologist has credibility, it's less likely that people will question his or her call. If the forensic pathologist, for any reason, lacks credibility, the case will remain up in the air. The police and members of the deceased person's family may think that someone has gotten away with murder. The suspected murderer, innocent or not, may live under a cloud of suspicion. No one will think that justice has been done. Credibility and competence are the two critical qualities for an effective forensic pathologist.

      To be credible, a forensic pathologist has to be professionally qualified, experienced, and scientifically independent. Once a forensic pathologist has been caught taking shortcuts, making mistakes, or giving in to political pressure, that forensic scientist has lost credibility. This can be especially harmful in close-call, high-profile or politically charged cases. One would think that forensic pathologists whose reputations have been seriously damaged would be forced out of the field because no one would want to employ their services. But in the United States, discredited forensic pathologists usually remain on the job tainting the cases in which they are involved.

The Master of Fine Arts Scam

     [In July 2021], the Wall Street Journal published a troubling expose on the crushing debt burdens that students accumulate while pursuing master's degrees at elite universities in fields like drama and film, where the job prospects are limited and the chances of making enough to repay their debt are slim. Because it focused on MFA programs at ivy league schools--one accumulated around $300,000 in loans pursing screenwriting--the article rocketed around the creative class on Twitter. But it also pointed to a development in the world of higher education: For colleges and universities, master degrees have become an enormous moneymaking scheme, wherein the line between for-profit and nonprofit education has been utterly blurred. There are, of course, good programs as well as bad ones, but when you scope it out, there is clearly a systemic problem.

     Few have written more convincingly on this topic than Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at New America. As a journalist and think tanker, he's argued for years that "universities see master's degree programs as largely unregulated cash cows that help shore up their bottom line," and shown how even schools like Harvard offer effectively predatory programs. The rise of online learning has only supercharged the program, by allowing universities to parlay their brands nationally and internationally in order to enroll students at an industrial scale.

Jordan Weissman, "Master's Degrees Are the Second Biggest Scam in Higher Education," Slate, July 16, 2021

Capturing The Act of Writing In Movies

      Early in "Limitless" (2011), moviegoers see Bradley Cooper leaning over a keyboard, hands pressed prayerfully to face, waiting in agony for the words. Salvation arrives in the form of a pill that allows Cooper's character, the writer Eddie Morra, to use 100 percent of his brain instead of just 20. The words start coming, clear and fast; indeed, Eddie becomes so lucid that he gives up authorship for day-trading.

     Because no one wants to watch somebody typing, Hollywood often makes movies about writers who stop writing. It's easier, and more entertaining, to show them being…destroyed by fame or drink or premature success.

     On film, authorship is mostly a matter of occupational hazard. Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry" (1997) offers a look at a novelist who writes from his own life, infuriating lovers and family members, "Wonder Boys"(2000), made from Michael Chabon's novel, combines New York trade publishing with the provincial world of a M.F.A. [Masters of Fine Arts] workshops…

     The hard part is always trying to show writers doing what they actually do. The Michael Douglas character occasionally sits at his Selectric wearing a woman's bathrobe, like a pitcher's lucky underwear, trying to summon more phrases for his already overlong, inert manuscript.

     Martin Amis once observed that "a writer is, on the whole, most alive when alone." That's when he gets "on with the business of imagining other people." And that's why movies do a much better job of admiring authorship rather than conveying it.

Thomas Mallon, "Why Is It So Hard to Capture the Writer on Film?" The New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2014 

Good Science Fiction

A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.

Frederik Pohl (1919-2013) American science fiction novelist.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Physical Evidence is Circumstantial Evidence

Because inferences of guilt or innocence are drawn from the analysis of tangible things or circumstances, physical evidence is, by definition, circumstantial. For example, a suspect's latent fingerprint in safe insulation powder at the scene of a burglary is direct proof that the suspect was at the site after the safe was broken into. That the suspect is the safe burglar requires an inference; this requirement makes the crime scene fingerprint circumstantial evidence of the suspect's guilt. This doesn't necessarily make this evidence weak; on the contrary, unless the safecracking suspect can convincingly explain his presence at the burglary scene, he will be convicted. Circumstantial evidence in the form of physical clues and scientific analysis is, at least in theory, more reliable than such direct evidence as an eyewitness identification, a confession, and the incriminating testimony of a jailhouse informant.

Worn Down Fingerprints

People who do manual labor, such as construction work, have long been known for wearing down their fingerprints…Many other occupations also have a similar effect, although for different reasons. Musicians such as guitarists can abrade their prints into oblivion; typists may wear them down from so much keyboarding. Even surgeons sometimes rub off their prints from washing their hands repeatedly. The fingerprints don't disappear permanently, but they may not be recognized by biometric access control devices based on fingerprint identification. [Criminals with worn down finger ridges may also leave behind less defined latent prints at crime scenes.]

Marilyn Savant, Parade, December 7, 2014 

Defining Literary Success

     It is important to establish your own definition of success. Is it one story? A completed manuscript? One appreciative reader? Publication? A bestseller? A number-one bestseller? Ten number-one bestsellers?

     [According to writer Irvine Walsh]: "I'll just write until I can't write anymore. If my next book was my last book, I wouldn't care at all. If my next book was my two hundredth from last, it wouldn't bother me. You can only write so long as you've got something to say. I don't think there's any particular virtue in being a writer."

In Ian Jackman, editor, The Writer's Mentor, 2004 

Literary License in Creative Nonfiction

     The term literary license is often used in reference to writers who manipulate truth and accuracy in stories--what really happened--to enhance dramatic impact and, therefore, to make a story more readable or exciting.

     Creative nonfiction writers, however, are permitted a different form of literary license: to use the literary devices previously and exclusively available to the fiction writer in the writing of their true and accurate creative nonfiction stories. In other words, nonfiction writers cannot alter the facts, but they can capture and present them much more dramatically.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997

Writing a Gripping Crime Novel

     You know you're reading a great mystery novel when you're up at three in the morning, unable to put it down. When you finally fall asleep, the characters go romping around in your dreams. When you get to the final page, you smack yourself in the head because the solution seems obvious in retrospect yet came as a complete surprise.

     Page-turning suspense. Rich characterization. A credible surprise ending. Sounds pretty simple, but writing a mystery novel is not for the faint of heart…Be prepared to keep three or four intertwined pots spinning. Get ready to master the art of misdirection so readers will ogle those red herrings you've sprinkled while ignoring the real clues in plain sight. Don't be surprised when you find yourself riding herd on a load of characters who won't go where you want them to.

     On top of that, you'll need dogged determination and intestinal fortitude to stick with it, through the first draft and endless revisions, until your words are polished to lapidary perfection. It wouldn't hurt, either, to have the hide of a rhinoceros to withstand the inevitable rejections. Talent being equal, what separates many a published mystery writer from an unpublished one is sheer stamina. Only gluttons for punishment need apply.

Halle Ephron, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, 2005

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Categories of Crime and Criminal Behavior

It is conventional to draw a line between property crimes, crimes against the person, morals offenses, offenses against public order, and regulatory crimes. Social reactions depend on the type of crime. Typologies are not very systematic; but they can be illuminating. For example, there are what we might call predatory crimes--committed for money and gain; usually, the victims are strangers. These are the robberies and muggings that plague the cities and inspire much dread. There are also lesser and greater crimes of gain: shoplifting, minor embezzlements, confidence games, cheats, frauds, stock manipulations in infinite form. There are also what we might call corollary crimes--conspiracies, aiding and abetting, harboring criminals; also perjury, jail break, and the like. Much rarer are political crimes--treason, most notably; also sedition, and, in larger sense, all illegal acts motivated by hatred of the system, and which strike out against the constituted order. There are crimes of desperation--men or women who steal bread to keep from starving, addicts who steal or turn a trick to support their habit. Some crimes are thrill crimes--joyriding, shoplifting at times, acts of vandalism, and the like; some of these, too, can be little bursts of petty treason. There are crimes of passion--violence generated by thwarted love, jealousy, hatred that rises to the level of obsession. There are also crimes of addiction--crimes that arise from failure of control; crimes that stem from what some of us might consider flaws of character, or overwhelming temptation; this can be as minor as public drunkenness, or as horrific as rape. Lastly, there are what we might call subcultural crimes--acts that are defined as crimes of the big culture, yet validated in some smaller social group; Mormon polygamy in the nineteenth century, for example.

Lawrence M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History, 1993

Circumstantial Evidence in Eighteenth Century America

Most [criminal trial] evidence in [in eighteenth century America] was direct; that is, people testified to facts which they observed directly. Circumstantial evidence, or inference from other observed facts, was less common. When used, it was of the [homespun] knowledge of farm, field, stream, and woods. A sweating horse in the barn was mute testimony that he had been ridden long and hard recently.

Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder, 1961

Clues a Criminal Suspect is Lying

     A lying suspect [under interrogation] will speak in fragmented or incomplete sentences such as "It's important that..." He also may feign a memory failure when confronted with a probing question or in responding to a direct accusation of lying. The person will respond with a half-lie, such as "I don't remember," "As far as I know," or "I don't recall;" or, the person my try to bolster his answer with such phrases as "To be perfectly honest with you," or "To be quite frank." [Politicians, professional and prolific liars, frequently preference their lies with "quite frankly."]

     The more sophisticated liars may use the same type of evasions, but they usually plan beforehand so that their answers include a protective verbal coating, such as: "At this point in time," If I recall correctly," "It is my understanding," " If my memory serves me right," or "I may be mistaken but..." By using these tactics, lying suspects seek to establish an "escape hatch" rather than risk telling an outright lie.

Fred E. Inbau, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 1986

"White Fragility," by Robin DiAngelo

     Robin DiAngelo's book White Fragility, published in 2018, has shot up bestseller lists after protests over the death of George Floyd reignited discussions about racism in America.

     DiAngelo is white and regards racism as "the foundation of the society we are in." She says white people become defensive and exhibit "fragility" when challenged on their underlying and, often unconscious, racism.

     White people will never be rid of their biases, DiAngelo has told NPR, saying their [her] necessary work "will be lifelong: really thinking deeply about what it means to be white, how your race shapes your life."

     But as DiAngelo's corporate lecture requests and book sales have grown, so too has criticism of her work.

     The Washington Post's Carlos Lozada said the book employs "circular logic." Lozada writes that White Fragility views people of color as "almost entirely powerless, and the few with influence do not wield it in the service of racial justice."

     Columbia University professor and linguist John McWhorter, who is black, echoes that criticism, writing in the Atlantic that the book "openly infantilized black people" and "simply dehumanized us." He argues that for "DiAngelo, the whole point is the suffering" of white people, who are "taught that pretty much anything they say or think is racist and thus antithetical to the good."

"Linguist John McWhorter Says White Fragility is Condescending Toward Black People," James Doubek, NPR, July 20, 2020

James Dickey's Novel "Deliverance"

Deliverance, the debut novel by James Dickey, has reached the polished age of 50...First published in 1970, the novel was a critically acclaimed bestseller and boosted the growing celebrity of its author. However, the 1972 film, which Stephen Farber of The New York Times called the "most stunning piece of moviemaking released this year," quickly eclipsed the novel in the consciousness and imagination of the American movie-going public. Today, if you search for "Deliverance," you must scroll and click into the second page of Google results to find any lead articles about the novel--dominated so thoroughly on the internet by the film--making it easy to wonder if the novel will slip out of print, its semi-centennial unheralded.

S. Tremaine Nelson, Vanderbilt Magazine, Fall 2020


Friday, July 16, 2021

Donald B. Doud: A Witness to Forgery

     Born in 1916 in Wisconsin, Donald Doud lived his early life in Southern California. After spending a year in a sanitarium recovering from tuberculosis, he studied to become a professional photographer, a skill he would later use in the preparation of document examination exhibits for trial. While working as an apprentice in the office of the famous Los Angeles questioned document examiner Clark Sellers (a star witness at the Lindbergh/Hauptmann trial in 1935), Doud attended classes in questioned document examination taught by John L. Harris at the University of Southern California. A few years later he moved to New York City where he studied under Albert D. Osborn, the son of Albert S. Osborn, the man considered the father of modern forensic document examination. Both Osborns had testified at the Lindbergh/Hauptmann trial.

     In Chicago, Donald Doud continued his apprenticeship with another prominent practitioner, Herbert J. Walter. In 1951, he moved to Milwaukee where he practiced with John F. Tyrell, another Lindbergh case handwriting witness.  When Mr. Tyrell passed away in 1955, he took over his practices in Chicago and Milwaukee.

     During his long career, Donald Doud served as chairman of the questioned documents section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and on the board of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners. He lectured for twenty years in law professor Fred Inbau's classes at Northwestern University. During his career, Mr. Doud wrote dozens of articles and professional papers.

     Donald Doud worked on hundreds of little known handwriting/forgery cases and a handful of high profile forgery disputes. He became involved in the historic Alger Hiss spy case, the Clifford Irving-Howard Hughes autobiography fraud, and the Howard Hughes Mormon will case.

      Mr. Doud's family, five years after his death, published his memoir, "Witness to Forgery." Available on Amazon.com, it is a terrific read featuring an extraordinary career in the little known but fascinating field of forensic fraud and forgery detection. 

Language of a Liar

Lying suspects tend to deny guilt with specific language such as, in a fatal shooting, "I didn't do it with that gun." Truthful suspects, however, tend to voice general denials like "I never shot her or anyone else in my life." Truthful suspects are not afraid to use harsh, realistic words, such as "steal," "rape," "kill," "rob," "stab," but the deceptive ones usually avoid such language in order to assuage their guilty feeling. Even when less harsh terms are used, the liar's tone of voice will sound weak, in contrast to the strong utterance of a truthful suspect.

Fred E. Inbau, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 1986

The Scared Writer

     Anxiety is not only an inevitable part of the writing process but a necessary part. If you're not scared, you're not writing. A state of anxiety is the writer's natural habitat. Yet those who live there are seldom bold. War-chasing Hemingways are the exception among writers. Most seek adventure only in their imaginations. Like most of us, they're brave here, timid there, trying to muddle through, to sneak enough good words onto paper before a surge of anxiety erases their literary disk. At the same time, they're driven to seek attention and must peddle their wares to the public.

     To love writing, fear writing, and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction...Writing is both frightening and exhilarating. It couldn't be done without the other.

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995

Will Writing a Memoir Make You a Better Person?

     The scientific research on the benefits of so-called expressive writing is surprisingly vast. Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person's health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.

     Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing--and then rewriting--your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness. The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn't get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health. It may sound like self-help nonsense, but research suggests the effects are real. [In other words, re-inventing yourself and your life on paper will make you feel better about yourself.]

Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, January 19, 2015 

Does Writing Make You Crazy?

     Writing, even if you approach it as a hobby, is a highly competitive field that takes every ounce of focus and talent that you can bring to the table. If you don't work at it, you have no right to complain that others are more successful than you are. This is not a job for the lazy. Writing has to be your number one priority. [If it's your number one priority, it's more than a hobby.]

     And, yes, all this focus and drive will make you a little crazy…The real truth of the matter is that the writing life is not a life of grace, but insanity. So take good care of yourself and get some sleep because you're going to need your strength. [If sleep is your number one priority, then writing is your hobby. Regarding priority, I'd put keeping your sanity pretty high on the list. If writing makes you crazy stop doing it. What's the point of a mental ward shrink advising you that your book has just come out.]

N. M. Kelly, The Constant Art of Being a Writer, 2009

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Kevin Harris Bomb Case

     Kevin Harris lived by himself in a modest, one-story house in a quiet residential neighborhood in the southern California city of Costa Mesa. The 52-year-old, by covering his home in aluminum foil, attaching copies of his anti-government newsletters to a front yard tree, and videotaping his neighbors, revealed that he was strange, and probably mentally ill. He had also established himself as an anti-social loner with his Internet writings that included the statement: "I am the only one who can get into my house. I think it may be dangerous for you to come to my house alone."

     In America, we have more than our share of oddballs. Most of these people, usually men, are harmless eccentrics. Some of them, however, are psychotic, paranoid, and dangerous. Ted Kaczynski, the unabomber, fell into this category. Unfortunately, there's no sure-fire way to distinguish the Ted Kaczynski types from the common garden variety conspiracy kooks. When the distinction becomes clear, it's usually too late.

     Mr. Harris, in a 17,000-word Internet-published manifesto called, "The Picker: A True Story of Assassination, Terrorism, and High Treason," described the nefarious and clandestine activities of government agents. The author of this rambling manifesto had obviously convinced himself that secret government operatives were using a weapon called a "picker," a device that deposited germs on a victim's skin on contact. Government agents armed with these secret devices were infecting dissenters with illnesses like cancer and AIDS. According to Harris, government agents also used the deadly tool to cause various enemies of the state to die in freak accidents.

     The Costa Mesa conspiracy theorizer, in his manifesto, said: "I have had personal experience with both domestic and foreign operatives using pickers within the U. S. at the request of the U. S. Government. The rationale stated here should give you a reasonable indication that pickers are used in this country, but it is not absolute proof. The diseases of the ex-spouses, which I will describe, provide a proof so strong that some of these attacks will have to stop....

     "Many years ago I met a woman who had just divorced a government agent. She had also just had a radical mastectomy. She was afraid of her ex-husband, afraid for her life. That a woman should have to live (and die) in fear of this 'public servant' struck me as very wrong. Since then I have met a couple of other women who have broken off marriages with government agents. In each case the woman was diagnosed with cancer within a year of breaking up...

     "These women didn't get cancer because divorce and mortal fear are stressful. Emotional stress as a factor in carcinogenesis can account for a few percentage points at most. That is too small an influence to be reliably detectable. This is a cancer rate that is thousands of percent too high. Among other things, several attempts on my own life have confirmed to me that these cancers are intentional assaults..."

     At six-fifteen in the evening of Sunday, April 14, 2013, several of Kevin Harris' neighbors called 911 to report  that he was sprawled out on his front lawn. After the ambulance rolled up to the aluminum-wrapped house, Mr. Harris refused treatment. The paramedics drove off and Mr. Harris disappeared inside his strange looking dwelling.

     Ninety minutes following the medical emergency, neighbors called 911 again to report a powerful explosion at the Harris house. Police arrived to find the front entrance to Harris' dwelling shattered from an explosion. The resident of the home lay dead in the doorway. Near his corpse Costa Mesa police officers saw an unexploded pipe bomb.

     Dozens of homes in the neighborhood were evacuated as FBI agents, the Orange County Bomb Squad, and a Huntington Beach hazardous materials team searched the Harris dwelling for additional bombs and explosive substances. They found three more pipe bombs on the premises.

     Because Kevin Harris was alone in the house when one of his pipe bombs detonated, the authorities had no way of knowing if he had killed himself intentionally, or had accidentally triggered one of his explosive devices. Perhaps he had mistakenly set-off a booby-trap of his own making.

     One of Mr. Harris' brothers told a reporter that Kevin was the youngest of five boys. Although all of his siblings were highly educated professionals, Kevin was the smartest one in the family. (His manifesto suggested that Kevin had been well-educated as well, possibly in the hard sciences.)

     The day after the Costa Mesa house explosion, terrorists detonated two bombs at the Boston Marathon. 

Abolishing the Insanity Plea

      In May 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Kahler v. Kansas, a case that hinged on the question of whether the defendant, James Kahler, who killed his estranged wife, her mother and his two teenage daughters, could claim that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. Kahler's legal team argued that he suffered from depression, and was so distraught on the night in question that he could not control his actions. They were challenging Kansas' 20-year-old abolition of the insanity defense and effectively asking the court to overrule it.

     The court did not, claiming that the state was within its constitutional rights when it decided to outlaw that legal classification...Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion...The insanity defense is deployed in less than 1 percent of criminal cases and is successful only about a quarter of the time.

Rachel Louise Snyder, "Making a Case," The New York Times Book Review, May 3, 2020

A Nation of Crime Buffs

A collection of short stories about fraud titled The Book of Swindles was published in China during the Ming dynasty [1368-1644]. And Shakespeare himself is considered by some to be the father of true crime [Arden of Feversham, 1552]. Fast-forwarding a couple hundred years, in the early mid-20th century, pulp-fiction novels and magazines like True Detective catered to crime buffs. [The Lindbergh kidnapping case captivated millions from 1932 to 1936.] The 1980s and '90s saw the rise of headline-inspired made-for-TV movies and media outlets like Court TV. (It's estimated that 57 percent of the country tuned in to watch the O.J. Simpson verdict in 1995, and that says nothing of how the media turned people like Amy Fisher and the Menendz brothers into household names around the time.) It's in our nature to love true crime. The current true crime boom is most easily traced to the 15-month stretch across 2014-2015 that saw the debuts of the podcast serial, HBO's "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst" and Netflix's "Making a Murderer."

Justine Sayles, "The Bloody Bubble," The Ringer, July 9, 2021 

Kim Won't Be Following In Her Father's Footsteps

Kim Kardashian is re-evaluating her quest to be a lawyer after flunking a law exam. "I am a failure," the reality-TV star, 40, said last week after she scored a 474 on the first-year law student "baby bar exam," well below the 560 needed to pass. Kardashian is not attending law school, but after doing some advocacy for a woman sentenced to life in prison for a drug offense, she began a four-year legal apprenticeship program that would qualify her to be a lawyer under California law. "I spent six weeks straight, 10 to 12 hours a day studying," she said. "To not pass gets your spirit down and just makes you want to give up." [Robert Kardashian (1944-2003) was O.J. Simpson's friend and one of his 1995 murder trial defense attorneys.] 

The Week, June 11, 2021

Beware of the Journalist

Something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist, and what happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but, in fact, childish trust and impetuosity [impulsiveness] are far more common.

Janet Malcolm, journalist, nonfiction book author, 1998 

Breaking News Versus a News Based Story

News is plot, event, what happened last night or this afternoon or is in process right now. News breaks fast, somebody writes it up, the gun is barely fired before the world is clued in. Story is a wider map and involves any number of whys, relating to personal history, family background, the times, the place, and cultural background. Story makes a stab at explaining how such a wonderful or terrible thing could have happened. News enjoys a brief shelf life, turns stale fast, grows a quick crust. Story addresses complicated possibilities and reasons, therefore lasts longer, maybe forever.

Beverly Lowry, in Writing Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, editors, 2001

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Kamala Harris on Crime

     Although the number of individuals in America's prisons now tops two million, and we spend roughly $200 billion annually on responding to crime, our system is plagued with repeat offenders.
The sad fact is that two-thirds of those released from prison re-offend within two or three years. In California, we now spend more that $25 billion annually on crime--more than twice what we spend on higher education--but 70 percent of the 125,000 individuals released from our prisons each year are back behind bars within a couple of years…

     When we combine all the crimes committed each year and factor in the seriousness of those crimes, the result is best represented by a pyramid. At the very top are the worst crimes--the murders, rapes, and violent assaults that so rightly command our most intense attention. The violent crimes occupy the top section of that pyramid because they are so serious and threatening, but they also are the tip-top because they are a minority of crimes. Only a quarter of all offenders admitted to prison are violent offenders. The largest mass of the crime pyramid is the truly staggering number of nonviolent offenders. According to the FBI, 96 percent of all arrests are of nonviolent offenders. [These nonviolent crimes include, however, grand theft, public corruption, arson, burglary, and the possession of child pornography. Where do these criminals fit in the crime pyramid?]

     The problem is that we have been using only the tools best suited to combating the offenders at the top of the pyramid for the entire crime pyramid. For several decades the passage of tough laws and long sentences has created an illusion in the public's mind that public safety is best served when we treat all offenders pretty much the same way: arrest, convict, imprison, parole, and hope they learn their lesson. What the numbers say loud and clear, however, is that most nonviolent offenders are learning the wrong lesson, and in many cases, they are becoming better and more hardened criminals during their prison stays.

Kamala D. Harris, Smart on Crime, 2009