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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Mayor Bill deBlasio And The Politics of Murder

     A successful politician must do three things well: Raise a lot of money for himself and his family; lie convincingly to constituents; and avoid responsibility or blame for anything that could make him look like a political hack. High rates of crime make politicians look bad because to get elected, or re-elected, they promised to reduce crime. The politician also hates the commission of a high-profile murder in his or her backyard. When that happens, the politician seeks to find someone else to blame. This is the dirty politics of murder.

The Public Housing Elevator Murder Case

     At six in the evening on Sunday, June 1, 2014, 6-year-old Prince Joshua Avitto and his 7-year-old friend Mikayla Capers, residents of a Brooklyn, New York housing project complex called Boulevard Houses, were riding the building's elevator on their way to get some ice cream.

     When the elevator stopped at the lobby and the door opened, a heavy-set black man wearing a gray shirt entered the elevator and stabbed the two children, dropped the bloody knife, and fled the building. The Avitto boy, stabbed in the torso, lay unconscious and unresponsive. The girl, Mikayla, had been stabbed in the chest, and had cuts on her hands.

     At the Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center, doctors pronounced Prince Avitto dead. His friend, in critical condition, was transferred to New York-Presbyterian Hospital for specialized surgery.

     Unfortunately for homicide detectives, the elevator compartment was not equipped with a surveillance camera. Investigators were working off the theory that the man who stabbed the housing project children might be the same person who, on Friday May 30, 2014, had stabbed 18-year-old Tanaya Copeland to death. That homicide had been committed just a few blocks from the housing project. The unidentified perpetrator in the Tanaya Copeland case had left the murder knife at that crime scene as well.

     On Tuesday, June 3, 2014, New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio, appearing before reporters gathered at a press conference, blamed the housing authority bureaucracy for failing to install surveillance cameras in the housing project elevators. The mayor specifically pointed his finger at his predecessor, Mayor Bloomberg.

     Since politicians create bureaucracy, this criticism was rather ironic. Moreover, while surveillance video is an excellent investigative tool, the presence of a camera in the elevator would not necessarily have prevented the stabbings.

     On Wednesday, June 4, 2014, at eight o'clock in the evening, New York City detectives arrested 27-year-old Daniel St. Hubert as a suspect in the elevator stabbing case. According to a police spokesperson, Hubert had a criminal history. He was on parole in connection with a domestic dispute assault conviction.

     Because Mayor deBlasio couldn't blame guns in this case, he blamed the housing authority and the former mayor. Maybe he should have blamed himself as a big government politician who reveled in bureaucracy. Or better yet, he could have blamed the man with the knife.

     In the end, the Avitto boy's murder was not blamed on failed mental health care or a dysfunctional criminal justice system. The mayor and his supporters ultimately blamed this murder on "society." It was our fault.  

     In April 2018, a jury sitting in Brooklyn, New York found St. Hubert guilty of murder and attempted murder. The judge sentenced him to 50 years to life. 
     Bill deBlasio is still mayor, and crime in the city is worse than it has been for decades. The man who will replace him in January 2022 has promised to reduce crime.

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 

Forensic Pathology and Cause and Manner of Death

     Forensic pathologists are physicians educated and trained to determine the cause and manner of death in cases involving violent, sudden, or unexplained fatalities. The cause of death is the medical reason the person died. One cause of death is asphyxia--lack of oxygen to the brain. It occurs as a result of drowning, suffocation, manual strangulation, strangulation by ligature (such as a rope, belt, or length of cloth) crushing, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Other causes of death include blunt force trauma, gunshot wound, stabbing, slashing, poisoning, heart attack, stroke, or a sickness such as cancer, pneumonia, or heart disease.

     For the forensic pathologist, the most difficult task often involves detecting the manner of death--natural, accidental, suicidal, or homicidal. This is because the manner of death isn't always revealed by the physical condition of the body. For example, a death resulting from a drug overdose could be the result of homicide, suicide, or accident. Knowing exactly how the fatal drug got into the victim's system requires additional information, data that usually comes from a police investigation. A death investigator, for example, will try to find out if the overdose victim had a history of drug abuse, or if there were signs of a struggle at the scene of the death. Has this victim attempted suicide in the past? Did the victim leave a suicide note? Did someone have a compelling motive to kill this person? Is there evidence of a love triangle, life insurance fraud, hatred, or revenge? These are basic investigative leads that could help a forensic pathologist determine the manner of death.

     When the circumstances of a suspicious death are not ascertained, or are sketchy, and the death is not an obvious homicide, the medical examiner might classify the manner of death as "undetermined." Drug overdose cases that are only slightly suspicious and therefore not thoroughly investigated often go into the books as either accidents or suicides. This is true of other forms of slightly suspicious death. Because a body is found dead in the water doesn't necessarily mean this person has drowned. This victim could have been murdered and then dumped into the water. Even in a death by drowning, the person could have died after being criminally thrown from a boat or off a pier.

     There are more sudden, violent, and unexplained deaths in the United States than the nation's four hundred or so board-certified forensic pathologists can handle. This gruesome workload ideally should require at least a thousand forensic pathologists. As a result of this personnel shortage, not every death that calls for an autopsy receives one. Because there is also a shortage of qualified criminal investigators, not every death that requires an investigation gets the attention it deserves. This means we don't know exactly how many people in this country are murdered every year. And of the cases we know are criminal homicides, about half go unsolved. This is one of the many failures of our criminal justice system. 

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

Ed Buck: How Sex, Drugs and Murder Brought Down a Major Political Donor

     In the mid-1970s, 21-year-old Ed Buck left his home state of Arizona for Europe where he began his career as a fashion model. After returning to the U.S. in 1980 he bought a courier company that turned him into a millionaire.

     In 2007, Ed Buck, while residing in West Hollywood, California, became a prominent donor to democrat politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. About this time, the high profile political activist in the LGBTQ community ran for city council and lost. He continued, however, to line the pockets of his favorite democrat politicians.

     On July 27, 2017, police were called to Ed Buck's West Hollywood apartment in the 1200 block of Laurel Avenue. The officers found, lying dead on a mattress in the 63-year-old's living room, a 26-year-old black escort named Gemmel Moore. The apartment was littered with 24 hypodermic needles, five meth pipes, and a variety of sex toys. A gay porn video was playing on the television.

     The forensic pathologist who conducted Mr. Moore's autopsy found that he had died from a crystal methamphetamine overdose. The Los Angeles County Coroner ruled that Gemmel Moore's death had been an accident caused by a self-administered overdose. As a result, Ed Buck was not investigated to determine what role he may have played in Mr. Moore's death, or if he was operating some kind of drug den for gay, homeless men.

     Gemmel Moore's mother, LaTisha Nixon, as well as others, voiced their outrage over the Los Angeles coroner's accidental death finding. The district attorney's office, aware of writings in Gemmel Moore's journal detailing how Ed Buck had injected him and other gay men with methamphetamine in order to facilitate Buck's sexual fetishes, apparently ignored this evidence in deciding not to authorize an investigation. One of Buck's sexual fetishes involved photographing men wearing tight underwear.

     LaTisha Nixon accused the Los Angeles District Attorneys Office and the county coroner of protecting the wealthy political donor. By some accounts, Ed Buck had given the Hillary Clinton campaign $500,000. He had also given large sums to Barack Obama.

     On January 12, 2019, the police were again summoned to Ed Buck's West Hollywood apartment. This time they found 55-year-old Timothy Dean dead from a methamphetamine overdose.

     Mr. Dean, a six-foot-five black man, had worked at Bloomingdale's and SAKS Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles as a fashion consultant. He had also worked on and off as an actor in gay adult films. As a younger man, Timothy Dean had been active in the Lambada (gay) Basketball League. He had once participated in the Gay Games in Paris, France. At age 52 Mr. Dean had earned an associates degree from Santa Monica Community College.

     According to Mr. Dean's family and friends, it had been years since he had used drugs. Nevertheless, as in the Gemmel Moore case, the Los Angeles Coroner ruled his death accidental due to a self-administered methamphetamine overdose. Once again, in the face of evidence to the contrary, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office decided not to file criminal charges against Ed Buck. This decision outraged Timothy Dean's family and friends who considered him a victim of sexual foul play.

     In February 2019, LaTisha Nixon, emboldened by the second overdose fatality in Ed Buck's apartment, filed a wrongful death suit against the wealthy political donor. The plaintiff alleged that Mr. Buck was a drug dealer who had injected her son with a fatal dose of crystal meth. According to Jasmyne Cannick, a political consultant and spokesperson for the Nixon family, Ed Buck had received special treatment from the prosecutor's office because of his political connections and wealth. This was a view shared by many in Los Angeles's gay community.

     In June 2019, Ed Buck met a black, 37-year-old homeless man later referred to in court documents as "Joe Doe." Following a brief exchange on Adam4Adam, a web site designed for men to meet other men "for friendship, romance, or a hot hookup," Buck drove to LA's skid row, picked up the homeless man, and brought him back to his apartment in West Hollywood.

     In Buck's apartment, before he had sex with Joe Doe, Buck injected him with crystal methamphetamine. Ed Buck injected this victim  every day up to September 4, 2019. On that day, when Joe Doe left the apartment, he sought medical help on the belief that Ed Buck had overdosed him.

     A week after receiving medical treatment for the overdose, Joe Doe returned to Ed Buck's apartment. On that occasion, Buck injected him with a double dose of meth. Thinking that he might die from that shot, the homeless man asked Buck to call an ambulance. When Buck refused, Doe asked for a Klonopin pill, medication for seizure disorders and panic attacks. Ed Buck refused that request, and when the heavily drugged man tried to leave the apartment, Mr. Buck tried to stop him.

     Notwithstanding Ed Buck's efforts to restrain him, Joe Doe managed to escape from the apartment that day. At a nearby gas station, Doe asked a passerby to call 911 on his behalf. As he was being treated at a local hospital, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputies responded to Ed Buck's apartment. It was there officers discovered, in addition to drug paraphernalia, hundreds of photographs of men in tight underwear in various sexual poses.

     On September 17, 2019, officers booked Ed Buck into the Los Angeles County Jail on one count each of battery causing serious injury, the administering of methamphetamine, and maintaining a drug house. If convicted of all three counts, the suspect faced no more than five years, eight months in state prison. The prosecutor in charge of the case asked the judge to set Ed Buck's bail at $4 million.

     At a press conference, the Los Angeles District Attorney told reporters that Ed Buck used drugs to lure gay men to his apartment where he manipulated them into participating in his sexual fetishes. The D.A. painted Mr. Buck as a depraved, hedonistic sexual predator.

     Two days after Ed Buck's arrest on the Joe Doe related charges, the United States Attorney in Los Angeles, in connection with the July 27, 2017 death of Gemmel Moore and the January 12, 2019 death of Timmothy Dean, charged the suspect with the federal offense of drug distribution resulting in death. This offense carried a maximum sentence of life in prison.

     The United States Attorney, in speaking to reporters, said FBI agents had identified nine more gay men Ed Buck had lured to his apartment for the purpose of injecting them with methamphetamine.

     Gemmel Moore's mother, LaTisha Nixon, praised the United States Attorney who, unlike the Los Angeles Coroner, didn't believe that Mr. Moore had injected himself with the deadly dose of methamphetamine. Others who had been seeking justice for Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean were also pleased with the federal charge against Ed Buck.
     On July 27, 2021, following a two-week trial in a Los Angeles federal courtroom, the jury found 66-year-old Ed Buck guilty of killing Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean by injecting them with crystal meth and the date rape drug GHB during "party and play" encounters held in Buck's West Hollywood apartment. 
     During the trial, Ed Buck's attorneys portrayed the defendant's accusers as untrustworthy drug addicts and male prostitutes who sold themselves for drugs.
     The federal district judge sentenced Ed Buck to life in prison. When the sentence was handed down spectators in the room cheered loudly.

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

The Michael Salmon Rape Case: The Pediatrician From Hell

     In the 1970s and early 1980s, Dr. Michael Salmon, a pediatrician who specialized in children's growth disorders and neurological problems at the Stoke Manderville Hospital in Buckinhamshire, England, was one of the United Kingdom's most eminent physicians. Dr. Salmon received recognition and praise for his work with children from Princess Dianna and other prominent English citizens. He also became quite wealthy.

     In 1987, Dr. Salmon fell from grace when detectives searching his office in connection with a medical fraud investigation came upon a sheaf of love letters from several of his teenage female patients. The discovery of these letters triggered an investigation of a very different kind that led to an indecent assault conviction. The judge, in November 1990, sentenced Salmon to three years in prison for the assault of three girls. In 1991, his professional colleagues struck the 56-year-old physician from the United Kingdom medical register.

     Salmon served eighteen months of his three-year sentence at the Grendon Underwood Prison. After his release, he managed to reinvent himself as a wildlife expert. He purchased a mansion in a remote area near a national park. He told his neighbors and members of the community that he was a retired hospital consultant from an aristocratic family. In his club and church circles, he insisted on being addressed as "Dr."

     In 2011, the Thames Valley police launched an investigation into rape and sexual abuse at the Stoke Manderville Hospital called Operation Yewtree. In the course of that investigation, former female patients of Michael Salmon's came forward with stories of sexual abuse that occurred when they were in the teens and pre-teens. The women accused Salmon of having assaulted them in his consulting room at the hospital. His victims, at the time of the alleged offenses, had ranged from eleven to eighteen-years-old.

     A Crown prosecutor, in November 2013, charged the former physician with the sexual assaults of nine girls at the hospital and the rape of a teenager at his home. In the rape case, the 16-year-old victim had turned to the doctor for help after learning that she had become pregnant.

     Salmon pleaded not guilty to all charges, calling the allegations "absolute nonsense." He characterized his accusers as "gold diggers" and desperate women looking for attention.

     In December 2014, the Michael Salmon sexual abuse trial got underway at the Reading Crown Court. In her opening statement to the jury, Crown prosecutor Miranda Moore said, "On some of the occasions the defendant handled the breasts of the young girls with the pretense of listening to their hearts. He also, on occasion, carried out internal vaginal examinations for which there was no medical need whatsoever."

     On February 6, 2015, the jury found Michael Salmon guilty of nine counts of indecent assault and two counts of rape. As constables led the 80-year-old out of the courtroom to his jail cell, his wife who had stood by him throughout the trial, wept.

     In speaking to reporters following the guilty verdict, Detective Sergeant Malcolm Wheeler of the Thames Valley Police Child Abuse Unit, said: "Salmon was a prolific sexual offender who abused his position of power for his own sexual gratification. His victims trusted him, they believed him because he was a doctor and they thought he was trustworthy."

     On February 12, 2015, at Salmon's sentencing hearing, Reading Crown Court Judge Johanna Cutts, in addressing the convicted man, said: "It was your conceited arrogance that led to your downfall. All the girls were ill at the time. They were treated as objects of your sexual gratification." Regarding the 16-year-old Salmon had raped twice in his home, Judge Cutts said, "You raped her at the time when she couldn't have been more vulnerable. This court sees a lot of rape cases. It is rare to see such a cold-blooded and ruthless crime."

     Judge Cutts sentenced Michael Salmon to eighteen years in prison. For a man his age it was a sentence of life.

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

Memo To Armed Robbers

     At five-thirty Tuesday evening November 12, 2014, 18-year-old Adric White and Tavoris Moss, 19, walked into a Family Dollar store in Baldwin County, Alabama outside of Mobile. White entered the premises carrying a handgun he intended to use to rob the place.

     This was not the first business establishment White had held-up. A month earlier, after he robbed the nearby Original Oyster House, a judge allowed him to post bail despite the fact the Original Oyster House was not White's first robbery.

     In the back of the store White put his gun to a Family Dollar employee's head and ordered the hostage to the cash-out area where a customer saw what was happening. This customer, who was also armed, pulled his firearm as White forced the terrified clerk to get on his or her knees.

     The armed shopper yelled at White not to move. White, rather than lower his gun, turned the weapon on the customer. Fearing that he would be shot, the armed citizen fired at White who collapsed to the floor.

     Police officers took the suspect's companion into custody as paramedics rushed White to the USA Medical Center. Although hit five times, White survived the shooting and received treatment at the hospital while under police guard. The judge revoked his bail on the Original Oyster House hold-up.

     The day following the Family Dollar robbery and shooting, a local television reporter spoke to a relative of White's who said the family was furious with the vigilante who had shot and almost killed their loved one. "If the customer's [shooter's] life was not in danger," said the robber's relative, "if no one had a gun up to him, what gives him the right to think that it's okay to shoot someone? The [armed customer] should have left the store and went wherever he had to go."

     The same TV correspondent spoke to the man who had used his gun to stop the robbery and perhaps save the store clerk's life. The shooter, referred to in the local media as the Good Samaritan, said he had no choice but to take the action in the case. When the robber raised his gun the customer fired in self defense. "I didn't want to shoot him," the shooter said.

     According to the Good Samaritan, "Criminals tend to think they are the only ones with guns. I've been legally carrying my firearm for a little over four years now, and thank God I've never had to use it until last night. It just shows it's good to have a concealed carry permit. You never know when you're going to need it."

       As could be expected, gun rights advocates and their opponents argued over the merits of this case. But one thing that was not up for debate was this: If you rob someone at gunpoint there is a good chance you will be shot by a police officer or a fellow citizen. And if you are, the person who shot you will be hailed by most people as a Good Samaritan.

     As they say, live by the sword, die by the sword. 

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

Exposing 9th Graders to Pathological Murder

     Students in an Australian high school didn't have to wait until college to enroll in a stupid, useless course. A 9th grade teacher in Corio, a suburb of Greelong, Victoria on Australia's southeastern coast, offered a forensic psychology course devoted to the study of serial killers. That begged the question: what educational goal was being met here? Was studying a tiny subculture of deviants with homicidal personality disorders a good way to give 14-years-olds a realistic perception of human behavior? Were these murderous degenerates worthy of this kind of academic attention? 
     This 9th grade professor of prolific, pathological homicide gave his (or her) students two weeks to complete a "Serial Killer Investigation Assignment." The twenty students taking the class were asked to complete ten out of a possible twenty "activities" related to the study of serial killers, their lives, and their victims. Instead of the boring stuff, these students learned about American serial killers David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), Ted Bundy, and the man who killed and ate young men, Jeffery Dahmer. The Australian students also studied Hannibal Lector, the fictitious, erudite consumer of human flesh. 

     What follows are some of the"Serial Killer Investigation Assignment" activities students could choose from:

     Draw a cartoon panel about how your serial killer murdered someone. This is a good one for a kid with artistic ability who has selected a serial killer like John Wayne Gacy. Gacy, an amateur clown, tricked his young male victims into handcuffing themselves before he slowly strangled them to death. Mr. Gacy buried the dead boys' bodies under his house in Chicago. The visuals here could be great. These students of sadistic, multiple murder could identify with Mr. Gacy who was himself an artist. Maybe they could copy his style and technique. Or maybe they could do a cartoon of him dying in the execution chamber. 

     Choose two serial killers, compare them and decide which of them is worse and why. This is a good exercise for  students who want to be  criminal defense attorneys when they grows up. A student might select Donald Harvey, the Ohio angel of death who murdered hundreds of terminally ill hospital patients by poisoning them to death. Mr. Harvey could be compared to Ted Bundy who raped and murdered dozens of young women. In choosing Harvey over Bundy, the student could argue that all of Bundy's victims were young pretty women, while Donald Harvey just killed old people who were going to die soon anyway. Encouraging a 14-year-old see the good side of a serial killer may not be a good idea.

     Write a poem about a serial killer. Probably the first question for the teacher regarding this assignment was: does it have to rhyme? Mixing poetry and violent death would surely get kids interested in writing on a higher level. Let's see, what rhymes with autopsy? That's a tough one.

     Create a serial killer board game with full instructions. This one is ambitious. But it's a good exercise because it forces the student to spend hours and hours thinking about sadistic, pathological murder. How about adapting "Chutes and Ladders" to "Tunnels and Dungeons," or "Whips and Chains." Maybe the student could convert a Monopoly board. Instead of real estate, the player lands on potential murder victims. In this game, however, there is no get-out-of jail card.

     Make a children's book which teaches them about serial killers. The goal here, I guess, is to get toddlers interested in multiple homicide. Full color illustrations depicting the various ways serial killers go about their business would be quite instructive. Teaching kids at a young age how to commit serial murder would be, I imagine, an excellent anti-bullying measure.

     Draw a floor plan of a serial killer's "dream house." This is a good assignment for students who want to grow up to be sadistic architects. It goes without saying that the dwelling would feature a torture chamber, a dissecting room, a library of snuff videos, and a large but private back yard. I would also suggest a good ventilation system and a large incinerator.

     Ken Massari, the principal of the Australian high school that employed the 9th grade teacher, didn't know about the serial killer course until he read about it in the local press. Apparently a parent had complained to the media. The principal pulled the plug on the course which including killing the teacher's homework assignments. To a reporter, Massari said that "Upon review, I made the decision to withdraw the assignment immediately and permanently, and our trained staff contacted each family to determine if any support was required." 
     While presumably fired and banned from teaching, the fate of this teacher was not made public.

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

The Electric Chair

     Quite often, the centerpiece of a police or crime museum is an electric chair. To some, "Old Sparky" is a symbol of a bygone era when convicted murderers got what was coming to them swiftly and electronically. Others believe the electric chair represents government brutality and cruel and unusual punishment. Still others are drawn to these old "hot seats" by morbid curiosity. Currently, only four states--Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia--have operational electric chairs. In these states a death row inmate can choose between lethal injection and electrocution. Over the past years prisoners faced with this dark dilemma have chosen the needle over voltage. Since 1890 about 4,000 inmates have been electrocuted in the United States. It would be wishful thinking to believe that all of them were guilty of the crimes charged.

The Agent of Death

     In the 1920s and 30s, Robert G. Elliott, an electrician from Long Island, the official executioner for six states, electrocuted 387 inmates. For this he charged the state $150 an electrocution. When he threw the switch (or turned the wheel) on two or more at one setting (so to speak), he discounted his fee. Some of Elliot's most infamous clients include Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1936), the killer of the Lindbergh baby; Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey (1928), the murderers of Ruth's husband Albert; and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1927) who were convicted of killing a Boston area bank guard. Elliott, somewhat of a celebrity, and proud of his singular contribution to the American system of criminal justice, wrote a memoir called Angel of Death that came out in 1940 less than a year after his own demise. His book, long out of print and written by a co-author, is now a collector's item.

Never Too Big to Fry

     In 1981, Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis murdered a pregnant woman and her two children during a home invasion robbery in Jacksonville, Florida. A year later a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to death. In 1998, as Davis' execution date approached, the 54-year-old death row inmate's attorney argued that his 355 pound client was too heavy for the state's broken-down 76-year-old electric chair. Since it was built in 1923, the Florida State Prison's electric chair had dispatched 200 prisoners and was worn out. Witnesses to the chair's performance in 1997 saw, when the electricity was applied, a flame from the condemned man's head shoot a foot into the air. So, in 1998, following this unpleasant tableau, the prison, with Allen "Tiny" Davis in mind, oversaw the construction of a new, heavy-duty electric chair, one that could accommodate a 355 pound person. On July 8, 1999, the executioner ran 2,300 volts through the metal cap on Davis's head for two minutes. It wasn't pretty, there was some blood and a lot of groaning, but the new chair did its job.

Museum Pieces

     If one is interested in the chair that electrocuted Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey in 1927, a replica is on display at the Sing Sing Prison Museum in Ossining, New York. Snyder had been the first women executed in the United States since 1899. After her, more would follow. The real chair is in prison storage. The chair Robert Elliott activated to electrocute Bruno Richard Hauptmann sits in the New Jersey Police Museum and Learning Center in West Trenton. They call it "Old Smokey."

     At the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Titusville, Florida, visitors could be photographed sitting in a replica electric chair. An Old Sparky is on display in Moundsville, West Virginia as part of a tourist attraction on the site that used to be part of the West Virginia State Penitentiary. The chair had been constructed in 1950 by an inmate who had to be moved to another prison when the other inmates got wind of his project. Before 1950, death sentence inmates in West Virginia were hanged--85 of them since 1866. The state has since abolished the death penalty.

     In Springer, New Mexico, at the Sante Fe Trail Museum, a female mannequin sits in the state's first and only electric chair. The electric chair at the Texas Prison System in Huntsville, built by an inmate, killed 361 prisoners from 1924 to 1964.

     The centerpiece of an exhibit at the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus featured an electric chair that put 312 men and one woman to death between 1887 and 1963. The exhibit, in a state that has kept the death penalty, created some controversy.

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

The History of the Polygraph

      The polygraph was invented in 1921 by Dr. John Larsen, a 27-year-old University of California Berkeley medical student with a Ph.D. in physiology. Dr. Larson worked as a part-time police officer at the Berkeley Police Department under Chief August Vollmer. Larson had read a 1908 book called On The Witness Stand by the Harvard psychiatrist, Hugo Munsterberg who had been searching for a method of scientific lie detection since the turn of the century.

     In his chapter "The Traces of the Emotion," Dr. Munsterberg wrote that three physiological events take place whenever a person lies. First, the liar's blood pressure and heart beat increase; second, there are respiratory alterations; and third, telling a lie changes the person's galvanic skin response, or GSR. To measure GSR, Dr. Munsterberg used a galvanometer that picked-up variations in the body's resistance to electricity. (Munsterberg found that when the brain is excited emotionally, the individual's sweat glands alter the body's resistance to electricity.)

     In 1921, Chief Vollmer asked his "college cop" to fashion a lie detection instrument detectives could use to detect deception in the people they interrogate. After working several weeks on the project, Dr. Larson informed Vollmer that he had rigged an apparatus that could detect truth and deception, an instrument he called the polygraph.

     The cumbersome tangle of rubber hoses, wires, and glass tubing was five feet long, two and a half feet high, and weighed thirty pounds. The device could be taken apart and moved from one place to another, but it took an hour to set up.

     Larson's instrument advanced Munsterberg's technique in four ways. The polygraph recorded the physiological responses on a continuous graph while the subject was being questioned. This was an improvement over the technique of asking a question, then taking the examinee's blood pressure. The second advantage involved the ability to adjust the instrument in order to control such variables as high blood pressure or extreme nervousness. Larson's invention also produced a tangible and permanent record of test results that could be later analyzed by other experts. And finally the polygraph detected and recorded the subject's breathing patterns in addition to blood pressure and pulse rate.

     In the spring of 1921, John Larson tested the polygraph on Chief Vollmer and members of the Berkeley Police Department. The results of these experiments convinced Vollmer that Larson had invented a device that would revolutionize the art and science of criminal investigation. Larson, as the department's polygraph examiner, began using the instrument to solve a series of petty theft cases at the University of California.

     Today, for a polygraph result to be accurate, the instrument (vastly more sophisticated than Larson's invention), has to be in good working order. Moreover, the examiner must be properly trained and experienced in question formation and line chart interpretation. (Police polygraph examiners have to fight against their own bias.) Subjects have to be willing participants in the process, not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, be obese, retarded, or mentally ill. People who are very old or under fourteen do not make reliable polygraph subjects.
     In 1988 the U.S. Congress passed a law making it illegal for private employers to use the polygraph as a pre-employment screening device. Police departments and federal law enforcement agencies, however, use the polygraph for this purpose. At present, no court in the country allows the admission of polygraph results as evidence of defendants' guilt. On the other hand, defense attorneys can use polygraph findings as evidence of innocence.  

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