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Sunday, October 31, 2021

The Criminalization Of Classroom Misbehavior

     In 2018, officer Dennis Turner retired from the Orlando Police Department. Upon retirement, as part of the Reserve Officer Program, Mr. Turner took a job as a School Resource Officer (SRO) at the Lucious and Emma Nixon Charter School in Orlando, Florida.

     On September 19. 2019, SRO Turner responded to a first grade classroom where a 6-year-old girl, in the course of throwing a tantrum, either kicked the teacher, a student, or the officer. When the girl wouldn't calm down, officer Turner arrested the kid for battery, placed her into handcuffs, put her in the backseat of a patrol car, and drove off.

     At the Orange County Regional Juvenile Center in Orlando, officials fingerprinted and photographed the tiny arrestee. After being processed into the criminal justice system, the 6-year-old battery suspect was released to her family.

     SRO Turner had arrested, earlier that day, an unruly 8-year-old boy at the same school. This kid had also been hauled off to the juvenile detention center and processed into the system before being picked up by family members.

     As one might expect, when these child arrests were made public, the public reacted in disbelief and outrage. What was going on in that charter school? Orlando Police Chief, Orlando Rolon, immediately suspended SRO Turner pending the results of an internal inquiry.

     Pursuant to departmental regulations, a SRO could not arrest a student under the age of 12 without the approval of a watch commander. It appeared that SRO Turner had not complied with that policy.

     According to the the 6-year-old battery suspect's grandmother, Meralyn Kirkland, the girl suffered from sleep apnea. It was lack of sleep that caused her to melt down.

     Handcuffing misbehaving elementary school children and hauling them off in police cars, over the past ten years or so, had not been that uncommon.  Before that, teachers had the authority to maintain order in their classrooms. Kids that could not be controlled by teachers were much easier to expel. But with the militarization of American policing as well as institutional restrictions on teachers' abilities to physically restrain disruptive students, educators lost control of their classrooms. That's when the police become involved in maintaining order in the school.

     In the Orlando case, and situations like it, officers did not use good judgment in handcuffing and frogmarching elementary school children out of their classrooms like adult criminals. 

     On September 2019, Chief Rolon fired Officer Dennis Turner.

Neurological and Physiological Contributors to Violent Behavior

     [Psychologist Adrian Raine] makes a good case that certain genetic, neurological and physiological factors do predict violent behavior. Some of these findings might be obvious. Few will be shocked to hear that being born a man is linked to later bad behavior--indeed, almost all of the horrific crimes Raine describes [in his new book] are committed by men. Anyone familiar with research in behavioral genetics will be unsurprised to learn that the propensity for violent crime is partly heritable. And it makes sense that certain forms of brain damage, particularly to the parts of the brain that govern impulse control, make people more likely to commit violent acts later in life.

     Other [physiological] predictors [of a violent personality] are more surprising. A low resting heart rate correlates with antisocial behavior. Certain insults to the developing brain, like smoking and drinking by pregnant mothers, have pernicious effects on behavior. And there is evidence that eating a lot of fish leads to a decline in violence, possibly because of the positive neurological effects of the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.

Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale in reviewing Adrian Raine's 2013 book, The Anatomy of Violence for The New York Times Book Review  

The Sociopath and the Limits of Psychiatry

The concept of the psychopath is, in fact, an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil--it is merely a restatement of the mystery--and only offers an escape valve for the frustration felt by psychiatrists, social workers, and police officers, who daily encounter its force.

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

The Boring Interviewee

When confronted with an interview subject who might not have exactly scintillating things to say, a good nonfiction writer, rather than making up better stuff, will work hard to discover other aspects of the subject that are interesting, like by talking to other people about the character in question or simply work on getting the subject to talk more and reveal himself, rather than resorting to fiction.

Lee Gutkind in Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, 2001 

Thomas Wolfe On the First Novel

Usually the first novel of a young writer is a book of discovery. From his meager experience, accentuated by his youth, comes a knowledge so new and startling and so wonderful that its pain is almost beyond bearing. Mellow, many-faceted understanding is not for now; understanding is the hard reward of decades of summers. Youth's knowledge, youth's discoveries, are as sure as an April dawn. [Mr. Wolfe (1900-1938) was a bit of a mental case.]

Thomas Wolfe in Wolfe by Richard Walser, 1961 

"Great Writing" Wasn't That Great

Great Writing was done in a language that had nothing to do with the way one spoke. The words were similar, but arranged more cleverly, less directly. A good literary sentence was like a floor with a hole hidden in it. You got to the end and thought: "Why'd he say it that way? He must really be a great writer." Plain English language was a degraded thing, good only for getting around your dopey miniature world, cashing checks and finding restaurants and talking about television and so on.

George Saunders, amazon.com, 2004 

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Infamous Dozier School For Boys

     The Arthur G. Dozier School For Boys opened in the Florida panhandle town of Marianna in 1900. The reform school housed boys from the ages 8 to 20. Most of the school's residents were run-a-ways, truants, and kids who had committed minor crimes. A few were orphans who had nowhere else to live, and children classified by their parents or guardians as "incorrigible."

     The Dozier School was established to take wayward boys off the street and to mold them into decent youngsters who would grow up to be law abiding, productive citizens. Instead, the institution became, from the beginning, a house of horrors where boys would suffer unspeakable abuse, and in many cases, violent death at the hands of sadistic, sex offending staff members. And this would go on, under the noses of the authorities, for decades.

     In 1903, state inspectors visited the Dozier School and found children restrained in leg irons. No one was held accountable so the abuse continued. Eleven years later, a dormitory fire of suspicious origin killed six children and two members of the staff. The dead boys were buried in the school cemetery, a section of the 1,400-acre campus the boys called "Boot Hill". The graves were marked with simple crosses made of steel pipe. In 1918, another dormitory fire killed eleven more boys.

     By 1973, the Dozier School cemetery--Boot Hill- contained 31 graves. According to the school's highly unreliable records, most of these institutional deaths had involved illness and drowning. None of the deaths of these young, incarcerated boys sparked a cause and manner of death investigation.

     A century after the creation of the Dozier School, more than a hundred men who had lived at the school in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, members of a support group called the White House Boys (named after a white cottage where some of the worst abuse took place) started petitioning the state of Florida to investigate the school, hold some of the sadistic staff members and administrators accountable, and shut the place down. These Dozier School alumni chronicled their experiences at the institution. The abuse included psychological torture, neglect, flogging, and sexual assault. The former residents even spoke of murder.

     In 2008, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, pressured by lobbying from the White House Boys and other Dozier alumni support groups, ordered an investigations into these criminal accusations. The case was taken up by the Florida State Department of Law Enforcement (the state police) and came to nothing. According to investigators, they could not uncover enough evidence to justify criminal charges.

     Frustrated by the failure of the state to expose decades of abuse, and to hold the Dozier School abusers accountable, the White House Boys, in 2010, launched their own investigation. The results of this inquiry, documented in a thick report, were so convincing and shocking, the state, in 2011, closed the school for good.

     In 2013, a team of forensic pathologists, using radar equipment that can penetrate the soil, depicted  55 unmarked graves. All of these suspicious sites were located outside the school cemetery. Exhumations and DNA analysis resulted in the identification of 21 Dozier children. The skeletal remains revealed that some of these boys had died from shotgun wounds, others from blunt force trauma, and the rest from malnutrition and infection.

     Investigators with the University of South Florida, in 2014, found that between 1903 and 1913, children at the Dozier School were denied food and clothing, shackled, whipped, raped, and hired out to work for other people. From 1900 to 1973, more than 100 boys died at the school.

     Following Hurricane Michael in 2016, an engineering firm hired by the Florida State Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up the mess, discovered 27 "anomalies" in the soil on the grounds of the old Dozier School. These anomalies were consistent with unmarked graves.

     By April 2019, forensic anthropologists with South Florida University confirmed the existence of the 27 graves. The remains at these sites revealed more evidence of child abuse and violent death.

     Cases like this remind us of the unlimited human capacity for cruelty, and that institutions housing the young and the old cannot be trusted, and must be closely monitored. 

Forensic Science: A Failed Promise

In the 1920s, forensic science pioneers and their supporters believed that one day scientific criminal investigation would significantly increase crime solution rates and at the same time reduce the dependence on the unreliable information produced by the third-degree, eyewitness testimony, and jailhouse informants. This has not happened, at least not to a great enough extent, and to that degree, forensic science has been a failed promise.

Potato Chips As a Fire Accelerant

Crime laboratories do not always detect accelerants used in an incendiary fire. Accelerant-sniffing dogs, whose sniffers are more sensitive than even the most sophisticated laboratory equipment, don't always, either. If it is believed that an accelerant was used in the fire, it might be that the accelerant itself is undetectable. One such accelerant could be a bag of potato chips. It is possible to set a bag of chips on fire and throw it on a couch, creating an accelerant-like effect. The fat in the chips make them extremely volatile when ignited (think of a kitchen grease fire). An accelerant-sniffing dog won't even detect the chips, and the labs won't be testing for them, either. The crime scene investigator should always question finding a couch with too many crumbs in the cushions.

Jarrett Hallcox and Amy Welch, Bodies We've Buried, 2006

Armchair How-To Book Writers

     A friend of mine once wrote a "how-to" book about camping and hiking. On the book cover, as you might expect, is a photograph of the author, wearing a backpack out in the mountains somewhere. But what you wouldn't expect is that the backpack wasn't his; he had to borrow it. And what looks like a scene from Sequoia National Park actually took place in Central Park.

     As you may have guessed by now, this self-proclaimed "expert" on hiking and camping had never done either; but he did do his research. His book sold well and no one was the wiser.

Joel Saltzman, If You Can Talk, You Can Write, 1993 

Science Fiction Is About How Humans Change the World

Years ago Sir Arthur C. Clarke commented that he preferred reading science fiction because it's the only realistic fiction--by which he meant that it's the only fiction that incorporates the concept that the world is changing and being changed by human activities.

James Gunn, LJworld.com, 2006 

The Happy Ending Genre

The happy ending--happily ever after, or at least happy for now--is the defining trait of romance. No love story, no happy ending? Not a romance. But nobody says they have to start happy--and they often don't.

Jaime Green, The New York Times Book Review, November 10, 2019

Friday, October 29, 2021

Shane M. Piche: The Sex Offender Who Got Off Light

     In 2018, Shane M. Piche drove a school bus for the Watertown City School District in upstate New York. For a year, the 25-year-old driver had his eye on one of his passengers, a 14-year-girl he had been communicating with on social media. In June 2018, Piche invited the girl and her friends to his house outside of Watertown. It was there he provided his bus riders with alcohol, and it was there he and the 14-year-old engaged in sex. In New York, a girl under 17 is incapable, by law, of consenting to sexual intercourse. In the eyes of the law, and anyone with a sense of decency, Shane M. Piche had raped that 14-year-old girl.

     In September 2018, Watertown police officers took Shane Piche into custody and booked him into the Jefferson County Jail on charges of second-degree rape. He also faced the charge of endangering the welfare of a child. Second-degree rape in New York carried a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. The school district also fired him.

     In February 2019, pursuant to a plea agreement between Jefferson County Chief Assistant District Attorney Patricia Dzuiba and defense attorney Eric Swartz, Shane Piche was allowed to plead guilty to third-degree rape, an offense that could result in a sentence of four years in prison. The prosecutor, in justifying her decision to let Piche plea bargain down to the lesser felony, said she wanted to spare the victim the ordeal of testifying before a grand jury and a rape trial.

     Two months after Piche's guilty plea, Judge James P. McClusky sentenced the former school bus driver to ten years probation. In addition, the judge fined him $1,375. As a Level One sex offender, Piche would not be added to the Department of Criminal Justice Service's online sex offender registry. That meant when someone looked him up on the computer, his name wouldn't show up on the site. Had Piche been convicted of second-degree rape as initially charged, his name would have been included on the sex offender registry.

     The 14-year-old rape victim's mother, in a victim impact statement she did not read in court, wrote: "I hope Shane Piche spends time in prison for the harm he caused my child. He took everything from my daughter... and has caused her to struggle with depression and anxiety."

     In responding to public outrage over the light sentence, Judge McClusky said that because Shane Piche had no other known rape victims, he did not believe there was a high risk that this rapist would re-offend. The judge, elected to a 14-year-term on the bench in 2011, insisted that his sentence was well within the guidelines for third-degree rape.

     Amid the public outrage over the outcome of this case, Assistant District Attorney Patricia Dziuba came to Judge McClusky's defense with this statement: "The sexual contact occurred between the defendant and the victim was away from school property and a good point in time after they met on the school bus..." 

     Not long after Shane Piche's sentencing, offended residents of Jefferson County circulated a petition calling for Judge McClusky's removal from the bench. While 70,000 residents of the county signed the petition, the judge kept his job.

     Advocates for harsher sentences in rape cases make the argument that rapists should not be given one "free" rape before they become serial offenders. The Piche case is an example of how practitioners in our criminal justice are more concerned about the welfare of the criminal than the victim. Most people would agree that a 25-year-old school bus driver who takes sexual advantage of a 14-year-old student deserves at least some time behind bars.

Video Games And Violent Behavior

When it comes to actual criminal violence, there's virtually no evidence that video games matter...I think we like to point to video games because we don't want to talk about other things we know that are much more likely to be relevant.

James Ivory, research director, Virginia Tech, 2019

Forensic Pathologists: Where Are they Educated?

There is a stereotype of the forensic pathologist as a foreigner, relegated to this area of medicine because he or she did not attend medical school in the United States. In fact, in recent decades a third to a half of all pathology residents in the United States have been graduates of foreign medical schools, which are generally considered inferior to those in the Unties States. Too few American medical school students view the field as attractive, in part because of the lack of patient contact. [Currently, there are about 500 forensic pathologists working in the United States. At least 1,000 are needed. There are only 37 accredited forensic pathology programs in U.S. medical schools. Of the 1,700 American medical school graduations each year, only about 30 become forensic pathologists. This is why there are so many forensic pathologists in the country with foreign degrees.]

John Temple, Death House, 2005 

Biographers' Fascination with Sex

One respect in which modern biography resembles fiction is its fascination with its subjects' sexual lives. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the novel was the literary genre above all others to which readers turned for the representation of sexuality. Biography restricted itself to the public lives of its subjects--or, insofar as it dealt with their private lives, did not intrude into the bedroom.

David Lodge, The Practice of Writing, 1996 

A Review That Says: "An Unreadable Book."

Garth Greenwell's first novel, What Belongs to You (2016), uses mesmeric cadences. The world observed and the interior life are slowed down, the rhythms in the prose given a strange and powerful nervous energy, every nuance and angle offered their due. Narrated by a poet in a foreign country, the novel and its inflections suggest that feeling itself is almost foreign and hard to pin down; that it has to be outlined with many subclauses, digressions and asides. Language becomes a way of holding experience close before it dissolves in your mind. Some of the scenes in the book, such as when the narrator watches a boy on a train, have the aura of beautifully rich film, something captured with meticulous attention to every shift of light and atmosphere. These scenes are created with a great moody melancholy, the narrator fully aware how soon they will be over and how they must be secured before they crumble.

Colm Toibin, The New York Times Book Review, January 26, 2020

Anais Nin's Diary/Autobiography

The edited diaries of Anais Nin were set down spontaneously as natural diaries, but when Nin chose to publish them, she want back and edited and rewrote from the perspective of a later point in time. Although overlooked, Nin's importance is in creating a new hybrid literary form, something between diary and autobiography.

Tristine Rainer, The New Diary, 1978. Anais Nin (1903-1977) a French-Cuban-American novelist and short story writer, is best known for The Diary of Anais Nin, 1966

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The San Francisco Body Parts Case

     At four in the afternoon on Wednesday January 28, 2015, a citizen in the South Market section of downtown San Francisco flagged down a police officer to investigate the source of a bad smell coming from a collection of rat-infested garbage and debris not far from the entrance to a Goodwill store.

     In an abandoned suitcase on 11th Street between Mission and Market Streets, a neighborhood populated by homeless people, the police officer found in the suitcase what appeared to be human body parts. The gruesome discovery triggered a search of a three-block radius of the suitcase that led to the location of more body parts.

     The San Francisco medical examiner determined that the remains were human. The head, hands and lower arms of the corpse remained unaccounted for. The forensic pathologist, in the initial postmortem report, did not reveal the age or gender of the victim or disclose information regarding the cause of death.

     In the meantime, detectives questioned potential witnesses and suspects, looked at surveillance camera footage, and searched area garbage bins for the missing body parts.

      On Friday evening, January 30, 2015, detectives detained and questioned a suspect in the Tenderloin district. They considered him a person of interest because he was seen the day before near the suitcase containing the human remains. He was questioned and released.

     According to an update from the medical examiner's office, the body parts belonged to a "light-skinned man." The medical examiner said that a forensic scientist would conduct DNA tests on the remains in an effort to identify the victim.

     On Saturday January 31, 2015, San Francisco police officer Albie Esparza told a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle that organized criminals--gang activity--might be responsible for the body parts found in and around the downtown suitcase. That morning, officers arrested 59-year-old Mark Andrus and booked him into the county jail on suspicion of murder.

     Helen Andrus, Mark Andrus' sister-in-law, told a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle that he had a history of crime and had drifted from the family. "We haven't heard from him in years. My husband at one point tried to reach and find him. It's been 20 years since we've seen him." In the 1980s and 1990s police in Missoula, Montana arrested Mark Andrus for drug possession, theft, burglary, and bail jumping.

     Mark Keever, a friend of the suspect's, told reporters that the police had arrested the wrong man. Keever insisted that Andrus looked like a transient and just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

     Homicide investigators, following the Andrus arrest, conceded that the victim could have been cut into pieces somewhere else and dumped near the Goodwill Store. An attorney with the San Francisco Public Defender's Office represented Mr. Andrus.

     On Tuesday February 3, 2015, the San Francisco District Attorney announced there would be no charges filed against Mark Andrus. The prosecutor said there wasn't enough evidence to hold the suspect.

     The San Francisco medical examiner, on February 11, 2015, revealed that the remains found in the suitcase belonged to 58-year-old Omar Shawan of Vallejo, California. Investigators did not say if Shawan and Mark Andrus had known each other or had any kind of interaction. Public Defender Jeff Adachi, in speaking to reporters about Mr. Andrus, described him as a "kind and engaging" person. 
     Out of custody, but still a suspect, Mark Andrus was placed under 24-hour surveillance. Four days after his release from jail, Andrus died from years of drug abuse. A review of text messages made from his cellphone revealed that a few days before Omar Shawan's murder, he and Andrus checked into room 320 of the Aldrich Hotel in the Tenderloin district not far from where the body parts were found. People staying at the hotel told detectives that they had heard someone in room 320, presumably Omar Shawan, pleading for mercy. 
     The search of the deceased suspect's cellphone also revealed Google searches for saws to "cut up meat."
     As of this writing,  there have been no arrests in the Omar Shawan case, and no continuing investigation into Omar Shawan's murder.

Burning At The Stake

     For many centuries in most of Europe through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was considered "immodest" to hang women--since, given the billowy nature of skirts…their legs if not more would visible from below the gallows.

     "For as the decency due to their sex forbids the exposing and publicly mangling of their bodies, their sentence is, to be drawn to the gallows and there to be burnt alive." So stated Blackstone Commentaries, England's authoritative early law book.

Richard Zacks, An Underground Education, 1997

Truman Capote On Being An Alcoholic

I can go three or four months without having a drink. And then suddenly I'm walking down the street and I feel that I'm going to die, that I can't put one foot in front of the other unless I have a drink. So I step into a bar. Someone who's not an alcoholic couldn't understand. But suddenly I feel so tired. I've had this problem with alcoholism for about fifteen years. I've gone to hospitals, I tried Anatabuse, I've done everything. But nothing seems to work.

Truman Capote in Capote by Gerald Clarke, 1988 

The Suspense Novel

Suspense novels are deservedly popular, but very hard to define. They are not murder mysteries. They are not just straight novels, because something nasty and frightening is bound to happen. That is the promise to the reader. They are not spy stories, and they are certainly not police procedurals. In a suspense novel, the element of character matters very much indeed. The hero/heroine is pitted, not against organized crime or international terrorism, but against a personal enemy, a personal problem; the conflict is on an individual, adversarial level.

Joan Aiken in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Sylvia K. Burack, 2004 

What is Literary Narrative?

Narrative is the representation of an event or series of events. "Event" is the key word here, though some people prefer the word "action." Without an event or an action you may have a "description," an "exposition," an "argument," a "lyric," some combination of these or something else altogether, but you won't have a narrative. "My dog has fleas" is a description of my dog, but it is not a narrative because nothing happens. "My dog was bitten by a flea" is a narrative. It tells of an event. The event is very small one--the bite of a flea--but that is enough to make it a narrative.

H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2002

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Duty to Report Pedophile Teachers

     On October 2011, a mother and her 8-year-old daughter met with the principal of the girl's elementary school regarding the behavior of a teacher named Craig Chandler. The 35-year-old taught second grade at the O.B.Whaley Elementary School in San Jose, California. According to principal Lyn Vijayendran's notes of the meeting, the student--identified as Jane Doe--was summoned from recess to Chandler's empty classroom. Pursuant to a lesson plan he called "The Helen Keller Unit," Chandler blindfolded the student and instructed her to lie down on the floor and part her legs. After the teacher removed the girl's shoes, she sensed something "gooey" on her feet that felt like his tongue. Chandler placed something into the student's mouth, and with his hands moved her head back and forth. The girl tasted something salty that dripped onto her jacket. Before Jane Doe left Chandler's classroom, he put a piece of hard candy into her mouth.

     Instead of passing this information on to the police for further investigation, Vijayendran questioned Craig Chandler herself. The teacher explained that he had been doing his Helen Keller (a deaf and blind woman who rose to fame as an early twentieth century author) lesson plan for years. He said his "instructional goal" was to deprive students of sight so they could experience what it's like to be blind. The gooey sensation felt by the student on her feet had been caused by a wet  sponge, and the taste in her mouth from a bottle of salt water. The teacher offered to meet personally with the girl's parents to clean up any misunderstanding.

     Satisfied with Chandler's explanation, the principal told him to discontinue the Helen Keller business, transferred the student to another class, and reported the incident to the Evergreen School District's human resources department. Someone from that department also questioned Chandler, and the matter, institutionally, went no further than that. Craig Chandler continued teaching at the O.B.Whaley Elementary School.

     Although principal Vijayendran had closed the book on the case, parents of other girls in his class went straight to the police with complaints about Chandler's Helen Keller ploy. Following an investigation by detectives with the San Jose Police Department, a Santa Clara County prosecutor, on January 10, 2012, charged Chandler with the crime of lewd and lascivious acts performed on a child under fourteen. Seven months later, additional charges were filed against the teacher involving four other students who were, between the period August 2010 and May 2011, exposed to Chandler's Helen Keller experiment.

     Incarcerated in the Santa Clara County Jail, Chandler faced up to 75 years in prison if convicted of these crimes. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     On October 19, 2012, with Chandler still in custody awaiting his trial, Jane Doe's parents filed a civil suit against the Evergreen School District, the O.B.Whaley Elementary School, and principal Vijayendran.

     Santa Clara County prosecutor Alison Filo, in July 2012, charged principal Vijayendran under a  California law that made the failure of an educator to report the suspected sexual abuse of a student a crime. If convicted of the misdemeanor,  the principal faced up to six months in jail.

     The Vijayendran trial got underway on October 31, 2012. Prosecutor Filo, in her opening statement to the jury said that any reasonable person under the circumstances of this case would have suspected sexual abuse on the part of this teacher. Defense attorney Eric Geffon argued that his client had no reason to suspect foul play on Mr. Chandler's part. Geffon described the teacher's Helen Keller cover as "a detailed, devious, well thought out, well prepared story he concocted that explained everything."

     On November 2,  2012, Lyn Vijayendran took the stand on her own behalf in an effort to convince the jury that there was nothing in the student's story or her demeanor that suggested sexual impropriety on the part of the teacher. Referring to the 8-year-old girl, Vijayendran said, "She had a big smile on her face. She was her normal self, very talkative." The witness said that at no point in the meeting with the student and her mother did the subject of sexual abuse come up.

     On cross-examination, the defendant admitted that when she learned that Mr. Chandler had asked the student to "open her two legs," the idea of sexual impropriety crossed her mind. Prosecutor Filo asked, "If someone said that to you in a grocery store line, you'd slap him, wouldn't you?"

     "You'd have to be crazy not to think it was sexual," the defendant answered.

     On November 5, 2012, the jury found Lyn Vijayendran guilty of failing to report Craig Chandler's sexually suspicious behavior to the police. Judge Deborah Ryan sentenced the principal to two years probation, $602 in fines, and 100 hours of community service.

     In August 2013, a Santa Clara County jury found 36-year-old Craig Chandler guilty of five counts of lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14. The judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

     The Evergreen School District paid out $16.5 million in damages as a result of civil suits stemming from the Chandler case.

     It's a shame that educators, to protect the children under their care, have to be induced to do the right thing by making it a crime not to. In a perfect society, there should be no need for such crimes of omission.

The Violent Child

     It must be awful to be afraid of your own child. But this is how it is for  families where the abusers aren't the parents but their children. In these homes, parents live in fear they will be murdered in their sleep. Many of these adults are foster parents who took in children taken from abusive biological parents. 

     As infants, many of these children went hungry, didn't have their diapers changed, weren't touched, comforted or talked to. As a result, they never formed a healthy bond with their parents.

     Between the ages nine months to five years, these neglected and abused children exhibit behavior problems associated with a syndrome called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). As early as three and four, these children express rage and frustration by throwing prolonged tantrums over minor provocations. They slap, spit, punch and kick the people taking care of them. They attack other children in the home.

     RAD adolescents pose danger to siblings, parents, and teachers. They get expelled from school and find themselves in and out of the criminal justice system.

     The most dangerous among these adolescents are the youngsters also diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Some later become paranoid schizophrenics with Bipolar Disorder. Many are addicted to drugs.

    Medication and therapy in these cases are not effective. Many of these violent children grow into violent adults who end up on the streets, in prison, or in the morgue.

There's No Such Thing As A Little Funny

Humor is difficult. Other kinds of stories don't have to hit the bull's-eye. The outer rings have their rewards too. A story can be fairly suspenseful, moderately romantic, somewhat terrifying, and so on. This is not the case with humor. A story is either funny or it is not funny. Nothing in between. The humor target contains only a bull's-eye.

Isaac Asimov, I, Asimov, 1996

The Appeal of Detective Fiction

The resilience of detective fiction, and particularly the fact that so many distinguished and powerful people are apparently under its spell, has puzzled both its admirers and its detractors and spawned a number of notable critical studies which attempt to explain this puzzling phenomenon. In "The Guilty Vicarage," W. H. Auden wrote that his reading of detective stories was an addiction, the symptoms being the intensity of his craving, the specificity of the story, which, for him, had to be set in rural England, and last, its immediacy. He forgot the story as soon as he had finished the book and had no wish to read it again. Should he begin a detective story and then discover it was one he had already read, he was unable to continue. In all this the distinguished poet differed from me and, I suspect, from many other lovers of the genre. I enjoy rereading my favorite mysteries although I know full well how the book will end, and although I can understand the attraction of a rural setting, I am frequently happy to venture with my favorite detectives onto unfamiliar territory.

P. D. James, Talking About Detective Fiction, 2009

The Young Adult Novel (Ages 12 to 20)

     Most young adult novels are over 30,000 words long or 120-250 pages. Although younger adult novels can deal with intense and serious subjects, they are often mysteries and thrillers--stories engrossing enough to appeal to younger kids as well as older ones. The older young adult novels deal with more complex subjects.

     What distinguishes a young adult novel from an adult novel is often nothing more than subject matter. These books are complicated, sophisticated and challenging. They are not limited in what issues can be discussed, nor are they in any way "kids' books." By this age level, there is a high tolerance for ambivalence in both character and plot, as well as a general acceptance of complex and painful subjects. 
Nancy Lamb, Crafting Stories for Children, 2001 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Tiffany Alberts Child Abuse Case

     In 2016, Tiffany Alberts lived with her husband Jason and their two children, a 13-year-old girl and a boy who was 15. The family resided in Wolcott, Indiana, a small town in the northwestern corner of the state. Tiffany worked as a special education teacher in the Tri-County School District.

     In the spring of 2016, Tiffany Alberts' life took a turn for the worse when her husband Jason died. About this time, doctors diagnosed her 13-year-old daughter with follicular adnexal carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer. The local fire department held a benefit for Tiffany to help pay her medical expenses that included her daughter's cancer operation that turned out successful.

     In July 2016, Tiffany Alberts received more bad news when doctors diagnosed her mildly autistic son with leukemia. The 15-year-old was taken to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, Indiana where, in the Intensive Care Unit, he began a round of chemotherapy.

     Tiffany Albert's son responded well to the chemotherapy sessions, and was discharged in September 2016. But after spending a few days at home, the boy was back in the ICU with a fever accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea. A blood test revealed the presence of organisms found in stool. Doctors were at a loss to explain how this substance had found its way into his system.

    After the young patient failed to respond to medication for his infection, members of the Riley Children's Hospital staff suspected that someone was contaminating his IV fluid. To confirm this suspicion, staff members installed hidden video cameras in his hospital room.

    On November 17, 2016, Tiffany Alberts was recorded injecting liquid into her son's IV line. That substance was tested and turned out to be the patient's own fecal matter.

     When questioned by an investigator with a child protection service, the 38-year-old mother said she had injected water into her son's IV line to "flush it as the medicine that was given burned." When pressed regarding the plausibility of this explanation, Tiffany Alberts confessed to intentionally injecting her son's own fecal matter into his IV fluid. She said she had started doing this on November 13, four days earlier.

     When asked the obvious question as to why she had intentionally made her son sick, the mother said she had made him ill in hopes of causing his transfer to another hospital unit where he would receive better care.

      Shortly after hospital authorities denied Tiffany Alberts access to her son, the boy quickly recovered. According to the physician who was treating the boy, he could have died of septic shock.

     On November 26, 2016, a Marion County prosecutor charged Tiffany Alberts with six counts of aggravated battery and one count of neglect of a dependent resulting in serious bodily injury. After officers booked her into the Marion County Jail, Alberts posted the $80,000 surety bond and was released. A few months later, the prosecutor added the charge of attempted murder.

     The Tiffany Alberts case went to trial in September 2019, and resulted in a verdict of guilty on the aggravated battery and neglect of a dependent charges. The jury acquitted the defendant of attempted murder.

     In December 2019, the judge sentenced Tiffany Alberts to seven years in prison followed by five years of probation. Her son survived his ordeal and recovered fully,

     Although the issue was not raised, this case has all the earmarks of a crime motivated by a mother with a condition called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, an emotional disorder in which a caregiver makes the person under her care sick as a way of gaining sympathy and attention for herself. 

Parole: A Public Safety Disaster

     The huge gap between the nominal sentence given and the real time served is dishonest, and is bad policy. It is dishonest because the public--especially victims of crime--is often under the impression that the sentence will be served in full, when in fact no such thing happens. It is bad policy because it puts the public at risk.

     There are several reasons why states should restrict parole practices. First, parole is based on the mistaken idea that the primary reason for incarceration is rehabilitation (prisoners can be released as soon as they are rehabilitated, so the argument goes), and ignores the deterrent, incapacitative, and retributive reasons for imprisonment. A clear and truthful sentence increases the certainty of punishment, and both its deterrent and in-capacitative effects.

     Second, in too many cases parole simply does not work. Studies of the continuing failure of parole obscure the terrible human cost to law-abiding citizens. 

Mary Kay Cary, in Crime and Criminals, 1995 edited by David Bender and Bruno Leone. Parole policies today do even more public harm than they did in the 1990s.

Cooperating With the IRS

We'll try to cooperate fully with the IRS, because as citizens we feel a strong patriotic duty not to go to jail.

Dave Barry, 2008

Literary Hit Jobs: A Moral Dilemma

     "If you want to be a writer, somewhere along the line you're going to have to hurt somebody. And when that time comes, you go ahead and do it," Charles McGrath said when he was an editor at The New Yorker. "If you can't or don't want to tell that truth, you may as well stop now and save yourself a lot of hardship and pain."

     A novelist wrote a withering account of her recent marriage. Soon after the book came out, the author's ex-husband killed himself. Was she correct to write that novel?

Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark, 1994 

Catholic Priest Casts Out Harry Potter Books

     In August 2019, at the St. Edward Catholic school in Nashville, Tennessee, Reverend Dan Reehill ordered the middle school librarian to remove all of the library's Harry Potter books. The priest, in justifying taking books out of the school that students liked, said he had consulted exorcists in the United States and Rome who recommended the literary purge.

     According to Father Reehill, "The curses and spells used in the Harry Potter books are actual curses and spells which risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the persons reading the texts."

Monday, October 25, 2021

Caleb "Kai" McGillvary and the Hatchet Hitchhiker Murder Case

     On February 1, 2013, a CNN reporter in Fresno, California interviewed a 24-year-old homeless drifter named Caleb "Kai" McGillvary. The long-haired, backpack-carrying, bandana-wearing hitchhiker who went under the names Kai Lawrence and Kai Nicodermus, described, in a rambling, profane-laced TV interview, how he had thwarted an assault on a female Fresno area utility worker.

     On the day in question, McGillvary had hitched a ride with a manifestly insane driver who intentionally tried to run over the female utility employee. The large man behind the wheel jumped out of his car, and as he approached the injured woman said, "I am Jesus and I am here to take you home." When the mentally ill assailant began punching the helpless woman, McGillvary pulled a hatchet out of his backpack and used it to subdue the attacker by whacking him in the head a couple of times.

     According to media reports, the crazy man, a month earlier, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to a murder charge in another case. (This raises the question of why he was not in custody awaiting his homicide trial.)  The assaulted utility worker underwent surgery for her non-life-threatening injuries. Her mentally ill assailant was charged, in that case, with attempt murder. This time he was denied bail.

     Kai McGillvary's television interview went viral with more than 4 million YouTube hits. An instant cyber-culture celebrity, the self-named "Hatchet Hitchhiker" appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! where he informed America that he preferred to be called "home-free" rather than homeless. (He was also "car-free", "job-free",  and probably "money-free" as well.) The story of McGillvary's hatchet intervention in the Fresno assault was also featured on The Colbert Report. 

     On Saturday, May 11, 2013, the "Hatchet Hitchhiker" was seen in New York City's Times Square in the company of a 73-year-old lawyer named Joseph Galfy, Jr. That night, Mr. Galfy took McGillvary back to his house in Clark, New Jersey, a town 20 miles west of the city. According to reports, the drifter spend two nights with Galfy who lived in the house by himself.

     On Monday morning, May 13, 2013, when Mr. Galfy failed to show up for work at the law firm, a fellow employee asked local police officers to make a welfare check at his residence. Inside the tidy, brick dwelling, officers found the lawyer lying dead in his bed wearing socks and his underwear. According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, Mr. Galfy had been bludgeoned to death. Detectives believed the victim had been murdered sometime on Sunday, May 12, 2013.

     On Tuesday, the day after the discovery of Mr. Galfy's corpse, Kia McGillvary, on his Facebook page, asked his readers what they would do if they awoke in a stranger's house to the realization they had been drugged and sexually assaulted. One Facebook commentator suggested hitting the rapist with a hatchet. To that McGillvary responded, "I like your idea."

     Late Thursday night, May 16, 2013, police officers arrested the "Hatchet Hitchhiker" at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Philadelphia. Officers noticed that McGillvary had cut his hair to change his appearance. Held on $3 million bail, the freedom-free suspect was shipped back to Union County, New Jersey where he faced a charge of murder in connection with Joseph Galfy's violent death.

     Following his arrest, McGillvary gained supporters who followed his case on a special Facebook site. Moreover, someone established a GoFundMe campaign for McGillvary as well as a YouTube page.

      In April 2019, a jury sitting in Union County, New Jersey found McGillvary guilty of murdering the lawyer. A month later, the judge sentenced the "Hatchet Hitchhiker" to 57 years in prison.

The Un-Unanimous Verdict

     In 2016, Evangelisto Ramos was found guilty of murder in Louisiana after the jury voted ten to two for conviction. The judge sentenced Ramos to life in prison. His attorney appealed the conviction on grounds a non-unanimous guilty verdict in a criminal case is inconsistent with the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

     In 2016, only two states, Louisiana and Oregon, allowed un-unanimous guilty verdicts in criminal trials. The rule permitting such verdicts dated back to the 1930s to prevent black jurors from blocking the convictions of black criminal defendants.

     The Ramos case went up to the United States Supreme Court, and on April 20, 2020, the highest court in the land, with Justice Neil Gorsuch writing the majority opinion, set aside the Ramos murder conviction. The decision put an end to criminal convictions based on less than a un-unanimous jury vote.

     Justice Gorsuch, setting out the court's rationalization for the decision, wrote: "Adopted in the 1930's [the un-unanimous verdict rule] can be traced to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and efforts to delete the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on juries."

     Three justices--John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan--dissented. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Alito wrote: "All the talk about the Klan, etc., is entirely out of place."

The Biographer's Natural Enemies

The biographer's business, like the journalist's, is to satisfy the reader's curiosity, not to place limits on it. He is supposed to go out and bring back the goods--the malevolent secrets that have been quietly burning in archives and libraries and in the minds of contemporaries who have been biding their time, waiting for the biographer's knock on their doors. Some of the secrets are difficult to bring away, and some, jealously guarded by relatives, are even impossible. Relatives are the biographer's natural enemies; they are like the hostile tribes the explorer must ruthlessly subdue to claim his territory.

Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman, 1994 

First Novels

As a first novelist I learned about the odds I was facing. They were, shall we say, long. It has been estimated that the number of novel manuscripts each year to be in excess of 100,000. The number of first novels published annually by major houses? Three to four hundred. [It's probably half that now.]

Stephen White in How I Got Published, edited by Ray White and Duane Lindsay, 2007 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Harold Montague Ax Murder Case

     In 2010, 33-year-old Harold E. Montague lived in a single-story house with his wife Erricca, their two grade school children, and Erricca's disabled mother, Monica O'Dazier. The family resided on San Pedro Avenue in the central valley area of Las Vegas. Erricca worked outside the home while her husband cared for her mother who had cerebral palsy and suffered seizures. Harold had been his mother-in-law's principal caregiver for the past five years.

     At eleven-forty on the morning of Thursday, February 11, 2010, Harold Montague removed a medieval-style battle ax that hung on a wall in his house and used the weapon to hack his mother-in-law twenty times. Leaving the gravely wounded O'Dazier bleeding in the rear bedroom of the dwelling, Montague, with the bloody battle ax in hand, walked out onto Pedro Avenue where he encountered a young mother pushing her 4-month-old son in a stroller.

     Montague walked up to Sonia Castro and her son Damian, and started swing the weapon. He quickly hacked the baby to death, then struck Sonia several times in the head and hands as she tried to protect herself. During the murderous rampage, Castro begged her attacker to stop. Instead of letting up, Montague laughed in her face. With the dead baby under the overturned stroller, and the infant's mother on the ground with her jaw hanging loosely from her face, Montague walked back into his house.

     A neighbor, 52-year-old Teresa Garner, witnessed the attack and called 911. After making the emergency call, Garner ran to the victims. She found the baby dead, and Sonia alive but horribly disfigured, and bleeding profusely.

     Paramedics rushed the unconscious Monica O'Dazier to the University Medical Center. Sonia Castrol was taken to the same facility where she was listed in "extremely critical" condition. Both women would survive Montague's vicious attacks.

     Following a brief scuffle, Las Vegas officers arrested Harold Montague at his house. He told the officers that he had no memory of the assaults. They booked him into the Clark County Jail on suspicion of first-degree murder and attempted murder.

     The next day, at Montague's arraignment, the judge denied him bail. At that hearing, defense attorney Norm Reed characterized his client as delusional and paranoid. The lawyer said he would have his client examined by a psychiatrist, and depending upon the results of that examination, make a decision as to whether he would plead his client legally insane.

     In October 2010, attorney Reed informed the court that he planned to put on an insanity defense. The judge set the trial for June 2011.

     By 2013, due to several postponements, the Montague case had not come to trial. At a preliminary hearing on December 6, 2013, attorney Reed put a Reno, Nevada psychiatrist named Dr. Tom Bittker on the stand. Dr. Bittker said that several interviews of Montague had given him a profile of this disturbed man's life. For example, as a child, Montague had been beaten, raped and emotionally tormented by his drug-abusing parents. At age six someone murdered the boy's father.

     According to Dr. Bittker, Harold didn't go beyond the fifth grade, and grew up in and out of a Las Vegas juvenile detention center. As an adult, he married Erricca, and fathered two children with her. She worked out of the house while he stayed at home, unable to hold down a job. In 2004, he began taking care of Erricca's mother.

     Dr. Bittker testified that in his expert medical opinion, when Mr. Montague attacked Monica O'Dazier, Sonia Castro, and little Damian, he was in the midst of a psychotic episode that included the delusion that God was speaking to him directly.

     Erricca Montague took the stand at the hearing and testified that for several days before the attacks, her husband's behavior had been bizarre. He hadn't slept for days, stopped eating, and refused to drink water. He spent his nights pacing the house and talking to himself.

     Following the preliminary hearing, the judge ruled that the defense had produced enough evidence to go forward with an insanity defense. (In Nevada as in most states, legal insanity is a so-called affirmative defense, which means the defendant has the burden of proving, with a preponderance of evidence, that the defendant was insane at the time of the alleged criminal act.)

     On May 22, 2014, the Montague case came to an abrupt conclusion when attorney Reed announced that his client had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder, and battery of a police officer. Under the plea agreement, the defendant was sentenced on July 30, 2014 to life in prison without the chance of parole. In prison, he would receive treatment for his mental illness.

     The plea agreement meant that Sonia Castro would not have to testify at Montague's trial. Earlier, at a April 2010 preliminary hearing, she had testified that when she begged him to stop his murderous assault, he laughed at her. After the rampage, her jaw had to be surgically reattached. The attack had also left her with an irreparably damaged eye.

     Montague's guilty plea also spared eyewitness Teresa Garner from the ordeal of re-living the crime in court. After Montague's ax-wielding madness, Garner suffered a nervous breakdown.

     Harold Montague, on anti-psychotic medication, expressed a desire to apologize to his victims, and to explain that he had acted out of a psychotic delusion. I doubt that his apology and explanation helped his victims, people who had been permanently scarred physically and emotionally as a result of his bloody rampage.

Abolishing The Insanity Defense

     On March 23, 2020, the United States Supreme Court, in Kahler v. Kansas, ruled that it is not unconstitutional for a state to abolish its insanity defense. The insanity defense allows a criminal defendant to be found not guilty due to a mental illness that deprived the offender of knowing right from wrong. In other words, the defendant was too mentally impaired to form criminal intent. Instead of being guilty of the crime, the defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity. These defendants, instead of serving a sentence in prison, are committed to a mental hospital where they remain until doctors determine they are sane enough to return to society. Because juries are skeptical of the insanity defense, it is successful in only one percent of insanity defense cases.

     In November 2009, in a Kansas killing rampage, James Kahler murdered his two daughters, his estranged wife, and his wife's mother. His attorneys claimed that he was insane, but because the state had made the insanity defense unavailable in 1995, Kahler was convicted of four-counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. In 2011, Kahler's attorneys challenged the constitutionality of the elimination of the insanity defense. The case worked its way up to  the United States Supreme Court which ruled 6 to 3 in favor of the state. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion.

     While Kahler v. Kansas allows states to abolish the not guilty by reason of insanity defense, defendants can present evidence of mental illness to establish a lack of criminal intent to reduce say, first-degree murder to a lesser homicide offense. Moreover, it can be used post-conviction at a sentence hearing as a mitigating factor.

Political Correctness is Not Funny

Humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What's uproariously funny to one person may leave another cold. What's funny today may seem insensitive tomorrow. This is certainly true with Leo Rosten's 1937 book The Education of Hyman Kaplan, which describes the very funny struggles of a group of adult immigrants learning English. Many readers may find Rosten's book patronizing at best and offensive at worst. Issues of political correctness--the death knell for humor--arise, too

Nancy Pearl, Book Lust, 2003 

Who Should You Write For?

My biggest struggle as a novelist is to put my own story on paper--not to be influenced by what I think my editor, my publisher, my friends, or the reader wants to see on the page. I need to get these people out of my writing space and focus on writing my story. If it resonates for me, it will resonate for my readers.

Joan Johnston in The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, edited by Andrew McLeer, 2008 

The Young Reader

Children and adolescents have their own distinctive ideas concerning humor, politics, and prose, and their tastes in these matters may strike older readers as sophomoric, gauche, ill-informed, or just dead wrong. Conversely, the young have a way of noticing that good manners can be oppressive, that the past is often irrelevant, and that emperors are sometimes naked. In short, the young are not lesser beings; they're just different.

Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, 1998 

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Phil Spector Murder Case

     In the morning of February 3, 2003, Los Angeles County Sheriff deputies responded to a call from the Alhambra mansion owned by Phil Spector, the 67-year-old music producer who became famous in the 1960s for his "wall of sound." In the foyer, the deputies found 40-year-old actress Lana Clarkson slumped in a chair. She had been shot once in the mouth by the .38-caliber Cobra revolver lying on the floor under her right hand. When the fatal shot had been fired, Clarkson and Spector were the only people in the house.

     Spector's chauffeur told the police that at five in the morning, he heard a noise that sounded like a gunshot. Shortly after that, he said Spector came out of the mansion carrying a handgun. According to the driver, Spector had said, "I think I killed somebody."

     The music producer had met the victim the previous night at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip where the struggling actress worked as a hostess for $9 per hour. When the nightclub closed for the night, she accompanied Spector back to his house for a drink. According to Spector's account of the death, Lana Clarkson committed suicide.

     The crime scene investigation and the analysis of the physical evidence featured forensic pathology, the location of the gunshot residue, and the interpretation of the blood spatter patterns. Los Angeles Deputy Coroner Dr. Louis Pena visited the death scene, and conducted the autopsy. The forensic pathologist, at the autopsy, found bruises on the victim's right arm and wrist that suggested a struggle. A missing fingernail on Clarkson's right hand also indicated some kind of violence just prior to the shooting. Her bruised tongue led Dr. Pena to conclude that the gun had been forced into the victim's mouth. Its recoil had shattered her front teeth. Clarkson's purse was found slung over her right shoulder. Since she was right-handed, and would have used that hand tho hold the gun, the deputy coroner questioned suicide as the manner of death. Based on his crime scene examination and autopsy, Dr. Pena ruled Lana Clarkson's death a criminal homicide. The police arrested Spector who retained his freedom by posting the $1 million bail.

     Blood spatter analysts from sheriff's office criminalists concluded that after the shooting, Spector had pressed the victim's right hand around the gun handle, placed the revolver temporarily into his pants pocket, later wiped it clean of his fingerprints, then laid it near her body. From the bloodstains on his jacket, the government experts concluded he had been standing within two feet of the victim when the gun went off. The absence of her blood spray on a nearby wall led the spatter analysts to believe that Spector had been standing between the victim and the unstained surface when he fired the bullet into her mouth. Gunshot residue experts found traces of gunpowder on Spector's hands.

     The forensic work performed by the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office and the sheriff's department had not been flawless. A dental evidence technician had lost one of the victim's teeth; a criminalist had used lift-off tape to retrieve trace evidence from the victim's dress which had interfered with the serology analysis; and the corpse had been moved at the scene, causing unnatural, postmortem blood flow from her mouth which compromised that aspect of the blood spatter analysis

     The Phil Spector murder trial got underway in May 2007. On June 26, the government rested its case. The defense led off with Dr. Vincent Di Maio, the former chief medical examiner of Bexar County, Texas. Dr. Di Maio, considered one of the leading experts on the subject of gunshot wounds, testified that he disagreed with the prosecution's experts who had asserted that blood spatter can travel only three feet from a person struck by a bullet. Dr. Di Maio said blood can travel more than six feet if a gun is fired into a person's mouth, the pressure from the muzzle gas that is trapped in the oral cavity creates a violent explosion. "The gas," he said, "is like a whirlwind, it ejects out of the mouth, out of the nose."  Because 99 percent of intra-oral gunshot deaths are suicides, Dr. Di Maio opined that Lana Clarkson had killed herself. In Di Maio's 35 years as a medical examiner, he had seen only "three homicides that were intra-oral."

     In an aggressive cross-examination by the deputy district attorney, Dr. Di Maio was asked how much he had been paid for his work on the case. The former medical examiner said that his bill was $46,000, which did not include his trial testimony. Courtroom spectators laughed when Dr. Di Maio told his cross-examiner that the longer he kept him on the stand, the more it would cost the defendant.

     On September 18, 2007, the Spector jury, following a week of deliberation, announced they were deadlocked seven to five. Two days later, the judge sent them back to the jury room with a new set of instructions on how to determine reasonable doubt. In the Spector trial, the celebrity experts for the defense (including Dr. Henry Lee) did more than just muddy the water by pointing out mistakes and erroneous conclusions by the government's experts. They had offered a conflicting scenario backed by their interpretations of the physical evidence. In circumstantial cases like this, deadlocked juries are to be expected. The hung jury is what Phil Spector paid for, and it's what he got. The jury remained split, and the judge had to declare a mistrial.

     The second trial, this one not televised, got underway on October 20, 2008. The case went to the jury on March 26, 2009, and 19 days later, the jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. Two months later, the judge sentenced Phil Spector to 19 years to life. In May 2011, the California Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. The California Supreme Court, when it declined to review the case, guaranteed that Mr. Spector will die in prison. Because so many high-profile forensic scientists disagreed on the interpretation of the physical evidence in this case, it will not be a positive landmark in the history of forensic science.

Phil Spector Post Conviction

     In 2006, while awaiting his first murder trial, Spector married Rachelle Short. In 2016, he filed for divorce, claiming she was blowing through his $35 million estate. While he sat in prison, she had purchased a $350,000 airplane, an Aston Martin and a Ferrari, expensive plastic surgery, expensive jewelry, and two houses for her mother. Spector also claimed that Short had failed to pay $700,000 in taxes, and was sending him only $300 a month in prison spending money. When the divorce came through, the judge awarded Short $37,000 a month in spousal support plus $14,000 a month for housing costs.
     On January 17, 2021, Phil Spector died at the age of 81.

The Legal Definition of Death

     Andrew Lyons shot a man in the head in September 1973 and left him brain-dead. When Lyon's attorneys found out the victim's family had donated his heart for transplantation, they tried to use this in Lyon's defense: If the heart was still beating at the time of surgery, they maintained, then how could it be that Lyons had killed him the day before? They tried to convince the jury that, technically speaking, Andrew Lyons hadn't murdered the man, the organ surgeon had.

     The judge would have none of it. In the end, Lyons was convicted of murder. Based on the outcome of the case, California passed legislation making brain death the legal definition of death. Other states quickly followed suit.

Mary Roach, Stiff, 2003 

The First Paragraph

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest comes out very easily.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in For Writer's Only (1994) by Sophy Burnham

Having the Correct Word

When writing, we will never, of course, deploy all the words we've learned. But a writer with an expansive vocabulary is much like a visual artist with many colors at his command. Regardless of the painting he's working on, he will always have the right colors available when he needs them. So, too, with a large vocabulary, you develop a sensitivity or feel...for the exactly correct word for a thought or experience.

Charles Johnson, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling, 2016

A Compelling Story is Timeless

In fiction, the technical problems of shaping a story to make it interesting to read, to provide for suspense, to find the logical points where the story should begin and end, don't change much in whatever time or culture the story's being told.

Northrop Frye, literary scholar, 2001

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Nehemiah Griego "Good Boy" Mass Murder Case

     People murdered in their homes are usually killed by a family member. Cases involving husbands who kill their wives, and women who take out their husbands, are fairly common and therefore not particularly shocking. But when a "good" kid with no history of violence, drug abuse, or mental illness carefully executes his entire family for no apparent reason, the public takes notice. Suddenly parents look at their sulking, surly children in a new light. What in the hell was going on in their callow minds? A parent might wonder if his or her child has watched too much violence on TV. And if there's a gun in the house, it might not be a bad idea to put it under lock and key. But in most cases, when parents think about children who murder, they think about other people's kids. Murder is something that happens to others.

    Pastor Greg Griego, the 51-year-old father of two boys and two girls, probably never considered himself a candidate for murder. Griego, the former pastor of one of Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest Christian churches, lived with his 41-year-old wife Sarah and their four children at the end of a semi-rural road on the southwestern edge of the city. As a young man in California, before finding Jesus and entering the ministry, Greg Griego had been a member of a street gang. As one of Albuquerque's religious leaders, he volunteered as a prison chaplain and had overseen the Straight Street program sponsored by the Bernalillo County Jail.

     On Friday night, January 18, 2013, 15-year-old Nehemiah Griego, after he and his mother had a mild disagreement, waited until he was sure she and his three siblings were sound asleep. Mr. Griego was not home at that time. Just before one in the morning, Nehemiah took possession of a .22-caliber pistol he found in his parents' closet. He stepped lightly into his mother's bedroom where she was sleeping in bed next to his 9-year-old brother Zephania. Nehemiah raised the 10-shot pistol and fired several bullets into his mother's head. When his younger brother refused to accept the fact his mother had just been murdered, Nehemiah forced the boy to look at her bloody face. The 15-year-old then fired several slugs into Zephania's head.

     In his sisters' room, Nehemiah shot and killed Jael, age 5, and 2-year-old Angelina. Nehemiah returned the handgun to the closet and pulled out an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Armed with the weapon, he waited in a downstairs bathroom for his father's return. After waiting five hours for his father to come home, Nehemiah opened up on Mr. Griego as he walked by the bathroom doorway, killing him on the spot.

     On his cellphone, Nehemiah sent his 12-year-old girlfriend a photograph of his murdered mother's face. He also called the girl and reported what he had done as what he planned to do. Nehemiah informed his friend that he was driving to the local Walmart in the family van where he intended to randomly kill as many people as possible. He said he expected to be killed in an exchange of gunfire with the police.

     Nehemiah's girlfriend talked him into driving to Pastor Griego's church where they could discuss all of this further. Nehemiah spent the rest of the day at his girlfriend's house. Police officers took him into custody later that night.

     A Bernalillo County prosecutor charged Nehemiah Griego with two counts of murder and three counts of child abuse. (I don't know why he wasn't charged with five counts of murder.) Perfectly coherent, Nehemiah provided his interrogators with a detailed account of the mass killing. He said he was annoyed with his mother and had recently entertained thoughts of homicide and suicide. The boy expressed no feelings of guilt or remorse.

    Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston, at a news conference on January 22, 2013, said that Nehemiah had been "involved heavily in violent video games" before he murdered his family. The games included "Modern Warfare," and "Grand Theft Auto." The boy had also talked about killing his young girlfriend's parents.

     According to relatives, Nehemiah was an outgoing boy who loved music and hoped one day to serve in the military.

     The cold-blooded mass murder shocked Nehemiah's relatives, his friends, and his teachers. No one had seen this massacre coming. 

     By February 2015, no trial date had been set for the Griego family murders. The case had stalled for several reasons. In 2013, the judge assigned to preside over the trial took an extended leave of absence and was not replaced. The boy's defense attorney delayed progress throughout 2014 by requesting one mental health evaluation after another for his client. (Griego had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.) In the meantime, Nehemiah Griego remained incarcerated at a juvenile detection facility.            

     Finally, after the boy pleaded guilty in March 2016, the judge enraged many in the community by sentencing him as a juvenile. Under New Mexico law, this meant that Griego would walk free as a rehabilitated youth when he turned 21. Six years in custody for the cold-blooded murder of five people.

     In December 2019, nearly seven years after Nehemiah Griego murdered his parents and three siblings, Judicial District Judge Alisa Hart re-sentenced the 22-year-old to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Charles Manson Follower Bruce Davis

     On August 8, 2014, California governor Jerry Brown reversed a parole board and denied the release of a former Charles Manson follower who served more than 43 years in prison. It was the third time a California governor denied the release of Bruce Davis 71, a member of the murderous Manson Family convicted in the 1969 slayings of musician Gary Hinman and stuntman Donald "Shorty" Shea.

     In March 2014, the parole board once again found that Davis was suitable for parole based on his age, conduct in prison--he became a born-again Christian, earned a doctoral degree in philosophy of religion, ministers to other inmates--and other factors. The governor lauded Davis for his efforts to improve himself. However, he wrote his his five-page decision that the evidence shows that Davis "currently poses an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison." 
     [Davis posed an unreasonable danger to Brown's political future if released. Asserting that he was still dangerous was ridiculous. He shouldn't be released because of what he did. In 2017, Davis was denied parole for the fifth time, and in November 2019, after another parole board recommended his release, Governor Gavin Newson denied the parole. The parole board, in January 2021 again recommended release for the born-again-Christian and again the governor denied it. Davis is 79.]

"California Governor Denies Manson Follower Parole," Associated Press, August 9,  2014 

Are All Males Potential Murderers?

When a murder occurs, the search is for motive as well as weapon. Hypotheses generally center around passion, greed, and uncontrollable anger. All of the above related factors have often been seen as at least comprehensible, if deplorable. After all, some say, how can a man stomach his wife's affair with another man or her consideration of another relationship? Although money as a reason for murder is perceived as unacceptable knavery, acquisition of financial resources is recognized as a goal toward which, of necessity, most strive throughout most of their lives. Regarding uncontrollable rage, anger is an emotion with which everyone must struggle, and all deal with it imperfectly. "A man can take just so much," has been one way the killer's apologist has attempted to explain an apparently senseless murder.

Constance A. Bean, Women Murdered By The Men They Loved, 1992 

Who's Afraid of Frankenstein?

     For the modern reader, Frankenstein fails in its intention to depict and evoke horror. In part this is a failure of style, and in part is a failure of technique--the author dwells too little on grisly details. We have to take the horror too much secondhand. Though the events of the novel are horrifying--three murders, a wrongful conviction, another death--the author, for whatever reason of sensibility or youth, chooses not to make a spectacle of them.

   While Frankenstein worked in its day, it has since become a model of what not to do if you really want to frighten the reader.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at The Novel, 2005

Favorite Characters

I like to read stores where people suffer a lot. If there's no suffering, I kind of tune out…I do have a weakness for funny characters who can't shut up to save their lives.

Gary Shteyngart, The New York Times Book Review, February 2, 2014

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The John Sexton Murder Case

     Ann Parlato was 94 and lived by herself in a white stucco house in the Regency Park section of New Port Richey, Florida. Just after midnight on September 17, 2010, one of Ann Parlato's neighbors heard a "thump" coming from her house. The next-door neighbor, alerted by the sound, saw, through Parlato's kitchen window, her "lawn man" standing at Parlato's sink. Thinking that the man in the window was doing chores around Parlato's house, the neighbor didn't call the police. He did, however, jot down the license number to the man's pickup truck.

     About eight hours after the next-door neighbor saw the man through Ann Parlato's kitchen window, another neighbor, Dori Cifelli, found Parlato's front door ajar. She entered the dwelling and saw, on the living room floor, a pair of legs sticking out from under a white sheet. This neighbor called 911.

     Police officers found a bludgeoned and stabbed elderly woman beneath the sheet. Ann Parlato's upper torso had been burned, she had defense wounds on her arms and hands, and her fingernails were broken. Crime scene investigators encountered blood throughout the house. There were spatter patterns and stains on carpeting, walls, the ceiling fan, and in the bathroom sink and shower stall. Officers recovered the cap from a bottle of bleach, and in a sink, found cigarette butts and a pair of women's underwear. The victim's master bedroom had been ransacked, and the killer had used Parlato's washing machine. Scattered throughout the dwelling were clippings from the dead woman's freshly mowed lawn.

     The next day, homicide detectives, after speaking to the next-door neighbor who had seen the lawn man through the kitchen window, and jotted down the license number to his truck, questioned John Sexton at his Pasco, Florida home about a mile from the murder scene. When told that Ann Parlato had been murdered, the 49-year-old suspect said, "Oh, wow, that's horrible. I kind of liked her." Sexton said he had befriended the elderly woman by mowing her yard.

     When asked where he was at midnight, September 27, Sexton yelled to his third wife Catherine, "What time did I get home, about 10:30?"

     Catherine yelled back, "He's lying. He got home about 2 AM."

     During the interview, Sexton's hands and legs were shaking. He had a fresh cut on his middle finger, and the officers noticed what looked like a blood stain on his pants. The detectives asked the suspect to accompany them to the police station where he would be asked to provide a formal statement. Sexton said he had no problem doing that.

     At police headquarters, after being warned of his Miranda rights, an interrogator pressed Sexton regarding his whereabouts at midnight on the night of the murder. "I couldn't have been there at midnight," he answered.

     "A neighbor saw you in the kitchen."

     "I wasn't in the kitchen," Sexton insisted.

     "So the neighbor next door is absolutely lying? Seeing mirages or something? When he writes down your tag number?"

     "I guess so," came the reply.

     Following the interrogation, the officers informed John Sexton that he was under arrest for the murder of Ann Parlato. Charged with first degree-murder, he faced a mandatory life sentence. He was also eligible for the death penalty. Mr. Sexton would not be returning home that day to his third wife Catherine.

     According to Catherine Sexton, she had met John at a swingers club. As a husband he had cheated on her regularly. (Big surprise from a guy you meet at a swingers club.) In May 2010, the couple moved to Pasco where they took up residence in a house with Catherine's mother and her mom's boyfriend. Catherine described her husband as an atheist who drank heavily, photographed naked women, and occasionally took antidepressant medication that had been prescribed to her. Catherine informed detectives that her husband, a habitual liar, sociopath, and sex addict, was also an erotic fire-setter. His second wife left him after he threw their 6-week-old daughter across the room. Catherine, in a bit of an understatement, used the term  "deviant" in describing her husband.

     John Sexton's murder trial got underway on April 16, 2013. The next day, following the opening statements, the prosecution put two DNA experts on the stand who linked the defendant to the murder scene in a variety of ways. Blood on Sexton's clothing and under his fingernails had come from the victim. According to one of the DNA analysts, Sexton's saliva connected him to a crime scene cigarette butt.

     A prosecution criminalist testified that bloody shoe impression on the victim's linoleum floor "showed the same class characteristics" as the defendant's boots.

     On April 18, 2013, Dr. Jonathan Thogmartin, the Pasco County Medical Examiner who had visited the murder scene and performed the autopsy, testified that Ann Parlato had died from blunt force trauma to the head. The killer had crushed Palato's face, dislocated her upper spine, and fractured her ribs. He also stabbed the victim, had postmortem sex with the corpse, then tried to destroy the body by setting it on fire.

     After the prosecution rested its case on April 18, the defense called the next-door neighbor to the stand who had seen the lawn man through the victim's kitchen window. The witness testified that he had failed to pick the defendant out of a police photograph line-up.

     Sexton's third wife Catherine took the stand as a character witness. "I believe in his innocence," she said.

     At the close of the testimony phase of the trial, the opposing attorneys presented their closing arguments. The defense attorney talked about a crime scene knife that contained someone else's DNA. The judge issued her instructions to the jurors, and on April 19, the case went to the jury. Following a short deliberation, the jury found John Sexton guilty of first degree-murder.

     On Friday, December 13, 2013, Judge Mary Handsel sentenced John Sexton to death. The condemned man, aware that it took decades to execute people like him, told reporters that he had hoped for the death penalty. He said it meant that his appeals would proceed more quickly than if he had been sentenced to life. 

Can Police Interrogators Lie?

     Courts have long upheld the rights of interrogators to lie to suspects, with a single exception, which stems from an 1997 Supreme Court decision. In that case, Bram v. United States, the court held that a confession was not admissible if it came from threats or "direct or implied promises," such as an assurance that a suspect would be treated more leniently if he confessed, or more harshly if he did not. Despite the restriction on both "direct" and "implied" promises, in the years since 1997, courts have tended only to reject confessions when there was evidence of an explicit threat or promise.

     Since then, the practices of interrogators have grown more nuanced, to include threats and promises that are merely and subtly implied, and therefore more often accepted in courtrooms as legitimate. Even when an explicit threat or promise is made, it can be difficult for an interrogation suspect to prove that coercive techniques were used, as most interrogations are not recorded in their entirely, and a detective's word can carry more weight with a jury than that of the accused.

Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five, 2011

The Thriller

The crime fiction thriller is an extension of the fairy tale. It is melodrama so embellished as to create the illusion that the story being told, however unlikely, could be true.

Eric Ambler in The Mystery Lovers' Book of Quotations, edited by Jane Horning, 1988 

Not All Crimes Are Book Worthy

Why are some true crimes turned into books, while others barely make the national papers? It will hardly come as a staggering surprise to find that publishers choose only those cases that are out of the ordinary: so, while murder is a favorite topic for books, "domestic" murders are not, unless several people in the family are killed. The sort of case that attracts a book publisher is likely to involve a large-scale crime, a mass or serial murder or a murderer who has been freed and has killed again or perhaps a murderer who almost got away with it.

Philip Rawlings, britsoccrim.org, 1995 

Journalists Don't Like To Be Scrutinized

Photographers don't like to be photographed. Surgeons require nearly twice the amount of anesthesia ordinary patients require to undergo surgery. Journalists are the least receptive to professional scrutiny by their colleagues. They react, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes with the utmost deliberation, to avenge themselves.

Renata Adler, Gone, The Last Days of the New Yorker, 1999

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Philip Chism Murder Case

     Colleen Ritzer, a 2011 magna cum laude graduate of Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, taught ninth grade math in Danvers, a suburban town of 26,000, 20 miles northeast of Boston. The 24-year-old teacher lived in Andover with her siblings and parents. She was working toward a masters degree in school counseling at Salem State University.

     On Tuesday, October 22, 2013, when a Danvers school ninth-grader named Philip D. Chism missed his four o'clock soccer practice, and didn't show up for a junior varsity team dinner, members of the team went looking for him. Philip and his 34-year-old mother Diana had moved to the Boston area from Tennessee at the start of the school year. That evening she reported him missing. Investigators learned that at six-thirty that night, Chism was seen leaving the Hollywood Hits movie theater in Danvers.

     That Tuesday night, Colleen Ritzer's parents reported her missing when she didn't return home from school and wasn't answering her cellphone. Danvers police officers, in searching the high school for Ritzer, found splashes of blood in the second-floor student girl's restroom. A short time later, around midnight, officers found Ritzer's body in a patch of woods behind the school's athletic fields. She had been stabbed and slashed to death with a sharp instrument.

     A review of surveillance camera footage showed Philip Chism using what appeared to be a recycling bin--a blue, plastic garbage can on wheels--to move the dead woman into the nearby woods. About the time officers found the body behind the school, police officers in the town of Topsfield just north of Danvers spotted Chism walking along Route 1.

     Chism told his interrogators that he was in Colleen Ritzer's algebra class held during the school's final period. Because he had been doodling instead of paying attention that day, she asked him to stay after class. At 3:30, he followed her into the students' restroom. (The faculty bathroom had been occupied. One of the school's 200 surveillance cameras caught Chism, as he followed the teacher into the restroom. He was seen putting on a pair of white gloves.)

     Inside the girl's restroom, Chism punched the teacher in the face, then slit her throat with a box cutter. After the killing, he used the recycling bin to transport the body outside the building into the woods behind the sprawling campus. Police found the garbage can 100 feet from the corpse. It had been pushed over an embankment.

     After murdering Colleen Ritzer, Chism changed his bloody clothes, ate at a Wendy's restaurant, then walked to the movie theater where he watched the Woody Allen film, "Blue Jasmine." He paid for the fast food and the movie with a credit card.
 
     Classmates described the tall, athletic student as quiet and shy. Some of his classmates labeled him antisocial and strange. He was a good student and the leading scorer on the junior varsity soccer team.

     The district attorney of Essex County charged Philip Chism as an adult with assault and murder. At the boy's October 23, 2013 arraignment in a Salem district court, the student pleaded not guilty.

     According to court documents in Tennessee, Diana, the boy's mother, married Stacy Chism in September 1998 when she was 19 and he was 23. Philip was born four months later. A year later, Diana gave birth to a girl. She filed for divorce in March 2001, but three months later the couple reconciled. Not long after that they separated again.

      On October 26, 2013, through her attorney, Diana Chism issued a statement expressing sorrow for the Ritzer family.

     Philip Chism, as an inmate awaiting his trial at the Department of Youth Services facility in Dorchester, Massachusetts, had trouble conforming to the institutions rules and regulations. For one thing, he refused to attend classes. As a result he spent his mornings and afternoons sitting at a table in the facility's main room. A staff member posted at a station behind a low wall kept an eye on inmates in the large, open room.  Behind the observation station an employee-only hallway led to a locker room that featured a bathroom.

     On June 2, 2014, a 29-year-old female corrections officer, a member of the staff who had known Chism for several months, got up from her post and walked down the hallway to the locker room. The 15-year-old rose to his feet, kicked off his sandals, and in a crouched position to avoid detection, moved  quietly toward the hallway.

     When the staffer came out of the restroom, Chism grabbed her by the neck with both hands and started choking her. She managed to remove his right hand which allowed her to scream for help. Before other members of the staff came to her aid, Chism punched the woman several times in the face.

     Charged with attempted murder by strangulation, Chism, on July 23, 2014, appeared in a Suffolk County Court for his arraignment. The judge set his bail at $250,000. His attorney had nothing to say to reporters.

     On March 3, 2015, following legal arguments pursuant to an evidentiary hearing in Essex County District Court in anticipation of Philip Chism's murder trial, Judge David Lowy ruled that the defendant's confession at the Danvers police station had been coerced and was therefore inadmissible evidence. The judge did allow into evidence the bloody box cutter and other key pieces of physical evidence. Also allowed into evidence were the items seized from Chism's pockets and backpack. This evidence included the murder victim's identification, credit cards, and a pair of her underwear.

     The Coleen Ritzer murder trial, scheduled for October 17, 2015, was delayed after a judge ordered Chism to undergo a mental health evaluation to determine if he was mentally competent to stand trial.

     On November 2, 2015, at the start of his mental competence hearing, Chism refused to enter the courtroom, banged his head against the floor and told a psychologist he heard voices and hoped that someone would shoot him. The next day the judge ruled Chism mentally unfit to stand trial.

     In February 2016, Philip Chism went on trial for the murder, rape, and robbery of Coleen Ritzer. After the jury found him guilty as charged, Superior Court Judge David Lowry sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. He was also sentenced to a 40-year prison term for the rape and robbery. Under the terms of these sentences, Chism would remain behind bars for at least 40 years. He would not be free before he reached the age of 54.

     In Massachusetts, a juvenile who commits first-degree murder cannot be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The victim's family in the Chism case criticized that law.

Bank Robbery: The Lost Romance

Today's bank robbers, are, for the most part, crude amateurs possessing little of the romantic aura of yesteryear's brigands. Today, the fine art of illegally removing capital from a financial institution has often been reduced to the practice of crude thuggery or impulsive strong-arm holdups. This is not to say that old-style desperados were invariably suave or elegant; they were not. However, there was something about the old-time robber that captured the American public's attention and, frequently, admiration. The perception begs the question: "How were the old-times different from today's petty thugs?" [What difference? Many of the old-time bank robbers were worse. Billy The Kid was a vicious cretin, and John Dillinger, a generation later, was a cold-blooded killer. Nothing romantic about that.]

L. R. Kirchner, Robbing Banks, 2003