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Monday, January 31, 2022

Handwriting Evidence in the Lindbergh Case

     On April 3, 1936,  Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an illegal alien from Germany who lived in the Bronx, New York, died in the electric chair for the kidnapping and murder of 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr. At the 36-year-old unemployed carpenter's trial, held in Flemington, New Jersey in January and February 1935, prosecution handwriting experts took the stand and testified that the defendant had written all of the ransom notes as well as other documents associated with the abduction and murder. It was this forensic document evidence that sent Mr. Hauptmann to the death house in Trenton.

     At the Lindbergh-Hauptmann trial, eight nationally known questioned document examiners, from Los Angeles to New York City, both private and government employed, testified that Hauptmann wrote the fifteen ransom letters, including the note left by the kidnapper in the baby's nursery. The Lindbergh crime produced an unusually large quantity of questioned writing. Moreover, the experts had plenty of known handwriting to work with in the form of request writings--a carefully worded paragraph dictated to Hauptmann--and his conceded or "course of business" writings in the form of his personal notebooks and his auto registration, driver's license, and insurance applications.

     The prosecution experts testified that Hauptmann's known writing looked like the writing in the ransom documents. They produced dozens of word chart exhibits for the jury that illustrated the similarity in the two sets of cursive writing. Hauptmann and the ransom note writer also misspelled certain words the same way.

     The questioned document testimony phase of the Lindbergh-Hauptmann trial took up four days and produced 800 pages of trial transcript. Besides the eight experts who took the stand, the prosecution had four rebuttal experts who would have testified against Hauptmann had the defense put on a credible battery of their own handwriting witnesses. As it turned out, these rebuttal witnesses were not needed.

     One the the rebuttal witnesses, John Vreeland Haring, later published a heavily illustrated book showing why he believed Hauptmann had written the ransom documents. Mr. Haring made a special effort to illustrate the similarities between the defendant's writing and the ransom note left in the nursery. For comparison purposes, Haring used as known handwriting samples, two post-conviction letters Hauptmann had written in hand to the Governor of New Jersey.

     In addition to the prosecution's eight handwriting witnesses and the four rebuttal experts, Charles A. Appel, Jr., the head of the FBI crime lab, believed Hauptmann was the ransom note writer. While he didn't testify at the trial, the FBI crime lab director testified against Hauptmann before the Bronx Grand Jury months before.

     Hauptmann's defense attorney, Edward J. Reilly, asked seven document examiners to look at the handwriting evidence. Three declared that Hauptmann had written the documents, another three said the ransom notes had been altered after Hauptmann's arrest to look like his known writing--thereby conceding that the known and questioned writings were similar. The seventh examiner asked by the defense to analyze the evidence, a man named John C. Trendley from St. Louis, ended up being the only examiner who actually testified for the defense at the Hauptmann trial.

     A reporter who covered the Lindbergh-Hauptmann trial wrote this about Mr. Trendley: "He was a furtive, musty little codger who had the greatest difficulty establishing his claim to be an expert...And his testimony was really pathetic." Besides his background as a courtroom charlatan, Trendley's testimony was weakened by the fact he had not spent much time with the evidence.

     Hauptmann's defense lawyers--he had five--were never able to counter the prosecution's overwhelming handwriting case against their client. Notwithstanding all of the other physical evidence connecting Hauptmann to the crime, it was his handwriting that sent him to the electric chair.

     To this day, the Lindbergh case remains the high water mark in the American history of forensic document examination.

"Murderabilia"

     For Eric Holler, it started 25 years ago with a letter to Richard Ramirez--a serial killer and rapist known as the "Night Stalker," who was active from 1984 to 1985. He [Holler] was fascinated by Ramirez's case and decided to introduce himself in a letter. A few weeks later Ramirez wrote back, asking Holler for his phone number. After being in touch for a while, Ramirez requested that Holler--who was in his early twenties at the time--act as his art dealer. Holler agreed, so Ramirez sent over a package of his artwork, which Holler then sold on a new online auction site.

     "I put his stuff up on eBay and it sold really well," Holler tells Rolling Stone. "So he sent me another package and another package and another package and he just continued. And I started writing to other [serial killers] and other guys started sending stuff too."

     In 2008, Holler started "Serial Killer Ink"--a website selling true crime collectibles--and he's not alone in this retail space, though eBay no longer permits the sale of these items. As he learned when the first set of art by Ramirez sold out, there is clearly a demand for physical objects associated with notorious crimes and criminals. In addition to art, this so-called "murderabilia" can take many forms, including but not limited to articles of clothing, personal possessions, and locks of hair belonging to murderers. But is this simply a macabre hobby--collecting parts of dark history--or something more problematic? It all depends on who you ask. Welcome to the world of murderabilia.

Elizabeth Yuko, "Inside the Murderabilia Machine," Rolling Stone, August 8, 2019

Graphology

     Graphologists claim to be able to identify criminal traits through handwriting analysis. For example, graphologists tell us that people who write cursive with a backward-looking stroke--called the "Felon's Claw"--harbor feelings of guilt for things they have done. These handwriting analysts claim that 75 percent of the felons incarcerated in our prisons write this way.

     Another handwriting tell--the so-called "Upside-Down Oval" (when letters such as "o" are drawn clockwise rather than counter-clockwise)--reveals that the writer is a thief. According to graphologists, studies show that a vast majority of convicted embezzlers write this way.
     Graphology is not a forensic science recognized by the courts. Graphologists, therefore, cannot testify as expert witnesses. That is a good thing.

Being Funny

With regard to being funny on paper, Isaac Asimov said it best: "A story is either funny or it is not funny. Nothing in between. The humor target contains only a bull's-eye."

You want to be a Writer?

Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman's name out of a satire then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused on incest. Do you still want to be a writer--and if so, why?

Bennett Cerf (1898-1971) television personality and co-founder of Random House

The Personal Library

According to the prolific writer Umberto Eco whose personal library held 30,000 books, if one reads one book a day between the ages ten to eighty, that's only 25,000 volumes. There are so many books in print even the most dedicated reader can only scratch the literary surface. As a result, book lovers tend to own far more books than they could ever read. According to statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives because they remind us of how much we don't know. According to Taleb, read books are less valuable to us than unread ones.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Writer Gabriel Matzneff: France's Proud Pedophile

     For the past fifty years or so, Gabriel Matzneff, now 85, was one of France's most celebrated, renowned, and admired writers. He won several prestigious literary awards and state honors for his novels, essays, and nonfiction books. Presidents of France praised Matzneff for his deep, original thought and highly creative writing style. Literary critics in France and throughout Europe agreed.

     What is unusual, indeed shocking, about Matzneff's status as a literary icon is how, in his books and essays, and on his official web site, he flaunts and writes about his adventures as a predatory pedophile. For example, in Matzneff's infamous 1974 essay, Les Moins deSieze Ans (Those Under 16), Matzneff describes in great detail his seduction of pre-adolescent boys and 14-year-old girls. He also chronicles his regular trips to the Philippines to pick up young boys for sex.

     In Matzneff's diaries, published in 1985, he writes: "Sometimes, I'll have as many as four boys--from 8 to 14--in my bed.

     The Paris police, in 1986, launched a half-hearted investigation into anonymous tips that the 50-year-old literary giant was living with a 14-year-old girl named Vanessa Springora. To avoid being questioned about his relationship with the girl, Matzneff and Springora moved into another apartment, a hideout provided by the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent.

     In accordance with the French acceptance of pedophilia, and the desire to protect the country's most valuable literary treasure, the authorities quickly closed the Matzneff investigation. Everyone knew Matzneff was a pedophile, yet no one cared, or had the courage to bring this famous and powerful man to justice.

     Gabriel Matzneff's charmed life of privilege and exemption from criminal prosecution suddenly collapsed in January 2020 with the publication of Vanessa Springora's memoir, Le Consentement (The Consent). The memoir tells the story of her life with the famous pedophile.

     On a French television program featuring her memoir, Springora, a Paris publishing house director, said, "My goal was to lock him [Matzneff] up in a book, because that's what he has done to me and that's what he did with many young girls."

     Following the publication of her tell-all memoir, Springora met with a prosecutor in Paris named Remy Heitz who informed her he was interested in prosecuting the famous writer for his crimes against children.

     On February 11, 2020, prosecutor Heitz announced the commencement of an investigation into the alleged sexual crimes of Gabriel Matzneff. Perhaps this meant that in France, law enforcement authorities had finally decided to prosecute pedophiles. However, in the case of an eighty-three-year-old self described sex offender, this new enforcement policy was more than a little late.

     The Paris prosecutor's office, on February 11, issued a summons ordering Mr. Matzneff to appear the following day in court. The great writer, hiding out somewhere in the Italian Riviera, ignored the summons.

     In March 2020, after decades of sexual crimes allegedly involving hundreds of victims, Gabriel Matzneff was charged with sexually abusing an unidentified youth. The prosecutor, in an Europe 1 Radio interview, said, "We will seek to identify other possible victims who could have suffered violations of the same nature, on national territory or abroad."

     In the wake of Vanessa Springora's memoir, the French government stripped Matzneff of his state literary awards that included The Order of National Merit, and Officer of Arts and Letters. His publisher of 30 years, Gallimard, after profiting decades on the works of a proud pedophile, stopped selling his books.

     Matzneff, not accustomed to being treated like a sex offender, agreed to an interview with a reporter with The New York Times. In the March 2020 Times piece, the French literary great lamented that his former supporters had not come forward on his behalf. He said he felt "like the living dead, a dead man walking." Regarding his former literary colleagues and admirers, Matzneff said, "They're showing their cowardice. We can say caution, but it's more than caution from people I considered friends." 

     The Gabriel Matzneff pedophilia trial was scheduled for September 2020.
     As of January 2022, Matzneff, who is not in custody, has not been tried for the sexual abuse of minors. In all probability the case will be closed, and the famous writer will avoid prosecution due to the statute of limitations. 

Real Crime Strangeness

True crime writing really demands that you be honest and back up everything you write with facts. I always keep all my notes, copies of court documents and police reports so that I can verify what I've put into print. True crime is just that--it's the truth. And time after time I've discovered that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Robert Scott, authorsontheweb.com, 2002

The Writer's Ego

Sheer egotism--writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen--in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.

George Orwell, "The Four Motives For Writing," 1946

Shaping Nonfiction

Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.

Joan Didion, Nonfiction author, The Paris Review, 2006

Origin of the Whodunnit

Literary murders are as old as the book of Genesis. But no one before Edgar Allan Poe, as far as we know, ever wrote a story in which the central plot question was "who did it?" and the hero was a detective [C. Auguste Dupin] who correctly deduced the answer to that question.

William G. Tapply, The Elements of Mystery Fiction, 1995

Saturday, January 29, 2022

The FBI Crime Lab:The Dark Years

     Until the mid-1990s, all of the forensic scientists working in the FBI Crime Lab had at least three years experience in the field as ordinary special agents. Staffing the lab with former criminal investigators (J. Edgar Hoover's idea) was supposed to make them better forensic practitioners. Critics of this policy believed it made them part of a law enforcement team instead of independent forensic scientists. Moreover, by basing the hiring criteria on specal agent qualifications, the FBI Lab was not attracting or being staffed by first-rate scientists.

Agent Versus Agent

     Special Agent Michael P. Malone had earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology, and taught high school science for two years before he joined the FBI in 1970. After working four years in the field as a criminal investigator, Malone was assigned to the FBI Crime Lab. During his 25 years as a hair and fiber analyst, Malone testified in hundreds of criminal trials. He became popular as a prosecution expert, testifying in dozens of high profile cases where the fate of the defendant depended upon his identification of a crime scene hair or fiber. As an expert witness he was confident and hard to rattle, and he knew how to impress a jury.

     In the early 1990s, Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI Lab bomb residue analyst who identified chemical components of explosive substances, alerted lab supervisors regarding problems in the trace evidence section of the facility. Whitehurst complained that the laboratory was so dirty, physical evidence was always in danger of contamination. Whitehurst was especially critical of hair and fiber analyst Michael Malone whom he accused of allowing his loyalty to police and prosecutors attenuate his independence and objectivity as a forensic scientist. In memos to the director of the lab, Whitehurst pointed out that hair and fiber identification was an inexact and subjective process, making this form of crime scene identification highly unreliable. The whistleblower noted that Malone's testimony had sent many defendants to prison, some of whom might have been innocent.

     When Whitehurst's internal complaints fell on deaf ears, he began writing long, detailed letters to Michael Bromwich, the U. S. Department of Justice inspector general. Between 1991 and 1994, Whitehurst wrote Bromwich 237 letters. In September 1995, the inspector general launched an investigation after ABC's "Prime Time Live," having learned of these letters, aired a story about Whitehurst's campaign to improve the FBI Lab. In April 1997, almost six years after Whitehurst began documenting problems in the nation's largest crime lab, Bromwich issued a 517-page report critical of the laboratory. Bromwich singled out seven lab employees, including Michael Malone, whom he described as having provided "false testimony." The inspector general recommended Malone for disciplinary action.

     Two years later, a second Department of Justice investigation revealed that Agent Malone had made hair and fiber identification errors in four homicide cases in the Tampa Bay area. In the same report detailing these findings, Department of Justice investigators also criticized Whitehurst for overstating the forensic implications of his scientific analysis. Whitehurst, who had been transferred to the paint identification unit of the lab, was suspended. After the bureau denied his petition for reinstatement, Whitehurst retired and entered private practice. To some, Whitehurst was a hero. To the FBI however, he was a traitor. He was a whistleblower, the lowest form of bureaucratic life.

     Michael Malone denied lying under oath or playing fast and loose with hair and fiber evidence. He blamed the FBI Lab scandal on jealous colleagues whom he described as incompetent. Regarding those cases in which DNA analysis had exonerated defendants whose hair he had identified as being at crime scenes, Malone blamed overzealous prosecutors who overstated the implications of his findings. Following the inspector general's investigations and recommendations, Malone was reassigned back to the field. He retired in December 1999. To the FBI, Special Agent Malone was the hero.

     Today, the head of the FBI Crime Lab hires employees on the basis of their backgrounds in science. (The lab also contracts out work to private laboratories.) Even for non-agent crime lab employees, maintaining scientific objectivity is not easy. But there is no question that the lab is far superior now than it was during those dark years. And as is often the case in governmental scandals that result in improved conditions, it was a courageous whistleblower who made it possible.    

The Insanity Ploy

     In the 1957 musical West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim parodied what then was the current thinking about juvenile delinquency in the song, "Gee, Officer Krupke." Delinquents were punks because their fathers were drunks. They were misunderstood rather than no good. They were suffering from a "social disease," and society "had played them a terrible trick." They needed an analyst, not a judge, because it was "just their neurosis" acting up. In short, their criminal behavior was regarded as symptomatic of a deep-seated psychological or sociological problem. Little has changed since then in terms of deeply ingrained beliefs about the causes of crime…

     When a person commits a particularly sordid crime, his sanity may be questioned. Three men pick up two girls who are thumbing a lift. A joyride turns into a nightmare when the teenagers are driven to a desolate mountainous area where they are bound and repeatedly raped. Two of their tormentors dig a hole and tell them to say their prayers. However, the men decide to prolong the torture and take the girls to an apartment where they brutalize them again. The girls are saved by a suspicious neighbor who calls the police. Eventually, the court considers the rapists to be "mentally disordered sex offenders" and sends them to a psychiatric hospital, where they spend less time than one-third of the time they would have spent in prison.

     Criminals learn to fool the psychiatrists and the courts in order to serve "easy time" in a hospital with the prospect of getting out more quickly than they would from a prison. From other criminals and from their attorneys, even unsophisticated street criminals learn the ploy of insanity. The game is for the criminal to convince others that he is sick, so that he can beat the charge. After he is admitted to the hospital, he plays the psychiatric game of mouthing insights and behaving properly so that he can convince the staff that he is recovering and deserves to be released.

Stanton E. Samenow, "The Basic Myths About Criminals," in Criminal Justice?, Robert James Bidinotto, ed., 1994 

Know What You're Writing About

     Before you write about a subject, make sure you know it inside and out. If there are questions in your mind, don't skip them or cover them up. Do your best to find the answers. Then, if questions remain, you can always be honest and say so; the reader will forgive you.

     Whenever there's something wrong with your writing, suspect that there's something wrong with your thinking. Perhaps your writing is unclear because your ideas are unclear. Think, read, learn some more.
     The old admonition to "write about what you know" is a cliche, but it's still good advice. No matter how vivid and fertile your imagination, you'll write best what you know best.
Patricia T. O'Conner, Words Fail Me, 1999

Books As Friends

Books are delightful friends. If you go into a room and find it full of books--even without taking them from the shelves--they seem to speak to you, to bid you welcome.

William E. Gladstone (1809-1898)

The Messed Up Novelist

     Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project? Do you either start them all and don't see them to fruition or think about starting but never actually get going? Do your begin sentences in your head while walking to work or picking up the dry cleaning? Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? Have you ever been diagnosed with any combination of bipolar disorder, alcoholism, or skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis? Do you snap at people who ask how your writing is going? What is it to them? Do you fear that you will someday wonder where the years went? How is it that some no-talent you went to high school with is being published everywhere you look?

     If you can relate to the above, you certainly have the obsessive qualities--along with the self-aggrandizement and concurrent feelings of worthlessness--that are part of the novelist's makeup.

Betsy Lerner, Forest For The Trees, 2001 

Friday, January 28, 2022

The Meth Contaminated Home

     Methamphetamine is an addictive, synthetic stimulant that causes the brain to release a surge of dopamine that, depending upon how it is ingested, and its potency, creates a high that lasts from a few minutes to 24 hours. Meth comes in two forms, powder and rock. The powder can be snorted, smoked, eaten, or dissolved into a drink. Rock, the crystalized form of the drug, is usually smoked or injected. One hit of the drug costs between $25 and $80. There are 1.4 million users of methamphetamine in the United States, and the number is rising.

     Meth is addictive because it depletes the brain of dopamine. Once this happens, users are unable to experience pleasure without the chemicals. Addicts who try to quit become depressed, and in some cases, psychotic. The prolonged use of meth permanently destroys the brain and can cause heart attacks and strokes.

     Manufacturing or "cooking" meth is a multi-step operation that takes 48 hours to complete. The process produces toxic fumes and there is always the potential for an explosion. There are a handful of large, commercial super labs, and thousands of small home laboratories. Super labs, like the one featured on the AMC TV series "Breaking Bad," are staffed by trained chemists who purchase the key ingredients--ephedrine and pseudoephedrine--in bulk from chemical suppliers. A super lab can manufacture more than 100,000 does per cook.

     Amateur meth cooks who operate home labs use chemicals derived from over-the-counter cold, cough, and allergy medicines. These shade-tree chemists acquire ingredients such as ammonia and lye from everyday household items. For example, they can obtain red phosphorus by scraping it off matches. The operator of a home meth lab can only produce about 300 doses a cook, enough product for himself and a few sales.

     The vast majority of meth factories raided by narcotics officers are amateur operations. In 2011, drug enforcement agents in the U.S. seized 10,287 residential meth labs. (One of the largest meth lab raids occurred in San Jose, California where, in March 2012, DEA agents seized 750 pounds of meth with a street value of $34 million.) Because of the highly toxic nature of meth production, these sites have to be professionally scrubbed.

     The government spends about $200 million a year de-contaminating meth labs. But not all of the homes that once contained meth labs are sanitized, and some of them go on the real estate market. People who move into these places become sick. As a result, about half of the states have residential meth lab disclosure laws.

The Bates Family

     Unfortunately for John Bates, his wife Jessie, and their 7-year-old son, the state of Washington didn't have a meth disclosure law in 2007 when they purchased a house for $235,000 in Suquamish, a town near Seattle. Shortly after moving into the dwelling, their son Tyler developed breathing problems. Mr. Bates developed a variety of unexplained symptoms, and his wife kept getting horrible skin rashes. The family and their physicians didn't have a clue what was causing these ailments until a neighbor, 18 months after the onset of the illnesses, casually mentioned that the former occupant of the home had made his living cooking meth.

     A state inspection of the Bates home revealed that toxic chemicals had soaked into the carpets, walls, studs, and flooring. Instead of shelling out $90,000 to replace the contaminated areas of the house, the Bates demolished the place and built a new home on the two-acre lot. The project cost them $184,000.
     The Bates regained their health, and the state of Washington passed a residential meth lab disclosure law.  

The Serial Killer's Double Life

     In both mass and serial murder cases, victims die.  But the differences between these two types of offenders outweigh the similarities. First, mass murderers are generally apprehended or killed by the police, commit suicide, or turn themselves in to the authorities. Serial killers, by contrast, usually make special efforts to elude detection. Indeed, they may continue to kill for weeks, months, and often years before they are found and stopped--if they are found at all.

     People generally perceive the mass killer as one suffering from mental illness. This immediately creates a "they versus us" dichotomy in which "they" are different from "us" because of mental problems. We can somehow accept the fact that a few people go "crazy" sometimes and start shooting others. However, it is more disconcerting to learn that some of the "nicest" people one meets lead Jekyll-and-Hyde lives: a student by day, a killer of coeds by night; a caring, attentive nurse who secretly murders sick children, the handicapped, or the elderly; a building contractor and politician who enjoys sexually torturing and killing young men and burying them under his home. When we discover that people exist who are not considered to be insane or crazy but who enjoy killing others for "recreation," this indeed gives new meaning to the word "stranger."

Eric W. Hickey, Serial Murderers and Their Victims, Fourth Edition, 2006

The Main Character

     Novice writers continue to make the mistake of choosing as the main character people who don't--or shouldn't--have enough freedom to be interesting. If the story is about a great war, they assume their hero must be the commanding general or the king, when in fact the story might be more powerfully told if the main character is a sergeant or a common soldier--someone who is making choices and then carrying out those choices himself. Or the main character might even be a civilian, whose life is transformed as the great events flow over and around him.

     As a main character, only use people in positions of highest authority when you are forced to because the story can't be told any other way. And then be very sure that you understand how people in such positions make their decisions, how power actually works.

Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1990 

The Reverse Biography

     The Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, Edmund Morris, died in May 2019 at age 78. Not long after his death, his biography of Thomas Edison, entitled Lighting The Way, was published. The book was reviewed in the November 3, 2019 edition of The New York Times Book Review by David Oshinsky who had this to say about Morris's decision to write the story backward.

     "For some unexplained reason, Morris decided to write this saga in reverse, beginning with Edison's final years and working backward to his birth in small-town Ohio in 1847. It's the biographical equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," though Fitzgerald had the good sense to make it a short story, while Morris's "Edison" comes in at just under 800 pages, including footnotes. Some readers may see the device as gimmickry...At a minimum, it takes some getting used to, because we're never quite certain how one event builds upon another or whether a character who appears early in the book (but late in Edison's life) is central to the story. This leads to a lot of flipping back and forth through the chapters, with a heavy reliance on the index to keep things straight."

Common Sense

The only thing that makes me interesting as a writer is that I'm just talking common sense. The most ordinary, everyday sort of common sense.

Shelby Steele, historian, book author, columnist, 1996

Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Paul Driggers Murder-For-Hire Case

     Paul Driggers knew that if he filed for divorce, his wife Janice (not her real name) would fight for custody of their children. Driggers knew that Janice, because of his background of crime which included a ten year stretch in prison, would win that battle. To solve his problem, the 53-year-old Idaho man came up with a plan to file for divorce without his wife knowing about it. The idea behind his plan involved winning the divorce suit through his uninformed wife's default.

     In February 2005, after creating a false mail drop address for himself and his wife in Post Falls, Idaho, Driggers traveled to Bannock County in the southern part of the state where he filed for divorce. Janice, oblivious to what he was up to, failed to respond to the court papers sent to the phony address. Through this scheme, Paul Driggers divorced his wife without her knowledge. Janice was also unaware that the judge had awarded Driggers full custody of their son and two daughters.

     Although divorced, Driggers and his clueless ex-spouse continued to live under the same roof as man and wife. In September 2005, after pleading guilty to hitting one of his daughters with a belt, the judge sentenced Paul Driggers to 180 days in jail. Shortly after his release, Driggers threatened Janice with a handgun. Because he was an ex-felon, the mere possession of the weapon was a crime. Drigger denied the allegation, and the prosecutor dropped the charges.

     In February 2006, after Janice learned from a social worker that she and the man she was living with had been divorced for a year, threw him out of the house. Because they had engaged in sex under the false pretense of marriage, she filed charges of rape. A judge eventually dismissed that case. Driggers, in an effort to recover some of his possessions that included a wall plaque that read: "Families are Forever" sued his ex-wife. He also filed a report with a county child protection agency accusing her of physically abusing their children. The agency responded by taking the children out of the home. With the children temporarily out of the house, Driggers made his big move. He asked a man he had met in prison if he know of someone who would kill his ex-wife.

     Early in April 2006, acting on his former prison associate's recommendation, Driggers called a man in Hayward, California named Matt Robinson and offered him $10,000 for the hit. Driggers said he would deposit $1,000 in Robinson's bank account to pay for his trip to northern Idaho where they would plan and carry out the contract murder. Robinson, having left Driggers with the impression he would be thinking over the offer, reported the solicitation to the Hayward police who hooked him up with the FBI. After meeting with FBI agents, Robinson agreed to help the feds by traveling to Idaho as an undercover murder-for-hire operative.

     On April 25, 2006, Driggers and Robinson met in a restaurant in Coeur d' Alene. They discussed, in addition to the murder, a number of criminal schemes including the manufacture of methamphetamine, and the counterfeiting of documents to be used in identify theft. Three months later, on July 21, Driggers drove his gold Jaguar onto a Lowe's parking lot in Coeur d' Alene. He was there to meet Robinson who was wired for sound. Driggers handed the man he thought would murder his ex-wife another $1,000. The murder-for-hire mastermind promised to pay Robinson the balance of the hit money in $500 monthly installments. Driggers also gave Robinson a photograph of Janice and a handmade map showing how to get to her house in Priest River. The map, carefully drawn and detailed, included suggested escape routes. In order to maintain contact with his hit man as the plot unfolded, Driggers had purchased a pair of walkie-talkies. He also instructed Robinson on how to dispose of the victim's corpse. This mastermind was leaving nothing to chance.

     Driggers, in explaining to Robinson that killing his ex-wife was the only way he could acquire custody of  his children, anticipated that the police would suspect him of having her murdered. "They don't like me," he said. "They hate me. They'd like to put a needle in my arm...We've already made some mistakes. I don't want to get hurt on this. The first three months of the investigation is going to be intense. They're going to check everything...I'm the green light, but you're driving the car. You have a couple of options. You can keep the money and go home. You can do it and get it done, or try to do it, and if it's too difficult, you can drop it."

     The following day, July 22, 2006, Driggers called Robinson and gave him the final go-ahead for the operation. Ten days later, FBI agents who had been keeping track of Driggers, arrested him on the charge of attempted murder-for-hire. When informed that his conversations with Robinson had been taped, Driggers surprised the arresting agents by insisting that he was innocent.

     From his Kootenai County Jail cell a week after being taken into custody, Driggers, referring to his ex-wife as a "vindictive schizophrenic," said this to a local newspaper reporter: "I'm the one who's really being abused. There's been such a climate of fear and paranoia in my case that any action I take to try and protect my property is determined as a move toward hurting my ex-wife, to physically hurting my ex-wife." A federal grand jury, three weeks after Drigger's press interview, indicted him for using interstate commerce to facilitate a murder-for-hire scheme.

     The Driggers murder trial got underway, in the federal court house in Coeur d' Alene, on January 3, 2007. The defendant, insisting that he was the true victim in the case, promised reporters that when jurors heard his side of the story, they would find him not guilty. But before he got the opportunity to defend himself on the stand, the jurors heard the conversation Matt Robinson had taped in the Lowe's parking lot. After playing the two-hour recording, the government rested its case.

     On January 11, 2007, Driggers, wearing a raspberry colored blazer, climbed into the witness box with the intent of portraying himself as the victim. He had been so distraught over the possibility of losing custody of his children he had gone to bed every night under the influence of sleeping pills and booze. "It was hard to get out of bed in the morning because I'd always hear the voices of my children saying, 'Daddy, daddy, we want you to come home.' I lost the purpose of my life. I had no reason to  live."

     In addressing the issue of his murder-for-hire conversations with Matt Robinson, Driggers dismissed them as a "hypothetical" discussions in which he was merely exploring possible solutions to his "predicament." "There's a difference," he said, "between a statement and an agreement. I didn't want to kill her. I was upset about many things happening in my life."

     The jury, following a brief period of deliberation, found Paul Driggers guilty of attempted murder-for-hire. The verdict surprised no one. But the case wasn't over. Drigger's attorney, noting that a copy of his client's rap sheet had inadvertently found its way into the jury room, moved for a mistrial. The jurors were not supposed to know about the defendant's criminal history. Although only one juror actually looked at the document, the judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial.

     The following month, Driggers was tried again on the same evidence. The second jury, also requiring little time to deliberate, found him guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Paul Driggers to the maximum penalty allowed under federal law, a $17,000 fine and ten years in prison.

Defending Idiots

Some defense lawyers are pretty funny, especially public defenders. You need a sense of humor to make it in that business, for a good number of your clients commit poorly planned crimes that are often caught on crystal clear video, frequently fail to return your phone calls, and still expect exoneration via some sort of legal hocus-pocus. I once asked a public defender how his client's trial went. "We came in second!" he said with mock enthusiasm.

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know, 2014

Trim The Fat

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, no unnecessary sentences, no unnecessary paragraphs for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all of his sentences short, or that he should avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.

William Strunk, The Elements of Style, First Edition, 1918

Writer Immortality

Rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I would rather live on in my apartment.

Woody Allen, The Paris Review, 1995

Sober Advice

I declare to all young men trying to become writers that they do not have to become drunks first.

James Jones (1921-1977) American novelist, The Paris Review, 1958

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Journalistic Ethics in The Naemm Davis Subway Murder

     At 12:30 PM on Monday, December 3, 2012, 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han stood with other New Yorkers waiting for their trains at the Times Square subway station at 49th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Mr. Han, who was currently unemployed, had once owned a midtown dry cleaning business. He had come into Manhattan from his home in Queens to renew his Korean passport. That day, Naemm Davis, a 30-year-old homeless man wandered about the platform above the tracks mumbling to himself and alarming some of the subway travelers. Mr. Han (who reportedly had been drinking), asked Davis to stop bothering the other people. The two men exchanged angry words, and following a brief scuffle, Davis threw Mr. Han off the subway platform onto the tracks below.

     Dozens of subway patron looked on as Mr. Han struggled to pull himself off the tracks and back up to the armpit-high platform. He couldn't make it, and after being on the tracks for about a minute, was hit by a southbound train that did not have time to stop. A medical student from the Beth Israel Medical Center went to Mr. Han who was face down on the tracks, and still alive. The student rolled him over and tried to save him by beating on his chest. Some of the people standing on the subway platform used  their cellphones to video Mr. Han as he lay on the tracks below. A short time later, Ki-Suck Han died at Saint Luke's Hospital.

     The next day, police officers arrested Naemm Davis in midtown Manhattan. While being questioned by detectives, Davis said, "He [Han] wouldn't leave me alone, so I pushed him. I saw him get hit by the train. I said to him, '[expletive], get out of my face.'"

     On Tuesday, December 4, 2012, the day of Davis' arrest, the New York Post, on its front page, published a large photograph of Mr. Han standing between the tracks and the platform wall with the back of his head to the camera as he looked toward the oncoming train. The oddly tranquil photograph, taken just moments before impact, featured the headline "DOOMED" and the caption: "Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die." The photograph had been taken by R. Umar Abbasi, a freelance photo-journalist who just happened to be on the train platform that day. Mr. Umar sold the image to the New York Post for an undisclosed amount.

     The subway station murder, a homicide that in its own right would have created widespread fear and anger, sparked public outrage over the fact no one on the train station platform had reached down and pulled Mr. Han to safety. People also wondered why Mr. Abbasi, instead of getting a dramatic and newsworthy photograph, hadn't dropped his camera to save this man. And editors at the New York Post were under fire for simply publishing Abbasi's picture.

     R. Umar Abbasi, against a tidal wave of criticism, tried to defend his behavior on the New York Post website. The photographer wrote that he had flashed his camera 49 times with the intent of catching the attention of the subway motorman. "I wanted to help the man," he wrote, "but I couldn't figure out how to help. It all happened so fast. I had no idea what I was shooting. I'm not even sure it was registering with me what was happening. I was just looking at that train coming." Abbasi said he didn't understand why others who were closer to the tracks didn't try to save Mr. Han.

     Some media critics took issue with the New York Post for what they considered the unethical journalistic act of buying and publishing Mr. Abbasi's photograph of the doomed Mr. Han. A pundit named Lauren Ashburn called the act "profit-motive journalism at its worst."

     Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," a weekly TV talk show about the media, in recognizing that Mr. Han's murder comprised every subway traveler's nightmare, was less critical of The New York Post. Mr. Kutz did "wonder why the photographer's first instinct was to take pictures." The answer to that question was perhaps this: Mr. Abbasi was a photo-journalist. He was not a police officer, firefighter, or paramedic. Mr. Abbasi was not in the business of saving lives but in the business of taking pictures.

     On Wednesday, December 5, 2012, Charen Kim, a lawyer representing Mr. Han's wife Serim, told reporters that the family had been shocked by the New York Post photograph. The family didn't understand why no one helped Mr. Han. During the the press conference, the lawyer didn't mention Naemm Davis, the man responsible for Mr. Han's death.

     Naemm Davis was held without bail on the charge of second-degree murder. He had a history of drug related arrests in Pennsylvania and New York.

     In a December 7, 2012 jailhouse interview with a reporter with the New York Post, Naeem Davis said he had been coaxed into shoving Mr. Han off the platform by voices in his head that he couldn't control.

     At his January 15, 2013 arraignment hearing, Davis pleaded not guilty to the murder charge. According to police documents, Davis told investigators that the victim had "rolled like a bowling ball" when he fell onto the subway tracks. Because Davis was seething over a comment an acquaintance had made two days earlier about his Timberland boots, his "head wasn't where it was supposed to be that day. He [Ki-Suck Han] came at the wrong time."

     At the arraignment hearing, Defense attorney Stephen Pokart argued that Han, who had started the fight, was pursuing his client. Prosecutor James Lin countered by pointing out how the defendant's statements revealed that he did not feel threatened and had acted out of anger and malice.

     In 2013, the victim's daughter, Ashley Han, sued the New York City Transit Authority for $30 million.

     In March 2016, Naemm Davis pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison.

Mexican Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine was once a drug mostly made in home labs in America. But over the past few years Mexican cartels have cornered the market on meth production with a purer and cheaper form of the drug. 
Morgan Phillips, Fox News, November 19, 2019

George Orwell and C.S. Lewis

If you want to learn how to write, the best way to start is by imitating C.S. Lewis and George Orwell. These two Englishmen, born five years apart, never used a pompous word if a short and plain one would do. Orwell was a master of the welcoming first sentence. He wrote an essay called "England Your England" while sheltering from German bombs during World War II. Here is his opening: "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."

David Brooks, "Really Good Books, Part I," The New York Times, May 22, 2014 

The Death of Literary Culture

One of my editors at the New York Times Book Review once put it to me this way: when motion pictures came along, literary culture had real competition, and by the time televisions were in most American homes, anything we might want to call literary culture was all but finished. We simply do not have a literary culture anymore--what we have instead is a widely shared pop culture provided by movies and television.

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

The Brooding Novelist

Unless the novelist has the good luck to visit the bestseller lists or wallow in unusual critical adulation, fiction writing often seems an exercise in futility. After a short burst of reviews [Most novelists don't even get that anymore], the comments of one's close friends and a smattering of letters from strangers who care enough to write, a disturbing silence descends. It is like a small death. Something that has long been alive in us struggling to breathe is suddenly without discernible pulse. Nothing looks quite so dusty and dead as yesterday's book on the shelf. The novelist will likely begin to brood that the months or years invested in his work have gone for naught. It is at this point that writers become difficult to live with. They may take up drink, flirt with Godless religion or seek to run away with blondes. One's worth and how one has chosen to spend one's day are called into question.

Larry L. King, The Night Hank Williams Died, 1989 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Execution of Clayton Lockett

     On June 3, 1999, in Perry, Oklahoma, 23-year-old Clayton Lockett, a violent criminal, accompanied by a pair of crime associates, invaded a home and severely beat the occupant. While Lockett was assaulting 23-year-old Bobby Lee Bornt over a debt, a girl just out of high school knocked on Bornt's front door. Lockett appeared in the doorway and pulled the girl into the house.

     After hitting the stunned visitor in the face with a shotgun, Lockett put the gun to her head and ordered her to invite her 18-year-old friend, Stephanie Neiman, into the duplex. Neiman had graduated from Perry High School less than a month earlier. She had been a good student, and played in the band.

     The nightmare for these girls began with Lockett and his accomplices raping Nieman's friend and beating her with the shotgun. After the rape and beatings, Lockett bound the girls with duct tape and drove them and Bornt, in Neiman's pickup truck, to a remote area a few miles away. En route, he informed his captives that he planned to kill them and bury their bodies in the woods. The terrified girls begged for their lives.
     At the designated spot, Lockett made the rape victim dig a hole. When it was big enough, Lockett told Neiman to get into the grave. He pointed his shotgun at her and pulled the trigger. The weapon jammed. Lockett walked away, cleared the gun, and returned to the site where he shot and wounded her. He forced the other girl to bury Stephanie Neiman alive. 
     Lockett and his accomplices drove the rape victim and Bornt back to the duplex. Before he and the others drove off, he threatened to kill the traumatized survivors if they went to the police.

     One of Lockett's accomplices notified the authorities in the hopes of saving his own neck. A local prosecutor charged Clayton Lockett with first-degree murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, assault and battery, and burglary. Upon his arrest, the cold-blooded rapist and sadistic killer confessed to shooting Stephanie Neiman and having her friend, the girl he had raped, bury her alive.

     In 2000, a jury found Lockett guilty as charged, and sentenced him to death. He ended up on death row at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

     After fourteen years of legal appeals, and a last minute stay, Governor Mary Fallin ordered Lockett's execution to take place on April 29, 2014. That evening, an hour before his scheduled death, Lockett fought with prison officers and had to be tasered before being strapped onto the gurney. The executioner, after struggling to find a vein, administered the three-drug cocktail made up of midazalam to render Lockett unconscious, vecuronium to stop his breathing, and potassium chloride--to stop his heart.

     Seven minutes after the drugs were put into Lockett's body, he was still conscious. Ten minutes later, after being declared dead, the condemned man moved his head and tried to climb off the gurney. He was also heard muttering the word, "man." At this point, a corrections official lowered the blind to spare witnesses the sight of a slower than planned execution.

     Forty-three minutes after the executioner injected Lockett with the three drugs, he died of a heart attack. The potassium chloride had done its job, albeit a bit slowly.

     As could be expected, death house lawyers, anti-capital punishment activists, and hand-wringing media types agonized over Lockett's imperfect execution. The death row sob-sisters characterized his death as torture, an ordeal, and a nightmare, and called for the abolishment of the death penalty.

     The outrage mongers were nowhere in sight when Lockett shot Stephanie Neiman and buried her alive? Who in their right mind would shed a tear for this cruel, cold-blooded killer? So what if Mr. Lockett didn't pass gently and quickly into the night. A lot of people die slow, agonizing deaths, citizens who never committed rape or murder. Clayton Lockett was gone, and the world was a better place without him. 
     Over the years, state corrections officials have done their best to find more humane ways to put condemned criminals to death. In the 19th and 20th centuries, death row inmates were hanged, electrocuted, suffocated in gas chambers, and shot. Hanging is still an option in New Hampshire and Washington. In Arizona, Missouri, and Wyoming, the gas chamber remains a death penalty choice.

     Many correction experts believe the firing squad is the quickest and least painful way to execute a convict. In 1977, Gary Gilmore, at his request, was executed by firing squad in Utah. 

Police Technology

Police put their faith in technology, expecting it to solve the massive, seemingly intractable problems inherent in their work. We've seen this...blind optimism in body cameras, Compstat [computerized crime statistics and analysis], productive policing, cell phone trackers, Tasers, and even surveillance cameras...In many cases these technologies simply don't do what they are supposed to do. And more often than not, the technologies have turned out to be expensive stopgaps that give the police a sheen of forward-thinking pragmatism while in fact steering them away from the kinds of fundamental reforms that should make a real difference...

Matt Stroud, Thin Blue Line, 2019

Repeating Yourself

Every novel I write is harder than the last book. You would think that it would get easier in time, but it doesn't because the challenges are bigger, and your ego pushes you to do better. You want your writing to be cleaner, and I don't want to repeat myself--and that gets hard after so many books--but you don't want the same plot line, and the same characters, you want to keep it fresh. That's one of the hardest things, but it's just absolutely necessary.

Nora Roberts in Novel And Short Story Writer's Market, edited by Robin Gee, 1994 

Children's Book Vocabulary

As adults, we often forget that children can comprehend more than they can articulate, and we end up communicating to them below their level, leaving them bored. Or, the opposite can happen: children are growing up faster than we did and act very sophisticated although their vocabulary skills are underdeveloped. Striking the balance between writing below or above their level is tricky.

Alijandra Mogilner, Children's Writer's Word Book, 1999

Pretentious Characters

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

Richard Michaels Stefanik, writerstore.com 2000

Monday, January 24, 2022

The Emily Dearden Attempted Murder Case

     In 2013, 46-year-old Kenneth Dearden, a prominent real estate developer, resided with his wife Emily in a house they had purchased in 2000 for $562,000 in Yonkers, New York. The couple's two daughters lived with them in the house at 82 Ponfield Road West.

     Mr. Dearden, originally from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, had served in the Air Force. He had a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and a masters from Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands. He and his wife were married in July 1996. Mr. Dearden had founded his company, DW Capital Associates, and was president of the Yonkers Downtown/Waterfront Business Improvement District.

     Emily Dearden, originally from Englewood, New Jersey, had a bachelor's degree in psychology from Northwestern University and master's degrees from Columbia University and Widener University. The 45-year-old held the position of senior psychologist for the New York City Police Department.

     At three-thirty in the morning of November 14, 2013, Kenneth Dearden awoke with a searing pain in his jaw. His pillow was soaked in blood and his wife Emily was not in bed with him. Mr. Dearden made his way to the first floor where he found Emily lying on the family room floor with her eyes closed. After being quickly revived, she said an intruder had hit her in the head.

     At a nearby hospital, doctors determined that Mr. Dearden had been shot. The bullet had entered his head near the base of the skull and lodged in his left cheek after passing through one of his carotid arteries. (He spent eight days in the hospital and underwent three operations.) Mrs. Dearden did not seek medical attention.

     Later that morning, when detectives showed up at the Dearden house to investigate the shooting, they were surprised to find Mrs. Dearden washing her nightclothes instead of being at the hospital with her husband. Apparently unfazed over the fact an intruder had struck her in the head and shot her husband, she asked the officers if they had a warrant to search the dwelling. (Because it was a crime scene, they didn't need one.)

     In the basement of the house officers found four pistols including two derringers that were consistent with the caliber of the attempted murder weapon. The handguns belonged to Mrs. Dearden. She said they had been given to her by her father. (Forensic tests to match one of these firearms to the slug removed from the victim's head were inconclusive.)

     Detectives, from the onset of the case questioned the home invasion theory. There were no signs of forced entry: the family Rottweiler who slept in a doggie bed outside the master bedroom had not awakened Mr. Dearden, the home intrusion alarm had not been activated, and nothing had been taken. In other words, Emily Dearden's story didn't make sense to investigators.

     Detectives were also suspicious of the fact the victim's wife had waited until the next day to visit her husband at the hospital. Moreover, on the day of the shooting, she had met David Warren Roudenbush, a man she had been having an on-and-off again affair with since early 2011, at a restaurant in Yonkers. Investigators wondered why she had chosen to meet with Roudenbush instead of visiting her husband in the hospital.

     The investigation into the attempted murder stalled. Detectives did not identify an intruder, and no charges were brought against the victim's wife. She remained a suspect, however.

     In August 2014, Emily Dearden filed for divorce. About this time NYPD officials relieved her as the department's senior psychologist. They reassigned her to "administrative duties."

     Kenneth Dearden, on November 14, 2014, in a Westchester County Court, filed a civil suit against his estranged wife. According to the lawsuit, the shooting had been a "sadistic attack by an adulterous wife on her husband." As for the motive behind the assault, the plaintiff accused the defendant of shooting him so she could keep the marital home, avoid a contentious divorce, and never have to admit her infidelities to her family and friends.

     According to Mr. Dearden's version of the case, David Warren Roudenbush, after divorcing his wife, had pressured Mrs. Dearden to leave him. As a result of the shooting, the victim claimed he suffered mental anguish and the fear of being attacked again.

     On November 21, 2014, the district attorney of Westchester County announced that Emily Dearden had been charged with attempted second-degree murder. Later that day the accused turned herself in to the authorities. At her arraignment the judge set her bail at $150,000 which she immediately posted to avoid going to jail. The judge ordered Emily Dearden to stay away from her husband and their children.

     Following the criminal charge, the suspended Dearden handed her NYPD identification card over to an Internal Affairs Bureau official. Her attorney told reporters that his client had not shot Mr. Dearden and that the lawsuit had been filed as retaliation for her having filed for divorce.

     Following her May 2015 indictment for attempted murder, assault, and criminal possession of a weapon, Emily Dearden pleaded not guilty at the arraignment in Yorkers. Her attorney, Paul Bergman, told reporters that "Dr. Dearden is confident she will prevail in this case." If convicted as charged, the defendant could face up to 25 years in prison.

     In February 2017, Emily Dearden pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder. Judge Barry Warhit sentenced her to a three and a half year prison term.

     Three and a half years in prison for shooting her husband in the head while he slept. This is a good example of plea bargain justice.

The Search For Clues

It is through clues that we form our opinion about the facts of a case. This is only one alternative: to catch the culprit red-handed.

Theodore Reik, The Compulsion to Confess, 1959

The Gory, Perverse Stuff of Fiction

Is there a subject too daunting, a perversion too kinky to mention? Show a writer a taboo and we'll turn it into a story. Pedophilia? Nabokov's Humbert Humbert has been there, done that. The recent craze for zombie fiction offered an orgy of the restless undead feasting on human flesh. Genre novels serve up all sorts of grisly horrors and murder, and the popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray suggests that readers have no problem with sex beyond the vanilla. Even love between the species finds its expression in fairy tales like The Frog Prince and Beauty and the Beast.

Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review, July 20, 2014 

Too Much Backstory

Too much backstory kills a children's book by slowing the pace to a crawl. This is especially deadly in a young adult novel, where pacing is generally faster than in adult books.

Ricki Schultz in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, 2013 

Literary Voice Versus Authority

In fiction, the writer's voice matters; in reporting, the writer's authority matters. The writer of fiction must invent; the journalist must not invent. We read fiction to fortify our psyches and in the pleasure that fortification may give us. We need journalism to learn about the external world in which our psychics have to struggle along, and the quality we most need in the reporter is some measure of trustworthiness. Good journalists care about what words mean.

John Hersey, The Writer's Craft, 1973 

Influential Book Reviews

A good book review should do an evocative job of pointing out quality. "Look at this! Isn't this good?" should be the critic's basic attitude. Occasionally, however, you have to say, "Look at this! Isn't it awful?" In either case, it's important to quote from the book. Criticism has no real power, only influence.

Clive James, poet and author, 2013 interview 

First Novel Expectations

Highly autobiographical first novels are out of fashion. Budding writers are expected to cast their eyes away from themselves. And yet in our culture of instant gratification and celebrity, a writer's reputation can depend almost exclusively on the critical reception of a first novel. The problem is twofold: we expect first novels to be works of non-autobiographical genius well before a writer has time to mature.

Rosalind Porter, findarticles.com, 2005 

Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Keith Little Murder Case

     At ten-thirty in the morning of New Year's Day 2011, police were called to the Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland where they discovered maintenance supervisor Roosevelt Brockington's body in his basement boiler room office. Someone had stabbed Brockington 70 times in the face, neck, chest, and back. The 40-year-old victim had a 12-inch knife stuck in his neck. This was clearly a crime of passion committed by someone who hated the victim.

     Five days after the murder, a Suburban Hospital worker reported seeing Keith Little, a maintenance employee, washing a pair of black gloves and a ski-mask in chemically treated water. The police recovered these items from the trash outside the boiler room and took Little, already a suspect, into custody.

     On February 3, 2003, in an earlier case, Keith Little had allegedly killed his maintenance boss in Washington, D.C. This victim, Gordon Rollins, had been shot six times. The jury in the 2006 murder trial found Little not guilty. He walked out of court a free man.

     Investigators in the Bethesda murder case had reason to believe that Little hated Mr. Brockington. In 2009, Little had threatened to "get him" after the maintenance supervisor changed his working schedule. As a result of that adjustment, Little had to give up a second job at the federal court house in Greenbelt, Maryland. More recently, Brockington had given the 50-year-old suspect a negative performance evaluation that kept him from receiving an annual pay raise.

     DNA analysts at the Montgomery County Crime Laboratory determined there was not enough trace evidence on one of the gloves to declare the presence of blood. A second analysis by a private firm, Bode Technology, found no evidence of blood either, but did find evidence after applying a serology test that can detect more diluted traces. According to these results, the glove contained DNA from the victim, the suspect, and an unidentified person.

     Charged with first-degree murder, Little went on trial on December 2, 2011 at the Montgomery Court House in Rockville, Maryland. His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Ronald Gottlieb, in his opening statement to the jury, pointed out that the police found no traces of blood in the defendant's home, car, or work locker. As for the motive behind the murder, Gottlieb asserted that several former maintenance employees could have been angry with the victim. At this point the prosecution had a stronger case than the defense.

     On December 6, 2011, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Marielsa Bernard ruled that the prosecution could not introduce the results of the DNA test linking defendant Little to the glove that supposedly contained traces of the victim's blood. The judge felt the disparity of lab results rendered this evidence unreliable.

      Judge  Bernard also prohibited the prosecution from making any mention of Little's previous trial in which he was found not guilty of killing his maintenance boss in Washington, D.C. This information, according to the judge, was too prejudicial to the defendant's current case.

     The Montgomery County prosecutor, notwithstanding the procedural setbacks, went ahead with the case. On February 13, 2012, the jury found Keith Little guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Documenting Physical Evidence

     One of the cornerstones of professional scientific practice is the documentation and recording of experimental results in order that they can be subject to both reproduction and scrutiny by peers. The concept of reproducibility ensures that the given hypothesis carries weight and is not just a random finding, while at the same time allowing others to attempt to replicate findings, further adding to the credibility of the theory….Forensic science…has a burden to ensure the reliability and validity of its results, not just in theory, but also in practice.

     Documentation of the location of material evidence itself is usually required in the form of tracking its whereabouts at any given time in order to satisfy that the chain of custody has not been broken and that the evidence has been legitimately transferred between parties without alteration or amendment in such a way that the opportunity for alteration or tampering, whether intentional or not, has been minimized. A large part of the successful defense argument during the O. J. Simpson trial rested on the fact that there was extremely poor handling and documentation of the physical evidence that raised serious doubts as to its integrity.

     However, chain of custody requirements, which detail the physical location of evidence during its progression through all phases of collection, analysis, and storage, are still insufficient by themselves in documenting the results of forensic inquires. Like any good scientist, forensic examiners are required to detail, in addition to the physical condition of evidence given to them, exactly what they did with the evidence, and why the results of such inquiries have led to the conclusions they did. Documentation of the analysis of forensic samples allows the expert's data and method to be subject to, and subsequently withstand, rigorous examination,.

C. Michael Bowers, Forensic Testimony, 2013

Paragraph Length

     The length of your paragraph has a big influence on voice. As with sentences, you want to vary the length of your paragraphs to prevent a sense of stagnation or predictability. But beyond that, you can manipulate the feel of your voice by leaning toward long, winding paragraphs or short, snappy ones or somewhere in between.

     Generally a new paragraph signals a shift in thought, either major or minor, or a jump in time or space. But there is a lot of room for interpretation on when you want to make these paragraph shifts. Some writers may cram a bunch of thought shifts into a single paragraph while other writers may separate each thought in a new paragraph. Similarly, you could move freely through time and space in a single paragraph or use a new one for each shift.

Hardy Griffin in Writing Fiction, Alexander Steele, editor, 2003 

The Viewpoint Character

     Who should narrate (or be your viewpoint character) in fiction? A major character? A minor one? A few characters? What difference does it make? How will it impact the work as a whole?

     Choosing a narrator is not a choice to be made lightly, yet unfortunately many writers make the choice without giving it much thought. Generally, they automatically assign the task to the protagonist. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this choice--in fact, most often, it is the correct one--but problems can arise if the decision was made without taking time to consider why this person has merit as a narrator, what perspective he has to offer, what he brings to (or how he detracts from) the telling of the story, and how his perspective might differ from others'.

Noah Lukeman, The Plot Thickens, 2002 

Bad Review Payback

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

Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life, 2002 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Donnie Cleveland Lance Double Murder Case

     Sometime between the hours of midnight and five in the morning of November 8, 1997, 40-year-old Donnie Cleveland Lance kicked in the front door of a house in Maysville, Georgia and murdered his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Mr. Lance killed the boyfriend, Dwight "Butch" Wood Jr., by shooting him twice with a shotgun. He murdered his ex-wife, Sabrina "Joy" Lance, by beating her to death with the butt of the weapon.

     Charged with two counts of first-degree murder, Donnie Lance went on trial in February 1999. The prosecution, without a confession, an eyewitness, the murder weapon, or any physical evidence connecting the defendant to the crime scene, had a relatively weak, circumstantial case. Besides the testimony of a pair of jailhouse snitches who claimed Lance had, while in custody, talked about killing his wife and her boyfriend, the prosecutor had to rely on the defendant's motive and past bad behavior.

     During his marriage to Joy Lance as well as after the divorce, the defendant had stalked, beaten and kidnapped her. He had, on numerous occasions, threatened to kill her, and once asked one of her relatives what it would take to "do away with her."

     In April 1999, the jury found Donnie Lance guilty as charged and sentenced him to death.

     Lance's appeals attorneys contested the death sentence on grounds that the trial lawyer had failed to present evidence of the defendant's serious mental impairment due to low I.Q., brain injuries caused by car wrecks, a gunshot wound, and prolonged alcoholism. In April 2009, a Georgia appeals court re-sentenced Donnie Lance to life in prison.

     The Lance case prosecutor appealed this decision to the Georgia Supreme Court which, in 2010, reinstated the death sentence.

    On September 2019, a state appellate court denied Lance's request for DNA testing and a new trial. In early January 2020, the United States Supreme Court declined to halt the scheduled execution.

     On January 29, 2020, at the state penitentiary at Jackson, Georgia, 66-year-old Donnie Lance was put to death by lethal injection.

Utah's Firing Squads

     The last person put to death by firing squad in the United States was John Albert Taylor, a convicted child killer executed in Utah in 1996. He was the 49th person executed by firing squad in that state.

     A Utah firing squad consists of five volunteer police officers from the county in which the crime occurred. One of the squad's rifles is loaded with a blank. No member of the squad knows which rifle contains the blank.

     Utah abolished death by firing squad in 2004 and now uses lethal injection to kill its inmates. But the law was not retroactive so inmates with a death sentence imposed before that date can choose between firing squad and lethal injection. An inmate who chooses the firing squad sits in a specially designed chair that restrains his or her arms, legs, and chest. The head is loosely confined so that it remains upright.

     The condemned inmate wears a dark blue outfit with a white cloth circle attached by Velcro over the heart. Sandbags behind the chair catch the four bullets and prevent ricochets. Some twenty feet in front of the chair stands a wall with five firing ports. The inmate may read a final statement before the warden places a hood over his or her head. The firing squad takes aim at the white cloth circle and fires simultaneously at the warden's command. The bullets rupture the heart, lungs, and major arteries, causing near instant death from shock and hemorrhage. The lower part of the chair in which the prisoner sits contains a pan to catch the flow of blood and other body fluids that rush out of the prisoner's body.

Billy Wayne Sinclair and Jodie Sinclair, Capital Punishment, 2009 

Narrative True Crime Classics

I think Capote's book and mine are formally similar, but vastly different. Obviously, I'd be the first to state that if he hadn't done In Cold Blood, it's conceivable that I wouldn't have thought of taking on The Executioner's Song. Nonetheless, it's also possible that something about The Executioner's Song [about the execution of an Utah killer named Gary Gillmore] called for doing it in the way I chose. In any event, its flavor is different from In Cold Blood [about the murder of a Kansas farm family in 1959]. Truman retained his style. Not the pure style--he simplified it--but it was still very much a book written by Truman Capote. You felt it every step of the way. The difference is that he tweaked it more, where I was determined to keep the factual narrative. [Capote created composite characters and invented events. In recreating the murder trial, he had the defense put on its case first.] I wanted my book to read like a novel, and it does, but I didn't want to sacrifice what literally happened in a scene for what I wanted to see happen. Of course, I could afford to feel that way. I had advantages Truman didn't. His killers were not the most interesting guys in the world, so it took Truman's exquisite skills to make his work a classic. I was in the more promising position of dealing with a man who was quintessentially American yet worthy of Dostoyevsky. If this were not enough, he [Gillmore] was also in love with a girl who--I'll go so far as to say--is a bona fide American heroine. I didn't want, therefore, to improve anything. Dedicated accuracy is not usually the first claim a novelist wishes to make, but here it became a matter of literary value. What I had was gold, if I had enough sense not to gild it.

Norman Mailer, The Spooky Art, 2003

Writer Humiliations

Writers can only moan to each other about all this, really: the humiliating reading to an audience of two, the book signing where nobody turns up, the talk where the only question is "Where did you buy your nail varnish?" Nobody is really going to care, are they, if we sit alone unloved beside our pile of books, approached only once in the two hours and that by a woman who is trying to flog us her self-published book on recovering from breast cancer? Or that we wait, alone in the darkness, on the deserted platform at Newark station, the only reading matter a VIOLENT ASSAULT: WITNESSES WANTED sign swinging in the wind, until we realize we've missed the last train home.

Deborah Moggach, in Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame, 2004

Publishing a First Novel

If you are not some kind of celebrity, are unpublished, and do not have the services of a literary agent, the odds of getting a first novel published are not good. The aspiring writer has about one in a thousand chance of getting a commercial publisher to bring out his or her's first work of fiction. The odds are better than the lottery, but that's about it. There are just too many novelists and not enough readers. And to make matters worse, because acquisition editors have no idea what will sell and what won't, most first novels that are published bomb. But if you have to write a novel, do it. Get it out of your system. Who knows?

Friday, January 21, 2022

Careers in Forensic Pathology

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

     For the forensic pathologist, the most difficult task often involves detecting the manner of death--natural, accidental, suicidal, or homicidal. This is because the manner of death isn't always revealed by the condition of the body. For example, a death resulting from a drug overdose could be the result of homicide, suicide, or accident. Knowing exactly how the fatal drug got into the victim's body requires additional information, data that usually comes from a police investigation. When the circumstances of a suspicious death are not ascertained or are sketchy, and the death was not an obvious homicide, the medical examiner (or coroner) might classify the manner of death as "undetermined."

     The autopsy, along with the crime-scene investigation, is the starting point, the foundation, of a homicide investigation. If something is missed or mishandled on the autopsy table, if the forensic pathologist draws the wrong conclusion from the evidence, the investigation is doomed.

     Up until the 1930s, before the English forensic pathologist Dr. Bernard Spilsbury glamorized the profession through a series of high-profile murder case solutions, forensic pathology was called "the beastly science." Today, in the U.S., there are about 400 practicing forensic pathologists. For medical examiner and coroner systems to work properly, we need at least 800 of these practitioners. On average, about 35 of the 15,000 students who enroll in medical school every year graduate to become forensic pathologists.

     Forensic pathologists in the United States are overworked. Given the nature of the job, they are under constant pressure from politicians, prosecutors, homicide investigators, families of the deceased, and the media. The pay is relatively low, they often work in unsanitary morgue conditions, and in many jurisdictions, have run out of space to store dead bodies. Many forensic pathologists have burned out, and more than a few have had mental breakdowns.    

Vehicle Arson

     Automobiles seem to be very combustible…they contain flammable liquids, have many electrical circuits, and their interiors are made of combustible material. Combine that with a careless smoker and you have a vehicle fire, or so you would think. But actually, with new technology, most interiors are fire resistant--a cigarette will seldom ignite a seat cover or a floor mat, the fuel systems are designed with safety in mind, and the electrical circuits are shut off by fuses and other interrupt devices.

     Accidental vehicle fires do occur, but the fire generally remains in one compartment, i.e. engine, trunk, glove compartment or interior.

     There are two types of vehicle arsonist: amateur and professional. An amateur is usually behind on his car payments and desperate to rid himself of the car. He knows that the vehicle must be declared totaled by his insurance company, so he will go for mass destruction. The professional criminal uses vehicle arson to conceal other crimes: stolen cars used during the commission of a crime, or a homicide, for example.

     In general, after driving a car to a remote location, the arsonist will completely dowse the interior and exterior of the vehicle with a combustible material such as gasoline and set the fire. A one-to five-gallon gas can is generally found at the scene. Using five gallons is quite dangerous, and the arsonist may end up like the car if the flammable vapors have saturated the area.

     The arsonist might make what are known as trailers by pouring a stream of gasoline from the vehicle to a location he feels is far enough away from the vehicle to ignite it safely. These types of fires are easily tagged as arson because of the evidence left behind.

Mauro V. Corvasce and Joseph R. Paglino, Modus Operandi, 1995 

The Anxious Writer

Writer's block usually manifests out of anxiety. This is simple to say, but when you're a writer, anxiety is a way of life. So don't be hard on yourself. There are just too many variables that are out of your control, and it's normal for you to be anxious. The key is not to let it overwhelm you. According to the Mayo Clinic, general anxiety disorder symptoms can include restlessness, being keyed up or on edge, difficulty in concentrating, fatigue, irritability, impatience, being easily distracted, muscle tension, trouble falling or staying asleep, and excessive sweating. [If being a writer causes this, stop writing.]

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

Reading Horror Fiction

     I write horror novels because I want to scare sleeping minds awake and expose readers to things they don't already know, so they'll see things they've never seen from viewpoints they've never experienced, and question assumptions they've never questioned.

     Of course some people get grumpy when you wake them, angry when your stories don't validate their beliefs, and uncomfortable if they see something of themselves in the monsters you create. But as Marquis de Sade wrote in response to his critics, "Evil recognizes evil, and the recognition is always painful."
C. Dean Anderson in On Writing Horror, Mort Castle, editor, 2007  

Satire in Fiction

     Satire is the opposite of truth telling. Satire is a big lie mobilized to get a comic effect. Sometimes the lie is mere exaggeration, sometimes it is a complete invention. Either way, satire is an attack weapon. It inflates the faults and foibles of powerful people or conventional ideas, with the intention of making them look ridiculous. "Humor belongs to the losers," said Garrison Keillor, and that's what satire is about. It's a kind of revenge, often very sweet and always triggered with anger.

     Jonathan Swift was the father of modern satire. In scathing books like A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books, and Gulliver's Travels, Swift mocked the pretensions and prejudices of his own time. His technique was quite simple and works as well today as it did in the 1700s. He picked his target, imagined a fantastic metaphor and exaggerated everything. For example, in Gulliver, he created a deadly satire on prejudice with the story of the "Big Endians" and the "Little Endians," two groups locked in eternal battle over which end to open a boiled egg.

     Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller crafted marvelous satires on the Second World War, using Swift's tools of exaggeration, fantasy and aggressive ridicule. But contemporary satire is harder. Politics and popular culture have moved almost beyond the reach of ridicule. It's difficult to come up with something so bizarre that it won't actually happen before your piece appears in print. So satire can be risky for a fiction writer, who always risks being upstaged by reality.

David Bouchier in How to Write Funny, John B. Kachuba, editor, 2001

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Dr. Pamela Fish: The Disgraced DNA Expert

     In 1990, prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois charged John Willis with several counts of rape in connection with a series of sexual assaults committed in the late 1980s on Chicago's South Side. Willis, a petty thief, and illiterate, denied raping the women even though several of the victims had picked him out of a lineup.

     The only physical evidence in the Willis case was a scrap of toilet paper containing traces of semen. Police took this evidence to the Chicago Police Lab where it was examined by Dr. Pamela Fish. Dr. Fish had come to the lab in 1979 with bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from Loyola University. Ten years later, after taking courses at night, she earned a Ph.D in biology from Illinois Institute of Technology. According to her handwritten lab notes, Dr. Fish determined that the secretor of the semen had type A blood. John Willis had type B blood thereby excluding him as the rapist. Dr. Fish reported, however, in contradiction to her lab notes, that the semen on the tissue possessed type B blood. She testified to this at Willis' 1991 trial. The jury, in addition to believing in Dr. Fish, believed eleven prosecution rape victim/eyewitnesses that identified the defendant as the rapist. The jury found Willis guilty and the judge sentenced him to 100 years in prison.

     Eight years later, a south Chicago rapist confessed to these sexual assaults after being linked to the crimes through DNA analysis. An appeals judge set aside the Willis conviction and he was set free. On the day of his release, Dr. Fish, now the head of  biochemistry testing at the state crime lab, spoke at a DNA seminar for judges. (The Chicago Police Lab had been incorporated into the Illinois crime lab system in 1996.)

     The Willis reversal led to a 2001 review of Dr. Fish's cases by the renowned DNA expert from Berkeley, California, Dr. Edward Blake. Dr. Blake studied nine cases in which Dr. Fish had testified that her blood-typing tests had produced inconclusive results. Dr. Blake found that Dr. Fish's test results had actually exonerated the defendants involved, and that she had given false testimony at those trials. Dr. Blake characterized Dr. Fish's work as "scientific fraud."

     In the summer of 2001, a state representative at a legislative hearing on prosecutorial misconduct suggested to the head of the Illinois State Police that Dr. Fish be transferred out of the crime lab into a position where she could do less harm. (In the public sector this is considered harsh employee discipline.) The police administrator ignored the recommendation.

     In 2002, three more Illinois men, in prison for rape since 1987, were exonerated by DNA. Dr. Fish had testified for the prosecution in all three cases. Two years later, after the state paid John Willis a large settlement for his wrongful prosecution and incarceration, the state refused to renew Dr. Fish's employment contract. Rather than firing Dr. Fish, the state reluctantly refused to rehire her. (I would image that Dr. Fish's forensic misbehavior did not keep her from enjoying her government retirement benefits.)

     In 2006, Marlon Pendleton, two years after his release from an Illinois prison where he'd been wrongfully incarcerated thirteen years on a rape conviction, sued the Chicago Police Department and Dr. Fish. The plaintiff accused Chicago detectives Jack Stewart and Steven Barnes, of manufacturing a false line-up identification against him. (These cops were notorious for this kind of  behavior.) He accused Dr. Fish of perjury in connection with her DNA testimony at the trial, testimony that convinced the jury he had raped the victim. The Illinois Court of Claims awarded Pendleton $170,000 for his wrongful conviction. (In 2011, Pendleton was convicted of murdering his girlfriend in 2008. The judge sentenced him to 17 years in prison.)

     In 2017, Dr. Fish was employed as a biology teacher at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, Illinois.

On Being Shot

      If it takes ten or twelve seconds to lose consciousness from blood loss (and consequent oxygen deprivation to the brain), why, then, do people who have been shot so often collapse on the spot? It doesn't just happen on TV.

     I posed this question to Duncan MacPherson, a respected ballistics expert and consultant to the Los Angeles Police Department. MacPherson insists the effect is purely psychological. Whether or not you collapse depends on your state of mind. Animals don't know what it means to be shot, and, accordingly, rarely exhibit the instant stop-and-drop.

     Not everyone agrees with the psychological theory. There are those who feel that some sort of neural overload takes place when a bullet hits. An area of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS) is responsible for the sudden collapse. The RAS can be affected by impulses arising from massive pain sensations in the viscera. Upon receiving these impulses, the RAS sends out a signal that weakens certain leg muscles, with the result the person drops to the ground.

Mary Roach, Stiff, 2003 

A Phony Anecdote?

     Jason Biggs' wife, Jenny Mollen, published her memoir, I Like You Just The Way I Am: Stories About Me and Some Other People in which she recounts a story about buying a hooker for Jason to have sex with while she watched. [I don't know which one of these people is the celebrity.] Mollen and her husband appeared on "The View" on June 17, 2014 to promote her book. However, she shied away from the hooker story. Guest host Candace Cameron Bure [no idea] said she wasn't a fan [of hiring prostitutes for one's husband].

      "I have a sense of humor, but I have a hard time finding humor in that," Bure said. She felt Mollen wasn't being genuine.

     "This is not a habitual thing on our part," Jason Biggs said. "We don't have a group of prostitutes who come in and out of our house on a regular basis. My wife found the whole thing to be quite hysterical even while it was happening. She was actually on the bed, watching, eating a bag of potato chips, laughing. So you can imagine, I wasn't really performing to the best of my abilities. Also, said prostitute wasn't engaging with my wife the way I hoped she would so it all kind of fell apart, and the rest is in the book."

Seth Richardson, "Jason Biggs Recounts His Time With a Hooker While His Wife Watched," The Daily Caller, June 20, 2014