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Monday, January 31, 2022

"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

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 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

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

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

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

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

Tastes in Fiction

Any novelist who's ever stood in a bookstore, watching as someone picks up a copy of their book and pauses before returning it to the shelf, knows there's no logical explanation for why particular books appeal to particular people. Over time, though, readers do tend to make intuitive decisions. Someone who wants a fast-moving story may seek out what she imagines is a plot-driven novel. Someone who wants to spend time in close quarters, getting to know a person like herself, or perhaps like no one she's ever met, may choose what appears to be a character-driven novel. And someone who tends to pepper margins with exclamation points, who calls a friend to shout, "Listen to this line!," may gravitate to a book preoccupied with language.

Meg Wolitzer, "Life Intervened," (a review of Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley), The New York Times Book Review, March 16, 2014 

Journalism School

There are parallels between journalism and clinical psychoanalysis. Both the journalist and the psychoanalyst are connoisseurs of the small, unregarded motions of life. Both pan the surface for the gold of insight. Journalism, with its mandate to notice small things, was always congenial to me. I might have also liked being an analyst. But I never would have gotten into medical school. I never went to journalism school, either. When I started doing journalism a degree from a journalism school wasn't considered necessary. In fact, it was considered a little tacky. [If journalism schools still exist, given the sorry state of the profession, one wonders what kind of people they attract, and what is being taught there.]

Janet Malcolm, Paris Review, Sprint 2011 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Miranda Case

     On June 13, 1966, by a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court rendered the landmark Miranda v. Arizona decision. Based on the Fifth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which states that "No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself," Miranda expanded the meaning of these simple words.

     The court held that even voluntary confessions by a suspect in police custody would no longer be admissible as evidence, unless the police first warned the suspect that (1) he had the right to remain silent, (2) anything he said might be used against him in court, (3) he had the immediate right to a lawyer, and (4) he could get a free lawyer if he couldn't afford one. The person being interrogated then had to expressly waive those rights before any questioning could proceed. Should interrogators make the slightest omission or error in this warning, evidence subsequently acquired from the suspect could be declared inadmissible.

     In this single decision, four veteran criminals, convicted after voluntarily confessing to separate crimes, had their convictions overturned. The first was a three-time convict who admitted to a robbery after being identified by two victims. The second forged stolen checks from a purse-snatching in which the victim was killed. The third, a veteran bank robber, confessed after being told of his rights, but didn't explicitly waive them. The fourth, arrested for kidnapping and rape, was identified by his victim, and later confessed "with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding that any statement I make may be used against me." He hadn't, however, been formally advised of his right to have a lawyer present.

     Even though these confessions weren't "involuntary in traditional terms," writes Chief Justice Earl Warren for the majority, "in none of these cases did the officers undertake to afford the appropriate safeguards…to insure that the statements were truly the product of a free choice."

    According to the Court's majority opinion, "In each of these cases, the defendant was thrust into an unfamiliar atmosphere and run through menacing police interrogation procedures. The potentiality for compulsion is forcefully apparent, for example…where the indigent Mexican defendant was a seriously disturbed individual with pronounced sexual fantasies [author's note: the man had been judged mentally competent to stand trial], and where the defendant was an indigent Los Angeles Negro who had dropped out of school in the sixth grade."

Robert James Bidinotto, "Subverting Justice," in Criminal Justice?, Robert James Bidinatto, ed., 1994

The "Bukowski Man"

In the age of the memoir, some writers confess to shoplifting in order to advance themselves, and others profess to be aghast at the crime. Ron Rosenbaum, the author of provocative books on Hitler and Shakespeare, once wrote a column for the New York Observer lampooning the white, middle-class shoplifter he labeled "Bukowski Man" [Charles Bukowski, LA underground, noir poet and novelist], whom he described as a "drunk, suburban poseur likely to shoplift the Beats, Kerouac's On The Road, Ginsberg's Howl, Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book, anything by Paul Auster and William S. Burroughs, some French writers, Kafka, Bukowski, and books about sex and marriage." Rosenbaum pointed out that "Bukowski Man" was laboring under the delusion that by stealing he was embracing writers who wallowed in the "lower depths." He said, "Petty and debased ideas of liberation" drive Bukowski Man to shoplift. 

Rachel Shteir, The Steal, 2011

Adjectives and Adverbs

     The overall effect of a manuscript encumbered with adjectives, adverbs and the inevitable commas in between makes for slow, awkward reading--which these writers would find out for themselves if they only took the time to read their own work aloud.

     Manuscripts heavy on adjectives and adverbs can be spotted by an agent or editor immediately--sometimes even in the first few sentences--by looking for a plethora of commas (which inevitably separate a string of adjectives), or in the case of a writer who doesn't even know how to use commas, by looking to the nouns and verbs and then looking to see if adjectives or adverbs precede (or succeed) them.

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages, 2000

Literature and Rhetoric Professors

I must say that of all the types and kinds and classes of people I've encountered over the years, literature  professors and rhetoricians are the sorriest of the lot. After six years of peripheral but daily contact I've found them to be morally timid, petulant, unimaginative, joyless, insincere, petty, ineffectual, self-righteous, emotionally shallow, and thoroughly uncharitable. In general, they comprise a kind of secular priesthood--monk-like creatures who lurk palely in academic cloisters, out of touch with the very life they're supposedly preparing their students to enter. Moreover, they read too many books.

Martin Russ, Showdown Semester, 1980 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Jimmy Carter on the Legal Profession

     We have the heaviest concentration of lawyers on Earth--one for every five hundred Americans; three times as many as are in England, four times as many as are in Germany, twenty-one times as many as are in Japan.

     We have more litigation, but I am not sure that we have more justice. No resources of talent and training in our society are more wastefully or unfairly distributed than legal skills. Ninety percent of our lawyers serve ten percent of our people.

Jimmy Carter, 1978 in The Law is An Ass, Ronald Irving, editor, 2011 

Crime Novelist James Ellroy

James Ellroy [The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, American Tabloid, and others] is a cult. For many, he's a you're-in-or-you're out cult, because he's intense and absolute and violent in every respect--emotionally, linguistically, and physically. He's a brash writer who spins marvelously complicated, suspenseful plots. He is fluent in local period dialect that captures everything dirty, transient, prejudiced, profane, and provincial about the way cops and robbers, movie stars, and politicians talk. His thick, relentless dialogue (fully peppered with all the nasty racist and sexist things you might imagine that hard-boiled cops would say) combines with a compressed, impressionistic aesthetic that puts the language somewhere between A Clockwork Orange and Ulysses. 

Minna Procter, Bookforum, Oct./Nov./Dec., 2014 

Democracy Versus Dictatorship

The difference between a Democracy and a Dictatorship is that in a Democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a Dictatorship you don't have to vote.

Charles Bukowski, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories, 1968

The Writer as Optimist

All writers are optimists. We have to be. In order to be a writer, you need to believe in four things. First, I have a book to write. Second, I can write it. Third, I can get it published. And fourth, that someone will read it. That's about as optimistic as it gets.

Margaret Atwood, novelist, 2013 interview 

Monday, January 17, 2022

The "Moral Idiot"

Over a century ago, French psychiatrists coined the term "moral idiot" to describe the type of personality who seems to be utterly lacking in conscience and unable to conform his conduct to prevailing cultural norms. Such people were later called psychopaths (a term from the Greek, meaning, literally, disease of the soul). With the rise of behaviorism, social psychology, and the emphasis on environmental influences on the shaping of the individual's personality, the term was dropped in favor of the word "sociopath." For decades, psychologists viewed this morally nonconformist flaw as the result of deficits in a person's socialization experiences, often as a result of poverty, discrimination, or some other environmental deprivation or hardship. The person's lack of social conformity--and human caring--was now laid at the doorstep of society. Sociopaths were thought to be acting out the behaviors they had learned in adapting to harsh realities.

Dr. Barbara R. Kirwin, The Mad, The Bad, and the Innocent, 1997

The Appeal of Whodunits and Thrillers

The whodunit and the thriller are in their most typical manifestations deeply conventional and ideologically conservative literary forms, in which good triumphs over evil, law over anarchy, truth over lies.

David Lodge, The Practice of Writing, 1996

Eighteenth Century Autobiography

In the eighteenth century, autobiography was one of the highest forms of literary art. Fiction was deemed unworthy, while narration of facts was aesthetically and philosophically pleasing. This prevailing convention overwhelmed fiction to such a degree that many novelists passed their works off as non-fiction, sometimes by creating prefaces written by supposedly real characters who vouched for the authenticity of the story. Whether readers really believed in the truth of these stories is hard to say.

Preface by W. Lloyd Garrison in Frederick Douglass, The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, 1845  

Dealing With a Bad Review

Some reviews give pain. This is regrettable, but no author has the right to whine. He was not obliged to be an author. He invited publicity, and he must take the publicity that comes along.

E. M. Forster, in Rotten Reviews & Rejections, 1998

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Floorwalker

If you were arrested in a department store for shoplifting in the 1950s and 60s, it was probably by a female store detective, then referred to as a floorwalker. These middle-aged women were tough, quick on their feet masters of retail surveillance. They'd blend into the shopping environment then spring into action to apprehend the unsuspecting thief. It was a dangerous job that took skill, stamina, focus, and courage. These anonymous crime fighters were the unsung heroes on the front lines of American law enforcement.

Goodbye "Literary" Fiction

I think literary fiction has fallen prey to campus navel gazing and has lost touch with ordinary humanity. And it has the audience to prove it.

Jack Hart in Telling the Story by Peter Rubie, 2003

Test Your Children's Manuscript on Adults

My child would enjoy the phone book if I sat her on my lap and read it to her. Test your children's manuscript on discerning adults and ask, "Does it engage you?"

Stephen Roxburgh, Byline, January 2000

The Art of the Possible

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I'm borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn't exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

Ray Bradbury, The Paris Review, Spring 2010 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Chris Hedges on American Institutions

We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.

Chris Hedges [A journalist, book author, and Senior Fellow at the Nation Institute in New York City who specializes in American politics and society.] 2013  

The Vacuous Interviewee

Some people love to talk about themselves. A few people love to talk about themselves but don't say much that is useful. They say such things as "The Lord made me do it," or "I've got to hand it to my teammates." [Being a sports journalist must be brutal.] Your job as an interviewer is to turn the subject into a storyteller. Ask questions so layered, so deep, and so odd that they elicit unusual responses. Take the person to places he wouldn't normally go. Ask questions that require descriptive answers.

Jacqui Banaszynski in Tell True Stories, 2007, Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, Editors 

"Fraudlit"

The Japanese have a word, "Tsundoku," for all the books people buy but don't read. I think we should create a word for all the celebrity memoirs that fans buy that weren't written by the celebrity. Let's call this genre, "fraudlit."

The Birth of a Character

Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.

Eudora Welty, One Writer's Beginnings, 1984 

Friday, January 14, 2022

The Last Meal

The number of death sentences in the United States have dropped significantly over the past twenty years. However, as of 2021, the death penalty was still legal in 31 states and in most of these jurisdictions it was customary to give a condemned prisoner, on the eve of his or her execution, a special last meal of the condemned person's choice. ( Corrections officials use the term, "special meal.") In Florida, for example, the final meal can only cost up to $40 and must be prepared locally. In 2011, Texas abolished the last meal request for death row inmates. According to a 2013 study, inmates who professed their innocence were two-times more likely to decline the last meal request. Many death row inmates talk about what they will order years in advance of their executions.

Rip-Off Writing Class

When Katherine Anne Porter taught creative writing at the University of Virginia, her method was to sit the student writer down and read his story to him aloud. That's all there was to it, or so I've heard tell. I've also heard tell that one student, before his story was half read, broke down and ran out of class. [I would have been right behind him, all the way to the registrar's office to get my tuition back.]

John Casey in The Writing Life, 1995 

Authorship

There should be no such thing as a ghost writer or an as-told-to author. If you didn't write the book, you should not be allowed to claim authorship. Literature's great benefit from this rule would be the elimination of the so-called "celebrity memoir."

Joseph Heller's Work Ethic

I work almost constantly. For a novelist without hobbies, weekends don't make much difference. Most people don't enjoy weekends anyway; they don't know what to do with Sundays.

Joseph Heller in Fiction Writer's Market, edited by Jean M. Fredette, 1985. Joseph Heller is best known for his novel Catch 22, 1961.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Methamphetamine

In my opinion, the number one drug that poses the greatest threat to our society is methamphetamine, also known as meth or crystal meth. Meth is a highly addictive and powerful stimulant that affects the central nervous system. It causes mood swings, anxiety, euphoria, depression, delusional thinking, paranoia, and even permanent psychological damage. Prolonged use of meth can cause damage to the heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs, which can ultimately lead to death.

Phil Chalmers, Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer, 2009

You're a Writer, So What?

I'm so revolted by writers taking themselves seriously that, as a kind of protest, I've de-prioritized the role of writing in my life. I do it when I've not got anything better to do--and even then I often do nothing instead.

Geoff Dyer, British novelist, 1992

A Writer's Education

For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write--like myself--college is useless beyond the sophomore year.

William Styron (1925-2006) American novelist

Style: One's Literary Personality

The writer's personality and his personality on the page are not necessarily identical, but often there is a resemblance, not unlike that between an owner and his dog. A writer's work emanates from his personality, ego, sensitivities, and blind spots, his projections and unconscious wishes. All these contribute to what we eventually call style. Not everyone can arrive at a party and command the room; most writers are more inwardly focused. But even for those whose personal style attracts attention, the proof is always, finally, on the page.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees, 2000

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Establishing When the Story Takes Place

     Setting your story or novel in a particular historical time frame allows you to intertwine your story with concurrent events. The Great Depression, the Roaring Twenties, World War II--virtually any time period can provide a rich historical context with real individuals and events you can use as part of your story.

     Set your story in the present and you can include current events. The downside is that current events can make your story seem dated. Remember, even for published writers cranking out a book a year, it usually takes two years between when a book is started and when it's published. In addition, most of us lack perspective on current events. What seems like a major news story when you're writing your novel may be a big yawn a year later. So only include current events that matter to your story.

Hallie Ephron, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, 2005 

Spill the Blood Before Too Much Ink

Some mystery novels don't reach the discovery of the body until many pages into the story. Mystery writers have freedom to spend quite a few pages establishing the character of the detective or setting up the society in which the murder will take place. But the audience is quite aware that a murder will take place, but will become impatient if the writer takes too long getting to it.

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

Fact Over Fiction

What I remember about my first years as a published novelist is how eager publishers were, in those early days, for new fiction. This may have been because there was no New Journalism yet--once it appeared it dealt fiction a kind of double whammy, since the New Journalists used many of the techniques of fiction while keeping the appeal of fact.

Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, 1999

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Arsenic: The Inheritance Powder

Until the early nineteenth century few tools existed to detect a toxic substance in a corpse. Sometimes investigators deduced poison from the violent sickness that preceded death, or built a case by feeding animals a victim's last meal, but more often than not poisoners walked free. As a result murder by poison flourished. It became so common in eliminating perceived difficulties, such as a wealthy parent who stayed alive too long, that the French nicknamed the metallic element arsenic poudre de succession, the inheritance powder.

Deborah Blum, The Poisoner's Handbook, 2010

Relax, It's Just a First Draft

     All writing begins life as a first draft, and first drafts are never (well, almost never) any good. They're not supposed to be. Expecting to write perfect prose on the first try is like expecting a frog to skip the tadpole stage.

     Write a first draft as though you were thinking aloud, not carving a monument. If what you're writing is relatively short--a financial report, a book proposal, a term paper--you might try doing your first draft in the form of a friendly letter. The person at the other end could be someone real or imagined, even a composite reader.

     Relax and take your time, but don't bog down, chewing your nails over individual words or sentences or paragraphs. When you get stalled, put down a string of X's and keep going. What you're writing now will be rewritten. If it is messy and full of holes, so what? It's only the first draft, and no one but you has to see it.

Patricia T. O'Conner, Words Fail, 2000

Stories Are Everywhere

Everyone walks past story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don't see any.

Orson Scott Card, 1998

The Second Novel

There might be some truth in the fact that writers whose first novels are autobiographical find it more difficult than other writers to write a second novel, but writers of any stripe have a difficult time following up a first novel. I've heard that as many as half of all first novelists never write a second.

Robin Hemley, Turning Life Into Fiction, 1994

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Fear of Being Sued

     A wealthy society, like a wealthy person, is apt to err on the side of caution, an instinct akin to trying to protect a lead in games. But what's going on here is not the age-old tension between caution and risk. There's a third dimension of risk that never existed, at least not in ordinary daily choices, until recent decades: legal risk. In any social dealings, whether selling products, managing employees, running a classroom, or building a playground, there's a chance that someone might be hurt or offended. And in modern America that carries with it the risk of being sued.

     Dealing with legal risk is different from dealing with other risks because, instead of weighing the benefits and costs of a choice, it requires focusing on the lowest common denominator. A choice might be beneficial or productive but nonetheless carry huge legal risk. The playground could be perfectly suited for its purpose, attracting tens of thousands of children to healthy activity, and still be the source of liability whenever some boy decides to launch himself off the swing and breaks his leg--as is certain to occur from time to time.

     This is not a problem that takes care of itself. America has a public health crisis but doesn't know how to make the legal choices needed to let children to take the risks of growing up. We don't know how to say that sometimes things go wrong. This is an odd phenomenon, as if the adults fell on their heads and developed a kind of amnesia about how life works. The victim of an accident appears, demanding satisfaction, and we shrink back in legal fear. [The fear of being sued has raised its ugly head in the COVID era.]

Philip K. Howard, Life Without Lawyers, 2009

The Portal Fantasy Story

The "portal fantasy" is a mainstay in the fantasy genre. In this type of novel, someone from our world discovers a pathway to another world where he or she is our relatable explorer. We discover this new world through this narrator's eyes. It's a tried and true fantasy plot.

Charlie Jane Anders, i09.com, January 26, 2012 

The Short Story: An Ancient Art

The relationship of the short story to the novel amounts to nothing at all. The novel is a distinct form of art having a pedigree and practice of hardly more than a couple of hundred years; the short story, so far from being its offspring, is an ancient art originating in the folk tale, which was a thing of joy even before writing, not to mention printing, was invented.

A. E. Coppard, The Collected Tales Of A. E. Coppard, 1951 

Stranger Than Fiction

Fiction has to be creative and original but still make sense and be believable. Otherwise, readers will reject it as unrealistic. Nonfiction, on the other hand, just has to be true. So, in literature, reality is stranger than fiction.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Cops and Dogs

     In June 2013, heavily armed police officers in Buffalo, New York in search of crack cocaine, raided the wrong apartment. They broke down Iraq war veteran Adam Arroyo's door and shot Cindy, his 50-pound, 2-year-old pit bull. Cindy died on the spot. Local news organizations, aware of the public's outrage over the unnecessary shooting of a man's pet by cops raiding the wrong place, asked the Buffalo Police Department to provide statistics on how many dogs their officers shoot every year. To no one's surprise, the police department refused to cooperate with the news media.

     This act of law enforcement secrecy led to the filing of a Freedom of Information Act request for this data by local television station WGRZ. When reporters got their hands on the requested information it became apparent why the police department had been so cozy.

     From January 1, 2011 to September 2014, Buffalo Police Department officers shot 92 dogs, 73 of them fatally. And even more shocking, one officer in the department had been responsible for 30 percent of the dog shootings. In less than three years this officer had shot 26 dogs, killing all but one. He was, in essence, a one-man canine death squad. (The police department refused to release his name.)

     A cursory review of dog shootings reported in the media would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a significant percentage of dog shootings by police involve excessive force. The indiscriminate shooting of family pets has become a major point of contention between the police and the citizens they are paid to serve. People love their dogs and treat them like family. Having a beloved pet killed unnecessarily by a police officer immediately creates a law enforcement enemy. And when the authorities lie and cover-up to protect the officer involved, that police hatred becomes intense. When others learn of this form of law enforcement cruelty the anger spreads throughout the community.

     What follows are a few more examples of police animal abuse:

Newton, Iowa

     At ten in the morning of September 7, 2012, a police officer responded to a complaint regarding a dog running loose in the Emerson Hough section of the town. According to the complaining witness, Jeri Fahrenkrug's pit bull named Griz had snarled and growled at a man walking by her house.

     Neighbors watching from their front porches watched as the police officer shot Griz to death from a range of 30 feet. These witnesses later disagreed with the officer's statement that the pit bull had charged him. The dog, known in the neighborhood to be friendly, died near his owner's yard.

Filer, Idaho

     On February 8, 2014, officer Tarek Hassani with the Filer Police Department, pulled up to Rick Clubb's house in response to a complaint that his two dogs were not leashed. Mr. Clubb, confined to a wheelchair as a result of Parkinson's Disease, used one of the black labradors, 7-year-old Hooch, as a service dog.

     When the friendly labs rushed to greet the police officer, he kicked Hooch in the face, pulled his gun and killed the dog on the spot. Several people witnessed the shooting and were shocked by the unprovoked nature of this deadly force.

     After killing Hooch, officer Hassani berated Mr. Clubb for not keeping his dogs leashed. "You don't have to yell at me," said the distraught dog owner. Officer Hassani responded by demanding identification that if not immediately produced would involved a trip to the local jail.

     In April 2014, local citizens held a protest in front of city hall. A petition to recall the mayor who backed officer Hassani was being circulated in the community. An investigation by a neighboring police agency eventually cleared the officer of wrongdoing. This added to the public anger over the shooting. The mayor was not recalled and the officer remained on the force.

Salt Lake City, Utah

     In June 2014, officer Brett Olsen with the Salt Lake City Police Department, while searching for a missing boy, climbed over a backyard fence where he encountered Geist, the home owner's 110-pound, 2-year-old Weimaramer. The officer shot Geist to death in the dog owner's yard. (The missing boy was found sleeping at home.)

     Angry protestors gathered in front of the Salt Lake City Police Department. Notwithstanding public outrage and the facts of the case, the department cleared this officer of wrongdoing.

Sulphur, Louisiana

     In 2013, when hiring former Louisiana State Police officer Brian Thierbach for the Sulphur Police Department, the chief knew he did not have a clean law enforcement record. In 2006, Thierbach had been suspended without pay following a traffic accident in which he had been at fault. Thierbach, in 2010, while making an arrest in a Walmart parking lot, accidentally fired his service weapon. He resigned from the state police in April 2013 after being cited for conduct unbecoming a police officer.

     Brandon Carpenter, a 28-year-old musician from Portland, Maine, had been traveling the country by freight train and hitch-hiking with a 21-year-old friend. In April 2014, Carpenter, his companion, and Carpenter's 14-month-old labrador-newfoundland-golden retriever mix Arzy, arrived in Sulphur, Louisiana.

     The two men and the dog, on that rainy day, took refuge in a box truck sitting in the parking lot of a newspaper office. A person who saw them climb into the back of the truck called the police.

     Officer Thierbach arrived at the scene to find the men asleep in the vehicle. Arzy was also in the truck attached to a four-foot leash. Officer Thierbach ordered the two men out of the truck. With the suspects lying face-down on the ground, the officer handcuffed them behind their backs and climbed into the box truck to retrieve their belongings. Seeing Arzy, the officer asked, "Will he attack me?"

     Brandon Carpenter assured the officer that Arzy was gentle, sweet, and harmless. The handcuffed men saw the officer pet Arzy who wagged his tail. Then suddenly, for no reason, officer Thierbach shot the dog to death.

     When the details of Arzy's shooting became public, citizens of this small Calasieu Parish town were outraged. The police chief, under criticism for hiring this officer in the first place, accepted Thierbach's resignation on May 7, 2014. A month later, a local grand jury indicted him on the charge of aggravated animal cruelty.

Baltimore, Maryland

     On July 14, 2014, two officers with the Baltimore Police Department responded to a complaint that a small dog had bitten a woman. The cops became frustrated and agitated when they couldn't catch the 7-year-old Shar-Pei named Nala with a stick and a length of rope. One of the officers was heard saying, "I'm going to get that thing!"

     When the officers did manage to corral Nala, one of the cops held the dog down while his partner slit the dog's throat with an eight-inch knife. Caught on video, the slaughter of this pet caused public outrage so intense a local prosecutor charged both officers with animal cruelty.

Topeka, Kansas

     On May 7, 2014, a police officer in Topeka, in response to a barking dog complaint, knocked on the pet owner's front door. When no one responded, the officer walked across the street and spoke to a neighbor who informed him that the dog in question, a German shepherd and border collie mix named Dallas, was friendly and often played with neighborhood children.

     The officer returned to the dog owner's home, and with the neighbor looking on, shot Dallas dead when the dog galloped playfully to greet him. Dallas' owner came home to find her dead pet and the officer who had killed him arguing with a group of angry neighbors. The officer, who obviously didn't like his authority being challenged, told the angry neighbors to mind their own business. This officer was later cleared by the police department of wrongdoing.

Mason County, West Virginia

     On the afternoon of June 24, 2014, 32-year-old Ginger Sweat, while putting one of her two young children down for a nap in her mobile home in a rural community not far from Charleston, saw a police officer with a dog on a leash walking out of the woods behind her dwelling. The officer, accompanied by seven other cops, was searching for a missing neighborhood boy.

     When Ginger Sweat saw Willy Pete, her 6-year-old beagle-basset hound mix with arthritis approach the group of officers, she ran out of her house to assure the officers that Willy Pete was friendly and harmless. As she pleaded with the officers to allow her to gather up her pet and take him inside, Sergeant S. T. Harper with the West Virginia State Police, an officer with 14 years on the force, fired several shots at Willy Pete, hitting him three times. The dog lay dead in his owner's yard in a pool of blood.

     This senseless shooting of a harmless family pet on the dog owner's property enraged the community. A spokesperson for the state police, in an effort to diffuse public anger, issued a statement apologizing for Willy Pete's shooting. However, in that statement, the state police added fuel to the scandal by offering a phony version of the incident by accusing the dog of growling and baring his teeth at the sergeant who killed him.

If it Barks or Moves, Shoot it

     In April 2013, in Battle Creek, Michigan, SWAT officers conducting a drug raid, broke down the front door of a home occupied by Mark and Cheryl Brown and their two dogs. One of the officers shot the first dog after it had "moved a few inches," behavior the officer interpreted as a "lunge." The wounded pet fled to basement where the officer shot again and killed it. When the same officer came upon the second dog in the basement, he shot it twice. That dog was killed because it barked.

     In 2014, Mr. and Mrs. Brown sued the city of Battle Creek in Federal District Court and lost. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, in 2016, upheld the lower court's verdict. The appeals court justices ruled that a police officer can lawfully shoot a dog that is either "moving" or "barking" as long as the officer believes that the dog poses an imminent threat.

     In 2019, an official with the United States Department of Justice estimated that police officers in the United States shoot and kill 25 to 30 dogs a day, about 10,000 a year. The government spokesperson characterized the police killing of family pets an "epidemic." It's also an outrage, and does serious damage to police-community relations.