Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Conspiracy between Killers Fails

by Diane Fanning

Last week, the West Virginia Supreme Court denied the appeal of Dana December Smith. He'd been convicted in 1992 of two counts of felony murder. The jury did not recommend mercy which in the state of West Virginia was the equivalent of life without parole.

He was accused of a brutal homicide. In September 1991, Pamela Castaneda, 36, was sexually assaulted and stabbed seventeen times in her blue cinder block home in Leewood, West Virginia. Her disabled mother, 63-year-old Margaret McClain was stabbed fourteen times. Both women were found naked from the waist down.

When Smith learned he was a suspect, he hid out in the woods for four days until law enforcement tracked him down and took him into custody. It was the twenty-fourth arrest for the 25-year-old Smith.

He was not a model prisoner. He hit guards, jerked off their ties, tore their shirts, pelted them with apples and spit at them. Prosecutor Bill Forbes said, "This is the most cold-blooded killer I have seen."

Smith did not disappoint when allowed to read a statement before sentencing. He said he had no remorse and told the state's attorney, "You better pray I never get out of prison. You can take that as a threat."

The evidence at trial included the discovery of Smith's DNA at the crime scene and t-shirt found in Smith's possession that was splattered with Pamela's blood.

Unfortunately, that evidence was analyzed by
Fred Zain(right), a man who worked as a Forensic Serology expert in West Virginia and Texas.

DNA analysis cleared a West Virginia prisoner in another case where Zain had testified that his "blood was identical" to that recovered from a rape victim. A forensic review of an additional fourteen randomly selected cases found something wrong in each and every one. Zain had testified about blood at a crime scene when no blood had been found there. He claimed to have conducted tests that were beyond the capability of his lab.

In 1993, the
West Virginia Supreme Court discredited Zain's work saying "any testimonial or documentary evidence offered by Zain at any time in any criminal prosecution should be deemed invalid, unreliable and inadmissible."

Texas looked into his work, too. In August of 1994, Zain surrendered in Hondo, Texas on charges of aggravated perjury, evidence tampering and fabrication. Zain testified falsely in hundreds of cases--at least six individuals were wrongfully incarcerated because of his testimony. Although indicted, Zain died before he could be prosecuted.

It was just the opening Smith's attorneys needed. They wanted to retest the DNA evidence. But since the entire sample had been expended in the original analysis, attorneys appealed but that went nowhere. There was too much other evidence of his guilt, including his own admission, that he had stolen the victims' car.

Then, along came Tommy Lynn Sells(left). In the middle of the confessions after his arrest on capital murder charges in January 2000, Sells got irritated with his interrogators and decided to "jerk their chain." He told them about a dream he had about the Castaneda-McLain homicides. In reality, he was only regurgitating what he remembered hearing from Smith when they were on the same cell block in a West Virginia penitentiary.

That case wound on a list of previous crimes the prosecuting attorney submitted to court when Sells went to trial in September, 2000--even though the Texas Rangers had already concluded that the confession was not valid.

I had my first interview with Sells in 2001. From the start, he claimed that it wasn't his crime. He said he was repulsed by the sexual molestation of an older, disabled woman. "The right person is in jail for that one. Smith is a useless piece of crap."

After considering what Sells had to say and professional opinion of the Texas Rangers, I believed Sells was not responsible for that double homicide and did not include it in the original edition of

When I was contacted by Wendy Campbell in the Public Defender's office, I agreed to ask him about the case again but he'd always told me that it was not his crime. To my surprise, this time Sells said he did do it and he was eager to speak with the female attorney. Neither Campbell nor I knew about the letter from Indiana written on behalf of Dana December Smith. The writer urged Sells to claim responsibility for the murders--since he was already sitting on death row, it wouldn't make any difference to him. Was Sells promised anything in exchange for his false confession? Probably. But Sells is not talking.

That confession landed me in West Virginia court on a cold, snowy day in January 2006. I testified at a hearing before the judge considering Smith's appeal. I did it for the victims' family members. They were terrified that Smith would get out of prison. I couldn't remain silent and allow the lie of Sells' confession make that happen.

The next month, Sells recanted. For the court, his denial was not necessary. There were several serious errors in his account of the crime. For example, he mentioned a brown couch with a black afghan in the MacLain/Castaneda home. In the evidence submitted at trial, the photograph was there, just as Sells described it--but the snapshot was taken in someone else's home and not present at the crime scene. Someone had fed him the information he needed to make a plausible confession but not enough details to ensure credibility.

Smith's state appeals are now exhausted. Of course, there is always recourse to the federal judiciary. For the sake of the victims' family, I hope that avenue is not pursued.

Dana December Smith belongs behind bars. I hope he stays there.

Monday, March 30, 2009

When Is It Too Early to Publish a Book?

by Laura James

Long gone are the days when a true-crime author—like William Roughead, or Truman Capote more recently—waited until after the verdict to write the whole story (or, in Capote's case, after the hangings). In the instant era, books speed to release, and the publishers are becoming even quicker about releasing true-crime titles in particular.

Readers seem to be of two minds when it comes to quick releases.

Many say they won't read a book that comes out before the trial even starts. Others hold that a book can be quickly written and still be well done. But if put out early, the timing of the release will dominate all reviews forever.

Some readers are really unhappy.

On a book about Laci and Scott Peterson: "This was obviously written BEFORE the trial and has no pertinent information at all about what happened after Scott's arrest. Hardly the 'whole story' advertised."

On Robert Graysmith's book about Bob Crane: "We learn nothing about Carpenter's trial (an integral part of this entire story) because Graysmith and the publisher couldn't seem to wait until the trial was over, to send this book to the press."

On another true-crime title: "I also don't understand why this book was written before the trial."

The booksellers who specialize in true crime consistently tell me that many true-crime fans buy not the first book about any given case but the fourth or the twelfth or the twentieth. Many of us who study human depravity for a pastime or a career find a case that especially intrigues us, and we read everything we can about it. Some cases that have inspired such intense study are Lizzie Borden, Bruno Hauptmann, Jack the Ripper, and so on. So the first book a reader buys may well not be the last, particularly if the first isn't entirely satisfying.

Readers are fickle and inconsistent, simultaneously lamenting early books while snapping them up. . . .
One writer recently picked up an early book out about Austria's Fritzl case and reports: "If you want to read Monster, I'm afraid I bought the last copy at Borders. But just wait a month or so, and I'm sure there'll be more comprehensive alternatives. It's perverse, I know. But I can't wait."

Though quickly produced true-crime titles will always have their critics, in the end it is the quality of the publication and not its release date that matters the most, don't you agree? Is there a line to be drawn? After the verdict? After sentencing?

Readers, writers, and publishers can't seem to make up their minds, but one thing is certain: more of these quickly produced books will be on the shelves in the future (and Kindles, and cell phones. . . .)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hello Houston

Last weekend, you read about the release of Diane Fanning's new book, PUNISH THE DEED. If you live in the Houston area, next weekend is your opportunity to meet the author and ask questions about her Lucinda Pierce mystery series.

Join Diane for her booksigning event at Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet, in Houston, Texas, this coming Saturday, April 4 at 4:30pm.

PUNISH THE DEED--because no good deed goes unpunished.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Just Because A Guy Is Rich Doesnt Mean He Has Class

by Michelle Feuer

Rihanna’s battered face flashed me back to a case I worked on for CBS 48 Hours Mystery.

Twenty-eight-year-old Mary Heather Spencer, simply known as Heather, had that mysterious quality that made all men fall for her, plus she was gorgeous, smart, and kind. The girl voted “Most Beautiful” by her classmates could have gotten any guy she wanted, but she chose horribly wrong. For a year-and a half, Heather dated George Bell III (both pictured left), the third generation of the prominent Jackson, Mississippi family known for their carpet and rug business.

George was thought of as charming and intelligent by many who knew him, but things started going wrong in his life. His business was failing and his frustration led him to cocaine and steroids. In June 2007, he beat Heather so badly that she needed 57 stitches in her head. She refused to press charges against him. “She wanted to see the best in him, because that's the kind of person she is. She sees the best in everyone," said her mother. "She thought with her help, she could make him a better person." He went unpunished, but family members supposedly paid for him to go to rehab. The number of police reports was lengthy.

Just three months later, Heather was murdered by George Bell III. I watched in court as he admitted to kidnapping, sexually assaulting, then beating and strangling his girlfriend to death. He was sentenced to life without parole on the murder charge, and 30 years for the kidnapping. He cried as he read his apology statement to Heather’s mother, Linda Francomb, and Heather’s brother, Xan.

Linda Francomb, for a long time, questioned the involvement of Robbie Bell, George's own mother. In October 2007, Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson indicted Robbie Bell as an accessory after the fact, but new DA Robert S. Smith and the attorney general’s office dropped the charges in March 2008 for lack of evidence “after an exhaustive investigation and finally, discussion with the victim’s family,” according to the attorney general’s office.
On June 2, 2008 Linda Francomb filed a
wrongful death lawsuit against Robbie and George Bell III.

“During the late evening hours of September 10, 2007, and/or early morning hours of September 11, 2007, while Defendant Robbie Bell, George Bell, III, and Mary Heather Spencer were present, Defendant George Bell, III became enraged, and did violence to the person of Mary Heather Spencer,” the Francomb suit states. “Such violence inflicted severe, but survivable injuries upon the person of Mary Heather Spencer … (who) died as a result of the failure to receive treatment sustained as a result.”Spencer’s family has stated repeatedly that she did not immediately die after the attack, citing a coroner’s report that allegedly states she died six or seven hours after the attack. “Had aid or assistance been furnished to Mary Heather Spencer, Mary Heather Spencer would not have died,” the suit continues. The Bell response, however, states that Francomb has no evidence supporting the allegations that Robbie Bell was in the house when the crime occurred, or that Spencer was alive when Robbie Bell entered her home that evening. The response demands that any evidence to the contrary be produced, or Francomb’s suit should be dismissed. Because Spencer was already dead when Robbie Bell came home, the response says, Robbie Bell is not liable for Spencer’s death.

Today, Heather’s mom is trying to save other women from the same outcome. Please check out Linda Francomb’s new foundation: Heather's TREE (Training, Resources, Education and Empowerment) to combat domestic violence. "If I could help another young woman out of a relationship, make the right choices, give them opportunity to find way out…I want to help them anyway we can.”

Run, Rihanna, run.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reaction to Oakland Police Murders Paint a Much Graver Picture

by Stacy Dittrich

The brutal homicides of 4 Oakland (CA) police officers, and a 5th officer wounded, this past Saturday is beginning to paint a greater picture of what’s to come. The horrific turn of events began when two officers on motorcycles initiated a routine traffic stop on Lovelle Mixon, 26, of Oakland. With the knowledge that he had an arrest warrant, without a bond, Mixon opened fire on both officers killing one at the scene—the other died two days later. Mixon fled on foot to a nearby apartment building, where he was subsequently surrounded by SWAT members. As the team entered the apartment, Mixon shot and killed two other policemen before he was fatally shot by return fire.

With an already extensive criminal history, Mixon (pictured right) was on parole for assault with a deadly weapon which was the result of an armed robbery he had pulled years earlier. His parole was violated, and the warrant issued, when Mixon failed to appear for several appointments with his parole officer. Consequently, it was an assault rifle that Mixon used to kill the last two officers with. What probably sickened me the most about this story, was that over 20 bystanders at the crime scene were taunting the remaining, grieving, officers. Oakland, like many cities across the country, has suffered strained race relations due to officer involved shootings of black suspects. Evidently, the two motorcycle cops had no business running a black man’s plate.

Furthermore, they were completely out of line to stop the car once they learned the driver had an arrest warrant and violent criminal history. How dare they do their jobs! Lovelle Mixon, according to his uncle, was simply misunderstood and depressed over not being able to find a job because of his felon status. Obviously, he was too depressed to appear at his parole meetings as well—he was busy out buying a stolen assault rifle. His uncle said, “His frustration was building up.” Okay, then, let's chalk it up to society's fault and we'll all go home.

To the cowardly and vicious bystanders, it was another day in Oakland. Hey! It was the cops’ fault!—a familiar scenario by now. To add further distaste and insult, the associated press wrote an article on the incident that almost emitted a bit of sympathy for Mixon. They described his marriage to his childhood sweetheart while he was in prison. I don’t know about anyone else, but I really could care less. It was further learned that Mixon's DNA was matched to the brutal rape of 12-year old girl the day before the shootings. Of course, some of the blogs are referring to Mixon as a "hero to further the rights of the repressed African American community." I have friends that are black and I can assure you that none of them are looking at a mass murderer and child rapist as a "hero." It's absolutely disgusting.

My thoughts turned to something else when I saw that, on the front page of AOL, the story had quickly been replaced by the story of a 15-year old Hispanic teen that died after being tasered by several white Michigan police officers. Did I miss something here? Are we getting so paranoid on political correctness and crime that the notion of a black felon murdering four white police officers is entirely too inflammatory? It seems that the all too liberal media is hell bent on demonizing the nation’s peace keepers. Of course, many of our politicians are fueling the flames as well.

I had the nauseating misfortune of turning my television on to, none other than, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, addressing a group of legal and illegal immigrants. She was belching about how the laws needed to be changed so the big-bad police officers couldn’t dare kick in the doors to homes where illegal immigrants slept peacefully in their beds. This, of course, was before she was off to have her 23rd face lift. Then there’s the God-awful Stimulus Bill that allotted only $2 Billion of the massive amount to the nation’s entire police force; not close to being enough. Where police departments across the country are already stretched thin in manpower and equipment, the bill slapped the faces of officers everywhere.

My own sheriff’s department just laid off a quarter of its deputies. Please, explain to them why $2 million is needed for swine odor removal and $200,000 is allotted for getting that tattoo you got when you were drunk in college removed. Of course, as long as we have millions for the ridiculous global warming panic, we should be fine, right? Again, explain that to the 75,000 people that live in unincorporated areas in my county that will have extremely limited police services, if at all. There, the jails are already overcrowded and the city had the dubious honor of the highest crime rate per capita in the nation in the 1990’s. And it’s only getting worse.

The negative coverage of policing by various news outlets isn’t warranted. Drew Peterson doesn’t represent the over half-million men and women that put their lives on the line every day. And, if you feel that is the case with all police officers, your thoughts are out of sheer ignorance. I realize it’s difficult to not get swayed when people like the modern-day-Jane-Fonda, Susan Sarandon, are out protesting cops every chance she gets. President Obama succumbed to the pressure from the FOP when he paraded in front of 25 Columbus (OH) police cadets (the entire force has roughly 3,000) claiming that he “saved their jobs.” However, he didn’t account for the several hundred that were being laid off just a stone’s throw away. I hate to say this without throwing up in my mouth a little, but it was actually Bill Clinton who signed the bill to put over 200,000 new cops on the street. At least I’ll give credit when it’s due, and there hasn’t been a president since that has made the nation’s first responders a priority.

If you were being robbed at gunpoint and feared for your life and the robber turned and fired on the responding police officer—and the robber was ultimately killed, would you care if the robber was black, white, Hispanic, Asian, or other? I think not. I think you’d be damn glad that officer just saved your life. The disastrous economy is taking its toll on crime and the people that fight it. Don’t brush it under the carpet because of race. The liberal media's consistant disrespect towards law enforcement is filtering into our streets and posing even more dangers to our cops. Yes, I'm angry, and I have a right to be.

To the slain officers at Oakland Police, and across the country, rest in peace.

If the disrespect and lack of attention towards the Oakland homicides, the lack of attention to law enforcement by the Obama administration, the numerous layoffs of cops, and the media bias are any indication of what’s to come—we’re in serious trouble.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

They Are All Crooks So Why Not Bail Out Jeff Skilling?

Hunt for Justice by Cynthia Hunt

(Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, left, talks with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke before the start of a House hearing on AIG.)

Is the United States Morally Bankrupt?

I’m not a negative person so it’s hard for me to think in that way, but facts are facts. I sit here day after day shaking my head about the
financial crimes perpetrated by some of our nation’s finest minds and most educated individuals. It makes me worry about the moral health of our nation.

I’ve covered many violent crimes during my career as a journalist, and you can usually find the triggers. When you put a killer or rapist under a microscope, you almost always find a past that explains how the person transformed into a monster. Notice, I didn’t say it excuses them, but at least they are often explainable.
(Pic of Blogger Covering a Triple Murder in Houston)

Will White Collar Crooks Destroy Our Great Nation?

I find this new wave of white collar crimes grounded in greed and dishonesty more disturbing. I believe it reflects a moral decay in some of our nation’s most accomplished individuals. How could any AIG executive accept part of the $165 million in retention bonuses? Their company failed. They failed. A Big Fat F. We all know when you fail, you are not rewarded. We learned that in grade school Most of the executives receiving these ridiculous bonuses were from the same AIG unit that caused some of the insurance giant’s most severe problems. Accepting that bonus money is clearly stealing. Theft. A ripoff.

AIG is nothing compared to Merrill Lynch. Executives there rushed out $3.6 billion in bonuses.
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo discovered Merrill paid four executives a combined $121 million and distributed bonuses of $1 million or more to 696 employees. The firm lost $15 billion in the fourth quarter. Again, I call accepting or giving bonuses at a company that is failing theft. What would you call it? Kudos to New York Supreme Court Justice Bernard Fried for ordering the list of Merrill bonus earners be disclosed to the taxpayers. After all, Bank of America bought Merrill Lynch. Bank of America has been allocated $45 billion in federal bailout funds and the Treasury has guaranteed to protect it from potentially billions of dollars in losses from investments Lynch made in real estate loans.

These bonuses are just the latest crimes. Yes, I said crimes. Shouldn’t we investigate the executives whose potentially fraudulent decisions caused the failures in the first place. Let me again quote a Wall Street Journal editorial from 2006:
Today Enron Would Get A Bail Out

I covered the Enron story from the beginning. We called the Enron guys' work voodoo accounting. They were put on trial, called liars and thieves, and sent to prison. Founder & CEO Ken Lay died before he went to the federal pen.
Former CEO Jeff Skilling was sentenced to 24 years and recently lost his appeal. The damage Enron did is small compared to the Americans suffering now. This 2009 gang of white collar thieves is largely getting off except for the worst of the worst, Bernie Madoff.
(The FBI Arrests Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling 2004)

Jeff Skilling was once one of America's brightest and brashest stars. I sat in his Houston mansion one night as he meticulously explained everything that went wrong at Enron and what he knew and when he knew it. I must tell you that he knew they pushed limits to create a new kind of industry. However, he never believed their company was in real financial trouble and would go down and destroy so many people financially. I am not defending just comparing. After he was convicted, he was ordered to pay $45 million in restitution to Enron investors.

I find Skilling more like a school girl when compared to this new gang of still unnamed executives--the people who ran their companies into the ground with complicated deals and shady investments and then stole taxpayer money. I am sure if federal prosecutors spend as much time investigating all of these huge companies as we did Enron, we could send a bunch of these modern suits to prison.

Let's not forget the politicians who gladly pocket donations from these sharp dressed crooks. I think they should go to jail first and stay the longest. Unfortunately, you know that will not happen when you follow the money trail.

A NEWSWEEK review of recent filings with the Federal Election Commission found that the political action committees of five big TARP recipients doled out $85,300 to members in the first two months of this year—with most of the cash going to those who serves on committees who oversee the TARP program. Among them: Bank of America (which got $15 billion in bailout money) sent out $24,500 in the first two months of 2009, including $1,500 to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and another $15,000 to members of the House and Senate banking panels.

We have elected crooks overseeing the hearings of the business crooks while the elected crooks pocket money from the business crooks they oversee. Instead of sending our 2009 crooks to prison, we, the hardworking taxpayers, are bailing them out. We strive for equitable treatment in our justice system. Should we bail out Jeff Skilling too? At least, he went before Congress and testified instead of cowardly taking the fifth or fighting in court to keep his name and his bonus amount secret. He didn't try to take taxpayer money as a bonus after Enron collapsed.

They say our economy will recover from this, but what about our national character? Politicians taking control of our banking sector is a dangerous development that keeps getting scarier. It's all so un-American. Many historians believe Rome fell because of internal decadence and excessive self-indulgence. Will we too?

Madoff's Legacy of Shame

by Diane Dimond

Bernard Madoff (pictured left), a man surrounded by billions of dollars over his long career now has a new number in his life: 61727054 – his inmate number. It goes with his new 8 x 10" glossy - his official mug shot seen at right. And it’s very likely, at 70 years old, he will be an inmate until the day he dies. Couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy and now that the dust has settled on the country’s largest ever financial scam it’s time to take a look at the man himself and how the heck he got away with it.

The past ...

In 1990, Madoff became head of the NASDAQ stock exchange but he isn’t so much a financier as he is a greedy criminal who used his connections to get people at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the only regulatory body that could have stopped him, to look the other way. The warning flags went up over Madoff’s scheme years ago but no one took action.The investors here were victimized by the SEC as much as by Bernard Madoff.

Part of the reason Madoff succeeded was the glittering gossamer cocoon of success he and his family spun around themselves. Potential investors were clamoring at the castle gate to be allowed in. Some claim
Madoff offered them 30 to 40% return on their money and the dollars signs in their eyes blinded them. Many gave Madoff their entire life savings to invest. Now we know he never invested a penny of it.

The present ...

When Bernard
Madoff walked into federal court in Manhattan on March 12, 2009 a large crowd of his victims was outside, bundled up against the icy winds. In contrast, Madoff wore no overcoat, hat or gloves, only one of his many custom tailored suits. It bulged at the front button from the bullet proof vest he wore in case one of his angry investors tried to exact revenge. He knew his next stop would be jail so Madoff had left his expensive watch and wedding band back at his 7 million dollar Manhattan penthouse. He was, in effect, walking naked in the street for all to see his shame. His life’s gamble had not paid off.

There was so much anger when the
court granted Madoff 's request for home confinement following his December arrest. His victims (and many others) exploded that his "punishment" was to stay home in his ultra-luxurious penthouse. When he was allowed out on the street TV cameras caught his every move, much like some Hollywood movie star. His trademark smirk was beamed across the airwaves on an almost nightly basis, solidifying the pure hate for this man. But, after his "GUILTY" pronouncement in court that smirk seemed more like a lip pursing, shoulder-shrugging childlike expression of, “Gee, I got caught.”

Madoff admitted he had methodically bilked 65 billion dollars from thousands of investors plunging them, as well as charitable foundations, hedge funds and union pension funds into financial Armageddon. He knew it was criminal and he was “deeply sorry and ashamed.” He said he'd always, “realized that my arrest and this day would inevitably come.”

No sympathy from me that he had to live his life looking over his shoulder from the deck of his 1.5 million dollar yacht or the porch of his
multi-million dollar European mansion!

Self-made hell ...

Madoff set up his own sword of Damocles, a deadly instrument suspended over his head by a single horsehair. One quick movement could have brought the blade down. To suddenly stop stealing from others would have meant certain exposure. It wasn’t “impossible” to stop the Ponzi scheme, as he told the court, it was too lucrative for him to stop.

Madoff was a genius at the scheme he perpetrated. But he’s a stupid man who failed to calculate the end result. He wasn’t just risking his freedom. He hasn’t just destroyed himself and his gullible clients. He has also destroyed any future for his two 40-something sons , Mark and Andrew
(below) and his elderly brother, Peter, who worked with him. He told the court the rest of his family never knew of his massive deceit. I don’t believe that. And now, who in their right mind would ever want to conduct another financial transaction with anyone named Madoff? What will they do for a living now?

And, a
massive federal investigation has now targeted Madoff’s 67 year old wife, Ruth, a woman definitely used to the finer things in life. Investigators have begun proceedings to separate her from the more than 90 million dollars found to be held in her name. How will she support herself in the end?

I wonder if there were nights when Madoff laid his head down on his 800 thread count pillowcase and realized that his opulent life was really a dead weight around his family’s neck. Probably not. He likely figured, at the age of 70, he’d gotten away with it and his massive crimes would die with him. He might have slept at night with the special contentment that comes from knowing you’ve more than provided for the people you love.

But they are ill-gotten gains. What Bernard Madoff leaves his family is a legacy of shame. The money he brought in doesn’t belong to his family. That would be like the bank robber who, upon returning home from a heist, gives his bag of loot to his wife and then maintains it isn’t his money – it’s hers!

It doesn’t work that way. I say justice comes only after the Madoff family is stripped of its wealth and the money is divvied up amongst the victims.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Who Are Police?

by Andrea Campbell

Alarming Realities

In an older book called Protecting Your Life, Home and Property: A Cop Shows You How, a seasoned police officer from Indianapolis, Captain Robert L. Snow, explains that we should try to understand and treat police as individuals if we are to truly comprehend the dynamics between crime, law enforcement, and prevention.

Snow says one of the first questions usually asked by citizenry is, “Why become a police officer?" And after hundreds of police applicants under his review, Snow classifies police officers as falling into basically four different groups.

The first type, Snow says, are people who from their earliest years thought of law enforcement as the only career conceivable for them. They usually made all the right moves, took courses in law, participated in law enforcement internship, studied criminal justice in college and applied and joined a department.

The second type of individual saw a career with the police as a secure, fairly well-paying job with good benefits. The work they assumed would not be boring, and he believes they may have worked at a monotonous job previously, became disenchanted, or laid off.

Another group, he says, came to law enforcement by falling into it. The local police department happened to be hiring, they heard about it from a friend and applied without knowing much, but wound up loving it. S
now says he, himself, fell into that type.

And then, unfortunately, he says, there exists the last type of applicant, who, no matter how much psychological screening is heaped, possess personality quirks or inadequacies that go undetected and they inevitably exhibit large amounts of suppressed anger. Often their darker side thrives with the power that comes, and they cause police departments embarrassment before they eventually come to be fired.

What does this type of examination tell us? Well, despite the applicant’s general perception of the kind of excitement the job portends and the prestige they came to associate with law enforcement, police are still representative of the public at large. Often, few have considered the dangers involved and few others had a burning desire for public service.

Altogether, they represent all levels and all segments of society. A police department then, it follows, despite our media’s depiction of the police in films and novels, are not a homogeneous group, but individuals with a distinct personality who work the same job. Police are human, with human fallacies and prejudices, but it is their power of discretion, that has the most effect on the ability or inability to exact justice.

Case Handling: A Misnomer?

Considering the plethora of information and statistical data available about all aspects of crime today, one area of police investigation remains neglected: the actual pattern of police investigation response to citizen complaints of serious crime.

In today’s milieu there are numerous constraints on investigative activities. The first and major factor for this limitation is enabled by bureaucratic set-up: Investigator’s have found themselves shackled to their desk. For every case assigned, the detective must produce a completed investigative report within 14 days. The report account must consist of:

1) description of relevant information about the incident;

2) the type of investigation undertaken; and

3) the classification of the status. For classification purposes, three designations are possible: *one, a case is closed, assuming an arrest has been made and no further action is required; *two, a case is suspended, whereupon the available information has proved fruitless and no further investigation is warranted; and *three, the case is open, which indicates that a continued investigation beyond a 14-day period holds some promise of arrest (generally “major” cases are classified “open” with special justification required).

The discretion of the investigative officer colors all areas of the report. For example, his personal assessment of the “typicality” of the event is factored in—meaning, for instance, that a type of crime is:

• common for this area;

• considered routine; and

• only low-effort treatment is required.

Also, the discretion of the officer appears again when he is dealing with the victim of the offense, and here he may often give the impression that, "everything is being done” to solve the problem (a short-cut type of public relations).

Supervisors seldom challenge the content of the reports, but their main input into the process is that the time deadline of the report is monitored, and findings are often used as a basis for performance and evaluation. A component in this supervisory technique is that the police investigator comes to understand there is an informal pressure on him to produce a number of arrests, or his assignment can change—read this as a “demotion” in nature—and said officer can find himself back on the beat.

Detective work carries some prestige, not necessarily in wages but in attitude and demeanor, number of shifts, and detectives often wear civilian clothes and drive around in unmarked cars. One other note of interest here, is that the public’s conception is often that the detective is doing the “real police-type work,” that is, crime control; whereas the other, regular-type cops are engaged in peace-keeping.

Between the incidence of this kind of self-reporting and the internal pressure that exists, the inadvertent results of the report are then somewhat skewed. For example, there exists a private notion called “skimming.” Skimming, in simple terms, is when police select from their workload cases that appear likely to result in arrest. Obviously, the effect of working in this manner is that other, more routine cases, receive only the most cursory treatment.

Detectives employ an instrumental kind of “shorthand” in this sense:

Cases with potential, versus time-consuming cases. Those with some hope of reward, versus those with dead-ends. Burglary and robbery are seen as routine and require minimum effort. Whereas assault, rape and homicide provide a higher level of effort, because of these factors:

Since these cases frequently involve:

• persons of acquaintance they may prove more solvable;

• information is readily available; and

• the case has characteristics (but interestingly, since no great investigative acumen is involved, less credit is accorded).

With cases where the suspects are strangers, the case is automatically tainted as being “major” by supervisors, and even the terminology changes, the killing becomes “murder.” The stranger-related murder then involves more methodically-processed information, even though the police have a difficult time in solving this latter type of case.

There are also discretionary politics employed in the investigative techniques of crime. For example, a routine burglary, often referred to as “pork chop” burglaries, are suspended after a brief interview or perfunctory investigation; (sometimes they are also reclassified as a lesser offense).

The ability or inability to provide information in “I.D.-ing the perp(etrator)” is the single most important feature and given the greatest interpretive significance. If the victim of lost property has a named suspect, the case becomes non-routine. Other characteristics of major importance in the weighing of a crime’s effort include: Character of victim; social class; position in the community; and race. These are all said to have a decisive impact.

In those cases which evolve in a so-called “respectable” neighborhood, a more detailed investigative report is prepared and the officer may even outline his reasons for justifying “suspension,” because the officer may feel the victim will be more likely to inquire into the process and progress of the case, often complaining to their supervisors. This can be defined among detectives as the cases that, “come back on them.”

It would do well to mention some other factors involved with case-solving efforts: public relations moves; reducing juvenile crimes to criminal mischief; awareness of changes in a neighborhood; and the organizational weight of the group committing the crime.

In summary, case stereotypes do happen, pursuance is vigorous and methodical in only a small percentage of cases and a differential treatment because of a victim’s status is not uncommon. The work orientation emphasizes practicality over product, and tends to encourage substitutions of assumption for information gathering due to time, money and supervisory restraints. Not quite the picture we citizens had hoped for. The image of a special arsenal of sophisticated technical methodology is substantially misleading. All the more reason to engage ourselves in crime knowledge and prevention.

I have a lot of law enforcement friends and this is not meant to be a diatribe, but I wanted readers to know what police are up against and to look at them as men and women who are doing the best they can in difficult situations to help keep us safe. They are putting their lives on the line in some way, every day—and we should try to do what we can as citizens to help them in their tasks.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Punish the Deed

Homicide Detective Lucinda Pierce is back in PUNISH THE DEED by Diane Fanning.

The mutilated body of children’s charity worker Sharon Fleming is found sprawling on the office kitchen’s floor. A note beside her body bears the words: “I was left behind.”

Lucinda must track down this violent killer before he leaves another victim behind. She finds help from the most unlikely source. But is the price too high to pay? You can read the first chapter on Diane’s Web site.

Diane’s Calendar has a list of interviews and booksignings including stops in Williamsburg, Virginia; and in Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, Texas.

The Lucinda Pierce series began with THE TROPHY EXCHANGE—now it continues.

PUNISH THE DEED. Because no good deed goes unpunished.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fifteen Years for Twenty-Four: Fritzl Wins

by Pat Brown

Yesterday and today I did hits for
CTV Newsnet on the "Dungeon Dad," Joseph Fritzl. Both times, I was asked the traditional questions: "What was going on in the mind of this man? What is wrong with him?" I answered those but I couldn't resist making commentary on what I think is a lot more important. The bigger issue is "What is wrong with us?"

Josef Fritzl committed crime after crime because we, society, have let him. After imprisoning his daughter, Elisabeth, in a bunker for twenty-four years, raping her repeatedly, fathering her children, and killing one of them, the Austrian father-from-hell
Fritzl got a slap on the wrist. The only time before this that he saw the inside of a courtroom and got penalized for his behavior (if one can call his sentence much of a penalty) was when he viciously raped a stranger. He spent all of a year in jail (even though he had convictions of indecent exposure and attempted rape on his record).

Apparently, society feels rape isn't such a bad crime and people weren't much concerned that Fritzl, a repeat sexual offender, was a danger to women; they essentially condoned the action. Then the crime was actually expunged and his name cleared. Society seemed to feel the victim should have to suffer the rest of her life, but this man should not have to have his future ruined. And society must have determined that women in Austria, and elsewhere, deserved to live with the threat of this man raping and possibly murdering them.

Think this is a stretch? Fritzl is now being looked at in the sexual homicides of four teenage girls in his country and in other possible crimes outside Austria, including Thailand where he went for sex tourism. And a number of women have come forward to identify Fritzl as the man who raped them.

Fritzl's wife, Roseanne, clearly agreed with society. She went ahead and let her husband return home in spite of the fact that he brutally raped a woman while he was married to her. When her daughter went missing,
she didn't alert the authorities to the possibility her husband might have done something to her.

Year after year, Roseanne's husband acted in a manner that could not have failed to raise red flags. Did she not question why there were "no access" areas of the property and why her three grandchildren suddenly showed up from out of the blue with only her husband's word that Elisabeth dumped them on the doorstep? Fritzl's wife undoubtedly looked the other way and, in spite of that, society did not charge her as an accomplice.

Even the lodgers in the house and the neighbors saw suspicious behaviors on the part of Joseph Fritzl. They actually knew, at a point before she disappeared for two decades, that Elizabeth was being sexually abused; they just didn't think it was their duty to report it to the police. Society again gave Fritzl the green light for his hideous and evil actions.

Finally, part of society caught up with Joseph Fritzl and took him to court. The verdict? An unbelievable fifteen-year sentence for 3,000 rapes, kidnapping, imprisonment, and murder of an infant. Society must think all of this isn't much more of an offense than passing bad checks.

Now, in a continuation of this abomination, Fritzl doesn't have to go to prison where other criminals go, but instead he gets to pick the senior citizen home of his choice—a psychiatric facility (pictured right) that has the most desirable amenities—where he can live out his declining years in comfort and safety.

But, wait, society isn't finished with Fritzl yet! They still have the right to free the man before his "sentence" is up! If this sweet old man makes enough nice art projects and finds "recognition of his behaviors through his personal and group therapy," society might decide to let the poor fellow live out his final years in the community.

Looking at this case, I am not sure Joseph Fritzl deserves to be found guilty if society so supported each and every one of his sick behaviors. How can society blame him when society did next to nothing to prevent, stop, or condemn his actions until Fritzl reached age seventy-three and had decades of enabling by his fellow citizens?

Joseph Fritzl has "confessed" and "expressed remorse" at what he has done. When will society do the same?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Defense Rests

by Donna Pendergast

Phil Spector's murder retrial is nearing an end. The defense rested its case last Thursday, a month after the prosecution finished its case in the shooting death of Lana Clarkson.
The 43-year-old House of Blues hostess (pictured right) died of a gunshot wound through the mouth at Spector's mansion in February 2003.

Spector, the 69-year-old legendary music producer, declined to testify after being advised of his right to take the stand by Judge Larry Fidler.

The judge and jury are spending this week hammering out jury instructions before Monday's tentatively scheduled closing arguments.

What a strange ride it has been since jury selection began in the first trial two years ago today. The first trial was a roller coaster with more hype than a circus. The retrial has taken nearly as long as the original trial but has been far more subdued in character. From Spector's tamped down garb and hair to the media indifference, the retrial is refreshing in what it is not, Over the top.

With the focus being where it should be, on the facts, not extraneous factors, let's hope this time the truth shines through. I have a good feeling this time around.

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to relect the views, opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's Wrong with Me?

by Katherine Scardino

Recently, I had a very sobering experience. I always thought most people committed crimes for two reasons: greed and arrogance. Greed meaning when they want what someone else has and can’t get it by other means—so they steal it. I hate those more than any other type of criminals. Arrogance comes to mind when I think of someone killing another person because they believe themselves so important that they can't imagine the other person wanting to be with someone else. How could that possibly happen? As in: I am so wonderful, it's impossible that he or she would leave me. You know what I mean.

Then last week I visited a Mexican man held in a far south Texas jail. He's accused of killing his mother-in-law and three children (one was his own 2½-year-old son), then attempting to kill his estranged wife. Remarkably, this man's wife survived four gunshot wounds. Unfortunately for this man, there couldn't be a more solid set of facts to charge someone with the most serious of criminal offenses—capital murder. A guilty verdict carries the possibility of the ultimate sentence, the death penalty.

Still, I'm a criminal defense attorney, and the truth is that it all sounds pretty normal, in my world. Throughout my career, I've seen horrible photos, and I've heard terrifying testimony about the evil one individual can perpetrate on another. On the surface, this case isn't remarkable. What bothers me is my reaction to this man and what he told me. Through an interpreter, his words touched me in a very unusual way. Until we talked, I'd never thought much about the effects of cultural differences, especially early childhood teachings, and how such influences form who a person becomes as an adult.

Not that upbringing hasn't been a factor in past cases. I often have mitigation specialists to assist me in the punishment phase of capital trials. The mitigation person pulls together records about a person’s life—from the moment of birth up to the present day. S/he gathers so much information that the defense attorney knows when his client lost his first tooth, when he learned how to swim, when he got his first beating, or how old he was when his mother first locked him in that dark closet.

These facts are important because they tell the life story of an individual. But there is something even more important and more pervasive—culture. Societal norms and mores of the place where we are born and raised form the core of who we are as human beings. Culture molds who we are inside—makes us the way we are.

As we talked, the Mexican man cried. He explained that his wife, who was much younger than he, decided she wanted to go back to school. He told me that she became mean, telling him "being with you is a waste of time" and "I should have married this other guy—I would be rich now." Those statements gnawed at him, a poor yet proud man. That night, he went to the family home. He entered his wife's darkened bedroom with his gun drawn and started firing. Moments later, his own young son, two of his wife’s children from another relationship, and his mother-in-law lay dead. They'd been lying in the bed together.

My client stumbled out of the room, only to run into his wife as she walked in the front door. He was shocked, appalled, scared, and in an instant, he knew what had happened. Angry, he shot again. She was lucky; although injured, she didn't die.

So, you may ask, where is the mystery? Why am I questioning anything? This man committed a terrible act.

What I heard in the man's voice was a deep, desperate hurt, a pain that cut to his very core. His crying sounded like an animal screaming for help. It touched me as nothing has in a long time. I asked myself—how in the world can a person get to that point? He has no criminal history and no history of violence of any kind. What made him literally go over the edge?

The answer is the Mexican culture with its machismo, exaggerated masculine pride.

This man saw himself as a good husband and father. He was the provider of his family, his wife and children. A carpenter, he worked hard, providing food and a place to sleep. He did what his culture says a man does for the people he loves. In the end, his pride was bigger than his brain. His culture made him a slave to his pride. He could not assimilate the fact that his wife wanted to go to school; that she was not respectful of her husband; that she called him names and insulted him in front of others. His pride and his upbringing would not allow that. So he snapped, and four people died.

I know you'll comment and say that I've lost my mind. Why in the world would I sympathize with this killer—and not just "a" killer—but a killer of children and an older woman? That’s why I ask: What is wrong with me? OK, you tell me. Help me with this.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Plea to Casey Marie Anthony

by Robin Sax

When interesting twists on today’s crimes stories are becoming more often the case than not, it still constantly amazes just how much evidence there is in the case of the People of the State of Florida versus Casey Marie Anthony, whom Nancy Grace so aptly coined “Tot Mom.”

The case of Casey Anthony has triggered many emotions. How can a young mother to a beautiful child seemingly murder that child? While so many people are uncomfortable with the notion of a young attractive mom killing her child, it amazes me how quickly people forget just how much evidence there is in this case. There is more
evidence in this case than most—and I mean by a long shot.

By way of reminder in this case the prosecution’s
evidence looks like this:

1. The defendant being caught in
numerous lies about material facts;

2. friends saying the defendant had a history and a reputation for lying;

3. the defendant’s mom Cindy Anthony calling 9-1-1 saying that she had not seen Caylee for weeks (Tot Mom didn’t even report her own daughter missing);

4. the defendant’s dad (who was a former police officer) smelling an odor that was unmistakably that of a dead body in Tot Mom’s car;

5. the defendant stealing money from her mother and committing crimes against her own parents which show callousness and are depictive of her moral turpitude;

6. chloroform searches turning up on Tot Mom’s computer (Ring a bell? Recall Scott Peterson’s trial where his computer showed searches for tide patterns in the water where his wife was found murdered);

7. little Caylee being found less than a mile from the Anthony home;

8. pictures EVERYWHERE showing Casey partying it up, even after Caylee was “missing”;

9. journal entries revealing that Casey had never been happier around the time that Caylee went missing;

10. Caylee’s body being discovered in a bag that also contained a Winnie the Pooh blanket that was missing from Caylee’s bed;

11. duct tape being found on Caylee’s remains with apparently deliberately placed heart sticker residue on duct tape right where Caylee’s mouth was;

12. DNA turning up in Tot Mom’s car consistent with decomposition along with traces of chloroform;

13. Medical Examiner "Dr. G” Jan Garavaglia confirming Caylee’s death was a homicide of undetermined means; and

14. PERHAPS DAMNING THE CLEAR MOTIVE . . . a girl who couldn’t hang with being a mom, wanting freedom from everything, and being willing to do anything to get it including murdering her 2½-year-old baby.

So if this is the case, Casey Marie Anthony, “Tot Mom,” please answer the following questions:

If you are not insane, why aren’t you begging for a deal?

You have said that the prosecutor is mad that you won’t plea-bargain. But aren’t you simply blaming the prosecutor instead of taking responsibility yourself—another habit of yours? Why not do what is dignified? Stop blaming Zanny the Nanny, tormenting the one and only Zenaida Gonzalez. Stop stepping on your daughter’s memory even more and seize the opportunity. Do something, for once, where you actually take responsibility. You may even appear to have a scant piece of dignity.

Yes, Casey, I am speaking to you. You should be begging for a deal, wanting to plea-bargain, and just being thankful that with the right disposition you may have a chance of being remembered as something other than the lying, selfish, narcissistic murderer that the evidence shows you are.

This post and all posts by Robin Sax do not represent the opinion of the Los Angeles County District Attorney or the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

Group Think

by Lucy Puryear, M.D.

It is no longer 1984, but George Orwell was on to something when he penned his classic and prescient novel. Published in 1949, Orwell wrote of an eerie world where individualism was rejected and universal group adherence was mandated. Although the fear that 1984 would resemble "1984" the novel did not come true, many of his concepts are relevant to our culture today.

I would like to talk about group behavior and crime. In 1979, social psychologist Irving Janis coined the phrase "groupthink." He defined groupthink as "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action."

I am proposing that groupthink contributed to the financial crisis that we are facing today and allowed white collar criminals like Bernie Madoff and Sir Allen Stanford (pictured left) to swindle large numbers of intelligent investors. Those of us on the sidelines can't imagine how so many were taken in by unrealistic promises of over-the-top financial returns. But I'm certain if I saw the fortunes many of my friends were making I would want to join the party. When Madoff's funds consistently beat the market while others didn't, common sense would demand questions be asked. But no one wants to tell the Emperor he's naked, especially if they're serving caviar and champagne at the party.

It takes a charismatic, talented individual to conceive of and pull off a massive fraud on the scale of Stanford's and Madoff's. But without individuals following, the Ponzi scheme never would have worked. It was only when there were no more investors left with money that the plan fell apart. But we weren't immune to the bandwagon.
The stock market is a prime example of groupthink. We think the economy is doing well and we invest as we see stock prices rising. We think the economy is doing a nosedive and we panic, pulling our money out and stopping our spending. None of really knows what the economy will or won't do, but the group dynamic says we're in really bad shape here whether or not we personally are.
The dominant message from the politicians is restoring consumer confidence. Meaning, if we believe things will get better, we will reinvest and re-spend and the stock market will go up. The stock market often has less to do with real data and more about how people feel. And right now we're all feeling bad.

It is not just financial malfeasance that is made possible by groupthink. Large crimes against
humanity require people to function with a singular group mentality rather than with individual judgement. Why did so many Germans, otherwise good people, tolerate the Holocaust and the torture and slaughter of millions? How is it possible that Jim Jones in Ghana convinced hundreds to drink purple Kool-Aid? David Koresh? Marshall Applewhite (shown right)? All of these men became cult leaders, convincing numbers of usually bright, well-meaning people to follow them, even to their deaths.

Groupthink is frightening and we are all susceptible to it. It takes a unique individual to stand up to the mob and risk being ridiculed, excluded, or worse. Remember what it was like to be a teenage girl, listening to others make fun of your best friend, but deciding to go along so that you could be a part of the cool crowd and not be ostracized from the clique? As the examples above prove, people will choose death over losing their place in the group and being left behind. Most frightening of all, as we become more and more enveloped by groupthink, we begin to think of those thoughts and ideas as our own and lose our ability to think for ourselves.

People are not responsible for the choices criminals make, but in certain situations it takes our cooperation (unconscious though it may be) to become victims. Those charismatic, narcissistic, antisocial individuals know a lot about groupthink, and how to use it to their advantage.