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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Eye-Drop Poison Case

     Dr. Harry Johnston, since June 2009, had been treating Thurman Nesbitt for a mysterious illness. The 45-year-old patient, a resident of McConnellsburg in central Pennsylvania, suffered from nausea, low blood pressure, and breathing difficulties. Dr. Johnston, suspecting that his patient was being poisoned, had his blood analyzed. On July 27, 2012, the serology tests revealed the presence of tetrahydrozolin, a chemical found in over-the-counter eye-drops.

     On August 10, 2012, troopers with the Pennsylvania State Police arrested Nesbitt's girlfriend, Vickie Jo Mills. The 33-year-old McConnellsburg woman, on probation for forgery, admitted putting Visine drops into her boyfriend's drinking water. Mills told her interrogators that she had been making Nesbitt sick since June 2009. She said it had never been her intention to poison her boyfriend to death. To the obvious question of why she had done this, Mills explained that she had made Nesbitt sick in an effort to get him to pay more attention to her.

     Most women who use illness to attract attention make themselves sick pursuant to a syndrome called Munchausen. In Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, these women make their children sick. It's not clear why Mills thought poisoning her boyfriend would improve their relationship.

     The Fulton County prosecutor charged Vickie Jo Mills with ten counts of aggravated assault which carried a combined maximum sentence of 240 years in prison and a $300,000 fine. Shortly after her arrest, the authorities released Mills on a $75,000 surety bond.

     On October 16, 2002, the district attorney dropped nine of the ten counts in return for the defendant's guilty plea. A Fulton County judge, on February 14, 2013, sentenced Mills to two to four years in prison.

     It's odd that something you can put into your eyes will make you sick if you put it into your stomach. This is the first poisoning case that I'm aware of that involved eye-drops. 

The College Student From Hell

     In 2009, Megan Thode, a graduate student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, looked forward to earning her master's degree in counseling and human services. To acquire the degree which she would need to qualify for a state counseling license, Thode had to earn at least a B grade in her fieldwork class taught by Professor Amanda Eckhardt. Professor Eckhardt, however, upset the applecart when she issued Thode a C-plus. That's when all hell broke out at Lehigh University. (In academia, this is what passes for major conflict.)

     While colleges and universities have established procedures for student grade appeals, unless a disgruntled student can prove that the professor made an error in calculating the grade, the student doesn't have a chance. (Some students, notwithstanding these policies, get their grades changed by becoming such pains-in-the-neck they wear their professors down. In our sob-story culture everyone has a gut-wrenching tale of woe. Kids who brown-nosed their way through high school are the best at this. Most professors, however, will fight to the death over a contested grade.) Megan Thode and her father, a Lehigh professor, met with Professor Eckhardt who explained that the C-plus was based on the fact Thode's score for the class participation phase of the course was a zero out of a possible twenty-five. Ouch. The goose-egg bumped her down a full letter grade. (In the old days, parents of college kids didn't get involved in their academic affairs. Back then, college-aged people were supposed to be entering adulthood.)

     When Professor Eckhardt said she would not change Thode's fieldwork grade, the frustrated student filed an internal grievance against her. Thode not only demanded that her grade be changed to a B, she expected the professor to apologize to her in writing for the C-plus, and to compensate her for the adverse financial consequences of being an unlicensed counselor. Thode did not get her grade bumped up, there was no apology, and no compensation. Having exhausted her in-house administrative remedies, Thode got herself a lawyer. (This is also new. In the past, bringing a lawyer into a situation like this was unheard of. Back then, lawyers had better things to do.)

     Through her attorney, Richard J. Orloski, Megan Thode filed a $1.3 million lawsuit against Lehigh University and Professor Eckhardt in which the plaintiff alleged breach of contract and sexual discrimination. (Exactly what contract the school and professor violated is unclear.) As to the sexual discrimination charge, Thode claimed that she had been punished by her professor because she, Thode, was a strong supporter of gay and lesbian rights. (It would be almost impossible to find a college professor anywhere who didn't strongly support gay and lesbian rights. If Thode had supported free speech and gun rights, the lawyer may have had a case.)

     Thode's suit came to trial in February 2013 before Northhampton County Judge Emil Giordano. The plaintiff's attorney, in addressing the bench, said that as a result of the defendant professor's low grade, his client had "literally lost a career." (Counseling is now a "career"? Good heavens.)

     Neil Hamburg, the attorney representing Professor Eckhardt and Lehigh University, in making the case that this lawsuit was absurd, said, "I think if your honor changed the grade, you'd be the first court in the history of jurisprudence to change an academic grade"

     Judge Giordano indicated his agreement with the defendant's attorney when he said, "I've practiced law for longer than I'd like to admit and I've never seen anything like this."

     Attorney Hamburg, in defending Professor Eckhardt's evaluation of the plaintiff's academic performance, acknowledged that on paper Thode had been an excellent student. But regarding her classroom participation, Hamburg said that the student "showed unprofessional behavior that included swearing in class, and, on one occasion, having an outburst in which she began crying. She has to get through the program," the attorney said. "She has to meet the academic standards."

     Since there is nothing in the professor-student relationship that guarantees the student a good grade, or even a passing grade, there was no breach of contract in this case. And without solid proof of the defendant's sexual discrimination based on a dislike of people who supported gay and lesbian rights, the suit fails on that rationale as well.

     If the plaintiff prevailed in her case, it would create an employment boom in the legal profession, at least until college grades became a thing of the past. In time, students would be able to acquire their degrees without any proof they had learned anything. Eventually, there would be no need for classrooms or campuses. This would lower the cost of a college education. Career fast-food servers would all have Ph.Ds. Students could simply buy diplomas online, and colleges professors across the nation would lose their ivory tower jobs and end up flipping burgers with everyone else.

     On February 14, 2013, Judge Giordano ruled in favor of Professor Eckhardt and Lehigh University. He wrote: "Plaintiff has failed to establish that the university based the awarded grade of a C-plus on anything other than purely academic reasons. With this decision, Judge Giordano dealt a blow to the legal profession, but saved higher education. 

Literary Jerks

An ordinary, nonliterary jerk is a person with an off-putting personality who nobody likes. While the term "jerk" is not included in the jargon of psychology, we all know what it means. Miserable jerks are even worse, and populate every profession. In the literary world, miserable jerks are often well-educated novelists whose literary ambitions far exceed their talents. Miserable jerks often end up as unpublished college professors teaching aspiring novelists how to write. Again, if I may use the vernacular, a flaming jerk is an egotistical, mildly talented novelist who writes a bestseller that miserable jerks hate. While writing bad reviews of this flaming jerk's novel, they take to their writing desks to imitate his literary style. It's all pretty sad.

Thornton P. Knowles, The Psychology of Writing, 1976 

Kurt Vonnegut on Literary Critics

As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.

Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday, 1981 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bombers On Welfare: A New Form of State-Sponsored Terrorism

     Americans who grew up in the 1950s were programed to respect and obey the law, work hard, and raise their own children without state interference. They also paid their taxes. Today, I image that most people of this generation remain true to these values. I've been fortunate to have lived in this country my entire life. I earned a wage for forty years, paid my taxes, have never been to jail, and helped raise a family. I don't like paying taxes which I believe are too high, but I pay them anyway because that's part of the social contract that binds us as a nation. It's also against the law to cheat the government.

     Citizens of my generation were taught to play by the rules. You don't drive unless you have a valid driver's license, an updated inspection sticker, and car insurance. I consider being pulled over for speeding and not being able to produce my driver's license because I left it at home a big problem. I would come away from that experience feeling like a criminal. I still view shoplifting, bad check passing, and illegal drug possession as crimes of moral turpitude. Growing up, I don't think I met anyone who had been in jail. In the past, cops were treated with respect even if they didn't deserve it.

     Today, when I go to the doctor's office, if I don't have my social security data and my insurance papers, the doctor won't see me. There are no excuses. When I go to vote, I expect to be asked to produce a driver's license or some other form of identification. That requirement doesn't offend me because it makes sense. You are only allowed to vote once, and you have to be a U. S. citizen.

     Years ago, the U. S. government lent me money to go to college. I paid it back. The idea of not paying it back never entered my mind. In my day, people who didn't pay their bills were considered deadbeats. The vast majority of citizens who were on welfare back then were on the dole temporarily because they were ashamed and embarrassed by having to rely on the government. Welfare was not a way of life. People didn't feel entitled to a free lunch.

     In the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings, the terrorists' mother was on television criticizing the United States government for framing and not protecting her two sons. She and her husband had lived in this country ten years. They left the county but their boys stayed here. While the family lived in Massachusetts they were on state welfare. The boys had free rides in college, and while they were plotting to kill Americans, were living off welfare checks.

     Since the bombings, a Massachusetts state legislator has been on TV revealing how easy it is in that state to get on welfare. All a resident has to do is ask for the money. Social security numbers are not required. In other words, bureaucrats in Massachusetts have no idea who they are giving taxpayer money to. As it turned out, they were giving it to a pair of terrorists who set off two bombs at the Boston Marathon.

    One would have to conclude that the people of Massachusetts are either very wealthy or not very bright. As a U. S. citizen who pays his taxes and obeys the law, I can't see my doctor without my social security data. In Massachusetts, suspected terrorists go to college free, and live on the dole. This gives new meaning to the phrase state-sponsored terrorism.

     

Literary Awards

Goodreads.com lists over 6,000 [literary] prizes on its web site. The oldest, the Nobel Prize in Literature, was founded in 1901; the youngest was established yesterday. Ten more will certainly be announced tomorrow.

Amanda Foreman, author, 2013 interview

Truth v. Deception in the Interrogation Room

Lying suspects tend to deny guilt with specific language such as, in a fatal shooting, "I didn't do it with that gun." Truthful suspects, however, tend to voice general denials like "I never shot her or anyone else in my life." Truthful suspects are not afraid to use harsh, realistic words, such as "steal," "rape," "kill," "rob," "stab," but the deceptive ones usually avoid such language in order to assuage their guilty feeling. Even when less harsh terms are used, the liar's tone of voice will sound weak, in contrast to the strong utterance of a truthful suspect.

Fred E. Inbau, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 1986

Clean Up Your Writing

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 1976

Serial Killer Motives

Although victims of serial killers are often robbed, the most common driving force of serial murder is sexual control and dominance. Many victims are raped before or after being killed, while bondage, torture, dismemberment, and cannibalism are not uncommon features of a serial homicide. Other motives for serial murder have been financial profit; ritual, political, social, or moral imperatives (missionary murders); attention (mothers killing their children); and compassion (frequent in medical-type murders.)

Peter Vronsky, Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters, 2004

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Diane McDermott Murder Case

     Americans have enjoyed detective fiction since the 1930s. The early police detectives of literature and film were far more impressive than their thick-skulled, real-life contemporaries. In the U.S., criminal investigation, as practiced by the police, didn't become anything resembling a profession well into the 20th Century. The first widely read criminal investigation textbook didn't come out until 1958. (Criminal Investigation by Charles O'Hara) Colleges and universities didn't start criminal justice programs until the early 1970s, and most of them were puerile.

     As late as the 1950s and 60s, police detectives, instead of employing interrogation techniques to acquire confessions, simply beat the hell out of suspects until someone broke down and confessed. In the 1940s, Fred Inbau of Northwestern University Law School, developed a set of interrogation techniques designed to psychologically induce admissions of guilt without the use of force. As a polygraph examiner in the Chicago Crime Lab, he knew that confessions beat out of people by the Chicago Police were unreliable, not to mention inhumane. Inbau's methods, however, weren't universally practiced until after the 1966 Supreme Court decision, Miranda v. Arizona. Cops loved the third-degree, and old habits were hard to break.

     During the first half of the 20th Century and beyond, police detectives didn't routinely conduct professional crime scene investigations, take detailed notes, write case reports, or submit physical evidence to crime labs. Crimes were not systematically investigated and solved, and if a case didn't present an obvious suspect, detectives quickly closed it. Crime novelists and their readers loved murder mysteries, cops didn't. Homicide detectives regularly ignored or bungled murder cases, no one knew how to investigate arsons, and burglars were rarely caught because these crimes did not produce eyewitnesses. Most rape complaints received no investigation whatsoever. Cops who wore suits and carried gold badges were detectives in name only. (The word "detective" wasn't introduced into the English language until 1853 when Charles Dickens coined the term in his novel Bleak House.)

     Today, police detectives are well-paid and have access to cutting edge forensic science. They also can avail themselves of all sorts of relevant education and training. Still, in some big cities, small towns, and suburban communities, criminal investigations are regularly bungled due to indifference, laziness, corruption, and a shortage of qualified personnel. Modern law enforcement is principally focused on street crime, anti-terrorism, and the war on drugs. Criminal investigation has taken a backseat to these law enforcement priorities, and is becoming a lost art. (The nation's crime labs are also underfunded and understaffed.) In the history of criminal investigation, we are coming full circle.

The Diane McDermott Case

     A murder ignored by the police in 1967 drew attention in the spring of 2012 because the victim's son, a TV actor named Dylan McDermott, prevailed upon the authorities to take a second look at his mother's violent death. The Diane McDermott case is one of thousands of suspicious deaths in the past 100 years never investigated seriously or competently by the police.

     In 1967, Diane McDermott lived in a Waterbury, Connecticut apartment with her 5-year-old son Dylan, her 7-month-old daughter Robin, and John Sponza, her 27-year-old boyfriend. In February of that year, Sponza shot Diane McDermott in the head at point-blank range, placed a handgun next to her body that wasn't the firearm he had shot her with, then called the police. Sponza, a heroin addict with organized crime connections, told detectives with the Waterbury Police Department that Diane had picked up the gun he had been cleaning and accidentally shot herself in the head. Only an idiot, or cops on the take, would buy this story.

     Police interviews of Dylan McDermott, neighbors, and friends of the victim contradicted Sponza's claim that he and Diane rarely argued. Dylan said he had seen the boyfriend, who had once locked him out of the apartment, point a gun at his mother. Moreover, the two of them were often heard yelling at each other.

     Following a cursory investigation, the Waterbury Police closed the McDermott case as an accidental shooting. Four years later, police in Waltham, Massachusetts found Sponza's body in the trunk of a car parked in front of a a grocery store.

     The fact Sponza had murdered Diane McDermott in 1967 before DNA and other forensic science breakthroughs does not excuse the bungling of this case. (I don't know if McDermott's body had been autopsied, or if a forensic pathologist had recovered the fatal bullet. Media coverage of the case has focused on the actor's angst.) Even if the fatal slug had been too damaged for microscopic comparison with a test-fired bullet from the death scene handgun, a forensic firearms identification expert could have determined if the two projectiles were the same caliber. The victim's hands could have been tested for traces of gunshot residue, and the firearm next to her body could have been processed for latent fingerprints.

     In June 2012, Dr. H. Wayne Carver, the medical examiner for the state of Connecticut, reviewed the McDermott case file and concluded that the gun next to the victim's body was too small a caliber to have fired the fatal shot. In his report, Dr. Carver wrote, "The wound also showed that the murder weapon had been pressed to the back of the head." (This suggests the victim had been autopsied, and photographs had been taken.)

     Since people don't accidentally shoot themselves in the back of the head, Diane McDermott had obviously been murdered, and the last person to have seen her alive was John Sponza.

     While it's possible the detectives in charge of the McDermott case were either extremely stupid, lazy, or indifferent, I think they were corrupt. While the Connecticut criminal justice system failed to do its job in this case, John Sponza ended up where he belonged, dead in the trunk of someone's car.