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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Ryan Ferguson Murder Case: A Conviction Based on Perjured Testimony

     During the early morning hours of November 1, 2001, a person or persons attacked sports editor Kent Heitholt as he approached his car in the parking lot next to the Columbia Daily Tribune office in Columbia, Missouri. Around the time of the assault two young white men were seen in the vicinity. The attackers had beaten Mr. Heitholt with their fists then strangled him with his own belt. His watch had been stolen but his wallet was still in his car.

     In the months following the Heitholt murder, detectives with the Columbia Police Department ran down thousands of leads but came up empty handed. As time passed and the case remained unsolved, local criminal justice leaders felt building pressure to solve this brutal murder of a prominent citizen.

     In an act of investigative desperation, the authorities, in November 2003, published a composite police sketch of the two men seen near the newspaper office that night. (Police sketches are not only useless to crime investigators, they make things worse by generating false leads and false hopes of a case solution.)

     In March 2004, an anonymous caller to the crimestopper's hotline in Columbia reported that a 19-year-old local man named Chuck Erickson had been telling people that he may have been involved in the Heitholt murder.

     Chuck Erickson, in March 2004, had just come off a probated sentence related to a drug conviction. When Mr. Heitholt was beaten and strangled to death, Erickson would have been seventeen. Detectives assigned to the case were thrilled to have such a promising lead.

     At police headquarters, detectives put Erickson through an intense and prolonged interrogation that was only partially recorded. Erickson told his questioners that because one of the men depicted in the police sketches looked like him, he started wondering if maybe in a drug and alcohol blackout he had been involved in Mr. Heitholt's violent death. Perhaps he and his friend since childhood, Ryan Ferguson, had committed the murder. They had been drinking that night in a bar not far from the crime scene. Maybe they had robbed the newspaper man in order to keep drinking.

     Had the detectives grilling Erickson not been so desperate to solve the Heitholt case, they might have recognized several indications that Erickson and his friend were not good murder suspects. The robbery motive didn't hold water because Mr. Heitholt had been murdered one hour after the bars had closed that night. Moreover, Erickson had to be told that the victim had been strangled with his own belt, and shown exactly where in the parking lot Heitholt had been attacked.

     When detectives brought Ryan Ferguson in for questioning, he insisted that he had nothing to do with Mr. Heitholt's murder. He maintained that position throughout the interrogation. Not only did Ferguson strongly deny any involvement in the homicide, investigators didn't have a single piece of physical evidence linking him to the crime scene.

     Notwithstanding having nothing but the word of a former drug addict who had no memory of what he had done that night, detectives continued to press their case against both suspects.

     In the months that followed, Chuck Erickson, in return for the promise of a relatively light sentence, agreed to testify against his friend. This meant that Erickson's memory, colored by heavy coaching, would have to significantly improve. And of course it did.

     In October 2005, in Columbia, Missouri, Ryan Ferguson went on trial for the Heitholt murder. When prosecutor Kevin Crane put Chuck Erickson on the stand, he testified that he and the defendant had attacked the victim that night in the newspaper office parking lot. Prosecutor Crane also produced a witness, a janitor named Jerry Trump, who said he had seen Erickson and the defendant that night not far from the murder scene. For some reason Mr. Trump had waited several years before coming forward with his information.

     Two men--a drug addict with a remarkably improved memory, and a witness who came forward at the last minute--comprised the sum total of the prosecution's case. In the name of justice, the trial judge should have directed a not guilty verdict based on the fact the government had not carried its burden of proof. But instead, the case went to the jury and Ryan Ferguson was found guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to forty years in prison.

     In 2010, Missouri's Western District appellate court heard arguments regarding the Ferguson conviction. While the justices questioned the star prosecution witness' credibility, they declined to rule on the case. Instead, the appeals court judges recommended that the case be reviewed before a different lower court judge.

     The lower court hearing on the Ferguson conviction took place in April 2012. At this proceeding Chuck Erickson admitted under oath that he had lied at Ferguson's murder trial to save his own skin. Jerry Trump, the prosecution's miracle witness, took the stand and confessed that he had committed perjury as well.

     The lower court review judge, after hearing from Erickson and Trump, ruled that Erickson's testimony at Ferguson's 2005 murder trial was indeed credible. In other words, he was telling the truth then but lying now. Although the janitor's testimony was not reliable, the judge said it was an inconsequential factor in Ferguson's conviction. (This judge must have been really stupid.)

     On January 13, 2013, the Ferguson legal team appealed the review judge's ruling. In September justices with the Western District Appeals Court considered the revised testimony of Chick Erickston and Jerry Trump. On November 5, 2013, the Missouri appeals court vacated Ryan Ferguson's murder conviction. After spending almost ten years behind bars, Mr. Ferguson was a free man.

     

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Dan Markel Murder-For-Hire Case

     Raised in Toronto, Canada by well-to-do parents, Dan Markel, in 1995, graduated from Harvard University with a degree in philosophy. Upon earning his undergraduate degree, he studied political philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and continued his studies at the University of Cambridge in England. In 2001, he graduated from Harvard University Law School.

     After practicing law in Washington, D.C., Markel, in 2005, joined the teaching staff at Florida Statue University Law School in Tallahassee. A year later, he married Wendi Adelson, a graduate of Brandeis University and the University of Miami Law School. After acquiring her law degree in 2005, Florida State University hired her to run their public outreach program. They were married in 2006.

     In 2010, Markel, now a tenured associate professor making $193,000 a year, resided with his wife and their two young sons in the upscale Betton Hills community in Tallahassee. He had become a renowned author, teacher and scholar in the field of retributive justice, the study of punishment in proportion to the crime. He also published a popular academic law blog called, "PrawlsBlawg" that helped recent law graduates find careers in the field.

     In January 2012, Professor Markel's life took a turn for the worse when his wife Wendi blindsided him with the news she wanted a divorce. Moreover, she wanted to take their sons, 3 and 5, with her to south Florida. This led to a bitter child custody battle. The divorce became final in September 2012.

      In 2012, Professor Markel became the target of derision on a blog called "Insidethelawschoolscam," a site devoted to the proposition that law schools, by promising applicants jobs in the field, were knowingly lying about the dwindling career opportunities in law. The followers of the blog were mostly recent law school graduates saddled with huge education debts and no prospects of finding positions in the field.

     Visitors and contributors to "Insidethelawschoolscam" idolized a like-minded University of Colorado law professor named Paul Campos. Campos and his admirers believed that law schools, through false advertising and misrepresentation, were swindling students.

     "Insidethelawschoolscams" enthusiasts considered Professor Markel and his blog part of the problem. In defending his good name, Markel began to engage his detractors by posting messages on the blog. In return, he received responses like this: "Do you have the empathy to compare the terror that goes through a 26-year-old's life when a student loan bill comes due and you can't pay it? When he can't even get a job at Walmart because the education you sold him under false pretenses is so worthless that it won't even advance his candidacy at retail? Now compare that terror, the terror of having your life and financial future pass before your eyes, to the minor annoyance you felt at having your "name" sullied. Get over yourself."

     Over time, name-calling on "Insidethelawschoolscam" turned to the posting of messages that caused Professor Markel to feel under threat of physical harm. He had become the face of the problem and the target of his detractors' wrath.

     Many of Professor Markel's FSU law students considered him abrasive, arrogant, and unhelpful. They complained online that they couldn't find him in his office. When they did find him he was difficult to talk to.

     The year 2012 had been a tough one for Dan Markel. He had been through a bitter divorce, had developed enemies in the blog world, and incurred the anger and frustration of some of his students. What had been a sweet life had turned sour.

     At eleven in the morning of July 18, 2014, Professor Markel pulled onto his driveway and into his garage while talking on his cellphone. The moment he stopped his vehicle, a person who had followed him into the garage shot the 41-year-old in the head through the driver's side window. The killer then drove off in a white or silver Toyota Prius-type vehicle.

     A Betton Hills neighbor heard the gun go off and called 911. When police and paramedics arrived at the scene, Markel was still alive. A few hours later, however, he died at a nearby hospital.

     Homicide detectives believed that the killing was not a random murder. The killer had marked the professor for death and had carried out the murder plot.

     On May 25, 2016, detectives with the Hallandale Beach Police Department arrested 34-year-old Sigredo Garcia for Markel's murder. Officers booked Garcia into the Broward County Jail on charges of first-degree murder and possession of cocaine. Garcia had a criminal history that included strong arm robbery and burglary.

     According to a police spokesperson, the murder of the law professor is being handled as a murder-for-hire case. Up to six more arrests in the case are anticipated. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Ethel Anderson: The Unrepentant Child Molester

     In 2011, Ethel Anderson, a 29-year-old teacher at the Mango Elementary School in suburban Seffner, Florida outside of Tampa, resided in Riverside with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. Anderson had recently been named the Diversity School Teacher of the Year.

     In December 2011, Teacher of the Year Anderson began tutoring a 12-year-old math student in her home. Over the next three months, she and the boy exchanged 230 pages of test messages in which she described, in vivid language, her lust for the child. Anderson also expressed her anxiety over feeling unattractive because of her weight. In these exchanges, the boy used the name Dirty Dan. No one reading this material would have guessed that Dirty Dan was a 12-year-old kid communicating with one of his public school teachers. The online exchange between teacher and student, while a bit puerile, was pretty raunchy.

     In February 2012, the teacher-student affair ended following a lover's spat. The angry kid got his revenge by telling his mom everything. It's hard to imagine what was going through the mother's mind when her son described receiving oral sex from a woman paid to teach him math. The couple, according to the boy, also simulated various sexual acts while fully clothed. The boy's tutor also fondled him.

     The mother, perhaps worried that school officials and police officers would take the teacher's word over her son's, confronted Anderson before alerting the authorities. During that meeting, the teacher admitted having an inappropriate relationship with the boy. The student's mom, having clandestinely audio-taped the conversation, went to the police with the evidence. (The mother may also have seen the texted messages between her son and Anderson.)

     Hillsborough County Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters, in March 2012, charged Ethel Anderson with nine counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. Each count carried a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Following the teacher's arrest, the school suspended her without pay. Eight months later, Anderson resigned.

     The child molestation trial got underway in Tampa on September 18, 2013. The boy, now 14, took the stand for the prosecution. "I felt she was like my real girlfriend," he said. "She said I was her boyfriend and she loved me. I was thinking, 'I'm living a guy's dream...dating my teacher.' "

     According to the young prosecution witness, Anderson told him she planned to leave her husband because he wasn't a good father, and didn't communicate with her. As time went on, however, the student began having doubts about the relationship. "I'm dating a girl I'm in love with and she thinks of me as a kid. It didn't feel right."

     On the third and final day of the trial, defense attorney William Knight, in a bold move, put his client on the stand. Rather than plead some kind of emotional breakdown, drinking problem or addiction to drugs, the former school teacher denied having physical contact with the boy, essentially calling him a liar. Claiming that the 12-year-old had tried to instigate a sexual relationship, Anderson said, "He attempted, at one point, to grab me in an inappropriate manner. He attempted to kiss me and I pushed him off."

     Regarding her sexually vivid text messages, the defendant said they were nothing more than "sexual therapy" tools to get the boy to focus on his studies. "I recognize it was explicit and inappropriate, but it was all fantasy," she said. "He was going through puberty. He couldn't connect with his family. He was always thinking sexually. My purpose was to get his attention."

     Prosecutor Peters, in a blistering cross-examination of the defendant, asked, "You want the jury to believe that you were in fantasyland to help the boy? Was that part of your training as a teacher? So by giving in to these sexual fantasies he did better in school?"

     "Sometimes, yes," Anderson replied.

     Defense attorney Knight, in his closing remarks to the jury, pointed out that the prosecution had not presented one piece of physical evidence proving any kind of sexual contact between his client and the student.

     When it came her turn to address the jury, the prosecutor called the former teacher's attempt to explain herself "remarkable," and "amazing in its audacity." The state attorney told the jurors that "everything the defendant told you defies logic and common sense."

     On December 19, 2013, Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe, calling Ethel Anderson a parent's worst nightmare, sentenced the former teacher to 38 years in prison.

     Judge Tharpe was Anderson's worst nightmare.

 
 
     

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Alan Goodman Murder Case

     Alan and Lois Goodman, in 2012, had been married 50 years. In the early 1960s, Alan started an auto parts business in Los Angeles. Lois, who in 1979 became a tennis referee (or line umpire--I don't know the first thing about this sport), had risen to the top of her profession, and at age 70, was still officiating matches. She and her 80-year-old husband lived in a condominium in the Woodland Hills district of Los Angeles out in the San Fernando Valley.

     On April 17, 2012, Lois called 911 to report the discovery of Alan Goodman lying on his bed either unconscious or dead. LAPD officers from the Topanga station responded to the scene. According Lois, she had been away from the condo six hours during which time she had been refereeing tennis matches at Pierce Community College in Woodland Hills.

     Upon entering the dwelling, Lois said she noticed a broken coffee mug on the floor with blood on it. From the mug, she followed a trail of blood into Alan's bedroom where she found him unresponsive with a bloody wound to the right side of his head.

     Lois Goodman informed the police officers that her husband, a diabetic with high blood pressure, must have had an heart attack, fallen down a flight of stairs, then somehow made it to his room and climbed onto his bed. Because of Mr. Goodman's age, the LAPD officers had no reason to suspect criminal homicide.

     Two fire department paramedics pronounced Mr. Goodman dead at the scene. While neither of the medics were trained homicide investigators, they possessed enough common sense and death site experience to interpret an oddly shaped wound to the right side of the dead man's head as possible evidence of foul play. As evidence of their suspicion, the medics took care not to disturb the body on grounds it might be part of a murder scene. Although the police officers should have been cautioning the paramedics not to handle the corpse, the cops, relying on Lois Goodman's death narration, allowed the body to be transported to its place of future cremation. In a situation that cried out for, at the very least, an autopsy, Mr. Goodman's corpse, and perhaps evidence of murder, were headed for the furnace.

     Whether or not a homicide had occurred in the Woodland Hills condominium, the initial phase of the Goodman case was not how situations like this should be handled in the second largest police department in the country, or for that matter, anywhere else.

     On April 20, 2012, three days after Alan Goodman's death, an investigator with the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office who had been dispatched to sign Mr. Goodman's death certificate, noticed several deep cuts on the dead man's head and ear that seemed too severe to have been caused by an accidental spill down a flight of steps. This death investigator's rather basic observation led to an autopsy of Mr. Goodman's body. The coroner's office had literally pulled this case out of the fire.

     The next day, a forensic pathologist with the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office determined that Mr. Goodman's cause of death to be blunt force trauma to the head from a sharp object. The pathologist found shards of the broken coffee mug imbedded in the victim's wounds. Moreover, Mr. Goodman had not suffered a heart attack. Instead of a flight of stairs, Mr. Goodman had been killed by being struck in the head with a coffee mug. As a result of the autopsy findings, the coroner's office ruled the manner of this death a homicide.

     Had Mr. Goodman's body been cremated, the cause and manner of this man's death would have remained a mystery. On the other hand, because the autopsy had been delayed three days, the forensic pathologist could not pinpoint the time of death.

     Los Angeles detectives, on April 21, 2012, searched the Goodman condominium in Woodland Hills. The searchers discovered heavy blood staining on the carpets, on the refrigerator door, inside the linen closet, and on a wall near the inside door to the garage.

     In general, an analysis of the blood spatter patterns in the condo did not support the theory that Mr. Goodman had fallen down a flight of stairs. (I don't know if the police had collected the broken coffee mug and its pieces from the crime scene. If they didn't preserve what turned out to be the murder weapon, that would be a problem. And even if they did retrieve it later, there would be a chain of custody problem.)

     Shortly after the search of the Goodman condo, detectives questioned Lois Goodman, this time as a suspect in her husband's murder. According to published police documents, she gave conflicting accounts of what she had observed upon entering the dwelling that day. At one point, she described the scene as "violent," and suggested that someone may have "positioned" Mr. Goodman's body in his bed.

     Over the next four months, Los Angeles detectives, with Lois Goodman as their prime suspect, thoroughly investigated the murder. This led to the discovery of emails she had exchanged with a man who may have been a lover. In one email, Lois Goodman referred to "terminating" a relationship. Investigators suspected that Goodman had murdered her husband for another man. The fact there were no signs of forced entry into the condo, and that nothing had been stolen from the dwelling, comprised more circumstantial evidence that Lois Goodman had been responsible for her husband's violent death. Moreover, when speaking to the responding officers that day, the dead man's wife had gone out of her way to establish her whereabouts at the time of his death, behavior inconsistent with that of a grieving widow.

     In mid-August 2012, after a Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Lois Goodman with the murder of her husband, detectives followed her to New York City where she was scheduled to officiate at the U.S. Tennis Open at Flushing Meadows. On August 21, on the eve of the Open, New York City officers went to her Manhattan hotel room and arrested her on the California murder warrant. That evening, Los Goodman found herself in the Rikers Island lock-up under $1 million bond and awaiting her extradition hearing.

     Back in Los Angeles on August 29, 2012, at her arraignment hearing, the judge, assured by Goodman's attorney Alison Triessl that the tennis line umpire was not dangerous, or a candidate for flight, reduced her bail to $500,000. In speaking to reporters, attorney Triessl, in making the case that her 70-year-old client was physically incapable of killing her husband, pointed out that she had received two full knee replacements, and a shoulder replacement. According to the attorney, Lois Goodman was "wearing two hearing aids, and had rheumatoid arthritis."

     On September 3, 2012, Lois Goodman, after spending two weeks in jail, was released on bail.

     The FBI announced, on October 10, 2012, that Lois Goodman, when asked by a bureau polygraph examiner if she killed her husband, answered no--and passed the test. The polygraph expert, Jack Trimarco, said there was "no significant reaction" when Goodman answered "no" to the payload question. He asked that question several times. If you believe in the polygraph technique, and trust the FBI, this was an important development in the case.

     On November 30, 2012, the Los Angeles prosecutor, due to insufficient evidence, dropped the murder charges against Lois Goodman.

     In April 2015, a federal judge dismissed Lois Goodman's false arrest lawsuit against the LAPD. The plaintiff had claimed the murder accusation caused her "public humiliation." In setting out his rationale for the dismissal, Judge John A. Kronstadt wrote that the LAPD homicide investigation had produced "substantial details sufficient to support a finding of probable cause to arrest Lois Goodman."

     As of May 2016, there have been no other arrests in the case.

       

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Grace Anne Hall's Strange And Suspicious Death

     Twenty-three-year-old Grace Anne Hall was last seen at eight o'clock on the evening of March 20, 2013. She was driving her 1997 silver-gray Toyota Camry in the Serra Mesa section of San Diego, California. The five-foot-seven, 150-pound blonde with tattoos on her upper back was reportedly on her way to an unknown location in the Los Angeles area city of Sherman Oaks for a job interview.

     According to detectives with the San Diego Police Department, Hall used her credit card in the Mira Mesa part of San Diego one week after her disappearance.

     On April 18, 2013, at nine-thirty in the morning, a San Diego patrol officer spotted Hall's Toyota parked in front of the Grab-n-Go Sub Shop in the Kearny Mesa community. According to witnesses, the vehicle had been sitting there for a week.

     When homicide investigators opened the Toyota's trunk, they discovered Hall's body. An autopsy conducted by the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office revealed no sighs of external trauma on Hall's body. In other words, she had not been bludgeoned, stabbed, or shot.    

     Pending the results of toxicology tests, detectives began to consider the possibility of suicide. According to Hall's father, the victim had been unemployed and was despondent. At the time of her disappearance, she had been living with him. According to Lieutenant Jorge Duran of the San Diego Police Homicide Unit, "The more we discuss the case the more it seems this was not a homicide."

     On June 30, 2013, the San Diego County Medical Examiner announced the cause of Grace Anne Hall's death as acute ethylene glycol poisoning. Because she had ingested a quantity of automobile antifreeze, the medical examiner ruled the manner of death in this highly suspicious case as suicide.

     According to suicide experts, it is extremely rare for a person to commit suicide in the trunk of a car. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

People Murdered Over Nothing

     Just because murder is a serious criminal offense does not mean that murderers always have equally serious motives to kill. In the world of criminal homicide, the motive does not always match the crime. Authors of detective novels give their fictitious murderers good reasons to kill such as sweet revenge, big money, passionate sex, jealous love, and burning hatred. In the victimology of crime fiction, the killer and the killed usually know each other well. In novels, murderers are, if not nice people, fascinating folks with interesting reasons to commit the ultimate crime.

     In real life, people who commit criminal homicide are often wildly insane, drug-addled, or just plain stupid. Nonfiction killers are frequently uninteresting people who kill for trivial, idiotic reasons. Quite often, in real life, the murder victim is as insane, drug-addled or stupid as the person who killed him. In the more tragic cases, these mindless murderers take the lives of decent people who simply had the misfortune of crossing their lethal paths. If there is anything interesting in these under-motivated murder cases, it is the fact they are real. The advantage of writing about nonfiction crime is that these cases do not have to make a whole lot of sense. They just have to be true. Fiction, on the other hand, has to be believable. Fiction has to make sense.

The Trigger-Happy Mr. Dunn

     At 7:40 in the evening of November 20, 2012, Michael D. Dunn and his girlfriend pulled into a service station in Jacksonville, Florida. That day, the couple had attended the wedding of Mr. Dunn's son. The 45-year-old software developer and his girlfriend were en route to Dunn's home 160 miles away in Satellite Beach, Florida. Dunn parked his vehicle and waited behind the wheel as his girlfriend entered the gas station's convenience store.

     Mr. Dunn had pulled into the service station alongside a SUV occupied by three teenagers who were listening to music Dunn considered much too loud. He asked the boys to lower the sound level. The kids didn't take kindly to his request which led to an exchange of angry words. Suddenly, Michael Dunn picked up a handgun and fired eight shots into the car. Two of the bullets struck 17-year-old Jordan Davis who was sitting in the back seat. The high school junior, who was about to start his first job at McDonald's, died in the SUV.

     The shooter's girlfriend ran out of the convenience store, and as she climbed into Dunn's vehicle, asked, "What's going on?"

     "I just fired at those kids," Dunn replied as the couple drove away.

     The next day, police officers arrested Michael Dunn at his home in Satellite Beach. (A witness had written down his license number.)  Dunn told his police questioners that he had fired his pistol in self-defense after one of the kids in the SUV pointed a shotgun at him. Dunn's self-defense justification suffered a blow when investigators failed to find any weapons in the SUV. (There were no drugs in the car, and none of the boys had ever been in trouble with the law.)

     In May 2013, a grand jury sitting in Jacksonville, Florida, indicted Michael Dunn of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder. On October 17, 2014, after a jury found Dunn guilty as charged, the judge sentenced him to life without the chance of parole.

James Pak: The Angry Landlord

     In 2006, James Pak sold his Korean Yankee Landscape Company, a Biddeford, Maine business he had owned since 1964. In 2012, Mr. Pak was living with his wife in a cape cod-style home in the town of Bedford located 15 miles south of Portland. He rented out an apartment attached to his house to 44-year-old Susan Johnson who lived there with her son, 19-year-old Derrick Thompson. Derrick worked as an auto detailer at a nearby car dealership. His girlfriend, Alivia Welch, worked as a waitress at a local coffee shop. She was eighteen.

     Around six o'clock in the evening of Saturday, December 29, 2012, Bedford police officers responded to a call to defuse a dispute between Mr. Pak and his tenants. The 74-year-old landlord was upset because Derrick Thompson and his mother had parked their cars in his driveway. (The town had banned overnight parking on the street to clear the way for snow removal crews.) After speaking with Mr. Pak and his renters, the officers left the scene without taking anyone into custody.

     At seven that night, shortly after the police thought they had resolved the dispute, they were called back to the Pak house on reports of shots being fired in the rented apartment. Upon their arrival, the officers discovered that Mr. Pak had shot Derrick Thompson and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, killing them both. He had also shot and wounded Derrick's mother, Susan Johnson.

     Following a three-hour police stand-off at his home, James Pak surrendered to the authorities. Among other crimes, he was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. After pleading guilty on February 3, 2016, the judge sentenced Pak to two life sentences.

Street Gang Killings

     Drug dealers and members of street gangs regularly murder each other over minor slights, petty arguments, and even disrespectful looks. For these habitual criminals it's their chosen way of life. Unless some innocent bystander goes down in the cross-fire, the general public couldn't care less about these deaths. One violent crook is dead, and his killer is off to prison for life. From a societal standpoint, these cases are hardly tragedies.

     Michael Dunn and James Pak were murderers who weren't career criminals, or even drains on society. Because they are not stupid men, their homicidal behavior makes even less sense. These men ruined their lives over nothing. And their victims did nothing to deserve their sudden and violent deaths. That is what makes these spontaneous homicides so tragic, and hard to understand.

    

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Senseless Murder of a Toddler

     In 2016, 31-year-old Veronica Rene Castro lived in a travel trailer in Bellevue, Texas, a remote Clay County community near the Oklahoma border 80 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Castro resided with her three-year-old son, Dominic Tra'Juan Castro and the boy's 18-year-old stepfather, George Coty Wayman. Wayman, a violent dimwit with a facial tattoo, had a criminal record that included a recent stretch in prison.

     Shortly after three in the afternoon on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, someone from the Castro dwelling on Buffalo Springs Road called 911 to report a shooting. When deputies with the Clay County Sheriff's Office arrived at the scene, they found the Castro toddler shot once in the back of the head.

     Emergency personnel airlifted the seriously wounded boy to the United Regional Health Care System in Wichita Falls, Texas. At ten-forty-five the next morning, Dominic Castro died.

     Wayman, when questioned at the scene of the shooting by the police, said the boy had been accidentally shot when he jumped on the bed where a 9mm handgun had been placed. The physical evidence at the scene failed to support this scenario. Moreover, several people in the bedroom who had witnessed the shooting had a different story.

     According to the eyewitnesses, Wayman, angry at the toddler who had refused to stop jumping on the bed, aimed the gun and shot him in the head.

     A Clay County prosecutor, on May 18, 2016, charged George Wayman with capital murder. (In Texas, the intentional killing of a child under six constitutes a death penalty offense.) The accused murderer was booked into the Clay County Jail under $550,000 bond.

     In my mind, this crime is a justification for capital punishment. Some people just don't deserve to live in civilized society.  

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Alexis Kahn: The Babysitter From Hell

     In 2012, after Benjamin and Hope Jordan moved to Charleston, South Carolina, they hired 21-year-old Alexis Kahn to regularly babysit their 7-month-old son Finn while they were away at work. Kahn had never been arrested, and came with references.

     Five months after bringing Alexis Kahn into their home to care for their most precious possession, the Jordans noticed that their dog, an otherwise friendly black lab, disliked the babysitter. According to Mr. Jordan, "He [the dog] was very aggressive towards her and a few times we actually had to physically restrain him from going towards her."

     Worried that the dog's behavior revealed something sinister about the babysitter, the Jordans hid an iPhone under the couch to record what went on between Kahn, the dog, and the baby in their absence. That evening after work, the couple checked the iPhone and were shocked by what they had recorded. The Jordans heard Kahn tell the baby to "shut up." Next came cussing followed by sounds of the baby being slapped. The baby's cries of distress became cries of pain. "I just wanted to...go back in time and just grab him up," said the father.

     The Jordans fired the babysitter and reported the suspected assault to the Charleston police. Officers arrested Kahn a few weeks later. Confronted with the iPhone evidence, the suspect confessed to assaulting the Jordan baby.

     On September 8, 2013, Alex Kahn pleaded guilty to one count of assault and battery in a Charleston County Circuit Court. The judge handed down a three-year sentence. The ex-babysitter had to spend a year behind bars before being eligible for parole. And her name was added to the state's child abuse register which meant she could never work with children. (Unfortunately, this did not prevent her from having children.)

     According to the baby's parents, Finn had no lingering effects from his abuse at the hands of the abusive babysitter.

     Suggestion: If your dog doesn't like your babysitter, keep the dog and look for a new sitter.  

Monday, May 16, 2016

Judge Goes Easy On Man Who Sodomized a 3-Year-Old Girl

     On June 14, 2014, Kevin Jonas Rojano-Nieto was playing a video game in his parents' garage in Santa Ana, California. A three-year-old girl, a relative visiting the home with her mother, wandered into the garage and encountered Rojano-Nieto.

     Sexually aroused by the toddler, the 20-year-old Rojano-Nieto pulled down her pants and began sodomizing her. He stopped and put his hand over the victim's mouth when the girl's mother, calling for her, jiggled the handle to the locked garage door. When the concerned mother left the house to search for her daughter at a neighbor's place, Rojano-Nieto continued the sexual assault.

     When finished with the little girl, Rojano-Nieto unlocked the garage door and let her back into the house. After her daughter complained of pain shortly after the sexual attack, the mother figured out what happened and called the police.

     On December 3, 2014, a jury found the defendant guilty of one count of sodomy of a child under ten and one count of lewd acts upon a child under fourteen. (Rojano-Nieto had forced the little girl to touch his penis.) The conviction meant that the guilty man would receive the mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years to life.

     On April 3, 2015, Orange County Superior Court Judge M. Marc Kelly shocked everyone familiar with this case by ignoring California's statutory minimum punishment for this man's sex offenses by sentencing Rojano-Nieto to just ten years in prison.

     The judge, perhaps aware that his ruling would create an angry backlash, carefully laid out his sentencing rationale in writing. According to this southern California judge, "The facts [of this case] don't support there was any violence or callous disregard for the victim's well-being."

     Huh? No violence? Did this girl consent to being sodomized? Did she participate in her own victimization by flaunting herself in the garage? Good heavens.

     Judge Kelly noted that the defendant had not sought out or stalked his victim. Moreover, he now felt  really bad about what he had done to her. Sure he did, but so what?

     The judge, in defending his sentence, wrote: "He [Rojano-Nieto] reacted to a sexual urge and stopped almost immediately." According to Judge Kelly, while the little girl was sodomized by a 20-year-old man, she had not been seriously injured and was therefore "headed for a normal life."

     Judge Kelly has been on the bench in Orange County for fifteen years. How could that be?

     Not content to blame the toddler for her victimization, the judge tried to illicit sympathy for this sex offender by revealing that he had grown up in a "dysfunctional" family with "disruptional abuse." What the hell does that mean? "Disruptional" isn't even a word. This upbringing, according to the judge, had made Rojano-Nieto "insecure, socially withdrawn, and extremely immature." This background had also turned him into a dangerous sexual pervert who should, for the rest of his life, never be around children.

     Orange County Deputy District Attorney Tony Rackauckas responded to Judge Kelly's disturbing decision by announcing his office will appeal Rojano-Nieto's sentence. Referring to the defendant, the prosecutor said, "He's a grown man. He knowingly [actually intentionally] committed this terrible crime and should pay the price."

     Public outrage over the pedophile's light sentence led to a grass roots effort to recall the judge. On December 31, 2015, the bid to have Judge Kelly removed from the bench failed when the recall supporters were unable to collect the minimum 90,829 signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

     District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' sentence appeal before the Ninth Circuit Appellate Court, as of May 2016, was pending.

      Rojano-Nieto is too dangerous to be placed back into society. Anyone who thinks someone like him can be rehabilitated is a fool.



Sunday, May 15, 2016

Joseph L. Miller: A Murderer Brought to Justice Too Late

     In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on June 12, 1959, 23-year-old Joseph Lewis Miller blasted John and Donna Lumpkins with a 12-gauge shotgun. Mr. Lumpkins died of his injuries on July 4 of that year. Donna Lumpkins, his wife, survived her wounds.

     On January 22, 1960, Joseph Miller pleaded guilty to the John Lumpkins murder and the attempted murder of the victim's wife. The judge sentenced Miller to life in prison. Throughout the late 1960s, Miller made several requests to have his life sentence commuted. On February 9, 1971, Miller got his wish when Governor Raymond P. Shaffer granted his motion. After serving 11 years and 6 months behind bars, Miller began his life as an ex-con on lifetime parole.

     Governor Shaffer's decision in this case would end up costing another man his life. (Whenever a politician commutes a sentence in a case that did not involve injustice, the politician is saying that he knows better than the judge who issued the original sentence. Politicians are not that smart, or wise.)

     On January 15, 1981, Miller, at age 45, shot Thomas Walker to death in the parking lot outside a Harrisburg bar. After being charged with murder and several firearms violations a month later, Miller was nowhere to be found. He became a fugitive from justice.

     In 2010, in the northeastern Texas town of Mineola, Miller, a deacon in the New Life Family Baptist Church, married a 58-year-old member of the congregation named Gennell. He was 74-years-old and living under the name Eugene Eubanks. Miller, a wanted killer, had established himself as a pillar of the community. But he was a man with a secret.

     In the early morning hours of April 21, 2014, a team of U.S. Marshals showed up in Mineola with a warrant for the longtime fugitive's arrest. The marshals took Joseph Miller, aka Eugene Eubanks, into custody and booked him into the Wood County Jail where he awaited his extradition back to Pennsylvania. According to Miller's wife Gennell Eubanks, Eugene suffered from early stage Alzheimer's Disease and arthritis. He also had been having problems with his heart.

     After the marshals hauled her 78-year-old husband off to jail, Gennell Eubanks told a reporter from Pennsylvania that she had not known her husband's real name. Regarding the shooting death of Thomas Walker in 1981, she said, "Eugene said it was an accident. He was trying to protect his brother, because a man was trying to kill him. I believe my husband. He wasn't trying to kill that man; it just happened. He isn't going to lie to me," she said, "because he is a deacon. He was trying to do what's right." As Miller was being taken out of his house in handcuffs, he said this to his 62-year-old wife: "Take care of yourself, and trust in the Lord. He will see you through."

     Miller had not told Gennell Eubanks about his 1959 murder of John Lumpkins and the shooting of the victim's wife. Gennell had no idea her husband of four years had spent more than eleven years in a Pennsylvania prison.
   
     This deacon knew how to keep a secret. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Assailants Who Attack Their Victims With Acid

     In December 2012, a female employee of a company in Gotemba, Japan, a city 120 miles southwest of Tokyo, burned her feet in acid that had been poured into her shoes. The victim worked in a laboratory that produced carbon-fiber products. (In Japan it is customary for employees to remove their shoes when entering controlled areas.)

     The victim's feet were severely burned by hydrofluoric acid, a highly corrosive chemical. After gangrene settled into the assault victim's left foot, doctors had to remove the tips of five of her toes.

     On March 28, 2013, a prosecutor in Gotelmba charged Tatsujiro Fukazawa with attempted murder in the acid attack. The suspect worked in the laboratory with the victim. According to the police, Fukazawa had feelings for the woman who had rejected his romantic overtures. The acid planting was in revenge for that rejection. Although Fukazawa pleaded not guilty to the charges, he was convicted of the assault in 2015, and sentenced to seven years in prison.

     In 2013, two British girls were doused with acid while doing volunteer work in Zanzibar. Two years later, a South African teenage girl poured acid on her boyfriend's private parts. "I was just angry," she said "and all I wanted to do was to make him feel the pain I was feeling."

     According to the Acid Survivors Trust International, 1,500 people are attacked with acid every year. In addition to Japan, India has a long history of horrific acid attacks against women. In Afghanistan, Islamist extremists have thrown acid on girls' faces to scare them away from attending school.

    Anyone familiar with the annals of crime is aware that the ways people have found to be cruel to each other, to inflict pain and suffering, has no limit. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mindy McCready's Addiction, Reality TV Exploitation, and Suicide

     When ordinary people commit crimes, abuse drugs and alcohol, and kill themselves, it's local news. When celebrities or former celebrities do this, it's entertainment. O. J. Simpson's popular culture legacy will not be football. Marilyn Monroe will not be remembered for her film career. Oscar Pistorius, the South African "Blade Runner", since being convicted of killing his celebrity girlfriend, has become even more famous. His case entertained millions of people for more than a year.

     Celebrities are manufactured personas. These people have relinquished ownership of themselves to the pubic. In that sense they are not real people. They exist for our amusement. We celebrate their successes and triumphs, and revel in their misery. Ripe for exploitation, celebrities need fame like the rest of us need oxygen. When they don't get it, they whither away and die. Sometimes they take things into their own hands by committing suicide.

     Country and western singer Mindy McCready's prolonged substance abuse, law enforcement problems, and domestic turmoil provided celebrity journalists with a lot of material. The girl from Cleburne County, Arkansas made it big in Nashville with her 1996 debut double-platinum album, "Guys Do It All The Time." She spent the next 16 years trying to replicate that success. During this time, McCready struggled with drugs and alcohol as well as a volatile love life. She never regained the fame she had lost.

     In 2004, McCready pleaded guilty to filling out fraudulent prescription slips for the addictive painkiller OxyContin. A judge in Nashville sentenced her to three years of supervised probation. In May 2005, after her ex-boyfriend, Billy McKnight was charged with attempted murder for allegedly breaking into her Herber Springs home outside of Nashville, police arrested her for driving under the influence. A couple of months later, the singer was found unconscious from a drug overdose in the lobby of a Pinellas County, Florida hotel.

     In September 2005, McCready, pregnant with Billy McKnight's child, was hospitalized after attempting suicide by drug overdose. Police arrested her eighteen months later for misdemeanor battery that occurred during a fight with her mother. In September 2007, McCready spent a year in jail for violating her probation from the 2004 OxyContin sentence. A year later, she was back behind bars for falsifying her community service hours in connection with the 2007 case. The country and western singer attempted suicide again in 2008.

     In 2009, Mindy McCready was talked into becoming a cast member in VH1's reality TV series, "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew." (Dr. Drew is Dr. Drew Pinsky.) The series was ostensibly about giving viewers insight into the serious problem of substance addiction, and the importance of professional treatment. On the show's third season, McCready appeared with, among other "celebrity" cast members, Dennis Rodman, Tom Sizemore, MacKenzie Phillips, and Heidi Fleiss.

     Fans of this exploitation of fallen stars must have found the program reassuring. While their own lives were far from perfect, they were at least better off than McCready and the other human disasters  showcasing their flaws and failures. After former "Celebrity Rehab" cast members Mike Starr, Joey Kovar, Rodney King, and Jeff Conaway died young, VH1 canceled the series after five seasons. But the spirit of the show lives on in the non-celebrity version called "Rehab with Dr. Drew." The freak show has also spawned a pair of spinoffs, "Sober House," and "Sex Rehab", a series about people addicted to sex.

     After her stint on "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew," McCready's life continued to spin out of control. (Apparently the TV counselor didn't do her much good.) She had more arrests, drug overdoses, and attempted suicides. In January 2013, McCready's boyfriend, David Wilson, the father of her 9-month-old son, shot himself to death on the front porch of her Herber Springs, Tennessee home. On Sunday, February 17, 2013, McCready, on the same front porch, used a gun to take her own life.

     By dropping the curtain on her own show, McCready gave her audience a tragic ending to a sad story. It won't be long before the public forgets that she ever existed.    

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

English Teacher Brittni Colleps and Her Senior High Orgy Club

     In the fall of 2010, Brittni Nicole Colleps, a married 28-year-old with three children, started teaching English at Kennedale High School near Arlington, a city located between Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas. She had also been hired to coach the girl's basketball team. Her husband Christopher served in the military and was stationed in the area.

     In April 2011, Brittni began sending sexually explicit text messages, including nude photographs of herself, to some of her senior male students. That quickly led to sexual encounters with five 18-year-old boys at her Arlington home. On at least four occasions, the teacher engaged in group sex with three of her students. (Colleps and her husband were so-called "swingers" who participated in group sex with other consenting adults. On her job application, Brittni probably did not list this activity as one of her hobbies. This was Texas, not California. Just kidding.)

     Colleps' extracurricular sex sessions were exposed in May 2011 when a cellphone video recorded by a participant in one of the home orgies came to the attention of school officials. The police were called in, and when a detective with the Arlington Police Department asked Colleps about this, she denied being involved in such activity. However, when confronted with her text messages to these students, she confessed. The high school immediately suspended her, and a short time later, she resigned.

     While it is not a crime in Texas for a 28-year-old woman to have sex with 18-year-old boys, it is an offense for a school teacher to have an "inappropriate" sexual relationship with a student. The text messages did not constitute a crime, but in Texas, the texting would have been sufficient grounds to fire her. A prosecutor in Tarrant County charged Brittni Nicole Colleps with 16 counts under the inappropriate teacher-student sexual relationship statute. These second-degree felonies carried sentences of two to twenty years in prison each. Colleps was clearly a serial offender.

     On August 13, 2012, the Colleps student orgy trial got underway in Arlington, Texas. The prosecutor put five of the defendant's student sex partners on the stand. All of the witnesses, while describing how their teacher had lured them into sex, testified that they did not consider themselves victims of sexual abuse. The prosecutor showed the jury portions of the cellphone recorded group sex episode that had ignited the scandal. (Colleps's face was not depicted, but a distinct tattoo on her lower back identified her as the female participant.

     The jury, on August 17, 2012, after deliberating less than an hour, returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. Colleps' sentence: five years in prison. Following the verdict, Christopher Colleps told reporters that while his wife's extramarital sexual activities had angered him, he was standing by her.

     In recent years, there have been several cases involving female high school teachers who have engaged in sex with male students. These women tended to be immature, overly romantic types who fell in love with a single kid who was just too cool to resist. Brittni Colleps, on the other hand, simply enjoyed group sex with young men.

     On January 7, 2015, after serving less than half of her five year sentence, the parole board granted Colleps' request for early release. She returned home where she would undergo monthly supervision for the remaining period of her sentence.

    

Monday, May 9, 2016

Dr. Henry Lee: The Celebrity Forensic Scientist

     Dr. Henry Lee has come as close to becoming a household name as any forensic scientist in U.S. history. He has achieved fame in a profession whose practitioners generally operate behind the scenes. In the criminal justice field, it's usually the defense attorneys who get the headlines, and in forensic science, it's often forensic pathologists like Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Cyril Wecht.

     In the 1930s, a pair of criminalists in the Seattle area, Oscar Heinrich and Luke May, achieved celebrity status by solving a number of celebrated murder cases. Clark Sellers, a handwriting expert from Los Angeles, made headlines with his testimony at the Lindbergh kidnapping trial in Flemington, New Jersey. In the 1960s, Dr. Paul Kirk, a forensic chemist from Berkeley, California became something of a celebrity. The peak of his notoriety came in 1995 when he analyzed crime scene blood-spatter patterns for attorney F. Lee Bailey in the infamous Dr. Sam Shepard murder case near Cleveland, Ohio.

     Dr. Henry Lee, because he rose to fame in the era of true crime television, has enjoyed a level of celebrity more intense and intimate than his well-known predecessors. He has made hundreds of television appearances, and hosted a show on Court TV called Trace Evidence: The Case Files of Dr. Henry Lee. Dr. Lee's personality, demeanor, and life story have helped make him a bigger-than-life character. Like sports stars and major film and television actors, he tends to be vain and dramatic. On the witness stand, he informs jurors and, as a charismatic courtroom showman, entertains them. When Dr. Lee testifies for the prosecution, he's the defense attorney's worst nightmare. When he's appearing on behalf of the defense, it's not good news for the prosecutor. In either case, the media loves it, and so do the jurors.

     Dr. Henry Chang-Yu Lee was born in Rugao City, China on November 22, 1938. When Henry was four, the Chinese communists murdered his father. Two years later, his family fled to Taiwan to avoid the communist revolution. After graduating from the Taiwan Central Police College in 1960 with a degree in police science, Henry jointed the Taipei Police Department. Six years later, after rising to the rank of captain, he came to the United States where, in 1972, he graduated from New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice with a bachelor of science degree in science. In 1974, he earned a master's degree in biochemistry from New York University. A year later, he was awarded a Ph.D in biochemistry.

     In 1979, Dr. Lee became the director of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Laboratory where he also held the title of chief criminalist. Following his retirement from the lab in 2000, Dr. Lee began teaching at the University of New Haven where he founded the Henry C. Lee Forensic Institute. According to his resume, Dr. Lee has been awarded several honorary degrees, written more than 20 books (most with co-authors), published numerous scientific articles, given hundreds of speeches, investigated 4,000 homicide cases (not possible), and consulted with more than 300 law enforcement agencies.

The Wood Chipper Case

     Dr. Lee vaulted onto the national stage in 1986 when an airline pilot named Richard Crafts went on trial in Connecticut for murdering his wife, Halle. Having incurred her husband's wrath by announcing her plans to divorce him, Halle Crafts had covertly audio-taped his threats to to kill her. Perhaps even more incriminating, Richard Crafts was seen by a motorist, on the night of Halle's disappearance, operating a commercial-grade wood chipper in the midst of a blizzard along the bank of the Housatonic River. The audio-tape and the wood chipper sighting led the police to suspect Crafts of murdering his wife. But investigators had a serious problem: they didn't have a corpse. Faced with one of those maddening cases of a good suspect, but no physical evidence, the homicide detectives called on Dr. Lee

     In the couple's bedroom, Dr. Lee found traces of the victim's blood. When he examined a chainsaw that had been in the suspect's possession, Dr. Lee discovered hair follicles, traces of blood, and tissue that he identified as the victim's. In the rented wood chipper, Lee recovered the same, and at the spot where Richard Crafts had been seen operating the equipment, Dr. Lee found fragments of the victim's teeth and bones, along with follicles of her hair. It wasn't much, but it was enough to establish that Halle Crafts had been murdered. From this evidence, Dr. Lee was able to reconstruct the crime, theorizing that the defendant had bludgeoned his wife to death in their bedroom, frozen her body in a home freezer, cut her into pieces with the chainsaw, then shoved the body parts into the wood chipper which sprayed her remains into the river.

     The Crafts trial jury, obviously impressed with Dr. Lee and his evidence, found the defendant guilty of first degree murder. A few years later, while serving his life sentence, Richard Crafts confessed to murdering his wife. Featuring blood and gore, an attractive victim, a suburban killer, a dramatic trial, and scientific investigation in the mold of Sherlock Holmes, the wood chipper case turned Dr. Henry Lee into a celebrity forensic scientist.

William Kennedy Smith Case

     Five years after his famous Crafts murder trial testimony, Dr. Lee took the stand on behalf of a defendant named William Kennedy Smith who was on trail for an alleged 1991 date rape that dominated the news because of the Kennedy family connection. According to the accused, following a night of drinking in Palm Beach, Florida with his accuser, the two had engaged in consensual sex on the lawn of the Kennedy family estate. Dr. Lee, to help prove that the defendant's partner had consented to sex, testified that he had found no grass stains on the woman's pantyhose, evidence one would expect to find had there been a struggle. To illustrate this point, Dr. Lee produced a grass-stained handkerchief he had rubbed against the grass in his own yard. The jury found William Kennedy Smith not guilty.

     Dr. Lee's testimony in the Kennedy case drew criticism from John Hicks, the director of the FBI Laboratory, who called it "outrageous." Hicks characterized Dr. Lee's handkerchief experiment as unscientific, and labeled the conclusions drawn from it speculative. The crime lab director pointed out that the handkerchief was not made of the same fabric as the pantyhose, and the conditions that had created the handkerchief stains did not necessarily replicate the environment at the alleged crime site. Criticism of this type--that Dr. Lee's testimony is more theater than science--has followed him throughout his career.

The O. J. Simpson Case

     Dr. Lee's testimony on behalf of O. J. Simpson in 1995 did not endear him to many of his forensic science colleagues. In general, Dr. Lee's testimony in that case helped the Simpson defense in five ways. It depicted Los Angeles police detectives and crime scene technicians as incompetent; it suggested that blood evidence had been contaminated; it supported the theory that evidence against the defendant had been planted; it pushed the time of the crime forward 45 minutes which accommodated Simpson's alibi; and it laid the groundwork for the theory than Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman had been murdered by more than one person.

     On the last point, Dr. Lee's testimony contradicted the testimony of the FBI's renowned footwear identification expert, William Bodziak. Dr. Lee identified a bloody stain on an envelope and scrap of paper found in Nicole Simpson's house as a shoe print that didn't match the footwear--the Bruno Magli Italian designer shoes--prosecutors believed the defendant was wearing when he committed the murders. Mr. Bodziak testified that this bloody print had not been made by a shoe at all. Douglas Deedrich, also from the FBI Crime Lab, testified that the bloody pattern was in fact a fabric print.

     At the Simpson trial, Dr. Lee also raised the possibility that a bloodstain on Ronald Goldman's blue jeans had been made by a shoe that was not a Bruno Magli. On cross-examination, when pressed about this blood print identification, Dr. Lee said that if these patterns were footwear marks, they were not made by the Bruno Magli brand.

     Critics of Dr. Lee's testimony in the O. J. Simpson case called it an example of "blowing smoke"--a term referring to the giving of vague defense testimony intended to muddy the water in an effort to create reasonable doubt.

     Since his testimony in the O. J. Simpson case, Dr. Lee was involved in dozens of celebrated cases that included the JonBenet Ramsey murder, the Scott Peterson case, and the Phil Spector murder case where he was accused of removing a piece of crime scene evidence that might have incriminated the defendant.

     Dr. Lee's participation at various levels in so many cases involving such a variety of evidence and analysis is unusual for a forensic scientist. In the field, he is almost a one-of-a-kind practitioner. At the core of his expertise, he is a forensic serologist, one who examines crime scene biological stains to determine their identify and origin. As a crime scene reconstruction expert, one who determines what happened at the crime site by taking into consideration all of the physical clues, Dr. Lee is also a blood-spatter analyst. As one who studies physical evidence to figure out, after the fact, what occurred at the scene of the crime, Dr. Lee analyzes all kinds of physical evidence, including hair follicles, fibers, bite marks, bone fragments, brain matter, tissue, gunshot powder residue, soil, dust, pollen, and other forms of trace evidence.

     Dr. Lee also studies latent footwear and fingerprint patterns, and analyzes bullet trajectories. He's a generalist in a field of narrowly defined specialists. This has its appeal, and explains why he has been able to insert himself in so many cases. It may also be his weakness, because his expertise and knowledge, over all this forensic territory, is thin. One man can only know so much. Because science and ego are a bad mix, forensic science is best conducted by behind-the-scenes people who are not worried about living up to their press clippings.



       

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Cockfighting: A Blood Sport

     Cockfighting, a pair of conditioned and trained roosters equipped with metal spurs or knives battling each other to the death in a cockpit, is against the law in every state in America as well as in Brazil, Australia, and except for France, Europe. In America, Louisiana didn't ban cockfighting until 2008. Although it's illegal, cockfighting, in certain parts of the country, is still a popular form of entertainment.

     In many countries such as Mexico, Peru, Panama, Ecuador, and the Philippines, cockfighting is not only legal, it's the national pastime. Spectators, whether gathered at illegal, clandestine cockfighting venues, or seated in elaborate arenas, bet money on the outcomes of the bouts. Like dogfighting and bullfighting, cockfighting is considered a blood sport. Unlike the sport of boxing, the participants are animals who have no say in the matter.

     Early in the morning of Thursday, April 19, 2012, 200 men, women, and children were gathered at a weekly cockfight venue on a small Hildago County ranch near McAllen, Texas. Without warning, at least two men wearing masks stormed the site and opened fire with automatic assault rifles. Before pandemonium broke out, most of the spectators were seated in bleachers beneath a corrugated pavilion. When the shooting stopped, three man lay dead, and eight were wounded.

     Two of the dead men were brothers, the 49 and 55-year-old targets of the ambush. Both men had criminal records, and had been suspects in a recent drug war drive-by shooting, the possible motive behind the retaliatory shooting spree. Local police officers believe the third man killed was an innocent bystander. Although the attack took place near the border, the police do not think it was related to the Mexican drug wars.

     The sheriff of Hildago County described the shooting site, littered with bodies, shell casings, pools of blood, beer cans, and twenty dead roosters, as the crime scene from hell. The authorities charged three people with the crime of cockfighting.

     The people charged in connection with cockfighting were convicted and given probation. They could have been sentenced to prison for up to two years, and fined $10,000. As of this writing, the mass murderers have not been identified.

   

     

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Edith Casas and Victor Cingolani: A Marriage Made In Hell

     In August 2010, the body of Johana Casas was found in a field on the outskirts of Pico Truncado, a city in southern Argentina. The 20-year-old model had been shot twice. The authorities arrested Victor Cingolani, the victim's former boyfriend, and Marco Diaz, the man she had been living with at the time of her death. Diaz and Johana, hours before the discovery of her body, were seen at a party together.

     In June 2012, 28-year-old Victor Cingolani was found guilty of participating in Johana Casas' homicide. The judge sentenced him to thirteen years in prison.

     At the time of Johana Casas' murder, her twin sister Edith had been dating the man who would later be convicted of her homicide. Following his conviction, Edith visited him in prison and expressed her belief that he was innocent. In the fall of 2012, she announced, to her parents' horror, that she and Victor Cingolani planned to get married.

     Edith Casas' mother, on December 22, 2012, filed a court motion requesting the suspension of the wedding on grounds that her daughter was "psychologically ill" and "not in full control of her mental faculties." The judge suspended the wedding pending the results of a psychological evaluation of the convicted killer's fiancee.

     In speaking to the media regarding her daughter's bizarre plan to marry Cingolani, her mother referred to the marriage as a "terrible betrayal." In response to her parents' concerns, Edith, in speaking to a reporter said, "Victor is not a violent person and I'm not mad. We've got no doubts about what we are doing. We love each other."

     The judge considering the suspension of the wedding, on December 31, 2012, following the court-ordered psychological evaluation, ruled that the couple could get married. Cingolani's attorney, pursuant to his efforts to have his client's conviction overturned, had been arguing that Marco Diaz had been the sole perpetrator of the homicide. In an interview with a newspaper reporter, the attorney said, "The cigarette butt found near Johana's body belonged to Diaz, and all the witnesses have incriminated him. I can understand Johana's parents' attitude. But Edith is not marrying a killer or anything like it. She is marrying a man who was convicted in a judicial scandal. All we want is justice."

     On Valentine's Day, 2013, Edith Casas and Victor Cingolani, in the presence of a jail guard and another witness, were married by a magistrate in the civil registry office in Pico Truncade. Following the brief ceremony, Cingolani, disguised in sunglasses and a beret, was ushered out the back door en route to his cell. His bride, when she emerged from the government building, encountered a cluster of people who did not wish her well. Instead of rice, these angry folks threw rocks and eggs.

     Earlier that morning, before the wedding, Cingolani, when questioned by a TV reporter, said, "I'm getting married because I love Edith. (Many believed he was marrying her to gain an advantage in his quest to clear his name and get out of prison.) I didn't think the wedding would have so many repercussions worldwide." Really? Women who marry imprisoned murderers attract media attention for the single reason that it's such a deviant and stupid thing to do. It's hardly surprising that when a young, beautiful woman marries the man who is behind bars for murdering her twin sister, it excites the media, upsets people close to the victim, and angers a segment of the public.

    As of May 2016, Marco Diaz has not been tried for Johana Casas' murder.

    

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Short History of American Forensic Science

     By 1935, crime laboratories were up and running in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The FBI Lab had opened its doors in 1933. The bureau's national fingerprint repository had been operating in Washington, D.C. since 1924, the year J. Edgar Hoover, an early advocate of scientific crime detection, became the agency's fourth director. August Vollmer, the progressive police administrator from Berkeley, California, and Dean John Wigmore of Northwestern University Law School, had been tireless crusaders for forensic science and physical evidence as an alternative to coerced confessions, eyewitness testimony, and jailhouse informants. Wigmore and Vollmer were the main forces behind the formation, in Chicago, of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in 1930. In 1938, the private lab beame part of the Chicago Police Department.

     In the 1930s, a pair of private practice forensic chemists and crime scene reconstructon analysts in the northwest, Oscar Heinrich and Luke May, were grabbing headlines by solving high-profile murder cases. Stories involving crimes solved through the scientific analysis of physical evidence had become commonplace features in the fact-crime magazines so popular at the time. Numerous textbooks and manuals had been published on the subjects of fingerprint identification, forensic ballistics, questioned documents, trace evidence analysis, forensic serology, forensic medicine, scientific lie detection (polygraph), and forensic anthropology, the identification and analysis of skeletal remains.

     Criminal investigation textbooks of this era contained detailed instructions on how to protect crime scenes, render crime scene sketches, photograph clues, mark and package physical evidence, dust for latent fingerprints, make plaster-of-Paris casts of tire tracks and footwear impressions, and in the case of sudden, unexplained, or violent death, look for signs of criminal homicide. By the mid-thirties, virtually every court in the country accepted the expert opinions of practitioners in the major forensic fields, and jurors recognized the advantages of expert physical evidence interpretation over the more direct testimony of jailhouse snitches and eyewitnesses.

     Today, nothwithstanding DNA science and computerized fingerprint identification and retrieval capabilities, crime solution percentages in the United States have not improved since the mid-thirties when the FBI started collecting crime statistics. The emphasis on street policing (order maintenance), the escalating war on drugs, and the threat of domestic terrorism has diminished the role of criminal investigation and forensic science in the administration of justice. At a time when DNA technology has advanced far beyond the imaginations of the pioneers of forensic serology (Dr. Paul Kirk and others), rapists, pedophiles, and serial killers are escaping detection and arrest due to DNA analysis backlogs created by a shortage of funds and experts.

     Ironically, one of the byproducts of DNA science has been the release of hundreds of innocent people who have been convicted on the strength of coerced confessions, unreliable eyewitnesses, and the testimony of jailhous informants. In the small percentage of trials involving the analysis of physical evidence, jurors are commonly exposed to conflicting scientific testimony. When faced with opposing experts, jurors tend to disregard the science altogether. The forensic pioneers of the twenties and thirties would be appalled by this hired-gun phenomena and the low productivity of today's investigative services.

     During the first decade of the 21st Century, due to forensic misidentifications caused by substandard lab conditions and incompetent personnel, crime laboratories in, among other places, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Boston, had to be temporarily closed. During this period, for the first time in the history of the science, there were numerous high-profile fingerprint misidentifications. Moreover, modern forensic science has seen the infusion of pseudo-science and bogus expertise into the nation's courtrooms.

      In March 2009, the National Academy of Sciences, an organization within the National Institute of Justice, after an eighteen month study, published a report criticizing the state of forensic science in America. The writers of the widely publicized report recommended that Congress create a federal agency to insure a firewall between forensic science and law enforcement; finance more research and personnel training; and promote universal standards of excellence in the troubled fields of DNA profiling, forensic firearms identification, fingerprint analysis, forensic document examination, and forensic pathology. From this, one might reasonably conclude that modern forensic science, weighed against the hopes and dreams of its pioneers, has not lived up to its potential.

    

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Dueling Experts in the David Camm Murder Case: Is Blood Spatter Analysis a True Science?

     On September 28, 2000, at 9:29 in the evening, David Camm called 911 and reported that he had discovered the murdered bodies of his wife, daughter and son in his garage. Upon arrival at Camm's house in New Albany, Indiana, police discovered Camm's wife Kimberly, his 5-year-old daughter Jill, and his 7-year-old son Brad in Kimberly's Ford Bronco. She and her daughter had been shot in the head. The boy had been shot in the chest. There were abrasions and bruises on Kimberly's knees, elbows, and feet.

     At seven in the evening on the day of the murders, Kimberly, with Jill in the car, picked up Brad from his swimming class. As they drove home, David, a former Indiana state trooper and employee of his uncle's construction company, left the house for his weekly basketball game with friends and relatives. According to eleven witnesses, Camm left the church gym for home at 9:17 PM. Twelve minutes later, he called 911.

     Medical examiner Donna Hunsaker found that although no semen had been recovered, the little girl had been sexually molested within hours before her death. From the onset, detectives suspected David Camm of murdering his family. The police and the Floyd County prosecutor, Stan Faith, believed that Camm had arrived home at 9:22, killed his family, disposed of the gun (it had not been recovered), cleaned up the crime scene, then called 911. But the crime scene evidence did not support this theory. The blood on the driveway had coagulated which suggested that the victims had been murdered before 9:22. If this were the case, David Camm had an iron-clad alibi. The prosecutor, to get around the alibi, decided that Camm had murdered his family before he left the house that night to play basketball.

     In the Ford Bronco, crime scene investigators had found a gray sweatshirt under Brad's body. DNA tests on this sweatshirt and the boy's clothing failed to connect the suspect to the scene. Several latent fingerprints lifted from the car did not belong to anyone in the family.

     In March of 2002, a jury found David Camm guilty of murdering his family. While the prosecution didn't have a motive, or a murder weapon, they had Robert Stites, a blood spatter analyst from Portland, Oregon who testified that eight tiny bloodstains on the defendant's t-shirt had come from spray made by the bullet fired into his daughter's head. The defense argued that Camm had stained his shirt when he embraced the victim. The judge imposed a 195-year sentence.

     In 2004, an Indiana appeals court set aside Camm's conviction on grounds of insufficient evidence. The prosecution promised a retrial. A year later, after the arrest of an armed robber and rapist named Charles Boney, investigators submitted his DNA to a data bank which linked him to the site of the Camm family murder. After initially denying that he knew David Camm, Boney told the police Camm had paid him $250 for the gun Camm had used to shoot his family. To explain the presence of his sweatshirt at crime scene, Boney said the gun had been wrapped in the shirt when he gave it to Camm.

     On the belief that Charles Boney had been Camm's crime scene accomplice, the authorities charged the 36-year-old with three counts of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. In January 2006, the jury found him guilty. A few months later, the judge sentenced Boney to 225 years in prison. After the trial, several jurors told reporters they believed David Camm was the actual shooter. Following Boney's conviction, a man he had served time in prison with, told the police that four months before the murders, Boney had said that when he got out, he planned to kill a police officer's family, and frame the cop.

     David Camm's second trial got underway in January 2006 with a new prosecutor, Keith Henderson, representing the state. On the third day of the trial, the Indiana State Police sergeant in charge of the crime scene investigation testified, under cross-examination, that within days of the murders, the prosecutor (Stan Faith) hired two outside blood spatter analysts to study the serological evidence. The private experts from Portland, Oregon were Rod Englert, and his protege, Robert Stites. (Stites had been the prosecution's key witness in the first trial.) Defense attorney Stacy Vliana asked the witness if he had been aware that Stites wasn't qualified to process crime scenes. Did the sergeant know that Stites hadn't even taken the 40-hour standard bloodstain analysis course? The witness said he had not been informed of Stites' professional background.

   The next day, on cross-examination, Stacy Viliana grilled Robert Stites on his lack of experience as a blood spatter expert. The witness acknowledged that he had not taken the introductory course. He said he had read one book on the subject in 1994. Two days after the Camm murders, he had traveled to New Albany, Indiana because his mentor, Robert Englert, was too busy to handle the case. This was the first murder scene Stites had processed on his own. He had examined the t-shirt David Camm had been wearing on the night of the crime. The shirt contained eight bloodstains, each about a millimeter in diameter, spots he considered consistent with blood sprayed from the impact of a bullet. The defense attorney asked Stites if he had known that the defendant, while wearing that t-shirt, had carried his daughter out of the Bronco. The witness said he had not been aware of that. Stites acknowledged that concerning blood spray staining from the impact of a bullet, one would expect to find hundreds of little spots, not just eight.

     Forensic scientist Lynn Scamahorn took the stand and testified that in Camm's first trial, prosecutor Stan Faith had tried to get her to change her testimony about the DNA evidence on Charles Boney's crime scene sweatshirt. According to Scamahorn, the prosecutor wanted her to say that David Camm's DNA was also on the garment. When she refused, Faith threatened to charge her with obstruction of justice. He had also yelled and swore at her. In recalling her ordeal, the witness broke down. (Faith later denied these allegations.)

     In February, blood spatter expert Tom Bevel testified for the prosecution. According to his analysis, based on 25 years in the field. the blood on the defendant's t-shirt had been sprayed there by a bullet. Bevel also told the jury that David Camm had to be at the crime scene when his wife was shot because her blood had dropped onto one of his sneakers. The witness said that he believed the defendant was within four feet of his daughter when she was shot.

     The next day, prosecution blood spatter expert Rod Englert (Stites's mentor from Portland, Oregon), testified that the defendant must have been standing next to his wife, and just a few feet away from his daughter, when the two were shot. Englert added that the bloodstain on Camm's shoe appeared to have been diluted with water. Microscopist William Chapin, an employee of McCrone Laboratories, took the stand and confirmed the prosecution theory that the defendant was a few feet from his daughter, and right next to his wife, when they were shot. According to Chapin, he had seen traces of the victim's tissue on the defendant's t-shirt.

     The defense put two of its own blood spatter experts on the stand. Paul Kish and Bart Epstein testified that the blood on Camm's t-shirt had gotten there by transfer when he hugged the victims. Paul Kish said he couldn't render an opinion on how the blood stain had gotten on the defendant's shoe.

     On March 3, 2006, following 45 hours of deliberation, the Camm jury found the defendant guilty of murdering his family. The judge later sentenced Camm to life in prison. Following the verdict, F. Thomas Schomhorst, a law professor emeritus at Indiana University, questioned the prosecutor's claim, without supporting evidence, that the defendant had sexually molested his daughter.

     The Indiana Supreme Court, on June 26, 2009, overturned Camm's 2006 conviction. A third trial was scheduled for June 2010. Shortly after the second conviction, prosecutor Keith Henderson signed a publishing deal for a book called, Sacred Trust: Deadly Betrayal. The nonfiction book about the Camm case, would actually be written by Damon DiMarco. The Camm defense, on the grounds the prosecutor's book deal created a conflict of interest, petitioned the court for a special prosecutor. In November 2011, the Indiana Court of Appeals granted the request. This ruling delayed the start of David Camm's third trial.

     In February 2012, the Indiana Supreme Court decided not to hear the state's appeal of the appellate court ruling. Prosecutor Keith Henderson was therefore off the case. Convicting David Camm of murder became the job of special prosecutor Stan Levco.

     On August 22, 2013, the third Camm trial got underway in Lebanon, Indiana. Once again blood spatter analyst Tom Bevel testified that the crime scene bloodstain patterns proved that the defendant was in the garage when his wife and children were shot to death.

     Charles Boney, the man convicted in the case, took the stand and repeated his story that he provided the gun David Camm used to kill his family. Boney said he had no physical contact with any of the victims.

     To counter the prosecution's blood spatter case, defense analyst Barrie Goetz took the stand. Goetz had worked for the Indiana State Police from 1978 to 1981. From 1981 to 2004, he conducted blood spatter examinations for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. According to Goetz, the blood on the defendant's shoe had been caused by a bloody shoelace hitting the side of the shoe when he ran. The pattern was not, in this witness' opinion, a "projected stain." Goetz said that, unlike his prosecution counterparts, he had used real human blood in his recreations.

     On cross-examination, prosecutor Levco asked this forensic witness why he hadn't videotaped his blood pattern experiments.

     On October 3, two defense witnesses testified that when the Camm murders took place, they were playing basketball with the defendant.

     Dr. Robert Shaler, a forensic anthropologist known for his work identifying bodies after the World Trade Center terrorist attack, testified that blood spatter analysis was not a true science. The interpretation of blood stain patterns had not been subjected to scientific peer review. Moreover, no data had been collected regarding error rates. "Either blood pattern analysis is based on science or it's an art form," Dr. Shaler said. "If it's an art form, then anyone can come up with opinions on it."

     On October 9, Dr. Richard Eikeienboom, a Dutch DNA analyst, took the stand for the defense. According to Dr. Eikeienboom, DNA evidence proved that Charles Boney had physical contact with Kim and Jill Camm. That meant Charles Boney had lied when he testified he had not touched the victims. The defense attorney put Dr. Eikeienboom on the stand to discredit the prosecution's star witness.

     On Eikeienboom's cross-examination, prosecutor Levco brought out the fact the witness' Netherlands based firm, Independent Forensic Services, was not accredited in the United States.

      On Thursday, October 24, 2013, after thirty-one days of testimony, the jury of eight women and four men found David Camm not guilty. The defendant's thirteen-year criminal justice ordeal, involving three murder trials, had finally come to an end. The state of Indiana had spent millions of dollars in a failed attempt to acquire a murder conviction in an obviously flawed case.

     Sometimes prosecutors just don't know when to quit. Moreover, the David Camm case, featuring dueling experts in blood spatter interpretation, is an embarrassment to forensic science. Blood spatter analysis, while perhaps an investigative tool, is not a science and shouldn't be presented as such in a court of law.

      

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Tick Tock Diner Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1987, Alex Sgourdos and his two brothers-in-law bought the Tick Tock Diner on New Jersey's Route 3 west of the Meadowlands a few miles from the Lincoln Tunnel that takes you under the Hudson River into midtown Manhattan. The diner not only became a successful business enterprise, it grew into a New Jersey landmark. (Scenes from a dozen movies take place in the diner.)

     In February 2013, one of the diner's managers, 45-year-old Georgious Spyropoulos, tried to hire a hitman to kill his Uncle Alex. Spyropoulos was married to the daughter of one of Mr. Sgourdos' partners.

     In late February 2013, Mr. Spyroupoulos asked a regular patron of the diner if he could put him in touch with a professional killer. The man Spyropoulos reached out to happened to be a regular informant for the New Jersey State Police. As is often the case, the murder-for-hire plot unraveled before it got off the ground.

     In March, the police informant came to the diner with an undercover officer playing the role of contract killer. Later that month, at a meeting in a nearby Home Depot parking lot, Spyropoulos and the undercover cop discussed how the murder-for-hire target would be killed. According to court records, the hitman was to enter Mr. Sgourdos' 6,000-square foot house late on a Sunday night after the diner owner had deposited that day's receipts in his home safe. (The daily receipts usually came to about $20,000.) The mastermind provided the phony hitman with instructions on how to circumvent the dwelling's security system, and said that if the target's wife got in the way, she should be murdered as well.

     Mr. Spyropoulos, according to police affidavits, informed the hitman that his uncle kept a lot of cash in his safe. To acquire the combination, the mastermind suggested that torture might be required. "You can get anything out of anybody with a pair of pliers," he said.

     According to the plan, after the hitman murdered Mr. Sgourdos, Spyropoulos wanted the body disposed of in a way that would cause the authorities to treat the matter as a missing persons case. Spyropoulos handed the undercover cop $3,000 and a revolver, and said they would split whatever was in the Tick Tock Diner owner's safe. Hinting that the Sgourdos hit would be one of a series of murder assignments, Spyropoulos said, "We'll have a lot more to do." (As is always the case, the entire murder-for-hire conversation was taped by the police.)

     On April 9, 2013, officers with the New Jersey State Police entered the Tick Tock Diner at noon and took Georgios Spyropoulos into custody. Charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation of murder, the suspect was incarcerated in the Passaic County Jail on $1 million bond.

     On July 13, 2014, Georgios Spyropoulos pleaded guilty to plotting the murder of his uncle. In September 2014, Passaic County Judge Ernest Caposela sentenced Spropoulos to eight years in prison. Had Spyropoulos been convicted as charged, he would have been sent to prison for at least 20 years.

     According to the state prosecutor who handled the case, Spyropoulos, even after he entered his guilty plea, showed no remorse for his role in the murder-for-hire plot. He is eligible for parole in less than seven years.

     When it comes to sentencing, our criminal justice system often makes no sense.