Sunday, February 28, 2010

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Katherine Scardino

At times during my legal career, I have faced really tough decisions -- and most of them have been similar to the one that is nagging me now. I am representing a 20-year-old Hispanic man who is accused of capital murder. He was 18 when he killed another human being. We have a trial date, and the State is hoping a jury will convict him of capital murder. If the jury does, there will be no punishment hearing, because the prosecution chose not to seek the death penalty. Instead, the judge will immediately sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole -- ever. It also means the defense has no opportunity to tell about any mitigating circumstances that might sway the jury toward mercy or sympathy for this young man.

Life without possibility of parole is second only to the death penalty in our American scheme of punishment options. I call life without parole “death in the penitentiary from natural causes”. That is what it means. A life without hope; a long life in a box with a hole in the door through which he is fed three times a day. Many years with no human touch.

But this young man has a defense. He told me a story about what happened at his cousin’s house that balmy summer morning about two years ago, and I believe him. I believe him because the story makes sense. The basic facts of his story are irrelevant to my dilemma, but suffice it to say that he killed a man in self defense. You may ask: So what is the problem? You have a defense to murder. All you have to do is get it out in front of a jury. The jury will believe it -- because it is true -- and they will understand the legal ramifications of self defense. They will know that a not-guilty verdict is proper under the circumstances. Yeah, right. And pigs can fly.

Defense attorneys are well aware that not-guilty verdicts are very few and far between, regardless of the client's guilt or innocence, regardless of whether he has a defense for an otherwise criminal act.

As most people know from experience or news reports, the prosecutor will generally make a plea-agreement offer some time before the trial starts. The prosecutor will offer to trade a certain number of years in prison for a guilty verdict. But in my case, where there are only two possible punishments -- life or death -- the prosecutor must get approval from the boss to reduce the charge from capital murder to murder. That's the only way the prosecutor can offer a set number of years in prison. For example, the prosecutor offers to reduce the charge, and the defendant agrees to spend thirty years in prison.

A thirty-year sentence means he would spend approximately fifteen years in prison before he could be considered for parole -- a long time. But the big deal here is the possibility of parole at some point, years in the future. Without a plea bargain, the defendant has to face a jury on a capital murder charge, a jury that could convict but not make no punishment decision.

So here is the choice: my client has a defense and facts that might, just might, cause the jury to return a verdict of not guilty. Under our laws, this is the right thing to do. But the reality of this situation is not so clear. The defendant takes a risk that is hard to fathom. He risks losing his life forever. Or, he can agree to a plea bargain and spend many, many years in prison. But he'll still have a chance at a life someday. He won't die of old age in prison. At my client’s age, he might even be be able to get married and have children after he has served his sentence.

The last time I tried a capital case without a potential death sentence, the result was a not-guilty verdict. Can that possibly happen again? Can I choose a jury who will actually follow the law if they believe the young man acted in self defense?

Lawyers understand how difficult it is for a jury to overlook the fact that a person has been accused of committing a crime by the powerful State. Why would that person be sitting here if prosecutors had no evidence of guilt? How could the case have gotten so far otherwise? The physical set-up of the courtroom itself is serious and intimidating. There's a judge sitting up high wearing a black robe, a court reporter, lawyers on both sides of the table with stacks of paper and files; people in the gallery, and twelve people who are supposed to be “jurors of the defendant’s peers."

As I noted, not-guilty verdicts are few. The prosecutor will likely suggest to the jurors that when the trial is over, the defendant may ride down in the elevator with them if they haven't convicted -- meaning it'll be their fault if he's allowed to continue his alleged murdering, raping, robbing ways. As a lawyer, I was trained to believe that the law is the rule of life; that everyone would follow the law; that our constitution was what separates us from less-civilized countries. I still believe in our legal system, but I no longer believe that juries follow the law when deliberating on the fate of a defendant.
My young client turns to me. “Miss Katherine, what do you think I should do?” I will let you know next time....

Black-Eyed Borgia

by Deborah Blum

Mary Frances Creighton, Fanny to her friends, was a rather appealing 24-year-old in the summer of 1923. She had curling dark hair, pale skin, “deep, luminous eyes,” according to The New York Evening Post, and lush, “petulant lips,” according to The New York American.

The New York Times more sedately described her as a “comely brunette,” or as “a young mother.” She had a three-year-old daughter, Ruth, and a newly born son, John Jr. The baby had been born in the Newark, N.J. jail, while both she and her husband, John, (together, above left) awaited a trial on charges that they’d killed Fanny's young brother with arsenic.

Hence all the publicity. The newspapers ran few photos of scrawny sandy-haired John. But Fanny Creighton willingly posed for admiring photographers: dressed in long-sleeved demure black, despite the summer heat, eyes lowered, carved silver cross hanging around her neck, infant cradled in her arms.

The image was of a gentle Madonna, the least likely person to have killed a younger brother for a life insurance payout.

The jurors also believed her an unlikely murderer. Both the Creightons were found innocent of the charges. But, in fact, although her husband was only a dupe in the affair, Fanny Creighton was guilty. She admitted to the killing a dozen years later. That was after she’d been charged with yet another arsenic murder.

In the second case – the murder of a close friend’s wife on Long Island – Creighton (and the close friend) went to the electric chair. This time, the press did not find her so appealing: “The Black-Eyed Borgia” screamed one headline. And this time the evidence was not so easily brushed away – the forensic results were so precise that the laboratory could identify the brand of arsenic-laced rat poison used – and the guilty decision came very quickly.

The different endings to two prosecutions of the same woman offer a remarkable measure of how much and how fast forensic science had grown up in the intervening decade. Today, we tend to take such scientific expertise for granted. This is not to imply perfection in a human enterprise. We’ve all followed recent scandals involving overworked criminal laboratories that misstated or even made up some of the findings. But that involves people making bad, really bad, decisions. The basic science itself – our ability to tease a poison out of tissue, identify a blood type, analyze traces of fibers or soils – those techniques stand as solid.

That was far from true in the early 20th century. Elected coroners often knew nothing about science or how to determine cause of death. As I learned in researching my book, The Poisoner's Handbook, death certificates from the time period sometimes merely gave “Act of God” as the cause. Police detectives regarded these strangers from laboratories with real suspicion, refusing to accept their findings. And lawyers found laboratory results to be a wonderfully easy target.

All of that worked perfectly to Fanny Creighton’s advantage in her first murder trial: “My clients know nothing of how this boy came to be poisoned!” her lawyer declared.

John Creighton and Mary Frances Avery were long time friends when they married in 1919. He was the son of an executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. She, her brother and two sisters were orphans, cared for by affluent grandparents.

The newlyweds moved in with Creighton's parents, who owned a big, two-story home in Newark’s comfortable Roseville neighborhood. They shared the space for a year until his mother died at age 47 of apparent attack of food poisoning in 1920. His father, also 47, died the following year, of a sudden heart ailment.
In the 1920s, a powdery form of arsenic called white arsenic, also known as arsenic trioxide, was mixed into an astonishing array of home products. These included a tonic to improve one’s complexion (Fowler’s solution), prescription medicines, weed killers and pesticides, such as the popular rat poison Rough on Rats, which was 10 percent soot and 90 percent white arsenic. In their analysis of Charles Avery’s body, forensic scientists could easily detect arsenic in the tissues – tests had been available since the mid-19th century – but they were unable to figure out which of these many poisons was responsible.

Fanny Creighton used Fowler's Solution to improve her pale complexion. But as her attorney pointed out, the mixture was so dilute that it would have taken gallons to kill the boy. Avery had access to rat poison at the grocery where he worked. The Creightons' attorney suggested that he might have taken it himself. His sister said he was depressed about a girl. The jury found the poison evidence so inconclusive that they quickly returned a not-guilty verdict. The angry prosecutor – convinced that Fanny, at least, was a murderer - then charged her with using arsenic to kill her mother-in-law. But that case foundered on even thinner scientific results. As Fanny Creighton walked away from the courthouse, she sent the prosecutor a message of forgiveness: “I bear no malice toward anyone.”

After the trial, the Creightons left New Jersey and moved to the small town of Baldwin on Long Island. During the Depression, they rented part of their home to another couple, Everett and Ada Applegate. Fanny had lost her dark Madonna looks by then. But her daughter Ruth was a rather lovely 15-year-old, and Ev Applegate decided he'd much rather be married to Ruth than to Ada, who was both fat and ill-tempered. Ev began sleeping with Ruth on the sly, and he told Fanny that if only he were free, he'd be glad to marry her daughter.

On September 27, 1935, Ada Applegate died of acute gastrointestinal distress. Prompted by an anonymous letter, the police opened and investigation and requested a forensic analysis. This time the tests -- done by New York's star toxicologist Alexander Gettler -- were inarguable. Not only did Gettler find three times the lethal dose of arsenic in Ada Applegate's body, he was able to identify the impurities in the poison as soot -- in fact, the exact proportion of soot found in Rough on Rats. The police traced the purchase of the poison, and Applegate and Creighton admitted to buying it together.

Creighton (left) also admitted, in an interview, that she'd used Rough on Rats to kill her brother. Investigators just hadn't known then how to identify it so precisely. It was such precision -- and a new awareness by police and the public of the science itself -- that changed the way we think about forensic medicine. There also was a very definite message in the end of Mary Frances Creighton's story. 

On July 16, 1936, she and Everett Applegate went to the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Smoke and Mirrors: The Truth About Las Vegas

Watching Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman’s indignation over recent advice by President Barack Obama to a New Hampshire audience to not waste cash in Las Vegas was reminiscent of a similarly indignant Goodman a decade earlier. 

Goodman, a former criminal defense attorney and self-described “mouthpiece for the mob,” spent 35 years defending the nation’s most notorious underworld figures. His clients included mobsters Meyer Lansky, Anthony "Tony The Ant" Spilotro and Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, the latter two portrayed in the film Casino by actors Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro. Goodman, also in the film, played himself–a lawyer for the mob. 

So it came as a surprise in 1999 when Goodman tried to deny the mob’s existence in Las Vegas. It was during Goodman’s mayoral run, when he issued a statement in the midst of a colorful Las Vegas trial of two reputed Mafiosi charged in connection with the 1997 execution-style murder of another gangster, Herbert “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein. The trial spotlighted the very kind of mob activity that officials, other than Goodman, had insisted, year after year, no longer existed in Las Vegas.

It started in the early 1990s, when the Nevada Gaming Commission released the first of several statements assuring the public that the FBI had forced the last of the mob out of Las Vegas in the 1980s. That was not true, of course. Goodman himself had represented Spilotro in a mob trial in the mid-1980s, shortly before Spilotro was buried alive and left for dead in an Indiana cornfield. Blitzstein was a co-defendant with Spilotro in that trial. After Spilotro’s murder, Blitzstein pleaded guilty and went to prison. He was released in the early 1990s and returned to Las Vegas, picking up where he had left off.

The 62-year-old Blitzstein ran a downtown auto-repair shop that fronted for his rackets. Authorities said he ran loan-shark and insurance-fraud racketeering operations out of the shop. 

In January 1997, Blitzstein was gunned down in his town house. Federal prosecutors later contended that mob families in Los Angeles and Buffalo, N.Y., had ordered Blitzstein’s hit so they could take control of his business. 

Then, in May 1999, Goodman, as a mayoral candidate, issued a press release declaring the streets of the city free of traditional organized crime.

"For the last 15 years," Goodman said, "there hasn't been a mob presence here." 

Coincidentally or not, Goodman issued that statement from his law office, which was around the corner from the U.S. District courthouse where the Blitzstein murder-related trial was well underway. Testimony in that case, which was heavily covered by the media, related to the life-and-death saga of Herbert Blitzstein–who had been Spilotro's right-hand man–provided new details about Las Vegas street rackets. For example, the 12-count racketeering indictment handed down in the case named 10 defendants charged with offenses ranging from Mafia-related murder-for-hire to racketeering. 

The trial surrounding Blitzstein’s murder, which ended with most of the defendants pleading out to lesser crimes, was the last Mafia-related trial in Las Vegas. 

Blitzstein’s murder also marked the last mob hit in Sin City. But don't tell Oscar Goodman. We'll just keep it between us.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An Investigative Journalist Who Has a Heart and a Soul: A Review of The Last Day of My Life

by Robin Sax

I am not really a crier. I did bawl my eyes out in the movie Precious, but generally – as a veteran sex crimes prosecutor – it takes a lot to get my tears flowing.  Especially with books!  But Jim Moret’s The Last Day of My Life did make me cry. 

Why did it resonate with me so much? At first I didn’t know why – I was truly surprised at my reaction.  I looked inward to try and understand why this book touched me so much.  I realized it must be the dichotomy inherent in Jim Moret.  Someone like him, a public personality, appeared to have it all. And yet Moret was truly suffering inside. He faced the same woes and worries that many of us share, but had to put on a “happy face” for his TV appearances and for his family’s sake. 

Moret hits a nerve when he talks about a universal fear for those who suffer from depression: the idea that we may be better off dead. What makes this book ultimately so moving is that Moret actually had the courage to go public with his struggle. He truly went out on a limb, both professionally and personally, to help us all be more open with ourselves and with our families. And he did it without shame. Moret gives us a book with transparency, honesty, and raw emotion.

Moret tells his stories, tells of his pain and woe, with beautiful simplicity. I understood, heard, and sympathized with his struggles right away. After finishing the book, I was downright hopeful. 

One would never guess that such an emotionally charged book could come out of an investigative journalist – whose job is basically about exposing someone else’s soul without exposing his own motivations, bias, ideas, and emotions.

Jim Moret is neither a psychologist nor a therapist.  He is currently the Chief Correspondent for "Inside Edition". Like many other TV personalities, he comes from a background in law.  Yet he relates to us on a deeply psychological level. So many of us are desperately seeking answers and understanding.  In a mere 161 pages, Jim Moret provides us with more then just answers.  He pours his heart and soul into the book and gets the reader to examine their own.  Not many therapists can do that (for the price of a book anyway)! 

The Last Day of My Life was a deeply moving account of courage and wisdom. Jim Moret not only gives himself a gift, he gives each of us one as well. 

Official Synopsis:
If you had 24 hours to live...Should you finally forgive the one who hurt you the most, and would you find the courage to apologize to the person you wronged? Who would you remember as your life's greatest love? Could you recognize what you are truly grateful for? Jim Moret didn't fully understand the answers to those questions until he was literally a day away from ending his own life. This veteran television broadcaster and interviewer turns the camera on himself, taking the reader on an intimate journey. He moves beyond depression, tragedy, and self-doubt and grapples with his greatest decision: not simply whether to live but how to live. If you only had 24 hours left...what would you do?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Risky Business - Partying in Underwear Is Not Cool

by Cassie Nelson

In 1983's Risky Business, Tom Cruise made a high school boy partying in private in his underwear the stuff of Hollywood legend. Twenty-seven years later, a junior and a senior at Dr. Michael Krop Senior High School thought it would be fun to throw a "lingerie party," which amounted to a night of extensive promiscuity as teens partied in their panties. And, in 2010, there was nothing private about it.

The Valentine's Day weekend party was held at former strip club in a seedy neighborhood in Miami, Florida. The theme and surroundings encouraged teens to drink heavily, wear hardly anything, and act outrageously. The price of admission: $25, and all of the underclassmen at my school were paying.

In class, I overheard three sophomore guys describe what they would be wearing: “Red silk boxers, no shirt, and a bow-tie.” Boys talked about the abs they'd been doing every night so they'd look good for the girls, who'd hardly be wearing anything at all. One guy even said he would be shaving his stomach for the occasion.

Although they just wanted to go out and have fun, these young adults were either completely unaware of the possible repercussions of their actions, or they just didn't care. The day after the party, pictures of them intoxicated and scantily clad would be all over Facebook, the world's largest social networking website. Only when it affects them in the future will they realize what they've done to themselves and each other. 

"Sexting" is already a massive issue at my school. Every few months, pictures of a naked girl spread through the school within minutes, until everyone, whether they want to or not, has seen them. Most of the boys save them, either on their phones or computers. The problem never ceases because the girl is too afraid and too embarrassed to go to school administrators or police -- even in a case as severe as a boy secretly recording his sexual activity with a girl and sending it to all his friends. 

Sometimes, a girl sends her nude photos to one boy, a boy she probably likes or has feelings for -- only to have the boy send it to all his friends, who then sent it to all of their friends. If caught, they all could be tried on child pornography charges.

 Technically, distributing naked pictures of teenage girls under the age of 18 is considered child pornography. If caught, the boys or men could face jail time and/or have to register as sex offenders -- a burden they would carry all their lives. It doesn't matter if the girl took the pictures herself, or if the photos were sent to someone younger than 18. It's still child porn. 

The lingerie party photos, though sleazy, don't count because the girls weren't nude.

Neither I nor most of the other senior girls went to the party. Most didn’t want to be surrounded by the younger students. But some also understood that they'd have no control over whether pictures of them clad in skimpy lingerie spread across the the Internet. One of the people throwing the party was a girl in her senior year. Once the hosts began promoting the party, high school principals from all over Dade County contacted her, demanding that she shut down the party before anyone was hurt, in the present or the future. She refused, and on that Saturday night, hundreds of boys and girls left their homes in normal “mall attire” over the lingerie until they got to the doors of the party.

That, I later learned (and saw on Facebook), was when the street clothes came off and the craziness began. In lingerie and boxers, the girls and boys were unable to relate to anyone there in any sort of normal way. The mood of the party went from the regular, have-fun sort to a totally sex-centered atmosphere, heightened by drinking and smoking. I believe those who may have felt a little inhibited by the way they were dressed -- or not dressed -- used the drugs and alcohol much earlier and more heavily than others.

The photos that appeared online that night and the next day were disturbing. The party was at a former strip club, so the girls were dancing on the poles and bar, wearing next to nothing and drunkenly oblivious to the camera phones snapping their pictures. Even more unsettling is that some of those girls posted those images as their main profile photos -- the default photo anyone can see -- on Facebook. Apparently, they really feel that they need to look promiscuous to be popular. 

But while the fun is fleeting, the Internet is forever. What happens when they want to get into a good university? When they start looking for a job in their profession? When they hope to play a college or pro sport or teach for a living? These pictures could haunt them forever, hindering their potential for success in the real world. The real world is not the one portrayed on TV in shows and commercials where everyone is either trying to have sex, having sex, or talking about the sex they had or want to have. (Pictured above: Actress Vanessa Hudgens in cell phone photo scandal of 2007. Sources say she "learned her lesson.")

Lingerie parties are just a symptom of a society and a generation that has lost sight of what is important. Instead of doing crunches and spending good money on ridiculous stripper outfits, teens in other eras involved themselves in social causes. Today, one of the worst problems I believe we face is the sexual abuse of women, through rape, domestic violence, and human trafficking. The line defining acceptable behavior keeps receding from the moral boundaries  needed to protect women and girls. If we see ourselves as sex objects, how can we expect others to see us anything else?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Fall from Grace?

by Donna Pendergast

September 7th, 2006, was a memorable date for me: it was my birthday (not saying which one). The date was less festive for 21-year-old Melinda Duckett, mother of a missing two-year-old toddler. Duckett later became a prime suspect in the child's disappearance. On September 7th, Duckett was questioned by the queen of tabloid talk, Nancy Grace, during what has been widely called an ambush interview. Within 24 hours, Duckett had killed herself with a shotgun at her grandfather's house. The missing child has never been found, but the legal saga ensuing from Duckett's death continues to wind its way through the courts. The crux of the lawsuit is whether Grace's confrontational style of interrogation interview was responsible for Duckett's subsequent suicide.


Melinda and Joshua Duckett were high school sweethearts. Joshua's family history was troubled in the extreme. His father, James Duckett, was a police officer in Florida in 1987 when he was charged and later convicted for the rape, strangulation and drowning of an 11-year-old girl. For that crime, he sits on Death Row at Florida State Prison. Melinda's life was chaotic as well. Her troubled history included alleged involvement in an amateur on-line porn business.

The couple married in 2005, just before their son Trenton's first birthday. The marriage was brief and rocky. Melinda filed for divorce in June 2006. An ugly custody battle followed, with Melinda granted a temporary restraining order at one point after receiving a threatening e-mail that Joshua denies sending.

On August 27, 2006, while the couple was separated and living apart, Melinda Duckett reported Trenton missing around 9:00 pm. She claimed she discovered his disappearance during a break from watching movies with friends in another room. A cut in the window screen was the only clue left behind for police to follow.

During the investigation, police began to question the time-line Duckett gave them, noting no witnesses saw Trenton alive since he was picked up at day care on Friday, August 25th. Police later found some of Trenton's toys, photos of the child and a sonogram in the apartment complex trash bin. They began to focus on Melinda Duckett as a prime suspect.


On September 7th, Melinda Duckett was interviewed via telephone by Nancy Grace during a taping for the next day's show. The interview quickly became confrontational. With the subtlety of a jackal, Grace began pounding on the table, characteristically snarling and demanding that Duckett tell her where she was on the date of the disappearance and whether she had taken a polygraph. Grace also hammered on the inconsistencies in Duckett's story. The next day, Duckett killed herself after leaving a suicide note just hours before the show was to air. The show aired anyway, with a box at the bottom of the screen updating viewers that Melinda Duckett's body had been found at her grandparents' home.

In November 2006, Duckett's parents, Bethann and William Gerald Eubank, filed suit against CNN and Nancy Grace in the Lake County Florida Judicial Circuit alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit claims the television show solicited an unsuspecting and emotionally unstable Duckett to appear under false pretenses. It alleges the show lured Duckett with promises and representations that her appearance would inform the public her child was missing and assist in generating tips. And it alleges there was a plan in place to surprise Duckett with accusations and verbal assaults intending to intimate that she murdered her child.

The legal theory behind the case is that Grace's aggressive questioning pushed Duckett over the edge, and that her producers had specific knowledge that Duckett was emotionally fragile to begin with. In 2007, the case was moved from the Florida state court into a federal district court, based on a jurisdictional issue. Despite the change of forum, the key issue remains whether Florida's wrongful death statute was violated. In an ironic turn, last month lawyers for Grace and CNN unsuccessfully argued to keep Grace's deposition from being videotaped, worried that the deposition might be leaked to the media -- which could then "cut and splice" and manipulate her words to alter their meaning.

The lawsuit has highlighted issues of media responsibility weighed against the talk show industry's right to free speech. But this is far from a case of first impression, and the issues raised are hardly new.

In 1995 Jonathan Schmitz (pictured left) shot and killed openly gay Scott Amedure, hunting him down two days after Amedure professed a secret crush on him during a taping of the Jenny Jones show. As the prosecutor in the criminal trial of the case, I kept up with developments in the civil trial. I watched a large portion of it after the Amedure family sued Warner Brothers, Jenny Jones and the Jenny Jones show alleging negligence and improper screening of the emotionally unstable Schmitz. Under oath in the civil trial, Jones admitted that the show didn't want Schmitz to know in advance that his admirer was a man.

A jury awarded $25 million to the Amedure family in a verdict called "chilling" by the defense and "a blow for freedom" by the plaintiffs. The verdict was later reversed by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which found that the Jenny Jones show had no duty to protect Amedure and no duty to anticipate and prevent an act of murder by Schmitz. Strangely enough, I was interviewed by Nancy Grace, then a Court TV anchor, several times after the verdict in criminal trial which followed the civil trial.

The cause of action in the lawsuit against Nancy Grace is different than in the Jenny Jones case. In the Duckett case, the alleged wrong-doing is the intentional infliction of emotional distress, rather than a negligence cause of action like that alleged by the Amedure suit. One key aspect remains the same: a celebrity and her show are the subjects of a lawsuit brought after a guest meets a violent death in the aftermath of an exploitive and humiliating on-air confrontation.

A CNN spokesman says that Nancy Grace and the show the show were providing a vital public service, bringing attention to the case for the greater good of finding Trenton Duckett. Other defenders of Grace's confrontational on-air style argue that perhaps Duckett killed herself out of guilt for killing her child rather than humiliation in an exploitive interview. They allege that Duckett went on the show willingly, and that Grace had the right to ask those questions and dig for the truth. Those critical of the ambush interview technique argue that maybe Duckett committed suicide because she was insane with grief, and Grace drove her over the edge.

Humiliating a guest for the entertainment of a nation is the key ingredient in the volatile formula of talk show amusement, devoured in millions of living rooms every day. Since TV is a mass-entertainment medium, networks have a huge incentive to satisfy their audiences' appetites. There's no shortage of participants who willingly agree to appear on sensationalist and tawdry shows. Time after time, we've seen people compromise their reputations and quality of life to be on TV. Do those who are so eager for their 15 minutes of fame ever realize it could kill them? Perhaps the saddest commentary of all is the viewing audience's seemingly insatiable appetite for cruel and sadistic voyeurism.

And the biggest irony of all? Now the ever talking head, Nancy Grace, has become the story.

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

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Love Letters, Flowers and Bullets

by Diane Fanning

Julie Abbott loved rock music, great novels and her bright red convertible.  It seemed as if everyone loved the 47-year-old physician with an uncommon intensity: the patients as well as the other doctors and staff in her internal medicine practice, the parishioners at Community Bible Church and, most of all, her husband Ben Abbott.
Julie and Ben fell in love decades ago, while making angels in the snow on the campus of Texas Tech University.  They'd been happily married for 28 years.

Nearly everyone who met Julie Abbott was enchanted by her.  Unfortunately, one of those people was 52-year-old Tim McCloskey.  His wife, Ellen, had worked for Julie as a receptionist for the past six years. But it wasn't until the holiday season of 2007 that Tim met Julie at a company Christmas party.  At that moment, his obsession with her began.

Tim, with a long, documented history of mental illness, was drawn into a downward spiral by this fixation.  He sent the doctor love letters and flowers.  She did nothing to encourage him, but knowing of his illness, she hesitated to do anything to embarrass him or his wife.

Tim's mental state worsened; he stopped leaving the house and refused to bathe or brush his teeth.  In his mind, he was a spurned lover and Julie his cruel tormentor.

His escalating inappropriate behavior became a source of constant stress in Julie's life.  She and the staff sought a quiet, in-house solution.  When she went to work on April 4, 2008, she was looking forward to leaving early to go on vacation with her husband, Ben.

On that same day, Tim McCloskey emerged from his home for the first time in weeks.  No one is certain how long he waited in the parking lot of Julie's office before the target of his passion and his rage stepped outside.

Tim, with unkempt gray hair and a thick beard, confronted Julie.  Valerie Cantu, a nurse from another office, walked by the volatile pair.  Julie warned her that the large man had a gun.  Valerie looked in Tim's cold, emotionless eyes.  Fearful, she dialed 9-1-1.

Tim pulled the trigger, shooting Julie in the abdomen.  He stood over her fallen body and shot her in the shoulder.  San Antonio Police Officer Michael Blanquiz squealed into the parking lot.  Tim turned, smirked at the officer, and delivered a third bullet straight into Julie's head.

The patrolman squatted behind his car for cover and demanded Tim drop his weapon.  Instead, the killer walked towards him, gun in hand.  As the distance closed, the policeman had a serious decision to make.  "Honestly," he said,  "I wanted to run like everybody else was, but I didn't have anywhere to run. He had to be stopped."  He fired six times, hitting McCloskey with four shots -- two in his legs, one in his hand and a providential hit in Tim's gun hand that sent the weapon clattering to the pavement.

Julie was rushed to University Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 2:27 that afternoon.  After emergency surgery, McCloskey was in critical condition.  He was charged by proxy with murder and capital murder.  He spent a full year in the hospital recovering, but his injuries left him in a wheelchair, capable of walking short distances only on his tiptoes.

In January 2010, the case went to trial.  The prosecution team asked for life in prison for Timothy McCloskey.  Defense Attorney Tony Cantrell did not argue for the innocence of his client on the homicide charge but claimed he was not guilty by reason of insanity.  Tim McCloskey, he said, had a psychotic break and didn't realize what he was doing.  On the second charge of assault, he called witnesses whose testimony contradicted Officer Blanquiz when they said that McCloskey never pointed the gun in the policeman's direction, and thus, was not guilty of that crime.

On Wednesday, January 13, closing arguments ended and the decision was in the hands of the jury.  The jury deliberated for several hours before going home for the day.  On Thursday, the debate remained contentious.  At one point, the panel sent a note to the District Judge Ron Rangel saying they were hopelessly deadlocked.  The judge ordered them to continue.

After fourteen hours over two days, they reached a verdict: legally sane and guilty of murder and aggravated assault on a police officer.  The punishment phase of the trial began the next day.

Jurors listened to emotional testimony from Julie's husband and Tim's sons.  Several members of the panel wiped away tears throughout the morning.

The jury's ambivalence about the verdict was obvious in their decision on sentencing.  Rather than imposing life in prison, they gave him a thirty-year sentence for Julie's death -- half of which had to be served before he would be eligible for parole.  They also levied ten years probation for the assault on Officer Blanquiz, to be served concurrently with his imprisonment on the homicide charge.

No matter how you view the verdict or the sentence, one thing is indisputable: a wonderful, compassionate woman is dead and nothing can bring her back to the many who loved her.  The big question for me is this: could something have been done before that fatal day to prevent her murder?

When involuntary commitment was too easy, its abuses were plentiful, cruel and unjust.  But now, is it so difficult that the same adjectives apply?  Is there a middle ground where we can protect the rights of the mentally ill -- most of whom will never harm anyone -- and, at the same time, protect society from the violence perpetrated by a few seriously disturbed individuals?

I am convinced that there has to be.  Finding it would require a concerted effort by victims' advocates, mental health professionals and informed legislators.  Are they up to the challenge?  Or are we doomed to see these senseless crimes repeated again and again?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What Should We Do with Mothers Who Kill?

by Laura James 
When a mother cruelly murders her children, the public is often deeply shocked by the crime. Though it's rare, fortunately, a look at the historical record in the United States shows murder of children by their mothers seems all too common.

The colonists in the New World kept records of those who were hanged. One of the most common reasons women went to the scaffold was for the murders of their own offspring. In many instances they were babies smothered at birth, the crime labeled "concealment of birth," and it was for centuries a death penalty offense. But not all of the crimes fit this pattern.

The first known case of an American mother who murdered not an infant but a child, and not to conceal a birth but as an act born of mental illness, took place nearly four hundred years ago. Today we still simply don't know what to do with women such as she, the Medeas of the world, mothers who are as "mad as Ophelia," who suffer from psychosis and murder their own children. Execution? Life imprisonment? Commitment to a psychiatric hospital?

Before Andrea Yates drowned her children, before Darlie Routier stabbed her children, before Susan Smith drowned her children, before Deanna Laney stoned her children, before Maggie Young drowned her five children in a bathtub in 1965 . . . there was Dorothy Talby, the first woman in North America known to have murdered a child while in the throes of delusion. And the date of the event is very early indeed.

Dorothy Talby and her husband John came from England to settle in Plymouth in colonial Massachusetts. The painstaking records kept by the colonists offer a full picture of their life together. After obtaining an allotment of land, Dorothy and John had several children; the last was a daughter named Difficulty, who was baptized on Christmas, 1636.

The Talby marriage was a tortured one. Mr. Talby had difficulties of his own and some suggest he was a poor provider. After the birth of her last child, Mrs. Talby "became melancholy and possessed of delusions." Dorothy quite evidently suffered from a severe mental illness, probably postpartum depression or perhaps schizophrenia, and often threatened her family. Dorothy's husband complained of her bizarre behavior to authorities in Salem, who, in 1937, sentenced her to be chained to a post for "frequently laying hands on her husband, to the danger of his life."

The treatment was ineffective, and she was excommunicated. This was also ineffective. When she became increasingly violent, she was publicly whipped. Then, in 1638, "her mind again became more clouded." The rest of the story comes from the original records:

She believed that God revealed to her the necessity of taking the life of her baby, in order to save the child from future misery. . . . [S]he was led to take the child's life, by breaking its neck. She made no secret of the murder, and when apprehended confessed the deed.

In the [Salem] court, on this day, upon her arraignment, she, however, stood mute a good while, -- until the governor told her that if she did not plead she would be pressed to death. She then confessed . . . she was duly sentenced. . . .

Mrs. Talby asked to be beheaded, but the sentence imposed by borrowed English law was hanging in Boston two days after her conviction in December, 1638. At the time of her hanging, she had to be forcibly detained. When her face was covered with a cloth, she ripped it off and stuffed it in the rope that had been placed around her neck. She was then "cast off, and, after a swing or two, she caught at the ladder."

In another age, Dorothy Talby might be committed to a hospital. Oliver Wendell Holmes thought that tender care for the balance of her life would have been the most appropriate punishment. Today there is no saying what her punishment might be. She might have been executed, if she committed her crime in a death penalty state. She might have been incarcerated. Four hundred years later, we still do not know what to do with Medea.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Common Fear Factor

by Susan Murphy-Milano

One of the major reasons women stay in abusive relationships is fear. They are afraid of what will happen to them and their children if they leave. Sadly, their fears are often justified; statistics show that a woman is at the greatest risk for injury when she announces her plans or leaves an abusive relationship.

To illustrate the danger, let's consider the case of Utah's Susan Powell, a wife and mother who has not been seen or heard from since December 6th. Hers is a familiar scenario, one that occurs in the majority of abused women cases across the country. If one takes a close look at the evidence, in my opinion, the most logical conclusion is that Susan Powell was murdered. 

Susan Powell was a stockbroker with two young sons, a devoted mother and likely the person in the marriage with a larger paycheck than her husband, Josh. Over time, the marriage reportedly turned controlling, with Josh insisting on knowing what Susan was doing when not under his radar. We've all seen the news reports, including that he demanded she tell him how much she spent on herself and for household goods and services. In this type of case, the fights build up from yelling to shoving. A bedroom door is slammed with greater frequency, and the couple drifts apart. 

Many abused women hope that having children will change the behavior of an abusive mate. They hope the abuser will turn his/her life around for the sake of the children and that the result will finally be a happy home life. In the Powell case, that didn't happen. Pregnant with her second child, perhaps under circumstances beyond her control (she could have been forced as some are in the marriage), Susan brings another life into a world three years later where anger and violent outbursts become commonplace. During this time Susan likely announces, the marriage is over. Perhaps making statements such as, "we need to divorce" or "this is not fair to the children and I can no longer go on living this way." 

There is a point for many abused women when they verbally announce the steps to end the abuse that lays the foundation for an abuser to begin thinking about a course of action. Around this time an abused woman begins confiding in co-workers or close friends. As we later learned from authorities, that is exactly what Susan did. 

For the alleged offender, I will use Josh Powell as an example. Now he is formulating a plan no different from the plans of other violent persons: one born of anger and desperation. Anger because the person is leaving and ending the relationship. Desperation over what he (the abuser) will be forced to carry out if the person with whom he is in a relationship cannot be persuaded to stay. 

This plan remains in the abuser's mind, of course, until he see signs of movement. In this case, perhaps Susan was whispering on the phone to someone, and when Josh walked into the room she quickly changed her tone or ended the phone call. Or he learned that Susan set up a bank account and believed she was hiding money so she and the kids could leave. 

The signs of movement spark Josh or any potential abuser to think of the next level. They think to themselves, Okay, she is going to leave me. I will not let that happen. He acts as though nothing is wrong but, when she goes to sleep, Josh rummages through her car looking for evidence of her plan, a bank receipt or an unusual transaction or charge. Maybe in her purse he checks the cell phone for any unusual numbers he does not recognize. Or goes through the computer and checks the browser to see her activity. 

He finds something and his anger is elevated, his heart is racing, but he remains calm and says nothing to Susan. A smile comes to his face because he "caught her," and he figures she will pay one way or the other at a later date. 

Around this time Susan begins sending e-mails about the abuse and threats she has endured by Josh to a trusted circle of friends. Maybe she keeps a detailed log with dates and times of the incidents. 

Now Josh does what I label the "smell change." Susan is acting strange and, like cologne,
Josh can literally (as with most abusers) sense when their environment has shifted. Perhaps Susan is verbalizing her unhappiness with greater frequency. Maybe she stands up for herself during a fight where months before Susan would have backed down and gone to her room without incident. 

It is very difficult for any abused women to hide that spark of empowerment from a clever abuser. They (the abuser) smell it as sure as a fox entering a coop filled with chickens.

It's now that most abusers decide to implement their plans. He has thought about it from the moment it entered his mind. The children are sleeping and the couple gets into a heated argument. At this point possible scenarios vary. Here is one example: Josh in his rage could have knocked her unconscious and carried her out to the car. Then, one at a time, he lifts his sleeping boys into the back seat. The family drives to the desert. Susan wakes up and gets out of the car. Josh and she are arguing and he hits or pushes her off an embankment and into a ravine. Josh drives back with the boys to the house where he is questioned by authorities. 

In many ways, the case of Susan Powell appears no different from the millions of cases of violence we never hear about, until women go missing and their bodies are found. Abuse victims often have no official documentation of the abuse because they were too afraid to contact police or obtain a court order of protection. Why? Because better than anyone they (the victims) know it would do them no good. It would only escalate the level of danger. 

The one thing an abuse victim knows for certain is the fear that has been planted in them over time by an abuser and the likelihood of imminent danger if it is discovered they plan to leave. I believe this is what happened in Susan Powell’s case;  she had only one opportunity to leave and somehow Josh Powell found out. 

On December 7, 2009, I, like a number of you, saw this case on the Internet or on a news broadcast. And, sadly, I bowed my head in prayer, knowing she would never again be seen alive.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Child Pageant TV Shows: A Pedophile's Heaven

by Stacy Dittrich

Clearly, I’m behind the times on this one. Many arguments have been waged against airing child beauty pageants on television -- or so I discovered after a little digging. Since I don’t watch much TV, I was flipping through the channels one day, and I came upon a small blonde child wearing more makeup than I've ever worn in my life. I assumed the show was a another documentary on the JonBenét Ramsey case.

Then I realized I was watching WE tv — which I believe stands for women’s entertainment. I was so far from being entertained I don’t know where to begin. The words "appalling" and "nauseating" come to mind.

Within a matter of seconds, I watched a mother grab her 5-year-old by the chin and force the entire contents of a Pixie Stick down her throat -- to keep the girl “energized.” The whining, exhausted, crying child looked like a pimped-up version of an American Girl doll. I was horrified, actually. As tiny contestant after tiny contestant paraded across the stage, shaking her hips and blowing kisses at the crowd, a sinking, disparaging feeling came over me. With my years of experience pursuing and dealing with pedophiles, I suddenly realized they've found heaven on Earth in shows like “Little Miss Perfect” — right there in the comfort of their own living rooms.

The parents of the little girls only exacerbate this. At one point, I watched as a mother inserted a “flipper” in her daughter’s mouth. Apparently, this is pageant-speak for special dentures. As the mother beamed and spun her daughter towards the father for approval, the child smiled — blinding the camera with the overly white mouthpiece. The father’s response summed up the show perfectly. The unfortunate part is that he was smiling as he spoke.

“She looks like a child prostitute,” he said.

Well, then. By all means, pimp her out in every living room across America, buddy. The pedophiles will love you that much more for it when it's your daughter they picture in their sexual fantasies. With luck, maybe she won’t be one of the unfortunate children they decide to pursue in real life.

I thought back to several of the cases of extreme child pornography I'd investigated. In these crimes, the pedophiles had stumbled onto a South American syndicate that distributed videotapes featuring young girls just for men like them. These tapes didn't show full-on kiddie porn. But in them, young girl between the ages of four and nine years old paraded around sensually for the camera. Despite their sadly and highly inappropriate behavior, the girls were clothed in most of the movies. In others, the film show them undress down to their underwear and play with their dolls.

If memory serves, one family made a series of movies -- featuring their daughter -- titled “Brazilian Lolita.” Obviously, her family knew they were onto something when pedophiles from around the world paid them for these tapes. And, in their eyes, were they really doing anything wrong? Their daughter was dressed, not engaging in sex acts, and merely flirting in front of camera.

Pedophiles, as disturbed as they are, will resort to anything to fulfill their fantasies and sexual urges. I've seen homes with stacks upon stacks of tabloid magazines. Ripped out and taped to their walls were pages featuring child actors and actresses; and newspaper clippings of young boys in snowball fights, playing t-ball, and swimming at the local pool. They also favor LL Bean kids and JC Penney children’s catalogs, to name just a few. Their fantasies demand the image of that young, beautiful, innocent child to be permanently embedded in their minds.

One suspect in particular, who openly volunteered his daily rituals to me, noted: “I’m in my own home, and I’m not hurting anyone.” True. But if you ask any expert in the field of sexual behaviors, it will be crystal clear that such rituals only satisfy them for so long. They escalate and escalate until the image no longer does the trick. They want and need to touch, smell, and feel the real child. It’s some pretty scary stuff.

A prime example is the recent case of a murdered, 7-year-old Florida girl, Somer Thompson. Her alleged murderer, Jared Harell, 24, stuffed his computer with child porn. We don't know how long Harrell had been viewing it, but my instincts tell me it was likely years. He probably finally tired of settling for images and acted out his fantasy in flesh and blood.

We're talking about images of young girls dressing and acting like grown women while bounding around a stage. What immediately comes to mind when viewing something like this photo of JonBenet Ramsey (at left)?

Whether you’re on the Team Intruder or Team John Ramsey side of JonBenet theories doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that when JonBenet performed in child pageants, it clearly caught someone’s attention.

Now, with shows like “Little Miss Perfect” or a similar show, “Toddlers and Tiaras,” on TLC (which ironically stands for The Learning Channel) — we've made pedophiles' pursuit of their fantasies that much easier. No longer must they physically travel to child pageants to scope out the young girls for their fantasies. No longer do they have to do the tedious work of finding out the child’s name or where she lives. “Brazilian Lolita?” Sorry, you’re out of business! WE tv and TLC conviniently provide the entertainment, the girls' names and hometowns, and their parents’ information.

The best part for the pedophile: it's completely legal. It's on cable, for crying out loud.

WE tv, although still airing “Little Miss Perfect” and using it to top the list of shows on its website, made a soggy attempt to appease people like myself who are outraged by the show:

"Documentaries are an integral part of WE tv programming. These series provide an inside look into a variety of topics, allowing viewers to form their own opinions. The programming in no way represents or implies a position by the network on any of the content."

This disclaimer is right at the top of the “Little Miss Perfect” web page. I’m sorry, but if the program is on your network, if you bought it and you air it, then in my opinion it certainly does represent your network. Still, I’ll give a slight nod to WE tv for even addressing the issue.

TLC did not.

Seriously, folks. Are we so desperate for reality-TV programming that this is the kind of show we have to resort to? Aren’t there enough other reality-show ideas floating around that don't put little girls at risk? We can't begin to identify all the pedophiles nationwide, but we continue to be vigilant, doing our best to protect our children. Do we really have to hand pedophiles their sick fantasies and evil acts on a silver platter, too?