Friday, July 30, 2010

Not-so-distant look back at competitive news

View Image

by Cathy Scott

I was reminded in a recent Twitter post of the strong competitiveness in a small newsroom I once worked in. The Twitter comment came from Charlene "Charlie" Fern, managing editor in the early '90s at the now-closed Vista Press, a daily newspaper in North San Diego County. The 50-year-old Vista Press was in direct competition with the San Diego Union's North County edition, which (before it merged to become the San Diego Union-Tribune) was huge by comparison.

Still, Charlene, my boss at the Vista Press, an Andrews McMeel Universal-owned paper, recalled that we scooped the SD Union on a regular basis. Maybe it was because the reporters all had fire in their bellies to get the story first. On Twitter, she started a conversation about her view of some print reporters and their current complacency.

"Do what you say and say it in color," Charlene said, "because it matters."

The Vista Press, she wrote on Twitter in several (quite complimentary) tweets, "was at its best when Cathy Scott, Russell Klika, Leslie Hueholt, Deniene Husted, etc., were there, proving a small paper could run circles around a metro. We had a great, competitive staff, for the most part, and a lot of competition. That drives excellence."

She reminded me of a breaking story I wrote on deadline, dictated by phone from the scene where a garbage truck worker was buried alive in garbage. He'd been standing behind a truck with a full load at the time. It took an army of law enforcement -- and even medium-security California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection prisoners -- 12 hours to locate the worker's body. I remained at the scene and was there at 11 when the body was found, long after competing news organizations had gone home. Charlene held the presses that night until the story was done. It made the first edition in the morning, beating the other papers in the area. They'd reported that the man was still missing.

"Holding the presses was thrilling, even if I got in trouble for it," Charlene said.

At the Vista Press, I also covered the Camp Pendleton
Marine Corps base. I went on training mission with Marines on base and out at sea. I went to Somalia to cover Operation Restore Hope. I was in the pool of reporters to accompany then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher around the base for eight hours. She looked right through the pool of reporters and photographers as if we didn't exist. Reporting back to the throng of waiting media at the end of the day, passing on the goings on of the tour and reading back direct quotes was, as I look back on it, fun, even though it was hard work and tons of pressure.

Klika is one of the best photogs I've ever worked with. He's up there with Clay Myers, my partner covering the rescue of pets on the rubbled streets of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (a nonstop assignment for Best Friends Animal Society's website and magazine). Watching photo veterans of this caliber work in the field, well, it's a sight to see.

Russell and I once went on assignment about 250 miles off the San Diego shore, covering a story for the Vista Press. It was in 1992, just after the USS Kitty Hawk came out of the mothballs a new and reburbished ship and returned to her home port of San Diego.

We flew out of Coronado's North Island on a P-3 radar plane and landed on the Kitty Hawk, missing the first wire and catching the second. The force -- of going from who knows how fast to zero -- threw us forward, because the seats were fixed backward, in a 14-seater with nothing but servicemen aboard -- and Russell and me.

After we landed, my face must have been ashen, because one of the airmen looked at me, then asked Russell, "Is she OK?" Russell peered at me from his seat, and then said, "No."

I barely remember deplaning and walking across the tarmac. When we made it onto the bridge, the fleet commander was waiting to give us a tour and brief us on the training exercises at sea. But as soon as he saw me, the admiral barked at one of his men, "Get her to sickbay!" (whereupon a medic put a Dramamine patch behind my ear, and in no time I was fine). Russell laughs when he says, "I still tell that story."

Russell and I covered the L.A. riots following the Rodney King verdict. I vividly remember the man with a large pipe threatening a SWAT officer and Russell, the only photographer there, caught the moment in an award-winning photo. As we sat in Russell's pickup truck, we were surrounded by angry protestors armed with baseball bats. When they started rocking the truck, Russell hit the gas to escape. On another assignment, we went to the makeshift migrants camps in the back country of San Diego's North County to interview workers in our broken Spanish and their broken English. 

We cut our journalism teeth at that paper, and photographers, editors and fellow reporters mostly moved on to bigger and better journalism jobs: Klika became a combat photographer, with two tours of duty in Iraq. He's now a civilian combat photo instructor for the National Guard. Leslie moved on to the Tulsa World; Deniene Husted to the Riverside-Press Enterprise and Los Angeles Time. I moved on to the Las Vegas Sun, followed by a lengthy stint as a correspondent for the Reuters wire service and the New York Times.

Charlene? Well, she went to work at the Texas governor's mansion and then to the White House as Laura Bush's personal speechwriter. Many others who came before us have moved onward and upward too. 

North San Diego County was a fertile training ground for us. We worked our tails off, learned to crunch on deadline, and savored each occasional scoop over our seemingly giant neighbor, the San Diego Union. It was David and Goliath, and occasionally David won.

Photos (of Scott gearing up to board a military helicopter at Camp Pendleton and a self-portrait of Klika in Iraq) courtesy of Russell Klika.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Free at Last, Free at Last

by Katherine Scardino

Is it my imagination, or are we reading too many stories about citizens in this country spending many years of their lives locked in a box in prison and then, decades later, some magic occurs and we learn the person is innocent?

In March a year ago, I wrote an article for Women in Crime Ink about Henry Skinner, who had been requesting DNA testing on the evidence in his case ever since his conviction in 1994. In March, there was an uproar over whether the evidence in his case should be subjected to DNA testing. My position last March, and today, is why in the hell not? What would it hurt? The cost of the lab testing is relatively small compared to the cost of years of feeding, clothing and guarding a prisoner -- or executing him. Even worse is the moral cost of execution if we were to later learn Mr. Skinner is indeed innocent.

The Supreme Court will listen to arguments in Skinner’s case within the next few months to determine whether to open a new avenue for convicts' access to evidence for DNA testing. But for Mr. Skinner, his time is up. This is his last chance; for him, it's life or death. We'll watch the Supreme Court on this case. Its decision could define the basic fairness of the law in the United States, or the lack of it.

This week, we released another innocent man who had spent 19 years in a Texas prison on a 1990 rape conviction. Allen Porter (right) walked out into the fresh air after a hearing in state court in which his nephew, Jimmy Hatton (currently serving time for this crime), and Perry Harrison (never charged in the crime) came forward to say that Mr. Porter was not a party to the crime, that they were the guilty ones. Where have they been for the last 19 years? Did they forget he was locked up in prison? What took them so long?

The ultimate problem is that once again, Texas screwed up. How many times does this have to happen before someone does something? My imagination can't encompass the emotion of hearing a cell door slam shut behind me, or of looking around the 10-foot-square box that would be my home for most of the rest of my life, let alone of knowing that I had not committed the crime for which I was convicted. I'd know that I'd told my lawyer -- over and over -- that I wasn't guilty. I told the prosecutor, the judge and jury. No one listened. No one believed me.

So here I am, alone and scared, wondering how I am going to convince just one person that I am innocent. All anyone has to do is test the evidence for DNA. With competent, efficient lab work, I could be exonerated. But my lawyer did not ask for the DNA testing. I don't understand why not. Where do I go from here?

Amazingly, this is happening more and more often, not less. Here’s a scary statistic: Since 1973, 138 people have been released from Death Rows across the United States after new evidence showed their legal, if not actual, innocence. Does that number get your attention? If all of us had done nothing on these 138 cases, these 138 people would now be dead. This has got to stop. We now have the technology to prove innocence in many cases.

Why is there ever an issue about DNA testing? Why would the prosecutor in every jurisdiction not test all the evidence? The evidence in every criminal case is in the hands and control of the State. Of course, the defense lawyer can request a DNA test by the State, or even get one done by their own forensics experts. But ultimately, the evidence is in the control of the State prosecution and the police. If justice is our goal, then test the damn evidence!

To give credit where it is due, the Harris County District Attorney's Office finally started an investigation in Mr. Porter’s case. They gave the case to a star in their office. Assistant District Attorney Baldwin Chin did something that seems to be a novelty nowadays -- investigate. Through his investigation, Mr. Chin learned that Mr. Porter may be an innocent man.

In an article this week, our elected district attorney said her office has a “sworn mission to serve justice.” She said “The integrity of the criminal justice system means everything. Wrongful convictions are a triple tragedy -- for the accused, for the victim and for society. The true criminal is free to continue to commit offenses.”

Well, Ms. District Attorney, I have a solution for permanently avoiding these embarrassing moments. Tell every one of your assistant DA’s that you will now require that all the evidence be DNA-tested. Period. Wouldn’t that put an end to the seemingly endless stream of stories about having to release, of all things, an innocent person from prison?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Celebrity Justice?

by Robin Sax

Celebrity justice: is it an oxymoron?  Do celebrities get justice?  Do they get treated better?  Do they get treated worse?  Most people believe that celebrities get preferential treatment with shortened sentences, easy plea deals and the like.  The New York Daily News, supporting this view, has provided its findings as proof that celebs do the crime -- they just don’t do the time.  

The site offers various examples of recent celeb cases where the jail sentence was cut short: Paris Hilton, in 2007, was sentenced to 45 days in jail, but released after four days; Lindsay Lohan, in 2007, was sentenced to four days in jail but released after 84 minutes; Nicole Richie, in 2007 was sentenced to four days in jail but released after 82 minutes; Michelle Rodriguez, in 2008, was sentenced to 180 days in jail but released after 17 -- you get the idea. 

But is this really a factor of stardom, or is everyone getting a break these days?  Plenty of non-celebs  get their jail time curtailed because of jail overcrowding and other factors. It's important to remember celebs aren't the only people do less time then sentenced. However, it's hard for the general public to digest this, because everyday-Joe cases aren't covered 24/7. 
Paris Hilton Mug Shot

Preferential treatment is sometimes defined or viewed as reverse discrimination. It occurs when a person receives a benefit because he/she is of a certain societal or economic status, or has another categorization making them "special", such as a Hollywood or media star. Because preferential treatment rarely rises to the level of discrimination, it can be very difficult to prove that a person is actually receiving better treatment based on his/her celebrity status.

There exists a popular notion that celebrities who are accused of crimes are more likely to be acquitted or receive lighter sentences than non-celebrities.  According to empirical research from studies by the The Law and Society Association, the status and authority of a defendant can indeed influence jurors’ decision-making processes. This social power sometimes translates into favorable treatment in the courtroom. But some celebrities'  fame  may work against them. In other words, the preferential treatment celebrities were found to receive in a courtroom or jail setting might not translate exactly to lighter legal treatment -- as is often thought.

What celebrities get is different treatment. And really, is that entirely wrong? I think everyone would readily agree that while there should be uniformity and consistency in court, the unique situation of any person's case could require a change in protocol or policy.  As a former prosecutor, I saw this all the time. While the sentences I would seek for defendants were uniform and objective, I always balanced the defendant's history and situation -- which may have lead him or her to the life of crime; you also must include and weigh occupational and educational backgrounds. The fact is that while everyone likes black-letter law and rock solid rules, that's not always possible to execute. In some cases it's just plain impractical and, frankly, unjust.

Lindsay Lohan Mug Shot
The perception that stars get special treatment persists and is being fed by the recent incarceration of LiLo. We are hearing all about Lohan getting her own cell, extra time in the infirmary, use of TV and Internet, specialty foods, newer/nicer clothes, extra guards, private phone use, extended visiting hours, isolation from the other prisoners, and more. But what else can we do with a celebrity likely to be target for other inmates, the public, and the media? Part of the sheriff's department's responsibility is protecting inmates. 

The celebrity courthouse circus is sometimes cited as a drain on the criminal justice system because of the extra costs of special treatment. But by definition, a celebrity is someone who is different from and fascinating to the general public. Their fame means they're subject to more intense scrutiny and require different protections. They usually give up their private lives in exchange for our adoration (and the need more security measures). 

We have political stars, Hollywood stars, music stars, sports stars, even news-media stars, and now reality-TV stars who've all had run-ins with the law. The recent media interest in Lindsay Lohan and in the Michael Jackson /Conrad Murray case, though, have surpassed the interest in other celebrity legal-ins of recent memory (Martha Stewart, Robert Downey Jr., and Hugh Grant come to mind). Of course, most will say -- and I agree -- the OJ Simpson trial solidified our fascination with celebrity justice.

Mel Gibson Mug Shot
So do celebrities receive special treatment in court? Does the expression "duh" mean anything to you? But, again, special is not necessarily preferential. When a celebrity is due to appear in court, authorities have to use extra safety precautions to protect the celebrity, courthouse employees, and the general public. They may need to request additional sheriff deputies;  provide extra security for the public; assign extra clerks for taking the minutes (because of the extra scrutiny); and use more District Attorney resources and staff time overall.  

Precautions use different resources when a celeb goes to jail rather than just a courthouse appearance. For example, a motorcade took Lindsay Lohan to jail -- probably necessary, but definitely costly.

There are also cases in other courtrooms, on other judges's calendars, that can't be moved just because a high-profile person is facing one judge, whether for a brief hearing, a full trial, or sentencing, on a particular day. The constitutional rights of all defendants mean the court has to keep certain dates, so there is no way to actually shut down the courthouse completely. 

However, to the extent that a judge has discretion over that particular day's case load, he/she may postpone everything possible. Criminal courts are open to the public (whereas family courts, as in Mel Gibson's family court case, are closed to the public), so celebrity criminal cases mean it will take more time for the public and news media to file in and out of the courthouse. Approximately 20 percent of all judges's court hearings will likely be rescheduled on the day of a celebrity appearance to allow for the extra time needed.

In a way, a celebrity court hearing could be looked upon as a burden on the justice system (in both financial and logistical terms); however, nothing is going to change that fact so long as there is still such strong public interest in celebrity trials. It's important to remember that not all celebrity cases involve Hollywood stars. In some cases, celebrity is actually notoriety. For example, in the cases of Joran van der Sloot and Philip Garrido, they not celebrities per se, but their crimes were so horrific and intriguing that public interest has elevated the status of the case to that of a celebrity trial. 

Not so widely discussed is the public benefit of celebrity justice. For example, the public will become more educated about the justice system, and the trials can be used as deterrents for bad behaviors ... as in, don't get a DUI, for starters, and then, duh, don't violate the terms of your probation -- or you will go to jail (Lindsay!).

When celebrities break the law, they may sometimes be given extra resources or attention from the criminal justice system because of their star status -- but it is mostly because the public interest necessitates the special treatment. It is very much a Catch 22: you can't have stars without setting them apart from the rest of society, but you can't have true equality in the justice system if some individuals are set apart. We do the best we can and hope that in the end, the punishment will fit the crime, regardless of who commits it (fingers crossed)!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From The Tree

by Donna Pendergast

The development of DNA databases is helping investigators solve crime by looking for genetic near-matches -- results close enough to an already-stored DNA profile to suggest the crime was committed by a relative. Familial DNA database searches are based on the fundamental principle that DNA profiles of persons who are related are likely to contain similarities. Parents, siblings, and even more distant relatives such as aunts, uncles and cousins can be linked to crimes because a relative's DNA closely resembles DNA left behind at the crime scene.

In one of the earliest high-profile cases to use familial DNA, Dennis Rader, the BTK (Bind, Torture and Kill) killer, (right) was apprehended in 2005. Rader, who eluded authorities in the Wichita, Kansas, area for more than 30 years while killing 10 people, was ultimately tied to the crimes by his daughter's DNA sample. Law enforcement authorities had a suspect and were looking to tie him to the various crime scenes. Rader's daughter had given a Pap smear at a university clinic five years before. Investigators obtained a search warrant for that DNA specimen and determined that her DNA profile almost perfectly matched the DNA profile taken from several BTK crime scenes.

In a more recent case, Los Angeles police arrested 57-year-old Lonnie David Franklin Jr., a suspected serial killer, earlier this month by comparing DNA found at some of his crime scenes with the DNA of his son. The son was incarcerated in a California prison on a weapons charge. Franklin, known as the "Grim Sleeper" because of a 12-year hiatus between crimes, is accused of killing 11 people since 1985. The successful arrest was the end result of a controversial policy enacted in 2008, when the California Attorney General approved running a familial DNA search through the state's databases for major violent unsolved crimes.

The police found Franklin (left) by running a random comparison search throughout the databank that keeps DNA information for the California prison system. Franklin himself was not in that database, because despite two arrests, because he had spent his time in county jails rather than the state prison system. After zeroing in on Franklin's son and a near DNA match, investigators began following Franklin. They obtained his DNA from a discarded napkin and plate which he threw away after eating pizza.

The use of familial DNA searching has been a common practice in Europe, Australia and New Zealand for years. Since 2004, British authorities have conducted multiple investigations resulting in 18 matches and 13 convictions. The United States has been slower to embrace the practice because of technical, legal and ethical issues. To date, only Colorado and California have made wide use of the practice.

California allows near-match searches in major violent crimes where all other avenues have proven fruitless. Police are required to pursue all leads before a search is allowed. Colorado has allowed more widespread use of the practice to include nonviolent cases. Maryland, the only state to have addressed the issue statutorily, has banned the use of familial DNA searches altogether.

Last year, the F.B.I. decided not to reconfigure their CODIS DNA search software after hearing concerns of critics of familial searches. Thomas Callaghan, the former head of the F.B.I.'s national DNA database, worried that familial DNA searches may be legally vulnerable. He has said he fears that the courts may not look kindly upon using for one purpose samples originally collected for another. Civil libertarians cite constitutional guarantees against unwarranted searches and concerns about invading the privacy of persons whose only crime is having a relative in the database. They argue that it amounts to guilt by association. They also note that innocent family members could become unwitting informants against other relatives.

Denver District Attorney Mitchell R. Morrissey, an enthusiastic proponent of the use of familial DNA, defends the practice by arguing that it increases public safety. He believes that law enforcement has a responsibility to use available technology, in a constitutional and legal way, to protect communities. But Colorado ACLU Director Mark Silverstein questions the practice: "The use of so-called familial DNA matches dramatically expands the potential for invasion of privacy posed by law enforcement's ever-growing DNA databases."

No state has specifically allowed the use of familial searches, but 16 now permit the use of partial matching obtained through fortuitous circumstances, while prohibiting the use of deliberate familial searching. In addressing the controversy, Peter Marone, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, says: "This is much more than a scientific issue. There are other policy issues involved."

It is clear that there must be safeguards to ensure that the technique is not abused, and to minimize the potential for erroneous matches merely because a DNA profile is similar. However, the use of familial DNA searching could revolutionize criminal investigations. It is hard to ignore a technology that has the potential to apprehend violent predators before they have the chance to prey on additional victims. How does one tell a victim or surviving family member that we had the technology to prevent the crime but we couldn't use it?

Try telling that to the family member of what could have been a future victim of BTK or the Grim Sleeper.

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.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Glorifying the Criminal

by Diane Dimond

There are always so many topics to write about, but today I want to tell you about Frank. He’s written a book. And he appears to be the toast of the town, getting full page write-ups for his new autobiography, Original Gangster. His publicity machine from St. Martin's Press has tried to convince TV and radio personalities to interview Frank because his story is "a chilling look at the rise and fall of a modern legacy.” And besides, they gush, Denzel Washington once portrayed Frank in the movie American Gangster.

Frank is Frank Lucas, the nefarious drug lord who admits that he hooked a huge portion of his Harlem neighborhood on heroin back in the late '60s and early '70s. Once his pockets were stuffed with the blood money of his trade, he drove around town in a Rolls Royce and strutted into events with the elite in entertainment, politics and crime in full length chinchilla fur coats.

Lucas is a proven liar, and many of his oft-repeated fabrications have found their way into this book, presented as truth. Why should anyone buy it?

Lucas had long claimed that after leaving North Carolina, he’d spent 15 years as the driver for New York crime boss Bumpy Johnson. But Johnson spent only five years outside prison before his death in 1968, making Lucas’s claim impossible. Lucas maintained he pushed the Italian Mafia aside, and earned $1 million a day selling his poison on Harlem street corners, an amount not feasible for the times. He has the audacity to brag that he smuggled his “Blue Magic” heroin into the U.S. from Southeast Asia in the coffins of American soldiers who had died in Vietnam.

His longtime drug dealing partner, Ike Atkinson (a.k.a. “Sergeant Smack” to federal investigators), says the fact is they transported the drugs hidden inside hollowed out furniture.

One recent reviewer of the new book writes: “Through much of his autobiography, Lucas is largely unapologetic, defending his illegal operation as a corporation that (simply) met a demand.” I guess these days that’s all it takes for an unrepentant thug to be rewarded with a book deal.

The story of how Frank Lucas destroyed a significant portion of a generation by getting them hooked on heroin has been glorified for years now – at the expense of those in law enforcement who worked so long and hard to shut down Lucas's criminal enterprise. I have come to know at least half a dozen of those involved in the Lucas investigation – from the DEA and from local cop shops – and they are livid about how twisted the truth has become.

Hollywood decided Lucas’s life would translate well to the big screen. In 2007 director Ridley Scott’s American Gangster hit theaters billed as: “The true juggernaut success story of a cult figure from the streets.” Much of the story was false, according to those officers actually involved in the case. Example: Lucas’s claim that “dirty cops” stole $11 million in cash from his attic when they raided his Tenafly, New Jersey, home in 1975.

The truth came out in court, when officers testified they’d actually found only $584,683 in cash in the house. Every dollar of it was produced for the jury to see. The movie also depicts officers roughing up Lucas’s wife during the raid and shooting his dog, neither of which really occurred.

The final and most damaging lie came at the very end of American Gangster, when a screen legend declared that after his take-down, Lucas’s ultimate cooperation with authorities resulted in the conviction of “three-quarters of the New York City’s Drug Enforcement Agency.”

The truth? Not one officer was charged or convicted of anything. A judge hearing a lawsuit filed by some of the offended officers roundly criticized movie producer Universal, calling the legend “wholly inaccurate.” But there it remains as the final punctuation point on the film and on countless DVD’s of it sold worldwide.

And now, as if to rub salt in the wounds of these cops who worked so hard to bring down Frank Lucas, he has once again found a way to make money from his tall, self-aggrandizing tales.

I think society can learn a lot from talking to and listening to criminals. It’s only when we realize how they think, what makes them tick, that we can figure out how to identify others just like them and reduce their effect on the rest of us.

But there are no revelations in this book – just the grandiose lies of a man who willingly sold venom to others so he could afford mink coats and a nice house far away from the scene of his crimes.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Exciting News from Women in Crime Ink!

by Women in Crime Ink

Notice anything different about us? Nope, no new hair styles, and no we haven’t lost weight. Here’s a hint: Peruse the photos on the right-hand column. Ah ha, you say. There it is! Two new women. And you recognize them? Of course you do!

Women in Crime Ink, the blog the Wall Street Journal calls “worth reading,” is adding two new contributors. Beginning August 1, legal analyst Anne Bremner and body language expert Dr. Lillian Glass will join our ranks. We know they'll be assets in our quest to deliver provocative, educational, and inspirational takes on cases in the headlines. All of us at Women in Crime Ink are excited to welcome Anne and Lillian.

Now, a little bit about our newest members:

Anne Bremner:

A trial attorney for 26 years, Anne is a litigation shareholder in the Seattle law firm of Stafford Frey Cooper. She received her B.A. from California's Stanford University and a law degree from Seattle University. She’s a former deputy prosecutor at the King County Prosecutor's Office, specializing in sex crimes. Since entering private practice, Anne has represented police departments, private and public entities, priests and judges in civil and criminal trials. If that weren't enough, Anne is a fellow in the prestigious International Academy of Trial Lawyers, widely regarded as the most exclusive trial-lawyer group in the world.

Why do you recognize Anne? She’s a regular on CNN, HLN, Nancy Grace and Fox News. For a taste of what she'll bring to WCI, check out her take on the Amanda Knox case here.

Dr. Lillian Glass:

An early bloomer, Lillian earned her Ph.D in communication disorders from the University of Minnesota when she was just 24. One of the world’s foremost and most-respected authorities in the human communications arena, she’s a renowned body language expert. Lillian educates her readers and viewers entertainingly and compellingly.

She’s a sought-after media expert for her unique perspective on breaking news, and she's a prolific author. Her books include the bestselling Toxic People. To whet your appetite, check out her analysis of Casey Anthony's truthfulness or lack thereof here.

Thank you all for being Women in Crime Ink readers. As we go forward, watch for Anne's and Lillian's posts, and don't forget to make WCI part of your daily routine. Tweet and post the links for your friends to share, and don't hesitate to comment. We're always eager to hear from you!

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Partnership in Crime

by Stephen Singular

The night we met in the fall of 1990, Joyce and I spoke about my first book, Talked to Death, which chronicled the 1984 neo-Nazi assassination of Denver talk show host Alan Berg. She said she wanted to read it and a few days later I gave her a copy.

Independently, we’d early in life developed an interest in non-fiction crime books by reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and one day we’d journey together to Holcomb, Kansas, and the infamous Clutter farmhouse. After I gave her the Berg book, we started dating and launched a partnership in crime writing that has expanded over the course of two decades and 19 more books.

We were fascinated by the psychology of real crimes more than the violence, and in exploring that place the Italians call chiaroscuro, where the darkness meets the light in human behavior. During 1992-93, we got married and had a son, while I worked on a book called Sweet Evil. It was about Jennifer Reali, a young wife and mother in Colorado Springs who’d dressed up in her husband’s camouflage army clothes and gunned down Dianne Hood, the wife of her lover. Jennifer had two young children and her victim had three. Joyce, a new mother herself at the time, attended Jennifer’s sanity hearing and the trial of Brian Hood, who’d used seduction and religious manipulation to get Jennifer to murder his spouse.

The hearing was packed with females of every age and description, who’d come to the courtroom to study the kind of woman capable of firing two shots into chest of another young woman very much like herself. Joyce spoke with the women in the hallways and restrooms, getting their impressions of the killer and victim, taking notes and adding them to the book’s research. She picked up details I’d missed and provided insights into Jennifer’s psychology, which were unique to her experience as a female. Like many women observing the legal proceedings, Joyce viewed the shooter in a highly negative light.

In subsequent years, we worked on a book about Jill Coit, the “Black Widow” killer from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, who’d murdered her husband Gerry Boggs and may have been behind the deaths of several of her other spouses. Joyce attended Coit’s trial while I was busy with another project. We wrote about John Robinson, the first known serial killer in the history of the Internet, who went online and lured several women to a Kansas City suburb before ending their lives. This book, Anyone You Want Me to Be, was written in conjunction with ex-FBI profiler, John Douglas, but Joyce again attended Robinson’s trial and provided input on how he was able to manipulate so many females into extremely dangerous circumstances. She played a similar role in the creation of Unholy Messenger: The Life and Crimes of the BTK Serial Killer, which came out in the spring of 2006. In looking at complex criminal situations involving the interaction of the sexes, we found that the combined male and female points of view always added to our understanding of a killer and his or her victims.

Right after Unholy Messenger was published, Joyce suggested we drive down to southern Utah and look into the case of Warren Jeffs, who’d just made it onto the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list as a fundamentalist Mormon polygamist accused of forcing underage girls into marriage and other crimes against women. I took her advice, resulting in the 2008 book, When Men Become Gods, the story of Jeffs’ and his capture and conviction. Joyce sent a copy to Harry Reid (D-Nevada), the Senate Majority Leader and highest-ranking Mormon in American history. He found the book revelatory about how women were being abused inside a religious subculture and invited me to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2008, where I talked about alleged federal crimes associated with polygamy. Going to Washington, meeting Senators, and speaking to the committee were among the highest of our highlights as book-writing collaborators.

Around that same time, we were contacted by someone who’d been in prison and gotten to know Jennifer Reali, now doing a life sentence in a Colorado penitentiary. He wanted several copies of Sweet Evil to give to her now-teenage daughters so they could know who their mother was before she disappeared from their lives (one daughter would later visit her in prison). Almost 20 years had passed since Jennifer had killed Dianne Hood and the man who contacted us suggested we go see Jennifer. This presented a unique opportunity because it had been almost impossible for us to interview killers, even after they’d been convicted, let alone have a chance to talk with one who’d read a book about them. The appeals process keeps most offenders silent for decades.

As we drove to the penitentiary, Joyce reiterated how much she’d disliked Jennifer during her long-ago trial and wondered what she’d feel about her now. After three hours of our face-to-face discussion, we were both taken with her intelligence, sensitivity, and efforts to understand her crime and help herself and others not to follow her path. Eventually, she asked us to look over the manuscript she was writing about her childhood, relationships with men, and what had made her so vulnerable to Brian Hood’s scheme to kill his wife. While Jennifer had received a life sentence, Hood was given 37 years, but eligible for parole after twelve years.

Joyce (left) and Jennifer have been working on her book for about a year. Joyce feels her story is important to help women grasp what can happen when they give their power and identity over to a man in the name of love. This fall Joyce and I will be featured on a Discovery Channel program about women who kill. I’ll discuss the Jill Coit case and Joyce will speak about Jennifer.

Over the years we’ve constantly found that in the process of researching and writing books about crime, two heads and two perspectives, the male and the female, are better than one.

Stephen Singular, a two-time “New York Times” bestselling author, has written 20 books about high profile crimes, social criticism, and business and sports biographies. He’s appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” “Anderson Cooper 360,” FOX-TV, MSNBC, COURT-TV, ESPN, and many other media outlets. His latest book, THE WICHITA DIVIDE, about the assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller, will be published by St. Martin's Press in early 2011. He and Joyce live in Denver with their son.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Darlie Routier: Vicious Mother or Tragic Victim?

by Diane Fanning

Every time a television program involving Tommy Lynn Sells or one of his crimes is broadcast, I receive emails asking if he could have been in Rowlett, Texas, on June 6, 1996--the day seven-year-old Devon Routier and his five-year-old brother Damon died. These questions began within days of the release of my book about Sells in April 2003 and have continued unabated since then.
The boys were murdered in the middle of the night, Sells' favored time for homicide. Someone had plunged a knife into their chests, puncturing their lungs. A weapon Sells was known to use often.

The boys' mother, Darlie, who had fallen asleep with them on the floor in front of the television, also had wounds. Although hers were not life-threatening, they were definitely beyond superficial. One cut damaged the sheath surrounding her carotid artery but did not sever that vital link to life. With a little emergency care, she was soon able to stand on the front porch in her bloody nightgown and tell her story of the events in her home.

Darlie said that she awakened when the man made physical contact with her. It was
at that moment, she realized her children had been harmed. She fought him off, he dropped his knife, he raced toward the garage. She described him as medium height, dressed in black and wearing a ball cap. After giving her statement, she was taken to the hospital. (above left)

This scenario bore a lot of similarity to the murder of 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick and the wounds inflicted on his mother Julie Rea Harper. As a result when an episode about Julie and Joel's case aired on Unusual Suspects, an Investigation Discovery show, a couple of weeks ago, I was deluged with dozens of emails asking once again about Sells' whereabouts.

The similarities went beyond the time of night, the viciousness of the attack, dead sons and injured mothers. In Darlie's case, two unidentified bloody fingerprints were found--one in the house, one in the garage--but prosecution witnesses testified that all the prints found belonged to Darlie or her boys. In Julie's case, investigators found a bloody footprint on a piece of cardboard in the bedroom. It was far too large to be Joel's footprint and even too large to belong to his mother. The prosecutor in Illinois concealed this evidence from the defense.

In both cases, there were items available for DNA testing. In both cases, the prosecutor fought this testing. This is a stance I cannot understand and cannot accept. I've heard all the arguments justifying this behavior, but I am not moved. If it is your mission is to uncover truth and seek justice, should you ever fight learning a fact? No. I expect more from prosecutors--much more.

Both Julie and Darlie were found guilty of murder in the death of their sons--a conviction that if wrongfully rendered was the cruelest fate that could ever befall any mother who loses a child to violence. Julie was sentenced to sixty-five years behind bars. Darlie was given the death penalty.

When Sells confessed to me that he murdered young Joel Kirkpatrick, a door was opened for Julie Rea Harper. I put it in my book and between the work of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield and the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, Julie got a new trial. Julie was acquitted and released from jail.

I know, without the shadow of doubt and beyond any concerns, that Julie Rea Harper did not murder her son. I am strongly inclined to believe that Tommy Lynn Sells did commit this crime, just as he said.

As for Darlie, I'm not convinced of her guilt or innocence. I am certain that there are many questions that need to be answered before we can possibly put her to death with a clear conscious.

There is only one thing I know absolutely about the deaths of Devon and Damon--those murders cannot be laid at Tommy Lynn Sells' feet. He was in a penitentiary in West Virginia serving a sentence for assaulting Fabienne Witherspoon, a woman who fought back and survived his brutal knife attack.

If not Sells, then who? The obvious answer is that it could be Darlie. But that is not the only answer. As Texas Ranger Coy Smith once told me: "If you knew how many people like Sells were roaming across the country at any given time, it would blow the skirt right up over your head."

Maybe Darlie did kill her sons. Maybe it was one of those drifters Smith mentioned. Maybe.

Shouldn't that question be answered with certainty before we allow the state to take Darlie's life?