The Hanged Juror
And the verdict is . . . .
The Hanged Juror

The Coroner Rules on Hamlet’s Ophelia—Accident, Suicide, or Murder?

Before I degenerated into the world of pulp fiction, I studied to become a scholar of Renaissance and Enlightenment literature. My specialty was what today you might call a forensic document examiner, that is, an expert in the origin and authorship of written documents.

Except for the Bible and other sacred works, few documents have been as thoroughly examined as Shakespeare’s works; and few of Shakespeare’s works have been examined as thoroughly as Hamlet. So I shocked myself when recently I reread Hamlet and realized there’s a mystery in it that I had not noticed before.

Sidebar: To refresh your memory, one of the many deaths in the play is that of a girl who drowned named Ophelia. The cause of death is known, but not the manner. (Ophelia’s body was recovered from a river.) Ophelia was Prince Hamlet’s “intended,” whom he rejected and told to “get thee to a nunnery.” This crushing blow drove Ophelia mad; she began to rant in public about Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, even hinting that Gertrude was involved in the death of Hamlet’s father (the former king, Hamlet, Sr.). Gertrude claimed the girl’s death was accidental, so the “crowner” (that is, the coroner) who worked for “the crown” (that is, King Claudius, the usurper of the Danish throne) declared Ophelia’s death accidental. This permitted her body to be buried in the churchyard (a suicide’s body could not have been). However, the common folk widely believed Ophelia committed suicide. Ophelia’s brother (Laertes) apparently believed it was suicide as well, since he accused Hamlet of driving Ophelia mad.

Ophelia’s Manner of Death

I have literally read Hamlet backward and forward many times. Last week I read the scenes in reverse order as a way of analyzing the plot. Reading the play in reverse order put several plot elements into a new context, especially the play’s extensive dialog about the suicide v. accident issue concerning Ophelia.

Scholars have long been divided over whether Ophelia killed herself or not. The interpretation of the play rests largely on the issue, since the salvation of both Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s souls hangs in the balance. In other words, is Hamlet damned or redeemed by his actions?

But there’s another possibility, namely, Ophelia was murdered—pushed into the river. Back in the day, no scholar I had heard of made this suggestion, but a recent search of Goggle Scholar turned up newer scholarly arguments about the possibility of murder. For a brief survey of these ideas see Read the summary of Harmonie Loberg’s 2004 article in Atenea.

By reading the play backwards (in part), I discovered several peculiarities I had previously overlooked:

  1. An unnamed gentleman “tattles” on Ophelia to King Claudius and his wife, Gertrude, and claims Ophelia is rousing the rabble (which would be treasonous if it were true, but there’s no hint in the play of such an accusation).
  2. As a result of the gentleman’s tales, in most editions of the play King Claudius and Gertrude send Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, to follow Ophelia around and stop her from spreading insane rumors. (The “document” is unclear about who they really sent to follow Ophelia [see below]).
  3. Gertrude is the one who describes Ophelia’s off-stage drowning, even though Gertrude was not present at the scene of her death.
  4. At the funeral, Gertrude claims she hoped to strew flowers on Ophelia’s marriage bed, not on her grave; but Gertrude is the archetypal doting mother, who probably was glad Ophelia was dead.

Testimony before the Coroner’s Jury

Now, think about this as if you were a juror on a coroner’s jury (which decides the cause and manner of a suspicious death). Listening to Gertrude’s testimony, along with the unnamed Gentleman, King Claudius, and Horatio, wouldn’t you have many, many questions about the involvement of these witnesses in Ophelia’s death?

[Coroner swears in unnamed gentleman X, then asks]: Did you have occasion [using legalese] to pay a call on the king and queen in the throne room?

[X]: Yes, I did. That was right before Ophelia’s body was discovered.

[Coroner]: And what did you tell them at that time?

[X]: I told their majesties that Ophelia was running around saying crazy things that the mob misinterpreted.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: What did she say that could be misinterpreted as dangerous speech?

[X]: I can’t remember exactly.

[Juror]: And what harm could a crazy girl do by ranting, anyway?

[X looks in the direction of King Claudius]: Well . . . . you know what kinds of rumors are going around.

[Juror]: So you’re saying Ophelia was encouraging the mob to rebellion? Shouldn’t she have been arrested for sedition?

[X]: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. [The Coroner dismisses X and swears in King Claudius.]

[Coroner]: Did you have occasion at some time to entertain the mad Ophelia in the throne room?

[King Claudius]: Yes, I did.

[Coroner]: How did she appear to you? Was she mad in your opinion?

[King Claudius]: Yes, I thought so.

[Coroner]: And as a result, what did you do?

[King Claudius]: I felt it was wise to have someone keep an eye on her. I sent a court gentleman to follow her.

[Coroner]: For what purpose?

[King Claudius]: Well, that’s obvious. I was worried about her safety. [Sounds a bit like George Anthony testifying against his daughter, doesn’t it?]

[Coroner]: Who did you send to follow her?

[King Claudius]: My memory of that is foggy. I may have sent X. I may have sent Horatio.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: What did you tell the gentleman to do if she starting ranting treasonously?

[King Claudius]: Nothing. [The Coroner dismisses King Claudius and swears in Gertrude.]

[Coroner]: Was Ophelia engaged to marry your son, Hamlet?

[Gertrude]: At one time she was, yes, at least in a manner of speaking.

[Coroner]: Please explain.

[Gertrude]: My son courted Ophelia when she was too young to marry, that is, before she was fourteen. He was twice her age. We all agreed—including her father Polonius—that when she was of age they would marry. That’s why I said at the funeral that I had never expected to put flowers on her grave. I expected to decorate her marriage bed with flowers.

[Coroner]: Were you present at the meeting in the throne room and, if so, how did Ophelia appear to you?

[Gertrude]: Yes, I was present. Ophelia was clearly out of her mind.

[Coroner]: Do you recall who the king sent to follow her?

[Gertrude]: I can’t remember.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: Can you remember who told you about the way Ophelia died? I believe you were the one who spoke to the press about it.

[Gertrude]: Now that you mention it, I was, but things were very hectic after her body was found, and I can’t really remember who told me about it.

[Juror]: But you said it was an accident, and someone was supposedly following Ophelia. Is that who found the body? [Juror looks at Coroner] Why didn’t Mr. X testify about finding the body, if it was him? [A different juror raises a hand.]

[Juror]: I never heard of a mother who looked forward to making up a bed for her son to sleep in with another woman. Are you sure you really wanted your son to get married? Why did he wait until he was thirty to come back to Elsinore Castle and get together with Ophelia?

[Coroner]: That’s enough. The queen is too distraught to continue. You may step down, my lady. [Gertrude steps down and Coroner swears in Horatio.]

[Coroner]: Now, Horatio, were you present at this meeting?

[Horatio]: I might have been, but I think I would remember if the king ordered me to follow her.

[Coroner]: You may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: Are you saying that you did not follow Ophelia?

[Horatio]: That’s right. I did not follow Ophelia, and I am not the one who found the body. If I had followed Ophelia, she never would have had a chance to get near that river, let alone climb into a willow tree with branches hanging over the river. And if she had somehow managed to fall into the river—whether on purpose or accidentally—I would have considered it my duty to dive in after her and save her or die in the attempt. Ophelia was my best friend’s girlfriend. And, by the way, it was a willow tree, for gods sake. I never knew a girl who was a good tree-climber, and even if she was she must have had a fairy godmother to fly her into the top of such “willowy” tree.

Sidebar: In other words, because Horatio is the most reliable, honorable character in the play, if Horatio followed Ophelia and saw her die, then we are faced with the suicide/accidental death dilemma. It would mean that Hamlet bears responsibility for the harmless, innocent Ophelia’s death in either case. He would be damned whether or not he revenges his father’s death. Why would Shakespeare waste his time writing such glorious verse about such a worthless person?

Even the most devout Christian in Shakespeare’s audience in 1601 would feel that Ophelia’s manner of death ought not to be held against her in the Highest Court of Heaven. You would have to say that Shakespeare believed there is no real justice in the whole universe—not just a lack of justice in Denmark.

It all depends on whether or not Horatio is the one who followed Ophelia—and I don’t believe it. The circumstantial evidence points elsewhere.

Evidence from the Document

1) A textual critic would investigate the question of why Shakespeare put an unnamed gentleman in the throne-room scene as a staging problem.

Scholars (including my dissertation advisor) have written extensively about the minimum number of actors required for any given Shakespearean play. The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s theatrical company) had a fixed number of actors who could play male parts and those who could play female parts (usually because their voices hadn’t broken yet). As a result, plays were staged using “doubling” (meaning every actor could play more than one part, as long as enough actors could be assigned to gender roles). In every scene Shakespeare had to be careful to write speaking parts so that actors who were doubling up on parts were not required to appear in the same scene with themselves (! obviously a problem). There also had to be extras available for crowd scenes. Because the company had a fixed, limited number of actors, parts for characters that are required in crowd scenes could not be doubled with supernumerary parts.

So scenes such as Act IV, scene v, in which an unnamed Gentleman appears and delivers only one speech, are rare in Shakespeare.

Nonetheless, most editions of the play indicate that an unnamed Gentleman appears on stage with Gertrude and Horatio. He speaks 12 lines and then disappears from the play.

Sidebar: The edition I am currently reading relies on stage directions from the First Folio edition (1623, 7 years after Shakespeare’s death), because that edition was prepared by members of the King’s Men and has the most-extensive stage directions. Every literary critic knows that the stage directions in Shakespearean plays (including assigning lines to characters) are iffy.

The Gentleman is a supernumerary. Any actor who played this part would have been doubling, probably taking several roles, one of which would have been a named character, Polonius, for example, who is dead before the Gentleman comes on stage. It seems highly peculiar that Shakespeare—who was careful not to write parts for too many actors—would have wasted such a part on a scene in which Horatio appeared, since Horatio is required in several very crowded scenes, including the final scene which leaves actors bodies all over the stage and then brings in a whole army of Norwegians to take over Denmark.

Conclusion: Given the large cast of Hamlet, Shakespeare would have been careful not to use Horatio in too many scenes with supernumerary characters, such as the “follow her” scene. If he did put Horatio in the scene, then he did so in order to have Horatio be the one to follow Ophelia. In effect, Shakespeare would have thus damned his hero, Hamlet, and his heroine, Ophelia, in the eyes of God. From what I know of Shakespeare, he was not cynical; he would not have intended to do this. Also, Horatio would not have been permitted to survive the final carnage; he, too, would have been damned.

2) King Claudius and Gertrude send Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, to follow Ophelia around and stop her from spreading insane rumors.

What evidence is there that the First Folio (1F) stage directions are accurate?

Very little. It looks to me as if 1F may have been mistaken about the presence of Horatio in Act IV, scene v.

Other than Act I, i, and Act IV, vi, the scene is the only scene Horatio appears in without Hamlet being present. (The Horatio character is Hamlet’s foil and alter-ego. There are few scenes in which he is needed if Hamlet isn’t on stage.) The first scene in the play is the famous ghost scene. Horatio—though a religious skeptic—sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father and then later convinces Hamlet to come out onto the castle’s ramparts one night to see the ghost when it reappears.

Coincidentally, a Gentleman is the only other actor on stage with Horatio in Act IV, vi, which, of course, immediately follows the scene in question. This Gentleman is clearly not the same Gentleman as in the preceding scene. The fact that Horatio is still inside the castle in scene vi after having supposedly been directed to follow Ophelia outside the castle, suggests that Horatio ought not to appear in Act IV, scene v.

The First Folio opens Act IV, v with “Enter Horatio, Gertrude, and a Gentleman.” The sequence of names is significant, since named male characters always precede named female characters; unnamed characters come last, precisely because it doesn’t matter who is assigned their part.

Suspicious is the fact that Gertrude first speaks to the Gentleman, not to Horatio, who is clearly his “better.” She says, “I will not speak with her,” as if the Gentleman has previously asked her to speak to Ophelia. (Note that Gertrude isn’t all that loving of a would-be daughter-in-law after all.) If Horatio is present (presumably also a more-likely candidate for peacemaker between Gertrude and Ophelia), why didn’t Shakespeare use Horatio to perform this function? Why clutter the scene with a supernumerary Gentleman?

A highly suggestive typographical error (or what’s presumed to be a typo) is present in the Second Quarto (2Q) version of the play at Act IV, scene v, line 16. The line, “Let her come in,” is assigned in 2Q to Horatio instead of Gertrude. Horatio says to Gertrude: “’Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew dangerous conjectures. Let her come in.” This would only make sense if Horatio and not the Gentleman was the one urging Gertrude to see Ophelia. But then no Gentleman would be needed in the scene.

Most editions insert a stage direction right after “Let her come in”: namely, [Exit Gentleman] with brackets to indicate that it is an editorial insertion, not Shakespeare’s stage direction. Presumably the Gentleman exits to call Ophelia on stage. After that, Ophelia enters while Gertrude is uttering an aside, but the Gentleman doesn’t accompany her. He’s gone from the play for good (supposedly).

The fact that F1 breaks off Horatio’s speech before “Let her come in” is interesting. There’s clearly something going on with the staging, which involves Horatio.

It also troubles me that Shakespeare would assign Horatio to serve as King Claudius’s minion who follows Ophelia apparently to her death. Horatio is Hamlet’s ally, and by this time in the plot he knows Claudius is a murderer as well as the usurper of Hamlet’s rightful throne.

Frankly, I  just don’t believe it. The circumstantial evidence points to the Gentleman as the spy. If he exited the stage and then returned with Ophelia, he would be available on stage for Shakespeare later to send him off stage to follow Ophelia. The Gentleman is toadying up to Gertrude from the beginning of the scene. He’s telling tales on Ophelia. He would be the logical choice to entice her on stage to make a fool of herself in front of Gertrude. He would be the logical candidate to follow Ophelia and make sure she keeps her mouth shut--permanently.

Conclusion: Editorial error places Horatio in Act IV, v. Horatio should not appear in the scene. The reason Shakespeare used a supernumerary Gentleman in this scene is because the character is only needed in this scene.

Literary critics who say the reason Ophelia dies off stage is because it would have been too difficult to stage a river drowning or because the spectacle of Ophelia’s death would be too horrific are wrong, wrong wrong. If Shakespeare could stage a tempest, he could stage a rivulet of water; if Shakespeare could stage a slaughter at the end of Hamlet without horrifying his audience unnecessarily, he could stage a drowning.

Sidebar: This is a Jacobean revenge tragedy, the essence of which was horror. The reason Shakespeare kills Ophelia off stage is so the audience has to wonder about the true manner of death. Ophelia’s death is a mystery.

3) The question of how Gertrude learned about “the accident” cannot be settled by reading the play, nor can it be settled by looking at Shakespeare’s sources (that is older documents, tales of the legend of Hamlet, earlier plays written on the story, etc.), mainly because Ophelia is Shakespeare’s invention. At least one early version of the story had an Ophelia-like character, but she did not die in it.

Given that the Gentleman is likely the one who offed Ophelia, my belief is that Shakespeare intended us to assume the Gentleman reported back to Gertrude, and Gertrude made up the “accident” story to try to convince the mob (who already are suspicious of her and Claudius) that at worst Ophelia killed herself. Gertrude’s pathetic description of the girl’s death is phrased to make Gertrude sound like a loving would-be mother-in-law; but she knows no one will buy it. Everyone will assume Ophelia killed herself. It’s another case "of “methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

4) At the funeral, Gertrude claims she hoped to strew flowers on Ophelia’s marriage bed, not on her grave.

See above. Gertrude is widely assumed to have incestuous thoughts about Hamlet, if not actually having committed incest with him. Besides, you can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of mother-in-laws who actually like their daughters-in-law.

Verdict of the Coroner’s Jury: Homicide

For Arthur Rimbaud's take on Ophelia's death, see my translation of his poem at:

Ophelia’s Murder



Arthur Rimbaud

Translated by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C.C. Mambretti)


Like a grand lily

on calm, black water

beneath sleeping stars,

floats white Ophelia,

floats very slowly,

couched in her long veils. . . .

—In distant woods sounds the hallelujah of a hunter’s horn!


More than a thousand years, sad Ophelia

—white phantom—voyaged on the long, black flood.

More than a thousand years, her sweet madness

babbled her romance, on the night breezes.


Now wind smacks her breast, betrays her to view

in a garland of veils that languidly

rocks on the water. Shivering willows

weep on her shoulder. O’er her grand, dreaming

forehead water reeds reverently bow.


Water-lilies wilt, sighing around her.

From time to time she seems to arise

like a small, fluttering wing escaping from

the nest-like alder bush where she’s sleeping.

—From the golden stars falls a mysterious chant. . . .


O, pale Ophelia, lovely as snow! Yes,

child, you perished, swept away on the flood.

—The winds that descend Norway’s grand mountains

carry a message: freedom is bitter.


Whirling your grand hair, their breath portended

to your dreams strange bruits. Your heart heard chants of

nature in the trees’ moans and the nights’ sighs.


The insane sea’s voice—a vast death-rattle—

broke your inner child, so humane, so sweet.

Then one April morn, a fine, pale rider—

poor, handsome madman—lay mute in your lap.


Heaven! Liberty! Love! O, poor mad girl!

You melted to him like the snow to fire.

Your words were strangled by your grand visions

—And the terror of Infinity turned

your blue eyes to stone. . . .


—And the Poet says

that you sought only

the light of stars, night,

the flowers you plucked;

and that on the waters

he has seen white

Ophelia floating,

couched in her long veils

like a grand lily.



The French original is written in pentameter with a four-line-stanza ABAB rhyme scheme. I have taken liberties with the form in order to preserve both meaning and connotation.

Stanza 1: The hunter’s horn—an image of death and possibly even intentional killing—foreshadows the appearance of a man on horseback in stanza 6.

Stanza 2: One thousand years before the writing of the poem would have been the ninth century C.E. (A. D.), roughly the era in which the story of Hamlet and Ophelia is set. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was not the first such story. Shakespeare drew on sources that included the twelfth-century Saxo Grammaticus, a compilation of Scandinavian histories, and Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, both of which would also have been available to Rimbaud. In this poem Rimbaud clearly refers to Scandinavian sources as well as to Shakespeare, as shown by his reference in stanza 5 to Norway rather than to Shakespeare’s setting, Denmark.

Stanza 7: Rimbaud’s French refers to this figure as the “un beau cavalier pâle,” which I have translated as “a fine, pale rider.” The English word “cavalier” is derived from the French word, which means “horseman” or “horse rider.” Because the English word has connotations of a dashing, handsome aristocrat or courtier, I have chosen to translate it literally as “rider,” since the phrase “cavalier pâle” clearly alludes to the Biblical “Pale Rider” of the Apocalypse (Revelations 6:8): “Behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death. . . .”

Stanza 7: Rimbaud’s original French phrase is “s'assit muet à tes genoux,” for which the literal translation is “sat on your knee.” The idea of a horseman sitting on frail Ophelia’s knees (or lap) is ludicrous. So instead I relied upon the passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, scene ii, in which Hamlet banters obscenely with Ophelia and suggests he would like to “lie between” her legs and then moderates the suggestion: “I mean, my head upon your lap.”

Stanza 8: “[Y]ou melted to him like a snow to fire” emphasizes her purity succumbing to passion, that is, the triumph of the profane over the sacred in their relationship.

Stanza 8: Rimbaud’s French describes Ophelia’s eyes as “effara ton oeil bleu.” Among the English translations of effara is “astonished,” and the etymology of that word is the Early English word “astonied” from “turned to stone,” as in the effect Medusa had on those who looked upon her face.

For my discussion of the fate of Shakespeare's Ophelia see:


When this blog was posted on 11/18/13 the French original was available at:

See also: Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters, translated by Wallace Fowlie, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Alone on Halloween? Read Guy de Maupassant’s “Terror”


But unlike the reader in the “poem,” if you’re tapped on the shoulder, run!

In 1876 Guy de Maupassant, best known for his short stories (and short life), wrote a poem for the “Republic of Letters,” under the pseudonym of Guy de Valmont. Like the poems of Poe, which inspired “Terror,” its lines are long, the language ornate. Try as I might, I was unable in verse to capture the mood of de Maupassant’s tribute to the poet of Halloween, so I have translated it as a prose poem.


trans. by C. C. Mambretti

Author of CHALK GHOST and SNOW GHOST (coming soon)

Into the night I read—on and on I read—read one poet, only one—until, at the instant the clock struck midnight, I was overcome with dread. Shaken, I gasped for breath, knowing only that some nameless horror hovered in the air.

Then I sensed a figure standing behind me, a brash figure; it snickered—a ghastly laugh. I sensed, yet I heard nothing. To feel it bend over to kiss my hair; to feel its hand poised to tap my shoulder, was torture. Worse, I feared that if it so much as brushed against me, I would die.

Still, it leaned over me, still oh so close.

And I? No move made I to save myself, not even to turn my head away. My thoughts whirled, like birds by tempests battered. The sweat of death frosted my limbs. In my chamber no noise was heard but my clicking teeth.

No noise until . . .

A thunderous crack! Wild. Horrific—and a howl more terror-filled than had ever issued from a living breast.

Stiff, I fell back, back, back . . . .

I wonder where he fell. Into the pit with the pendulum, do you suppose? Or into the dank tarn into which the House of Usher sank—the original house-eating sinkhole.

Here’s why your parents always told you never to stay up too late reading:

CHALK GHOST, a novella, is available on Amazon Kindle for a pittance: $0.99.

Colette’s Chéri, trans. by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C. C. Mambretti

Update and second installment: Blogging is an  awkward way to distribute a story, but I haven’t quite figured out how to post my in-progress work. If you read the first installment, scroll down to the boldface sentence, which marks the beginning of the second installment. (I made a few wording changes in the first installment, as well.)

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the pearly-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his pearly-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball. “And how! Me, I’m above all conventions. I find it idiotic that a man can accept from a woman one pearl on a tie clip, or two on buttons, and he is considered dishonored if she gives him fifty.”


“Forty-nine, I know the number. Tell me that it doesn’t become me. Tell me that I’m ugly.”

He bent over the recumbent woman with a provocative grin that displayed his tiny, white teeth and the lining of his lips.

Léa sat up on the bed. “No, I don’t say that. First, because you would never believe that. Even so, you ought not to grin and crinkle your nose like that. You’ll be very happy when you get three permanent wrinkles at the corners of your nose, n’est-ce pas?

Immediately he ceased grinning, smoothed the skin of his forehead, and bowed his head like an old coquette. They regarded each other with an air of hostility, she leaning back amid her lace lingerie, he sitting sidesaddle, Amazon-like, on the bed. He thought, She’s well to tell me about the wrinkles I’ll get. She thought, Why is it ugly when he smiles like that, he who is beauty in essence?

“It’s because you have the air of evil when you smile cheerfully. . . . You never smile wickedly or in mockery. But a cheerful smile makes you ugly. You are often ugly.”

“That’s not true!” cried Chéri, irritated. The anger knitted his eyebrows, filled his wide eyes with the light of insolence, weaponized his eyelashes, and he half-opened his disdainful, chaste mouth.

Léa smiled to see him, whom she loved, revolt, then submit, badly enchained, incapable of freeing himself. She put a hand on the young head, which impatiently shook off the yoke. She murmured as if calming an animal. “There, there. What is it? What is it now?”

He fell on the beautiful, large shoulder, burying his forehead, his nose, in the familiar spot, and closed his eyes and sought his protégé fee for the long afternoons, but Lea repulsed him.

“None of that, Chéri. You lunch today at the house of our national harpy, and it is twenty minutes till noon.”

“No? I’m lunching at the house of my patroness? You, too?”

Léa slid lazily back into bed. “Not me. I’m on vacation. I’ll go to take coffee at two-thirty—or tea at six o’clock—or a cigarette at seven forty-five. . . . Don’t let it disturb you; she’ll see enough of me. . . . And, besides, she didn’t invite me.”

Chéri, who stood sulking, lit up with malice. “I know—I know why. We have it good, don’t we, and we have the lovely Marie-Laure and her poison-child.”

Léa’s big, blue eyes wandered, then focused. “Ah! Yes, Charming, the little one. Less than his mother, but charming. . . .So, the necklace is at an end.”

“Sad,” sighed Chéri as he unclasped it. ”It would fit in well with my trash.”

Léa rose from her couch. “What trash?”

“Mine,” said Chéri with comic importance. “The baubles that will be the trinkets for my wedding.” He leapt, recovered his feet after a perfect entrechat-six, thrust open the door on a whim and disappeared shouting, “My bath, Rose! As deep as possible. I lunch at the house of my patroness!”

There it is, Léa mused. A soak in the bathroom, eight bath towels, and razor shavings in the bowl. If only I had two bathrooms. . . .”

But she reminded herself of the other times when it had become necessary to remodel the boudoir, remove a wardrobe, and concluded as in the other times, I must be patient. I’ll wait until Chéri’s wedding.

She lay back down and noticed that earlier Chéri had thrown his socks on the mantle, his smalls on the writing table, looped his tie over the bust of Léa. She smiled in spite of herself at the heated masculine disarray and half-closed her great, tranquil, bright-blue eyes, which still retained all their chestnut lashes. At forty-nine years, Leonie Vallon called Léa de Lonval, was ending a career as a well-to do courtesan, a good woman whose life had been blessed with nothing but flattering catastrophes and noble regrets. She concealed the date of her birth, but she gladly confessed, because of her voluptuous condescension toward Chéri, that she had attained an age at which she was entitled to a few indulgences. She loved order, clean linens, mature wines, intelligent cuisine.

As a young blonde she had not accepted adulation; as a mature, rich, demi-monde she had not accepted annoying flattery, and her friends would forever recall how, on the Day of Coach Races around 1895, she had responded to a Gil Blas copyeditor who had called her a “sweet artiste,” “Artiste? Oh, really, my friend, my lovers are too indiscreet!”

Her contemporary rivals were jealous of her imperturbable health; the younger ones, whose bosoms and behinds required enhancement from 1912 fashions, laughed at Léa’s ample bosom. But both sets of women equally envied her Chéri. “Oh, my God,” Léa said, “the affair is nothing.” They can have him. I’m not attached to him, and he goes his own way.

In truth, she was telling a boastful half-truth about their liaison: sometimes, having a penchant for sincerity, she had called it an adoption. “The trinkets,” Léa repeated, “it isn’t possible. It isn’t humane to give a young girl to Chéri. Why throw a bitch to the dog? People don’t know what Chéri is.”

She told the pearls of the necklace like a rosary, as it lay on the bed. Lately she had begun to take it off at night because Chéri, who so loved the lovely pearls that he always caressed them in the morning, would notice each time how Lea’s neck—thicker—was losing its whiteness and the skin and muscles their tautness. She hooked the clasp at the back of her neck without the latch and took it to the mirror over the console by the head of the bed.

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Colette’s Chéri, trans. by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C. C. Mambretti)

I’ve had too much of sex crimes, sadism, and injustice. Over the next few months, I’m translating Colette’s Chéri, a 1920 novella about the love of an older woman for a much younger man.

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the enamel-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his enamel-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball.

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the enamel-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his enamel-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball. “And how! Me, I’m above all conventions. I find it idiotic that a man can accept from a woman one pearl on a tie clip, or two on buttons, and he is considered dishonored if she gives him fifty.”


“Forty-nine, I know the number. Tell me that it doesn’t become me. Tell me that I’m ugly.”

He bent over the recumbent woman with a provocative grin that displayed his tiny, white teeth and the lining of his lips.

Léa sat up on the bed. “No, I don’t say that. First, because you would never believe that. Even so, you ought not to grin and crinkle your nose like that. You’ll be very happy when you get three permanent wrinkles at the corners of your nose, n’est-ce pas?

Immediately he ceased grinning, smoothed the skin of his forehead, and bowed his head like an old coquette. They regarded each other with an air of hostility, she leaning back amid her lace lingerie, he sitting sidesaddle, Amazon-like, on the bed. He thought, She’s well to tell me about the wrinkles I’ll get. She thought, Why is it ugly when he smiles like that, he who is beauty in essence?

“It’s because you have the air of evil when you smile cheerfully. . . . You never smile wickedly or in mockery. But a cheerful smile makes you ugly. You are often ugly.”

“That’s not true!” cried Chéri, irritated. The anger knitted his eyebrows, filled his wide eyes with the light of insolence, weaponized his eyelashes, and he half-opened his disdainful, chaste mouth.

Léa smiled to see him, whom she loved, revolt, then submit, badly enchained, incapable of freeing himself. She put a hand on the young head, which impatiently shook off the yoke. She murmured as if calming an animal. “There, there. What is it? What is it now?”

He fell on the beautiful, large shoulder, burying his forehead, his nose, in the familiar spot, and closed his eyes and sought his protégé fee for the long afternoons, but Lea repulsed him.

“None of that, Cheri. You lunch today at the house of our national harpy, and it is twenty minutes till noon.”

“No? I’m lunching at the house of my patroness? You, too?”

Léa slid lazily back into bed. “Not me. I’m on vacation. I’ll go to take coffee at two-thirty—or tea at six o’clock—or a cigarette at seven forty-five. . . . Don’t let it disturb you; she’ll see enough of me. . . . And, besides, she didn’t invite me.”

Syria: History Repeating Itself All Over Again

Why did most of my generation of Baby Boomers oppose the War In Vietnam? (You had to have been born before 1955 to know the answer). Because:

1. We were the ones who were sent to die in Vietnam

2. Soldiers were drafted against their will (did you know Mohammed Ali was a conscientious objector on the basis of his peace-loving religion, Islam, and went to prison rather than go to war?)

3. The immediate interests of American security were not involved (ultimately a case would be made that Communism would dominate Asia if we did not act, but at the time no one could foresee this.)

4. There was no declaration of war, as required by the Constitution

Why do I oppose intervention in Syria?

1. There will be no declaration of war nor even a presentation of proof that the intervention is in American interests.

2. While there is no now draft, our military is still bleeding (literally) from the unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the sequester has cut funds to the military; veterans are being denied promised benefits, and any intervention (including simply firing missiles into Syria) can easily expand into air strikes that place jet crews at risk of death). After that “mission-creep” will begin. There will be boots on the ground.

3. The Millennial generation are the ones who will suffer: they will pay the financial costs and the costs in casualties.

4.  IT IS TOO LATE. Punishment of Assad has no purpose. Even if we destroy their complete supply of weapons of mass destruction, they won’t stop. They have no reason to stop. In fact, they will be incented to continue with their atrocities and expand their war to Lebanon and even perhaps to Turkey.

5. Like Vietnam and unlike the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world community opposes this action. Even NATO (which includes Turkey) does not sanction it.

6. I fear that both parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, will use the military’s ongoing involvement in Syria as an excuse to raise the debt ceiling and approve the continuing resolution (that’s what they use to justify not having an approved, balanced federal budget.)

Where is this generation’s Phil Ochs? “Cops of the World”

Like the War in Vietnam, I’m convinced this is all about money—not about punishing a tyrant for his despicable behavior. If you want to know why America is getting ready to do this, do what Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein to do: follow the money. The Pentagon is bloated with excess weapons that they’ve bought from their industrial cronies. They’re having to abandon billions of dollars worth or weapons, equipment, and buildings in Afghanistan.

While Americans are focused on Syria, millions of people will be signed up for Obamacare coops with federal subsidies. Even if the law is defunded or repealed in 2014 or later, there will be no way out of this entitlement. That’s a lot of money.

Politicians of both parties face the prospect of being removed from Congress in 2014 and need to wrap themselves in the flag and in the banner of humanitarianism.

Assad claims American intervention will lead to a region-wide war. The region is already at war. This intervention will do nothing but give the Russians and the Iranians an opportunity to expand their activities throughout the Middle East. The Suez Canal may be closed, greatly diminishing the flow of oil to Europe at a time when their economy is on the brink of recovery. With America diverted from North Africa and the Horn of Africa, Islamists will be free to renew their efforts to take control. The war is already spreading to central Africa.


Welcome to the Banana Republic

Have you seen Woody Allen’s Bananas? It’s about a banana republic where the new “dear leader” declares the banana to be the national fruit, that underwear shall be worn on the outside instead of under clothes, and that he must be saluted with a gesture that defies description. It’s a dictatorship.

But not even Woody Allen could have imagined that America would one day have a President who declares that “if I had a son he would look like” a young man who unfortunately became embroiled in a fist fight and was subsequently killed. And even in a banana republic, the Attorney General would never bother to criticize a jury verdict and consider turning a state criminal court matter into a federal civil rights case.

For an administration that is so concerned about the rights of “undocumented” Hispanics in this country, it strikes me as bizarre that it has now virtually labeled George Zimmerman as “Public Enemy No. 1.”

The federal government has no right to interfere in state courts, no matter what anyone thinks about a verdict.

The  jury system must be respected. It is the foundation of liberty in a civil society. Without a jury of your peers, you—not merely one man in Florida who happens to be of mixed ethnicity and possibly even mixed race—can be punished for exercising your rights under the Constitution of the United States and under the laws of the state in which you live.

(Jury verdicts are always right: even in the first O. J. Simpson trial. I will write another time about why the jury’s verdict in the Zimmerman case was not only right it was courageous, but for now I think we should all meditate on the meaning of what the federal government is proposing to do.)

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The President’s Attempt to Rewrite History

Yesterday President Obama apparently tried to rewrite the history of the 20th century so that he could declare an end to the War on Terror.

He excised from history all terrorism in the English-speaking world before the 1980s, of which the following is only a partial list:

  • the IRA’s bloody terrorism in Great Britain, which was funded in part by American sympathizers
  • separatists in Canada’s Quebec, who were supported in part by American leftists (a polite term for Socialists and Communists)
  • the Puerto Rican FALN, which bombed Americans
  • the Weather Underground bombers, which included Mr. Obama’s Chicago neighbors
  • the Palestinian Liberation Front and Fatah, which hijacked passenger airliners and massacred the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympics (when Mr. Obama was eleven years old and living in Hawaii, where he must not have watched the television coverage of this great horror) (NB: Interesting that Mr. Obama threw in a gratuitous reference to the Palestinians yesterday)

Then, the President reduced terrorism in the 1980s to: “our Embassy in Beirut; at our Marine Barracks in Lebanon [which is where Beirut is, in case he didn’t know, and both of which bombings were in 1983 by the Islamic Jihad Organization]; on a cruise ship at sea [1985 by the Palestinian Liberation Front]; at a disco in Berlin [1986 by Libyan Gaddafi]; and on a Pan Am flight -- Flight 103  -- over Lockerbie.”

The President could have named many more terrorist acts in the 1980s, including two conducted by Indian Moslems: the bombings in 1985 of an Air India flight from Canada and of an aircraft that landed at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.

And most peculiarly, the President said that in the 1990s “we lost Americans to terrorism at . . . our Embassy in Kenya.” In fact, on August 7, 1998, two embassies were simultaneously blown up: Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks were the work of Osama bin Laden.

What about the 1997 massacre of 62 tourists at Luxor, Egypt?

What about the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole?

Then, the President interpreted his misstatement of history for us: “These attacks were all brutal; they were all deadly; and we learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow.  But if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.”

Of course, “smartly” is not the correct word. I suppose he meant “intelligently.” 

Let me try to parse what he said: Acts of terrorism before 2001 were threats that we let grow and did not deal with intelligently or in proportion to their severity. Consequently we were punished with 9/11, after which we went to war in Moslem countries and with whole nations who were not to blame for Islamic terrorism.

This is nonsense. It’s a non sequitur at best.

The President was trying to build a case for what he considers to be the most intelligent and proportionate approach to Islamic terrorism (which term notably he did not use), namely, increased foreign aid and “no boots on the ground” in any Moslem country.

Why Is America At War In Moslem Countries?

Apparently Mr. Obama doesn’t know why we invaded Afghanistan. We went to war with the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, which harbored the Al Qaeda who had attacked us. Mr. Obama has omitted the gruesome reality of what the Taliban was and are. During the 1990s the Taliban herded young women into a crowded soccer stadium and had their fathers shoot them in the back of the head for such crimes as holding hands with a boy in public or being raped.

We went to war in Iraq to depose an equally brutal Moslem tyrant. I think most Americans in retrospect wish we hadn’t gone to war in Iraq. If we’d had drones in 2002, we would likely have been able to take care of the problem more “smartly.”

Sidebar: Please note that yesterday Mr. Obama argued for the legality of assassinating Americans in foreign countries. The Constitution requires American traitors to be tried, have two Americans witness their treachery, and then to be executed. I don’t care how big a tribunal of bureaucrats, lawyers, and politician he puts together to approve of his assassinations, it is the most evil idea I have ever heard come from the lips of an American.

Foreign Aid Not Boots On the Ground

Who wouldn’t prefer to give money to poor nations rather than give the lives of our best and bravest? As a Libertarian I am fundamentally opposed to foreign wars. But the fact is that Jihadists aren’t from the poorest areas of the world. They are from countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

We can pour money into Pakistan, if that’s what Mr. Obama has in mind, but that won’t convince them to give up their nuclear weapons and become friends with India. We can pour money into North Africa, but that won’t stop the slaughter of Coptic Christians or give Moslem women equal rights. Nor will money establish democracy in nations with no grounding in the idea of equality.

I’m all for staying out of armed conflicts in Moslem lands. But if we aren’t willing to put boots on the ground to defend our embassies in those lands, let’s withdraw our embassies from those lands and save the money. (Incidentally, by treaty the land on which American delegations establish their facilities are actually sovereign territory of the United States, so boots in embassies and consulates aren’t on the ground in Moslem countries.)

Why should the American people support Mr. Obama’s approach to dealing with terrorism if he doesn’t know these simple truths?

I claimed at the beginning of this article that Mr. Obama tried to rewrite history yesterday. Frankly, I would prefer to think that is what he did, because if not it means he doesn’t know history.

Now that I think about it, it would explain why he’s acting so Nixon-ian these days. He’s too young to remember Watergate. He never studied history.

I will look forward to the two IRS agents showing up on my doorstep.

Hamlet Scene by Scene

My post on the “coroner’s” verdict in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has attracted so many visitors that I’ve decided to create a Facebook group on the interpretation of the play. I invite you to join me at Hamlet, scene by scene.

I hope Shakespeare lovers, students struggling with Shakespeare, actors seeking to understand the play deeply, producers and directors, and others to join the group and join in the discussion.

I have a Ph.D. in English Renaissance literature, but it wasn’t until I gave up academe and turned to pulp fiction that I finally understood what Shakespeare was doing when he wrote the play.

Yes, I’ve read the scholarly criticism and pondered the arguments about the play’s “meaning.”

Even so I guess it takes a writer struggling with writing problems to see the very clear and simple meaning of Hamlet.

Hamlet’s meaning is found in the plot as surely as my mysteries’ meaning lies in the plot—and the characters, of course. But if you don’t understand the plot of Hamlet, you can’t understand the character, Hamlet, either.

The play is a murder mystery. I write murder mysteries. I invite you to hear what this mystery writer has to say about the greatest mystery writer of all time, William Shakespeare.

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First Female Detective: Kate Warne

Nothing is known about Kate Warne’s origins, other than what Allan Pinkerton of Chicago’s Pinkerton Detective Agency wrote about her. According to Pinkerton, in 1856 Kate Warne showed up on the agency’s doorstep and asked Pinkerton for a job as a detective. She offered no qualifications, gave him no references, and told him nothing about herself except that she was from New York and wished to be addressed as “Mrs.”

I’ve always wondered what secrets Kate had locked in her heart on that day in 1856, and I always wanted to write about her. Last year, Mystery Writers of America gave me an opportunity to achieve my dream: I wrote a short story about her, “The Very Private Detective,” which was selected for inclusion in the MWA 2013 anthology, THE MYSTERY BOX.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago is the reason private detectives are called “Private Eyes” now. Pinkerton’s logo was “The Eye that Never Sleeps.” Frank Morn’s The Eye that Never Sleeps is an authoritative history of the agency, a book I reviewed in 1982 for Chicago History Magazine, because of my interest in Kate Warne.


If it wasn’t an Elvis impersonator, it had to be a Republican

Yes, I am a conspiracy theorist, and why not? Most of the evil in the world is the result of groups of people banding together to do a lot of harm to everybody else. When it’s a party (like the Communist Party) or an evil nation (name your favorite), no one calls it a conspiracy, but it is.

On the other hand, the Justice Department seems to think evil is done only by lone lunatics. For instance, the feds insist the Tsarnaev brothers acted entirely in isolation, and they insist the ricin-laced letters were the work of a lone lunatic from Mississippi. Of course, they may be right this time, but I find it very odd that first they arrested an Elvis impersonator (as if his profession were indictment enough) and now, according to Reuters, they suspect a former Republican candidate for the Mississippi state legislature.

I can’t help but recall that in 2001 the FBI was also certain the anthrax letters were the work of a lone lunatic, too—a lunatic they never managed to track down.

A few days after 9/11, the National Enquirer’s headquarters in Florida received the first of the anthrax-tainted letters. Media and investigators at first speculated the letter-writer had acquired the anthrax powder they contained from anthrax-infected soil. Later it was proven that the strain of anthrax had come from a lab in Ames, Iowa (known as the “Ames strain”). No connection was made to terrorism until contaminated threatening letters were sent to politicians in D.C. and news media in New York. Even though the letters included references to the 9/11 attack, authorities believed the letters to be the work of a lone, domestic terrorist.

During this period I subscribed to a forensic linguistics mailing list, among whose members was the FBI profiler in the case of the Unabomber, James R. Fitzgerald. Academics on the mailing list pointed out to him many clues to the authorship of the letters, including evidence the letters were authored by one person but handwritten by another.

The FBI never accepted the theory that the letters were the work of more than one person, nor did they ever take seriously the idea that there was foreign involvement in the incident. Once the strain was identified as the Ames strain, the investigation focused exclusively on individuals (not a group) who could have had access to Ames-strain anthrax.

At first, the FBI suspected a bio-weapons expert named Steven Hatfill (later exonerated). In 2005 a Maryland bio-weapons researcher for the Army, Bruce Ivins, came under suspicion. Ivins committed suicide in 2008. To this day no real proof of his guilt has been found.

The linguistic evidence of a conspiracy that I learned from the forensic linguistics mailing list still intrigues me. The linguists were divided on the issue of whether the author was a native speaker of English or of Arabic. Some suggested it might be a native Arabic speaker from Great Britain. However, one aspect of the letters contravened the idea of an Arabic speaker: the “signature line.” Each letter ended with “Allah is Great.” (All the letters were printed in caps and small caps.) An Arab would have used the phrase as a salutation.

The one thing on which all the linguists agreed was that the handwriting suggested the writer had copied from a text written by someone else. In other words, they found indications that the author of the text and the preparer of the envelopes and letters were different people. In addition, the moderator of the list, Dr. Margaret van Naerssen, proposed that the letters could have been traced from a dark original onto an overlying sheet of paper. The envelopes, however, showed signs of simply having been “eyeballed.”

Two additional aspects of the handwriting jumped out at me, as a textual critic (my Ph.D. is in textual criticism, literature’s version of forensic linguistics): the use of printed caps and small caps instead of caps and lowercase characters and the date at the top of each letter: 09-11-01. First, highly educated people, such as suspects Stephen Hatfill and Bruce Ivin,s would have printed like a child (caps and lowercase) in order to suggest a semiliterate writer. Second, the dates were a dead giveaway that in fact the author was literate: the six-numeral format with dashes rather than slashes is a digital format, suggesting the author was computer-literate, possibly a programmer who was used to typing dates in that format. If Dr. van Naerssen was right about the copyist, then perhaps the letters’ originals were printouts of caps and lowercase letters from a mechanical device.

I decided to emerge from my lurker status on the mailing list to contact Dr. van Nearssen with my ideas. She gave me James Fitzgerald’s email address at the FBI Academy, and I wrote to him. I told him I thought the letters’ originals might have been communicated from overseas to the U.S. via a handheld teletype device. In 2001 such mobile devices were widely available. The military used TTY devices, and the public could buy them at army surplus stores. Here’s how they worked: a walkie-talkie-sized device was attached to a telephone handset with an acoustical coupler that transmitted audible signals, rather like a telegraph. The recipient device produced a printout of caps and lowercase letters on adding-machine-like strips of paper. If the text of the letters had been input into such a device line-by-line, the first line would have been “Allah is Great.” But like tickertape, the last line input would have printed out first: the date, 09-11-01. That would explain both the use of caps and lowercase and the misplaced salutation.

FBI agent Fitzgerald was very kind; he didn’t call me a kook. But, then, neither did he rush off to follow the clue I gave him. As time passes, though, I become more convinced I’m right: an overseas mastermind used TTY technology to send the text of the anthrax letters to someone here, who then traced the printouts and copied the addresses onto the envelopes. That foreign someone could have been an Iraqi.

There’s no foundation for the FBI’s claim that the “Amerithrax” letters were the work of a lone, American terrorist. The letters themselves point to more than one person, and the anthrax could have come from almost anywhere. In the 1980s the non-profit American Type Culture Collection and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control sent biological samples of American anthrax to Iraq, among other countries, for medical research. (In retrospect, this was incredibly stupid, wasn’t it?) Frankly, I think this was a case of the FBI looking for its keys under a random streetlight, because it’s easier to see at that spot than in the dark parking lot where the keys were lost.

Russia warned the U.S. about the Boston bombers.

The press is calling the Tsarnaevs “Russians from an area near Chechnya.” This is incorrect. The Tsarnaevs are from Dagestan, a country in the Caucasus Mountains near Chechnya with which Russia went to war in 1999.

The AP in Russia reports that a series of violent incidents occurred while Tamerlan Tsarnaev was there in 2012: According to AP, in “February, 2012, shortly after Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s arrival in Dagestan, a four-day operation to wipe out several militant bands in Chechnya and Dagestan left 17 police and at least 20 militants dead. In May, two car bombs shook Makhachkala, killing at least 13 people and wounding about 130 more. Other bombings and shootings targeting police and other officials took place nearly daily [while Tamerlan was there]” The only part of Russia that Tamerlan actually visited was Moscow.

I guess his father is lying about what Tamerlan was doing while visiting him. He claimed Tamerlan slept a lot, ate, and visited relatives.

If the AP report is correct, then it looks as if Tamerlan went to “Russia” not for training but to participate in terrorist activity. Clearly, he didn’t need training. In fact, you might speculate that he went there to train others and not vice versa.

Russian authorities warned U. S. officials that Tamerlan was a dangerous terrorist last year after the violence in Makhachkala when he left to return to Boston. News reports are conflicting about what the FBI did as a result of the Russian information, but one thing they obviously did not do was discover that Tamerlan Tsarneav was as vicious as other Caucasian Islamic terrorists. (I have intentionally not used the term jihadist, because Caucasian terrorists are a complex mix of nationalists, fascists, and Moslems, among the most violent Moslems in the world—even more violent than the Taliban.)

This is insane. How could the FBI have let Tamerlan return to Boston? What kind of “intelligence” is the FBI using? All I had to do to find this out was to search Wikipedia and Goggle for “Chechen terrorist attacks.”

For that matter, how could the INS have let Anzor and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev immigrate in 2003? By that time they should have understood that Dagestan is a terrorist country. Terrorists from the Caucasus have committed some of the most heinous attacks on vulnerable civilians of all time. Only four years before the father and son came to the U.S., in 1999 Caucasian terrorists bombed several Russian apartment buildings, killing nearly 300 people. Immediately afterward, terrorist groups and sympathizers claimed the apartment bombings were “staged” by the Russian government in order to justify an invasion of Dagestan and Chechnya—exactly as the Tsarnaev parents now claim their sons were framed and that the Boston bombings were actually “staged” by the police.

One year before Anzor and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev came to the U. S., in October 2002 Caucasian terrorists invaded a crowded Moscow theatre and took 850 hostages. The Russians gassed them all. Again terrorist groups and sympathizers claimed the whole thing was staged by the Russians.

In 2004 Caucasian terrorists invaded a school in Beslan, Ossetia, taking 1,100 hostages, including 777 children. In the aftermath, as usual, there were charges of Russian involvement in the plot: defector Alexander Litvinenko (later poisoned with plutonium in his sushi) claimed that many of the terrorists had previously been imprisoned by the Russians, but were released so they could be used to stage the horrific event and thereby turn Russian public opinion against Chechens.

Isn’t it interesting that Anzor Tsarnaev and his wife now claim the brothers were framed by the Boston police?

There is something seriously wrong here. In 2003 the INS should have prevented Anzor Tsarnaev from immigrating here from terrorist Dagestan. Apparently, he asked for political asylum, claiming to have been persecuted in Russia because of ties to Chechnya. He may even have claimed to have been imprisoned and tortured in Russia. All of this should have been a dead giveaway to the feds that Anzor Tsarnaev was at minimum suspected by the Russians of terrorist ties. The truth is, it is possible that Anzor came here to establish terrorist cells. It would explain why he’s back in Dagestan now. The only explanation for his being permitted to enter this country is that the INS is staffed by incompetents who don’t know anything about history or geography. If they did they would have understood that Anzor was from Dagestan, not “an area in Russia near Chechnya.”

How could the FBI, the lead government agency in terrorism prevention, been unable to figure out that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a terrorist who had gone to Russian to take part in a terrorist plot?

And how can so many politicians now claim with confidence that the Tsarnaevs aren’t part of a larger conspiracy? How can they claim they planned additional attacks, but only on their own? If I wanted to be reelected in 2014, I would keep my mouth shut until the whole truth comes out.

This is not America . . .

President Obama is an eloquent speaker. On Tuesday, he uplifted our spirits with these words:

We also know this -- the American people refuse to be terrorized.  Because what the world saw yesterday in the aftermath of the explosions were stories of heroism and kindness, and generosity and love:  Exhausted runners who kept running to the nearest hospital to give blood, and those who stayed to tend to the wounded, some tearing off their own clothes to make tourniquets.  The first responders who ran into the chaos to save lives.  The men and women who are still treating the wounded at some of the best hospitals in the world, and the medical students who hurried to help, saying “When we heard, we all came in.”  The priests who opened their churches and ministered to the hurt and the fearful.  And the good people of Boston who opened their homes to the victims of this attack and those shaken by it.

So if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil -- that’s it. Selflessly. Compassionately.  Unafraid.

Sadly, though, I no longer believe we are unafraid. America has caved in to terror, and we did it back in 2001. We panicked. We didn’t stop and do the job in Afghanistan, which included not only destroying Al Qaeda then and there, but also the Taliban, evil incarnate. Instead we adventured into Iraq, convinced that they had weapons of mass destruction (and I still think they may have had and distributed them around the world to other irresponsible regimes before we had a chance to find them).

But seven years later, we changed our minds about both Afghanistan and Iraq and announced our withdrawal—without having accomplished any of our goals.

This is not America anymore.

It isn’t just our foreign policy that’s un-American now. We’ve trashed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We’re afraid of freedom. My proof is the popularity of the following popular witticism:

“The Constitution isn’t a suicide pact.”

If that remark doesn’t send a chill down your spine, you are too far gone to understand what I’m saying.

Freedom is a state in which fear must be constantly conquered, because freedom is based on uncertainty. Free people must be brave people. Free people are people who have emerged from their cocoons, because they are eager to take flight—into the wild, blue yonder. The wild is where freedom lies.

After the bombing on Monday, I turned off the TV and listened to a Pandora channel of Sixties songs. While I was dancing in the living room, I realized how different a time the Sixties were. It was a time when lyrics included lines like these from Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Free”:

Set your motor runnin’

Head out on the highway

Lookin’ for adventure

And whatever comes our way

Yeah, baby, gonna make it happen

Take the world in a love embrace

Fire all of your guns at once

And head into space

How naïve that sounds now. I can’t imagine any young person today who would even understand those lyrics. In 1967 everybody under 30 years old wanted to get away from the routine, try something new, see what they could discover, and “take the world in a love embrace.” The whole world. Its good and its bad. Its pleasure and its pain.

In 1967 we knew what freedom was: “nothing left to lose.”

Now America doesn’t care what freedom is. We’re afraid, so afraid we believe freedom is a suicide pact.


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Quiz: Are you a “highly sensitive person”?

If you answer “yes” to 8 or more of the following questions, then you are a “highly sensitive person,” as described in Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. If you answer “yes” to at least one of the questions, the odds are you have that affliction but have adapted pretty well:

1. Does the power indicator light on the TV at the foot of your bed keep you awake?

2. Do you always hear strange noises in a car when you’re driving or riding in it, even when the radio is on? Motor noises? Wheel and tire noises? Chassis creaks?

3. Do you smell things nobody else can smell? Smoke? Gas? Cinnamon? Hominy?

4. Do perfume and cologne irritate your nose? Even the scent of shampoo in your own hair?

5. Do you see things on the periphery of your vision that no one else can see? Lights? Shadows?

6. Are you unable to sleep in an airplane seat even in Business Class?

7. Is it always too hot for you in the upper balcony at the Chicago Civic Opera House or Chicago’s O’Hare Airport? (Chicago is often freezing cold, but neither of those establishments ever is.)

8. Does an Ikea store give you a panic attack?

9. Do you prefer ATMs to live bank tellers, because they don’t ask you for personal information (such as an ID picture) to cash a check?

10. Is one Godiva chocolate too many?

My condolences, if you answered “yes” to 8 or more of these very serious questions. On second thought, my condolences if you answered “yes” to 2 or more. Gagging at the smell of cinnamon is no laughing matter.

My congratulations if you did not.

And, if you’re highly sensitive, you should avoid jury duty!

Fragility of America—Part 2, Casey Anthony

Yesterday I ranted about the way the U.S. Constitution and our individual rights have been diminished by a nation a frightened rabbits.

Right now, half the country is trying to delete the Second Amendment from the Constitution: “the right to bear arms.” These timid, gentle souls seem to feel all we need to do to stop school massacres in this country is “get together and feel all right.” If law-biding citizens can’t buy certain types of weapons, they they argue, then neither can the bad guys.

Sidebar: Are you kidding me? Bad guys usually have to steal guns, that is, unless they can buy them from the ATF. Remember “Fast and Furious”? No? How quickly we forget bad things. Best to think positively. And another thing: If American gun makers can’t make automatic weapons, where will the U. S. Military buy them? From Russia? Oh, now that I think about it, maybe we already have an agreement with Putin to that effect.

In case you didn’t memorize the Bill of Rights when you were in school, as you ought to have done, here it is:

Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

In modern American English this means, because we need a competent, civilian defense force against our own government’s over-reaching tactics and possible attacks from beyond our borders, in order to be secure and remain free the right of the average person to keep and use weapons shall not be diminished in any way whatsoever.

Is the Second Amendment Obsolete in  2013?

That’s what the debate is all about. The Democrats (for the most part) believe the time has come when the average person has no good excuse for owning weapons. People don’t feel safe from attack even in their homes and certainly not in their schools. If you just dropped in from Love Planet Venus, you might see their point: 911 and a decade of hideous massacres in schools, gun murders in Chicago, gang violence along the Mexican border.

However, if you dropped in from Mars where men are still men and women are manly, too, you would see it differently. You would think: “Border violence, criminal gangs in Chicago, whackos invading schools with guns, Islamist extremists attacking embassies abroad. Sounds like this country needs a well regulated militia, because the police and military aren’t up to the job alone.”

An American from 1785 who dropped in on us would be shocked that the issue would require debate. He would form a militia, go down to the Mexican border the way Teddy Roosevelt did, and make quick work of the Mexican gangs (ever hear of Poncho Villa? No? Probably not. No one reads history these days.) Then he’d turn his horse north and charge up to Chicago, where he would do the same thing—using all the automatic weapons he could get his hands on. Undocumented aliens would be rounded up, too, and—not deported but—given the chance to become American citizens or go home and else apply for a work visa.

Sidebar: If you don’t travel much, maybe you don’t realize that Americans have to apply for visas to get into the majority of countries in world. You can’t just hop on a plane and go to Nepal or China. They won’t welcome you with open arms, especially not the Chinese. Furthermore, if you go to Europe, while you don’t need a visa, you do have to present your passport to enter and leave. You only have three months before you have to leave or apply for a visa. That’s right: an American can be deported from European countries.

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains clearly why we are now engaged in this debate: human nature tends toward the norm and tends to ignore the outliers, the odd events that aren’t supposed to happen. 911 wasn’t expected. School massacres aren’t expected. Apparently, these events so numbed us that we also ignored the growing threat of the Mexican drug gangs. Somehow we confused the defense of the Mexican border against criminal gangs with closing our borders to Mexican immigration.

The Bill of Rights Under Attack

IMHO: This current Second Amendment debate is simply a diversion from the real battle, which is over the Bill of Rights as a whole. What’s really going on is that over the decades, we have permitted the federal courts to legislate from the bench far too much. (I happen to believe the right to privacy afforded by the Fourth Amendment does afford the right to an abortion to a woman; so that’s not what I’m talking about.) It’s decisions like the one that permitted governments to seize private property and sell it to a private party in order to raise more taxes from the use of that property that drives me wild.

The most insidious encroachment on our individual rights is taking place in the criminal courts.

Take Casey Anthony as an example (and please pretend that you don’t know whether she was really guilty or not—briefly put aside your opinion; trust me, it won’t hurt a bit).

Fourth Amendment Rights:

The Anthony home and property were repeatedly searched with judges’ warrants, but the warrants did not state exactly what it was the cops were looking for, because they had no idea themselves. At one point, as I recall, they seized all of Casey’s shoes, for instance. And, as we all know, they seized a car titled to her parents. I don’t know what items were listed on the search warrants, although I imagine if I googled it I could find those warrants online somewhere, but I’m going to guess that the warrant for the car was specific but most of the others were not. If so, that was unconstitutional. But I’m sure it was legal, because over the years the courts have become more and more lenient in order to give the cops what we now perceive to be the powers they need to defend us from evil young women, like Casey.

Fifth Amendment Rights:

Casey was indicted by a grand jury, although grand juries are no longer required in all instances to indict a person for a capital or infamous crime. Most states now permit state’s attorneys to charge people. How this is justifiable under the Constitution, I don’t know. But if anything shows how we’ve watered down the Bill of Rights, it is this. The purpose of a “grand,” i.e, “big” jury is to make sure that the community as a whole agrees that an indictment is reasonable, not simply a single prosecutor. This is also true of secret trials before a single judge: the Constitution expected the whole community to sit in the courtroom, literally, and hear the state’s case. Now, of course, we’re so fragile and fearful of criminals that we not only accept prosecutorial indictments but we also have to televise infamous trials live “as they happen” so that the whole country can jeer and cheer the spectacle of a 22-year-old girl who “lost” her baby.

Double jeopardy was also an issue in the Casey Anthony case. Her lawyers properly balked at four counts of lying when most of her illegal lying (as opposed to her lifelong permissible lying) occurred on the same day and to the same detective. Last week an appeals court denied the claim that this was a Fifth Amendment violation of the prohibition against double jeopardy but did strike down two of the counts because they were supposed the same, two lies. Hmm.

A more evil trend in the courts as concerns double jeopardy, though, is the trend toward retrying defendants after the failure of the jury to find them guilty on one or more of the counts. Take as an example, Gov. Rob Blagojevich: when the first jury failed to convict him on all the charges, the feds tried him again on the remaining counts. Huh? The rational was that the jury was hung on half the points. But IMHO the Bill of Rights intended that any failure of a jury to produce a conviction is the same as an acquittal. The only possible explanation of our modern attitude is that we are too frightened to let anyone go free if we have even the slightest doubt about their perfect innocence—as if there really anything that’s perfect in this world.

Casey had to testify against herself. The whole country saw the broadcasts of her videotaped jailhouse conversations with her family—right after they took place and before the trial. Then the jury saw the videos again during the trial. Florida law requires all such material to be made public; they call it “Sunshine Laws,” as if the privacy of a defendant must be brought out into the sunlight lest she say something incriminating to a family member. What “free speech” was it, do you imagine, that the Florida legislature was afraid to let Casey say?

The items that police seize under warrants these days are retained by the courts as evidence. This is seizure, and its legal, but the Fifth Amendment clearly says that the people from whom it’s seized are entitled to just compensation. This means that valuable items of evidence must be purchased from their owner. If I recall correctly, though, the Anthony’s car was simply taken and after the trial, although she was found not guilty, it was destroyed. It seems to me that the Anthonys ought to have demanded just compensation for that.

Casey’s DNA was seized, too, as is every criminal defendant’s these days. And it won’t be given back. Because she was convicted of check fraud and lying to the cops, her DNA profile will remain in a government database. Any time any violent crime occurs, DNA evidence found at the scene will be compared to hers automatically.

Sixth Amendment Rights

Speedy trial: Casey Anthony spent so much time in jail before the trial, that she served the full term of her parole for check fraud had expired by the time she was released. (Of course, the judge who sentenced her later objected that he had intended her to serve her parole after the murder trial; despite the fact that the prison certified her as having completed the parole, and despite the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy the state made her serve a second term on parole.)

Casey Anthony asked for a change of venue from her native Orlando, because the community was so incensed at her that she knew she couldn’t get a fair trial at home. It was the Salem Witch Trials in the Sunshine State. I still can’t understand why so many people took the Casey Anthony case so personally. It was as if half the people in this country felt they had been personally harmed by this person; and the other half felt that she was too evil to be permitted to live. Neither makes any sense unless you realize how fragile people in this country have become. We are so frightened by life that we can’t endure the thought of even one flawed individual in our midst.

Seventh Amendment Rights

Jury trials: After the Casey Anthony jury found her not guilty of murdering her child, pundits called for the creation of a system of “professional jurors.” If you think about this, and  note that most of those pundits were lawyers, you realize that what they meant by a “professional" juror was a lawyer. This is so ludicrous it barely deserves mention—but, no, it’s also more evidence of fragility. Naturally, lawyers are always looking for new ways to justify themselves and make aliving, but the real meaning of this phenomenon is that lawyers no longer trust the average American to make good decisions. Frankly, I don’t either, but I trust lawyers even  less. The education and preparation of most lawyers is “a glass bead game.” It’s self-referential. It’s incredibly narrow. But it was inevitable that this would happen, as soon as we started writing so many arcane laws: think The Affordable Health Care Act, which was so long no Congress-person had time to read it before the voted for it.

Eighth Amendment Rights

Excessive punishment: I firmly believe that capital punishment is excessive punishment, because it is irrevocable. So I would never have charged Casey Anthony with capital murder, even if I believed she was guilty. However, what strikes me about the charges against her is that they were excessive, even if she had committed infanticide. I say this because infanticide is quite common, and if we punished every woman who committed infanticide by executing her, there would have been five times as many females executed as there have been men. The charges against Casey were also “unusual” in that they were crafted just for her. Any other woman charged with the death of her child would have been charged at most with second-degree murder by abuse or manslaughter by negligence. But the prosecution had no evidence of abuse, only evidence of a loving mother, nor had they evidence of neglect, since Casey rarely let her daughter out of her sight. All the prosecution could do was throw all the spahetti at her to see what would stick.

The Constitution Prepares for Black Swans

In 1785 people knew that the universe has a high degree of randomness. Nothing is inevitable but death. Therefore, in writing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights they attempted to create a legal system in which unexpected outcomes would not punish the innocent. If the guilty went free, well, that was no skin off their backs (a cliché that refers to corporal punishment, BTW).

Over the years Americans have struggled mightily to remove all randomness from the system. We have tried to create a perfect system—to polish the rough diamond of freedom. In the end, though, we haven’t succeeded in bolstering our Antifragility but only in increasing out fragility. Now instead of a rough diamond, what we have is cubic zirconium.

Fragility of the American Justice System


Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things that Gain by Disorder is a revelation. At last, someone has explained to me why so little has ever made any sense to me, especially about the behavior of my fellow human beings.

One of the most important things that hasn’t made any sense to me (at least since 2006 when I served on a jury) was the American justice system.

The problem with American justice is that in the past 228 years the highly Antifragile U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights has become fragile, in other words, by treating the Constitution as “a living document” instead of as a rock-solid foundation, Americans have slowly squeezed the elasticity out of it, so that now it is on the verge of shattering.

Sidebar: If you think I exaggerate, consider the NY Times Op-Ed’s recent screed: “Let’s give up on the Constitution.” (I won’t dignify this choplogic with any other comment.)

The original Constitution and Bill of Rights anticipated unexpected, anomalous events, what Taleb calls “black swans” (one-in-million events). But human nature and modern statisticians want to believe in a nice, cozy “average,” a Bell Curve. So we try to establish a “well-ordered society” in which nothing strange or shocking can ever happen. For instance, we outlaw automatic rifles and try to pretend the bad guys won’t be able to obtain them, or we become amnesiacs and forget about airplanes carrying no automatic rifles diving into buildings.

Rights to a Fair Trial and Just Punishment when Guilty

Under the Antifragile Constitution, Americans (and everyone else who lives here) enjoy these freedoms:

Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Sidebar: In modern American English this means, people have the right to own private property and to maintain their privacy; invasion of privacy and seizure of private property are prohibited unless the government has solid grounds for doing so and only if the government agents who perform the search and seizure have first sworn an oath as to what the grounds are, exactly what places are to be searched, and exactly who they intend to arrest or what they intend to seize.

Fifth Amendment: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Sidebar: In modern American English this means, no one can be tried for murder or any other notorious, horrible crime unless a Grand Jury has heard the outline of the government’s case and issued an indictment; the one exception is during wartime when the accused is a member of the armed forces; no one may be tried twice for the same crime; no one can be forced to testify against himself; no one can be punished without a trial; no one’s property may be seized by the government without compensation in some form.

Sixth Amendment: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

Sidebar: In modern American English this means, after arrest, criminal defendants have the right to a speedy public trial (no long drawn out investigations after arrest and no trials in secret);  it must be a jury trial and conducted in the legally defined community where the alleged crime occurred; an arrested person must be told exactly what it is he or she is believed to have done wrong and to have the witnesses against him make themselves known to him before the trial (no surprise witnesses for the prosecution); the defendant has a right to compel people to appear as witnesses in his defense, whether they like it or not; the defendant has a right to a lawyer.

Seventh Amendment: “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”

Sidebar: In modern American English this means, in civil court where two people have a complaint against each other, both sides have a right to a jury trial, too; the decision of the jury is always final unless a judge has the right under common law to overrule the jury. “Common law” means specifically the long-standing practices of Anglo-American courts.

Eighth Amendment: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Sidebar: In modern American English this means, punishment in all cases cannot be cruel (imposing irreparable harm on the defendant, who may actually turn out to have been falsely accused) or unusual (designed specifically for him or her and not otherwise specified in law). (These are my personal interpretations of the words “cruel” and “unusual.” Obviously, I am not a lawyer, just a very good reader of 18th c. language. I do not, as most lawyers do, think that the word “and” was used in the 18th c. to mean nothing but “and.” It also meant “or.” I acknowledge, however, that capital punishment is not included in this definition of excessive punishment, because the Fifth Amendment clearly states that a person can be “deprived of life.”

Do We Still Want Defendants to Enjoy These Freedoms?

Of course not. The courts have slowly watered each of these rights down, because we are more afraid of 10 “guilty men” going free than we are of 1 “innocent man” being punished. We think that those 10 criminals will rampage forever unless we make sure we can throw them in jail. We know that the 1 innocent will just sit there quietly in jail for 30 years and then lie down for the fatal injection. Few people care about this injustice any more.

We’re fragile as a society and individuals, too scared to do anything but accept the necessary loss of freedom.

Smart Grid Objectors Arrested in Illinois

This week a woman homeowner was arrested in Naperville, IL, for objecting to the local electric company’s forcible installation of a “Smart Grid” meter on her house. She said she objected because the meter is designed to wirelessly transmit information about what she is doing inside her home to the electric company. This, she said, was a “violation of privacy” and could potentially permit burglars to monitor when she is and is not at home (and they will).

IMHO this is all true. But I would argue that the Smart Grid is also a violation of the Bill of Rights, which gives Americans the freedom from warrantless search and seizure and from government “takings” without just compensation.

First, I need to make sure you understand what the Smart Grid is and why it’s a government program, not a program of private industry (namely the energy companies). The Smart Grid concept was dreamed up after the massive power outages in California and the Northeast in the past decade. The government decided that a computer system ought to be devised to control the distribution of energy throughout the country according to supply and demand. (Of course, this presupposes that energy-company and government computer programmers are smart enough to design and implement a smart system—something in my vast experience as a computer-systems trainer I know they are not.)

Last year the Illinois legislature passed a law that requires all homeowners and businesses to participate in the Smart Grid (with some odd exceptions). Specifically, each township must negotiate a discounted energy price for all its constituents from one of the energy companies that runs exclusively on the Smart Grid, as opposed to Commonwealth Edison, which gives consumers the option.

Sidebar: The irony here is that IL has now created town-specific monopolies to compete against Commonwealth Edison, which historically was Illinois’ monopoly and which had to be broken up decades ago to bring in competition and more choice for consumers.

Why Does the Smart Grid Violate Your Right to be Free From Warrantless Search and Seizure?

The Smart Grid constantly monitors your energy usage. Day and night. The meter transmits this information to “Gestapo Headquarters” where a database is collected on your home or business. The data will be graphed and charted. The graphs and charts will be filed for later inspection by the government.

“Why would the government bother to do that?” you ask. Well, did you take an energy tax credit on your last tax return? The IRS could look at the Smart Grid data on you and use that to require an audit of your taxes and possibly charge you with tax fraud. In other words, the government won’t need a warrant to look at your private files, because the energy company will claim the data belongs to them and they will be happy to turn it over to the government. (BTW: Isn’t this the essence of fascism?)

Why Does the Smart Grid Violate Your Right to be Free From “Takings”?

The Smart Grid takes away from you the use and control of your energy-supply systems—and use and control is the same as ownership. Right now the wiring in your home, your fuse box, your hot-water heater are your private property. You can use and control them. The Smart Grid gives the use and control of your private property over to the people who use and control your energy meters.

The real purpose of the Smart Grid from the government’s perspective is rationing of energy in the future when it becomes increasingly scarce. To prevent the possibility of a power outage even in a single neighborhood, during shortages the government will require your power company to reduce the amount of energy they supply to your home. The reduction percentage will be across the board, not based on any home’s individual needs.

For instance, let’s say you’re caring for an invalid in your home. So your home needs twice as much energy as your neighbor’s just to keep that person alive, let alone keep your refrigerator going or your home cooled in a severe heat wave. Well, the Smart Grid meter on your house will first of all constantly harangue you to reduce your energy usage, especially in the middle of the night—constantly, as in not only during shortages. Then when the first shortage comes along, the meter will arbitrarily reduce your usage for you.

If you run a computer-based business on commercial property or in your home, the Smart Grid will treat you the same way it treats a neighboring dog-grooming business. No more electricity for you. . . . (paraphrasing the Soup Nazi).

So, beware. If you are given an “Opt-Out” of the Smart Grid, do it, even if it will cost you a little more now for your energy. In the future it could make the difference between having a right to buy the energy you need or not.

The Grand Jury in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Okay, so we all agree that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a ghost story and a murder mystery (like Chalk Ghost by yours truly), but did you know it’s also a courtroom drama?

To remind you: In the play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, kills Polonius (stabs him behind an arras), who is his girlfriend Ophelia’s father. Eventually (Act IV, scene v—in Roman numerals that no one can read anymore that means Act Four, scene 5) Ophelia’s brother Laertes storms into the castle and tries to “arrest” King Claudius, whom he mistakenly believes to be the man who murdered his father.

Recently, when rereading Hamlet for the umpteenth time, I noticed for the first time that Claudius employs a grand jury to exonerate him of the charge of killing Polonius. Toward the end of the aforesaid scene, King Claudius says to Laertes, speaking Early Modern English:

“Go but apart; make your choice of whom your wisest friends you will, and they shall hear and judge ‘twixt you and me. If by direct or collateral hand they find us [that is, the king who’s always plural] touched, we will our kingdom give, our crown, our life, and all that we call ours, to you in satisfaction; but if not, be you content to lend your patience to us, and we shall jointly labor with your soul to give it due content.”

In Modern American English this means:

Go outside and choose a jury of your friends. I will present my case for innocence to them. If the jury finds me guilty of direct murder or even of instigating your father’s murder, I will turn over the keys to the kingdom to you in payment of my debt to you. But if they don’t find me guilty you must agree to go along with my plans to punish the guilty party (that is, Hamlet).

King Claudius and Laertes leave the stage. They return in the next scene, after the grand jury has met and failed to produce an indictment of Claudius. Claudius says:

“Now must your conscience my acquittance seal. . . .”

Claudius claims he’s innocent of Polonius’ murder—and he’s right about that, although it’s the only murder in the play that he is innocent of.

Justice in Hamlet and the Bible

Reading Hamlet for the first time as a mystery writer, I’m struck by the number of legal references in the play. I won’t list them now (maybe later), but the idea of justice that Claudius relies on does strike me as particularly relevant to many of the trials that America has obsessed over recently (think Casey Anthony).

For Claudius and everyone in Shakespeare’s time, justice isn’t sought through trials on behalf of society: justice is sought on behalf of the injured party, rather as our civil court system does. Even murder in Hamlet is a crime against the victim’s family, not all of Denmark. In fact, the only murder in Hamlet that is a crime against society is Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet, a murder he committed in order to usurp the throne.

The Bible (especially the Old Testament) also treats most crimes as crimes against individuals, not society: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The Ten Commandments are mostly prohibitions against injuring others—coveting a man’s wife or ass, for instance. Even in ancient Greece, a murderer was brought to trial not by society but by the victim’s family.

This makes a great deal of sense to me: the people most concerned by a murder are the victim’s family. I’m not saying I think we should do away with anti-murder laws. Clearly modern society must have a way to remove from its midst those individuals who are anti-social, or else they will continue to harm more innocents. But in Shakespeare’s day, the notion of sociopathy and psychopathy were non-existent. Madness, it was believed, could be either divine or infernal, and in both cases God, not the court system, was expected to deal with the problem. You could be executed for just about any crime, too, whether killing a rabbit on the lord of the manor’s manor-grounds or for killing your baby.

The key thing is that society as a whole didn’t become rabid about a single murder. Society went wild only when the murder affected all of society—such as the murder of the king, the equivalent of a political assassination today. An assassin takes in his own hands what ought to be the choice of the whole nation. A mother who may or may not have killed her child—whether accidentally, negligently, or intentionally—ought not to be the business of the whole nation. Yes, arrest her, try her, and punish her like Claudius suggests, but “if they don’t find her guilty, society must her acquittance seal.”

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I dislike being an apologist for Casey Anthony or any defense lawyer, but…

By now everyone still obsessed with Casey Anthony knows that Orange County police admitted yesterday that they failed to find on the Anthony family’s computer a supposedly incriminating Google search dated on the day that little Caylee supposedly died. See the ABA Journal article

I have written extensively about why I think most computer-search evidence should be barred from courtrooms, so I won’t repeat it here. What I do want to point out is how exaggerated yesterday’s media coverage of this “discovery” was and how biased.

Since I’m no longer following the Casey Anthony reality show, I first learned about this story on Fox News’ The Five. All five of the five commentators declared that the search proved Casey’s guilt, because the search was conducted after the time when George Anthony had left for work and only Casey was in the house. Apparently, this time was established by a reporter named Tony Pipitone.

Please read what Pipitone had to say in the Orlando Sentinel before you read the rest of this post.

Another Interpretation or Two

There is another way to interpret Pipitone’s timeline, and it doesn’t require you to accept Jose Baez’s statement that the search was time-stamped at 1:51 instead of 2:51.

Sidebar: Baez’s computer forensics expert is Larry Daniel, a professional for whom I have the greatest respect. If he said the timestamp was 1:51, I believe him. Please read his post on this subject on his blog, Ex Forensis.

Let’s assume that Mr. Daniels is wrong about the time stamp and the search did take place at 2:51. By George Anthony’s sworn testimony, Casey took Caylee out of the house at 1:30.

If George was telling the truth, then Caylee was alive at 1:30. To have conducted the search at 2:51 Casey would have had to wait until her father left the house, then returned, searched for a way to “sufficate” her daughter in a foolproof way, then located information about duct tape, chloroform, and plastic bags, obtained all these substances, killed her daughter, wrapped her up, thrown her in the trunk of the car, and driven away before her mother came home from work that afternoon. Quite a swift accomplishment.

After that Casey would have had to leave the body in the car trunk long enough for decomposed bodily fluids to leak out of the plastic bag, which could only have been after Casey drove her friends around in the car some 2 weeks later (I believe). Then only when the car began to stink did she abandon it.

In other words, this computer search isn’t evidence of Casey’s guilt. It doesn’t matter who searched for suffocation methods or when they did. Whoever conducted the search that afternoon could as easily have been searching for a way to make the child’s death look like a kidnapping and murder, rather than an accident, because he or she was afraid of Cindy Anthony more than the cops. This person could have been terrified that if Cindy found out Caylee died accidentally in his or her care, she would literally scream bloody murder, and that would be the end of “the happy little family,” even if Cindy didn’t have the culprit immediately charged with negligence and manslaughter. (By the way, that’s in essence what she did when she called the cops about the stinking car.)

But, like Mr. Daniels, I believe this isn’t the issue. The outrage over the incompetence of the police is in this case is entirely justified. They were sloppy. And their sloppiness did lead to the acquittal of Casey Anthony. But that’s the way the American system of justice is supposed to work. The police have to be competent and honest, because incompetence and corruption can lead to false convictions as often as acquittals based on insufficient evidence.

“Ten guilty men should go free, lest one innocent man suffer.” The Bill of Rights protects you as well as Casey Anthony. And I’m sure you would never break the law. You could be arrested, though.

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“Presumed Guilty” by Jose Baez (Picking a Jury)

One of the most-striking revelations of attorney Jose Baez’s Presumed Guilty, Casey Anthony: The Inside Story is Chapter 23, “Picking a Jury.” At least it struck me, a former juror on a criminal trial, who was terrified during voir dire and who after the trial was so upset I wrote a novel about the jury experience (The Juror Hangs).

As most of you know, attorneys in high-profile criminal trials and high-stakes civil trials generally hire professional jury consultants to help them choose which jurors to challenge during voir dire. In my case, the trial was as far from high profile as you can get: although the trial was held in one of Cook County Criminal Courthouse’s largest courtrooms, with the judge elevated on a bench ten feet above the floor, during the three days of the trial, the only spectator was a man in a baggy suit whom I assumed to be a detective. Even the defendant wasn’t there, according to the judge because he “chose not to be present in the courtroom.” After the trial the jury learned he had also chosen not to be present in Chicago or Illinois: he had jumped bail. So, no one but the attorneys and the judge questioned me.

If any defendant needed the help of a good jury consultant, it was Casey Anthony, but, as Baez explains in chapter 23, Baez’s jury consultant, Richard Gabriel, resigned shortly before the trial. (While Baez gives no reason, I can’t help but wonder if he was getting out of the case while the getting was good, since he must have been concerned about the change of venue, which proved to be very problematic for jury selection.)

By the time it came to pick a jury, everyone in America had seen Casey’s narrow face and big eyes peering through a jailhouse window at her family, who did half the prosecution’s job for them by asking her incriminating, leading questions on video. They also helped make Casey America’s most-hated defendant since O.J. Simpson.

According to Baez, other people also helped to make the choice of objective jurors extremely difficult. Judge Belvin Perry granted Baez’s request for a change of venue to a locale other than Orlando, but he refused to move the trial and instead chose to select jurors from a nearby Florida jurisdiction, St. Petersburg/Clearwater, which is virtually a suburb of Orlando. The judge’s idea was to ensure that the jurors could easily be bused to Orlando, where the trial and voir dire took place.

Besides the proximity of the two cities, Judge Perry put another landmine in Baez’s path: he refused to tell either legal team where the prospective jurors would come from until a week before the trial—a week. That meant that neither the prosecution nor the defense would have time to review the jury questionnaires in consultation with jury consultants.

Of course, by that time Baez had no jury consultant, so he had to come up with some clever means of vetting the Clearwater jury pool. For instance, his legal team went to Clearwater, where they convened at a local restaurant. Baez left his colleagues at the table and sat down at the bar, where he chatted with the locals gathered there. To his surprise, he discovered that Clearwater wasn’t as obsessed with Casey Anthony as Orlando was. One woman he spoke to didn’t even recognize him, although she claimed to watch the news avidly. “I was shocked,” Baez writes. “I’m not getting the dirty looks I get in Orlando.”

After that, with jury questionnaires in hand, attorney Dorothy Clay Sims and interns from the College of Law at Florida A&M turned to the web, where they investigated the backgrounds of the potential jurors through social media and even by reading book and product reviews the prospective jurors had written on It turned out that one of the prospects had recently purchased a toy “action figure” seated in an electric chair.

I wrote about voir dire in the Casey Anthony trial at the time: incredibly, it was televised. While the TV cameras weren’t permitted to photograph the jurors’ faces, they did pick up their voices. They were clearly identifiable to their family, friends, and coworkers. However, the spectacle also gave us court-watchers a great deal to ponder. For example, Juror Number One said that a trial was “about solving a mystery.” I gasped. Jurors are expressly forbidden from conducting investigations on their own (hence the URL of this blog: or from interpreting the evidence in any novel way.

After she made the remark Baez said to the juror:

“’This is the prosecution’s show . . . and if we sat back and did nothing and if the prosecution failed to deliver the goods, you cannot convict.’ During my entire jury selection I wanted to educate the  jurors about the burden of proof and about what it meant to be certain of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. While questioning them, I wasn’t looking for answers as much as I was educating them about the fact that the defense didn’t have to prove anything.”

If I had been Baez, I wrote in this blog, I would have dismissed this woman ASAP, not only because of that remark but also because she was a nurse. Baez, however, believes that nurses make good jurors, because they are “nurturing.” That is true, but in my experience nurses are also know-it-alls who like to give medical advice that ought to come from a doctor and are never happier than when they’re telling other people what to do: “Roll up your sleeve.” It seemed to me that Juror Number One would listen to the testimony of the medical experts and then decide that she knew better (which, I suppose, was just as well, given the prosecution’s biased pathologist witnesses).

In the end, after the verdict Baez congratulated himself on how well he had educated the jury during voir dire. I don’t know whether other trial attorneys take this stance, but if they don’t they ought to. It clearly worked in Jose Baez’s defense of Casey Anthony.

The verdict was “Not Guilty,” not “innocent”: All of Baez’s detractors ought to take a step back. The state should not be permitted to take anybody’s life without proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And even then I believe America would be a better place without the death penalty.

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CHALK GHOST—When your neighbor dies and nobody notices

Chalk-Ghost-KindleOne mystery that haunts me all year, not only on Halloween but all the time, is how a person can die in a home or apartment surrounded by neighbors, but no one notices for days and days and days.

Since 2009 I've worked on a mystery story called CHALK GHOST. At first it was a short story, which I posted as a serial on, where it co-won the Grand Prize. After that I tried to expand the story to novel size and failed until I realized that a novel required something very different: my nightmare evolved into SNOW GHOST, a work still in progress. But CHALK GHOST refused to die. Now I've finally finished the novella, and it's available for free on Amazon Kindle for Halloween through November 1. After November 1, 2012 CHALK GHOST is available for a mere pittance of $0.99 or the equivalent at Amazon U.K., Germany, and elsewhere. In late January it will be available in most ebook formats.

Please download a free copy of CHALK GHOST . Review it! Comment here! A U.K. reviewer gave CHALK GHOST 5 stars and wrote: "Excellent book for a quick read' good story line. Downloaded this to my phone. Would recommend it."

Indian Country Justice—Part V

I know I’ve been wrong many times, but recently I learned just how very wrong I can be: I learned I’ve been wrong all my life about who I am.

In July 2011, my mother Wanda Jean Granot Cole passed away and left me to serve as the executor of her estate, which was promptly challenged in probate court. Since then there have been endless negotiations, an extensive inventory of personal property, and numerous third-party appraisals of the unexpectedly large collection of artworks, fine crafts, and historical documents my mother collected. In the process I’ve had to finger through 87-years worth of my mother’s papers, which include extensive genealogies she prepared for both sides of my family. A few times this dusty digging through her papers has turned up rather sad memories, but more often it has produced fascinating glimpses into the past.

Among my mother’s papers are about 100 letters written by and to my father Elmer Bob Cole while he served in the Army during World War II and after that in the Army of Occupation. My mother always told me that my father fought in the Battle of the Bulge—but that simply wasn’t true. Instead he served in the 103rd Division (Cactus Division) of the Third Army, field artillery, and fought in the Battle of the Upper and Lower Vosges.

I did a little research and learned that, like my father, mystery writer Tony Hillerman also served in the Cactus Division. Like my father, Hillerman was born in a small town in Oklahoma. So I bought a copy of Hillerman’s memoir, Seldom Disappointed, which includes vivid tales of  the war in Central Europe—very similar to the tales my father wrote home about. I also learned that Hillerman is of German ancestry, not Native American, as I had thought.

My mother left dozens of notebooks filled with her genealogical research, including a little research into her mother-in-law’s family, the Atteburys. I am named after my father’s mother, Katherine Attebury. Granny, as I knew her, believed herself to be as much as one-eighth Cherokee, because her father Thomas claimed to be (according to my mother) either “one-quarter or one-third” Cherokee (the math is my mother’s, not mine). My father also firmly believed himself to be at least one-sixteenth Cherokee—and so did I and everyone else in the family—both sides—so much so in fact that it was a source of friction between my proudly all-white Scots-Irish grandmother and my father.

To give myself a break from probate hell, I joined and began to track my great-grandfather Attebury’s roots. It didn’t take long for me to find him in a pre-Civil War census in Arkansas (Indian Country) with a child slave in his household. This didn’t surprise me (although it offended me) because I knew that Cherokees were slave owners.

Then, several months ago, began offering its subscribers DNA tests for ethnic origins. I got on the waiting list, and one day received a package in the mail with instructions to spit into a tube and then mail my spit to a DNA testing lab. I wanted to know just how much Cherokee I had in my DNA.

I imagine you can guess the answer. Exactly zero.

All my ancestors (except 2% unknown) are from the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Central Europe. I’m a Celt by way of the British Isles and Scandinavia and a Viking by way of the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Europe around the Baltic. Even my Jewish grandfather (whose name was Sephardic) seems to have had nothing but Central European origins.

It’s really a shock. As a child I grew up very proud of my Cherokee heritage (in those days I didn’t know they were slave owners). I also suffered from several humiliating incidents involving my racist grandmother, who thought I was “a dirty Indian.”

Now the mystery I have to solve is: Why did Thomas Attebury, a Confederate Civil War veteran, tell everyone in Oklahoma that he was at least one quarter Cherokee?

I have several speculations, but it’s going to take some in-depth research to uncover the truth.

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“If the law makes you a witness . . .”

“If the law makes you a witness, remain a man of science; you have no victim to avenge, no guilty or innocent person to convict or save. You must bear testimony within the limits of science,” said Dr. Paul Brouardel (1837-1903). 

Of course he said it in French over one-hundred years ago. In modern English it would probably be “Forensic-science expert witnesses must bear witness to nothing but the truth.”

If only the “hired gun” expert witnesses in high-profile trials of the past decade had followed Brouardel’s admonition. (Cable TV’s Dr. G springs to mind. Remember how she declared that poor little Caylee Anthony had to have been murdered because of the proximity of her skeletal remains to a black, plastic garbage bag? A pronouncement like that is hardly within “the limits of science.” Dr. G clearly thought she had a victim to avenge.)

I learned about Brouardel from a video lecture series sold by

Review of The Great Courses “Trails of Evidence,” by Elizabeth A. Murray

“Trails of Evidence” is a 36-part series of half-hour video lectures by Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray on all aspects of state-of-the-art forensic science, which I highly recommend to all trial lawyers and trial watchers. Brouardel’s admonition lies at the core of all of Dr. Murray’s forensic science investigations and teaching (she’s Professor of Biology at Mount St. Joseph College of Cincinnati).

Throughout the series, Dr. Murray cautions against foundationless forensic science. For example, in lecture 22 (“Decomposition—From Bugs to Bones”) she questions the usefulness of cadaver dogs, which of course were critical to Scott Peterson’s conviction and were also employed in the Casey Anthony investigation to prove that Caylee’s corpse had once been in the Anthony’s back yard, among other places.

Dr. Murray points to a case in which she located a clandestine grave by crawling on her hands and knees over a suspect patch of earth, which had previously been sniffed by cadaver dogs without success. She located the grave based on changes in the ground level and other soil indications. A body was buried there, but the cadaver dogs couldn’t even sniff out that a corpse had ever been near the place. In addition, Dr. Murray recounts the tale of dishonest dog handler, Sandra Murray, who involved herself in many high-profile cases but was eventually convicted of planting evidence for her dogs to find.

If the Drew Peterson jury had listened to Dr. Murray’s lecture 28 (“Human Memory and Eye-Witness Accounts”), they could not have convicted Peterson of murdering his ex-wife. Dr. Murray explains very clearly what is wrong with hearsay evidence, even when it’s presented from the witness stand by a pastor: human memory is a personal construct. No one remembers anything exactly as it happened. No one remembers any conversation word-for-word. The further in the past an event occurred, the less likely it is that anyone will remember it correctly.

Sidebar: Recently, Donna Bridge, a post-doc at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, published in the Journal of Neuroscience her recent findings about the way human memory works. Bottom line: The more often a person recalls a past event, the less accurate the memory becomes. That’s right, the more often an eye-witness to a crime, for instance, is asked by the cops and the lawyers to repeat what he or she saw, the less accurate the testimony becomes. This explains why Judge White (the first judge in the Drew Peterson case) found one hearsay witness not to be credible, but trial Judge Burmila did: by the time she took the stand she had repeated her story so often that she was convinced it was accurate—and her “conviction” convinced the jury.

Throughout “Trails of Evidence” Elizabeth Murray’s refrain is: To be a good forensic scientist you must first become a rigorous scientist. In fact, she recommends that would-be forensic scientists not study forensics or criminal justice in college, but instead major in one of the biological or physical sciences, then go on to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in forensics-related science before becoming an applied scientist, that is, a scientist who specializes in forensics. That’s what she did: she studied biology, anatomy, and anthropology before she became a criminal investigator.

COMING JUST IN TIME FOR HALLOWEEN: Chalk Ghost, a novella: “a mystery that only the dead can solve."

Drew Peterson Jury—What are they thinking?

Today the Drew Peterson jury is hearing closing arguments and soon will retire to the jury room to deliberate. Media analysts are at this very moment trying to read the jurors’ minds. As a former juror, I can tell you one thing about the juror’s minds for certain: most of the jurors made up their minds during the trial.

Sidebar: Lawyers like to think jurors make up their minds after the opening statements, but this is not true. After the opening statements, jurors make up their minds only about what the most important evidence should be. In the Peterson trial that was likely the evidence proving the death was homicide.

Closing arguments do not make or break a case for either side. All that closing arguments accomplish is to provide a vocabulary and set of phrases for jurors to use in their deliberations. One side or the other in the Peterson trial has already won, and their closing arguments will be repeated in the jury room to help convince any undecided juror to join the majority. I really can’t believe that more than one juror is entirely convinced Peterson is guilty. It’s more likely that most jurors don’t believe the prosecution met the burden of proof. They may suspect Peterson has done some “bad things,” but they can’t say with confidence that they know what they were.

Sidebar: Personally, the more I heard about Stacy Peterson during the trial, the more I wondered if she’s the only wife Drew did away with. It seems she wanted a divorce and began to spread rumors that Drew had killed his former wife. If so, Drew might have “snapped” and closed her rumor-spreading mouth permanently. However, that doesn’t mean that Stacy really believed or knew he killed Kathleen Savio.

It’s impossible to tell from outside the courtroom which of the sides has already won. Since I have a bias in favor of the Bill of Rights and in favor of Blackstone’s admonition that it’s better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer, from what little I know of what went on in the trial, if I were on the Peterson jury I would vote “not guilty because of a reasonable doubt.”

Reasonable doubts in the case seem to include whether Kathleen Savio’s scalp wound was sufficient to have knocked her out long enough to drown in the bathtub; just how much water was in the bathtub at the time she injured her scalp; when her death occurred and, consequently, whether Drew Peterson has an alibi for the time of death. Those are significant lacunae in the evidence and, therefore, produce significant and reasonable doubts in my mind as to whether it was an accidental death or a homicide. Even if the jury concludes on the basis of evidence about which I know nothing that it was homicide, they still have overcome the hurdle of knowing when she died and whether Drew Peterson had the opportunity to have killed her.

Much has been made of the Peterson jury’s “bonding.” They coordinated their outfits on a few days, once apparently dressing in the Chicago Bears’ colors, blue and orange. This is also a clue to me, a former juror. The more bonding a jury does, the easier it is for them all to agree on a verdict. Given that the Peterson jury demonstrated its cohesion in such a light-hearted way tells me they aren’t worried about having to send a former police officer to the slammer for life. Believe me, when you’re worried about having to convict somebody of a capital crime, you don’t dress up like your favorite sports team. You’re anxious, can’t sleep, and if you’re female you cry a lot at home.

For court-watchers curious about what goes through jurors’ heads I recommend Dr. Sunwolf’s Practical Jury Dynamics and Practical Jury Dynamics 2.  Or, for a less-intellectual insight into jurors, please download a copy of my The Juror Hangs from Amazon Kindle or B&N Nook (an ignore the lone disgruntled reader who gave me a bad review. I know who she is).


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Drew Peterson and the Rhetoric of Hearsay

In Session correspondents, Beth Karas and Jean Casarez, yesterday reported that jurors in the
Drew Peterson trial were taking extensive notes during the testimony of hearsay witnesses. The implication was that the jurors were extremely interested in testimony that Kathleen Savio (deceased) had expressed fear of her ex-husband.

In my previous post, I noted that hearsay evidence can be very persuasive, but I neglected to say why. The reason is: jurors assume that the judge has vetted both the witness and the testimony. Jurors think the judge gives credence to a hearsay witness and believes his or her hearsay represents the actual words of someone who isn’t able to testify.

Attorney Steve Greenberg of the Peterson defense team said yesterday that jurors will eventually take the time to evaluate for themselves the credibility of the hearsay witnesses, as well as the credibility of Kathleen Savio when she supposedly made claims to several people about Peterson’s violence toward her.

I wish I could agree with Mr. Greenberg. But from my own jury experience I know that few jurors question the validity of any of the evidence presented in a courtroom presided over by an apparently impartial judge.

In my case, during deliberations I tried to question the supposed confession of the defendant, but the other jurors told me I had no right to do that, because the judge had admitted it as true. I kid you not.

In any trial where hearsay is admitted, the judge instructs the jury that it isn’t admitted for the truth of what is said but only as evidence of something else, such as in the Peterson trial evidence of the victim’s state of mind.  Unfortunately, the jury instruction will never outweigh the emotional impact of hearing that a victim said the defendant had attacked her several times and told her he was going to kill her and make it look like an accident. The refrain, “make it look like an accident” will stick in the jury’s minds and accumulate there until it solidifies, the way drips of water from a cave ceiling solidify into stalactites.

Note to Peterson legal team: You will need to be very, very clear in your closing arguments about the reason the judge admitted this evidence. You will need to explain that—in fact—the victim’s state of mind is completely irrelevant to their task, which is to determine whether foul play was involved in Kathleen Savio’s death and, if so, who killed her. Ms. Savio’s predictions have no more truth in them than Sybil the Soothsayer’s.

Sidebar: The more I hear about Ms. Savio’s predictions, the more I wonder how it would have been possible for Drew Peterson to make them come true. If he really did threaten to kill her and make it look like an accident (which is hearsay about hearsay, BTW), wouldn’t it have been stupid of him to follow through on the threat and kill her so that it looked like an accident? And even stupider to do it on a weekend when he had to visit her home to pick up and deliver their children—so that inevitably he would be the one to “find the body”? Frankly, I believe I can make a better case for him killing Stacey and making it look as if she ran away, because he was tired of hearing her threaten to accuse him of killing Kathleen (whether falsely or not).

It doesn’t matter whether Kathleen Savio was afraid or not. I’m afraid of elevators in skyscrapers and say so all the time, but that doesn’t mean that if I travel to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago, the elevator will fail, and I’ll fall to a horrible, squashed death. And if I also claim I know an incompetent elevator engineer who works in the Sears Tower, and I fall to that horrible death, it doesn’t mean it was his fault.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the jury system. But I also believe the legal profession and case law are losing sight of reality. Truth in court is now shrouded by centuries of arcane case law and meddling legislators, like the ones we have in Illinois. The jury system lives in a perpetual fog of legalese these days.

Sidebar: It’s been awhile since I plugged my trial novel, THE JUROR HANGS. I haven’t even mentioned that now not only is it available from the Amazon Kindle store, but also from numerous other e-stores, including the B&N Nook, the Apple iBookstore, and others. It’s cheap, fun read—as attested by Amazon reviewers.

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Drew Peterson—Rumor has it. . . .

Rumor has it that Drew Peterson repeatedly told his ex-wife Kathleen Savio he would kill her and “make it look like an accident.” Her sister said that she said this repeatedly, and as proof of the truth of this hearsay, the sister said that she said Ms. Savio kept all her valuable papers in a briefcase in her car, where the sister could find it in the event that “something” ever happened to her.

Sidebar: I also keep all my valuable papers in  my car trunk, but not because I’m afraid “something will happen” to me. I keep them there because I have too many such papers to fit in my fire safe (literary manuscripts, for instance).

Rumor has it that Drew Peterson’s subsequent wife Stacey said to her pastor that Peterson had killed Kathleen Savio and made “it look like an accident.”

Sidebar: I, too, remember hearing from at least one woman friend going through a divorce that her ex was going to kill her. I wonder if this is a common fear or just a common way of slandering an ex?

Rumor has it that if the pastor is permitted to testify against Drew Peterson under “Drew’s Law” (Illinois legislation that overturns centuries of common law rules of evidence and permits hearsay evidence if the supposed speaker is dead and apparently a homicide victim), the pastor will also say that Stacey said she saw Drew come home dressed in black in the wee hours of the morning when Kathleen Savio is believed to have died.

Rumor has it that Stacey’s sister will testify and say that Stacey said to her that she was afraid of Drew and possibly also say that she overheard an argument between Stacey and Drew in which one of them said something about or to the other that was incriminating.

Sidebar: Rumor has it that Stacey harassed Kathleen Savio during the weeks before her death. Having a devious mind (I write murder mysteries), it occurred to me that maybe Stacey is the one who was trying to deflect suspicion from herself by telling this tale to so many people. Maybe the reason Drew insisted on sitting in on Stacey’s police interview two days after Kathleen Savio’s death was to protect her, not himself.

Rumor has it that several months before Kathleen Savio died, Drew Peterson said to someone (a cable installer, I think I remember someone saying) that he would pay him $25,000 to kill Kathleen Savio and make it look like an accident. Rumor also has it that a second man said he heard Drew say this. Rumor also has it that both men knew Drew was a cop (and I think I heard someone say he was in uniform at the time he made this offer “to hire a hit man”).

Sidebar: Judge White, the previous Peterson trial judge, excluded this evidence (I think I heard someone say) as inadmissible “prior bad acts.” Now the prosecution has filed a motion with Judge Burmila to admit the evidence. However, I don’t see how this could possibly have been anything bad other than a bad joke. Why would a known police officer seriously try to hire a hit man? Is the cable guy well known to be a hit man on the side? And would a real hit man take an offer like that from a cop, or wouldn’t he assume it was a set up? Not to mention that if the cable guy thought it was a genuine offer, he ought to have reported it to the police immediately—maybe not the Bolingbrook police, but to the county sheriff or state police.

Rumor has it that Drew Peterson attended Kathleen Savio’s funeral and sat in the rear laughing and joking. In other words, Kathleen Savio’s brother says that Drew said inappropriate things and behaved inappropriately at the funeral.

Sidebar: The brother’s grief for the loss of sister is very real. I know how he feels. However, memory is a very slippery thing. In retrospect nothing ever appears the same. “In evidence” of this fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that judges must instruct juries in great detail about the pitfalls of eye-witness accounts. No matter how acute an observer, no matter how detailed a memory, time and emotions always change memories—especially memories of stressful events.

Hearsay evidence is very powerful. Having sat on a jury and heard the ultimate hearsay evidence (a forced, trumped-up confession), I know that hearsay can convict anyone of anything, given believable witnesses. For this reason, I’m beginning to suspect that Drew Peterson will be convicted, even if his defense is extremely skillful at proving a negative (that is, proving there is no proof of guilt and therefore he must be found not guilty—not necessarily innocent, but not guilty).

So, let me be the first to spread the rumor: Drew Peterson Found Guilty of Murder.

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Does the Drew Peterson Jury Object to Objections?

Stephen White, former Peterson trial judge, said today on In Session, that jurors are disturbed by constant objections and tend to think the objector is trying to prevent the other side from letting them hear about something.

I disagree, as long as it’s the defense’s objections to the prosecution’s case against their client. Jurors expect defense counsel to put up a good fight. In my single experience as a juror on a criminal trial in Cook County, IL, in fact, I couldn’t understand why the defense didn’t object to anything. If the prosecution had objected constantly to the defense, though, I would have been irritated.

In the case in which I was a juror, the defendant was on trial for kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl. Can you think of a less sympathetic character than that? Even Drew Peterson seems like a jovial neighborhood cop in comparison.

However, the defendant was “defended” by a public defender, that is, someone the taxpayer was paying for—and that included me. In his opening statement he literally said the defendant was guilty of aggravated sexual assault, just not of kidnapping.

After that, when a white assistant state’s attorney in the witness box read an English-language confession supposedly “written” by a Mexican who had a translator at his side when he was in court, the defense did not object. Nor did the defense object when the witness said she had taken down the statement at 2:00 a.m. long after the defendant’s afternoon arrest, when he was supposedly drunk out of his skull.

So, is the Drew Peterson jury irritated by defense counsel’s constant objections to the prosecution’s questions and witness testimony? I suspect only if they have already made up their minds that Peterson is guilty.

And that’s something they swore not to do.

IMHO, these days jurors are sensitive to the overreaching powers of the state. Before the state deprives any citizen of his rights—no matter how notorious or obnoxious he may be—they expect the state to make a very, very good case. The Illinois state legislature is one of the most-overreaching in the country. They even passed a law specifically designed to circumvent standard rules of courtroom evidence, a law that permits hearsay against a defendant when the speaker of the hearsay evidence is dead, but said it to someone who’s still living and can serve as a witness. It’s popularly known as Drew’s Law, because it was designed specifically to permit Peterson’s “missing” 4th wife to testify that she saw Peterson do some suspicious things around the time his third wife died.

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Drew Peterson—Bad Rhetoric v. Bad Behavior

On the first day of the Drew Peterson murder trial, Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow stupidly attempted to discuss inadmissible hearsay evidence during his opening statement. On the second day of the trial, an assistant state’s attorney elicited a completely unsubstantiated accusation against Peterson from a clearly biased friend of the deceased woman.

When will lawyers take the time to study the 3,000-year old art of rhetoric?

Even the ancient Greeks understood that it is possible to argue convincingly for any position. They devised “rules” to help debaters convince an audience, which we now call “rhetoric.” The Greeks knew that the more-skillful debater at applying these rules to an argument was sure to win over his or her audience.

The adversarial system of jury trials is nothing more nor less than two opposing sides arguing before an audience of 12 jurors.

The defense team in the Peterson trial clearly understand this. In their opening statement, they did what Jose Baez did in the Casey Anthony trial: first, they explained Peterson’s bizarre behavior; second, they described the ex-wife’s anger and attributed equally bizarre behavior to her; and only then did they assert that there is little evidence of any crime being involved in her death and absolutely no evidence of Peterson’s guilt.

The rhetoric of the State’s case in the Peterson trial, though, is certainly not what they intended. They are saying: We’re desperate; we have no evidence; we have no choice but to repeatedly defy the judge’s admonitions against presenting flimsy hearsay to this jury.

Trust me: More than one juror has gotten this message loud and clear. So, even if Judge Edward Burmilla permits the trial to continue today, the best the State can hope for is a hung jury.

Sidebar: Judge Burmilla has also gotten this message loud and clear, I’m sure. If the trial continues, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the prosecution rests and the defense asks for a summary judgment of not guilty, he grants their request.

By committing rhetorical errors, the Peterson prosecution has not only angered the judge, but also has warned the jury that if, instead of trying to pull one over on the judge, they simply tried to present step-by-step what they can prove happened, they would have to admit that all they know is this:

A divorced couple hated each other. All their friends knew it. One day, after a weekend of visitation with his children, the ex-husband took them back to their mother’s house. She did not answer the door. The ex-husband repeatedly called her home phone and received no response. The next day, rather than break into his ex-wife’s house, he asked neighbors for help in finding her. Eventually, a locksmith opened the door and admitted the neighbors to the house, where they found the wife’s lifeless, naked body in a bathtub. After an investigation, a coroner’s jury was convened. The coroner’s jury could find no evidence of foul play, although—as in many accidental deaths—there were several odd things that could not be explained. Years later, the body was exhumed after a media-frenzy involving the man’s fourth wife. Publicity-hungry pathologists claimed to find evidence of homicide on the embalmed remains.

It’s all rhetoric, folks. It’s all about the way you make your argument. If you clearly have to cheat and lie—meaning, it’s clear to the jury that you’re cheating and it looks as if you’re possibly lying—then you will never convince a jury of anything.

BTW: I dislike Peterson. I suspect he’s guilty of something, but the more I hear about his ex-wives the more I wonder if he’s actually telling the truth about what he knows or doesn’t know about their fates. Even so, as I write, I find myself trying to formulate a proper argument for Peterson’s guilt. After all, I did just say it’s possible to argue convincingly for anything. But it isn’t that easy. The prosecution needs to show that Peterson had the opportunity to kill his wife on the morning of the day he returned his children to her house. They also need some forensic evidence that someone other than his wife was in the house that morning.They claim the death scene was “staged” to look like accidental drowning—but as in the Casey Anthony trial they can’t prove exactly how else she must have died.

I guess the point is: you can argue convincingly for anything if you have at least a few convincing facts to rely on.

Sidebar: One of the In Session commentators for the Peterson trial is IL lawyer Stephen White, the retired judge who presided over all the pre-trial “hearsay hearings.” While Mr. White is doing his best to provide objective commentary on the proceedings, I can’t help but wonder if he has a fairly strong opinion about the case. The rhetoric of his retirement, IMHO, suggests that he knows the State’s case is based on nothing but hearsay and innuendo—and he didn’t want to preside over the inevitable fiasco.

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The end of junk science in court or just the beginning?


On July 13, Maddy deLone sent out an email alert from the Innocence Project about a bi-partisan Congressional initiative to end the use of junk-forensic science in American courtrooms. The legislation is designed to address the problems with the use of scientific data in court, as reported in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences (an non-government organization).

Unfortunately, after reading the Senate bill, I have concluded that—as well intentioned as it may be—the only thing the law will do is provide massive amounts of research money to forensic scientists who are already conducting ludicrous experiments, like the one who testified in Casey Anthony’s trial that he had sampled the air in the trunk of her car and found proof a dead body had been there at one time.

Sidebar: In my opinion at the time one of the most-compelling bits of testimony in the Anthony trial came from the manager of a lot where abandoned cars were towed. His credentials suggested to me that he was truly familiar with the smell of rotting human flesh. He had been sure that Casey’s car smelled as if a corpse had rotted in it. Since, once in the parking lot at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport I had passed a car trunk in which I felt certain somebody was rotting, I believed him. Then last week my own car began to smell “fishy,” so to speak, although not fishy fishy, but rotten-flesh fishy. First I searched for a plastic grocery bag that might have had chicken blood in it. Then I finally opened the trunk. A sealed, plastic bag of Trader Joe’s salad mix had apparently fallen out of a grocery bag stowed in it days earlier and liquefied. Just goes to prove that Jose Baez was right: trash stinks, flesh or not.

Casey Anthony’s high-profile trial was certainly not the first to bring junk-forensic scientists out of the woodwork.

Think back to the O. J. Simpson murder trial: remember an FBI hair-and-fiber expert who testified that a ski cap had been worn by an African American with chemically treated hair? That same FBI expert was also prevented from testifying that fibers found at the scene were from Simpson’s SUV, because he had, essentially, conspired with the prosecution to withhold the information during the disclosure phase of the case. Of course, it didn’t matter to Simpson in the end, but the National Academy of Science report since pointed out the extremely subjective nature of all hair-and-fiber analysis. Subjectivity is not scientific. And the new law does nothing to eliminate the use of subjectively analyzed evidence in court.

Then there was Scott Peterson, who may soon be getting a new trial: not only has he finally presented his appeal to the California Supreme Court, but that court has also recently overturned a capital murder verdict because of the way jurors were “qualified” for the jury panel. Peterson’s appeal includes complaints about “shaky” forensic-science testimony regarding the movements of dead bodies in water and the ability of cadaver dogs to identify specific people’s scents. What especially bothered me about the forensics in the trial, though, was testimony about such nebulous evidence as a computer search that turned up a click by the victim on an online ad for an umbrella stand (as if anybody could tell who clicked on it) and evidence of a rug scrunched up on the kitchen floor and the impression (that is, dent) in a bedspread shaped like a body.

High-Profile Forensic Science

The problem with the current use of forensic-science evidence in American courts isn’t that sound research is not being conducted—and that’s what the new law seeks to promote. The problem is the way prosecutors and judges rely on government-paid technicians to present evidence in court. In the Casey Anthony trial, for instance, the prosecution stumbled upon a researcher at Oak Ridge National Lab (a government lab), who has a quack theory about what can be gleaned from the misuse of highly sensitive chemical-analysis equipment. Knowing no better, the judge permitted the evidence to be presented in court. Fortunately for the defendant, her attorneys were smarter than the prosecutors and judge, and they made mincemeat out of the so-called forensic “scientist.”

The FBI lab’s “forensic scientists” testified in all three of the above cases, and in each case presented highly questionable evidence. In the Anthony trial, the FBI’s labs admittedly even mishandled a great deal of evidence, destroying it in the process.

If the Congress wants to improve the state of forensic science, they need to promote the use of independent, non-government labs for the collection and analysis of evidence. Unless government labs are forced to adhere to rigorous analytical procedures, the FBI and state labs will just keep on doing what they see as their duty—to prove each defendant is guilty.


“Nothing will ever be the same again.”

This is a tautology, of course, since nothing is ever the same, but when spoken by a Socialist politician who admires Marshal Tito (Yugoslavian dictator under the Soviet Union), it sends chills down the spine, does it not?

In the United States the media generally ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world. If an American wants to know what’s happening outside this country, she has to watch BBC World News, and then most of what she learns is how stupid the EU is, not what’s happening around the world. But, of course, I understand why this is: Americans don’t think the rest of the world matters, even Americans who would like to see “One World.”

Sidebar: Have you ever noticed how TV weather maps show storm boundaries sliced off at the Canadian and Mexican borders?

Remember the Bosnian War?

Under President Bill Clinton, NATO intervened in the genocidal war among Balkan nations that resulted from the breakup of Yugoslavia after the fall of the Soviet Union. At the time, American media was awash in the bloodshed and horror. It inspired me to write a short story, “At the Foot” (now in my historical-mystery short-story collection THE EVIL THAT MEN DO (Light Pages, 2009). When I finally published the story in 2009, I figured it counted as historical, because nobody in America would remember the war.

American memories are very short (and getting shorter, as far as I can determine because high schools don’t teach any history after World War I).

Since the beginning of this century I hadn’t heard a word about Bosnia or Kosovo or Serbia until this weekend when I picked up a copy of The International Herald Tribune as I boarded a plane at Heathrow and found an article by Dan Bilefesky, “Bearing West, Serbia his a bump,” which ends with the chilling quote above from Ivica Dacic, interior minister of Serbia, now running for president. Dacic is a populist and nationalist, which is another way of saying he’s anti-democratic and believes in Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat;” as the lyrics of his theme song says, “All you heroes, get ready for battle.” (In addition to Tito, the article claims that Dacic’s other heroes include Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama!)

A few days ago, in a completely un-American media moment, The Miami Herald published an article by Jonathan S. Landay , “20 Years After War Bosnia Grows More Divided.” Please read it.

Why Should You Care?

Because Serbia is a member of the United Nations, which now seems to dominate American foreign policy. Because Serbia has applied for EU membership. Because the EU is bankrupt. Because the EU is begging us to bail it out. Because American law and government must not adopt the EU or the UN as our model.

Litigatophobia—My neologism for fear of lawyers

According to my Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary, “litigo” is Latin for “to quarrel, dispute, brawl.” Of course, the most disputatious, quarrelsome brawlers in America are lawyers; therefore, IMHO, the fear of lawyers ought to be called “litigatophobia.” I suppose, you might quarrel with me and say the term ought to be “litigatorphobia,” but that might too easily be mistaken for alligator-phobia, and I really think the similarity of lawyers to alligators is much less than to many other non-human creatures I can think of. (Most are reptiles, but not all.)

My Advice: Fear Lawyers

My novel The Juror Hangs is a cautionary tale about jury duty. It is also—I now realize—the world’s first courtroom drama in which the really bad guys are the lawyers.

In one of my favorite cable shows, Ghost Hunters, the “investigators” claim that evil, angry spirits feed off both EMT (electro-magnetic transmissions) and human pain and suffering. I wonder if lawyers feed off EMT, too, because clearly they make their living from human pain and suffering.

Have you ever read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House? It’s a novel about how lawyers quarrel over a will until it’s entirely eaten up by their fees. Until I became involved in probate court myself, it seemed like a sort of cynical joke. No, it’s not a joke.

So, while I have dedicated this blog to warning prospective jurors about the perils of jury duty—and simultaneously defending the jury system against the lawyers who run the courtroom—I’m now adding a theme: beware the perils of probate court.

My Advice: Never Agree to be an Executor

Why should you never agree to be the executor of a will (or “personal rep,” in some states)?

  • Unless the size of the estate is small, you will be required to work through a lawyer, even when it’s only a matter of posting a bond because the deceased did not die in the state where you reside. The lawyers’ fees for this minimal assistance will be substantial and may have to come out of your own pocket.
  • The lawyer will require you to sign a contract stating that you are personally, financially responsible for any of the firm’s fees and expenses that exceed the value of the estate.
  • No matter the value of the estate, anybody in the world can contest the will for any reason they can think of; when that happens you have to work with the probate court through a lawyer.
  • If a will is contested, it’s likely to be contested by someone you know well or a family member; this instantly destroys your relationship (if any) with that person; the heir or heirs will blame you as much or more than the “quarreler.” In other words, there will never again be any peace in the family, and some of your loved ones will disown you.

So, if granny tells you one day that she has written a new will and named you as the executor:

  1. Ask her to let you read the will, perhaps in the presence of her lawyer, and see who is named as the alternate executor. If it is a responsible person, then find out if it is too late for her to change the name of the executor to that person, so you don’t have to resign in his favor when the time comes.
  2. If granny has named a cad as the alternate executor, then you need to be prepared for what you’re going to do when granny dies. Find out roughly what the estate is worth and likely to be worth when she dies. Learn about estate tax laws. Read up on probate in her state of residence. Determine what your liabilities will be if you become the executor of her will when she dies.
  3. Consider what you would do if you had to resign as executor after her death, and decide whether you might be wise to plan to contest the will so the cad can’t run slipshod over the rest of the family.

Probate court is nothing but an excuse for lawyers to line their pockets for doing nothing. I hear from certain reputable investment firms that revocable trusts can avoid probate altogether. That’s what I’m looking into these days—that is if I survive the stress of handling a will as executor in which I am not even an heir.

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The Fate of the Jury—Part III, The OJ Simpson Robbery Trial

Long ago I promised Mr. Paul Connelly, foreman of the 2008 jury in the trial of O. J. Simpson for robbery and kidnapping, that I would publicly apologize for my ignorant post about him. The time is long past for that, so I not only apologize profusely for mischaracterizing him in this blog but also for taking so long to correct my stupid mistake.

I hope Mr. Connelly knows that Google searches no longer turn up my uninformed post about him (and after I’m sure this blog article is posted, I will unpublish the earlier posts and comments). In fact, Google searches no longer turn up much at all about the O. J. Simpson trial except to list Simpson’s prison address and to state that in 2011 the Nevada Supreme Court denied Simpson’s appeal and all of his reasoning, including his complaint against the jury and jury foreman specifically. In addition, Google has recently redesigned YouTube so that it is impossible to find anything on it other than paid advertising, so none of the videos of the Nevada trial that YouTube once featured so prominently are easy to find.

I hope now Mr. Connelly is able to return to his private life. I know from personal experience how hard that is to do after serving on even an obscure jury. Serving on a jury is traumatic for anyone with integrity, a belief in the American system of justice, and a love of the Bill of Rights.

The Book

Mr. Connelly told me he had written a book about his experiences with O. J. Simpson’s lawyers, the press, and the judges. It still sits in a drawer somewhere, because he was wise enough not to make it public. I believe I told him I had once considered writing a true-crime book about a case involving a woman convicted of murder whom I believe to be innocent. I contacted the attorneys at the Author’s Guild (of which I am a member), and they kindly informed me that I would need not only liability insurance but also to find an attorney who specializes in vetting manuscripts before publication.

Naturally, I decided against writing the true crime book. Since that time, I have also decided not to blog about the case any further, because really I know very little about the people involved. Most of their behavior is more inexplicable than any fictional character I have ever dreamed up. I wish them all well, but it’s best for a juror or other bystander in these matters just to keep quiet and try to go on with their own lives.

The Fate of the O. J. Simpson Foreman

Mr. Connelly posted public comments on this blog. I have researched and confirmed what he told me. Here it is:

After the verdict was in, the foreman, Mr. Connelly, agreed to speak to the media in the courtroom. BIG MISTAKE. The reporters, cameramen, and sound crews were—as usual—unruly.

Mis-speaking to the Media

Someone asked a question about what sentence was appropriate for Simpson.

Mr. Connelly replied: "That is up to the judge and the court to decide. It is not up to this panel of jurors."

The reporter pressed on, saying,"Many people are of the impression that OJ Simpson should have been found guilty and sentenced to life in prison 13 years ago and that surely every one has opinion on this case."

Mr. Connelly mistook the reference of the pronoun “this” as “opinion”, and replied, "and that was my opinion, that it is up to the court and the jury to decide."

I told Mr. Connelly that it was legitimate to interpret his statement to mean that he thought OJ Simpson was guilty and ought to have been sentenced to life (the former English teacher in me speaking, not the former juror). However, I do believe him when he says that was not what he meant. The Nevada Supreme Court also agree that was what he meant.

This is an object lesson for all future jurors: Never speak to the media. Jurors are not trained to address the media. It takes years of formal education to be competent to deal with the media.

False Rumor

The media reported that the foreman, Mr. Connelly, had pressed the jury to continue deliberating late into the night in order to deliver a verdict on the 13th anniversary of Simpson’s famous not-guilty verdict.

Mr. Connelly swears that no one on the jury, not even he, knew that the date was the anniversary. The reason they pressed on was that they had first deliberated over Mr. Simpson and had reached agreement on his guilt, but they had not deliberated on Mr. Stewart. If they had adjourned for the evening, they were worried that the Simpson guilty verdicts would leak out; so rather than risk that they pressed on.

To quote Mr. Connelly’s comments on this blog:

“As for the foreman deciding to press on into the night on the 13th anniversary, not a single juror had a clue as to the significance of the day. Certainly the defense attorneys did, and they could have postponed closing arguments another day. . . . We had no idea that it was the 13th day of the trial; we deliberated 13 hours; and it was the 13th anniversary of his [Simpson’s] famous trial. He also committed the latest crimes on the 13th of September the year prior. My original juror summons number was 32, which is his jersey number, [and] he was also once jailed here in Vegas in cell 32. Is this my fault?”

It’s an interesting observation, don’t you agree? And surely it is no coincidence that “the defense attorneys” later cited Mr. Connelly’s remarks and behavior as grounds for their appeal.

Mr. Connelly also wrote:

“As for no black jurors on this trial: 18 jurors sat through this trial. Juror #13 is an African American male, and juror#17 is an African American female. The judge wanted to do a lottery of sorts to decide the 12 deliberating jurors. This method would have certainly given one of the African American jurors a chance to deliberate. However, the defense lawyers did not want the lottery, as they asked the judge to have jurors 1 [through] 12 as the jury and 13 [through] 18 as alternates.”

In Mr. Connelly’s opinion, the defense attorneys did this in order to guarantee an all-white jury and, so, provide another grounds for appeal if the verdicts were guilty. I’m sure he is correct.

Media Are Destroying the Jury System

Mr. Connelly was forced to testify before the court about his alleged misconduct. Simpson’s lawyers tried to have him charged with perjury for his answers on the juror questionnaire. His family was harassed by the media. I can’t begin to imagine how horrible all this was for his family.

The State of Nevada owes him an apology, in my opinion.

You know this is true: in every high-profile trial, the only verdict the media will accept is “Guilty.” Any “Not Guilty” verdict is blamed on the jury system and the ignorance, stupidity, or corruption of the jurors.

Pray you are never the defendant in a high-profile trial of any kind. I say “pray,” because your fate is out of your control. Perfectly innocent people are arrested all the time.

But you can do something to help yourself from serving on a high-profile jury. If you don’t feel it’s ethical to ask to be excused from jury duty, then be very sure you don’t ever talk to the media.


Let Me Lend You an Ebook for the Holidays

My mystery short-story collection, THE EVIL THAT MEN DO, is now available for borrowing from the Amazon Kindle Lending Library. Most of the stories were previously published in hardcopy and e-magazines, and most are fairly tongue-in-cheek, so the evil isn't entirely out-of-character for this season. Only one, "At the Foot" is definitely a horror, rather like most of the murders I discuss in this blog.

Recently, the Authors Guild and other writers' organizations have criticized Amazon for its lending policy. As a result, Amazon has established a generous fund to compensate authors for royalties that would otherwise be lost through its lending library. So, you don't have to feel guilty about borrowing any author's books, let alone mine. More than royalties I'm looking for readers--believe it or not. And if you read my work and like it, I would appreciate an email from you.

In addition, the ebook will be FREE for downloading between December 22 and December 26, so you can buy it for $0.00 and email it as a gift to someone else. Please take advantage of this offer.

If you don't have a Kindle, you can download a free app for Smartphones, iPhones, and iPads, as well as computers.

To borrow a copy from Amazon, you don't need a Kindle and you don't need an email from me, although I would love it if you would email me at to let me know you've borrowed it.

Sinister Bigotry

On Tuesday, a headline graphic above the Wall Street Journal’s masthead read, “The Power of Lefties.” Naturally, being a proud lefty myself, I turned immediately to page D1 where I was slapped in the face with this headline: “The Health Risks of Being Left-Handed.”

Sidebar: If any business but a newspaper had been so misleading, this would have been an instance of illegal bait-and-switch.

I have read a great deal about the health hazards of left-handedness: the worst, IMHO, is the tendency of a left-handed driver to swerve into on-coming traffic in an emergency, rather than to the right, out of harm’s way. But there’s also a huge risk of cutting yourself when you use a knife (which you have to use with your right hand because of the bevel on the blade, which is right-biased).

The WSJ article claimed, however, that lefties face a greater risk of ADHD, dyslexia, and even schizophrenia than right-handed people. Supposedly, “researchers” have conducted statistical studies to this effect and have also concluded that lefties have 10% lower IQs than righties. They claim the only possible cause of the disease of left-handedness is pre-birth trauma to mothers, who apparently suffer from surges of nasty chemicals in their systems. “Proof” of this comes from studies of identical twins who do not share the same “handedness.”

One such pair of identical twins are my maternal aunts. I have always attributed their divergent brain wiring to the original split of the embryo, which produced what my mother called “mirror twins.” I guess that idea is beneath modern “scientists.”

As for dyslexia, the fact is that I do believe it is related to left-handedness. When I was first learning to read and write, I wrote backwards and had a very hard time reading words with certain letter combinations. For instance, I remember that the word “scissors” baffled me, and it took me forever to figure out the difference between p’s and q’s. Once I realized that the rest of the world read in a different direction than I did, I was able to sort it out. However, to this day I can write backwards like Leonardo da Vinci, and I can also write upside down and backwards simultaneously with both hands. (I guess that makes me either an idiot savant or schizophrenic or both.)

As for the IQ of lefties, anyone who’s left-handed will tell you that he or she has never met another left-handed person who wasn’t brighter and more creative than average. Please don’t forget that our current president is left-handed and so is Bill Clinton. Tell them that the Bush righties are 10% smarter than they are.

Ancient Bias Against the Sinister Side

The word “sinister” derives from the Latin word for the left side. A “bar sinister” on a medieval coat of arms indicated that the owner was descended from a nobleman’s bastard son. I’ve been told by someone who has lived in Moslem countries that it is taboo to use one’s left hand in public, especially for eating, because the left hand is supposed to be used only for certain filthy, self-maintenance tasks.

I  have just completed a novel set in 1929, the Year of the Stock Market Crash, tentatively titled Snow Ghost, in which the protagonist is a left-handed typesetter. She explains to another character that parents and teachers often try to force a left-handed child to change hands, because left-handedness is highly suspect, not healthy, and improper. When I wrote that, I thought contemporary readers would be surprised to learn that left-handedness was once so despised. Foolish me.

Now Available: The protagonist of The Juror Hangs, Iris Ginge, is also left-handed. Now available on the Kindle, iPad on the iBookstore, as well as the Nook and the Sony Reader.

The Fate of the Jury—Part II, Genetically Inferior Classes of Jurors

When recently, after the Casey Anthony acquittal, legal pundits called for “professional jurors,” they probably didn’t know it, because they probably aren’t well-enough educated to know it, but the idea of a superior class of American individuals who are more-capable than the average American is a concept first articulated in the early 1900s (I won’t say ‘early 20th century,’ because legal pundits think the latter era is right now) by Social Darwinists, and ‘ “[e]litists, utopians and so-called ‘progressives,’”as Edwin Black explains in “Horrifying Roots of Nazi Eugenics,” a chapter from his War against the Weak.


Until very recently I naively believed that eugenics had been thoroughly debunked as quackery decades ago. Then someone very close to me made this chilling statement about a little girl we know:

“You have to understand: some people are just worthless; nothing can save them; nothing can even help them. They’re born that way.”

The person who said this claims to be a scientist, to understand Darwinism and genetics—thus giving him the right to make such statements. (As I have asserted before, many people who claim to be scientists are nothing but very superstitious—their superstitions involve bogus statistics rather than mysticism.)

If you have any doubts that the U.S. has long been a hotbed of eugenics, please read Wikipedia’s article on the topic, which correctly notes that one “darling” of contemporary progressives, Margaret Sanger (promoter of the birth control pill and abortion and founder of Planned Parenthood, which is now a government-funded NGO), was a eugenicist.

Sidebar: I am a proponent of “a woman’s right to choose” as a privacy issue. I’m not arguing against the right to abortion. Nor am I disparaging religious opposition to abortion on moral grounds. What I’m saying is that there have always been a large number of people who favor abortion as a means of genetic engineering. Is it a mere coincidence that, according to the Center for Disease Control in 2000, the ratio of abortions-to-live-births for African-American women is 3 times that of white women?

Eugenics in Law and Literature

Margery Allingham (1904-1966), British author of the Albert Campion mysteries, was also a eugenicist. As late as 1963, she wrote a mystery novel about a series of crimes committed by a genetically flawed child born during the Nazi bombing of London in 1940-1941. The novel is The China Governess.

In The China Governess, the mystery kicks off with a young man’s search for his genetic roots. An orphan (adopted by a gentleman of the landed-gentry, whose roots extend back to the Norman Conquest) learns just before his marriage to a wealthy heiress that he was born in the worst slum in London. Until then, he had thought he was the wealthy adoptive father’s “bastard,” as he puts it. It  panics him to think he might have inherited “tendencies, weaknesses” from an unwed, poverty-stricken mother.

Of course, in the end we learn the hero isn’t a defective after all. His mother and father were married, middle-class, and educated. His mother died in child-birth, and his father was separated from the infant during the London evacuation. The criminal in the mystery is revealed as the true child of the slums, “a poor type. . . not necessarily an imbecile. . . ,” though barely human, more “reptilian” than anything.

Now, since many modern murderers seem barely human to me, too, you might think I would find this attitude acceptable. But, saying that someone doesn’t behave up to the standards of humanity is very different from saying there are classes of humanity, some of which are inherently, grossly inferior to others. No, I would not have thought this villain was genetically inferior just because he was born in a slum or that he was destined for a life of crime.

Worse yet, Allingham also extended her class of genetic inferiors to the working classes. Here’s how the heiress fiancée of the hero describes her unexpected encounter with the masses in a tobacconist’s shop:

“Many of the women were factory workers. . . . They were . . . all hot, and laughing aloud. The brutal noise, meaningless as a bird call, reached an intensity which stunned her. . . . The uniformed factory women were imitating their men folk and swearing as they never did in the normal way when each was as it were a private person. The trickle of dirty fantasy threading through the crackle produced a shocking sound which she had not met before, and which gave her the illusion that there were no individuals present, only a single merciless personality. As the queue fed her relentlessly into the dark shop the stale, sweaty smell of leather and newsprint met her in a wave . . . .”

That’s right. She had never been inside a shop that sold tobacco and magazines before. I repeat: this was written in 1963. John F. Kennedy was President until November of that year—the heyday of liberalism, one would have thought.

Another eugenicist was poet Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) (The Spoon River Anthology), a lawyer and Clarence Darrow’s law partner in Chicago, when Darrow was accused of jury-tampering (a Los Angeles jury hearing a case of union violence against a newspaper).

EdgarLeeMasters Edgar Lee Masters wrote two epic-length, blank-verse works on the subject of eugenics, crime, and juries: Domesday Book (1920) and The Fate of the Jury (1929). In my quest for literature about juries and jurors, several years ago I found copies of these (first and only editions) at an online antiquarian bookseller’s website. Inside the front cover of the Domesday Book was the slip of paper reproduced to the left: it is Masters’ autograph. It reads: “For Alice Woodward’s copy of Domesday Book. Edgar Lee Masters  September 25-1933.” (If I were a graphologist I think I would call his handwriting rigid and say that the cross on his T looks like a whiplash.)

Sidebar: I don’t know why he called it the Domesday Book, rather than the Doomsday Book, but he did. Frankly, my guess is he pompously thought the spelling was more authentic and medieval.

The Domesday Book is a murder mystery in blank verse, which, as far as I know, makes it unique in literary history. A young woman is found dead in Illinois’ Starved Rock State Park (which has had its share of notorious murders, including “The Starved Rock Murders” of 1960.) The detective in the story, so to speak, is a coroner who calls together a jury of the leading professional men of the community to determine whether she died accidentally or as a result of homicide. In the end, it turns out that the young woman was genetically inferior and promiscuous. Her behavior had so horrified her father that the thought she might bear him a genetically inferior grandchild out of wedlock drove him to kill her. In Masters’ mind, the tragedy seems to be what the father was driven to do to save the bloodline from contamination. (Hmm, maybe that’s what George Anthony was trying to do by testifying against his daughter.)

In The Fate of the Jury, Masters follows up on how the jurors were impacted by their experience on the coroner’s jury (something that more writers ought to pay attention to). The coroner himself, unfortunately, ultimately falls in love with a “neurotic” young woman who ought not to have children for fear she would produce equally defective children.

Professional Jurors

The idea of professional jurors is an abomination. Everyone who signed the Declaration of Independence and everyone who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would roll in their graves if we permitted a class of professional jurors to decide guilt or innocence. As a consequence, I imagine there would be another earthquake on the East Coast where, as far as I know, all the Founding Fathers are buried.

Just imagine what such a class of people would be like: They would be well-educated in the law and little else, like lawyers. Paid by the state, they would be obliged to side with the state. They would feel duty-bound to make sure justice was meted out to every guilty person, and they would be able to recognize a guilty person from a mile away.

I’ve always thought lawyers were people who chose their profession so they could tell other people what to do. I’ve never been to law school, but I’m beginning to think that Law 101 must be a course in the inborn superiority of people who can tell other people what to do.

The Fate of the Jury—Part I, Coroner’s Juries

Westminster-Coroners-Court The tabloids are still full of Casey Anthony gossip, but no mention has been made of the fate of the jurors in her murder trial. After all the cries of outrage at the verdict, after all the bubble-headed pundits who saw the verdict as a sign that jury trials were obsolete, after Judge Belvin Perry, Jr., wrote to the Florida Attorney General about the folly of the “sunshine” law that compelled him to release the jurors names, now no one cares what happened to the jurors—no one but me, apparently.

Wisely, most of the jurors seem to be hiding. Foolishly, one juror has hired a publicist.

In an insightful article about the so-called “scientific evidence” presented in the Anthony trial, Matt McCusker of the American Society of Trial Consultants explained very clearly that the Anthony jury served the role it was intended to serve; it applied common sense to the arcane machinations of the law (my interpretation of Mr. McCusker’s article).

Among the so-called scientific experts who testified against Casey Anthony was the media darling, Dr. G (medical examiner Dr. Jan Garavalia—warning, link is a noisy ad). Dr. G testified that the manner of death was homicide, based on the presence of duct tape in the vicinity of the skull and the fact that the body was transported to a wooded area in a garbage bag, a.k.a. trash bag.

Of course, this is nonsense. It’s fallacious reasoning. No real scientist would draw such a conclusion. The only conceivable reason an intelligent woman would make such a claim is that she was biased toward the state’s argument, because she is a state employee. It was clearly in her self-interest to support the state’s case, and it would clearly have been personal and professional suicide to go against public opinion.

Coroners v. Medical Examiners

The office of coroner goes back almost to the Norman Conquest in England. The coroner (or “crowner”) was the king’s representative in the counties and, as such, handled legal matters. The coroner conducted inquiries into crimes in the form of trials (inquests) in which testimony was presented to a jury. In matters of unexplained deaths, the coroner’s jury decided whether the death was of natural causes, accidental, or homicide.

Sidebar: I took the photograph above earlier this year in the city of Westminster, which is a borough of London. Westminster is the seat of the British government. I found it interesting that in Westminster there is a coroner’s court, not merely a medical examiner’s office.

Medical examiners are forensic pathologists who, like coroners, are appointed at the county level in the United States. Coroners are not forensic pathologists; they can be any citizen.

Apparently, the first medical examiner’s office in this country was established in New York City in the 1940s; board-certified forensic pathologists were first recognized in 1959. Since then, the trend has been away from coroners toward medical examiners—based on a common assumption (or perhaps mythology) that medical examiners are more objective in their judgments than the layperson.

I contend that Dr. G proves otherwise.

Coroners must convince a jury of their judgments about cause and manner of death. Medical examiners need only convince a prosecutor, a lawyer who generally knows nothing about the scientific method.

When a medical examiner pronounces a death to be a homicide, then the State is free to step in and take away the liberty of any citizen it chooses to blame.

In the Casey Anthony trial, the jury played the role of a coroner’s jury and declared that the cause of death was not proven to be homicide. The cause of death could have been accidental. It could even have been natural. The medical examiner did not have sufficient evidence to determine the cause of death, and, without a cause of death, the manner of death can never be proven.

It may rankle the mob, but that is why we have a Bill of Rights.

Be careful what you wish for, and what you wish will never happen

I’ve written several times that the only two chairs in a courtroom worse than a juror’s are the defendant’s and the witnesses’. I could wish nothing worse for my enemies than being forced to testify in front of a judge. I would never wish my enemies to be charged with a crime for fear that crime would be strangling me. Now I’m faced with the possibility of having to testify in a hearing, and the thought of it has sent me into a complete panic.

I suppose I’m not even supposed to talk about the issue that may require my testimony, so I’ll just say I’ve found proof of life after death in probate court.

Why am I so afraid of swearing an oath and testifying? I’m told that a lawyer would never understand that. I’m told that most people wouldn’t mind a bit. I’m told that most people think a reluctance to testify indicates a person has something to hide. Well, I have nothing to hide. I don’t feel I need to lie about anything. That isn’t the source of my anxiety.

Fear of Telling the Truth?

The belief behind the idea is that guilty people fear telling the truth, so they lie. But it’s also possible to fear making a mistake and inadvertently lying or even to fear that when you tell the truth you may not be believed.

I would never agree to take a lie detector test, for that reason, and that doesn’t make me guilty of anything. Even the law recognizes that lie detectors are not reliable determiners of veracity. Lie detector results aren’t allowed in court. But if a situation arose in which the cops felt it was a good idea to strap me into a lie detector, the situation would have to be dire, and as a consequence I would no doubt be as distraught as I am right now. That distress would undoubtedly register with the lie detector. The lines would jump up and down like crazy, even when they asked me my name.

Ken Alder’s The Lie Detectors is a fascinating, novelistic account of the invention and promotion of the lie detector among law enforcement. Alder concludes that “The lie detector and its progeny have been repeatedly denounced by respectable science—but since when has that stopped millions of Americans from believing in something, especially when the public media breathlessly extol its successes?”

Fear of Swearing an Oath

I wouldn’t like to be told to raise my right hand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—whether it was “so help me, God” or not. I’m a word-monger and a literalist. I take words very seriously. I could swear to tell the truth, but only as I know it; since I’m not omniscient I would have some trouble with the simple oath to “tell the truth.” I could not swear with an easy conscience to tell “the whole truth,” not only because I lack omniscience but also because I know the whole truth is very complicated and it would take me a very long time to tell the whole truth as I know it and I doubt that any judge would sit idly by while I rambled on and on (as I am now). And I would feel uneasy about telling “nothing but the truth,” since I might inadvertently tell something untrue or half true.

When I was sworn in as a juror, the clerk recited a very bizarre oath, which I must say I swore to “with mental reservations,” in the old sense of the word.  It had something to do with the “eyes of the all-seeing God.” I said, “I do,” when I didn’t have a clue what she meant by that, and I was literally sweating the whole time. A lie detector would have jumped off its chart.

Historically, “mental reservations” were the “out” used by Christians to avoid punishment for refusing to swear an oath. Mental reservations were a way of crossing your fingers while you hand was raised to swear an oath. By holding mental reservations, the Deity would understand that you intended to tell the truth or perform an honorable act (such as taking a high office) but that you did not necessarily mean the words of the oath literally.

In time, the authorities caught on and added to every oath the words “without mental reservation.” That precipitated a crisis of faith for some people. Many Protestants did not believe in oaths of any kind. The swearing of an oath was an act of faith for Catholics and some Protestants but a denial of faith for others. It’s rather like the controversy now over whether or not to lay one’s hand on the Bible (or Koran) when taking the oath of office.

So, I’m not the only person who starts shaking when asked to raise her right hand and swear. And I’m not the only person who would flunk a lie detector test even if all I was asked was my name or who would refuse to take one in the first place.

Honestly, if I’m called to testify I’ll have to take Valium to get through the experience.

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What would you do if you found your father after 50 years?

When I was 11 years and 1 week old, my father died in an auto accident. For whatever reason, my mother (who died this year) refused to discuss him or his life or his family with me. She lied to me and said my father’s half-brother refused to attend the funeral (although I now know he was a pallbearer), and she refused to take me to the funeral. Not only that, she would not take me to visit his grave, although almost 40 years later my sister said she visited the grave with my mother often.

Last week I discovered that Marquette University owns a scrapbook of my uncle’s that contains 43 of my father’s letters from World War II. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and received a battlefield commission, which was awarded at Fontainebleau.

I’ve just begun reading my father’s letters. To me, as a child, he was a rather formidable father, not a person. Now I’m learning about his love of his parents and brother, whom he called “my bud.” I’m learning who he was as a person. He writes about his father, a “peculiar man” who was the son of a U. S. Deputy Marshal in Indian Territory. He worries about his mother, a Native American woman who “passed” for white and who ultimately was excluded from his wedding to my mother, because my mother’s mother was a racist (and, ironically, discovered in time that she had married a Jew).

I am overwhelmed.

Trauma or decomposition at fault for spate of jogger-less feet?

Voice of Sanity tells me:

“Decomposition. ‘Not by trauma’ means no signs of cutting. There's been considerable discussion of this in BC. The head and limbs don't bloat up like the torso so they tend to sink, however the runners provide some flotation. It's still very puzzling.” (He also recommends this Wikipedia article, which is indeed very interesting: )

The actual quote by the coroner Stephen Fonseca to which I referred was: “Foul play was not suspected because there was no sign of trauma.” Since I have a low opinion of medical examiners, I failed to note that the idiotic remark was made not by a medical examiner but by a “coroner,” who may or may not be a physician or pathologist.

It is obvious that the people in question who lost their feet did so after they were dead, and the only way they could possibly have died was after a traumatic event. Drowning is a trauma. Drowned bodies show signs of the trauma in their lungs and eyeballs, so obviously there would be “no sign of trauma” on a drowning victim’s feet. One of the feet was in a hiking boot. The least sinister explanation for this is that a hiker on a cliff overlooking the shore slipped and fell to his death. This trauma could have resulted in the same trauma a person would suffer by jumping to their death from a tall building—but much trauma, nonetheless, and not likely to the feet.

It seems to me that the only way anyone’s foot could rot off their submerged body is if they first suffered a traumatic event.

It is absurd to say that  there is no reason to suspect “foul play.”

Sidebar: If Dr. G. had testified in Casey Anthony’s murder trial that the manner of death was “some form of foul play,” I would have agreed. A reasonable person could easily conclude that a crime had to have been committed when a child’s body was found in a trash bag in a wooded area near her mother’s home. (But it could have been merely improper disposal of a body.)

As in the Anthony case,  the causes of death for the athletic-shoed feet are unknown and, therefore, so is the manner of death: they could have died accidentally of drowning, or as a result of suicide, or homicide.

However, since few people wear athletic shoes while swimming, it is highly unlikely that they all drowned accidentally. Yes, some people do wear athletic shoes instead of boat shoes when boating, and people on cruise ships might wear them on deck. But such people would have been reported missing, and DNA testing could match the feet with the victims.

Most of the explanations provided in the article have not been scientifically proven to be possible. For instance, how does anyone know a foot could travel 1000 miles on ocean currents?

The idea that the feet may have come mainly from the 2004 tsunami isn’t reasonable, either. Two of the feet have been tentatively identified as belonging to people from British Columbia. Two of the feet are from the same woman, and the odds of two feet from a tsunami victim winding up in the same place are astronomical.

In addition these feet have all been found in the past four years and all in a relatively small area given the enormity of the oceans on this planet and the length of their shorelines.

I think a better remark from a coroner might have been: “Foul play cannot be ruled out in any of these cases.”

Maybe the ME’s Office in Knoxville, TN, isn’t the worst in the world.

I was preparing a blog post about the decades’ long problems with medical examiners in Knoxville, TN, when an article on a CNN blog caught my eye: “Canadian Floating Feet Mystery Deepens.” I urge you to read it, if you have any reasonable doubt that juries ought to listen to medical examiners’ courtroom testimony with a great deal of skepticism. (Think Dr. G’s claim that Caylee’s remains proved the manner of death was homicide.)

If you don’t care to read such a gruesome article, here is the punch line:

“For the 11th time in the past four years, a human foot in a sport shoe was found on a Pacific Northwest shoreline. . . . ‘These human remains did not show any evidence of trauma whatsoever,’ CBC quoted [Medical Examiner Stephen] Fonseca as saying.”

Okay, doc, exactly how did the foot become detached from the ankle if it was not by trauma?

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Literary Criticism and the Casey Anthony Trial

Ever asked yourself why Borders is bankrupt? No, I haven’t either, because I know why it’s bankrupt: their supplier, the American publishing industry, is intellectually and morally bankrupt. American publishers have been shoving garbage down America’s throats for decades and gifting their friends with 6- and 7-figure book deals while paying only pennies to serious professional writers.

You don’t agree?

Casey Anthony prosecutor Jeff Ashton has announced a book deal with William Morrow for a 256-page hardcover titled Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony. It will go on sale before Christmas so we can all give copies to our friends and relatives. (What a nice gift to find under the Christmas tree!)

Sidebar: I suspect William Morrow is hoping for a holiday hit, but the year-end holidays aren’t the top holiday for book sales. That’s Mother’s Day (I kid you not). Hmm. Casey Anthony on Mother’s Day.

Since Ashton and his publisher have already decided on a list price and know the total number of pages, that tells us he finished the manuscript weeks ago.  The verdict in the trial was announced only 8 weeks ago on July 5. Assuming Ashton spent six weeks full-time on the manuscript and that the average 300-page book is about 60,000 words, then Ashton cranked out about 1,429 words per day with no breaks.

On a good day, I can write 2,000 words, but I spend a horrific amount of time on revisions after the manuscript is done. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I can’t whip out 500 good words in a morning. But, of course, maybe Ashton is some kind of “savant” and, of course, I’m no Jane Austen.

Why Ashton and Not Baez?

Jeff Ashton will go down in history—if at all—as a loser. The only reason William Morrow gave him a contract is for the cache of Casey Anthony’s name. Ashton is feeding at the same trough as all the other exploiters of the death of Caylee Anthony.

The person they ought to have offered a book deal was the lawyer who pulled off one of the greatest coups in legal history, Jose Baez (who appears to be in talks with agents now). I might read a book by winner Baez; clearly he’s taking his time to do it right. He also understands that anything he says or writes now, during the appeals, can only hurt his client. (I wonder if Ashton gave any thought to how his book might affect the appeal of the lying charges.)

Linda Drane Burdick could probably write a good tell-all behind-the-scenes book, too, about how Ashton flubbed it. Early on in the trial, media commentators said, “This is really her case, not Ashton’s.” Then, as the trial progressed, it became obvious that Ashton loved the limelight too much to sit in the background while she handled “her case” quite competently. Instead, Ashton relegated Ms. Drane Burdick to the role of arguing the law before Judge Perry while the jury was out of the courtroom.

Ashton lost the case. He made a mess of the forensic evidence. The jury knew this.

Sidebar: One of my favorite moments in the trial was when Jose Baez cross-examined forensic entomologist Dr. Neal Haskell and nagged him into making the incredibly stupid claim that “There’s a difference between garbage and trash.” I’m sure everyone on the jury thought as I did that the scientist must think we’re all incredibly stupid to try that one on us. But Jeff Ashton believed it and repeated the testimony during his closing.

Even so, a Jose Baez book could not have saved Borders. Not even a book by the infamous evil-doer herself could have done that. By the time any of us first heard of Casey Anthony, Borders was doomed, because American publishers publish very little worth reading.

Hot Air and Forensic Science

Some time ago in response to my statement that (like one of the jurors who spoke to the press) I suspected Casey Anthony might have used chloroform as a babysitter, blogger “Voice of Sanity” contacted me:

'Easy' to concoct is arguable - it is 'easy' to accidentally produce phosgene, a deadly gas, instead. DuPont had a release from their plant, killing a worker. VOS

Two chemistry professors in this video clip from In Session disagree: they claim that not only is it easy to concoct, chloroform is also released from chlorinated swimming-pool water and lingers for a very long time in enclosed spaces, such as a car trunk and a sealed can (used by Orlando CSI’s to capture the gases in the air of the trunk and later tested at Oak Ridge National Labs and the FBI lab). (They also admit that pure chloroform is hard to make, but for most people’s purposes the purity is irrelevant.)

Two pieces of evidence presented at trial hinted that Casey Anthony might have used chloroform to sedate her daughter:

  • a computer search for “how to make chloroform” found on the Anthony-family computer
  • a minute amount of chloroform detected in the air in the car trunk

Unfortunately for the prosecution, the evidence did nothing more than hint; the defense thoroughly shredded the forensic analysis of both the computer search and the air in the trunk—and the jury understood this.

Now that I’ve had time to think about it, the chloroform junk should never have been admitted into evidence. It was nothing but hot air. I am absolutely certain now that chloroform played no role in Caylee Anthony’s death, but not because of the difficulty or ease of concocting it at home.

The idea that chloroform might have been used as a murder weapon came initially from a poorly conducted computer forensics analysis of the Anthony hard drive. First, a police officer created a report listing all the Google searches on the hard drive. He found nothing sinister other than a single search on “how to make chloroform.” Because he did not know how to use the analysis software properly, he put the report he had generated aside for almost a year before asking a real software expert to look at, but he did initiate an investigation into the presence of chloroform in the remains and the “crime scene” (the wooded area and the car). The remains and the wooded area produced no hint of chloroform.

Some time later, forensic anthropologist Voss from Oak Ridge examined the air in the trunk in hopes of discovering it contained gases that would prove a human body had decomposed there, one byproduct of which is chloroform. He ran a test on the air using a gas chronometer/mass spectrometer: an instrument that determines the chemical makeup of a substance. Voss found chloroform in the sample—as expected, since he had been told that a body had decomposed in the trunk.

But he did not conduct a test to determine how much chloroform or any other single chemical was in the sample. Instead, all he did was determine that chloroform was present and was the dominant gas in the sample.

And here is where logic flew out the window: Voss assumed the air was filled with the gases of human decomposition, but his studies of the gases of human composition had never before shown that chloroform was the dominant gas. Therefore, he concluded, most of the chloroform in the car trunk sample must have come from some other source than the victim’s body.

Since he was also told that chloroform intoxication was suspected as the cause of death (because of the Google search), he ran to the prosecution with his GSMS readouts—and a theory of the crime was formed.

Let’s look at the prosecution’s syllogism again:

  1. The gas in the car trunk was from the decomposing body of a child killed with chloroform (a faulty premise).
  2. The gas in the car trunk was composed of too much chloroform to have come entirely from the process of decomposition (if you believe Voss’s database).
  3. Ergo: chloroform was the murder weapon.


There was nothing fishy about the Google search for “how to make chloroform,” because it was made in the context of someone’s visit to the Facebook page of one of Casey Anthony’s boyfriends who had written a remark about winning girls over with chloroform.

There was nothing fishy about the findings of a very, very minute amount of chloroform in the air of a smelly car trunk. Chloroform is present in many common household products and produced by the decomposition of mammal flesh, such as pork chops. It’s even present in pool water in which the child could have drowned, as the defense claimed.

Casey Anthony’s bizarre behavior after her child’s death compels me to believe she felt guilty about something. Her mother’s apparently false testimony about being the one who searched for “how to make chloroform” makes me wonder if she doesn’t suspect Casey used chloroform as a babysitter.

But there is no evidence at all—not a shred—that chloroform had anything to do with Caylee Anthony’s death.

So, I still feel Casey Anthony felt responsible for her daughter’s death—even if it was because she didn’t keep an eye on Caylee when she most needed to, and Caylee sneaked out of the house one June morning to go swimming alone.

The Casey Anthony trial should be a wake-up call to the forensic science community: a few more public spectacles like it will sour the public on the whole profession. “Forensics” may produce intriguing clues the likes of which Sherlock Holmes would delight in, but clues aren’t evidence. Detectives need to get back to basics. Prosecutors need to learn to respect juries and present them with solid cases.

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Medicare to the American People: “Die Slowly and Miserably!”

This post has nothing to do with crime or courts. It has to do with laws, though, and specifically the laws surrounding death.

In the past five years I’ve had to manage the deaths of two members of my immediate family. I use the word “manage” advisedly, because neither of them died instantly—no car wrecks, no heart attacks, no strokes. They died slowly while enmeshed in bureaucratic red tape.

Because of government regulations, my loved ones died traumatically.

Through this process I learned that while Alan Grayson may have been correct when he said Republicans want us all to “Die Quickly!,” the flip side of the death coin is that Democrats want us all to “Die Slowly!” and according to the rules set out by government agencies.

Sidebar: I have tried to warn everyone I know about the horrors awaiting them when their elderly parents begin to die, but no one will listen. Most people assume their parents have “taken care of things already”: that they have insurance, they have a living will, they have a regular will, they have siblings or relatives or neighbors who are watching out for them, or “they have long-term health-care insurance.” But I guess you have to go through it to understand that none of those “preparations” are a parachute. The government takes charge, no matter what the living will says, or the will says, or the insurance policies say, or even what the dying person says. So, I’m writing this as a public service. Ignore this post at your own peril!

Americans are not free to choose the way they die, any more than a condemned murderer can choose between the gas chamber and lethal injection.

Conventional wisdom says that when a person knows she’s going to die and her family knows, then mercifully they all have time to “come to terms” with the end of life. Conventional wisdom believes dying slowly is a good thing.

As usual, conventional wisdom isn’t wise. Dying slowly is just one damn thing after another.

Hospitals and Terminal Illness

When a person is admitted to a hospital for diagnosis of a serious problem, one of several bureaucracies tells the patient’s doctor what to do:

  • if the patient has private insurance, then the insurance company takes charge
  • if the patient is uninsured and eligible for Medicaid, then Medicaid takes charge
  • if the patient is insured through the Veterans Administration or Medicare, then the VA or Medicare takes charge

In all cases, the doctor’s first task is to diagnose the illness as quickly and inexpensively as possible. If the diagnosis is that the patient has a terminal illness, the doctor’s next task is to make a prognosis: how long will the patient live?

How Long Has He Got?

The nature of the terminal disease is all important in determining how long it will take for a patient to die. A patient with heart disease or cancer is especially problematic, because few definitive tests are available. Most doctors can only estimate how long it will take for a given patient to die, and the estimate is just that—an estimate.

This is the first catch in the system: unless the estimate is that death is imminent (6 months or less) the patient cannot be put into hospice care immediately, even though that is the most-humane thing to do. Why? Because the insurers and the government don’t cover hospice care if the patient could live longer than that. (And, BTW, Alan Grayson is sadly mistaken if he thinks the people in charge of hospice care are Republicans.)

Discharge from a Hospital to Hell

If the patient has private insurance, then an accountant in the hospital will consult the insurance company to determine what treatments are covered and how many days’ stay in the hospital are covered. Normally, no insurance covers hospital stays unless their purpose is for diagnosis and treatment. As soon as a terminal prognosis is made, the patient is promptly discharged from the hospital and for a limited time sent to a skilled-nursing home of the patient’s choice (approved by the insurance company) for “recuperation” from the hospital visit.

Sidebar: A friend told me that when her uncle was diagnosed as having a terminal illness, at his bedside and in front of him the doctor told her, “He can’t die in the hospital.” After that she had to scurry around to find a suitable nursing home for recuperation.It makes you wonder why state governments bother to collect statistics about the recovery rates at hospitals, doesn’t it? They kick out anybody who’s dying. 

If a hospital patient is on Medicaid or VA benefits when a terminal prognosis is made, a Medicaid or VA social worker will take charge. The patient will be discharged to a Medicaid-or-VA-approved skilled-nursing home for a limited period of time—if the patient is on Medicare, then to a Medicare-approved skilled-nursing home.

Recuperation in Skilled Nursing Facilities

Every stay in a nursing home for recuperation from a terminal prognosis by a hospital is a bureaucratic sham.

It is also a waste of money.

But that’s what our wonderful government insists on. The way the bureaucracy sees it: if you go into a hospital with a serious illness, then you cannot go home immediately even if you want to so you can die in privacy. You have to go into a bureaucracy-approved skilled-nursing home to lie in a hospital bed in a ward filled with other dying people so there can be no doubt in your dying brain that you aren’t long for this world.

Why does this happen? The government makes money from this: each skilled nursing home is licensed by the state and approved by the bureaucracies for a fee. The state and the bureaucracies employ thousands of people, including social workers, to inspect these facilities; they employ thousands of managers to oversee the social workers and other employees; and they collect income taxes from the money the dying pay or cause insurers to pay to these facilities.

Catch 22: You can never recuperate in a skilled-nursing home if you are dying.

So what happens when the social worker in the nursing home figures out that you aren’t getting any better?

Well, it’s simple: the social worker notifies the insurer, whether a private company or a government bureaucracy such as the VA, Medicaid, or Medicare. When the insurer hears that the patient isn’t getting any better under the care of the skilled nurses (surprise, surprise), then the insurer cuts off benefits.

Let me stress this fact: decisions about benefits are not made by doctors, nurses, or patients but by social workers and accountants. And “benefits” are all those things you need to die painlessly.

When benefits are cut off—usually with only a few days notice—the patient has to leave the nursing home or find a way to pay for an extended stay out of his or her own pocket. This is where the patient with private insurance is really screwed, because such patients usually have an estate (property, savings, investments) that disqualify them from Medicaid benefits that would permit an extended stay at government expense.

This is also where long-term health care insurance can kick in if the patient has it. The problem is that every elderly person I’ve known who enters a nursing home wants to leave it as soon as possible, not lie there and rot in a ward of dying people. Everyone would prefer to die at home in their own bed with hospice services.


At the point when a dying patient is dropped by the insurance company or government insurance agency, the family (if there is one) suddenly finds themselves in a horrible bind. (Not that they weren’t suffering already.)

In my experience, though, it is at this point that the family realizes they have few, if any, options. Not many people have the wherewithal to take responsibility for the care of a dying person in their home or the patient’s home. (The friend I mentioned earlier actually took care of her uncle in his home with the help of a paid companion until hospice services could be provided for him there. That a family should choose to do this is rare. Most families in that situation would have to endure months of a heavy burden with a dying relative in their own home.)

This is also the point at which the family may understand for the first time that they’ve been railroaded—by the doctors, the hospitals, the nursing homes, the social workers, the bureaucrats. All along most of these people have been smiling at them and saying, “There’s nothing to worry about. We deal with these issues all the time. Let us take care of things. You don’t have to contact Medicare (or Medicaid or the VA or the insurance company); we do that. We bill them directly. Everything’s covered,” and the naive family member sighs with relief.

Then the bill comes in the mail, and the notice of termination of benefits, and the demands for a personal guarantee of the patient’s pharmaceutical costs—with a requirement that your signature be notarized and witnessed by two other people.

Suddenly the bureaucrats turn blank stares upon you, when you ask where exactly the patient should go now that he or she can’t stay in the nursing home any longer.

Where to Die for More Than Six Months?

This is the single most-important question everyone should ask themselves today: where will I go to die?

Over a decade ago I heard for the first time about hospice care. Someone close to my mother died in hospice care. It sounded like a wonderful institution. But I didn’t give it any more thought than that—and this was a huge mistake.

Hospice care isn’t a place; it’s a service. Hospice workers go into a dying patient’s residence when the prognosis is that the patient has six months or less to live.

Hospice is only available through an insurer. In other words, if a patient has private insurance, then the insurer must cover hospice care or else hospice care isn’t available at all. If the patient is elderly, then hospice care is covered by Medicare or if destitute by state-specific Medicaid. There’s no such thing as private hospice, because of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement requirements. It’s the law.

Remember, hospice is only available if the patient has less than six months to live. If the attending physician can’t make that determination, then the dying patient has to go somewhere without the benefit of hospice-workers’ assistance. That means in many cases that a family member must care for the dying patient until a hospice social worker or nurse can be convinced that the patient’s condition has deteriorated sufficiently.

“That should be easy to do,” you say. Oh, yeah?

When my mother was diagnosed with a form of cancer that is inevitably fatal and was already in terminal, stage four, the doctors and nurses caring for her said, “To look at her you wouldn’t know she was sick at all.” The doctors gave her from “a few months to two years to live.” Hence, no hospice.

VA Hospice Benefits

One of my dying relatives was covered by the VA. Because I didn’t know anything about skilled nursing homes or hospice at the time, the terminal illness became a bureaucratic nightmare. If you have a relative who may be eligible for VA benefits, find out now. Find out what end-of-life care coverage the patient is entitled to.

VA hospitals don’t want anyone to die in the hospital any more than private hospitals do. They will try to kick your loved one out as fast or faster than a private hospital will. But to make things worse, there is no length to which the VA will not go to be able to ship the patient off to a nursing home if the patient has no living will that permits them to withhold life-sustaining treatments or is competent and requests treatment. (Some people don’t want to die, you know.)

My veteran relative became convinced—as a result of poor communication skills on the part of the case social worker—that because the VA would cover several weeks recuperation in a skilled nursing facility, it meant the disease was not terminal after all.

When Hospice Kicks In and You Kick the Bucket

My recent experience with hospice was not a good one. The hospice “team” (as they called themselves) bullied us all into doing what they wanted us to do, not what we wanted to do. At one point they even told me that I would not be “a good person” unless I followed their instructions—instructions that would have put a huge strain on my whole family’s emotional resources. I bowed to their demands.

The determination that hospice-care was called for, in this case, came from the administrator of the retirement community in which my mother lived—a bureaucrat, not a doctor. She contacted a hospice service (of her choice, not the patient’s or the patient’s family). As it turned out, my mother died in less than two weeks after the hospice care was initiated; and no one could tell that death was imminent until less than 48 hours before she died.

After the administrator’s first call, a hospice admissions nurse then visited the patient to make sure she was going to die soon enough. After that a social worker called me to introduce herself as the “team manager.” She demanded to know the most-intimate details of the patient’s life and our family. She also asked whether a pastor should visit the patient, but, even though I recommended no such visit, a “sister” soon showed up at the bedside to pray and sing hymns, which—had the patient been conscious at the time—would have disturbed her immeasurably.

Every day, a hospice nurse called me to describe the patient’s condition. Among the “comforting” tidbits the nurses shared with me was that dehydration (from lack of fluids) and starvation (because the patient’s stomach was involved in the cancer) cause the brain to produce endorphins, thus making dehydration and starvation pleasant. The nurses and social worker also decided when and what medications to administer. When the patient fell unconscious and began moaning, they decided more pain medication was unnecessary; instead they administered anti-anxiety drugs.

Finally, the social worker decided when a vigilant was required at the bedside. She also ordered my brother and I to get there as quickly as possible and to do some other things I would rather not discuss in public.

I was so distraught at that point that I blindly obeyed. It wasn’t until my mother died that I realized what bullshit it all was.

My dying mother and her family had no say whatsoever in how she was cared for after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Accountants and social workers made all the decisions. All of them. And at each step they decided to spend the least amount of money they could, to provide the least amount of care they could, and to administer the least amount of medication they could. They even decided that a woman who could best be described as a wiccan should have a Catholic nun pray and sing at her bedside.

Law and Disorder, Spread the Wealth, and Kristallnacht

The justice system only works if criminals are “brought to justice.” When crimes are committed by mobs of criminals, there’s little hope of that ever happening. While the media continue to fret over Casey Anthony’s “freedom,” mobs of violent criminals are storming through the streets here and in England—and getting away with murder more certainly than she did.

I suppose that’s what troubles me most about the American justice system these days: prosecutors and judges can’t distinguish between law-breakers who make serious mistakes for which they should be duly punished (not executed) and law-breakers who have no concept of the law at all. The justice system is so heavily politicized that it gravitates to sensational, personal tragedies in which beautiful young women are involved as either the criminal or the victim. The system can’t recognize, let alone cope with, national tragedies and the breakdown of social cohesion.

The media, of course, can only deal with simple, little things—like a plastic bag with a child’s bones in it or the disappearance of beautiful blond girls on the island of Aruba. And they are obliged for profit purposes to cover only crimes committed in states where cameras are allowed in courtrooms. So, whatever happens in Florida is big news, but crimes in Illinois are nothing (even when the fourth governor since 1973 is now in jail, three of whom were Democrats, not Republicans).

But Casey Anthony was never anything more than a disturbed girl who neglected or abused her child to death and then tried to cover it up. We’re ignoring whole cultures of young people who are committing violent crimes against not only individuals but society who never will be brought before a jury for justice.

London Riots

Last week I was in London and a nearby town on the nights of rioting. I don’t know how the riots were covered here in America, but the media coverage in England was very, very strange.

At first when the riot was contained to the Tottenham Court neighborhood, the media chewed their white knuckles and puzzled over the reasons why young people would do such things: “Why? Surely this isn’t going to continue. This isn’t the beginning of a rebellion, an English Spring?”

Tottenham Court is a central tube station in London—not a slum neighborhood. While buildings burned overhead at street level, I and hordes of other tourists passed through the station. The trains didn’t stop at Tottenham Court. Instead the conductors said, “A fire alarm has been sounded at the next stop. The train will stop but not open its doors.” And “Due to circumstances at this time there will be no service to Tottenham Court.”

The next day, video of the riots showed that the rioters weren’t just any and all young people. They were minorities who clearly were of immigrant families from former English colonies in Jamaica and South Asia or the Middle East. The victims were also minority immigrants. These weren’t race riots against white oppressors. They weren’t riots against austerity measures—because the rioters aren’t affected by Britain’s budget cuts.

They were riots of “pensioners,” young people “on the dole,” “on benefits,” people with no jobs—not because they can’t find work. They don’t want to work. Why should they? They don’t need to work, because they are given everything they want.

The next night the riots spread to cities like Nottingham, which I visited several years ago. In those days, there was a riot every Friday and Saturday night in Nottingham. Nothing burned; the young people got drunk and went wilding. In the lobby of the hotel where I was staying a brawl broke out at a wedding party. In smaller cities like Nottingham, for many years the young people have behaved as if it was Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale every weekend.

In the small city where I was last week, Colchester (the oldest town in England), the proprietor of the bed and breakfast where I stayed was so concerned about street violence that he closed the English Civil War-era shutters (last used in the Siege of Colchester in the seventeenth century) for the first time since he had owned the building. Fortunately, there were no riots in Colchester. But neither is there a large immigrant population, and its young people tend to be serious students at the highly technical University of Essex. (Yes, they got drunk and staggered through the streets at night, but they did no harm.)

Eventually the London media learned that the London mayor and chief of police had told the cops during the Tottenham Court riots not to arrest anyone “lest they hurt someone.” As a result, of course, the rioters did not get hurt—only innocents did. Several young people were killed. Some were raped. Businesses were destroyed so that their employees can now enjoy the “benefits.”

Soon afterwards the Prime Minister called on his cabinet to return from their vacations to deal with the crisis. A few of them came home to London. Many did not. The mayor of London finally issued orders to arrest rioters. The rioting promptly stopped.

Over the next few days they began to identify the looters and most violent of the criminals from CCTV surveillance videos. One of the arrested rioters was a 15-year-old boy whose young mother “didn’t know where he was at two in the morning.” (The media were careful to say, though, they “did not want to stigmatize single mothers.” I guess they would have treated Casey Anthony with more respect, too.)

The victims were identified, too—young people who were murdered, rape victims, the owner of a modest family-run department store that was burned to the ground. This is significant—it wasn’t Harrad’s or Selfridges that burned. It was a smallish store, but one just big enough to look as if its owners were richer than the rioters.

Eventually the Prime Minister and others began to call for a withdrawal of “benefits” from the rioters. For those who don’t know, in England no one has to work or pay for their own homes. The government provides not only a living stipend to anyone who wants it but also any home they want to live in. For instance, it was revealed last week that a refugee Somali family was living in a 2 million pound home in the neighborhood of actress Emma Thompson at taxpayer expense (the pound is worth more than the dollar is today). How many unemployed people do you know who live in a $2 million home? Or for that matter how many employed people?

Kristallnacht All Over Again

In Nazi Germany in 1938, one night gangs of youths stormed through Jewish neighborhoods, rioting, looting, smashing shop windows, killing. That night was known as Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) because of the shattered glass that lay everywhere afterwards.

Kristallnacht was one of the most evil events in modern history. It happened because the Nazi government in Germany made it crystal clear to the youthful thugs of the era that they were entitled to take whatever they wanted as long as it was from Jews, to destroy anything Jews had, to rape and kill Jews.

In England the government has made it crystal clear to youthful thugs that they don’t have to get a job, they don’t have to do anything, and everything is theirs to destroy or take, as they choose.

I have been to England several times over four decades. This most-recent visit was the first time I hated being in London. I hated walking on the streets, because the crowds of young people wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence; they shouldered and elbowed me aside; they bashed me with their handbags; they pushed me through turnstiles. The underground was a nightmare: it was hellishly hot; half the stops were under construction and inaccessible because of “upgrades” for next year’s Olympics; several times I found myself in long, narrow, low-ceilinged tunnels pressed up against crowds of people who were at a complete standstill because there weren’t enough trains. It was even worse than my memories of New York City in the Sixties and Seventies. (In those days, it was before anyone Red heart‘ed New York.)

And all the English politeness and exactitude was gone, too. No one seemed to know what they were doing. The trains were all late. The signs displaying times and destinations were wrong. No one knew how to get from point A to point B. Every question and request for assistance or directions was met with a sigh, a head shake, a rebuke: “What does the sign say? Isn’t that what the sign says?”

For the first time, I came home to the Chicago area feeling relieved to be out of England. Then, guess what happened?

Kristallnacht came to Chicago, but now it isn’t only Jews who are the targets—it’s everybody who owns anything.

A group of men “of mixed ethnicity” (or a flash mob, if you prefer) forced their way into a private home in broad daylight less than three blocks from my suburban home. Apparently the home was picked on a whim by a carload of thugs who just happened to be passing by on the Illinois state highway that runs through Chicago’s western suburbs. It isn’t a road that looks like a highway; it’s a very old road that connects with a nearby interstate, only two lanes with a 25-mile-per-hour speed limit. The town is Victorian-era.  The street is residential and lined with ancient oaks and elms.

(The local police chief is now playing down the incident. Instead of portraying it as a home invasion as he originally did, he’s now claiming it was one of a previously unreported series of “ruse burglaries” in which burglars claim to be utility workers in order to gain access to homes. My, that really calms my fears.)

I knew that for the past year Chicago’s “Gold Coast” area along Lake Michigan had been targeted by flash mobs of youths from the South Side. But I had never before heard of a flash mob invading a private home. Have you?

In Chicago the flash mobs get on the subway and ride up to North Michigan Avenue where the most-exclusive shops and luxury hotels are. They flood into designer-clothing shops and in plain view of surveillance cameras try on clothes and then just walk out with them. As in London, the cops are being told to “let it be.” The mayor has pulled most of the cops off the streets because of budget issues, and retailers have to employ private security firms for protection.

Why do they do it? Because they can. Why did the Somali family move into actress Emma Thompson’s neighborhood? When asked they claimed not to speak English and refused to explain why.

The real question is why do politicians let people get away with this kind of behavior? IMHO, it’s because politicians aren’t incented to do anything but get reelected—just as prosecutors and judges aren’t incented to do anything but convict and execute high-profile defendants.

Chicago flash mobs clearly feel entitled to spread the wealth around as they see fit. They clearly do not respect private property. I can only suppose their thinking goes like this: if it’s offered for sale to the public and the flash mobbers are the public, then they must be entitled to the goods, even if they can’t pay for them.

On the East Coast, I’ve heard that flash mobs are targeting 7-Elevens and other quick-stop stores. It isn’t surprising, is it? If it’s okay to take luxury goods, it must be okay to take cheap stuff, too.

But what made the flash mob that invaded the home in my neighborhood think they were entitled to what was inside a randomly chosen suburban house? I guess we’re back to the days of “Eat the Rich,” but now “the rich” are anyone who has more than you do—even if it’s more they earned by selling Slurpies at a 7-Eleven.

This is anarchy. These criminals will never be brought to justice. No jury will ever hear their side of the story. The victims will never be compensated. Meanwhile, in Florida, law enforcement and the justice system whine on and on about Casey Anthony and how her jailors stupidly signed papers admitting she served her probation for a minor check fraud crime while being held on other charges.

Apologies to subscribers for inadvertent, incomplete post.

I need a new blogging program.

If you could ask a prospective juror one question, what should it be?

Self-insights are usually few and far between, but recently thanks to the Casey Anthony trial I’ve had several.  Perhaps the most significant is an insight into why this “Hanged Juror” can’t find many judges or prosecutors to admire.

Sidebar: If you’ve read The Juror Hangs you know the last two characters in the novel to figure out what really happened are the judge and the prosecutor. Even the meter maid who tickets jurors’ cars outside the courthouse figures it out sooner.

Until yesterday’s epiphany, all the furor over the Anthony jury’s verdict and over the defense attorneys’ bills, and the utter bafflement of the judge and prosecutors, made no sense to me. What was I missing that everybody else in America saw? Why was I once-again so out-of-the-mainstream?

Then—flash! I got it. It isn’t me that’s missing something. It’s all those people out there who have never served on a criminal jury, especially one involving a serious crime: civil trials don’t put the same stresses on jurors; civil judges have less stake in the outcome; there are no prosecutors in civil trials, only plaintiffs.

1995 B. J. D. (Before Jury Duty)

Before I served on a criminal-trial jury, like everybody else I followed O. J. Simpson’s murder trial. I learned about hair-and-fiber experts, about blood-spatter experts, and all about DNA evidence—for the first time. I fell under the spell of CSI evidence. I was convinced that wife-beater O. J. did it, and I was shocked like 80% of the public when he got off.

2011 A. J. D. (After Jury Duty)

But by the time I served on a jury in 2005, the media had already sensationalized family tragedies of ordinary citizens (Laci Peterson’s family), investigators had already proven their incompetence (the murder of JonBenet Ramsey), and prosecutors had already over-reached (the Nanny Murder Trial).

So I was already skeptical when I raised my hand and swore “by the eyes of the all-seeing God” (I kid you not) to follow the law as the judge explained it to me. Of course, at that moment I still believed the judge would also explain to me the statutes as written by my elected representatives.

What This Juror Thinks

Yesterday I realized what it is about judges and lawyers that drives me crazy: they all want to tell me what to think. Not just tell me what to do—although they clearly want to be in charge, too.

Big Brother

Everyone in a courtroom except the defendant and the jurors thinks it’s their job to tell everybody else what to do. Who in a courtroom isn’t involved in law or law enforcement? Even the clerk of the court probably loves telling everybody, “All rise.”

Sidebar: I suppose the court stenographer isn’t particularly interested in telling anyone what to do or think. Instead I suspect that anyone who spends most of their productive, waking hours listening to and transcribing what other people say has a thought-avoidance problem. For what other reason would a sentient being want to make a career of transcribing other people’s thoughts?)

All the denizens of the courtroom believe it’s their job to tell the jury what to think and what to do. And that’s why Judge Perry and the prosecutors in the Casey Anthony trial are still baffled by the verdict. They told the jury to find her guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated manslaughter, and the jury just ignored them. They believe the jury must not have understood the science. They must have fallen asleep by the end of the trial. They must have engaged in improper speculation. Their minds must have been poisoned by the defense’s baseless accusations in the opening statement.

The jury very definitely did not think what they were told to think.

The End of a Trial

At the end of every criminal trial, the prosecution sums up its case against the defendant. The message of all such summations is: “The mountain of evidence we have shown you proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. You must find the defendant guilty of each and every one of these charges.”

Then the defense sums up its case: “The prosecution has not fulfilled its obligation to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. One or more of the charges is highly questionable. You must not find the defendant guilty. You swore an oath to be fair.”

Then the judge reads a long, arcane list of instructions, the gist of which is that the law states that the crime in question consists of several elements, all of which the prosecution has shown to be present: “You must follow the law as I have just read it to you and reach a true verdict.”

But here’s what goes through every juror’s mind at the moment when the judge sends them into the deliberation room:

“The judge must believe the prosecution did its job properly, or he wouldn’t have let the trial go on to this point. The judge has tried to be fair to the defense, but clearly something isn’t right about what the defense attorney said. I was hoping the prosecution and the defense would both put on better cases, clearer evidence, more witnesses. I’m sure the defendant did something wrong, but I’m not sure it was exactly what the prosecution said it was. In fact, I’m thoroughly convinced it wasn’t what the prosecution said it was. Now the judge and all the lawyers have told me what I’m supposed to think, but none of it is what I think.”

Jury consultants of the world, I promise you this is what every juror thinks. And that leads me back to the title of this blog: If you could ask a prospective juror one question, what should it be?

If you’re on the defense team, you should ask every prospective juror this question:

How do you feel about being told what to think?

The jurors you want on your jury are like me. They’ll say, “I hate it.” Then let the prosecution try to excuse such an individual “for cause.”

A Modest Proposal for Casey Anthony et al.

Yesterday, Tim Miller, President of Texas Equusearch filed a suit against Casey Anthony for reimbursement of expenses incurred during the unnecessary search for her daughter—unnecessary because Casey Anthony knew she was dead and probably knew where her body was.

In an interview with InSession, Mr. Miller explained that not only had his charitable organization spent over $112,000 to help Casey find her daughter, but some of his biggest donors had withdrawn their support. Specifically, they told him that he was not using their money wisely, since it was obvious “the mother” was involved in the child’s disappearance.

I heard that Casey’s lawyers have said they would seek to have the suit dismissed and, besides, their client was indigent.

Here’s a clue Casey et al., not only is it the right thing to do to reimburse Texas Equusearch, but a promise now to do so is your ticket to a reality show titled “Footloose and Free: Casey Anthony.”

No, I’m not kidding. Think about it: you know that right now reality show producers would kill to follow you around with a camera day and night. Unfortunately, though, some may fear the public would resent it if they found out how much they were willing to pay you for the rights to Casey Anthony’s private life.

However, if they could say that $150,000 or so of the production’s revenue would go to Texas Equusearch to pay what you owe them plus an additional tax-deductible donation, they would look like heroes.

With your own reality show, you could also pay Zanny some fair compensation for her troubles.

And you would all still come out ahead.

However, if you litigate the lawsuits, all you will do is incur substantial lawyers’ fees and court costs—and you know you can’t possible win.

The End of Justice for All

If InSession talking heads had their way Casey Anthony would be the last defendant to be tried before a jury of her peers. A few days ago, one of the TV show’s commentators suggested that it was time for “professional jurors,” as if a trained jury would—of course—have found her guilty, in other words would have made the correct decision.

I once served on a criminal-trial jury. Before that experience I would likely have opted for a bench trial if I ever got in trouble with the law. I thought my fellow citizens would operate irrationally and not be capable of giving me the benefit of reasonable doubt. I thought a better-educated judge would be more likely to understand that I was not guilty.

Boy, was I wrong! The judge in the case I heard was a bigoted, illogical, autocrat. My jury peers were all thoughtful people who wanted to give the defendant every break they could, because it was so obvious that the judge and the prosecutors were not interested in justice.

The assumption is that a professional juror would be a sort of mini-lawyer. What a horror!

Professional Jurors

Recently in Great Britain proposals for abolishing jury trials or at least for professional jurors have been trotted out, and now, I guess, we’re going to have endure the same debate here. Proponents in the U. S., though, will have to cope with a little stumbling block called the Bill of Rights—something they don’t have in Great Britain, as you know if you know anything about the American Revolution.

British courts operate differently from American courts. I have read that jurors are summoned to hear more than one case over a certain period of time, such as two weeks. Jury verdicts need not be unanimous, even in murder cases, but neither is there a death penalty in Britain. (Because of Google’s obnoxious way of trying to search for Britney Spears every time I begin a British search string, I’m afraid I can’t give you a link for further information.)

What is “a professional juror”? In Britain the idea is to call jurors from the general public, train them, and pay them well to sit in judgment on numerous jury panels for an extended period of time. As I understand it, the idea is not to have people whose sole profession is juror.

The question is: What sort of training would make a “good juror”? Some types of training would be helpful to jurors, but other types of training would only be helpful to judges and prosecutors.

Juror Training

As a former criminal-trial juror I would have found helpful training in the role of the foreperson, selecting a foreperson, deliberation, consensus building, eliciting discussion from reticent participants, understanding the jury instructions, and understanding the charges and the elements of a crime. I suspect some jurors would also benefit from a quick tutorial on the Bill of Rights.

When I served, the only training we were given was a ten-minute video delivered to the prospective jury pool. It told us how jury panels would be called by number at random, what to do if our number was called, what to do if our number wasn’t called, and how much we would be paid per day. Nothing else.

Once we were interviewed by the judge, she gave us some simple instructions: don’t talk about the case, follow her instructions, that she would read the indictment but we would never see it or hear it again, that we could take notes but must leave them in the deliberation room, and that we were about to be sworn in.

But there were a number of instructions and a lot of training that I would have strongly disliked if the judge had tried to deliver it to me: training in interpreting CSI evidence, interpreting testimony, or legal terminology, especially the meaning of “reasonable doubt,” which I am eminently better qualified to interpret than any lawyer in any courtroom in this land.

Any effort to turn jurors into amateur lawyers and judges like that would be a disaster.

The real problem with professional jurors, it seems to me, is that a professional isn’t a true peer of the ordinary citizen, at least not in the court system, which is run by lawyers. The reason the institution of the jury arose in the first place, more than two millennia ago, was to provide a check on political and legal institutions so they could not arbitrarily take away the rights and property of ordinary citizens.

Jury Reform

The American Bar Association has a long-standing Commission on the American Jury Project, which has published a number of recommendations for jury reform. Unfortunately, no one has suggested judicial or prosecutorial reforms as well. And if you listen to the lawyers commenting on the Casey Anthony verdict you know that none of them think their profession needs any tweaking, let alone reform.

I have a huge problem with the current, highly politicized judiciary and state’s attorneys offices. Theoretically, the citizenry elects judges and state’s attorneys, but in many jurisdictions the judicial system is so large that even the most-informed of voters can’t possibly know enough about candidates for judgeships. Of course, the county state’s attorney is subject to a great deal of public scrutiny, but not the assistant state’s attorneys, who are more numerous than judges and who are all appointed and hired by the political state’s attorney.

Many judges seek higher office. Every state’s attorney I’ve ever heard of seeks higher office. As a consequence, it is in their best interests to prosecute high-profile defendants to the maximum extent of the law and to adjudicate high-profile cases and sentence convicted defendants to the max.

With the advent of live broadcasts from the courtroom, more and more trials of non-high-profile defendants are going to become circuses. It won’t take jurors long to figure out that if they find a high-profile defendant like Casey Anthony not guilty, they will be the ones who pay with their lives—either literally from stalkers or figuratively in that they will lose their jobs, alienate their friends, and worse.

The Casey Anthony jury did effect justice. They did not ignore any of the judge’s instructions in finding her not guilty. They did not “speculate,” despite what InSession says—what they did was understand the difference between speculation and proof; in deliberations when one of them wandered off into speculation, his or her peers drew the conversation back to what was proved. They did understand the “scientific” evidence—they understood it wasn’t scientific and therefore wasn’t proof.

They understood that in the evidence and testimony the dots were not connected. Yes, there were a lot of dots leading to the child’s remains—there just was no dot labeled Casey Anthony. The only person who claimed to have seen Caylee on June 16, 2008, with her mother was George Anthony, and as the foreman of the jury said, George couldn’t seem to remember important facts and incidents; all he remembered clearly was what everybody was wearing three years ago.

The private life is dead--Dr. Zhivago

If the Anthony family saga demonstrates anything it is that “the private life is dead.”

Look at how many private lives were aired during the Casey Anthony trial—not only the entire Anthony family’s but all of her many boyfriends’, girlfriends,’ an innocent bystander named Zanaida, and even the private lives of the Anthony home-water-meter reader and his son.

The trial was nothing but a reality show. The only people satisfied with the outcome are the media.

No, that isn’t quite right. It was a reality show but not “nothing but,” because the Anthony trial was the first-ever state-sponsored reality show. The trial served no purpose other than to provide content free of charge to the media. The O. J. Simpson trials weren’t state-sponsored reality shows the way the Anthony trial was, because by the time he went on trial O. J. Simpson was already a celebrity who had made his life a public spectacle from which not only the media but he had profited as well.

But before the circus was staged by the State of Florida the Anthonys weren’t celebrities. Now I fear a new celebrity has been born—Casey Anthony. You don’t have to be beloved to be a celebrity. Casey Anthony is now the celebrity everybody loves to hate. She may need a bodyguard to go out in public, but then so does every celebrity.

When I first saw the movie Dr. Zhivago years ago and then read Pasternak’s novel, it was during the Cold War against Soviet Communism. For me, Dr. Zhivago was little more than a romance and a slightly flawed criticism of the U.S.S.R. I found it difficult to empathize with the tragedy of a wealthy physician’s family who had lost their privacy. That tragedy paled in comparison to the millions of people the Soviets imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

Only now do I understand the horror of Zhivago’s pronouncement that the private life is dead.

Having endured the Communist Revolution in Russia, Pasternak understood full well that the confiscation of private property by the state was the end of all liberty. When the Communists seized everything in the name of the People, they were lying. Property of the People is property of the state. When property belongs to everybody, it belongs to nobody but the state.

When the state can force its way into your home (‘warrantless search and seizure”) it means an end to your privacy—your inner-most thoughts and feelings become public property.

I can hear you now: but the State of Florida had a warrant when it seized all of Casey Anthony’s shoes.

Yes, but when did the State of Florida obtain a warrant to search a young man named Tony Lazaro’s intimate moments with his lover?

When did the State of Florida obtain a warrant to the private life of a woman named Crystal Holloway? Why did she have to appear on world-wide-broadcast TV and reveal the number of “relationships” she was having at a certain time?

The circus that was the Casey Anthony murder trial won’t be the last state-sponsored reality show.  The media has found a way to generate cost-free content: all they have to do is lurk around police stations in Florida waiting for another beautiful, young nobody to step out of the back of a patrol car in handcuffs and follow her inside the jail. When an assistant state’s attorney finds out that the media are interested in her, she’ll find herself brought up on capital murder charges. And then the airwaves will be awash in “Casey Anthony II—The Sequel.”

Florida, wake up! Your “Sunshine Laws” are unconstitutional: It’s unspeakably evil to broadcast videotapes of a prisoner being interrogated, of a family communicating with their daughter in jail, of photographs of the private property of innocent citizens (their closets, their bedrooms, their laundry room, their back yard). It’s wrong to broadcast prospective jurors’ voir dire. It’s wrong to broadcast the gallery and spectators at a trial. It’s wrong to broadcast testimony of law-biding citizens whose only crime was being acquainted with someone charged with murder.

Sidebar: The prosecutors in the Anthony trial were wrong to subpoena Casey Anthony’s friends and force them to testify about their perfectly lawful interactions with her. None of her friends reported any illegal activity by Casey Anthony; none of them reported suspicious behavior; none of them reported anything remotely resembling evidence of “her state of mind at the time of the crime.” If I were them and I could afford it, I would sue the State of Florida for defamation and illegal search and seizure of my private life.

None of us are immune. None of us know when a friend or family member is going to fall afoul of the law. I’d be willing to bet that there’s no one reading this who doesn’t know someone with legal problems: nasty divorces, brutal child-custody battles, IRS audits, property-line disputes, cease-and-desist orders, law suits, drug busts, a DUI, or worse.

What will you do when the state comes knocking on your door with a subpoena?

The Casey Anthony trial is truly the end of the private life in America.

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Letter to the Casey Anthony Jury

Dear Jurors,

Thank you for following the law as the judge explained it to you. Thank you for respecting Casey Anthony’s rights as an American. Thank you for having the courage of your convictions.

As a former criminal-trial juror (sexual assault and kidnapping) I know what you must have gone through. Every night of the trial (and there were only three for me) I dreaded eventually entering into deliberations, convinced that I was going to be the lone holdout against the kidnapping charges. I feared I wouldn’t have enough courage to vote not guilty in the face of my eleven peers.

When court-watchers reported that you had returned to the courtroom on the second day of deliberations smiling and looking relaxed and confident, I knew that meant you had learned the night before that not only were you all in agreement on the capital murder charges but you had decided Casey Anthony was not guilty of first-degree murder, and you would not have to sit through a guilt-phase trial in which you would have to decide whether or not to sign a death warrant for one of your fellow human beings. Only a ghoul would be smiling at that prospect.

I predicted that if a jury did not convict Casey Anthony of first-degree murder and that even if a jury found her guilty of lesser charges, the media and the ignorant public would vilify them, no matter what the evidence in the trial proved or disproved. I also predicted that the attorneys for the losing side would turn on the jury. Of course, I was thinking most likely the defense attorneys would be the losers.

I have heard Jeff Ashton’s assessment that you just didn’t understand the forensic science and that the trial was too long for you to maintain your concentration. And I suspect now that Linda Drane-Burdick is launching an investigation to look for violations of the sequestration laws and inappropriate behavior in the deliberations.

But Jeff Ashton is the one who didn’t understand the science and couldn’t even tell the real science from the junk science. Jeff Ashton is the one who suffered most from the length of trial: as the defense case progressed he grew less confident and began squirming and making faces.

As for Ms. Drane-Burdick, it’s her job to make sure the jury isn’t guilty of misconduct, but I still think it’s incredibly unfair in this situation. I didn’t hear as much of the testimony or see as much of the evidence as you did, but even I became convinced there was no proof of murder, no proof of child abuse.

And, if you search the web for what happened to the jury foreman in the La Vegas trial of O. J. Simpson, you will see that Simpson’s attorneys caused the foreman to have to appear before a judge to explain himself when he spoke to the press after the trial.

By refusing to talk to the press you spared yourself from that sort of misconduct charges. And I hope that the State of Florida doesn’t bother to go after its own citizens who were just doing their civic duty. It can serve no purpose. Nothing can put Casey Anthony back on trial.

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