Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Truth, Justice and Forensic Evidence

by Diane Fanning

We all realize that statistics can be manipulated to prove points, that polls can be slanted by how a question is asked, that news reporting itself demonstrates bias by what the media chooses to cover, if nothing else. However, we expect forensic science to be the gold standard of truth--complete, objective, honest. We want to believe that. Learning that forensics, too, does not live up to its objective, TV-drama-polished image makes us all feel vulnerable to the vagaries of uneven justice.

North Carolina is facing that truth right now. It began with the 1991 discovery of the body of Jaquetta Thomas at the end of a cul de sac in Raleigh. In 1993, Gregory Taylor (above left) was convicted of her first-degree homicide. In February of this year, the North Carolina Innocence Commission three-judge panel exonerated Gregory Taylor in part because Duane Deaver, an SBI lab analyst who reported "chemical indications for the presence of blood" on Taylor's SUV, failed to mention in his final serology report that a more sensitive, confirmatory test for blood was negative. Taylor was released after spending nearly 17 years in prison, according to the commission, for a crime he did not commit.

In the aftermath of this revelation, the North Carolina Attorney General Ray Cooper ordered an independent review of the State Bureau of Investigation's Forensic Laboratory. The resulting report cited "serious issues about laboratory reporting practices from 1987-2003 and the potential that information that was material and even favorable to the defense of criminal charges filed was withheld or misrepresented. The factors that contributed to these issues range from poorly crafted policy; lack of objectivity; the absence of clear report writing guidance; inattention to reporting methods that left to much discretion to the individual analyst; lack of transparency; and ineffective management and oversight of the Forensic Biology Section from 1987 to 2003."

The report strongly stated that it "did not conclude, and the reader should not assume, that each case resulted in a wrongful conviction." We can only hope that is true. Of the 15,419 lab files reviewed, 230 cases were identified as containing lab reports that mentioned positive presumptive tests results but omitted the results of more sensitive tests.

In 40 of the cases, no suspect was ever charged. In another 20, the charges were dismissed or the defendants received a not guilty verdict. In those remaining, 249 individuals were convicted of crimes. Eighty are still serving sentences -- including four now sitting on death row. Additionally, five inmates died in prison and three were executed by the state. District Attorneys in the appropriate jurisdictions now have an itemized listing of the cases in question and a charge to investigate the circumstances in each conviction. 

The cases were divided into four categories. In the fourth and most serious group, confirmatory tests were over-reported or not reflective of the results contained in the lab notes. Only five of the cases landed in this category and all of them were handled by Special Agent Duane Deaver (right). 

It seems that Deaver is being painted as the chief villain in this mess. He has been relieved of his duties while an investigation looks into his actions. But did he really perform any differently than others? Or was Deaver simply following the procedures and policies as required to maintain his job?

As for the present and the future, the report pointed out that the review "focused mostly on historical practices and policies that are no longer in use..." and that as of March 2010, complete SBI laboratory files are now routinely provided via online access to every District Attorney's office in the state..." enabling them "...to provide appropriate and timely discovery materials to the defense in a criminal proceeding." 

So was Deaver merely following bad guidance? My experience with him tends to make me lean in that direction. I watched Deaver testify in the Michael Peterson case in 2003 for a book (Written in Blood, February 2004). I saw him face a cross examination that felt more like a witch hunt than a quest for justice. I interviewed him at length. He seemed genuinely committed to justice.

I know that Peterson's family is now demanding a new trial based on this report even though that case was not one of the ones found faulty in the independent review. Peterson, who claimed his wife fell down the stairs, was convicted of killing her with a blow to the head. The most pivotal testimony presented by Deaver--that the point of impact was a point in mid-air--was confirmed by the defense witness, Dr. Henry Lee. Other evidence, like forensic pathologist Deborah Radisch's testimony about red neurons, was far more compelling. 

Nonetheless, I imagine an appeal will be filed in the Michael Peterson case. And I suspect many other defense attorneys will pile on to that bandwagon in an attempt to discredit every piece of forensic evidence that ever came within walking distance of Deaver. 

Although I applaud all the efforts to dig into the 230 cases in question and find the truth, and although I suspect those investigations will lead to additional wrong and/or dubious convictions, I am not ready to demonize Special Agent Duane Deaver. It seems the system created these circumstances, and the blame cannot be laid at the feet of one individual -- it belongs to the bureau that created the system. Deaver looks more like a scapegoat than the devil to me.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Jaycee Dugard: One Year Later

by Stacy Dittrich

This past Thursday, August 26, 2010, marked the one year anniversary of Jaycee Lee Dugard’s (pictured left) return to her family. As most people know, Jaycee was eleven years old when she was viciously ripped from her family while walking to her bus stop in South Lake Tahoe, California, on June 10, 1991. This occurred as her step-father, Carl Probyn, watched helplessly. For the next 18 years, Dugard’s captors, Philip Craig Garrido, 58, and his wife, Nancy Garrido, 54, held young Jaycee in a wretched, filthy, compound of tents—well hidden behind their Antioch, California, home. For 18 years, Garrido repeatedly raped Jaycee and she eventually bore two of his children.

On August 26, 2009 the nation came to a virtual standstill when the news of Jaycee’s survival spread like wildfire. Garrido, with Jaycee and their two daughters, ages 12 and 15, was eyed suspiciously by the University of Berkeley police officers when he arrived on campus spewing religious rants. After a highly praised interrogation by the officers, Jaycee’s true identity—and her past—was revealed. The detailed information that followed shocked and sickened humanity. Furthermore, people were angry that such an abomination continued for 18 years without detection. California’s parole system came under intense scrutiny for failing to discover Jaycee in Garrido’s hold. Having been on parole for several decades, Garrido routinely played nice with his parole officers and his home was never searched.

In 1992, a report to the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department revealed a man claiming he saw a young girl matching Jaycee’s description staring at a missing poster of herself at a nearby gas station. The caller claims the girl left with a man matching Garrido’s description in a large yellow van (the same vehicle that was later towed from Garrido’s property in 2009). The tip was never followed-up on. Along with the numerous missed opportunities by parole agents, another tip was phoned into the sheriff’s department by one of Garrido’s neighbors. The neighbor claimed that Garrido, a known sex offender and psychotic, had young children living in his back yard. The deputy that arrived to investigate the complaint never even searched the back yard (pictured right). Thus, the unconscionable lack of justice for Jaycee Dugard resulted in a $20 million  settlement from the state of California. Well deserved, but considering that Jaycee, and her daughters’, lifelong therapy is estimated to cost $7 million I’d say she deserved a hell of a lot more than that.

Now, a year later, Jaycee and her daughters live in seclusion with her mother, Terry Probyn, in Northern California. Many wonder what the last year has been like for the newly reunited family, and what does the future hold. The last year for Jaycee has been an onslaught of new beginnings; she obtained her driver’s license, maintains a journal, baked Christmas cookies with her mother and sister for the first time, and even recently went camping with friends. They live in an undisclosed small neighborhood where it has been reported that their neighbors are “fiercely” protective of Jaycee and her family. Rumors have been floating around for quite some time that Jaycee will be writing a book of her time spent in hell, and her mother’s account of her own nightmare is due to be published in late 2010. Regardless, evil Garrido and his disgusting robot-of-a-wife, Nancy, (pictured right to left) are still incarcerated awaiting trial. Most likely both will die in prison. Hallelujah.

A year later, in the rare moments where Jaycee (now 30) is shown in photographs, she is smiling. Personally, I find that to be an extremely positive sign. Although she and her children have a long road ahead, they are back where they belong. Good luck, Jaycee; you and your family will continuously be in our thoughts and prayers.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Poor Little Rich Girl?

by Kathryn Casey and Cathy Scott

Flashback: Paris Hilton on "Larry King Live" in June 2007, two days after her release from jail: "I'm going to have a new beginning. I'm going to raise money for kids, for breast cancer, for multiple sclerosis."

Sounded like the young Ms. Hilton had learned her lesson, didn't it? Apparently not. She's been busted again, this time in Las Vegas, at 11:30 Friday night, in a car. Her boyfriend, Cy Waits, was driving, but police say Hilton had cocaine on her. Apparently a motorcycle cop noticed a trail of smoke "from a controlled substance" following the Cadillac Esplanade and pulled it over. Waits was booked as well and held, along with Paris, in the Clark County jail in downtown Las Vegas, where Paris spent the night until her release on her own recognizance early Saturday.

Hilton's "people" haven't commented yet, but there'll be another round of 24/7 press coverage, more time in a courtroom standing before a judge, and, undoubtedly, another pledge to turn her life around.

The truth is that Paris of the designer clothes, expensive jewelry and mega-watt smile isn't all that young anymore. Heck, she's 29, edging up on the big three-O. So our question to you is: Where does Paris Hilton go from here? Will this be her future, going from one jail to another, paying a battalion of attorneys, all for the purpose of smoothing over the frayed edges of a drug-addicted, out-of-control life?

Paris has already lawyered up with influential criminal defense attorney David Chesnoff (once a law partner to Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman), who was able to get her released from jail without having to post bail. Chesnoff has represented celebrities in the past, including Martha Stewart, Mike Tyson, Shaquille O'Neal, Suge Knight, Lindsay Lohan, and now Paris Hilton. Don't most of us dream of having what Paris was handed at birth: enough money to do whatever we want with our lives? Never having to worry about working or obligations? To live without the responsibilities nearly everyone else struggles with just to pay the rent and put food on the table? It's hard for us to feel sorry for Paris Hilton. Her record is just getting too darn long. After all, she was arrested earlier this summer for suspicion of having pot in South Africa, and who can forget the 45 days she was sentenced on that DWI, which apparently didn't make an impression. Did her recent stint in a holding cell sober her up? Only time will tell.

Now, the question once again is can Paris Hilton turn her life around? And is there anything the new judge in Sin City can do to influence a woman who has everything and appears unwilling or incapable of controlling her appetites?

Mug shot courtesy of the Las Vegas police department

Friday, August 27, 2010

Keeping the "Most Dangerous" Locked Up Indefinitely

by Diane Dimond

When is the spread of AIDS criminal?

You are the judge and jury on this one. There are a lot of number to take into account here, so read carefully.

A man who knew he was HIV
positive admitted to having unprotected sex with dozens of women and girls as young as 14. Health officials put the number of his potential HIV victims at 75. It was discovered that at least 13 of those females had been infected with the HIV virus, including the 14-year-old. In media interviews, after the man pleaded guilty and was sentenced to twelve years in prison for statutory rape and reckless endangerment, he boasted that he’d actually had up to 300 sexual partners.

Now, this man’s prison sentence is coming to an end. He’s just about served his time. But prosecutors in New York say Nushawn Williams has shown no remorse and has a mental abnormality that will likely lead to him to commit more crimes after he’s released. The state wants to continue to hold Williams in custody under what’s called the civil commitment statute. It’s part of The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, a federal law authorizing the indefinite civil commitment of sexual predators.

Nushawn Williams spread AIDS - on purpose

Do you think that’s fair? As the old saying goes: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time – but Williams (right) will have served his full sentence when he faces his civil confinement trial in October. Doesn’t fair play require that we let him loose?

I say no. The safety of the masses is more important than the perceived rights of a convict. 

At his confinement trial, Williams’ lawyers are likely to argue that it is unconstitutional to indefinitely hold a citizen after they’ve fulfilled their original sentence. They may offer up an argument of double jeopardy (second criminal punishment for the same crime) or “ex post facto" (new punishment for a previous crime). Perhaps they’ll come up with a new argument, as those two have already been struck down by other courts.

Do we need more courts like this?

The prosecution will surely repeat its description of Williams as a “sex-obsessed drug user who was cited for 21 disciplinary offenses (while) in prison.” They will certainly say that just a couple of months ago, the United States Supreme Court once again ruled that Congress had the power to pass the law which calls for “sexually dangerous persons” to be held in a treatment facility until they “no longer represent a danger to others.”

Back in 1997, the youngest victim of Nushawn Williams was quoted as saying, “I want him to stay in jail, suffering. He’s slowly killing me.” Today, her location is unknown and some suspect she might have died. Williams's own family has criticized him. His younger sister told reporters that after Nushawn was diagnosed, he made it his mission to “take people with him.”

This isn’t a New York-centric dilemma. Some 20 states have passed laws permitting civil commitment of people who are considered likely to engage in “predatory acts of sexual violence” if released back into society. At last count, there were about 2,700 such prisoners being held past their sentence expiration date nationwide. Only about 10 percent ever complete treatment and win release.

I’m okay with that. These people have already proven they can’t be trusted. Why should we allow them back on the street to prey on others again?

States adopt civil commitment laws for sex offenders

In Kansas, a pedophile who admitted he’d molested children for most of his adult life was held for some 15 years past his release date. After he passed the age of 70, his health deteriorated; he suffered diabetes and strokes. Yet he still admitted he had to urge to molest when he got “stressed out.” The state reported the annual tab for keeping him in a civil commitment treatment program was $185,000 a year, more than eight times the tab for a regular prison inmate.Hey, if it keeps kids safe, that’s fine by me. The cost of continued incarceration seems well worth it when you compare it to the price his new victims would pay.

In Virginia, another convicted sex offender was so distraught when he learned he would be held past his release date that he castrated himself in his cell. After five years of treatment that he now admits helped him cope with his sex obsession, he was put under constant electronic surveillance and freed. His attorney says there have been no incidents of misbehavior since. He called the idea of holding a person in custody after completing a prison sentence “a legal black hole.”

I call it necessary for those who’ve habitually hunted down and damaged other people. You?
Critics call the idea of civil commitment a slippery slope and a step that greatly expands government’s ability to take away our liberty.

I think it’s a surefire way to keep the predators that walk among us locked away so they can’t do any more harm.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ronald Cummings's Enemies

by Pat Brown

Lots of speculation is swirling again now that Tommy Croslin and Misty Croslin are making more statements about the night that five-year-old Haleigh Cummings went missing. She has never been found.

Tommy claims Joe Overstreet strangled Haleigh but, for some reason, Tommy helped him get rid of the little girl's body. Misty says she hid under a blanket while Tommy and Joe did something, and she doesn't exactly know what it was. Joe says, "I didn't do it," referring to the Haleigh's homicide, but he doesn't actually say if he did anything else. Neither Misty, Tommy, nor Joe has said anything about Ronald Cummings, Haleigh's father.

Which leads me back to the most interesting statement ever made by Ron Cummings(right):

"You keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

Who are these enemies Ronald Cummings is speaking of? Misty? How is Misty, who is his ex-girlfriend, ex-wife, and Haleigh's former stepmother, his enemy? She might have been Haleigh's enemy at one point in that she neglected Haleigh's care and possibly brought dangerous male companions around her. She might have left drugs about, which Haleigh could have gotten into.

Even more curious: Ron said "enemies," not "enemy." Who could the other enemy or enemies be? Is he speaking of Tommy Croslin, who is Misty's brother and the receiver of a beheaded rat in his mailbox? Is he speaking of Tommy and Misty's cousin Joe Overstreet, who supposedly ended up with a gun belonging to Ronald?

Why would Misty, Tommy (left), or Joe be Ronald Cummings's enemy? Let's take a look at the definition of "enemy." An enemy is "a person hostile or opposed to a policy, cause, person, or group, especially one who actively tries to do damage; opponent."

Why would Misty, Tommy, or Joe be hostile toward Ronald? He had just lost his child. How could Misty, Tommy, or Joe be a threat to Ronald? How would they be able to damage him?

There is only one answer to that. They know something extremely detrimental to Ronald which could harm him worse than the loss of his child. The only thing I can think of is that he had something to do with the loss of his child.

Ronald Cummings appears to have done damage control; he took actions to neutralize any threat against him. He used two different techniques. One was to threaten and the other was to buy. He delivered a very clear message to Tommy Croslin with the decapitated rat. Talk, and, I will chop your head off. Tommy, therefore, had to have knowledge of what happened to Haleigh that night and be physically terrified of Ronald. Or he had knowledge of what happened that night to Haleigh and committed an act of his own that was so egregious that Ronald could easily blackmail him.

And what did Ron do about Misty (right)? He bribed the then 17-year-old with what a girl like that would want most. A pretty ring, a wedding, and, well, maybe marriage, although a lot of young girls are more into the first two than the actual state of matrimony. Misty clearly had some level of involvement in what occurred that night at the trailer, so a pact with Ronald to show solidarity gave her, in return for her silence, a level of safety and an appearance, to some extent, of innocence (because no father of a murdered or abducted child would marry a person he really felt was guilty of such a crime). Of course, Ron also might have mistakenly thought that making Misty his spouse would prevent her from testifying against him in court.

And then we have Joe Overstreet. How did Joe get caught up in all of this? What does he know? Was he there? Why would he kidnap, kill, or assault a child because he can't find a gun? This story pushed by Misty and Tommy makes little sense. Unless, perhaps, Ronald gave him the gun to shut him the hell up, maybe a gun he wanted to get rid of. Could the gun be the cause of death for Haleigh? Did the gun go off in Ron's hand and Haleigh end up shot? There is no blood in the trailer, but this doesn't mean it didn't happen. Depending on the caliber of the gun, how well Haleigh was wrapped in her bedding, and if she had any drugs in her system that might have slowed down blood loss, Haleigh could have died of a gunshot wound, leaving no blood behind once the body and bedding material were removed.

Did Joe (left) take a bribe for his silence and get himself into a lot of hot water? Maybe he was being truthful when he bluntly stated he "didn't do it," as in he didn't have anything to do with Haleigh's actual death. That doesn't mean he wasn't somehow in the mix that night. Now that Misty, Tommy, and even Ronald have him tossing Haleigh to the alligators, he has a three-against-one problem. If he speaks up in any fashion, he puts himself at the crime scene and, therefore, he could end up being charged with a crime far worse than the one he might have committed. If Joe was there, he is not going to say a damn thing.

Let's return to the original 911 call. What we find are two people trying to persuade law enforcement of their own innocence in the matter. Misty is trying to prove she was unaware of what happened that night while she was asleep, and Ronald is trying to prove he would be willing to kill whoever did whatever to Haleigh before he arrived home from work. The fact that he has shown little interest in following through with his threat leaves only one person as the main suspect in the death of Haleigh: Ronald himself.

Misty, Tommy, and Joe might have been there, might have partied, might have done drugs. Haleigh might have been sexually abused, but if Ronald had no part in what happened to Haleigh, he would have followed through on his claims of wanting to do damage to whomever hurt his daughter. Instead, he marries one of her "killers," threatens one of the other "killers" to keep his mouth shut, and may have bribed the third "killer," as well.

Ronald made a lot of phone calls home that night, yet there is no proof that he didn't leave work at some point and walk in on whatever shenanigans were going on. All we know is that Misty conveniently "woke up" just before Ronald conveniently arrived home. Misty, therefore, couldn't have been involved, and Ronald couldn't have been involved, or at least that is what they want us to believe.

As statement analyst Peter Hyatt will tell you (check out our discussion on my blogtalkradio show, Profile This!), there is a lot of truth in "them thar lies." Pay attention to the words -- "blanket," "water," "brick," "gun" -- and pay attention to the order in which statements are delivered, starting with the 911 call. You'll find the players are actually telling you what happened. Of course, to make any arrests, proof of exactly what happened must include strong physical and behavioral evidence that can be used in a court of law. That is why, at this moment, no one is standing trial for the murder of Haleigh Cummings.

One thing is for sure, though, at least from the information we have to date: Ronald Cummings is in bed with his "enemies," and, I would think most detectives and profilers would agree, there is something seriously wrong with this picture.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Arkansas Bombing Case & Verdict—For Now

by Andrea Campbell 

It is unusual that an individual is involved in a bombing, especially in Arkansas. A case that has captured the attention of crime followers nationally, this one has some strange elements to it.

It Begins
This story starts with an investigation, but one with another objective — sanctioning doctors. The Arkansas State Medical Board was looking into the conduct of a licensed physician in northern Arkansas named Dr. Randeep Mann. Mann, it was purported, had over-prescribed medications that resulted in the deaths of 10 of his patients.

The Board
The state medical board is made up of 14 members. This post is a governor-appointed position, and 11 of the members are doctors. This group oversees Arkansas’s 5,763 active licensed physicians.

The Agreement
In 2001, the medical board received some complaints about how Mann prescribed medication. Mann, nearing his fifties, specialized in internal medicine at Skyline Medical Clinic in Russellville, and several of his patients overdosed. There was also an alleged claim of sex for drugs by one of the overdose victims, plus several other female patients felt threatened. These and other infractions comprised a 22-page report. When two more patients died, the board issued an Emergency Order of Suspension and Notice of Hearing in July 2003.

The Sanction
Mann was never stripped of his medical license, but his prescription-writing privileges were revoked. He had prescribed methadone for the treatment of addiction despite not having the proper credentials, and he had violated other regulations in regards to amphetamines and methamphetamines. Originally the board was going to annul his license for five years. Instead, the board decided that if he surrendered his federal DEA permit to prescribe controlled substances for at least a year, got education on how to prescribe them, and paid a $9,500 fine for investigative expenses, that would be his punishment.

Soon after, the board agreed to reinstate him within a year, in July 2004, and many people thought that was unconscionable. Phillip Milligan, a Fort Smith attorney who represents survivors in one of two malpractice lawsuits against Mann, says, “If the medical board would have pulled his license the first time, instead of making a deal with him, that would have saved some lives.”

More Allegations
Just a couple months after Mann’s license was restored to an “unlimited and unencumbered” status, more patients started overdosing. Kevin Allen Curry, 43, went to Mann in 2005 for facial pain, and it is surmised he wound up dying from mixed drug intoxication. According to another report, Dr. George Richison told investigators that he treated several of Mann’s patients for overdoses when they arrived in the emergency room at St. Mary’s Regional in Russellville.

The medical board finally issued an emergency order suspending Mann’s license, and by April 2006, eight deaths were blamed on Mann’s negligence. His surrendered his certificate to prescribe, but his medical license was still intact.

The Story Continues
The loss of his drug-prescribing privileges caused Dr. Randeep Mann to go off the deep end. Naturally he lost patients who required pain management. He mounted a letter writing campaign explaining the difficulties this caused him and his practice. He had run into financial difficulties and wondered whether the board could help him find a job with a physician group. He claimed the military disqualified him from any jobs there, and the letters expressed desperation. He wrote: "This has not only involved my professional life, but my personal life as well. To be working less than a full schedule has been the hardest feat for me to endure since my graduation from medical school in December of 1980."

Board Denial
Then: a bomb set to kill the chairman of the Arkansas State Medical Board, Dr. Trent Pierce, went off as he was getting into his Lexus (below left) at his West Memphis home on the morning of February 4, 2009. Pierce survived, but with serious injury. Pierce had approached his car and went to move a spare tire that was leaning up against it. Moving the tire triggered an explosion that caused facial injuries and blindness in one eye. Reports are that Pierce's face is still dotted with shards of black rubber that were driven into his skin by the explosion.

Police interviewed Mann within hours. Then, in March, police officers searched Mann’s home and found a large collection of weapons including grenade launchers and 98 grenades buried in his yard, and inside, in gun safes, 110 semi- and fully automatic firearms -- of which just two were unregistered. Mann, a federal firearms dealer, was arrested and charged with unregistered firearms, illegal possession of the grenades and a machine gun, and other crimes, but the main charge was using a weapon of mass destruction against Pierce.

Mann was recently convicted by a federal jury of the bomb attack against Pierce. Prosecutors painted a picture of a man who was embittered by the board's continual sanctions. But the forensic evidence was slight.

The crime scene materials were tested. There was a spare tire, a hand grenade, duct tape—and the grenade, duct-taped to the tire was rigged to blow when some string pulled the pin. But nothing matched items in Mann’s home, and the three fingerprints found belonged to an FBI agent.

Prosecutors did present an email that Mann had sent to his brother in India. The word “Pierce” was in the subject line, the body of the message contained a photo of Pierce, and the note said, “I hope this picture is good.” Mann also had a friend and business partner who owned a Nissan Altima that was missing its spare tire — the same type of tire as was found with the bomb itself. That, witness testimony about Mann’s anger, and the military-grade weapons finally convinced jurors.

Oddly enough, Mann was found guilty of orchestrating the bombing, but the investigation as to who set the bomb continues. Mann could be sentenced to life in prison. His attorneys are filing an appeal.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Gilded Death

by Deborah Blum

In 16th century France, there lived a king with a beautiful and somewhat mysterious mistress.Diane de Poitiers was almost 20 years older than Henri II, but she looked like one of his contemporaries. She had skin of a near porcelain white and auburn hair as fine as silk thread.

Famed for her intellect as well as her beauty, Diane was not only the king's lover but one of his closest political advisors. He even encouraged her to sign some of his official correspondence HenriDiane. After Henri died in 1559, his angry and resentful widow banished Diane from the court. She died at the age of 66 seven years later at the Chateau d'Anet in northern France, a palace given to her by the enamored monarch. 

Her body was laid to rest near the castle's chapel, and it stayed there until the French Revolution (1787-1799), when revolutionaries dug it up and threw it into a ditch used for pauper burials.

And there the bodies stayed until a few years ago, when the burial pit was uncovered and Diane de Portiers' skeleton was identified (matching it through facial reconstruction and through a break in one leg from falling off a horse). But the archeologists also noted that her bones were unusually thin and fragile-looking, especially for a woman famed in her time as an athletic woman who swam daily and enjoyed vigorous horseback rides.

Suspecting a heavy metal poisoning of some kind, and remembering that some locks of her hair were preserved at Chateau d'Anet, they requested a toxicology screen. The analysis came back showing the hair loaded with metal, but definitely not one of the usual suspects: de Poitiers' hair contained the precious metal gold at 500 times above normal levels.

The chemical symbol for the metallic element gold is Au, taken from the Latin word aurum meaning 'shining dawn'. In the Periodic Table of Elements it occupies a companionable neighborhood of other metals, tucked neatly between platinum (Pt) and mercury (Hg). While gold is not as lethal as its famously deadly cousin mercury, it shares one important characteristic. The body tends to store it, meaning that it can slowly build up to dangerous levels.

As gold builds up in the body, it becomes destructive to bone marrow -- raising the possibility of blood-based diseases like anemia -- and to the bones themselves. It also can lead to a breaking down of other structural material, such as keratin, the protein which which forms hair and fingernails.

"Her hair was much finer than normal, which is a secondary effect of chronic gold poisoning," reported French researcher Philippe Charlier."It gives you white skin (from anemia) and very fragile hair, bones and teeth. She was in this fragile state when she died."

But why would de Poitiers's body contain such high levels of a precious metal? It was unlikely that she dined on her jewelry. Further research discovered that she was in the habit of drinking a gold elixir, prescribed by apothecaries of the time as a means of preserving youthfulness. The elixir contained gold chloride (AuCl3, one atom of gold for every three of chlorine) dissolved into a solvent.

Scholars suspect that this was such a chronic, low-level poisoning that de Poitiers probably never recognized the damage. Perhaps she worried about the thinning of her hair, perhaps she battled against the exhaustion of anemia. But she lived a reasonably long life -- 66 was definite elder status in the 1500s. Still, the conclusion of the French researchers who dug up her bones is that she probably would have lived even longer -- and stayed stronger -- if she hadn't been promised that eternal youth could be bottled in a golden elixir.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

New Orleans Disaster Shootings: The Aftermath

by Cathy Scott

A story out of New Orleans, of police charged with the shooting deaths of six residents, is currently winding its way through the Louisiana criminal court system. So far, seven officers have been charged separately for conspiring to cover up the fatal shootings of unarmed residents Leonard Bartholomew, Susan Bartholomew, Lesha Bartholomew, Jose Holmes Jr., Lance Madison and Ronald Madison during the chaos that was Hurricane Katrina.

The story comes on the fifth anniversary of Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall in Louisiana. It reminded me of another police-related shooting case out of New Orleans, this one involving people's pets. It took nearly as long for arrests in those cases. But the outcome was much different.

Many victims of Hurricane Katrina who were forced to leave their pets behind in St. Bernard Parish were devastated to learn that the animals they loved and entrusted to law enforcement officers were brutally shot to death. They wanted answers -- and justice.

Some evacuees left their pets in the care of police at one of three schools in the parish. When the residents returned for the animals two to four weeks later, they found that most of them were dead -- their bodies scattered in classrooms, tethered or shot in groups.

“I trusted the deputies,” said evacuee Jodie Jones. “It is such a shock and such a heartbreak that anybody could just shoot them.” Jones and others wanted those responsible to be held accountable.

Investigators with the Louisiana Attorney General’s office in Baton Rouge launched two lengthy probes, one looking into the street shootings and the other into the school killings. The findings of the investigators led to St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies, many of whom were entrusted with the care of more than 60 dogs, some cats and a few birds at three different schools.

Incriminating Evidence

Photographer David Leeson, Jr., on assignment for the Dallas Morning News immediately following Hurricane Katrina, has produced the most damning evidence to date of police wrongdoing. The paper, under subpoena, has turned over to the attorney general’s office Leeson’s raw video footage of dogs being gunned down on the streets around Sept. 7.

While driving the streets between St. Bernard Highway and Judge Perez Drive near Chalmette, Leeson stopped to help a dog but was dismayed to see what happened when two people in a Jeep and two officers in the back of a pickup drove up.

“They shot the dog I was stopping to help right in front of me,” Leeson said.

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer then recorded other events. “On the raw tape you can hear the shootings of eight to nine dogs,” he said. Also disturbing in the video is the admission by then-Sergeant Mike Minton of the sheriff’s office that he had, in fact, shot dogs to death.

When Minton noticed Leeson’s camera, “(Minton) just kind of jumped in front of me and said, ‘What’s going on?,’ Leeson said. “I told him who I was. I said, ‘Tell me about the dog shootings.’ He started talking.”

When Leeson asked Minton how many dogs he’d shot, Minton replied, “Enough.”
And, Leeson said, on the unedited tape, Minton (right) implicated a senior officer. The sergeant, who was suspended by his department after an edited version was posted on the newspaper’s website, has since resigned his post.

The video appeared to contain enough evidence for the attorney general's office to continue its case. “For the dogs in the street, we have evidence,” said Assistant Attorney General Mimi Hunley. “We have the film.”

In December 2006, a grand jury in St. Bernard Parish indicted former parish sheriff's deputy Minton and Deputy Chip England for aggravated cruelty to animals.

Evidence from the Schools

For the probe into the school shootings -- at Sebastian Roy Elementary School, Beauregard Middle School, and St. Bernard High School -- investigators, according to sources close to the case, are said to be relying on ammunition and spent bullets found at the scenes, and, equally important, on eyewitness accounts.

Kris Wartelle, spokeswoman for the attorney general, noted, “We can’t comment on how many (officers may be involved), except to say we do have a list of deputies we are questioning in connection with this investigation.” The St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office, Wartelle said, is the only law enforcement agency under investigation. That rules out earlier speculation that National Guard officers may have been involved.

On Sept. 29, after the bodies of animals were discovered at Sebastian Roy Elementary School on Bayou Road, Sheriff Jack Stephens told CNN: “I'm certainly not prepared to say without reservation that it wasn't one of our officers that did it. But what I do know is that it's a despicable act. And someone who did this just has some imperfection in their psyche. And if that someone is a law enforcement officer, they can't be in this business. They're in the wrong business.”

About 60 people evacuated with their pets to Beauregard Middle School, including Kit Bauer. She was rescued on August 29 from her attic when neighbors in a boat heard one of her dogs barking. They took her to Beauregard, where she and the dogs spent three days.

Bauer left a note written in chalk on a wall outside a classroom with her phone number. It read, “In this room are 6 adult dogs and 4 puppies. Please save them. Kit.” The puppies were three-week-old dachshunds and were still nursing. She left water and opened three boxes of Fruit Loops cereal for the dogs. One dog, Indy, was found two weeks after the storm at a shelter and has since been returned to Bauer.

Jodie Jones also left a note at a school. She and her husband, Clay, evacuated the Saturday after the levees broke. A half-mile down Bayou Road, the Joneses left their three cats and a dog in the hands of deputies at a makeshift evacuee center at St. Bernard High School. To their horror, two of their cats were found dead four weeks later inside the carriers they had delivered them in. They haven’t found their third cat. All were 10 and 12 years old.

“I asked the deputies to promise me they’d get my animals to safety,” Jones said. “They assured us nothing was going to happen to them.

“The deputies told us, ‘If you want to get out alive, you have to go now. We’re saving people, not animals.’ I knew two of the officers. We thought we were doing a good thing by taking our animals to the school.”

Their dog, Suzie, somehow escaped being shot and was located in a foster home. “Suzie made it to California,” Jones said. But “she died three days before we were scheduled to get her. I think she died of grief.”

Carol Hamm stayed at the high school for two days, waiting for her husband and son, who used their boat to rescue people stranded on rooftops and in attics of flooded homes. While at the high school, Hamm said, “One moment (the deputies) told us we could take our pets, and the next moment they said we couldn’t. My husband was still at the house with our dogs.”

Her husband ended up paddling a boat and dropping off their four dogs at Beauregard Middle School, because sheriff’s deputies told him they would take the dogs to an animal shelter for safekeeping. Then he and their son went to the high school and were evacuated out a day later with Hamm.

On Sept. 30, Carol Hamm returned to the school to look for the family’s pets. “It’s the worst memory I’ll ever have,” she said. “The bodies were being removed. It was horrible. I was crying over strangers’ dogs. Only three of our dogs were in the room. We saw a golden retriever, two Yorkshire terriers, all breeds, and a lot of pits and rotties. Some were shot running, one up the stairs. Bullet, our husky mix, was shot in the head.”

Many animals were also taken to St. Bernard High School. “People were there with dogs, cats and birds, too. You name it, people brought them," Hamm said. “There was an old woman who wanted to take her Yorkie. The dog was so tiny she could fit it in her purse. They made her leave it.”

While still at the high school, Hamm overheard a deputy say to another officer, “As soon as these people leave, I’m shooting these dogs.” Hamm and others confronted the officer. “A medic was also there,” Hamm said, “and he told me he wouldn’t let anything happen to them.”

At both the middle and high schools, evacuees were eventually ordered to get in the back of garbage trucks. They were driven in the trucks to barges that took them across the river to buses. Some were bused to Oklahoma and Texas, others to Baton Rouge.

Christopher Acosta also left his dog, Mercedes, at Beauregard Middle School, along with 10 dogs belonging to his mother, uncle, cousin and best friend. His uncle’s German shepherd somehow escaped and made it back to his house.

 Acosta (left) returned to the school two weeks later to look for the remaining dogs. What he found were bodies. “It made me mad,” Acosta said. “The more bodies I saw, the angrier I got.” He opened every classroom, searching. By his count, about 40 deceased pets were in the building. They included his mother’s Pomeranian. Mercedes, his pit bull, missed being shot because her leash got stuck in a file cabinet, trapping her behind it.

A resident walked by the school sometime after the shootings and heard a faint whimper. He flagged down the driver of an SUV that had “animal rescue” scrawled on the window. Kelle Davis of Animal Rescue New Orleans went inside and found the whimpering dog, who turned out to be Mercedes. Mercedes was later taken to Best Friends Animal Society's temporary rescue center in Tylertown, Mississippi, and reunited with Acosta three months after the evacuation.

Picking up the Pieces

Those who lost their pets in the carnage are trying to get on with their lives.

Carol Hamm and her family, who relocated to Temple, Texas, were reunited with Daisy, the sole survivor of the four dogs they left at the school. Another of the few survivors of the bloodbath at the schools, Daisy was taken to the Tylertown rescue center, and then placed in a foster home.

Christopher and Crystal Acosta were living in a FEMA trailer on their St. Bernard Parish property while they repaired their house. “I love this dog with all my heart,” Acosta told reporters the day he and Mercedes were reunited, as he stood in front of the school. "I'm just grateful to get her back.”

Jodie Jones returned to her home after she and her husband received keys to their FEMA trailer. Going home brought back many memories. Jones said, “You know how when you pull up in the driveway you’re used to them barking, and when you go inside they’re happy to see you? It was like we expected to see them, but they weren’t there. It’s been difficult. My pets were my children. I can’t get over the abuse.”

Kit Bauer now lives out of state and has no plans to return to St. Bernard Parish. “There’s nothing to go back to,” she said. As for the investigation, Bauer said, “I don’t want to dwell on what the deputies may or may not have done. They took care of us while we were at the school and found us food. I just pray my dogs didn’t suffer.”

In December 2008, the final word came down from the Louisiana attorney general's office. Citing insufficient evidence, State Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell dropped the animal cruelty charges against the two deputies -- Minton and England -- accused of killing the stray dogs while they worked for the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina. No charges were ever brought against the deputies long believed to have killed pets inside the schools.

The animal cases may have ended, and certainly justice was not meted out there. Hopefully, with the cases of the six residents who were fatally shot by cops, this time justice will be served.

Photo of Christopher Acosta and Mercedes by Cathy Scott. Photo by Clay Myers of Angel, (top, one of the few survivors, who was found alive tied to a table in the school cafeteria; she was later reunited with her family).