Sunday, February 28, 2010
Mary Frances Creighton, Fanny to her friends, was a rather appealing 24-year-old in the summer of 1923. She had curling dark hair, pale skin, “deep, luminous eyes,” according to The New York Evening Post, and lush, “petulant lips,” according to The New York American.
The New York Times more sedately described her as a “comely brunette,” or as “a young mother.” She had a three-year-old daughter, Ruth, and a newly born son, John Jr. The baby had been born in the Newark, N.J. jail, while both she and her husband, John, (together, above left) awaited a trial on charges that they’d killed Fanny's young brother with arsenic.
Hence all the publicity. The newspapers ran few photos of scrawny sandy-haired John. But Fanny Creighton willingly posed for admiring photographers: dressed in long-sleeved demure black, despite the summer heat, eyes lowered, carved silver cross hanging around her neck, infant cradled in her arms.
The image was of a gentle Madonna, the least likely person to have killed a younger brother for a life insurance payout.
The jurors also believed her an unlikely murderer. Both the Creightons were found innocent of the charges. But, in fact, although her husband was only a dupe in the affair, Fanny Creighton was guilty. She admitted to the killing a dozen years later. That was after she’d been charged with yet another arsenic murder.
In the second case – the murder of a close friend’s wife on Long Island – Creighton (and the close friend) went to the electric chair. This time, the press did not find her so appealing: “The Black-Eyed Borgia” screamed one headline. And this time the evidence was not so easily brushed away – the forensic results were so precise that the laboratory could identify the brand of arsenic-laced rat poison used – and the guilty decision came very quickly.
The different endings to two prosecutions of the same woman offer a remarkable measure of how much and how fast forensic science had grown up in the intervening decade. Today, we tend to take such scientific expertise for granted. This is not to imply perfection in a human enterprise. We’ve all followed recent scandals involving overworked criminal laboratories that misstated or even made up some of the findings. But that involves people making bad, really bad, decisions. The basic science itself – our ability to tease a poison out of tissue, identify a blood type, analyze traces of fibers or soils – those techniques stand as solid.
That was far from true in the early 20th century. Elected coroners often knew nothing about science or how to determine cause of death. As I learned in researching my book, The Poisoner's Handbook, death certificates from the time period sometimes merely gave “Act of God” as the cause. Police detectives regarded these strangers from laboratories with real suspicion, refusing to accept their findings. And lawyers found laboratory results to be a wonderfully easy target.
All of that worked perfectly to Fanny Creighton’s advantage in her first murder trial: “My clients know nothing of how this boy came to be poisoned!” her lawyer declared.
John Creighton and Mary Frances Avery were long time friends when they married in 1919. He was the son of an executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. She, her brother and two sisters were orphans, cared for by affluent grandparents.
The newlyweds moved in with Creighton's parents, who owned a big, two-story home in Newark’s comfortable Roseville neighborhood. They shared the space for a year until his mother died at age 47 of apparent attack of food poisoning in 1920. His father, also 47, died the following year, of a sudden heart ailment.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
odman, a former criminal defense attorney and self-described “mouthpiece for th
e mob,” spent 35 years defending the nation’s most notorious underworld figures. His clients included mobsters M
eyer Lansky, Anthony "Tony The Ant" Spilotro and Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, the latter two
portrayed in the film Casino by
actors Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro. Goodman, also in the film
, played himself–a lawyer for the mob.
So it came as a surprise in 1999 when Goodman tried to deny the mob’s existence in Las Vegas. It was during Goodman’s mayoral run, when he issued a statement in the midst of a colorful Las Vegas trial of two reputed Mafiosi charged in connection with the 1997 execution-style murder of another gangster, Herbert “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein. The trial spotlighted the very kind of mob activity that officials, other than Goodman, had insisted, year after year, no longer existed in Las Vegas.
It started in the early 1990s, when the Nevada Gaming Commission released the first of several statements assuring the public that the FBI had forced the last of the mob out of Las Vegas in the 1980s. That was not true, of course. Goodman himself had represented Spilotro in a mob trial in the mid-1980s, shortly before Spilotro was buried alive and left for dead in an Indiana cornfield. Blitzstein was a co-defendant with Spilotro in that trial. After Spilotro’s murder, Blitzstein pleaded guilty and went to prison. He was released in the early 1990s and returned to Las Vegas, picking up where he had left off.
The 62-year-old Blitzstein ran a downtown auto-repair shop that fronted for his rackets. Authorities said he ran loan-shark and insurance-fraud racketeering operations out of the shop.
In January 1997, Blitzstein was gunned down in his town house. Federal prosecutors later contended that mob families in Los Angeles and Buffalo, N.Y., had ordered Blitzstein’s hit so they could take control of his business.
Then, in May 1999, Goodman, as a mayoral candidate, issued a press release declaring the streets of the city free of traditional organized crime.
"For the last 15 years," Goodman said, "there hasn't been a mob presence here."
Coincidentally or not, Goodman issued that statement from his law office, which was around the corner from the U.S. District courthouse where the Blitzstein murder-related trial was well underway. Testimony in that case, which was heavily covered by the media, related to the life-and-death saga of Herbert Blitzstein–who had been Spilotro's right-hand man–provided new details about Las Vegas street rackets. For example, the 12-count racketeering indictment handed down in the case named 10 defendants charged with offenses ranging from Mafia-related murder-for-hire to racketeering.
The trial surrounding Blitzstein’s murder, which ended with most of the defendants pleading out to lesser crimes, was the last Mafia-related trial in Las Vegas.
Blitzstein’s murder also marked the last mob hit in Sin City. But don't tell Oscar Goodman. We'll just keep it between us.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
I am not really a crier. I did bawl my eyes out in the movie Precious, but generally – as a veteran sex crimes prosecutor – it takes a lot to get my tears flowing. Especially with books! But Jim Moret’s The Last Day of My Life did make me cry.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Technically, distributing naked pictures of teenage girls under the age of 18 is considered child pornography. If caught, the boys or men could face jail time and/or have to register as sex offenders -- a burden they would carry all their lives. It doesn't matter if the girl took the pictures herself, or if the photos were sent to someone younger than 18. It's still child porn.
But while the fun is fleeting, the Internet is forever. What happens when they want to get into a good university? When they start looking for a job in their profession? When they hope to play a college or pro sport or teach for a living? These pictures could haunt them forever, hindering their potential for success in the real world. The real world is not the one portrayed on TV in shows and commercials where everyone is either trying to have sex, having sex, or talking about the sex they had or want to have. (Pictured above: Actress Vanessa Hudgens in cell phone photo scandal of 2007. Sources say she "learned her lesson.")
Lingerie parties are just a symptom of a society and a generation that has lost sight of what is important. Instead of doing crunches and spending good money on ridiculous stripper outfits, teens in other eras involved themselves in social causes. Today, one of the worst problems I believe we face is the sexual abuse of women, through rape, domestic violence, and human trafficking. The line defining acceptable behavior keeps receding from the moral boundaries needed to protect women and girls. If we see ourselves as sex objects, how can we expect others to see us anything else?
Friday, February 19, 2010
September 7th, 2006, was a memorable date for me: it was my birthday (not saying which one). The date was less festive for 21-year-old Melinda Duckett, mother of a missing two-year-old toddler. Duckett later became a prime suspect in the child's disappearance. On September 7th, Duckett was questioned by the queen of tabloid talk, Nancy Grace, during what has been widely called an ambush interview. Within 24 hours, Duckett had killed herself with a shotgun at her grandfather's house. The missing child has never been found, but the legal saga ensuing from Duckett's death continues to wind its way through the courts. The crux of the lawsuit is whether Grace's confrontational style of interrogation interview was responsible for Duckett's subsequent suicide.
TROUBLE FROM THE START
Melinda and Joshua Duckett were high school sweethearts. Joshua's family history was troubled in the extreme. His father, James Duckett, was a police officer in Florida in 1987 when he was charged and later convicted for the rape, strangulation and drowning of an 11-year-old girl. For that crime, he sits on Death Row at Florida State Prison. Melinda's life was chaotic as well. Her troubled history included alleged involvement in an amateur on-line porn business.
The couple married in 2005, just before their son Trenton's first birthday. The marriage was brief and rocky. Melinda filed for divorce in June 2006. An ugly custody battle followed, with Melinda granted a temporary restraining order at one point after receiving a threatening e-mail that Joshua denies sending.
On August 27, 2006, while the couple was separated and living apart, Melinda Duckett reported Trenton missing around 9:00 pm. She claimed she discovered his disappearance during a break from watching movies with friends in another room. A cut in the window screen was the only clue left behind for police to follow.
During the investigation, police began to question the time-line Duckett gave them, noting no witnesses saw Trenton alive since he was picked up at day care on Friday, August 25th. Police later found some of Trenton's toys, photos of the child and a sonogram in the apartment complex trash bin. They began to focus on Melinda Duckett as a prime suspect.
In November 2006, Duckett's parents, Bethann and William Gerald Eubank, filed suit against CNN and Nancy Grace in the Lake County Florida Judicial Circuit alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit claims the television show solicited an unsuspecting and emotionally unstable Duckett to appear under false pretenses. It alleges the show lured Duckett with promises and representations that her appearance would inform the public her child was missing and assist in generating tips. And it alleges there was a plan in place to surprise Duckett with accusations and verbal assaults intending to intimate that she murdered her child.
The lawsuit has highlighted issues of media responsibility weighed against the talk show industry's right to free speech. But this is far from a case of first impression, and the issues raised are hardly new.
In 1995 Jonathan Schmitz (pictured left) shot and killed openly gay Scott Amedure, hunting him down two days after Amedure professed a secret crush on him during a taping of the Jenny Jones show. As the prosecutor in the criminal trial of the case, I kept up with developments in the civil trial. I watched a large portion of it after the Amedure family sued Warner Brothers, Jenny Jones and the Jenny Jones show alleging negligence and improper screening of the emotionally unstable Schmitz. Under oath in the civil trial, Jones admitted that the show didn't want Schmitz to know in advance that his admirer was a man.
The cause of action in the lawsuit against Nancy Grace is different than in the Jenny Jones case. In the Duckett case, the alleged wrong-doing is the intentional infliction of emotional distress, rather than a negligence cause of action like that alleged by the Amedure suit. One key aspect remains the same: a celebrity and her show are the subjects of a lawsuit brought after a guest meets a violent death in the aftermath of an exploitive and humiliating on-air confrontation.
A CNN spokesman says that Nancy Grace and the show the show were providing a vital public service, bringing attention to the case for the greater good of finding Trenton Duckett. Other defenders of Grace's confrontational on-air style argue that perhaps Duckett killed herself out of guilt for killing her child rather than humiliation in an exploitive interview. They allege that Duckett went on the show willingly, and that Grace had the right to ask those questions and dig for the truth. Those critical of the ambush interview technique argue that maybe Duckett committed suicide because she was insane with grief, and Grace drove her over the edge.
Humiliating a guest for the entertainment of a nation is the key ingredient in the volatile formula of talk show amusement, devoured in millions of living rooms every day. Since TV is a mass-entertainment medium, networks have a huge incentive to satisfy their audiences' appetites. There's no shortage of participants who willingly agree to appear on sensationalist and tawdry shows. Time after time, we've seen people compromise their reputations and quality of life to be on TV. Do those who are so eager for their 15 minutes of fame ever realize it could kill them? Perhaps the saddest commentary of all is the viewing audience's seemingly insatiable appetite for cruel and sadistic voyeurism.
And the biggest irony of all? Now the ever talking head, Nancy Grace, has become the story.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
One of the major reasons women stay in abusive relationships is fear. They are afraid of what will happen to them and their children if they leave. Sadly, their fears are often justified; statistics show that a woman is at the greatest risk for injury when she announces her plans or leaves an abusive relationship.
To illustrate the danger, let's consider the case of Utah's Susan Powell, a wife and mother who has not been seen or heard from since December 6th. Hers is a familiar scenario, one that occurs in the majority of abused women cases across the country. If one takes a close look at the evidence, in my opinion, the most logical conclusion is that Susan Powell was murdered.
Susan Powell was a stockbroker with two young sons, a devoted mother and likely the person in the marriage with a larger paycheck than her husband, Josh. Over time, the marriage reportedly turned controlling, with Josh insisting on knowing what Susan was doing when not under his radar. We've all seen the news reports, including that he demanded she tell him how much she spent on herself and for household goods and services. In this type of case, the fights build up from yelling to shoving. A bedroom door is slammed with greater frequency, and the couple drifts apart.
Many abused women hope that having children will change the behavior of an abusive mate. They hope the abuser will turn his/her life around for the sake of the children and that the result will finally be a happy home life. In the Powell case, that didn't happen. Pregnant with her second child, perhaps under circumstances beyond her control (she could have been forced as some are in the marriage), Susan brings another life into a world three years later where anger and violent outbursts become commonplace. During this time Susan likely announces, the marriage is over. Perhaps making statements such as, "we need to divorce" or "this is not fair to the children and I can no longer go on living this way."
There is a point for many abused women when they verbally announce the steps to end the abuse that lays the foundation for an abuser to begin thinking about a course of action. Around this time an abused woman begins confiding in co-workers or close friends. As we later learned from authorities, that is exactly what Susan did.
For the alleged offender, I will use Josh Powell as an example. Now he is formulating a plan no different from the plans of other violent persons: one born of anger and desperation. Anger because the person is leaving and ending the relationship. Desperation over what he (the abuser) will be forced to carry out if the person with whom he is in a relationship cannot be persuaded to stay.
This plan remains in the abuser's mind, of course, until he see signs of movement. In this case, perhaps Susan was whispering on the phone to someone, and when Josh walked into the room she quickly changed her tone or ended the phone call. Or he learned that Susan set up a bank account and believed she was hiding money so she and the kids could leave.
The signs of movement spark Josh or any potential abuser to think of the next level. They think to themselves, Okay, she is going to leave me. I will not let that happen. He acts as though nothing is wrong but, when she goes to sleep, Josh rummages through her car looking for evidence of her plan, a bank receipt or an unusual transaction or charge. Maybe in her purse he checks the cell phone for any unusual numbers he does not recognize. Or goes through the computer and checks the browser to see her activity.
He finds something and his anger is elevated, his heart is racing, but he remains calm and says nothing to Susan. A smile comes to his face because he "caught her," and he figures she will pay one way or the other at a later date.
Around this time Susan begins sending e-mails about the abuse and threats she has endured by Josh to a trusted circle of friends. Maybe she keeps a detailed log with dates and times of the incidents.
Now Josh does what I label the "smell change." Susan is acting strange and, like cologne,
Josh can literally (as with most abusers) sense when their environment has shifted. Perhaps Susan is verbalizing her unhappiness with greater frequency. Maybe she stands up for herself during a fight where months before Susan would have backed down and gone to her room without incident.
It is very difficult for any abused women to hide that spark of empowerment from a clever abuser. They (the abuser) smell it as sure as a fox entering a coop filled with chickens.
It's now that most abusers decide to implement their plans. He has thought about it from the moment it entered his mind. The children are sleeping and the couple gets into a heated argument. At this point possible scenarios vary. Here is one example: Josh in his rage could have knocked her unconscious and carried her out to the car. Then, one at a time, he lifts his sleeping boys into the back seat. The family drives to the desert. Susan wakes up and gets out of the car. Josh and she are arguing and he hits or pushes her off an embankment and into a ravine. Josh drives back with the boys to the house where he is questioned by authorities.
In many ways, the case of Susan Powell appears no different from the millions of cases of violence we never hear about, until women go missing and their bodies are found. Abuse victims often have no official documentation of the abuse because they were too afraid to contact police or obtain a court order of protection. Why? Because better than anyone they (the victims) know it would do them no good. It would only escalate the level of danger.
The one thing an abuse victim knows for certain is the fear that has been planted in them over time by an abuser and the likelihood of imminent danger if it is discovered they plan to leave. I believe this is what happened in Susan Powell’s case; she had only one opportunity to leave and somehow Josh Powell found out.
On December 7, 2009, I, like a number of you, saw this case on the Internet or on a news broadcast. And, sadly, I bowed my head in prayer, knowing she would never again be seen alive.