Monday, May 31, 2010

Fallen Heroes - May They Rest in Peace?

by Donna Pendergast

The United States Supreme Court will consider a landmark case in their next court term beginning in October. They will hear the case of a Maryland man whose slain soldier son's funeral was targeted for picketing by the Topeka, Kansas, based Westboro Baptist Church and its leader Fred Phelps.

The zealot church was comprised mostly of Phelps' 13 children -- 11 of whom are attorneys; one son is said to be estranged from the family -- and his grandchildren has no affiliation with mainstream Baptist organizations. They have made a practice of demonstrating at military funerals to complain of the U.S. government's tolerance of homosexuality and of gays in the military. They believe that God is punishing soldiers who are defending a country that has a "policy of accepting homosexuals." The group regularly posts a schedule of their picket activities and appears at military funerals with signs in hand to bring attention to their anti-government and anti-homosexual positions.

Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder of Finksburg, Maryland, died of injuries suffered in a non-combat vehicle accident in Al-Anbar province Iraq. The Westboro church staged a demonstration at his March 2006 funeral in Maryland, rallying, chanting anti gay slogans and carrying signs with statements like "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Semper Fi Fags" as the mourners grieved. Members of the church had never met Matthew, who was not gay, nor any members of his family. Snyder's father later sued the church for invading his privacy and inflicting emotional distress, igniting the legal battle that has now reached the Supreme Court. The lawsuit also contained defamation charges for statements made on the Internet that Al Snyder "raised his son for the devil" and "taught his son adultery." Snyder won $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages in October 2007. In 2008 the award was cut down by the judge upon a motion to $5 million.

In September 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, reversed that judgment on appeal, finding in favor of free speech rights of the demonstrators. To add insult to injury, Snyder's father was ordered to pay over $16,000 of the church's legal costs incurred in defending the suit. Scores of outraged soldiers, citizens and veterans' groups have rallied behind Mr. Snyder's suit, and donations to the legal cost fund continue to flow in. This past March, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in the fall.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, mother of 11 children and the most visible spokesperson for the church besides her father, is known to spew hateful vitriol, including threats of eternal damnation. In her own vile manner she consistently engages with members of the media and public, arguing that the First Amendment protects her rights to say what she wants. She testified at trial that the "Semper Fi Fags" sign used at Snyder's funeral means "You are always faithful to the fags." She further testified that it was her duty to deliver the message "whether you wanted to hear it or not."

Snyder's lawyers have argued that the church members' actions interfered with the Snyders' rights to bury their son at a religious gathering that was entitled to constitutional protection. They argue that while Phelps and his supporters may have a constitutionally protected right to protest, it shouldn't come at the expense of the Snyders' rights to gather peacefully at their son's funeral. Recent disclosures that Mr. Snyder did not learn of the protest until after the funeral may diminish the viability of the Snyders' claim on that point.

The federal government and 46 states have enacted laws that regulate picketing and other forms of disruptive behavior during a funeral. Proponents of the laws argue that funeral protection laws do not infringe on First Amendment rights, and that freedom of speech does not trump the right to bury in peace a loved one killed in defense of our nation. Opponents of the laws argue that the right to free speech trumps all even when the speech is offensive and repugnant. Soon the Supreme Court will address these tough issues in this case that goes to the core of First Amendment guarantees. What is so ironic is that the First Amendment rights that Phelps and his flock hide behind have been paid for by the same military whose deaths and funerals they so viciously and hatefully mock.

Members of the church plan to be at Arlington National Cemetery today to picket the wreath-laying ceremony and the Memorial Day parade. While the hatemongers spew their venom, may the rest of us remember the men and women who have so honorably served their country, and say a prayer of thanks for their courage, selflessness and dedication. We recognize the hardship, suffering and sacrifice they endured to let us live the lives that we lead. On Memorial Day and every day, we remember with respect those who have fought to defend democratic ideals and secure our freedom. With deep gratitude, we salute our country's brave and honorable veterans.

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

Friday, May 28, 2010

Murder and the Politician

by Diane Fanning

On Monday morning in Alabama, Mobile County Commissioner Stephen Nodine sat in his usual spot for the county commission meeting.  No one really cared what he thought about the road plans for U.S. 98 on the agenda.  They just wanted to know why he was walking free among them.

In mid-May, a grand jury delivered a bill of indictment alleging that Nodine should be removed from office on charges of willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetence, intemperance in the use of intoxicating liquors or narcotics, and moral turpitude.

They specified that he used one county vehicle for personal business, including visits to the Gulf Shores home of his long-time mistress Angel Downs (above) and driving under the influence, as well as losing another county pickup after he drove it to New Orleans Mardis Gras 2008.  The truck was found and about to be towed from the location where Nodine, in a drunken stupor, abandoned it.  The grand jury also cited him for purchasing non-official food and fuel with his county credit card.

On top of that, there were drug allegations: marijuana was found in his county vehicle in December 2009; he fraudulently purchased the painkiller Lortab from at least nine different pharmacies in four different states; and he was publicly intoxicated.  The last occurred during the first week in May when, wearing his county hat, he showed up belligerent at the Command Center for the BP oil spill.

Add to those incidents charges of stalking, harassment, verbal abuse, physical abuse and making threats against Angel Downs after she attempted to break off their relationship.  To complicate his sins even further, Nodine flashed his badge to law enforcement in an an attempt to avoid being arrested or charged with violation of a court-issued protective order.  It's no surprise that many of the commissioners' constituents saw him as a dishonest, abusive jerk.

Many of us have become numb to allegations of moral and ethical shortcomings by politicians, though.  It often seems as if many run for election not to serve, but to take advantage of their positions.  It becomes easy to simply turn away with boredom when another politician disappoints us.

The horror of May 9, however, could not be ignored.  That event stirred up the outrage of both Mobile and Baldwin County residents.  A shot rang out in The Ridge condominium complex, and Angel Downs fell down on her driveway, bleeding from her head.  Nodine's red county-issued pickup truck was seen leaving the area immediately afterwards. Helpless neighbors surrounded Angel and watched her die before paramedics arrived at the scene.

Nodine turned himself into authorities on the marijuana charges on May 14.  His wife filed for divorce, and he signed the papers on May 17.  Nodine's county truck was confiscated to search for evidence. Authorities found spent .40-caliber rounds and the presence of blood.

Still, fifteen days after the death of Angel Downs, Stephen Nodine sat in a county commission meeting as if nothing had happened.

While Nodine played the role of innocent and persecuted, the Grand Jury of Baldwin County met to consider the death of Angel Downs.  After seven hours of testimony, they handed down an indictment against the commissioner for murder.

At 7:15 Monday evening, in front of the Baldwin County Corrections Center, Stephen Nodine stepped out of his attorney's SUV, dressed in khaki shorts and a blue golf shirt.  He didn't say a word as a deputy approached through a crowd of reporters, slapped handcuffs on his wrists and escorted him inside.

The bail amount on a first degree murder charge in Alabama is an automatic $500,000.  If Nodine raises his bond, he will be on house arrest and forced to wear an ankle monitor.  It will be difficult for the family and the community to see Nodine walk out of jail, even with that new limiting accessory.

Nonetheless, there is comfort in knowing that Angel has not been forgotten, that someone has been arrested for her murder, and the journey on the road to justice has begun.

UPDATE: Stephen Nodine is still in jail unable to post bond, but he has resigned his position as a Mobile County Commissioner.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Red Letter Day for Etan's Family

by Lisa R. Cohen

 On Tuesday I called Stan Patz. "Hi," I said. "Am I the first of the legions of annoying media calling you today to check in?"

Patz is the father of Etan Patz, the famous missing six-year-old who disappeared 31 years ago Tuesday, the day now marked as National Missing Children's Day. He vanished during a two-block walk from his downtown New York home to the school bus stop.

His mother (above, with Etan) kissed him goodbye on the sidewalk in front of their loft apartment, and he set off, taking that walk on his own for the very first time.

Last year, when I wrote the book about this then-30-year case, the only book ever written on it, I called it AFTER ETAN: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive. There was a "Before Etan," and an "After Etan."

Before Etan, parents didn't have the image of that beautiful blond-haired boy, an image of what could be their own child's fate, lurking in their hearts. After Etan, they did, and for many, the world changed forever.

The case has never been officially solved, although the book details the best convincingly detailed argument for what happened that day, and then tells what happened in the twisting, turning years following, as law enforcement struggled to make sense of the mystery, unraveling clues over time. Because it's this incredible, ongoing mystery, every year, on May 25th, the media calls come in, a trickle over the last several, but the day is always marked by someone.

"I think it's going to be a pretty quiet one," Stan replied to me. "I'm not anticipating a lot of attention." Which, to Stan (below left), is good and bad. He hates attention, but on the other hand, he's fought for 31 years to keep people interested in solving this case.

"I was wrong," he wrote to me later that day. "A Wall Street Journal reporter has interviewed me at length, and his photographer was just here to take pictures."

"There is news," he continued, and I could almost hear the excitement in his words on the page. "The new Manhattan District Attorney has announced he's re-opening the case."

I got the call from the reporter himself soon afterwards and filled him in on some of the background of the case. I told him that this break was a testament to the tenacity of Stan and his cohort, the former Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart GraBois, who had stood by Patz, followed the case for more than two decades, and had himself broken it, zeroing in on a most viable prime suspect.

Jose Antonio Ramos (right) has never been charged for Etan's abduction and murder, although in 2004 he was found legally responsible for Etan's death in a civil suit Stan Patz brought against him.

The former Manhattan D.A., Robert Morgenthau, had the case for decades but always insisted he didn't have enough evidence to prosecute. His spokesperson would always follow up with a "can't comment on an ongoing investigation," and no one could know exactly what their case was.

The new D.A., Cyrus Vance Jr, now says he's willing to take a fresh look. It doesn't mean they're about to convene a grand jury, or charge Ramos, or anything that concrete. But it does signal a willingness to go after Ramos for what many close to the case believe is the heinous crime he committed all those years ago. For that, and for the fact that he's not blindly sticking to the status quo, Vance (left) is to be commended.

There is no statute of limitations on murder. It's unclear, based on New York state law, if there's a statute of limitations on the kind of kidnapping charge they might be able to bring against Ramos.

Stan Patz is especially pleased because of a looming deadline. In 2012, Ramos will have served the full term for two other child molestation cases for which he was convicted. He was put in jail by prosecutor GraBois (right), not for the Patz case, but because of it. It was GraBois's gusto that led him to pursue the other cases when he couldn't nail Ramos on the Patz case. Ramos, it turned out, was a serial pedophile, but over the last 25 years, he's successfully been kept away from an entire generation of small victims.

But in two years, Ramos will walk free. Stan Patz and Stu GraBois want to make sure that won't happen. The wheels of justice grind slowly, and two years isn't very long at all by that measure.

Stan was grateful, after all, that Tuesday wasn't such a quiet day. And today, at last, there's a measure of hope.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Special Treatment for Police and Military: Where Do We Draw The Line?

by Katherine Scardino

Houston is, once again, the location of a highly publicized trial involving police officers. Bellaire Police Sergeant Jeff Cotton was charged with aggravated assault here in Harris County in connection with an incident that occurred in 2008. At around 2 a.m. on December 31, 2008, Robbie Tolan, 23, and his cousin, Anthony Cooper, were returning to their home in upscale Bellaire after enjoying a late night run to Jack-in-the-Box. When the two young men pulled into their driveway, they got out and found themselves confronted by police, guns drawn.

Police, who suspected the boys of driving a stolen vehicle, ordered them to the ground. Robbie and Anthony claim they didn't know what was going on, or why they were being held at gunpoint in their own driveway. This is probably because they weren't driving a stolen vehicle. The office who initially ran their license plate allegedly mistyped the numbers, which is why the vehicle came back as stolen, when in fact it was not.

Hearing the commotion, Robbie Tolan’s parents came outside to see what was going on in their driveway. There was an altercation between the police and Robbie Tolan’s parents, and his mother was shoved against the garage door. Robbie began to rise from the ground to ask the officers what they were doing to his mother. That is when Sergeant Jeff Cotton fired three shots at Robbie, one of them hitting him in the chest, leaving a bullet lodged in his liver. The shooting occurred within 32 seconds after Sgt. Cotton pulled into the Tolan driveway.

Two weeks ago a Harris County jury heard testimony from Officer Cotton, who claimed that he saw Tolan reaching for what could have been a gun. Another Houston Police Department officer testified that Officer Cotton acted in accordance with his training.

The jury acquitted Sergeant Cotton.

The local television stations called me to ask my opinion about whether there is a bias favoring police officers in our city. Are jurors biased and therefore more likely to believe the testimony of a police officer over the testimony of defendants or their witnesses? I told reporters that I believed that there is definitely a bias in our city. Ask any young black man what happens to him if he is seen driving a nice car in a nice neighborhood in our city. Ask any young black man what happens if he is driving a nice car in any neighborhood in our city. Everyone knows what “D.W.B” means, and for those who have been living under a rock, it means “driving while black”. Did I mention that young Mr. Robbie Tolan is black?

What contributes to my perception of inequality in trials involving police officers? I know that if a defendant is accused of shooting a police officer, the District Attorney will almost always seek the death penalty. Keep in mind that in most capital murder cases, a murder is committed along with another crime, which warrants the elevation of the charge from murder to capital murder -- where the death penalty may be sought. In Texas, if a person "murders a police officer or fireman  who is acting in the lawful discharge of an official duty and who the person knows is a peace officer or fireman,” then they have committed a capital offense.

So, is this really bad? What is wrong with giving an edge to our men in blue? What about our soldiers, returning from far away countries? Should they get an edge also? Police officers help defend and protect our streets and neighborhoods. Can you imagine the potential fear experienced by police officers as they approach an unknown person sitting in a strange car on the side of an unfamiliar street in a big city? With each traffic stop, the officer probably hopes that this is not the guy who pulls a gun on him and wonders, am I going to have to shoot someone today? God, let this one be okay, and the next, and the next. It is a tough job, and every single police officer doing this thankless job should have our deepest gratitude - and big paychecks.

But when these trusted officers commit crimes or violate our constitutional rights, do they get a pass? Do we ignore what they do because they do these dirty jobs that neither I nor you want to do? From the perspective of my experiences as a criminal defense attorney, I would have to vote “no”. The men in blue have to take their seat in the defendant’s chair just like anyone else would have to if we killed another person intentionally or maimed a citizen by beating him.

Remember Rodney King? Remember back in 1992 watching that famous video of three Los Angeles police officers beating a black man? Kicking, stomping and beating with metal batons a seemingly defenseless African-American man who we later came to know as Rodney King? We were all aghast at this blatant violation of our sensibilities. Rodney King told a Grand Jury: "I felt beat up and like a crushed can.  That’s what I felt like, like a crushed can all over, and my spirits were down real low.”

The Grand Jury indicted the officers involved in the beating of Mr. King, and Los Angeles faced a very controversial trial. We all know what happened next. The jury acquitted all of the officers involved in the beating. Less than two hours later, Los Angeles was in flames.

What about our fellow citizens who protect and serve our country in the military? Men and women who come home from spending months, or even years, fighting in foreign lands only to get involved in criminal activity here in the United States? Many people believe that those who fight our wars and serve our country should absolutely get special treatment. "Leniency for veterans" is a legal argument that is increasingly carrying the day in courts across the country." We even have “veterans' courts” in various cities, with the first such specialty court created to deal exclusively with veterans in Buffalo, New York.
It appears  there is a fine line here. A little bit of wrongdoing may be acceptable. A lot of wrongdoing is not. The first thought most people have when considering cases such as Robbie Tolan's here in Houston is that the officers saw a young black man driving a new SUV and immediately assumed that the car had to have been stolen -- just like the “D.W.B.” arrests that occur in every neighborhood in every city in the United States. Ask any African American male who has been in this situation, and each tells a similar, scary story. Some made it back home in one piece. Some did not. Robbie Tolan -- son of former Major League baseball player Bobby Tolan -- did not die. Rodney King did not die. So what is it going to take? 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What's a Nice Girl Like You....Doing in Prostitution?

by Pat Brown

If you are anywhere near my age of 54, you graduated high school in the the '70s, and you will remember Donna Summer's disco hit, Bad Girls, a great dance song that you couldn't get out of your head. The lyrics focused on girls who got into street prostitution; this is pretty much the only kind of prostitution many of us were familiar with, girls in hot pants, net stockings and high heels leaning in cars on "The Corner."

Bad girls
talking about the sad girls
sad girls
talking about the bad girls, yeah

Friday night and the strip is hot
sun's gone down and they're about to trot
spirit's high and they look hot
do you wanna get down
now don't you ask yourself, who they are?
like everybody else, they wanna be a star

Now you and me, we are both the same
but you call yourself by different names
now you mama won't like it when she finds out
her girl is out at night

We pretty much figured, as the words in the song impart, hookers are "bad" girls who get some kind of cheap thrill out of dressing up, strutting up and down the street, and getting a lot of attention, filling an emotional void that they can't satisfy legally. The girls want to be important just like the rest of us, but they picked a bad avenue to achieve celebrity, and over time, they become damaged goods.

Today we recognize that many of these young girls are runaways and drug users who ply their trade out of necessity and desperation, becoming the pawns of pimps and johns, men who use these girls to serve their sexual needs and to make money off of their overused bodies. The girls end up on the very short end of the stick, abused emotionally and physically, losing their lives to the streets and sometimes simply losing their lives.

We also have become more familiar with human trafficking, where girls, many underage, and young naive women mostly from impoverished backgrounds, are lured to the United States with promises of legitimate jobs. When they arrive, either illegally across the border - or legally, but their procurers confiscate their passports - they can't return home or get regular employment. They are imprisoned in houses of sexual slavery, never able to earn enough money to buy their freedom, incapable of paying off "money owed" for their travel expenses. They can't go to the authorities because they have no legal status or because they are locked up in brothels and can't escape.

Most middle class families don't worry that their daughters will get caught up in a sex ring or end up working the streets. Their girls come from decent homes, are well educated, and would never get involved in prostitution.

This is a false belief. Many girls with much going for them get lured into the sex trade or walk into it with eyes wide open. How does this happen and why?

Every parent should understand what draws girls into selling themselves and the lifestyle that comes with it. They must be willing to see the signs that their child is prostituting herself. Before they send their daughters out into the world alone, they need to sit down with them to ensure these girls understand that any benefits of the "bad girl" life are dwarfed by its dangers.

Your "good" girls aren't heading to the streets. They are heading to dance halls, massage parlors, bottle girl set-ups, escort services, and overseas to be "hostesses" in places like Japan. The first thing for parents to be clear on is all of these are fronts for prostitution, all of them. There is no such thing as a girl who works for an escort service to merely go out to dinner with a client, or just sitting in a club selling drinks to the customers without the men getting more than just a few martinis and some female company. These activities are just a prelude to prostitution, and if a girl doesn't get with the program she will be let go quickly. No man goes to a massage parlor for a massage; he goes for sex, and after she completes the foreplay known as "Swedish Fingertip Massage" (a girl with no massage training simply lightly runs her fingers up and down his body), the girl will perform some sort of sex act or be fired. The bottle girls that Rachel Uchitel brings to the nightclub table where Tiger Woods and his ilk are sitting has to make those customers happy or be shown the door. Dance hall girls get a salary to dance with men, but if they don't make a "date" with those men after hours, they are terminated.

Most of this kind of prostitution operates without pimps running the girls, but rather managers of the businesses provide job opportunities and oversight. Girls usually are not subjected to threats or violence to keep them working; if they don't want the job, a new girl will show up quickly to take her place. The fact is, there are a lot of middle-class, attractive girls who are not averse to making some pretty good money and getting a kick out of their "alternative" lifestyle. To some girls, making a hundred dollars or more an hour for sex beats working a boring job for 40 or more hours to earn just enough to survive. Higher levels of prostitution offer quick bucks and more lavish living. Some high-class hookers also get the excitement of hanging out with rich men or celebrities, partying, and traveling in style. In her new bestselling book, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, ex-call girl and Brunei royalty party girl, Jillian Lauren, beautifully explains her entrance into prostitution and why she preferred the life of high class hooking over her previous suburban life. She loved the excitement, the power, and the money. Many others enter the profession for the same reasons.

Some girls, like Lauren, play the game until it's no longer fulfilling, the money doesn't make up for the soul-destroying life, and they get out. Other girls get old in the business and lose their ability to function in normal life any more. This is not a happy ending.

Other girls, like Jessie Foster, go missing. Jessie was lured from her Canadian hometown by a male "friend" who showed her an exciting time, partying, clubbing, and enjoying the high life in various locations around the country. Eventually, she ended up in Las Vegas with her Jamaican boyfriend, Peter Todd, (shown left with Jessie) a pimp, who claims he was the last person to see Jessie on April 3, 2006. We will never know whether Jessie entered willingly into prostitution or was forced into the life by men she didn't realize were pimps until it was too late. But she ended up under the control of a violent psychopath who is likely responsible for her disappearance. Four years have passed, and no one has seen or heard of Jessie Foster since. What started as a young woman's dream of big-city excitement ended up a nightmare.

These "soft" prostitution venues attract young girls who would never put themselves out on the street. Sex in this country has been reduced to an amusement or sport; it's not much of a leap to get money for something one gives away for free in repeated hookups with relative stranger. Being paid for sex doesn't seem all that terrible or immoral.

We all need to stop pretending those adult services offered on Craigslist, in the yellow pages, and on the Internet are anything but prostitution; that businessmen with big wallets and a gaggle of girls is anything but a front for the sex trade. We need to save our young women from "The Life" that is really not much of a life at all.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Impact of the Victim's Statement

by Diane Dimond

Imagine being in a room with the person who murdered your child. How would you react? What would you want to say to the killer?

Every day,  grieving families congregate in courtrooms to watch justice meted out to those who’ve robbed them of their loved ones. Before sentence is passed upon the convicted, judges offer family members a chance to give a “victim’s impact statement.” It’s the most dramatic, heart wrenching moment of the entire judicial process.

Such a day played out recently in a San Diego courtroom with a registered sex offender named John Albert Gardner III (above left). He’d been out on parole less than five months after serving six years for sexually attacking a 13-year-old girl. Gardner was 31, living with his mother, when he began preying on other young girls.

Gardner ultimately confessed to abducting, raping and murdering 17-year-old Chelsea King and 14-year-old Amber Dubois (both right) and to the brutal attack on another young woman who testified about how she lived through the ordeal.

“Look at me!” Chelsea King’s mother demanded of Gardner as she began her victim’s impact statement to the court. There was a long pause as Gardner, wearing his prison greens and slumped at the defendant’s table, kept his chin lowered but sheepishly glanced up for a split second.

And then in a soft, eloquent voice, Kelly King compared the “wretched piece of evil” that is John Gardner to her beautiful dead daughter.

“She was a funny, a fun loving girl, a gifted musician, a fiercely competitive athlete with a thirst for life. She couldn’t wait to start college! I can never adequately articulate what you plundered from us and our community. You should burn in hell.”

Brent King told the killer what it was like to be Chelsea’s father.

“I loved feeding her, playing with her, changing her diapers, just being her dad,” he said. He called Gardner a coward for knowing he had a problem and ignoring it.

King said he hoped Gardner lived every day of the rest of his life in prison in fear of fellow inmates, “who are going to torment you. You do not deserve a peaceful moment on this earth or the next life.”

Both Kings blamed a judicial system which allowed a dangerous predator to be freed. They also blamed Gardner’s mother, a psychiatric nurse who, they said, knew what her son was capable of but did nothing to monitor or stop him.

As I watched this play out, I wondered if I would have the strength to be so articulate in that circumstance – or would I dissolve into a puddle of tears, unable to speak a word?

The statements given by the parents (left) of Amber Dubois really tore my heart. They waited 13 months for any news about what had happened to their precious daughter. Only after Gardener was arraigned on charges of murdering Chelsea did he finally lead police to Amber’s body, revealing that awful truth. 

Maurice Dubois compared Gardner to a mountain lion whose predilection to kill came naturally, saying it was no surprise the murders began so soon after he was released from parole.

“(You) … heartlessly discarded our beautiful 14-year-old girl, Amber,” he said. “You will burn in hell for the acts you have committed. I just hope that day is an agonizingly long way away, and that you have to suffer as much as we all have.”

And then Amber’s mother stepped forward to address the court. Her attorney had told me privately that she had been so consumed with knowing about her daughter’s last moments on earth that she’d requested and gotten a face-to-face prison meeting with John Gardner.

No details were released, but can you imagine sitting down to talk with your child’s killer?

“After 15 months of the most agonizing pain, worry and grief, I’m supposed to address the court,” Carrie McGonigle began. “On February 13, 2009" Amber "innocently walked to school. I kissed her goodbye and said I loved her, not knowing it would be the last time. You took my best friend.”

Amazingly, tears rolled down John Gardner’s cheeks (right). Perhaps it was because he’d already met with Amber’s mother; perhaps she'd somehow gotten through his perverted, criminal sense of right and wrong.

Yes, in courtrooms around the U.S., the “victim impact statement” scene plays out in varying degrees every day. Victims hope that somehow confronting the guilty will bring them some sort of vindication or peace. For some it does.

At the end of her message to the court that day, Amber Dubois’ mother said the most remarkable thing to John Gardner. “I forgive you, but I will never forget what you stole from me.”

I know I’d never have the courage to say that. By the way, Gardner got consecutive life sentences.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A History of Violence

 by Kathryn Casey

"As a close family member to the killer, in his defense the act he committed was and is not expected. We tried to get him help but as a grown man there is only so much a person can do to help someone. Now he has destroyed so many people’s lives. Our hearts do go out to the other families. We have never been on this side of the law, and we have so much mixed emotions. Ralph has a lot of good in him. It's shocking to many people that knew Ralph that he would do this, but he is sick and he hide it well. And yes, the laws should be different to protect anyone. Ours prayers go to the two young girls now left without a mother."

The above comment was under a March 9th piece on an Albuquerque, N.M., television station Web site. The news article above it was titled: UNM mourns Murder Victims. UNM is the University of New Mexico, and the victims being mourned were long-time English professor Hector Torres (photo above), a popular, soft-spoken educator with a good sense of humor who enjoyed the occasional beer with friends, and Stefania Gray (photo below right), a 43-year-old high school teacher, a graduate student and the mother of two daughters. The author of the comment identified him or herself only as a guest to the site.

First some background: Torres and Gray were found slain in Torres's Albuquerque apartment a day earlier, March 8th. Accused of the crime is Gray’s former boyfriend, Ralph Montoya (photo below left), 37. According to an Associated Press article, Montoya turned himself into his attorney the day after the murders, confessing to the crimes. He told police where to find the bodies. The kicker is that Montoya has a long history of violence toward women.

For more than a decade, Las Cruces and Rio Rancho women filed complaints against Montoya. In 1995, the charges were stalking, assault, attempted arson, and attempted breaking and entering. The complainant was a student at New Mexico State University, and Montoya pleaded guilty. His punishment: probation. Three years later, another Las Cruces woman swore out a restraining order against Montoya, charging that he had harassed her for months, making up to 20 threatening calls a day. Particularly eerie, there’d been sightings of him at her apartment window.

Then in 2005, another woman charged that Montoya harassed her after they dated only briefly.

What seems obvious here is that Montoya didn’t take it well when a woman broke off a relationship. This isn’t a case where his victims didn’t follow through, where they failed to pursue their options. The women did what they could, filing police reports and getting restraining orders. So did Stefania Gray, little more than a month before her murder.

On January 28th, Montoya allegedly followed Gray to Torres’ apartment, pushing his way inside. Gray attempted to flee, but Montoya pushed and kicked her, pulling a knife. It was Torres who talked to Montoya, convincing him to leave. In response, Gray detailed the attack in a restraining order she obtained. She didn’t hold back, admitting she feared her ex-boyfriend, that she worried he could kill her and her children, perhaps also take vengeance against Torres. Days later, Montoya was charged with kidnapping, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault on a household member and aggravated burglary.

Not long ago, I wrote about the Yeardly Love murder, stressing how important it is for women to carry through with filing reports, going to the police, telling others when they've been threatened. This is the opposite circumstance. These women, including Gray, did what they were supposed to do: they identified the danger and alerted authorities. But in this case, like too many others, it didn't save lives. Why? The system let Gray down. The tragedy is that on the string of charges listed above, even with his violent history, Montoya was assessed a $100,000 bond, which meant he needed only $10,000 to be released from jail. Free to carry out his threats, on March 9 Montoya allegedly murdered Torres and Gray.

Does this case change my opinion? Should targets of abuse and/or threats keep quiet rather than alert authorities? No. It's important to form a paper trail. Gray did the right thing. The blame lies with those who released Montoya to walk the streets, and, it appears, made no attempt to protect Gray and Torres. Montoya is now being held on a $2 million bond, but why did it take two murders for this man, who was known to be dangerous, to get law enforcement's full attention?

What also caught my eye about this case was the above comment from one of Montoya’s family members. "It's shocking to many people that knew Ralph that he would do this, but he is sick and he hide it well." The person who wrote the post also says: "We tried to get him help but as a grown man there is only so much a person can do to help someone."

I only know the little bit I’ve read about this case. I don’t know if Montoya is truly mentally ill or simply unable to take no for an answer, to let a girlfriend who rebuffs him walk away. I'm inclined to believe it's the latter, but if Montoya is mentally ill, does his condition fit the legal definition of insanity? Should his mental health mitigate his alleged crimes? Those are questions for a judge and jury to answer.

The facts of this specific case aside, what is indisputable is that it is too hard for families to get help for loved ones suffering from mental illness. Laws intended to help the mentally ill are backfiring, and good people like Stefania Gray and Hector Torres are paying the price.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Forensic Science of Elder Abuse

by Andrea Campbell

Kelly Higashi, chief of the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, cites two cases of elder abuse: In 2008 Darryl Gaynor, 38, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for sexually assaulting his 72-year-old aunt in 2007. In 2008, Martin “Tony” Brown, 48, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for the 2006 murder of his 89-year-old grandfather.

According to a recent summary of elder abuse, anywere between 186,000 to 1.6 million older Americans are physically abused every year. Authorities fear that even higher rates can be found for elders dependent on caregivers.

Unfortunately, the rates at which these offenses are prosecuted is low. And even though elders visit doctors' offices frequently, it’s thought that physicians report less than two percent of abuse to Adult Protective Services.

A Hidden Crime

Elder abuse is a crime that is largely hidden. Research is limited, spotty, and incompletely reportede. It is believed that 90 percent of the time, the abusers are family members — and abuse cases wind up as classified as domestic violence, not elder abuse. The data also is misleading because the violence is difficult to describe.

A recent one-year study of women over age 50 took place in Rhode Island based on law enforcement response to reported domestic-violence incidents. Since older women are unlikely to have initiated a call to police, they are unlikely to cooperate. The study also found that elder-abuse events are underreported; meanwhile, police aren't likely to arrest older victims’ abusers as only a fraction of cases would be prosecuted. It’s thought that 25 percent to 30 percent of women abused by intimates, family or household members are re-abused after criminal justice intervention. Health care experts believe that how the state responds to the initial attack will have the greatest impact on repeat abuse.

Still, what do you do when, according to the National Crime Victim Survey (NCVS), up to 50 percent of victims do not report their abuse to police?

Some other facts that came out of the 2002 Rhode Island test:

• Excluding multiple reports involving the same victim, there were 403 incidents involving older female victims, including thirteen sexual assaults.

• Caucasians appear to be over-represented, while Hispanic and Asian victims are believed to be under-represented.

• Slightly more than half of the suspects were current or former intimates, including married, unmarried or dating partners of the victim. About forty-six percent were other family members. There is also the possibility of "suspect pairs," such as a daughter and son-in-law or two sons working together as abusers.

• Most of abuse by non-spousal relatives was intergenerational (94.5 percent), meaning that the family member abuser was at least a generation younger.

• The majority of abusers of family members were male, but 40.9 percent of abusers were female.

• More than a third of the victims reported they had been assaulted by the same suspect previously. Almost forty percent of those victims said they had been assaulted two to five times before.

The vast majority of victims try to cooperate with police as best they can, providing a written or oral statement or pointing out a suspect. Sometimes medical personnel spot abuse or a nursing home employee or mental health worker alerts police. Doormen, landlords, an employer and passers-by noted disturbances in the Rhode Island study.

Almost half of the suspects (48.9 percent) had a prior court history or cases involving multiple assaults. And 14.1 percent had previously been charged in an attack that was not domestic.

Other Elements to the Abuse

Sometimes victims are threatened, sexually assaulted, and deprived of property through theft or intentional damage. In the cases where money was taken, the amounts were generally small, ranging from $2.50 to $250. Three cars were also reported as stolen in the Rhode Island reports, as well as a set of car keys. Other stolen items included prescription drugs, including OxyContin, and televisions, food, and clothing.

Property damage caused by suspect break-ins include damage to windows, locks, doors and door frames. Other damage appears to reflect either a struggle or rampage in the house:  damaged paneling, dishes, glass pictures, lamps, furniture, bedroom doors, coffee tables, and stoves. There was also reported damage to phones in a dozen incidents, probably reflecting the suspects’ effort to prevent victims from calling for police assistance.

Law Enforcement

When police arrive at the scene, they perform a number of tasks to investigate and take action if they have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed (including either arresting the suspect if present or filing an arrest warrant if the suspect is known and not present), securing evidence at the scene, and providing assistance and support to the victim. If the victim is 60 or older, in the case of the Rhode Island study, police must also report elder abuse to the state’s Department of Elder Affairs (See: R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-66-8).

Responding officers also look for witnesses. They photograph any visible injuries; confiscate weapons or firearms; and give victims rights-and-safety pamphlets. By the time police arrive, about 20 percent of the suspects have left the scene, so police file arrest warrants for them, typically charging misdemeanor assaults, simple domestic assaults, or simple assaults.

Bruising is a Major Sign

Conventional wisdom is that bruising is normal in elderly people due to accidental falls. Most people think that because older people have thinner skin and less subcutaneous fat they bruise more often than their younger peers. For that reason, researchers decided to study “normal” bruising in elderly people and then follow up with a separate study of bruising caused by physical abuse.

To learn what normal bruising looked like, researchers recruited 101 people 65 and older, with an average age of 83. Trained interviewers went to their homes every day for six weeks. They examined participants from head to toe for bruises. Each bruise was photographed, and its location, size and color documented. Interviewers also noted how long it took for the bruises to fade.

They found that 90 percent of the bruises were on the extremities. Not a single accidental bruise was found on the neck, ears, genitals, buttocks or soles of the feet. Of the 20 large bruises (larger than five centimeters—about two inches—in diameter) only one occurred on the trunk of the body.

They found that red and purple were the most common colors on the first day a bruise appeared. However, some fresh bruises were yellow, a significant finding because many people believe that yellow bruises are more likely to be fading older bruises. Indeed, yellow was the most common color in bruises that stayed visible for more than three weeks.

Bruising from Abuse

Once researchers knew what accidental bruising looked like, they turned their attention to deliberately inflicted bruising. Stark differences emerged. The team of researchers examined 67 people, 65 and older, who had been reported to adult protective services as possible abuse victims. Seventy-two percent of those who were physically abused no more than 30 days before examination had bruises. When compared with the previous group (who had not been abused), they had significantly larger bruises. Abusive bruises are often larger and more than half are two inches or more in diameter.

The physically abused elders were much more likely to have bruises on the head and neck, especially the face, and on the back. Researchers also noted significant bruising on the right arm, perhaps because people raised their arms in an attempt to block an attacker.

Another important finding is that 91 percent knew what caused their bruises. Only 28.6 percent of the comparison group—those who had normal, nonabusive bruising—remembered the incident.

Aileen Wigglesworth, a gerontologist and assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, worked on both studies. Wigglesworth said that although the studies give police and prosecutors forensic markers that are vital tools in elder abuse cases, more work remains on other fronts, including such basic issues as the credibility of people who ask for help.

“People tend not to believe elders,” says Wigglesworth.

NIJ sponsored study of an extensive telephone survey of older Americans: pdffiles1/nij/grants/226456.pdf

Philip Bulman, editor of the NIJ Journal. “Elder Abuse Emerges From the Shadows of Public Consciousness” NIJ JourNal/Issue No. 265: NCJ 229883

A wealth of information:

Study about normal bruising, Bruising in the Geriatric Population, is available at:

Study about abusive bruising, Bruising as a Forensic Marker of Physical Elder Abuse:

Listen to a panel discuss how forensic markers and technology are used to detect elder abuse and neglect, go to: