Friday, April 30, 2010

Hard to read, but you should

by Kathryn Casey

My mom, LaVerne, died of Alzheimer's in June 2006. She'd been ill for nine years, and it was horrific.

My mother (here in a very old picture of the two of us) was hard-working, loving, articulate and funny. She enjoyed reading, dancing with my father, and she relished a good laugh. Mom was a secretary and one of the few women in our suburban neighborhood who worked outside the house. She never really liked cleaning or cooking, but for us she did both, never complaining. Nothing pleased her more than being with her family. Christmas was her favorite holiday, and for mom the only real roses were red.

Anyone who has lived through watching a loved one battle this devastating disease, one that slowly steals everything from its victims, understands what I'm talking about. Gradually, Alzheimer's robbed my mother of everything that made her my mom. In the end, Mom trembled constantly, her body never at rest. She recognized none of us. She had no peace and, unable to remember even her own name, no identity.

My mother, I'm convinced, was trapped inside her tortured mind and body. Part of her survived, caught inside, unable to find the words to come out. You see, there were those brief moments when she resurfaced.

The last time this happened was the spring before her death. My father and I had spent the entire day at the nursing home with her. Over and over again, I said to her, "Mom, it's me, Kathy." And then I'd ask, "Who am I?" She'd look at me, troubled, unable to answer.

Late that evening, St. Patrick's Day, I said it one last time: "Mom, it's Kathy."

This time she looked at me, her eyes clear, and she said, "Kathy, it's you?"

For the first time in a very long time, we talked. Actually I talked. I asked her if she understood what was going on around her, and she said sometimes she did, but that it was hard to find the words to communicate.

We had a glorious half an hour together, before the light in her eyes again faded. It was enough time to tell her that we all missed her, and that I loved her. "I love you, too," she said, the words taking great effort. "Always."

Recently, I read a frightening yet beautiful book entitled Still Alice by Lisa Genova. It's fiction, but it reads like a true story, about a woman, a renowned professor and researcher, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. The novel takes readers from diagnosis through the next year or so of the character's life, and paints a picture of how the disease progressively dismantles its victims, destroying their lives and breaking the hearts of all those who love them.
For me, Still Alice rang true. It reflected what I experienced loving my mother and watching her slowly die: the heartbreak of so much loss and the joy of those small moments of triumph, like that final St. Patrick's Day evening. What Genova illustrates is what I saw first hand: hidden away deep inside, the person we love lives on.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Murder by the Glass

by Deborah Blum

In one of my all time favorite experiments from the early history of forensics, a Chicago scientist persuaded a professional glass-eater from a carnival to drop by his office for a very crunchy dinner. To be exact, he offered the man: half a dozen six-inch test tubes, two lamp chimneys, a four ounce medicine bottle, two window panes (each approximately four inches square), and three small pieces of colored glass.

As Walter Stanley Haines, eminent professor of chemistry and toxicology at Rush Medical College, reported in 1917, the man cheerfully ate it all. “He bit the glass off, chewed it up, and swallowed it as much as if it had been any ordinary article of food.” Haines and his colleagues had examined their glass-eater’s mouth before the experiment and found it paler and thicker than normal. After he’d swallowed the glass, the scientists found numerous tiny cuts on his gums although the man did not complain.

In fact, he conversed with them for several hours, showing no sign of pain or discomfort until finally, wondering if they’d somehow been tricked, Haines induced the man to throw up his meal, revealing a rather revolting mess of mucus, partially digested food, and glass fragments. Their glass-eater explained that he always ate a hearty meal before swallowing glass, in order to protect his stomach.

All very interesting, you may say. But why was Haines – one of the most famous American forensic chemists of his time – spending his time feeding test tubes and window panes to a traveling carnival worker? Well, because in the early century glass – pounded, splintered, broken – had acquired a sinister reputation as both a murder weapon and a means of suicide.

Forensic scientists like Haines could easily cite criminal cases in which people attempted homicide by glass. A woman in Maryland had attempted to kill seven members of her family by serving them curried fowl laced with pounded glass. A woman in Michigan had been tried for mixing ground glass into her husband’s oatmeal; "poisoning by glass” trials had occurred everywhere from New Jersey to France.

Haines had an idea, though, that glass poisoners were wasting their time – and he hoped by proving that to reduce glass homicides. His glass-eater experiment was a case in point – despite swallowing a remarkable quantity of laboratory equipment, their glass-eater had not suffered any obvious damage.

Granted, the man had acquired the professional habit of chewing the glass into small, more digestible pieces. But over all, Haines and his fellow researchers were happy to report that swallowing sharp objects was an unreliable technique for doing real bodily harm. In fact, it was increasingly obvious that swallowing sharp objects was an unreliable way of ending a life.

One woman, after swallowing a dozen pieces of glass in a suicide attempt, then choked down two hairpins, nine sewing needles, several nails, and a key. She ended up in the hospital with acute abdominal pains, but after the doctors removed the bits and pieces from her stomach, she survived. So did “The Human Ostrich,” another professional glass-eater, who ended up in the emergency room after eating a light bulb. Injuries definitely occurred – lacerations of the stomach, internal bleeding, ulcers, infections – and these were often extremely painful but mostly survivable.

Not always, unfortunately. In one very sad case, a very disturbed mother managed to kill her child by feeding him a large teaspoonful of pounded glass. But the problem for most murderers was that to trick the intended victim into swallowing glass, it needed to be pounded into a fairly fine, hard to detect powder. And pulverized glass turned out to be largely harmless. One French scientist had swallowed several ounces of powdered glass himself with no ill effect. He’d verified that with animal tests as well – finding that dogs fed half a pound of pulverized glass a week showed no signs of ill effect. “It is impossible to state what the fatal dose of broken glass may be,” Haines wrote.

Glass poisonings faded away in the early 1930s, most probably not because scientists had proved them inefficient, but because killers had discovered the same defects on their own. Not that they never happen, but just not on the same scale. Glass-eating did not entirely disappear either - it still turns up in magic shows, for instance, but Haines recommended against it. No one stayed lucky swallowing glass forever. Many of the professional glass-eaters studied died of gastro-intestinal infections resulting from the constant irritation of their stomachs.

In fact, he was sorry to say, the glass-eater of his experiment died of such an infection not quite three years later.

Need a vacation?

Women in Crime Ink contributor and today's poster, Deborah Blum, is running a great contest on her Web site. The prize: a luxury trip to Chicago and a crime tour of the city by...ta da.... Deborah Blum. Click here to see details. Ends Friday, so don't delay

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Scene of the Crime: LAPD's Most Famous Exhibit

by Cathy Scott

Los Angeles Police Department authorities recently put on a show--the LAPD's Homicide Exhibit at the California Homicide Investigators Association conference in Las Vegas. And the community came out in droves to view the two-day "Famous Crime Scenes Exhibit."

It offered a unique behind-the-scenes look at the evidence police gather at crime scenes. Police cases ran the gamut from robberies, murders, serial killings, bank hold-ups, high-speed pursuits and hostage situations.

LAPD Homicide Detective Dennis Kilcoyne explained the reasoning behind making an exhibit and taking it on the road.

"Homicide investigators very rarely invite people under the crime scene tape and into the murder scene; this may be as close as some will ever get," he said, to seeing the scene as a detective would.

And so it was for the thousands who stood in line for up to an hour and a half to get in. The evidence of L.A.’s gritty past was more than sobering.

A respectful silence fell over the room as viewers quietly filed in, one by one, during the tour. They looked at evidence, photos, videos, get-away cars, weapons, documents, and autopsy photos. Included was evidence from the Black Dahlia case and Hollywood mob-era contract hits, all on loan from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office and LAPD’s evidence vaults.

It showed evidence from the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, who in 1994 was killed after she was repeatedly and brutally stabbed, along with Ron Goldman, in the courtyard of her Brentwood townhouse courtyard. It was almost chilling to see the bloody leather gloves, displayed behind glass, that were made infamous when suspect O.J. Simpson tried on the gloves in court and struggled to get them over his hands.

There were a bullet-riddled police car and similarly ventilated
suspect get-away auto from the notorious North Hollywood bank robbery and shootout.

But perhaps most grisly were evidence and photos from the ritualistic killing at a Benedict Canyon mansion where Charles Manson’s followers murdered five people, included pregnant including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, in the summer of 1969.

Still, it was the Robert F. Kennedy assassination display that seemed to stop people in their tracks. On display was the revolver used to cut down Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel on a June night in 1968.

I toured the site of the killing not long before the historic Ambassador Hotel was razed in 2005 so a public school could be built in its place.

Linda Deutsch, longtime special court correspondent for The Associated Press, led the media tour to some of Los Angeles's more notorious crime scenes. We were taken inside the hotel to the upstairs ballroom where the presidential candidate gave a short speech. We walked the path Kennedy took from the ballroom to the kitchen’s pantry area, where he was gunned down at point-blank range.

The Kennedy evidence exhibit led to controversy. Robert Kennedy’s son protested when he learned it included the torn and bloody shirt, tie and jacket his father was wearing when he was assassinated. Maxwell Taylor Kennedy expressed outrage that his father’s clothing was transported across state lines, from California to Nevada, to be publicly exhibited in Las Vegas.

Maxwell Kennedy said he was particularly bothered that his family was denied possession of those items when they requested them. The younger Kennedy's protests made national news that night, after the first day the public was allowed to see it. The next morning, people waited in a line that wrapped around the interior of the Palms casino, where the exhibit was set up in a conference room.

"My request was refused by the district attorney's office," Maxwell Taylor Kennedy told the media. "The District Attorney promised, though, to keep the personal items with care and out of public view."

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck issued a public statement and an apology: "The last thing we want to do is to traumatize a victim's family, and I am very sensitive to that. But at the same time, we want to preserve the history of the city of Los Angeles and improve the quality and understanding about our homicide investigations."

The LAPD pulled the shirt, tie and jacket from the exhibit after the first day.

Based on the response from a member of the Kennedy clan, it is doubtful the displays will go on tour again anytime soon, making the exhibit in Las Vegas a one-time-only viewing.

Photos by Cathy Scott

Need a vacation?

Women in Crime Ink contributor and today's poster, Deborah Blum is running a great contest on her Web site. The prize: a luxury trip to Chicago and a crime tour of the city by...ta da.... Deborah Blum. Click here to see details. Ends Friday, so don't delay!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Postpartum Depression: A Silent Killer

by Katherine Scardino

I was horrified to hear in the local news that Houston is home to another mother who has killed her baby. Najres Modarresi joins Andrea Yates as another Houston mother who is now accused of the capital murder of her two-month-old son, Masih. As someone who grew up in an area and during an era where psychological issues were just not allowed, it has been an education for me to learn how serious postpartum depression can be for some women.

Hearing the facts of the Modarresi case, any rational person would be initially enraged. Ms. Modarresi first lied to police and accused “two black men” of accosting her and kidnaping her baby. This led Houston police on a wild goose chase for a couple of days, even to the point of issuing an Amber Alert for little Masih. Ms. Modarresi eventually led police to a muddy stream and pointed out where her infant lay buried in the dirt and muck. Autopsy results showed the baby's lungs contained mud and other particles, which means he had been buried alive.

It wouldn't be difficult for any normal person to wish Ms. Modarresi the maximum punishment for this crime. However, we have to remember all that our society learned during and after Andrea Yates’s two trials. Initially, Ms. Yates was found guilty of murdering her children. Then, after an appeal and a reversal, she was retried and found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1996. Andrea’s case had national appeal, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about her state of mind when she drowned her children. Observing the progress of the Yates case taught me about the seriousness of postpartum depression. I learned that there are four levels of depression: mild, moderate, severe and psychotic. It appears that a person can bounce into a depression at any one of those four levels at any time. The question a lot of people had about Andrea Yates had to do with her treating psychologist. Why didn't he see the severity of her condition?

It was reported that Ms. Modarresi was prescribed mood-altering prescription drugs. So apparently she also has a doctor who is, or should be, fully aware of her condition. How can this disease overcome a mother who is under medical treatment?

It is surprising to learn that around 50 to 80 percent of all women experience some degree of emotional problems following childbirth. Only about one in 1,000 new mothers graduate to the most extreme and rarest disorder, postpartum psychosis. The mildest form of postpartum depression, more commonly known as “baby blues,” usually lasts only a few weeks. If the moodiness lasts longer, the new mom may be suffering from a more severe condition, a mood disorder called postpartum depression. If a new mother experiences the more severe condition, she may lose her connection to reality. The break is debilitating and known as postpartum psychosis. There is no logic to this psychosis. The mother doesn't know right from wrong nor the consequences of her actions. She may feel that she is “saving” her child by killing him.

So back to the question of how the treating physician can fail to recognize severely depressed and psychotic patients. It's possible for the depressed mother to go to sleep slightly or moderately depressed and wake up in a psychotic state. This shift can happen quickly and be deadly.

If a new mother suffering from this type of depression doesn't get to a doctor before her symptoms escalate, it becomes more and more likely that a tragedy like the Modarresi case will occur. Then the mother is charged with murder or capital murder. Capital murder is applicable when the victim is younger than two years old; conviction carries the possibility of the death penalty. By the time she is sitting in front of a jury of her peers, the mother looks and sounds sane. She's been under psychiatric treatment for most likely a year or two. The jury looks at her and finds it hard to believe that this defendant was insane at the time of the offense. Insanity is a hard defense. But there is no doubt in my mind that at the time of the murder, Ms. Modarresi knew neither right from wrong nor the consequences of her actions. Unfortunately, nothing we do now can bring back this two-month-old baby boy.

The good news about the Yates case and now the Modarresi case is that women today are much more aware of the symptoms of postpartum depression. They can express themselves and explain their feelings candidly to their doctors without feeling ashamed and degraded, like they are the scum of the earth. These cases have given credibility to this dreaded disorder.

There is also hope for the future in recognizing and preventing postpartum depression. The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act was recently passed into law as part of President Obama’s healthcare reform bill. This act provides for research, education and screening for postpartum depression and related mood disorders. Hopefully, it will lessen stigma attached to maternal mood disorders and get more women the help they so desperately need before more young lives are lost to this disease.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sexual Abuse in the Orthodox Jewish Community

by Robin Sax and Vicki Polin

The history of the Jewish people is filled with traumatic experiences stemming from anti-Semitism. In the Jewish community, especially in the ultra-Orthodox world, there has always been a general fear of airing dirty laundry.

In the past, going public with community problems might increase the likelihood of another pogrom. This is one of many reasons that Jewish survivors of sexual abuse have kept silent. Many fear that if the gentile (non-Jewish) world finds out that sex crimes occur statistically at the same rate as in any other community, it would threaten the cultural perception of the wholesomeness of the Orthodox Jewish family. The reality is that in all cultures, one out of every four children will be sexually abused by their 18th birthdays, and Jewish adults are assaulted at the same rate as in any other ethnic group.

Orthodox Jews account for approximately 10 percent of all Jews nationwide, and not surprisingly, a far greater percentage live the metropolitan New York area. According to New York's Jewish Federation (UJA), it is estimated that 36 percent of the more than 520,000 Jews living in Brooklyn are part of the Orthodox community. That means, statistically speaking, 130,000 would be survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Given these facts, it is shocking to learn that only recently have cases of sexual abuse within these communities started being prosecuted in criminal courts.

To understand the dynamics of sex crimes in the Orthodox world, it helps to know how the community dealt with sexual-abuse allegations in the past. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it certainly offers some perspective.

1960s: Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach was like a rock star, known for his dynamic singing and song-writing, which lured unaffiliated Jews back into the fold. But secretly he was a monstrous figure who sexually terrorized young women and teenage girls. It wasn't until 1998, when Lilith Magazine dug into this case, that there was any awareness Carlebach's actions might have been considered sex crimes.

Just as in many cases in the secular world at the time, the rumors were brushed aside and many of our rabbis would say things such as "boys will be boys" or "he's an artist, what would you expect?"

1970's: Joyce and Eugene Abrams were convicted on charges of incest and running a child pornography ring out of their Long Island, New York, home. Still, most believed such crimes were extremely uncommon in the Jewish community, let alone the Orthodox world.

1982: Dr. Eugene Aronin molested children at the Magnolia Middle School in Maryland, where he worked as a counselor. He then moved on to Texas, where he sexually abused more children. In 1984, Dr. Aronin's sentence was modified, allowing him to move to Illinois. In 1991, he allegedly molested another child. while teaching at a University. In Chicago, rumors about his past convictions spread through the Orthodox community. Aronin felt he had no choice but to flee to the northwest suburbs. To this day, this convicted sex offender teaches at the university level and has been known to seek work tutoring students, with the backing of some rabbis.

1984: Rabbi Avrohom Mondrowitz's case first broke in the New York Times. Besides carrying the alleged title of “rabbi,” he also promoted himself as a psychologist. He had strong ties with Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox mental health center -- Ohel Children's and Family Services. Like other Orthodox offenders in the past, Aronin avoided prosecution by escaping to Israel, which has no extradition treaty with the United States, and spared his family, friends and community embarrassing media attention.

We can't forget to mention the case of Rabbi Ephraim Bryks, who fled Canada for Brooklyn after the suicide of Daniel Levin, one of his alleged victims. The Canadian Broadcast Company produced "Unorthodox Conduct," a documentary about this case. Bryks has never been tried on charges in Canada. Nor have adult women who alleged sexual abuse felt safe enough to file criminal charges against him.

Another strange case is that of Rabbi Alan Horowitz, MD, a convicted sex offender. As part of his probation agreement, Horowitz was allowed to move to New York to study Torah at Ohr Somayach. The agreement ordered that he live on campus, even though the yeshiva also housed young men, including teenage boys. It is believed that while attending Ohr Somaych he was ordained an Orthodox rabbi, yet a few years ago this rumor was disputed once Horowitz made it to the FBI's most-wanted list. As a psychiatrist, Horowitz specialized in working with adolescents. His resume also includes volunteering as a Boy Scout leader and writing for NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) publications. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, and received his Ph.D. and medical degree from Duke University.

In 2000, the case of Rabbi Baruch Lanner broke in the more modern Orthodox community. This landmark case, which was international news, led to the formation of organizations like The Awareness Center. Without Lanner's 2002 conviction, none of the cases heard more recently would have ever been brought out in the open.

Though many ultra-Orthodox rabbis and leaders are still in denial, some have stepped up to familiarize themselves with past cases and make changes for the future. They are starting to see how cases were mishandled. Slowly more of these rabbis are deciding rabbinic approval isn't necessary to make a police report (a huge victory). Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews are realizing that Jewish law requires all community members to report such crimes.

The national media have avidly followed cases of sexual abuse by clergy in other religious communities. In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has come under fire for transferring predatory clergy from one parish to another without telling parents or reporting the crimes to police. Catholic dioceses have had to pay millions of dollars to abuse survivors. Members of a polygamous offshoot of the Mormon Church were recently charged with ignoring the systematic sexual assault of children in their care. Authorities removed children from the Arkansas compound of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries amid allegations of beatings and sexual abuse.

But we have rarely heard about sexual abuses committed in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. The only real data was compiled in Israel in the Mikvah study.

Roman Catholic, Amish, Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah's Witness and Mormon groups all have been accused of denying that sexual abuse occurs within their communities. Similarly, Orthodox Jewish leaders deny altogether or claim they didn't know rabbis have been sexually assaulting women and children. It took decades for the Roman Catholic Church to even admit that such crimes were occurring in its parishes.

Vicki Polin founded The Awareness Center, based in Baltimore, about 10 years ago. It gathered just about everything known about sex crimes and put it into a Jewish context, hoping to break through the denial. Though the information reached many insulated communities around the globe, denial and resistance to education and change appears to be growing into a holy war of sorts.The key players in many communities are establishing pseudo vaads (rabbinical councils serving as religious courts) and organizations to deal with sex-crime issues. But instead of working with secular law enforcement officials, they are just using these vaads and other programs as a cover to do the same old thing.

How long will it take in the Orthodox Jewish community? Most yeshivas, schools that train primarily Orthodox Rabbis, have refused to cover the area of sexual abuse -- supposedly for reasons of modesty. Until recently, sex abuse claims were handled quietly and secretly by local Orthodox rabbis, rarely going as far as a beit din (rabbinical court), let alone child protective service hotlines or local police.

Some rabbis active in Orthodox politics publicly support taking charges to police, yet when cases come across their desks privately, they encourage their congregants not go to the civil authorities. The concern often is that the offenders will not be treated fairly in secular courts and will be targets of anti-Semites in the prison system. In addition, the offender's family will suffer financially while the offender is incarcerated.

New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind has been publicly calling for change in the status quo. But instead of working with established rape crisis centers, he's trying to keep help for sex-crime victims within the Orthodox community, overseen by rabbis.

If someone's home is on fire, they don't need a rabbi's permission to call 911; if someone is ill, they can call an ambulance on their own. But if someone suspects a child is being abused or neglected, they have no guarantee within the Orthodox community that their civil rights as U.S. citizens will be recognized or protected.

New York's Orthodox religious organizations still aren't complying with mandated reporting for sexual assault. The families are still going to the beit din and letting rabbis handle the cases internally. Why is mandatory reporting a good thing for the community? It allows people to report anonymously and begin an investigation that will determine whether abuse has occurred. It allows use of best practices in child sexual assault reporting (for example: SANE teams, forensic interviewers, video recording). Reporting solely to the beit din does the victim little good. There is absolutely no substitute for a police report.

Back in 2007, Hikind said he had collected more than 1,000 complaints and the names of over 60 accused sexual predators. But he still hasn't released these names. This is truly unbelievable. Six Orthodox Jews, former yeshiva students, hired attorney Michael G. Dowd, a leading advocate against sexual abuses in religious communities. Dowd filed a lawsuit claiming sexual abuse by a teacher in Borough Park, Brooklyn. He served Assemblyman Hikind with a subpoena in November 2008 demanding that he surrender the files he keeps under wraps. Ironically, by keeping these disclosures secret, Hikind seems to agree with the Orthodox party line that abuses can be handled internally.

When Hikind's radio program went on the air in 2007 discussing the taboo subject, i.e. child molestation among members of the insular world of Orthodox Jews, it didn't get much attention nationally. Now that Hikind has brought the issue to light, it is his responsibility to follow through. And it is our responsibility to make sure we hold him -- and the community --accountable. Do your part!

Comment on this blog to start the discussion and write to Assemblyman Hikind: 1310 48th St., Brooklyn, NY 11219, call 718-853-9616, or visit Hikind's website.

Vicki Polin, MA, LCPC, is the founder and director of The Awareness Center, which is the international Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault. She has over 25 years experience empowering both adult and child survivors of sex crimes.Vicki was the author of the 1997 Chicagoland Area Sexual Abuse Resource Guide and has authored numerous articles.She has also provided educational and experiential workshops across the United States.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Ones Left Behind

by Kathryn Casey

When you're a crime writer for a couple of decades, some things stick with you. In a prior lifetime, when I wrote for magazines, I jumped around from topic to topic. One month I'd be shadowing a criminal profiler for a couple of days, another time I'd be sitting in a courtroom covering a trial. Of course, it wasn't always crime. There were a few movie star interviews, some first ladies who welcomed me into their homes, and a couple of presidents who answered my questions. But for some reason, I kept getting drawn back to the crime reporting, and, in all honesty, those are the interviews that sometimes still keep me up at night.

I guess it was a year or so after the Oklahoma City bombing, when I was interviewing survivors and victims' families. What I remember from that assignment is the woman who described talking to her husband on the telephone that terrifying morning, fifteen years ago this past Monday. The woman's husband worked for the government in the Alfred P. Murrah building. They weren't discussing anything unusual, just your normal husband and wife early in the morning stuff, when all of a sudden the phone went dead. She didn't hear the explosion. In her living room on the outskirts of the city, she didn't feel the impact. That is, not until she got the phone call that her husband was dead. Then she screamed and fell to her knees.

Years later, after 9/11, I interviewed Lisa Beamer, the widow of Todd, (photo at the top left) the guy who said, "Let's roll!" on United Flight 93, the one the passengers took back, preventing it from being used as a bomb to blow up, experts believe, either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

I spent much of a day with Lisa and her three children. The youngest, their only daughter, Morgan Kay, was still a baby. She was born four months after her father's death. But it's the middle child, Drew, I remember the most. I was in his father's office with him, talking about his dad. "My daddy taught me to ride a bike," he said. I think the boy was seven or eight at the time. "My daddy said he'd teach me to shoot baskets, but now he can't." A simple statement, true, but to that little boy it symbolized tremendous loss.

Perhaps the case I remember the most vividly is that of a little girl who disappeared at a small town softball park. Her mom was in the stands with her younger son, talking to neighbors, cheering on her oldest out on the softball diamond, and keeping an eye on the little girl who played with a group of children on the grass beside the field. The mom watched the little girl, but as the game broke up, the crowd stood, and for a matter of a minute or less, she couldn't see her child. By the time the mother's field of vision cleared, the little girl was gone. Parents later reported a suspicious looking man lurking around watching the children play. The girl was never found.

When I went to see them, the family still lived in the same house, and although it had been five years or so after the girl's disappearance, her bedroom was still as she'd left it on that awful afternoon they hurried to the ballpark. It was a difficult interview, filled with questions I hated to ask. The mother couldn't bring herself to talk as if her child was dead or, if the girl was still alive, what might have happened to her. "I just have to believe one day she'll come home," she told me. "I have to believe that she's somewhere and she's safe."

But more than the mother, it's the missing girl's little brother I remember. A freckle-faced kid with big blue eyes, he stared up at me with a furrowed brow. "I'm worried my mom might lose me, that someone will take me," he confided. "And I'm mad that my mom didn't find my sister."

Too young to comprehend that his mother had searched and worked for years to recover her missing daughter, the boy only understood that she had failed.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

When Anonymous is Not So Anonymous

by Donna Pendergast

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold has found herself in the eye of a storm. Currently presiding over the high-profile case of serial murderer Anthony Sowell, Saffold became the subject of a very public controversy after anonymous comments to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's website were traced to her personal AOL email account. Several of these comments involved the Sowell case. One post allegedly disparaged Rufus Sims, the attorney defending Sowell, who is accused of murdering 11 women and hiding their bodies around his Cleveland home.

In one anonymous posting, Sowell was compared with a man who recently killed his wife using cyanide. The post went on to insist all criminals committing crimes against women must stop, and that none of them should get out of prison, ever. Another post was critical of Sims, saying he was acting like a buffoon and referring to his "Amos and Andy style mouth." It continued with a remark that Sim's client "should have hired a lawyer with experience to truly handle her needs."

The comments were made under the pseudonym "lawmiss." That moniker was tied to Saffold after an online editor used software to look up lawmiss's email account after that name was used to post a comment that included personal medical information about the relative of a Plain Dealer reporter. It was determined that over 80 comments tied to "Lawmiss" were posted on the paper's affiliate web site In a story published March 26th in the Plain Dealer, reporter James McCarty identified Saffold's AOL e-mail account as the source of the online comments.

As noted in a sidebar to McCarty's story, publication of this information created something of an ethical dilemma for the newspaper. The sidebar reported that as noted by the newspaper's editor, the comments were not about "trifling matters." On the other hand, it recognized as problematic that people mistakenly believed they were posting anonymously. Reporters had access to the data people provided when they created their accounts. The company that runs the web site has since restricted access permissions to prevent reporters from accessing this data.

Saffold denies posting the online comments, although published reports indicate that three of the comments were posted while someone using Saffold's courthouse computer was visiting Saffold's 23-year-old daughter, Sydney, a one-time law student, has claimed responsibility for the inflammatory comments. Saffold's attorney Brian Spitz says the email account was a joint family account. He acknowledges Saffold has posted comments from that email address, but claims she has never posted anything about cases pending before her.

Now Saffold and her daughter have sued the Plain Dealer, its parent company Advance Publications Inc and the company that runs the newspaper website. The two claim the newspaper invaded their privacy by releasing confidential information in violation of the site's privacy policy. The lawsuit seeks $50 million in damages for fraud, defamation, tortous interference, invasion of privacy and breach of contracts. Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg won't comment with a lawsuit pending. But to NPR before the suit was filed, she defended publication of Saffold's identity on grounds it was in the public interest.

A week after the story broke, Sims (right) filed a motion asking Saffold to recuse herself from one of his cases unrelated to the Sowell case. Sims later filed a second motion claiming bias against him and asking Saffold to withdraw from all of his cases because of questions about her impartiality. In a bizarre answer, prosecutors opposed Sims's request. The prosecutor argued that if Sims thinks Saffold is biased against him, then Sims is the one who should withdraw from the case.

I mean, come on. Really? Either the judge made disparaging comments or her daughter did after becoming familiar with inside facts about the case. And the prosecutor thinks that the appropriate remedy is for the defendant to start over with a new lawyer? I'm a hard-core prosecutor, but that line of thinking baffles me. I have no empathy for an alleged serial murderer, but he does have constitutional rights.

In a court session Friday, Saffold issued a two paragraph decision finding "no basis in fact or law" for her recusal. Still pending is yet a third motion asking Saffold to step down. Sims filed it last week after Saffold said in a court session that Sims "was the only person in this room calling me a liar." Sims responded that he'd never called Saffold a liar -- and then filed his third motion.

In my opinion, it's hard to believe that a 23-year-old would use the term an "Amos and Andy" mouth, a reference to a 1950's television show. It's also hard to believe that Saffold's daughter would be posting comments from her mother's courthouse computer. Even if true and the posts were written by Saffold's daughter, the contents of the offensive comments suggest Saffold was sharing more than an e-mail account with her daughter. The comments reveal an intimate familiarity with events taking place in Saffold's courtroom, including the performance of attorneys. Such disclosures are troublesome at best and may cross ethical lines.

Whether or not anything improper occurred, there's an appearance of impropriety. The harm is done, whether Saffold is responsible for the comments or not. Since all death penalty cases are automatically appealed, the potential for reversal is too dire of a consequence to risk.

Judge Strickland-Saffold would be well advised to follow the example that an unrelated Judge Strickland set earlier this week.

On Monday Judge Stan Strickland (left), who was presiding over the Casey Anthony case, recused himself at the defense's request. The motion for recusal was based on innocuous comments the judge made to a blogger after becoming familiar with a blogger. Strickland was searching the Blogosphere to explore general online discussions about the Casey Anthony matter. Those Internet discussions had become relevant to the defendant's motion for a change of venue. After his online search, he recognized the blogger in his courtroom, and in open court Judge Strickland thanked the blogger for being "fair and civilized."

As Judge Strickland noted in an order granting disqualification that speaks volumes about his integrity and class: "The Court takes heed of the defendant's present uneasiness. It is axiomatic that no judge owns a case. No defendant's rights should ever be subordinated to judicial ego ... The Court is now being accused of being biased in favor of the prosecution. While dozens of motions have been filed, many more wait in the wings. If the past is prologue, some defense motions may be denied. Since the undersigned has now been accused of bias and wrongdoing potentially each denial of a defense motion will generate renewed allegations of bias. The cumulative effect will be to elevate an otherwise meaningless situation into a genuine appellate issue."

So Judge Strickland-Saffold fights to stay while Judge Stan Strickland decides to go. "Indeed, the irony is rich."

Kudos Judge Stan Strickland --- you get it. Fair or not, you see the big picture and understand that it's not all about you. You have my utmost admiration for being a class act.

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