Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mystified and Miffed

I cannot for the life of me figure out why certain cases capture the media’s attention, and thus the public’s attention, while others do not.

Why aren’t all of the murdered and missing children, and all of the mothers and fathers accused of killing their children, covered by the press? Why isn’t each case newsworthy, a cause in and of itself, a cry for justice? How do the powers that be choose among the murdered and the missing to decide which cases are anointed to celebrity status? Only the chosen few accused or their victims become notorious. For example, the murders of Laci and Connor Peterson, the abduction of Elizabeth Smart, the death of Caylee Anthony, the alleged abduction of Madeleine McCann, became worthy of a nation’s time and attention. And yet other victims go to their silent graves unmarked by a press hell-bent on feeding the public’s voracious appetite for the tragic and the awful.

Does the victim have to be a certain race, economic status, and have a certain “pretty” factor?

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to which cases get chosen and which cases do not, nor does there seem to be any explanation for the public’s fixation over certain cases to the point of national obsession.

I no longer believe the public is following a case to get an up close look into our criminal justice system. Instead, it seems to be more of a voyeuristic feeding frenzy on someone else’s pain, perhaps obviating the need to feel our own. Or perhaps it is a lynch mob mentality that without our system of justice would have people taking to the streets to stone or hang those deemed worthy of loathing. 

I was taken by surprise over the public’s growing fascination with the Casey Anthony case that culminated in an inexplicable fixation. Not only could I not understand the attention this case received, I could not understand why this case, and not another case.

And now that the case is over, the recent offer by Hustler Magazine to pay half a million dollars to an acquitted defendant for a nude photo shoot, is both revolting and baffling. I suppose in our celebrity worshipping culture, it is not surprising that Ms. Anthony would try to cash in on her ill-gotten fame. She has reportedly solicited a million and a half dollars for television interviews. But it is surprising that anyone would actually pay it. I condemn those who would buy Ms. Anthony “story” in order to heap more on an already saturated public.

We have binged enough on Casey Anthony and it is time to stop rewarding her with fortune or even more fame.

I wish that all murdered and missing children receive the same feverish thirst for justice that Caylee Anthony does, and that the public cashes in on their buying power by developing an appetite for the greater good, rather than the lowest common denominator.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

We Tell Our Children There Are No Monsters

by Donna Pendergast

We tell our children there are no monsters.
They don't come out at night, they don't hide in the dark.
They don't torture and kill little girls.
This trial will prove beyond any doubt that we delude ourselves...

Those were the words that began my opening statement in a horrific murder trial where
two 12-year-old girls were sexually assaulted and stabbed in a park. Their broken bodies were later found stuffed in a hidden culvert, a visual image that haunts me to this day. The pictures were as bad as it gets and remain indelibly engraved in my mind.

With the recent spate of horrific child murders that memory comes back all too often. I am forced to ponder the concept of a society where children are not safe to run and play, and parents live in very real fear of monsters who walk the streets and hide in the shadows or sometimes who don't bother to hide at all.

Leiby Kletsky, 8 years old, was recently murdered in Brooklyn, New York, on the very first time that he was allowed to walk home from a summer day camp. His dismembered body was found in a trash can in Borough Park, a tight-knit and insular community of orthodox Jews which is considered by most to be a "safe" place in the community. In Detroit, the police await the identity of the burned body of a small child found in an abandoned home, while at the same time acknowledging that the description matches that of Mariha Trenice Smith (pictured right), a five-year-old child who disappeared or was abducted from her home this past Sunday morning, a short distance away from the burnt out home where a small body was found. And in Norway, a country mourns the slaughter of at least seventy innocent youths hunted down and murdered last Friday at a wooded retreat accessible only by boat. The shocking details of the brutal massacre are still continuing to emerge.

When a child dies, our sense of comfort and security is turned upside down. In an increasingly violent world we are forced to confront an unfortunate truth; there are monsters out there. So how do we take today's realities and redefine what it means to be a parent? How do we keep our children safe while allowing them to experience the world and become independent? How do we balance our fears and and yet still allow our children to play outside, to ride their bikes and to walk to school. How do we protect our children without clipping their wings and cramping their style?

For a generation of Baby Boomer and Generation X and Y parents the answer is difficult. Many of them grew up in a world where streetlights were the curfew, cell phones were unknown and walking to a friends house alone was a rite of passage. A walk home after dark was nothing to be feared-it was the norm and it was a special occasion when their parents offered or agreed to give them a ride to their friend's house or to an event. Yet they survived and thrived and became increasingly able to spread their wings and fly the coop.

Now they parent a generation of children who only need see the evening news to know that danger lurks outside their very door. They are responsible for keeping their children safe in a world where predators lurk around many corners and sometimes have access to their very homes via gaming technology, the Internet or via bold and sensationalistic crimes. They are tasked with policing their children's every activity while suspecting that every restriction and rule may have a detrimental effect on their children's mental and physical development. Astute parents fear that epidemics like childhood obesity are related to an increasingly restrictive environment where their children's ability to run and play is dependent on parental supervision and the ability of an adult to transport them to limited and well defined locations for safe play. They understand that they are the first line of protection for their children yet fear that such protection is stunting their children's potential and ability to grow and flourish.

Metal detectors can not shut violence out of our children's lives. As parents it is our responsibility to keep them safe. On the other hand it is also our duty to insure that our children don't find themselves unprepared in a world that bears little resemblance to the the restrictive and regulated environment of the family womb. We need to equip our children to flourish on the journey from a protected environment to a world that requires intelligence, insight and the ability to grasp the big picture.

There are no easy answers.

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

From Hope Spring Drive to Pear Tree Lane

by Holly Hughes

Google the name Jadon Higganbothan and you might get ten hits or so.  Google Pear Tree Lane in Durham, North Carolina and you’ll probably get even less.  On the other hand, Google Caylee Anthony or Hope Spring Drive and you’ll never be able to read all that has been written concerning those two subjects.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it was a horrible tragedy what happened to Caylee and we were all right to be indignant over her death.  But the sad truth is there are hundreds of thousands of children who are murdered everyday by the very people who are supposed to love and protect them.  This brings me to the case of Jadon Higganbothan.  Jadon was a brown skinned little cutie with big brown eyes and an infectious smile.  He was living with his mother at Pear Tree Lane when he met his untimely death.  But, they weren’t the only ones living there.  And Jadon wasn’t the only one to “disappear” while living there.

Peter Lucas Moses, 27, was living there and was the leader of a group called The Black Hebrews.  Some have called it a cult, others a religious sect.  The label doesn’t matter to me.  What matters to me are the horrendous acts that allegedly took place there.  And the fact that no one in main stream media seems to have picked up on this tragedy.  

Jadon was four years old when one of the other women... oh, did I mention this was a polygamist sect?  When one of the other women reported to “Lord", yes, that’s what they called Peter Lucas Moses, that Jadon had swatted another child on the bottom.  In response to this childish, playful act, Peter Lucas Moses took little Jadon into the garage, turned on the music of the Lord’s prayer, took a gun, held it to the four year old’s head and pulled the trigger.  

Why? You might ask.  Why, because Jadon was gay, of course. Yes, folks, that is the crazy, illogical conclusion that Moses jumped to after hearing about Jadon’s playing.  If that isn’t horrific enough, not only does he jump to a conclusion that may or may not be true, but then, he murders a four year old in reaction to that conclusion.  The murder isn’t the only obscenity here.  Several women living in the house, including Jadon’s own mother, then cleaned up the bloody body and put it in a suitcase and stored it in the attic.  That is, until Moses began to complain about the stench.  Then his poor little body was stuffed into a garbage bag, just like Caylee, and buried in the back yard of another home the "cult" owned.  

Meanwhile, his mother, Vania Sisk, doesn’t run off and report this to the police.  No, she continuously lies about Jadon’s whereabouts and then goes on to follow in her “Lord’s” footsteps.  Yes, that’s right, she took the gun (which was hers by the way) and shot another member of the “cult” when she tried to escape.  
Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy was 28 when she moved from Washington, D.C. to Durham, North Carolina.  Relatives began to worry about her when she never phoned her mother on her birthday.  An investigation was launched that led straight to the door of Peter Lucas Moses. Antoinetta committed the unforgivable sin of trying to leave.  That is what got her her death sentence.  After the violence and abuse got to be too much, she ran out of the house, banged on a neighbor’s door and begged to use her cell phone.  The neighbor told police later she thought Antoinetta was just a mental patient and never called anyone.  This, despite the fact that two other women ran after Antoinetta and dragged her back into the house, kicking and screaming.  Once inside, the two women began to beat her mercilessly and even tried to strangle her with an extension cord.  When that didn’t work, Moses got out Vania’s gun, handed it to her and pronounced the sentence.  She too, must die.  So Vania Sisk, instead of turning the gun that she now had in her own hands on the man who murdered her child, simply followed his commands and shot the 28 year old young woman in front of her.  Antoinetta was then unceremoniously dumped into garbage bags, and eventually her and Jadon were buried together behind a house on Ashe street.  

In June 2011, seven months after anyone had seen Jadon alive and six months after Antoinetta, a plumber working in the backyard uncovered the remains and called police. Moses and six others are now facing charges.  Moses is facing the same sentence he imposed on little Jadon and ordered carried out on Antoinetta.

This case has it all.  Religion, cults, polygamy, child murder, a second murder, the death penalty, bodies wrapped in plastic bags.  And dare I say it?  Bodies discovered by some poor working man who will be called into court several years from now and questioned about his find.  Let’s just hope that no one accuses him of wanting fifteen minutes of fame and a big fat reward.

A lot of us are still smarting over what went on in the Casey Anthony trial.  Not just the verdict, but the multiple lives that were destroyed in the defense’s attempts to get the jury to blame anyone but Casey. Their blatant disregard for the truth and the lies they told the jury in opening statements.

As we watch the Jadon Higganbothan and Antoinetta McKay case proceed, I hope and pray that we don’t see the same shenanigans pulled in Durham that we did in Orlando.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rushing to Judgment from Coast to Coast

The dust is just beginning to settle from three of the most explosive legal cases since O.J. rode in the Bronco on the 405, long before we knew anything about “Carmageddon.”

First, there is Casey Anthony, where once again our jury system has left people outside the deliberation room scratching their heads.

Then there’s the DSK debacle. Dominque Strauss-Kahn’s accuser told her story publicly, and while I find it compelling and convincing, it won’t matter for the case; it is O-V-E-R.

And in Los Angeles, law enforcement’s latest example of dropping the ball is the case of the wrong bad guy arrested in the brutal attack on that fan at Dodger Stadium. After arresting a suspect, and telling just about everyone they "had their man," police have now let that suspect go, only to arrest two others, who are what they now call the ‘real’ suspects. Some say, “Hey, he was on parole. No charges filed so no harm, no foul.” Well, maybe–or maybe not. 

If you don’t think these news stories affect all the other run-of-the-mill cases in courtrooms each and every day, think again. From my days in the Los Angeles DA’s office, I was forced to clean up a ton of debris left behind by every quick-acting, non thinking, big-mouth prosecutor or police officer. During the Rampart scandal that tainted the LAPD, I had to hear defense attorneys drone on during voir dire about whether ‘police officers can be trusted.'

After the Duke Lacrosse case, where a corrupt district attorney turned a sex crimes case into a three-ring circus, I had to listen to defense attorneys make arguments comparing my legit victim to the phony victim in that case–or even worse, comparing me to DA Mike Nifong.

In the Dodger beating case, defense attorneys are already picking holes in the case against the ‘new’ suspects.  As a defense attorney, I’d do the same. If cops didn’t get right the first time, why would this case hold water? In fact, there is no doubt in my mind in light of the DSK case as well as the Dodger fan-beating case, courts and jurors will be inundated with the themes of ‘rush to judgment’ with either direct or indirect reference to these two cases. So, what went wrong, and why the rush to judgment?

It’s easy to blame the media. Rightly so, I have appeared on and watched many a cable panel try, convict and sentence before the first commercial break. Is this what we want from our justice system? But blame the media all you want, it’s the officials who make the decisions and it’s the officials' words on whom we rely.

As a prosecutor and defense attorney, we constantly have to deal with the fall out of the media. People blame the media yet it’s the public that feeds the media machine. So, I ask you why are we so obsessed with these cases, are the officials forced to give answers, and is the rush to judgment simply a rush to appease the media watching public?

Monday, July 25, 2011

My Truth and My Challenge – Amanda Knox

The following piece was originally written in March, 2010, and still holds true today, as the Italian appeals court hears DNA evidence that may set Amanda Knox free.

One year after the murder of Meredith Kercher, a man has been convicted and two other suspects await trial. Public interest in the case remains strong, and the truth about what happened is emerging, gradually and inexorably. But the truth is not without staunch foes who are doing their best to keep it submerged beneath a sea of resentment. Recently, for example, La Nazione published an article quoting Rudy Guede’s lawyers Walter Biscotti and Nicodemo Gentile, who allegedly made the following comment:

“A request was made to move the trial to the United States. Maybe to an outdoor affair in Alabama, where there’s a tree with a noose ready to hang the negro whose turn it is.”

This statement is spectacular in malicious intent. It goes beyond slander and reaches the level of hate speech. And since I am the one who supposedly made this request, I should clarify the record.

I did not request, and would never request, that Italy yield jurisdiction over a criminal case arising within its borders. This erroneous allegation was made by the London Telegraph, and they formally retracted it the next day, but not before it was widely repeated. Italy is one of the world’s great democracies, with public institutions that befit that status. I have no doubt that the Italian court system will deliver justice in the end.

At the same time, this particular case has been managed by Perugia’s chief prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, in a way the public should know about. Somebody needs to challenge the bizarre conjecture through which Mignini and his associates have turned a straightforward murder into a fable with no precedent in the annals of crime.

And somebody needs to make the point, again and again until the world understands, that Amanda and Raffaele Sollecito are innocent. The case against them is based on evidence so ambiguous and compromised it should have no place in a fair trial. But the prosecution has done a good job of using lies, distortions and innuendo to incite resentment and public prejudice against these innocent suspects, and that is why I am speaking out. No one is paying me to do so. I have practiced law for 25 years, both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney, and I recognize an outrage when I see one. This case is an outrage.

Someday the smoke will settle, the mirrors will be pulled away, and the public will see that. I’m going to stay involved until that day comes. And if people slander me along the way, I’ll take whatever steps are necessary to deal with it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

eBook or Print? WCI Contributors Weigh In.

by Women in Crime Ink

Many contributors here at Women in Crime Ink are multi-published authors, so we were sad to see the remaining Borders stores close this week. This brought us to the discussion of whether or not the eBook would truly be the demise of the print book, or publishing industry as we know it. Could it really be the end of the modern reading era or is it simply the beginning of a new one? Our contributors offered their thoughts on their own preference of reading eBooks or sticking with traditional print.

Robin Sax: I am sad to see the "real" book market go as I will always love the feel, touch, and collectability of books. However, as an author I see huge opportunities with eBooks allowing readers more accessibility, quicker, easier with more profit to those who work tireless to write stuff for us to read and enjoy.

Holly Hughes: I mourn the loss of the written page. It is the end of an era. It reminds me of how we lost the art of letter writing. A handwritten letter from a loved one has so much more sentimental value than an email. While I understand the convenience of eBooks, the typed word on a computer screen doesn't evoke the same sense of adventure as turning a page, or carrying a dog-eared book in your purse for those times when you have just a few moments to spare. I think we run the risk of losing a generation of readers who can't afford electronic gadgets but happily visit the book exchange for those fifty cent trade ins.

Dr. Gina Simmons: I love my Kindle.  I no longer have to drag a heavy bag of books with me while traveling. Instead, my kindle serves as a bookstore and library at my fingertips. Sometimes it frustrates when I can't find the book I want, or I forget to recharge the battery. On those occasions I reach for a book. I love exploring bookstores like Morton's in Victoria, B.C., or Bookstar in San Diego. I'll miss the excitement and feel of discovery that comes from picking up an amazing book, like White Oleander by Janet Fitch, in an old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Anne Bremner: I spent my youth going through sections in the library by author and reading everything they wrote including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Mann, Eric Hoffer, and Ernest Hemmingway. I also loved the one book wonder authors like Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell. My parents had an ample library which I went through as well. I love the smell of books, to get lost in a book, to dog ear a book, and even to write in a book. I still read all the time. Reading. Books. I will never give them up. 

Susan Filan: I love books, the look of them, the feel of them, the feel of the paper as I turn the page, and the evidence of a good friend digested as it sits on my desk or shelf, testimony of something good I learned or felt while reading. eBooks, while as thin as a clipboard and as portable, just don't do it for me yet. But I have a Nook and an IPad and am in training for the day when I can no longer indulge my love affair with books and still need to read anyway. 

Dr. Michelle Golland: I love the touch and smell of books. I will miss those experiences because frankly using my sons Nook has been very convenient. I also think it promotes even more reading for my son being able to instantly buy a book and dive into the experience. 

Pat Brown: When Kindle first came out, I thought it was a great idea, but probably not for me as a reader. I like the feel and look of books. Also, the original Kindle screen was dark and I didn’t like the background not looking white like a page. Then, they fixed the contrast and I thought, well, maybe I will get one for traveling because it might be nice not to have to tote books around with me. Also, you can never run out of something to read with a Kindle because you can have so many downloaded to it and buy more on the road. I also liked the long battery life so I could read as much as I want in places where I have no access to electricity or batteries. So, I gave in and bought one. Now, I love it.

Why? I don’t need glasses when I read it. I can carry it in my purse and always have a book available for unexpected waits. It is cheaper than print books, so taking a chance on a lesser known author or a questionable book is not such a gamble. The only thing I don’t like it for is nonfiction because I like to abuse the heck out of these books with my pen circling stuff, underlining it, and scribbling notes everywhere. I know there are ways to highlight things in Kindle but it doesn’t work for me. Also, I like to be able to flip back and forth or search easily for something I want to reread and the Kindle sucks for this. So, I buy fiction but not nonfiction in Kindle; in other words, only things I will read straight through and be done.

Having said that, I still by hardbacks and paperbacks of certain books I see and want or feel like having in my hand. I also buy copies of my favorites on Kindle for my library. As an author, I love Kindle in that I can print my own work as an eBook in between my books with publishers and get something I would like the public to read out there instead of waiting to go through the traditional channels. My first eBook on Amazon, The Profile of the Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, has done well and I am able to get it to people for a low price.

I hope the eBook world and the print world can continue together. 

Donna Pendergast: I remember walking into the original Borders while in college and thinking "What a wonderful place." For a girl who grew up with her nose in a book this was heaven. Endless aisles of adventure just waiting for a taker. So many books and so much promise, I could have looked for days. The loss of Borders and all it signifies breaks my heart. I understand the convenience of eBooks but nothing can match the look, the smell and the magic of a real book.

Cathy Scott: I grew up in a family with five children who read books and didn't watch much TV. Lining the long hallway of our home were bookshelves, regularly replenished by our mother with publishing clubs' latest books, as well as Reader's Digest condensed versions. We seemed to be the only kids on the block who had two full sets of encyclopedias, so neighborhood kids would often use them to research school term papers. I still love holding a book in my hand, but, at the same time, I'm excited about eBooks and the endless possibilities of having our works read in a variety of ways. I wish, when I lived at the beach in the 1980s and early '90s, that I'd had a Kindle or Nook when I'd spend hours on the sand, reading the latest novel, true crime book, or the Sunday paper (it's not fun chasing after runaway newspaper sections on the beach). I don't think new publishing is the demise of books; it's a new way of reading, and I embrace it. 

Stacy Dittrich: Technology is moving forward faster than I can embrace it. Because I grew up with books glued to my hand since age three, I am digging my heels in before purchasing an eBook reader. I love the fact that I can reach for a book from my shelf and still a few grains of sand remain in its pages from when I read it on the beach. I love the fact that some of my books are held together by scotch tape from years of repeated reading. And, I love the fact that if someone walks into my office, and they view the books that line my shelves, they are seeing all they need to describe who I am. Yes, I will purchase an e-reader in the future. But, as an author and avid reader, I’m going to ride out the print era as long as possible.

We'd like to ask our faithful readers... what do you prefer?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

WCI Welcomes Susan Filan

by Women in Crime Ink

Women in Crime Ink would like to welcome our newest contributor, Susan Filan.

Susan is Senior Legal Analyst for MSNBC, former prosecutor for the State of Connecticut, and a trial lawyer.

In 1991, she began her career as a criminal defense attorney for a legal aid clinic, in New Haven, CT, representing indigent defendants charged with crimes. She then went into private practice where she specialized in criminal defense and matrimonial law at both the trial and appellate level in state and federal court. In 1998, Filan was hired by the State Attorney's office for The Division of Criminal Justice which consists of the Office of the Chief State's Attorney and the State's Attorneys for each of the 13 Judicial Districts in Connecticut. They, along with Assistant State's Attorneys, are Connecticut's prosecutors—the public officials known in many other states, and in TV lore, as District Attorneys, or the "D.A." Filan was one of the more than 500 prosecutors, inspectors and administrative and support staff who are responsible for the investigation and prosecution of crime in Connecticut. She was assigned to the Gang and Continuing Crime Unit. In 2003, Filan transferred to the Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport as an Assistant State's Attorney (prosecutor).

In 2005, Filan began providing commentary on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, Court TV, ABC News, CBS News, and BBC News in 2005 on several high-profile cases including Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson. In May 2005, Filan resigned as a prosecutor to pursue a career in media when she was hired by NBC News and MSNBC to provide exclusive legal analysis of the Michael Jackson trial. She covered the trial from Santa Maria, California. After Jackson's acquittal on all charges, Filan returned home and began providing legal analysis for MSNBC and occasionally appeared on NBC. In 2006, she was promoted to MSNBC Senior Analyst.

In addition to appearing as an analyst on MSNBC's daytime and primetime programs, Filan also has served as a guest host for "The Abrams Report." Filan has been quoted in print media around the world.

Filan is admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut and the Courts of the State of Connecticut. She is a sought after public speaker and has a column on called the Filan Files.

She was the past president of the Board of Quinnipiac University School of Law Alumni Association and an Alternate on the Local Grievance Panel for the Judicial District of New Haven.

Our audacious list of contributors continues to grow! Please join us in welcoming Susan to Women in Crime Ink.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

2 Deaths in 2 Days of Billionaire's Girlfriend & Son on Coronado Island Baffle Police

A real mystery–and a true tragedy–is unfolding on Coronado Island, a wealthy seaside enclave across the bay from San Diego. And it's gripped this typically quiet tourist town.

On July 13, Rebecca Zaha's nude body was found hanging from a rope tied to a second-floor balcony at the Spreckels 27-room mansion on Ocean Boulevard. Her hands were tied behind her back, her feet bound with orange electrical cord.

At first, suicide was suspected. But that's akin. at least in the 1970s and '80s, to a Las Vegas coroner ruling a known mob hit a suicide when the person was shot twice in the back of the head.

A week after Rebecca's death, police are now saying violence was evident in her death, but the manner–homicide or suicide–had not yet been decided. Results of an autopsy have been sealed, police said.

This typically quiet town of 27,000 residents has seen just two murders in the last decade. Coronado police don't have a homicide unit and asked the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to help with its investigation. "A case like this," Coronado mayor Casey Tanaka told The San Diego Union-Tribune, "would be unusual anywhere."

Responding to reporter's questions about the circumstances under which Rebecca was found, Sheriff's Sgt. Roy Frank said, "Sometimes suicide can look very similar to homicide or vice versa."

Rebecca's death wasn't the first that week. Two days earlier, while she was babysitting her billionaire boyfriend Jonah Shacknai's 6-year-old son Max, the boy fell down a flight of stairs in the mansion built in 1908 and once owned by John D. Spreckels, a surgar baron, owner of the historic Hotel del Coronado and onetime owner of the San Diego Union and San Diego Evening-Tribune. Max was not breathing and did not have a pulse when paramedics arrived. He was in a coma until he died five days later. Police has said there's no evidence thus far tat the two deaths were connected. At the time of Rebecca's death, Max was still alive, on life support at Rady's Children's Hospital until he passed away over the weekend.

Zaha,  32, also known by her married name Rebecca Nalepa, had for two years dated 54-year-old Shacknai, the CEO and founder of an Arizona-based pharmaceutical company, and had left her job in Phoenix last December, moving into the mansion so she could spend more time with Shacknai's three children.

The body of the former ophthalmic technician was discovered by Shacknai's brother Adam, who was staying in a guest house on the property. He cut the rope from which she was hanging, then called police, according to authorities.

The case is unfolding as I write this. Stay turned for more about these bizarre but tragic deaths.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

by Katherine Scardino

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a tough burden for the State to meet. The article written by Andrea Campbell and published on Women in Crime last Friday, which discussed the many different types of evidence that may be presented in a criminal trial in the United States, within the context of the Casey Anthony trial. The State may obtain a conviction based solely on circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence points to the guilt of the defendant, but is not tangible evidence to connect the defendant directly. In other words, there are no crime scene fingerprints, DNA, eyewitnesses to the crime, etc... pointing directly to the accused as the culprit. The jury may render a verdict of guilty based solely on such circumstantial evidence if the jurors believe beyond a reasonable doubt that this evidence is credible and proven. But, I do not want to write another Casey Anthony article. Let’s look at evidence another way.

I wrote an article a few weeks ago about the recent flurry of powerful men who had been accused of, to say the least, low morals - or as I wrote - acting like pigs. Along with others, I mentioned Dominique Strauss-Kahn and even violated my own rule by lumping him in with those other men, mainly politicians, who seemed to have a problem keeping their pants zipped. Mr. Strauss-Kahn was a little different in that he was actually accused of committing a sexual assault against a maid in his hotel. His position rose to a higher level of accountability and a higher level of loss. He was not looking at an angry, vengeful divorce but the possible loss of his freedom and certainly his reputation and stature in the world.

I think the circumstances surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest and subsequent public disclosure in shackles are an embarrassment to the United States. We pride ourselves on the basic tenet that here, in the good old USA, a person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. You hear this constantly. Is that really true? I can answer that as a resounding “No." I can stand in front of a jury and state that each juror must believe that the accused person, standing before you prior to the jury hearing all of the evidence, is an innocent person. But, the mere fact that there is a person accused of misconduct standing in the courtroom around a counsel table with prosecutors, a court reporter, a judge and now a jury, is a weight that bears on the side of the prosecutor. The accused should not be judged in the news media like Mr. Strauss-Kahn was. We should never have arrested him without having done the smallest bit of investigation to at least make the evidence appear credible. 

In Federal court, the general rule is that when a Federal Grand Jury indicts a citizen of the United States, the US Attorney’s office has already conducted an investigation sufficient to believe that the accused is actually guilty. Don’t get me wrong - that does not mean that he is truly guilty, but it should mean that the US Attorney has enough evidence to get in front of a trial jury. 

The New York prosecutor jumped the gun on Mr. Strauss- Khan. The media reported that he was hoping to run for Mayor of New York and wanted the publicity. I do not profess to know his reasons with certainty. My complaint with the manner of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest is that there appears to have been zero work done on the credibility of the State’s evidence prior to his arrest. If the district attorney had done a small amount of investigation, he would have uncovered what he now is stating publicly - that the alleged victim is not a credible person. That does not mean the act did not occur. It simply means that he cannot take his case to a jury because he does not have the right kind of evidence that he can support.

So, what will happen now? The district court judge released Mr. Strauss-Kahn from house arrest. I do not know what other bail restrictions were lowered for him, but the dismissal from the prosecution should be coming soon. Where does that leave the United States? How about red-faced?

Is this a lesson for those of us who appeared so eager to accept the maid’s story as credible? It is easy to jump immediately to a conviction in cases of sexual assault. After all, why would a woman lie about that? In this case it could be money, publicity, attention, a twisted sense of need, or a combination of all of those things. If, in fact, a dismissal of all charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn occurs, as seems likely, we owe this man an apology.

Which brings me back, briefly, to Casey Anthony and the burden of proof. In cases where the State is trying to terminate a parent’s parental rights - the most serious case in the world of Family Law - the burden of proof is “clear and convincing evidence.” That evidence is weighed by the jury and the side who has the greater weight of evidence wins. That is a lower burden of proof than in a criminal case. Beyond a reasonable doubt is a phrase that is not defined in our Penal Code. It is not the CSI phrase that is used in error - “without a shadow of doubt." Each juror must look at the evidence and form his or her own opinion whether the evidence reaches the highest burden of proof in our country, that of beyond a reasonable doubt. It is my opinion that a capital murder trial where death is an option should not be decided on evidence that is loose or circumstantial. Apparently, the Casey Anthony jury agreed.

So, those of you who are amazed at the verdict, think again. The State decided to seek the death penalty against a woman without having evidence that rose to the highest level of proof, and these twelve individuals analyzed this evidence carefully and all twelve, unanimously, agreed that the proper verdict was not guilty. That does not mean she is innocent. It means the State could not give them enough evidence with which to convict, evidence that rose to the highest level of proof, which was their accepted burden. The jury did what they all believed was right.

Let’s put Mr. Strauss-Kahn and Ms. Anthony together. Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s case should have been investigated enough for the prosecutor to see whether he had sufficient evidence that could rise to that level of proof. The New York prosecutor has publicly admitted he has a problem with his evidence. The prosecutors in the Casey Anthony trial looked at their circumstantial case and believed that they could convince a jury that their evidence did rise to that level of proof. They just made a serious mistake because they underestimated the citizens who they helped choose to render a verdict.

photo credits: Parti socialiste, billaday

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why We Dislike Lawyers

Question: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a shark? Answer: Nothing.

Okay, look, right off the bat I want to say that I work with a lot of lawyers and I count many of them as good friends. But we’ve all heard the old jokes, and, let’s face it, the public’s general perception of lawyer’s honesty and integrity is pretty rotten. The latest Harris poll on the subject puts attorneys way down at the bottom of the list with members of Congress, car salesmen, and, yes, journalists.

But since lawyers are the crux of our justice system I think it is important that we take a closer look at the way some of them operate. Why is it so many of us curl our upper lip at the very mention of dealing with a lawyer? Maybe it’s the sheer number of them these days. Maybe because we believe they make so much money on other people’s misery. Or maybe it is that so many of us are forced to turn to lawyers these days to handle things that used to be settled with a hand-shake and someone’s good word.

Despite what we see on TV in dramas like Law and Order and The Good Wife, most lawyering goes on in a stealthy way. It is done out of plain sight – in board rooms and depositions, in front of secret grand juries or in the confines of a prosecutor’s office. When engaged in their profession lawyers speak a different language than we do and they follow a set of rules most of us will never understood. It is human nature not to trust what we don’t know or what we can’t see or hold in our hands.

Casey Anthony Murder Defendant

I’ve spent the last few months closely covering a capital murder trial taking place in Orlando, Florida. And it struck me as I watched the defense lay out its presentation in the case of Florida vs. Casey Marie Anthony that there is another more basic reason why we think the way we do about lawyers. They often destroy innocent people in the name of defending their clients.

To watch defense attorneys Jose Baez and Cheney Mason conduct their case on behalf of Ms. Anthony was painful. Of course, they had every right (and a duty) to do what they could to insure their client got a fair trial, especially since she was facing a possible death sentence. But they did not have the right to vilify and destroy bystanders to the murder of 2 year old Caylee Anthony. The scorched earth, take-no prisoners behavior should not be allowed.

Defense Attorney Jose Baez in Action

During the defense’s opening statement Baez promised the jury they would hear evidence that there was no murder and that the little girl had drowned in the family’s back yard pool. He blamed Grandfather George Anthony for discarding her body. There has been no evidence presented to back up that claim.

Baez told the jurors that repeated sexual molestation of his client by both her father, George, and her brother, Lee, had turned her into a trained liar who naturally kept secrets. He promised evidence to explain why his client let 31 days go by before finally admitting her daughter was gone. At first, jurors heard exactly the opposite – clear denials that any sort of sexual abuse ever took place. The jury also heard testimony from more than a dozen of Casey Anthony’s friends and co-workers that showed she was a known liar and thief long before her daughter went missing.

Roy Kronk Found Caylee Anthony's Remains

Baez’s opening statement also smeared the reputation of a man named Roy Kronk, a county meter reader who found Caylee’s skeleton remains in the woods six months after she was last seen. He reported the tiny child’s skull was still wrapped in duct tape which had snarled in her long hair. The defense lawyer called Kronk a “morally corrupt individual” and promised evidence that would show he had stolen Caylee’s remains after she drowned in the Anthony’s backyard pool and waited for the reward money to grow. Kronk came and went from the witness box and no such evidence was presented against him.

I’ve highlighted the Casey Anthony case, but it is far from the only trial in which lawyers have made reckless claims on behalf of their clients leaving human despair in their wake. Believe me, it happens all the time in courthouses across the country.

The question for all of us–including honorable lawyers who read this now–is what do we as a society do with attorneys who deliberately demolish the reputation of others in their quest for their client’s acquittal? If they make promises to a jury at the expense of others and don’t follow through shouldn’t there be some sort of penalty? If you or I repeatedly lied about important issues at our job, wouldn’t we face consequences?

Most other professions have a code of behavior. I submit that criminal defense attorneys should be held to one as well.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sniffing the Air

by Andrea Campbell

Most everyone I talk to is upset or depressed over the Casey Anthony case, which just recently found her not guilty in the death of her child. Since you would have had to been living in a cave to not know about the case, I will assume you are upset as well.

There is a lot to talk about the forensic evidence in this case, and what for me seems like quite a lot of evidence for a case of this type. But almost all of it seems to be controversial in one way or another. Since I write to you in colloquial terms—as if speaking to a friend—I try not to use terminology that is science jargon, and tend to explain things simply and in a way that anyone can understand.
Types of Evidence
The first important element we can discuss is what types of evidence are used in a court of law. There are more than you may know: direct, circumstantial, biological, reconstructive, associative and, individual or class characteristics.

Direct evidence is thought of as established fact. These are generally eyewitness statements or confessions.

Circumstantial evidence is not absolute proof but provides general knowledge and if you connect the dots, would seem to make sense or act as a logical conclusion. Typically, forensic evidence falls into this latter category. To folks in the criminal justice industry though, forensic science is generally more reliable than direct evidence because eyewitness testimony is sketchy, with people unable to recall events or positively identify suspects.

Biological evidence is anything that comes from a living organism and, in this case, would be the hair found in Casey Anthony’s trunk—this evidence type stems from body functions or fluids shed at the scene.

Of course, physical evidence can be found on inorganic items and some examples are: fingerprints, tool marks, paint, firearms and so on.

Reconstructive evidence helps an investigator figure out the five clues: who, what, where, when and how. The door that was pried open tells us how the perpetrator got into the house for example.

Associative evidence is what ties the suspect to the crime scene. The Casey Anthony case could have been made a lot easier if fingerprints had been found on the duct tape that covered toddler Caylee Anthony’s nose and mouth.

And the typing of evidence, either individual or differentiating is referred to as class characteristics. It follows that anything that is individual, can be narrowed down to one person or calculated as belonging to a very small group of people. The principle used to analyze materials and come to the assumption that it is individual is that no two things are exactly alike. A pair of shoes will exhibit characteristics when worn, unlike any other—so if those shoes leave a print impression at a crime scene and they are later found in the suspect’s closet, that leaves them open for an individual characteristic.

Differentiating class characteristics, on the other hand, could be the type of bullet that came from a gun. The caliber matched to a gun could make for a possible murder weapon. A found .38 caliber bullet means the weapon size is the same, so a .38 caliber bullet differentiates it from a shotgun.

Experts thought the forensic evidence in Anthony's car would be pivotal evidence for the murder trial. The car tested positive for chloroform and human decomposition and a strand of Caylee's hair was found in the car's trunk. Also, a cadaver dog, Gerus,—trained to find human remains—alerted on Casey Anthony’s car, a Pontiac Sunfire, and his handler testified to that occurrence.

Forensic Air Testing
Today we will talk briefly about the air testing in the car trunk. The forensic community has been using air tests for a long time. The science of chemical detection is forensic toxicology and is a means to separate and analyze chemical substances. The best example of common testing is when law enforcement uses a Breathalyzer to determine the blood alcohol content in a drunk driver for example.

The Smell of Decomp
"Once you smell it, you will never forget it." This comment and others comes from a site that has anecdotal comments from police and others whom have all smelled death. Human decomposition is a permeating smell and is often said as “hard to describe” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t distinctive. When Dr. Arpad Vass went on the stand to testify about the air samples taken from Casey Anthony’s car, I assumed that evidence was more than compelling. He spent a lot of time explaining his expertise in research about the smell of human decomposition. Vass works at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee where he analyzes the odor of death by working with cadavers at a 3-acre body farm, specifically used to study death and decomposition.

According to an ABC news report, "He [Vass] is essentially working towards finding a signature for human decomposition that will lead to the creation of an electronic detector that does the work of a cadaver dog. His research is already being used by the FBI to create a database of the chemical compounds found in human decomposition."

Vass said that the air samples taken and preserved in a can from the trunk of Casey Anthony's car had an abundance of chloroform, a sign of human decomposition and a chemical that also can be used to commit murder.

"I essentially jumped back a foot or two… I was shocked that that little itty bitty can could have that much odor associated with it… I would recognize it as human decomposition," Vass told jurors.

The Body in Death

"After we die and the bacteria proliferate in our body and start breaking down our muscles and our fat and organs, vapors, gases, are formed with beautiful names like cadaverine and putrescine that are a particular structure that are easily picked up in the toxicology lab if they’re collected from the area, the air that the body was in," said respected forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden. "If there was a dead body in the trunk of the car and they collected the air sample, they should be able to find those chemicals."

Entomology Report
In addition, flies and fly larvae found in the trunk of Casey Anthony's Pontiac suggest that the body had been decaying there for three to five days, according to testimony by an insect expert. The entomologist believed that Caylee's body had already undergone a brief period of decomposition before it was put into the trunk, and he cited the presence of a gnat-like fly that appears only after a body has started to decompose. This testimony rebutted defense claim that bad smells people reported could have come from garbage, but it turns out the same type of fly is not attracted to household trash.

New Science Questions
Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky, head of the Forensic Sciences Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told TIME. "It's what the state calls 'state of the art.' It's what I call 'not ready for prime time… It's not junk science, but it never should be brought into a courtroom at this stage.”

I disagree. Most cases today are decided on circumstantial evidence. There was enough forensic evidence—dueling experts or not—to come to the correct assumption and connect the dots. Casey Anthony's car was a crime scene. And I think the jury just wasn’t listening and strained (and failed) to understand the principle of reasonable doubt. What do you think?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Was a Fraud Perpetrated Not Just by Casey but by George and Cindy too?

By Michelle Golland, Psy.D.

I begin this article being very clear that I am not a lawyer and I do not look at cases or tragic situations within families from the perspective of examining evidence for trial.  As a Clinical Psychologist I observe behavior, actions and narrative to get underneath the story that is unfolding before me whether in my practice or as a media psychologist.  I have been working with victims of trauma and sexual abuse for over 2 decades.  My experience and clinical intuition told me as early as September 2008 that there was something deeply and characterlogically wrong not only with Casey Anthony but also with her parents George and Cindy Anthony.

Many solid clinicians have been able to see that Casey Anthony meets all the characteristics of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.  Which is a chronic personality disorder that impairs functionality and has a negative impact on all relationships.  These individuals are manipulative, charismatic, lack empathy and create chaos in their lives as well as those around them.

The question is how did Casey Anthony become the person she is today.  For some by simply asking this question we clinicians are seen as terrible evil people blaming the poor parents of this crazy psychopathic person/murderer.  This is the problem with the media and the sound bite culture that really doesn’t want to hear the long tragic truth of how a vulnerable innocent child becomes the Casey Anthony we have seen in the courtroom.  We want to only pity George and Cindy, who of course are in pain and have tragically lost their granddaughter Caylee.

This is what we, as psychologists, know about Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). The most critical factor in developing this disorder is poor or uniformed parenting.  These include repeated emotional, physical or sexual abuse by someone within the family or outside the family itself.  Also, inconsistent care and unsupportive care or early separation from one or both parents can contribute to the formation of this personality structure.  We also find a parent who has failed to protect the child from repeated abuse by the other parent, another family member or an outsider.

In watching George and Cindy in front of the media they seemed either coolly detached from their daughter Casey or ragingly connected in a defensive posture.  I had no doubt that Casey Anthony had severe emotional problems when she lied about her daughters disappearance and because of her strange and immature responses around where she was during those notorious 31 days.  I also noted odd behavior by her parents, and it felt to me that they knew more about Caylee’s disappearance than they were revealing.  

The facts that came out in the case regarding George and Cindy’s denial of Casey’s pregnancy, as well as the perfect persona that Cindy Anthony seemed to want to show to people around her, as well as her undercurrent of rage which bubbled to the surface on many occasions showed me that she was a narcissistic mother who was self-involved and lacked empathy.  

The jailhouse letters in which Casey began to reveal the possibility of sexual abuse made sense in the reporting of the incidents and also her hedging around them as well.  Often with victims of sexual abuse when they begin to reveal the shameful family secrets it is let out a little bit at a time to see how they will be responded to before they keep going on to say what the whole truth is for them.  What really made it clear that something was not right in the Anthony home was Cindy’s response to Casey, “So that is why you are a whore?”  This is sadly a classic response by a mother not wanting to face what she may actually already know herself.  This was also reinforced by Lee Anthony’s testimony about the extremely conflictual relationship between Casey and their mother.  Lee’s testimony also reinforced to me clinically that this was a deeply disturbed family with each person struggling for power and control wrapped with rage, anger and confusion.

George and Cindy Anthony's various interviews in the media while “looking” for Caylee felt contrived, confusing and strangely self-focused (but not on their granddaughter) with a martyrdom quality that didn’t sit right with my clinical gut.  In watching the interviews with Tim Miller, who investigated Caylee’s disappearance early on in August 2008, his reactions appear to be the most convincing that something was being covered up and not only by Casey but by George and Cindy as well.

It is my impression that George did know that Caylee was dead close to when either the “accident or murder” occurred in June 2008.  His actions around deflecting Cindy and her brother seem odd and show me a consciousness of knowledge and also a desire to keep distance from the truth of her being dead.  His actions when her car that smelled of a “dead body” at the tow yard, which he testified under oath that he did believe it smelled like a human decomposing body, also seemed suspicious to say the least, and guilty of trying to hide evidence at it’s worst.  George, a seasoned former detective, did not call the police worried and sick that something has happened to his daughter or grandchild.  George drove that car home and parked it in the garage.  It was Cindy who called the police hysterical.  George had gone into work.  

It seems to me from the variety of interviews before and after Caylee’s remains were found in December 2008 that George, Cindy and Casey were all possibly spinning a variety of stories to try to keep themselves and the Anthony name clean of any wrong doing.  George and Cindy appear to be in part fighting for the image of themselves and their family.  As with narcissistic and possibly an incestuous family dynamic within the Anthony home they are doing just what that type of family does, which is to deflect the obvious (like Casey’s pregnancy), protect their own image as good parents all the while trying to maintain that they are actually looking for a live Caylee.  

In part, what the Anthony’s may fear the most at this point is an investigation into the fraud that there daughter perpetrated in keeping the “Caylee is Missing” story going until her remains were found and identified in December 2008.  If my clinical observations are correct about George and Cindy and what seems to be their own knowledge of and active participation in this enormous lie and manipulation upon the police, investigators and the country maybe, just maybe they will be held accountable financially and morally as much as Casey is at this point in the eyes of the public.