Friday, October 28, 2011

Another Missing Baby

by Holly Hughes

Once again, another child has gone missing and another mother tells an evolving story. On Tuesday, October 4th, 2011, at approximately four a.m., the alarm was sounded when ten month old Lisa Irwin was reported missing by her parents, Deborah Bradley and Jeremy Irwin. The mother, Deborah Bradley, initially reported that she last saw her baby girl when she put her to bed at ten thirty p.m. Now, weeks into the investigation, it comes to light that she last saw her at six forty p.m. 

She has steadfastly refused to speak with local media, when clearly, they would be the most effective outlet to keep Baby Lisa’s story alive in their neighborhood and the surrounding locales. Yet, when she does give an interview to a national media outlet, we hear more disturbing and unbelievable claims. 

Deborah Bradley insists she hasn’t spoken to her two boys, ages five and eight, about the night that Lisa disappeared. Another puzzling statement she has made is that she didn’t go looking for her baby, even in her own backyard because she “was afraid of what she might find.” On top of all that, neither Bradley nor Irwin are cooperating with the police and have denied police access to the two little boys who were admittedly present that night, until this week.

All of these behaviors are inconsistent with a mother who desperately wants to find her child. If my child went missing, the police would not have to be hunting me down, begging for an interview. I would be in their face, on their phones and setting up shop in their precinct. I would be tearing around my entire neighborhood, including my own back yard, looking high and low, shouting her name.

I would not lie to the police about the crucial time in question, altering my story by four hours. Surely, Bradley must know that in child abduction cases, every second counts. A perpetrator could be hundreds of miles away, seriously changing the scope and course of the investigation. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I believe this is the way most parents would behave who were not involved.

But does this odd behavior mean she is guilty of anything? It certainly raises eyebrows. Is it consciousness of guilt or just quirkiness. Are there too many coincidences and oddities here? The very first night that Irwin works the overnight shift, Lisa goes missing. The same night, incidentally, that Bradley is passed out drunk. Admittedly someone else could have known that Irwin was to begin the night shift, but who could have possibly known that Bradley would drink herself into oblivion?

They have hired attorneys and a private investigator to handle things. Well, that is hardly going swimmingly. They seem to making a bigger mess. The attorneys made a big deal of announcing they were going to be giving daily press releases and they would open the house, the crime scene, so the press could walk through. Well, neither of those things occurred, raising even more questions.

Much ado has been made about the fact that a “cadaver dog” hit in the bedroom of Bradley and Irwin. Unfortunately, that does not mean there was a decomposing body there. It could be blood from an old wound, sloughed off dead skin, or any number of other things. The forensic testing done on those samples will hopefully give us more definitive answers and point us in the right direction.

Although things don’t seem to look good for Bradley, there are other possible scenarios here. Maybe she is just an emotionally immature young woman who does not know how to handle all that has been thrust upon her.

Police have also reported that several credible witnesses have come forward to state that they saw a man walking with a baby around midnight, the same night that Lisa Irwin disappeared. They have obtained some grainy video surveillance that seems to corroborate that, indeed, there was a man out at that time in the reported area, but it is too poor quality to tell if he is indeed holding a baby. Then there was the finding of a backpack with purportedly soiled diapers in them found near an abandoned house not far from the Bradley/Irwin residence. 

Sadly, until Lisa Irwin is found, dead or alive, we will not have any more answers than we have now. There is always the hope that she was taken by someone who desperately wanted a baby to love and raise. At least that way, there is hope that she may be returned to her family some day.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Some Reflections on Segregation

by Katherine Scardino

I have told you before that I grew up in a small farming community in the Piney Woods of East Texas. I was up there last weekend and on Sunday I drove the three hours back to the big city listening to the radio. I tuned to CNN on my radio and learned that the Martin Luther King National Memorial dedication ceremonies were ongoing in Washington, D. C. I was a young girl during the 50's and 60's and like most young girls, I was caught up in myself and not much aware of what was going on in the world around me. Only as an adult have I thought about that period of time.

I can remember going to the movie theater in my hometown and noticing that the black boys and girls had to sit in the balcony. I remember watching them walk up the stairs as I sauntered to my cushy seat close to the screen. I remember watching them go to the water fountain marked "Black" while I used the water fountain marked "White." As a girl, I never thought twice about the meaning of all that.

As I was listening to the music and the speeches of men and women who spoke at the dedication ceremony that day, I started reflecting upon that period of time for me. I can honestly state that I never once went to any school with an African American child. Further, I can state that I cannot recall ever having known any African American child or adult during my years in this community. I was an adult before I ever had a black friend or realized the enormity of the Civil Rights movement. I wish I had known Rosa Parks. Ms. Parks is the black lady who refused to sit in the back of the bus, and was subsequently arrested. I am not sure what the crime was, but she was taken to jail because she refused to obey the bus driver and proceed to the back of the bus with all the other black men, women and children, as all the white people, you know, sit in the front of the bus. I know that I would have loved her.

Martin Luther King must have been a courageous man. He was considered not only a a peacemaker (since he won the Nobel Peace Prize) but also an agitator. Without him and other people like him, the Civil Rights movement would not have happened as it did. I believe it would have happened, because no group of people in America can be subordinated as that race was and continue without an uprising. (Remember the Revolutionary War and the Civil War?) But, the message of Martin Luther King was agitate. Speak out for your rights as an American citizen, but do it without violence.

How brave these people had to be to speak out. Mr. King was called every name imaginable; he was stabbed, had rocks thrown at him, his house was bombed, and then, finally James Earl Ray happened along and put a bullet or two in him. But, during this period of uprising and demand for equality, Mr. King never wavered. He never said OK, let's stop now. We can live with what we have. After all, the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education and directed that education in America must be equal. But, I can attest to the fact that during my early school years, that was not the case. And, in my business as an attorney now, from what I can tell, that is still not the case. Our children are not educated equally. We have a long way to go.

It was interesting to me that I even began to listen intently to the MLK dedication ceremonies after my weekend in east Texas. Because, this weekend, I heard the word "nigger" for the first time in years. It was embarrassing and startling to hear someone I know use that term. Of course, as someone who has never learned to hold the tongue and be silent, I did speak out and made it clear that while I cannot demand that she never use that word again, I can demand that it not be used in my presence.

As I drove down the highway, listening to the radio last Sunday, I think I learned something. I learned that every aspect of our childhood does not have to follow you into adulthood. We can learn better ways to do things and better ways to think about our society. We can learn that because of courageous people like Mr. King and Ms. Parks and many others, the African American society in the United States of America can overcome hatred, racism and ignorance. And, we can learn - and remember - what those brave men and women did in the mid-1700's who produced this document called the Constitution of the United States of America that states "all men are created equal" and it is imperative that we uphold that document. It takes time to change, as Mr. King knew, and as our first black president is learning now. We can hope, but change takes longer. We are still changing, but this time around, let's all hope that it is for the good of our country and benefits all of us. What benefits one segment of our society will ultimately benefit all of us.

photo credits ( Trevor.Huxham; caboindex; Elvert Barnes; Elvert Barnes 2

Friday, October 21, 2011

Paying The Price Twice

by Diane Dimond

With the U.S. unemployment over nine percent these days nearly everyone knows someone who is out of work or under-employed. It’s a tragic and desperate time for millions of Americans.

But there is one sector of the population hit harder than any other – those Americans who carry the stigma of a past criminal conviction. An almost unbelievable 65 million people – one in every four U.S. adults – falls into this category. And, in this War-on-Terror era employers are conducting background checks on new hires like never before. No matter how exemplary a life a person has led since their conviction, their past record will pop up.

Look, no one could fault an employer for thinking twice about hiring someone who has been convicted of murder or child molestation. But, according to the author of a National Employment Law Project study that’s not what we’re talking about here. Michele Rodriguez says, “We’re not talking primarily about hardened criminals, but your friends, relatives and neighbors who may have shoplifted once or twice, who have DUI’s on their record or have drug charges that date back to the 1980’s.”

Take, as an example, the case of Ted Brown (not his real name) a whiz-bang software engineer that was downsized out of a job last winter. He thought he had landed a prestigious job with a five figure bonus when suddenly the offer was rescinded. Turned out the employer’s background check had discovered that during a nasty divorce several years earlier Ted had pleaded guilty to a charge of child endangerment. He had left his son alone in the car on a cool fall day while he quickly sprinted in to Starbucks for coffee. Never thinking that the episode would affect his ability to do a job Ted checked “no” on the application box that asked about arrests and convictions. He compounded his police record with a lie.

Then there’s the story of 40 year old Johnny Magee of Dublin, California. Twelve years ago the developmentally disabled Magee was asked by his uncle to pick up a package for him. Unbeknownst to Johnny it contained drugs and even though he had no police record he was convicted of a misdemeanor drug offense. In 2008, Johnny was laid off from his long time landscaping job at the Livermore National Laboratory. Even with his experience Lowe’s Garden Center refused to consider him for a garden assistant’s job citing his police record. In 2009, Johnny’s lawyer filed charges with the EEOC against Lowe’s citing the Commission’s pronouncement that “an absolute bar to employment based on the mere fact that an individual has a conviction record is unlawful under Title VII.”

As NELP’s Rodriguez says, “People are human, they make mistakes,” – especially in their early years – and ought not to be discriminated against for the rest of their lives.
I agree it is not fair to the jobseeker and, frankly, I don’t think it’s fair to society to limit the employment pool at such a crucial economic time. For every one who pulls from the unemployment coffers the burden shifts to the rest of us – the working taxpayers.

But how are these 65 million Americans supposed to get a new job if they suddenly become unemployed? A quick glance at the Craigslist employment page reveals insurmountable company policies:

“No Exceptions! No Misdemeanors and/or Felonies of any type ever in background.”
“You must not have any felony or misdemeanor convictions on your record. Period.”

Last year at least five major federal civil rights lawsuits were filed against some of the country’s largest employers such as Accenture, First Transit, Inc. and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Company for their blanket policies against hiring anyone with an arrest record. Even the U.S. Census Bureau was sued for refusing to consider “roughly 700,000 people” with criminal records as suitable for temporary Census jobs.

Some of those suits – and many more filed at the state or local level – mention the racially discriminatory nature of refusing to consider applicants with a police record since African Americans and Latinos are over-represented in the criminal justice system. These legal actions are sure to have begun to seep into the corporate mindset where bean counters realize how costly litigation can be. Policy shifts are certainly underway.

I’m all about law and order and people doing the time for the crimes they commit. But once time has been served – especially if it’s for a non-violent offense – we need to welcome these people back into the fold. They need the work and we need them to be working for the betterment of our communities.

And to those who have an arrest record and are looking for a job? Don’t be like Ted Brown the software guy and lie about it on your application. Realize that a background check is going to discover your past so be upfront about it. A black mark on your background check might not stop a company from hiring you. But lying most certainly will.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Baby Lisa: Gone, Baby, Gone

by Pat Brown

Pretty much, that is all we know right now. Ten-month-old baby Lisa Irwin was there and then she wasn't. Two weeks have passed since her disappearance and she hasn't reappeared, dead or alive. Wait, we know one other thing: she didn't climb out of her crib and go for a walkabout. Someone removed her from her home, so we know someone knows something. We just don't know who.

In missing baby cases where proof of abduction is weak, there ends up being two scenarios: the parents did something to the child or someone else slipped in and made off with the child. Unlike an abduction where a child is seen by witnesses being dragged into a vehicle or a case where a child walking from school never arrives home but her parents have solid alibis, a child who goes missing on the parents' watch often causes the parents to become suspects at some point in time. 

The parents of Sabrina Eisenburg became suspects very quickly; the parents of Madeleine McCann became suspects when the police focus when the detective on the case eventually began to think the timeline and parents' behavior didn't add up. Both of these cases remain open and the missing children have never been found. Both cases have a camp that believes the child was abducted and a camp that thinks the parents caused the death of the child and orchestrated a cover-up. If Baby Lisa is never found, the parents, Deborah Bradley and Jeremy Irwin, will be added to this club.

Once upon a time we believed parents of missing children: we never doubted that the people standing in front of the camera, crying and begging for their child's return, were playing us. But after we got burnt by the performance of Susan Smith and a number of others, we have become more skeptical. We now replay the video to see if the parent is crying real tears and we watch their body language. We examine every bit of evidence. We don' t want to yet again be duped into expending emotion on a parent who will turn out to be a killer and a fake and we don't want to spend our valuable time searching for a child whose parents already know exactly where she is.

Baby Lisa is missing and many people are not accepting the parents' story at face value and throwing them their unconditional support. They are searching for inconsistencies in their story, for proof that the baby was abducted, for alibis that are supportable, and for behaviors that don't seem right.

And, unfortunately, for Deborah Bradley and Jeremy Irwin, they are not faring well in the analysis.

The basic hurdles parents must clear these days to keep the public faith in them include:
  • Real tears: Deborah clearly had tears in many interviews; Jeremy, no.
  • Strong emotion: Deborah, yes, Jeremy, no.
  • Nice house, well kept: yes
  • Good looking baby: yes
  • Charming photos and video: yes
  • Willingness to speak in the media: yes, but then refused to do local media, only national. Made it seem like a desire to be famous might be at play
  • Willingness to talk to the police: yes, until they stopped. Then they started again, only now police say they are not answering all the questions
  • Pass the polygraph: Deborah says she failed; Jeremy didn't take one.
  • Consistent story: Deborah has changed the time frame and now claims she was drunk; Jeremy originally said he checked the kids first and now says he talked to Deborah first
  • Crime scene has visible signs of abduction: There is only a slightly opened window and left- unlocked door which does not prove an abduction occurred
  • Parents show responsible behavior: Deborah now states it is okay for her to be drunk while caring for the children
  • Suspicious strangers have been lurking around: So far there has only been a homeless handyman who is said to have been cleared
  • Police not focusing on parents: The police are clearly heavily focusing on the parents
  • Not lawyering up: They now have Joran van der Sloot's lawyer which may be smart but makes the them look like they need a strong defense.
  • Not having things about the case that make you go "hmmm:" Deborah has stated that her children heard some strange noises but she has never asked them about what they heard and when because she doesn't want to upset them. Another thing that has bugged me is that Deborah has called her child "Baby Lisa" in television interviews; this is a name given by the media to identify the story and not something a mother usually calls her own child. Then, the "drunk/blackout" story came out after the parents got a lawyer and one wonders if this is a defense strategy for court or a way to excuse Deborah from answering any more police questions about what happened that night. Finally, Deborah changing the time she last saw her daughter (put her to bed) seems like a way to take emphasis off the later time, a time that her sons may have heard something and that Mom doesn't want to acknowledge. Oh, and Deborah also said she thought she would be arrested which is very odd unless she is aware there is more evidence implicating her than we know.

If I add up this list, I have to say the parents haven't done so well going over these hurdles. Public suspicion is likely increasing rather than decreasing. Right now, I would say as a criminal profiler, the evidence and behaviors indicate the parents are more likely to have involvement in the disappearance of Baby Lisa than a stranger to have abducted her. But, without proof or solid evidence, this set of inputs could be misinterpreted - an abductor might have managed to sneak in and out without detection; maybe he did turn on the lights and steal phones because he is a major weirdo. 

The parents might have odd behaviors - even personality disorders - which cause them to act in a manner that arouses suspicion but they still didn't do anything to their baby. Mom and Dad could be awful parents and still be innocent of doing anything criminal. But, because they are not passing the "hurdle" test very well, the police are going to be all over them, people are going to stop looking for the baby, and, if no abductor is ever caught (and the parents aren't found guilty), then, like the Eisenburgs and the McCanns, a cloud of suspicion will always hang over their heads.

Where do you stand on the likelihood of Baby Lisa's parents being involved in her disappearance? What would you add to the list of "hurdles?" How does what you have seen of the case and the parents affect your willingness to support the search for Lisa?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Rape Case In Sweden

by Andrea Campbell

I am never surprised at the results that can be achieved with forensic science. It is comforting to know that as time moves on, so do improvements in evidence collection and evaluation. Today’s story illustrates these ideas and even though it happened in Sweden, we are happy to see a righteous outcome.

High-Intensity UV Lamps
Body fluids are an important part of a crime scene, in murder and especially with sexually-based crimes. Since body fluids have properties that make them fluoresce under alternate light, it makes sense to walk the scene carefully with the light in hand and mark all the stains with cones or markers that may prove to be clues later on. The light won’t tell you what you’re looking at, but after collection and examination, you may get DNA and other readings.

The Rape in Sweden
On a cold day in Sweden, crime scene investigator Birgitta Jansson, who is with the Karlstad, Sweden police technical division, walked through the snow. It was dawn at about 7:20 in the morning and the sun was waiting to rise over the horizon. An outdoor scene, the crime was committed in a residential area near the center of town, and not far from a school. The case was an alleged rape and it took place at the corner of a hockey rink in a snow drift.

The snow left behind some obvious impressions: the shape of a human figure—arms, legs and torso—that were clear enough. In addition to the visual evidence were some Swedish coins that had fallen from the perpetrator’s pockets that were lodged deep in the snow. Blood was also found near the coins, and all were subsequently collected as evidence.

Investigators then used a high-intensity ultraviolet light to illuminate the scene, just as the sun was beginning to rise. Three spots, thought to be semen, were found in a 4 x 4-inch area.

“The light made the semen fluoresce in the snow, to the extent that I never thought possible,” said Jansson. “Actually, I was amazed that it worked. I never thought you could distinguish semen from snow with the help of a high-intensity UV light. And there was no doubt—the fluorescence was incredibly strong and clear. I have never seen anything like it.”

Jansson examined the glowing pieces more closely and found that they were now frozen liquid laying separate from the snow. They secured and collected those lumps of ice and packed them into bio bags, stored them in the freezer in the police car, in the hopes of sending the frozen liquid to the laboratory.

Back at the Laboratory
Once the lab examined the frozen, cube-like evidence it was clear that there were both semen and vaginal secretions. The sperm produced DNA and was ultimately matched to the vaginal swabs taken from the victim. The rapist was subsequently tried, convicted and sentenced.

The Fluids That Fluoresce
Semen, vaginal secretions, urine, sweat and saliva are all bodily fluids that will fluoresce under UV light. Urine is the easiest to detect, followed by semen, and the others will too, only more often very faintly.

Rehn, Lisel, “Semen fluoresced in the snow solved a rape case in Sweden,” Evidence Technology Magazine, July-August 2011, pp 24-25.
DNA photo: US National Library of Medicine 
photo (right): jah~

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Emotional Pain of Seeing Michael Jackson’s Dead Body Language During Opening Arguments

Seeing Michael Jackson’s dead body language in this shocking photo which was presented by the prosecution on the first day of the Conrad Murray is beyond devastating and painful for me. The photo says it all. In my view, it will also have a lasting effect on jurors just as it has an indelible effect on me and anyone else viewing it.

It shows a helpless Michael Jackson lying on a gurney covered with a sheet on the lower half of his body. It shows the results of the actions of a doctor who irresponsibly administered propofol when he should have known better than to give it to his patient.

So what if was reported Michael demanded to have it. So what of Michael allegedly had a drug problem and drug addiction issues. It was not Michael’s call. Michael was the patient and not the doctor. But unfortunately as we see here, there are doctors who will do whatever a patient wants simply because they are a star and can pay big money and they know they will get a lot of perks. Unfortunately this goes on all the time in Los Angeles doctors who cater to the Hollywood community. In fact there is a vulgar name for these type of doctors who are often referred to as “STAR F***ERS. Unfortunately , this was clearly the case here.

Seeing Michael lying there so helplessly with his mouth agape brings forth a myriad of emotions. For me it brought forth a torrent of tears. It stimulated a personal memory of how sweet Michael was to a homeless woman just days before he died. Having my office on Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, I was well aware of a sweet woman who used to hang out in the street. Many passers by, including myself often watched out for her, giving her food and money.

One day Michael spotted her after he left Dr. Arnold Klein’s office a block away on Roxbury Drive. He had his driver stop his black SUV and summoned the woman to come inside his car where she later shared that Michael gave her words of encouragement and inspiration and was so loving and generous. with personal gifts and money.

Seeing the above photo continued to make me cry as I thought of Paris and Prince having to see their beloved daddy this way for the last time. I thought of Blanket who is still as traumatized now as he was since the funeral.

The photo also brought forth anger in me . The anger is directed at Conrad Murray, a doctor Michael trusted. That trust was betrayed as the doctor left the room to chat up his girlfriend while Michael was in crises.

While Murray should have never administered the lethal drug outside of the operating room, let alone in Michael’s bedroom, the fact that he wasn’t there to monitor Michael with proper equipment and left Michael all alone is unconscionable.

Had he been there and he seen that Michael was in physical trouble, he could have quickly revived him or he could have done immediate CPR measures to save his life. Michael died because of this doctor’s negligence in my view. Whether or not Michael had other issues or health related issues is irrelevant. In my view Murray’s negligence is what put the final nail in Michael’s coffin.

Yes, everyone deserves a fair trial but what is fair about leaving a person alone to die by not monitoring them? It screams of incompetence, lack of humanity, selfishness, and sheer greed.

Watching all of the nuances and the verbal gymnastics by the defense is a waste of my time and emotion. It hurts me deeply to watch this trial on a very very personal level as well.

I know firsthand what it feels like to lose a loved one at the hands of an incompetent negligent doctor who committed malpractice. My own very beloved brother Manny was killed at the hands of such an incompetent doctor who intubated him wrongly so that he became a vegetable and died. The doctor was only a doctor for seven months when he recklessly and incompetently ended my vivacious brother’s life.

Thus, I feel very deeply for the Jackson family (except for mercenary and obnoxious Joe). I feel for Michael’s kids the most and for his mother Katherine who not only had to put up with Toxic Joe all her life, but now continues to deal with the death of her precious and loved son.

The doctor who actually killed my brother due to his malpractice was found liable. Yet this miserable cold emotionless creature who showed no compassion is still alive and well practicing in New Jersey at the same hospital where his incompetent hands ended my brother’s life. Whenever I think of this fact, I am livid.

If I allow myself to think of the possibility that Conrad Murray may possibly get away with Michael’s death and be allowed to resume practicing medicine as though nothing happened, I get sick to my stomach.

Just as my brother did not have to die, Michael did not have to die either. I hope that Conrad Murray is NEVER allowed to practice medicine anywhere ever again and that he spends time in prison for his actions.

If Murray manned up and said he did wrong and was prepared to deal with the consequences I perhaps would have a bit more respect for him (not much but a smidgen more than I do now). But instead he is blaming everyone else. Sure there are other doctors who enabled Michael. But it was Murray who left him alone to die. That in itself is reprehensible!

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Limits of Eyewitness Testimony

Wonder Womanby Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

A few years ago I attended a concert with my husband and our two teen-aged boys. After the concert, as we filed passed the aisles toward the exit, a drunk heavy-set man shoved my smaller son out of his way so he could pass in front of us. The shove was violent enough that my son was knocked into me.

Most mothers find, at some point in their lives, that a ferocious beast resides inside of you. This bear of a beast only appears when someone threatens or hurts your child. In my mind, the man was fat, out of shape, just a little taller than me. I could take him down! "Keep your hands off my son!" I growled. My husband and larger son made a path for us to get away from the drunk man. After we arrived safely at our car, the four of us talked about the incident. My two boys and husband described the man as approximately 6-feet-2 inches, muscular, with a pot belly. I saw him as about 5-feet-7 and, in that moment of confrontation, I truly believed I could Wonder-Woman him to the ground. Fueled by adrenalin and an instinct to protect my child, I would have made a lousy witness in this case.

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness testimony is responsible for 75 percent of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence. Many eyewitnesses to more serious criminal offenses find themselves in a similar state of nervous system arousal. Adrenalin pumping, heart racing, pupils dilating, your whole system mobilizes to defend or escape. Some people report experiencing the traumatic event as if it were happening in slow motion. You replay it over and over again, in an effort to make sense of it all. Sometimes, in that replay, we fill in the blank spots of the story with false information in order to make the story connect.

For example, imagine you've stopped at a convenience store. In front of you at the check-out line is a person wearing a dark sweatshirt with a hood. You're looking around the store, wondering if you need to get anything else, when you hear a loud boom. You look back and the person in the hoody is reaching over the counter and pulling money out of a cash register. You look around for a place to hide. Other customers are screaming and shouting different things. "He's getting away! The clerk's been shot." Out of the corner of your eye you see a dark-blue car speed out of the parking lot. Some time later, the police arrive and begin to interview the witnesses. You tell the police that a man pulled a gun, shot the clerk, took money out of the register, and sped away in a dark-blue car.

The clerk gets up from behind the counter and starts to cry. She thought she had been shot. No blood, no bullet, no injury. A witness from outside the store said he saw a large woman in a hooded sweatshirt run out of the store and down a back alley. That witness also saw a black truck speed away in the opposite direction. What did you actually see? The back of a person, could be male or female, in a hooded sweatshirt, took money out of the register, and a dark-colored vehicle sped away. The gender, age, and race of the thief, the source of the loud boom, and the method of get-away are still unknown.

Your eyewitness statement was contaminated by the normal human need to connect the dots of a story, to make sense of a situation. You heard another witness say, "He's getting away," so you assumed the perpetrator was a man. The loud boom, and the fact that you could no longer see the clerk, made you assume she had been shot. This story emphasizes the need for law enforcement officers to interview witnesses as soon as possible after an event, and interview them individually. As tiresome as that process feels to the witnesses, it does help prevent the confabulation of memories as people influence one another to fill in the missing pieces of the story.

Anatomy of the eye / Anatomia do OlhoWhen we see things out of our peripheral vision, color vision is distorted. The cells in our eyes that perceive color, called cones, fade out in our peripheral vision. If you don't see something head on, you will often mistake the color. As we age, our night vision gets poorer as we lose the more sensitive rod cells. These cells are responsible for motion detection and night vision. The rods are highly sensitive to motion, so you can block something flying toward your head. In the eyewitness example, if you see something out of your peripheral vision you likely will get the color wrong, unless you also see it straight on, in good light, with normal color vision.

Figures of JusticeThe recent execution in Georgia of Troy Davis, convicted of murder based solely on eyewitness testimony, should give us all cause for concern. Seven of the 10 eyewitnesses to the crime either recanted or significantly altered their testimony. Despite the significant holes in the case, Troy Davis was executed on September 21, 2011. The family of murder victim Officer Mark Mac Phail reportedly saw "nothing to rejoice about" in the execution of Troy Davis. Hopefully, they will find some peace and healing.

Officer Mac Phail, jumped to the aid of a homeless man who was being attacked. He was murdered trying to save the life of a stranger. He is survived by a wife and two young children who will never get to know their father. I hope justice, not merely vengeance, prevailed in this case.

Photos courtesy of: Looking glass, CGoulao, and Clearly Ambiguous

Friday, October 7, 2011

Dr. Oz and the Arsenic Thing

By Deborah Blum

Let me get this out of the way first: I don’t watch Dr. Mehmet Oz on television.

I did see a show the year before last while I was keeping an older relative company. I can’t tell you what it was about, though, because we weren’t that long into it before my relative suggested that that I take myself, my twitches, and my sarcastic mumbling to another part of the house.

Consider this a full disclosure of attitude toward Dr. Oz. Consider it also an explanation of why I didn’t see his show last week on the (alleged) dangers of arsenic in apple juice. It was impossible to miss, of course, the backwash of the critical reaction that followed, my favorite being Steve Salzberg’s wickedly smart take, “Dr. Oz Tries to be A Scientist” in Forbes. I also enjoyed Pharyngula’s tale of the FDA’s unsuccessful efforts to educate Dr. Oz about arsenic prior to his show. The theme of the news coverage throughout was, let’s say, unsympathetic.

The primary criticism was that for a man with a medical degree, Dr. Oz didn’t seem to know very much about arsenic. The FDA – rather testily, actually – had pointed out to him that he was testing for total arsenic load. Their objective was that this overstates risk by combining levels of both inorganic (bad, bad) and organic (not so very bad) arsenical compounds.

On average, inorganic arsenic is considered about 500 times more poisonous that organic arsenic. So a high test number that combined the two but was mostly organic would actually indicate less risk than a lower number that involved more inorganic arsenic. Unfortunately – for Dr. Oz and his viewers – he either didn’t get this or considered it too complicated for the audience.

As Salzberg pointed out, those combined totals weren’t necessarily reliable anyway. Dr. Oz didn’t follow the standard test practice of sending his samples to multiple labs. Instead he relied on one testing facility. When the FDA sent juice samples from the same lots to other laboratories, the arsenic levels were a fraction of what Dr. Oz reported. All of which leads us to the essential criticism here, that Dr. Oz sensationalized a non-problem and by doing so irresponsibly frightened consumers of apple juice.

In a cranky, reluctant way, if you’re me, you have to kind of admire the way Dr. Oz responded to this concerted hiss of dismay. He continued to maintain that arsenic exposure should always be considered a big, bad thing. And he managed to suggest that this big picture was more important than nitpicking whining about things like test accuracy and arsenic classification. He did this well enough that, for instance, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, asked the FDA to take another look at arsenic levels in apple juice.

So I’m not going to dwell further on the problems with his broadcast; I’m hardly going to mention the issues with shoddy science and the sensationalism. Hardly at all. What I would like to mention, whine about, nitpick, however, is Dr. Oz’s lost opportunity to r illuminate the actual risks. This is arsenic, after all, one of the world’s most important – and fascinating – poisons.

He could have sifted out those organic and inorganic test results, for instance, and helped his viewers to understand what they meant. Arsenic (As) is, after all, a naturally occurring metallic element (sometimes called a metalloid). It’s also one of those elements that likes to partner up, either with organic (carbon-based) compounds or with inorganic (which for these purposes pretty much means no carbon involved).

Fortunately for us, our bodies tend to break down and metabolize away most organic arsenic compounds fairly efficiently. In fact, many of these organic arsenic compounds (such as arsenobentaine, in case you wondered) form naturally in fish and shellfish. Fish-lovers thus receive get a steady low level exposure to organic arsenic, as far as we know, without reported health effects. A few years ago, there was a suggestion that kelp-based health supplements might contain an arsenic problem, but it foundered – just as Dr. Oz’s apple juice case did – on the type-of-arsenic issue.

We humans – and, in fact, most living creatures, don’t handle inorganic arsenic nearly as well. Arsenic trioxide (AsO3) or white arsenic is one of history’s most famous homicidal poisons – so much so, that back in the 19th century, it was often referred to as the inheritance powder. By some estimates, inorganic arsenic can be fatal in the amount of 60,000 micrograms (about 1/50th the weight of a penny).

Why is it so dangerous? And don’t we wish that Dr. Oz had used his moment to ask this very question? As it turns out, the answer lies in actually being nitpicky about the question. Inorganic arsenic toxicity has a lot to do with the number of valence bonds the compound possesses. Valence bonds are created when atoms cling to each other because of an interaction between electrons in their outer shells.

In other words, the higher the valence bond number, the grabbier the compound, the greater its ability to insinuate itself into a living system. The two grabbiest forms of inorganic arsenic are trivalent (three bonds) and pentavalent (five). Pentavalent arsenic can, in fact, do a perfectly lethal job of disrupting cellular metabolism. But toxicologists tend to worry more about trivalent arsenic forms, which are also nasty poisons, more persistent, and much harder to remove from drinking water supplies.

And naturally occurring, inorganic arsenic in drinking water around the world does real and physical harm. I’ve written about this myself regarding the poisoning of water supplies in countries like Bangladesh. But there’s health risks to go around even in countries like the United States.

In other words, Dr. Oz could have used this arsenic moment to have picked out a real health risk, educated people about it, maybe even saved a few lives and there. And that’s what I hold against him – the careless waste of opportunity - and that’s why he makes me twitch. Even at this safe distance from a sofa in front of the television set.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Greek Cabby Drives Home Unfortunate Truth

by Donna Pendergast

Having recently returned from a two-week trip to Greece, I continue to ponder the provocative conversation I had with a taxi driver in Athens. On a late-night ride back to Athens after returning from the islands to the port of Piraeus, George the taxi driver, a Greek raised in Boston, had a captive audience for his opinions on what is wrong with Athens these days.

"We have crime crime," he stated. "I mean we have always had crime, but violent crime was unheard of until recently." He further clarified that pick-pockets have always been prolific in Athens but stated that beyond the inconvenience of that sort of petty crime he never had any problems with his children being out and about at all hours of the night because violent crime was unknown. He went on to say that in Athens and the surrounding suburbs, a metropolitan area of more than five million people, that there are less than twenty murders a year. "But last week, someone was killed over a pair of sunglasses. Can you imagine that?" he asked.

I could imagine that. In fact, I have handled more than a few prosecutions where a murder occurred over some trivial item or trinket, or for some other senseless reason. I have grown weary of trying to explain to a jury the whys of some of the senseless crimes that I have seen, or rather trying to explain that often there are no whys that make any sense. But rather than belabor the point with George I just listened as he blamed the economy and mostly foreigners from impoverished countries for the problems in Greece. He went on to say that the reason he relocated to Greece in the early 80's (although he maintains a house in New Hampshire) was the difference between the crime rates in Greece and the United States.

Despite George's laments, the point that I took away from our conversation was the astonishingly low violent crime rate, especially homicide rate, for such a large metropolitan area. I attempted to corroborate George's figures before writing this post, but there is little data available giving exact numbers of homicides in Athens and surrounding areas, at least in terms of as conventionally represented as the number of murder victims per hundred thousand people in the population per year. What I was able to document is that the numbers of violent crimes in Athens although rising are indeed close to what George alleged.

So, why is the murder rate in America so different than what they have in Greece and, indeed, in most other European countries? Why does a city the size of Detroit have a murder tally more than twenty times higher than a city more than five times larger in terms of population?

Sure there are differences between the United States and Europe in rates of how crimes are reported to the police, recorded by them and in differences in the rules by which multiple offenses are counted. And there are differences in the legal definitions and in the legal institutions and how they deal with and characterize crimes. But that in no way accounts for the vast differences between the reported murder rates in many large urban areas in America and our European counterparts.

It goes without saying that the murder rate reflects basic sociocultural and economic factors. Poverty, the availability of guns, and the media emphasis on a culture of drugs and violence all contribute to an increasingly violent society and an increased murder rate as a result. But does poverty actually breed crime and violence? Do socioeconomic variables determine whether or not a person is more likely to take a human life and whether or not a person has a cognizance of the value of a human life?

The truth is that in most cases murderers are not normal law-abiding citizens. They are highly aberrant individuals characterized by felony records, alcohol and or drug dependence and other deviant characteristics. So why in the U.S. do we have such a comparatively high rate of aberrant persons who are willing to take the ultimate step and take a human life? Do we as a culture value life less than our European counterparts, or do we have a systemic problem that results in an increased tendency to react in a violent manner?

I'm jet lagged and I have no answers. Do you?

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

COLD CASE: Morgan Harrington Unsolved Murder Approachng Two Year Anniversary

by Michelle Sigona

Morgan Harrington was last seen at a concert outside the John Paul Jones arena in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was October 17, 2009. Police say Morgan separated from friends around 8:30 p.m. when she walked out of the front entrance of a Metallic concert. Morgan never returned, and it was the last time she was seen alive. Investigators say Morgan called her friends inside and told them she was finding a ride home. State police officials report Morgan was last seen by the ticket office on the University Hall side of the building and witnesses report seeing her hitchhiking close to the arena exit road. An intense search of the area yielded no new clues until three months later. 

In January 2010, Morgan’s body was found on a farm in Albemarle County, Virginia. Investigators said her decomposed body could have been on the land as many as 100 days. One year ago this month, investigators released shocking information. They said the man who may have killed Morgan could be the same suspect that committed a sexual assault against another female in 2005. Virginia State Police officials confirm there is a forensic link between the 2005 assault and the murder. 

Police spokesperson Corinne Geller said the Virginia Department of Forensic Science processes and analyzes all of the evidence and lab work for every department and they randomly came up with a hit in their internal database. When the connection was made, technicians notified Virginia State Police of the link. Investigators from the state police contacted the Fairfax City Police in Virginia to compare notes. Geller said, “It’s one of those things, you never know what the next phone call is going to bring.” She added, “We know he (the man in the sketch) had contact with her (Morgan) the night of her disappearance, but we don’t know if he is responsible for her death. We are looking to identify and question him, and put the next pieces of the puzzle together.” Within 24 hours of releasing the sketch, the state police had 50 leads, but since then, the case has gone cold.

September 2005 Incident

Police say a female was walking along Rock Garden Drive in Fairfax City from the Giant when she was attacked from behind. Authorities say she was dragged to a park and sexually assaulted next to a pool. Sgt. Pam Nevlud with the Fairfax City Police department said, “We’ve gotten quite a bit of calls. That is very inspiring and we are hoping this leads to something.” As far as someone recognizing the sketch, Nevlud said, “People have little things that happen to them that they think are odd and that they don’t report to the police.” There is a chance that there could be more victims who haven’t come forward, or others who have crossed his path, but haven’t called.

CLUE: Authorities also say the necklace Morgan was wearing the night of the concert has not been found. 

Background of Morgan's Disappearance

According to a Virginia State Police press release: “During the course of the investigation, police have been able to establish a timeline of Miss Harrington’s movements once she ended up outside of the arena at approximately 8:30 p.m. After talking to her friends on her cell phone, she then walked through the parking lot of University Hall and was also seen in the Lannigan Field athlete parking lot, which is also used for RV parking. At around 9:30 p.m., she was seen walking on the Copeley Road bridge near Ivy Road.”

According to Virginia State police, based off independent witness accounts, investigators believe on October 17, 2009 (the night Morgan Harrington went missing) that she was hitchhiking along Copeley Road Bridge. Investigators are now searching for a vehicle they believe stopped in the middle of the bridge and possibly picked up Morgan. Also, investigators need the public’s help in finding a young woman the night of the Metallica concert that may have loaned her cell phone to Morgan.

The Farm

Nancy Bass, owner of the Anchorage farm where Morgan was found for more than 30 years, said the area where body was discovered is not accessible by vehicle. Nancy and her husband David said they have an SUV and there’s no way they could get down there. If it wasn’t for David on the tractor checking fences, Morgan may have never been discovered. David spoke out and said as soon as he saw the remains he instantly thought of Morgan. Nancy said when they first moved on the farm they did not allow hunting, but because of the trespassing, they decided to allow hunters assigned to different areas hoping they would keep an eye on things. 

Nancy says the main gate on the property is always open, it is never locked, but the pasture where Morgan was found is closer to a subdivision, only about 30 feet away. Morgan and the person who killed her may have had access to the location through the housing development, which isn’t too far of a walk. The Bass family owns more than 700 acres total, and the farm is only a few miles away from interstate 64. Police say the hayfield was cut in August, and Morgan’s body could have been there any time after mid-October when she went missing.

CLUE: The red digital camera Morgan was carrying the night she went missing still hasn’t been found. It is a Sony or Kodak. The suspect is described as a black male, between 25 and 35 and around 6 feet tall. In the 2005 attack, he was wearing a black pullover sweater with a zipper and light-colored pants. 

On the FindMorgan website, her family posted this: “We continue to work diligently with Law Enforcement to find justice for Morgan Dana Harrington and apprehend her killer(s). This is a difficult task during our worst nightmare with our limited energy and abilities. We will be successful though because of the strength we derive from the outpouring of love we have received from across the nation and beyond. Your support carries us as we continue to fight for Morgan and other precious children. We are so grateful to each of you." 

Virginia State Police have a tip line, please call them with any information: (434) 352-3467 or send them an e-mail: