A last look at the science of Matt Baker’s conviction

In January a minister named Matt Baker was convicted in a Waco, Texas, court of staging his wife’s suicide. The trial was covered last week on CNN’s In Session. “Forensic science” played only a small part in the conviction. Most of the evidence presented was circumstantial and based on eye-witness testimony, admissible “hearsay,” and the victim’s personal journals. The forensic evidence included the usual medical examiner’s testimony as well as computer forensics and fingerprint evidence.

Eye-Witnesses and Hearsay

The Baker trial was conducted in a rational, unemotional manner, as is appropriate. Of all the eye-witness and hearsay-witness testimony, the most dramatic and subjective, as well as the most telling, was that of the woman with whom Baker was having an affair at the time of his wife’s death. But it wasn’t this woman’s claim that Baker told her what he planned to do that convicted him (IMHO).

Baker’s conflicting statements and inexplicable computer-use is what convicted him. Taken in light of his wife’s statements from the grave (journals and psychological counselor’s testimony) that she thought her husband was trying to kill her, his production of an obviously phony suicide note, followed by his destruction of the computer and printer used to produce the suicide note, is what condemned him.

Given that Matt Baker was found guilty of first-degree murder in Texas, a capital punishment state, but he was sentenced to life, he’s a fortunate man indeed. Perhaps God really did hear his prayers.

The Forensics of the Suicide Note

Baker claimed to have found a computer-printed suicide note beside his wife’s body. It wasn’t hand-signed. The first cops on the scene handled the note. At some point, the note was dusted for fingerprints and many smudges were found, but no clear prints other than a palm print, which could not be matched to the victim (because her fingerprints were never taken) nor to any of the 18 or 19 people who touched the note or could have touched the note.

If I remember correctly, 18 of the 19 people were “excluded” from the palm print; the 19th person (Baker) “could not be excluded.”

The fingerprint expert testified for the prosecution. Both on direct examination and on cross-examination, she refused to fall into the trap of declaring definitively either that Baker could have made the palm print or could not possibly have made the palm print. Although she used the intellectually dishonest phrase that all forensics experts are trained to use (“could not be excluded from contributing”), she went on to explain why it was impossible for her to draw any such conclusion. This woman should be given a medal.

Unfortunately, the lawyers for both sides didn’t understand logic or inference. This is one of the great failings of American criminal justice. Even as we learn more and more about the natural world (how things work and don’t), the justice system continues to rely on the logic of ancient Rome (or earlier, perhaps Greece or even Biblical times).

The following isn’t a logical syllogism:

  1. 18 people are known to have touched this piece of paper, and we know their palm prints; 2 other people we know of (the killer and the victim) could have touched this piece of paper, and we know 1 of their palm prints.
  2. The 18 people whose palm prints we know and whom we know touched the paper could not possibly have made the palm print.
  3. Therefore, the 1 person we know of whose palm prints we have but who won’t admit to having touched the paper and whose print might have made the mark is the most likely person to have made the palm print—not the victim and not some unknown person (from among the other 7 billion on the planet).

Sidebar: The above “logic” was that used by the prosecution. The defense used a similar “logic” to suggest that Baker could not possibly have made the print, because he was not “included.”

Even a superstitious old Greek like Aristotle would have gasped at that. Yet the American adversarial system constantly foists arguments like this on juries. 

Of course, when using fingerprints and palm prints as evidence, the courts also don’t understand that they aren’t “scientific” evidence at all: fingerprints are only suggestive, not real proof of anything.

Fingerprints:

  • Aren’t provably unique
  • Are subject to mutation
  • Aren’t obviously identifiable, because they’re so complex
  • Are rarely complete and clear

As evidence taken from a crime scene, fingerprints are meaningless unless they don’t belong to anyone who lives there or is known to have visited there for a legitimate reason.

Sidebar: It seems to me, it is the “thing” that shouldn’t be found at the scene of a crime that’s always relevant, not the “things” expected to be found: a stranger’s fingerprint, an unlikely suicide note. Yet, forensic science goes out of its way to try to find things they can “include” and “not exclude.”

What difference would it have made—to the jury, especially—if Matt Baker’s fingerprints were clearly on the paper? He could simply have claimed that he always loaded the printer paper for everyone in the house.

In fact, this was Baker’s big mistake, in my non-legal opinion: he thought he needed to deny any contact with the suicide note and to destroy all evidence related to the printing of the note. He even told investigators at one point that he and his mother tried to find evidence on the computer’s hard drive of when the note was printed in order to show that the note was printed when he had an alibi. That really wasn’t necessary. If he was so worried about the note, why did he print one at all? Most suicides don’t leave a note.

Of course, Matt Baker like most murderers isn’t as smart as he thinks he is—or he would have been able to find another solution to his problems.

 

Forensis—Debate in the public forum

Forensic Science” is an oxymoron.

The adjective “forensic” refers to debatable issues, not reality—opinions, not fact. The noun “science” derives from the Latin word for knowledge; it was first used in 1833 by an English “natural philosopher” (Whewell) to distinguish natural philosophy from other philosophy (not coincidentally because poet Coleridge warned him that his methodology ought to be distinguished from what daydreamers do).

When an expert witness takes the stand in a trial and calls himself a “forensic scientist” it ought to be a red flag that what he’s preparing to do is testify about his credentials to practice an art and then to express highly subjective opinions.

The Supreme Court and DNA

Last week at the eleventh hour the Supreme Court stayed the Texas execution of Hank Skinner in order to take a little time to consider whether a convict ought to have the right to examine the DNA evidence used against him in court.

This ought to give us all pause—it seems so obvious.

Last year the Supremes declared that prisoners do not have the right to demand that the cops test DNA they have in their archives.

How can this be? What bizarre logic is at work here? It’s simple. As Shakespeare said, “The law is an ass.”

The issue in the 2009 case (Alaska v Osborne), as I see it (and I am not a lawyer), was that the DNA was not presented as evidence in court. I guess the Supremes consider the evidence cops have on file as the government’s property and it can’t be “taken” for private purposes (only the government can take for public purposes).

Sidebar: The Osborne case is worth at least an article on its own. But there’s one point I have to mention here. The Supremes’ decision expressed concern about a flood of frivolous lawsuits flooding the court system for post-conviction access to evidence. Couldn’t a Supreme Court decision have been phrased so that such access is automatic and no lawsuit would be required? I suppose the Justices are so law-bound in their thinking they can’t imagine an issue that can be settled anywhere outside of a courtroom. Here’s a clue, Supremes: Think outside the courtroom.

The issue in the Skinner case is that the convict isn’t demanding that the state spend money on the tests; he has found a lab willing to conduct the tests for free.

Honestly, I can feel my blood-pressure rising as I contemplate this. So I’m going to stop writing.

It’s time the Supreme Court woke up to the indisputable fact that a courtroom is not a forum where facts are presented. A courtroom is a public-opinion forum.

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Computer Forensics, For Better, For Worse, in Texas v Baker

Yesterday’s CNN InSession broadcast of the Matt Baker trial covered the testimony of a prosecution computer forensic expert named Noel Kersh, whose witness-stand rhetoric was excellent. Unlike most computer forensics experts I’ve heard, he was very clear without being patronizing and without oversimplifying issues to the point of absurdity.

However, Kersh’s testimony also illustrates what most bothers me about the use of computer forensics in the courtroom: it’s usually completely irrelevant.

Defendant Baker is a former minister who was convicted earlier this year of murdering his wife with a drug cocktail and then staging her suicide.

Sidebar: Kersh is an independent consultant. Apparently, the Waco cops have no computer forensics expertise. They may have compromised a laptop before Kersh could examine it and seem to have permitted Baker to destroy some evidence before the local Justice of the Peace declared the manner of death “undetermined.” Frankly, I think all forensic expertise ought to be supplied to local authorities by private contractors, but I also think local cops ought to have at least basic training in the collection of forensic evidence, including computers.

Relevant Computer Issues

In the Baker case, computers played an important role: not only was the victim’s system found to contain a lethal cocktail of sleep aids (most of which are thought to have been bought online), but she also purportedly left a computer-printed suicide note.

Because the cops didn’t suspect homicide immediately, they didn’t collect any computer evidence at the scene. They didn’t even check to see if there was a working printer with ink and paper (at least as far as I can discern). (You would think they would have protocols for examining suicide scenes, but apparently not.) They collected only the suicide note, and left their own fingerprints all over it.

Sidebar: Here’s a little shameless self-promotion. In a short story, “’Tis the Season to K.I.S.S.,” my killer-heroine uses a computer and printer without leaving a single clue for the forensics guys.

The Baker home at the time—as I understand it from TV coverage—had at least two computers, a laptop and a desktop. By the time the cops wanted to examine the desktop (several months later), Baker claimed to have gotten rid of it. The cops seized the laptop, but compromised the data by inadvertently turning it on and booting it up by opening the screen. Both of these computers might have held evidence of the suicide note—key evidence.

IMHO—as a computer owner since the very early 1980s—the Baker’s missing desktop is extremely suspicious. If I were an investigator, I would have tried to track this computer down.

In my experience, a computer is the most-difficult item on earth to discard. I and my friends all have several generations of computers stored in basements, attics, garages, and even under my current computer desk. It’s illegal to dump them in a landfill here (IL). You have to pay specialists to recycle them (and even then you have to transport them to the recycling facility; no one will pick them up). If you leave them on the curb for a scavenger to collect, you have to remove the hard drives for fear of identity theft. You might be able to resell them on eBay, I suppose; but you’d better wipe them clean with a really good hard drive reformatting tool.

Online Searches

The core, surviving computer evidence in the Baker case was evidence of Baker’s online activity: web searches and websites visited. Most of this data was collected from computers where Baker worked, since his home PC had “vanished.”

Kersh did a great job of finding Baker’s searches for online sources of drugs and of proving Baker was the user, not someone else in the office: he found near-simultaneous email activity to and from Baker’s email address. I can’t say enough about how well-done this documentation was. Unlike other cases (Scott Peterson, for example), Baker’s online identity was documented. According to Kersh, Baker searched extensively for online pharmacies where he could have obtained the drugs that were found in his wife’s system.

Honeymoon Websites

The prosecution also questioned Kersh about Baker’s online activities after his wife’s death. This is where I begin to question the “evidence.”

Kersh found evidence that five weeks after his wife’s death, Baker made inquiries about a Fiji honeymoon with his fiancée. So what? Baker was having an affair with a divorced, single mom when his wife died. Is it suspicious that he would want to marry her as soon as possible? He had two daughters of his own to care for at that time.

No, I’m not naive. I don’t think it’s entirely proper for a man to marry so soon after the suicide of his wife, but I also don’t think this is entirely proper evidence of guilt that should be presented to a jury.

In every murder trial, much is made, I know, of “the defendant’s state of mind,” because the law permits evidence of state of mind at the time of the alleged crime. Intent is a key element of the law. But what does the defendant’s state of mind long after the crime have to do with anything?

Prosecutors need to get a life, I think, when it comes to computer evidence. And, yes, I need to get a life, too. (And I pray I’m never accused of a crime based on my bizarre computer searches as I research murder.)

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What every mystery writer knows about “time of death”

A couple of years ago I watched with great interest a CourtTV broadcast of the trial of a Vermont woman named Hope Schreiner. She was charged with murdering her husband by first trying to kill him with a drug overdose and, when that didn’t work, by bludgeoning him to death with an unknown blunt instrument. It was such a classic “Black Widow” case that I used several of the elements in the plot of THE JUROR HANGS.

Black Widow Cases

The classic “Black Widow” murder—it seems to me, a mystery writer—include: 1) a wife who poisons her husband, 2) rumors among friends, family, and neighbors, 3) feeble, pathetic, or incapacitated victims (in other words, a victim whose wife is his caregiver), and 4) stereotypes about women, such as “poison is a woman’s weapon” and an unloving woman is inherently evil.

Time of Death and Air-Tight Alibis

One aspect of the Schreiner prosecution that struck me as particularly unfair was the medical examiner’s testimony about “time of death,” which is one of the three things an autopsy must determine:

  1. Cause of death (medical)
  2. Manner of death (legal)
  3. Time of death (fact)

A medical examiner (usually a physician with a specialty in forensic pathology) conducts an autopsy in cases of suspicious death (usually deaths that occur when the deceased wasn’t under the care of a physician when he died). An autopsy is essentially a dissection of the body, but before the first incision is made in the body the ME must document three physical conditions as a means of determining how long the body has been dead:

  1. Rigor Mortis: Stiffening of the muscles and joints, beginning in the extremities and progressing toward the torso;
  2. Lividity: Settling of blood due to gravity, in the lowest parts of the body (back for instance, if the body rests on its back);
  3. Core body temperature (liver temperature): This requires an incision; a thermometer is inserted into the liver.

Each of these body changes is an indicator of time of death, because the amount of time for each of them to commence and end is well documented. (Note: Each of these is also a very wide range, very imprecise.)Each of these is also affected by the ambient temperature of the environment in which the body was found: in general, the warmer the environment, the slower these processes, while the colder the environment, the faster. The breath of life is literally warm. Even mystery writers know this.

In a murder case, the time of death is critical, because it can prove a defendant’s innocence. If a defendant can prove where she was at the time of death it’s an alibi—an affirmative defense. In many cases, an alibi can completely exonerate a person even before charges are brought.

In most cases, of course, defendants are unable to prove an alibi—not because they’re guilty but because many people are alone most of the time and most people are alone at night—asleep in bed. (Heaven help the defendant who’s accused of committing murder at midnight! Think Juan Mendez, Jr.)

Black Widow Alibis

In the Schreiner case, the defendant had a solid alibi for most of the morning (I think I recall she could document her whereabouts from about 9:00 a.m. to about 11:30 a.m.), but—coincidentally I’m sure—the medical examiner testified that the time of death was after 11:30 a.m. when the defendant was home and later found her husband bludgeoned to death in the driveway at 12:30.

In another so-called “Black Widow” case (the Raynella Dossett-Leath case) the defendant was also accused of having tried first to kill her husband with an overdose of barbiturates and then, when that didn’t work, of staging his suicide by gunshot. She also had a solid alibi for roughly the same time period. At around 11:30 a.m. she discovered her husband’s body in bed with a bullet hole in his forehead. And again—coincidentally I’m sure—the medical examiner testified that the time of death was early morning (before 9:00) when the defendant admitted to have been at home.

No Liver Temperature

In both the Schreiner and the Dossett-Leath cases the medical examiners failed to take a liver temperature before the body was refrigerated. As every mystery writer knows, liver temperature is often the single best indicator of time of death, because both rigor mortis and lividity can increase and subside before the body is discovered, but core body temperature only decreases—and decreases at a relatively predictable rate. In addition, the deceased person’s state of health (good or poor circulation, for instance) can affect both rigor mortis and lividity.

The Schreiner Time of Death

During the Schreiner trial a great deal of testimony had to do with time of death and the alibi. Eventually the defense attorneys managed to elicit an admission from two physicians that no liver temperature was taken. Unfortunately, the defense failed to hammer the implications of this fact home to the jury.

Briefly, the testimony was:

The body was found at around 12:30 outside in the sunlight. The first responder, an EMT, said he had to “crack the jaw” of the victim in order to administer CPR and attempt resuscitation (indication that rigor mortis had begun to set in—in a cold environment this might indicate that death had occurred only about 30 minutes earlier, but in the warm environment it might indicate that death occurred up to two hours earlier).

The first medical examiner on the scene was a volunteer; in fact he just happened to be the victim’s personal physician. While trained to take a liver temperature at the scene of a death, he decided not to do so, because (he said) he didn’t want to upset the deceased’s loved ones who would be looking on (as if they wouldn’t be upset by his bashed-in skull). He also said that there was no rigor mortis present. He had been able to manipulate the jaw easily (of course, the EMT had released it). This physician’s testimony was relied upon by the county medical examiner, who also didn’t take a liver temperature.

The county medical examiner who conducted the autopsy many hours later testified that the time of death could not have been before 11:30, because there was no evidence of rigor mortis when the body was found. Even taking into account that the environment was quite warm, and even though it had lain in the sun for quite some time, he insisted that rigor mortis would not have been present at 1:00 p.m. when the first physician examined the body.

However, it is well known that onset of rigor mortis can be delayed as long as two hours when the body is in a very warm environment.

Obviously, the victim’s time of death in this case could not legitimately have been pinned down to after 11:30, when the EMT had to crack the jaw at 12:30. Since the environment was warm, the time of death could have been as early as 10:30. Had the first medical examiner taken a liver temp
erature, he might have collected far more-accurate data. Instead, the county medical examiner conveniently insisted to the jury that the defendant’s alibi was worthless, because he was sure the time of death couldn’t possibly have been before 11:30.

The Dossett-Leath Time of Death

In the Dossett-Leath case, the defendant had an alibi from about 9:00 a.m. (after breakfast) to 11:30, when she called 911. An hour later, at about 12:30 a police investigator telephoned the medical examiner’s office to notify them of the death. Apparently, no medical examiner ever responded to the scene and, instead, the body was transported to the morgue for the autopsy a couple of hours later.

At the morgue, the medical examiner did not even conduct a superficial examination of the body to determine rigor mortis or lividity at that time. The body was refrigerated and at 8:00 a.m. the next morning was removed and the autopsy conducted.

The autopsy report describes the rigor mortis at that time as present “to an equal extent in all joints” and lividity as “fixed and well developed.” This is hardly surprising given that at least 21 hours had passed and the body was in a refrigerator for at least half that time. The report makes no mention of a core body temperature or a liver temperature.

Nonetheless, at trial the medical examiner declared to the jury that the time of death was before breakfast—just coincidentally at a time for which the defendant had no alibi.

Sidebar: I wrote recently about the revolver found in the deceased’s hand; it seemed to me as if the cops must have removed it from his hand before they called the medical examiner’s office. Subsequently, the defense attorneys discovered that the cops had, in fact, removed the gun. Now that I’m thinking about time of death, it occurs to me that this might indicate something about the degree of rigor mortis at the time the body was discovered. The finger and hand joints are among the first to grow stiff in rigor mortis (it begins in the head area). If the gun was easily removed from the hand, would that indicate the death was recent? At least within the past two hours? And that rigor mortis had not yet commenced?

Black Widow Alibis

I know, two data points (two trials and two MEs) do not make proof, but I think it’s very strange the way female defendants’ alibis can be disproven by autopsies that don’t really address the physical evidence of time of death.

The medical examiners in these two cases aren’t the only MEs who seem to play fast and loose with time-of-death findings. But in both these cases, female defendants were found guilty, despite their good alibis, in large part because the MEs set the time of death at a time not covered by the alibi. Is it just me? Or does this sound as if the MEs talked to the police before they decided on a time of death?

Texas v Baker—A Mistress Named Bull?

What is it about a pudgy former minister that could attract a beautiful woman like Vanessa Bull? This isn’t a rhetorical question by any measure, but the answer is obvious anyway: most women have incredibly low self-esteem.

CNN’s In Session is covering the January trial of a former Texas minister named Matt Baker in which he faced charges of murdering his wife and trying—inexpertly—to stage it as a suicide. As I understand it, Mrs. Baker—who was herself very pretty, although older than Ms. Bull—had been depressed over the death of one of her children when she learned of her husband’s affair. As a result, allegedly, she became suicidal.

Whether or not Matt Baker really killed her, Mrs. Baker’s response to discovering the affair is what tells me how it can be that a pudgy, middle-aged man can attract two such attractive women is: women generally have very low self-esteem.

The Suicide Note

In this case, what interests me the most, though, is the supposed suicide note. If I were a juror on this case, much would alert me to the lack of reasonable doubt in this case, but the single most telling piece of evidence is that note.

Several aspects of the document stand out: 1) it was written on a computer and printed; 2) it was an apology to her surviving children and husband; and 3) the prosecution’s fingerprint expert’s testimony was excellent—I can’t praise her too much (and I almost never like prosecution witnesses).

1) Who takes the time to print out a suicide note when you’re suicidal and have taken or plan to take an overdose of drugs? No one. It’s too impersonal. You want your final words to be in your voice, and your handwriting is a personal expression, while a print-out is not.

2) I have a theory that anger is the essence of depression, and suicide is the ultimate angry act. I’m not saying that the people a suicide leaves behind are guilty of something that incites the anger—not at all. But I do think that depression comes from an inability to express anger, and it turns inward. So, I can’t believe most suicidal people write apologetic notes.

Sidebar: A simple Google search on “studies of suicide notes” turns up an interesting list of academic work on the content of suicide notes. I recommend you try it. I knew that suicide notes are relatively uncommon, but I was surprised to find 750,000 results in the listing. I suppose I should have expected there to be a huge number of studies of suicide notes, as a former English teacher. Everything that’s ever been written has been analyzed, dissected, interpreted endlessly by all us English majors. Really, there’s nothing left for literary critics to write about.

3) The prosecution’s fingerprint expert used exactly the right rhetoric, in my opinion. She was clear, thorough, and genuine (as opposed to artificial, as are most investigative witnesses). The prosecutor attempted to get her to cite bogus statistics as a way of proving the defendant could have handled the note even though his fingerprints weren’t found on the note.

Specifically, the expert said she could eliminate several reference prints from having contributed to a smudge on the paper. Apparently she had 19 reference prints to work with, including the defendant’s and the police officers’ who responded to the 911 call. All but one of these could be eliminated as having made the smudge because of a single distinctive feature of the smudge. Clearly, the defendant’s sample could not be eliminated, but the expert refused to say—as the prosecutor tried to lead her to do—that the defendant could have been the person who made the smudge. The expert said she only had 19 samples. She had no way of knowing who made the smudge. Essentially what this expert did was refuse to use that ghastly phrase, “The defendant’s prints could not be excluded.” Bless her!

Computer Forensics

The fact that the note was printed from a computer clearly suggests that computer forensics might have been used effectively to prove or disprove the deceased woman wrote the note. Apparently, though, the investigators accidentally turned on a laptop before the data was collected from the hard drive.

More investigative idiocy: the investigator didn’t realize you can start up a laptop just by opening up its screen. And the prosecutor—not unexpectedly—couldn’t understand what’s wrong with this, namely, that every time you start up a computer you write new information to the hard drive and can overwrite old data that might be relevant.

Let’s face it: all lawyers, not only prosecutors, need to go back to school and learn something about math, statistics, technology, and the scientific method.

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Another gut-wrenching jury experience

The Worcester, MA, Telegram has an interesting column today by Dianne Williamson, titled “Juror carries a burden for all of us.” Ms. Williamson writes about a juror’s experience in a 1995 trial, which haunts him to this day—and I have no doubt it will haunt him forever.

I’m still haunted by a far-less traumatic trial in which I was a juror in 2007. In fact, the experience redirected my writing toward the justice system. Since I write for several hours every day, that means my thoughts are often on my courtroom experience.

What strikes me most about the Worcester juror’s experience is how similar it was to mine. The stress came primarily from the trauma of reliving a violent crime and then from the judge’s cavalier dismissal of the jury’s decision. In the Worcester case, the crime was a homicide that resulted from a parking-lot brawl. The jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder, but the judge later overturned the verdict, reduced the charge to second-degree murder, and assigned a penalty of 15 years in prison so that the convict would be eligible for parole in 15 years. He has now been released and rearrested on parole violations.

In my Cook County experience, the crime charged was kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault. The jury found the defendant not guilty of kidnapping and guilty of aggravated sexual assault. The judge told us after the trial that we had erred in the not guilty verdict. She had wanted us to find the defendant guilty so she could sentence him to 30 rather than 15 years—yes, I, too, thought justice was supposed to be blind. In addition, she told us it didn’t matter anyway, because the defendant had skipped bail and was on the loose. He would never go to prison at all.

How could this have happened? Well, it turned out the defendant was free on bail, despite the violence of his charges. After his public defender admitted to his guilt of the sexual assault charges during his opening statement, the defendant had fled. The rest of the trial was conducted without him. We the jury stupidly believed the judge when she said he had “chosen not to be present in the court.”

In the Worcester case, it seems to me, the problem could have been avoided had the judge refused to allow the prosecutor to over-charge the defendant in the first place. In the Cook County case, the problem could perhaps have been avoided if the judge hadn’t colluded with the prosecutor to over-charge the defendant, too.

Unfortunately, I think the justice system manages to avoid juries all together when it’s working fairly (or maybe I should say is barely working). The only cases that end in jury trials are either ones in which the asystem wants to jail a defendant and throw away the key or ones in which the defendant feels—rightly or wrongly—he is being unfairly treated.

Evidence: CNN’s In Session is currently covering the January trial of a former minister, Matt Baker, for staging his wife’s suicide by drug overdose. Baker obviously either felt he was innocent, was too clever to be convicted, and/or didn’t deserve to be punished (a rather self-righteous personality).

Sidebar: I’ve admitted to a tendency to find conspiracies in everyday events, but only because I write fiction, not because I’m crazy. However, does anyone else think it’s odd that since In Session evolved from live courtroom testimony to edited broadcasts of past trials you can’t run a Google search and turn up articles on the verdicts in these cases? It’s almost as if local media have removed all verdict stories from the web. It’s certainly clear that CNN has removed all verdict stories from its site until In Session reveals the verdict. And, frankly, it even looks to me as if Google is cleaning its archives of these stories. Now, the last time I explained in this blog that Google removed archives occasionally at user request, my blog also vanished from Google listings all together. It was very difficult to restore my ranking. I take it back: I must be crazy to be writing this.

Life Sometimes Mimics Fiction—New Evidence of Innocence in a So-Called “Black Widow” Murder Case

I’ve written quite a bit in this blog about the two murder trials of Raynella Dossett-Leath, whom Knoxville, TN, media dubbed the “Black Widow.” This woman’s story is nothing short of a Greek tragedy—whether or not she’s guilty. (But I’m increasingly convinced she’s innocent.)

After Ms. Dossett-Leath was convicted of murdering her second husband by staging his suicide, I heard from Dossett family friends, who were interested in what I had written about the case. We corresponded briefly. Yesterday I learned that something I wrote led them to contact the defense team who investigated further and now have uncovered new evidence in the case. Attorney James Bell has petitioned Judge Baumgartner to order a retrial or overturn the verdict based on this new evidence.

For me, a mystery writer, who lives in a fantasy world, this is a very strange situation. I still can’t quite comprehend it. Instead of writing a whodunit plot that ends with a clever twist, in this case I wrote about a real human tragedy, and now it seems that what I wrote may help exonerate an innocent woman.

A Blog Post on Colt .38 Cartridges and Casings

The issue that caught my attention a few weeks ago was the empty shell casings found in a Colt revolver beside David Leath’s body. According to the prosecution and investigators, three empty casings were found in the cylinder. Because of the casings’ positions, the second of three bullets fired was deemed to be the fatal bullet. If that was true, then the shooting was homicide, not suicide.

The prosecution claimed Ms. Dossett-Leath staged the entire scene to look like suicide. They said she fired the three bullets, the second of which struck her husband in the forehead (yes, it’s a rather bizarre staging), and then placed the gun in or near her husband’s left hand. As Mr. Bell told reporter Balloch, “It was in fact law enforcement setting the stage.”

What puzzled me was how crime-scene investigators could know there were three empty casings in the cylinder when the gun was still in the dead man’s hand. Now defense attorney, James Bell, has uncovered evidence about the original police investigation that proves my theory: they only knew because they took the gun out of his hand, ejected the casings, and then replaced them and put the gun back in the deceased’s hand.

According to Knoxville reporter Jim Balloch, Mr. Bell learned that one of the patrolmen who first responded to Ms. Dossett-Leath’s 911 call was seen holding the gun in his hand before detectives and the CSI unit arrived. Unbelievable! What would possess a cop to touch a weapon that was covered in blood? That also explains why they couldn’t recover usable fingerprints from the gun.

Dumb or Unlucky?

I wrote last year that I thought it was possible Ms. Dossett-Leath was either the dumbest “Black Widow” murderer ever or one of the unluckiest women on the planet. Now it looks to me as if the dumbest person involved was a patrol cop and Ms. Dossett-Leath is, indeed, one of the unluckiest women on Earth: she will go on trial early next year for murdering her first husband by drugging him and then throwing him out of his wheelchair in the path of a cattle stampede. (Here, too, we have to ask how dumb she is. The poor man was dying of cancer. If she killed him, it must have been because she was not only dumb but impatient.)

I’m very happy for the Dossett family. I hope Ms. Dossett-Leath will soon be released from prison. And I also hope the Leath family will reconsider their conviction that their loved one could not have committed suicide.

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Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls

It tolls for thee.

Last week an ordinary circuit court judge in Texas heard the bell toll and did something simple and good for us all. He refused to permit a prosecutor to try a defendant for capital murder. He said the obvious: Capital punishment denies a defendant the right of due process under the law.

Houston Judge Kevin Fine accepted a pro-forma pretrial defense motion in a murder case, which argued that the death penalty violated the Constitution. Texas Governor Rick Perry claimed Judge Fine was simply legislating from the bench, and now everyone is saying the judge’s ruling will be overturned on appeal.

In my opinion, and I am not a lawyer—just a mere citizen of the U. S.—it was neither legislation from the bench nor is it a slam-dunk to be overturned.

The Constitution makes the judiciary independent of both the executive and the legislative branches of government, in the states as well as the federal government. If a judge finds that any legislation violates fundamental principles of state or federal constitutions, then he is required to throw it out.

Judges constantly find fault with laws and make law through their decisions. Politicians seem to think they alone are entitled to make law; they never want anyone—including the people—to make law (witness the way Illinois politicians blocked the constitutionally mandated opportunity for a constitutional convention in this state or the way they complain about California’s “initiatives”).

If the Texas appeals courts understand the wisdom of Judge Fine’s decision, they will uphold it. After all, last year in Texas an executed convict was exonerated for all intents and purposes. Why should the courts enable future wrongful executions like that? The citizens and taxpayers of Texas ought to be worried about how horribly this distorts their justice system (and, besides, it’s time they took a look at the exorbitant cost of trying capital cases).

Let This Be the Last Toll

Like most obvious truths, apparently no one saw it until one person had an insight. I certainly didn’t. I was fixated on the issue of “cruel and unusual punishment,” a concept I believe is misunderstood by speakers of Modern Standard American English.

Obviously, as Judge Fine said, an irreversible punishment denies an innocent defendant of due process under the law. And every defendant is presumed innocent until convicted. But even if the presumption of innocence ceases when a person is wrongfully convicted, due process rights are not discontinued. Every convict is entitled to appeal, to beg for mercy, to be pardoned, or to have his punishment commuted.

From a juror’s perspective, capital punishment is grotesque. No one should be asked to decide whether someone else—who has done nothing to her—should live or die.

Worse yet, the law in this country requires a jury to decide the sentence in a capital punishment case, and those juries must first be “death qualified.” In other words, before the trial even begins, the jury has to swear to support the idea of capital punishment, which is a sure and certain sign the jury is inclined to convict defendants charged with murder. This is also a violation of a defendant’s right to due process. At most, there should be two separate trials—one for guilt and one for the sentence—with two different juries.

I pray that this decision will be appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court on a fast track and that the Supremes will acknowledge the wisdom of declaring capital punishment unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment right to due process.

The justice system will be infinitely more just without capital punishment. While innocent people may still be convicted and sentenced severely, though wrongfully, at least they will have the opportunity to continue to pursue the due processes of the law from behind bars.

 

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Legal Stupidity—Daylight Savings Time

The purpose of a legislature must be to legalize stupidity. The purpose used to be to write a few clear, simple laws to enable civilization. Then they invented Daylight Savings Time.

Twice a year, Americans force their biorhythms into jetlag by getting up an hour too early or going to sleep an hour too late. If anyone ever bothered to check the statistics, I’m sure they would discover a dramatic increase in all sorts of accidents in the weeks following a shift between “real time” and “Daylight Savings Time.”

Jetlag is a big problem for me—more than most people. No matter how much melatonin I consume when I travel, it always takes me three days to function at even a minimal level in a new time zone. The changing clock is just as bad as travel. I can barely form a sentence right now.

If anyone ever again says to me, “Well, at least we get an extra hour of sleep tomorrow morning,” I’ll have to find out what drugs they’re on, because that’s the only way they could possibly get an extra hour of sleep.

The History

Did you ever wonder where “they” got this goofy idea? I decided to “look it up” this morning in honor of my jetlag. The National Geographic has a fairly decent article on the topic, and something called “WebExhibits” has a much more detailed, but somewhat bizarrely laudatory, article. However, the WebExhibits article rings true to me: while it accuses Ben Franklin of dreaming up the idea, it traces the mandatory law to WW I Germany. (BTW: Wasn’t it Franklin who said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise?” And, if so, why did he care what the clock said when he got up?) The idea that the autocrats in Germany devised this law to force factory workers to spend every waking daylight hour in the munitions factory makes sense.

The Uniform Time Act of 1966

During the Vietnam War Era, the federal government passed the Uniform Time Act. The WebExhibits article traces the law in Europe back to wartime, too. Is this just a coincidence? I doubt it. In time of war, it seems to me, governments get very insistent about everyone toeing the line.

Overtly, though, the driving force behind this 1966 enforced uniformity was so national television broadcasts could be aired from the east coast to the west without too much disruption of the on-camera talents’ day. Now, of course, if you live in the Central Time Zone you have to schedule your TV viewing time around broadcasts that begin at “seven o’clock Eastern Time and five o’clock Pacific.” And if you’re in global business, you still have to get up at two in the morning to make a conference call in Europe.

If uniformity is so valuable to the government, why don’t we just do what they do in China? In China there’s only one time zone, Beijing time.

The Junk Science of Daylight Savings Time

Does anyone really believe that changing the clocks gives anyone more daylight? Someone recently told me her farmer-father benefitted from Daylight Savings Time. I was so stunned I couldn’t think of anything to say. I walked away from her without asking the obvious: “How?” Surely her father doesn’t think his corn crop gets more sun because of it.

In 2005, the Congress extended Daylight Savings Time several weeks, because (“they” said) the extension would help save energy—which we all know is expensive (The Energy Policy Act). Lets analyze this: Depending on where you live on the planet, more or less sunlight strikes you at any given time than strikes other people at other places on the planet. There’s nothing you can do about it except move elsewhere. When it’s dark out and you’re awake, you have to turn on lights. If you have 12 hours of darkness, for instance, and you sleep 8 of those hours, you need to turn on the lights for 4 hours. If you have only 8 hours of darkness, you might not have to turn on the lights at all. Shifting your sleeping and waking hours 1 hour in either direction doesn’t change that fact.

In 2005, I heard a local news commentator say the extension would help school kids who have to stand in the dark in the morning to catch the school bus. Interesting. I could swear the dawn comes earlier beginning in December—earlier and earlier every day—without the help of my alarm clock.

Since the school year in America (late August to late May) was originally designed to permit farm children to help out on the farm during peak growing months, it’s rather ironic that now we’re worried about school children standing in the dark. Besides, Daylight Savings Time runs (now) from October to mid March. Why not extend it from August to May to help out the kids? For that matter, if Daylight Savings Time is so great, why not do away with Standard Time all together?

Well, because the problem with the dawn isn’t an east-to-west problem; it’s a north-to-south problem. I’m not a planetary astronomer, but I have experienced this phenomenon personally, so I know this is true.

I went to grade school in Canada. I walked to school in the dark in the morning, and I walked home in the dark in the afternoon. I went to high school in the southern U.S. I rode the bus in the morning in broad daylight, and I went to sleep at night in broad daylight, too. I’ve traveled as far north as Sweden and Iceland in the summer when the sun never set. No amount of “saved daylight” will ever decrease the number of hours per day the people of the north need to have the lights turned on or increase the number of hours the people of the south have to keep their curtains closed to block out the sun.

“They” standardized on Daylight Savings Time when I was in high school in the south. I remember for months every time I went to a movie they played a “public service announcement” lobbying against it: “Save God’s Own Time.” Even as a teenager, I realized how stupid that was. But I didn’t worry then about the stupidity of Daylight Savings Time itself. I had much more to worry about. Now I wish the adults who were in charge then had worried about it a little more than they did.

I’ve heard rumors that the impetus behind the crackpot 1966 Daylight Savings Time idea was that Congressmen wanted to be able to play more golf before and after legislative sessions during the winter. I’ve also heard rumors that manufacturers of leisure equipment (barbeque grills and golf carts) thought they could increase sales by mandating clock changes. In 2005 I personally heard the Congressman behind the extension say he had calculated how many fewer light bulbs would have to be purchased.

I would say this was corruption or madness if I didn’t know for a fact it’s just stupidity.

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More Bizarre Juries

Here’s yet another reason jury duty has such a bad rep in the U. S. One judge jailed a stay-at-home mom for striving her best to do her duty, even when her two young children were at risk of having no daycare. Essentially, as I understand it, the judge ordered a parent to abandon and neglect her children in order to serve on the jury—which, of course, is a very serious crime: http://detroit.momslikeme.com/members/JournalActions.aspx?g=190183&m=10591415&si=Comments&pi=6#10598150 

For more on this bizarre judicial behavior, please refer to this copyrighted article in The Oakland Press.

Here’s an interesting account of jury duty in England. Apparently there juries are called for a fixed number of days and may end up serving on more than one trial. It also appears that voir dire there doesn’t weed out the bad pennies: http://notoverthehill.com/user/blogs/view/name_Mondayb/id_10065/title_jury-service/