The Grand Jury in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Okay, so we all agree that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a ghost story and a murder mystery (like Chalk Ghost by yours truly), but did you know it’s also a courtroom drama?

To remind you: In the play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, kills Polonius (stabs him behind an arras), who is his girlfriend Ophelia’s father. Eventually (Act IV, scene v—in Roman numerals that no one can read anymore that means Act Four, scene 5) Ophelia’s brother Laertes storms into the castle and tries to “arrest” King Claudius, whom he mistakenly believes to be the man who murdered his father.

Recently, when rereading Hamlet for the umpteenth time, I noticed for the first time that Claudius employs a grand jury to exonerate him of the charge of killing Polonius. Toward the end of the aforesaid scene, King Claudius says to Laertes, speaking Early Modern English:

“Go but apart; make your choice of whom your wisest friends you will, and they shall hear and judge ‘twixt you and me. If by direct or collateral hand they find us [that is, the king who’s always plural] touched, we will our kingdom give, our crown, our life, and all that we call ours, to you in satisfaction; but if not, be you content to lend your patience to us, and we shall jointly labor with your soul to give it due content.”

In Modern American English this means:

Go outside and choose a jury of your friends. I will present my case for innocence to them. If the jury finds me guilty of direct murder or even of instigating your father’s murder, I will turn over the keys to the kingdom to you in payment of my debt to you. But if they don’t find me guilty you must agree to go along with my plans to punish the guilty party (that is, Hamlet).

King Claudius and Laertes leave the stage. They return in the next scene, after the grand jury has met and failed to produce an indictment of Claudius. Claudius says:

“Now must your conscience my acquittance seal. . . .”

Claudius claims he’s innocent of Polonius’ murder—and he’s right about that, although it’s the only murder in the play that he is innocent of.

Justice in Hamlet and the Bible

Reading Hamlet for the first time as a mystery writer, I’m struck by the number of legal references in the play. I won’t list them now (maybe later), but the idea of justice that Claudius relies on does strike me as particularly relevant to many of the trials that America has obsessed over recently (think Casey Anthony).

For Claudius and everyone in Shakespeare’s time, justice isn’t sought through trials on behalf of society: justice is sought on behalf of the injured party, rather as our civil court system does. Even murder in Hamlet is a crime against the victim’s family, not all of Denmark. In fact, the only murder in Hamlet that is a crime against society is Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet, a murder he committed in order to usurp the throne.

The Bible (especially the Old Testament) also treats most crimes as crimes against individuals, not society: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The Ten Commandments are mostly prohibitions against injuring others—coveting a man’s wife or ass, for instance. Even in ancient Greece, a murderer was brought to trial not by society but by the victim’s family.

This makes a great deal of sense to me: the people most concerned by a murder are the victim’s family. I’m not saying I think we should do away with anti-murder laws. Clearly modern society must have a way to remove from its midst those individuals who are anti-social, or else they will continue to harm more innocents. But in Shakespeare’s day, the notion of sociopathy and psychopathy were non-existent. Madness, it was believed, could be either divine or infernal, and in both cases God, not the court system, was expected to deal with the problem. You could be executed for just about any crime, too, whether killing a rabbit on the lord of the manor’s manor-grounds or for killing your baby.

The key thing is that society as a whole didn’t become rabid about a single murder. Society went wild only when the murder affected all of society—such as the murder of the king, the equivalent of a political assassination today. An assassin takes in his own hands what ought to be the choice of the whole nation. A mother who may or may not have killed her child—whether accidentally, negligently, or intentionally—ought not to be the business of the whole nation. Yes, arrest her, try her, and punish her like Claudius suggests, but “if they don’t find her guilty, society must her acquittance seal.”

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Litigatophobia—My neologism for fear of lawyers

According to my Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary, “litigo” is Latin for “to quarrel, dispute, brawl.” Of course, the most disputatious, quarrelsome brawlers in America are lawyers; therefore, IMHO, the fear of lawyers ought to be called “litigatophobia.” I suppose, you might quarrel with me and say the term ought to be “litigatorphobia,” but that might too easily be mistaken for alligator-phobia, and I really think the similarity of lawyers to alligators is much less than to many other non-human creatures I can think of. (Most are reptiles, but not all.)

My Advice: Fear Lawyers

My novel The Juror Hangs is a cautionary tale about jury duty. It is also—I now realize—the world’s first courtroom drama in which the really bad guys are the lawyers.

In one of my favorite cable shows, Ghost Hunters, the “investigators” claim that evil, angry spirits feed off both EMT (electro-magnetic transmissions) and human pain and suffering. I wonder if lawyers feed off EMT, too, because clearly they make their living from human pain and suffering.

Have you ever read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House? It’s a novel about how lawyers quarrel over a will until it’s entirely eaten up by their fees. Until I became involved in probate court myself, it seemed like a sort of cynical joke. No, it’s not a joke.

So, while I have dedicated this blog to warning prospective jurors about the perils of jury duty—and simultaneously defending the jury system against the lawyers who run the courtroom—I’m now adding a theme: beware the perils of probate court.

My Advice: Never Agree to be an Executor

Why should you never agree to be the executor of a will (or “personal rep,” in some states)?

  • Unless the size of the estate is small, you will be required to work through a lawyer, even when it’s only a matter of posting a bond because the deceased did not die in the state where you reside. The lawyers’ fees for this minimal assistance will be substantial and may have to come out of your own pocket.
  • The lawyer will require you to sign a contract stating that you are personally, financially responsible for any of the firm’s fees and expenses that exceed the value of the estate.
  • No matter the value of the estate, anybody in the world can contest the will for any reason they can think of; when that happens you have to work with the probate court through a lawyer.
  • If a will is contested, it’s likely to be contested by someone you know well or a family member; this instantly destroys your relationship (if any) with that person; the heir or heirs will blame you as much or more than the “quarreler.” In other words, there will never again be any peace in the family, and some of your loved ones will disown you.

So, if granny tells you one day that she has written a new will and named you as the executor:

  1. Ask her to let you read the will, perhaps in the presence of her lawyer, and see who is named as the alternate executor. If it is a responsible person, then find out if it is too late for her to change the name of the executor to that person, so you don’t have to resign in his favor when the time comes.
  2. If granny has named a cad as the alternate executor, then you need to be prepared for what you’re going to do when granny dies. Find out roughly what the estate is worth and likely to be worth when she dies. Learn about estate tax laws. Read up on probate in her state of residence. Determine what your liabilities will be if you become the executor of her will when she dies.
  3. Consider what you would do if you had to resign as executor after her death, and decide whether you might be wise to plan to contest the will so the cad can’t run slipshod over the rest of the family.

Probate court is nothing but an excuse for lawyers to line their pockets for doing nothing. I hear from certain reputable investment firms that revocable trusts can avoid probate altogether. That’s what I’m looking into these days—that is if I survive the stress of handling a will as executor in which I am not even an heir.

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Anthony Family—Complexer and Complexer

Yesterday’s testimony of Lee Anthony in the murder trial of his sister explained a great deal to me about the family’s interpersonal relationships—or, rather, I should say more precisely, inspired my writer-me to add a dimension or two to my Casey-Anthony-look-alike character.

Having toyed with my character’s family overnight, I have now decided that she should have an older brother who also lives in their parents’ home after graduating from high school and who lives in the home when my character becomes pregnant.

In my novel’s plot line, the brother would be the first in the household to notice she was pregnant—sometime in her late-sixth month. It took him this long to notice, because he spent little time with his family. He has serious conflicts with his parents. They often criticize him for “not getting a life,” while at the same time demanding that he contribute to the household budget and act as “the man of the house” when his father abandons them for other women—as he does from time to time.

I don’t mean that in my novel the mother literally says any of these things to her son. Instead she implies these obligations. Mothers have ways of saying things without ever saying them—saying multiple, contradictory things.

All his life, my character’s brother has felt responsible for his little sister. He feels this way to this day. When he realized she was pregnant he “confronted” his mother with the fact. Her response was not only dismissive, she told him in no uncertain terms to butt out. For almost three months, as his sister’s belly grew and grew, his parents gave him the cold shoulder, refused to discuss the impending “big event” and treated him as a non-person. He came and went. He spent as little time in the house as he could—and that little time was primarily at night in his bedroom.

A few days before my character gives birth, her brother raises the issue one last time. His mother completely shuts him out. He understands that he isn’t even welcome in the hospital after his niece is born.

No one else in the family comments. The mother-son relationship is too well known.

But, you say, isn’t this unrealistic? Incomprehensible? Improbable?

No, I reply. It is the well-known psychological phenomenon of “parentizing” of children. In an unhealthy household, parents and children are often co-dependent. The parents demand, in effect, that one or more of their children take care of them instead of the other way around. The children, though, are entirely dependent upon their parents and cannot act in loco parentis (a legal term that means “in place of parents”). As a result, the victimized children lose all self-esteem; they know they are incompetent to do what their parents want them to do. They learn to feel more and more responsible for their parents and siblings.

Because my character’s parents have always been “over-the-top,” immature people, they really never wanted to have children. They had children only to fulfill society’s expectations of them. They would have preferred to remain footloose and fancy free forever. When their first child was a boy, naturally they said they were “thrilled.” When their second child was a girl, naturally they said they were “thrilled.” But the first thing they did after the birth of my character was to make it clear to the boy that as the older brother it was his job to “watch out for his little sister.”

And that’s what he tried to do all his life.

So, when he discovered that my character was pregnant “out of wedlock,” he knew his parents would blame him for not taking adequate care of her. Furthermore, he actually felt that he had let her down in some big way.

My character, though, is secretly glad that her pregnancy has caused her mother to get angry at her older brother. She always thought that her mother preferred him to her—she thought that was why her mother never gave her any love, that is, that her mother expended all her love elsewhere.

I’m still working on the complexities of this fictional family’s relationships. I think I will probably develop a backstory in which brother and sister are extremely close in childhood, best friends, in fact. At some point they “play doctor” or my character’s brother says, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” My character will participate in these normal games, but subconsciously something will fester in her like an infection. She will feel deeply guilty about these games and the feelings they engender in her. I’m not sure why yet: either it will be because of her mother’s rather prudish attitude toward sexuality or her open resentment of her husband’s extramarital affairs, or it will be because of her father’s sexual abuse of her—or maybe all of the above.

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Who was Caylee last seen with?

Note to blog subscribers: I inadvertently published the wrong draft of this post. I apologize for erroneous information included in that draft. It should never have been published. I have absolutely no knowledge about the Casey Anthony murder trial, other than what I have read or heard in the press.

Yesterday after the prosecution in the Casey Anthony trial rested its case, Judge Belvin Perry denied the pro-forma defense motion for a directed acquittal for several reasons, all but one of which made perfect sense. As I understand it (and I am not a lawyer, thankfully), Judge Perry reiterated several fundamental principles of U. S. law:

  • The jury, not the court, is the finder of fact.
  • When considering a motion for acquittal, a trial judge must always view the people’s case in the most favorable light.
  • The prosecution had demonstrated that the defendant had motive, means, and opportunity to commit the crime.

Sidebar: Judge Perry also explained that under Florida law multiple acts of life-threatening child abuse is a first-degree murder crime.

Of everything he said, only one concept strikes me as completely illogical, even though I’m sure he’s right about it being the law, namely, that the last person with whom a murder victim is seen is “whodunit.”

It seems to me this is chop logic, a tautology. The last person with whom a two-and-a-half-year-old child is usually seen is her mother. It’s only suspicious when it’s someone other than a parent.

In this case, the last person who saw the victim with her mother is the grandfather—which makes George Anthony the defendant’s primary accuser. It wasn’t as if Caylee was last seen with Casey by a crowd of strangers with no stake in the issue.

Judge Perry cited several child-murder cases in which the principal evidence against the defendant was the fact of having been the last person seen with the victim. If I’m not mistaken, though, none of the defendants were the children’s parents. I’m sure that in at least one case the defendant was an estranged boyfriend of the mother.

Sidebar: The motive in one boyfriend case was, apparently, to seek revenge on the child’s mother for dumping him. Oddly, Judge Perry said that the prosecution had demonstrated that Casey’s motive was “her relationship with her mother,” meaning Cindy Anthony. I suppose he meant that Casey was jealous of Cindy’s domineering affection for Caylee, but try as I might I can’t see how a daughter who loved her mother so much that she would be jealous of her mother’s love for her own daughter would to want to kill the daughter, whom she also loved. Was Casey hoping to regain her mother’s affection by doing away with her chief rival? It seems to me that—in fact—there is literally no love lost between Cindy and Casey. If Casey wanted to kill anybody it would more likely be her mother. (And, by the way, don’t we all know a few mothers and daughters who don’t get along?)

One case the judge cited was from Massachusetts, I believe. He noted that it was not the law of Florida but was nonetheless illuminating or illustrative or some such word. He read the circumstances to the court:

A boy was found injured in the basement of an apartment building, naked and moaning. The boy was hospitalized and eventually released to the custody of someone in the building (a parent? I’m not sure. Why the cops did not arrest someone when the boy was first found—obviously the victim of abuse or neglect—is a complete mystery to me.) Anyway, eventually the boy was murdered and the last person he was seen alive with was convicted of his murder, based solely on the fact that he was the last person the boy was seen alive with.

This is a real puzzle. There is absolutely no similarity between the Massachusetts case and the Anthony case—unless the judge was saying that in his mind George Anthony’s highly questionable testimony about seeing Caylee last with Casey was sufficient evidence to convict Casey. The most critical difference is that there was a history of abuse in the Massachusetts case, but there was also a difference in that the victim was found murdered in the apartment building where he lived.

Of course, Caylee was last seen with her mother. Every witness including George and Cindy Anthony said that Casey was never seen without Caylee until she disappeared. And Casey admits that she was present when Casey died.

It’s issues like this that make me wonder what lawyers learn in law school. It sure isn’t logic.

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The Anthony Family—Complex Characters

The family of accused murderer Casey Anthony is portrayed in the press as if they were a normal, loving family with the misfortune to have produced a monster daughter.  But if I were writing a murder mystery about a family like the Anthonys I would portray them very differently.

Sidebar: I usually write about trials from a juror’s perspective, but what I have to say now is strictly from my perspective as a novelist. While I’m not a psychologist (as some writers are in real life—Elizabeth George, for instance), I like to think I’m perceptive. Everything I plan to say in this blog post is strictly based on my ideas of fictional characterizations. I’m not pretending to be able to read the Anthonys’ minds or to know anything about their lives.

A Portrait of a Casey Anthony Look-alike Before June 16, 2008

If I were creating a fictional character who behaves as Casey Anthony does, I would treat her as a young woman who lived as a virtual prisoner in her parents’ home.

She would be a bright, popular high-school graduate who inexplicably decided not to leave home and go to college, but instead found a job taking photographs of visitors to an amusement park. I say inexplicably decided not to go to college, because all her high-school friends and friends she met after high school left home to attend college. Yet my character continues to sleep in the same bedroom in which she slept as a child.

Within a year of graduation, my character would become pregnant without knowing for sure which of her boyfriends was the father. She would choose not to terminate the pregnancy, not only for religious reasons but because she really, really wanted to have a child—someone to give her the love she had never received from her parents.

She is eager to have her condition known—hoping at last her parents will treat her like an adult—and simultaneously fearful of their reaction. She especially fears her mother will be shocked that she can’t even name the father and will call her a slut.

My character is a naturally slim girl, but oddly she doesn’t begin to show for over seven months—or at least she’s able to hide her condition in loose-fitting clothes until then. This despite living in a house with a nurse, her mother.  Even after her bulging belly is obvious, her mother and father both seem oblivious to the situation.

Not until the family attends an in-law’s wedding does the truth begin to come out. An uncle notices that she’s pregnant. He confronts my character’s father, who argues heatedly against the idea that his daughter is pregnant. Oddly, for several weeks after that he doesn’t even inquire of her who the father is.

My character loses her job at the amusement park at some point during her pregnancy, but doesn’t tell her parents. She’s too ashamed. Again, though, they are oddly oblivious of what is going on in their daughter’s life and fail to notice that she no longer has a pay check or that their own checking accounts begin to diminish mysteriously. Checks are cashed in her mother’s name, but—apparently—the mother never bothers to balance her checkbook and so never notices.

When my character finally begins to see an obstetrician for prenatal care, her mother always goes with her. When an ultra-sound is scheduled to determine the child’s sex, both parents go into the examination room with her, and her father—while a bit disappointed it isn’t a boy—is nonetheless thrilled soon to be a grandfather, or so he later claims. Of course, he still doesn’t know who the child’s other grandfather will be, but that’s irrelevant to the family, for some mysterious reason.

My character finally gives birth—but even in the delivery room she isn’t permitted to do the work on her own. Both her mother and her father are there with her. That means she has to endure childbirth while carefully watching her tongue. She can’t shout curses at the man who did this to her—perhaps because she might blurt out that she blames her father.

When the beautiful baby girl is born she is named Caylee, a combination of my character’s name (Casey) and her brother’s name (Lee). In other words, the grandparents name the child, not my character—and they name her the same thing they named their own two children. It’s creepy. It’s almost as if they believe Caylee IS one of their children.

The grandparents dote on Caylee. They buy her everything she could desire—a playhouse, for instance. When they are at home—which isn’t often—they spend all their time with the child. The mother even sleeps with her.

My character becomes dejected. Her hopes have been dashed. Her parents didn’t suddenly treat her like an adult when she became a mother. Instead they called her a “bad mother” and took complete charge of the child’s life.

All my character can think about now is how to escape from her parent’s house with her child. She desperately desires a life of her own.

Taking care of an infant is time-consuming, and she enjoys every minute of it. She breast-feeds the child—one of the few things her mother can’t do for her.

At some point my character decides to find a job outside the home. Her parents later imply that she did so only because they told her she needed a job to support her child. In reality she wants a job more than they want her to have one—a job that will be her ticket to a real life.

So she tries to get the amusement-park job back, but she fails. After that she’s at something of a loss. She doesn’t have any real people skills to speak of or many practical skills either. Her whole life, the only way she had related to people outside her family was to be a chameleon: she took on the personality of the person she was with at any given time. The problem is that it’s impossible to do that when the person you’re with is a stranger, such as a prospective employer.

Let’s just say she doesn’t interview for jobs well. Prospective employers sense that she’s lying about her qualifications.

When my character fails to find a job, her parents don’t notice—or at least they turn a blind eye for months and months.

Eventually my character gives up looking for a job and instead makes up an elaborate fantasy life in which she’s an event planner for an amusement park and part-time salesperson at Sports Authority. She leaves home every day for “work” and takes her child to an imaginary nanny—to fool her parents. She hopes that this fictitious life will magically transform her in their eyes. Now, she thinks, they’ll have to respect me.

Her family is suspicious, though. They don’t think my character is really a capable person. They don’t trust her—for reasons we can only guess at. Why should parents be suspicious of the behavior of a child the outside world has always seen as bright, popular, and attractive? It isn’t as if my character had a troubled adolescence, was using drugs and alcohol, or got into trouble with the law. In fact, she always went out of her way to be well-liked by teachers and peers alike.

From the beginning, the parents question my character about how she could have found a nanny whose services she can afford. They even spy on her at the sports-equipment store and learn that she does not work there and never has. Afterwards, though, they don’t confront her with the fact.

Finally, in the spring of 2008 my character decides to make a break with her family. She begins spending the night with friends, helping them with their housework, and even contributing to their work-related projects. She and her daughter effectively move out of the parent’s home, visiting only occasionally, for instance, to let the child play in the swimming pool.

My character’s mother can’t abid
e this. She can’t stand it that her daughter has custodial rights over the child. She threatens to take her to court to take the child away, if she doesn’t bring the child home. Later, at the trial, her friends will testify that her mother often called her on her cell phone; my character always took the calls outside their hearing, but afterwards she told them that she was arguing with her mother.

Despite what the mother and father may think, my character has no intention of going home or of abandoning her child to her mother. Why? Because in May 2008 she believes she has found a man capable of taking care of the both of them. She’s thinking about getting married.

Then the unimaginable happens. The child dies.

I haven’t decided yet how the child dies—except it isn’t first-degree, premeditated, intentional murder. That is the absolutely last thing my character would ever do. The child is the only thing that validates her.

Fast Forward—Trial Testimony

My character’s parents both testify for the prosecution in their daughter’s murder trial. Her mother claims she last saw Caylee around June 6th or 7th. Her father claims he last saw Caylee on the morning of June 16, a Monday. At that time Caylee told him she was going to the house of the imaginary nanny.

No one explains to the jury why the mother last saw the child ten days earlier than the father did. No one asks the mother why she didn’t make an effort to see her granddaughter during that period.

At one point, it seems to the jury, the mother or father or someone mentioned a pool party in the back yard on the afternoon or evening of June 15, after which a ladder up to the above-ground pool was accidentally left out. And then there’s the odd circumstance of cadaver dogs alerting to an area in the back yard. The jury is confused.

On the stand, my character’s mother says she spoke to my character late in the afternoon of June 16, the day the defense agrees the child died; she claims my character was taking Caylee to spend the night at the nanny’s and that she would likely spend the night there with her, too. The mother claims that, under the circumstances of her and her husband’s schedules, that made sense to her—even though in past months she had repeatedly argued with my character about the way she’s sleeping around and the way she’s keeping the child away from home.

During the mother’s testimony the prosecution plays 911 recordings in which she tells the 911 operator that she wants my character to be arrested for stealing money from her bank account and for stealing her car. In another recording, she tells the operator that her daughter’s car smells like there was a dead body in it and she can’t find her granddaughter.

My character’s brother testifies that around the time of these 911 calls the mother demanded of my character, “What have you done?”

The father’s testimony is equally bizarre. He didn’t know anything was amiss with his daughter—despite all the forewarnings he’d had. He claims he spent time with Caylee “every day of her life”—when he obviously could not have: he had walked out on his wife and family for a period of time, he worked long and irregular hours as a security guard, and his daughter had often slept away from home and kept her child with her.

It’s obvious that these people disbelieved most of what my character told them, at least since the birth of their granddaughter. Nonetheless, they claim at the trial that they had believed the nanny really existed and that their daughter was paying for her out of wages from two jobs she did not have. In fact, they were so convinced this nanny existed that they spent months searching for her in hopes she would shed light on the fate of their granddaughter.

In testimony, my character’s mother told the jury she had been looking for the nanny from July 2008 until six weeks before her trial testimony in late May 2011. Is this credible?

Giving Away the Ending

If I were writing about a family like the Anthonys, I would trust my readers to figure out that something’s not right with characters like these—all of them, not only my character.

I’m not sure, though, which of my other characters would be the protagonist in this mystery. It would be nice if a prosecutor would catch these people in their lies, rather than blaming everything on my character. It would be even nicer if the detective in charge of the case had solved it before it made its way into court.

I’m not sure, now, that a defense attorney is going to be able to unravel the mystery.

Frankly, though, my feverish mystery-writer mind would never concoct two parents who would take the stand as witnesses for the prosecution in the capital murder trial of their own daughter.

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Oregon v Beagley–2020

I’m a fiction writer. I prefer fiction to reality. The trial currently being scrutinized on CNN’s In Session is so surreal it has inspired me to write a vignette set in a dystopic future when medical care is not only mandatory for everyone at any age but the law establishes the appropriate treatment for various physical conditions. In honor of the Beagley trial, I’m titling the vignette:

“Hindsight Is 2020”

In the year 2020 Natasha Beasley was fifty-two years old, and the proud grandmother of three-year-old Keesha. Because Keesha’s single mom had to work long hours, Natasha provided day care for her. So, when one day little Keesha complained to her about a bad sore throat, she called her own doctor and made an appointment to bring Keesha into his clinic, where a pediatrician could take a look at her.

Dr. Ganesh examined Keesha that very afternoon. When he was finished, he led the grandmother out of the examination room where Keesha still sat on the table. “Ms. Beasely,” the doctor said, “from what I can see there’s nothing to worry about. Keesha has tonsillitis.”

“Oh, that’s a relief,” said Natasha. “I had tonsillitis as a kid, too. It’s pretty common, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is, and I’m glad to tell you that since you had tonsillitis we’ve learned a great deal about it.”

“I know. I had a tonsillectomy. And after that they figured out that tonsils are supposed to get infected. It’s part of the natural process. It helps a child’s immune system develop,” said Natasha.

The doctor laughed. “I’m sure that’s what they thought a few years ago. But we know better now. In fact, the most-recent regulations are that tonsils should be removed at birth. Little Keesha’s overdue.”

Natasha thought about that a moment. “Does that mean I have to put her in the hospital right away and have them take her tonsils out?”

“No, you won’t have to do that. The Department of Child Protective Services has just taken custody of her. They’ll take her to the hospital. When you go back out in the waiting room, the sheriff will cuff you.”

“Why?” She was floored.

“You and your daughter violated the mandatory tonsillectomy regulation of 2019,” said the doctor.

“But Keesha was born in 2017. How could we have violated a regulation that didn’t even exist?”

“Isn’t it obvious? It’s retroactive,” he said. “Unless a regulation is retroactive, it’s worthless. Millions of children born too early would slip through the cracks otherwise.”


Oregon v Beagley—Have It Both Ways

Over the weekend, President Obama spoke at the commencement at Hampton University. In his address, the President stressed the power of education and chastised the media for trivializing information:

And meanwhile, you’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter.  And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations — none of which I know how to work — (laughter) — information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.

While I don’t think that electronic devices are inherently non-informative, I do think that many commercial firms exploit information and pervert its true import. Since the demise of Court TV, unfortunately, CNN’s TruTV (its successor) has turned into a purely exploitative cable channel.

Today its In Session begins “coverage” of another trial that should never have occurred, Oregon v Jeff and Marci Beagley. In Session anchors will undoubtedly raise their voices in outrage and rail against the parents who let their 16-year-old son decide whether or not he wanted to see a doctor in his illness.

For many years, states have required parents to provide adequate medical care for their children. Most cases like the Beagleys’ are handled in family court (where there are no juries) as negligence. A typical situation might be, for example, that a public-health official would have the family summoned before a judge, who would hear testimony of physicians about the child’s condition and chances of recovery with and without medical care. Then the judge would issue an order that the child must be placed in the care of a physician. If the parents refuse to comply, they’re found to be in contempt of court and jailed, and the child is then put in the temporary custody of health-care officials.

By the age of 16, though, a child has reached the “age of reason” (usually the legal age is somewhere between 5 and 11). In some states a 16-year-old is at the age of consent for sexual activity. In some states a child of 14 must consent to his own medical treatment. Sixteen-year-olds are routinely tried as adults.

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law

There’s a very great irony that the Beagley case was tied in Oregon, where the state permits people to commit suicide under the care of a physician.

So, let’s try to puzzle out what “The State” must believe Jeff and Marci Beagley did wrong:

Well, obviously the crime was not calling a doctor when their near-adult son developed a “urinary tract blockage.” I have no idea what that condition was specifically, but it sounds a bit like kidney stones. So, this must mean that if you have a kidney stone and decide to try to pass it without a doctor’s intervention, you are committing a crime in Oregon.

Worse yet, the parents made the mistake of asking their near-adult son if he wanted to see a doctor. They should have left him alone in the bathroom, I guess, to deal with the problem as he wished.

If the parents did not know their son was ill, they would also be innocent, I suppose. And if the parents were not members of a church that holds as a principal tenet that all ailments must be left up to God, their ignorance of his illness would have been simply stupid, not homicidal.

Ad Absurdum

Clearly what the Beagleys ought to have done, given the Death with Dignity Law, was to call a physician, tell him their son was terminally ill, and ask him to sit by the bedside stroking his hand comfortingly and with dignity while he died.

Sidebar to In Session: Please stick with live coverage of real murder trials, or send reporters to cover the Supreme Court, or send reporters to Chicago to cover all the shenanigans going on here.  Enough already of family tragedies.

“Now it’s up to the jury to decide” Michigan v Springer

That’s what CNN’s voice-over announced today in its broadcast of the verdict and sentencing of the Michigan couple charged with child abuse, torture, and murder of their special needs child. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with the criminal justice system: it’s always left to a jury of conscientious citizens to decide what to do when something horrible happens to children. No one in the massive state bureaucracy ever has to clean up the mess. No wonder no one wants to be a juror.

In Session needlessly sensationalized the Springer family tragedy as if it was a case of Cinderella tormented by an evil stepmother and wicked stepsisters. They called it “the Cinderella syndrome.” But by no stretch of this mystery writer’s imagination was any of the characters in this story a Cinderella.

Sadly, the victim was no Cinderella. She wasn’t the golden-haired, perfect daughter of a loving father, whom the stepmother and stepsisters envied. Callista Springer had numerous mental disorders that no one—not even the kindest, wisest psychologist on Earth—could have cured. It should have surprised no one that her parents weren’t capable of treating her well while protecting their other children from her influence and disruption of their lives.

Sidebar: It also came out during sentencing that the so-called evil stepmother was also being abused behind the closed door of the old house that burned down. Oops. Maybe CNN shouldn’t have called Mrs. Springer the evil one; after all, they had the benefit of hindsight, because the verdict and sentence were already decided when they began their broadcast two weeks ago.

Before CNN’s cameras went into that Michigan courtroom, the justice system ought to have made sure this case never went before a jury. The prosecutor was wrong to prosecute this as anything but a case of child abuse and manslaughter. Had the prosecutor not insisted on murder and torture charges, the defendants would likely have pled guilty or at least have waived their right to a jury trial. Surely they would not have asked their surviving daughter to testify in public.

Jury trials are all about the community’s response to a crime. Jurors represent the community. Jury trials, unfortunately, are also all about publicity. Prosecutors and judges (who have to be elected and reelected) need the media to keep their jobs.

In this case, the community and the state’s justice system were as much at fault as the parents. The state’s child welfare agency failed the victim; her extended family failed the victim; the school system failed the victim. The doctors who treated her failed her, too.

It shouldn’t have been “up to the jury.”

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Cinderella’s Classmates and Commercial Exploitation

Witnesses’ faces should be obscured on camera, every time a trial is broadcast on commercial TV. Yesterday CNN’s In Session broadcast a young, former classmate of fire victim Calista Springer.

Enough. Please.

In Session’s current coverage of the trial of two parents for the murder of their child (Michigan v Springer) is all the evidence I need to claim that non-investigative, non-expert witnesses deserve privacy rights. Most such witnesses should not be forced to have their faces broadcast on cable TV.

The seemingly endless coverage of the Springer prosecution’s case has displayed far too-many private citizens’ faces: a grandmother of the victim, stepsisters, cousins, in-laws, grade-school teachers, and more. Since the defense has yet to present its case (or cases), all these witnesses have appeared for the prosecution, but were forced to do so on camera. All—no matter how closely related to the family or how estranged—have presented a very dismal picture of the parenting skills and characters of the defendants. Unfortunately, not all these witnesses have presented good pictures of themselves, either.

Sidebar: Because I respect these peoples’ rights, not only to privacy but to their own opinions, I won’t enumerate the biased opinions that some of these witnesses expressed on the witness stand or in TV interviews. However, I think the CNN commentators ought to point out that in a murder trial witnesses are understood to have biases—understood by the law, that is, although apparently not by TV commentators. When the judge finally instructs the Springer jury, he will undoubtedly tell them to make up their own minds about the truth of what the witnesses said. But it seems to me as if CNN’s anchors have accepted every prosecution witness at face value.

The Springer trial isn’t the only trial in which CNN broadcast children’s faces. Elaine Clermont’s daughter was shown on camera, even though she did not testify in her mother’s trial. In the trial of police officer Ron Killings, CNN broadcast the face of a very young child who was ultimately deemed unfit to testify. In every trial, CNN shows mothers of victims, children of defendants who plead for mercy for their parents—this is entirely unnecessary.

Several times I’ve been seduced into commenting in this blog on witnesses (sisters-in-law, step-daughters, brothers) who appeared to me to be vindictive and/or self-serving during the broadcast of their testimony. After all, a trial is a public event at public expense, and when it’s broadcast on cable it seemed to me that it ought to be fair game for commentary. But I’ve changed my mind: it isn’t. I won’t do this again.

Look at what media coverage has done to Casey Anthony’s family: pickets have surrounded their house; they’ve been accused of incest; they’ve been suspected of complicity in murder. In Florida, the courts have so little respect for privacy, videotapes of Casey meeting with her parents in jail have been broadcast across the country.

Trials must be public if liberty is important to us. America can’t conduct Star Chamber prosecutions. Cameras should be present in all courtrooms, and the public should have a way of monitoring the proceedings while they’re in progress. The technology exists to accomplish this via the Internet. CNN’s occasional live broadcasts are also informative—live, unedited.

But, edited cable broadcasts of completed trials (such as the Springer trial) aren’t a good idea, in my opinion. Grandmothers ought not to be interviewed in order to reminisce about a deceased grandchild and express uninformed opinions about her mental state. Snippets of a teenage sister’s testimony in support of her parents ought not to be used as trailers to a commercial broadcast. School children who testify should never be shown on camera. The faces of grade-school teachers should not be exposed on cable TV. (And the interrogation of a possible witness most certainly ought not to be shown on TV.) Footage of witness testimony ought not to be edited into a dramatic montage.

American law supposedly protects private citizens from public criticism: libel and slander laws prohibit defamatory comments about private citizens. Most of CNN’s In Session commentators are lawyers who know how to characterize bystander witnesses such as those I’ve mentioned without expressly defaming them, but it seems to me exposing them to public scrutiny is an invasion of their privacy, whether or not TV commentators are polite to them.

Furthermore, once a defendant is convicted, then positive commentary on the prosecution’s case and critical commentary on the defense’s case are fair game. Unfortunately, as a consequence, when a cable program such as In Session edits a trial and then presents it after the verdict, the commentators feel free to express highly critical, defamatory opinions of the defense without fear. For example, Calista Springer’s stepsisters have been likened to the stepsisters in Cinderella and were accused of “picking on” her. This is grossly unfair to them.

Many aspects of In Session’s new format are quite good. I like the new, on-staff trial commentators, who are measured in their remarks. The live coverage of breaking news is very good. However, the commercials that air on TruTV are entirely inappropriate: I can take only so many clips of drunks being arrested in any context, but in the context of real life-and-death matters it’s grotesque. And even though In Session repeatedly assures its audience that no testimony is being edited out, in fact it’s clear that the trial coverage is severely edited: the only thing that should be cut out is the faces of private citizens.

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Cinderella, Wicked Stepmothers, and Demonized Caregivers—Michigan v Springer and Springer

Thankfully there’s no license required to have children, or the government would probably prohibit intelligent people from becoming parents. Unfortunately, this also means that very stupid people can have children and almost always do. I’m afraid I think that’s what happened in the case of Calista Springer.

CNN’s In Session trial this week is Michigan v Springer & Springer, a tragic case in which a special-needs child (Calista Springer) died in a house fire while under physical restraints, which prevented her from escaping with the rest of her family. Earlier this year, a jury found the Springers guilty, a verdict that represents (in my non-legal opinion) our society’s misunderstanding of the impossibility of providing adequate care in a home setting for many incapacitated people.

Special Needs Children and Home Schooling in Michigan

The Michigan Department of Education provides services to children with special educational needs within the context of the public schools. But the state also gives almost complete latitude to parents to choose to use the services in the public schools or to choose homeschooling. In the Springer case, the child was supposedly being homeschooled.

I happen to approve of homeschooling in many cases, even though I’m a product of public schools and spent most of my life in academe (as the child of an educator, a student, a teacher). However, the Springers don’t appear to have been qualified to properly care for their special-needs child, let alone educate her.

Sidebar: Much was made of the fact that the child was being homeschooled.  I suspect that most school systems resent all homeschooling families and would like to find an excuse to take them all to court as child abusers. Instead, it seems to me, school systems ought to embrace homeschooling (as highly cost-effective with taxpayer dollars) and provide extensive support services to homeschooling families to prevent future such tragedies.

The idea that the State of Michigan could find no way to deal with this family’s problems other than to wait for a tragedy to happen and then to prosecute the Springers for child abuse and murder is disturbing. Once again, it seems to me, a jury has been thrust in between the voters (who pay the salaries of the prosecutors and the Department of Education) and the failed local government.

What better emblem of the way governments dump their worst problems in the laps of jurors is there than this? The blazing house in which Calista died is across the street from the courthouse.

Evil Caregivers

In every murder trial involving a defendant or a victim with disabilities, the issue of care-giving always arises.

The parents of serial killers, for instance, are always tried in public opinion. When such a loving parent takes the stand to explain the defendant’s mental problems and ask for mercy, she’s often vilified in the media. The In Session commentators always find such witnesses’ attitude toward the defendant inexplicable.

With their eyes on reelection, lawmakers rush to the cameras to push for another special, new law, like “Calista’s Law,” in this case against restraint of children, even ones who are a danger to themselves and others. This seems to be the typical legislative response to deaths of children and other vulnerable people in their families’ care: to criminalize caregivers and to penalize families for situations beyond their control.

Sidebar: It sounds to me as if the Springers weren’t qualified to care for Calista. They did mistreat her, apparently, although I’m not sure it was intentional. In the televised trial, a fire marshal claimed that if the bedroom door had been shut when the fire occurred, the child might have survived. (But how many parents know it’s safer in a house fire to have all bedroom doors closed? Surely leaving a door open isn’t child abuse.) Much is also being made of the way they provided her with no blankets even when she was chained to her bed. And, it appears as if they might not have given her access to a toilet at night. However, it doesn’t really seem that the restraints were unjustified. She shared a bedroom with other children who needed to be protected from her. If they had locked the bedroom door to keep her from wandering off at night, they would have endangered all the children in the room. What were their options?

In other cases, legislatures and the courts have made it impossible for adult children to take custody of their elderly parents; for families to commit adults to mental institutions although they’re dangerous or incompetent and then have also required hospitals to release such people once medication has controlled their behavior; have made it impossible to force mentally troubled people to take medication, even when it’s intended to prevent suicidal or homicidal behavior; have forced school systems to accommodate special-needs children in the general student population, even when their behavioral problems present risks to other students.

Consider the case of the Ohio highway shooter, Charles A. McCoy, Jr.  He was paranoid schizophrenic in  his family’s care  (on medication after having been repeatedly hospitalized) when he murdered 24 people at random by shooting them through their car windows. Had they permitted his family to have him committed to a state mental hospital rather than requiring them to take care of him, he would likely not have become a serial killer.

Remember when Britney Spears was self-destructing? Even her parents had to jump through legal hoops to help her.

Families at Risk

More and more families are faced with the need to care for mentally challenged people—with little social support for their efforts. A child like Calista Springer is called a “Cinderella in the care of a wicked stepmother,” because other children in the household survived the fire. Her parents are murderers as far as the State of Michigan is concerned.

I suspect, though, from simply observing the defendants in the trial, that the parents are themselves mentally challenged. I doubt we’ll see them take the stand, because their attorneys will advise them not to, so we’ll probably never know whether their behavior was intentionally abusive or just colossally stupid. (Frankly, I think stupidity is the root of most evil.)

The Springers aren’t the only caregivers the law and the media misunderstand. Adult children who seek guardianship of elderly, incompetent parents are assumed by the law to be greedy and exploitative, eager to take their inheritance before their parent dies. Custody battles between divorced parents often end in a child’s forced visitation with a physically abusive parent (fathers almost always have access to their children even when they abused the mother in the children’s presence). The list of untenable court and government-imposed custodial-care situations is endless.

Longevity due to improved health-care and healthier lifestyles increases the percen
tage of elderly with severe mental disabilities (longevity also leads inevitably to elderly with physical disabilities, too). Increased live-birth rates also increase the percentage of children with severe mental and physical disabilities who must be raised by untrained parents. Post-traumatic stress syndrome (not only from warfare but also from domestic violence) is recognized more often now, but no one seems to know how to accommodate its victims, other than to urge their families (if they have one) to “seek professional advice” at their own expense.

I’m no advocate of letting disabled people fall through the cracks or hoping they’ll die quickly. And as a civil libertarian, I fear the power of the state to institutionalize people it finds undesirable. But surely we could provide families with training and advice on how to care for special-needs children and adults.

How does it help for a Michigan legislator to try to tell a family raising a severely troubled child what it can and cannot do to protect the child and themselves? (Instead, they ought to provide families with proper, safe, restraints and in-home training.) How does prosecution for murder help the surviving Springer children when it deprives them of their parents?

Why didn’t the Michigan school system provide education and advice to the Springers when it must have been widely known that the Springers were home-schooling this child?

Even mental-health professionals are challenged when confronted with individuals with problems as severe as Calista Springers’. Science has found no cure. All the high-IQs, Ph.D.s, and M.D.s in the world had no advice to give the Springers, who may not have been intentionally cruel but only very stupid.

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