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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Farmer's Revenge

     On July 3, 2012, police in Newport, Vermont, a town of 5,000 ten miles from the Canadian border, arrested Roger Pion for possession of marijuana. The Orleans County prosecutor also charged the 34-year-old farmer with resisting arrest. The next day, Pion posted his $15,000 bail and walked out of jail.

     A month later, on August 2, 1012, Roger Pion drove his parent's 15-ton farm tractor into town. He pulled the massive machine onto the Orleans County Sheriff's Office parking lot, and in monster truck derby fashion, drove over and crushed seven of the county's police cruisers. Deputies sitting at their desks yards away, due to the noise from their office air conditioning units, didn't hear Mr. Pion flattening more than half of the department's patrol car fleet.

     Stunned bystanders looked on as Pion, after driving his tractor on top of the row of police cars, headed out of town. Since farm tractors do not make good get-away-vehicles, an officer with the Newport Police Department, two miles out of town, pulled the car-crusher over. After a scuffle, the city officer took Pion into custody.

     When the monster tractor rolled off the pancaked police cars, it left behind $250,000 in property damage. The Orleans County prosecutor charged Mr. Pion with seven felony counts of unlawful mischief, one count of leaving the scene of an accident (this was no accident), and aggravated assault of a police officer. A magistrate set Pion's bond at $50,000. The Great Vermont Patrol Car Destroyer was housed in the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport.

     If Roger Pion enrolled in some kind of anger management program, maybe he would at least learn how to take out his anger on the right people. The sheriff's office, the agency whose vehicles he flattened, had nothing to do with his July 3 marijuana bust. He should have been furious with the police department.  

     In October 2014, State's Attorney Alan Franklin and defense attorney Chandler Matson agreed that the police vehicle masher had been insane at the time he pancaked the cars. As a result, the local folk hero was not prosecuted. 

The Entertainment Value of High-Profile Criminal Trials

     A court room isn't quite a theatre, but there's something inherently dramatic about it all the same….Ever since the dark ages of the Salem Witch Trials, court proceedings have been public affairs. Trials represent the goal of governmental transparency. It makes sense that a crime against society should be tried before the eyes of that same society. But somewhere along the line, that public interest became public entertainment. Trials began to be televised, in a slightly edited fashion. Commentary on trials came to resemble the commentary on a major sporting event. For high profile cases, crowds gather outside court rooms in hopes of getting a seat in the gallery. [American's first high-profile trial, the Webster-Parkman case, took place in Boston in 1850. Since then there have been hundreds of such judicial spectacles and dozens of "Crimes of the Century."]

     Last year the floodgates opened completely and the line between reality TV and the criminal trial became blurred in…the trial of Jodi Arias, then accused of the murder of  her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander. The trial was streamed in its entirety on Youtube. The only censored information was the sidebars. Prosecutor Juan Martinez actually signed autographs outside the court house, and posed for pictures with "fans" who traveled from across the globe to attend the lengthy trial….

"10 of the Most Entertaining Criminal Trials," TheRichList.com, March 13, 2014      

Novelists Should Write For Themselves

My biggest struggle as a novelist is to put my own story on paper--not to be influenced by what I think my editor, my publisher, my friends, or the reader wants to see on the page. I need to get these people out of my writing space and focus on writing my story. If it resonates for me, it will resonate for my readers.

Joan Johnston in The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, edited by Andrew McLeer, 2008 

Young Readers Have Different Tastes Than Adults

Children and adolescents have their own distinctive ideas concerning humor, politics, and prose, and their tastes in these matters may strike older readers as sophomoric, gauche, ill-informed, or just dead wrong. Conversely, the young have a way of noticing that good manners can be oppressive, that the past is often irrelevant, and that emperors are sometimes naked. In short, the young are not lesser beings; they're just different.

Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, 1998 

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Julie Schenecker Murder Case

     Parker Schenecker, an Army intelligence officer, met Julie Powers, an Army linguist (Russian) in 1987 when they were deployed in Germany. Shortly after they were married in Louisiana in 1991, a psychologist began treating her for depression. Three years later, she gave birth to Calyx, and in 1997, their son Beau.

     Not long after having Beau, Julie began taking anti-depression medication on a daily basis. In 2001, psychiatrists diagnosed her as suffering from bipolar disorder, schizo-affective disorder, and severe depression. According to these physicians, she had a personality disorder as well. (There is no effective way to treat the latter.) During her nine months of treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C., she labored under the false belief that a brain tumor was causing her mental illness. Julie held this belief after brain scans proved negative. During this time, Parker Schenecker hired a nanny to take care of the children.

     In 2009, while being treated in south Florida for mental illness, Julie expressed a desire to take her psychiatrist's comb and use his DNA to impregnate herself.

     On November 6, 2010, while residing in an upscale neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, 15-year-old Calyx told a school counselor that her mother had slapped her in the face when they returned from her cross-country practice. The counselor reported the matter to the authorities, and that day, a Tampa police officer, accompanied by a child protection social worker, paid Julie a home visit. Julie admitted hitting Calyx with her open hand during an argument four days earlier. The police officer decided not to make an arrest in the case.

     On January 15, 2011, Colonel Schenecker, while assigned as an intelligence officer with U.S. Central Command in Qatar, wrote a long email to the psychiatrist in Florida treating Julie. The colonel expressed concern about Julie's bellicose relationship with Calyx. It seemed the two of them never stopped fighting.

     Colonel Schenecker wrote: "Julie can no longer control Calyx and Calyx has been disrespectful and verbally abusive toward Julie." Colonel Schenecker also noted that his wife had taken to the bottle. "Drinking starts to affect the kids--they start mentioning it to me." Julie had also, according to the colonel, been driving erratically which had resulted in a traffic accident.

     Julie Schenecker wrote an email addressed to her family on January 27, 2011. The message read: "It's really difficult and I'm so sick mentally. I minimally take care of the kids, sad to say. Beau has also developed Calyx's attitude--makes me cry every evening. Seeing what they've become, I will end this soon. I am at my wits end."

     The day following Julie's email to her family, her mother Nancy called the police to report that she had not been able to reach her daughter. Due to Julie's mental state, Nancy was concerned that something was wrong. In response to the mother's request for a welfare visit, officers were dispatched to the Schenecker house. There, in the garage, they found Beau in Julie's SUV. The boy had been shot twice in the head.

     In Calyx's room, officers discovered the 16-year-old lying on her bed with a fatal bullet wound to the back of her head. Both children had been shot by the .38-caliber revolver found at the scene. The bodies had been covered with blankets. The officers also recovered a journal at the scene in which Julie described her plan to kill her children and herself.

     Police officers found, on the back porch, Julie Schenecker. Wearing a blood-soaked bathrobe, she was asleep and under the influence of prescription pills. She awoke and told the officers why she had shot her children to death. She said she had done this because they had "talked back and were mouthy."

     Officers took Julie into custody at the death scene. At the police station, they continued to question her. Julie said she had shot Beau in the car after they had returned home from his soccer practice. She said she killed Calyx in her room as she did homework on her computer. Julie showed no emotion or remorse as she described killing her children.

     Julie Schenecker informed her interrogators that five days before shooting her children to death, she had driven 27 miles to a small Florida town where she purchased the revolver at a store called Lock N Load. (When buying the weapon, she told the counterman that there had been a rash of burglaries in her neighborhood.)

     After questioning her at the police station, detectives took Julie to a nearby hospital for observation. She told a doctor that she had a "pre-existing" medical condition. Following her discharge from the medical center on January 29, 2011, officers booked the murder suspect into Hillsborough County's Falkenburg Road Jail on two counts of first-degree murder. The judge denied her bond.

     The homicide suspect's attorneys, at her February 16, 2011 arraignment, pleaded her not guilty. The lawyers announced they planned to launch an insanity defense on her behalf. Under Florida law, legal insanity is statutorily defined as a mental disease or defect present at the time of the crime that rendered the defendant incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the criminal act. In other words, the mental illness had destroyed the defendant's ability to distinguish between right and wrong. In Florida, as well as most other states, the so-called "M'Naughten right-wrong test," due to the fact that even seriously mentally ill people are aware of what they are doing when they kill someone, is a difficult defense to prove. Proving that the defendant's actions were driven by the mental illness and nothing else is usually an uphill task. (A defendant must prove legal insanity by a preponderance of the evidence. That means the prosecution does not have the burden of proving the defendant was sane, that is presumed, along with innocence.)

     Colonel Schenecker divorced Julie in May 2011. Following a dispute over the distribution of family assets, he sued her in civil court for the wrongful death of their children. Julie's civil attorneys in the case, countered that the plaintiff was equally responsible for the children's deaths. In support of this argument, they cited the emails the colonel had sent to her psychiatrist less than two weeks before the killings. In these emails he expressed his concern for the well-being of the children.

     The Julie Schenecker double murder trial got underway on April 28, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. Following jury selection and the opening statements from each side, the prosecutor put police officers, detectives, crime scene people, and a forensic pathologist on the stand. On May 5, 2014, crime scene specialist Matthew Evans testified that he had recovered numerous bottles of prescription pills at the murder house that included Lithium and Oxycodone.

     The prosecutor asked crime scene specialist Matthew Evans to read from portions of the journal taken from the house. From this document, Evans read the following to the jury: "The best job I ever had was having/bringing up my babies. This is why I had to bring them with me. It's possible they've inherited my DNA and would live their lives depressed or bipolar! I believe I saved them from the pain. I wouldn't wish this on nobody--ever."

     According to the defendant's journal, she had worried that if she committed suicide, her children would have to live with the stigma associated with their mother's act of self-destruction. "If you're wondering why I decided to take out the kids it was to protect them from embarrassment the rest of their lives."

     The crime scene investigator was followed to the stand by a detective who played an audiotape of the defendant's police station interview. Slurring her words, Schnecker explained in detail how she had shot her children to death and why. She also listed all of the prescription medicine she had been taking.

     The following day, now retired Army Colonel Parker Schenecker, took the stand for the prosecution. The 53-year-old described to the jury the domestic turmoil of living with a mentally disturbed wife. During his testimony, he never referred to her by name, referring to Julie as the "defendant."

     On May 9, 2014, after the prosecution rested its case, The Schenecker defense took center stage. Michelle Frisco, a 43-year-old house cleaner who worked for the defendant, said that Julie had been upset because Beau had become as disrespectful as his older sister. The defendant also told the witness that she drank heavily when her husband was deployed out of the country.

     Dr. Demian Obregon, a University of Southern Florida psychologist, testified that he had treated the defendant for various mental disorders. The medicine she took produced side effects such as "lip-smacking," and "leg-jerking." According to this witness, Julie, in August 2010, had starting expressing suicidal thoughts. In December of that year, she had revealed deep feelings of being both helpless and hopeless.

     Throughout the trial, Julie Schenecker sat passively with her attorneys at the defense table. But that changed suddenly in the middle of Dr. Obergron's testimony. When the psychologist told the jury he had warned her against mixing alcohol with her bipolar medicine, she yelled "Liar! You told me two drinks a day, two Oxys a day!"

     The trial judge responded to the outburst by ordering the jurors out of the courtroom. The judge then issued a strong warning to the defendant. If she engaged in this type of behavior again, there would be serious consequences. Such outbursts would not be tolerated.

     On Monday, May 12, 2014, Dr. Eldra Solomon, another psychologist, took the stand for the defense. Hired by Julie's attorneys to examine and evaluate their client's mental state on the days leading up to the killings, Dr. Solomon testified that Julie, on the day she decided to buy the gun, "had her first clear thought in weeks." And that thought involved killing her children so they could all go to heaven together. "People who are not in a psychotic state," Dr. Solomon said, "do not kill their children."

     Dr. Michael Malher, a medical doctor and psychiatrist, had also been hired by the defense as an expert insanity defense witness. In his expert opinion, Julie Schenecker, at the time of the killings, was insane pursuant to the criteria of the M'Naughten right-wrong test.

     In cross-examining the defense insanity witnesses, the prosecutor, in an effort to undermine their credibility, implied that they were nothing more than insanity defense hired-guns.

     On May 13, 2014, the defense wound-up its case with another expert who found that the defendant, at the time of the killings, was in a psychotic state. The defense also called Colonel Schenecker to the stand. The witness described his ex-wife as a 50-year-old with the judgment of a 10-year-old, and painted a picture of what it was like for him and his family to live with a person who was seriously mentally ill. Following the colonel's testimony, the defense rested its case.

     The prosecutor, on May 14, 2014, in the rebuttal phase of the trial, pressed the argument that the double murder had been motivated by anger. The three rebuttal witnesses on this day were psychiatrists who testified that the defendant had operated under a clear, calculated plan to kill her children. These prosecution experts explained to the jury why the defendant, under Florida's right-wrong test, had not been legally insane. When shooting her children, she had known exactly what she was doing. The defendant was not acting pursuant to any delusions, or instructions from voices in her head. She had been driven by anger, not mental illness.

     On Thursday morning, May 15, 2014, following the closing arguments and the judge's instructions to the jury, the jurors walked out of the courtroom to deliberate the defendant's fate. Just two hours later, at three o'clock, the jury returned to the courtroom with its verdict: guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. This jury had obviously rejected the Schenecker insanity defense.

     In addressing the judge in advance of the sentence, Julie Schnecker tearfully apologized for killing her children. She said, "They are alive and enjoying everything and anything heaven has to offer. Jesus is protecting them and keeping them safe until we get there." Immediately after this irony-laced statement, the judge handed Schenecker the mandated sentence of two life terms without the possibility of parole.

     

The Role of the Forensic Psychologist in Insanity Defense Cases

My forensic workup is a good deal more intensive than that of most other forensic psychologists, but anything less would not satisfy my standard for formulating an opinion "with a reasonable degree of psychological certainty," which is what New York's insanity defense statute calls for. What goes on in the mind of a murderer at the moment of his crime will always remain unknowable. But I believe it is my professional mandate to make the most thorough, informed, and educated judgment I can. [Critics of this branch of psychology would call it an educated guess.]

Dr. Barbara R. Kirwin, The Mad, The Bad, and the Innocent, 1997

Hillbilly Restroom: A Restaurant Kitchen Sink

     The district manager of a West Virginia Pizza Hut was fired after video of him urinating in a restaurant sink emerged, prompting the location's shut down. Though the incident took place after the store was closed, it's inexplicable, unacceptable and flat out disgusting. On top of that, it's a health code violation….

     In a statement, Pizza Hut was deeply apologetic for the vile actions of the former employee…."We apologize to our customers of Kermit, West Virginia."… Still, the chain insisted that the ex-manager did not tamper with any food….[Did he wash his hands after using the kitchen sink as a toilet?]

Julian Kimble, "West Virginia Pizza Hut Shut Down After Manager is Caught Urinating in Sink," USA Today, February 19, 2014


Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Ralph Wald Murder Case

     In March 2013, Ralph Wald, a 69-year-old retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who fought in Vietnam, lived with his wife Johnna Flores in Brandon, Florida. The couple had been married since October 2012. She was 41.

     On Sunday, March 10, 2013, just before midnight, Wald got out of bed for a drink of water. En route to the kitchen he saw Johnna on the living room floor having sex with a man he didn't recognize. Wald immediately returned to his bedroom where he picked up his .38-caliber revolver. Back in the living room a few moments later, he shot his wife's sex partner in the stomach and head. The man died on the spot.

     After shooting 32-year-old Walter Lee Copley, who turned out to be one of Johnna's old flames from Riverview, Florida, Mr. Wald called the police. To the dispatcher he said that he had just shot a man he caught "fornicating" with his wife in their home. After the call, Mr. Wald laid down his gun and waited for the authorities to arrive at the death scene.

     Deputies with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office took Mr. Wald into custody that night. The next day, Hillsborough County Assistant State Attorney Chris Moody charged Ralph Wald with second-degree murder. A judge denied the murder suspect bail.

      The Wald case went to trial in Tampa, Florida just eleven weeks after Mr. Copley's death. Prosecutor Moody, in his opening remarks, told the jury that the defendant, who suffered from erectile dysfunction, killed the victim in a jealous rage.

     Defense attorney Joe Episcopo argued that his client thought Mr. Copley was an intruder raping his wife. Under Florida's stand your ground self-defense doctrine, the defendant had no duty to retreat from his own home.

     On the second day of the three-day trial, Johnna Flores took the stand for the defense. She testified that when her husband shot Mr. Copley she was "black-out" drunk from too much cognac. As a result, she had virtually no memory of the shooting.

     The defendant followed his wife to the stand. According to Ralph Wald, he and Johnna had planned to see a therapist regarding their sexual problem. "In fact," he said, "she would joke a lot with me that we were a perfect couple. She didn't want to do it, and I couldn't do it." The witness said he hoped to salvage his marriage. "I love my wife," he said.

     Prosecutor Moody, in his closing argument to the jury, said this about Mr. Copley: "It's a personal insult to conduct that kind of activity in a man's home, his castle. It cuts to the quick. It's brazen. That kind of deep and personal insult when you find another man having sex in your living room and you can't have sex yourself. This would make you want to lash out--and the defendant did."

     Defense attorney Episcopo, in addressing the jurors, said, "This was a military man trained to know what to do with the enemy. You take your gun and you kill the enemy."

     On May 30, 2013, the jury, after just two hours of deliberation, found the defendant not guilty. Ralph Wald embraced his two lawyers as his wife Johnna cried tears of joy.

     Members of Walter Copley's family who were in the courtroom when the verdict was read were not happy with the outcome of the case. 

Undercover Cops Can Lie

Some folks are under the impression that if you ask an undercover cop if he is, in fact, a cop, he is legally obligated to tell the truth. He isn't. I don't know where this notion came from in the first place. Think about it. How would any undercover law enforcement operation function if this were the case?

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know, 2014  

How to Deal With a Bad Review

My favorite Kirkus review labeled my writing as "awkward and repetitious." I framed that one.

Charles Knief, mysterylinkonline.com, August 29, 2001