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Friday, July 28, 2017

James Wolcott aka James St. James: Mass Killer to Professor

     In 1967 when he was fifteen, James Gordon Wolcott lived in the central Texas town of Georgetown, the home of Southwestern University. His father, Dr. Gordon Wolcott, headed up the university's Biology Department. His mother Elizabeth, an outgoing woman, was active in the religious community. James and his 17-year-old sister Libby attended Georgetown High School.

     At ten on the night of August 4, 1967, James and Libby returned home after attending a rock concert with friends in nearby Austin. Just after midnight, James sniffed model airplane glue to give himself a "boost." Armed with a .22 rifle, he walked into the living room and shot his father to death by plugging him twice in the chest. In Libby's room, James killed his sister by shooting her in the chest and in the face. The teenager found his mother in her bedroom where he shot her twice in the head and once in the chest.

     With his father and sister dead, and his mother in her room dying, James hid the rifle in the attic crawlspace above his bedroom closet. After he disposed of the weapon, James ran out of the house and flagged down a car occupied by three college students. After telling these students that someone had killed his family, they returned with him to the house. Inside the dwelling, the students found Mrs. Wolcott hanging onto her life in her bedroom. One of the young men called for an ambulance and the police. (This was pre-911.)

     On the front porch of the Wolcott house, James kept yelling, "How could this happen!" He, of course, knew exactly how it happened. When it occurred to the college kids that the killer could still be in the dwelling, they fled the scene.

     Later that morning, Elizabeth Wolcott died at the hospital. A minister who happened to be a Wolcott neighbor took James to his parsonage. A few hours later, when a Texas Ranger asked James if he had killed his family, the youngster said, "Yes, sir." At that point James had the presence of mind to describe in detail what he had done. At the killing site, he showed police officers where he hid the rifle.

     When asked the obvious question of why, James said he hated his family. He later told psychiatrists that his mother chewed her food so loudly he had to leave the room. His sister had an annoying Texas accent, and his father made him cut his hippie hair and wouldn't allow him to wear anti Vietnam war buttons or attend peace rallies.

     Several psychiatrist interviewed James at the Williamson County Jail. From the young mass killer they learned that he had been sniffing glue for several months. James also told the shrinks that he had contemplated suicide. He said that his parents and sister had tried to drive him insane. He killed them before they had a chance to murder him.

     Although James and members of his family did not have histories of mental illness, the psychiatrists concluded that the boy suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. (There may have been doctors who disagreed with this conclusion.) One thing was certain, with an I Q of 134, the kid was no dummy. Notwithstanding the diagnosis of schizophrenia, the psychiatrists declared the defendant mentally competent to stand trial as an adult.

     As could be expected, the murder defendant's attorney, Will Kelly McClain, set up a defense based on legal insanity. In October 1967, following a short trial, the all-male jury found James Wolcott not guilty by reason of insanity. The jurors believed that James had been so mentally impaired he had no idea that killing his family was wrong. (Since the Wolcott verdict, only a handful of Texas murder defendants have been declared not guilty by reason of insanity. This rarely happens because there is no such thing as a mental illness so severe that it completely destroys a killer's appreciation of what he is doing. In the history of Texas jurisprudence, the James Wolcott case is an anomaly.)

     In February 1968, the trial judge sent James Wolcott to the Rusk State Hospital in Nacodoches, Texas. He was to be incarcerated there until he regained his sanity. That sentence placed his fate in the hands of psychiatrists.

     In 1974, seven years after the mass killing in the Texas college town, Rusk State Hospital psychiatrists declared the 21-year-old killer sane. The young man had made a remarkable recovery for someone who had been so mentally ill that he didn't realize that shooting his family to death was wrong.

     As the only surviving child of his deceased parents, James Wolcott inherited their estate, and started receiving a monthly stipend from his father's university pension fund.

     Upon his departure from Rusk State Hospital, James took up residence in Austin, Texas where he enrolled at Stephen F. Austin University. Just two years later, he had a Bachelor's Degree in psychology.

     At some point in the late 1970s, James Wolcott changed his name to James David St. James. In 1980, Mr. St. James, having acquired his Master's Degree, began his doctoral work in psychology at the University of Illinois. In 1988, Dr. St. James began teaching psychology at Millikin University, a Presbyterian liberal arts institution in Decatur, Illinois. No one at the school knew that the psychology professor had shot three members of his family to death twenty years earlier. Had he included this relevant background information on his job application, it is doubtful the university would have hired him. Having been declared criminally insane, even in the field of academic psychology, is not a job-hunting selling point.

     In July 2013, a Texas journalist named Ann Marie Gardner published an article that revealed Dr. St. James' homicidal past. When the story broke, the academic, who did not have a family of his own, headed the Behavioral Sciences Department at Millikin University. While the secretive professor's colleagues and students were probably shocked, no one at the school voiced disapproval. In fact, at least in academic circles, Dr. St. James emerged from his exposure as a hero, a poster-boy for the power and glory of the behavioral sciences. (Had he been working for a plumbing company, he would have been fired.) If the professor's colleagues and students were stunned by the creepy irony of Dr. St. James' story, no one has said so. (University campuses, ground zero of extreme political correctness, are not places where students and professors can speak freely.)

     There are probably members of the Wolcott family who are still psychologically scarred by James Wolcott's killing spree. There was no indication, however, that what took place that night in 1967 had any lingering affect on the killer himself. And there was no evidence that Dr. St. James is still schizophrenic. This was interesting because the disease is incurable. (All of the homicidal schizophrenics I have written about--including the subject of a book--struggled with the malady their entire lives. One of these men who couldn't take living with the illness eventually killed himself.)

     One possible explanation for James Wolcott's rapid and apparent total recovery from this devastating disease is that he wasn't insane in the first place. Following his arrest, James told his interrogators that he had been thinking about killing his family for a week. Moreover, if he wasn't aware that what he had done was wrong, why did he hide the gun? Is it possible we was a brilliant sociopath who pulled one over on the psychiatrists, the criminal justice system, and academia?
       

Tiresome Political Memoirs

The memoir genre isn't helped by all the mandatory books that politicians turn out. These first-person tales of coming to the capital, of being made a better man by victory then defeat and a forced return home, have a standard narrative arc. These books also contain an agreed upon measure of falsification and their steady consumption may wipe out the market for serious political nonfiction.

Thomas Mallon, In Fact, 2001 

Crime Novelist Elizabeth George on Writing Groups

People want to know what I think about writing critique groups. I belonged to one briefly, but I didn't use it much. I prefer now to use the services of a cold reader when the book is done. But if you're going to belong to a group, check it out carefully before you commit yourself to joining. It there's someone in there with an ax to grind, don't become a member. If the group isn't solution-oriented, just saying things like, "I have a problem with X" (your character, your plot, your scene, or whatever) without proposing a solution to the problem or a way to approach developing a solution, just pass them by. If you don't feel good about the group dynamic, trust yourself and don't join up. [My advice, for what it's worth: Forget writing groups. Most members are unpublished and can't help you. Moreover, why waste your time helping others improve their writing? Work on your own stuff. Writing groups are a waste of time.]

Elizabeth George, Write Away, 2004 

Prison Tattoos

Tattoos worn on the face or neck are the most visible, and thus suggest a higher level of [criminal] commitment than tattoos on other less visible parts of the body. Older convicts feel that younger prisoners should not get tattooed if they don't already have any tattoos, and many tattooists in prison will simply refuse to be the first to tattoo a new prisoner. An "honorable" prison tattooist doesn't want to be responsible for helping to ruin a young prisoner's life, particularly if an individual is going to be getting out of prison any time soon. By acquiring tattoos during his incarceration, he would be making concrete his identify as a convict, and may regret his decision to become tattooed.

Margo DeMello in Diego Gambetta's Codes of the Underworld, 2009

The Cost of Freedom and Who Has It

Freedom in America works best for those who can afford it. As the fellow said in The Grapes of Wrath, "You're just as free as you've got Jack to pay for it." It is not as much an idea as a commodity. It is not as much a liberated state of being as it is an item on the shelf that, along with the purchaser, may be purchased. It is not as much a right as a component of commerce.

Gerry Spence, From Freedom to Slavery, 1993

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Bite Mark Identification: A Forensic Science That Lost Its Credibility

     The identification of a series of bruises or abrasions, usually in the shape of two semi-circles or brackets, as a human bite mark made by a particular set of teeth is a function of forensic dentistry referred to a bite mark identification. This form of impression identification, also called forensic odontology, is based on the assumption that no two people in the world have front teeth that are identical in thickness, shape, relationship to each other, and patterns of wear.

     The process of comparing a bite mark to a known set of teeth is not unlike the identification of latent fingerprints, footwear, and tire track impressions. Bite mark wounds are found on victims of murder, rape, and child molestation. This type of crime scene evidence is preserved by life-size photography, tooth mark tracings onto transparent sheets, and dental casts of the impressions themselves. A suspect might be asked to bite down on a pliable surface for an impression sample, have a cast made of his teeth, or both. Usually, connecting a suspect to a victim through expert bite mark testimony will be enough evidence, by itself, to sustain a criminal conviction.

     The field of bite mark identification exploded in the 1980s, and hundreds, if not thousands of defendants between 1983 and 2002 were sent to prison on the strength of bite mark testimony. Although bite mark identification had been a recognized branch of forensic science since 1970, it was the 1979 trial of serial killer Ted Bundy in south Florida that put this form of identification on the map the way the O. J. Simpson case, in the mid-1990s, popularized DNA profiling.

     At the peak of bite mark evidence credibility among forensic scientists, detectives, prosecutors, and judges, this form of impression identification was put on the level with the matching of fingerprints. However, by 2003, forensic scientists were seriously questioning the assumption that bite marks were as unique and identifiable as latent fingerprints.

     Over the years several leaders in the bite mark field oversold the reliability of this form of identification. For example, in 1977, Dr. Lowell J. Levine, a forensic dentistry consultant to the New York City Medical Examiner's Office, wrote: "Since every person's teeth are unique in respect to spacing, twisting, turning, shapes, tipping toward the tongue or lips, wear patterns, breakage, fillings, caps, loss and the like, all of which occur in limitless combinations, it is possible for them to leave a pattern which for identification purposes is as good as a fingerprint."

     In 1996, Dr. C. Michael Bowers, a prominent southern California odontologist, was one of the first forensic scientists to raise doubts about the credibility of bite make identification when he wrote: "Physical matching of bite marks is a non-science which was developed with little testing and no published error rate....An opinion is worth nothing unless the supportive data is clearly describable and can be demonstrated in court. How does one weight the importance of a single rotated tooth in a bite mark when the suspect has a similar tooth? The value judgments range widely on the value of this feature. This is not science. Instead, statistical levels of confidence must be included in the process."

     In a bite mark identification exercise Dr. Bowers conducted in a workshop at the 1999 American Academy of Forensic Science conference, 63 percent of the odontologists who participated made an incorrect identification, findings that displeased many in the field when Dr. Bowers published the results of his experiment. In an article published in 2003 in the British Dental Journal, Dr. D. K. Whittaker, a forensic dentistry professor at the University of Wales, explained why bite mark evidence is so difficult to identify, particularly bite marks on skin:

     "Human bites on skin are difficult to interpret because skin is not good 'impression' material. Moreover, victims may struggle and movement will distort the image of the bite. Skin surfaces are not flat and visual distortion may be present, often heightened by photographic distortion caused by inadequate imaging techniques. Human dentitions, whilst possibly being unique in the small nuances of tooth size, shape, angulation and texture may not inflict unique bite marks which can only record gross and not fine detail. If the victim survives, the injury may change due to infection or subsequent healing and if the victim is deceased, putrefaction may introduce distortion."

     Before odontologists in Great Britain can testify in court as bite mark experts, they must have made a minimum of twenty such identifications in other cases. In the United States, an odontologist can be certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology after two bite mark identifications. As a result, being certified in this forensic field in the United States shouldn't carry much weight. (In fact, two of America's most notorious charlatans in the field were both board certified bite mark experts.)

     In 2004, as part of a journalistic series on forensic science, the Chicago Tribune examined 154 state and federal trials involving bite mark identification testimony. In more than a quarter of these cases the prosecution and the defense produced forensic odontologists whose expert opinions were diametrically opposed. If bite mark identification is an exact science practiced by highly qualified experts, this many odontologists should not have been testifying against each other.


Using a Pen Name

Pseudonyms are especially attractive to fiction writers, whose work (inventing people and seeing the world through their eyes) requires an impersonation, of sorts. Writing under a pen name is like doing an impersonation of someone doing an impersonation. I've fantasized about using an alias, but my fantasy mostly entails making a lot of money writing a quick horror novel. [Unless you write in that genre, good luck with that.]

Francine Prose, "Bookends," The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 2013

Prosecuting Rapists

My first lesson about sex-crimes prosecution was that perpetrators were not the only enemy. There is a large, more or less hidden population of what I later came to call collaborators within the criminal justice system. Whether if comes from a police officer or a defense attorney, a judge or a court clerk or a prosecutor, there seems to be a residuum of empathy for rapists that crosses all gender, class, and professional barriers. It gets expressed in different ways, from victim-bashing to jokes in poor taste, and too often it results in giving the rapist a break.

Alice Vachss, Sex Crimes, 1993

Are All Men Potential Murderers?

When a murder occurs, the search is for motive as well as weapon. Hypotheses generally center around passion, greed, and uncontrollable anger. All of the above related factors have often been seen as at least comprehensible, if deplorable. After all, some say, how can a man stomach his wife's affair with another man or her consideration of another relationship? Although money as a reason for murder is perceived as unacceptable knavery, acquisition of financial resources is recognized as a goal toward which, of necessity, most strive throughout most of their lives. Regarding uncontrollable rage, anger is an emotion with which everyone must struggle, and all deal with it imperfectly. "A man can take just so much," has been one way the killer's apologist has attempted to explain an apparently senseless murder.

Constance A. Bean, Women Murdered By The Men They Loved, 1992 

Does Perfectionism Cause Writer's Block?

     Much of the self-help literature on writer's block falls into the category of creativity enhancement. One popular approach tries to decrease the writer's perfectionism, or to silence his or her inner critics. This theme implicitly draws on the psychoanalytic concept of the superego, that internalized, harshly judgmental representation of parental and societal values. Yet lofty values alone are not sufficient to cause writer's block. Writer's block requires not just the inability to write as well as you want, but the inability to write anything less than you want. What drives that inability is the belief--usually unconscious--that it is better to write nothing than to write poorly…

     Perfectionism certainly causes some block. But it is invoked as a cause a little too often; it is such a comfortable explanation of your block. It is easier to tell people that you haven't published much because you have such high standards, than that you are disorganized or inhibited or love to play tennis.

Alice W. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease, 2004