Andrea Harner
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May 12, 2009

Check out today's Science Times section of the NY Times for lots of forensics related articles!!!

April 9, 2009

Arizona: Fake Student Sentenced. What a stand-up guy.
A youthful-looking sex offender who posed as a 12-year-old boy to enroll in several Arizona schools was sentenced to more than 70 years in prison. The man, Neil H. Rodreick II, 31, pleaded guilty last year to seven criminal charges. Most involved child pornography, but two stemmed from the charade he pulled off for two years. Mr. Rodreick attended schools in Payson, Prescott Valley and Surprise starting in 2005. The authorities said he shaved and wore makeup to help him appear younger, convincing teachers, students and administrators that he was a boy named Casey. He was caught in January 2007 after spending a day in the seventh grade at a Chino Valley school when school officials became suspicious because his birth certificate and other documents looked forged. They had initially thought they might be dealing with a child who had been abducted.

* via NY Times print edition!

March 11, 2009

Eyewitness Testimony Parts 1 & 2 on 60 Minutes

February 5, 2009

Science Found Wanting in Nation’s Crime Labs By Solomon Moore, NY Times

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Forensic evidence that has helped convict thousands of defendants for nearly a century is often the product of shoddy scientific practices that should be upgraded and standardized, according to accounts of a draft report by the nation’s pre-eminent scientific research group.

Robert L. Stinson, convicted of murder in 1984, was freed from a Wisconsin prison last month after tests found that bite-mark and DNA analysis did not match evidence from the crime scene.

The report by the National Academy of Sciences is to be released this month. People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting.

The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court. It concludes that Congress should create a federal agency to guarantee the independence of the field, which has been dominated by law enforcement agencies, say forensic professionals, scholars and scientists who have seen review copies of the study. Early reviewers said the report was still subject to change.

The result of a two-year review, the report follows a series of widely publicized crime laboratory failures, including the case of Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer from Portland, Ore., and Muslim convert who was wrongly arrested in the 2004 terrorist train bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people and wounded 2,000.

American examiners matched Mr. Mayfield’s fingerprint to those found at the scene, although Spanish authorities eventually convinced the Federal Bureau of Investigation that its fingerprint identification methods were faulty. Mr. Mayfield was released, and the federal government settled with him for $2 million.

In 2005, Congress asked the National Academy to assess the state of the forensic techniques used in court proceedings. The report’s findings are not binding, but they are expected to be highly influential.

“This is not a judicial ruling; it is not a law,” said Michael J. Saks, a psychology and law professor at Arizona State University who presented fundamental weaknesses in forensic evidence to the academy. “But it will be used by others who will make law or will argue cases.”

Legal experts expect that the report will give ammunition to defense lawyers seeking to discredit forensic procedures and expert witnesses in court. Lawyers could also use the findings in their attempts to overturn convictions based on spurious evidence. Judges are likely to use the findings to raise the bar for admissibility of certain types of forensic evidence and to rein in exaggerated expert testimony.

The report may also drive federal legislation if Congress adopts its recommendations. Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama, who has pushed for forensic reform, said, “My hope is that this report will provide an objective and unbiased perspective of the critical needs of our crime labs.”

Forensics, which developed within law enforcement institutions — and have been mythologized on television shows from “Quincy, M.E.” to “CSI: Miami” — suffers from a lack of independence, the report found.

The report’s most controversial recommendation is the establishment of a federal agency to finance research and training and promote universal standards in forensic science, a discipline that spans anthropology, biology, chemistry, physics, medicine and law. The report also calls for tougher regulation of crime laboratories.

Continue reading...

December 6, 2008

OMG: White Supremacist Mug Shots Before & After

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* via BuzzFeed!

November 23, 2008

Suffering Souls: The search for the roots of psychopathy by John Seabrook, New Yorker

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The Western New Mexico Correctional Facility sits in high-desert country about seventy miles west of Albuquerque. Grants, a former uranium boomtown that depends heavily on prison work, is a few miles down the road. There’s a glassed-in room at the top of the prison tower, with louvred windows and, on the ceiling, a big crank that operates a searchlight. In a box on the floor are some tear-gas shells that can be fired down into the yard should there be a riot. Below is the prison complex—a series of low six-sided buildings, divided by high hurricane fences topped with razor wire that glitters fiercely in the desert sun. To the east is the snow-covered peak of Mt. Taylor, the highest in the region; to the west, the Zuni Mountains are visible in the blue distance.

One bright morning last April, Dr. Kent Kiehl strode across the parking lot to the entrance, saying, “I guarantee that by the time we reach the gate the entire inmate population will know I’m here.” Kiehl—the Doc, as the inmates call him—was dressed in a blue blazer and a yellow tie. He is tall, broad-shouldered, and barrel-chested, with neat brown hair and small ears; he looks more like a college football player, which was his first ambition, than like a cognitive neuroscientist. But when he speaks, in an unexpectedly high-pitched voice, he becomes that know-it-all kid in school who intimidated you with his combination of superior knowledge and bluster.

At thirty-eight, Kiehl is one of the world’s leading younger investigators in psychopathy, the condition of moral emptiness that affects between fifteen to twenty-five per cent of the North American prison population, and is believed by some psychologists to exist in one per cent of the general adult male population. (Female psychopaths are thought to be much rarer.) Psychopaths don’t exhibit the manias, hysterias, and neuroses that are present in other types of mental illness. Their main defect, what psychologists call “severe emotional detachment”—a total lack of empathy and remorse—is concealed, and harder to describe than the symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This absence of easily readable signs has led to debate among mental-health practitioners about what qualifies as psychopathy and how to diagnose it. Psychopathy isn’t identified as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s canon; instead, a more general term, “antisocial personality disorder,” known as A.P.D., covers the condition.

There is also little consensus among researchers about what causes psychopathy. Considerable evidence, including several large-scale studies of twins, points toward a genetic component. Yet psychopaths are more likely to come from neglectful families than from loving, nurturing ones. Psychopathy could be dimensional, like high blood pressure, or it might be categorical, like leukemia. Researchers argue over whether tests used to measure it should focus on behavior or attempt to incorporate personality traits—like deceitfulness, glibness, and lack of remorse—as well. The only point on which everyone agrees is that psychopathy is extremely difficult to treat. And for some researchers the word “psychopath” has been tainted by its long and seamy relationship with criminality and popular culture, which began with true-crime pulps and continues today in TV shows like CBS’s “Criminal Minds” and in the work of authors like Thomas Harris and Patricia Cornwell. The word is so loaded with baleful connotations that it tends to empurple any surrounding prose.

Kiehl is frustrated by the lack of respect shown to psychopathy by the mental-health establishment. “Think about it,” he told me. “Crime is a trillion-dollar-a-year problem. The average psychopath will be convicted of four violent crimes by the age of forty. And yet hardly anyone is funding research into the science. Schizophrenia, which causes much less crime, has a hundred times more research money devoted to it.” I asked why, and Kiehl said, “Because schizophrenics are seen as victims, and psychopaths are seen as predators. The former we feel empathy for, the latter we lock up.”

In January of 2007, Kiehl arranged to have a portable functional magnetic-resonance-imaging scanner brought into Western—the first fMRI ever installed in a prison. So far, he has recruited hundreds of volunteers from among the inmates. The data from these scans, Kiehl hopes, will confirm his theory, published in Psychiatry Research, in 2006, that psychopathy is caused by a defect in what he calls “the paralimbic system,” a network of brain regions, stretching from the orbital frontal cortex to the posterior cingulate cortex, that are involved in processing emotion, inhibition, and attentional control. His dream is to confound the received wisdom by helping to discover a treatment for psychopathy. “If you could target the brain region involved, then maybe you could find a drug that treats that region,” he told me. “If you could treat just five per cent of them, that would be a Nobel Prize right there.”

Continue reading...

October 24, 2008

Cannibal cult mother who skinned son and made him eat his own flesh gets 9 years in jail.

ONLY 9 YEARS?????!!!!! WOULDN'T LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE BE A TAD MORE APPROPRIATE???!!!

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September 26, 2008

Sarah Palin and the Rape Kits By Dorothy Samuels, NY Times Editorial

Palin wants sexual assault victims to pay for their rape kits. That's nice.

September 22, 2008

Japanese man charged with dumping silicone girlfriend

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Breaking up is hard to do, and few know this better than a lifelike sex doll owner who Shizuoka police have charged with illegal dumping.

On August 21, the 60-year-old unemployed resident of Izu (Shizuoka prefecture) wrapped his 1.7-meter tall, 50-kilogram silicone girlfriend in a sleeping bag, drove to a remote wooded area, and dumped her. A nice, clean break, he thought.

But nearly two weeks later, on September 1, a couple alerted police after discovering what appeared to be a corpse while walking their dog. The body had been wrapped in a bag and bound around the neck, waist and ankles. A head of black hair protruded from one end of the bag.

Police retrieved the body and immediately launched a criminal investigation. But several hours later, when forensic pathologists began to unwrap the “corpse” to perform the post-mortem, they realized it was actually a state-of-the-art sex doll. Seeing themselves as victims of a malicious prank, the authorities vowed to track down the perpetrator and charge him with interfering with police business.

The incident quickly captured the attention of the national (and international) press. After seeing the news reports, the culprit realized the trouble he had caused and contacted police on September 6.

According to investigators, the man had lived with the sophisticated doll for several years after his wife passed away, but decided to part with her after making plans to move in with one of his children. “It seems he grew attached to the doll over the years,” said the chief investigator. “He was confused about how to get rid of her. He thought it would be cruel to cut her up into pieces and throw her out with the trash, so he proceeded to dump her illegally.”

The man, who regrets his lifelike doll was mistaken for a corpse, now faces fines for violating Japan’s Waste Management Law.

* Here it is in Japanese.

September 14, 2008

Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist By Richard Rhodes

I started this book a while ago but had to put it down while reading for school. The irony is that this book has significantly informed my studies of crime and violence. The work of criminologist Lonnie Athens is groundbreaking and convincing (you'll have to read the book to learn what his decades of studies reveal about violent offenders!). I'm certain the communication of this knowledge was greatly facilitated by the fantastically clear and engaging writing of Pulitzer Prize-winning Richard Rhodes. I think the best thing for an academic is to have a Richard Rhodes caliber writer tell the story of their work! Highly, highly recommended.

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August 4, 2008

Courthouse Confessions: An incredible project!

This is great. I only wish I had thought of it!!

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For more click here.

July 7, 2008

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town By John Grisham

This book was a heart-wrenching and eye-opening read. Grisham tells the story of Ron Williamson and makes you realize how colossally human we are: Our actions are mostly fueled by good yet our pathologies intervene. Also, we harbor the capacity to commit cruel acts solely for ego survival as painfully portrayed by the Ada, Oklahoma police department. While it was certainly troubling to read the process of how such an atrocity happened, the book is also, as the best investigative journalistic works are, thoughtful, illuminating and gripping. Grisham's first foray into non-fiction proves that his storytelling skills are sharpest in this genre!

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* Thanks to my dad for the recommendation - Of course I already had it ready and waiting on my bookshelf!

Case closed. Sort of. By Michelle Chen, NewsDay

What's so thrilling about an unsolved murder case? A lot, I say!

After about 20 years, the high-profile Martin Tankleff murder case has drawn to an end. Tankleff is a free man, no one else has been charged with the crime, yet he hasn't been fully exonerated by the state. End of story?

If you still feel unsettled, you're not the only one. To some, the overturning of his conviction is a just conclusion to the case; others read it as a twist in a bigger mystery.

Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, has uncovered psychological underpinnings in the tension people feel over unsolved crimes and other disturbing uncertainties in life: it's all driven by a fundamental "need for closure."

A desire to have a clear conclusion to any story is natural, Kruglanski says. Whether you're anxiously turning the pages of a detective novel or mulling over the conspiracy theories that have kept the Kennedy assassination alive for decades.

To Sarah Weinman, a writer, critic and blogger specializing in crime fiction, the public fascination with the Tankleff case resonates with the magnetism of a good mystery novel. "As long as something is unresolved, there's still the potential for resolution. There's still suspense," she says. "Suspense is a very powerful, very provocative emotion or feeling."

But we vary in our desire for conclusiveness. "Some people, because of their temperament or because of the way they were brought up, find uncertainty more unpleasant than other people," says Kruglanski. That could play out in their social interactions and politics as well--in ways that society may view as positive or negative.

Continue reading...

Knowing who killed a loved one is justice by Philip Lerman, NewsDay

Marty Tenkleff is finally freed after being wrongfully convicted and locked up for 17 years. Here's an Op-Ed by Philip Lerman, former co-executive producer of "America's Most Wanted.

The last sound my parents heard was the glass smashing against the wall, and the slam of the front door.

My stepsister Jackie, in a schizophrenia-fueled rage, had picked up the nearest object and flung it across the room before running off again, as she had so many times before; most likely to hop the train into Manhattan, to hang out on the streets until she cooled down, or got hungry, or both, at which time she'd come back home.

Only this time, she never came back.

That was 30 years ago; her disappearance and, as we came to believe, her murder (although her body was never found), remain unsolved.

And so it was with very mixed feelings that I received the news this week that the district attorney will not retry Marty Tankleff for the murder of his parents. My friends in New York all feel very relieved - proud, even - that a miscarriage of justice has been righted (though some, like the detectives involved in the case, feel otherwise). There is a fragile sense of order that is shattered, like that glass against the wall, when we hear that an innocent man sits behind bars for 17 years. And while we can never give Tankleff back those years, we at least feel a sense of fairness, of order restored, when that awful wrong is undone.

Continue reading...

June 25, 2008

Man convicted in grad student's rape, torture

Incredible story of a victim's resilience and justice swiftly served.

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Supreme Court rejects death penalty for raping children

Thank goodness.

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The Supreme Court has struck down a Louisiana law that allows the execution of people convicted of a raping a child.

In a 5-4 vote, the court says the law allowing the death penalty to be imposed in cases of child rape violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

"The death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. His four liberal colleagues joined him, while the four more conservative justices dissented.

There has not been an execution in the United States for a crime that did not also involve the death of the victim in 44 years.

June 24, 2008

Deliberations begin in Columbia student rape and torture case

While running an errand to court today, I saw a gaggle of cameras and reporters and learned that deliberations begin today in the unimaginably horrible rape and torture case of a Columbia grad student.

June 20, 2008

Campus Crime Club funded by the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute: I think a certain club forgot to send me an invitation!!!!

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Susan Atkins: Why after almost 40 years does she still look insane like Charles Manson?

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Wanted: Samuel Israel

My dad, brother and I have been following this story...if only my firm were hired to investigate this case!!

If you're looking for a way to nosedive into despair, try reading this story.

Boy's suffering leads to official soul-searching.

May 1, 2008

Disturbing video: 7 year-old kid ripe for Conduct Disorder

From the media's take to the kid's dangerous cluelessness to his grandmother's candor, there are so many "things that make you go hmmmm" in this clip:

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April 29, 2008

Austria Stunned by Case of Imprisoned Woman by Mark Landler, NY Times

Some things, such as this story, are too horrific to truly comprehend.

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AMSTETTEN, Austria — With his Mercedes-Benz and his fine clothes, Josef Fritzl looked every inch a property owner, neighbors in this tidy Austrian town said Monday. Even when running errands, they said, he wore a natty jacket, crisp shirt and tie.

Mr. Fritzl’s apartment house, its back garden obscured by a tall hedge, was his kingdom, one neighbor said, and interlopers were not welcome. On Monday, investigators in white jumpsuits combed the house and garden for clues. The authorities said Sunday that Mr. Fritzl, 73, had kept one of his daughters imprisoned for 24 years in a basement dungeon, where she bore him seven children.

The daughter, Elisabeth, now 42, is in psychiatric care, along with two of her children. Her eldest daughter, Kerstin, 19, who was also kept in the basement and whose illness pulled apart Mr. Fritzl’s secret after he had her taken to a local hospital, was in a medically induced coma and was in critical condition, the authorities said.

The authorities said Mr. Fritzl confessed Monday to imprisonment, sexual abuse and incest. The case has left this town of 22,000 people, 80 miles west of Vienna, in stunned disbelief. Neighbors milled around the three-story apartment building on Monday, watching the investigation unfold and asking how such an atrocity could have occurred in their midst. Continued...

March 17, 2008

Psych & Law midterm in an hour

Wish me luck. And if you are interested check out the following:

Frye standard
Daubert and Federal Rules of Evidence
Dusky test
Civil commitment
Jackson v Indiana
Riggins v Nevada
M'Naghten test
NGRI
GBMI

March 13, 2008

Unwelcome Surprises by Gail Collins, NY Times

All the Op-Eds are great today but this one is especially apt and funny.

No more electing prosecutors, NYC! Too high-strung!!

January 30, 2008

Looking Anew At Campaign Cash And Elected Judges by Adam Liptak, NYTimes

Loved this article and the research question asked. The judges will surely squirm, at the very least, when the full article is published next month in the Tulane Law Review!

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January 15, 2008

Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse by Steve Bogira

I am delighted my friend Eric was so right on when he suggested I read this book. It is written by an investigative journalist and delivers a thoughtful glimpse into our criminal court system by shadowing one judge and highlighting the stories of a handful of people that come into contact with this judge and his courtroom. I read it straight through on our flight to California for the holidays and finished it on the flight back. If this book interests you I am certain you will also enjoy another book written from a similar investigative and sociological perspective: Our Guys.

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December 14, 2007

Hilarious Courtroom Testimony

Now this is my kind of funny! Jonah found this one page for me from the entire world wide website - Imagine that!

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December 11, 2007

Crime Buster With Eye on the Future by Michael Powell, NY TImes

Interesting article on Giuliani's tenure as mayor.

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He was, to the popular eye, Eliot Ness reincarnated, an unsparing prosecutor for a crime-shadowed age. And when the United States attorney in Manhattan resigned in January 1989, he earned a tabloid salute:

“Good News for Bad Guys,” The Daily News proclaimed. “Crimebuster Giuliani Steps Down.”

Rudolph W. Giuliani waved his prosecutor’s scythe in the 1980s, and Wall Street barons, political bosses and Mafia dons seemed to fall in serried rows. He inspired cinematic characters, took ovations in restaurants and battled the Reagan administration officials who had appointed him.

Michael Dowd, a streetwise lawyer whose trial testimony about bribe-taking exposed the ethical rot afflicting New York politics, found shelter beneath Mr. Giuliani’s cloak. “No one was going to back him off,” Mr. Dowd said. “He was charismatic, relentless and endlessly loyal.”

There was, however, another side to the young prosecutor, a moralistic and carnivorously ambitious man who desired public office. Mr. Giuliani, who was 38 when he became United States attorney in 1983, threatened his targets with long prison sentences, and he infuriated judges with leaks of grand jury testimony to the press.

His agents handcuffed Wall Street arbitrageurs before prosecutors investigated them. Apology was weakness; skeptics were “jerks.”

Like a medieval crusader, he rarely flinched at hard tactics in pursuit of exalted goals. Continue reading...

October 12, 2007

False Confessions by Saul Kassin, John Jay School of Criminal Justice '07

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This was a fantastic talk. I mean, why on earth would an innocent person confess to a crime he/she didn't commit??!! For as long as I can remember I've been reading about this stuff so I knew about The Innocence Project (only reason I ever wanted to go to law school was to work for them!) and the frightening number of people they've successfully exonerated thanks to DNA (keep in mind that if and only if the crime you were falsely convicted of still has intact, testable DNA, often after decades, could you even harbor the remote possibility of being exonerated). What I didn't know continues to shock me to this day. Did you know that interrogators are legally allowed to present false information to a suspect in order to secure a confession????????!!!!!!!!! Here's an example from the well-publicized case of Marty Tankleff. Marty was 17, 17 years ago and awoke in his house to discover his mother and father lying in pools of blood. Right away he was nabbed the prime suspect even though there was another person who was glaringly obvious as the real prime suspect but we won't visit that aspect here. His mother was pronounced dead on the scene and his father who was barely still alive was rushed to the hospital. Marty was interrogated using the standard physical and psychological deprivation techniques I'm sure you all know just from watching Law & Order but basically you're deprived of any physical and psychological comforts like extra clothing, jewelry or belongings, you are stripped to your basic necessities, have no visible phone as a reminder of contact to the outside world and you are only given minimal water, food and bathroom privileges. On top of this, imagine Marty having just learned that his mom is dead and his dad is near death. After hours of unsuccessfully trying to get Marty to confess, one of the detectives, likely the bad cop in the routine (Mutt & Jeff routine is what we call it in grad school), left the room supposedly to take a call and upon returning tells Marty that his father has emerged from his coma and has named Marty as the murderer. Marty fell apart and thought if his own Dad said he did it, he must have done it and not remembered it. The "good cop" then wrote up a confession for Marty to sign but when it came time to sign it, he came to and refused. Nevertheless the harm had been done and Marty is on record as partially confessing. To this day, the "good cop" who was present when the "bad cop" came in with news from the hospital, says that what he heard about Marty's dad seemed so real he even believed it at the time and only found out later it was a lie. Marty's dad never awoke from his coma and died two weeks later. Still, the partial confession, garnered out of a straight up, bold-faced LIE, still stands and the Innocence Project is fighting to free Marty who has already done 17 years for a crime he didn't commit. There are numerous examples like this one that highlight the deeply disturbing fact that it is entirely legal to lie in order to gain a confession from a suspect. And of course while lies are being used to gain false confessions, real murderers remain free.

October 11, 2007

SuccessTech School Shooting/Irony Kills

What is this country coming to??!! What is happening to our children??!! Meanwhile, this is the school's homepage:

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For consolidated info click here.

August 30, 2007

Kirschner's Criminal Behavior class: Interesting question posed on first day

And the answer is...155!! Isn't that shocking?? And of those, 41 won. Thanks for playing!!

Between 1988 and 1997 there were roughly 96,000 felony indictments in New York so on average, just under 10,000 per year during this 10 year span. Of the 96,000 cases, how many defendants entered a not guilty plea by reason of insanity or diminished capacity? They don't need to have won the case. Simply, of the 96,000 homicide cases tried in New York, how many of these pleas were entered during this time?

Let me know what you think and I'll post the answer. Then, I'll tell you of those cases, how many won!

August 28, 2007

First day of grad school update

My first two classes, Psych of Criminal Behavior and Statistics were fantastic and my Criminal Behavior professor charmed me off my feet! I had just purchased a globe so I walked into class carrying a big box. I suppose I could have alluded to the box containing my ex-boyfriend's head but I held back. It was only my first day of class!

For those of you curious what my courses are this semester click here.

Finally, did you know that John Jay (since it's a CUNY school) is costing me Jonah $3000 a semester, $6000 a year??!! Pretty great huh?? Yeah CUNY! YEAH JONAH!!

August 6, 2007

An Unsolved Killing by Jeffrey Toobin

An interesting article about a very unsolved murder messily intertwined in politics:

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June 4, 2007

Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments by Dominick Dunne

This book was enjoyable the way a three star movie is enjoyable. I love the topic and generally speaking I believe Dunne is pretty right on with his opinions and hunches however his thought process seems overly simplistic to me. I would prefer that "true crime" books be guided by sociological insight as provided by Lefkowitz in Our Guys or a psychological perspective as Carrere explored in The Adversary. I like some scientific thought to anchor the process of thinking about crime. It was fun however to reminisce about the "great" crimes of the 90s such as the Menendez brothers and of course OJ (still makes me rant and rave that he was acquitted) and if I were stranded on a desert island for a day I would be happy to have only this book...but when the rescue plane came I would surely talk the pilot's ear off about how the book isn't as thoughtful as I would have liked.

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June 1, 2007

Fall 2007 classes at John Jay!

Man it feels good to be registered! I've been realizing recently how much I have loved being back in school. Can't wait to get my dirty paws on these subjects in the fall!

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May 14, 2007

A Death in Belmont by Sebastien Junger

Finished this book last week by a fellow Wesleyan alum and while I am glad to have read it I can't help but agree with an Amazon reviewer that the book could have used more editing. Something about the tone and pace wasn't quite right. Nevertheless I enjoyed learning about the times and places surrounding the Boston Strangler cases, Roy Smith who may or may not have been wrongly convicted of a Boston Strangler crime and Al DeSalvo a convicted rapist who insisted he was the Boston Strangler but was never tried for those crimes. Did you know that as the jury finished hearing the judge's instructions and was released to begin deliberations on the guilt of Roy Smith they were told that JFK has just been shot and killed? Just a little intense!

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April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech Shooting: Gunman's Writings were Disturbing

Excerpts from most recent information about the gunman:

Professor Carolyn Rude, chairwoman of the university's English department, said Cho's writing was so disturbing that he had been referred to the university's counseling service.

"Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things and you never know if it's creative or if they're describing things, if they're imagining things or just how real it might be," Rude said. "But we're all alert to not ignore things like this."

"He was very quiet, always by himself," neighbor Abdul Shash said. Shash said Cho spent a lot of his free time playing basketball and would not respond if someone greeted him.

Classmates painted a similar picture. Some said that on the first day of a British literature class last year, the 30 or so students went around and introduced themselves. When it was Cho's turn, he didn't speak.

On the sign-in sheet where everyone else had written their names, Cho had written a question mark. "Is your name, `Question mark?'" classmate Julie Poole recalled the professor asking. The young man offered little response.

Cho spent much of that class sitting in the back of the room, wearing a hat and seldom participating. In a small department, Cho distinguished himself for being anonymous. "He didn't reach out to anyone. He never talked," Poole said.

"We just really knew him as the question mark kid," Poole said.

Gunman kills 33 people at Virginia-Tech University, April 16, 2007.

In light of yesterday's horrific incident at Virgina Tech I am just hoping desperately and perhaps naively, that debate will result in a tightening of gun laws in this country. It is not rare that in public places I think, "it's possible someone has a gun right now". And that's not a nice thought. People are fragile. Sometimes all it takes is enough trauma to push you over the edge and boom, you kill over 30 people while searching for your girlfriend who surely wronged you in some way. Ugh. So sad.

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April 10, 2007

The Brain on the Stand by Jeffrey Rosen

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This article from the NYT magazine is a few weeks old but really interesting and asks the huge question: How does and should neuroscience affect criminal law?

From a ton of worthy excerpts I've whittled it down to these:

One important question raised by the Roper case was the question of where to draw the line in considering neuroscience evidence as a legal mitigation or excuse. Should courts be in the business of deciding when to mitigate someone’s criminal responsibility because his brain functions improperly, whether because of age, in-born defects or trauma? As we learn more about criminals’ brains, will we have to redefine our most basic ideas of justice?

Two of the most ardent supporters of the claim that neuroscience requires the redefinition of guilt and punishment are Joshua D. Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard, and Jonathan D. Cohen, a professor of psychology who directs the neuroscience program at Princeton. Greene got Cohen interested in the legal implications of neuroscience, and together they conducted a series of experiments exploring how people’s brains react to moral dilemmas involving life and death. In particular, they wanted to test people’s responses in the f.M.R.I. scanner to variations of the famous trolley problem, which philosophers have been arguing about for decades.

The trolley problem goes something like this: Imagine a train heading toward five people who are going to die if you don’t do anything. If you hit a switch, the train veers onto a side track and kills another person. Most people confronted with this scenario say it’s O.K. to hit the switch. By contrast, imagine that you’re standing on a footbridge that spans the train tracks, and the only way you can save the five people is to push an obese man standing next to you off the footbridge so that his body stops the train. Under these circumstances, most people say it’s not O.K. to kill one person to save five.

“I wondered why people have such clear intuitions,” Greene told me, “and the core idea was to confront people with these two cases in the scanner and see if we got more of an emotional response in one case and reasoned response in the other.” As it turns out, that’s precisely what happened: Greene and Cohen found that the brain region associated with deliberate problem solving and self-control, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, was especially active when subjects confronted the first trolley hypothetical, in which most of them made a utilitarian judgment about how to save the greatest number of lives. By contrast, emotional centers in the brain were more active when subjects confronted the second trolley hypothetical, in which they tended to recoil at the idea of personally harming an individual, even under such wrenching circumstances. “This suggests that moral judgment is not a single thing; it’s intuitive emotional responses and then cognitive responses that are duking it out,” Greene said.

“To a neuroscientist, you are your brain; nothing causes your behavior other than the operations of your brain,” Greene says. “If that’s right, it radically changes the way we think about the law. The official line in the law is all that matters is whether you’re rational, but you can have someone who is totally rational but whose strings are being pulled by something beyond his control.” In other words, even someone who has the illusion of making a free and rational choice between soup and salad may be deluding himself, since the choice of salad over soup is ultimately predestined by forces hard-wired in his brain. Greene insists that this insight means that the criminal-justice system should abandon the idea of retribution — the idea that bad people should be punished because they have freely chosen to act immorally — which has been the focus of American criminal law since the 1970s, when rehabilitation went out of fashion. Instead, Greene says, the law should focus on deterring future harms. In some cases, he supposes, this might mean lighter punishments. “If it’s really true that we don’t get any prevention bang from our punishment buck when we punish that person, then it’s not worth punishing that person,” he says. (On the other hand, Carter Snead, the Notre Dame scholar, maintains that capital defendants who are not considered fully blameworthy under current rules could be executed more readily under a system that focused on preventing future harms.)

Morse insists that “brains do not commit crimes; people commit crimes” — a conclusion he suggests has been ignored by advocates who, “infected and inflamed by stunning advances in our understanding of the brain . . . all too often make moral and legal claims that the new neuroscience . . . cannot sustain.” He calls this “brain overclaim syndrome” and cites as an example the neuroscience briefs filed in the Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons to question the juvenile death penalty. “What did the neuroscience add?” he asks. If adolescent brains caused all adolescent behavior, “we would expect the rates of homicide to be the same for 16- and 17-year-olds everywhere in the world — their brains are alike — but in fact, the homicide rates of Danish and Finnish youths are very different than American youths.” Morse agrees that our brains bring about our behavior — “I’m a thoroughgoing materialist, who believes that all mental and behavioral activity is the causal product of physical events in the brain” — but he disagrees that the law should excuse certain kinds of criminal conduct as a result. “It’s a total non sequitur,” he says. “So what if there’s biological causation? Causation can’t be an excuse for someone who believes that responsibility is possible. Since all behavior is caused, this would mean all behavior has to be excused.” Morse cites the case of Charles Whitman, a man who, in 1966, killed his wife and his mother, then climbed up a tower at the University of Texas and shot and killed 13 more people before being shot by police officers. Whitman was discovered after an autopsy to have a tumor that was putting pressure on his amygdala. “Even if his amygdala made him more angry and volatile, since when are anger and volatility excusing conditions?” Morse asks. “Some people are angry because they had bad mommies and daddies and others because their amygdalas are mucked up. The question is: When should anger be an excusing condition?”

The experiments, conducted by Elizabeth Phelps, who teaches psychology at New York University, combine brain scans with a behavioral test known as the Implicit Association Test, or I.A.T., as well as physiological tests of the startle reflex. The I.A.T. flashes pictures of black and white faces at you and asks you to associate various adjectives with the faces. Repeated tests have shown that white subjects take longer to respond when they’re asked to associate black faces with positive adjectives and white faces with negative adjectives than vice versa, and this is said to be an implicit measure of unconscious racism. Phelps and her colleagues added neurological evidence to this insight by scanning the brains and testing the startle reflexes of white undergraduates at Yale before they took the I.A.T. She found that the subjects who showed the most unconscious bias on the I.A.T. also had the highest activation in their amygdalas — a center of threat perception — when unfamiliar black faces were flashed at them in the scanner. By contrast, when subjects were shown pictures of familiar black and white figures — like Denzel Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Conan O’Brien — there was no jump in amygdala activity.

“Will we use brain imaging to track kids in school because we’ve discovered that certain brain function or morphology suggests aptitude?” he asks. “I work for NASA, and imagine how helpful it might be for NASA if it could scan your brain to discover whether you have a good enough spatial sense to be a pilot.” Wolpe says that brain imaging might eventually be used to decide if someone is a worthy foster or adoptive parent — a history of major depression and cocaine abuse can leave telltale signs on the brain, for example, and future studies might find parts of the brain that correspond to nurturing and caring.

April 4, 2007

Greenwich Village Shooting aftermath

Thank god something good came of the shooting: Now auxillary cops get bulletproof vests.

The Village Tannery:

NYC03.07_GreenwichVillageShooting_Store_Bulletholes.jpg

Upclose:

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* Bleecker between MacDougal & Sullivan.

April 2, 2007

Adding Method to Judging Mayhem By Adam Liptak

For those of you without a TimesSelect account, here's the article in its entirety:

There are, Dr. Michael H. Stone says, 22 varieties of killers, and he has ranked them in order of evil.

The worst are your psychopathic torture-murderers, at least where torture is the primary motive. Near the other end, at No. 4, are those who killed in self-defense “but had been extremely provocative towards the victim.”

Dr. Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia, said he had put the scale together based on the biographies of hundreds of killers. “I have a very extensive spreadsheet,” he said.

Dr. Michael Welner, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University, has even greater and much more practical ambitions. He is at work on a “depravity scale” to aid juries in separating the worst of the worst from the really bad. It is based on an Internet survey that asks respondents to rank various acts in order of heinousness.

I took the survey the other day, at www.depravityscale.org, but I found it hard and largely pointless to try to distinguish between, say, a contract killing and mailing anthrax.

Continue reading "Adding Method to Judging Mayhem By Adam Liptak" »

March 30, 2007

Located in Hospital, DNA Clears Buffalo Man Convicted in ’80s Rapes by David Staba

Equally consoling and horrifying, another exoneration by DNA.

The evidence, genetic material from two rapes stored on microscopic slides, had languished in a hospital drawer for more than 20 years, as the man convicted of the crimes languished behind bars. Numerous times, including four in the last two months, the authorities issued subpoenas for the material, only to be told that it was not in the hospital.

But on Wednesday, the district attorney announced that the slides had finally been found last week, and that DNA tests on them matched Altemio Sanchez, not the man convicted of the crimes, Anthony Capozzi.

Mr. Capozzi, 50, who has been incarcerated since his 1985 arrest, could be freed within a week, the authorities said. continued...

March 23, 2007

John Jay Forensic Psychology, here I come!!

I was recently accepted into John Jay's Forensic Psychology Masters program!! I am eager and excited to begin classes in the fall.

Here are my main areas of interest - perhaps one or two of you out there has similar fascinations!

The indeterminate art and science of jury consulting: Unnatural Selection by Matthew Hutson. Jury selection took its first halting steps toward science in 1972, when seven Vietnam War protesters were charged with conspiracy and put on trial in conservative Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Pretrial polls indicated that 80 percent of potential jurors would vote to convict. Social scientists armed with community surveys explored which backgrounds and attitudes suggested sympathetic jurors (good: women and Democrats; bad: the religious, college educated, subscribers to Reader's Digest). In the end, the Harrisburg Seven received only one minor conviction, and a field was born.

Psychopathology of cults, especially the Aum Shinrikyo: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami. The sarin attack exposed Tokyo authorities' total lack of preparation to cope with such fiendish urban terrorism. More interesting, however, is the variety of reactions among the survivors, a cross-section of Japanese citizens. Their individual voices remind us of the great diversity within what is too often viewed from afar as a homogeneous society. What binds most of them is their curious lack of anger at Aum. Chilling, too, is the realization that so many Aum members were intelligent, well-educated persons who tried to fill voids in their lives by following Shoko Asahara, a mad guru who promised salvation through total subordination to his will.

Serial returners: Chronic Returners May Be 'Bulimic' Spenders. Dr. April Lane Benson, a psychologist who authored "I Shop, Therefore I Am," said serial returning is a well-kept secret because it carries so much embarrassment and shame. It's "something people don't tend to talk about because the person who is the compulsive returner is often very perfectionistic and feels that they should be more in control," said Benson, a psychologist who specializes in treating compulsive shoppers.

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