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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Richard Glossip to be executed this afternoon

I remember as a 7th grader doing the clock countdown with my classmates to the execution of Caryl Chessman in April, 1960 and applauded with the rest of them when the clock struck the moment, an action I profoundly regret today.  So I have watched with horror the unseemly haste with which the  the politicos in Oklahoma are driven to execute Richard Glossip.

Whether anyone should be executed without any physical evidence and merely on the say-so of someone (Sneed - who says he was hired by Glossip) who had everything to gain by ratting out someone else is problematic at best. And evidence is accumulating that Glossip might in fact be innocent as he has consistently maintained.  I'm not so naive as to always believe the protestations of the convicted, yet to argue that courts and juries never make mistakes is the height of hubris and shows a reverence for big government I just can't accept. Unfortunately, evidence of innocence has never been enough to overturn a conviction in the appellate courts as Justice Scalia noted in Re Troy Anthony Davis, a writ for habeas corpus, as I was reminded when reviewing Anatomy of Injustice, the story of a mentally deficient man who was convicted three times of a murder which we now know he did not commit.

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.

As I noted in my review, it seems to me that innocence should trump just about everything and when trial courts engage in malfeasance, no matter how many trials someone has, shouldn’t exculpatory evidence best all else?

Justice is a concept everyone wants but is all too often defined as revenge rather than fairness. As of May 2014, 14,000 people have been executed in the United States and 3,000 remain on death row. It has been estimated that 4% of those executed were innocent. and more information at

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Reversal by Michael Connelly

Connelly combines two of his best creations in this legal novel starring Mickey Haller and Hieronymous Bosch. The story is told in the first person by Haller and third person about Bosch’s investigation.  Haller has been hired as an independent prosecutor to retry the case of a man sent to prison for 24 years for the murder of a young girl.  His case had been overturned and despite DNA evidence that appears to exonerate him, the D.A.’s office has decided it still has enough evidence to prove Jessup, the alleged killer, was guilty of the murder.

I don’t know why some authors feel it’s necessary for the bad guys to always target a cop’s family member or something similar. It’s just so improbable and unrealistic that I tend to tune out.  It’s almost as if they must believe the cops or whomever won’t do their best unless there is personal involvement, which is, of course, nonsense.

Good story though.  I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly

If you want a detailed plot summary with lots of spoilers see  I enjoyed the story very much, lots of neat trial work.  The plot was perhaps a bit contrived but no matter.  I like Mickey Haller’s character. Harry Bosch also plays a role in the novel and it turns out he has more in common with Haller than one would have expected, both literally and figuratively.

I had no idea what a “brass verdict” but when googled in the urban dictionary it does make sense.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Death at Seaworld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby

Our relationship to the animals around us is a tenuous one.  As the earth’s top predators what responsibility do we have to other species? I remember going to Seaworld in California many years ago and watching in awe as the orcas performed their tricks. I would be less enthralled today after what we have learned over the years regarding the natural habitat of the orcas compared to the cramped and unnatural living quarters of those in captivity.

Tilikum had been captured as a baby off Iceland (note that the Icelandic orcas have a different culture than those off British Columbia and different diet, the ones in B.C. feeding on fish, the others on mammals. Some have even been known to drown baleen whales in order to eat their fins.)  He was kept in a small tank for several years with two dominant females (orcas are primarily matriarchal) and often tormented by them.  It was just a matter of time before Tilikum became what we might call psychotic and unpredictable.

One of the themes brought out in this book is the natural antipathy between those who believe zoos are the best way to see and learn about animals and those who think that keeping animals of high intelligence, and there is no doubt that whales and apes have very high intelligence, is not only unworthy of humans but detrimental to the animals themselves and that the only way to study and learn about them is in the wild where the animals can behave normally. There was even some speculation that emerged from the hearings after Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau that institutions like Sea World and zoos have a vested interest in subtly portraying the dangers of nature.  Indeed one of Sea World’s major arguments for not returning their killer whales back to the wild was that they were safer penned up.  This argument morphs over into a more general one that nature is dangerous for humans as well so come see the animals in the zoo, please, where you won’t get hurt (and by the way buy a few t-shirts, mugs and pizza while you are there.)

There had been four deaths in the pools from interplay with orcas. Many others have been injured, several quite severely.  The hearings in Congress that ultimately resulted following Dawn’s death had to answer two vital questions: “ 1. Is captivity in an amusement park good for orcas: Is this the appropriate venue for killer whales to be held, and does it somehow benefit wild orcas and their ocean habitat, as the industry claims? 2. Is orca captivity good for society: Is it safe for trainers and truly educational for a public that pays to watch the whales perform what critics say are animal tricks akin to circus acts? Not surprisingly, people who support SeaWorld and other marine-themed entertainment parks (pro-caps in the lingo of this particular argument) answer affirmatively.”

There is little doubt these large animals are fascinating creatures with a sophisticated culture. Lots of information here on that. While the author’s sympathies clearly lie with those wishing to study animals in the wild, he does a good job of presenting both sides of the issue although he does focus primarily on those people like Naomi Rose, an orca expert and her evolution into anti-Seaworld activist.

One can sympathize with the Zoo proponents but that sympathy tends to waver in the face of their use of euphemisms and obfuscation in an attempt to make animal life at Sea World appear as “happy” as possible. As the great muckraker Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke

Audiobook: James LeeBurke is a master. His writing is vivid, the characters well-drawn, and the plots intriguing.   Dave Robicheaux is an ex-New Orleans cop whose-partner, Dixie Lee, now a “lease-man” for an oil company thinks he has overheard two other lease men discussing burying a body. Unsure as to what he heard and what to do about it, he seeks Dave’s help. In the meantime Dave chain-whips a bad guy (he really should have known better) and the guy turns up dead so Dave is facing a murder charge. He’s been a homicide detective but apparently has little faith in their ability to solve the crime and find the real killer so he heads for Montana to sort things out  
where his murder charge is resolved (are you really surprised) in the midst of Native Americans fighting against a land hungry oil company (that’s probably a redundancy).

There was something a bit off about this novel.  Perhaps it was that Dave was no longer in Louisiana; perhaps it was the -- to my mind -- excessive guilt-ridden self-examination that seems more a plea for forgiveness from others than seeking to understand himself; perhaps it was the excessively slow cadence of the reader who I normally like very much (Will Patton);  perhaps it was the implausible plot and would you take your six-year-old daughter on a dangerous mission? or, perhaps it was that I didn’t get the same sense of place that usually pervades Burke’s Louisiana Robicheax novels. Then again it might have been the outrageous way he solves the case.  

Personally, had I been the social worker, there is no way I would ever have placed Alifair with Dave given the level of violence with which he surrounds himself.

But he does write beautifully.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville

Audiobook: Finally, a book in which the violence serves the story instead of the opposite.This is the first in a series of novels that portray Belfast and Northern Ireland following the peace accords, which left a lot of violent men with little to do and changing loyalties. Gerry Fegan had been an enforcer for one of the groups of thugs ostensibly battling the British.  Now beset by guilt for those he had killed, he’s surrounded by imaginary “followers” representing each of the twelve he had killed and they won’t leave him alone until he kills those who had ordered the killings.

Much as slavery and segregation haunt U.S. history, so do the years of the Troubles for the Irish. Preserving the peace becomes a priority for those in power and they will sacrifice innocents to maintain political stability. That’s one of the underlying themes of Neville’s book. “"Even now [that] the politicians had taken over the movement," Neville writes of the Irish Republican Army paramilitaries, "even though they were shifting away from the rackets, the extortion, the thieving, people still needed to be kept in line."  The British still have their undercover agents and one of those is tasked by his handlers with killing Fegan in order to prevent his killings from upsetting the delicate balance.

Note that even though billed as the first in the Jack Lennon Investigations series, Lennon plays a minuscule role unlike the second.  It’s all Gerry Fegan.

I read this book after Collusion, the second in the series, and several things became clear in both volumes.  I recommend reading the books in order, as knowing what happens in the second destroys any suspense in the first. Very good reading.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

One of the great put-downs that's very relevant to current events

Click Here

Get Capone by Jonathan Eig

Audiobook:  By age 28, Capone was virtually “King” of Chicago.  He had orchestrated the reelection of Big Bill Thompson, a lunatic so weird that he would debate animals in cages, in 1927.  Thompson is considered the most unethical Mayor in Chicago history and was the last Republican to win election to that office. He ran on a platform of shutting down police raids on the ordinary citizen and had full support of the criminal element. “When I’m elected we will not only reopen places these people have closed,but we’ll open ten thousand new ones…. No copper will invade your home and fan your mattress for a hip flask.”   By that time the police had become much more hated than the gangsters.  Rather than go after the big guys (who were paying them graft) the cops made arrests by invading people’s homes and arresting anyone with a minute amount of alcohol. Corruption was endemic. (I suspect there is similar if less obvious corruption from the war on drugs.)  There was just too much money to be made.  The Volstead Act was celebrated, especially by the crooks.

No one was ever quite sure just how much Capone’s empire took in, but reasonable estimates place it close to $1.5 billion a year in today’s money. The intricate web of speakeasies, prostitution, gambling, and every other imaginable criminal enterprise all paid Capone.  He was smart, however, in that he was lavish with payoffs to cops and politicians and never was envious of others in his organization being ostentatious with their wealth.  For himself, he was not. His sole extravagances were gambling, fine suits, and a seven-ton Cadillac, heavily reinforced so has to make it impervious to bullets.  Other than that he lived a modest lifestyle.

It was the passage of the 16th amendment that probably got Capone. Aside from the fact that constant gang warfare and street shootings were having an impact on the rich by driving up insurance premiums and reducing their income of the wealthy; now gangsters were required to report their income.  Manny Sullivan had argued in court that reporting income on illegal activities was tantamount to self-incrimination (United States v Sullivan, 1927) and thus a violation of the 5th amendment. He lost unanimously and tax fraud investigations were conducted by postal inspectors, famous for their honesty and integrity.  No one dared violate the postal regulations because they were sure to be caught and convicted.  President Hoover had declared that the rule of law would prevail and it was reported that every day he would ask his associates if Capone was in jail yet.  Hoover, in his inimitable way suggested that everyone just stop drinking and that would ruin the crooks. Well, we know how well abstinence theory works.

The stock market crash (It’s just a depression, not a panic, said Hoover) affected Capone little.  He had refused to participate in the stock market, arguing he was a piker compared to the crooks on Wall Street and given the activities of the media and brokers to hype stocks (“hey, they will only go up, be sure to hang on to them, and what a great time to buy” while they were selling,) he had a point.  

One hindrance to any Capone prosecution was that he didn’t keep any books. So the details necessary to get him had to come from the inside. That insider was Eddy O’Hare. Eddy had managed to get the rights to the electric rabbit that revolutionized dog racing. Recognizing he was better off colluding with Capone than competing with him in dog racing, they formed a partnership. Frank had a son, Butch, who desperately wanted to fly airplanes.  Apparently he was a loveable kid and the apple of his father’s eye so Eddy made a deal with Frank Wilson, the most active of the prosecutors (Eliot Ness and the “untouchables” should have been called “the inactives” according to Eig) to help Butch get into the Naval Academy. As everyone knows who flies through O’Hare airport in Chicago, Butch was killed during the war in 1943 after becoming the Navy’s first ace.  He was also awarded the Medal of Honor.

Lots of detail about shootings and the role of the “Tommy” gun, the staccato sound of which apparently became familiar background noise for Chicagoans.  Not to mention how the new science of ballistics was used in the investigation of the St. Valentine's Day massacre. I found the early parts of the book to be quite superficial, but it definitely became more interesting as the decade progressed.

Anyone complaining about corruption today needs to do some reading about the early 20th century.  Prohibition, much like our current drug laws, created multiple scenarios for graft, murder, and political decadence. We obviously learned nothing from prohibition, but then we don’t have machine guns going off in the streets constantly, either. Oh, wait.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Kim Davis has it all wrong

There are two problems with Kim Davis's refusal to issue licenses to same-sex marriage couples.  One is her illogical stand on religious freedom and the other is a total misunderstanding of what she represents.

I celebrate religious freedom, people have the right to believe whatever nonsense they want, but Ms. Davis is doing just the opposite.  She is proclaiming that only her very narrow religious viewpoint counts.  How about the religious liberty of the the same-sex couples whose religious beliefs are clearly contrary to those of Ms. Davis.  There are plenty of Protestant denominations that have no problem with same-sex marriage. If this were truly about religious freedom both sides rights would have to be honored.  As it is, the Davis group only wants their own tiny religious view represented. Should she prevail, a non-Christian religious zealot could deny marriage licenses to any Christian who walked through the door. Her position is the antithesis of religious freedom.

Secondly, Ms., Davis has confused herself with the office.  When she signs (or more likely rubber stamps) a marriage license she is not personally approving anything.  She is acting as an officer of the county and legal system. It's not about her personally, it's about her acting as a representative of the state and county. She has personalized her job. It would be like a library circulation clerk refusing to check out Huckleberry Finn because the word "nigger" appears in the book.  The clerk's function is to check out books, not to foist his own perspective on others. Ms. Davis, a thrice divorced woman - which would seem to indicate she doesn't value a marriage license much anyway,-- doesn't get that. The marriage license is a "civil" contract saying the "state" is giving permission to marry.  There is no religious context or approval involved.

We are very fortunate in this country not to have a religious test to hold office. But we are also fortunate in that we expect office holders not to let their personal faith determine their public actions. Just as we as citizens recognize that the money we pay in taxes may be used to support things in which we do not personally believe (much to the consternation of some theocratically-oriented religious groups) such as pacifists supporting the military, etc.  Kim Davis was told by the governor of her state to follow the law; if she could not according to her conscience, she was free to resign, much as a conscientious objector can perform alternate service rather than fight in the military.  She chose instead to make a public issue of her refusal.

My cynical mind draws an inevitable conclusion:  this is a play to make a lot of money.  By becoming a public "martyr" for her "cause," she will inevitably attract considerable amounts of money, just as did the pizza joint in Indiana, to be followed by lucrative speaking engagements.

For a dispassionate account of events, the best I've seen is at

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Who Let the Dog Out by David Rosenfelt

Andy Carpenter is now married to Laurie and they have adopted Ricky (from the previous book.) An odd theft of a dog from their shelter leads Andy and his crew to a vicious murder and a puzzle.  Why would anyone want to steal a particular dog from a shelter when all they had to do was walk in and adopt it?  The case gets complicated, of course, and soon involves a dead chemist and blood diamonds, all tied together by Zoe, the shepherd mix.

The book is a delightful mix of humor and mystery not to mention dog-love.  Since I like all three and Grover Gardner is a wonderful reader, this book (and the series) are a delight.

An example of the humor is Andy’s self deprecation as he’s trying to assemble a toy parking garage for his son.  He begins by listing the many types of evil people in the world, i.e., terrorists, murders, etc. but the worst are toy manufacturers who consistently lie when they produce toys requiring “minimal” assembly and with no written instructions, except in Chinese or French, and have incomprehensible pictures. It’s a very funny scene with him sure the garage is missing at least four crucial parts and when completed looks like a Syrian warehouse that has just suffered a rocket attack.

For those of you who like hints in your mysteries I will drop one: chemical vapor deposition. That holds the key to the solution.

The dangers of DHMO: Dihydrogen monoxide

Unfortunately, ISIS has now begun polluting our water supply with DHMO, a tasteless, colorless liquid that is used:

  • as an industrial solvent and coolant.
  • in nuclear power plants.
  • in the production of styrofoam.
  • as a fire retardant.
  • in many forms of cruel animal research.
  • in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing, produce remains contaminated by this chemical.
  • as an additive in certain "junk-foods" and other food products.
  • contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
  • accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
  • may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.

In a classic case of bureaucratic bungling and to avoid panic, the EPA has insisted DHMO is safe.  Hah.

For more information on what you can do to stop this insidious plague, click here.