Prosecutors Seek To Imprison Amanda Knox For Life

Unbelievably, an Italian prosecutor asked an appeals court in Perugia Saturday to increase American Amanda Knox’s sentence for killing her housemate to life imprisonment.

Prosecutor Giancarlo Costagliola also urged that Knox, 24, be given six months of solitary confinement, ABC News reported. Costagliola said Knox’s former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito should be sentenced to life with two months in solitary.

Knox was sentenced to 26 years and Sollecito to 25. They were found guilty of killing Meredith Kercher, a British student spending a year in Perugia, during a drug-fueled sex game while the two women were sharing a house in 2007.

Defense lawyers are to present their closing arguments next week, followed by a rebuttal.

Prosecutors also tried to discredit two court-appointed forensic experts who reviewed DNA evidence and found it wanting. Prosecutor Manuela Comodi said they are professors of forensic evidence rather than practicing investigators, The Guardian reported.

“Would you entrust the wedding reception of your only daughter to someone who knew all the recipes by heart but had never actually cooked?” Comodi said.

No More Last Meals For Texas Death Row Inmates

Frankly, I’m not sure what to think of this new move to banish last meals for Texas death row inmates. According to the article:

Death-row inmates headed to their executions will no longer be able to pick what they’d like for their last meal.

Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, issued this statement in response to concerns from Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire:

“I believe Senator Whitmire’s concerns regarding the practice of allowing death row offenders to choose their last meal are valid. Effective immediately, no such accommodations will be made. They will receive the same meal served to other offenders on the unit.”

Here’s the original post about Whitmire’s concerns:
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, wants to end the practice of providing death-row inmates with whatever they’d like for their last meal.

Whitmire – in a Thursday letter to Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — said he’s long been concerned about the practice and that the last straw was the Houston Chronicle’s report of Lawrence Russell Brewer ordering a huge last meal that he failed to eat.

The senator recounted Brewer’s order of two chicken fried steaks, a triple meat bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet, a large bowl of fried okra, three fajitas, a pint of Blue Bell ice cream, and a pound of barbecue with a half loaf of white bread, calling it “ridiculous.”

“I am asking that you end this practice immediately or I am prepared to do so by statute next session,” Whitmire wrote. “Death row inmates before execution should be fed the same meal as any other inmate on the unit the day of the scheduled execution.”

I don’t trust the government to get anything right – especially death. On the other hand, some crimes are so dastardly, such as the murder of children, that death isn’t quite enough for me – I want torture and death.

Americans overwhelmingly support the death penalty and I am inclined to support it too. But there is that niggling doubt in the back of my mind – the worry that maybe the wrong guy is about to be put down.

I really don’t see the harm in giving inmates a last meal of their choice. Some people abuse it, like this assclown who ordered more food than any person could eat. But the state could impose limits, if they chose. Instead, they go for the extreme, ending last meals entirely.

Part of why I don’t trust the state to get it right is because it is so extreme and capricious this way. They don’t see any nuance. It’s very concerning.

Standards of Evidence In Death Row Cases

Before she was executed in 2005, Francis Newton was one of Texas’ longest living residents on Death Row. She had been there for seventeen years, and she protested her innocence every one of her days. The facts of the case are thus: Francis Newton’s husband and two young children were shot to death. Ms. Newton had recently taken out insurance on the victims. Four days after the murder, she filed her insurance claims. The prosecution asserted that Newton killed her family for the insurance, and a jury convicted her.

I recently came across this letter from the ACLU pleading with Gov. Rick Perry for clemency while Newton was on Death Row. The interesting part was this:

What makes Ms. Newton’s case even more disturbing is that the evidence against her is largely forensic evidence.

Wait, what? Usually supporters claim a case is “circumstantial” and thus you can’t convict (or execute) because there is no hard evidence that the person committed the action. But in this case, the ACLU is claiming that they only have hard evidence?

There are no eyewitnesses to the crime and Ms. Newton has maintained her innocence from the beginning.

Interesting non sequitur.

The forensic tests for the state’s evidence were conducted by the now thoroughly discredited Houston Police Department Laboratory.

In the ACLU’s defense, the Houston Police Department Laboratory is a nightmare. Over 7,000 rape kits are missing, among other horrors. In fact, here is a sampling of Houston Chronicle headlines regarding our shameful forensic lab:

July 29, 2011: “HPD crime lab faces more heat; Former supervisor testifies she quit over accuracy of alcohol tests.”

July 19, 2010: “District attorney calls for emergency DNA lab; Houston’s backlog of cases keeps growing.”

January 27, 2010: “HPD lab faces 3rd backlog problem; 300 cases are in need of firearm forensics.”

December 13, 2009: “Prints and problems; HPD’s fingerprint scandal reminds us how much we need an independent crime lab.”

April 25, 2009: “Another crime lab bungle surfaces; Prosecutors to ask that man who has spent 22 years in prison be freed on bail. Richard could be 4th man cleared after crime lab errors.”

January 26, 2008: “HPD again shuts down crime lab’s DNA unit; Move follows resignation of division’s leader in cheating probe.”

December 12, 2007: “HPD lab analyst indicted on theft, tampering charges. His suspension triggered a review of 200 narcotics cases he’d handled.”

June 17, 2007: “‘Troubling’ Cases Surface in Report on HPD Crime Lab; 1991 conviction for rape, murder has drawn the most concern.”

January 5, 2006: “HPD Lab Probe Details More Lapses; Revelations show 2 divisions’ problems amount to ‘near-total breakdown.’”

December 18, 2005: “HPD’s lab’s troubles predate DNA testing; Experts’ review finds a pattern of problems in 1980s studies of blood samples.”

June 5, 2005: “Bitter pills; HPD analysts faked drug evidence in four cases. How much more fraud has gone undetected?”

November 5, 2003: “DNA evidence destroyed; pardons called possible.”

June 25, 2003: “HPD ignored warnings, ex-lab man says; Retired official says he cited ‘train wreck.’”

April 3, 2003: “HPD chief proposes independently run crime lab.”

June 5, 2002: “Rape Kits; HPD strives to end ‘embarrassment’ of untested DNA.”

Furthermore, the type of evidence used against her is coming under increasing scrutiny. For instance, the scientific basis underlying the testimony by the ballistics expert that identified the murder weapon has frequently proven to be erroneous.

The problem with this accusation is that it isn’ specific to Newton’s case and being “frequently” wrong isn’t the same as being “always” wrong.

Similarly, expert testimony regarding traces of material found on her clothing as proving that Ms. Newton fired a weapon is open to misinterpretation.

Again, the ACLU did Newton no favors by not explaining what that other interpretation might be. What they are talking about here is the fact that Newton’s dress showed gunshot residue on it. If she didn’t actually fire the weapon that killed her family, it would be in ACLU’s best interest (not to mention Newton’s) to put forth a new argument here. This isn’t a briefing to the Court, meaning they can introduce new evidence any time they wish. So spill it.

Additionally, the reliability of “future dangerousness” testimony is also coming under scrutiny as well by the scientific community.

Again: vague. If the ACLU wanted to put forth evidence that Newton would not have been a future danger if her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, this would have been the time to do it. Instead, the result is a flaccid, not-very-well written and completely unconvincing letter. (The author of the letter, Rachel King, passed away from cancer in 2008.)

I really don’t have an opinion about Newton’s guilt or innocence. I’m extremely skeptical of any story the prosecution puts forth, but in this case the evidence does seem to support guilt.

Another Texas case (Texas is rich in oil, natural gas, and executions) is the horrible murder of a nineteen year old college student, Melissa Trotter. The person on death row for that crime, Larry Swearingen, swears he is innocent. (John T Floyd has a good re-cap of the case here) As Floyd points out, a lot of the forensic evidence points away from Swearingen. However, it is one piece of evidence that keeps me thinking that he’s guilty.

Melissa Trotter was strangled with a cut-off leg of pantyhose. Four days after the crime, police found the a pair of pantyhose in Swearingen’s trash, with one leg cut off. This evidence is circumstantial, but is powerful enough for me to think guilty, guilty, guilty. There might be an innocent explanation for it, but I haven’t heard one. When I think about the supposed cell phone evidence (some say that his cell phone records prove he was nowhere near her during the time of the crime), I feel that tug of reasonable doubt. But the pantyhose keep tipping me right back over.

Another issue with the Swearingen case is that his attorneys are trying to oversell the “good” condition of Melissa’s body when it was discovered. Melissa was discovered in a forest in Montgomery County, and a person who found her said she was in such good shape he thought she was a mannequin. The reason this is important is because it establishes time of death. If Swearingen can get the time frame right, he can claim he was already in jail during the time the crime occurred (he was picked up for traffic tickets.) But I read Trotter’s autopsy report and she was not in pristine condition. Her eyes had been liquified. Her tongue was black. Numerous parts of her body were completely decomposed. So it was not as if she had been thrown into the forest on the morning Swearingen had been picked up for traffic tickets. There was time when she was lying in that forest and he was free.

I recognize his lawyers will try to sell whatever evidence they can. But by dismissing the pantyhose evidence (“it’s just circumstantial!”) and really stretching and bending that timeline, I become more suspicious of their case. I want a lawyer to tell me why those pantyhose were in Swearingen’s trash. I know they don’t have to. But I would like an explanation, and if I were on that jury, I would desperately want the attorney to give me some completely rational, non-murdery reason for it.

I’m curious about the standards of evidence. Does the ACLU now believe juries require rock-solid forensic evidence plus circumstantial evidence in order to convict? Will that become the new standard?

Would the pantyhose be enough to convince you to convict? What about the ballistics evidence on Francis Newton’s skirt? Would either of these two things be enough to send a person to death row?

Who Killed Those Boys?

As I watched Paradise Lost, I was blown away by Mark Byers’ visceral response to the murder of his son, Christopher Byers. He was loud, and he took up a lot of screen time railing about how he hated the West Memphis Three. He stood in the creek bank where the boys were found, grinding his teeth, and said he would piss on the graves of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley. A particularly interesting passage was when he sang a very solemn song at his Baptist church, and the lines were something like:

whatever it takes to be more like You
is what I will do

The next scene was him firing a gun into a pumpkin, saying, “This one’s for Damian. Oh he’s still wiggling a little bit, I think I need to shoot him again.” This went on and on.

He is seen mourning at his son’s grave with his wife. Then I noticed that she was much quieter than he. She kept trying to stay out of the picture frame.

And then I realized that this man who was making such a huge show of his grief was the boy’s stepfather. I know that it is possible for steps to love their spouse’s children but Mark Byers’ grief seemed crazily out of scale to his wife’s, and this wasn’t even his own flesh and blood. It made me think he was trying to convince me of something.

Other things would come about, such as his many contradictory statements to police, the knife given to HBO that had human blood on it, and his wife’s mysterious death. I don’t want to accuse anyone of murder without a really good reason, but I am interested in learning more about Mark Byers. For all his look-at-me-ism, he really does seem to have been overlooked during the initial investigation.

Things Missed

I’m watching an old interview with Damien Echols on YouTube and he mentions that he’s not been outside in twenty years; he says the “outside” they have in prison is a cell with a roof and bars but no bed or anything else. He says he misses the rain. He says he doesn’t remember what pizza tastes like. And he said that he’s never actually seen the internet, used a cell phone, or seen a computer since 1986, when he was in junior high school.

And they haven’t had sex in twenty years.

I imagine that today will be loud and confusing for the West Memphis Three. I am sure friends and family will buzz around them, holding them, sometimes just touching them to know for a fact that they are really home.

I hope they are bowled over by the things they have missed. I hope that the world lives up to the hopes and dreams the young men had when they were locked up every day for twenty years.

THEY ARE FREE!

CNN just sent a flash to my phone:

Three men convicted in the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, were ordered released after entering new pleas at a court hearing.

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 18 years in prison with credit for time served, a prosecutor said. They were to be released on Friday.

Critics of the prosecution argued no direct evidence tied the three to the murders and that a knife recovered from a lake near the home of one of the accused could not have caused the boys’ wounds. More recent DNA testing also demonstrated no links, according the men’s supporters.

I’m dying for the footage of them walking out of prison. And I am eager for the inevitable interviews with Diane Sawyer, etc. This is a great day for justice. Eighteen years too late, of course, but I am so happy that the West Memphis Three are now free.

West Memphis Three Get Mystery Hearing

According to CNN, three men convicted of killing thee West Memphis boys in 1993 will have a short-notice hearing on Friday morning.

All three of the men — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, dubbed the “West Memphis Three” — are expected to attend the session in Jonesboro. CNN says that the state’s attorney general’s office said it could not comment on the matter, citing a gag order on participants in the case. Stephanie Harris, a spokeswoman for the state court system, said the convicts would appear before a judge in chambers before the public hearing is held.

Echols was sentenced to death and Misskelley and Baldwin were given life sentences in the May 1993 slayings of second-graders Steven Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. The boys’ bodies were mutilated and left in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces.

Prosecutors argued that Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin, then teenagers, were driven by satanic ritual and that Echols had been the ringleader. But DNA testing that was not available at the time failed to link any of the men to the crime, and the state Supreme Court ruled in November that all three could present new evidence to the trial court in an effort to clear them.

The case has drawn national attention, with actor Johnny Depp and singer Eddie Vedder trying to rally support for the men’s release.

Casey Anthony Trial Revisited

I’m just going to have to be honest and admit that I am fascinated by the Casey Anthony trial. The State of Florida seems to have a very solid case, while defense attorney Jose Baez is flopping around like a fish on a pier, gasping for a break that will never come. He is outclassed, and he knows it. It is difficult to know if he’s always this bad or if he’s setting up Casey’s appeal on the basis of ineffective counsel.

A good example of his ineptness happened yesterday when he was questioning Dr. Arpad Vass, a research scientist and anthropologist who studies human decomposition. He was attempting to discredit Vass by making him out to be something he isn’t. So he brought up a Wikipedia page on Dr. Vass, which said he was a “chemist”. Dr. Vass quickly and comprehensively denied ever posting anything to Wikipedia on any subject. Baez quickly backed off.

But this is the level its come to. Baez is doing his legal research on Wikipedia! If there was ever a more sorry attempt to discredit a witness, I haven’t seen it.

Maybe I’m being to hard on Baez. He has an incredibly difficult job: he’s defending a woman who cold-bloodedly killed her two year old child. As someone who is furious at the way people jumped to conclusions about the Enron defendants, I try very hard to be objective and neutral. But every time I try to buy into Baez’s absurd and logically inconsistent theory I remember that Casey Anthony waited 31 days to report her child missing. And she didn’t even report Caylee missing: Casey’s mother reported her missing after Casey kept evading, prevaricated, and lied. If it were up to Casey Anthony, Caylee still would not have been reported, lo these three years later.

The defense proffered a theory that Caylee died on June 16 in a tragic drowning in the family’s swimming pool and George Anthony helped cover it up. If this happened, why did George Anthony drive around Orlando with “Help Find Caylee” signs on his car? Why did he ask her over and over again, when they were alone, if she had any new info about the nanny that supposedly took Caylee? Why didn’t he come clean when his daughter was thrown in jail, and then accused of capital murder, which carries a death penalty? Why didn’t Casey just come clean to Detective Melich when he questioned her at Universal Studios? Why did she give the names of fake people if Caylee drowned? If Caylee drowned, why didn’t she show any sadness, since several friends testified that she seemed utterly normal? There are a thousand of these types of questions – simple, logical questions. But there are no answers forthcoming.

Sheila and I have talked on this blog about psychopaths, such as Joran Van Der Sloot. We’ve shivered with horror thinking about how cold, flat and utterly smooth these monsters are. But I think in Casey Anthony, the ultimate psychopath has been revealed. She’s got every bullet point characteristic of a psychopath, but one thing that I keep going back to is Det. Melich’s questioning of her at Universal Studios. She led him down a hallway and then said, “I don’t work here.” And then upon finding a conference room to use, Melich used every technique in the book: he was kind, he was pushy, he tried to give her an out by insinuating that it was an accident, etc. And she continued to spin lies.

I don’t think I could ever lie to a police detective. I think I’d be way too nervous. But she was just ice. That fascinates me.

I am enjoying watching her stone-faced performance at trial to try and figure out what she’s thinking as the evidence is demonstrated in clear, scientific terms. I think a small part of her still hopes that her imaginary world will come through and somehow save her. I literally get that folkloric prickle on the neck when I see her grim face at the defense table. I already know what she’s capable of. I just want her kept away from society for the rest of her life, whether its via the death penalty or life in prison.

Supreme Court Refuses To Block Execution of “Good, Decent” Woman

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to block the execution of a woman convicted in two killings, clearing the way for Virginia’s first execution of a woman in nearly a century.

Via FoxNews:

Teresa Lewis, 41, is scheduled to die by injection Thursday for providing sex and money to two men to kill her husband and stepson in October 2002 so she could collect on a $250,000 insurance pay out.

Two of the three women on the court, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, voted to stop the execution. The court did not otherwise comment on its order.

The court’s decision followed Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s refusal to reconsider a clemency request, which he rejected Friday.

“A good and decent person is about to lose her life because of a system that is broken,” said attorney James E. Rocap III, who represents Lewis. He said he was referring to the decision by the Supreme Court and McDonnell’s rejection of clemency.

And pause.

There are a lot of valid reasons to block the execution of this woman but it seems a foolish tactic to use “she’s a good and decent person” as a reason, when in fact she killed her husband and stepson. The tertiary reason – that she’s a woman – seems beside the point.

I remember almost the same appeals being heard from coast to coast when Karla Faye Tucker was executed here in Texas. George W. Bush was the governor at the time and every bleeding heart who could find a camera condemned him for being so cold and callous as to kill a woman who had killed a man with a pickaxe and later said she’d had orgasms doing it.

It was the fact that she was a woman that offended the liberals more than anything – a fact I find hilarious. If they want equality, well, isn’t that equality in action?

I support the death penalty. But my experience with the Enron cases have made me extremely wary of allowing the federal government to have that much control over a human being. The DOJ is made up of ambitious attorneys who crave success just like the rest of us. They are not above doing lowdown, illegal, unethical things to advance their cause. So it seems to me that we have to be extremely cautious about the death penalty.

Can you imagine if the Enron cases were death penalty cases? Can you imagine John Kroger deciding whether or not to pursue the death penalty? I think if that were the case, half of the executives that I write about and care about and admire so much would be dead.

And it’s not because they were guilty. It’s because John Kroger, Andy Weissman and others acted with ruthless disregard to the rules. The executives were going to be found guilty, no matter what.

So while I think we should definitely execute murderers and child abusers, I worry that there’s no entity who can actually carry it out with 100% accuracy.

I admit that I don’t care if we’re accurate with terrorists. I don’t care if they were just the moneyman, or if they weren’t planning to blow up anything but just shot at a few soldiers in Afghanistan. I want them dead. I realize this is not a foreign policy that most people can get behind, but I’m okay with that.

Mostly I just want to know for a stone-cold fact that when an American citizen is put to death, they’re actually guilty. All the other pleas, such as “she’s a nice person”, “she’s a woman”, “she had a bad childhood,” etc etc don’t faze me at all. If she’s guilty, execute her.

But knowing what I know about the DOJ, I wonder how I will ever know if they’re really, really guilty.

The Evident Psychopathy of Joran van der Sloot

My friend Sheila sent an email asking if I’d seen Joran van der Sloot’s five-part interview with Greta Susteren. No, no I hadn’t. But we’re both sort of into psychopaths – she loves serial killers, I get fixated on certain special crimes like the Brand Dividian massacre, the Columbine shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing and a couple of others. Anyway, on the subject of Joran, our interests intersect.

I was fascinated with him during the Natalee Holloway hullabaloo because he was just way too calm. He never got upset, never seemed particularly bothered by the death of the young blond high school graduate. It was chilling to see, but also luridly fascinating.

Then when he was caught in Peru, the same thing happened. He began uttering these outrageous stories, expecting that police would believe him (example: a thief killed Stephany Flores.) Again, incredibly creepy and transfixing.

And yet as creepy as I know he is, I also know that if I had been a young girl, eighteen or twenty-one years old, and a man like Joran began to talk to me… Yep, I’d have been head over hills. I’m not proud of this, I’m only pointing out that for young girls who are inexperienced, his good looks and charm would have been irresistible.

That glib charm is part of the psychopathy profile. And I have not one iota of doubt that Joran van der Sloot is a psychopath. I was confirmed when I took Sheila’s advice and watched the five part series. He was just so calm, with that weird flat-effect. It’s a paradox because I say that I would have been charmed by him, but seeing him on screen, I feel goosebumps. It’s the same reaction a cat has when she arches her back and hisses. The message is clear: stay far away from me.

So I’ve been watching Nancy Grace and reading various newsreports, but I already know what happened. The most fascinating thing for me is to watch him walk through the media. He is utterly calm.

It’s also a weird little reminder that Tim McVeigh, for all his faults, was not a psychopath. Tim McVeigh was stone-faced, and looked hard the first time the media saw him. I am talking about this sequence:

In the McVeigh Tapes, he said that when he was preparing to leave the jail, he intentionally held his back straight, kept his eyes straight ahead, and refused to acknowledge any of the media. He was hard, rigid. Compare that to van der Sloot:

That is a smile of contempt. A smirk that says I did it and I’m gonna get away with it. He’s completely relaxed, and maybe even enjoying the attention.

He completely freaks me out.

My conjecture is that he was a budding serial killer. I think killing two women in a five year period qualifies for some kind of serial offender status. The first rumor for motive that came out of Peru was that he had found Stephany on his computer, and she had discovered something incriminating about his involvement with Natalee Holloway. I believe it. I can see him losing his mind in a rage and beating her to death. No problem whatsoever with that imagery. And I think if he’d not been caught, in a few years we would have heard stories about other women, victims of his aggression.

I am sorry that Stephany was murdered, but I am happy that Natalee Holloway’s family might finally get some peace. They won’t have justice because it is unlikely, in my opinion, that he will be tried for Natalee’s murder unless he makes a full confession (I know he already has, but he’s withdrawn it; he might make another.) But maybe, with Joran locked up now, they can sleep.

I’m also pleased that Joran won’t be housed in some Aruban jail with tropical breezes and the smell of salty sea-air. No, he’ll be in Peru, with all that entails.

I will be curious to see watch the journey to justice this young man will endure. I have the unsettling suspicion that he will indeed rather like it. The blog Raising A Psychopath is about a couple who adopted a psychopath. They had to institutionalize him, and he loves being institutionalized. He’s calm and generally obeys the rules. I can see Joran enjoying it the same way.

How do you punish someone who you can not punish? I doubt seriously anyone can ever make Joran feel bad about what he did to those two women. That lack of remorse is fascinating and horrifying. I like the safety of studying it from a distance – and while he is behind bars.

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