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Journalistic Ethics Week, Part 1: Nausea, or the (Attempted) Rehabilitation of Anthony Sowell

Stop the presses! It’s journalistic ethics week, and so perhaps it’s fitting that this first story plopped down in a big steaming mess on the pages of every newspaper that carries the AP.

Anthony Sowell, who was recently found knee-deep in the decaying bodies of his victims, doesn’t deserve to be labeled a rapist, according to the AP.

The fawning press, which was understandably having a real hard time finding a way to squeeze Sowell into the role of “the only real victim here,” has now achieved its goal, if only in a tiny, biased, misrepresentation-of-a-technicality way:

STORY REMOVED: US–Rapist’s Home-Bodies

CLEVELAND — The Associated Press has withdrawn its story about a sex offender who lived in a Cleveland house where several corpses were found. Authorities say that despite a police news release that described Anthony Sowell as a convicted rapist, he was convicted only of attempted rape. The story will be refiled as CLEVELAND-BODIES FOUND.

How brave of them.  How . . . edgy.  Of course, this little grandstand doesn’t mean anything legally.  Or ethically.  Or rationally.  It is simply a piquant demonstration of the entirely consensual, sado-masochistic relationship that exists between the defense bar and the fourth estate.

Sowell is a convicted sex offender.  Attempted rape is a sex crime.  If they’re going to split the infinitive, as it were, why not change the headline to “US –Sex Offender’s Home — Bodies Found.”  But no!  That might affect his self-esteem, or cause him PTSD or something.

And you know, it’s all about the killer’s self-esteem these days.  If we spent more time focusing on their needs, they wouldn’t need to kill so many people to express themselves.

In addition to actually being a convicted sex offender, Sowell is also an accused sex offender, if the women who escaped him recently are to be believed.

But why should the journalists believe them?  Why should they take the word of mere crime victims over the word of somebody who gets his rocks off strangling women to death?  Hell, if they start doing that, it will take a tiny bit of the fun out of death row defense, and then what will Hollywood make courageous movies about?

No, it’s far, far more principled to treat those women like the degraded slags they are.

Oh, wait, is someone suggesting that these women aren’t degraded slags?  But that’s what the AP said:

Hunting from home may have been easier because of the marginal lives led by Sowell’s alleged victims. All four of the Cleveland women identified until now battled addiction in their lives.

Have any of these women been convicted for substance abuse crimes?  Did they really all agree to accompany him voluntarily to his home?  Or were they only alleged substance abusers?  This is second-hand information, after all.  How, precisely, do you define “marginal”?  Will the AP issue a retraction if it turns out that, upon further jurisprudential-ly investigation, these women were only former substance abusers, or were not abusing substances when Sowell grabbed them, or did not have criminal records and therefore must above all not be labeled wrongly in the fake-pine paneled, dimly lit basement that passes for journalistic ethics these days?

But who cares about the victims, really?  Journalism is all about rehabilitating the offender.  Behaving as if the victims are human beings entitled to the same rights as those who kill, either in the courts or on the pages of the fishwrappers that fancy themselves courts is so . . . Lifetime.

In reality, in 1989, Sowell only pled to attempted rape to gain a reduction in charges for rape and kidnapping. The victim, who was pregnant at the time of the attack, had actually been kidnapped, bound, gagged and raped (thank you, Cleveland Plain Dealer, for bothering to get it right).  If the AP is so pointillistically hellbent on offering a legally accurate record of events, then why take out all mention of sex crime?  The plea was a legal fiction, a technique that a guilty man used in order to shorten his sentence as much as possible.  It slotted Sowell into a sentence in exchange for admitting to a lesser crime, but it did not create forensic or legal proof that the rape was only “attempted.”

Too bad these types of facts don’t matter in the ethical universe of the AP.

I wonder if DNA still exists from that case.  Perhaps, if the police could offer the legal vigilantistas in the media proof of precisely where Sowell’s penis went after he kidnapped, bound, and gagged a woman — you know, like cradling the skull of a Pot Pol victim, or sifting through the final hours of the Argentinian disappeared — they might see the error of their ways.

But I doubt that would be the outcome.  Retractions are for sex offenders, not their victims.  It’s simply too long a stretch from crudely cleansing Sowell’s record of any mention of sex crime to accurate reporting.

First, you have to want to change.

The nauseating spectacle of AP editors rushing to make an unnecessary correction that turns into a literal denial of the facts of Sowell’s previous conviction is actually a perfect metaphor for what the media has become, and I don’t make this accusation lightly: the media has become a tool for denying the reality of crime.  And like all official deniers and court-propagandists, their ugliest excesses arise from the degree that they believe their own lies and omissions: exactly none of the newspapers that ran this AP “retraction” simultaneously bothered to explore its legal accuracy, or significance, or revisit the documents from the court case.

And so they all march lockstep, all trampling the experience of the woman who was brave enough to survive Sowell’s attack 20 years ago, denying her rape, treating her like human garbage, just as Sowell treated his victims.

Jonathan Redding, 30 Deep, the Blue Jeans Burglaries, the Standard Bar Murder, and Disorder in Atlanta’s Courts

Jonathan Redding, suspect in the murder of Grant Park bartender John Henderson, suspected of firing a gun in an earlier armed robbery outside the Standard (Why isn’t it attempted murder when you fire a gun during a robbery?  Are we rewarding lack of aim?), suspect in a “home invasion gun battle” in which Redding shot at people, and was shot himself (Two more attempted murders, at least, if sanity existed in the prosecutor’s office), suspected member of the “30-Deep Gang,” one of those pathetic, illiterate, quasi-street gangs composed of children imitating their older relatives, middle-schoolers waving wads of cash and firearms on YouTube: Jonathan Redding is 17.

How many chances did the justice system have to stop Johnathan Redding before he murdered an innocent man?  How many chances did they squander?

In May, Fox 5 ran a chilling story about the 30 Deep Gang.  Deidra Dukes reported:

Police say 30 Deep is based in Atlanta’s Mechanicsville community. The gang reportedly popped up on their radar about three years ago, and recruits members as young as in middle school.

“They know that the juvenile laws are a little more lax than they are when they are adults so they get them to do so they get them to do more serious crimes between the ages of 14 and 16, they won’t get into as much trouble,” said Harper.

Everybody knows this.  Everybody knows that there are 14-year olds waving guns on the streets and 16-year olds committing murder.  How can they not know, when there is video evidence of it, not to mention the bodies?  Spend a few minutes on YouTube watching the videos in which young men identify themselves by their housing project, some by the names of housing projects that were torn down but have managed to survive in the imaginations of eighth-graders as places where life was good in direct, not inverse, proportion to violence and chaos.

Look at the apartments these kids live in, that appear in the videos: they have little cathedral ceilings and nice fixtures, but nothing else — no beds, just mattresses, no pictures on the walls.  Nobody is starving: this is cultural poverty.  These are children: they take pictures of themselves in their classrooms, pictures of the school bus, then, inevitably, pictures of wads of cash and guns and little groups of kids who would have a hard time reading Goodnight Moon throwing gang signs with their hands.

What never ceases to amaze me is that I went to college with people who looked upon this stuff as romantic, not tragically stunted.  From the first time I walked into an apartment like the ones on these videos, I could see that what we were doing wasn’t working, if this was the result.  And yet people still debate this, as if there is anything left to say in the face of such colossal ignorance, and violence, and wasted lives, subsidized by us.

For the last year, the Mayor, the Police Chief, the usual editorialists and academicians, have all been denying that any of this is a problem.  One Jonathan Redding is one too many, but the powers-that-be, even at this late and tragic date, want to punish the public for daring to say this out loud.  If voters don’t reject this status quo next week, it will be a shame.

~~~

Jonathan Redding’s defense attorney is laying the groundwork to claim that her client’s profound ignorance is some type of defense — that he “doesn’t understand” the charges against him.  His life was empty, nihilistic, wasted, violent: this is an argument in favor of him.  Such routine suspension of disbelief in favor of defendants, and the rules of evidence that block the search for truth at every turn, are in Redding’s favor from now on.

It is not believable that Jonathan Redding is such a naif in the courtroom.  Some prosecutor or judge let him go, over and over — first as a truant, then as a juvenile, then as “just a robber” or “just a kid breaking into cars,” or “just a member of the gang stealing blue jeans.”  Now he is lucky to be alive, having been shot, and he is facing a lifetime in prison, and John Henderson is dead.

“They know that the juvenile laws are a little more lax.”  Our justice system has tied its own hands in a thousand different ways, and the judge wants Redding to testify before a Grand Jury, to give up names.

Who are we kidding?  Nobody in the juvenile justice system, nobody on the police force, knows who Redding was running with?  How many bites at the apple did they have with this kid?

Sure, put him in front of the Grand Jury; however, the Grand Jury is too little too late: plenty of people with authority to stop him knew precisely what Johnathan Redding was doing and who he was doing it with, but they didn’t take it seriously, and two more lives are over.  When will this price finally seem too high?

And So It Begins: Rhetoric on “Early Release for Non-Violent Offenders Clogging Prisons” is Dangerous Hot Air

From the Denver Post.  Not exactly Girl and Boy Scouts, these “best of show offenders” chosen as the first early releases in Denver.  Ironically, these records make precisely the opposite point than the one the Justice Department is making, which is that we are too harsh on offenders and “too vindictive” on sentencing.

Expect more of the same as Eric Holder gears up to throw massive amounts of money at anti-incarceration initiatives and activist groups like the Vera Institute, who do “studies” that all end up showing that we need to empty the prisons to save money.

Well, some people’s money, and good luck with that:

Jack Levin, Apologists for (Certain) Brutal Murders: Hacking a Woman to Death is Just a Cry for Help (Updated 11/1/09)

It’s criminal apologist week, and no criminal apologist week would be complete without a deep bow to Jack Levin, the Northwestern* criminologist who has made an art form of claiming that some brutal, senseless murders are serious ethical and social problems motivated by “hate” — while others are just acting-out caused by “ouchiness,” teenage angst, and our cruel lack of interest in understanding where brutal killers are “coming from.”

You can see where this is going: when someone uses certain slur words (not all of them — not the ones about women) while victimizing somebody, it’s suddenly a much more important crime, which means other crimes are less important, in every sense.  Convincing the public that they must accept this inequality is a job for experts, and Levin is the go-to expert for insidiously psychologizing away certain offenders’ actions while demanding allegiance to the urgency of crimes he deems hate.

The professor’s colorful swings between eternal vigilance and cuddly justification would almost be funny, were he not empowered by the hate crimes establishment, the media, and the feds (in that order) to superimpose his world-view separating “moody-teenager crimes” from “hate crimes” onto our allegedly objective system of justice.

After carefully explaining to everyone how the Pittsburgh Gym Killer didn’t actually hate women but was just feeling so rejected by them that he had to strife their bodies with gunfire, Levin surfaces this week calling the four teens who hacked a woman to death in her bed and slit her 11-year old daughter’s throat “outsiders” who were seeking to “bond” with each other and exhibited signs of “unhappiness” but were not hate criminals because, you know, Jack Levin says so.

This is a sign of unhappiness:

This is a hate-driven, sadistic murderer who hacked a woman to death and slit her 11-year old’s throat, and seemed to think the entire thing was pretty funny:

Gribble updated his Facebook page just hours after the attack, writing on Sunday: “had an awesome time with steve and autumn [sic]! dexter is such a funny show!” “Dexter” is a drama on Showtime about a psychopathic serial killer who murders other criminals.

Nice.  Good think they just picked women, or else this all might get much darker.  Here is Levin, and a peer of his, on the young man pictured above:

“A strong sense of community is wonderful if you happen to be accepted,’’ Levin said.

“But if you are regarded as an outsider, you may feel profoundly rejected . . . Their peer group is the only game in town. If they are rejected, they have nowhere else to go.’’

William Pollack, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said a teen in a small community also might fear confiding his troubles because word spreads fast in a small town.

“These are boys that have a hard time connecting, and so it is that much harder to go and connect,’’ Pollack said.

I’m going to pose a question now that ought to be part of more tenure reviews:

How damn crazy do you have to be to talk like this?

The killers had “a hard time connecting”?  They “might fear confiding troubles”?  Who published this?  That would be The Boston Globe, but don’t they feel a little ashamed?

Peer groups.  Crying out for acceptance.

They hacked a woman to death with a machete.  They slit her 11-year old daughter’s throat.

This is not the way Jack Levin talks about crimes he calls hate crimes, of course.  He calls such crimes a “reign of evil.”

Now imagine what Levin would be saying if the Pittsburgh gym killer or the teen pictured above attacked minorities or illegal immigrants or the latest group to seek hate crimes status, the homeless.  Looking at the totality of Levin’s public statements is good way to get a sense of how the existence of separate “hate crime” laws for select offenses alters the entire justice system.  It undermines two important things we are supposed to believe in: the equality of offenders before the law and the equal importance of all crime victims.

Why is it “hatred” and “evil” for one minority gang member to use an ethnic slur while carjacking a gang member from another ethnic minority gang on the streets of Los Angeles, but it isn’t a hate crime to hack an innocent, randomly selected mother to death in New Hampshire while forcing her to observe the slitting of her pre-adolescent daughter’s throat?

Because Jack Levin says so.  And the Boston Globe prints what he says and carefully avoids asking questions.

*correction: Levin is a professor at Northeastern University, not Northwestern University.

The Real Perception Problem is the Perception of the Courts

The comments thread in response to this article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution contain a lot more insight than the article itself, which morphed from the purported subject of policing into another attack on the public for caring about crime.*  No surprise there.  While the criminologists try to minimize crime using formulas measuring relative cultural pathology and other number dances, the public hones in on the courts:

It is time that we stop protecting the young criminals – Start publishing names, parents names and city – Might just be that some parents will be so embarrassed that they will take control of these young people – Start publishing names of judges that continually grant bail bonds or m notes for “REPEAT” offenders. — “D.L.”

[T]he court systems are a huge part of the problem…. i am shocked how many repeat offenders of street crimes are released on a “signature bond” …basically they sign their name and promise to come back to court and walk out….below is the legal definition.  “A signature bond, or recognizance bond, is a promissory that is signed by the individual who was arrested in order to be released on bond. Though no monetary transaction takes place when the promissory is signed, a signature bond contends that the arrested individual will pay an agreed upon amount if he fails to appear in court on the given date and time.”” — “Too Many Signature Bonds”

There’s one important part of the equation left out – the court system. Many of these offenders have arrest histories of multiple felonies but are still out on the street. The police can lock people up, but they can’t keep them in jail…how about an expose on the criminal history of these high profile offenders and why they are out on the streets? I’d really be interested in seeing that article. it seems the heat always comes down on the police, but not the courts who let offenders out while they have two or three armed robbery charges. — “Georgia Dawwg”

One major problem is that the Fulton County Courts dead docket over half of the cases that they could prosecute. Also, the judges are too lenient on young offenders. This is destroying our city. — “S.M.”

Most seem to be saying the same thing: the police can only do so much, then the judges and the prosecutors let offenders go free.

Why, for example, has there been no follow-up on the 43 murder defendants walking the streets?

When people start picketing the D.A.’s office and the Fulton County Superior Court to demand full public disclosure of case dispositions and sentencing so they can make informed decisions about electing judges, things will change.

But meanwhile, we’re utterly in the dark, and while the Atlanta Journal Constitution is beginning to respond with more reporting on these issues, for a very long time the newsroom status quo was a sort of mushy empathy for offenders and reflexive anti-incarceration biases, with some color coverage of victims from time to time — while the justice system went quietly to hell.

There’s no other way to put it.  Many scores of people in Atlanta say the same thing — this offender or that offender isn’t being put away — and the newspaper essentially ignores them.  Judges react with petulant anger when challenged.  Academicians cook up wild excuses for criminality.  Journalists point fingers at the public.

The new mantra is “re-entry” and claims that we “don’t do enough to rehabilitate youths.”  Same as the old mantra — we’re “not doing enough for the kids.”  “We’re denying them job opportunities / education / empathy.”

People who say these things are willfully blind to the fact that billions have been spent and will continue to be spent on all sorts of rehabilitation.  The fact that these efforts fail doesn’t mean we aren’t paying for them.  It isn’t lack of effort: it’s the extreme degree to which the underclass is mired in dysfunction — and the ugly fact that many in the establishment are endlessly willing to deny and excuse that behavior, right up until somebody gets killed (and even after that).

Spend some time with a 14-year old kid whose dad and mom doesn’t parent him, whose head is filled with violent and sexualized videos and rap songs and shockingly little else, who goes to school in Atlanta and gets told that he is a victim of the system instead of actually being taught anything useful.  Then try to change that child’s mindset when there are so many forces working to sustain it: the victim culture and some very questionable “educating” in the public schools, the parents who still aren’t parenting, the pop culture violence: it’s too late for that kid if he stays in that environment.  It really is too late, and I don’t say that because I would give up on him; I’m just trying to inject some reality.

The people who go on endlessly about needing to give juveniles more chances are the people who have never gotten involved at all, who blame the police and society but do little other than complain.  People who actually make the commitment to help learn three things very quickly:

  • there are already scores of intervention and rehabilitation and jobs and education programs
  • the programs don’t tackle the real problems, not because we “don’t care enough” but because they wrong-headed
  • kids in the justice system get a “second chance” already: they get serial second chances, no matter what they have done and even as their crimes escalate

I found the following comment especially interesting: “Nich,” whoever she is, from Grant Park, took the time to get involved in a rehabilitation program.  Her experience reflects my own:

The courts are a very big problem, especially with regard to minors. A lot of the offenders are young. Evidently, there is a 12-step program (you get 12 strikes before you are out) that applies to all minors, per Zone 3 DA. So if a 16 year old boy walks into my home, slays my husband and robs us, is that strike 7? Also, I joined a group called “Project Turnaround” as a council member. (volunteer PO, basically.) This was a program to help these participants/offenders get back on track monitored by the DA’s office. Most every offender was recommended by the council members to be exempted from the program/put back in jail, for repeat offenses. Nothing was done. My participant, for example, never went to the classes, continued to sell drugs and was shot in during a drug deal gone bad. Why was he not thrown out of the program and into jail? The DA’s office eventually just walked away from the program, but the kicker…NONE, NADA, 0% of the participants were put into jail. They basically were given “get out of jail free cards!” They are roaming the streets worse off today, because they don’t believe they will ever receive consequences. Sadly, all evidence supports that theory. — Nich

“Most every offender was recommended by the council members to be exempted from the program/put back in jail, for repeat offenses. Nothing was done.”

This person has a story to tell — a shocking, disturbing story about scores of recidivist offenders — given rehabilitation, given help — let out of jail over and over and over by irresponsible judges and prosecutors despite victimizing more people (and ending up, seemingly inevitably, shot).  Why is the AJC retreading the offensive and inane “perception of crime” theme when there are real stories to be reported?  When you can learn more from the comments threads than the article itself, well, maybe the death of journalism isn’t going to hurt all that much.

*Thomas D. Boston’s research on public housing patterns and crime rates, also discussed in the original article, is a different subject.


A Truly Offensive Effort to Whitewash the Crime Problem

What’s the matter with the Atlanta Journal Constitution?

In the last year, the residents of Atlanta stood up and declared that they do not want their city to be a place known for crime, where murders and muggings are taken in stride.  They declared that one murder, one home invasion, is one too many.  They partnered with the police — ignoring the headline-grabbing anti-cop types who perennially try to sow divisiveness.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution stubbornly failed to grasp the significance of these events.  They mocked the anti-crime activists and denied the crime problem with a scorn they would not dream of directing at other types of community leaders or social movements.  They sought out the usual political operatives to feed them quotes denying the seriousness of crime.

They didn’t understand that the public had long-ago grown tired of these condescending tactics.  The newspaper of record especially didn’t understand that the internet gave citizens powerful new ways to see precisely how much their lives and pocketbooks were being affected by crime — whether it was sharing information about the ten-time recidivist standing in their driveway or finding out how many other people got put on hold when calling 911.

Atlantans began to demand a healthier, saner, safer status quo.  They set out to change the culture of the city in ways that will benefit every single person, from the well-off to the poor to criminals themselves (for criminals are not helped by a system that allows them to destroy their own lives).

Now, less than a year later, anti-crime activism has brought about a sea change in the political culture of the city.  Several candidates are running in this election on solid platforms of public safety — notably Adam Brackman, a leader in the volunteer court-watching movement that pressures judges to remove repeat offenders from the streets.

Every politician in this election is on notice that they dismiss public concern about crime at their peril.

And by the time the next election rolls around, I suspect that some of the judges who are failing to uphold the law and siding with offenders rather than law-abiding citizens will be folding up their black robes.  Pressure on the courts, and pressuring the city to end the police furloughs, has already set the city on the path to reducing crime, though it will be a long road.

So why did the AJC choose this moment to retreat to the “crime is a perception thing” debate again?

“People are scared,” said Kyle Keyser, founder of Atlantans Together Against Crime. The group formed in January, in a near-spontaneous reaction to a perceived crime wave that crested with the killing of a restaurant worker near Grant Park.

“Near-spontaneous.”  “Perceived crime wave.”  “Crested.”  Could the reporter wedge in a few more diminutives?  I lived in that neighborhood for decades, and in reality, crime has always been unacceptably high there.  It would be a lot higher if residents weren’t paying through the teeth for security patrols and motion detectors and cameras inside and outside of their homes, a veritable self-imposed police state that reflects the failure of city leaders and especially judges to behave as if all crime matters.

So why is the newspaper still hammering away at the theme that it is the perception of crime that is the problem?  Even when they acknowledge that crime is up alarmingly, from a base rate that is alarming enough, they feel the need to remind people that such things are normal, you know, in urban places:

Residential burglaries are a key component of the property crime category. But while all property crime decreased, reports of residential break-ins grew by 65 percent from 2004 to 2008. This year alone, home burglaries in southeast Atlanta are up 52 percent.

Larcenies have steadily decreased, as well. But thefts from automobiles, a frequent grievance of in-town residents, rose 30 percent in five years.

Criminologists say a high crime rate is inevitable in Atlanta, where widespread poverty and an influx of commuters, conventioneers and tourists create an atmosphere conducive to illicit activity.

Yeah, that pickpocket’s trade show sure brought a bunch of pickpockets to town.  The problem isn’t poverty: it’s profound social dysfunction, and the primary targets of crime are not conventioneers in the security-heavy downtown business district but residents going about their lives.  Some criminologists will say anything, however, in the service of rejecting legitimate worries about criminal behavior:

How well a police department performs its most basic job — preventing crime — can be assessed three ways, said Robert Friedmann, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University.

“One is the numbers,” he said. “Two is the numbers. And three is perception.”

Is it?  “Perception” is criminologist-code for “hysteria.”  The argument that Atlanta’s crime problem is merely the “perception” of paranoid whiners was rejected by the public months ago.  Yet here comes the AJC, once again, scolding people for failing to lower their expectations to meet the “inevitable” reality of violent urban crime.

The reporter doesn’t stop there, however.  The end of this article, an article that purports to investigate “dysfunction in the police department,”  is instead dedicated to dismissing the seriousness of John Henderson’s murder and by extension the legitimacy of the entire anti-crime movement.

He does this by claiming, again, that John Henderson’s death was probably just “an accident,” foolishly valued and misapprehended by those who reacted to it:

The case featured many archetypal elements of the high-profile urban crime story: the neighborhood’s historic poverty contrasted against the Standard’s hipster scene; the free-roaming young killers, possibly gang members; the overmatched police force, struggling to keep pace with crime. To many, the case seemed to be a metaphor that captured Atlanta as a growing threat.

Except it wasn’t.

It wasn’t?  It wasn’t what?  The bullet that entered John Henderson’s head was neither an archetype nor a metaphor nor a plot twist: it was a chunk of metal that ended an innocent man’s life, fired from a gun by malicious thugs who displayed murderous contempt for other people’s lives.  To point to the dead body of that young man and say “those who have reacted to this loss are making too much of a big deal about it: it’s just routine, the sort of thing that happens is the big city,” is utterly, starkly, reprehensible.

It smacks of telling people that if they’re “hipsters” who choose to live in-town, they must accept a certain body count among their friends and loved ones, and to complain about that is the real crime.  The reporter backs up this sleazy assertion by insisting that the murder wasn’t as bad as people thought.  Get it?  The murder wasn’t all that bad:

Much of what was reported about Henderson’s killing turned out to be false. He was not shot execution-style. Nor was he wounded four times. He was hit once in the leg during the robbery and once again in the head, maybe by accident, as the robbers fled. One of the bullets came from a handgun the robbers took from Henderson’s co-worker.

“He was hit.”  “Hit,” not shot, a softer word.  “Once in the leg during the robbery.”  Only once, not four times, so why complain about it?  “Once again in the head, maybe by accident.”  Accidentally shooting someone in the head?  What is motivating the AJC to keep bluntly denying the horror of this crime?

I’d interject here that this is not the way the AJC reported on Vernon Forrest’s death.  Forrest chased his robbers with his own gun.  He was no less a victim for it, and the AJC took the right line on that murder, as they did on that family’s demands for justice (as did the Chief and the Mayor, who leaped to action, in stark contrast to their response to Henderson’s murder).  And yet, even after finally doing the right thing, the AJC has now returned to Henderson’s murder to throw a little more dirt.

This is selective policing of the public’s reaction to a cold-blooded murder.  Cold-blooded, no matter where the killer was standing when he fired the bullet.  When you shoot a person through a door, you are as legally and morally as responsible for killing them as you would be if you stood over their body and fired the gun.

The reporter, not the public, is the one wallowing in metaphor and fiction here.  John Henderson is just as dead as he would be if the killing were expertly choreographed.  The public understands this.  They understand that adolescent killers waving guns are just as dangerous as — maybe more dangerous than — seasoned thugs who control their firing range.   Why is the AJC so obsessed with diminishing the responsibility of the killers in this case?  Why do they seem more outraged by the public reacting than by the killing itself?

[T]he area around the Standard was hardly unprotected before the robbery.

From 2:55 to 3:05 a.m., police dispatch records show, the officer assigned to the neighborhood was checking on a gas station at Memorial Drive and Hill Street — 500 feet from the Standard. The officer resumed patrol moments before the robbers smashed the bar’s door.

Short of standing guard at the Standard, it appears the officer could have done little more to prevent the crime.

“There’s a limit to how much officers can impact,” said Friedmann, the Georgia State criminologist. “If someone wants to commit a crime, they’ll commit a crime.”

Well, thank you for clearing that up.  Let’s just forget about it, then.  What’s the big fuss?  The police can’t be everywhere at all times.  This isn’t, like, The Matrix, dude.  So you should forget about complaining when your friends get gunned down.  It’s just life in the big city, after all.

And if it’s the right kind of crime, one involving a victim or location presumed immune from violence, news coverage often implies a broad menace, Friedmann said.

Memorial Drive is presumed immune to violence?  Since when?  Bartenders closing shop are presumed immune to violence?  Sometimes I think criminologists will say absolutely anything to whitewash the reality of crime.  Maybe Fridemann was quoted wildly out of context, because this makes absolutely no sense: he is saying that crime is omnipresent and unavoidable but that a bartender working late at night on Memorial Drive is an utterly unlikely potential victim of crime.  Say anything, in other words, so long as it ineluctably reinforces the conclusion that crime is just a “perception” problem:

“You have a story, people pay attention to it,” he said. “You don’t have a story, people don’t know about it, and it’s as if it didn’t happen.”

I speak fluent Hackademese, so let me try to translate.  Dr. Friedmann is saying that it’s not the murder that is the problem: it’s the fact that people made a big stinking deal about the murder that’s the problem.

Now, to mix things up, back to the reporter denying the severity of Henderson’s murder:

In this case, all that followed — protests over police furloughs, a property tax increase to put officers back to work full time, the “City Under Siege” media frenzy over later crimes — was based on inaccurate information provided by a police detective the day of Henderson’s killing.

Keyser now knows the story was exaggerated.

Does he?  I know Kyle Keyser, and he is committed to ignoring the media’s relentless claims that crime doesn’t matter — the reporter’s insinuation here flies in the face of Keyser’s message and actions.   Playing “gotcha” journalism with a person’s death is pretty ugly stuff.

Sadly, reports of John Henderson’s death were not exaggerated.  Thus, claiming that all that followed — a young man’s funeral, a city coming together to confront the problem of violent crime, more murders, more funerals — hinges on precisely how the gun was held when the bullet entered Henderson’s brain is setting up a straw-man of peculiarly grotesque intent.

The AJC really ought to be ashamed of peddling this type of underhanded opinion-mongering as news.   Nobody in touch with reality cares whether John Henderson was shot by somebody standing over him or shot through a door after being shot once already.  Nobody with a shred of decency would obsess over that distinction and conclude that public outrage over the murder and other crime is just “hype.”  Nor crack a joke about it, as the reporter does:

Pennington has a chance to try to turn the hype to his advantage, to convince Atlantans they’re safer than they think. On Tuesday, the chief is scheduled to address an annual breakfast sponsored by the police foundation.

The event’s theme: “Crime is toast.”

Get it?  Just stop worrying about crime, you ignorant hysterics, and it will all go away.

Some Preliminary Observations About Walter Ellis, the Milwaukee Serial Killer

The Walter Ellis case is still unfolding, but there are already lessons to be learned.

One of those lessons is that police agencies around the country are on the verge of connecting serial rapists and killers to many unsolved crimes, thanks to DNA and re-opening cold cases.  The picture that is emerging of these men will change what we know about serial offenders.

It will also, hopefully, change some assumptions about what goes on in our justice system.  Many people believe that we are too harsh on offenders, that people deserve one or two or five “second chances,” that rehabilitation works, and that minimum mandatory sentencing and “three-strikes” laws are too harsh.

The Walter Ellises of the world pretty much drive a stake into such preconceptions:

AP — MILWAUKEE — Walter Ellis was anything but unknown in his north side neighborhood in Milwaukee — a mix of condemned and run-down houses with some nicer, newer homes.  Even as the bodies of suspected prostitutes began turning up in garbage bins and abandoned buildings near his home, the stocky Ellis had regular — sometimes violent, often friendly — interaction with neighbors and family, and more than a dozen run-ins with police.

If those run-ins were scrutinized, what would they tell us?  How many times did some judge let him walk?  How many times did a prosecutor decided it wasn’t worth sending him away for a few months?

Ellis was not a stranger to law enforcement, with 15 arrests since 1978.

How many times did he get first-offender status?  Time served?  Community counseling?  Simply no prosecution at all?  Would minimum mandatory laws or three-strikes laws have kept him off the streets?

He’s received probation or fines for burglary . . .

Probation for burglary.  Nice.  The DNA database “hit” lists are littered with rapists whose only prior convictions were for burglary, or drugs.  Sometimes rapists were allowed to plead down to burglary when there was a rape but prosecutors didn’t feel the victim would be believed.  Sometimes these men were caught entering or hiding in a house before they committed a planned sexual assault.  For many decades, burglary was a commonly-known get-out-of-jail-fairly-free card for rapists.

So when a judge gives a burglar probation because “burglary isn’t a serious crime,” he or she may very well be letting a sex offender walk free.  All residential burglars should be required to provide DNA samples.  Too bad that didn’t happen before Walter Ellis murdered this woman, in 2007.  Her murder, and others, could have easily been prevented:

Ouithreaun Stokes

[Ellis has] received probation or fines for . . . delivery of a controlled substance and retail theft. He also has faced charges of soliciting prostitutes, battery, robbery and recklessly endangering safety, all of which were later dismissed. He received a 3-year prison sentence for drug possession in 1981.

When you see a drug possession conviction, think about this: often offenders will agree to plead to drug offenses if other charges are dropped.  Often, the drug charge is the one most easily proved, even though the offender is known to be responsible for other crimes.  So when people claim that we live in a prison state because “X% of offenders are in prison for non-violent drug charges,” realize that a substantial percentage of these people committed other crimes.  They just weren’t prosecuted for them.

It was in 1988 that [Walter Ellis] pleaded no contest to second-degree reckless injury. According to the criminal complaint, he hit his ex-girlfriend in the head several times with a claw hammer, causing her to get 30 staples and more than 22 stitches. The complaint said the woman woke and found him standing over her, smelling of alcohol and accusing her of cheating. She got out of bed, they struggled, and he hit her with the hammer, it said.

It looks like the AP got it wrong: it was 1998, not 1988.  Attempted murder with severe physical injury.  Good thing it was just a domestic, or else he might have gotten life in prison, you know?  Ah, the magic of plea bargaining: attempted murder – domestic violence = second degree reckless injury = five years.

Police have said Ellis’ DNA matches that found on nine women ages 16 to 41 who were killed in a three-square-mile area from 1986 to 2007.

Wow.  Too bad nobody in the courts took that claw-hammer-to-the-brain-thing very seriously.

Here is an excellent blog-post tracing Ellis’ crimes and incarcerations.  The blogger, Kathee Baird, gets the offense dates right, unlike the AP.  She observes:

Online court records show Ellis has been busted at least twelve times for crimes against people as well as property crimes and that he once lived near the area where many of the homicides occurred.  It appears that every time that Ellis was incarcerated the strangulation killings on the north side subsided. Between 1987 and 1994 there were no homicides that fit the North Side Stranglers m.o. . . .

Back to the AP:

Ellis, sentenced to prison, was supposed to have DNA taken before he was released in 2001 under a state law that mandated taking samples from people convicted of a felony.  The state Department of Corrections said it did take the sample, but the state Justice Department said it has no records showing they ever got it. On Wednesday, legislators demanded to know why the DNA sample never made it to crime analysts. If it had, police say, the case might have been solved before the last of the slayings occurred in 2007.

Our justice system is criminally lenient.  We have a pathological contempt for rape victims: we still utterly lack the public will to put rapists away.  What, you say?  This must be an isolated case?

50,000 Felons Released Without Submitting DNA

CHICAGO – About 50,000 felons have been released from Illinois prisons and county probation systems without submitting DNA samples.  Under Illinois law, every felon sentenced on or after Aug. 22, 2002, must provide DNA. The samples are stored in databases that can be used to link suspects to other cases.  A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections says nearly 10,000 felons were released from state prisons without providing DNA. And Attorney General Lisa Madigan‘s office estimates county probation departments didn’t get samples from 40,000 additional felons due to delays in implementing the law.  DuPage County State’s Attorney Joseph Birkett helped push for collecting DNA from felons. And he says the failure to get samples from all felons means “serial murderers and rapists have probably remained on the loose.”

Back to Milwaukee:

In 2006, Ellis pleaded guilty in a hit-and-run involving Carolyn S. Prophet, 57, of Milwaukee. Prophet, who is disabled and has problems walking, said Ellis hit her car repeatedly and then swore and threatened her.  “The man is a psycho,” she said. “He kept ramming me.”  Bystanders stepped in when he got out of the car, she said. Ellis told them he was going to call police at a pay phone but never returned. She said the police who investigated the crash told her they knew Ellis from prior run-ins.

And then what happened?  Did anything happen?  Didn’t his other violent crimes lead to a long prison sentence?  Didn’t his 12 crimes against persons matter?  Doesn’t ramming a disabled, elderly person with a car count for anything?

The following comments by Ellis’ neighbor are chilling.  The woman says that Ellis is a good guy and yet that he is unpredictably violent and dangerous.  She doesn’t blame him for any of this, or even for threatening her repeatedly: she blames other people for “not helping him.”  This is what happens when people convince themselves that prior criminal acts should be overlooked, and the courts reflect that belief:

[Ellis’] neighbor[] said that as a child she tried to avoid walking past Ellis’ house — “He would come and just hit you out of nowhere,” she said.  But Jordan said Ellis seemed to have changed when she saw him about a year ago at a birthday party. She described him as pleasant and intelligent. She said she was shocked to hear of his arrest, but wishes someone would have helped Ellis early in his life.  “When I look back at it, all the indicators were there,” she said. “That behavior, the violent nature in him was already embedded.”

Maybe something will be learned this time.  Maybe nothing at all.

Crime Rate Up or Down? Thoughts From Around Atlanta

Is the crime rate up or down in Atlanta?  The Atlanta Journal Constitution, echoing City Hall, continues to vote “down.”  Their editorial board is sticking to the argument that crime is a perception problem, though they have thankfully stopped mocking victims:

[S]tatistics alone don’t stir many souls toward either fear or a sense of security.  What does get people going are violent shocks to their everyday world. Things like finding your home’s been ransacked, or facing a gunman on the sidewalk. . . If people don’t feel safe, a computer’s worth of data and spreadsheets likely won’t persuade them otherwise. That’s where human contact and conversation comes in, starting at the top and spreading to cops on the beat.  Perception can trump reality if people’s emotions keep them from believing that crime really is on the run.

Meanwhile, Marcia Killingsworth reminds readers that crime isn’t really down at all in some parts of the city:

Just to refresh your memories, here are some crime stats, beginning with some[] from an AJC piece on February 8 – six months ago – that should have burst Shirley [Franklin’s] double bubble:
  • In East Lake and part of Kirkwood, violent crime jumped 53 percent.
  • Robberies went up in four beats and made a 71 percent jump from 2007 to 2008 in the East Lake/Kirkwood area.  (Atlanta police point to the explosion of two crimes; burglars kicking in doors to get to flat-screen televisions and thieves swiping GPS units from cars.)
  • East Atlanta has been hit the hardest. Since 2006, home burglaries ballooned by 147 percent. Other thefts, classified as larcenies, jumped by 87 percent.

In our little southside neighborhood of Ormewood Park, between 2007 and 2008, burglaries nearly doubled, 67 burglaries in 2007 and 125 in 2008.

Atlanta Unfiltered has crime ticking up dramatically, too.

Stephanie Ramage at Sunday Paper argues that not only are crime statistics being cooked, but that Chief Pennington had a similar culinary history in New Orleans, where he worked last (before being brought to Atlanta through the efforts of Mayor Franklin’s now-deceased ex-husband):

APD Chief Richard Pennington was lauded in New Orleans for bringing down the number of that city’s reported incidents of crime, yet shortly after Pennington left to become Atlanta’s chief in 2002, some high-ranking officers were fired for tampering with New Orleans’ crime reports.  Pennington brought his numbers game with him to the APD which already had its own shameful history of cooking the books. As reported by the New Orleans Times Picayune on Oct. 24, 2003, “a review of more than 700 reports written in the 1st District from January 2002 to June 2003 found 42 percent of crimes were incorrectly classified and another 17 percent were ‘questionable.’ More than 200 of the downgraded incidents found in the sample studied were serious crimes that included violence or threats…”

Ramage cites Atlanta neighborhood websites where residents are busy documenting individual incidents of police failing to take reports that reflect the real nature of crimes:

According to recent postings on its neighborhood website, citizens in Kirkwood have reported break-ins only to have the police discourage them from filing reports (go to “Message Boards,” then “Public Safety” and select the thread on “Crime Reporting and the APD.”)  One resident, J. C., sums up the trend by enumerating previous postings by other residents:

  • “#1 S. W. – ‘When we called again the next day, both the 911 operator and the officer that responded to the call kept telling us that we didn’t need to make a report unless we were making an insurance claim.’
  • #2 S. C. – ‘A house of my client was broken into on Cottage Grove last week and it was only after becoming insistant that the officer pulled the already completed case number card out of her pocket and gave it to the owner.’
  • #3 J. C. – ‘The KSP [Kirkwood Security Patrol] officer, as usual, was awesome to us, but the police officer APD sent really tried to dissuade us from filing a report.’
  • #4 A KNO Board Member – Had a shed break-in, and the officer was unwilling to file a report until they insisted.”

C. continues, “These are not isolated incidents, and four independent occurrences indicate to me a larger problem at hand. I truly think this is a systemic problem from the top down, namely Franklin/Pennington, and not a bottom up problem from the officer level.”

Ramage concludes:

A police officer in fear of losing his job told me last week, on condition of anonymity, “The current administration says if a car window is broken and nothing is taken, it’s ‘damage to property,’ not ‘entering auto.’ Unfortunately, central records ultimately has final say-so on how an incident is classified.” That is a quote, word for word.

How many crimes-in-progress get interrupted this way?  In my old neighborhood, it sounds to me, quite conservatively, that it must be at least three a week.

Just because people are stopping some criminals in the act, however, doesn’t mean the offenders are not out there preying on the innocent.  And the fact that civilians have taken on the task they are paying police to do is dangerous.  I find it amazing that elected officials, academicians, and many journalists are utterly incurious about these factors.  Their position — that people have no right to complain about crime if the crime rate (allegedly) has dropped — drips with presumption and contempt.

In cities like Los Angeles and New York, where people know the Chief of Police has their backs, the discussion is about stopping crime, not denying crime, whether or not the statistics are heading in the right direction.  In contrast, the utter corrosion of trust in Atlanta’s elected officials is not the result of people imagining non-existent danger.  The corrosion of trust has occurred because Pennington and Franklin are treating residents with non-imaginary contempt.  Here is Pennington in the AJC:

We have enough resources. . . Since I joined the force crime is down 25 percent.  Where is the chief?  Working hard for you and employing 30-plus years of professional training and experience on the job.

Well, right off the bat, as they say, he isn’t working hard for anyone, and he refuses to prove that he even shows up for work, which casts the rest of what he says in that editorial in a questionable light.

In response, Atlantans Together Against Crime (ATAC) founder Kyle Keyser points out that it took months of protests and lobbying to get the APD to put more officers on the streets, months while City Hall ignored residents’ requests:

Atlanta is getting more police officers and, specifically, more foot patrols. The city will start focusing on gangs — upping the Gang Task Force to 25 officers — and will do “sweeps” in areas of gang activity. They will also start enforcing the 11 p.m. curfew for city youth. Pennington admitted that criminals do not fear the APD. These measures are, in part, to send the signal: “We’re here and we’re watching you.”

Keyser sets the right tone by praising the Mayor and Chief for their recent stirring, but no more than is warranted.  Such is democracy, in an election year, in a city where residents know precisely how hard it is to get their leaders to stop denying the realities of crime on the streets:

The merit and efficacy of these measures will be for us to decide together, as they work alongside the efforts we’ve been taking in our own communities. We’ll either see the added benefits on our streets or we won’t. . .

To city hall I say, “Good morning!” Yes, they’ve woken up but they’ve been asleep too long. When I’m stirred awake by the sirens of six cop cars chasing down eight masked perpetrators in my driveway — as I was this past weekend — sleep isn’t an option.

It shouldn’t be for my city leadership either.

That “Perception of the Crime Rate Dropping” Perception Thing: One Statistic That Would Count

It is good to see politicians in Atlanta responding to (as opposed to studiously ignoring, or denying) the crime crisis.  But now that we’ve gotten their attention (no small accomplishment), how does the city really move forward to make residents safe?

The Atlanta Police Department has a fascinating series of charts on their website, showing fifty years of statistics for various crimes in the city.  Go to this page and click on “Part I Crime: A Fifty Year Retrospective.”   Immediately, what jumps out is that crime is down since that horrible time in the early 1990’s, when crack cocaine was burning a fat fuse through certain neighborhoods — especially the housing projects.  If you compare 1989 to 2009, it is easy to say, yes, crime in the city limits is not as bad now as it was then.

But numbers are not the whole story.  Sometimes, they are not even a substantial portion of the story.  My neighborhood in southeast Atlanta was a safer place in 1997 than it was in 2007, when I moved away.  In 1997, I didn’t worry about walking my dogs after dark.  In 2007, I worried about walking them (well, him) in daylight.  I even worried about leaving the dog alone in the house when I took the car and went to the store.  Was it my “perception” of danger that had changed?  Did I simply grow more paranoid as the neighborhood actually grew safer, as it appears to have done, if you just look at the official, city-wide statistics?

No.  The neighborhood became less safe.  Starting around 2003, there were more break-ins, and attempted break-ins, and violent incidents, and threats of violence, a situation that worsened considerably after 2005.

I should note this was not merely a case of the internet making it easier for people to hear about crimes that had already happened, for the neighborhood’s long-standing nosy-old-lady-on-the-porch-net certainly rivaled the crude electronic social networking technologies of today.

No, crime grew worse, more omnipresent and more threatening.  One reason this is not clearly reflected in recent statistics is because people started spending vast amounts of time and money on video cameras, motion detectors, alarms, gated housing, and private security patrols.  The political class took the taxpayers for suckers, and so the taxpayers were forced to take it upon themselves (paying twice) to prevent crime.

Such privately-funded crime-fighting efforts probably account for much of the positive difference between crime rates today and the rates from five or eight years ago.

I would like to see a statistic comparing the number of “suspicious activity” calls made to the police in 2000 and 2007 from different precincts in the city.  That statistic would offer a better sense of the real prevalence of criminal activity, though it still would not offer a complete picture of crime.  People don’t call 911 every time they chase a suspicious teen from their neighbor’s porch or yell at some guy peering into car doors.

Yet those are the incidents that wear away at one’s sense of safety, day-in and day-out.

Make that actual safety, not just the sense of it.  People are not fools and will not be taken for fools anymore.  That message appears to have stuck.  Now, where does Atlanta go from here?

Crime Denial at the New York Times: An Update

Yesterday, while writing about the Times‘ willful misrepresentation of a child sexual assault conviction, I noted:

[W]hen I see an offender with a record of one or three instances of “inappropriate touching,” I suspect that’s the tip of the iceberg.  I suspect the conviction is the result of a plea bargain agreed to just to get the sick bastard away from the child and onto a registry, which is the most victims can reasonably hope for in the courts these days . . .

Well, it didn’t take long to illustrate that point.  From the Cincinnati Enquirer:

Convicted Rapist Sentenced to Life — Again

Barry Daniels was supposed to spend the rest of his life in prison when he was convicted in 1978 of raping a child.

Instead, he served 19 years and was released, returning to Cincinnati where he worked for more than a decade as a maintenance man.

On Tuesday, Daniels was back in court, to be sentenced after he was convicted of raping another child, a 9-year-old girl last September.

Prosecutors had offered Daniels a plea offer of — you guessed it — sexual touching.  Just like this guy, whose fib about his own crimes was credulously reported as fact in the New York Times:

Patrick Wiese, 48 . . . said he served time in prison after having his stepdaughter touch him inappropriately. . .

Unfortunately for the nine-year-old victim in Cincinnati, Barry Daniels refused the plea offered to him, and the child was forced to testify against her rapist.  Fortunately, the jury believed her and sent Daniels to prison for life — again.  Hopefully this time it will stick:

The girl testified during the trial and, despite the stress and embarrassment, proved to be a star witness.

Before the jury was seated, prosecutors [had] offered Daniels a plea offer – to try to prevent the child victim from having to testify – that would have resulted in him pleading guilty of sexually touching the child and being imprisoned for a maximum of five years.

Note that Daniels was offered a sentence that would have put him back on the streets in five years or less.  Prosecutors were willing to essentially “disappear” the rape of a child to get him back into the system, to spare the child more trauma, and, doubtlessly, to avoid incurring the costs of a trial.  Such are the economics of justice these days: a child rapist who rapes another child after being released early is offered a slap on the wrist.

Chillingly, Daniels was willing to take his chances.  And why not?  It’s practically impossible to seat a jury these days in which there is not at least one knucklehead who imagines he is playing Atticus Finch, or re-playing 12 Angry Men, or who just believes that there is never any way to know that anybody is actually guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of anything.

The Daniels jurors did none of these things, bless them.  But if I was guilty of raping a nine-year old child, I’d still take my chances with a jury.  And when you see news articles bemoaning society’s cruel treatment of “men who did nothing more than sexually touch a child,” remember to ask yourself what they really did.