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Friday, November 24, 2017

Alexander Hilton and the St. Andrews University Attempted Murder Poisoning Case

     In 2011, Alexander D. Hilton, a 20-year-old rich kid from Princeton, Massachusetts, attended St. Andrews University in Fife, Scotland. The sophomore prep school graduate (St. Johns) had moved to the the United Kingdom to study economics at this ancient and prestigious institution of higher learning.

     On March 5, 2011, on the eve of the annual St. Andrews ball, Hilton and a group of his fellow students were participating in a dormitory drinking game. One of the drinkers, Robert Forbes, an American from Virginia, after gulping down a bottle of red wine given to him by Hilton, became seriously ill. The 19-year-old suffered loss of balance, severe nausea, had trouble breathing, and temporarily lost his eyesight. He spent a week in the hospital. Doctors said that had Forbes not received medical treatment, he could have died.

     A few days after the dormitory drinking game, local investigators questioned Hilton about the incident. The authorities suspected that Hilton, known around the school as an anti-social oddball, had intentionally poisoned Robert Forbes. Hilton denied mixing anything into the wine. The Scottish authorities didn't have enough evidence to charge the American with a crime, but urged him to leave the country. He was also kicked out of St. Andrews. On March 18, 2011, Alexander Hilton returned to his parents' home in Princeton, Massachusetts.

     Back in Scotland, toxicological tests revealed that the red wine that had made Robert Forbes so sick had been spiked with methanol, an ingredient found in antifreeze. The sweet-smelling liquid, also known as wood alcohol, is colorless, highly flammable, and deadly. A search of Hilton's computer determined that he had investigated the toxicological effects of combining red wine and methanol. In Hilton's dormitory room, investigators found a funnel.

     After Hilton returned to the United States, he enrolled in a college in New Mexico. About a year after the St. Andrews drinking party, Hilton learned that the authorities in Scotland planned to charge him with the attempted murder of Robert Forbes. Upon learning this, Hilton dropped out of the college in New Mexico and returned to his parents' house in Princeton, Massachusetts. Seven months later, in the fall of 2012, the prosecutor in charge of the case in Scotland charged Hilton with attempted murder.

     On February 4, 2013, under an extradition treaty the United States had with the United Kingdom, United States Marshals took Alexander Hilton into custody. The federal authorities hauled the former St. Andrews student to the Central Falls, Rhode Island Detention Center where he was placed under suicide watch.

     Hilton, on February 21, 2013, appeared at his bail hearing in federal court in Boston before a U. S. magistrate judge. Assistant United States Attorney David J. D'Addio, in arguing against bail for this defendant, said, "This is an attempted murder case, a serious case, and we can't lose sight of that. The evidence before us is that Mr. Hilton deliberately poisoned a student at St. Andrews."

     Hilton's defense attorney, Norman S. Zalkind, argued that because his client was seriously mentally ill, bail should be granted in order that the defendant could continue taking his medication, and not be denied psychiatric therapy. According to the defense attorney, if Hilton remained in custody, he was "...going to get sicker and sicker and sicker." Zalkind described Hilton as an extremely intelligent person with the socialization skills of a 14-year-old. (This description probably fit half of the underclassmen at St. Andrews.) The defense lawyer wondered why someone at the university didn't notice Hilton's mental problem after he started flunking his classes. (The question in my mind is how Hilton got into St. Andrews in the first place?)

     The U.S. magistrate judge withheld his bail decision pending the outcome of Hilton's extradition hearing scheduled for March 7, 2013.

      On March 7, 2013, the federal judge certified Hilton's extradition to Scotland. Following that ruling the U.S. magistrate judge allowed the suspect to post bail. Hilton's attorneys immediately appealed the extradition certification to a federal court of appeals.

     Robert Forbes, in March 2013, filed a personal injury suit against Hilton in federal court. A federal judge later dismissed the civil lawsuit. (It may have been settled.)

     The federal court of appeals, in February 2014, granted Alexander Hilton a stay of extradition on grounds he was mentally incompetent to stand trial in Scotland.

     Hilton, in May 2015, was extradited to Scotland to stand trial in the attempted murder case. In July 2015, the defendant pleaded guilty as charged pursuant to the claim that, at the time of the poisoning, he had been mentally ill. Judge Lord Burns of the High Court in Edinburgh sentenced Hilton to three years in prison. Once he has completed his sentence, Hilton will be deported back to the United States.  

The Bad Review That Killed a Writer's Will to Write

I quit writing after Publishers Weekly told me my first novel was "just terrible." Something broke, you see. I was 29 and I'd worked for ten years at that novel, and I didn't see the point of spending another ten years only to be told the same thing again. So I tend bar here in North Plainfield, New Jersey, and try to encourage the other writers who come by now and then. We don't get many writers in North Plainfield.

Luke Walton in Rotten Reviews and Rejections, edited by Bill Henderson and Andre Bernards, 1998

Problems in American Criminal Justice

     POLICING: Modern law enforcement has become too militarized. There are too many SWAT teams and pre-dawn, no-knock drug raids into private dwellings occupied by children and other innocent people. Offices see themselves as crime warriors instead of public servants. Another unrelated problem involves powerful police unions that keep bad cops on the job.

     FORENSIC SCIENCE: The nation's crime laboratories are in a state of crisis. Due to budget restraints and a shortage of qualified personnel, these facilities are overwhelmed with evidence submissions which has created serious backlogs, sloppy work, contaminated evidence, and identification mistakes. Crime labs and crime lab units all over the country are being shut down due to inferior work. With criminal investigation being a low law enforcement priority, the crime lab problem is not about to be fixed any time soon. (There is also a critical shortage of forensic pathologists in the country.)

     CORRECTIONS: Because judges won't allow prison overcrowding, and there is no money to expand our prison infrastructure, we have more criminals than places to put them. In California and other states, pedophiles, rapists, and other violent criminals who should be locked-up are walking free to make room for the drug offenders. In Massachusetts, instead of new prison space, taxpayers are funding an inmate's sex-change operation. Our prison system has become a national disgrace. (In New Orleans recently, a prisoner-produced video shows inmates doing drugs and walking around with handguns.)

     CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION: Because of the government's preoccupation with heavily armed street patrol, the never-ending drug war, and anti-terrorism, criminal investigation in this country is becoming a lost art. While national crime rates have steadily decreased, more and more homicide and sexual offense cases are being bungled or ignored. The combination of poor crime lab services and the fact detective bureaus across the country are being cut has led to a significant decline in crime solution rates.

     CRIMINAL LAW: Virtually every form of criminal behavior is now a federal offense. The central government has become too involved in criminal justice matters that should be left to the states. We are creating a national police force which is contrary to the principles of freedom and limited government. Moreover, state crime codes have become cluttered with unnecessary, politically-motivated window-dressing laws that pander to various minority groups. The entire hate-crime movement is an example of this form of over-legislation.

     CRIMINAL COURTS: The nation's prosecutors, state and federal, are overwhelmed with drug cases that clog the dockets and force the government into plea-bargain deals that do not always serve the public interest. More than 90 percent of convictions in this country are the result of bargained guilty pleas. 

Thornton P. Knowles On Time

Time drives the living insane. We think it will eventually kill us. In death, time does not exist. I can't wait.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Shannon Kepler Murder Case

     Shannon Kepler and his wife Gina joined the Tulsa Police Department as patrol officers on August 13, 1990. He was  30-years-old and she was 24. In 2002, the childless couple adopted 6-year-old Lisa.

    Lisa Kepler, diagnosed with a personality disorder called reactive detachment, became a difficult child. Due to her behavioral problems the Keplers, over the years, spent thousands of dollars on various programs, camps, and therapy. None of this treatment altered the girl's anti-social behavior. By 2014, the parents were at their wit's end. They simply had no control over their 18-year-old daughter.

     On July 30, 2014, the fed-up parents, in hopes that a dose of reality might prompt Lisa to change her ways, kicked her out of the house. They dropped her off at a homeless shelter in downtown Tulsa.

     While living at the homeless shelter, Lisa met 19-year-old Jeremey Lake. Shortly thereafter, Lisa moved into Lake's parents' house in north Tulsa. On August 5, 2014, Lisa and Jeremy announced their romantic relationship on Facebook.

     That Tuesday night, August 5, 2014, at nine-fifteen, Shannon Kepler pulled up in front of Jeremy Lake's house where he encountered Lisa and her boyfriend walking along the street. Following an exchange of angry words the police officer shot at Lake three times then allegedly turned his gun on his daughter and fired three more times. Lisa escaped injury, but the boy died on the spot. After the shooting, Officer Kepler drove off in his SUV.

     Not long after the shooting a Tulsa police officer spoke on the phone to Gina Kepler who said that she and her husband planned to turn themselves in. She said she'd leave the gun in the trunk of her car.

     Accompanied by an attorney, Shannon Kepler and his 48-year-old wife surrendered at police headquarters. (Mrs. Kepler had been charged with accessory to murder after the fact.) On the advice of their lawyer, the couple did not agree to interrogations.

     Officers booked the Keplers into the Tulsa County Jail. The 54-year-old police officer and instructor at the Tulsa Police Academy faced charges of first-degree murder and shooting with intent to kill.

     The judge denied the suspects bond, and the chief of police suspended the Keplers with pay. Mr. Kepler entered a plea of not guilty based on a claim of self defense.

     A few days after the arrests of her parents, Lisa Kepler spoke to a local television reporter. Regarding her dead boyfriend she said, "He was just really sweet and caring and he didn't pretend. I've known him a week. He was everything. He gave me a place to stay, food to eat, and a bed to sleep in. He meant a lot to me and dad came and took him away."

     The defendants, after the judge set their bond, made bail and were released from custody on August 22, 2014.

     The Kepler murder trial has been delayed several times due to a series of procedural motions filed by the defense involving claims that the judge and the case prosecutor were biased against the defendant. The motions were denied.

     In 2015, 2016, and 2017, Shannon Kepler went on trial for murder three times, and three times the juries were deadlocked on a verdict.

     A fourth jury, on October 19, 2017, found Shannon Kepler guilty of first-degree manslaughter. On November 20, 2017, Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes sentenced Kepler to 15 years in prison.  

Suicide and the Werther Effect

     Sociologists studying the media and the cultural contagion of suicidal behaviors were the first to recognize the copycat effect. In 1974, University of California at San Diego sociologist David P. Phillips coined the phrase Werther Effect to describe the copycat phenomenon. The name Werther  comes from the 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the author of Faust. In the story, the youthful character Werther falls in love with a woman who is promised to another. Always melodramatic, Werther decides that his life cannot go on and that his love is lost. He then dresses in boots, a blue coat, and a yellow vest, sits at his desk with an open book, and, literally at the eleventh hour, shoots himself. In the years that followed, throughout Europe, so many young men shot themselves while dressed as Werther and seated at their writing desks with an open copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther in front of them that the book was banned in Italy, Germany, and Denmark.

     Though an awareness of this phenomenon has been around for centuries, Phillips was the first to conduct formal studies suggesting that the Werther Effect was, indeed, a reality--that massive media attention and the retelling of the specific details of a suicide (or, in some cases, untimely deaths) could increase the number of suicides.

     The August 1962 suicide of Marilyn Monroe presents a classic modern-day example of the Werner Effect. In the month that followed it, 197 individual suicides--mostly of young blond women--appear to have used the Hollywood star's suicide as a model for their own. The overall suicide rate in the U.S. increased by 12 percent for the month after the news of Monroe's suicide. But, as Phillips and others discovered, there was no corresponding decrease in suicides after the increase from the Marilyn Monroe-effect suicides. In other words, the star's suicide actually appeared to have caused a whole population of vulnerable individuals to complete their own deaths, over and above what would be normally expected. This is the copycat effect working with a vengeance.

Loren Coleman, The Copycat Effect, 2004

Thornton P. Knowles On Writer's Angst

Writer's angst? Forget it. You want angst? Lose your wallet, or get a bad haircut.

Thornton P. Knowles

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Pedophiles

     Anyone who follows the news regularly comes across stories about boys who have been repeatedly sexually molested by relatives, neighbors, mothers' boyfriends, teachers, priests, ministers, Boy Scout leaders, coaches, and youth counselors. These accounts tend to have the same narrative arc: following years of suspicious behavior and rumors of molestation, someone finally comes forward to report the crimes. After a plea bargained sentence, families of the victims sue the pedophile's school, church or institution, and if the offender is a public employee, the city or the state. Following this, local politicians and others call for measures that will protect future victims. But it never shops. Why?

     While we are familiar with the general profile of the adult male who preys on boys under thirteen, we have no idea how many of them are out there working in our schools, juvenile facilities, churches, and day care centers. Dr. Gene Abel, an expert in this field, has estimated that between 1 and 5 percent of our adult population sexually molests children. If this is true, there are hundreds of thousands of them among us victimizing millions of youngsters. Because pedophiles are serial offenders who cannot be cured or rehabilitated, the victimization rates for this type of offense are through the roof. According to studies, before being caught for the first time, the average pedophile assaults 120 boys. Once released from prison, a vast majority of them reoffend. Since only a small percentage of pedophiles end up in prison, who knows how many children are victimized during the sex life of just one of these criminals?

     Although conscientious parents teach their children to be wary of strangers, most cases of pedophilia involve preditors who are either related to or acquainted with the boy. The most vulnerable targets are "at-risk" youths from dysfunctional families.

     Pedophiles flourish in our society because, in matters of criminal justice, we are taught to be careful with our accusations. No one wants to be part of a "witch hunt." Moreover, if you make a false accusation, you can be sued. Besides pedophiles, America is home to a lot of lawyers. According to the FBI, only between 1 to 5 percent of child molestation crimes are reported to the police. I believe it's more like one percent. According to one study of 255 cases involving students sexually molested by their teachers, in only one percent of these cases did the school district superintendent attempt to revoke the offenders' teaching licenses.

     Pedophilia is a crime of stealth, single-minded and clever offenders, frightened victims, and, on the part of people who should intercede on the child's behalf, denial. Pedophiles are often charming, hard-working employees who have ingratiated themselves into the community. Notwithstanding the increased awareness of this crisis, it will not go away. Unfortunately, there are certain social problems that cannot be fixed by a criminal justice system. At least not ours.

Thornton P. Knowles On How Many Words a Picture is Worth

So, a picture is supposedly worth a thousand words? Give me a break. In reality, a word is worth a thousand pictures. Only a so-called "literary" novelist could do a thousand words on a picture, say, of a cow. Most pictures don't rate more than a title like, "Brown and White Cow."

Thornton P. Knowles

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Keith Little Murder Case


     At ten-thirty in the morning of New Year's Day 2011, police were called to the Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland where they discovered maintenance supervisor Roosevelt Brockington's body in his basement boilerroom office. Someone had stabbed Brockington 70 times in the face, neck, chest, and back. The 40-year-old victim had a 12-inch knife stuck in his neck. This was clearly a crime of passion committed by someone who hated the victim.

     Five days after the murder, a Suburban Hospital worker reported seeing Keith D. Little, a maintenance employee, washing a pair of black gloves and a ski-mask in chemically treated water. The police recovered these items from the trash outside the boilerroom and took Little, already a suspect, into custody.

     On February 3, 2003, in an earlier case, Keith Little had allegedly killed his maintenance boss in Washington, D.C. This victim, Gordon Rollins, had been shot six times. The jury in the 2006 murder trial found Little not guilty. He walked out of jail a free man.

     Investigators in the Bethesda murder case had reason to believe that Little hated Mr. Brockington. In 2009, Little had threatened to "get him" after the maintenance supervisor changed his working schedule. As a result of that adjustment, Little had to give up a second job at the federal court house in Greenbelt, Maryland. More recently, Brockington had given the 50-year-old suspect a negative performance evaluation that kept him from receiving an annual pay raise.

     DNA analysts at the Montgomery County Crime Laboratory determined there was not enough trace evidence on one of the gloves to declare the presence of blood. A second analysis by a private firm, Bode Technology, found no evidence of blood either, but did find evidence after applying a serology test that can detect more diluted traces. According to these results, the glove contained DNA from the victim, the suspect, and an unidentified person.

     Charged with first-degree murder, Little went on trial on December 2, 2011 at the Montgomery Court House in Rockville, Maryland. His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Ronald Gottlieb, in his opening statement to the jury, pointed out that the police found no traces of blood in the defendant's home, car, or work locker. As for the motive behind the murder, Gottlieb asserted that several former maintenance employees could have been angry with the victim. At this point, it seemed the prosecution had a much stronger case than the defense.

     On December 6, 2011, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Marielsa Bernard ruled that the prosecution could not introduce the results of the DNA test linking defendant Little to the glove that supposedly contained traces of the victim's blood. The judge felt the disparity of lab results rendered this evidence unreliable.

      Judge  Marielsa also prohibited the prosecution from making any mention of Little's previous trial in which he was found not guilty of killing his maintenance boss in Washington, D.C. This information, according to the judge, was too prejudicial to the defendant's current case.

     The Montgomery County prosecutor, notwithstanding the procedural setbacks, went ahead with the case. On February 13, 2012, the jury found Keith Little guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.