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Friday, July 31, 2015

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. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Dragnet": Just the Facts

     Although not one of those kids who wanted to grow up to be a police detective, or one who devoured mystery novels, crime-fighting comics, or Sherlock Holmes fiction, I was a big fan of the TV series "Dragnet" starring Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Department. The show first aired from 1951 to 1959, then came back in 1967 and ran to 1970. I can't remember why "Dragnet" appealed to me as a middle and high school student, but after watching a few episodes recently on a TV retro network, I know why I like it now. I admire the show today because the stories, based on actual police files, portray the bureaucracy, boredom, frustrations and drudgery--punctuated by bursts of danger--of real life detective work.

     The crimes featured on "Dragnet," ranging from murder, armed robbery, missing persons, arson, check fraud, embezzlement, and even shoplifting, unfolded in a straightforward fashion, helped along by Jack Webb's voice-over narration in which you are informed of the time, date, and place of every scene. The acting is direct and unpretentious (stilted if you're a fan of the modern, angst-ridden I'm-going-for-an-acting-award style) and doesn't overshadow the terse, crisp, clear-eyed exposition and dialog. I like the script writing, an enjoyable blend of Ernest Hemingway and first-rate news reporting. Journalism school students should be required to watch episodes of "Dragnet" and encouraged to emulate its style.

     Each "Dragnet" episode had a beginning, middle, and end. I especially enjoyed the story wrap-ups because you learned the fate of the criminal suspects who were tried and convicted in "Department 187 of the Superior Court of California, in and for the city and county of Los Angeles." First-degree murderers were "executed in the manner prescribed by law at the state penitentiary, San Quentin, California." Bam. Case closed.

     Jack Webb also produced the show which was written principally by James E. Moser who peppered the scripts with police terminology such as M. O. and APB (all points bulletin). Moser realistically portrayed how criminal cases are solved by detectives who logically follow one investigative lead to the next. Detective Joe Friday didn't have feelings in his "gut," or lay awake at night in angst over the mental and emotional strains of being a cop. He did his job in workman like fashion without all the belly-aching.

     "Dragnet" was good stuff then, and, in my opinion, refreshing now.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pearlie Golden and Leo Sharp: Criminal Justice in an Aging Society

     It's become common knowledge that elderly people are prolific shoplifters. But it's still surprising when an old person commits a serious crime such as assault or criminal homicide. In recent years, due to mental illness and dementia, dozens of eighty and ninety-year-olds have been shot to death by the police. While these police-involved shootings were found to be justified, many of the fatal shootings were the result of the modern era's hair-trigger, militaristic form of policing. While perhaps legally justified, many of these deadly encounters were arguably unnecessary. But in a zero-tolerant police culture, age and dementia are no longer factors in the shoot-don't shoot equation. Gender doesn't figure in either.

Pearlie Golden

     Pearlie Golden, a 93-year-old resident of Hearne, Texas, a town of 4,500 in the east-central part of the state, didn't like it when the Texas Department of Public Safety declined to renew her driver's license on Tuesday May 6, 2014. Back at her house after failing the test, Pearlie, an African-American known in the community as "Miss Sulie," got into an argument with her nephew, Roy Jones. She demanded that he return the keys to her car. He refused. She got up from her chair on the front porch and entered the house. When she returned, she had a .38-caliber revolver in her hand. Roy Jones ran into the house and called 911.

     Officer Stephen Stem with the Hearne Police Department responded to the 911 call. In 2012, officer Stem had shot a man to death in the line of duty. He was cleared of wrongdoing in that case by a local grand jury and remained on the force.

    Officer Stem, in responding to the call at the old woman's house, shot Pearlie Golden three times. She died shortly thereafter at a nearby hospital. In justifying the deadly use of force on a 93-year-old woman, a police spokesperson said the deceased had "brandished a gun."(According to the Associated Press, Golden, prior to being shot by officer Stem, had actually fired her gun. It is not clear if she took aim at the officer. If she had fired at officer Stem, or at anyone else in his presence, this use of deadly force was clearly justified. If she shot into the air, or the gun discharged accidentally, the issue will be more complicated.) The official spokesperson said, "The officer asked her to put the handgun down, and when she would not, shots were fired." According to the spokesperson, officer Stem ordered her to drop the weapon three times.

     Many citizens of Hearne, outraged by the shooting, protested outside the police department. Ruben Gomez, the town's mayor, said he would recommend that officer Stem be fired from the department. On Saturday, May 10, the city council voted 6-0 to discharge officer Stem. To determine if the officer had committed a form of criminal homicide, the shooting was under investigation by the Texas Ranger's Office.

     On September 10, 2014, a local grand jury declined to indict the former police officer.

     Stephen Stem filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Hearne city council. On February 10, 2015, a federal judge dismissed the case.

Leo Sharp

     In 2014, Leo Sharp, a 90-yar-old decorated World War II veteran, resided in Michigan City, Indiana, a town of 30,000 fifty miles east of Chicago. In the fall of 2013, a federal prosecutor charged Sharp and eighteen others in connection with their involvement with a Mexican drug cartel. Mr. Sharp confessed to hauling more than a ton of cocaine into the U.S. from Mexico. He had earned, during his tenure as a drug courier, more than $1 million. (In 2011, police stopped Sharp on a traffic violation on Interstate 94 west of Detroit. The arresting officer recovered a large quantity of cocaine.)

     On May 7, 2014, following his guilty plea, Leo Sharp appeared before a federal judge in Detroit for his sentencing. Sharp's attorney, in arguing for leniency, focused on his client's past, particularly his being awarded the Bronze Star for  his combat in the Battle of Mount Battaglia in Italy. Attorney Darryl Goldberg also informed the court that Mr. Sharp's dementia would place a burden on federal prison personnel.

      When it came time for the defendant to speak, Mr. Sharp, dressed in a suit and tie, said he wanted to spend his few remaining years in Hawaii growing papayas on land he owned in that state. (He had probably purchased the property with his drug income.) "All I can tell you, your honor, is I'm really heartbroken I did what I did. But it's done."

     U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Edmunds sentenced Leo Sharp to three years in prison, and fined him $500,000. The judge said, "I don't doubt that prison will be difficult for you, but respect for the law requires there be some custody in this case." In all probability, this judge sentenced the old man to life behind bars.
   
      

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Who Murdered Vindalee Smith?

     Vindalee Smith, a 38-year-old unemployed health care worker lived by herself in a basement apartment in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. The Jamaican-born Seventh Day Adventist was eight and a half months pregnant. Her other children, two girls and two boys, lived with friends or relatives. The man who fathered these offspring, now teens and young adults, lived in England.

     On Sunday, October 21, 2012, at the New Dimension Church, Vindalee Smith and a 33-year-old man named Anthony Jackman, were scheduled to participate in a faux marriage ceremony. They weren't really getting married because her "fiancee" already had a wife in New Jersey with whom he was estranged. (I don't know if Vindalee knew about Jackman's wife. I presume he is the one who had impregnated her.) Jackman was living with his parents who had an apartment down the block from Smith's place.

     On Saturday, the day before the "wedding," Vindalee didn't show up for morning services at the New Dimension Church. A fellow member of the congregation called Vindalee's landlord to check on the pregnant church member. When the landlord used a duplicate key to enter the apartment, he found Smith lying on the floor in a pool of blood. She and the baby were dead.

     At the site of this woman's violent death, New York City detectives determined that the victim's apartment had not been entered by force, and that the murder weapon, a knife or other sharp object, was not at the scene. There were blood spatter patterns throughout the apartment. The victim had bled to death from a gaping incised or stab wound in the neck. 

     Beneath the victim's body, detectives found an envelope containing a one-page note that had been typed in large block letters and printed out of a computer. (The envelope bore a bloody latent fingerprint.) According to the note, the killer promised to murder one pregnant woman a week until the authorities released Lee Boyd Malvo from prison. (Malvo and Allen Mohammed were the so-called Beltway Snipers who murdered several people in the DC area in 2002. Mohammed was executed in 2009, and Malvo is serving a sentence of life without parole.) The note was signed, "The Apprentice."

     Detective were skeptical of the notion that Vindalee Smith had been murdered by some crazed serial killer. They found it more plausible that the note had been planted by a killer who knew the victim, and had a more traditional motive for her death. The person who killed this woman had been careless enough to leave behind a bloody fingerprint. Unless, of course, the print belonged to the victim. 

     On Sunday night, October 21, detectives from the 67th Precinct arrested Anthony Jackman on charges related to a fake New Jersey automobile registration. They questioned him about the Smith murder, and the next day, he was released from custody. (I don't know if Jackman agreed to be questioned about the murder or exercised his Miranda rights.) Detectives, when asked by reporters if Jackman were a suspect, denied that he was. 

     According to press reports, Anthony Jackman has a history of fourteen arrests involving petit larceny (petty theft), burglary, weapons possession, and the possession of a forged instrument. (I would presume, unless he had an airtight alibi, that Jackman was considered a suspect. In terms of motive, I think it was important to know if Vindalee knew that Jackman, her fiancee, was married. 

     As for other possible suspects, detectives learned that months earlier Vindalee had feuded with a neighbor who accused her of letting his dog out of the building. This man had reportedly threatened to kill her. I don't know if the police have identified and questioned this man. As for the possibility of a serial killer, I don't think so. This doesn't look like a murder committed for sex, or money. The key to solving this case is motive, and of course that bloody, crime scene fingerprint.

   As of July 2015, the Vindalee Smith murder case remained unsolved. The person who left the crime scene latent fingerprint had not been identified. 

     

     

Monday, July 13, 2015

Paul Slater: Invade Home, Get Shot

     On Friday, January 6, 2013 in Loganville, Georgia, a town of 11,000 30 miles east of Atlanta, Melinda Herman was at home watching her 9-year-old twins. She was working in her second-story office. At one o'clock that afternoon, Melinda looked out a window and saw a man she didn't recognize pull up in front of her upper-middle-class suburban home. The man, later identified as 32-year-old Paul Ali Slater, had been released from jail in August after serving six months for simple battery and three counts of probation violation. Since 2008, this thief and burglar had been arrested seven times. He had six children.

     Melinda watched the man approach the house. He knocked on the front door, and when she didn't answer, he laid on the doorbell. Frightened, Melinda called her husband Donnie at work. (In late December, Donne had taken his wife to a shooting range where she had learned how to fire a .38-caliber revolver.) Donnie told Melinda to take possession of the firearm, then hide in the attic with the children. He called 911.

     When Melinda looked out the window again, she saw the man coming toward the house with a crowbar in his hand. As Slater used the tool to break into the Herman home, Melinda and the twins hid in a crawlspace closet.

     From inside the attic closet, Melinda could hear the burglar rummaging through the family's belongings. She became extremely alarmed when she heard the intruder enter the attic. Suddenly the closet door opened, and there he was, standing a foot from her and the children. Melinda raised the six-shot revolver and fired all of its bullets. Five of the slugs hit Slater in the face and neck. Four of these bullets passed through his body.

     The shot intruder fell face-down on the attic floor. As the blood started leaking from his bullet-ridden body, he begged Melinda, who was still pulling the trigger of her empty gun, to stop shooting. Melinda and the children stepped over the home invader's body and ran out of the house. As they took refuge in a neighbor's place, Slater managed to get to his feet and stumble out of the dwelling. He made his way to the SUV, but a few houses down the street, ran the vehicle into a tree.

     The bloodied and badly wounded burglar crawled out of his SUV and collapsed on someone's driveway. That's where deputies from the Walton County Sheriff's Office found him. "Help me," he cried. "I'm close to dying."

     Emergency personnel rushed the shot intruder to the Gwinnet Medical Center where he was placed on a ventilator.

    The local prosecutor charged Paul Ali Slater with first-degree burglary and other offenses.

     Slater pleaded guilty in April 2013. At his sentencing hearing a month later, he said, "I knocked on the door. I tried to take every precaution to make sure I was going into a vacant house. The times were tough for my family, and I made the decision to commit a crime. I was going into the house to steal some jewelry.

     The judge sentenced Paul Slater to 20 years with 10 years to serve in prison.

   

     

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Ebony Wilkerson Attempted Murder Case

     In 2014, Ebony Wilkerson and her three children, ages 10, 9, and 3, lived with her husband, the children's father, in North Charleston, South Carolina. The 32-year old mother, pregnant with her fourth child, was losing her mind.

     On Sunday, March 2, 2014, Ebony called 911 and said she had been physically assaulted by her husband of 14 years. To officers with the North Charleston Police Department, she claimed that her husband had abused her in a Myrtle Beach hotel room.

     Following treatment at a local hospital, Ebony put her three children into her black Honda Odyssey and left the state en route to her sister's apartment in Dayton Beach, Florida.

     The distraught mother's sister, Jessica Harrell, saw signs that Ebony was in the midst of a mental and emotional breakdown. On Monday, March 3, at Jessica's urging, Ebony Wilkerson checked herself into a nearby hospital for psychiatric treatment. But the next morning she checked herself out of the health facility.

     That day, as Ebony ranted incoherently about demons, the Devil, disembodied voices, and various hallucinations, Jessica called 911 about having her committed involuntarily into a mental facility. Before Jessica got off the phone with the 911 dispatcher, Ebony put her children in her minivan and drove off.

     A short time later, a Daytona Beach patrol officer pulled Ebony over. Although the officer recognized that the woman driving the Honda carrying the kids seemed to be mentally disturbed, the police officer let her go. The patrolman didn't think he had enough evidence to take Ebony into custody pursuant to a Florida law that allows manifestly mentally ill people to be detained for their own wellbeing and the safety of others. The officer found nothing specific that indicated that this woman was dangerous, or about to go off the deep end.

     Two hours after the police officer stopped Wilkerson, Tim Tesseneer, driving with his wife on the sands of Daytona Beach, noticed a black minivan moving slowing through the surf in shallow water. As he ran toward the vehicle Tesseneer heard screams and saw two children waving frantically for help. "Please help us," one of the youngsters yelled. One of the kids was trying to wrestle control of the steering wheel from the driver. When Ebony became aware of Tesseneer's presence, she calmly said, "We're okay. We're okay." Obviously she and her children were not okay.

     Stacy Robinson, another man who had seen the car in the Atlantic Ocean, opened a back door and pulled out the 9 and 10-year-old. The 3-year-old child remained strapped in her car seat. A lifeguard who had joined the rescue effort dived through a front widow and unbuckled the toddler's seatbelt. As the van drifted into deeper water, he handed the terrified 3-year-old to a second lifeguard who removed the child from the bobbing vehicle. One of the other men pulled Ebony out of the Honda.

     Ebony and the children were taken to the Halifax Health Medical Center for evaluation. In speaking to a police officer at the hospital, one of the Wilkerson children said, "Mom tried to kill us. Mom is crazy." According to the child, his mother told them to "close their eyes and go to sleep." She had locked the doors and rolled up the windows and said they were all going to a better place.

     On Friday, March 7, 2014, when a doctor released Ebony Wilkerson from the hospital, police officers booked her into the Volusia County Jail on three counts of attempted first-degree murder and three counts of aggravated child abuse. The judge set her bond at $1 million.

     In October 2014, Wilkerson's attorney announced that his client would plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Shortly after that, the Volusia County prosecutor dropped the criminal charges in lieu of an insanity hearing to determine if Wilkerson should be committed involuntarily to a mental institution or remain free on the condition she seek out patient therapy.

     The insanity hearing got underway on December 17, 2014. Dr. Antonia Canaan, testifying on Wilkerson's behalf, said that in 2005 Wilkerson suffered from post-partum psychosis after giving birth. According to the doctor, pregnancy psychosis can occur near delivery time or emerge four weeks after delivery as post-partum depression.

     Wilkerson took the stand and testified that she hadn't been aware that her children locked in the minivan were in danger as she drove into the sea. "All that mattered," she said, "was that God was with me. I didn't realize the seriousness of it. I understand now that there were no angels, no demons. I understand now. I didn't hear voices in my head. I now know right from wrong." (This line suggests heavy coaching from her attorneys.)

     At the conclusion of the hearing before Volusia County Circuit Court Judge Leah R. Case, Wilkerson's attorneys announced that their client, to avoid involuntary mental institute commitment, would immediately undergo tubal ligation that would remove the possibility of post-partum psychosis.

     On December 23, 2014, Judge Case, before committing Wilkerson to mental incarceration for up to six months, said, "the court is convinced that the defendant should be committed. She minimizes her health issues; she lacks insight into her mental health problems."