Showing posts with label Mark Thielman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mark Thielman. Show all posts

22 November 2022

A Few Short Thanksgiving Thoughts

 We've had some rain here in the Fort Worth area the past few days. A chilly bit of November precipitation puts a damper on arrests. Criminals may not want to be outside on a cold, wet night. The police also might wish to stay dry. They may let some minor traffic violations slide that would have resulted in further investigations had the weather been better. (In an August blog post, I discussed this issue and other meteorological questions.)

I raise the matter again today because I'd planned to write about the voice-to-text hiccups that found their way into recent probable cause documents. The dearth of arrests made my pile a little thinner than some months. 

The Birds and the Buzz

My local police encountered a young man walking in the street, ignoring the oncoming traffic. He sang and flapped his arms. In his pursuit of an explanation for the man's behavior, the patrol officer asked him, by chance, whether he may have ingested an intoxicant. According to the report, the man stated that he did conceive both alcohol and Xanax earlier in the day.

If true, the ability to birth both alcohol and alprazolam would make this young man very popular on the mean streets. 

Side note: The local prosecutor recognized the typographical error. The office charged the man with possession and not delivery.  

The Ferrous Wheel

Another man's odd behaviors similarly drew the attention of law enforcement. In the cop-speak of the offense report, the officer exited his vehicle and approached the suspect. After observing the man's unkempt condition, unsafe actions, and lack of appropriate responses to questions, the patrol officer noted that "he believed the suspect had a metal condition.

Fortunately, the term was a typo, not the latest euphemism for being shot. 

When I read the sentence, I couldn't shake the image of Don Quixote. An oddly acting man clad in armor. (Perhaps I formed a metal picture.) 

Miscellaneous (Not voice-to-text)

As I said, the pile was a little short, so I'm adding a couple of other observations. 

The advent of cold weather brings the homeless population into the jail. (Another topic discussed in an earlier blog.) They stand near the bond desk and get ordered to leave the premises. They continue to stand as the command is repeated. "Leave, or you'll be arrested," the men are told. (It's almost always men.) When they decline to exit, they get escorted from the public side to the secure side of the jail. Although I can never dismiss the tragedy behind these cases, in this run-up to Thanksgiving, I am reminded of "The Cop and the Anthem," the short story by O. Henry. 

Finally, a few paragraphs back, I referred to cop-speak, the unofficial language of the police when communicating with the public. My favorite example in some time came around this week. The officer described using force against an uncooperative suspect who suffered from poor judgment and rich intoxication. The man assumed a fighting stance. The officer wrote that he then "brought his fist to the lower quadrant of his face as a distraction technique." 

Today marks for many the start of the Thanksgiving festivities. I shall close, therefore, with this holiday wish. As you gather with family and friends, may the blessings of the season be upon each of you. May all your stoplights be green and all your lines short. May all your food be perfectly cooked and all your teams victorious. And may you finish your time of celebration without distracting anyone.

Remember, jail is no place to spend Thanksgiving.

Until next time.  


01 November 2022

Barnyard Justice

    Beastly behavior might end up in court.

    Beginning in the Middle Ages and extending through the 18th century, many European nations believed that animals could commit crimes. I’m not talking about soiling the rug or barking after midnight. Pigs, dogs, rats, and other creatures might be accused of penal law violations. There were several sources for the belief in animal culpability. Chiefly, the Hebrew Bible supported the idea. In Exodus 21:28, it is written that "[w]hen an ox gores a man or a woman to death the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh not eaten." Additionally, medieval cosmology established a great chain of being. Society was hierarchical. Atop the ladder sat God, followed on the lower rungs by heavenly hosts. Below them, God’s representatives in church and state—the priests and king rested. Nobles, freemen, and serfs usually complete our view of the ladder. The hierarchy, however, did not stop there. Primates, quadrupeds, lower animals, and vermin were followed by plants in the great chain of being. Unique among the earthly species, humans were made in the image of God. They alone had the opportunity to join the divinity in the next world. Because each occupant of a rung had the same essence, to a greater or lesser degree, moral agency extended down the ladder.

            Both secular and religious authorities agreed on the need to prosecute certain animals in courtrooms and, as appropriate, to punish them for offenses. The reasoning behind these prosecutions varied. Some saw animals as sentient beings who had conscious thoughts. They could scheme and behave like humans. (Although from a different time, we might remember Aesop. He famously crafted a bundle of tales about anthropomorphic beasts of farm and forest.) Other thinkers supported animal trials out of retribution and a need to extract society's measured response to wrongdoing. The absence of legal intent did not necessarily free the animal from criminal liability or consequence. Still others saw a threat to social order by not acting. A goring ox was not executed because it was morally guilty. These thinkers recognized that oxen do what oxen do. As a lower animal, however, it had killed a higher animal. The ox threatened to upset the divinely ordered hierarchy of God’s creation. Finally, some, like Thomas Aquinas, reasoned that the lower animals are God’s creatures. He uses them for his purposes. To punish or curse them for their actions would be blasphemy. Offending animals, he argued, therefore, must be agents of Satan. It was widely understood that the Devil frequently used irrational and simple creatures to the detriment of humans. The disposition of the cases then must not be seen as punishing the animals but as hurling them at Satan. Think of the demon-inhabited pigs in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 8. They ran off a cliff into the sea and drowned. The agent of evil needed to be destroyed not for the criminal act but rather to resist the Great Tempter.

            Whether criminally culpable or demon-possessed, animals deemed guilty/cursed were destroyed. The meat could not be salvaged. Neither the beast nor the owner fared well under the system. Far better, I suppose, when a non-domesticated animal stood accused. Nobody loses when a mosquito gets its due.

            Courts, both secular and ecclesiastical, developed procedures for the trials of animals. A distinction was drawn between the capital trials by secular courts of offending domestic animals (Thierstrafen) and judicial proceedings undertaken in ecclesiastical courts against vermin for damage (Thierprocesse). Although the cases had non-traditional defendants, the courts took the proceedings very seriously.

            As often happens, while looking for something else, I stumbled into a 1906 book, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals by E.P. Evans. He documents the medieval belief in the appropriateness of the criminal prosecution of animals. Evans, in particular, notes the work of Bartholomé Chassenée, a 16th-century French jurist. Chassenée wrote a treatise describing his efforts to defend accused beasts. Evans' collection of animal trials is a fascinating world to visit. 

        The November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine includes my story, “A Rat Tale,” the second story about the animal avocat, Bernard de Vallenchin. The tale is based loosely on a Chassenée trial. Both Valenchin and Chassenée work on behalf of the lowly rat. It was tempting to get lost in the weeds when telling the story. Who, after all, doesn't want the protagonist to drop a casual aside about the excommunication of moles in the Valley of Aosta, Italy, in the year 824. I tried to strike a balance. The goal was to offer a compelling courtroom drama. I also wanted to provide a few odd, historical details.  I hope that a reader finishes the tale entertained and interested in this jurisprudential footnote.

            If you don't like the story, punish my dog.

            (I'll be traveling on the day this posts. If you comment, I apologize for not getting back to you promptly.) 

            Until next time. 


11 October 2022

Bail at the Bar

      For most people charged with a criminal offense, the top priority is their release from jail. It's a hierarchy of needs– protestations of innocence, lawyers, trials—all those issues follow the primal urge to escape the confines of incarceration. The rest will come later. Around these parts, release usually involves making bail.

            We've talked about bail before, but I'd like to spend some time focusing on the development of the idea in the United States.

            Black’s Law Dictionary defines “bail” as “the surety who procures the release of a person under arrest by becoming responsible for his appearance at the time and place designated.” In practice, we tend to think of bail as the amount of money that must be pledged to secure a defendant's release pending the disposition of the case. A "bail bond" is a written promise that the defendant will, while at liberty, appear as required or that the signers of the bond will pay the amount of money specified in the order fixing bail.

            Black's definition of bail is personal. It hearkens to an Anglo-Saxon notion and a time when English society was clannish. Justice was private, an affair between individuals. The government did not prosecute crimes. Individuals did. To prevent blood feuds, a system of personal remuneration emerged. Values were established for the loss of lives, limbs, or livelihood (a weregild or bot). Guilty parties were expected to pay. To guard against flight, the defendant was required to find a clan member to act as surety. The sponsor's pledge equaled the amount of the penalty.

            With the arrival of the Normans, things got muddied. Law enforcement increasingly became the responsibility of the royal authorities. Corporal punishments, rather than remuneration, became accepted practice. Accurately setting the value of bail, as punishments moved away from cash payments to mutilation, (ear notching, branding, incarceration) became harder. The Normans also identified classes of offenses that they considered non-bailable. Contraction and expansion of bail followed through the ensuing centuries. Parliament stepped in when over-zealous or corrupt local authorities limited the access to bail. For example, local judges sometimes thwarted the pre-trial detention laws by setting unaffordable bail amounts. To safeguard against this, the English Bill of Rights stated that excessive bail ought not to be required. A similar phrase was written into the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

            The English bail system that emerged contained a pledge to appear, enforced by the threat of a reasonable penalty due upon failure. Exceptions were carved to continue incarceration for a variety of cases.

            The colonists carried the English notions of bail to America. Most states, however, wrote liberal laws regarding bail. Most of the English exceptions were ignored. This makes sense. Jails were expensive to maintain. Law enforcement resources were sparse. Keeping all but the most dangerous pre-trial defendants incarcerated was a difficult task. Colonists, furthermore, fled an oppressive government. The Federal Judiciary Act, enacted in 1789, and most state constitutions provided an absolute right to bail in all except capital cases.

            The English bail system transported to America encountered a new problem. Think back to that definition of bail from Black’s Law Dictionary. It incorporates the Anglo-Saxon notion that bail is a pledge by a person that the defendant shall appear. In the tight-knit communities of medieval England, a friend or clansman pledged attendance. Although nearly all crimes were bailable in the United States, who would pledge? On the frontier, most defendants lacked close friends or relatives to act as the personal custodian for the charged individual, especially when flight was readily an option. Sanctuary was always to the west. The combination of problems presented an entrepreneurial opportunity. The commercial bail bond business emerged in the United States.

Kai Schreiber, CC BY-SA 2.0 <

The brothers, Pete and Tom McDonough, are usually credited with establishing the first bail bond business. The two ran their father's bar located at the corner of Clay and Kearney streets in San Francisco. The saloon stood near the Hall of Justice.

As a result, it served as a convenient watering hole for local attorneys. When a client got arrested, the bar owners began running down to the courthouse to make a defendant's bail. If the lawyer didn't have to leave "The Corner" to secure his client's release, he could keep drinking. When the brothers learned that the attorneys charged a fee for the bond, they saw the business opportunity. The McDonough brothers expanded the service, making the bail for non-drinking patrons.

            The McDonoughs developed an elaborate system of wireless communication. When an outlying jurisdiction made an arrest, they would be alerted. A payment, here and there, helped with access. Within minutes they would find a judge, secure an order setting bail, and post the cash. The defendant would be released, poorer for McDonough’s efforts. The business became known as “The Old Lady of Kearney Street.” Time Magazine once wrote:

"The Old Lady helped San Francisco be what many a citizen wanted it to be – a wide open town. She furnished bail by the gross to bookmakers and prostitutes, kept a taxi waiting at the door to whisk them out of jail and back to work."

            Not surprisingly, the McDonough brothers expanded into corruption and bribery. A local grand jury once reported,

"No one can conduct a prostitution or gambling enterprise in San Francisco without the approval, direct or indirect, of the McDonough brothers."

            Pete McDonough was convicted of bootlegging during Prohibition. Later, he was stripped of his bail bond license. The business closed. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted:

"The Old Lady … will take to her rocking chair, draw her shawl about her … But many a citizen thought simply: Good riddance."

            The commercial bail bond industry's original establishment retired. The Old Lady may have gone away, but she created a uniquely American business.

            Until next time.

(For the quotations, I am indebted to Corruption Central @Found and Schnacke, Jones, and Brooker, "The History of Bail and PreTrial Release")

20 September 2022

Eighteen Hundred Miles of Forced Comparisons

     As I described in my last post, my traveling companion and I drove to Minneapolis for Bouchercon. Rolling mile after mile across America’s abdomen, a mind can drift. 

   We stopped for the night in Kansas City. While there, we visited the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. A blockbuster museum, the place tells the trajectory of a humble man of ordinary beginnings who rose in the desperate circumstances of World War I to become a leader. The museum describes his grit, his core integrity, even in the company of shady characters, and his triumphs when his opponents underestimated him. It’s not hard to leave there thinking that if Harry Truman hadn’t become president, he’d have the makings of a great mystery detective.

We can take a stab at guessing who might have written Truman-based mysteries.

    Just down the road from the Truman Library stands barbecue history. There are a variety of culinary camps surrounding barbeque. One traces a line through central Texas. Another school has its heart in Kansas City. Although the foodie reviews identified several hot new places, we visited the classic, Arthur Bryant’s.  The restaurant is the foundation of Kansas City barbeque. Over a thickly sliced brisket sandwich, we think of the place as The Murder in the Rue Morgue of Midwest barbeque.

    Driving northward, we called on Winterset, Iowa. Winterset is in the heart of Madison County, home of the covered bridges that served as the setting for the 1992 novel and the 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Winterset is also home to the John Wayne Birthplace Museum. Romance, drama, gunfights, and action—the town served to get us in the proper frame of mind for elements of mystery novels.

    Just south of Minneapolis, we passed through Northfield. Serendipitously, September 7th, the day we arrived, was the 146th anniversary of the failed bank robbery by the James-Younger gang. In 1876 the raiders hit town intending to rob the First National Bank. Courageous townsfolk armed themselves and repelled the bandits. The town recognizes the street fight with “The Defeat of Jesse James Days.” As we hit town, the residents were busy blocking off streets in preparation for a celebration of regular people fighting back against the criminal element. The drive through Northfield foreshadowed the conference. 

From Thursday through Sunday, the real thing, Bouchercon 2022. We immersed ourselves in mystery and suspense. We made some new friends and got re-acquainted with old ones. After our COVID-enforced absence, we reconnected with folks we hadn’t seen in years. We listened to some stars of our craft, Craig Johnson, S. A. Cosby, and Kent Krueger, among others. Likely, we heard from others who soon will be. I appeared Friday on a panel on short story writing. Thanks to Barb Goffman, Amber Royer, Ted Fitzgerald, Mary Dutta, and Raquel Reyes for making it memorable.

    No conference is complete without making some small discoveries. I've got a couple of books. I didn't know anything about them, but the first few pages demanded I bring them home. I have notes reminding me of a couple more written by authors who blew me away as panelists. 

    Museums can do that too. I’m a big fan of pocket museums. Leaving Minneapolis, we ventured south to Austin, Minnesota, and visited the Spam Museum. Because, why not. The museum celebrates the creation, production, distribution, and quirky passion for Spam. The name probably is a portmanteau for “spiced ham,” although no one exactly knows for sure. The entire museum is a giant advertising vehicle for a canned meat product. But, it worked. We carried home a collection of TBR books and a can of jalapeno Spam in our trunk.

  The city of Omaha offers Boys Town, founded by Father Flanagan and immortalized in a movie starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. The visitor’s center features, among other things, the world’s largest ball of canceled stamps. It sits in the center of a room and draws you to it.

    An Irish priest, a collection of delinquent juveniles, and a rare object on display in the middle of an unguarded room. Who couldn't work with a set-up like that?

    Until next time.   

06 September 2022

Road Trip

     As this blog posts, my traveling companion and I are pulling out of our driveway. This morning, we embark on our trip to Bouchercon 2022 in Minneapolis. Traveling through America's heartland, we will be preparing ourselves to cannonball into the deep waters of mystery fiction. Today, I'm wading slowly into that mystery pool. I'd like to consider the contributions to the mystery genre of some places we'll pass by as we motor up I-35. 

    Unless we stop for a fried pie in the Arbuckle Mountains, we should arrive in Oklahoma City in a smidge over three hours. I don't come to "The City" without remembering The Long and Faraway Gone. Lou Berney's book, set around a pair of crimes in Oklahoma City, explores memory and the continuing consequences of crimes. As I think about my writing, I try to remember what Berney taught me about damaged characters. If you've not read it, pick it up. Bring it to Bouchercon. He'll be on a panel moderated by Michael Bracken. 

   Another four-hour jump north will bring us near Topeka, Kansas. This selection, I'll acknowledge, is a total cheat. Perhaps I should go with The Late Man by James Girard or In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Rex Stout, however, was raised in Topeka before attending the University of Kansas. He created Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin, in Fer-de-Lance in 1934. Although there are books and authors more closely associated with Kansas, Mr. Wolfe's devoted fans, the Wolfe Pack, have been kind to me. Their Black Orchid Novella Award recognized my first published short story. I'll think about Rex Stout on our drive across Kansas. We might even pass the time listening to Too Many Cooks. In that book, Nero Wolfe left his New York brownstone and took a road trip. It seems fitting. 

    BTW: The Man Who Went Down Under by Alexis Stefanovich-Thomson, this year's Black Orchid Novella Award-winning story, was in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine's July/August issue. 

    Four hours later, we'll be solidly in Iowa. I just finished reading The Fields by Erin Young. This 2022 mystery is a procedural set in Black Hawk County, Iowa. The setting is a smidge east of I-35, the road we'll take through the state. But it couldn't be helped; I don't have a good Des Moines mystery at the ready. 

    The Fields is dark with an engaging female protagonist, Sergeant Riley Fisher. It opens with a murder on a family farm. Combining small-town life with the threats of corporate farming, the book moves at a quick pace. It may be located east of here, but it is not hard to imagine the setting as we slice through the corn belt. 

    Journeying northward, we'll cross the Minnesota state line. The first town we come to on that side of the border is Albert Lea. To the east, the next town is Austin, Minnesota. On this small sample space, the state appears organized alphabetically. If that's true, then Aurora County must be nearby.

    Aurora County, Minnesota, is the setting for the Cork O'Connor mysteries written by William Kent Krueger. And we won't find O'Connor here in the corn belt. The books are set in the state's north woods. Krueger, however, will be one of the guests of honor at Bouchercon. To commemorate this fact, I'll put forward Iron Lake, the first of the Cork books, as my state representative. I don't think I need to say much about him. Nineteen books in the series sort of speak for themselves. 

    Bonus: We will likely decide to return through South Dakota, the land of my youth. I reached out to fellow Sleuth, Eve Fisher for a recommendation on a Sioux Falls mystery. She didn't have one to offer. Instead, she suggested I try Kathleen Taylor's books set in Delphi, South Dakota. I read the first one, Funeral Food. I liked the small-town tropes. They felt authentic. When I picked it up, I expected to read a cozy. The protagonist is a waitress at the town's caféBut not all the sex occurred off camera. The plot felt a little forced in spots, but the humor was genuine. I laughed. 

    The westerly swing into South Dakota means we will return home through Nebraska. (You can check the map.) The state claims the hard-boiled crime fiction writer Jim Thompson on a Nebraska librarian website. He attended the University of Nebraska for a time. Oklahoma, however, also considers Thompson one of theirs since he was born in the Oklahoma Territory. His family subsequently moved to Fort Worth. The Lone Star State also takes credit for shaping him. Thompson was praised by Anthony Boucher. He was hailed as a Dimestore Dostoevsky. That label alone, I think, is worth a mention. With his tie to Boucher and nearly every state on our return, Thomson seems the ideal writer to recognize for the trip south. (Apparently, he never paused long enough to write a postcard from Kansas.) I'm pushing The Killer Inside Me

    If Bouchercon has left you too tired to read, you can catch The Killer Inside Me on video. Stacy Keach starred in 1976, and Casey Affleck reprised the lead role in a 2010 film version. 

    If you have other recommendations from these midwestern states, I'd love to hear about them. I can't promise, however, that I'll read them anytime soon. My traveling companion and I will likely return from Bouchercon with a tall new stack for our TBR piles. 

    Until next time. 

09 August 2022

Weather or Not

    Some immutable truths live in the basement of the jail, the place I call my work home. I'd like to explore some of them in the next few column inches. The following comments are not
supported by scientific research– no lab rats were killed in the writing of this blog. Rather, it is a compilation of observations.

    1. Hot weather makes criminals more aggressive.

    High temperatures are associated with bad moods, jittery behavior, irritability, and negative feelings. The jail staff certainly believes it. They keep the jail chilly to lessen aggressive behavior. As I've mentioned before, if you plan to get arrested, think ahead and bring a sweatshirt.

    When the weather gets extreme in either direction, cold or hot, we see a few anecdotal examples. As I discussed in my last column, some of my criminal trespassers go full Otis (That's an Andy Griffith Show reference and not the elevator). The homeless present themselves to the jail and force an arrest. This is a tactic for survival and not necessarily aggressive behavior.

    Rarely does a 4th of July pass that I don't see at least one man who attacked his brother with a barbecue fork. He apparently missed the note on the calendar identifying this as Independence Day.

    As I mentioned above, I'm not a social scientist. But we need to think about causation and correlation. In the summer, personal violence rates climb. Ice cream sales also do. Before we require Blue Bell (or whatever the leading ice cream is in your region) to slap a warning label on each half gallon, we need to consider whether the change in one produces a change in the other or if they are only statistically associated.

    So what about cause? Hot weather makes a person grumpy and, as a result, they are quick to wield that two-pronged, long-handled fork. Although we tend to think so, I'm inclined toward a different explanation. People are out more in the summer. They tend to hydrate with beer. When the siblings gather for the holiday, alcohol and family become the secret sauce. The barbecue fork is the weapon of convenience. The hot weather takes the blame. Check back at Thanksgiving; the knife used to carve the turkey will be involved.

    Personally, cold weather makes me grumpier. That's why I chose to move down to Texas and visit Minneapolis in early September before the northern gales bring the ice and snow.

    Consider rain. My climate criminologists tell me that rain and low barometric pressure also lead to a higher incidence of violence. My jail staff, however, love rainy days. (After they get to work and dry out their clothes.) They are hopeful for an easy workday, believing that rain will make fewer people go to the bars. They also think that police officers, not wanting to get out in the rain, might let a few behaviors slide that would otherwise result in traffic stops or out-of-car investigations.

    Of course, it has been so long since it rained in north Texas, that most people might just stare at the sky, getting soaked by this phenomenon that they've read about on the internet. We're living the reverse of a Ray Bradbury short story.

    2. There was a Covid effect. 

    In the early days of Covid-19, the crime pattern around Fort Worth shifted. The bars were closed. People didn't go out, and my driving while intoxicated cases fell precipitously. Instead, malefactors drank at home. They still acted out their aggression on the people around them. Spouses bore the brunt of the anger.

    The bars are back in business. We've grown accustomed to Covid. These days you can get punched by a stranger and infected all at the same time.

    3. A full moon makes everyone crazy.

    At the end of this week, August's full moon will fill the night sky. All manner of disturbing behavior will be attributed to this celestial power. I'm not sure that the statistics bear out lunar lunacy. Many of my jailers believe it, as do police officers and emergency medical workers. When the frontline observers attribute criminal behavior to a full moon, the people will persist. They can talk a phenomenon into existing.

    There may be a practical element to this one. A full moon might provide enough light for a burglar to practice his or her trade more easily. On that night, the concealing darkness of the shadows remains, making it harder for the victim's doorbell camera to get a good picture of the thief. The opposite of crazed behavior, the incidence of crime under a full moon might be perfectly rational when viewed from a certain perspective. The bomber's moon has become the burglar's moon. Just don't howl.

    For the astrological incline, by the way, Saturn will be at its yearly brightest a few days following the full moon. The tug of Saturn influences a person's moral boundaries. The next week may be a seriously dangerous time to be outside.

    As for me, I'll use the excuse to stay indoors and start planning for Bouchercon.

    Truth be told, I'm traveling the day this posts.

    Until next time.

19 July 2022

Reason or Insanity

    I meet the mentally ill, an omnipresent feature in the criminal justice system.

    They come into my cinder block courtroom located in the basement of the jail. Some shuffle in, sliding along with a sleepwalker’s gait. Usually slump-shouldered and dressed in dirty clothes, they stand quietly until it is their turn before the judge. They accept their instructions, answering in small voices, dull and flat. Other times, they twist and turn, unable to stand still. They deliver rapid-fire answers laden with asides. Others are brought in, cuffed to wheelchairs, or clad in suicide protection clothes and spit-guards. Although occasionally they sing or berate me during the brief hearings, a surprising number of them are polite in their responses given the expectations I form when they arrive in court ringed with security. 

    When they unleash a fusillade of profanity, they are quickly escorted out of court.
    The easiest defendants to identify are my criminal trespassers. They panhandle or simply camp outside gas stations. A couple of my regulars berate patrons seeking lodging at local hotels. The business owners call, and the police arrive. Law enforcement confirms that the loiterers have been formally warned to stay off the property and then they arrest them. They usually go quietly—they know the drill. Although ill, some have a well-honed survival strategy. When the weather turns too hot or too cold, they walk to the bond desk of the Sheriff's Office and settle. They refuse to leave. The deputies arrest them and walk them back to the jail. The scene is like Otis on the Andy Griffith Show only without the good humor.

    If you’re into Venn diagrams, the overlap between mental illness and my criminal trespassers is high. Criminal trespass, however, is not the only offense where I meet the mentally ill. They beat their loved ones, self-medicate with street drugs, set fires, steal, threaten, and hurt. Some research pegs the number of jail inmates reporting mental health problems at 64 percent. Not all my mentally ill are poor. I met an upper-middle-class man last week whose paranoia told him that the neighbors were threatening him. He responded by launching golf balls, shattering their windows. When magistrated, he assured me that he would sue me and all my co-conspirators. 

    I don’t worry much about the ones who only pack a Titleist. 

    I want to pause and parse words for a moment. Mental illness doesn’t make someone a criminal. Limited coping skills, poor impulse control, and a lack of access to proper prescriptions and services does make a criminal path more likely.

    No one likes pouring criminal justice resources into a revolving jail door for the petty crimes of the mentally ill we see. The absence of an alternative safety net brings them to us. My thoughts keep returning to the criminal trespasser. I have never met a police officer or district attorney who chose this career, dreaming of arresting or prosecuting the mentally ill panhandler. Those are not the defendants we tune into Law and Order to see. But I also think about the convenience store owner who watches her customers go to the service station across the street because there, the panhandlers aren’t harassing customers. 

    Sadly, I don’t offer a solution. Better minds have contemplated the issue without success. 

    In 2015, Sandra Bland was preparing to begin a job with her alma mater, Prairie View A & M, located in southeast Texas. Readers may remember the case, it garnered international attention. A brief recap—Sandra Bland was pulled over near campus while returning from an Independence Day vacation to visit with her relatives. What began as a traffic stop for failing to signal a lane change escalated into confrontation. Ms. Bland was arrested for assault on a peace officer. During jail intake, she reported a history of depression and a prior suicide attempt. Unable to post bail, Bland remained in county jail. Three days after her arrest, she hung herself in her cell. 

    In response, during the next legislative session, Texas passed the Sandra Bland Act. One component increased officer education for de-escalating possibly dangerous situations. Relevant to our conversation today, the legislation provided a system for reporting mental health concerns to the criminal courts. It also encouraged law enforcement agencies to get mentally ill misdemeanor defendants out of the criminal justice system through diversion programs and no-money, personal bonds. 

    To divert, however, the agencies need a place for the defendants to go. And with that, we circle back around to the absence of an adequate alternative. Locally, we’re still trying to find ways to cope with our numbers. 

    As readers and writers about crime, it is easy to overlook these cases. They only make the news when something dramatic occurs, as it did with Sandra Bland. This Independence Day as the temperatures soared around Texas, I saw again a spike in criminal trespass arrests. Non-violent, inconvenience misdemeanors are easy cases for the system to churn. A few days in jail and they are pled to credit for time served. 

    A better, more permanent solution proves far more difficult. 
    Until next time.

28 June 2022

Law Class

I’ve been thinking lately about lawyer archetypes. (I don’t often sit around musing about Jungian psychology, but I needed to give a short talk on the legal profession, and one thing sort of led to another.) The topic comes up occasionally. An internet search leads you to a good CrimeReads article by Christopher Brown. The American Bar Association devoted an issue of their magazine to the topic in August 2016.

    Every occupation has its types: doctors, priests, teachers, and even assassins have predictable buckets for fiction and movies. I’m sure accountants and farmers have them, too. I just haven’t read enough books or seen those films. 

    For today’s conversation, I will identify five different types of lawyers. I focus primarily on criminal practitioners because that’s where I live, but I think the types are equally applicable to civil law.

            #1. The Crusader:

    When asked about a lawyer archetype, this is the one most commonly named.

Think Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The truth-seeking champion of the downtrodden speaking truth to power. She can be found seated at either counsel table in the courtroom. The Crusader may be the prosecutor seeking justice for a traumatized victim or a defense attorney fighting a lonely battle on behalf of a wrongfully accused social outcast. She might be a plaintiff’s attorney giving voice to a powerless litigant suing a giant corporation with a team of deep-rug lawyers.

    The Crusader doesn’t have to be good at the job. This type is based on passion, not talent. Although she will have to find a legal nugget somewhere. Nobody wants to watch/read the story where the true believer gets steamrolled by the mighty empire unless there is a twist.

            #2 The Shark:  

    Maybe getting runover enough times has led to cynicism. The Shark sacrificed early zeal for the pursuit of wealth. Perhaps the idealism never existed to begin with. The Shark has learned the courthouse’s back passages and traverses them for his own enrichment. A reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee.

    Sharks represent the profession devoid of any nobility. Maybe they are skeptical about whether anything like justice exists, or perhaps the Shark has just become detached, substituting the luxuries purchased through success for any moral examination.

    Perhaps you’ve seen the Shark’s billboard on your morning commute. They can usually be found near the emergency room entrance to the hospital.

            #3 The Sleazy Drunkard:

    Abandon hope all ye who enter here. The Sharks or The Crusaders might journey down a path leading to Sleazy Drunkard. Drugs or alcohol might serve as the balm for a Crusader who must confront frequent disillusionment as the system disappoints and ultimately crushes him (and his clients). Alternatively, the absence of a moral compass might lead to unrestrained hedonism. The lawyer’s downward spiral leads to professional lapses—the decline may be marked by the diminished quality of the Drunkard’s scotch.

    To be fair, perhaps the archetype should have a slash, Sleazy/Drunkard. This attorney might still dream of nobility through an alcohol fog or, alternatively, have substance abuse as but one of a collection of issues, the others more sinister.

    Sleazy/Drunkard stories might be about redemption. Think Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin in The Verdict. (There are more recent examples, but that’s where my mind went.) The Crusader who tumbled is resurrected. Alternatively, the story might make the Sleazy/Drunkard the villain. Clients come to an attorney’s office needing help. That need makes them vulnerable and subject to exploitation. Every courthouse I’ve ever worked in has rumors about lawyers who took in-kind payments for their services. Characters who prey upon the weak in their hour of distress make first-rate villains. 

            #4 The Buffoon:

    My final categories get a bit muddled. The Buffoon could easily be subdivided into several distinct buckets. I think that they arise from our shared understanding of courts. We know the tropes of a courtroom. The lawyer who runs afoul of those established practices can generate either
laughter or cringes.

    J. Cheever Loophole, played by Groucho Marx, might mock the theater of the
courtroom with an over-the-top portrayal. John Gibbons, the public defender in My Cousin Vinny, might set up Joe Pesci through his ineptitude. We know what they’re doing or failing to do because we have learned through books and movies what to expect from a courtroom.

    The Buffoon might also just be very bad at his job. There is an element of talent, experience, and instinct in a successful attorney, just as in any other profession. A case in the hands of a Buffoon might produce an unjust outcome. The story might, therefore, set the stage for vigilante action to balance the scales. Every revenge story is about righting an unpunished wrong.

            #5 The Pettifogger

    This type takes the conversation in a different direction. To this point, the types have been more about degrees of cynicism toward the criminal justice system. The Pettifogger may fall anywhere along the scale. This is a classification based on tactics.

    By etymology, the Pettifogger may seem synonymous with the Shark, the Drunkard, or the Buffoon, depending on where the emphasis lies. A combination of “petty” (small) and “fogger,” an obsolete Dutch expression for a cheater. (You might think of an English profanity that sounds something like it.)  A pettifogger became a “small cheat,” a substandard practitioner of law. One who handles only small cases or employs questionable methods, according to the website Lexico.

    Instead, I’ve seen the name employed and use it here to describe the attorney who makes every question a struggle, every point a battleground. To illustrate, consider the following exchange.

            Lawyer #1: “Tell the Court your name.”

            Pettifogger: “May I take the witness on voir dire?”

            Judge: “Briefly.”

            Pettifogger: “How do you know your name?”

            Witness: “My parents called me that.”

            Pettifogger: “Objection, hearsay. No personal knowledge of the fact.”

            And with that, the bloodletting begins.

    I’ll hasten to add that there is a place for focusing on the details in court. Witnesses may want to describe with broad strokes and attention to the specifics is how inconsistencies may be reconciled and conflicts resolved. Reasonable doubt is created in the details. Excessive focus on every detail, perhaps using the pain of court to deter seeking an appropriate legal remedy, creates the world where “lawyer” becomes a pejorative.    

    We’ve split the lawyering world into five classes. You might find other categories as you look across the expanse of fiction. We might also think about how these categories affect fiction. That will have to be a topic for another day.  

    Until next time. 

07 June 2022

A Text Mess

Some weeks ago, I posted a few voice-to-text hiccups that found their way into
probable cause documents I had been tasked to review. Since then, a couple more have caught my eye and proven too good to ignore.

The other night, a police officer arrived at a domestic disturbance, separated the warring parties, and started talking to the man. The officer in the probable cause affidavit noted that from the defendant’s speech, mannerisms, and behavior, it was obvious, the report stated, that the arrestee had been “heavenly drinking.”

Without further elaboration, I could only guess that his speech involved promises to “smote thine enemy” and the mannerisms include the waving of “his rod or staff.” The police transported him, presumably not to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Jlcoving, CCBY-SA3.0, Creative
A different officer arrested a young man and, during the subsequent search of his person, located a short glass tube blackened with burn marks. The officer, helpfully, identified the object in his possession as a “math pipe.”

The problem with these little typos is not that I can’t figure out what the officer intended to say, but rather they encourage flights of imagination. One minute I’m reading the case report and the next I’m composing a story problem.

Mark bought an eight-ball from his hook-up. How many dime bags can he get from this? Mark took a hit from his math pipe. His hand shot into the air. Thirty-five, he answered. (The answer might depend on the reliability of your dealer and is always subject to the local conditions of your market.)

Of course, interpretation errors cannot always be blamed on the software.

Years ago, I joined the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. Back then, the first stop for a newly hired prosecutor was the traffic appeals court. Defendants had the right to a trial de novo on some traffic tickets. We new kids rotated in and out, staying only until a “real” spot opened in one of the regular misdemeanor courts. We would then transfer, and our important selves would move on to prosecuting Class A and B misdemeanors. Don M. was the lawyer permanently hired into the traffic appeals court. He would remain behind to welcome the next new hire.

Don was a weathered attorney, typically in a brown suit. He had traded the stress of an active criminal practice for a steady paycheck and good insurance. (Life choices I better understand now than I did at the time.) The morning docket involved long lists of cases from around Dallas County. Don stood before the judge and stated the government’s position as each case was called. He spoke in a low voice, mumbled, and expressed himself in a code that had been refined to efficiently describe the state of each case to the presiding judge.

“Hiram Bedder,” I heard him routinely tell the judge, and the ticket disappeared.

I didn’t know who Hiram Bedder was or why he had such control over the flow of traffic ticket cases in Dallas County.

I could have asked, but that’s not the normal response of a newly licensed lawyer who’s been validated as special smart. Instead, I wondered and assumed one day I’d meet Lawyer Bedder somewhere in the office’s hallways.

I later learned that Don was saying “higher and better.” The officers had also filed a more serious charge, often driving while intoxicated, in addition to the traffic violation. The district attorney’s office would dismiss the minor charge and not allow the defense to essentially depose the arresting officers. (There was also a jurisprudential question of double jeopardy back in the day, but we don’t need to get all in the weeds on the legal issue.)

My brain went voice-to-text on Don’s speech and completely misfired. I can only imagine where it might have ended up if I’d been drinking heavenly?

Until next time. 

17 May 2022

For Sin and Whiskey

    One of the benefits of being a magistrate is that I get to leave the county jail at will. I exit the facility when I choose. No one chases after me shouting "escape" or reports me to my supervisor for taking an unscheduled break. My unsolicited tip for the day: if you must go to jail, make sure that you know you'll get out again.

    Just outside the front door of Tarrant County's central jail facility, affixed to the wall, a plaque informs visitors that upon this site stood the first church erected in Fort Worth. The sign is easy to miss. Most people don't study the walls looking for historical tidbits. But I'm glad I saw it. I like the symmetry of knowing that since Fort Worth's earliest days, this spot has been dedicated to rooting out sins in one form or another.

    If an early Fort Worth resident walked one block east from the First Christian Church, he would find himself at The First and Last Chance Saloon, the first bar opened in my city. Records describe it as a dingy box of a room with a few shelves along the west wall holding whiskey, a local peach brandy, and gin. On the unornamented bar sat a bucket of water for those drinkers who needed a chaser. In another choice historical happenstance, two of the county's misdemeanor courts occupy the floors rising from the southeast corner of Taylor and Weatherford, the intersection where The First and Last Chance once stood. Driving while intoxicated prosecutions occur weekly at the site of Fort Worth's first saloon.

    My favorite story from those early days also deals with whiskey. When Major Ripley Arnold established the fort at the confluence of the Clear and West forks of the Trinity River, there already was a settlement, Bird's Fort north and east of Fort Worth. Bird's Fort, later Birdville, had been established in 1840, nine years earlier than Fort Worth. In 1850, Birdville was named the county seat. By 1856, the expanding village of Fort Worth felt it should replace Birdville as the county's seat of justice. The reasons were a mixture of pride and practicality. Citizens came to town on court day. Court day, therefore, was good for retail business. Influential citizens from Fort Worth persuaded the legislature to hold a special election to resolve the question. The votes would be cast in November 1856.

    Both towns' leading citizens plotted. The election had three polling places established around the county. Fort Worth and Birdville, naturally, were the primary voting centers. In front of both mercantile stores in Fort Worth, the town leaders placed barrels of whiskey. After voters cast their ballots, they could imbibe. The reasoning, it seems, was that those who came to Fort Worth to vote would more likely cast their support behind the challenger.

    The opposition employed the same tactic. The city leaders of Birdville stored their whiskey in a stand of live oaks near the town's polling station. On election eve, however, intrepid Fort Worth residents found and siphoned off the barrel. On voting day, the Birdville election managers had no alcohol inducement.

    Despite this, the voting remained too close to call. As the election drew to a close, Sam Woody rode into Fort Worth with fourteen of his neighbors. They resisted the temptation of the whiskey, entered the election hall, made their way past the election judges, and each cast their ballots. They, they saddled up their horses and rode out of town on their way home. They needed to get started. Although Woody had been a county resident for years, he had recently moved to the neighboring county. When he came, he brought fourteen other ineligible votes with him.

    Fort Worth won the election by seven votes.

    Curious readers might ask whether the Fort Worth residents went to the First Christian Church to seek absolution or to the First and Last Chance Saloon to celebrate?

    What happened instead? A parade of jubilant and inebriated citizens marched by torchlight to Birdville. There, they collected the county records, desks, chairs, and law books. Loading them onto wagons, the procession marched back to Fort Worth, carrying their spoils of victory.

Fort Worth Postcard by The Fair
The Fair (Fort Worth), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    A legislator supporting Birdville discovered that more votes had been cast in the election than eligible voters. He protested the outcome. Pro-Fort Worth representatives challenged his protest. The legislature resolved the back-and-forth dispute by ordering another election. The Fort Worth contingent added a rider to the bill adding a third election option, a new county seat at the center of the county. The second ballot was held in 1860. The earlier vote had already reshaped the county's economic landscape. This time, Fort Worth soundly defeated Birdville (FW 548, Center 301, Birdville 4).

    These days, Birdville only exists as the name of the school district for some of Fort Worth's northeastern suburbs.

    Around these parts, we spend a great deal of political time and energy worrying about election irregularities. Scores of elected officials work to safeguard me and my fellow citizens from voter fraud. I wonder if they realize that the city they're protecting likely wouldn't exist without purloined whiskey and Sam Woody's voter fraud.

    Until next time.

26 April 2022

Doubts and Questions

     In my childhood home, the family television stood in the living room. A thick box on four spindly legs, our tv offered us the choice of three networks. In the living room, Mom had her chair, and Dad had his. I had my choice to either flop on the sofa or spread out on the carpeted floor. I usually chose the couch.

    I don't remember many of the major news events of the 1960s. Those were my single-digit years and I had more important things to worry about than the war in Vietnam or peace protests. What exactly most of those things were, I can't recall. I'm sure they involved elaborate plans composed along with Tim and Chuck and the rest of the guys whose houses stretched up Cloudas Avenue.

   I have the barest memory of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. I recall few of the details, but all three networks covered the convention. Their focus on Chicago meant that there was nothing worth watching for seven-year-old me. I missed the protests and the chaos. Hubert Humphrey, the sitting vice-president. The presumptive Democratic Party nominee had been born in Huron, South Dakota. Many around Sioux Falls wanted the local boy to make good. Not me. I backed Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate. The reasoning was simple. My nine-year-old cousin Steve supported Nixon, and Steve was my polestar. 

This little memory came back to me as I considered submitting a story in response to Michael Bracken's call for submissions to Groovy Gumshoes, an anthology of private eye short stories set in the 1960s. Other possibilities spun around in my head. I thought about a Woodstock-based story. Woodstock seemed the quintessential 1960s moment. I rejected the idea. As I was sitting down with fingers on the keyboard, a story of Michael's ran in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. He'd set his tale at Woodstock. It seemed to me that my story would be competing against not only every other submission but also the editor's already formed image of how the ideal Woodstock story should read and feel.

    The other reason I stayed away from Woodstock had to do with a bagpipe lesson.

    My elder son plays the bagpipes. When you're a high school bagpipe competitor around here, the enemy is always St. Thomas Episcopal School in Houston. They have an elaborate Scottish arts program and can overwhelm any contest in which they appear. Like Bob, my son's Glaswegian bagpipe teacher said, "on your best day you can beat any of them, but there is always another one coming over the hill." (It sounds better if you say it with a thick brogue.)

    Woodstock as a topic felt too center of the plate. I imagined another story always coming over the hill. Number theory suggested that every similar submission reduced the likelihood that my story would get accepted. I abandoned any further thought about Woodstock and sought a tale from the margins, a place fewer people might choose to go. 

    I returned to my little memory and began typing. "Case #5 From the files of the Mood Dog Detective Agency" emerged. The story came together quickly and I got it off to Michael well ahead of the deadline. 

    My bagpiping theory of numbers arose again shortly after I hit "send." Netflix released The Trial of the Chicago 7. I couldn't turn on my television without a promo for the movie. An optimist might have seen the brilliant opportunity, an important historical event filling the air just as the editor read my submission. I, however, chose the negative and fretted over all the submissions covering the topic inspired by watching the Netflix film. They'd all be streaming into Michael's inbox.

    I'd submitted my story. I could do nothing but sit on my hands and wait. At least I had a movie I needed to watch. 

    I'm honored that Michael chose to include Case #5 in the recently released Groovy Gumshoes anthology. I hope that you like it. Do the same sorts of doubts and questions plague your thought process when you sit down to write? 

(On the day this posts, I'll be untangling my life following my return from Malice Domestic. I hope we've had the chance to meet in person.)

    Until next time.