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

24 January 2023

Boys Two Tax

When I was ten years old, my dad brought home a conversion kit for my bicycle. He installed a banana seat and high-rise butterfly handlebars so that I could ride a Sting-Ray, just like the cool kids.

Alas, Dad could change the bike to cool, but the rider remained unreformed.

I was reminded of my bicycle’s conversion in a rather roundabout Proustian moment the other day. Sitting at my desk in the courthouse basement reviewing cases, I was presented with an officer’s affidavit.

He pulled over a pickup on a routine traffic stop. As he approached the vehicle in the bed, he spotted a Cadillac converter.

Having some familiarity with our local crime trends, I knew that the officer had likely spied a stolen catalytic converter. The voice-to-text, called-in report had changed the stolen object. If one says the words out loud and mumbles just a smidge, it is easy to hear how the substitution occurred. 

In the moment, however, my imagination ran wild. I envisioned Hyundai Elantras or Chevy Sparks sprouting tailfins and hood ornaments, stretching out before my eyes until they became El Dorados. The Cadillac converter rolling around in the back of this defendant's pickup brought the transformation from an entry-level motor vehicle to a classic American roadster.

That sort of thing happens when you spend too much time alone in the basement.

Cadillac converter is a petite-typo, a small error, easily understood in a world of dictated reports and auto-corrections. January 2023 has provided several examples already. Perhaps the new year brought software upgrades to the local departments, and the bugs are still being worked out. None of these are significant, but each has successfully taken me away, if briefly, from the subject of the offense to consider the alternative reality posed by the language on the page.

Consider where your mind goes with the following actual examples:

“John Smith was arrested leaving the Budget Sweets.”

Envision the Willy Wonka-esque crime implied by the sentence. Readers might quickly fix this one and picture the malefactor sneaking away from the Budget Suites, a low-rent motel just off the freeway. Lots of offenses occur there. But a discount candy store as a crime scene? Maybe Hershey, Pennsylvania, has that problem, but it is unheard of here in Fort Worth.

Or perhaps this example:

“I apprehended John Smith before he was able to flea.”

If true, legal pundits will be forced to consider the definition of the verb, to flea. Can a pest infestation be a weapon? What constitutes a swarm? Fortunately, my colleagues and I were spared all that scholasticism. Smith merely hoped to run away. He was arrested by the police and not by animal control.

If the workload is heavy and I’m blessed with a smidge of discipline, the above auto-corrections rarely slow me down. They are momentary distractions, encouraging flights of imagination in the free moments. Occasionally, however, the auto-corrections indeed prove disruptive.

The other day, for example, Officer Lawful met Smith and Jones regarding a dispute. The police report described Officer Lawful comforting Smith after hearing his statements. I regularly read examples of officers offering succor to distressed individuals, so the emotional support did not seem out of place. Smith’s version of events changed while being comforted, and Officer Lawful subsequently arrested him.

In a world absorbed only through the printed page, the electronic shifting from confronted to comforted changed my perception of who the arrestee would be. Like a bad plot twist, it took me out of the story, and not in a good way.

As I think about my writing for 2023, I hope that exposure to these errors reminds me of some basic lessons. When I'm writing, the words matter. Seeing silly examples of word choice should prompt me to take extra care with my language decisions in the stories I'm trying to create. At least, I hope it does. The more important lesson for me is the reminder to carefully proofread my pages. And then reread them before hitting "send." I regularly see how a garbled or inattentive word changes my reading of a police report.

My apologies to Michael, Barb, and my other editors for the typos and word choices they’ve comforted.

Until next time. 

03 January 2023

A Halkett Happy New Year

According to historians, the Babylonians were the first people to embrace the concept of a New Year's Resolution. For them, them, the new year began with the vernal equinox in the middle of March. As an agricultural society, they planted crops at this time. Then, they kicked off the year with a 12-day party.

The celebration, called Akitu, seems to have been a mixture of revelry, patriotism, and religious ceremony. The Babylonians renewed their vows of loyalty to their king and promised to pay off debts to the gods. They promised to return borrowed goods (Usually thought to be farm implements traded around during the planting season).

These promises are considered the forerunners of contemporary New Year’s Resolutions.

The Roman emperor Caesar moved the start of the year to January in 46 B.C.E. As we are reminded regularly, January is named for Janus, the god of arches and doorways. The god is pictured with two faces, one looking forward while the other looks back. The Romans offered sacrifices to Janus on January 1st and promised good conduct for the year to come.

Using the Caesarian calendar, early Christians adopted the first day of the new year as a time for self-contemplation. It became the traditional occasion for thinking about one’s past sins and resolving to perform better in the year ahead. Medieval knights reportedly renewed vows of chivalry at the end of each year by placing their hands on the feathers of a peacock. The “peacock vow” was a commitment to be a better person in the year ahead.

On January 2nd, 1671, Anne Halkett, a member of Scotland's gentry, wrote a number of pledges in her diary. These included the vow, "I will not offend any more." She entitled the page "Resolutions.” It is the first recorded resolution to kick off the start of a year.

The full phrase "new year resolution" is first found in a January 1st article, “The Friday Lecture,” published in a Boston newspaper in 1813.

And yet, I believe there are multitudes of people accustomed to receive.

Injunctions of new year resolutions who will sin all the month of December With a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behaviour, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.

© Wikimedia Commons

What I like about the 1813 note is not the solemn resolve to be better in the year ahead but rather the expressed thought that resolutions may serve as an excuse for a December blow-out.

While resolutions have always been about getting better, over the centuries, the emphasis has shifted from an abundant harvest, avoidance of sin, or securing salvation to personal improvement goals like weight loss or smoking cessation.

Let me then gather up the nearest peacock, draw him close, and make a few writer resolutions for 2023. I know I've waited until January 3rd. But, if Anne Halkett can postpone a day or so to drop her self-improvement goals, so can I.

  1. Set a realistic writing goal.
    I read a back-and-forth debate in the online community about this. Write honestly every day, and don't worry about the output is one admonition. But I like measurables. Last year, I averaged a story a month. I vow to be a bit more productive in 2023. I'll stake out 15 stories as my goal. (I know that writers like John Floyd call that a Tuesday.) Still, it measures my attempt to spend a smidge more time in the writing chair while balancing my other commitments.
  2. Set a realistic reading goal.
    This one is harder for me to quantify. I used to keep a running list of the books I'd read in a year. I stopped a few years ago. I don't really know why. As a result, I can’t say how many I read in 2022. So I can't set out a number goal to build upon that total. But I know I need to read more. It's good for me and for my craft. This 2023 resolution, therefore, is a two-parter. Read more and keep a log. That way, I’ll have a baseline for 2024.
  3. Meet more writers.
    Like many of my fellow writers, I'm introverted by nature. That's why I work a job in the jail's basement. I tend to control the conversations with the inmates and don't find myself forced into too many casual conversations. But I need to get out more. I'm resolved to be more active in at least one writer's group. In my experience, it's not that hard. Most people will gush with talk when simply asked, "What are you working on?" I must make myself pose the question more frequently.
  4. Screw up something new.
    Making a mistake I've made before is something I do frequently. It usually means I need to pay more attention. But fouling up in a new way, hopefully, means I'm challenging myself to try something different. It could be a new genre or a different voice. I don't know. With any luck next year, I can tell you about my colossal success with my 2023 experiment.

On the day of this blog post, we'll be driving across the southwest. The landscape provides a lot of open desert and time for contemplation. I'm sure I'll think of other writer's resolutions—consistent use of commas, more and better rewriting.

I hope you remain firm in whatever resolutions you settle upon. May you find the write words for 2023.

Until next time.

New Year’s Resolutions: A Pretty Old Practice,

13 December 2022

Fist or Firearms

A high-profile murder case kicked off here in my local courthouse. A former police officer stands accused of shooting a woman in her home. The case turns on the issue of self-defense. I have no involvement with the case and have no specialized knowledge about it. I have, however, fielded a number of questions about the right to protect oneself. I’d like to devote today’s blog to a quick, substantive overview of self-defense.

            Quick disclaimer: although every jurisdiction acknowledges a right of a person to protect him or herself, the rules in your jurisdiction may vary from those here in the Lone Star State.

            Quick disclaimer #2: Lethal and non-lethal force have their own separate sections in the Texas Penal Code. The general rules are the same, so I’m lumping them together for the purposes of this column.

The Rule

A person is justified in using force against another when, and to the degree, the person reasonably believes that the force is immediately necessary to protect against the attacker’s use of unlawful force.

That’s the Texas law regarding self-defense. It seems straightforward, but volumes have been written exploring it. We will touch upon only a few points.

1.      Like must meet like:

The response must be proportionate to the threat. Locally, we distinguish between force and deadly force. If I attempt to slap you, you don’t get to shoot me. And here, we open the door to a whole bunch of “what-ifs.” That’s where the defense bar makes its living.

2.      Words alone don’t make an adequate threat.

In my jurisdiction, we have a load of phrases we commonly call “fighting words.” The title doesn’t make them so. I might say that I want to slap you. That doesn’t give you the right to punch me. Some other action must accompany my words. A general fear of being physically harmed is not enough to trigger self-defense. But see 3.

3.      The defender doesn’t have to wait.

Bullets don’t need to be flying in your direction before you are entitled to respond. The line distinguishing #2 and #3 can easily become murky. It gets resolved on a case-by-case basis. Usually, the trial testimony involves the victim making some threatening statement. He then reaches into a pocket or plunges his hand toward his waistband. Perhaps, earlier in the day, someone witnessed him loading a firearm. How much activity demonstrates an immediate threat is decided by the jurors.

4.      The defendant can’t provoke his/her use of self-defense.

I sneer and say I’m going to hit you. In response, you stand, ball your fists, and prepare for the onslaught. I can’t let a punch fly and claim that I was pre-empting your obvious assault. I don’t get the benefit of self-defense if I start the trouble.  

5.      A defender gets to use force until the threat is extinguished. This has a variety of implications for the application of self-defense. If I start something and then surrender or retreat. You don’t get to keep hitting me. Once the danger to you is over, so is the right to protect yourself from it. But you get to persist with your defense until the end of the perceived threat.

Often, during a murder trial, the prosecution will try to stretch this. The government may argue that the defendant shot the victim multiple times. Assuming the legitimacy of his right to self-defense, the defendant is entitled to keep shooting. John Holmes, the former Harris County district attorney, expressed the concept succinctly, “if I have the right to shoot you dead, I have the right to shoot you dead, dead, dead, dead.” Once legally permitted to fire, a defendant may keep firing until the threat is extinguished. An after-the-fact claim of excessive force won’t nullify the right.

6.      Unlawful force

A defender has a right to protect themselves from illegal contact only. Most times, this element is a no-brainer. I don’t get to punch or shoot you. But some contact is not illegal. Police officers get to lay hands during the apprehension of criminals. As a society, we don’t recognize the right to fight back. Even among civilian-to-civilian contacts, some touching is neither harmful nor offensive, thus not necessarily illegal. I do not get to respond to it with violence.

7.      Applying the standard

The lens through which all this conduct and counter-conduct is evaluated is a mixed subjective/objective standard. What would a reasonable person standing in the shoes of the defendant think? The requirement does not make allowances for the defendant being drunk or high. Delusional thinking or paranoia might fall under a different defense, but they aren’t a part of self-defense. What a defendant had been told about the character of the victim is generally admissible. That seems reasonable. If you’ve been told that I’m a crazed murderer who wants to decapitate you, it might well influence your perception of my actions as I approach.

8.      Finally, before using force, English common law had a duty to retreat behind castle walls. The Castle Doctrine crossed the Atlantic with the colonists. The duty to retreat faded as settlers moved westward. When I started practicing law, Texas recognized that prior to deploying deadly force, a defendant had a duty to retreat if it could be done safely unless the assault occurred in his own home. The Texas legislature has since eliminated the Castle Doctrine. Assuming you’re someplace you’re entitled to be and not engaged in illegal behavior, a person is free to stand his/her ground.

There you have it. We’ve reduced a highly contentious, oft-litigated area of the law down to eight points. The main idea should be that self-defense in the courtroom is very fact specific. It depends on skilled advocacy and the careful articulation of details. Cases of seemingly similar facts may result in different outcomes. The brief summary may not be specific enough for the reader to begin trying criminal cases, but hopefully, it will help in digesting the morning news or plotting the next story.

Until next time.  

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.