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

28 September 2021

A Mess With Texas


The Texas Legislature received a great deal of publicity this past session. For out-of-staters, by law, the Texas House and Senate may meet for a maximum 140-day regular legislative session once every two years. (It is rumored that some of the state's founders pushed for a two-day legislative session once every 140 years.) Because of the time crunch, once the legislature convenes, the session is a compact, dried-on-hot affair with bills flying around the state capital in Austin. Some of the laws enacted this year drew national ire or acclaim depending upon the politics of the reporting body. In particular,


Texas grabbed the national spotlight for new rules regarding abortion/life protection, and election integrity/voter suppression. 

    The legislature also passed, and the governor signed new gun laws dubbed "Constitutional Carry." Since this is a crime and crime writer's blog, I thought it might be worth a column to review these law changes. Many stories get set within the borders of Texas. Let's look at what your characters can legally do regarding carrying weapons. 

    In short, the new laws allow most people to carry a handgun in a holster most places, either openly or concealed, without first obtaining a license to carry. 

    We can chug through the shorthand focusing on the italicized words. 

Most people: The new laws apply to persons 21 years of age or older. Sorry kids, no guns.  Texas has several exceptions to the above-stated general rule. Adjudged felons may not carry firearms. Defendants convicted of a few misdemeanors (assault, threats, disorderly conduct with a gun) can't carry if the prior offense occurred within five years of the carrying. Family violence and individuals under protective orders are prohibited from carrying firearms by federal and state prohibitions. Criminal street gang members are prohibited from carrying firearms as are most intoxicated people. 

    This last line may be my favorite. You can be intoxicated with your gun on your property, or another's property with their consent, or in your boat or vehicle (or another's with their consent). 

    I'm left to wonder about the scope and nature of my consent. If Michael Bracken invites me to his annual Gathering of Writers is he implicitly authorizing me to bring my gun and get drunk? Or does he have to include that in the invitation? And why wouldn't he? What could possibly go wrong with that scenario? 

   A handgun:  Texas has always been less restrictive regarding long guns, rifles, and shotguns. These weapons may be carried unless the armed individual runs afoul of some other statute like disorderly conduct or trespass. The legislature also relaxed the rules over the last few sessions on clubs, knuckles, and knives. I think the logic is that if everyone else is packing 9mm Glocks, are you really that worried about the Bruce Lee wannabe carrying nunchucks? 

In a holster: Buy stock in holster companies. They are a key piece of Texas' new legislative scheme. Carrying a handgun in plain view in a public place is illegal unless the weapon is in a holster. Carrying in a vehicle in plain view is prohibited unless the weapon is in a holster. In the old days (before September 1st) licensed weapon holders had to carry in a shoulder or belt holster. Those restrictions on holsters have been removed. Any holster is now permissible. Litigation will define holster in the years ahead. 

Most places: The new laws carve out eight places where weapons are impermissible: high school, college, and professional sporting events, amusement parks, hospitals, and bars are among those places where weapons were and remain prohibited. Churches are not on the list. 

Either openly or concealed: Since September 1st, no courses, tests, or proof of proficiency is required to legally carry a handgun. The law mandates the Department of Public Safety to develop a training video for the safe handling of firearms. Two videos may be found on their website. They both run for about 8 minutes each. 

     The license to carry still exists. Having one may avail you of more defenses if you are charged with illegally carrying a weapon. It lowers the number of places from which you are excluded. A licensed carrier may also take advantage of the reciprocity laws in other states. 

    The new legislative package also amended the duties of a peace officer to authorize the temporary disarming of a person carrying a firearm if the officer believes it is necessary to protect the officer or another. This has long been the law, but it is made explicit in the new code. Whether the mere carrying of a weapon is enough to meet the threshold to disarm will have to be decided by the courts. 

    That's an incomplete thumbnail sketch of the law. Two other changes, largely philosophical, are worth noting. The governor signed into law a prohibition on local law enforcement assisting federal authorities in enforcing gun laws passed after January 20th, 2021 (President Biden's inauguration). Although no new federal gun laws have come into being since then, we are now a "sanctuary state" for firearms. New laws also removed firearm silencers from the list of prohibited weapons. The legislature added a section to the Government Code to regulate the intrastate production of silencers (an attempt to get around the federal government enforcement of a prohibition through the Commerce Clause). Texas doesn't have a thriving cottage industry in domestically produced suppressors, but someday we might. 

    There you have it. We've joined 20 other states in having some form of Constitutional Carry enacted. Put your piece in a holster and come on down. 

    Last thought. The new laws make it almost impossible for a hotel to restrict a guest's right to bring a gun into his/her hotel room. If you do come to visit, you might choose an innkeeper offering Kevlar sheets.

(Life requires me to be away from my computer on Tuesday, September 27th. I apologize for not responding to comments.)

    Until next time. 


07 September 2021

Maps


author Mark Thielman
Mark Thielman

     When my wife and I got married 30+ years ago, our friend Kathy gave us the Complete Atlas of the World as a wedding present. The book is an oversized coffee table volume with a jet-black cover. The blue marble of the world as seen from space adorns the front. It was intended as a metaphor for our new life. Kathy challenged us to explore and to dream of the places we'd go. We thought it was a cool gift at the time. We still do.

    What's interesting about pulling out that old atlas now is to see the changes written across the pages. The book seems heavy, fixed, and permanent. But there on page 50 is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, one solid band of unified color spanning a huge piece of Eurasia. Or on page 98, the Africa map with its hard, unchanging boundaries for Ethiopia and Sudan. I could go on but you get the idea.

atlas

    I've been thinking a great deal about travel lately. This was supposed to be my first SleuthSayers blog after Bouchercon. I had assumed I'd jot down some observations about the conference, congratulate the winners, reference the people I'd been able to meet in person, and intersperse those thoughts with the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds of New Orleans. That blog will have to be postponed until after the 2022 conference in Minneapolis. (I anticipate different tastes and smells.)

    I've been looking forward to traveling. I've missed waking up someplace different, knocking about exploring and discovering. I've missed seeing sights and trying foods. A couple of weeks ago in this blog, Robert Lopresti mentioned a bit of a conversation he overheard at a previous Bouchercon. Those lines made their way into a story. Let me add that to the list. I've missed collecting dialogue souvenirs. Not only have I missed going away, but I've also missed returning home to my familiar, and the simple joy of knowing where the things I use to construct my daily life are located.

    Although my wife and I haven't been hermits since the COVID onset, we have limited our venturing out to new places. The question, "where should we go?" as often as not has been replaced by "should we go?" Although the answer has sometimes been yes, spontaneity has seen an additional hurdle placed in its path.

AHMM

    The September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine includes my story, "The Map Dot Murder." The tale is set in a small west Texas town. The high school's social studies teacher is murdered. His classroom is map festooned. Yet, most of the town's inhabitants are people who haven't gone anywhere. They've lived their lives within the town's boundaries. Some residents like it that way. Others resent it. A few have never bothered to think that they might have options.

    Just as I should have been finalizing my plans for Bouchercon– circling topics on the schedule of events, composing snappy answers to questions for my panel, and sending final emails to arrange get-togethers– comes my story about staying put. You know the timeline for stories. Tapping out the story on your keyboard takes a while. Rewrites, edits, and polishing add some more time. Then you send it off, drumming your fingers while waiting for an acceptance email. Finally, the movement to publication requires another chunk of time.

    The story should have come out as I was preparing to travel. Instead, it was published as I was sitting at home, folding my map from the journey I didn't take. Like the Complete Atlas of the World, perhaps it serves as a reminder about the illusion of fixedness.

    I hope you enjoy the story. And, whether you're at home or on the road, stay safe.

    Until next time.

woof

17 August 2021

Jail 101


    As I've mentioned before, I think of myself as a writer with a magistrate hobby. Magistration, however, is how I pay the bills. I venture over to the basement of the jail, sometimes in person and sometimes virtually. There I meet my county's most recently arrested individuals. I cover their rights and review their bail. With that, I'd like to share a few introductory thoughts about the jail process. Should you decide to get yourself booked into jail in my county to make your writing authentic, here are a few things you might want to know.

    1. Dress for it.

It's cold in the jail. If you had to manage a population of inmates who might be aggressive and smelled bad, you might like them to be a little cold too. That makes good administrative sense. But if you were arrested coming home from the sorority party in your little black dress, you might be miserable. Plan for it. Wear a sweatshirt. It's a jail, not a flight--they won't give you a blanket during the booking process.

They will take your shoelaces, belt, and necktie. Loafers are a good choice for men planning on jail. Cowboy boots are another option. You don't want to keep walking out of your shoes. And the spike heels that paired with the little black dress will get really painful. There is a lot of standing during the book-in process. (I'm the only one who gets to sit during magistration, for instance.)

    2. Prepare to be uncomfortable.

Andrew Bardwell from Cleveland, Ohio USA
CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/

They build the jail's booking unit for safety and not comfort. The jail offers as little as possible that can be broken, pulled loose, or used as a weapon. What furniture the jail provides is metal and bolted to the wall. It's smooth so that it can be sprayed clean, if necessary.

The jail is noisy. All the doors bang. They clang shut with a metallic certainty. At various points, there are security crossovers, small vestibules through which one must pass. The door on one side must close and latch before the door on the opposite side will open. If the crossing guard gets distracted, you might wait for a moment before he or she opens the second door. Standing in that steel and glass aquarium always feels like a long time.

Lots of people are detoxing. They have a drunkard's certainty that if they just yell long enough, the jail's staff will attend to their situation. The squeaky wheel does not always get greased. In jail, it presents as a test of wills. Assuming you're not in jeopardy, the jail staff usually wait until the wheel wears itself out. 

The jail does feed you during the booking process. The trustees deliver a bologna sandwich and two cream sandwich cookies. Water is available in the holdover cells. Take it when you can get it. The food won't come around again for eight hours.

    3. Be Clear on your Politics.

If you want to be an anti-vaxxer, that's a choice you're making. But a TB test isn't an inoculation. Refusing to take one will get you isolated. The jail has strong feelings about contagious diseases running loose among its population. COVID-19 jokes are not funny, and they won't get you released any faster. 

Shouting "I can't breathe" for an hour or more undermines your claim. There may be many things wrong with you, but your airway is not occluded. 

    4. Dress for it #2.

At some point, you'll transition from street clothes to a jail uniform. You'll wear coveralls. They won't fit. For men, green uniforms signify general population. Trustees wear black and white stripes. Red denotes high-risk. (for women, it is beige for general, yellow for high-risk). Inmates at risk of self-harm wear a poncho of padded green. It is held closed with wide straps which cling to the poncho. It is almost impossible to tie the poncho into a knot or to look good while wearing it. The jail will substitute orange plastic slides for the shoes you walked inside wearing. Some inmates wrap their toes in toilet paper. It makes them look like they're wearing socks. When the first inmate does it, others quickly follow. We have influencers in the jail. 

    5. Give your real name. 

The jail checks your fingerprints. They'll figure out who you are. Then you'll catch a new charge for failure to ID. If you're on parole, the charge won't matter to you. If your visiting jail with a misdemeanor, you've likely made your troubles worse. 

    6. Memorize a Number. 

When I go to jail, I don't get to bring my phone. You won't have access to yours either. The jail will collect your property early in the booking process. They won't give your phone back once your bond is set so that you can find someone's number. Memorize it in advance. 

The holdover cells have phones in them. You'll get to make calls. But the jail shuts off the phones at night. They didn't deliberately put you in a cell with a broken phone. A surprising number of my defendants are certain that they've been singled out. That leads to the final point...

    7. It's not a Conspiracy. 

The jail books in defendants. That's what they do 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week. Today's high-profile case will be displaced quickly enough by the next attention grabber. Although it is the most important case in the world for you, booking is a process to the jail staff. They are not out to get you. They are out to get your identity established, and to collect your fingerprints, your photograph, and the other biometric bits they need to keep track of the people who move in and out of their facility every day. Roll with it. 

Until next time.

27 July 2021

An Appealing Short Story


     Following a conviction in a criminal trial, the defendant has a right to appeal. He or she
argues that errors the judge made during the original trial affected the outcome of the case to such a degree that the defendant should be entitled to a "do-over." The appellate judges do not retry the case, but rather read the court reporter's statement of facts and evaluate the defendant's claims. Appellate courts issue written opinions weighing the merits of those raised issues. 

    A common claim on appeal is the sufficiency of the evidence. The jury, the argument goes, succumbed to the passion of the moment. In a sufficiency challenge, the appellate court is asked to rule that the admitted evidence could not support a finding of guilt by a rational trier of fact. When the claim is raised, appellate courts spell out the facts. They articulate why a sufficiency claim is not supported by the evidence (or conversely why it is). Appellate opinions are often technical. They are organized around the defendant's claims of error and hash out the arguments regarding those claims. The reading is not necessarily dry, but rather it is purposeful. A sufficiency claim lets the reader get involved in the story of the case, to read what the evidence showed to have happened. 

    I came across a local case recently, Andrews v. The State of Texas. The defendant, Mark Andrews, and his wife, Doris, shared a house with another couple, Don and Amy. Andrews and Don had worked together at a local trucking company until Don quit because of health problems. Mark Andrews later left as well. He became a professional gambler. This career choice routinely had him out of the house from 3:00 am until 8:00 am. The Andrews owned three dogs, Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker. Diesel and Sparky slept with Doris. All three dogs barked at strangers. Don and Amy called them burglar alarms. 

    On January 8th, 2016, at 4:30 am, Mark Andrews burst into Don and Amy's bedroom. He screamed for them to get help. While Don called 911, Amy followed Andrews into his bedroom. She saw him beside the bed, screaming Doris's name. Doris was lying on the bed in a blood pool. Andrews asserted that someone was in the house. He searched from room to room. Then he returned and began chest compressions on Doris. Amy recognized immediately that Doris was beyond saving. Centered on a rug in the bedroom, as if on display, she saw a hammer. While her husband stayed on the line with the emergency operator,  Amy observed that the door to a safe concealed in the living room stood open. Andrews, she testified, looked overly dramatic and announced that the safe had been burglarized. 

    When the police arrived, Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker barked wildly and had to be put outside. The police found no sign of a forced entry. Further investigation revealed that Andrews had recently researched funeral costs, had finances in disarray due to gambling losses, and that Doris owned life insurance. The murder weapon, the hammer, belonged to Andrews and was normally stored in a secured shed. The police discovered the shed unlocked and the door showed no evidence of damage. 

    There were other threads of evidence in the case as well. I am skipping over them for our purposes. The jury convicted Andrews of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He appealed. The court of appeals found the evidence sufficient to sustain the conviction, writing that whoever murdered Doris had: 

        -The physical strength to commit the offense (Don did not. Andrews did).

        -Access to the shed to retrieve the hammer without using force (Andrews did). 

        -Not aroused the alarm of Tinker, Diesel or, Sparky (Andrews would meet this criterion). 

    It is this last point I want to focus upon in a blog for crime fiction enthusiasts.  Sherlock Holmes readers will remember "Silver Blaze," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes deduces that the thief of a famous racehorse was someone well-known to the stable dog. 

        "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

        "To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime."

        "The dog did nothing in the nighttime." 

        "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. 

    Holmes grasped that the nighttime visitor was someone the dog knew. The government's evidence in the Andrews trial made clear to the jury that Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker had barks that were "high-pitched" and "yippee [sic]." They did not like strangers and had to be put outside to enable the police to conduct their investigation. Yet, on the fateful evening, they sounded no alarm. The prosecutors raised the point, and the appellate judge went so far as to drop a footnote citing Sherlock Holmes.

    I worked with the prosecutor who handled the case. I called Kevin and asked him if he knew about the Arthur Conan Doyle story. He did not, but he will. We concluded our conversation by finding a PDF of "Silver Blaze" online. 

    After I hung up, I thought about all of this. As mystery fans, we have the best of both worlds on display. Seasoned trial attorneys independently found significance in the same absence of facts as Sherlock Holmes. The contemporary example of life imitating art should make the story continue to feel real and viable. Conversely, the appellate judge knew about "Silver Blaze." He recognized the parallel between the case he was deliberating upon and this hallmark of the literary canon. He purposely incorporated Arthur Conan Doyle's story into his opinion and in so doing, gave names to the anonymous stable dog: Tanker, Diesel, and Sparky. 

    Is it over the top to say that Doris got some justice because of the "dogged" work of the police and prosecution? I think it probably is. 

    Until next time.  



06 July 2021

Rejected




     A few weeks back, Barb Goffman wrote a column in which she discussed writing what you know. She widened the lens on that convention and talked about finding core emotions and desires central to humans. She wrote about connecting to characters quite different from herself by finding the truth in human behavior. Focusing on elemental characteristics freed Barb to tell her stories through a wide array of voices. 

    I agree with her. I'm glad that we get to assume the role of other people. That's one of the ways I find joy in writing. I don't really care to write stories about lawyers. Part of the fun of this exercise is to get away from my day job and to learn a little bit about somewhere or something different, to depart from my daily routine. Consequently, I've not written many stories about lawyers. (I have a couple of tales of an attorney set in pre-revolutionary France, but I don't count those. They are far removed from my day job.) Play other people, but find the core that connects to everyone. 

    It is, however, not an inviolable rule. I've written a couple of stories featuring an attorney. The trial lawyer is a good vehicle for thinking about rejection as a part of the human condition. I tell people that my career as a courtroom attorney was a good prologue to writing and to submitting stories. I got used to rejection. Generally, I found juries to be rational bodies earnestly striving to do the right thing. But there is always an element of mystery built into the system; no one can guarantee an outcome. I've won some cases I expected to lose and, conversely, taken acquittals in some trials I thought I'd win. The uncertainty motivates negotiated pleas. Many times, neither side wants to know what a jury might do when certainty of outcome is available.


Flickr-Joe Gratz

    I've tried some cases where at the outset, I knew that my evidence was weak. I didn't think my chances of success were particularly good. Yet during the trial, one finds the slim reed of hope upon which to grasp. My witnesses exceeded expectations or perhaps weren't as disgraced by opposing counsel as imagined. A cancerous optimism began to take hold. We might win this. Despite everything, invariably, I convinced myself, if only myself, that our side would be victorious. When the jury's verdict returned me to reality, it still hurt. I was always disappointed when the outcome didn't go my way. The expected acquittals, however, were easier to lay aside, enabling me to move on to the next case. 

    The ones that lingered were the ones I didn't see coming. The case went smoothly. The testimony delivered as expected. As the prosecutor, I felt confident. More telling, the defense attorney could be heard on his phone lining up his case for the punishment phase of the trial. The judge blocked out time for the additional punishment evidence. Everyone knew the outcome. Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell the jury. Some of the worst professional days I've known were when I had to watch a jury acquit my defendant and then try to explain to child witnesses (usually in sexual abuse cases) why the jury did not believe them sufficiently to convict. The honest truth was, I didn't know. 

    Painful hangovers have occasionally followed those days. Drinking was an immature response to the problem, and I can't condone it, but I've now and again practiced it. We all need to figure out how to handle rejection. (For writers, Michael Bracken and Robert Lopresti among others have SleuthSayer columns devoted to this topic of rejected stories.)

    A prosecutor's courtroom difficulties lay at the heart of "Catch and Release," my story in the most recent Guppy anthology, The Fish That Got Away. 

    Guppies are a chapter of Sisters in Crime. The name is an acronym for "Great Un-Published," although members include those who've been published many times over as well as those who are still waiting to see their name on a printed page. They, like the SleuthSayers and the Short Mystery Fiction Society, are an association of writing comrades. 

    As a prosecutor in a large urban jurisdiction, I had officemates surrounding me to celebrate the successes and to commiserate after the failures. Sometimes they lent an ear while I complained; sometimes they bought the first round. A network is important. It motivates you to press forward and helps you up after a fall. I appreciated my fellow attorneys back in my courtroom days. As writers, we tap away as solo practitioners. The networks are virtual but still real and still valuable. 

    Thank you for your support. 

    Until next time. 

15 June 2021

Cleveland


    A few years ago, my family and I visited Cleveland. We spent a great day wandering around inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I had a good meat at a nearby bar my wife learned about through an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. If I swing back to Cleveland, I'd like to take a little time and visit the James A. Garfield Memorial at Lake View Cemetery. I've been fascinated by Garfield since I read the biography, Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard. 

    The larger point is that while I have visited Cleveland and enjoyed myself, I have not even scratched the surface of the city. I will, therefore, happily defer to anyone who might be in a better position to speak to today's question. What has made Cleveland a hotbed for the development of search and seizure law? 

    On June 10, 1968, the United States Supreme court handed down Terry v. Ohio. The case's facts are straightforward. A Cleveland police officer stopped a man he suspected was about to commit a robbery and patted him down. The officer found a gun. The Supreme Court recognized the right of a police officer, with reasonable suspicion based on his or her training and experience, to detain and frisk a suspect. The stop and frisk was born. 

    The pre-Terry world had two categories of police/citizen contact. A voluntary encounter--an officer has a conversation with a civilian--and an arrest. Terry v. Ohio introduced the concept of a "detention." Consider the consequences. If the police saw a masked man holding a prybar and shining a flashlight outside your house at midnight, the Terry decision is the officer's authority to detain him for an investigation. 

    Consider the consequences. If a misguided police officer wants to harass someone, the Terry decision provides a lower bar for the opportunity. (Chief Justice Warren discussed this issue at the time of the decision.) 

    The Supreme Court gave this round to the police. 

    I can't count the number of cases I've looked at which were some variation of a Terry stop. 

    But Cleveland cases go the other way as well. Mapp v. Ohio was a win for defendants. 

    On May 23rd, 1957, Cleveland police got a tip that a bombing suspect might be at the apartment of Dolly Mapp. The police knocked and asked permission to enter. Mapp refused to admit them without a search warrant. 

    Later, more police returned. They forced their way inside the apartment. The police showed Mapp a piece of paper. She grabbed it and stuffed the "warrant" inside her dress. The police recovered the fake search warrant. The handcuffed Mapp and searched her apartment. They found the suspect, some gambling paraphernalia and a small stack of pornographic books. Mapp claimed an earlier tenant had left the magazines. 

    After Mapp refused to testify at the trial of gambling higher-ups, she was prosecuted for the pornography. She was convicted even though the search warrant was never produced. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed. Although the search warrant's validity was sketchy, the police had not used the kind of force which "shocks the conscience." This holding was in line with existing precedent. 

    The U.S. Supreme Court pivoted. They held that "all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is...inadmissible in state court." 

    There may be other ways to treat police misconduct, civil liability or increased training and supervision. The court, however, held that without the exclusionary rule, the Fourth Amendment's protections would merely be "form words" that would be "valueless and undeserving of mention in a perpetual charter of inestimable human liberties."

    That round to the defendants (Or, perhaps to those who want to be secure in their homes, safe from unreasonable government intrusion.)

    Mapp and Terry will be included on most lists of landmark 4th Amendment cases. Both changed the trajectory of the way police operate in this country. Perhaps it's the water, the mix of Lake Erie with a splash of Cuyahoga River which makes the city ripe for 4th Amendment litigation. Maybe we need a resident to weigh in on this one. This much remains clear. Regardless of where they are set, criminal legal thrillers and police procedurals all carry a little bit of Cleveland around in them. 

    Until next time. 

25 May 2021

The Best Closet


     Earlier this month, O'Neil De Noux wrote about the death mask of Napoleon on display at the Cabildo in New Orleans. The article got me reminiscing. I've always liked museums, the ones with stuff rather than just art. The good ones tell stories. As a child, the Pettigrew Museum in Sioux Fallas was a might bike ride from my house. The old Victorian house held a fascination for me. It was a great old closet, full of Native American arrowheads, geodes and other rocks, and the implements with which the settlers scratched out a living on the Great Plains. 

Jerry, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, 

via Wikimedia Commons

    The great museums are must-see tourist stops. They can also be overwhelming. I've taken power naps on the lawns of some of the world's great exhibit halls after plodding through floors of priceless artifacts. Today I shall praise the small museum. They tell a specific story. These museums help people to find the treasure in their own backyard. They are often staffed by people who care deeply about their niche subject. A little bit of customer interest makes them giddy.

    Not far from the Cabildo, just down Chartres Street in the French Quarter, is the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. Shelves chockablock with glass dispensing bottles, the labels listing the original ingredients. Louisiana was the first state to license apothecaries. The state was cutting edge for health practices. But it was also New Orleans so they dispensed voodoo. The museum focuses on 18th and 19th-century health care. This isn't the Metropolitan Museum; a visitor won't be here all day. But as people who occasionally think about poisons, this could be your spot. 

    One caveat: The docent-guided tour helped me see things I would have missed. He pointed out Love Potion #9 as well as the ceramic jar near the cash register holding the leeches. The website says that guided tours are suspended during the pandemic. Perhaps they'll be back again by Bouchercon. 

    If you find yourself near the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park, consider visiting the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho. You'll know you've arrived when you get to the potato sculpture out front. The price of admission included a package of freeze-dried hash browns when my family and I visited. Shockingly, they didn't have any other visitors that afternoon. The attendant at the register was happy to talk about the exhibits. Want to see the world's largest potato crisp? She'll make sure that you don't miss it. 

    If you're passing through west Texas, stop by the Odessa Meteor Crater Museum. There you'll see...a meteor crater. Or you will if you hurry. Originally 115 feet deep, the winds of the last 65,000 years have filled the crater with sand. It is now only 15 feet deep. Your time is limited. 

    Last October, my wife and I were driving through New England checking out the fall foliage. On Main Street in Winstead, Connecticut stood a grand building. The sign out front identified it as the American Museum of Tort Law. Sadly, COVID-19 had it shuttered. Small surprise, I suppose. I'd expect a tort museum to think about potential liability. A virtual tour is available through the website. I'll be back if only to check out the gift shop. 

    Museums make great locations for mystery tales. The Smithsonian and the Louvre have been the setting countless times. By their nature, museums hold rare things. Even in the specialty museums, the collections are valuable to someone. Museums have quirky exhibits. If you want to bump someone off with a Lakota Sioux arrowhead, have them visit the Pettigrew. And never underestimate the lethality of a potato fork. 

    To safeguard the collections and to simplify ticket sales, access in and out of a museum is limited. A diverse group of people gathers there. Tourists from various walks of life collect at museums mingling with locals. Museums store secrets from the past. They host social events, weddings, parties, and fundraisers. Elegantly dressed people attend soirees at them. Or they will again soon. Intrigue and mayhem easily follow. 

    A museum closely based on the Idaho Potato Museum provides the setting for "The Case of the Brain Tuber," my story in the current Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I rely upon all the elements of a museum: the social center, limited access and, the odd assortment of items collected to tell the story. 

    In March, Mystery Weekly published "Exhibiting Signs of Death," a story set in an imagined tort law museum. I've had a good year placing my stories in exhibit halls. I'm glad that museums are opening again. I look forward to visiting. 

    If you're thinking about Bouchercon 2022, pencil in the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. 

    Until next time. 

04 May 2021

Family Bond


    Whether you're a fan of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum or Dog the Bounty Hunter, bail occupies a central place in criminal law as entertainment. Through literature, we can take discussions about bail back to Robin Hood. During my day job as a magistrate for the criminal courts of my county, I spend a fair amount of my day thinking about bail for particular defendants. Today, however, I'd like to widen the lens and, largely through the writings of bail reform advocate, Tim Schnacke, look at the history of bail development. 

    Let's jump way back to the Anglo-Saxon days of England. Those Germanic tribes were family-linked league of clans. Among clans, blood feuds and tribal warfare were the means to settle disputes. Kinsmen resolved the wrongs of kinsmen. This adjudication technique, however, proved brutal and inefficient. Eventually as system emerged establishing payment of a wergeld or man-price for a wrongful life-taking, the price dependent on a person's social standing. Over time, a tiered system emerged of valuations for death as well as a measure for injury and other wrongs. A complex restitution system replaced the frequent clash of clans. 

    Tribes lived close to one another. Justice was local and the resolution of these cases could be expected to be swift. In this familial, land-bound society, pre-trial detention was little needed. 

    Family members pledged to guarantee both the defendant's appearance in "court" and to pay the penalty should he default. The amount of the pledge was set at the amount of the debt which would be owed. The promise served to allay an Anglo-Saxon's concern that someone may flee to avoid paying the penalty. The familial willingness to bear the burden also fit within the collective worldview of a tribal culture. 

    This Anglo-Saxon system should not be confused with contemporary bail. As noted, the family members were largely pledging to pay the debt upon default rather than posting money to secure the accused's release from custody. The germ of the modern idea of a surety, a third-party, obligating himself on behalf of an accused, however, was becoming established in the forerunner to the English common law. The word "bail" stems from a Latin word baiulare, to carry a burden. 

    With the Norman conquest, however, the nature of English law changed. Justice gradually became more an affair of the state and less an individual settling of accounts. Capital punishment and other sanctions replaced the restitution schedule of the wergeld. Along with changing punishments, notions about who should remain free pending adjudication also transformed. The first to lose a right to liberty included those accused of homicide and those charged with violating the royal forest (We did make it back to Robin Hood.) Norman judges rode a circuit from shire to shire handling cases. Outlying jurisdictions may wait months between judicial calls. The shire-reeve "sheriff" became charged with guaranteeing a defendant's appearance upon the judge's arrival. Jails were miserable and costly. The delay from arrest to trial necessitated some form of pretrial release. 

    People were still land bound. Personal recognizance guaranteed by the pledge of family became the key to the jail door for most people accused of wrong doings. 

Sheriffs, however, as the bail setters were ripe for corruption. In 1274, Edward I sent commissioners throughout the realm to ask questions of knights and freemen. The commissioners recorded the answers. Although most questions dealt with landholdings and related to taxation, the commissioners also delved into criminal justice. Edward I learned of two abuses by many sheriffs: some defendants who should be released were required to pay money; and some defendants who, because of the offense, should not be freed were released upon payment of large sums of money. 

    Bail law developed to extend royal control over shire-reeves' discretion and potential corruption. Culminating in 1689, the English Bill of Rights stated that "excessive bail ought not to be required." The phrase used is similar to the language of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    This shouldn't be surprising as English law sailed to America with the establishment of the colonies. Although the ideas of recognizance and community responsibility traveled to the new world, the changing times brought the necessity for a new system to emerge. 

    As punishments changed from the Anglo-Saxon notion of restitution to death, mutilation or imprisonment, the possibility of flight to avoid the consequences grew. Similarly, as society moved away from the pledge equaling the amount of the debt, it became harder to quantify, with accuracy, the exact amount of money to require as bail. The accused in America found it easier to flee troubles and escape to the western frontier. Finally, as people became more itinerant, finding kinsmen and neighbors willing to pledge also became more challenging. 

    Out of necessity grew a commercial opportunity. Businessman willing to pledge money to guarantee a defendant's appearance at court emerged. They, of course, charged a fee for their service. The first commercial bondsman in the United States was reported to be Pete McDonough who in 1896 established his bond business out of his San Francisco saloon near the Hall of Justice. 

    In 1274, Edward I wrangled with right-sizing the jail population. He sought a just mechanism for determining who gets out and who stays in custody. Bail reform advocates still grapple with these issues. Lawsuits and legislative fixes abound. We are still trying to get it right. 

    Until next time. 



13 April 2021

Jumping In


     Today marks my inaugural blog with the SleuthSayers. I'm honored to have been asked to pen a periodic contribution to the blog. I know a few of my fellow SleuthSayers, maintain an epistolary relationship with a few more (a fancy way, I'm told, to say that we email on occasion), and read the works of many others. I've enjoyed the thoughtful content of the blog for years. I hope that I may, now and again, contribute something of value to this page.

     My name is Mark Thielman. I work as a criminal magistrate in Fort Worth, Texas. When I tell people that I am a magistrate, they usually give me an earnest nod of the head as a sign of understanding.

    "Magistrate" sounds familiar. Yet like "comptroller" or "aide-de-camp", it is a government job whose definition hangs just past the periphery of people's knowledge. Most don't really know exactly what I do. What the heck is a magistrate? 

    A fair question. In Texas, the duties of a magistrate are defined in the Code of Criminal Procedure:

It is the duty of a magistrate to preserve the peace within his jurisdiction by the use of all lawful means; to issue all process intended to aid in preventing and suppressing crime; to cause the arrest of offenders by the use of lawful means in order that they may be brought to punishment. 

     Reading that as I type, it makes my job sound TV worthy: preserving peace, suppressing crime, bringing offenders to punishment. Maybe I don't need a robe, but rather a cape.

    The truth of course is a little more mundane. Texas magistrates are a creation of statute. What a magistrate can do in my county varies from those in Dallas or Houston. Putting aside the details, I think of myself as a substitute teacher for the criminal judges of my county. We cover the routine responsibilities of the elected judges, giving them more time for the Solomonic duties the voters expect.

    Most of my day is spent meeting the most recently arrested individuals in Tarrant County. When someone in jail turns on the crime spigot, my work begins. A steady line of individuals parade before me. I review arrests, inform defendants of their rights, determine whether they need a court-appointed attorney, and set bail. I work out of a cinderblock room in the basement of the jail; it bears more resemblance to a tornado shelter than the oak-paneled, flag-bedecked courtrooms of television. (Or I did. Since the start of the pandemic I've met my defendants through a closed-circuit television system.)

    I encounter a great many interesting people in a day. A few are frequent fliers; we know each other by name. Many are big-eyed newcomers, terrified about their circumstances. Some cry. Many are hungover. I try to speak more slowly to them, since their brains obviously take an extra beat to catch up. Many believe, despite the admonishments about their right to remain silent, that if they just explain themselves one more time, the misunderstanding in which they find themselves will just go away. (Practice tip: Generally it won't.)

    Occasionally someone gets angry about the news I'm dispensing. They are, however, the exception. I'm continually surprised at the number of defendants who are polite and respectful. If only you'd acted this way on the streets, I often think, you wouldn't be standing here talking to me now. Of course, they are mostly sober when I see them and that likely helps their impulse control. I afford them as much courtesy as I can. I always try to remember that all of them, even the guy who gave a fake name hoping to beat his parole warrant, are having a bad day. The detention officer and I are the only people in the room who awoke planning to go to jail that day. And we both get to leave at will.

    I like to think of myself as a writer with a magistration hobby. I write mostly short stories. The next one will be out in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I've written historicals and contemporaries, humorous and serious stories, puzzle mysteries and, occasionally a poignant tale of someone for whom life hasn't quite worked out like they planned.

    Although I suppose that I will someday, I've never written a story set in magistration court. Magistration is what I do to fill the time between sessions crafting fiction. There is, however, some overlap. Both my writing job and my magistrate hobby require me to sit in my chair and keep typing, even on days when I don't want to.

    My crack staff helps me to look smarter at both my jobs. My writing editorial assistant is pictured here.

    She taught me the important rules for writing, the two commands: "Sit" and, "Stay".  Together we keep trying.

    Until next time.

28 April 2017

Contributors' Notes: Malice Domestic: Mystery Most Historical


The annual Malice Domestic mystery convention ranks among my favorite events of the year (major holidays included!), and it’s always a pleasure to see how warmly the Malice community welcomes and celebrates crime writers and readers both old and new. As other people have often said, Malice is like family, and as the convention opens today in Bethesda, Maryland, it's certainly going to feel for many of us like a family reunion.
I’ve been honored and humbled by the generosity and goodwill the Malice community has offered to me and my work over the years, and last summer, it was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to give back. For several months I served with Martin Edwards and Kathy Lynn Emerson as part of the selection committee for the anthology Malice Domestic 12: Mystery Most Historical, reading and scoring more than 100 stories, all blind submissions. The final slate of authors, including a few invited guests of honor, featured John Betancourt, Susanna Calkins, Carla Coupe, Susan Daly, P.A. De Voe, Michael Dell, Carole Nelson Douglas, Martin Edwards, Kathy Lynn Emerson, Peter Hayes, Nancy Herriman, K.B. Inglee, Su Kopil, Vivian Lawry, Edith Maxwell, Catriona McPherson, Liz Milliron, Kathryn O’Sullivan, K.B. Owen, Valerie O Patterson, Keenan Powell, Mindy Quigley, Verena Rose, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Marcia Talley, Mark Thielman, Victoria Thompson, Charles Todd, Elaine Viets, and Georgia Wilson.

Tonight’s 9 p.m. welcome reception at Malice includes the anthology’s launch and signing. As a preview of that event and the anthology in general, I reached out to a handful of contributors and asked them to introduce their selected stories—with particular attention to each story’s time (given the historical theme) and perhaps to the inspirations behind the story, the genesis of the tale.

Hope you enjoy some of these glimpses, and hope you’ll check out the full anthology as well—available here or at Malice itself, of course.

Susanna Calkins, “The Trial of Madame Pelletier”
“The Trial of Madame Pelletier”—my first and only published short story—features the trial of a presumed poisoner in a small town in 1840s France. My story was inspired by a true cause célèbre, a real “trial of the century” that I had stumbled upon years ago when conducting research as a doctoral student in history. At the time, I’d been struck by how the “Lady Poisoner,” so dubbed by the press, had been tried twice, once as a criminal in the assize court at Limousin, and again as a woman in the court of public opinion. While my story differs dramatically from the trial that inspired it, I did want to convey that same sense of a woman being tried on many levels. Moreover, ever since I read Agatha Christie's “Witness for the Prosecution,” I have wanted to try my hand at a courtroom drama.

Carla Coupe, “Eating Crow”
“Eating Crow” is set in a bucolic Devonshire village in late 19th century England—the type of place whose photo graces a calendar for May or June. My protagonists, teenager Beryl Mayhew and her crow sidekick, Hermes, came to life in “As the Crow Flies” when the Chesapeake Crimes anthology Fur, Feathers, and Felonies (available spring 2018) asked for stories that featured an animal. Now I love dogs and cats, but wanted to write about something a little more unusual. An octopus? Nah, too limiting. As I looked out my office window, I saw some crows. Perfect! They’re intelligent and curious. As I researched just how intelligent crows are—I didn’t want Hermes to do something crows aren’t capable of—I was amazed at their cognitive abilities and complex social structure. In this story, Hermes is more of a foil than a sleuth—but I’m sure he would have solved the case if he could read!

P.A. De Voe, “The Unseen Opponent” (De Voe is also an Agatha Award finalist in the Best Children/Young Adult category for her book, Trapped: A Mei-hua Adventure)
Why this setting? I’m fascinated with China’s long, documented history and culture, so I placed “The Unseen Opponent” in early 15th Century Ming China. By this time, middle-class Han-Chinese women were embracing the tradition of foot-binding, called lotus feet, as the norm. Foot-binding made it impossible for women to walk without pain. At the same time, non-Han Chinese did not practice foot-binding, giving their women more freedom of movement. In researching for the story, I also discovered the Chinese developed an inflated ball used to play kick-ball or cu-ju in the earlier Tang Dynasty. Furthermore, playing the game of kick-ball had been popular among Chinese women—before foot-binding became prevalent. Information about the first inflated ball dove-tailed so well with my interest in foot-binding, that I knew I had to use the kick-ball game as the stage for my story. 

Liz Milliron, “Home Front Homicide”
“Home Front Homicide” takes place in Buffalo, NY in 1942, the early years of WWII. People forget, but with Bethlehem Steel right there, Buffalo was a big part of the war production. Bell Aircraft had a plant in Wheatfield, not far outside the city limits. My protagonist, Betty Ahern, works for Bell. She is very loosely based on my grandmother, who was a Bell employee during the war while my grandfather was in North Africa. Women in manufacturing was a new idea and not everyone liked it. So what would happen if the female-friendly shift supervisor was killed at the plant? Betty is supporting a family since her dad is disabled and her older brother is in the Pacific; she needs to find out and keep her job. My grandmother never solved a murder, but I’d like to think she’d be tickled at being the inspiration for the story.

Valerie O. Patterson, “Mr. Nakamura’s Garden”
Appropriately enough, the idea for “Mr. Nakamura’s Garden” came to me while I was attending last year’s Malice Domestic.  I read the announcement that the 12th Malice Domestic Anthology would be historical mysteries set before 1950. Already I was intrigued because I love historical mysteries.  I also happened to see an ad in the Malice booklet for Left Coast Crime, announcing that its next convention would be held in Honolulu, Hawaii, one of my favorite places.  My thoughts turned to Hawaii just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the US’s entry into WWII, a period I lectured about in a civil liberties class, a period rife with undercurrents.  Then, a voice came to me with a first line—“This is what the boy remembers”—and the whole story frame became clear.  As writers, we sometimes get lucky when the small pieces of story coalesce and capture a moment and, in this case, murder.

Keenan Powell, “The Velvet Slippers”
One autumn morning in 1895, aging housekeeper Mildred Munz slips out of Lawrence Fairweather’s bed and tiptoes towards the kitchen to warm his arsenic-laced porridge. Having devoted her life to service in Fairweather’s North Adams, Massachusetts mansion, her devotion became more personal when his wife died. His lover by night and servant by day, she is tired of waiting for the inheritance he promised so long ago. Her plans go awry when Lawrence’s greedy nephew, Edmund, catches her sneaking from the master bedroom. Lawrence surmises his own inheritance is in jeopardy, and noting his uncle’s failing health, he calls in a doctor.
This story was inspired by Victorian mansions I saw in North Adams during a genealogy research trip a few years ago.

Shawn Reilly Simmons, “You Always Hurt the One You Love”
I've had a fascination with gangsters since I was young. I saw The Godfather for the first time when I was twelve, and that experience influenced how I saw movies from that point forward. I remember being the only girl in school (in the mid-1980s) who looked forward to White Heat and The Public Enemy coming on TCM. My story, "You Always Hurt the One You Love," takes place in the 1940s and is inspired by my love of the gangster genre. I originally wrote the story to read at my first Noir at the Bar event in Washington D.C. this past summer. Encouraged by the positive response it received, I reworked it a bit and submitted it to the anthology. I'm thrilled my first ever gangster story appears alongside stories by authors I've long admired, and that I've paid personal tribute to a genre of which I'm a long-time fan.   

Mark Thielman, “The Measured Chest”
As a former prosecutor, my favorite cases almost always could be found at the intersection of a compelling victim and forensic evidence—a story to make the jury want to do right coupled with the proof to make a conviction possible. When crafting fiction, I try to combine both elements: a historical narrative to grab the reader’s interest paired with an application of forensic science.
In “The Measured Chest,” the captain of a U.S. naval sloop during the War of 1812 directs the ship’s carpenter to explain the disappearance of the purser. Was he murdered by a crew member or did he fall prey to the mysterious spirits which have long haunted sailors?

The inspiration for the story can be found in a two-thousand-year-old forensic science technique from India. Once read, I knew this bit of history needed to find its way into a mystery. The solution to “The Measured Ches” turns on a 19th Century re-imagining of this tale.

Victoria Thompson, “The Killing Game” (Thompson is also a finalist for the Agatha Award for Bet Historical Mystery for Murder in Morningside Heights)
The story takes place in New York in July 1917. It is a prequel of sorts to my new Counterfeit Lady Series, which debuts with City of Lies in November 2017. The characters are con artists, so the story revolves around The Killing Game con, so called because the mark thinks he’s going to make a killing on a fixed horse race. When someone is murdered and our heroine’s partner is falsely accused of the crime, Elizabeth must run another con to clear him and find the real killer.  The trick she uses is based on one used by “America’s Master Swindler” J.R. “Yellow Kid” Weil, as recounted in his autobiography.

Elaine Viets, “The Seven” (Viets is also this year's Malice Domestic Guest of Honor)
“The Seven,” my short story set in the early 1950s, is based on conversations overheard when I was growing up. We lived in a split-level in a new St. Louis suburb. My mother's friends would stop by for coffee, cake, and conversation. Thanks to a well-placed heating duct in my bedroom, I could listen to them talk about how trapped they felt as stay-at-home mothers. They'd had careers before marriage, and longed to return to the office, but their husbands decreed "no wife of mine will ever work," and the conventions supported that idea. Wives were supposed to be satisfied with "good providers" who gave them clothes, food, and well-furnished homes. I heard many of these women say, "I'd do anything to escape the house and go back to work." Would they go as far as the ladies in "The Seven"? Read it and see.


My Own Malice Schedule (Back to Art)


I'll be at the anthology event as well—in addition to several other officials events, thanks in part to my story "Parallel Play" having been named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens! (You can read all of our stories through links at Malice Domestic's Agatha Awards page here.)

Below is my full schedule—and look forward this weekend to seeing all my Malice friends and to making some new friends too!
  • Opening Ceremonies • Friday, April 28, 5 p.m.
  • Welcome Reception & Anthology Signing for Malice Domestic 12: Mystery Most Historical (as part of editorial selection committee) Friday, April 28, 9 p.m.
  • Panel: “Make It Snappy: Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” with Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, and B.K. Stevens, moderated by Linda Landrigan • Saturday, April 29, 10 a.m.
  • Agatha Awards Banquet • Saturday, April 29, 7 p.m.