Friday, February 26, 2010

License to File...

In the early days of this blog, it got some national attention thanks to an exchange of motions. The first was filed by a local, well-respected firm. My response was posted underneath. For those who missed it, learned defense counsel was attempting to prevent me from using my English accent in trial.

Sadly, these people don't seem to have learned and have once again drafted a legal filing that needed some very close scrutiny. Subject: James Bond.

Naturally, I had to draft a response to enlighten my friend, Mr. Bennett:

Any other Daniel Craig fans?

(Killjoys please note: these were not filed with the court, are intended for entertainment only, and consumed no public resources etc etc).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Interview with Thriller Writer David Lindsey

Best-selling thriller writer David Lindsey kindly agreed to answer some questions about his books and his writing process.

I should tell you that I am not going to recommend one of his books, which I normally do on Thriller Thursdays. Here's why: I'd rather you go to his website, or some bookseller's website (just click, I've made it easy!), and look at his work and choose one for yourself. The other reason is that I am going to recommend one specifically next week, one that I'm reading now but haven't finished yet.

I'm double-dipping with David because, well, we're on first-name terms. Here's what kind of elitist, ivory-tower author he is: I wrote asking for an interview and we ended up having coffee for two, very enjoyable hours. And he paid for his own! So, he's not only a fabulous writer but an exceptionally nice person, which means he gets twice the recommendation from me.

The interview:
  1. Did you always want to be a writer growing up, or did you come to it as an adult?

See next question.

  1. Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

I had wanted to write fiction since I was in high school, but I married young and my wife and I had children young, so the pressure for a reliable paycheck kept me too busy to write. But by the time I reached the age of thirty-five, my suppressed desire to be a novelist reached a critical mass. I felt like it was "now or never." So I took a night job and wrote during the day. The kind of fiction I chose to write was purely an economic decision. I had to make money at this, or give it up. I had already done an informal survey of what kind of fiction sold best and steadily over several decades, and "mystery novels" seemed to be the direction to go. I'd never read a mystery novel, so I bought about twenty, twenty-five of them, and read them all, one after the other. Then I launched off and wrote my first hundred pages. Luckily I managed to sell the pages, but the novel's advance was small, so I kept the night job and started another book. The advance I got for my second novel allowed me to begin writing full-time. But that was in the early '80s. The publishing world environment was quite different then...before the scores of privately owned publishers merged into the handful of corporate giants of today.

  1. What is your writing schedule?

I write most of the day--until I feel like I've just about squeezed myself for all I can get. I begin around 8:00-8:30, take an hour for lunch. I keep promising myself that I'll QUIT at 3:00 every afternoon, and then devote myself to reading. But it's a promise I keep breaking.

  1. Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

No. The truth is, it's easy to come up with new stories. (I worked closely with homicide detectives in the Houston Police Department for a couple of decades, so there was a lot of stimulus for the imagination in those experiences.) But the hard part is coming up with commercial stories, something you can sell. That gets harder and harder as the market changes and, in this genre, at least, as the gymnastics of the plot demands overtake, and overwhelm, other aspects of fiction writing.

  1. Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

Yes, but again, the marketplace changes are happening so fast now that it's tough to know where to land. I make my living writing, so it comes down to sticking with what I know. For now, anyway.

  1. Who are you favorite authors?

Actually, after those initial twenty or so novels I pretty much quit reading much fiction. And I certainly don't read fiction in "my genre". I used to be apologetic about that, but over the years I've talked to a number of writers who are the same way.

  1. Which novel are you most proud of?

This is an unsatisfactory answer, but it's the truth: each novel is "special" , or "least favorite" in its own way to me. I find it difficult to separate them from the memories of the struggles I had writing them. That colors everything for me. Picking one that I'm most proud of just doesn’t seem possible.

  1. If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Love it or leave it. It doesn't always pay well. Reviewers can be unkind (though when they love your work it's like experiencing levitation). Every book is hard work, and it beats you up, and fills you with waves of doubt about your talent and your sanity. So if you don't love it, the pain just isn't worth it.

  1. Do you outline your novels?

No. But I keep a journal for each novel and record my thoughts about characters and motivation and pacing and where I'm going, or where I think I'm going. Often I'm not going where I think I'm going. Very often.

  1. How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels, the “art” so to speak?

I just sort of go with the flow on that. Every novel has its own "personality", and so for the first 100 pages or so you're trying to "feel" that personality. When you get it, then the language finds its voice. The first 100 pages are usually very difficult for me because I'm trying to find the voices of my characters, the beginning threads of the plot, and the tone of the narrative. It's all a bit much, and very demanding.

  1. Is there any part of being a professional, full-time writer that you don't like?

I used to think not. But, as the years go by, and after fourteen novels, I realize that the solitude is a price you have to pay. Luckily solitude suits me...for the most part...but after a while you do realize it’s a sacrifice. I recommend regular dinners with good food, good friends, and lots of wine after those long, lonely days.

  1. You’ve taken a few years off, what were you doing?

I got really frustrated with the publishing business about five years ago and tried my hand at other things. I worked on a television documentary about an new architectural project that was under development. I spent two years on that before it fell through...much to the disappointment of my agents in L.A. who were excited about the project and were already talking to show runners. But the economy imploded, and along with it the financing for the multi-billion dollar skyscraper. I also did screenplays for feature films and television. (It sounds fun, but I had little success with it...actually it was was the success that was missing.) Aside from all that, I eventually began to really miss the fiction writing. Really miss it. Script writing is like writing a haiku compared to writing a novel. It's a discipline devoted to brevity, and you can never really quite say all you want to say as you could in a novel.

  1. You’ve just finished a novel – can you share the basic plot?

Uh-oh, now I've got to reveal a superstition. I consider it bad luck to talk about a novel until I'm completely through with it, and that means when the publisher and I have finished editing and they've put it to bed. So there's still some more to do on this one. I can say, however, that it's set in San Francisco, introduces a new protagonist, and, I hope, is the beginning of a new series. I'll soon be redesigning my website, and there will be more about it there.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Saving money AND doing good - who'd have thunk it?!

There has been much talk of closing prisons here in Texas. The Crime Report covered that issue a week or so ago, and the local paper has also written about it. From what I've read, the move seems budgetary rather than a result of some philosophical shift, and as I sit down to contemplate the subject a case that came up in court this week seems like a good representation of how I feel.

Several years ago, a couple of guys arrived at a business here in Austin and robbed it at gunpoint, tying up the proprietor, who was terrified beyond belief. A woman drove the getaway car, but did not go in. They were caught and the gunmen got prison, she got probation.

This week, the driver-lady was before the court because, not for the first time, she’d violated the terms of her probation by using an illegal substance. Each time, she’d been continued on probation rather than having it revoked and being sent to prison. Mostly because the violations weren’t that bad, the minimum prison term for her is five years, she has several children, and is pregnant with another. In court this week, she wept and said that she’d smoked weed, yes, but done it because when she smoked the beatings she got from the man she lived with hurt less. A made-up story for sympathy? Sounds like it, except she went to SafePlace (a shelter for abused women) and told them the same thing before being picked up for the probation violation. As frustrated as we might have been with the violation, she bought some sympathy and credibility by her admission, and by her admission that she wanted treatment for her drug use.

So it became a stark choice: either she gets prison for a bad act followed by repeated failures to abide by probation conditions, or she is left on probation in the hope that the reasons (or excuses, depending on your perspective) stop.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us (except the defense lawyer, I guess) were tired of excuses, aware of the serious underlying offense, and starting to wonder if it was impossible to make someone take hold of their life and turn it around. But we all agreed, ultimately, that this time prison wasn’t the answer so she was sent to in-patient treatment for her repeated drug use, somewhere she’d be safe from abuse, where she could work on the many issues she obviously has. Make no mistake, she’s on thin ice and knows it, I’m guessing she won’t get any more breaks if she doesn’t get her act together. After all, there’s only so much the state can do when it comes to offering a helping hand. But I think it was the right thing to do, for her, for her children, and also when you look at the cost of imprisoning someone like her. Would prison make her a better member of society when she gets out? Unlikely. Is she a danger to those around her? Certainly not, if she takes to the treatment.

I also think that her case is emblematic of how the criminal justice system has been going lately, certainly in my county. Just the other day I ran into a reporter who was gathering information for a story about all the programs running in the county that work to “fix” people, rather than imprison them. Drug courts, DWI courts, all those.

Make no mistake, there are times when people have been offered help, assistance, support, and treatment. Times when we offer mercy and what we see as justice, but they see as weakness. Some people won’t help themselves, they just don’t want to put in the time and the effort. They don’t seem to realize that life is hard for all of us, we all have to work and make sacrifices. They have, and I’ve seen it, a sense of entitlement and for them leniency is just a way of amassing convictions without prison time. I have no problem with the criminal justice system keeping a hammer in its back pocket for those cases. But in general, as happened this week, I am inclined to think that a few helping hands will fix more problems than prison, and cost us less to boot. A long- and short-term saving, coupled with the salvation, if you will, of individuals has got to be a good thing, right? With prisons closing, perhaps we can make the rehab thing work. One just hopes that those in charge of the purse-strings don’t look for a cut in those other programs, too, because I’m certainly not in favor of opening up the prison doors just to save money, with nothing else to keep our streets safe. But here’s a quote from the Austin American Statesman’s story:

“Closing prisons? It's absolutely on the table,” said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, whose panel oversees the state-run system of lockups. “As tight as our budget situation looks, we cannot unravel the fledgling system of diversion and treatment programs that are paying big dividends now for the states. And there’s only one other place to look — prison operations.”

So maybe a budget crunch is just what we needed. I know at 160-odd cases that I’m handling, a wee drop in customers would be more than welcome.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Assistant says: "I'll see you in court!"

Misdemeanor cases are typically tried less frequently than felony cases. I’d estimate that I’ve disposed of some 500-600 cases in the time I’ve been at this job. In that time there have been five trials- one bench trial (guilty) and four jury trials (two guilty, one not guilty, and one that I totally screwed up and had dismissed on a technical point). That’s about one percent of the cases that are disposed of in our county.

Why are so few cases tried? Several factors cut down the number of cases where trial is even a possibility. First, I try to prosecute “good” cases- many cases where culpability is uncertain are never filed. Some prosecutors will file every case the police bring in and let the system sort it out. I think that’s a waste of resources and an abdication of my responsibility to only charge defendants where the evidence supports it.

Second, guilty people generally plead guilty. I don’t have good number on it, but I’d estimate that about half of all people who are arraigned tell the judge that they intend to plead guilty before they ever talk to me. These defendants aren’t pressured in any way. They’re simply people who are taking responsibility for a mistake.

Third, a significant number of defendants have other, bigger legal issues. Their misdemeanors pending in my court typically get resolved later, alongside their felony cases. That only leaves a small percentage left that hires or has appointed an attorney negotiating on their behalf.

If the person makes pleas of “actual innocence,” this is when their lawyer tries to convince me of it. To be quite fair to everyone involved, that happens. I’ve dismissed DWI cases after re-watching the video with a defense attorney. I dismissed one possession of marijuana case after the defendant agreed to take a UA and it came out negative. I’m human and make mistakes in case intake. The inverse is true as well- after seeing the evidence against them a defendant may plead guilty. Usually though, this negotiation is about punishment rather than guilt and ends with a plea bargain that the defendant and the prosecutor can both live with.

So when does a case go to trial? In my experience there are two reasons- an obstinate defendant or a defendant with a LOT to lose. Again, in fairness, sometimes a defendant is obstinate because they’re innocent. This happens, but I’m a firm believer that the system works. If I play fair and the defense plays fair, then I don’t have any room to gripe about verdicts I disagree with. Both trials I’ve lost fall into this category. One I lost on a pretty technical point: I didn’t prove that it happened in my county, and if I don’t prove jurisdiction then the judge can’t hear the case. The judge granted a motion to dismiss immediately after I rested. It was my first jury trial and I made a rookie mistake- most prosecutors I’ve talked with have done the same thing.

Sometimes a defendant goes to trial when the consequences of *any* guilty verdict are more important than any punishment that may be assessed. In all three cases I’ve won, the defendants were on probation or parole for an unrelated felony. Any guilty plea would have meant a trip back to prison. These defendants were willing to try their cases because the risk of the maximum misdemeanor penalty was nothing compared to the reward of a not guilty verdict. All three were very strong cases, so the possibility of a not guilty was very low, but they were facing years in federal or state prison.

One final note- a defendant may go to trial because the terms of the offered plea bargain are unacceptable to them. In some cases a defendant may then do what’s called an “open plea.” They plead guilty, but leave punishment to the judge’s discretion. These are both very uncommon in misdemeanor cases because our ranges of punishment are so compressed, with a normal maximum of one year in jail or two years probation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Room with a View

And by room, I mean office.

I forget which kindly reader said he/she wanted to see out of my office window, the same delightful view I get every day of the DA's office on one side, and the jail on the other, a small patch of sky between them.

Not that I've been complaining (have I?) because I moved in here from another office with no window. Not only that, it was beside the bathroom so you could hear the blasted toilets flushing fifty times a day, followed by the gush of the taps and then the roar of the paper towels being pulled from the dispenser.

Of course, it creeped me out most when I heard the toilet flush, then didn't hear the taps run and paper towels being used. It's your office now, Kelsey m'dear, but you can come look at my view when the flushing gets too much

Photo 1: My feet enjoying the jail, to the right. And yes, those are cowboy boots.

Photo 2: Jail to the right, DA's office to the left, my feet under the desk.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Do you live in a Murder House?

Well, you probably wouldn't know if you did, as it happens.

I stumbled across an interesting discussion on a consumer law website, talking about whether the seller of a house is obliged to tell the buyer that a murder has been committed in the house. The discussion came about because a pair of new homeowners found out about the murder in their home right after buying the house, and they weren't happy.

Believe it or not, many state statutes actually address the issue directly, though our own in Texas sidesteps it. Here's what it says:
(c) A seller or seller's agent shall have no duty to make a disclosure or release information related to whether a death by natural causes, suicide, or accident unrelated to the condition of the property occurred on the property or whether a previous occupant had, may have had, has, or may have AIDS, HIV related illnesses, or HIV infection.

I thought it interesting the statute doesn't even mention murder. Why suicide and not murder? Are the ghosts different? Seems like as long as any bio-hazards are taken care of, they'd be psychically the same. Talking of psychically, here's the Massachew... Massechus... Massitch... law from the Kennedy state, stating that the following things do not have to be disclosed:

(a) [the HIV thing, like Texas]

(b) that the real property was the site of a felony, suicide or homicide [they mention the H word!]; and

(c) that the real property has been the site of an alleged parapsychological or supernatural phenomenon.

Right. Ghosts. They have legislation to say you don't have to reveal the presence of something that doesn't exist. Hopefully this year they will amend to make sure sellers don't have to disclose Yeti sightings in the backyard, or the time Aunt Edna was "borrowed" for the night by aliens.

But back to the murder thing, I was wondering, would you care if a murder had been committed in your house? Would it have stopped you from buying the place? If nothing else, it seems like a good negotiating tool, if you know in advance, eh?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Writing

I wanted to do something a little different this week, inspired perhaps by the fact that I just sent off the final draft of my own thriller to my agent, for submission to publishers starting next week. I know, exciting isn't it? Please send good vibes my way. :)

Anyway, because of this event, this week's blog post is as much about the writing as the thrilling, although the author is perhaps one of the greatest ever for providing thrills (and even more chills): Stephen King. You see, he wrote a wonderful book that has become a favorite of thousands of budding authors, a book that is both advice on writing and at the same time his autobiography.

The book is called ON WRITING, and like all his work it's written in a straightforward, delightful to read style. So if you want to know about the man, how he wrote his books and how he thinks we should write ours, then get this one.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Time for a round-up

I haven't scoured the globe for fun and interesting criminal news for a while, so here goes.

First up is the latest crime fighting tool: snow. Seriously. It worked in Baltimore, for a whole week.

On to drugs, and it strikes me that this is a bad headline to throw in front of people who already suffer from anxiety.

This isn't a crime but man, it should be. You may know of my history as a newspaper reporter, my distaste for current news reporting trends (spin, sensationalism, etc etc) but you'll be happy to know there is a news reporter out there determined to remain objective.
And for this, he got fired. Not kidding.

Wow, I knew crimes was down, and the New York has done a great job of reducing violence. But now it seems the subway cops are so bored they are cracking down on people who put their feet on the seats. Someone should open a donut shop underground.

I have several questions: who steals a snake from a petting zoo? If doing so is grand theft, what is it if you steal a goat? And aren't all nine-foot snakes "reptiles of concern"?

When I first read that this British dude, I mean "chap," confessed to killing his lover on air, during a show about euthanasia, I wondered to myself, "That seems like a silly thing to say on air." Then I thought, "Well, maybe it's because I'm a prosecutor, I'm just being harsh." Apparently others were thinking like me.

And I end with some good news, for a local guy and partly thanks to the DA's office. The man who had his lottery winnings stolen by a sneaky convenience store clerk gets some comfort, and seems pretty happy about it.

And that's all for now, folks.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What does an Assistant County Attorney do?

Here's the second post from the anonymous, mysterious, wonderfully talented man/woman known anonymously and mysteriously as "The Assistant."

Here he be (or she):

What does an Assistant County Attorney do?

That answer can vary significantly from one county to the next. About 85% of my workload is misdemeanor criminal prosecutions. The rest of my time is spent prosecuting all levels of juvenile crime, representing victims of family violence in protective order hearings, and representing the state in a small number of CPS cases, mental commitments, and Justice of the Peace prosecutions. My boss is the only other attorney in our office and they focus mainly on CPS cases, the county’s compliance with legal regulations, providing advice to the county commissioners, and other civil matters.

Since I’m the only assistant, that means I’m responsible for every misdemeanor committed in the county- from reviewing the case for intake to plea negations and on through trial. The ones that I see most commonly are first and second DWIs, possession of marijuana (anything under 4 ounces), assault, and theft (anything under $1,500). Less frequent are things like criminal mischief (again, under $1,500), reckless driving, and driving with a suspended license. Sometimes I’ll get some *really* fun cases, but you’ll just have to wait to hear about some of those…

Looking at my caseload for the last 6 months, we’ve disposed of between 50 and 100 cases each month. A case can be resolved any number of ways- a conviction, placement on deferred adjudication, pre-trial diversion, a dismissal with a felony conviction, a dismissal with a conviction in another misdemeanor, or a “straight” dismissal based on something like insufficient evidence or a witness/victim who won’t cooperate.

My office also prosecutes juvenile crimes, though fortunately that isn’t nearly as big a deal here as in many places. I’ve handled 20 or 30 juvenile cases, and haven’t had to send a single kid to TYC. All of the cases have been resolved with some combination of restitution, probation, and treatment.

I’ve also handled a dozen or so protective orders. In Texas, a protective order requires a showing that family violence has occurred in the past and is likely to occur in the future. Most protective orders are agreed to by the parties without having to put on any evidence- the person that the protective order is sought against is often in jail on a related and fairly serious charge. Only one of the protective orders I’ve sought was opposed, so we presented testimony in front of a judge and he ended up granting the order. I also had the relatively rare experience of seeking a protective order on behalf of a husband seeking protection from his wife. He was hardly blameless in the whole matter, but when she pulled a gun on him… Well, that caught our attention.

So what do I do? The short answer is that I’m a jack of all trades. My job requires lots of flexibility to move between different responsibilities and the approximately 100 criminal cases that are on my docket at any one time. In the end though, my job is the same as DAC’s and every other prosecutor in the state- not to convict, but to see that justice is done.

Monday, February 15, 2010

My new cases

I like this topic because it gives you a good idea not only of my workload, but also of the types of cases I'm handling day in and day out. Here's last week's influx:

1. Robbery; second degree felony.

2. Possession of controlled substance (cocaine); state jail felony.

3. Possession of controlled substance (meth); state jail felony (looks like a credit card abuse charge is also on the way, related to this case).

4. Credit card abuse; state jail felony.

5. Credit card abuse; state jail felony.

6. Credit card abuse; state jail felony.

7. Credit card abuse; state jail felony.

8. Credit card abuse; state jail felony.

9. Delivery of controlled substance (cocaine); second degree felony.

10. Theft of firearms; state jail felony.

11. Theft of firearms; state jail felony.

12. Delivery of controlled substance (cocaine); state jail felony.

13. Burglary of a habitation; second degree felony.

14. Unauthorized use of a motor vehicle; state jail felony.

15. Forgery of a financial instrument; state jail felony.

Sounds like a lot, no? Well, it is, but some are pretty straight forward in terms of the facts, the sequence of events that make up the alleged crimes. Also, several cases are related in that they either arise out of the same incident and are charged to the same defendant (e.g., #s 13 and 14) or they are the same set of facts but a co-defendant (e.g. #s 10 and 11).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What was I thinking?

My talented friend and colleague, Donna Crosby, put me in color.
I may have been pondering a defense lawyer's offer.
I may have been wondering where I left my pen.
You decide.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Jury follow-up

Now a couple of quick responses to one reader's questions about juries.

Would you please explain the reasons why, the reasons and thought process behind reason, someone is "struck" from being picked to serve on a jury?

I believe this post answers this question, mostly anyway, but if not let me know where it's deficient. The bottom line, though, is that we try and find people who will give us a fair shake.

Also, how many "strikes" does each side get and if both sides agree someone should not serve, does it count against their "strike" limit?

In felony court each sides gets ten peremptory strikes, which is a strike for any reason we want (as long as it's not based on a discriminatory reason, like race or gender). If both sides agree, which happens in most trials, then no, it won't count. Usually it's someone who is obviously unable to be fair to both sides (technical term: nutter) and so the judge strikes them "for cause," which means they are out of the pool by the time the parties disappear to their small closets to consider their peremptories.

Fire investigation follow-up

I wanted to respond to some questions asked in response to the fire investigator's Q & A. The questions are bolded, below:

How closely do fire and arson investigators work with the police and the district attorneys?

The investigators, because they are certified peace officers, are kind of like cops with fire investigation training and experience. So they do the majority of the work on an arson case, and don't really bring in the police to do any part of it. I suppose they might use the same technical resources, say for DNA testing, but for a straight arson I've only ever dealt with the fire investigators.

How often do they end up testifying in court?

Not very often! Most cases, be they arson or some other crime, get pled out. This means no trial and so no need for them (or anyone) to testify.

Do jurors give fire and arson inspectors a lot of credibilty, or is that something you have to spend time establishing (like the first question in this interview).

I tried an arson case last year and put two fire investigators on. I have to say, the jury absolutely loved them. I think one was a teacher in a former life, and he really connected with the jurors when he described his role, the scene, and his opinions. Likewise, the other flat out knew what he was talking about. I think they won over a lot of jurors because they didn't act like they knew everything - when they didn't have an answer, they said "I don't know."

Now, it's true with any witness that when they first testify we try to let the jurors see who they are, learn about their background. So when it's a fireman, we make sure the jurors know how many fires they've investigated, how many they've worked on as regular firemen.

*Check back in a couple of hours to see more answers, to a reader's questions about juries.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

And then there were none...

I read recently that this week's recommendation has been called the best mystery ever written. I first read it as a teenager, after first discovering Agatha Christie and devouring all of her novels (our vacation home didn't have a television).

It's called And Then There Were None.

It's your classic "locked door" mystery, where all the participants are stuck in the same place, unable to leave, the mystery and the bodies popping up chapter by chapter. Of course, in this case the people are on a small island. I do remember reading and thinking, there was simply no WAY I could know whodunnit. A great book indeed, but don't take my word for it:
  • 'One of the very best, most genuinely bewildering Christies.' The Observer
  • 'The most astonishingly impudent, ingenious and altogether successful mystery story since The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.' Daily Herald
  • 'One of the most ingenious thrillers in many a day.' Time Magazine
See? That proves it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Criminal reporting - jail the NYT!

As a former newspaper reporter and now a prosecutor, it's hardly surprising that I devour news stories on the criminal justice system. I am very interested in policy issues but also fascinated by the worm's eye view of our system, the way people as individuals are affected.

So, no surprise that I eagerly read an article in the New York Times entitled:

Final Family Night Before a Father Is Locked Up

Pretty dramatic, eh? Looks good, eh? And after all I'm a father, and while not much of an embezzler (so bad at numbers!), I'm interested in the psychology of inmates and those headed to the Big House. And I assume that the guy going away has some redeeming features, perhaps an unfairly heavy sentence, or a devotion to making some good out of his crime.

So I read the story (credit where it's due, I saw it first at The Crime Report).

And it made me mad. First, I was willing to put aside my initial reaction to stories like these, which is "Why are we giving newspaper column inches to crooks and not their victims?" This story, after all, seemed like another perspective and just because it wasn't about the victims, maybe I could learn something. As I said, I expected some sense of redemption to come through.

But no. And here's why the story sucked:

1. The poor father going to prison stole millions from old people and the disabled. Any writer will tell you their story is a failure if there is no sympathy to be had for the main character, especially given the sympathy-fishing headline. A bad crime but maybe he's sorry....

2. He did not seem even slightly sorry. Rather, he offered excuses for stealing from these people (and disputed the amount, of course): he had ADD and was depressed. Seriously?? He managed to get a law degree, to focus on getting through three years of that, but he couldn't focus on NOT stealing from disabled people.

3. He's not afraid for his safety and hopes to lose weight while in jail. That's what I'm learning? About this time I check the top of the screen to make sure it's the NYT I'm reading and not The Onion.

4. The story just ends with him not bothering to take in the Bible he'd just told us was so important. And, more oddly, the reporter ends the article after telling us the sentencing was postponed. Did he get five years? Ten? Fifteen? No idea, because apparently this puff piece was too important to be held up until the most important element could be included.

5. I would like seven minutes of my life back please, NYT. That was the least insightful, most disappointing article I could imagine. I think part of my frustration stems from the possibilities such an article presents. It could have been fascinating, educational, even emotional. It wasn't. It was like sinking into a bubble bath that turns out to be luke warm, and the tub has grit in it.

6. I wonder if the execs at the NYT are sitting around wondering why people are turning to new and electronic, but real, news sources, like The Crime Report and Texas's own font of wisdom and knowledge, Grits for Breakfast?

I'll help the NYT, how about that? Let's start with a new headline for their article: "Unrepentant thief goes to jail." Not very exciting, but then it matches the story perfectly. And I use small letters because this story, if published at all, should be on page 143, lower right corner.

And then, nearer the front pages, perhaps a story about the man with cerebral palsy that this guy stole from. I'll even give you the headline: "Victim Relieved as Thieving J&$#&ss Goes to Prison." Like it? Wanna borrow it...?!

Look, I don't mean to sound bitter or even appear to be constantly clanging the gong for stories about victims or other pro-enforcement matters. I just think that when you consciously decide to ignore the plight of a criminal's victims and focus on the plight of the criminal, there better be something worthwhile in the story. Does that seem like too much to ask of a responsible news organization?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This week's jury trials















Guest blogger: "The Assistant"

One of the delights of having a blog is reading the comments, getting feedback from readers (thanks mum!). One person who has been reading for a while and making sage and interesting remarks is a gentleman who signs his comments "Assistant County Attorney."

Well, he's now been promoted. I don't mean he's now the Actual County Attorney, no, what I'm saying is that he has been promoted from commenter to blogger. Right here, every Tuesday, he'll be giving us his perspective on criminal law from some place in Texas I've never been.

So this is what he wants you to know about him (for now!):

Like D.A. Confidential, I’m a prosecuting attorney in Texas. However, I’m an Assistant County Attorney. As in most things relating to criminal law in our state, the Texas system of dividing up prosecutions is unique, bizarre, internally inconsistent, and often nonsensical. Some D.A.’s offices prosecute both misdemeanors and felonies, and a very few County Attorney’s offices prosecute both. However, the general outline in many counties is this- the District Attorney’s office prosecutes felonies, and the County Attorney’s office prosecutes misdemeanors. I belong in that latter group. I’ve been offered the chance to write here about what life is like on my floor of the courthouse, and I hope you’ll find that it makes for an interesting compliment to what DAC writes.

So who am I? Well, I’m the lone Assistant County Attorney in a South Texas county. I grew up in Texas, went to law school on the East Coast, worked in heavy duty civil litigation for a bit, and then fled back home for more interesting work. Like DAC, I have my boss’s blessing to post, but will hold onto this nom de plume for a bit. I only speak for myself- not for my office, not for the State of Texas, not for D.A. Confidential, and not for Travis County.

There are some technical differences between what DAC does and what I do. Misdemeanors don’t get indicted by a grand jury, for instance. I’ve never seen a pre-sentence investigation report. My trials rarely have more than two or three witnesses, and sometimes not even that many. But by far the biggest difference is that every jury can sympathize with a misdemeanor defendant. When a jury looks at a defendant who’s been charged with a DWI or possession of marijuana, they can see themselves or their no good brother in law. When a jury looks at a defendant charged with child abuse or murder, that empathy is much harder to come by.

So my hope is that by writing about what I do, you the faithful reader, will have a better idea about how the criminal justice system affects “people like us.” Not bad people generally, just people that made a bad decision. As always, your questions, comments and feedback are always welcome. And yes, I know I use too many commas. I can’t help it.

His first substantive post will be next Tuesday, when he'll go into what kinds of cases he handles, and what his job entails, in a little more depth.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Christmas all over again

Here's how it works: I spend the morning in court, on a regular docket day, and come down about lunchtime to find a stack, large or small, of new cases on my chair. Kind of like Christmas, right?

Well, continuing my mission of letting you all know what kind of work we do here, I thought I'd give a rough overview of the cases I found on my chair last week.

1. Evading arrest. State jail felony.

2. Evading arrest. State jail felony.

3. Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Second degree felony.

4. DWI 3rd Offense. Third degree felony.

5. Possession of a controlled substance (cocaine). State jail felony.

6. Delivery of a controlled substance (cocaine). State jail felony.

7. Delivery of a controlled substance (cocaine). Second degree felony.

8. Arson (of a building, but not a habitation). Second degree felony.

9. Delivery of a controlled substance (cocaine). State jail felony.

10. Possession of a controlled substance (cocaine). State jail felony.

11. Evading arrest. State jail felony.

Of these, the arson will take the most time, I already spent an afternoon going through the file prepared by the fire investigators. Even so, I'll be busy this week reading offense reports, ordering up video tapes and drug analysis reports, and making recommendations. But that's okay, I have an office with a window now. Did I mention that? Oh, sure, it looks out onto the jail but it's a window and I love it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Q & A: Fire Investigator

Some colleagues over at the Austin Fire Department kindly agreed to take part in my occasional Q & A series. I have had two cases (and a new one landed on my desk today) with these guys and I can tell you that they know their stuff. Some fire investigators have gotten bad press lately, so I'm pleased to share a little about what they do.

1. What is your professional background?

Each AFD Fire and Arson Investigator has to have the following certifications: Texas Commission on Fire Protection Arson Investigator, Structural Fire Fighter, Fire Instructor, and Fire Inspector. They are all Emergency Medical Technicians certified by the Texas Department of Health. And, they also have to be licensed peace officers. Several of the more tenured investigators also have CFI (certified fire investigator) status through the International Association of Arson Investigators.

2. What training does a fire investigator have before being given that title?

Each AFD Investigator has to promote to the rank of Lieutenant within the department before being considered for an open position. This ensures that the investigator has several years of training and experience within the field of fire suppression before they are assigned
as investigators. Once assigned to the unit, the new investigator will be enrolled in a basic peace officer academy. Once that training is complete, they have to complete a 150 hour course on fire investigation (as outlined by the TCFP).

3. How many fires do you investigate, as lead or on the team, per month?

AFD Investigations performs approximately 400 investigations per year. Assignment as a lead investigator is dependent upon staffing at the time of the receipt of alarm but, on average, each investigator will be assigned as a lead 35-40 times per year.

4. What is the hardest thing about your job?

Fire Scene examinations are probably the most physically tough portion of this job (and the dirtiest). Investigators are required to excavate the fire scene, collect artifacts from the debris, reconstruct the scene with the remnants, and make conclusions about their findings (i.e. where the fire started and what caused it to occur).

5. Do you continue to take training once you are an investigator?

After the initial training, each investigator is required to maintain the continuing education requirements for EMT, Firefighter, Hazmat, and for Peace Officer. Additionally, each AFD Investigator will participate in annual evaluations of their fire pattern recognition ability.

6. Take us through the steps you take when you arrive at the scene of a
fire. Maybe start with what you are trying to accomplish.

First, a fire must occur. Once this happens a call to 911 is made by the observer and fire crews respond to the event. During the course of the extinguishment and overhaul of the fire scene, the responding fire crews will determine the cause of the fire. If they cannot or, if they determine that it was most likely an incendiary event, the fire crews will call for the response of the fire and arson investigators. Fire investigators arrive on scene and begin collecting information. This information may be in the form of dispatch information (911 caller info,
date or time relevance, etc.), eye witnesses on scene, and fire crew observations. Investigators will then examine the exterior of the burned building or vehicle by completing a 360 degree tour of the scene.
They will note anything that may be of importance to the investigation (i.e. gas cans sitting nearby, broken windows, general housekeeping, curious observers in the crowd, etc.).

Once the exterior observation is complete, they will move to the interior. Along the way, they will note any signs of forced entry into the building or vehicle. Observations will be noted with regard to fire movement and intensity patterns (burn patterns left upon wall surfaces, construction members, and or furnishings). From these observations, the investigator will began to formulate a hypothesis with regard to where the fire started. Once the investigator has a room or area of origin determined, he / she will begin excavating fire debris and searching for potential ignition sources.

All potential ignition sources have to be considered (electrical, smoking materials, spontaneous combustion, or act of arson to name a few). After locating all potential sources of ignition, the
investigator will examine each more thoroughly in order to eliminate or validate the items potential for having caused the fire. Often times, the investigator will reconstruct the room with the remnants identified during the scene excavation. This reconstruction of the scene, will often assist the investigator by showing areas of greater damage (i.e. the remnants of a couch show that the left end of the frame is more intact that the right end. This may mean that the fire started and burned longer near the right end of the couch.) If the investigator is able to make a determination, based upon their findings, a cause determination is made. If the cause is arson, the investigator will then identify and pursue the individual(s) responsible.

7. Any funny/weird stories or anecdotes you can share?

After a structure fire, AFD Investigator's attention was drawn to a vehicle on the property/garage. A routine inventory was done for damages and reporting purposes. The gentleman associated with the property was on parole. During the search several firearms were
discovered. When asked about the origin of the weapons, the gentleman replied, "Those can't be my's illegal for me to have can't be my guns..."

8. Can fingerprints or DNA survive a fire?

DNA and fingerprints can definitely survive a fire event. This of course ultimately depends upon the extent of fire damage to the building or furnishings upon which the evidence is located. Research shows that DNA evidence can survive a fairly significant exposure to fire.

9. What are the telltale signs of an accelerant being used (if any)?

There are several potential indicators of accelerant use. However, each of these indicators must be considered with other pertinent data before a conclusion can be made. Some of the signs to look for are burn patterns on flooring that are inconsistent with the fire scene, smells within piles of debris or in the open air, fires that flash back upon extinguishment, fires that seem to have an accelerated time line of events, inverted v-patterns (normally fires burn up and out and cause a
v- shaped pattern to occur on wall surfaces), or unusual flame color or smoke production.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Interview with thriller writer Jeff Abbott

In lieu of just a book review/recommendation, I am delighted to present a brief interview with thriller writer Jeff Abbott.

I'm reading one of his most popular novels, PANIC, right now. Honestly, I was afraid to try it because, well, what if I didn't like a thriller by a fellow-writer from Austin? And one I'd asked to do an interview with??

Not a problem, holy cow. Honestly, of all my book recs, and if you want a good thriller, this is the one. Seriously.

Go to his website (link above) to learn about him and his books, but expect to see the words "international-bestselling"... "award-winning".... “exciting, shrewd, and beautifully crafted” (Chicago Tribune) ... “fresh, original… intricately woven” (Publishers Weekly), .... "three-time nominee for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award" ... "two-time nominee for the Anthony Award."

Yeah, that's a lot of nice words for a writer, trust me.

So, the interview:

1. Did you always want to be a writer growing up, or did you come to it as an adult?

I always wanted to write. My 2nd grade teacher told my parents to get me a Big Chief tablet and a Husky pencil so I could write down the stories I was always telling in class. I wrote a 500-page manuscript in high school, I always knew this was what I wanted to do.

2. What is your writing schedule?

Generally I write first thing in the morning. I try to reach a word count each day; sometimes I can do it in a couple of hours, sometimes it takes all day. I try to save the afternoon for the administrative side of writing: answering emails, editorial discussions, marketing related stuff. The Internet has made it harder to maintain a schedule—too many interruptions. I’m becoming a big believer in disconnecting during work time.

3. Do you find people recognize you? Do you mind?!

It’s only happened a few times to me. Most writers don’t get recognized and we probably are grateful for our anonymity. It’s never been a bad experience, though.

4. Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

No, I don’t comb newspapers or magazines. Sometimes I’ll read or hear something that will prompt an idea, but most of the times ideas just come to me. Ideas are the easiest thing to have. Picking and executing on the right idea is the hard part. Best ideas come in seclusion: the shower (where the idea for PANIC came to me), long walks (where the main character in FEAR came to me), times when the outside world is at bay. One of my editors said it best: ideas are easy, execution is hard.

5. Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

I enjoy reading historical fiction (and I have a history degree), and I enjoy reading books with my kids, and maybe one day I’ll write something in those fields. I’ve been approached to work on some screenwriting projects, and film writing’s been an interesting experience, very different from writing books. I have a short story in an upcoming anthology called Death’s Excellent Vacation, edited by Charlaine Harris (author of the bestselling Southern Vampire series, the basis for True Blood) and Toni Kelner, and that was the first time I really ever wrote a story with a supernatural bent, and it was a lot of fun.

7. If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Learn your craft. (which is short for saying a lot: polish your work as much as possible, be smart about researching the business of publishing and rely on reputable sources, read a lot, write a lot, act like a professional and you’ll get treated like a professional.)

8. Do you outline your novels?

I work from a loose outline; I usually think about the major emotional moments in the book for the characters; what are the points where they face their biggest choices, their highest stakes? If I start to feel lost then I will stop and outline the rest of the book and work from there. I think outlines need to stay fluid, you make them too strict and they don’t work for me. Right now I write in Scrivener and I have a list of scenes that serves as a rough outline as I’m working. My books do tend to follow a classical three-act structure and I like to know where I’m going, but still want to be able to include better ideas as they occur to me as I’m writing, and getting to know the characters better.

9. How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels?

I always try to write clearly and concisely; I’m not really aware of spending extra time on the language aspect of it, it’s all part and parcel of the same process. I certainly believe in the value of rewriting and polishing as much as possible. My first goal is always to entertain, to give you back for your investment in time and money. Anything else is cake.

10. Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

Patricia Highsmith’s classic Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is a great read, although her process is very specific to her. But it’s interesting to see her insights into how she conceived and wrote her books. I think a great book is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, which talks a lot about establishing schedules, and thinking and observing the world like writers do. She wrote it back in the 1930s and it’s still powerful. Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit is a must read, full of great advice for anyone following a dream.

11. Is there any part of being a professional, full-time writer that you don't like?

No, I love it all. I worked hard to get here and I have no complaints. Any time I feel frustrated I remember when I was working toward this, and my frustration vanishes. I am getting to live my dream.

12. Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

I wanted to do it more than I wanted to do anything else. I did have the unstinting support of my friends and family, no one ever told me I couldn’t do it, but I knew it would be very difficult. My father was a voracious reader, and the first manuscript I wrote I gave to him, and he put it aside after fifty pages and said “I’m sorry, the story’s not that interesting, I think you can do better.” I was crushed. But I realized he was right. The second manuscript I gave him was DO UNTO OTHERS, and he read it in one sitting and he said, “This is going to sell, Jeff.” And he was right, I got two offers from major publishers on that book and it won two of the major mystery awards. I appreciate his honesty now.