Thursday, July 26, 2012

Oh, media, how could you?

Dear Media,

I turned on my TV this morning, as I do every day while I drink my first cup of tea. I like these times when we're together, slowly warming up to the day. Of course, you get up first, by the time my kettle boils you've been up for a while, gathering news, readying it for me, sorting and condensing so I can go into the world knowing a little, just a little, of what's going on. I appreciate that, and I always have.

But lately things have been getting weird. I don't know, it's almost like you're not really trying any more. As if our morning routine has become a burden and other things (dare I say other people?) have caught your eye and drawn you away from me.

Why do I bring this up now? Because I'm not a nag and haven't wanted to pester you with my own insecurities over recent months. Maybe I should have because this morning you went too far.

It started out okay, when you covered the Olympics in London, which I think of as necessary fluff (after all, the events themselves haven't started, what else can you do?). After that segment, though, you cut to the news.

Let me repeat that: The News. Definition: "a person, thing, or event considered as a choice subject for journalistic treatment; newsworthy material."

As you cut back to the news studio, I steeled myself, ready for distressing reports from Syria and Afghanistan, maybe an update on the Colorado shooter. Perhaps even some economic news, I knew some housing reports were due.

You know, News.

You ignored me, though, you paid my needs no attention and I might almost think you did it on purpose because you know I am not interested in this stuff, and more importantly you know that we both know, this isn't News.

You told me that a 22-year-old girl cheated on her boyfriend.

That was your lead story for the News. And you lingered on it, too, showing me photos and film clips as though you had a war reporter on scene sending back vital footage of an actual event. I couldn't believe my eyes. Why would you do this to me, why would you betray me in my own living room, my tea barely cool enough to sip? This was our special time, our time to commune and you knowingly, intentionally, on purposely, violated what I thought was a beautiful relationship.

I'm not naive, I know that people, many people, are interested in this particular 22-year-old girl. But did you think the Internet didn't have it covered in the gossip blogs? Did you not think your own network would cover it on some entertainment show?

Even now, do you really think it is News?

Let me try and remain rational, logical, composed. Because I want us to get over this, get past it. But I don't want you doing it again, I don't want to turn my TV on in the future and find that, behind my back, you've constructed a story about a drunken movie star tossing dwarfs in a rundown London pub. Or even tossing off dwarfs. Those things aren't News.

You see, no one is affected when a 22-year-old cheats on her boyfriend (or tosses off a dwarf), except the boyfriend and the family of the dude she cheated with. Which adds up to about five people. In the world. So how is it news?

Here's the distinction as I see it:
  • if something happens and lots of people are affected, or some are affected in dramatic or unusual ways, then it is News.
  • if something ordinary happens and hundreds/thousands/millions of people express an interest because the person is famous, it's Entertainment.
Am I making sense? You know I'm an open-minded guy, I am willing to experiment with you, let you experiment with me. But a 22-year-old being attracted to a 41-year-old man isn't unusual. At all. In any way.

I can assume by your coverage of this "story" that loyalty is important to you, as you know it is to me. Life partners have bumps over the years and I'm willing to work with you to get past this.

But please, don't do this again. Especially when I'm trying to drink tea, it just isn't civilized. And it certainly isn't News.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Kids, drugs, and cops

I came across an interesting op-ed written by an Austin blogger, someone I link to from here because he's very involved in seeing that our criminal justice system improves.  Annoyingly, he also likes to hold cops and prosecutors accountable for their actions, an outrageous position that no right-minded human would go along with.  And I disagree with him on some issues.

But this is written not just from his perspective as a criminal justice observer, so to speak, but as a resident of the relevant part of Austin.  And if you're not from Austin, you should check it out anyway because I'm betting there's a part of your city where drugs are exchanged in plain sight, and where cops spend a lot of time arresting dealers and buyers.

It's also interesting to me because he's talking about the "Charlie" sector of Austin, where I roam every Thursday night with the Austin Police Department.  I pass through the corner he talks about, 12th and Chicon, two or three times an evening and, well, it ain't nothin' like my neighborhood.

His solution, in sum, is to tone down the arrests and do something "for the children."  Specifically, help those kids whose parents are in prison.   Not an original thought, as I'm sure he'd acknowledge, but I get to see that side of it, too, working down at the juvenile courts.  And picking a number out of the air, without thinking about it too hard, I'd say 90 percent or more of the kids I see have no father-figure in their lives.  I don't know how many are in prison but I'm betting a few.  A kid was crying in court today, arrested for assaulting someone, and he was telling the court his dad was doing life somewhere for something.  "You want to be like that, too?" the judge asked him.

He said, of course, "No," but it doesn't look good for him.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Of Dope and Discretion

Two quick things before I head out to my Thursday night ride-along.

First, a riddle: two men are consuming marijuana when a policeman walks into the room.  The man smoking the joint is arrested and charged with a misdemeanor, but the man eating it is charged with a felony.  Why?

(I'll post my answer - hey, there may be more than one correct answer, right? - over the weekend, but it has nothing to do with amounts or weights.)

Second, a quick shout out to a fellow prosecutor (former) writing novels.  Her second has just been released and is getting great reviews.  So if you're on the look-out for more summer reading, check out her book.  It's been described as a legal thriller exploring the intersection of sex and power in D.C.’s most secretive worlds.  Pretty timely, eh? (Click here to zip over to her web site.) I think her publisher is sending me a copy to review so I'll wait to say more.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ballistics - matching bullets

Last week I showed you the brilliant photos that Greg Karim and his colleagues use to figure out whether a cartridge casing was fired from a particular gun. As promised, today I'm posting a series of photos that show how the same kind of examination is made on the bullets themselves.

Remember, here's the situation:

A bullet is removed from the body of a victim. It's placed into evidence and locked away. A gun is found on a suspect, who's now a hundred miles from the crime scene. The gun is also placed into evidence and locked away.

The essential question this time is: was the bullet from the victim fired from this gun? If so, that's some good evidence. If not, we need to know that too, so we can find the right murder weapon.

So, APD firearms guru Greg Karin retrieves the bullet and the gun from the evidence locker and retreats to his lab.As before , he fires the weapon into a barrel of water. He'll do a number of test fires, fifteen for example. Then he will put the bullet from the victim under a microscope, examine it, and take close-up photos. He will do the same with the test-fired bullets.

This is what he'll see:

Now, you'll see reference on these photos to two types of characteristics: class and individual. The examiner is looking to make matches in both classes, and here's their basic definitions:

Class characteristics can be defined as:
Intentional or design characteristics that would be common to a particular group or family of items.
The class characteristics of firearms that relate to the bullets fired from them includes the caliber of the firearm and the rifling pattern contained in the barrel of the firearm.

Where individual characteristics are:
marks produced by the random imperfections or irregularities of tool surfaces. These random imperfections or irregularities are produced incidental to manufacture and/or caused by use, corrosion, or damage. They are unique to that tool and distinguish it from all other tools.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ballistics - matching casings

One of the coolest aspects of this job is getting to work with people who are masters in their field. Of course, given my job their field is inherently interesting so you can imagine how fun it is to work with, say, a top-notch firearms analyst.

You know, like Austin P.D.'s Greg Karim.

Two of the things Greg and his colleagues can do include tests to (1) determine whether or not a particular shell casing was fired in a particular gun; and (2) whether or not a particular bullet was fired from a particular gun.

I want to do two posts on this, one for each. You'll see why, below. First the casings, and we should be sure of terminology. Here are the terms we use:

Cartridge -- what you pull from the box of ammo you buy at Wal-Mart, and load into your gun.
Bullet -- the piece of lead that is expelled from the barrel of the gun when you shoot.
Casing -- the container for the propellant and bullet, which is left empty after use and either expelled from the gun (via ejector) or remains in the cylinder.

Here's how he works: a spent casing is found near the body of our imaginary victim. It's placed into evidence and locked away. A gun is found on a suspect, who's now a hundred miles from the crime scene. It is also placed into evidence and locked away.

The essential question is: was the casing found near the victim fired in this gun? If so, that's some good evidence. If not, we need to know that too, so we can find the right murder weapon.

So, Greg retrieves the casing and the gun from the evidence locker and retreats to his lab. There, he fires the weapon into a barrel of water, using identical ammunition to the found casing. He'll do a number of test fires, fifteen for example. Then he will put the casing from the crime scene under a microscope, examine it, and take close-up photos. He will do the same with the test-fired casing. I am simplifying, and he'd pull his hair out at such a poor summary of his laborious, time-intensive work, but this is essentially the process by which he can say whether or not the casing from near the body was fired from the gun found on the suspect.

What he's looking for are areas on the two casings that bear the same marks, showing that when you fire this type of ammo from this gun, you'll get this mark. The marks can come from the casing expanding inside the barrel (when it gets hot) and essentially being 'printed' with the marks in the barrel, and the marks can come from the firing mechanics themselves.

You know what? Best if I show you . . .

Pretty neat, huh? As you've probably figured out, these photos show the hypothetical casing from the crime scene (left) and the test-fire (right). They sure look like a match, but can we do better? Can we be more certain? Why yes, since you ask, we can. . .

The tiny black line down the center is where the subject casing and the test-fired casing meet. This is the photo that always impresses jurors (and me!) because you can see for yourself how the two match up.

Here are some more from other casing analyses (credit where it's due, these photos were actually taken by Erica Pusch, Greg's colleague at APD).

And coming up soon, images like this of the bullets themselves. Pretty neat, don't you think?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Nerves, for the first time in years

I don't get nervous. I don't get rattled, either. When that idiot/not idiot intentionally crashed into us, then rammed his car into a building, I felt cool as a cucumber the entire time. Didn't get the adrenaline rush I'd been expecting, nor any swings in emotion.  Likewise, I can get up and speak to a bunch of strangers in court with no hint of nerves, just a vague tingle of excitement.  Basically, cucumber.

And no, I'm not a sociopath (while scary things don't bug me, I can't watch Schindler's List-type movies for fear of blubbing like a baby).

Today, however, I was paralyzed with fear. There I was, at the collision center turning over my vehicle for repair after the above-mentioned accident, when I was confronted by something I knew I'd one day have to face.

A review.

Yes, a professional reviewer had read and passed judgment on my book. My publisher forward a link to the review in an email but I couldn't bring myself to read it. Publishers Weekly is the organ, and whoever wrote the review doesn't know me or care one jot for my feelings. Reviews, after all, are for readers not writers.

And that's what scared me. If you know me, you like me, right? And if you like me, you'll say nice things about my book - even if you're not wild about it. Right?! But a stranger? Whose job it is to analyze books?

I called my wife and made her read it first.

As with any good story, all's well that ends well. The best bit is that the reviewer liked my main character, which is key when a series is on the cards. Here's the full review (and yes, it's favorable. Think I'd link to it if it wasn't?!).

Trouble is, this is just the beginning. I suspect every time I see a review of my book, I'll be reduced from my usual state of manliness to a weak and insecure quivering wreck. But so far so good - if the other ones aren't as favorable, I can always come back to Publishers Weekly's words. After all, everyone knows they are clearly gifted, talented, and downright geniuses when it comes to reviewing mysteries. . .

Monday, July 2, 2012

The good, the bad, and the beachy.

Some observations, some of a criminal nature, from the seaside.

1.  If you want to smoke on the beach and bugger up the sea air don't do it near me and my kids.  Especially when we got there first.

2.  If #1 applies to you, covering your cigarette butt with two inches of sand is still littering.

3.  The nearer they are to the ocean, the more some 7-year-old girls wish mermaids were real.

4.  Because every wave is different, every wave needs jumping over.

5.  Just because it says it's a "Dolphin Center," don't assume it has dolphins.  You may, however, assume it has videos of dolphins.  And if it's that kind of place, you should also know that "Suggested donation" is likely to mean "Mandatory entrance fee."

6.  A mansion one block from the beach has nothing on a hovel directly on the beach.

7.  The ten pounds I lost before this vacation have been picked up by other people.  Several people, and several fold.  I shouldn't be, but I am encouraged.

8.  Boogie boarding counts as exercise.  Especially on a red-flag day when the rip current is battering you like an egg in an omelette bowl.

9.   A rip current is not the same thing as a rip tide.

10.  It's a bad idea to take photos of your wife when she's boogie boarding and there's a rip current.  Turns out the forces of nature propel wife one way, and her bikini bottoms another.  Photographic confirmation of this phenomenon is scientifically relevant but maritally imprudent.

(No, that's not my wife.  I'm not stupid.)