August 25, 2013

Forensnips aplenty, forensnips galore

Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes, Everybody knows

I can't seem to get Leonard Cohen’s haunting Everybody Knows out of my mind.

Perhaps it's because I was just down in Alabama, the belly of the beast, working on a tragic case. With the highest per capita rate of executions in the United States, the Heart of Dixie State kills people for crimes that other nations punish with probation. No exaggeration. It was jarring to drive around  Montomery and see the close proximity of historic mansions to abandoned homes and decaying housing projects. The juxtaposition is fitting, as Montgomery claims the dual distinctions of being the "cradle of the Confederacy" and the "birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement."  

Montgomery, Alabama (c) Karen Franklin 2013
Or maybe it's a flashback to Elysium, in which the one percenters have left Earth’s teeming masses to rot away while they luxuriate on an idyllic orbiting satellite. The scene in the parole office, with a robot parole agent delivering a quick risk assessment and then pushing meds, is worth the price of admission, although the film is marred by interminable hand-to-hand combat scenes and a ridiculous Hollywood ending.

David Miranda, held hostage
by British security forces

Or, it could be because I’m still riled up over the British government's abuse of David Miranda. He is the Brazilian partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald (think Edward Snowden). In what can only be called an outrageous effort to intimidate journalists, the Brits detained Miranda at Heathrow Airport for nine solid hours -- the maximum allowed under the British Terrorism Act -- before finally releasing him sans his laptop, cell phone and camera. Under the Terrorism Act, he was not entitled to counsel, nor to decline to cooperate. I sure hope it backfires and incenses journalists; it certainly fired up USA Today columnist Rem Rieder (whose column I highly recommend).

* * * * *

I feel bad about the dearth of posts recently. It's been a hectic period. I'll try to make up for my lapse by packing this post with lots of links to forensic psychology and criminology news and views from the past few weeks:

Evidence-based justice: Corrupted memory

Nature magazine's profile of Elizabeth Loftus and her decades-long crusade to expose flaws in eyewitness testimony is worth a gander.

Psychopathic criminals have empathy switch

New research published in the journal Brain indicates that psychopaths do not lack empathy, as is often claimed. Rather, they can switch it on and off at will. The study, out of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, is freely available online. BBC also has coverage.  

The demographics of sexting

Sexting is becoming increasingly commonplace. But practices and meanings differ by gender, relationship and sexual identity, according to a new article, also available online, in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

Brainwashed video discussion

New York Times columnist David Brooks just interviewed psychiatrist Sally Satel and psychologist Scott Lilenfield about their new book, Brainwashed, which is getting quite a bit of media buzz. The book is a workmanlike, if a bit superficial, exploration of the allure of "mindless neuroscience." If you’ve got 65 minutes, I recommend watching the video discussion.

Prison news: Hunger strike, juveniles, the elderly, women

On the prison front, a lot has been going on. California prisoners are into Day 50 or so of their hunger strike over solitary housing (a condition that the Department of Corrections denies, despite many men being kept in segregation units for years and even decades) and other cruel conditions. With prisoners' health deteriorating, a court order has been issued allowing force feeding if necessary to forestall deaths. Mainstream media reporting has been minimal, but at least Al Jazeera's got you covered.  

Even more local to me, a lawsuit has been filed over solitary confinement of juveniles in Contra Costa County. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, accuses county officials of flouting state laws mandating that juvenile detention facilities be supportive environments designed for rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, NBC news is sounding an alarm over the increasing number of elderly people in U.S. prisons. NBC sounds mostly worried about the cost to taxpayers of prisons teeming with upwards of 400,000 elderly prisoners by the year 2030. Read it, and weep. 

Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange Is the New Black that's become a trendy Netflix series, is also sounding an alarm. In a New York Times op-ed, she writes about a federal plan to ease overcrowding in men's prisons by shipping about 1,000 women from Connecticut down to Alabama and points beyond, where they will be even more estranged from their families. As Kerman notes: "For many families these new locations might as well be the moon." I recommend her thoughtful essay on alternatives for low-risk women prisoners. 

In a more promising development, the U.S. Justice Department has announced efforts to curtail the stiff drug sentences that have caused much of this overcrowding in the first place. The U.S. prison system is so bloated, so costly, and so irrational, that even conservatives are calling for reform. Better late than never, I suppose.

By the way, Florida has executed John Errol Ferguson, the prisoner whose controversial case I blogged about earlier this year, whose competency was contested in part because of his insistence that he was the "Prince of God." The American Bar Association had filed an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the standard for competency for execution being applied in the case. 

Sex offender news

In yet another in a series of registry-facilitated vigilante attacks, a South Carolina man has been arrested for killing a sex offender and his wife in the mistaken belief that the man was a child molester. At the same time, there are signs that overzealous laws that contribute to such stigmatization are being scrutinized more closely. For example, a federal judge has struck down a Colorado city's ordinance restricting where registered sex offenders can live, ruling that it conflicts with a state law requiring parolees to be reintegrated into society. An appellate panel in North Carolina has also struck down a law that banned registered sex offenders from using social media sites. The state Court of Appeals agreed with the challenger that the law violated his Constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of association. 

Dispute over expert witness credentials

Finally, there's a big brouhaha in South Dakota over the credentials of a psychologist who frequently testifies as an expert witness in child custody cases. The credentials of the widely respected psychologist, Thomas Price, became an issue during a child custody dispute. It was ascertained that he had earned his PhD in behavioral medicine from an online degree mill called Greenwich University on Norfolk Island, Australia, that was subsequently shuttered by the Australian government. According to an expert on diploma mills quoted by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, degree mills often adopt the names of respected English universities. Price's resumé says he earned a Ph.D. in behavioral medicine from Greenwich University, without noting the Norfolk Island location. "Typically," notes the article, "people don’t get caught using an unaccredited degree until they assume a high-profile position ... or they do something that causes another person to research their backgrounds…. If you stay under the radar, you can get by."

Science blogger

Finally (this time I really mean it), for those of you who are into offbeat science, I've just added a new blog, Mike the Mad Biologist, to my blog roll (which can be found a little ways down the right column of my blog site). Mike is prolific and wide-ranging in his news links, with a creative spin. 

Hat tips to Jane, Terry, Kirk and others