March 29, 2012

Damning reconstruction of notorious false confession case

Here's one from the annals of outrageous true crime cases:

On April 17, 1989, a woman was practicing tai chi in New York's Central Park, when a man sexually assaulted her. The rape was interrupted by a passerby who heard her yelling, but not before the woman was severely beaten to the point of requiring hospitalization. The woman gave police a detailed description of her attacker, including the fact that he had fresh stitches on his chin. Checking local hospitals, a detective found a match to an 18-year-old Puerto Rican man who worked nearby.

Mysteriously, the man was never questioned. The victim left town, the detective was transferred out of the sex crimes unit, and the case was closed as unsolved.

But as it turned out, this wasn't just one more rape in the Big Apple.

The East Side Slasher
The man escalated his attacks, terrorizing women in New York City. Dubbed the "East Side Slasher," he raped at least five other women and murdered one. His pattern was to beat or stab the women around the eyes, so they would not be able to identify him.

He was finally caught, when a woman broke free from him and alerted her doorman and a neighbor, who subdued him. Within hours, he had confessed on videotape to four rapes and the murder. With eyewitness identification and DNA evidence conclusively tying him to the crimes, he took a deal of 33 years to life.

Have you recognized this case yet?

While police knew that Matias Reyes was slashing and raping women around Manhattan's East Side during 1988 and 1989, there was one case they didn't think to link him to. That was the assault on Trisha Meili on April 19, 1989, as she was jogging in Central Park -- an assault that would quickly rivet the world.

Trisha Meili
In hindsight, it seems incomprehensible that Reyes was not a suspect. The crime fit his modus operandi, in that Meili was beaten most heavily around her eyes. The assault occurred just two days after the one on the tai chi practitioner, also in Central Park. And, most amazingly, a police officer who knew Reyes chatted with him as he strolled out of the park just minutes after Meili was raped and left for dead.

On his head, Reyes was wearing the victim’s distinctive headphones.

Reyes left his DNA behind. But police never thought to compare it to him. Not until more than a decade later, after he voluntarily confessed.

As we now know, police failed to consider Reyes as a possible suspect in the infamous Central Park Jogger case because they already had their suspects: A group of African American and Latino boys who were causing trouble in the park that night.

Sarah Burns
Through legal documents and myriad interviews (including with Matias Reyes), author Sarah Burns reconstructs this landmark miscarriage of justice, focusing on the role of racism in generating a collective hysteria that overwhelmed all reason: "Race not only inspired the extreme reactions to the crime; it also made it easier for so many to believe that these five teenaged boys had committed the crime in the first place, and no one was suggesting that they might, in fact, be innocent."

(Actually, a couple of intrepid columnists from New York Newsday, Jim Dwyer and Carol Agus, were expressing public doubts during the trial about the strength of the evidence connecting the youths to the crime, but their voices were not enough to turn the tide of public opinion. "We are waiting to see if there is any believable evidence that will connect these kids to the crime. So far, we haven't heard any," wrote Agus. And when referring to one of the youths' statement to police, both columnists placed quotation marks around the word confession, expressing skpeticism that it was authentic, Burns notes. Wrote columnist Dwyer, "nothing close to the words in this statement ... ever sat on the lips of a 14 and a half year old.")

Burns provides fascinating insights into the investigatory myopia that is so often present in false confession cases. Based on her access to the entire trial transcripts, she also critiques the weak defenses the boys received, which made their convictions all the more guaranteed. And she corrects much of the misleading mythology built up around the case. For instance, these boys were not the serious delinquents that the media portrayed them as, nor did most of them come from broken homes.

The first trial
Perhaps most amazing about this case is the vitriolic manner in which certain media outlets and high-profile people continue to insist that the boys are guilty, despite all evidence to the contrary. I hope this excellent historical reconstruction may help to set the record straight. I'm also looking forward to the documentary, which Burns is now working on with her father, filmmaker Ken Burns.

My Amazon review of The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, is HERE. (If you like it, please click "yes," this review was helpful.) 

POSTSCRIPT:  You've read (or at least read about) the book; now see the movie. The Central Park Five just premiered at a special screening in Cannes. National broadcast on PBS is planned for 2013 or 2014. Meanwhile, the filmmakers -- who include book author Sarah Burns, her father Ken Burns and David McMahon -- are angling for a theatrical release. The Hollywood Reporter has the Cannes review (HERE).

March 26, 2012

'Case of the missing militant' resolved

Attorney Paul Harris
reads from  To Kill A Mockingbird.*
Photo credit: San Jose Mercury

A quick update on the case of Ronald Bridgeforth, the man I blogged about who turned himself in on shooting charges after 42 years underground: A judge in San Mateo County imposed a very reasonable sentence of one year in county jail. The judge also ordered Bridgeforth to work with at-risk youth in Alameda County (Oakland), California upon his release. That should be no problem for the 67-year-old former militant, who has dedicated his  life to public service.

My original post, Predicting behavior: The case of the missing militant, is HERE.The San Mateo Times and The Daily Mail (UK) have more on the sentencing. A San Jose Mercury slide show is HERE.

*I don't know what passage from To Kill A Mockingbird the defense attorney was reading from at the sentencing hearing, but I am curious.

March 25, 2012

USA Today probe: Federal SVP program crumbling

Constitutionality of lengthy sex offender detentions questioned

In the six years since the U.S. government authorized civil detention for dangerous sex offenders, it has sought to commit 136 men. Out of those, it has won civil commitments of only 15, or 11 percent.

In contrast, it has either lost, or been forced to dismiss, 61 cases, or 45 percent. (Actually, make that 62.*)

The remaining 59 men (43 percent) are languishing in prison, locked in legal limbo while their cases await resolution. (A 136th man has died.)

An investigative report by USA Today paints a picture of federal prosecutors and their prison "experts" as flailing in their efforts to establish that they qualify as "sexually dangerous persons." The legal criteria for this designation include a history of sexually violent conduct or child molestation and a mental illness that would cause the person difficulty in refraining from such behavior if released.

I put the word "expert" in quotes because many of the prison psychologists drafted to conduct these evaluations and testify in court had no prior experience and little or no training when the law went into effect. As the former psychologist in charge told USA Today, "It was rushed, and initially, I believe, quality probably suffered."

The government's cases "have crumbled because of weak evidence, faulty psychological evaluations and an inability to convince judges the detainees have mental conditions so serious they will find it difficult to not re-offend," the USA Today reports. Due to the low levels of recidivism among convicted sex offenders, "even when the government can prove someone committed sex crimes, it has struggled to show he remains dangerous."

Brad Heath and Amanda Muscavage reviewed thousands of pages of legal filings and interviewed dozens of attorneys, psychologists and former detainees for their report. Their interactive website includes links to 290 documents that they have made available online.

USA Today reporter Brad Heath
In one amazing quote, the psychologist who formerly ran the civil commitment program at Butner, the prison in North Carolina where the detainees are being held, all but admits that clinicians certified men as sexually dangerous even knowing that they did not meet the legal criteria.

"If we thought someone was really dangerous but there wasn't a strong legal case, we might very well still push it for the public interest," Anthony Jimenez said. "Hopefully justice is served in the end."

This is the "consequentialist" approach advocated by some in the sex offender industry, who claim that sexually violent predator cases represent an exception to general forensic practice, in which the end (protecting the public) justifies the means. If anything, however, the high stakes involved when people are threatened with a loss of liberty for something that they might do in the future would seem to demand the opposite approach, of even greater caution and transparency in diagnosis and risk assessment.

As Fred Berlin, the director of the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, told the reporters: "We need to be very, very careful in a free society about a system in which a group of people can make statements that result in someone being deprived of their liberty for a future crime. If it's going to be done, it has to be done in a just and fair manner."

One reason for the government’s quagmire is that the federal cases are decided by a judge, rather than a jury. The seasoned judges hearing these cases are less likely to let their emotional reactions to past crimes, some of them pretty upsetting, distract them from the government's legal burden of proof.

For example, in the recent trial of Markis Revland (which I blogged about HERE), the offender had admitted to 149 child molestations. However, the judge found that the government had failed to prove that any of these incidents actually happened, or that Revland had a genuine mental illness.

Similarly, at the trial of Jeffrey Neuhauser (which I blogged about HERE), the judge rejected the controversial label of "hebephilia" as a legitimate mental illness qualifying someone for involuntary detention.

Unfortunately, because they only had access to records that have been made public, the USA Today team didn't have the 411 on some of the most egregious attempts to civilly detain low-risk prisoners. In one case I am familiar with, the government spent four years pursuing civil commitment against a man who was quite clearly not mentally ill, not a rapist, not a pedophile, and not dangerous, only to dismiss the case on the eve of trial.

This case points to an aspect that I wished the USA Today team had delved into: The unusual nature of the federal sex offender population. Although those eligible for civil commitment are supposed to be the worst of the worst, in reality Butner's population is heavily weighted toward an unlikely admixture of:
  • Native Americans.
The second group was the surprise to me. Unlike routine sex offenses that are prosecuted in state courts, crimes committed on Indian reservations are federal offenses.

Up until now, neither the U.S. Justice Department nor any watchdog agency has expressed public concern with whether the the federal civil commitment scheme, with its haphazard and capricious implementation, passes Constitutional muster.

Hopefully, this USA Today report will bring some much-needed attention to just what is going on down there in North Carolina.

Prior blog posts about the federal civil commitment prosecutions:
*The situation remains fluid. Right after the publication of the USA Today report five days ago, I have learned that the government lost yet another trial. This despite a 200-page report from a government expert assigning Steven Wiseman a panoply of mental disorders, including pedophilia, hebephilia and antisocial personality disorder.

March 11, 2012

Report: 2,500 serving life for crimes committed as children

United States far out of step with global community

Photo credit: Richard Ross, Juvenile in Justice
"Life without possibility of parole for a 13-year-old?!" a European colleague exclaimed, clearly disbelieving my story.

With the Land of the Free far out of step with the rest of the world, wonderment over our criminal justice policies is not uncommon internationally, but nowhere moreso than regarding our treatment of juveniles. We are the only country in the world who condemns juveniles to spend their entire life behind bars for crimes committed as children.

(We're also way out of step in our overall incarceration rates and in our penchant for solitary confinement, too, but that's another story -- see today's New York Times for more on that.)

Now, the first-ever national survey documents numbers far higher than even I imagined: Not just a handful, but more than 2,500 Americans are serving life without parole for crimes committed before the age of 18.

The oldest prisoner in the survey, now 67, has served half a century in prison so far. Just stop for a moment and ponder the implications of that.

The Sentencing Project's report, The Lives of Juvenile Lifers, comes just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the cases of two 14-year olds, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, which will address questions about the constitutionality of sentencing teens to life without the possibility of parole.

The national survey draws a portrait of severe disadvantage experienced by those serving life sentences without parole: Juvenile lifers were exposed to high levels of violence in their homes and their communities. Among the 45 girls serving life, three-fourths experienced sexual abuse before their crimes.

"Most juveniles serving life without parole sentences experienced trauma and neglect long before they engaged in their crimes," stated Ashley Nellis, research analyst of The Sentencing Project and author of the report. "The findings from this survey do not excuse the crimes committed but they help explain them. With time, rehabilitation and maturity, some of these youth could one day safely re-enter society and contribute positively to their families and their communities."

It will come as no surprise to most of you that race has much to do with who gets this draconian sentence. African Americans, who make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, represented 60 percent of these children -- five times their proportion of the population, They are especially likely to be serving life without parole if they killed a white person.

From a fiscal standpoint alone, the report notes, the costs to states of incarcerating someone from their teens into their twilight years, when health costs rise steeply, is at least $2 million per prisoner.

The report advocates spending more money on prevention programs, instead of warehousing:
Instead of spending scarce resources on warehousing lives that could be transformed, we could be spending money more wisely, helping victims, and improving public safety. The nonpartisan American Law Institute recommends a “second look” after 10 years of imprisonment for life-sentenced youth. Notwithstanding the probability that most prisoners would not be granted release after only 10 years, if even one eligible inmate was determined to be ready for release upon this “second look,” this could save a typical state $1.8 million in needless incarceration. The money saved could instead be directed at prevention and intervention programs that have a strong evidence-base in lowering crime: preschool programs, parenting skills development, multi-systemic therapy, vocational training, substance abuse treatment, and a host of other effective interventions that would reduce crime and repair families and communities from damage associated with violence.
The full report, which I highly recommend, can be read or downloaded HERE.

Of related interest:
Life, with dementia (New York Times article about the growing problem of dementia behind bars)
Hat tip: BRUCE

March 5, 2012

Internet stings: Does the fantasy defense hold water?

Scott Ritter, the former U.N. weapons inspector, was among the most vocal in insisting that the Bush administration fabricated its claims of “weapons of mass destruction” in order to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Ritter didn’t receive much public gratitude for his efforts to avert a costly and destructive war. Instead, he lost his career and his life gradually unraveled. Sinking deeper into depression, he fled into chat rooms, where he arranged rendezvous with adult women willing to watch him masturbate. At first, the meetings took place in cars or out-of-the-way places. Later, he switched to using a webcam, according to a profile by Matt Bai in the New York Times Magazine.

Then came that fateful day in February 2009 on which, in a Yahoo chat room for adults, he conversed with “Emily.” Although she told him she was 15, Emily was actually a small-town police officer, trolling for sexual predators online.

After doing his usual thing of masturbating in front of the webcam, Ritter announced he was signing off to take a shower.

Not so fast, retorted the officer:

"U know ur in a lot of trouble, don’t you? I’m a undercover police officer. U need to call me ASAP."

"Nah," Ritter typed back. "Your not 15. Yahoo is for 18 and over. It’s all fantasy. No crime."

"I have your phone number and I will be getting your IP address from Yahoo and your carrier," the officer responded. "We can do this 2 ways call me and you can turn yourself in at a latter date or I’ll get a warrant for you and come pick you up."

Ritter turned himself in. At his trial, he testified that he never for a moment believed he was talking to a minor; he assumed he was chatting with a bored housewife pretending to be 15.

Unfortunately for Ritter, jurors were told of his two prior arrests in similar cases, for which he was never prosecuted. In both cases, undercover police had lured him into meetings with fictional teenage girls. His claim that he knew that he was actually talking to undercover police in both cases likely strained the credulity of jurors, who convicted him in the case of “Emily.”

After hearing testimony from a government evaluator who called Ritter a sexually violent predator, the judge sentenced him late last year to a prison term of 18 months to five and a half years.

Fantasy defense succeeds in Queensland

Had it not been for his two earlier cases, Ritter’s defense might not have been all that far-fetched. After all, it worked for Darryl Plumridge of Queensland, Australia back in 2007.

Just like Ritter, Plumridge engaged in online chat with an undercover police officer posing as a teenage girl, in this case a 13-year-old with the screen name of “Erin Princess Baby.”

His defense was simple, according to a forthcoming article in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law: “He claimed that he knew the person with whom he was communicating was an older male and he was simply role playing.”

At trial, he testified that the covert police operative inadvertently supplied various content cues as to his true age and gender. For example, he signed off by saying "see ya later alligator," something no self-respecting 21st-century girl would say. Even more tellingly, he accidentally said he ("she") was at the office when "she" was supposed to be home from school, a glaring error that "she" immediately corrected.

Plumridge was acquitted. 

Study: Can people see through online deception?

Criminologist Robyn Lincoln of Bond University and forensic psychologist Ian R. Coyle, a Gold Coast practitioner and associate professor of law who testified in the case, decided to conduct a study to test the plausibility of Plumridge’s defense. Given the flat nature of internet communication, lacking in physical or tonal cues, can people actually deduce the true age and gender of someone who is pretending to be someone else?

Bottom line? Yes, they often can.

Lincoln and Coyle randomly assigned 46 students as either "deceivers" or "receivers." Each volunteer participant was met off-site and individually led to one of several private study locations, to preclude chance encounters with other participants. Deceivers were instructed to play the role of a 13-year-old girl. Receivers, in contrast, were misled to believe that they might be talking with individuals ranging in age from young children to the elderly. The pairs then chatted with each other for 30 minutes.

Despite the deceivers' best efforts, the majority of receivers were able to correctly identify the age and gender of the person with whom they were chatting, within a five-year bandwidth. None of the receivers believed they were talking to someone under the age of 16.

Thus, the claims of Plumridge and Ritter, that they knew they were chatting with adults but ignored that reality for purposes of fantasy role-playing, appear to have some scientific basis.

As law enforcement officers increasingly partake in trolling the internet for sexual predators in their spare time, it is probably only a matter of time before the Bond University study is introduced into court as evidence.

The study, "No one Knows you’re a Dog on the Internet: Implications for Proactive Police Investigation of Sexual Offenders," has been accepted for publication in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law. Correspondence may be directed to the first author, Robyn Lincoln.

March 3, 2012

On providing invited testimony in a legislative hearing

Reflections of a forensic psychologist

Floyd L. Jennings, JD, PhD, a clinical psychologist and attorney with a long-time clinical practice, currently works in county government to address the problems of the chronically mentally ill in the criminal justice system. In this capacity, he testified this week before a state legislative committee. Here, he reflects on that experience:

As special resource counsel to the Mental Health Division of the Harris County Public Defender (Houston, Texas), I was asked to provide testimony to the Texas House Subcommittee on Criminal Jurisprudence -- and did so on 29 February 2012.

For those having a history of legislative contact, serving as a witness in a hearing may be not at all discomforting. But to one for whom it was a new experience it was quite different.

First, the charge of the committee was to address whether alternative sentencing for mentally ill persons would be desirable. I argued simply that no changes in sentencing were needed -- because it would be difficult to craft, impossible to implement as it would trade on definitions of applicability, and moreover, courts already have the option of considering a defendant's state of mind as either mitigating or exculpating. 

On the other hand, diversion strategies for the lower-level misdemeanor offender could have enormous cost benefits and not compromise public safety. As well, pre-trial jail psychiatric services could be provided at modest direct cost through the use of physician extenders, and provide just that opportunity for stabilization necessary to enable rapid disposition of the matter, shortening any period of confinement. Finally, I argued that opportunities for post-disposition placement tiered to the acuity of the person would dramatically reduce recidivism.

Second, the affective dimensions of proffering testimony are profound -- the setting is elegant and the committee is seated above the witness much like justices in a supreme court. Witnesses are presented with questions for which there are often no easy answers, but to which some response must be made. My case was no exception.

Third, I learned that the lucidity of the argument may have little consequence. I was upbraided for failing to provide the legislature with specific means of cost savings through transfer of mental health services to the "private sector", although there is no private sector entity with the duty to provide mental health services to the chronically mentally ill on a statewide basis. And even if existing, no private sector entity has the resources to provide such. The tone of questions made it plain that legislators would prefer to have government provide all the goods and services that governments rightly provide, but at no cost, or with private sector funding.

Fourth, the venue of a public hearing is no occasion for stirring rhetoric or confrontation. I felt I should have reminded the committee that the present moment is not the occasion for abandonment of those functions which are uniquely governmental -- the care of the weakest members of society who are ill equipped to care for themselves. But in retrospect, and having viewed the videotape of the proceeding, it was far the better to have remained on task, and narrowly focused upon the committee's charge.

Finally, the message for psychologists, and mental health providers in general, is multifold: Involvement in the legislative process is to venture into unfamiliar and discomforting territory. However, social change is rarely achieved in a sterile environment, or one involving only warm and supportive exchanges. Moreover, to call upon governmental entities to fulfill their statutory duty as well as higher moral purpose, it to expose oneself to a certain amount of discord. In short, it goes with the territory. 

Would I do it again? 

I hope so, because in the course of the day I realized there were many I knew personally who were also participating in the process and there is also something rewarding about believing that perhaps you touched even one person having decision-making power to effectuate change.

The video of Dr. Jennings’ testimony is online HERE (beginning at 1:44:50).