Posted Monday, May 6, 2013, at 5:35 PM
Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
On Friday, I wrote about the five-year-old Kentucky boy who accidentally shot and killed his two-year-old sister with a child-size rifle he had received as a gift. (The gun was marketed to children under the slogan “My First Rifle.”) One of the most baffling aspects of the entire baffling story was that the boy’s parents reportedly stored the rifle “in a corner,” rather than, say, in a gun safe, a locked closet, or anywhere else that a child couldn’t reach it.
Given their seemingly lackadaisical attitude towards firearms storage, might the parents be held criminally liable for their daughter’s death? According to the New York Times, the answer is no. A May 5 story reports that Kentucky “does not hold adults liable when a child gets hold of a firearm and causes an injury or death.”
In this case, putting the boy’s parents in jail would only serve to deprive him of his mother and father as well as his sister. But the fact that a criminal prosecution isn’t even an option in Kentucky indicates the threadbare state of the various laws that are supposed to help prevent child gun violence in this country.
Child access prevention laws—that is, laws that impose penalties on adults who let children access firearms—are remarkably inconsistent from state to state. (There are no federal child access prevention laws.) According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 27 states (plus the District of Columbia) have child access prevention laws on the books, and these laws vary widely in scope. Some states, like Massachusetts and Minnesota, hold adults liable for negligently storing firearms where a child “may” or “is likely to” get hold of them, whether or not they actually do. In other states, criminal penalties only apply when a child actually uses or possesses a gun. Some states, including Kentucky, impose a lesser standard of criminal liability for parents who provide their children with firearms. In those states, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, liability is only triggered when the parents or guardians “know of a substantial risk that the minor will use the firearm to commit a crime.”
The fact that every state sets its own laws is what makes America great. Or, at least, it’s what makes America America. But I do think it’s unfortunate these particular laws aren’t stronger. No matter what you think about gun control, it seems obvious that if you’re going to have guns in a house where children are around, you should store those guns somewhere where children can’t get to them. Laws to that effect would minimally inconvenience the gun owners, and would be a small but effective step toward reducing the number of accidental gun deaths in this country.
Posted Monday, May 6, 2013, at 3:02 PM
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Name: Daniel Andreas San Diego
Wanted for: Bombing two companies in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Added to FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List: 2009.
The circumstances: Last week, convicted cop killer and 1970s radical Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, became the first woman to make the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. But she wasn’t the first American to make the list for an alleged act of domestic terror. That honor goes to a Berkeley, Calif., native named Daniel Andreas San Diego. In a lot of ways, San Diego seemed like your typical Bay Area resident: He was a tattooed environmentalist who wore glasses, worked with computers, and had a small startup business developing vegan marshmallows. But according to the FBI, the marshmallow venture was just a cover for San Diego’s real business: eco-terrorism.
In August and September 2003, San Diego allegedly set off three bombs at the headquarters of two Bay Area corporations connected to Huntingdon Life Sciences, a European animal testing lab that has long been opposed by animal rights groups. (San Diego was allegedly connected to a group called “Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty.”) The first two bombs went off at the Chiron Corporation, a biotech firm; the last bomb was set at the Shaklee Corporation, a company that produced nutritional supplements. Nobody was hurt in the bombings, primarily because all three were set off in the middle of the night when the buildings were empty. Still, the bombs weren’t entirely harmless: the Shaklee bomb was filled with nails that would become shrapnel, while authorities believe the second Chiron bomb was deliberately timed to explode just as emergency personnel were responding to the first Chiron bomb.
A shadowy animal rights group called “Revolutionary Cells” claimed responsibility for both attacks. But the feds didn’t immediately tie San Diego to the bombings, and the delay apparently gave him time to plot an exit strategy. Though he was eventually placed under heavy surveillance, San Diego gave the authorities the slip in October 2003, ditching his car in downtown San Francisco and dropping out of sight. He was indicted in 2004 and added to the Most Wanted Terrorists list in 2009.
His likely whereabouts: Where in the world is Daniel San Diego? It’s certainly possible that he’s been sneaking around the world from Kiev to Carolina. But he might also be a bit closer to home: San Diego was tentatively spotted in Northampton, Mass., in 2011. “I suppose it's a fun place to hide out. There's a lot going on. There's a lot of people on the street,” one Northampton resident told WSHM-TV at the time.
Prospects of catching him: Significantly higher than the other people on the Most Wanted Terrorists list, I’d say. Most of San Diego’s counterparts are affiliated with Islamic terror organizations, and are thought to be hiding in cave-ridden foreign lands. While Western Massachusetts is treacherous in its own way, it’s no South Waziristan.
Most Wanted Score: Pretty low. San Diego seems out of place on a list primarily filled with violent jihadists, especially when you consider that nobody was harmed in the Bay Area bombings. On the other hand, the FBI reports that he does have several creepy, villainous tattoos: “a round image of burning hillsides in the center of his chest with the words ‘It only takes a spark’ printed in a semicircle below; burning and collapsing buildings on the sides of his abdomen and back; and a single leafless tree rising from a road in the center of his lower back.” Even with bonus points for those tattoos, I’m still going low here: 4 out of 10 for Daniel Andreas San Diego.
Previously featured on Most Wanted Monday: The Cop Accused of Molesting a Child and Murdering His Wife; The Murderer Who Pulled a Real Life Shawshank Redemption Escape; Victor Manuel Gerena Has Eluded the FBI for 29 Years
Posted Friday, May 3, 2013, at 11:33 AM
A kid gets the gift of a Crickett rifle.
Screenshot from Crickett commercial.
The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that a 5-year-old boy accidentally killed his 2-year-old sister earlier this week, shooting her with a Crickett .22-caliber single-shot rifle. The boy and his family apparently didn’t realize that a shell had been left in the gun. “Just one of those crazy accidents,” said Gary White, the coroner for Kentucky’s Cumberland County.
The fact that this 5-year-old boy had a rifle wasn’t an accident, though—it had been given to him as a gift the previous year. The Crickett is a small, single-shot starter rifle made specifically for young shooters. It’s produced by Keystone Sporting Arms, a gunmaker that specializes in the manufacture of “quality firearms for America’s youth.” In addition to the Crickett, which is marketed with the tagline “My First Rifle,” Keystone Sporting Arms manufactures the Chipmunk rifle and Chipmunk accessories, though this product page reveals that they’ve discontinued the “Chipmunk 4 x 32 Scope.”
The crickett.com website appears to be down at the moment, but Mother Jones grabbed some images from the site’s “Kids Corner” page that show very small children and even a couple of infants posing with the company’s weaponry. Crickett also advertises its wares in a commercial in which two young boys discuss the awesomeness of child-specific firearms. “Hey, where you going?” one asks. “Shoot my new Crickett rifle,” the other responds happily. The first boy, clutching a soccer ball (a poor substitute for a rifle, we can all agree), looks like he’s about to cry. “I wish I had one,” he says. And then he gets one! And it’s awesome! “My first rifle,” the announcer intones. “A moment you never forget.” He then expounds on the "safety-promoting design" and describes the gun as "soft shooting, affordable, and accurate." (Also note the availability of pink rifles for girls "and even mom.")
As a boy growing up in suburban Chicago, I was not allowed to own actual guns. My friend John had BB guns, and we would occasionally shoot them in his backyard, sometimes at our other friend, Brad, in the course of a cruel game we called “Deer and Hunter.” If my parents had known we were doing that, I suspect they would not have let me play at John’s house any more. If John had had a real rifle, rather than a BB gun, they would probably have sent me to boarding school.
But there is a long tradition in this country of children—primarily in rural areas—learning to shoot at a young age. This was once a practical skill, and occasionally still is, in areas beset by dangerous wild animals; we all remember the tale of how Davy Crockett “killed him a b’ar when he was only three.” (Perhaps relevant: the insectoid mascot of Crickett Rifles is apparently called “Davey Crickett.”) Today, however, with b’ars being much less of a threat than they were in frontier times, most youth are encouraged to shoot at targets.
Kids usually start off with a .22-caliber rifle, because a .22 is inexpensive, simple, and easy to shoot. There are various programs to encourage youth marksmanship: National 4-H Shooting Sports (Motto: “Skills for Life—Activity for a Lifetime”); the Amateur Trapshooting Association’s youth program, called “AIM” (“Academics, Integrity, Marksmanship”); the Youth Shooting Sports Alliance, which urges veteran shooters to donate discarded firearms and “turn your old gun into their new passion.”
I don’t have a huge problem with youth marksmanship programs. Shooting can be a great hobby, and children should be allowed to partake in it if they’re properly supervised and trained in safety protocols.
But there is a point where all reasonable people need to admit that a kid is too young to own and/or shoot a real rifle that shoots real bullets. Four years old—the age the Kentucky boy apparently was when he received the Crickett as a gift—is way, way too young. This tragic Kentucky shooting comes a little less than a month after a six-year-old New Jersey boy was accidentally shot and killed with a .22-caliber rifle by his four-year-old neighbor. “I just heard they were playing shooting,” a neighbor told CBS 2 New York. “The little boy knew where the gun was and he went and got it.”
That’s the problem here. Yes, the Crickett website does depict very small children having a grand old time with their child-sized weapons. But the blame for this tragedy doesn't rest entirely with Keystone Sporting Arms. You also have to look at the parents who were too irresponsible to lock these rifles up some place where children who still have their baby teeth can’t find and shoot them at random. The Herald-Leader story says the parents of the children in Kentucky kept the Crickett rifle “in a corner.” It’s terrible decisions like that, unfortunately, that lead to catastrophic outcomes.
Posted Thursday, May 2, 2013, at 5:16 PM
Federal Bureau of Investigation
The Federal Bureau of Investigation announced today that it has named Joanne Chesimard to its “Most Wanted Terrorists” list, with a $2 million reward being offered for her capture. Chesimard has the dubious distinction of being the first woman on the list, which has existed since 2001 and featured such notorious names as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Adam Gadahn. Chesimard, who was a member of a group called the Black Liberation Army, was named to the list 40 years to the day after she allegedly shot and killed a state trooper on the New Jersey Turnpike. “Joanne Chesimard is a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution-style,” FBI Special Agent Aaron Ford said in a press release. “Today, on the anniversary of Trooper Werner Foerster’s death, we want the public to know that we will not rest until this fugitive is brought to justice.”
The now 60-something Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, was eventually arrested and convicted of Foerster’s murder; she also became something of a cause célèbre amidst doubts of her guilt—she denies killing the trooper—and rumors that she had been mistreated in prison. (She still is, to an extent: In 2000, the rapper Common released a song he wrote about Chesimard, called “A Song for Assata.” This made Bill O’Reilly very angry.) In 1979, Chesimard escaped from prison. Since 1984, authorities believe, she has been hiding out in Cuba, which has a habit of granting asylum to American fugitives who espouse quasi-revolutionary dogma.
In 2005, she was named a “domestic terrorist” by the FBI. That’s a vague and flexible designation, one that was presumably applied here because Chesimard’s crimes were rooted in anti-government ideology. At that time, a $1 million reward was offered for her capture. Now, that reward has doubled.
But what’s the point? If Chesimard is indeed in Cuba, then she’s out of the FBI’s reach. The Cuban government certainly won’t give her up. Maybe a regime change in Cuba would make that more plausible, but a lot of people have lost their bankrolls betting on the prospect of regime change in Cuba. Also, if the FBI was really interested in alerting the public to watch out for Chesimard, they would probably want to make it very clear that she now goes by the name Assata Shakur. Instead, the FBI calls her “Joanne Chesimard” throughout its press release, and only notes at the very bottom that she no longer goes by that name.
What today's Chesimard announcement shows is that the FBI’s Most Wanted Lists are public relations tools just as much as they are criminal-catching tools. They serve as symbolic reminders that some crimes are too horrific to be lost to history, no matter how long ago they were committed. Law enforcement agents especially don’t like to forget about people who were convicted of murdering cops, then escape from prison and have songs written about them. As the FBI’s Newark Branch put it in a press release of its own, “Justice has no expiration date, and our resolve to capture Joanne Chesimard does not diminish with the passage of time. Instead, it grows ever stronger with the knowledge that this killer continues to live free.”
I doubt the FBI expects that putting Chesimard on the Most Wanted Terrorists list is going to help them catch her. This is in all likelihood a symbolic gesture, something that will please the New Jersey State Police, reassure Werner Foerster’s family, and let the world know that if you're convicted of killing a cop, the feds won’t rest until you’re brought to justice. Somehow.
Posted Thursday, May 2, 2013, at 1:08 PM
Screenshot from Seattle's KCPQ-TV
Crime is Slate’s crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.
Yesterday I wrote about the self-appointed Seattle “superheroes” who like to dress up in homemade costumes and prowl the city’s streets, keeping their eyes open for crime, and for tourists who want to take their pictures. During last year’s May Day riots, the caped crusaders attempted to stop a group of black-clad anarchists from vandalizing a federal courthouse but ended up just escalating the conflict. As this year’s May Day approached, despite assurances that the police really did have things under control, the superheroes promised they’d be on the scene once again, to lend assistance or get in the way, as the case may be.
Well, May Day has come and gone, and, once again, anarchists rioted on Seattle’s streets. Though the day began peacefully, by evening police were using “flash bangs” and pepper spray to repel protesters who tossed rocks and bottles and brandished lit fireworks. By the time the riots dispersed around 9 p.m., there had been “17 arrests, eight injured police officers and several damaged Capitol Hill storefronts,” according to a Seattlepi.com article. “We’re a bigger and better city than this,” pleaded Mayor Mike McGinn. “I look at this and I am disappointed that this is the picture the world sees of us.”
And what role did “Phoenix Jones” and the Rain City Superhero Movement play in the day’s events? Early in the day, tweeted Seattlepi.com reporter Casey McNerthney, an impromptu superhero press conference was interrupted when a tourist-laden “Ride the Ducks” amphibious vehicle rolled by, loudly blaring “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Judging by a report from Seattle’s KCPQ Fox-13 TV, Jones and his cohort spent much of the afternoon pointing out pedestrians as potential anarchists, answering impertinent questions from onlookers (“Why do you feel it necessary to be here, and not just let the police take care of it?”), and arranging to meet the other superheroes at Starbucks.
Around 4 p.m., the Seattle Police Department tweeted news of a “Brief disturbance earlier at 5th and Jackson between superheroes and clowns”—anarchists dressed as clowns, that is. (Just like they did in the Haymarket!) Around 7 p.m., the SPD’s official blog reports, “protestors began spraying the costumed Rain City Superheroes with silly string.”
All is well in Rain City.
Posted Wednesday, May 1, 2013, at 5:46 PM
Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto
At the end of every month, I like to scour the Factiva and LexisNexis news databases for stories about the dissociative drug phencyclidine—better known as angel dust, or PCP. The drug has an outsized reputation in the media, largely because of often-exaggerated stories of how its users can develop superhuman strength, or like to gouge out their own or other people’s eyes, or similar feats of insanity. But while taking PCP probably won’t turn you into the Incredible Hulk, it can indeed prompt the sorts of paranoid delusions often associated with schizophrenia, and encourage the sorts of actions that might get your name in the newspaper.
This past month was filled with stories about the weird and irresponsible things that some people do when allegedly hopped up on PCP. Here are a few of the highlights.
“What happened? I just smoked PCP.” There’s a pretty decent chance that if your night begins with smoking PCP, it will end with you confused and disoriented, asking awkward questions after slamming your Acura into an unmarked police car. That’s what happened to Robert Kinnery Jr. of Jersey City, N.J., last month. After he banged into the cop car, police found Kinnery, an unlicensed and uninsured driver, “in an incoherent state with red eyes and slurred speech,” according to the Jersey Journal. “What happened? I just smoked PCP,” he allegedly said to the cops.
World’s worst roommate. At the end of April, a Lufkin, Texas, judge sentenced a woman to 25 years in prison for a bizarre 2011 incident during which she doused her ex-roommate in gasoline and set him ablaze in a dispute over back rent. In a rare switcheroo, it was the crime victim, not the perpetrator, who said he had been smoking PCP on the night of the dispute.
Delusions of divinity. On April 29, Jerome Becton of Jersey City, N.J., removed his shirt and began ramming his body into the front door of the building where he and his brother lived. When police arrived, reports Aiyana Cronk of the Jersey Journal, they “determined that Becton was under the influence of PCP.” Perhaps you can predict what happened next:
After police ordered Becton to stop, he continued to charge the door, yelling that he is God, reports said. When officers approached Becton, he began swinging his arms at the police, punching one of the cops, reports said.
I guess the Bible does say that we know not the time or hour when Christ will return to walk on the earth. But—call me presumptuous—he probably won’t return as a shirtless, jumped-up door-rammer in Jersey City. Becton was charged with aggravated assault and criminal mischief. His story has already been optioned by the producers of Godspell.
You may also have noted that this is the second PCP story to come out of Jersey City this month. Be warned, Jersey City motorists.
PCP Story of the Month. Jersey City, though, was not America's PCP capital this April. The night of Thursday, April 4, was a big one for police in Monroe, La., who made three separate PCP-related arrests, each more bizarre than the one that came before. Zack Southwell of the News Star reports that the weird night began around 9 p.m., when “police responded to a call of a subject rolling on the floor inside a residence”—a common crime in Monroe, headquarters of the International Anti-Floor-Rolling League. The suspect was Tased, subdued, and booked on charges of battery and possessing PCP with intent to distribute.
Right after midnight, cops responded to another call about a “suspicious loud noise coming from a storage room.” The noise was being made by Arenta Berry, 33, who, having somehow wandered into this random storage room, was not about to pick up and leave. When police arrived at the scene to coax Berry out, she allegedly “lunged at the officers, swinging her arms at the officers more than once.” Swinging your arms once at the police is something we’ve all done on occasion. Twice or more, however? A clear sign you’re on PCP. Berry was arrested.
The final incident came later Friday morning, when “a man identified as Cedric Martin forced his way into a residence and was found by the residents who were inside the home asleep.” Apparently Martin was also making suspicious loud noises, because the homeowners woke up and confronted Martin, who “claimed he did not know how he got into the home and did not know where he was.” A likely story. Martin fled, but was eventually located and arrested by the police, who announced that “Martin was believed to be under the influence of suspected PCP at the time of the incident.” It was that kind of night.
Posted Wednesday, May 1, 2013, at 3:08 PM
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Crime is Slate’s crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.
On May Day 2012, a peaceful anti-something-or-other march through the streets of downtown Seattle turned unexpectedly violent as groups of black-clad anarchists started smashing windows, lighting smoke bombs, and tossing paint every which way. The Seattle Police Department must have been taken by surprise, because it did very little to prevent the property damage. As Crosscut.com has reported, “officers heard mixed messages from command staff about how and under what circumstances to get tough. The result: they failed to act quickly or forcefully enough.”
Afterward, the SPD commissioned an independent review of the department’s actions and inactions on May Day 2012. The review produced a recent report that analyzes the Police Department’s response and offers suggestions for how to avoid the same mistakes this year. The report is pretty standard and filled with sensible advice, especially on how the SPD ought to deal with the superhero menace.
What’s that? You haven’t heard of the superhero menace? Seattle, being a somewhat silly place, is the home town of the Rain City Superhero Movement, a group of eccentric citizens who roam the streets wearing homemade superhero costumes, occasionally attempting to stop crime but mostly posing for photographs. Last year, several of the Rain City members inserted themselves into the protests, attempting to stop the anarchists from causing trouble. The independent review on May Day 2012 found that the superheroes just made things worse: “Rain City Superhero Movement individuals were allowed to participate in the melee at 1010 5th Avenue (U.S. Appeals Federal Courthouse). Their participation resulted in allegations of assaults/crimes.” That’s just what that stupid J. Jonah Jameson said about Spider-Man. At least Spider-Man gets results!
Seattle’s KUOW.org reports that the superheroes are planning to be back this year. Though the police have asked the Rain City folks to stay home, the group’s leader, who wears black-and-gold body armor and calls himself “Phoenix Jones,” says they’ll do nothing of the sort. “[SPD] let me know that they had it handled,” Jones told KUOW, “and I said, ‘perfect, then you won’t need us, but we’ll see you there.’ ” I imagine this is exactly the sort of thing the Justice League used to say. (Also, it should be noted that “Phoenix Jones” is in better shape than Batman. In day-to-day life, he is an MMA fighter named Benjamin Fodor, and he is ripped.)
You have to feel for the Seattle police. As if they didn’t have enough to worry about, what with the window-smashing anarchist threat, and with all the implausible twists and turns of their investigation into the death of Rosie Larsen, now they have to worry about “Phoenix Jones” and “El Caballero” pepper-spraying protesters. But there’s no law against walking around in a superhero costume. And you can’t arrest a person for something he hasn’t yet done. “We cannot get into the mind of individuals and take enforcement based on the way they’re dressed, even if it is a superhero uniform,” said interim Police Chief Jim Pugel. (Ray Kelly and the NYPD might disagree.)
The Seattle police have acted with admirable restraint here, perhaps because they have no other choice. The action plan for this year’s May Day recommended that “SPD should collaborate with the City Attorney’s Office to determine legal strategies to restrict ‘superheroes’ from creating crime and interfering with law enforcement operations.” And Pugel has issued an open invitation for Jones and his group to contact him with questions about appropriate superhero behavior. “Phoenix could get ahold of me or one of the commanders in the Police Department,” Pugel told KUOW, presumably by dialing the special red telephone that sits on the chief’s desk.
Posted Tuesday, April 30, 2013, at 6:01 PM
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
In a pandering, sophistic speech this afternoon, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg lashed out at critics of the New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk policies. Playing to his audience—the New York Times article notes that the room in which he spoke was “packed shoulder-to-star-covered-shoulder” with police officials—Bloomberg ripped into those who’ve advocated for an independent inspector general to review department policies and procedures. The Times reports that Bloomberg accused the department’s critics of “playing politics with people’s lives,” praised stop-and-frisk-style policies for getting guns off the streets and preventing crime, and even found a way to bring the Boston Marathon bombing into the discussion:
“Look at what’s happened in Boston,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “Remember what happened here on 9/11. Remember all of those who’ve been killed by gun violence and the families they left behind.”
Yeah, you know what they say: If anyone dares criticize a racist, ineffective, and possibly unconstitutional policing strategy, then the terrorists win. Almost 90 percent of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk encounters last year turned up nothing—no drugs, no weapons, no outstanding warrants. All they did was engender fear and resentment among the city’s minority communities. This is part of the reason why so many NYPD critics want to appoint an independent inspector general who’s empowered to review the department’s standards and practices, especially those policies that tend to alienate the department from the communities it serves.
The inspector general proposal is not as straightforward as it sounds. The best argument I’ve seen against it comes from criminal justice professor Eugene O’Donnell, who agrees that the NYPD needs to reform but thinks the inspector general proposal wouldn’t actually change the culture of the department, and would mainly serve to further depress morale among the rank-and-file. The worst argument I’ve seen against it came today, from Mayor Bloomberg, who warned that the existence of an inspector general would make it harder for the department to fight terrorism, since other police departments would be less likely to share information with the NYPD if there was a chance an outsider might glimpse that info. I suppose he might have a point if the city were to appoint, say, Julian Assange as the inspector general. But that is rather unlikely to happen.
Posted Tuesday, April 30, 2013, at 3:26 PM
Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
Today, HarperCollins will release the memoir of world-famous murder suspect Amanda Knox, aka "Foxy Knoxy." Knox is the American college student who, while studying abroad in the Italian city of Perugia in November 2007, was accused of killing her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in what authorities dubbed a kinky sex game gone wrong. The book will benefit from what we in the business call a "news peg": In late March, an Italian court overturned Knox's acquittal, and mandated the retrial of Knox and her co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito. Knox reportedly received a $4 million advance for the book, money that she apparently needs—her family is said to have spent a fortune defending her during the four years she spent in jail.
As luck would have it, I happen to be in Perugia right now. I have come here each spring for the past four years, to attend the city's annual journalism festival, and the Knox case has always been the talk of the town. This year, however, Knox was barely mentioned at all. There were no panel discussions about the coverage, no impassioned mealtime arguments, no chatter overheard in the pubs. When I've mentioned the case to a few locals, they have, as usual, expressed their belief in Knox's guilt. But the discussion inevitably ended there, unlike in previous years, where the mere mention of Knox's name might prompt a 15-minute disquisition on what a vixen she was. Perugians seem to be over the Knox case. And I can't blame them.
The title of Knox's memoir is Waiting to Be Heard, which is sort of funny, because there are very few criminal defendants the world has heard from more than Amanda Knox. As an attractive white American girl facing peril in a foreign land, Knox has had no trouble convincing private citizens and the media to pay attention to her story. To be sure, much of that publicity has been negative. In Knox’s new book, she apparently talks about all the casual sex she enjoyed while studying abroad. (“Whatever light ‘Waiting to Be Heard’ does or does not shed on the awful death of Meredith Kercher, it offers a dispiriting account of prevailing mores,” Rebecca Mead writes in this week’s New Yorker.) Such accounts will likely give new ammunition to those enemies and critics who are determined to see her as a callow, unrepentant minx.
But though Knox herself was incarcerated for much of the past five-and-a-half years, her side of the story has been well told, thanks to a savvy media campaign waged by her friends and family. If you've been paying attention to the case, you know the main points of their argument: that Knox was a naive, harmless hippie who wouldn't hurt a soul; that her "confession" was coerced; that she had been sexually harassed in prison; that the ill-timed kisses and cartwheels that made her appear so heartless were just nervous tics and misinterpreted gestures. Though I do not yet have a copy of Waiting to Be Heard, this is apparently the crux of the story she tells there, and this is likely what she will tell Diane Sawyer tonight in an exclusive interview on ABC.
So why, then, are we still listening? Amanda Knox's story is not unique. Scores of defendants are convicted on scant evidence every year, in Italy and in the United States, often thanks to the work of aggressive prosecutors more interested in getting a conviction than carrying out justice. Sexual harassment is shockingly common in prisons and jails; a 2007 article in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review noted that "sexual abuse by guards in women’s prisons is so notorious and widespread that it has been described as 'an institutionalized component of punishment behind prison walls.' " The things that allegedly happened to Amanda Knox happen all the time.
The difference, of course, is that in the United States, they generally happen to people who are poor and black. There are countless victims of injustice out there whose stories are truly waiting to be heard. But they are not pretty white college girls, and they will never get international headlines, or a multimillion-dollar book deal, or a sit-down with Diane Sawyer.
Nobody here in Italy seems to know that Knox has a book coming out today (although it's very possible that I'm just not making myself clear; my Italian is very, very bad). For the time being, at least, Perugia seems to have heard enough about Amanda Knox. Perhaps one day we'll say the same thing in the USA.
Posted Monday, April 29, 2013, at 6:58 PM
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
On Sunday afternoon, Slate’s Daniel Politi noted that some American lawmakers suspect that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received some sort of outside training in advance of the Boston Marathon bombing. Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News that "I think the experts all agree that there is someone who did train these two individuals." McCaul cited the "level of sophistication" and "tradecraft" of the marathon bombs as evidence that the Tsarnaevs probably had some help, and questioned the "narrative being played out by some in the administration" about how "it's just these two guys" operating on their own.
Judging from the Fox News segment, McCaul's argument rests on two points: 1) pressure-cooker bombs are a signature technique of radical groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and 2) the bombs were allegedly detonated by a remote control device like the ones used in toy cars, which is a sophisticated technique that the Tsarnaevs couldn't have devised on their own.
Let's take these one at a time. First, the fact that pressure-cooker bombs have been used by other radical groups doesn't prove anything. These bombs are popular in Pakistan and Afghanistan in part because they are cheap and easy to make, attributes which may well have attracted the Tsarnaevs, too. This may have also been what prompted the editors of al-Qaida's online English-language magazine, Inspire, to run a how-to-make-a-pressure-cooker-bomb article called “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” After all, once something’s on the Internet, it’s easy enough for aspiring, untrained radicals to learn how to make a bomb in the kitchen of their mom.
As for the idea that a remote detonation device requires preternatural engineering wizardry, well, that's just ridiculous. A remote control (or a radio-controlled car) is not a cyclotron. It is a fairly simple device that any non-technophobe with enough time on his hands can figure out. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an aspiring engineer whose father worked as an auto mechanic—this is not someone who was unfamiliar with tinkering. Just Google around and you'll get pages and pages of results on how to hack a toy car’s radio control apparatus to operate any number of things. It does not take a genius to follow those instructions.
Is McCaul simply trying to score political points here? Politicizing matters of grave importance wouldn't be unheard of in Washington. But McCaul isn’t the only one who’s asking these questions; some Democratic lawmakers are also discussing potential “persons of interest in the United States” and elsewhere who may have given the Tsarnaevs moral and material support. So I’ll be generous and give McCaul the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he’s just pontificating without having great information, which I suppose is bad enough.
Or maybe he does have evidence, lots of it. Maybe Michael McCaul is the first person Robert Mueller calls when his agents solve a new piece of the Tsarnaev puzzle. But then why is Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who sits on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, telling Face the Nation that "it appears, at this point, based on the evidence, that it's the two of them"—meaning the two Tsarnaev brothers acting alone? Why are the House and the Senate sending such mixed signals?
The answer, most likely, is that each poliitcal player who's weighing in on the Tsarnaev investigation has some ulterior motive. (And perhaps that motive is as benign as "I enjoy appearing on television talk shows.") And I think it's also likely that none of them know for sure what happened. It’s certainly possible that the Tsarnaevs had help. It’s just as possible they didn’t. We just don’t know yet, and the reason we don’t know is because the FBI’s investigation is barely a week old. So rather than going on TV and declaring, as McCaul did, that “the experts,” whoever they are, “all agree that there is someone who did train these two individuals,” every politician needs to take a deep breath and let the FBI do its job.
Read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.