A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.

Jan. 13 2014 6:00 PM

A Year After Aaron Swartz's Death, Our Terrible Computer Crime Laws Remain Unchanged

On Jan. 18, 2013, one week after Aaron Swartz committed suicide, a group of his friends and admirers gathered in the lobby of the MIT Media Lab to commemorate Swartz’s life and mourn his death. On one side of the room, the event’s organizers had unfurled a homemade banner. For about an hour that night, I watched people approach the banner, grab a marker, and scribble their thoughts. The most memorable was a skinny kid in a sweatshirt and ugly sneakers, who scrawled, “We will continue.”

When I profiled Aaron Swartz for Slate last February, I concluded my story with this anecdote. It was a powerful moment, one that’s stuck with me even though I can’t be entirely sure what that kid meant by his handwritten message.

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Continue with what, exactly? That’s been the question that Swartz’s colleagues and acolytes have been trying to answer in the year since his death. Swartz’s busy, complicated life defied easy categorization. He was a programmer who didn’t like to be called a programmer, an Internet millionaire who was deeply ambivalent about Silicon Valley. People called him an “Internet activist,” but he was becoming less interested in “Internet issues” with every passing year. He jumped from project to project, cause to cause, and while this restlessness is part of what makes him such a widely heralded figure—so many groups are able to claim him as their own—it also makes his life difficult to distill into bullet points.

The Department of Justice was perhaps the one group that didn’t have trouble summarizing Aaron Swartz. To the DoJ, he was a computer criminal.

Nobody really knows why Swartz decided to kill himself on Jan. 11, 2013, but those closest to him believe that the criminal charges against him had a lot to do with it. For almost two years, Swartz had been in trouble for accessing the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—where he was neither enrolled nor employed—and downloading almost 5 million journal articles from the online database JSTOR. When he hanged himself in the small Brooklyn apartment he shared with his girlfriend, he was facing charges that theoretically could have brought him 50 years in prison.

Swartz’s lawyers were prepared to argue that Swartz had committed no crime and done no lasting damage, and that his use of the MIT network had been tacitly authorized, thanks to the school’s “extraordinarily open” computer network. Even if you disagree with this argument, it is hard to argue that any of Swartz’s actions merited prison time. But the DoJ has not wavered from its contention that the charges were appropriate. In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee last March, Attorney General Eric Holder called the Swartz case “a good use of prosecutorial discretion.” Neither U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz nor her associate Stephen Heymann have faced any sort of public reprimand for their handling of the Swartz case—and why would they? Ortiz and Heymann were doing nothing different than what federal prosecutors have done for decades: threatening alleged criminals with disproportionately large sentences in hopes of securing a plea bargain, thus avoiding the expense and effort of a full-fledged trial. These 50-year threats are all part of the game that prosecutors play.

In Swartz’s case—and in the case of Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, Matthew Keys, and many others—the prosecutors were aided by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the terrible computer-crime statute that allows ambitious, hardline prosecutors to willfully characterize minor transgressions as malicious criminal activity.

The CFAA became law in the 1980s in the days before the World Wide Web and widespread personal computing, and was meant to deter hacking into systems maintained by the government or financial institutions. The legislation has not kept pace with the times. Today the CFAA allows prosecutors to charge defendants for “exceeding authorized access”—a vague term that could be defined as something as benign as violating a website’s terms of service—to “protected computers,” which essentially means any computer with an Internet connection. It is ripe for prosecutorial abuse.

After Swartz died, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., announced that she would introduce a bill called “Aaron’s Law,” which would reform the CFAA. Among other things, the bill would clarify the definition of “authorized access” and impose some limits on the CFAA. Aaron’s Law would also make it more difficult for prosecutors to threaten CFAA violators with excessive felony sentences, which would be a welcome development.

While Aaron’s Law has stalled, thanks to standard Washington inertia and a general political reluctance to appear soft on crime, Swartz’s friends and supporters remain intent on legislative reform, either through Lofgren’s bill or some other measure. Such a move would be a fine way to honor Swartz’s memory. Because Aaron Swartz was a lot of things, but a “computer criminal” was not one of them.

(Note: I am currently writing a book about Swartz, copyright activism, and the rise of the free culture movement. If you want to learn more about the project, or receive periodic updates about the writing and reporting process, send me an email at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.)

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Dec. 30 2013 11:00 AM

A Crime Blog Retrospective, and a Temporary Farewell

For my last Crime post of 2013, I thought I’d highlight some of my favorite Crime posts of 2013. These aren’t necessarily the best stories I wrote this year—and they certainly aren’t the most popular—but, for whatever reason, I liked all of these an awful lot.

Sympathy for the Mass Murderer: Harry Chapin's Bizarre Tribute Song about University of Texas Shooter Charles Whitman.” When I started writing the Crime blog, I had all sorts of big ideas for recurring features. (I was younger then, and much more innocent.) One of these features was going to be called “Murder Ballads,” and, in it, I would analyze and review various crime-themed songs throughout history. I loved this idea, but audiences didn’t, and so this piece about Harry Chapin’s weird song “Sniper”—based on the exploits of mass murderer Charles Whitman—was the only one I ever wrote. Maybe I’ll pick this series up again sometime next year.

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Man Accused of Horrible Crime Takes Consistently Jolly Photographs.” This piece—about a very pleasant-looking young man accused of killing his grandparents—was sort of stupid, and not particularly meaningful or memorable, but it’s still notable because of the headline, which is one of my all-time favorites.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Legal!: A Brief History of the Bootleg Margarine Trade.” Early on in my Crime blog tenure, we had a Slate-wide meeting where staffers generously offered their thoughts on some stories I should do. As you might expect, I reacted to most of their suggestions with violence and profanity, but there were a few that didn’t send me into a blind rage. I can’t remember who suggested I write about the heyday of the bootleg margarine business, but I am forever indebted to that person, because the suggestion led to this funny and interesting piece.

These Are the People Whose Houses Are Being Searched in Watertown.” April 19, 2013—the day of the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev manhunt—was the busiest and most exciting news day of the year. As Slate’s man in Boston, I was on the ground as the manhunt escalated, dodging cops, pursuing leads, and getting very little sleep. In the middle of all the tension and hysteria of that day, I was pleased to find a funny French guy to offer some humorous comments on the manhunt.

How I Lost $1,350 by Falling for the Same Internet Scam Twice in One Week.” My friends and family have long known that I am a greedy and gullible person. Now, thanks to this story about the dumbest few days of my life, the entire world knows it, too!

The ‘Career Girls Murders’ Might Be the Most Important Criminal Case That Most People Don't Know About.” The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Career Girls Murders, a nearly forgotten New York homicide case that had its own profound impact on civil rights in this country. If you want to know more about the Career Girls Murders, you should read T.J. English’s great book The Savage City.

How ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policing Helped Bad Cops in Florida Create a Civil Rights Nightmare.” I tried my best to keep things light and insubstantial on the Crime blog this year, but every now and then I was forced to get serious. I remember gritting my teeth as I wrote this piece, because the alleged police misconduct detailed therein made me so angry.

Hold Parents Accountable.” I’ve been writing about unintentional child shooting deaths since May, and this long essay from December—about child access prevention laws, and why they’re the best legislative option for reducing the number of child shooting deaths—was the culmination of all my reporting.

And, with this post, the Crime blog is going on hiatus for a while. As of Jan. 1, I’ll be taking an extended leave of absence from Slate to expand my February profile of Aaron Swartz into a book that will look more broadly at copyright activism and the rise of “free culture” over the last few decades. If you want to know more about the project, or if you want to keep track of my progress, email me. If enough people are interested, I’ll send out regular updates about the reporting and writing process.

I’ll be dropping by Slate now and then if big crime news breaks, and I’ll be covering the Winter Olympics in February—expect plenty of stories about my favorite Olympian, Prince Hubertus of Hohenlohe-Langenburg—but otherwise, I’m going dark until autumn. I should be back at Slate sometime this October. Talk to you then. Thanks for sticking with me all year.

Dec. 27 2013 1:30 PM

Presenting the First Annual Crime Awards

Welcome to the first annual Slate Crime Blog Crime Awards, honoring the year’s most notable achievements in the field of crime, or, at least, the most notable criminal achievements that I have noticed. Fair warning: I am not very attentive, so if this list seems incomplete, it’s not you, it’s me. I’m only one man!

Dumbest Criminal: Was there ever any doubt that the year’s dumbest criminal would be Derrick Mosley, the guy who tried to rob a gun store armed only with a baseball bat? When I first wrote about Mosley in August, I suggested that he might be “the dumbest dumb criminal of them all.” Now, I give him that title with confidence. Congratulations?

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Most Valuable Cop: This one goes to Constable Derek Chesney, the kindly Canadian police officer who wrote this heartfelt tribute to Alvin Cote, Saskatoon’s town drunk, who died in April. “I found out today that Alvin passed away a few days ago and, I admit, I feel an emptiness,” wrote Chesney. “It will be different as I walk my downtown beat knowing that he will not be in one of the banks and I won’t have to make a special trip to go check on him. As an officer, you encounter many individuals, but you remember certain people because they are special, and Alvin was one such special person.” Three cheers to Chesney for reminding us that cops can be as soft-hearted as anyone else.

Least Valuable Cop: Undercover NYPD detective Wojciech Braszczok was riding with the Hollywood Stuntz motorcyclists this fall when they attacked motorist Alexian Lien on Manhattan’s West Side. Not only did Braszczok allegedly fail to intervene to stop the attack, he allegedly failed to tell his superiors about his involvement until days later, when a video of the attack had already gone viral. I know, I know, he was undercover, but if there’s ever a time when a cop should break his cover, it’s when a motorist is being beaten with a motorcycle helmet.

Best Exculpation: There were a lot of people freed from prison this year after serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. But I’d especially like to remember Olutosin Oduwole, an Illinois college student who was convicted in 2011 of attempting to make a terrorist threat after police found a threatening note in Oduwole’s car. But the car was locked. The note was facedown. And the “threatening note” was apparently just a draft of some rap lyrics. Oduwole never tried to threaten anyone, and although he was freed this spring, it’s shameful that it took the state of Illinois that long to realize it.

Worst Excuse: I am a connoisseur of lame criminal excuses, and this year there was none lamer than the one offered by Kenneth Webster Enlow, an Oklahoma man charged with “peeping Tom” crimes after authorities found him hiding in the depths of a public toilet in the women’s restroom at a Tulsa-area park. Enlow claimed that his girlfriend had knocked him unconscious with a tire iron and dropped him inside the toilet for some reason. This excuse was implausible for many, many reasons, but primarily because his girlfriend had died in 2012.

Biggest Mystery: In February a woman named Elisa Lam was found dead inside a water tank atop the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Since then, authorities and Internet sleuths have been trying to figure out how she got there. Was she murdered? Nope, the coroner has classified her death as an accident. Was she on drugs? Nope, toxicology reports found nothing in her system that contributed to her death. At this point, the prevailing theory seems to be “supernatural forces.”

Least Successful Fugitive: Walter Lee Williams, a former college professor accused of sexual exploitation of children, was named to the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list on June 17. He was captured in Mexico one day later.

Most Cinematic Heist: I am on record as saying that elaborate heists aren’t worth the effort—they tend to bring a lot of police attention, and they involve far too many people—but some praise is definitely due to the people who stole $50 million worth of diamonds from the tarmac at Brussels Airport in February. Yes, police made 33 arrests in the case this May and recovered some of the loot, but, still, the thieves get points for boldness, and for giving Hollywood an idea for a great new Colin Farrell vehicle.

Lowest-Stakes Robbery: This prestigious award goes to Kevin Grinnell, an upstate New York man who allegedly smashed the door of a convenience store cooler in order to steal a Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita, a disgusting and inexpensive malt beverage favored by underage girls and sugar junkies. There’s no reason to drink something that costs so little and tastes so terrible, let alone steal it.  

Most Valuable Criminal: To qualify as Slate’s Most Valuable Criminal, your crime has to be great and you need to make an enormous contribution to the broader criminal community. With that in mind, there’s no better choice for 2013’s MVC than Annie Dookhan, the Boston-area crime lab technician who recently pleaded guilty to tampering with or mishandling evidence in nine years’ worth of drug cases. Some have suggested that fixing Dookhan’s mistakes might cost Massachusetts up to $100 million. In the meantime, thanks to Dookhan, hundreds of prisoners have been freed and the state has declined to prosecute more than 1,000 others. In November,the New York Times wrote about a “Dookhan defendant” named Jamell Spurill, “who had been jailed on drug charges. He was quickly rearrested for possession of a stolen gun. When he was picked up, prosecutors say, he told the police: ‘I just got out thanks to Annie Dookhan. I love that lady.’ ”

Dec. 27 2013 10:00 AM

“Pimps Smoke Blunts” T-Shirts, “Crime Clothes,” and Other Inappropriate Courtroom Attire

A couple of months ago, after writing a piece about an arsonist who unwisely wore a “Snitches Get Stitches” T-shirt to his sentencing hearing, I encouraged readers to send me their own stories about inappropriate courtroom attire. I published the first round of those stories in October. Now I’m back with another set of reader-submitted tales.

The judge has one nerve left, and your stupid shirt is getting on it. “My wife was a child abuse prosecutor in Baltimore. I once went to a sentencing in one of her cases. The very large woman who was being sentenced after pleading guilty to child abuse wore a T-shirt that read, ‘Sex Is a Misdemeanor. The More I Miss, the Meaner I Get.’ While her attorney tried to find another shirt, her size precluded him from doing so. The judge assured that the client would be missing for several years.”

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Too late for that, pal. “When I was clerking 11 years ago for a district court judge, a defendant was brought in for an initial hearing who was high on meth and violent—eight lawmen (sheriffs and troopers and city officers) had been detailed to control him while he screamed and howled in the hallway in front of the courtroom.  He was wearing the full cuffs and manacles and belt, but he looked like he was a hair away from breaking out of that.  The shirt he wore said: ‘Don’t piss me off, I don’t need another f@#king felony conviction.’ ”

Never wear your “crime clothes” to court. “Former public defender here. Had a client show up for jury selection in the exact same clothes that he was identified in during the robbery. The defense was mistaken identity. The victim and one witness described jeans with gold patches on the rear and an oversized white T-shirt with FUBU on the front. His choice of dress for jury selection? The same threads. Jury convicted in 30 minutes.”

The Honorable Judge Ford Boy presiding. “I watched a proceeding where the defendant wore a T-shirt to court that said ‘Bite Me Ford Boy.’ I don’t know if he was aware that the judge he was appearing before had a mint 1965 Ford Mustang convertible that he loved. Luckily, the judge was a good sport.”

And yet he wore it anyway. “I work as a domestic violence advocate. When supporting a survivor at domestic violence court, there was a man pleading not guilty to DV wearing a T-shirt with a huge handgun across the chest. When he approached, the judge asked him if he thought that wearing the shirt was appropriate for court. The man said, ‘No, I guess not.’ ”

A lesson for us all. “I am a prosecutor and one time a defendant came into court wearing a hoodie for a hearing with (I presume) his girlfriend by his side. This defendant had an outstanding bench warrant on another case, though, and when we called his case, the judge informed him that he was going to be taken into custody. The defendant had a surprised look on his face and hurriedly took off his sweatshirt, handed it to his girlfriend, and she quickly shuffled out of the courtroom.

“Since he knew he was going to be arrested and searched, he had to unload whatever drugs were in his pocket. But when he removed his sweatshirt, he revealed to the court (and the attorneys) a T-shirt that had a picture of a marijuana leaf on it that said ‘Pimps smoke blunts.’ The judge just shook his head in disgust and we all laughed. As always, the lesson is: Don’t take your drugs with you to court so you don't have to reveal your hideously offensive T-shirt.”

Dec. 26 2013 2:15 PM

Alleged Thief Tripped Up by Female Pattern Baldness

Name: Jennifer N. Winters

Alleged crimes: Burglary, theft.

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Fatal mistake: Bad genes, my friend. Bad genes.

The circumstances: There is absolutely nothing good about losing your hair. Premature baldness can affect your self-esteem and your romantic prospects. It can lead to unflattering nicknames like “Cueball” and “Hairless Pete.” Whatever money you save on shampoo, you’ll end up spending on tonics and lotions that promise to regrow your hair, or baseball caps to cover the shame. And, if you are a dumb criminal, your receding hairline can be the sort of thing that will get you arrested.

The Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat brings us the story of a Petaluma-area resident who reported that her debit card had been stolen and used at a local Target. When a cop went down to Target to review some security camera footage, he noticed something helpful: The woman using the stolen card “definitely showed a high hairline, like a pattern of balding or something.” This was a clue, but not a great one. The cop still had no idea who this balding woman was, or where to find her.

What happened next is called “dumb luck.” When the cop went to another store in the same shopping center to review its security footage, who did he see working behind the store’s register? You guessed it: the same woman from the Target tape. “Hanging around the scene of the crime so that the cops can notice my distinctive hairline” is a classic dumb-criminal mistake. The woman was questioned and arrested.

How she could have been a lot smarter: Worn a hat.

How she could have been a little smarter: Used the debit card in a shopping center other than the one where she worked. It’s California, for Pete’s sake! An entire state of nothing but shopping centers! There’s no reason to commit a crime in the one center where you are most likely to be inadvertently discovered by investigating officers.

How she could have been a little dumber: Worn one of those giant foam novelty cowboy hats, and then continued to wear that hat at work.

How she could have been a lot dumber: Used the debit card to buy the giant foam novelty cowboy hat.

Ultimate Dumbness Ranking (UDR): This is less dumb than sloppy. If you know that you are somehow distinctive-looking, it’s your responsibility to conceal those distinctive features when you are committing a crime. Noticeably balding criminals must take care to wear a hat, or a wig, or one of those hats with a wig inside. Jennifer N. Winters’ alleged failure to do so led directly to her downfall. 4 out of 10 for her.

Dec. 26 2013 11:42 AM

Crime Reporters Pick Their Favorite Crime Stories of 2013

One of the best things about writing Slate’s crime blog has been the opportunity to become familiar with the work of North America’s best crime reporters. There are a lot of great ones out there working the crime beat, and I asked a few to name their favorite stories of 2013. Here are their responses:

Doug Brown, Cleveland Scene. Locally, my story "Inside the Biggest Heroin Bust in Northeast Ohio" was meaningful to me because it showed the interconnectedness of action locally and nationally: how heroin gets shipped to Cleveland based on other routes in the country getting shut off by the feds; the wiretapped conversations (understanding how dealers talk); the use of paid criminal informants and undercover officers and how they built trust with suppliers; the psychology of high-level drug dealers who boast about their dealing on social media despite their anger about “snitches”; and how the feds posed as a documentary film crew to bust one target who refused to talk to cops but was known to boast for the cameras. It means more to me than the average reader because it took so much to do, and I developed as a reporter working on it.

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Nationally, the best crime story, I think, is "Two Gunshots on a Summer Night" by Walt Bogdanich and Glenn Silber in the New York Times, about the suspicious death of the girlfriend of a sheriff's deputy in St. Augustine, Fla. The reporting is so thorough, the online presentation is so crisp and clean, the themes highlight such important but underreported topics, and the story as a whole exemplifies the kind of public service work that can be done when states have (relatively) open public records laws and so many documents can be analyzed by reporters. It's one of those stories that took such a long time to do, and you can just appreciate the trust the paper had in those two reporters to spend so much time and resources working on a single story. They got it right, and I just appreciate everything involved in making that happen in every level of the organization: the reporters, the editors, the designers, the people who sign off on the expense reports. 

Justin George, Baltimore Sun. I wish I read more than I do, but here are the stories that stuck out to me:

1. Baltimore Sun: “Faces of Summer Violence.” Justin Fenton and I tried to capture the toll a violent summer left on Baltimore by looking for anecdotes that reached across all spectrums of the population so everyone could feel the magnitude of lives lost. I think it turned out better than we hoped. 

2. Baltimore Sun: “Stick-up boys.” My colleague Justin Fenton delves deep into a murder mystery that exposes a small, deadly niche of Baltimore's chaotic and thriving drug trade.

3. Kansas City Star: “Nightmare in Maryville.” This story should win a Pulitzer. Exacting reporting that uncovered a sleeping giant of a story.

4. Boston Globe: “Carjack victim recounts his harrowing night.” Just a great job done on deadline getting a story the WORLD was after.

Sadie Gurman, Denver Post. I've decided it's the murder of Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements by Evan Ebel, a member of the white supremacist 211 prison gang. This story was full of intrigue at every turn. It cast light on the prison gang roiling behind bars, revealed huge flaws in the parole system and involved so many interesting characters, from Ebel himself, to the gun purchaser who wanted so badly to be loved by him, to the Saudi inmate who may or may not have had a role in the killing, and to Clements himself.

Jennifer Mann, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Kansas City Star on the Maryville rape case. This Kansas City Star article helped propel this small-town story to a national stage, and, as a result of the pressure and publicity, a special prosecutor has been assigned to investigate the handling of the case. There is an amazing amount of detail in the article and I really like how it is constructed—starting at the end, with the alleged victim's house burning to the ground. That scene really set the tone for the rest of the story.

Overall, the Boston Globe did an amazing job with its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings. Boston.com was constantly buzzing with live updates and there were some really great full-length articles that captured the fear and heroism that pervaded the city throughout that week—from the initial bombings to the manhunt that followed. Then, there were powerful stories about recovery. But I was particularly impressed by this piece by Eric Moskowitz, who obtained an exclusive interview with a man who endured a harrowing ride with the bombing suspects after a carjacking. You couldn't help but sit on the edge of your seat while reading it. It was packed with detail and the first glimpse at the personalities of the two suspects. In managing to outsmart the Tsarnaev brothers, Danny was an unexpected bright spot in the horror of the week.

Amanda Milkovits, Providence Journal. The Boston Globe's masterful coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, including the recent "Fall of the House of Tsarnaev," was in a class by itself. I just feel like I have to single out the newspaper for its amazing work on terrorist attack at the marathon, on what's historically been one of the most joyful events in the city.

But as a good, old-fashioned crime story, I really loved this one: "Fear on the Family Farm," by crime reporter Jana G. Pruden at the Edmonton Journal, in Alberta. I just started following Pruden's work earlier this year, and I find a lot to admire. She's a terrific writer, with a novelistic style to her longform stories. This story is about a man who murders his brutish father. I thought it was compelling. She brings you into the lives of this family and gives such a sense of foreboding and tragedy. What's it like to live in a family gripped by domestic violence? Here's your example. Plus, I loved the sense of place, the descriptions of the beautiful and windswept prairie. I've never been, but the writing took me there. This is what we should aspire to do as crime reporters—tell what happened and put it into a context that helps you relate to the people in the story.

David Ovalle, Miami Herald. The story that most intrigued me this year was the case of South Miami Facebook killer Derek Medina, who shot his wife and immediately posted a photo of her dead body and a confession to the social media website. Domestic murders are not unusual in Miami, but Medina's act of uploading the photo said something deeper about our look-at-me culture of instant gratification. For years, Medina published his own e-books, uploaded video after video to YouTube, and posted incessantly to Facebook—but got little notice until that fateful morning. And to top it off, there's a "stand your ground" angle: Medina admits to the shooting, claiming he killed his unarmed wife inside their home because he thought she might fatally strike him in the temple. Here's the story on his version of events, and on his lawyers laying out their defense, and the first-day story.

Jana G. Pruden, Edmonton Journal. It was hard to pick a favorite crime story of 2013. There was so much fascinating and thought-provoking crime writing this year, and so many stories that resonate with me still for a variety of reasons. In the end, I settled on Eli Saslow’s Washington Post piece about one family’s “lonely quiet” in the wake of the Newtown shootings. The piece is so beautifully and elegantly written, and shows in such a quiet and devastating way the reality of living with this horrific and tragic loss.  

Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times. After scrolling though crime clips in search of something odd, absurd, idiotic, I've decided to play it straight and offer up the recent series we ran on Christopher Dorner, the disgraced LAPD cop who was fired and then resurfaced earlier this year with a vendetta. We covered the surreal story best we could as it unfolded and, when it was over, five of us set off to fill in as many of the blanks as possible. 400-plus interviews later, the result, I think, is a pretty compelling story that ran in five parts. A colleague, Chris Goffard, who wrote it, deserves much of the credit.

Dec. 23 2013 2:51 PM

On the Death of Mikhail Kalashnikov, Who Invented a Gun So Simple a Child Could Use It

Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian armorer credited with inventing the AK-47 “Kalashnikov” automatic rifle, has died at age 94. Kalashnikov was a self-taught inventor and Soviet soldier when, in 1947, he lent his name to what is perhaps the most iconic firearm of the 20th century. A recent estimate suggested that there are approximately 100 million Kalashnikovs in existence today—one-fifth of the world’s total gun supply. “There are a dozen or so words that are the same in every language of the world,” Elena Joly wrote in the preface to 2006’s The Gun that Changed the World. “They include the words ‘taxi,’ ‘radio,’ ‘Coca-Cola’—and ‘Kalashnikov.’ ”

Born in 1919, Mikhail Kalashnikov spent much of his boyhood in Siberian exile before he was conscripted into the Soviet Army in 1938. Injured in the Battle of Bryansk in 1941, Kalashnikov spent months convalescing in a military hospital. Though he had little formal education, Kalashnikov had an innate talent for tinkering, and spent his days lying in bed and pondering the Nazi forces’ superior firepower. He would later say that “here, in spite of the pain of my injury, I was obsessed night and day by a single thought: inventing a weapon to beat the fascists.”

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The AK-47 was that weapon. (Though Kalashnikov was always credited as the sole designer of the AK-47, this may have been Soviet propaganda—an effort to make a hero out of an individual who had done great things in service of the state.) “I designed a machine gun for a soldier,” Kalashnikov said years later. While the AK-47 wasn’t the first “assault rifle,” it was certainly the most simple. It was light. It did not jam. It was easy to understand and inexpensive to manufacture. As John Forge wrote in 2012’s Designed to Kill, “Compared to any similar weapon, the AK is very easy to use, and thus, even a poorly or barely trained soldier—or one wearing gloves in Siberia—or, sadly, even a child, can use one effectively at close range.”

The rifle soon became standard Soviet Army issue, and, over the next two decades, the USSR freely licensed the gun to its allies. Versions of the rifle were soon being manufactured in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, China, North Korea, and many more countries. As the gun spread, it assumed symbolic properties. As Phillip Killicoat noted in a 2007 working paper for the World Bank, “an image of the rifle appears on the Mozambique national flag, and ‘Kalash,’ an abbreviation of Kalashnikov, is a common boy’s name in some African countries.”

Reliable and simple, the AK-47 allowed an inexperienced fighter to match up against a better-trained opponent. During the Vietnam War, for instance, the Vietcong used AK-47s to repel American forces, equipped with inferior M-16s. As such, the gun became immensely popular among guerrillas and rebels worldwide. But it would be naïve to think of the gun as an unalloyed symbol of liberation. As C.J. Chivers wrote in his book The Gun, the AK-47 “was repression’s chosen gun, the rifle of the occupier and the police state.” The gun was put into service in Prague, in East Germany, at Tiananmen Square: “almost any place where a government resorted to shooting citizens to try to keep citizens in check. It would be used by Baathists to execute Kurds in the holes that served as their mass graves. It would shoot the men and boys who were herded to execution in Srebrenica in 1995.”

The gun became popular among terrorist groups, too, and this bothered Kalashnikov. In a 2002 interview with a German newspaper, he expressed regret over the weapon that made him famous. “I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists,” he said. “I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work—for example a lawnmower.”

Dec. 23 2013 11:00 AM

The Latest Louisiana Prison Horror Story: Heating Cells to Unbearably High Temperatures

In October, I wrote about Herman Wallace, a prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary who had been kept in solitary confinement for an astounding 41 years. Now, a new story shows that there’s more than one way to torment an inmate at the prison known as Angola. On Thursday, a federal judge ruled that Angola officials subjected death row prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment by heating their cells to unbearably high temperatures.

Lauren McGaughy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that prisoners were kept in unventilated cells and had limited access to cold water, even in the middle of the summer. As a result, the cell block “felt like a sauna in the morning and an oven in the afternoon,” according to one prisoner; the heat made prisoners dizzy and disoriented, and intensified existing health problems. Now, Judge Brian A. Jackson has ruled that Angola officials must take steps to ensure that the cell block heat index does not exceed 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Prison officials will likely appeal the decision.

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One of the most disturbing things about America’s prison system is the way that so many stakeholders insist on adding insult to injury as a matter of policy. It isn’t enough to lock convicts up—they must also be degraded and made to suffer.

I loathe this type of thinking. Citizens in a free society ought to believe that the loss of liberty is punishment enough, that it is unnecessary to also impose some ad hoc regimen of corporal degradations. Petty torments like the Angola hothouse strategy have nothing to do with justice and everything to do with abuse of power. And there’s no place for them in a democratic society.

I am not so naïve to think that our prisons are filled with fallen angels. There are a lot of incorrigibly violent men who should not be out on the streets. While I understand why people might have little sympathy for prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes, it serves no social purpose to keep grinding prisoners down even after they’ve been incarcerated. They might be convicts, but they are still men, and it does real harm to our justice system when we fail to treat them as such.

And while I’m on the topic of prisons, I’d like to take a moment to mention Just Detention International’s annual Words of Hope project, which invites random people on the Internet to send holiday cards to survivors of prison rape. Every year, thousands of American prisoners are sexually assaulted behind bars. Though the attack might be over in minutes, the subsequent shame can last a lifetime. By inviting strangers to send messages of support to prison-rape survivors, the Words of Hope project seeks to remind these men and women that the attack wasn’t their fault, and that they are not alone. I wrote about this project last year, and a lot of you decided to participate. If you have a spare minute today or tomorrow, why not consider doing so again? I did.

Dec. 20 2013 2:30 PM

Finally, Some Cops Recorded a Shoplifting-Themed Version of “Jingle Bells”

You could make a good case that “Jingle Bells” is the quintessential holiday song. You could also make a good case that shoplifting is the quintessential holiday crime. I guess it was only a matter of time, then, before some musically inclined individuals went and recorded a shoplifting-themed version of “Jingle Bells.” And I’m glad that these guys from the Hampton, Va., police department were the ones to do it.

Of all the off-kilter public safety videos I’ve featured on the Crime blog, this is probably the sweetest, and that has everything to do with the immensely likeable babyfaced cop who serves as the lead singer. With his goofy dance moves and enthusiastic vocals, I completely believe that this guy spends his shifts daydreaming about Santa Claus. I bet he’s also very active in community theater, and that he really looks forward to giving Hampton schoolchildren his annual bike-safety lecture. It’d be a joy to get arrested by this guy.

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But there is much else to like about the video. From the endearingly terrible green-screen effects to the dream-sequence framing device to the handcuffed “shoplifter” dancing in the background, it’s full of holiday magic. Watch it again and again, and take to heart its sound advice: “Shoplifting is a crime / And Santa doesn’t play / So if you see a criminal / Call HPD today!”

Dec. 20 2013 12:23 PM

Six Ways Christmas Carolers Can Stave Off Attacks by Vicious Criminals

The Washington Post published a very un-merry story on Thursday about a group of D.C.-area Christmas carolers whose efforts to spread seasonal cheer were recently thwarted. According to the Post’s Peter Hermann and Dana Hedgpeth, the Thomas Circle Singers were holding a charity benefit concert when some Grinch sneaked into the church’s basement, went through the choristers’ coats and purses, and made off with 15 debit and credit cards. “While we were trying to help people in need we were being robbed,” one singer told the Post. “It was terribly disappointing. … We didn’t even think someone would want to do that kind of harm.”

As a man who has caroled in large groups before and hopes to do so again, this story struck fear into my bass-baritone heart. Whether you’re singing in the so-called sanctuary of some local church or harmonizing on the mean streets of your city or town, you should never forget that street crime doesn’t take a holiday. How can Christmas carolers protect themselves? Here are six suggestions.

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Don’t be overcome by the music. It is easy for holiday carolers to become lost in the music they are singing, and imagine the entire world as some joyful and munificent winter wonderland. This is called “letting your guard down,” and you shouldn’t do it. Never forget that Christmas carols are filled with lies, and that you should always remain alert and suspicious even as you are singing songs of love and good cheer. Perhaps also consider adding some crime-conscious carols to your group’s repertoire, like “A Carjacker’s Christmas” or “Santa Got Robbed.” I don’t know if those songs actually exist, but if they don’t, you should write them.

Be aware of your surroundings. If caroling on public streets, keep track of where you’re headed, so that you’ll know if you have inadvertently strayed into a rough neighborhood. Carol during the daylight hours; if you must sing at night, stick to well-lit places. You should also constantly pinch yourself while singing, to remind yourself that the real world can be a cold and painful place. You can also ask the person standing next to you to pinch you every now and then, as long as you make clear that your request is not a sexual thing, but a public safety thing.

Keep your valuables close. The Thomas Circle Singers made a critical mistake by leaving their wallets in an unsecured basement room during their concert. Never do this! Whether you’re singing in a church or in someone else’s home, never presume that your host has taken appropriate safety precautions. You are responsible for your own security. So keep your wallet in your pocket, and if you don’t have a pocket, perhaps consider using a money belt, or one of those around-the-neck thingies that old people use to store their passports when visiting Europe.

Take requests. “Give the people what they want” is a valuable life strategy in general, but it’s especially applicable to holiday caroling outings. If an insistent audience member keeps yelling for “Silent Night,” don’t enrage him by sticking to your set list. Fulfill his request. Make him happy. Take the following maxim to heart: A satisfied audience is an audience that is much less likely to rob you.

Lay off the wassail. For many people, a caroling party is less about the music than the wassail, or the eggnog, or the spiked cider, or whatever warm and liquored-up beverage you use as a vocal lubricant. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying some overproof holiday cheer, but don’t overdo it. Not only will excessive wassail consumption cause you to sing off-key, it will also make you less alert and more susceptible to malefactors. Wait until the caroling is concluded before hitting the punch bowl.

Do not sing “The Little Drummer Boy.” This is the worst holiday song in history, guaranteed to enrage all those who hear it. Whenever I hear “The Little Drummer Boy,” I can’t help picturing it as a cloying Disney holiday film with some kid like Haley Joel Osment in the title role, and then the bile starts rising and I start to contemplate sinister things. If a group of sloppy mouthbreathers stood outside my window and unleashed a volley of unbidden pa-rum-pum-pum-pumming, I would probably respond with violence, and I can’t imagine I’m alone on this. So, carolers, avoid antagonizing your audiences with the sappiest of all songs.

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