A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Posted Wednesday, May 22, 2013, at 3:53 PM
Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images
Jennifer Gonnerman has a great piece in this week’s New York about Pedro Serrano—not the eccentric slugger from the Major League series, but an NYPD officer who testified against the department in Floyd v. City of New York, a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights over the department’s stop-and-frisk policies. (The trial wrapped up earlier this week, and Judge Shira Scheindlin is expected to issue a ruling sometime later this year.) Serrano, a cop working out of the 40th precinct in the South Bronx, started secretly recording his supervisors in 2009. Against departmental policy, they consistently saddled him and his colleagues with hard quotas for arrests and stops. Writes Gonnerman:
At an overtime roll call on June 30, 2010, he recorded Lieutenant Stacy Barrett telling officers she was “looking for five”—five summonses and/or UF-250s. “St. Mary’s Park, go crazy in there,” Barrett said. The NYPD has long contended that it does not have quotas for how many summonses or 250s a cop is supposed to write, but Serrano believed his recording proved otherwise. One month later, he taped another lieutenant at roll call talking about “five-five-five”—shorthand for five summonses, five 250s, and five “verticals” (sweeps of apartment buildings).
Serrano grew up in the Bronx, and, as a boy, was frequently stopped and questioned by police for no clear reason. He entered the police academy in 2004, and soon discovered that it felt just as bad to be the one doing the questioning. “A piece of you dies when you violate people—your humanity,” he told Gonnerman. (Disclosure: I have edited Gonnerman before.) In the courtroom, Serrano’s tapes and testimony seemed to indicate that these sorts of stops were part of a deliberate practice of racial profiling. In one recording, his supervisor, Christopher McCormack, laid it out bluntly:
McCormack: “This is about stopping the right people, the right place, the right location … Take Mott Haven, where we had the most problems. And the most problems we had there were robberies and grand larcenies.”
Serrano: “And who are those people robbing?”
McCormack: “The problem was, what, male blacks. And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this: male blacks, 14 to 20, 21.”
Read the whole piece. It’s a sad story about a good cop trying to do the right thing in an impossible situation, and it just adds to the mounting evidence indicating that, despite its claims to the contrary, the NYPD puts its officers on a quota system, and if they don’t meet their targets, they get in trouble.
This all goes back to CompStat, the departmental initiative in which crime statistics are rigorously examined, and supervisors are held to account if those statistics don’t consistently decrease. If you watched the third season of The Wire, you’ll remember the CompStat scenes in which district commanders gathered weekly to be chewed out by the top brass, who were themselves under political pressure to reduce the crime rate. All evidence indicates that those scenes are a pretty accurate depiction of what it’s like in the real-life NYPD CompStat meetings. The end result is that cops face tremendous pressure to make stops and arrests so their bosses can have something to bring to the meetings.
Stop-and-frisk primarily comes out of fearful, sclerotic management techniques like these—from policies instituted by weak-willed leaders who prioritize shallow improvements that will play well in the press over substantive, sustainable policing techniques. But stop-and-frisk isn’t playing well in the press. Every reporter who’s paying attention realizes that these tactics are ineffective, counterproductive, passively racist, and likely unconstitutional.
And you know what? Plenty of cops realize this, too. Although Gonnerman leads her story with a scene of Serrano finding his locker covered in stickers of rats, Serrano tells Gonnerman that countless cops have approached him individually to congratulate him on taking the stand. “Every time I was by myself, people would approach me and tell me the same thing: ‘Listen, I can’t shake your hand, man, but good job,’ ” he tells Gonnerman. Rank-and-file cops realize that stop-and-frisk quotas do little but engender resentment among law-abiding members of the communities the NYPD is trying to serve and protect. The mayor and top police officials have had trouble seeing the same thing. Later this year, if Scheindlin rules the way she is likely to—a New Yorker piece this week calls Floyd v. State of New York “Scheindlin’s greatest chance yet to rewrite the rules of engagement between the city’s police and its people”—and decrees that stop-and-frisk is indeed unconstitutional, they’ll have no choice but to open their eyes.
Posted Tuesday, May 21, 2013, at 5:26 PM
Photo by LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images
It hasn’t been a good spring for the Baltimore City Detention Center. Last month, an indictment revealed that a gang called the Black Guerrilla Family had essentially taken control of the facility, using it as a base of operations for a lucrative drug business. According to the indictment, some corrections officers were complicit in the scheme; four female COs were even impregnated by gang members.
Now, Baltimore’s Fox affiliate reports that an inmate awaiting trial on armed robbery, assault, and sex offense charges has been posting photos to Instagram from his cell. (One of the photos included the helpful hashtag #livefromthecell.)
When asked for comment, officials told Fox that there was no way to tell whether Thomas was actually posting the pictures himself. But if this is a fraud, it’s a pretty convincing fraud: the photos, posted under the username “hehasnochill,” show a variety of scenes from life on the inside. From the Twitter feed of Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, here's a photo of an inmate talking on the phone and grabbing his crotch:
Re: the Fox report about detainee Instagramming from city jail, here's one of his pics: twitter.com/justin_fenton/…& Justin Fenton (@justin_fenton) May 21, 2013
Here's one of a bunch of inmates enjoying one another's company:
Group photo time at the city jail: twitter.com/justin_fenton/…& Justin Fenton (@justin_fenton) May 21, 2013
Another picture, which you can see in this Fox segment, shows an inmate who appears to be Thomas sitting on the ground and flashing a sign to the camera. “in my cell and guess what? Im still the heart of the streets,” reads the message appended to that last picture. “westside what’s good?”
This is pretty benign compared to the Black Guerrilla Family story, to be sure. But it just goes to show how hard it is for officials to enforce regulations in overcrowded, underfunded detention facilities. Obviously, prisoners aren’t supposed to have access to mobile phones, but in a busy facility, there just aren’t enough COs to stop it from happening. Over the past month or two, I’ve written about a few of these urban lockups, and they are all dealing with more inmates than they can handle, who are there longer than they should be, often because sluggish courts take an incredibly long time to bring them to trial.
These sorts of poorly managed facilities might sound like good places to do time, given that inmates apparently have easy access to beer, sex, and social media, but in a mismanaged jail, the strong are more likely to prey on the weak. That might not make it onto hehasnochill’s Instagram feed, but it’s happening in Baltimore, mark my words.
Posted Tuesday, May 21, 2013, at 3:47 PM
Photo by Norbert Millauer/AFP/Getty Images
I’ve wanted to write about traffic cameras for a while, because I hate them. I’m talking about the cameras set up at strategic roadways and intersections, the ones that photograph your license plate and send you a ticket if you run a red light, exceed the speed limit, or commit other minor traffic violations. Their defenders say that traffic cameras help reduce accidents. Maybe. But I firmly believe that these cameras exist primarily to raise revenue for states and municipalities, which deploy them as a means to issue as many tickets as possible.
Some new support for this contention comes out of Florida, where an investigation conducted by a Tampa Bay TV station found that the state has shortened the length of yellow lights by anywhere from a few tenths to a full second, most likely to increase ticket revenue. Here’s 10 News reporter Noah Pransky:
The 10 News Investigators discovered the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) quietly changed the state's policy on yellow intervals in 2011, reducing the minimum below federal recommendations. The rule change was followed by engineers, both from FDOT and local municipalities, collaborating to shorten the length of yellow lights at key intersections, specifically those with red light cameras.
Pransky and 10 News found that tickets issued by Florida’s red light cameras brought in more than $100 million in 2012 and are expected to bring in $120 million this year. The state of Florida takes more than half of that sum. (The rest goes to cities, counties, and the camera manufacturers.)
Shortening the interval between green and red clearly increases ticket revenue. As Pransky reports, “a half-second reduction in the interval can double the number of RLC citations.” The 10 News story cites one particular intersection that “was improperly timed. The yellow light was just 3.0 seconds instead of 4.3 seconds. When the problem was addressed last fall, citations plummeted by 90 percent. But no notices, or refunds, went out to ticketed drivers.”
Though that particular intersection was fixed, that seems to be the exception in Florida rather than the rule. Short yellow lights put drivers at a greater risk of accidents, making them more likely to accelerate impulsively or slam on the brakes. As Pransky reported, “there are few tangible safety benefits to short yellow lights. In fact, they appear to have the opposite effects; according to the USDOT and FHA, short yellow lights raise crash rates.” This becomes even more of a problem when you consider that Florida is full of elderly drivers with slower reaction times.
Florida isn’t the only state whose cameras have been in the news. In Chicago, a recent inspector general’s report challenged the city’s claim that its 384 red light cameras are there for safety reasons. According to a Chicago Tribune article, the inspector general found that “the city cannot provide documents to prove that the cameras went up at intersections with the most side-impact crashes. He also questioned why cameras remain at intersections with no recent history of such crashes.” In response to the Tribune, a Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman said the agency would “review the red light camera installation and removal criteria and determine what, if any, modifications should be made.” I imagine they won’t be in a big hurry, though: The cameras bring in more than $70 million in revenue per year.
I’m not the only one who hates traffic cameras. As the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten wrote in 2011, “I dislike speed cameras to the extent that, were it not for the likelihood of incarceration, I would hunt them all down like snakes and behead them with shovels.” Traffic cameras engender so much resentment because they violate the spirit of civic compromise that governs most of our daily interactions with real live police officers. Most cops aren’t going to ticket you if you go a few miles over the speed limit, or if you run through an intersection just as yellow changes to red, because most real cops have better things to do than to sit around being nitpicking jerks. The conscious decision to overlook small infractions—to let the small stuff pass and focus on the big stuff—is a necessary lubricant that helps our society function smoothly.
In the best case, traffic cameras don’t overlook anything. What’s happening in Florida is the worst case: bureaucrats apparently using cameras as weapons against people who haven’t done anything wrong. I still hate traffic cameras. And now I really hate Florida.
Most Wanted Monday: The Allegedly Insurance-Scamming Weight-Loss Doctor with the World’s Worst Radio Commercials
Posted Monday, May 20, 2013, at 5:00 PM
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Name: Dr. Gautam Gupta
Wanted for: Mail fraud, health care fraud, conspiracy
Added to the FBI’s White Collar Criminals list: 2011
The circumstances: If you’ve lived in Chicago over the past 10 years, chances are you’re familiar with Dr. Gautam Gupta. For the better part of a decade, the good doctor flooded Chicago’s radio waves with smarmy commercials touting his weight loss clinics, encouraging listeners to “call Dr. Gautam Gupta” and enlist medical science in their weight loss efforts. I could find no trace of these commercials anywhere on the Internet, but they weren’t very different from the ad copy on his website, which promotes Dr. Gupta as a caring, empathetic, incredibly skilled doctor who would devise an individualized program that will put you on “the PERMANENT Road to Success.” But as it turns out, it seems the only thing Gupta was doctoring … was the books!
In 2011 federal charges were filed against Gupta, alleging that he filed $25 million worth of dishonest insurance claims to Blue Cross/Blue Shield, for procedures that he had either not performed at all or were entirely unnecessary. Moreover, former patients alleged that Gupta’s clinics were little more than pill factories, with unqualified staffers dispensing appetite suppressants before running tests to determine whether the pills were advisable or necessary. Gupta skipped town before the authorities could nab him—allegedly leaving his wife and children behind in Rockford, Ill.—and hasn’t been seen since. His horrible commercials, however, remain wedged into Chicagoans’ brains.
His likely whereabouts: Authorities think Gupta may have fled back to India, his country of origin. However, the FBI’s wanted poster helpfully notes that Gupta “has known ties to the following areas: Los Angeles, California; London, England; Mumbai, India; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Canada; Estonia; and Finland.” I’ll lay 75-to-1 odds on Finland.
Prospects of catching him: He’s got a lot of money, so he’s got the means to hide, if he wants. But every grifter finds it hard to abandon a successful scam. If the FBI really wants to get a line on Gupta, I would recommend monitoring the Indian radio waves, just in case they hear any ads touting the weight loss services of one “Dr. Rautam Rupta.”
Most Wanted Score: Gupta is on the FBI’s White Collar Criminals list, so his alleged crimes will never measure up to those committed by the hardcore violent offenders on the bureau’s other lists. But preying on people’s body image insecurities to sell them unnecessary pills and procedures is pretty scummy. Plus, his radio ads were seriously the worst. 7 out of 10 for Dr. Gautam Gupta.
Posted Monday, May 20, 2013, at 2:56 PM
Photo by Brennan Linsley-Pool/Getty Images
Last May, President Obama signed an executive order instructing all federal agencies that operate their own detention facilities—not just the Department of Justice—to develop comprehensive guidelines on how to “prevent, detect, and respond to prison rape.” Last Monday was the deadline to finalize those guidelines and ensure compliance with 2003’s Prison Rape Elimination Act. According to Chris Daley, deputy executive director of the anti-prison-rape advocacy organization Just Detention International, the Department of Defense did not meet that deadline.
In addition to DoJ, at least four federal agencies operate their own detention facilities: the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Health and Human Services. In December, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced that her department had already drafted some rigorous standards and would release them for public comment. Just Detention International’s Daley tells me that while Interior and HHS haven’t yet finalized any standards, both agencies have solicited outside feedback, and should release their policies relatively soon.
And then there’s the Defense Department, which, according to Daley, has foisted the responsibility for developing these standards on to the individual branches, and has “shut out experts from the outside in helping inform these policies, or helping develop them.” Why is it important for outside organizations to help devise these policies? “What we know from the DoJ process is that you can't develop these policies in a closed room,” says Daley, referring to the Department of Justice, which was tasked with applying PREA standards to its prisons long before President Obama’s recent executive order. “The way in which DoD has completely shut itself off from that feedback just runs completely counter to the success DoJ has had in implementing these standards.” (The Department of Defense has told me that they intend to respond to my questions, but they have not yet done so.)
I don't want to imply that Defense is deliberately ignoring the executive order. Bureaucratic inertia is a powerful force, and that may well explain what happened (or, rather, hasn't happened) here. But at the very least, DoD’s behavior here is further ammunition for those who would argue that the military doesn't take sexual assault all that seriously. As Kayla Williams and Stephanie Driessel wrote in Slate recently, there were an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2012, as opposed to 19,000 in 2010. Driessel and Williams, both veterans, described a “broader culture pressuring acceptance of sexual harassment as part of military culture.”
Another potentially worrying explanation is that, in some DoD facilities, sexual assault or the threat thereof is allegedly used as an interrogation technique. Earlier this month, Slate published excerpts from the diaries of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who has been detained at Guantanamo for nearly 11 years. Here, he describes an interrogation session from 2003:
“Today, we’re gonna teach you about great American sex. Get up,” said [redacted].
As soon as I stood up, the two [redacted] took off their blouses and started to talk all kinds of dirty stuff you can imagine. Both [redacted] stuck on me literally from the front, and the other older [redacted] stuck on my back, rubbing [redacted] whole body on mine. At the same time they were talking dirty to me, and playing with my sexual parts.
Chris Daley says that while he does expect DoD to eventually develop some PREA standards, those standards will likely only apply to those facilities that house service members who are either awaiting court-martial or have been court-martialed. “It seems very clear from conversations with folks at DoD that there's no intention to apply PREA, PREA policies, or PREA standards to what they consider to be their extraterritorial facilities,” says Daley.
Last Wednesday, I asked representatives at DoD whether the agency planned to apply PREA to those extraterritorial facilities. I have not yet received an answer. I will update this post when and if I hear back.
Update, May 20, 4:40 p.m.: Lt. Col. Jeff Pool from the Department of Defense emails with the following statement: "The Department is committed to ensuring that captured enemy forces are held in safe, humane, detention facilities. Although the PREA doesn't technically apply to such facilities, the Department has robust mechanisms in place to ensure the health and safety of all detainees, which are consistent with the PREA. In all DoD detention facilities that hold enemy forces, detainee treatment is consistent with the humane treatment standards provided in the law of armed conflict, specifically those in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions."
Posted Friday, May 17, 2013, at 1:59 PM
Photo by David Cooper/Toronto Star/Getty Images (Ford) Courtesy of FOX Broadcasting (Quimby)
On Thursday, Gawker’s John Cook reported the existence of a video that allegedly shows Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. Since entering public service as a city councilor in 2000, Ford has been known for his odd and improper public behavior and comments, a habit that only got worse after he was elected mayor in 2010. Whether he’s accosting out-of-towners at a hockey game, offering to help procure OxyContin for a constituent, or railing against streetcars and anti-poverty activists, Ford has consistently tested the limits of “mayoral behavior.”
In fact, the public servant Ford most closely resembles is the fictional mayor from The Simpsons, Diamond Joe Quimby. Both men are heavyset. Both are often at odds with constituents, colleagues, and the press. And both are prone to saying outrageous things in public.
I’ve prepared a 20-question quiz of quotes from Ford and Quimby. Which mayor said which wildly inappropriate thing? Answers are at the bottom.
1. “Are these morons getting dumber or just louder?”
2. “It’s hard to hide 300 pounds of fun.”
3. “People don't want to see their mayor stuck in an office all the time, they want to see him right at their door.”
4. “We'll blow up our dams, destroy forests, anything! If there's a species of animal causing problems, nosing around your camera, we'll have it wiped out.”
5. “Demand? Who are you to demand anything? I run this town. You’re just a bunch of low-income nobodies.”
6. “Let’s call a spade a spade. The left would have taken it and just wanted to spend it on crazy, stupid things like more social programs ...”
7. “Oh my god, I never want to hurt a bike. That’s the last thing I want to do, precious little bikes.”
8. “I ordered the re-opening of this prison to send a message to the criminals of [name of city]. If you commit a violent crime in my town, you are going to end up here. To demonstrate what you're in for, I will now strap myself into this electric chair, which was deactivated over 30 years ago, and, I can only assume, still is.”
9. “Water is the healthiest form of liquid.”
10. “By the way, this woman is not my wife, but I am sleeping with her. I'm telling you this because I'm comfortable with my womanizing."
11. “I'm sick of you people, you’re nothing but a pack of fickle mush heads.”
12. “Tuesday, Nov. 27, I’m going to be playing hooky from City Hall.”
13. “Those Oriental people work like dogs. … They're slowly taking over.”
14. “Now on to the next item, the proposal for putting term limits on public office. All those in favor say, ‘I have sex with animals.’ ”
15. “I’d love to see us sell the zoo and make money on it if we can. ... Keep the elephants here and take it from there.”
16. “You don't scare me, that could be anyone's ass. Now beat it! I'm calling the shots.”
17. “I will retract the word ‘ass.’ ”
18. “Very well, if that is the way the winds are blowing, let no one say I don't also blow.”
19. “You are tampering with forces you can't understand, we have major corporations sponsoring this event.”
20. “I’m as clean as the days are long.”
Posted Friday, May 17, 2013, at 10:55 AM
Screen capture, WTMJ-4 TV
Name: Christopher White
Fatal mistake: Failing to caffeinate before a break-in.
The circumstances: At the end of April, a man named Christopher White allegedly broke into a local real estate office in Burlington, Wis. (Town motto: “The town with tall tales.” Seriously.) Real estate offices are not usually great burglary targets, unless you are looking to steal photographs of other people’s houses. Nevertheless, White did the best he could, grabbing three computers and hauling them outside before heading back in to see if there was anything he had missed. Sure enough, a large bear skin was mounted on a basement wall. (A bear skin in a real estate office? If you’d ever been to Racine County, you’d understand.) White took the skin off the wall, presumably for the purposes of stealing it. Then he promptly fell asleep on top of it. Sounds dumb, but put yourself in his position: It’s late, you’re tired, and bear skins are hard to carry. A quick power nap might be just what you’d need to finish a burglary off in style.
If that was White’s plan, well, it was a bad one. When the office staff arrived the next morning, they noticed the break-in and called police, who arrived to find White sound asleep on top of the bear skin. Screams were uttered, the police were called, and White was roused from his slumber and carted off to jail. Luckily, once the initial surprise wore off, the real estate employees seemed to find the incident pretty funny. “You can’t fix stupid. You can just arrest it,” one of the real estate agents told WTMJ-TV. Words to live by.
A brief note: The WTMJ video about White’s sleepy misadventure repeatedly asserted that this story “was one for the dumb criminal file.” I love the enthusiasm. In fact, I love it so much that I’m adding a brand-new segment to this feature, at least for this week: “local newscast promo line,” which is what I imagine a hypothetical local newscast might use to hype the story. Say it in your best anchorman voice to get the full effect.
Local newscast promo line: “The only thing this would-be burglar stole was a few Zs!”
How he could have been a lot smarter: He should have brought an alarm clock.
How he could have been a little smarter: If you are interrupted during a burglary, and you happen to be wrapped in a bear skin, think quickly and pretend you are a bear. Then, as the police flee in terror, you can make your escape. It’s the perfect crime!
How he could have been a little dumber: I guess he could have taken the bear skin outside and fallen asleep on top of the computers. That would’ve been dumb and uncomfortable.
How he could have been a lot dumber: “Arrest me? Haven’t you ever heard of a little thing called squatter’s rights?”
Ultimate Dumbness Ranking (UDR): Falling asleep during a burglary is one of the dumbest things that a burglar can do. And, as you might imagine, alcohol played a part in White’s bad decisions; court documents indicate that he had gone out drinking before the burglary, and that “he was just cold and tired.” Now I sort of feel bad for this guy. But not bad enough to stop me from giving him a 9.5 out of 10, which I believe is the highest score I’ve given so far. Congratulations?
Previous Dumb Criminals of the Week: The Alleged Domestic Abuser Who Got Beat Up By Robbers; The Alleged Disability Insurance Scammers Whose Frauds Got Caught on Camera; The NFL Player Who Wanted To Be a Drug Kingpin; The Painfully Insecure Bank Robber; The Brazilian Transvestite Who Hid Cocaine Inside His Prosthetic Butt; The Pimply Guy Who Stole a Bunch of Bus Transfers; The Naked Guy Who Really, Really Loved Cocaine; The Guy Who Tried to Outrun the Cops on a Very, Very Slow-Moving Moped; The Drunk Driver Who Boasted About It on Facebook; The Guy Who Brought 32 Bags of Weed into a Courtroom; The Drug Smuggler Whose Fake Breasts Were Made of Cocaine; The Guy Who Gave the Cops an Absolutely Terrible Fake Name; The Job Candidate Who Told the FBI about His Child Porn Stash
“Kai the Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker” Suspected of Murdering New Jersey Man, Possibly With a Hatchet
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013, at 3:33 PM
Screen capture from YouTube
In February, a Fox affiliate in Fresno, Calif., sent a camera crew to the scene of a roadside crime. Upon arrival, the TV reporter had the good fortune to interview the key witness: an enthusiastically profane hitchhiker named Kai, who energetically told the tale of how he had stopped a delusional fat man from attacking a woman by coming up behind him and bludgeoning him with a hatchet. “People say don’t hitchhike, this is what happens,” Kai said in the clip. “Well, at least I was here.”
The clip made its way onto YouTube, and “Kai the hatchet-wielding hitchhiker” became an unintentional celebrity of the “That guy is crazy and he has no filter! But also awesome, because he has no filter! I work at a desk job, and my life is so boring!” variety. He went on Jimmy Kimmel Live, of course. He was interviewed by Vice, of course. Now he’s wanted for murder in New Jersey. Of course?
WABC-TV reports that Kai the Hitchhiker, real name Caleb Lawrence McGillvary, is suspected in the murder of Clark, N.J., resident Joseph Galfy, Jr. “The victim, Joseph Galfy, was found inside his home on Starlite Drive on May 13, 2013 after officers received a call to check on his well-being,” WABC reports. “An autopsy performed the following day determined that Galfy died as a result of blunt force trauma.” McGillvary was last seen at a nearby train station, and has cut his hair in an attempt to disguise his identity. The piece also notes that while McGillvary is currently homeless, he considers himself “homefree,” which, according to the aforementioned Vice interview, apparently means that he has a history of discarding all identifying documents and going off the grid. So, um, good luck finding him, Union County Homicide Task Force!
Kai is the second viral video hero this month to be revealed to have a dark side. The other is Charles Ramsey, the Cleveland man who helped rescue Amanda Berry and later became nationally famous for his colorful account of his actions. On May 8, The Smoking Gun reported that Ramsey was “a convicted felon whose rap sheet includes three separate domestic violence convictions that resulted in prison terms.” As Joan Walsh argued in Salon, Ramsey’s checkered past doesn’t necessarily negate his later heroism; in fact, you could say it makes his actions more inspiring.
But it’s worth noting that Ramsey, McGillvary, and all the other viral video stars who have caught our attention because of their unfiltered statements do have pasts, and that their transgressive behavior could extend beyond what’s in a brief YouTube snippet. I’m not saying McGillvary did it. I sort of hope he didn’t. But in retrospect, it’s no big surprise that a guy who became famous for recounting how he hit a dude with an axe may turn out to be an axe murderer.
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013, at 11:31 AM
O.J. Simpson waits to continue testifying after a break in an evidentiary hearing in Clark County District Court May 15, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Photo by Julie Jacobson - Pool/Getty Images
In 1995, when O.J. Simpson stood trial for the double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, he was represented by a group of prominent attorneys dubbed “The Dream Team.” Despite the bushels of evidence against him, Simpson was acquitted. In 2008, when Simpson stood trial for robbing some sports memorabilia dealers in a Las Vegas hotel room, he was represented by Yale Galanter, a Miami criminal defense attorney who, despite his name, did not attend Yale, but rather Nova Southeastern University. Simpson was convicted and sentenced to 33 years in prison, with the possibility of parole after nine years. You get what you pay for, I guess.
In a Las Vegas courtroom this week, in a hearing to determine whether Simpson should be retried, a shackled, heavyset O.J. testified that he paid Galanter $500,000 to pay co-counsel and hire investigators and expert witnesses. Simpson claims that his attorney banked that money rather than use it to help Simpson’s defense. (Simpson also claims that he thought Galanter had agreed to represent him for free.) What’s more, Simpson says, Galanter allegedly knew about the plan to confront the memorabilia dealers and advised Simpson that it was legal, failed to tell Simpson that prosecutors had discussed a plea deal, and dissuaded the former football player from testifying in his defense because, he claimed, Simpson was sure to be acquitted. Galanter has not yet commented on any of these accusations, but he is scheduled to testify on Friday—and you’d have to imagine that he’ll tell a different story.
Simpson will never appear on any list of the most trustworthy former NFL stars. To the general public, he has no credibility. But if you believe his testimony here, and the testimony of several others with knowledge of the case, there’s only one possible conclusion: O.J. Simpson got screwed by his lawyer.
No matter what you think of the man who was acquitted of murdering two people almost two decades ago, that’s a shame. Every defendant deserves effective counsel. As a defendant, you shouldn’t have to second-guess your lawyer or wonder whether she has your best interests at heart. You should be able to assume that your attorney is working for you, not against you.
Not that many people are mourning O.J.’s lost years. But our justice system is cheapened when convictions are won not on the strength of the evidence against a defendant, but on the indifference or ineptitude of defense counsel. You don’t need to have sympathy for O.J. Simpson to realize that.
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013, at 6:31 PM
Photo by ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
Back in February, before the Tsarnaevs and Ariel Castro came into our lives, it looked like the Oscar Pistorius case was going to be the crime story of the year. You'll remember the basics: Pistorius, the double-amputee South African sprinter dubbed "Blade Runner" because of his carbon-fiber prostheses, was arrested this February and charged with shooting and killing his girlfriend, model and law student Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius claimed that he mistook Steenkamp for a burglar, an alibi that was far from ironclad. Some South African cities are rife with property crimes, yes, but Pistorius was also an enthusiastic gun owner with an aggressive streak who had been accused of violence against women. He also shot Steenkamp through the closed bathroom door, which is, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless behavior.
Is Pistorius a murderer? A long new Vanity Fair piece fills in a lot of details about the saga and its major figures, but doesn’t come all that close to answering that question. The story, by the excellent Mark Seal, is not kind to Pistorius. The athlete is depicted as an aggressive narcissist addicted to caffeine pills and energy drinks, a thrill-seeking womanizer who let fame go to his head and used foul language around children while training at the gym. After the London Olympics and all the attendant publicity, Seal reports, his behavior only got worse:
“He was bragging about his adventures in the good life,” a former confidant told me. “He was like, ‘I’m the man, I’m Oscar. The world owes me.’ That sense of entitlement. He wasn’t like that; he was made into that.” His friends, the confidant continued, changed from “the good old lads” to “the Southern Jo’burg tattooed skinhead-gang type. He surrounded himself with people who used violence and rage as an outlet for whatever you feel. God forbid, I didn’t see it going to this point. But I knew something was going to crack.” Even Gianni Merlo, the Italian journalist who helped Pistorius write his autobiography, wondered, “Have we unwittingly cultivated a monster?”
After reading Seal’s piece, I’m convinced that Oscar Pistorius is kind of a jerk. But while the piece definitely nudges the reader toward the conclusion that he murdered Steenkamp, it hasn’t cleared up all reasonable doubt. Lots of athletes and high-achieving people are aggressive jerks. But from where I’m sitting, it’s still possible that the jittery, aggressive Pistorius believed he was shooting at a burglar. Pistorius is a guy who, as I wrote in February, once tweeted about mistaking his noisy washing machine for a burglar. The Times of London reported on Pistorius’ “excess energy,” how he struggled to fall asleep. “He told the New York Times that when a house security alarm went off recently, he grabbed the gun he kept by his bed and crept downstairs. It turned out to be nothing,” the paper reported. Pistorius seems like exactly the sort of person who might shoot first and ask questions later.
One of Seal’s main sources is Hilton Botha, the police detective who offered inconsistent testimony during Pistorius’ bail hearing, and who has since resigned from the force. Botha’s credibility was further damaged when it came out that he was himself facing charges of attempted murder. (Botha explains away those charges near the end of the story—he was merely shooting at the tires of a taxi that had forced his police car off the road, he tells Seal.) Botha’s bid at redemption here comes across as self-serving and unconvincing. It would’ve been nice if Seal had found some other police source to back up Botha’s characterization of the evidence against Pistorius—he argues that the angle of the bullet holes in the bathroom door and the placement of the bullet casings in the bathroom prove that Pistorius shot from close range with his prosthetic legs on—as well as Botha’s characterization of himself as a good cop. If you believe Botha, then there’s no way Pistorius didn’t do it. But I’m not as sure as Seal seems to be that we should trust Botha.
Anyway, you should read the entire piece yourself. It probably won’t change your mind about the case one way or the other, but it’s full of good details and good reporting—the perfect refresher on a story that isn’t going away anytime soon.