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Archive for February, 2012

Persistence is not key, especially after seventeen years of stalking

The nightmare began with a random act of kindness. The student body president, Jane*, saw a boy she described as an “outcast” struggling with homework in the library. She offered to tutor him, as she said, because she wanted to be nice.

“I just thought I would be a nice girl,” she tells The Seattle Times. “He was an outcast, somebody I wouldn’t be friends with.”

The boy, Tommy, interpreted it as something more. They were middle school students at the time, in 1994. Today, Tommy is 31 years old, and he will be spending more than a quarter century in prison for stalking Jane. A judge in Seattle sentenced him to what prosecutors called the longest prison term for stalking they could remember.

The Deer Stalker by E B StephensFor seventeen years, Tommy made various efforts to contact her. He sent her more than one hundred letters during that time. Sometimes he would threaten to kill her, and other times he would threaten to kill himself. His behavior got him expelled from high school, but the contact continued. Jane’s mother says she reached out to Tommy’s family, but they refused to do anything. At one point, he apparently wrote a letter from jail asking if he could come live with them upon his release.

In 2001, a court sentenced him to eight years in prison for violating an order of “no contact.” He served two years, and once he got out he was back to contacting her family to try to find her. He reportedly even threatened the judge’s life after his release.

He was back in court in 2011, facing two felony counts of stalking and many, many counts of violating restraining orders. By that time, according to prosecutors, he had 26 misdemeanors to his name for violating anti-harassment orders. He had also spent time in a mental health facility, where they deemed him mentally fit to stand trial. Upon his conviction, prosecutors asked for twenty years’ imprisonment. In January, the judge imposed a sentence of 26 1/2 years. Barring any sort of early release, he will be in prison for almost as long as he has been alive so far. Compare that, of course, to the fact that Jane has endured his harassment for more than half of her life.

She had an opportunity to address him directly at the sentencing hearing, in a way that manages to be both vindicating and heartbreaking:

“Please listen to me,” [she] said in court Tuesday. “I don’t love you. I don’t like you. I don’t intend to ever be with you. Please quit trying to contact me or my other family members. We want to be left alone.”

His statement to the court, though, is downright chilling:

Defense attorney Robert Jourdan told [Superior Court Judge Patrick] Oishi that [Tommy] has no support from his family, and no job skills or education. He said that [Tommy] believes prison is the “safest place” for him.

“Your honor, this started all from a phone call … all I did was contact people,” [Tommy] said when given a chance to speak. “As my attorney has said, I don’t mind being in custody for the rest of my life.”

Neither [Tommy] nor his attorney objected to the lengthy term. The sentence includes 7½ years for the two felony counts and 19 years for the misdemeanor counts.

I’m no psychologist, but obviously something went terribly wrong with Tommy. Jane told reporters that she does not expect the letters to stop. I’m sure the prison will figure out how to intercept letters sent directly to her, but a sufficiently-determined person will probably find a way to get some communications out there. I don’t know what, if anything could have been done differently in the past 17 years, but as the situation stands no one can come up with anything but to lock Tommy in a box, away and out of sight, for the next 26+ years. It is hard to muster up sympathy for Tommy. He destroyed multiple lives through his actions–even if he never turned to overt violence, do not underestimate the power of mental abuse, especially over such a long period of time.

It’s tempting to try to draw some broader lesson from this: what does this case say about how poorly we communicate? What does it say about how boys interact with girls, and men with women? I don’t know that there is such a lesson to gain here, except perhaps in how we react to the story. This case has been a tragedy, not only for Jane and her family, but really for Tommy, too, who could not get it together for whatever reason and will now spend decades behind bars.

* I am not using their real names because it seems like they have been through enough. If you simply must know, the linked articles have their names.

Photo credits: Stephen McKay [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Rich Guy Does Something Creepy: Deluxe Edition

Polo playersJust sit with this story for a while:

A wealthy Florida man has adopted his 42-year-old girlfriend as a daughter in a move critics say will protect the man’s assets during an upcoming lawsuit surrounding a deadly car accident.

Polo Club Palm Beach founder John Goodman, 48, adopted his longtime partner Heather Laruso Hutchins in October, The Palm Beach Post reports.

The strategy could shore up Goodman’s wealth as he confronts a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Scott Patrick Wilson, The Associated Press says. Wilson was killed in 2010 when Goodman allegedly ran a stop sign. The trial begins March 27.

Goodman had previously set up a trust for his two minor children. If Wilson’s parents win their civil suit, they cannot receive any compensation from the trust, The Post reports.

Hutchins, as Goodman’s third legal child, is now entitled to a third of the money in the trust. However, another court could later rule that Hutchins isn’t entitled to a share of the trust, Fox News reports.

A lawyer for the Wilson family claims it’s a ploy for Goodman to keep money for himself. But Dan Bachi, Goodman’s lawyer, told The Palm Beach Post, the adoption is to guarantee his children’s future and denied that it was spurred by the lawsuit.

He’s now dating his daughter. There, I said it. Based on my reading of Florida criminal statutes, this does not legally constitute that thing that begins with the letter “i.” It still seems creepy. And opportunistic. Also, what happens if they break up?

Photo credit: By Siddha (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Lactation is not a medical condition related to pregnancy, says Houston federal judge

Manual Breast Pump 2005 SeanMcCleanTexas once again distinguishes itself in the legal field. I sure do wish Texas would stop doing that.

U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes of the Southern District of Texas recently granted summary judgment to a defendant in an employment discrimination suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of  Donnicia Venters. In a nutshell, Venters had worked at Houston Funding for about two years when she took maternity leave on December 1, 2008. While on leave, she says that she communicated regularly with her direct supervisor, asking if she would be allowed to use a back room of the office to use a breast pump while on breaks. She specifically wanted to use a back room that afforded privacy. She claims that the vice president in charge of such a decision reacted rather negatively, and that she learned she had been laid off when she attempted to go back to work in February 2009.

The EEOC filed suit against Houston Funding on her behalf, claiming that the company fired her in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment based on a number of grounds including gender. Discriminating against an employee due to pregnancy or a related condition is considered a form of gender discrimination prohibited by Title VII.

Houston Funding countered that it fired Venters because she “abandoned” her job. The company claimed that she did not stay in contact with the relevant supervisors, and that after several months, a meeting was held and the decision was made to fire her. She learned of this on or about February 17 when she tried to return to work.

Judge Hughes, in granting summary judgment to Houston Funding, seemed to agree with their account of events. Nevertheless, the judge ruled that Houston Funding’s actions would not constitute discrimination whether they actually occurred or not. The statute only covers discrimination based on “pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” he wrote in his opinion. A “related medical condition” could include “cramping, dizziness, and nausea while pregnant” (emphasis added). Since Venters “gave birth on December 11, 2009 [sic]…she was no longer pregnant and her pregnancy-related conditions ended.”

This is a rather strict reading of the statute. He seems to think that “or related medical conditions” only applies to “pregnancy” and not “childbirth,” which seems overly restrictive. My federal civil procedure is rusty, but it seems like there is a genuine issue of fact as to why the company fired her. He skips right over that and makes a blanket ruling that lactation is not a “medical condition” “related to” pregnancy or childbirth. I have a distinct feeling that many, many people who have directly experienced both pregnancy and childbirth will take issue with this characterization.

Of course, in a world where a significant number of lawmakers seem to think a medically-unnecessary invasive procedure that has put the word “transvaginal” into the national lexicon is hunky-dory, maybe I should not be surprised that a judge thinks he can redefine the medical processes of pregnancy.

Photo credit: SeanMack at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

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Forty Years

He could have faced five years in prison, or the rest of his life. On Friday, a judge sentenced him to 40 years. If he serves the whole sentence, he will be 83 years old when he gets out.

A jury found Jon Thomas Ford guilty of murder Friday in the strangulation of Dana Clair Edwards, and — after listening to her father and a dozen of the defendant’s friends during a punishment hearing — sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

Ford was taken into custody after the sentence was announced.

Because they were potential witnesses, parents Darrell and Deborah Edwards spent most of the four-week trial sitting in a corridor outside the courtroom — a black backpack always by their side.

On Friday, when Darrell Edwards finally took the witness stand as the state’s sole punishment witness, he told jurors the backpack contained the ashes of his daughter and her dog Grit, who was found dead a week after she was killed Jan. 1, 2009.

“This long period of time has been devastating psychologically,” Darrell Edwards, who wore a lapel button over his suit jacket that said “I (heart) D.C.,” told the jury. “We refer to it as another day in purgatory.”

***

Dana Edwards, 32, was described during the trial as an idealist, a class president in high school and an academic standout through graduate school.

She attended medical school but dropped out after a serious accident left her with lasting physical maladies. She went to work for her parents and lived in the condo just outside Alamo Heights that they used as their office.

Authorities said Ford, now 43, strangled Edwards there in the first hours of 2009, after both attended the same New Year’s Eve party. The two dated several years but Edwards had broken it off three months earlier.

Ford’s head briefly sank as state District Judge Maria Teresa Herr read the guilty verdict — his only explicit display of emotion throughout the trial.

It took jurors less than eight hours over two days to reach the guilty verdict and about an hour to decide punishment.

I talked a bit about this case last week. It is difficult to talk objectively about it, and maybe it will never be easy. I had a running supply of news about the trial as it happened, even if I didn’t read every article. The best I can do is post the compendium of news I received:

Photo by Craig KapitanThere are more articles at the Express News‘ website, mySA.com.

I also wanted to mention, with gratitude, Express News reporter Craig Kapitan, who tweets as @hearsaySA. He attended and live-tweeted the entire trial. He tweeted this photo of jury members meeting Dana’s family. Prosecutor Catherine Babbitt reportedly said that was the first time she had seen that happen in 22 years practicing law. Take what you will from that.

Something one of the prosecutors, Kirsta Melton, said about the case stuck with me, and it ought to haunt everybody a bit:

“Nothing is more dangerous than … evil cloaked in the appearance of good,” Melton said. “It was that gentlemanly disguise, that quiet tone … that caused Dana Clair to let him in.”

Jurors should not feel guilt about their part in a trial that was spurred by Ford’s own bad decisions, she added.

“Jon Thomas Ford had every advantage. Every benefit. People have given him the very best from day one,” Melton said. “He knows right from wrong … and yet he chose to kill.”

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Pinterest is going to change the world. At a quantum level. Or something. I really don’t know.

People Who Use Pinterest  via ilovechartsI don’t get Pinterest. I’m not going to deny that many, many people seem to love it. It seems to primarily appeal to women, so (a) I can accept that perhaps I am just demographically excluded, and (b) I’m not going to overly bemoan something that millions of people seem to enjoy so much.

Its status as the fastest-growing social network is both impressive (12 million unique visitors) and relatively meaningless (6 or 7 years ago, most people had no idea what “social media” was). I signed up for Pinterest in January, and every day I get new followers, mostly because you can register through Facebook, and it will auto-follow your Facebook friends for you–every time one of my Facebook friends signs up, therefore, I get a new follower on Pinterest. It’s like signing up for a free friend-delivery service!

I also created a “board” (where you “pin” photos that you either upload to the site or link to elsewhere on the web) out of a sense of sarcasm. After encountering a series of pictures of Nutella-coated bacon on the aptly-named Geeks are Sexy site, I had an epiphany. As soon as I figured out that Firefox’s cut-and-paste function for some reason does not work well with Pinterest’s code, the “Food porn” board was born. It currently has 182 followers. All it requires is occasional Google image searches of phrases like “key lime pie” and “bacon-covered meat.”

It should be no surprise, therefore, that this website, which only went fully public a little over a year ago, has “experts” in its use in small business marketing. Anyone with the ability to use the word “expert” with no apparent sense of irony can become a “social media expert” in this day and age.

Nutella-covered bacon, via Pinterest, via geeksaresexyOf interest to people who care about such things is the suspicion that Pinterest might actually be a massive, albeit possibly unintentional, mechanism for enabling copyright infringement. At its most basic level, Pinterest is a means to post other peoples’ pictures online with no requirement of correct attribution. Of course, the entire internet is a mechanism for failing to attribute copyrighted material correctly, but Pinterest has made it so much easier. It’s like Flickr for stealing.

Also, as everyone by now knows, the site may have some interesting ways of making money.

I’m not holding my breath that Pinterest is going to change the world. For every revolution aided by social media’s ability to connect people, there are around 2,000 boards that really only help some recent sorority member pick the perfect tiara for her wedding.

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You have until Thursday before Google gets all up in your stuff

Child Saluting American FlagAnyone using any sort of Google product has now had ample opportunity to not read the terms of its new “unified privacy policy,” which will align the various privacy policies of its many different services (searches, YouTube, Gmail, secretly searching for LOLcats saying dirty words, etc.)

As of March 1, 2012, the new policy will go into effect, and data collected from your search history will become available to other Google services, for marketing purposes (h/t ABA Journal).

You ought to know what that means: those late-night searches for pictures of tree sloths eating bananas will become part of the algorithm used to target advertisements at you. Some people may not want that.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, who is fast becoming one of the most relevant advocacy groups in the world (thanks, SOPA!) has a step-by-step guide to removing your entire Google search history ahead of the big day.

I tried doing it, and Google is telling me that I do not even have have “Web History” turned on. I’m not sure how that could be, since I tend to sign up for new internet and social media services without even thinking about it, but maybe this means all my secrets are safe…

Of course, Google will record all of your searches no matter what, but you can opt not to have your history get shared for marketing purposes. Your search history will always be available to law enforcement, of course.

Just thought you should know about this.

Photo credit: Child Saluting American Flag by JefferyTurner, on Flickr.

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Here’s a birther who doesn’t even pretend not to be racist

Meet Gordon Warren Epperly of Juneau, Alaska. He has found a novel way to challenge Obama’s place on the 2012 presidential ballot. Considering the absolute and utter smackdown that birther lawsuits took in Georgia recently, it would seem a new set of tactics is necessary (giving up and admitting it’s not only a lost cause, but also completely psychotic, is clearly out of the question) (for an excellent summary of the bloodening that the birthers endured in Georgia, check out BadFiction’s blog). How is Mr. Epperly presenting his case? Well, obviously, Barack Obama is ineligible for the office of President of the United States of America because he is black, or to use Epperson’s words, “Mulatto.” Don’t believe me? Good, that means you’re not insane.

Let’s hear Epperson tell it, shall we? (A full PDF of the complaint to the Alaska Division of Elections is here.)

[F]or an Individual to be a candidate for the office of president of the United States, the candidate must meet the qualifications set forth in the United States Constitution and one of those qualifications is that the Candidate shall be a “natural born citizen” of the United States. As Barack Hussein Obama II is of the “mulatto” race, his status of citizenship is founded upon the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Before the [purported] ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the race of “Negro” or “mulatto” had no standing to be citizens of the United States under the United States Constitution.

DredScottThere’s more, but it is worth pointing out that at this point he cites the Dred Scott decision, the 1857 Supreme Court case that held that slaves, and descendants of slaves, were ineligible for citizenship. He claims that the case “has never been distinguished (overturned).” Moving on:

As the Fourteenth Amendment is only a grant of  “Civil Rights” and not a grant of  “Political Rights,” Barack Hussein Obama II does not have any “Political Rights” under any provision of the United States Constitution to hold any Public Office of the United States government. Furthermore, there is considerable debate within the enclosed supporting documents that shows Barack Hussein Obama II was not born on the soil of the United States and that he was not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States at the time of his birth. If this is true, it would appear that Barack Hussein Obama II may not only be in want of having the status of being a “natural born Citizen,” but he may not even be a “citizen of the United States.” Being absent of proper status of Citizenship, Barack Hussein Obama II, nor his Delegates, have the qualifications to appear on the Election Ballots for the State of Alaska. (Emphasis in original)

A few observations at this point. First, he hedges quite a bit in his language, more than one might expect in a petition to a government agency. “There is considerable debate…” and “If this is true…” Not exactly the sort of forceful language one might expect in an original pleading. It is also common to use a shorthand when a name is repeated, e.g. “Barack Hussein Obama II (hereinafter “Obama”)” or something like that. I suspect he just couldn’t resist the opportunity to remind us at every turn that the president’s middle name is Hussein. At least he managed to stay away from the caps lock key.

Others have done an excellent job of putting Mr. Epperly’s arguments out of their misery, so I don’t need to waste too much ammo. If I am correctly reading his complaint (and my ability to read legal documents written in batshit can be a bit rusty), he is arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment did not actually overturn Dred Scott, and that therefore Barack Obama, and presumably anyone else of black, African-American, African, Caribbean, etc. ancestry is not a United States citizen, even if they were born here.

My legal analysis in brief: that’s crap.

Aside from that, he is rehashing many familiar tropes of the birther movement. President Obama is not “natural born” because his father was not a U.S. citizen, or because he was secretly born in Kenya, blah blah blah. This argument would have the intriguing effect of stripping U.S. citizenship from thousands of people born to citizens of other countries, despite the fact that “natural born” has been construed to mean “born on U.S. soil” for decades and longer.

In fact, any excessive amount of scrutiny of what it means to be “natural born” as it pertains to the presidency really didn’t come up at all until a black guy with a funny-sounding name got elected president. Don’t insult yourself, America, or humanity by trying to claim that racism is not a factor in all of this. Gordon Warren Epperly at least has the courtesy, and the courage, to be honest about it.

Photo credit: By Louis Schultze [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Sometimes it’s personal

This may not be the most well-thought-out post I’ve ever written. I never really intended this blog to be a place for personal thoughts, but sometimes the personal and the legal intersect. I have spent the past few weeks trying to ignore a criminal trial going on down in San Antonio, because I did not trust my ability to keep my cool about it. This is why we make sure jury members do not personally know the people involved in a trial, and why lawyers generally should not represent people with whom they have emotional involvement (when it’s a serious issue).

I just got an e-mail linking to the following news article (excerpted):

Jurors filtered out of a courtroom packed to capacity Thursday afternoon and began deliberating the fate of Alamo Heights resident Jon Thomas Ford, who is accused of strangling his ex-girlfriend and killing her dog in the first hours of 2009.

If convicted, Ford, 43, could face up to life in prison for the murder of Dana Clair Edwards, 32, who had broken up with him three months earlier.

During three hours of closing arguments Thursday, defense attorney Dick DeGuerin repeatedly referred to the prosecution’s own admission at the outset of the trial more than three weeks ago that the San Antonio Police Department “screwed up” the investigation.

DeGuerin pointed to what he characterized as untrustworthy witnesses, faulty DNA analysis, indecisive surveillance video, a “ridiculous” proposed timeline purporting to show how his client committed the crime, an incomplete autopsy and an unreliable investigation swayed by small-town rumors and intense pressure from the victim’s parents.

“This is a circumstantial evidence case,” DeGuerin said as he accused the lead detective of having a “blind focus” on Ford at the expense of all evidence to the contrary. “Circumstantial evidence has to answer all your questions.”

***

Prosecutor Catherine Babbitt accused DeGuerin of trying to confuse and distract jurors by focusing on individual pieces of evidence in a vacuum instead of viewing them as a whole.

“It’s common-sensical. It’s not rocket science. It’s putting pieces of evidence together,” she said. “But they don’t want you to do that.”

While not obligated to give a motive, Babbitt speculated that Ford had hoped to re-spark the relationship with Edwards in recent weeks and was rebuffed. Perhaps, she said, he snapped after he was teased at a New Year’s Eve party about disinterest in marriage.

“If you keep stuffing and stuffing and stuffing (emotions away), what happens? It explodes,” Babbitt said, referring to defense testimony from Wednesday that friends had never seen Ford angry in decades of knowing him. Babbitt also played for jurors a portion of Ford’s interview with police in which he said, “I cannot think of anyone who did not like her.” At the crime scene, no valuables were taken and she was not raped, Babbitt said.

“This is a very personal crime,” she said, pointing to a poster-sized picture of Edwards and her dog. “The only thing the killer wanted was these two. If not him, who?”

The defense had emphasized earlier that it isn’t Ford’s burden to find the real killer. Cases often go unsolved for years, DeGuerin said. His client declined to testify.

If Ford is convicted, jurors in the 186th state District Court will decide his punishment.

I read some of the day-by-day summaries,  but I tried to avoid Twitter updates from people watching the trial. We had waited years for this trial to happen, and it proved more difficult to follow than I expected.

I had known Dana for the better part of three decades. Our parents have been friends for longer than that. Our dads were business partners for a long time.

I thought about writing about this earlier, but I simply cannot view this case objectively. I cannot see this as a lawyer, only as a person who lost a friend. I don’t know the defendant, and I don’t care to. He may be completely innocent, or his lawyer may succeed at convincing the jury to see reasonable doubt even if he is guilty as shit. No one has any control over that. I’m struggling to voice no opinion here about the defendant, whose name I couldn’t even remember before the trial started. He honestly means nothing to me. I’d rather remember the woman he may or may not have taken from us.

We were never especially close friends. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years, as best I recall, when I got the news she was gone. That moment is burned in my brain forever. I think we met for the first time when our families and some other people met for a weekend at the coast, somewhere near Port Aransas. That was probably 1980. We hung out at various times when out families got together. As young children, I wouldn’t exactly say we were “friends”–a boy and girl about two years apart in age. She had an Atari 2600 with the Pac-Man game when it first came out, though, so that made her cool to hang out with. I think friendship came in adulthood, even if we only saw each other at occasional holidays.

Truth be told, my real feeling is regret. I miss Dana terribly now that she is gone. The world was simply a better place with her in it.

If there could be a better testament to her life than what happened at her memorial, I can’t think of one: she was a huge animal welfare advocate, and someone (I’m not sure who) arranged to have the local Humane Society have some puppies at the church. Before I even had a chance to go play with a few of them, every single one of them was adopted.

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A new era of animal welfare advocacy is coming. Oh is it ever coming…

Pun most definitely intended.

That magical day is soon approaching, dear reader(s). They day we have been eagerly awaiting since last summer. The day that will change everything.

I’m talking, of course, about the launch of PETA’s porn site (h/t Ecorazzi).

Right now it’s just a splash page with two possibly-naked models staring at you rather alluringly:

Followed by perhaps the worst pun in the history of porn/animal rights crossovers:

I am still debating if I want any updates from them. I’m quite frankly terrified of anything combining typical adult content with any sort of depiction of animal cruelty. I mean really, wha???

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