Saturday, February 26, 2011

Skeptical Juror Rated #1 By Google

This morning, I saw an article about Google changing their ranking algorithm. "Websites to Google:" blared the headline. "You're killing our business!" It was as if someone plunged a dagger in my heart.
The major tweak aims to move better quality content to the top of Google's search rankings. The changes will affect 12% Google's results [sic], the company said in a blog post late Thursday.
I feared time and Google had caught up with me.

It all started on the night of February 17th. It was a dark and stormy night, as I recall. I began searching for an update on the case of Roy Willard Blankenship. He had been scheduled to be executed by the people of Georgia that evening. I was surprised that I could find no news about whether or not the execution had been carried out.

I checked again the next morning. Still no news then or later that day. The next day I saw bits of information that his execution had again been stayed, though no details were forthcoming. (His execution had been previously stayed based on the expiration date of the lethal chemicals Georgia planned to inject into him.) To this day, a hard-target search (of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse) on Google reveals no evidence of why Blankenship's execution was stayed on the 17th.

I find that curious.

While the impending execution of anyone in this country is serious business, I must return to the point of this post. While searching for information about Roy Willard Blankenship, I simply typed Roy Willard Blankenship into Google. I was admittedly astonished and giddy to see that my post The Impending Execution of Roy Willard Blankenship was #2 in the listings. It would later rise to #1 in the listings.
I'm somebody now! Millions of people look at this book everyday! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity - your name in print - that makes people. I'm in print! Things are going to start happening to me now. -- Navin R. Johnson
I've known for a long time that if one types Skeptical Juror into Google, the first ten pages or so are filled with hits to this august blog. That is to be expected since that two-word phrase is so rarely used elsewhere in polite society.

It was therefore with great trepidation that I typed Roy Willard Blankenship into the search field this morning. Glory Be!  Google's new search algorithm still lists my post as #1 out of 637,000 posts. I offer proof of that below.

In reality, there is no joy in Mudville. That top-ranked post contained little original content. I mostly cut and pasted from the 11th Circuit Court decision in Blankenship v. Hall. Furthermore, I simply announced that I would stand mute while we put another of our citizenry to death.

I know also that, had I been using another blog tool when I wrote my post, I would be buried somewhere deep, deep, deep in that list of 637,000 hits. I use Blogger though, and Google owns Blogger, and Google's search algorithm provides undue weight to Blogger posts. If one were to search for Roy Willard Blankenship in Bing, for example, the first hit would be the 11th Circuit Court decision itself. 

That's probably a more appropriate top find, given they wrote the decision and I merely cut and pasted from it. Out of curiousity, I began clicking through the Bing search pages to see where my post was listed. I gave up after 50 pages.

There's a lesson in here somewhere. It has something to do with humility and humble pie, and an ability to laugh at oneself.  It's also a reminder that I have yet to help free a single innocent person. Even in the cases of Byron Case and Michael Ledford, where I am directly involved, we're working on two-year plans that recognize long odds.

This is not work for the impatient or those who are faint of heart. There is no hope for immediate gratification. Still I choose to be optimistic about my work, our country, and our future. I like my work, I love my wife, and I am a lucky man. I'll leave it to Google and Bing to settle on the proper ranking of my blog posts.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wrongful Convictions From Civil Behavior

In a previous post, I described "Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" as a convenient judicial myth. At the end of that post, I presented the following summary plot comparing the idealized concept against the reality of jury and judge verdicts.  I include that plot below for easy reference. Click to enlarge and clarify.
Judges and scholars, if forced to quantify the reasonable doubt threshold, tend place the threshold near 90%. In Proof Kinda Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, I reported that our jury pool self-reports a threshold of 85%. In Proof Beyond a Flip of the Coin, I report that more-subtle, less-biased surveys indicate that our jury pool places the threshold closer to 66%.

In this post, I regret to inform you that some studies place the actual threshold closer to 50%. The 50% limit is incompatible with a "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. Rather, a 50% threshold is by definition a "preponderance of the evidence" standard. It's the standard jurors are instructed to use in civil cases, when John Doe accuses Joe Blow of destroying his topiary garden with a runaway snowmobile. A preponderance-of-evidence standard absolutely should not be applied when deciding matters of criminal guilty or innocence, when deciding matters of life and death.

But I'm ahead of myself. First, I should explain the studies.

The third group of studies we consider herein is based on decision theory. Decision theorists argue that jurors vote to maximize their personal satisfaction. (This is also known as minimizing their personal dissatisfaction.) Decision theorists describe such satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) as "utility." According to decision theorists, jurors intuitively weigh four utilities:
  1. Utility of acquitting the innocent
  2. Utility of convicting the innocent
  3. Utility of acquitting the guilty
  4. Utility of convicting the guilty
Decision theorists simply ask potential jurors to rate the relative utilities on a common scale, say from 1 to 100, then calculate the person's decision threshold based on a logical and relatively straightforward equation. I refer the reader to the source for the equation rather than complicate this post further by trying to describe it.

Though decision-theory surveys may sound more convoluted than the direct and parallel surveys, my experience tells me there is some merit in the concept. I have independently arrived at a hypothesis that jurors most fear putting bad people back on the street. In decision-theory speak, they assign a substantial disutility to acquitting the guilty, and apply a high utility to convicting the guilty. They show less concern about acquitting or convicting the innocent, since they tend to assume the defendant must be guilty. Certainly the prosecuting attorney and the police and good honest citizens wouldn't attempt to convict an innocent person.

If you simply ask a potential juror to state the reasonable doubt threshold they would use, they will give you number somewhere near 100%, because they know that's what the answer is supposed to be. If you conduct more subtle parallel studies of guilty / not guilty versus probability of guilt, you get closer to the actual threshold jurors use. Even in the parallel studies, however, the jurors don't really feel the gut-wrenching fear of putting a murderer, rapist, armed robber, or child molester back on the street.

Decision theory surveys attempt to penetrate into those inner feelings. While I'm confident the decision-theory surveys provide a more reasonable result than merely asking people what threshold they would use, I'm not sure if decision-theory surveys are superior to parallel surveys. My guess is that the best answer lies somewhere between the two.

In any case, I present the summary of decision theory surveys below. As usual, click on the image to enlarge and clarify it.

So after three posts on reasonable doubt threshold surveys, what have we learned? I fear we have learned why we have so many innocent people are in prison.

If we vote guilty when we are only 85% certain of guilt, or 68% certain, or possibly only 55% certain (depending on which study is more accurate), we should not be surprised that we frequently get it wrong. We should not be surprised when some of the convicted protest their innocence as we slam the prison gate shut behind them.

Nor should we be surprised as some protest their innocence while we inject lethal fluids into them through a sterilized needle.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Watson and the Future of Everything: Continued

My posting has been scarce as of late. I've been involved with a project I wanted to finish as quickly as possible. Now I need to try to get back into a blogging rhythm. It's not always easy.

Last post was several days ago. (I'm being kind to myself.) It was Watson and the Future of Everything, in which I waxed poetic about the significance of IBM's Watson computer performing well on Jeopardy. I have seen various people express considerably less enthusiasm that I did, those people being concerned about the impact on jobs, and dissing on the Watson because it doesn't really understand, it just computes.

Both categories of Luddites are correct. Watson-like computers will enable people to me more productive in their work, and therefore more valuable in their work, and therefore better paid. Productivity generates wealth. Inefficiency breeds want.

And true enough: Watson doesn't really understand anything. It merely computes, sometimes badly. In that sense it is quite human.

IBM, on their website, offers three videos on three areas of application for Watson-like computers.

Healthcare: "Medical records, texts, journals and research documents are all written in natural language – a language that computers traditionally struggle to understand. A system that instantly delivers a single, precise answer from these documents could transform the healthcare industry."

Finance: "Enormous amounts of data are generated every day in the financial industry. Watson, the IBM computer system designed to compete on Jeopardy!, has the deep analytics capability that could help businesses extract knowledge from this data in order to identify patterns and make more informed financial decisions."

Customer Service: "IBM experts share their thoughts on how DeepQA technology could help transform the customer service industry into a faster, more accurate experience."

Wow!  Way to take something really exciting and make it boring. But IBM is a business and naturally focuses on those applications that can provide substantial return for all the money, time, and talent they have invested in Watson. When I was coming to know Watson, however, I was thinking differently. I was thinking that a Watson type computer could have kept Byron Case and Michael Ledford and a whole lot of other innocent people from ever being convicted.

Assume we have a computer that understands natural language and is designed to estimate probabilities of innocence. We would constantly feed it the latest findings in pathology, serology, ballistics, fingerprinting, fire science, and other forensic sciences. We would provide provide it with common sense insight into life, insight such as time cannot run backwards, people cannot be in more than one place at the same time, consistent stories are more likely to be correct than ever changing stories, snitches are usually less reliable than priests, confessions that violate physical laws are probably false.

Even before arrest, all parties involved in a case can feed Watson case information, ask Watson to provide a probability of guilt and/or innocence, and ask Watson to substantiate its assessment.

In the case of Byron Case, Watson could read the police report that said the victim was found with her eyes open at 3:47 AM, and the ME report that reported her corneas were clear. Watson could compare that  information against arcane knowledge (unknown to anybody involved in the case at the time) that corneas cloud over in less than three hours after death if the eyes remain open. Watson would realize that the victim died some time around midnight, that the state's primary witness claimed she actually witnessed the murder near sunset, and conclude that the state's primary witness was unreliable. Watson would realize further, from reading the police reports, that Byron had an unassailable alibi for the actual time of the murder. The probability of Byron's  innocence would be near 100%. The probability of his guilt would correspondingly be near 0%. Assuming the State was acting in good faith, they would not even charge Byron, much less convict him and sentence him to life without parole.

In the case of Michael Ledford, Watson could read descriptions of the fire scene photos and learn that the circuit breaker panels shows evidence of smoke damage within the panel but not around the panel. Watson could also read that those smoke patterns show some of the breakers popped to the closed position during the fire and some did not. Watson could read conflicting theories on how the fire started (either a candle tossed into a living room chair or a short in a living room light circuit.) Looking through the world's knowledge, it would find no correlation between candles thrown into chairs in a living room and simultaneous internal heating in a circuit breaker box in a bedroom. It would find, however, that on occasion circuit breakers fail to pop when the circuit shorts, and that causes them to overheat and smoke. That results in evidence of a fire both near the short and in the circuit breaker box. Even though the Michael Ledford had confessed (then quickly recanted), the evidence of fire at the circuit breaker box would prove the fire to be electrical rather than incendiary.

In the words of a great philosopher, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. At least I hope not. Months ago, I wrote to Google about the possibility of coupling their computing power with their legal scholar database to help identify many of the quarter million people I calculate we have incarcerated today. I'm still waiting for an answer.

Late last week, I wrote to IBM about the possibility of using a Watson like machine to improve the quality of our judicial system. I did not propose removing the human element. I proposed only that we improve the accuracy of the system by increasing the quantity of information and quality of the analysis.

I heard back from IBM the next morning. The person who responded described the concept as "very interesting." Perhaps he was only being polite, but I'll take it. He explained he would pass the idea along to his supervisor who would reply in further detail. I now await that reply. I actually expect to hear something further from IBM, though not necessarily the answer I would like to hear.

My scoring right now is IBM 1, Google 0.

If I cannot interest IBM, I will try Microsoft. If I cannot interest Microsoft, I will try Wolfram Alpha (a mathematically based search engine.) Then I will try something else.

Our wrongful conviction problem is so serious, we need something on the order of a Watson computer coupled with a public acknowledgment of the problem to make even a dent in the number of people already (or soon to be) wrongfully incarcerated.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Watson and the Future of Everything

The world changed Monday night. Perhaps you missed it. Perhaps you were eating dinner or watching the news. Perhaps you were taking a walk or making love. Perhaps you were watching Jeopardy and did not fully appreciate the world changed before your very eyes.

On Monday, the two best Jeopardy players in the world squared off against IBM's Watson computer, and the world changed.

Let me begin by introducing the contestants.

On your far left is Ken Jennings. Ken won 74 Jeopardy matches in a row, and earned $2,520,700 in the process. He also earned $2,000 in his 75th game when he came in second to Nancy Zerg, who came in third during her next game. Jennings then won $500,000 when he placed second in the Jeopardy Ultimate Tournament of Champions. That's a grand total of $3,022,700.

It is almost statistically impossible that Ken Jennings won that many games in a row. Prior to Jennings' streak of 74 games in a row, the longest streak was a pitiful (only by comparison) 8 games in a row by Tom Walsh. Jennings streak was more than 9 times longer than Walsh's streak. By comparison, Joe DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak, considered by many to be the greatest feat ever in baseball, is only 1.3 times as long as Pete Rose's 44 game streak, second longest in the modern era.

On your far right is Brad Rutter. Brad Rutter has never lost a Jeopardy game to another human. When Rutter first appeared on Jeopardy in 2000, contestants were limited to five games in a row. (That rule was eliminated in 2003, one year before Ken Jennings began his remarkable run.) Rutter, however, later won each of the three Tournaments of Champions in which he was invited to play.

In the third of those tournaments, the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, Rutter beat Ken Jennings and took home $2,100,000 for his efforts. In all, Rutter has earned $3,255,102 for his initial five Jeopardy games and his three Jeopardy tournaments, making him the top Jeopardy earner of all time.

In the center is Watson, a massively parallel IBM supercomputer.

Born in 2007, Watson has (at the hands of some amazing teachers) learned to understand the subtleties of natural language. Consider Watson's rapid fire questions to some of Jeopardy's ambiguous, nuanced questions in the practice session recorded before the formal contest.

Since Jeopardy might present any of an infinite number of convoluted answers to the contestants, there was no way Watson's teachers could simply program it to select the right question from a database of question/answer pairs. They had to teach Watson to understand natural language. That was the challenge. That's why they created Watson. It was to be the first computer to understand the intricacies and subtleties of natural language well enough to compete on Jeopardy.

Watson's knowledge is kept in much the same way as Google stores all its data. When faced with a Jeopardy answer, Watson uses keywords, much as Google does, to collect a long list of possible answers from its stored information.

It is at this point, however, that IBM has gone beyond Google and put itself back into the lead as the world's foremost computing company. Watson is programmed to use its natural language skills to decide which of the many possible answers is most likely correct, and to answer only if it is confident beyond some threshold value.

On its web site, IBM provides a 22 minute video explaining how sophisticated Watson's decision-making can be. Consider the Jeopardy answer "In May 1898 Portugal celebrated the 400th anniversary of this explorer's arrival in India." The graphic below represents one possible result Watson might quickly find. Based on a keyword search, Watson finds a match for "celebrated", "may", "anniversary", "Portugal", and "India". Watson also finds that the link is associated with some guy named Gary.

As it turns out, "Who is Gary?" is unlikely to be the question Jeopardy was searching for.

The link segment reads "In May, Gary arrived in India after he celebrated his anniversary in Portugal."  As humans, we can easily see Gary is not who we are looking for, because we understand natural language. No computer, other than Watson, shares that understanding.

For Google, the Gary link would be a terrific match. For Watson, however, it would be but one of many to be rejected as improbable. Instead, Watson would home in on a Vasco de Gama link, which reads "On the 27th of May in 1498, Vasco de Gama landed in Kappad Beach."

The astonishing point here is that the Vasco de Gama link has only one matching keyword, and that keyword is the commonly used and ambiguous word "may." Holy linguistics, Batman! There are millions and millions of documents out there with the word "may" in them. Why did Watson decide to consider this one?

Watson picked up on this link because Watson has been programmed, as have we humans, to apply temporal reasoning, geospatial reasoning, and statistical paraphrasing.

While the Vasco de Gama link doesn't actually mention 1898 as being the 400th anniversary of anything, it does mention the year 1498. Watson knows that 1898 minus 1498 is equal to 400, and  therefore recognizes two very strong clues in the link, strong clues missing from the Gary link.

Furthermore, while the Vasco de Gama link doesn't actually mention India, Watson knows that Kappad Beach is in India. It knows that from a few of the other millions of links it has in its memory. So that's another big clue.

Finally, Watson understands statistical paraphrasing. It knows that "arrival in" is a good match of "landed in."

Watson combines all the information at hand and assigns a high probability that Vasco de Gama is the correct result. No other answer it considers has a higher probability. Since the Vasco de Gama probability is greater than the confidence threshold, it buzzes in and says, in the best computerized voice to date, "Who is Vasco de Gama?"

When Watson finds a reasonably probable answer, it typically buzzes in (using a mechanical finger) more quickly than its human competitors. This too is impressive, given all the mental work it has to do. I learn from the video that if Watson used my home computer as its processor, it would need several hours to decide each question. Watson, however, uses thousands of processors working at the same time, working in parallel.

So how did all this pan out in the actual game? As I said in the beginning, the world changed on Monday night. Watson finished the first game (played over two nights) with $35,734. Rutter had $10,400. Jennings had $4,800.

After three days and two games, the totals were:
Watson: $77,147
Jennings: $24,000
Rutter: $21,600

In my next post, I'll discuss what this might mean to the quarter million people we have wrongfully incarcerated in America.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Proof Beyond the Flip of a Coin

In a previous post, I described the "Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" as a convenient judicial myth. At the end of that post, I presented the following summary plot comparing the idealized concept against the reality of jury and judge verdicts.  I include that plot below for easy reference. Click to enlarge and clarify.
Judges and scholars, if forced to quantify the reasonable doubt threshold, tend place the threshold near 90%. While that number flies in the face of the plot above, it comports with quite a few studies attempting to quantify the threshold.

In a an earlier post, I presented evidence that jurors self-report that they place the threshold at 85%. First order, this means that if you are innocent but on trial, you stand a 15% chance of being convicted. As horrific as this is, I believe it seriously understates the problem faced by the (relatively few) innocent people facing a jury.

From my analysis of judge-jury agreement data, I calculate that an innocent person has a 28% chance of being convicted. From Professor (of Statistics) Bruce Spencer's analysis of judge-jury agreement data, he calculates that an innocent person has a 25% chance of being convicted. (Professor Spencer is careful to limit his conclusion to the sample of trials he studied.) I present comparitive summaries of our results in Judges Gone Wild: Revised, and one of the plots from that post below. Click to enlarge and clarify.

If jurors do in fact use an 85% threshold for reasonable doubt, then I am probably wrong in my calculation that 28% of innocent people are convicted (rather than acquitted) by juries. In this case, I would be pleased to be wrong. Unfortunately, I don't believe I am.

In his 1993 book Inside the Juror, Reid Hastie actually looked at three approaches for determining the reasonable doubt threshold used by jurors. The 85% threshold is based on the self-reporting approach. Hastie calls that the direct approach. I call it the least reliable approach. In this post, I'll describe the results from a the second approach, what Hastie calls the parallel approach. Quoting from Hastie, here's how the  first of the parallel approach studies worked. It's pretty clever, actually.
Two independent groups of subjects made judgments after listening to an audiotaped homicide trial; one group made a dichotomous [either-or] guilty-innocent verdict judgement and the other half of the subjects rate the probability that the defendant had committed the crime.
Assuming the two groups were valid samples of our jury pool, the researchers could determine the actual reasonable doubt threshold by comparing the guilty votes with the probability of guilt assessments. Neither group knew how the other group would vote or rate the probability of innocence.

The initial study was repeated by two other investigators. In the two follow-on studies, only one group was used. That group was asked to provide both a verdict and a probability of innocence. Below, I tabulate the results from the three studies as reported by Hastie.

Using this method of determining an actual (rather than self-reported) reasonable doubt threshold, the first-order conclusion is that jurors will find 34% of the innocent defendants guilty. That rate of innocents being convicted is greater even than the 28% rate I calculated and the 25% rate Professor Spencer calculated. Perhaps one could fault the studies for relying entirely on students, though during the self-reporting studies the students responded substantially the same as other potential jurors.

Alternatively, one might consider the possibility that juries convict somewhere between a quarter and a third of the innocent defendants who come before them. That's bad, but better than the flip of a coin.

But not much better.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Impending Execution of Timothy Wayne Adams

Timothy Wayne Adams is scheduled to be executed by the people of Texas on 22 Feb 2011 for the murder of his  19-month-old son, Timothy Wayne Adams, Jr., No one disputes Adams committed the murder. Those who argue against his execution ask for clemency based on the entirety of his life. From Timothy Adams: A Case for Clemency:
In 2002, Timothy Wayne Adams shot and killed his 19-month-old son, Timothy Wayne Adams, Jr. during a standoff with Houston police. After a fight with his wife escalated out-of-hand, Mr. Adams “snapped” and decided to take his own life and the life of his youngest son. Mr. Adams did not take his own life on that horrible day due to the support of his family and friends, who spoke to him over the phone and told him that his life was worth saving. One of those friends convinced him to speak to an HPD negotiator, who in turn persuaded Mr. Adams to let go of his suicidal thoughts and end the standoff. Ultimately, Mr. Adams left his apartment and surrendered peacefully to police a few hours after the ordeal began.

From the moment that Mr. Adams was taken into police custody, he has taken full responsibility for his actions. Mr. Adams realizes that it is nearly impossible for the Board, as well as any citizen in our society, to comprehend what could lead a father to kill his own son. In no way would Mr. Adams ever try to justify his actions; what he did was wrong, plain and simple.  He would take back his actions that horrible day in an instant if it were possible.

What Mr. Adams requests is that he have the opportunity to tell his life story, something that the jury did not hear at his trial. Mr. Adams’s defense counsel did not present crucial mitigating evidence to counter the prosecution’s contention that Mr. Adams was a future danger to society or to show that his life was worth saving. Consequently, the jury learned almost no information about Mr. Adams’s life and upbringing, which would have helped them determine that Mr. Adams, a deeply religious, hard-working family man, was not a future danger to society and never will be.
Lacking this mitigating evidence, it is perhaps not surprising that the jury sentenced Mr. Adams to death. But since learning additional information about Mr. Adams’s character and background, jurors Rebecca Hayes, Ngoc Duong, and Kathryn Starling have urged the Board to commute Mr. Adams’s death sentence to a life sentence. They believe that information relating to Mr. Adams’s upbringing, deep devotion to religion, and mental state would have caused them to stick with their initial inclination, which was to spare Mr. Adams and sentence him to life in prison.

With this petition, Mr. Adams seeks to show the Board that February 20, 2002 was an aberration in his life.  Before that day, Mr. Adams had never been arrested or convicted of a crime.  Since that day, he has not had a single disciplinary write-up in prison.  Mr. Adams wants to share his life story to show the Board that, before committing this crime, he was a religious, hard-working individual who suffered from extreme anxiety but who loved and provided for his family just the same. Since being incarcerated, he has had the opportunity to reflect on his actions, which has brought him closer to God and deepened his devotion to Jesus Christ. 

In telling his story, Mr. Adams wants to give his family the opportunity to speak on his behalf, something that defense counsel prevented them from doing at trial.  In this case, the defendant’s family is unfortunately also the victim’s family—Mr. Adams’s father lost his grandson, his siblings lost their nephew, and his oldest son lost his half-brother. Yet, none of these family members were able to stand up in front of the jury to describe the severe hurt and suffering they had endured as a result of Mr. Adams’s actions. Nor were they able to explain that, despite their pain, they still supported and loved Mr. Adams and did not want to lose their son, brother, and father to this tragedy as well.

Mr. Adams has filed a clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, asking them to vote to spare his life.  Nothing good will come from executing Tim and causing his family any more unimaginable pain and anguish. If ever there was a man who deserved clemency, it is Tim Adams.
I oppose the execution of people who might be factually innocent of the crime for which they are to die. I suspect that to prevent the execution of the factually innocent, we might have to ban the death penalty entirely.

With respect specifically to the execution of Timothy Wayne Adams, I stand mute.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Clarification

A couple of readers have commented about the penalty phase of Michael Wayne Hall's trial. That is a point worthy of discussion, but I'll leave it for those who comment and those who write elsewhere.

For clarification, my focus is on actual, factual guilt or innocence. I am primarily interested in whether the person committed or participated in the crime. This is different than legal guilt or innocence.

A person may be legally innocent though he comitted or participated in the crime. The jury may have found that the state failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, or that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the crime. I don't have a fundamental objection to either situation, though I would prefer that sane, factually guilty people pay for their crime and that insane people not pay for their insanity.

More disturbingly, at least to me, a person may be legally guilty though he neither committed nor participated in the crime. The jury may have concluded that the state proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt, though the defendant was factually innocent (as in the case of Byron Case) or though no crime in fact had occurred (as in the case of Michael Ledford.) These are the cases that motivate me, and threaten to consume me.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Impending Execution of Frank Spisak

Frank Spisak, Then
Frank G. Spisak is scheduled to be executed by the people of Ohio on 17 Feb 2011 for the murder of three people. I find no credible evidence that Spisak might be factually innocent of the crimes.

In fact, Spisak has always admitted to the killings. He has yet to deny them. His defense has always been that he is crazy. He may be right.

That's Spisak at the right, during his trial. Note the moustache. Spisak was an admirer of Adolph Hitler, a Nazi sympathizer and a neo-Nazi. He was also a gender-confused transexual and a serial killer.

From A Gender Variance Who's Who, I offer the following insight.
Frank was the son of a factory worker in Cleveland, Ohio, who moved home because too many blacks had moved into the area. He had childhood fantasies of being a woman.  He married at 22, and they had one daughter. He read constantly on Hitler and the Nazis and his wife tried to ignore the issue. He worked in various factory jobs. 
At 25 he suffered a head injury in a car accident. In 1977, he started dressing as female. As Frankie Ann, Spisak received treatment from the Gender Dysphoria clinic at Cleveland Metropolitan Hospital, lived as female full-time, changed her ID, saw a psychologist and started taking female hormones. She was also saving for surgery. She was fired from her factory job after turning up as female. Frankie Ann found employment with a maker of eyeglasses until found not to be a woman. She tried prostitution until charged with solicitation, and briefly worked as a Kelly Girl temp. When she brought a trans woman home for sex, her wife and daughter moved out. 
But in 1979 the Nazi Frank took over. He collected Nazi memorablia, and played Hitler’s speeches on his stereo. He was stockpiling guns and ammunition. He was also dating a black female prostitute. In February 1982 he found a black preacher in the next stall in the men’s toilet at the Cleveland State University Library and shot him dead. In June he shot a black man at a train station, who survived. In August he returned to to CSU and shot at a female student in the ladies room but missed. He became paranoid about a maintenance worker at CSU who might identify him, and so shot him dead, again in the men’s toilets. The next night he killed a young man waiting at a bus stop.

A week later he got drunk and shot his gun out of the window of his house. For this he was arrested, but was allowed to post bond. An anonymous phone call suggested to the police that they re-examine the guns that they had taken from Spisak’s house, and they were found to match those used in the killings.
Once arrested he admitted the murders, grew a Hitler-style mustache and carried a copy of Mein Kampf. At his 1983 trial, his attorney presented him as crazy but he was not found to be ‘legally insane’. He declared that he was under orders from God, and that Jews were to blame for his transvestite episodes, having seized control of his mind. The jury quickly found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
In jail, Spisak lobbied for a sex change, filed a lawsuit to force the state to refer to him as a woman, and appealed the death sentence. In 2006 the appeal court ruled that he had not received a fair defense and struck down his death sentence. In 2010, this was reversed.
The accounts of the crimes are consistent with those found in Spisak's appeal Spisak v. Mitchell:
On February 1, 1982, the body of the Reverend Horace T. Rickerson was discovered by a fellow student on the floor of a restroom on the Cleveland State University campus. Rickerson had been shot seven times by an assailant from a distance of more than eighteen inches. Four spent bullet casings were recovered from the scene.
On the evening of June 4, 1982, John Hardaway was shot seven times while waiting for an RTA train at the West 117th Rapid Station in Cleveland. He observed a man walking up the platform steps and had turned away when the man opened fire on him. Hardaway survived the shooting, and was later able to identify his assailant as the appellant, Frank G. Spisak Three pellets and seven shell casings were recovered from the scene.
At approximately 5:00 p.m. on August 9, 1982, Coletta Dartt, an employee of Cleveland State University, left her office to use the restroom. Upon exiting the stall, she encountered the appellant, holding a gun, who ordered her back into the stall. Instead, Dartt shoved appellant out of the way and ran down the hallway. Appellant shot at her, but missed. A pellet was later removed from a wall in the hallway. Dartt identified the appellant as her assailant.
On August 27, 1982, the body of Timothy Sheehan, an employee of Cleveland State University, was discovered in a restroom at the university by a security guard. The guard had been searching for Sheehan after his office reported that he had failed to answer his beeper page. Sheehan had been shot four times, and two pellets were retrieved from the scene.
On the morning of August 30, 1982, the body of a young student, Brian Warford, was discovered in a bus shelter on the campus of Cleveland State University. Warford died from a single gunshot wound to the head, although five spent.22 caliber casings were recovered from the scene.
On September 4, 1982, Cleveland police answered a call that a man was firing shots from a window at 1367 East 53rd Street. The police were directed to appellant's apartment and appellant, after admitting he had fired one shot, invited the officers inside. A shotgun and a .22 caliber automatic pistol were observed in the room. Appellant made a suspicious move toward the couch but was stopped by one of the officers who discovered a loaded .38 caliber handgun and a two-shot derringer under the couch cushions. Appellant was arrested for possession of unregistered handguns and discharging firearms within city limits, but was later released on bond.
The weapons, however, were confiscated. Early the next day, an anonymous caller told police that the confiscated weapons had been used in the Cleveland State University shootings. Ballistics tests confirmed the tip. A warrant was obtained, and the police returned to Spisak's apartment, confiscating several items including newspaper clippings of the homicides and Nazi-White Power paraphernalia. Appellant was later arrested, hiding in the basement of a friend's house. During a brief search of appellant's suitcase at the scene, police discovered the beeper pager belonging to Sheehan.
Appellant later admitted to shooting Rickerson for allegedly making a homosexual advance toward him; to killing Sheehan as a possible witness to the Rickerson shooting; to killing Warford while on a "hunting party" looking for a black person to kill; and finally, to shooting at Dartt and to shooting Hardaway. He also told police he had replaced the barrel of the .22 caliber handgun in order to conceal the murder weapon.
Frank Spisak, Now
I oppose the execution of people who might be factually innocent of the crime for which they are to die. I suspect that to prevent the execution of the factually innocent, we might have to ban the death penalty entirely.

With respect specifically to the execution of Frank Spisak, I stand mute.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Impending Execution of Michael Wayne Hall

Michael Wayne Hall is scheduled to be executed by the people of Texas on 15 Feb 2011 for the murder of 19-year-old Amy Robinson. I find no credible evidence that Hall might be factually innocent of the crime.

For those of you convinced that we execute only guilty people, I suggest you consider the many cases of people wrongfully executed. Examples of people executed though likely innocent include (but are no means limited to) Johnny Frank Garrett, Frances Elaine Newton, and Cameron Todd Willingham.

For those of you opposed to the death penalty under any condition, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the details of some of the crimes for which people are condemned to die. For the details of the crime committed by Michael Wayne Hall, I offer the following description taken from his appeal Hall v. State
Eighteen-year-old Hall and his friend Robert Neville decided to kill someone because Hall was angry that he had a "sucky-ass" life. They started searching for the right victim and preparing for their crime by obtaining rifles, pellet guns, a crossbow, and ammunition. After much looking, Hall and Neville finally chose nineteen-year-old Amy Robinson, a friend and former coworker, because she trusted them and they "didn't have to put bruises on her to get her in the car." The evidence also revealed that Amy had a genetic disorder that made her small and mentally and physically slow. She stood four feet five inches tall and had the mental capacity of a third or fourth grader.
On February 15, 1998, Hall and Neville went looking for Amy in order to carry out their murderous plan. They checked her schedule at the Kroger grocery store and then lay in wait for her to ride by on her bicycle on her way to work. When the pair saw Amy, they coaxed her into the car, promising to drop her at work after they circled around in the country. As Neville drove, Amy complained that she did not want to be late for work.
Neville then pretended to have a flat tire and pulled the car over on a dirt road by a remote field. Hall and Neville got out of the car and walked into the field carrying their weapons while an unsuspecting Amy waited in the car listening to the radio. At some point, Hall persuaded Amy to get out of the car, telling her she needed to go talk to Neville near a tree. As Amy walked toward Neville, he fired a crossbow at her several times. Neville missed each shot, but Amy became angry when the last arrow grazed her hair. When Amy started walking back to the car, Hall shot her in the back of her leg with his pellet gun. Hall and Neville laughed while Amy cried in pain.
Meanwhile, Neville returned to the car and got his .22 caliber rifle. When Hall managed to maneuver Amy back into the field, Neville shot her in the chest. Hall then shot her in the chest "three or four or six times" with the pellet gun. Amy fell to the ground making loud noises and shaking. Hall then stood over her and stared for five to ten minutes. The pair worried that someone would hear Amy, so Neville shot her in the head, killing her instantly. Hall and Neville then left Amy and her bicycle in an area where they would not be easily discovered.
A few days later, they returned to the scene. Neville fired shots into Amy's dead body, and Hall took keys and money from her pocket. When Amy's family and coworkers realized she was missing, a massive search ensued. More than two weeks later, authorities focused on Hall and Neville. Fearing they would be caught, the pair fled Arlington but were soon arrested when they attempted to cross the border into Mexico. The authorities found Amy's body on the day of the arrest.
Hall apparently gave an incriminating interview to the press while in custody. One basis for his appeal was the admissibility of the interview as evidence during his trial. Again from  Hall v. State:
Finally, Hall boasted in his media interview that he was the one who got Amy to trust him, and she would have escaped had Neville tried to commit the offense without him. Indeed, Hall told the media that he had no remorse for Amy's death. When asked how he felt about Amy dying the way she did, Hall snickered, "Well, I wouldn't want to be in her place. She had to take a lot of pain." After his arrest, Hall told law enforcement and the media that he and Neville had wanted to become serial killers and kill one to five people a week. They also wanted to become white supremacists and kill African Americans.
From the Texas Execution Information Center, we learn more based on  the execution (5 years ago) of Michael Wayne Hall's accomplice, Robert Neville:
That day [of the murder], a store employee called Robinson's family to notify them that she had not shown up for work. The family then called the police, who questioned Neville and Hall. Neville told the police that he worked with Robinson and knew her socially, but had not seen her in a couple of months.
Two weeks later, Hall's mother reported to the police that Hall had been missing for several days. Hall's stepbrother told the police that Hall had told him he and Neville had abducted and killed Robinson. Neville and Hall were arrested on 3 March in Eagle Pass, as they were attempting to cross into Mexico.
Neville admitted killing Robinson and told police where to find her body. He said that one day when he and Hall were drunk, he told Hall that he "would just like to [go] out and kill somebody." They initially discussed killing a black person, but then changed their minds and agreed that Amy Robinson, being small and mentally challenged, was an easier target. Robinson was also part Native American.
After his arrest, Robinson told reporters that he and Hall wanted to become serial killers of racial minorities. "We had a bet going to see who could shoot and kill the most people between the two of us," he said. "No matter if it was blacks or Mexicans - anybody as long as they weren't our color."
Neville used his final words to apologize for his role in the crime.
Yes.  Ms. Carolyn Barker, and Tina, I would like to apologize to you all.  To Amy's sister, and everybody else here.  I love you all.  I hope you can find it in yourselves to forgive me and I hope all this here will kinda settle your pain and I hope the Lord will give you comfort and peace.  And I just want you to know I am very sorry for what I have done.  And if I see Amy on the other side, I will tell her how much you love and miss her and we will have a lot to talk about.  Mom, Dad, and Charlotte -- I am sorry for putting you through all this pain and stuff.  I did talk to Brandon and I think I got a little stuff stopped.  I love you all and I will see you on the other side. Okay.
I oppose the execution of people who might be factually innocent of the crime for which they are to die. I suspect that to prevent the execution of the factually innocent, we might have to ban the death penalty entirely.

With respect specifically to the execution of Michael Wayne Hall, I stand mute.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Too Many Waynes

One of the fine books ever written is The Sneetches and Other Stories. One story in that collection is "Too Many Daves." At the risk of a stop-and-desist order, I include the story below in its entirety.

Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave
Had twenty-three sons, and she named them all Dave?
Well, she did. And that wasn't a smart thing to do.
You see, when she wants one, and calls out "Yoo-Hoo!
Come into the house, Dave!" she doesn't get one.
All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run!

This makes things quite difficult at the McCaves'
As you can imagine, with so many Daves.

And often she wishes that, when they were born,
She had named one of them Bodkin Van Horn.
And one of them Hoos-Foos. And one of them Snimm.
And one of them Hot-Shot. And one Sunny Jim.
And one of them Shadrack. And one of them Blinkey.
And one of them Stuffy. And one of them Stinkey.
Another one Putt-Putt. Another one Moon Face.
Another one Marvin O'Gravel Balloon Face.
And one of them Ziggy. And one Soggy Muff.
One Buffalo Bill. And one Biffalo Buff.
And one of them Sneepy. And one Weepy Weed.
And one Paris Garters. And one Harris Tweed.
And one of them Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt.
And one of them Oliver Boliver Butt.
And one of them Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate . . . .
But she didn't do it. And now it's too late.
Chuck Shepard, at his blog News of the Wierd, notes that a disproportionate number of notorious murderers have the middle name of Wayne. I hadn't thought about it before, but he's right. John Wayne Gacy immediately comes to mind. At Chuck's site, he presents his list of 224 instances. He stopped counting in March of 2008.

I decided to check my database of people executed by Texas for people named Wayne. I found 21 out of 464. That's almost 5% of the total. In each case, Wayne was the middle name. Never the first name, never the last name, always the middle name.

If Texas executes Michael Wayne Hall on 15 February, as they are scheduled to do, he will be number 22.

The Impending Execution of Martin Link

Martin Link is scheduled to be executed by the people of Missouri on 9 Feb 2011 for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of 11-year-old Elissa Self. I find no credible evidence that Link might be factually innocent of the crime.

For those of you convinced that we execute only guilty people, I suggest you consider the many cases of people wrongfully executed. Examples include (but are no means limited to) Johnny Frank Garrett, Frances Elaine Newton, and Cameron Todd Willingham.

For those of you opposed to the death penalty under any condition, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the details of some of the crimes for which people are condemned to die. For the details of the crime committed by Martin Link, I offer the following description taken from his appeal State v. Link.
On Friday, January 11, 1991, just before 6:30 a.m., eleven-year-old Elissa Self left her house at 3844 Humphrey Street in South St. Louis to walk less than three blocks to catch her bus to Enright Classical Junior Academy, a school for gifted children. It was a cold, rainy morning, and Elissa's mother insisted that she wear boots and carry an umbrella. Elissa never arrived at school, and at about 8:20 a.m. the school called Elissa's parents to tell them that Elissa was not present. Elissa's parents drove around the neighborhood looking for her, but they were unable to find her, and they went home and called the police.
During the next four days, police canvassed the neighborhood, interviewed possible witnesses, and investigated calls and letters on possible sightings. On Tuesday, January 15, 1991, two persons who were scavenging at the Black Bridge recreation area along the St. Francis River, 135 miles south of St. Louis in Wayne County, found Elissa's body in a large pile of debris that had washed up on the riverbank. Police soon searched the area and found Elissa's boots, but none of her other belongings. One of the small boulders that defined the perimeter of the parking area had been pushed out of place, and there was a tire rut in the gravel leading up to that boulder.
Elissa's body was autopsied twice. The autopsies revealed two fresh oval-shaped bruises on Elissa's upper left arm, which were consistent with someone grabbing her arm tightly. Her lips were bruised and torn on the inside from being pressed against her teeth. The autopsies also showed that she had been raped. Her external genitalia were bruised and swollen, and there was a five-millimeter tear in the area leading to her vagina. Her hymen had been torn as well. Inflammation had begun in her vagina, and blood in her panties had partially dried, indicating that she survived for some time after the rape.
The cause of death was ligature strangulation. There were two long, thin bruises, about five to seven millimeters wide, around her entire neck. These bruises were consistent with a cord having been wrapped completely around her neck, with each end of the cord held in front of her. A pathologist testified that Elissa had been strangled to death slowly, losing consciousness after about five to ten minutes and dying after about thirty minutes. Although she still may have been alive when her body was dumped in the river, the amount of brain damage she sustained from the strangulation indicated that she never would have regained consciousness. Because the cold water had preserved her body, the time of death could be established only during the interval between the time of her kidnapping to twenty-four hours before she was found.
At about 9:24 p.m., on January 26, 1991, eleven days after Elissa's body was found, a City of Kirkwood police officer saw Martin Link driving with a headlight out and attempted to pull him over. Link led the officer on a high-speed chase, eventually crashing his car into a telephone pole, and was then taken into custody. In a search of the car, officers found a jar of petroleum jelly with Link's fingerprints on the jar and flecks of blood embedded in the jelly. In addition, officers took tape lifts from the inside of the car in order to obtain fiber evidence.
During the investigation, officers discovered that Link had grown up five blocks from where Elissa was kidnapped and had attended the school near Elissa's bus stop. In the early 1980s, Link lived in a house less than a mile away from the Black Bridge recreation area, the place where Elissa's body was found. At the time Link was arrested, he was living in South St. Louis, about 1½ miles from where Elissa was kidnapped.
Officers also discovered that Link was registered at a motel just outside of St. Louis from January 9, 1991 to January 11, 1991. Link checked out at an unknown time on January 11, the morning that Elissa was kidnapped. That night, at about 1:55 a.m. on January 12, Link checked into a motel in Desloge, Missouri, which is about seventy miles north of Black Bridge on a direct route from Black Bridge to St. Louis. A witness noted that Link's car was loud, "like a car that had a bad muffler on it." At about 8:30 a.m., Link called the S & S Muffler shop and "was very insistent" that he get his car fixed that day. He was told to bring in the car that afternoon and did so at 2:30 p.m. He explained to the employees that he was coming from further south and that he had to get his muffler fixed or else he would get a ticket in St. Louis. While he was at the shop, he kept pacing in the waiting room and checking to see if the work on his car was finished.
As part of the investigation, a special agent at the FBI crime laboratory compared three fibers found on the front passenger seat of Link's car with fibers from the sweater Elissa had been wearing when she was kidnapped. The agent determined that the fibers found in Link's car were "consistent with having come from the victim's sweater."
DNA tests conducted by two different labs showed that Link's DNA matched the DNA found in sperm cells on vaginal swabs taken from Elissa's body. The state's DNA expert set the odds of such a match at one in 6,600. The testing also revealed that Elissa's DNA matched the DNA in the blood found in the petroleum jelly jar seized from Link's car. The odds of that match were one in 48. The joint probability of both of these matches occurring by chance was less than one in 300,000.
Link did not testify at trial, but he called two witnesses who had reported seeing Elissa after 6:30 a.m. on January 11, 1991. He also called a detective who had worked with one of these witnesses to make a composite drawing of a man she allegedly saw with Elissa, but who did not resemble Link. He also called two witnesses who worked as buyers in the clothing industry to testify to the large number of cotton/ramie sweaters, like the one Elissa wore, that were imported every year. He called two DNA experts to testify that the DNA tests performed by the other two laboratories were faulty. In addition, one of the DNA experts and a third expert testified that the state's conclusions about the probabilities of Link's DNA being found in the sperm on the vaginal swab and Elissa's DNA being found in the blood in the petroleum jelly jar were incorrect. Finally, Link called an accident reconstructionist who testified that the boulder at Black Bridge could not have damaged the muffler on Link's car.
In rebuttal, the state presented its own accident reconstruction evidence. Investigating officers testified that they obtained a car of the same year and model, with the same kind of tires, bumper arrangement, and exhaust system as Link's car. They backed the car up to the boulder that had been moved out of place at Black Bridge, whereupon the tailpipe and muffler made contact with the boulder, thus showing that the boulder could have caused the damage to Link's car.
I oppose the execution of people who might be factually innocent of the crime for which they are to die. I suspect that to prevent the execution of the factually innocent, we might have to ban the death penalty entirely.

With respect specifically to the execution of Martin Link, I stand mute.