Everyone Is Crazy Afraid

It’s amazing what fear can do.

It’s amazing what people will do when they are fearful. They go crazy. Man, do they go crazy.

If you don’t believe me, then consider this: A nutcase with a gun goes into an elementary school in the United States and kills teachers and little children. Normally you might expect a thunderous crescendo of noise calling for a ban on the proliferation of guns.

But exactly the opposite happened. People went out and bought more guns. There was a significant spike in the sale of guns after the Sandy Hook massacre.

Crazy.

But you need not be a rocket scientist to come up with the reason. People are afraid. Americans went out and bought more guns through fear. Yes fear. And fear becomes self-perpetuating. If more people have guns, it makes massacres of innocent people more likely, not less. In other words fear breeds more fear and stupidity. But I don’t want to talk about guns. I want to talk about fear. The more fearful we become, the greater the ignorance, the irrationality and stupidity of our actions.

Here’s another example: Brexit. I used to think the Poms were a bit measured and considered and less hair brained than their American cousins. But their decision to leave Europe was completely insane. Seriously, what were you thinking, English people? Has anyone in the UK looked at an Atlas lately? Geographically, you are part of Europe. No amount of wishful thinking is going to change that.

But I know why you did it. You were afraid. You were afraid of all those Syrian refugees somehow finding their way to the UK. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones fleeing war and oppression and ignorance and bigotry and zealotry. The ones who need someone to show them a bit of compassion. And if you stayed as a part of Europe, you were going to have to accept your share and do your bit. Anti immigration is fear. Xenophobia is fear. You don’t need to be afraid.

Fear has become our mantra especially when we are confronted with lone wolf terrorist attacks that inflict mass casualties. What happened in France, Germany and Turkey is appalling, unacceptable and outrageous. And when Governments are powerless to protect their citizens from these attacks, as they seemingly are, everyone becomes fearful and irrational. If Donald Trump becomes the next President of the United States, God forbid, it will be because Americans are afraid. They want a leader who they think will protect them. Who will talk and act tough and build walls to keep people out and ban people on the basis of their race or religion.

Little do they realize this only makes a bad situation much worse. Banning all Muslims or attacking all Muslims or excluding all Muslims because we are afraid of them only creates more fear. It makes Muslims fearful of us and the whole cycle self perpetuates. We need to break the cycle. Instead of fear, we need to show love and compassion and understanding and tolerance and be inclusive. As people, we are all in this together, irrespective of whether we are Muslim or Christian or any other religion you care to name. What happened in Nice and elsewhere was an attack on humanity. And as human beings we need to stand together and embrace one another. We need to reassure Muslims we don’t fear them nor should they fear us. The vast majority of Muslims don’t want to kill us nor do we want to kill them. There will always be individuals who are fanatics. Muslim and Christian alike.But these fanatics don’t speak for anyone except themselves. And when these fanatics attack some of us randomly, they are attacking all of us.

They are attacking humanity and it is humanity as a whole that needs to respond. Let me say it again. That means all of us in this together. Xenophobia was never a chapter in the guide book for being human.

We have to stop being afraid and start being inclusive.

When There Is No Humanity Justice Gets It So, So Wrong

Hate to be negative, but humanity and the capacity of the criminal justice system to get it right, are an interesting dichotomy. Yes dichotomy. Rarely, if ever, are they singing from the same hymn book. Instead of being at one and working together, one or the other, or both, go missing in action. But, every now and again these noble principles are forced to undergo a pressure test. In this case pushed under the legal microscope, in the form of the re-hearing of two criminal cases that certainly tested my faith in humanity and represented dramatic illustrations of how the American justice system got it terribly, terribly wrong. In the first example, a New York man, spent 29 years in prison for kidnap and murder, finally walking free after a judge overturned his conviction, saying it was based on a false confession.

David McCallum, was aged 16, when he was arrested for murder in 1985. Now, 30 year later, and a man approaching middle age, he was overcome with emotion after a Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge exonerated him. All I can say is, thank God for a crusading District Attorney who saw a wrong and knew he had to right that wrong. The packed courtroom broke into loud applause on hearing the ruling. McCallum and fellow teenager, Willie Stuckey, also 16 at the time, were arrested for the 1985 kidnapping and murder of 20-year-old Nathan Blenner in Queens. Children discovered Blenner’s body on disused land in Brooklyn. He’d been shot once in the head. McCallum and Stuckey, were arrested a short time later and confessed to the crime.  Each suspect initially blamed the other for the murder during videotaped interviews, but both quickly recanted. But their confessions were not worth the paper they were written on. Their confessions had contradictions and what the Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth Thompson, called “false fed evidence,” or details about the crime that appeared to have been provided by others. McCallum and Stuckey had long maintained their innocence. But a jury convicted the two teenagers in 1986 of second-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and criminal possession of a weapon. Stuckey died of a heart attack in prison in 2001 at the age of 31, but McCallum, who is now 47, persevered in the attempts at clearing his name. His efforts were boosted when his case was championed by Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, a former professional boxer, who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1967, and spent 19 years in prison before being freed. Carter wrote a deathbed letter to District Attorney Thompson, asking him to investigate the case. In the letter, Carter wrote of McCallum and Stuckey: “Their two confessions, gained by force and trickery, are not corroborated even by each other; they read as if two different crimes were committed.”

District Attorney Thompson said he needed little persuasion to re-examine the case. And his subsequent inquiry found no DNA or physical evidence or credible testimony, to link McCallum or Stuckey to the abduction or the killing. As bad as this case is, the news just gets worse. At a news conference, Thompson said he had “inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful conviction cases.” In other words, there were many more cases just like David McCallum. A Conviction Review Unit established by Thompson and headed by a Harvard Law School professor, has resulted in the overturning of nine convictions this year.

In the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, Assistant district attorney, Mark Hale, told the judge, that the McCallum and Stuckey convictions were tainted by false testimony and their confessions were “the product of improper suggestion, improper inducement and perhaps coercion.”  Prosecutors said the convictions in the murder of Blenner in October 1985 had been marked by inconsistencies. While Stuckey told the police that three shots were fired, McCallum said there had only been one. Each described the other as being close to the man when he was shot, but neither had evidence of skin stippling, which often accompanies a shooting at close range. Both suspects said the murder took place at night but the medical examiner said the time of death was 3:15 pm. Among other evidence that Thompson said was discredited, Stuckey confessed to making a comment about a Buick Regal to a woman in Queens about an hour before Blenner’s abduction. The woman told detectives that the two men she encountered were in their 20s and that one had braided hair. The descriptions did not fit either Stuckey or McCallum, who both had close-cropped hair. The District Attorney suggested that the comment about the Buick Regal had been fed to Stuckey, perhaps by the police, to make the confession look more authentic. Thompson said additional doubt was cast on the case when prosecutors began to believe that one of the main witnesses, testified untruthfully. That man, whom Thompson did not name, was the first to link Stuckey to the case, telling investigators that he had given the murder weapon to an aunt who then transferred it to Stuckey before the killing of Blenner. The aunt, Thompson said, refuted the account. McCallum’s shoulders sagged as the judge announced, “I will dismiss the indictment.” He rested his head on a table in the well of the court, as one of his lawyers and the mother of Stuckey, patted his back.McCallum left the courtroom to applause from dozens of supporters, McCallum’s mother sat next to her son in court, gripping his hand and comforting him as the judge overturned the indictment. She later left the court in tears, refusing to talk to the media. McCallum, dressed in a white shirt, beige jacket and khaki pants, emerged from court with a smile and hugged his overjoyed family as dozens of supporters clapped. He then briefly spoke with reporters in a courthouse hallway. “I feel like I want to go home, finally,” he told reporters, admitting that he had at times lost hope of being freed. “I’m very, very happy but I’m very, very sad at the same time,” he said, adding he wished that Stuckey walked free with him. “This is a bittersweet moment because I’m walking out alone,” he said. “There’s somebody else who is supposed to be walking out with me but he isn’t, and that’s Willie Stuckey.” He said his first wish was to walk on the footpath, and then go home and enjoy his mother’s cooking. He had no special requests, saying that after 29 years of prison food, anything she cooked would be wonderful. His mother rushed to embrace her son in the corridor. “I kept praying and hoping for this day to come,” she said.

Despite spending all that time in prison for a crime he didn’t do, David McCallum could at least walk to freedom. The same couldn’t be said for a black 14-year-old teenager,named George Stinney, who was sent to the electric chair more than 70 years ago, wrongly convicted of the murders of two white girls in a segregated mill town, in South Carolina. Finally, a modern day judge reviewed the case, overturning Stinney’s conviction, saying the state committed a great injustice. George Stinney was a child when he was arrested in 1944 and convicted of murder in a trial lasting one day —and then executed. All of these events taking place in a three month time frame, and without an appeal. The speed in which South Carolina delivered its ‘justice’ against the youngest person ever executed in the United States, in the 20th century, was found to be both shocking and extremely unfair, according to a Circuit Judge. “I can think of no greater injustice,” the judge wrote. Stinney’s case, long spoken of by civil rights activists, as an example of how a black person could be wrongly convicted by a southern justice system that sanctioned legal discrimination, when investigators, prosecutors and juries were all white. The two girls, aged 7 and 11, were beaten to death. A search by dozens of people, found their bodies and investigators arrested Stinney, saying witnesses saw him with the girls as they were picking flowers. Stinney was not permitted to speak to his parents, and authorities later claimed he confessed. His supporters said he was a small, frail boy and so scared that he would have said whatever he thought the authorities wanted to hear. They said there was no physical evidence linking him to the murders. In the saddest part of his story, his executioners noted he was so tiny that the electric chair straps didn’t fit him, and an electrode was too big for his leg.

This year, a Circuit Court Judge heard testimony during a two-day hearing. Most of the evidence from the original trial disappeared long ago and most of the witnesses were dead. It took the judge nearly four times as long to issue her ruling, as it did for George Stinney to go from arrest to execution. The judge’s 29 page order included references to the 1931 Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama, where nine black teens were convicted of raping two white women. Eight of them were sentenced to death. Fortunately, the convictions were eventually overturned before the teens went to the gas chamber and the charges were dropped. In the George Stinney case, the Circuit Judge made a point of saying that Stinney did not even get the consideration of an appeal. So, finally there is justice, and some humanity, for George Stinney. What a shame and a travesty that he wasn’t alive to appreciate it.

Texas Executes Intellectually Disabled

Driving in the United States, I saw a bumper sticker that read: Texas. It’s like a whole other country. And judging by what has just occurred, the Lone Star State is living up to the billing. It’s certainly another country when it comes to recognising, or in this case not recognising, some of the rulings in the United States Supreme Court, especially when those rulings involve the death penalty for capital crimes such as murder. The good people of Texas have just put a convicted killer to death by lethal injection after he spent almost 20 years in prison on death row. So what’s the big deal? The prisoner, a man called Robert Ladd, had an IQ of 67, which would constitute a legal mental disability in most US states, making him ineligible for execution, but not in Texas.

Now, before anyone gets on some high moral horse and starts galloping in my direction, I am not here to defend Robert Ladd. There could be no defence to the crimes he committed apart from intellectual impairment. He strangled a woman, 38-year-old Vicki Ann Garner, beat her with a hammer and then set fire to her body. When he was arrested in 1996 for her slaying, Ladd had been on parole for about four years after serving roughly a third of a 40 year prison term for the murder of a Dallas woman and her two children. How and why he received parole is an interesting question that authorities are yet to answer.  Ladd had pleaded guilty to all three murders. He deserved to be incarcerated for what he did. In all probability locked up for the rest of his life. No-one would seriously suggest otherwise. But did he deserve the death penalty? That is an interesting question and it’s where Texas goes it alone, earning the dubious title of America’s most active death penalty state. Texas put Ladd to death by lethal injection having deemed him to be not sufficiently disabled or mentally impaired, according to its own bizarre criteria for the condition. But before I discuss the Texan criteria for mental disability, its important to understand what the United States Supreme Court has said about intellectual disability and the death penalty.

The death of Ladd has exposed a flaw in the normally stringent safeguards imposed by the federal courts on States in the United States that carry out the death penalty. Although the States are generally allowed to set their own standards, the US Supreme Court has twice ruled on the issue of intellectual disability in order to set what it considers to be the parameters for humane and civilised conduct. In the rulings – in 2002 and last year – the Supreme Court banned the execution of people with “mental retardation” on the grounds that it was cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the eighth amendment of the US constitution. It also said that death penalty states had to conform to standards set by medical science and not impose their own arbitrary definitions of mental disability. Clearly someone forget to point that out to the good old state of Texas.

The Texas definition is bizarre to put it mildly. Many would be familiar with the John Steinbeck 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men. It is a classic piece of American literature. But in Texas the book is more than just a classic, it has legal status. Under what are known as “Briseno factors”, the State establishes the profile of an individual who ordinary Texans would agree was intellectually disabled. It points to Lennie Small, the lumbering and childlike character in John Steinbeck’s book, identifying him as the legal yardstick. In other words, the Texas definition of intellectual disability has to match the degree of mental impairment depicted by a character in a fictional novella.

I’m sorry but that is crazy.

“This case is indeed stranger than fiction. said Brian Stull, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project and Ladd’s attorney. ” Anywhere else in the country, Mr. Ladd’s IQ of 67 would have meant a life sentence, not death.  But the Texas courts insist on severely misjudging his intellectual capacity, relying on standards for gauging intelligence crafted from ‘Of Mice and Men’ and other sources that have nothing to do with science or medicine. Robert Ladd’s fate shouldn’t depend on a novella.”

Ladd came within hours of being executed by lethal injection in 2003. Finally, a Federal Court agreed to hear evidence about Ladd’s juvenile record that suggested he was mentally impaired. But that appeal was subsequently denied and the Supreme Court last year refused an application to review Ladd’s case. The courts no longer accept juvenile records as an argument in favour of intellectual impairment. His Attorneys made a renewed push for clemency, using similar arguments as his execution date approached. “Ladd’s deficits are well documented, debilitating and significant,” Stull told the court.

But despite the pleas on his behalf Ladd was executed by the State of Texas. His final statement was to his victim’s sister. telling her he was “really, really sorry. I really, really hope and pray you don’t have hatred in your heart,” he said, adding that he didn’t think she could have closure but hoped she could find peace. “A revenge death won’t get you anything,” he said. Then Ladd told the warden: “Let’s ride.” The ACLU said the execution of a mentally impaired prisoner proved that “we are in the midst of a complete systems failure in terms of honouring the constitutional protections the Supreme Court ordered for intellectually disabled people.”

The writer, John Steinbeck once said, Texas was a state of mind. But, if the State of Texas continues to use one of his characters, as a legal benchmark for intellectual disability, out of its mind might have been a more accurate description.

700 Year Old Cold Case Finally Gets Solved

There is nothing better, I say, than a good, old fashioned, murder mystery. A whodunnit. It’s even better when it’s a cold case. And they don’t get any colder than the case I am going to tell you about. As cold cases go, this is positively Antarctic. Frozen.

That’s hardly a surprise. It’s old. How old? Well, try 700 years. And, how was this miracle achieved? Fair question. You could say modern day forensic investigators got lucky, with a lot of help from nature. The really interesting bit is how this mystery unfolded.

The year is 1329. Our story begins in the Italian city of Treviso, very recently conquered by the ruler of the day from Verona, as in two gentleman from, made famous by Will Shakespeare. But it’s unlikely that Shakespeare was writing about the man at the centre of this mystery, an Italian nobleman, called Cangrande Della Scala, (that is a pretty, impressive name in anyone’s language). Cangrande Della Scala has just gained control of the city of Treviso, after a fierce battle. Della Scala is 38 years old and at the height of his power. But suddenly he becomes ill and dies. And, as you would expect with such a sudden and unexpected death, there were rumors of foul play. Rumors that Della Scala was poisoned but, of course, no proof.

Fast-forward 700 years. And scientists begin looking into the Della Scala case. There are some written documents uncovered from the time that suggested the nobleman’s death had been ‘preceded by vomiting and diarrhoea,’ caused by drinking water from a polluted spring. Della Scala was buried in an impressive looking sarcophagus at the church of Santa Maria Antiqua in Verona. He was placed in a marble tomb at the front entrance of the church. The modern day forensic scientists could not help speculating on what might be inside that sarcophagus. It was a temptation too hard to refuse. Guaranteed to intrigue them or anyone else for that matter. So many questions  but most importantly might there be a corpus of evidence, that suggested a serious crime had been committed? A case of good, old fashioned murder?  It would be even better if there was a body that had somehow survived the ravages of time and decomposition and was still intact enough to obtain some forensic evidence. Sadly, there could be no guarantee with past experience suggesting, in all probability, there would be nothing left after such an extensive passage of time. Nevertheless, scientists were determined to take a look so they went ahead and opened his tomb. What they discovered, surprised, shocked and at the same time delighted them. Not only was there an intact body it was also in a remarkably pristine condition given that it had been buried for 700 years. The air tight nature of the tomb, combined with a lack of moisture, had dried out the corpse and turned it into a naturally preserved mummy, not unlike the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt. Scientists then set about giving the mummy a full court press as far as forensic examination was concerned. They gave it a modern, full post mortem. And when they opened up the body, to look inside, there was even more good news. They discovered faecal matter in Cangrande Della Scala’s rectum. That meant they were able to extract a sample and conduct a toxicology test on the specimen to see if there was any evidence of poisoning, which would confirm that the nobleman was murdered. When they got the results back from the sample, they discovered something very surprising. There were pollens of chamomile and black mulberry, as you might expect to find, inside someone who lived in the Middle Ages. Chamomile was used in those times as a sedative and to control spasms, the Black mulberry was an astringent or enema.

But scientists also discovered something they did not expect to find: traces of foxglove, a plant that contains a deadly poison called digitalis. The concentrations, found inside the sample, taken from Cangrande Della Scala, were considered to have been lethal. The scientists, doing the investigation, now believe that, in all probability, Cangrande was given a lethal dose of digitalis under the guise of legitimate medical treatment.

In fact, one of Cangrande’s doctors was later executed by Cangrande’s nephew because he was suspected of being involved in the nobleman’s death.

But having such a perfectly preserved body, also meant that scientists were presented with a treasure trove of personal information about Cangrande, the man. For example, he was around 5’7” had brown curly hair and may have suffered from a number of illnesses. His lungs showed evidence of coalworker’s pneumoconiosis, also known as “black lung,” probably because the houses during that time were heated by large braziers that produced even larger quantities of black smoke. He also may have suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and chronic sinusitis. There was evidence of mild arthritis, which was possibly due to his active lifestyle of fighting a lot of wars. Cangrande may have also had tuberculosis, which was a common ailment during those the times, according to the investigating scientists. But it was the remains of foxglove in his faeces that stood out as the most extraordinary revelation and the likely cause of death.

“It was a real surprise,” said study leader Gino Fornaciar, a paleopathology researcher from the University of Pisa. Fornaciar and his team speculate that it’s always possible Cangrande, was given the lethal dose of foxglove by mistake, but, on the balance of probabilities think it’s far more likely that he was deliberately poisoned. “The most likely hypothesis on the causes of death is that of a deliberate administration of a lethal amount of Digitalis,” the scientists said.

But having established that he was in all likelihood murdered, the next question to be answered is who would have been responsible for the crime?

The scientists speculate that the perpetrator may have been a rival ruler or Cangrande’s ambitious nephew, Mastino II who ordered Cangrande’s physician to be hanged. Was he trying to cover his own involvement in the crime by leaving no loose ends? or possible witnesses?

In addition to being ruler over key parts of northern Italy, Cangrande is remembered today as a friend and protector of famous Italian writer, Dante Alighieri, who had been exiled from Florence. In return for that benevolence, Dante praised Cangrande in his writing: “His generous actions will eventually be known, so that even his enemies will not be able to stay silent about them,” the poet wrote in ‘Paradiso.’

One of those enemies did remain silent, as silent as the grave, and that’s the way it remained for 700 years. But, with the help of modern forensics this ice cold case has now been cracked. We know how it was done even if we still don’t know, for sure, who did it.

Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Owning Guns?

America has a big problem with guns. It is an obsession. It is also unnatural and unholy. Yes unholy. It is the only country that I know of that has the right to bear arms in its constitution. Actually, I am wrong about that. Three other countries allow their citizens to pack heat: Mexico, Haiti and Guatemala. But only one of them, Guatemala goes as far as the second amendment of the United States constitution. It is a fact that the good old US of A, enjoys the highest per capita gun ownership in the world. That is not a cause for celebration, in my view. More commiseration. I just happen to strongly believe that nothing good can come from owning a firearm. Guns don’t solve problems. They create them. In 2011, the most recent year for available statistics, there were 12 thousand 664 murders in the United States. Of those, 8 thousand 853 were caused by firearms. It is symptomatic of a society in trouble. A society that is afraid of its own shadow. Americans need to ask themselves some tough questions. Is it a society that seems to live in fear? Incapable of truly trusting each other and is that the kind of world, Americans want for themselves? The pro gun lobby is fond of saying guns don’t kill people. People kill people. But if they don’t have such an easy way to do it they might be doing it a lot less often.

Anyway, the purpose of this is not to talk about the right to bear arms. Well, kind of. Actually, what I want to do, is talk about a young woman called Rebekah Rorick, a high school senior in New York. Rebekah has just won a legal stoush with the school’s Yearbook committee. They had refused to publish a photo of Rebekah, wearing camourflage gear and holding a hunting rifle along with her hunting dog. This is the photo that Rebekah wanted to include in her High School Yearbook. But I will allow Rebekah, an amazingly articulate young woman, to take up the story after the Yearbook Committee said no:

“And I was like, ‘Why?’ And they are like, ‘Because there’s a gun in it.’ And I’m like, ‘But it’s a hunting rifle. I’m wearing camo. I have my dog with me,’” Rorick said. “I was ready to cry. I didn’t know what I was going to do. The only thing I thought to do was address it.”

And address it she did. She got her Dad on the case, who made a submission on Rebekah’s behalf to the Board of Education, arguing that the portrait was no different to any of the others because all it was doing was showing student interests. Hmm. Now don’t get me started on another of my pet hates. Hunting animals for fun? Sorry but I don’t see the fun in killing living creatures who’ve committed no crime. Anyway, back to the story. So what did the Board of Education do? They caved in of course. That’s the other big no-no in the land of the free. Thou shalt not take on the gun lobby because it is an argument you are never going to win. The School Board had a very different view from the Yearbook Committee.

School Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson said Rebekah’s photo did, after all, comply with the board’s policy against promoting firearms.

“We do have a policy against weapons, but at first glance, and even now, I do not believe that this is,” he said. “She is not holding the gun in a malicious manner. She is not pointing it anywhere. It’s to me, in my opinion, a nice photograph of a young lady in the Adirondack region that enjoys hunting.”

These are weasel words that fool no one. The Board clearly understood the implications of upholding the decision of the Yearbook committee. The gun lobby would have been on their case faster than a speeding bullet.

But let’s just stand back and examine why the Yearbook committee might have a problem with a photo showing a young woman wearing camourflage clothing, holding a hunting rife. It just might have something to do with the massacre that occurred at Sandy Hook elementary school, where 28 people, where slaughtered by a young, deranged gunmen, or Columbine High School where 16 people were murdered. The Yearbook Committee thought it wholly inappropriate to show a photo of a student holding a gun. I think they were right and I applaud them for having the courage to make that decision, even though they probably knew it was never going to fly.

The photo will now appear in the yearbook. I am sure there will be those who say this is a victory for freedom. But I would simply ask, are you truly free if you live in a world where everyone is so paranoid about being attacked they only feel safe by owning a gun?

“I was so happy. I could not stop smiling,” Rebekah said. “I felt the board had a lot of courage. It’s something I’ll hold forever.”

Can The World’s Worst Criminals Ever Be Rehabilitated?

One of the features of a modern democratic society, seems to be a reluctance to accept failure, particularly when it comes to crime and punishment. Instead we cling steadfastly to the belief that goodness exists in all of us, somewhere.

No crime is too heinous for the perpetrator to be rehabilitated and given parole, so the theory goes. I’m sure many consider it to be more than just a theory. Some even describing it as one of the guiding principles of our justice system. But sometimes a crime is so inhuman and barbaric there can only be the one punishment, that shows neither mercy nor forgiveness. For countries like Australia where the death penalty is not an option, it’s life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Fortunately, these terrible cases are rare but they inevitably polarize the community and cause angst, bitter debate not to mention a great deal of hand wringing.

There is one such case in Australia at the moment, doing all of that (I’m sure there are cases like this all over the world) in the headlines again, 26 years after it happened. Five homeless teenagers, one of them aged 14, convicted in 1988 of the thrill killing of a 20-year-old woman they abducted at random from a railway station car park. The judge, in sentencing the five teenagers, said the circumstances were so horrific that all them, even the 14-year-old, deserved to be jailed for life without the possibility of parole. In fact the judge made the point, that the accused should never be released from prison, unless they were dying from a terminal illness or so incapacitated they were physically incapable of committing a crime.

Now, all these years later, the case found its way to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee. The committee, was tasked with examining the case specifically in relation to the youngest of the five accused, two teenagers aged 14 and 16 who were minors at the time of the offences but were sentenced as adults. The UN committee found the sentencing of life imprisonment without parole, breached a number of articles in the covenant on civil and political rights principally that “no one shall be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Of course the committee made no mention of the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment the five accused inflicted on the woman they abducted, raped multiple times before tying her up and throwing her in a dam where she drowned.

The committee said the sentence,where it applied to the teenagers, contravened another article in the covenant – that juveniles be punished as minors and that penitentiary systems have rehabilitation as an “essential aim.” It noted that the sentence also breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Clearly the UN takes the view that no crime is so abhorrent, that the guilty lose their right to parole or rehabilitation.

Lawyers for the two, argued that regardless of the terrible nature of the crimes, they should have been treated as juveniles. An effective and lawful response to children committing these types of crimes requires more than simply locking them up and throwing away the key.

Children are different and the justice system normally recognizes that they have less responsibility for crime and greater prospects for rehabilitation.

And as a society, we accept that children are different from adults. They can’t vote, can’t smoke or drink, or go to war.

The two teenagers, are now men aged in their forties, having served 26 years behind bars. Their lawyers argue they should be entitled to seek parole and have their case determined by a properly constituted parole board.

But let’s just step back for a minute and examine this case in my specially convened court of public opinion.

As I have already said, these two teenagers were part of a homeless gang. On the day of the crime they had spent their day riding around on suburban trains, reading pornographic magazines and showing the pictures to fellow passengers. At one point, one of the accused said, “ How about we get a Sheila and rape her?” Soon after they got off the train at a suburban station and noticed Janine Balding, a bank teller and soon to be married 20-year-old woman walking to her car. They approached her and asked for a cigarette, before producing a knife and forcing her into the back seat of her car, which they then drove away. According to testimony given at the trial, one of the teenagers in the back kept up a low, sing song chant: “Nice night for a murder. Nice night for a murder.” Janine begged them: “Just don’t stab me.” She also kept asking to be dropped at the next corner. She said: “Let me out and I won’t tell.”

Instead, they drove into a park. They pulled Janine out of the back seat, threw her on the grass, all of them taking turns to rape and sodomise her. Then the 16-year-old said we have to kill her. They took rope from the boot of Janine’s car. They tied her feet together with five turns of the cord before passing it up around her neck and down again, so she was effectively trussed up like a ball.

They heaved her over a barbed wire fence and then pushed, dragged and rolled the terrified woman more than 100 meters, across the paddock, and threw her in the dam where she drowned.

At the trial, the judge heard horrific stories about the background of the two youngest of the five accused. Sexually abused at a young age, coming from broken homes, with serious psychological and substance abuse problems. But he determined that while these might have been mitigating factors they were not enough to outweigh the horrific nature of this crime. But his sentence of life imprisonment without parole did not have the necessary legislative backing until the Government passed a special retrospective law, allowing courts to impose that sentence in special heinous cases. The two teenagers became the youngest convicted murderers in Australian criminal history to receive such a sentence.

But now the United Nations’ Human Rights committee wants the Australian Government to review the case and remedy what it describes as a breach of their human rights.

The decision has been met with horror and outrage from Janine Balding’s family, who believe none of the accused should ever be free from prison.

“They knew what they were doing,” Janine’s brother David Balding, said. “They should stay where they are. They have nothing to offer society.

“There has been a ridiculous amount of appeals already. Each one has been rejected and each one has caused this family a huge amount of pain.

“Just when you think it’s over, it’s on again.”

So having heard all of the evidence, the court of public opinion can now retire to consider its verdict on whether the United Nations has a case on behalf of the accused. No problem for me. I know which way I’d cast my vote.

American Justice On Trial

The American justice system has taken a hammering in the past 24 hours. And so it should.

First we had the case of a man freed from jail after 39 years who was wrongly convicted of murder.

What’s worse his original sentence was to receive the death penalty. But lucky for him, Ohio, the state, where it happened, abolished the death penalty three years after he was convicted.

So even though he spent all of that time in prison, he was able to walk free and breathe fresh air in the outside world again. If the State had not changed the law he would be dead right now. And the system would have killed an innocent man.

And now we have the case of a woman in California freed from prison after 17 years because she was wrongly convicted of murder. This is yet another example, of the justice system getting it terribly, terribly wrong.

Fifty-nine-year-old Susan Mellen was convicted of beating a homeless man to death. Now a court has found she was innocent.

An appeal judge ruled that Mellen received what he called poor legal representation from her trial lawyer.

Apparently her conviction rested on the testimony of a witness who claimed she heard Mellen confess to the crime. But that witness has now been described as an habitual liar.

WTF?

The appeal judge told Mellen that he “felt really bad about what had happened to her.”

So he should.

So should the entire Californian justice system. They should hang their heads in shame. They are entirely to blame for what happened.

Luckily for Susan Mellen, her case was taken up by an organisation called Innocence Matters, which seeks to exonerate the wrongly convicted.

Innocence Matters said in a statement that the detective, who arrested Mellen, was also responsible for a case in 1994 that resulted in two people later being exonerated.

Three gang members were linked to the crime that Mellen was convicted for. One of them took a lie-detector test and said Mellen wasn’t there when it happened.

There is probably not a lot to make of this revelation other than to say it is yet another point in Mellen’s favour.

The court made an interesting legal ruling when it freed Susan Mellen.

It decided that she was factually innocent in this case.

Factually innocent is a ruling made only in rare circumstances but it means Susan Mellen can claim US$100 a day, from the State of California, for every day that she spent in prison.

After 17 years it adds up to a tidy sum, more than $600,000 which, I am sure, will be a huge help to Susan Mellen as she faces life on the outside.

Mellen said she cried every night in prison but never lost faith that she would be reunited with her three now-grown up children.

Her youngest were aged seven and nine when she was arrested. They have a lot of catching up to do.

Mellen scrawled the word “freedom” on the bottom of her shoes because she never gave up hope she would be free one day.

Try as I might, I can find nothing redeeming about the fact that it took 17 years for justice to finally be done for Suan Mellen.

Unfortunately, the system can’t give her back the very thing that she is most entitled to.

The life she lost.

Justice For Ricky

I came across something the other day that could best be described as anyone’s worst nightmare.

Guaranteed to be if your skin is of a certain hue.

A man in Ohio has just been released from prison, after 39 years, because the justice system got it terribly, terribly wrong.

The backstory goes something like this.

Ricky Jackson is now 57 but at the time of the alleged offence he was 18 years old.

He was convicted, along with two other men, of a brutal crime. The callous, cold- blooded murder of a money order collector at a grocery store in Cleveland.

Police claim the three men beat the money order collector, threw acid in his face before shooting him twice.

Now you can understand law enforcement authorities wanting to solve this crime. It was unspeakable and grotesque.

The only problem was they accused and convicted the wrong men. All of them were innocent. Unfortunately for them it has taken a generation to establish that fact.

So the question might be asked: How did the system get it so wrong?

Try racism for a start. The accused men are black. Being born black in the United States is almost a crime in itself as trite as that may sound.

In other words, the police and the system are less likely to believe in your innocence if you are black.

The opposite is the norm.

Being black is equated with guilt even if you aren’t guilty as in this case.

But again, how did they get it so wrong?

Here’s the main reason.

Ricky Jackson was convicted on the supposed eyewitness testimony of a 12-year-old boy, who now, as a grown man all these years later, says he made up a story about what he saw.

Made up a story? WTF?

The 12-year-old boy is now a 53 year-old-man called Eddie Vernon who now says everything he said way back in 1975 was a lie. All lies.

Vernon’s web of lies came unstuck after he confessed to his church pastor.

Vernon was on the school bus at the time of the crime and didn’t see a thing. However, he claimed to have heard two pops that sounded like firecrackers exploding. He lied to police because he thought he was “doing the right thing.”

Doing the right thing?

Give me a break.

How anyone, even if they were 12 at the time, could think that putting an innocent man in prison for a crime he didn’t do can somehow be the right thing is hard to comprehend.

Needless to say Vernon is now claiming that he was not solely to blame for this travesty. He says the police put him up to it. He accused them of threatening to put his parents in prison for perjury if he didn’t stick to his story.

It might explain what happened but it certainly doesn’t excuse it. Not as far I am concerned.

Now if you think you might have heard the worst of this story. Wait. There’s more.

Apart from Eddie Vernon’s testimony there was NO other evidence against any of the three men including Rickey Jackson. It didn’t matter. They were convicted anyway and sentenced.

Wait for it.

To death.

Yep. They all got the death penalty. But before they could be put to death, Ohio abolished the death penalty, three years after their convictions, in 1978.

Instead the three men had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

So Ricky Jackson can count himself lucky he can actually walk out of prison a free man and breathe air like the rest of us. If the authorities in the state of Ohio,hadn’t changed the law, he would not be alive today.

Ricky Jackson now becomes the longest serving prisoner in the United States to be exonerated of his crime. But there is nothing in any way redeeming by having that notoriety.

He served most of his life in jail for something he didn’t do. That is just as brutal and grotesque as the murder of the money order collector in my view.

Ricky Jackson sobbed when he heard news of his release. I’m coming home, he said.

Now authorities must find a way, somehow, to make amends to Ricky Jackson for all those lost years. Of course they can’t. But millions of dollars in compensation sounds to me like a good place to start.

Of his co-accused, one of them was released from jail after 25 years and the other is still in prison but expected to be free very soon.

But before we all get carried away with how justice has finally won in the end. Think about how many more Ricky Jackson’s there might be.

Either languishing in prison for a crime they didn’t do or worse still buried in their local cemetery.

My New Book Cover Up

I think I might have mentioned that I have just written a non fiction book called Cover Up. It re-investigates five of the world’s biggest crimes: the death of Princess Diana, the death of Pope John Paul I, the probably murder of former US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, The plane crash in Gander, Canada that killed 250 members of the 101st Airborne and the assassination of President Habyarimana which triggered the genocide that killed one million people.

As part of the promotion for my book, I was interviewed by Talk Radio Europe. Here’s a link to listen to the interview:

http://www.talkradioeurope.com/clients/dcomerford.mp3

And of course make sure you buy a copy from Amazon in Kindle or Paperback. Here’s the link:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1500314021?ie=UTF8&tag=httpwwwgoodco-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1500314021&SubscriptionId=1MGPYB6YW3HWK55XCGG2

If you buy my book please leave a review on either on either Amazon or Goodreads or both. Here is the link to my Goodreads page:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22610845-cover-up

Happy reading !