What Do Verdicts Mean?

Recently there was a small kerfuffle in parts of the atheist blogosphere over, of all things, the guilt of innocence of Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky, you’ll recall, is the long-time assistant to legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno who was convicted on dozens of counts of child sexual abuse related to his position there. I’m less interested in the specifics of this case than I am about one particular argument made that raises an interesting question about the criminal justice system.

Things kicked off with a review in Skeptic magazine of a book, The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment, which argues that Sandusky’s trial was tainted by recovered memory therapies and led to a wrongful conviction. The book’s got favorable blurbs from memory expert Elizabeth Loftus and false confessions expert Richard Leo, two names that make my defense lawyer ears prick up. The review was then favorably discussed by some of the atheist heavyweights, including Jerry Coyne and Daniel Dennett.

Others in the atheist blogopshere pushed back, wondering how skeptics could defend Sandusky. While some offered take downs of the review itself, others simply argued that the issue was settled because of Sandusky’s convictions. The leading proponent of that position was PZ Myers who wrote (links removed):

They’ve published a defense of Jerry Sandusky! Look, Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. He’s a convicted pedophile. The prosecution brought in a long train of witnesses and evidence of criminal behavior spanning at least 15 years and 10 victims, and this case found him guilty in a community that was full of fanatical Paterno/Sandusky defenders. Anyone remember the riots and protests when the Paterno empire fell? You can’t have a witch hunt when the targets are regarded as holy saints — the evidence was just so overwhelming and undeniable that even angels by repute could be defrocked at last.

Myers may be right about the weight of the evidence, but what I’m more interested in is the idea that because Sandusky was convicted at trial that it’s somehow wrong to examine the evidence against him. After all, the jury has spoken, right?

Except we know that juries get it wrong. Not all the time, certainly (and an overwhelming number of cases never get to a jury anyway), but enough for it to be a concern:

In the past quarter-century, the work of dogged attorneys and advances in forensic science have exonerated more than 2,150 men and women, 161 of those from death row. The Innocence Project, a New York–based nonprofit founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992, has freed more than 200 people and spurred the creation of numerous smaller organizations around the country devoted to the same mission. (From 2012–2015, I was the director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles.) By some estimates there are tens of thousands more wrongfully convicted prisoners languishing behind bars.

Given that, what kind of deference should the public give to guilty jury verdicts?

A quick aside on non guilty verdicts. It’s hard to read anything at all into those, since there are so many reasons why such a verdict could be returned. Maybe the prosecution completely failed to prove its case, or maybe it couldn’t meet the final hurdle to of reasonable doubt. Or maybe the jury nullified in light of sufficient evidence. With a not guilty verdict it’s hard to say much beyond “that guy hasn’t been convicted of anything.”

Back to guilty verdicts – what kind of weight should the general public give them? I may lose some of my defense attorney cred for this, but I’m going to say a lot. The law likes to use lots of “rebuttable presumptions,” things that are taken as true, but can, with sufficient evidence, be shown to be false. For example, in Federal court if you’re arrested on just about any drug offense there’s a presumption that you should be held without bond. You can argue your way out, but it relieves the Government of the need to argue your way in.

I’d grant guilty verdicts that kind of presumption because it’s the one time when a group of people are given one job only – evaluate the evidence presented and, using the filter of the judge’s instructions, determine whether the defendant did it or not (whatever “it” is). Everybody else in the courtroom – the lawyers, the judge, the spectators, the press – all have other things competing for their time and attention. Only the jurors have the clear job of listening to every word of testimony, looking at every exhibit, and deciding what it means.

It’s not a full proof system, for sure. The jurors only hear the evidence presented in court, so if the defendant has a shitty lawyer or a prosecutor who is pushing the boundaries it could present a skewed view of the case. In addition, the rules of evidence pare down the universe of facts that a jury can consider, leading to situations where the “well informed” are “those outside the courtroom.” And, finally, the case itself might be tangential to whatever the defendant is really accused of doing. That Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion does little to show, one way or the other, that he was a mob boss.

Which is why I think a rebuttable presumption is the way to go. It’s perfectly right to say because he was convicted of dozens of sexual abuse counts against children, Sandusky probably actually molested them. But it’s not an ironclad guarantee, as Myers and others seem to suggest. Those who would rebut the presumption, however, have a lot of heavy lifting to do.


The Jury (1861) by John Morgan, via Wikimedia Commons


Weekly Read: The Road to Jonestown

There’s a passage in Jeffrey Toobin’s book on Patty Hearst where, after the heiress is captured, her kidnappers demand the Hearst family set up a from scratch program to feed the poor. Various groups come out of the woodwork to try and run the program, including Peoples Temple, the cult led by Jim Jones that, a few years later, would mostly die out in the Guyanese jungle. Toobin presents it as a freakish aside, the intersection of two infamous historical figures. After reading Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown it becomes clear that there wasn’t anything freakish about it – Jones and his followers could have pulled it off.

That is, perhaps, the most interesting thing about Guinn’s book, which takes a deep dive into the founding of Peoples Temple and the founding, if you will, of Jim Jones. Born poor in rural Indiana Jones gravitated toward two things when young – social justice and fire-breathing religion. Neither of his parents were religious, but he had a neighbor who was constantly on the prowl to recruit souls for Christ and she exposed Jones to her church. He took to preaching and honed a miracle-working approach in Indiana that would serve him well for decades. It was also the spark of the dark charisma that would lead to so many more than 900 dead in Guyana.

Fact is, Peoples Temple got things done for people who were too often left behind by society. Jones and his followers helped drive desegregation in Indianapolis. Both there and later in California they ran nursing homes, drug treatment programs, and, yes, food giveaways. All those programs were successful (at least as successful as other similar programs) and properly run.

The problem was that, from the beginning to the end, Peoples Temple was always the fiefdom of Jim Jones. All the good work came at the expense of a staggering cult of personality that merged with Jones’s rising paranoia (aided, no doubt, by a cocktail of drugs he used to work and sleep) to make for one of the more frightening cults in recent history. Jones was Father, at the very least, and perhaps God herself (or some reincarnation of past holy figures, like Buddha or Jesus) and the only one who could save his people from the destructive world around them.

At first the destruction was nuclear war. That was reason Jones moved Peoples Temple from Indianapolis to California, setting up shop in a rural area north of San Francisco that supposedly was far enough away from primary targets that, with favorable winds, residents could survive a nuclear attack. That fear didn’t keep Jones from barnstorming around the country on a fleet of busses doing revival shtick, however.

The threats quickly became more personal. There were defectors from Peoples Temple, people who either saw Jones for the con man he was or simply grew tires of giving everything they made and owned to the organization. To Jones each was a potential villain, providing fodder to the press or authorities about what went on in the increasingly secretive group. Journalists started to close in, too. The final straw was a group of former members who focused on getting other family members, including children, out of the group who, they claimed, were being held against their will.

Although Jonestown itself had been founded earlier, these existential threats are what drove Jones and most of his followers there well before the settlement was ready to support them. Harsh conditions, piled on top of Jones’s paranoia and iron grip over his followers, soon degraded into homicidal/suicidal tendencies. Jones simulated an attack on the compound and later staged a mock suicide, just to make sure everyone reacted in the proper fashion. By the time San Francisco-area Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in November 1978, the keg was set to blow. Ryan and several others were murdered at a nearby airport, while Jones led the mass of his followers in Jonestown to their death via a mix of cyanide and Flavor-Aid (not Kool-Aid, to set the record straight).

More than 900 people died in Jonestown and there’s always been some controversy over what label to apply to it. Jones called it “radical suicide” (?), but given that at least a third of the dead were children it’s easy to say that many of the deaths were flat out murders. Beyond the children there’s evidence that some adults were held down and injected with poison, rather than having drunk it on their own. Still, hundreds of people, at least, appear to have willingly laid down their lives when Jones said so.

The big question, of course, is why? Guinn doesn’t do much evaluation of the aftermath of Jonestown or bring in any kind of experts to attempt to explain it. Instead, he lets the work he’s already done, showing how Peoples Temple developed, do the work. What he shows is that people really believed in Jones. Some believed in his commitment to social justice. Others came at it from a more religious angle, drawn in by the healings and such that Jones performed on the revival circuit. Because once your religion has primed you to believe miracles exist, why would you doubt the con man that actually says he performs them? Regardless, they believed in Jones and the outside world gave them just enough reason to buy into his paranoid rants. More than anything else, they let Jones come to define their world, to the exclusion of any critical thinking or close examination of what he was doing.

It’s hard not to think of Donald Trump while reading The Road to Jonestown. Not because Trump is going to lead us into ritual suicide (with a side of murder) anytime soon (we hope), but because of the freakishly similar way Trump and Jim Jones interacted with the outside world. To Jones’s followers he was the only person who could solve their problems and save them from the injustices of the world. Trump during the campaign repeatedly expressed similar sentiments. Jones never failed – he was only failed by underlings or thwarted by shadowy outside forces. Likewise, Trump never backs a loser and is constantly doing battle with the “deep state” or “fake news.” More than anything else, Jones and Trump share a complete aversion to dealing with reality. That way lies madness, as Jones and others have proven.

Hopefully, we’re not all on the road to Jonestown again, without quite realizing it.


Our Dogs Are Nudists

Last year was a transitional one when it came to canines in our house. In late summer we lost our one-eyed Chihuahua mix, Maia, when her constellation of medical conditions finally caught up to her. After a few weeks with an empty house, we worked with a rescue organization in Ohio and adopted a pair of fuzzy little people, Kalindi (l) and Zaria (r).


As you can see, they’re both Chihuahuas and both pretty tiny. To add to thing, Kalindi is short haired. It being winter and everything, the wife pushed almost immediately to get them each a sweater to help keep them warm when they went outside.

Now I should say I’ve never been a big fan of dressing dogs up. The dogs never really seem to like it and they tend to look silly. And, frankly, it makes it more difficult to rub their bellies. I mean, what’s the point in having dogs if there isn’t copious belly rubbing taking place? Still, our old Min Pin, Uzume, had a couple of sweaters that did seem to keep her warm, so I wasn’t completely opposed to the plan. That the vet suggested it might not be a bad idea certainly decreased my chances of successfully opposing it.

So for Christmas both dogs got sweaters (along with treats and toys – we’re not monsters). After they had been successfully deployed, my wife took a picture.


As it stands, that will prove to be the only photographic evidence that Kalindi and Zaria once had sweaters. That’s because it’s become clear that they don’t particularly care for them. They didn’t protest initially and didn’t provide any resistance when the wife and I put them on. They even wore them around for a while and seemed to be enjoying the extra warmth.

Then the stripping started.

It wasn’t an immediate thing. Indeed, the little beasts seemed to enjoy their sweaters. Then, things started happening. Kalindi is fond of balling up under a blanket (ironically, purchased in Mexico years before I ever thought I’d have Chihuahuas to snuggled under it) and, lo and behold, when she emerged from her slumbers one day her sweater was about halfway off. She didn’t fight to get it the rest of the way off, but you could tell where she was headed.

I don’t even know where and how Zaria got hers off. It just . . . was, as some point.

Naturally, we put them back on. There was no fuss or protest, but a few hours later, both of them were off again. Even after we went outside without them during our recent frigid spell, neither pup seemed interested, although they’re very passive aggressive about it.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that our dogs are nudists and want nothing to do with civilization’s “clothes.” Fine my me – easier to rub bellies!


The Fate of The Messenger

Last month you’ll recall I talked, in rather gushing form, about The Messenger, my project for National Novel Writing Month last year. It was a bold experiment in terms of craft – I was flying by the seat of my pants, rather than working in my more plotted out way – and in terms of style – it was to be a sci-fi romp, something a bit more fun and light than my normal stuff. November was great – I “won” NaNo – and December was all about finishing the thing up.

Well, let me tell you, December sucked. In the words of my perhaps ancestor Robert, things gang aft agley. Hard.

I expected progress to slow down some, without the motivation of NaNo breathing down my neck. For about two weeks I did pretty well, but soon enough my lack of planning caught up with me. Mind you, I didn’t even know how this story would end when I started it, which is startlingly rare for me. Even if the middle bits are squishy I usually start with an idea of the beginning and the end. The more I pushed into The Messenger the more I realized I didn’t know where it was going.

I also started to worry more and more about continuity in the story. Things are always a little out of whack with first drafts, but usually I have copious notes to fall back on. Here I didn’t and it made it easy to get stuck in particular scenes, since I had to dig back through what I’d already written to try and tie things up. More often than not I was finding that I couldn’t tie them up, not in this draft anyway.

So, just as things were getting a little grim, the Christmas break showed up. I was off the entire time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, as was the wife, so plenty of time to finish up The Messenger, right? First I got sick (Merry Xmas, huh?), then the wife took her turn. Any motivation I had for writing dried up quickly. All the doubts I was having about whether I could finish this draft piled on and, as sometimes happens, The Messenger became a smoking crater. It’s dead, at least as a complete first draft.

What does that mean going forward?

Well, for one thing, it means The Messenger is on the back burner for the time being. Hopes of having a solid draft just in need of polishing are out the window. It will take some serious work to get right, work that I’ll be putting in on The Orb of Triska and its sequels for the near future.

For another, it means my experiment with pantsing proved one thing conclusively – I can’t do it. I went out, performed without a net, and fell flat on my face. Oh well, lesson learned.

Another lesson learned is that, maybe, writing big space-based science fiction isn’t for me. I never intended for it to he “hard” sci-fi. In fact, it has a disclaimer at the beginning about how it’s more “Dr. Who than Dr. Asimov” and sticklers looking for strict scientific accuracy should look elsewhere. Nonetheless, when you start flinging characters (of various species) across the galaxy things to worry about pile up. It’s entirely possible that The Messenger may wind up as a fantasy, rather than spacey sci-fi, story.

I still like the basic story of The Messenger. I like some of the things I created to fill in the universe in which it was told. None of that’s going to go to waste, but I can’t say it’ll wind up being what I intended it to be going in. That’s the frustrating joy of writing – almost all the time you wind up with something other than what you intended.


Writing Resolutions for 2018

Happy New Year, everybody!


I figured now was as good a time as ever, and this as good a place as any, to set out some goals for the 2018 writing year. I’ve done the same in the past in private and it’s a good way to crystallize my plans, even if they don’t all come off in the end. So, what’s on the agenda for this year?

The Water Road Box Set

Now that The Water Road trilogy is complete, it only makes sense to put together an omnibus version that combines all three books in one convenient package.

2017-525 Front Page Box Set

The plan is to make the box set a Kindle exclusive, thus returning The Water Road trilogy to Kindle Unlimited. The individual books would still be available from Amazon and all other outlets.


Last year I decided to try and do some interviews with other writers. I’ve done a few and thought they were fun and interesting and wanted to see if I could repay the favor. I wound up doing 19 interviews with all kinds of writers from all over the world. It was such a rewarding experience that I’m going to do more this year. I’ve already got about a half dozen people lined up.

More Short Stories

I’ve got a couple of finished short stories that need to find homes, so I’ll keep trying to shop those around. I’ve also got a pretty decent backlog of short story ideas, so while I’m polishing longer works I’m planning to knock out a few new short stories. Someday, down the road, there will be enough to make releasing a second collection of short stories a reality. It will include a couple of stories set in the universe of The Water Road.

Speaking of collections, look for The Last Ereph and Other Stories to get a spiffy new cover (done by someone who is not me) sometime this year, too.

Orb of Triska Polishing

Last year, you’ll recall, I finished the first draft of a novel in a new series, The Orb of Triska. My main job for 2018 will be getting that polished up and finished. Once that happens, I’m not quite sure what the next step will be. I may get it ready for publishing, with an eye toward releasing it in 2019. I may sit on it until another book or two (of the planned seven) is done. Or I may shop it around to see if any agents/publishers are interested. A lot will depend on when it’s “done” and how I’m feeling about it then.

Write The Scepter of Maril

Regardless of what becomes of The Orb of Triska one goal for later in the year is to start work on the second book in the Empire Falls series, The Scepter of Maril. If all goes well, it should be my NaNo project for 2018.

I think that about covers it. If you’re wondering about a certain other project I’ve talked about before – I’ll have some info about that in a couple of days.