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Is representing yourself in court fair on the victims?

You’ve probably heard about people representing themselves in court. In theory this is something I’m not bothered by. Personally, I’d hire a lawyer with experience and a law degree in the same way I hire a mechanic when there’s a problem with my car – because they’re the expert and I’m not. It’s always seemed like a strange decision – more likely to end up with the result the defendant doesn’t want, but each to their own. Until very recently, this was all I had thought about the matter, I’m not sure I even consciously gave it as much thought as that.

This changed when researching a spree-killing case in the US in 2002, The Beltway Snipers.  I’m not going to go into the case in detail, but if anyone is interested, there’s a fantastic podcast called Call Me God that covers it. The basics are that two men terrorised New York and surrounding areas for most of October in 2002. They killed 17 people, injured 10 others, and caused wide spread panic that caused schools to be shut down, sports games to be cancelled, and neighbourhoods to be scared for their family’s safety. The two shooters were caught and named as Lee Boyd Malvo (17) and John Allen Muhammad (41).

Malvo was a minor at the time of the arrest, and this potentially influenced some of his statements with regards to who was responsible during the crime spree – to my knowledge, it has never been fully determined who was shooting the gun in each instance, although both were very much involved. There was also a lot of debate regarding how much Muhammad had influenced and coerced him. Malvo was sentenced to life without parole.

Muhammad, however, was an adult. When it came to trial he decided to represent himself. As I said earlier, wouldn’t be my choice, but why shouldn’t he? Not all of the victims died; some were left with life-changing injuries, but survived. Several chose to testify at trial, as did the family members of those who lost their lives. They not only had to see Muhammad, but they had to talk to him, and be questioned and interrogated by him – the man responsible for shooting them or killing their wife/husband/child. Muhammad also was the one to cross-examine Malvo in the trial, the person testifying against him – a situation that seems like a conflict of interests.

But why do it? Why would someone represent themselves knowing they are likely to end up with a much harsher sentence? Perhaps they genuinely think themselves capable. The beltway Snipers left notes for the police, several of these included the phrase ‘Call me God’ which does support that idea.  Before the trial started, there was a conversation between Judge Ryan and Muhammad to decide if he was fit and able to represent himself at trial. Judge Ryan made it very clear that it could be a significant disadvantage to him to do so, and really tried to dissuade him from continuing. The focus was on Muhammad and whether or not he really understood the implications and technicalities of court, and not one mention of the victims and the impact this could have on them. One of Muhammad’s reasons for representing himself was “Your Honor, I’ve learned in Virginia the more and more I would tell my lawyers to do something, they go in a totally opposite direction”. He wanted control of the situation. Link to the full transcript here.

 Alternatively, they have a separate agenda. The case against John Allen Muhammad was extremely strong: the car they were arrested from had been altered to be the optimum place to fire the rifle without being seen and getaway vehicle, ballistics matched the rifle found with them to all the shootings, and Malvo testified against him. The guilty verdict seemed almost guaranteed, so perhaps the trial wasn’t about that for Muhammad, perhaps it was an opportunity for his final performance.

Muhammad was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. He was pronounced dead in November 2009, several of the families and survivors affected by his actions attended. Lee Boyd Malvo was sentenced to life without parole and is still incarcerated today.

It seems to me that those people had been through enough; not only had they been shot/lost someone, and then had to face going to court – in itself a stressful experience – they were questioned by the man most likely to have orchestrated the shootings. It seems disrespectful to those whose lives have been fractured by these events to allow Muhammad to conduct the questioning and cross-examination instead of an independent lawyer; disrespectful for him to stand up and accuse the police, forensic labs, and others of fabricating evidence and altering the weapon to prove him guilty when their family members are dead. If this were a case about tax evasion or fraud, for example, I don’t think I would have any problem with self-representation although they shouldn’t be able to question their co-conspirators as I see this as a conflict of interest, but in this instance I think it was extremely disrespectful.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Murderabilia

Murderabilia is defined by thefreedictionary.com as “objects that are regarded as valuable because of their connection with murders or other notorious crimes” and comes in many different forms such as possessions of the killer, locks of the killer’s hair, items used by them after the crime (whilst in prison for example), prisoner letters, or even dirt from a murder victim’s grave. Arthur John Shawcross – the Genesee River Killer who murdered eleven women in late 1980s, full profile can be found here – took advantage of his fame and the art supplies available in prison to sell paintings and poems from his cell. One of these paintings sold for nearly $600. When his actions became well known, there was an outcry and he was prevented from continuing.

In 2019, Kurt Cobain’s cigarette stained cardigan from Nirvana’s iconic MTV Unplugged show was sold for $334,000. Kurt Cobain was no angel, but he wasn’t a serial killer, and Nirvana are still very influential in the music world today. What makes murderabilia problematic is it elevates murderers to the same celebrity status, somebody sought after and glamorises their crimes. It encourages the desirability of murderers. This isn’t exclusive to murderabilia, it also occurs in films and TV shows that encourage sympathy or sexualise the killer, for example the 2019 film ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ about Ted Bundy which does both. Serial killers have ruined lives and it’s irresponsible to forget or overlook that.

The victims must also be remembered, and their families who have to live with the consequences. It’s disrespectful that people are making money and celebrating the death of innocent people. But in reality, it’s never the victims who are remembered, Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, The Zodiac Killer, Charles Manson are all names we know well, but can you name any of their victims?

In 1977, American introduced The Son of Sam law to prevent killers from profiting from their crimes through books, films, magazine articles etc as a result of David Berkowitz – aka the Son of Sam who believed the neighbourhood dogs were telling him to kill, full story here – selling the rights to his story, instead the profits can be obtained by the victims. This law did, however, spark some free-speech debates, and isn’t enforced in all states. This isn’t the only move taken to curb the trade, as “Following negative publicity, trading in murderabilia was banned on eBay in 2001” (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249768396_Monsters_Inc_Serial_killers_and_consumer_culture) . However, there are many independent websites that aren’t regulated where it has continued freely.

I would personally rather that the industry didn’t exist, that these items were disposed of, and forgotten about as if their owners weren’t famous. However, if it must exist, I personally draw the line when the killer themselves is profiting from their crime, for example, Arthur John Shawcross. The Son of Sam law that prohibits killers from profiting from their crimes is an important stance taken by the American legal system, but unfortunately it can easily be circumvented by a third party collecting the money and ‘gifting’ it to the killer by way of commissary if they’re in prison. In 2010, congress tried to introduce the Stop the Sale of Murderabilia to Protect the Dignity of Crime Victims Act of 2010 but it was unsuccessful.

Should more laws be introduced to restrict the trade? What do you think?

Death penalty – does it serve it’s purpose?

In 1976 the death penalty was reintroduced into the justice system in America, although (as of December 2019) it is only legal in 29 states. Prisoners on death row can often be there for many years, even decades, for example Gary Alvord who was convicted of strangling three women in 1974 actually died of natural causes on death row after serving over 40 years. Is it any different to life in prison?

 The main reason seems to be the appeals process; prisoners on death row are entitled to various appeals which take time. Some may argue that their lawyers were incompetent, or request extra forensic testing be done. Furthermore, science is progressing all the time, especially with regard to DNA so there are new tests which could prove vital to their case. Death row inmates have been exonerated by new DNA tests, e.g. Kirk Bloodsworth; please find more about his case here. As a result of the delays, more people are put on death row each year than executed. Appeals are important because there can be no doubt about the inmates guilt if they are to be executed, however “There are some judges and legal scholars now charge that these long delays constitute cruel and inhuman punishment in themselves.” and I’m inclined to agree it is. Not only for the prisoner, but for the victim’s family as well, whilst also being a drain on tax payer’s money.

Furthermore, the death penalty doesn’t seem to be a deterrent as “States that have death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states without such laws.” Does it serve a purpose if crime rates aren’t affected? What is actually achieved by having the death penalty when prisoners can spend decades waiting for an execution date?

Until 2005, another problem was minors being tried as adults and sentenced to death for their crimes. Minors being tried as adults is fundamentally problematic in itself, but especially when the death penalty is an option. In 2005 during Roper vs. Simmons it was ruled unconstitutional for the death penalty to be used when the prisoner was a minor at the time of their crime. As a result, a number of death row inmates had their sentence re-evaluated and commuted to life in prison. Find more information on Roper vs. Simmons here. Could this be the start of a changing system?

I don’t believe in the death penalty for two main reasons: Firstly, mistakes happen and the wrong person may have been found guilty: CNN found “Since 1973, there have been 166 death row exonerations (as of December 2019).” Secondly, if the state takes a life as punishment for taking a murder, aren’t they also guilty of murder? Murder for a murder doesn’t make anyone a saint. My only issue with life in prison is that they’re then a financial drain on the state and hard-working citizen’s taxes for the rest of their lives. Prisons need to be financially supporting themselves through the work of the inmates. Overall, it’s a flawed, ineffective system that desperately requires an overhaul.

I understand this is a controversial topic, please remain civil in the comments. This is my opinion but you’re welcome to disagree.

Why are we so fascinated by death?

As a society, we are fascinated by death; police dramas dominate our TV screens, murder mysteries have a significant portion of book shops, and we always want more. I consider myself to be a fairly passive person, I’m non-confrontational and generally avoid arguments, but find myself excited about a new true crime podcast or unsolved murder TV show. Is there something wrong with me? Is my interest bordering on unhealthy and a sign of something dangerous lurking in my subconscious? I don’t think so, because I’m not the only one.

We’re not strange or disturbed; I think we’re a product of society. Daily newspapers began circulation in Britain at the turn of the 18th century. Life was very different, no phones, no internet, none of the modern, high-speed technology we’re used to. Information wasn’t as readily available and newspapers were a very important source of information about the wider world. Now think about Jack the Ripper, terrorising London in 1888, people were scared for their safety, not wanting to be the next victim. So newspapers became a way to follow the case, learn about any developments, and hopefully learn of an arrest (That in the case of Jack the Ripper never came). It’s certainly no coincidence, that the term ‘yellow journalism’ was coined around this time as “Crooked journalists would often fake evidence, create witness accounts and mislead the police to create racy and sensational stories.” (Thehistorypress.com).

The more sensational the news, the more papers will be sold: “Part of the reason newspaper sales rocketed was because the press used the Whitechapel cases to stoke the public’s fear” (Historytoday.com). Newspapers aim to be the first with breaking news and are always trying to beat the previous story in a vicious cycle which means we’re a society desensitised but also intrigued and wanting more. I believe newspapers initially, and now the wider media, are the main reason we have this morbid fascination with death and murder.

But that’s not the only factor. How about the books we read as children? They had a clear good guy and bad guy; the bad guy was caught and good triumphed, happy ending. Police procedurals and true crime stories are no different, they’re merely the grown up version. It’s a natural progression from one to the other.

There’s also some comfort in it, knowing the justice will be done, the killer will be caught – admittedly not always in real crime – and handed a lengthy prison sentence. It reassures us that the police are efficient, there to protect us, and that society is reacting how we think it should. Similarly, we watch horror films or shows ultimately knowing we’re safe, whilst still feeling that rush of adrenaline.

Leading on from this, we like emotional distance from the killers, the media portrays them as monsters which implies not human/other which has been in play since the Whitechapel murders: “the press were forced to label the killer with haunting titles such as ‘monster’ and ‘fiend’, adding an almost supernatural element to the killer’s reputation.” (Thehistorypress.com). It gives a clear us and them. Reassures us that we’re human and normal, unlike them. There’s also the comfort that it’s not happening to us, which sounds callous but is a natural reaction.

Finally, if we watch and read about these cases – real or not – we feel like we understand the killers a little more and so are better prepared to not become victims ourselves. What did they do, that we can avoid? Our primal instinct of self-preservation comes into play.

What do you think is the reason we’re so fascinated by death?

https://www.historytoday.com/history-matters/how-press-created-%E2%80%98jack-ripper?fbclid=IwAR0JzYYLxEJGmNsONnW_U8NpW8FT_hL_1jSXtKZsgk4tJnipM-rnkfaAAkM

https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/jack-the-ripper-and-the-tabloid-press/

Introductions

Hello! My name is Dean, it’s nice to meet you. Before we get started, I’d like to introduce myself and explain what this blog is about. I’m 25, live in Britain, and have an interest in true crime and horror fiction. I have a degree in Creative Writing – which included modules on Gothic fiction, Crime Scene America, and Myths & Legends. I love reading; all genres, fact and fiction, and have a growing library in my home. Music is another passion of mine, I regularly go to gigs and festivals, and for two years I wrote for the music magazine Distorted Sound interviewing bands, reviewing gigs, and apraising upcoming albums.

The purpose of this blog is to discuss all things true crime and horror, from what do vampires represent to is Gypsy Blanchard a monster? I want to have a conversation so please, let me know what you think.