Three Universities Launch National Database to Track School Shootings

The first of its kind open-source database will collect information on all incidents involving a firearm affecting K-12 students. In a project funded by NIJ, John Jay College, University of Texas at Dallas and Michigan State have partnered to collect and track school shootings in order to come up with prevention strategies.

Three universities have created a national, open-source data base to track school shootings and develop strategies for countering them.

The partnership between John Jay College, the University of Texas at Dallas and Michigan State University, will track fatal shooting attacks that targeted K-12 students or teachers, but also include cases that resulted in injuries but no deaths; domestic violence; workplace violence; as well as suicides on school grounds involving a firearm.

Joshua Freilich

Prof. Joshua Freilich

“The dearth of empirical data on school violence in the United States and the almost complete absence of quantitative data on perpetrators and incidents will be remedied by the production of this database and the analysis of data on the risk factors of school shootings,” said Professor Joshua Freilich, the principal investigator of the project and a member of the Department of Criminal Justice at John Jay College, said Tuesday.

The first-of-its-kind project is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, which aims to provide a knowledge base about the root causes of school violence, as well as assess strategies for increasing school safety.

“At this crucial time in our national discussion on school violence, John Jay College is proud to be at the forefront of academic research that will support local, state and national efforts to tackle this problem with evidence-based policies and interventions,” said Karol V. Mason, President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.“

The database will include data about all publicly known school shootings that resulted in at least one injury from 1990 to December 31st, 2016.

The database will be made public in the spring of 2019.

The major objectives of the project include:

  • documenting the nature of the problem and clarifying the types of shooting incidents occurring in schools;
  • providing a “comprehensive understanding of the perpetrators of school shootings and test causal factors to assess if mass and non-mass shootings are comparable”; and
  • comparing incidents that involved fatal and nonfatal shooting, with a view to “identify intervention points that could be used to reduce the harm caused by shootings.”

See also: Trump Seeks Shutdown of School Safety Studies.

A release explaining the project can be downloaded here.


Sex, Murder and Madness: Lessons From a Gilded Age Trial

The murder of notable New York architect Sanford White by a jealous husband in 1906 thrust young actress and model Evelyn Nesbit  into the center of  the first so-called  “trial of the century.” Simon Baatz, author of a new book about the case, explains why it still matters today.

Evelyn Nesbit may have been America’s first celebrity model. In the early years of the 20th century, the 16-year-old was courted by companies hoping to market her beauty and by some of the country’s richest men hoping to win her favors.

But a murder trial turned her into a notorious footnote of U.S. legal history.

On June 25, 1906, her then-husband, railroad heir Harry Kendall Thaw, murdered New York architect Stanford White, in what his lawyers argued was a fit of insanity to avenge White’s alleged rape of Nesbit a few years earlier.  Quickly dubbed by New York media “the trial of the century” (arguably, the first time the phrase was ever used), it has fueled multiple books and even a movie. But the debate over the facts of the case—and Nesbit’s role in the trial⸺continues to this day.

The newest  book in the genre is The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century,  In a conversation with The Crime Report, author Simon Baatz, a professor of history at John Jay College, argues that the trial offers some intriguing modern lessons about the role of money in sensational criminal cases, the use of the insanity defense, and the politics of  prosecuting rape.

This is an abridged and slightly edited version of the conversation.

The Crime Report: Unlike many non-fiction books, yours reads like a literary piece of work.  What did you rely on in your research to be able to write so intimately about what the characters were feeling?

Simon Baatz:  Evelyn Nesbit was the main witness in the first trial. There were 14 daily newspapers in New York at the time, and I went through probably about eight of them. It was page after page after page in all of the newspapers, and they printed all of the testimony verbatim. After the trial, her autobiography [Prodigal Days: The Untold Story of Evelyn Nesbit] goes into all the detail again and says what she was thinking and feeling. Nothing is imagined. Evelyn was also paid $30,000 to be a consultant on the 1955 movie [Girl on the Red Velvet Swing]. But as I said right at the end of the book, you never know what the truth is. You never know if that rape ever happened.

TCR: Throughout the trials, Nesbit’s rape is used to justify Thaw’s murder of Stanford White. It’s only in the Afterword that you mention it is impossible to verify the veracity of the rape.

Simon Baatz

Simon Baatz

Baatz: In her autobiography, she does not say the rape didn’t happen, but she presents the whole evening as a much more benign thing, that in fact she was unconscious, but White didn’t deliberately try. She testified under oath at two trials that the rape had happened. But Thaw’s lawyers may have put pressure on her to testify that the rape happened and to lie. She was only 21 when the first trial happened. The lawyers were paid very high fees. They wanted to get [Thaw] off the electric chair—there was a real possibility that he could have ended up on the electric chair. So you have no idea where the truth lies.

TCR: There is a precedent of women having the veracity of their sexual accusations questioned, so why in Evelyn’s case would she be lying about the assault unless her rape was a tool that Harry Thaw was using to justify Stanford White’s murder?

Baatz: But that’s the way he did use it. Everything that comes out of the trial is to appeal to the jury, is to say this was a terrible thing that happened to his wife. She was raped, she was drugged, and therefore the jury would acquit him out of sympathy.   And the thing that I found very curious and interesting was that this defense, although there is no law anywhere that says, yes, a husband can kill a man who assaulted his wife, on many, many occasions, especially in the southern states, a husband would kill the man who was having an affair with his wife over adultery, and the jury would decide a verdict of not guilty, so this defense had been used many times before.

TCR: Like a form of vigilante justice?

Baatz: Yes, exactly, and the jury would disregard the fact that a murder had actually happened and would vote not guilty. So they were hoping to use this defense again in this case.  But I tried to avoid being very explicit on doubting her word. It was very delicate for me. I don’t want to say Evelyn Nesbit is lying. What I said is she may have perjured herself because of the attorneys. All those men may have put pressure on her to do that. You know, she had no education, no profession, nothing on which she could fall back on.

There was no social security, there was nothing that we now take for granted in terms of safety net. She was on her own, so she was in a very powerless position, and those attorneys and her husband could have cut her off without a penny if she hadn’t testified the way they wanted her to testify.

Stanford White

Stanford White via Wikkipedia

TCR: Let’s discuss Stanford White’s role in Evelyn Nesbit’s life when she first moves to New York from Philadelphia.  He finances the family’s lifestyle. How is it that Evelyn’s mother Florence accepts his money without ever questioning his motives?

Baatz: It’s probably difficult for us to put ourselves into the situation that Evelyn’s mother was in. That she also had no way to make a living. There was literally no safety net. Her daughter has found some means of employment, some income as a model, but that’s still kind of precarious because how long is that going to last? And suddenly White comes along, portrays himself as this kind of disinterested guardian and, under the circumstances, who is to judge Florence? Is Florence going to turn down White’s money when he seems to be just treating her like royalty?  That’s part of the explanation.

Everyone said he was a very charming man, a very genial character, and she would have had no reason to believe otherwise. She would have had no evidence about the things that he did or didn’t do.

TCR: After her association with Stanford White, Evelyn ends up marrying Harry Thaw, heir to the Pittsburgh railroad fortune, who has a bit of a sinister reputation even before the murder. What do you make of her relationship with Harry?

Baatz: Why would you marry someone who might have come across at times as mentally unstable? A lot of people would recount that for instance if he was in a restaurant and something happened that displeased him, maybe a waiter didn’t bring his meal quickly, he would often just pull the cloth and all the dishes would fall smash onto the floor. You know, he would just trash a restaurant and then he would just give over however much money needed.

It’s difficult to explain unless you realize that she was someone who had no resources to fall back upon, and here was this seemingly nice man who was willing to have her as a wife, who was offering her security.

But Evelyn stood by her husband. It’s quite amazing that she was willing to go in public and testify on the aspects of her life that really reflected poorly on her. It was humiliating. The only way you can explain it is that she was very, very young.

TCR: There is a recurring theme in the book that Evelyn didn’t have to testify in Harry Thaw’s trials. You write that “the tragedy of Evelyn’s life” was that there had been no necessity for her testify, or to give up her privacy and reputation in the process.

Evelyn Nesbit testifying at trial via Flickr

Baatz: The first trial is in 1907 and she testifies then. She is the principle witness. In the second trial in 1908, she repeats exactly the same story. By then he’s in a mental asylum [where he was confined after a verdict that found him not guilty by reason of insanity], and he wants her to move to the village of Fishkill, NY, to be near him in the asylum. She doesn’t want to do that. She stays in Manhattan and there are reports of her being seen in restaurants with men. He’s sitting in the asylum reading the newspaper accounts and he gradually begins to stir himself up into this frenzy of jealousy and very quickly after he is in the asylum they basically separate and have nothing to do with each other.

And I think that causes her to think: Should I then be testifying on his behalf in the future? What am I getting out of it? And the answer is , I am getting nothing out of it. And then he stops making the payments on the house on Park Avenue. She has to move into a small studio, and eventually she becomes a witness for the state when he’s in the asylum.

He goes through all these appeals afterwards. What I left out of the book is that there are all these other lawsuits. So for example, he would go through all these lawyers and fire them as soon as the case was over and hire a new set of lawyers. But the family was very slow in paying the lawyers. So the lawyers took the family to court for payment, and when those lawsuits were heard, details came out that revealed that the lawyers in previous trials had perjured themselves over bribed witnesses, so the district attorney would then go after those lawyers and prosecute those lawyers.

TCR: The trial raises issues that are relevant today. People with means can hire lawyers who will build a strong defense case for their clients. Someone who can’t afford a lawyer doesn’t have the same advantages. That was one of the questions I had as a reader: was Harry Thaw acting rationally and with intent when he killed Stanford White?

Baatz: On one side you could say, yeah he was acting rationally because here is this man walking around. Suppose Harvey Weinstein got away with no punishment? A lot of people would find that outrageous, and in fact a lot of people have found it outrageous that for many, many years he’s been doing all these things and there’s been absolutely no consequences whatsoever. In fact, the consequences are whether he becomes more and more famous, more and more Oscars. So a lot of people would be very upset and angry about that; but we have some reasonable thought that Weinstein is going to be prosecuted. That people like Kevin Spacey are probably going to be prosecuted, and therefore no one is taking the law into their own hands.

With White, he was not going to be prosecuted, he was walking around, this was five years after the rape had happened. White was  a man about town, and I could understand that Harry Thaw would get upset to see this, and he’s in love with his wife. He treasures his wife. He wants the marriage to work out, and she’s telling him about this dreadful rape that happened, which was that she was drugged, she was lured to the building under false pretenses, she thought there was going to be a party. She was then drugged with the wine, she was unconscious. She wakes up naked next to this man who is three times her age, and there is blood on the sheets.

All the previous authors described this as a seduction but that word never appears in my book. There is nothing about this that is seducing because when you say seduction there is an implication of consensual behavior. If you’re 16, can anything really be consensual?

What really annoyed me no end was all these people calling it a seduction. How did it come about that people are calling this a seduction? And my best answer is that in the 1950s people started to rediscover McKim, Mead, and White, and rediscover Stanford White. By the 1920s all that architecture fell out of fashion, and in 1925 Madison Square Garden, which was a beautiful building, was torn down. Part of the reason why they described this as a seduction was because they are writing these books about Stanford White as the best architect in New York City’s history, and it would be really inconvenient to have him as a pedophile and as a rapist.

A lot of people actually claim that she was the person at fault. That she was responsible for all of this. It’s so false. He is 47, she is 16. She has no knowledge of society. How could she be responsible? It’s just absurd.

TCR:  Evelyn’s story is very much tied to America’s Gilded Age, with wealthy industrialist families such as the Thaws and the Carnegies exerting great influence on American society and culture. Please put that in the context of the transformation New York was undergoing at the time.

Baatz: New York City is changing enormously in these years. From about 1880 onward, huge numbers of immigrants are coming in from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe. I think, though, there is very little contact, almost zero contact, between what’s going on on the Lower East Side with the immigrants coming in, Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, there is almost no contact between that world and the world of Stanford White, which is separate uptown.

The only contact probably would have been prostitutes from the immigrant neighborhoods who were coming uptown and working the streets around Madison Square and that part of town. But Stanford White himself probably never went down to the immigrant neighborhoods, and the only time Harry did was when he was in the police station in Mott Street, which is right in the heart of the Italian immigrant neighborhood, and I think the book reflects the reality that there was no contact between these worlds.

The other thing we have difficulty understanding is that people in those days didn’t really travel. They certainly didn’t travel outside New York City because it was too expensive to go anywhere. They certainly didn’t travel to Europe. Only the rich could do that.  I don’t think people even traveled much within New York City. If you were living down on what is now Canal Street, and your work is there, and your apartment is near Canal Street, there is little reason for you to be wanting to go uptown to Madison Square.

TCR: During Thaw’s trials, Anthony Comstock, who founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873, campaigned for decades against obscenity.  And yet, Harry Thaw’s situation and subsequently lurid trials actually generated a lot of sympathy from the public. What was the criminal justice system like in early 20th century New York?

Baatz: The Society for the Suppression of Vice was a private organization and somehow Comstock got enormous influence, perhaps because it was seen as the only effective agency campaigning against pornography, against birth control. Congress can only deal with things that are across state lines. So the only influence they could have was to prevent anything being sent by mail across state lines, and within a state you would have to go to the state legislature to deal with it, so he was very successful in getting Congress to pass this law against transmitting obscene literature across state lines.

There is a wonderful book called Crimes Against Children by Stephen Robertson and there were a whole lot of articles written by historians within the last 15 years, about child abuse in this period, about pornography, about prostitution. In 1895 the New York State legislature passed a series of laws, including one that raised the age of consent from ten to 18. And they also vastly changed the laws on rape.

Before 1895, to prosecute someone on the charge of rape you had to have corroboration that it had occurred, which of course is close to impossible. [You had] to demonstrate that the woman had resisted, that she had fought back, and this would be evidence that this was presumably not consensual.

It’s quite a radical change. After 1895 just to have intercourse with someone younger than 18, by definition was illegal, was rape, and the penalty was a minimum of ten years in the penitentiary, plus a fine. So it’s very significant.

The other thing as you say is that whenever Harry Thaw appeared in public, huge crowds turn out for him, and the popular feeling was that Thaw should be released, he did nothing wrong, so the public attitude towards all of this is incredibly favorable.

TCR: Did Stanford White’s murder and Harry Thaw’s trials affect law enforcement at that time?

Baatz: I can’t say I know a great deal more about this because the other thing is that it’s not easy to find out information. Someone made the point: how much attention were the newspapers paying to a normal rape case when the people were not famous? And the answer is very little. If it appeared in the newspaper at all it would be two or three lines.

What’s different about this case is that it just took up pages and pages because of the celebrity of the people involved. You have Stanford White whom everybody knows, who is responsible for some of the most beautiful buildings in New York; you have this chorus girl and the fact that she is in the theater, anybody involved in the theater was by definition disreputable; and you have very, very wealthy people involved. It all made for a very sensational case.

evelyn nesbitt

Nesbit dodging photographers during trial. photo via Flickr

TCR: What role did newspapers play in the trials?

Baatz:  Evelyn’s testimony was deliberately graphic, because the more graphic she made it, the worse it would portray Stanford White, and therefore the more justification Harry would have for killing him. I think what appeared in the daily newspapers was so unprecedented, for Americans to read about, and very shocking. To us it wouldn’t appear shocking at all.

It was also really the golden age of American newspapers.  Chicago in 1924 had six daily newspapers; New York City had 14 daily newspapers. There was no radio, no television, no internet. So the newspapers had enormous influence in what was reported and what was written about, and everybody bought a newspaper. these newspapers were tremendously influential, tremendously powerful, and very accessible.  They played a role in shaping how people perceive these things.

TCR: If as you say the trials were printed in such a way to justify Thaw’s murder charges, the newspapers at the time didn’t demonstrate any journalistic objectivity. Why were the newspapers taking Thaw’s defense?

Baatz: Partly because Stanford White wasn’t around to defend himself. The other thing is that the Thaw family was very energetic in pushing their case. I didn’t mention it in the book but they financed a play that was playing in a theater in New York City. They financed at least one movie, a silent movie, which was probably one of the first movies ever produced, and they made this huge publicity campaign. I think there were also clues that they were actually paying some journalists to write articles for magazines that would be favorable to the Thaw family, and all of Stanford White’s friends kind of scattered.

TCR: No one came to White’s defense?

Baatz: Very few people came to his defense.  His wife Bessie lived in Long Island, and she was obviously completely humiliated because she’d been living this upper class life as a respectable society lady, and suddenly all this information about her husband’s secret life is coming out, so she’s really not going to be out there defending him.

TCR: In 1913, Harry Thaw manages to successfully escape from the asylum in Fishkill and flees to Canada, where he also experiences public support, but Canadian authorities still want him out of the country. Since he couldn’t be prosecuted for a crime he had committed in New York State, what grounds do they have to force him to return to the US?

Baatz:  Canada had passed immigration legislation only a few years before. Thaw’s lawyers in Canada were going to claim that the legislation, which was going to be used against Harry Thaw was unconstitutional. The Canadian government knew that the Thaw family were willing to spend as much money as it took, and they were afraid that Thaw would then tie up their courts in Canada with appeal after appeal, which is what he’d done in New York. They don’t want that to happen, so they throw him back into the United States and in those days the border was not guarded, you could drive back and forth without it being questioned, so he’s back in New Hampshire, and New York wants to extradite him from New Hampshire.

But you can’t just say to New Hampshire we want so and so; you can only extradite someone on the basis that there is an indictment against that person. So first they have to indict Harry on some charge, and the charge they come up with is escaping from the asylum, conspiracy to escape, and then New Hampshire extradites him back to New York.

TCR: And then in 1915 the Supreme Court of New York takes on Harry Thaw’s case?

Baatz: Yeah, because the authorities in New Hampshire said we can’t really decide this because this seems to be an extradition request on a whim. How can New York State claim that Thaw is conspiring when he was insane? An insane person can’t conspire, an insane person can’t be part of the conspiracy, so they get him back to New York, but they get him back on the basis of an indictment against him for conspiracy.

Well, New York State can’t just drop that indictment and pretend it never existed, and throw him into the asylum. They now have to put him on trial on the basis of the indictment, which was an indictment for conspiracy, so now he goes on trial. The judge allows the jury to hear the case, and the jury, because popular support is so strong, then declares that he is sane and not guilty of the conspiracy, and then he is released. He is a free person.

TCR: The book focuses on Evelyn Nesbit’s entanglements with the men at the center of the case, but her own life as an actress post-trials merits attention.

Baatz:  At the end of her life, she was quoted as saying “The lucky person was Stanford White,” and she gave the impression that old age was very lonely and sad, but I don’t really think that was true.  She got to move to California to be with her son who was supporting her; she had three grandchildren, she was in a pottery studio.

But her life immediately after the murder was a little bit up and down because she married again, she was in vaudeville, she becomes addicted to morphine and to cocaine, and she has her son; and then in the 1920s and 1930s she had to make a living singing in the cabarets in New York and Atlantic City, but then her son is her savior and he supports her.

TCR: Do you consider your book a sort of redemption of Evelyn Nesbit?

Baatz: She is a very young, 16 years old when all of this happens, very naive, what experience does she have? She’s never been to college, she’s had no high school education to speak of. She’s come to the big city, she’s caught in between these two men, one is 47, one is 31. I felt that nobody in previous accounts respected her as a person.

I think my editor was a little bit frustrated that there was too much Harry Thaw and not enough Evelyn Nesbit, but the problem with that is that once this murder case happened and the trials were over, there was very little information about her. But I think my book redeems her.

Julia Pagnamenta is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.


Can We Prevent a Drone Terror Attack?

Some 200,000 drones are now sold to hobbyists in an “uncontrolled’ global market every month. A Philadelphia professor says they have already been deployed by terror groups in the Middle East and by U.S. criminals, and a $1.6 billion industry has merged to develop anti-drone technology.

The uncontrolled market in toy or hobbyist drones makes their future use in a domestic terrorist attack “likely,” says a researcher and lecturer on drone warfare.

But it will still require sophisticated technical skills to deploy them effectively, according to Michael J. Boyle, Associate Professor of Political Science at La Salle University in Philadelphia, and a Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“It’s not quite as easy to launch a terrorist drone attack as the breathless media suggests,” Boyle told a recent terrorism seminar at John Jay College.

But “given the increasing availability of drones, it is likely that there will be a terrorist drone attack in the developed world,” he said.

Boyle estimated that 200,000 drones are sold globally each month on a “toy drone market that is completely uncontrolled.” Even the cheapest drones can be rendered harmful with DIY adaptations.

Meanwhile, concerns about the use of weaponized drones in domestic terrorism have fueled a boom in anti-drone technology development, with estimates that this has already become a $1.6 billion industry, said Boyle.

“As it is now, you can buy a drone on Amazon and it goes out there,” Boyle said.

Interdiction strategies range from using radio frequencies and acoustic signatures to the Dutch government’s training hawks to go after drones in the sky. Geo-fencing is effective in stopping drones, particularly at airports, but “you can hack it,” he said.

In the U.S. so far, the dark side of drones has been confined to “routine criminal activity,” such as dropping drugs and other contraband into prisons. Boyle suggested there have most probably been “disrupted attacks” already in the U.S., the United Kingdom, or other Western countries.

But he noted that “aborted attacks are not on the public record.”

Drone manufacturing has been dominated by the U.S., Israel, and China, but other countries are jumping in, and now more than a dozen nations produce them.

So far, such attacks have occurred in the Middle East, primarily Iraq and Syria. This January, a swarm of armed miniature drones was launched at a Russian military base in Syria, with ISIS believed to be behind sending 13 drones packed with explosives into action, possibly backed by Turkey.

The concerns were recently underlined by Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, at a Senate panel last September.

“I think we do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones,” Wray said. “We have seen that overseas already with some frequency. I think that the expectation is that it is coming here, imminently.”

Boyle said that while some terrorism experts could be guilty of “threat inflation,” there is no denying that when it comes to dealing with drones that could be used in attacks, “we are in the Wild West.”

One of the biggest challenges to turning a drone into a weapon is the fact that current models on the market are able to fly only 20 or 30 minutes. Drones are also unstable, can’t carry substantial payloads, are resistant to chemicals being added, and are vulnerable to weather conditions, especially wind.

And, Boyle noted, it is very hard to conduct a dry-run drone attack.

Boyle, who has studied the use of terrorist drones in the Middle East, said the groups that have shown the most success are those who are highly organized and most closely resemble a military command structure.

That would include Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Russian separatists in the Ukraine, and Mexican cartels.

Michael J. Boyle

Michael J. Boyle

“Iran is big on drones,” Boyle said, adding that when it comes to ISIS, the drones tend to be retro-fitted commercial models, based on analysis of wreckage.

One concern is that with ISIS in retreat in parts of the Middle East, foreign fighters with battlefield expertise will return to their native countries, ready to purchase, weaponize, and launch drones.

Nonetheless, “It’s much harder to carry out an attack in a well policed city in the Western world than in a battlefield in Syria or Iraq,” Boyle said.

“It’s unlikely that terrorist drone attacks will be a regular event due to technical limits.”

When it comes to homegrown terrorists, Boyle said his research shows that far-right violent groups steer clear of drones because they are paranoid of the machines’ ability to conduct surveillance and gather information for the government.

As for someone acting on his own, it’s “not that easy for a lone wolf to do,” he said.

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital) of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Justices Won’t Use Arizona Case to Review Death Penalty

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a broad challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty. The court will not hear an Arizona contract killer’s argument that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and has become a “freakish” penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed a direct challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty on Monday. It refused to hear an Arizona contract killer’s argument that it amounts to impermissible cruel and unusual punishment and that American society has reached a consensus on the need to strike it down, Reuters reports. The justices rejected inmate Abel Daniel Hidalgo’s bid to strike down Arizona’s death penalty law, which he argued makes too many defendants in the state eligible for capital punishment. Hidalgo fatally shot two men at a body shop in 2001 after being paid $1,000 by a gang member. Under Arizona law, the death penalty can be meted out when the crime involved at least one of a list of 14 “aggravating circumstances,” such as committing prior serious offenses or murdering for monetary gain. The number of aggravating factors has risen steadily, and 99 percent of first-degree murder defendants are eligible for capital punishment, Hidalgo said.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who has criticized the way the death penalty is used in the U.S., said that Arizona’s highest court wrongly applied U.S. Supreme Court precedent and that the state’s system “points to a possible constitutional problem.” He was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Hidalgo said that in Arizona as elsewhere, racial minorities are disproportionately affected and some counties impose the death penalty at much higher rates than others, showing that the punishment is arbitrary. Since the high court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the number of executions carried out in the U.S. States has generally been declining since 2000. A majority of states have either outlawed capital punishment or no longer carry out executions. Opinion polls have showed dropping public support for the death penalty, and several botched executions in recent years have added to societal concern over the practice. “In short,” Hidalgo’s lawyers wrote, “the death penalty has become a rare and ‘freakish’ punishment.”


Trump ‘Not Considering Firing’ Mueller, But Tweets Continue

White House attorney Ty Cobb said the president wasn’t contemplating firing the chief of the Russian probe, but Trump lashed out on social media again Monday, calling it a ‘witch hunt.’

President Trump is not considering firing special counsel Robert Mueller, White House attorney Ty Cobb said Sunday evening—even after the president directly lashed out at Mueller’s probe during the weekend, reports CNBC news.

The lawyer’s assurance wasn’t likely to assuage concerns that the president would act against the special counsel, however. On Monday, Trump continued his social-media onslaught against the Mueller probe by again calling it a “witch hunt.”

Over the weekend, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former FBI deputy director Andrew Mc­Cabe, a little more than 24 hours before McCabe was set to retire.

McCabe alleged that the action was an attempt to slander him and undermine the ongoing special counsel investigation into the Trump campaign. 

McCabe said he was being targeted because he was a witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia and asserting that his actions were appropriate. 

“This attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally, but to taint the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally,” he continued, adding that the campaign “highlights the importance of the Special Counsel’s work.” 

Sessions said that both the Justice Department inspector general and the FBI office that handles discipline had found “that Mr. McCabe had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions.”

President Trump tweeted that McCabe “knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!” Michael Bromwich, Mc­Cabe’s attorney, said he had “never before seen the type of rush to judgment — and rush to summary punishment.”

Simultaneously on Saturday afternoon, John Dowd, President Trump’s lawyer, asked the Justice Department to shut down the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election immediately, the Washington Post reports. Dowd said the investigation led by Robert Mueller was fatally flawed early on and “corrupted” by political bias.

He called on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to end it, who oversees that probe, to shut it down. Dowd first told the Daily Beast he was speaking on Trump’s behalf but then told the Post he was not.

On a twitter rampage, Trump criticized “leaking, lying and corruption” in federal law enforcement agencies, but he stopped short of echoing Dowd’s call for an end to the Mueller probe.

If Dowd’s statement reflected Trump’s legal strategy, it would represent a significant shift in the president’s approach to the Mueller investigation.

Trump’s lawyers and spokesmen have pledged that he and his staff would cooperate fully with Mueller’s probe. The White House has responded to requests for documents, while senior officials have sat for hours of interviews with the special counsel’s investigators. 

This summary was prepared by TCR staffer Megan Hadley.


Gun Crazy? No Easy Explanations for Mass Shootings

Opponents of gun control argue that better attention to mentally troubled individuals will do more to prevent mass shootings than restricting access to firearms to the general population. But our columnist argues that there is little evidence supporting mental illness as a critical factor in acts of tragic violence.

To the rest of the world and even to many US citizens, gun ownership in America seems to be out of hand. About one-third of Americans own a gun, with another 10 percent reporting they live in a home with guns. It’s believed that there are enough guns for every American to have one, so that means many own more than one.

How many guns do you need? One to protect your home, maybe one to carry with you for self-defense. If you’re a hunter or sports shooter, two or three long guns might seem reasonable, especially if they are suited for different purposes.

According to a Pew Research survey in 2017, two-thirds of American gun-owners have at least two firearms, and 29 percent own five or more. Three percent own 17 apiece, according to one analysis of an unpublished study by Harvard and Northeastern University researchers.

The Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had even more, two dozen or so, with a dozen bump stocks. Half of those he amassed in a year. Do you need a gun a month? Should that be a red flag?

Not in the United States, home of the Second Amendment to the Constitution: the right to bear arms.

When a mass shooting takes place, Second Amendment defenders such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) say it’s not a problem of guns, but of mental illness. Psychologists point out that mental illness is a far better predictor of self-harm or victimization, not harm against others.

But what if the gun ownership, the gun love, is a sign of mental illness itself?

Is the multiple-gun owner a compulsive collector, a hoarder? Probably not.

One difference between a collector and a hoarder is that collectors are choosy. They take care of their collection, display it attractively, and take pride in showing it to others. A hoarder is less or not at all selective; he or she just crams the items into whatever cubbyhole is available, and piles them in sinks, bathtubs and other spaces that serve another purpose but can no longer be used for that purpose. (One example: a book collector displays his books in a bookcase; a book hoarder piles them in his bathtub.)

By this definition, most firearm collectors are not hoarders. I don’t know of any gun enthusiasts who throw their weapons in a pile or in a sink. Most keep them clean, oiled, polished and either displayed on a rack or kept in a gun safe.

What if they have enough ammunition for an army? Not necessarily.

Some of these people do seem paranoid, afraid of jack-booted government thugs or a civilization-ending natural disaster. One site —that says you need at least 2,000 rounds of ammunition per caliber of firearm: 1,000 with which to practice, and 1,000 for when (not if) the national power grid goes down—warns that 200 million Americans will die when (not if) the nationwide power grid goes down.

But the nonpartisan firearm information site The Trace, no great fan of the NRA, explains that there can be perfectly reasonable reasons to “hoard” ammo for reasons of supply and price, not because it’s preparation for a mass shooting or rebellion.

Are gun enthusiasts actually mentally ill? Not according to Psychiatry Online, which says the idea that gun violence and mental illness are closely linked is a myth.

“It should be noted that there is no established causality between mental illness and gun violence,” DJ Schuette, a self-described “responsible gun owner “who admits to suffering from depression and anxiety, told The Marshal Project.

Schuette keeps his gun in a gun safe to which only his wife has access. He’s not worried that he’ll harm others so much as that he might take his own life, which is a far more common outcome. Of the approximately 37,000 US gun deaths in 2016, 22,000 were suicides. Fewer guns would make those deaths less likely because suicide attempts by other means—drowning, hanging, poison, wrist-cutting—are not as often successful.

Despite the lobbying by the NRA, other “Second Amendment Firsters” and politicians, mental illness is not a good predictor of whether someone will engage in violence with guns. It happens, but is rare. To the extent that modern psychiatry and neurology can determine (often post-mortem), most shooters—even mass shooters—are not mentally ill.

“The large majority of people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression are not inclined to be violent,” according to a study by Jeffrey W. Swanson. Even when they do commit acts of violence, it is is more likely to the result of some other factor such as substance abuse.

Take Stephen Paddock. A thorough autopsy found nothing to suggest he was mentally ill due to a brain tumor or stroke or early onset dementia, although “an abnormally high number of tiny deposits” that are sometimes associated with neurological disease were found scattered on the surface of his brain.

However, in an article earlier this month (at least in part hawking his own 2007 book on the subject), Grant Duwe wrote, “peer-reviewed research has shown that individuals with major mental disorders (those that substantially interfere with life activities) are more likely to commit violent acts, especially if they abuse drugs. … [At] least 59 percent  of the 185 public mass shootings that took place in the United States from 1900 through 2017 were carried out by people who had either been diagnosed with a mental disorder or demonstrated signs of serious mental illness prior to the attack.”

Maybe the difference in the two opinions is that Duwe qualifies his conclusion to include “demonstrated signs” of mental illness, which seems a little vague. The results of at least one survey concluded that “half of all Americans will qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis at some point in their lives, while a quarter of them do in any given year.”

Not even all gun enthusiasts like the idea of blanket mental illness restrictions on gun ownership. These are better predictors, according to Dr. Renee Binder, former president of the American Psychiatric Association. A history of drug or alcohol abuse is “stronger indicator of risk” than mental illness, he said. Though he added that, like mental illness, substance abuse is more associated with being a victim of gun violence than a perpetrator.

In an essay, Brandon Smith questions ” WHO gets to decide who is mentally ill and why they are mentally ill? Will this be done by a jury of our peers? Or, by an unaccountable and faceless bureaucracy? Will the guidelines for mental illness be strict and specific, or will they be broad and wide open to interpretation?

“Once a person has been labeled mentally defective, will they have the ability to appeal the decision, or will the label haunt them for the rest of their lives?”

At the same time, Smith suggests that psychotropic pharmaceuticals are the cause of mass shootings, because “at least 35 school shootings and/or school-related acts of violence have been committed by those taking or withdrawing from psychiatric drugs” and “psychotropic drugs are proven to influence violent and even homicidal behavior in people.”

Without case studies detailing the shooters’ pre-drug-use behavior, it is just as likely that an underlying mental illness that was inadequately medicated led to the shootings.

Paddock was “withdrawing” from the anti-anxiety medicine Valium at the time of the shootings. His physician suspected he might have a bipolar disorder, but he refused to take antidepressants for it. More meds might have prevented this mass shooting.

If mental illness isn’t the cause, maybe it’s substance abuse? Alcohol, yes. Drugs, maybe a little, if the abuser also has a mental illness.

“Alcohol was a more important predictor of future violence than prior violence was,” according to Garen Wintemute, the director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, who conducted a longitudinal study which found that a gun owner convicted of a crime involving alcohol, most often driving under the influence,was almost 33 percent more likely to commit a violent or firearm-related crime.

If we deny guns to people with a mental illness, should we deny gun ownership to anyone with a DUI, too?

Of people who abuse alcohol or drugs, 39.1 percent also have a co-occurring or comorbid mental illness. Sometimes they may be trying to self-medicate the mental illness with alcohol or drugs. When that’s the case, rehab for substance abuse or mental illness alone is not sufficient, and treatment at dual diagnosis treatment centers is required.

The National Comorbidity Survey Replication survey estimated that more than 25 percent of a representative sample of 9,000 adults had a mental illness in one year. Marcia Angell of Harvard Medical School cited an even more alarming survey sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health between 2001 and 2003 that found 46 percent fit the American Psychiatric Association profile of at least one mental illness at some point in their lives.

Even if gun ownership isn’t a mental illness, gun ownership may correlate with tendencies towards anger and impulsivity. However, just over 10 percent of people who have guns in the home also have any pathological anger traits, as do 1.5 percent of those who carry guns.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy states that “Firearm prohibitions for high-risk groups — domestic violence offenders, persons convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes, and individuals with mental illness who have been adjudicated as being a threat to themselves or to others — have been shown to reduce violence.”

Stephen Bitsoli

Stephen Bitsoli

Even that might be a bridge too far for Americans. While other nations—Australia, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom—have had some success with gun control, their solutions likely wouldn’t work in the US because of the Second Amendment, and the strong American belief that guns keep us safe and free.

If it’s not mental illness, drugs or the number of guns we possess, what is it? There are no easy answers. The cause of America’s gun violence problem may be in the American character. In some ways we still think we’re in the Wild West.

Stephen Bitsoli, a Michigan-based freelancer, writes about addiction, politics and related matters for several blogs. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Why Police Shootings No Longer Are Media’s Top Story

Police officers still are killing U.S. civilians at about the same rate as they did in 2015, but attention to the Trump administration has forced police violence and criminal justice reform more broadly out of the headlines.

Edward Minguela, 32, is standing on the sidewalk, his hands in the air. Three Camden County, N.J., police officers approach with their weapons drawn. They’d received an anonymous tip about a man with a gun. Minguela, who fit the description, is unarmed. The first officer to reach Minguela grabs him from behind and slams him to the ground.

The officer then curls a fist and starts punching — landing a dozen rapid blows to Minguela’s head as two other officers help pin the man to the ground. A surveillance camera mounted to a nearby liquor store captured the Feb. 22 beating frame by frame, but it has had little publicity, writes the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery.

Police violence and criminal justice reform more broadly were a leading domestic news story line in the final two years of the Obama administration.  Now the issue has all but vanished from the national political conversation.

It’s not because police violence has stopped. As of last Thursday, 212 people had been shot and killed by U.S. police officers so far this year, according to the Post’s police shooting database, about the same pace of three fatal shootings per day that The Post has recorded since 2015. It’s not because reporters have abandoned police accountability:

Recent months have seen intensive investigations from BuzzFeed, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Tampa Bay Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, among others.

The Trump administration now is the drama at center stage.

“The nation has a short attention span, and frankly, is interested in what the major networks tell the nation it should be interested in,” says Devon Jacob, the civil rights attorney representing New Jersey’s Minguela.


‘Don’t Elect Me:’ Why States Should Abolish County Sheriffs’ Offices

The office of sheriff is “anachronistic,” unaccountable to the public, and should be replaced with a more professional county police department, says a new study published in the Virginia Law Review.

The office of sheriff is “anachronistic,” unaccountable to the public, and should be replaced with a more professional county police department, says a new study.

“There still must be a county law enforcement agency to serve unincorporated municipalities where they exist,” argues the study, published in the March 2018 edition of the Virginia Law Review.

“However, the twentieth century was a story of policing becoming more professionalized, and counties have increasingly found that a professional, dedicated county police department is a better organization to handle law enforcement than a jack-of-all-trades sheriff.”

The study, written by James Tomberlin of the University of Virginia School of Law, said local sheriff’s elections provide minimal accountability since so many incumbents run unopposed.

Quoting former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s response to a question from a citizens’ commission about how he could be held accountable for misconduct— “Don’t elect me”—the author noted that since at least 1932, no incumbent has ever been unseated in Los Angeles County, which hosts the largest sheriff’s department in the United States.

The office of sheriff dates back to the 9th century in England. Even as the power of the office declined after the 13th century, it was given new life in colonial America—and eventually became part of the myth of the West, where upright sheriffs helped tame a lawless frontier.

Today, there are a little over 3,000 sheriffs around the U.S., and their departments employ 352,000 personnel.

While elections nominally make sheriffs accountable to the public for their actions, in practice, voter turnout in local sheriffs’ elections is low, the study said, noting that in rural counties, most qualified replacements for the sheriff would be one of the sheriff’s immediate subordinates, making him or her less likely to want to run against their boss.

Adding to the challenge of public accountability, policing often involves “one-off” discretionary decision-making, which is harder to observe and review than public policy decisions made by politicians.

Municipalities or county governments are currently helpless to affect the conduct of their sheriff’s offices, wrote the author.

Joe Arpaio

Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Caricature by DonkeyHotel via flickr

The study cited the conflict in 2008 between the small Arizona town of Guadalupe and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio who became notorious for his sweeps of local residents suspected of being undocumented immigrants.

Arpaio responded to the mayor’s complaints by saying, “If you don’t like the way we operate, you get your own police department.” But when the mayor said she would consider doing that, Arpaio “raised the stakes two weeks later, stating that he intended to cancel the town’s contract. “

The author contrasted that with Connecticut’s decision to abolish the officer of sheriff following a political battle. He quoted a comment by then-State Rep. Michael P.Lawlor, who said it’s “not a good idea to run a professional agency on a political basis. “

The study advocates merging county and city policing agencies into one department.

The full study can be downloaded here.

This study was prepared by TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Can Better Health Care Help Ex-Inmates Avoid Returning to Jail?

Giving former inmates better health care through Medcaid and other coverage can “enhance public safety, reduce recidivism, and more efficiently use public resources,” says a new guide from the Urban Institute and the law and consulting firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

Returning inmates need cooordinated and effective health care coverage to escape the “revolving door” that cycles many of them back to jail or prison, according to a policy guide released Friday by the Urban Institute.

The guide, prepared by the Urban Institute and the law and consulting firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, is aimed at helping justice-involved individuals enroll efficiently in Medicaid and other health coverage to obtain “coordinated physical and behavioral health care.”

Currently, the “revolving door” between incarceration and the community leaves many people alternating between correctional and community-based providers, the guide said.

Better-coordinated health coverage will “enhance public safety, reduce recidivism, and more efficiently use public resources,” wrote the authors of the guide.

If states can improve health care for released inmates, they “will be in a stronger position to address (the) substance abuse issues, chronic physical and mental illness, unemployment and employment instability, and homelessness that result in many justice-involved people cycling in and out of jail or the hospital,” the authors wrote.

Maintaining health coverage is a common problem for released prisoners.

Prison inmates have four times the rate of active tuberculosis found in the general population, nine to ten times the rate of Hepatitis C, eight to nine times the rate of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, three times times the rate of serious mental illness, and four times the rate of substance abuse disorders, the guide said.

Jail populations have similar high levels. Many inmates fail to get needed care, and when they are released, they often face disruptions in medical care that contribute to recidivism, drug use, and poor and costly health outcomes. One study found a 12-fold increase in the risk of death in the two weeks after release.

Another study of people returning from prison in Ohio and Texas found that, within 10 months of release, a fifth had been hospitalized, and a third had sought care in emergency rooms.

The project, supported by the U.S. Justice Department, is called the “Connecting Criminal Justice to Health Care Initiative” (CCJH), and was developed by corrections and health care officials in Maryland and Los Angeles County, Ca.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Police Misconduct Records Denied, Public Remains in Dark: Study

Despite state public access laws, Colorado law enforcement agencies routinely refuse to release internal files related to police misconduct, according to Denver researchers.

Despite state public access laws, Colorado law enforcement agencies routinely refuse to release internal files related to police misconduct, according to a new report.

Independent researchers Bridget DuPey, Margaret B. Kwoka and Christopher McMichael from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law tried to collect internal affair files during 2015 and 2016 from law enforcement agencies across Colorado—but to little avail.

More than half of the 43 agencies they reached out to either did not respond or rejected their request.

Twenty-four of the agencies provided no responsive records. Only five of the law enforcement agencies queried supplied files that were deemed to be “substantially transparent.”

Under The Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act (CCJRA), discretionary release of investigation files against police officers is permitted.

The intent of Colorado’s open-record laws is to promote the public’s interest in holding government accountable by requiring transparency, the study said.

One court noted that “transparency enhances public confidence in the police department and is constituent with community policing concepts and represents the more modern and enlightened view of the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve.”

But the study found this is hardly the case, and custodians generally deny all requests for files, regardless of the situation or outcomes.

The authors followed up with a second wave of requests to agencies that responded the first time, asking for more specific internal affairs documents.

Forty percent of agencies did not respond at all. Seven percent offered a duplicate of their first response, and thirteen percent asked for a prohibitive access fee.

Moreover, even when the alleged misconduct had been widely publicized, public outrage over the incident was high, and law enforcement agreed to a substantial payout of the alleged victim, public access of the files were still denied.

For example, in July 2017, the City of Aurora paid Darsean Kelley $110,000 to settle claims against an Aurora police officer who tased him in the back. A video of the incident had been viewed thousands of times, and Mr. Kelley’s case had generated nationwide media coverage, the study showed. 

Still the authors’ open records request to the City of Aurora was denied.

However, law enforcement agencies have admitted that when compelled by the courts to release internal affairs files, no harm has been done to the integrity of any investigations.

To fulfill the promise of Colorado’s open record laws, the state legislature should pass laws requiring police agencies to disclose completed internal affairs files in response to requests, said researchers.

“Without such legislation, the public will remain in the dark even with it comes to police misconduct.”

The full study can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.