Archive for February, 2019

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South – by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

Some books cause a lot of head shaking, and this is one of them. How screwed up a legal system can be is really depressing. It leaves me with the proverbial despair over the fate of mankind. I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked. Power, greed, hubris, inequality – they have existed since the beginning of our time as humans, so what else is new? Only, I guess, that you expect the law in the United States of America to be a paradigm of fairness. It ain’t.

This book concentrates on the legal system in the state of Mississippi, and particularly on one doctor and one dentist who did autopsies and forensic-style work that was in too many cases faulty and just plain wrong. The work and testimony of these two men sent innocent men to prison, some even to death row. They did not do this alone. The prosecutors in the state did not so much care about the accuracy of the information provided by these two men as the support they were able to give to their cases.

While the book specifically addresses the situation as it was (and is) in Mississippi, you just know that this same attitude is common among other states and other prosecutors. They have a person that they believe is guilty of a crime and are willing to do whatever it takes to convict that person, even if it means using faux science to support their claims.

In addition to the specifics of this doctor, dentist, and Mississippi’s legal system, the book addresses several areas of forensic “science” which are not as exact a science as most people have been led to believe through exposure to television shows using those same techniques. We conflate the fiction of CSI and NCIS with the real world of forensics, and they are not the same thing. It was a bit eye-opening to me, even considering my usual skepticism of such things. I’ve learned that, at best, forensics can guide investigations but not solve them, given the absence of something definitive like DNA evidence.

One of the co-authors of this book, Tucker Carrington, is the director of the George C. Cochran Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Innocence Project lawyers play a prominent role in this book, and for good reason. They were able to prove the innocence of two of the victims of faulty forensics in Mississippi as told in the book. While prosecutors have no love of anyone who questions the results of their work, the various Innocence Projects around the country provide a valid and important service to those who have been wrongfully convicted.

That being said, I can understand the desire, indeed, the need, of convicting those who have committed violent crimes and must be removed from society. It’s a tough job being a prosecutor (though perhaps not as tough as being a defense attorney) so I can understand using whatever means may be available to them to help their cases. Their concern is not for the person who commits the crime, but for the victim and society as a whole. I’m sure it’s hard to turn down anything that can support one’s case, even if its validity might be questionable. There’s two sides to every story.

However, introduce politics into the equation and you have great opportunity for notoriety over accuracy. If you are serving in the legal system as an elected official, you want to be able to tout your successes when it comes to election time. With this incentive, shortcuts to success can be more than tempting. Throughout this country, this is a bad system. Do I have an idea of how to fix it? No. Even changing from an elective system to an appointive system does not guarantee good results. The only answer is holding people accountable for their work, and it seems that the adversarial legal system, when functioning fairly, is the best way to do that.

I have long been an opponent of the death penalty. I have always been of the opinion that the execution of one innocent person is one too many, and we have unfortunately executed mare than one innocent person. It’s not that I think that people who commit certain crimes don’t deserve to die – I do, but only in the commission of that crime. Instant justice of a criminal being killed while committing a violent crime against an innocent person is, in my opinion, the only acceptable form of “capital punishment.” If a criminal does not suffer that immediate consequence of his crime, he has passed the point of forfeiting his life for his crime.

Yes, I know this may not seem to make sense to most people. Why is it okay to kill a criminal in one circumstance but not the other? Why is it moral to kill someone at the time he/she is committing the crime, but not after having been found guilty and convicted of the crime? For me, it comes down to self-defense being justifiable, but killing someone “in cold blood” – an execution – is another thing entirely. If killing, other than self-defense, is immoral, it’s hard to justify killing another person even if they are guilty of a crime.

And that then leads to part of the moral of this book. If someone has committed a crime punishable by death, there has to be irrefutable evidence that the person has actually committed that crime, and there are too many ways that such evidence can be faulty and send an innocent person to their death, with absolutely no chance to correct the situation if their innocence is established in the future. To me, it is not worth the risk of killing an innocent person.

I am sure that there are many people who would not agree with me. I understand that. The desire to seek comparative punishment for a crime is part of the human psyche – and eye for an eye, and all that. I would like to think that as humans we have progressed beyond that gut level reaction, but I know that we have not. Thus, I am grateful for those who seek fairness and truth, even if it means going against the public desire for vengeance. This book presents a strong case for a more balanced and scientific approach to criminal prosecution, free from the politics and greed that sway people to bend their own morality.

Finished 2/26/19

Getting Started in Leather Crafting – by Tony Laier and Kay Laier

This is a very basic book on leather crafting. There are better books, but for the price this will give you the bare minimum knowledge you need to get started. Personally, I would suggest saving your money to spend on a more complete book.

Finished 2/23/19

Big Nate: A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie – by Lincoln Peirce

Not much to say. I like the Sunday funnies, always have since I was a kid. Big Nate appears in the funny papers I read and is reasonably funny to this old man. This book is a collection of some of those comics and was similarly reasonably funny to me.

Finished 2/21/19

Travels with Charley in Search of America – by John Steinbeck

This is kind of a “before and after” look at this book. First, the “before” –

Travels with Charley is about John Steinbeck’s tour of America in a camper on the back of a pick-up truck. Charley is not a person; “he” is a standard poodle who kept Steinbeck company for most of the trip. Apparently Steinbeck was attempting to “reconnect” with the people in the U.S. He appears to have felt that he had become out of touch with the common man and wanted to experience real people as he traveled around the country.

It was an interesting story, and his conversations with some of the people he met and his observations of the state of the country gave a good historic perspective. I was only ten when he made this trip so I am lacking a real sense of what the era was like for adults, though I do have my own memories as a child.

This book had a certain appeal to me because I would like to make a similar trip. The likelihood of my doing so is so small that I rely more on living vicariously through those who have done so. However, my world view is different from Steinbeck’s, so while it was enjoyable to see the country through his eyes, I think I would like to form my own impressions. However, at this point in time it’s a little hard for me to do so in the 1960’s.

I enjoyed the book and definitely learned some things. His depiction of some of the events in the south at the time of desegregation was revelatory for me. Having grown up in the north, I had no concept of what was happening in those places of great conflict. It is a bit of a shock to me how people were behaving at the time. As a child, I was vaguely aware of what was happening, but living in the north there was no immediate impact on my life. It depresses me to think – to know – that there are still people who think the way the segregationists of the time thought.

I did feel like he rushed things at the end of the book. He admits as much, claiming that any long trip becomes tedious, and that home calls to us the closer we get to the end of our trip, making us speed up our travel. Fair enough, but hardly the complete trip he promised at the beginning of the book.

So on to the “after” review –

Before I wrote this review, I went to the internet to look for images of John Steinbeck, to get a sense of what he looked like at the time of the trip. I found them, and was also pleasantly surprised to find images of Rocinante, his camper/truck that he used for the trip. Very cool. And then I followed links commenting on Travels with Charley. Hmmm, not what I expected.

The gist of it is that is very questionable whether Steinbeck even talked to any of the people he quoted in the book. Even the trip itself appears not to have been as described, with Steinbeck actually staying in his camper much, much less than reported. His apologists point out that he was, after all, a fiction writer, and it should not be a surprise that he may have made people up out of whole cloth. Still, to me it’s a bit less than honest and takes away from my respect for the book.

So, if you want to read this book, read it as a work of fiction, written primarily to espouse the author’s point of view, rather than those he “talked” to. It’s still illustrative of the times and not a bad book, so it is worth reading. Just don’t take it as gospel.

Finished 2/8/19