Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

There are many serious flaws in our judicial system that lead immediately to despair. Not least among these faults is the naming of suspects and persons placed under arrest by police and their handmaidens in the daily news media.

We have been rigorously taught platitudes all of our lives and one of the most pernicious is the individual’s inalienable right to the presumption of innocence.

Tell that to Jian Ghomeshi ( Jian Ghomeshi trial’s not guilty decision triggers outrage ) or anyone else accused of a crime, serious or otherwise. Long before “due process”, as a consequence of “secret” investigation by so-called journalists, Ghomeshi lost his job and his livelihood, his reputation as a first-class radio host (which he was,) and his presumption of innocence. In the minds of many, many people, he was and to this day, in spite of his recent acquittal on all five charges that were before the courts, guilty.I paid attention to the case. His “day in court” (a euphemism to describe his two-month-long trial) was as sound and fair a process as I have ever seen. And the result unequivocally correct. Given the quality of the evidence against him and the character of the witnesses, the fact that they deliberately lied under oath and only supplied police and prosecutors with the information they decided prosecutors and police needed to hear, any other conclusion would have been a travesty.

The vast majority of citizens pay absolutely no attention to the machinations of our judicial system. Ignorance has never stopped anyone from forming strong opinions and forcible expressing them. Reminds me of a line out of Camus’ “The Plague” about what the citizens were busy doing while the city officials were busy closing the gates; busy forming uninformed views.

On the other hand, I know a great deal about how it works, or doesn’t, having been a life-long student of police behavior and practices as well as the court system. But what gives me an unique perspective is the fact for a ten-year period I was the object of intense police investigations on two continents and three countries, twice arrested and charged with over one hundred criminal offences, sued by Attorney General Michael Bryant as “an enemy of the State” and vigorously prosecuted to the “full extent of the law.” That is a school of hard knocks that no one attends voluntarily but it does bestow an esoteric knowledge.

Mine is not just another opinion.

The reality: the moment someone is accused of a crime they are considered by neighbors, friends and family (with the possible exception of mothers,) to be guilty and condemned to the criminal class for all time, their lives inexorably altered hitherto fore.

In the collective mind the narrative runs like this: Joe/Jane must be guilty or else how would they have attracted the attention of the police in the first place let alone “got themselves” arrested. They must have done something.

At this point whatever is good in their lives is tarnished, their reputations besmirched, and depending on the charge(s) their careers suddenly on life support or completely destroyed.

“Completely destroyed” is especially true when the charges are sex related particularly when they have to do with sex crimes involving children under the age of sixteen.
The ultimate atmosphere of Gene Pitney’s “Town without Pity” becomes the thin air an accused must breath.

There are many problems in this hornet’s nest of fact and fiction, the idea of presumptive innocence and the assumptive guilt.

For instance, most associations and collectives working on behalf of wrongfully accused and convicted persons believe, although seldom say so, that the police and the courts get it wrong at least fifty percent of the time. I believe it’s more like sixty.

Prior to the advent of J. Edgar Hoover in the 40s things were different. Hoover is the progenitor of modern policing and its modus operandi.

Hoover was the first data miner, a dark genius who well knew the illusory nature of the enterprise. He was z ring master of the machinations of public and media relations toward perpetual metastasized police budgets entirely derived from the public purse. To this day, police are schooled in something openly called “tricks and lies”. Hoover was the master trickster and a unrepentant liar. The conventional wisdom: Criminals lie so police must too.

I digress. Suffice it to say I am not naive. The naming of persons of suspicion, targets for arrest and arrestees is not going to change. But at least it should be recognized for the travesty it is and the first step on the road to perdition. And, perhaps, cause a few to think twice. Crown has big decision before Ghomeshi’s next trial

LAW AND DISORDER BONA FIDES – PT. II

It happens more often than not.

Two days after Michael Brown was shot dead by a white cop in a predominately black neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri, 25-year-old Ezell Ford was shot and killed by police in South Los Angeles. That’s Rodney King territory. But I’ll wager dollars to donuts you know absolutely nothing about Mr. Ford’s untimely passing, probably haven’t even heard about it.

Like Brown, Ford was young, black and unarmed. Like police in Missouri, the LA cops did not immediately released the cops’ names that shot Ford or release the autopsy report. But there is no rioting or looting in South LA.

Why is one shooting covered relentlessly for a week and the other completely ignored?

It’s taken 20 years but in the wake of the acquittal of the thug cops who beat Rodney King senseless and the subsequent destructive rioting, police and black community organizers in South LA have learned something about detente.

Immediately after Ford’s shooting local police maintained a relatively low profile – no tanks or armored personal carriers or cops in full army combat gear; rather a handful of bicycle-riding cops in polo shirts patrolled the streets.

As you might expect the whole community was just as pissed as the one in St. Louis but in L.A. the Police Chief and other top-ranking officials showed up for a community meeting at the local church and did more listening than talking. When a private audience was demanded by one of the most prominent community leaders it was granted.

In many precincts in LA, cops stay in regular touch with major community organizers. Likewise, organizers and local church leaders have various cops’ phone numbers memorized. When protests are planned, seasoned organizers let police know, even when they’re the targets.

It doesn’t mean that policing is necessarily any better or different in LA than it is here in my stomping ground or St. Louis.

In fact, it happens way more in Los Angeles the most other places. LAPD police have shot and killed 12 people like Brown and Ford so far this year. Since 2007, 300 people have been shot dead during conflicts with the LAPD.

This time there was nothing for the media to shoot in LA. And there was probably some discussion about the unwillingness to put the Justice system in disrepute if two very similar incidents were sensationalized within a span of 48 hours.

Back to my bona fides:

I have so successfully infiltrated, investigated and written about police and prosecutors, their manipulations and motivations, their ineptitude and malfeasance the powers-that-be decided to make me the subject of an eight-year long investigation.

I was twice arrested and twice put on trial, first in early 1998 for three years and again in 2003 for another three. (On the first occasion I was charged with two or three counts of breach court order/ publication ban.

After a six-month investigation the police concluded that 18 pages in my book “Invisible Darkness: The Horrifying Case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka” could not have been written unless I had seen the visual portion of the videotape evidence restricted by court order during the Bernardo trial in the summer of 1995.

I was acquitted of those charges in late 2000.

In 2003, I was criminally charged with 104 counts, disobey court order/publication ban, 5 counts of improper storage of firearms and the Attorney General of Ontario sued me in civil court as an “Enemy of the State.”

Years later, when they were blatantly shown (i.e. we had the goods on them) that they had committed gross “abuses of processs,” I agreed to plead guilty to one count, misdemeanor, breach of publication ban.

In return the firearms charges were dismissed along with the other one hundred and three court order breach charges, half of which were felonies each one of which carried a penalty of two-years plus a day i.e. hard time in the Big House. Also, the Attorney General withdrew the civil lawsuit.

And so it ended.

As a consequence, I have had more direct experience with police and ministries of the attorneys general than 99.9 % of the population in North America and that is quite remarkable, given my disposition: aging, middle-class, well-educated, law-abiding, white male.

Many of the larger writing assignments I’ve accepted over the years brought me into the ambit of authority. Then again, what is true for the majority of the population is also true for writers.

The majority of writers and journalists in North America do not have any direct experience or exposure to the courts, the offices of the district attorneys or their handmaidens, the police. Certainly not both sides. Certainly not as a thorough researcher and writer on the one hand and a criminally accused and prosecuted on the other.

I am also unique among the legion of talking heads and pontificators with their blogs, books, pedigrees and degrees, in law and criminology and what-have-you; I am not on one side or the other: Got no dog in the fight, no reputation to maintain.

Crime beat reporters might be thought an exception, except theirs is a symbiotic not a critical or even investigative relationship to police and prosecutors. And none that I know of have ever been arrested, criminally charged and prosecuted for almost a decade.

Most appear to be beards or apologists for police. Even so, even were Noam Chomsky and I wrong about how the media functions – or dysfunctions – in the world of daily reportage, crime beat reporters are a small minority of which I am definitely not one. I have never worked for any news media organizations. And I am at this time not aware of any who have ever been arrested and criminally charged with felony crimes.

As described, my expertise is rooted in a couple of the more difficult topics I chose to write about – the sexual homicide of a Toronto shoeshine boy, Emmanuel Jacques by four pedophiles in the late 70s and published in a magazine entitled “Sympathy for the Devil.

More recently, the crimes, trials and incarcerations of Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, a large, complicated case I wrote about exhaustively and definitively in two books, “Invisible Darkness” and “Karla: A Pact with the Devil,” both initially published in North America by the Random House Group.

As a consequence of getting the back story right and bringing facts into the public domain that the authorities spent enormous time and money, I was taken down like a drug dealer in the kitchen of my old farmhouse at 6 AM Sunday morning by a dozen heavily armed cops, spent a weekend in jail, was subsequently raided and put out of my house for a 24-hour period while the goon squad ransacked the place.

Both my wife’s and my computers, backup and voluminous files were seized, and in spite of the eventual favorable outcome, never returned, I was relentlessly prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Both criminally and civilly, although there was nothing civil about it.

This sort of thing brings back ugly memories and I’ve never been at all convinced that writing is a cathartic excercise. For me, it’s just hard. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. There’s one more section on this topic to come.

WHERE PAUL BERNARDO USED TO LIVE – PT III

James_KP-24_Mural in double sized cell

My friend, the great photographer Geoffrey James, was able to get an all-access pass to Kingston Penitentiary, including the Segregation Unit and those cells only moments before occupied by such murderous sexual deviates as Saul David Betesh, Paul Bernardo and Russell Williams.

As with all great art there is precedent and tradition. Prisons are not a common subject in the societal lexicon or dialogue – they should be but they’re not; in photography or in life. But the formidable American shooter Danny Lyon has done it before, in the 1960s.

In Lyon’s case, he somehow talked his way into a number of operating prisons in Texas and got loose on the ranges and among the work crews. The results are quite remarkable. Not so easy getting access here. As Geoffrey is quick to point out, “Americans are different, they have no shame.”

Years ago, shortly before it was scheduled to close, Geoffrey tried to talk Eastern State Penitentiary officials in Philadelphia into a similar project but the vagaries of bureaucratic thinking denied him the necessary timely permissions and, as Geoffrey also said to me “once they say no, it’s forever.”

“So the trick this time was to never let anyone say no.”

Ironically, Eastern State, transformed into a successful tourist attraction, now encourages everyone to bring a camera. Bringing his camera, a digital Leica Rangefinder and taking pictures inside Eastern State now would be completely pointless for James. The part Geoffrey needed to capture is gone. Very soon after an institution like a prison or an asylum closes, it irrevocably changes and thereafter, “it too is gone forever.”

In a process that is somewhat magical what was once a Gothic house of horror becomes a tourist trap and just as they arrive in droves at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater so to do tourists attend prisons like Eastern State and the Ohio State Reformatory (the 250,000 square-foot facility where “The Shawshank Redemption was shot in 1994) by the tens of thousands. Snapping pictures is what tourists do; it is not what Geoffrey James does.

Geoffrey has well learned over the years what all good investigative journalists know: “Never rush in and get a no.”

Chains of command must be learned. There are far more people in a bureaucracy that can say “no” than “yes. You have to know, literarily and figuratively, from whom you are seeking permission and what they may require to say “yes”.

In Geoffrey’s case he found his way to the right Regional Commissioner of Corrections, who he understood to have been the warden of the Kingston Prison For Women (K4W) where Karla Homolka was housed for the first 4 years of her sentence. It was similarly closed by the correctional authority for good when the last prisoner was transferred out in May 2008. The walls have been demolished and the property now belongs to Queen’s University.

The Commissioner understood implicitly what Geoffrey meant when he said the work had to be done immediately before the renovators moved in, while the laundry is still undone, because once closed and tampered with, the prison part of the facility evaporates.

She was predisposed to Geoffrey’s project because she knew exactly what he meant when he talked about evanescence and immediacy, to get in and start shooting right away even before all the prisoners had been relocated.

A prison is evacuated according to the incarcerated individual’s assessed risk level – the most dangerous first the least last. There are other considerations but that is the main criteria.

Some of the portraits of the inmates that were still there waiting to be moved (to where God and the prison authority only knows) are among the most haunting in the book.

Change is very difficult for the institutionalized – think about Brooks (James Whitmore) the old con in The Shawshank Redemption and the most gentle, wise and kind character in the movie.

When released after 50 years, Brooks hangs himself.

Shortly after they learn of Brooks’ fate, contraband smuggling con Red (Morgan Freeman) explains what it means to be “institutionalized” to Brooks’ best friends, fellow con Heywood (William Sadler) and convicted murderer Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), the protagonist of this thoroughly compelling picture: “The man’s been in here fifty years. Fifty years! This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothin’! Just a used up con with arthritis in both hands….These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.”

The thirty-foot high, 10 foot thick limestone walls of the historic Kingston Penitentiary are those walls

The Shawshank Redemption was filmed on location in the famed Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. As did Eastern State Penitentiary, the Ohio State Reformatory has been transmuted into a tourist magnet that has helped boost the economy of Manifield and the surrounding counties. Last year, the O.S.R. had 80,000 visitors. The 250,000-square-foot fortress, first opened in 1896, a number of years after the Kingston Penitentiary, has become a state landmark. Today it is as important to the local economies of the three or four surrounding counties as it was when it was a functioning prison.

Geoffrey James new book “Inside” about the historical Kingston Penitentiary has achieved his goal. All kinds of institutional cruelty as well as accomplishment, the troubling ambiguity that characterizes North American penal history, is palpable in many of the un-peopled photographs that otherwise appear to be, on the surface, explorations of architectural accents and angles.

It is thoroughly evocative collection that fully captures the spirit of place.

In many of the photographs the claustrophobic cells look like their occupants have just gone out to the canteen. Much of the prisoner’s artwork (some of it truly remarkable,) old-timey pin-ups and newspaper clippings still cling to the walls. Bunks appear just slept in with unlaundered blankets askew. The resulting collection of photographs, captions and short revealing endnote written by James is a disturbing, thought-provoking, completely original narrative that elegizes at the same time as it eulogizes… and indicts.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” That has been my direct experience and its truth is manifest in Geoffrey James “Inside.”

This book of photographs, captions and short essay is exactly what Geoffrey James is all about: Composing narratives with magnificently rendered still photographs that capture both the past and the future.

He did this with his first published collection in 1989. la campagna Romana which appears to be a fine suite of beautifully framed landscape photographs taken with his “primitive, shoe-box panoramic camera.” It is, in fact, about the same thing “Inside” is about: the photographer’s search for something ineffable, in the case of la campagna Romana, the famed Roman countryside and whether it actually still exists.

In the preface to la campagna Romana Geoffrey James says “my journey, rather than leading to any kind of understanding of this landscape, brought only a dawning sense of the labyrinthine complexity of Italian life, of the manner in which the political permeates everything… at Castel di Leva, just south of Rome (Plate 17), I talked with a shepherd’s wife while staring across the GRA at a vast Eurosprawl of radio towers and supermarkets and military barracks – a vision, if ever there was one, of the future of campagna.”

Change a few nouns and verbs the same could be said about “Inside”. It’s about his search for the truth about prison, about it’s soul, no matter how dark, and what it says about our civilization.

Because he sees in this world – as it is immediate and inexorably captured by the lens – another world, perhaps one more real, with some vestige of truth, the one jagged piece of the jigsaw puzzle that allows for a multi-diminsional, integrated apperception. He thinks this might be it and that’s why he bothered.

Greater than the sum of its parts, “Inside” will be published on September 18 by Black Dog Publishing, London, England with support from the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, On.

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flamingos

LIFE ON NUT ISLAND AND SOCIAL AMNESIA – PT. I

flamingos

Life on Nut Island

The Boston Marathon bombing: Now there’s a crime that speaks directly to us about the dangerous times in which we live, the inherent growing isolation of the individual in “society,” our perpetual pathological unawareness and psychic blindness, the helplessness of entire law enforcement bureaucracies in the face of one or two renegade lunatics – heavy stuff not the squalid, sordid tragic mess with which I became so entwined, the salacious Bernardo/Homolka saga that consumed ten years of my life and from which I will probably never fully recover.

As usual I’m on about unlearned lessons from Nut Island. My two arrests in 1998 and 2003 and subsequent decade-long prosecutions had nothing to do with “free speech” or “free expression” as many journalists and media-types and writers’ groups conceived – nothing so lofty.

(I was, of course, thankful for the Writer’s Union, PEN’s and CJFE’s and the Human Rights Watch support which was hung on that hook. Any writer in trouble with the police and/or government deserves that support providing they have not robbed a bank or killed their partner.)

Even though my arrests and prosecutions were “personal,” the consequence of a perceived offence that I had, unwittingly or not, levied upon a couple of politically powerful men, still none of it would ever have happened except for a quirk in the space – time continuum, a small “c” classic case of two or three people being in the wrong place at the right time for the wrong reasons.

Neither can anyone draw any survival lessons for the young and innocent from the story I was somehow destined to chronicle in “Invisible Darkness” and “Karla“. What lessons can we teach our daughters from the Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French abduction, rape and murder?

What is to be garnered from already street-wise and aware teenagers who approached, in Kristen’s case, a late model car with an attractive young couple in a church parking lot in the middle of a sunny afternoon in response to an ask for directions in a city in which people perpetually get lost and constantly ask for directions?

Is the lesson that you never ever talk to a stranger (or stangers) Susie, under any circumstances, regardless how innocent they appear. If some one asks you for directions you must immediately tell them to “fuck off” and run into the nearest house and phone the police?

Or in Leslie Mahaffy’s case: Is the lesson never practice “tough love”; never lock your teenager daughters out of the house in an attempt to teach them lessons? Maybe, but when mothers’ are at their wits’ end, tactics can get weird.

Does a “mistake” like that (if that’s what it is) deserve such an horrific and final restitution? Of course not.

But that would be the sum total of any lessons this reality show the Bernardo’s created conveys: “Don’t lock your daughters out of the house at night.” But what about all the tens of thousands of sons and daughters who don’t care whether their parents’ doors are locked because they long ago decided not to go home at night anyway? It’s a hopeless tautology, and hardly one from which lessons can be drawn.

And are we any closer to understanding psycopaths or sociopaths or whatever term is au current for this fictious character than we were when the figure was first coagulated in that unreadable book “Mask of Sanity” by Hervey Cleckley published 1941? Even if you buy into psychopathy, how does it explain or deter murderous creatures such as Paul and Karla?

There is however a lesson that can be taken from all extreme cases such as the Boston Marathon bombing, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, Amanda Knox and her incarceration in Italy and the arrest and “successful” prosecution and wrongful conviction of the five young men who were convicted of a rape in Central Park ten years ago: The lesson is as unattainable as solid explanations for “Why Hitler“? We must scrap our institutions of law and disorder and start again because they are completely disfunctional and beseiged by a kind of organizational necrotizing fasciitis.

Read about it and watch: I wrote a piece published in Walrus Magazine in 2007 and soon to be released as an electronic long-read called “Life on Nut Island“. Amanda Knox has just published a memoir “Waiting to Be Heard“. And then there is the documentary called “The Central Park Five“?

THE HILLSBOROUGH TRAVESTY

This blog is about far more than Karla and her whereabouts or even the whole bloody Bernardo/Homolka fiasco about which few know anything substantive and most could give a rat’s ass. It’s over. The fat lady sang. The only truly interesting questions the case raised were the same issues that most large, complicated criminal cases raise: How is it possible for the individual police officers and various prosecutors and other officials involved to fuck up so badly and not only escape indictment, but retire with full pensions? Serve and protect my ass.

I do not have an abiding interest in crime let alone the prurient details of its commission.

Anyone who has actually read my books on the Bernardo/Homolka cases or anything else I have written knows that my interest is derived from the revelatory opportunities such horrendous events invariably provide for insight into the machinations of those secretive institutions that are otherwise inaccessible.

The judicial system in general and the Ministries of the Attorneys General and police in particular are among the most insular and clandestine in modern society.

They have far more in common with the Stasi than “Car 54 Where Are You” or its sequels such as “Law and Order”.

In his song “The Future” Leonard Cohen praised cracks because they let the light in. Complicated and horrendous criminal cases create fissures in the medieval castle-thick carapaces that our purveyors of law and order have assiduously grown over the past few decades.

I say “grown” because it has been a deliberate and organic as well as carefully nurtured and cultivated process that distinguishes these democratic institutions from all others. (Not to suggest that secrecy is not a hallmark of power and authority in general.)

This blog is also about the globalization of the police state, a phenomenon that is incorrigibly corrupt and unaccountable.

There is no better example than the behavior of the police and authorities in England in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster.

A British friend in New York recently brought the formal apology by Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons to my attention. It is of historic and horrific proportion and should be attended and fully understood by anyone who has an abiding interest in corruption.

What happened is a classic and all too common example of collusion between police and the media to create a self-serving fiction in which the 96 victims of a crime are portrayed as the perpetrators of their own demise.

Cameron described it as a ‘double injustice” – a complete failure of police, fire officials and other authorities to anticipate the disaster or curtail its scale once it occurred while successfully covering up those failures by altering and/or suppressing all kinds of documents including autopsy reports and witness statements.

On April 15, 1989, 3,000 supporters of the Liverpool soccer team crowded into standing room terraces approved for half that many at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, about 150 miles north of London.

All but one of the 96 victims perished that day, most within minutes of the terrace’s inevitable collapse. One poor soul languished on life support until 1993.

The New York Times described the incident “an open wound” in Britain since the day it occurred because the families directly effected and hundreds of eyewitnesses knew that the media and the “official” conclusions were total fabrications.

There was no “hooliganism” involved.

Many of the dead would have survived if they had received prompt medical attention.

The new findings – 21 years after the fact when most the players involved are retired or dead – show that there were 41 victims who did not have traumatic asphyxia that caused most of the deaths and therefore would probably have survived.

116 witness statements presented to previous inquiries into the Hillsborough disaster over the ensuing years were altered by police “to remove or alter comments unfavorable to police.”

Police conducted extensive computer checks on the victims in order “to impugn the reputations of the deceased.”

At the time, the coroner measured the blood alcohol levels of all who died – including the children – a report withheld from all previous inquiries – only to discover the levels of alcohol consumption were “unremarkable and not exceptional for a social or leisure occasion.” In other words, those who died were not drunken soccer hooligans.

“The families years of protest drew aggressive mockery from some quarters, including an article in 2004 in “The Spectator”, a conservative weekly, in which Boris Johnson, now mayor of London, accused the people of Liverpool, particularly the one-third of the population that is of Irish descent, of “wallowing” in their “victim status” over Hillsborough.

Here is a link to the recent article in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/13/sports/soccer/britain-apologizes-for-blaming-victims-in-hillsborough-disaster.html?pagewanted=all