Archive for September, 2009
Forestry combines art and science, and grapples with the ecological riddles of our time; but it’s also a job.
Norm Benson is a Registered Professional Forester. During his thirty years for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal-Fire), he was manager of Boggs Mountain State Forest, he coordinated Cal-fire’s resource management training, enforced the state’s forest practice laws, and performed “other duties as required,” including fighting forest fires. Besides being a Licensed Professional Forester in the state of California, he’s a retired peace officer. He currently is breaking into freelancing.
My Former Beat – The Dark Woods
In my 35-year career with Cal-Fire, I worked amid the chaos of life and death competitions in which only the strong and cunning survived.
My beat was a place where none gave mercy, a place where none showed remorse, and a place where greed was the norm. Every underling plotted regime change. Some worked to create explosive conditions, and then after the fire, amid the scorched earth, move in, taking advantage of the devastation they helped create. Once in place, they created conditions for more upheaval. Others insinuated themselves into the background while siphoning off resources, biding their time, waiting for those above to die off so then they could take over the top spots. Some poisoned their competitors. And big and small, each used the carcasses of the former inhabitants without regard. And those were just the plants.
The above description of the forest is true. Each order, family, genus, species, and variety, display survival strategies to perpetuate its kind. Like the climate and weather, nothing in nature remains static.
I’m a forester by trade (and I’ve yet to find any forester who preferred the term ‘forest ranger’). Forestry combines art and science to grapple with the ecological riddles of our time where the answers are not always clear-cut. Forestry can be dirt simple: you grow trees, you cut trees, you plant trees, all the while trying to mimic nature who is definitely a muthuh. I’ve planted thousands of seedlings during my life, some grew, some didn’t. Like so much of existence, a trivial decision determines life or death; it all boils down to location-and luck.
I worked as a forester for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal-Fire). Cal-Fire is 90% fire department that suppresses and investigates structure fires and wildland fires, 5% State Fire Marshal, and 5% forestry.
Most of the foresters in Cal-Fire enforce California’s forest and fire laws, primarily the Z’Berg-Nejedly Forest Practice Act of 1973. Along with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), there is CESA (California Endangered Species Act), and other environmental rules, roles, and responsibilities, that must be followed. The Forest Practice Act is the equivalent of CEQA. These laws of man are meant to keep the laws of nature from going too far off the rails.
The Byzantine Environment of Environmental Protection
Madison could have been writing about natural resource protection laws when he wrote in the Federalist Papers (1788), “It will be of little avail to the people that laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood…or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow.” The rules governing our environment overlap, becoming more complex and more arcane with every new lawsuit. In 1973, the rulebook and a THP could fit in a forester’s back pocket, now each tome’s size resembles a Michener saga.
According to California’s Public Resources Code, all harvesting on California’s nearly eight million acres of non-federal forestland must have a Timber Harvesting Plan (THP) drawn up and submitted by a Registered Professional Forester (RPF). An RPF has at least seven years’ forestry experience and has passed a comprehensive test (only one-third of those who take the test pass). The length of a THP varies, depending on its complexity, from 100 pages to more than 500 pages. The more complex THP can drop a lawyer at close range. The RPF submits the plan to Cal-Fire. Then a team composed of a member from Cal-Fire, California Geological Services, Fish and Game, and Water Quality reviews the plan for completeness, clarity, and its impact on the environment. Public comments are added to the review team’s concerns. Mitigations to concerns are proposed, agreed to, and placed into the THP. (More on the process here.) Cal-Fire’s Forest Practice Inspectors base all enforcement actions on what is in the approved plan. The Department approves 500 to 1400 THPs each year.
Enforcement of the THP
Cal-Fire recognizes that a THP’s complexity can overwhelm the average logger trying to do a reasonable job and make a buck, so department policy directs inspectors to prevent and deter forest practice violations. The inspector often writes letters and notices to give the logger a chance to fix any fixable omissions or commissions. Only when these prove inadequate does a Forest Practice Inspector write a citation.
Offenses are Misdemeanors
You may question why foresters checking silviculture (basically the harvest/regeneration methods), cumulative effects, and esoteric biological arcane need to be peace officers. The rules of evidence collection still apply. And an enforcement action is a confrontation. Additionally, all offenses are misdemeanors (something that requires the state legislature to amend since it’s in the original act that all violations of the FPA are misdemeanors1).
The department may choose to take the case civilly rather than in a criminal court system, depending on flagrancy of the violation, longevity of the damage, and the strength of the evidence (civil only requires preponderance of evidence – 51% – not beyond a reasonable doubt).
Into the Dark Woods
In 2001, on my first day as the new forest manager of Boggs Mountain Demonstration State Forest, I took a call from a Napa County parole officer. What follows is my recollection:
“I think you may have one of my runaways camping on your forest,” the officer said. “A guy who assaulted his father-in-law with a knife and is not supposed to leave the county.”
I’d been out to our small campground and talked with a couple. They and two kids were staying in a tent. I had dutifully filled out a registration. While California State Parks charge for their campsites, camping at Boggs Mountain, and three other state forests, costs nothing and people can stay fourteen days at a stretch. There’s another name for state forest campers-homeless tweakers.
I had one camper, a veteran of Grenada, who suffered from PTSD and schizophrenia. He sent faxes to the White House, claiming credit for earthquakes and tornados and threatening to inflict similar plagues upon the White House if they didn’t repent.
“Who are you looking for?” I asked.
The parole officer gave me the name. I breathed a sigh of relief. “Nobody by that name. Only one camper registered; someone by the name of [x].”
“That’s the girlfriend. His ex-wife got tipped they were staying on Boggs.”
I called Lake County Sheriff’s. They sent up two patrol cars. We met at my office. By now it was pitch black outside. We agreed I would drive through the campground to reconnoiter. The two units would come in after I confirmed the suspect’s presence. Try to drive by slowly without looking like you’re driving by slowly. Anyway, the tent was there, the car wasn’t. The deputies staked out the site but the suspect had left.
In the Hero’s Journey, entering the “woods” symbolizes leaving the familiar and fully committing to the adventure. This part of the myth is called “the Initiation.” It is during the initiation the hero meets allies and enemies. I met both in my work in the woods.
Next time, we can talk about Cal-Fire, forestry, “timber beasts,” “deadheads,” “Section 37,” “Scandinavian gunpowder,” “wildcat crews,” “widowmakers,” “bushelers,” “catskinners,” “gyppos,” or anything else you like.
I’m guessing that all this is in a part of the forest you’ve never seen.
1. If you think that’s crazy, it’s a felony to steal fifty pounds of walnuts-the farm lobby is big in California.
Norm’s website is http://www.normbenson.com. And you are invited to visit the Timberati blog at http://www.normbenson.com/timberati/ because forestry combines art and science, and grapples with the ecological riddles of our time; but it’s also a job.
Let’s just skip the preliminary fluff and get down to business. After watching this episode I’m in no mood for making nice.
The title of this week’s episode is Double Down. Perhaps the network should have opted for calling it Double Trouble. We’ll get into the reasons why in a second. First, I have to say the comedic aspect of the show was in overdrive. I have to wonder, though, if they have a new writer because this episode was unlike any other. I’m not saying the show was better or worse than usual, just different. Maybe even a little odd. But it was what is was – a bit of a disappointment for me.
The Highs and Lows (Remember, this is a review of the police procedure and a little of the forensics, not the overall show. I’m a big fan of Castle and Beckett. Great chemistry. Even the supporting cast is pretty doggone good. Well, with the exception of one cast member who insists upon spouting off BS forensic material. Maybe she’s just reading her lines, I don’t know. But if I were her, I’d certainly want to at least be as good as everyone else on the show. I did read an interview where she stated the show has a medical examiner as a consultant – a real M.E. who offered to show her around a real morgue. She refused the offer, but who could blame her? I’ve attended many autopsies and not one has been a pleasant experience. Still, do they not listen to their experts? Anyway, here goes. Double Trouble…I mean Double Down.
– Castle mentions the craziness that comes with a full moon. Most cops, ER personnel, and other creatures who work the graveyard shift will nod their heads in agreement with that sentiment. Trouble follows a full moon, and weird calls normally come in during those times. Good stuff.
– The full moon scene was a little over the top, with cops wrestling crazies whose clothing seemed to come off quite easily during the commotion. At one point a new female detective, Roselyn Karpowski (she played a good part in this show), landed on Beckett’s desk, on top of a struggling suspect. While there she spoke to Beckett in a calm, easy tone. I know this was way over the top, but cops are so used to fighting, tussling, wrestling, handcuffing, Tasering, etc., that it is just a matter-of-fact occurrence to be in the middle of a big brawl. So good stuff, here. Take this one to the bank. Cops don’t get excited easily when faced with danger. After it’s over, maybe. But when it’s happening they’re right there, toe-to-toe with the best of them.
– The medical examiner working a homicide in a cocktail dress???? No way. Even if she didn’t have time to change she’d have put on a lab coat or other protective clothing. I should not have complimented her last week, because it all went downhill from this really low spot in her night. Geez… I actually felt bad for her. But, as they say on American Idol when the train wreck happens…She looked fantastic.
– Becket told the M.E. to check for fibers and hair. Hmm…I don’t know a single M.E. who’d have to be told that. Nor do I know one who’d take orders from a detective. However, I’m sure Beckett felt she needed to guide this one through the hoops.
– This isn’t procedure, but I had a nice chuckle when Castle said, “The person who killed her also killed the English language.” Those aren’t exactly his words, but you get the idea.
– There was a new coroner at one of the crime scenes. He was very believable, in this scene. But it didn’t last. More in a second.
– Loved the coroner’s “Looky-loo” comment. That’s a nickname used by cops for the people who find it entertaining to observe crime scenes, car accidents, and train wrecks. Again the coroner’s character is pretty good up to this point.
– The betting scenes in the show were very distracting for me. It was cute, but I think they went way overboard with it.
– Okay, here’s where I wanted to kick the TV screen, shout four letter words, and flush the remote down the toilet (after turning off the show).
The two pathologists, the M.E. and the coroner (I’m still not sure why they have one of each. Is it like that in NYC? Dr. Jonathan Hayes, are you out there?), made the announcement that they’d found a diatom on the victim’s bodies that was specific to a single body of water, but they didn’t know where that body of water was located. WHAT???
How in the world could they say the diatom was specific to place they couldn’t identify. If they couldn’t identify the place, then how could they say the diatom is specific to that place.
Hmm…If they knew the diatom could have come from only one place in the world then they must know where that place is. Otherwise, they’d found something but don’t know where they hell it came from.
Where’s Charlie Brown when you need him?
Wait, I think I know the name of the place. It’s called Conundrum.
Doggone it. You can’t discover something that’s only found in one place on earth if you haven’t discovered that place. It’s 2am right now and this crazy-making stuff is really frying my brain.
Oh, it gets worse.
– This started when the M.E. stated a forensic detail popped up during autopsy. That detail was locating the precious missing-link diatom (A cubic inch of diatomite contains millions of diatom fistulas. In other words, they’re pretty darn tiny. A really large one can be as big as a half-millimeter). To begin with, a medical examiner would have to be searching specifically for a diatom during autopsy to have found one, or even a hundred of them. This is not part of a normal autopsy. And so what if they did? What would that mean? That someone was near a river, the ocean, a pond, a mud puddle, damp places, or close to some soil? Yes, diatoms can be found in common soil!
Next, who would have identified this wacky organism in the morgue? Would the pathologist automatically know this as part of their medical training?
Oh, we’re really rolling downhill now…
The medical examiner informs Beckett that the victims had to have come in direct contact with this one of kind water in order for the diatom to have been on the body. Triple hogwash! Water evaporates. How did she know where the diatom came from? How did she know it wasn’t transferred from another person, or in the mist in the air? Man, I’m really aiming the remote at the toilet now.
Castle suggests the water came from an aquarium in the victim’s office. Okay, he’s a layperson feeding off the garbage being tossed to him by the “pros.” Now the coroner adds his two cents to this bizarre scene. He says the diatoms were dispersed into the room by the aquarium pump and anyone in the room would be contaminated with the little fellers. What? Is it like a rain forest in that office? Shoot me now!
Back to the diatoms in a minute.
– Beckett and crew (By the way, the two detectives are much improved this season) pull into an alley to serve a search warrant. Good idea, but sliding patrols cars sideways into an alley with flashing red and blue lights isn’t a good way to sneak up on someone. The bad guys would probably toss the evidence before you could say “diatom.”
– During the car sliding/red and blue light fiasco a bunch of street kids are heard yelling Five-0. This is good. That’s what the real hoodlums say when cops roll into the hood.
– If the detective holding the shotgun in this scene had been forced to shoot during the raid, I don’t believe he’d have been able to hold on to his weapon. A shotgun has quite a bit of recoil, so it’s best to hold the butt of the gun against your shoulder when ready to fire. He was holding his shotgun like you see the SWAT guys carrying their automatic weapons. Different animals entirely.
– Back to the dreaded diatom. As it turns out, the thing came from the Hudson River. Yeah, that Hudson. The body of water that’s never been discovered according to the M.E. The Hudson that New Yorkers are exposed to every single day of their lives. This is the mysterious body of water that could only contain this special diatom. Nay, Nay. The Hudson River is connected to:
* Opalescent Brook
* Cedar River
* Indian River
* Boreas River
* Schroon River
* Sacandaga River
* Mill Creek
* Battenkill River
* Hoosic River
* Mohawk River
* Normans Kill
* Catskill Creek
* Esopus Creek
* Rondout Creek
* Roeliff-Jansen Kill
* Crum Elbow Creek
* Wappingers Creek
* Fishkill Creek
* Moodna Creek
* Quassaick Creek
* Croton River
* Pocantico River
* Sparkill Creek
* Wicker’s Creek
* Saw Mill River
Well, you get the idea.
And now to wrap this up…
– Beckett and crew question the two murder suspects, separately (good), and trick the weaker of the two into confessing by saying the alpha crook squealed like a pig. It works like that in real life, too.
At least everyone looked really nice this week. And Castle was pretty funny.
Les Edgerton served a little over 2 years in Pendleton in the sixties on a 2-5 burglary charge (plea-bargained down from 82 counts of second-degree burglary, a count of armed robbery, a count of strong-armed robbery, and a count of possession with intent to sell). When he was in the joint, then-President Johnson declared Pendleton to be “the single worst prison in the U.S.” Les agrees with that assessment…
Since then, Les has earned a B.A. (With Honors of Distinction) from Indiana University and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. He has published 9 books, taught creative writing at various universities, including the UCLA Writer’s Program, St. Francis University, and served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toledo and at Trine University. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award (short story category), PEN/Faulkner Award, Jesse Jones Book Award, Violet Crown Book Award (was awarded a Special Citation for his novel The Death of Tarpons), and others. A screenplay of his was a semifinalist in the Nichol’s Foundation Awards. The NY Times review of his story collection, Monday’s Meal, compared him favorably to Raymond Carver.
Currently, he resides in Ft. Wayne, IN with his wife Mary and their son Mike. Les has two daughters-Britney and Sienna-from a previous marriage. He teaches online classes for Writer’s Digest and provides novel coaching services for writers.
Les says, “When President Johnson came on TV to announce the results of his administration’s study that “Pendleton was the single-worst prison,” I was watching over in J Block and everyone stood up and began cheering and waving aloft a single digit. It was like our football team had just been named Number One. Quite a stirring experience. We knew then how Notre Dame fans felt…
ACCURACY IN CRIME NOVELS
(Depicting the criminal’s mind and behavior accurately)
I’d like to address a subject that’s bothered me for many years. I’m speaking of the way authors have routinely depicted the average criminal’s mind and behavior, which, in the main, have been largely inaccurate.
First, to establish my “bona fides” I am both a writer and an ex-con, having served about two years of a two-to-five sentence in the Indiana state prison at Pendleton, Indiana (for second-degree burglary) back in the sixties. I was originally charged with 82 burglaries, one count of armed robbery, one count of strong-arm robbery, and one count of possession with intent to deal. All of the charges were reduced to a single count of second-degree burglary via a plea bargain. I actually committed far more felonies-for instance, I did over 400 burglaries-but 82 was all my rap-partners could remember (or were in on-many I did solo) to roll over on me on-and so that’s the number I was charged with. The statue of limitations has run out on them now, so I can “fess up.”
One of the basic elements of good writing, in my opinion, is veracity. Not only should the author remain true to his personal version of truth, but his reportage should also be accurate. And, in the case of the criminal mindset and normal behavior, I see instance after instance in short stories, novels and movies where an inaccurate portrayal is the rule and not the exception.
Let’s look at three of the most common inaccuracies:
1. Inmates in prison hate child molesters.
Mostly hooey. It seems to be common wisdom these days that people on the bricks (“straights”) believe that inmates in prison hate child molesters and can’t wait to kill them. I disagree… to a point. Back in my time in prison (mid-sixties in a state joint, which is vastly different than a federal prison), nobody much cared about what you were in for. Actually, there weren’t many child molesters back then-child molestations, while they’ve always been around are infinitely more common these days than back then-but as long as they minded their business no one really bothered them or cared what they’d done. I can only remember knowing of one inmate who was a convicted child molester and nobody bothered him or much cared what he was in for. To be honest, a large number of people incarcerated have drinking or drug problems and when they’re on the sauce or high, pretty routinely abuse their own kids.
2. Inmates hate convicted cops.
Again, hooey. The few cops that were in the joint with me had more friends than anyone else, on average. The thing is, cops and outlaws interact with each other all the time on the bricks-at least the professional criminals do-and most of us like and even respect each other. There’s a very fine line between being a cop and a criminal, in my opinion. We’re both adrenaline junkies and is one of the chief reasons we become what we are in these two “career fields.” When I was “in the life” I used to hang out almost every night at a slop shop in downtown South Bend, before I went to “work,” and half the people there were off-duty cops and half were outlaws. We all got along well and if one of those guys got sent up, we were still friends.
3. Inmates claim to be innocent.
This is probably the biggest myth of all. Nobody claims to be innocent in the joint-even those few who are. If you were innocent and said so to other inmates, they would take that as a sign of weakness and you’d be in trouble. Where that comes from is when a reporter or researcher interviews an inmate, very often they’ll sing him a sad tale of woe about being bumrapped. The reason is, no matter how guilty the person is, once you’re inside, all hope has vanished. To be interviewed, especially by a sympathetic listener, the hope rises that enough bleeding hearts will read the article or see the show and be moved to do something to get the guy liberated. That it doesn’t happen doesn’t destroy the hope-they know it’s a long shot anything like that will happen, but it’s a glimmer of a hope and so they bring their acting chops to the table-probably even claim to have one of those b.s. “jailhouse conversions” and hope somehow their “story” (and that’s usually what it is-a story-will affect the right people’s hearts and a miracle will happen. I only knew one person when I was in who was truly innocent and there’s no way he would have claimed that to other inmates unless he really trusted they wouldn’t tell anyone else. That’d be suicide. In fact, when those who appear in documentaries and TV shows claim their innocence, the instant they’re back in the cellhouse they make sure to let everyone know they were just pulling a shuck.
Another thing they don’t publicize as it would destroy the common misconception. Of all those people who get freed from prison after an investigation or new trial, probably 90-some percent aren’t freed because they were found innocent. They’re freed because of a legal technicality. You can look that up.
For points #1 and #2, what I suspect has happened to lead to the hatred for child molesters and cops inside the walls is what has happened in just about all the instances of misconceptions about convicts. I think what’s happened is that movies romanticized this (inmates hating and killing child molesters) and inmates bought into this image of themselves for a variety of reasons–a typical reason being that people in prison are just plain looking for any kind of excuse to shank someone and this is as good a reason as any and even kind of makes the guy shanking a child molester look like a good or moral guy.
This is exactly what happened with Mario Puzo and his book and subsequent movie “The Godfather.” Puzo admitted he knew nothing at all about the Mafia and made up nearly everything about them that’s in his book. This guy was living in a suburb in Connecticut-sitting in his garage typing on a door laid out over two sawhorses-and had never even seen a mafiosa up close. What he was familiar with were insurance executives and stock brokers. Just about everything in the book was fabricated out of whole cloth.
The truth being, most Mafioso aren’t all that bright and are basically street thugs with
fairly low I.Q.’s in general, but the movie glamorized and romanticized them with horse’s heads and “sleeping with the fishes” and “hitting the mattresses” and all the other stuff Puzo made up, so they just adopted the whole thing because it made them look much cooler than they actually were and are. Life imitated art. There’s just an awful lot of that going on in the public’s general
perception of inmates and prisons.
The same thing happened with the cops being in danger in the joint myth. Some individual somewhere told a reporter that and the naive reporter (there’s a lot of those folks!) reported it as gospel and just like the child molester myth, that just gave cons an excuse to shank someone and feel “moral.” Now, of course, thanks to television and the movies, convicted cops are in danger.
The problem is, the vast majority of inmates in state prisons are operating with an average fourth-grade education and so aren’t likely to write screenplays or books (most can barely read), so the public only knows what a reporter or researcher tells them and inmates are almost never straight with them for all the above reasons and more. Ex-cons from federal joints are better-educated and sometimes do write articles and books, but the problem is federal joints are as different from state joints as a rowboat is from the Queen Mary. The next time I do a crime I’m going to do something that qualifies for a federal jolt first and then if I’m busted for something I’d do state time for, I’ll cop a plea on the federal beef and end up going there first, which means I’ll probably die in a federal prison before I do the state bit. Federal time is just a wee bit easier to do…
If you’ll have me back, Lee, I’ll tell the story of the period Charles Manson and his cellmate in Corcoran, Roger Smith (who bills himself as the “Most-Stabbed Inmate in History”-which he probably is-he’s been shanked over 300 times) kept calling me for a month to chat and with Roger begging me to write his autobiography and what happened then.
Thanks for having me!
P.S. Of the thousands of novels and movies I’ve experienced, the only time I’ve seen the criminal mind portrayed accurately (imo) was in the scene in Pulp Fiction where the guy shoots his best friend in the back seat of the car by accident. His reaction is the only honest depiction of the criminal mind I’ve yet seen.
Les Edgerton’s Hooked –The first and only fiction-writing book that focuses exclusively on beginnings–no other book on the market addresses story beginnings in a comprehensive manner.
Visit Les here.
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Happy Birthday, Jane Friedman!
Lance Corporal Jonathan Nash, 41
South Carolina Highway Patrol
Lance Corporal Jonathan Nash was killed while leading a charity ride in memorial of a fellow trooper, Hardy Godbold, who died in a 1992 automobile accident that occurred during the pursuit of a fleeing criminal. Corporal Nash was leading the ride on his department motorcycle when a vehicle pulled out in front of him, causing the fatal accident. Ironically, Corporal Nash’s death occurred on the same stretch of highway as Trooper Godbold’s.
Trooper Jonathan Nash’s Memorial Service
Photos – Independentmail.com, Anderson S.C.
* Thanks to ODMP
Richard Helms retired after a nearly quarter-century career as a professional psychologist in 2002 to teach at a college in Charlotte, NC. He has been nominated three times for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award (Juicy Watusi, 2003; Wet Debt, 2004; and Cordite Wine, 2006). He is also the only author ever to win two Short Mystery Fiction Society Derringer Awards in the same year (2008). His next novel, Six Mile Creek, will be released in March 2010, from Five Star Mysteries.
THE ZOLOFT MADE ME DO IT
Dissecting the Strange and Sad Case of Christopher Pittman
I spent almost sixteen years working directly with the courts as a psychologist in North Carolina-first as the clinical director in a facility for the most violent and dangerous teenagers in the state, and later as the Court Psychologist for Cabarrus, Stanly, Rowan, and Union Counties. Over those years, as is the case for most forensic shrinks, I spent most of my time preparing pre-sentencing evaluations for District Court cases and pre-dispositional evaluations for juvenile court cases. The courts depend heavily on guidance from outside agents because, when all is said and done, judges really don’t like making unilateral decisions. They tend to prefer strong suggestions as to how they should act, which is why-especially toward the end of my active practice, before I retired in 2002-most of my dispositional recommendations tended to find their way verbatim into the court orders.
Because of the role I played in the court process, I tended to feel a strong affinity toward the District Attorney’s Office, and as a result tended to regard defense attorneys in general as regrettably necessary scumbags devoted to keeping on the streets people who rightfully should have had a standing reservation for a spot under the jail.
By the way, we call this condition ‘burnout’ and it contributed strongly to my decision to retire from active practice.
Seven years in academia may have mellowed me a bit, but some things that happen in the hallowed halls still arch my spine and make my back hair prickly. The most recent involves the ongoing attempts by a bunch of attorneys in South Carolina to reduce (or even eliminate) Christopher Pittman’s prison sentence for inverting his sleeping grandparents’ faces with a .410 shotgun back in 2001.
Christopher Pittman – Buzzle.com photo
Pittman, who was 12 years old at the time of the killings, had a lengthy history of family disruption, aggressive behaviors, abandonment by both his mother and father, and commitment to mental hospitals for suicidal and destructive behaviors. In the year prior to the killings, he was placed in a Florida hospital, where he was prescribed Paxil, an antidepressant medication, as a result of suicidal threats after he was rejected by his mother. His father, overwhelmed by the kid’s problems, sent him to live in South Carolina with his grandparents, Frank Pittman and Joy Roberts. Just a week before the killings, Christopher’s father gave him a present-a nice, shiny new .410 shotgun-and showed him how to use it.
In the interim, because Paxil was not available at the local pharmacies (according to most sources on the case), Pittman’s doctor changed his medication from Paxil to Zoloft (generic name: sertraline). Pittman reported negative side effects to the Zoloft, mostly involving somatic symptoms such as a burning sensation on his right side. Pittman’s sister claimed that he displayed ‘manic’ behaviors. His doctor increased the dosage.
In the day or so leading up to the killings, Pittman got into a fight on the school bus, made threats to other children, and disrupted a church service. In response, Frank Pittman whipped Christopher with a belt and sent him to bed.
Reports from forensic evidence and interviews indicate that Christopher waited in bed with the shotgun until he knew his grandparents were asleep, and then entered their bedroom, shot his grandfather in the mouth, and shot his grandmother in the side of the head. He then set fire to the house, took the shotgun and his grandparents other guns, his dog and some money, and fled to the next county in his grandparents’ car.
When stopped two counties over a couple of days later, Christopher claimed that a ‘large black man’ had invaded his grandparents’ home, killed them, and that he-Christopher-had managed to escape. Authorities immediately suspected the story to be false. When confronted with his fabricated story, Pittman admitted the killings, and added, “They deserved it.”
At his trial, the prosecution portrayed Pittman as the troubled youth that he likely was. They cited a lengthy history of resentment over being disciplined, possibly as a result of his general feelings of resentment toward his parents, who had repeatedly rejected and abandoned him. They had Pittman tested by a psychiatrist, Dr. Pamela Crawford, who testified in the case that Pittman was competent, and that he did understand the difference between right and wrong-thereby fulfilling the requirements to proceed in the case.
Dr. Julian Sharman, a psychiatrist for the South Carolina Division of Juvenile Services, testified that Pittman had put a lot of time into making a plan to “get rid of” his grandfather, and that-in retrospect-he felt no remorse for his acts, and felt that his grandparents “…had asked for it.”
More importantly, two hunters who encountered Pittman in the woods on the day following the shootings reported that he had been “…quiet and calm, and they could understand everything that he said to them.”
All of these findings are important, since the defense attorneys in Christopher Pittman’s case attempted to depict him as manic, nearly psychotic at the time of the shootings, and even driven by Zoloft-fueled voices in his head to kill his grandparents, burn their house, steal their weapons, dog, and car, and flee potential capture.
The jury found Pittman guilty, and the judge in the case sentenced him to 30 years in prison for the killings.
After he was placed in the Youth Prison System in South Carolina following his conviction, Pittman is reported to have continued a pattern of aggressive and violent behavior-despite being either removed from medication or being appropriately medicated-which included racial slurs made toward other inmates, creating and secreting homemade weapons in his cell, and making threats to rape other inmates.
Christopher Pittman’s case has become notorious for several reasons. First, he is among the youngest men (he’s now 21) serving time in prison after committing murder as a child. In fact, South Carolina is one of only nine states in the US where a child of 12 can be bound over for trial as an adult for capital crimes. (In my own state of North Carolina, you can be bound over for trial in adult court if you commit your crime on or after your 13th birthday.)
The second reason for this case’s notoriety is Pittman’s attorney’s use of the so-called ‘Zoloft Defense’, as a means of explaining, excusing, and perhaps exonerating Pittman of responsibility for his behavior.
The appellate court has already addressed the first factor, finding that the sentence was entirely within the authority of the court and, in fact-when compared to other cases-seems particularly lenient.
The so-called Zoloft Defense, however, is particularly interesting from a psychological point of view. Zoloft (sertraline) is one of a number of different drugs that are included in a class called serotonin selective reuptake inhibitors. I typically take over an hour in my classes to describe the action of the neuron (the basic building block of the central nervous system), and I certainly don’t want to do so here, for fear of rendering Lee’s readers comatose. However, to put it as simply as possible, the entire nervous system runs on an electrochemical basis, communicating by specific molecules called neurotransmitters, which flow between the most basic neural cells (neurons) to send messages. The neurons themselves stimulate the release of these neurotransmitters using an electrical charge created by mixing two primary elements of opposite charges (potassium and sodium).
One of the neurotransmitters is serotonin, which is sort of a ‘feel-good’ chemical. It tends to be manufactured in the midbrain, and then is distributed throughout the cerebral cortex (that part of the brain we tend to see most often in pictures). There are over 100 billion neurons in the cortex, and a huge number of them run on this neurotransmitter called serotonin.
When there is too little serotonin in the neurons that distribute it, we tend to feel depressed. When there is too much, we may have symptoms of mania (feeling extremely stimulated, irritabe, having lots of uncontrollable thoughts or ideas, angering easily, and perhaps even having delusions or hallucinations).
Serotonin selective reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s )like Zoloft (sertraline) act to regulate the amount of serotonin flowing between neurons, and by doing this they make us feel better-happier if we are depressed, and more mellow if we are manic.
Please note that this is a very simplistic description of the process by which both neurons and SSRI medications work, but I don’t have pages and pages of space to use to explain in detail.
Most psychiatrists or pediatricians do not prescribe these medications lightly. There should be significant symptoms of a psychological disorder present before such meds are offered, and his history indicates that this was certainly the case with Christopher Pittman.
There is some scientific evidence that might have fueled (even if it doesn’t substantiate) the allegations of
Pittman’s attorneys that the Zoloft he took caused him to kill his grandparents. They seem to base their assertions on research findings that indicate that suddenly ceasing a daily dosage (without ‘weaning off’ the drug) can result in manic behaviors and increase the potential for suicidal thoughts and acts. One expert witness at trial in this case, Dr. Ronald Maris, testified that “…the same mechanisms that could trigger a child taking Zoloft to commit suicide could also trigger one to harm another person.”
Triggering behavior, however, does not constitute causing that behavior. You can pull the trigger on a pistol, but nothing is going to happen if the gun is not first loaded. Christopher Pittman, based on the social history that is available to us, was a loaded gun already endowed with a hair trigger long before he was given psychotropic medications.
Invariably, when I discuss in my college courses the positive role that SSRI medications play in the treatment of various disorders, my students ask some variation of the same question: “But why does it cause people to commit suicide, then?”
The notion that SSRIs cause suicide is based largely on anecdotal data that was printed in the popular press almost twenty years ago, mostly involving another SSRI called Prozac (fluoxetine). There appeared to be a correlation between the number of adolescents prescribed Prozac, and the number of adolescents to attempted or actually committed suicide. The factor that was ignored in these reports was that a very large number of those adolescents were already depressed, and already at high risk for suicide, before they took the medications.
Depression is largely a biochemical event, marked by decreased levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain at key sites associated with mood. It is diagnosed inferentially, which means that we don’t measure the level of neurotransmitters in the brain, but rather we observe the behavior of the client and infer from that behavior that he/she is depressed.
There are basically three symptoms we look for to make a diagnosis of depression: dysphoria, anhedonia, and psychomotor retardation. Dysphoria is an overall sense of sadness or despondency. Anhedonia is a lack of enjoyment in most presumably enjoyable activities. Psychomotor retardation refers to a reduced amount of physical activity, and reductions in measures such as reaction time, reflexes, and the like, which indicate reduced response time in the central and peripheral nervous systems.
Many adolescents who are diagnosed with depression are already having suicidal thoughts, but they don’t act on those thoughts because they don’t have the physical energy or motivation to do so. Now, here is the part where SSRI medications come in. SSRIs aren’t like valium or amphetamines. They don’t go to work as soon as you take them. In general, it takes about two to three weeks for these medications to build up to therapeutic levels in the bloodstream before you begin to see an appreciable overall effect on mood and behavior.
Here’s the problem, though: SSRI medications-like Zoloft-appear to impact psychomotor retardation before they impact dysphoria and anhedonia. After as little as a few days of taking these medications, people begin to feel a lot more energetic, but they still have dysphoric feelings, which may include thoughts of suicide. We have, in effect, taken a lethargic suicide who does not have the energy to act on his impulses, and turned him into an energetic suicide who is all too willing to give in to those impulses.
In cases like this, we say that the psychomotor retardation is inhibiting the suicidal impulse. When the potentially suicidal adolescent becomes more energetic, because he has taken Zoloft (or any SSRI), the most damning thing we can say about the medication is that it has disinhibited an impulse that was already there.
That’s why good clinicians and psychiatrists clearly advise parents of children and adolescents who are taking these medications not to allow them out of sight for several weeks after beginning the meds, to help reduce the likelihood of suicidal acts.
So, let’s go back to the statement made by Dr. Ronald Maris, in which he said that “..the same mechanisms that could trigger a child taking Zoloft to commit suicide could also trigger one to harm another person.”
I’m going to submit that the word ‘trigger’ here is a bad choice. A better statement might have been that, “The same mechanisms that could disinhibit suicidal behavior in a child taking Zoloft, could also disinhibit harmful behavior in another person who already has a predisposition to harm others.”
In other words, the Zoloft was not responsible for Christopher Pittman killing his grandparents. He likely already possessed all the psychological dysfunctions necessary and sufficient to enable him to carry out such an act. The Zoloft might have made it easier for him to commit the murders, by disinhibiting the notion he already had to kill them. It cannot be said, however, that Zoloft caused the murders. Zoloft-or any SSRI, for that matter-can’t make you do something that you wouldn’t do otherwise, given sufficient motivation and provocation.
So, seven years after Christopher Pittman was tried and convicted for the murders of his grandparents, his new attorneys appear ready to go to the well yet one more time, and at least this time they appear not to be doing so behind the boogeyman of the Zoloft Defense.
Pittman’s original defense team half a decade ago was comprised largely of civil attorneys who specialized in suing pharmaceutical companies, and it appears that they had anticipated that they would be able to convince a South Carolina jury of their claim that-in Pittman’s case-‘the Zoloft made me do it’.
After they failed, they filed appeals that addressed virtually every possible error the court might have made in its administration of the prosecution and defense of the case. The three-judge panel rejected their appeals in 2006, presumably ending the Pittman case.
Now, a new set of attorneys are looking into filing a new appeal, based on questionable reports that the prosecution in the Pittman case did not allow the original defense team adequate time to field a reported plea agreement. In his most recent court appearance, Pittman stated that, if he had been given the opportunity , he would have agreed to a deal that would have allowed him to plead guilty to lesser charges of manslaughter, in return for a sentence between 2 and 30 years, with opportunity for parole.
Note, in this hearing he never stated in any way that he was innocent of the charges. He simply stated unequivocally that he would have been happy to cop a plea on them.
The problem? The original prosecutors in the case have steadfastly maintained that they never offered any such plea, and in fact never intended to do so!
I don’t know at this point whether Pittman will get a new trial. I didn’t work with Christopher Pittman. I had no connection with his infamous case. However, I did work over the years with my share of teenaged murderers, some of whom committed their crimes as young as Pittman was when he discharged his shotgun into his grandparents’ sleeping faces. I’ve evaluated, interviewed, and treated dozens of Christopher Pittman’s in my time. My experience has been that each and every one of them had little trouble finding convenient excuses for committing their horrible acts. Not one of them sat across from me-even once-and said, “You know, I did a really bad thing. I was completely responsible, and not a day goes by that I don’t regret the pain, suffering, and horror that I inflicted on my victims. I will have to live with this guilt for the rest of my days.”
That would have been nice. Hearing something like that would have given me a little hope for my clients. Unfortunately, it never happened. Instead, they kept providing excuses for their criminal behavior-any explanation that didn’t put them squarely in the wrong.
What happened in Christopher Pittman’s life that helped shape him into a pre-teen monster that could commit the crimes he did was regrettable. No child should have to endure the neglect and abandonment that he did. But, in the end, we are responsible for ourselves. We have to shoulder the blame for the things we do in life. Nobody is deprived of free will by their past. Pittman’s father and mother didn’t pull the trigger on that shotgun. Zoloft didn’t pull the trigger on that shotgun. Christopher Pittman pulled it. Then he did it again. Then he set fire to the house, drove off into the night with his dog and his grandparents’ money in his grandfather’s car, and when he was caught two days later he told the authorities that his grandparents deserved what they got.
I tend to believe that Christopher Pittman deserves what he’s gotten, too. I tend to believe that the state of South Carolina is a little safer tonight without Pittman roaming around it. I think it’s time to put this case to bed.
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