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kottke.org posts about crime

Making a Murderer, season two

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 25, 2018

In season one of Making a Murderer, filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos profiled Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, who were convicted for murdering Teresa Halbach in 2005, following the process of the police investigation, the trials, and how their families and the family of the victim reacted to everything.

In season two, which starts on Netflix on October 19, Demos & Ricciardi return to Wisconsin as the two men fight to get released from prison. Here’s the teaser trailer:

I thought the first season of the show was excellent, perhaps the best of the recent crop of true crime stories that includes Serial, S-Town, and the like.

Update: Here’s the full trailer.

I could have done without all the ham-fisted dramatic music and cuts…in my recollection, the series isn’t like that at all.

Law & Order: Martian Victims Unit

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 19, 2018

I loved this imaginative and clever piece by Geoff Manaugh called How Will Police Solve Murders on Mars? about how a future human settlement on Mars would handle matters of law and order. For one things, crimes might be more difficult to investigate.

Consider the basic science of crime-scene analysis. In the dry, freezer-like air and extreme solar exposure of Mars, DNA will age differently than it does on Earth. Blood from blunt-trauma and stab wounds will produce dramatically new spatter patterns in the planet’s low gravity. Electrostatic charge will give a new kind of evidentiary value to dust found clinging to the exteriors of space suits and nearby surfaces. Even radiocarbon dating will be different on Mars, Darwent reminded me, due to the planet’s atmospheric chemistry, making it difficult to date older crime scenes.

The Martian environment itself is also already so lethal that even a violent murder could be disguised as a natural act. Darwent suggested that a would-be murderer on the Red Planet could use the environment’s ambient lethality to her advantage. A fatal poisoning could be staged to seem as if the victim simply died of exposure to abrasive chemicals, known as perchlorates, in the Martian rocks. A weak seal on a space suit, or an oxygen meter that appears to have failed but was actually tampered with, could really be a clever homicide hiding in plain sight.

At a broader level, what sort of political system develops because of the Martian environment might shape how law enforcement happens.

In the precarious Martian environment, where so much depends on the efficient, seamless operation of life-support systems, sabotage becomes an existential threat. A saboteur might tamper with the oxygen generators or fatally disable a settlement’s most crucial airlock. When human life is so thoroughly entwined with its technical environment, we should not consider these sorts of acts mere petty crimes, he explained to me. In a literal sense, they would be crimes against humanity-even, on a large enough scale, attempted genocide.

“I think the fact that tyranny is easier in space is a foregone conclusion,” he explained to me, precisely because there is nowhere to escape without risking instant death from extreme cold or asphyxiation. In other words, the constant presence of nearly instant environmental lethality will encourage systems of strong social control with little tolerance for error. Orders and procedures will need to be followed exactly as designed, because the consequences of a single misstep could be catastrophic.

A few paragraphs after this, the terrifyingly wonderful phrase “politically motivated depressurization” is used. I don’t think we’re super close to the colonization of Mars, but Manaugh says, better to think about it now before we “unwittingly construct an interplanetary dystopia run by cops who shoot first and ask questions later”.

Did this unassuming small-town couple steal a $160 million Willem de Kooning painting?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2018

De Kooning Stolen

When Jerry and Rita Alter died, a painting was found in their bedroom in the tiny town of Cliff, NM, and then was sold to an antiques dealer along with the rest of their effects for $2000. The dealer soon discovered that the painting was an original Willem de Kooning worth in the neighborhood of $150 million. The painting had been stolen in a daring raid from a Tucson museum in 1985 and a recently discovered piece of evidence shows the Alters were in Tucson on the day before the theft.

De Kooning Stolen

The next morning, a man and a woman would walk into the museum and then leave 15 minutes later. A security guard had unlocked the museum’s front door to let a staff member into the lobby, curator Olivia Miller told NPR. The couple followed. Since the museum was about to open for the day, the guard let them in.

The man walked up to the museum’s second floor while the woman struck up a conversation with the guard. A few minutes later, he came back downstairs, and the two abruptly left, according to the NPR interview and other media reports.

Sensing that something wasn’t right, the guard walked upstairs. There, he saw an empty frame where de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” had hung.

At the time, the museum had no surveillance cameras. Police found no fingerprints. One witness described seeing a rust-color sports car drive away but didn’t get the license plate number. For 31 years, the frame remained empty.

Earlier this year, WFAA made a short documentary film about the Alters and the heist.

(If you don’t want to watch the entire video, at least check out the bit starting at 18:00 where the painting is given back to the museum and authenticated…that is something you rarely see on video as it happens.)

Adding to the mystery: the couple obviously never sold the painting but they retired early, travelled the world, and left a $1 million inheritance, all seemingly beyond their means as public school employees.

Something else doesn’t add up. Jerry and Rita Alter worked in public schools for most of their careers. Yet they somehow managed to travel to 140 countries and all seven continents, documenting their trips with tens of thousands of photos.

And yet, when they died, they had more than a million dollars in their bank account, according to the Sun News.

“I guess I figured they were very frugal,” their nephew, Ron Roseman, told WFAA.

Hmm, where did they get all that coin?

How one man rigged McDonald’s Monopoly and stole millions

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 31, 2018

For years, Jerry Jacobson was in charge of the security of the game pieces for McDonald’s Monopoly, one of the most successful marketing promotions in the fast food giant’s history. And for almost as long, Jacobson had been passing off winning pieces to family, friends, and “a sprawling network of mobsters, psychics, strip club owners, convicts, drug traffickers”, to the tune of more than million in cash & prizes.

Dent’s investigation had started in 2000, when a mysterious informant called the FBI and claimed that McDonald’s games had been rigged by an insider known as “Uncle Jerry.” The person revealed that “winners” paid Uncle Jerry for stolen game pieces in various ways. The $1 million winners, for example, passed the first $50,000 installment to Uncle Jerry in cash. Sometimes Uncle Jerry would demand cash up front, requiring winners to mortgage their homes to come up with the money. According to the informant, members of one close-knit family in Jacksonville had claimed three $1 million dollar prizes and a Dodge Viper.

When Dent alerted the McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, executives were deeply concerned. The company’s top lawyers pledged to help the FBI, and faxed Dent a list of past winners. They explained that their game pieces were produced by a Los Angeles company, Simon Marketing, and printed by Dittler Brothers in Oakwood, Georgia, a firm trusted with printing U.S. mail stamps and lotto scratch-offs. The person in charge of the game pieces was Simon’s director of security, Jerry Jacobson.

One of the winners, Jerry Columbo, a partner of Jacobson’s who was allegedly a member of the Mafia, even appeared in this TV commercial holding an oversized novelty key to a car he had “won”:

At the height of the scam, no normal person won any of the best Monopoly prizes…they were all arranged by Jacobson. This has to become a movie, right?

I remember when the Monopoly game started. We didn’t eat out that much when I was a kid, but we still played a few times here and there. But I distinctly remember studying the game board, looking at the odds of winning, and figuring out how they must restrict some single game pieces to make it all work. You could get Park Places all day long, but you’d never ever see a Boardwalk. After that realization, I lost interest in playing. It was an early lesson about not spending too much time and energy striving for unattainable goals. Besides, those delicious McDonald’s fries were reward enough.

Update: Ah, a movie version of the story is in the works with Matt Damon playing Jacobson and Ben Affleck directing.

A map of Chicago’s Gangland circa 1931

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2018

Chicago Gangland Map

This is A Map of Chicago’s Gangland from Authentic Sources published in 1931 by Bruce-Roberts, Inc.

Map of Chicago gang locations showing Little Italy, Little Sicily, Cicero, Capone Territory, Westside O’Donnell Territory, Stickney, Saltis Territory, Southside O’Donnell Territory, and Little Africa. “Designed to inculcate the most important principles of piety and virtue in young persons, and graphically portray the evils and sin of large cities.” Numbers in red circles give the sequence of important events in Chicago’s gangland war. Insets include: Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, lawyer running to spring his client, an armored car, bootleggers stealing wheels from prohibition cars, machine gunners arriving from Detroit, World’s Fair grounds of 1933, police tipping over a speakeasy, and “gangland dictionary”.

Al Capone looms large over the map; he was arrested for tax evasion that year and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. There’s also a zoomable reproduction you can explore at the David Rumsey Map Collection.

Update: See also these historic vice maps of Chicago depicting “all of the bars, dives, brothels, saloons, pool halls and gambling houses in the Levee and Little Cheyenne Districts of Chicago between 1870 and 1923”.

A brief history of fingerprints

posted by Jason Kottke   May 29, 2018

Smudge Art

Chantel Tattoli’s piece for The Paris Review, The Surprising History (and Future) of Fingerprints, is interesting throughout, but these two things leapt from the screen (italics mine):

It is true that every print is unique to every finger, even for identical twins, who share the same genetic code. Fingerprints are formed by friction from touching the walls of our mother’s womb. Sometimes they are called “chanced impressions.” By Week 19, about four months before we are issued into the world, they are set.

WHAT?! Is this true? A cursory search shows this might indeed be the case, although it looks as though there’s not established scientific consensus around the process.

Also, Picasso was fingerprinted as a suspect in the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre:

When French authorities interrogated Pablo Picasso, in 1911, at the Palais de Justice about the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre that August, he was clad in his favorite red-and-white polka-dot shirt. Picasso cried. He begged forgiveness. He was in possession of two statuettes filched from the museum, but he hadn’t taken her.

“In possession of”? Turns out a pal of Picasso’s lifted the statuettes from the museum, which was notoriously easy to steal from, and sold them to the artist, who knew exactly what he was buying.

True to Pieret’s testimony, Picasso kept two stolen Iberian statues buried in a cupboard in his Paris apartment. Despite the artist’s later protestations of ignorance there could be no mistaking their origins. The bottom of each was stamped in bold: PROPERTY OF THE MUSÉE DU LOUVRE.

Fingerprint art by Evan Roth. (via @claytoncubitt)

Still Here

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2018

This short film by Ben Proudfoot features Melvin Dismukes, who was a private security guard during the Detroit race riot of 1967. Dismukes responded to a situation at the Algiers Motel and ended up being accused of murder, spending years trying to clear his name. In this film, Dismukes tells his story, which is intercut with scenes from Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, which features Star Wars’ John Boyega as Dismukes.

Dismukes also told his story to the Detroit Historical Society last year.

After getting outside there, you could hear gunfire coming from the area of the Algiers, Virginia Park area. National Guard showed up over there to find out what had happened on the corner, and they heard the shots also, so we started headed toward the Algiers, the other two guys that was working with me stayed at the store because we had to protect the store, needed somebody there. Went across the street to the Algiers, gunfire was still coming from the building, lots of gunfire, we couldn’t tell where the gunfire was really coming from. One of the policemen that was in the area with us told us to take out the streetlights. I would say I had a rifle, I didn’t have a shotgun, so the guys with the shotgun took out the streetlights. I had one guy what I thought was a sniper, because I’d seen a flash from a window in the Algiers, it was up on, I think it was the second floor. I fired at that guy, I missed the guy, that’s the only shot I fired during the whole riot, second shot I fired with the rifle. Prior to that, I fired my first day on the job on Sunday, I fired the rifle to get some people off the streets, you know, and they wouldn’t move, and they wanted to play the honky town thing, so fired the gun, the gun had never been fired before, so the barrel was full of oil, and when it went off, and there’s this dust you get flames coming out of it, and they hollered, “He’s got a flamethrower,” so they all turned around and started running.

Older Japanese women are shoplifting to find community and meaning in jail

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2018

Shiho Fukada

Shiho Fukada

In Japan, where 27.3% of the population is 65 or older, elderly women are committing petty crimes like shoplifting in order to go to jail to find care and community that is increasingly denied them elsewhere. Japan’s jails are becoming nursing homes.

Why have so many otherwise law-abiding elderly women resorted to petty theft? Caring for Japanese seniors once fell to families and communities, but that’s changing. From 1980 to 2015, the number of seniors living alone increased more than sixfold, to almost 6 million. And a 2017 survey by Tokyo’s government found that more than half of seniors caught shoplifting live alone; 40 percent either don’t have family or rarely speak with relatives. These people often say they have no one to turn to when they need help.

Even women with a place to go describe feeling invisible. “They may have a house. They may have a family. But that doesn’t mean they have a place they feel at home,” says Yumi Muranaka, head warden of Iwakuni Women’s Prison, 30 miles outside Hiroshima. “They feel they are not understood. They feel they are only recognized as someone who gets the house chores done.”

All photos by Shiho Fukada. The first photo is of Mrs. F, aged 89, who stole “rice, strawberries, cold medicine”. She says: “I was living alone on welfare. I used to live with my daughter’s family and used all my savings taking care of an abusive and violent son-in-law.” The woman in the second photo recounts:

The first time I shoplifted was about 13 years ago. I wandered into a bookstore in town and stole a paperback novel. I was caught, taken to a police station, and questioned by the sweetest police officer. He was so kind. He listened to everything I wanted to say. I felt I was being heard for the first time in my life. In the end, he gently tapped on my shoulder and said, ‘I understand you were lonely, but don’t do this again.’

I can’t tell you how much I enjoy working in the prison factory. The other day, when I was complimented on how efficient and meticulous I was, I grasped the joy of working. I regret that I never worked. My life would have been different.

I enjoy my life in prison more. There are always people around, and I don’t feel lonely here. When I got out the second time, I promised that I wouldn’t go back. But when I was out, I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic.

A obsessive search for the Golden State Killer

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

At the time of her death, Michelle McNamara was in the middle of several years of research for a book on the Golden State Killer.1 After she died, her widower Patton Oswalt enlisted an investigative journalist and a researcher to comb through her notes and finish the book. The result, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is not only a book about the killer but about McNamara’s descent into obsession. In a blurb, Stephen King wrote:

What readers need to know — what makes this book so special — is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara’s is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined. I loved this book.

A NY Times piece about the book describes how consumed she was by the case:

The research consumed her, and began to weigh on her. She suffered from insomnia and anxiety. Once, she panicked because she woke up to a scraping sound: A neighbor was dragging his trash can to the curb in the middle of the night, Mr. Oswalt said. Another time, when Mr. Oswalt tiptoed into their bedroom, trying not to wake her, she mistook him for an intruder and jumped out of bed and swung a lamp at his head. She felt an obligation to solve the case, and was devastated each time she developed a promising theory or zeroed in on a suspect but failed to find sufficient evidence.

“She had overloaded her mind with information with very dark implications,” Mr. Oswalt said.

Update: A suspect has been arrested in the GSK case.

Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, who was taken into custody outside his home on Tuesday and charged with six counts of murder, had been living undisturbed a half-hour drive from where the 12-year rampage began. He was described as a former police officer, and his time in uniform partly overlapped with many of the crimes he is accused of committing.

The case was cracked in the past week, Sheriff Scott Jones of Sacramento County said on Wednesday, when investigators identified Mr. DeAngelo and were able to match his DNA with the murders of Lyman and Charlene Smith in Ventura County in 1980.

This is a chilling in-retrospect red flag:

[DeAngelo] was convicted in 1979 for shoplifting a can of dog repellent and a hammer from a store in Sacramento County. The incident led to his dismissal from the Auburn police force. The arrest came amid the rash of rapes in the area.

Dog repellent and hammers are useful for breaking into homes and he likely shoplifted them because he didn’t want the purchase traced to him.

  1. If you ask me, the guy in the middle here looks a lot like a certain YouTube star who’s been in hot water lately…

Slaughterbots: swarming killer drones powered by AI

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

We’ve seen autonomous swarming killer robots before (in Black Mirror and other places), but this video presents a particularly plausible scenario for their development: a venture-backed company led by a Travis Kalanick-style CEO combining tiny drones invented by a playful technologist, AI-powered facial recognition, and miniature explosives to make tiny killbots that will no doubt disrupt the world while creating a ton of shareholder value.

The video is produced by a group that wants to ban autonomous weapons, and I think these things will probably be banned in some form, possibly by banning drones and some kinds of consumer electronics altogether. What struck me most while watching this is that if guns were a new invention, they would most likely be banned in the US, just like lawn darts or explosive devices. A hand-held machine that can kill a person 1000 feet away and hides easily in a pocket? That sounds like a dangerous, litigious nightmare, just the sort of thing the US routinely regulates against for the safety of its people.

Errol Morris’ new Netflix series, Wormwood

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2017

True crime OG Errol Morris has teamed up with Netflix for a 6-part series called Wormwood. The series is an exploration of the CIA experiments with LSD in the 1950s and the death of CIA employee Frank Olson, who was covertly given LSD more than a week before he died. Olson’s death was ruled a suicide, but many years later, the US government settled a potential wrongful death lawsuit out-of-court with a $750,000 payment to the family.

The show itself is a mixture of documentary and historical reenactment (starring Peter Sarsgaard & Bob Balaban) that is now somewhat standard in the true crime genre, having been pioneered by Morris in The Thin Blue Line. Of the show, Morris writes:

Isn’t journalism the pursuit of truth? But what if the truth proves to be elusive, hard to get at? How far does one go? Where does one stop? Are there limits, emotional and otherwise, to the pursuit of truth? Can it be injurious to one’s health? Here we have the story of one man’s sixty-year quest to identify the circumstances of his father’s death. Did he jump from a hotel window? Or was he pushed? And if he was pushed, why? What for? A shadowy world of hidden and imagined intentions coupled with dark and horrifying revelations. In many ways, a personal family story, but in many other ways, a story of America’s decline in the period following World War II. It asks the question: To what extent can a democracy lie to its citizens and still, in the end, remain a democracy?

On Netflix on December 15.

Update: Here’s the full trailer for Wormwood:

A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2017

Before yesterday, I never wanted to hear or read about Dylann Roof ever again. But Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s superb piece in GQ about what led Roof to commit his terroristic act is very much worth reading.

Felicia Sanders, one of the few survivors, told the courtroom early on that Roof belonged in the pit of hell. Months later, she said that because of him she can no longer close her eyes to pray. She can’t stand to hear the sound of firecrackers, or even the patter of acorns falling. Because of Dylann Roof, Felicia Sanders had been forced to play dead by lying in her dying son’s blood, while holding her hand over her whimpering grandbaby’s mouth. She had pressed her hand down so tight that she said she feared she would suffocate the girl. Eighteen months later, Felicia Sanders pointed that same hand toward Dylann Roof in the courtroom and said, with no doubt in her voice at all, that it was simple — that man there was “pure evil.”

Their vitriol was warranted but also unexpected, since in most of the press coverage of the shooting it had largely been erased. Almost every white person I spoke with in Charleston during the trial praised the church’s resounding forgiveness of the young white man who shot their members down. The forgiveness was an absolution of everything. No one made mention that this forgiveness was individual, not collective. Some of the victims and their families forgave him, and some of them did not. No one acknowledged that Dylann Roof had not once apologized, shown any remorse, or asked for this forgiveness. Or the fact that with 573 days to think about his crime, Dylann Roof stood in front of the jurors and, with that thick, slow tongue of his, said without any hesitation whatsoever, “I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.”

On the first morning that Felicia Sanders testified, I was seated directly behind Dylann Roof’s mother, and because she is skin and bones, it was apparent that she was having some kind of fit. She trembled and shook until her knees buckled and she slid slowly onto the bench, mouth agape, barely moving. She said, over and over again, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She seemed to be speaking to her boyfriend, but maybe it was meant for Felicia Sanders, who was soon to take the stand. A communiqué that was a part of the bond that mothers have, one that was brought up by the radiant shame one must feel when your son has wreaked unforgivable havoc on another mother’s child. Whatever it was, it was Gothic.

The NYPD’s doppelganger problem and racially unfair policing

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2017

Lisa Davis Lisa Davis

For years, a white woman named Lisa Davis was paying the price (sometimes literally) for tickets issued to other women named Lisa Davis living in NYC.

Finally, the DMV told me that I wasn’t the victim of identity theft; there was simply another Lisa S Davis with the same birthday in New York City. Our records were crossed. When cops run a license, they don’t check the person’s address, signature, or social security numbers. They check the name and the birthday, and both the other Lisa S Davis’s and mine were the same. We were, in the eyes of the law, one person, caught in a perfect storm of DMV and NYPD idiocy.

In fighting all of these improperly filed tickets, Davis learned that most of them issued for bullshit “broken windows” misdemeanors in predominately minority neighborhoods.

It was then that it became clear to me: the reason for the tickets wasn’t that these Lisa Davises were petty criminals. The reason was likely that they lived in highly policed areas where even the smallest infractions are ticketed, the sites of “Broken Windows” policing. The reason, I thought, was that they weren’t white.

That could have been the “proof” I offered to the judge. Brownsville’s population is less than 1% white. It almost couldn’t have been me. My neighborhood, though fairly diverse (and cheap) when I moved there in the early 90s, is now 76% white. I have never heard of anyone getting tickets in my neighborhood for any of the infractions committed by the Lisa Davises in neighborhoods of color.

I felt there was only one thing to do. I had to find the Lisa Davises, to untangle myself from them, to talk to them about being Lisa Davises, and to see if they agreed with my supposition: that the real “crime” they had committed was being non-white.

See also Pro Publica’s report published today, Minority Neighborhoods Pay Higher Car Insurance Premiums Than White Areas With the Same Risk.

A powerful memorial to racial terror lynchings

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2016

Lynching Soil

The Equal Justice Initiative is filling jars with soil from the sites of lynchings to honor the victims and to create a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

Between the Civil War and World War II, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. EJI has documented more than 4000 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950 — several hundred of these victims were lynched in Alabama.

Lynching profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today. Terror lynchings fueled the mass migration of millions of black people from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West in the first half of the 20th century. Lynching created a fearful environment in which racial subordination and segregation were maintained with limited resistance for decades. Most critically, lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America.

Rob Holmes recently visited and took some photos of the jars…just row after row of them. “Stunning,” he said.

Update: See also this map of lynchings in the US.

Evolution at work: ivory poaching and tuskless elephants

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2016

Tuskless Elephants

Poachers in Africa in search of the biggest ivory tusks have altered the gene pool of African elephants in the process.

In Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, 90 per cent of elephants were slaughtered between 1977 and 1992, during the country’s civil war. Dr Poole said that because poachers disproportionately targeted tusked animals, almost half the females over 35 years of age have no tusks, and although poaching is now under control and the population is recovering well, they are passing the tuskless gene down to their daughters: 30 per cent of female elephants born since the end of the war also do not have tusks.

“Females who are tuskless are more likely to produce tuskless offspring,” she said.

(via mr)

Update: Vox has an interesting look at the growing trend of tuskless elephants.

Voting under the influence of celebrity

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2016

Dave Pell from Nextdraft on the connection between OJ Simpson and Donald Trump and how celebrity warps American minds.

By the time OJ Simpson was arrested after the infamous ride in the White Ford Bronco, it was totally impossible to imagine he’d be found not guilty.

By the time Trump reached election day, he had broken every rule of politics. He committed more campaign-ending gaffes in a week than most losing presidential campaigns during an entire run.

Both men had a fame that completely cut across all American demographics.

I thought I’d mentioned this somewhere at the time — Twitter? kottke.org? Can’t find it… — but when I watched the excellent OJ: Made in America documentary this summer, the parallels between the OJ story and Trump made me feel very uneasy. Two men, both broadly famous, both wealthy, both charming, both outcasts from their respective social groups, both misogynist abusers, both committed crimes, both gamed the American political and legal systems to get away with something that they shouldn’t have. OJ eventually got his but will Trump? Are Americans doomed to keep repeating these mistakes when it comes to celebrity?

Advice from burglars to homeowners

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 11, 2016

Burglar Letter

A local TV station in Portland, OR wrote letters to dozens of convicted burglars and asked them for details about how they broke in, what they were looking for, etc. in order to give homeowners some suggestions on how avoid being robbed.

7. Did you typically knock on the front door before breaking into a home?

Yes. All of the inmates who responded said they would knock on the front door before breaking in.

8. If someone answered the door, what would you do or say?

“Act like I was lost or looking for a friend.”

“I would approach the resident as though they had posted an ad on Craigslist.”

“Say wrong house, sorry and thank you.”

“Ask if they’d seen my dog and leave.”

“Sometimes I would wear nice clothing and print a questionnaire off the Internet and carry a clipboard and see if they could spare a moment for an anonymous survey.”

Possibly relevant note: all this information is from people who got caught burgling, so, you know, grain of salt.

The serial killer who won The Dating Game

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2016

Rodney Alcala, who was convicted of killing seven women between 1971 and 1979 and possibly murdered many more, took time out during his killing spree to appear on The Dating Game. At the time, he was a convicted child molestor. The Bachelorette picked him over the other two contestants.

The Bachelorette, Cheryl, doesn’t pick up on any of this. In fact, she ends up choosing Alcala over the other two contestants despite his lackluster answers like, “Nighttime is the best time,” and “I’m a banana… peel me.” However, she cut things off immediately after their one date, claiming that she found him “creepy.”

Imagine if that happened today…the lawsuits and outcry would have shut the show down immediately.

The Central Park Five

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2016

In the late 1980s, five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping a woman jogging in Central Park. The Central Park Five is a documentary film directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon which tells the story from the perspective of the those five teens. I’ve seen the film, it’s excellent, and it’s currently available to watch for free on the PBS website.

The five men and this terrific miscarriage of justice are back in the news because of Donald Trump. In 1989, just a few weeks after the attack in Central Park, Trump took out a full-page ad in the Daily News denouncing the crime and the teens in which he calls for bringing back the death penalty.

Perhaps he thought it gave him gravitas, that spring, to weigh in on the character of the teen-agers in the park: “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”

When NYC finally settled with the wrongly convicted men in 2014, Trump denounced the settlement, joining a police detective in calling it “the heist of the century.” And just before Trump’s crowing about sexual assault of women broke over the weekend, Trump reaffirmed that despite all evidence to the contrary, he believes that the five men are still guilty.

The forger who saved 1000s of Jews from the Nazis

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 06, 2016

During the German occupation of France, teenager Adolfo Kaminsky forged thousands of documents for Jews about to be deported to concentration camps. He worked at a shop that dyed clothes and a Jewish resistance cell recruited him because he knew how to remove ink stains, a skill that served him well in altering documents.

If you’re doubting whether you’ve done enough with your life, don’t compare yourself to Mr. Kaminsky. By his 19th birthday, he had helped save the lives of thousands of people by making false documents to get them into hiding or out of the country. He went on to forge papers for people in practically every major conflict of the mid-20th century.

Now 91, Mr. Kaminsky is a small man with a long white beard and tweed jacket, who shuffles around his neighborhood with a cane. He lives in a modest apartment for people with low incomes, not far from his former laboratory.

When I followed him around with a film crew one day, neighbors kept asking me who he was. I told them he was a hero of World War II, though his story goes on long after that.

A remarkable story and a remarkable gentleman. The video above is based on a book Kaminsky’s daughter wrote about him.

How the Mona Lisa became so overrated

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2016

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is overrated. Why? For starters, the director of the Louvre said that 80% of the museum’s visitors are there just to see the Mona Lisa. 80%! We’re talking about one of the finest museums in the world, overflowing with some of the world’s greatest artworks, and people come to only see one thing. Overrated. The story of how that happened involves a passionate art critic and a crime.

Pardon Edward Snowden

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2016

The ACLU, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch are calling for the pardon of Edward Snowden. The ACLU:

The government has charged Snowden under the Espionage Act, a World War One-era law that doesn’t distinguish between selling secrets to foreign governments and giving them to journalists working in the public interest. If Snowden were to be tried under the charges he faces, any argument that his actions benefited the public would be inadmissible in court.

The Pardon Snowden campaign will work through the end of Obama’s administration to make the case that Snowden’s act of whistleblowing benefited the United States and enriched democratic debate worldwide, and we’re asking citizens to write to the president via our website.

Human Rights Watch:

Though some government officials claimed that irreversible harm had been done to US national security, little evidence has been aired publicly. Snowden entrusted the release of information to seasoned journalists and made them promise to inform the government and consider any claim of harm to national security in advance of publication. Adm. Michael Rogers, on taking the helm of the NSA a year into the revelations, told the New York Times he couldn’t say “the sky is falling.” Even Attorney General Eric Holder, who still advocated Snowden’s prosecution as he left office, conceded he performed “a public service.”

Amnesty International:

“Edward Snowden clearly acted in the public interest. He sparked one of the most important debates about government surveillance in decades, and brought about a global movement in defence of privacy in the digital age. Punishing him for this sends out the dangerous message that those who witness human rights violations behind closed doors should not speak out,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“It is ironic that it is Snowden who is being treated like a spy when his act of courage drew attention to the fact that the US and UK governments were illegally spying on millions of people without their consent.

“The mass surveillance exposed by Snowden impacts the human rights of people around the world. Our new campaign gives the public a chance to call for his pardon and thank him for triggering action by concerned individuals around the world to take back their privacy.”

Several prominent individuals have lent their support to the effort as well, including Steve Wozniak, Eve Ensler, Daniel Ellsberg, and Teju Cole. Bernie Sanders is also urging some form of clemency fror Snowden.

Why this push now? Obama is leaving office (typically a good time for pardons) and Oliver Stone’s Snowden is due out in theaters tomorrow. The reviews aren’t bad and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s impersonation of Snowden is uncanny (see the trailer).

Our tiny autonomous killer drone future

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2016

The very beginning of Attack of the Killer Robots by Sarah Topol features this quote by Stuart Russell, a Berkeley computer science professor. It is terrifying:

A very, very small quadcopter, one inch in diameter can carry a one- or two-gram shaped charge. You can order them from a drone manufacturer in China. You can program the code to say: “Here are thousands of photographs of the kinds of things I want to target.” A one-gram shaped charge can punch a hole in nine millimeters of steel, so presumably you can also punch a hole in someone’s head. You can fit about three million of those in a semi-tractor-trailer. You can drive up I-95 with three trucks and have 10 million weapons attacking New York City. They don’t have to be very effective, only 5 or 10% of them have to find the target.

There will be manufacturers producing millions of these weapons that people will be able to buy just like you can buy guns now, except millions of guns don’t matter unless you have a million soldiers. You need only three guys to write the program and launch them. So you can just imagine that in many parts of the world humans will be hunted. They will be cowering underground in shelters and devising techniques so that they don’t get detected. This is the ever-present cloud of lethal autonomous weapons.

They could be here in two to three years.

Who needs a hug?

Brendan Dassey’s conviction has been overturned by a federal judge

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2016

Brendan Dassey, who was one of two men convicted for the murder of Theresa Halbach, may be released from prison soon. A federal judge issued a ruling overturning his conviction today:

Concluding the 91-page decision, Duffin found that investigators made false promises to Dassey during multiple interrogations.

“These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals’ decision to the contrary was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law,” Duffin wrote.

Prosecutors have 90 days to decide to retry Dassey or release him. It was fairly clear to me, having watched Making a Murderer, that Dassey was innocent (or at the very least, was not given a fair trial).

OJ: Made in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2016

OJ Simpson Trial

Last night, I finished OJ: Made in America, ESPN’s 8-hour documentary series about OJ Simpson. Prior to starting the series, I would rather have poked an eye out than spend another second of my life thinking about OJ Simpson; I’d gotten my fill back in the 90s. But I’d heard so many good things about it that I gave it a shot. Pretty quickly, you realize this is not just the biography of a man or the story of a trial but is a deep look at racism, policing, and celebrity in the US. OJ: Made in America is excellent and I recommend it unreservedly. From Brian Tallerico’s review:

Ezra Edelman’s stunningly ambitious, eight-hour documentary is a masterpiece, a refined piece of investigative journalism that places the subject it illuminates into the broader context of the end of the 20th century. You may think you know everything about The Trial of the Century, especially if you watched FX’s excellent “The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story,” but “OJ: Made in America” not only fills in details about the case but offers background and commentary that you’ve never heard before. It is an examination of race, domestic abuse, celebrity, civil rights, the LAPD, the legal process and murder over the last fifty years, using the OJ Simpson story as a way to refract society. Its length may seem daunting, but I would have watched it for another eight hours and will almost certainly watch it again before the summer is over. It’s that good.

The only real criticism I have of the series is that the treatment of women in America should have been explored more, on the same level as racism and celebrity. A.O. Scott picked up on this in his NY Times review:

It is hard not to notice the predominance of male voices among the interview subjects, and the narrowness of the film’s discussion of domestic violence. This is not to say that the issue is ignored: Mr. Simpson’s history of abusing Nicole is extensively and graphically documented, as is the fact that most of his friends ignored what was going on at their Rockingham estate. But the film, which so persuasively treats law enforcement racism as a systemic problem, can’t figure out how to treat violence against women with the same kind of rigor or nuance.

A fuller discussion of domestic violence in the US and misogyny in sports would have provided another powerful, reinforcing aspect of the story.

We’re getting six new episodes of Making a Murderer from Netflix

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2016

Well! Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, directors of Making a Murderer, are working on six more episodes of the series for Netflix.

The new episodes of Making A Murderer will provide an in-depth look at the post-conviction process of convicted murderer Steven Avery, and his co-defendant, Brendan Dassey, as their respective investigative and legal teams challenge their convictions and the State fights to have their life sentences upheld.

They will also offer access to Avery’s new lawyer Kathleen Zellner and Dassey’s legal team, led by Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin, as well as the families and characters close to the case.

I thought Making a Murderer was excellent, one of the best things I watched last year. Reminder: the entire first episode of the show is on YouTube for free. (via @beaucolburn)

Police racism: a tale of two justice systems

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2016

In 1974, Studs Terkel published a book called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. One of the people he talked to for the book was Chicago police officer Renault Robinson. Robinson is African American and offered up his views to Terkel on how blacks are policed differently…here are the relevant bits of the interview. On traffic stops:

“About sixty percent of police-citizen conflict starts in a traffic situation. It’s easier to stop a person on the pretext of a traffic violation than to stop him on the street. It’s a lot easier to say, “Your tail light’s out.” “Your plate is dented.” “You didn’t make that turn right.” You can then search his automobile, hoping you can find some contraband or a weapon. If he becomes irritated, with very little pushing on your part, you can make an arrest for disorderly conduct. These are all statistics which help your records.

Certain units in the task force have developed a science around stopping your automobile. These men know it’s impossible to drive three blocks without committing a traffic violation. We’ve got so many rules on the books. These police officers use these things to get points and also hustle for money. The traffic law is a fat book. He knows if you don’t have two lights on your license plate, that’s a violation. If you have a crack in your windshield, that’s a violation. If your muffler’s dragging, that’s a violation. He knows all these little things….

So if they stop the average black driver, in their mind the likelihood of finding five or six violations out of a hundred cars is highly possible…. After you’ve stopped a thousand, you’ve got 950 people who are very pissed off, 950 who might have been just average citizens, not doing anything wrong - teachers, doctors, lawyers, working people. The police don’t care. Black folks don’t have a voice to complain. Consequently, they continue to be victims of shadowy, improper, overburdened police service. Traffic is the big entree.”

And on the type of young white male that the job was attracting at the time:

A large amount of young white officers are gung ho. It’s an opportunity to make a lot of arrests, make money, and do a lot of other things. In their opinion, black people are all criminals, no morals, dirty and nasty. So the black people don’t cooperate with the police and they have good cause not to. On the other hand, they’re begging for more police service. They’re over-patrolled and under-protected.

The young white guys turn out to be actually worse than their predecessors. They’re more vicious. The average young white policeman comes from a working-class family, sometimes with less than a high-school education. He comes with built-in prejudices. The average young white cop is in bad shape. I think he can be saved if a change came from the top. If it could be for just eight hours a day. They may still hate niggers when they got off duty. They may still belong to the John Birch Society or the Ku Klux Klan. So what? They could be forced to perform better during the eight hours of work.”

Reading about this stuff, I keep going back to the 9 principles of policing drawn up by London’s Metropolitan Police in the 1820s in which the power of the police comes from the people, force is to be used minimally, and the efficacy of policing is judged on the absence of crime, not on the number of arrests or people sent to jail.

Redditt Hudson served as a police officer in St. Louis during the 1990s. He shared his perspective on race and policing with Vox last year: I’m a black ex-cop, and this is the real truth about race and policing.

It is not only white officers who abuse their authority. The effect of institutional racism is such that no matter what color the officer abusing the citizen is, in the vast majority of those cases of abuse that citizen will be black or brown. That is what is allowed.

And no matter what an officer has done to a black person, that officer can always cover himself in the running narrative of heroism, risk, and sacrifice that is available to a uniformed police officer by virtue of simply reporting for duty.

(via @tonyszhou)

A look inside America’s assembly line prison system

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2016

Reporter Shane Bauer went undercover as a guard in a Louisiana private prison for four months. Mother Jones devoted their entire recent issue to the story.

In class that day, we learn about the use of force. A middle-aged black instructor I’ll call Mr. Tucker comes into the classroom, his black fatigues tucked into shiny black boots. He’s the head of Winn’s Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, the prison’s SWAT-like tactical unit. “If an inmate was to spit in your face, what would you do?” he asks. Some cadets say they would write him up. One woman, who has worked here for 13 years and is doing her annual retraining, says, “I would want to hit him. Depending on where the camera is, he might would get hit.”

Mr. Tucker pauses to see if anyone else has a response. “If your personality if somebody spit on you is to knock the fuck out of him, you gonna knock the fuck out of him,” he says, pacing slowly. “If a inmate hit me, I’m go’ hit his ass right back. I don’t care if the camera’s rolling. If a inmate spit on me, he’s gonna have a very bad day.” Mr. Tucker says we should call for backup in any confrontation. “If a midget spit on you, guess what? You still supposed to call for backup. You don’t supposed to ever get into a one-on-one encounter with anybody. Period. Whether you can take him or not. Hell, if you got a problem with a midget, call me. I’ll help you. Me and you can whup the hell out of him.”

He asks us what we should do if we see two inmates stabbing each other.

“I’d probably call somebody,” a cadet offers.

“I’d sit there and holler ‘stop,’” says a veteran guard.

Mr. Tucker points at her. “Damn right. That’s it. If they don’t pay attention to you, hey, there ain’t nothing else you can do.”

He cups his hands around his mouth. “Stop fighting,” he says to some invisible prisoners. “I said, ‘Stop fighting.’” His voice is nonchalant. “Y’all ain’t go’ to stop, huh?” He makes like he’s backing out of a door and slams it shut. “Leave your ass in there!”

“Somebody’s go’ win. Somebody’s go’ lose. They both might lose, but hey, did you do your job? Hell yeah!” The classroom erupts in laughter.

Fusion has a summary of Bauer’s reporting, which you really should actually read in its entirety. America’s prison system is shameful; its reform is one of the biggest issues facing our nation in the future.

Prison Ramen

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2016

Prison Ramen

Prison Ramen is a cookbook of instant ramen recipes from prison inmates and celebrities (Samuel L. Jackson wrote the foreword).

Instant ramen is a ubiquitous food, beloved by anyone looking for a cheap, tasty bite-including prisoners, who buy it at the commissary and use it as the building block for all sorts of meals. Think of this as a unique cookbook of ramen hacks. Here’s Ramen Goulash. Black Bean Ramen. Onion Tortilla Ramen Soup. The Jailhouse Hole Burrito. Orange Porkies — chili ramen plus white rice plus 1/2 bag of pork skins plus orange-flavored punch. Ramen Nuggets. Slash’s J-Walking Ramen (with scallions, Sriracha hot sauce, and minced pork).

(via @marcprecipice)

Why the War on Drugs Is a Huge Failure

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2016

In their latest video, Kurzgesagt tackles the War on Drugs. The Stop the Harm website, which they mention at the end of the video, says this about the failed efforts to curb drug use:

The global drug policy system is well and truly broken. Despite aiming to ‘protect’ people from drugs, its punitive approach has instead increased the harms of these substances, punishing and demonizing the people and communities most impacted by them. This punishment has disproportionately impacted people and communities of color, indigenous peoples, and the economically marginalized, while stoking public health crises by restricting access to essential medicines and exacerbating the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood borne viruses.