FDNY Perspectives On 9/11

Ten years. It is hard to believe that a decade has passed since that horrible day. I’m thinking about it already; I can feel it every year about this time, that ramping up to face the damage.

I will probably repost this on the actual anniversary of 9/11, but I just came across it and wanted to post it now. I think, in fact, that I will post all of my 9/11 stories – Sean’s, mostly – for this anniversary. I think it deserves every bit of reverence and remembrance we can muster.

These were written by two friends I used to know from New York. I think it was for the fifth anniversary, I asked them to write their memories of that day for my blog. This was the result:

(John – FDNY)

The other day I am at a bar in Brooklyn, way down in Brooklyn, and I see a sign on the back of the bar with my friend’s name on it. It blew me away. I mean, my friend lived in Queens right near me. We went to the academy together. And he died downtown. And I saw his name behind some random bar in the middle of Brooklyn nowhere near where he worked or lived. I asked the bartender about it ‘cause it was ONLY my friend, not the other 342, and he said the owner was friends with him. I thought that was great. He had a street sign up over the bar and pictures of him.

(Kevin – FDNY)

I got there after the towers fell. I was too shocked at the time to be angry. Anger came later. I remember seeing it and just being stunned at seeing the devastation. Fires were still burning in most of the other WTC buildings. Smoke .. rubble … bodies .. dust … it wasn’t like you were in NYC .. It was like Bosnia or something. Not NYC.

I got there early wed morning and spent the whole day … and every day after that for weeks.
They wouldn’t let us go into the pit on Tuesday actually. They were turning us back. Someone told me there were bombs planted on the bridge crossings. Rumors were everywhere. They said the caught people on the Whitestone Bridge. I don’t think it turned out to be true. So we waited at this staging area all Tuesday, desperate for word. I had just come off a 24 hour shift and was exhausted. Tues night I passed out and got a few hours sleep. Wed morning they said they wanted us back in the staging area. So we jumped in our own cars, packed them with guys, and got down there to help. Then we were there for days. We got their early when we were still pulling out guys. No one alive of course. I remember my friend found a Cantor golfball. I didn’t even know Cantor had their own golfballs. And it was in perfect condition. He showed me.

Standards of Evidence In Death Row Cases

Before she was executed in 2005, Francis Newton was one of Texas’ longest living residents on Death Row. She had been there for seventeen years, and she protested her innocence every one of her days. The facts of the case are thus: Francis Newton’s husband and two young children were shot to death. Ms. Newton had recently taken out insurance on the victims. Four days after the murder, she filed her insurance claims. The prosecution asserted that Newton killed her family for the insurance, and a jury convicted her.

I recently came across this letter from the ACLU pleading with Gov. Rick Perry for clemency while Newton was on Death Row. The interesting part was this:

What makes Ms. Newton’s case even more disturbing is that the evidence against her is largely forensic evidence.

Wait, what? Usually supporters claim a case is “circumstantial” and thus you can’t convict (or execute) because there is no hard evidence that the person committed the action. But in this case, the ACLU is claiming that they only have hard evidence?

There are no eyewitnesses to the crime and Ms. Newton has maintained her innocence from the beginning.

Interesting non sequitur.

The forensic tests for the state’s evidence were conducted by the now thoroughly discredited Houston Police Department Laboratory.

In the ACLU’s defense, the Houston Police Department Laboratory is a nightmare. Over 7,000 rape kits are missing, among other horrors. In fact, here is a sampling of Houston Chronicle headlines regarding our shameful forensic lab:

July 29, 2011: “HPD crime lab faces more heat; Former supervisor testifies she quit over accuracy of alcohol tests.”

July 19, 2010: “District attorney calls for emergency DNA lab; Houston’s backlog of cases keeps growing.”

January 27, 2010: “HPD lab faces 3rd backlog problem; 300 cases are in need of firearm forensics.”

December 13, 2009: “Prints and problems; HPD’s fingerprint scandal reminds us how much we need an independent crime lab.”

April 25, 2009: “Another crime lab bungle surfaces; Prosecutors to ask that man who has spent 22 years in prison be freed on bail. Richard could be 4th man cleared after crime lab errors.”

January 26, 2008: “HPD again shuts down crime lab’s DNA unit; Move follows resignation of division’s leader in cheating probe.”

December 12, 2007: “HPD lab analyst indicted on theft, tampering charges. His suspension triggered a review of 200 narcotics cases he’d handled.”

June 17, 2007: “‘Troubling’ Cases Surface in Report on HPD Crime Lab; 1991 conviction for rape, murder has drawn the most concern.”

January 5, 2006: “HPD Lab Probe Details More Lapses; Revelations show 2 divisions’ problems amount to ‘near-total breakdown.'”

December 18, 2005: “HPD’s lab’s troubles predate DNA testing; Experts’ review finds a pattern of problems in 1980s studies of blood samples.”

June 5, 2005: “Bitter pills; HPD analysts faked drug evidence in four cases. How much more fraud has gone undetected?”

November 5, 2003: “DNA evidence destroyed; pardons called possible.”

June 25, 2003: “HPD ignored warnings, ex-lab man says; Retired official says he cited ‘train wreck.'”

April 3, 2003: “HPD chief proposes independently run crime lab.”

June 5, 2002: “Rape Kits; HPD strives to end ’embarrassment’ of untested DNA.”

Furthermore, the type of evidence used against her is coming under increasing scrutiny. For instance, the scientific basis underlying the testimony by the ballistics expert that identified the murder weapon has frequently proven to be erroneous.

The problem with this accusation is that it isn’ specific to Newton’s case and being “frequently” wrong isn’t the same as being “always” wrong.

Similarly, expert testimony regarding traces of material found on her clothing as proving that Ms. Newton fired a weapon is open to misinterpretation.

Again, the ACLU did Newton no favors by not explaining what that other interpretation might be. What they are talking about here is the fact that Newton’s dress showed gunshot residue on it. If she didn’t actually fire the weapon that killed her family, it would be in ACLU’s best interest (not to mention Newton’s) to put forth a new argument here. This isn’t a briefing to the Court, meaning they can introduce new evidence any time they wish. So spill it.

Additionally, the reliability of “future dangerousness” testimony is also coming under scrutiny as well by the scientific community.

Again: vague. If the ACLU wanted to put forth evidence that Newton would not have been a future danger if her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, this would have been the time to do it. Instead, the result is a flaccid, not-very-well written and completely unconvincing letter. (The author of the letter, Rachel King, passed away from cancer in 2008.)

I really don’t have an opinion about Newton’s guilt or innocence. I’m extremely skeptical of any story the prosecution puts forth, but in this case the evidence does seem to support guilt.

Another Texas case (Texas is rich in oil, natural gas, and executions) is the horrible murder of a nineteen year old college student, Melissa Trotter. The person on death row for that crime, Larry Swearingen, swears he is innocent. (John T Floyd has a good re-cap of the case here) As Floyd points out, a lot of the forensic evidence points away from Swearingen. However, it is one piece of evidence that keeps me thinking that he’s guilty.

Melissa Trotter was strangled with a cut-off leg of pantyhose. Four days after the crime, police found the a pair of pantyhose in Swearingen’s trash, with one leg cut off. This evidence is circumstantial, but is powerful enough for me to think guilty, guilty, guilty. There might be an innocent explanation for it, but I haven’t heard one. When I think about the supposed cell phone evidence (some say that his cell phone records prove he was nowhere near her during the time of the crime), I feel that tug of reasonable doubt. But the pantyhose keep tipping me right back over.

Another issue with the Swearingen case is that his attorneys are trying to oversell the “good” condition of Melissa’s body when it was discovered. Melissa was discovered in a forest in Montgomery County, and a person who found her said she was in such good shape he thought she was a mannequin. The reason this is important is because it establishes time of death. If Swearingen can get the time frame right, he can claim he was already in jail during the time the crime occurred (he was picked up for traffic tickets.) But I read Trotter’s autopsy report and she was not in pristine condition. Her eyes had been liquified. Her tongue was black. Numerous parts of her body were completely decomposed. So it was not as if she had been thrown into the forest on the morning Swearingen had been picked up for traffic tickets. There was time when she was lying in that forest and he was free.

I recognize his lawyers will try to sell whatever evidence they can. But by dismissing the pantyhose evidence (“it’s just circumstantial!”) and really stretching and bending that timeline, I become more suspicious of their case. I want a lawyer to tell me why those pantyhose were in Swearingen’s trash. I know they don’t have to. But I would like an explanation, and if I were on that jury, I would desperately want the attorney to give me some completely rational, non-murdery reason for it.

I’m curious about the standards of evidence. Does the ACLU now believe juries require rock-solid forensic evidence plus circumstantial evidence in order to convict? Will that become the new standard?

Would the pantyhose be enough to convince you to convict? What about the ballistics evidence on Francis Newton’s skirt? Would either of these two things be enough to send a person to death row?

Dead For Twelve Minutes

When I was twelve, I started to have some strange medical problems. I would pass out and turn blue. The first time my mother saw it happen, she thought I was faking it and holding my breath. Then it occurred to her that if I were holding my breath I would be red, not blue. I went to the doctor several times, and once had to wear a heart monitor for a few days, but no specialist could find anything wrong with me. Then one afternoon I was at the doctor’s office to get more blood drawn so more tests could be run.

As I stood up, the world fell away beneath my feet. I remember wavering and my mother looked back at me, and then I collapsed.

Even as I remember it, I can’t imagine how it looked to outsiders. From inside my body, it was very bright. I felt no pain or fear, but I couldn’t get up. I heard the doctors buzzing around me; I heard someone say that I had no pulse and no blood pressure; I remember that because that was the first time it really occurred to me that I was dead.

I had died on that floor out there. For no good reason, or at least a reason no doctors could find. I had passed out and almost instantly my lips and fingernails turned blue, and then the rest of me followed a minute later.

I don’t know how long they worked on me, but the brightness of my body began to flicker. It was like a city at night and then watching as the lights twinkled out, first in my fingers and toes, and then my shoulders, and the last to go was my heart.

At some point I was back, like a power surge that puts your house back online after briefly losing power.

Though I had died, I had no great knowledge to share with anyone about death. I saw no angels, no God, nothing like that. I only saw the city, darkening at the edges.

I think the point is that death is as meaningless as life. There is nothing waiting for us over there, just as there is nothing waiting here. The line is thin and black and easy to miss. One day you think you’re alive and you’re really dead. I suppose it could go the other way too.

Two Lost Books

Two different books that I read at two different times are on my mind lately because I can remember very little about either of them and want to re-read them both.

The first was a literary fiction about a young girl with Down Syndrome who is playing hide and seek in the woods with her sibling. The girl wanders off and gets lost. I remember a passage about the girl’s “soft body” (that phrasing always stuck with me.) The child’s body is eventually discovered years later when the snow thaws. It was an absolutely heart-breaking book. I read it some time in the 1990s. Do you know this book?

The second was also read in the 1990s and it was fiction loosely based on the Darlie Routier murders. A woman is coming to death row and her row-mates are prepping for the visit. I remember very little except that I loved that book. Does this sound at all familiar to anyone?

Don’t Have Sex

I don’t pretend to understand this at all.

Who Killed Those Boys?

As I watched Paradise Lost, I was blown away by Mark Byers’ visceral response to the murder of his son, Christopher Byers. He was loud, and he took up a lot of screen time railing about how he hated the West Memphis Three. He stood in the creek bank where the boys were found, grinding his teeth, and said he would piss on the graves of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley. A particularly interesting passage was when he sang a very solemn song at his Baptist church, and the lines were something like:

whatever it takes to be more like You
is what I will do

The next scene was him firing a gun into a pumpkin, saying, “This one’s for Damian. Oh he’s still wiggling a little bit, I think I need to shoot him again.” This went on and on.

He is seen mourning at his son’s grave with his wife. Then I noticed that she was much quieter than he. She kept trying to stay out of the picture frame.

And then I realized that this man who was making such a huge show of his grief was the boy’s stepfather. I know that it is possible for steps to love their spouse’s children but Mark Byers’ grief seemed crazily out of scale to his wife’s, and this wasn’t even his own flesh and blood. It made me think he was trying to convince me of something.

Other things would come about, such as his many contradictory statements to police, the knife given to HBO that had human blood on it, and his wife’s mysterious death. I don’t want to accuse anyone of murder without a really good reason, but I am interested in learning more about Mark Byers. For all his look-at-me-ism, he really does seem to have been overlooked during the initial investigation.

Things Missed

I’m watching an old interview with Damien Echols on YouTube and he mentions that he’s not been outside in twenty years; he says the “outside” they have in prison is a cell with a roof and bars but no bed or anything else. He says he misses the rain. He says he doesn’t remember what pizza tastes like. And he said that he’s never actually seen the internet, used a cell phone, or seen a computer since 1986, when he was in junior high school.

And they haven’t had sex in twenty years.

I imagine that today will be loud and confusing for the West Memphis Three. I am sure friends and family will buzz around them, holding them, sometimes just touching them to know for a fact that they are really home.

I hope they are bowled over by the things they have missed. I hope that the world lives up to the hopes and dreams the young men had when they were locked up every day for twenty years.


CNN just sent a flash to my phone:

Three men convicted in the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, were ordered released after entering new pleas at a court hearing.

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 18 years in prison with credit for time served, a prosecutor said. They were to be released on Friday.

Critics of the prosecution argued no direct evidence tied the three to the murders and that a knife recovered from a lake near the home of one of the accused could not have caused the boys’ wounds. More recent DNA testing also demonstrated no links, according the men’s supporters.

I’m dying for the footage of them walking out of prison. And I am eager for the inevitable interviews with Diane Sawyer, etc. This is a great day for justice. Eighteen years too late, of course, but I am so happy that the West Memphis Three are now free.

West Memphis Three Get Mystery Hearing

According to CNN, three men convicted of killing thee West Memphis boys in 1993 will have a short-notice hearing on Friday morning.

All three of the men — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, dubbed the “West Memphis Three” — are expected to attend the session in Jonesboro. CNN says that the state’s attorney general’s office said it could not comment on the matter, citing a gag order on participants in the case. Stephanie Harris, a spokeswoman for the state court system, said the convicts would appear before a judge in chambers before the public hearing is held.

Echols was sentenced to death and Misskelley and Baldwin were given life sentences in the May 1993 slayings of second-graders Steven Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. The boys’ bodies were mutilated and left in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces.

Prosecutors argued that Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin, then teenagers, were driven by satanic ritual and that Echols had been the ringleader. But DNA testing that was not available at the time failed to link any of the men to the crime, and the state Supreme Court ruled in November that all three could present new evidence to the trial court in an effort to clear them.

The case has drawn national attention, with actor Johnny Depp and singer Eddie Vedder trying to rally support for the men’s release.

DOJ Investigates S&P Over Mortgage Securities

Oh I saw this one coming.

According to NYT, who would surely know:

The Department of Justice is investigating whether the nation’s largest credit ratings agency, Standard & Poor’s, improperly rated dozens of mortgage securities in the years leading up to the financial crisis, according to two people interviewed by the government and another briefed on such interviews.

Actually what they’re doing is punishing S&P for rightfully downgrading America’s debt rating. But the admin can’t just come out and say so.

The Justice Department has been asking about instances in which the agency’s analysts wanted to award lower ratings on mortgage bonds but may have been overruled by S.&P. executives, according to the people with knowledge of the interviews.

The investigation began before Standard & Poor’s cut the United States’ triple-A credit rating this month, but is likely to add fuel to the political firestorm that has surrounded that action.

Nice attempt at a pre-emptive strike, but ultimately FAIL.

This smells a bit Chicagoish to me. Payback is a bitch.

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