No Heroes, No Villains

The Book of the Week is “No Heroes, No Villains– The Story of a Murder Trial” by Steven Phillips, published in 1977.

In late June of 1972, an off-duty cop was shot in the Hunts Point subway station in the South Bronx, New York City. If the accused was convicted of all charges against him, he faced the electric chair. However, his lawyer was the famed William Kunstler.

Read the book to learn of the spirit of the times on issues of race, guns, criminal law and jury trials in early 1970’s New York City.

The Brethren

The Book of the Week is “The Brethren” by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, published in 1979. This book documents the power struggles of, and kinds of cases decided by members of the U.S. Supreme Court– the highest court in the land– covering the period from autumn 1969 to the spring of 1976, during President Richard Nixon’s administration.

Annually, the Court received about five thousand petitions that were handwritten, mostly from prisoners appealing their cases. The justices ruled on only a tiny number of cases. The ones they chose to rule on, gave rise to weeks or months of scrutiny, debate, hours of research, and reams of writings. When the justices or their clerks (assistants) gave further consideration to a case, they might procrastinate reviewing the case until the next court session in the fall, or order it remanded to a lower court.

The major controversial cases involved desegregation, pornography, monopolies, abortion, freedom of the press, and the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court had the final say on where local control (States’ Rights) ended and Constitutional protections began.

Warren Burger, a conservative, was the Chief Justice. His authority was exceeded only by the President and Vice President.  Nevertheless, there were usually two or three justices who might vote one way or the other in any given case, as tiebreakers. So they had the real power. The Court members were always divided in their votes along liberal/conservative lines.

The early 1970’s were eventful years for the Burger Court, what with the replacements of a few justices who retired due to ill health; and attempted lobbying of two justices on a monopoly case (considered not just a conflict, but an overtly aggressive act that would have biased the justices had they not been sufficiently principled in demanding the departure of the lobbyist forthwith). Oh yes, and a near-impeachment of a president.

In June 1971, the first installment of the 47-volume Pentagon Papers was published in The New York Times. It was the job of the Court to decide the extent to which publication of the 1945-1967 study of Vietnam would affect: national security, the process of the termination of the war, and release of prisoners of war. However, the government had lied too much about the war already.

The Court– at least five justices– had to decide whether to expedite the case relating to Nixon’s turning over of audiotapes consisting of conversations of administration officials. The overall dispute was not uncommon, over the authority of two branches of the American government– the Executive and Judicial. Nixon (a member of the Executive) was attempting to claim executive privilege (invoking Constitutional protection) in not turning over the tapes. Seven of Nixon’s top aides had already been indicted by a grand jury. They had implicated unindicted coconspirators. One was the President himself.

Those portions of the tapes containing Nixon’s voice engaging in interactions of a conspiratorial nature were not protected by executive privilege. At least one justice believed that such audio evidence bespoke of obstruction of justice.

Nixon’s attorney attended the hearing that would determine the role the Court would play in presiding over Nixon’s conspiracy case. It was the attorney’s contention that Nixon would basically be the judge at his own trial, as he should get to interpret the Constitution, after the Court made a recommendation on the case law.

Read the book to learn the details of the office politics in the Court, different aspects of the endless ideological debates on various super-controversial issues, how the justices dealt with the Chief Justice’s actions, as well as Court-related lore– during a particularly tumultuous time in the nation’s political history.

A Death in White Bear Lake

The Book of the Week is “A Death in White Bear Lake” by Barry Siegel, published in 1990. This is a long, suspenseful story about how a case of manslaughter helped spark awareness of deaths of children due to physical abuse in the United States. As book-lengthening filler, the history of White Bear Lake, Minnesota is also contained within.

The story starts when an infertile couple seeks to adopt a child. Through intense scrutiny, the Commissioner of Public Welfare of Scott County, MN learns that the prospective mother has a history of psychiatric problems. In the early 1960’s, the couple are permitted to adopt a child anyway. Some time later, they seek to take in a second child. Trouble ensues, especially on Palm Sunday in 1965.

Read the book to learn: how the American attitude toward physicality with children changed from the tail end of the 1950’s to the late 1980’s; the people and agencies (“the system”) that had enabled the trouble and would continue to do so; and the twists of fate that gave the story its fitting ending.

Side Note: The author gave the impression that the White Bear Lake case was one of the most influential factors that forced the change in attitude. However, prior to the Internet, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on TV and other communications of Oprah herself were major nationwide publicity vehicles on child abuse discussions. Additionally, another notorious case was that of Joel Steinberg in New York City in 1987.

They Also Ran

The Book of the week is “They Also Ran” by Irving Stone, originally published in 1943; updated in 1966. This book documents 23 specific losing candidates in 45 American Presidential races spanning 166 years, from the early 1800’s to the early 1960’s.

In 1872, Horace Greeley, newspaper publisher, tried to convince voters to nix a second term for Ulysses S. Grant, Republican, hero of the American Civil War; the General’s administration had been mired in nepotism, cronyism and corruption. No such luck. “Grant had not the faintest conception of what a president should do… gazed with the mind of a child at the affairs of state, blinked uncomprehendingly, and turned them over to his friends to be kicked around.” Zachary Taylor’s ignorance and inexperience was largely similar, although his 1848 (mercifully short-lived) administration was less corrupt.

Another election in which voters chose the wrong man– resulting in an egregiously dishonest government– was that of Republican president Warren G. Harding. “If ever a nation made a valiant attempt to commit suicide, the United States did in the year of 1920.” However, economic mores were different in the early 20th century. There was thought to be no conflict of interest when newspaper owners accepted shares of stock of public corporations to foster favorable reporting, and amiable relationships. James Middleton Cox was one such owner, who failed to stem the tide of political wreckage under Harding.

In 1824, Democrat Henry Clay, narcissistic attention-whore litigator, super-successful at courtroom histrionics, used his talents to attack the characters of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Upon his being nominated, Clay acquired a healthy dose of hubris syndrome. The opposition depicted Clay as a drinker and gambler (probably true). “The nation was crisscrossed by plowing streams of rumor, gossip, invention, fragmentary truths.”

William Jennings Bryan was another colorful character who mesmerized audiences with his public speaking skills, in the elections of 1896 and 1900.  Unfortunately, his megalomaniacal belief that he was God, diminished his chances to get elected president. His debating on the issues of the day– tariff, monopoly, railroad legislation and agriculture– lacked substance. He had sympathy for poor voters only insofar as it would help him retain political power. Nonetheless, his entire campaign in 1896 cost him $34(!) Democrats voted for Bryan, but in their hearts, shuddered to think what would happen if he was elected.

In 1905, in a ten-week investigation, Charles Evans Hughes, as corporate attorney for the New York State legislature, single-handedly found that a gas-supply monopoly was overcharging customers through artificially keeping prices high. Hughes’ good work led to more work, in the form of opening the can of worms that was corruption perpetrated by New York Life Insurance Company; more specifically, the bribing of local politicians in exchange for the enactment of insurance-friendly legislation (horror!).

Yet another war hero turned politician was George B. McClellan. In 1864, he lost to Abraham Lincoln. In the military, he had trouble with authority, control-issues stemming from an inferiority complex. The soldiers under him worshipped him; however, if elected president, his insecurities would rule. There would have been “… destructive clashes with his cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, with every function of government which attempted to limit his control.”

Modest Civil War hero and losing 1880 presidential candidate Winfield Scott Hancock had read the politically democratic book of his day, Chitty’s Blackstone. Thus, it was his opinion that civil, not military courts should settle disputes concerning the Confederacy’s rejoining the Union under “Reconstruction.” Congress disagreed.

In the 1870’s, Samuel Tilden did an end-run around the entrenched criminal syndicate that was Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, to kick out the perpetrators.  Lawsuits were useless because the Boss owned the judges. Instead, over the course of four years, as a New York State legislator, Tilden aggressively pushed anti-Tammany elective candidates for Democratic state officers and the legislature. Most of them won; he impeached the rest. He paid for some of the investigations out of his own pocket.

In his 1876 pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination, Tilden launched an aggressive direct mail campaign with extensive print promotional materials in color– hundreds of thousands of pieces, on the political situation and on himself. He also published a 700-page tell-all tome about Grant’s failures as president.

Calvin Coolidge beat John W. Davis in 1924. Coolidge truly thought that big business could do no wrong, so he allowed a free-for-all. He would never have been elected but for his promotion from vice president upon Harding’s death in office. Herbert Hoover ignored pleas by experts to halt the gravy train and impose some regulation.

Another fun factoid: in 1940, prior to losing to Franklin Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie (and his wife) rode in open-car processions where people threw food and other objects at them.

Fast-forward to 1942. WWII economic sluggishness led New York State Governor Thomas Dewey to wrongheadedly stimulate the economy by rewarding the moneyed class. As is well known, incidentally, he lost to Harry Truman in 1948.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater used extreme language and failed to work harmoniously with his fellow Republicans. He refrained from reining in his constituents’ rudeness and selected a reactionary running-mate.

Read the book to learn which candidates should have won, why they didn’t, and qualitative as well as quantitative data on their professions, parties, platforms and personalities. One important generalization: “Many were teachers in their youth, and nearly all came from homes in which there was love of learning and books.”

The Inheritor’s Powder

The Book of the Week is “The Inheritor’s Powder” by Sandra Hemple, published in 2013. This book recounts the advances made in investigating homicide by poisoning in England in the early to mid 1800’s, and describes one 1833 case that shows why killing via arsenic was so common at the time, and why it became even moreso. One reason was that 1840’s popular reading matter, novels and newspapers, piqued readers’ morbid curiosity by featuring stories on poisoning, which could serve as instructions.

In 1754, the founding of the Society of the Arts saw the launching of “… a series of competitions for inventions, discoveries and artistic endeavors with prizes in the form of medals and money.” This prompted chemists and dispensers of medical treatments to engage in research to improve their practices. The year 1814 saw the first extensive textbook on toxicology.

One scientific advance in the mid-1830’s was made by James Marsh, who developed a method to test for arsenic in human organs rather than stomach contents. Hugo Reinsch developed a different test that mixed arsenic with other substances. Both methods had their flaws.

Usually, money was the motive for murder by poisoning. The killer poisoned a member of his or her household and/or family– because he or she stood to inherit and/or collect on an insurance policy. There were many controversial cases that pitted scientists against each other over the toxicology test results. It will never be known how many people were sent to the gallows due to bungled tests.

Read the book to learn of the fate of the prime suspect in the aforesaid 1833 case, and whether the more likely perpetrator– whose past criminal history allegedly included a felony, jailing, illegitimate children and attempted murder, not to mention extortion in later years– was ever brought to justice.

Murder in the Stacks

The Book of the Week is “Murder in the Stacks” by David DeKok, published in 2014.  This book describes the November 1969 murder of Betsy Aardsma– Penn State University graduate student– and provides extensive biographical information on the prime suspect in the case.

In 1969, Penn State was Pennsylvania’s largest public university, with almost 26,000 students. The library where Aardsma died contained the resources required for completing research papers for English classes. It was a sprawling, dark place where anyone off the street could engage in illicit activities involving sex or drugs, and often did. There was no security like there would be nowadays.

Aardsma made serious sacrifices to be somewhat geographically close to her then-boyfriend, a doctor in training. She turned down a Peace Corps tour in Sierra Leone, and applying to medical school, before she decided to become an English teacher instead. She was counseled by her family to get her master’s degree at Penn State because at that time, ironically, there was a serial killer of female students on the loose at the University of Michigan, the school she would have attended.

The murder investigation was a cluster screw-up. The police interviewed thousands of students and professors. The person thought to have committed the crime escaped notice due to the circumstances. If the investigators had done a better job, they would have learned that as a pedophile, he had a history of trouble with the law. However, with regard to past incidents, he got off because the victims or their families failed to call the police, so he had no arrest record for a long time. Additionally, the 1960’s perception of his monstrous behavior was simply a matter of indecency. There was insensitivity with regard to the victims– little thought was given to the traumatic toll of sex crimes on the psyches of the victims.

Read the book to learn many details of the life of the suspect– about whom much more was known than those of the victim– and the outcome of the case.

Butterfly in the Rain

The Book of the Week is “Butterfly in the Rain, The 1927 Abduction and Murder of Marion Parker” by James L. Neibaur, published in 2016. This short ebook recounts a gruesome crime and the aftermath, that occurred in late 1927 in Los Angeles, California.

The fame of this sensational case was comparable to that of O.J. Simpson’s. However, the newspaper, rather than television, was the medium through which the nation was riveted by the unfolding story. The case involved a child and plenty of controversy. Read the book to learn the details.

Digital Gold

The Book of the Week is “Digital Gold– Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money” by Nathaniel Popper, published in 2015.

This ebook is about Bitcoin, a bookkeeping system used on various websites that distributes, records and stores the value of units called Bitcoins.

The system was created in 2009 by a computer geek who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. His vision was to create a worldwide means-of-exchange to be used online that would be:

  • a decentralized network of users so that no one central authority has the majority of power over the system– unlike the current situations in the world; in other words, place power in the hands of the users, rather than the economic royalists. (Nevertheless, the irony is that Bitcoin has largely stayed in the realm of the wealthy computer geeks- so there has bascially been redistribution of wealth among the wealthy);
  • created and maintained by users of the system on a consensus basis rather than by the powers-that-be, whose political campaigns are funded by financial institutions, and who stay in power by doing their will;
  • anonymous (like cash– no third parties acquire the information of buyers and sellers);
  • secure (no one point of failure would mean vulnerability for the whole system, plus have protections against identity theft, malware, counterfeiting etc.); and
  • offered at a lesser cost than the current system (avoiding financial institutions with their fees).

However, no utopian vision is perfect. Various tech-startups around the world have been created to store and exchange Bitcoins. That is all well and good. In the last seven years or so, a “remarkably engaged online community” has sprung up to discuss the ideology and all the different issues attendant to the new system. Even the major American financial institutions, fearing competition, have begun to rethink the security of their online dealings, and so have assembled task forces to research how to harness Bitcoin’s loss-prevention technology.

Bitcoins are acquired by computer users who log on to a specific site on the Internet. The users get the virtual “coins” for free, but might have to pay to store them elsewhere to keep them secure.

Bitcoins are more like a security than a means of exchange like cash because:

  • The system distributing Bitcoins is like a combination slot machine and a financial market where instruments are bought and sold, and the value of Bitcoins fluctuates.
  • There’s an inherent unfairness in the system in that– technologically astute users of the system have banded together to create devices that mine Bitcoins at a significantly faster rate than individual users.
  • People can acquire a national currency such as the American dollar in many more ways than they can Bitcoins, most of them honestly– earning, borrowing, begging or stealing.

Anyway, the purpose of Bitcoins as a means of exchange has yet to catch on among mainstream consumers of industrialized countries. There is no sufficiently compelling reason for consumers to start to buy things online with Bitcoins rather than credit cards. “Why should they trust a digital code that had nothing backing it but the computers of some libertarian nerds?”

Argentina is one country where Bitcoins have been useful. The super-speedy inflation of the peso there has meant people must spend their Argentinian money the minute they acquire it or risk the inability to buy anything because they wouldn’t be able to afford it– even food. In China, Bitcoin is popular because the government regulates the yuan exchange rate in order to stem “capital flight” and sell more of its own goods to the world.

As with all human-created systems that rely on the honor system, ALL users must act ethically. One American Bitcoin-processor in particular created a drug-distribution entity called Silk Road that was deemed illegal according to U.S. law.

Another bad actor hacked into a company called Mt. Gox in Japan. All users of that service suffered. “Bitcoin users eventually went to government authorities that Bitcoin had been designed, at least partly, to obviate.”

Besides, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has been examining the legal aspects of Bitcoin as a virtual currency. Homeland Security is concerned about the fact that Bitcoins could be anonymously sent to terrorist cells overseas.

Read the book to learn much more about the good and bad consequences of the creation of Bitcoin.

Skyway

The Book of the Week is “Skyway” by Bill DeYoung, published in 2013. This volume describes the Sunshine Skyway disaster that occurred in May 1980. The Skyway (whose name has since been changed) is a bridge across Tampa Bay that links Pinellas and Manatee counties in Florida.

A large boat was buffeted about by unexpected stormy weather on the fateful day, and the boat’s pilot was unable to negotiate a safe passage to a shipping lane under the bridge.

Read the book to learn exactly what happened, and whose lives were changed forever by the tragedy.