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esteban

Damian Esteban was just another thirtysomething hipster-looking teacher at the Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design until he got called in for jury duty last fall… and was arrested for allegedly bringing 20 vials of heroin in a cigarette pack into the courthouse with him.

The misdemeanor criminal charges against Esteban were eventually dropped when he attended a one-day (one-day?!?) rehab program. But the damage had been done: he was fired from his teaching job as a result of the arrest and ensuing publicity.

Fast forward to this week, when Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Manuel Mendez ordered the NYC Department of Education to take Esteban back (or at least, overturned the DoE’s previous decision, I’m not clear which). Judge Medez stated that the firing was “unduly harsh… [and] excessive and shocking to this court’s sense of fairness.”

According to the New York Observer, Mayor Bloomberg was “not amused” by the court’s decision.

“We could not disagree more strongly with the judge’s decision to overturn an arbitrator’s ruling terminating a teacher for possessing 20 bags of heroin,” the mayor said in a statement this afternoon.

“The judge ruled that the termination ‘shocks the conscience,’ which shows a callous indifference to the well-being of our students,” he added. “That truly shocks the conscience and boggles the mind.”

What do you think? Should drug offenders (in this case, ones who haven’t been convicted of a crime) be allowed to teach children? And if not, does that mean we should institute random drug testing for schoolteachers — or do you think Esteban shouldn’t get his job back because of the sheer publicity of the case alone?

The Petit home was the scene of absolute brutality at the hands of two men.

The Petits were at home when they were subjected to unimaginable brutality and terror at the hands of two men, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.

Here’s a tip: if by some chance you find yourself home alone (my 13-month-old son doesn’t really count because he’s no protection at all) on a dark and stormy night, do NOT, under any circumstances, watch the HBO documentary “The Cheshire Murders,” which chronicles the horrific and almost inexplicable 2007 home invasion that killed three members of a beautiful family in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Despite being a bona fide connoisseur of the true-crime documentary genre (surely, having watched every single episode of 48 Hours Mystery and Forensic Files qualifies me as such), and considering myself somewhat embarrassingly jaded about criminals and senseless criminal activity, I can say that the depiction of convicted murderers and all-around thugs Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes haunted and tormented me all night long, and now well into the following morning. I almost had to sleep with the lights on.

As is the fashion these days, this is a documentary with a point of view. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner want to tell us that the Cheshire Police royally screwed up. They got the 911 call from the teller at the bank where Steven Hayes forced Jennifer Hawke-Petit to withdraw money about an hour before the house ended up engulfed in flames. They arrived at the Petit home a full half-hour before the fire started, and apparently just sat around in their squad cars scoping the place out and, I don’t know, eating doughnuts and drinking coffee, while Ms. Hawke-Petit was getting raped, strangled, and the girls were getting gasoline poured on them and were subsequently being burned alive.

And yes, the fact that the Cheshire Town Manager went on television shortly after the murders applauding the “courageous” efforts of the “rescue” team will make you want to claw his eyes out. As Hawke-Petit’s sister rightly points out, how much worse could it have gotten? The most heinous possible outcome was borne out. And is it really considered intrepid police work to “get the guys” when they’re right in front of your face, fleeing a burning home?

Needless to say, the Cheshire Police did not make anyone available to interview for this documentary.

The film also makes a pointed comment about the futility of the death penalty. The lone survivor of the attack, William Petit, is depicted as tragically misguided as he advocates for death sentences for Komisarjevsky and Hayes in order to exact a real sense of “justice.” (He’s not the only one — nearly every family member of both the victims and the murderers would like to see them dead.) But reality complicates any illusions of cut-and-dry justice. We learn that Hayes, at least, already wants to die. Automatic appeals will mean the case gets dragged out in perpetuity. And really, isn’t life in near-solitary confinement far worse than an early exit?

Anyway, for me, the most arresting part of this film was the depiction of Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, whom the filmmakers handled thoroughly and clinically — so unlike many other true-crime docs, where we never get to hear from the perpetrators’ families or hear their histories. Which is not to say that the depiction was sympathetic: though both men were sexually abused as children, we are made to understand that each was probably pathologically evil. After meeting in a halfway house while out on parole, Hayes and Komisarjevsky hatched this vicious plan in what was basically the inevitable conclusion to their life of brutality and almost complete amorality.

This was not a “home invasion gone wrong.” It was a mass torture-murder that will stun you with its deliberate viciousness and the hideous intentionality of its two perpetrators. Though both men had only ever been arrested for burglaries previously, it surprised no one, least of all their families, that they were capable of such depraved actions. These men were thugs through and through.

For Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, life was indeed ugly and brutal. The fact that they inflicted their sense of the world on the innocent Petit family, though, is an unimaginable tragedy — the kind that “justice” could probably never even attempt to remedy.

oral historyWell, the final episode of Intervention aired last night, and of course I cried and felt very sad, just as I expected I would. It’s been such a compelling and insightful and inspiring show for so many addicts (current and former), as well as family members and friends of addicts. Such a shame that the show has been supplanted by absolute trash like Duck Dynasty, but that’s the way it goes in the entertainment business, I suppose.

Anyway, I had to share this wonderful Buzzfeed piece, which is an “oral history” of the show from the perspective of the producers and interventionists Jeff VanVonderen, Candy Finnigan, Ken Seeley, and Seth Jaffe, as well as the subject of “everyone’s favorite episode,” former computer duster huffer Allison Fogarty, whose interview I’ve excerpted below. These compassionate, brave people are truly heroes for the work that they do, and I applaud their eight years of braving the cameras to bring the issue of addiction and recovery to the American consciousness. Thank you.

UPDATE: Vulture published another Intervention oral history today, which I initially thought was the same thing, but turns out to have different quotes. So here it is, it’s excellent as well!

Allison Fogarty: Jeff [VanVonderen] and my family had my cat taken away. My cat was the catalyst for me going to treatment. It was so easy for me to be mad at everyone, but my cat didn’t deserve any of this, so I spent the next day just hanging out in a bank because cameras can’t go in banks. It was stupid because every five minutes I would sober up again so it was hijinks after hijinks. I finally came home, and they stopped by and they were like, “This is your last chance, yadda, yadda,” and I was like, “Fuck off.” Then the next morning Jeff said, “We’re leaving, do you want to come with us?” And I just gave up and said, “OK, yeah, I guess so.”

VanVonderen: After we called animal protective services on Allison’s cat, and she agreed to go treatment, she wanted nothing to do with me.

Fogarty: At that point it wasn’t even that I wanted to get better, I just wanted to punish everyone else. Like, “I’m leaving forever!” We drove right to the airport.

VanVonderen: She has her little hoodie over her head, her cloak of shame. We get to the airport. And I’m purposely not talking to her ‘cause I don’t want to blow the gig — so I went to the gift shop and bought her a stuffed cat and I walked up to her, handed her the cat, and we didn’t say anything to each other the whole plane ride to rehab.

Fogarty: At rehab, word had gotten around to the staff and clients that I was being brought in by Intervention. So when I got there, one of the clients was like, “Oh, you’re the new girl from Intervention.” And I was like, “What the hell is Intervention?” The first night I was there, the clients showed me an episode of the show and I was like, “FUCK MY LIFE.” And that was the first time I ever saw an episode, my first day in rehab.

VanVonderen: Six months after taking Allison to rehab I got an email from her apologizing for being such “a dick” and thanking me and hoping I forgive her. I wrote her back and said of course, and I’m glad she’s doing good, and I asked how’s the cat doing in treatment. And she said, “Cat VanVonderen is doing really well.”

Fogarty: Obviously I’m grateful. I did the work and things turned out right. But it was a giant trauma. I wish I could have gotten to where I am without having to go through that experience. I don’t feel like things are 100% fixed with my family, and it’s embarrassing when I go on dates and the guy knows who I am. When I go out and people are like, “Oh my god, you’re that drug addict! That was the funniest hour of my life!” It happens a couple times a week. I still have 100% shame when that happens. But some people approach me in a really positive way, like this woman at Pinkberry started to sob next to me in line and she hugged me and told me that her brother saw my episode and it saved his life because he got into treatment. And I hugged her and said I was so glad, but it was still very awkward.

[Executive Producer] Dan Partland: Sometimes the tough part is after addicts get clean and the reruns come on and it’s traumatic for them. And when we learned of that, we would ask the network to suspend use of their episode, and they did that every time.

Fogarty: When my show is re-airing, someone from the show generally tells me they are re-airing. But there was a recent promo that featured my episode that I didn’t know about and I just cried and cried when I saw it. At this point, I just launched my own business and feel like, enough already, it’s been five years, I’ve done my time. I feel like it’s time to let me go.

Hard to watch? Yes.

A still from “Intervention.” It may be over, but the problem isn’t.

It’s a sad day in TV land, at least for me. Today marks the first of the five final episodes of A&E’s reality show Intervention. Since the show debuted in 2005, I can honestly say I’ve seen every single one of the two hundred or so episodes, some more than once.

A&E made the announcement about a month ago that Intervention was coming to a close this summer, but didn’t give a reason. True, the show’s premise (in which a documentary crew follows an addict around for a few days to chronicle the horrifying extent of his or her illness, then rounds up friends and family to stage an intervention and hopefully sends them to rehab) is unrelenting in its depressing documentation of its participants’ downward spiral from week to week. So perhaps formula fatigue was setting in for the network and crew. Perhaps declining ratings were an issue as well.

But given skyrocketing rates of overdoses, drug-related crime, and the critical need for addiction treatment in the U.S., I think the show should be kept on as a public service (though of course, such a thing doesn’t exist in television, “The More You Know” nonwithstanding). As an MSW student in addictions and mental health, spreading awareness about the topic and reducing stigma is something I feel passionately about.

I was just reading today, in a recent South Bend Tribune series, that heroin and opiate prescription drug-related arrests increased by 600 percent between 2008 and 2010 in LaPorte County, Indiana.

Did you catch that? SIX HUNDRED PERCENT.

Here’s an excerpt from the series, which has appeared in various incarnations in just about every single regional newspaper in this country over the past few years. (Here’s a link to the Denver Post‘s amazing contribution, which recently earned an Edward R. Murrow award.)

Just a few years ago, perhaps one or two heroin addicts per year walked through the doors of Life Treatment Centers, 1402 S. Michigan St., looking for help, said Deborah Smith, vice president for clinical services. About five years ago, the visits by heroin addicts increased to one or two per week, she said.

“In the last couple years, at least the last year and a half, we’re seeing about one (heroin addict) a day,” Smith said. “We probably serve about 1,000 people a year. I believe the epidemic with heroin and opiates is really taking over.”

John Horsley, director of addiction services at Oaklawn, said heroin addicts were a rarity at Oaklawn’s South Bend location when he started with the organization in May 2011. So rare, in fact, that some staff members would become uncomfortable when they encountered a heroin user who took the drug intravenously using a syringe, Horsley said. But in the past two years, heroin users have become so common that they now account for about 25 percent of the clients enrolled in substance abuse programs at Oaklawn, he said.

Horsley said he has seen weeks in which as many as four clients died of heroin overdoses while enrolled in Oaklawn treatment programs.

One could also make the argument, as I did in this paper I wrote for a media ethics class back in 2009, that Intervention exploits the privacy of its participants, all of whom are undoubtedly in a compromised mental state at the height of their addiction. On the flip side, though, there’s an awful lot of good that comes from documenting successful interventions (and there are many!) as well.

On a related note, this New York Times profile from last Sunday about Dr. Drew and his well-intentioned but poorly executed attempts to bring addiction into the forefront, via reality television, is definitely worth a read.

brooklyn

I’m pretty excited to watch CBS’s new six-part series, “Brooklyn D.A.” It starts tonight at 10pm.

Maybe I’m just naive about the potential for artifice in reality television, but any opportunity for regular people to see the inner workings of our judicial system seems like a good thing.

Here’s an excerpt from today’s Neil Genzlinger’s NYT review of the series. It’s pretty positive overall, but he did quibble with the series’ overwrought portrayal of what it deems “Brooklyn-ness.” (Personally, I’m not sure that that would interfere with the show’s accuracy or insight into the criminal justice system, but critics will be critics.)

Apart from the guessing game over whether it is or isn’t a news program, the most annoying thing about “Brooklyn DA” is the way it flaunts its Brooklyn-ness. Television that ventures into that borough or, for that matter, other boroughs has created a series of clichés, all of which are in evidence here.

There must be rap music over a collage that name-checks the borough’s neighborhoods. There must be a visit to blocks that were once dangerous but now are too expensive to live on. There must be a stop at a deli or food cart where the guy behind the counter is an oracle. Here, the episode opens with that scene as an assistant district attorney buys corned beef and asks the guy wrapping it up for advice on his coming meeting with his boss.

“Just go for it,” is the profound wisdom dispensed along with the meat. In trendy, eclectic, overexposed Brooklyn as packaged for TV, even the sagacity has turned trite.

On a related note, I’m pretty impressed by the way CBS has been returning to its documentary roots. As you may or may not recall, the original 48 Hours premiered in 1986 with the gripping, Bernard Goldberg-helmed, “48 Hours on Crack Street,” and followed that up with several pretty good real-time feature docs on crime in America. Only in the past fifteen years or so did it evolve into frothier (i.e., ratings-driven) fare, changing its name to 48 Hours Mystery, the true-crime show that spawned a thousand imitators. (I’m looking at you, Dateline!)

But this season, 48 Hours seems to be returning to its newsier roots. They’ve axed the “Mystery” from the title, and are focusing on more issue-based topics, such as correspondent Maureen Maher’s piece a few weeks ago on gang and drug-related violence in Chicago.

Keep up the good work, CBS. And if you’re reading this, your 48 Hours iPad app — which, for a small yearly subscription fee, gives true-crime fanatics like me access to the entire archive of episodes — is far and away the best television app I’ve ever used.

UntitledNobody does a good true-crime investigative magazine piece like Texas Monthly, specifically journalists Skip Hollandsworth and Pamela Colloff.

It’s been several months since I read Colloff’s piece “Hannah and Andrew,” which I believe was nominated for a National Magazine Award — or if it wasn’t, it should have been — and I am still thinking about it. (I do know that Colloff won an AMA this year for another piece, the two-part “The Innocent Man,” which is also an amazing read if you’ve got the time.)

The “Hannah and Andrew” case centers on a foster mother wrongly accused of poisoning her troubled four-year-old foster child with… salt. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy.

But I digress. What prompted me to post today was that I just read one of Hollandsworth’s pieces, “If the Serial Killer Gets Us, He Gets Us,” which focuses on the difficulty of pursuing a serial killer who targets black prostitutes. (Cue collective societal shrug.) Here’s an excerpt:

“It’s like we did all this work to clean everything up, and life out there is already back to normal,” [Detective Darcus Shorten] said. 
She hung up and parked near a group of prostitutes on a street corner. She got out of the car and asked if they knew anything about a man with a knife.

The prostitutes stared at Shorten in her business suit and silver jewelry, and they started to laugh. “Baby, there’s always a man with a knife,” one of them said, and then she and the others turned away.

Wow. Amazing writing. Sad state of affairs.

Also recommended: An interview with Colloff about her writing and reporting process behind “Hannah and Andrew.”

"Are you going to kill this woman?"

“Are you going to kill this woman?” BRILLIANT.

So I hate to keep harping on the Jodi Arias story. Even I had reached a media saturation point by the time the verdict was finally read on May 8 after more than four months of trial. And I was beginning to feel like I needed to take a shower every time Jodi’s name was mentioned. That, and I had the very bad luck to stumble upon, in a HuffPost slideshow, an actual unedited crime scene photo of Travis’ body in the shower — the kind the mainstream media is forbidden to show by those pesky legal people down in Standards. (Arianna, God bless her little heart, has zero standards or scruples.)

But recent events have brought me back to overthinking this whole thing. I mean, the trial and its ensuing media coverage is essentially an exercise in American Cultural Studies at this point, as rabid Jodi followers like me, having stuck it out this long, have invested way too much for it to be considered merely morbid gawking. (Or so we tell ourselves.)

But I feel I must write today. The fact that the jury is apparently having a hard time conferring the death penalty by mere reflex — as everyone who’s ever come into contact with the HLN coverage of this trial, however tangentially, would presumably do, keeping in adherence with the rhetorical “JUSTICE FOR TRAVIS”-ethos — is sending all the daytime television talking heads into a tailspin this afternoon.

It’s kind of like when we had to wait a whole TWO AND A HALF DAYS before the verdict came in after the guilt phase of the deliberations began. The fact of her first-degree guilt had already been a central tenet of media coverage, so why was it even a question about what the verdict should be? Dumb jurors! Stop thinking and start being outraged and indignant!

To which I say: take it easy, people, this is a big fucking decision to have weighing on this jury’s shoulders, so let’s let these people actually do what they were sworn in to do and carefully consider all the evidence.

Also, what really astonished me today, listening to the jury instructions (which the Hon. Sherry Stephens, God bless HER little heart, originally misread), is that there’s no hard and fast criteria for deciding on death. Like, the circumstances can be “heinous,” but what does that really mean? Are there legal definitions of that stuff? Because otherwise, it seems pretty subjective.

So it comes down to an emotional decision. One in which you have to take complete moral accountability for your decision, since you weren’t merely following protocol or legal precedent. Yes, that WOULD be heavy.

************

On another note, while I think Jodi might not make a great as good of a prison social worker/hair donator/translator/literacy doyenne/recycling entrepreneur as she claims she would, she’s got a FABULOUS personality for reality television. The narcissism, the insistence on proper hair and makeup… the sex, the lies… the abject desperation, the unwitting campiness… it’s all there!

After reading “The Saddest Reality Stars of All: Prisoners” by the Daily Beast’s great Mansfield Frazier, who does a lot of crime-and-punishment coverage and commentary, you might see why a star turn on Bravo’s forthcoming The Real Housewives of Death Row might be the most fitting punishment of all for Jodi.

Also: ratings bonanza!

*Unless you’re pregnant and waiting for a bus in Honolulu… in which case it could take FOREVER.