fresnoYou should read this terrifying article, “Freefall Into Madness: The Fresno County Jail’s Barbaric Treatment of the Mentally Ill”  by Fresno State journalism students Sam LoProto, Damian Marquez, Angel Moreno, Jacob Rayburn, Brianna Vaccari, Liana Whitehead, and Prof. Mark Arax.

Or don’t. Did I mention it’s terrifying?

Travis Fendley, a 23-year-old schizophrenic with a history of violence, was well known inside the Fresno County Jail. Since 2010, he was incarcerated there four times. His family said they pleaded on several occasions with county nurses and jailers that he needed the same anti-psychotic medication prescribed by outside doctors or he was going to hurt himself or someone else. Denied those medications each time behind bars, his family says, he twice tried to kill himself, once by attempting to drown himself with cups of water and then by slitting his throat.

Which brings me to the second excellent (though equally terrifying) article I read today: Nicholas Schmidle’s New Yorker piece, “In the Crosshairs,” about the plight of returning veterans suffering from P.T.S.D. — specifically, the tragic consequences that resulted from the Dallas V.A. hospital’s shameful, criminal neglect of one vet in particular, Eddie Ray Routh, who went on to assassinate former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in Texas earlier this year.

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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.

babyThere seems to be a spate of articles and editorials lately on the U.S.’s social welfare shortcomings, specifically, its failure to recognize the massive long-term benefits of ensuring the health and well-being of babies and young children.

I wrote about the New Republic‘s excellent analysis of our daycare problem a couple of weeks ago, and today I came upon Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic editorial, “How to Make the U.S. a Better Place for Caregivers.”  For those who require a scientific evidence-based approach, Dr. Perri Klass also weighed in with “Poverty as a Childhood Disease” today in the New York Times.

I wholeheartedly agree with the argument that these authors advance, namely, that the U.S. needs better low or no-cost early-childhood programs (prenatal care, daycare, and preschool, for starters), given all the research that shows children who grow up in poverty and instability, or with poorly educated parents, are far more likely to become dropouts, addicts, or criminals.
Or as Klass elegantly puts it:

Think for a moment of poverty as a disease, thwarting growth and development, robbing children of the healthy, happy futures they might otherwise expect. In the exam room, we try to mitigate the pain and suffering that are its pernicious symptoms. But our patients’ well-being depends on more, on public health measures and prevention that lift the darkness so all children can grow toward the light.

Got it. Which is why I felt kinda yucky at having the eye-roll reaction I did when reading Mira Ptacin’s piece for Guernica, “Is Baby a Luxury?” Ptacin’s predicament is that she and her husband are too well-off to qualify for Medicaid, but balk at the cost of private health insurance, which they tried to purchase after learning she was pregnant (only to find out that pregnancy counts as a preexisting condition, and as such, would not be covered by her husband’s plan). She expresses outrage that she, a pregnant woman, should go without coverage:

To me, the moral is clear: pregnant mothers should have the right to adequate prenatal care to ensure that they, and their developing babies, stay healthy through pregnancy and birth. All of us are better off when that is the case. All of us are worse off when that is not the case.

When Medicaid turns Ptacin down, she calls them in bewilderment, only to be “greeted with a dry, breathy laugh, followed by, Just because you’re pregnant doesn’t mean you get healthcare.”

Um, so, yeah. Did the author not know this before she “realized that [she] might actually make a really good mommy, and raise a really good human?” Because personally, I could never have dreamed of getting pregnant without being covered by health insurance– whether by private insurance, which I was fortunate to have at the time through my employer, or by Medicaid.

Look, I’m not unsympathetic (and I told Ptacin so in the comments section). I’ve heard the “too poor for this, too well-off for welfare” argument millions of times, many of them more than justified (for example, for a single mother working full-time, without child support, who just misses the mark for sorely needed food stamps).

But to make the assumption, based on a perceived moral imperative, that Uncle Sam would be lining up to pay for your pregnancy? There’s just something repugnant about this kind of act-now, think-later self-righteousness. So to Ptacin, I say: get real. And most importantly… get yourself (and your kid) some insurance.

verdictThe New York Times continued its uncharacteristic coverage of the Jodi Arias trial today with an interesting piece by Fernanda Santos on the emotional difficulty jurors face in deciding whether to sentence someone to the death penalty.

Santos quotes a former Florida juror named Alison Ward on the admittedly “bizarre” phenomenon of imposing a death sentence on someone who is being punished for… putting someone to death (i.e., murder).

“Reality is nothing like you see on TV,” Ms. Ward said, describing the experience of serving on the jury, which agreed on a death penalty sentence, as a lonely, painful quest to decide whether to impose what she called “a measure of justice that is bizarre” — a death as a sentence for a killing.

Yes, it is bizarre, but just look at the bloodthirsty crowds who gathered at the Maricopa County Courthouse to hear the verdict (see NYT photo above) — many of whom would doubtless insist that the gruesome first-degree murder of Travis Alexander merits capital punishment for the now-convicted Arias. Perhaps they gleaned this lynch-mob mentality from watching HLN, where indignant anchors like Nancy Grace served as jury, judge, and executioner long before the verdict was read on May 8.

Yesterday, the trial hit another snag during its first day of the aggravation phase; court was abruptly cancelled until Wednesday of next week and no explanation was given. Meanwhile, Arias was placed on suicide watch and is currently undergoing some sort of psychiatric evaluation.

I have put off posting about the Jodi Arias case until a verdict came in. And yesterday, finally, more than four months after this absolute circus of a trial began, a jury of twelve (infinitely patient) people handed Ms. Arias a first-degree murder conviction for killing her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in June 2008. (Why on earth this case took so long to go to trial is something I have never heard explained in the media — was it because Arias changed her story so many times?)

Okay. I have lots of thoughts about this trial and what it says about how the public perceives (take your pick) women/sex/violence/the criminal justice system/the death penalty. But for now, I’ll focus on immediate media coverage of the verdict.

Let’s begin with HLN, since the cable news-lite network has made the Arias trial its raison d’etre, carrying out near 24-hour coverage of the spectacle since it began in January, even going so far as to create a three-dimensional model of the crime scene and assembling a mock jury every night to weigh in on the day’s evidence.

Not surprisingly, I was greeted by this on the HLN homepage today, front and center, or what used to be deemed in ancient newspaper days as “above the fold:”

verdict

Because the Arias case has all along been a tabloid trial–that is, covered breathlessly by what we might think of as the trashy/sensationalistic/if-it-bleeds-it-leads news media–it’s no surprise that the classy Daily News also delivered the verdict above the fold in its second slot. (I can only imagine it would have been first had the bombshell Cleveland kidnapping rescue not happened his week.) The News also had a scoop: that Arias, ever the narcissistic wannabe-media-darling, is now declaring in trademark dramatic fashion that she would rather be put to death than spend the rest of her life in prison. (My question: who gave her the lipgloss for her first post-verdict interview? And don’t they, like, carry a convicted first-degree murderer directly off to jail at that point? As in, do not pass go, do not sit down for a soft-focus television interview?)

halfway verdict

Next let’s head over to the New York Times, which has studiously ignored the trial up until now. The Grey Lady conceded some coverage today, but only alluded to it in the most generic of terms, and waaaaay far down the page at that, in its “U.S.” section. (I had to add a red circle around it ’cause it’s pretty tiny.)

small verdict

Moving on! The liberal intellectuals over at NPR, to my surprise, did carry an Arias headline, albeit without a photo, right on their homepage, but not without a fight from its highbrow readers, some of whom were just plain disgusted that public media would stoop so low. Here’s an excerpt from the article’s comment section:

who cares verdict

More thoughts on the trial later.