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Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Death Penalty in China

     In China, the Chengguan are municipal law enforcement officers considered a notch below regular cops. As enforcers of city ordinances, these low-level officers have a national reputation for over-enforcement and brutality. This is particularly true in the way these enforcers handle unlicensed street vendors.

     Over the years members of the Chengguan have been accused of physically abusing hundreds of street vendors. Since 2001, sixteen of these licensing offenders have been beaten to death. In July 2013, in Hunan Province, the government paid $150,000 to the family of a watermelon vendor killed by a Chengguan officer. In China, these ordinance enforcers are extremely unpopular, feared, and even hated by millions of chinese citizens.

     In May 2009, in the city of Shenyang in northeast China, Chengguan officers arrested a 33-year-old street vendor named Xia Junfeng. Xia, a laid-off factory worker who sold sausages and kabobs from an unlicensed street cart, dreamed of sending his son to art school in Beijing. His wife held two jobs as a cleaning lady and baker at a school.

     While being given the third-degree in a police interrogation room, Xia, with a knife he used to slice meat, stabbed two Chengguan cops to death. A local prosecutor charged Xia with two counts of first-degree murder.

     One of the Chengguan officers Xia stabbed had a long history of police brutality. In 2008, the officer broke the arm of a woman he had arrested for selling umbrellas without a license.

     At his murder trial in November 2009, Xia pleaded not guilty on grounds of self-defense. The prosecution asserted that Xia's repeated stabbing of the officers went beyond what was necessary to defend himself. According to the defendant, had he not used deadly force, the officers would have beaten him to death. Xia's attorney put six witnesses on the stand who testified to Xia's beating at the hands of these officers.

     Testifying on his own behalf, Xia said, "He [one of the arresting officers] began to beat me as soon as I entered the [interrogation] room. His fists pounded my head and ears. As I tried to run outside, I came face-to-face with another officer. Right away he grabbed my collar to stop me. He also struck me with his fist...and kicked at my thighs." When Xia put his hand down to protect his groin area, he felt the knife he kept in his pocket. This was the instrument he used to stab both of the officers to death. (Why wasn't Xia searched pursuant to his arrest? Do these officers receive any training?)

     The trial judge found Xia Junfeng guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. Xia's wife, Zhang Jing, took up her husband's crusade by publishing a blog. As a result, both she and the condemned man became famous as his case worked its way through the appellate process. Because there had been prosecutorial improprieties at the trial, Xia's supporters were confident his conviction would be overturned.

     In 2011, while millions of Chinese citizens were expressing online sympathy for the street vendor convicted of killing two Chengguan officers, justices on the nation's supreme court upheld his conviction and sentence. "The crime he committed was heinous," wrote one of the justices. "The method he used was extremely cruel and the results serious. He should be punished to the full extent of the law."

     On September 25, 3013, millions of Chinese citizens were outraged by Xia Jonfeng's execution by lethal injection. On the popular website Sina.com, 28 million people had posted messages of support for the man who had killed two members of the hated Chengguan police. Following Xia's execution, Chinese censors were busy scrubbing commentary on dozens of blogs protesting the death of the man who had come to represent resistance against oppressive Chinese law enforcement.

     In China, public support for capital punishment has diminished over the years. Ten years ago the authorities were executing 12,000 prisoners a year. In 2012, 3000 Chinese prisoners died by firing squad or lethal injection.

     

Isaac Asimov on Writing Science Fiction

I can write nonfiction science without thinking because it requires no thought. I already know it. Science fiction, however, is far more delicate a job and requires the deeper and most prolonged thought.

Isaac Asimov, I Asimov, 1996 

The Sins of Book Reviewers

There is the critical sin of covetousness, which may cause the book critic to seek fame at the expense of the author whose work he exploits. The closely associated sin of envy leads to the denigration of the work of others for the hidden purpose of self-aggrandizement. To indulge the sin of gluttony is to bite off more than one is prepared to digest, denying others the right to partake. To be lustful is to indulge an inordinate desire for the gratification of one's sense of power. The deadly sin of anger leads to the loss of one's composure and sense of balance during the inevitable exchanges of differing opinion. The deadly sin of sloth is to repeat accepted lies about an author or body of work because the critic is too lazy to dig out the truth.

Carlos Baker in Opinions and Perspectives From "The New York Times Book Review," edited by Francis Brown, 1964 

The Locard Exchange Principle in Forensic Science

     The theory that a criminal perpetrator leaves part of himself at the scene of a crime, and takes a piece of the crime site with him, was postulated in 1911 by Dr. Edmund Locard in Lyon, France. Referred to as the Locard Exchange Principle, this concept, along with the idea of interpreting physical evidence to reconstruct what took place at the site of a criminal act, is the basic rationale behind crime scene investigation. The term "associative evidence" describes items that, pursuant to the Locard Principle, can connect a suspect to the scene of an offense. 

America's First Bomb Murder Case

The earliest case which I have found of the use of a bomb to commit murder was in 1854, when William Arrison sent one to the head of an asylum where he had been confined.

Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder, 1961

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Constitutional Right to Give Your Kid a Stupid Name

     Generally, because of the First Amendment right of free speech, there is nothing the government can do to stop a parent from giving a kid a weird and arguably stupid name. The only remedy for victims of bad names is to legally correct the problem when they become adults. Recent examples of ridiculous names include Ruger, Irelynd, Blaze, Cinsere, D'Artagnan, Abeus, Troolio, and Dusk. (I once had a student named Misty Dawn. For some reason, movie stars have a tendency to to burden their children with bad names.)

     Several years ago in New Jersey, the parents of a 3-year-old they had named Adolph Hitler Campbell, sued a bakery for refusing to write that name on the boy's birthday cake. While the bakery won the suit, the state of New Jersey did not have the authority to have little Adolph Hitler re-named.

     If you can name an innocent child Adolph Hitler, you can pretty much name a kid anything you want. There are, however, a few limitations to this right. In most states a name cannot be an Arabic number, an obscenity, or a symbol. Names that are extremely long are also forbidden. So, could a mother lawfully name her kid Promiscuous or Fecal? I don't know, probably.

     Jaleesa Martin, a resident of Newport, Tennessee, a town of 7,000 in the rural foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, gave birth to a boy in January 2013. The boy's father, a man named McCullough, wanted his son to have his last name. The mother wanted to give the child her last name. The couple did agree, however, on the baby's first name--Messiah. (Good heavens.)

     To settle this domestic dispute, Jaleesa Martin, in the summer of 2013, asked child support magistrate Lu Anna Ballew to approve the name Messiah DeShawn Martin. Following the hearing in August 2013, Magistrate Ballew ordered the parents to name their child Martin DeShawn McCullough.

     The magistrate said she disapproved of the child's first name because "the word 'messiah' is a title and it's a title that has been earned by one person and that person is Jesus Christ." Moreover, Ballew reasoned, that first name "could put him [the boy] at odds with a lot of people, and at this point he has no choice in what his name is. (What kid does have a choice in this matter?)

     In announcing that she was appealing the magistrate's decision, Jaleesa Martin told reporters that "I was shocked. I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God, and I didn't think a judge could make me change my boy's name because of her religious beliefs." (The mother could have pointed out that in 2012, more babies were named Messiah than Donald, Philip, Bruce, or Gary.)

     On September 18, 2013, Judge Satan Forgety (just kidding, his first name is Telford), overturned the magistrate's ruling. Pursuant to an agreement reached by the parents, the kid's name was changed to Messiah DeShawn McCullough. (The boy had siblings named Micah and Mason.)

     While Judge Forgety's ruling was a good day for the First Amendment, I'm not sure it was a good day for little Messiah.  

Story Versus Plot

Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is a story we say, "and then?" If it is a plot we ask "why?" That is the fundamental difference between these to aspects of the novel.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) Aspects of the Novel, 1927

Discussing Writing Works-in-Progress

I find it helps a lot to talk to friends or editors immediately after I return from a reporting trip. It puts me in a storytelling mode. Even though I'm less preoccupied with producing a seamless narrative then I used to be, I do feel that narrative energy is crucial to distinguishing a story from a research report. When you are telling a story to a live human being [as apposed to a reader] you get a sense, immediately, of what people respond to. It gets you outside of your own head. And often people ask questions that I haven't thought of--questions that force me to look at the reporting in a new way.

Ron Rosenbaum, in Robert S. Boynton's The New Journalism, 2005 [Most writers of fiction do not discuss works-in-progress.] 

A Stupid College Course

Lady Gaga may not have much class but now there is a class on her. The University of South Carolina is offering a class called Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame. Mathieu Deflem, the professor teaching the course describes it as aiming to "unravel some of the sociologically relevant dimensions of the fame of Lady Gaga with respect to her music, videos, fashion, and other endeavors." [No wonder sociology majors end up working at Walmart or in the mall.]

Michael Snyder, "20 Completely Ridiculous College Courses Offered at U. S. Universities," theeconomiccollapseblog.com, June 5, 2013 

Who Cares About Black Murderers?

Are you white? Do you pay attention to black murderers? It must be because you're a racist. Wait, you don't pay attention to black murderers? It's because you are a racist. Why aren't you paying attention to black murderers? You racist.

Daniel Greenfield, "Washington Post Claims White People are Racist for Not Caring About Motives of Black Murderers," frontpagemag.com, September 22, 2013