Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A writer's obligation.

I would like to say that I am a voracious reader. The truth is, I read considerably less than I used to. What, with the television, the internet, the oncoming onslaught of increasing senior moments and attacks of CRS ("can't remember shit"), it's hard to find time to make a "to do" list anymore.

I also write. Again, not as much as I used to... I self-published two crime novels, under the pen name, Steven Mann, back in the '90's. Ah, yes, the good old days. Huh?

The complete works of Steven Mann.

At any rate, I did considerable research for my books. Since there was to be gunplay involved, I wanted to know what it felt like to shoot a pistol. I took a course at the Beverly Hills Gun Club (where else) and I shot semiautomatic 9mm's and revolvers--38.'s and 357. magnums. For the record, I prefer the Ruger SP-101. I wanted the knowledge so that the sentence or two that referenced handguns would ring true. I think that is the least a writer should do. He or she should know what they're talking about. They should never, never condescend to their readers nor ever think details are unimportant. I ran across a book once that had a character taking the safety off a revolver. It was the equivalent of hitting an unexpected STOP sign. Revolvers don't have safeties. A good example of a book where the author has all the hardware right is Chuck Hogan's Devils in Exile (a terrific, taut action thriller). Hogan, author of The Town, which was made into a damned good movie by and starring Ben Affleck, seems to relish the details, but doesn't bog down the story with them.

I once wrote to a writer after throwing down one of his books. I read the first two books by Robert Ferrigno, which I remember enjoying. Then I started reading a later one.

Writer, Robert Ferrigno
In the dark on facts.

He had his mysterious protagonist smoking Marlboros unfiltered cigarettes. There are no such things. I've known cancer-eager smokers who used to tear the filters off of bummed cigarettes so they could get the full-on benefits of sucking carcinogens straight/no-chaser, but that's different. Mr. Ferrigno had it wrong. Then his character got into his BMW 800 series sports sedan. BMW never manufactured such a vehicle. To my knowledge, the 850 was a sleek sports coupe, with pop-up headlights and enough horsepower to gobble up asphalt in seconds.

I didn't get very far in Mr. Ferrigno's book and subsequently gave away the books of his I had. I was never going to re-read them. By the way, I never did get a reply from Mr. Ferrigno.

Carl Hiaasen has been one of my favorite writers over the years. I've enjoyed his skewering of his home state of Florida from Tourist Season on. He shares his comic approach and locales with Dave Barry, who I also admire as a writer. Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs had me laughing out loud on the beach in Marina Del Rey years ago. It is clearly a bit of a stretch for Mr. Barry to write novels, though.

I have read all of Hiaasen's "adult" books (he also writes children's books) and even some of his non-fiction, including the brilliantly scathing Team Rodent as well as some of his collected Miami Herald pieces. His book, Nature Girl, should have tipped me off. The repetitive quality of his plots, characters and predicaments was showing. Okay. I can buy that. Robert B. Parker had a bit of a challenge keeping Spenser fresh. Hiaasen still provided a pleasant diversion. I have never not finished one of his books.

Except Star Island.

From the very first page of the book, paragraph two: "The stranger in Jimmy Campo's ambulance had two 35-mm digital cameras hanging from his fleshy neck, and a bulky gear bag balanced on his ample lap."

What is a 35-mm digital camera?

A camera can be one or the other, but not both. 35-mm describes the film size and digital cameras use no film.

I stopped reading the book. Was I being rash? Probably. Will I revisit it? Unlikely. Like I say, the writer has an obligation not to belittle or be inconsiderate towards his reader. DETAILS COUNT! Now, in his (and Mr. Ferrigno's) defense, Mr. Hiaasen is not writing police procedurals, but he is known for having cultivated a fairly sophisticated level of reader. He owes them better. There is no excuse for being sloppy. And, in my mind, Mr. Hiaasen has added insult to injury, by dedicating the book to Sonny Mehta, the publishing world God of taste and bestsellers. Hiaasen also thanks his editor(s).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Law

Gary Haugen–sentenced to death

First off, let me just say that one must be careful with Google searches. As Spellcheck misses things like homonyms, Google is kind of a non-discriminatory search engine. There is, for example, a Gary Haugen who is the president and CEO of the International Justice Mission, an international human rights agency that rescues victims of sex trafficking and human slavery. And then, there is a Gary Haugen who sits on Oregon’s death row. It is he that I am writing about.

I probably know less about the intricacies and nuances of the death penalty argument than I know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that doesn’t disqualify me from commenting on it. I think it was Sophocles, the ancient Greek writer who said that “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one.” And so, it is with that sense of self-empowerment that I let loose with my opinion on the Gary Haugen Case and capital crime in general.

Fact: Gary Haugen was found guilty of beating his former girlfriend’s mother to death in 1981 and was sentenced to life, with the possibility of parole.

Fact: Gary Haugen, along with fellow inmate Jason Brumwell, murdered another inmate in 2003. Brumwell had been sent to prison for his role in the murder of a convenience store clerk in Eugene. Haugen and Brumwell crushed David Polin’s skull and stabbed him 84 times. They thought Polin was an informant for the Oregon State Penitentiary officials and had told them about their drug use.

Fact: Capital punishment is legal in Oregon.

"I ask the court to at least respect my will and initiate the process for execution A.S.A.P!" Haugen wrote in an April 10 letter to the state court administrator. Haugen decried the "arbitrary and vindictive actions of this system" and said there will no efforts by him or anyone on his behalf to appeal his death sentence. (

Haugen’s public defenders made weak and mostly token efforts for a serious appeal. One of the motions for overturning the verdict was based on the fact that “the state should have provided an interpreter for a prospective juror who did not speak English and that excluding that juror violated his rights to a jury composed of a fair cross-section of the community.”


Haugen is scheduled to be executed on August 16. I will lay odds that it won’t happen. One of the reasons is so predictable and, in my opinion, wrongheaded. In this case, its name is “Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.” Despite Mr. Haugen’s wish for no appeals, the “group” has argued that the judge “initially agreed to let defense attorneys gather more evidence to establish whether Haugen was competent.” (The Oregonian, June 14, 2011)


Evidently, Mr. Haugen was competent enough to beat his ex-girlfriend’s mother to death, which sent him to prison in the first place. Once there, he seems to have been competent enough to procure drugs, and then to aid in crushing David Polin’s skull and stabbing him 84 times. How can he not be competent to be put to death, as was the punishment he was served in court? And if he is found to be incompetent, what then? Do we offer up treatment until he is deemed competent? And then, do we kill him?

The Oregonian reported that Muriel Lezak, the neuropsychologist who examined Haugen found that he “suffers from a significant attention-deficit disorder” and that “some aspects of cognitive functioning appear to be compromised due to fetal alcohol syndrome.”

So, Mr. Haugen can’t be executed as the law has determined because he has ADD? If he can’t pay attention for the time it takes to give him a lethal dose, the state can’t kill him? Is Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty suggesting Mr. Haugen get help with his conditions–say, counseling and medication–until he’s stable enough to be put to death?

Oh, and by the way, are you, in the least bit surprised that Mr. Haugen has fetal alcohol syndrome? What? Do you–along with Muriel Lezak and Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty–have your undies in a knot because Mr. Haugen is not considered normal enough to legally be put to death? Is a neuropsychologist really taken aback when she finds a brutal murderer's brain is wired badly? What did she expect? I don't think too many members of MENSA would beat someone to death. And don't give me the Ted Bundy argument. Like he was such a genius. In Bundy's case–as with Gary Haugen–there is the fact that he was a unfeeling, pathological killer, which supersedes his perceived brilliance. The fact that Gary Haugen has ADD doesn't totally explain why he would commit such horrifying criminal acts nor does it exonerate him in any way.

Why have a death penalty if you aren’t going to enforce it? Is it supposed to be a deterrent? Like all the other “deterrents,” criminals, by their very definition, ignore the threat of a death sentence. Do we expect criminals adhere to societal and psychological definitions of normalcy when we determine whether they live or die? If so, why? It’s okay to call criminals monsters in court but they need to be found human before we mete out their punishment… that’s crazy. Being a sociopath is not a sometimes thing. If you commit a sociopathic crime, your punishment should be measured as a sociopath, not a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. Haugen is not a victim.

I said I didn’t know much about the subtleties of capital punishment, but I do know that the world would not be negatively impacted by Gary Haugen’s death. The state of Oregon, however, is negatively impacted by not carrying out the death sentence on Mr. Haugen. It has been reported that it costs the state well over a million dollars to house and keep criminal “lifers” alive and ensconced in seemingly endless appeals.

What do Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty want?

According to their mission statement from their website, “The mission of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (OADP) is to repeal the death penalty in Oregon as an essential step toward a more cost-effective, humane and restorative response to violent crime, and thus toward safer, more peaceful and just communities.”

And what exactly would be “a more cost-effective, humane and restorative response to violent crime?” What is cost-effective about keeping a seemingly incorrigible murderer alive and locked up? It costs $86.08 for the chemistry in a lethal injection, and a lot more to keep them alive in prison year after year. Oregon spends about a third more than the national average on housing, feeding and caring for prisoners. Each taxpaying household pays approximately $840. per year to the prison system. There are almost 14,500 convicts locked up in Oregon prisons–about 1 in 33 of all people in the state.

Bill Long, a Willamette University law professor and death penalty opponent who wrote the only book on capital punishment in Oregon, has estimated Oregon’s oldest cases could end up costing more than $10 million per defendant (the national average for capital cases is around $3 million). Hardesty estimated in 2005 that Oregon and its counties spend at least $9 million a year pursuing death penalty cases. (

School systems in the state are cutting teachers, librarians–even closing schools. They’ve also have had to reduce the number of beds in prisons—the way prison populations are measured. And what happens when prisons face budget cuts? They certainly don’t frontload the number of executions. No. They reduce sentences. Imagine if Gary Haugen was released? Would he come to terms with his fetal alcohol syndrome and live the rest of his life in a productive way? Or will he beat someone else to death? Where would you put your money? Personally, I think an informal “falling on a shank in the shower” program should be instituted in the Oregon prison system. But it would have to be kind of like the military’s former position on enlisted gays: don’t ask/don’t tell.

I am reminded of a pair of lines from an old Bob Dylan tune. “I’m liberal, to a degree. I want everybody to be free… ” But evidently, my liberalism ends at the door to the maximum security prison. There are just too many precedents, from Jack Abbot to Gary Gilmore, that indicate an absence of rehabilitation among felonious violent criminals. Gary Haugen will never get better. He will never be anything beyond a menace to society. He should be granted his wish and be put to death. This is not a Barry Scheck–the DNA proved him innocent–issue. Haugen’s DNA was all over the Polin murder scene. And this is not like Haugen is a first time offender. He is not going to get better. He will never contribute to society. He was convicted of life imprisonment when he participated in the violent prison murder of David Polin. Oh, and here’s a good one: his defense team argued in their appeal that the death sentence should be imposed after Haugen’s life sentence is fulfilled.

Oh and something else to ponder: is it hypocritical to be pro-life and pro-death penalty?

Just asking.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"The Saudi Arabia of Coal"

Virginia Representative Eric Cantor proved once again that his vision goes only as far as his pockets, which are clearly being stuffed by the rich, the corporate greedy and, in this case, the coal industry. He actually said that America is "the Saudi Arabia of coal." What a putz.

Sad to say, even President Obama has it wrong on this one; there is no such thing as clean coal. Consider it an oxymoron, as I consider Representative Cantor a conniving moron. Coal pollutes. But one thing the Republicans seem to be good at is pushing for planet-endangering policies that leave future generations a depleted, toxic planet. While the Republican continue to whitewash, mislead and/or downright lie, the semi-comatose hoards of blind followers buy the package, willfully ignoring the skull and crossbones on the label.

abandoned mine

Burn, Baby, Burn