Sunshine Recorder

Link: Murder by Craigslist

A serial killer finds a newly vulnerable class of victims: white, working-class men.

Wanted: Caretaker For Farm. Simply watch over a 688 acre patch of hilly farmland and feed a few cows, you get 300 a week and a nice 2 bedroom trailer, someone older and single preferred but will consider all, relocation a must, you must have a clean record and be trustworthy—this is a permanent position, the farm is used mainly as a hunting preserve, is overrun with game, has a stocked 3 acre pond, but some beef cattle will be kept, nearest neighbor is a mile away, the place is secluded and beautiful, it will be a real get away for the right person, job of a lifetime—if you are ready to relocate please contact asap, position will not stay open.

Scott Davis had answered the job ad on Craigslist on October 9, 2011, and now, four weeks later to the day, he was watching the future it had promised glide past the car window: acre after acre of Ohio farmland dotted with cattle and horses, each patch framed by rolling hills and anchored by a house and a barn—sometimes old and worn, but never decrepit. Nothing a little carpentry couldn’t fix.

Davis rode in the backseat of the white Buick LeSabre; in the front sat his new employer, a man he knew only as Jack, and a boy Jack had introduced as his nephew, Brogan. The kid, who was driving the car, was only in high school but was already a giant—at least as tall as his uncle, who was plenty tall. Jack was a stocky, middle-aged man; Davis noticed that he’d missed a couple of spots shaving and had a tattoo on his left arm. He was chatty, telling Davis about his ex-wife, his favorite breakfast foods, and his church.

Davis, 48, had left his girlfriend behind in South Carolina, given away the accounts for his landscaping business, and put most of his equipment in storage. He’d packed his other belongings—clothes, tools, stereo equipment, his Harley-Davidson—into a trailer, hitched it to his truck, and driven to southeastern Ohio. He’d told everyone that he was moving in part to help take care of his mom, who lived outside Akron and whose house was falling apart. Moving back home at his age might seem like moving backward in life. But the caretaker job he’d stumbled across online made it seem more like he’d be getting paid to live free and easy for a while—a no-rent trailer plus $300 a week, in exchange for just watching over a farm with a few head of cattle outside the town of Cambridge. Jack had reminded him in an e‑mail to bring his Harley because there were “plenty of beautiful rural roads to putt-putt in.”

Jack and Brogan had met Davis for breakfast at the Shoney’s in Marietta, where Jack had quizzed his new hire about what he’d brought with him in the trailer. Davis boasted that it was “full from top to bottom.” After breakfast, Davis followed Jack and Brogan to the Food Center Emporium in the small town of Caldwell, where he left his truck and trailer in the parking lot, to be picked up later. Jack told Davis that the small road leading to the farm had split, and they’d have to repair it before bringing the truck up. They’d been driving for about 15 minutes, the paved road giving way to gravel, and then the gravel to dirt, while Davis watched the signal-strength bars on his cellphone disappear.

On a densely wooded, hilly stretch, Jack told his nephew to pull over. “Drop us off where we got that deer at last time,” he said, explaining to Davis that he’d left some equipment down the hill by the creek and they’d need to retrieve it to repair the road. Davis got out to help, stuffing his cigarettes and a can of Pepsi into the pockets of his jean jacket. He followed Jack down the hill, but when they reached a patch of wet grass by the creek, Jack seemed to have lost his way and suggested they head back up to the road. Davis turned around and started walking, with Jack following behind him now.

Davis heard a click, and the word fuck. Spinning around, he saw Jack pointing a gun at his head. Where we got that deer at last time. In a flash, it was clear to Davis: he was the next deer.

Davis instinctively threw up his arms to shield his face. The pistol didn’t jam the second time. As Davis heard the crack of the gunshot, he felt his right elbow shatter. He turned and started to run, stumbling and falling over the uneven ground. The shots kept coming as Davis ran deeper into the woods, but none of them hit home. He ran and ran until he heard no more shots or footsteps behind him. He came to the road and crossed it, worried that if he stayed in the open he’d be spotted by his would-be killer. He was losing a lot of blood by now, but he hid in the woods for several hours, until the sun was low, before he made his way back to the road and started walking.

Jeff Schockling was sitting in his mother’s living room, watching Jeopardy, when he heard the doorbell. That alone was strange, as he’d later explain on the witness stand, because out there in the boondocks, visitors generally just walked in the front door. Besides, he hadn’t heard a car drive up. Schockling sent his 9-year-old nephew to see who it was, he testified, and the kid came back yelling, “There’s a guy at the door! He’s been shot and he’s bleeding right through!” Schockling assumed his nephew was playing a prank, but when he went to the door, there was the stranger, holding his right arm across his body, his sleeve and pant leg soaked with blood. The guy was pale and fidgety and wouldn’t sit down at the picnic table outside. But he asked Schockling to call 911.

Sheriff Stephen Hannum of Noble County arrived after about 15 minutes. He would later describe Davis as remarkably coherent for a man who had been shot and was bleeding heavily. But what Davis was saying made no sense. He claimed that he’d come to the area for a job watching over a 688-acre cattle ranch, and that the man who’d offered him the job had shot him. But Hannum didn’t know of any 688-acre cattle ranches in Noble County—nothing even close. Most of the large tracts of land had been bought up by mining companies. Davis kept going on about a Harley-Davidson, and how the guy who shot him was probably going to steal it. The sheriff sized Davis up—middle-aged white guy, puffy eyes, long hair, jean jacket, babbling about a Harley—and figured he was involved in some kind of dope deal gone bad. Hannum made a few calls to his local informants, but none of them had heard anything. Then he located the truck and trailer in the Food Center Emporium parking lot, and they were just as Davis had described them. “It was beginning to look,” Hannum later recalled, “like Mr. Davis truly was a victim rather than whatever I thought he was at the beginning.”

Davis wasn’t the only person to answer the Craigslist ad. More than 100 people applied for the caretaker job—a fact that Jack was careful to cite in his e-mails back to the applicants. He wanted to make sure that they knew the position was highly sought-after. Jack had a specific type of candidate in mind: a middle-aged man who had never been married or was recently divorced, and who had no strong family connections. Someone who had a life he could easily walk away from. “If picked I will need you to start quickly,” he would write in his e-mails.

Jack painstakingly designed the ad to conjure a very particular male fantasy: the cowboy or rancher, out in the open country, herding cattle, mending fences, hunting game—living a dream that could transform a post-recession drifter into a timeless American icon. From the many discarded drafts of the ad that investigators later found, it was clear that Jack was searching for just the right pitch to catch a certain kind of man’s eye. He tinkered with details—the number of acres on the property, the idea of a yearly bonus and paid utilities—before settling on his final language: “hilly,” “secluded,” “job of a lifetime.” If a woman applied for the job, Jack wouldn’t bother responding. If a man applied, he would ask for the critical information right off the bat: How old are you? Do you have a criminal record? Are you married?

Jack seemed drawn to applicants who were less formal in their e-mail replies, those who betrayed excitement, and with it, vulnerability. “I was raised on a farm as a boy and have raised some of my own cattle and horses as well,” wrote one. “I’m still in good shape and not afraid of hard work! I really hope you can give me a chance. If for some reason I wouldn’t work out for you no hard feelings at all. I would stick with you until you found help. Thank you very much, George.”

If a candidate lived near Akron, Jack might interview him in person at a local Waffle House or at a mall food court. He’d start by handing the man a preemployment questionnaire, which stated that he was an equal-opportunity employer. Jack and the applicant would make small talk about ex-wives or tattoos, and Jack, who fancied himself a bit of a street preacher, would describe the ministry he’d founded. He’d ask about qualifications—any carpentry experience? ever work with livestock?—and provide more details about the farm. Jack explained that his uncle owned the place, and he had six brothers and sisters with a lot of kids and grandkids running around, especially on holiday weekends and during hunting season. The picture Jack painted was of a boisterous extended family living an idyllic rural life—pretty much the opposite of the lonely bachelor lives of the men he was interviewing.

Schockling went to the door, and there was the stranger, holding his right arm across his body, his sleeve and pant leg soaked with blood.

If the interview went well, Jack might tell the applicant that he was a finalist for the job. But if the applicant gave any sign that he did not meet one of Jack’s criteria, the meeting would end abruptly. For one candidate, everything seemed on track until he mentioned that he was about to get married. Jack immediately stood up and thanked him for his time. George, the man who’d written the e-mail about being raised on a farm, told Jack that he’d once been a security guard and was an expert in martial arts. He figured this would be a plus, given that he’d have to guard all that property when no one else was around. But the mood of the interview immediately changed for the worse. Jack took the application out of George’s hands before he even finished filling it out and said he’d call him in a couple of days. If George didn’t hear anything, he should assume that “someone else got it.”

David Pauley was the first applicant who met Jack’s exacting criteria. He was 51 years old, divorced, and living with his older brother, Richard, in his spare bedroom in Norfolk, Virginia. For nearly two decades, Pauley had worked at Randolph-Bundy, a wholesale distributor of building materials, managing the warehouse and driving a truck. He married his high-school sweetheart, Susan, and adopted her son, Wade, from an earlier marriage. For most of his life, Pauley was a man of routine, his relatives said. He ate his cereal, took a shower, and went to work at precisely the same times every day. “He was the stable influence in my life,” says Wade. “I grew up thinking everyone had a nine-to-five.”

But Pauley grew increasingly frustrated with his position at Randolph-Bundy, and finally around 2003 he quit. He bounced around other jobs but could never find anything steady. He and Wade often had disagreements, and in 2009 he and Susan got a divorce. Now he found himself sitting on his brother’s easy chair, using Richard’s laptop to look for jobs. Mostly he’d find temp stuff, jobs that would last only a few weeks. Sometimes he had to borrow money just to buy toothpaste. He got along fine with Richard and his wife, Judy, but their second bedroom—with its seafoam-green walls, frilly lamp shades, and ornate dresser—was hardly a place where he could put up his poster of Heidi Klum in a bikini or start enjoying his post-divorce freedom.

Pauley was cruising online job opportunities when he came across the Craigslist ad in October 2011. Usually Pauley looked for jobs only around Norfolk. But his best friend since high school, Chris Maul, had moved to Ohio a couple years earlier and was doing well. He and Maul talked dozens of times a day on the Nextel walkie-talkies they’d bought specifically for that purpose. If Maul, who was also divorced, could pick up and start a new life, why couldn’t Pauley?

And the Craigslist job sounded perfect. Three hundred dollars a week and a rent-free place to live would solve all Pauley’s problems at once. On top of that, his brother, an ex-Navy man, was always pestering Pauley to cut his long hair before job interviews. With a gig like this, who would care whether he had long hair—the cattle? Pauley sat down and wrote an e-mail to Jack.

Well about me, I’m fifty one years young, single male, I love the out doors, I currently live in virginia have visited ohio and i really love the state. Being out there by myself would not bother me as i like to be alone. I own my own pick up truck so hauling would not be a problem. I can fix most anything have my own carpentry tools.

If chosen i will work hard to take care of your place and treat it like my own.

I also have a friend in Rocky River, Ohio. Thank you, David.

A few days later, Pauley got an e-mail back from Jack saying that he had narrowed his list down to three candidates, “and you are one of the 3.” Jack asked his usual questions—was Pauley married? had he ever been arrested for a felony?—and told him that if he was chosen, he’d have to start immediately.

Richard remembers his younger brother being energized in a way he hadn’t seen in months. Pauley called Jack several times to see whether there was anything else he could do to help him decide. Jack promised that he’d call by 2 p.m. on a Friday, and Pauley waited by the phone. When 2 o’clock came and went, he told his brother, “Well, I guess the other person got chosen above me.”

But early that evening, the phone rang. When Pauley got on the line, Richard recalls, his whole face lit up.

“I got it! I got the job!” he yelled as soon as he hung up. He immediately called his friend Maul on the walkie-talkie and started talking a mile a minute. He swore that this was the best thing that had ever happened to him and said he couldn’t wait to pack up and go. To Maul’s surprise, he found himself in tears. For the past few years he’d been worried about Pauley, whom he’d always called his “brother with a different last name.” Maul remembers, “It was like, maybe this is the turning point, and things are finally going the right way.” They made a promise to each other that on Pauley’s first weekend in Ohio after settling in, Maul would bring down his hot rod and they’d drive around on the empty country roads.

Next Pauley called his twin sister, Deb, who lives in Maine. She told him that she hated the thought of him sitting alone on some farm for Christmas and made him promise that he’d come visit her for the holidays. He told her that his new boss was a preacher and said he felt like the Lord was finally pointing him toward the place where he might “find peace.”

That week, Pauley went to the men’s Bible-study group he’d been attending since he’d moved into Richard’s house. For weeks he’d been praying—never to win the lottery or get a girlfriend, always for steady work. Everyone there agreed that God had finally heard his prayers.

The church gave Pauley $300 from its “helping hands” fund so that he could rent a U-Haul trailer. He packed up all his stuff—his model trains, his books and DVDs, his Jeff Gordon T-shirts and posters, his Christmas lights, and the small box containing the ashes of his old cat, Maxwell Edison—and hit the road.

Pauley arrived at the Red Roof Inn in Parkersburg, West Virginia, on the night of Saturday, October 22, 2011. It was not far from Marietta, Ohio, where he was supposed to meet his new employer at a Bob Evans for breakfast the next morning. He called his sister, who told him that she loved him and said to call back the next day.

Then, just before going to bed, he called up Maul, who told him, “Good luck. As soon as you’re done talking to them tomorrow, let me know. Give me an exact location so I can come down Saturday and we can hang out.”

The next day came and went with no call from Pauley. Maul tried him on the walkie-talkie, but there was no response. He then called Richard and got the number for Pauley’s new employer, Jack, whom he reached on his cellphone. Yes, everything was all right, Jack told Maul. He’d just left Pauley with a list of chores. Yes, he would pass on the message when he saw him the next day. But a few more days went by without a call, so Maul dialed Jack again. This time Jack said that when he showed up at the farm that day, Pauley had packed all his things in a truck and said he was leaving. Apparently he’d met some guy in town who was headed to Pennsylvania to work on a drilling rig, and he’d decided to follow him there.

There was no way, Maul thought to himself, that Pauley would take off for Pennsylvania without telling him. The two men had been best friends since high school, when they’d bonded over their mutual distaste for sports and love of cars. Over the years they’d moved to different cities, gotten married, gotten divorced, but they’d stayed “constantly in touch,” Maul said.

They kept their walkie–talkies on their bedside tables and called each other before they even got up to brush their teeth in the morning. They talked, by Maul’s estimate, about 50 times a day. “Most people couldn’t figure out how we had so much to talk about,” Maul said. “But there’d always end up being something.” But after Pauley reached Ohio? Nothing.

Early in November, about two weeks after he’d last spoken to Pauley, Maul called his friend’s twin sister. Deb hadn’t heard from him either, and was also worried—a habit she’d honed over a lifetime. When she and her brother were 14, their mother got emphysema. Since their father had left the family and their older siblings were already out of the house, Deb quit school and, as she put it, “basically became David’s mother.” Years later, she moved to Maine with her second husband and Pauley stayed in Norfolk, but the twin bond remained strong.

By the time she received the concerned phone call from Maul, Deb had already spent several days sitting with her laptop at the kitchen table, in her pajamas, looking for clues to explain why she hadn’t heard a word from her brother. With a red pen and a sheet of legal paper, she’d made a list of places to call—the motel in Parkersburg, the U-Haul rental place—but she’d learned nothing from any of them. It wasn’t until Friday night, November 11, nearly three weeks after Pauley had left for Ohio, that she remembered something else: Cambridge, the town where he had said the farm was located. She typed the name into Google and found the local paper, The Daily Jeffersonian. She scrolled through the pages until she landed on this headline, dated November 8: “Man Says He Was Lured Here for Work, Then Shot.” There was no mention of the man’s name, but there was one detail that sounded familiar: he said he’d been hired to work on a 688-acre ranch. The article cited the Noble County sheriff, Stephen Hannum. Deb called his office right away.

After picking up Scott Davis five days earlier, Hannum and his team had been following up on his strange story, but not all that urgently. They had Davis’s explanation about the Craigslist ad, and they’d located security-camera footage from his breakfast meeting with his “employers.” But Deb’s phone call lit a fire under Hannum’s investigation. She told Jason Mackie, a detective in the sheriff’s office, that Pauley had talked with his friend Maul 50 times a day and then suddenly stopped. Although no one said it explicitly at the time, a sudden drop-off like that meant a missing person, and that in turn meant there might be a body.

The next day, a Saturday, the sheriff’s office called an FBI cyber-crimes specialist to help them get information about who had written the Craigslist ad. They also sent a crew with cadaver dogs back to the woods where Davis had been shot. One FBI agent would later recall the “torrential downpour” that day and the sound of coyotes howling. A few hours before dark, the investigators found a patch of disturbed soil overlaid with tree branches. They began digging with their hands, until they found blood seeping up from the wet earth and a socked foot appeared. The body they discovered was facedown, and one of the items they removed from it was a corded black-leather bracelet with a silver clasp. Mackie telephoned Deb and described the bracelet. Yes, it was her brother’s, she told them. The investigators also found a second grave, this one empty. They later learned it had been meant for Davis.

Now the investigators knew they were looking for a murderer. By early the next week, they had identified the man in the breakfast-meeting footage as a local named Richard Beasley. Additionally, the cyber-crimes specialist had received enough information from Craigslist to trace the IP address of the ad’s originating computer to a small house in Akron. When the investigators arrived at the house, its occupant, Joe Bais, said he’d never written any ads on Craigslist and he didn’t know anyone named Richard Beasley or Jack. But when they showed him a picture, he recognized the man who’d called himself Jack. It was someone he knew as Ralph Geiger, who until recently had rented a room from Bais for $100 a week. “Real nice guy,” Bais would later recall on the witness stand. “He didn’t cuss, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink … First Sunday he was there, went to church.” As it happened, Geiger had just left him a note with his new cellphone number. The landlord called Geiger and kept him on the line as investigators traced the call. On November 16, an FBI SWAT team arrested the man outside another Akron house, where he had been renting a room after leaving Bais’s place. The suspect’s name was, in fact, Richard Beasley. Although investigators didn’t know it yet, Ralph Geiger was the name of his first victim.

Link: Live By The Sword

The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the
Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F Harrington (The Bodley Head 285pp £20)

This is a marvellous book about a fascinating subject. It is, in a sense, a portrait of a serial killer. Frantz Schmidt was employed between 1578 and 1618 as the official executioner (and torturer) of the prosperous German city of Nuremberg. Over the course of his career he personally despatched 394 people, and flogged, branded or otherwise maimed many hundreds more. His life is also a tale of honour, duty and a lasting quest for meaning and redemption.

The penal regimes of pre-modern European states were harsh and violent, heavy on deterrence and the symbolism of retribution. Towns such as Nuremberg needed professional executioners to deal with an ever-present threat of criminality through the public infliction of capital and corporal sentences. Punishing malefactors with lengthy periods of incarceration was an idea for the future, and would probably have struck 16th-century people as unnecessarily cruel. Methods ranged from execution with the sword (the most honourable) to hanging (the least), and from the relatively quick and merciful to the dreadful penalty of staking a person to the ground and breaking their limbs one after the other with a heavy cartwheel. This was not a world of mindless violence: the punishments Schmidt imposed were carefully prescribed by the city authorities, down to the number of ‘nips’ (pieces of flesh torn from the limbs with red-hot tongs) convicts were to receive on their way to the gallows.

This gruesome regimen can be reconstructed because, over the course of 45 years, Schmidt kept a personal journal - not a diary in anything like the modern sense, but a usually terse and impersonal chronological record of all the punishments he had inflicted, including some details of the crimes behind them. The journal is not a new discovery (a version of it was printed as long ago as 1801), but Joel Harrington, drawing on a previously unused, near-contemporary copy, is the first historian to realise its full potential. The source lends itself to a social history of crime and punishment, but Harrington also attempts something more interesting and ambitious: to enter imaginatively into the world-view of its compiler and construct a rounded portrait of a personality and a life. Cleverly, he weaves Schmidt’s own words wherever possible into his historical narrative, placing them in italics to let us identify what he has reported and what the author has conjectured or imaginatively inferred (invariably pitched pleasingly between excessive caution and undue presumption). It is a virtuoso performance. Harrington is able to draw on a range of ancillary documents, but this is the best example of making a single, apparently unpromising historical source sing since Eamon Duffy breathed life into a set of dusty English churchwardens’ accounts in The Voices of Morebath.

It is a moving and empathetic story. Schmidt was a torturer and killer, but also a skilled professional, a pious Lutheran and, quite remarkably for a 16th-century German, a strict teetotaller. From the scant clues of his journal entries, Harrington constructs a mental map of Schmidt’s attitudes to the criminals he encountered and of the crimes that especially offended him, particularly those involving personal betrayal or harm to children. Schmidt was a man of honour in a fundamentally dishonourable profession. Executioners were a necessary evil in urban German society: respectable people would not socialise with them or allow their daughters to marry them. Even their claims to burial in consecrated ground were tenuous. Yet throughout his life, Schmidt pursued an ‘audacious dream of social ascent’ - to have his family declared honourable and see other professions opened to his sons.

His own apprenticeship as an executioner was the result of a catastrophic fall in family fortunes, originating in an episode of almost cinematic vividness. In October 1553, the erratic and unpopular Prince Albrecht Alcibiades von Brandenburg-Kulmbach suspected three local gunsmiths of plotting against his life. Invoking an ancient custom, he commanded a hapless bystander to execute them on the spot. Frantz’s father, Heinrich, had no option but to carry out the commission and, tainted by the act, no options thereafter but to become a professional executioner. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, after a lifetime of devoted civic service, his son successfully petitioned the imperial court for a formal restitution of the family honour so that he could see his own sons enter the medical profession. Schmidt himself was a killer, but his true vocation was as a healer. He tortured and executed hundreds of people, but claimed to have treated more than fifteen thousand patients in and around Nuremberg. This is not as paradoxical as it seems: executioners often doubled as medics, drawing on their unrivalled practical knowledge of human anatomy.

A compassionate torturer? Harrington intends his readers to be morally challenged by Schmidt’s biography, which is also a ‘story for our time and our world’. We safely insulate ourselves from the past, intellectually and culturally, when we should look it squarely in the eye (the famed executioner’s black mask turns out to be a romantic 19th-century invention). The Nuremberg councillors took the steps they considered both necessary and legitimate to preserve peace and order. In an age of escalating ‘counter-terrorism measures’, our moral superiority in this regard is far from self-evident. What would Schmidt - who punished a handful of Jewish criminals without any apparent anti-Semitic prejudice - have made of the death camps or the other genocidal urges of the 20th and 21st centuries? Harrington has harsh words for the complacent progressivism on display in works such as Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Yet all this may underplay somewhat the extent to which execution by the state has within our lifetimes become a profound moral and philosophical touchstone. Harrington points out that capital punishment is widely practised in the world today, even in ‘self-proclaimed liberal democracies such as the United States and Japan’. But in fact, the US and Japan are now the only liberal democracies to execute their citizens (South Korea retains the penalty but has not employed it since the 1990s). Abolition of capital punishment is a strict condition of entry to the expanding European Union; executions have for many years been suspended even in Putin’s Russia. The more difficult part of historical empathy is to observe people in the past thinking and behaving in ways we consider ethically unacceptable, but still to recognise, even to admire, a morally coherent approach to life. Harrington helps us to see how it can be done. The Faithful Executioner is a brilliant microhistory, a triumph of technique and a wonderful read.

Link: Forensic Topology

In the 1990s, Los Angeles held the dubious title of “bank robbery capital of the world.” At its height, the city’s bank crime rate hit the incredible frequency of one bank robbed every forty-five minutes of every working day. As FBI Special Agent Brenda Cotton—formerly based in Los Angeles but now stationed in New York City—joked at an event hosted by Columbia University’s school of architecture in April 2012, the agency even developed its own typology of banks in the region, most notably the “stop and rob”: a bank, located at the bottom of both an exit ramp and an on-ramp of one of Southern California’s many freeways, that could be robbed as quickly and as casually as you might pull off the highway for gas.

In his 2003 memoir Where The Money Is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World, co-authored with Gordon Dillow, retired Special Agent William J. Rehder briefly suggests that the design of a city itself leads to and even instigates certain crimes—in Los Angeles’s case, bank robberies. Rehder points out that this sprawling metropolis of freeways and its innumerable nondescript banks is, in a sense, a bank robber’s paradise. Crime, we could say, is just another way to use the city.

Tad Friend, writing a piece on car chases in Los Angeles for the New Yorker back in 2006, implied that the high-speed chase is, in effect, a proper and even more authentic use of the city’s many freeways than the, by comparison, embarrassingly impotent daily commute—that fleeing, illegally and often at lethal speeds, from the pursuing police while being broadcast live on local television is, well, it’s sort of what the city is for. After all, Friend writes, if you build “nine hundred miles of sinuous highway and twenty-one thousand miles of tangled surface streets” in one city alone, you’re going to find at least a few people who want to really put those streets to use. Indeed, Friend, like Rehder, seems to argue that a city gets the kinds of crime appropriate to its form—or, more actively, it gets the kinds of crime its fabric calls for.

Of course, there are many other factors that contribute to the high incidence of bank robbery in Los Angeles, not least of which is the fact that many banks, Rehder explains in his book, make the financial calculation of money stolen per year vs. annual salary of a full-time security guard—and they come out on the side of letting the money be stolen. The money, in economic terms, is not worth protecting.

Special Agent Cotton plays a minor role in Rehder’s account of bank crimes in Los Angeles, and through her I was able to meet Rehder to discuss his book, which offers an unexpected perspective on contemporary urbanism. Often overlooked or even deliberately dismissed by architects and urban planners, this view of the built environment is how FBI special agents, counterterrorism officials, and other local law enforcement officers see the city, how it looks to someone intent on preempting, solving, or otherwise detecting criminal activities.

In literature, of course, the detective is a well-known trope for a method of obsessively close attention to the details of the built environment—the detective story as applied urban hermeneutics—and this can be seen everywhere from Paul Auster and Alain Robbe-Grillet to whatever thriller is currently topping the airport bestseller list. But in the world of architecture and urban planning, it is altogether too rare that this particular, if fictionalized, point of view on how humans take advantage of the built environment as a spatial opportunity for crimes of various types is taken seriously as a critical perspective on urban form.

It is no less true that FBI special agents and other police officials tasked with solving burglaries also have their own version of this interpretive expertise—a body of spatial knowledge through which they hope to more thoroughly and accurately understand the city than do the criminals they are trying to track. They analyze a work of architecture, for instance, not for its aesthetics or history, but for its security flaws or ability to record evidence. This is spatial knowledge in at least one specific legal sense: burglary is an explicitly spatial crime, insofar as it requires the perpetrator to enter an architectural structure illegally, thus differentiating burglary from mere theft or robbery. Put another way, burglary requires architecture—with the effect that solving certain burglaries can often take on the feel of an architectural analysis. In this regard, Rehder’s memoir, though by no means theoretical, is a compelling example of what might happen if we were to ask an FBI agent what he or she thinks of the city, and how the design of the city itself might inspire—perhaps even require—certain crimes.

"Into the Abyss" by Werner Herzog

In his fascinating exploration of a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas, master filmmaker Werner Herzog probes the human psyche to explore why people kill-and why a state kills. In intimate conversations with those involved, including 28-year-old death row inmate Michael Perry (scheduled to die within eight days of appearing on-screen), Herzog achieves what he describes as “a gaze into the abyss of the human soul.” Herzog’s inquiries also extend to the families of the victims and perpetrators as well as a state executioner and pastor who’ve been with death row prisoners as they’ve taken their final breaths. As he’s so often done before, Herzog’s investigation unveils layers of humanity, making an enlightening trip out of ominous territory. — (C) Official Site

"Into the Abyss" by Werner Herzog

In his fascinating exploration of a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas, master filmmaker Werner Herzog probes the human psyche to explore why people kill-and why a state kills. In intimate conversations with those involved, including 28-year-old death row inmate Michael Perry (scheduled to die within eight days of appearing on-screen), Herzog achieves what he describes as “a gaze into the abyss of the human soul.” Herzog’s inquiries also extend to the families of the victims and perpetrators as well as a state executioner and pastor who’ve been with death row prisoners as they’ve taken their final breaths. As he’s so often done before, Herzog’s investigation unveils layers of humanity, making an enlightening trip out of ominous territory. — (C) Official Site

(Source: tarkovskian)

Link: The Case Against The Death Penalty For Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has only been in custody a few days, and at least two U.S. senators have already called for him to face the death penalty. It is difficult indeed to imagine a crime more deserving of society’s most severe sanction than the one allegedly committed by Tsarnaev and his brother. The brothers built bombs, targeted a public event packed with spectators, and, as a final cruelty, attacked the finish line of a marathon — guaranteeing that many of their victims would be too exhausted to flee after just completing a 26 mile run. One of their victims will not see his ninth birthday. Another victim, who they allegedly murdered during their failed effort to escape justice, had barely begun his career as a police officer. We still do not know what motivated the Tsarnaevs to such meaningless destruction, but it’s hard to see their actions as anything other than pure evil.

So Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may present one of the strongest possible cases for the death penalty. And yet, even in this case, the argument for pursuing a death sentence against Tsarnaev does not hold up.

The best argument for the death penalty is that it deters people from committing homicides in the first place, an argument that suggests we should execute far more people than just Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. If you think the death penalty is about deterrence, then you need to have it as an available option for all crimes you want to deter with it.

The deterrence argument, however, is doubtful at best. According to Dartmouth University statistician John Lamperti, “an overwhelming majority among America’s leading criminologists [have concluded that] that capital punishment does not contribute to lower rates of homicide.” While some studies do claim a deterrent effect, these studies are based on tiny data samples that yield doubtful results. As Yale Law Professor John Donohue explains, death sentences are “applied so rarely that the number of homicides it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot reliably be disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors.” Murder rates in states without the death penalty are consistently lower than those in states that do sentence people to die.

Meanwhile, few institutions expose the hazards inherent in government-mandated punishment more nakedly than the death penalty. Capital cases are difficult and incredibly expensive for prosecutors. As a consequence, the wealthy and privileged, who have the resources to hire outstanding legal counsel, are very rarely executed. The people that are convicted, by contrast, tend to be poor and disproportionately non-white. Nor is such arbitrariness limited to the way we distinguish among defendants, as the way we dole out death sentences also gives the lie to any claim that America values all human life equally. According to one study, defendants who kill high-status white people with college degrees are six times more likely to be sentenced to die than defendants who kill black victims closer to the margins of society.

Indeed, there is simply no escaping the role that race plays in determining death sentences. To take one demonstrative statistic from an ocean of them, six percent of murders in Alabama involved black defendants and white victims, but ten times that percentage of black death row inmates were convicted of murdering whites.

The death penalty also kills innocent people. Roughly 139 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, 61 percent of whom were people of color. At least ten innocent peoplethat we know of have been executed — and these are only the ones that we know of.

These three realities — the impact of wealth, the disparate treatment based on race, and the risk of killing innocents — are themselves reasons why the death penalty should not exist. But are they arguments against applying it, so long as it does exist, in the most heinous of cases? Though Tsarnaev may well face prejudice on the basis of his religion, the fact that this is such a high profile case means he will likely receive excellent legal counsel, and his guilt is hardly in doubt. Though not quite as “hard” a case for anti-death penalty advocates as, say, Aurora shooter James Holmes — who was white, wealthy, and also almost certainly a mass murderer — Tsarnaev is one of the cases where the death penalty appears most likely to be applied fairly and justly.

The Boston Marathon bombing is as horrible a crime as one can imagine, so Tsarnaev’s case raises the difficult question of whether America can limit executions to only the most heinous crimes — at least under circumstances where the defendant’s guilt isn’t in question and there’s no evidence that his trial will be conducted unfairly in any fashion. Can we limit death sentences only to people as evil as Tsarnaev appears to be?

The simplest answer to this question is that we are a nation of laws, and our most fundamental law says we cannot create a brutal, rarely applied punishment targeting just a handful of crimes. The Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishments. So as a punishment becomes more “unusual” — or, in the Supreme Court’s words, as it no longer can be squared with “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” — it stands on increasingly weaker constitutional ground.

Indeed, it is likely that the death penalty is already unconstitutional under this rule. The number of death sentences has been on the decline in the United States, but not principally because of legal reforms limiting the death penalty to a small number of cases: it’s a combination of full legal abolition in some jurisdictions and the spread of anti-death penalty norms among citizens and prosecutors in others. 60 percent of U.S. counties have stopped seeking the death penalty entirelyas a punishment for any crime. One study of death sentences and executions from 2004-2009 discovered that just 10 percent of counties returned a single death sentence, and only 1 percent of counties produced more than one death sentence. Just four states made up 65 percent of national new death penalty convictions. In 2011, there were an estimated 14,612 murders in the United States, but only 43 executions. These data strongly suggests that executions no longer comport with our “evolving standards of decency.” We are increasingly uncomfortable with death sentences, and unwilling to execute people.

But beyond the cold language of the law, there is a deeply personal reason why we should not preserve the death penalty simply for the most heinous criminals like Tsarnaev. If you think the death penalty is a just response to murder or important to provide victims’ families with closure, then trying to limit it to a small number of multiple murders makes no sense. Why does taking one life not merit death, while taking two, three, or any other arbitrary number does? Why is the pain of one victim’s family any less important to address than the pain of families whose loved one was part of a multiple murder? There are many families that deserve the satisfaction of knowing their loved one’s murderer received society’s stiffest sanction for their crime, and it’s far from clear that the death penalty fills that need better than life without parole — indeed, it may even prolong a families’ grief. Yet the moment we say one victim, or set of victims, must be avenged by death, we lose the ability to consistently limit the death penalty’s application to rare cases — and the uncertainty and arbitrariness that plagues capital sentencing generally comes flooding back. When life without parole is the harshest penalty our courts dole out, such a sentence will stamp everyone who receives it as among the very worst criminals without opening the door to an unjust and unconstitutional policy.

So the death penalty is arbitrary. It discriminates on the basis of race and income. It kills the innocent. It is unconstitutional. And it may even deepen the wounds of families already grieving from the most terrible tragedy imaginable.

Link: The Nightmare of the West Memphis Three

In May 1993, Jason Baldwin was a skinny redheaded teenager whose favorite activities were listening to Metallica records and fishing behind the trailer where he lived with his mother. His cat, Charlie, would sit beside him; whenever he caught a fish, he fed it to Charlie. Baldwin was sixteen that year, but he looked no older than twelve. In an interview filmed at the time he appears shy and quiet, with an awkward, insecure smile that reveals a snaggletooth. A baggy orange prison jumper hangs like a blouse over his matchstick frame. On the table in front of him are a half-eaten Snickers bar and a plastic bottle of Mello Yello. He turns to the camera.

“I didn’t kill those three little boys,” says the little boy.

This interview appears near the beginning of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, the first of three documentary films produced by HBO about the West Memphis Three saga [you can watch them for free here: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills / Paradise Lost 2: Revelations / Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory]—a twenty-year nightmare that has been the subject of a fourth documentary film, West of Memphis; half a dozen books; and tens of thousands of magazine, newspaper, and television features. When watched consecutively, the Paradise Lost films have an effect similar to that of Michael Apted’s Up films, which revisit the same group of Britons every seven years. In both series, we see the principal characters age, shed their youthful naiveté, and pass through stages of cynicism and grief, before ultimately accepting their fate.

While Apted’s films are remarkable for the way they make visible the passage of time, however, the Paradise Lost films record an artificially imposed stasis. The lives of Baldwin and his two friends, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr., froze the moment they were arrested for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. When at last they were set free in 2011 they were like children again; the world was entirely new to them.

In one of the final scenes in West of Memphis, Baldwin, who has grown tall and gaunt, is taken on the afternoon of his release to a Memphis hotel room. He stares in wonder at a room-service salad. “There’s cheese in there,” he says, baffled; he’s never had a salad with cheese in it. He fidgets with the handle of a new rolling suitcase; he’s never owned a suitcase before. His mother appears at the door; “Mom!” he screams, and he’s again the little boy with the Mello Yello and the half-eaten Snickers bar.

That little boy, despite his obvious terror, had been able to empathize with his accusers. “I can see where they might think I was in a cult,” he said, in that 1993 interview, “because I wear Metallica T-shirts.” The belief that the murders must have been committed by members of a cult was the foundation on which the prosecution built its case. It was, at the time, the most conceivable explanation for the extraordinarily grotesque details of the crime scene, where the bodies of the three boys, Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were found naked, bound, mutilated, and submerged in a shallow gulley.1

The gulley ran through Robin Hood Hills, a four-acre patch of forest that lay between Interstate Highway 55 and Holiday Garden, the working-class subdivision where the victims lived. Each of the four documentary films begins with the same ghoulish crime scene footage: the corpses, as white and rigid as child mannequins, lifted delicately by investigators from the water and laid on the muddy bank. The three boys had last been seen before sunset on the previous night, May 5, riding bikes near the entrance to Robin Hood Hills. At 8 PM, John Mark Byers, Christopher’s stepfather, called the police to report his son missing. The next afternoon a boy’s sneaker was spotted floating in the gulley. An officer waded into the muddy water to retrieve it and his shoe became wedged beneath what he thought was a log. When he stumbled backward, his foot dislodged a corpse, which floated to the surface.

The fact that the victims had been stripped naked, with their ankles tied to their wrists behind their backs, suggested a sexual aspect to the crime. This interpretation seemed to be confirmed by the most horrific detail of all: Christopher’s scrotum, and the skin of his penis, had been removed.

What kind of maniac would commit an act so diabolical? As early as May 6, rumors began to circulate in West Memphis that the culprit was, in fact, the devil himself, operating through a band of his worshipers. In one of the first public comments about the case, Chief Inspector Gary W. Gitchell of the West Memphis Police Department suggested that the murders were caused by “cult activity.” The department assigned the investigation a case number that ended with “666”—a coincidence, claimed Gitchell, though later reports suggested it was not.

As several weeks passed and no suspect was apprehended, rumors of Satanic involvement assumed greater urgency. These rumors were taken to be true by the victims’ parents, particularly John Mark Byers, a buffoonish, boorish, and ultimately pathetic figure who plays a starring role in the Paradise Lost films, often addressing the camera in the histrionic cadence of a Baptist preacher. In the first film he paces the crime scene while frothing about “Satanic worship services” and “wild homosexual orgies”; in the second film he returns to give the West Memphis Three a symbolic burial, after which he lights their graves on fire. Todd Moore, Michael’s father, expresses the same sentiment, albeit in a less histrionic fashion. “I’m all for burning them at the stake, just like they did in Salem,” he says, perhaps unaware that the women executed at Salem did not, in fact, turn out to be witches.

Investigators asked Jerry Driver, a local juvenile officer and self-described “guru” of the occult, to compile a list of local kids involved in cult-related activities. At the top of Driver’s list was Damien Echols, an eighteen-year-old high school dropout who had been hospitalized for depression. Police interviewed boys who were known to be friends with Echols. One of these, a young man named Jessie Misskelley Jr., confessed to the crime, naming Echols the ringleader and Baldwin an accomplice. Investigators were relieved. When Jason Baldwin’s mother protested that he was innocent, an officer told her, “We’ve got a story that is very, very believable. It is so close to perfect that we have to believe it.” Belief always trumped logic in the prosecution of the case.

Link: The Throwaways: Pawns in the War on Drugs

Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.

On the evening of May 7, 2008, a twenty-three-year-old woman named Rachel Hoffman got into her silver Volvo sedan, put on calming jam-band music, and headed north to a public park in Tallahassee, Florida. A recent graduate of Florida State, she was dressed to blend into a crowd—bluejeans, green-and-white patterned T-shirt, black Reef flip-flops. On the passenger seat beside her was a handbag that contained thirteen thousand dollars in marked bills.

Before she reached the Georgia-peach stands and Tupelo-honey venders on North Meridian Road, she texted her boyfriend. “I just got wired up,” she wrote at 6:34 P.M. “Wish me luck I’m on my way.”

“Good luck babe!” he replied. “Call me and let me know what’s up.”

“It’s about to go down,” she texted back.

Behind the park’s oaks and blooming crape myrtles, the sun was beginning to set. Young mothers were pushing strollers near the baseball diamonds; kids were running amok on the playground. As Hoffman spoke on her iPhone to the man she was on her way to meet, her voice was filtered through a wire that was hidden in her purse. “I’m pulling into the park with the tennis courts now,” she said, sounding casual.

Perhaps what put her at ease was the knowledge that nineteen law-enforcement agents were tracking her every move, and that a Drug Enforcement Administration surveillance plane was circling overhead. In any case, Rachel Hoffman, a tall, wide-eyed redhead, was by nature laid-back and trusting. She was not a trained narcotics operative. On her Facebook page you could see her dancing at music festivals with a big, goofy smile, and the faux profile she’d made for her cat (“Favorite music: cat stevens, straycat blues, pussycat dolls”).

A few weeks earlier, police officers had arrived at her apartment after someone complained about the smell of marijuana and voiced suspicion that she was selling drugs. When they asked if she had any illegal substances inside, Hoffman said yes and allowed them in to search. The cops seized slightly more than five ounces of pot and several Ecstasy and Valium pills, tucked beneath the cushions of her couch. Hoffman could face serious prison time for felony charges, including “possession of cannabis with intent to sell” and “maintaining a drug house.” The officer in charge, a sandy-haired vice cop named Ryan Pender, told her that she might be able to help herself if she provided “substantial assistance” to the city’s narcotics team. She believed that any charges against her could be reduced, or even dropped.

Hoffman’s legal worries were augmented by the fact that this wasn’t her first drug offense. A year earlier, while she was a senior, police pulled her over for speeding and found almost an ounce of marijuana in her car. She was ordered into a substance-abuse program, which required regular drug testing. Later, after failing to report for a test, she spent three days in jail.

Hoffman chose to coöperate. She had never fired a gun or handled a significant stash of hard drugs. Now she was on her way to conduct a major undercover deal for the Tallahassee Police Department, meeting two convicted felons alone in her car to buy two and a half ounces of cocaine, fifteen hundred Ecstasy pills, and a semi-automatic handgun.

The operation did not go as intended. By the end of the hour, police lost track of her and her car. Late that night, they arrived at her boyfriend’s town house and asked him if Hoffman was inside. They wanted to know if she might have run off with the money. Her boyfriend didn’t know where she was.

“She was with us,” he recalled an officer saying. “Until shit got crazy.”

Two days after Hoffman disappeared, her body was found in Perry, Florida, a small town some fifty miles southeast of Tallahassee, in a ravine overgrown with tangled vines. Draped in an improvised shroud made from her Grateful Dead sweatshirt and an orange-and-purple sleeping bag, Hoffman had been shot five times in the chest and head with the gun that the police had sent her to buy.

By the evening of her death, Rachel Hoffman had been working for the police department for almost three weeks. In bureaucratic terms, she was Confidential Informant No. 1129, or C.I. Hoffman. In legal parlance, she was a “coöperator,” one of thousands of people who, each year, help the police build cases against others, often in exchange for a promise of leniency in the criminal-justice system.

Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman’s. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained C.I.s provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.

“They can get us into the places we can’t go,” says Brian Sallee, a police officer who is the president of B.B.S. Narcotics Enforcement Training and Consulting, a firm that instructs officers around the country in drug-bust procedures. “Without them, narcotics operations would practically cease to function.”

Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, occasionally as young as fourteen or fifteen. Some operate through the haze of addiction; others, like Hoffman, are enrolled in state-mandated treatment programs that prohibit their association with illegal drugs of any kind. Many have been given false assurances by the police, used without regard for their safety, and treated as disposable pawns of the criminal-justice system.

The recruitment of young informants often involves risks that are incommensurate with the charges that they are facing. And the costs of coöperating can be high. A case that has dragged on for years in the courts involved LeBron Gaither, a sixteen-year-old student at a public high school in Lebanon, Kentucky. One afternoon, Gaither, who, according to his family, was generally mild-mannered, had an outburst in which he punched the school’s assistant principal in the jaw. He was taken into custody for juvenile assault. An officer from the Kentucky State Police came to see him, and told him that he could face a prison term or he could agree to become a local drug informant.

Link: Serial Killers in China

“China has a serial killer problem.”

Yang Shubin looked the part: fat and rich. At nightclubs, he would say he ran a power station and buy expensive drinks. Women quickly swarmed around the flashy businessman who offered double the regular price for an evening’s company and would sometimes even bring gifts. When the long nights drew to an end, Yang had no trouble persuading a girl to leave with him.

They probably thought themselves fortunate to land such a generous customer. After all, becoming mistress to a wealthy businessman is the ultimate career move for a karaoke girl in China. On returning to his apartment, therefore, they would have been surprised to find a woman already at the home: 20-year old Ji Hongzhie, Yang’s girlfriend — and partner-in-crime.

With the help of a pair of childhood friends from Heilongjiang, Wu Hongye and Zhang Yulian, they would tie the woman to a chair, then beat her with sticks and iron bars, demanding bank details. Yang liked to slap their bare flesh with a spatula while his girlfriend needled their breasts, arms and legs. Later, after withdrawing the cash — the amounts ranging from 60,000 to 500,000 yuan — they would force some victims to call their colleagues to persuade them to come over to the trap.

The bodies would later be chopped up, boiled and fed through a meat-mincing machine. Large bones would be crushed up with clamps, and added to the meaty paste which the gang would dump in drains or trash cans outside hotels and restaurants. Between 1998 and 2004, they made about 2 million yuan this way but, despite staying on the move, decamping from Shenzhen to Zhejiang, there were worries about getting caught.

In Guangzhou in 2001, one pair of sisters, kept captive for 13 days, spotted axes, saws, tape and garbage bags through a doorway. Realizing the TV had been on the same channel for hours — suggesting the apartment was empty — the two struggled loose and escaped. One had been so brutally tortured she needed breast implants.

After barely evading capture on that occasion, the gang’s luck was running out. The following year, in the northern city of Jilin, a resident of an apartment complex investigating a blocked pipe found mangled body parts. Arrest warrants were issued but all four of the gang members escaped on September 11, 2002 — then vanished. For nearly a decade, it seemed as if they had gotten away with murder, slipping into China’s migrant population without even a trail of public outrage or scrutiny.

But Harbin policeman Xu Jianguo did not forget. Having grown up in the same neighborhood as both the head gang members, Yang and Wu, Xu had a personal interest in seeing the case through to the end. And in 2007, the Harbin Public Security Bureau learned it had gotten hot again: Yang’s family was reported to have moved abruptly, en masse, whereabouts unknown. An intensive investigation eventually led Xu, now with his own dedicated task force, to Baotou in Inner Mongolia, and the busy family home of one Wang Xuekai. Wang shared his quarters with 11 others, including brother Wang Xueli, Xueli’s girlfriend Ma Haiyan and Wangxue Guo — all, it was to emerge, expertly forged identities. On November 3, 2011, an armed team raided the property and arrested the gang of four; a month later, with the world focused on a peasant uprising in Wukan, their capture was publicly announced.

Almost ten years after their last victims — two prostitutes robbed of 160,000 yuan — were found stuffed down a drain, Yang Shubin’s kill team were discovered playing happy families, running a successful foot massage parlour and billiard room. The Harbin police view the case as both a major success — and an unprecedented case in recent history.

But the case is not unprecedented.

“China has a serial killer problem,” Beijing criminologist Professor Peng Weimin (a pseudonym at his request) told me over a two-hour dinner of dumplings in Beijing. Sipping from his beer, small flecks of grey in his donnish black hair, Peng reeled off a series of anecdotes concerning various killers from the past. He knew the details of some cases, but often he was able to offer just outlines: prostitutes that washed up on a river bank in Shenzhen, tales from a north-eastern city where dozens of schoolchildren never came home.

Some of the serial killers whose crimes have been documented in the Chinese media and academic journals include the below (note that some of these are taken from yeshi (野史- unverified popular histories).

Tu Guiwu, a loan shark who stabbed and dismembered eight in Chengdu;
Chen Yongfeng, sentenced to death at the age of just 20 for murdering 10 people and throwing their body parts in a river over three months in 2003;
Li Zhanguo, a multiple sodomist who killed at least 11 between 1991 and 1995, exclusively targeting male villagers with severe learning difficulties;
Wu Jianchen, another serial rapist from Hebei responsible for 15 murders in 1993;
Huang Yong, a pederast who killed either 17 or 25 teenage boys between 2001 and 2003;
Chen Zhengping, arrested in Henan in 2002 for the deaths of at least 42, including children, after lacing rice balls at a rival snack bar with rat poison;
Peng Maiji, who used a meat cleaver to murder 77 in Shanxi, Jiangsu, Anhui and Henan, executed in 2000;
Wang Qiang, executed in 2003 for the murders of 45;
Li Shangxi, Yang Mingjin and Li Shangkuan, a Guanxi trio who committed 26 murders together between 1981 and 1989;
Yang Xinhai, the “Monster Killer” perhaps the most famous Chinese serial killer and mass murderer.

Link: Rough Justice

Locking up offenders does little to prevent crime or make us safer. The history behind our impulse to punish.

… In the ’70s, Ted Bundy raped and murdered at least thirty women, sometimes defiling their corpses. A decade later, Jeffrey Dahmer raped, murdered, and, in some instances, cannibalized seventeen young men and boys, many of whom he lured back to his Milwaukee, Wisconsin, apartment from gay bars. Around the same time, Paul Bernardo committed countless rapes and sexual assaults in southern Ontario, and then, with his wife, Karla Homolka, kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered three women, including Homolka’s younger sister. In 2009 and 2010, Russell Williams, the commander of the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ontario, sexually assaulted and murdered two women. And in the summer of 2011, Anders Breivik bombed a government building in Oslo, killing eight people, and later gunned down sixty-nine others at a Labour Party youth camp.

These extreme cases constitute a vanishing fraction of even the worst violent crimes, but they form a model of absolute, uncomplicated evil against which lesser infractions are measured: this is crime in its pure state. We naturally view these stories through the lens of the victims, identifying with their suffering and the grief of their families and friends; we look upon the perpetrators as incomprehensible aliens. The only satisfying outcome is swift, decisive punishment. In such instances, punishment is an attempt to erase the blight of evil, to heal a grievous social wound, and for that to happen the punishment must fit the crime.

At its most basic, punishment is hard to distinguish from revenge, and the impulse for retaliation is no doubt hard-wired. Studies have shown that card players will give up benefits to themselves, such as a winning hand, to expose and penalize cheaters: punishment, in the short run, trumps even self-interest. Psychologists who use game theory to study the evolution of co-operation have found that the threat of swift retaliation against those who engage in uncooperative behaviour is crucial to establishing stable, productive communities; we have a collective stake in the assurance that those who profit at our expense will pay a steep price. The idea of community, it seems—one of Homo sapiens’ chief advantages in the competition for scarce resources—emerged under the dark shadow of punishment.

Nonetheless, retaliation has no intrinsic moral legitimacy, and since it involves hurting another person, the victim might well perceive him- or herself as harmed and retaliate in kind, creating an open-ended cycle of tit-for-tat blood feuds, waged throughout history and still common in such places as rural Albania. For punishment to be something greater than mere retaliation, it must have a deeper grounding, and that is just what early Babylonian law and the Hebrew Bible endeavoured to teach.

A well-known passage in Leviticus reads, “And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast. And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him. Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” It ends with the refrain “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country; for I am the Lord your God.” This passage (and others like it) is remarkable in a number of ways. First, it implies the existence of a specific punishment that mirrors the crime; and, more important, it insists that everyone, everywhere, be subject to the same standard. The Hebrew Bible rejects personal or tribal justice, instead asserting retributive justice and the supremacy of the rule of law in its strictest form.

The trouble with retributive justice is that a literal reading of the “eye for an eye” passage leads to morbidly comical conclusions and boundless forms of cruelty. In many situations, it is not even clear what an appropriate equivalent means: one rabbi noted that if a blind man puts out someone’s eyes, it is impossible to blind him in return. In the case of extreme crimes, such as Bernardo’s or Breivik’s, or horrors as immense as the Holocaust, no punishment could compensate for the victims’ suffering. Jesus’ direction “Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” is not so much a criticism of the rabbinical courts of the Second Temple period, which were notably humane (crucifixion was a Roman practice, and capital punishment was used sparingly under the Pharisees). Rather, it was a way of pointing out that retributive justice can devolve into vengefulness as destructive as the crime itself.

The story of punishment from the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century is one of shocking brutality and bewildering arbitrariness. Regicides, parricides, ordinary murderers, homosexuals, heretics, and witches were broken on the wheel, disembowelled, ripped open with red-hot pincers, burned, and drawn and quartered; even teenage pickpockets were put to death. By the late eighteenth century, however, what French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault describes in his seminal 1975 book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, as “the gloomy festival of punishment” was ceding to a model oriented toward determining the impact of crime on society and the need for deterrence. This shift was due in large measure to a little book by an otherwise obscure Italian jurist and philosopher named Cesare Beccaria.

“Observe that by justice I understand nothing more than that bond which is necessary to keep the interest of individuals united, without which men would return to their original state of barbarity,” Beccaria wrote in 1764, in On Crimes and Punishments. “All punishments which exceed the necessity of preserving this bond are in their nature unjust.” He shifts the question from the criminal act to its effect on the community where it was carried out. Therefore, the purpose and justification of punishment is not to satisfy the victim or eradicate evil, but to repair the damage caused to society and prevent future crimes—and to do so without causing further harm. “There should be a proportion of punishment to crimes based on the degree to which the crimes affect society,” he writes. “Crimes are only to be measured by the injury done to society.”

Alas, it is difficult to quantify this, and even if one could, the punishment might well fall shy of the weight assigned to the crime by the victim. Think of the virulent outcry that accompanies the release from prison of convicted rapists and pedophiles. Beccaria’s notion of punishment ends up facing the same conundrum that both Jesus and the rabbis of the Talmud identified: how does one assign a value to a crime? A rape, for instance, may well affect the victim for the rest of her life, and such traumas end up being transmitted across generations. Furthermore, it is near-impossible to assess the real deterrent value of a punishment; criminals are not in the habit of maximizing the marginal utility of their actions. In any case, the sources of crime are complicated and myriad: childhood trauma, chronic poverty, addiction, and psychiatric conditions among them. The two major theories of punishment—retributive, and the one proposed by Beccaria and refined over the past 250 years—suffer from similar faults: vagueness and arbitrariness. And that is before we attempt to translate a theory of punishment into a criminal justice system for a twenty-first-century Western democracy.

The concept of punishment that operates in the criminal justice systems in Canada and the US is a hodgepodge of the retributive and the deterrent. The death penalty and multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole are clearly retributive; custodial sentences for the possession of drugs are seemingly meant to be deterrent. This is why the punishments meted out can seem random: people who are no risk to anyone end up in prison, where the deterrent effect is negligible, and where the punishment appears out of proportion with the crime. Why should anyone do jail time for growing marijuana? Odder still, in Canada judges issue longer sentences to people who grow pot in rented apartments than to those who do so in their own homes—an apparent incentive for home ownership.

The mandatory sentences popular in the US and their increasing prevalence in Canada further widens the gulf between crime and punishment. Meanwhile, more families are broken up and more neighbourhoods ravaged, and more inmates are released after substantial sentences without the necessary skills or resources to reintegrate into society. This undermines whatever deterrent value the punishment was intended to have in the first place. The accepted wisdom is that criminals deserve punishment, but what does that mean, and does it solve anything? Indeed, at this point, it is not even obvious what punishment is supposed to be.

Link: Aaron Swartz's "Crime" and the Business of Breaking the Law

…. In the past couple of months, there’s been reporting on a pair of crimes in the business world so flagrant as to literally take the breath away. The first of these wasn’t actually that widely reported on — in fact, I only know about it because a friend in the healthcare industry sent along an article on it. It’s a long read, but it’s worth taking the time to do so. It details how a medical device company decided to bypass FDA clinical trials and use bone cement in the spines of humans. Given that the cement wasn’t properly tested, it should come as no big surprise that a number of people died as a result. In sentencing the executives responsible for what happened, the judge described how “what has occurred in this case, in terms of wrongfulness — it’s 11 on a scale of 10.” In fact, the judge, for “the first time in his 25-year career… sentenced someone above the federal guidelines.”

That executive, for his role in what happened, received nine months in jail. (The federal guidelines actually suggested six months for this type of offence, which was not even a felony, but a misdemeanor). One of his fellow executives received a lesser sentence of five months.

And then there’s a case that was much harder to miss: that of HSBC, and their foray into the world of money laundering for drug cartels:

Despite the fact that HSBC admitted to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels (among others) and violating a host of important banking laws (from the Bank Secrecy Act to the Trading With the Enemy Act), Breuer and his Justice Department elected not to pursue criminal prosecutions of the bank, opting instead for a “record” financial settlement of $1.9 billion, which as one analyst noted is about five weeks of income for the bank.

Lay those two cases down beside that of a 26-year old kid who did the online equivalent of checking out too many books out of the library. For doing that, Aaron Swartz was initially charged with four felonies. The prosecutors in the Synthes case agreed to charge the executives only with one misdemeanor each. In the instance of HSBC, they used their discretion to avoid pursuing criminal charges altogether. In Swartz’s case, the government decided to use that same discretion to bolster its initial four felony charges with a further nine — hence the possibility of over three decades of jail time and a $1M fine. Now, Aaron had only been charged — if justice had prevailed, it could have all been thrown out in court — but even in that circumstance, he would have still been roughly $1.5 million out of pocket just defending himself. Those HSBC executives never even got to that point.

I actually had the opportunity to talk with Aaron online a few weeks ago; partly as a result of an article that I wrote for HBR about corruption and its effect on innovation. Looking at the three cases above, I can’t help but see similar symptoms seeping into the justice system. I simply don’t know how else to explain the huge disparity in how justice was sought in these very different cases — other than regulatory capture. It seems you can get away with laundering money for the drug cartels, so long as you’ve been generous with the those responsible for appointing district attorneys; or better yet, if your industry has paid to undo all the regulation that prevents you from getting too big to fail. Similarly, when your lobby has been helping Congress draft the laws that govern food, drugs, and cosmetics, you can make sure that the federal sentencing guidelines are only six months should you breach the responsible corporate officer doctrine. This in turn means you can inject unsafe cement into people’s spines with relative impunity (apparently, those in the healthcare industry were actually surprised when the officers were sentenced to jail, even if it was for only a few months. One of the convicted executives went so far as to ask the judge to delay the beginning of his sentence until after the holidays). But woe betide you if, in the name of openness and sharing human knowledge, you decide to download academic journals. Because that sounds a lot like piracy — and we all know how much has been spent to stamp that scourge out.

Link: Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society

It is late in the afternoon in Montgomery. The banks of the Alabama River are largely deserted. Bryan Stevenson and I walk slowly up the cobblestones from the expanse of the river into the city. We pass through a small, gloomy tunnel beneath some railway tracks, climb a slight incline and stand at the head of Commerce Street, which runs into the heart of Alabama’s capital. The walk was one of the most notorious in the antebellum South.

“This street was the most active slave-trading space in America for almost a decade,” Stevenson says. Four slave depots stood nearby. “They would bring people off the boat. They would parade them up the street in chains. White plantation owners and local slave traders would get on the sidewalks. They’d watch them as they went up the street. Then they would follow behind up to the circle. And that is when they would have their slave auctions.

“Anybody they didn’t sell that day they would keep in these slave depots,” he continues.

We walk past a monument to the Confederate flag as we retrace the steps taken by tens of thousands of slaves who were chained together in coffles. The coffles could include 100 or more men, women and children, all herded by traders who carried guns and whips. Once they reached Court Square, the slaves were sold. We stand in the square. A bronze fountain with a statue of the Goddess of Liberty spews jets of water in the plaza.

“Montgomery was notorious for not having rules that required slave traders to prove that the person had been formally enslaved,” Stevenson says. “You could kidnap free black people, bring them to Montgomery and sell them. They also did not have rules that restricted the purchasing of partial families.”

We fall silent. It was here in this square—a square adorned with a historical marker celebrating the presence in Montgomery of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy—that men and women fell to their knees weeping and beseeched slave-holders not to separate them from their husbands, wives or children. It was here that girls and boys screamed as their fathers or mothers were taken from them.

“This whole street is rich with this history,” he says. “But nobody wants to talk about this slavery stuff. Nobody.” He wants to start a campaign to erect monuments to that history, on the sites of lynchings, slave auctions and slave depots. “When we start talking about it, people will be outraged. They will be provoked. They will be angry.”

Stevenson expects anger because he wants to discuss the explosive rise in inmate populations, the disproportionate use of the death penalty against people of color and the use of life sentences against minors as part of a continuum running through the South’s ugly history of racial inequality, from slavery to Jim Crow to lynching.

Equating the enslavement of innocents with the imprisonment of convicted criminals is apt to be widely resisted, but he sees it as a natural progression of his work. Over the past quarter-century, Stevenson has become perhaps the most important advocate for death-row inmates in the United States. But this year, his work on behalf of incarcerated minors thrust him into the spotlight. Marshaling scientific and criminological data, he has argued for a new understanding of adolescents and culpability. His efforts culminated this past June in a Supreme Court ruling effectively barring mandatory life sentences without parole for minors. As a result, approximately 2,000 such cases in the United States may be reviewed.

Stevenson’s effort began with detailed research: Among more than 2,000 juveniles (age 17 or younger) who had been sentenced to life in prison without parole, he and staff members at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the nonprofit law firm he established in 1989, documented 73 involving defendants as young as 13 and 14. Children of color, he found, tended to be sentenced more harshly.

“The data made clear that the criminal justice system was not protecting children, as is done in every other area of the law,” he says. So he began developing legal arguments “that these condemned children were still children.”

Stevenson first made those arguments before the Supreme Court in 2009, in a case involving a 13-year-old who had been convicted in Florida of sexual battery and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The court declined to rule in that case—but upheld Stevenson’s reasoning in a similar case it had heard the same day, Graham v. Florida, ruling that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for crimes other than murder violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Last June, in two cases brought by Stevenson, the court erased the exception for murder. Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs centered on defendants who were 14 when they were arrested. Evan Miller, from Alabama, used drugs and alcohol late into the night with his 52-year-old neighbor before beating him with a baseball bat in 2003 and setting his residence on fire. Kuntrell Jackson, from Arkansas, took part in a 1999 video-store robbery with two older boys, one of whom shot the clerk to death.

The states argued that children and adults are not so different that a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole is inappropriate.

Stevenson’s approach was to argue that other areas of the law already recognized significant differences, noting that children’s brains and adults’ are physiologically distinct. This, he said, is why children are barred from buying alcohol, serving on juries or voting. He argued that the horrific abuse and neglect that drove many of these children to commit crimes were beyond their control. He said science, precedent and consensus among the majority of states confirmed that condemning a child to die in prison, without ever having a chance to prove that he or she had been rehabilitated, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. “It could be argued that every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” he told the court. “But what this court has said is that children are uniquely more than their worst act.”

The court agreed, 5 to 4, in a landmark decision.

“If ever a pathological background might have contributed to a 14-year-old’s commission of a crime, it is here,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, author of the court’s opinion in Miller. “Miller’s stepfather abused him; his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother neglected him; he had been in and out of foster care as a result; and he had tried to kill himself four times, the first when he should have been in kindergarten.” Children “are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing,” she added, because “juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”

Link: Letters from an Arsonist

Thomas Sweatt torched Washington for decades. He killed more people than we thought.

About a year and a half ago, I sent a letter to Sweatt at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. I told him that I was a reporter who had written about his fires in early 2004, when he was still at large, and that I wanted to learn about his life as a firesetter. A few days later I received a brief, cordial note, in careful handwriting, that began, I was pleased to get your letter and hope this could be the beginning of something good. Apparently adjusted to his new confines, he signed it, Inmate “Tom,” #38792037.

Sweatt and I went on to trade letters for more than a year, often on a daily basis. He wrote thoughtfully about his large, supportive family and his faith in God, each note filled with the same soft-spoken kindness he’d shown to co-workers as well as to the agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) who’d captured him. Still, as much as he loved small talk, nothing brought out Sweatt’s storytelling skills quite like the tale of an old fire.

I kept up with all the news reports about my fires + others that they did not know about; I have a “diary of fires” that I put away elsewhere, for; I knew someday the ATF would ask for it. I still believe in my mind that the Lord God Almighty brought them (the ATF) people to me because it was time for all this to stop. 30 years of fires—it was like Come get me, I’m tired. Jail cant be any worst than the life I had then and believe it or not life is pretty much the same, it just I’m not free to go wherever I want to.

The investigators who debriefed Sweatt after his arrest were floored by his recall of years-old blazes, which almost invariably squared with official reports and witness accounts. Indeed, the fire accounts in Sweatt’s letters could run on for pages in detail, until they ended abruptly with something like, OK, my thoughts are running wild again so I’ll stop here. Each fire had been important to him, and telling its story was one way for him to relive its excitement.

As he wrote more, he started to discuss his motives and share with me, as he put it, the mind of an arsonist. In his letters, Sweatt confessed to a number of fires for which he has never been held accountable, including the one that killed Duncan. (Under Sweatt’s proffer with the government, investigators have been gagged from publicly discussing Sweatt’s motives or certain fires he may have admitted to during questioning. Anything dealing with motive in this story comes directly from Sweatt’s letters.)

For Sweatt, different fires grew out of different feelings—many out of a sense of powerlessness, others out of spite, some even out of love—but more than anything else, his decades-long rampage was about sexual fantasy:

Why did I set the fires when I set them? That’s an all too familiar question that can not be understood if you don’t know the story. There were different reasons for most of the fires. It could be because of one feeling the need to have power about something or someone….I don’t want you driving that car so the fire becomes a weapon to destroy it. Or in case of some house fires—I might like a particular style of a house and wish one day to own it (but it’s only a dream). Fire is a tool to destroy and some house fires also becomes my phantasy of people scrambling to exit windows and sort-of feel like they need my help so I stay and watch. Then I’d masterbate over the fire while driving away from the schene.

Link: Sandusky Will Die In Prison, And We Talked To A Pedophilia Expert

A judge in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania sentenced Jerry Sandusky to 30 to 60 years behind bars today. “The crime is not only what you did to their bodies,” Judge John Cleland said of the ten boys who the 68-year-old former Penn State assistant football coach sexually molested, “but to their psyches and their souls, and the assault to the wellbeing of the larger community in which we all live.”

Truly, the Sandusky case has exposed just how fixated, morally disgusted, and yet befuddled we are by pedophilia as a society. Horace Mann, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, now Sandusky… it keeps coming up. But what’s behind it? For cultural and political reasons, pedophilia remains a poorly understood phenomenon. Few have decided to study it in earnest.

Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist who runs a clinic out of Johns Hopkins University, is one of them.  

Berlin has counseled pedophilic men for over 30 years. In that time, he has come to view pedophilia as a kind of innate sexual orientation, not unlike homosexuality or heterosexuality, but fundamentally different in that it must never be acted upon. I met with Berlin in his Baltimore office, where we talked about the problem of men who love boys, and how society doesn’t get it.

Do we do ourselves a disservice when we call people like Jerry Sandusky monsters? Are they monsters, or just sick? Should they be taken to a mental hospital, or to prison?

I’d look at this as being similar to alcoholism. We have to have a criminal justice component; we have to have laws against drunk driving. But nobody would think we could solve the problems associated with alcoholism simply by putting every drunk driver on a registry or handing out stiffer sentences. We need research. We need a criminal justice and a public health approach. Having said this, I don’t think society gets it. I think society has the sense that we can legislate or punish this problem away. And to the extent that we’re not concentrating on the public health side of it—that we’re not helping people deal with these urges before they act—I believe as a physician that we’re doing ourselves a tremendous disservice, not only to the children who are abused, but to the men who have these conditions.

You consider pedophilia to be a sexual orientation. Could you explain that? 

What we know is that we don’t decide who it is that we’re going to be attracted to. When we were little kids we didn’t sit down and say, “Look, we’ve got choices.” We discover who we’re attracted to, and people who discover they’re attracted to prepubescent children have that attraction through no fault of their own. If you didn’t make a value judgment—and I think we should—but if you’re just looking at it in terms of the fact that people differ from one another sexually, it’s just a difference. Now having said that, I think that we do have a right and should be making value judgments. As a psychiatrist, I don’t want my profession or the government involved in the bedrooms of consenting adults, but I do believe that we have an obligation as a society and as a medical profession to protect children.

So where does that leave the people with pedophilia?

I feel sad for the people with pedophilia because what we’re saying to them is that, unlike the rest of us, you can’t express your sexual attractions. But we need to help these people understand why they can’t. Children are not miniature adults. They don’t vote, they can’t buy alcohol, they don’t drive cars, and they don’t have the degree of maturation that would enable them to be in a situation where they can meaningfully consent or not consent.

What kind of feelings do they have for children?

There’s a tremendous spectrum. There are people who are attracted to children who are not simply lusting for them. They have feelings of affection, even of romance. I mean, intellectually they know they shouldn’t be feeling this way about a child, but the fact of the matter is that they do. And then there are others who may just be wanting sex for sex’s sake.

What are they like as people? 

It’s important to understand that knowing something about a person’s sexual attractions tells you nothing about their personality. You don’t know if they’re kind or caring, conscientious or not conscientious. I think most people when we use the term pedophilia assume that the person must be characterologically flawed. That they don’t have any redeeming qualities. That’s absolutely not true. They may be fundamentally decent people. The problem is that most of society has a very hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that someone who experiences these attractions or gives into them could be a human being deserving of assistance. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why we don’t reach out and try to help these people before they’ve acted, because we don’t think they’re deserving.

We are living in the era of premeditation and the perfect crime. Our criminals are no longer helpless children who could plead love as their excuse. On the contrary, they are adults and the have the perfect alibi: philosophy, which can be used for any purpose—even for transforming murderers into judges.
— Albert Camus, The Rebel


Like you, all my understanding of the mafia comes from what I see in movies. And while I know The Godfather can seduce with all that suiting and moral sweep, it’s basically costume drama for dudes. Most modern portrayals of organized crime have presented mobsters as a group of horribly dressed sociopaths, and rightfully so. I’ve never expected those concerned with the moral life to make a career of creatively goring people with ice picks. But photographer Anton Kusters says that, where the yakuza are concerned, some of those creaky tropes about loyalty and honor are true. Having spent two years documenting the life of a Tokyo yakuza gang, he was given unprecedented access to a criminal underworld steeped in ritual, nuance, and exploitation.

How did this project begin?  Had you always been interested in the yakuza?
Actually it began with me trying to find a way to spend more time with my brother, who lives in Tokyo working in marketing.  We were out having a beer one night with some friends, discussing how to do this, when suddenly this Yakuza came in.  He was very sharply dressed, in a tailored suit, and had this presence about him.  He greeted everyone, spoke to the bar’s owner, Taka-san, and left. So it just seemed like a cool idea.  My brother knew Taka-san well enough to ask him to be our fixer with the gang.

Was it easy getting their permission?
After Taka-san introduced me, he told me I was on my own.  So I had to really fend for myself trying to convince the gang to let me photograph them.  It took a little while.  At first they thought I might be doing this for a paper, so I had told them it was not journalistically inspired, but an art project that would lead to a book and an exhibition. They quite liked the idea of an art project.  They view what they do as part of a way of life rather than the sum of their actions, and liked talking about the subculture—it’s values and everything.  They turned out to be very encouraging.  They enjoyed the attention.

What was it like in the beginning?
I was extremely nervous.  Since they are gangsters, I thought I should be very careful, in case I shot something I wasn’t supposed to see.  But this actually upset the gang.  They saw my nervousness as disrespectful.  I remember one time early on this guy pulled me aside and said, “You are here to take pictures.   Act like a professional.”  It turned out they respected me if I was really aggressive about getting a certain shot.  To not take photos was a sign of weakness.

So what was that subculture like?  What kind of values did they have?
The values were almost comparable to general Japanese workplace values, actually.  Most yakuza gangs actually have neighborhood offices, and the plaques they have on the door state core values like “respect your superiors,” “keep the office clean,” and so on. One thing I noticed early on with gang life was how subtle everything was.  Everything was unspoken, and will was expressed through group pressure.  A pressure was constantly there.  There was this innate understanding of form—if someone did something wrong, no one would say anything; he would simply be expected to apologize.  And the fact everyone would be so silent about it made the pressure really intense.

If a member was made to apologize, would he have to cut off a piece of his finger or anything?
No.  There were of course men who had had yubitsume [an atonement ritual where offenders are forced to sever a piece of their fingers], and it would still happen, but only every few years or so. The gang really went out of their way to minimize violence.  Part of what I noticed about the Yakuza was that they felt as if they were almost “part” of society, like society wasn’t society without a criminal element, but this also made them very conscious of their role within society.  Like I said, they have a pretty visible profile in Japan, so all the bosses are very careful not to stand out or draw attention.  This also obviously makes them much harder to prosecute. If someone made a transgression, the most common punishment was demotion.  And it was taken seriously.  If someone was demoted it was really seen as shameful since the yakuza are so hierarchical.  They could leverage social form that way.