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Holmes Asked About ‘Dysphoric Mania’

Holmes Asked About ‘Dysphoric Mania’ RJ Sangosti, Pool / AP Photo

In text message to a classmate.

Alleged Aurora, Colo., shooter James Holmes sent a text message to a classmate in July asking about “dysphoric mania”—then told her to stay away because he was “bad news.” Whether the question was driven by curiosity, self-diagnosis, or a doctor is unknown, but in a profile in The New York Times, the shape of a young man who grappled with loneliness long before the shooting at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises comes into focus. Known by classmates for his occasional oddball sense of humor and profound shyness, Holmes mostly kept to himself, seemingly receding from the world until the time of the shooting. In court filings, prosecutors said recently that Holmes told a fellow student that he wanted to kill people “when his life was over.”

Read it at The New York Times

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Sniff, Sniff

Preppy Drug Bust High on Hype

They’re the WASPy Walter Whites of the Philadelphia elite, if you listen to the District Attorney. But a look at the government’s case reveals a very different story.

The house at 560 Barrett Ave. in the bedroom community of Haverford, Pennsylvania, doesn’t fit the profile of a drug lord’s den. Situated on a quiet tree-lined block just a stone’s throw from the storied rail line that has linked the affluent towns west of Philadelphia since the 19th century, the tiny duplex is more King of Queens than King of New York.

USA-PENNSYLVANIA/DRUGS

Handout/ Reuters

But to hear local law enforcement officials tell it, it was the epicenter of one of the most audacious criminal drug conspiracies to hit the swanky Main Line corridor since the 1980s, when Larry Lavin—the Ivy League-educated dentist the media dubbed “Dr. Snow”—was indicted along with 83 co-conspirators for moving more than 2,000 pounds of Colombian coke over the course of several years.

On Monday prosecutors in Montgomery County and five other jurisdictions unveiled their case against the home’s occupant, 25 year-old Neil Scott, and 10 other defendants who they say comprised a sophisticated drug distribution network with tentacles in at least eight elite high schools and colleges.

According to documents provided by the District Attorney’s office, detectives from the county’s Narcotics Enforcement Team initiated their investigation in January when a confidential informant alerted them to a student dealer at Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia who was moving small quantities of marijuana.

Over the next two months police orchestrated a handful of arranged buys. Then the officers followed the money back to Scott and Timothy Brooks, his 18 year-old lacrosse buddy and partner-in-crime. The two were arrested at the end of February and promptly confessed. Investigators relied on their testimony along with a ream of text messages to build cases against the “sub-dealers” the pair were selling to.

In a well-publicized press conference high on hyperbole prosecutors displayed the fruits of their score: eight pounds of marijuana, three grams of hash oil, a little less than an ounce of cocaine, about 75 doses of MDMA, several firearms, and just over $11,000 in cash.

“Parents across our community have chosen to send their children to these schools and colleges because they are some of the finest institutions of learning in the United States,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, in a statement. “These drug dealers, motivated by their own greed, sought to create a network to push poison into our educational institutions…While parents sought to provide education to their kids, these defendants sought to use the schools to create drug addicts.”

No Peace

Abused by Military Justice

Over a year ago, a civilian woman accused her Marine ex-husband of beating and raping her. She’s still waiting for the incidents to be fully investigated.

Three years after she separated from her husband, Bobbie Herron still suffers from his abuse. Last week she went in for another round of surgery, this time to fix the broken orbital socket and deviated septum he left her with after an attack in 2010.

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For over a year, Herron has been working through the military system, appealing for justice against the Marine ex-husband she says routinely raped and beat her. To Herron it has felt like “a marathon that I ran in quicksand, getting nowhere quickly.”

As a civilian pursuing sexual assault charges against an active duty Marine who is also her ex-husband, Herron is caught between two worlds. She can freely express her frustration in public forums but has a very limited voice within the military justice system.

“From the very beginning it felt like no one genuinely cared or wanted to make it anything of prominence,” Herron tells The Daily Beast.

Up until a few weeks ago, when Herron contacted Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that helped bring attention to her story, she was at the end of her line: “I may be a sinking ship-but I’m going to make as many waves as possible so the rescue party can find me,” she wrote at the time.

But after a year of seeing her case languish, Protect Our Defenders got involved and put Herron in touch with powerful senators like Barbara Boxer, Joe Donnelly, and Kirsten Gillibrand, a strong critic of the military’s current system for dealing with sexual assault cases and the author of a sweeping reform bill that was recently defeated. According to Herron, all three senators have been in continual contact with her and launched investigations into her case.

There were 3,500 reported sexual assaults in the military last year, according to the Pentagon, up 43% from 2012. Some critics believe that the problem is a result of the military not adequately enforcing its own regulations. For reformers like Senator Gillibrand, though, the problem is deeper that and can only be solved by a fundamental shift in policy.

Neverending Trial

Pistorius’s Star Witness Disaster

On the case’s final day before a two-week break, the defense’s most recent witness was ripped apart by prosecutors, who seriously questioned his credibility.

Those working on the Oscar Pistorius murder case will get a well-deserved two-week respite from all things Oscar as the trial picks up again on May 5—and no one is more happy about the early adjournment than the defense’s most recent witness, Roger Dixon. (He wrote in a Facebook post that he was off for a beer as soon as his testimony was over.) The forensic geologist and former policeman, who was approached by the defense on the day of Pistorius’s bail hearing to help bolster the accused’s testimony, spent three days in the witness box, where he was all but devoured by the prosecution and ridiculed by the media. Both questioned his credibility after he contested the prosecution’s expert findings apparently without the necessary level of expertise to do so, and at times even contradicted the accused’s own testimony, which he was essentially hired to support.

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Alet Pretorius/Getty

Dixon first took the stand on Wednesday, after Pistorius was excused following five days of fierce interrogation by state prosecutor Gerrie Nel. Dixon had been asked to conduct visibility and sounds tests at the Paralympian’s SilverWood Estate home in Pretoria, ostensibly to confirm that Pistorius’s bedroom was pitch dark on the night that he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius claims that he did so accidentally, and could not see Steenkamp get out of bed because the closed curtains and lack of moonlight had plunged the room into darkness. Pistorius has pleaded “not guilty” to a charge of premeditated murder.

Dixon agreed with this account, claiming that Pistorius“couldn’t see his hand in front of his face” with all the lights off and curtains drawn on a moonless night, like that on February 14 last year. Dixon also conducted audio tests with a sound engineer to help determine the source of the second set of loud bangs that the neighbors heard that night. For those who are out of the loop, all five neighbors previously testified that the sounds they heard were gunshots, while the defense argues that they were actually the sounds of Pistorius breaking down the bathroom door with a cricket bat. The sequence of sounds heard by the neighbors is crucial to the outcome of the case, as it may determine whether or not Pistorius knew Steenkamp was in the bathroom. Dixon was presumably brought in to prove that the sounds could be easily confused.

His next move was to contend the state’s exposition that the abrasions on Steenkamp’s back were the result of a projectile that ricocheted off the bathroom wall.  Dixon agrued that the arrangement of bruises was consistent with the lines of the magazine rack situated next to the toilet in the bathroom, and in his “layman’s understanding” inferred that they had resulted from her body falling against it. He also seemed to think that Steenkamp had her “arm forward towards the handle” and was opening the door when she was shot, whereas the state’s ballistics expert Cpt. Christiaan Mangena had testified that she was facing the door and in a “defensive position” when Pistorius shot her.

The first oddity here is that Dixon is a geologist and mineralogist whose job is to examine soil at the University of Pretoria (he also grows Clivias and other plants, and owns a Land Rover and Trans Am, according to his Twitter bio). He admitted in court that he was not a pathologist, and that he did not have any formal training in ballistics or sound. Exactly why Dixon was attempting to contradict Mangena’s findings without the necessary qualifications quickly became a point of derision for journalists and social media users. It was also something that Nel pounced on immediately during cross-examination.

“Now, Mr. Dixon, you call yourself a layman?” Nel asked Dixon. “You gave the evidence, you were strong about it. Do you know how irresponsible it is to make inferences in areas where you’re not an expert?”

“I view myself as an expert because my testimony has been accepted in court a number of times,” Dixon replied.

Day 22

How Pistorius Became a ‘Liar’

His laser-like focus once brought him medals, but on Day 22 of the South African’s murder trial, it was clearly undermining his case—and highlighting his testimony’s inconsistencies.

True to state prosecutor Gerrie Nel’s warning to Oscar Pistorius last week, it appears Nel isn’t going away anytime soon.

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Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Known in South African legal circles as the Bulldog—or Bull Terrier, or Pitbull, depending on your source—Nel has grilled the accused Paralympian mercilessly for six days now at the Pretoria High Court, to the point where some citizens have approached the South African Human Rights Commission with complaints that Nel’s questioning has bordered on psychological torment. There are whispers that it could be another full week before Nel lets Pistorius out of the witness box, from which the defendant has cried, screamed, cursed, prayed, contradicted, and victimized himself on more than one occasion, sometimes all at once.

From this vulnerable spotlight, Pistorius has transformed himself from Paralympic golden boy to “disgusting liar,” as his slain girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp’s sister called him in a recent interview. Legal experts have called his testimony disastrous. He parted ways with his PR management firm a week into the trial, and his legal counsel might be inclined to do the same if he continues to contradict and attribute blame to defense attorney Barry Roux and his team, who have been working tirelessly for more than a year to give him a shred of hope he’ll walk out of the courtroom a free man. In the court of public opinion, however, that outcome does not seem likely, not unless Pistorius pulls a rabbit out of a hat before his time on the stand is done.

As South African advocate Angela Neill pointed out Friday, most defendants would have made at least some sort of concession at this point in cross-examination. But Pistorius didn’t get to where he is today without his Olympic-level strength of will. His proclivity for incremental emotional breakdowns, which Nel has dismissed more than once as “convenient,” belies that fact that he is a tenacious and steadfast witness, refusing to buckle under Nel’s attempts to unnerve him, which have been so severe that Judge Thokozile Masipa has intervened on more than one occasion. While that mental stamina has served Pistorius well in his years as a world-class athlete, his relentless focus has clouded his capacity for identifying what concessions could work in his favor. Even more apparent is the troubling effect that focus has had on his ability to anticipate the effect of his words and actions—a weakness that got him into this mess in the first place.

“I shot out of fear. I didn’t have time to think,” Pistorius has told the court repeatedly, referring to the incident on Valentine’s Day last year, when he fired four bullets into his bathroom door. He says he believed there was an intruder behind it. But the person behind the door was 29-year-old Steenkamp, who died almost instantly after taking bullets to the head, arm, hand, and hip. Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to a charge of premeditated murder and three contraventions of the Firearms Control Act, denying that he intended to shoot anyone, be it an intruder or Steenkamp, and that his actions were the result of a purely instinctual reflex driven by “overwhelming fear.”

He has refused to admit that he intended to kill the intruder, presumably, to stonewall the state’s attempt to go at him on the basis of dolus eventualis, a form of intention that exists when the accused foresees the possible outcome or consequences of his or her actions, regardless of whether he or she intended to cause harm. It seems almost ridiculous, if not a little cheeky, to cling to a version of events in which one claims to have fired four bullets at a target accidentally, and with zero intention of harming that target. After six days on the witness stand, however, it is feels as if glaring inconsistencies and sweeping recriminations have become the hallmark of Pistorius’s version of events.

That is the opinion, anyway, that the state is attempting to hammer home. “You are thinking every step of the way, but now in this critical instant, you didn’t think?” asked Nel, who is finding alternative ways to call Pistorius a liar after Judge Masipa reprimanded him for using the term. “The theme for the day is you tailoring your evidence,” he added Monday.

The man accused of shooting three at Jewish centers in Kansas has a long résumé as a neo-Nazi and KKK grand wizard who once created a points system for murder.

The sole suspect in a shooting that left three dead at two Jewish community centers outside Kansas City on Sunday is a former Ku Klux Klan “grand dragon,” neo-Nazi, and ex-con named Frazier Glenn Miller.

Kansas Shootings

Dave Kaup/Reuters; inset: Youtube

The 73-year-old was caught by TV cameras yelling “Heil Hitler” from the back seat of a police car after he was apprehended in the parking lot of a local elementary school. Rabbi Herbert Mandl, chaplain for the Overland Park Police Department, said the gunman asked people whether they were Jewish before he opened fire. Two of the victims, named by grieving family members as Dr. William Lewis Corporon and his grandson Reat Griffin Underwood, 14, were not Jewish, however--they were members of the nearby United Methodist Church of the Resurrection.

The Southern Poverty Law Center said they had confimed Miller’s arrest with his wife, Marge, who said her husband had been drinking at a Missouri casino the night before and had not been heard from since. Marge Miller told the SPLC that authorities came to her door at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday and told her that her husband had been arrested in the shootings.

Miller, who also uses the alias Frazier Glenn Cross Jr., has an extensive résumé of hate. A former Green Beret who served in Vietnam, he embraced white supremacy in the 1970s, first joining the National States’ Rights Party and then the National Socialist Party of America—the Nazis.

According to his considerable dossier on the SPLC website Miller was forced to retire from the military due to his extremist connections. He bought a farm in Angier, North Carolina, where he formed the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1980. He preferred wearing fatigues to the traditional Klan robe and recruited active-duty soldiers to conduct paramilitary-style training, aggressively seeking publicity and taking inspiration from Hitler, as he described in his autobiography: “I would try to emulate Hitler’s methods of attracting members and supporters…I placed great emphasis on staging marches and rallies. It had been successful with Hitler.” His stated goal was to create an all-white “Carolina Free State.”

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YouTube

Miller’s dark ambitions with the Carolina Knights hit a legal obstacle when the Southern Poverty Law Center successfully sued him and his organization and received a consent decree requiring that they stop all intimidation against African-Americans and paramilitary activity. In 1985, Miller formed the White Patriot Party, ostensibly trying to move into the political sphere, but he was convicted of criminal contempt a year later for purchasing weapons and explosives to fund an insurgency to create a “White Southland.” He was sentenced to a year in prison but went underground while out on bond. He mailed supporters—whom he called “Aryan warriors of The Order”—establishing a point system for each murder: “Niggers (1), White race traitors (10), Jews (10), Judges (50) Morris Seligman Dees (888).” Dees is the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Day 21

Pistorius Battered on the Stand

He broke down sobbing again—but that didn’t save the Paralympian from being called a liar in a brutal session with the state prosecutor on Day 21 of his murder trial Friday.

Friday’s early adjournment couldn’t come soon enough for Oscar Pistorius, who endured yet another session of psychological bruising by state prosecutor Gerrie Nel, this time over whether he was “ready to shoot” as he approached his bathroom door.

SOUTH AFRICA TRIAL PISTORIUS

Landov

On the murder trial’s 21st day, the six-time Paralympic gold medalist denied Nel’s allegation, although he admitted he had taken off the safety on his 9 mm pistol to be ready if attacked. According to Pistorius, who shot and killed his girlfriend of four months in his bathroom in the early hours of February 14, 2013, there is a “massive difference” between that sort of preparation and actively intending to kill someone.

Nel was not convinced, nor was he persuaded by Pistorius’s insistence that Steenkamp remained silent when he instructed her to “get down and call the police” seconds before firing four Black Talon bullets through his bathroom door. Pistorius has stood by his claim that he fired believing an intruder had entered his home through an open window and that he was attempting to “put [himself] between the perceived danger and Reeva.”

“She is 3 meters away from you in the toilet and she never uttered a word. It’s not possible!” replied Nel, who earlier was reprimanded by Judge Masipa for repeatedly calling Pistorius a liar during the cross-examination at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa. “There is no way you are going to convince the court that she stood there saying nothing. Why would she not say anything?”

“She would’ve been terrified, but I don’t think that would’ve led her to call out,” Pistorius responded.

The Paralympian explained how he had “whispered” to Steenkamp before firing, although he later denied whispering and instead said he spoke in a “soft manner.” Nel asked Pistorius why he never took the time to ascertain Steenkamp’s whereabouts, playing to the legal concept of negligence by suggesting that Pistorius repeatedly failed to do what a reasonable person would.

“I never waited for a response,” Pistorius answered. “My whole body was fixated on the threat.”

STAND-ING BY

Can Pistorius Dodge the Details?

Between sketchy Whatsapp messages and mysteriously moved household items, the prosecution won’t rest until even the little things make a big difference.

“Youre trying, and its not working. Your version is so improbable that nobody would ever think it is reasonably possible.”

A fan, a duvet and a plug adapter could mean the difference between freedom and life in prison for South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, who is currently on trial for the murder of his girlfriend, 29-year-old model and law graduate, Reeva Steenkamp.

Oscar Pistorius

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

State prosecutor Gerrie Nel, who has been relentless in his vicious cross-examination of the accused, cornered Pistorius in the final minutes of today’s proceedings by demonstrating that the placement of one of the fans, the adaptor it was connected to, the duvet and the drawn curtains all suggested that Pistorius never went to retrieve two fans from the balcony as stated in his affidavit.

He inferred that the only possible way that Pistorius’s version of events could be deemed plausible is if the police had actively and intentionally rearranged all four items before police photographer Warrant Officer Barend van Staden arrived on the scene, which Nel said would be highly improbable.

“So let’s just sum this up. A policeman moved two fans, put the duvet on the floor and opened the curtains wider than it should be?” Nel asked incredulously.

“That is correct, My Lady,” Pistorius responded.

Nel then asked why anyone would want to move the items and whether Pistorius believed that the police were conspiring against him (which is not only far-fetched, but chronologically impossible as the police would have had to have moved the items after reading Pistorius’s affidavit in order to contradict his version of events.)

Penn. Attack

Thank God It Wasn’t Guns

Twenty-one were stabbed in a Pennsylvania school rampage Wednesday, but all are expected to live—and one even took a selfie. Think how different the toll would have been with bullets.

The dead take no selfies.

So there might well never have been the remarkable selfie that 16-year-old Nate Scimio took after his heroism at Franklin Regional High School if he had faced a gun rather than two knives on Wednesday morning.

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In all, Scimio and 19 other students, along with one staff member, were stabbed when a sophomore allegedly stormed through the school in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. Three students were critically injured.

One, a girl, was saved from bleeding to death when a classmate kept paper towels pressed against her wound. Another, a 17-year-old boy, was stabbed with such savagery that the wound in his abdomen was 2 inches wide and extended almost to his spine. The blade pierced his liver and diaphragm, missing his heart and aorta by a fraction of an inch. He was on life support after emergency surgery, but doctors remained hopeful he would survive.

And, as of the end of the day, none of the 21 victims had died. Scimio had managed to escape serious injury even as he shielded several students from the attacker and took a moment to pull a fire alarm to alert everyone else. A fellow student named Trinity McCool credited him on Twitter with saving her and a friend.

“Without Nate, me and Lindsay would’ve been injured and there’s not enough words to describe how much of a hero he is,” McCool tweeted.

Scimio survived to take a picture of himself in Children’s Hospital. The photo that might never have been shows him holding up his camera with his right hand while he points with his left to the bandaged wound on his right forearm.

Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski, the author of the new Chi-Town collection of stories 'Painted Cities,' on the books that show real life in Chicago.

Sometimes you set out to find differences and all you find is how much we are the same, which is disappointing because in the big city, in Chi-Town at least, we thrive on differences: North Side vs. South Side, Cubs vs. Sox (White Sox rule), Pilsen vs. Little Village, Black vs. White. Our politics are set up this way. Our neighborhoods are set up this way. To read these five books about Chicago life is to become enlightened to the fact that there is another side to the “struggle,” namely that we are all in it. Further, these five books, these five “real-life” perspectives, have an interesting way of marking time. We are all comfortable hiding behind differences. Heartbreak comes with realization. Each of these narratives comes from a different point in that life continuum, that journey of reflection and ultimate awareness, which not only makes for absolutely fascinating reading but makes us question where we are in the process of understanding our own lives.

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Jeff Haynes/Reuters

Chicago Cop: Tales from the Street

By Star #14931

Wow, a heartbreaking set of short, tremendously human tales about what it meant to be a Chicago cop in the 1980’s. Nothing is held back in this officer’s portrayal of life mostly in the 10th and 12th Police Districts of Chicago, districts I know intimately. The book is gritty without being noir, touching without being melodramatic. And there’s not a cop cliché in it. In addition the book does a fantastic job of describing neighborhoods, not just the people but the actual physical make-up, the open air flea markets, the 16-story “Projects”, the squat two-flats. As Chicago grows and continues to clean itself up, much of these defining “neighborhood” characteristics are being torn down, giving this book added value as historical document. A great read.

Lords of Lawndale: My Life in a Chicago White Street Gang

By Michael Scott

A sometimes moving, more often relentless, account of what it means to be a gangbanger, day in and day out—not a life you’d wish on anybody. Street gang or not this author’s depiction of losing a young friend is something we can all relate to. Here again a lot of effort is made to describe a specific neighborhood, and within that, very specific gang turf boundaries, and they’re so pinpoint you can find them on Google Maps. Written about a time before drugs sales shaped gang boundaries, this book highlights two of the more illusory aspects of gang life, respect and family, making us wonder if they exist at all. The hard truth is it doesn’t really matter. Once you’re in a gang, that becomes your identity.  

Crime Scene

Reeva’s Terrifying Final Moments

A bullets expert testified to the court that model Reeva Steenkamp cowered in a defensive position as athlete Oscar Pistorius fired four bullets through his bathroom door.

Even if the wound to her head did not incapacitate her immediately, which is more than likely according to the pathologist report, Reeva Steenkamp would have bled out within minutes.

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Pool photo by Leon Sadiki

She had been facing the bathroom door when she was struck by three Black Talons, a kind of bullet that expands and mushrooms automatically when it “hits a moist target, like flesh” according to Captain Christiaan Mangena, the South African ballistics expert who analyzed the crime scene at Oscar Pistorius’s Pretoria home on Valentine’s day last year. The first bullet allegedly perforated her right hip, shattering the bone and forcing Steenkamp to double over onto the magazine rack standing beside the toilet. The second missed her and ricocheted off the cubicle wall, causing fragments to scatter across her back, which inflicted several bruises.

From then on, the order of shots fired becomes unclear, but what we do know is that by this time, Steenkamp was in what Mangena called “a defensive position”—that her arms were braced in an ‘X’ across her head—which explains why the webbing of her left-hand was lacerated as it intercepted the trajectory between the bullet and the right-hand side of her skull. “I’m of the opinion that after this wound was inflicted, my lady, she dropped immediately,” Mangena testified this week at the trial of Steenkamp’s boyfriend, the Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius.

The fourth blow fractured her humerus so severely that it caused what was described as “360 degree freedom of movement” and “arterial spurting,” which explains the serpentine blood trail down the staircase, according to blood-splatter expert Colonel Ian van der Nest.  Evidence of blood splatter, broken hair pieces and tissue debris were all scattered across the toilet in such a way that one could only conclude that Steenkamp’s head must have collapsed against the toilet bowl. Her blonde hair and shorts were soaked in her blood.

This was the scene recreated by the two state witnesses who took the stand on Wednesday, marking the thirteenth day of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Mangena and Van der Nest are both highly experienced and respected in their fields, both with 20 odd years of experience in the force. Van der Nest, who has presided over 1300 investigations, demonstrated almost immediately that he was just as thorough as Mangena and absolutely not to be messed with. He’s also known for his role in providing crucial evidence in the murder trial of former Apartheid leader Eugène Terre’Blanche.

These are important credentials to consider given the fact that the trial has hitherto been privy to some pretty egregious incompetency from the prosecution’s forensic and investigative teams, resulting in lackluster testimony that hasn’t appeared to make much headway in terms of guiding us closer towards the truth of what happened on February 14 last year.

For the first time since forensic questioning commenced, a palpable visual narrative of the shooting has started to emerge, and it boils down to key numbers:

Bates Motel

When Crime Scenes Go On Sale

The Colorado home of JonBenet Ramsey is on the market again. From Amanda Knox's Perugia house to Jeffery Dahmer's childhood home, some murder houses are perpetually on sale—while others have made a real estate killing.

For $1.9 million, you could be the proud owner of a 7,240-square-foot, five-bedroom renovated 1920s home in one of Boulder, Colorado’s most desirable neighborhoods. The catch? The basement of this dream home is where six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was found dead in 1996. Still interested?

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Wikimedia Commons

Despite the Bernardi Real Estate Group’s efforts to promote its “grand rooms, great light” and “elegance of past generations combined with modern updates,” the Ramsey estate clearly seems to be suffering from a textbook case of Haunted House Syndrome. JonBenet’s parents, who vacated immediately after the young pageant winner’s body was discovered, sold the house to investors for $650,000 in 1998. In 2004, televangelist Robert Schuller’s daughter, Carol Schuller Milner, and her husband Tim Milner, bought the place for $1.05 million, but it’s been on and off the market several times since then.

Whether or not they’re actually possessed, so-called “murder houses” can be the bane of a real estate agent’s existence. They’re often severely under-priced (unless their murders are fictional), impossible to sell and even harder to keep off the market—despite being a serious bargain for anyone who can get past their sordid backstory. Occasionally, realtors manage to avoid revealing the secrets of lesser-known houses, leaving their clients to learn of their new home’s horrific history after the deed has been signed. But, like the Ramsey house, the scenes of famous crimes that captured national headlines are often doomed to be haunted by the ghosts of murders past.

The Yates' Family Spanish-Style Hacienda

It’s not hard to believe that the three-bedroom house at 942 Beachcomber Lane in Houston where Andrea Yates drowned her five children in 2001 became a neighborhood spectacle. Still, Peter Muller considered the 1,620-square-foot house, located near several schools and hospital, to be a steal at $87,000 when he bought it in 2004. “I don’t really care about [the home’s] history...It doesn’t really bother me,” Muller told AOL Real Estate in 2012, insisting then that he had no plans to move any time soon.

The Von Bulow Mansion

The curious case of Martha “Sunny” von Bulow captured the nation’s attention for the better part of the 1980s. At the beginning of the decade, the American heiress was found unconscious on the bathroom floor of her Newport, Rhode Island mansion. Von Bulow’s socialite husband, Claus, was convicted and then acquitted of trying to kill his hypoglycemic wife with insulin injections. In 2008, Sunny von Bulow died at 76, after almost 28 years in a coma. In 2012, the 7.2 acre estate on Newport’s famed Cliff Walk where she entered her twilight state was sold to an anonymous buyer for the record price of $13.1 million.

South Africa

Pistorius Trial Views Crime Scene

Day 10 of Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial saw the South African police slammed for crime-scene errors and confusing inconsistencies, giving a much-needed boost to the defense team, as the court saw bloody photos from the night of Reeva Steenkamp’s death.

If you’d ask Colonel Schoombié Van Rensburg, former station commander of the Boschkop Police Station and the first policeman to arrive at the Pistorius crime scene, what he wants to do with his life, he’d probably tell you—as he did a packed courtroom on Friday—that he wants to be a sports coach.

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Police crime scene tape marks off the home of South African "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius in Pretoria February 14, 2013. (Andrea Ettwein/Reuters)

It was a rather unsolicited response when advocate Barry Roux asked Van Rensburg why he retired from the South African Police Service (SAPS) after 29 years on the force. Van Rensburg dismissed allegations that he had turned in his badge last December following overwhelming pressure over the case’s poorly-handled crime scene. Many of those watching the trial brushed this last bit off, while others commented on the randomness of the statement and its lack of pertinence to the issue at hand, but the very nature of Van Rensburg’s answer—his hunched posture, the brief flash of a smile after hours of stone-faced testimony—were all indicative of a very human moment from a man who, up until then, had looked (for lack of better word) tired.

Working 30 years in a system that is understaffed, overworked, underpaid and rife with corruption would be taxing on anyone, particularly when the job involves a day-to-day battle between a deeply-flawed establishment on one hand and the myriad perpetrators who keepSouth Africa in the top tier of the highest crime ratesin the world on the other. It’s no secret that the SAPS is desperately lacking in manpower: The monthly ratio of police officers assigned to rape cases is five to 150, and that’s before you begin to factor in the daily murders, burglaries and gang altercations. But what’s more disturbing is that 1,448 of all serving police officers are convicted criminals themselves, according to a report published last year, and 157,470 that have allegedly been involved in some sort of criminal activity. That number presumably includes the two police commissioners that had been convicted and dismissed on corruption charges within a three-year period, and it almost definitely includes Hilton Botha, the case’s now infamous former lead detective, who was relieved of his position not only because he singlehandedly nearly sabotaged the entire case by trudging over the crime scene without following protocol, but because it was later revealed that he faces a few charges of his own, namely seven counts of attempted murder.

This is the other possible reason for Van Rensburg‘sseemingly demoralized demeanor. The past three days in the North Gauteng High Court have presented a merciless roasting of the forensic and investigative teams’ spectacularly embarrassing management of the crime scene, providing one of the more opportune moments for a very opportunistic Barry Roux to undermine the prosecution. The state’s decision not to call Botha as a witness (although this is still to be decided) has meant that Van Rensburg spent much of the day taking the brunt of Botha’s failings. He was also forced to explain numerous inconsistencies between the affidavits of Botha, CaptainMaluleke (another officer on the scene) and his own, like why Van Rensburg claimed to be the first officer to arrive when Maluleke insisted to have been present beforehand.

In fact, Van Rensburg had a lot of explaining to do: Why did the firearms expert handle Pistorius’s 9mm Taurus Parabellum without gloves? Why were pieces of the bathroom door missing after being taken away for analysis? Why had Van Rensburg opted to keep the bathroom door in his office instead of under regular police custody? What happened to the two watches, worth an estimated $5,000—$10,000, that went missing from Pistorius’s collection?

There were other salient questions that came to light during his testimony, for example, why were Steenkamp’s ‘plakkies’ (sandals) and overnight bag situated on the left-hand side of the bed if Pistorius he had slept on that side as he claimed in his statement? Why did the police find Steenkamp’s cellphone in the bathroom if she only got up briefly to go to toilet? And did Botha and the rest of the team actually cause any real damage to the investigation through their foolish albeit presumably unintentional actions?

The grilling followed two days of meticulous, often mind-numbingly tedious questioning from the defense so as to weed out irregularities and perhaps distract the court from what is quickly becoming a less-than-favorable perception of the former sports icon.

Flight 370

Our Unsolved Mystery Obsession

We’re morbidly consumed with the lack of answers in Flight 370’s disappearance, as we are with all unsolved disappearances and crimes. Why our brains can’t handle cold cases.

What happened to Malaysia Flight 370? Did it veer off course? Was it hijacked? Could a meteor have hit it?

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Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters

All of these questions have made headlines at major cable news networks and websites. In the five day since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared en route to Beijing, the public has been consumed with an unending series of questions about how a commercial airliner could seemingly vanish into thin air without leaving a trace.

All plane crashes attract a certain level of morbid fascination, but what’s really driving our Flight 370 obsession is the fact that it’s still missing. “We’re not seeing it as an airline accident anymore. It’s a mystery story,” says Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential and askthepilot.com.

Missing planes, missing people, missing objects—they often make up the biggest stories of the news cycle. Think last year’s manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers (not to mention our decade-long search for Osama bin Laden), or the ‘Where in the World Is Edward Snowden’ game. It’s the stuff of legend and Hollywood movies—Indiana Jones searching for the Ark of the Covenant, the Mossad tracking down fugitive Nazis, Joel Cairo sniffing around for the Maltese Falcon. Without our fascination, there would be no Unsolved Mysteries, Cold Case Files America’s Most Wanted or CSI. There wouldn’t be countless Internet forums and books dedicated to the unknown fates of Ambroise Bierce, Anastasia Romanov, Jimmy Hoffa or Amelia Earhart—and, now, to Flight 370.

When something disappears in modern times, it’s uncanny. This is the age of satellites and radars and Google Earth, of cellphone cameras (and cellphone towers) and IP addresses. It’s almost impossible not to leave a data trail these days. And with the recent revelations about the NSA, Americans may assume that it is impossible to truly ever go off the grid. That’s why the thought of Flight 370 disappearing from radar is so fascinating and perturbing. That the plane apparently continued flying for at least 45 minutes after its transponder signal was lost is all the more baffling.

“That’s what is riveting to people—because there’s so much immediacy in the media now people are used taking it for granted,” say Smith, the pilot and author. “People are demanding answers right away, and with air crashes, that’s not the way it happens. Sometimes, it takes months.”

Smith cites the Air France Flight 747 crash in 2009, which is “still not fully understood” even five years later. “Technology is only going to take us so far even in the field of modern aviation, as sophisticated as it. The world is big and a Boeing 777 in that context is tiny.”

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Pistorius Pal: We Covered For Him

On day three of Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial, in a surprise appearance on the witness stand, a friend testified that he had taken the fall for the athlete during a public shooting incident a month before Steenkamp’s death.

Day three of the Oscar Pistorius trial was both brief and peppered with interruptions as issues with the media, last-minute requests for evidence and one (somewhat) surprise witness caused a two-hour lag in proceedings, and arguably a headache for both sets of counsel. The first witness of the day, Mr. Charl Johnson (the husband of previous witness, Dr. Michelle Burger) returned to testify following a brief start in court yesterday. Johnson, an IT designer, had mentioned that he had been bombarded with messages from officious members of public, and presumably, international news outlets (he received a phone call from an ‘overseas person’) the previous evening, after his cellphone number was read out in court on Tuesday. “My privacy has been compromised severely,” he said.

 This on its own puts the issue of media taping, a first in South Africa’s legal history, under the spotlight: If a similar incident were to occur going forward, it could ultimately discourage one of the dozens of the witnesses expected to testify, firstly because of the possible intrusion of the public, and secondly, because if witnesses did manage to the view or gain knowledge of earlier broadcasts , they could be deterred by the idea of going head-to-head with Pistorius’s advocate, Barry Roux SC.

Johnson was noticeably more nervous than his wife, whom many legal professionals had applauded for being indomitable despite the fact that she finally broke down in tears in the final moments of her testimony. Roux’s strategy, as with the previous two days, was to pick apart the nuances of Johnson’s testimony, inferring that the similarities between Burger’s testimony and what Johnson had said could suggest that the two had colluded with each other between the bail hearing and the trial date. “Remarkable coincidences,” Roux had called them, suggesting that Johnson and Burger might as well “have stood in the box together.” Johnson’s responded that it was hardly a coincidence that “two people standing 10 meters apart would describe what they're seeing with similar words.”

While Johnson maintained that he had not seen his wife’s statement nor her testimony, he did tell the court that he had taken notes on his laptop, at the advice of his lawyers, a piece of information that disrupted court proceedings momentarily as Roux and his team made a request to obtain those notes and pinpoint the exact time they were created.

This led to the first impromptu adjournment. The second delay occurred when the defense asked for a two-hour break to prepare after the state excused Johnson, who went off in search of his iPad, and called professional boxer—and Pistorius’s one-time lunch buddy—Kevin Lerena to the stand, a move that the defense had not expected.

Lerena testified about the public shooting incident that occurred at Tasha’s restaurant in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg on January 11, 2013, about a month before Steenkamp’s death. He had joined Pistorius and two other friends at the popular lunch spot, and allegedly nearly lost a foot when Pistorius accidentally shot off a gun that one of the men, Darren Fresco, had passed to him under the table (the bullet narrowly missed Lerena’s foot, although shrapnel from the blast reportedly grazed him).According to Lerena, Pistorius apologized profusely, before asking Fresco to take the fall for him to avoid unwanted media attention. Jason and Maria Loupis, owners of Tasha’s and the third and fourth witnesses respectively, confirmed that they had heard a gunshot and that Fresco did take the blame when they confronted him.

While it’s difficult to say where the Tasha’s narrative will go in the next few days, it is evident that timing, and the order of events on the night of the shooting, is still absolutely crucial for the defense at this point. Johnson had mentioned that he and his wife had heard shots fired at 3:17am, two and a half minutes before Pistorius had allegedly phonedhis friend JustinStander after breaking down the bathroom door, a point that Roux immediately pounced on by suggesting that, if Johnson could make out the sounds of a gun but didn’t hear the cricket bat, which Pistorius claimed he had used before calling Stander, then what Johnson and Burger heard simply had to be the sound of the bat against the door. It’s probably the first window of doubt that Roux has managed to create thus far, although any number of witnesses who take the stand in the next two weeks could dispute any sort of argument Pistorius’s counsel is trying to build. Likewise, they could bolster it. Only time will tell.

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