A story with story potential

 A recent article in the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana illustrates several legal matters useful to writers — a bench warrant for an arrest of a defendant who failed to appear for a court hearing, the use of bail to assure appearance, and how private investigators follow leads to track a fugitive who’s left the state — all in search of a character who tells a not-uncommon story.

Okay, so maybe “this is all because I protested a proposed copper and silver mine” isn’t exactly a common excuse. To my ears, it sounds like a slightly more creative than usual version of “not my fault.”

Especially because the suspect apparently did a similar runner before — for six years.

I’d say the chances of the judge setting bail at a level anywhere near what he can post are two: slim, and none.

What do you think?

The Puppets’ Court

So you think you’ve seen everything? Maybe you have, if you watch the TV news in Cleveland.

NPR reported earlier this year that when a former county commissioner and others were charged with a bribery scheme lasting ten years – trips, appliances, meals, even visits from prostitutes exchanged for millions of dollars in county contracts for, of all things, a juvenile justice center – the trial judge barred cameras from the courtroom. Not unusual.

The local TV station decided the usual still shots of drawings made by courtroom sketch artists weren’t enough. They used finger puppets to dramatize actual dialogue.

Call it “The Puppets’ Court.” Watch some of the video from Ch 19 , WOIO, or on You Tube. Kinda odd to hear expletives, bleeped, from puppets. 

The former commissioner, Jimmy Dimora, was convicted of 33 counts, including racketeering. Not sure how writers can use this — after all, truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense. But I thought you’d want to know.

Stupid Criminal Tricks # 1

So you’re charged with burglary, and you think it might be a good idea to call your victim and apologize. Well, okay. I see the point, though I wouldn’t recommend it. But if do make the call, don’t encourage the victim to skip the trial. 

A Montana man who made that call found himself charged with tampering with a witness – in addition to felony charges for bail jumping (two counts), criminal endangerment, assault on a peace officer and burglary, and misdemeanor charges of bail jumping and criminal trespass to vehicles. More details from the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell.


 (Flathead County, Montana courthouse, from the David Berryman Courthouse Postcard Collection.)

Book Links

Looking for clickable links to the resources mentioned in Books, Crooks & Counselors? You found ’em! They’re organized by the chapter and subsection where they’re mentioned. If you catch a broken link, please let me know.

Chapter I: Trial and Error

A. The Judicial System: The National Center for State Courts  maintains a directory of state court websites, including a state-by-state court structure chart.

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals provides drug court statistics and a fact sheet.

C. Evidence

A sample chain of custody form, from Montana.

E. Burden of Proof

Preservation of evidence: The Innocence Project maintains a directory of state laws requiring preservation of evidence. Here’s an additional discussion of preservation of evidence, with an  example of how the failure to preserve evidence affected an appeal in a capital case.

Ch. II: Legal Issues in Criminal Investigation

Indigent defense: The National Center for State Courts’ FAQs page on Indigent Defense gives details on current state systems.

Extradition: For a sample state extradition form, see this Minnesota form.

For details on international extradition in cases of child abduction or violence against family, see the State Department’s International Child Abduction web page.

Recording conversations: For state-by-state information on recording conversations, see The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press guide.

III. Crime …

Gun laws change regularly, so consult the laws for your story locale. The NRA website maintains links to federal, state, and local laws.

Juvenile justice: The statistics on transfers are taken from a U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Fact Sheet, published June 2009, “Delinquency Cases Waived to Criminal Court, 2005.”  For an overview and state-by-state summary of transfer laws, and a look at children under twelve, see “From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System,” by Michele Deitch (2009), a project report of the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. The National Center for Juvenile Justice state profiles are another excellent source of state-by-state specifics.

The insanity defense: For details of John Hinckley’s trial, see law professor Doug Linder’s Famous Trials website.

A state-by-state summary of laws, unfortunately without links to the statutes, is on FindLaw.

IV. … and Punishment

Sentencing resources:  U.S. Sentencing Commission’s 2012 guidelines with 2013 amendments. National Association of State Sentencing Commissions’ website with links to state guidelines.

The American Probation and Parole Association maintains a directory of state services for community supervision.

The Sentencing Project’s November 2012 report on Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States provides statistics and state-by-state information.

Sex offenders: State sex offender registry websites, from the FBI. National sex offender public registry, maintained by the Department of Justice with links to state registries and statutes. Studies from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a research bureau created by the state legislature, on sex offender sentencing.

Juvenile courts: The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press offers this state-by-state guide on access to juvenile courts.

Death penalty statistics are drawn from the Death Penalty Information Center fact sheet, updated June 19, 2013. The DPIC also provides extensive state-by-state information.

VII. Wills, Probate, and Adoption

Famous wills: Several websites reproduce wills of famous people–Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, Walt Disney, Jerry Garcia, even Napolean Bonaparte. Search “Famous Wills.” The British National Archives  wills collection includes the wills of Shakespeare and Jane Austen, and a searchable website of historical wills, starting in 1348.

State laws on marriage and divorce: For state-by-state specifics, see Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute tables.

State laws on adoption, child abuse and neglect, and child welfare: For state-by-state specifics, consult the amazing databases on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Child Welfare Information Gateway site, including searchable access to state laws.  The Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute tables also include links to state adoption laws.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway site includes a lengthy summary of state laws on access to adoption records.

VIII. Legal Miscellany

Presumed death: Here’s a sample probate court petition for declarations of presumed death, from Georgia. If your story involves a claim for insurance benefits after a disappearance, take a look at “The Missing Insured and The Life Insurance Death Claim,” by retired insurance company executive Edgar Sentell. (The article starts at page 107 of the PDF.)

Missing persons: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provides resources and a list of state clearinghouses; some resources also track missing adults or provide links to other databases.

Diplomatic immunities: See the State Department chart. 

Recovered memories: The International Society for the Study of Dissociation and Trauma website includes informative FAQs, annotated bibliographies on trauma and dissociation, and links for professionals and self-help. And see the child welfare information websites mentioned in Ch. VII.

IX. Thinking like a Lawyer

For the American Bar Association’s list of approved schools, statistics, and other information on legal education, see the ABA website. Here is the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements, 2013 edition, including a discussion of character and fitness examination. And here are the details on Washington State’s law clerk program.

X. Thinking Like a Judge

Salary information is available from the National Center for State Courts Judicial Salary Resource Center.

For more on court building security, consult the National Center for State Courts 2010 report on best practices.

XII. Research and References

For statutes, case law, forms, and other resources, start with Find Law and its companion site for legal professionals.  Here’s the official U.S. government site for statutes, proposed legislation, and lots more–named for Thomas Jefferson. And Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute is a  terrific source for state statutes by topic.

Other resources:

Bureau of Justice Statistics: Stats on criminal sentencing, victims, law enforcement, and more, plus FAQs on various topics.

Federal Justice Statistics Resource Center: Online analysis of law enforcement, prosecution, the courts, and incarceration, now part of the University of Michigan’s National Archive of Criminal Justice Data.

National Center for State Courts: State court stats of all kinds, charts, and directories.

National Center for Juvenile Justice: The state juvenile justice profiles and national court data are particularly useful.

The Crime Report: A wide-ranging news and information site sponsored by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Criminal Justice Journalists, a national organization.

U.S. Courts: The official site.


Sentencing Law & Policy: Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman blogs on sentencing and related topics. His blog also includes numerous links to blogs on other areas of criminal law and general legal interest.

The SCOTUS blog and accompanying wiki, sponsored by a law firm, focuses on the Supreme Court of the United States.

For other blogs focusing on the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals, see the Federal Defender web ring.

And finally, the ABA Journal’s 2012 “Blawg 100” list of favorites.

Happy researching!

(Last updated June 19, 2013. Spot a broken link? Let me know!)

BONI-HR — The Breakout Novel Intensive Workshop

Last week, I went to Hood River, Oregon, about 60 miles east of Portland where the Hood meets the Columbia, for the BreakOut Novel Intensive workshop.

“Intensive” is the operative word.

For a full week, I lived and breathed fiction writing. Thirty-two students from across the US and Canada met Monday evening, eager and a little nervous. We parted the next Sunday afternoon, tired, happy, and much, much more aware of what make stories succeed. Along with the dirty clothes in our bags, we took home tools and determination.

Did I mention it was intense?

BONI is sponsored by Free Expressions, a seminar and editing firm run by Lorin Oberweger. But the firepower comes from Don Maass, literary agent, writer, and teacher. Don teaches a three-hour class every morning and a couple of evenings. Lorin and Jason Sitzes teach an evening scene class. Every afternoon, we wrote, using exercises Don gave us in class. Each student has individual sessions with Don, Lorin, and three other instructors–and each offers something  different. Jason, for example, who also runs the Writers Retreat Workshop, spent half an hour brainstorming with me on how to redirect a couple of plot threads gone wrong.

The hotel–the very comfortable Hood River Inn–sits above the river, and a walking path leads to a nearby park and marina. It also leads into the village of Hood River, a delightful historic town revitalized in recent years by recreation–sailing, wind surfing, winery-hopping. The village has several fun wine bars, cute galleries, and boutiques. And tons of coffee shops and three bookstores. It is the northwest, after all.

So, what did we learn? Don’s books, The Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction, are crammed with great analysis, exercises, and examples. But the class brings them to life.

One assignment was to bring a flat scene to life using the techniques we’d learned that morning: focusing on the protagonist’s goals and what frustrates them by identifying and showing internal and external turning points, using externalization to show the protag’s emotions and stir things up, identifying the mood of the scene and shifting it, then showing the effect on her, and rewriting dialogue

It took me most of the afternoon to rewrite a 2-1/2 page scene into 2 pages, by adding about twelve lines.

Ok, math isn’t my strong suit.

But that was Friday, and I was also using techniques we’d studied earlier in the week in pursuit of my overarching goal of redefining Erin, my protagonist: rethinking every line, thought and image, asking “does that convey what I want?,” “is that still part of the story,” and “is it still true?”

Intense. And worth every minute. If you get the chance to go–no: make the chance. BONI is offered twice a year, in Hood River and Orlando. Lorin and her excellent crew also offer other workshops, with the amazing Mr. Maass and other instructors.

Go. Your stories will never be the same again.

Getting your officers inside

Just back from the week-long Breakout Novel Intensive workshop, in Hood River, OR. Wow. Will tell you more later this week.

Writers often want to know how to get their fictional law enforcement officers inside a building, where they may be able to see evidence of other crimes. Here’s an example from a recent Montana incident:

A 7 year-old girl was badly bitten by four dogs. Her father and another man met EMTs at a school. Sheriff’s deputies investigating the attack, and possible charges of keeping malicious dogs, wanted to know where the attack occurred. One of the men reluctantly acknowledged it occurred on his property, nearby. The deputies went to the property to investigate the attack. While there, they smelled marijuana coming from the shop–where the girl said she’d been just before the attack. The deputies obtained a search warrant for the shop, and found 71 marijuana plants, along with other marijuana. 

The deputies had a right to be on the property, both because they were investigating a vicious dog attack, and because the tenant consented. Once there, they smelled the pot, which gave them grounds for a search warrant.

According to local news accounts, the girl is recovering. The men fled; at least two have been caught and returned to the area.

4/7/12 Update: Two men –including the girl’s father — and a woman have now been arrested and formally charged with drug manufacturing and related charges; all have pled not guilty.