Life without parole for young killers?

In real life and in fiction, young people commit serious crimes. In late March, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether juveniles–14 year-olds, in these two cases–can be sentenced to life without parole for murder. The SCOTUS blog–always a great source–provides a roundup of coverage and a detailed report on the arguments.

The cases ask whether a state should be able to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole on juveniles, e.g., those under 18 at the time of their crime. Should it be optional? Barred entirely? Or barred only for very young offenders, e.g., 14 and under?

The cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, are the third in recent years asking what limits should be put on sentences for juveniles.

As I discussed in Books, Crooks & Counselors, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court struck down the death penalty for crimes committed before 18. It held that the death penalty for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment and is “disproportionate” in light of the general immaturity of youth. It acknowledged that some juveniles commit brutal crimes, but wrote that their

“susceptibility … to immature and irresponsible behavior means their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult. … From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”

The majority also concluded that juvenile executions do not serve the goals of retribution or deterrence.

And in Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for crimes not involving murder, and that inmates already under such a sentence must be given an opportunity to show grounds for early release. 

Something for your fictional prosecutors, defense lawyers, and other characters to consider.

I’m in Oregon this week for Don Maass’s Breakout Novel workshop. Wow. My characters may never recover–and that’s a good thing!  

Taking the Mystery Out of Writing — A Therapist’s View

Struggling with your story or your screenplay? Not sure you know how to develop a credible motive or build a suspenseful plot? Dennis Palumbo, who became a therapist after a career as a screenwriter and now writes mysteries, writes a regular column, Hollywood on the Couch, for Psychology Today’s online edition. In Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries, he says the answer lies in the characters–and gives good, practical advice for solving the mystery of writing a mystery.

Dennis’s book Fever Dream (Poisoned Pen Press), second in a series featuring psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police, has just been released. For more, visit his website.


Thanks, Dennis!

Administrative Law Judges — a character for you?

As a practicing lawyer, I meet judges in the courtroom, or the less formal and more cluttered setting of their offices, known as “chambers.” At Bouchercon 2011 in St. Louis, I met judge and mystery writer Debra H. Goldstein in the casual atmosphere of a Sisters in Crime presentation. Today, Debra offers writers an insight into the work of a little-known part of the judiciary, the Administrative Law Judge.

Fictional trials often are presided over by black-robed judges sitting in wood-paneled courtrooms in stately old courthouses. Many writers fail to distinguish whether it is a state or federal trial or if the judge actually would hear the subject matter of the case. Occasionally, the type of judge and jurisdictional area becomes the cause of a character’s dilemma. In Miracle on 34th Street, the judge’s political advisor makes it clear that the judge’s decision whether Kris Kringle is Santa Claus directly impacts his state court re-election chances, but most of the time writers are silent as to these details. As a federal Administrative Law Judge, I cringe when writers have fictional judges hear matters outside the scope of their authority, but it does help me remain one of the best kept secrets in the federal judiciary.

Federal Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) preside at trials between government agencies and individuals affected by decisions made by that agency. Unlike Article III judges who are appointed under Article III of the US Constitution and confirmed by the Senate, ALJs are merit-appointed Article I judges whose authority and insulation from political influence comes from the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 (APA). They hear cases when a person or corporation exhausts all administrative remedies and asks for a hearing.

There are approximately 1400 federal Administrative Law Judges. Over 1200 of them hear Social Security Administration cases while the remainder handle matters arising from thirty-one other agencies. These APA-sanctioned cases include areas such as Occupational Safety and Health, National Labor Relations, and Federal Aviation. Each ALJ is an independent impartial trier of fact who makes decisions after considering the documentary evidence, oral testimony, and applicable law. Depending upon the agency involved, ALJ decisions may be appealed to an agency appellate court or directly to federal district court.

In a sense, the ALJ level protects the next level of federal district courts from being overwhelmed by a flood of regulatory cases. For example, in 2010, there were 3.2 million Social Security claims filed. Of these, about 15-18% requested a de novo hearing–meaning a new hearing or trial, after exhausting all administrative remedies. Most Social Security ALJs handle and dispose of 500-700 cases a year, with each case having an average value of $250,000.

Because a federal ALJ is appointed rather than elected; is restricted in terms of political activities by the Hatch Act; and may only be removed for good cause, Administrative Law Judges serve long careers outside the public’s radar. In addition to the federal ALJs, almost every state has some form of ALJ program, although state ALJs, who may claims of employment or housing discrimination, claims related to child support enforcement, and claims related to other state benefits, generally lack the insulation from political influence and guarantee of judicial independence that federal ALJs have. But whether federal or state, administrative law judges hear the stories of people’s lives.

As a sitting ALJ, I don’t write from the viewpoint of my present job, but my experiences as a judge and former litigator, coupled with those of my friends, do provide inspiration for crimes and courtroom settings. I just try to make sure if my characters go to trial, I put the right judge and subject matter together in my fictitious wood-paneled courtroom.

As the title of her first mystery, Maze in Blue, suggests, Debra H. Goldstein is a University of Michigan graduate, although she headed south and got a law degree from Emory University. She’s a former labor litigator, and now sits as an Administrative Law Judge in Birmingham, Alabama. Visit Debra through her blog — Leslie will be a guest in late May — or her website.

The Last Best Book

The Last Best Book I read:

The Last Time I Saw Paris, by Lynn Sheene. American Claire Harris Stone escapes a disastrous marriage by fleeing to Paris, expecting the open arms of a lover — only to find herself caught in war, intrigue, betrayal, and unexpected redemption. The best kind of armchair travel – no guns, no rationing, but you can smell the roses at La Vie en Fleurs, and taste the champagne, especially if you read with a chilled glass at hand!

And no, this has nothing to do with writing about the law. I just loved the book and want to share it. I expect to do this on occasion.

(And by the way, I bought this book with my own money — no free review copies here!)

Huguette Clark – the Copper-Clad Saga Continues

I’ve written  before about Huguette Clark, the reclusive heiress and daughter of Copper King William Clark, and about the alleged mismanagement of her money and estate.  When she died in the spring of 2011, Huguette left a $400 million fortune and a shroud of mystery.

The investigative reporter who uncovered the story, Bill Dedman of, and a cousin of Huguette’s, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., are writing a book about Huguette and her family, “Empty Mansions: The True Saga of the Copper King W.A. Clark, the Reclusive Heiress Huguette, and Their American Family of Wealth, Scandal and Mystery,” to be published by Ballantine Bantam Dell. (As a descendant of William Clark’s sister, Newell is not an heir to the Clark fortune, which descendants of Clark through his first wife are litigating.)

Dedman and also report that Huguette’s three Manhattan apartments–which she hadn’t lived in for decades–are listed for sale for a combined $55 million, by an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate, marketed as “a time capsule from the Gilded Age.” Indeed. Check out the floor plans.  (No photos of Clark’s apartments yet, but here are shots of another apartment available in the same building, for a mere $25 million.) 

It’s like Edith Wharton come to life, with just about as happy an ending as Lily Bart.

And what about the jewels, you ask? Christie’s will auction them on April 17. The pink cushion-cut 9 carat diamond ring, possibly once her mother Anna’s, is estimated to be worth $6-8 million. You’ve got to see the close-ups of the Art Deco emerald and diamond bracelet and the diamond bracelet she wore in her last-known photo.

Honestly, I feel like a voyeur, but I can’t stop looking. And if you’re writing family saga, rich vs. poor, the Gilded Age, early 20th century western history, or any story involving a will contest, undue influence, or the mysterious past, you won’t want to, either.

(Thanks to Bill Dedman of for the updates and photos.)

Veterans’ Courts – plot and character prospects

One of the Q&A in Books, Crooks & Counselors is how drug courts work. In answer, I mentioned other intensive supervision courts–for veterans, the mentally ill, DUI offenders, families, and young fathers. These specialized courts also offer writers an opportunity to explore social issues through fiction–one of the things modern crime fiction does particularly well.

Nearly 100 courts nationwide focus on veterans who have committed crimes–often involving drugs or alcohol, and not serious felonies. A combination drug and mental health court, vets’ courts address the special needs of vets with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, and other combat-related injuries, as well as substance abuse, anger, and challenges readjusting to civil society. By providing intensive supervision and access to services, the courts can help these defendants get their lives back on track–and reduce the risk that they’ll become repeat offenders, homeless, or otherwise unproductive.

The Missoulian recently reported on the first graduate of the first veterans’ court in Montana, who says he served five tours as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, and came back angry.

An earlier story describes the court’s purpose and structure. Participants sign a contract that includes a treatment plan. They agree to undergo drug testing, counseling, and daily phone check-ins for the first several weeks, and weekly in person check-ins with the judge. Depending on their needs, they may be ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. All need to be employed or searching for work, and job search assistance may be available. Mentors–all vets themselves–work with each participant.

According to reporter Gwen Florio, one participant says a big difference between veterans’ court and regular court systems is there’s not much complaining. “We’re grateful for the opportunity not to be in jail.”

Successful participation can result in a reduced sentence or deferred prosecution.

If a veterans’ court seems like a good addition to your story, get more information from the National Clearinghouse for Veterans Treatment Courts, a project of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, or check out the links in this Missoulian article.

(Photo of Lady Justice from the US Supreme Court website.)

The Saturday Writing Quote

“My writing knows more than I do. What a writer must do is listen to her book. It might take you where you don’t expect to go. That’s what happens when you write stories. You listen and you say “aha,” and you write it down. A lot of it is not planned, not conscious, it happens while you are doing it. You know more about if after you’re done.”

Madeleine L’Engle

Another goddess. I reread A Wrinkle in Time last year and was as enchanted as when I was twelve — maybe even more.