Stupid Criminal Tricks – cars, cameras, and dog hair

Missoula, Montana police recently put the bite on a serial car thief, with help from his cell phone — and his dog. The Missoulian reports that the man stole an SUV in Spokane, Washington and two more in Missoula, where he was arrested after being seen with one of the cars, which was under surveillance. (For readers not in Montana, the two cites are about 200 miles apart.) When police found the cars, they also found “dog-related items and dog hair with color, length and type consistent with a dog owned by Roth,” according to the newspaper’s account of court documents.

He had also taken pictures of the stolen cars with his cell phone.

And – in case you don’t think the guy was stupid enough – he was also charged with criminal possession of drug paraphernalia and driving a motor vehicle with a suspended or revoked license. Now, I don’t know if the drug paraphernalia was found in the stolen cars, or whether, like the leash, he just left it there. But you gotta know somebody’s gonna be looking for the car, right?

Put this in your comic novel–because you couldn’t write this in a serious mystery with a straight face.

A note on the admissibility of the dog hair evidence: a lab analysis and report will be required before the evidence can be admitted at trial, and the lab analyst will need to testify. But hair analysis–whether human or animal–is not new or unusual, and should not present any evidentiary issues. (Evidentiary issues – that’s legal talk for big doo-doo.)


Killer Characters — A Cozy Christmas giveaway

From November 26 through December 25, celebrate the holidays with the cozy characters at Killer Characters, where we’re giving away a book every day. Just leave a comment to be entered in the drawing for that day. On November 27, hear from Francesca “Fresca” Conti Murphy, mother of Erin Murphy, the star of my new series, The Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, which debuts in August 2013 with Death al Dente.  Erin manages The Merc, a specialty regional food market in the Village of Jewel Bay, Montana — she’s got a passion for pasta, retail, and huckleberry chocolates, and an unexpected talent for investigating murder.

Leave a comment and you’ll have a chance at winning a copy of Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books), the 2011 Agatha winner for Best Nonfiction.

“The castle doctrine” — update

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post  about a fatal shooting in Kalispell, Montana that involved both the “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” laws.  The Daily Inter Lake has now posted the County Attorney’s report on its website. If you’re interested in how prosecutors analyze facts and apply the law, take a look.


The Last Best Book — Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

Any questions about what readers and reviewers mean by voice in a book? Read Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011, now out in paper), and all will be revealed.

The premise of this stunning book is that in many lives, there is a particular year that changes everything. That sets the course for who one will be. For Katey Kontent, a 23-year-old orphan, American-born of Russian immigrant parents, it’s 1938 in Manhattan–the year she meets four extraordinary people also in their 20s: Tinker Grey, rags to riches and back; Eve Ross, opportunistic, ambitious, daring; the charming Dickie Vanderwhile; and the unforgettable sweet, solid Wallace Wolcott. And two influential older people as well: the devious and insightful Anne Grandyn and the exacting Mason Tate.

Take a wild ride back in time. It won’t take long–the book’s a page-turner–and you’ll have a grand time. Warning: even if, like me, you don’t like gin, you may crave a martini while you read. But Katey won’t mind if you pour champagne instead.

Amor Towles’ website — which looks like a drawing of the Manhattan skyline — includes an excerpt and a reading guide.

(And by the way, I bought this book with my own money — no free review copies here — at Bookworks in Kalispell, Montana.)

How to Tell a Judge He (or She) Screwed Up

My guest today is retired judge Bill Hopkins, author of Courting Murder, published in OCtober 2012 by Southeast Missouri University Press. 

“When Judge Rosswell Carew makes the gruesome discovery of two corpses on a riverbank in the Missouri Ozarks, he’s plunged into a storm of deadly secrets that threaten both him and his fiancée, Tina Parkmore. Unsatisfied with the way the authorities are conducting the investigation, Rosswell, who’s always nurtured a secret desire to be a detective, teams up with an ex-con, Ollie Groton, to solve the case before the killer can murder again. Rosswell uncovers a maze of crimes so tangled that he must fight his way to a solution or die trying.”

(The information in this blog is drawn from The Honorable Robert W. Gettleman’s article in the American Bar Association’s Section of Litigation’s Practice Essentials articles, available online here, and from my twenty years on the trial bench and five years as an administrative law judge.)

“I’m going to tell you how to diplomatically tell a judge that he (that’s used as an inclusive pronoun) has screwed up. You can use this information in your writing when you want your character–whether it’s a judge, lawyer, or party to the lawsuit–to realize that something bad has gone wrong during a lawsuit.

This article covers only criminal jury trials.

If you use the methods outlined here, you’ll no doubt get fewer nasty letters from lawyers complaining that you’ve mangled the legal system, but this information is being given as is, with all faults, and there are no warranties, express or implied. (I’ve been waiting years to use that useless phrase.)

Know your stuff. I’ve made my share of errors and have received nasty reviews from appellate courts. But your judge should know his stuff. If he makes a mistake on the admission of evidence, then you must do your homework and find out what the correct ruling would be. Let’s say that your jurisdiction does not allow a spouse to testify against the other spouse. The prosecutor in your case has a wife that’s dying to spill the beans on her husband (the defendant). The defendant objects but the court (that’s what lawyers call the judge when they’re trying to be nice) allows it. You will have to learn about privileged communications in your state and why the judge’s ruling is wrong.

Ask for a sidebar. That’s when the judge and lawyers discuss something out of the hearing of the jury but in front of the jury. Juries are human and when you do that, the jury will think that what just happened (i.e., the error the judge made) is a lot more important than it really is. If you want your character to bring attention to the error, have him ask for a sidebar. If you want him to minimize the error, have him ask for a short recess.

Your character must always be respectful towards the judge, regardless of what kind of idiot you have sitting on the bench. Once a judge makes a ruling in the courtroom, all argument ceases, unlike what I’ve witnessed in television shows, movies, and books. Muttering and eye rolling doesn’t impress the judge, much less continued arguing.

If the error is that the judge sustained an objection to a question that is clearly okay to ask, then have your character rephrase the question. If your character is the prosecutor and he asks, “Officer, was the defendant drunk?” and the defendant’s objection is sustained, have the prosecutor start over. “Officer, did you have reason to believe the defendant had consumed alcohol?” And so on.

Always make a record. One of the best things I learned in judges’ college–yes, there really are such things–was to make a record. If your character wants a bloody iron pipe entered into evidence and the court sustains the other party’s objection, then he should make an offer of proof. (This is often done outside the hearing of the jury.) The lawyer who wants the pipe entered into evidence will have a chance to show and tell the judge why the pipe should be entered into evidence. Unless your character is the prosecutor (most of the time, a prosecutor can’t appeal a not guilty verdict) and the judge still refuses, then, assuming your character is convicted, he will have a record to show the court of appeals.

Writers are constantly asking me legal questions for their stories. I’m happy to answer them, but the best answer is usually, “Ask a lawyer or judge in your area.” If you live in a big city, that may be a bit harder than living in a rural area where people are more likely to know each other. But, for example, if you live in a big city, go visit the courthouse and watch a few criminal jury trials. If you’re polite and have a business card showing the judge or a lawyer that you’re a writer, they may be willing to answer hypothetical questions.”


Bill Hopkins is retired after beginning his legal career in 1971 and serving as a private attorney, prosecuting attorney, an administrative law judge, and a trial court judge, all in Missouri. His poems, short stories, and non-fiction have appeared in many different publications. He’s had several short plays produced. A book of collected poetry, Moving Into Forever, is available on Amazon. Bill is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dramatists Guild, Horror Writers Association, Missouri Writers Guild, and Sisters In Crime. Bill is also a photographer who has sold work in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He and his wife, Sharon (a mortgage banker who is also a published writer), live in Marble Hill, Missouri, with their dogs and cat. Besides writing, Bill and Sharon are involved in collecting and restoring Camaros. Courting Murder is his first mystery novel.

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Character tools: cameras that determine the age of bruises

This segment of a new video series by Notre Dame highlights the development of a new camera that can detect the age of bruises, particularly important to doctors who treat children who appear to be victims of child abuse. How can your characters advocate for, use, or resist such technology in your story?