Katie’s Law – collecting DNA at arrest

On January 10, 2013, President Obama signed “Katie’s Law,” named for New Mexico college student Katie Sepich. The law provides grants to states to implement and expand laws authorizing the collection of DNA evidence from suspects arrested and charged with specified felonies. According to the DNA Saves Foundation, created by Sepich’s parents, twenty-six states already authorize collection at arrest. According to the Billings Gazette, the Wyoming Legislature just rejected the proposal. (A map on the Foundation website shows which states require testing on felony arrest.)

All states require DNA collection on conviction. The law does not affect DNA testing when required for investigating or prosecuting a specific case.

The pro: checking DNA on a suspect arrest may help determine whether he is a suspect in other crimes.

The con: automatic collection of DNA may infringe the rights of persons not yet convicted–who may in fact be innocent–and by expanding a government database, may expand the risk of future misuse or over-reaching.

According to the Las Cruces Sun-Times, Katie Sepich, a 22-year-old graduate student, was raped and murdered in 2003. At that time, New Mexico did not collect DNA until the suspect had been convicted. A man arrested on other charges in 2003 was ultimately convicted and tested in 2006; only then was his DNA connected to her. In other words, if DNA had been collected when he was arrested, he could have been charged in her case several years earlier.

Meanwhile, a Maryland man who pled guilty to a lesser charge — for which DNA samples at arrest were not authorized — challenged the constitutionality of that state’s law. The Supreme Court is hearing the case this week.

And in another development, the Missoulian reports that Montana may soon become the 47th state to require registered violent and sex offenders who move to the state from another to provide a DNA sample when they move into the state. Three other states — Colorado, Idaho, and Wisconsin — have yet to enact such a law. (All states require offenders who must register in another state to register when they move to a new state.)

Will the timing of a DNA test affect your story?

The Saturday Writing Quote — bestsellers on “the muse”

“I think you need to get to a point where writing is something you can do on demand instead of waiting for a muse. … The most important thing I tell beginning writers is that, when you suddenly realize that you’ve written the absolute worst thing ever written in the history of mankind, don’t let yourself stop; force yourself to go through to the end. And then you can make the choice to scrap it or fix it. But if you don’t go through to the end, you’ll never know if you can.”

– Jodi Picoult



“You’re going to be unemployed if you really think you just have to sit around and wait for the muse to land on your shoulder.”

— Nora Roberts 


Voices of the Victims — a Montana school shooting

In 1986, a 14 y.o. freshman at the Fergus County High School in Lewistown, Montana, took a loaded handgun from his step-father’s unlocked vehicle and went after the French teacher who’d told him he was failing her class. She wasn’t in her classroom — she was also the cheerleader advisor, and was in the gym with the cheer squad for the state Class A girls’ basketball tournament, which had started that afternoon. (I grew up in another Montana town, and played BB in that gym a few years earlier.) So–he shot and killed the substitute.

And then he started down the hall, where he encountered the assistant vice principal, John Moffatt. Shot him three times, then turned and left the building. Moffatt lived — probably, according to a recent in-depth interview with Vince Devlin of the Missoulian, because a military medic home on leave happened to be visiting in the school’s art classroom.

What strikes me most — and what I want to share with you — in Moffatt’s interview is the continuing impact on him and on his family. His three children were young. They had nightmares, of course. But every time another school shooting happens — or any mass shooting — the nightmare begins again. No doubt everyone who was in the building, or even in the town, has the same reaction — 26 years later. Moffatt says  he hears from former students when another incident occurs. Moffatt’s daughter was working at a Denver area hospital in July 2012 when the Aurora movie theater shooting occurred, and took calls from family members looking for victims.

The boy was convicted in adult court and is serving two life sentences. He is now 40. Devlin reports that he comes up for parole periodically; it’s never been granted. He and Moffatt met a few years after the shooting, as part of an ABC show on gun violence.

Every crime novel has its victims–the ones who die or are shot. But there are indirect victims–the survivors, the families, the shooter’s own family, and more. As writers, we need to be aware of their reactions. The impact reverberates long after the gunfire fades.

The Saturday Writing Quote — Barry Lopez

“Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”

– Barry Lopez, American essayist and short-story writer (b. 1945)

My favs: Of Wolves and Men, and Desert Notes/River Notes,

with the essay Lessons From the Wolverine.





(Photo from the author’s website.)

Death penalty debate continues — what do your characters think?

Once again, a state legislature is debating whether to abolish or retain the death penalty. This time, it’s Montana, which has debated the issue before and left the death penalty in place. What strikes me—from the perspective of a writer, and one encouraging other writers to use legal issues to raise the tensions in their stories—is the passionate, articulate disagreement. Not just among legislators—we expect that. But among families of murder victims, among clergy, and even among prosecutors. Read more about the debate in this story from the Missoulian.

And don’t miss this report of testimony from Ron Keine, who testified about his experience of being nine days from execution in New Mexico in the 1970s, when another man–a law enforcement officer–confessed to the crimes to a minister, who convinced him to go to police. Even then, the prosecutor rejected the confession, but the court threw out the conviction and released Keine, who later started his own business and become what’s often called “a productive member of society.”

I’ve written before about the conflicting views of victims’ families, and statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center.  Books, Crooks & Counselors includes extensive Q&A on the death penalty.

And because I’m asked every time I write about the death penalty, I’ll say it: I’m against it. I’ve been in prison—although always with the ability to leave at will—and I’m convinced that life without the possibility of parole is a far worse punishment, at least on this earthly plane, than death.


How can you use this difference of opinion to create more conflict and tension for your characters?

Update: the ban failed to pass out of committee, on an 11-9 vote. The Legislature is biennial, so the issue can’t come up again until 2015.

(Photos of the Montana State Capital building and the Old Montana Prison from State of Montana website.)


The Case of the Hungry Robber

A man tried to rob a pizza place in Helena, Montana, but broke down in tears, telling the cashier he needed money for his family. The cashier talked to him for a while, then gave him pizza, wings, and pop – to go.

Unfortunately, as he started to leave, a large knife fell out of his pocket. Other evidence includes the demand note he gave the cashier.

The facts will determine any charges, once he’s caught. But local police are hoping he doesn’t make a habit of threatening robbery to get a free meal.

If he does, he’ll be eating taxpayer food.

Update: Turns out the would-be thief is also a liar. He made up the story about the kids and faked the break-down when he realized the till was nearly empty. It held $24.65.  Geez — or cheese. Some people … .

Story and update from the Helena Independent Record.

(Photo courtesy of Krista Davis, New York Times best-selling author of the Domestic Diva series.)


The Saturday Writing Quote — Jean Cocteau

“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort.”

— Jean Cocteau, French man of arts and letters (1889-1963) (pictured in 1923)

An explanation for the appeal of crime — and of story? Hmmm.

Thanks to P.J. Coldren for the quote.


(Photo from Wikipedia)

Guest: Kenneth Eichner on MIND YOUR PLEAS AND BARGAINS

My guest today is Kenneth F. Eichner, a former prosecutor and author of D.A. Diaries. He has tried almost 140 jury trials and reports that he has been in court every week since 1983.

“Fifteen years in jail? That’s nuts!” exclaimed the defendant, turning her head towards her silent defense attorney.

“You should have thought of that before you burned down your boyfriend’s house,” says the prosecutor, his voice dripping with indignation.

How many times have we seen this plea bargain scene in the stereotypical Law-&-Order-ish legal drama? As a practicing attorney and author of legal fiction, these scenes are nails on a chalkboard. The truth is that prosecutors do not plea bargain with defendants; prosecutors negotiate with the defendant’s attorney. Maybe one percent of the time a defendant in a big case goes it alone, but the rest of the time the accused has a public
defender or private counsel and does not even attend a plea bargaining session.

And here’s the real cringer: if the defense attorney was stupid enough to allow the client to attend a plea bargaining session, the client would be told not to speak. I think of attorney Brendan Sullivan, who represented Oliver North in the Iran Contra Hearings. In response to repeated questions directed to his client, Sullivan famously said, “what am I? A
potted plant?” Attorneys speak for their clients–it is the quintessential duty attorneys have. Sure, there is drama to be found when the noble prosecutor confronts the villain, but these exchanges just do not ring true.

The trick, then, is to render that drama in a more realistic canvas. For example, the attorney can boisterously fight on behalf of his client during the plea session. Or, more realistically, the attorney can fight with his or her client in relating the possible plea agreement:

“You have to take this deal – you go in front of a jury and they
will crucify you,” the attorney spoke with cold precision, emotionally removed
from his client’s peril.

Indignantly, the defendant rolled her eyes and crossed her arms.
“Whose side are you on? I thought I could trust you.”

Admittedly not National Book Award material, but I think you get
the gist.


Kenneth F. Eichner has worked as both a prosecutor and defense attorney. His trials include a number of high-profile cases that have been covered by The Washington Post, The Denver Post, and 60 Minutes. He began his career as a deputy district attorney for six
years in Prince George’s County, Maryland. For the past 16 years, he has worked on the other side of the aisle as a defense attorney in Denver.

For more information about D.A. Diaries and to view the trailer,
visit his website.

And if you’ve got a copy of Books, Crooks & Counselors, the factors considered in reaching a plea agreement are discussed on pp. 95-96.


Character motivation — “complicated grief”

Though it doesn’t directly involve legal issues, I was touched by this story in the Washington Post, which offers fiction writers some insight on the “complicated grief” the families of crime victims often experience. Our characters act out of their own experiences; their emotions may motivate them in surprising ways. This story about about the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in Washington, DC, may also offer some character opportunities: the young boy whose father killed his mother but was acquitted when the child, the only witness, waffled on the stand; the grandmother who lost her daughter and now must raise her grandson; the counselors who work with these families; the Episcopal priest who started the center because he felt his congregation “did not deal well with mortality;” the therapists stationed at the morgue to help people who come in to identify a body. The Center — part of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a group of trauma-treatment organizations established by Congress in 2000 — is what the article calls “the resource you hope you never have to use.”


But your characters may need need it.






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