Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Judge Manners: Propensity evidence on steroids

Judge Michael Manners has issued a new order concerning the Reginald Clemons case. It's not earth-shattering, though it counts as a setback for Clemons and his attorneys.

Their discovery request had been contested on three points by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. The STLPD did not think it should surrender:

* records of complaints against the officers that arrested and investigated Clemons from August 28, 1998 through the present,

* or all documents about any use of force or coercion by any City cop from Jan. 1, 1986 through Dec. 31, 1996

* or or all documents about any fabrication of or tampering with evidence by any City cop from Jan. 1, 1986 through Dec. 31, 1996.

Judge Manners notes that the dispute over the first of these disputed points had been worked out between the legal teams in a teleconference call. I need to get clarification on this point, but it seems the request was amended to apply records of complaints against the officers that handled Clemons pertaining to misconduct committed before August 28, 1998 but not reported or alleged until afterwards.

On the other two points - pertaining to the more sweeping respects in the discovery subpoeana - Judge Manners sided with the STLPD's Internal Affairs lawyers. Asking for evidence of other, similar complaints, Manners notes, is at times permissible in that it can show a "propensity" for misconduct. But the judge reasons that it is asking too much to ask for all records of coercion or evidence-tampering for all City cops, not just the ones who handled Clemons.

"This is propensity evidence on steroids," Judge Manners notes, in a winning turn of phrase.

Judge Manners is the Special Master appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court to review the case of Missouri death row inmate Reginald Clemons, who had been scheduled for execution on June 17, 2009, before a federal stay of execution opened the door for the historic turnaround by the Missouri Supreme Court in reopening the case to independent review.


Judge Manners' order regarding contested discovery request

Monday, January 25, 2010

Introducing: the Jazz Composers Series

It’s an idea whose time is ripe: local jazz composers splitting sets between their own compositions and those of a master.

This is the striking concept behind The Nu-Art Series’ "Jazz Composers Series: re-arrangements & nu-compositions."

Each week of Black History Month and into mid-April, the Nu-Art Series will present a different local composer playing their own music and selections by a master.

The schedule:

* Sat. Feb. 6: The Darrell Mixon Quartet (the work of Charles Mingus)
* Sat. Feb. 13: The Charles "Bobo" Shaw Art Ensemble (the work of Eric Dolphy)
* Sat. Feb. 20: The Ptah Williams Trio (the work of Bud Powell)
* Sat. Feb. 27: The Chad Evans Ensemble (the work of Charlie Parker)
* Sat. March 6: The Chris Burchett Quartet (the work of Thelonius Monk)
* Sat. March 13: The Anthony Wiggins Quintet (the work of Freddie Hubbard)
* Sun. March 21: The Willie Akins Quartet (the work of Sonny Rollins)
* Sat. March 27: The Jerome "Scrooge" Harris Ensemble (the work of Miles Davis/Wayne Shorter)
* Sat. April 3: JD Parran (the work of John Coltrane)
* Sat. April 17: The Stan Coleman Youth Jazz Band (the work of Duke Ellington).

All performances will be held at the Nu-Art Series’ Metropolitan Gallery, 2936 Locust St. from 3-6 p.m. Admission is $10.

For more information, contact George Sams at 314-535-6500, nu-artseries@charter.net or www.thenu-artseries.org.


Pic of Mingus.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Plastic cup night caps"

For reasons obvious to anyone following news events here in mid-January 2010, I am profoundly in the dumps, and it doesn't look like it will be going away anytime soon; so I amuse myself by casting my mind back to when things were simpler and all I wanted to do was write songs about beer.

This is, best I can remember, the first song I ever recorded (ca. 1985). It was recorded, mostly performed and cowritten by a guy named Jeff Rouder, who befriended me when he noticed I had aced an organic chemistry exam that stumped him.

Jeff went on to teach science at the college level, while I ran away from the academy to play rock music and ended up, on the road, turning a buck from journalism, which became my career. There is probably some sort of object lesson in this, as the science tutor and the dormitory musician somehow inverted roles.

The story behind the song is self-explanatory, so long as you understand what a plastic cup night cap is. I grew up drinking underage in gritty steel mill town bars, where at the end of the night, which came in the mid-morning, they put you out on the street with your last drink poured into a plastic cup. One often went to bed, which actually may have been the backseat of a car, with the person with whom you shared that last drink - that plastic cup night cap.

As a misfit transfer student at the wealthy and alien Washington Univerity, a kid who already had gone AWOL from the U.S. Navy in a foreign port, plastic cup night caps came back to me as an image for my white trash social roots.


"Plastic cup night caps"
(Chris King, Jeff Rouder)
ca. 1985
Big Toe*

* Band name I have used for any music I did before starting the band Enormous Richard.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Some songs you can mostly blame on me

Heidi Dean, Adam Long and I are reconvening another Three Fried Men, now called Three Fried Chamber Players so we can get away with sitting down while we play.

Half of the songs will be Heidi's, and half of my songs will be poetry scores, but I'll seize the opportunity to strum and croon a few I wrote myself or with a friend or found somewhere along the road.

Like other songwriter-archivist-packrats of a certain age, finding my old recordings involves heroic acts of archaeology performed in unhealthy basements.

I'm blogging this stuff to make it easier to find next time - and easy to pass onto my fellow chamber players (Heidi, Adam, Dave Melson, Tim McAvin, Josh Weinstein) this time.


Embryonic version of the closest thing to a "rocker" I have in me as a chord chopper. Can't hear the incipient rock from this songwriting tape.

First song I ever wrote all by my lonesome in Eleanor Roosevelt's version from Walker with his head down.

Written from a big brotherly perspective I never got to experience in real life. This includes a rare appearance of a bar chord in my songsmithing.

An Adam Long favorite. The groovy guitar part and licks belong to Lij, who strummed this out in a car park on a field recording trip. Dave or Tim would have to learn all that.

"Charming Betsy"

An Appalachian standard I learned from Bascom Lamar Lunsford's Memory Collection, archived at Mars Hill College.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

How to stop the termites from eating our house

This morning, Leyla wondered if there were any termites in St. Louis, where we live. I said yes.

She said, in St Louis County? She appreciates the distinction between the city and the county, where we live.

I said yes, there are.

She said, but there aren't any termites in our neighborhood. In fact there are, I said.

We were driving through our St. Louis County neighborhood to her school, which is nearby. I felt like she was looking at the passing houses for evidence of termites.

But there aren't any termites eating our house, she said.

I sighed. Not really knowing the seasonal development patterns of termites, I winged it and said yes, when it gets warm again there will almost certainly be some termites trying to eat our house.

She considered this thoughtfully. She said, but the termites haven't eaten any of our house yet.

I said, in fact they have. Small parts of our house had been replaced after termites damaged them, we just didn't explain all of that to her at the time. We had just bought the house and she was very little at the time. She is six now.

But there are no holes in our house, she said. I decided to concede that point and let it go. It kind of depended on what you wanted to count as a hole.

I've got an idea! she said suddenly, with much more force. When it gets warm, let's put a piece of wood outside of our house so the termites eat that instead!

I said that I doubted every termite would rush right over to that piece of wood. Some of them would be closer to our house and would try to eat it instead.

She was beginning to consider the problem for real now. The termites had us surrounded!

Why can't we put up an electric fence that shocks the termites and keeps them out? she wanted to know.

I had to admit that was a good question. I told her if she could figure out a way to make that work, then she would - I didn't want to say "make a lot of money," like that is the goal - I said, then a lot of people would want to buy one.

It works for dogs, she said.

I knew it would come to that. Just days before we had discussed, to the best of my very limited scientific abilities, the phenomena of invisible electric fences that keep dogs penned up in yards.

I explained that the electric dog fence senses movement, and if you were to make an electric fence so sensitive that it detected the tiny movements of tiny termites, and put that all the way around your house, then it would shock everything that moved. People would get shocked every time they walked out of their house.

I mean a tiny electric fence, she said. Tiny like the termites.

That is what scientists do, I said, research scientists - they take ideas like that and they test them, they see if they can find a way to make their ideas work.

At that point, Leyla was bounding out of the car and bouncing into the school, to learn more about termites or, who knows what. Tarantulas?


Image from some termite site.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The detective meets the Chinese studies professor

Joe Burgoon, a detective with the St. Louis County Police Cold Case Squad, called me today. It really made my day.

It wasn't a break in a case or news that would interest me as a journalist. Rather, the veteran detective was calling me in his new, unofficial capacity as a literary critic.

Joe Burgoon had just finished reading my copy of True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China, and he was pretty jazzed about the book. He went on at some length about what he had learned reading about detective work on the other side of the Earth two centuries ago.

I myself did not finish the book before passing it to Joe, so he knew more about it than I do. I couldn't really keep up with him as he enthused about compassion in the criminal justice system described in these case histories and the system they used for investigating and prosecuting crimes in this lost world.

The book is a collection of twenty case histories, translated and annotated by Robert E. Hegel, a professor at Washington University. It came to my attention through my volunteer service on the Advisory Board for The Center for the Humanties at Wash U. We produce an annual event devoted to books published by campus authors that year, and Bob Hegel's book appeared on our list in 2009. It sounded really interesting, so I asked him for a copy, and he kindly provided one.

"My book presents a sample of crime reports from eighteenth-century China in English translation. All are capital crimes. Since all capital crimes might carry the death penalty, detailed reports of all levels of investigation had to be forwarded to the Emperor for his final decision on sentencing," Hegel writes on Rorotoko.

"Capital crimes required investigation and review at local, prefectural, provincial, and central levels of the imperial Qing period (1644-1911) administration. These reports include information about the victims and what happened to them, testimony from the accused and various witnesses, and official correspondence between judicial officials about the crimes."

The book is really interesting. As I read these detailed court records of murders and other abuses from another time and place, I kept thinking about my work as a journalist, which has brushed up against police work and court proceedings a lot recently. I really wanted to bounce the book off someone who knows detective work from the inside, in our day and age.

I asked around, and ended up with Joe Burgoon. He is retired from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and works only part time out in the County. I guess he has a little more time and inclination to read than your average copper. And, it turns out, he likes the book!

My next move is to videotape a conversation between the two men about the book and capital crimes in 18th century China, as compared to police work on the mean streets of contemporary St. Louis. My friend Aaron AuBuchon, who runs the video program at Webster University, has agreed to get one of his classes involved in the production.

First, though, I hope to be a fly on the wall as the detective and the professor meet and talk more informally - over coffee or, I would prefer, a beer.


Image is Tao Yuanming, ink on paper scroll by Min Zhen, 18th century China from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, January 8, 2010

'Russian St. Louis' photo exhibit opening

The latest installment in the University of Missouri-St. Louis' ongoing Public Policy Research Center Photography Project features pictures taken by Russian natives residing in St. Louis.

Participants were taught photography through the UMSL project and then asked to document their culture for the exhibit, "Russian St. Louis," which will be on display at two locations.

Ron Laboray, a PPRC Photography Project instructor, worked with a group of Russian immigrants for the exhibit. He described them as "lively, determined and internationally astute" and said they expressed "a strong desire to create stronger bonds between Russians living in St. Louis."

This sentiment was echoed by project participant Dmitri Kabargin, who is president of the Greater St. Louis-Samara Sister City Committee.

"It is amazing how people who emigrate from a country as huge as Russia do not get connected with each other and do not build a strong community in a small city like St. Louis," said Kabargin, one of just under 17,000 Russian immigrants in the St. Louis area.

"There are a lot of small groups, small Russian communities, within St. Louis, but there is no one place where you can learn about all of them. Projects like this let people know about each other and help build a stronger community."

The group met for 10 weeks to study digital photography and discuss how their photographs reflect what it is like to be Russian in St. Louis. Laboray said the participants felt it was important to convey Russian tradition without relying on the standard pop culture clichés.

Instead, the resulting photos captured a range of subjects: a long workday, a game of billiards, a special dinner, family, church, motherhood and Russian World War II veterans.

"Russian St. Louis" will be on display Jan. 26 through March 14 at the PPRC Photography Project Gallery in 427 Social Sciences and Business Building at UMSL, One University Blvd. in Bellerive, Mo. Gallery hours are 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. An opening reception will be from noon to 1 p.m. Jan. 19 in the gallery.

A duplicate of each PPRC Photography Project exhibit also is displayed in a location affiliated with the photographers. In addition to UMSL, "Russian St. Louis" will be on display Jan. 26 through March 14 at Astoria Restaurant, 12949 Olive Blvd. in unincorporated west St. Louis County (63141). Exhibit hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. An opening reception will be from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Jan. 26 at the restaurant.

Visit http://pprc.umsl.edu or call 314-516-5273 for more information.

(UMSL press release by Ryan Heinz. The photo is “Sochi Arch” by Carl Trautmann.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

El-Amin on tape requesting and taking bribe money

The U.S. Attorney's Office in St. Louis provided upon request images presented in court today of former state Rep. T.D. El-Amin soliciting and accepting bribes from a local gas station owner who was cooperating with federal investigators.

The link opens a pdf with three images pulled from a videorecording made covertly by the cooperating witness.

One shows a note written by El-Amin saying he won't talk bribe money in his office because he suspects it is bugged.

Another shows a note El-Amin passed him, asking when some "good faith" bribe money can be kicked his way.

The third - the real howler - shows El-Amin watching as a wad of bribe money is handed across his desk.

Today Judge Henry E. Autrey sentenced El-Amin to 18 months in prison.

Judge to El-Amin: ‘You spit in the face of the people’

This will appear as tomorrow's Political EYE column in The St. Louis American and was written from the perspective of tomorrow. That is, what reads here as "yesterday" actually happened today (January 6, 2010). Got it? The picture is of Judge Autrey.

Former state rep T.D. El-Amin was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay $2,100 – exactly the amount he had agreed to receive in bribe money – in restitution yesterday morning in federal court.

Judge Henry E. Autrey showed El-Amin no leniency and stayed within the guidelines for sentencing, which called for 18-24 months."You stomped on the Constitution," Autrey told El-Amin in a passionate speech that preceded the delivery of the sentence. "You spit in the face of the people."

El-Amin had previously pled guilty to federal bribery charges. El-Amin was recorded soliciting and accepting bribes from a gas station owner in his district in exchange for helping the constituent deal with his alderman and a City of St. Louis department head.

The gas station owner was covertly cooperating with the FBI, which will receive the money El-Amin owes in restitution.

Federal sentencing guidelines, outlined in El-Amin’s plea agreement, call for 18-24 months in prison. El-Amin’s counsel, Paul D’Agrosa, citing letters testifying to El-Amin’s community service, asked for leniency. He asked for a sentence of 12 months and one day.

Federal prosecutor Hal Goldsmith argued that the federal guidelines called for an appropriate punishment and deterrent. Goldsmith said he had read El-Amin’s letters of support and found no evidence that his supporters even understood the facts of the case.

Judge Autrey agreed. If anything, El-Amin’s letters of support seemed to have counted against him. The judge quoted from one letter that said it was unfortunate that mistakes resulted in criminal consequences. "Some people call that justice," Judge Autrey said.

‘The Man’ in black

In his brief comments before the court, El-Amin said he himself had disagreed with supporters and constituents who approached him claiming that his legal problems were the result of "a conspiracy, or The Man." El-Amin said he told such supporters, "I broke the law."

The only conspiracy at work in this case was the network of undercover agents and informants working for or cooperating with the FBI and other investigative agencies in St. Louis. For the record, the regional director of the FBI, Special Agent in Charge Roland Corvington, is African-American, though John Gillies was running the office when El-Amin was recorded soliciting and accepting bribes. Corvington was not present in court yesterday.

Further, the judge who lectured El-Amin so sternly and stayed within federal guidelines in sentencing him, Henry E. Autrey, also is African-American. For those sensitive to courtroom dramaturgy, Autrey’s formidable presence as an eminent African-American jurist lent a special power to his passionate defense of the Constitution and his vivid expressions of disgust for public corruption.

"I am a citizen of the United States of America," Judge Autrey said directly to El-Amin. "I relish that. I am very proud of it. I think there is no place on this Earth I would rather be a citizen of. There is no place on Earth I value more than my country. There is no place on Earth that deserves my service as a citizen more than this nation."

The man – or, as conspiracy theorists might say, The Man – speaking these passionate words in defense of the nation was a black man. And, though there have been many criminal cases in other courts described (at times, fairly) as a "legal lynching," there was no reference to lynching as a metaphor in Judge Autrey’s court. The metaphor the judge used was, instead, "lynchpin."

"The lynchpin of everything we have in the United States is liberty," Judge Autrey said in his direct address to El-Amin. "Before you committed this act, before you resigned your position, you, Mr. El-Amin, were a figurehead, a guardian and a symbol of that liberty. The people who voted for you, who looked to you for guidance and leadership and strength, did so because they had the liberty to do so."

Judge Autrey construed El-Amin’s soliciting and accepting bribes while in public office as, fundamentally, an assault on this liberty. The judge framed his point in a way that was personal to himself yet magnified El-Amin’s crime to encompass more than 300 million victims.

"Every time, Mr. El-Amin, a politician engages in conduct that is illegal and unethical, it erodes my liberty," Judge Autrey said. "It erodes our liberty. It erodes the liberty of the 310 million, the 315 million citizens of this nation. And we have to try to get that back every time that liberty is eroded. That’s very difficult."

At that point, Judge Autrey rose to his most fervent defense of the Constitution and his most vivid castigation of El-Amin.

"When you strip away the material things, when you strip away the economics, all that we have and all that we really need as people is the Constitution," Judge Autrey said. "The Constitution gave you your job as a representative of the people. And you stomped on it. You stomped on these people you represented and you spit in their face."

Pols and polls

Judge Autrey – perhaps cognizant of the sizable contingent of reporters in his court – brought his concerns back to the people and reminded them that they have the power to choose better leaders.

"In the overall scheme of things, Mr. El-Amin, what will resolve this is the people," Judge Autrey said. "And I believe that the people of this city, state and nation have great intuition and great insight, and most of them understand what they have to do to resolve political corruption – and they do that at the polls."

As both Judge Autrey and the prosecutor, Hal Goldsmith, pointed out several times, El-Amin’s guilty plea to bribery is not an isolated incident in recent Missouri politics. For one, the specter of former state Senator Jeff Smith haunted El-Amin’s sentencing hearing.Once a golden boy of Missouri Democrats, Smith reported to federal prison the day before El-Amin was sentenced.

Smith had pled guilty to conspiring to obstruct two separate federal investigations regarding a minor act of campaign fraud he had committed during his 2004 congressional campaign. Smith – who was the beneficiary of a great many letters of support, ranging from the grass roots to the halls of power – was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and a fine of $50,000. His counsel had requested house arrest.

Goldsmith took a detour, while arguing that El-Amin should receive no leniency, to handicap the Democrats’ insider process to replace Smith. Goldsmith claimed El-Amin was the "front-runner" to replace Smith in the Missouri Senate – a far more powerful position than a seat in the state House, which El-Amin had – when El-Amin was snagged in the bribery sting.

"Ironically, he was the front-runner to fill the seat in the state Senate vacated by Jeff Smith, but for the government’s investigation," Goldsmith claimed of El-Amin.

Ultimately, Smith was replaced by a failed school board candidate and Democratic committeeman named Joe Keaveny, who served his first day in the Missouri Senate on the day El-Amin was sentenced. Keaveny was strongly pushed for the position by Mayor Francis G. Slay, who shares with Keaveny (and, previously, Smith) a dominant funding source in Rex Sinquefield. Slay wrote a passionate of letter in support of Smith for his sentencing hearing. Slay had counted both Smith and El-Amin as allies in the state Legislature and city politics.

Despite the taint in St. Louis politics left by a string of dramatic convictions, Judge Autrey rose in passionate defense of the political process as a means to improve the quality of elected officials. Judge Autrey said, "I think the people understand we have to be more careful who we pick, we have to have greater insight and patience and research to get the people we can trust to do the right thing."