Saturday, March 27, 2010

Carnival in Cleveland

As it happens, last week read Eric Larson's nonfiction story of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the serial killer who haunted the area, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.  I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that the serial-killer "Devil" of the title, H.H. Holmes (nee Herman Mudgett) is responsible for the "Murder" and that he killed, according to Larson, somewhere between 9 and 200 people.

It's a hell of a story (and a remarkably gripping book despite some narrative clumsiness and annoyances), but this isn't a review.  It's really an introduction to the truth is stranger than fiction story of our own alleged serial killer here in Ohio.

They sometimes call Cleveland "The Mistake on the Lake."  I kind of like the city.   I like Cuyahoga County, too.  But sometimes you gotta wonder.

It seems that nobody was paying too much attention to the strange smells that some folks said were coming from Anthony Sowell's home in Cleveland.  Frankly, it seems that nobody was paying too much attention to Sowell.  At least, nobody was until - well, the story is that the bodies started piling up.  First there was this.
Police found two decomposing bodies Thursday night in a duplex on the city's southeast side when they went to arrest a registered sex offender wanted for an attack inside the home last month. 
Then this.
Scores of law enforcement officers continued their search for convicted sex offender Anthony Sowell Friday night, while investigators temporarily ended their work at Sowell's home after finding the bodies of possibly six people inside and outside the house. 
Finally, this.
Coroner's officials now confirm that they have found 11 bodies at Sowell's home. All of them are black women. At least five of them were strangled.
OK, it's horrific.  And maybe Anthony Sowell is responsible for all that and maybe not (and maybe there's not all that).*  Oh, sure, it turns out that the niece of Cleveland's mayor "moved in with Sowell in 2005 about a month after he was released from a 15-year prison sentence for attempted rape."  There's lots of stuff for the tabloids.  But, and maybe I've been in this business too long, what's really interesting about the case isn't the number of people Sowell is alleged to have killed or the frankly sordid particulars on which the media has focused.  What's really interesting is the sideshow that's been the combination of court and press.

It doesn't take an expert to know that the press will have a field day when a guy who's served significant time for a sex offense is charged with killing 11 women over a period of years and storing the bodies in and around his home, when he was arrested on charges of choking and raping a woman in December 2008 but released two days later, and when he's actually charged in an 85 count indictment containing numerous charges of aggravated murder, kidnapping, rape, abuse of a corpse, and other offenses.

But really, there's stuff here you can't make up.

Let's begin with the judge who tried to have a reporter arrested.

The judge is Shirley Strickland Saffold.  She took over the case after Judge Thomas McGinty recused himself citing a possible conflict of interest.

Anyway, back in November, the Cleveland Plain Dealer (it's the PD's website from which I'm taking all the news links in this post) ran a story by Gabriel Baird about how a court-ordered psychological evaluation of Sowell in 2005 (after he'd served his 15 year prison term) revealed that he wasn't likely to pose a danger to anyone.  The thing is, those evaluations aren't typically public.  Where did Baird get a copy?  Saffold wanted to know, so she ordered him arrested and brought to court.

Ultimately, Baird didn't have to reveal his source.  Why?  Not a matter of reporter privilege (on which he was prepared to stand).  Rather, it's because the source outed himself.  And the source was none other than, wait for it, Judge Timothy McGinty.  Saffold didn't see much point in having McGinty arrested since, she said, he had a right to release the report.  (Yep.  Baird could be arrested for not telling who gave him the report, but the actual source had not liability.  Reporter v. Judge in court?  Who wins?  Oh, yeah.)

Saffold herself is an interesting judge with a, let's say, checkered past on the bench.  In pretty much everyone's favorite story, back in 1995 a woman had entered a plea of guilty to credit card fraud as part of an effort to find a good man.  From the bench, in open court, Saffold told the woman:
Men are easy.  You can go sit at the bus stop, put on a short skirt, cross your legs and pick up 25. Ten of them will give you their money. It's the truth.  If you don't pick up the first 10, then all you got to do is open your legs a little bit and cross them at the bottom and then they'll stop.
But I digress.

She's now talking about banning the media from the trial altogether.  Not at anyone's request, mind you, just because . . . well, it's not all that clear because what.  There's an issue about that psych report from 2005.  And she thinks the Plain Dealer is trying to intimidate her.  And somehow she's concerned that allowing press coverage will delay the trial past June 2 (don't hold your breath on that date counting).  But you know, the thing is that trials are public for a reason, and it takes a lot to close them to the press.  Consider the mess in Henry County where the judge wants not to ban the press from a trial but to delay its coverage.

It seems, though, that Judge Saffold has a curious relationship with the PD - at least the on-line version.
The on-line edition of the paper has, as such things do, a mechanism for commenting on stories.  Those who wish to comment must register with a valid e-mail address.  One of those registered commenters is someone using the screen name "lawmiss." Lawmiss has posted, as I write this, 80 comments on PD stories, easily the majority of them have to do with local court and court-related matters.  Several are responses to stories connected to Anthony Sowell.  Another is a fairly vicious attack, in response to a story on another case, on the competence and manner one of Sowell's lawyers.

Oh, did I mention that lawmiss has Judge Saffold's e-mail address?

The judge's 23-year-old daughter, Sydney Saffold, said Thursday that she posted the comments as "lawmiss" on, a Web site affiliated with The Plain Dealer. But in a conference call with her lawyer and a reporter, the onetime law school student could not recall the number of comments she posted. The newspaper found more than 80 comments posted by lawmiss.
The judge said in an interview Wednesday that she had nothing to do with any comments posted by lawmiss.
An examination of Saffold's court-issued computer, obtained Thursday by The Plain Dealer with a public records request, shows someone used the computer to access at the exact times and dates of three comments posted under the username lawmiss. A lawyer representing the judge's daughter challenged the accuracy of the times shown in the listing.
Saffold's daughter declined to talk about the specifics of her postings.
"I don't think the content of my posts is necessarily pertinent," she said from her home in Columbus. "I know all of the people I spoke about . . . I don't see why I owe any explanations about my blogging activities."
Her disclosure came a day after the newspaper questioned her mother about the comments posted as lawmiss, a moniker created by someone using the judge's personal America Online account. Saffold confirmed that the e-mail account linked to lawmiss is her own. But she said she would never make comments about cases before her.
"Never," the judge said in an interview in her Justice Center chambers. "I have not. My daughter may have, but I have not."
Nobody, I suspect, much believes the judge (or her daughter).  Still, I don't imagine any ethics investigation will go anywhere.  It's mighty tough to get a judge.

Meanwhile, the PD has sunk into its own ethical quagmire by conducting an investigation into just who's leaving comments it doesn't like and then outing the commenter.  (My take on that, for what it's worth, is that they shouldn't have investigated, but once they happened to find that comments on the Sowell case were coming from the e-mail of the judge on the Sowell case, they were right to report it.)

I don't know what follows.  If she had any sense, Saffold would recuse herself from the Sowell case.  That would effectively remove her as an issue in the case and, inevitably, in any post-trial litigation should Sowell be convicted of anything.  My guess is that she won't.  

Will Sowell's lawyers try to have her removed?  They do that by asking Tom Moyer, Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court to take her off the case.  If they file the papers, what happens next?  Typically, the judge explains why it's not necessary that she be removed.  "I'm fair and unbiased and nothing indicates otherwise,"she'd say.  Most of the time, she'd be believed, however much fantasy that belief would require.  But most of the time, there's not an 85 count indictment with 11 dead bodies and death specifications.

Mr. Dooley recognized that "the Supreme Court follows th'election returns." Ohio's Chief Justice, we can be fairly sure, follows the court news.

The city and county are pure rust belt.  They haven't really recovered from the loss of heavy manufacturing.  Cleveland is routinely listed among the poorest cities in the nation.  But they do know something about how to attract attention.

Cuyahoga County is one of those places where half the public officials are under indictment or investigation and the other half might be at any moment.  Don't believe me?  Do a google search for "cuyahoga county corruption."  I just got 40,500 hits.  The same search on Bing got me 82,500.  The cops shoot the citizens at an alarming rate.  The prosecutor's office gives an award for ethics that they named after a prosecutor famed for cheating - and getting convictions reversed for it.  It's the place where the Cuyahoga River caught fire back in 1969.  

And, maybe more to the point, it's the place where Sam Sheppard was tried for the murder of his wife.  What's noteworthy isn't that the case spawned The Fugitive, the TV show and later the film.  What's noteworthy is that Sheppard's conviction was reversed because of the "carnival atmosphere" where "bedlam reigned" and the court could and should have controlled it. The Supreme Court explained (I've omitted footnotes and citations):
The carnival atmosphere at trial could easily have been avoided since the courtroom and courthouse premises are subject to the control of the court. As we stressed in Estes, the presence of the press at judicial proceedings must be limited when it is apparent that the accused might otherwise be prejudiced or disadvantaged. Bearing in mind the massive pretrial publicity, the judge should have adopted stricter rules governing the use of the courtroom by newsmen, as Sheppard's counsel requested. The number of reporters in the courtroom itself could have been limited at the first sign that their presence would disrupt the trial. They certainly should not have been placed inside the bar. Furthermore, the judge should have more closely regulated the conduct of newsmen in the courtroom. For instance, the judge belatedly asked them not to handle and photograph trial exhibits lying on the counsel table during recesses.

Secondly, the court should have insulated the witnesses. All of the newspapers and radio stations apparently interviewed prospective witnesses at will, and in many instances disclosed their testimony. A typical example was the publication of numerous statements by Susan Hayes, before her appearance in court, regarding her love affair with Sheppard. Although the witnesses were barred from the courtroom during the trial the full verbatim testimony was available to them in the press. This completely nullified the judge's imposition of the rule.

Thirdly, the court should have made some effort to control the release of leads, information, and gossip to the press by police officers, witnesses, and the counsel for both sides. Much of the information thus disclosed was inaccurate, leading to groundless rumors and confusion. That the judge was aware of his responsibility in this respect may be seen from his warning to Steve Sheppard, the accused's brother, who had apparently made public statements in an attempt to discredit testimony for the prosecution. . . .

From the moment the first body was found, the Sowell case threatened to turn into another  media circus.  Rather than preventing it, though I'd bet she'd tell you she's trying, Saffold is becoming a media circus all by herself.  Unlikely as it may have been just a few months ago, Sowell may just be along for the ride.

*Don't go calling me naive.  The cops and the press have a nasty habit of getting things wrong.  I have no idea if they did in this case, but once you start talking about decomoposing bodies, it's easy to get carried away and claim to find the Lindbergh baby in the attic and maybe evidence connecting Sowell to OJ and the killer of JonBenet Ramsey.  We'll see what happens.


  1. Wow. I'm from Cleveland, now living in SoCal and had not kept abreast of all this. Thanks for filling me in.

  2. Honestly, the typos in the Judge's comments are concerning me as much as the substance.

    Also, in one of her comments, Lawmiss indicates that she "called the judge for a comment," who refused showing a great deal of "class."

    Whether its the daughter or her mother, that is pretty funny.

    There is also a comment indicating that Sowell should never get out of prison, "ever."

    But perhaps the funniest comment of all, verbatim: "We will NEVER experience Privacy as a principle again. Access to a computer has totally desstroyued any efforts one can make to remain private.
    The obvious unfortunate thing is that negative profiles of people stay active on the computer forever and positive ones disappear almost the next day after they're published. Additonally, no on eis concerned with the truth of these matters anymore. Once someone prints something negative about you on the computer, it just stays there."

  3. I'm sorry, I missed this one, it keeps getting better:

    "stronazzaccio, how would you run the trial. Better than Saffold, Uh? lol. She's one of hte most talented and experienced judges on the cuyahoga bench. What she do, send your crack addict mother to prison?"