Eyewitness evidence

May 22, 2016

We live in age of scientific crime detection. Nevertheless, there are two forms of evidence that still exert profound influence in the judicial system – confessions and eyewitness testimony. In I confess – a guide to police interrogation I looked at how police interrogation methods can sometimes lead to suspects confessing to crimes they did not commit. This week I want to look at the fallibility of eyewitness evidence.

I came across one shocking example of this the case of the rape of Jennifer Thompson. We need to clarify that this is not like the invented charges that I looked at in False rape accusations. Jennifer Thompson was clearly a victim. In July 1984 Thompson a 22-year-old college student living in Burlington, North Carolina, was sleeping in her apartment after coming home from a date. What she did not know that a man had broken into her apartment and was still there. She went to sleep but she woke up in the middle of the night. Realising that there was a man in her room, she tried to scream but her attacker had a knife.  She offered him her money, credit cards, and even her car if he would just leave her alone. But he wasn’t interested.

During the attack the college student had one focus: to survive and identify her rapist. She had a strategy. She had heard that when you were raped, the best thing to do was not to fight. That would be exactly what a rapist would want. They need to control and humiliate the woman. She was at a physical disadvantage with respect to her attacker. So she would have to outsmart him. Her first plan was to try to get information. She would remember everything: his face, his voice, his hair his eyes and any other distinguishing features, such as scars or tattoos. She would memorise his clothing, try to identify his height by comparing it to her own.

The second part of her plan was to just try to get out. She claimed that she had a knife phobia and got him to put down the knife. She wanted to get to the kitchen because the rapist had told her that he had forced the door there. So she said that was feeling really thirsty and needed to get something to drink. Once in the kitchen she turned the light on, knowing that if it was on, he would not come too close to me, for fear of being identified. He did indeed stay around the corner.  Here is how she describes what happened next:

And I started to run the water and throw ice cubes in my sink, and open up cabinets and draws, making as much noise as I could, and getting up enough courage to run. And that’s when I opened up the door and I just took off out the door. I didn’t know where I was going to go, but I was leaving.”

She ran for her life, pursued by the rapist. Fortunately she was able to get to the house of a couple. The woman, who worked at the university, recognised her as a student.

She first arrived at the hospital at about four o’clock in the morning, where she was given the forensic rape test. Unfortunately, the doctor seemed annoyed at having been woken up and was rather unsympathetic. What’s more he did an incomplete examination; she was not given penicillin for any possible sexually transmitted diseases, nor was given the morning-after pill. She would later have to go through the whole humiliating process again. She also learned there appeared to be a second victim, Elizabeth Warren, who would prove important later in the story.

After the rape kit, she went to the police station, where she was asked to use one of those facial composite kits to create an accurate photofit of the perpetrator. And of course she had to describe what had happened several times and to give as many statements as she could.

Thanks to an anonymous tip Ronald Cotton, an African-American restaurant worker became a “person of interest”, as they all say in the police dramas I watch. He did have a previous sexual assault conviction and a dodgy alibi. So two days after the crime Thompson was shown his photo and those of five others. She identified Cotton. She thought he looked exactly like the man who had raped her. Not a lot of time had elapsed since the crime so her memory was still very fresh. There are a couple of things I need to say about the photo identification. First she was shown all the photographs at the same time. This is a seriously flawed methodology, which I will come back to later. Secondly, she actually took five minutes to decide between two of the photos, which is actually quite a long time.

And just over a week later came the identity parade, which was not like you see on the television. The normal venue was being renovated, so they had to use another room. She was in the same room with Cotton and the other men from the line-up. She now saw Cotton in the flesh.  His demeanour and his posture further convinced her that Ronald Cotton was the man. He looked exactly like the man from the sketch that she had given to the police. His mannerisms, his voice, his height, his weight all appeared to fit. the rapist. And as time went by, she became more convinced that Cotton was the man. Whenever she relived the trauma it was Ronald Cotton’s face she would see

During the trial, Thompson once again identified Cotton as her rapist. When the defence attorney attempted to introduce evidence of the second, and seemingly related rape, of which Cotton had been excluded, the Judge refused to allow this evidence to be heard. Thus, Ronald Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison based on what, apart from the identification by Thompson, was rather flimsy circumstantial evidence.

On Jan. 17, 1985, the day Cotton was convicted by a jury of one charge of rape and one of burglary and sentenced to life in prison, Thompson toasted her victory with champagne. “It was the happiest day of my life,” she said. A year into his prison term Cotton came across a prisoner with uncanny similarity to him. Indeed inmates and guards would often mix them up.  The inmate was Bobby Poole. He had apparently been bragging about committing the rapes and had allegedly joked that Cotton was doing his time for him

In 1987 the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a retrial based on the second rape evidence that the judge had not allowed. But the second trial proved to be a disaster for Cotton. Elizabeth Watson now became convinced that Ronald Cotton was her rapist as well, even though she had been unable to pick Cotton out of both a photo and live line-up before the first trial. She had actually picked a police “filler” in the original line-up.

Bobby Poole’s was also called to testify but he would not confess to both the rapes, and Jennifer Thompson denied ever having seen him before. Indeed she was outraged that the defence could even suggest that Poole had been the rapist. She was emphatic: “Bobby Poole did not rape me. Ronald Cotton raped me.” Ronald was again convicted, but this time for two rapes. He was sentenced to two life sentences plus 54 years, confirmed on appeal in 1990 and the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1991.

Luckily a lawyer Richard Rosen agreed to take up the case. Now new forensic techniques were coming to the fore. The attorney filed a motion for DNA testing. The Thompson crime evidence was too deteriorated to test. However, the Watson materials completely excluded Ronald Cotton as the perpetrator. The defence then requested that the results be sent to check against the DNA of convicts. The DNA positively identified Bobby Poole. Detectives went to see Poole, who confessed. On June 30, 1995, ten and a half years into his sentence, Cotton was officially cleared of all charges and released from prison. The following month he was officially pardoned by the Governor of North Carolina. He was initially offered just $5000 compensation, but thanks partly to the efforts of Thompson, still pitifully low for all that this man was put through.

There is a terrible irony in all this. Jennifer Thompson, who had been so determined to identify her man, had, in the end, got it all wrong. She felt a terrible sense of guilt over what she had done. But I do not think she ever acted in bad faith. Memory is not like a video recording. Traumatic situations can affect what you remember. And each time you remember the memory can become subtly different. Thompson, who had initially taken five minutes to choose the right photograph, became more convinced that Cotton had raped her. She thought that people would think she was a racist. What is true is that witnesses do seem to have problems accurately identifying a suspect if another race. They can pick out the broad stereotypical features but not the finer details.

There are many uplifting aspects to this story. Two years after his release Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton met for the first time at a church not far from where she had been raped. Thompson felt terrible; she struggled to stand up and began to sob. She looked at him and said: “If I spent every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of my life telling you that I’m sorry, could you ever forgive me?” Thompson didn’t expect Cotton’s response:

I’m not mad at you. I’ve never been mad at you. I just want you to have a good life.”

So Thompson and Cotton have become friends. They have also become tireless campaigners for reform of eyewitness identification procedures. There is a lot wrong with the system. According to the Innocence Project Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide. In 40% of those cases more than one witness identified the suspect. When you send the wrong person to prison for a crime all society is affected – the real criminals are free to go on committing crimes.

I have seen a number of interesting proposals to give the identification process a more scientific foundation. We need double-blind presentation; the photos or line-up members should be presented by an administrator who does not know who the suspect is. The fillers should resemble the eyewitness’s description of the perpetrator and the suspect should not stand out. Only one suspect should be included in the line-up. A sequential presentation of the line-up is preferable. Otherwise it becomes like a multiple choice test with the victim narrowing the options. That is not the kind of identification you want at the time of the identification, the eyewitnesses should provide a statement in her own words indicating her level of confidence in the identification. Finally these procedures should be videotaped to increase the transparency of the process. In the end I agree with the Innocence Project: memory is evidence and must be handled as carefully as the crime scene itself to avoid forever altering it.




The Innocence Project

May 22, 2016

Here is a video from The Innocence Project, which features Thompson the detective, Mike Gauldin and Ronald Cotton himself.

The People v OJ Simpson

May 1, 2016

I recently finished watching American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, a show which deals with the 1994 double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman and the subsequent trial of OJ Simpson. But for me one ten-episode series was not enough, so I have subsequently read the book on which the series was based The Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin and the Marcia Clark’s account of the trial from the prosecution side, Without a Doubt. I have also seen three or four complete documentaries on YouTube, including a two-and-a-half-hour compilation of the highlights of the trial. I think my wife is starting to get seriously worried about this obsession.

It was called The Trial of the Century. It was before social media, but 24-hour rolling news made the event a media circus. And what a cast of characters it had. Born in 1947 in San Francisco, California, Orenthal James Simpson had a stellar career in American football, despite never winning the Superbowl. Winner of the Heisman Trophy for the best college player, he went on to play for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL, where he became the first running back to rush for 2000 yards in a season. He later forged a successful post-football career encompassing Hollywood, sports broadcasting and advertising.  Best known for playing Officer Nordberg in the Naked Gun trilogy, he also appeared in The Klansman (where he played a man framed for murder by the police), The Towering Inferno and Capricorn One. Shortly before his arrest he did a pilot for NBC of an A-team rip-off, Frogmen, in which there is a scene in which he holds a knife to the throat of a woman.

His personal life was less successful. Simpson married Marguerite L. Whitley on June 24, 1967. They had three children together, Arnelle, Jason and Aaren, who died before her second birthday when she drowned in the family’s swimming pool. Simpson met waitress Nicole Brown while still married to Marguerite. O.J. and Nicole were finally married in 1985 and they had two children together, Justin and Sidney. Their marriage was what is euphemistically described as troubled, i.e. he used to hit her. Nicole really did seem to fear for her life.

But Simpson was just one of the players. Toobin describes lead prosecutor Marcia Clark as arrogant, but the series paints a much more sympathetic portrayal of the lawyer and the sexism she had to put up with. Christopher Darden, the sole African-American on the prosecution side, was responsible for the glove debacle. Judge Lance Ito became media sensation, but his failure to maintain control of the courtroom was another factor in the verdict.

Simpson was defended by the dream team of defence lawyers, which included Robert Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey Barry Scheck and a lawyer I have featured before, Alan Dershowitz, who would have handled the appeal. Dershowitz had actually been on a number of national television shows saying how guilty Simpson was. Now he would be representing him. As Toobin notes, “Shamelessness is a moral, rather than a legal, concept.” They were undoubtedly great lawyers, but it was a fractious relationship. Although he was not initially part of the team, Johnny Cochran was the one who became the principal defence lawyer. Toobin wrote of Cochran “that he had been waiting his whole life for this case, and this case had been waiting for Johnnie Cochran as well.” It may have been Robert Shapiro who first came up with the race-based defence, but it was Cochran who took it to its final consequences.

And finally to add a bit more spice Robert Kardashian was a family friend and another of the defence lawyers. In one scene, probably invented, he warns the family about the dangers of fame:

We are Kardashians. And in this family being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”

In his book Toobin is clear about Simpson’s guilt. The TV series leaves it a bit more open, but no other credible suspect emerges. If the evidence was so overwhelming, why did he walk?

The prosecution has come in for a lot of flak. There may be some truth in this. The way the defence lawyers were able to get under Darden’s skin and get him to demand that Simpson don the glove. Perhaps the prosecution presented too much evidence. They took six months to present the evidence against O.J. Simpson. But I think that while the DNA, blood evidence was at the heart of the case, the domestic abuse story was relevant too. I have also heard that they shouldn’t have called racist detective Mark Furhrman. But once Fuhrman had climbed over the wall of the Simpson home and had taken part in getting those statements from O.J., he was part of the case. Mark Fuhrman proved to be a disaster for the prosecution. Here I side with the defence in asking for the tapes to be played. He perjured himself in court and not only did he repeat the n-word but he glorified torture and evidence tampering.

If the prosecution made one mistake it was their choice of venue. This is a rather depressing conclusion, but there is no doubt that a whiter jury may well have produced a guilty verdict. This racial animus had been on display when the officers were found not guilty of the beating. The LAPD did not inspire much confidence in the African-American community. The not guilty verdict in the trial of the policeman who beat up Rodney King is considered to have triggered the Los Angeles riots of 1992. This was a climate in which conspiracy theories flourished.

The fact is that humans find it hard to analyse evidence objectively. People can read the same report and come to diametrically opposed conclusions, depending on their ideological starting point. The jury overlooked a mountain of evidence that showed him to be guilty, and seemed more impressed by the glove not fitting. Cochrane’s catchy turn-of-phrase, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”, really hit home. This is known as the rhyme-as-reason effect, a cognitive bias in which a saying or aphorism is judged as more accurate or truthful when it rhymes. Really it is not a logically watertight argument.  The glove may well have shrunk, and they cannot negate the overwhelming blood and trace evidence.

Fuhrman may have been a vile human being, but that doesn’t mean he could have conspired to frame Simpson. When he allegedly took the glove to Simpson’s house how did he know that Simpson didn’t have an alibi. I tend to be sceptical of conspiracies. In particular, in the case of OJ, the police seemed to fawn over him. But Cochran was able to sow the seeds of doubt:

“If you cannot trust the messenger, you can’t trust the message…”

Although Simpson was acquitted, his legal problems were far from over. He had to go back to court for a civil trial, and in February 1997 he was found liable for the wrongful deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and ordered to pay their families $33.5 million in damages.

I find it rather surprising that after someone has been acquitted of a crime, they have to then go to a civil case. Why was this result was totally different? Firstly this was a civil case and you are not required to prove guilty beyond reasonable doubt just preponderance of the evidence. This evidence was presented to a whiter jury in Santa Monica. There was no Judge Ito and so the defence were kept on a tighter leash. And, unlike in the criminal trial, where he could invoke his Fifth Amendment rights, O.J. had to testify. He has been described as the worst witness ever, showing that the defence team had been right not to put him on the stand. Where is he now? He is currently in prison in Nevada, having been sentenced to 33 years for armed robbery of sports memorabilia, but he will be eligible for parole in 2017, when he is 70.

In 1996, 21 years after the trial, there must few people who seriously believe Simpson that did not kill Nicole and Ronald Goldman to death. Could such a defence, based on playing the race card, work again? I’m not sure. DNA is now more established. CSI had shown people the power of scientific medicine. But in the age of #blacklivesmatter you could imagine a black celebrity getting off again. There is a certain irony that this defence proved so successful – OJ actually did very little to help the African-American community. He may not have actually said “I’m not black – I’m O.J.”, but that’s how he seemed to live his life.

In the final episode of the TV series Darden angrily confronts Cochran:

This isn’t some civil rights milestone. Police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us. You haven’t changed anything for black people here. Unless, of course, you’re a famous, rich one in Brentwood.

I want to argue against seeing cases from one angle. You could look at this case from a domestic abuse perspective. In the end you have to look at the evidence. As I pointed out in my post about rape, you cannot look at this through the prism of the fact that only 10% of rapes result in conviction. The bottom line is that if you are on a jury, you should judge the evidence before you. Is the defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt? But legal history shows us that this is almost impossible.

O.J. Simpson interview

May 1, 2016

Here is a 1998 interview withthe American sportscaster Chris Myers.

The aristocrats of crime

April 3, 2016

I have an unhealthy interest in con artists. There is something that draws me to these aristocrats of crime. I love the colourful language. For the practitioners we have such names as con man, swindler, grifter, swindler hustler, scam artist, flimflammer and mountebank. What do they do? The names of the tricks are also very evocative: Three-card Monte, The Magic Wallet, The Gold Brick, The Green Goods, Banco, The Big Store, The Wire, The Payoff and The Rag are just a few of the ways humans have found to deceive each other. Of course, these tricksters can destroy people’s lives, but there is something irresistible about them. I am not the only one, though, given the popularity of books and especially films about scams.

Such cons have been with us throughout history. Indeed other animals also engage in deceptive behaviour. There was a famous trick known as the Spanish Prisoner, which goes back until at least the 16th century. And although I haven’t looked into it, I’m sure the ancients must have had their scams.

The use of the term confidence man seems to go back to 19th century New York. Here is an extract from the “Police Intelligence” section of the New York Herald describing the arrest of one William Thompson:

For the last few months a man has been travelling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;” the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped, and the last that we recollect was a Mr. Thomas McDonald, of No. 276 Madison street, who, on the 12th of May last, was met by this “Confidence Man” in William Street, who, in the manner as above described, took from him a gold lever watch valued at $110; and yesterday, singularly enough, Mr. McDonald was passing along Liberty street, when who should he meet but the “Confidence Man” who had stolen his watch. Officer Swayse, of the Third Ward, being near at hand, took the accused into custody on the charge made by Mr. McDonald. The accused at first refused to go with the officer; but after finding the officer determined to take him, he walked along for a short distance, when he showed desperate fight, and it was not until the officer had tied his hands together that he was able to convey him to the police office. On the prisoner being taken before Justice McGrath, he was recognized as an old offender by the name of Wm. Thompson, and is said to be a graduate of the college at Sing Sing. The magistrate committed him to prison for a further hearing.

I bring all this up because have just finished reading The Confidence Game. The author Maria Konnikova does not set out to provide a definitive history of the con. And this is not an exhaustive taxonomy of all the possible confidence tricks. What it is is an exploration of the psychological principles behind the behaviour of confidence tricksters and their victims. The book itself is structured like a con. Here is Konnikova’s introduction:

From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves.

Who are the con artists? In an interview Konnikova said that one of the books that’s considered the con-artist bible is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, a self-help classic. In fact, there is no definitive make-up, but the dark triad of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism tend to be important. The funny thing is that many of these people seem to be exceptionally talented and could have been successful in more legitimate fields. I don’t think it’s just about greed. There does seem to be some kind of power rush in being able to fool people and in getting them to do what you want.

What about the victims? I like to think of myself as a sceptic, but it is a big mistake to think that we are immune to such trickery. One factor is trust. Generally, as I pointed out in a previous post, trust is an important ingredient for successful societies, but with con artists, we can come unstuck. We also like to think we are above average. Other people will be fooled, but not us. We have a positivity bias, a belief in our own exceptionalism. We will come out on top in the end. We deserve a break. Confirmation bias, the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions plays a big part in victimology. And then we have cognitive dissonance the desire to avoid holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. Of course we could change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours, but this can be too painful, so instead we try to justify or rationalise them. Ultimately very few con artists actually end up in court – the victims are often too embarrassed to come forward.

The book has a cast of characters. Some of them are old favourites: Bernie Madoff, who was the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, Frank Abagnale, who was played by Leonardo Di Caprio in Catch Me If You Can, and Victor Lustig who twice sold the Eiffel Tower to unwitting investors.

There were others I hadn’t heard of, though. Here is my selection:

Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr.

Demara almost makes Frank Abagnale look like an amateur. Under a series of stolen identities Demara worked as a civil engineer, a doctor of applied psychology, a child-care expert, a cancer researcher, an assistant prison warden, a philosophy dean at a Pennsylvania college and  both a Trappist and Benedictine monk. But his greatest hit was as a doctor on a Royal Canadian Navy Destroyer during the Korean War. Demara who had a prodigious IQ and a photographic memory went into quarters with a medical textbook to do a bit of cramming. Yet, he somehow managed to save the lives of all of the men, including performing major chest surgery. The ensuing fame made it hard to keep on fooling people. There was a biography, The Great Imposter, followed by a film of the same name, with Tony Curtis in the eponymous role. He even managed to con the author of his biography, Robert Crichton.

Samantha Lyndell Azzopardi

In 2010 she appeared as Dakota Johnson (this alias was based on an American  actress who would later go on to star in the movie Fifty Shades of Grey) in a Brisbane police station claiming that she was fourteen and had been sexually abused by a relative. She was given shelter and food.  She told her support group that all she wanted was to go back to school and finish her education, just like any normal teen. On further investigation the police discovered that Azzopardi was already wanted for identity fraud in Queensland. She was charged with two counts of false representation, one count of intention to forge documents, and one count of contravening directions. She was convicted, but her sentence was just a five-hundred-dollar fine. She continued her alternative and it was in 2013 that she ended up in Dublin.  This young Australian woman led the Garda to believe, for a time, that she was a vulnerable teenager a victim of human trafficking. In reality she was now 25 years old with a history of more that forty false identities in her past. This was not the end of her exploits. The following year she appeared in Canada under another name. The “success” of Azzopardi is for Konnikova an illustration of the power of a good story.

Oscar Hartzell, (1876–1943)

This American con man managed to persuade many people in North America to join him in a fraudulent lawsuit against the British government for a share of the fortune of Sir Francis Drake. He hit upon the scam in 1915 after a couple of small-time grifters tried to convince him to part with his money. They had promised that they could turn his mother’s $6000 into a cool $6 million. Hartxell, however, had bigger plans. Claiming to be distant relative of the legendary seaman/pirate/hero, Hartzell got in touch with Iowans who had the surname Drake. He told them that the estate of Sir Francis had never been paid to the heirs. Having gathered interest for over three centuries, it was now worth $100 billion. As well as $500 for every dollar they invested in the scheme, the inheritance would include the whole city of Plymouth in England. In 1924 he set himself up in London in order, he claimed, to carry out negotiations with the British government. The curious thing about the scam is that the victims continued believing him, thwarting attempts by the Iowa state legislature to act. This refusal to accept reality continued even after the UK Home Office informed the American embassy that there was no unclaimed Sir Francis Drake estate, and an FBI investigation confirmed that Drake’s wife had inherited his estate in 1597.

Sylvia Mitchell

Fake psychic is a tautology. Nevertheless, Mitchell is an example of the worst of this “profession” One client, Debra Saalfield, was feeling particularly vulnerable when she saw Mitchell – she had just lost her job as a ballroom-dancing instructor and a boyfriend. Mitchell told her that she had been an ancient Egyptian princess in a past life and that her problems stemmed from having been too attached to money in her royal life in ancient Egypt. The solution would be to experiment parting with that money. Saalfield wrote a cheque for $27,000. She did not get it back. Mitchell was convicted of conning clients for tens of thousands of dollars, and in November 2013 she was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison.


February 28, 2016

There is a long tradition of economists engaging with the workings of the illegal drugs trade. I am a big fan of popular economics books. And in this area they can provide some real insights into the trade for the layman. In Naked Economics Charlie Whelan talked about the constant Apple-like innovation of the drug traffickers. Faced with their product literally being sniffed out at customs, they decided to bypass border controls altogether, using small boats to transport their illicit export across the sea and into the United States. After the U.S. Coast Guard began tracking fishing boats, the drug traffickers, just as the “rum-runners” had done during the era of Prohibition, invested in go-fast boats, small, fast boats designed with a long narrow platform and a planing hull to enable them to reach high speeds. And when U.S. law enforcement brought in radar and helicopters to hunt down the go-fast boats, the drug cartels innovated yet again developing less easily detected semi-submersibles from the 1990s. When the U.S. Coast Guard first seized a narco-submarine 145 km southwest of Costa Rica carrying several metric tonnes of cocaine in late 2006, they dubbed it “Bigfoot”, because they had heard rumours that such things existed, but none had actually been seen.

In False Economy Alan Beattie asks why Africans do not grow coca and make cocaine, which, like coffee, grows well at high altitude. Cocaine has had terrible effects on the places where it is grown. But Beattie is asking the question from a purely an economic perspective. And the conclusion is pessimistic. The larger coffee-growing regions such as Uganda, Ethiopia, and Rwanda could participate in growing this higher-value crop. At the moment Africans are not doing the production and the intermediate transport of the crop, but are stuck in the relatively low-paid and high-risk part of the supply chain, the final cross-border smuggling. The climatic conditions may be somewhat worse, and there is a relative shortage of large plateaus useful for growing coca. But the main explanation is the lack of infrastructure – transport and logistics in Africa are so poor, and the politics so unstable, that it is simply more efficient to make it in South America and transport it to Africa from there. As it is grown on plantations that take several years to reach productive maturity, coca does not result in quick profits: According to Beattie, given the way that illegality multiplies the financial, logistical, and human-resource management challenges of production and transport, an absence of trust and reliability is even more crippling for an illicit crop than a legitimate one.

In the first Freakonomics book Steven Dubner and Steven Leavit looked at the ethnographic work of a sociology student Sudhir Venkatesh about the Black Disciples, a criminal gang in Chicago involved in the distribution of crack cocaine. The leader of the gang, JT, was a college graduate himself, a business major. The top 120 men on the Black Disciples’ pyramid were paid very well. But the pyramid they were on top of was massive. The 120 represented just 2.2% of the gang membership but they took home well over half the money. It sounds like a standard capitalist enterprise. The foot soldiers, who earned just $3.30 an hour, less than the minimum wage, had a lot in common with a McDonald’s burger flipper or a Wal-Mart shelf stocker. That is why they were still living with their mothers. You also need to factor in the danger of the job. If you were a member of J. T.’s gang for all four years, your chances of dying were one in four. A timber cutter, which according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the most dangerous job in the United States, would stand a 1-in-200 chance of being killed over the same period. Even a death row prisoner in Texas, a precarious position if ever there was one, would have a lower chance of death. Why do people do it? Like budding sports stars or Hollywood actors they were motivated by the idea of succeeding in an extremely competitive field in which as well as glory and power, you will be paid a fortune. As Leavitt and Dubner point out, to the kids growing up in a housing project on Chicago’s south side, crack dealing seemed like a glamour profession. The highly visible and highly lucrative job of gang boss was what they aspired to.

Now there is a new book out. As opposed to the ones I have already cited this is a book exclusively about the $300 billion global drug trade. The title, Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, may be provocative, but I think the book is just common sense. The conceit of the book, written by the Economist’s Tom Wainwright, is how drug cartels mimic the strategies of the big corporations. To anyone with a basic understanding of economics this is perfectly obvious. The tactics of a Coca-Cola or Wal-Mart, brand value, mergers, human resources, franchising, logistics, offshoring and even corporate social responsibility, are dome of the topics that Wainwright looks at in this work. I haven’t read the book yet, but I did hear the author interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air programme. It was a fascinating conversation.

For example, he shows why attempts to disrupt the cocaine supply line have had precious little impact on the price, which has remained at around $100 per pure gram for decades. There have been massive programmes of crop eradication with airplanes and helicopters dumping tons of weed-killer on these Andean terraces in Colombia. An economist would assume that if you cut supply, then the price will go up, ceteris paribus – other things being equal. Comparing areas in Colombia where crop eradication has gone on with areas where it hasn’t, you see the price of coca leaf – the wholesale price of coca leaf doesn’t really change. The theory is that the cartels in the area have what economists call a monopsony, a monopoly on buying in the area. In other words, they’re the only ones who buy the products so they are not forced to pay higher prices. This is, incidentally, the same criticism that is made against the big supermarket chains here

There is another factor undermining the effectiveness of the crop eradication programmes. The economics of the supply chain mean that even if you could increase the price of that coca leaf, it’s unlikely to have very much impact on the final price of cocaine in the U.S. or European markets. Why not? Wainwright explains that you need about a ton of coca leaf, which once it’s all dried out will fetch perhaps $400, in a country like Colombia. Say the price doubles, then it will be $800. But in the United States a kilo is worth $100,000. If you double the price of the source material, the impact on the consumer price will be less than 1% – $100,400. All this effort is being expended into raising the price of coca leaf, when in fact that’s only a small part of the cost of the final product.

Wainwright looks at the Zetas “franchise”. This was the cartel which expanded most rapidly while he was based in Mexico. The Zetas are a pretty brutal bunch – they are the ones who around beheading people or hanging them off bridges. What is the secret behind their rapid expansion? Starting from the northeast of Mexico they have now spread all over Mexico, and now into Central America. What they do is go to local areas and they find out who the local criminals are, people who do the drug dealing and extortion and all the other kinds of crime. Then they make them an offer: “OK, you can use our brand; you can call yourself the Zetas, just like us.” They may train them in how to use weapons, and they supply them baseball caps with embroidered logos and they give them T-shirts with their logo on. In return for this the Zetas receive a share of all of the money that their “franchisees” get from their criminal activity. Los Zetas franchisees typically diversify into activities such as extortion or kidnapping to earn additional profits.

I don’t know why I’m using quotation marks. The Zetas franchise is exactly like the kind of franchising model that many well-known companies, such as McDonald’s or KFC, use. And it comes with all the same advantages and disadvantages of franchising. In particular, the interests of the franchisers and the franchisees are not always well aligned. The interest of headquarters, whether it be KFC, or the Zetas, is to have as many branches in a local area as possible, because they take their money as a slice of the income of the local franchisees. The latter on the other do not want stiff competition eating into their profits. Unlike the Sicilian Mafia, which is a strong monopoly, the Los Zetas “brand” can easily be falsified.  Given the chaos of criminal competition, virtually anyone can claim to be a Zeta without taking many risks. Extortionists can, at a relatively low risk claim to be affiliated with Los Zetas to gain extra leverage over their victims

In the end Wainwright is sceptical about the War on Drugs. He is rightly contemptuous of such initiatives as a major UN conference on drugs held in 1998, whose title was ” A drug free world: we can do it.” What planet do they live on? This futile war has failed at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. The author does make the point that while remain illegal , anyone who buys them have blood on their hands; when consumers  in New York or London buy a gram of cocaine for a hundred dollars they are paying the salaries of Mexican hitmen. But we need a change – the best way (or maybe the least bad way) to deal with drugs, is by legalizing them:

I think the choice we face really is between a world where drugs are controlled by governments and prescribed by pharmacists and doctors, and a world where they’re dealt by the mafia, and given that choice, I think the former sounds more appealing

One of Us: a chilling look at a massacre made in Norway

May 24, 2015

One of UsNordic noir has become all the rage in the last few years. But nothing from authors such as Mankell, Nesbo and Larsson or TV series like The Killing, The Bridge, or Mammon can compare to what happened in Norway less then four your years ago. I am referring to the case of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people on a tragic summer day in Oslo. I have just finished reading an account of these barbaric acts, One of Us by Asne Seierstad. The book actually came out in 2013, but it has just been translated into English, in an example of nominative determinism, by Sarah Death.

The Norwegian journalist, who specialises in accounts from war zones, is perhaps most famous for The Bookseller of Kabul. In this work she tells the story a bookseller, Shah Muhammad Rays (whose name she changed to Sultan Khan), and his family in Kabul, Afghanistan. Using a novelistic approach, she describes the character and the daily issues that they face. It was a fantastic read. But it was also controversial in that it did rather invade the privacy of Rais. The bookseller felt things revealed about him in Seierstad’s book had made life for him and his family unsafe in Afghanistan. Another criticism is that she could not speak Pashto and this would have made it difficult for her to follow what was going on.

One of Us may prove controversial too, but once again it’s a magnificent read. Although she does a fantastic job of bringing the victims alive, the principal focus of the book is inevitably the life of Anders Breivik. He did not have a deprived childhood. Indeed, his father was a diplomat. But he was not a wanted child. His father abandoned him as a child and his mother, a depressive who grew up in a violent and unloving home, was simply unable to cope with parenthood.

We read about his schooldays and his time as a graffiti artist. His academic record was undistinguished, but he had some successful business ventures, including one selling bogus diplomas online. He couldn’t deal with Norway’s liberated women and instead contacted a mail-order bride who arrived from Belarus. She quickly fled back home. He was deemed unfit to do his military service and he made an unsuccessful attempt to join the Freemasons. Then his businesses went belly-up and Breivik was back at home his mother. It was here that he got hooked to World of Warcraft, which he would often play for 18 hours a day.

At this time that he also found his far-right ideology. He spent some time in the right-wing, anti-immigration Progress Party, but he was unable to climb up the greasy pole. Instead, he created a deadly persona – the Knight Templar Commander of the anti-communist resistance movement against the Islamisation of Europe and Norway. He set out his views in his magnum opus, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence written with his English pseudonym Andrew Berwick. In reality it was a 1,518-page manifesto that had been cut and pasted from the anti-immigrant and racist sites. His influences included the English Defence League, Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and a Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and a fellow Norwegian known as Fjordman. The year 2083 was an allusion to the Battle of Vienna in 1683 in which the Ottoman invaders were repelled at the gates of the city.

Seierstad spends a lot of time describing Breivik’s incredibly meticulous preparations. We learn how he rented an isolated farm and began to assemble his bomb and collect his armaments. It reads like a dark episode of Breaking Bad”

At the heart of the book are the 70 pages where she describes what happened on Friday July 22 2011. First he detonated a homemade bomb in central Oslo, outside the prime minister’s office, killing eight. He then set off to a Young Socialists’ camp on the wooded island of Utøya. There, over the course of more than an hour, he systemically gunned down everyone he could. Most of his victims were teenage members of the governing Labour Party, future leaders of the country. Breivik methodically shot 11 children playing dead. Here is a part of Seierstad’s description of the killing:

Breivik went into the building. The walls were covered with posters of AUF [the Young Socialists’ organisation] slogans from over the years. In the corridor there were hundreds of shoes and boots, as no outdoor footwear was allowed in the meeting rooms.

He went calmly into the first room, known as the small hall. He paused for a moment in the doorway to get an overview. The youngsters looked at him, awaiting instructions.

He went over to a group and started shooting.

Several fell to the floor.

Ha, they’re faking it, ran through his head. He calmly went round to each of them in turn and ended their lives with a shot to the head.

Some of the youngsters were screaming, standing still as if glued to the floor. They stared at him fixedly, unable to run away, escape, save themselves.

How weird that they’re just standing there, thought Breivik. I’ve never seen that in a movie.

Then he aimed his pistol at them.

Some of them begged for their lives. ‘Please don’t shoot!’

But he always did.

He shot one girl in mid-scream. His pistol was almost touching her face. He fired into her open mouth. Her skull shattered, but her lips remained unharmed.


 By the time he gave himself up to Norwegian special forces, he had killed 69 people, the vast majority of whom were teenagers; his youngest victim had just turned fourteen.

Breivik may or may not be a madman. The court psychiatrists in Oslo differed on this. In the end it was decided that he was not. I tend to agree with this diagnosis. Just because someone has sick ideas, does not make him a madman. But it is true that the criteria for what criminal insanity are rather confused. In fact, it is not a medical question but a legal one. I will have to do a post about this another day.

What did surprise me was the sheer ineptitude of the Norwegian authorities. I do realise that Norway is a country with a very low crime rate, but that cannot excuse all the mistakes that were made. As well as gross incompetence, there seems to have been weak leadership, an inadequate allocation of resources, and ultimately an absurd level of risk aversion on the part of the Norwegian government and police. It was a litany of failure. Here is a brief sample:

  1. The police received tip-off with a description of Breivik and his vehicle registration number just eight minutes after the bomb went off. It was put on a post-it note, but this was ignored.
  2. They had no operational helicopters. The police forces in Norway only operate a single helicopter, and it was not available in July. In the UK the police forces have 39.
  3. The rescue team loaded the entire unit onto a small boat on the lake to get to Utøya Island By trying to take everyone at once they nearly ended up sinking the boat.  It would have been more logical to transport three or four team members at a time.
  4. There are even accusations that the police had waited until Breivik had finished his killing spree before moving in to arrest him.

In August 2012 Anders Behring Breivik was convicted of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism. He was finally sentenced to 21 years in prison, Norway’s maximum sentence. But this is renewable. There is always the danger with this type of book that you give the terrorist the oxygen of publicity.  Now locked up, Breivik is continually complaining that the conditions he has to live under are torture. One list of 12 demands to prison authorities included easier communication with the outside world and a PlayStation 3 to replace the PlayStation 2 in his cell, because the PlayStation 3 offered more suitable games.

However, in the end, it’s the victims and their families that Seierstad cares about; two of the victims she focuses on are Simon Sæbø and Bano Rashid. Simon, a highly political young Norwegian, had ambitions to climb the ranks of the Labour Party. Bano, the daughter of Kurdish refugees, was desperate to assimilate and succeed as a Norwegian. The reader comes to know their families and their lives, you feel close to them, but you know that their lives will inevitably be cut short. Seierstad interviewed the parents and friends of Breivik’s victims, and the survivors who witnessed the horrors of that day on the island. It was a chastening experience:

To meet the parents, to feel their pain, they were not much older than me. I spent so much time with them, it was quite an experience. I learnt a lot through it. I learnt about sorrow.”

Breivik seemed only to want for the world to know his name. He certainly achieved this. Fortunately he ended up strengthening the resolve of the people he sought to terrorise. There is much in his profile that echoes the jihadi killers. Indeed, he told his police interrogators that he was actually inspired by the fighting spirit of al-Qaida. There are also parallels with Timothy McVeigh and the Columbine high school killers.

When you read this type of book, you find that there are no easy answers. The one of us in the title of the book could refer to any of the victims, but also to the killer. This event was particularly shocking in Norway, a country which averages less than 50 murders a year. Norwegians feel proud of this and the restrained reaction after the massacre. I will close with a quote by Henning Mankell, the author behind Wallender in an opinion piece he wrote in the Guardian just three days after the events:

It may be impossible to completely defend oneself and one’s country against these actions, but we must try. We must defend the open society, because if we start locking our doors, if we let fear decide, the person who committed the act of terror will win. He will have injected fear into our community. As Franklin D Roosevelt put it: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”