Friday, October 26, 2012

Compared to Life's Real Fears, Halloween Ain't So Scary

The season of ghosts, ghouls, goblins and gremlins is days away, just around a dark corner. Feel scared yet? Have the hairs on your neck and arms started to tingle?
Despite its triviality, Halloween was a refreshing antidote seven weeks after 9/11 and, again in 2002, when it was welcomed as a brief respite and diversion from lingering fears, unease and anxieties. Compared to the terrorist attacks, and the Beltway sniper shootings the following year, Halloween is neither daunting nor haunting.
Nevertheless, potentially harmful Halloween hijinks that were common several generations ago  like tossing raw eggs and water balloons, striking someone with a crushed chalk-filled sock, TPing or spraying shaving cream   are, by and large, just obnoxious vandalism compared to what our national psyche went through after the 2001 attacks.
Real life, we realized, is so much more terrifying.                                                                
Other than the candy I hand out to the trickle of trick-or-treaters who turn up at my door every year, and the rare, obligatory company bash I attended when I worked in the corporate world, I haven’t participated in Halloween since my youth.
The anticipation of Halloween fades as we get older. More than any other festivity, Halloween is best suited for childhood. After a certain age — say ten, for argument’s sake — there’s really not much to look forward to unless you crave a few hours of traipsing through your neighborhood for the sole purpose of collecting goodies and engaging in a little harmless mischief. (I’d add bobbing for apples, but today’s youth might find that activity unappealing, unless it could be executed on some hi-tech, hand-held gadget.)
The ones most likely to get pleasure from Halloween are chocoholics seeking to gratify a sweet tooth, candy purveyors and dentists giddy with visions of patrons with mouths blemished by cavities.
Halloween, like Valentine’s Day, Easter and Christmas, has evolved into an excess of crass commercialization. American households spend an estimated $2 billion a year on candy in anticipation of Halloween and a few billion more — or less — is shelled out for costumes, decorations and pumpkins waiting to be carved into jack-o-lanterns.
And it’s not just children who dress up to mimic the latest rage, idol or classic character. Millions of adults, who ache to briefly return to their carefree youth, wanna have fun, too, so they purchase, rent or design elaborate costumes, many of which are flamboyantly flaunted annually at the gala Greenwich Village Halloween parade.
Hollywood, not a community to pass up a financial prospect, seeks its share of the seasonal cash flow by releasing the latest “spooktacular” productions as Halloween approaches that, in theory, are supposed to attract — and scare — fans of that ilk.
In the days and weeks leading up to October 31st, one channel or another cleverly programs a line up for the autumn festival with a harvest of movies that are magnets for horror fans. These “scare-a-thons” or “fright-fests” typically feature such creepy classics as “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Mummy” and “The Wolfman,” as well as more modern, B-grade gore-fest goodies, like “Night of the Living Dead, “The Nightmare on Elm Street” series, “The Hills Have Eyes” and the string of grisly “Saw” flicks. And Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without the eponymous slasher series, including two remakes that have frightened horror aficionados since 1978.
Despite Halloween’s fundamental irrelevance, pockets of contemporary religious fundamentalists (mostly Christian, but some Jews and Muslims, too) can be counted on to condemn Halloween as a pagan tradition that glorifies Satan and revives legends from the Dark Ages, such as the consumption of blood, infant sacrifices and orgies, with little, if any, historical basis.
Such criticism is especially scary!
Though All Hallows Eve has unorthodox roots, those who partake in contemporary celebrations, pranks or fashion jack-o-lanterns, simply do it for amusement, not some sinister observance! After all, witches, warlocks and devil worshippers are free to engage in their evil magical powers anytime, not just on Halloween.
The history of Halloween trick-or-treating, according to the 2003 book, “Death Makes A Holiday,” surfaced during the Depression when homeowners surrendered to roaming youth gangs to nip potential vandalism in the bud.
What should be a relatively straightforward occasion, has, nevertheless, become overrun with concerns. In my youth, my brother, my friends and I went unaccompanied from building to building and house to house and collected assorted candies, and  unwelcome, albeit more nutritional, apples. But, today, parents have must be vigilant and cautious, and, more than ever, are likely to escort trick-or-treating youngsters. They also heed perennial warnings and keep an eye out for tainted treats inserted with sharp objects by some sicko or, the most worrisome alert, sexual predators.
Told ya real life is scary!
To a much lesser degree than a decade ago, fear still impacts our lives. Yet, regardless of how eerie imaginary bogeymen, zombies and hobgoblins, or costumes and adornments that materialize around Halloween may seem, compared to legitimate deadly threats — biological and nuclear terrorism, potential viral pandemics, homegrown radicals, rampaging maniacs and foreign fanatics— everyday life is far more terrifying.
Real life notwithstanding, enjoy the frights and delights of Halloween. Happy haunting!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Obscure Victim of Twisted Justice Left His Mark (October 20, 2012)

A 68-year-old man died of a heart attack a few weeks ago in a New Jersey nursing home, not far from where he lived until his late teens when he moved to Brooklyn. Though his life was undistinguished, his death prompted a New York Times obituary and op-ed, and 125 Google articles negligible by today’s standards when compared to the glut of trivia on the rich and famous, yet more than merited for such an unexceptional life.
Few people probably ever heard of George Whitmore, but, due to a progression of regrettable circumstances, he almost certainly never realized the affect he had on the nation’s justice system or New York State’s death penalty law.
Whitmore was a grade-school dropout, whose life was disrupted when he was victimized by malicious detectives and an imperfect judicial system. It was justice run amok long before the New York City Police Department’s questionable and racially-motivated Stop & Frisk policy became the subject of debate. Even so, Whitmore was part of a pattern of veiled racism that existed and, in some ways, still does in the dark corners of law enforcement and the halls of the American legal system.
More than 40 years ago, Whitmore was stopped, interrogated and mistreated by Brooklyn detectives by using exceptionally questionably measures to coerce a suspect, too weak to resist, and eventually got him to sign 61 pages of false confessions. To make matters worse much worse he then got screwed, several times over, and snarled in a web of injustice by the system and the courts.

In April 1964, George Whitmore was 19 when police officers picked him up on a Brownsville street and took him to the 73rd Precinct for questioning, despite a distinct discrepancy from a purse snatching victim’s initial description, under the pretext, he later said, to help police solve a crime. Nevertheless, without a lineup, the woman identified Whitmore, who was shorter and thinner than the suspect she described, and said he was the one who tried to rape her. It was never disclosed whether or not that latest accusation was suggested by police.
After nearly a day of interrogation and mistreatment without sleep, Whitmore not only confessed to attempted rape, but also to the murder of a Brooklyn woman five months earlier, and the “Career Girl murders” in Manhattan that occurred the previous August. The killing of the two women, one of whom was from a moneyed family, had been the focus of the New York media and a public disturbed by the city’s rampant crime rate, for several weeks after it happened.
When Whitmore was indicted for the Brooklyn crimes, his court-appointed attorney told the judge that his client denied the confessions, maintained his innocence and claimed they were made after he was beaten by detectives during questioning. He was also indicted in Manhattan, even while a narcotics addict with a record of sexual assault and burglary was being questioned by police for the “Career Girl Murders.”
Before Whitmore’s Manhattan trial, his high-profile pro bono (no fee) attorney discovered that a piece of evidence that linked him to the murders was flawed. Even when the other suspect was indicted for the murders, the charges against Whitmore were not dropped, but District Attorney Frank Hogan recommended releasing him because “mistakes were made.” Since Whitmore still faced sentencing for one of the Brooklyn crimes and a trial for the other, his release was delayed.
Though the charges in the Manhattan case were finally dropped after the second man was eventually tried and convicted for the Manhattan crimes, Whitmore’s forced confessions, despite overwhelming inconclusive evidence, from the two Brooklyn crimes remained in effect.
For nine years, under the advice of his lawyers, Whitmore refused to take a plea deal, he endured a series of trials, retrials, overturned convictions and appeals. He was in and out of prison for almost three years, until his exoneration in 1973 when all charges against him dismissed almost a decade after his arrest.
Whitmore’s case was cited as an example of police coercion when the Supreme Court issued its landmark 1966 ruling that established safeguards for suspects. By a 5 to 4 vote, the court ruled that when a defendant is taken into custody and accused of a crime, he must be advised of his constitutional rights, commonly referred to as the Miranda warnings. Any statements made prior to the notification may be ruled invalid unless they meet criteria that the police and the prosecutors must prove.
With glaringly invalid evidence in the Manhattan murder case, investigators very nearly put Whitmore on death row for a crime he did not commit. No formal charges were ever brought against the detectives who coerced Whitmore, and under cross examination, they repeatedly denied using any improper tactics. Yet, they never rationally explained how they were able to get Whitmore to supply a 61-page confession to a double murder he never committed.
Based primarily on the maze of mistakes in the Whitmore ordeal, in 1965 the New York State Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, except for the killing of law enforcement personnel. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the legislation into law shortly thereafter.
George Whitmore’s arrest and exploitation launched his life on a downward spiral, which led to a period of alcoholism after his exoneration. Though it derailed his life, that detour briefly turned him into a noteworthy, albeit unwilling, martyr whose troubles subsequently set a standard for the treatment of criminal suspects.
But for a police stop on a street in Brownsville, it is likely that George Whitmore would have gone through life an anonymous person. However, that incident turned his young life into, I daresay, a Kafkaesque series of mistreatment and injustice by callous police and careless prosecutors courts more intent on cracking a high-profile case than meticulously examining evidence to protect an individual’s rights. As a result, George Whitmore got more interest and unjustifiable notoriety than an innocent person deserves.
Nevertheless, his passing is a conspicuous reminder of the injustices that take place when neglectful law enforcement officers, motivated by distorted sense of justice, harbor preconceived notions and use racial profiling to make arrests.
The impact of the Whitmore case has resonated over the decades. On the surface some may interpret it as shoddy police, but, at its core, this case is an indictment of the challenge that continues to blight American justice.
Just proves, once again, that, beyond a doubt, justice, at times, is blind.