Wednesday, December 10, 2008

South Carolina Cheerleader Innocent of Raping Teen Girl

South Carolina Cheeleader Innocent of Raping Teen Girl
by Robert A. Waters

This could happen to you or me. One day, you’re leading a normal life. Then it all corkscrews into the abyss of disaster. You’re at work when cops come and arrest you for raping a child. You’re paraded in handcuffs through a gauntlet of reporters with flashing cameras and plastic smiles. The next day your face is on the front page of the papers, on the blogs, on TV. You wonder if the reporters will be there when you’re proven innocent. Or worse yet, will you be railroaded to prison for years to come?

Stephanie Gail Kirkland, 20, lived in Graniteville, South Carolina, near Aiken. She worked two part-time jobs while she attended college. She had a boyfriend, a MySpace page, and a loving, supportive family.

On August 12, 2008, police arrested her at her workplace. It came out of the blue—-they’d never even questioned her. A child at the school where she taught cheerleading had accused Kirkland of rape. She was charged with three counts of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree and four counts of lewd acts on a minor. Two things made this case even more high-voltage than most sexual offenses: Stephanie Kirkland was an attractive blue-eyed blonde and the “victim” was a thirteen-year-old girl.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Kirkland said later. “I mean it was just awful. Handcuffs and shackles, walking in front of my family...I lost nine pounds, I couldn’t eat for a week.”

Once the news got out, the accused lesbian child rapist was inundated with obscene messages on her MySpace page. Much later Kirkland explained that strangers who’d seen her picture in the news threatened “to do sexual things to me because of something I did to a little girl--that I didn’t do.” The menace of stalking and violence seemed very real because the local newspaper had published her home address.

“There was a relationship between Ms. Kirkland and the thirteen-year-old,” Lt. Michael Frank said emphatically. An article in the Aiken Standard expanded on the charges. “Investigators said that between May and December 2007, the subject sexually violated the victim, fondling her and assaulting her at Aiken Cheer Extreme, College Acres locations and several times in the victim’s bedroom.” After being approached by a relative of the girl, the paper reported that investigators “launched an investigation into the matter, which Frank explained can take several months.”

The blogosphere exploded. “Stephanie Gail Kirkland, 20, enjoys the music of Ashley Tisdale and Usher, hanging out with friends, her kitten, Chipper, and having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl,” one blogger wrote. Another assured readers that “local police say that they have enough evidence for the arrest and feel that the charges are valid and are prepared for trial on the charges.”

Then something amazing, something magnificent happened. People who had known Kirkland all her life began posting responses to the story in the online edition of the Standard. All were supportive. (While many online comments to newspapers are obviously from crackpots, a number of these posters published their real names. It was obvious that they knew the situation well.)

Here are a few of their comments:

“I think it is ridiculous that Stephanies (sic) picture is in the paper. This has ruined her reputation.”

“The sensationalized article on Kirkland was the worst thing I’ve seen this horrible, uncaring, clueless newspaper do.”

“Why is it that Stephanie was never interviewed prior to her arrest?”

“Kirkland was arrested on completely frivolous and physically impossible accusations made by a known unreliable source. This is truly scary, so much for presumed innocence.”

Many of the posters knew the accuser. “The 13 yr out of control,” someone wrote. “I have had a chance to view her myspace page and see the things that she post[ed]...which are lewd and disgusting...I know that she has accused other young girls of the same charges and they were untrue also.”

On September 26, 2008, while out on bail, Kirkland got a call from her lawyer informing her that the charges had been dropped. Aiken County Assistant Solicitor Steve Kodman said that there were multiple inconsistencies in the accuser’s statement. Trying to cover his ass, he said, “There are times where law enforcement has enough probable cause to make an arrest, but we have to be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to take it to court.” Even though they dropped the charges, authorities said “they have nothing that leads them to suspect the alleged victim lied.”

“It’s closed,” Lt. Frank said. “That’s the end of it.”

Well, that’s not quite the end of it. What about Stephanie Kirkland’s embarrassment at being hauled off to jail like some serial child molester? What about the statements police and prosecutors made sliming Kirkland? What about the fact that the accuser finally admitted that she made the whole thing up? Why wasn’t the accuser’s background checked in the beginning? Why is she not being charged? Since she’s not being charged, is she receiving counseling or psychiatric help?

Finally, what about the reporting of the story? Articles in newspapers are assumed by many to be the lasting public record of an event. Will the local media subpoena police reports, court documents, and other records from the case? Will they interview all participants to determine why an innocent girl was arrested before she was even questioned? Or why everyone in town seemed to know the accuser was lying except the cops? Or why many in the media blindly accepted the police version as truth? That’s the real story.

Once, after having been acquitted of sham charges of larceny and fraud, Raymond Donovan, Secretary of Labor under President Ronald Reagan, yelled at the prosecutor, “Give me back my reputation.” Later, he stated that when he was reading a newspaper article about his arrest, he thought, That’s what people will read forever.

No doubt, Stephanie Kirkland feels much the same way.

“The way it looks now,” she said, “is [that] I did something but they just can’t prove it. If I go apply for a job and they ask me if I’ve ever been arrested...they won’t ever look past ‘have you ever been arrested?’ and [they’ll] throw that [job application] out the window.”

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Website of a Murderer

Internet Scam
by Robert A. Waters

Like the age-old Internet Nigerian scam, it amazes me that anyone could fall for the messages posted on the anti-death penalty websites of death row inmates. Most are so far from the realm of reality that it makes one question the mental health of those lost souls who take these sites seriously. Take, for example, this ad from an inmate convicted of murdering two innocent teenagers.

For many years, the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CCADP) has maintained a website for Randall Scott Jones. Here’s a sampling: “Looking for a friend, any age, male or female, who can look through these bars and see me for who I really am.” Now that’s a loaded statement—-could it be that the person looking through the bars sees a cold-blooded double-murderer?

There’s more. Switching to the third person, Jones writes, “Randy has been described as a ‘bright, caring person,’ who ‘never had a chance.’” He then describes his horrible upbringing and states that his cries for help went “mostly unheeded.” While Jones may have had a lousy childhood, so have millions and millions of others who lived successful lives and never murdered anyone.

“Later that year, Randy went into the US Army as an ear, nose, and throat specialist.” An ear, nose, and throat specialist? Isn’t that a doctor? That is, a physician? Someone who has spent a decade in med school and a few more years in specialized training?

No matter. Jones didn’t last that long in the military. According to his webpage, he was “honorably discharged based on less than satisfactory performance.” Seems he kept oversleeping because he was depressed.

According to court documents, on the night of July 26, 1987, Jones and Chris Reesh were carrying a 30-30 caliber rifle that Jones had stolen from his girl-friend’s father. On that night, they were taking target practice at the Rodman Dam recreation area near Palatka, Florida. When Jones’ truck became stuck in the sand, they walked to a Chevrolet pickup where teenagers Matthew Paul Brock and Kelly Lynn Perry were sleeping in the cab. What followed were two cruel, heartless murders and a perverted sexual assault.

A few weeks later, Jones and Reesh were arrested in Mississippi. Jones was driving the stolen truck belonging to murder victim Matthew Brock. Items from Perry and Brock were found in Jones’ room. He confessed to killing the couple.

An article in the online magazine Forensic Science by Hal Tam reads: “Without waking the couple in the pickup, Jones shot both Perry and Brock in the head at close range. He and Reesh then dragged the bodies into the woods nearby. They towed Jones’ truck from the sand with Brock’s pickup and left with both trucks. Later Jones returned to the crime scene, moved the bodies further into the woods, and raped Perry.”

Semen taken from Perry's body was tested for DNA and matched that of Jones. The jury took only fifteen minutes to find him guilty. Jurors recommended that he be executed, the first time DNA was used in a death penalty case.

For twenty years, Jones has fought his sentence.

For twenty years, his victims have not achieved the justice they deserve.

While there are legitimate reasons to oppose the death penalty just as there are legitimate reasons to favor execution, websites such as Jones’ diminish the victims (who are never mentioned) and cast doubt on CCADP as an advocacy group.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Murder of Clevie Tedder

“Deland, Fla., April 11, 1910. A jury today brought in a verdict of murder in the first degree against Irving Hanchett, the boy that stabbed Miss Clevie Tedder to death on February 12. The judge immediately pronounced the death sentence. Hanchett met Miss Tedder on the road and made improper proposals and when she refused him and threatened to tell, he set upon her with a knife and stabbed her sixty-three times.” Fort Wayne Sentinel.

Although this murder happened in the backwater town of Glenwood, Florida a hundred years ago, it had all the ingredients of today’s headlines: sexual violence, an incorrigible juvenile, and the age-old question of what to do with a teenaged killer.

On the morning of February 12, 1910, thirteen-year-old Clevie Tedder was riding her bicycle to school when she was attacked. Glenwood, an unincorporated town of 400 souls, was a few miles north of DeLand, home of Stetson University. Most residents worked for Bond Lumber Company.

The Tedder family was well-known and well-liked in the community. Irving Hanchett, on the other hand, was a “juvenile delinquent.” He was currently on parole from the Connecticut State School for Boys in Meriden. The sponsor of his parole, William Woolsey, owned an orange grove near Glenwood and had sent the boy to Florida for a fresh start.

An article in the Atlanta Constitution relates some of the details of the case. “A bicycle,” the article reads, “which the girl was riding, was found 100 yards from where her body was discovered, indicating that her assailant had struggled with her for this distance after knocking her from her wheel. In the body of the girl sixty-two (sic) knife wounds were counted. She was literally cut to pieces.” It was obvious to observers that Clevie had fought her attacker almost to the end. The blood trail, shoe prints, and ripped clothing strewn along the trail attested to the violence of the attack. In addition to the knife wounds, the girl had been brutally beaten.

Volusia County Sheriff E. L. Smith was called to the scene. He quickly organized a posse to search for the killer. As the searchers fanned out, the Washington Post reported that “the sheriff secured bloodhounds, and followed a trail to the orange grove of William Woolsey, where young Hanchett was employed. In the room of the boy were found bloody clothes and the knife with which the murder is believed to have been committed.” The blade was bent, and Hanchett had cuts on his hands. In addition, his shoes fit the prints of the assailant found in the sand near Tedder’s body.

Hanchett was lucky he wasn’t lynched then and there. As soon as the searchers heard that he’d been arrested, they rushed to the Volusia County jail intent on stringing him up. Sheriff Smith was barely able to avert a lynch party by sneaking the young suspect out the back door to a waiting car. He took the boy to Orlando, fifty miles south. There Hanchett was placed in a more secure jail, as much for his own protection as for that of the community.

Two months later, Hanchett went on trial. Judge Minor S. Jones, a flamboyant Confederate veteran and circuit-riding judge who had once presided over the divorce of Henry Flagler, held court. Hanchett took the stand and confessed in graphic detail to the horrific attack. It was said that he sensationalized his account in order to be found insane.

It didn’t work. Instead, he was found guilty of murder in the first degree.

A few days before Hanchett was to be hanged, the Syracuse New York Post Standard editorialized about the case: “Sentence of death for a boy of 14 (sic) seems like an outrageous working of criminal law. It is revolting to human nature to think of leading a child to the scaffold, no matter how heinous the crime, and for any other crime than that for which Irving Hanchett has been accused the courts of Florida would doubtless have refused to convict him. Concerning that crime law in the South does not claim to be judicial.” The article continues, becoming more condescending and more muddled, eventually concluding that unlike New York, Florida and Connecticut were barbaric – Florida because the state planned to hang the murderer and Connecticut because its juvenile justice system rejected “the teachings of Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, Judge Lindsay, and William R. George.”

The article never mentioned the victim’s name, nor the probability that a few years in prison was unlikely to rehabilitate the killer.

The last chapter was written by the Chicago Daily Herald in a brief, one-sentence squib: “DeLand, Fla., May 7, 1910 – Irving Hanchett, the 15-year-old Connecticut boy who was convicted of the murder of Clevie Tedder, a girl, 13 years old, near this place on the evening of Feb. 12 last, was hanged here.”