Timothy Masters false conviction scandal and the difficult problem of pop psychology in the legal system

Common sense can be a two edged sword and assessments of what is probable and what isn’t probable can never be completely divorced from a person’s idea of common sense.
Some times common sense can guide us, but in other ways, especially under the influence of media distortions, can lead us astray.
Here’s links to the case that got Tim Masters convicted: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peggy_Hettrick_murder_case
He was a 15 year old, extremely shy, with something of a morbid imagination.  He made drawings that looked violent.   He also apparently saw the body that morning but thought that it was a prank by someone.   That sounds like a dubious claim but high stress situations do funny things to the mind.
What do people do when they face a potentially extreme stress situation?  Reactions are all over the place.  There were two recent near-drowning incidents in Canada where public figures that one would normally consider to be wusses heroically dived into the water. 
There are also infamous cases out there of people walking by a body in a public street with nobody calling 911 for an hour. 
Some people don’t want to get involved, others are probably in denial about what they are seeing or freeze.  You would hope that people would do the right thing but it seems that a high proportion of people, maybe most people, don’t.  At some level consciously or unconsciously they believe that if they get involved they will be put under a lot of stress, and that in the circumstances would be an accurate assessment.    You don’t know who is a hero and who is a wuss until they are put under that type of stress. 
There was a complete lack of any forensic evidence tying Tim Masters to the crime.   That made at least one investigating officer state that there wasn’t a chance  in hell that a 15 year old did such a thing without a trace of physical evidence, and that assessment seems to be an appropriate use of common sense.    To make a body dump near your home shows a distinct lack of planning, and the lack of a drop of blood or hair or fibre makes you wonder.   If he were James Bond you wouldn’t expect him to be leaving a body within spitting distance of his house with no effort to conceal it. 
I think the DNA in this case just iced it, as the manner of the killing did not make DNA transfer inevitable and some traces of DNA from the victim’s ex boyfriend don’t automatically make him the prime suspect unless it is blood DNA (killers using knives tend to cut themselves).    She would have had hair transfer for example from the ex boyfriend during innocuous circumstances. 
One major problem with the case is that an expert using a hypothesis and his own common sense is likely to prejudice a jury.  Experts should only be there for their expertise, not their muses.   If a drawing is so clear that it amounts to an admission of guilt, the jury should be able to see that with their unaided eyes.   People with morbid tastes are common, and hardly any of them are murderers.   Look at the success of vampire movies and metal bands.   There have been convictions in the US based solely on the defendant listening to Iron Maiden and a pseudo-expert testifying that this is evidence that he was a homicidal maniac.   These are prosecutors’ equivalents of the infamous "twinkee defence"- i.e. if the real evidence doesn’t back you, put up lots of smoke and mirrors and see if you can prejudice the jury.   That seems to be a common theme in wrongful convictions, right up there with suppressing evidence, which is what also happened in this case.
One interesting comment that I found about the case was that it was the only outstanding cold case in the area.   That should be troubling because the job of police and prosecutors is not to get the files off their desks at any cost, but to make sure that the right guy is put away.   If a jurisdiction never has any cold cases you have to wonder how many other innocent people have been put away.  To have true perfect certainty in all cases would require a lot of luck, because skill frequently can’t fill holes in the evidence.  A jurisdiction with no cold cases has very few cases, or is extraordinarily lucky, or has somebody loading the dice.
There are a variety of suspects in the case, none of whom is that satisfactory. 
The ex of the victim has an alibi.  The alibi sounds iffy and the DNA in the armpit area interesting given that the victim was carried, but for the results of a prosecution based on suspicion alone, see above.
The brother of the ex is interesting and acting as guilty as hell, but there is nothing to put him on any relevant scene.  If it is him, unless he folds under questioning, nothing is ever going to be proven.  And that would still leave the issue of who assisted as the body was likely carried from a vehicle to the dumping site, probably by two people.   A plausible scenario would be the brother of the ex did the deed and the two of them did the disposal after the expiry of the alibi, but that is only plausible, which is not enough for a prosecution.   A lot more is needed than internal consistency- lots of plausible theories don’t pan out.   The ex also passed a lie detector test, which is not conclusive but is interesting.   If he were cold blooded enough to commit the act and pass the test, you would expect there to be other incidents out there, and as far as I can see there aren’t. 
The somewhat psycho Dr. Hammond who lived nearby is unlikely.  There is no indication that his depravities had ever translated into violence.  Performing a body dump near one’s own home is again illogical.  You wouldn’t do that unless trying to be caught.   It also wouldn’t make sense to transfer a body to a car, then drive only a very short distance away, and do it in plain sight where neighbours could recognize you. 
The possibility of a Bundy type just passing through should not be discounted.  Some people thought that was exactly what the case was.
The lesson I suppose is that there is nothing inherently wrong with a case being a cold case.  It would have been better to have come to that realization some 20 years ago.

The unpleasant probability about Kyron Horman

What is the probability that a kidnapper got to Kyron Horman in the very short distance between where his stepmother claims to have last seen him, and the classroom where his teacher says that he didn’t show up that day?
Abduction of a child by a stranger are far less common than the media tend to represent and predators are likely to target victims where there is nobody around.  That is no doubt why the police were initially quite suspicious of the kidnapping report in the Jaycee Dugard case, because most predators are going to avoid a brazen, high risk abduction. 
The sad truth however is that most child homicides are committed by women, most often their mothers.  
Is the stepmother involved?  It is wildly unlikely that she would not be.  She has given an implausible explanation and there are stories out there about her instability and attitudes towards violence, including reportedly at one point looking for a hitman.
Even an inept police officer could probably connect those dots and so I expect they have had her under 24 hour surveillance since the incident.  They would not discourage speculation about other possibilities as if the stepmother did have the child stashed somewhere, she would be more likely to be careless in the event that she thought that she was not under suspicion. 
In the event that she were obsessed with the boy  to the point of abducting him for some reason, one would think that she would not be so disciplined as to have no contact with him for two months.
While the later attempted kidnapping of the daughter is more likely to be a precursor to a flight attempt than showing disposition to kidnap, it can also be a fiendishly clever misdirection.   It gets people thinking more in terms of kidnapping than other options.  That fact may prejudice a jury against finding murder in the absence of a body.
It does look suspicious that the friend of the stepmother unexpectedly left her job for 90 minutes towards the tail end of an inadequately explained time period of the stepmother the morning of the disappearance.    If there is some involvement there it would not seem that whatever happened was well planned, more of a spontaneous thing.
If it were some kind of planned abduction one would think that the stepmother would have taken the boy and the daughter and just gone. 
An interesting thing would be to know about any insurance on the father.  One oddity about the situation is that the child seems to have been taken out of school with intent.  If there had been an accident, or a sudden rage that went too far, one would not expect this premeditated element.   On the other hand, depending on Oregon’s estate laws, the father’s will and related issues, if the stepmother had been looking for a hitman for financial reasons then Kyron as an heir would have been in her way. 
Again, considering how inept the stepmother’s cover story was and her later actions it would seem improbable that she could be so focussed as to have the child stashed with somebody else and not make any mistake and have no direct or indirect contact for a couple of months.  She’s as error prone as the head of BP.
The police seem to have been looking for a body dump on a certain island, Sauvie Island, and my guess is that they are probably right.   The problem is that if this is premeditated she probably picked the spot earlier.   It won’t likely be in the water where the police had divers as that would be a desperate act by somebody without a plan.  More likely off the beaten path somewhere. 
On the other hand, it is interesting that there appears to be some unspecified involvement of her gardener friend.   Freshly turned earth is going to attract less suspicion if there is something planted there. 

Charles Manson, the copycat

On August 1, 1969, the guy calling himself the Zodiac killer sent letters to San Fransisco newspapers.   This was followed with another on August 7, 1969.  This caused a considerable uproar in California.
The Zodiac was almost certainly Arthur Leigh Allan, a loser, who may have only committed three murders.   The publicity started after July 4, 1969, when Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau were attacked.   The killer on that occasion showed hesitation, driving away and then coming back for the attack.   It appears that Darlene Ferrin likely knew Allan and had something of a reputation for promiscuity, and the man that she was attacked with was not her husband.   We may conjecture that Allan at some point experienced a rejection.
Everything that came after that was in the form of a smokescreen intended to show that the act was the random act of a serial killer rather than a targeted killing.  So it is unclear that there was any involvement with the two prior murders for which no prior publicity had been sought. 
Zodiac’s success in rattling the public probably inspired another loser, Charles Manson.   August 7, 1969 was the date of the second letter by Zodiac.   On the evening of August 8, 1969, Manson sent his people to the home of Sharon Tate. 
Manson was looking for some way to create public upheaval but he didn’t do murder for its’ own sake until immediately after the Zodiac went public and he would have seen how successful he was in generating the kind of effect that Manson was looking for.   Of course that was only a side effect of Zodiac’s real motive of generating confusion. 
Not all of the counsequences of this nasty chain of events have concluded, as we can see from the Polanski matter.   Two losers brought in an era of the iconic criminal while shifting the culture to one where people were increasingly concerned about security. 

Polanski gets pyrrhic victory

So, Polanski won’t be extradited to the United States.  From one perspective that is disappointing.  On the other hand, this commits him to a life in exile, a life sentence that no court could have ordered. 
Had he come back to face the music, he would have probably been put in some minimum security prison with a country club atmosphere and gotten out in a year or less, after which we would have been treated to the repulsive spectacle of his release to a hero’s welcome.
From the point of view of deterrence of others, Polanski spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and wondering if each country he goes to will attempt extradition, may be a greater deterent whereas having him return to a hero’s welcome would be culturally damaging.
No doubt what happened to Sharon Tate played a significant role in twisting Polanski’s character, but most predators were at some time victimized.  There’s usually a story.   We have to deal with the man that he is, not the man that he could have been.  The one that could have been isn’t here and can’t be helped.   We’re stuck with the twisted Polanski and focussing on what can’t be undone only clouds ones view of present obligations. 

America’s lead vigilante headed for a fall

Joe Arpaio likes to depict himself as a guy that will take on the establishment.  The problem is, he is the establishment. 
It isn’t hard to believe that much of the political establishment in western countries ranges from questionable practices to clear cut conflicts of interest. Most people think that and they’re probably right.  
The difficulty is that when somebody purports to take on that problem we have to take care not to be played. 
It isn’t that hard to get a jury to convict.  In the US south, it is notoriously too easy.  So why is it that when Joe Arpaio brings high profile cases he can’t get convictions?
At best he is an example of the worst kind of knee jerk law enforcement, someone that assumes that all allegations are true and doesn’t look at the facts too closely before committing to a theory of a case.  The question then would be, how it is that a high number of cases that involve rivals turn out to later be vexatious.  It doesn’t look like random stupidity.  It looks like banana republic stuff.
I think the feds need to start turning over a lot of rocks in Arizona to see what they find, because if this kind of conduct is allowed to go on in plain sight, what else is there?   It doesn’t look like the Arizonians are taking control of their public officials and this shouldn’t be allowed to fester.   It’s un-American.

More adventures in pseudo-science

There is an interesting debate about nothing involving the genetics of Tibetans and Han Chinese.  The Tibetans apparently have a genetic change that allows them to function at high altitude.   The geneticists, through statistical analysis, thought at first that there was a genetic separation about 3,000 years ago.  Then everything got confused when somebody raised the irrelevant fact that Tibet had been inhabited much longer than 3,000 years.
DNA changes aren’t like Netflix.  You don’t change residence and have one arrive in the mail the next day.   The use of the term "adaptation" itself leads to confusion as it has the connotation of a deliberate decision.   Mutations are thought to be random.  Favorable mutations will tend to be selected through natural selection once they occur, but the mutation is not a response to an environmental stressor.   A random mutation is more likely to lead to illness than an improvement.    Someone living below sea level was just as likely to develop the initial mutation for high altitude survival as a Tibetan. 
Depending on the gap to be bridged and the vulnerability of a given stretch of code to mutation, a given favorable mutation is as likely to occur today as it is to occur on some day 3,000 years from now.
So there is no inconsistency in the possibility that the Tibetans could have occupied Tibet long before the genetic adaptation.
There then is a seemingly odd issue of a genetic bottleneck with the Hans.  That 268 people might have existed in the Han clan at any relevant time would seem improbable. 
However, just as we have found out that the Neanderthals didn’t really die out (we have a significant portion of their DNA),  DNA and statistics can lead to all kinds of confusion if you omit the basics.
There are 46 human chromosomes.  Those are 46 different paths.  You have 23 from your mother and 23 from your father.  There may be some issue of chromosomes swapping genes with other chromosomes as has been suggested by some recent researchers, but look at how the math works.  2 parents, 4 grand parents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great great grandparents, 32 great great great grandparents, 64 great great great grandparents (assuming no interbreeding). 
In other words, go back 5 generations and it is impossible that you get a chromosome from everybody unless highly inbred.  64 people, 46 chromosomes.   And statistically the odds that those 46 chromosomes would be from 46 different people are remote.   There would be spots with 2 or 3.   Go back one more generation and it is 128 people to account for 46 chromosomes, with around a 1 in 3 chance for any of them that a chromosome of theirs lives on in you. 
So in the absence of massive gene swapping between chromosomes one would expect no genetic sign that the vast majority of one’s direct ancestors had ever existed.  46 paths backwards, with the number of potential contributors potentially doubling with each generation.  Go back 2000 years and the potential number of ancestors exceeds the number of people actually living in the world at that time, narrowed down to 46 paths that make you. 
Until that issue gets properly dealt with a lot of historical geneological analysis is going to be complete bollucks.  Genes tell us something about who and what did survive, but they don’t tell us much about who didn’t make it, and in particular, whether a genetic line is extinct for lack of direct descendants or because direct descendants are lacking the DNA.