Thursday, May 31, 2012

Severus Snape, Criminologist

The speech comes in the sixth of the seven Harry Potter books, in a chapter that is also the book’s title: “The Half-blood Prince.”

Severus Snape, the sinister professor with ambiguous loyalties and a deep hatred for Harry Potter, has finally achieved one of his heart’s most cherished desires. He has been appointed to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

In his first session with his sixth-year class, Snape frames the subject in a tone that to Harry seems suspiciously like a panegyric.

“The Dark Arts, said Snape, “are many, varied, ever-changing, and eternal.”

What sorts of strategies are most effective in confronting the dark side when it is so indestructible?

Snape is cautious in his counsel. Fighting dark forces, he says, “is like fighting a many-headed monster, which, each time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even fiercer and cleverer than before.”

Substitute the word “crime” for “Dark Arts,” and Snape begins to sound like a conservative criminologist. To take just one example, hasn’t America’s ill-fated “war on drugs” produced precisely the hydra-head phenomenon Snape tried to warn his students against?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bring Your Toothbrush

Prison or probation?

Even in states with structured sentencing systems, the answer to this fundamental question isn’t always known when someone is convicted of a crime.

Often, however, there are indicators of how the decision will go.

Consider, for example, a sex offense case last fall in Minnesota involving a priest who had sex with a young woman he was counseling. She was dealing with an eating disorder and in a vulnerable state from childhood sexual abuse.

The priest, Rev. Christopher Wenthe, did not deny having sexual contact with the 21-year-old woman. But he claimed the sex was consensual.

The jury did not agree and convicted him of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree on November 15.

The Ramsey County prosecutors, David Hunt and Kevin Kugler, moved to have Wenthe immediately taken into custody. The district judge, the Hon. Margaret Marrinan, denied that motion.

Wenthe’s defense attorney, Paul Engh, indicated he would seek a sentence of probation at the sentencing hearing in December. Though Judge Marrinan did not tip her hand completely, she did give Engh and his client a reality check.

“The court will direct the defendant to bring his toothbrush,” the judge said, for the sentencing hearing on December 14.

At that hearing, as the Star Tribune reported, Judge Marrinan sentenced Rev. Wenthe to a year in the workhouse.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hecker Hits the Road - Again

Denny Hecker was a Twin Cities car dealer who lived too high, lied too much, and got over-extended. His various enterprises came crashing down around him during Great Recession. It was a perfect storm of self-imposed calamity, compounded by the bad economy.

The perfect storm included bankruptcy and criminal fraud charges, as well as a drunken driving arrest. To engage in a rather bad pun, the wheels fell off for the former auto magnate who once tried to buy the Minnesota Vikings.

And yet even as his businesses ran on fumes and finally expired, Hecker kept digging himself into a bigger hole. This self-sabotage included attempts by Hecker and his newest girlfriend / wife to mislead the bankruptcy court about the extent of Hecker’s assets.

Prison usually provides a reality check for people as self-indulgently willful as Denny Hecker. And that is indeed happening. This week the Star Tribune reported on the dose of “diesel therapy” Hecker is receiving, courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

The bureau is relocating Hecker to a different prison, this time in Pennsylvania. It’s the fourth time Hecker has been moved since he started serving his 10-year sentence in February.

Outside the walls, Hecker broke rules with impunity. The consequences come quicker, it seems, for rule violations inside, such as disregarding limits on phone calls.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Celebrity's Peculiar Platform

“Celebrity is as celebrity does,” says Ken Branagh’s Gildreoy Lockhart in the film version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Well, maybe so. The statement is so tautologically nonsensical its meaning, if any, remains obscure.

Yet it does point to our cultural preoccupation with fleeting fame, narcissistic navel-gazing, and tabloid-driven news.

A case in point: The Detroit News reported last week on the drunken driving sentencing hearing for former Miss USA Rima Fakih. The 26-year-old Michigan native was caught last December with a half-empty champagne bottle in her car as she wove in and out of traffic. Her blood-alcohol content was over twice the legal limit.

Fakih was worried she might have to serve jail time. But a judge in Detroit sentenced her to six months of probation and 20 hours of community service. She must also pay a $300 fine and $300 in court costs, as well as other fees.

Fakih’s community service will include speaking to students about the dangers of drunken driving. Perhaps her celebrity status as the first Arab-American to become Miss USA really will gain a wide audience for her cautionary message about drinking and driving.

Indeed, for Fakih, it seems like a win-win. She not only avoids jail; she also gets to keep her flickering flame of fame alive. At least until she makes her scheduled appearance on a celebrity-dating reality-TV show later this year.