Dick Francis, forensics, jury trials, and Ole Bert: newsletter, March 15, 2019

March 18, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,875) on Friday, March 15, 2019.



The news of this week of a major scandal in the collegiate admissions process has captured, and in some cases (mine) captivated, the attention of the nation, and rightly so. Having spent much of my adult life in academia, I am acutely interested in the reported violations of the admissions process and in the many aspects of the story.

Interesting, too, are the ways in which people react to the story. Is this a narrative of parental love gone wrong or one of privilege and advantage? Or is the story saying something else? If you have a thought on this that you want to share, I would enjoy hearing from you and sharing with our newsletter readers.

Meanwhile, my reading this week includes Dick Francis (see below), whom I am rediscovering after many years.

Whatever you are reading this week, have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,884 subscribers and had a 28.4 percent open rate; 10 people unsubscribed. 

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Dick Francis, a top jockey and an even better mystery writer

When Dick Francis took his horse Devon Loch up over the last hurdle at the 1956 Grand National Steeplechase, he was on top of the British racing world — which was quite a place to be since racing, literally, was the sport of kings. He led the field, and the finish line was in sight. Devon Loch was the Queen Mother’s horse, and the race had not a royal winner in many years.

Little did he know that in the next few seconds he would be spiraled into the pitch and thrown into a new life that would eventually make him one of the premier mystery writers of the second half of the 20th century.

The loss that day, plus many injuries he had sustained during his years of racing, convinced him to retire. He was 36 years old.

He took a job as the racing correspondent for the Sunday Express, something he did for the next 16 years. He wrote his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, and at some point decided — in part because his journalism job paid so little — that he would try his hand at mystery novels. His first novel, Dead Cert, was published in 1962.

That novel set the pattern for the more than 40 that followed. They all involved the world of horse racing, something that Francis knew from top to bottom and inside out. Each had a different protagonist, a rare exception being Sid Hadley in Odds Against (1965), Whip Hand (1979), Under Orders (2006), and Come to Grief (1995).

Francis would take about a year to write each of his novels, and he had a great deal of help from his wife Mary, who often did much of the research. He wanted to include her in the byline, but she always refused.

Francis’ writing process was slow and methodical. He would write a sentence and work on it until he got it right. Then he would write the next sentence in the same painstaking way. Once he was finished with a sentence, chapter, or manuscript, he would never rewrite it.

The former jockey also believed in getting out of the gate quickly. First sentences and first paragraphs hooked readers immediately. For instance, here are the first lines of Come to Grief (which I am reading at the moment):

I had this friend, you see, that everyone loved.

(My name is Sid Hadley.)

I had this friend that everyone love, and I put him on trial.

The trouble with working as an investigator, as I had been doing for approaching five years, was that occasionally one turned up facts that surprised and appalled and smashed peaceful lives forever . . . .

In the 1980s, after his novels had become popular in the United States, Francis moved to Florida. Later he and Mary moved to the Cayman Islands. Francis kept writing until his wife died in 2000. In 2006 he collaborated with his son Felix on a novel, and they published several together before his death in 2010.

Francis won every major award there was for crime and mystery writing and was unassailably a master at his craft.

Neil Nyren has a good review of Francis’ work in this article on CrimeReads (Dick Francis: A Crime Reader’s Guide to the Classics | CrimeReads), and here is Francis’ obit in the New York Times: Dick Francis, British Jockey and Thriller Writer, Dies at 89 – The New York Times.


Forensic science reform at a “crossroads”

A forensic science expert testified that a bite mark on a victim matched the bite of the man accused of the crime. The accused was convicted and given a 60-year sentence.

That was 18 years ago. Now the expert has recanted his testimony, and the accused man has been released from prison.

That’s only one example of the failings of forensics in the last generation. Many legal experts are taking a hard look at forensic evidence — how it is acquired and how it is used.

In this article in CrimeReports, writer Megan Hadley cites the work of UCLA law professor Jennifer Mnookin in our changing view of forensic evidence:

Mnookin suggested the case (of the bite mark evidence) indicated a potential sea change for the use of bite mark evidence,  and noted there is a growing consensus among judges that the forensic science community should scale back exaggerated and overconfident assertions of knowledge and authority by forensic scientists.Source: Forensic Science Reform at ‘Crossroads’ | The Crime Report

We fell in love with forensics when the CSI craze became so popular on television nearly two decades ago. As depicted by the many televisions shows that followed, forensic science offered us objective certainty in determining the guilt or innocence of people accused of crimes.

It was good television. It wasn’t particularly good law.

In reality, not on television, forensic evidence currently offers us little more than an educated guess, if that. It’s a good thing that we are finally recognizing that truth.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”

Jury trials: a fading concept?

You’re accused of a crime. You didn’t do it.

The prosecutor is aggressive; she says there’s ample evidence to convict you. You and your attorney go over the evidence. He says there are procedural errors in the way the evidence has been acquired, and all in all, he doesn’t believe the case is all that strong.

But none of that is very reassuring.

Then the prosecutor comes back with an offer. Accept a plea to a lesser crime, and she and your lawyer will negotiate a sentence — maybe one that has no jail time.

But you didn’t do the lesser crime either.

What do you do?

More and more, according to a National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) report titled the “The Trial Penalty.”, defendants are taking the deal. And that’s not a good thing.

They’re waiving their right to a jury trial; they’re passing up a chance to challenge their accusers; and they accept the permanent label of “convicted criminal” for themselves.

Jury trials today occurred in only about three percent of the three percent of federal criminal cases; 30 years ago, it was 20 percent. The same thing has been happening at the state level.

The NACDL report goes on to say:

Neither government officials or the public have resisted the rise of plea bargaining, say the defense lawyers, who agree that “plea bargaining presents a seemingly reasonable alternative that promotes efficiency while providing defendants an opportunity for leniency and putting them on an early road to rehabilitation.” A major problem is that pressures to plead guilty are “so strong [that] even innocent people can be convinced to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit,” says the NACDL report.

This information comes from TheCrimeReport.org, an excellent source for keeping up with the criminal justice system:  Defense Lawyers Decry Disappearance of Jury Trials | The Crime ReportThe Crime Report

Ole Bert: Sage of the Smokies: now on Amazon

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned some of the book projects that I am working on for the Blount County Public Library (in addition to a couple of my own, which I didn’t mention). One of those was about Bert Garner, a locally famous “mountain man” who was variously known as Sage of the Smokies and the Appalachian Thoreau.

Bert lived by himself near the Smokies in an electricity-less cabin and had as much practical knowledge about the mountains as anyone living at that time.

Woody Brinegar, one of Bert’s many friends, wrote a biography/memoir of Bert, who died at age 85 in 1970, and had it copied and passed around to friends. The library had permission from the Brinegar family (Woody died in 1995) to reprint the book, and we have done so — with a few new illustrations included. Without too much fuss, we got the book on Amazon in both print and ebook formats, so take a look. All of the profits will go to the Blount County Friends of the Library.

I did a series of pen and ink drawings to illustrate our new edition. A couple of them are below.

March is Women’s History Month; so, once more, Seeing Suffrage

March is the month to pay special attention to women’s history. And what better way to do that (he said, self-servingly) than taking a look at Seeing Suffrage. So, once again:

Several years ago I wrote a book about the 1913 Woman Suffrage Parade that was held on March 3, 1913, in Washington, D.C. It was the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated. Not only did this event turn out to be a pivotal one in the history of the suffrage debate, but it also was one that was well-covered by the newspapers of the day — particularly photographers. In my research, I had discovered a trove of photographs in the Library of Congress and in the library of the Sewell-Belmont House, the historic headquarters of the National Woman’s Party. Many of these photographs had never been published before and were included in the book.

The book, Seeing Suffrage: The 1913 Washington Suffrage Parade, Its Pictures, and Its Effect on the American Political Landscape, was published by the University of Tennessee Press. The press published it only in a hardback edition, however, and has never brought it out as an ebook. Since I hold the copyright, I decided that it was time for that to change. That project was completed just two days before Christmas and is now available on Amazon (free if you are a Kindle Unlimited member). If you have a chance to look at it, I’d like to know what you think.

Finally . . .

This week’s pen and ink drawings: Ole Bert: Sage of the Smokies

Best quote of the week

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again. Mary Oliver, poet (1935-2019)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The Belfast Project’s secret tapes, Facebook’s (and our) profound mistake, and more on America’s first female detective: newsletter, March 8, 2019




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