News of the Weird

Week of October 31, 2004


-- In an October decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit voted, 8-7, not only to affirm Paul Gregory House's 1986 rape-murder conviction but also to keep him on Tennessee's death row, despite subsequent knowledge that the prosecutor's primary evidence was faulty. The eight judges accepted the conviction, even though the rape evidence was based, nearly archaically, on a match of blood "type" in semen found on the victim; much more sophisticated DNA testing later showed that the semen was not from House but from the victim's estranged husband (who, it was subsequently learned, allegedly "confessed" the crime to three witnesses, evidence that was too belatedly offered to satisfy the majority judges).

Names in the News

The man arrested for attempting to strangle another to death in Livingston, Mont., in August: 35-year-old Vincent Murders. And the bar that was closed down in August in an Hispanic neighborhood of Houston because it was widely believed to be an open drug and prostitution market: the Blo-N-Go cantina.

Chinese Judges Play Hardball

After trials in two separate cases in September (in the Chinese province of Henan and the city of Zhuhau), four men were found guilty of defrauding government banks and promptly executed. (According to figures released by China's Supreme Court in September, more than 4,200 people convicted of fraud in the last five years have received either the death penalty or life in prison or another "heavy penalty.") And a week after that, in Shenzhen, China, a couple was fined the equivalent of $94,000 and ejected from their home for violating the country's one-child rule.

The District of Calamity (continued)

(1) The District of Columbia's inspector general reported in September that the D.C. procurement office had recently sold 11 surplus fire trucks for a total of $3,125, when 11 nearly identical (year and model) trucks were sold over the Internet for more than $360,000. (2) The Washington Times reported in September that the same procurement office had recently awarded three construction contracts to a company whose principal was awaiting sentencing on a federal fraud conviction. And it gets worse: Three days after that report, the Times found that the last of the three contracts was awarded two days after another D.C. government office had officially revoked the construction company's corporate charter for failing to make required filings.

The Continuing Crisis

-- The Art and Science Collaborative Research Lab at the University of Western Australia is growing what it calls "victimless leather," a substance with the feel of the real thing but made without killing animals, according to an October report on Their work-product (a substance grown using excess mouse and human bone cells) is, now early in the process, only about 3 square inches, but as it expands, its form will be shaped into a jacket. The developers expressed disappointment at some early reaction to the project from people who focus on the ethical issue of using human cells but ignore the ethical issue of killing animals for their skin.

-- A theme restaurant for cats (the Meow Mix Cafe) opened in New York City in August, allowing owners to dine with their kitties and eat similar dishes ("Deep Sea Delight" mackerel for felines, tuna rolls for humans). No dogs are allowed, and visitors' catnip must be checked at the door. Also in August, the 96-page glossy, cocktail-table magazine, New York Dog, debuted, featuring a dog psychology advice column, dog horoscopes and dog obituaries, along with such articles as the makeover-inspiring "Queer Eye for the Scruffy Dog." (The publisher estimates that New York City has 20 million dogs.)

Leading Economic Indicators

-- In 1999, recently widowed Mary Corcoran, who was already set to receive a $1.4 million settlement from Union Pacific Railroad in the death of her husband, met Chicago lawyer Joseph P. Dowd in a bar, and Dowd convinced her that she needed better legal representation. Dowd called a hotshot Chicago law firm, which examined the case, concluded that Corcoran could not expect more than $1.4 million, and thus bowed out without charging Corcoran. Dowd, however, continues to bill Corcoran for the customary "finder's fee" (10 percent, or $140,000) stemming from the single phone call he made to the Chicago law firm. According to an August report in The New York Times, Dowd is back in court, demanding not only the $140,000 but five years' interest.

-- The Catholic Diocese of Orange County, Calif., which should be alarmed about facing millions of dollars in abusive-priest lawsuits, has quietly since 1998 bought up at least 10 luxury townhouses (some in beach communities, one $2 million house for the monsignor) for its priests, despite plenty of room for them in 56 church rectories, where priests have traditionally lived. According to an investigation by the OC Weekly of Santa Ana, just the 10 identified properties have a total value of about $8.8 million. (For comparison, the diocese gives about $300,000 a year to charity.)

Creme de la Weird

In a weird-behavior genre that has been out of the news for several years now, the Taipei Times reported that a man went to the emergency room of the National Taiwan University Hospital on Sept. 6 with an empty Taiwan-brand beer bottle lodged in his rectum, it having been inserted "wide-end first." Doctors took two hours to remove the bottle and said that the man had a history of such inappropriate insertions.

Least Competent Criminals

It's a bank robber's dilemma: He needs to put on his mask soon enough so no one can see his face, but not too soon. In unrelated attempted bank robberies in Hampstead, N.C. (Carolina First Bank, September), and Versailles, Ill. (Farmers State Bank, June), alert employees merely walked over and locked the doors when they spotted men approaching the banks wearing, respectively, a ski mask and a face-covering stocking. The police were quickly called in both cases, and suspects were in custody minutes later.

Recurring Themes

Two more cases made the news recently in which a government agency (Washington state Department of Employment Security) and a hospital (Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y.) mailed out invoices (using 37 cents postage) to collect payments due, respectively, of 5 cents and 1 cent. Sandi Bryan in East Wenatchee, Wash., had been overpaid on her unemployment compensation claim from six years ago and was billed for a nickel, and Gloria Benavides-Lal had paid a bill of $1,109.72 last year, but the hospital said she owed $1,109.73.

Almost All True

Three of these four things really happened, just recently. Are you cynical enough to figure out the made-up story? (a) A Canadian province's human rights commission ruled that adolescent girls and boys playing on the same hockey team can't be segregated into separate locker rooms. (b) A man in Montreal applied for a marketing job by handing a receptionist his resume inside an Arabic newspaper inside a package with a ticking clock. (c) A public library in Denver revoked meeting-room privileges for a group whose members made library patrons nervous because they wore aluminum-foil caps in meetings. (d) A hospital in Shanghai, China, reported a 400 percent increase this year in men getting breast (pectoral) implants.

Readers' Choice

According to police in Edmond, Okla., Trent Spencer, 27, whose marriage was apparently in trouble, decided to hire two students to break into his home and menace his wife so that Spencer could conveniently drop by, see the danger in progress, and heroically rescue her. The grand scheme started off as planned, but when the wife broke free of her duct-tape binding, she called the police, and when the fake burglars were eventually caught, they ratted out Spencer, who was charged in October with causing the false police report.

Answer to Almost All True: (a), (b) and (d) are true.

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