First Person Convicted of Murder Based on DNA Evidence

On 21 November 1983, a 15-year-old girl named Lynda Mann left her home in Narborough, Leicestershire, England, to visit a friend’s house and never returned. The next morning, Lynda was found raped and strangled on a deserted footpath. Using forensic science techniques available at the time, police linked a semen sample taken from her body to a person with type A blood and an enzyme profile that matched only 10 percent of males. With no other leads or evidence at the time, the case was left open.

Just under three years later, on 31 July 1986, another 15-year-old girl named Dawn Ashworth, from Enderby, also in Leicestershire, took a shortcut on her route home. Two days later, her body was found in a wooded area near Ten Pound Lane. She had been beaten, raped, and strangled to death. The semen samples taken revealed that the perpetrator had the same blood type as Lynda Mann’s killer.

The prime suspect was Richard Buckland, a local 17-year-old who seemed to have knowledge of Ashworth’s body. Under interrogation, Buckland admitted to Dawn Ashworth’s murder, but said he didn’t kill Lynda Mann.

In 1986, Alec Jeffreys of the University of Leicester had recently developed DNA profiling along with Peter Gill and Dave Werrett of the Forensic Science Service (FSS). Using this technique, Jeffreys compared samples from both murders against a blood sample from Buckland, which conclusively proved that both girls were killed by the same man, but not Buckland. As a result, Richard Buckland became the first person to have his innocence established by DNA fingerprinting. There is little doubt that without the DNA evidence Buckland would have been convicted of the murder of Dawn Ashworth.

The Leicestershire Constabulary then conducted an investigation, gathering blood or saliva samples from 5,000 local men. This took six months and no matches were found. Later, a man named Ian Kelly was heard bragging to his friends that he had obtained £200 for giving a sample while masquerading as his friend Colin Pitchfork, a local baker. On 19 September 1987, Pitchfork was arrested at his home in the neighboring village of Littlethorpe. His recorded fingerprint DNA sample matched the killer.

Colin Pitchfork admitted to the two murders in addition to another incident of sexual assault. He is the first criminal convicted of murder based on DNA fingerprinting evidence and the first to be caught as a result of mass DNA screening.

On 14 May 2009, Pitchfork’s legal appeal was heard at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. He won a two-year reduction in his original sentence of a minimum 30 years’ imprisonment. As a consequence, Pitchfork will now be eligible for release in 2016. The Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge stated, however, that “he cannot be released unless and until the safety of the public is assured.” For a child murderer, this should be never.

Self-checkout Lanes

I hate self-serve grocery lanes, and am encouraged to read recently that they might be diminishing in number. My reasons for hating them are manifold, but are primarily based on the realization that they replace human workers. As a life-long supporter of labor and the labor movement, I cannot in good conscience use any system that takes away jobs from real human beings.

I am not technology averse, but I refuse to be a party to displacing real people from real jobs that they may need in these hard economic times. If I can help give someone a job, while it costs me nothing whatsoever to do so, I’ll do it. Even if it does cost me, I’ll still do it.

I also am troubled by the fact that the grocery stores that use these types of checkout lanes expect me to be an unpaid employee of the store for the time I spend completing the transaction. They expect me to scan, bag, pay for and carry out the groceries, all tasks for which I am unpaid, and receive no discount in my final bill for doing, thus maximizing the grocery store profit margins. I never wanted to work in a grocery store when I was in the work force, so why would I want to be an unpaid employee now that I’m retired?

And apparently, I’m not alone in my feelings about self-checkout lanes. Market studies cited by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute found only 16 percent of supermarket transactions in 2010 were done at self-checkout lanes in stores that provided the option. That’s down from a high of 22 percent three years ago.
Overall, people reported being much more satisfied with their supermarket experience when they used traditional cashier-staffed lanes.

Supermarket chains started introducing self-serve lanes about 10 years ago, touting them as an easy way for shoppers to scan their own items’ bar codes, pay, bag their bounty and head out on their way. Retailers also anticipated a labor savings, potentially reducing the number of cashier shifts as they encouraged shoppers to do it themselves.

Below is a video of a comedy skit by Patton Oswalt that hits some of the points on this issue.

The Ponzi Scheme

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Ponzi Scheme, particularly relating to Rick Perry’s criticism of Social Security. But what, exactly, is a Ponzi Scheme and how did it get its name?

First, we need to know a little bit about its namesake, Charles Ponzi.

A lot of people can work a simple swindle, but it takes a special kind of con man to lend his name to a scam that has since become synonymous with “fraud.” Ponzi pulled it off, though.

Charles Ponzi

He arrived in the U.S. from Italy in 1903, and performed a variety of unskilled jobs that usually ended when he got into trouble for theft or cheating customers. After moving to Canada, he spent some time in prison for passing a forged check. Then he drifted back down to the U.S., in need of a way to make some quick cash.

Ponzi eventually found his way to get rich quick using a vagary of the postal system. At the time, it was common for letters abroad to include an international reply coupon, a voucher that could be exchanged for minimum postage back to the country from which the letter was sent. So, if you sent a letter to a friend in France, you could include a coupon so he could respond. As exchange and postal rates fluctuated, though, there was an opportunity to make a profit. You only had to purchase postal reply coupons cheaply in some foreign country, send them back to the U.S. in order to swap them out for American stamps of a higher value, then sell these stamps. This arrangement was perfectly legal, eve it was cleverly gaming the system. Ponzi started buying and selling postal reply coupons using agents in his native Italy, and he was making a good living doing it.

Unfortunately, Ponzi got greedy and started to recruit investors into his system with the promise of 50% returns in just a few days. Investors would pay their cash in, and sure enough, Ponzi would get them the promised return. Everyone was happy with the results, and word started to spread about this Italian financial wizard. Within two years, he was recruiting new takers for this foolproof investment strategy from all over the country.

Ponzi was pocketing millions, and he enjoyed an opulent life outside of Boston, raking in $250,000 a day at his peak. He became a celebrity investor, almost like the Warren Buffett of his day.

Ponzi had so much money flowing in from new investors, he could just pay off the returns for the old ones from the new cash. In fact, Ponzi didn’t even need to pay off the old investors, since many of them wanted to reinvest their returns in this wonderful business. Ponzi’s charms made it easy for him to placate any worried customers, and his con looked unstoppable.

Eventually, though, smarter financial heads started looking at Ponzi’s business. Clarence Barron, owner of the Wall Street Journal and founder of the financial magazine that bears his name, realized Ponzi was a con man and went on the offensive. While Barron conceded that there probably was a way for a person to make a small amount of quick cash on the postal reply coupon scheme, he figured that Ponzi would have to be moving 160 million coupons around to raise the cash he needed to support the business. Since there were only 27,000 postal reply coupons circulating in the world, Ponzi’s story didn’t check out.

On top of that, Barron noted that Ponzi told newspapers he invested his own cash in real estate, stocks, and bonds like any normal investor. Barron pointed out the obvious question here: if Ponzi had this failsafe scheme in which he could make a 50% profit, why was he putting his own money into plain old investment instruments that would give him no more than a 5% return? Those certainly didn’t sound like the actions of a financial genius.

Barron’s conclusions ran as front-page news in the Boston Post in July 1920, which would have stopped most cons in their tracks. Ponzi was so charismatic, though, that many people chose not to believe the paper’s report. Few believed that their hero, the man who had “tripled” their life savings, was anything less than 100% legitimate. In fact, the morning that the Post ran Barron’s report, investors lined up around the block outside of his office in an attempt to give him more money – even after they’d been told that they’d been scammed. Ponzi later boasted that he’d taken in a million dollars in new investments the day the report ran.

Things were starting to look less rosy for the con man, though. Although he’d largely placated his investors after Barron’s report, his window of opportunity was closing. He hired a publicist, William McMasters, but the PR man saw through Ponzi’s lies and renounced his client in the press. James Walsh reprints part of McMasters’ slam of Ponzi in his book, You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man. Of Ponzi, McMasters said, “The man is a financial idiot. He can hardly add…He sits with his feet on the desk smoking expensive cigars in a diamond holder and talking complete gibberish about postal coupons.” 

The next month, regulators raided Ponzi’s office and discovered that he didn’t have a huge quantity of postal reply coupons. Since Ponzi had used the mail to notify his marks of how their “investments” were performing, he faced serious mail fraud charges; in total, the government brought 86 charges against him in two separate indictments. Ponzi pled guilty to one of these charges in exchange for a light sentence of five years.

He served around three and a half years, then got his release to face state charges, for which he received a sentence of nine more years. But before he could go back to jail, he jumped bail and tried to start new scams in Florida and Texas. Eventually, though, his time on the lam ran out, and he served his whole sentence.

Upon his release, Ponzi was deported to Italy and spent the rest of his life in poverty. He died in Rio de Janeiro, in 1949, where he’s buried in a pauper’s grave.