Monday, July 30, 2012

I the jury....make that I not the jury

By Jim Heffernan

I recently received a summons to report for jury duty in September. It brought back memories of former jury service, and also the hundreds of hours I have spent in courtrooms…as a journalist covering trials.

Courtroom coverage can be stultifying, but it can also be interesting and sometimes exciting. When one murder defendant at a trial I covered heard the jury’s guilty verdict, he began to loudly wail and, sitting beside his attorney at the defense table, slowly crawled into the attorney’s lap, folding himself into the fetal position.

That’s the kind of scene that a reporter can really sink his (in my case, his) teeth into in reporting the story.

Sometimes coverage of capital murder can be horrifying, when testimony goes into great detail – as it always does  – about exactly what happened to the victim. In one trial, large color photographs of a murdered man – he’d been bludgeoned – were entered as exhibits and turned over to the court. During a break, the judge invited me into his chambers to look over the photos. I had known the murdered man slightly, and reviewing those pictures was not a pleasant experience.

In another case in which a murder victim was shot and killed with a deer rifle fired through the windshield of the victim’s car, the entire court proceeding – judge, attorneys, jury, me -- was adjourned to a storage garage to review the car with its bullet holes and blood and flesh still on the upholstery. It had been a nice Chrysler convertible.

Court coverage can go with a reporter’s territory, and, because you are familiar with the court system – the attorneys, the judges, the police, even the bailiffs – you are apparently disqualified from serving on juries. Not officially, mind you, but take my experience: I have been called to jury duty four times and never selected to hear a case. Number five coming up in September.

Attorneys, mainly defense attorneys in criminal trials, are wary of anyone with the slightest knowledge of the case being heard or of court procedure in general. The less you know, the more likely it is that you will be selected to hear the case. The same is true in civil cases.

Thus, if, during questioning of prospective jurors by attorneys representing both sides, they think you might actually be analytical in weighing the testimony, out you go, even if you swear you will be objective. They also seem to be wary of prospective jurors who are well educated.

I got dismissed the last time I served because I had to admit the defendant’s record could influence my thinking in weighing the case, even though I understood that only the evidence in the case being heard should be weighed.

In that case, a man being tried for arson denied intentionally burning down his house. During questioning of prospective jurors, one of the attorneys – can’t recall which side – noted that the defendant had been convicted of burning down another house a few years before this house had burned. “Would knowledge of the previous arson case influence your thinking on this case?” asked the attorney.

Fully recognizing that any verdict in the case we were hearing should be based on evidence in this trial, and this trial alone, I had to admit that knowing of the previous arson conviction would color my thinking.

Out I went. And deservedly so, according to the rules.

Still, how many people do you know whose homes keep burning down? How many people do you know, who have arson on their record, experience repeated fires? It could happen, but it’s a tougher call than I was willing to make.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Beautiful Duluth Minnesota...

Duluth lights from Park Point vantage

Duluthians have survived a long heat spell and a flood... and yet we continue to be wowed by the beauty of our city and area. Of course, we know the tourists love Duluth too. It's a beautiful town, adorned by rustic vistas up Lake Superior's North Shore as well.

Included here are some fantastic photos by local photographer, Travis Chadwick, that show off the beauty of our area. Travis, the son of a family friend, is becoming well known locally as a photographer.

These photos are from his Cityscapes group and on his web site at, where more of the beauty of Duluth, Superior and surrounding area is captured. Enjoy!
Duluth Aerial Lift Bridg  
Moon over Aerial Lift Bridge
Center of the Blatnik Bridge
Duluth Lakewalk, looking toward the Fitgers complex and Canal Park

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

U.S. cursing problem on rise; Lutherans have handy remedy...

By Jim Heffernan

The New York Times has reported an alarming increase in swearing by public officials, a trend that tells me that these men (they’re all men) are not Lutherans.

Just recently, the Times reported that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, making a speech that didn’t sound right, blurted into the microphone, “Who wrote this s—t?” The word is so vulgar I don’t even dare to use it on the Internet, although the Internet is well known for its pornographic offerings. The Internet is not Lutheran.

I was reared in the Lutheran church back when swearing was frowned upon almost as much as dancing, beer drinking and card playing, not to mention a whole host of other mortal sins, many of which are described in “The Ten Commandments” starring Charlton Heston.

Yet public officials or others in sensitive positions needn’t fear blurting out undeleted expletives if they’d just follow a few substitute curses that nobody cares about, especially their minister or other spiritual leader. Also voters. But before I explain how easy it is to avoid swearing, thereby assuring eternal salvation (provided certain other commandments are strictly observed), let me also mention a few other examples of public swearing by politicians cited by the Times.

There was the time that Vice President Joe Biden didn’t realize that President Barack Obama apparently had a microphone hidden behind his ear (he has pretty big ears), leaned into the chief executive and used the F word, which is actually worse than the S word used by Mayor Bloomberg if I am any judge of swear words (and I should be, I grew up in Duluth’s West End). The F word is the king of swearwords, it should go without saying.

Then there was the time when Dick Cheney, back when he was vice president of these United States, said “F (word) You” to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right in the chambers of the U.S. Senate.

And way back when, devotees of President Richard M. Nixon (he had devotees, honest) were shocked, shocked to hear his cursing on the White House tapes that later were his undoing. Nixon was a Quaker and should have known better.

We Lutherans do not need to resort to such utterances because over the years we have developed a dictionary of euphemisms to stand in for actual swear words, both the ones rooted in religion (taking certain divine names in vain) and simple vulgarities that are often scatological. Years ago I worked with a kid who was adept at combining the two in one utterance, sometimes adding an intimate body part as a third element. He died some time back and I’m sure he is frying in heck.

Anyway, the most popular euphemistic phrase that helps a Lutheran avoid similar fate is, of course, “gosh darn it” or sometimes “garsh darn it” or even “gull darn it.” Now we all know what that stands in for. And “Jeez” is a sly way of avoiding using the name of Jesus Christ Superstar. “Cheese” works, too. At least it always has for me. “Cheese and Rice” if you want to go formal.

For reasons I have never understood, it is considered vulgar to utter the complete words for SOB, which stands for son of an unwed female dog in its literal translation. I once moved in circles that substituted “son of a sea biscuit,” handy if heaven is your destination (and it better be, gull darn it!). “Som bitz” is a little too close for comfort.

Oh, there are so many euphemisms to cite and so little time. I heard one in a TV commercial just recently. A frantic woman raged, “Shut the front door.” So I think I will.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Speaking out on the voter ID amendment...

Below is my letter to the editor published in today's Duluth News Tribune opinion page. I spoke out about the proposed Minnesota voter ID amendment and to the DNT critic of the bipartisan effort to fight the proposal. (Check out the DNT link HERE.)

I was glad to see former Vice President Walter Mondale and ex-Gov. Arne Carlson sign on as leaders of the campaign to defeat the proposed state constitutional amendment that would require all Minnesota voters to show a photo ID at the polls. (“Opponents enlist Carlson, Mondale to fight proposal,” June 27 News Tribune.)

The bipartisan nature of their participation – Mondale is a Democrat and Carlson a Republican – should help persuade Minnesotans of both political leanings that the measure is nothing more than a Republican attempt to prevent some people from voting.

But what struck me about the News Tribune’s report was a statement by Republican Dan McGrath of Minnesota Majority, which supports the ID amendment, saying he doesn’t believe Mondale and Carlson will influence the outcome.

“Having some former politicians … speak against it – these guys are no election experts. It’s not going to have any impact on the campaign.”

How’s that again? A former U.S. senator and vice president of the United States who also ran for president (Mondale) and a former two-term Minnesota governor, state auditor and lawmaker (Carlson) are no election experts? If they aren’t, who is?

I hope they have plenty of influence in opposing this misguided initiative reflecting Republican paranoia that there is an election fraud problem. That paranoia was never more in evidence than in the last gubernatorial election when Democrat Mark Dayton narrowly defeated Republican Tom Emmer. After the votes were first tallied, former state Republican chairman Tony Sutton angrily stated, “There’s something fishy going on here.”

Well, there is something fishy going on now: The Republican effort to codify in the state constitution a measure designed to make it difficult for many voters – especially those favoring Democrats – to exercise their franchise. It stinks to high heaven.

Jim Heffernan

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Summertime: Another Day, Another Storm...

Duluth and the entire Northland have been hit with unusually severe weather this summer, possibly the worst stretch in our recorded history. But other years have also produced periods of rain and storms here that, if not quite as severe as the storms of 2012, got our attention and caused their share of damage. I wrote this column in July 1995 after one such period in our past that seemed very much like this summer. It’s part of the collection in my book “Cooler Near the Lake.”  It seemed apt to repeat it since we’re going through a similar stormy period. – Jim Heffernan

Summertime: Another Day, Another Storm
By Jim Heffernan

Summertime, when the livin’ is easy…

Ho, hum. It does get a little monotonous in summer. Every day becomes like the one before it in a steady succession of summertime routine.

You wake up to the tune of tornado sirens blaring and the clock radio blasting warnings of impending danger.

You climb out of bed and quickly throw on some clothes so that you won’t be too embarrassed when they find your body.

You hastily close the windows of your house to avoid sheets of rain coming in and shrinking your carpets.

You glance skyward out the window and see dark clouds roiling above as though it were the end of the world.

Lightning flashes in the sky over your house and tumultuous thunder follows immediately, indicating that the center of the storm is exactly where you are.

You tune in your radio to the weather service frequency where personnel are issuing urgent instructions on what to do and what not to do (do not get on a “down” elevator if the basement is full of water, etc.).

You turn on the cable TV weather channel and on-air personalities are concerned about a “tropical low” heading toward Bermuda, although across the bottom of the screen local conditions are written out telling persons in St. Louis, Carlton, Douglas, Bayfield and Washburn counties, and anyone on the open waters of Lake Superior, to get their affairs in order.

You make your way to the southwest corner of your basement and huddle in the fetal position on the cold concrete floor, mumbling prayers imploring the Almighty to spare you.

Your electricity fails and two or three trees blow down in your yard.

Your lawn furniture disappears from your deck and afterward you find it sticking out of the windshield of your neighbor’s car.

Your dog announces he is moving to Canada.

Fifteen minutes later the storm subsides and you emerge from the basement and begin resetting all of your clocks.

You decide to venture outside, and find the temperature and humidity are so high that cattle and turkeys are dropping in their tracks. Overheated radio announcers recite warnings about becoming overheated, recommending the public drink plenty of liquids.

You resolve to stop drinking plenty of solids.

You catch a bus and as you ride through neighborhoods you see trees and branches strewn in yards and on roadways.

You get off at Duluth’s Karpeles Manuscript Museum and offer to sign a last will and testament for them to display, but they turn you down because you are not George Washington.

Later, you go for a walk in a remote clearing where aliens swoop down in a saucer-like space vehicle, take you aboard, give you a complete physical examination, tell you your cholesterol is high, and hand you a bill for $595 and change.

For supper you decide to cook outdoors on your kettle grill, and, upon opening it, you find it contains a dead raccoon with a yellow stripe up its back.

You hit the sack about midnight, noting a near-full moon is brightly shining and stars are twinkling. Not a cloud in the sky.

About seven hours later, the tornado warning goes off and you begin the whole routine all over again.

Summer can be a boring time.

Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, July 16, 1995