HBM120: Own Worst Interest

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In the fall of 1989, in Vancouver, Washington, a short, 29 year-old man named Westley Allan Dodd raped and murdered three young boys. The boys were brothers Cole and William Neer, ages 10 and 11, and four year old Lee Iseli.

Content Note:
Sexual violence, suicide and capital punishment

A few weeks later, police arrested Westley at movie theater after he tried and failed to abduct another boy. He quickly confessed to the three murders. The prosecution sought the death penalty, and Dodd pled guilty.

Death penalty cases take a long time due to all the appeals built into the process. These appeals are designed to make sure the state hasn’t made any mistakes in the death sentence. They check for things like juror misconduct, incompetent defense lawyers, new evidence. Death penalty cases take years, sometimes decades.

Westley Allan Dodd did not want that. Instead, he wanted to be executed as quickly as possible.

In letters to the Supreme Court of Washington, Dodd urged the court to allow him to waive his right to appeal his death sentence. He believed he deserved to die for what he did, and wanted it done as soon as possible. Dodd was what’s known as a “volunteer”–someone who gives up their rights in order to hasten their own execution. The Death Penalty Information Center cites about 150 cases of “volunteers” in the United States.

Dodd’s case sparked debate both among people who supported and opposed the death penalty. Some argued he had the right to choose whether the court would review the validity of his death sentence. Others argued that the law ensures that all defendants have due process whether they want it or not.

In the meantime, Dodd continued to advocate for his own execution in interviews and in exchanges with his pen pals. He said he felt remorseful, and even wrote a self-defense booklet for kids to learn how to stay safe from men like him. The booklet was called “When You Meet A Stranger”.

The debate made its way to the Washington Supreme Court.  In a 7-2 ruling, they decided that Dodd did, in fact, have the right to waive his remaining appeals. After just three years on death row (5 years shorter than the national average at that time) the State of Washington hanged Westley Allan Dodd.

On this episode Bethany Denton interviews  Dodd’s former attorney Gilbert Levy. And defense attorney Jeff Ellis, who was a young lawyer during the time of the Dodd trial.   Bethany also talks to Becky Price, who was one of the recipients of Dodd’s pamphlet  “When You Meet A Stranger”.

Producer: Bethany Denton
Editor: Jeff Emtman
Music:  The Black Spot

HBM119: An Episode of Pebbles and Twigs

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The end of our seventh season draws near! Just one more episode until we hang up our podcasting hats for a few months.

Content Note:
Sexual references and bodily injury

We don’t want you to miss us too much though, so on this episode, we’re tying up some loose ends, answering some questions, and sharing ways that you can stay connected with us even when our podcast feed is quieter.

Five ways to help us out this summer

Country of Birth data from the VOICE FOIA dataset. Visualized by Ahnjili Zhuparris. Interactive Version

  1. HBM Summer Art Exchange.  You like to make art?  You like to get art? Exchange something with a fellow HBM listener.  All you have to do is fill out this form. It’s free (well, except for postage).

  2. Merch. Did you know that we have HBM shirts, stickers, art prints, books, sweatshirts?  Already have those?  Fear not, we’re working on a something new for next season.

  3. The VOICE Hotline Dataset.  In 2017, Jeff FOIA’d Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the records of the calls made to their VOICE hotline.  The (heavily redacted) spreadsheet contains 5,164 calls with many pieces of metadata for each call record.

    Google Sheets Version. This is a version that we’ve cleaned up a tad, added some useful analysis to.  You can view and comment collaboratively here.

    CSV Version. This is a version that you can use offline in software like Excel and Tableau.

    ICE FOIA LIbrary Version.  This is straight from the source.  Our FOIA is listed under Reports → VOICE Log: Apr. 2017- Oct. 2017

  4. Super Secret Facebook Group.  We have a top secret Facebook group.  If you want to be a part of it, just find it.  That’s the only test to get in.

  5. Voicemail Line.  Call us anytime.  Tell us your stories or record strange sounds, or ask us questions.  We love it when you call. Our number is (765) 374-5263.

More reporting about the VOICE Hotline on Splinter and the Arizona Republic.

Many thanks to the data scientist Ahnjili Zhuparris for the help with the VOICE dataset.  She created a whole slew of data visualizations for us here.

Producer: Jeff Emtman
Editor: Jeff Emtman
Music: The Black Spot

HBM117: Grave Oversight

Fire burning near Abyei town   , composited with a shadow of a satellite for HBM by Jeff Emtman.  Source image by    DigitalGlobe

Fire burning near Abyei town, composited with a shadow of a satellite for HBM by Jeff Emtman.
Source image by
DigitalGlobe

Sudan has been involved in ongoing civil wars since 1983. The wars were about religion, culture and resources. By 2005, approximately two million civilians had died. In 2011, the southern part of the country voted to secede from the north, creating the new country of South Sudan.  But there were still three regions that were claimed by both north and south: Abyei, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan. These regions are rich in oil and have fertile farmlands, so politicians and humanitarians predicted there would be violence following the secession. Civilians in these regions, mostly farmers and shepherds, would be caught in the middle.

Content Note:
Discussion of genocide

Nathaniel Raymond is a human rights investigator. He was looking into an alleged massacre in Afghanistan when he was introduced to the idea of using satellite imagery for humanitarian purposes. At that time, satellite images were sometimes used for documenting force swells and finding the locations of mass graves. But Nathaniel wondered if he could figure out a way to use satellite imagery proactively; what if he could figure out a way to see an attack coming and sound an alarm before anyone got hurt?

Nathaniel wasn’t the only one who had this idea. Actor George Clooney had also been researching ways to use satellites as “anti-genocide paparazzi” in Sudan through an organization he co-founded called The Enough Project. The Enough Project and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and others sponsored the project. The Satellite Sentinel Project partnered with the private satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe, who gave the SSP permission to point some of their satellites where they pleased and take pictures. By December 2010, the Satellite Sentinel Project was in full swing, inventing a new methodology for analyzing satellite imagery of active conflict in real time.

Nathaniel Raymond, former Director of Operations at the Sentinel Satellite Project. Photo by Jeff Emtman.

Nathaniel Raymond, former Director of Operations at the Sentinel Satellite Project. Photo by Jeff Emtman.

The mission of the Satellite Sentinel Project was threefold:

  1. Warn civilians of impending attacks,

  2. document the destruction in order to corroborate witness testimony in later investigations, and

  3. potentially dissuade the governments in both Sudan and South Sudan from returning to war in the first place.

“We wanted to see if being under surveillance would change the calculus… If they knew we were watching, would they not attack?” The Satellite Sentinel Project would release their reports at midnight so that they would be available in time for morning news in East Africa.

Critics of Satellite Sentinel Project say that South Sudan shouldn’t be a playground for experimental humanitarian efforts bankrolled by a foreign movie star. And Nathaniel says the critiques are valid. “It was always a Hail Mary pass. And, we must be clear, it was always an experiment, which in and of itself is problematic. But… what else are we going to do, sit on our hands?”

Satellite Sentinel Project released a total of 28 reports over 18 months. The methodology Nathaniel and his team developed is still being taught at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Nathaniel Raymond’s 2018 talk on Satellite Sentinel Project at the EyeO Festival 2018.

PBS Newshour Reporting on Satellite Sentinel Project’s documentation of burned villages in South Sudan.

Today Nathaniel Raymond is a lecturer on Global Affairs at Yale’s Jackson Institute. Special thanks to Ziad al Achkar, one of Nathaniel’s colleagues from Satellite Sentinel Project that helped us with this episode.

Producer: Garrett Tiedemann
Editors: Bethany Denton and Jeff Emtman
Music: Garrett Tiedemann

HBM116: Finest and Most Rotten (Going Forward)

Park Row and William Street, several blocks away from 154 Nassau. Photo taken in August I92I by George Balgue.    Via OldNYC

Park Row and William Street, several blocks away from 154 Nassau. Photo taken in August I92I by George Balgue. Via OldNYC

Mar 21, 1919 - NEW YORK CITY

An anonymous writer for the New York Tribune stands at 154 Nassau.  The writer asks passers-by a simple question: “Do you think this is a good world?”  It’s just four months after Armistice Day, and on the tail of a flu pandemic that killed 55 million worldwide.  The writer publishes five answers, ranging from “damned rotten” to “the finest”.

Mar 21, 2019 - NEW YORK CITY

Producer Ula Kulpa stands at the same spot and flags down passers-by 100 years later and asks the same question, “Do you think this is a good world?”  Today, life expectancies are up, yet we still fight wars. We are still sometimes cruel to loved ones and strangers. So, with the perspective of an additional century, what do New Yorkers think about the world’s goodness?

Producer: Going Forward (Julia Drachman, Ula Kulpa)
Editor: Jeff Emtman
Music: The Black Spot | | |  Smiles by Lambert Murphy (1918) | | |  You Hear the Lambs a-Cryin' by Fisk University Jubilee Singers (1920)

An Armistice Day celebration on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in 1918. Photo by Paul Thompson  via The New York Times

An Armistice Day celebration on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in 1918. Photo by Paul Thompson via The New York Times


Jeff Emtman is visiting Copenhagen to teach a masterclass on sound design and to do a radio cinema event about sound’s haunting nature.  Join him at Radiobiograf, Copenhagen’s Radio Festival.

April 12, 2019: Masterclass: Jeff Emtman on Sound Design

April 14, 2019: Jeff Emtman Presents: The Haunting Magic of Sound

HBM115: Bound in Walton et al.

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A highway robber with many aliases lay on his deathbed after contracting a bad flu.  He dictated his life story to his captors before succumbing to his illness in July of 1837.  His captors published the highwayman’s story posthumously with the title: Narrative of the life of James Allen, alias George Walton, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the highwayman. Being his death-bed confession, to the warden of the Massachusetts State Prison.  

The story he tells details common robbery, horse theft, jewel trafficking, many jailbreaks, and several yellings of the phrase “Your money or your life!” with pistols drawn.

The book might have passed into obscurity if it weren’t for a dirty grey leatherbound copy that resides at The Boston Athenaeum. It bears a Latin inscription on its front cover: “HIC LIBER WALTONIS CUTE COMPACTUS EST” or (roughly), “This book is bound in Walton’s skin.”

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As legend has it, the highwayman Allen (aka. Walton) requested that his memoirs be gifted to a man whom he once tried and failed to rob, Mr. John Fenno Jr.  Further, the highwayman requested that the book be bound in his own skin.

Books bound in human skin are rare, though not unheard of.  As of publish date, the Anthropodermic Book Project has confirmed 18 such books, and identified another 12 books previously thought to be human, but revealed to be of more customary leathers.  Narrative of the life of James Allen… resides in the former category, being confirmed as human skin via a test called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting.

Dawn Walus, Chief Conservator at the Boston Athenaeum told HBM host Jeff Emtman that when they sent a sample of the book’s binding off for PMF testing, she and other athenaeum staff hoped the results would come back negative.  Dawn considers the binding to be a bit of spectacle, and a distraction from the hundreds of thousands of other books in their collection, “I don’t think we want to be known as ‘the place that has the skin book.’…It seems out of place today.”

Producer: Jeff Emtman
Editor: Jeff Emtman
Music: The Black Spot | | | Phantom Fauna