Murder and memory: why honest witnesses get it terribly wrong

“It isn’t so astonishing, the number of things that I can
remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren’t so.”
Mark Twain

The Reid Technique has influenced nearly every aspect of modern police interrogations.

On July 16th, 1996, the bodies of four innocent people were discovered in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi.  Each victim had been murdered execution style—one or two bullets to the back of the head.  The presence of live ammunition on the floor suggested that one of the killers was using a 380 pistol that jammed repeatedly.

Nine days later, July 25, 1996, the bodies of two innocent people were discovered in a pawn shop in Birmingham, Alabama.  Each victim had been murdered execution style—one or two bullets to the back of the head.  A surveillance camera revealed that the killer was wielding a 380 pistol that jammed repeatedly.

Winona, Mississippi lies three hours west of Birmingham on Highway 82.  Steven McKenzie, the driver of the getaway car in the pawn shop murders, was arrested on August 1 in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts.  The killer, Marcus Presley (16) and his accomplice, Lasamuel Gamble (18) were arrested in Norfolk, Virginia on August 9, 1996 after two weeks on the run.  That same day, Horace Wayne Miller, a lieutenant with the Mississippi Highway patrol, asked Norfolk officials to keep him apprised of their investigation.

Two weeks later, a picture of Marcus Presley, the shooter in the Birmingham murders, was included in a photo array shown to a witness in the Winona, Mississippi case.

On November 16, 2015, Marcus Presley signed an affidavit claiming that Lasamuel Gamble and Steven McKenzie (the driver of the getaway car) had been in Mississippi the day of the Winona murders and had returned with several hundred dollars in their pockets after claiming to have “hit a lick” (committed a crime).

A shoeprint in a pool of blood found in the Winona furniture store was found to be from a Grant Hill Fila shoe—the footwear Gamble, McKenzie (and just about every other young man in America) was wearing while in Mississippi.

Can Marcus Presley’s affidavit be trusted?  Yes and no.

Courtroom testimony shows that Presley was the shooter in the pawn shop murders in Birmingham even though, prior to being shown video of the crime, he insisted that Gamble had been the gunman.  If Gamble and McKenzie were in Mississippi the day of the Winona murders it’s likely that Presley was with them.

Between June 19th, 1996 and June 30th of that year, Presley was involved in five robberies at gunpoint.  In the course of these crimes, one employee was shot in the leg and another in the back (both survived) and Presley was the shooter in both cases.  Presley and Gamble did four of the June heists together and one crime was perpetrated by Presley alone.  Although Presley was only sixteen, he seems to have been the driving force behind these crimes.  Gamble never discharged his weapon.

Presley and Gamble had developed a simple modus operandi.  Store employees were threatened with death and forced to lie on the floor.  While Presley drove the action, Gamble kept his gun trained on the scene in case anyone tried to flee.  After the second stick up, the two men argued about whether they should have killed the witness.

Evidence suggests that Marcus Presley was a psychopath who enjoyed random violence for its own sake.

Presley and Gamble made three runs to Boston during the summer of 1996: once after their June crime spree, once after the pawn shop murders and once immediately after the furniture store murders in Winona.  Their pattern was to spend a week or so lying low before going on another rampage.  The two men had family in both Boston and Norfolk.

If you are have been following the quadruple homicide in Winona, Mississippi, the Presley-Gamble connection may surprise you.  In June of 2010, Curtis Flowers was sentenced to death for the murder of Bertha Tardy (the owner of the furniture store) Carmen Rigby (the business manager) and Bobo Stewart and Robert Golden (two recent hires).  Flowers had worked three days at the Tardy furniture store but failed to return to work after the July 4th holiday.

District Attorney Doug Evans argues that Flowers, enraged with losing his job, stole a gun out of a parked car at the Angelica garment factory, cooled his heels at home for an hour or so, then marched to the furniture store with murder in his eye, did the foul deed, and raced home.

But how could a single person (especially a man like Curtis Flowers) dispatch four victims with a bullet to the back of the head?  The crime had a random and senseless quality to it.  It takes no imagination at all to imagine Marcus Presley committing a crime like that–we have the video from the pawn shop. (more…)

Why White Christians Silence Jesus


By Alan Bean

So what’s your religion?” the young man wanted to know. “My ancestors were Anabaptists,” I said, “and I find myself identifying with that tradition.”

“So, what’s an Anabaptist?”

“Well, they are sometimes called the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation,” I replied, choosing my words with care. “They went back to the teaching of Jesus, so they believed in radical forgiveness, loving their enemies, caring for the poor and they were committed to peace and non-violence.”

“Oh, so Anabaptists are kinda like Democrats.”

In contemporary America people are far more likely to take their moral cues from politics than from religion. When we want to get at the essence of a person we look for political clues. If you know a person is a Democrat or a Republican you can make educated guesses about where they stand on a variety of issues; knowing their religious affiliation won’t tell you much. (more…)

Joshua vs Jesus: Why white evangelicals love Donald Trump

trump-at-prayerAlmost 80 percent of white American evangelicals plan to vote for Donald Trump, a twice-divorced womanizer who made his name building and gilding casinos. A man who insults Hispanics, Muslims, African Americans, women, and anyone else who disagrees with him. A man who rejects foundational Christian principles such as love for enemies, radical forgiveness, turning the other cheek and unqualified hospitality.

Let’s admit right off the top that if the vote was restricted to white people Trump would win in a cake walk. In mid-July, 66 percent of registered white voters were planning to vote for Trump, and in some Southern states the figure is close to 90 percent. So, white evangelicals are no more pro-Trump than white folks generally.

Still, shouldn’t we expect that, strictly on moral and theological grounds, disciples of Jesus Christ, red and yellow, black and white, would pass en masse on a man with Trump’s résumé?

No, we should expect nothing of the kind.

For all its apparent diversity, American evangelicalism is dominated by two theological systems, both of which are uncomfortable with the radical words of Jesus.

The Reformed river is fed by John Calvin, a brilliant biblical theologian who ruled Geneva with an iron fist in the mid-16th century. Calvin’s God was sovereign and unchanging (the theological term is “immutable”). If God told Joshua to massacre the Amalekites, man, woman and child, who are we to quibble? However things may appear to a flawed and fallen humanity, Calvin taught, God’s decrees are just and true by definition.

A sovereign and immutable God has one limitation: he can never change his mind. The New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus could not be substantially different from the Old Covenant bequeathed to Moses. The genocidal carnage of Joshua and the Sermon on the Mount may appear irreconcilable, but God can’t change the rules without changing his character. So, Jesus and Joshua don’t just share a name; they share a theological vision. They have to. The unchanging character of God demands it.

The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, by Nicolas Poussin

When your theology forces you to reconcile Joshua and Jesus, the New Testament teaching on enemy-love, non-resistance, unqualified hospitality and radical forgiveness become inconvenient.

The only popular alternative to Calvinism in American evangelicalism is dispensationalism, a systematic attempt to account for the divergent traditions within the Bible without surrendering the principle of biblical inerrancy. Although God does not change, dispensationalists say, he occasionally changes the rules.

Old School dispensationalists like C.I. Scofield and Lewis Sperry Chafer had a clever solution to the Joshua-Jesus problem. The kingdom teaching found in Matthew, Mark and Luke (including the Sermon on the Mount) were never intended for the Church. Jesus came into this world to establish the kind of earthly kingdom anticipated by the Old Testament prophets, but Israel refused to cooperate. The Church, according to this interpretation, is a kind of Plan B, or “parenthesis,” that will persist until the church is raptured to heaven and the millennial reign begins on earth.

Everything Jesus said about non-violence, enemy-love, and turning the other cheek was never intended for “the Church age,” Scofield and Chafer taught, but will be in full force when Christ sets up his thousand-year reign.

You will be relieved to learn that some Calvinists (like Russell Moore) and some Dispensationalists (like Darrell Bock) are trying to find a middle ground between Reformed and Dispensational theology that makes more room for the teaching of Jesus. Neither Moore nor Bock will be voting for Donald Trump in November and that’s what you would expect. The closer you get to the Savior, the harder it becomes to embrace the Donald. You can love the man, forgive him, struggle to understand him; but you can’t vote for him.

Unfortunately, Russell Moore and Darrell Bock are evangelical outliers. The rhetoric flowing from popular, made-for-TV evangelicalism has assumed a desperate quality. America will only continue to be exceptional if she continues to be Christian, preachers say. If not, our beloved country will become a toxic slough of secularity — Sweden writ large.

It’s the children of light versus the children of darkness and somebody has to lose.

The premonitions of doom issuing from the religious right are reminiscent of Psalm 44, which begins with a celebration of God’s victories in the days of Joshua:

Through thee we push down our foes;
through thy name we tread down our assailants.
For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
But thou hast saved us from our foes,
and hast put to confusion those who hate us.

Suddenly, without a hint of transition, the mood changes:

Thou hast cast us off and abased us,
and hast not gone out with our armies.
Thou hast made us turn back from the foe;
and our enemies have gotten spoil.
Thou hast made us like sheep for slaughter,
and hast scattered us among the nations.

Or, to quote Donald Trump’s paraphrase, “We never win anymore.”

Psalm 44 was likely written about the same time the book of Joshua assumed its present form: shortly after a remnant returned from Babylonian captivity to a heap of ruins that once was Jerusalem.

Books like Deuteronomy and Joshua were written to answer the “why” question. God told us to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan down to the last sucking infant; but we made our peace with the infidel, marrying their daughters and worshiping their gods.

In Ezra and Nehemiah, the returning exiles divorce their foreign wives and build a big wall around Jerusalem, a line of demarcation between saints and sinners.

Old Testament texts like Joshua and Nehemiah get more attention in America’s white evangelical churches than the words of Jesus. The man who talks about recovering American greatness by building a wall is speaking a language conservative white Christians can understand.