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THINGS I DIDN'T NEED TO HEAR, PART 1

Re your recent discussion of bezoars [solidified intestinal hairballs, May 5], one month ago I operated on an 18-year-old woman who was having intestinal problems. She would become full after eating only small amounts. I surgically removed the large bezoar in the enclosed photo. It measured 8-9 inches. The young woman chewed her hair. I thought you would find this interesting. --Lieutenant Colonel Victor L. Modesto, M.D., Womack Army Medical Center, Fort Bragg, North Carolina

Saints preserve us. The thing is roughly the size and shape of a turkey leg. And how nicely the Polaroid brings out those vivid postoperative colors! Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom so I can barf.

THINGS I DIDN'T NEED TO HEAR, PART 2

Your recent discussion of farts and beans is misleading [July 28]. I call your attention to a paragraph from my monograph, "A Metaphysical and Anecdotal Consideration of the Fart" (Alphabeta Press). "Little did we know as children about the power and symbolism of beans. If we had read The White Goddess by Robert Graves, we would have known that beans were filled with wondrous powers and ought not be mocked. Graves tells us in his book that the Pythagorean mystics were bound by a strong taboo against eating beans. To eat beans was to eat one's parents' heads. This superstition was similar to the views held by the Platonists. They excluded beans on the rationalistic ground that they caused flatulence. Life, they argued, was breath, and to break wind after eating beans was proof one had eaten a living soul." The point is that the soul is associated with breath, you know, "pneuma," pneumonia, etc, and that a fart was a kind of breath, so a soul was created and escaped, etc. Thus the connection with reincarnation. If you are going to consider this subject in your column, why won't you answer the many letters I have sent you in the past about fish farts? If you recall, I wanted to know if in fact fish fart. As a woman who has spent much time at sea, I still have no answer to this question. Your attention to this matter will help me finish my monograph on the subject. --Gloria Klein, via the Internet

Gloria, I'm not sure which is the more troubling thought: (1) This letter is a joke, or (2) it isn't.

CERTAIN DEATH

You write that "Amnesty International has rightly protested that [Mumia Abu-Jamal] is being killed for his political views. The guy maybe deserves prison but probably not the fatal dose [July 21]." Think about your use of the words "maybe" and "probably" in that last sentence. If you're uncertain that Abu-Jamal deserves prison, maybe you should probably conclude that he certainly should not be killed. --Jeff Balch, Chicago

Certainly not. You think if I have a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty he definitely doesn't deserve to die. That's not how it works. One of the bedrock assumptions of the law is that only the jury (or in a bench trial, the judge) is qualified to make a finding of fact--that is, to weigh the evidence and decide if the guy is guilty. Pretty much all an appellate court or a kibitzer like me can do is decide whether the trial court erred in matters of law--that is, screwed up the procedures so much that the jury's judgment was improperly skewed.

What's more, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Having been convicted, he's presumed guilty. It isn't enough for him to point to a few errors; he must persuade the appellate court that the errors were so serious they affected the outcome of the trial. Since it's not my dime, I'll cheerfully concede that maybe the best way to clear up the case's ambiguities would be to have a new trial. But I wouldn't be surprised if the verdict were the same.

The penalty hearing was something else. Even to a nonlawyer it's apparent that introducing inflammatory statements that the defendant made as a teenager 12 years earlier was way out of line. The judge was fed up with Abu-Jamal, but that's no excuse for letting the prosecution walk all over the guy. If the penalty hearing had been fair (and if Abu-Jamal had kept his big mouth shut) he probably would have avoided the death penalty. This maybe-probably stuff may seem wussy, but it was done that way for a reason.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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