Sunday, February 17, 2013

Trials: Part 2

My younger brother recently opted out of jury duty, to his disappointment, due to the financial hardship that it would certainly cause. The trial as it turns out was for one George Luna. It was actually a retrial, he'd already been convicted and had been serving time, but convinced enough authorities that the jury in the original trial had not given the case a fair shake. The trial was moved from its original venue in Marshall County Ky. to my home county, Trigg.
They called up over a hundred potential jurors to make sure they had plenty of choices. They narrowed the field down to thirty two, then started asking about financial hardships, which is where my brother had to do something he did not want to do, but had no choice.
The trial ran all week, going to the jury on that Friday. They deliberated only for a short while, and before the evening was out, returned an unsurprising guilty verdict. The prosecutor, not facing any new evidence or witnesses basically only had to repeat the original trial strategy and script. The defense as well had nothing new to work with, so it defended pretty much the same way it did years before.
According to the prosecutors case, Luna bludgeoned Debra Hendrickson to death then set fire to her mobile home with her body still inside. Luna then took Hendrickson's truck, drove off, and later returned to the conflagration and called 911. The tape of that call was one of the pieces of evidence in the case against Luna.
From WPSD : "The coroner said the body was so badly burned it was only able to be identified through a ring and the button of her favorite blue jeans found near the body."
Luna and Hendrickson had a domestic relationship for at least a month before the killing. According to Hendrickson's sister, it had been an abusive one.
Luna will spend the rest of his miserable life behind bars. I'm just fine with that.
What is it that motivates such a savage, brutal domestic murder? I have no stinkin' idea.
I know about violent and abusive relationships, not first-hand, but I've been around several women who were abused and a few of the men that caused it. (I know this sort of thing happens the other way, women abusing men, but not in any instance that I am personally familiar with.)
And yes, I personally know someone that took it to the fatal end.
I'll  refer to him as Greg.
I met him at Misawa Air Base, Japan in the early eighties. We were both there with our young families serving three year tours. I maintained communications equipment, he was one of the guys that operated it. I didn't know him really well, we only spoke of non-work related things a couple of times. Our kids knew his kids, he had two small boys, I had two boys and a girl about the same ages.
His wife and my wife belonged to a club of some kind, Greg was suspicious of that group and pulled me aside to talk about it one day. Various clubs were quite common among the wives that tagged along for the overseas duty. The base was very much like a small town, you ran into the same people many times and places, and gossip was also common.
I don't recall much of the conversation other than that it occurred and he was suspicious. It's the last time I ever talked to him and it would have probably slipped into forgotten-completely-land had it not bubbled up to the top several years later.
I don't recall what I was looking for at the time, but I was exploring new interwebs technologies and magical powers of internet searches. This would have been in the early 2000's. I came across his name in an article about a trial, a murder trial.
Greg had divorced, remarried, divorced again and remarried again, etc. in that time. His sons were, like my own kids by that time, entering young adulthood. Greg had a baby with his fourth wife in eastern Missouri. One of his sons, Kevin, lived in Brevard County, Florida, the other in Camden County, Mo, near Lake of the Ozarks.
This is coincidental, almost parallel to my own life. I'd divorced the mother of my kids, remarried, moved to Brevard county in Florida for a couple of years, left there and moved to Missouri, divorced and remarried, etc. and had a baby with my third wife. This was all eerily similar to Greg's life.
There's more coincidence to follow, I'll get to it later.
For whatever reason, unlike my third marriage, Greg's fourth wasn't going well for him. He somehow, in conversations I wouldn't even know how to start, convinced his sons to come to the lake and help him get rid of his wife.
And they did.
They met at a beach at the Lake of The Ozarks, played with the baby, went for a swim. Four adults went into the water, three came out. The men took the baby and went out for pizza before returning to the scene and calling 911 to report Greg's wife missing. She was found soon enough and Greg and his sons grieved.
They had held her under the water till she drowned. The party at the beach was in celebration of their third wedding anniversary.
An investigating officer, perhaps because of his training, perhaps because he had seen a few episodes of Law and Order, was suspicious of Greg from the get-go. However, initially there was no direct, conclusive evidence of foul play.
Kevin returned to Florida. A day or so later  he told his girlfriend about it. She recorded him and took the tape to the local Sheriff. Once arrested he confessed to his role in the sordid affair. Arrest warrants were issued in Jefferson County, Mo for Greg and in Camden County Mo. for Kevin's brother Kenneth.
More details of the case can be found here.
Greg was sentenced to life without parole, Kevin to life with possibility of parole, and Kenneth, who had shown at least some compassion during the drowning by taking the baby away from the scene of the crime, was sentenced to ten years.
Greg and Kevin at least, are still in prison, about an hour's drive from my home, in Potosi, Mo.
Is it just coincidence that I moved to the same county in Missouri where Greg lived with his fourth wife and baby?
Yeah, pretty much. It's still kind of creepy though.

So what led these men to do what they did? Like I said, I have no stinkin' idea.
I don't know about Luna, but I do know that with Greg it had nothing to do with lack of intelligence. I knew Greg to be a smart, articulate and capable equipment operator. He even held fairly high security clearances. In the time I knew him and even in the direct conversations we had I never got 'the willies' or anything like that. He didn't have dead, soulless eyes or a scary demeanor and he was not physically imposing at all.. He was just another one of the guys I worked with.
Yet he held his wife, the mother of his baby, under the water with the help of his sons until they were sure she was dead, on his anniversary.
No, there's no way my head will wrap around that. I know it happens, all too often, but I'm simply not wired that way. I hope you aren't either.
There's real moral to this story, no sage advice for getting the world to get along better and not kill each other.
Whether we think we do or not, average people tend to rate and measure heinous crimes.
In the city it is quite common for murders to occur in certain parts of town. Probably drug-trafficking or gang related. We tell ourselves that these are somehow un-alarming, almost expected among 'those people.'
The there's the occasional innocent kid killed in a drive-by. This alarms us more than two gang-bangers shooting it out. For the poor kid, vigils are held and TV cameras show up. Kid-murders are much, much more noteworthy than two tattooed and armed teenage boys in a violent, ultimately petty, territory battle.
Serial murders fascinate us. We remember, and even make movies about serial killers. We leave the theater knowing the murderers name, not so much the victims. Fortunately these sorts of things are quite rare in real life.
Assassinations are memorable as well. The difference between an assassination and a murder  is the prominence of the victim. Presidents, dictators and ambassadors are assassinated.
The drunken brawl. Two guys, usually liquored up, air grievances, make threats, one of them pulls a gun, a knife, a broken bottle. We don't seem to have a lot of sympathy for these either. Maybe because the victim might have at least had a fighting chance.
Mass murders, theater and school shootings, etc. drive us absolutely furious. These killers are nuts, dangerous nuts and not many people weep at the often sudden and violent demise of the killer. He had it coming.
And those people overseas in Whatever-stan or one of the many anarchy-ridden Republics in Africa who kill each other in droves? Well, it's just too hard and unfamiliar for us to wrap our heads around. In many cases we may hear about the numbers and the technique, but rarely, if ever anything much about the victims.
Then there' s the other kind of murder.
According to the FBI, in 2011 of all the women murdered that year, thirty six percent were killed by husbands or boyfriends.
Further FBI data:
"Of the murders for which the circumstance surrounding the murder was known, 42.9 percent of victims were murdered during arguments (including romantic triangles) in 2011.  Felony circumstances (rape, robbery, burglary, etc.) accounted for 23.1 percent of murders. . . . 24.8 percent of victims were slain by family members"

Yeah, domestic  murder is a HUGE problem. For all the headline-grabbing, gang-banging, serial killing, mass shootings and assassinations, most murders happen between people that are socially or family related.
Mostly because it is generally only the people we know, love, or have reason to hate personally and passionately that that will lead to an otherwise non-violent person angering up to want to harm them.
Strangers killing strangers is somewhat rare. Strangers we can generally dismiss or ignore, it just isn't necessary to waste passion on strangers.
Not often do you hear about some guy just walking up to a random woman and punching her. I'm sure it happens, but compared to husband/boyfriend against woman violence the numbers are miniscule.
In my mind it is this sort of thing that is about as sad as a really bad situation can get. In most cases the woman loves/loved the man, put up with his lazy, crazy crap, maybe even bore and takes care of his children. In most cases the man is bigger and stronger than the woman. There's rarely a fair fight, rarely an escape route, in many cases the woman puts up with a lot, and somehow still trusts the man to not kill her.
These men, according to their convictions, not only decided to kill the women, after they were done they plotted elaborate escape/subterfuge strategies.
Luna looked at the bloody, bludgeoned body on the  floor, and decided that simply wouldn't do. Either a ploy to mask the deed or further vengeance, I'm not sure which, but what he decided to do was to pour accelerant  on and around her, then set it ablaze. Then he stepped out to her truck and drove away for a while.
Greg talked his adult sons into helping him. Then, after the deed was done, which is not a quick process mind you, coolly and calmly went out for pizza, then returned to the scene and called the authorities.
That kind of scheming, planning, on top of the grotesque physical act they'd performed, mark these men as people I certainly do not want walking around freely among us. They both have proven the ability and willingness to commit the vilest of acts and then try to cover it up to save their own hides from prosecution.
Normal people just don't do this. Sane societies do not, can not tolerate this. Regardless of how many years these men lived without murdering someone, no matter what otherwise good works and deeds they may have performed before or afterwords, the ability to murder, in cold blood, those that loved them and trusted them, has rightfully earned them their permanent spots locked away from civil society.
I guess the only advice I can offer is to people that think there's no other alternative to offing their spouse/partner; Forget it. You're not as clever as you think you are, you will not evade justice.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


“I screwed up.” He said when I answered the phone, though he didn’t exactly say “screwed up.” His actual words were a bit more graphic.
My younger brother lives near my parents in a very small town in rural southwestern Kentucky. He spent the winter working for my aging and increasingly frail folks. In season though he works on a blueberry farm. He’s an expert in irrigation systems and has worked many well-known golf courses. He is also listed by the Commonwealth's largest university as a Master Gardener. He has worked outdoors in lousy weather doing heavy manual labor his entire adult life. It’s starting to wear on him but he’d still rather sweat and ache from the toil than sit in a cube or stand behind a counter.
He doesn’t get paid enough, never has. The kind of work he does best is not exactly the stuff of wealth.
When he said what he did, that he'd screwed up, in a tone that reeked with angst, depression and maybe even despair, I assume that there was more bad news about my parents’ health. There’s been a lot of that lately.
“I got called back to work.” He sighed. I figured there was much more to his present crisis than this, but he likes to weave a story.
“And that’s a bad thing?” I asked. I have to ask, Jeff’s stories are deliberately interactive.
“I start back tomorrow, I need the money, I’m about a week from having my phone shut off.”
This was not alarming, he and his lovely wife both have careers that are grossly undervalued. She’s a nurse’s aid in a mental hospital, a near-lateral move from her previous work in a nursing home. They’ve always lived precious paycheck to precious paycheck, usually without significant benefits or other perks. Their home is humble, old and drafty, heated by a wood stove using wood that Jeff finds and chops himself.
“So going back to work is not your problem.” I said, once again pushing the story along as I am expected to do. I don’t mind this at all, I’m not much of a phone conversationalist and I actually appreciate the cues to participate.
“You know I got called for jury duty.” He added after a pause, changing the subject, or maybe not.
“No, I don’t think I knew that.”
“Yeah, I had to report this morning.”
“And they didn’t pick you?”
We’d discussed this sort of thing before, a few weeks back, why someone would or would not participate in the jury process. He kept asking me what he should do, I kept telling him that I try to avoid using the word ‘should’ when talking to people since it implies that my morals and ethics are well thought out or some sort of lofty standard that others should aspire to. We debated that for several minutes before he’d reduced it to an answerable “What would you do?”
I told him that barring some dire need to do otherwise, that I’d actually jump at the chance to participate in the justice process, as a learning exercise, and as a potential opportunity to  write a good story about the experience or the trial.
“They picked you?” I asked, somewhat surprised.
“Yeah, and that was pretty cool.”
He paused again.
“How’d that go?” I participated.
“It was the strangest thing. They gave us each a number when we signed in, then the County Clerk pulled numbered chips out of a box.”
“They still do that?” I puzzled, I would have figured that somewhere since the invention of electricity and crude tabulating devices that there would be a somewhat more elaborate system involved in the selection process.
“Yeah they still do it that way, and this time I was the sixth number they drew out of thirty two.”
“So where did you screw up?” I actually used the words ‘screw up’.
He sighed again and mentally mapped out the next paragraph before letting it loose.
“They picked me, then I had to go through the interview, like on TV.” Another pause.
“The lawyers questioned you?”
“Yeah, the prosecutor, the defense lawyer and the judge, right there in front of the defendant.”
“Awesome!” I was envious.
“Yeah it was.” Another pause.
“So they kicked you out because of the interview?”
This was an unfair assumption of mine. My brother is a man of certain strong opinions and not at all shy about them. On TV they usually don't pick strong stereo types for a jury. Some might read him as a hang’em high gun-clinging ultra-conservative, though I know there’s a lot more complexity to him than that. I do forget this sometimes though especially if he’s just said something about  swiftly converting sand covered countries or regions into shiny glass.
“No, they accepted me.”
“Really?” I was still assuming.
“After they had their choices the judge asked us if a long trial would be a financial hardship.”
“And you have a phone bill due.” I was beginning to understand the dilemma.
“That and a few others.”
“So that thing you screwed up. . .”
“Yeah, I raised my hand.”
I felt bad for him. He saw this as a unique opportunity, as a social obligation and as an intellectual as well as civic exercise. Once again petty and annoying day to day finances rather than desire dictated his life’s course.
“I would have been a good juror.” He said. I was pining for something reassuring to say.
“Well these things are usually only about disputed insurance claims or something petty like that.” I finally offered, thinking we were at the end of his story. I was wrong.
“They usually are, I served in El Paso on a couple of those.”  This was a leading comment. I didn’t recall that he had served before, but it was the framing of the comment that led me to believe there was more to the tale.
“This wasn’t one of those?” I asked, as he wanted me to.
“It was a murder trial, a change of venue from another county.”
“You’re kidding!” He now had my complete attention, which Pip, my small and precious pit bull in my lap picked up on, she responded to my sudden increased adrenalin by licking my face. With the murder angle, the whole conversation had turned, squealing and smoking like a hot rod racing on an abandoned runway.
“A rural murder trial! No way!” I yelled, tasting dog tongue as it lapped even more vigorously.
My brother knows me well. He knew he had just jammed me into full journalist mode.
“I thought that might wake you up.” He said with a grin. I could sense the grin even though we were hundreds of miles apart.
My mind raced. I’d heard nothing about a murder trial in the area, I barely knew anything at all about the other rural Kentucky county. I told him as much.
“I didn’t know a thing about it either, that’s why they accepted me for the jury.”
Just like on TV, the best jurors come in with no actual prior knowledge of the crime or the participants.
“What would you have done?” He asked.
“Well, that’s easy, assuming I didn’t have a bunch of bill collectors at the door, I would have jumped at it. There’s like a dozen stories just in what I know so far!”
“So write it.”
“It’s not my story, it’s yours.”
“Well, that may be true, but I’m giving it to you, I don’t have the way with words you do.”
He says this a lot. I can’t deny the truth of it. I do write, find pleasure and confidence writing, but I just don’t have a lot of actual interesting stories in me. He on the other hand has many, many stories, wonderful stories but he’s completely in foreign territory at a keyboard. We’re okay with this disparity, we’ve discussed it a lot. He’s admitted jealousy as well as respect for my ability to slap words together on paper. I on the other hand admire his connection with nature, machinery and survival skills.
I’ve got a couple of college degrees, the knowledge and experience to maintain corporate computer systems, and the ability to articulate thoughts. He on the other hand can change out engine parts, grow a decent tomato, cook the best pizza in the world and can also lift more than ten pounds without having a paramedic standing by.
In the upcoming apocalypse and inevitable zombie attacks, one would be very, very wise to follow him rather than me. In fact, even in less catastrophic times, storms, blizzards, regional famine or local pestilence, he’s your man. He finds and chops his own wood for Pete’s sake. (Recently he told me from memory how to make gunpowder from wood stove ashes and crystallized urine.) I have hundreds of trees and they simply laugh at me and my tiny, un-start-able and therefore rarely used chainsaw.
“Rural murder trials are commonly very complex, layered, long-standing family rivalries, clannish disputes, deep, long-simmering hatreds suddenly manifesting in fits of violent savagery. . .” My mind was reeling with potential, and yet saddened by the missed opportunity, I felt his pain.
“I screwed up.” He said again, still not actually saying ‘screwed up’.
I came back to earth. “You did what you had to do, there’s no error or shame in that.”
“I should have stayed.”
“There you go saying ‘should’ again, you know I won’t speak to that.”
“Look Jeff, you and I both inherited this tragically overwhelming sense of responsibility. It’s dad’s fault, not yours. We, like him, will almost always do what we know needs to be done, generously sacrificing many or most of our own personal interests and desires along the way. We can’t help it. We might as well dream of breathing fire or being physically attractive. Our own set of physics and DNA just won’t allow any other way than what we are. Any time any of us have put self-interest over responsibility it has turned into a monsoon of trouble, hurt and life-long regrets. We both have the many ex-wives and estranged kids to show for it.”
“I hate that though, the regrets.” He shrugged
“That’s just part of the affliction.”
Like my brother, I don’t at this time have any knowledge of the case whatsoever. I am sure it is fraught with tragedy and sadness, it wouldn’t be considered such a heinous crime if it weren’t. But right now, in our complete ignorance of the specifics, we could speak of it freely in impersonal and detached ways.
“The defendant was there, he looked kind of hinky.” He said.
“You haven’t pre-judged him have you?”
“Oh no, no, I know lots of hinky looking people that never killed anyone, I’m just saying.”
“I know you haven’t, just pulling your chain.”
“I could have sat there and listened to the facts of the case for days then decided whether he was guilty or not, no matter what he looked like.”
“I know that about you brother, you’d probably start from a position of ‘prove it to me Mr. Prosecutor’.”
“Exactly, show me your case! I’ll decide if you brought it or not!”
And he would. My little brother is suspicious, analytical, a thinker, a listener, a ‘willing to change his mind if the facts change’ kind of guy. He would be right at home here in the Show-Me State. This trial, any fair trial would appreciate him for that. He and I share this trait as well, we’d both make great jurors, maybe we could even take the show on the road, professional yet completely impartial, wandering jurors.
Not because we want the limelight, not because we’re better than anyone else, just because of another innate, immutable need we share, the need to be part of something important.
Not necessarily world-changing, not even the need to be the leader. Just to be an integral part of something big, something that matters. I think this trait comes from our mother.
My brother and I were brought up around the time of America’s so-called Camelot. The rise of and promise of the young John Kennedy. Not the man himself, but the era, the prevailing attitude of promise and optimism. The age that saw the birth of the Peace Corps and desegregation, civil activism breaking through the old social machines. Individuals could make a real and lasting difference if they only believed it possible, worked hard and dared to dream.
I don’t recall ever actually being told as much but I always felt that I would do something important. Not for fame or wealth, but simply to help make the planet a better, more just, peaceful and verdant place.
Somewhere along the parade of years and decades since though, the cold and emotionless face of reality and average-ness overcame the smiling, wide-eyed certainty and promise of youth. Doing something important fell well behind the need to do just what was immediately required.
Opportunities missed, ignored, or wasted.
“I just don’t seem to have an edge anymore.” My brother said. I added that I didn’t either. We spoke more of other times we missed out, deliberately, by mere stupidity, negligence or perhaps just by fate. We each have pretty long lists. And now here we are in middle age, two old guys whining about what could have been if we’d just tried a little harder, looked a little closer, put ourselves out there just a little farther.
Serving on a criminal trial, as a fair and impartial juror would certainly fit the definition of doing something important for either of us. Once again, not for selfish purposes, but simply to be the right person at the right place and time for a serious task. Yeah, I’d like to write about something like that, it’s my calling, but the participation would still be the greater personal reward.
But in the end, it’s about doing what you have to do, even if it’s a small thing, like paying the bills. It often sucks, and it certainly often feels less than important. Maybe in the end, the sum total of our sacrifice and work will in itself prove important.
Then again, maybe sharing time and thoughts and baring your soul with a brother who you love, respect and admire is important as well. Maybe not capital-I Important, but that’s okay. I wouldn’t trade my time on the phone with Jeff for a front seat at the latest crime of the century.
Jeff, You didn’t f#$! up at all, you just did what you needed to do, it’s our curse.