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Murderers I have Known

Murderers I have Known

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Published by Robin Kirk
Glamour Magazine's prize-winning essay for 2005
Glamour Magazine's prize-winning essay for 2005

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Published by: Robin Kirk on Jan 05, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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MURDERERS I HAVE KNOWNCopyright Glamour Magazine, November 2005Robin Kirk immerses herself in the world of men who kill—not to punish them, but tosave them. Here, Glamour’s third annual essay contest winner tells why she tries, andwhat it costs her.Is that dog chained?”It was winter in North Carolina. I was standing outside a trailer sunk in weeds. Rain hadturned the driveway into a muddy ditch, which coursed into the muddy creek that was theroad. A pit bull striped like a tiger glared at me, a rusted Chevy Impala the only thingbetween us. The woman watching me from her trailer next door shrugged in answer tomy question.I was looking for the friend of a man charged with three shooting deaths in a trailer justlike the one the pit bull was defending. Stripes, I decided to call him. He growled andtook a step forward, and I heard the comforting rattle of a chain.Last year I started working as an investigator in capital punishment cases. My job is tofind personal information that might convince juries not to impose the death penalty ondefendants who have been charged with first-degree murder; I also help defendants whohave been sentenced to death and are appealing, hoping for a new trial. I conductinterviews with the families of accused murderers, their teachers, their doctors, theirfriends, looking for any evidence of mental retardation or early abuse, among otherthings. I decipher 30-year-old notes made by psychiatrists about a mother’s mentalillness. I parse obituaries for clues to an overdose or alcoholism within a defendant’sfamily. Lawyers can use such personal details to show a jury how a defendant’s mentalstate or past may have impaired his ability to understand the consequences of a violentact, a necessary component of a first-degree conviction. At the very least, evidence of severe abuse can help move a jury to mercy.Since I took this job, my list of things I’ve done for the first time in my life has grown.Once, I called a man to tell him about a son he never knew he had. After he absorbed this,I told him that his son was 35 years old and on death row. That is some news for aTuesday morning. I told him he could help his son by talking to his son’s lawyers. Theman declined, then hung up.In another case, I worked with lawyers defending a young man from a Latin Americancountry. Victor (not his real name) was charged with killing a prostitute. I speak Spanishand translated for his attorneys. Victor was so thrilled to talk with someone in his ownlanguage that his life story came out like hail on a tin roof. The two lawyers and I satknee to knee in the sweltering visitors’ booth where glass separated us from Victor. Hespoke in excruciating detail. My violence verbs, I realized, needed updating. As I
struggled to distinguish between “knife” and “dagger,” “slap” and “punch,” the lawyersgrew wide-eyed.“Tell him he faces a possible death sentence,” one told me.Inadvertently, I laughed. “You mean he doesn’t know?”The lawyer frowned, dismayed at my reaction. There is no death penalty in most of LatinAmerica—or much of the rest of the world—but it had never occurred to me that I wouldhave to relay this particular bit of news.It hadn’t occurred to Victor, either. I told him that if his case went to trial, he could besentenced to death. To defend him, I continued, we needed to ask him about his past.After a pause, he said, “May I ask a question?”“Por supuesto.” Of course.“Can you ask them when I can go home?” He hadn’t comprehended the threat of death atall.Since that day, Victor has written me several letters from jail, where he is being heldpending trial. He decorates them with elaborate pencil drawings of a grinning, wingedheart wearing a halo, pictures like the kind a high schooler doodles on his spiralnotebook. As my husband noted, the heart looks like a gang tattoo. But the drawings arethe only gift Victor is capable of giving to say thank you for my visits.Jails are stinking, dirty and incredibly loud places. Once, I interviewed a client’s cousinwhile the cousin was incarcerated for a minor crime. I wanted to find out what heremembered about my client when they were boys. While answering my questions quitecalmly, the cousin started masturbating under his Popsicle-orange jumpsuit. It took me aminute to understand what was happening, especially because the cousin was alsocheerily greeting other inmates with his free hand. Once I got over my initial shock, itturned out to be a useful interview.On the same case, my client’s sister agreed to talk about her brother’s early involvementwith drugs. As we settled in her living room for the interview, her children ate quietly inthe kitchen. Their awards for academic and sports accomplishments decorated the walls.On the porch, however, their father sold crack. To get the most out of the interview, I feltI had to ignore this and did. But as a mother myself, I had a powerful urge to cross theroom and give the sister one hard slap. Just such an environment had led her brother tothe threshold of death row; now she seemed oblivious to its effect on her children.My work is not all so strange. There are unexpected moments of grace. During one trial, Istood on the rainy courthouse steps as members of my client’s family took a smokebreak. Several family secrets—a mother’s attempted suicide, a robust family history of alcoholism and domestic abuse—had just been revealed during testimony and would be
on the front page of the local newspaper by morning. There was quiet contemplation andsome shrugs.One of the uncles caught my eye. A mill worker, he had thick hands roughened by themachines he had operated six days a week for the past 30 years.“Is that Calvin Klein you’re wearing?” He was referring to my perfume.We began discussing the merits of various scents, from Poison to Carolina Herrera. Hetold me he’d just switched to Comme de Garçons. We laughed when we discovered thatboth of our fathers used Old Spice. Later, I thought about how skin color, money andculture make us so different, yet we can all be moved by a scent and the memories itcarries with it.The job I had before this one was not exactly sheltered either. I investigated and wroteabout human rights abuses in Peru and Colombia for an international human rights group.I interviewed paramilitaries and guerrillas, argued with generals, slipped into parishes totake down the stories of people with bounties on their heads. Occasionally, I lived thediplomatic high life, chatting up U.N. pashas, sipping cocktails at foreign embassies andmulling dessert lists at fancy restaurants.It was exciting work, exotic and full of the danger that puts a quasi-cosmetic glow on mycheeks. But after a while, I felt empty. Like the proverbial guest with good gossip, I feltthat I was dining out too often on the misery of others. And I missed home. I decided thatI wanted to live in my country like the people I admired in Colombia live in theirs—fullyengaged, clear-eyed and willing to take on unpopular causes.Honestly, it is hard to pick a more unpopular cause than defending accused murderers.My mother was not pleased. For years, she had worried as I flew into war zones andcame back without a single story she could bear to hear. “What happened to saving thewhales?” she asked me, remembering my teen passion. I could have trotted out a spiel onhow it is critical in our democracy to fight for a fair justice system for all. Even forpeople who do despicable things. Especially when they do them.But a high ideal isn’t what motivates me. It is the value of human life tucked like a noteinto the stories I hear. Behind the stone face, the tattoo, the swagger is the child who atfive years of age would search out his drunken mother, coax her out of a ditch and guideher home. Here is the man whose first memory is of his father’s fist moving toward hisface like the Apollo rocket, last launched the year he turned four. Here is the spelling beechampion who, at nine, was beaten senseless for moving the TV Guide. Here is thetoddler whose mother sold him to pedophiles in exchange for drugs.These stories do not excuse murder. A murderer causes unspeakable pain in the familiesand the communities he harms. Murderers should be punished. Sometimes, they are sodamaged that they cannot be allowed to rejoin society and must be imprisoned for the restof their lives.

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