Excerpt from my book-in-progress A Dangerous Woman, about my connection to a series of mysterious letters sent to the first woman to be put on death row in California after the death penalty was reinstated in 1979. Everyone has his or her own version of truth. Here is Jimmy Luna’s side of the story, the man who committed the murder.
It was another bloody night in Los Angeles. On April 29, 1985, Michael Eldridge, age 37, was stabbed 44 times in the Van Nuys home he co-owned with Maureen “Miki” McDermott. Eldridge’s penis was cut off post-mortem and was not found at the crime scene. Jimmy Luna, a former orderly at County-USC Medical Center was arrested three months later for the murder. Luna implicated McDermott, a nurse that he knew from the hospital, as the mastermind, claiming that it was her idea to cut off the penis because she believed the police would be less likely to investigate a murder that appeared to be homosexually motivated. McDermott was arrested not long after Luna. The police determined that the real motive for the crime was the $100,000 life insurance policy that McDermott and Eldridge had purchased in each other’s names. According to Luna, McDermott had promised him half of it.
Prosecutor Katherine Mader had formerly defended Angelo Buono, one of the Hillside Stranglers. In that case, she had fawned over Buono and treated him like a misguided little boy, a tactic used to humanize him for the jury. Now, the opposite strategy was applied, McDermott being likened to “a Nazi working in the crematorium by day and listening to Mozart by night,” a “mutation of a human being,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a “traitor,” a person who “stalked people like animals,” and someone who had “resigned from the human race.”
Defense attorney Ingber did not assemble much of a defense and the jury found the prosecution’s case to be far more credible. On April 3, 1990 after three days of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of death for McDermott. In exchange for his testimony, Luna received life in prison.
During the habeas appeal McDermott’s new attorney, Verna Wefald, argued that there was no evidence directly linking her defendant to the crime other than the words of a psychopathic killer who got immunity from the death penalty for testifying against her. It was also argued that Ingber had been incompetent and that Mader had committed misconduct by describing McDermott in ways that dehumanized her. Justice Kennard rejected the arguments, in particular pointing out that the analogies were appropriate since it is possible for a person to show “a refined sensitivity in some activities while demonstrating barbaric cruelty in others.”
On August 13, 2002, the Supreme Court rejected the habeas appeal. McDermott became the first woman to have her death sentence upheld since the death penalty was re-instituted in California in 1977.
For Mader, the trial of Maureen McDermott was a great victory in an already impressive career. She went on to become a Superior Court Judge. Luna died of AIDS in jail. McDermott still awaits her death. By all accounts, justice has been served. Those who deserved punishment received it and those who deserved rewards moved on to greater things.
What a relief it is when bad situations are resolved in a tidy manner. If only it could always be that way—with all the mysteries revealed. But then, what would life be without a mystery?
I don’t feel good. Most of the time I feel like someone flushed me down the toilet. I look like it, too. I used to look not that bad. I get the shakes and I can’t stop. I sweat a lot. I’m suffering and I’m alone and that’s all I’ve ever been. I wish I could have known something different. I used to see kids getting out of minivans and going to the market with their moms and I tried to imagine what that must be like. Why couldn’t that be me? Why should I deserve any less? It’s an evil world and you can’t tell me otherwise. There isn’t a single person alive right now or ever that can give a good reason why some people suffer so much when others don’t. Oh yeah, the shitheads who stepped on the faces of the rest of us in order to get ahead, they’re the ones who make up stupid reasons, like karma and such, and all the poor people just say, oh, okay, because they feel dirty and unworthy. Over-used and worn to death. Just like me.
That’s why I can say that I don’t really think I had a choice. I was pushed in a corner. I was desperate.
The detective interviewed me after it happened. I don’t remember his name. I don’t even remember what he looked like. He wasn’t a nice person. He didn’t care about me. He didn’t understand my problems. I tried to explain, I thought if I explained he might have some sympathy because he acted sympathetic. But it was just a trap. He didn’t play fair and I don’t think they should be able to do that to a person like me who’s so trusting.
They made me sit in a bare room with bright lighting. I’m sensitive to light and atmosphere. It made me nervous to be there.
“So talk to us, explain why you did it,” said the detective, sounding almost nice—must have some college degree in being able to talk like that.
I wanted to open up. I liked that he was interested, as if he had all the time in the world to listen. Never once did he look at his watch. He wasn’t antsy or rude.
So I really did open up and it felt good. I didn’t mind talking. I didn’t have anything to hide. I wanted him to understand about me.
I told him, just to start off in the right place, “First, I want to say that I’m a very sensitive person. I cry easy, I’m very emotional. I don’t cry for sympathy, for somebody to feel sorry for me. I cry because I hurt inside. And constantly, each and every day that goes by, I hurt.”
“Okay, I got that,” said the detective.
I felt sort of okay with his response. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but close enough and I felt like if I continued and explained everything, by the end he would feel really sorry for me, as well he should, you know? The words just came out. First to him, and then there was this therapist lady who talked to me. I don’t really remember what I said to her, it’s all jumbled together in my conversation with the detective, I guess because that’s the first thing that happened, where it all started, where the words first came out of me and then it got easier and easier to talk.
“You don’t know how it feels to be so desperate. It’s like all your life you try to do right, you try to make the best of the situation but nothing ever works out. So you try again and you keep a smile on your face but it doesn’t matter. I can’t tell you how many times I got raped by my male relatives when I was a kid. I was small. It wasn’t my fault, I couldn’t defend myself. I had to go down on my older cousin. Do you think a person can turn out normal after that? I mean, do you really?
“My dad tried to kill me by hanging me from a tree. One day he got mad. I don’t know why he got mad. How mad can a dad get to do something like that? How bad can a kid be? He got a rope and put it around my neck and strung me up and left me there. The rope didn’t hold and that was lucky because he meant it to. Can you imagine how my life was after that? You see your dad that night and he’s drinking a beer and no one says nothing when a few hours before he hanged you from a tree? I’d tell myself he didn’t mean it and it was just a joke that went bad. But he did mean it. My entire childhood, all I ever felt was fear. I never knew what it was like to lie down at night and go to sleep. Just close my eyes and sleep. I had to tell myself all kinds of stories to get me through each day, so I could pretend I was someone else and these things weren’t happening to me.
“Let me ask you, why didn’t my dad ever go to jail? Why didn’t my older relatives get punished? Nobody made sure I was safe. Nobody cared.”
I asked the detective that question or maybe I didn’t, I don’t remember, but the thing is, I wanted an answer and nobody ever gave me one.
“How can I get you to understand? Somebody like me who’s been treated like less than an animal since the day I was born, just abused and used and stuffed in the garbage and then every time I tried to climb out just stuffed back in again, well, even if somebody like me tries over and over, it’s like you’re daring people to hurt you—putting it in their face, like you’re saying, ‘see, look at me, I’m not giving up, I want to better myself, I can stand up tall, just like you, I can have a job, I can have an apartment, pay my taxes, I can be a normal human being.’
“And I did get a job and I did work hard. That was a big achievement for me. But then they all turned against me because of my problems. I’m not denying it, I do have problems. But I tried, that’s the point I’m making. I always kept trying until there was no way for me to try anymore.
“Me daring to do that, daring to try and putting it in their faces means they can laugh and sneer and think it’s okay to kick me in the teeth. It’s easy for them to kick me in the teeth, you know? They can do it and nobody even blinks, nobody treats them like they committed a crime by what they did to me. They don’t get in trouble. They can punch the smile right off my already bruised and bleeding face, making it more bruised, more bleeding, swollen, infected, so it’s like I have a big sign on myself—ABUSE ME. But then forget about it if I try to turn around and hurt someone else in order to get ahead of the game. Oh no, not allowed. I get punished.”
“Well, you didn’t just hurt him. You killed him.” The detective said that to me, like a slap, and I didn’t really think it was nice of him to do that. He wasn’t getting it at all. Was he dense?
Not that I can’t say that he was right, in a certain kind of way, and I thought I was being very reasonable and honest to admit it when I said, “True. But that’s what I’m trying to explain about being pushed. It’s not like one day you just decide to kill someone. You get pushed there—and anyway, it’s not like it was my idea, you know?”
“Whose idea, then?” asked the detective.
I think I rolled my eyes at that point because it was pretty obvious where he was leading with that one. I wasn’t an idiot, not like him. They’d made it obvious what they wanted to hear and sure, I’m not going to say anything except the truth, right? And that’s what I did. I didn’t want to end up strapped to that table, all those people looking at me through glass, not to mention the years I’d have to live in isolation before it happened. I don’t do well cooped up. I wasn’t doing well sitting in that interrogation room. Still, I didn’t want to come right out and say it plain, so I talked about other things.
“Miki and me had a special relationship. She cared about me when nobody else did. She was the only one. And then, even with her, I wasn’t sure anymore. She was going to leave me. Leave me, just like, kick me to the curb. I don’t think she really wanted to. I think she thought she had to in order to make more money. She was desperate, just like me. We had a lot in common. We understood each other. I wanted to help her. She’d done a lot to help me and I was willing to make a sacrifice for her sake so she wouldn’t have to leave. I mean, who’d want to go and be a nurse in Saudi Arabia? What woman in her right mind would want to do that? They kill queers like me and her in that place and I think they kill women even if they’re straight, just like for fun. Don’t they make them cover their entire bodies, treat them like slaves? What if she never came back?
“Obviously, she wasn’t thinking right. When you’re desperate you don’t think right. I know what I’m talking about.
“So, I had to do something to stop her from going. I had to keep her here-for her sake and mine. And whatever tears she’s crying now, trust me, she was happy when I did it.”
“So you’re saying she told you to do it?”
You see? That detective knew his job. He wasn’t going to let me out of there until I said it.
I rolled my eyes some more. Eye-rolling is a very good thing to do when you want to make a certain kind of impression.
“She put her blessing on it. It was her idea, why would I think up something like that?” I said it so I could get back to what mattered. “Whatever people tell you, I’m not a bad person—I had a bad life. Do you get the difference? If you had my life, you’d be one sick mother fucker too, you’d have a lot of anger, you’d need someone to help you, take care of you and not throw you out on the street. Miki cared about me when nobody else did so in return, I did something for her that she’d never do for herself. I messed it up, I know that. And okay, I shouldn’t have been so easily convinced to do it in the first place. But my heart was right. All I wanted was for Miki to be safe and secure. If she had that insurance money, she’d be okay and not worried anymore. I bet she’d of let me move in, been her housemate instead of that prick. I never trusted that piece of shit. She always complained how he yelled at her dogs. I mean, who’d yell at a dog? For what? And people call me bad? I don’t yell at dogs.
“He wanted to sell her house. I bet if she’d gone to Saudi Arabia, he’d of sold that house right from under her. I bet when she came back—if she ever did and wasn’t killed over there—she’d of had nothing. He’d of taken it all. And she was such a pushover. She wouldn’t have done anything to punish him. That’s how I know she didn’t see it coming. She didn’t see what he was planning right under her nose. I know about those things. I know about back-stabbers. But Miki was so trusting, only liked to think good of people.
“I feel justified about what I did. I know it was wrong but I think God will forgive me. I think God understands. I think when I stand before God I won’t even have to defend myself. I won’t have to tell my side of the story. He knows all that stuff. I bet we’re all going to be surprised when we find out who’s in heaven and who’s in hell.
“I was just trying to fix an impossible situation. I was trying to do some good, and okay, maybe that’s a stretch, maybe hard for people to accept, but there it is. In my screwed up mind that’s how I saw it. I was trying to do some good. Afterwards, when I got caught and you told me what I did, I couldn’t believe it. Anyone who’d stab someone 44 times must be a maniac. And then I cut off his penis? I don’t remember that. I thought I stabbed him, like seven times or so. Not forty-four. And the penis thing? Come on. And then I took the penis to my aunt’s house and flushed it down the toilet? I buried the knife blade by the clothesline? That’s insane, not to mention stupid.
“But I was drunk. I had to get drunk in order to do what I did. I can’t remember carrying the penis all the way back home with me. Why’d I do that? Was it in my pocket? In a plastic bag? My aunt can’t be happy about that. Every time she sits on the toilet I bet she thinks about that penis swirling around and around and then down it goes. What if it got stuck, what if the toilet overflowed and it spilled onto the floor? And she has to sit there and think about it. That’s fucked up.
“But anyway, my point is you don’t need to have a fancy psychiatry degree to know that somebody who’d do something like that is seriously out of his fucking mind.
“Okay, Miki was the mastermind. I couldn’t have thought up all those things. Like Dewayne Bell. Why would I’ve knifed him like that, what reason would I have if she hadn’t told me to do it? Sometimes I get confused and I wonder if I remember things right. Sometimes I think maybe I didn’t tell the detectives the story in the right way. But that’s just because I’m actually a very honest person who goes to the extreme to make sure and I am continually second-guessing myself.
“I did bad things, I know. I sliced up Dewayne Bell, or at least that’s what I told the police, didn’t I? Or did they tell me that I did it and I said okay. You see, I can’t remember now.”
“Do you think what you did was wrong?”
I’m not sure who asked me that, the detective or the therapist, probably the therapist.
“I keep telling you—it might have been a bad thing, but I did it for a good reason! I agree that a maniac did those things. But that’s not me. I wish for once people could look inside and see who I really am—a sensitive, caring person who’s in terrible pain. I’m like all the other poor, abused and powerless people. I never stood a chance. And now I’m dying of AIDS in prison. A demon with sharp teeth somehow got inside of me and he’s tearing apart my liver and my skin. I saved my skin and now the demon’s eating it.
“This isn’t how my life was supposed to be. I was a little boy once. I had hopes and dreams just like anyone else. I know that I was happy, really, when I was sitting up in that tree and looking down on the world, dreaming of where I’d go, the things I’d do. But that was before I got hung from it and ever since, hard as I try, I can’t remember the happiness. The world looked different after that and I got scared to climb above it.
“I cry for that little boy, filled with so much love. I loved flowers. I loved animals. The fuckers who sucked the love out of me are the maniacs, not me. This isn’t how my life was supposed to be. It’s just not fair.”
When I finished talking I felt like I’d really done my best. I’d told my story with a lot of emotion, with real feelings, not cold-hearted because that’s not how I am. The detective got up and left. That was it. He left me there. I thought I’d feel better after all that talking. But I just felt empty, like he’d used me for what he wanted, like everybody did, and then forgot about me. He was done. He went home after a long day. I came here.
I’m weak. Pain is my world. I try to look back and think of something good to remember, some sweet thing to put on my tongue to make my suffering not so bad. But nothing’s there. I wish I could think of climbing that tree without hanging from it. But that’s impossible.
I lie in the dark, sweating, panting, an agony of nightmares crawling all over me and I say why? There’s no answer that comes to mind, just silence and another needle.
Soon I’ll be dead and Miki will still be alive. She’s the one sentenced to death and I’m the one dying. How about that?
They put her there, not me. I’m telling you, they’re the real Maniacs, those two-faced bastards. It doesn’t matter in the end, though. I’m not going to say sorry for the part I played. I didn’t do anything that bad. I mean, it was bad, but I explained all that, right?
Look at me.
Nobody escapes death row. We all get sentenced, one way or another. I don’t deserve it anymore than you do.
“Given Jimmy Luna’s history of bizarre behaviors, his psychiatric referrals, and his numerous threatening and violent behaviors towards others, resulting in job loss and eviction, it is difficult to understand why the prosecutors in this case failed to have him evaluated psychiatrically prior to accepting his account of the murder and his reasons for committing it. More incomprehensible still is the failure of Ms. McDermott’s defense counsel to demand that Jimmy Luna have such an evaluation. Had they done so, they would have uncovered a history of extreme abuse, dissociative states, psychotic misperceptions of reality and fantasies of murder and castration. Had this condition been recognized, his credibility as a witness would have been destroyed.
“Mader, a public prosecutor whose paramount duty is to seek the truth, having known all of the above, did not require Jimmy Luna to undergo a psychiatric examination before offering him an “opportunity” (her words) to save his own life by helping her put a “white” woman (her words) on death row. Mader committed grievous misconduct by failing to have Luna examined by a psychiatrist prior to resting her entire case on his obviously delusional account of the crime. Had such an evaluation been obtained, Luna would have been excluded from testifying as a witness period. This Court has a duty to vacate petitioner’s conviction.”
~Dr. Dorothy Lewis, Psychiatrist, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical School