Why I Choose to Remember My 50th Blood-Bath of a Birthday Instead of Trying to Forget It

1915192_319421360359_7173893_n[1] A group of Juggalos

Why I Choose To Remember My 50th Blood-Bath of a Birthday Instead of Trying to Forget It

Looking back, what is the birthday that stands out most in your mind?

How about someone else’s birthday that is especially memorable?

Are they remembered with love or regret?

Laughter or tears?

Why do you remember these birthdays in particular?

On June 6th I will turn 59. Birthdays always make me think back to the ones before. I’ve had some doozies. Especially my 50th. In a perfect world (according to the media and celebrities and self-help gurus), turning fifty should be some sort of meaningful Zen-like epiphany, where you realize how wise you have become; you should be pleased because you are still in great shape; you have saved enough in a steady job to be looking forward to retirement, and/or those alimony checks are substantial because you weren’t one of those stupid women who signed a pre-nup; and maybe you even have a loving relationship with someone who gives you sizzling-hot sex…. You know, “fifty is the new thirty,” and all of that.

I only fulfilled one of those achievements: I was in pretty good shape. Otherwise, I was nowhere near where I thought I should be at such an advanced age. Instead of lying in bed beside a wonderful lover, or even just a warm body, by midnight of my 50th birthday, I was standing in a dingy apartment, covered in someone else’s blood and wondering what to do about it.

The day started okay. I went to a lovely, exceedingly Zen-like wedding, and a reception that was held in an exclusive gated community in Calabasas with a breathtaking view of the Santa Monica Mountains. I was high above the messy streets and dressed perfectly for the occasion, wearing a little black and white number that hugged my hips and ended discreetly just above my knees, a string of pearls about my neck, a Kate Spade purse and Stuart Weitzman heels, all carefully preserved leftovers from life before the divorce. I looked good on the outside, and I was sure none of these successful people who lived in the clouds would ever suspect how worried I was inside, as a single mother, struggling to raise three children in an apartment down on the flats of the San Fernando Valley. For a few hours, I drank champagne and danced and forgot my troubles.

Then, I went home, close to midnight, and the phone rang.

It was the mother of a friend of my eldest son and she sounded hysterical. There was a young man in her home that had been stabbed and she didn’t know what to do. She’d bandaged him up as best she could but he refused to go to the hospital.

“I can’t have him dying here,” she said. This mother was a recovering heroin addict and the last thing she wanted was the police on her doorstep. I don’t say that as some sort of judgment, I say it to explain why she was so nervous. She was a good person. She loved her son like most mothers do. She wanted to do the right thing, and mostly, she tried her best under challenging circumstances.

So, what did I do? What I always do when I get calls like that. I got in my car and drove over to where she lived in a small apartment complex in Sherman Oaks. Of course, I first changed out of my perfect outfit into workout pants, t-shirt, running shoes and a hoodie, all black as the night. I wish I could say I felt like a superhero donning my fighting clothes, well I did sort of because I have a sense of humor and a good imagination, and I did feel prepared for the fight, however it might present itself.

The mother answered the door, put the leash on her dog and walked out, saying she needed a break. That was the last I saw of her that night.

Okay. The young man was standing in the middle of the living room swaying and delirious, from drugs or loss of blood, probably both. He was shirtless and there were bandages wrapped around him like a mummy. A lot of blood had seeped through. The place looked like a crime scene. My son and a few of his friends were sitting lined up on the sofa, scared and immobilized.

I hated the direction my son was going, hanging out with Juggalos and wanting to be one. If you, Dear Reader, don’t know what a Juggalo is, I won’t bother explaining. Suffice it to say that you don’t want to know, unless you are unlucky enough to have a kid who thinks he or she wants to be one, then you will have no choice but to find out. On the other hand, I do believe that they are misunderstood in a lot of ways and I would like to write more about them. I don’t believe they are a gang so much as a kind of cult, believing in something called the “Dark Carnival” and appealing to the poor and outcasts who really cannot find anywhere else to belong. My son was and is a  talented artist and writer and I understood his fascination with the dark side. I love him and have faith in him and respect his desire to be true to his art. Being an artist myself, I understand how painful is the road of raw self-expression and I admire the brutal courage that it takes to be true to one’s art.

I didn’t like the young man with the stab wounds, although such a reaction to him made me feel guilty. I worked with youth in juvenile hall who were no different from this young man. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, but if I was honest, then I had to acknowledge that it was easy to care about those who were locked up because I could walk away and they did not invade my day to day life. If I really wanted to live what I claimed I believed, then I had to care about those people who smashed into my safe world and threatened to turn it upside down. Or did I–certainly I was allowed to draw the line somewhere? This was a complex question and certainly there were boundaries that needed to be observed, I just wasn’t sure exactly what they were.

This young man, known as Popeye, was a few years older than my son and his friends. As impressionable teenage boys, they thought Popeye was the shit. I don’t know why. Calling yourself Popeye, that right there, should throw up a red flag. He wasn’t especially smart,  and he certainly didn’t have a nice temperament. He was a small-time criminal with a serious drug problem who thought he was some kind of prophet with a special dispensation from God. He enjoyed quoting the Bible, except that he quoted it all wrong. The thing is, he had charisma. In fact, in a way, he reminded me of a stunted Charles Manson. Sometimes, when he came to my house, he would look at me with an intensity that I knew he used on my son and others and was trying to use on me. He was practicing his style, trying to grow into his “calling” as a leader of the lost and downtrodden. But it fell flat with me. I saw through him, as I saw through those in the boardroom who tried to manipulate me in ways that I saw as perversely similar. Popeye reminded me of countless puffed up pastors, entertainment executives, corporate leaders and politicians I had met, except he hadn’t been given the education or even the “luck” that they had. No matter if the domain is the streets or the churches or city hall, those who feed off of power seem to share the same psychological profile, except that the well-heeled are clearly more dangerous due to their access to resources that can cause havoc and destruction on a world scale. Nobody ever stops them, however, because those who are further down the ladder are way too desperate to climb up a few pegs, grasp at a few more crumbs, fool themselves into believing that they can be powerful too, if they just kiss the right person’s ass. And oh, how the powerful use that hunger to their advantage.

I well know these worlds within worlds, and that night, I crossed, as I have done so often, from the world of the elite into the world of the downtrodden; these worlds that seem so very different on the surface, one dirty and dangerous, the other pristine and filled with opportunity. But the underlying horrors are the same. For example, on the one hand you have Juggalos, a despised and ridiculed bunch, and on the other hand you have fraternities and the god-like status of athletes. Might I suggest reading John Krakauer’s Missoula to find out more about that gruesome culture?

But back to the nightmare of Popeye’s life. He had been stabbed seven times while attempting to enter a house to attend a party. Apparently, someone took offense at his Juggalo tattoos and attacked him with a knife. Popeye kept on fighting, not realizing he was being stabbed, until someone pulled him away and pointed it out to him. Somehow, he had made his way to this apartment.

The mother had been correct in saying that Popeye was refusing to go to the hospital. Even though he wasn’t the perpetrator on this occasion, he was on probation and was afraid of being sent back to jail. And he held such sway with these kids that none of them dared to try and make him go, even though he appeared to be dying right in front of their faces.

“So you’d rather die?” I asked Popeye.

He smirked at that, ever the tough guy. He seemed to think he would be just fine if he could have a few minutes to lie down, which he did, except he fainted, his skin turning a scary gray color. That was when I ordered my son and his friends to help me drag him out of the apartment, get him in the car and to the hospital.

As it turns out, one of the knife wounds had pierced his lung and he was bleeding inside. He would have surely died if he hadn’t made it to the hospital in time. Instead, he lived to cause more trouble. Not long after that, I heard that he leapt out of a moving car on the freeway and almost got himself killed… again. Then, he assaulted a woman at an ATM machine, kidnapped her and ended up in prison for a very long time. I have to say I am not sorry that he is off the streets and out of my son’s life. He is a dangerous and unpredictable person who caused a lot of harm. And yet, I had a profound encounter with him that goes beyond the physical and enters the realm of the spiritual. I saved his life. I cannot help but pray that he is receiving the psychological care that he needs but chances are he isn’t.

As much as this memory might be considered horrible, it happened to me because I am the kind of person that those in need feel they can call on. I don’t say this with any kind of pride. In fact, I often wonder if I am not just a naïve sucker. I can’t help it, though. It is the way I was made, I guess. And going around helping people doesn’t mean that you necessarily get a prize for it or that the result is a happy ending. Nobody would have given me a prize or helping Popeye. He was a person who could well have gone on to kill someone or himself. And indeed, he did something almost as bad.

But we don’t know the future and so we can only do what we think is right in any given moment. And there have been plenty such moments in my life. And even if I had known the outcome ahead of time, it wouldn’t have changed my decision to do what I felt compelled to do.

Which leads me to my memory of someone else’s birthday. Because thinking of my 50th always leads me to think of my friend Silvia’s 18th. It was on that day that she was sentenced to twenty-five years to life for a murder committed by her older, abusive boyfriend. And there I was, in the courtroom, unable to change her fate.

In 1995 I went into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and started teaching creative writing as a volunteer to a group of girls who were facing life sentences for serious crimes. One of those girls was Silvia. I worked with her for three years and attended her trial, taking forty-five pages of notes. I wanted to see a trial for myself, and I picked hers because it was the most extreme and I had become close to her. I had decided that by the end of the trial I would either walk away from this difficult work, or I would make a commitment to it for the long term. After what I saw at Silvia’s trial, I was more determined than ever to do what I could to help these young people make their voices heard. And so, InsideOUT Writers was born, with the help of many incredible people.

At Silvia’s trial it was never determined that she knew a murder was going to occur. But she was there when it happened, on Dockweiller Beach, planes screaming overhead as they took off and landed at LAX. Silvia had walked away, angry at her boyfriend because he asked her to flirt with the victim so he could steal the guy’s car stereo. The others were down by the water and Silvis headed back towards the car. She turned around to see the victim falling and not getting up again. Afterwards, her boyfriend threatened that he would harm her brother, Cesar, who was mentally ill, if she didn’t keep silent. Having been abused for years, she wasn’t about to disobey his orders. I could relate to this since I had been in two abusive marriages, was still in the middle of the second one during her trial, and feeling depressed that I hadn’t learned my lesson the first time around. Silvia’s writing spoke to me in a powerful way. Mostly, she wrote about how she had allowed herself to get into abusive relationships and what she needed to do to get out of them. She went on a journey in her writing and I went with her and that journey culminated with her trial. I had entered juvenile hall with the desire to help these girls. Never did I imagine how much they, in turn, would help me to face the truth of my own life.

Seated with me at Silvia’s sentencing was the woman with whom I had started InsideOUT Writers, Sister Janet Harris, and a private investigator who was considered by many to be the foremost authority on the death penalty phase, Casey Cohen. These two extraordinary people were my best friends and mentors. I had contacted Antonio Villaraigosa about Silvia’s case. At that time, he was Speaker of the House of Representatives, before he went on to become mayor. He had put a piece of Silvia’s writing up on the wall in his office and sent a representative to speak on his behalf at her sentencing, a young man named Jimmy Blackman. But it hadn’t mattered.

On Silvia’s eighteenth birthday, despite the lack of evidence, despite the fact that she did not represent any threat to society, Judge JD Smith sentenced her to twenty-five years to life.

“I could have given you life without parole,” he told the girl with the long black hair, fading tattoos and eyes that were now hopeless instead of angry. “You should thank me.”

Silvia said nothing. She didn’t know that he actually, literally, meant that she should thank him. She was in the process of getting the tattoos removed. Besides the tear drops beneath her eye, she had been branded by her boyfriend in many places on her body, and then there was the 213 on her knuckles, the last tattoo Gerardo had made on the night of the murder. I had managed to get a court order from Judge Smith allowing her to stay in juvenile hall until the tattoo removal was completed. She would end up staying there until her twentieth birthday, I believe an all-time record for a juvenile offender.

Judge JD Smith was a big, tough white guy, white hair and a florid complexion that grew redder after lunch. His face was positively crimson after he’d told Silvia to thank him and she hadn’t, perceiving her lack of response as insolence. “I said you should thank me,” he bellowed.

Silvia turned in confusion to her lawyer, who nodded that she should obey.

“Thank you,” she said, her head bowed and in a barely audible voice.

“What?”

“Thank you,” she said louder.

He nodded, satisfied.

And that was the end of Silvia. I had been so angry at the belligerent man but years later I realized that his hands had been tied and how I saw him at the trial represented my own hurt and frustration, because he really had done the only thing he could do to help her. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone in that courtroom wanted to see Silvia in jail for life, not even the prosecutor. But she was no one important in the greater scheme of things and she hadn’t stood up for herself when given the chance. She had refused to take the deal offered by the prosecution out of fear of Gerardo and so there was nothing anyone could do.

Removing the tattoos was a cleansing ritual for Silvia as at each painful session, more and more of the ink was drawn out of her body.

“It burns my skin, it really hurts,” she told to me. “But I can feel the ink going out and it’s like the poison that he infected me with is going out too.”

The State showered Silvia with honors before locking her up forever, choosing her as Valedictorian and then crowning her prom queen at the graduation for her winning essay, “Moving into the21st Century,” written about her plans to attend college, as if she were a free young woman instead of a convicted murderer. At the prom, a picture was taken of her, me and her date, all of us smiling happily. Pictures were taken of each of the youths dressed in their finery, standing in front of a limo that would never drive them anywhere. The party was held in the juvenile hall gym, decorated with balloons and streamers, a band playing. The LA Times even wrote an article about it. A bizarre party where Cinderella’s dress turned back into rags, but with a hopelessness that would never have a happy ending.

Nothing lasts forever. Life comes and then it goes, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, like the ocean tide, big and angry, small and intimate, continually turning from one thing into something else and back again. Silvia left suddenly, before her tattoo removal had been completed and I never understood why. Fifteen years later, visiting her at Chowchilla Women’s prison she told me.

“I was getting too old to be there. The pressure was too much to be the wise old lady, you know?” She shrugged. There was more there, I was sure but it was a world I really could never fully understand.

When it came time to say good-bye, we looked at one another with real, deep love, tinged by sadness. I was always having to leave her and I wished so badly that I could just take her out. Like an angel, like what happened to the Apostle Paul. But that was just a fantasy.

Saying good-bye to Silvia was always painful and the time came when I stopped visiting her because I just couldn’t take it anymore, for various reasons beyond what I can write here. But I will go again. I can’t stay away forever. I will never forget the day of our most momentous good-bye, when Silvia left juvenile hall for the “Big House.” We hugged each other in front of the chapel, the place where I had first met Janet and poured out my heart to her about my dreams to work with incarcerated youth. I couldn’t believe that it was really happening. I’d had such faith in words. I had been raised to believe in their power, by an evangelical father who was a successful writer. “In the beginning was the Word…” That verse had been pounded into my mind from a young age. Yet, my speech, so carefully prepared for Silvia’s sentencing, hadn’t done anything to save her. I had truly thought that if I could find the right words and say them with enough conviction all would be clarified, the judge and the jury would see the light and a miracle would occur. But there was no miracle, only the wheels of fate relentlessly turning with each one of us playing a small part in a bigger story, with my individual actions having absolutely no impact.

“Not on the system,” Casey told me. “But one individual can influence the life of another. Always remember that, Karen. Don’t become obsessed with the political circus and the powerful in society.” He visibly shuddered. “It’s an enticing world but a completely corrupt one, which, perversely, is much of its appeal.”

Casey impacted my life more than anyone else I have ever known. The last time I saw him, we were standing in the parking lot behind “attorney to the stars,” Charlie English’s law offices, above the bluffs of Ocean Avenue. By then, his clothes hung lose on a gaunt frame, cheeks sunken, eyes haunted and avoiding mine. He was dying of cancer. We were about to get in our cars and go our separate ways, just as we had always done, just as people were doing all around us in a normal, everyday manner.

He made his usual joking observation, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this, in parking lots and at crime scenes,” only this time, his words were choking him. “We should be going to a concert together, or shopping, how about shopping? No, what am I talking about? We should be on some small island in the South Pacific, lying on the warm sand, catching and cooking our own fish, drinking rum in some open-air bar on stilts, the ocean lapping beneath us, walking on water, we should be walking on water.”

“Only in dreams,” I murmured.

Yes, only in dreams…. And in remembrances of birthdays.

And now, here I am coming up to 59 and these are my memories, the powerful experiences that I think about in these days leading up to that moment when I magically make it to another number in a long line of numbers. The looking forward can only get shorter and the looking back can only get longer. But the memories don’t change. Not the ones that have been embedded so strongly in the mind. Casey is gone and I miss him every day. Silvia is still here, yet I miss her the same.

I think of Silvia and I think of my own son. Impressionable teenagers, preyed upon by older people who used them to feed their own egos. I understand. I have been there, too. Who hasn’t? And people like Gerardo and Popeye, those who feed upon the weak, what are their stories? What birthdays do they remember? Once they, too, were young and weak, preyed upon by those more powerful than themselves, and so they learned to do the same. The world is a place of eating or being eaten.

I don’t teach in juvenile hall anymore and it is a long story why. But those years left a lasting impression on me. After every class I would take the writing home and type it up, the words of the girls searing me as surely as those tattoos seared Silvia. Opening the folder where I kept the girls’ writing, I always looked first at what Silvia had to say, wanting to hear her voice, contemplating how it applied to me:

Me, Gerardo and Marisol were outside a friend’s house when my friend was talking and Gerardo got mad and was telling her to shut up but she was so dingy, she just kept on talking. So he took a knife and Marisol was sitting on the sidewalk and he threw the knife at her and she screamed so he kept throwing the knife at her. Then he saw me standing by the tree and he threw the knife at me and I got scared but I didn’t say nothing.

There was this lady who sells corn passing by and she asked me what my boyfriend was doing and I told her he was playing. She looked at me like I was crazy. But everyone thought I was. So she was just another person thinking I was crazy to be playing with a man who plays with knives.

Common sense should tell a girl to stay away from a man who uses her as a dartboard. Still, incredible as it may seem, it can happen to anyone if the circumstances are right. It’s easy when you’re on the outside looking in to say that a girl is crazy, that she should just get out. Or that my son should understand to stay away from a delusional criminal who quotes the Bible all wrong. Or, that a mother should be able to keep her son safe from evil.

But when you’re the one in the middle of the maze you can’t imagine the possibility of escape. Once, on the streets of London, my first husband kicked me repeatedly like I was a mangy dog and a man passing by reached out in distress, offering to help me. My husband turned on him in a mad fury and the man retreated. I stood in terror, shaking my head and mouthing no, no at the man, praying that he would just go away. It never occurred to me that I could go away with him. The only result I could imagine from his misplaced kindness was for me to suffer even worse abuse when I got home. Because I would follow my husband home, wouldn’t I? I always meekly walked into my prison and allowed him to lock me in.

If I ever tried to argue with either of my husbands, they would say “Don’t fight me.” The message was clear—you have no right. You are a woman and I am a man. I have power and you do not. That is the way of this world. Don’t upset the balance. But even in those dark days I wondered, why? Why can’t a woman, or anyone who is oppressed for that matter, stand up the way the powerful do? Don’t the oppressed have just as much right to be tough and strong, to speak freely without fear? Yes, they have the right, they just don’t have a way to be heard—and if they do happen to be heard, they must quickly be suppressed or discredited so that no one actually listens.

I went on to free myself as best I could. It took many years and I am still in the process. At the age of thirty I started training in martial arts and learned how to walk tall and without fear. I now teach boxing and kick boxing and self-defense to women and children at a gym called Tarzana Boxing. If anyone would have told me in my first marriage that I would be doing such a thing in my fifties and that I would be in the best shape of my life, I would have said they were insane.

The girls in my writing sessions never stopped wanting fighting lessons and I repeatedly had to remind them that it wasn’t allowed.

“Every girl should be able to do that,” they would say wistfully.

I remember one girl, Elizabeth, slamming the table with a fist and saying to me, “Damn, woman, you’re dangerous—a Dangerous Woman.”

I always hugged each of them good-bye; those condemned young women whose tough facades had been stripped away at the writing table, revealing fearful little girls who passively did what they were told because they never knew they could do otherwise. I understood exactly how they felt.

And that is why, when I got the phone call from that hysterical mother on my 50th birthday, I didn’t hesitate, but went out my door and into the world of suffering and danger in the flatlands of the San Fernando Valley. Honestly, I feel more comfortable in that world than in the shiny one on top of the mountain. At least on the street there is a certain honesty to the crimes, while in the clouds, the hypocrisy is as thick as a London fog.

This birthday, I will be in Ojai, relaxing and writing for a couple of days. That’s the plan, anyway, and maybe it will turn out like that and maybe it won’t. That’s what makes life interesting. I don’t regret those memories. There is sadness, there is pain, but I hold onto them as experiences that have given meaning to my life.

No doubt, there will be more to come.

Istanbul, I love you

10559924_10154442045450360_355461431324110895_n[1]Just returned from five weeks traveling to Lake Bled, Slovenia; Vienna, Austria; Lausanne, Switzerland; and Istanbul, Turkey. I spent two weeks in Istanbul, staying in a penthouse flat near the Galata Tower with a view of the Bosporus from the terrace. I went there to finish writing the last chapter of my book, Letters from Purgatory. Istanbul is where it all begins and where it all ends. I fell in love with Istanbul and want to go back. September 1st an excerpt from Letters, called Death Row Dance, will be published in The Adirondack Review. I can’t wait to share it!

A DANGEROUS WOMAN

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.

 

The Crime

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?

                                                                             Who is the Monster Beneath the MaskJimmy Luna

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

A DANGEROUS WOMAN

Excerpt from my book-in-progress A Dangerous Woman, about my connection to a series of mysterious letters sent tothe 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.

 

The Crime

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?

                                                                             Who is the Monster Beneath the MaskJimmy Luna

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

Interview with Stan Tookie William shortly before his execution

IOW CHILDHOOD

In 1995 I went into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles with the vision to start a creative writing prgram for incarcerated youth. Out of that experience grew InsideOUT Writers. In 2005 I left the organization to pursue my writing once again. Something I was most proud of was the magazine of interviews and student writing and the book, What We See, which has been used by thousands of students and teachers. The last magazine issue had an interview with Stan Tookie William shortly before his execution. The interview was an incredible gift to the students of the InsideOUT Writers program. Sadly, the magazine didn’t continue after I left. I would like this magazine and this interview and the incredible power that it had for change in the lives of our youth not to be forgotten.

Here’s a copy of the interview:

Stanley Tookie Williams is the cofounder of the Crips gang and has been living on death row at San Quentin since 1981.During this time he has dedicated his life to ending gang warfare, eaerning him five (2001, 2022, 2003, 2004 and 2005) Nobel Peace Prize nominations and four (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005) Nobel nominations for literature. He is the coauthor of nine books with Barbara Cottman Becnel: Life in Prison and Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence, an eight-book series for children. He has also written his memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption. His transformation into an advocate for peace and education was the subject of last year’s Golden Globe-nominated cable TV feature Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story starring Jamie Foxx.

Interview by Susan Shields

WHEN AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE BOOKS FOR CHILDREN?
For me, writing children’s books was the evolutionary process of my redemption and transition. I wanted–and needed–to warn children about this path of self-destruction.

HAVE YOU CONSIDERED WRITING BOOKS FOR TEENAGERS?
I have written the book Life in Prison, whihc is primarily for middle school level teenagers–and there will be more books for them. Critical thinking persuaded me to begin with the children, then teenagers and, eventually, adults.

HOW HAS YOUR IDENTITY CHANGED THROUGH THE DIFFERENT PHASES OF YOUR LIFE?
Throughout most of my life, I never had a real identity. After educating myself intellectually, culturally and spiritually, I discovered who I am today: a thinking Black man, not a gangster or an animal.

WHAT WOULD HAVE MADE THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE FOR YOU AS A CHILD AND TEEN T HAVE KEPT YOU FROM GETTING INTO TROUBLE?
Among other things, I believe that had I had the consistent presence of a responsible, educated, hard-working, spiritual, and caring father, it would have made a tremendous difference.

YOU WROTE IN Gangs and Self-Esteem, “It took me a lon time to learn to like myself, but I do now and it feels much better than having a bad reputation.” WHY DO KIDS IN GENERAL NOT LIKE THEMSELVES?
In many instances, it has to do with negative racial stereotypes, poor parenting, abuse, social inequality and exposure to verbal degredation. Indeed, when adults repeatedly tell a child hat he or she is worthless, eventually that child will start to believe it–and then live it. Children need encouragement.

WHAT MADE YOU LIKE YOURSELF?
I began to like myself the moment I started to change my negative behavior. It built my confidence.

ALSO FROM Gangs and Self_Esteem: “I believed that because people were afraid of mem they respected me. That was one of my biggest mistakes. When people are afraid of you, they want to hurt you before you hurt them.” WOULD YOU LIKE TO ELABORATE ON THIS?
Any form of respect earned by fear or violence will make you a target for aggression. When people fear you it’s because they worry about you harming them. Others will reason, “Let me hurt him or her before he or she hurts me.”

YOU WROTE IN Gangs and Your Neighborhood: “When you’re truly tough, you don’t worry about what other kids think about you. You care about what you think about yourself.” HOW CAN KIDS TODAY GET “TRULY TOUGHT” WITHOUT RESORTING TO VIOLENCE?
There are simple ways to be tough without resorting to violence. Here’s a brief list of true toughness:
1. True toughness is to attend school, graduate, and then enroll in college.
2. True toughness is to avoid gangs, drugs, weapons, crime, illiteracy and violence.
3. True toughness is to believe in your ability to succeed.
4. True toughness is to ignore people who say you’re dumb and worthless.
5. True toughness is being strong mentally, physically, culturally and spiritually.
6. True toughness is being able and willing to help other people, regardless of their color, race, creed or socioeconomic status.
7. True toughness us acknowledging right from wrong and behaving in a manner that will not harm you or other people.

YOU WROTE in Gangs and Your Friends: “When I was a boy, there were times when I knew that something I was going to do was bad. Just before I did it, my stomach felt strange. A voice inside my head said ‘Don’t.’ But I would do it anyway…. You can learn from my mistakes. Trust yourself.” DOES THAT STRANGE FEELING AND VOICE IN YOUR HEAD GO AWAY EVENTUALLY IF YOU KEEP DISOBEYING IT?
No. It never leaves! If that inner voice disappeared from every human being, all of us would be human automatons, robots. The feeling in the stomach is a reaction to disobeying the voice. The voice itself is the voice of reason, the higher or better part of us. As long as we exist that voice will be our conscience, warning us to do what it right.

WHAT KIND OF RESPONSE HAVE YOU RECEIVED FROM KIDS WHO HAVE READ YOUR BOOKS?
I continue to receive positive feedback. Tens of thousands of youths and students have written me or emailed my website (http://www.tookie.com) along with parents,teachers, principals, professors, counselors and others. Most of the kids claim that they are adhering to my message and that I have changed their lives for the better. Many kids who were about to join a gang email me to say that they changed their minds after reading my books or watching the move that was made about me, Redemption: the Stan Tookie Story, starring Jamie Foxx. I also receive emails from a lot of youths already in a gang who quit their gang affiliation upon reading my books or viewing Redemption.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR INTERNET PROJECT FOR STREET PEACE–LINKING AMERICAN YOUTH WITH AT-RISK YOUTH IN ZURICH, SWITZERLAND? ARE AMERICAN PROBLEMS AMONG YOUTH UNIQUE?
First, my Internet Project for Street Peace enables youths from two different countries to address social issues and exchange ideas as to how they can participate in resolving these problems. My project also includes mentoring, teaching youths themselves to be leaders and mentors among their peers. The Internet Project for Street Peace also helps youths to become computer literate.
Second, America shares a common thread with most all countries. No country is exempt from poverty, corruption, unemployment, lack of adequate housing and medical care, drugs, crime, violence, racism and gangs–all of the circumstances and conditions that support a culture of youth violence, incarceration and community destruction.

LOOKING BACK, IF YOU COULD, WHAT WOULD YOU TELL THE 7-YEAR OLD TOOKIE, THE 17-YEAR OLD TOOKIE, THE 24-YEAR OLD TOOKIE?
I would tell the 7-year old Tookie to not be in a hurry to become an adult. I would tell him to enjoy his childhood; listen to his parent–or parents–because they have the experience; study hard and obtain the highest education possible, and then use that education to help resolve social problems.
I would tell the 17-year old Tookie that every choice in life begins with him. I would warn him about the perils of gangs, drugs, violence, incarceration, death row, and death itself. I would say, “Don’t follow in my footsteps. However, the choice is yours.”I would explain to him that it’s all about him making positive choices that will prevent him from ending up in Juvenile Hall, California Youth Authority, prison, death row, hurt or killed! I would remind him that change begins with him. I would ask him not to become a victim of self-pity or a victim of the negative social conditions that surround him, like thousands of others have done. I would say, “Be a consistent survivor.Pisture your seuccess and then work towards achieving it.”
For the 24-year old Tookie I would say, “Look, you’re wasting your life. The only people benefiting from your gang-thug-criminal lifestyle are the police, judges, prosecutors, jails, prisons, death rows and morgues. You, Tookie, are becoming a modern-day slave. Though you might feel offended and are likely to deny being a slave, I can prove it. Here are the recognizable signs:
1. A modern-day slave will neglect to educate himself or herselfor to develop a legitimate trade.
2. A modern-day slave will commit robbery, theft, burglary, and other crimes against his own people–and others.
3. A modern-day slave will perpetuate self-hate, chaos, violence and senseless murder against his own people–and others.
4. A modern-day slave will buy, use and/or sell street drugs, causing his own people and others to becomes slave addicts to drugs, slaves to crime, slaves to misery and slaves to death.
5. A modern-day slave will hustle, degrade, abuse, disrespect, rape and/or prostitute women.
6. A modern-day slave will deprive his or her children of financial and/or emotional support, as well as abandon them.
7. A modern-day slave will inevitably end up incarcerated and will make no attempt to break the chains of his or her mental and physical bondage.
“Now, Tookie, I challenge you to rise above your present situation, a circumstance that can destroy your life. I challenge you to become a better ‘you’ and work to resolve your community’s social ills.”
I would also encourage a 24-year old Tookie to watch movies like Redemption and to read books like my memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption. I believe a 24-year old Tookie could empathize with the type of analysis that I made about myself in Blue Rage, Black Redemption, including my self-healing process and my redemptive efforts to assist others.

IF YOU WERE OUT OF PRISON, HOW WOULD YOU SPEND THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?
I would spend it promoting peace and helping youths as well as adults throughout America and around the world.
Amani–that’s Swahili for peace.