On September 4, the jury in the Denise Lee murder trial returned a verdict of death for the man who kidnapped, raped, and murdered her, Michael King. The next day the Sarasota Herald Tribune ran a story detailing the travails King would face on death row, such as limited access to exercise and no air conditioning:
Air conditioning is forbidden on death row, so inmates mostly keep still. “It’s awful,” said the Rev. Larry Reimer, who has visited for 27 years to minister to a death row inmate. “It is hotter there than you permit animals to be kept.”
Yes, and how was Denise Lee treated?
What on earth would inspire the Tribune to run such a story? It is advocacy, not news. It insults the victim’s family to run a puff piece about their daughter’s killer just one day after they endured an horrific trial. The Tribune waxes poetic about the plight of killers, gawkingly calling death row “still life with concrete.”
King should take note: he would do well to start writing poetry himself, as so many of these thugs do, and thus attract audiences of journalist-groupies, leftist nuns, college presidents, and minister-types who derive self-importance by chattering about the special insights they gain while peering into the souls of men who destroy other people’s lives:
[Rev. Larry] Reimer also has seen the recently arrived death row inmates. He may not know their names, but he knows the look. “The young men who’ve just come there, they look like they don’t know how they’re going to cope with this.”
In my opinion, if these ministers were really tending to killers’ souls, they wouldn’t grandstand about it. Wouldn’t the desired ethical response to killing be humility and shame? This sort of talk isn’t really about killer’s souls, though — or their coping skills. It is about the speaker positioning himself as morally superior: it is about judging and condemning the rest of us for not seeing the special spark he imagines he sees when he peers into Michael King’s eyes.
The same applies to journalists. When reporters write about death row, there is often a tone of titillation — porn or fetish — about it. You sense thrill and self-righteousness, and frissons of identification with powerfully bad men, in all the painstaking descriptions of the walls, the floors, the food, the recounted last meals. Conditions are pretty crummy for non-violent offenders in prison too — more crummy, because they are targeted by the violent ones — but small-time offenders are small potatoes. Who wants to identify with a pickpocket?
I remember one particularly disturbing article from some years back, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, in which an activist defense lawyer carried on about how he treasured this little scale-model death row cell one of his clients had crocheted for him — with a little bunk and little slippers, and so on — no mention, of course, of the little lives the man had taken to end up there, or the danger he posed to other inmates and guards.
Sure enough, it doesn’t take long for the Tribune reporter to solemnly invoke Michael King’s dietary restrictions. It’s intoxicating, a real safari through environs that would doubtlessly improve if inmates were not actually murderous sociopaths:
Their meals are delivered to them, along with the plastic sporks that are the only cutlery they can use.
And this, bizarre, detail:
The ingredients for an inmate’s last meal must cost no more than $40 and be available locally.
Then the reporter turns to Juan Melendez, who was released from death row, to describe his experience on death row. The message is clear: not only is death row terrible, but the people on it are probably innocent. To do this in the wake of King’s trial is repugnant.
Nobody thinks Michael King is innocent: it isn’t even an issue. So why didn’t the reporter interview somebody who is on death row for a crime he did commit? What happened to Melendez is a tragedy, even if he helped bring it on himself, as most of these men do, by committing other crimes and choosing bad criminal running buddies. In any case, there is no justification for aggressively bringing Melendez’ activism into a story about this vicious murderer, except that the reporter clearly feels that everyone on death row is a victim of injustice:
Juan Melendez, who was exonerated and released in January 2002 after 17 years, 8 months and one day on death row, remembers the hopelessness and the roaches and rats. He also remembers the camaraderie with other inmates. He got to know them in the exercise yard, and by chatting cell-to-cell.
They taught Melendez how to speak English. They also taught him how to get a plastic trash bag from a trusty and hang yourself with it from the towel rack that is one of a handful of furnishings in a death row cell.
“I had to wet the floor and sleep on the floor. That’s how hot it was,” Melendez said.
At 5 a.m., Melendez said, the trusties put the breakfast trays into metal slots in each cell.
“If you wait five seconds to get the tray, you ran out of luck,” he said. “The roaches beat you to it. They were waiting for breakfast, too.”
How touching: they’re English teachers. And bathetic references to hanging: one can only presume that these earnest “teachers of English, etc.” were better at killing other people than hanging themselves, because they aren’t dead, right? I’m sure I will receive angry mail accusing me of lacking empathy for these men. But why are we hearing about camaraderie among a group of men who have committed heinous crimes, in the wake of what Denise Lee suffered, without also being told about the crimes they committed?
Who cares if they are depressed? This is sentimentality predicated on disappearing victims from the story. How could the Tribune publish this one day after King’s conviction?
Well, there is “how,” and there is “why.” The “why ” comes next, with another anecdote about another killer, weirdly cobbled onto an article about Michael King:
After 14 years of legal arguments, attorneys in the south region succeeded in getting a prisoner off of death row last week.
David Lee Thomas, 43, convicted of murder and attempted robbery in Lee County in 1991, is mentally retarded — a “mitigating” fact that his defense attorneys did not raise at his trial. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled it unconstitutional to execute people who are mentally retarded.
The lead defense attorney in the Thomas case, Rachel Day, negotiated a settlement with prosecutors that will move Thomas off death row and into general population. He will serve life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years.
“He knows that serving a life sentence, the conditions will be considerably better for him than they were on death row,” Day said. “He’ll have a lot more freedom to work, to study, to walk, to exercise, than he would on death row, which is extremely confined.”
The implication is clear: merely one day after the people of Sarasota sentenced Michael King to death for his crimes, the Sarasota Herald Tribune began its campaign to oppose the will of the people and “rescue” King from death row.
Expect more stories linking King to other allegedly retarded offenders, allegedly innocent offenders, and offenders who were allegedly insufficiently represented. Expect King to join other killers who are promoted as innocent victims of a brutal American system by activists in Canada and Europe — see here for David Lee Thomas’ fan club, which makes no mention of his crime, just as the Tribune avoided all but the briefest mention of it. He was a repeat felon, of course, released from prison just prior to committing murder. His victim’s name cannot be found anywhere, but he appears as a victim in several places.
Expect Denise Amber Lee to fade from memory, as Michael King takes her place.
They’ll show us.