Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rest In Peace - Some thoughts about the Virginia Tech shootings

My friend Douglas Ian over at the Scrivener has posted a fine memorial to the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings which I commend to you.

At the risk of piling on to the media and conversational frenzy about this horrible crime, the whole media circus surrounding the aftermath brought to mind a similar event which touched me personally a decade ago.

In May 1998, at the age of 15, Kip Kinkel shot his father and mother to death and the next day opened fire on classmates in Springfield, Oregon, murdering two and injuring 25.

I grew up in neighboring Eugene, the county seat. I knew some friends from church camp who had attended Thurston High, the school where Kip attended and where he committed his crime. Our team played their team in sports - the usual interdistrict rivalries.

In 1997-98, I served as a bailiff and judicial clerk to a judge in the Circuit Court, my first post law school job. I took a fews days vacation in May of 1998 and on the first day of that vacation, in a hotel room, I chanced to see on the news my coworkers, Sheriff's Deputies I knew that worked the court, and massive media frenzy as young Kip Kinkel was hauled in to be initially arraigned by my judge. His case was subsequently specially assigned to my judge.

Shortly after coming back from vacation, my judge and his judicial assistant (i.e., secretary) both went on vacation. It was then that I got a fair taste of the ravening wolves of media in their frenzy to get information. Because the defense and the prosecution were less than forthcoming with what the media wanted (i.e., more information more often no matter how trivial), they set their minions to phone the judge's chambers to see if some hapless soul could be talked into giving out some tidbit of information. Whilst the others were away, I was the lucky one to get calls such as "Hello! This is [somebody] from CBS Evening News . . . [blah blah]."

In fact, there was a collateral lawsuit over information flow to the press. The judge had signed off on a stipulated agreement between the prosecution and defense to seal the returns on the warrants to search Mr. Kinkel's family house and school locker.

Search warrants are requested by the police on an affidavit of probable cause to search which generally identifies what they're looking for/hope to find in the search desire to seize. The warrant, issued by the judge, will usually direct what the police are authorized to search for and seize. When executed on, the police file a return affidavit showing what they actually seized pursuant to the warrant.

So the representatives of the State (the 'People') and the defense had agreed that it would be prejudicial to the administration of a fair trial for this guy if the speculative affidavits of what the police thought they might find were released into the all-pervasive national media covering the case.

A newspaper didn't think so, or at least argued that the law did not compel those rights and the risks involved to outweigh the rights of the media in its unsleeping quest to get information to the public. To be fair, there are good arguments on both sides, but the media seems to win this question in the US at least as to this sort of thing. This particular question was sorted out after my appointment at the court had ended but I think the newspaper had it's win and they unsealed those court files.

I thought about all of this, and how surreal the media attention can be, as I watched the "Today Show" set up and broadcasting from the Virginia Tech campus this morning, and felt sick as they hauled in a shy-looking female VT student who had the misfortune to also have been a high-school student at Columbine H.S. when those shootings occurred. I wondered if some energized 'go-getter' at the network followed a hot tip that there was such a student and figured it was such a great bit they had to chase it down and get her on camera. Perhaps she volunteered herself, but she didn't seem like the spotlight desiring type, at least for the view moments I could stomach the interview.

I remember Mr. Kinkel coming into court, a thin stripling of a kid. I think it was for his arraignment on a superseding indictment from the Grand Jury (the first arraignment on such cases comes from a DA's Information, but usually they get the Grand Jury to issue the indictment to avoid the otherwise-required probable cause hearing). It may have been for the finding that he was going to be tried as an adult. Whatever that proceeding was for, I just remember distinctly this little child whom you could've pushed over with a feather, his sad and confused eyes, and wondered how it was all possible.

Kinkel later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to several consequetive sentences, totaling 111 years without possibility of parole.

I saw other, less newsworthy murderers in the court that year. The three youths (two boys and a girl) who were involved in the robbery and beating death of the girl's Alzheimer's afflicted grandfather. The plan to 'knock him out' and get his wallet while he veged in front of the TV got out of hand and one of the boys killed him with the old man's own intricately carved wooden cane. Poor man didn't die quickly, tho' - in pain he staggered to the phone and tried to call someone as blood poured from his head. The crime scene photos showed his blood-stained fingerprints smeared across the keypad where he'd dipped his hand in his own blood from his head and then tried to dial. He let the phone down and wandered to his bed, lay down and bled to death in his bed.

Then there was the group of 'street youth' who decided to have a stomping party because they believed one of their friends who claimed that a young man who was camped down by the river had raped her. The young man was sort of a transient, maybe more like a summer hitchhiker/backpacker traveling the I-5 corridor as many do in the finer weather - a 'free soul.' Enraged at the story, the gang of kids went out in the night and invaded his camp and had a boot party on him. He was so wounded he couldn't escape and was still there when they came back several hours later to finish the job in the early morning darkness. Alas, but the girl recanted her rape story. Turns out some of the kids involved in the gang were but 'pretend' street waifs who would be dropped off by their relatively affluent parents for the weekend downtown and picked up later.

There was Compton, a Springfield methamphetamine user, who killed the 3-year-old daughter of his live-in girlfriend. The girl, whose body was found in a grave near Sweet Home in 1997, had been bound, shocked and sexually assaulted. Prosecutors involved in the case called it the worst case of child abuse they had ever seen.

These passed through our court. In our courthouse, there were others as well that year.

There was the truly evil murders by Conan Wayne Hale and Jonathan Wayne Susbauer, who were convicted of murdering Hale's ex-girlfriend, Kristal Bendele, 15; her boyfriend, Brandon Williams, 15; and a friend, Patrick Finley, 13, in 1995. Bendele and Williams were naked, their bodies piled beside a gravel road. Nearby, the body of Finley was dressed in his shorts and T-shirt, Bendele's pants and a rabbit fur coat. Hale and Susbauer blamed each other. Susbauer was sentenced to life in prison as part of a cooperation deal, I believe. There was a lot of testimony the Hale trial about the sexual nature of the crime, how Hale posed his victims with each other before he shot them. It was Brandon Williams, I think, that lay on the log landing for many, many hours before succumbing to death. I watched a little of that trial . . . Hale, unlike Kinkel, seemed malevolent even sitting at his trial.
Hale gained international attention when jail officials taped a conversation he had with a Roman Catholic priest. Catholic officials sued, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that County officials had violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Civil Rights Act. Hale was sentenced the same month that Kinkel committed his crimes. Interestingly, I was asked to run an errand for the judge in that case: to deliver the signed and sealed death warrant for Hale to the Sheriff. A little ink sometimes is quite powerful.

But none of these had quite the media-darling impact of a multiple shooting spree at a school, like Kinkel. The national media just fell all over itself for that one.

A lot of ink is getting spilled, and will get spilled, and words spewed onto the airwaves about 'what it all means' and 'how do we avoid this happening.'

Folks - murder happens EVERY SINGLE DAY. Today/Yesterday in Baghdad around 200 people were killed in car bomb attacks. Yet our media will spend countless hours today trying to get the latest tidbit about the VT shootings, a new angle, a new spin. Today 3 Christians in Turkey were found murdered, execution style, in their bible-publishing shop. Of course we can go on and on and on and on.

What it means is that there is evil loose in this world, that we are generally fallen and not 'enlightened.' The VT shootings were a crime and great tragedy. Let us pray for the peace, salvation, and visitation of the families of the honored dead and the repose for those killed, and recovery for the wounded. Let us look at our own deeds and cry 'Lord have mercy!' There is but One who can lead us to where this does not happen, but it is a hard and narrow way.

And let's turn the TV off for a while too.

Rest in peace, fallen of Virginia Tech.


Blogger D. Ian Dalrymple said...

A powerful and timely post, H.

On the one hand it's not surprising that we pay more attention to the 33 fallen here at home than to the 200 in Baghdad. On the other hand, it's also more than a little appalling.

I remember the Kinkel shootings. I was living in Seattle at the time. It was only several years ago, however, that the story was indelibly marked into my memory, after watching the Frontline episode on the murders. What a distressing piece of television that was. The fruit of that media harassment, for good or ill, I suppose.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Hilarius said...


No doubt we should pay attention to what occured at Virginia Tech, especially if you live in Virginia. I worry about how much worldwide attention there is . . . whilst we are numb to the sufferings of the Iraqis, the Sudanese, etc., etc. I suppose it's the same sickening feeling and dreadful fascination we had with the Beslan episode.

Whenever the big media outlets turn their gaze to focus on one thing, many other things get excluded. A great example of the effect of decisionmaking in news content is the documentary Control Room where the differing views of the early part of the Iraq campaign are shaped by what the Arab and Western media outlets decide to cover as much as what the public relations personnel of the US and Iraqi regimes put out for consumption.

Stalin was NOT right in claiming that the death of one was a tragedy and the death of millions a statistic . . . each death is a tragedy. So many go unmemorialized and forgotten, except to God.

What struck me then about the Kinkel matter was actually his older sister, who was away at college and somehow bore up to stand by her brother and visit him in jail awaiting trial without necessarily condoning anything, and simultaneously deal with being the executor of her parents' estate and the potential for claims against that estate by the victims of the deceased parents' child, Kip. She seemed remarkably resilient in the face of such great tragedy. I sometimes wonder about her, how she is. I wonder about a lot of the people that came through the courts during 'my watch.'

Lord, have mercy.

4:17 PM  
Blogger D. Ian Dalrymple said...

I recall that Kip's sister co-operated with the Frontline documentary as well. Her commentary was fascinating. Equally fascinating -if not more so- was her (as you said) resilience, and her apparent adjustment to the horrifyingly altered facts of her life.

1:35 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home