Murder changes lives. Murder takes lives and not only lives of the ones who are killed. To have dealt with murder sticks on you and informs everything. The finite nature of life is not revealed gradually, but like a bone to be set. Jarring. Painful. Quick. This is true for victims of crime. This is true for victims’ families. This is true for perpetrators and their families as well. The latter suffers a pain that lingers and stays. It doesn’t fade like memories that can consume and fester. It lingers in everyday interaction. People who commit murder have families – families that often love them and care for them beyond their one action that altered a universe for so many. People who commit murder are often kids, whose brains haven’t fully developed yet, who are impulsive, emotional, influenced and informed by their own baggage and broken homes. Courts in the United States in the last 15 years have begun to recognize that children are different and must be sentenced as such. But the logistics of how that plays out for juvenile offenders is a Kafkaesque labyrinth. As a person from a family where murder came to define everything, I still struggle with this. I struggle with justice and what exactly that means.
I was nine. I remember being in the family car going over to my grandparents’ house, which was just a mile from where we lived in a small town in the middle of almost-nowhere, Missouri. My mom was crying and emotional. When we got there I remember being in the bathroom just thinking to myself. It was cold, and one of my favorite things as a kid was taking a blanket over a heater vent and just taking in all the warmth. I was doing this and thinking about my brother, and what he might have done to bring this sadness. It wouldn’t be the first time. My brother was kind to me. I may have been the only one he really loved at the time. He was 17. He was troubled. Dad had left just a year prior, and my brother had a very different childhood than me, it seemed. Dad was off-and-on in the picture. He worked 30 jobs in a 5 year period. His top priority for paychecks was marijuana and getting high before family. Mom was just a kid herself when my brother was born and was immature and reckless in her own ways. By the time I came around, they were in their mid-20s, settling down, finding Jesus and trying their best to raise a family. Strife was still there, though. I remember waking up to fights. I never saw anything. Just screaming. So much screaming at times. It was too much. It was too much for anybody, and Dad went four states away to be closer to his own family and his home before he followed my mom and her family to Missouri.
But my brother saw fights. He saw my mother’s shirt get ripped off from my father. I believe he called my grandparents at 9 or 10 to come get myself and him. I would have been 2. He was angry. As I said, he was troubled. Teenage life was delinquent. He got involved in drugs. He got involved with the wrong friends. He lost himself to these things – and to violence. He lost himself to thoughts that seemed to come from other places not from himself. He identified so much with the movie and book A Clockwork Orange that he began to talk in a faux British accent. So in my mind, that night laying on the bathroom floor under a blanket of warmth, I thought about some of these things. Not all. I was 9. I didn’t have the full picture. I only had glimpses of what I learned as I got older. I knew drugs. I assumed drugs. I was wrong.
My brother was in jail. I remember visiting and sharing conversations on a phone between glass barriers. He asked if I watched Saturday Night’s Main Event or whatever wrestling program was on that weekend. We joked, I’m sure. We joked a lot growing up. We spent a lot of time together just him and I because of absent parents, either because of work or just immaturity on their part. We watched Night Flight. We watched Monty Python. These were sacred times for me, because I loved my brother, and now he was on the other side of these bars, and everything was loud and clanky and septic and unclean and I just didn’t understand.
I don’t remember being told he was in jail for murder. My mom says it took place at the lawyer’s office, and that I cried and cried and just kept crying. This will be a recurring theme along with burial of emotions. I was out of school for the entire month of December. I came back to whispers and withdrawn eyes. I was a quiet kid already, but it seemed like everybody went out of their way to get away from me. Or to bully me. That didn’t happen often, in all honesty. But I still remember the kid on the bus that did, and being told I was a satan worshipper. This was the mid-to-late 80s, and satanic panic had reached a peak in the country. We’re there elements of that to the crime? I won’t do details, but beyond a group of kids who took drugs, listened to heavy metal music, and were filled with so much rage, it was as much of a factor as Marilyn Manson a decade later for school shootings. It was there, certainly, but complete pictures take encyclopedias, not news blubs. However, it told a story, and people need easy narratives to explain how horrible things can happen in their precious towns. It was a racket that eventually brought Geraldo Rivera in town for a late-night NBC special. One of my brother’s co-defendants and family members were interviewed. My mom sent me to the skating rink that night so that she could watch it without having to worry about me seeing anything. And of course, the people working the skating rink had it on a smaller black-and-white tv. I remember glances at me, and turning away. Never stares, but certainly looks.
My brother’s trial happened a few months later. It was a cut-and-dry case with a few exceptions. The state’s expert witness had to be dropped and moved over to the defense because in his examinations, he found a lot of mental illness and not the signs of culpability needed for a guilty verdict. But it would be hard for a jury to find him not guilty, and he was found guilty. Sentencing happened pretty quickly after that. I was brought in as a witness for that phase. I was still 9 – just 2 weeks or so short of my 10th birthday. It was a sympathy plea to the jury as he was facing the options of life in prison without parole or the death penalty. I was prepped beforehand. My brother’s attorney coached me on a list of questions he was going to ask me, and frankly, my only job was to be a 9 year old boy on a witness stand. I remember being sworn in. I raised my left hand because I still mixed those up. I was 9. He only got one question out.
“These 12 people here, they want to kill your brother…”
I looked over at them, and again, it was the same downward glances I was use to from kids at school, or volunteer workers or it seemed anywhere I went. The prosecutor objected. The judge overruled the question, and there were no further questions. I got out of there. I ran to my mom in the hallway and just cried, and cried, and cried. She told me she was proud. She told me I did well. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s an odd burden to feel like you have your brother’s life in your hands. The burden of being the good kid. The one that doesn’t ruffle feathers. That stays silent to the point of withdrawing more and more into themselves – that’s what I had, starting at nine. Still do, honestly.
He was given a life sentence. We visited weekly and drove 4 hours both ways every Sunday, and eventually every other Sunday, for what seemed like years. Keep this in mind throughout – I love my brother. I love my family. I love being with my family, like any kid would. We joked. We laughed. He eventually turned me onto music, to punk, to industrial, to all that teen angst music that came to define my own teenage life. He was a good brother to me. He always was. But he also set things in motion that came to define everything about me. And defining one’s self through extraneous actions outside of one’s self – probably not the healthiest of things for one’s development.
Changes happened for my brother slowly. Maybe 10 years into his sentence. Buddhist nuns began to visit the prison and my brother took an interest in Tibetan Buddhism. My brother eventually became a Buddhist, to the point of taking monastic vows. The Bodhisattva is a being who itself has achieved enlightenment but willfully choose to continue the cycle of samsara and birth and death until all sentient beings achieve this as well. He has taken a vow to do good, and to continue to do good until it is no longer necessary. It is a monastic vow just as much as penance. He became a facilitator of the State’s Impact of Crime on Victims Class, a class my brother attributes to changing his mindset just as much as Buddhism. It’s a weekend class held every month which culminates in crime victims – parents of murdered children, women raped, assault victims –presenting as a panel what crime has done to them and how it has impacted their daily lives. It’s a powerful program, and my brother has taught it for over 20 years now. He has become friends with victims of murdered children and has brought clarity to many who have initially only thought they were padding their release paperwork. He has brought change. He has cultivated a stone garden, to coin a phrase of his. He has also worked video production for the last 13 years, putting together from the ground up institutional television programming. Projects are often PSA in nature, or graduation ceremonies for Puppies on Parole, a program of bringing shelter dogs in for training with certain inmates to prepare them for forever homes. Just a few weeks ago, he put together a 30 second promo for the Governor’s Fall Festival.
He has done all this with a life without parole sentence, a sentence deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2012. Starting with Simmons v. Roper, which held that juveniles cannot be executed because juveniles are to be held to different standards, rulings have come to change the landscape created by the “superpredator” laws of the late 80s and mid 90s. Graham v. Florida held that juveniles who committed non-homicide offences cannot be held on life without parole sentences. Miller v. Alabama held that juveniles who committed homicide cannot be held on a mandatory life without parole sentence. Life without parole is still on the books for juveniles who commit homicide, but certain criteria have to be met and individualized and said sentence should only be reserved for the rare and uncommon juvenile who is “permanently incorrigible or irretrievably depraved”. Montgomery v. Louisiana finally came and said that this ruling is a substantial change in sentencing a class of offenders, and is therefore retroactive to offenders who have had this sentence since their incarceration. This is when my brother’s sentence became unconstitutional.
Missouri itself has answered this by making juveniles who have served 25 years on a life sentence eligible for parole consideration, but regardless of the Supreme Court explicitly stating this sentence is to be rare, the vast majority of juvenile offenders who have gone before the parole board have been denied. A federal lawsuit was eventually filed, and when, though discovery, it was found that parole officers were often engaging in funny word games among themselves during these hearings, safeguards were put into place to show these hearing to be compliant with Supreme Court rulings.
My brother has had a hearing. He was held back 4 years and was scheduled to go before the parole board again in 2021. He was naturally upset. He’s done a lot of work. He’s done a lot of good. He felt he was a good candidate. He is a good candidate. But he did so much damage, and in my 30s I wrestled with these reconciliations. I took my son to visit him routinely up until a few years ago. I told my son when he was about 11 where he was and why there were guards around. My son was naïve to the whole experience. He is a wonderful kid, but the world will treat him differently for its own particular and horrible reasons. He lives in a world where his quirks and oddities are seen as just that and are shuffled aside. And he desperately wants to fit in as any teenager does. The more he grows up, the more I don’t worry about him becoming my brother, or making decisions my brother did as a teen. I worry about him becoming a victim – of becoming a person taken advantage as my brother’s victim was. And this angers me.
When my brother called to express his disappointment and frustration, I told him these things – probably for the first time. I made him tell me what the victim was like – who he was, what kind of life did he have. What kind of person he was. Because he had a family who is now having to face parole hearings and things that rip open whatever sense of closer they may have had. That is tough. I recognize how tough that is. We talked. I think he understood where I was coming from. We have a good relationship. He is a mentor and a friend and an idol in so many ways, but he is human. He is all too human.
As I go through my 40s, with a wife, a 14 year old son, a year and a half old daughter, I recognize how much of this I need to let out. Most people’s business is behind closed doors. Skeletons in the closet. All those clichés. When your pain is splayed out in front of everyone and everyone’s judgment and leering, you withdraw – you hide. I lived in my head most of my childhood, and frankly was still imagining other fantasy worlds well into my teen years for escape. Everything became about escape, including my own life. I fear that anger inside. I’m moody. I lash out. I am not a pleasant person at times, regardless of this public persona of easygoing kindness. And there is truth to all personas, but the struggle to reconcile all of this is real.
I come back to injustice. And there is a lot of injustice here. A person is dead. Kids can be locked away for the rest of their lives while adults who perhaps make similar decisions walk away with deals. Such is the nature of justice. It is just as much arbitrary as it is blind. Families are affected and carry these burdens. This is what murder does. A person goes away, but their void effects so much, like concentric circles spilling out and spilling out. I never even met the victim, but I am defined by him. And to be defined by actions of 30 plus years ago – to be defined by things that happen at 9, by things out of my control. Those are things that are in desperate need of reconciliation.
Give voice to pain.
Make yourself whole.