Goodness and Evil
Goodness and Evil
Abstract and Keywords
Explores the nature of goodness and evil in relation to criminal conduct and inmates. The chapter includes a discussion of crime causation, case examples, and realistic parole board hearing dialogue.
In each of us, two natures are at war—the good and the evil.
All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer.
But in our own hands lies the power to choose—what we want most to be we are.
—ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
AT 8:00 A.M. my parole board colleagues and I started our day in the bowels of what is known in Rhode Island as the Intake Service Center. The ISC is located on the grounds of a massive state-operated tract known as the Howard Complex. This campus-like setting includes a large collection of Victorian stone structures, early twentieth-century colonial-revival brick buildings, and contemporary facilities that serve incarcerated criminals, juvenile offenders, psychiatric patients, infirm elderly, and people with disabilities.
Often when I drove to the prisons located within the Howard Complex, I thought about how I was part of a long line of people who have served vulnerable people on these same grounds over hundreds of years. In Rhode Island and other colonial-era communities, vagrants and others who did not belong were “warned out” and escorted past the town line; those who lived in the community faced various forms of public humiliation or imprisonment, especially if they were considered culprits, impoverished, or diseased. By the mid-nineteenth century, Rhode Island, like a number of its neighboring states, had established almshouses for the poor and asylums for people with mental illness, described by some as social sanitation.
As was common in that era, Rhode Island selected a pastoral site that, in the horse-and-buggy age, was far—in terms of travel time— (p.41) from the urban center in Providence about nine miles to the north. Eighteen frame buildings were constructed in 1870, and that November 118 mental patients were admitted. In 1872 work began on the workhouse and house of correction, the forerunner to the state prisons where I worked.
The Adult Correctional Institute was completed in 1878 as the State Prison and Providence County Jail. The building contained two wings of three-tiered cell blocks flanking an octagonal central administration building. The 250 cells were arranged facing either east or west for unobstructed sunlight and had corridors on two sides so that both sides of each cell were accessible to guards. The prison was opened under the supervision of Warden General Nelson Viall. He had served as commander of a black regiment in the Civil War and personally landscaped the prison grounds.
More than a century later my colleagues and I assembled for the day’s hearings at the Intake Service Center, which opened in 1982. I waited for the other board members to arrive in the lobby as I stood directly in front of the prison’s reception desk, which was staffed by two correctional officers. I greeted an amiable inmate who was mopping the floor in the lobby area. I recognized him from an earlier parole hearing.
As I waited, I observed a middle-aged woman who was speaking with one of the correctional officers. She held a hanger with clothes she wanted prison personnel to deliver to her son. I overheard her tell the officer that her son was being held without bail on an armed robbery charge and was scheduled to appear in court the following day. The only clothes he had for the court hearing were the shorts and T-shirt he was wearing when he was arrested. The mother said she wanted her son to look good for his court appearance. The woman started crying as she handed the clothes to the officer. The officer reached under his desk and handed her a tissue.
When the entire board had arrived, we passed through a secure metal door that slammed shut behind us, signed the log-in register that an officer in the control booth slipped to us on a clipboard through a narrow opening in the bulletproof glass that separated us, and traded our personal security badges for blue institutional badges that gave us access to the prison’s most secure locations. The officer (p.42) also handed me a panic button that the board could use to summon emergency assistance should an inmate lose control during a hearing or if some other emergency were to arise. We walked through another metal security door before we wended our way through a labyrinth of hallways that led past a series of administrative offices, inmate housing units, and segregation units.
Our escort, a correctional officer, led us up several steps and screamed, “Sixteen!” into an intercom to alert an unseen correctional officer to remotely unlock the door (number 016) that allowed us access to a hallway leading to a high-tech video courtroom.
The Intake Service Center holds offenders from throughout Rhode Island and serves the same functions as most city and county jails. Rhode Island is one of only six states that centralize their jail facilities. This building has the capacity to house 1,118 male inmates who have been charged with crimes and are held before trial. The prison also incarcerates newly sentenced inmates who are awaiting transfer to other state prisons; these new inmates are screened and interviewed before being placed in other high security, maximum security, medium security, and minimum security facilities.
The Intake Service Center also houses inmates who are in protective custody—inmates who have to be segregated from the general population because they have enemies in the state’s various prisons or are otherwise vulnerable to serious harassment or threats. Word of an enemy’s incarceration can spread instantly; without precautions long-held grudges and vendettas can erupt in a flash. Spontaneous attacks sometimes occur in prison work areas, corridors, dining halls, shower rooms, and recreational yards, often with dreadful consequences.
Seasoned inmates who are concerned about enemies in the prison population know to never let down their guard. I have seen a telltale inmate head gesture thousands of times: alert inmates swivel their heads, constantly scanning their surroundings for any immediate threat.
(p.43) Other inmates must be segregated because they are cooperating with police or prosecutors and may have testified, or plan to testify, against suspects, accomplices, or other criminal court defendants, some of whom are incarcerated as well. Being known as a snitch in prison can lead to assault or even death.
Occasionally inmates need to be placed in protective custody simply because of their notoriety. Many inmates watch the news; they will know if a new inmate is a well-known youth-group leader convicted of child molestation, a rival gang member charged with the multiple murders of their acquaintances, a former police officer convicted of domestic violence, or a state legislator charged with accepting a bribe. Typically these individuals must be segregated for their own safety.
The Intake Service Center houses a high-tech video courtroom that the parole board uses to conduct hearings with inmates who are incarcerated out of state. Some Rhode Island inmates are transferred to out-of-state prisons because they are considered serious management problems. Many of these inmates have been disciplined repeatedly, usually for violent assaults against correctional officers or other inmates. Some assaults take the form of fistfights and stabbings. Occasionally inmate A murders inmate B. We conducted one video parole hearing for an out-of-state inmate who was in segregation for ninety days because he threw a bag filled with urine and feces at a correctional officer.
A small number of inmates are transferred out of state because they are in the federal Witness Security Program. One parole board calendar included a video hearing for an out-of-state inmate whose location was hidden even from us. Ordinarily we knew ahead of time where an out-of-state inmate was located, including the state and particular prison facility. Before most of these hearings we typically received written summaries of the inmate’s disciplinary record, mental health status, and program participation, all listed on the out-of-state prison’s letterhead. For this hearing, however, every report we received was deliberately camouflaged. The reports were sent through, and used the letterhead of, a federal office in Washington, DC. The inmate was in the federal Witness Security Program because (p.44) he had provided extensive information to police investigators and prosecutors about a sex-trafficking ring.
As I read the copious files, I learned that this inmate was now forty-nine years old and had been incarcerated for slightly more than eight years of his twenty-five-year sentence. He had been arrested and charged with helping to organize a thriving sex-trafficking ring on the East Coast. The inmate and his colleagues recruited underage girls by luring them, through websites and social media, with promises of lucrative jobs, love, shelter, and support. The ring targeted girls who were from troubled circumstances, some of whom lived in foster and group homes and were in state custody because they were victims of abuse and neglect.
The documents I reviewed indicated that the inmate had decided to turn on his former cronies and testify against them, mainly to negotiate a shorter prison sentence. As a result of the inmate’s subsequent courtroom testimony, the federal government successfully prosecuted three career criminals who had exploited dozens of young girls. The inmate was rewarded with a five-year reduction in the state sentence he had received following his conviction.
In this particular case, in advance of the hearing I had read a chilling collection of police reports, victim statements, and court transcripts. One victim told police that she had been beaten when she did not produce a large enough wad of cash after a slow night. Another victim shared grisly details with the police about how her pimp had branded her arm with a hot iron and tattooed her neck to prove that he owned her. I learned that this sex-trafficking ring had continued for nearly four years before police were able to gather enough evidence to shut it down and arrest multiple perpetrators.
Before the hearing I also read a long and detailed letter that the inmate had written to the parole board begging for his release. In one passage he reflected on his decision to get involved in the sex-trafficking trade:
As I lay here on my bunk staring through the narrow window in my cell, I can’t quite believe I let my life sink so low. When I got caught up in the sex trafficking all I could think about was the easy money and the fast (p.45) life. Every day was an adventure, a real rush. I was pretty much my own boss and got whatever I wanted—money, drugs, sex, cars, you name it. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t think for even a moment about all the lives I was ruining, including my own. This is a real wake-up call for me.
I’ve been getting counseling here, and I’m beginning to realize what led me down this horrible path. I don’t want to make excuses, but I’m now understanding for the first time in my life why I’ve messed things up so badly. You may not know this about me, but my father was in and out of my life while I was growing up. He was very involved in organized crime. I always thought criminal activity was normal. When I was a child I would sometimes eavesdrop and hear my father and his buddies talk about the drug deals, the stolen car rings, the loan-sharking—it just went on and on. For me as a kid, this was real exciting. It wasn’t until recently that I began to realize that this is not how most normal people live. I just didn’t know any better.
I always had trouble in school. I hated class and had lots of difficulty doing the schoolwork. I dropped out of high school the first chance I got. I was young and stupid, and just figured I would be able to do just fine hustling on the street, just like my dad.
I can’t believe I got involved in this racket. I feel very guilty about taking advantage of all those girls. At the time I didn’t really care much about them; I just figured I was giving them a way out of their horrible circumstances. Most of them were in bad shape to begin with, living on the street, in foster homes, using drugs, whatever. Somehow I convinced myself I was doing them a favor.
Now I know how twisted my thinking was. I’m sure I made their situations even worse. I know a couple of the girls even tried to commit suicide, things were so bad, and lots of these girls got addicted to drugs. That’s on me, and I have to live with that.
When I meet with you next month I hope I can convince you that I’ve really changed. I know you hear this from inmates all the time. I swear to you it’s true in my case.
The inmate’s letter seemed quite sincere and insightful. Yet, while sincere remorse and insight are essential, they are not a “get out of (p.46) jail free” card, particularly given the heinousness of the inmate’s crime. There is no guarantee that the inmate’s remorse and insight are for real.
One of the enduring challenges for me—and, I dare say, any parole board member—was being fair in the face of evil acts. My work in prison led me to think a lot about what evil means and about whether some people are truly evil.
Of course lots of people have long considered these questions. The concept of evil conjures up images of morally reprehensible, pernicious acts.1 Most major faith traditions assume that evil acts entail some kind of intention and choice (free will). According to Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, “Killing is evil, lying is evil, slandering is evil, abuse is evil, gossip is evil, envy is evil, hatred is evil, to cling to false doctrine is evil; all these things are evil. And what is the root of evil? Desire is the root of evil, illusion is the root of evil.”
In Hinduism the concept of dharma, or righteousness, divides the world into good and evil. The main emphasis in Hinduism is on bad action rather than bad people. The Hindu holy text, the Bhagavad Gita, speaks of the balance of good and evil. When good and evil are out of balance, divine incarnations arrive to help to restore this balance.
Within Islam things that are perceived as evil or bad are either natural events (natural disasters or illnesses) or caused by individuals’ choices to disobey Allah’s orders. In Christianity evil is any action, thought, or attitude that is contrary to the character or will of God. Satan brings evil and temptation and is known as the deceiver who leads humanity astray. In Judaism evil is not considered part of God’s creation but comes into existence through humans’ bad actions. Human beings have the ability to choose good over evil actions.
During my career I have met inmates who have committed among the most unspeakable, evil crimes. Lauren Whalen was a twenty-five-year-old mother of a one-year-old boy when she and the father of her child were arrested and charged with sexually abusing their son. I read the graphic police reports before conducting Whalen’s parole (p.47) board hearing at the maximum security women’s prison. I could barely breathe. According to the police and prosecutors, Whalen and her boyfriend videotaped themselves engaging in various sexual acts with each other and their infant son and then sold the tapes on the Internet to pornography purveyors. According to one painfully disturbing passage in the police report, Whalen performed oral sex on her son while her boyfriend videotaped the sexual act.
Whalen was charged with first degree sexual molestation and child abuse. She entered a nolo contendere plea (Latin for “I do not wish to contend”), an option for criminal court defendants willing to accept conviction without admitting guilt. The judge sentenced Whalen to twenty years in prison; under Rhode Island law she became eligible for parole after serving one-third of her sentence, which was six and two-thirds years.
I had braced myself for this hearing. Whalen entered the room in her green prison uniform. She was diminutive, wore glasses, and had short-cropped hair. She looked so completely ordinary to me that I had a hard time grasping that Whalen was capable of such a hideous crime. She was not the monster I had imagined, at least by appearance.
Whalen and her attorney took their seats at the head of the table. As is customary, we invited her lawyer to make an opening statement.
Members of the parole board, Lauren Whalen is not here today to defend what she did to her son. She knows there is no excuse. With the benefit of hindsight and several years of mental health counseling, Lauren now understands what led her to commit these depraved acts. She has lost everything. Her parental rights were terminated by the court, her immediate family disowned her, and, of course, she lost her freedom.
We are here today to petition this board to release Lauren so that she can continue healing in a residential program that treats women with major psychiatric and substance abuse problems. We are not asking for leniency; rather, we are asking you to take the time to look beyond the horrible details in this case and to understand Lauren as a person. She is not the monster that appears in the police reports. She is a human being with a tortured past that led to what she fully understands (p.48) were heinous acts. There’s a backstory here, and we think it’s relevant to the decision you must make as a board.
Lauren was born in Trenton, New Jersey. When she was two years old, she was placed in foster care after her mother was arrested on prostitution and drug charges. Lauren never knew her father.
Between ages two and fifteen, Lauren lived with five different foster families. When she was thirteen, Lauren moved to Rhode Island to live with a cousin. Unfortunately that didn’t work out.
Shortly after her fifteenth birthday, the child welfare department in Rhode Island moved Lauren to a group home for adolescent girls, where she lived until she became an adult at age eighteen. At that point Lauren moved in with her then-boyfriend, whom she met through a mutual friend.
That relationship lasted only six months. It ended when Lauren’s boyfriend was arrested for assaulting her. Following that relationship, Lauren became involved with several other men who also sexually abused her.
Members of the board, I share these details with you to help you understand how Lauren’s chronic and relentless trauma history contributed to her criminal conduct. In the packet I prepared for the board, you will see copies of three different psychiatric and psychological assessments conducted when Lauren was twelve, fourteen, and eighteen years old. Each of these mental health professionals reached similar conclusions independent of one another: Lauren suffers from severe attachment issues and bipolar disorder. She also tends to self-medicate with drugs to cope with the horror in her life. The reports note that Lauren has never lived with a normal family, has a lifelong history of abuse and trauma, and is so eager to be loved that she tends to become involved with people who pay attention to her but who ultimately exploit her.
And that’s what happened in this case. Lauren’s codefendant, the father of her child, has a significant criminal record. William has served time for breaking and entering, assault with a deadly weapon, receiving stolen goods, narcotics possession and distribution, and credit card fraud. For him, Lauren was a means to an end; he used her like a puppeteer uses a puppet. The record shows that William introduced Lauren to narcotics and manipulated her, while Lauren was under the (p.49) influence of drugs, to abuse their son. This was not Lauren’s idea, and she is horrified that she reached a point in her life where she engaged in such unconscionable behavior.
As you will hear from Lauren herself, she is filled with guilt and remorse. But for her psychiatric vulnerabilities and trauma history, this crime would not have occurred. Lauren needs help, and lots of it. For her, additional time in prison is not the answer.
The chair of the parole board then invited Whalen to speak. She spoke so softly and meekly that we had to ask her several times to speak up. My hunch is that Whalen was so filled with shame and humiliation that speaking above a whisper seemed nearly impossible. She reiterated much of what her attorney said about her horrific trauma history. Whalen’s affect was flat; she seemed shut down. The parole board simply did not have much to work with. In an odd way I felt badly for Whalen, who seemed downright pathetic. I knew she needed lots of help.
On its face Whalen’s crime was about as evil as evil gets. There is no denying that a mother who engages in fellatio with her infant son has crossed a moral line that should never be crossed. Yet this stark black-and-white view, while certainly understandable in emotional terms, fails to incorporate the multiple shades of gray that seep into the vast majority of parole board cases. Underneath the raw horror involved in so many inmates’ crimes are complex, multilayered nuances that help me understand—although not necessarily forgive—evil acts.
I had to work hard to feel charitable toward Whalen. After she and her attorney left the hearing room, we talked at length about her vulnerabilities. But we focused especially on her horrific sexual abuse of her infant son. In good conscience I could not vote to parole Whalen in light of the depravity of her crime, although I understood—at least I think I understood—how her trauma-filled upbringing had led to her unspeakable crime. My colleagues agreed, and we denied her parole by a unanimous vote.
Factoring in the ways in which so many inmates’ dreadful pre-incarceration life circumstances contributed to their crimes was important to me. Attorneys call these mitigating factors. Sometimes (p.50) I had difficulty appreciating them, as in the case of Robert Blane. Blane, thirty-six, had been sentenced to twenty-five years for arson. When I first met Blane, he seemed like evil dressed up in a khaki prison uniform; I pictured Blane carefully setting the fire that burned his victims so severely that they could barely function. It was hard for me to listen to one of the victims describe his daily and nightly pain.
At the time of his arrest Blane worked for a man who owned seven rental properties in Providence and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. According to the police report, fire department investigators concluded that arson was the cause of a devastating fire at one of the properties where Blane worked as a maintenance man. The police report stated that fire erupted in the six-unit building around 10:30 A.M. toward the back entrance of the property’s basement. The fire quickly spread through the building’s stairway; the building was a total loss.
Fire investigators found evidence in the basement of a Molotov cocktail, a common incendiary device used by arsonists. Molotov cocktails are often comprised of a glass container filled with a flammable liquid; a wick extends from the opening. When lighted and thrown against a hard surface, the bottle breaks and sprays the liquid, creating a fireball; fire can spread as fast as one hundred feet per second. In this case investigators found evidence that Blane had taped a packet filled with a hypergolic mixture (one that ignites spontaneously when mixed with another substance) of sugar and potassium chlorate to the outside of a bottle and had added sulfuric acid to the flammable liquid inside the bottle. When the bottle broke, investigators said, the acid reacted with the sugar and chlorate to create a hot flame that ignited the liquid. Two of the building’s tenants, a five-year-old child and his father, suffered extensive third-degree burns that required multiple surgeries.
On the day of Blane’s hearing we met with the child’s father, Alexis Ronaldo. The parole board customarily met crime victims during the morning of the day of the inmate’s scheduled parole hearing. Ronaldo limped into the hearing room in the board’s administrative offices.
Alexis Ronaldo sat down at the head of our long table and explained that he had difficulty walking because of scar tissue that had formed on his legs as a result of the fire. I noticed that his hands and (p.51) a portion of his face were also badly scarred. We greeted him and explained that we wanted to hear how the crime had affected his life and whether he opposed or supported Blane’s parole.
It’s hard to know where to begin. This whole experience has changed my life. Every single day I stare in the mirror and am reminded of the fire. Every day I stare down at my legs and am reminded of the fire. Every day my body aches when I try to do the simplest things. I’m on so many pain medications it’s hard for me to keep them straight. Sometimes I wish I had died in the fire.
I used to be a construction worker. I loved my job and was good at it. That’s gone too. I’m now on SSI [disability] and can barely make ends meet. I was such a hard worker, and now all I can do is shuffle around our apartment and watch TV. This horror never goes away.
And then there’s my son. Do you know what it’s like to watch your child suffer? He used to be such a happy kid. Now he is anxious all the time. He has trouble being with other kids. Sometimes other kids make fun of his scars or ask lots of questions. He hates that. He just wants to be normal, but he can’t be. Now he spends lots of time in his room by himself playing video games. My wife and I have taken him to a counselor, and that helps a little bit, but he still suffers so much. Sometimes at night he has panic attacks—I think that’s what you call them—and he climbs into our bed. A child his age shouldn’t be doing that, but we understand.
If it were just me, I could handle this. But seeing my son have to deal with this makes me so angry. I want Robert Blane to serve every day of the twenty-five-year sentence the judge gave him.
Ronaldo wiped tears from his eyes. He then pulled out five photographs he had brought with him. “I want you to see what that man did to me. Take a look at these.” The photographs showed him in a hospital bed dressed in a simple green gown. His burn wounds were fully exposed. It was painful to look at the graphic photos. Large sections of the blotched and bloated skin on his face, hands, and legs were various shades of bright pink, intense red, and dark purple. A couple of the photos looked remarkably like pieces of chicken that have been charbroiled and burned to a crisp on an outdoor grill.
(p.52) At that point during the hearing the chair had to explain to Ronaldo that Blane would not serve the entire twenty-five years, even if we did not grant him early release. Under Rhode Island law most incarcerated inmates are eligible for parole once they have served one-third of their sentence. Even inmates who are not granted parole typically can be released long before the full expiration of their sentence because of “good time” credits. Inmates can have significant portions of their sentence shortened as a result of good behavior and participation in rehabilitation programs. Many victims are understandably shocked to learn that inmates are not going to serve their entire sentence, even if they are not granted parole. Ronaldo’s response was typical:
How is it that Blane gets so much time off of his sentence? That’s ridiculous. When I talked to the prosecutor, he never explained this to me. All of this is new to me. I sure wish I had known this when I agreed to support the plea bargain. Blane gave me a life sentence when he set that fire. I want him to serve every day that’s coming to him.
At the conclusion of the meeting I told Ronaldo that we never informed an inmate that we had met with a victim or that a victim opposed parole, unless the victim wanted us to share this information. Many victims worry about the possibility of retaliation if the inmates find out that the victims spoke with the parole board and opposed parole; that said, during all my years on the parole board, I never encountered a single instance of such retaliation. It could happen, of course, but the statistical likelihood is low.
I explained to Ronaldo that we would let him decide whether Blane should be told about this meeting. Although many victims prefer to keep this information confidential, quite a few want the inmate to know about their intense opposition to parole. For some victims this is a way to exert some control in a situation where they have had distressingly little control thus far. They want to demonstrate to inmates that they feel empowered and are not intimidated. Some victims deferred to the parole board’s judgment about whether to disclose their meeting with the board; others insisted that we share this information with the inmates. Ronaldo was not at all ambivalent about his wishes:
(p.53) I would like Mr. Blane to know that while he ruined my life, I am not running away. I will be here every time he’s up for parole. I want him to know I was here, and I want him to know I will do everything that’s humanly possible to keep him in prison.
About an hour after our meeting with Ronaldo, my colleagues and I drove the short distance from our administrative offices to Rhode Island’s Medium Security prison. This prison opened in 1992 and can accommodate 1,006 inmates in a half-dozen separate buildings that contain two tiers of cells and common areas. The prison features garment, soap, license plate, upholstery, auto body, and metal fabricating shops.
I walked through the main entrance and waited to be buzzed through the first secure electronic door by the officer in the adjacent control room. From that door I walked into a vestibule that separated me from a fenced-in walkway that leads to the prison proper. The officer in the control booth unlocked a second door electronically, and I walked down an outdoor path toward the lobby of the large prison complex. To my left was a grassy area bordered by a row of shrubs. To my right was a sally port used when inmates are transferred to the Medium Security facility from another prison and when Medium Security inmates return from a court appearance or hospital visit.
At the back end of the prison lobby a prison officer in another control booth took my Department of Corrections badge, traded it for a multicolored prison pass, and then opened yet another sliding metal door. I entered the visiting room, which was filled with rows of bolted tables and chairs. Along one wall are colorful murals painted by inmates and several vending machines. At the front of the room was a small stage on which correctional officers sat to observe inmates and visitors. These officers were trained to monitor inappropriate and unauthorized physical contact and to prevent passage of contraband—especially drugs—from visitors to inmates.
On occasion visitors have conveyed drugs to inmates during a kiss. Before visiting the visitor will put several grams of marijuana, heroin, or other drug into a balloon or condom. She puts the balloon in her mouth and then transfers it to the prisoner’s mouth when they kiss. The inmate swallows the balloon and retrieves it from the toilet in his cell after he defecates.
(p.54) Depending on the hour the visiting room could be filled with a large crowd of inmates and visitors. They inevitably would stare when the parole board walked along the outer edge of the room toward the board’s adjacent hearing room.
I never got used to the scene of tiny infants and toddlers visiting their khaki-clothed fathers. It was especially painful to witness their good-byes. On occasion a child too young to understand the reality of the situation would cry and insist that the inmate leave with him. I overheard many inmates tell their young children that their daddy or mommy was “away at school.”
Robert Blane was the sixth case on that day’s calendar. He was represented by an attorney who appeared on behalf of many inmates eligible for parole. I have great respect for this attorney, who always prepared carefully and was a zealous advocate for her clients. Not all attorneys were so thorough, although many were. On occasion I was stunned to find out how little some attorneys seemed to prepare and how much more we parole board members knew about the inmate’s circumstances than their lawyer did. Most inmates were well represented; others were not.
As is customary, we began Blane’s hearing by inviting his attorney to make an opening statement. She was forthright about Blane’s mistakes but did her best to cast him in a positive light, which was difficult given the crimes he had committed.
Mr. Blane knows he messed up. He does not deny his guilt and he’s not here to make excuses for his remarkably poor judgment. However, Robert is here to tell you what he has learned from this nightmarish experience and to help you understand what led him to commit such a serious crime. I will provide a brief overview and then invite you to ask Robert questions. I know you would prefer to hear from him, not me.
Robert was born in Rhode Island. He barely knows his father, who has been in and out of his life. In fact, his father also served time in this very same prison on drug-related charges.
Robert spent a lot of time in foster homes and attended nine different schools by the time he was sixteen. He also spent nine months (p.55) at the Rhode Island Training School [a juvenile correctional facility]. He has never had the kind of family support most children take for granted. His childhood history is simply tragic.
What happened here is that when Robert “aged out” of the state child welfare system at age eighteen, he had no place to live, no job, no family, and no high school degree. His whole world consisted of a handful of friends he made in the group home he lived in before turning eighteen. One of his friends had a job working as a maintenance worker at a nearby apartment complex. That’s how Robert got the job that led to this mess.
The apartment complex owner, Donald Mason, hired Robert and, according to Robert, started to treat him like a son. Before this Robert never had an adult take care of him. Mr. Mason bought Robert clothes, gave him food, and occasionally took him fishing. When I met with Robert before trial, he told me that at the time he trusted Mr. Mason and would do anything to sustain this relationship. Robert now realizes that Mr. Mason was just grooming him for his own purposes. He abused Robert sexually and, eventually, talked Robert into committing this dreadful crime.
Robert is older now, more mature, and has tremendous insight. Put simply, I see no evidence that releasing Robert on parole would pose a risk to the public. None.
Once Robert’s attorney concluded her opening statement, we asked our own questions:
Mr. Blane, we just heard from your attorney. Now we would like to hear from you. What’s your version of what happened here?
What my attorney said is true. I know what I did was terrible. I will never deny that. I know I was manipulated by Donald Mason, but I can’t blame what happened on him. I should have known better than to get involved with his scheme. I can’t believe I was willing to do that. Yes, it’s true that he felt like a father to me, and I wanted a real father in my life more than anything; my thinking was completely twisted. I’ve learned so much during my time in prison. As you can see from my records, I’ve completed lots of programs. I’ve taken the (p.56) criminal thinking class, substance abuse program, victims impact class, got my GED, and during the past two years I’ve been in counseling with Jane Tallow, the social worker. I haven’t had a serious booking [disciplinary infraction] in nearly four years. I’m a different person now. I really am. I want to prove to you that I have grown up and can become a productive member of society. I hope you will give me that chance.
Where would you live? Where would you work?
As you know, I don’t have much family. But about three years ago I found out that I have a half-sister, Maria Borges, I never knew about. Maria read about my case in the Providence Journal and figured out that we’re siblings. About six months after I got sentenced to prison, Maria wrote me a letter and explained all this to me. She asked me to put her on my visiting list. When we first met, I couldn’t believe I actually had a sister—real family. As you can see from my visiting record, Maria visits me a few times a month. She is married now and has two children. We’ve gotten real close.
Does she know all about your crime? What have you told her?
Maria knows everything. I’ve been completely straight with her. Plus, she read all the news reports. There’s no secrets between us. Maria wants to help me get a new start in life. She knows better than anyone that I had a rotten deal growing up. She and her husband, Mark, have offered to let me live with them, at least until I can adjust to being out of prison and get a steady job. I’ve met their kids a bunch of times. They’ve come to a number of visits here. So, the whole family is on board. I’m very lucky. My sister’s husband, Mark, owns a construction business. He told me I can have a job working there, so I think I’m all set.
Given the amount of time you’ve spent in prison, what are the challenges you think you will face whenever you’re released? What help do you think you might need when you get out of prison, and where might you get it?
I’ve thought a lot about this. Jane Tallow and I have talked about how hard it’s going to be for me and what I need to do to stay out of trouble. I know the worst thing I can do is isolate myself, which was part of the problem when I got into trouble. I need (p.57) to hang around—I mean spend time with—people who aren’t into drugs and stuff. I need to be around positive people who aren’t going to drag me down.
Anything else you think you’ll need to do to help with the transition?
Not that I can think of.
What I was hoping you would say is that you will need to connect with a mental health counselor so that you have someone to talk to about whatever challenges you face. Do you think that makes sense?
Yes, I do.
Well, I’m a bit concerned that you didn’t say anything about that when I asked you what kind of help you think you will need when you get out of prison. Any idea why you didn’t mention that?
I’m not really sure.
Toward the end of the hearing I told Blane that earlier we had met with one of his victims, who objected to his release on parole. I then summarized Ronaldo’s comments about the effect that the fire had had on his and his son’s life, their unrelenting struggles, and their personal agony. I described the nature of Ronaldo’s physical and emotional injuries and the photographs that he had shared with us. At that point Blane began to tear up. I handed him some paper towels, and he used one to wipe his eyes.
What is it like for you to hear about the impact of your crime on the Ronaldos?
I feel awful. Just awful. I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that I did that to another human being. No one deserves that. I hate myself for what I did. Mr. Ronaldo and his son have every right to hate me and to want me to stay in prison. How can I blame them for that? I hope one day they can forgive me. I don’t expect that, but that’s what I hope for.
We concluded the hearing with a number of other questions; then Robert Blane and his attorney left the hearing room. We shared our impressions with one another. We acknowledged Blane’s impressive (p.58) progress during his prison stay and his maturation. We agreed that he showed evidence of genuine insight about his crime and its consequences. But we had to balance this positive news with the reality that Blane had served only one-third of his prison sentence. He had been convicted of a heinous crime, and one of his victims, Alexis Ronaldo, strenuously objected to Blane’s release. The board voted unanimously to deny Blane’s parole. In our minutes (which would be shared with Blane and his attorney) we commended him for his earnest program participation, insight, and disciplinary record. We explained that we were denying parole because of the seriousness of the offense and its effect on the victims. Our only disagreement concerned when to schedule his next parole board hearing. Three of us argued that we should delay his next hearing for two years; one member argued that we should wait three years because of the seriousness of the offense. The majority prevailed.
Cases like Lauren Whalen’s and Robert Blane’s were the most difficult I encountered because I had to consider the impact of their traumatic lives on their criminal conduct. But not all cases were this difficult. Some cases were straightforward; often they involved inmates whose crimes were so unspeakable, so evil, that I could never, ever vote for parole.
The case involving Frank Ballasco was typical. Ballasco, sixty-three, had grown up in Providence. During his teenage years he became enamored of the adults in his neighborhood who were involved in organized crime, specifically La Cosa Nostra.
Ballasco seemed at ease and full of panache in the role of a mobster. He strolled into the parole board hearing room with a nonchalance, hubris, and swagger I rarely saw. His wavy gray hair, facial stubble, wrinkles, and freezing cold stare gave him the look of a seasoned convict, which was what he was.
Many inmates greeted the parole board when they entered the hearing room. Not Ballasco. As a canny career criminal, he had worked hard to cultivate a tough-guy, don’t-mess-with-me image, which had served him well during his four separate prison sentences. (p.59) I had met Ballasco during several of his previous parole hearings and knew his history well. He had gotten into trouble as a juvenile, mostly for dealing drugs, shoplifting, and gun possession. Between the ages of fifteen and eighteen Ballasco had spent a total of sixteen months in the state’s juvenile correctional facility.
When he became an adult, Ballasco joined up with the local organized crime syndicate more formally and plunged himself into a lifetime of criminal activity. His first conviction was for armed robbery. According to the barely legible police report prepared on a manual typewriter, in the early 1970s Ballasco worked for a prominent organized crime figure and was expected to reach out to people who owed the mob money and were late with their payments. One afternoon Ballasco tracked down a local tavern owner who owed a gambling-related debt, walked into the tavern, pulled out a handgun, and demanded payment. When the man refused, Ballasco opened and emptied the cash register near the tavern’s front door. “Consider this a down payment,” Ballasco said, according to the victim.
Ballasco served eighteen months in prison for that offense. About a year after his release Ballasco was arrested by an undercover detective who had infiltrated a drug-selling ring. Ballasco, still a young man, worked for the ring as a runner, delivering drugs and retrieving payment. He served another two years in prison for that offense. During the next fifteen years or so, Ballasco was in and out of prison for offenses ranging from domestic assault to bribery of a public official to embezzlement. In addition to serving time in Rhode Island’s prisons, Ballasco served a total of about three years in federal prisons.
Ballasco’s most recent conviction, which had led to his current incarceration, was for bank fraud and murder. Ballasco and one of his associates had falsified mortgage documents, including W-2 forms, to inflate the value of a house that Ballasco had purchased. Soon after, he took out a loan against the inflated value of the house and then defaulted on the mortgage loan. Ballasco murdered his coconspirator when Ballasco learned from his organized-crime connections on the street that his partner was planning to testify against Ballasco in order to gain a shorter sentence from prosecutors.
Here is how the murder unfolded. Under the pretense of friendship, Ballasco invited his coconspirator to attend a New England (p.60) Patriots football game. The Patriots’ football stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, is an easy forty-minute drive from Providence. Ballasco picked up his coconspirator at the man’s home and on the way to Foxboro took a detour to a remote state park in northern Rhode Island. Much to the victim’s surprise, Ballasco drove into a secluded parking lot, pulled out a handgun, and shot him at point-blank range. Ballasco was convicted following a jury trial and sentenced to life in prison (with the possibility of parole). This was Ballasco’s first parole board hearing on the life sentence. Unlike his previous parole board hearings, Ballasco was not represented by a lawyer (either because he could not afford one or he had concluded that hiring one, given his record, would be a waste of money).
Mr. Ballasco, we meet again. You seem to have considerable difficulty staying out of prison. What happened this time?
It’s all in the paperwork; you can read it for yourself.
Well, is what’s in the police report true? Did you commit the murder?
That’s what they say.
My question is whether you admit to the crime or not. Let me ask it again: Did you commit the murder?
What exactly does “I suppose” mean?
It means I don’t want to talk about it. It is what it is.
Do you want to be paroled, or would you prefer to serve your life sentence?
Of course I want parole. What do you think?
Please tell us what makes you a good parole risk in this case, especially in light of your significant criminal record.
I’m tired of this life. You’ll never see me again.
Mr. Ballasco, I would like to believe you. But I want to show you copies of letters you wrote to the parole board when you were serving other sentences. As you can see here, in both of these letters you told the board how you have learned your lesson, you want to get completely out of the organized crime world, and your criminal career is over. As we all know, things didn’t quite work out (p.61) that way. What makes this time different? Why should we take you at your word now?
I can see I don’t have a shot at parole. You guys have already made up your mind.
And with that Ballasco simply stood up and walked out of the hearing room, slamming the metal door behind him. He didn’t ask for permission to leave, and he certainly didn’t say good-bye. I suppose this was the only way Ballasco knew to convey his disgust and to assert some feeble control in a situation where he knew the outcome.
Although I regret my conclusion, for me Ballasco epitomizes the hardcore criminal who appears to be beyond redemption. He seems evil. A life filled with crime is all he knows. Ballasco has never held a steady job. He has spent most of his life ignoring the rules and doing things his way, regardless of the impact of his conduct on victims. I do not like giving up on human beings, and doing so runs counter to my strong instincts as a social worker. The reality, which took me years to fully acknowledge, is that some inmates’ situations feel hopeless to me. It was painful for me to type these words.
And yet, as evil as Ballasco seems, I know that calling him evil is too easy. I have been around long enough to know that people are not born evil. Ballasco’s prison file is filled with tales of the trauma and chaos he endured as a child. He did not become a hardened criminal by happenstance or overnight. Ballasco’s seemingly evil ways, I told myself, must be the toxic by-products of severe, unspeakable trauma to which he was subjected during his formative years. So once again I found myself staring at multiple shades of moral gray as I tried to sort out whether inmates who have committed the most evil crimes are truly evil people.
The parole board sees many such cases, where the crimes are so heinous or the inmates’ criminal and disciplinary records are so severe that it has no choice but to deny parole. The verdict is all but cast in stone the moment the inmate walks through the hearing room door.
(p.62) A second pattern of cases is quite different. In these cases inmates have done everything the parole board expects and wants. They have matured during their years in prison, taken earnest advantage of challenging rehabilitation programs, and avoided serious disciplinary problems. Assuming they have decent home and job plans, these inmates often are good candidates for parole.
But between these two extremes is most of the parole board’s work, cases with compelling, competing arguments about release. It was not unusual for me to have a tentative opinion in mind—based on my review of the copious records—when the inmate entered the hearing room and then shift my position based on the in-person interview. Sometimes my shift was in the inmate’s favor and sometimes not. An inmate who had what appeared to be slim chances of getting my vote for parole would overwhelm me with her insight and sincerity, so much so that I changed my mind. In other cases I found my in-person encounter with the inmate quite discouraging. Based on the inmate’s records, I had expected to vote for parole. But during the hearing I found inconsistencies or flat-out contradictions or confabulations in the inmate’s version of the crime, evasiveness, or disingenuousness.
By far the hardest cases for me to decide incorporated elements of true evil and goodness, at least as I understand these concepts. And these were the cases in which I drew on my deep-seated belief that many criminals—although not all—have the capacity to alter the course of their lives in fundamental ways. In these cases I wrestled with the facts. I wrestled with my conscience. I wrestled with the potential consequences of whatever I decided.
In my job as a professor I have taught a graduate statistics course for many years. Many students dread the experience, assuming that the course will be filled with arcane mathematical formulas (indeed, there are some) unlikely to be relevant to their professional lives. But I tell them that I choose to teach the course because I think many of the core concepts can sharpen their conceptual skills and significantly enhance the quality of their work. Perhaps my favorite is the distinction between what statisticians call type I and type II errors.2 Understanding these phenomena shaped my thinking as a parole board member and helped me make the tough decisions.
(p.63) In research we talk about error, especially when we make predictions. Here’s a simple example. Say the local child welfare department receives a report of suspected abuse of a child by his father. A child abuse investigator gathers all relevant information. In the end the investigator must decide whether there is evidence of child abuse and whether the child should be placed in foster care. In effect, she must use her best judgment to forecast the future. If she concludes that the child must be removed from the home and guesses right, she has protected the child. If she concludes that evidence of abuse was insufficient, guesses right, and does not remove the child from the home, she has prevented the trauma commonly associated with placing a child in foster care.
But, as we all know, no one in these circumstances has perfect knowledge or forecasting ability. If the investigator removes the child from his home when there was no actual need to do so, she has traumatized the child and family unnecessarily. That’s comparable to what statisticians call a type I error. A type I error occurs when a researcher assumes that compelling evidence exists when in fact it does not.
In contrast a type II error occurs when a researcher concludes that there is insufficient evidence that a phenomenon exists when in fact it does. In the child abuse scenario a type II error occurs if the social worker concludes that the child has not been abused and is not at risk when the opposite is true. That’s every child welfare worker’s nightmare: failing to remove an at-risk child, because of imperfect knowledge or an error in judgment, and that child shortly thereafter is seriously abused or killed.
Parole board members face the same challenge. They make judgments about whether an inmate is or is not ready to be released from prison. They base their decisions on the best available information, including reams of information in prison files and in-person interviews with victims and inmates. They do the best they can, knowing that their judgment is fallible. If I vote to release an inmate and the inmate does not reoffend, I guessed right, so to speak. The same is true if I decide to continue the incarceration of an inmate who would have committed a serious crime had he been released (although that is impossible to prove).
(p.64) What kept me up some nights is the risk of type I and especially type II errors. If I voted against parole of an inmate who would have done well in the community, I committed a type I error. I feel badly about that. But what I worried about more was the risk of a type II error: voting to release an inmate who commits a serious crime while on parole. And that happened.
Perhaps error is not the best term here; I do not consider it a true error, in the strictest sense of the term, when I used my best judgment and knew that I had considered every available piece of information. It may be more accurate to say that what happened after the inmate’s release was not what I had hoped, and I regret that deeply. But I know in my heart that I did the best I could, and the hard reality is that some inmates I voted to release on parole committed new crimes or will do so. I cannot accept the argument that, if that is the case, we should never parole anyone. Keeping inmates in prison longer than they need to be comes with its own set of risks and actually diminishes public protection by increasing the likelihood of future harm. More about that later. Suffice it to say that I never wanted to be wrong when I rendered my vote, and I did my best to avoid type I and type II errors.
So what made Robert Blane’s case—the quintessential example of a hard case—and others like it so difficult? In many ways Blane’s case exemplifies the tension between free will and determinism. Like so many prison inmates, Blane had a stunningly inauspicious start in life. He was born into a chaotic life. His parents had a tenuous, conflict-filled relationship. Blane’s father had himself grown up in an abusive household. His dad spent time in a juvenile correctional facility and was in and out of adult prison because of his chronic struggle with heroin addiction. Blane’s mother was sexually abused as a child and, in her teenage years, abused alcohol and cocaine to cope with the trauma. She was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder; the combination—known as a co-occurring disorder that involves both serious mental illness and substance abuse—interfered with her ability to parent Blane. It is no wonder that Blane was badly scathed by his childhood experiences.
I do my best to avoid thinking like a fatalist, but the data are compelling and indisputable: an infant born into circumstances comparable (p.65) to Blane’s is more likely to struggle than a child born into more auspicious circumstances. Research evidence suggests that being the victim of maltreatment during childhood nearly doubles the likelihood that an individual will commit crimes as an adult. In case after case inmates present compelling childhood histories of developmental challenges, school difficulties or failure, interpersonal conflict, hard-to-manage behaviors, physical abuse, neglect, substance abuse challenges, mental health issues, and encounters with the police. The trajectory is not inevitable, but it’s far too common.
No one should be surprised that the Robert Blanes of the world get into trouble. In his case Blane sought whatever succor he could find; sadly, the man who took him in was himself a miscreant.
And while the toxic tangle of life circumstances surrounding Blane does not excuse his heinous acts, they certainly helped me understand them. Confronted with Blane’s earnest and sincere efforts to address the demons in his life, as evidenced by his stalwart efforts to participate in challenging prison-based rehabilitation programs, his maturation, and the impressive insight that he articulated to the parole board, I felt caught between his crimes and the potential of his rehabilitation.
The Lady Justice statue, sometimes known as Scales of Justice or Blind Justice, is one of the best-known statues in the world, and I often reflected on its image during parole board proceedings. The ancient Greek statue represents Themis, the Titan goddess of justice and law. Well known for her clear-sightedness, she typically (she has been depicted by many sculptors) holds a sword in one hand and scales in the other. The scales represent the impartiality with which justice is served, at least in principle, and the sword signifies the power held by those making the decision. During the sixteenth century, artists started representing Themis with a blindfold to show that justice is not subject to influence.
I don’t know that true impartiality is possible, but I did my best. I admit that when some inmates—a small percentage, fortunately—behaved toward the parole board in ways that were disrespectful, arrogant, insulting, and provocative, they pushed my buttons. I know that such behavior often reflects an underlying mental illness, anxiety, sense of vulnerability and fear, or defensiveness, but at times it (p.66) was hard to feel sympathetic. When inmates acted up during a hearing, I tried hard to remain calm and nonreactive. Often I stopped questioning and asked the inmate to reflect on how he was behaving and to think about the impression he was making on the parole board. Some inmates have the capacity to engage in this sort of reflection and are able to regroup, often after apologizing to the board. Other inmates are either unable to put a harness on their misconduct or choose not to. The occasional inmate, like Frank Ballasco, seems determined to be defiant to the bitter end.
Robert Blane was no such inmate. He was humble, respectful, and saturated with what appeared to all of us to be genuine remorse. I wanted to be sympathetic, yet I could not ignore the anguish-filled testimony by his victim and the patent viciousness of Blane’s arson. I call this ambidextrous parole board decision-making: on the one hand, on the other hand. In many cases the scales of justice are tipped steeply to one side; in others they are truly balanced. These were the cases in which I agonized.
Prisons occasionally are filled with goodness. Imagine that. The Rhode Island Department of Corrections partners with a remarkable program, National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), also known as Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. Inmates who apply to participate in the program must meet strict criteria—typically those who have good institutional records and have avoided serious discipline problems—and undergo extensive interviews. Inmates must make a commitment to participate in the program for at least one year. That eliminates inmates who are serving short sentences and those likely to be released soon; also, the program is limited to male inmates.
Each puppy lives with an inmate handler (a backup inmate participates in case the primary handler is unable to complete the program). Puppies spend most of their time with the primary handler, going to prison classes and groups in which the inmate is enrolled (educational classes, treatment programs), recreation areas, and dining halls. Each puppy sleeps in the primary handler’s cell.
(p.67) NEADS trainers make regular visits to each participating prison to conduct classes for the inmates in the program. In class the inmates learn how to teach their puppy tasks and obedience skills. In addition, they learn how to groom and properly care for their puppy, provide basic first aid, and monitor canine health. The NEADS staff trainers assess each puppy to make training recommendations and assign homework to the handler.
Inmates provide the puppies with socialization experiences and skills by bringing the dogs with them whenever possible. Whether the handler is going to a medical appointment, the TV lounge, or the visiting room, the puppy is usually right by the handler’s side. On a number of occasions, while waiting for inmates to be summoned for parole board hearings, I stood in the nearby Medium Security visiting room and observed the puppies, inmate handlers, and NEADS trainers as they put the dogs through their paces. It’s a remarkable sight that gave me a glimpse of goodness in the midst of what often seems, and is, terribly grim. In one exercise I watched an inmate pretend to be disabled and roll around the visiting room in a wheelchair. The inmate fell out of the wheelchair and called for the dog. Before running over to the inmate, the dog instinctively searched for a fake cordless telephone nearby, picked it up in his mouth, and brought the phone to the handler so he could summon help.
I could not help but smile as I watched the inmate, Isaac Witte, stroke and praise his dog, a yellow Labrador retriever. Nine years earlier Witte had nearly killed another man in a vicious barroom fight. At an earlier parole board hearing Witte had described in painful detail how he had argued with his victim over, he said, “something incredibly stupid.”
I had never laid eyes on Mr. Taylor before that night. Both of us were drinking heavily and playing poker. We were both drunk. Taylor made a few comments to my girlfriend that really ticked me off. My girlfriend was standing next to me and Taylor said something about how her sexy looks weren’t going to help me out in this poker game. I told him to keep his mouth shut and that was no way to talk to my girlfriend. Well, we got into it. I shoved him, he shoved me, and we were off and running. He grabbed his beer bottle off of the table and smashed it (p.68) and started to go after me with the bottle’s sharp edges. I grabbed a utility knife I had in a leather case on my belt and threatened Taylor right back. I was working a construction job and had gone to the bar right from work; that’s why I had the knife on me. Anyway, it turns out I sliced up Taylor pretty bad. I felt sick when I read the police report. At the time I was so drunk I didn’t realize how badly I hurt him.
According to the police narrative and hospital emergency department report, Taylor suffered deep lacerations to his face, neck, and torso. He almost bled to death and required emergency surgery to save his life.
On the morning of Witte’s hearing we met with Taylor. Scars ran across his face. Plastic surgery had helped only so much. Taylor said:
Thanks for seeing me. Frankly I’m shocked to hear that Witte is up for parole so soon. Nobody explained to me how he gets time off of his sentence for good behavior and participating in programs.
I don’t want this guy out. He’s dangerous. Look what he did to me. [Taylor pointed to the scars on his face and neck and then pulled up his shirt to show us scars on his chest. He also passed around gruesome photos that hospital staffers took of him just before and after his emergency surgery. The photos of open lacerations saturated with blood were hard to look at.] What kind of monster would do something like this?
So the guy was upset with me. Does that give him the right to slice me up like a watermelon? It makes me sick just to look in the mirror every day. I will live with these scars and memories forever. Let him do his time. I’m doing mine.
As I watched Witte nurture and work with his NEADS puppy in the most loving way imaginable, I had difficulty reconciling this kind and gentle man with the man who had savagely assaulted Taylor with reckless, alcohol-fueled abandon. Here in this moment was, for me, the compelling juxtaposition of goodness and evil. The scene reminded me of my relationship with Dave Sempsrott, the stunningly kind inmate I had met earlier in the Missouri State Penitentiary, some years after he murdered two adults and a child. Occasionally, it seems, goodness can sprout from evil.
(p.69) In another NEADS puppy program exercise, an inmate in a wheel chair tells the dog that he is cold. The dog searches the room for a folded blanket, grabs it with her mouth, and places it on the inmate’s lap.
In another, a dog accompanies the wheelchair-bound inmate into a nearby lavatory. The dog grabs onto a rope that hangs from the lavatory door handle to open the door. The inmate uses the dog’s back for leverage to transfer himself to the toilet and then back onto the wheelchair. The dog is even able to use her paws to activate the sink taps and close the lavatory door with her nose.
The NEADS program is one of the only prison activities for which everyone (inmates, correctional officers, prison administrators, and visitors) shares enthusiasm. Achieving this kind of consensus in prison is nearly impossible. With other programs—such as prison ministries, meditation and yoga, creative writing, and theater—it’s not unusual to hear some observers snicker about the do-gooders from the community who want to save inmates and about how many inmates sign up just to obtain more good time (days shaved off of their sentences as a result of program participation) or to impress the parole board. In contrast I have never heard a nasty remark about the NEADS program. Everyone seems to win: the inmates, prison staffers, and the people with disabilities who will be assisted by the dogs who graduate. During one parole board hearing, an inmate who was serving a twenty-year sentence for manslaughter talked about his involvement in NEADS.
This program has been a lifesaver for me. Frankly I think it’s done more for me than I’ve done for my dog, Charlie. Before I came to prison I was living a completely reckless life. I was drinking and drugging; I didn’t care about anything but getting high and having a good time. I thought that’s what life is all about. I didn’t know any better. I know that sounds like an excuse, but it’s true. I never really knew my father, and my mother was a drug addict. I dropped out of school in the ninth grade and she never tried to stop me. Imagine that! She was too caught up in her own problems to care about me.
On the night I killed Dan Blair, I was spiraling out of control. I’ve never had a steady job. I needed money for cocaine and I decided to rob Dan. He was also a drug dealer, and about two months earlier he (p.70) had ripped me off big time. I figured this was payback time. I was high when I went to Dan’s apartment. I never intended to kill him. I had the gun mostly for protection and to scare him. I didn’t think Dan would fight me. The gun went off accidentally. I was able to plea-bargain this down to a manslaughter conviction.
Anyway, even during the first few years of my bid [prison sentence] I didn’t much care. I figured I would just do my time. As you can see from my prison record, for several years I got in lots of trouble. I was getting booked [disciplined] for all kinds of crap—excuse me, I mean stuff. I got thrown into seg for fighting, mouthing off at COs [correctional officers], hoarding my medication, and refusing to stand for count. I just plain old didn’t care.
But then my mom wrote me a long letter that started out with her telling me that she was just diagnosed with lung cancer. She told me about her treatment and how she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll live. I couldn’t believe it. And then she wrote that the one thing she prays for is that before she dies she’ll get to spend time with me out of prison and see me cleaning up my life.
That’s what did it, for real. That was my wake-up call. And you can see from my record that I’ve cleaned up my act big time. I haven’t had a booking in six years, I’ve received lots of certificates for programs, and I got my GED. A lot of the COs tell me they can’t believe how I’ve turned things around.
You probably know how hard it is to get selected to be a dog handler in the NEADS program. I didn’t think they’d take me, but they did. And I’ve proved to everyone that I can be responsible. I love this program. I’ve had three different dogs, and one of the worst things is saying good-bye to them when they graduate. But I’ve learned so much about myself from this program. The truth is, before being in NEADS, I never really cared about anyone but me. Charlie and my other dogs, they’ve taught me what it means to really care about someone else. I’m not lying when I say I’d sacrifice my life for these dogs—that’s how much they mean to me.
I’m not sure I’ve ever really loved someone else before this program, except my mom. This program has helped me learn how to care and nurture, and it’s also taught me how to be a responsible human being. I know I have to be careful and available all the time; if I mess up, I can mess up the dog and the disabled person the dog is supposed to help (p.71) down the line. Do you know how amazing it is for me to understand this for the first time in my life? Do you understand?
After watching the NEADS dogs and inmates for about ten minutes, my colleagues and I walked through the inmate-filled waiting room that leads to the parole board hearing room. The waiting inmates stared at us as we walked by. They knew that their fate was in our hands.
As I’ve mentioned, some inmates were represented by private attorneys, although most were not, either because they could not afford one or they preferred to handle the hearing on their own. A few were represented at parole board hearings by public defenders. Over the years I was extraordinarily impressed with the quality of the legal representation these underpaid, overworked attorneys provided to indigent defendants and inmates. They typically had enormous caseloads and precious few resources to conduct the kinds of investigations that would help them make the best case for their clients.
Some public defenders I met were fresh out of law school and viewed this work as a terrific way to gain valuable experience before venturing out on their own. Others—quite a few, in fact—were career public defenders. Most were idealists, in the best sense of the term, and were deeply committed to providing the best legal advocacy possible to society’s most vulnerable criminal court defendants. All their clients were poor—which was what entitled them to free legal counsel—and a significant number struggled with mental illness, addictions, or both.
In Rhode Island the public defender’s office employs seven full-time social workers to assess clients’ needs and collaborate with attorneys who try to convince judges that many clients need mental health and addictions treatment, not prison. In effect, the public defender’s office functions as a law firm that includes a visible, active social service unit.
During parole board hearings I sometimes asked an inmate whether he or she had retained an attorney during the criminal court proceedings. A common answer was, “No, I couldn’t afford a lawyer, (p.72) so I had a public defender.” The implication was that public defenders are not lawyers, which I found upsetting, given how impressive, dedicated, and skilled public defenders tended to be. I always felt obliged to explain this to inmates. The vast majority of public defenders I have met chose a relatively low-paying career to defend people whom most others revile. Despite the impressive legal acumen and skill that qualify public defenders to pursue much more lucrative positions, they typically have a strong sense of mission and altruism. They are among my unsung heroes.
My efforts to respond to criminals who commit heinous acts forced me to struggle with life’s most difficult questions about the nature of evil and goodness. All of us, I suspect, have encountered both. Outside my prison work, my encounters with evil have been once removed. The all-too-steady diet of news headlines about mass executions, sex slavery, beheadings, and torture provides ample evidence of evil. Yet I am heartened by an equally steady diet of news about phenomenally caring, altruistic people who go out of their way, usually without fanfare, to be kind to others. Our world is filled with both—those whose conduct should be erased from the planet and those who exemplify the Yiddish term mensch, a true human being. In between, of course, are the rest of us, whose lives are filled with a complicated mix of virtue and vice.
Some years ago I came across a book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, that taught me that in the depths of life’s worst cruelties one can find veins of goodness. The book’s author, a moral philosopher and Wesleyan University professor named Philip Hallie, writes about how his preoccupation with the horrors of the Holocaust inadvertently led him to the discovery of remarkable goodness, in the form of a group of non-Jewish villagers in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in southern France, a story he stumbled upon during his research on the evils of the Holocaust. The villagers, a group of true altruists, risked their lives to save and protect Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and the Vichy government in France. Hallie writes about how he had spent his academic career studying the nature of evil and in its midst felt (p.73) compelled to explore the nature of goodness, the kind of goodness he found among the French villagers:
I knew that always a certain region of my mind contained an awareness of men and women in bloody white coats breaking and rebreaking the bones of six-or seven-or eight-year-old Jewish children in order, the Nazis said, to study the processes of natural healing in young bodies. All of this I knew. But why not know joy? Why not leave root room for comfort? Why add myself to the millions of victims? Why must life be for me that vision of those children lying there with their children’s eyes looking up at the adults who were breaking a leg for the second time, a rib cage for the third time? Something had happened, had happened for years in that mountain village. Why should I be afraid of it?3
Hallie went on to reflect on the complexity of goodness and evil and the tension between them. In Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Hallie writes about how some of the noblest, most ethical people imaginable—deeply religious residents of Le Chambon—chose to lie to and deceive Nazi sympathizers in Vichy France in order to protect vulnerable Jews. Hallie explores the nature of moral compromise and asserts that neither goodness nor evil always exists in pure form, something I learned repeatedly while working in prisons with inmates who had committed horrific crimes.
It is plain that the story of the struggle of Le Chambon is of no special political or military interest. But it is of ethical interest. The word ethics can be traced to the Greek word for character, an individual person’s way of feeling, thinking, and acting. Ethics is concerned with praising some sorts of character and blaming other sorts. In that region of ethics concerned with matters of life and death (as against, for example, sexual or professional conduct), a person who destroys life is blamed for doing this unless that destruction can be excused or justified in some way; and in life-and-death ethics a person who avoids or prevents the destruction of human life is praised for doing this unless his deed can be shown to be destructive of human life. In life-and-death ethics the person we blame is often called “evil,” and the person we praise is (p.74) often called “good,” although we may use such milder terms of praise and blame as “bad” and “decent.”4
I read Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed while I was working at the Missouri State Penitentiary with Dave Sempsrott. I thought a lot about that book as I tried to sort out how I felt about Dave, his kindness, and his depraved acts. As I paged through Hallie’s narrative, I found myself ruminating about the complex juxtaposition of goodness and evil I had encountered among penitentiary inmates and staffers. Sometime later I wrote Hallie a letter and shared my insights with him. I told him how my wife and I had recently visited the German concentration camp Dachau. Hallie wrote back, letting me know how moved he was by my efforts to draw on his book as I struggled with prison-based morality:
My wife and I visited Dachau, too. My trips to Dachau during the past few years are especially complex as I do research on a German major Schmelling, who tried to do some good. Trying to praise a German soldier under Hitler brings you hard up against the killing camps like Dachau. “A good man in such a regime?” I keep asking myself. I am writing about a good man involved in as evil a cause as man has ever concocted.
When I first read Hallie’s words, I could not help but reflect on my own career-long immersion in evil. At the time my relationship with Dave Sempsrott and other inmates in the Missouri State Penitentiary provided the starkest examples. My work forced me to climb inside sordid details linked with murder, rape, armed robbery, molestation, domestic violence, arson, and other crimes. I have reviewed thousands of police reports, court transcripts, letters from victims, and psychiatric assessments that drip with anguish. As part of my parole board duties I met with thousands of distraught victims and heard their plaintive voices. And, like Hallie, I managed to find remarkable goodness embedded in seas of evil and on both sides of the fence: offenders and victims.
I will never forget the case of the inmate Jorge Pires, who was convicted of assaulting Tony Cuozzo. Cuozzo grew up in a mostly (p.75) middle-class community in northern Rhode Island. He was an average student who did not get into any significant trouble in high school. Immediately after he graduated, he began working in his uncle’s thriving pest control business. Cuozzo took courses at the local community college; he hoped to earn a degree in business administration. He was an enthusiastic New England Patriots and Boston Bruins fan and enjoyed going to a local sports bar to watch games and drink. By his own admission Cuozzo started to use cocaine recreationally. Over time he became more and more immersed in the drug culture, unbeknown to his family.
One evening soon after sunset, Cuozzo drove to Central Falls, Rhode Island, to purchase cocaine. He met with a known drug dealer, Jorge Pires, from whom he had bought cocaine on other occasions. According to the police report, Pires and Cuozzo got into a heated argument about money Cuozzo owed Pires from an earlier drug deal. The argument escalated and Pires grabbed a coarse, heavy cinder-block that was near his feet and slammed it into Cuozzo’s head multiple times. Pires fled the scene. A neighborhood resident who was walking his dog nearby heard Cuozzo’s cries for help and called 911.
The police and a rescue squad responded within minutes and found Cuozzo in a semiconscious state, bleeding from his head and mouth, and only minimally responsive. Cuozzo was transported to a hospital trauma unit in Providence, about a twenty-minute drive from Central Falls, and rushed into surgery. Surgeons inserted a device in Cuozzo’s skull to monitor pressure in the brain cavity. They surgically removed and drained the bleeding in his skull. Surgeons had to repair bleeding vessels and tissue. They also had to repair Cuozzo’s skull fracture and remove a portion of damaged brain tissue to make room for the living brain tissue. They did their best to maintain blood flow and oxygen to the brain and minimize swelling and pressure.
After Pires fled the scene of the assault, he drove to his sister’s house, about thirty minutes away, and pretended that nothing had happened. He took a shower and fell asleep while his sister watched the late-night local news broadcast, which reported on the crime and identified Pires as the suspect. Pires’s sister shouted about the news report and woke him up. He turned himself in to police, ultimately (p.76) pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. He was eligible for parole after serving four years.
The morning of Pires’s hearing, Cuozzo’s father, Daniel, arranged to meet with us on his son’s behalf. Daniel Cuozzo walked calmly into the conference room. I gazed at his face for hints of what we were about to hear. Most victims are intensely angry, and that’s what I expected here. To my surprise Cuozzo was not angry. In a slow, measured cadence he thanked us for the opportunity to meet with him. His affect was relatively flat. He acknowledged that his son had waded into drug use and had ventured into Central Falls in search of cocaine. I then heard words I never expected to hear from the father of a son who was now permanently brain damaged as a result of a vicious, evil crime:
My son was, and is, a good person. It’s true he was where he shouldn’t have been, doing what he shouldn’t have been doing. Like too many young people, Tony thought he was invulnerable and could handle casual drug use. Little did he know how quickly he would become addicted to cocaine. He worked hard in his uncle’s business and he played hard. Sadly, until the crime, my wife and I knew nothing about Tony’s drug use. We’re not naive; we know many young people use drugs. But we had no clue that Tony was into this scene so deep. Anyway, that’s beside the point.
Tony will never be the same. He lives every day suffering from severe headaches and chronic confusion. He has difficulty processing information and often struggles to form words. Tony’s personality is nothing like it was. He used to be good natured and outgoing. Now Tony is a mere shadow of his former self. Most days he sits in a chair and stares. Occasionally he watches television, although I doubt he understands much. He’s no longer the Tony we knew. We’ve lost our Tony.
You probably expect me to tell you how I want Jorge Pires to serve every single day of his sentence. I’m not going to do that. My wife and I have prayed on this. We’re Christians. We believe in redemption. We want to forgive Mr. Pires. When we sat in the courtroom during Mr. Pires’s sentencing, we learned about his troubled life. He was raised—and I use that term loosely—by the state because both of his parents were in and out of jail. We heard Pires’s lawyer tell the judge (p.77) about how Pires sold drugs to survive. Don’t get me wrong: we don’t like what he did to our son, but we do forgive him. This whole case is just one tragedy piled on top of another. Here’s the bottom line: If this board thinks Pires has turned his life around, if you really think he’s been rehabilitated, we have no objection to paroling him.
My colleagues and I were stunned. During all the years I met with crime victims, I had never encountered one who was so generous of spirit. In that moment I stared at goodness, a form of which I am not sure I could achieve were I in Daniel Cuozzo’s shoes.
I have also been privileged to witness what certainly appeared to be remarkable goodness manifested by inmates who had caused unspeakable harm. The general public tends to imagine that prison inmates are evil; even a cursory review of their litany of crimes can lead to that understandable conclusion. Yet buried in that deep and wide morass of horror are occasional pearls. I have seen a few—not enough, of course, but some. Ronald Stone was one of them.
Stone was sentenced to seven years for overseeing an active heroin distribution operation. When I first met him, he was twenty-seven years old. The parole board denied Stone’s first petition for release; we commended him for his prison conduct but wanted him to complete an intensive drug treatment program. Stone admitted that he had gotten involved in the drug trade after becoming addicted to cocaine. We agreed to see Stone again nine months after his first hearing. Shortly before his second parole hearing, he completed the six-month prison-based drug program. That he had learned a great deal was evident during the hearing:
Can you tell us what you learned in the program? What did you get out of it?
I learned a great deal about the nature of addiction and my personal triggers. I suppose you hear this all the time, but I learned that for so long I was in deep denial about the severity of my drug use. I never saw myself as an addict. Now I do. I can say those words and mean them. That’s going to help me in my recovery.
What did you learn in the program that will help you avoid relapsing? Put simply, it’s people, places, and things. When I get out, I can’t hang around the people I was with when I was using and dealing. If I do, it’s probably just a matter of minutes or hours before I’m back in the game. Plus, I’ve gotta stay away from the neighborhood where I was buying and selling drugs. I can’t be a moth drawn to that flame; if I go there, I’m dead, or back here in prison. And then there’s the drugs. If I’m around cocaine, there’s a big chance I’ll relapse. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that. I’m smart enough to know that being anywhere in the vicinity of cocaine is, for me, a possible death sentence.
In many respects Stone’s case was almost cookie cutter. I was in hearings with thousands and thousands of inmates who, like Stone, dabbled in cocaine or heroin and, despite their best intentions, became addicted. But during Stone’s second parole hearing and following his release from prison, I learned about his special goodness. In his prison file was a letter from a senior correctional administrator:
Dear Parole Board:
I am not accustomed to writing letters to the parole board on inmates’ behalf. In this case I am making an exception. Inmate Stone has been incarcerated in my facility for a little over two years. About a year ago, one of my assistants told me something remarkable about Stone, something we rarely get to see in prison. I learned that Stone, who spent almost two years in college, started a tutoring program here for inmates who are illiterate. Some of his students have learning disabilities, and some are immigrants who don’t understand English very well. What’s remarkable about Stone is that he has done this entirely on his own. He never asked for publicity, he never asked any staff for commendation letters to be sent to the parole board, he never asked to get credit for his efforts that could be counted as good time to reduce his sentence.
About a month ago, after I learned about Stone’s work, I called him to my office. I asked him about his work and how much time he’s been spending doing this. I learned that Stone spends two to three hours nearly every evening working with inmates. I’ve never seen anything quite like this.
Were you aware that we received a letter from Mr. Spence about your tutoring program?
No, I had no idea he was sending that. What did it say?
He’s really impressed with you. He had no idea you were doing this work until one of his assistants brought it to his attention. I’m impressed too. Tell us what led you to start the program?
It’s not really that complicated. During my stay here I’ve had lots of time to think. I know I messed up bad, and I’ve hurt a lot of people. I sold drugs to people whose addiction continued or got worse because of me. I now realize that many of the addicts who bought drugs from me got the money to pay me by breaking into people’s houses, stealing cars, robbing store clerks, and taking women’s pocketbooks. I feel awful about the impact of my crimes. I have to make amends. I have to do what’s right. I was always a pretty good student, so I figured one way I could make amends is to help inmates who can’t read. I’ve been around here long enough to understand that lots of these guys commit crimes because they’re poor and need money. Many of them were lousy students, have disabilities, or never learned English. For many, selling drugs and stealing is plain old survival. All of us are hurting lots of people. I just want to do what I can to help these inmates develop a skill that might help them get a job; that might keep them from committing crimes.
Even in prisons one can find people who do what’s right.
During the course of my career working in prisons, I came to believe that between goodness and evil are layers and layers of complexity. Human beings I have come to know, both in and out of prison, rarely are unadulterated good or evil.
My ever-evolving sense of the mix of goodness and evil derives from my understanding of why people commit crimes. There’s no (p.80) simple explanation. I liken the word crime to the word cancer. Often I hear someone comment that so-and-so has cancer. The word itself tells me nothing about the type of cancer (lung, bone, prostate, esophageal, bladder, skin, testicular, brain, colon, eye, liver, ovarian, or breast), its etiology, treatment options, or prognoses. The word is meaningful only when it’s joined with hundreds of others that spell out the important details.
So, too, with the word crime. By itself it is relatively meaningless. To be useful the word requires finely textured context: the type of crime (murder, rape, armed robbery, embezzlement, stolen motor vehicle, drug possession and distribution, child molestation, breaking and entering, fraud, domestic violence, gun possession, vehicular homicide, elder abuse, sex trafficking, arson, kidnapping, identity theft), its etiology, rehabilitation options, and the likelihood of recidivism. Understanding crime—and grasping the mix of goodness and evil embedded in crimes—is no less complicated than understanding cancer. We are dealing with complex multivariate equations.
And yet there are patterns—patterns that helped me understand the vagaries of human nature and human beings who commit awful crimes. When I reflect on the tens of thousands of inmates I have encountered, I see reasonably clear patterns.5 Among the most prominent and relatively easy to detect are offenders who struggle with serious addictions. My strong sense is that most people do not fully grasp the profound link between addictions and crime. Huge numbers of inmates are serving time for crimes related to addiction to alcohol, drugs, and gambling. Extensive research indicates that most inmates are in prison for some addiction-or substance abuse–related reason. Many inmates committed crimes while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Narcotics, alcohol, and other substances can lead otherwise nonviolent people to commit remarkably violent acts and may exacerbate the tendencies of people who are prone to violence. Many murders, aggravated assaults, armed robberies, domestic assaults, and rapes are committed by people whose judgment is stunningly impaired by substances. Often underlying these inmates’ addictions are mental health challenges, undiagnosed or untreated, that the inmate is self-medicating with these substances.
(p.81) • Hector Aparicio was a heroin addict. He had been incarcerated twice for drug manufacturing and selling. After his last prison sentence, Aparicio was on probation and was enrolled in an outpatient drug treatment program. He worked sporadically for a landscaping company.
About five months after his latest release from prison, Aparicio relapsed on heroin. This occurred soon after Aparicio learned that his twenty-two-year-old daughter had committed suicide. Aparicio was soon fired from his job because of his erratic attendance and performance. One evening Aparicio walked into a local convenience store, held a gun to the head of the cashier, and demanded money from the cash drawer. The store’s manager heard the cashier scream, ran to the front of the store, confronted Aparicio, and tried to wrestle the gun away from him. The gun went off and killed the store manager.
• Lydia Bamberger was addicted to cocaine. She left a friend’s party under the influence and began driving home down a four-lane highway. She lost control of her car, crossed the median, and broadsided an oncoming car driven by a young mother who had her infant twins in the backseat. One of the twins was killed instantly; the other twin suffered life-threatening injuries, and the mother lingered in the hospital in a persistent vegetative state.
• Charlene Lau was a hospital nurse who took a leave of absence after a freak accident at home in which she severely injured her back. Lau’s doctor prescribed Vicodin, a powerful pain medication derived from opium. Over time Lau became addicted to the Vicodin and began snorting it.
Lau returned to work and got a new job at a nursing home. To feed her addiction, she began stealing a liquid opioid, Oxyfast, prescribed for three elderly residents who were suffering from severe end-stage cancer-related pain. In an effort to conceal her theft, Lau replaced the residents’ pain medication with water and food coloring to match the medication’s original color.
It was hard for me to not feel anger toward these inmates when I met them at parole board hearings. Their acts were evil, if we accept (p.82) the standard definitions of immoral and malevolent conduct. Hector Aparicio terrorized convenience store employees who were simply trying to earn a day’s pay. Lydia Bamberger killed one infant and seriously injured another and their mother. Charlene Lau took pain medication from elderly nursing home residents. Yet when I faced these inmates, I tried hard to distinguish between such depraved conduct and the person. Is it possible in some instances to conclude that the inmate’s conduct was evil but the inmate is not? I think so.
Addiction, for example, is now widely viewed as an illness and a disease. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, addiction was viewed as a sin, a form of evil conduct. It was not unusual then for people who were considered drunks to be placed in stocks, beaten, whipped, jailed, fined, and otherwise ridiculed. The Ale Houses Act of 1551 made drunkenness a civil offense in England. Repeat offenders were paraded through town wearing a “drunkard’s cloak,” a barrel with an opening cut in the top for the person’s head to pass through. Two smaller holes were cut in the sides for the arms.
Not until the late nineteenth century did significant numbers of physicians begin to view addiction as a disease. Since then we have seen impressive, unprecedented consensus among professionals that addiction occurs when dopamine interacts with the neurotransmitter glutamate to take over the brain’s system of reward-related learning. Repeated exposure to an addictive substance or behavior causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in planning and executing tasks) to communicate in a way that leads people to seek addictive substances.6 For many, although not all, the needle has moved from the free will side of the dial to the determinism side.
People differ in the degree to which they like or dislike a particular addictive substance or activity, most likely because of differences in physiology and genetics. Some people may enjoy a substance or activity so much that it becomes extremely tempting and difficult to resist; others do not experience this difficulty because they do not experience a similar level of enjoyment. Many of the inmates I have met seem to have remarkably low thresholds of tolerance for addictive substances and activities; with only minimal stimulation they head toward addiction.
(p.83) If we accept that neurobiology largely determines individuals’ addictive tendencies, it makes no more sense to consider addicts evil than it does to consider evil those people with autism, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, and Parkinson’s disease. Yet despite our increasingly sophisticated understanding of the neurobiological determinants of addiction, many of us—me included—sometimes have to fight the instinct to conflate the evil consequences of addiction and the addicted individual.
The same is true of inmates with debilitating mental illness. I do not have in mind the many inmates who are feeling somewhat depressed as a result of their incarceration. Rather, I am thinking about the 15 to 20 percent of prison inmates in nearly every state’s prisons who are suffering from serious, disabling mental illness, especially schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and anxiety disorders.7 Many of these inmates experience hallucinations and delusions, especially if they are not taking antipsychotic medication. Every prison official in the nation knows that seriously mentally ill inmates are both numerous and challenging.
In a perfect world many inmates with major mental illness would be treated in a psychiatric hospital instead of being incarcerated. Granted, some offenders are so dangerous that they need to be institutionalized, either in prison or a highly secure psychiatric facility. But many inmates I have met got into trouble because of their difficulty managing their mental illness. They stopped taking their psychiatric medication, for example, or they had difficulty accessing psychiatric and other mental health services. I have lost count of the number of inmates with schizophrenia who were actively delusional (experiencing distorted thinking with significant cognitive impairment) or hallucinating (for example, hearing voices that issue commands to commit a crime) when they assaulted someone.
For many, incarceration can intensify and worsen their symptoms if they are not able to get skilled help while in prison. To make matters worse, some inmates with major mental illness get into trouble while in prison—especially by getting into fights with other inmates or failing to cooperate with correctional officers—and get placed in segregation for disciplinary reasons. Placing an inmate with major mental illness in segregation can exacerbate symptoms greatly.
(p.84) • Don Swaggerty was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was seventeen. As a young adult, Swaggerty was admitted to a psychiatric hospital on a number of occasions and was able to manage in the community reasonably well when he took his prescribed neuroleptic medication.
Over time Swaggerty became sexually involved with three young boys in the community. Swaggerty lured them to an abandoned warehouse close to his home and sexually abused them. During a three-month period, two of the boys disappeared and were reported missing. Swaggerty eventually became a suspect, and for several weeks undercover police followed him closely. The dismembered bodies of the two missing boys were found in plastic garbage bags hidden in the basement of the abandoned warehouse.
• Joy Motton began to manifest psychotic symptoms when she was twelve. She lived with her parents until she was twenty, when she became pregnant by a man she met at a local bar. Motton received services from a community mental health center, lived in a supervised apartment, received home-based services to help her care for her newborn son, and was reasonably stable on neuroleptic medication. She was in a stormy relationship with her baby’s father.
During a routine visit at Motton’s apartment, a visiting pediatric nurse noticed bruises on the baby’s torso; the baby displayed various distress symptoms, suggesting that he may have been physically abused. Evidence presented at trial showed that Motton, who seemed quite confused when she was arrested, had beaten her child.
• Milt Drabowsky was a well-known surgeon. Unbeknown to his wife, Drabowsky was having an affair with a colleague. At one point Drabowsky’s mistress threatened to tell his wife about the affair unless he left the marriage.
During this time Drabowsky was also being treated by a psychiatrist for bipolar disorder. For several days during a one-week period Drabowsky was feeling profoundly depressed and contemplated suicide. He failed to show up for office appointments and stopped spending time with his wife and mistress.
One afternoon Drabowsky wrote out a suicide note, drove over to his mistress’s home, shot her in the head, and tried to commit suicide (p.85) by poisoning himself with carbon monoxide. Drabowsky did not die and was later convicted of murder.
• Moe Cuellar was a nurse who provided services to patients with HIV/AIDS. For years he coped with symptoms of bipolar disorder that were usually managed well with psychotropic medication, although recently Cuellar’s mood swings had worsened.
Early one evening Cuellar was driving home from work and stopped at a service station. Another customer had parked his car at an odd angle and in such a way that Cuellar was not able to pull his car next to the gas pump. Cuellar lost his temper and began berating the customer. The customer responded in kind, and the two threatened to harm each other. Cuellar retreated to his car where he kept a handgun in a concealed compartment in the trunk. He grabbed the gun and threatened his adversary, who dared Cuellar to shoot him. Cuellar pulled the trigger and killed the other customer.
Evidence presented at trial showed that for more than two months Cuellar had not been taking the psychotropic medication prescribed for his bipolar disorder.
• Judy Brandt, thirty-one, struggled with cognitive issues and was diagnosed with intellectual disability (formerly called mental retardation). Brandt lived in a group home for women with similar challenges.
One evening Brandt got into an intense argument with another group home resident when they disagreed about which television station to watch in the facility’s living room. Brandt started screaming at the other resident, who responded by pushing Brandt to the floor. Brandt stood up, ran to the kitchen, grabbed shears that were on a counter for trimming the property’s bushes, and stabbed the other resident in the chest. Brandt was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.
When I met inmates whose offenses appeared to be rooted in their addictions or mental illness, or both, it was not hard for me to imagine how their challenges contributed to their crimes. They seemed less evil. Often my questions during parole board hearings addressed (p.86) these links and the steps the inmate had taken, and could take, to address these debilitating issues (such as addictions counseling and mental health treatment).
But in many other cases inmates’ conduct seemed to reflect stunningly poor judgment, without the overlay of addictions or mental illness. My instincts about whether inmates committed crimes because of factors over which they had little or no control, as opposed to committing crimes because of deliberate choices, certainly influenced my thinking about whether they warranted parole. Some inmates need to be held accountable because of their greed, vindictiveness, and other self-serving motives.
Some inmates’ offenses arise out of what I call crimes of pure frolic; they did not hurt others as a direct result of psychiatric illness or runaway addiction. Often these crimes have disastrous consequences. Yet most of these inmates do not strike me as evil in the narrow sense of the term. What they did was stupid, unthinking, impulsive, and insensitive but not the product of evil per se. In so many of these cases, what began as misguided tomfoolery escalated into vicious misconduct when the culprits indulged in various forms of reckless abandon, frequently fueled by alcohol and drugs that inhibited their impulse control and impaired their judgment. I often viewed these offenders as callous and careless, but for me these cases do not rise to the level of evil intent.
• Carl Hoffberger and Chip Landau met as juveniles when both were residents of a state-sponsored group home. Both young men had lived in a series of foster homes and group residences after their respective parents’ rights were terminated because of neglect and abuse. The two shared an apartment.
Hoffberger and Landau often sat in the apartment drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Early one morning—about 2:00 A.M.—the two were quite inebriated. Hoffberger told Lau he was hungry, and the two men went to a twenty-four-hour convenience store for food. They walked around the store and gathered bread, deli meats, soda, and cookies. At the cash register the drunken Hoffberger took a handgun out of his jacket pocket and playfully told the clerk that it might be a good idea for her to let the pair have the food for free. (p.87) The clerk panicked and started screaming. Hoffberger told her to calm down, but that didn’t work. The clerk ran out of the store and was about to call 911 on her cell phone. Hoffberger was afraid the police would arrive and find out that he was on probation; he shot the clerk in the back. The victim died.
• Tim Phoebus and Sam Ponson worked together in the shipping department of a large retailer. After work they occasionally visited strip clubs or bars. On weekends the pair occasionally went to a nearby shooting range and, in season, went deer hunting.
One evening, after visiting several bars, Phoebus and Ponson, both quite drunk, grabbed their rifles and drove to a highway overpass. They concocted a contest to see how many cars they could hit with bullets as they passed beneath the overpass.
One of Phoebus’s shots struck a driver in the shoulder. The driver lost control of her car, veered off of the highway, struck a pole, and died.
Yet another type of criminal who commits offenses that border on pure evil but do not quite rise to that level is the miscreant who commits crimes driven by desperation. These are offenders who conclude that they must commit a crime to work their way out of hopeless circumstances. Typically these offenders reach a point where they feel they have run out of options and must commit a crime to resolve their seemingly untenable predicament. Some crimes of desperation are committed in the context of acute crises. For example, a heroin addict in deep withdrawal may hold up a convenience store to get quick cash and then run to a nearby drug dealer to purchase a quick fix; he panics when a customer confronts him, and he shoots the customer impulsively in response to the threat.
In contrast other crimes of desperation may stem from chronic, cumulative pressure. A man who is informed by an organized crime figure that he must pay off his large loan “in the very, very near future” if he wants to protect his children from serious harm may spend weeks arranging to commit arson-for-profit or embezzle money from his employer to raise the cash the debtor needs so badly.
Many crimes of desperation have a financial stimulus. These offenses are committed in an effort to fix a money-related problem, for (p.88) example, to obtain cash to pay the living expenses for one’s family or to pay off a large gambling debt.
• Gary Orsino had borrowed $19,000 from a local loan shark with organized crime connections. Orsino had a bad credit history, a gambling problem, and was not able to borrow money from conventional banking sources. He felt in desperate need of the money to pay off his mounting debts.
The loan shark contacted Orsino almost daily, pressuring him to repay the loan and the rapidly escalating interest. Orsino believed he had run out of options and impulsively decided to rob a bank. He put on a ski mask and borrowed a handgun from a friend. Orsino, who had never committed a serious crime, walked into the bank, ordered customers to lie down, handed a teller a note ordering her to hand over money with “no dye pack,” and threatened the teller with a handgun. One customer, an off-duty police officer, sneaked up behind Orsino and tried to wrest the gun from him. Orsino shot the officer in the head, killing her instantly.
• Jake Adair invested heavily in the real estate market. Within ten years he had purchased a number of multifamily dwellings in low-income neighborhoods. He also owned two small businesses, an automobile repair shop and a pizza restaurant.
The local economy weakened badly, and Adair had trouble meeting his various mortgage and rental payments. Sales at Adair’s retail businesses dropped dramatically, and he had a hard time finding tenants for several rental units. Adair received a demand notice from his mortgage holder, who threatened to foreclose on his rental properties.
In desperation Adair contacted a childhood friend who had links to organized crime. Adair arranged to have his pizza restaurant destroyed by arson so that he could collect the insurance coverage. Unbeknown to the arsonist, the pizza restaurant was attached to an apartment with a common wall. On the day of the fire the apartment’s tenant was home, recovering from recent heart surgery. The fire destroyed both the restaurant and the apartment, killing the tenant.
(p.89) • Rob Grimsley was a hearing officer in the state’s workers’ compensation court. He had been doing this work for nearly twenty-three years. Over time Grimsley’s personal lifestyle had become more lavish and extravagant. He and his wife joined an exclusive country club and purchased a pricey beachfront vacation home. They also traveled extensively. Grimsley did not disclose to his wife that they were experiencing serious cash-flow problems.
Grimsley was approached by a local attorney who frequently represented clients with cases before the workers’ compensation court. The attorney and Grimsley knew each other from the country club and occasionally played golf together and socialized. During one lunchtime get-together, the attorney, who was aware of Grimsley’s financial challenges, slipped him a sealed envelope containing $5,000 in cash. The attorney, who was under investigation himself for illegal activity, was cooperating with state police investigators when he attempted to bribe Grimsley in relation to a client whose case was about to be heard in Grimsley’s court. Grimsley accepted the envelope.
Other crimes of desperation committed by inmates I encountered had little or nothing to do with money and much more to do with interpersonal conflict, for example, vicious assaults that arose out of a desperate attempt to resolve an overwhelming family dispute. The offenders’ intense fear may be rooted in anxiety about legal repercussions and risks, the potential loss of a marriage or intimate relationship, or loss of a job. Glaring evil intent may be absent.
• Michael Machado was a city council member generally regarded as a rising star. Like his mother, Machado was elected to the council at a young age. He quickly rose through the ranks and seemed destined to assume a leadership position on the council.
One evening, after a lengthy city council meeting, Machado stopped at a nearby restaurant, had several drinks, and began driving home. His blood alcohol level was 0.23, nearly three times the legal limit. Machado drove through a red light and slammed into a pedestrian, causing fatal injuries. Machado was so afraid of the (p.90) public humiliation and legal consequences that he did not stop to help the victim or notify the police. The following morning Machado was arrested for causing a death while under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident.
• Jalen Oates was hitchhiking home one afternoon after finishing his classes at the local community college. A classmate recognized Oates and offered him a ride.
After chatting some during their ride together, the driver drove to a secluded section of town and made sexual advances toward Oates. Oates reacted angrily and began fighting off the driver’s advances. During the scuffle Oates strangled the driver to death.
Intense surges of rage precipitate many crimes, some of which involve, as prosecutors might say, evil malice aforethought. Passionate conflict, fueled by anger and hostility, can erupt in vicious forms, leading to serious injury or death. A significant percentage of rage-induced crimes occur between family members and acquaintances, such as coworkers and neighbors. Federal statistics show that nearly 60 percent of nonfatal violent crimes, many of which include an element of rage, are committed by people who know each other (that is, they are not strangers). Approximately three-fourths of homicides are committed by people known to the victim.
• Edwina Morrall, eighteen, lived with her grandmother. Morrall never knew her father, and her mother was in a drug treatment program.
Morrall’s grandmother was concerned about Morrall’s relationship with a thirty-one-year-old married man. She lectured Morrall incessantly about how risky it was for her to be involved with this man. The pair often argued and threatened each other. Morrall later admitted that she sometimes fantasized about her grandmother’s death.
One afternoon Morrall got into a vicious shouting match with her grandmother after she ordered Morrall’s boyfriend to leave the home. During the argument Morrall impulsively grabbed an iron frying pan and slammed it against her grandmother’s head. The grandmother fell to the floor, started convulsing, lost consciousness, and later died. Morrall panicked, called the police, and reported (p.91) that a Hispanic man had broken into the home and attacked her grandmother. Morrall later confessed.
• James Orr had been married to his wife for almost seven years. Her sixteen-year-old son from her first marriage lived with the couple; he had dropped out of high school and had developed a substance abuse problem. Orr’s stepson worked only sporadically and did not pay for rent or food.
Orr and his stepson always had difficulty getting along. According to Orr, his stepson always resented his mother’s decision to divorce his father and remarry. Orr and his stepson argued constantly; their disagreements often erupted into shouting matches.
One evening Orr threatened to throw his stepson out of the house when Orr accused him of stealing money from his wallet. The two exchanged punches. During the fight Orr lost control, pinned his stepson, and banged his head against the floor repeatedly, causing severe brain damage.
Some crimes of rage involve people who have no family connection at all. Often these are friends, acquaintances, or neighbors, as opposed to complete strangers.
• Tim Matte was evicted from his single-room-occupancy hotel room. The property owner grew tired of Matte’s alcohol abuse and chronically late rent payments. Matte was a Vietnam War veteran who lived on disability income.
Matte’s landlord told him that he would have to leave the property by the end of the week. The two argued; Matte flew into a rage and beat her with his fists. The woman suffered several broken ribs, a broken jaw, fractured skull, and lacerations.
• Dale Shinnick was thirty-one and lived with his parents. He had dropped out of high school, struggled with a learning disability, and had difficulty maintaining steady employment.
For several days Shinnick and his parents were involved in a feud with a neighbor. Originally Shinnick’s parents accused the neighbor of building without permission a new driveway that extended into property they owned. Since then the neighbors had argued repeatedly.
(p.92) One weekend afternoon Shinnick and the neighbor were outside and began arguing about how best to control a large pool of standing water that extended across the shared property line. Shinnick accused the neighbor of failing to properly grade his property when the controversial driveway was built, and the neighbor accused Shinnick’s family of being too noisy. The argument escalated; Shinnick went into his family’s garage, retrieved a loaded hunting rifle, and shot and killed the neighbor.
We have become all too familiar with violent crimes committed in workplaces by disgruntled employees and customers. According to federal statistics, in recent years more than a half-million non fatal violent crimes—rape, robbery, or assault—have been perpetrated annually against people aged sixteen or older while they were at work or on duty. In recent years about five hundred workplace homicides have occurred annually. While some of these crimes are carefully planned acts of vengeance, others are spontaneous acts of rage triggered by adverse employment decisions or infuriating customer service.
• Rob Boyd operated a printing press at a large commercial printer. Boyd made no secret of being gay.
Two of Boyd’s coworkers were homophobic and frequently made snide remarks about gay people within Boyd’s earshot. Occasionally these two coworkers would taunt Boyd about his sexual orientation.
Over time Boyd became more and more frustrated with the harassment, although he never shared his frustration and anger with anyone at work. One afternoon, when the coworkers’ harassment was unusually intense, Boyd lost control, grabbed a large metal stake that was lying near the printing press, and stabbed one of the coworkers in his abdomen and thigh. The second coworker fled.
• Jared Unitas bought a new recreational vehicle from a local dealer. After driving his new vehicle for two weeks, Unitas noticed that the transmission was not working properly. Unitas took the vehicle back to the dealer, whose service department attempted to fix the problem. Several days later Unitas returned to the dealer, complaining (p.93) that the problem had not been fixed. Once again the service department attempted to fix the problem, but Unitas complained soon thereafter that the problem persisted and was worsening.
Unitas made an appointment with the dealer’s general manager and insisted on receiving a new recreational vehicle. The general manager explained that he could not replace the vehicle and attempted to convince Unitas that the service department would continue working on the vehicle until it was properly repaired. Unitas became enraged and stormed out of the general manager’s office, retrieved a handgun from his car, returned to the general manager’s office, and shot the man to death.
Although most crimes of rage involve family members, acquaintances, and coworkers, some involve complete strangers whose paths happen to cross. These unfortunate encounters—many of which do not entail evil acts planned in advance—usually occur in public settings, such as parking lots, highways, restaurants, stores, and sports venues.
• Lonnie Moore pulled onto the highway and headed home after visiting his mother, who had just moved into a nursing home. About five minutes after he entered the highway, a car with a teenage driver and three teenage passengers began to tailgate Moore’s vehicle. Moore motioned for the driver to pass. The car with the teenagers pulled alongside Moore’s car, and two of the passengers leaned out the windows, made obscene gestures toward Moore, and began screaming at him. Moore blew his horn and returned the obscene gesture. For several minutes the two cars jockeyed for position on the highway.
Eventually Moore slowed down as he neared his exit. The driver of the other car followed Moore off the exit ramp and gently rear-ended his car at the end of the ramp. Moore jumped out of his car and began screaming at the driver and passengers. When the teenagers got out of their car and began to approach Moore, Moore opened his car trunk, retrieved a powerful compound bow he used for hunting, and shot one of the teenagers, killing him instantly.
A customer in front of Lyles began yelling at the checkout clerk to hurry up. The checkout clerk admonished the rude customer for her behavior and told her that she was working as quickly as possible; the two continued to exchange heated words. A store security guard walked over and began to escort the customer from the store. The customer resisted, and Lyles stepped in to try to help the security guard. During the brief fracas the unruly customer and Lyles began to scuffle; Lyles grabbed a metal baseball bat from a nearby display and began swinging furiously at the other customer. The bat struck the customer in the head, fracturing her skull and eye socket and causing permanent nerve and brain damage.
• Lew Michaels was an inmate serving a twelve-year sentence for armed robbery. He was placed in the prison’s segregation unit for thirty days following a fight with another inmate in the prison’s dining room.
During his stay in segregation Michaels argued with a correctional officer who refused Michaels’s numerous requests to shower. Michaels cursed at the officer and threatened to kill him. The argument escalated, and the officer used his portable departmental radio to call for backup; about two minutes later several other officers arrived at Michaels’s cell. They opened the cell door in order to restrain Michaels.
The officers did not know that Michaels had concealed a small razor blade in his hand that he had loosened from a disposable razor; as one of the officers approached him, Michaels slashed the officer’s face, just below his eye.
Some inmates I encountered seemed evil in the truest sense of the term. These were offenders who planned in advance to harm others and seemed well aware of their intentions and the likely abhorrent consequences. Exploring these criminals’ motives during parole board hearings led me to conversations quite different from those I had with inmates whose crimes seemed to be the by-product of addiction, mental illness, frolic, or spontaneous rage.
(p.95) Some of the most disturbing evil crimes take the form of carefully calculated revenge and retribution. These offenders act out of sustained anger and a fierce determination to pay someone back for some alleged misdeed. They spend time thinking through how to harm their victims—physically, emotionally, or financially. These crimes are not the product of psychiatric compulsion or driven by addiction; rather, they are the result of manipulative deliberation and plotting.
• Tom Crowley lived with a woman for three years. The couple had an on-again, off-again relationship, although recently they had talked seriously about getting married.
One afternoon Crowley overheard his partner talking with a friend on the telephone. The partner did not realize that Crowley was in the apartment at the time. She told the friend that she had been having an affair with a former boyfriend and just found out she was pregnant with her lover’s child.
Crowley was furious. He felt angry and betrayed but decided not to confront his partner. Instead, he took time to plot his revenge. One Saturday evening around sunset, Crowley told his partner that he had a special surprise for her. Crowley drove her to a nearby seaside town and told her that he wanted to give her something special to honor their relationship. They walked toward the water’s edge and a ledge that overlooked the ocean. Crowley suddenly pushed his partner off the ledge. She and her unborn baby died when she landed on rocks hundreds of feet below.
• Bonnie Grich was employed by a heating and air-conditioning company for sixteen years. Growing up, Grich was the best friend of the daughter of the business’s owner. The owner hired Grich as a bookkeeper shortly after she graduated from the local community college.
Grich had a falling out with the owner’s daughter, who accused Grich of flirting with her husband. Soon thereafter Grich sensed that the owner was much more critical of her work and was less flexible with her work schedule. Grich became quite miserable at work and resented the way she was being treated. She began embezzling money from the company’s accounts. Grich obtained the (p.96) funds by creating fraudulent invoices, writing checks to bogus companies, and cashing the checks herself. The fraud lasted about eighteen months. By the time she was caught, Grich had stolen nearly $176,000.
• Terrance Frohwirth, twenty, was a member of a well-known urban gang. The gang was involved with dealing drugs, stealing cars, robbing downtown pedestrians, and shoplifting.
One of the gang’s newest members was arrested by the police in connection with an armed robbery. While being interrogated by the police, the new gang member confessed to several armed robberies and automobile thefts and supplied detectives with the names of his accomplices, other gang members. As a result Frohwirth and three of his fellow gang members were arrested.
All the defendants were released on bail pending trial. Frohwirth figured out that the new gang member had betrayed him and was furious. One night Frohwirth intercepted the new gang member as he was walking into his mother’s home, forced him into Frohwirth’s car, drove to a nearby public park, shoved the young man out of the car, and then shot and killed him.
Other inmates commit crimes that are the result of out-and-out greed, exploitation, and opportunism. I have no doubt that some commit crimes with explicit intent, often motivated by a self-centered wish to inflict pain on others. These are criminals who have set their sights on something they want—valuable property, money, sex—and they are determined to get it, no matter the cost to victims. Often these offenders have little ability to empathize with their victims. I must admit that I had difficulty empathizing with these inmates.
Some criminals’ evil conduct is in the form of financial exploitation.
• Milton Bowen was fired from his job as the night-shift manager at a large furniture warehouse. According to his supervisor, Bowen had missed work too many times. Bowen deeply resented being fired. He was especially angry that his loss of income limited his ability to buy nice clothes, eat in upscale restaurants, and attend professional sporting events.
(p.97) Bowen was determined to sustain his lifestyle. He plotted with his brother-in-law to set up a bogus jewelry store. Bowen and his accomplice rented commercial space in a strip mall and arranged for several unsuspecting jewelry salespeople to bring their lines to the storefront to discuss a wholesale purchase. Bowen and his brother-in-law robbed two salespeople at gunpoint and stole all their samples, the total value of which was $279,000.
• Will Bunker dropped out of school at sixteen. He spent most of his time hanging out in the streets with friends. On occasion Bunker worked odd jobs for extra cash. Most of his income came from selling cocaine in the neighborhood. Bunker had been arrested several times for possessing drugs, assaults, and shoplifting.
Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, one of Bunker’s friends told him he knew of a way to earn a lot of money quickly. The friend explained that he knew of a local restaurant owner whose daughter had once dated Bunker’s friend; the restaurateur routinely visited a nearby outdoor bank deposit box around 11:00 P.M. to deposit the day’s revenue. One night Bunker and his friend lurked in nearby bushes, waiting for the restaurant owner to drive up to the outdoor depository. When the man got out of his car, Bunker and his friend ran up to him, pointed their handguns at him, and shouted for the man to drop his money-filled bank bag. The man resisted, and Bunker shot him in the chest. The man writhed in pain while Bunker and his friend ran off with the money bag. About a half hour later the restaurateur died.
Among the inmates I have met, those involved with organized crime have been among the most callous, cruel offenders imaginable. And I am not thinking of only the stereotypical Italian and Sicilian mafioso types. On the parole board I encountered newer forms of organized crime sponsored by other ethnic groups, motorcycle gangs, and so on.
• For several years Landon Mora was groomed by a local organized crime group to take over its lucrative drug-and sex-trafficking business. At a relatively young age Mora was released from prison and went on to supervise a large-scale and highly profitable cocaine and (p.98) heroin operation. He and his buddies obtained the drugs from several Mexican connections who smuggled the drugs into the United States. More recently Mora had become involved in sex trafficking of minors.
Mora was arrested during a sting operation conducted by state and federal authorities who were investigating sex trafficking. The investigators responded to ads that Mora had posted on a website known for linking men with minors. Mora began to suspect that police knew about his operation and confronted a man who, Mora believed, had leaked information to the police in order to get criminal charges in his own case reduced. Mora arranged to meet the man in a local park, ostensibly to discuss a new sex-trafficking venture. When the man arrived, Mora shot and killed him.
• Frank Rayford rode with a well-known motorcycle gang. The gang was heavily involved in the drug trade and carefully protected its turf when other motorcycle gangs encroached on the territory. One night Rayford and several of his biker friends were at a bar when members of a rival gang arrived. Tension between the two groups had been simmering for months because of their dispute about which group owned and should control a nearby neighborhood known for a lot of illegal drug activity.
Rayford got into an argument with a member of the rival biker group. In a matter of seconds the two started fighting. The bar manager kicked them out of the bar, and the two adversaries continued to go after each other. Rayford reached into his jacket, pulled out a handgun, fired several shots, and killed the other biker. Another bar patron happened to be walking into the bar at that very moment and was struck in the head by a stray bullet and killed.
• Angela Estrada dated and eventually married Carl Schilling, who was heavily involved in a large burglary and robbery ring that operated in several New England states. Estrada did not have a significant criminal record, but over time she became more and more involved in the ring’s activities. On several occasions she coordinated smart-phone communications (voice and text) among ringleaders and, using her knowledge from her work in a real estate firm, supplied them with information about potential victims (addresses, location of valuables, and so on).
(p.99) At Schilling’s request Estrada agreed to drive a car that a group of accomplices used in their robbery of the house of a wealthy man with whom Estrada once worked. The robbers abandoned the scheme in midheist when they heard police sirens in the distance (the police were alerted by a silent alarm that the robbers had inadvertently activated). Estrada realized that a landscaper who was on the property had recognized her face and the car; she drove her car right into the employee, who was standing adjacent to the driveway. The man survived the crash but ended up in a persistent vegetative state.
Other inmates exploit their victims sexually. Some sex offenders have diagnosable psychiatric disorders that explain their crimes—paraphilias such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, and pedophilia—but others simply take advantage of victims, knowing full well that their actions are exploitative, manipulative, and opportunistic.
• Bobby Surhoff married for the first time when he was thirty-six. He worked at a car dealership and married a woman he met at work. At the time Surhoff’s wife had a fourteen-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage.
About a year after their marriage, Surhoff and his wife began having difficulty getting along. Both struggled with alcohol abuse and argued frequently. One night Surhoff’s wife left their apartment to stay with her mother after an argument. Surhoff walked into his stepdaughter’s room as she was getting ready for bed to tell her what had happened. He sat next to her on her bed and told her that he really needed to talk. After several minutes Surhoff began stroking her hair and back and began fondling her. His stepdaughter resisted, but Surhoff told her how close he felt to her, how much he trusted her, and that he would not hurt her. Surhoff told her that it was important for her to learn “what it’s like to be a woman” with someone she could trust. Surhoff had her perform oral sex and had intercourse with her. Their sexual contact continued for almost four months, until Surhoff’s wife moved out of the apartment with her daughter.
• Stan Phoebus was a college junior and lived in a fraternity house. One Saturday evening the fraternity sponsored a party with a sorority. (p.100) Phoebus spent the evening talking with a sorority member. Both drank several beers and shots of tequila. Phoebus slipped Rohypnol—also known as a date-rape drug—into one of her drinks.
At about 1:30 A.M. Phoebus and the young woman listened to music and she began to feel woozy. Shortly thereafter Phoebus had intercourse with her without her consent. The young woman later reported the assault to police, and Phoebus was arrested and charged with rape.
Sorting out evil and goodness among inmates, and the complicated mix of the two, was my biggest challenge as a parole board member. I believe that most people are good in most important respects and that relatively few among us are truly evil. I realize that my decades-long encounters with criminals and truly terrible crime sagas may lead me to exaggerate the prevalence of evil in the world. I try my best to keep my perception of malevolence in check. Sometimes it is hard.
While I was on the parole board, my instinct was to look for the goodness among inmates, those kernels of grace and empathy that lie within many—perhaps even most—offenders I met. I am not naive. I know that some offenders are cruel and some are evil. But most do not seem to be inherently cruel or evil, and most know they have behaved badly and hurt people. Most offenders want to change. They really do.
(1.) For discussions of the concept of evil, see S. Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (New York: Basic Books, 2011); M. Heinberg, Retribution: Evil for Evil in Ethics, Law, and Literature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); D. Koehn, The Nature of Evil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); and L. Russell, Evil: A Philosophical Investigation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
(2.) For a discussion of the concepts of type I and type II errors, see N. Weiss, Introductory Statistics, 10th ed. (Old Tappan, NJ: Pearson, 2015).
(3.) Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 3–4.
(5.) I discuss my views about the causes of crime in F. Reamer, Criminal Lessons: Case Studies and Commentary on Crime and Justice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), and Heinous Crime: Cases, Causes, and Consequences (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
(6.) C. Erickson, The Science of Addiction: From Neurobiology to Treatment (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007).
(7.) C. Sarteschi, “Mentally Ill Off enders Involved with the U.S. Criminal Justice System: A Synthesis,” SAGE Open, July 16, 2013, http://sgo.sagepub.com/content/3/3/2158244013497029; D. James and L. Glaze, Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, September 2006, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mhppji.pdf.