After graduating from college in 1991 I worked as a newspaper reporter in Southern California. Often the newspaper's sole reporter I covered a variety of beats. Looking back on the work, though, the stories I remember the best are the ones I covered as a police reporter. On that beat you see the best and worst of people - well, more often the latter - and are left with memories, some good and some bad. This is part of a series of memoir pieces I'm writing about some of those events, thoughts and emotions.
It has been said that a conservative is a liberal who got mugged. I thought about that saying after covering a murder trial and sentencing for a serial killer.
I'd read arguments on both sides of the capital punishment argument and I knew where I stood. I was a good liberal - I'd quote Mahatma Gandhi at the drop of a conservative speaker's hat. I did speeches on the issues and probably annoyed my parents with my rantings on the matter.
But after seeing the death penalty actually being considred, as I covered murder trials for the Hemet News, that I began to question things... a process I'm still continuing to this day.
There was a man in Riverside County named William Suff. He was accused of murdering 13 prostitutes. It took the county 18 months to figure out who the serial killer was. It turned out he was a county employee. There was a lovely picture of him on a county newsletter, praising him for carpooling.
I grew up fascinated by mysterials. And legal thrillers. With a copy of my latest Robert Parker or Scott Turow I'd sometimes go by the courthouse on the way to work. Who wants to cover a city council meeting when a crime hearing that is somehow related to that town is going on?
After some pleading, my editor said I could cover portions of the Suff trial. After all, one of the victims was from the area. But I also had to cover my usual government beat.
I thought that by seeing people like Suff, people doing deeds that seemed like pure evil, I could better understand people. But if there are people of pure evil, then where did that leave ideas like rehabilitation?
And what about people I'd later cover like Dora Buenrostro, who would stab to death her three children, blame the crimes on her husband and then scream in the middle of a courtroom that there were snakes coming right at her? The court said she was mentally competent to stand trial.The prosecutor said the crimes came about because of passion and jealousy.
Is this the best way to understand human weaknesses? I wondered. I'm not sure now. I just know I had some sleepless nites then.
The first and the last days were the worst, both to watch and to describe in print.
On the first day of the Suff trial they began showing photos of the victims. I guess they wanted to shock the jury with his callousness of his actions. I was sitting between two elderly couples. figured they were families of the victims but I didn't ask them.
In thinking and writing about war crimes and torture the other day the way I put it is this: "We should not use extreme circumstances, real or imaginary, to make policy decisions or take ultimate stands on a complicated issues. Better to make those decisions in unemotional circumstances."
I still think that makes sense. But who would I tell these relatives, who seem to be almost blood-thirsty in their quest for revenge, that they should wait until calmer times to stake out a position on the issue? I can't. Can you?
If I had to try to sum up what I learned it is this - taking absolute positions is easy, provided you don't have to actually test those positions in sticky emotional situations like this one.