Wednesday, December 28, 2011

See you in 2012!

Have to make a trip to la belle France, be back in the new year. It's partly to see family, partly research for the new book. This is where I'll be:

See you soon!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fingerprints and a great blog for you

I wanted to point you to a blog I read regularly, by one of those genius science types. But she's also a writer, so even I have no trouble following along. Anyway, she currently has a fascinating post about fingerprints, read it here. Full disclosure, it does include a brief interview with me, but it's much more than that.

I've also added her to my blogroll (why didn't I do that before?!). Check it out, she really knows her stuff.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Fathers and Sons

I was recently directed to a great blog post that addressed 50 Rules for Dads and Daughters. Check it out. It got me thinking about a (related) pet concern of my own: fathers and sons.

Working here in the the juvenile court system it never ceases to disturb me that so many of the kids who come through the door have no good father-figure in their lives. Many have no contact with their fathers at all, some have abusive or neglectful fathers, and way too many have no idea who their father is.

And it pains me to see those kids with no man to look up to. I have a huge role in my son's daily life, from waking him up in the mornings with a kiss, to taking him to school and playing with him when we're done with school and work, to the final kiss at night, the last thing I do before going to bed, and when he's already asleep.

I can't imagine life without him, and I can't imagine what his life would be without a loving father. Yet so many kids grow up just that way, I truly hate to see it. In fact, while I was writing this I saw first-hand in court how important that bond is, and I immediately posted about it.

So here's my Christmas list, not for presents but a humble offering to go alongside the one for fathers and daughters. (They aren't rules, I get enough of those at work.)

If you have a son, if you're planning on having a son, here are a few suggestions:

1. Treat his mother with respect, no matter what. He watches everything you do and he'll learn from you how women are to be treated. Never forget that.

2. Fight with him. Regularly. Use swords or just tussle and tumble on the bed (though not right after it's been made, see #1.) because he loves to see how strong his daddy is, and to show you how tough he is.
3. Tell him he's your favorite child, no matter how many children you have. I have three, and I tell each of them he or she is my favorite. I do it when they're together and they roll their eyes and groan and sometimes say, "Hey, that's not fair." I hope I'm teaching them they're all special, teaching them not to take things too seriously, and teaching them that their siblings are special, too.

4. Get him superhero underpants. That's what he wants to be when he grows up.

5. Get yourself matching superhero underpants. That's what you are to him.

6. Sit down and shut up. With him. With a book. No need to talk, with the exception of the occasional whisper from him about the volcano he's reading about, just sit in silence and read. Trust me, it will be a moment of sublime happiness for you both. (A hammock will do nicely.)

7. Watch Indiana Jones with him. You'll earn more points than you could ever spend.

8. Take his sister to a dance, and let him help you dress in your tuxedo. (Why? See #1.)

9. When you're in the car, give him a dollar to pass on to a pan-handler. He's too young to understand the larger problem or more complex solutions, but he's old enough to give to others in need. And believe me when I tell you that a dollar from a small boy brings a brighter smile than a dollar offered by you.

10. Buy him a whoopee cushion and help him slip it onto his mother's chair. Fart noises will always be funny, and the three of you will laugh for an hour at his first fart-related prank.

11. Take him to gather flowers for the rest of the family and, if you know what they are, teach him. Also, if they're from your neighbor's yard, gather them at night.

12. Tell him you love him, even when you're angry or disappointed in him. Ask him, "Do I still love you?" because you both know the answer is "Yes" and him saying it will make you both feel a little better and bring that hug a little closer and tighter.

13. Combine his name and the name of his favorite stuffed toy as the password for your work computer. That's a guaranteed smile every weekday morning. I know it sounds cheesy but it's true, I promise.

14. Tell him what you do for a living, and why its important. (If what you do is mundane and soul-sapping, either skip this advice or lie.) How cool for him to be proud of how you make a living and maybe want to be like you.
15. Don't let him win. Okay, sometimes let him win. But you should see the look on my son's face when he beats me at Uno or nutmegs me for real in the front yard. They are real achievements.

16. Send him emails. Oh, I know, I could encourage you to write him letters and keep them but let's be realistic here, would you do it? Nope, didn't think so. Me neither, which is why we created email accounts for each child and every so often send them updates about stuff we did, things they achieved. And it's great for pics. I send them a lot of pictures that might otherwise disappear over the years.

17. Teach him to swim. It'll give you peace of mind at the pool and ocean, open up a whole new type of playground to enjoy with him, and the chance to take very cool photos. That you can then email to him. (See how this works?!)
18. Kiss him while he's sleeping, every single night. One day, probably soon, he won't want you to kiss him any more. But the little sucker can't stop you when he's asleep! As I've said, it's the last thing I do every night, and I just love looking at his beautiful face thinking, "Wow, I made that." That's a nice thought to take to bed with you.

And with that, a very Merry Christmas to you and yours, from me and mine.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Now that's more like it

Just wanted to share a nice moment from court. Kid in for attempted burglary of someone's home, been working with probation since his arrest and in court today, with his father by his side, to figure out what to do with his case.

The resolution was good for him, keeps a conviction off his record if he turns it around, which is the point of all we do here, pretty much. Anyway, the probation officer just finished giving an update to the judge, who approved the resolution, and then the kid himself pipes up (now, remember what happened when the last kid piped up, not pretty).

So this fourteen-year-old tells the judge that he wants his dad to know how grateful he is for everything he'd done for him, how he's sorry he disappointed him, and how with his dad's support he'll never come our way (i.e. juvie court) again. A very rare, surprising, and touching moment. After they left, the judge, defense counsel and I just sat there for a moment, soaking up the good moment, enjoying it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The case of the Getaway Horse

Coming to the Juvenile Division has been quite an adjustment, and also a learning experience. There are quiet days and crazy days, and very very sad days. I haven't written much about what I do, I'm sort of petrified to violate any confidences, but I think it's time I let you in on a few tidbits.

The following two incidents (and I'll post more in the future) are intended to give you a flavor of the interesting times, maybe a taste of what it's like here generally.

Even the hardest criminals, in my experience, show respect to the judge. That's true here, too. Mostly. There's the kid (aged 14) who rolled his eyes while the judge was talking to him, slouched, and then when he was detained shouted, "F&*k you, ni#@er!" The judge, to his great credit, reacted by smiling at the young man and saying nothing.

Same day, different case: 15 year old selling dope at school, and when caught and searched his pocket revealed a pill I'd not heard of. When I Wikipediaed it, I learned it's been used to prevent thoroughbred horses "from bleeding through the nose during races." I can only assume he intended to feed the pill to his getaway horse before they fled into the sunset....

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Set your DVRs for Discovery (alas, no horse this time)

For those of you who missed the 48 Hours episode about my cold case, or simply can't get enough of me on television, the Discovery Channel is going to air their own show about it next week.

Here's the preview (words, no clip). It's Discovery ID, their Cold Blood series.

And as the title says, no horse, no footie, nor other elaborations for this one. I know, I know, but enjoy it just the same.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas - it's about the presents!

On the way home last night I was listening to NPR, and I heard some lefty, liberal, tree-hugging boffin waffle on about the same garbage someone always waffles on about at this time of year: it's a boon time for meany big-box stores and the true spirit of Christmas has been forgotten.

Okay, here's the news: Christmas is about presents. It's about giving stuff and getting stuff. Some crappy stuff, sure, but even that is a delight to open (until you find out it's crappy).

This NPR dude was on about how we should buy half the number of gifts and make them more "connected to the earth." Well, let me tell you that the packaging around the junk I give and receive is indestructible and will be connected to the earth for ever. The hemp-based tea kettle or whatever you suggested won't last a week, my friend.

Every year I hear about how we should all just be nice to each other at this time of year, exchange sincere words and big hugs. Ever tried unwrapping a hug? Land you in jail and labeled a sex offender, so I'd recommend against.

Look, the truth is that Christmas is about the children. Sorry, The Children. It is. The best memories I have as a kid come from Christmas mornings, my brother and sister and me poking at the mound of gifts under the tree, fizzing with the excitement of what was to come. And before that, the wonderful feeling of anticipation as I tried to stay awake and catch Santa doing his thing (even when I knew Santa didn't exist). Priceless.

But Mr. NPR says, instead of giving a commercially-bought and carefully wrapped gift, we mail a farm animal to someone who needs it. Which, I promise you, will result in this Christmas morning conversation:

Kids: "Err, Dad, why is there a big empty space under the tree?"
Me: "Sorry, kids, no presents this year. But I did donate a heifer to some guy in Afghanistan."
Kids: "What?!"
Me: "In your name!"
Kids: "What's a heifer? Why can't we have one? No fair."
Me: "A baby cow. So they can get milk or eat it."
Kids: "But a drone will probably kill it first."
Me: "You watch too much news."

And years later, when they're comforting me on my death bed:

Me: "Remember Christmases, how special they always were?"
Kids: "Yeah, every year you donated a heifer to the same dude in Afghanistan."
Me: "Wasn't that awesome?"
Kids: "No. Now hold still while we adjust your pillows. . . It's okay, Dad, it's supposed to go over your face."

So, for the sake of the children, my Christmas tree will once more be surrounded by boxes and bags, flowing across the living room floor like economy-saving lava.

Just look at these cuties. Can you really blame me?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hey, look at me!

Seems to me, with the election coming up next year, you'd all like some practice voting. And you don't even have to get up out of your seat!

Yep, for the second year in a row, this blog has earned a spot in the American Bar Journal's Fifth annual list of the best 100 blogs about lawyers and the law.

(Sadly, they still refer to those as "blawgs," which is a little reminiscent of the conference-speak I just escaped.)

But still, pretty cool.

So, what does it all mean? Not satisfied with being one of the best 100, I can actually be voted as (one of) the best in a particular category. Yep, Criminal Justice, how did you guess?

Last year I think I was. . . don't remember. But I did well because my faithful readers voted for me and, if you have the time and energy, I'd be grateful if you would do it again this year.

All you have to do is click here. Now, it does ask you to register, but it's very quick and it's so people can't sit there clicking their own blogs to the top. Fair enough, and not that I would, of course. . . !

Go me!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Kansas City Conference

Just the word "conference" gives me chills. Large and windowless rooms with tables covered in white tablecloths, cheap pens and 'informational agendas' at each setting.

And the smiling goon at the door who injects every conferencee when they're not looking with a biological agent that changes the make-up of the brain such that phrases like "evidence-based practices" and "goal-oriented modalities" seem like drops of genius.

Yep, I'm in KC at a conference. It's about drug courts for juveniles and, despite the incessant and infuriating games of buzzword catch, some of it is pretty informative. For example, the myths about drugs testing (do you know how long marijuana takes to clear the system?) and the talks about how to properly use sanctions and incentives to change juvenile behavior.

But it's cold here, and I didn't bring a jacket. Plus, I miss my family, had to watch them in pictures putting up some Christmas decorations and the first opening of the advent calendar.

Or, put another way, the temperature is on a negative-accustomed gradient, I'm non-proactively attired, and my central thumping device is adversely affected by the remote observation of my biologically- and maritally-acquired counterparts erecting seasonal displays of jollity.

On the bright side, my day will terminate with an avionically-assisted reintegration to said familial flock. Marvelous.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Something for nothing.

I received a phone call from a friend today. She left me a voicemail asking whether I knew a good family lawyer who could step into a difficult and disturbing case pronto. She was being sweet, reaching out to me on behalf of a friend and, knowing her as I do, that doesn't surprise me.

But (oh yes, there's always a 'but') she made the same request SO many people have made to me over the years when asking for a lawyer: "She doesn't have any money so I'm looking for someone to do it pro bono."

Now, here's the thing. Lawyers, like everyone, should volunteer either time or money to those less fortunate.

But I've noticed that the non-lawyer public seems to feel that if they or a friend is in a sticky situation, they should be able to get a lawyer to help them for free. It's as if by throwing the words 'pro bono' into the question, all is as it should be. And the stickier the situation, the free-er the representation should be.

And I don't get it. Truthfully, it shouldn't affect me because I work for the State and don't represent individuals (I save the world in a more general way). But so many criminal defense lawyers work themselves to a frazzle for very little money, very often for clients who pay nothing at all. I hear them complaining about it all the time (as they should).

But who else works for free? Oh, sure, lawyers can save someone from prison, can stop a child from being taken away, can. . . do all kinds of important stuff. And the immediacy and urgency seem to, frequently, be the reason for the pro bono request.

But imagine you're having a heart attack - would you call a heart surgeon and ask for a pro bono bypass? Or let's say your basement floods, would you phone Pete's 24-Hour Plumbing and ask for an immediate and pro bono patch up? No, of course not. In fact, put like that it sounds silly, doesn't it?

So why, do you think, are lawyers the frequent and only targets of the "will you work for free" request?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Not your usual letter of apology.

It's fairly common for a defendant to be required to write a letter of apology to the victim of a crime. Usually, this is done as a part of probation, and that department vets the letter to make sure it's heart-felt (or at least vaguely sincere).

I've actually read a few very moving letters of apology and, believe it or not, they can mean a lot to the victim.

Still, a good thing they are vetted before being passed on, you know, in case some jackass burglar writes things like:

"Basically it was your fault anyway" ... "your dumb" ... "your thick enough to leave your downstairs kitchen window open" ... "I don't feel sorry for you" etc etc.

Charming young lad, I'm sure. Read his letter of "apology" yourself.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How do you say 'bye-bye' to a killer?

This will be the last post in my series on Eric Nenno, the child-killer I met in 2006.

Unless any of you have questions, of course.

So one thing that sticks in my mind from the visit was the leaving of it. I remember sitting there for the last fifteen minutes wondering what the heck one says to a guy who's about to be executed. Remember, I met him on a Friday afternoon, his execution was scheduled (and was carried out) on the following Tuesday.

"Have a nice life" (okay, clearly not that one)?
"Have a nice weekend" (because that's all ya got left)?
"Take care of yourself" (before someone else does)?
"Seeya" (hopefully not, and certainly not for a while)?

In the end I opted for "Thanks for your time, good luck." And a slightly awkward wave through the glass.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Killer I Met: your questions (pt. 4)

Been busy in court this week, so I didn't get to address the last of the questions about the killer Eric Nenno. But here we go:

Anon on 10/28: Does Texas law categorize the sexual penetration of a dead body as "rape" because the corpse cannot give consent? I didn't realize that an investigator would ever do something as personal as touch a homicide suspect very familiarly and continuously, as is described in this post. It seems highly unorthodox and it left me feeling a bit odd to read it, but I can't quite put my finger on why. Did it come up in postconviction in this case?

Good questions.

As to the 'sex with a dead body' question, you'll be glad to know I had to look it up. And it may surprise you that from my cursory search, necrophilia isn't expressly outlined as a crime. I saw one theory that it is a 'victimless' crime, for obvious reasons. The closest I could find was penal Code 42.08, Abuse of Corpse which outlaws treating "in an offensive manner a human corpse." It's a Class A misdemeanor, so punishable by no more than a year in the county lock up. Doesn't seem right, does it?

As for touching the suspect, that's an interesting one. Certainly, there's nothing illegal or improper about it so I'm sure it wouldn't have come up in the post-conviction case. Repulsive for the agent, maybe, but not improper. In fact, in my recent cold case the detective spent several minutes rubbing the suspect's back and touching his shoulder during the five-hour long interview. It's a very effective way to build trust, to show compassion and break down barriers. The hard thing, as I've said, is bringing yourself to do it, I imagine. Especially in the case of a man who's just killed a little girl.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Killer I Met : your questions (pt. 3)

Two, similar questions in response to my series about the killer I met, Eric Nenno.

See here for the series.

Did he ever discuss the crime itself with you? ... Do you think he thought he would do something like that again if he ever got out? I guess I'm just curious for more insight into what this guy was actually thinking.

and ...

from Prosecutor's Discretion on 11/3:
Were there any other incidents like this in his past?

First, the description of the crime itself. Yes, he did. The description that begins this series comes directly from what he told me, not from newspaper accounts or anywhere else. As you can imagine, it was something of a bizarre experience having a murderer describe how he ensnared and killed a little girl. Perhaps the most disturbing part was when he acted out how he strangled her, right there in front of me. I was sitting there, telling myself this wasn't a movie, watching Nenno place his arm around an imaginary girl's neck, just like he'd done years earlier. Very very weird.

Second, other incidents. Which also goes to Anon's question about whether he'd do it again.

You see, he told me a story about when he was in the Navy, and I'll try to recreate the story now:

Nenno: "I was with a buddy and we went to his girlfriend's house. She was a lot older, I guess he liked older women. Anyway, when we got there, the woman's daughter was there and we hung out for a while, talking. Then my buddy went into the other room, the bedroom I guess, with his girlfriend. The daughter and I kept talking, and we were watching a movie."

Me: "How old was the daughter?"

Nenno: "She was younger than me. Anyway, we were watching the movie and then she kind of leaned over, and we started making out. I touched her over her clothes but that's all, mostly just kissing."

Me: "I see. So how old was she, exactly?"

Nenno: "I think she was five."

At that point, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and my eyes began to water. I looked down at my notepad and pretended to write something. Heaven knows what, and it took me a full minute to recover my composure. I'm not sure I've ever completely recovered it.

So, would a free Eric Nenno do it again? Yes. He truly believed that a five-year-old was coming onto him, wanting to kiss him. Just like he thought that Nicole Benton was coming onto him when she agreed to see his guitar. Did I mention that in the story? I don't remember, but that's what he told me: he knew she wanted to be with him when she agreed to look at his guitar.

He just didn't get it, and never would have. Which means he would have done it again.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The best news possible!

Okay, so I suppose there could be better news somewhere, but not around here:

Today I signed contracts for a three-book deal with Seventh Street Books (the new mystery imprint for the well-established Prometheus Books).

My first novel is called THE BOOKSELLER, and is set in Paris. I hope to have a website up and running before too long where you can read a synopsis.

Hey, I guess this means I can interview myself, right?!

Actually, the book won't be out for about a year, publishing is kind of slow, but a three-book deal means I have plenty to do in the meantime!

As you might imagine, I'm pretty excited about this. <---- understatement

BTW, I'm adding one of the pics I had taken by a great photographer that I hop
e to use on my eventual website. He managed to obliterate some of my ugliness, which takes true talent!

The Killer I Met: your questions (pt. 2)

It's been a busy week so far, so I don't have time to go into some of the substantive questions you guys had. But I did want to address one issue my eloquent 'Anon' poster raised:

[D]o you think that your assessment of Nenno's remorsefulness (or lack thereof) is in any way affected by your orientation towards prosecution work? I wonder (non-rhetorically) whether an "impartial" (i.e. not working on that particular case) defender might be more likely than an "impartial" prosecutor to perceive an inmate's expression of remorse as sincere.

Fair question. But what I may not have made clear was that when I interviewed Nenno, I wasn't a prosecutor. I was a civil lawyer handling mind-numbingly boring construction and contract cases. So I don't think I walked into that prison with a bias against him.

Second, if you ask anyone who knows me, they will tell you I am probably the most defense-minded prosecutor in Travis County. In fact, my first ever criminal case was won as a defense lawyer while I was in law school (hmmm, I should tell that story one day). Heck, one of the reasons I went to law school was to work against the death penalty (my position on that subject is a little more nuanced now!).

I think if anything, though, being a prosecutor gives me a good perspective in terms of not taking people at their word (click here for a tale along those lines).

Well, I have work to do but before I get back to answering your questions, I wanted to address the potential bias issue.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Killer I Met : your questions (pt. 1)

This post is intended to follow up on the series about killer Eric Nenno (part one here). In the comments, some of you had questions that I will try to answer here.

First a thoughtful one from "Anon" on 10/21:

It seems that he belonged to the demographic of death row inmates who (a) committed an unspeakable, tragic, reprehensible crime, but (b) had at least a partial physiological explanation for the crime, with respect to his organic brain damage linked to his military service and chemical exposure, and (c) was extremely remorseful and could have been detained safely for the rest of his life in maximum-security conditions if given LWOP. Given this mix of circumstances - a not-uncommon mix on death row - I will be intrigued to hear your assessment of whether he was evil and what the term evil means as applied to perpetrators in the homicide context.

Let me start with the assumptions that underline your question:

(a) I agree: an unspeakable, tragic, reprehensible crime.
(b) I'm not sure I agree. It's possible and I haven't studied either the chemistry or the trial transcript but defendants and their lawyers will (not surprisingly, and I'm not saying this is bad) come up with all manner of theories to explain behavior. If you are judging this as fact from the Texas After Violence Project Interviews, the chap I'm reading also claims Nenno committed these crimes and then didn't remember them until days later, when the polygraph was done. I don't buy that.
(c) I also don't buy that he was extremely remorseful. I sat opposite him, just the two of us, and we talked for hours. He explained calmly how he'd done it, denied some other things I knew to be fact (raping her after death) and his expression of remorse to me was by rote, bored almost. I do agree he probably would not have been a danger in prison if given LWOP.

Now, the subject of 'evil.' I don't really believe in evil. I do believe some people chose to do things we don't understand, for reasons we don't understand. But calling someone "evil" is almost a cop out, in my opinion, for them and for us. For us because it means we can stop looking for reasons they behave that way, just stick a label on it and be done. I'm more curious about human behavior than that. Especially criminal behavior. And it's a cop out for them, because it almost indicates they can't help their behavior. Maybe that's true, but I doubt it. Again, it's an easy end to curiosity, to investigation.

So was Nenno evil? Of course, in my book no. He didn't torture puppies, set fire to nunneries, and likely would have helped old ladies across the street. The better questions (in my mind) are whether (a) he was genuinely remorseful, and (b) he would have done it again.

I don't think he was genuinely remorseful. As explained above, when I asked him if he felt bad about this he trotted out a line about "I feel terrible for the loss the family suffered," but there was no emotion, no feeling behind it. Maybe he's numb from too many years thinking about it, expressing it, but this was days before his death and the only emotion I saw from him was concern about himself. To describe killing someone so flatly, so easily, indicated to me he has no idea of the harm he's done, the damage not just to one little girl but to her family.

And would he have done it again? Ah, there's a question I can answer. And will answer. Because I have a little story to tell you, something he told me but had never told anyone else . . .

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I love you, Santa

I plan to talk some more about my visit to Eric Nenno, whose story is laid out below. But first, I wanted to share something on a lighter note. Way, way lighter.

You see, Christmas is coming. For the first time in months there's been a chill to the air and I'm just waiting for the moment I can build a cozy evening fire. And with Christmas, of course, comes Santa.

Now, I've heard that some people don't believe in him. Seriously, I know, it's crazy, right? It's especially crazy because he did something for me this past weekend. Even as he toils in his workshop with all those busy elves, he managed to do something wonderful for me.

I was at Dick's Sporting Goods, looking at ski gear with my son. He's six, almost seven, and in January we're going on our first ski trip together. A father-son thing, and we're both so excited we could explode. We talk about it every night, discussing how we'll stay up late after skiing and watch movies, eat pizza in bed, that kind of thing.

So there we were looking at ski gear, and he's got on a helmet, gloves, and goggles. Trying stuff on in the store, making sure we consider the right colors and styles. And of course he's begging me to buy stuff right there and then, only I don't want to because it seems too early, and I don't know how much cash I have in the bank account. Just not ready.

But he's so desperate, "Just the gloves... okay, just the goggles... why not some pants?" and who wants to dampen this enthusiasm?!:
And then suddenly he looks at me and says, "It's okay daddy, we don't have to get anything right now. We can just ask for it for Christmas. That way, you won't have to spend all of your money."

And now you see why I'm so looking forward to spending four days with the little chap.

Thank you Santa. We both love you.

Monday, October 31, 2011

True story: Holding Hands with Evil ( final part)

What follows is a true story. I wrote it following interviews with murderer Eric Nenno and Mark Young, and after reviewing newspaper accounts of the case. All names and information are public record. What is different is the perspective: of the killer, and the man who caught him. All previous parts are below.

PLEASE NOTE: while not unduly graphic in description, this is the story of the murder of a young girl. Do not read this if the subject matter is disturbing to you.


Throughout the confession, Young remained true to his personal pledge to do everything in his power to remain professional. He remained calm and spoke only when necessary. He directed the conversation and helped the suspect along where necessary, but he wanted the suspect, not the interviewer, to do the talking. Twelve years later, Eric Nenno himself remembered how calmly Mark Young got to the truth.

I found Special Agent Young to be exceptionally adept at his interrogation techniques. He was both insightful and thorough in his approach to gaining truthful responses. Instead of dwelling on a specific detail for a lengthy time, he would change the topic and revisit the question later on, often from a slightly different angle or line of reasoning.

Young’s professionalism in these situations was crucial, it was the mask he put on when dealing with the worst of society. He wore it to protect his own psyche and also because he found that getting people to open up, particularly when they were faced with their own evil deeds, started when they began to trust him. And Young knew from experience that trust came quicker when he treated his suspect decently. He didn’t shout, browbeat, or threaten them. As Nenno remembered:

After taking a polygraph test, I returned to the interview room and gave Special Agent Young and Detective Johnson a verbal confession. Detective Johnson entered the information into a laptop computer as Special Agent Young assisted me with collecting and organizing my thoughts and words into a coherent statement. Even at this point, knowing that I was confessing to a particularly horrendous crime, Special Agent Young maintained an unbiased, professional attitude toward me. He did not raise his voice nor make any disrespectful comments during the process of getting my confession uploaded, and later printed out for me to sign and initial.

Testimony was presented at my capital murder trial in JAN 96 by various HCSD [Harris County Sheriff’s Department] personnel in their respective capacities and involvement with the case. Unlike several other witnesses, Special Agent Young did not rely on a printed file for his responses to the prosecutor’s inquiries or cross-examination by defense counsel. He replied in an articulate, astute, and concise manner, revealing his confidence and depth of knowledge of every aspect encompassing the investigation.


On October 28, 2008, thirteen years after killing Nicole Benton, and less than one month after writing in glowing terms about the man who had helped seal his fate, Eric Charles Nenno was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas.


Friday, October 28, 2011

True story: Holding Hands with Evil (pt. 7)

What follows is a true story. I wrote it following interviews with murderer Eric Nenno and Mark Young, and after reviewing newspaper accounts of the case. All names and information are public record. What is different is the perspective: of the killer, and the man who caught him. Parts One through Six are below.

PLEASE NOTE: while not unduly graphic in description, this is the story of the murder of a young girl. Do not read this if the subject matter is disturbing to you.


Young reached the bottom of the ladder and looked at Nenno. What to do with his suspect now? Young read his compliant posture and decided that Nenno had done the hard part, telling them where to find the body, and now it was time for him to answer some of the other questions. He and Detective Johnson took Nenno back to the command post and, once they were inside, Young removed his handcuffs. Nenno remained in a slumped, defeated posture. Oddly, he kept his arms rigid behind him as if he knew he should be in handcuffs, wanted to be restrained. Gently, Young put his hands on Nenno’s arms and guided them forward.

Young directed Nenno to sit down at a small table, and took the chair opposite Nenno. Johnson sat to one side, opening a laptop computer to take down any statement their suspect made.

Young wanted to bring Nenno out of the stupor into which he appeared to have sunken, so he began asking about his military service, his work history, and his home life. Nenno was a salesman for a plumbing supply company and lived in his sister’s house. She was in the military, currently stationed overseas, and Nenno lived there with her son, his 18-year-old nephew, Wes Chamness.

Finally Young said: “Eric, we need to talk about how Nicole ended up in your attic.”

Nenno fell silent, slumped so far down in his chair that his nose almost touched the table. This, of course, was the key moment. If it was going to happen at all, the confession would have to come now. Even though they could likely gather enough evidence to convict Nenno, Young was determined to find out exactly what happened. He stood and walked around the table, taking his chair and putting it next to Nenno. He sat down and took Nenno’s left hand in his, and then began to slowly rub the man’s back with his other hand.

Nenno started talking. He had been outside the night Nicole’s father was practicing with his band. He had walked along the sidewalk when he noticed Nicole walking away from the party, towards him. He stopped her, being as friendly as he could be, and engaged her in conversation. She told him that her father was in a band, and played guitar. He had laughed and said what a coincidence that was, because he, too, was in a band, and like her daddy he played the guitar.

Almost as soon as they got inside his house, Nenno said, Nicole realized something was wrong. She resisted. Nenno said he was unable to force himself on her, to rape her while she was alive. In a calm, steady voice, he told Young how he had killed Nicole in his bedroom, and then raped her.

Young continued to sit beside Nenno, holding his hand, rubbing his back. As difficult as it was to touch this man, it was working and so Young willed himself to keep doing it. As if under a spell, Nenno continued to talk in his quiet but clear voice. Nenno would later claim: “I knew I was to be arrested anyway, so there was no point in resisting or withholding anything which might help Nicole Benton’s family.”

Young, however, remembers that Nenno sounded like a young boy confessing a naughty deed to a parent, and contrary to his purported flash of decency, Young’s impression remained that Nenno was not sorry for the deed, just sorry that he had been caught.

It struck Young forcefully, and backed up what he already knew about these types of crimes, that within ten minutes of walking away from the neighbor’s yard, within ten minutes of being in full view of her father and friends, Nicole Benton was dead.

Nenno told Young and Johnson about the dilemma he faced once she was dead—what to do with her body. He wanted to take her out of the house, drive her somewhere, but he was afraid to do so with all the activity in the neighborhood. And he couldn’t leave her in the main house and risk his nephew coming home and finding her. His solution was to carry her to the garage and stash her body in the attic, behind the boxes. As it turns out, there was one admission that Nenno would leave out of his confession. A physical examination of Nicole would show that after being dumped in the attic, Nenno returned and raped her multiple times over the next few days.

As forthcoming as Nenno was during his confession, as freely as he related his horrendous crime, he remained absolutely inscrutable on one small point. Nicole was found naked, so Young asked what he did with her clothes. For no reason Young could fathom, either then or thinking about it later, Nenno refused to say. Young pressed, asking the question several different ways but Nenno simply wouldn’t tell him. A search of the house would later locate them, hidden in a filing cabinet in his den. In the same filing cabinet investigators found Nenno’s stash of pornography, not especially extensive but very revealing: young models, purportedly aged eighteen or older, but all dressed as little children.

Young testified at Eric Nenno’s trial and on January 18, 1996, Nenno was found guilty of the sexual assault and murder of Nicole Benton. On February 1, 1996, the jury sentenced him to death and after the judge entered the sentence Nenno was transported in leg irons to death row.

(Final installment to appear on 10/31)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jury trial - just ended. Me tired.

I just finished a jury trial, and I'm exhausted as usual. But a quick "Thank you" to the jurors who worked very hard on the case, and were kind enough to stay behind and talk to me. I always learn something when I talk to jurors and I was gob-smacked by how thoughtful and downright smart these people were.

Congrats, too, to attorney David Frank who obtained a not-guilty verdict for his client. I know David and his colleagues Matt and Ciara worked as hard on the case as we did.

We shall meet again, good sir.

True story: Holding Hands with Evil (pt. 6)

What follows is a true story. I wrote it following interviews with murderer Eric Nenno and Mark Young, and after reviewing newspaper accounts of the case. All names and information are public record. What is different is the perspective: of the killer, and the man who caught him. Parts One through Five are below.

PLEASE NOTE: while not unduly graphic in description, this is the story of the murder of a young girl. Do not read this if the subject matter is disturbing to you.


They went in and Young turned to Nenno. “Where is she?”

Nenno looked at the floor, and his right arm slowly raised upwards, a finger pointing to the attic right above them. He didn’t say a word. Young nodded at Johnson who reached for the trap door above them, pulling the cord and unfolding the wooden step ladder. Johnson climbed the rungs and disappeared into the attic. A minute later he descended the stairs shaking his head.

“Eric, she’s not there,” said Young.

Nenno wouldn’t look him in the eye. “Maybe I saw her there in my dreams,” he said.

“Then in your dreams, Eric,” Young pressed. “In your dreams, where would she be?”

Nenno once again pointed upwards while keeping his eyes firmly on the concrete floor. This time he spoke: “Behind the boxes. Further back, behind the boxes.”

Young cuffed Nenno with his hands behind his back and left him with several deputies who had joined them at the scene. He climbed the ladder to look for himself. The attic was cold and dark inside but he was able to see the length of it either side of him. He looked to his left, towards the house and made out a low stack of boxes. Steeling himself, he walked to the boxes, looked behind them, and his heart sank. Nicole Benton lay on the floor, her legs splayed out, naked and deathly pale. Underneath her hips and legs was a large sheet of plastic wrap. He knew she was dead. He knew it from the way she looked and from the way he had found her. But on the off-chance, just in case there might possibly be a flutter of life left in her, Young bent down and gently laid his fingers against her skin. She was as cold as ice.

An experienced professional who had seen more than his share of dead bodies, adult and child, finding a body always provoked powerful and basic of emotions in Young: helplessness, anger, revenge, and deep, deep sadness. But, as always, he willed them away, intent on maintaining his professionalism. He now worked for her, for Nicole Benton. He would make sure every investigative step was perfect and precise, locking every possible piece of evidence into place to make sure her killer never did this to another human being.

Young, the father of two daughters, gritted his teeth and left Nicole where she lay. He knew that a team of experts would soon arrive to analyze the crime scene, take photographs and samples, makes maps and charts. He hated leaving her like this, naked and vulnerable, but he had no choice. She was gone, the real Nicole, and what remained needed to be turned into evidence. Once the crime scene experts were done, and not before, little Nicole could be reunited with her grieving parents for their final good-bye.

Young slowly descended the ladder. Part of him wanted to think of his own little girls, one just a few years older than Nicole, and part of him wanted to choke the life from the monster who stood there in handcuffs. But Agent Young did what he always did in these cases, he set those feelings aside, he shut off every part of his mind except the part that was running the investigation. After all, there was a lot still to figure out. They had found the body and Eric Nenno had implicated himself, but they didn’t know the full story. They didn’t know how or when she had died. And, of most interest to Young, why she had died.

(To be continued on 10/28)