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.