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 . . .


  1. I'm sure he didn't have remorse. He probably isn't capable of it. He sounds very much like a sociopath (I know there are various types but they all have similiarities), especially the way he spoke (from what you described). They only mimic what they believe other people think are appropriate emotions and behaviors so that they will be socially acceptable. That's how they get by. They understand that certain urges they have are morally and legally wrong but they do not care. Anything that comes across as remorse--believe me--they are sorry they got caught and now will have to suffer for it; they are NOT sorry for what they've done. They don't understand how to be. They do not experience feelings and emotions in the same way a normal, empathetic person would. I think that is what makes them so dangerous. They are not maniacal or foaming at the mouth. They spend their lives mimicking appropriate social behavior and trying to keep their urges at bay--not because they don't want to hurt people but because they know if they get caught they will get in trouble. You don't know what situation will present itself wherein they'll no longer be able to control themselves and if they get away with it once, they'll definitely do it again. Believe me, a killer like that can conjure up some tears but he's not thinking about his victim or his/her family, he's thinking about how being caught is going to negatively affect HIM. There's just something missing and no amount of mercy or sympathy or compassion is going to change that--killers like that cannot be rehabilitated. Execute him or don't but he is not going to change and he's never going to feel badly for what he's done.

  2. I'm the original anon to whom you're responding. Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. A few further thoughts.

    1. It's definitely impossible to assess from news articles whether someone has organic brain damage that can mitigate a horrific crime. I'm not judging it as fact; I just agree with you that "it's possible." So I was wrong to state in such certain terms what was really an issue raised by his counsel. I do think that it is worthwhile to dig into the underlying facts surrounding his mental competence and/or illness (if any) in assessing things such as remorse.

    2. I did read the Texas After Violence interview. [Side note: Dennis Longmire, who did that interview, is not an attorney at all, let alone Nenno's. So we can't attribute his creative polygraph theory to defense counsel. ;) Not to dispute your larger point that defense counsel have many creative theories, of course.] On the remorse point, Nenno was also widely quoted as saying, "I can't apologize enough" and similar. Of course, it is hard to gauge demeanor and tone via clipped newspaper soundbites. Your in-person perceptions deserve more deference. One question on that, though - do 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. And then I wonder how our (criminal lawyers') assessments of inmates' sincerity might vary - if at all - from laypeople's assessments.

    3. I really appreciated your thoughts on "evil." After reading them, I think that I agree.

  3. 4. I've been chewing on the idea that what "we" (as a society) expect psychologically superhuman behavior from condemned prisoners. I think that society expects them to sit in their cells very quietly and to spend the rest of their years solely contemplating the homicide(s) that landed them on death row. We would prefer that they be totally silent unless they are expressing abject, emotion-filled expressions of remorse for their crime(s). Anything else we cannot bear. If condemned inmates try to pass their time constructively - by taking up a craft, developing their writing skills, or educating themselves - people will routinely express outrage that they had access to these means of bettering themselves (usually by reference to the truism that these things are more than their victims currently have). If condemned inmates draw attention to any constitutional or human rights violations they may be experiencing in prison, our societal response is again usually (paraphrased), "Sit down and shut up" (usually again by reference to the fact that prison conditions are better than their victims can currently access). Our view of this is understandable: the enormity of these crimes is so large that - in the short amount of time that most of us might spend considering these crimes on a daily or weekly basis - we are simply unable to consider any other aspect of the condemned prisoner's life, either before or after the crime. For us, the crime is all there is. Further, I think we realize that for the victims and their families, the crime is the only relevant thing, the single unfixable act that took something irreplaceable.

    I wonder, though, whether it is reasonable to expect that a condemned prisoner will maintain over a long period of time the degree of emotional remorse we wish them to exhibit continuously. Certainly outside the capital context things don't work that way. When any of us hurt someone in smaller ways, we (best case scenario) take responsibility, we try to understand the ways in which we've hurt the person in question, we apologize sincerely, and we reflect on how we can do better. What we don't do is to fixate indefinitely on the wrong that we committed and the pain that we caused (even if we have created a situation that is truly irreparable, which of course can occur in non-criminal contexts). To live for years at a time wholly fixated on a single event in which we injured someone badly would be emotional madness. And in time, after we have apologized as much as we are able, most of us will probably start to get defensive ... our repeated apologies will probably start to have less emotion - because we've given all the emotion that we have to give, because we realize that apologizing really can't repair the situation, and because we can't remain indefinitely in that state where we are thoroughly focused on the bad thing that we did. I wonder if these things remain true for capital murderers - which is, I think, what you are getting at when you wonder whether Nenno became numb. I really don't know. I can't fully even imagine the hell it would be to be a condemned inmate who belatedly develops a conscience - confronted with the immense magnitude of your past irreparable wrongdoing, confronted with the equally immense magnitude of your own mortality and impending unnatural death, and living in a state of almost complete material deprivation (with the additional mental issues that can arise from quasi-solitary confinement). It may be a hell of their own making, but it seems like hell nonetheless - and I have no idea how I would express myself or how well I would convey my emotions in that truly regrettable scenario. (Note: this is not to say that Nenno specifically had a conscience, was remorseful but unable to express it, etc. I have no idea.)

  4. I'm sorry for rambling on at this length. This is a subject on which I have many questions and few answers. Again, I appreciate your taking the time to respond to me, and I look forward to hearing your story concerning whether Nenno would have done it again.

  5. When you posted Nenno's words they seemed to me like a photograph of real language, at one remove from life and devoid of genuine emotion. That's why I asked if he talked like that. This is a fascinating series of posts and comments.

  6. I just want to say I think Anon makes some excellent points. And also, that's the problem with criminals like Nenno: you're probably always going to have more questions than answers.

  7. So what is the little story you have to tell? You tease, sir. You tease!


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