Thursday, September 15, 2011

Some Lessons You're Not Taught in School

It’s fall, and students here are just finishing their first full week of school, thanks to a late Labor Day holiday, which coincided with Hurricane Irene’s campaign up the east coast and her cleanup. Since I was a young child, I have always been excited at this time of year, though now I find myself some years also getting a bit melancholy. I still keep occupied throughout the year learning as much as I can about contemporary issues and subjects I enjoy, such as the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and as I write this, I’m nearly finished with the third level of Rosetta Stone French (though I can’t imagine actually having a conversation in French about anything other than changing my dollars pour des euros), but sometimes I find myself thinking about a former high school classmate of mine, too.

Her name was Mary Lou Arruda, and she was a cheerleader at Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School the year I transferred into it, 1978. It was our sophomore year, and I didn’t really know Mary Lou more than just to wave ‘hello’ to her in the hallway. My algebra teacher had asked me to tutor one of the jocks who was friends with her, and it was through him that I had met her. Just as we began our junior year, Mary Lou was kidnapped while riding her bike home from cheerleading practice. Her decomposing body was found two months later in the Freetown State Forest, tied to a tree. She was just 15.

I remember Mary Lou as always happy. She had shoulder-length, dark hair and, I believe, dark brown eyes. It was hard to tell then because she smiled so much; I only remember her eyes squinting while she laughed. In recent years we’ve seen all sorts of abominable depictions of cheerleaders in popular culture, some, such as Death of a Cheerleader, based on actual events. Mary Lou wasn’t like any of them. She didn’t know me from Adam, but she nevertheless said hello to me whenever we happened to be in the hallway at the same time, whether or not there was anyone around. She was a genuinely gracious, non-judgmental, carefree adolescent, and she made me feel as though it didn’t matter that I was something of a nerd, or new to the school. She was born to be an ambassador, and I can’t help feeling, even all these years later, the world is a whole lot less better off for her passing. Before I understood anything about the way our country has been turned slowly into a fascist police state; before I learned anything about how our military dictatorship has long persecuted those people who stand up for the rights guaranteed them by our Constitution but long denied them; before I realized that dissent against the fascists who’ve destroyed America simply is not possible, I couldn’t let rest the question, “How could this have happened to one so fundamentally decent?” Because the answer is both so simple and yet so horrific, I’ve resisted acknowledging its patent veracity – until now: fundamentally indecent people do all sorts of nefarious things to fundamentally decent people and get away with it because our society is structured to protect the fundamentally indecent among us. Turns out, crime does pay, and that truth is obvious to a sickening degree in the case that evolved around Mary Lou’s murderer, James M. Kater.

Kater was a part-time donut shop employee who was indicted a mere two months after Mary Lou’s disappearance for her kidnapping and murder. What made it so easy to find Mr. Kater was the fact that he had been convicted 9 years earlier for the bizarrely similar 1968 kidnapping of a 13 year-old North Andover girl, Jaclyn Bussierre, who escaped after also being tied to a tree. She later identified Kater as her assailant. He confessed to that crime and was sentenced to what appears to have been a radically insufficient sentence. At the time of Mary Lou’s disappearance, several witnesses who were on the same highway from where she was taken – including a friend with whom she had just stopped to speak – identified a car they witnessed force a girl on a bike off the road and into the woods. The car was identified as belonging to Kater.

Kater’s first conviction was overturned because of what was later ruled on appeal as inadmissible hypnotically-induced evidence. The state and Mr. Kater’s legal team fought three more times in court before the state achieved an airtight conviction – three times! All told, Kater was given 4 Massachusetts trials, 7 federal trials, and 1 Supreme Court petition for a hearing, which was denied on April 16, 2007, finally ending his bid for freedom nearly 30 years after his indictment. At the time of the Supreme Court decision, Kater’s was the longest murder trial in U.S. history. If you’re now expecting me to excoriate the state for not putting Kater to death sooner, or at all, you will be disappointed. I am proud to live in a state that does not have the death penalty. I do not believe the state should be involved in murdering people simply because the vast majority of people it tells us it needs to murder seem more and more frequently to be innocent of the crimes for which they are convicted. Troy Anthony Davis is scheduled to be executed by the State of Georgia on September 21st, and Stephen King couldn’t write a more terrifying story of horror that is his wrongful conviction, incarceration and impending death sentence. The self-confessed actual perpetrator of the murder for which Davis was convicted is walking around, free as bird, the state’s lone eyewitness. Any system that allows this type of miscarriage of justice ought not to exist – where even one innocent person may be wrongly put to death – but it does, and that’s why I’m against the death penalty. But read the sixth sentence of this paragraph again. That’s right – Massachusetts does not have the death penalty. And it hasn’t had the death penalty since 1951. The last execution to take place in Massachusetts was on May 9, 1947. This is the state that framed two Italian immigrants for a payroll robbery someone else confessed to having committed and wrongly executed Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti because it didn’t like their political views, after all. The judge, Webster Thayer, famously said of Vanzetti: “This man, although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable [for organizing workers to strike for better wages], because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.” (Let me remind you that the state’s key witness in the case against Troy Anthony Davis has confessed to no less than three people that he was the actual murderer of the person for whom Davis was convicted of murdering.) The death penalty is always selectively applied, and people of color, poor people and those who contest the unjust, so-called civil institutions in America are always more frequently those against whom the death penalty and tortures such as decades of solitary confinement are applied. That isn’t Kater. Other than the fact he is a psychopath with a predilection for torturing and killing young girls in the most heinous way possible, we still know very little about James Kater. I have a sense of unease about that in today’s world, where any school student in some Midwestern city or town can now freely help her parents kidnap a fellow classmate for sale into a sexual slavery ring, and the police will do nothing to help the kidnapping victim’s family to liberate her.

By now, you’re probably wondering why Kater was given so much legal assistance toward no practical end whatsoever, and this essay might well end here inasmuch as I don’t have an answer to that question. I only have more queries: where does an ex-con-cum-part-time donut maker get the money to finance all those decades of legal wrangling – all the expert witness testimony, all the depositions, all the court fees and lawyers’ fees? Who in their right mind would foot the bill for this, if Kater is unable to pay? Is that where the taxes of Massachusetts’ citizens have gone? Really? I understand some appeals are automatic in murder convictions, and that this type of three-ring circus would never happen today where the death penalty is the punishment to be applied, but, again, that's wasn't James Kater.  Thanks to Bill Clinton's Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which kills the innocent people our system has a predilection for killing even more quickly than ever before, appeals such as Kater's in states with the death penalty exists are no longer possible.  But a whole lot more than the type of public defender advocacy we see at the heart of so many wrongful convictions such as Troy Davis' has gone into serving Mr. Kater – when he was never even in danger of being put to death. Eleven trials and a Supreme Court petition! Why? How?  And Clinton's ATED Act doesn't have any bearing on them.

I worked at a law firm – at the time, Boston’s oldest, continuously operating law firm – for a decade, and I’ve seen some strange and immoral things done with the shuffling of reams of paper, but I still have no answer to this question, and so I must infer, as we must so often do in life, what went so horribly wrong for Mary Lou – and so fantastically right for Mr. Kater, who now sits in a prison cell (presumably, in the psych. unit of Walpole’s MCI-Cedar Junction), no chance for any more excursions to court that he enjoyed for three decades. I once had the opportunity to ask the attorney who represented my mother in my parents divorce why he no longer practiced family law, and he was shockingly candid in his reply: “The money is in defending drug dealers and other criminals. They’re the only ones who pay their bills.” I was not unaware of the manner in which Mother had settled her debt to this man, after she had foolishly bought herself a new car. In addition to receiving half the fee they had agreed upon, he also received all of the stocks and bonds my parents had invested in since I was a child – including original Disney stock. Obviously, crime pays. It pays many people, over and over again, because the money never seems to run out for criminals - which means, we have only ourselves to blame for propagating criminal enterprise. A recent viewing of the movie, The Whistleblower, the story of former Nebraska law enforcement officer Kathryn Bolkovac’s exposure of the sex slave ring run by members of the International Peacekeeping Forces - including, Americans - stationed in Bosnia in the 1990s (which was covered up and even promoted by high-level officials at the United Nations) gave me the sinking feeling that the sadomasochistic manner in which Ms. Bussiere and Mary Lou were treated by Kater probably served an extremely lucrative fetishistic sex and/or porn ring, which later provided the financing for his many bids for freedom. It could happen. It does happen. And it happens just like this untold millions of times around the world each and every day – because crime pays, and in a country and world were values are only disguises worn by fascists who believe each one of us is exploitable for market purposes and cannot possibly be a human being, it will only continue to happen until we’re all finally tearing one another to pieces for our 15 minutes of fame on Bully Beatdown, or in some other artificially engineered milieu designed by the social Darwinists who control us all. Coupled with the volumes of evidence proving that our judiciary has worked hand-in-hand with the secret forces of our military dictatorship to persecute legitimate civil and human rights activists, justice for the average citizens against the malfeasance of others appears to be impossible in America.

Some days, I wish school were as easy as it used to be.

[This is where a copyright would go, if I had the $35 to get one:  ;-) 2011 Saoirse]

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