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.
It has been said that a liberal is a conservative 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.
I was even more shy then I am now and I figured if anyone wanted to speak to a reporter they knew where to find me, as I had my tell-tale sign, my scarlet letter of sorts, of a reporter’s notepad. Why should I add to their pain at this time? It was, I decided, a time to be a human first and a reporter second.
Victim by victim the prosecutor explained what Suff allegedly did. And he showed a Suff ritual – slicing off the breasts of the women. Sitting next to a couple as they not only dealt with the realization, many were in denial, that their daughters were prostitutes but to see a photo of their nude butchered daughter shown to the whole room. .. while Suff watched impassively… I won't try to describe that.
Later in the trial Suff's wife testified. I think in my story for that day I described her rocking back and forth on the witness stand as she explained that she had no idea what her husband was doing. Or that the used shirts he would sometimes give her might have come from other women. Or that the mysterious deaths occuring to not only her daughter or, unknown to her, a baby from his former wife 20 years earlier… were not the accidents they appeared to be.
But when I think back to the vivid days of that six week trial what stands out the most is the sentencing.
On the day the jury convicted him, Suff had no reaction. The family members sounded understandably angry and vindictive.
A month later the judge was ready to pronounce his sentence. The family members spoke first. They would take turns filing to the front of the courtroom and then making a speech.
A few spoke of their personal loss. Then things grew more heated. "You are pure evil. I hope they kill you!" said one sweet-looking grandmother.
"Die! Die! I hope they make you die!" said another. Things grew more surreal when it was Suff's turn to speak.
"I'm not the person the media makes me out to be. I'm just a friendly misunderstood hopeless romantic," he said.
This was not the right crowd for him to make a "I'm a lover, not a fighter" speech. This man who killed and exuded evil thoughts was instead speaking of love? And how was this received? With hatred. "Die, you bastard!" screamed a couple sitting next to me. Others also shouted threats.
It seemed a bit strange to me that those who were the victim of his hatred were now speaking of violence themselves and sounding so hateful that I wanted to move away from them.
At the same time, though, it made complete sense. I realized that on issues like the death penalty, as with torture, it's one thing to debate the issue in the kind of cold hypothetical terms of a classroom and quite another to discuss it in, say, a courtroom.
In thinking and writing about war crimes and torture today 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.