Posts Tagged ‘Washington Correction Center for Women’

It’s been a tough month.

I think I’ve been dealing with a low-grade depression the past few weeks, possibly brought on by the short days and long stretches of darkness. Getting anything done these days seems like a long, slow slog under water … and as a result, I haven’t gotten much done. I’m overdue now for not only a blog post, but a book review, a 1st Turning Point article and a long-form newspaper piece.

I’ve gathered string on them all, but haven’t wrapped up a single one.

I know writers in generally are moody bitches with overdeveloped interior lives, and I’d be curious to hear from others if they too swim through metaphorical molasses when it comes to tackling work at this time of the year. Or do they just recognize the possibility in advance and take a mental-health break? Or is it a non-issue?

Anyway, it hasn’t been a completely unproductive time. Here’s some of the highlights, lowlights and sidelights of my December so far:

• I tried to play amateur attorney with the Washington governor’s office in an effort to shake loose some documents that shed light on why Gov. Gregoire turned down the subject of one of my stories for a pardon — after her handpicked board supported the petition. I did some legal research, coming up with some reasons I felt the documents weren’t covered by executive privilege or attorney-client privilege. But the governor’s office, in a letter I received Dec. 11, argued otherwise, and cited specific statutes to support its point. The documents I requested were included with the letter, however — completely blacked out. Nice touch. I think that left me feeling a bit defeated. More than a bit, really, since the simple reality is that smarter, more powerful people than me righteously kicked my ass for presuming I was fit to step into the same arena with them. I really wanted something from the governor’s office for my story besides stony silence. And I’m having to accept that I’m just not going to get it.


• I finally finished doing all my interviews for the long-form article, two months later than I had hoped. I had to let go of some prospective sources who just weren’t returning my calls or e-mails despite their initial pledges to cooperate, however, and I had to really ride herd on others who kept making promises and putting me off. Some of the squirmiest people were those who had the most to gain from my story, too, which still leaves me scratching my head. Now I just have to write the damned thing, and try to keep its length in line — which means that better than 90 percent of my herd-riding won’t be reflected in the final version of my story. I accept that … and yet, it makes me feel a bit bogged down.

• I’ve noodled every few days on the 1st Turning Point piece, the book review (on the latest true-crime compilation from Seattle’s Ann Rule) and the long-form newspaper piece, plus a lengthy blog in which I shred another true-crime book. But I can’t honestly say any of those have progressed much beyond the roughest-of-rough-drafts stage. Normally I might procrastinate a bit before I fully plunge in and bang a piece out. Not this December.

• I’ve whipsawed wildly on my fiction-writing efforts. One day, I’d dick around with the rewrite on one manuscript. The next, I’d tool around with a novel in progress. Then I’d work on an outline for another, and then pull a short story out of the cyber-trunk. It’s been something beyond ADD, like a spring-loaded 5-year-old who’s off his Ritalin dosage. All the more so because in between, I’d slump on the couch and watch five “West Wing” episodes in a row.

• Just this Monday, I made visits to see the subjects of two different true-crime stories at the state women’s prison near Gig Harbor and at the McNeil Island Corrections Center. That’s tough any time, given the general dreariness of prisons, but harder this time because both inmates were feeling pretty low. Both were feeling the pain of holidays not being spent with loved ones — in the woman’s case, loved ones she had killed — and, I think, making themselves a little crazy over the possibility of being free within a few months or a few years. (As Jeannette, the female inmate, put it: “I’m getting a little crunchy.”) And there was a new burden: As of Jan. 1, they’ll lose the right to wear their own clothes. Everything, including underwear, will be state-issued. This, I’m told, is a giant morale-crusher in places where morale, obviously, is none too strong to begin with. You may have no sympathy in the abstract for this — “It’s prison, dammit!” — but I assure you that if you get to know some of these prisoners as people, you will rethink those hardline assumptions. I left both facilities carrying a little bit of their funk with me, I think.

There were some good things, too, though. The last of my major interviews for the long-form piece was an absorbing two-hour talk with Gov. Gregoire’s former senior legal counsel. I made some pretty solid progress in getting all the interviews transcribed. (It generally takes me an hour for every 15 to 20 minutes of recorded conversation.) I attended the latest state Clemency and Pardons Board hearings, and emerged with a couple of cases worth at least knowing more about. I even came up with a quick-hit book idea that I can turn around in a few months for a small side-stream of revenue should I need it (i.e., should my ever-precarious newspaper-editing job get yanked out from under me).

The wheels are always turning. It’s just a matter of whether they do it in mud, or on pavement. And, just today, I feel the ground getting a little firmer under my feet. And I think it’ll get a little firmer still once I arise on Christmas morning, eat my usual breakfast by myself, take my usual dinner to work that afternoon, do my usual thing in the newsroom that night, and go home and put this most difficult of holidays behind me for another 364 days. And finishing something for a change, if only a blog post.

I take that as a good sign. Because a week ago, I couldn’t have even gotten started.

So, Merry Christmas to me. And to you, my readers and friends, who make me believe that my dreams of becoming a book author will someday soon come true.

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Things are picking up.

I’ve gotten clearance from the state to visit two prison inmates who have agreed to talk with me for separate books I’m preparing, and will be seeing both within a couple of weeks: Aaron Borrero, who’s doing 22 years for kidnapping and attempted murder at McNeil Island; and Jeannette Murphy, who’s in her 27th year at the Washington Corrections Center for Women for shooting her parents in the head as a teenager and setting the house on fire to cover up the crime.

I’m also planning to meet next Monday with Les Lemieux, the victim of Borrero’s attack. I’ve received the entire Clemency and Pardons case file on Borrero — 857 pages’ worth — from the state and am picking my way through some frankly fascinating reading. By week’s end, I expect to have the transcript from the Sept. 10 hearing in which the Borrero petition was successfully heard. I’ve been calling and setting up appointments with a list of former-inmate friends Jeannette gave to me, because I want the story about her to be rich in behind-the-scenes looks at the culture of the women’s prison.

And, when time allows between all that and my regular job and, oh, you know, sleep, I’ve been working on my outline for my National Novel Writing Month project. I’m going to make time for it that I don’t really have, which will be extremely interesting. Do I have at least 50,000 words of a novel in me ready to come out of me by Nov. 30? I’ll be really surprised if I do … and really pissed at myself if I don’t. Hoo boy.

And, in the last few weeks, I’ve been building up to a whole new project that will, in all likelihood, be ready to roll by Nov. 10 or so. (As metro editor Michael Keaton’s secretary said to him in The Paper when he tried, and failed, to juggle too many people at once: “Are you completely psychotic?” To which, he replied, with dry distraction: “Eh, I have occasional episodes. Nothing serious.”)

You’ll like this one. It concerns a third story I hope to develop into a book (though it’s the one I’ve been working on the longest — nearly a year, in fact). It’s slightly self-destructive. And it’s on slightly soggy ground where journalism ethics are concerned.

Read the following and tell me what you think.

In December 2008, when I first decided to write a book about the most dramatic and interesting cases before the Clemency and Pardons Board, I attended a hearing in Olympia in which the case of Robert Holmes was aired.

In 1979, when he was 19, Holmes played a secondary, somewhat passive role in the rape and murder of a teenage prostitute in rural Snohomish County. He went on a drunken joyride with his older cousin, David Duhaime, whose idea of fun was to pick up a couple of prostitutes in downtown Seattle and rob them. One girl got away; the other wasn’t so lucky. Too drunk to act and too intimidated to protest, Holmes sat mute as Duhaime drove them to a remote spot and ordered Holmes and the girl to have sex.

Duhaime then hauled the girl out of the car, raped her and cut her throat.

The two were caught a few days later. A few months down the road, Holmes agreed to plead guilty to first-degree rape and second-degree murder, and testify against his cousin. Duhaime just missed getting the death penalty, thanks to a juror who balked at the last minute, and Holmes was sentenced to 20 years to life.

Holmes did good time, however, and was paroled after just 8 1/2 years behind bars. He went home to his native South Dakota, married his childhood sweetheart, had two daughters and scrapped about for several years in search of subsistence-level work. Several years ago, he landed a good job as a freight hauler for FedEx, and hasn’t been in a scrap of trouble since.

But Holmes has been hit by a series of setbacks in the last couple of years.

One, newly tightened Homeland Security regulations brought about a new look at everybody who held a commercial driver’s license with a hazardous-materials endorsement. Holmes, with rape and murder on his resume, was told that his CDL likely wouldn’t be renewed when it comes up again in 2010.

Two, in the wake of Megan’s Law, Holmes was required to register as a sex offender, and his neighbors were notified that they had a convicted rapist in the neighborhood.

And three, the sex-offender status caused Holmes a big problem this year, when South Dakota child protective services took his 2-year-old grandson away from his oldest daughter when he wandered away from her home a couple of times. Holmes and his wife tried to become custodial parents, but that effort went nowhere when Holmes’ criminal record came to light. The grandson remains in foster care, and Holmes gets to see him “maybe for an hour every other month,” he told me.

Talking with South Dakota authorities got Holmes nowhere, either. The answer was the same everywhere: As long as he’s got murder and rape convictions hanging over his head, the hands of bureaucracy are tied.

So, with the encouragement and help of his 1979 attorney, Holmes set about trying to get those convictions off his record, reasoning that his cooperation then and his unblemished record since was a strong basis for requesting a pardon from Gov. Christine Gregoire. After several months of preparation — digging up his past court records, recruiting several people to write letters of reference for him, verifying that his record from his 1987 release on was clean — he was granted a hearing before the governor’s five-member panel.

The centerpiece of his presentation was a surprising letter of support from Russ Juckett, the Snohomish County prosecutor who had initially pursued the death penalty against Holmes three decades before.

The hearing went well for Holmes. Despite the opposition expressed by the parents of the murdered girl, the members of the board voted, 4-to-1, to recommend that Holmes receive a pardon. I sat just a few rows behind as Holmes turned to embrace his wife and daughters.

Impressed by the story’s dramatic heft, I got hold of a copy of the petition packet, and went to Snohomish County to dig up the 1979 court file as well as clippings from the The Herald of Everett’s coverage of the case. I then approached Holmes for an interview, and we wound up meeting in May at his home in Sioux Falls.

Then, in August, came stunning news: Holmes’ petition had been denied by Gov. Gregoire. The letter sent by her office offered no explanation. I felt one was needed for my story, so I spent the next couple of months banging on doors at the state Capitol in search of a short interview with Gregoire. I was rebuffed at every turn, however. And the last door was slammed in my face when the governor’s senior legal counsel — who advises Gregoire on matters having to do with the Clemency and Pardons Board — told me last week that he wouldn’t comment because the governor is his client, and their deliberations on Clemency and Pardons Board cases are covered by attorney-client privilege.

(This doesn’t strike me as being quite right, given that she’s an elected official and he’s a state employee, and they were discussing official state business. But I couldn’t find anything in the Revised Code of Washington statutes to contradict him, and the past case law I found online seems to indicate that it’s a deep dark gray legal area. Besides, who can afford a lawyer to argue this? I sure as hell can’t.)

Still, my sense of fair play is outraged to the point that I feel compelled to do something — even as the old-school journalist in me warns me to stand down, shut up and not monkey with the machinery. A journalist reports what happens, after all. He ‘s not supposed to make things happen to report on later.

That held me back for a few weeks until, recent and uncoincidentally, I watched All The President’s Men on DVD. (It just happened to be the next movie in line in my Netflix queue.) And as I watched, I realized that what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did was just what I was proposing to do — write a story in hopes of rattling some cages and spilling out some sunshine. At least half of their published stories in what turned out to be a Pulitzer-winning series appeared to be calculated to induce people to spill more information that would lead to more stories. And it worked.

That quelled one ethical dither. But another loomed: By proposing to write such a story, am I becoming Robert Holmes’ advocate rather than the objective chronicler of his story? Do I risk being seen that way?

After thinking about it a little, I’ve settled on two answers: No. And probably not.

First of all, I am the objective chronicler of Robert Holmes’ story. I’ve taken great pains to represent myself that way to him and to everyone else I’ve interviewed this year in the pursuit of this story. I like Robert, personally, but that’s not stopping me from revealing the painful details of what he did — and didn’t do — on the night of January 26, 1979. It’s not stopping me from interviewing the parents of the victim, who remain dead-set against any leniency for him and frankly think he and David Duhaime should both be on Death Row.

Second, I can’t control what other people may think.

Third, really … why would anybody think that, anyway? (Besides me in my whinier and more insecure moments?) What I’m proposing to do is write a factual story, with plenty of documents and recorded interviews to back me up, that in essence puts the question to the public: Does Robert Holmes deserve a break? Or, as a convicted rapist and murderer, did the governor give him what he deserved when she shot him down — even though she overrode the advice of her own handpicked panel in the process? Either way, does he deserve an explanation? Do the people of Washington state?

I think it’s fair and ethical for me to write a story that lays out the issue according to the facts and invites its readers raise that question on their own. The fact I that I’m trying to get readers to ask that question doesn’t ethically trouble me in the least any longer. Every day, there are newspaper stories that are published specifically for their potential to provoke public reaction.

In this case, I’ll be trying to provoke readers to provoke Gov. Gregoire into speaking publicly about the Holmes the case — or, at least, authorizing her senior legal counsel to do so. I suspect the reason she turned down Holmes was political, and I think political pressure (of a populist sort) could, just maybe, provoke her to change her mind. Or at least talk about why she won’t. Realistically, I believe the chances of getting her to talk about it are slim. But at least I’ll know I’ll have done everything I could possibly do to get her to do so. And that’s just good journalism.

(By the way, there is precedent for Gov. Gregoire turning down a clemency request from a convicted murderer — again, over the recommendation of her board — and later changing her mind. I’ll be getting into that in my story; trust me, it makes for a very intriguing sidebar.)

Not sure who will publish it, but I’ll approach the Everett paper first, and if they turn me down, there’s a decent-sized list of credible Seattle media outlets to approach. Someone will publish it, given a) how good a story it is on its own merits; b) my own credibility as a Pacific Northwest journalist; and c) the fact that I can back up the facts I cite with the interviews I’ve recorded and the documents I’ve gathered.

The worst-case scenario? I publish it on my blog and get as many blogs and news sites in the greater Seattle area to link to it as possible.

So, this is something I’ll be working on, on top of everything else I’ll be working on, for the next couple of weeks.

Good thing I have no life, isn’t it?

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