Sunday, January 13, 2013

Stalin's Right. Weller's Wrong.

Rodney Alcala entered guilty pleas last month.

"Yes," he said (or perhaps his lawyer did in his name, and I have no idea what words were actually used, this was New York, I wasn't there, and I don't know squat about New York law anyway), "I did it.  I'm the one who killed Ellen Hover in 1977 and Cornelia Crilley in 1971."

Alcala hasn't been wandering the streets in the interim.  Within a couple of years of Hover's murder he'd killed again - in California.  He's on death row there, has been for years and years.  Whether he's ever executed, he'll never get out.  And so New York didn't bother.  I mean, what was the point?  A show trial? He was California's problem.  Let him stay California's problem.

Which left Sheila Weller understandably unsatisfied.  Hover was her cousin though they hadn't seen one another in years.  But her cousin.  And her killer was out there.  Known.  Identified.  And New York didn't care enough to bring him to justice.  To bring Sheila something like peace.

Until last month when Rodney Alcala entered guilty pleas.

Every victim deserves her own day in court, no matter what else the culprit has been arrested for, no matter how long ago the crime: this is the pure integrity of opening a cold case.
That's from "A Cold Case of Cold-Blooded Murder," a column by Sheila in the Times.  She added this.

LAST year, when I heard that Rodney Alcala was actually going to be extradited to New York to face a grand jury on Ellen’s case, I remembered something a clergyman had said at the first service after 9/11: it was too overwhelming, and unfair to the victims, to think of 3,000 people dead. The best way to honor them was to think that “one person died,” three thousand times. When justice is broken down to individual victims, humanity is restored.

And so Sheila Weller makes her case, a moral case, a human case, for insisting that every person murdered, every person raped, every person robbed, every person abused, should be remembered.  Because Stalin was absolutely right.
A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.
For all of that, though, Weller is wrong.

Oh, there's tragedy to burn. Stalin was still right.  But the criminal justice system isn't about giving "victims" a day in court.  At least, not the sort of victims Weller means.

I've explained this before, but it needs to be repeated.  The victim of a crime is the state, the body politic.  It's why criminal cases have names like State of Ohio v. Some Poor Fuckup or United States of America v. Gee Hesa Shithead or, to bring this back to go, People of New York v. Rodney Alcala.

Ellen Hover and Cornelia Crilley, they were victims of Rodney Alcala, and they were victims of his criminal actions, but they aren't the victims of his crimes.  And his prosecution doesn't vindicate them in any way.  Maybe it was a good thing.  Maybe there's some sort of cosmic justice to be had in bringing Alcala before the bar in New York, in taking a ritual plea and imposing a sentence he cannot serve.  Maybe in some sense he thereby answers for what he did to those women.  So maybe it's an absolute good.  I don't know, don't pretend to.

As I've said too many times in these posts, I don't know what justice is.  I can recognize injustice, but justice - that's in the hands of the gods.

Still, if a show trial (and that's all it could be) or show plea as it happened of Rodney Alcala brought Weller some peace after all these years, if it gave her solace, I certainly don't begrudge her that.  The families, the friends, the loved ones and loving ones of those who have been murdered, and those themselves who've suffered other violations - they ache, they suffer.  They deserve what comfort and sympathy and compassion we can offer.

What they don't deserve is a day in the criminal court where their only proper role is witness.  Not victim.

Last month Rodney Alcala entered guilty pleas.  Last week he was sentenced.  25 years to life.  A sentence he won't serve because he's going to die (one way or another) in prison in California for his long-ago crimes there.  Those years, they're the ritual sentence.  Weller calls it "symbolic," and that's not wrong.  But there's another part he had to endure.  The castigation.
At one point, the judge broke down, saying she had never had before her a case with such brutality and hoped she would never again.
And with that, and with the symbolic/ritual term of years.  Weller has her peace, her satisfaction.

Or maybe not.  Part of what Jody LyneĆ© Madeira eloquently conveys in Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure (reviewed here) is that survivors want acknowledgment, recognition.  They want, they need, the bad guy to acknowledge his misdeeds.  Not to the world, but to them.  Just a fucking sincere apology.  Please.  The criminal courts aren't the place.  They rarely provide the setting.  It's not what they're for.  And so they leave those victimized by the criminal acts unsatisfied.

During the hearing he never once turned to face us, the family members. He simply clutched his orange Department of Corrections jacket, protection against the cold on the short trip from court to van and from van to Rikers.
No solace, no acknowledgement, no satisfaction.
All I could think was: a coward to the end. 
Which of course he might be.  Or maybe it just wasn't to be.  Because much as she might like to think it otherwise, the prosecution of Rodney Alcala wasn't about Ellen Hover or Cornelia Crilley.  And it wasn't about Weller or the family and friends of the mudered women.

Stalin was right.  So was that clergyman speaking after 9/11.  The murders of those two are tragedies.  They are to be mourned.  Their loved ones are entitled to grief, despair, anger, bitterness.

But the criminal justice system, whatever its virtues and whatever its defects isn't there to heal them or provide them peace or solace or satisfaction.  It can't do that because it isn't about them.  We've lied in recent years and told them it is.  We've adopted so-call "victim's rights" laws and procedures.  We've a whole panoply of stuff designed to give victims of criminal acts a role in the prosecution of people who are alleged to have committed those acts against the state.  

That's a level of dissonance that simply can't be made to cohere.

UPDATE:  See Scott Greenfield's take on Weller's Op-Ed.


  1. Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but what did Stalin say that you're expressing agreement with?

  2. A perception of human psychology. "A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic."