The Ripples of Trauma from Sandy Hook

Hearing the news about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre last Friday triggered deep emotional pain across America and the world, even though few of us knew anyone close to those murdered.   Parents with young children held them tighter.  Children said prayers for the children lost.  In a darker place, many who have experienced loss through gun violence began to re-live their own trauma.

The ripple effects of senseless violence are long and deep.  Psychological trauma hits the hardest those caught in the immediate splash – the witnesses, the survivors (those closest to the event and the victim), and the perpetrator (assuming he or she lives).  The trauma spreads to friends of the survivors and of the perpetrator and to those who hear details about the killing.   It also spreads over time to those who later get to know the survivors and the perpetrator.

I have never had a loved one lost to gun violence or even murder, though my husband’s sister was murdered long before I knew him.  But as a lawyer, I have represented and have grown close to clients who have killed and then been killed by state execution.   I have heard things no one should hear and have seen things that no one should see.   The psychological trauma has taken its toll.

One of the consequences of psychological trauma is that its dysfunctions can re-emerge at any time, overwhelming your mental functioning.  You never know when the symptoms will be triggered.

I was running errands on Friday, when I first heard about a shooting at an elementary school.  Instinctively I knew it best to wait until I got home to learn more.  When I did, an overwhelming sadness enveloped me, and it has not lifted.  Thoughts of one of my executed clients, Steve McHone, and his family suddenly crowded my mind.  I write in hopes of stopping the flood.

Steve’s story is similar to Adam Lanza’s story though certainly different in magnitude.   Steve was the same age of Adam when he committed his crimes; he had just turned 20.  In the middle of the night in the idyllic town of Mount Airy, NC, Steve shot and killed his mother in their backyard and his step-father in the kitchen, before he was stopped by his half-brother.

Steve suffered from mental illnesses, which he had self-medicated with alcohol and drugs since the age of 12.  Steve had violent outbursts, once chasing his mother, Mildred, around the kitchen with a knife.  Mildred tried several times to get him psychological help, but the actual treatment he received was minimal.

On June 2nd, 1990, the perfect storm came together – alcohol, severe depression, conflict and guns.  Steve went to a party, got drunk, and got a gun from his family camper.  He fought with friends at the party but nothing came of it.   By the time he got home after midnight, Steve was distraught, threatening suicide.  He fought with his parents and was sent to his room to sleep it off.

In his basement room, Steve drank more and called his AA sponsor for help.  The sponsor did not come.  Steve went into the backyard with his pistol, most likely with the intent to kill himself.  Mildred was concerned about her son and made her way to the backyard too, with thoughts of removing the gun from the family camper, unaware of the fact that Steve already had it in his grips.

No one knows the details of the interaction of mother and son that night, but it ended with Steve shooting his mother.  Steve’s step-father, Wesley, ran to the scene, disarmed Steve and dragged him into the kitchen.  Wesley left Steve alone long enough for Steve to run to the bedroom and get a shotgun kept in the corner.

By this time Steve’s half-brother, Junior, was present.   Steve shot at Junior, but Wesley intervened and was shot dead.  Steve was subdued by Junior, who Steve begged to kill him.   Impressively, Junior, with both his parents dead, did not oblige.

The State was less restrained.  Steve was executed by the State of North Carolina on November 11, 2005, at the age of 35, fifteen years after his crimes.   I witnessed his pre-meditated killing.   I also witnessed the trauma suffered by three of his four siblings who had forgiven Steve and who had begged the Governor in vain to stop the execution.  So, goes the circle of violence and the traumatization.

I bristle when I hear people suggest that more guns in the home and in the schools are the answer to our country’s problem of violence.   I also bristle when I hear people suggest that we must arm ourselves to protect us from criminals.   I have met these criminals and they are us.  They are our brothers, our husbands, and our sons.   They are also our friends and our neighbors.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the pain and grief caused by Adam Lanza, but we must not become paralyzed.  We all have much work to do in our own backyards:  to become more knowledgeable and understanding about mental illness, to become more perceptive of those in psychological distress, and for all our sakes, to remove guns from easy reach of those in distress.

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The Crime

Ernest Basden was convicted of shooting and killing an insurance salesman, Billy White, in rural Eastern North Carolina in 1993.  The plot of the story is like a poor man’s soap opera.  Billy’s wife, Sylvia, wanted her husband dead.  After failing to accomplish this goal herself using poisoned berries, Sylvia talked Lynwood Taylor into killing her husband.

Lynwood knew how the system worked; a small-town drug dealer himself, he was an active police informant.  He knew better than to do the deed himself.  After
asking around town for a partner in crime, he turned to his nephew, Ernest, who was renting a room from Lynwood’s mother, Ernest’s aunt.  Ernest was down on his luck, chronically depressed and apt to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.  Lynwood provided Ernest with the needed drugs and alcohol, and after initially resisting, Ernest was convinced to help kill Billy.

Lynwood and Sylvia devised a plot.  Under false pretenses, Lynwood arranged for Billy to meet him at a deserted plot of land late at night.  Lynwood plied Ernest with alcohol and drove him to the designated spot, where they waited in the dark.  When Billy arrived, Lynwood introduced himself and then excused himself.  Ernest got out of the car, picked up a shotgun, and shot Billy twice.

It did not take long for this tale to come to light.  Lynwood and Sylvia were arrested. Ernest turned himself in.

Of the three, Ernest was tried first.  He was sentenced to death on Good Friday, April 9, 1993. Sylvia and Lynwood Taylor both avoided death sentences.  The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was troubled that Ernest, “an intoxicated, manipulated rube,” was the only one to get a death sentence:

Moreover, notwithstanding (or indeed perhaps because of) the greater cunning of Taylor and Sylvia White, they have been treated much more leniently than Basden.  The State did not bring Taylor to trial until four years after Billy White’s murder, and then permitted Taylor to plead guilty to first-degree murder; he received a sentence of life imprisonment.  Similarly, the State did not seek to try Sylvia White for almost four years after the murder of her husband and then allowed her to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and second-degree murder; she too received a sentence of life imprisonment.  Prior to that conviction, the State tried and convicted Sylvia White for the 1973 unrelated murder of her stepson (Billy White’s son and namesake) whom she suffocated with a plastic bag when he was four years old; the State did not seek the death penalty for that murder and White received a life sentence for that crime too.  [See Basden v. Lee, 290 F.3d 602 (4th Cir. 2002).]

According to one prosecutor, Taylor was given leniency in his sentence for Billy White’s murder because he helped the state win a conviction against Sylvia in the stepson’s case. The problem with this excuse is that Ernest’s testimony against Sylvia was equally if not more critical to the conviction.  In any case, Ernest’s attorney sought no favorable treatment, and Ernest received none.

There were other serious flaws with Ernest’s death sentence. Ernest’s trial attorney had to withdraw from the case when he was stricken with cancer; the new lawyer was given only six weeks to prepare for trial.  The trial was a disaster, most notably when the lawyers put Ernest on the stand, to no good end.

When the post-conviction team contacted the jurors, all but one stated that he (or she) never intended that Ernest be executed.  That one juror, then deceased, had told his fellow jurors that he “knew” first-hand that death sentences were overturned on appeal and that Ernest would get another trial and never be executed.  The jurors were sufficiently convinced and gambled with a death sentence.  They — and Ernest — lost.