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.

Mass Killing

The horror was spread all over local and national T.V., radio and newspapers.  Friday night shooting spree by Fort Bragg soldier in Fayetteville restaurant kills four and injures many more!   The more I heard, the worse my heart broke.  I had a deep sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.   By Sunday, a surprising amount of details were known about the victims, the gunman, and the killing spree.   “A Night of Terror, Heroes” screamed the banner headline of the Fayetteville Observer-Times.

On Friday, August 7, 1993, around 10 p.m., Sergeant Kenneth Junior French, 22, drove to a popular, locally owned restaurant, Luigi’s in his black pick-up truck.   He parked in front of the restaurant, got out with two 12-guage shotguns and a .22-caliber rifle.  He was wearing a hunting vest filled with ammunition.  French walked around the outside of the restaurant, which was full of customers, and shot out each of the four windows on the side.  He then returned to his truck and left one shotgun and the rifle.

French walked to the back of the restaurant and entered the back door with his remaining shotgun.  He shot a cook (who survived) and entered the dining room shooting.  The owners of the restaurant, Pete and Ethel Parrous, had been sitting at a booth with their daughter, Connie, and her husband, Tony.  They all were now hiding under the table.   But, as the local newspaper put it, “Mr. Parrous couldn’t just hide under the table.”  Here is Connie’s account of the events as told the day after the tragedy to the Fayetteville Observer-Times:

“Then my dad stood up and said, ‘Oh please don’t hurt us.’  Before you knew it, he’d blown his face away.  My mother freaked out and got up and tried to get him.  They were very close.  She went to him, and that’s when the creep got her, too.

“We were trying to get him (dad), to see if we could help him, but he was already gone,” she said.  “We were all just sitting in a pool of blood.”

French fired at Connie and Tony under the table, hitting Connie in the thigh.

For some 20 minutes, French wandered around the restaurant taking aim at customers.  At times, he ranted about gays in the military.  Witnesses reported him yelling “I’ll show you about gays in the military” and “I’ll show you, Clinton.”   French shot and killed Wes Cover, a former soldier, who dove to shield his pregnant fiancée, and James Kidd, who did the same to shield his son, a soldier.  French periodically stopped to reload his pump shotgun.  He fired about 20 shots.  French’s rampage ended when he was shot by a police officer.  French survived.

It was clear from the news accounts that the Parrouses were beloved by all and well known in the community, particularly the Greek community.  Their senseless deaths would no doubt cause widespread trauma and outrage.  There was also no doubt that Mr. French would be facing the death penalty.

My First Death Row Clients

In my first few weeks as a capital defense attorney, I was assigned to three cases: Barbara Stager, Michael Pinch and Zane Hill.  All three prisoners had court-appointed attorneys, so I was charged with assisting them.   The cases were at different stages of litigation.  Barbara had won relief on direct appeal, and her resentencing hearing would be taking place soon.  Michael had lost on direct appeal years ago and had been in post-conviction litigation for several years as well.  Zane had lost on direct appeal recently and was just beginning the post-conviction stage.  Bizarrely, his execution date of September 10, 1993, had come and gone with neither Zane nor his attorneys ever knowing.

I cannot imagine starting deathwork with a more “normal” group of clients.   You would have never picked these individuals out of a crowd as killers, even after having a conversation with them.  Yet, all three had shot someone dead.   All were Caucasian, as were their victims.

Barbara was the only one of my new clients who said that she did not intentionally pull the trigger.   Her husband, Russell Stager, was a popular teacher and baseball coach at Durham High School.   He was shot in the head as he slept.  Barbara’s account of the events was that the gun accidentally went off as she was removing it out from under Russell’s pillow.   Hardly anyone believed her, especially as they learned that her first husband had also died of a gunshot wound inflicted at home, allegedly accidentally and by his own hand.

Barbara was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in May 1989.  I remembered the case being all over the news during my first year of law school.  Now, I would be helping the woman that so many despised.

The jury that sentenced Barbara to death used the standard sentencing instruction, despite the fact the instruction was being challenged as unconstitutional.  By 1989, the United States Supreme Court had made clear that states had to give capital juries the discretion to sentence a defendant to life despite the death sentence being on the table AND that this discretion had to be guided so that the jury would consider all evidence that the defendant presented that might mitigate her punishment.   The question remained whether the North Carolina instruction requiring that capital jurors had to be unanimous on the existence of a mitigating circumstance before that circumstance could be considered by any juror for the purpose of sentencing, unconstitutionally restricted a juror’s ability to consider mitigating evidence.

In 1990, the United States Supreme Court decided this issue in McKoy v. North Carolina and struck down the State’s standard instruction.  There were 86 prisoners on North Carolina’s death row at the time.  Forty-four had the faulty instruction and received new sentencing hearings.  Barbara was one of these 44.  Accounts of Barbara’s case, and there have been many, called the error a “technicality,” which is often what skeptics call errors of law even when the law lead to unjust results.

McKoy errors were not technicalities.  How jurors are instructed when they have the life of a defendant in their hands matters greatly.  In this instance, giving all jurors a voice matters greatly.  Of the 44 inmates who received death sentences with the McKoy instruction, 17 were sentenced to life by the next jury who heard their cases with the full discretion to vote for life.   Barbara was one of these 17.  In her resentencing hearing, each juror could fully consider the mitigating evidence, some of which I had prepared, and her life was spared.

Barbara, now 63, lives in the NC Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, NC.