Oct/Nov 2012 Nonfiction

Checking Out

by Diane Mierzwik

I sat on the back benches of the courtroom, hiding the novel on my lap. We had been instructed that all potential jurors must be paying attention to all proceedings so when we were called, if we were called, we would be aware of everything that had happened thus far.

It was a murder trial, and the district attorney, handsome and ambitious with strong chiseled features and a booming voice, was seeking the death penalty against a young man whom the public defender, squirrelly with loose curly hair and round, soft features, claimed was mentally challenged.

The narrative went like this—the young man had been fired from his job. He found a weapon, broke into the house of his boss, killed the boss's wife and grandson and then waited for the boss to come home. The boss did come home, was attacked, and survived. The accused murderer's IQ was lower than 70 points.

The day before in the auditorium where all potential jurors checked in, we were given a survey to fill out, asking things like whether or not our employer paid for jury service, if we had home situations that would prevent us from serving on a long trial, whether we worked in the correctional system, whether we had a family member who was incarcerated or who was employed by corrections, and whether or not we believed in the death penalty—on a score of 0 to 10, 0 being completely against the death penalty and 10 being completely for it.

Though I think killing another human being is beyond what I am capable of, I am reconciled with the fact that my ideals and the world I live in don't exactly match, and I circled the number one.


A sick fascination with the spectacle of life and death is part of the human experience. Our fascination with extreme sports athletes, trapeze artists, and others willing to take death-defying risks, has less to do with the ability of humans to confront death and more to do with wanting to bear witness if the expected outcome actually happens.

I spent the summer between fourth and fifth grade roaming the fields behind our house with my best friend, Steven Munoz. We routinely caught butterflies in the fields to throw into the spider webs lacing the bushes bordering his yard.

We watched the butterflies, their flimsy, silky bodies, thrust into the webs where they fluttered and struggled to break free. Spiders would quickly come out, kill the butterflies and either lord over the body, or wrap it quickly to carry through a tunnel leading behind the web and bushes.

Steven and I facilitated this microcosmic symbiotic life/death dance for our own education. I was raised to be practical about life and death, with chickens, rabbits, and a garden in the back. We ate what we raised, while loving our pets.

And yet, once I was old enough to form an opinion, I was against the death penalty, believing it's not up to us to determine when a person's life should end. I thought we might be preventing that person from living out his or her destiny. Being against the death penalty put me in the minority.

Since the 1970's, the Harris Poll and Gallup Poll have asked American citizens—Are you in favor of the death penalty? Always over 50% have been in favor. The reason usually given for supporting the death penalty is that "the punishment fits the crime."


Death has not been a major part of my life. I have read about deaths in my community, but no one close to me has died outside of what would be considered the natural order of things. Grandparents have died as they aged. Now, friends' parents are passing, and I am preparing for the death of my parents. The closest I have been to death was through my husband's friend, Mark.

Mark called to say goodbye as he left for a six-month Navy tour in the Middle East. Less than a month later, we got word that his plane had gone down over the Mediterranean Sea. Stunned, I was consumed with such a deep grief that even my husband commented, "You're taking it harder than me."

When I repeated this peculiar remark to a friend, she explained, "When someone close to us dies, we are not only dealing with their death, but with our own mortality."


Many people will cite "An eye for an eye" or other religious scripture to justify their support of the death penalty. Yet, religion also emphasizes the importance of recognizing death as an integral part of how we live.

Judaism, as the first monotheistic religion, stresses the natural fact of death and its role in giving life meaning. The Torah even goes as far as to prescribe the death penalty for certain crimes, though rabbis have traditionally insisted on using it in moderation.

Christianity explains that there is "a time to be born, and a time to die" (Ecclesiastics 3:2) but promises eternal life beyond earthly life. It also promises eternal damnation if you have lived a bad earthly life. And in the Book of Revelations, Christians are instructed that "...he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints" (Rev. 13:10).

Hinduism believes in rebirth and the reincarnation of souls; therefore, death is not a great calamity, but a natural process in the existence of the soul. Death is a temporary cessation of physical activity before returning to earth to try again. Like most religions, there are arguments for and against the death penalty within the Hindu tradition. Parmatmananda Saraswati, Coordinator of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, stated (qtd. in Lane):

Capital punishment is allowed under Hindu tradition. Lord Rama is the embodiment of dharma, yet he killed King Bali, who had stolen his own brother's wife...

Sometimes I feel that the crimes today are even more heinous than in the past. Hence capital punishment, if sanctioned by the scriptures, should continue.

Buddhism stresses the importance of death as the means to perceive the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pleasures. And though the first tenet of Buddhism is to do no harm to all living things, Tomoko Sasaki, a former member of the Japanese parliament, stated (qtd. in Lane), "A basic teaching [in Japanese Buddhism] is retribution. If someone evil does something bad, he has to atone with his own life. If you take a life, you have to give your own."

In all cases, death is seen as part of the natural order of things. The belief that these things are in God's hands often prevents religious people from being proponents of the death penalty. The tension lies between how we are to be stewards of this world and not take things into our own hands, not to embrace the inevitability of living and dying.


When something interesting happens to me or someone I know, I file the story away and wait to share it, to brighten the dull light of the mundane.

So when the mother of the students I tutor produced a jar filled with four baby rattlesnakes and told me the story of how she came in possession of the babies, I filed it away for just the right time.

Several months later while at a writers' retreat in the mountains, the talk, after we had each pushed our paper plates away from the edge of the picnic table and leaned back in our chairs, turned toward the local animals, and eventually to rattlesnakes.

I waited for the perfect moment, then began: "A neighbor found a rattlesnake outside her porch several months ago. After she killed it, it gave birth to four perfect baby rattlesnakes that were dead. She put them in a jar, and her kids got an A in science for the week."

As each person at the table imagined a jar of four perfect baby rattlesnakes suspended forever between life and death, most of the responses were what I was counting on, except for our host, Esther.

"Oh, how sad. Those poor babies."

"Esther, they were rattlesnakes."

"They can be caught and relocated."

"Yes, I have neighbors who do that, but it's not always possible."

"I'm sorry. I just have a special place in my heart for babies, any babies," Esther continued. Then as if I needed reassuring, she added, "It's okay that you don't."

Now I felt challenged. Not only had Esther called into question the validity of retelling the gem I had savored until this moment to share, but also questioned the righteousness of the rattlesnake's death. I thought of area livestock and pets killed by rattlesnakes and my own upbringing: if a rattlesnake was in the yard, its head was to be chopped off, then both the head and the snake's body were to be buried a long distance from the yard, preferably in an open field, effectively ensuring our safety from it and any of its "friends."

"Oh, I know it's okay. Esther, it's the circle of life."

At this everyone, except Esther and me, burst into laughter.

Esther was quieted, for now, but later, during an awareness ceremony she made a point of explaining that though we call on the elements and creatures of nature to bring us peace and strength, we are blessed with the gift of awareness and can act beyond our animal nature.

I wondered if that wasn't the opposite of what our blessings were.


Whether or not a person can be rehabilitated lies at the heart of the dilemma faced by departments self-labeled as correctional.

Kelly-Hannah Moffat identifies the following to be criminogenic needs: antisocial personality, anti-social attitudes and values, anti-social associates, family dysfunction, poor self-control and poor problem-solving skills, substance abuse, and lack of employment or employment skills.

Transforming a murderer would require changing his personality, his attitudes and values, helping him resolve his family dysfunction, teaching him to have self-control and better problem-solving skills, helping him to overcome a substance abuse problem and finding him employment. A transformation of this magnitude would be beyond rehabilitation, beyond the scope of our influence on one another, a spectacle of illusion.


As I have gotten older, I have come to the realization that trying to change a person's beliefs, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that his or her beliefs are misguided, is fruitless. So, I am patient with my vegan friends. Some refuse even to drink milk or eat cheese because they reject the commodity status of animals and the use of animals or animal products for any purpose. Other friends simply refuse to eat red meat because we are red meat animals. Others draw the line somewhere in between. I often want to cite research proving that when you cut vegetables from their stem or boil them, they emit a noise that sounds like a scream. But I don't because I have yet to find the actual research and fear this may just be an urban legend. I remain quiet, as well, because I recognize that where each of us draws the line in the sand, whether it is about what to eat, what to wear, what to tolerate in our relationships, what to tolerate in our workplace, or what to tolerate in our society, is very personal.


My cousins lived down the street from us, and during the summer I spent many days at their house. One day, as I was leaving to go home, I glanced back into the garage and saw my Uncle Junior standing at a table, concentrating on what he was doing.

"Hey, Uncle Junior," I called out and veered my path from going home and headed into the garage to say hello.

Uncle Junior seemed startled, then regained his composure as I got nearer.

"Whatcha' doing?" I asked.

"Just working." There was an awkward silence, and I could tell he wanted me to leave.

"Okay, well, I'll see you later," and as I turned to leave I noticed kittens in a box on the workbench and a crimple of fur in a box on the floor.

I was halfway home when I realized what Uncle Junior was "working" on. He had been picking up a newly born kitten from the box on the bench, breaking its neck and tossing the dead kitten into the box on the concrete floor.

When I told my mom, she stopped folding laundry to shrug her shoulders. "They can't afford to feed all their kids, let alone feed kittens." She went back to folding laundry, asking me to take my pile of clothes.

As I put away my clean underwear and socks and hung up my blouses, I thought my mom was probably right, but that my uncle shouldn't have let his cat have kittens in the first place.


According to the article "The Serial Killer," By Harold Schechter, one characteristic of serial killers is that they are involved with sadistic activity or tormenting of small creatures. Other characteristics include being fascinated with fire-starting, wetting their beds beyond the age of 12, being intensely interested in voyeurism, fetishism, and sado-masochistic pornography, having high rates of suicide attempts, spending time in institutions as children with early records of psychiatric problems, having been abused, usually by a family member, hating their mothers and fathers, coming from a family with criminal, psychiatric and alcoholic histories, being raised by a domineering mother after their father abandoned them, coming from an extremely unstable family, doing poorly in school then having trouble holding down jobs, tending to be in the "bright-normal" range on IQ tests, and being male.

As I read through the list, I can't help but check off each of the descriptions which apply to me, and wonder which unique combination becomes lethal.


"I just want to show you this," the trainer, Tom, tells us, "because it exemplifies all the criminal thinking patterns we've been talking about over the last two days." Tom leans down and messes with the computer as we all stare at the projection screen, waiting.

"This interview happened in 2006 when Charles Manson's cell mate wrote a book about him." At the mention of the name, Charles Manson, I try to hide my natural reaction of physically flinching, barely squinting my eyes in defense, since cringing at the mention of the people we are paid to serve is not good manners on the job.

I know my students have done bad things, but remain focused on how the future could result in their making better choices, and how, with an education and some life management skills, they may be able to reintegrate into society in a positive way. Yet, I also recognize that awareness of the negative possibilities, what my students are capable of, is what keeps me safe.

Charles Manson comes on the screen and Tom talks over the interview at key moments. "Rationalization." "Minimalization." "Victim Stance." I watch the screen and search for some form of humanity I can connect with, some way I can have hope for a better future for Charles Manson.

I watch as Tom grows more and more animated, pointing out that Charles Manson exhibits all the criminal thinking patterns we have been discussing. The video clip of the interview ends and immediately another one is opened. Tom has put together a series of short clips of many serial killers—Jeffery Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and Angelo Buono, Jr.—each explaining how the murders were justified. I rationalize that this is Tom's area of expertise and his excitement is about his ability to show us all of the theories he has been explaining to us throughout the two-day seminar. I try to understand that it is good for me to be aware of what my students are capable of so I can make choices at work that are safe. I minimize the absurd sensation I have that the video clips are really just a strange form of entertainment for us.

Then I console myself. Our students are not murderers, or they wouldn't be out on parole. I wonder out loud why we are studying the habits of pathologically sick murderers when these are not our students. All my colleagues jump in to explain that in fact, they are our students, at least some of them are.

"Just be aware. That is what is important," Tom reassures me. "Don't allow yourself to be a victim."


After first break, previously unadorned student folders suddenly have pictures adhered to them, or the student has pictures laid out on his work space for me to see. The pictures of small children and spouses rarely have the student in them, though they claim the people in the pictures are their family. I generally ignore the photographs, recognizing they represent a life beyond the jail classroom for the student, and though families and kids at home may help to motivate students to make better choices in the future, the pictures may also represent the students' attempts to manipulate me. Expressing sympathy for a student's dilemma is the first weak spot a teacher can reveal, exposing himself or herself to further manipulation.

When I taught a class of eight high school boys, I jokingly called them "my conduct-disorder boys." Each of them should have been expelled from school, but that would have cost the school district $40,000 per student to pay for alternative education, so instead the students were placed with me and two instructional assistants for their school day. My job was to educate them, but mostly I learned to manage them.

One day when I was lamenting how I didn't much like most of my students, a psychologist friend suggested that I have each one bring in a photo of himself as a toddler. "It will remind you that they were innocent children once and give you some sympathy for their situation."

My brother-in-law who works in the prison system, on the other hand, reminded me that I shouldn't like them because any of my students would stab me in the back if it served his purposes.

"No, I don't believe it," I retorted. Then later in the year, when I was on the verge of getting one of the worst behaved students, Justin, transferred out, my "behavioral log" was stolen. When the log finally turned up, not only was I reprimanded by school administration for being careless with official records, but all of Justin's records were missing. It may have been my imagination, but Justin seemed smug. He was not expelled, and my assumptions about my students were forever changed.

In this job, I ignore the pictures brought out by students, although there is inevitably the one who forces me to acknowledge them.

"Ms. M, did you see my kids?" he'll offer as I walk by his table.

I balance being disengaged with being polite. "Wow, you have some people back home who are important to you, important enough to put your whole effort into this class while you're here." I keep walking, being sure not to be drawn into feeling empathy for the student, endangering my professional demeanor and safety.


In Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean keeps asking Matthew Poncelet if he killed the couple. At first he is defiant and denies it, then he blames his partner. As his execution draws nearer and nearer, he gets closer and closer to admitting the truth, until on the day of his execution he fully admits he murdered the couple and asks for forgiveness.

I am convinced that without having to face his own death, Matthew Poncelet never would have faced his actions, accepted responsibility, and ultimately asked for forgiveness, redeeming him from eternal damnation—if you believe in that sort of thing. Whether it is karma, hell, a horrible reincarnation, or some other form of repercussions for our actions, asking for forgiveness redeems you.

Until watching this movie, I was against the death penalty. But Matthew's redemption came from his facing his own death. If we believe that the greatest human capacity is for redemption, then for some of us, facing our own death may be the only thing that makes this redemption possible.

The death penalty actually gave Matthew's life meaning.


At a recent teacher training, the conversation at break turned to the current budget crisis facing our state, and whether the crisis would affect our programs and our jobs. Many people put forth their ideas about how to fix the state budget, most proposing more taxes that the proposal makers thought would have no affect on their own lives. After the conversation broke into factions, one teacher came over and said quietly, "Diane, have you ever rented those pay-per-view fights?"

"My husband has. He and his friends like to get together and watch them."

"Not the big fights, but the cage fighting ones?"

"No," I said, but wanting him to continue, I extended a piece of our shared experience. "I've watched those fights on cable."

"Entertaining, right?"

"Yeah, it's hard to turn away."

"So, here's how I would fix the budget. There are currently 33 people in the state of California on Death Row. I say we let two of them fight to the death and sell it as pay-per-view. There are millions of households in the state. You sell the fight for $100 to 280,000 of those households, you fix the budget. I'd watch that. Wouldn't you?"

"I can't believe you just said that out loud," I said, genuinely laughing at the audacity of the proposal. I felt a kinship with this man who was unafraid to say out loud unpopular but pragmatic ideas, though his line in the sand is different than mine.


I did get called to the juror's box on the second day of jury selection for the murder trial, quickly stuffing my novel into my oversized purse. Asked the routine questions by the judge about my ability to be fair, I knew that several of the people in the juror's box were full supporters of the death penalty, and some claimed they were adamantly against it. I tried not to size up the people sitting to my right and left, focusing instead only on the lawyers and my predictions of how jury duty was going to disrupt my life, how I was going to be able to write lesson plans and grade papers and come for jury service without losing my sanity. At the time I was a middle school English teacher, so there was no conflict of interest. The judge finished his questions.

The good-looking district attorney had a few extra questions for me.

"I noticed on your survey you marked the number one for whether or not you support the death penalty. You didn't mark zero, being completely against it."

"That's right," I answered, knowing full well that the woman sitting next to me had stated she was completely against the death penalty. I doubted my being mostly against the death penalty would get me excused.

"Can you explain why?"

"Well, I'm against the death penalty personally, but I understand why society has it. I understand there may be times when it is appropriate." I glanced apologetically at the public defender, understanding that I may have been undermining his argument against the death penalty.

To my surprise, the public defender indicated to the judge that his office fully accepted the jury as it stood. The district attorney, as if I was kryptonite to his superman crusade to give the death penalty to a mentally challenged young man, excused me as one of his jury declines.

As I left the box, I wondered why the woman completely against the death penalty remained while the state prosecutor chose to excuse me, a person thoughtful about the repercussions of the use and lack of use of the death penalty.

I exited the courtroom, leaving behind me an audience and facilitators of the greatest mystery of existence, whether or not we are in charge of life and death.


Works Cited

Dead Man Walking. Dir Tim Robbins. Perf Susan Saradon and Sean Penn. MGM, 2000.

"Do Prisons Create Crime?" Criminologist. 12 January 2011 http://criminology.blog.co.uk/2010/06/29/do-prisons-create-crime-8883309/.

Lane, Charles. "Why Japan Still Has the Death Penalty." Washington Post. Jan. 16, 2005.

Moffat, Kelly-Hannah. "Criminogenic needs and the Transformative Risk Subject: Hybridization in risk/needs in penalty." Punishment and Society 7: 29. 2005.

"National Polls and Studies." Death Penalty Information Center. 12 January 2011 http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/national-polls-and-studies#rasjune.

Saraswati, Parmatmananda. "Capital Punishment: Time to Abandon It?" Hinduism Today. Oct./Nov./Dec. 2006.

Schechter, Harold. The Serial Killer Files: Who, What, Where, How and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

"Task Force on Corrections." National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1973.

The Bible. King James Version. The New English Bible. London: Oxford United Press, 1970.

"The Death Penalty in the U.S." Death Penalty Information Center. 12 January 2011 http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/dpusa.htm.


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