Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Split Second—to a Never-Ending Journey

by Jenna Jackson

I see people when they’re going through the worst thing they could ever imagine would happen to them. A loved one has been murdered—or is charged with murder. Someone’s life has been taken—or is hanging in the balance. Until you’re caught up in the justice system in a very personal way, I don’t think you can understand the gravity of it. People believe, in theory, that you’re innocent until proven guilty. But the truth is, once the justice system sets its sights on you as a defendant, you have to prove your innocence. That may not be what the law says . . . but it’s the reality of the system.

It is excruciatingly stressful for a family to make the path through the justice system—an arrest, a trial—no matter whether they’re supporting the victim or the accused. And after nearly 10 years at 48 Hours and dozens of cases, I’m still generally unsure what the truth is in most cases. The family members and lawyers on either side of a case fully believe their truth. And when someone truly believes something, it’s difficult to argue with them. We challenge each side and let the viewers decide which version—or combination of both—they will choose to believe.

Sometimes this job wears on you emotionally, dealing with murders day in and day out. Years ago, I covered the case against serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, who was arrested in Del Rio, Texas. (One of my fellow bloggers, Diane Fanning, actually wrote a book on this case.) The Texas Rangers allowed us to film part of their interrogation of Sells—and I sat in for much of it. It was eery how much he seemed to enjoy having me there to have to listen as he confessed to killing men, women and children during a spree of more than 20 years. After one particularly long day, I went back to the hotel and showered for almost an hour—trying to scrub off everything I’d had to hear that day.

On the flip side, in that same story was a little girl who inspired all of us—after Sells killed her friend in the bunk bed above her, he slit the throat of 10-year-old Krystal Surles (pictured above). She was incredibly brave. She played dead until he left and then walked, in the black of night, to a neighbor’s house. Her description caught this man who had been terrorizing people across the country for two decades.

nd that is the reason I don’t think I’ll ever give up this job—it’s a window into human nature that few people see. The bad and the good. I remain fascinated with how criminals think and operate. But most of the accused I end up meeting are just people—there’s no black and white, good or evil—just a whole lot of gray.

That’s the most fascinating part—how a normal (or seemingly normal) person gets himself into a situation where he’s sitting in a courtroom, facing a murder charge. It reminds me that anyone, in a split second, can make a decision that will change the course of their life—and the lives of the ones they love—forever.


Cynthia Hunt said...

This captures so perfectly what it is to be a journalist. It's hard to explain the gray part to outsiders. As journalist, we have to be able to see human in monsters so we can relate and get some "why" to what they did. That's our job. I too have taken really long showers after many interviews.

Kathryn Casey said...

Great blog, Jenna. I know we've talked about this in courtrooms, during those long, grinding hours when we're waiting for verdicts, but you have to wonder how many wish they could rewind the clock and change the past, including Clara Harris.

Diane Fanning said...

Tommy Lynn Sells has expressed a desire to turn back the hands of the clock on his final murder--but not because of remorse. He said that the reason he got caught was because he made two mistakes: He didn't go back and make sure Krystal Surles was dead and he didn't leave town immediately after the murder as he had been doing for two decades.
You're right, Jenna, listening to him talk about his crimes was a disturbing experience.

Wendy Roberts said...

I found the Sells case fascinating, sad and terrifying. Your comment "when someone truly believes something, it’s difficult to argue with them" had me nodding my head. In writing paranormal mysteries I've interviewed a lot of people who believe in ghosts. If they've had a paranormal experience you will never be able to shine a light of doubt on the situation because their belief is just too strong.