Parents who have lost a child expect that somehow this archaic thing we call the criminal justice system will in some way make things better or right or just. And somehow that defendant who has taken their baby away from them in an unimaginably brutal way will not only be held accountable but also be punished as he or she should be by twelve members of our society.
Can you imagine the bottomless pain that a parent endures when they have learned that their child has been murdered? As many times as I have met with and counseled with parents suffering through that agony--and told them that we are there to do all that we can to make sure that the defendant is convicted and punished justly—I have also had that "other" conversation with them.
You see, in our world, the world of a prosecutor who handles such cases (as I have, far too many times), we also talk about the fact that as parents, they shouldn't put their lives on hold waiting for a defendant to be charged or arrested . . . or waiting for a trial to commence . . . or waiting for an appeal to be exhausted or even waiting for an execution to happen. I tell them that too many other parents, who have walked in their steps and truly do know their pain, have told me the truth.
The truth. The truth is that there is no such thing as "closure."
Sure, you hear it all of the time. You hear that closure is what we should be seeking on behalf of victims everywhere. You hear experts and psychologists and even law enforcement officials all over the country talking about closure as if it is some "state of mind" that we can help a mommy and a daddy, who have learned they will never see their baby again, obtain.
But when you ask those same victims if any of that—the arrest, the conviction, the sentencing, the execution—ever truly helped them gain "closure," you know what they all say? They all say no. They all say there is no such thing. They all say they are glad that phase of the process of the criminal justice system is complete. They all say thank you, and then they go back to having to figure out how to get up again the next morning and live another day in a world that no longer has the same color and light and joy in it that it did "before."
I remember the day I met a lady named Pat Kiesewetter. She came to my office so that we could discuss the case and the investigation and the upcoming trial of Richard Walter Holtje, the man charged with murdering her 16-month-old son, Samuel, in 1975. Pat is a shy lady, tall and slender, with red hair, who will tell you that she has never been the same since her baby was drowned in a scalding bathtub more than thirty years ago.
She told me about how she came to know the man who drowned her little boy, how they met each other at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and became involved. She told me about the evening she left for her night class and came back to find her baby on life support in a hospital--and about kissing him goodbye before he was taken off of life support.
As she told me the story that day—and as she told the jury and the Judge the story during the later trial—we could not all help but be affected. To listen to Pat talk about losing her baby boy and then the added pain and anguish she dealt with as years went by, more than twenty-five years, before the man responsible was charged with murder, you couldn't help but be touched.
But what scarred my soul in hearing Pat's story was when she told me this. She talked about the day there was a knock on her apartment door. When she opened it, there were two men standing there, who introduced themselves as Detectives Roger Wedgeworth and Harry Fikaris (pictured left and right, respectively) with the Harris County Sheriff's Cold Case Squad. They told her they were there to talk to her because they had re-opened the investigation into the murder of her baby.
Pat told them—and she later told me and then the jury—that in that moment of disbelief, she began to cry and tremble. Because she had long ago given up on anyone but herself caring about what happened to little Sam. Because she had lost all hope in law enforcement and in the criminal justice system. Because she blamed herself for what happened to Samuel and because she had long ago lost all interest in living.
Does Pat have closure today? She gave up on that a long time ago. KELLY SIEGLER has worked as a prosecutor for Harris County, Texas for the past 21 years. She has handled approximately 150 jury trials including 19 death penalty cases. Her cases have been written about in four true-crime books and her trials have been featured on Court TV and CBS's "48 Hours." Kelly has tried 15 cold cases to juries with many of those defendants now on Death Row.