Recently, I had a very sobering experience. I always thought most people committed crimes for two reasons: greed and arrogance. Greed meaning when they want what someone else has and can’t get it by other means—so they steal it. I hate those more than any other type of criminals. Arrogance comes to mind when I think of someone killing another person because they believe themselves so important that they can't imagine the other person wanting to be with someone else. How could that possibly happen? As in: I am so wonderful, it's impossible that he or she would leave me. You know what I mean.
Then last week I visited a Mexican man held in a far south Texas jail. He's accused of killing his mother-in-law and three children (one was his own 2½-year-old son), then attempting to kill his estranged wife. Remarkably, this man's wife survived four gunshot wounds. Unfortunately for this man, there couldn't be a more solid set of facts to charge someone with the most serious of criminal offenses—capital murder. A guilty verdict carries the possibility of the ultimate sentence, the death penalty.
Still, I'm a criminal defense attorney, and the truth is that it all sounds pretty normal, in my world. Throughout my career, I've seen horrible photos, and I've heard terrifying testimony about the evil one individual can perpetrate on another. On the surface, this case isn't remarkable. What bothers me is my reaction to this man and what he told me. Through an interpreter, his words touched me in a very unusual way. Until we talked, I'd never thought much about the effects of cultural differences, especially early childhood teachings, and how such influences form who a person becomes as an adult.
Not that upbringing hasn't been a factor in past cases. I often have mitigation specialists to assist me in the punishment phase of capital trials. The mitigation person pulls together records about a person’s life—from the moment of birth up to the present day. S/he gathers so much information that the defense attorney knows when his client lost his first tooth, when he learned how to swim, when he got his first beating, or how old he was when his mother first locked him in that dark closet.
These facts are important because they tell the life story of an individual. But there is something even more important and more pervasive—culture. Societal norms and mores of the place where we are born and raised form the core of who we are as human beings. Culture molds who we are inside—makes us the way we are.
As we talked, the Mexican man cried. He explained that his wife, who was much younger than he, decided she wanted to go back to school. He told me that she became mean, telling him "being with you is a waste of time" and "I should have married this other guy—I would be rich now." Those statements gnawed at him, a poor yet proud man. That night, he went to the family home. He entered his wife's darkened bedroom with his gun drawn and started firing. Moments later, his own young son, two of his wife’s children from another relationship, and his mother-in-law lay dead. They'd been lying in the bed together.
My client stumbled out of the room, only to run into his wife as she walked in the front door. He was shocked, appalled, scared, and in an instant, he knew what had happened. Angry, he shot again. She was lucky; although injured, she didn't die.
So, you may ask, where is the mystery? Why am I questioning anything? This man committed a terrible act.
What I heard in the man's voice was a deep, desperate hurt, a pain that cut to his very core. His crying sounded like an animal screaming for help. It touched me as nothing has in a long time. I asked myself—how in the world can a person get to that point? He has no criminal history and no history of violence of any kind. What made him literally go over the edge?
The answer is the Mexican culture with its machismo, exaggerated masculine pride.
This man saw himself as a good husband and father. He was the provider of his family, his wife and children. A carpenter, he worked hard, providing food and a place to sleep. He did what his culture says a man does for the people he loves. In the end, his pride was bigger than his brain. His culture made him a slave to his pride. He could not assimilate the fact that his wife wanted to go to school; that she was not respectful of her husband; that she called him names and insulted him in front of others. His pride and his upbringing would not allow that. So he snapped, and four people died.
I know you'll comment and say that I've lost my mind. Why in the world would I sympathize with this killer—and not just "a" killer—but a killer of children and an older woman? That’s why I ask: What is wrong with me? OK, you tell me. Help me with this.