Monday, March 29, 2010

An Unwritten Law

by Laura James
Love triangles turned deadly have been around longer than David and Bathsheba and Uriah, and you know the ending of that story (unless you skipped your true crime lessons from Sunday School). In Michigan in the mid-1950s, the last chapter of a classic love triangle was written in a courthouse, as they so often are these days. 

But this case was so sensational that the story achieved national prominence. Thousands of articles delved into the details of the tawdry affair; the press of the crowd seeking admittance at the trial shattered two glass doors to the courtroom. The verdict was a shock only to those who believe in strictly codifying human behavior. 

The matter aroused so much interest because the participants were all very beautiful and very wealthy but had the habits and bad taste of the lowest sorts. So many people were touched by this not-all-that-long-ago love disaster that it seems appropriate to change the names. There’s no other mention of the case on the internet. 

So meet “Madame Bovary.” Let’s call her Emma. The press will call her “an oval-faced brunette.” In 1944, she was caught in a whirlwind romance in Ann Arbor, falling in love with Kevin, a dental school student, on the eve of his graduation from the University of Michigan. He was six feet tall, dark-haired, and very handsome. They married soon thereafter, and he joined the Navy. She became a loyal military wife, and they had three sons together.

After his military service honorably ended, Kevin settled his family in Detroit near Emma’s parents, who loved them both and lavished them with thousands of dollars, setting up Kevin’s dental practice and buying them a mansion. They had servants and a nurse to care for the boys. Imagine Emma as Mrs. Cleaver, in dress, heels, and pearls, but without the vacuum cleaner.

It was then that Emma grew restless and dissatisfied with her husband. She would later describe the eighth and ninth year of their marriage as a “clash of ideologies.” She wanted Kevin to be a “bigger man,” but his main interests seemed to lie only in his home, his family, and his work. “It isn’t anything tangible and it’s hard to explain,” she would say about her curious abstractions. “Kevin never gave me credit for decisions, and we had a lot of arguments. I never cared for money as money. I felt it was to be used for the things one wanted. For instance, if I wanted a stick of bubble gum and it made me happy, it should make him happy too.” 

Then Emma’s father died, and she inherited a large amount of money. She took to vacationing without her husband and hanging out with divorcees, and sooner rather than later she met Jack, a wealthy industrialist and New York playboy who hung out at the “21 Club” when he was in town and jet-setted across the country. Emma was introduced to him in Florida, and they had three unforgettable dates. On the night she returned to Detroit, Emma told Kevin she wanted a divorce.

The news transformed Kevin in an instant. He turned to drink for the first time in his life and became alternately abusive and pathetic. He hit her once. He threatened suicide. There were scenes featuring a brandished pistol. He pleaded with her. “Even a dog is entitled to another chance,” he told her. But she locked him out of the bedroom. Kevin threatened to knock it down. She called the police from the bedroom phone. 

A few days later, she left for New York to be with Jack. When her husband begged for their marriage, she told him to see a psychiatrist. “He told me I should see one,” she said, “that it was I who was all mixed up.” Meanwhile, Kevin moved to a hotel and immersed himself in self-help books like Wake Up And Live.

After Emma filed for divorce, she had a rendezvous with Jack several hours from Detroit in a summer house in Douglas, Michigan. It was no cottage -- there were servants and gardeners and a stunning view of Lake Michigan sunsets. But Emma began to miss her children, or so she said. She phoned home. Kevin happened to answer. An argument followed – “I thought you were in Chicago!” was in the earful Kevin gave her. 

The next thing she knew – as she sat on a couch in the summer home, reading a magazine, the lake’s swells singing in the background -- she heard her husband’s voice at the front door, followed by pistol shots. Kevin had tracked them down and promptly shot Jack twice in the chest. 

Kevin was imprisoned in the Allegan County jail and put on trial two months later. The case was an exercise in histrionics. Emma bolted from the room several times while others were testifying. Kevin’s father collapsed and had to be carried out. The judge had to hand out tickets in advance after the crowd smashed the glass doors. Journalists came from hundreds of miles around for this one, and each witness was a spectacle. 

Kevin’s money bought a good defense – he argued he was not guilty by reason of insanity. Three psychiatrists testified that he was “definitely insane,” in a “post-psychotic stage,’ at the time he killed Jack. The murder was the result of extraordinary events, one expert said; “it’s like striking a match – once you strike it, you don’t strike it again.” 

Kevin himself was on the witness stand for less than ten minutes. “I can’t say what I did. I can’t say what I did. I don’t know.” 

When the jury retired to deliberate, Kevin spent the night in his jail cell, praying with his cell mate, rereading the many letters sent to him, the only lights he had in the nightmare. Then in the wee hours of Saturday came word that the verdict had been reached. The jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. 

At once, the flash bulbs started popping off, and the expression they caught on Kevin’s face is pure relief. His last words in the courthouse: “I never knew people could be so nice.” 

Kevin spent three months at Michigan’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane before the pretense was dropped and he was released. Emma divorced him – he didn’t contest it – and their real names are now quite forgotten. 

The legal lesson remains -- statutory prohibitions on murder are sometimes trumped by an older, unwritten law.

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