Tuesday, September 28, 2010
His name was Earl and he was deaf. Completely deaf. Earl Handy, Jr. grew up in the small East Texas town of Nacogdoches, home of Stephen F. Austin University, a four-year, state-supported college. But Earl did not go there. Earl did not go anywhere like that. He went to public school, and it was certainly not the School for the Deaf. He did not understand that being deaf was not his fault. It was a malady that a person can endure, perhaps with great persistence and teaching. Earl could have accepted and learned to live with the circumstances handed to him, but that did not happen for Earl.
Earl worked hard in school when he was there, but he never was good enough for anything he loved doing. He tried to play football, basketball and other sports, but he was deaf and no one knew how to communicate with him. He eventually learned sign language, which was very helpful. Unfortunately, however, not many people in the “hearing” world knew how to sign, including Earl’s family. He was alone, paranoid, and confused. His language learning skills ended at the age of 4. He wrote using personal pronouns, like “me sad,” and “me do not understand.”
Earl eventually married a woman named Donna who learned to sign so she could communicate with Earl. At first, she seemed to truly love him. They even had a child, Jacob, who is now three years old. To everyone on the outside, the family seemed happy. Earl had never been so happy. He had a wife and son whom he loved dearly. Earl had a job and worked every day to provide for the family. Unfortunately, Donna eventually grew tired of a husband who could not talk and (of course) found another man. Donna took Jacob and left Earl one day while he was at work. He came home and his dream was gone. Where was she? Earl looked and looked, but he could not find her. A few days later, he learned where she was. Donna had moved out of their home, rented a mobile home in another part of their small town, and moved another man, Joe, into her home. Donna signed a lease for the mobile home and set up a new life living with Joe. Earl did not understand. "How can she do this?" he said to himself. "Where is Donna? Me sad.”
The situation began swirling inside Earl’s head. He could no longer think sensibly. He felt as if everyone was against him and everyone had left him. He was more alone than any hearing person could imagine. His parents, as bad as they were, were now dead. He had a grandmother, but she was in another city. No one was there to help him or talk/sign with him so that he could understand how to handle his loss.
Early one morning, Earl took a knife from the kitchen, went to Donna’s new mobile home and waited outside. Earl waited until he saw someone had gotten up from bed -- and it happened to be Joe. Joe walked outside the mobile home, and Earl jumped him. Earl beat Joe with his fist and stabbed him with his knife. Earl then ran inside the house with desperate thoughts screaming inside his head, “Where is Donna? I want my wife to come home!” Earl saw Donna, and a struggle between them ensued. During the struggle, Donna was stabbed in the chest. Donna died and Joe lived. Donna’s older son called the police. When officers arrived, Earl was sitting in the kitchen of the mobile home. The officer entered the trailer and Earl saw him. Earl still had the knife in his hand. The officer screamed at him to put down the knife, but Earl could not hear him. Earl held the knife up as if to say to the officer, “Shoot me! Donna is dead. I don’t care what happens to me. Shoot me!!” The officer hesitated, and Earl stabbed himself in the abdomen. Then, the officer tasered him, and Earl fell to the floor. He was then arrested and eventually charged with capital murder.
A crime of passion. The words “crime” and “passion” do not seem to go together in the same phrase. In the nonlegal world, the word “passion” is associated with the powerful emotions of either love or hate. But, in my world, a crime of passion is a mind out of control. The penal code says that during the punishment phase, which occurs after a jury has heard all the evidence in a trial and has reached a verdict of guilty, the jury may hear evidence raised by the defendant as to whether “he caused the death under the immediate influence of sudden passion arising from an adequate cause.” If the jury finds in the affirmative, the possible sentence is then lessened.
Can you imagine being poor, uneducated, paranoid, confused, and in a world of total silence? Add being in prison for either the majority of the rest of your life or, alternatively, in prison for absolutely every single day for the rest of your life. Earl never grasped that concept.
I saw Earl last week. My investigator, co-counsel and I, along with an interpreter, went to visit him in prison. He looked bad. His hair had not been combed. He had not bathed with soap or brushed his teeth in so long that his breath and body odor were almost more than we could stand in such a small room. We got the officer on duty there to explain why Earl was in such a condition. The officer said simply, “All he has to do is fill out this form.” I explained to him that “Earl has no hearing. He cannot understand what you are saying to him. You do not know sign language. Can’t you see that? What is wrong with all of you? Can’t you see that he is dirty, unkempt, and smells bad. Why would you let him get to this point?” The officer on duty gave me a small plastic bag containing tiny, thin bars of soap, smaller than the ones you get in cheap hotel rooms. Also in this plastic bag was a tiny toothbrush and a tiny tube of toothpaste. As it was explained, the supplies were supposed to last a week.
Last Friday morning, I received a phone call. " Earl is dead," the caller said.
“Oh, my God! What happened? I just saw him three days ago.”
Earl wrapped a bed sheet tightly around his neck and tied it to a steel bar in his cell. Then, he simply sat down and let himself slowly suffocate. He wrote a suicide note. “Me sad. I don’t know nothing State of Texas. In jail nothing my mind lost.” After eight months behind bars, Earl finally understood.Tweet