Friday, September 24, 2010

A Prosecutor Looks Back and Remembers

by Donna Pendergast 

In 2007, the U.S. House and Senate unanimously passed resolutions to establish September 25 as a National Day of Remembrance to provide a way to honor the memory of victims lost to homicide. This week jurisdictions all over the country have scheduled public events to commemorate the occasion and promote public awareness about the impact of violent crime. Amongst others, one such observance is being held tomorrow in our nation's capitol in Washington D.C. Professionals from homicide support groups around the nation will join with those who lost a loved one to homicide at the National Press Club. The event "Supporting Survivors: A Forum for discussion," will explore issues that survivors face. The day will culminate with the unveiling of the ceremonial "Murder Wall," the powerful reminder of loss described in my last blog post.

While pondering my speech for a related speaking engagement tonight, I was thinking about this year's theme for the event--"Remember, Remind and Respect"--and reflecting back on 23 years spent as a prosecutor, much of that time specializing in prosecuting homicide cases. Having recently prosecuted my 100th murder case through verdict, I have a unique perspective. All too often I have looked into the faces and heard the voices of those who suffer every day because someone they love was violently taken from them. So many years, so many terrible cases prosecuted, each and everyone of them a stark symbol of man's inhumanity to man. 

A MIRACLE FOR OH SO BRIEF 

I remember a 7-month-old infant with a sock shoved down her throat and her tiny face and head completely covered in duct tape. She was placed in a plastic bag and thrown away in a west side Detroit field filled with trash. Miracle Jackson never had a chance. She was murdered for no reason other than her mother's boyfriend was angry at her mother and took it out on the baby after her mother left for work. 

Her tiny corpse was found beneath some wood and a tire in that desolate field on September 14, 2000. The next day, the Detroit Free Press chose to run a front-page picture of a worker from the medical examiner's office carrying her body away in a translucent trash bag. The picture generated intense controversy. The Free Press received hundreds of faxes and letters to the editor from readers angered by the horrific photograph and the metaphor of the baby as trash. The executive editor of the paper answered with a front-page response, explaining that it was his job to balance the offense to the audience against telling readers about a horrific story that took place in the community. A later Free Press editorial-page opinion stated, "One must weep for Miracle Jackson and for a world where the innocent die without reason."

Rest assured, I wept. The pictures indelibly etched in my mind continue to haunt me. 

WE TELL OUR CHILDREN THERE ARE NO MONSTERS...

I remember two 12-year-old girls who would never live to see their 13th birthdays. Casey Fiolek and Jennifer Wicks were two young girls trying desperately hard to be grown up. They were too young to foresee that the adult males who had made their acquaintance at a park earlier in the day were monsters of the night who wore human faces to mask an evil beyond comprehension. When the girls snuck away from a sleep-over in the middle of the night, lured by the promise of alcohol, they never dreamed that those monsters waiting in the park would soon show their true faces. Casey and Jennifer were sexually assaulted and brutally murdered. Their bodies were stuffed in a culvert where they would be found several days later. The horror of their final moments was laid out in great detail in self-serving statements by the respective defendants. The common thread in those two statements painted a picture horrific enough to make one's blood go cold.

Rest assured, I wept. The horror of Casey and Jennifer's last moments is almost too horrible to think about, no less comprehend. 

A RUNAWAY PROBLEM 

I remember a 15-year-old chronic runaway lost by the system who found what she thought was a home with a 24 year old. Heather Kish was a troubled teen who taunted her controlling boyfriend with threats of turning him in for statutory rape. She was overpowered in death, strangled with a dog leash by her boyfriend and his father. Her body was wrapped in a carpet and dumped in a field. To its credit, the Michigan Supreme Court via Chief Justice Maura Corrigan responded immediately. The state family courts were ordered to work with child welfare agencies to find children missing from the system and report to the Supreme Court on the results of their investigations.

Rest assured, I wept for the girl who had no chance in life and no chance in death. I am thankful that measures have been taken to avoid similar disastrous results. 

EVIL EYES 

I remember a serial murderer who killed at least 13 women (self admittedly) and may be the most prolific murderer in the history of the United States. Coral Eugene Watts is probably responsible for as many as 100 murders of women who were allegedly killed because they had "evil eyes." In reality in most circumstances, he first spotted his victims when he had no opportunity to see their eyes; his motive was pure blood lust.

Rest assured, I wept for the all of the lost lives--so many talented women with so much potential, murdered for no reason other than the sick satisfaction of a deviant and diabolical serial murderer.

END OF WATCH

I remember two separate police officers who made the ultimate sacrifice. Detroit police officer Michael Scanlon (right) was stabbed to death by a punk while doing nothing more than making a traffic stop. He died alone on a cold driveway in a puddle of blood. He left behind a wife and two small children, one just 1 month old. Officer Scott Stewart, another of Detroit's finest, was killed by a contact wound to the back of his head while investigating a block party in the city of Detroit. His heartsick partners who were off chasing people who fled the party heard the shot from afar and raced back to the scene. They found their colleague and friend lifeless and crumpled in a heap on the front lawn.

Rest assured, I wept over the deaths of two police officers murdered while doing their jobs. Rest in peace, officers Scanlon and Stewart. Your work has spoken for you.

There are 95 more stories. Tonight, tomorrow and always I remember. And still I weep. 

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.

3 comments:

Chris Crandle said...

Donna, thank you for what you do...and thank you for "speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves" (Prov. 31:8).

Anonymous said...

Donna, My heart wept as I read of the murders you spoke of in this article. It also weeps for those murdered victims yet to get justice like Taylor Placker, Skyla Whitaker and so very many more.

I am with Chris in his comment. Thank you so very much for what you do. With people like you speaking for the victims, how can we not feel hope that justice is in fact the final Victor.

TigressPen

Jessie said...

There are so many victims of homicide and it seems the list just keeps growing day by day. My heart aches for these families as well as for our family. Thank you for dedicating your life and career to help families like ours and to speak for the victims who need a strong voice like yours. I hope my stepson, Kenny and his girlfriend Pam get justice too one day. I have devoted my life for the rest of my life, if need be, to make sure it happens. I have also been the chairperson for the Crime Stoppers Family Group Committee since March of this year. We meet once a month at Second Ebenezer Baptist Church in Detroit. I hope to make a difference and hopefully will bring awareness to the community that we cannot keep tolerating senseless brutal murders. We all need to start speaking up and speaking out against homicide.