by Mike Crawmer
Not that I’ve known all that many criminals, mind you. But my early career as a newspaper reporter—including a stint covering Congress—meant I encountered a criminal or two. To borrow a phrase, here are their stories.
The summer of ’75 I covered the trial of a woman charged with murdering her abusive husband. I can still picture her sitting at the defense table—slump-shouldered, scared, overwhelmed, older than her years. I remember her testimony—she spoke in her own defense—as she recalled the events that led up to the shooting: the fight that left her battered and bruised (again), the husband sleeping it off on the living room sofa surrounded by empty beer cans, the wife finding his gun, then pumping several bullets into his torso, silencing his snores and rage forever. I don’t recall her sentence, but in those days in that court, I’m sure it was a long one.
Several years later in another job I wrote about a university writing program for inmates at the old Western Penitentiary on the North Side. Getting inside entailed a harrowing passage through several intimidating metal doors. But once seated with the inmates, I felt comfortable. The two 30-somethings I interviewed were articulate and eager to talk about what learning to write meant to them. I waited until the end to ask them, in so many words, “So, what are you in for?” Murder was their answer. Two separate cases, same outcome: Life in prison with no chance for parole. (I was invited back to their graduation ceremony; most unusual “commencement” speech from the prison superintendent.)
Fast forward to this year. I’m visiting a friend serving out his sentence in a federal prison. It was a shock to see how much “Peter” had changed. He’d lost 60 pounds and grown a beard (he could shave only with an electric shaver, which prison rules barred, though safety razors were okay). At 78 he is the oldest inmate in a prison population split almost evenly between white-collar criminals and drug dealers. He ticked off the names of a couple ex-Congressmen he’d met on the campus-like grounds of the minimum security facility, and told us about the former Orthodox bishop who blamed his incarceration on “something to do with bingo.”
Mostly, though, Peter complained about the food. I couldn’t blame him; the main course on that evening’s dinner menu was deep-fried chicken livers. He was counting the days til his release to a half-way house. All pretty much to be expected of this Korean War veteran who holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago and had left behind a comfortable retirement, season tickets to the opera, and a loving family.
I’d like to think I left that courtroom and those prisons a little wiser. I do know that I left those sad places thankful to be free.