A little before noon I had an unexpected surprise. The phone rang and a familiar sonorous voice asked for me. I said “This is he,” and he said, “This is Bill Kurtis.”
Bill Kurtis, as you may know, is the well-known American television journalist, producer, narrator, and host of A&E crime and news documentary shows including Investigative Reports, American Justice, and Cold Case Files. He is the former anchor of the CBS Morning News, and was the longtime anchor at WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago.
In the course of doing some background research, I had contacted his production company expecting to hear back from an intern or, at most, a producer. I had not expected, even in my wildest imaginings, to hear from The Man himself.
We had a pleasant conversation, and he asked me to add him to the Diary’s subscriber list and to send him a detailed description of the work of The Redemption Project. I also took the opportunity to share with him my experience of observing Derek as he watched “Blood Brothers,” an American Justice episode about the King Brothers that Bill’s company produced.
“Watching ‘Blood Brothers’ was the first time Derek had ever seen his story through the eyes of someone else. He had never even read about the crime because it was not allowed in prison,” I said. I told Bill that I watched Derek, not the video, through the whole program. I told him I was sure Derek’s reaction was sincere and true.
“What was it?” Bill asked.
“Derek couldn’t believe that kid on the screen was him. It was as if the boy on the screen was a completely different person.”
Within two or three weeks of Derek’s arrival here after his prison release, my cassette of “Blood Brothers” appeared on top of the television set as part of a small stack of films Derek had heard about but had never seen. Derek said that lots of inmates and staff at the prison told him they’d seen him on American Justice, and he always pretended to know what they were talking about. But he didn’t really know. It was a bluff, a way of showing no weakness that someone could exploit and use against him.
So Derek was curious. He was very curious. But as the stack of films was watched and re-shelved, eventually “Blood Brothers” was the last one remaining. It must have sat unwatched on top of the TV for a month. I never pushed the issue. I never said a thing.
After we’d sat side-by-side at the computer and watched PBS Frontline’s “When Kids Get Life” (a profoundly disquieting experience for Derek, by the way), Derek resolutely announced: “Okay, I’ve put it off long enough. The time is now. We’re going to watch “Blood Brothers.”
When a Pensacola detective was interviewed on the screen, Derek exclaimed, “Yeah, and you were caught lying on the stand!”
He sat silent for a long time, his eyes riveted on the screen. And then at a key part of the story he exclaimed, “Aw, man, this is so screwed up!”, shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe that was me. I would never do that today!”
Derek seemed to be disoriented by what he was experiencing. I could tell he remembered being at the center of the events he was watching, and yet there was a jarring disconnect at work. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“I am shocked,” he said at the end of the program, “as shocked as anybody.”
“Was the program accurate?” I asked him. “Yes, but I still can’t believe it,” he said. “I feel like a person who has been grazed in the forehead by a bullet,” Derek said. “I could be in prison right now for the rest of my life, or dead.” (He must have still been thinking of those JLWOP kids in Colorado.) “But instead I’m here, outside the prison gates.” There was gratitude in his voice. His fate had been nudged to the good by just a hair’s width.
Afterwards we took a long hike over some nearby hills and mountains and he walked yards ahead of me, absorbed in thought, still getting his head around it.
For me it was a dramatic illustration of what we are always talking about, repeatedly, almost ad nauseum. Kids’ brains are not fully developed until they reach their mid-20s. That boy on the screen literally was a different person than the young man who was living with me.
In pursuing its continuing vendetta against Alex, the State of Florida is persecuting the wrong victim. They are only persecuting an outer shell. Inside the shell today’s Alex, too, is a different person from the 12-year-old who was manipulated into a terrible deed. He and Derek are not unique.
Yesterday I was reading the diary entries of Nathan Ybanez at www.concreteechoes.com. Nathan is serving life-without-parole in Colorado’s Sterling Prison for killing his abusive mother at age 16. He is 29 now. He has grown up in prison and, aside from the outer shell which he compares to a cardboard box that is kept empty by the bleakness of his circumstances, Nathan is no longer the same person who committed the crime.
Yet (his empty-box analogy notwithstanding) Nathan is a remarkable, gifted young man. He is full of good. In the crucible of prison Nathan has, in my opinion, transformed himself into a Living National Treasure.
Yet the State of Colorado continues to inflict upon him a string of cruel punishments that have long since lost any meaning except that such a state has no moral right to rule and should be dissolved.
In the days since the release of the West Memphis Three, my colleagues and I have spoken often about how important it is for people who are in the public eye to embrace our causes. In this culture, if a cause cannot achieve prominence in the public mind, it may as well not exist at all.
I hope Bill Kurtis reads the Diary and is moved to give our kids’ causes greater visibility with his audience. I hope he’ll help us bring about a transformation of public consciousness that will result in a mindful, more compassionate, and just society.
This change must happen soon. It cannot wait. Our kids are not growing younger.
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