Some of the most enjoyable times in my life came when I would take my sons to Snowden Elementary School. I cranked up the volume and either sang or muttered my way through classic rock tunes on the radio. I'd look in the rearview mirror to see the tops of their little afro haircuts bopping up and down to the beat like pistons.
The song that's stayed with me the most is the Southern gothic anthem "Simple Man" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I find myself silently singing the chorus whenever I have to do criminal court stories: "Be a simple kind of man/Be someone you'll love and understand."
In a recent week, where I reported on two different court proceedings in as many days, I was struck by the fact that there seems to be nothing about the criminal justice system in America that's "simple" or morally satisfying in how it operates.
Mother of three Andrea Walker is charged with aggravated child abuse in the perplexing disappearance of her seven-week-old baby daughter, Aniston. When Walker reported her child missing to the police, it triggered a massive three-day search. As of this writing, the child — or her body — is still unaccounted for.
Having solicited the services of noted Memphis defense attorney, Leslie Ballin, Walker apparently still is noncommunicative with homicide investigators on what happened or where her child might be. Why? During her arraignment, Walker didn't seem to me to be someone devoid of maternal instincts. She has a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old in addition to the missing baby, and she has no prior criminal record.
Being the fine barrister he is, Ballin went into "spin control" for his client. He deftly planted the seed that the public or the media should not "rush to judgment" on Walker's alleged guilt. But, isn't the truth supposed to set you free? Can whatever secret she's carrying be so dark and damning that it can't be explained? Doesn't Aniston deserve at least that much?
For admitted multiple murderer, Alexander Haydel, it was the combustible cocktail of alcohol and jealousy, combined with a chaser of uncontrollable rage that led him to fatally gun down two people, including Memphis police officer Timothy Warren, inside a downtown hotel last July. In a reversal of the usual court bargaining process, it took months of secret negotiations to convince Shelby County prosecutors to accept a plea bargain from the 24-year-old Mississippian. Prosecutors took the death penalty off the table, and Haydel calmly accepted a conviction and a sentence of two life terms in prison without the possibility of parole. Afterward, prosecutor Jennifer Nichols told reporters that after consulting with family members of the victims, it was decided the plea meant there would be no agonizing trial, no protracted post-sentencing hearings, and the case would be over.
Yet, I couldn't help but think, at a time when police officers across the country are being gunned down like figures in a video game, what message did accepting Haydel's deal send? "Hey, I sobered up, and I didn't mean it?"
In his confession, Haydel said he surrounded Warren's body with fire extinguishers so when his police colleagues came to his aid, he'd shoot the containers and the explosions would kill more officers in a military-style massacre. His defense counsel, Gerald Skahan, who I admire for his humanistic efforts to keep people off death row, declared Haydel was very remorseful and wanted to keep his victims' families from having to relive the atrocities he committed at a trial. Why does that sound more like he was trying to save his own skin in what would have probably been a slam-dunk prosecution?
Maybe I don't know everything. But, what I do know is derived from those honest and simple words echoed in that Skynyrd song. Be somebody who someone can love and understand. Be somebody, no matter what your lot in life is, who is willing to stand up and accept the consequences of whatever actions you take. Be somebody who is unafraid to tell the truth about the things that matter in life.
Or get ready to find yourself on the "Highway to Hell."