Dan Malone: Memory, murder and madness

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Matthew Hallgarth's name.]

By Dan Malone

Contributing Editor

Dan MaloneCorpses and killers – I’ve been around a few.

I once sat through trial of a man who murdered a close friend I grew up with and thumbed through the photos of that crime scene.

I corresponded with more that 600 death row inmates, interviewed many face-to-face and co-wrote a book, America’s Condemned: Death Row Inmates in Their Own Words, about them.

More than a quarter of the stories I wrote for just one of the four newspapers I worked for contained the word “murder.”

For one of those stories, about the suspicious death of the wife of a rogue cop, I bought and studied a book by a medical examiner noted for memorable for gross-out photographs. Dr. Vincent DiMaio’s Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics and Forensic Techniques still sits on a shelf in my office.

So I was more than a little surprised to be as disturbed as I have been by testimony and evidence in a capital murder trial unfolding in a courtroom not far from Tarleton State University, where my wife, Kathryn Jones, and I, now teach journalism.

A troubled vet said to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, Eddie Ray Routh, is accused of killing two men, Chad Littlefield and his friend, Chris Kyle, at the gun range at Rough Creek Lodge, a resort not far from our ranch outside Glen Rose. Routh’s defense team hopes to persuade the jury he is not guilty by reason of insanity.

Kyle is, of course, even more famous in death than he was in life. “American Sniper,” based on his autobiography of the same name, is the blockbuster war film of all time.

One of the reasons the trial is so disturbing stems from technology. The last trial I covered was years ago. Crime scenes then might be shown to the jury in still photographs or described from a witness stand.

Today, jurors, journalists and spectators watch car chases on videos taken with police body cameras. They take virtual tours of crime scenes made possible by cameras that record 360 degrees of everything the police see in zoom-in detail. Audio recorders capture conversations between suspects and the police trying to arrest them.

The digital world in which we live has collapsed the distance between criminals, cops and the rest of us. We are “there” with the officer chasing Routh as he makes a getaway in the truck he stole from Kyle. We hear him rambling about the demons he believes are devouring his soul.

Another reason I’ve been disturbed stems from my job as a teacher. Kathryn and I have young journalists in all of our classes covering some aspect of this story. One former student, K’Leigh Sims, conducted the last interview Kyle gave before he died.

(As of yesterday, the audio recording of their talk has been heard 21,871 times. You can listen to it at https://soundcloud.com/texannews/chris-kyle-interview-jan-28).

K’Leigh did a great job on the story. The Stephenville Empire-Tribune republished it on the front page. And when I called K’Leigh late on the night of Feb. 2 two years ago to share what I had just learned through my grapevine of cops and former students, it felt like I was telling her that a family member had been killed. She was devastated.

We’ve had students in the courtroom since jury selection began 10 days ago. Some are writing stories. Others taking photographs or making videos on the courthouse annex steps. Most have been working on a live blog that documents what happens in the courtroom every few minutes on the web. You can follow their coverage at www.texannews.net.

I’ve been in and out of the courtroom, bouncing between it and campus. When photographs from the crime scene were shown in court, students used their cell phones to email copies to the campus newsroom. The students looked at them, discussed whether to publish them and our editor, Bethany Kyle, decided against it. They were too intense. So were the photos of the bodies from the crime scene.

And then there were the tears. Littlefield’s mother cried. And Kyle’s widow, Taya. And people sitting the courtroom.

Some of our students seem to be handling the drama and emotion fine.

Texan News Managing Editor Denise Harroff has a service dog, Meeko, to help her deal with anxiety. I have to admit: I like having Meeko in the office. He helps.

Other students, though, I worry about. Though I would go on to cover lots of murders and murder trials as a professional, I never covered one as a college student – and don’t know many of my peers who did, either.

I posted my concerns about our students on Facebook last week and asked people in the journalism tribe for suggestions on how to deal with the gruesome details and rollercoaster emotions that come with trials. As usual, they had lots of good suggestions forged collectively from hundreds of years of experience covering natural disasters, death and the assorted mayhem that makes up a day’s news. Their suggestions are, I think, good for journalists and journalism students covering trauma – and also good for dealing with the beating life visits on all of us.

Roger Summers, a former colleague at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, advised: “Short term….if and when courtroom breaks permit, take a walk around the block. Alone. Breathe. Absorb what you’ve seen, heard. Long term, realize this can be a rough world. Reporters at times have to step into that world. If you want to stay there, stay. If not, go. Whichever you choose, better for the readers, viewers. Better for you.”

Kathy Sanders, another friend from the Star-Telegram, recalled the advice she received from a “crusty old cop” before she witnessed her first autopsy.

“The key to ‘survival’ was to focus on the words and surrounding details,” the cop told her. “Don’t avoid it, meet it head on and start analyzing. That stayed with me through the years, and most of the time, it worked incredibly well.

“They also need to talk about it and gallows humor, disgusting though it may be, was helpful to me,” she added. “They need to know they are normal, caring and compassionate. It will make them better writers.”

Jim Looby, pastor at First Baptist Church in Santo and the student publications director at Tarleton when Kathryn and I started teaching, said it’s important for students to remember “that the work they are doing helps to prevent it. Educating the reading populace leads in small and large ways to action to prevent it from happening again.”

Dale Martin, a friend from high school, posted: “After 33 years with the Dallas Fire Department, if they can do a ride-along with any police department or fire department ambulance, it may give them a perspective to help them decide if they want to do this. Our world and lives, as awesome as they may be, are surrounded by a lot of cruelty and evil. They should talk about it amongst their peers. Try not to isolate themselves, and exercise and eat as normally as possible.”

Kathryn has done a bit of most everything in her career. She’s written for Time, Life, Texas Monthly, The Dallas Morning News. She’s been a business reporter, a travel writer, a small-town newspaper editor. She’s covering Routh’s trial for The New York Times. She covered other sorts of legal proceeding before, but this is her first murder – and she’s dealing with the gore of her first capital murder trial as well.

“Talking about it to friends and loved ones helps,” she says. “So does exercise, gardening, cooking, playing a musical instrument. Take a walk with a friend or your dog. Watch a funny move. Enjoy life. Cry if you need to let out the stress. And I think writing about it and knowing that communicating what is happening is important and makes it all worthwhile.”

Matthew Hallgarth, a friend and philosophy professor at Tarleton, also advised getting a lot of exercise. He also said prayer helps. And he advised developing “a thick professional hide.”

I needed to hear these suggestions too. As it turns out, the professional hide I developed as a journalist over the course of almost 30 years wasn’t as thick as I thought it was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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