A murdered child, a guilty teen, ‘Dexter’ and a very real hell

One of the big ideas of this website, oft repeated in a variety of wordings, is that if journalists want to understand real events in the real lives of real people in the real world, then — more often than not — they are going have to wrestle with very real religious issues. At some point, journalists have to take religion seriously and let people talk about the religious beliefs that help shape their actions in life.

The following story from South Louisiana — care of FelicianaToday.com (and an obvious hat tip to Rod Dreher) — is a perfect example of what we’re talking about.

This is a crime story about an irrational, hellish act of violence in which a teen-aged boy, inspired by hours of watching serial killers in pop culture (especially the cable-TV show “Dexter”), decided that slashing the throat of an 8-year-old boy would help him establish a new, powerful sense of evil identity.

Jack Attuso died, but Trevor Reese didn’t feel excited or uplifted after committing the murder. His own personal hell had just begun.

Reese pleaded guilty, to spare both families the pain of a trial. The issue facing the court was whether he would have any chance at parole.

That brings us to the following news report about the hearing, a long, agonizing story in which real people are allowed to say very real and very painful things. There are real curses. There are pleas for redemption. There is a father trying to figure out the sins of his son. There is the looming threat of hell, in this world and the next.

All I can say is this: Read it all, if you dare.

The story starts on a slow boil and the power of the language builds and builds. Here is a sample, after Reese was handed a picture of Jack:

The next witness was Wayne Attuso, Jackson’s grandfather, who gave a victim impact statement. …

Wayne said, “I want you to stare at that picture… because you will see that face when you wake up each morning, at times during the day, and before you go to sleep for the rest of your life. This is the curse that I put on you. You knew nothing about Jack. He was a little boy who loved life. We called him Smiling Jack because he went to bed each night with a smile on his face and he woke up each morning with that same smile. Every day was an adventure for him. The devastation you caused my family will heal eventually, but a scar will always be there. The hole you created in our hearts is filled with all the wonderful memories we have of Jack. In the weeks following Jacks death, I was insane with hatred. I never knew I was capable of the kind of hatred I had for you. Since then I’ve come to my senses and I don’t hate you anymore, but I will never forgive you. That’s not my job. That belongs to someone other than me. After today, I will close the chapter on you. You will not exist in our family’s world. It is my hope that if you ever do leave prison, it will be feet first in a pine box.”

That literal curse would surface again, later in the hearing. Yes, there’s more, as Reese unfolds his story and tries to apologize:

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Death penalty in Cleveland horrors? Wait, who died?

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Once again, let’s turn to the dictionary and that tricky word “fetus,” which has through the decades been at the heart of so many bitter newsroom arguments about abortion, morality, religion, science and law.

fe·tus … pl. fe·tus·es

… 2. In humans, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo.

Obviously, your GetReligionistas have been discussing this term lately because of the ongoing, and ongoing, trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell and the fact that some elite media have been saying things like the following (care of the industry scriptures, The New York Times):

PHILADELPHIA – Through four weeks, prosecutors have laid out evidence against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion provider on trial on charges of killing seven viable fetuses by “snipping” their necks with scissors and of causing the death of a pregnant 41-year-old woman during a procedure.

The problem, once again, is that at the heart of the Gosnell nightmare were the reports that he was DELIVERING late-term fetuses and THEN killing the infants — after delivery. In other words, these infants were no longer “fetuses,” according to the dictionary, when the abortionist snipped their spinal cords.

Now, we are seeing some interesting, and related, issues emerging in Cleveland, where prosecutors are preparing to throw the book at the alleged kidnapper and torturer Ariel Castro. Note the language in this New York Times report, which resembles that seen in many other mainstream media accounts. Here is the lede:

CLEVELAND – As more grim details emerged … about the long captivity of the three women rescued from imprisonment in a dilapidated home here, one official compared the victims to survivors of a P.O.W. camp, and prosecutors said they would seek murder charges against the man held in the abductions, accusing him of forcing at least one of the women to miscarry.

Timothy J. McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said the miscarriages, which at least one of the women described to the police, could be grounds for seeking the death penalty for the suspect, Ariel Castro. Mr. Castro, a former bus driver, enticed the women off the street with offers of a ride home, the authorities say.

And later on, there is this linked to the torture of Michelle Knight:

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Can forgiveness play a role in criminal justice?

That’s the provocative headline that accompanies a story I’ve been pondering ever since Amy Welborn brought it to our attention. The New York Times Sunday magazine piece runs about 7,000 words and it’s completely riveting. You can — and should — read it here.

It begins with 19-year-old Conor McBride turning himself into police for shooting Ann Margaret Grosmaire, his girlfriend of three years, in the head. He shot her after 38 hours of fighting. Then:

That night, Andy Grosmaire, Ann’s father, stood beside his daughter’s bed in the intensive-care unit of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. The room was silent except for the rhythmic whoosh of the ventilator keeping her alive. Ann had some brainstem function, the doctors said, and although her parents, who are practicing Catholics, held out hope, it was clear to Andy that unless God did “wondrous things,” Ann would not survive her injuries. Ann’s mother, Kate, had gone home to try to get some sleep, so Andy was alone in the room, praying fervently over his daughter, “just listening,” he says, “for that first word that may come out.”

Ann’s face was covered in bandages, and she was intubated and unconscious, but Andy felt her say, “Forgive him.” His response was immediate. “No,” he said out loud. “No way. It’s impossible.” But Andy kept hearing his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”

At first he told his daughter she was asking too much. Then we hear about Conor’s parents Michael and Julie McBride. They were on vacation at the time of the shooting and the father rushed home — to the hospital, before the jail.

During the drive, he hadn’t thought about what he would actually do when he got to the hospital, and he had to take deep breaths to stave off nausea and lean against the wall for support. Andy approached Michael and, to the surprise of both men, hugged him. “I can’t tell you what I was thinking,” Andy says. “But what I told him was how I felt at that moment.”

“Thank you for being here,” Andy told Michael, “but I might hate you by the end of the week.”

“I knew that we were somehow together on this journey,” Andy says now. “Something had happened to our families, and I knew being together rather than being apart was going to be more of what I needed.”

And that’s how this amazing story begins — with two families benefiting from forgiveness in the face of a horrific murder.

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The murder of Shaima Alawadi and media credulousness

I mentioned the story of Shaima Al Awadhi the other day. (Previous coverage here, here and here.) I became mildly obsessed with her after news of her unbelievably brutal killing broke in March. Al Awadhi was only 32 years old when she died and was a mother of five. She was attacked in her home, succumbing to her injuries a few days later.

Within days there were thousands of stories about her death, focused on the family’s claim that she was the victim of a hate crime. A minor movement sprung up, seeing parallels between the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Al Awadhi. Activists began to encourage people to wear hijabs in honor of Al Awadhi and as a statement against racist hate crimes.

A local CBS affiliate has the latest:

An Iraqi man whose wife was fatally beaten in their East County home last spring in what initially appeared to be a hate crime pleaded not guilty to a murder charge Tuesday afternoon.

The passive voice in the lede isn’t helpful. Appeared to whom to be a hate crime? The police always claimed they were pursuing a complicated case, even if the media ran with the “hate crime” angle.

Where the previous story resulted in national and international headlines within moments, this story has received more sparing coverage. Comparing the local coverage of Al Awadhi’s death when it was being billed as a hate crime to now is even fascinating.

Media outlets can be so good at holding other industries accountable but we tend to struggle with introspection of our own industry.

While we have no idea how Kassim Al-Himidi’s trial will turn out, it’s clear that the media botched this story. If the police had botched the investigation, I’m sure we’d have stories about that. Typically when institutions perform their duties poorly, the media are at the forefront of finding out what went wrong and issuing demands for improvement.

Shouldn’t we see those same demands for improvement when it’s the media that performed its role poorly?

Instead the AP ran a story quoting Nina Burleigh, which at first I found odd on account of her 1990s comments about sexual favors, President Bill Clinton, and abortion. But the AP was actually one of the only outlets to try to find some larger meaning in the murder of Al Awadhi. The story ended:

Author Nina Burleigh, who has written extensively about the mix of Islam and Western societies, said the case highlights the sometimes dangerous clashes that can occur when female immigrants, particularly from Islamic countries, rebel against cultural restrictions and exercise choices made available in their adopted homelands.

“These things are happening all over the place,” Burleigh said. “It’s much more openly discussed in Europe where there is more integration from these societies, where in the U.S. it’s not discussed so much partly because we have a bias toward discussing the way these cultures treat women.”…

The arrest of Alhimidi came only days after the sentencing of an Iraqi mother in Phoenix who was charged with beating her daughter because she refused to go along with an arranged marriage.

The 20-year-old woman was burned on her face and chest with a hot spoon then tied to a bed. The victim’s father and sister were also sentenced to two years of probation for their involvement.

Tablet published a piece worth reading headlined “Behind the Veil of Islamophobia: The murder of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a sign of increasing prejudice, but of writers’ credulousness.” A portion:

If the above is indeed true, the killing of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a warning sign of increasing religious intolerance, but of a shocking degree of credulousness from writers and activists. Why withhold judgment when the initial assessment conformed so neatly to an existing political narrative about the rising tide of American Islamophobia? …

The Facebook group “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi,” which was a hive of activity in the weeks following her murder, has since been taken offline. Despite some posts about women’s rights and feminism, the Islamophobia angle was what the organizers were interested in pushing. She was, it now seems, killed because she was a woman who attempted to throw off the shackles of an oppressive husband. Which makes this case doubly tragic. Just because Shaima Alawadi wasn’t killed by an American racist doesn’t mean that there isn’t cause for activist outrage.

Do any of us expect that the next time a story such as this comes out that the media will handle it differently?


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