Posted by: Brenda Kula | January 17, 2008

Negligent Manslaughter

I was lying on the floor yesterday doing my stretching exercises while the evening news droned on in the background. I had heard about the terrible incident the newscaster was referring to earlier in the week. A nine month old baby boy was in the bathtub with his 19 month old brother, and the younger boy drowned. The mother, 21, and her boyfriend, were in the apartment. They found the baby face down in the water. As I stretched my hamstrings, I heard them mention that the boyfriend was 46, and then they said his name. I went absolutely still, shocked. I know him. He is my handyman, one of two men who do lots of work around my home. I felt sick inside.

I knew Robert suffered from a back ailment, an injury from his highschool football days. I had heard about his pain medication. I knew he didn’t have the best judgment. But then no one is perfect. Robert has grown children, grandchildren. I did not know the extent of his problems.

I know his laugh, the way he rolls his eyes when he’s telling a funny story. I look at my furniture and think of the trouble he had while assembling the red sideboard that was my birthday present last year. The ceiling fan he installed in my garden room. The hose he fixed when some creature of the night chewed through it and I couldn’t add water to my pond. I did not know his history with the law. That he lived in that apartment with that young woman and her children, and they were apparently manufacturing controlled substances. That he had run from the local police just days before after a hit-and-run with another vehicle, and they had to pull out all the stops to capture him after a high speed chase through our city. A car chase that could have resulted in yet someone else being hurt. But then, had he still been in jail, he wouldn’t have been in their apartment just days later. And maybe that young woman, his girlfriend, wouldn’t have been distracted by him or drugs or whatever it was, and let her baby drown. And Robert tried, but was unable to resuscitate him.

I sat on the floor and watched as the video rolled, and they led Robert away in handcuffs. I knew he’d taken up with a much younger girl with two children, via the other handyman. A girl younger than his daughters, just a few years older than his son. And now he is in the sort of deep, "probably-won’t-ever-get-out-of" kind of trouble that shapes the rest of your days. A little boy is in protective custody. A woman just old enough to legally drink is in jail. And a young baby will never see his first birthday. 

Later last night I told my husband that I feel bad for Robert. A psychiatrist for a state hospital, he sees lots of things I can only imagine. He said, "I have two men in the hospital now. They are pedophiles. One molested his granddaughter." He went on to list their crimes. I’d heard it all before. It never gets any easier to listen to. And he listens to it every day. "Do you feel sorry for them too?" he asked me.

You know, as a journalist in my younger days, I wrote lots of stories. Did lots of research. About horrible, unimaginable things that people do to others, particularly children. I will tell you about them one day. I remember wanting to see justice served. For the perpetrators and murderers to get what they had coming to them. I recall once sitting in a courtroom with two detectives, waiting on a verdict for a young man accused of killing his girlfriend’s child. I sat on the wooden bench in anticipation, as did the detectives who’d worked the case. A woman stood up and read the verdict. The young man received the death penalty. I found myself standing with the two detectives in excitement, feeling that this is what it’s all about. And then I glanced across the aisle up ahead at the young man’s family, his parents, clearly stricken. I looked over at the man, whose face had gone white with shock and fear. And I told myself that day, I don’t think I can do this much longer. Everyone here has a real story, a life. I know I must walk away when I find myself excited, like this is just a sporting event, and I am just a person who writes about it. And soon after, I did. Just walk away.

Back then, I only knew these people who committed crimes by a mug shot. I read the court reports. Looked at the autopsy photos. Did the research that enabled me to recreate what they’d done and help bring the victim back to life through my words. But I didn’t really know them as people. Please don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t make any difference. Robert does not deserve mercy.

The father of the two boys is now on his way home from Iraq. He and the mother were either separated or in the midst of a divorce. Possibly another casualty of this so-called war. He will stand beside a tiny coffin, probably in his military uniform, and lay his son to rest. While the mother is in jail, with Robert, on a 2.3 million dollar bond. This young soldier will hate Robert. The man who talked to me about his life and his children and carried heavy things around my yard. And I will not blame him, certainly.

I can’t hate Robert. I hate what Robert did. I hate that he has hurt his family and someone else’s. I hate that drugs and negligent manslaughter will possibly be what he is remembered by, and not his highschool football days. That his elderly father, whom I’ve met, will probably watch his only child wither away in prison. That his teenaged son will go to school and others will whisper behind his back. That his grandchildren will possibly see him on television before their parents, his daughters, can distract them and hurry them away to another room. Asking why grandpa is on television.

I can’t help but cry for them too. For the senseless, tragic things that happen while we’re all busy living life.   

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