Here’s a bit of public navel-gazing for you, kids. Once upon a time, when I was a reporter, I covered a story on a state trooper murdered by an arrestee, then how that killer sat on death row for well over a decade.
So this trooper pulled a guy named Jerome Mallett over for speeding on I-55 near Brewer, Missouri in March 1985. As these things go, the trooper then ran a check on Mallett, discovered the guy was fleeing four outstanding warrants for probation violations and one for the robbery of a Texas jewelry store, and arrested him. According to Mallett, the trooper sat him, handcuffed, in the passenger seat, as opposed to the cage in the back, to beat him. Specifically, to backhand him more than once for giving a false name. I’m guessing – I use that verb because I can’t claim to know with certainty – Mallett was lying. Like it matters, but the info at hand didn’t indicate that the trooper – who survived Vietnam and was a father of three – was that sort of guy. I suppose it never does though. Yet I’m strongly inclined to believe he opted for the seat instead of the back because he had an appreciation for what it means to stick a man in a cage. But the backhands were Mallett’s justification for what he did next, slipped out of the cuffs due to a wrist/hand deformity (?? Yeah, I never totally figured that one out either), grabbed the trooper’s sidearm, and opened fire. Miss, hit left lower chest, hit through left hand then neck. .357 Magnum rounds.
The core issue of the newspaper article was that Mallett had been on death row for so long. Eventually I interviewed him in a closetlike interview room at the Potosi Correctional Center. Regarding the murder, he told me he knew his life was as good as over, so he fled on foot. He eventually spent the night hiding in a haystack in a farmer’s barn, he told me, then watched the sunrise come up the next morning, what he knew was likely his last sunrise as a free man. Imagine that sunrise. Mallett was executed by lethal injection in 2001, six months after I interviewed him, having spent sixteen years on death row.
Further, I interviewed the trooper’s widow. I interviewed a lawyer and a Department of Corrections guy. Some of us, as we grow older, ask ourselves: Have I treated all my fellow human beings that I’ve encountered with fairness and empathy? Over the years, memories fade but your self-reflection can grow more acute. I reflect on my interactions with the abovenamed parties (but not the weirdo photographer who lied to me about how he gained access to Mallett for that “We On Death Row” Benneton ad campaign), and I judge myself to have been lacking. I was a kid and intoxicated by an exciting story that I myself had unearthed and pursued, despite the best efforts of my editor, who was one of those men-don’t-find-me-attractive-so-Im-going-to-dedicate-my-life-to-policing-their-behavior types. Specifically, I was callous and too free speaking with the interviewees, somewhat with them all, but particularly with the widow… who... let’s not soften my dishonor… lost her soulmate; and this understanding brings me shame.
Life can be so heavy. There’s a Texas jewelry store owner who’s probably been victimized. There’s a small man, Mallett, who said he’d been into drugs like heroin, cocaine, and PCP since he was fourteen. Can we dismiss his life as just evil, or was he a victim himself of neglect and what else? Are people born that way or are they made? Certainly he was victimized in the sense that serving sixteen years on death row is cruel and unusual punishment. There’s a state trooper who survived the insanity of Vietnam, a manufactured war, who was clearly victimized in the deepest sense. Certainly there’re his three children, some grandchildren, and a spouse who were victimized, who are in a state of being perpetually victimized by the loss. There’s an American prison-industrial complex whose inmate population has roughly quadrupled in twenty-five years whereas the general population has increased about 30%, which some might say is a strong indicator of a victimization of all of our rights and quality of life (You may say that’s beside the point, but those prisons are Mallett factories.)… Plot all that out on a Bachman diagram and I bet you have some interesting thoughts.
One final tidbit. The man is long dead now so I see no reason not to share this final part. The interview room at Potosi where I met Mallett was primarily intended for lawyer-inmate visits. It was notably cramped, long and thin, like an extended walk-in closet, as if to signal to prisoners how little their attorney visits mattered to the greater institution. You could stick your arms out and about touch both cinderblock walls. I walked in from one door while a guard let Mallett in from the opposite end. We reached the small table in the middle simultaneously. Some thoughtful genius had left a sharpened pencil on the middle of the tabletop. Mallett’s and my gazes fell upon the pencil and took in its full potential simultaneously, then we both glanced up and considered the other. He had nothing to lose. It’s not like the state of Missouri can execute you twice. For an instant, there was something striking about his face, particularly the eyes, which went – am not sure how to describe it fully – reptilian. In my memory, it’s like his pupils slightly changed shape, but that’s got to be a trick of the mind, right? You decide for yourself, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it looks like when a psychopath considers you for prey.