If You’re Gonna Kill Your Wife, Don’t Be Weird Afterwards

Here’s a pretty shocking story from Texas about a guy who was convicted of murder, absent any evidence, basically because he acted weird after his wife was killed:

His stoicism and his apparent lack of sentimentality for Christine only fed [his next door neighbor] Elizabeth’s anxiety. She was astonished to see him two days after Christine’s funeral using a Weed Eater to cut down the marigolds at the end of his driveway, which she knew Christine had planted over his objections. […]

After a friend who worked in construction cleaned and repainted the master bedroom, Michael resumed sleeping there, on the water bed where Christine was killed.

These things seem callous because they go against the narrative of what you’re supposed to act like after your wife gets killed. You hear this in rape trials sometimes too, like ‘if the rape was so traumatic, why did you go to work the next day?’

It’s weird that we talk and think like this. How you behave after being the victim of a crime doesn’t indicate its severity. I’d love to talk to some cops about how people react to these kinds of crimes. There’s probably a surprisingly wide range, and ‘typical’ reactions probably encompass all kinds of behaviors you wouldn’t expect . People are different, and having a loved one murdered is such an extreme event that you could never foresee how you would react. Maybe you’d cry for days, maybe you’d go to Blockbuster and rent Lord of the Rings. Maybe you’d want to go to work, maybe you’d never work again. It’s not productive that our culture has a narrative for how one should behave in such a horrifying scenario.

When Michael himself took the stand on the fifth day of the trial, he calmly and steadily answered the questions that were posed to him, but he did not betray the sense of personal devastation that might have moved the twelve people who would render a verdict.

“During this whole ordeal, he never fell apart,” [his lawyer] Allison told me. “He wanted people to see him as strong. And I think in the end, that very trait worked against him.” Jurors were put off by his perceived woodenness on the stand. [The jury foreman] explained, “I would have been screaming, 
‘I could never have done this! I love my wife!’ ”

[Another juror] was not persuaded by his testimony either. “He just did not come off as genuine, because there was no emotion there,” she said.

I think if I was a lawyer I’d be endlessly frustrated at having to subtly manipulate jurors into believing what is true. Sometimes people don’t want to show their inner devastation to a creaking room full of strangers. Murderers can fake grief, and non-murderers can be stoic. This isn’t rocket science, Texas.

I read stories like this and I’m like ‘jury trials are the worst we have to stop them!’ This poor guy was convicted of murder based on nothing more than circumstantial evidence and some weak CSI shit just because the prosecution was able to convince 12 people that he was an asshole. Most people who kill people are assholes, so it must have been him.

It’s the kind of story that is meant to fuel outrage among its readers. But from what little I know about the criminal justice system, lots of crimes don’t have clear motives. And in many cases, circumstantial evidence and a convincing narrative are the only things that put genuinely guilty people behind bars. There’s a whole spectrum between an open and shut case and a true whodunit, and things like the accumulation of circumstantial evidence, rumors and past behavior is often the only thing investigators have.

So I guess what I’m saying is, there are probably a number of policies that would make American’s criminal justice much better. But I’m going to refrain from having an opinion on any particular one. This shit is complicated, and there are people who do it every day. I hope they’re reading this too.

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Filed under America, Journalism

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